(See the readings for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 19)
“As I have loved you, you should also love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Paul and Barnabas leave Derbe making their way back to Antioch. They have been traveling abroad proclaiming the resurrection. As they do so they establish communities of believers into churches. The faithful gather together to worship, to reflect on Jesus’ teaching and they are for one another and the needy in their midst.
Since Easter we have been hearing about the life in the early church. The first readings for Masses during the Easter season come from the Acts of the Apostles. The communities established and built by the apostles are communities of love.
When Paul and Barnabas arrive in Antioch they gather the church together to report, as St. Luke tells us, “what God had done with them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.” The Spirit of the Lord is with them and the work they do and all the good that has been done is credited to God.
I recently read a story about a plague that hit the Roman empire in 251 AD. Remember at this time the church did not have the protection of the law. Paganism was still the most widely practiced religion. When the plague hit, memories of a plague a century earlier that killed one-third of the population stirred up a great fear among all the people. Many fled from the cities to the countryside. Those in the cities ran to the temples but found them empty, the priests had fled.
The streets were full of infected people having been pushed out of their homes; the families had no option but to push them out the door. The Christians, on the other hand, took a different approach. They saw it as their responsibility to love the sick and dying, so they took them into their homes and nursed them. Many people recovered thanks to their loving care.
Less than a century later, after Christianity had been legalized, a new emperor, Julian, came to the throne seeking to restore the pagan religion. In some comments to the pagan priests he speaks about the Christians this way:
“Why, then, do we think that this is enough, why do we not observe that it is their [Christians] benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism [Julian’s word for Christianity]? I believe that we ought really and truly to practice every one of these virtues. … For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg and the impious Galileans support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.”
Julian was right in this: love of neighbor is one of the hallmarks of the Christian life. Jesus is the reason. He personified love. He emptied himself in love and calls us, his disciples, to do the same.
The Gospel reading for this Sunday’s Mass is taken from the Gospel according to John. The setting is the last supper. Judas has left. Jesus speaks to the apostles about his upcoming passion as a glorification. Then he gives the great commandment. He says: “My children, I will be with you only a little while longer. I give you a new commandment: love one another.”
The command to love is not a generic type of love. It is a laying down of one’s life in love for the other for Jesus continues by saying: “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.”
Love is at the heart of the Christian life. The love is expressed every day in the way we act, interact, think and speak. The simple acts of charity and kindness that we offer to those we encounter each day speak louder than many words. The message conveyed is that the recipient is loved.
When we do these things because we are loved by God, then the Gospel is proclaimed and the good news that Christ Jesus is risen from the dead becomes visible and tangible in our communities and in the world. The proclamation goes on day after day as we love one another as he has loved us.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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