As you may know at the earlier Mass today, young people from this parish were officially inscribed into their program to receive the sacrament of confirmation next April. And it’s always inspiring to see young people who are willing to make this journey to know Jesus better and to receive that final sacrament of initiation. I think it’s within that framework, because they are members of your community, that all of us should reflect on the Scripture lessons today — the framework of what the sacrament of confirmation means, what it will mean for these young people, and for all of us who have already received it.
And the very first prayer in the celebration of the sacrament I think helps us to understand what this sacrament really is. At that celebration, we pray, “All powerful and ever-living God, in your goodness, hear our prayer. Send your Holy Spirit upon us to make us witnesses before the world to the good news proclaimed by Jesus Christ, who lives with you and one God forever and ever. Amen.” But that gives you the heart of the sacrament. You are confirmed, anointed with the Holy Spirit, to proclaim the good news, to be witnesses of that good news of Jesus.
Two things in that prayer: to be witnesses. That is for all of us to reflect upon. Do we give testimony at times in our words, but most of all, by our very lives? Do our lives speak Jesus? That’s what it means to be a witness to Jesus — that your very life speaks Jesus. And the good news: well, the good news is what we hear accepting the Gospel lesson today where Jesus reminds us the greatest commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength.” First and most important of commandments.
But there might be a little difficulty with this when you think about it. How can someone be commanded to love? That’s not the way it happens, is it, that we carry out a command to love. That seems too artificial. And so reading what Jesus is speaking here, is what it comes to be a relationship — that our relationship with God is a relationship of love, because that’s what love is, with people getting to know, to trust, and to share their lives with one another, to love.
And so the commandment of love is showing us that our relationship to God is like that — it’s love. And I think that in the first letter of St. John, we have this expressed perhaps better than anywhere in all of the Scriptures. This is really the good news: “My dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Those who do not love have not known God, for God is love.” And then John makes this point: “This is love — not that we loved God, but God first loved us.” God first loved us. That’s the good news.
And that’s the most important thing for us to try to take in in our minds, but especially in our hearts and our spirit, to have this awareness that God first loved us. And that means, in a very fundamental way, you see God loved all of creation into being. There was nothing; God loved, drew it into being — the whole universe, our beautiful world, but also each one of us. God loved us into being, and the love of God is always supporting us. We would be nothing if God hadn’t loved us into being, and does not sustain us every instant of our lives.
Once we really begin to let that sink in — God first loved us — then, of course, our response will be to try to love in return. To be grateful, to be filled with gratitude, with joy, and to begin to experience the peace and the goodness of all that God is. That’s what Jesus is telling us. That’s the good news: God loves us, and will never stop loving us. It unconditional, it’s without limit — the love of God.
And as we begin to more and more draw into our minds and hearts and our spirit an awareness of this, then the more we will love God in return, and love all of those who God loves, everyone that God has brought into existence. They are our brothers and sisters in the human family, and that’s why the second commandment, Jesus tells us, is so important: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
In fact, St. James, in his letter to the early Christian community, points out that, “Anyone who says you love God, whom you cannot see, and does not love their neighbor, whom you do see,” James says, “is a liar.” You can’t claim to love God and not love those who God loves — our brothers and sisters in the human family. And so to live out our confirmation, the completion of our sacrament of initiation to baptism and confirmation, if we’re to live it out, then we must be witnesses to this good news: that God loves us and we are called to love one another.
And that’s where our first lesson today becomes very important because it gives us specific ways in which God is asking us to love one another. “You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” See, God is telling the chosen people, “Look, remember? You were outcasts; you were strangers. You were aliens there in Egypt. Now God has brought you into the promised land. You’re God’s people, and so remember what you were and never treat another person in the way that you were as an alien, an outsider.”
It isn’t hard for us to think about receiving outsiders into our midst, and maybe how we fail to really carry out that specific command. Just think of the wall that we have built on the border of the southwest part of our country. It’s a wall to push people away. People who are fleeing violence, oppression, injustice, whose lives are threatened every day, little children, and we push them back. How is that loving our neighbor as our brother and sister in the family of God?
So we have to think about that, and what we must try to do about that, but then Exodus goes on with other examples: “You should not harm the widow or the orphan.” See, the most vulnerable people in our society. God is saying those are the ones, first of all, that you reach out to. Those are the ones most precious to God — the poor and the outcast, the vulnerable.
“If you lend money to any people who are poor, do not act like a money lender. Do not charge interest.” That’s a challenge in the society in which we live, that we should be ready to give and not expect anything in return. “If you take a person’s cloak as a pledge, you must give it back by sunset, for it is all the covering the poor person has, and what else will that person sleep? And when he cries to me, I will hear that cry, for I am a God of compassion.” And God is calling us to be like that.
Right now, one of the most tragic situations in our world, and we’re all aware of this, is what’s happening in West Africa — that terrible scourge of Ebola; thousands of people have already died. But most of the news about it, it seems to me in this country, is about making sure it doesn’t happen here. Well, of course that’s important, and we can take the necessary precautions that we don’t have an epidemic in our country that becomes a pandemic around the world.
Obviously, we need to do that, but also we need to do what we can as individuals, and as a country, to bring help to those people, and there’s a couple of beautiful examples of how that’s been done by individuals. Perhaps you’ve read in the paper about the young doctor who grew up right nearby here. He graduated from Grosse Pointe South in 1999.
From the very beginning of his high school years, he wanted to be a doctor because he wanted to serve people, and he went to West Africa. Dr. Craig Spencer; he’s the one who actually caught Ebola, but he’s going to recover. But he was looking to risk his life because he wanted to reach out, to help, and he did.
And perhaps you saw as I did, I was totally impressed with the young woman. I saw this on television, over in West Africa, a nurse. And she was over there, ministering, and in some degree, risking her life, but taking all the precautions necessary. And when she was being interviewed, they interviewed her after, “Don’t you want to be home? You’re so far away. Don’t you want to be home?” She said, “I am home because we’ve all heard this: your home is where your heart is.” And she says, “My heart is here, with these people who are suffering and dying, so I am at home.”
See, that’s loving your neighbor as yourself, and that’s what we’re called to do as followers of Jesus. And when we receive the sacrament of confirmation, which we have, we commit ourselves to be those who give witness to the good news of God’s love. And so each of us, in our prayers and reflections, I hope will think about how we have to love God with our whole heart, mind, and soul, but then also love our neighbor as ourselves, and to find the most effective ways in which I can do that.
And when we do it, perhaps God will speak to us in our hearts. And those words of St. Paul from our second lesson, he says to those people in Thessalonica, but could be saying it to us if we really catch the spirit of Jesus: “You became followers of us and of Jesus when, on receiving the word, you experienced the joy of the Holy Spirit, and you became a model, a witness, for the faithful of Macedonia and Achaia, and since from you the word of God’s love spread there, and even further.”
And when we begin to live these two commandments, and give testimony to them by our lives, then the word of God will spread. The love of God will spread wherever we go, wherever our love goes.
[Homily given at St. Philomena 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.]