May 9, 2015

Homily for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 10, 2015, Year B

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH

"Love one another." (John 15:17)
Image from Duccio‘s Maestà alterpiece, 1308-11
(Click here for today’s readings)

Many years ago when I was in college, I remember being involved in a pseudo-intellectual debate on whether charity was an obligation. On one side the argument was that charity, by definition, implies something done freely, from the heart. On the other side the claim was that being a Christian, by definition, implies a way of life that must include charity.

The last words of today’s Gospel could lend themselves to a similar discussion. “This I command you: love one another.”

On the one hand love, as we understand it, like Shakespeare’s “quality of mercy,” cannot be “strained,” i.e., constrained, forced. Imagine trying to bully someone into loving you! Part of the mystery of love is precisely that we are not able to make it happen. And when it does take hold of us we can scarcely explain it.

That said, we are confronted over and over in the New Testament by the duty of love. Count how many times “love” occurs in today’s readings alone.

St. Peter faced a similar dilemma, in reverse. The Holy Spirit told him to do something he was not allowed to do. The reading about Cornelius takes up all of Chapter 10 of the Acts of the Apostles, but the version presented in the Lectionary is severely truncated, giving only nine out of forty-eight verses. Cornelius was apparently a good man, “devout and God-fearing,” but as a Roman soldier he was the enemy, and as a pagan he was to be shunned. And yet, the Spirit told Peter to go to Caesarea, a Roman city filled with idols, and actually enter the man’s house! This was unthinkable for a “practicing” Jew, Christian or not. In fact, in the next chapter, Peter will have to defend himself from the charge: “You entered the house of uncircumcised people and ate with them.”

Before going to meet Cornelius, Peter had a vision in which he was told to eat forbidden foods, and when he refused in disgust, the voice told him, “What God has made clean, you are not to call profane.”

Here, I think, we find a clue to the “duty” of love. It isn’t about how we feel. It’s about how we behave. And behavior can be commanded. That is the point, for example, of the words of Jesus at the end of the Parable of the Good Samaritan: “Go and do likewise.” Concretely, the command is to treat everyone in a loving way.

I think I may safely assume that we all know how difficult that can be, even with people we really do love. And when it comes to people we don’t like at all, we are commanded to set aside our dislikes, resentments, prejudices—what? as if those things don’t matter? Correct.

Jesus makes keeping his commandments a condition for remaining in his love. He applies the same rule to himself in relation to the Father. St. John, in his First Letter, places the commandment ultimately not on the lips of Jesus or of the Father, but in God’s very being: “God is love.” That is why John can write, shortly before, that “Love is of God,” and make the stark, bold claim: “Whoever is without love does not know God.”

So maybe the command to love is not so much about behavior, after all, but about what underlies our behavior as disciples of Jesus Christ. “Remain in my love,” he says.

As we approach the end of the Easter Season, here is an appropriate quotation from St. Augustine. “Now therefore, brethren, we urge you to praise God. That is what we are all telling each other when we say Alleluia. You say to your neighbor, “Praise the Lord!” and he says the same to you. We are all urging one another to praise the Lord... But see that your praise comes from your whole being; in other words, see that you praise God not with your lips and voices alone, but with your minds, your lives and all your actions.”

In other words, do what you are and be what you do. There should be no difference. A nineteenth century poet, a Jesuit priest named Gerard Manley Hopkins, claimed that everything in the universe cries out: “What I do is me: for that I came.” How perfectly that applies to Jesus! And if we remain in his love, we are Christians, called to do what we are and be what we do.

With all the references to love in the readings, one could hardly forget that today is Mother’s Day. What does a mother do? She does what she is: she mothers.

God is love. He is what he does, he does what he is.

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