“You only love God as much as the person you love least.” As you know, Fr. Mike and I were in Washington on Friday night for the 25th anniversary gala of Franciscan Mission Service. This quote by Dorothy Day was shared by one of the young adults who received the San Damiano Award for her service to the poor. “You only love God as much as the person you love least.” Let that one sink in a little bit as we focus in on our readings today.
As much as the Easter season is about Jesus and His resurrection, this season so often is also about another central figure, Saul who becomes Paul – and, not coincidentally the effect of resurrection, or the effect of encountering the Resurrected One, in his life. We hear a lot about Paul in the Acts of the Apostles which have such a prominent place in our Easter readings, and of course, we always hear a lot from him, as his letters to the various churches he establishes are read just about every Sunday throughout the year.
As I was reflecting on today’s readings, this point about resurrection really struck me. Just think about our passage from Acts. At this moment, Paul – still known as Saul — was a fresh convert to the faith and newly arrived from Damascus. I hope your ears perked up like mine did at the beginning of the passage: “they were all afraid of him.” Isn’t that stunning? The early Christians knew who this guy was and what he did– he was a persecutor, a Christian-hunter. It’s fair to say that, among the Christians in Jerusalem Paul probably wasn’t very popular. Nobody trusted him. They even feared for their lives just because he was there. The beginning of the Chapter puts it even more dramatically. It says, before his conversion, “Saul, still breathing murderous threats against the disciples.” This was one mean guy.
“You only love God as much as the person you love least.” This very mean Saul is not who usually comes to mind when we think of the great saint. So, what happened? Well, his conversion moment, of course, his direct encounter with Jesus. But, what else? Well, there was also one person in the community of believers who saw something more. That person was Barnabas. Barnabas believed in Paul’s conversion – and believed in him. Today’s reading says he “took charge” of Paul. But Biblical scholars think it was more than that. One commentator has suggested that there would not even be a Paul if there wasn’t first a Barnabas – someone who after that tremendous moment of conversion became a mentor and guide, a friend and confidant; but also a figure who must have had great courage, and patience, and perseverance. In other words: Barnabas was someone who personified Christian love. “You only love God as much as the person you love least.”
Years later, when Paul wrote his now famous passage to the Corinthians about love, the one we usually apply only to marriage and weddings – how it bears all things, hopes all things, and never fails – I believe, he was really talking about this. Not something romantic or flowery. But something that is a gift of self, that demands sacrifice and faith. That is unafraid and steadfast. That is willing to risk. Willing, even, to see beyond someone’s past; even a horrible and violent past like Saul’s. In other words: a love willing to “believe all things” – even to believe that a lowly tentmaker from Tarsus, a man who was a sinner and persecutor, might have the potential to be a saint. “You only love God as much as the person you love least.”
Let me share one more detail with you about our good Barnabas. Barnabas is not the name he was born with. His given name was Joseph. But just as Saul became Paul, he, too, was given a new name by the Christian community to symbolize his new life in Christ. He was given the name Barnabas, a name which translated means, “Son of Encouragement.” Encouragement is what he gave to the growing community of Christians – and it surely describes what he offered to Saul and he grew into the Saint Paul we have come to revere.
To offer encouragement means to support and uplift. It is taking time to give of self – to give a hand to hold, a shoulder for support, an ear to listen, a voice to calm all doubts and erase all fears. It is to love like Christ loves. To see beyond sin into holiness. This is the effect of resurrection. It will raise us not only on the last day, but it can raise us on this day too – right out of whatever weighs us down.
“You only love God as much as the person you love least.” Barnabas, the Son of Encouragement, loved a man that “they were all afraid of”, a man who “breathed murderous threats against them” and he loved and encouraged him into a saintly life.
My brothers, let us pray today that we too might be Sons of Encouragement – for each other, for those we struggle with, for those who seem to need that love and encouragement more than anyone else. “You only love God as much as the person you love least.” Let the person we love least, be the person we love most and then we will be loving the way that God loves, and we will be encouraging as Barnabas encouraged, we too will be Sons of Encouragement and making our way to Heaven.
May the Lord give you peace.