Homily Notes: 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
The Second Reading is 1 Corinthians 13…I wonder what Fr. David will speak about???
“The greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13b) What is the beating heart of the Christian faith? Agape. Selfless love. We have come to the center, to the singularly distinctive characteristic of Christianity. Love. Christianity in its essentials comes down to charity, and nothing else.
I once heard of a Moslem scholar describing Christianity as it appeared to outsiders, as it appeared to the Muslims. He said that Christians are institution builders. They erect parishes with schools and hospitals and universities and agencies to serve the poor. From the Muslim perspective, Christians build and service various sorts of institutions. Such an analysis makes me tremble. Hopefully the heart of all our institutions, the driving force behind them, the raison d’etre for them is selfless love. An institution merely for the sake of an institution is pathetic vanity.
Jesus makes clear the centrality of love in the Gospels. His Great Commandment, in Greek His “Mega” Commandment is, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22:37) (This is the raison d’etre for my blog.) The Second Commandment is like it, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:39) Thus the two greatest commandments concern love. This is 1 Corinthians 13 boiled down to the essentials.
If you find me to be obsessed or repetitive on this topic, you would not be the first. At my Deacon parish, St. John the Evangelist in Davison, MI one of folks called me “Mr. Agape” because I was always homilizing about it. Some things never change.
We are limited in the English language with only one tiny word to summarize the semantic equivalent of Asia. So with one lonely word I say, “I love pretzels. I love Merlot. I love Chopin. I love Greek. I love my parish. I love my mother. I love Jesus.” Hopefully, I mean drastically different things when I use the same predicate to describe my relationship with pretzels and with my Savior.
Greek has a greater variety of verbs to capture diverse shades of meaning. So when I want to express affection for food or drink or music, or any thing I can use the word storge. When I want to express the higher love I have for a friend or relation, I can use the word philia. When I need to describe the superlative love between a husband and wife which can result in the procreation of immortal beings, thus changing the universe forever, I have the Greek word eros. Finally, when I want to describe Who God Is, when I want to explain the fundamental nature of all reality, when I want to express divine love, I can use the word agape.
We see agape writ large on the cross. The cross is the perfect picture of a love that gives and gives and does not know how to say “enough!” The Eucharist is another excellent example of agape, obviously since it is tied so closely to the cross. Jesus said, “This is my body given up for you…this is my blood shed for you.” Jesus gives us His whole self in the Eucharist, holding nothing back. This is agape-love.
St. Paul elevates agape-love beyond any other Christian reality. Towards the end of 1 Corinthians chapter 12, St. Paul describes various spiritual gifts (in Greek, charismata). He lists tongues, healers, and workers of miracles. However in verse 31 he writes, “But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.” Higher gifts than healing and working miracles? More excellent than that? Oh my.
Do we think of love as St. Paul does? Without it we are “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” Without love we are NOTHING; in spite of our best efforts, without love we gain NOTHING. “Love is patient and kind…not jealous…boastful…arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends…” (1 Corinthians 13:1-8a)
This self-sacrificing agape, this gift-love, cross-love, pours itself out on behalf of its beloved. What is most distinguishing in St. Paul’s description of it is its ability to endure despite suffering. Real love patiently puts up with tons of garbage. Love remains steadfast in the face of suffering and evil and rejection. The best human comparison I can find for agape-love is parent-love. Father-love and mother-love is often warfare. The love of a parent fights with evil and selfishness and hate and betrayal and all love’s enemies.
One might reasonably object, “Well what about hurtful people? What about those who wound me or make me, or those I love, feel worthless? How do I love toxic people?” How did Jesus love us in our toxicity? To love others in this way is hard and painful, just like the cross. In fact, to love others in this way is impossible without following The Great Commandment. We cannot love our sinful, fallen, wicked neighbor without God's help, without God’s power, without God’s strength, without God’s love. There may be times when the most loving thing possible is avoidance and private prayer. Loving others does not mean we have to invite them over to dinner or take them out to the movies. Loving others in this way does not mean we have to silently endure abuse or ignore evil in our midst. Real love does not ignore the truth and real love fights evil.
One of the greatest benefits of The Great Commandment is the freedom it brings. St. Augustine said it well when he said, “Love, and do what you will.” Indeed, this is the true freedom of the children of God. Love God. Love neighbor. And do what you will.