The year 2016 is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s writings. He described many remarkable characters – and villains. In Shakespeare’s play King Lear, Edmond is the very picture of cold vengeance and self-interest. By his actions, he destroys personal relationships, families, and a nation. Unfortunately, that is not a remote and distant thing: in our context, we encounter people showing that same cold selfishness in ways small or large. We can see it in Syria in this moment in 2016. If we look hard enough, we can see it in ourselves. One business writer said that the golden rule is that the one who has the gold makes the rules. Well, that is not the golden rule of Jesus, is it?
The love of God in Jesus (John 13v31-35) is different from that, and has completely the opposite effect. On 4 May, we remember Monnica from Tagaste, in North Africa. Her husband Patricius seems to have been of dissolute habits and a violent temper, and Monnica was widowed at the age of 40. She was the mother of three children. We know that the eldest one had a wild youth, and Monnica went to great lengths to pray for him and followed behind him to do everything she could to draw him to Christ. It was not long after his conversion to Christ that Monnica died, in 387 AD/CE. Her faith, love, and perseverance gave us that child, whom we know as St. Augustine, arguably the greatest theologian in Western Christianity. That is a lovely remembrance as we approach mother’s day.
So we can contrast the egotism of Edmond with the self-giving love of Monnica. There is nothing more important in our lives than love and relationships.
Turning to the gospel reading (John 13:31-35) Jerome said that in John’s old age his message was reduced to this: “My little children love one another” – a combination of phrases from verses 33 and 34 in our gospel reading today.
In this gospel, the love of Jesus gives birth to the Christian community, he constitutes it, and he forms it. After that, the love Jesus nurtures in us and between us is a sacrament; one which somehow through us actually represents Jesus himself in the world. As we follow Jesus through our various experiences, he transfigures us to become more loving than we were before. This appearance of the love of God in the world calls to those around us ever more than we did before.
If we follow Jesus, then we do not stop our loving at the boundaries of our families or even at the boundaries of the Christian community. In the New Testament there is the description of the love of God in Christ reaching out to everyone. God’s covenant love reaches out to us who are unworthy of it, and to everyone – to the middle and upper classes, to people suffering persecution, and to those who have been ejected from and rejected by their own communities for any reason. God’s covenant love in Jesus is what heals and unites all people.
There are around us unsung examples of people who have spent years in caring work in our local community: Terry Troia, for example, caring for the hungry and homeless of Staten Island; and other gatherings of people of faith, united in caring for those in need.
To be spiritually healthy and growing, each of us, from the youngest to the oldest, needs to find a way we can be persistently showing the love of Christ – not only in donations, but by our actual personal presence. One place in which caring work is needed is in visiting the sick, and those in prisons. I spent some time reading through cases of imprisonment in the world in absolutely appalling conditions. Each of us can choose to isolate ourselves from these things, as Shakespeare’s character Edmond did. Otherwise, we can take some step, however small or great, to do something about them.
It is common wisdom that God looks after those who look after themselves. At the beginning I referred to Shakespeare’s character Edmond, who looked after himself alone. The bible does not say that God looks after those who look after themselves – otherwise, God would have looked after Edmond. What is in the bible, in our gospel reading today, is that God glorifies himself in those who do not look after themselves alone, but who look after one another.
Let us be found among those caring not only for ourselves, and caring not only for our own families, but caring also for those beyond: even those that may seem to be our opponents.