6th Sunday of Easter (B)
Religious institutions and people of faith often have trouble accepting that God’s lavish expression of love is for everyone. Some believe it is their solemn duty to enforce standards on those they consider, say, not yet ready for full and active participation.
Is it helpful, or even our right, to remind those we deem to be sinners of Jesus’ command to “sin no more” while we half-heartedly obey his command to love one another? What? We are good people! We love our neighbors! All are welcome in our faith communities! It’s just that some are more welcome than others.
We see in the Acts of the Apostles how the early church grew in great numbers despite established religious boundaries and parameters. It became apparent to Peter and the others that the Holy Spirit moved where it willed and that human constructs of cleanliness, worth, nationality, gender or rank were meaningless to God. Consequentially, the young Christian movement reinterpreted itself as universal, or catholic (small c). Peter observed, “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.” [Acts 10:34b-35]
In the late 1960s, a book entitled “Tough Love” suggested a method of discipline that gave permission to treat others harshly as a means of helping them to conform. The theory goes something like this: If we deprive a person of affection, cease material support, and shun them they will soon realize they have been wrong and return to the fold as a conforming citizen. Although the method has been effective in some cases, it has also been known to be harmful. Many faith communities practice a form of tough love on those standing on the outside who wish to come in. This is not the way Jesus loves us, and it’s not the way the Father loves him. Furthermore, this is not what it means to remain—to be included—in his love. And that’s the point.
Jesus said: “As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.” [John 15:9]
And, “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.” [John 15:12]
And, “This I command you: love one another.” [John 15:17]
Jesus doesn’t add any exemptions to his instruction. He doesn’t say, “This I command you: love one another, except when they are A, B, or C, in which case you may withhold your love until they comply.” Radical and inclusive love is difficult for a lot of people. Our world is troubled because many of us don’t know how to love others outside of our immediate circle. More fundamentally, we are unwilling to expose ourselves first to the radical love that God showers upon us.
My dear friend, Fr. Joel Fortier, exemplifies what it means to love one another and remain in Jesus’ love. His whole life and ministry are all about facilitating loving human relationships, and I and countless others have experienced God’s love through him. He once told me, “Early in my priesthood, a friend asked me what my priesthood meant to me, and out of my mouth came without any hesitation or forethought, “To help make love happen, anywhere and any way possible.”” This statement has become the core of his pastoral plan. It is being love, encountering love and knowing his own belovedness that leads Fr. Joel to act. “It happens with sharing my time and presence in Word, Eucharist, thought, and action. In works of compassion, listening, and material physical help.” It is in the mutual indwelling of God that Fr. Joel finds and shares God’s initiative and grace with others. Being able to do so, he says, “is the joy and the ecstasy of life!”
When we become aware of our “being first loved” by God, just as Jesus was, we can take the first step to loving one another with a radical and inclusive love. Peter gradually came to understood this through his experience of knowing Jesus and was able to recognize it in the emerging Christian community.
A funny thing happens when someone experiences the expression of God’s lavish initiative through radical and inclusive love. He or she then becomes more capable than ever before to share that love with others. It increases, and it flows into every crevice of human interaction. It’s unstoppable.
With this understanding, who could be left out?