Monday, May 20, 2019

Is our love super-natural?

Homily: 5th Sunday of Easter – Cycle C
          I would dare to say that most of us know what self-sacrificial love looks like.  This is because most of us have had opportunities to exercise this type of love in our lives.  If you’re parents, you know that, to give your children the best opportunities in this world, you have to make sacrifice after sacrifice: both in little things and in big things.  If you’re married, you know that, to give your wife or husband the happiness that he/she deserves, you, too, have to make sacrifice after sacrifice: again, both in little things and in big things (and you recognize it even when you fail to do it… and sometimes especially when you fail to do it… am I right?).  Best friends, too, know that they show their love most when they make sacrifices for each other.
          Now these sacrifices of self are called love because they are made for the good of the other and not for the good of the one making the sacrifice—but rather purely because the one making the sacrifice desires the good of the other.  Although we often look at this type of love as heroic, the fact of the matter is that it is quite natural for us.  When we feel an affinity for or with someone, we become willing to suffer many things for them.
          As Christians, however, we are called to take this kind of love to the next level.  We are asked to love everyone—including those with whom we may have no connection—and we’re called to love them as if they were our wife, our son, or our best friend.  This is a new kind of love: a love that goes beyond our natural inclinations—beyond, at least, our natural inclinations weakened by sin.  This is a love, therefore, that is beyond nature: a love that is truly super-natural.
          The apostles Paul and Barnabas show us an example of this kind of super-natural love in our first reading today.  To see this, we must first take a closer look at a part of the reading that we might just ignore if we didn’t know the context.  Therefore, let’s take a closer look at the beginning of the reading.  The reading opens by saying: “After Paul and Barnabas had proclaimed the good news to that city and made a considerable number of disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch.”  “That city” is Derbe, which is the place to which Paul and Barnabas went after they had been driven out of Lystra, which was the city to which they went after they had been driven out of Iconium.  The Scriptures tell us that the Jews and Gentiles in Iconium plotted to stone Paul and Barnabas, but that Paul and Barnabas discovered the plot and so fled to Lystra.  While they proclaimed the Good News there, Jews from Iconium showed up, stirred up the crowds, and actually succeeded in stoning Paul; after which they dragged him out of the city, supposing he was dead.  He wasn’t dead, but the next day Paul and Barnabas left Lystra for Derbe to proclaim the Good News there.
          Now, doesn’t that first line seem much more significant?  It said, “They returned to Lystra and to Iconium…”  They returned to the very place where the people wanted them dead!  And why?  Well, the Scriptures don’t say it plainly, but I believe it is because of the love that they had for the people of those cities.  These were not people that they knew.  Rather, they were people who needed to receive the Good News of salvation through Jesus Christ; and Paul and Barnabas would not be stopped until the people of these cities received this Good News.  Their efforts were of no benefit to themselves—the Scriptures show us that it brought them nothing but death threats.  Rather, their efforts were purely for the benefit of those who received them: the sign of true self-sacrificial love on the super-natural level.
          This kind of super-natural love is the kind of love that Jesus commands for his disciples when he gives them the “new commandment” to love one another.  And just to be sure that his disciples knew that he meant something more than our natural ability to love one another, he followed this command by saying, “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another”.  And what was Jesus’ super-natural act of love?  The cross, of course.  There, he handed over his life completely for everyone—everyone who ever existed, everyone who existed then or exists now, and everyone who will ever exist—regardless of whether they accept him or not.  And he did it not for any benefit that he would gain for himself—he is the Son of God, he has no need of anything—but rather for the benefit of everyone else, simply because he desired it for them… for us.  This is the same super-natural love that led Paul and Barnabas, filled with the Holy Spirit, back into Lystra and Iconium; and this is the same super-natural love that we are still called to offer in our own lives today. ///
          A few years ago, Penn Jillette (who is one half of the comedy duo “Penn & Teller” and who is an avowed atheist) recorded a little video describing how a man approached him after one of his comedy shows and gave him a little book of the New Testament and the Psalms.  He said that he appreciated receiving it.  As an atheist, he was commending this man for proselytizing because, he said, it seemed to him to be a logical consequence of belief and of being a good person.  “How much do you have to hate somebody,” he said, “to believe that everlasting life is possible and then not tell them [about it]?”  I dare say that his question is a challenging question to us all.  Do we really love with the super-natural love that Christ commands us to have if we believe what we profess to believe, but then choose not to share it?  My friends, the answer is “no”.
          Thus, I’m glad that these readings come to us today, during this Easter season, because they remind us that Easter isn’t just about “alleluias”, but that it’s also about inspiring our apostolate—that is, how we live as apostles—those sent to proclaim this Good News.  Here in the Eucharist, we encounter the super-natural love of Jesus—the re-presentation of the sacrifice of his body and blood for us—and in the dismissal at the end of Mass, we are sent to go forth from here and to give that love to everyone around us: both by proclaiming this good news to anyone who will listen and then by walking with them as they come to know the love of Christ for themselves.
          Therefore, my brothers and sisters, let us not allow our celebration here to be incomplete: that is, something which we enjoy for ourselves and then leave here.  Rather, let us ask in this Eucharist for the grace to go forth from here with hearts full of love—true, super-natural love—ready to sacrifice our own lives so that others may live; and so that John’s vision of a “new heaven and a new earth”, made new by Christ’s death and resurrection, may be known to us now, in our own time.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – May 19th, 2019

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