Have you ever heard someone say, “I used to go to church, but I’m not welcome now.”? These words, and variations of them, may be spoken in anger, sadness, resignation, but most always in hurt. Hearing them breaks my heart.
What church doesn’t welcome/like God’s people? God’s longing is to draw everyone in relationship with God, as members of the mystical Body of Christ in the world. All three of today’s readings orient us towards God’s invitation to all people, offered in love, and made manifest through our own participation and action.
First we hear about Cornelius, a Roman citizen, who prostrates himself before Peter. Without hesitation, Peter tells him to get up, reminding Cornelius that he too is human, not divine. We are all human, and Jesus – who is divinity enfleshed, came to draw us into deeper relationship with God through one another. Peter tells Cornelius that God shows no partiality, and that every nation that “fears him and acts uprightly” is “acceptable” to Him. At this point, the Holy Spirit “fell upon all who were listening to the word.” Such an event is shocking to the “circumcised” who were amazed by God’s generosity and welcome to those they considered outsiders.
This makes me wonder why God’s generous welcome remains such a constant source of astonishment to many. Shouldn’t it be obvious 2000 years later? Yet here we are, perpetually stunned by God’s love. What are we, whether lay, vowed, or ordained ministers, called to do? Leave people prostrate before us? Leave them angry, hurt, and separated from the Body of Christ? Or do we imitate Peter who declared his own humanity, and who offers the healing power of God’s love?
God’s love, as expressed in and through Jesus Christ born as human in the world, indeed continues to startle us. At the upcoming feast of the Ascension we will be reminded not to keep “looking up at the sky.” We can’t simply stare and wonder where God went. We must go out and raise others up with love, and not be shocked by it!
Jesus’ love, moving in the Holy Spirit, is the current that charges us with the power to go out and raise others up. This love in action, as demonstrated by Peter today, continually raises others. Imagine God’s love in action as a film of of falling dominoes, run in reverse! Think about the dynamism of the Spirit as each of us rise up, then raising others up as a result of the power of Christ’s love.
Our second reading from the first letter of St. John and our Gospel, according to John, reinforce the power of this love in action. God loves us first, and all else is response from us. It can be a challenge to remember that, because we like to think that we are the masters of our own destiny. But we always move in response to God’s love in action, which is animated by the Spirit and embodied in the Risen Christ. Jesus tells us that we must love one another; it is not a suggestion, it is His command. If we are to follow Jesus, we have no choice but to comply. Yet, don’t we all struggle both with loving and with bringing others into that love?
“This is my command,” says Jesus, “love one another.” “Remain in my love,” comes earlier in the Gospel of John today. Another utterance of “love one another,” this time coupled with “as I have loved you.” Did you hear the words, “you are my friends”? Jesus adds that he “no longer calls us slaves.” Jesus says, “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you,” establishing all that we do is done in response to His empowering love.
So much is made clear in today’s Gospel, yet it is so difficult for us to follow. In the papal exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis points out that “Christians have the duty to proclaim the Gospel without excluding anyone.” Think of those who feel unworthy or unwelcome, as they experience that “not-quite-good-enough” status in the eyes of a church. This is what they have come to understand, intentionally or not, through some of us who are somehow excluding people.
First, let us truly try to love one another. Talk is cheap; we all know how hard this is. Let’s see if we can find ways to see others with the eyes of the heart, in the same way that God sees us. This does not mean you have to become best friends with your enemies, but perhaps you can soften our own heart to love them in some fashion. How does that help someone else who feels left out? Leave that in God’s hands. The dynamism of the Spirit does something because of softer hearts inclined to love. God initiates all; so if there is one person, or group, that you have a problem with, try to let it go with love. Where we might see someone with dislike or suspicion, God sees only love. Together, let us pray to surrender to that love; we may surprised with the results
Second, let another love you. We all know people that we keep at arm’s length, or even push away. We may feel too busy, not sure of their intentions. Maybe it is someone you do have at less than arms’ length, but that you have not really “let in” to your heart. Ask God for help, and see what happens by letting them love you first. Remember that Jesus’ command is lived out fully when we love one another. Are you willing to try?
Third, let God love you. What? Yes, let God love you… as you are. We all put on a mask or persona for the world, even for those close to us. We don’t want to disappoint those we love, especially God. It may seem easier to cover up and not reveal parts of ourselves to others, but God sees and knows it all, even if we imagine, or pray that God doesn’t. Take the bandage off the wound of your heart, letting God’s love in. See what healing happens. Like Peter, we are human, but we can love. Be patient and do what you can; God will do the rest.
These three kinds of attempts of loving and being loved are how Jesus’ transforms the world, and how we can lift others up in that love. We are all transformed through this love! At some time or another, we may all be stranded at the gate or worse yet, walking away from it. Like ripples in a pond, the love of God unleashed in the Risen Christ. Go change the world and be changed by the power of God. Go forth in love!
(Previously published in “Sick, And You Cared For Me: Homilies and Reflections for Cycle B” from Clear Faith Publishing. We are the “Homilists for the Homeless,” a project launched by Deacon Jim Knipper, with contributions from a wide variety of authors, including Rob Bell, James Martin SJ, Jan Richardson, and Richard Rohr OFM. Proceeds fund charitable works of all kinds. At this point in time we have contributed over $60,000 to our selected charities. You can purchase this book and our other works at the link.)