|The Sánchez Archives
FIFTH SUNDAY OF
Patricia Datchuck Sánchez
The Great Motivator
One day, as the late Mother Teresa (1910-1997) and her Missionaries of Charity were tending to the poorest of the poor on the streets of Calcutta, they happened across a man lying in the gutter, very near death. He was filthy, dressed in little more than a rag and flies swarmed around his body. Immediately, Mother Teresa embraced him, spoke to him softly and began to pick out the maggots that were nesting in his flesh. A passerby was repulsed by the sight of the man and exclaimed to Mother Teresa, I wouldnt do that for a million dollars. Her response was immediate, Neither would I!
Obviously, monetary gain did not motivate the diminutive woman known as the Saint of Calcutta; love did. In her writings, Mother Teresa frequently affirmed the motivating power of love. Quoting Jesus in todays gospel, she wrote, Jesus said, Love one another. Such as my love has been for you, so must your love be for each other. She continued, We must grow in love and to do this we must go on loving and loving and giving and giving until it hurts - the way Jesus did. Do ordinary things with extraordinary love: little things, like caring for the sick and the homeless, the lonely and the unwanted, washing and cleaning for them.
Elsewhere, Mother Teresa remarked that the greatest disease in the West today is not tuberculosis, leprosy or even A.I.D.S.; it is being unwanted, uncared for, unloved. That she did her part in trying to cure this disease was attested in everything she did and in every word she said.
As todays readings indicate, love has been the great motivator of Christianity from the beginning. Love of God, love of Christ, love of the gospel and love for humanity motivated the earliest missionaries to persevere in the faith even when they had to undergo many trials. Lukes account of the itinerant ministries of Paul and Barnabas (Acts) provides his readers with a sense of how thoroughly love had informed their efforts. Leaving nothing to chance, they kept close contact with their new converts and with the community of Antioch in Syria which had first commissioned them. After proclaiming the good news in several towns, they would retrace their steps and offer reassurance and encouragement lest the seed of the faith die and the bonds of love be broken. Love also motivated them to let go of their centuries old prejudices and warmly welcome gentiles into the community of the faith.
John, the seer, in the second reading from Revelation, shares a vision of nuptial love. When all the former things have passed away and sin and evil are completely overcome, God will welcome the redeemed as a husband welcomes a bride. The love and life that they will share will preclude tears, pain, crying out, mourning and death. This vision inspired Johns readers to persevere through their struggles and assured them of the constant and sustaining love of their divine bridegroom.
In his last hours with his own, the Johannine Jesus (gospel) reminded his followers of the legacy he would bequeath to them. A living legacy of love that would challenge them to love one another as he had loved them, this same legacy was to be the means by which they would be identified as Jesus disciples.
Today, we who claim to love Jesus and to be his disciples must allow Luke and John to turn their questions on us. . . Is my love for Christ, the gospel and the church discernible in the way I live my life? Is it an identifying characteristic? Is the love relationship I share with God deep and true enough to sustain me in times of struggle, trial and tears? If love is lacking, then today is the time to turn again to the one who has first loved us and who can make all things new!
If the earliest generations of believers in Jesus had enlisted the services of a cartographer to map out their numerous foundations, the result would have been a network of small Christian communities spread throughout the then known world. Small, interconnected communities have been integral to the faith experience of Jews and Christians for centuries. For our ancestral Jewish brothers and sisters, the synagogue (from the Greek for meeting place) served as a neighborhood gathering place where people in the proximate area met to pray, share, discuss and strengthen one another in the faith. The three functions of the synagogue were illustrated in its Hebrew names, (1) Beth Ha Tefillah or House of Prayer; (2) Beth Ha Midrash or House of Study; and (3) Beth Ha kneset or House of Assembly or Socialization. The synagogue served the faith community year round, however all of the small synagogal groups traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate together the three major feasts of the liturgical year.
When Jesus came upon the scene, he also fostered the small community experience. He gathered a small group of twelve to travel with him, to share prayer, ministry, faith and values. He promised his followers that wherever a small Christian community of two or three would gather in his name, he would be present among them. After his death and resurrection, Jesus disciples missioned forth to establish small Christian communities wherever they found a welcome. As is indicated in todays Lucan narrative, great care was taken to maintain the wholesome and holy viability of these nascent foundations. To that end, the apostles frequently communicated with their converts, offering support, encouragement, counsel and reassurances.
During Paul and Barnabas first missionary foray (ca 46-49 C.E.) their love for Christ and the church motivated them to carry the gospel message from Syrian Antioch to several cities in Asia Minor. Readers of Luke should notice that their return visits to Lystra, Iconium and Pisidia in Antioch were quite daring in that the apostles had been maltreated in these cities before being forcibly expelled. Good pastors that they were, Paul and Barnabas knew that evangelization and baptism are but the first steps in a lifelong process of turning to and being transformed by Christ. In their subsequent visits to their small Christian communities, they continued to instruct their converts. Already in the first Christian century, believers understood that catechesis is a cradle to the grave endeavor.
Another worthwhile lesson as regards communal living is also reflected in this pericope. When their task had been completed (v. 26), the missionaries returned to their home base in Antioch (Syria). Not independent or autonomous evangelists, Paul and Barnabas had been sent forth by the gathered assembly (13:2). Their mission was considered as an extension of the communitys outreach to the world. Because of this they were accountable to the community that had sent them. Therefore they returned to relate all that they had done, careful to accredit their success and the increasingly universal character of the church to God, who had opened the door of the faith to the gentiles (v. 27).
Twentieth century believers, on the cusp of the third Christian millennium, have been wise in returning to their first century roots by establishing congregations that are a network of small Christian communities, bound together in prayer, faith, mutual support, service, missionary outreach and accountability. In a world increasingly suspicious of grandiose institutions and trickle down collegiality, the small Christian community would appear to be an apt and viable model to emulate.
Victims of the Third Reich, who endured unspeakable horrors at the hands of their persecutors, often consoled one another with imaginings of what life would be like after the war. Visions of family, friends, freedom, and home filled their minds and enabled them to forget, if only for a moment, the pain and squalor which comprised their tortured days and nights. Near the end of the first Christian century, the visions of John, the seer and author of Revelation, similarly provided his persecuted contemporaries with an oasis of relief. When life in this world seemed most untenable, Johns visions of a new heavens and a new earth provided a much needed source of hope. As Raymond E. Brown (An Introduction to the New Testament, Doubleday, New York: 1997) explains, the new world to which Revelation witnesses is not created by imagination, but images serve as an entrée. To a world that accepts only what it can see, hear, and feel, Revelation is the final scriptural gateway to what the eye has not seen and the ear not heard. Revelations new heavens and new earth should be understood as a forceful apocalyptic attestation that at every moment of human history, even those most desperate and hope-threatening, God is present!
Perhaps the key that best unlocks the symbolism of this particular vision is the divine proclamation, See, I make all things new! (v. 5). This promised newness reprised the prophecy of Isaiah, Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see I am doing something new! (Isaiah 43:18-19). For Isaiahs contemporaries, something new meant a return home, geographically to Judah (after the exile in Babylon) and spiritually to God. Memories of past sorrows would soon fade before the shining joy of a new beginning. For Johns contemporaries, something new meant an end to persecution and the beginning of a new and glorious life.
Something new would come to pass because God has chosen to dwell with humankind. Skene, the Greek word for dwelling place, is more correctly rendered as tent or tabernacle. In the Septuagint (LXX, Greek translation of Hebrew Scriptures), skene referred to the tent of meeting in the wilderness, where Moses communed with God. The cloud that led the people and which settled above the tent when the Israelites pitched camp was called by the Hebrew term, hkeckinah and signified the abiding presence of God with the people. Both words share the same root consonants, S, K, N. No doubt, John had both words and their significance in mind when he promised his readers that they would become the perpetual dwelling place of God.
Perhaps, the Johannine author also wished to assure his readers that the prophetic promises of Gods presence (Jeremiah 31:33, Ezekiel 37:27) would be fulfilled in them and that the divine pledge to replace sorrow with gladness would be theirs to enjoy (Isaiah 25:8; 35:10; 65:19). Contemporary participants in Johns vision may also find it a welcome source of hope. In a world fraught with injustice, persecution, conflict and struggle, it is comforting to remember that Gods assurances do not come with an expiration date; all that God has promised has been, is now and will forever be fulfilled.
Love is a word so freely bandied about in ordinary human conversation that its true meaning is in danger of being obscured. Love is misapplied when it is used to describe mere physical attraction or when it is offered as a reason for a one-night stand. Food, no matter how delicious, cannot be the object of love, nor can clothes however stylish they are. Neither do sports, hobbies, careers, cars or boats qualify as worthy of the dedicated commitment which is love. Love cannot be found in the entanglement of sex and deceit which constitutes the television soap opera or in the so called romance novel better known as pulp fiction. Authentic love is not a feeling produced by the emotions; it is a thoughtful, free and deliberate act of the will. Moreover, as is reflected in todays pericope from John, love is a commandment, not a suggestion, but a new commandment which is to be the identifying feature of the followers of Jesus.
In a homily on this gospel, Walter Burghardt (Speak The Word With Boldness, Paulist Press, New York: 1994) explained that love can be spoken of as a commandment because it is demanded by the covenant between Christ and Christian. With his own blood, Jesus forged and sealed the new and eternal covenant and those who would be his partners must accept its terms or stipulations, viz., to love one another as Jesus loves. The extent of Jesus love would be revealed in the selfless way he preached the good news, in the suffering he endured, in the rejection he accepted, in the service he lovingly rendered and ultimately, in his death on the cross.
Just as love for humankind motivated Jesus to be lifted up on the cross and just as Gods love for Jesus lifted him up from death to life, so must believers in Jesus be lifted up and lift up one another in love. In the words of the old hymn, Love lifted me! Love lifted me! When nothing else could help, Love lifted me! The lifting up which is Christian love gives food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothes to the naked and time and attentiveness to the imprisoned and the sick. The lifting up of love which is to be the hallmark of every follower of Christ spends itself in the service of others, without discrimination of any sort.
Notice also the context within which Jesus gave the commandment of love to his disciples. Near the end of his time with them (I am not going to be with you much longer) and at the precise moment when the synoptic gospels present their narratives of the institution of the Eucharist, the Johannine Jesus mandates his followers to a mission of love. As Thierry Maertens and Jean Frisque (Guide for the Christian Assembly, Fides Publishers, Inc., Notre Dame, IN: 1972) have noted, it is as if for him love was just as real a memorial of Christ as the Eucharist itself.
Finally, there is no little significance in the fact that Jesus called his a new commandment. The mandate is part of the new covenant, and new economy of salvation and represents a departure from the old covenant which confined love to ones neighbor, i.e., to another Israelite (Leviticus 19:18), or to resident aliens (Leviticus 19:35). Jesus new commandment called for love without limits, conditions, qualifies or prerequisites.
Unfortunately, the increasing number of unloved people in this world would seem to suggest that Jesus new commandment is just that, new and, as yet, not fully realized within the human experience of all of us. As this gospel is proclaimed today, and as Jesus mandate of love is renewed in our midst, so also must be our resolve to keep it be renewed and affirmed.
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Illustration prepared by Julie Lonneman.
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