This morning’s Gospel reading is John 14:23–29:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; yet the word you hear is not mine but that of the Father who sent me.
“I have told you this while I am with you. The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. You heard me tell you, ‘I am going away and I will come back to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father; for the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it happens, so that when it happens you may believe.”
One of my favorite hymns out of the Gather hymnal — that ubiquitous book in Catholic parishes — is “Be Not Afraid.” That hymn isn’t based on this Gospel passage; in fact, it was inspired by the Incarnation rather than the Passion or the Ascension. The story of the hymn’s creation was told last year in America Magazine, in which Fr. Bob Dufford explained that he began writing it because he himself was dealing with fear of the unknown before his own ordination in 1972.
Dufford recalls that he considered it an “ugly duckling” at the time, but the hymn has become very popular for people in need of comfort. The chorus reminds us that Christ is with us despite the hard times in this world:
Be not afraid
I go before you, always
Come follow me
And I will give you rest
In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives that message to his disciples just before the Passion. Terrible events are about to transpire, and Jesus knows this will challenge their faith in Him. They will ask themselves the same questions others will ask: if Jesus is Lord, how can He allow such evil to transpire even against Himself?
This was not a new question then, and it’s not a new question now. The entire Bible is filled with terrible deeds — enslavement, conquest and collapse, idolatry and desolation. Even the Passion, as measured by the standards of a fallen world, is a disaster. Christians have been constantly challenged for two millennia for its core belief in Christ’s death and resurrection as purposeful and necessary. How can a loving and omnipotent God do that to His own Son? they ask. Why not just save everyone and end all evil?
It’s not an easy question to answer, although not impossible either. The entire arc of salvation in scripture answers it, as does Jesus in His own way here. This fallen world is our stewardship, given to us by the Lord out of His love for us as people of our own free will. We are given the choice to follow the Lord’s word, but not an edict. We have to choose to love Him, and that choice requires the ability to choose not to love Him and follow His word. It is in those choices that this world takes its shape — as the Israelites discovered, and as the people of Jesus’ time also discovered.
The form of the next world is made clear in our second reading today from Revelation. In his vision, John describes the new Jerusalem, its majesty and its perfection. The key part in this passage is that this new city of God had no temple, because its inhabitants dwell with the Lord directly. Also, there is no need for a sun or moon because “the Glory of God” — that trinitarian love between the Lord and His people — provide all of the light needed, through Christ as the Lamb.
Our residency in that city is ours to choose. In the meantime, we have to live our lives in this fallen world, where evil exists because of our choices and those of others. Jesus knew that fear would immediately fall onto the hearts of His disciples as soon as he departed, and so He explained that He would always be with them. The Holy Spirit would come in His name from the Father and guide them in their building of the new church to come. Our first reading from Acts of the Apostles gives us an example of the Holy Spirit at work amongst the leaders of this new church.
Nowhere in this passage or any other Gospel does Jesus promise that nothing bad will happen to believers in Christ. In fact, eleven of the twelve Apostles would get martyred for their faith, and the twelfth — John — would die in exile on Patmos. What Christ promises, however, is that it will not matter in the end as long as we choose to love the Lord and follow His commandments. When we do that, the Father will come to us in the form of the Holy Spirit and make His dwelling in us. We need not fear, because we will eventually find our dwelling in Him also, as John explains in Revelation.
Be not afraid, Jesus says. That may not always be possible, but we can always find our rest in Him eventually — if we choose to love Him in all our fallenness.
The front-page image is a detail from “Appearance on the Mountain in Galilee,” Duccio di Buoninsegna, c. 1308-11. On display at the Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana del Duomo. Via Wikimedia Commons.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.