Towards the end of my preparation for ordination, my classmates and I were required to write a short statement on what we hoped to accomplish through our preaching. While I don’t remember the exact words I wrote, I remember writing something like- “I hope to communicate the love of God I have experienced to other people.”
After more than fourteen years at the ambo, I still think striving to communicate God’s love is my most important and urgent task as a preacher. Our readings for this Sixth Sunday of Easter are all about God’s great love for us. Judging by its appearance in large letters on poster-boards at sporting and other major events going back many decades, God’s love for us is perhaps most memorably summed up in the words of John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” At the very beginning of our Gospel for today, taken from Jesus’s Last Supper Discourse in St John’s Gospel, the Lord told his disciples and, by extension, us: “As the Father loves me, so I also love you” (John 15:9).
In order to know how much Jesus loves me, I need to have some grasp of how much the Father loves him and he how much he loves the Father. I think we find a very good answer to this in our second reading from the First Letter of John in the phrase “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Before we proceed any further it is important to point out that this phrase is not reversible: God is love but love is not God. God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is God. For love to be love and not narcissism, there has to be at least two people: a lover and a beloved. Because love is profuse, or, as the dictionary defines “profuse” – “exuberantly plentiful” or “abundant” - the love between the Father and the Son is personified in the Holy Spirit.
We are rapidly approaching the Solemnity of Pentecost. After Easter, Pentecost is the most important day of the liturgical year. Yes, it is more important than Christmas. Meditating on the Holy Spirit’s descent on our Blessed Mother and the apostles on the first Christian Pentecost is what the third Glorious Mystery of Our Lady’s Rosary bids us do. The fruit of this mystery is the Love of God, which is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit in this and every Eucharist.
For the entirety of the Easter season, our first Mass reading, on both Sundays and on weekdays, is taken from the Acts of the Apostles. Our reading today happened after Pentecost. In it we hear about a Second Pentecost, what we might call the Pentecost of the Gentiles. Cornelius, a Roman centurion, approached Peter and venerated him, thus demonstrating his faith in Christ. Up until that point, the status of Gentiles in the nascent Christian church was very unclear because Christian Gentiles were practically non-existent. The primitive Church in Jerusalem remained deeply rooted in Judaism and it was not entirely distinguishable as something other than a new form of Messianic Judaism. The Church at that time consisted almost exclusively of Jews who had come to faith in Jesus as Messiah and Lord. The three thousand people who came to faith and who were baptized on the first Christian Pentecost were Jews from all over the ancient world (Acts 2:5). They were in Jerusalem for Shavuot, or, in Greek, Pentecost (Acts 2:1). Even today, during this festival, Jews celebrate God giving the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai (Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People, and Its History, New York: William Morrow And, Co., Inc., 1991: 592).
Cornelius, who, despite being a Gentile, was a generous alms-giver to the Jews and a man who prayed fervently to the God of Israel. He was what is sometimes referred to in the New Testament as a “God-fearer.” Leading up to his encounter with Peter, Cornelius had a vision in which an angel told him to send men to the city of Joppa to summon Peter (Acts 10:1-8). While the men were making their way from Caesarea to Joppa, Peter, who was staying with a fellow Jewish-Christian there, also had a vision (Acts 10:16). In this vision God told him that it was alright for him, an observant Jew, to eat unkosher foods (Acts 10:11-15).
Because the message of the vision was so radical, despite its essence being reiterated three times (i.e., “What God has made clean, you are not to call profane” [Acts 10:15]), Peter had doubts about what it meant. As Peter was contemplating the meaning of what God had revealed to him, Cornelius’s men arrived. Upon their arrival, the Holy Spirit told Peter he was to go with them “without hesitation.”
It is with Peter’s arrival at Cornelius’s house in Caesarea that our reading today begins. After Cornelius’s reverential greeting, Peter did not hesitate to tell the Roman centurion- “You know that it is unlawful for a Jewish man to associate with, or visit, a Gentile, but God has shown me that I should not call any person profane or unclean" (Acts 10:28).
The theological point here is that while, as Jesus told the Samaritan woman at the well, “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22) it is not exclusively for the Jews. In and through Christ, salvation is for everyone who fears God and acts uprightly regardless of race, gender, age, language, etc.
Because God is love he “wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:3-4) In other words, God does not discriminate. He offers salvation freely to everyone. God’s saving power is revealed by witnesses, by those who have come to faith in Christ and who bear witness, not only, or even primarily, by their preaching but by their manner of living.
Echoing Pope Francis, Bishop Oscar has called each one of us, whether we are laypersons, in religious vows, or members of the clergy, to become missionary disciples. A missionary disciple is a Christian who bears witness to Christ in everything s/he does. As Bl Pope Paul VI noted in his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi, which translates as “Proclaiming the Gospel,” a document that even Pope Francis points to as the foundational document for evangelization in our modern, or, as some might insist, our post-modern, world (J.J. Zielger, "Evangelii Nuntiandi: 'The greatest pastoral document that has ever been written'"), noted: in our day people listen more “to witnesses than to teachers” (sec. 41) If people today listen to teachers, Pope Paul continued, “it is because they are witnesses” (sec. 41). This is simply to say it is more important to walk the walk than to talk the talk. We walk the walk by loving others as Jesus loves us, which is how the Father loves him- by the power of the Holy Spirit, the power of selfless, self-sacrificing, and unconditional love.
Hence, “the first means of evangelization,” according to Pope Paul, “is the witness of an authentically Christian life, given over to God in a communion that nothing should destroy and at the same time given to one's neighbor with limitless zeal” (Evangelii nuntiandi, sec. 41). This is an echo of today’s Gospel in which Jesus tells us, his disciples, that in order to remain in him we need to keep his commandments. His commandment is straightforward: “love one another as I love you” (John 15:12).
We can only truly love because we are first loved. “In this is love,” we heard in our second reading, “not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). It is the love of the Father for his Son and the love of God’s Son for us, which love is the Holy Spirit, that raised Jesus from the dead. Because love is stronger than death, love is strong enough to overcome everything that divides us and everything that comes between us. Being a member of a Christian community does not mean belonging to a perfect, flawless group. It means belonging to a group of people committed to following Jesus, which means we are committed to forgiving one another and to being forgiven by others.
Loving one another like Jesus loves us requires us to live by the power of that love Christ constantly seeks to give us, which, again, is nothing other than the power of the Holy Spirit. Foremost among the ways Christ seeks to pour his love into our hearts is through the Eucharist we are about to receive. To properly dispose yourself to receive Christ poured out in love, like Peter, you must let yourself be convicted, challenged, and stretched. In a word, you must be willing to change, to be converted.