Acts 8:5–8, 14–17
1 Peter 3:15–18
Jesus is going away. The disciples clearly feel this impending loss. A gap is opening up between themselves and Jesus. They are troubled. What will this loss mean? Like many losses, it means the one known and loved, the one we ate with, laughed and cried with is gone, is simply not here. The disciples know that Jesus is going to die. And death of any kind means that there will be someone missing. There will be the pain of absence. And if death is the reason for the loss, it is not a matter of going for a while and then coming back. No, death means the end. The gap in the relationship will not be filled in; it is permanent. Death brings about a permanent loss.
As the disciples are gathered with Jesus after the Last Supper, that element of being the last meal shared together sinks in. That Jesus’ departure is a departure to death carries with it a finality as death does for all of us. There is no turning back, there is no coming back. Around that table in that upper room, the absence of Jesus presses in on his small band of disciples. Jesus will be missed. They will not see him; his physical body will not be with him. They will feel alone, even abandoned. Jesus understands this well; he acknowledges that they are already feeling like orphans. No one will be there to teach them, to walk with them, to lead them. Alone in the world, which as Jesus says, does not understand them.
It is in this atmosphere of deep loss, of a death that will end the physical presence of Jesus, that Jesus speaks the words of today’s Gospel. The disciples are weighed down by loss and particularly by the physical absence of Jesus that they know death will bring. We, too, know this sense of loss. We certainly know it when someone whose love we have felt dies; we experience this sense of someone missing in our life when someone we love is no longer there to be touched, to be seen, to be held. But we have other senses of absence: when someone we love moves away permanently; when our son or daughter goes off to college or gets married and begins a new life. Life as we knew it is simply not the same. A presence is gone. Perhaps we weep.
Jesus is trying to get us to move away from a presence that is always physical to a new kind of presence. We can call it spiritual yet at the same time it is very real. Jesus will even say that it is more real than if he were here walking among us. The key to presence in the midst of absence is relationships. Jesus may physically be absent from his followers, and indeed he is. We do not see him at all, ever. But Jesus’ relationship with us and our relationship to him does not need his physical presence to be real and authentic. Jesus relationship with his disciples continues after his physical departure.
Jesus has to leave us. If he does not leave his disciples, then the very relationship, the very bond that he came to share with us will not be complete. Jesus makes it clear that his life’s energy and strength, the love that keeps him going, is his relationship with his Father. Jesus’ death may look like a disaster and loss to us, but in reality, for him, it is a passage into the deep intimacy and love that Jesus and the Father have. But for that love to be true, Jesus must be with and in the Father. Jesus’ death is not an entrance into darkness and loss; it is an entrance into life and love. Jesus is going into the heart or bosom of the Father. That is his home that is his dwelling place. And that is what he came to share with us. He says that very clearly today. What Jesus came to share is the dynamic of a relationship.
The heart of that relationship is love: each giving himself to the other faithfully and fully. Jesus enters death and leaves this world because he loves the Father. The Father loves Jesus because Jesus is willing to undergo this death that looks to us like the end. They both love each other for our sake. This intimacy they cultivate and share is made visible; their love becomes naked as it were so that you and I can see and be part of this love they have for one another. Jesus is not a solitary figure, a man of power and might: he is loved and he loves; he loves his father and you and I.
Each Sunday of Easter we are offered some view of what resurrection means and where we experience it even now. The resurrection is not just something for the future. Jesus was loved to life by the Father in our time. Resurrection is an event for us now. Jesus is trying to get his disciples to understand this. New life he says is found in the love that brought me through death into life for your sake. You and I, he says to us, touch that new life when we come to stand in Jesus’ love. When we are caught by his love and in turn come to love him because he loved us to death, then we are truly alive.
Our loving Jesus and our loving each other as Jesus loved us, without condition, totally and selflessly, is a sign and an experience that the resurrection is happening. Our loving of Jesus and each other is a profession of faith in the resurrection. The relationship of love we have with Jesus and one another is a permanent relationship. Relationships are not killed in death. No, says Jesus, my loving you and your loving me do not end because you do not see and touch me. Our love for one another is stronger than ever because I will go and enter fully into the love the Father has for me.
Jesus stirs up love in us today. Jesus sets before us his loving us unto death and his Father’s loving him for loving us and says: keep that loving alive and you will live. The good news we hear today is that there is a circle of love. The circle of love begins with the Father and the Son but the good news is that Jesus has brought us into that circle of love. His resurrection has completed that circle.
Jesus command is to keep that circle of love active. Now that circle of love embraces us on earth. We keep that circle of love living and active when we do what Jesus did once for us: he got down and washed our feet. When he got up, he said to us: you do the same to one another. It is a new commandment: keep our love moving. Keep the love flowing! This washing of each other’s feet, this embrace of each other’s wounds, this love that bends over and goes down to the weakness in each of us, this washing that leads to forgiveness and reconciliation: all this is what Jesus commands us. This is where his heart lies. And if that is where his heart, loved by the Father lies, then that love is at the heart of being a Christian. It is intimate, it is fulfilling, it is life giving. Living this chain of love is our way of saying, the Lord is alive, the Lord is here; he is in our midst.
Fr. Joel Macul OSB