5th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) – May 15, 2021
St. Paul – Lyons, KS
Acts 14:21-27; Psalm 145:8-13; Revelation 21:1-5a; John 13:31-33a, 34-35
Christian Morality: Isn’t That Just a Bunch of Rules?
Whenever people talk to me about the Catholic Church, there are a few things that get brought up pretty quickly. The first is, “Oh, you Catholics have so many rules!” And it devolves into, “Isn’t that all religion is? Just a bunch of rules to try to get to heaven? (And some of you are probably sitting there thinking, “Well, isn’t it?”) The Bible: isn’t it just a big rule book?” I’ve heard that; some people get cute and say, “BIBLE: Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.”
The other thing people bring up—and it’s directly related—is Confession. And Confession is probably one of the most misunderstood things we do as Catholics. Because (as with many things we do and believe as Christians, as Catholics) we learn about it in second grade, which means that a bunch of us are operating with a second grade understanding of it. For example, one of those things you learn to do 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, the “bad things” you did: 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 level your whole life. And “examining your conscience” just becomes, “What are all the weird ‘Catholic rules’ I broke?”
What that means is 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 weird “Catholic rules” you broke. And it starts to not make sense—because that’s weird. And some of the “Catholic rules” are very personal, and it’s embarrassing to admit to those things. And then people stop going. And yeah! If that’s what you think Confession is, if that’s how you understand it, you are right: it couldn’t be more weird to tell the “holy man” the weird “Catholic rules” you broke.
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. I don’t care that you broke the rules. What I care about is: 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, yourself, your girlfriend, your boyfriend, to love your husband or your wife? This is at the heart of it. It’s not, “Did I break this arbitrary rule on this sheet I was given that tells me ‘the sins’?” No, the question is, “Did I do something that was not truly loving? Is what I did a failure to live out this love that I say that I have for this person?”
This Gospel today, Jesus gives us the one commandment, often quoted, often misunderstood: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” And please, do not turn this into some lovey dovey, feel good, warm-tingly-feelings-inside “love.” “Don’t be a jerk,” or, “Be kind,” isn’t “love”—very important, very much agree, “Yeah, don’t be a jerk. Yeah, be kind”)—but “love” is much, much more! Christ loved us to the point of dying for us; not a lot of warm tingles there.
The Presence We Love & The Affection Which Sustains
When Jesus bases everything, all morality, all of life on this one commandment of love—what this means is that there must first be someone we love, and that everything we do is about sustaining and deepening that love, remaining in that love! Being a Christian, being a Catholic is not about following the rules so you can go to heaven one day; being a Christian, being a Catholic is not about “being good,” no. It’s not about “being good” but about “being with the Good,” being with the one we love, who loves us, who prefers us, who sustains us and changes us—being with the one we cannot live without
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, this line from Aquinas: “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. “What has your affection? What do you love that gives life and joy and newness to your life? What sustains your life? Where do you find the greatest satisfaction in 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 the things kids are taught to idolize more than anything else—sports. Or teenagers will talk about the love of their thirteen-year-old-life, and how if they break up, he’ll kill himself.
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 the place where they find the greatest satisfaction, the place they are willing to do anything to remain, to remain in that love. Again: it’s not about “being good” but about “being with the Good,” being with the thing we love, the thing we prefer, which sustains us and changes us—being with the one thing we cannot live without.
Does this make sense? When there is something, and especially when there is someone that captivates us; 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
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. Morality is a response to that very innate desire: “I want to remain with you.” Morality tells us how to remain, how remaining with our love is possible. But just like any love—love for your job, love for sports, 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, and not just some rules you have to follow because he said so. Evil, sin, “bad things you need to confess”—sin is whatever you do to offend the object of your love, to forget the one you love, to stop paying attention to the one you love—to abandon them.
Last week was Mother’s Day. It is a “random rule” that you do something nice for your mom, not forget it’s Mother’s Day. 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 your desire to do your job well, to remaining in your job.
Ever since you were five years old you’ve been enamored with 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, to remaining on the team, 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. And you live a strict “morality” based on it. It’s not just “random 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
Ok. 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 by being with him. They connected this man with the meaning and purpose of their life. “They immediately left their nets and followed him,” they left houses and wives and children and jobs to follow 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. 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 attracts us and promise us a great good, promises us 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, all of these others things—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 once we find him, the question becomes: “How do I remain, always remain in this love?” From that experience is born all morality. From the experience of him, his presence, his love for us and our love for him, everything else flows.