19 Feb 2017
7th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
If you were to ask a random person to describe the Catholic Church, chances are they’d mention things like: the pope and bishops, the rules, the rituals, the rules, and they might make a face or something like that. When people hear about the “Church,” they oftentimes think of the institution first. And everything else is secondary, things like: the community of believers, and the gospel, and love.
And that’s actually rather tragic, because love is what we’re all about (or, at least, it’s what we’re supposed to be all about). Love should be the Church’s defining characteristic. If you were to ask a random person to describe the Catholic Church, the first thing that should come to mind for them is, “Ah, that’s those people who know how to love. From the pope to the bishop to all the faithful, that’s those people who know what love is.” Of course, in reality, that’s probably the last thing you’d hear someone say.
That’s not to say there aren’t loving Catholics around; there are lots of them around—wonder people; people who visit the sick, who try to encourage others when they’re going through a tough time; people who are humble, who are ready to listen and learn and be awed by the world around them; people who are forgiving, who are slow to anger, who are kind and merciful, like the Lord.
And there are perhaps just as many Catholics who would rather not be loving, for whatever reasons. The Church really is a mixed bag. But that’s who Jesus calls to be our neighbors, isn’t it. He calls everybody to himself: sinners and saints, people getting on the right track, people falling off the wagon, people who are loving, people who are less than loving. When God gives that commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself,” he’s telling us to love everybody in the mix, not just the ones we like.
At Easter time when I’m eating Jelly Beans, when I’m done there’s usually a little bunch of black ones left sitting there—because I don’t like the way they taste. Well, if humanity is like that bag of Jelly Beans, Jesus would say, “Make sure there’s not a pile of black ones left. Eat ‘em all, not just the ones you like.”
Imagine for a second, picture in your mind, someone who just annoys you; someone who just gets under your skin, and gives you about as much happiness as the thought of going to the dentist for a root canal. Put that person in your mind for just a second . . . Now there’s your black Jelly Bean! That’s the one God is talking about when he says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Love can be a beautiful thing. It can also be a major pain. But what sets us Christians apart is that we go right into that pain and we love those who are the hardest to love. All humans have the capacity to love; after all, we’re all made in the image of God who is love. But we Christians pledge to actually do it; to intentionally love others as best we can, following the example of Christ.
That’s what sets us apart in the world; it’s what makes us holy. To be holy is to be set apart; to be distinct. The items we use here at Mass—the Chalice, the Paten, the vestments, the buildings, the music—they’re all holy. They’re set apart, and used only for Mass. And we come here to Mass for several reasons, one of which is to be made holy. When we leave Mass, we should be a little different than when we came in. We should leave here more committed to our Christian calling, the call (and the command) to love our neighbors as ourselves. That commitment to love—even when love is a pain—is what makes us a holy people. The commitment to love sets us apart.
And the commitment is worth it. Life is so much better when there’s peace, when you can work through difficulties, come to a resolution, and then get on with living again. And that’s what most people want: We just want to live. We don’t every day to be a trial and a burden and a headache; we just want to live and be free. Happily, God wants the same thing for us; after all, Jesus came so that we “might have life, life in abundance.” He came to set us free.
And life and freedom start with that basic Christian commitment to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Of course, the challenge is to make that love a reality and not just a nice idea. And that is a challenge, for sure. But Saint Paul offers us some help with that.
He writes, “Brothers and sisters: Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” Every believing Christian, from the pope to the most obscure sinner, is a temple of the Holy Spirit of God. And not only that: every person is a creation of God. That black Jelly Bean? He or she is a temple of God; God is within that person really and truly. That’s reason enough to love that person.
Saint Paul continues, “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.” When Jesus got out his whip and cleansed the Temple in Jerusalem, he was a little perturbed. God does not like his temple to be treated with disrespect; he demands that our lives be characterized by love. He didn’t say, “Well, if you’re feeling generous and things are going your way, then why don’t you try to love your neighbor.” No, he says pretty plainly, “You shall—you will—love your neighbor as yourself.” You will respect my temples—your neighbor and yourself who are my dwelling places.
Saint Paul cautions against choosing sides and picking favorites. He writes, “Let no one boast about human beings, for everything belongs to you, Paul or Apollos or Cephas, or the world or life or death, or the present or the future: all belong to you, and you to Christ, and Christ to God.” Our neighbors—and, really, everything that is—is part of us. It’s as we talked about in the homily last weekend: our lives are necessarily intertwined with everybody else’s.
For instance, if we hold a grudge, we’re only hurting ourselves. It’s often said that when we hold a grudge, it’s like drinking poison and expecting the other person to get sick. Grudges and resentments only cheat us from experiencing life and freedom. And while we’re being held down by our own unforgiveness and mercilessness, our neighbors are unable to get to know us. It’s hard to get to know somebody in prison because . . . they’re in prison.
Saint Paul is basically saying that, in order to be fully alive as human beings, we have to be open to our neighbors and the world around us. We have to love it all, because it’s all part of us. It just comes with the territory of being the one Body of Christ, the Church. And it goes for families and friends, too. It goes for our country as well. Our lives are necessarily intertwined, and so, we rise and fall together. If love is our basic philosophy, we’ll be just fine. But if we’re unable to love—especially the black Jelly Beans in our lives—well, then it’s going to be tough road.
Saint Paul is basically saying, “Don’t pick and choose who you’re going to love, because whenever you love your neighbor (if your neighbor rejects that love) you will be a more complete person, you will have more freedom and life, you will be a more authentic Christian for having loved.”
And so, we love our neighbors because they are temples of God—no ifs, ands, or buts about it. We love our neighbors because they’re part of us; we share the same life. And we love our neighbors because that’s what Christ does. If we’re going to call ourselves followers of Christ, then loving our neighbors is not an option. Love of neighbor must be our defining characteristic.
If you were to ask someone to describe you, what would they say? Would they know you as a loving person? a forgiving person? a generous person? someone who is quick to listen and slow to judge? Would they see the Spirit of God dwelling within you?