It’s all about love.
Love, lived well, is irresistibly attractive!
“See how those Christians love one another!”J. Warren Smith, Christian History Issue #105
The ancient writer Tertullian tried to look at Christians through pagan eyes.
He imagined pagans looking at Christians and saying, “Look . . . how they love one another (for the pagans themselves hate one another); and how these Christians are ready to die for each other (for the pagans themselves are readier to kill each other).”
Another very early Christian document, the Letter to Diognetus, describing Christians scattered throughout the Roman world says that they “marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not destroy their offspring” – that is, they do not leave unwanted babies to die in the open air.
St Augustine of Hippo asked what the difference was between true Christians and the breakaway group known as the Donatists. He observed that the Donatists lacked a patient and forebearing love for those who did not conform to their ideal of holiness.
So here’s the first paradox! We are called to be a community – I mean the whole Catholic Church, not just Sion Community or theASCENT – we are called to be a body of people who keep the highest standard of love, AND to keep drawing into our midst people who fail at living out this extraordinary standard of love!
As evangelists, we face a second paradox. We cannot invite people to surrender to God, until they have tasted God’s love. But in shepherding people who have surrendered to God, or who at least are trying to do so, we present a picture of sinners who aren’t always good at loving one another, and of values which seem to be unloving.
Pope Francis himself has run into controversy this week, when commenting on civil partnerships.
The unwelcome starting point is that people in the world do choose to share their lives based around sexual relationships the Church can’t endorse. They build a home together and raise children – their own or adopted. Sometimes one adult in the household dies, and there are consequences for the rights, benefits and taxes over the money, property and children who are left behind. So what is the Church to do about this, as a loving mother?
If the Church says ‘you should have the same legal rights as a married couple’ then she gives the impression, without saying so, that the underlying sexual relationship is OK. This offends her insiders who say, “You should be reinforcing the hard teaching we know already!” but builds trust with outsiders who say, “Let’s listen to what the Church has to say about love!”
If the Church says ‘you should pay inheritance tax and face a court battle to get rights over any child who is not your own flesh and blood’ she reinforces the identity of her insiders, who already know very well what kind of sexual relationships are forbidden, but alienates those who haven’t yet heard the Church’s message – who are the very people the Church exists to reach!
[17 years ago, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith taught that Catholics could not promote civil unions because that would send the wrong signals about marriage and family life. The wrongness of homosexual intimacy has not changed. The social context has changed, with civil unions and/or same-sex marriage now an accepted part of secular culture in many nation states. Where civil unions are proposed for the sake of avoiding instituting same-sex marriage, or to defend the rights of those who share a household but are not in a sexual relationship, different values are in play, giving the Pope – if not ordinary Catholics – leeway to reconsider the teaching.]
Part of our culture today prizes saying no. “Just say no to drugs.” When a woman says no, it means no, not maybe. No. The word “No” deserves respect.
Often Mother Church says No. No, you can’t have the morning after pill, even though you are traumatised by your situation. No, you can’t marry the person you love because you’ve already made vows to someone else. No, you can’t pursue the person you have strong feelings for because it’s against God’s law.
The only kind of love worth having is one based on mutual respect. We love God, because God first loved us. God, in Christ, reconciled sinners to himself on the Cross. We are drawn into God’s family. But living in God’s house means respecting God’s right to say no.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and and all your soul and all your mind. This is not an equal relationship – it is one of surrender. It is one where we give God the right to say NO to us, but abandon our right to say NO to God.
If any human being asked that of us, it would rightly be called ‘coercive control’ and seen as unhealthy. But with God – if God is perfect love, if God truly has our best interests at heart – it is safe.
So today’s Gospel is a challenge to each one of us about the nature of God. Do I really believe God has my best interests at heart? Do I truly believe that God will never fail me – not in meeting my expectations, but in upholding my ultimate good? If not, no-one should bully me into submitting to such a Divine Power. But if God is Truth, Beauty and Goodness, if God is Love, if the husband dying upon the Cross spared nothing in pouring out his love for his bride, then I need no command requiring me to love God. It is no longer an arranged marriage between the Church and the Bridegroom. It is pure attraction, pure love, pure joy.
The world and the church both use the word love, but in different ways, because love is indeed a many-splendored thing!
Part of the splendour of love is that responsible adults desire to protect their children – even when the children grow old enough to take responsibility for themselves. When we’re dealing with adults, love should never seek to control, but should gently point out consequences. What will happen to you if you eat this, drink that or take such-and-such a risk? Are you OK with that? If you want to say ‘no’ to something, how can I help you?
Part of the splendour of love is that we become attached to people we feel connected to – and we feel, rightly or wrongly, that we can should express certain expectations about how they live their lives. So consider what happened recently to the brother of one of our community members. He fell in love and wanted to get married, but found the world in the grip of a pandemic. Should he postpone? Should he change the venue? Which friends or family members should be disinvited? Everyone has an opinion, and many might be disappointed at the final decision. But true love is patient, true love is kind, and true love bears no record of wrong.
We are called to love.
We will always love imperfectly.
We will always be misunderstood by someone, because we have different love languages and see the world in different ways.
Who is my neighbour? For us living in SENT, it is first and foremost the people we live with every day. We will irritate one another at times – which is why there’s no joke in this Sunday’s homily – and when one of us is getting on your nerves, turn anew to I Cor 13:4-7 and remind yourself what it means to love that sister or brother.
Who is the Lord to us? He is love. Let us learn from him, and we will set the world on fire.