by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“If you love me you will keep my commandments. I shall ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you forever, that Spirit of truth whom the world can never receive since it neither sees nor knows him, but you know him because he is with you, he is in you.” John 14, 15-21
Recently, at a ZOOM meeting in which I participated, our Congregation Leader led us in the following prayer. It took me back more than thirty years to a time when this prayer was a significant part of the youth retreats in which I had a part. However, it is a prayer that echoes the message that Jesus gave his disciples before he left them, and which has been central to the gospel readings of the Easter cycle. The prayer was written by the great Jesuit palaeontologist, Teilhard de Chardin, and provides us all with material for personal reflection:
“Above all, trust in the slow work of God. We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability — and that it may take a very long time. And so I think it is with you; your ideas mature gradually — let them grow, let them shape themselves, without undue haste. Don’t try to force them on, as though you could be today what time (that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will) will make of you tomorrow. Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be. Give Our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.”
Teilhard highlights the fact that change and growth for most of us are slow, and, at times, painful, especially during the progression from adolescence to adulthood. But we know from experience that the older we get the more difficult change can be. We all like the comfort of stability. In his long Last-Supper discourse to his disciples, Jesus names for them the anxiety that accompanies the prospect that life will soon be very different for them once they lose the comfort of having him nearby. However, he proceeds to point out that their greatest resource will be their readiness to rely on God’s Spirit, who will be their support, their inspiration and their advocate. He highlights the difference between accompanying them, walking beside them and living within them: “In a short time, the world will no longer see me; but you will see me, because I live and you will live. Then you will understand that I am in my Father and you in me and I in you” (John 14, 19-20). This is what the theology books call indwelling or God’s Spirit alive and active in each of us.
At this time of the Covid-19 pandemic, we’re all becoming increasingly aware of the challenges that are created by having to live in uncertainty. We are beginning to see that, when we emerge from this uncertainty, our world and the way in which we will need to live in it will be significantly different. We will probably be expected to undergo the transition from being in control to an awareness of being dependent. So, I dare to suggest that close reflection on today’s gospel reading is timely. We, too, may be being asked to make space in our lives for God’s Spirit to be given greater reign.
Today’s gospel reading opens with a simple, clear, direct and unqualified statement from Jesus: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” The only way in which we can demonstrate our love for God and Jesus in a world filled with billions of people, all loved into life by God and all created in the image of God, is to love without reservation every person we encounter. Jesus himself proclaimed that the greatest commandment is to love. And that is a theme that runs all through John’s Gospel and Letters. In fact he goes so far as to say that anyone who claims to love God and hates his or her neighbour is a liar: “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother or sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen” (1 John 4, 20).
Without love in their early years, children shrivel and die. Without love and affirmation in our adult years, we struggle with relationships, we fail to find self-acceptance and we don’t find lasting, inner peace. I am still haunted by the plea of an adolescent boy who expressed in public his hope that a family would adopt him. He had lived nearly the whole of his short life in foster care and had learned how precarious that could be, not knowing when he might be handed back to the government-run agency that had fostered him out. He wanted to feel part of a family in which he would find stability, acceptance and love. He had gown weary of being passed around like a parcel, and wanted to leave behind a succession of experiences that had left him feeling lonely and unwanted.
Irrespective of our age and personal maturity, we all know how much we need to be loved, accepted, affirmed, encouraged and wanted. And occasionally we know the pain and loneliness that fill our lives when those experiences are missing. Jesus knew the confusion, disorientation and depression that awaited his disciples once he had left them, and promised that he would not leave them to fend for themselves, to know the experience of being orphaned. So he promised them the support of an Advocate who could not be any closer – the Spirit of God who would dwell with them. And that same Spirit is alive and well, dwelling in each of us.
I suggest that there is something to be gained by taking time with that opening sentence of today’s gospel reading: If you love me, all I’m asking is that you keep my commandments, that you do your level best to love one another, for no other reason than that you love me. And, remember that I love everyone else as much as I love you.
Later in Chapter 21(the appendix of John’s Gospel), there is an echo of this sentence when Jesus says to Peter: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” And when Simon Peter assures Jesus that he does, the response he receives is: “Feed my sheep” – get out there among them, smell their earthiness, and love them as proof of your love for me! When challenges come, instead of asking “What would Jesus do?, we might ask, instead, “What does love require of me?” But let’s hasten slowly, knowing that learning to love sometimes requires us to be patient and to trust in the work of God, which, incidentally, can sometimes take longer than we would like.