Homily for the
6th Sunday of Easter, Cycle C
Given at St. Jude April 22, 2022
By Deacon Ken Steponaitis
When I was a child, I remember distinctly thinking to myself, if my mom or dad tells me to do something, I better do it otherwise I will be in trouble. I perceived my relationship with them as more like a benevolent dictatorship. And from my perspective I was only a good kid so long as I did what I was told. This thought process extended to my relationship with God. If I do what is right, I go to heaven and if I do what is wrong, well, it’s straight to hell. Maybe that is what led me down the path of atheism. Because as I saw it, God was this entity that could squash me like a bug if He didn’t like me. That did not seem like a God I could fall in love with.
But that is not the truth of our faith and unfortunately it took me until I was 35 years old to even begin to start to understand that my perception of God was, shall we say, "wacked out."
One of the unique things of Christianity is how our God doesn’t just want to be out there somewhere lording over us, punishing us when we do bad things. Rather, God wants to have a relationship with us that is intimate, and cooperative. God wants a relationship that is like a marriage. A marriage includes fidelity and self-giving. Ideally the husband and the wife are so connected in love with each other that both the husband and the wife give of themselves 100% and neither would consider breaking that covenant. Love compels them to fidelity.
God wants to cooperate with us like a spouse. Jesus uses this metaphor throughout the Gospels. Jesus saw the Church as the bride and Himself as the bridegroom. God wants us to be part of His ultimate end; to bring the whole world into his divine love. Something we call heaven. And like any marriage, God by nature keeps fidelity with us and unconditionally loves us. It was that kind of spirit that I could fall in love with.
So, when Jesus says, “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him,” Jesus is telling us more than just you better do it or else. One way to read this statement is, whoever can come to love Jesus will feel compelled to keep His commandments. And because of Jesus’ intimate connection to the Father and the Father’s connection to Jesus, the Father loves us. And here’s the interesting part … Jesus says “We will come to him” that is the Father, and the Son will come to us, and the father and the son, will make their dwelling with us!
Let me emphasize this a bit more. We don’t love God by following some set of rules, or by doing some set of rituals, or some pious acts. Those may lead to love, but love is something that comes to us whenever we open our hearts and minds to it. We first have to come to know and trust in that person and then, it just happens.
When my wife and I adopted my oldest son, I remember going to Catholic Charities that evening and while in the waiting room I was so nervous. We were about to take an 8-week-old baby home and be parents after so many years of only worrying about ourselves. I was so concerned that I could not love my soon to be son the way I should. But, when our case worker brought him out to us, rather than just walking into the room with this baby and handing him over to us, she tipped him sideways so that his head was the first thing we could see past the door sill. And when we saw his oversized head peering at us and he saw us, the biggest little smile came over him and immediately I fell in love with him. Immediately I was willing to give over my life to him and the only thing that happened was my heart was open to that love and I was changed forever by seeing his big little smile. No laws, no rituals, no “you better do what is right or else.” Immediately all I wanted to do was give my life for him. It was pure grace from God!
In our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we read that there are new gentile Christians in Antioch who were being told by some people from Judea, (probably Jewish Christians) that to have salvation they must be circumcised. In other words, for God to save them, they must endure ... well ... you know!
I don’t know about you, but if I was facing ... well ...you know, my heart rate would be going up exponentially. Clearly this must have caused quite a stir in the community. The thing is, however, Paul and Barnabas who were sent to Antioch to bring the good news, they were not requiring the gentiles to get circumcised. In fact, none of 613 laws that the Jewish Christians were following were being imposed on the gentile Christians. As far as Paul was concerned, the Mosaic law was unnecessary for the simple reason that if a person receives the Holy Spirit in faith as the Apostles did at Pentecost, that meant, in some mysterious way, God had already entered into them. Their hearts and minds were already changed; they had already fallen in love with Jesus. The law itself can’t bring about love, all it can do is provide guidance as to what it meant to love. But having already fallen in love with Jesus and His message of love, by default, out of faith, the gentiles were already keeping Jesus’ word. This may be why Jesus came to us as a baby. You want to fall in love with Jesus? See Jesus as an infant peering around a door sill, smiling at you! Once you know Him, I mean really know Him, you fall in love
Paul and Barnabas go to Jerusalem to present their argument to the Church leaders at what we know today as the first Church Council of Jerusalem. Of course, the main question being debated was, what of any of the Mosaic law should gentiles be required to follow? After much debate, Peter stands and tells those gathered that he agrees with Paul. It was by their faith that God purified their hearts. Peter believed the gentiles had salvation simply through the grace of the Lord Jesus.
However, there is one problem. How can the Church bring together two disparate communities, one who grew up with the Mosaic law (the Jews) and another that grew up worshiping pagan gods and idols (the gentiles)? Oddly, it seems, the council came up with what on the surface is so strange to us who live in the 21st Century. They were told “keep free of” four things: (1) They couldn’t eat meat used as a sacrifice to idols. (2) They couldn't consume blood. (3) They couldn't eat meat from animals that were strangled. (4) And, they had to avoid unlawful marriage. If they did those four things, the were “doing what was right.”
So, the next time you go out to a restaurant and order some meat, ask the server if the animals used were sacrificial animals to idols. Also, make sure the blood was drained from those animals and not strangled. See what kind of reaction you get.
As I alluded to earlier, these four laws were put into place so that the gentiles and Jewish Christian communities had a common understanding of their relationship with God. Gentiles would have no problem following these laws (after all, thankfully, they didn’t include circumcision) and of course the Jews already followed these rules. They could come together in eating meals and even marry without one community having something against the other. These laws brought about a kind of communion.
I could spend another hour with you explaining why these 4 prohibitions were required to be followed by the gentiles. But in short, eating meat used in idol worship was seen as apostacy (apostacy is leaving the faith or worshiping other Gods). In fact, it goes against the first commandment; you shall not have other gods before me. Eating blood or eating animals whose blood was not drained (that is strangled animals) has to do with the belief that blood was considered a life force given by God. From the Jewish perspective, only God gives and takes life. This is where the term lifeblood comes from. Consuming blood is like telling God life means nothing to me and that I have the power over life and death. The command to refrain from unlawful marriage refers to an understanding of what marriage is.
As mentioned earlier, very often, in scripture, marriage is used as a metaphor for fidelity with God. Some of the Old Testament prophets would chastise the Israelites for being harlots or prostitutes because they were worshiping other gods to satisfy their earthly desires. They were being unlawful in their marriage with God. An unlawful marriage constitutes infidelity, not only with your spouse but with God.
I tell you all this because it is usually the case that the first reading of a Sunday Mass correlates to the Gospel reading. If you can understand the first reading in all its context, it will enhance your understanding of the Gospel reading, and vice versa.
Remember Jesus told us, “Whoever loves me will keep my word.” And if we keep His word, the Father loves us, and God will dwell with us.
As you may know our bodies are sometimes referred to as temples of the Holy Spirit, that in some mysterious way the Holy Spirit resides within us. When we look in the mirror, then, we are not only looking at ourselves, but we are also looking at God within us. And if that were not enough, when we consume the Body and Blood of Jesus at communion, Jesus becomes in a very real way a physical part of our bodies. That is, Jesus by being consumed becomes our lifeblood. This is why Jesus allows us to drink His blood. Drinking the blood of animals was in effect killing off life where drinking His blood is taking in life. Remember only God gives and takes life. If we can come to see ourselves with God taking up residence and dwelling within us, how we treat ourselves and others takes on a whole new perspective.
But to appreciate this command more fully, realize that Jesus is telling his disciples these things to prepare them for what will become a very intense experience. Jesus was preparing to be crucified. He is telling these things at the last supper. Jesus doesn’t just want to die to prove his love for us and be gone. Jesus wants to provide help for us in the form of the 3rd person of the Trinity. Jesus is making us a promise. The promise is that although Jesus leaves us in this world to sit at the Father’s right hand, He is not abandoning us. Until He returns again, Jesus promises to send another advocate, the Holy Spirit, who will teach us everything and remind us, all of what Jesus told us. Jesus was preparing the disciples for Pentecost so that on that day when the Holy Spirit comes to reside with us, we may believe, we may trust and then fall in love.
In many ways, I feel like the gentiles who went from paganism and idol worship to an incredible relationship with Jesus. It is a journey, and we are all on this Journey that takes us back to our heavenly homeland. If we allow the Holy Spirit to work in our hearts, if we cooperate with the love of God, not only will that bring peace into your lives … heaven really … it will also compel us and provide us the strength to do incredible things. So, in a short while, take into yourselves, Jesus. Allow His divine nature to permeate our lives. Allow the incredible grace of God to move us to perfect love.