God shows us how to love all, even enemies

by Thomas Gumbleton

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Now we spend a few moments listening together to God's word so that it can form and shape our thinking and our ways of acting. And in the first lesson, I think there's a question that all of us need to ask: What am I to do? What am I to do? You know those first disciples there on that first Pentecost Sunday, which is when Peter proclaimed the words that we heard in the first lesson, became aware of what had happened just 50 days before, when Jesus, someone whom they had come to know, and many of them ... had been his followers and failed him.

Fourth Sunday of Easter
Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Psalms 23:1-2a, 3b-4, 5, 6
1 Peter 2:20b-25
John 10:1-10
Full text of the readings

They had come to know him as a friend and a teacher, rabbi, but then when it came time for him to be handed over to those who were opposed to him and to his ways, they had gone away -- all the disciples except for just a handful. Now Peter is saying, "That person Jesus is the son of God, whom you allowed, or even assisted in executing. But now, he has been raised from the dead, and the Holy Spirit that he promised has come upon us. And he came to bring us the good news of God's love. We rejected him, but now he's been raised up and is with God in heaven."

So at that point, these disciples understand the enormous evil that had happened. The very son of God had been put to death out of hatred, and they had failed to stand by his side. So then they asked the question, "What am I to do? Now that I realize what has happened, what am I to do?" That's when Peter then says, "Well, you need to repent; turn your life around, and now begin to listen deeply to what he had taught us, and to begin to live out what he showed us."

I think in the second lesson, a letter attributed to St. Peter, what that means in the concrete is told to those disciples: "This is your calling. Repent, change your life, follow him, and here's how: Remember the Christ who suffered for you, leaving you an example." Sometimes, when we hear about, or pray over even, or have read to us in the Scriptures the story of Jesus' suffering and death, we think of it as -- or it's even told to us at times -- that this was a ransom that Jesus had to pay to God to buy us back.

But when you think of that, what kind of a God would demand that anyone go through this kind of rejection and suffering and pain and ignominious death that Jesus went through? What really was being done was, as Peter says, "Jesus, through his suffering, left us an example, and the example that he left us is probably the most radical part of his teaching: Don't just love those who love you. Love your enemy. Do good to those who hurt you. Return good for evil."

In a sense, we could say, "Anyone can love somebody who loves me, but to love your enemy?" Yet that's what Peter is saying. "Remember: Jesus suffered for you, leaving you an example," because while he was suffering, while he was being put to death, he was reaching out in love and forgiveness to the very ones putting him to death.

That was something that Jesus had taught so plainly about loving even your enemies, and then now he shows us when it happens to him. He shows us by his example that we must love our enemies, reject violence, reject vengeance, reject retaliation, reject all of those things and only respond with love. When you begin to think about that, you begin to realize how profound and radical [it is]. It's the change that has to take place in our hearts, in our minds, in our whole being, and the kind of change that we have to keep on trying to bring about in our society where there's a culture of violence.

Killings [are] going on all the time while we live in a society that our major export is weapons -- weapons of destruction. Our economy is based on killing because we export all these weapons to make money for ourselves. It's the largest export we have, and we're a country that engages in war so readily. For all practical purposes, we've been at war since 1991, killing people, having our own young men and women killed. And the killing that goes on in our streets and throughout our country, it's all a sign of the violence that we have to transform through love.

So that's what Peter is saying in that second lesson where it's spelled out, in a sense in greater detail than it was in the first lesson, where we just repent, change your lives. Well, here's how: Follow the Jesus who showed us through his own suffering and death what it means to be a disciple by giving our own lives, if necessary, rather than taking the life of another; love your enemies.

That would be impossible to do unless we really opened ourselves to being transformed by Jesus, and I think our Gospel lesson guides us on how to be transformed. This really is a continuation of the other Gospels that have come since we celebrated Easter. In each of them, we have heard a message of how God loves us. God loves us, and if we allow ourselves to experience that love that is poured forth from God upon us, that will change us so that then we can truly begin to love others, even our enemies.

When I say how the lessons have shown us this, you go back to the Sunday after Easter, Easter Sunday night, in the Gospel where Thomas had not been there Easter night. Then Jesus comes back the next Sunday, and he comes into the midst of the disciples, as he had on Easter also, and the first thing he says is, "Peace be with you." He comes back to reconcile, to forgive, and the disciples experience they had failed him. They had denied him, betrayed him, ran away when he was captured, and yet he comes back to them with love, forgiveness, reconciliation.

The next Sunday, in the story about the disciples on the road to Emmaus, he opens the Scriptures for them, shows how Jesus had to suffer, and demonstrate through his suffering how we have to follow him in the way of love, that your love is universal. It goes toward everyone, even your enemies. Jesus instructed those disciples, they took the lesson in, and today in the Gospel, it's another way of Jesus showing his love for us. When he calls himself "The Gate" to those first hearers, it would be clear what he meant.

See, the sheep hold was a place where there was a wall built around it with an opening, and there were many flocks of sheep kept in the same area. But across the opening where the gate is, the shepherd would lie down and sleep, and so would be there to protect and love the sheep, and then would love the sheep so much that they would know his voice and would follow him when he arose and called them forth. So this Gospel is a way of Jesus teaching us again how much God loves us, how Jesus loves us -- ready to lie down and guard that sheepfold, guard the gate, so that no one would hurt the sheep; lay down his life for them.

That's the kind of love God has for us, demonstrated to us through Jesus, and it's a love that becomes very personal. Jesus knows my voice, knows your voice, and we should be able to learn his voice -- and will when we listen deeply to the Scriptures regularly. We will know when Jesus is calling us, speaking to us, asking us to follow him in his way of love.

The more we have experienced that love that is proclaimed for us in these Scripture lessons, and that Jesus demonstrates for us as we experience that deeply in our own heart, the more we will respond with love -- not in a sort of abstract way toward God, but in a personal encounter with God through Jesus. Then we'll extend that love to all of our brothers and sisters, even those we might think of as our enemies.

Today's lessons, then, call upon us to change our lives, to deepen our conversion, to become more like Jesus, who loved even his enemies, gave his life for them, and taught us that we must love one another as he has loved us.

[Homily given at Franciscan Retreat Center in Tampa, Fla. 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.]

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