Deacon Cornell's Homilies

Readings: Acts 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48
1 John 4:7-10
John 15:9-17
Date: May 28, 2000, Sixth Sunday of Easter, Cycle B

 Well, the third secret of Fatima has been revealed. I am sure some of you remember the mystery surrounding the three Fatima secrets back when their existence was revealed. The first two secrets had to do with the coming great wars and the conversion of atheist Russia by dedication to the Virgin Mary. On the occasion of the beatification of two of the three children who experienced the visions, Pope John Paul II revealed that the third secret had to do with the assassination attempt on him in 1981.

How many of us are fascinated with such “secrets”. The bookstores, supermarket checkout lines, and TV talk shows are filled with stories of the secret that will change our lives, make us rich or thin or happy or powerful. The community that gave us the fourth Gospel, the letters of John, and the book of Revelation was into secrets as well. Some of them went so far as to say that salvation came from the knowing of these mysteries. This approach is called gnosticism, and is very much alive and well today.

When I first started reading the fourth Gospel and the letters of John and Revelation, they seemed to be full of these esoteric theological and philosophical concepts:

But as I read more commentary on these books, it becomes clearer and clearer that the authors are trying to overcome this tendency to rely on our knowledge of secrets or mysteries by explaining how these very rich images are rooted in the concrete.

In my experience, we can benefit greatly from these explanations because I think, as a culture, American Catholics tend to rely more on these Gnostic ideas than on concrete, practical concepts of God and religion.

When we hear the words, “We are saved by faith alone”, that phrase that is at the heart of the Protestant Reformation, we most often think that it means we are saved by what we believe, in our heads. Today’s readings remind us that faith is more than what is in our heads.

In that first letter of John, the writer says that God is love. Not in some vague, esoteric sense of a quality that is inherent to God. He means that God is love in the very specific act of his sending of his son to bring us life. Love, like salvation, is not to be found in intrinsic qualities nor in intellectual attributes. It is to be found in actions.

Looking at the other side of the Reformation, the notion that we are saved by our good works is still very, very strong in our American Catholic culture, despite the joint declaration with the Lutherans that we are saved by faith alone. So in today’s Gospel, when we hear Jesus saying that “if you keep my commandments you will remain in my love”, we hear it as a cause and effect: To make me love you, you first have to keep my commandments. Yet if we read this Gospel passage together with the second reading, we understand that this relationship does not start with our being good which then causes God to love us. The way it works is that God loved us first, as evidenced by our creation and by his sending his only Son to save us, and experiencing that love causes us to live a certain way.

Keeping the commandments, loving one another, are not a means to get God to love us. They are a response to the experience that God loves us. Not in some vague, warm fuzzy feeling way, but in the very specific and concrete, to a bloody torturous death on the cross, way.

Last week I was talking to a friend who is involved in the United Way. She said that she sometimes felt guilty because her prime motivation for her involvement was that it made her feel so good. She thought her motivation should be to help people. What Jesus is telling us today is that those two things are one and the same, two sides of the same coin. It is the experience of being loved which makes us feel good and which drives us to act lovingly towards others. We don’t earn love by acting nice to someone else. 

Jesus says he has told us everything he has heard from the Father. Everything is really only one thing, the one thing he commands us to do: love one another, as he loved us. To death.  This is not separate from the rest of our lives, nor is it something that is optional. The only way to experience true joy and fulfillment is to love that way.

I’d like to end with a story that I heard recently that brings all this in very sharp focus in our competitive world. A few years ago, at the Seattle Special Olympics, nine contestants, all physically or mentally disabled, assembled at the starting line for the 100-yard dash.  At the gun, they all started out, not exactly in a dash, but with a relish to run the race to the finish and win. All, that is, except one little boy who stumbled on the asphalt, tumbled over a couple of times, and began to cry.  The other eight heard the boy cry. They slowed down and looked back. Then they all turned around and went back.   Every one of them.  One girl with Down's Syndrome bent down and kissed  him and said:  "This  will make it better." Then all nine linked arms and walked together to the finish line. Everyone in the stadium stood, and the cheering went on for several minutes.

No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.

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