The gospel for the 5th Sunday of Easter Cycle C contains one of most powerful admonitions that Jesus offered his disciples: “I give you a new commandment: Love one another as I have loved you (John 13:34).” I’d like to share a true story about a young couple from Chicago that will help explain the profound meaning of this gospel. Peter and Linda were both just 21 years old and had been dating for almost two years. Peter planned to ask Linda to marry him.
One evening, Peter and a friend were involved in a horrible accident, and Peter was thrown from the car. He suffered a severe concussion and ended up in a deep coma. The doctors told Peter’s family and friends that he probably wouldn’t survive. Even if he did, he would remain in a comatose state. In the sad days ahead, Linda spent all of her spare time at the hospital. Night after night, for three and a half months, Linda sat at Peter’s bedside, speaking words of encouragement to him, even though he gave no sign that he heard her. Then one night, Linda saw Peter’s toe move. A few nights later she saw his eyelash flutter. This was all she needed. Against the advice of the doctors, she quit her job and became his constant companion. She spent hours every day massaging his arms and legs.
Eventually Linda arranged for Peter to go home. She spent all of her savings on a swimming pool, hoping that the sun and water would restore life to his motionless limbs. Then came the day when Peter spoke his first word since the accident. It was only a grunt, but Linda understood it. Gradually, with Linda’s help, those grunts turned into words – clear words. Finally, the day came when Peter was able to ask Linda’s father if he could marry her. Linda’s father said, “When you can walk down the aisle, Peter, Linda will be yours.”
Two years later, Peter walked down the aisle of Our Lady of Pompeii Catholic Church in Chicago. He had to use a walker, but he was walking. Every television station in the city covered that wedding, and newspapers all over the country published the story with pictures of Peter and Linda. Celebrities called to congratulate them. People from as far away as Australia sent them letters and presents. And families all over the world with loved ones in comas called to ask them for advice. Today, Peter is living a very normal life. He speaks slowly, but clearly. He walks slowly, but without a walker. Peter and Linda even have a lovely little baby girl.
The story of Peter and Linda is a beautiful commentary on the words of Jesus in John’s gospel: “I give you a new commandment: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how the world will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)
If there is one thing that we desperately need in our world today, it’s to rediscover the power of Authentic Love – self-giving love. Jesus is calling us to a relationship with others modeled on his love, a love that Saint Paul describes so well in 1 Corinthians 13. This is a love that we’re never tired of hearing about, a love that we want for ourselves, a love that we are called to extend to others: “a love that is patient, a love that is kind. It is not jealous, pompous, or inflated. It does not seek its own interests, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth, a love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things, a love that never fails.” The story of Peter and Linda illustrates that this kind of love has tremendous power. It has the power to change the world. It has the power to bring people back from the brink of death to life. It has the power to bring people back from hopeless sickness to perfect health. It has the power to inspire people all over the world and give them new hope, as Linda’s love for Peter did.
In the early 1980s, an unusual film was playing in movie theaters across the nation. It was called The Quest for Fire. Its French producer said that it fulfilled a lifelong dream. He had always dreamed of celebrating in film the discovery of fire, for it was the discovery of fire 80,000 years ago that saved the people on planet Earth from total extinction. It was the discovery of fire that made it possible for them to make tools for survival and to protect themselves from the cold.
Today, people on the planet Earth are beginning to worry again that we are headed for total extinction. Today, people on the planet Earth are beginning to worry again that we are teetering on the brink of a global disaster. This time, the danger comes not from something basic like the lack of fire, but from something even more basic – the lack of Authentic Love, the kind of love that Jesus preached, the kind of unfailing, unconditional, self-giving love that Linda had for Peter.
This makes us wonder and ask ourselves a profound and frightening question. Will someone 80,000 years from now make a movie to celebrate the rediscovery of Authentic Love in the 21st Century? Will someone 80,000 years from now make a movie to celebrate the only thing that saved our planet from extinction? Will someone 80,000 years from now make a movie to celebrate the outpouring for Authentic Love that came forth from the Christian community in the 21st Century and changed the world? Only the future and only the Christian community will be able to answer that question. Only you and I, and millions of Christians like us, hold the answer to those questions somewhere deep down in our hearts.
This gospel is an invitation for us to look into our heart-of-hearts today and see how we ourselves are answering that question by our own lives of Authentic Love – especially within our families, for we must begin to change the world in the family, or we won’t change it at all. “I give you a new commandment. Love one another, and love them as I have loved you.”
“Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of Authentic Love, and then, for the second time in the history of the world, man will discover fire.” Teilhard de Chardin
Deacon Greg Ollick teaches sacred scripture for Saint Joseph’s College Online. He is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Atlanta and runs The Epiphany Initiative website.