“Amen, amen I say to you, no slave is greater than his master nor any messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you understand this, blessed are you if you do it.”
“Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.”
John 13:16, 20
To be a disciple of Jesus is to be a witness to the love of God for the world, as was he. Jesus affirms that those who receive him also receive the one, that is God, who sent him. In the same way, he says, those who receive the ones sent by him receive him as well. We know the love of God both in an immediate and a mediated way. We have within us that love, but it often needs to be awakened in us by one who is its messenger, that is, one who is a messenger of Jesus.
What was once in human history a quite common experience, yet is now but a historical artifact, is the receiving of a message from a loved one through the service of a messenger. In the lifetime of many of us who are older, we still recall when the postal worker was the means of our being in communication with those we loved who were at a distance. The more significant the message was to us, the more the specific qualities and identity of the messenger faded from our consciousness. The deeper presence was afforded to the message, the communication from the loved one. In our eye, the messenger was always much less than the person who literally or figuratively sent him or her.
Jesus, despite the twists and turns in our theology and understanding over the ages, always insisted that he was but the messenger of the One who sent him. By welcoming and receiving him, we were also receiving the Father who sent him. His washing of his disciples’ feet is iconographic in our tradition because it describes at once his identity and mission. To understand its meaning is to hear its command to us to “do it.” If we do, Jesus assures us, then whoever receives our service receives him, and to receive him is to receive God’s love.
So, today we are invited to ponder the truth that our task in life is to mediate God’s love for those we encounter. As the Fundamental Principles remind us:
As a disciple of Jesus Christ
you are called to follow in his footsteps
and minister God’s healing touch of love,
through word and deed
to all who you meet
in your journey of life.
To live such a call, however, requires that our words and deeds are expressions of a love that we know by heart. It is in this way that our expression form draws attention not to ourselves, the messengers, but rather to the one who sent us. If Jesus is who he says he is, if the universal love of God is true and real, and since there are so many proclaimed disciples of Jesus, then how is it that the world has not yet been set ablaze with the fire of God’s love?
The answer to this question can only be found within ourselves. Last night as I watched on television the third period of a playoff hockey game, I received a text from a student of mine from over 40 years ago. We remain sporadically in touch over time, even when it is merely during the NHL playoffs. His text, as our communications often do, led me to reflect on those initial years of teaching. I was in my 20’s at the time and enjoyed, as the fulfillment of my lifelong aspiration, teaching and being with young people. I think, as best as I could know at that age, that I often deeply desired for them to realize how much each of them were loved by God. By the grace of God, I sometimes served as a messenger of that love to some of them. At other times, however, my insecurities, my own self-depreciation, and my own, largely unconscious, needs for gratification and approval led me to make myself the center of their attention. Often without recognizing it, or refusing to admit it, I wanted them to see me as the one they needed, as the one to whom they should direct their attention. The result was that at times I did not help them, at least in any enduring way. And at other times, those unconscious needs and insecurities resulted in my being an obstacle to their recognition of God’s love for them in their uniqueness.
We hear from Jesus in the gospels and from spiritual teachers through the ages that the disciple as messenger of God’s love is to become transparent. As messenger, we should encounter the other in such a way that they “see right through us” to the heart of our motivation and desire — a desire not to be significant in their eyes but only for the love of God to awaken and work in them. The “way” we are formed in this growth in Divine love and transparency is to enter, as St. Catherine of Siena says, “the cell of self-knowledge.” As good as it sometimes was, much of the work I did and energy I expended early in my adult life was an attempt to evade the deep sense of loneliness within. The result was activity, what I was calling ministry, that was largely the result of my fleeing presence to myself and the pain of my own experience.
Brother Romeo Bonsaint writes: “The haunting experience of appropriating one’s need for God’s love, and the faith that comes from having that need met by an uncompromising offer of friendship and affirmation, are two foundational events that enable a person to return to the world as a messenger of love.” Perhaps I am not alone in experiencing the “haunting” nature of my need for God’s love. I spent the first many years of my adult working life avoiding the haunting experience of my need for love because I feared I could not bear it. So I dispersed my life energies in, as Albert Camus says, “love, and work, and communal life,” as I understood these. My love for those I was serving often had an unconscious hook, which was “please ratify my value by your response to me.” This was why when I was not responded to I was crestfallen. I kept thinking, or not thinking, that I could find affirmation for my life in others’ responses to me. I could become valuable by doing good and by working hard.
While both doing good and working hard are values in themselves, they cannot procure affirmation for us. When we are “loving” in this way, then we are but confirming the very deformative beliefs of those we are trying to serve. They are largely doing the same things we are. Jesus doesn’t wash his disciples’ feet because he is seeking self-affirmation, rather he does it, despite their protestations, because he knows in the fiber of his being the reality of God’s love for them. And he knows this because he knows the love of God in and for him by heart. When he prays on the cross that his persecutors be forgiven, he is but expressing God’s love and mercy for them. Even as he suffers he knows, in faith, the reality of God’s love at work in that moment.
To be a disciple of Jesus, the Fundamental Principles remind us, requires that we follow in the footsteps of Jesus if we are to minister his healing touch of love. There is not real ministry until we follow the way of Jesus, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Being a good person in our own lights can be a way of attempting to avoid the Way for us. That way is our life as it is, which God loves but which we must enter fully to know that love. There is no greater counter-witness to God’s love than the so-called minister who has glib and ready words at hand in the moment of another’s suffering. There is no ego-driven work, including ministry, that does not come with a hook, of self-centeredness. As transparent, as the bearer of the One who sends us, we must be acting from within ourselves, that is present to ourselves in such a way that know our true place in the world, a humble place that is nonetheless embraced and upheld by the infinite love of God for us — and for all.
The need for healing that we may uncover in our hearts can serve as the beginning of our formation as witnesses to God’s love. The recognition of inner poverty effects a spiritual integration in the Body of the Lord, and the depth of our solitude provides a space in our hearts for the Spirit to inspire us according to God’s ways, to transform our hearts, and to convert us from self-centeredness to God-centeredness.
The essential loneliness of the solitary heart is necessarily open to the healing Presence and Friendship of Christ. When the ego dominates a person’s life, loneliness may be denied; but as a person inhabits his heart as the center of his existence the loss of his ordinary self and its controls leaves him feeling powerless, abandoned, alone. He appropriates his need for contact with a love that transcends the bounds of his ordinary ambitions and aspirations. He yearns for an experience of love that is boundless and universal. The haunting experience of appropriating one’s need for God’s love, and the faith that comes from having that need met by an uncompromising offer of friendship and affirmation, are two foundational events that enable a person to return to the world as a messenger of love.
Romeo J. Bonsaint, SC, Messengers of Divine Love, p. 2