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Homily for 6th Sunday Easter, Year B, 2024

That last line of the gospel is a bit strange. Jesus saying, “You are my friends if you do what I command you”, makes us question his idea of friendship. Doesn’t commanding someone immediately define the relationship as anything but friendly? Sounds like that Simpsons character, Troy McClure, and his self-help video, “Get confident, stupid.” The message seems to subvert itself. Doesn’t Jesus commanding us immediately undermine the equality that Jesus is referring to, the equality which is necessary in friendship? So, how do we make sense of what Jesus is saying here? What kind of relationship is he referring to?

Well, I think education gives us a pretty good example. Education at home and education at school. Parents cannot be friends with their children, at least initially. Teachers cannot be friends with their students, at least initially. This is because in both cases there is an inequality that must be remedied. I am not talking about the fundamental equality we all have as being created in the image of God. And I am not talking about an unjust inequality. I am talking about the relative inequality that is basic to the fact that we all need to grow, physically, intellectually, spiritually. It is the inequality of someone having something that the other person does not have.

Parents should have more experience and wisdom than their children. Teachers should know more than their students. The job of parents is to raise children. The job of teachers is to teach students. Parents and teachers exist in this sense because they recognise the inequality and want to address it. They want to pass on what they have, share and give that the other person might become an equal. It is only after these jobs have been done, that real friendship can emerge. A friendship premised on equality.

Moreover, the very idea of education gives us a further insight into the nature of the equality of friendship. Education at home at school or wherever opens up the world and expands horizons. This, I am sure, is a familiar experience. Students can move out of small rooms they didn’t know they were in, into larger landscapes. Students learn new perspectives that give them freedom in relation to their old perspective. Students receive newfound control of aspects of their life that allows them to imagine new possibilities.

The job of the parent, the job of the teacher, in different ways, then is to allow the child, the student to grow in freedom. Friendship requires the equality of freedom. It is only when we give this gift that we can become friends. 

But after a moment’s reflection, we soon realise that a major part of giving the gift is teaching the student how to receive it. I’ve mentioned before a precious memory I have of one of my nephews at Christmas. When he was really young, he was only just beginning to understand gift-giving. But not really. Whenever we gave him a present, he would take it to his mum to see what he should do with it. She would get excited; he would mimic the excitement.  They would then open the present together, and then she would show him how to use it. Finally, she would tell him to go and say thank you to the relevant person. She was teaching him how to receive a gift. 

Again, I am sure this a familiar story. We all know when we are in a great lesson. We can all recognise the hours spent trying to work out the perfect conditions for imparting the lesson the teacher wants to give, considering the different circumstances and learning behaviours of different students, what is likely to motivate and what makes a lesson memorable.

And I think this is what ties our gospel together. This is what the Church wants for her children. The freedom that we want to inculcate in the end is a freedom from ego, a freedom from self. The freedom we want to give is the freedom to lay down one’s life. This is the ultimate freedom. 

However, this laying down of one’s life is also what creates the atmosphere that encourages each of us to receive the gift. Jesus washing our feet encourages us to follow his commands. The love that my sister-in-law constantly shows my nephew, the love that a teacher shows a student through care in the lesson, communicates the benefit of the lesson better than anything else. More than that, in the end, this laying down of one’s life through the work of teaching is the real lesson. The washing of the feet is the command. And this of course flows into the way we each of us act towards each other throughout our parish and beyond. Care breeds care.

And so this gospel presents us with a question: do we have anything to learn in relation to equality, freedom and love? God and the Church definitely think so. Do we have anything to learn in relation to equality, freedom and love?

If we say yes, then who are we going to trust as our teacher? And why? And if we say Jesus, will we heed his lesson, trust his commands? Do we believe that he is trying to give us the freedom of the children of God? Do we believe that he wants to lead humanity into the ultimate friendship: communion with God?

 

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