The lessons today really demand our close listening, our paying very close attention, trying to absorb what they tell us because really, this is the core message of the Gospel. A year or so ago, Pope Francis published what he called an exhortation, a letter to the church. He called it "The Joy of the Gospel" -- Evangelii Gaudium. It's been circulating around the world now. Many, many people have read it, perhaps some of you have.
Sixth Sunday of Easter
But there's one paragraph where he takes up this very thing that we're hearing in today's Gospel lesson. "All revealed truths derive from the same divine source and are to be believed with the same faith, yet some of them are more important for giving direct expression to the heart of the Gospel" -- the basic core of the Gospel message. Pope Francis says, "In that core, what shines forth is the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus." That's the message of the Gospel. God loves us, and God wants us to know that. So God sends Jesus, God's son, to be one of us, to become one like us in every way except sin.
Our second lesson today, perhaps more powerfully even than the Gospel, explains this very truth, where John the disciple is writing to the first Christian community and tells them, "My dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves is born of God, knows God. How did the love of God appear among us? God sent God's only son into this world that we might have life through him. An act of God's love sending Jesus to be one of us. This is love, not that we loved God, but that God first loved us."
Sign up for NCR's Copy Desk Daily, and we'll email you recommended news and opinion articles each weekday.
God first loved us -- that's the message, the core message of the Gospel. I feel pretty certain that many of us grew up thinking that somehow if we did the right things, if we obeyed the commandments, if we went to church faithfully, we said our prayers every day, if we tried to follow the teachings of the church, that we would make it. Somehow, God would then reward us. We would be taken into heaven.
But it's not like that. This is the message: God first loved us. God doesn't demand that we do anything to earn that love. We can't earn that love. It's God drawing us into existence because God loves us. God drawing all of the universe into existence because God loves what God has made. God is love, and where there is love, there is God. That love of God reaches out to us first.
As Pope Francis goes on to explain in this exhortation, "We gradually, maybe sometimes it's even a moment of enlightenment where we understand [that] God loves me. God will never stop loving me. We experience as we come to know Jesus that love of God coming into our lives, filling us with the love of God." In our first lesson today, we have an example of how God does love first. In this incident where Peter has been called to go to the home of Cornelius -- a Roman soldier, a leader in the occupying army -- and as a good Jew, Peter is not supposed to go into the homes of Gentiles, but God leads him there.
As he is carrying on a conversation with Cornelius, they're getting to know each other, and Cornelius is seeking baptism. But before that can happen, Peter is still trying to figure it all out. Suddenly, the Holy Spirit is poured forth upon that home. The people receive the Spirit just as the first disciples did after Jesus rose from the dead. Then Peter says, "How can we not baptize them? God has already shown God's love for them."
God takes the initiative. God loves us. This is the message of the Gospel that once we grasp it, it can mean tremendous changes in our own lives in how we relate to God. But then, as Jesus says in the Gospel, it's also how we relate to one another, "This is my one commandment: That you love one another as I have loved you." Some people say at times, "Oh, that's making everything easy. What about the commandments? Don't do this. Don't do that. You must do this. You must do that."
No, it's not easy when you understand what Jesus is saying, "Love one another as I have loved you." Then, notice his example: "There is no greater love than this, than to lay down your life for another." No greater love than to lay down your life for those you love, which includes even your enemies. Don't just love those who love you, love your enemies. It does take great courage and conviction to understand that we really must love one another as Jesus loves us.
That means without condition. It means without limit. It means even giving our life for those we love, even our enemies. Probably most of us are not going to be challenged in that way to lay down our life for another. It's in the everyday interactions that we have within our families, within our communities, in our cities, our state, our world -- that's where we're going to be challenged to love. In a letter that St. Paul wrote to the church of Galatia, he pointed out to them something that is so important if we're going to really make the love that we've experienced from God be transformed within us and reach out in love to others.
If that's going to really happen, then Paul says, "Among you, there can be no longer rich or poor, Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female." In other words, we have to break down all those barriers that we constantly set up in our world. We have to try to draw everyone into our community of brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of God, loved into existence by God and called by God to love one another. And of course, there are very, very many ways in which we need to break down those barriers or close the gap.
There's still anti-Semitism in our country, even in our church. But also look at our relationship with Muslims now, people of other religions. We have to break down those barriers. We all are loved into being by the one God, the same God who is love, calls us to love one another. We have to break down those barriers that bring about inequality in the workplace for men and women or in our church -- women excluded from roles in our church that they're fully called to carry out and capable of carrying out, but we put up barriers.
Paul says, "No barriers -- male or female, slave or free, Jew or Gentile, rich or poor." Pope Francis keeps encouraging us to go out to the peripheries, as he calls it, out to the margins where the poor are often. Draw them in -- where anyone is pushed aside, people in prison. He makes it a constant effort on his part to go to the jails, to minister to prisoners -- those who are excluded from our society and who are treated in our prisons in such ways that usually there's no chance for rehabilitation. It's a cruel, brutal existence.
If we're going to break down the barriers, we have to go to those peripheries, as Francis calls it, but in our neighborhood, in our homes. That's where it's going to start -- in the home. Mother's Day -- today we honor our mothers and rightfully so because they give so much in love to us and have over the years. We understand that. But also, we will be celebrating Father's Day. As mother and father -- parents, sometimes single parents, but there has to be that love in the family, in the home.
I just recently came across an example of this that for me is inspiring and challenges me. I have some friends, a married couple, over 60-some years, with grown children. The father's been in very bad health and has been in the hospital, now in rehab ready to come home. They live in a beautiful home in Detroit, one of the old ones that over the years, especially, he has maintained and kept up and loves it. He loves living there in the heart of Detroit.
While he's in rehab, his wife and the children, because they know he really can't make it in that home anymore with the stairs and other difficulties that would prevail, have arranged to move into an assisted-living place. They're not so sure how he's going to take it. So when the rehab people tell him, "You're getting ready to go home." He's delighted with this. Someone says, "Where do you think home is?" because they made other arrangements and they're a little bit concerned.
He looks back at them, then he looks at his wife and he says, "Home is wherever she is." Problem solved -- they're going home, a different place, but it's where they live together in love with one another. That's the kind of love that can burst out of a home into a neighborhood, into a city, into our country, into the world. We have to nurture love like that -- the love that Jesus speaks about in the Gospel, "This is my one command: That you love one another as I have loved you."
I tell you this: Francis calls his exhortation "The Joy of the Gospel," and you can tell how he lives it, and he is a joyful person. In those words at the Last Supper that we heard [in] our Gospel, Jesus also said, "I tell you all of this so that my joy may be in you and your joy complete, full. I'm telling you this that you will be filled with joy." Listen, follow, and joy will be yours now and, actually, forever.
[Homily given at St. Leo Catholic Church in Detroit. The transcripts of Bishop Gumbleton's homilies are posted weekly to NCRonline.org. Sign up here to receive an email alert when the latest homily is posted.]