The text set before us today is part of the long speech that Jesus gave at the Last Supper after the Washing of the Feet. It is only John that gives us this speech but it is important because it includes the very heart of the teaching of Jesus.
In the section given for our consideration on this the Sixth Sunday of Easter Jesus again stresses just how important love is. He tells the Apostles that it is loving Jesus that will help us to keep his commandments. From this we understand that Jesus does not want slavish obedience from his followers; what he is interested in is motivation. What he wants of his disciples is that they love him; by loving him we adhere to his commandments because we want to be as close to him as possible.
The natural desire of someone who is in love is to please their beloved; they want to understand them better and get to know their deepest desires and then do their best to fulfil them. The motive is love not obedience. This is crucial to the teaching of Jesus. Up till that point religion was focussed on slavishly following the law; blind obedience was considered a virtue. Following God’s commands without really understanding the meaning behind them was what justified a person. Jesus’ teaching is revolutionary because he stripped the law down to just two commandments: love God and love our neighbour. What he is really interested in is our motivation and not so much conformity to the letter of the law.
If the Christian is to fully live out Christ’s desire that we love him then we cannot be lukewarm or half-hearted about it. What he wants from us is passion. He wants us to love him intensely. He wants us to love him wholeheartedly. He wants us to love him from the very depth of our being. Understanding this is one thing, putting it into practice is quite another. It requires commitment, tenacity and determination. This may not make the Christian life very easy but it will certainly make it fulfilling.
Alluding to the fact that he will soon be gone from them Jesus promises the Apostles that the Father will send his Holy Spirit to be their advocate and guide. He promises that the Holy Spirit will remind them of his teaching. We Catholics understand that it is the Holy Spirit that keeps the Church free from fundamental error. Of course, we realise that the teaching of the Church develops over time but we know that it is the Holy Spirit who keeps us in direct continuity with the teaching of Jesus. There is no room for innovation or new doctrine; what the Church strives for is fidelity to the original teaching of Jesus even if this is uncomfortable or out of sync with what public opinion thinks is important.
The text says, ‘The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all I have said to you.’ This indicates the closeness of the Father, the Son and the Spirit. The Father sends the Holy Spirit but he does so in the name of the Son. This gives us a glimpse of the theology of the Trinity and the dynamic at work within it. The Father, the Son and the Spirit are absolutely united and the driving force within the Trinity is love.
Understanding this, we realise just why Jesus is so interested in love. Love is the force which holds the Trinity together. The love of the Father, the Son and the Spirit overflows into the act of creation and is therefore the force that holds everything in being. Love therefore becomes the highest of all goals. Love is what should be treasured above all things.
The Eurovision Song Contest is on the TV these days. I remember when I was about ten in 1966 Kenneth McKellar was chosen to represent Great Britain. He sang a song called, ‘A man without love is only half a man.’ In the end he came ninth out of eighteen contestants but that is not important. The title of the song is what is relevant to us today as we think about how vital Jesus presents love as being. If we are without love then we cannot consider ourselves to be fully human creatures. Love is probably the most centrally important thing in life. Living a life of love is what makes a life truly fulfilling.
Over the years I have presided at very many funerals and often at a funeral a member of the family will stand up and give a short eulogy. Invariably the thing that they choose to speak about is the love the deceased person had for his family and friends. This tells us how important love is for us. It is not our faults but the depth of our love that will be remembered.
Jesus also bequeaths his disciples the gift of peace. This shouldn’t be misunderstood as passivity. What Jesus is imparting is inner contentment. He knows very well that his followers are going to face dire persecution and he wants them to be prepared for it, he wants them to have the strength and courage to remain faithful to him in the very worst of circumstances. If his followers have their eyes on the goal of heaven they need not be unduly perturbed in the face of the worst persecutions. The gift of peace will be what carries them through any and all adversities.
On Thursday we will be celebrating the Feast of the Ascension; it is a Holyday of Obligation so it is important to attend mass on that day. The Gospel text today is a good preparation for the Feast of Ascension which celebrates the return of Jesus to the Father. The sending of the Spirit and the giving the gift of peace are the ways Jesus helps his Apostles prepare for his departure.
Here at the Last Supper we realise that the final act in the great drama of the working out of our salvation has begun. The Apostles have a lot ahead of them. They will witness the death of Jesus on the Cross. But then they will witness the resurrection and then his Ascension into heaven. The Holy Spirit will definitively come upon them at the Feast of Pentecost and they will be pushed out into the world to begin the great work of the Church as it evangelises the world. They have much to do but the Spirit is with them and is guiding and prompting them in what they have to do. Just as the Spirit was working in them so too is it working in us. The Spirit is with us as we continue the task of the Apostles and make the love of God apparent to the people who live around us.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket