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.”
…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