by Br Julian McDonald

“Let us love one another since love comes from God and everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. Anyone who fails to love can never have known God, because God is love.” 1 John 4: 7-10
“This is my commandment: Love one another as I have loved you.” John 15: 9-17

There are some things about us to which we Christians give unwavering assent. For instance, we are convinced that we are made “in the image of God(cf Genesis 1: 26-27). The corollary of that is that we know that, like God, we are good, loving, free and creative. We know, too, in the depths of our being, that we have been created out of love for love. We know that the love between the parents who conceived us, nurtured us and educated us reflected God’s love and we know that we would be less than human if we failed to express the love planted deep within us. Nobody lectures us on how to love. We learned it by osmosis from the way in which those close to us expressed the love in their hearts. It was modelled to us unconsciously as they launched into living their lives lovingly.
We might, then, find ourselves wondering why we hear John, in today’s second reading, asserting something we already know: “My dear friends, let us love one another because love comes from God, and everyone who loves is a child of God and knows God (1 John 4: 7). But let’s not jump to the conclusion that John is telling his community and us what they and we already know. Look again at what I have highlighted in bold print. John says that everyone who loves is born of God and knows God; not just members of John’s community, not just Christians, but everyone who loves! We don’t have a monopoly on God, neither do we have a monopoly on love. Moreover, if we dare to be honest, we will acknowledge that there are times when we struggle to love even one other person. Despite all our efforts to reach out in love to everyone we know and encounter, we realise that our loving will never mirror the love God has for each of us.
But let’s not think that John is trying to discourage us. In this same reading, he proceeds to remind us that God took the initiative of first loving us into life and then reaching out in love to us in the person of Jesus, who lived and died for us. God’s love for us is unconditional, unrelenting and freely given. We cannot earn God’s love.
As we go about our lives, we encounter others by design and by choice, and end up bumbling and tumbling into love with some of them. It’s a rare experience for us, I suspect, to say to ourselves that we are going to set about loving this person or that one to death. If, from the outset, we think of love as a Christian duty, it will all come down around our ears. To love another person involves initiative and positive choice on our part. It calls for patience and tolerance, and requires open, honest communication, allowing no room for harbouring personal secrets. The same applies to our love for God. Our conversations with God are a contradiction if we try to make them anything other than open and honest. So, too, our conversations with those whom we say we love. Appreciating love in this way led Victor Hugo to assert: “To love another person is to see the face of God!” (Les Miserables)
While today’s gospel-reading spells out in detail the way in which God’s love for humankind was expressed in the life and love of Jesus, the first reading from Acts complements the second reading from John’s First Letter in that it stops Peter in his tracks, demonstrating to him that God is present and active in the lives of gentiles, whom Peter thought he was going to lead out of ignorance. This first reading from Acts is an account of how Peter’s plans to convert the gentile world to Jesus were cut short by Cornelius, a Roman pagan, in whom God’s Spirit was well and truly alive. Describe it as coincidence, providence-in-action, match-making or whatever you will, Cornelius, in an angelic vision and Peter, through a dream, were organised to come together in a meeting pre-arranged by God’s Spirit. Peter, totally obedient to the Jewish purification laws which forbade the eating of unclean or contaminated food, had been dreaming about eating the defiled foods on which gentiles were accustomed to feast. He awoke from his dream to be greeted by servants of the gentile Cornelius who were inviting him to accompany them to their master’s house in Caesarea. Peter saw in this invitation an opportunity to make new catechumens, so he willingly accepted it. He arrived at the house of Cornelius and, after being made welcome, was launching into his prepared speech when he was stopped short at the sight of God’s Spirit descending on Cornelius and his whole household. Peter was astute enough to appreciate that he had made the long trip to Caesarea not to enlighten the pagans he expected to find there, but to discover that God’s Spirit had already been at work ahead of him. Peter found something beyond his wildest imagination: that the God in whom he believed was already alive and active in the gentile world.
Implicit in that experience is a message that God can work effectively wherever God chooses and that God will not be contained by cultural and religious categories and prejudices. Peter had been alerted to this in the dream he had experienced when he heard a voice warning him that the food on which gentiles dined was not unclean: “What God has made clean, you have no right to call profane.” (Acts 10: 15) The message for all of us is abundantly clear: God’s self and God’s love can be revealed in every culture and faith-tradition. The challenge for each of us is to accept that none of us can claim ownership of God, that we have to be big enough to rise above our prejudices, personal and religious, and to be open to encountering God in everyone we meet, despite his or her culture, religious faith, ethnicity and sexual orientation. God’s love is reflected wherever and in whomever love abides. Love works only when it is welcomed, Are we able to risk the welcoming?