We continue our reading from the Farewell Discourse as recorded in the Gospel of John which we began last week. Today we hear some very reassuring words from Jesus. He tells us that he will ask the Father to send us an Advocate to remain with us. This is, of course, none other than the Holy Spirit who will continue to lead and guide us and give us comfort in times of distress.
It is an appropriate choice of reading since we are coming close to Pentecost when we celebrate the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles. We will be hearing a lot more about the Holy Spirit as we come up to Pentecost and Trinity Sunday.
I’d like to focus a little on the opening words of today’s text, ‘If you love me you will keep my commandments.’ Notice how this sentence is phrased; it says that if we love God we will keep his commandments. This is opposite to the way we would ordinarily think which is that obedience to the commandments is a precondition to our loving God. We tend to think that we can only truly love God if we are already following his commandments.
But this is not how Christ sees things. According to him having a deep love for God means that we want to please him and so we are filled with the desire to do his will and to follow his commandments. This means that our motive is not fear of a God who will punish us if we disobey him. Our motive is solely one of love and the consequent desire to please God.
We need to be constantly aware that the basis of the Christian faith is love. Of course, we understand that love is what God is all about; we realise too that the only way to achieve harmony with God is to live a life filled with love. It is love which needs to be our motivating force; we need to put our whole energy into living as truly loving persons.
This will inevitably require sacrifice which is the bedrock of all love. No one can love without making sacrifices for their beloved and it is the same with religion. The true believer is constantly making sacrifices for God and for their neighbour; the Christian realises that these sacrifices are the evidence that their lives are filled with love.
You can see here the profound switch from the Old Testament approach with its emphasis on a more wrathful God to the New Testament way of looking at things which understands that God is pure love. This marks a significant growth in mankind’s comprehension of the nature of God.
We can see this gradual growth and development of our understanding of God over many centuries as humanity moved from first worshiping earthly and inanimate objects through to believing in a multiplicity of Gods who lived in a spiritual realm. Only after a long time did mankind come to appreciate the revelation to Abraham that there is only one God. We then made the highly significant move from believing that this one God was harsh and judging into the Christian dispensation where it is revealed to us that God is all love and that he is a Trinity of persons.
Our desire to please God, as we have seen, changes our attitudes to God’s commands. No longer are they seen as a set of laws that a capricious God requires us to conform to. Rather they are seen as the best way to live out our human existence. We see God’s laws as life-enhancing and enriching. We see following them as the way to our true fulfilment rather than anything onerous or burdensome.
I read a little phrase in a book a few days ago, ‘To love the world is no big chore; it's that miserable person next door who is the problem.’ All too often this is our difficulty. We have no trouble with love in the abstract; we often see ourselves as very open, tolerant and loving people. That is until we come across some actual real people, especially those who get on our nerves.
As we encounter this ‘miserable person next door’ we suddenly experience a problem. The way they speak and act annoys us deeply and soon enough our wonderful open and loving attitude comes to a full stop. The little irritations of everyday life can swiftly bring to an end our highest ambitions to live our lives in the way God wants.
Often, we cannot explain just how another person irritates us. We do not understand what is happening, we simply experience an aversion to them. Something they do or say jars or annoys us and we end up very irritated. It then becomes impossible to show love to them.
Some of the things that irritate us about others may have a cause and that cause might be because they don’t feel loved enough themselves. Maybe that’s why they irritate us; they might be somewhat inept in their personal relationships because they don’t feel loved enough.
When we encounter such a person we often don’t react very well and it might also be this reaction that is making them feel unloved. One thing feeds on another and the more we react negatively to whatever it is they are doing leads them to behave in an ever more irritating way.
The only thing to do in these circumstances is to stop in our tracks and to review our own actions. Then we need to try to act more positively towards them, even if we don’t feel that really mean it. We might be surprised how their behaviour changes as a result.
It might be that what was previously a negative spiral now turns into something which is more positive. The upshot might be that we start to see things in them that we like a lot better than those aspects of their character that caused us so much irritation to begin with.
Beginning to realise that those things that irritate us in others might have its origins in our own behaviour may just be the clue we need to put these relationships back on track. The psychologists call this projection; it often happens that we see our own faults reflected in the life of other people. It is always then good when someone irritates you to take a good look at yourself in case the fault lies with you and not the other person.
Showing Christian love might be our highest ambition but it may falter when we encounter actual living people. Christian love is absolutely useless unless it survives contact with the real world.
One possibility when we find ourselves in such circumstances would be, before we do or say anything, to imagine ourselves sitting round that table of the Last Supper together with the Apostles listening to Jesus say the words we have just heard in today’s Gospel.
That brief moment of meditation might be all we need to put us on the right track and help us to overcome our instinctive reactions and lead us to act towards whoever is in front of us in a truly Christian and loving way.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket