Year C – 6th Sunday of Easter

On Unconditional Peace

(Acts 15:1-2, 22-29; Rev.21:10-14, 22-23; Jn.14:23-29)

In John’s Gospel today, Jesus is talking with his disciples just after the Last Supper.  He knows he’s going to die and that his disciples are scared and confused.  So he says to them, ‘Don’t be troubled or afraid … my peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.  A peace the world cannot give, this is my gift to you’.

The peace Jesus offers us isn’t the same as worldly peace.  Worldly peace typically is temporary; it’s fragile and it’s conditional.  In many places, peace is simply the absence of trouble and war, and it often depends on fear and armed force to enforce it.  Such peace usually has conditions attached, and it only lasts while these conditions are kept.  

That’s not genuine peace.

Jesus’ peace is different.  It’s unconditional; it’s an eternal and spiritual gift, and there are no strings attached. 

So how can we get some of this peace? 

Well, the first thing to note is that the peace of Christ doesn’t come from any human effort.  Some people think that all they have to do is properly organise the world around them, and then they’ll have peace.  But true peace isn’t external, it’s internal.  It’s not based on order or control.  It’s not based on fear or strength.  True peace is based on love and surrender.  It’s about letting go.

Jesus’ peace is like the calm at the bottom of the ocean.  Storms may be raging above, but there’s a wonderful calm deep below the surface.

The true peace of Jesus is a free gift that’s only available to those who have a close, loving relationship with him.  When you genuinely ask Jesus to enter into your heart and life, God’s peace will come flooding into your soul.

The second thing to note is that apart from any peace for ourselves, each of us also has a responsibility to help spread peace wherever we may be.

Think about this.  How much peace do we really bring into the lives of others?  Some people live under a delusion.  They think they’re living kind, considerate and sensible lives, but really they’re doing just the opposite.  Their actions and attitudes work against peace.  They’re actually making others unhappy and they’re unaware of the difficulties they’re causing.

Sometimes we think we’re doing the right thing, but we’re not.  Sometimes we miss the obvious.

When Jesus spoke about peace, the word he used was ‘shalom’ which means much more than peace as we know it.

Consider the case of Alfred Nobel.  He was a wealthy Swedish chemical engineer and inventor in the 1800s.  He spent much of his life developing things like artificial silk and synthetic rubber and leather.  He was very successful and fabulously wealthy.  He had more than 90 factories, and laboratories in 20 countries, and he held 355 patents.

In 1866 he invented dynamite.  He named it after dynamis, the Greek word for power.  But he didn’t expect it to be used for war.  He thought it would be used for peaceful purposes like construction – blasting rock and building tunnels and canals.  But he was wrong, and in 1870 it was used in the Franco-Prussian War … and in every other war since then.

In 1888, Alfred’s older brother Ludvig died.  A French newspaper thought it was Alfred himself who had died, and it published his obituary instead. It described him as the ‘merchant of death’ and said he’d become ‘rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before’.

Alfred was horrified.  He didn’t want his life to be remembered that way, so he decided to change it.  To relieve his conscience, he began supporting the international peace movement, and when he died in 1896, he left most of his wealth to fund the Nobel Prize, the award for scientists and writers who work to foster peace.

Alfred Nobel said that every person should have the chance to correct his own obituary midstream and to write a new one.

What about you?  What would you like your obituary to say?  Are you a peacemaker?  Or do you need to change the way you live?

When Jesus spoke about peace, the word he actually used was ‘shalom’, which means much more than peace as we know it.  ‘Shalom’ is a very rich Hebrew expression which speaks of completeness, wholeness, fulfilment and everything in life being as it should be. 

This kind of peace isn’t a place.  It’s a loving relationship with God, and this is the free gift that Jesus offers us today. 

‘My peace I give to you,’ says Jesus. 

Let’s accept this wonderful gift with a warm, open heart and very grateful hands.

Year C – 5th Sunday of Easter

On the Four Loves 

(Acts 14:21-27; Rev.21:1-5; Jn.13:31-33a, 34-35)

In St John’s Gospel today, Jesus and his disciples have just finished the Last Supper, and Jesus knows he’s leaving soon.  He’s worried about his disciples, so he gives them a gift. He says, ‘I give you a new commandment; love one another just as I have loved you’.

He calls this a new commandment. But why is this new?  Haven’t we heard it before?

In Leviticus 19, God gives Moses some laws to help people live a holy life.  These laws are often called the Holiness Code, and at the heart of them is the commandment to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (19:18).  We have heard that one before.

Matthew’s Gospel (Mt.22:37-40) also has something similar.  When the Pharisees ask Jesus which commandment’s the greatest, he says, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself’. 

So, yes these are similar to Jesus’ new commandment.  How then is it new?

Well, when the Book of Leviticus tells people to love their neighbour, the standard it sets for how to love others is ‘as you love yourself’.  It’s the same in Matthew’s gospel – love your neighbour as yourself

After the Last Supper, however, when Jesus introduces his new commandment, he raises the bar considerably.  Now his disciples must love each other, as I have loved you.  The standard for loving is now much higher – as I have loved you, not as you love yourself.  That’s a challenge for anyone.

So what kind of love is Jesus talking about?

When the Beatles sang ‘All you need is Love’, they thought that love is simply love, and all you need is lots of it to solve the world’s problems.  But there are actually many kinds of love.  There’s romantic love, tough love, platonic love, puppy love, true love, maternal love, paternal love and brotherly love … The list goes on.

So what kind of love is Jesus talking about?

Well, the Bible refers to four kinds of love.  In Greek, each one has a different name [i].

Jesus shows us what agape really means when he washes his disciples’ feet

Storge (STOR-jay) is family love. It’s the natural love parents have for their children, and the Bible gives several examples.  In Genesis there’s the love between Noah and his family, and in the Gospels there’s the love Martha and Mary have for their brother Lazarus.

Eros is sensual and passionate love, and in the Old Testament it’s portrayed in the Song of Solomon, and St Paul talks about it in 1 Corinthians 7:8-9.

Philia is close friendship or brotherly love, and this word often appears in the New Testament.  In Romans 12:10, St Paul uses it when he tells Christians to ‘Love one another with mutual affection…’

Agape, however, is different. It’s the supreme kind of love.  It’s selfless, unconditional and sacrificial love, and it’s the way that Jesus loves his Father and indeed all of humanity.  St John uses the word agape when he says that ‘God is love’ (1Jn.4:8).  And Jesus shows us what agape really means when he washes his disciples’ feet, when he feeds the hungry, when he heals the sick and the blind, and especially when he sacrifices himself on the Cross.

So Jesus is telling his disciples – that’s us – to love each other with agape, just as he loves us.  That means selfless, unconditional and self-sacrificial love.

I expect we’d all like to love like that, but it’s not easy is it?  We’re all so human, it often seems impossible.  So what’s the secret?  How can we love like Jesus?

Jesus answers that question in Mark 10:27, when he says, ‘With man it is impossible, but not with God.  For all things are possible with God’.

He then further explains what he means in John (15:1-10) in his parable of the vine and branches.  That’s where Jesus says, ‘Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.  I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing’.

So that’s the answer.  We can’t love like Jesus on our own.  It’s impossible.  But we can, if we invite Jesus to become part of us. 

We can all love each other with agape, just as Jesus loves us.

[i] C.S. Lewis explains these terms in his book The Four Loves, Harcourt, Brace: New York, 1960.

Year C – 4th Sunday of Easter

On the Good Shepherd

(Acts 13:14, 43-52; Rev.7:9, 14-17; Jn.10:27-30)

Today’s Gospel is short – very short.  It only has 8 lines and 63 words, but its message is deep:  Jesus tells us he’s the good shepherd who leads his sheep to eternal life.

Some people don’t like being called sheep; they think they’re stupid animals. But sheep are smarter than we think.  Yes, they do have a strong flocking instinct, but that’s how they’ve learnt to protect themselves from predators. 

In fact, scientists tell us that sheep are sometimes smarter than monkeys. They can recognise colours and symbols, as well as faces and facial expressions.  They can also navigate complex mazes.

When Jesus said ‘My sheep hear my voice; I know them and they follow me’, he knew what he was talking about.  Every night in Palestine, shepherds gathered their animals into folds to protect them from danger.  Quite often several shepherds used the same enclosure, but the sheep never got mixed up. Each morning they really did recognise their shepherd’s voice.  The shepherd would walk off, talking to them or calling them by name, and they’d follow.  The sheep would never follow a stranger.

In his book, A Turtle on a Fencepost (1980), Allen C. Emery writes about the night he spent in the country with a shepherd who had two thousand sheep.  As the stars filled the night sky, the shepherd lit a bonfire to cook dinner and the sheepdogs slept in its warmth.

Suddenly Emery heard the call of a wild dog in the distance. The sheepdogs were off duty and the shepherd worried.  He got up quickly and tossed some logs onto the fire. 

In this firelight, Emery looked out at the sheep and saw thousands of little lights.  Emery writes, ‘I realized that these were reflections of the fire in the eyes of the sheep. In the midst of danger, the sheep weren’t looking out into the darkness … (they) were keeping their eyes set toward the shepherd’.

So, sheep are smarter than we think.  When there’s danger about, sheep always keep their eyes on the shepherd.

But sheep are also noble animals.

In ancient times, people thought there was a similarity between sheep and honourable men.  Back then, personal and family honour was critically important.  It was a man’s responsibility to protect his family’s honour, even to the point of death.  If there was any risk of death, then an honourable man was expected to suffer it in silence, without complaining.

Now, people noticed that that’s how sheep behave, because whether they’re being shorn for wool or prepared for slaughter, they’re always quiet.  It’s because of this that Isaiah (53:7) describes the ideal servant of the Lord as being ‘like a lamb that is led to the slaughter … like a sheep that before its shearers is silent’.

In other words, like sheep, good disciples don’t readily complain.  And Jesus never complained when he suffered.

Like sheep, we must learn to recognise his voice and follow him.

Sheep, then, are smart and noble creatures.  They deserve our respect.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus says that the Good Shepherd does three things for his sheep. Firstly, he knows his sheep well.  Secondly, he keeps them safe from harm, and thirdly, he leads his followers to everlasting life.  He says his sheep know his voice and they follow him.

This means that Jesus knows each of us personally.  He loves us and protects us, and wants to lead us to eternal life.  And, like sheep, we must learn to recognise his voice and follow him.  

But it’s not so easy to hear Jesus’ voice these days, is it?  There’s so much noise about and life isn’t easy.  There are wolves out there and people are vulnerable.  If we drift through life like lost or stray sheep, then we’re certainly in danger.

But if we keep our eyes on the Good Shepherd, when we listen to his voice and follow his lead, then we’re sure to be led not only to safety, but also to greener pastures.

So, sheep are smart and noble creatures. 

Today, on Good Shepherd Sunday, let’s listen for the voice of the one true Shepherd.  He’s calling us.

It’s time to follow him.

Year C – 3rd Sunday of Easter

On Feeding my Lambs

(Acts 5:27-32,40-41; Rev.5:11-14; Jn.21:1-19)

In today’s Gospel Jesus is at Tabgha, a quiet beach on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee.  Jesus knew it well.  It’s 3km from Capernaum and his Sermon on the Mount and his miracle of the loaves and fishes occurred nearby.

In ancient times Tabgha was called Heptapegon (‘Place of Seven Springs’). These are hot springs that still flow into the lake today, feeding algae and attracting fish.

Peter and the disciples have been night fishing, but caught nothing.  At dawn, as they return to shore, someone calls out and tells them to cast their nets on the other side.  They don’t recognise Jesus, but he must have sounded important because they do what he says and they catch lots of fish.

This story’s very similar to Luke 5:1-11, when Jesus tells Peter, James and John to cast out into the deep and they catch a huge haul of fish.  Luke’s story is at the start of Jesus’ public ministry; but today’s story is from John’s last chapter. 

Both stories use fish as a metaphor for souls.  In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus calls on his disciples to be ‘fishers of men’.  In John’s Gospel, we’re told that they caught 153 fish.  Many have wondered what this number means.  Some think it refers to Aristotle’s teaching that there were 153 species of fish in the sea.  If that’s true, then this number represents all people and Jesus is telling his disciples to bring everyone to him through his Church.

So, Jesus is there on Tabgha’s pebbly beach, cooking a breakfast of fish and bread over a fire.  He invites his disciples to join him.  He then takes the bread, blesses it and gives it to them.  This meal is clearly Eucharistic.  Jesus shared many meals with his disciples, and whenever they ate with him and listened to him, they were nourished and their relationship with Jesus was strengthened.

Today at Tabgha there’s a small grey-stone church by the shore.  It’s called St Peter Primacy.  Inside, in front of the altar, there’s a large flat limestone rock called ‘Mensa Christi’ (‘Table of Christ’).  Tradition tells us that this is where Jesus cooked and ate this meal with his disciples.

Now, after breakfast, Jesus takes Peter aside and asks him three times, ‘Do you love me?’  Each time Peter replies, ‘Yes, Lord’.  Jesus is giving Peter a chance to undo the three times he denied him. 

But Jesus does something else as well.  He says to Peter, if you really love me, then ‘feed my lambs’ and ‘take care of my sheep’.  With these words he’s telling Peter to lead his universal Church, and that’s why that little church in Tabgha today is called ‘St Peter Primacy’.  Peter is given responsibility for leading Jesus’ church.

We know that Peter takes that command seriously, because in our first reading today he confronts the Sanhedrin, the Temple leaders who crucified Jesus.  Previously Peter was terrified of them; that’s why he denied Jesus three times.  But now he’s a changed man.  He’s filled with authority and, empowered by the Holy Spirit, he stands up to them.

Well, then, do something about it. Take care of my people.

So what does all this mean for us?

Well, the Gospels weren’t written for the Apostles.  They were written for you and me, and what applied to Jesus’ disciples back then also applies to us today.

Just as his disciples often ate with Jesus, so we do the same at every Mass.  When the disciples ate with Jesus and listened to him, they were nourished and their relationship with him grew.  We should seek to do the same.

Remember what Jesus says, ‘My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.  He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I in him… this is the bread come down from heaven … he who eats this bread will live forever’ (Jn.6:55-58).  Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist.

And just as Jesus asks Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ He asks us the same question. 

He asks, ‘Ellie, do you love me?’ and ‘Frank, do you love me?’ and ‘Joe, do you love me?’

And when we reply like Peter, ‘Yes Lord, I love you’, he also replies to us, ‘Well then, do something about it.  Take care of my people’.

When we receive Jesus’ Real Presence in the Eucharist, he’s also calling us, just as he called Peter, to go and take care of his people.