“Here comes trouble.”  It’s not exactly something a priest wants to hear when arriving somewhere.  Even here in Jersey, where sarcasm is so common and implies what’s being said is just a joke.  But that was how I was greeted this week.  As the Chaplain at Montclair State University, I work with the Dean of Students Office, and they had asked for as many staff as possible to be present for another rally that was taking place – similar to the ones we have been seeing on campuses across the country for months now since the latest of tensions has intensified in the middle east.  Thankfully, through a lot of hard work with many people – students and staff alike – these have no way mirrored the extremes we’ve seen elsewhere. Please, God, may that always be the case.   But as I arrived on the scene, dressed, as one of my students put it, “in full uniform” – meaning – yes, the black clerical clothing that I wear pretty much every day.  One friend said, “Here comes trouble,” and a second one quickly added, “Oh, please don’t bring ANOTHER religion into this.”

Thanks so much for stopping by to read this homily for the SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER – May 5, 2024.  I appreciate your sharing this on your social media posts and your feedback and comments…  I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE.  May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing- Father Jim

Like I said – Jersey sarcasm and also knowing the tension and stress everyone was under, I didn’t take it personally or seriously.  But it stayed with me all week.  Because with all these protests by students across the country, the vast majority of which don’t really know why they’re even there or what they’re saying as they repeat chants that they’re being encouraged to chant (I think and hope it’s a vast majority who don’t really know what they’re saying) – with acts of violence and vandalism- with politicians and media figures trying to use these things for their own benefit – all while innocent people in the middle east are being terrorized, abused, killed – the one thing that really isn’t being talked about anywhere in meaningful ways is religion.  It’s the giant elephant in the room that people are tiptoeing around, trying to ignore.

Just saying all of this might be making some people nervous already – I can’t read souls, but I think I hear someone thinking, “Is he really going here?”   I won’t pretend to be an expert in Middle Eastern history or even on all the different world religions.  But I have to wonder if Jesus, Moses, and Mohammed were to come on the scene together with a specific Peace plan if that would have any effect?  Because too many people aren’t approaching anything from a religious perspective, they are simply using religion as a talking point.  There are times when you even listen to some leaders who will invoke their religious tradition, their scriptures in their statements and demands.  But I’m left wondering if they even believe in God?

Because we know from personal experience as Catholic Christians that that isn’t always the case.  People can quote or misquote scriptures for their own purposes; they can cite how they went to Catholic School their whole lives – even attend Mass every week and make the sign of the Cross to prove it – while what they’re doing, what they’re advocating, what they’re proposing flies right in the face of what Jesus taught, and what His Church that He founded has maintained and proclaimed for millennia.

Do we believe in God and what He says, or are we using Him as a talking point?  It’s important for us to keep checking ourselves.  The implications of that not only impact tensions around the world but, even more immediately and personally, impact our eternal destinies, which are affected by what we say and do here and now.

Today’s scripture readings provide a significant example of that.  When you sit with these readings, dig a bit deeper, and reflect on what is being said, you will find that these scriptures are utterly remarkable.

In the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we get this portion of Chapter 10, where a major religious debate emerged for the early Church.  The Apostles, all faithful Jewish men who had seen and experienced the fulfillment of every hope, promise,  and prophecy of the Hebrew Scriptures, have now been entrusted with Jesus’ mission of preaching His Gospel to the ends of the earth.  That “Great Commission” is what we will hear about on the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord next week, and what equips them to do that, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on them at Pentecost is celebrated the week after.  When they experience those further mind-blowing events, it’s doubtful that they imagined how that would look or envision some practical issues they might be confronted with.  In this chapter of Acts though, they have one of their first big tests.  Where they encounter pagans, pagan customs and ways – people, places, and things that devout Jews knew they were forbidden to go near, let alone eat these foods, enter these homes, and converse with these people.  Two thousand years later, we can’t fully appreciate this challenge for the Early Church.  There was a serious debate over whether these Gentiles needed to become Jews first and then Catholic Christians?  There was tension and passionate arguments made over those issues on both sides.

Ultimately, though, we see the humility, the prayerfulness, the obedience of the members of the Early Church where they can let go of what had been so essential to their identity as “Chosen People” to see that God had used those generations before them precisely for this moment where they would be the light to the nations.  Jesus, as the fulfillment of all the promises of the prophets, the answer to their hopes and dreams – is now out to bring the rest of humanity into being “chosen” as well.  Those rules, those laws, those rituals and customs were not unimportant.  They were all about teaching the importance of obedience to God.  They were ways through which the people learned how to say no to themselves and choose God in their everyday experiences.  It was how they recognized the real meaning of the concept of freedom and, even more so, love.  Because now, in Jesus Christ, they have met the incarnate God, about which St. John in the second reading simply drops three of the most important words ever spoken – three words never asserted before by any religious tradition: God is love.   A brilliant philosopher of our own day and time, Peter Kreeft, makes a very important distinction  that doesn’t mean “Love is God” – which people seem fond of doing which in effect twists and manipulates the meaning to suit our day and age.  He used an example, that’s like saying “A cloud is white,” and then, “White is a cloud.”  No, white is not a cloud; it’s a color.  When people misquote this or assert: “Love is God” it minimizes God and misuses the meaning of the word love.   Unfortunately, in English, we only have one word for “love.”  When St. John spoke of it, writing in Greek, they had four different words for “love.”  One of those words talks about human desires – I’d love to eat; I’d love to win that game… Another talks about things that I prefer – I love my bed; I love my sweater… The third which is the highest of human experiences talks about relationships – where I love my family, I love my friends.  But there was this fourth word for love that the ancient Greeks had before Christianity,  which was the mysterious, transcendent, and rarely used word “agape.”  John uses this when he says, “God is love” – “God is agape.”  John is saying that this is an eternal love, a selfless love, a self-giving love, a self-forgetful love.

That’s what makes these scriptures so stunning.  At first glance or listen, we can get lost in the nine verses that sounds like a word salad as we hear the indescript English “love” nine times.  But that’s where context is so important. Jesus is in the Upper Room on Holy Thursday, at the Last Supper – the night before His passion and death.  It’s his last opportunity to speak heart-to-heart with those closest to Him.  As both God and Man, He knows who He’s talking to. And He knows what will happen next: Who will betray, who will deny, who will fail, who will run and hide, who will be overwhelmed by fear.  Knowing all that, Jesus looks into their faces and tells them that as God the Father has this AGAPE this eternal, transcendent, superior and in fact perfect love for me, so I have for you.

Just sit with that for a second.

Any one of us who loved to win a game – and knows how short-lived that excitement is… Any one of us who has replaced a bed or sweater that we once claimed to have loved…  Any of us who have had family and friends who we love that because they have hurt us or we’ve hurt, and there’s still unresolved pain, a rupture, a betrayal it might be so bad that it’s considered in the past tense loved — we know the limits to what often passes as love in both our language and experience.

          What Jesus revealed that sacred night with the apostles didn’t fully register in that Upper Room.  It won’t be until after they were confronted with the actual lengths and depths of the reality of words-meaning-things and actions-speaking- louder-than-words: When Jesus, the God-become-man had been humiliated, tortured, murdered on a cross – and they had been impotent, self-centereded, overcome by fear…   and then the same Jesus, God-become-man now risen from the dead comes to them and the first words out of His mouth are, ‘Peace be with you’  – – that’s when things start to begin to make sense.  This superior, perfect love Jesus speaks of becomes real in their own experiences.

That’s when the apostles first began to have an inkling of “agape.”  It’s then that all of the things Jesus had said before His passion, death, and resurrection of being the Messiah, God Himself, and rising from the dead, began to click for them.  It’s then that His words from Holy Thursday made sense, and the even more unfathomable thing began to dawn on them – that they, too, could enter into and experience this agape love.  That was, in fact, what they were born for.

We, too, are meant to enter into and experience this transcendent, eternal, selfless, self-giving, self-forgetful love.  We are also born for agape.            That can only happen when we choose to keep God’s commandments.  That is only possible when we remain in His love.  Even when we do that, we will find, like the apostles, that doesn’t mean we won’t encounter tensions, debates, or disagreements.  We should expect that, living in a world that seems to grow more intolerant of God each day.  Desperate to make ‘a god’ in its own image, forgetting it was the other way around – humanity was made in the divine image of the Lord God.   Sometimes, even distracting, confusing, and manipulating people by misussing His name and His word when their goal and purpose are far from what is truly His will.

So this isn’t about preaching about tensions in the Middle East or on college campuses around the country… as much as those things are very much on many of our minds and hearts today.  Those things are symptoms of the bigger question I come back to – Do we believe in God and what He says, or are we using Him as a talking point?  Believing in God, remaining in His love, and following His commandments- it’s okay to admit that this is hard work.  It’s more than okay, it’s honest.  What’s easy is to take a side and simply label the other as ‘enemy’ and ‘wrong’.  It’s easy to shout down and ignore people with different opinions.  It’s easy to demonize and destroy.  We see it over and over again.  This is pretty compelling evidence that all of that is NOT coming from the God so many seem to be invoking.

The Early Church, our ancestors in faith, provide us an example of how to navigate through the tensions and confusion of any era. They chose to remain steadfast in their devotion to God and His commandments, praying for wisdom, courage, and perseverance to carry out their duties. They experienced and shared God’s agape love, which enabled the 12 apostles and a small group of men and women disciples to spread the Gospel to every corner of the world. The only reason we cannot renew this in our own time is the restrictions we impose on ourselves.