Tuesday 12 September 2023

Little children, love one another

The tomb of St John at Ephesus (photo Patrick Commerford)

Reflection at Morning Worship for the Community of Brendan the Navigator on Tuesday 12th September 2023

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another”, so says St Paul to the Romans (13:8-14), echoing Jesus’s words in St John’s Gospel (13:34), “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

This reminds me of a lovely story bequeathed to us by St Jerome, who is best remembered as the man who first translated the whole Bible into Latin in around 400AD. Known as the Vulgate, his translation was considered authoritative by the undivided Western Church.

Jerome tells the story that St John, the beloved disciple, continued to preach in Ephesus well into his 90s, even when he was so enfeebled with old age that he had to be carried into the Church on a stretcher. When he was no longer able to deliver a long discourse, his custom was to lean up on one elbow on each occasion and to say simply: “Little children, love one another.” This continued even when he was on his deathbed.

Then he would lie back, and his friends would carry him out. Every week in Ephesus, the same thing happened, again and again. And every week it was the same short sermon, exactly the same message: “Little children, love one another.”

One day, the story goes, someone asked him about it: “John, why is it that every week you say exactly the same thing, ‘Little children, love one another’?” And John replied: “Because it is enough.”

If you want to know the basics of living as a Christian, there it is in a nutshell. All you need to know is this: “Little children, love one another.”

After John’s death in the year 100AD when he was about 94 years old, he was buried on a hillside above the city of Ephesus. Later a great basilica was erected over the reputed site of his tomb. It has long been ruined, and was deserted when I visited it many years ago, but someone had left a fresh posy of wildflowers on the plaque marking the site of John’s last resting place.

St Paul goes on to urge the Roman Christians to wake up: ‘For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light’.

Paul does not only speak to the Romans - he speaks to each one of us, I suggest. As an older person, I feel this ever more strongly, as I realise the days left to me to earn my salvation are ever fewer. But I know that I will not go far wrong if I follow the way of Christ, loving God and loving my neighbour as myself.

Let us rejoice in God’s wisdom, the image of God’s goodness in the holy soul of St John, and say with him, ‘Little children, love one another’ – because it is enough.


Sunday 3 September 2023

Finding life by losing it

Address given at Templederry & St Mary's Nenagh on Sunday 3rd September 2023, the 13th after Trinity

‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block for me!’

What a shock it must have been for Peter to hear Jesus address him in these cutting words, as recorded by Matthew (16:21-28) in the reading we have just heard.

Peter had been the first to say, ‘You are the Messiah’, when Jesus had asked ‘Who do you say that I am?’ But now, ‘Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem … and be killed. Peter is shocked by Jesus’ words. Like most Jews of his day, he expected the promised Messiah to come as a great conqueror to destroy the gentiles – including the hated Romans - and to rule over a revived Kingdom of Israel. The Messiah would vanquish his foes, not be killed by them! So Peter remonstrates with Jesus: ‘Look here, Jesus, that can’t be right!’ he says - or words to that effect. Then Jesus turns on Peter and likens him to Satan.

Why was Jesus so hard on Peter, his great friend and disciple? Jesus knew that God’s way was not the way of violent earthly conquest, but the way of self-sacrificing love. He needed to teach Peter and the other disciples to change their thinking. I feel sure Jesus didn’t want to die a painful death, but he must have realised this was the inevitable outcome of what God called him to do. He was determined to face it bravely. But Peter tries to argue him out of it, in an echo of Satan’s tempting in the wilderness.

Isn’t this often the way it is? When we’ve made up our minds what is the right thing to do, even at a cost to ourselves, our friends and loved ones may try to talk us out of it. The tempter can be the very person dearest to us! Yet we must not allow even the pleading voice of love to stop us from doing God’s will. This surely is what Jesus felt that day – no wonder he responded as he did.

Jesus immediately seized the moment to show the disciples his way, the way of the cross, how to find life by losing it. It is worth reflecting on his words, which go to the very heart of our Christian faith.

 If any want to become my followers’, says Jesus, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

Jesus’s honesty is startling, isn’t it? No one can ever say Jesus lures his disciples to follow him on false pretences! He does not offer them – he does not offer us - an easy life or a comfortable way to God. Like other great leaders, he calls us as Churchill did to ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’. But again like a real leader, he does not call us to do anything more than he was prepared to do himself.

First Jesus calls us to ‘deny ourselves’, to say no to our own selfish instincts. We must do God’s will, not our own will, to the best of our ability, in all things.

But more than simply practicing self-denial, Jesus tells us we must be prepared to take real risks – even to risk our very lives – if that is what God, through our conscience, tells us is right.

For those who want to save their life will lose it’, says Jesus, ‘and those who lose their life for my sake, will find it.

Jesus focuses our attention with this great paradox: to save life is to lose it, and vice-versa.

The very essence of life is in risking it and spending it, not in saving it and hoarding it. If we live selfishly, always thinking first of our own security, profit and comfort, not of others, then we are losing life all the time. But if we spend life for others, if we follow Jesus’s way of loving self-sacrifice, we are winning life all the time.

The truth is that the only way we can find a life that matters is by losing it in the love of God and the love of our neighbours. That is the way of Jesus, that is the way of God, and that is the way of happiness too.

For what will it profit them’, says Jesus, ‘if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

I’m sure you, like me, can think of people who are outwardly hugely successful, but who in another sense are living a life that is not worth living. In business, they may have sacrificed honour for profit. In politics, they may have sacrificed principle for popularity. In their personal lives, they may have sacrificed their deepest relationships for their own ambitions or desires. Whatever the reason, such people are usually not comfortable inside their own skin. They often regret their bad choices.

It is a matter of values really - Jesus is asking us where our values lie. As he says elsewhere, you should store up your treasures in heaven, not on earth, for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Our values should be God’s values, as Jesus reveals them to us, not the false values of worldly success.

‘For the Son of Man’, says Jesus, is to come with his angels in the glory of the Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.

Jesus knows that many people do not like what he says and how he behaves. He stands up for the poor, the despised, the rejected, and he befriends sinners. And the scribes and the Pharisees – the pious and the respectable - attack him for it. With these words Jesus warns his disciples that they will be judged for their actions.

It is a simple truth: we cannot expect to share with Jesus the joy of shaping the world into the place God means it to be, if we are not prepared to act on Jesus’s message of loving self-sacrifice.

So, to sum up, when I reflect on these words recorded by Matthew, I hear Jesus’s voice calling me. Calling me down through the ages:

  • to be ready to take risks to do God’s will, rather than my own;
  • to find true life and happiness by losing my life in the service of God and others;
  • to live my life by God’s values, not the false values of worldly success.
  • to follow joyfully Jesus’s way of loving self-sacrifice.

Let us pray for the grace to respond to Jesus’s voice:

O God,
whose Son has shown the way of the cross
to be the way of life:
transform and renew our minds
that we may not be conformed to this world
but may offer ourselves wholly to you
as a living sacrifice
through Jesus Christ our Saviour;
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen