In our readings for today we hear that “God is love” and we must “love one another” as Jesus loves us. This is impossible. I wake up every morning begging God to help me think, speak, and act with love, and I end every day reflecting on the various ways I did not think, speak, or act with love. Although I have seen a little improvement over the past decades, I know there will always be ample room for improvement in my willingness and readiness to love others.
Part of my problem is sheer temperament: I’m super-critical and easily annoyed by irrational behavior, which is not to imply that I always act rationally myself. I am, therefore, particularly impressed by people who manage to get along with just about everyone, including people who raise my blood pressure. You might know such gracious people or be one of them yourself. These people put us at ease, help us laugh, compliment others for their character traits or their successes, and convey genuine care. Perhaps their most admirable strength is their ability to find something good in everyone and to celebrate it when they find it.
These good people offer me a primary example of how to love: discover who people are. Listen for what people care about, what they’re worried about, what they need and what they fear and what they cherish. As I keep trying to love others as God has loved us, I know I’ll make a little more progress if I listen less to what I think of people and more to who they really are.
In both Jewish and Gentile writings people who were revered were sometimes portrayed as having been taken up into heaven. Their ascension was a metaphor for divine approval. Luke draws on this imagery to show not only that God approves of Jesus but that Jesus shares God’s power.
The apostles Peter, James, John, and Paul are probably familiar to us, but Barnabas? Even if we recognize his name, we might not know anything about him, yet he played a critical role in spreading the gospel. As we hear in our first reading, the followers of Jesus hesitated to welcome Paul (aka Saul) because he had previously persecuted them. So Barnabas “took charge” and “brought him to the apostles.” Later, Barnabas sought Paul out and took him to Antioch, where the two men preached the gospel for a year (Acts 11:25-26). After that the two went from place to place, spreading the gospel.
Then something happened. Barnabas and Paul quarreled (Acts 15:36-41). Barnabas wanted an acquaintance of theirs, Mark, to join them, but Paul refused. During their first missionary journey, Mark had left them early on, though we don’t know why. Paul seems to have thought that Mark was unfit for missionary work. The quarrel between the two men was so serious that Barnabas simply took Mark and went home. Paul then chose Silas and continued his quite successful missionary work.
I sympathize with Barnabas. Sometimes the most impassioned people, like St. Paul, can be quite difficult to work with. Sometimes we want a familiar face as we set off to undertake challenging work. And sometimes it’s just plain hard to discern the best course of action in a given situation. For any or all of these reasons good people sometimes abandon good plans. Sometimes those good people are us. At other times, though, we see a good person struggling to implement a good plan and it’s our turn to help.
The only commandment Jesus gives in John’s Gospel is love one another. Before giving it, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples (13:1f). He assumes the role of a slave in order to help his followers understand the self-giving love to which he calls them. His startling gesture points ahead to his crucifixion.
Last Sunday I saw a thirty-second video in which a sheep was pulled out of a long, narrow ditch that looked more like a cleft or rift in the earth. After a young man freed the frightened animal, it jumped away, dashed forward several meters in a sort of swerving daze, then promptly plummeted right back down into the same ditch. The video ends there, the sheep trapped almost exactly as before, the young man looking on.
The video is absolutely hilarious. It also provides fodder suitable for our annual celebration of “Good Shepherd Sunday.” I chuckle at the video and consider all the ways I’ve acted similarly, repeating my own sins and mistakes, getting stuck or trapped in the same situations because I haven’t yet changed my behavior or the ways in which I respond to particular challenges. Fortunately for me there are no Youtube clips of my repeated blunders. Unfortunately for me those blunders are rarely funny. Mostly they’re regrettable.
At a certain point in our lives, those blunders also become avoidable. Although we count ourselves among the sheep of Jesus’ flock, that’s no excuse to act like an actual sheep, to neglect our capacity for wisdom and compassion and justice. While we remain subject to our Shepherd, we share our Lord’s task of shepherding ourselves and each other, of guiding each other away from dark and dangerous clefts, of protecting each other from harm, and of alerting each other to the voice of the one who calls us to give our lives for each other as he has given his life for us.
One of the least sensitive things we can say to someone who is grieving is, “You need to move on.” Pain isn’t something we can detach and leave behind. We don’t “move on” from grief; we learn how to bear it. The same is true for people who are traumatized by war or hunger, abuse or neglect. The same is true for those who are attacked because they’re gay or transgender, black or brown or Asian. We don’t “move on” from such suffering. Instead we learn to integrate that pain, that woundedness, into our lives. Those who seem stuck in their pain, especially those who seem dangerously stuck, need more and wiser help than a mere exhortation to “move on.”
Did the risen Jesus move on? In John’s Gospel the risen Jesus invited Thomas to touch his wounds. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus “showed them his hands and his feet.” Both evangelists make it clear that the disciples were seeing neither a ghost nor someone other than Jesus. By drawing our attention to Jesus’ wounds, the evangelists also invite us to reflect on what we believe will happen to our own wounds when we enter union with God. We might expect all of our past suffering to be completely wiped away and forgotten. We might think we move on from our earthly past to an entirely new future. The wounds of the risen Jesus challenge this expectation.
Though risen, Jesus still bears the imprint of his crucifixion. His wounds and the rejection, isolation, ridicule, and violence that they symbolize are now constitutive of his identity. They are inseparable from his risen life. It’s not as if he can look down at his palms and wonder what those weird scars are. When we look to the risen Jesus as a model to follow, when we appeal to him for wisdom and courage, we are reaching out to someone who has incorporated his wounds into his new life. Jesus has taken whatever bitterness, resentment, rage or urge for vengeance he could have felt and transformed it all into a renewed mission to love us and our world and to draw us into new life, too. Our hope and our prayer is that Christ will help us to transform our own wounds — not only in the life to come but also in the lives we lead now.
Those who tried and executed Jesus have arrested two of his disciples, Peter and John, for proclaiming that Jesus is risen. Although Peter and John fled and hid themselves during Jesus’ passion, now they speak with remarkable boldness. The cripple is a man Peter healed (3:1f).
Once when some friends of mine and I were hanging out, they told me how Greg, who was with us at the time, always missed the big, exciting plays in a baseball game because he’d be in the bathroom. They joked that they wanted him to watch the whole game from the bathroom so that the team they favored would win.
Thomas, called Didymus, one of the Twelve, would have sympathized with Greg. When the risen Jesus appears to his disciples, Thomas isn’t there. Whether he’d gone in search of the facilities or made a grocery run, we’ll never know. When the disciples tell Thomas that Jesus came and spoke with them, Thomas doesn’t believe them. His skepticism is entirely understandable: no one had ever risen from the dead. Thomas hoped in a future resurrection, but he didn’t expect Jesus to turn up before then.
When Jesus shows up the second time, he invites Thomas to probe his wounds. Although paintings of this story often portray Thomas as touching Jesus, nothing in the passage indicates that he does. On the contrary, Thomas immediately offers the loftiest exclamation of belief in the whole Gospel. He worships Jesus, calling him, “My lord and my God!”
No one likes to be wrong. When we learn that we were wrong about something, we feel foolish, embarrassed. We try to make excuses or blame others. It takes real humility to confess our error fully and immediately. Against today’s backdrop of misinformation and conspiracy theories, we celebrate St. Thomas both for his skepticism and for his immediate, wholehearted confession of what he learned was true.
Our Old Testament doesn’t contain verse after verse of detailed information about Jesus. If it did, more people would have accepted Jesus and the disciples would have been waiting for him to appear. There are, however, major themes running through the Jewish scriptures that Jesus embodied.