Sunday, May 17, 2009

Easter 6

St. Thomas Aquinas,
at the end of his lengthy commentary on John’s Gospel,
recounts the medieval legend that “as an old man
John was carried to the church by his followers
to teach the faithful.
He taught only one thing:
‘Little children, love one another.’”
Then Thomas adds,
“This is the perfection of the Christian life” (§2653).

This is a legend and not from scripture,
but it rings true with our second reading and Gospel for today,
both of which are traditionally ascribed to St. John
and both of which place love at the center of their message.
From the first letter of John:
“let us love one another, because love is of God.”
From our Gospel:
“This I command you: love one another.”
This is the perfection of the Christian life:
to know the one, true and living God.
And we come to know God by loving because God is love,
and when we love, we know God, as it were, from the inside.

This sounds like pretty good news.
Love: this is the commandment of Christ to his disciples.
Disciples who love will “bear fruit that will remain.”
What could be more simple than that?
As St. Augustine said,
“Love, and do what you will” (Homilies on 1 John 7.8).

But anyone who loves knows
that love is really not simple at all.
Our feelings about people and things
can be complex and conflicted.
Our love finds itself entangled
with a host of emotions and passions,
not excluding anger, jealousy, lust and pride,
which makes it difficult for us to separate what is love
from what might be something else, some darker impulse,
that has attached itself to our love, or masquerades as love.
People bind themselves to others in the name of love,
but they also break those bonds in the name of love.
People die in the name of love,
but they also kill in the name of love.
St. Augustine’s injunction, “love, and do what you will,”
can be twisted so that any action on our part can be justified
so long as we do it in the name of love.

This has been on my mind recently
particularly in light of the highly-publicized murder
of Stephanie Parente, a student at Loyola College, where I teach.
Stephanie, along with her mother and sister,
was killed by her father,
who then took his own life.
I did not know Stephanie personally,
but the impact of her murder on her friends,
many of whom are my students,
and the particular nature of this crime,
a father murdering his family,
has caused me to reflect on this event
more than I might on the typical human tragedy
that confronts me in my morning paper.

I don’t think anyone yet knows what role, if any,
mental illness might have played in this tragedy,
and how this might affect our understanding of this man’s actions.
But what has haunted me
is that this man who killed his wife and children
appears from all reports to have loved them.
What haunts me more is that he quite possibly thought
that he was taking their lives because he loved them —
that he was somehow protecting them,
or ensuring that he could have them with him even in death.
Could it be that he used love as the justification for his actions?

“Love, and do what you will?”
In this case, surely not.
This man may have loved his family;
that is not my place to judge.
But this was not an act that was born out of love
but out of some darker passion that hid behind the mask of love.
Surely there are actions that are simply incompatible with love,
and yet our human love can become so twisted by sin
that we attempt to justify these actions in the name of love.
This is an extreme example,
but the shadow of sin falls across us all
and if I am honest with myself I find that I my love too
is not immune from the darker impulses of the human species.

But thanks be to God that all this talk about love
that we hear in today’s readings
is not first and foremost about our human love at all.
Our second reading says: “this is love:
not that we have loved God, but that he loved us
and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.”
This phrase “expiation for our sins”
is perhaps somewhat ominous and technical sounding,
but what it means is that God has sent us Jesus
to redeem the failures of our love.
We are to love one another
not according to the pattern of our fallen human love —
a love that has become entwined with other, darker passions —
but with the pure love that Christ showed on the cross,
the love that lays down its life so as to give new life.
This is the pattern of true love in which we are to abide
and the good news of Jesus Christ
is that God gives it to us as a gift
because God is love.
It is not something that we achieve,
but something that God achieves in us.
Through the free gift of God’s love,
our human love can, over the course of a lifetime,
begin to be untwisted,
disentangled from those dark passions that hide within it;
it can be remade according to the pattern of Christ’s love.
In the waters of baptism, love can be purified,
because we are immersed in God’s own love.
At the table of the Eucharist, true love can be nourished in us,
because the love of God becomes our food and drink.
This is the gift of love in which we are to abide.
This is the love that Christ commands.
This is the perfection of the Christian life.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Easter 4

Every year, on the fourth Sunday of Easter,
our Gospel reading is one of the passages from the tenth chapter of John
in which Jesus speaks of himself as a shepherd.
Thus, in the tradition of the Church,
this has come to be called “Good Shepherd Sunday.”
The image of Jesus as a shepherd is one that is familiar to us all —
indeed, some of the earliest artistic representations of Jesus that we have
are not the familiar robed and bearded figure
but the image of a young, beardless shepherd boy.
The image of a shepherd was a resonant one for early Christians,
and not simply because shepherds
were relatively more common two thousand years ago
than they are now.
It was an image rooted in the Old Testament’s understanding
of what sort of king God desired for the people of Israel.
The king was not to be
one who used and exploited the people for his own gain,
but was to care for them and guide them and protect them.
And as the Jewish people hope for a messiah —
a savior who would restore the fortunes of their nation
and lead them in the ways of God —
this image of the shepherd king
became a way of expressing that hope.

In speaking of himself as a shepherd,
Jesus is claiming to be the fulfillment of that hope:
the king who will care for and guide
and protect the flock of God’s people.
But more than that:
in calling himself the good shepherd,
the shepherd who not only cares for
and guides and protects the sheep,
but even lays down his life for them,
Jesus presents himself as the one who surpasses Israel’s hopes —
a radically new kind of shepherd, a new sort of leader.
The kind of rule that Jesus exercises
involves nothing less than giving his life for his people:
the stone rejected by the builders
who has become the cornerstone of God’s new temple.
In Jesus’ laying down of his life, God’s love is bestowed on us,
so that we may be called children of God.

But this is not simply the kind of leadership,
the kind of shepherding,
that Jesus himself exercises.
He calls us, too, to be shepherds.
At our baptisms we were anointed with the oil of Chrism
to share in Christ’s ministry of priest, prophet and king.
We share in his priestly ministry
by worshiping God as part of Christ’s body, the Church.
We share his prophetic ministry
by bearing witness to his Gospel in the world.
And we share in his kingly ministry, his royal ministry of shepherd,
by exercising the kind of care and guidance of others that he exercised:
the kind of care and guidance that calls us to lay down our lives.
As the first letter of John puts it:
“We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us —
and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 Jn 3:16).

So part of our being sent as Jesus’ disciples
is our being sent to be good shepherds
who will lay down our lives
for those whom God has put into our care.
Not the kind of care and guidance
that dominates or smothers,
but the kind that empowers and gives life,
even if this requires us to sacrifice ourselves.

Of course, the language of laying down one’s life
conjures images of dramatic acts of sacrifice,
in which one dies in the act of defending
those whom one has been charged to protect.
It conjures such images
not least because this is precisely what Jesus does:
he is the good shepherd who gives his life
to keep the wolf from catching and scattering his sheep.
And perhaps it is the case that some of us
will lay down our lives in this dramatic way.
But we ought not let these dramatic images lead us to overlook
the more mundane, every-day ways in which we lay down our lives
for those who have been put into our care.

Any parent who has walked the floor in the middle of the night
with a sick or fussy baby
or who manages to let go of the parental grasp
and send their child out into the adult world
knows what it means to lay down one’s life.
So too, any child who cares for an aging parent
with patience and forbearance
knows what it means to lay down one’s life.
Any employer or supervisor who stays late at the office
figuring out how to tweak the budget,
or who forgoes a bonus,
in order not to have to lay anyone off
knows what it means to lay down one’s life.
Any minister, ordained or lay,
who spends hours listening to his or her people,
sharing their struggles and joys,
while still laughing at jokes
about only having to work one day a week
knows what it means to lay down one’s life.
All of these involve a kind of dying to oneself
so that others might have life in its fullness.
All of these can be ways that we as disciples
answer Christ’s call to lay down our lives.

But Christ does not simply say that he is the good shepherd
who lays down his life for his sheep;
he says that he has “power to lay it down,
and power to take it up again.”
And it is part of our Easter faith as Christians
that he has power to take up our lives as well,
if we lay them down for the sake of his flock.
The kind of dying to self that is involved in being a good shepherd —
a good parent or child or manager or minister —
might at times seem beyond our capacity.
But the call to lay down our lives is in the end
not simply a call to self-sacrifice,
but rather is a call to entrust ourselves
to the one who is our good shepherd,
the who has laid down his life for us
and who will take up our lives with his into eternal life.
For the Lord is our shepherd, and there is nothing we shall want.