My dear brothers and sisters in Christ
Grace and peace to you in God, our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. When I was in college, I got to know a very frustrating young man. He was born and raised in a strong Catholic family, sent to a Catholic grade school, Catholic middle school, and Catholic high school before attending Loras College, which, as most of you know, is a Catholic college. But there was something about this guy that I didn’t trust from the first time I talked to him. He said that in high school he joined an evangelical protestant youth group and had given his life to Christ and been saved. But it wasn’t that. He said he had read the Bible backwards and forwards several times. It wasn’t that. At first, I couldn’t figure it out. Then, I read the second reading for today’s mass and it hit me.
The hardest part about the second reading is that we’ve all heard it before and we all associate it with one particular activity: weddings. This is the second reading at almost every wedding. And the truly tragic thing about that fact is that St. Paul wasn’t just talking about marriage when he wrote chapter 13 of his first letter to the Corinthians. In fact, I’m pretty sure he wasn’t thinking about it at all. He does talk in an earlier passage about marriage. In chapter 7, St. Paul said that he wishes everyone would remain as he is, that is to say celibate. But, since there are those who burn with lust so intensely that to stay unmarried would be sinful, those weaklings should get married. It’s funny that most brides and grooms don’t want me to preach about that for their wedding. I can’t understand why.
In chapter 12, the chapter immediately prior to this passage, St. Paul talks about using our God-given gifts and talents for the building up of the church. You might remember that two weeks ago I preached about how this is still true and that it’s the reason that we have a stewardship committee. Since then, one of my parishioners gave me a book called The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic. The first part of the book talks about how, in society, 10% of the people do 90% of the work. However, in the church, it’s more like 3% of the people doing 90% of the work. Just like the Corinthians, we all have to pray about and ask ourselves if we are using our gifts and talents to build up the body of the Christ that is the church.
At the end of this chapter, St. Paul says that there is one gift that is even more important than those, one that is present in all the others and that one gift is love. He says that if he was the greatest of all preachers, someone like Archbishop Dolan of New York or Pope John Paul II, but preached without love, he would be “a clanging gong or a clashing cymbal”, a whole lot of noise but totally without meaning. He says that if he was the most intelligent person in the world, if he was Stephen Hawking or Carl Sagan, and did not have love he was nothing. He says that if he was the most philanthropic person in the world, if he was Warren Buffett or Bill and Melinda Gates, giving incredible amounts of money to the poor and oppressed, and did so without love, he would accomplish nothing.
Then, he lists what love is. The challenge with this list is that he really says that love is only two things: Love is patient and love is kind. Everything else that St. Paul says is what love is NOT. It is not jealous or pompous or rude or seek its own interests. What all this has in common is that love seeks out what’s best for others rather than what is best for ourselves.
What mystifies St. Paul is that love is the one charism that we will carry with us into the afterlife. What need have we of faith when we are looking at God face-to-face? We won’t need hope anymore in heaven since hope is what drives us past the difficulties of life and points to the bliss of eternal life in heaven. Yet, when we are looking into the loving eyes of God, we will continue to love him for eternity.
What really bugged me about my evangelical friend in college was that he claimed to be so much better of a Christian than we, Catholics but he was really an incredibly selfish, angry person. And, to be completely honest, what really bugged me was I saw too much of myself in him. I was and still am not always as loving toward others as I could or should be. For St. Paul, God is love. That’s why love lasts: because it is God. And, for me, the hardest people to love are the people like my evangelical friend: self-righteous, judgmental, angry people who tell me that I’m not good enough. But, as the prophet Jeremiah experienced in the first reading and Jesus experienced in the gospel, it’s more important to be loving toward them than to those who are easy to love. Love isn’t a warm, happy feeling. Nor is love found in pacifying lies. Love is being part of the March for Life and standing up for the unborn. Love is taking part in an intervention to tell an out-of-control family member that you’re concerned enough about them to force them to deal with their drug use. Love is taking some food or some warm clothes to a homeless person standing by the side of the road. Love is reaching out to help a family that you know is in trouble even though it could harm your reputation with your own friends or family. Love is what defines what it means to be a Christian and, indeed, God is love. How can we be more loving to our neighbors, especially the ones that are hardest?