Sunday, April 28, 2013

Fifth Sunday of Easter (C)

Acts 14:21b-27 / Revelation 21:1-5a / John 13:31-33a, 34-35

This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

On the face of it, there is something odd about this otherwise innocuous, even inspiring saying of Jesus. It is odd because we might quite reasonably presume that what marks Christians off especially, how others will know that we are Christ's disciples, is not from the love we have for one another, but rather the love we have for others. Indeed, one would surely be excused for thinking that it is not love for anyone else in particular, but precisely love for one's enemies that marks off the followers of Jesus Christ in a distinctive way. Often enough it is the failure of Christians to love their enemies that is held as the surest critique of the possibility of following Christ, or at least of the sincerity of those who claim to do so.

We plausibly think this way, of course, because it echoes what Christ himself taught: You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy." But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same?

Now, we might think to save Jesus' words above by thinking that the "one another" to which he referred was simply "everybody," so that "if you have love one another" would be meant to include precisely not merely love for those who already love you, but love for enemies as well. That is, we might be tempted to make these words of Jesus say simply what he said already in the Sermon on the Mount. However, we cannot do so if we remain faithful to the Scriptures. Why? Because the words above are part of Jesus' Farewell Discourse, his last time to pass on his teaching to his disciples before his Passion and Death. Throughout this long sermon and prayer, Jesus is quite clear that the "you" to whom he refers is not a generic "you". He does not intend to speak a general word to men and women of good will, as such. Rather, he distinguishes between "you", that is, the disciples, and through them all those who will come to believe, and the "world" that will reject both him and them. So, when Jesus says that we will be known as his disciples when we love one another, he means quite clearly when we love our fellow disciples of Christ.

How, then, do we make sense of this? Has Jesus changed his mind from the Mount to the Upper Room?

I think the more helpful way to hear these words is to reconsider what Jesus intends to do through his earthly ministry, through his Incarnation, his teaching, his Passion, Death, and Resurrection. What we recall first is that the purpose of Jesus' coming is not to outline a program of moral improvement or a plan of action. Admittedly, moral transformation should and must follow upon becoming a true disciples of Christ, and this discipleship does indeed call us to new and generous acts in light of what God has done for us. Even so, the Gospel is not fundamentally a moral program. Instead, what God seeks to do in the whole mystery of the Incarnation and all that follows is to manifest his glory by gathering a people together, a people peculiarly his own, drawn not only from the chosen people of Israel, but of every race, from every people. He means for this people to be united, not merely morally, but in the deepest sense, to become the very Body of the Son, and so to be utterly transformed, to be one with him and with one another as the Father and the Son are one.

This is why Christian unity is the very sign of the Gospel. Absent that unity, the very goal of God's work in Christ is put into doubt, and the world will wonder what all the fuss has been about. We are of course to love our enemies, and such love must flow from being made one in Christ. Even so, to do good for the other and to be alienated or in conflict with the Church, with not only one's like-minded Christians, but with those persons entrusted to govern and teach, to minister and to serve, is to fail at the very work that Jesus intends to accomplish in us.

Ours is not to propose to the world a new morality, but to manifest, as much as can be in the world, the unity which is the very being of the Triune God.