Our second reading tells us that we should always be ready to explain our hope. But, what does a credible explanation look like? When the subject of hope or faith comes up, it is not always easy to know where to start.
Before I entered the seminary, I was having a chat with a mate who is not religious. He was going through an extremely challenging time in his life and he wanted to understand what I thought I was doing in entering the seminary. We spent quite some time trying to find common ground: was there something in his life that gave him the perspective that I was talking about? Eventually, I found the right question: I just asked him, what is most important to you? What structures your life, and gives it meaning? He replied immediately: my family – my wife and child. This was his true north. This was what was most true and what he judged everything else against. If something else matched up with the love he received from them and felt for them, then it could be true. But if something was contrary to that life, it was false.
This experience of a centre of one’s existence, an orientating reality, is a good place to start in discussing one’s faith. But how do we come across as credible? CS Lewis once wrote that the real way of mending someone’s taste is not to denigrate his present favourites but to teach him or her how to enjoy it better. I think this is probably the approach to faith that has the most credibility: begin by helping someone love what they love only better. However, the only way to do that is to have that experience myself. To know where to go and what to do to enrich the most precious aspects of our own lives. Fortunately for us, our gospel today, more broadly the section from which it comes, is one of our treasures to help us do just that.
Our gospel comes from Jesus’s final discourse. Jesus’s prayer is a bit like poetry: it should be known by heart. It should be known by heart because it reveals the heart. This prayer really should be completely familiar, utterly personal because what is being expressed here is just life, but life at its most profound. These passages should be both the window through which we see life and the doorway through which we enter more deeply into our lives. In fact, they should be our grammar: the very structure of how we experience and express our lives.
But the only way they can become like this is if we spend time with them and trust our lives to them. I mentioned during Holy Week that perhaps we could read all of John’s Gospel. Now I would like to suggest that we become deeply familiar with this section. Engage with it. Make it your own. See how it reveals your own life. And I’d like to suggest one way of making this gospel your own.
Like my friend, we should reflect on what is most central in our lives. We have to find our own sacramental moment. What is the experience in our lives that we trust most? What is the moment that just has to be true? What do I love most and am prepared to sacrifice the most for?
Once we have this, I suggest meditating on it in this way. Take these passages from John’s gospel – not just today’s but the whole of the final discourse – and make the following substitutions. First, replace the word Father with whatever you love. When you do this, though, remember exactly how you experience this love. It calls me, commands me. And so we need to keep this sense of relationship in mind.
The second substitution to make is to replace the person of Jesus with yourself. Again, this is not just any picture or memory of yourself: it is you when you are in the presence of whoever or whatever it is that you love. Again, remembering the desire to respond lovingly in return, the desire to remain in the moment of love, the desire to proclaim the glory of your love.
Finally, replace Jesus’s hearers, those he is speaking to in this gospel, with whoever it is that you want to share this experience with, whoever it is that you want to tell, whoever it is that you want to point out your beloved to. Like showing pictures of your child to someone. Or playing them a piece of music that you have heard.
Now, this experiment works best, the more personal the experience is. The more you trust to the gospel, the more it will reveal to you about the love that you are living. You will begin to experience a deeper, fuller love. And it will teach you to love better in response. Finally, it will show you what it is to share this love.
When this happens, though, you will be confronted by a major question. As you spend more and more time with it and more and more is revealed, you will wonder: is this gospel simply a work of art, is it just something that gives shape to an unarticulated part of my life, just another window onto a perspective I never knew existed? Or is it something more? Indeed, could this be the perspective of all perspectives? The Word that in fact allows all the other words to exist?
Last week, we heard Jesus claiming that he wasn’t just a way, but THE way. Throughout this section in John’s gospel, it is clear that Jesus is not saying that his experience of the Father is like my experience of my family, or like my experience of beauty. No. He is saying the Father’s love of him and his love of the Father IS this experience. It is LIFE. All else only has life to the extent that it participates in his life with the Father. All our moments are just glimpses into the eternal moment that he lives with the Father in the Holy Spirit.
And so the choice that faces us is: where do I start? Do I start with my life and then look at the gospel, or do I reverse it and start with the gospel? Does the gospel only reveal what is already there or does it do more? Does this gospel, and the life it details, in fact call this life into existence; deepen it, broaden it? The choice facing me in the gospel is: do I believe that life just is remaining faithful to this gospel, really is just found in keeping Jesus’s commandments?
It is only in making this choice that we finally become credible witnesses. It is only after making this decision in favour of Jesus, that we can not only help others to love their beloved better, but also help them come to know Love himself personally.
So, let’s pray that we take advantage of this great gospel, this gift. Let’s ask for the time and the courage and the perseverance to make this gospel our own. In the offertory in today’s Mass, let’s offer ourselves, that which is most personal, let’s lift up our hearts, trusting that what we will get in return is the life of Christ, that we might in turn be able to offer him to our brothers and sisters.