That’s a lot of love, what Jesus is saying again and again in this Gospel passage appointed for today. In three verses, Jesus names “love” 8 times. How to live? Live loving. Love. Love. Love. Love… With each repetition, Jesus is clearly trying to catch our attention, but how? What does Jesus’ word “love” mean for us? We need to do some detective work, because the Greek of the New Testament has four completely different words for “love,” words which are indistinguishable in English. What love – which of the four loves – is Jesus talking about here, and repeatedly? (And, in our short lesson from the First Letter of John, the word “love” appears five times, and it’s the same word for “love” that Jesus is talking about here.)
- In English, we speak of the love parents have for their newborn baby.[i] They love their precious little girl.
- Or there’s the love we have for a close friend. I write a note to a friend, and I close the note with, “Love, Curtis.”[ii]
- Or there’s the love between two people who have “fallen in love” with one another. They are smitten with passionate love for one another.[iii]
- Or there is the self-sacrificing love of one person on behalf of another, someone giving up their life out of love so that another can live.[iv]
In English we use the same word, “love,” to describe all of these experiences of love, but in the Greek, these are four completely different words. Which of the four Greek verbs for love is Jesus talking about here? It’s the latter, the self-sacrificing love of one person on behalf of another, someone giving up their life out of love so that another can live. In Greek, this word for love is “agápē,” and Jesus lives up to this kind of love in his crucifixion. It’s with that kind of love Jesus is calling us to live our lives: the self-sacrificing love of our own person on behalf of another, so that they can live. Jesus normalizes this love.
We often imagine what it must have been like for those disciples to be living with Jesus during those years of ministry together in Galilee. Particularly in the Synoptic Gospels we come to know a Jesus in all his humanity: his kindness, his gentleness, his anger, his sadness, his love. There are times, especially in Jesus’ healing miracles and perhaps above all at the Transfiguration, when the disciples glimpse something of his divinity, but so often Jesus tells them not to tell anyone of this. More often, Jesus is portrayed as a very human, who draws close to us in his humanity.
But when we move to the Gospel of John, we breathe a very different atmosphere. Here, in this gospel, it is as if Jesus can barely conceal his divinity at all. At any moment his glory is likely to ‘flame out like shining from shook foil.’ In our Gospel today, we have such a moment. Jesus comes to his disciples, walking on the water, and they are terrified. On seeing Jesus, the disciples were experiencing what Rudolph Otto in his book ‘The Idea of the Holy’ described as the numinous. The experience of the numinous, he says, underlies all genuine religious experience. Scripture is packed with such experiences, and perhaps the first famous one is in the account of Moses and the burning bush in Exodus 3. The experience of the numinous has three components, which Otto calls ‘mysterium tremendum et fascinans.’ First is ‘mysterium’. The numinous experience is wholly other; entirely different to anything we experience in ordinary life, and it evokes a reaction of wonder. So, the disciples in the boat stare in awe and wonder at a man walking on water. Secondly the numinous is ‘tremendum’. It provokes terror, because it presents itself as an overwhelming power and majesty. And the poor disciples were terrified! But thirdly, the numinous is ‘fascinans’. We are attracted and drawn to it, as something merciful and gracious. The disciples longed for this terrifying figure on the water to come closer to them, and into the boat.
1 Samuel 17:31-50
In the story of David versus the Philistine giant, Goliath, we’re made sure to understand that David did not defeat his enemy with the normal implements of war. We’re told, for example, that David tried on Saul’s armor and sword, but it just wasn’t working for him. As Goliath approaches, David announces that the Lord does not save by sword and spear, and at the end of the battle we’re reminded again that there was no sword in David’s hand. No, unlike Goliath, armed to the teeth with sword, spear, and javelin, David had picked up five stones from a nearby stream to use with his humble sling.
Besides David’s notable lack of appropriate weaponry, what also caught my attention was the number of stones. It seems oddly specific to say David chose five stones. With a little research I found, as you could imagine, all sorts of theories on what the five stones represent. One of my favorites is that the number five symbolizes the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, and in a more general sense the entire set of teachings and law considered the foundation of Jewish identity and culture.
This led me to consider the foundation Jesus gave us, his summation of Jewish law: love God with your whole being, and love your neighbor as yourself. And, in light of today’s story about David and Goliath, we’ll add: love your enemy.
I am not sure when the Feast of the Sacred Heart entered the liturgical life of our community, but it is an image found in Father Benson from the earliest days. Speaking to the All Saints Sisters of the Poor in 1869, three years after the birth of our community, he says:
Love was the guiding principle of [Jesus’] life, and entered into every relationship of his earthly life. Think of the love of Jesus for those who came to him in penitence. Think of the loving grief of that Sacred Heart for all the sin and sorrow and misery that lay around him, – that poor, sin-laden, suffering humanity, which love brought him down to earth to save. And then the love reaching even beyond the grave for the souls gone into the very region of the kingdom of Satan.
On another occasion he tells his listeners,
The love of Jesus is a light within our hearts, quickening the faculties of all our life. However near God might call [us] to himself, it would avail nothing for [our] redemption, it would but show [us our] own sinfulness, and reveal more clearly the meaning of [our] own nature. We must have more than nearness to God, we must have union with [God] – and this can only be in Jesus.
To describe the gospel of John as the gospel of love would not be inappropriate. From the very opening chapters of the gospel, where we read that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. Indeed God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him we hear that God’s motive, from the very beginning, was a motive of love.
That motive of love runs throughout the gospel, and reaches its climax in what we hear and see in tonight’s lesson, which comes to us from that very tender scene in the Upper Room, on that first Maundy Thursday. I give you a new commandment [Jesus says to his disciples], that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’
This love, which the gospel portrays and Jesus commands, is not a sweet, sentimental, romantic love. It is a love which we know propels and compels Jesus to the cross. It is a love which is self-giving, self-offering, and self-denying.
We remind ourselves of this in our Rule of Life when we say that [faith] sees the cross of suffering and self-giving love planted in the very being of the God revealed to us in Jesus. When God made room for the existence of space and time and shaped a world filled with glory, this act of creation was one of pure self-emptying. But God broke all the limits of generosity in the incarnation of the Son for our sake, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”
It is safe to say that Jesus did not agree with everyone. Jesus did speak endlessly about love, about loving living, about love being of our essence because God is love. And so we love. Love is the reason for our being. Love for those for whom we feel tenderly, feel a sense of belonging, feel compassion towards. We love them, and that love flows as freely as water flowing in a stream. But Jesus also calls us to love our enemies. Calling someone an enemy is oftentimes not politically correct to say, then and now. More often there are people whom we may find repelling, disgusting, stupid, clueless, getting in the way of the life and values we so cherish. These “enemies” are people whom we may judge are not helpful to our program and not aligned with our values.
When gardening or farming, one plans what to plant and where with preparation, precision,, irrigation, and protection so seeds may thrive. Jesus catches our attention with this one who casts seeds recklessly such that some fell where birds ate them, where shoots sprang up but quickly withered, where thorns grew alongside and chocked them, as well as where they bore fruit. No one plants like this, in places with little chance of survival. No one is so reckless.
God is no ordinary gardener. God is reckless with generosity, sowing love everywhere, including in the face of rejection.
My guess is you, too, have loved like this. There are times you continued to show up, listen, and provide even when a person wouldn’t turn toward you or did so only briefly before turning away. Remember doing this with children, family or others.
1 John 4: 7 – 16
John 15: 9 – 12
On the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the marriage of Katharine and Michael Blachly
Today we rejoice with Katherine and Michael for twenty years of marriage. It might seem an odd thing to do, to come all the way from Dallas, to a monastery in Cambridge, with a group of friends, to celebrate a significant marriage anniversary, but in many ways, married couples and monks have a great deal in common.
We say in our Rule of Life, and in the chapter on The Witness of Celibacyno less, that [our] fidelity to this vow [of celibacy] can be an encouragement to those who are united in the sacrament of Marriage; like them we depend on divine grace to help us remain steadfastly together until death through all the changes and trials of life.Like a married couple, as monks, we too live lives of fidelity.
We don’t know when or where Jesus met Mary of Magdala. We do know that she and a number of other women followed Jesus from the beginning of his ministry in Galilee.[iii]She was apparently a wealthy woman; however we know nothing of her family or her vocation.[iv]Neither do we understand Mary’s condition when she first met Jesus, other than she had been very unwell: “seven demons had gone out of her.”[v] In Jesus’ day, “demon possession” was a catch-all distinction, and could mean some form of physical, or mental, or spiritual, or moral “dis-ease,” or a combination. The reference to the “seven demons” might emphasize either the seriousness of her condition, or its recurrent nature.[vi] In any event, she was a person in great need, and a person who came to have an equally-great devotion to Jesus. We meet her in this Gospel lesson, weeping at Jesus’ tomb.
Why? She is asked by the angels why is she weeping? She responds, “Because they have taken away my Lord.” What is behind her tears? What was her grief about? It’s not completely clear, so we can only conjecture about Mary’s relationship with Jesus. Three things come to my mind:
…the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed… (John 20:8).
Once I got lost in the fog on the water. The more I paddled into this thick, eerie, pea-soup fog the more lost I felt. Fog was all around me. I didn’t know where I was. I was directionless. I was lost. I couldn’t get where I wanted. My fear was heightened because one of our children, then young, was with me. Eventually, I could see the outline of some unfamiliar land, but land it was. Then came the welcome sound of hammering, a lobsterman working on his boat. I paddled near him and asked. “Where am I?” It was an anxious question. He told me where I was and how to get where I needed to be. Then, like a good teacher, he asked, “Where’s your compass?” When I got back home from vacation, I knew I was lost in more ways than just on the water. So I wrote about the Fellowship of Saint John because I needed a compass. I’ve been grateful to the Brothers ever since.
“Where am I?” “How can I get on course?” “Where’s my compass?” is another way to ask: “Who is God for me?” “How can I grasp the divine presence in my life?” “How can I feel what is alive and vibrant in me, again?” These, for me, are Easter’s questions.
To answer such questions, early and medieval teachers turned to that wonderfully erotic Hebrew love poem, the Song of Songs.It’s not an obvious place to look. The Song suggests the human and divine in relationship are like lovers. Is that how you describe your relationship to God? Like you’re lovers. Hark! My beloved! Here he comes, bounding over the mountains, leaping over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. There he stands outside our wall, peering in at the windows, gazing through the lattice. My beloved spoke, saying to me: “Rise up, my daring; my fair one, come away”(Song2:8-10). It’s an amazing sketch of human-divine-relationship. Do you experience God as your lover? Or is that just a stretch too far? For me, Saint John’s Day is about the intimacy of God.
The rabbis interpreted the poem symbolically. The symbolic interpretation of scripture is, after all, an old way to read sacred texts, not a ruse foisted on the modern Christian world by Anglican liberals. How else might we read Scripture than as an attempt to articulate a reality that’s clearly beyond us? How can we talk about the ineffable, the mysterious, the Unknowable except in figures and enigmas?
A teacher of mine once described a time Martin Buber gave a talk at his college. In the course of the questions, a student asked about someone named “Yahweh.” Buber stood silent. He looked at the inquirer, “Whose name is that?” The student answered, “God’s.” Buber said, “Ah, you know God’s name. Tell me the answer to the question: Whose name is that?” The Songanswers Buber’s question in poetry that celebrates human-divine-love. It’s graceful. It’s sensuous. It’s erotic. Two lovers profess love for each other. Our relationship with God is like lovers. One scholar writes:
Bernard <of Clairvaux> was convinced that the Song of Songs’ central theme—the passions and love play of the wedding night—provides the best analogy for describing the human encounter with the divine. The claim is breathtaking. We today use the term ‘mystical marriage’ without thinking about how astonishing it is to claim that God and a human being can so unite as to be ‘married’… The secret of mystical marriage is the discovery that to be oneself is to be in love with Love… …this meant that God is love in the absolute sense—that love is God’s being, God’s substance. And because God is Love itself and because we as creatures are made in God’s image and likeness, we are by nature lovers. There is nothing more natural to us than loving…
So we hear about the race to the tomb. The other disciple, the one Jesus loved, is faster than slow-footed Peter. The beloved disciple believes because he sees. So we say, “Seeing is believing.” But what did the beloved disciple see? “…the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.” The face-cloth is what we call a “handkerchief.” Sandra Schneidersthinks: “The face veil is best understood as a Johannine…sign (symbol) in and through which a…person can encounter the glory of God revealed in Jesus.”The beloved disciple comes to faith by sight. “The priority of love is the basis of spiritual insight.”
I am moved by what the writer Herta Muellersays about a handkerchief:
DO YOU HAVE A HANDKERCHIEF was the question my mother asked me every morning, standing by the gate of our house, before I went out onto the street. I didn’t have a handkerchief. And because I didn’t, I would go back inside and get one. I never had a handkerchief because I would always wait for her question. The handkerchief was proof that my mother was looking after me in the morning. For the rest of the day I was on my own. The question DO YOU HAVE A HANDKERCHIEF was an indirect display of affection. Anything more direct would have been embarrassing and not something the farmers practiced. Love disguised itself as a question. That was the only way it could be spoken: matter-of-factly, in the tone of a command, or the deft maneuvers used for work. The brusqueness of the voice even emphasized the tenderness. Every morning I went to the gate once without a handkerchief and a second time with a handkerchief. Only then would I go out onto the street, as if having the handkerchief meant having my mother there, too.
Can it be that the question about the handkerchief was never about the handkerchief at all, but rather about the acute solitude of a human being?
What an apt description of us. The acute solitude of human beings. Did the first Easter story suggest a remedy for the acute solitude of human beings?Can Easter be proof that God is looking after us? …an indirect display of affection … love disguised as a question … the tenderness … having <God> there? Pema Chodron said: “Theism is a deep-seated conviction that there is some hand to hold.” Some hand to hold. The acute solitude of human beings. “the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head.”
I suspect that it brought to mind for John—the one Jesus loved, the beloved disciple—the intimacy of relationship. The intimacy of God with human beings. So we prayed today: “Eternal Father, whose Son Jesus drew the Beloved Disciple into deep intimacy with himself… Grant that we…may ever be Christ’s friends and witnesses, that through us…many may come to believe…”
Prayer is not just a good feeling in the heart but about growth, change and transformation when we can be open, vulnerable and real. Can we pray our way through our own fragility, stay in that vulnerable place and feel God’s unconditional love? Can we allow ourselves to be changed by our prayer, to leave self behind, to see God in all things, to trust and love another, to cross boundaries and transcend limitations? Because it’s all about love. Think how different our life would be—deeply converted to neighbor, to ministry to those different from us—if we saw ourselves as lovers!
Dorothy Day once said:
We cannot love God unless we love each other. We know God in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone anymore. Heaven is a banquet, and life is too—even with a crust—as long as there is companionship. We have all known loneliness. We have learned that the only solution is love. And love comes with community.’
…and he saw and believed…
Cf. Richard A. Norris Jr, The Song of Songs: Interpreted by Early Christian and Medieval Commentators(Grand Rapids, MI, 2003).
William Harmless, Mystics(Oxford, 2008), p. 47f.
Sandra M. Schneiders, Written that you may believe(New York, 2003), p. 202.
Herta Mueller, “Every word knows something of a vicious circle,” Nobel Lecture, December 7, 2009