Saturday, April 27, 2013

See how those Christians love!


I want to begin today with a bit of a sing-a-long.  I think it is a song you know, so I’ll sing and then invite everyone to repeat: “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love. Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

There is a story about the renowned artist Paul Gustave Doré who lost his passport while traveling in Europe. When he came to a border crossing, he explained his predicament to one of the guards. Giving his name to the official, Doré hoped he would be recognized and allowed to pass. The guard, however, said that many people attempted to cross the border by claiming to be persons they were not. But, Doré, of course,  insisted that he was the man he claimed to be. “All right,” said the official, “we'll give you a test, and if you pass it we'll allow you to go through.” Handing him a pencil and a sheet of paper, he told the artist to sketch several peasants standing nearby. Doré did it so quickly and skillfully that the guard was convinced he was indeed who he claimed to be. His actions confirmed his identity.

Jesus said in our Gospel passage today, “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  Or, as we just all sang together, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

Our Scriptures today cause us to ask whether or not people can tell who we, as Christians, are by the way we act.  Think about that for a minute – how does someone know who you are?  Sometimes a uniform can help – we can pick out a police man or a fireman quickly.  We can pick out a priest in his collar, or a member of a religious Order in their habit - like the distinctive Franciscan habit that we wear.  But, a uniform doesn’t make the person, or in the words of Shakespeare in Measure for Measure, “The hood does not make a monk.”

Don’t get me wrong, uniforms, clerical garb or religious habits all have their place. We are, after all, symbolic beings who express ourselves in symbolic forms. And Jesus Himself wrestled with the question of how to distinguish His followers from the non-believers around them. But His answer is very different than mere habits and uniforms. It’s not enough to wear a cross or claim the name of Christian or Catholic.  It’s not enough to identify merely through externals as a follower of Christ; as though we enroll with a membership; as though we could be literal card-carrying Christians.  For Jesus, the essential mark of distinction between Christians and non-Christians is not in the way we dress; not in the way we identify; but in the way we live - and most importantly in the way we love.  Just think of one of the new dismissals in our new translation of the Mass that I love to use, “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life!”

We heard today from Jesus, “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  Or to phrase it just a bit differently, Love is the Christian identity. Love is the Christian uniform. Love is the Christian habit. Love is the Christian calling card.

You see, Jesus wants the world to recognize us as Christians. As it was said in the earliest days of the Church is should be said today of us, “See how those Christians love.”  And yet, how often is the Gospel, the Good News used, as a weapon, as something to keep people away or excluded; made to feel outside of that love.

The challenge for each of us today is to evangelize and witness and preach to the people around us; the people we encounter every day. But effective evangelization and witnessing usually has less to do with how eloquently we speak and more to do with how faithfully and lovingly we live. As St Francis of Assisi told his brothers, “Preach the gospel at all times and, if necessary, use words.” And, I think we have such a powerful example of exactly what this looks like in our new Holy Father Pope Francis.

In the few months that he has been leader of our Church, he has yet to issue an encyclical or a great work of theological significance, but look at how much he has taught us.  And how has he done that?  Through the way that he loves.  Pope Francis has set the Church and the world on its head with his simple form of humble and loving leadership.  From the moment of his election, as he stepped out on the balcony wearing simple vesture; as he bowed before the world – before us – to seek our blessing as he began his papacy.  As he has chosen not to live in the vast Papal Apartments and instead to remain in community with others who work at the Vatican.  His simple black shoes and no cufflinks; a simple silver cross instead of one clad in gold.  And perhaps, most profoundly, on Holy Thursday, as he skipped the lavish celebration of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper at St. Peter’s Basilica and instead he went to a juvenile prison and washed the feet of youth prisoners, one of whom exclaimed, “At last I get to meet someone who says that he is my father.”

“As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” Why is the Holy Father doing this?   I think the answer is in the name he has chosen – Francis.  He has been inspired by the Saint of the Poor, Saint Francis of Assisi.  St. Francis lived in a time much like our own – there was scandal in the Church and people were far from the faith.  Today, though, we remember his times for the great period of holiness that it gave birth to.  We remember the luminary saints who were born in response to that sin – St. Francis and St. Clare; St. Bonaventure and St. Anthony; St. Albert the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas and so many more.  And so much of it began with Francis.

St. Francis changed the Church and changed the world with one simple proposition – that the love of the Gospel is meant to be lived; that it can be lived. And that we live the Gospel by being men and women of loving service to one another; loving service to those in need. “Preach the Gospel at all times, when necessary use words.” Eight hundred years later, this new Francis, our Holy Father Pope Francis, I think, wants to propose it to us again – and if we follow where he wants to lead us – not in word, but in loving action – we will again change the Church and change the world.

You’ve heard the statement before, “If you were accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”  The way to be a convicted Christian is by living and loving in such a way that through us people begin to have a glimpse of the unconditional love that God has shown us in Christ.  So, the best habit we can wear is to love everyone the way Christ loves – without restriction, without judgment, without condition.  The love of Christ, leads us to passionately proclaim His message, to feed those who are hungry without thought, to give shelter to the homeless, to reach out to the lost and forsaken, to support life in all its forms. 

Put on the garment of love and show it to all whom you meet – let that be what identifies you as a follower of Jesus more than anything else.  I’ll end with the words of Blessed Mother Teresa which capture well the love of Christ: “People are unreasonable, illogical and self-centered. Love them anyway!  If you are kind, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway! The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway! Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway! What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway! People really need help but may attack you if you try to help them. Help them anyway! Give the world your best and it will hurt you. Give your best anyway!  In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.”

“This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  My brothers and sisters, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

May the Lord give you peace.

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