6th Sunday of Easter 2015
Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love,
just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. Jn. 15:10
We are now but a week before our celebration of the Solemnity of the Ascension of Jesus. After 40 days of various appearances and instruction of His Apostles, Jesus departs from this world in one way, but He also remains present here in other wonderful ways. Did he not promise to remain with us always until the end of time, as Matthew’s Gospel testifies? But then again, He also told his apostles that He must go away from them in order to prepare a place for them in Heaven. He then promised to send them the Spirit so they could continue His mission in this world and, finally, He promised to return one day, as they saw Him then, and take them away to where he has gone before them.
All of this is true, and it all will take place just as He promised. Christ will remain with His Church always. He remains in every baptized soul by His indwelling grace, and He remains in the sacred ministry of His Apostles – as the true source of their sacramental powers and as the ultimate source of the truth they preach in His name.
Nonetheless, Jesus will not be “with them” or us in the same physical, concrete way after his Ascension as he was “with them” prior to the resurrection and for a short while afterwards. Christ is now, body and soul, at the right hand of the Father and acting as High Priest of the heavenly Liturgy. However, He is also present here in this world exercising his power in our sacraments and acting through the priestly ministry of his priests on earth. And at the end of time, He will return in glory to judge the living and the dead, and His people and the universe He created will be transformed into the final dwelling place of God and man.
So we encounter Jesus in today’s Gospel, another mode of his presence, and He is just a matter of days from His ascension, and what would we perhaps expect him to talk about in teaching his beloved disciples how they must live after he departs from this world in that mysterious ascension to the Father? Unsurprisingly, He talks to them about His greatest commandment: “Love one another, as I have loved you.” This commandment is the key to their whole Christian existence. They are to live by the love of Christ, and they are to love one another, just as he has loved them. It could not be clearer.
However, the second reading today from John’s First Epistle can perhaps be misunderstood if read outside of the context of His Gospel. John says that “everyone who loves is begotten of God.” Now, in today’s cultural morass that could be, and often is understood by some Christians to mean that any kind of love in this world is what John is speaking about here. Therefore, they conclude, anyone who loves another person, in any way whatsoever, is truly begotten of God, that is, is truly living in God’s life by grace.
This grave misunderstanding of “God’s love” is the same kind of distortion of revealed truth that St Augustine ran into when he spoke about God’s divine love. Some Christians misinterpreted that famous saying of St. Augustine, “love and do what you will” as justifying any kind of moral conduct so long as it be motivated by any kind of love. But Augustine was not talking about just any kind of love, but the divine love whereby Jesus laid down his life for our sins.
So also today there are Christians, even some theologians, priests and bishops, who teach that various kinds of disordered sexual conduct condemned in the Scriptures, and in the constant teaching of the Church, are not sinful so long as these actions are motivated by “love”, which makes the person and his conduct pleasing to God.
But, again, in both his First Epistle and in his Gospel, the Apostle John is speaking about not just any kind of human love, that is, whatever man chooses to define as love. Our culture, led by Hollywood and much contemporary literature, actually glorifies and justifies fornication, adultery, and homosexual activity as perfectly good moral conduct, so long as these acts are motivated by love. But here one has to ask a question similar to that of Pontius Pilate who asked Jesus “what is truth”? Here we have to ask our culture, “But what is love?” Is love just an emotion, just a warm feeling or desire?
This is clearly not what St. John, following Christ’s teaching, means by love. When he says “everyone who loves is begotten of God,” he is referring to a quite specific form of love, a kind of love that is far from identifiable with simple feeling, indeed, a love that is even more than human. John is speaking about God’s love, in human form, the divine love that is found in the actions of Jesus Christ, above all in his passion. Indeed, just a bit further on in that second reading, John specifically identifies this divine love as the eternal love of the Father for His Son and he says it is “revealed in our midst in this way: He sent his only Son to the world that we might have life through him” and again He “sent his Son as expiation for our sins.” In short, only one who loves in this specific way, with divine love that is self-sacrificing love, is truly begotten of God.
So how do we know whether our love of neighbor is truly this form of divine love rather than simply human emotion? In the gospel, Jesus carefully defines this love for us, its unique character, and how we know it’s presence in our soul. Jesus refers to this unique divine love as the “no greater love” which does not hesitate to lay down one’s life for the beloved. “There is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” The love which begets a child of God is a unique form of love, which entails the willingness of self-sacrifice, laying down one’s life if necessary for the good of one’s friends. That is what Jesus did for us. He died that we might have true life, God’s life, and then we might love one another as he has loved us, with God’s love in human form.
Moreover, Jesus gives us an initial test for the presence of this love in our souls. I mean, after all, how can any of us really know for sure whether, if the time would come for the ultimate test of love, whether my love would make me willing to lay down my life for a friend or friends, just as Jesus did for me? I do believe we can be fairly certain that we would do so, but only so long as that most special love is already present in our souls now and is in fact growing. And how do we know that? Well, Jesus tells us, “You will live in my love, if you keep my commandments, even as I have kept my father’s commandments and live in his love.”
There you have it, I believe. The test of divine love’s presence and growth in our hearts here and now is our willingness to keep God’s commandments as Jesus did. John says elsewhere that anyone who says he loves God but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and he’s a liar who is lying to himself. After all, we really can’t lie to God who knows us inside and out. And, again, among those commandments, Jesus immediately specifies that we “must love one another, as he has loved us.” The supreme test of this love, its supreme exercise, is laying down one’s life totally, literally dying for one’s friends.
It may well be that you and I will never be put to that supreme test in the sense of physically dying for someone to save that person’s life. However, loving one another so totally actually begins with the little things, with dying in a less dramatic way for the sake of the other. After all, the Gospels show us Jesus constantly laying down his life for his friends, by sacrificing his time, his energy, his gifts for the sake of his friends, long before his actually dying for them. And so we must do the same, if our love, begotten of God, is to grow ever stronger in our souls.
So, Husbands and wives must learn to practice this higher love daily for the sake of their beloved, and for the sake of their children. Priests and religious must do the same for the rest of the Church, always representing the self-sacrificing love of the bride for the bridegroom. And all of this dying to self and living for others takes place, is played out, in the ordinary circumstances of daily life, as St. Therese teaches this spirituality in what she calls her little way to God. It’s the love of the moment, of the hour, of the day, etc. that adds up over time to a life of “no greater love.” If we truly love one another, with God’s divine love, in the little things, in the ordinary circumstances of daily life, each and every day of our life, then we can be quite confident that we too would be capable of the ultimate act of “no greater love” that Jesus refers to the gospel. Not because you and I are anything utterly special in human terms, but because we possess, by the grace of God, an utterly special love, God’s Love. Amen.