The gospel for this Sunday is one that has a special place in my heart. It was the gospel that my husband and I chose when we got married. We chose it because John 15:9-17 is a lesson in what love is: Jesus is telling His closest followers that love consists in the willingness to be so selfless that one would lay aside one’s own desires and the need to have one’s own ‘way’ to the point that we are even willing to lay down our very lives for the other. Love is not about getting an equal return from the other as if measuring a commodity, nor is it manipulative. Rather it is interested in whatever is best for the other. In a marriage, just as in all aspects of our lives, these are very important qualities, and therefore it is important to remember this teaching.
This passage also reminds us that love is a gift from God. On the night on which He died Jesus told the apostles: “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy might be complete.” (John 15:11) That is, Jesus wanted to extend the joy of His relationship with the Father to His friends. Just as love must be shared to be love in the first place, the sharing of it causes joy. There can be no great love without great joy. Therefore Jesus was saying that it gave Him great joy to fulfill the covenant promised so long ago. He was choosing to die for all of us because of love. That He could share His obedience to the will of the Father, and that He could share this great gift of love with all of us, gave Jesus great joy.
When I was young I was taught the virtue of sharing, especially in relationship to my brother. We willingly shared things given us because we were taught from a young age that this is what one does. But as I got older, I discovered that it was more than simply ‘the right thing to do.’ I realized that it was incredibly joyful to share the delight of whatever the gift was. To know that the other would also enjoy the gift did make everything more wonderful. Like much in the spiritual life this involves a paradox, (for example, death brings life). In mathematics when something is halved it means that you have less than you began with. But in sharing ones gifts, paradoxically the opposite is true: in dividing, the gift doubles. That is, instead of focusing on having less of the gift, the act of sharing it means that two are experiencing the joy instead of one, therefore the joy is doubled.
This is what Jesus told the apostles He was doing in the act of loving them as friends. He said: “I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.” (John 15:16) He shared with His apostles everything He had, thereby increasing His own joy. This was not something they understood at the moment He told them, but they did come to understand it after He resurrected and then breathed on them (John 20:22) telling them to receive the Holy Spirit. Therefore when Jesus told the apostles that He commanded them to love the way He loves, He was not expecting perfection, but rather He was inviting them to share in the boundless depth of love He shares with the Father. It is truly an invitation to joy; if there is any command in Jesus’ desire for us to love it is that we remember to rely upon God. On our own, we are incapable of perfect love, but with Him we can love as He does.
Jesus has also given each of us everything He has. When He died and rose, He invited each of His followers to share in the exact relationship He has with the Father. He began by empowering the apostles, but then He charged them with passing on what He had given them to the world, (Matt. 28:19-20). Jesus has invited each of us into His friendship which is an intimacy that is unlike anything we could imagine. Therefore, we too are called to share everything He has given us. This is why we look to His ascension, (to be celebrated in the coming week), and realize that He had to return to the Father in order to give us full access to the Spirit who will fulfill this promise. Accepting baptism then, means that we will indeed have every gift He has to offer us, from faith, hope and love, which empower us more than we realize, to every gift we need to nurture our own faith and that of those to whom we are sent. What He gives us is given to share, and in sharing, it grows exponentially. This is what building the Kingdom is about.
From the beginning God has always been willing to go to the greatest of lengths in order to share the joy of His love with us. His message is that all of us are His children. No matter who we are, we are His: all are sinners, but loved more greatly than we can fathom. This message is seen particularly in the first reading on Sunday which shows us how the apostles responded to Jesus’ command to share this love. Peter, a devout Jew, went into the house of Cornelius, a Gentile, something which would render Peter ritually impure according to the Law of Moses. Peter was well aware of the Law, but instead he followed the command of Jesus and the urging of the Holy Spirit. In going to the house of Cornelius, Peter not only shared the message, but he did it with so much love that Cornelius and his entire household cried out for baptism. When they were baptized and received what Peter had, namely the gifts of the Holy Spirit, they experienced what is referred to as the second, or Gentile, Pentecost: they were filled with the joy which is beyond description that comes from being filled with the love of God such as the apostles and the gathered Jewish followers of Jesus had received earlier in Jerusalem.
The apostles experienced first-hand that love shared is joy. Love given away freely overcomes fear, woundedness, anger, terror, self-centeredness, wickedness, arrogance, and whatever evil wants to throw at us. Love breaks down barriers, sometimes in one fell swoop and at other times bit by bit. Sometimes love is rejected by those to whom we offer it, just as Jesus was rejected by the people of His time. But in the end, love triumphs because out of suffering and death comes new life. The love of God is what helps us to persevere when evil seems to have the upper hand. Love does not come alone, however, but brings patience and trust to those who believe. Furthermore, love also ‘gives birth’ to mercy and compassion. Mercy allows us to forgive the evildoer or the cause of whatever it is that brings us suffering; and compassion helps us to persevere by entering into the pain and suffering of the other, thereby finding love in our midst.
Our struggle to love and be loved is at the root of all we do. It should not be a struggle because God created us in love and freely gives His love to us always. Yet love is a struggle because we are broken, imperfect beings. We long to love and be loved, yet this brokenness makes it difficult for us to give and receive love the way we desire. We need to do all we can to learn how to let God’s love overcome that which has wounded us. He is the only one who can truly do so, since God is love. Therefore we need to seek love and ‘love’s children,’ mercy and compassion, which Jesus offers to us. We can seek and find these gifts through prayer. Prayer is not about what we do, it is about what God does. Therefore all prayer is an immersing in love, mercy, and compassion whether the prayer time feels fruitful or whether the time may appear empty.
“In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as expiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:10) Ultimately God is the one who judges and who forgives through mercy. It is not ours to worry about that. Instead our job is to extend His love to those around us through mercy and compassion so that like Cornelius and his household, there is a sharing of the joy which comes in knowing that we are one community and will continue to be one in the Kingdom of God forever. Let us give life to the love we have received by sharing this love through whatever small gestures we are able. That which we have received, we need to give as a gift, especially the gift of love and ‘love’s children,’ mercy and compassion.
May we accept the invitation by Jesus to receive the gifts He offers freely! May we seek and find Him in prayer, opening ourselves to receive love, mercy, and compassion! May we be like the apostles who discovered that love shared doubles and brings great joy! May we accept the friendship of Jesus with gratitude realizing that He invites us into the same relationship He has with the Father! And may we reach out to others in love, mercy, and compassion, following in the footsteps of the apostles who reached out to the world courageously! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of Jesus! Alleluia! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
The two photographs at the beginning of the entry are mine.
Following the photos are two paintings. The first is The Ascension of Christ by Salvador Dali. (1958) The second is a painting called Peter Baptizing the Centurion Cornelius by Francesco Trevisani (1709).
Finally is an icon written by Fr. William Hart McNichols called Umelenie, Joy of All Joys. It can be found by clicking here: http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/280-umelenie-joy-of-all-joys. I chose this specifically because Mary would have known more than just about anyone else about the joy of sharing all that she had received from her Son, Jesus.
Heart Speaks to Heart