Homily: Pentecost (Day) – Cycle B
“Love, and do what you want.” Perhaps for some of you who grew up in that era (or, perhaps, if you are like me and you’ve watched too many movies or TV shows about that era) these words might sound like a “hippie mantra” from the late 1960’s. “Hey man, why can’t we all just love each other and do what we want?” (And yes, I know that I am caricaturing this era, which isn’t fair, so I hope that nobody is offended by it.) Would you be surprised to know, however, that this is actually a quote from a fifth century bishop? Saint Augustine, to be exact. Now, it might seem that Saint Augustine wouldn’t have much in common with a 1960’s hippie, but if you look at what each would be implying by this statement you might find that they are more similar than you think.
Regarding the first part—to love—I would guess that Saint Augustine and hippies might mean the same thing. Love, in its simplest definition, means to do good, positive things to others and, thus, to do no harm. Hippies from the 60’s were upset that our political differences and agendas were causing uprisings and violence throughout the world. By preaching “love”, they were hoping to bring us back to the realization that we are all one human family and thus should care for one another. Saint Augustine—who was the bishop of Hippo, by the way… (coincidence? I think not!)—would also proclaim that love demands that we put aside our differences and agendas and care for one another as brothers and sisters. Both have touched on the very essence of love, thus, these two very different people, seem to agree.
Regarding the second part, however, their meanings seem to diverge. For the hippie, love was a license for licentiousness. “Do whatever you want”, therefore, would have been a cry for freedom to engage in whatever he or she felt like doing, as long as it didn’t seem to hurt anyone else. For Saint Augustine, however, what you “want” must be ordered to love. In other words, love, in his understanding, shapes what it is that I want and so puts certain limits on it. Thus, Saint Augustine wasn’t calling for a freedom from restraints, but rather a freedom for fulfilling the demands of love. His conclusion: if we are totally focused on love—that is, true self-sacrifice for others—then all of our desires will be ordered to love. Thus, since there is no law limiting love, then I am free to “do whatever I want”, because “whatever I want” will be good for me and for all those around me.
Saint Paul clarifies this for us in his letter to the Galatians, which we read in our second reading. Throughout his preaching, Paul claimed over and over again that those who put their faith in Christ find freedom: true freedom for fulfilling the demands of love. The Galatians, however, must have thought otherwise: that the freedom we have in Christ is really a freedom for “whatever” (that is, the licentiousness that the ‘60’s hippies wanted to claim for their own). Paul, therefore, explains the difference between the true freedom of the Spirit and the false freedom of licentiousness. He says that “the flesh has desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh” and that “these are opposed to each other, so that you may not do what you want.” In other words, living in the flesh leads to doing what it is that you don’t really want to do; and what else is slavery if it isn’t “being forced to do what you do not want to do”? However, “if you are guided by the Spirit,” Paul continues, “you are not under the law.” In other words, life guided by the Spirit is true freedom, for there is no law to restrict it.
My brothers and sisters, because of the sin of our first parents our human nature has been wounded and the desires of the flesh have overcome the power of the Spirit. This effect on our human nature was a punishment for our sin. Christ, by his death and resurrection, has redeemed our sin so that we might be saved from eternal death. Nevertheless, our nature remains the same: we are still naturally driven by the desires of the flesh. God has given us the gift of the Holy Spirit, however, to guide us so that we might overcome the desires of the flesh and enjoy the true freedom of the Spirit.
Who of us hasn’t struggled against at least one of the “works of the flesh” that Saint Paul lists in today’s reading: “immorality, impurity, lust, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like”? And who of us hasn’t at one time in our lives been living in one or more of these sins—and suffering because of it—yet cried out to God saying “I believe in you, why am I suffering like this?” We are living outside of God’s grace—that is, outside of the life of God’s Spirit—and yet we expect to experience its fruits: love, joy, peace, and the rest! My brothers and sisters, if our lives are not producing these fruits then our first question ought to be directed not towards God—“Why are you permitting this?”—but rather towards ourselves—“What ‘works of the flesh’ are controlling my life?” In other words, “What’s my favorite sin and why can’t I let go of it?
My brothers and sisters, if we want to know the true freedom of the Spirit, that is, if we want to love and to do what we truly want, then we must crucify our flesh with its passions and desires so as to be guided by the Spirit. Only then will we begin to discover the freedom that produces the fruits of love, joy, and peace in our lives. Only then will we live free from the law, because our hearts will be so attuned to love that there could be no restrictions on doing whatever it is our hearts desire.
This weekend we celebrate Memorial Day: a day in which we honor those men and women who have lost their lives serving in our nation’s armed forces. It is a day in which we are reminded that the freedom that we enjoy in this country isn’t free: it came at price. And so, as we honor those who fought and died for our freedom in this country, let us also honor the one who died for our true freedom—Jesus Christ—by following his Spirit, whose gift to us we celebrate this day.