Friday, May 08, 2015

All We Need is Love: Readings for the Sixth Sunday of Easter

In 1967 the Beatles wrote and performed a song for one of the first world-wide TV broadcasts called, “All You Need is Love.”  It became a classic and as late as the 1980’s I can remember working on the trombone line of an adaptation of it for my high school band.  It’s one of a number of Beatles songs where they stumbled on something true out of their Christian heritage, without understanding the full implications.  In fact, they actively distorted the real implications of love by overly-eroticizing the concept.

Be that as it may, “All You Need is Love” could serve as the theme for this Sunday’s readings, but as we will see, the Readings define “love” in a far more demanding way than the Beatles would have. 

1.  The first reading is the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Roman centurion, Cornelius, sometimes called the "Gentile Pentecost" of the Book of Acts:

Reading 1 Acts 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48

When Peter entered, Cornelius met him
and, falling at his feet, paid him homage.
Peter, however, raised him up, saying,
"Get up. I myself am also a human being."

Then Peter proceeded to speak and said,
"In truth, I see that God shows no partiality.
Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly
is acceptable to him."

While Peter was still speaking these things,
the Holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening to the word.
The circumcised believers who had accompanied Peter
were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit
should have been poured out on the Gentiles also,
for they could hear them speaking in tongues and glorifying God.
Then Peter responded,
"Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people,
who have received the Holy Spirit even as we have?"
He ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

It’s worth reading through the entire chapter of Acts 10 to get the context, since our Mass reading is highly edited.  It’s striking that this account of the inclusion of the Gentiles in the Church is closely associated with Peter’s vision in Acts 10:9-16, which revealed that it was now permissible to eat “unclean” animals.  Many people wonder about the distinction between “clean” and “unclean” animals in the Old Testament: why couldn’t Jews eat pigs, for example (Lev. 11)?  There are several reasons, but one of the most important was that the distinction between clean and unclean animals was given to Israel as a pedagogy, to teach a principle of separation from the world.  The Israelites were to consider themselves like the “clean” animals, and the Gentiles like the “unclean.”  Just as they could not eat “unclean” animals, likewise they could not mix with the “unclean” Gentiles.  Moreover, Israel’s different diet (proto-“kosher”) forced them to stay culturally separate from surrounding peoples, as it does to this day.

Observe how Israel’s unique national identity is closely associated with the “clean” vs. “unclean” animals already in Leviticus 20:

24 I am the LORD your God, who have separated you from the peoples.  25 You shall therefore make a distinction between the clean beast and the unclean, and between the unclean bird and the clean; you shall not make yourselves abominable by beast or by bird or by anything with which the ground teems, which I have set apart for you to hold unclean.  26 You shall be holy to me; for I the LORD am holy, and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine.

This distinction and correlation also appears in Second Temple Jewish literature from the centuries shortly before the birth of Christ.  For example, in the Animal Apocalypse of Enoch (1 Enoch 85-90), the history of Israel is retold, using an faunal allegory: clean animals (bulls, sheep) represent Israelites, and unclean animals (wolves, swine, etc.) represent the Gentiles.

The food laws and the separation from the Gentiles go together.  And so it is in Acts 10.  St. Peter sees a vision releasing him from the food laws, and then is called to the house of the Gentile Cornelius, and witnesses the descent of the Holy Spirit on this Gentile household.

As Joseph Fitzmyer has pointed out, the giving of the Holy Spirit in Acts is always tied to the ministry of the Apostles: it is given by their hands, in their presence, or through the ministry of someone sent by them.  Luke is showing the unity of what we might separate into the “charismatic” and the “hierarchical” Church.  Luke is saying, “There is just one Church.”  The Apostles and their delegates form the hierarchical backbone, and the gift of the fullness of the Spirit comes through their ministry.  And so it remains to this day.  There is a real danger within charismatic renewal movements—of which there have been many throughout Church history—of separating the “moving of the Spirit” from the authority structures which God has given to the Church.  This leads to disunity, rancor, and schism, as groups that regard themselves as spiritual elites break off from the “unspiritual” rest of the Church.  The saints have often experienced the direct and supernatural working of the Holy Spirit, but have sought ways to exercise their gifts and charisms within the framework of authority and apostolic succession which is itself also a gift of the Spirit.    

To emphasize the unity of what we might call the spirit-ual and the hierarchical dimensions of the Church, in the Latin rite the bishop comes personally to celebrate the confirmation of believers in the Spirit.  As successor of the Apostles, the bishop wishes to be present to assure the faithful gift of the Spirit to those young in the faith.  This is on our minds, as this season of the liturgical year is customary for the celebration of the sacrament of confirmation.  All the parishes in Steubenville, for example, are confirming children between mid-April and mid-May.

Returning to the text of Acts, we see that Luke is also emphasizing that the decision to authorize the Gentiles to be baptized and become full members of the Church without circumcision was made by the Holy Spirit and Peter, not Paul.  Paul, to this day, gets unfairly portrayed as the “inventor” of Gentile Christianity, or the “inventor” of Christianity, period.  People attribute to Paul the decision to admit non-circumcised Gentiles to the Church and to begin preaching the Gospel among non-Jews.

While Paul was certainly “the Apostle to the Gentiles” (Rom 11:13), Luke is at great pains to show that Peter authorized this transition.  Peter and Paul preach one Gospel.  There is not a Jewish Church and a Gentile Church, nor two paths to salvation.  There is just one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, which is not only a visible body but certainly is a visible body gathered around a visible leadership.

At first, this reading from Acts may seem to have little to do with the Second and Gospel readings, which focus on love.  But we should recall the close relationship between divine love and the Holy Spirit, which St. Paul emphasizes in one of the most important passages of Scripture:

“God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Rom 5:5)

The Holy Spirit is the Divine Love, and we need Him in our heart to fulfill the command of love which Jesus gives us, which is not otherwise humanly possible to fulfill.

2.  The Responsorial Psalm is one of several in the Psalter that calls on all the “Gentiles” or “nations” to praise the LORD:

Responsorial Psalm Ps 98:1, 2-3, 3-4

R. (cf. 2b) The Lord has revealed to the nations his saving power.
Sing to the LORD a new song,
for he has done wondrous deeds;
His right hand has won victory for him,
his holy arm.
R. The Lord has revealed to the nations his saving power.
The LORD has made his salvation known:
in the sight of the nations he has revealed his justice.
He has remembered his kindness and his faithfulness
toward the house of Israel.
R. The Lord has revealed to the nations his saving power.
All the ends of the earth have seen
the salvation by our God.
Sing joyfully to the LORD, all you lands;
break into song; sing praise.
R. The Lord has revealed to the nations his saving power.

The Church has us sing this psalm in part to remind us that even in the Old Covenant, there was a robust awareness that God’s saving plan was eventually to include all the nations, food laws not withstanding.  The Israelites were heirs to the promises of Abraham, but these promises looked forward to the blessing of all the nations (Gen 12:3; 22:18).  The outpouring of the Holy Spirit is the blessing of the nations that was promised to Abraham, father of Israel (see Gal 3:14).

3. Our Second Reading is one of the most famous passages from 1 John, which several years ago was turned into a popular folk-praise song (“Beloved, Let Us Love One Another”):

Reading 2: 1 Jn 4:7-10

Beloved, let us love one another,
because love is of God;
everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God.
Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love.
In this way the love of God was revealed to us:
God sent his only Son into the world
so that we might have life through him.
In this is love:
not that we have loved God, but that he loved us
and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.

Everyone loves this passage; maybe even the Beatles would agree that in a sense “God is love”—but the Beatles would have never sung about “the Son of God who is an expiation for our sins”!  They didn’t want to sing or think about that sin concept!

Although the world likes the idea of “God as love,” the world likes to define “God” and “love” in its own ways, and separate God’s love from God’s truth.  And the truth of God, which 1 John also strongly emphasizes, is that we have walked in darkness away from God, that this is sin, and that sin cannot be dealt with in some trivial way without a costly act of God—in fact, the costliest act of God: the giving of his only Son.  Love is not love until it suffers, because love without suffering has not yet truly given itself.  God’s love is supreme because it is the supreme self-gift, which required the supreme suffering of the Cross.

John reminds us of the Cross and its connection with God’s love by calling Jesus our “expiation” (Greek hilasmos), a very rare Greek word used only six times in the Old Testament, most prominently in Lev 25:9 to refer to the Day of Atonement.  Jesus is the fulfillment of the Day of Atonement, and not just for Israel, but for the “world,” as Peter discovered in the First Reading.

4.  The Gospel reading continues the True Vine discourse from last week:

Gospel: Jn 15:9-17

Jesus said to his disciples:
"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."

"I have told you this so that my joy may be in you
and your joy might be complete.
This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.
No one has greater love than this,
to lay down one's life for one's friends.
You are my friends if you do what I command you.
I no longer call you slaves,
because a slave does not know what his master is doing.
I have called you friends,
because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.
It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you
and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain,
so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you.
This I command you: love one another."

As many have pointed out, the Old Testament commanded us to love our neighbor as ourselves (Lev 19:18), but Jesus commands us to love each other as he loved us.  This is a taller order, because Jesus loved us more than we love ourselves.  He loved us to the point of suffering a shameful and painful death.  He gave us the complete gift of self.

“As the Father loves me, so also I love you,” Jesus says.  Then he commands, “love one another as I love you.”  So: the Father’s love for Jesus is the same as Jesus’ love for us; and Jesus’ love for us must be replicated in our love for each other.  What is happening here is that the whole Church is being called to enter into the circle of divine love which is the Trinity.

One way to understand the Trinity is as a circle of love, in which each person is giving himself to the others.  The Father always is giving his whole Self to the Son; the Son is always giving his whole Self to the Father, and the Self they exchange is the Spirit.  Our Lord, in today’s Gospel, is calling every Christian to enter into that circle of love.

How can we?  How can finite persons endure the burning flames of divine love?  How can we also enter into a total gift of self?  It is beyond our human capacity; yet that is the connection with the First Reading.  We cannot love this way without being “divinized” ourselves through a “participation in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4) through the reception of the Holy Spirit.  The gift of the Holy Spirit in Acts 10 makes it possible for us to live out the otherwise impossible command Jesus gives us in the Gospel.

Again, we should be amazed at Jesus’ invitation to us to enter into divine life.  As many have pointed out, this is remarkable among world religions.  In Islam, you stay as slaves of God—but Jesus calls us “friends.”  In most eastern religions, you try to annihilate the illusion of your self-existence or otherwise merge yourself back into the impersonal universal being that is All.  But becoming the “friends” of the personal God by sharing the gift of his Self, his own Spirit, which is love?  That is good news!

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