The Sunday school children had all been photographed with pastor sitting in their center. The pastor was trying to persuade the children to buy a copy of the group photo. “Just think how nice it will be to look at it when you are all grown up and say, ‘There’s Jennifer; she’s a lawyer,’ or ‘That’s Michael; he’s a doctor.’ A small voice at the back of the room rang out, “And there’s our pastor; he’s dead.”
The Gospel passage reminds us that the Holy Spirit, abiding within us, is our teacher and the source of all peace. The passage offers a vision of hope. Jesus promises his followers that the Holy Spirit will come and instruct them in everything they need to know.
If you are looking for your life partner, know that people have not found Ms. Perfect and Mr. Perfect. Our parents are not perfect, sons and daughters are not perfect, pastors are not perfect. None of us are fully the people we need to be. Each one of us, at one time or another, gets things wrong, makes a bad decision, and ends up hurting the people close to us. To be human is in some sense to be flawed, and those flaws invariably cause disappointment, regret, and pain in our lives.
Now this is nothing new. Today’s first reading makes it very clear that there were plenty of flaws in the early church. Just a few years after Jesus’ resurrection, the church was already deeply divided over the issue of whether Gentiles needed to be circumcised or not. The apostles were at odds with each other. Peter and Paul and James clashed and insisted that the others were being stubborn in their opinion. So from the very start the church, like every other human institution, was marked by disagreement, disappointment, regret, and pain that flowed from its all too human members.
The same is true for us. We are not perfect, and yet we are called to love one another. We are not perfect, and yet we are expected to be family and friends and community. So how are we to negotiate this loving across all the flaws which characterize every one of us? There is no simple answer to that question. There is no single formula of loving that will fit every situation. When someone disappoints us, when somebody makes a decision with which we do not agree, when someone hurts us, what should we do? Should we bite our lip, say nothing, and let things slide? Sometimes. Should we stand up, object, and demand that things change? Sometimes. Should we make a decision that the relationship is so flawed, so painful, that we cannot continue in it? Sometimes. Each one of us must discern and decide on a case-by-case basis how we can negotiate loving others who are all as flawed as we are.
Jesus knows we need that kind of freedom. We need that flexibility in loving. Jesus commands us to love one another, but he is not specific on what love looks like in each situation. When it comes to loving, Jesus does not give us a blue-print, he gives us a person, the Holy Spirit. Jesus says in today’s gospel, that an advocate, the Holy Spirit, will be sent to us to teach us everything we need to know, to show us how we are to love in a flawed world. That Holy Spirit is with us and guides us. That spirit is always active, prompting us to be realistic and to be brave.
The Holy Spirit asks us to be realistic in loving because we are all flawed people. Therefore, in loving we have to be willing to make allowances, even when other persons are not who we want them to be. Even when they disappoint us and hurt us, the Spirit of God asks us whether our love can be of such a kind to overcome those faults and disappointments. If any of us will insist that we have to be loved perfectly, then lasting human love is impossible. So the Holy Spirit asks us to be realistic, to make allowances.
The spirit also asks us to be brave. When we have tried over and over again to love and have not been successful, when our efforts in loving are not helpful but harmful, then the spirit asks us to speak up and to ask that things change. The spirit may even ask us to consider whether a particular relationship should come to an end. It is never easy to speak up, to insist that another person needs to change. Nor is it easy to live with the consequences of such a decision. But at times it is necessary. And when it is necessary, the Spirit of God asks us to be brave enough to make that choice.
Jesus asks us to love one another, to be mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, friends and partners in life. But none of us is perfect and that makes loving difficult. That is why Jesus gives us his spirit to lead us and guide us. That is why we have an Advocate who leads us to be realistic and brave. Let us follow the spirit that we might love—if not easily, honestly; if not perfectly, in such a way that is real enough that we can be family and friends and community to one another.