Commentaries on the Readings: Acts 14:21b-27; Revelation 21:1-5a; John 13:31-33a,34-35
EASTER IS THE TIME when we both remember and celebrate the new life which has come to us through our Risen Lord. What do we mean by this “new life”? Can you say that you have experienced this “new life” this Easter or, for that matter, in any previous Easter? Are you aware of becoming changed in any way – for the better – over the years? Or has the Easter experience simply passed you by?
The word “new” appears several times in today’s readings. The passage from Revelation speaks of a “new” heaven, a “new” earth and a “new” Jerusalem. Jesus in the Gospel speaks of a “new” commandment. What’s supposed to be “new”?
A new life in Christ, of course, is something that can come early or late into the life of a person. For many saints it came after quite a long period of loose and immoral living without God. St Augustine and St Ignatius Loyola come to mind. For others, like Therese of Lisieux, it came relatively early. She was already a saint when she died at the tender age of 24. For most of us, it is something that may come in waves. In other words, it will not be a once-for-all experience but something that comes at different stages in our life, each time bringing us to a deeper level of understanding, insight and commitment.
The “new life” that the Scripture speaks of is also referred to as “conversion”, a turning round, or, in Greek meta-noia (). It means a radical change of vision, of our priorities in life. It means new attitudes, new values, new standards of relating with God and with people and indeed with our whole living environment of which we are a synergistic part.
In the Gospel Jesus speaks of the foundation and heart of his teaching and message. These are his parting words to his disciples before he goes to his passion and death. What is this message? Is it to be faithful in keeping the Ten Commandments and leading a moral life? Not exactly. Does he warn us to be sure to be in church every Sunday and to go to confession regularly? Not really. Does he tell us to use all our energies in loving God? Surprisingly, perhaps, no!
What he does tell us is to love other people – and to love them as he has loved us. This, he says, is a “new” commandment. The Hebrew Testament told us to love God with our whole heart and soul and so on; and to love our neighbours as ourselves. Jesus has added a new element in telling us that the true test of discipleship is to love other people in the same way that he has loved us. And we might remember that these words lead the way to the “greatest possible love” that a person can show, that is, by letting go of one’s very life for others. This Jesus will very dramatically portray in the terrible suffering and degradation which he will submit to out of love for us, out of love for ME.
The only valid test
To incorporate that level of love in my life will surely call for a new way of thinking, of seeing, of behaving and of interacting with other people. And it will be the test, the only valid test, of whether I truly love God as well. Is this really the way, is this the frame of mind in which I live my normal day? Or rather, let me say, is this the way we – who dare to call ourselves Christians – live our normal days?
For it is clear that the disciple of Christ is not primarily an individual person but an inter-person. I am defined as a disciple not by how I individually behave, by my personal moral life, but by how I inter-act with other people. The solitary Christian is a contradiction in terms because the Christian is only to be measured by the way he/she loves and that love, by definition, involves other people. I am my relationships.*
What is love?
The word “love”, of course, can lead to misunderstandings. The word is used by us mainly in contexts which imply deep affection, emotional attraction and a good feeling when the beloved is around or even just thought of. That is not quite the meaning of the word in this context. The word that is used by John in this passage is agape (pronounced ‘aga-pay’, Greek, ’).
This is not, strictly speaking, love in the mutual or romantic sense. Rather, it implies a reaching out to others in a caring attitude for their wellbeing, irrespective of whether there will be a similar response by the other. It is the compassion that Jesus shows for the sinner and the evil person. It would be difficult for me to love a Hitler, a Stalin, a serial rapist killer or child abuser in the first sense. It would have no meaning and Jesus does not expect me to create such an artificial attitude.
On the other hand, in terms of deep caring for the good of another, I can certainly “love” Hitler, Stalin, the murdering rapist or any other person who causes me difficulties, who I believe has hurt me or failed me or who simply behaves in a way which I cannot accept as good. This is what makes it possible for me to “love” my “enemies” and to pray for them and to wish God’s blessings on them so that they may change their ways (not to suit me but for their own wellbeing and bring them back into harmony with God’s way).
It is why the true Christian disciple does not in fact have enemies. This is what Jesus is doing in praying for forgiveness for those who were nailing him to the cross. He loves them then not as close friends obviously, but as people who truly needed enlightenment about what they were doing not just to him but to themselves. Jesus cared, he had a deep sense of agape at that moment.
In the First Reading, from the Acts, we see another form of agape on the part of two early missionaries, Paul and Barnabas. They went through all kinds of hardships and misunderstandings so that the message and vision of Jesus might be communicated to as many people as they could reach. And to those who were already Christians they gave support and encouragement to persevere in their Christian convictions.
In this sense, then, can people say of me that I am a truly loving, caring and forgiving person? A redeeming person, a person who makes hurt people whole again? It is all that Jesus, on the threshold of his suffering and death, asks of me and nothing else. It is not impossible, it is not hopelessly idealistic, it does not require massive willpower and self-control. What it does require is a change of attitude, of the way I see the world, others, myself.
Where do I fail?
I might reflect today on the ways I personally fail to be a loving, caring, compassionate and understanding person. Who are the people I really love and care for? Who are the people I cannot bring myself to love and care for – and why? Who are the people I never even think of loving and caring for – and why? Do I only love the people of my own race, my own class, my own religion?
Do I care for anybody outside the circle of my family and immediate friends? Do I love and care for my family members? Whom do I regard as my friends and why? Do I love and care in any tangible way for people who need my care – however indirectly – even though I do not know them and they can give me nothing in return e.g. the poor, the addicted, the exploited and marginalised in my own and other societies?
Finally, do I really love myself? A great deal of our difficulty in extending love and especially forgiveness to others is our own insecurity, the fragility of our egos, which can be so easily hurt. Only those persons who are fully convinced that they are themselves lovable can reach out comfortably and unconditionally to love those who themselves cannot love but can only hurt and hate and destroy.
It is through this constant love-centred interaction among each other that the “new earth, the new heaven and the new Jerusalem” can begin to come into existence. It is in our hands. And we have a perfect example in Jesus our Lord.
As disciples of Jesus, imbued with his message of agape, loving in the way that he loved us, we are called to do the same – to give support to our fellow disciples and to share our faith and our love with as many people as possible. The words of the Second Reading from Revelation apply very suitable here:
See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his people,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe very tear from their eyes.
It is precisely by our being an agape-filled people that God will come into people’s lives in this way. It is through this constant love-centred interaction among each other that the “new earth, the new heaven and the new Jerusalem” can begin to come into existence – not at some unknown future time and in some other place but here and now. Today. It is in our hands. All we have to do is follow the lead of the Jesus the Lord.
*This, it could be said, is the vital distinction between being a Christian and being involved in other religious or quasi-religious activities such as yoga, meditation and other ‘New Age’ practices which many ex-Christians turn to. However, most of these are inner-centred, aimed at personal peace of mind and giving coping skills in order to survive in a surrounding society.
Christianity is primarily concerned at reaching out, at building communities whose main concern is together to work for the transformation of our whole society in the vision of the Kingdom. It might also be said that all the other great religions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism are also community-centred. All of these religions also include as an integral part prayer, meditation, contemplation. But the aim is not just to help the individual cope but to help with strengthening one’s understanding and commitment to the common vision of the Kingdom.