Sermon: V Easter (b)
Jn 14.15-21; 1 Jn 3.18-24
6 May 2012
Fr. Patrick Allen
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Fr. Sanderson drew our attention last Sunday to the liturgical rhythm of this Eastertide, as the lessons for each Sunday take us on a path of contemplation that is at the same time well-worn but always fresh. With this Sunday, this fifth Sunday of Easter, our lessons and our thinking together about them take a decided turn – we begin to look forward to the next great benchmarks in the drama of Jesus, the story of our redemption: to the Ascension of our Lord, on the fortieth day after Easter (that's next Thursday, the 17th, mass at 6.30PM) – and so we have heard Jesus say, yet a little while and the world will see me no more –and then on to the descent of the Holy Spirit on the feast of Pentecost, the fiftieth day – and so we have heard our Lord speaks to us of another Counselor, even the Spirit of truth who is to come. Having bowed to our partner, today we bow to our corner – if a square dancing analogy helps (No!?).
Anyway, we have this morning heard the promise of Jesus given in the night in which he betrayed: I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth.
Even the Spirit of truth, Jesus says. This Counselor, this advocate and guide, is more fundamentally known as the Spirit of truth. This is important, because our Lord 's Prayer, and the Father's answer, and this promised Counselor's coming, are part of a spiritual dynamic that Jesus has described for us:
If you love me,
you will keep my commandments,
and I will pray the Father,
and he will give you another Counselor, even the Spirit of truth.
Our Lord is describing a dynamic, almost a process, which has as a catalyzing factor, love – but love which is not merely a sentiment or feeling or, not simply an emotion, a love which is more than words, but instead a love that acts, a love that wills, a love in which thought and desire and intention line up with external action: If you love me, you will keep my commandments...and then, he who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. The proof is in the pudding.
Our Lord insists that the Spirit of truth be met in us by truth – by honesty, by integrity in love. In other words, it's gotta be the real thing.
And we know what the false thing, pseudo-love, is. We know it all too well, don't we? When we feel and express concern for the poor, but are unwilling to open our wallets; when we feel and express, at least politically, concern for the unborn, but are unwilling to help mothers in their need; when we tell our spouse "I love you" but can't rouse ourselves to push the trash can to the end of the drive, to lend a hand with the children, or just to sit still and listen to the small stories of the day.
St. John in this morning's epistle puts the matter plainly, doesn't he? Little children let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth; by this we shall know that we are of the truth...
Or, to paraphrase Forrest Gump's mother, "Love is as love does." And this is why the question put to bride and groom in holy matrimony is not, as is so often portrayed in romantic movies, "Do you love," but is actually, "Will you love?" It is less a question of what one is feeling than of what one is committing to do, how one is committing to live.
To be sure, we moderns, and especially we self-reliant, independence-minded Americans may find this linking together, this almost-elision, of love and obedience more than a little off-putting. After all – to choose just one example – we have made no-fault divorce the law of the land so that, and despite whatever vows we may make in the church, the one thing we are not free to do, is to bind ourselves, definitively, to another; we are not free to place any fetters, any limits, on our future desires and decisions. To do so, to insist on that kind of freedom, would be an American heresy. It is the triumph of the autonomous individual over the family, over the community, over even – at least it sometimes seems so – the church.
That stark American individualism, though, goes hand-in-hand with our romanticism, a romanticism which defines love down, as we have already seen, to an emotion, a sentiment that may come...and may also go. So that what's important, indeed the great virtue, is still a kind of fidelity, but now it is fidelity to oneself, "be faithful to yourself."
I've been calling this problem "modern" and "American" because this is today and we're in America. But of course it's really nothing new or unique to us. Shakespeare's Polonius names it for us in Hamlet: "This above all, to thine own self be true."[i]
At this point, it may be helpful, salutary even, to remember that Hamlet called Polnius a tedious old fool and killed him. And it may even be that the beginning of faith in Christ is simply to become aware – maybe not quite so angry as Hamlet, but aware – of the problem, the very personal problem, in that philosophy.
This is brought out in a great way in a much too obscure movie by Whit Stillman called The Last Days of Disco. At the end of the movie, one of the characters, Des, is riding in a cab to the airport so he can skip out of the country before being indicted on drug trafficking charges, which of course is bad, but in the context of the movie pales in comparison to the way he has mislead and mistreated the women in his life. So Des, one taxi ride ahead of the law, says to his friend,
You know that Shakespearean admonition, "To thine own self be true"? It's premised on the idea that "thine own self" is something pretty good, being true to which is commendable. But what if "thine own self" is not so good? What if it's pretty bad? Would it be better, in that case, not to be true to thine own self? ...See, that's my situation.
That's Des' situation, and, in differing ways and to greater and lesser degrees, mine and yours.
What we need is something good – or, better, Someone Good, to whom we may be true, to whom we may bind ourselves. But more importantly and first, we need Someone Good who will bind himself to us, be true to us, even when our fidelity fails; what we need is a love that, a Love who, can change us, transform us, make us lovely.
So our Lord introduces this dynamic, If you love me, you will keep my commandments, and I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, even the Spirit of truth. He introduces this dynamic, and the catalyst, the explosive agent that gets this process going so that we can have the Spirit of truth reigning all the way from the "devices and desires of our own hearts" to those things we do and leave undone, the catalyst is love – but it is, and we know it must be, his love, his perfect and true love, who is Love Himself.
If you love me you will keep my commandments, he says. But then he claims our obedience not by the power of his command but by the force of his love. Just a few minutes after he speaks these words to his disciples, a few sentences in John's Gospel, he looks again at his disciples and says, "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."[ii] And then, at noon on the next day, he went out and did it – for his friends, for you and me.
He has loved us first, love us with perfect fidelity, loved us in deed and in truth, so that we may know love, that we may learn to love, so that – in the end and forever – we may ourselves be lovely.
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[i] Hamlet, I.iii
[ii] Jn 15.13