Saturday 28 May 2011

Genuine love is unconditional. Acts 8:5-8,14-17; 1 Pet 3:15-18; Jn 14:15-21

Someone once said tongue in cheek: "The reason mountain climbers are tied together is to keep the sane ones from going home." Whoever said that may have been joking, but only partly. For, though we know that mountain climbers are tied together to keep from getting lost or going over a cliff and even to support and encourage one another, there is another piece of truth here. When things get difficult up on the mountain, when the going gets tough, when the path is too steep, when fear sets in, many a climber is tempted to say, "This is too difficult! It’s crazy! I'm going home." This is understandable and sometimes even prudent.

The life of faith can be like that when doubts set in, despair overwhelms us, and the whole notion of believing in God seems crazy. Jesus was aware that his disciples would have days like that, and so if the focus in the opening verses of this Chapter read last week was on the confidence that the disciples are exhorted to have since Jesus will overcome death and return, here the focus is on two other interconnected aspects.

The first of these is the intimate connection between the love which one has for Jesus and keeping his commandment of love, (a theme which begins and ends this text) and the second is the promise of the Advocate, Helper, Comforter, Counsellor or Paraclete that Jesus will ask for the disciples from the Father who will come to their aid to give strength, courage and confidence when the going gets tough and the road is steep.

In the first, Jesus is explicit that the love of the disciple has to be a tangible love that will express itself in action. It is to be an imitation of the love that the first letter of Peter speaks about; the love of Christ who died for the guilty to lead us to God. This kind of love, which is unconditional and does not keep any record of right or wrong, will lead to the disciple sharing in the Father’s love.

It also leads to second and connected aspect: the promise of the gift of the Advocate who will abide not only with the disciples but also in them. The Advocate can mean variously, “the one who comforts”, ‘the one who helps” and “the one who makes appeals on one’s behalf”. This Advocate whom Jesus will ask from the Father will not engage in any new work, but will continue the work of Jesus. The Spirit will ensure that the revelation of God begun in Jesus will not end when Jesus returns to the Father, but will continue forever, since the Spirit will be with the disciples forever. Though the Paraclete will be with the disciples, Jesus himself will also return both after his resurrection from the dead and in the fact that the Paraclete will make the resurrection of Jesus available for all believers beyond their limited moment in time.

While not abandoning traditional beliefs (for instance, in the second coming and judgement), John handles them in a way which relates them directly to the present. He can do this because the chief focus of his spirituality is not a place or a time, but a person and a set of relationships. The focus is not quantity, but quality. The focus is not bigger miracles or stricter commandments, but the expansion of the initiative of love which comes from God and seeks to fill the world. This is why John’s account of Jesus’ last words does not expound the Law. It is also why though John insists on the Spirit, the focus is not ecstasy or miracles, as one might expect, but presence. The focus is not mystical experiences, but on relationship and resultant action, on communities of love which ‘speak for themselves’. The passage is framed by human anxiety about the absence of Jesus and ultimately about the absence of God (14:1; 14:27). It does not deny the anxiety and distress, but offers a promise of presence and sense of meaning embedded in sharing God’s life and participating in God’s action in the world, recognizable by its ‘Jesus-shape’. John composed these parting words of Jesus with more than the immediate disciples in mind.

This is why even after the death of Stephen by stoning and the general persecution of the Christian community, Philip one of the seven chosen deacons being aware of this presence of the Risen Lord was bold to proclaim Christ to them. The Spirit working in and through him enabled him to both preach and act as Jesus himself had done. The result of Philip’s actions through the guidance of the Spirit was that people were made whole. This combination and even synchrony of healing word and action resulted in great rejoicing, and many were drawn to Christ.

This presence, in which the disciples lived, continued to sustain them and make an impact on others. Since this was so, they are exhorted in the second reading of today to be willing to share that hope with whoever asks about it. It is not to be a sharing that smacks of condescension or a sharing which professes to have the whole truth, but a sharing that has to be done in humility, courtesy and reverence for the other. We are given as it were a starting point for inter-religious dialogue.

This kind of sharing is the need of the hour in a world that is characterized by fear and lack of trust. In a world that is already a global village but also where each community is becoming more closed in on itself and parochial, the task of the Christian community is evident. First we have to be convinced that no matter how steep the path might be and no matter how rough the road might get, the Risen Lord continues to accompany us on our journey to eternity in and through his Spirit which abides in each of us and second we must be able to communicate this presence which is manifested in peace, joy, fellowship and justice for all.

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