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CHRISTIANITY IS ALL ABOUT LOVE
Sixth Sunday of Easter
May 06, 2018 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Acts 10:25-26;34-35;44-48 Psalm 98:1-4 I John 4:7-10 John 15:9-17
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
I came of age in the free-love 1960s, which was widely understood to mean, free sex. In particular, I remember 1967, known as the Summer of Love. It was a social phenomenon, characterized by hundreds of thousands of young people sporting hippie fashions of dress and behavior who converged in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood and elsewhere. They gathered to celebrate an alternative culture to replace the materialism and consumerism that characterized mainstream life in the 1950s and early 1960s. But the 1960s was more than a sexual free-for-all. The 1960s had a serious and everlasting message as well, one we would do well to heed in ordering our relationship with God.
As a child, both in Church, and from my parents and grandparents, the image of God foisted on me was a ruthless deity who judged and punished people if they sinned. The authority figures who were part of my life saw themselves in the same way in their relationship with me and used fear to control me. As a child ignorant of the true nature of God, I unfortunately went along with their program, instead of exploring alternatives to challenge the narrative they presented to me and resist their control.
While I was generally aware of what was going in the Summer of Love, I didn’t immerse myself in all of it. My mother played only classical music on the radio in our home. But from time to time, I would hear snippets of the songs to which my contemporaries listened. Many of those songs related to love, with lyrics like, “Love one another right now” and “It’s only love.” I regret that I was so pre-occupied with serious music, that I never stopped to seriously listen to songs like those, which though not of the classical style, have their own musical and moral value. Had I done so, it would have made me a better person.
My career path after college was that of an insurance adjuster and subsequently a lawyer, was into a world based on anything but love. Everything in that world is about rules saying who’s entitled to what, rules that make judgments about suffering people, rather than looking for some way to alleviate their suffering. When you couple that world with my avocation of umpiring baseball games for about fifteen years, where I experienced angry ballplayers and managers as part of the job, I became a total wreck inside. All that put together made me an aggressive, angry and unhappy person. The only thing that kept me at a basic level of sanity during that period of my life was singing in the choir and serving at the Altar, but even in those areas, my relationship with some churches, some music directors, and some clergy, tended to be a bit combative, because I did not always get what I wanted from them. Only because I subconsciously loved God and experienced God’s love, did I continue to hang out in church.
What changed me into the person I am today was my discovery of Progressive Christianity, which emphasizes the teachings of Jesus, not just His person. It emphasizes God with us, not merely God over us. Progressives look to the communal aspects of salvation, instead of salvation as merely an individual thing. Progressive Christians stress social justice as integral to Christian discipleship. Progressives take the Bible seriously, but not always literally. Instead, we embrace a more spiritual and metaphorical understanding of scripture. The Progressive paradigm embraces reason as well as paradox and mystery instead of blind allegiance to rigid doctrines and dogmas. For example, Progressive Christianity does not consider same sex relationships to be sinful, but just as good as opposite sex relationships. Finally, Progressive Christianity does not claim that Christianity is the only valid or viable way to connect to God, because God made everyone, not just Christians, in God’s image.
But the strongest line of demarcation between traditional and progressive Christianity is how one sees God and one’s relationship to God. Progressive Christians experience a God who loves, not a God who punishes.
Today’s readings focus on love. Perhaps in the Church Kalendar it should be renamed “Love Sunday,” just as we have “Divine Mercy Sunday” and “Good Shepherd Sunday.” The Second Reading is quite explicit: “Love one another because love is from God. Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love.” Dios es amor. It goes on to say that whoever does not love, does not know God, and that God sent Jesus into the world because God loved humanity. God’s love knows no boundaries. In fact, God’s love breaks boundaries. God’s love is not something humanity can control or contain.
Today’s Gospel tells us that Jesus loves us in the same way God the Father loves Jesus His Son. Jesus commands all of us to love one another. That’s right, I said command. For Jesus, our love for one another is not a suggestion, but a mandate, meaning something we must do, which immediately raises the question of how can we be forced to love another person? Isn’t love that comes from the heart, not the mind? The answer is that love is part of every person, even if in very small amounts.
And that raises the question of “what does it mean to say you love someone? One of the ways in which the English language is defective is that the word “love” encompasses multiple meanings. We use the same word to describe a romantic relationship as we do that between non-romantic friends, and feelings towards our family, our country, our favorite sports team, our preferred food, our church, and God Himself – or maybe God Herself! For me, God encompasses both the masculine love that protects me from danger and asserts my interests, as well as the feminine love that nurtures my hunger and soothes my hurts. What word would describe God’s love for all of humankind, both Gentile and Jew, the issue raised in the First Reading? This question raises the issue of what gives meaning to how we use the generic word, “love.”The answer is the context in which the word is used.
The New Testament was originally entirely in Greek. That language contains four principal words for love: eros, storge, phileo, and agape. Eros is sexual attraction, the physical love between partners in a purely romantic relationship, not necessarily a committed one. Storge refers to love between members of a community, family or tribe. It arises out of the circumstances in which it is situated. Phileo grows out between people who choose to be with one another due to commonality of tastes and preferences. Agape, however, is totally selfless love. But each of the four foregoing categories are not separate and distinct. Many relationships have some element of each.
Agape was the term for love appearing in both the Second Reading and the Gospel. It was considered in Greek society to the highest form of love, because it is selfless love. It has been described as taking pleasure in something, prizing it above all other things, and be unwilling to abandon it or do without it. Agape puts the beloved first and sacrifices pride, self-interest and possessions for the sake of that beloved. Agape is the kind of love that holds relationships together in an everlasting sense. Agape is the kind of love God expects of us in our relationships with other people.
Everlastingly, without limit, and without condition is how God loves us. On the cross, we encounter Jesus who gave up his own life because He loved us enough to make so supreme a sacrifice. God’s love for us is not based on our individual merits. It is not based on what we do or don’t do. It is truly unconditional.
The church has traditionally taught that the love Jesus has for the Church is the model for love between spouses. A marriage that lasts forever is not just based on sexual attraction, nor is it based on the fact of being married, nor does it arise from common interests. It is based on unconditional love and the willingness of each spouse to sacrifice himself or herself for the other. That’s truly something that’s not on the radar for many people who get married in today’s world, where the prevailing ethic seems to be, “we’ll stay together as long as we are happy.”
In today’s Gospel, Jesus calls us into a personal relationship that goes beyond being servants. Yes, Jesus told us service to others is important. He rebuked the disciples when they argued at the Last Supper about who was the greatest, telling them that whoever wants to be first among you, let him be your servant. Jesus Himself came among us as one who serves. At that same Last Supper, he took on that role as he washed the feet of his disciples.
The love to which Jesus calls us in today’s gospel goes beyond mere servanthood. The context of today’s Gospel is the portion of John known as the Farewell Discourses, delivered to by Jesus to His disciples at the Last Supper with utmost sincerity. Jesus knew that He would die the next day. Jesus tells His disciples He loves them so much that calls them as His friends, not just His servants.
Friendship. What exactly is that? Its most important characteristic is that friendship is a relationship entered by choice. It is not biological, like sexual love or the love between parent and child. Jesus demonstrated that by reminding his disciples that he chose them as his friends.For Jesus, true friendship is unconditional. A true friend is an ally when alliances are necessary. True friends are those who would lay down their lives for each other. Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel that the greatest of loves is shown by one who lays down one’s life for one’s friends. Because Jesus considers His disciples as His friends, He would lay down His life for them, and the day after he spoke those words, he did exactly that.
But in the Farewell Discourses, Jesus was not only addressing his disciples. He was speaking to all of us. In a later part of the Farewell Discourses, the part known as the “High Priestly Prayer,” Jesus said, ““I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word. Jesus was praying not only for His disciples, but for all of us as well, because Jesus wants not just his disciples as His friend, but us as well.
The words of Jesus tell us something about the value of friendship in our own lives. Friendship goes beyond mere companionship. Friendship is not only unconditional love; it is unconditional loyalty. A friend will put your interests ahead of his or her own interest. On a practical basis in our world, a friend will lend or give when we are in need, nurse us in sickness, and stand up for us against our adversaries. Friends are always together side by side on the same side. A friend is someone who not only doesn’t care if you’re ugly or boring but doesn’t even think about it; someone who forgives you no matter what you do, and someone who tries to help you even when they don’t know how. A friend is someone who tells you if you’re being stupid, but who doesn’t make you feel stupid. A friend is someone who would sacrifice his or her happiness for yours. A friend is someone who will come with you when you must do boring things like watch bad recitals, go to stuffy parties, or wait in boring lobbies. Friends are on the same wavelength to the extent that you don’t even think about who’s talking or who’s listening in a conversation with a friend. As you go through life, you will realize that good friends are hard to find, and when found, not easy to keep. Given its self-sacrificial nature, friendship is the most demanding of all loves.
However, the most difficult thing for all of us to accept is when someone rejects our offer of friendship, when someone shuns our outstretched hand, often, because that person would rather pursue the agenda of a life agenda without us. Sometimes that’s based on pure selfishness, and other times, based fear of intimacy with us or fear of the commitment friendship would entail. Jesus, who was fully human just as we are, understood that all too well, as one despised and rejected in his own community. As well all know, prophets are never welcome in their home town. The quest for friendship must therefore occur in an ever-widening circle around us.That is precisely what Peter was doing in today’s first reading, which manifested an agenda to extend the salvation proclaimed by Jesus beyond the local Jewish community, recognizing that the Holy Spirit was active in the Gentile world as well, declaring that they should be accepted through baptism into the Christian community.
Jesus is calling all of us, and I mean, ALL of us, to see the people coming through our doors as not just guests or visitors, but as friends. Reach out to them. Find out what’s going on in their lives. Find out what their needs are and fulfill them as best you can. As Jesus chose His disciples to be His friends, we are called to reach out to others as our friends. As a community, we will prosper by building friendships among ourselves and those outside the church.
What’s the best way to get others to church? It is through friendship, which is built on trust. Jesus entrusted the continuance of His ministry to His disciples, a trust the disciples freely accepted arising out of their unconditional love or, and loyalty to, Jesus. As successors of His original disciples by way of our baptism, Jesus trusts us to do likewise. You can count on Jesus to always be your loyal friend. Be His as well, and, as Julian of Norwich tells us, “all will be well.” AMEN.