Let the Scriptures Speak
Who Loves First?
“Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another.” (1 John 4:11)
Harriet and Harry Happyface, hearing the command to love their neighbor, went out to do good. And burned out.
When a British journalist asked Mother Teresa how she could keep on going knowing she would never be successful in her efforts to meet the needs of all those dying in the streets of Calcutta, she replied, “I am not called to be successful, I'm called to be faithful.” The perspective implicit in her response provides an answer to the burnout problem in a way that is also caught in this Sunday’s readings.
Everyone knows that Jesus summarized the Law of Moses in two commandments, love of God and love of neighbor. Many act as if simply doing the second one is the way to do the first. Today's readings beg to differ. They help us see that loving one another is not simply a matter of neighbor-directed good will. It is a matter of attending to the fact that God has first loved us. Though it is difficult to directly love God, whom “no one has ever seen” (1 John 4:12; John 1:18), loving one's neighbor starts somehow with responding to God's love.
The Acts reading sets the tone by recalling the time when Peter was drawn into mission to the Gentiles by happenings he had to admit were acts of God: effects (tongue speaking and prophesying) that required a greater cause than his own preaching ability. The whole Christian mission is a response to divine initiative. It is a movement responding to God's first move.
The First Letter of John is straightforward in saying that the first move is God’s: “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another” (1 John 4:10-11). Finally, Jesus’ words in the Fourth Gospel tie that divine initiative more radically to Jesus’ laying down his own life: “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one’s friends” (John 15:12-13).
The consequences of this teaching are eminently practical. One does not find the power to love one's neighbor simply by applying one's energy to service. One finds that energy for self-giving service by attending first to God's self-emptying love. That was St. Ignatius' strategy in helping people learn to love God in the Spiritual Exercises. Pay attention, he advised, to the gifts of God in your life; that will evoke a gratitude which in turn will give you the ability to pass on that love to those who most need it. Indeed, that is the point in naming a community of Christians an ekklesia (“the called”), a group constituted by the very fact that they are responding to a divine initiative of love. The rest is passing on what has first been divinely given. This leads to emptying, yes, but not necessarily to burnout.
Dennis Hamm, SJ
**From Saint Louis University