Sunday, October 23, 2005

God's Bumper Sticker

(30th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given 23 October, 2005, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.)

You have seen them before, maybe even on your way into Church this morning. Those small plastic strips that we put on the backs of our cars; bumper stickers that reveal the most intimate and deepest secrets of the heart. Things like:
  • I Love New York.
  • I Love My Golden Retriever.
  • I Love My Parish Priest.

(If you don’t already have one, we will be selling these in the vestibule of the Church immediately after Mass this morning).

In today’s Gospel, Jesus offers us a bumper sticker that summarizes everything God wanted to say to the people of Israel, and to the rest of the world, as well: “Love God. Love Your Neighbor.”

Jesus says that “The whole law and the prophets depend upon these two commandments” (Matthew 22:40).

But what kind of love is Jesus talking about? Does he mean we should love God and neighbor the same way that we love New York, or as much as we love our Golden Retriever? Love can be a fairly ambiguous thing. A group of young children were asked to describe what love is, to give their own definition, and this is what some of them had to say:

Karen, age 7, said that, “When you love somebody, your eyelashes go up and down and little stars come out of you.”

Billy, age 5, had this to say: “Love is when a girl puts on perfume and a boy puts on shaving cologne and they go out and smell each other.”

Now those are both definitions of love, but somehow I think what Jesus is calling us to in the Gospel involves a bit more than that. When we hear the word “love” in the Bible, we cannot automatically assume it means exactly what we think. God’s definition of love is often very different from our own.

There are several different words for love in the Greek language, the language that the New Testament is written in. The first one is called eros, and it is where we get the word erotic. It’s not a bad word; it is meant to describe the kind of love a husband and a wife share in their most intimate moments together.

Now, it becomes a bad word whenever we remove that kind of love from the relationship of a husband and wife. Pornography, extramarital sex, premarital sex, these are all abuses of the gift of love, eros, that God has given to a husband and wife.

But the word itself, eros, is a very good and holy thing. If we are going to love God and neighbor the way God calls us to, we need to have the right understanding of that kind of love, especially in the culture we live in.

The second word for love in the New Testament is philos, and essentially it is the kind of love we find in friendships; it’s where we get the word Philadelphia (the city of brotherly love) or philosophy (love of wisdom, wisdom as one’s friend or companion). It’s amazing that God comes to us in the Scriptures as a friend. Many times Christ refers to His disciples as friends. He Himself is the ultimate model of what a true friend should be.

But the word that Christ most often uses whenever he challenges us to love, whether it be God or neighbor, is almost always the word agape. Agape is that love which gives completely of itself in order to fill the other.

It is a selfless love, a self-giving love. St. Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, says that Christ “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.” He emptied Himself on the cross, to give us the forgiveness of sins and to open the way to heaven. God loves us with the love that is agape.

That is also the same word that Jesus uses in the Gospel this morning when He says we must love God and love our neighbor. But how could we ever love the way God does? Where would we ever get the strength to love like that? In the Eucharist.

The early Christians, whenever they met to celebrate the Eucharist, would refer to that meal as the agape meal. It’s one of the first words used to describe the Mass. They didn’t call it the Mass; they called it the agape meal.

At the agape meal, they came together to remember the passion, death and resurrection of Christ. They celebrated that great love God has for us, and they were strengthened to love in the same way because they received the Body and Blood of Christ.

We gather together here this morning to share in that same agape meal, to remember the cross and the great love God has for us. As we receive the Body and Blood of Christ in this agape meal, may we be strengthened to live out Jesus’ command to love God and to love neighbor wherever we are called to do so this week—the way that God loves.

And may the world recognize that we belong to Christ, not just by our bumper stickers, but above all by the way we live and the way we love.