Saturday, May 5, 2018

Surrendering to his love

Back in 2009 a neighbour who was not a believer, and certainly had no time for ‘organised religion’, asked me in the supermarket near where our church met in Brisbane (Australia), ‘What makes you lot tick?’ She had noticed the wide variety of people who, after Holy Mass each Sunday, would converge on a particular al fresco coffee shop for refreshments and a chat that often resulted in most of us staying for lunch!

I said to her, ‘It’s simple, really; we’re just ordinary people who have come to know for ourselves the unconditional, forgiving love of the risen Jesus. Encountering him has renewed our lives, and made us into brothers and sisters.’

She was quite interested, and not put off by an honest and forthright answer! So, in the short conversation that followed, I assured her that like everyone else, followers of Jesus sometimes feel miserable, make really big mistakes, fail disastrously, argue with each other, and face enormous difficulties every now and then.

Yet we also know that our encounter with God’s love gives to our complicated human lives a deep-seated ‘joy.’ Jesus speaks about this on the night before he dies (John 16:22). S. Paul teaches that it is one of the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives (Galatians 5:22). This joy is an underlying reality, even when things are not working out well for us, and even when we feel as if we are being crushed by our circumstances. 

So, we’re not talking about a flippant, superficial ‘cheesy’ happiness! We’re talking about an awareness of a Presence, a ‘mystical’ sense of belonging, formed in us by the love that has touched our lives. This love, and the joy it produces, helps us to persevere in times of real trouble, anxiety and stress. We even find ourselves able to say with Nehemiah in the Old Testament - who had more than his fair share of problems - ‘The joy of the Lord is my strength’ (Nehemiah 8:10).

That’s what makes us tick.

I said to my neighbour that at different points in our lives most people experience ‘little hints of transcendence’ - a sense of being drawn by a reality greater than ourselves into a relationship - in Christian language -  into ‘communion.’ This happens in all sorts of different ways. For some it’s a kind of mystical awareness; for others it might be the effect of art, music, beauty, goodness, or love; for still others it can be the result of a lifetime of intellectual agonising about the meaning of existence. Some people discover it when they attend Christian worship, or receive the sacraments or read the Bible. It can even in the midst of a great tragedy that we experience what can only be described as a surge of divine love trying to reach us. However it happens, it is reminiscent of the Biblical image of the risen Lord Jesus knocking on the door of our lives.

Sooner or later each of us has to decide whether or not to open that door and surrender to his love.

I do not know if anything came of the conversation with my neighbour. I moved from Brisbane not long afterwards. 

What I do know is that God has given you and me the terrible freedom to push him and his wonderful love away, out of our lives, because our ‘Yes’, our surrender to him, in order to be a real response of love, must be freely given, just as Mary’s ‘Yes’ was freely given when the angel came to her so long ago.

I do not underestimate the real turmoil deep within that many experience before eventually giving in to God’s love. We weigh things up, we struggle wth our faith. And when we do start to believe, we struggle even more with the challenge to hand the reins of our life over to the Lord and try to live according to his will. Charlotte Elliot (1789-1871) in her well-known hymn, ‘Just as I am’, manages to express both the struggle and the joy of surrender in words that have resonated with so many since her time:

Just as I am, though tossed about
With many a conflict, many a doubt,
Fightings within, and fears without,
O Lamb of God, I come.

Just as I am poor, wretched, blind;
Sight, riches, healing of the mind,
Yea all I need, in thee to find,
O Lamb of God, I come.

Just as I am, thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve:
Because thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!

Just as I am (thy love unknown
Has broken every barrier down),
Now to be thine, yea thine alone,
O Lamb of God, I come. 

Followers of Jesus don’t spend all their time looking back to this or that moment of surrender to God’s love, because we know that our being swept up in his love is an ongoing thing. As brothers and sisters together we surrender to God’s love each time we come to Mass, because it is in Holy Communion that he comes among us so completely, and we “feed on him in our hearts with thanksgiving.” We surrender to his love by praying and reading the Bible, by deepening our friendships in the church community, and by reaching out to the needy and distressed.

St Paul reminds us that it is because God pours his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5) we can “abound” in joy and hope.

And that brings us to the Gospel Reading for today, in which Jesus gives us his “new commandment” to love one another as he has loved us.

He goes on to say that the greatest manifestation of love is the sacrifice of one’s life for the sake of another. This was certainly the essence of his love for us. He died for us, “even death on the cross” (Philippians 2:8).

We know that ALL genuine love is sacrificial in one way or another.

Loving others as he has loved us not only involves staying open to the Holy Spirit. It means embracing the way of the cross, denying ourselves, learning to give in to God when HIS will crosses OUR will, such as when he challenges us to be loving towards someone who has deeply hurt us, or someone we don’t particularly like. We all know what a struggle that can be. But God has reserved special blessings for those so consumed by HIS love that they are determined to persevere in reaching out to others.

In what I think is one of the loveliest passages of the New Testament, Jesus says to those who will do this that he now calls them his “friends” rather than his “servants.”

When we really live according to the “new commandment” of love in relation to our families, our colleagues, our brothers and sisters in Christ and our enemies, the fruit we bear will last for eternity.


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