The Church’s first scripture for today is an excerpt from the New Testament book Acts of the Apostles.
The Book of Acts continues the story of the Lord Jesus, a story that begins with his revelation in the human body of Christ. Remember: The Lord Jesus is God, the one, true God, who has out of love for humanity, indeed all his creation, accepted for himself a human nature and lived a real, human life. The revelation of God in Christ is called the Incarnation and we hear testimony to the Incarnation in the Gospels- Christ’s followers encountered in him God in our flesh, in a body. God did not make himself known as a nebulous cosmic force or as an idea or as a feeling, but as a living divine person who meets us face to face in a human body.
The Gospels tell us the first part of the story of God’s Incarnation in Christ. Acts of the Apostles tells us the second part of the story- a story of which we are all a part.
This story, the second part, concerns the revelation of God in Christ in a new kind of body- a body called the Church. I know for many Christians the Church is merely an institution, a faith-based corporation, an ethnic identity. But the scriptures never describe the Church in these terms. Instead the Church is mysteriously and really Christ’s body- living and acting in the world. When we get that, then we get the Church, we understand what the Church is supposed to be about.
The Church is supposed to do for the world what Christ did in the revelation of his body, in the revelation of his Incarnation.
Today’s scripture from Acts recalls the testimony of the Apostle Peter and what he tells us is that the Church is meant to be a gathering of all the nations into a relationship with God in Christ. What this means is that Church cannot just be our own private club or limited to our own ethnic identity. Instead, the Church manifests its identity and mission in universality- the meaning of the word “Catholic”.
God in Christ intends for the whole world to know him and share a relationship with him in the Church. The Church is healthy and accomplishing its mission when it intentionally sets out to draw people in. This mission, to go out in order to draw people in is not just the universal mission of the Church, but the local mission of the Church. In other words, what Peter talks about in the Book of Acts today is meant to be happening here.
Your parish is not your social club or a community center. A parish is your mission territory- and its purpose is to be for others an encounter with the living and divine person of Jesus Christ and your mission is to go out into this territory with the invitation that Christ can be known, loved and served here. What are you doing, what are you willing to do, to accomplish this mission?
The second scripture for today is an excerpt from the First Letter of John, and in John’s testimony he tells us that love is foundational to the Christian way of life because God is love. How does he know this? John has himself encountered God in Christ and knows from this encounter who God is and what God wants.
We may have ideas about God or feelings about God, but these ideas and feelings are not in themselves enough to reveal who God is and what God wants. God reveals himself to us, not just in our ideas or feelings (or even primarily in our ideas and feelings) but in Jesus Christ. It is from him that we know who God is and what God wants. Without Christ, we are likely just making things up, relying on opinions driven by our egoism rather than relying on a revelation that comes to us through an act of divine grace. The former is an idol. The latter is the truth that sets us free.
John also speaks in his testimony about love, and our reference point to understand love are not our ideas and feelings, but Christ himself, who shows us what love really and truly is. Love is not merely romantic affection or sentimentality, but an act of will through which we give to others what is really and truly good.
Note that this means that love is not just giving to others what they want or what they deserve, but what is good. This is what God in Christ does for us- he doesn’t just give us what we want to prove his love, and he certainly doesn’t give us what we deserve, but he gives to us what is good and in doing so he “proves” his love for us, and just as importantly, shows us what love really and truly is.
Love in our culture is understood as getting what one wants. It is the feeling of satisfaction that comes when this happens. In regards to all this, Christian love, as revealed in Christ, is a great contrary move and the great temptation is for Christians to abandon their unique way of loving so that we might make ourselves more palatable to the culture. This is a grave mistake. And when Christians do this, true love, real love, will never be revealed.
It is hard to love as Christ did. It is difficult to bear the love of God in Christ into a culture that resists one’s efforts. But this is our mission as Christians. It’s why we are here. And if we don’t do our mission no one else will.
God in Christ gives extraordinary testimony in his Gospel- he calls us his friends. No one is friends with a feeling. No one is friends with an idea. No one is friends with a cosmic force. No one is friends with an institution. You can only be friends with a person and this is what God in Christ is- a living, divine person who offers us a relationship with himself and tells us that he wants to be our friends.
How do we become friends with God in Christ? Keeping his commandments.
The commandments of God are not just arbitrary rules imposed on us to kick us into line, but they are a way of life, a way of life that indicates what our relationship with God actually is. Christ distills his commandments into one profound insight- to love one another as he loves us.
There is nothing sentimental about any of this. Loving another person as Christ loves us means willing what is good for that person, even if that goodness is not deserved, even if that goodness is refused. It is the kind of goodness that is willing to forgive a betrayal and cruelty as terrifying as the cross and is willing to descend into death to recover a soul that has been lost. That’s the kind of love that shows us to be the friends of God in Christ.\
Christian love is something unique. It doesn’t mean just being a good citizen or having a heart of gold. It cannot be accomplished merely by volunteerism and it demands more of us than just supporting our favorite causes. Christian love is about learning to live like and act like God in Christ. Inasmuch as we do this, we are the friends of Jesus Christ.