Over the last few Sundays, our Scripture lessons have reminded us more than once that God loves us, and that God first loved us, and that God always loves us. God is always calling us back if we begin to fall away. God is reaching out in love waiting to forgive us. God is always waiting to be gracious to us.
Fourth Sunday of Lent
Today we hear the same message again. Indeed, I think it’s important that we hear this message over and over again because I think it’s difficult for most of us to really accept that God loves me, and God has called me into existence out of love.
God sustains me every moment of my existence out of love. God will never stop loving me. That’s what we hear in the first lesson today where the chosen people have now been traveling through the desert 40 years. They went into slavery because of their sinfulness, but God brought them out through Moses, then that long travel through the desert. But notice how Joshua, when he calls the people — now they’re in the Promised Land, they have been freed, and he calls the people together.
Joshua says, speaking for God, “Today I have removed from you the shame of Egypt.” So the Israelites encamped there, where they celebrated the Passover on the evening of the 14th day of the month, then they began to eat the goods of the earth from that place in freedom. The manna disappeared. They no longer needed to wait for the quail to come at night. They were home. It had all been the work of God.
God had summoned Moses, sent Moses, and Moses led them out. Through that long difficult time, God was always with them. It was God who did that. Paul, in writing to the church at Corinth reminds us, “Anyone who is in Christ is a new creature where the old things have passed away. All this is the work of God, who in Christ reconciled us to God’s self. So we present ourselves as ambassadors in the name of Christ.”
But again, the point I hope you notice — it’s God who had made this happen — God, who has reached out to us through Jesus and brought about our reconciliation with God.
Of course, in the Gospel lesson, as I mentioned before, that story — we know it so well, but we sometimes perhaps do not reflect deeply enough on how it’s God who makes the effort to reach out to the son who has sinned so shamefully. The father, of course, represents God, but you notice in the story when the son was still a long way off, the father saw him and ran to meet him, went out to draw him in. That father was watching every day, waiting for that son to come back, loving him back in some way.
That’s how God is to us. I think probably many of us find the position of the elder son to be kind of true, that we might actually be like that. “He went and wasted everything and you celebrate, throw a party like we’ve never had before for that son who shamed you, shamed himself. I here have been working all these years while he’s gone, wasting your wealth, living as a sinner.” The elder son then refuses to come in. He won’t accept the father’s word, “Everything I have is yours. I love you, too, and have always loved you.”
But you see the difficulty — both of the sons almost are the same. The younger son as he’s coming back says, “I’ll go back and I’ll apologize and I’ll say, ‘I’ll work as your slave.’ ” He says, “I’m ready to go back because then I’ll know at least I’ll get my meals.” So he doesn’t really understand what is happening. The older son says, “I have slaved for you all these years.” He, too, thinks his relationship with the father is that of a slave, following orders.
But that isn’t the way it is. We’re not relating to God as slaves. God has drawn us into existence out of love. Our relationship to God has to be one of love and can be one of love because God loves us. We don’t have to be afraid of God. God is not a harsh taskmaster, a slave master. No, God has drawn us into the circle of God’s own life. We are sons and daughters of God, loved at every instant by God. It’s an unlimited, unconditional, everlasting love.
A couple of weeks ago, I told about this incident, but I’m going to repeat it because it fits so well today. I have a priest friend in another diocese who invited an Orthodox rabbi to speak to his parishioners about Judaism. He explained about the 613 laws of the Torah and how he faithfully keeps those laws. Someone asked him about his belief in an afterlife. The rabbi said, “I believe everyone eventually gets into heaven.”
Then people raised their hands; they all had the same question, “Why do you keep all those 613 laws if you think everyone is going to get into heaven anyway?” The rabbi smiled and answered, “Because God has asked me to keep them.” It’s a matter of friendship. If a friend asks you to do something, you do it. In this case, you recognize that what God is asking of you is for your own good. God asks and we respond. God loves and we respond.
That’s the way a relationship with God should be and can be if we take the time to think about how much God has loved us, and how God constantly loves us and never lets us down. But then as we heard in the second lesson, God also expects us, as those who have been so blessed, to be the ambassadors for God, ambassadors of Christ. As Paul says, “God makes an appeal to all of us. We ask that you, in the name of Christ, reach out in reconciliation to others.”
Be ambassadors of Christ of this love of God, spread it, share it, and especially as Paul says, “A new world has come and all of this is the work of God who in Christ reconciled us to God and entrusts to us the ministry of reconciliation.” That’s a very important ministry in our world. Think about it — in our daily life, within our families and in our community, it’s so easy to have the breakdown of good relationships.
But then sometimes we’re not ready to reach out and forgive, to heal, to reconcile. It’s also within our society — look how badly split we are, and the splits in our world. Pope Francis gave us his extraordinary example about how we should be reaching out to those who are in need. When he was in Mexico, he came to the border and reminded us that we should be reconciling with these people who are desperately reaching out for the help they need to survive. “We should be building bridges, not walls,” Francis said.
When he went to the Central African Republic, he reached out in reconciliation to the Muslims in that country where there is killing going on between Christians and Muslims. He put himself in danger to reach out, to go visit the imam at the main mosque in the capital city of that country, and he brought about reconciliation. This is what God is asking us to do in our everyday life, in our family, in our homes, in our neighborhood, in our cities, in our country, but also in our relationship with other nations in the world.
We must be the ones, and we will be the ones once we recognize how God has so loved us, we begin to understand how we love God by loving one another, bringing about reconciliation that will lead to peace and to fullness of life for all of us and for all the people of God’s earth. I hope we heed the words of St. Paul today and commit ourselves to be the ambassadors of God’s mercy and God’s love, to bring reconciliation in every place where human relations are ruptured and broken.
This is the most important call we have, probably, to understand how God loves us, to love God, and then to love one another.
[Homily given at St. Philomena Parish, Detroit, Mich. 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.]