Love one another as I have loved you
(Readings: Acts 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48; 1 John 4:7-10; John 15: 9-17)
Introduction to Mass
In the gospel reading today Jesus tells his disciples to love each other as he has loved them. Carrying out this commandment is the centre of Christian life, the heart of our imitation of Christ. To begin Mass let's think of the ways that we've been half-hearted or neglectful towards this basic facet of our faith, and ask for God's forgiveness and healing.
People sometimes develop an interest in religion - or as they might be more likely to say, in "spirituality" - which is really the outgrowth of a desire for personal contentment. They're looking for a bit of moral uplift, perhaps, something that appeals to their artistic tastes and generally enhances their sense of emotional fulfilment. This is often what they mean by "spirituality".
Sometimes they approach the Church in this state of mind, expecting to find a version of Christianity that will provide the whole range of satisfactions they're looking for. If - or when - their needs aren't catered for adequately they drift away again, often with a great sense of grievance for having wasted their time over something that they "didn't get anything out of".
These kinds of wrong expectations about religion show themselves particularly in regard to what the Christian faith has to say about love, which is the subject of the readings in today's Mass. It's here in particular that people today often approach Christianity with misguided assumptions and expectations about what Christ actually taught on the subject.
In our popular culture - in talk shows, in soap operas and films, in pop music, which I suppose to be fair we have to remember is aimed mainly at the adolescent mentality and the adolescent market - love is referred to constantly. Close relationships are constantly being described and portrayed, but in a way which is often sentimental and self-regarding - utilitarian, even.
Unfortunately, under the reign of consumerism there are a lot of influences that encourage people to load huge expectations of emotional fulfilment onto their personal relationships. On the one hand their relationship with their partner is expected to provide an oasis of caring and security in a harsh, cruel, competitive world, a private cocoon of happiness from which the rest of the world is shut out.
On the other hand, again especially in our consumer society, with all its incitements towards acquisitiveness and possessiveness, people can easily take a possessive and controlling attitude to their close relationships. Love is treated almost as a commodity, a product bought and paid for and owned.
If someone's partner fails to come up to the high expectations that are entertained, a possessive love easily turns to anger and destructiveness. We've grown used to reports in the news of different circumstances where that element of destructiveness in people's relationships comes to a tragic, violent end.
This of course is very far from the love which lies at the heart of Christianity. In Saint John's Gospel and his letters, and behind those, in Jesus' teaching and example, this obviously isn't the idea of love that we're told is the essence of God's character and the core of the Christian message.
When we're trying to grasp what the Bible means by love we have to think of those strange and slightly off-putting sayings of Christ about losing our life in order to find it, serving others rather than being served, placing ourselves last, so as to come first in terms of God's Kingdom.
Every motive or action that has a self-serving intention leads us away from genuine knowledge of God. It's when we start to think about other people's welfare, and when we discover how to be sensitive to their needs without any thought of reward or benefit for ourselves, that we're carrying out the commandment of love that Jesus gives in the gospel reading today.
It's then that our character starts to take on the likeness to God that he intended us to have. And it's then that we can see how important a part love plays in our vocation to grow in holiness - at least in the Christian sense of holiness.
Far from being an attitude that's only relevant to our closest relationships this Christian idea of love that Saint John is writing about comes into play in the way we treat everyone.
When we react with patience towards individuals we find annoying, treating them gently and controlling our aggression or our desire to wound; when we make allowances for other people's weaknesses (since we're far from perfect ourselves); when we get into the habit of considering other people's welfare rather than demanding what we think are our own entitlements: these are all different aspects, or different concrete examples, of Christ's commandment to love one another the way he has loved us.
These are the kinds of attitudes and the ways of treating people that holiness, in our understanding, consists of.
It's important to realise that when Christ talks about love he doesn't mean the same thing that our modern culture means. In fact commitment to Christian faith means that we have to take a critical attitude towards the way that love is usually portrayed and understood in secular culture.
And the other important thing for us to realise is that, rather than being something which only applies to the people we're closest to, love is the basic Christian virtue, the basic Christian principle. When we're open to God's influence love becomes the main principle that gradually shapes our whole character and affects the way we treat everyone we're involved with.
Those, basically, are the two lessons I would take away from the readings for this sixth Sunday in Easter.