Sunday, April 24, 2016

Loving Beyond Tolerance

James Tissot, The Last Sermon of Our Lord (c. 1892)

“Love one another,” Jesus tells us in the Gospel today. And what a nice idea that is. It’s simple, clear, even logical.

And it’s famous! Along with the “Treat others as you would be treated,” there’s no saying of Jesus, or line from the Bible, or ethos of Christianity that is more well known. We see it on billboards and bumper stickers, everywhere from mission statements to tattoos. Often it is embraced by those who wouldn’t dare to call themselves Christians – and sometimes it’s even used against Christians, to challenge them as to whether some specific belief or practice is really in keeping with “loving one another.”

But as simple as this statement seems, as easy it might sound, I think the vast majority of us get it wrong. Of course, we certainly get it wrong in living it out – if only we truly did “love one another,” the world would be a much happier place. We’re sinners, unfortunately, and we need help from God and his grace in truly loving others.

And yet, I think we also fail at times to understand what Jesus really meant. Because when he said “Love one another,” he did not mean merely “be nice to one another,” or “do your best not to upset or offend one another." Often, this "new commandment" of Jesus is interpreted as a commandment of tolerance as the ultimate moral good, with our desire to not to offend, or disrupt or disturb coming before all else.

But that just isn’t consistent with what we know about Jesus – a man who challenged the presumptions of the Sadducees, condemned the hardness of heart of the Pharisees; a man who cleansed the Temple, who called the disciples to leave everything and to follow him, a man who brought healing of body and soul to so many who were suffering from deformity or illness or sin.

For Jesus, “love” can’t be equated with a basic tolerance, with a desire not to offend or disturb. His love rather is for something. It's intentional, it's directed at a goal – namely, the good of the other, and their true good at that, not what we believe their good to be, or even what they believe their good to be. In a sense, Jesus loved in a way that was precisely not tolerant: he came to offend our sinful way of thinking, to disturb our apathy and brokenness; in short, he came to wake us up and bring us back to God. And by his Passion, Death, and Resurrection, which we celebrate in this Easter season, Jesus proved just how much he meant it.

Notice how today’s Gospel comes in a key moment of Jesus’s life. Did you hear how it began? It said, “When Judas had left” – that is, “left” to go and betray him. And Jesus begins by saying “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him.” How exactly was Jesus going to be glorified, and God glorified through him? By being handed over to torturers, by being beaten and stripped, by being crucified on the Cross – all as a testament of what true love really is, of what God’s love for us is like.

For Jesus, and for us who follow him, love is not primarily a feeling, but an action, a witness, something that is tested, something that must be proven. And the true test of whether we really love is what we do in times of difficulty and rejection. Jesus’s commands us “to love one another”, not in a generic sense, not as the world understands love, but rather “as I have loved you.” That’s an important qualifier – loving as he loved means to love whole-heartedly, knowing that we will suffer for this love, that we will be inconvenienced and challenged and rejected and maybe even persecuted. If we are truly to love one another as he has loved us, then we must love each other in such a way that we lead others closer to God, challenging each other at times perhaps, and encouraging each other (and ourselves) to not be satisfied with tolerance or mediocrity, not settle not for what we like, but for what is truly right, for what is truly good.

Friends, Jesus continues to give us, just as he did his first disciples, that same commandment – to love one another as he did. And to do so, as Paul and Barnabas said, “it is necessary for us to endure many hardships, in order to enter the kingdom of God.” When you find yourself challenged in some way – because another has ignored you, or offended you, or betrayed you, or scorned you – remember that commandment of Jesus, and ask him for the strength to love as he did. And then do so, joyfully. As we prepare to receive the sacrament which, above all else in our lives, helps us to love as Jesus loved, may we renew our commitment to do just that, that he might continue through us “to make all things new.”

Sunday, April 3, 2016

A Mercy Greater than Fear

For some of us, they are tangible things – spiders, snakes, lions and tigers and bears. For others of us, they are less tangible – debt, illness, loneliness. All of us fear something, something that impacts how we act, the choices we make, the things we desire.

In the Gospel reading for today, fear plays a dramatic and important role. The disciples have gathered in the Upper Room and the doors, as we are told, are locked – even more than a week from the Resurrection, the disciples are still hiding behind closed doors as they struggle to understand the meaning of what has happened.. They are, on the one hand, fearful of the Jews, afraid of what those who put Jesus to death might do to them. But on the other, they also perhaps are fearful of Jesus, afraid of the one who has Risen from the dead because they had abandoned him in his hour of greatest need.

In our lives as well, we struggle at times with our fears. Whether it’s the creepy-crawly things when we are younger, or as we age things less tangible but just as real, our fears can sometimes come to define who we are and how we act. Fears can limit us; they can restrict us. The figure of Thomas is a good example of this. As we heard, Thomas is not present with the other apostles when Jesus first appears to them. He is somewhere else, somewhere separate. Perhaps, we can take this as a metaphor that he is not spiritually disposed to receive the news that the Master has risen from the dead. And as we heard, he does not initially believe. In fact, he is rather determined that unless he physically encounters Jesus – placing his finger in his hand, and his hand in his side – he will not believe.

The apostle Thomas has often been interpreted throughout history in a particular way. That is, he’s seen as the skeptic, the one who needs proof, the one who demands a sign in order to put forward his belief. But there is, I think, another way of interpreting him. That is, he’s a man who has been wounded, a man who had put his entire faith and trust in Jesus and for whom the death of Jesus was a deep trauma. He had put so much hope in Christ as the Messiah, hope that is seemingly dashed when he is crucified and put to death. Now, Thomas is … hesitant and afraid. He is afraid to trust again, to believe, afraid to put on the line again what was so deeply important to him, afraid of being disillusioned once again.

Into this fear and confusion, Jesus enters. He is not angry at the apostles’ fearfulness. He is not wrathful at Thomas’s hesitancy. Instead, he comes with a message of conciliation – “Peace be with you,” “do not be unbelieving but believe.” Jesus the Risen One is not worried about our shortcomings and our failings; instead, he desires earnestly to rescue us from them, to free us from what binds us and holds us back, what causes us fear and dismay. One might think he would have grown exasperated – these disciples who never understood him during his ministry, whose faith constantly comes up short, who even after his own death and resurrection still are hesitant to believe, demanding proof as Thomas did. But Jesus is never exasperated, not with them and not with us. He is patient with our weakness, merciful to our sinfulness, able to wait us out and break through what we fear so as to give us what we need.

The phrase “a Doubting Thomas” has entered our lexicon. But that phrase doesn’t really get to the heart of who Thomas was. For though Thomas doubted, he was convinced; though he wavered, he held firm. He is as much a Believing Thomas, as anything else, the first one to recognize among the Apostles Jesus as not just the Christ, the one sent by God. Encountering his pierced hands and feet, Thomas realizes who he stands in front of – as he says, “My Lord and My God.”

Caravaggio, The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1602)

You and I too often allow ourselves to be defined by our weaknesses. We look to our fears, to our failings, to our shortcomings and we judge ourselves according to those. I hear from people, “Father, I’m just having a really hard time trusting God right now,” because they can’t see an answer to their problem, a solution to their difficulty, a way forward. Amid our stark experiences, our dark days, our moments of struggle, it seems as if God is not there. But it is precisely in these challenging moments, if we persist in faith, that God enters in. Just as Jesus breaks through the locked doors, God will not leave us in dark or doubt but proves to us the depths of his faithfulness and love.

My friends, this Second Sunday of Easter is also Divine Mercy Sunday, and in this Year of Mercy, it is perhaps the the day above all others when we recall that the divine plan, the history of our salvation is one all-encompassing mission of mercy on the part of God toward us. As Pope Francis has said, “Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy.” Mercy is the way in which God’s love manifests itself to the sinner and it is to us as sinners that the manifestation of Jesus as the Savior has been made known to us.

So let us strive not to be defined by our sins, our failings, our fears, and our doubts. Instead, let us look to Jesus, opening the locked doors of our hearts to the power of his mercy. With Thomas, let us not be unbelieving but believe. As we prepare to receive the sacrament in which Jesus becomes present to us, let us look upon him and say with great love, “My Lord and my God.”