Just Another Command?

6th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B) – May 9, 2021

St. Mary – Derby, KS

Acts 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48; Psalm 98:1-4; 1 John 4:7-10; John 15:9-17

Christian Morality: Isn’t That Just a Bunch of Rules?

Probably one of the most misunderstood things we do as Catholics is go to confession. Because (as with many things we do and believe as Christians, as Catholics) we are taught it in second grade, which means that a second grade understanding is the level we’re working at.

One of those things you learn in second grade is to examine your conscience. You are given a sheet with all of the sins you probably committed, a list of all the rules you probably broke: not praying, disobeying your parents, hitting your brother, lying, stealing. Easy. And for a seven year old kid, that’s about as good as you can do. But you can easily stay there your whole life. And “examining your conscience” just becomes, “what are all the weird ‘Catholic rules’ I broke?”

And that means that in middle school and high school, and then college and adulthood, confession is just telling the priest all the bad things you did—all the “Catholic rules” you broke. And we stop there. And it doesn’t make sense. And then people stop going. Because it’s dumb. And I agree! If that’s what you think confession is, you are right: it could not be more dumb to tell the holy man what you did wrong.

But that’s not really what it is! Sometimes, I have to stop people and tell them: “I don’t care that you insulted your mother. Do you believe that insulting your mother is an obstacle to your desire to love her??” Because that is the crucial question. Do you think that what you’re doing is an obstacle to your desire to love? To love God, to love your mom or dad, to love yourself, to love your girlfriend, to love your boyfriend, to love your husband or your wife? This is at the heart of it. It’s the question: “Did I break this arbitrary rule on this sheet I was given that tells me ‘the sins’? Or did I do something that prevents me from truly loving?”

This Gospel today, Jesus gives us the one commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.…Love one another.” And please, do not turn this into some lovey dovey, feel good, warm tingly feelings inside “love.” Christ loved us to the point of dying for us. Not a lot of warm tingles. True love means it encompasses our whole life! Love applies to everything in life.

The Affection Which Sustains Us

I haven’t nerd-ed out on y’all for a while, so here goes. The Angelic Doctor himself, St. Thomas Aquinas, said that, “A person’s life consists in the affection that chiefly sustains him and in which he finds the greatest satisfaction” (Summa Theologiae II-IIae, 179, 1). You can learn a lot about a person by asking a few questions. One of them is just this: “Where do you find the greatest satisfaction in life?” If you catch someone with their guard down, and you ask them, that’s when you learn a lot. “Where do you find the greatest satisfaction in life? What has your affection? What do you love that gives life and joy and newness to your life?”

The things that people will say are: “If I didn’t have my job, I would die! I would kill myself.” Some people are a little wary to admit it, but here in Derby it’s the thing we’re building a $7.4 million monument to over on Madison; the things kids are taught to idolize more than anything else—sports. Teenagers will talk about the love of their thirteen-year-old-life, and how if she leaves he’ll kill himself.

The Presence of One Who Captivates Us

What’s going on in all of this? What can you learn? You learn that in which a person’s life consists. You learn what has their chief affection, their preference, their love. You learn what they are willing to make sacrifices for, what comes first in their life. You learn what they are willing to give their life to, what they’re willing to give their life for. You learn that place that they find the greatest satisfaction, the place they are willing to do anything to remain, to remain in that love.

When there is something, and especially when there is someone that captivates us, that strikes us; someone who causes everything within us, every power and feeling within us to be stirred up; someone that attracts us because they promise some good, something we desire and await, something that we may not even really know what it is, something mysterious—when there is a presence, something, someone that does this, that captivates us, that is when what Jesus is saying, this dynamic of “love” as the great commandment begins to make sense.

The Beginning of a Truly Human Morality

And not only does it begin to make sense, but you begin to understand that what Jesus is asking isn’t some random, arbitrary set of rules. Jesus is asking us to do something that is truly human, deeply and profoundly human.

Truly human morality, the beginning of living the morality of Christ, the beginning of any truly human morality is an act of love. But just like any love—love for your job, love for the Derby Panthers, love for your woman or your man—just like any love, any act of love, it requires a presence, something, someone present.

This new morality Jesus proposes is love, not just some rules to follow. Evil, sin, “bad things you need to confess”—evil is whatever you do to offend the object of your love, to forget the one you love.

Today is Mother’s Day. It is a “rule” that you do something nice for your mom today, to not forget that it’s Mother’s Day, to not offend your mother. But that only applies if she is present and you actually love her. If you hate your mom, you’re not gonna feel bad about breaking any of the “rules” about Mother’s Day. “I don’t care that you insulted your mother. Do you believe that insulting your mother is an obstacle to your desire to love her?”

You love your job. So you work hard, you never goof off. You show up on time all of the time. You do flawless work. Why? Because being lazy at work is an obstacle to you doing your job well, to showing love for your job.

Ever since you were five years old you’ve been enamored with Derby football. You spend hours a day training, dieting, skill work. You make huge sacrifices day after day, week after week. Your life is laser focused on this. You believe that cheating on your diet, skipping workouts would be an obstacle to your desire to play for the Derby Panthers, to your love for football.

Do you see what I mean? What you love, what has your preference, your affection, the place where you find the greatest satisfaction—it determines your life. You live a strict morality based on it. It’s not just “rules you have to follow.” If there is a presence, something, someone that has your affection, that gives you great satisfaction—you will remain, you will love, you will sacrifice, no questions.

Our Need for Him Present

The radical claim made throughout the Gospels is that when people met this Jesus, when people encountered him, heard him speak, experienced him—the radical claim is that people’s entire affection was drawn to him, their greatest satisfaction came through him, was promised to them. They connected this man with the meaning and purpose of their life. And “they immediately left their nets and followed him.”

“When John and Andrew saw Him for the first time and heard Him say, ‘Come home with me. Come and see,’ and then spent all those hours listening to Him talking, they didn’t understand, but they sensed that that person was connected with their destiny. They had heard all the public speakers, all their opinions and all the party slogans. [They had tried their job. They had played football for Derby. They had beautiful wives.] But only that man was connected with their destiny.” (Giussani, Generating Traces).

The even more radical claim that the Gospels make—absolutely ludicrous claim! the claim made by people down the ages—is that this man died…but rose from the dead. He is alive. He is still present. And if he is present, there is a chance for this to happen to us too. We can encounter him, meet him, experience him present and alive. We can be captivated by this presence, this presence that causes everything within us, every power and feeling within us to be stirred up; this presence can attract us and promise us great good, everything that we truly desire and await. And when that happens, when we begin to follow that presence, the question then becomes: “Do you believe that all of these things you’re doing—do you believe that they are an obstacle to your desire to follow him, to remain with him, to love him?”

The question is where do we find this presence? Where do we meet him? Where can we encounter him? It is here. Here in the midst of his body, in the midst of his Church. Here, most especially when he becomes present in the bread and wine. And when he is present, he begins to conform us to this mystery, the mystery of his own mighty love.

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