May 19, 2019
This month has marked the death and funeral of Jean Vanier, a man of deep and abiding faith; a man who revolutionized the world of people living with disabilities; a man who understood the message of Jesus’ inclusive love and expressed that love in tangible ways throughout the course of his lifetime; a man who worked passionately toward the unification of all humanity. At his funeral people brought forward small candles and placed them on his beautiful and simple casket, made especially for him by the Larche community. The image of light cascading from the multitude of candles atop his beautiful, simple casket is one that I will never forget. For me the simplicity of the handmade casket symbolized his unpretentious, faithful, humble service, and the lit candles represented the light of Christ shining through him and radiating throughout the church and into the world.
In an interview some time ago, Jean Vanier described the message of Jesus as, “…a truly universal message of love. When Jesus walked in the land of Israel, He loved the Romans, the Samaritans, the Jewish people, the lepers – He loved each one.” He said, “I think Jesus came to teach us to love in that particular way and to open our hearts to a new love. At the heart of the message of the Gospels is: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, speak well of those who speak badly of you, and pray for those who persecute you.” I once heard him say that the way to freedom and peace is to recognize that at the very core of every single human being is goodness and beauty. He said that although life circumstances - betrayal, disappointment, perceived failure, resentment - although these and other life circumstances may have somehow masked or hidden this goodness and beauty within, it is our responsibility as Christians to search for it in every person with whom our paths may cross. This brings to mind our baptismal covenant: Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbour as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
This ideal – this Christian mandate – is beautifully expressed in our Gospel this morning, particularly when viewed in light of the verses just preceding it. Just prior to this passage, John has told the story of the Last Supper, the foot washing (love and serve others as I, Jesus, have loved you), and this is followed with the story of Judas’ imminent betrayal. Jesus knows who is about to betray him, and clearly he is deeply troubled.
This piece of the story is so important, specifically because of the way Jesus responds: He announces that this betrayal is imminent, and then proceeds to feed the one who is about to betray him… “he dipped the piece of bread, and he gave it to Judas…” Having been fed by the very one he is about to betray, Judas then leaves to do this terrible deed. It seems to me that, even though Jesus knew what Judas was about to do, he sees into the heart of his betrayer, sees the beauty, and feeds him.
Jesus doesn’t do what so many of us may have done. He doesn’t point out or focus on the extreme devastation of what Judas is about to do. He doesn’t send out his disciples to stop Judas from doing this terrible thing. No. Instead, Jesus, after feeding his betrayer, focuses on his mission and preparing his remaining 11 disciples for what is to come. He speaks of being glorified and of glorifying God. This is how John’s Gospel refers to Jesus’ elevation on a cross; through Jesus’ suffering, and the devastation of all those who love him, new life, new possibilities, new hope will be found.
Then Jesus tells those who are still with him that he will only be with them a little bit longer, and where he is going they cannot come. In the coming chapters Jesus will talk about the Paraclete, the Advocate, the Holy Spirit who will teach and advise, sustain and comfort them. But for now, he focuses on the need for his disciples to live in community, to love one another as he has loved them. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you…” He is solidifying the creation of this new community, offering them their primary mandate, so that the love they share may shed light into the whole of God’s world.
Look into the heart of your betrayer and see what is beautiful and good; look into the heart of those who disappoint you, those who anger you, those who seemingly despise you, and see what is beautiful and good. Jean Vanier urges us to remember that this is the way to freedom and peace. In his book ‘Becoming Human’ he actually gives us the formula for how this works.
It is one thing to recognize our Christian mandate to ‘love others as Jesus loves’ but how does this actually work when one has been relegated as an enemy. Jean Vanier says, “An enemy is someone who stands in the way of our freedom, dignity, and capacity to grow and to love, someone whom we avoid or with whom we refuse to communicate.”
What are the steps we need to take to remove those things that are blocking us from seeing past the perceived behavior, to identify that which is beautiful and good? In his book ‘Becoming Human’, Jean Vanier identifies forgiveness as they key to removing such barriers, and also identifies specific steps that make this possible. Recognizing that we are all bound together in our humanity, each of us frail and sinful in our own particular ways, he says, “To be truly liberated, we have to make an effort to communicate with those we dislike, to try to understand and accept them as they are, and to experience our mutual humanity. This is forgiveness. Forgiveness is the process of removing barriers; it is the process by which we start to accept and to love those who have hurt us. We are imprisoned in our likes and dislikes. We categorize others and put up barriers.”
Forgiveness, in Greek asphesis, means to liberate, to release from bondage. Jean Vanier says there are three basic principles underlying forgiveness:
- There can be no forgiveness of ourselves or of others unless we believe that we are all part of a common humanity. We may be different in all sorts of ways, our sins may be different from others sins, but we are all the same, with vulnerable hearts, the need to love and be loved, the need to grow, to develop our capacities, and to find our place in the world. We must lose our feelings of both superiority and inferiority.
- To forgive means to believe that each of us can evolve and change, that human redemption is possible.
- To forgive means to yearn for unity and peace. Unity is the ultimate treasure. It is the place where, in the garden of humanity, each one of us can grow, bear fruit, and give life. That is what we all yearn for.
So, with those three basic principles clearly defined, Jean Vanier then identifies the five steps in the process of forgiveness:
- Refuse to seek revenge
- Have a genuine, heartfelt hope that the oppressor be liberated
- Develop a genuine desire to understand the one you perceive to be your oppressor; how and why their perceived indifference or seeming hardness of heart has developed, and how they might be liberated
- Recognize our own darkness; we too have hurt people and perhaps have contributed to the hardness of the oppressors
- Be patient; it takes time – when hurt - to be freed from blockage and hatred; it takes time for people to evolve and to change.
Indeed, “At the heart of the Gospel message is: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, speak well of those who speak badly of you, and pray for those who persecute you.” This is the way to freedom and peace, and forgiveness is the path that leads toward this goal.
Jesus recognized the one who was about to betray him, and rather that seeking revenge he reached out and fed him. And once Judas had gone to do what he was about to do, Jesus then turned to those who were left and urged them to live in community, to love one another as he has loved them, as he said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you.”
It occurs to me that Jesus identifies the goal to love as he has loved, and Jean Vanier has helped identify the steps that guide us toward this goal. May he rest in peace and rise in glory. May his memory continue to be a blessing and an inspiration to us all.