Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Parish, New Bedford, MA
Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year B
May 21, 2006
Acts 10:25-26,34-35,44-48; 1 Jn 4:7-10; Jn 15:9-17
1) Saint Jerome, one of the great fathers of the Church, tells us that while Saint John was an elderly man in Ephesus, living in a cave with a few disciples, every Sunday his closest followers would bring him down to the throngs for Sunday Eucharist. And when it was time for him to preach, the crowds would huddle around him because his voice had by this time grown faint. Every week he would counsel them, “Little children, love one another!” Eventually one of the young men who was carrying him asked, “Do you not tire of giving the same message every time you preach?” St. John’s response to the accusation of being a broken record is unforgettable: “Son, I never tire of proclaiming it, because the Master never tired of proclaiming it. And if you do it, and really love one another, you do it all.”
2) Perhaps one of the reasons why both the Lord and his beloved disciple constantly preached these simple words was because they recognized just how hard they are to keep. To love one another is, as we’ve experienced ourselves, not that easy. Perhaps a better reason is because God who is love and made us in his image wants us to become who we are really — and the only way we can do that is through love. But maybe the most likely reason is that without loving one another we, rather than accomplish Christ’s work, immeasurably harm it. Jesus once said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Love has to be the mark of Christians because it is the mark of Christ. If we do not love one another, if we do not put this command of the Lord to love into practice, we are not just hypocrites but scandalizers, and rather than show the face of Christ, we obscure it. As Gaudium et Spes wrote so movingly, one of the greatest causes for atheism in the world is not because unbelieving philosophers have won the argument, but because of the bad example of Christians who don’t really love God and don’t really love each other. This point has been driven home over the past few years since the revelation of the clergy abuse scandals. Many have left the practice of the faith, or have refused to return to it, not necessarily because they don’t believe in Christmas, or Easter, or the sacraments, but because of the lack of holiness in some priests who abused rather than loved children entrusted to their care and other spiritual fathers and bishops abetted rather than eliminated this cancer. But the problem goes beyond the clergy. During my years as a Catholic high school chaplain in Fall River, many teenagers said that the reason why they stopped coming to Mass was because they thought their parents were two-faced, shelling out thousands of dollars each year for Catholic school, but failing to be faithful to God on Sundays or to each other in marriage. For the Church to be the instrument of salvation Jesus founded it to be, each of us in the Church — and that of course includes you — need to show by our actions that we in fact love God and others. That’s why the readings the Church gives us today are a great gift, because they hold up a mirror to us at the end of the Easter Season to help us to take a hard look at how we love, or whether we truly love at all.
3) Today’s readings focus on three movements of love. The first is the Father’s love for the Son; the second, the Son’s love for us; and the third, our love for one another. Jesus says, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Live on in my love. You will live in my love if you keep my commandments. … My commandment to you is this: love one another as I have loved you.” In other words, just as the Father has loved Jesus and Jesus has loved us, we are called to love each other. The first thing we notice in this sentence is who God is, who we are, and what we’re called to do. God is love, we’re made in his image, and we are called to love others as he has loved us. The second thing we learn is equally as important: how loved we are! Jesus, who cannot lie, tells us that he loves us “just us” the Father loves him — in other words, to the same extent, with the same intensity, fully and perfectly. We could spend the rest of our lives just on that sentence, and some saints have. But in order to come to grips with this reality and put it into practice in our own lives, we first need to grasp what love is. Love is not, contrary to popular opinion, principally a feeling. Love is a choice, an act of the will to give of oneself to another, to sacrifice one’s own interests for the sake of another. God the Father eternally loves Jesus his Son and gives over to him everything he is. Christ loves us and has given over everything he is to save our lives. He told us in the Gospel today, “There is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” and that’s precisely what he did for us. That is the type of love we are called to share with others. This is Christ’s new commandment.
4) The first step in putting that love into practice is to allow God to love us. “In this is love,” Saint John writes in today’s second reading, “not that we have loved God, but that he has loved us and has sent his Son as an offering for our sins.” In order to love others, we first have to experience being loved. That happens for most of us on the natural order by receiving the love of our mother and father as little babies. From their love, we learn how to love in return. We learn how to say “I love you, too” before we say “I love you.” The same thing happens in the spiritual life. For us to love others, we need first to receive God’s incredible love within. This is the merciful love of the Father of the Prodigal Son. This is the love of a Father who will never give us a snake when we ask for a fish, or a stone when we ask for bread (Mt. 7:9-11). This love is the root of all our Christian dignity, the foundation for our divine filiation and all our joy. God loves us so much that he considered it a bargain that his only begotten son be tortured and killed rather than to live without us forever.
5) In contrast with that incredibly good news, though, is the sad reality that few of us ever allow God to love us that much. Few of us bask in his divine predilection. Like teenagers who no longer want their parents to kiss them in public, so we can resist God’s loving embraces. We can wallow in self-pity or self-hatred and fail to allow the love of God to penetrate that darkness. All of us can tell when a person is in a relationship of love, when the person feels loved and when the person loves in return. Teenagers, even though the love they sense may still only be a shadow, start to glide down school corridors. Husbands and wives who are in love have a joy about them that the hardships they encounter each day cannot take away. Priests and religious who are in love with the Lord almost have a contagious enthusiasm about even the littlest, most seemingly meaningless things of the day. Conversely, you can almost always tell when someone is not in love, because the person starts to be nitpicky, grumpy, bitter, easily saddened and depressed. Saint Paul gave us a great index about how those who are experience and reciprocate love behave: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things”(1 Cor 13:4-7). A great way to evaluate whether we are in love, whether we love, is to substitute our name for the word love in that litany. Are we patient and kind or are we envious, boastful, arrogant, rude, irritable, and resentful? Do we bear all things or insist on our own way? An ever better way to determine if we live in love would be to ask those with whom we live, or work, or go to school, whether they agree with our assessment?
6) So just like Christ first received the Father’s love and then loved us with the same intensity, we, too, first need to experience God’s love so that we can fully and appropriately love others. Just like St. John used to repeat things over and over again in his Sunday homilies, so you’ll often hear me quite often bring up the following point, which I have always considered very noteworthy: When Jesus gave his commandment to love, he didn’t say, “Love ME as I have loved you,” but “love one another as I have loved you.” Likewise, when he asked Simon Peter directly three times if he loved him, and Peter responded that he did, the Lord didn’t say, “great” or “now we’re on the same page” and leave it there; instead he replied, “Feed my lambs… tend my sheep… feed my sheep” (Jn 21: 15-17). The standard by which Peter would love Christ would be how he loved the sheep for whom the Good Shepherd out of love laid down his life. That’s the same standard he gives us. We will therefore be able to know if we truly love the Lord or not by our love for each other.
7) This is where we need to be brutally honest, because even from the earliest days of the Church, Christians have been self-deceived. St. John described this in his first letter. “Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen”(1 John 4:20). Many Catholics today would say that they love God and others by the very fact that they don’t hate them, but the real test is whether would inconvenience themselves or sacrifice themselves for those in need. No matter how loud a man professes on his lips his love for God, no matter how many holy hours a woman makes, no matter how many hours a Christian spends in prayer, the true test and fruit of any of those good activities is whether they recognize and love the Lord in the poor, the sick, the thirsty, the naked, in their enemies, and in those closest to them, with whom they live and have contact every day. We don’t love God when we really don’t love those in hour home, at our workplace, next to us in a pew, behind us in the cafeteria, or driving near us on the streets. We don’t truly God unless we’re willing to forgive others as He has forgiven us. We don’t really love God unless we keep his commandments, which Jesus said are all expressions of love for God and neighbor (Mt 22:40). The only way to remain in God’s love, he tells us today, is to love the Lord’s will and do it — giving of ourselves for others — just as He has kept his Father’s commandments and remains in the Father’s love.
8 ) If we don’t learn truly how to abide in God’s love as Jesus calls us to do, then we’re wasting the gift of our life. St. Paul said as much in his first letter to the Christians in Corinth: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels — and he did, inspired by the Holy Spirit — but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains — and he did, raising a man from the dead in the Acts of the Apostles — but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body to the torturers — and he did, being stoned and left for dead on several occasions and eventually beheaded — but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1Cor 13:1-4). In other words, even if we do the greatest things imaginable for the kingdom, if we do them without love, we’re wasting our time. Even if we never break one of the commandments, even if we do all our personal, familial, religious and civic duties with exterior perfection, even if we’re greatly successful at work or school, even if we gain the praise, admiration and respect of everyone we meet, if we don’t have love, in the final analysis, as St. Paul writes, we gain and are NOTHING. We’re zeroes! We’re empty. This is how important love is in the Christian life. This is how important love is in our lives.
9) The future of the Church hinges, as Pope Benedict wrote in his recent encyclical on God’s love, on whether, like St. Thérèse Lisieux, each of us can be “love in the heart of the Church.” Just like Jesus and his beloved disciple St. John never ceased to preach the message “love one another,” so we must likewise preach that message and live that message. The Lord knows it is not easy for us to love as we ought. For that reason, he has come to help us. No one has greater love, he told us, than to lay down his life for his friends, and every day he gives us access to that love on this very altar. He says in today’s Gospel that he no longer calls us slaves but friends and we are his friends if we do what he commands us. He commanded us to do THIS in memory of him, to enter into that greatest act of love that the world has ever known. It is in this love that we become capable of loving each other with the love of Christ. It is in this love that we learn to say in turn to others, “This is my body… this is my blood… this is my sweat, my tears, my heart, my money, my talents, my time, all I am and have … given out of love for you!” It is in this love, given to us by the Father and the Son, that we become transformed by Christ into Christ so that we may indeed love others as he has loved us. May the Lord through this Eucharist fill us with that love that knows no bounds, so that we may love him with all we’ve got and love others as he loves them — and thereby, as St. John said to his young disciple centuries ago, “do it all!”