Self-giving love is not optional

  • April 18, 2013

Fifth Sunday of Easter (Year C) April 28 (Acts 14:21-27; Psalm 145; Revelation 21:1-5; John 13:1, 31-33, 34-35)

Becoming a follower of Jesus Christ was not an easy task in the first century. It often involved the loss of friends, the estrangement of family and alienation from one’s culture. Occasionally violent persecution was thrown in.

In their early missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas expended a lot of energy just giving hope and encouragement to the members of several tiny communities in Asia Minor. Not content with mere words — mere words can be glib and superficial — they fasted and prayed with them. Then they did something that was very important: they made the connection between the suffering of the community and that of Jesus. Persecution and death were stumbling blocks for the early Christians. They couldn’t understand why Jesus had to suffer and die. After all, He was the Messiah, wasn’t He?

That lack of comprehension often extended to their own situation. Then, as now, some believed that being a Christian was a free pass to a life without suffering, heartbreak or misfortune. If only it were so! Picking up a theme from Luke 24, Peter and Barnabas assured their communities that the persecution they were experiencing was not a cruel joke or a sign of God’s absence. Quite the contrary — these things were part of the divine plan and were necessary in order to enter the kingdom of God. Difficulties test our faith and our character and prepare us for life on a higher level. The only useless persecutions are those rejected in bitterness and despair.

In our own time being a Christian — at least a serious one — is again becoming difficult. There is occasional persecution, although usually of a more subtle sort. Disappointment and disillusionment with the institutional Church and some leaders take an even bigger toll. There is constant temptation to walk away or drop out. Our own time tries our souls but it is extremely important to have faith and perseverance. We all pass through the trial of this world but our response to it is crucial — patience, love, faith and the ability to forgive will carry us through with dignity and grace.

The vision of the New Jerusalem from Revelation was inherited from Isaiah 65:17-25. It represents the longing of all humans since the beginning of time: when there will be no more tears and suffering, but only abundance and joy. To most people it seems just an impossible dream or something that we can only experience in heaven after death. For the early Christians it was a description of the world after being renewed and transformed by God. The New Jerusalem was something that many Christians expected in their own lifetimes — the frightening and violent world that they knew simply could not continue any longer.

So where is the New Jerusalem? Everywhere and nowhere. It is a symbol of the life and newness that only God can give. The New Testament insists repeatedly that in Christ all things are made new. That is the key: when we truly live in Christ we begin to experience the newness of the world to come. Jesus begins the transformative work in us that will be completely fulfilled at the end of time.

The key to the renewal of humanity and the world was expressed in the “new” commandment that Jesus gave His followers: to love one another. In a sense this was not new at all — one need only turn to Deut 6 and Lev 18 for the love commandment. It was new in the sense that it was the first commandment given at the beginning of the new age heralded by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus had commanded them to love one another as He had loved them. His love for them was manifested in His willingness to lay down His life for them, and in chapter 15 Jesus insisted that there was no greater love than this.

Self-giving love is the fundamental law and guiding principle of the renewed world and is not optional for followers of Jesus. When it is ignored or violated we bring suffering and difficulty on ourselves but when it is practised we experience the healing and transformative presence of God.