by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Live on in my love. If you keep my commandments, you’ll remain intimately at home in my love…This is my commandment: Love one another as I have loved you.” John 15,9-17
The Jesus John presents, giving his parting words to his disciples on the evening before his death, didn’t mince his words. He gave them a command, not a mere recommendation, to love. All those wanting to walk in the footsteps of Jesus were expected to demonstrate that love was their distinguishing characteristic.
While we all know that we are made for love and that, as Christians, we are called to love everyone we encounter, we know from experience that there are people whom we find difficult to love. They rub us up the wrong way; we find their personalities, opinions and actions off-putting and even abrasive and objectional. Yet in today’s first reading we hear John saying: “Let us continue to love one another because love comes from God” (1 John 4, 7). In our gospel-reading for today, we are told that love is the Christian’s mark of authenticity. Love is so central to the life of anyone who claims to be a disciple of Jesus that John identifies loving as the one and only commandment that Jesus prescribes for his followers: “This is my commandment: Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15, 12).
Still, there is something in us all that suggests strongly that we don’t like commands and directives. We resent being told by others to do things, even if the one telling us is Jesus himself. Moreover, we don’t like conditions being hung on us, and being told, in the same breath, that fulfilling them is the only way of demonstrating that we are genuine. But doesn’t it sound like that when John attributes to Jesus the words: “You will live in my love if (my emphasis) you keep my commandments” (John 15, 10)? I dare to suggest that the “if” reflects the difficulty that translators have, and that Jesus (and John) are telling us that, whenever we reach out in love, we are reflecting the capacity for love that God implanted in the human heart and which Jesus modelled for all humanity in the way he lived and related. Jesus loved us unconditionally and surely does not want us to impose conditions on ourselves and on others as we and they reach out in love to one another.
And let’s keep reminding ourselves that we Christians don’t have a monopoly on the love market. All love reflects the love of God planted deep within our being. In a very moving memoir (All But My Life, 1957, Hill & Wang publishers), Gerda Weissman Klein recounts how she survived the atrocities of a concentration camp and the ordeal of a 300-mile death march from Germany to Czechoslovakia. Her lasting memory of the Holocaust is of her dear friend Ilse Kleinzahler, who had grown up with her and who was transported with her, both 16-year-olds, to a slave-labour factory in Grünberg, Germany. One day, on their daily march from their barracks to the factory, Ilse (whose name in Hebrew means “God’s promise”) came across a raspberry in the gutter. Unnoticed by the guards, she picked it up and kept it safely in her pocket all day long. Gerda relates: “Ilse, had carried it in her pocket – the temptation to eat it herself must have been incredible – and gave it to me that night. She had plucked a leaf through the barbed wire, washed it and gave it to me with that slightly bruised raspberry sitting gently on it. Most people think of the Holocaust as unrelieved horror. I want to remember how people helped each other, how there was friendship and love and caring.” Of the 2000 young women who set out on that long march into Czechoslovakia, Gerda and Ilse were among the 300 who survived the ordeal. But Ilse died just three days before rescue came from the American advancing forces. She was kicked in the head by a brutal SS guard, and died. However, on the very morning of the day she died, Ilse had given Gerda a potato and had encouraged her to promise “to hold out for just one more week”. Gerda, also tells of a female SS guard, Frau Kugler who had “the face and bark of a bulldog” but who proved to be “a warm caring human being” who dragged Gerda and three other sick girls to their work places and propped them up against their machines, thereby saving them from the notice of a German agent who had come to identify the sick to be sent off to the gas-chambers of Auschwitz. Gerda later wrote: “Frau Kugler put a lie to the lips of all those officers and guards who said they had no choice.” Gerda’s story is eloquent testimony to the fact that genuine love finds expression in countless ways and in those in whom we least expect to find it.
As we know, Shakespeare wrote a play entitled Love’s Labour Lost. We know from our own frailty that sometimes our love falls short, gets lost or goes unnoticed because we put the labour, ahead of the love. We know, too, that there are times when loving is difficult, when the people to whom we want to reach out are prickly, grumpy or very demanding. Moreover, they sometimes remind us that we are supposed to be kind and loving, without counting the cost. But we would be deluding ourselves if we thought that Jesus found it easy. The rejection, abuse, torture and humiliation inflicted on him over the days that led to his execution hardly gave him feelings of satisfaction. Yet the very fact that his love for all humanity was what motivated him to let his executioners have their way was the ultimate act of love. And Jesus calls us, too, to love, even when we are not buoyed up by the feelings we think ought to accompany loving. Moreover, John, in his First Letter, reminds us that authentic love must find expression in action: “If anyone boasts of loving God, and has no time for his brothers and sisters, he or she is a liar” (1 John 4, 20). In his account of one of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, John underlines that love goes hand-in-hand with reaching out to our sisters and brothers. Jesus asked Peter three times: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Three times, Peter attested that he did. And Jesus replied that the way to demonstrate that love was go out and “feed my lambs, tend my sheep and feed my sheep” (John 21, 15-17). Action speaks far more loudly than words!
We cannot let this Sixth Sunday of Easter go by without giving some attention to the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. This is a story of the way in which God’s Spirit was at work in bringing together Peter and Cornelius (a non-believer, but a very decent man) and leading them to collaborate in shaping a future that neither one had even imagined. Cornelius had a visitation from an angel who urged him to seek out a man called Peter, who lived 30 miles away in Joppa. Cornelius sent his servants off to locate Peter. Meanwhile, Peter, too, had a vision in which he was urged to eat foods that pious Jews refused to touch. On his three-fold refusal to give in to what he regarded as a temptation to evil, he was told firmly that nothing that God had created could possibly be regarded as unclean. Peter awoke from his dream to find Cornelius’ servants knocking on his door. Had he been true to his Jewish tradition Peter would have refused to have anything to do with a Gentile. However, he went with Cornelius’ servants and discovered a Roman centurion and his family who had been moved by God’s Spirit. This encounter had a profound impact on the early Christian community, for it led Peter and all the early Christians to realise that the only qualification required to follow Jesus is a readiness to love.