The Sixth Sunday of Easter

Today’s readings

I don’t know if you were counting or not, but between the second reading and the Gospel, the word “love” was used in one form or another eighteen times. So it’s pretty easy to see where the Church is leading us in today’s Liturgy of the Word. Love is a theme that runs through John’s Gospel and the letters of Saint John: John’s point is that the Gospel is summed up in that God is love.

Now we get all kinds of notions about what love is and what it’s not.  Our culture feeds us mostly false notions, unfortunately, and it gets confusing because love can mean so many different things.  I can say, “cookies are my favorite food – I love cookies!” and that’s obviously not the kind of love Jesus wants us to know about today.  When we say “love” in our language, we could mean an attraction, like puppy love, or we could mean that we like something a lot, or we might even be referring to sex.  And none of that is adequate to convey the kind of love that is the hallmark of Jesus’ disciples.

So I think we should look at the Greek word which is being translated “love” here.  That word is agapeAgape is the love of God, or love that comes from God.  It is outwardly expressed in the person of Jesus Christ, who came to show the depth of God’s love by dying on the Cross to pay the price for our many sins.  So that’s the kind of love that Jesus is talking about today; it’s kind of a benchmark of love that he is putting out there for our consideration.

To really see what Jesus meant by love in today’s Gospel, all we have to do is to look at Jesus. His command is that his disciples – including us, of course – should “Love one another as I have loved you.”  And the operative phrase there is: “as I have loved you.”   Meaning, in the same way I have loved you.  And we can see how far Jesus took that – all the way to the cross.  He loved us enough to take our sins upon himself and nail them to the cross, dying to pay the price for those sins, and being raised from the dead to smash the power of those sins to control our eternity.  So the love that Jesus is talking about here is sacrificial.  And he says it rather plainly in one of my favorite pieces of Holy Scripture: “No one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  This sacrificial quality a vital property of agape love.

And the disciples clearly were called to that kind of sacrificial love.  They were persecuted, thrown out of the synagogues, beaten for stirring up trouble, put to death for their faith in Christ.  Like their Savior, they laid down their lives for their friends. That is what disciples do. And so, we disciples hear that same command too.   We may never be asked to literally lay down our lives for those we love, but we are called on to give up our own self-interests, our own selfishness, our own comforts, for the sake of others.

We celebrate Mother’s Day this weekend, and this whole instruction on sacrificial, agape love could not be more appropriate.  Mothers are called upon in their vocation to form a bond with their children based on sacrificial love.  Good mothers lay down their lives in the process of bearing children, and then do it over and over again throughout their children’s lives as they nurture them, educate them, protect them and encourage them, finally teaching them, one hopes, that kind of agape love that is the essence of all of our vocations.

So we’re going to look for opportunities this week to love sacrificially.  Doing a chore that’s not our job and not making a big thing of it.  Finding an opportunity to encourage a spouse or child with a kind word that we haven’t offered in a long time.  Picking the neighbor’s trashcan up out of the street when it’s been a windy day.  It doesn’t matter how big or small the thing is we do, what matters is the love we put into it.  Mother Theresa once said, “I am not sure exactly what heaven will be like, but I do know that when we die and it comes time for God to judge us, he will NOT ask, ‘How many good things have you done in your life?’  Rather he will ask, ‘How much LOVE did you put into what you did?’”

When we are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to love, there is no way we can miss the joy that Jesus wants us to have today.  “Love one another as I have loved you” might be a big challenge, but it absolutely will be the greatest joy of our lives.

The Sixth Sunday of Easter [B]

Today’s readings

Well, I think it’s pretty hard to miss the point of today’s Liturgy of the Word, isn’t it?   The second reading and the Gospel tell us what John wants us to know about the Gospel: God is love.  That’s a wonderful theme that runs all through John’s Gospel and the Letters of John.  And today, deep into the Easter season, we have a beautiful presentation of what that love should look like, what it should accomplish, and where it should lead us.

And it’s an important road map for us, I think.  We get all kinds of notions about what love is and what it’s not.  But mostly these are pretty erroneous, or at least facile.  Because for us love can mean so many different things.  I can say, “cookies are my favorite food – I love cookies!” and that’s not the kind of love Jesus wants us to know about today.  When we say “love” in our language, we could mean an attraction, like puppy love, or we could mean that we like something a lot, or we might even be referring to sex.  And none of that is adequate to convey the kind of love that is the hallmark of Jesus’ disciples.

Here, I think it’s important to look at the Greek word which is being translated “love” here.  That word is agapeAgape is the love of God, or love that comes from God.  It is outwardly expressed in the person of Jesus Christ, who came to show the depth of God’s love by dying on the Cross to pay the price for our many sins.  So that’s the kind of love that Jesus is talking about today.

To really see what Jesus meant by love in today’s Gospel, we have to see what he was doing.  Today’s Gospel has him readying the disciples for the mission.  He has them gathered together and reassures them that whatever their personal gifts or failings, they have been chosen for the mission.  And it was just that – he chose them, they didn’t choose him.  And they had been chosen to do something very important for the kingdom of God.  They have been chosen to create a legacy – to bear fruit that will remain.  He could have given them all sorts of detailed instructions on how to go about doing this, but that’s not what he did.  He gave them just one instruction: “This is my commandment: love one another.”  It is that love that will bring lasting joy to his disciples.

But he does get more detailed in his description of what it means to love one another.  “Love one another as I have loved you,” he says to them.  And that’s an important point, I think: “as I have loved you.”   In the same way I have loved you.  And we can see how far Jesus took that – all the way to the cross.  He loved us enough to take our sins upon himself and nail them to the cross, dying to pay the price for those sins, and being raised from the dead to smash the power of those sins to control our eternity.  So the love that Jesus is talking about here is sacrificial.  And he says it rather plainly in one of my favorite pieces of Holy Scripture: “No one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  This sacrificial quality an important property of agape love.

And the disciples clearly were called to that kind of sacrificial love.  The Apostles all experienced martyrdom, except for John.  They literally died so that people would come to know about Jesus, the Gospel, and God’s love.  Their love did indeed bear fruit that would remain – it remained to found a Church, to spread the Gospel to many lands, to bring the message to us even in our own day.

And the disciples were men and women who experienced joy.  Which isn’t the same thing as saying they were always happy.  They experienced a lot of opposition along the way to founding the Church.  They were persecuted, thrown out of the synagogues, beaten for stirring up trouble, put to death for their faith in Christ.  But they were still people of joy.  Because in their love, the sacrificial love that they received from Christ who chose them and gave them love to start with, they had found a source of joy that could not be controlled by external circumstances.

So that’s what Jesus meant by love in today’s Gospel.  It was a sacrificial love that was contagious, joyfully bringing the Good News to the world, bearing fruit that would remain for eternity.  True love gives without counting the cost.  True love brings others to heaven.

And the thing is, the instruction to love wasn’t meant just for those first disciples.  We know that it was meant for us too.   We may never be asked to literally lay down our lives for those we love, although that kind of thing does happen all the time.  People who give a kidney or bone marrow for another literally lay down their lives in love, maybe even for someone they don’t know very well.  People who take a risk to pull someone out of the path of an oncoming vehicle on the street – those are the kinds of ways that people might live this Gospel message quite literally.  But for most of us, the call to sacrificial love might be a little more ordinary, less dramatic.

We celebrate Mother’s Day this weekend, and this whole instruction on sacrificial, agape love could not be more appropriate.  Mothers are called upon by their vocation to form a bond with their children based on sacrificial love.  Good mothers lay down their lives in the process of bearing children, and then do it over and over again throughout their children’s lives as they nurture them, educate them, protect them and encourage them, finally teaching them, one hopes, that kind of agape love that is the essence of all of our vocations.

So we’re going to look for opportunities this week to love sacrificially.  Doing a chore that’s not our job and not making a big thing of it.  Finding an opportunity to encourage a spouse or child with a kind word that we haven’t offered in a long time.  Picking the neighbor’s trashcan up out of the street when it’s been a windy day.  It doesn’t matter how big or small the thing is we do, what matters is the love we put into it.  Mother Theresa once said, “I am not sure exactly what heaven will be like, but I do know that when we die and it comes time for God to judge us, he will NOT ask, ‘How many good things have you done in your life?’  Rather he will ask, ‘How much LOVE did you put into what you did?’”

When we are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to love, there is no way we can miss the joy that Jesus wants us to have today.  “Love one another as I have loved you” might be a big challenge, but it might just be the greatest joy of our lives.

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Today’s readings

“Lord, you are holy indeed, and all creation rightly gives you praise. All life, all holiness comes from you through your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, by the working of the Holy Spirit.” You’re going to hear those words again in a few minutes, because they are the beginning of the Third Eucharistic prayer, which I’ll be using today. I think they speak well of what we hear in today’s Gospel.

I remember back in my second year of seminary, I took my first moral theology class. One of the first tests we took had that line from the third Eucharistic Prayer on it: “Father, you are holy indeed, and all creation rightly gives you praise.” This line came along with the question: “Rocks are part of creation. So how does a rock give God praise?” Only a Jesuit moral theologian would ask a question like that! The answer, we had been taught, is “by being a rock.” Certainly a rock could not sing a song of praise or pray a psalm, but just by being what it was intended to be—a rock—it gave God praise.

That’s what today’s Gospel is all about. Not about being a rock, that would be silly, but by rightly giving God praise by being what we were created to be: the most fully human people we can be. Now that might seem like a no-brainer. Hey, we can all be human, right? But that, I think, is based on a flawed notion of what it means to be human. How many times have we all said something like, “sure, I am a sinner; I’m only human, right?” But being a sinner is not the same as being fully human. The most fully human person that ever walked the face of the earth was Jesus Christ. Jesus, we believe, was like us in all things, except sin. This is how we know that sin is not part of what it means to be fully human. And sin obviously is not something that gives God praise. Indeed, that last line of the Gospel seems to leave no room for sin, and sets a rather high standard of what it means to give God praise: that we must bear much fruit – not just some fruit, but much fruit – and become disciples of Jesus.

To become more fully human is a life-long task, and we know that it will never be fully realized this side of heaven. But while we are on earth, that’s our primary responsibility: to give God praise by becoming more fully what we were created to be in the first place. Today’s Gospel gives us a picture of how we’re supposed to do that. It mentions two specific things we are to do.

The first thing we are to do is, quite frankly, painful. And that is to get pruned. I’ve pruned more than a few bushes at my parents’ house in my day. When I was growing up, I made the mistake of doing it well, and so I got that job every spring! I didn’t really mind doing it though, but I often thought about the fact that this process could not be all that painless for the shrub. It involved cutting away branches that looked for all the world like they were healthy and life-giving, and even cutting some branches radically away.

Well, we have to give in to that kind of painful process in our own lives too, I think. We have to be willing to get some of us pruned away if we are to grow as healthy and fully human people. This process is painfully difficult, but we recognize that the things we prune away can be really destructive: relationships that entangle us in ways that are not healthy, pleasures that lead to sin, habits that are not virtuous. However enjoyable these relationships or activities may seem to be, and however painful it may be to end them, end them we must in the name of pruning our lives to be healthier, to be more fully the people we were created to be.

The second thing we must do is to remain in Christ. That’s what he says in the Gospel:

Remain in me, as I remain in you.
Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own
unless it remains on the vine,
so neither can you unless you remain in me.

And I’d have to say that they key here is the word “remain” because Jesus uses it four times in that short quote! “Remain in me,” Jesus says, as the branch remains in the vine. “Remain in me,” Jesus says, so that you can bear much fruit. “Remain in me,” Jesus says, so that you will not wither and dry up only to be tossed out and burned as rubbish. “Remain in me,” Jesus says, so that whatever you truly need and want will be done, and so that you can bear much fruit and be my disciples.

I think we can all get on board with remaining in Jesus, because this reading makes it sound completely wonderful. And it is wonderful. If we want to be truly happy, if we want ultimate fulfillment in life, if we really want to be the wonderful creation God made us to be, we must remain in Jesus, because, as he says, “without me you can do nothing.” And that’s true. How many times have we tried to better ourselves and lost sight of the goal before we even started? Don’t even ask me about my new year’s resolutions! How many times have we tried to stamp out a pattern of sin in our lives, only to fall victim to it time and time again? How many times have we tried to repair relationships only to have egos, hurts or resentments get in the way? When we forget to start our work and continue our work with God’s help, we are destined to fail. Apart from Jesus we can do nothing. Well does he advise us to remain in him.

But what does “remain in me” look like? Unfortunately, we don’t get a clear-cut blueprint for that in today’s Gospel. And the truth is, remaining in Christ is going to be different for every person. Just like my pruning of mom’s shrubs wasn’t a once-and-for-all activity, we are going to have to do some pruning every now and then so that we can remain in Christ. And so we’ll have to continue to be on the lookout for parts of our lives that are not ultimately life-giving and prune them away. But we’ll also have to look out for opportunities that will fertilize our growth. We have to check our growth daily, we have to examine where we are remaining every day. That might start with Sunday Mass attendance, and perhaps move on to daily Mass, praying devotions like the Rosary, reading Scripture every day, and taking time at the end of the day to see whether we’ve been part of the vine, or are in danger of breaking away from it. We have to be willing to renew ourselves in Christ every single day of our lives.

On this Mother’s Day, I am particularly struck by the spiritual example of my mother and my grandmothers. These women have been faithful witnesses to the Gospel for me and have always encouraged me to live the most fully human life I possibly could. They encouraged me to become all that God had created me to be, and if not for their witness and their urging, I know I would not be standing here today. One of the many gifts God gives us in this life to encourage us in the very hard work of pruning and remaining is the gift of those who have been mother to us. These might have been our natural mothers and grandmothers, our godmothers, our aunts or sisters or some other nurturing female presence in our lives. For all of them today, let us give thanks, and praise our God for the ways they have helped us to be what God created us to be.

All creation, as Eucharistic Prayer III tells us, rightly gives God praise. But we aren’t rocks. It’s not so easy for us to be most fully the wonderful human creation we were made to be. But that, brothers and sisters in Christ, is our calling and our joy. May we all support one another in our times of pruning and through our journey of remaining.