Homily for the
Fifth Sunday of Easter
Preached by Fr. Stephen Verbest
[Scripture Readings: Acts 14:21-27; Rev 21:1-5a; Jn 13:31-35]
In one episode of the comic strip Peanuts, Snoopy walks up to Charlie and Sally Brown and gives each of them a great big hug. When he rests his head on their shoulders a little heart floats up into the air around them. In the last scene Snoopy walks off smiling from ear to ear and Charlie Brown says to his sister, Sally, "You can always tell when Snoopy has been listening to tapes by Leo Buscaglia."
Jesus says you can always tell who has been listening to him by the love his disciples have for one another,. What kind of love? Mother Teresa describes it this way, "Spread love everywhere you go: first of all in your own house. Give love to your children, to your wife or husband, to your next door neighbor … Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of God's kindness: kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile, kindness in your warm greeting."
In a culture where love is often synonymous with sexual freedom we need to relearn how to love from the great school of love, the heart of Christ. Jesus tells us, "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another,". What is this love that Mother Teresa learned from the heart of Jesus?
In his book, The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis teaches that there are four Greek words for love in the bible. The first is eros, a physical, passionate, erotic love. The second is philia, the affectionate love of friends for each other. The third is sterge, the familial love of parents and children, of sisters and brothers. And the fourth is agape, the strongest kind of love. Jesus describes it as laying down one's life for another, even for one's enemies. St. Paul writes that while we were still sinners, enemies of God, Christ died for us. The first three forms of love are spontaneous, pleasing, enjoyable. But the fourth, agape, is a form of love we have to receive from Jesus. It is difficult, it is self-sacrificing. But it is this love that makes the others all together charming and beautiful, transforming them from selfishness to selflessness.
C. S. Lewis describes the danger of selfless love. He writes, "To love is to be vulnerable. Love and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket of your selfishness. But in that coffin-so safe, dark, motionless, airless-it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable ... The only place outside heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers...of love is hell".
A lonely person once wrote, "I live in a shell, that is inside a wall, that is within a fort, that is inside a tunnel, that is under the sea where I am safe from you. But if you really love and care for me, please break through and find me." Agape is a saving love, it breaks through the barriers and defenses of ones own selfishness and that of others.
We cannot learn or practice this love by our own efforts, or by listening to the tapes of Leo Buscaglia. To love as Jesus loves is the gift of the Holy Spirit given to us in Baptism and nourished by the Eucharist. We receive this love by tasting and drinking from the heart of Jesus.
Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece of the Last Supper captures the terrible moment when Jesus announces his impending betrayal. The disciples look at one another with great shock, all, that is, except Judas, who refuses to look Jesus in the face and clutches the money bag to his heart. There is a legend that Leonardo da Vinci asked a handsome young man to be his model for John, the beloved disciple. Then the painting remained unfinished for years while he searched for someone to be his model for Judas. At last he found someone whose features were torn and twisted by a life of dissipation. When Leonardo completed the painting the man asked, "Don't you remember me? Many years ago I was your model for John." There is something of the John and the Judas in all of us. The Roman poet, Catullus, experienced the conflicting movements of John and Judas in his heart when he wrote, "I hate and I love: why I do so you may well ask. I do not know, but I feel it happen and I am in agony". Fifty years after Catullus died, Jesus was born to teach us how to love. The difference between becoming a beloved disciple or a betrayer is agape, loving as Jesus loves.
In another episode of Peanuts, Lucy stands with folded arms and a stony face, while Charlie Brown pleads with her. "Lucy," he says, "be more loving. The world needs love. Make this world a better place by loving someone else." Lucy whirls around angrily and Charlie goes flipping over backwards. "Look, you blockhead," she yells, "I love the world. It's people I can't stand!" But to love as Jesus loves means loving people who may even be our enemies. That's not erotic love, nor the love of close friends, nor familial love. It's agape, the kind of love Jesus commanded, "As I have loved you, you also should love one another." It the kind of love that is willing to die for the good of another, even an enemy. But many times I know that I am more like Lucy than like Jesus. I have much to learn from the heart of Jesus, the school of the strongest kind of love.