Today in the gospel the Holy Spirit moves us as a faith community and as individual disciples to a deeper level of faith, to take the next step on our faith journey.
In the comic strip Peanuts, Lucy was the classic know it all. One of her most memorable lines was expressed in great frustration: "I love mankind she said, it’s people that I can’t stand."
It’s easy to love people in the abstract; they can never disappoint us or mess up our plans. They also never seriously challenge our comfort zone. In some ways, by loving people generically, we are simply loving ourselves.
Family members, neighbors and co-workers are all too real for us with gifts and their blind spots. In today’s Gospel Jesus tells his disciples that they need to love one another, only by doing that can they remain in his love and witness to Jesus good news.
Love enabled Peter to face a very serious challenge. In the first reading today Peter knows that he will have a lot of explaining to do for his decision to baptize Cornelius, a gentile centurion. In Peter’s time Jews and gentiles scarcely mixed socially and had only minimal contact otherwise. Peter not only baptized Cornelius but said, in effect, that gentiles did not have to follow Jewish dietary laws. Because most Christians at this time came from a Jewish background, they gladly kept observing the Jewish dietary laws.
Peter sounds pretty heroic in today’s first reading. In his Letter to the Galatians, however, St. Paul tells us that Peter later wavered on whether gentile Christians had to observe the Jewish dietary laws. St. Paul withstood him to the face, according to one translation. In fact, Paul’s position on this had prevailed.
Love enabled Jesus to lay down his life for all of us. Love doesn’t change physical facts: the whips of Pilate’s soldiers are as cruel for Jesus as they were for anyone else. According to tradition, Jesus fell three times as he carried his cross to Calvary. Love doesn’t erase conflicting feelings. It doesn’t take all the sting out of being betrayed by Peter three times. Love didn’t automatically make it easy for Jesus to be publicly ridiculed while he was on the cross.
But love allowed Jesus to exercise his freedom—not to be trapped in bitterness and resentment over the unjust treatment that he received. Love allowed Jesus to minister right up to the very end, promising eternal life to one of the criminals crucified with him, and allowed him to assure his disciples that the Holy Spirit would lead them in the days ahead.
The gospel of John is very clear that Jesus’ life was not snatched away from him, he laid it down freely. The love that God has showered on us and the love we experience from other believers enables us to take the next step on our journey of faith.
This side of heaven there is always another step. At one point, it meant that Peter faced down those who said he should never have baptized Cornelius—or at least should have demanded that Cornelius follow the Jewish dietary laws.
Love would later mean that Peter accepted being a martyr. As Jesus had foretold, the day would come when someone else would lead Peter where he would prefer not to go.
Is God calling us as a community of faith or as an individual to some risk on our faith journey? Is he calling us to challenge some injustice that many people say cannot be corrected? Is God calling us to take a step that we know will bring us grief in the short run? Must we lie to ourselves about what we know to be true in order to keep peace in our families, in our workplace or in our neighborhoods?
Todays Gospel follows Jesus’ decision to wash his apostles’ feet at the Last Supper. Power and authority are for service, not self aggrandizement. Jesus’ love for all humans did not excuse him from loving the apostles even though, at this point, they misunderstood most of what he had said and done. At every Mass we encounter God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, receiving help to abide in their love which always involves serving others. May this love bring us closer to the Lord as we walk in his ways and follow his commands.
Fr John R. Mulvehill