Thursday after Epiphany

We love, because He first loved us. If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also.

Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and whoever loves the Father loves the child born of Him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and observe His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome. For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world-our faith.

1 John 4:19-5:1-4 NASB
I included the whole passage because I find it puzzling. At first, I thought I would just reflect on the first verses. These, to me, have a clear application. And their application fits nicely with the things I am thinking about at the moment, to do with the Church and the kind of love that marks the Church as the body of Christ. See? Here it is: the love for brothers and sisters in Christ (at least) is what identifies us as Christians. The verses in 1 John don’t offer any provisos that would allow us to choose which brothers and sisters to love–only those who love us, or think like we do; or only those who are able-bodied, or of sound mind. The only possible qualification is that we love the ones we see. But I am not sure that counts, exactly.
I like this, because I am writing about the Christian calling to love the poor and the weak. I would like to say that the measure of the Church’s love and holiness is the way she receives those who suffer and are in need, those who the world says have nothing to offer. That’s because the world doesn’t understand that Christ offers himself to us in the broken and the desperate, that we might receive Him. We cannot see God, but God has made us in his image, and in Christ God has shown himself truly and fully. God came to us poor, and still comes to us poor: we are to receive him with love.
But what about this business about the commandments? I would have thought that we would be able to tell that we love the children of God pretty straightforwardly. Isn’t it obvious that we can tell that we love by our demonstrations of that love? Apparently not. I suspect that there is a lot more to this passage than I yet realize, and it is worth a great deal of unpacking, so I will make just one observation (which is also related to the Church). Loving the children of God is not not about those actions that show love. It is about more than those actions. If I am grasping this accurately, keeping the commandments is also about integrity and holiness. Loving the children of God and living in sin are incommensurate, maybe even mutually exclusive. There is no ‘private’ sin, sin that only affects us. When one member suffers, the whole body suffers. That’s a mystery; that is, we don’t know how the sort of sin that seems just to be between ourselves and God affects the whole body. How does such sin impair our love for the children of God? (Maybe all sin has a horizontal dimension?)
However such seemingly private sin weakens the whole body, it is a sobering thought, and one that makes me more eager for the sacrament of reconciliation and the renewing of the Holy Spirit. For though it is hard and serious news, it is still, after all, good news: Christ came to save sinners.
Deo gratias.

Thirty-first Sunday in ordinary time

You can do all things and overlook [people’s] sins so that they can repent.
Wisdom 11: 24
. . .
Somehow–maybe it was struggling to keep the two-year-old quiet–I didn’t hear this in Mass this morning. Not that it wasn’t read: it was read by the son of my two-year-old’s godmother. But I missed it, and the priest didn’t comment on it in his homily, which focused on the gospel. Fair enough, I suppose. There is a good deal to say about Zacchaeus. Still, the readings in the lectionary are ordered, and combinations occur for a reason. Sometimes that reason is pretty hard to discern, but today it is less puzzling.
At least it’s less puzzling if you happen to be a Catholic who has strayed far into Reformed and Evangelical territory. Then the prevenience of grace leaps out of every page of the Bible–even the books of the Bible that only appear in the Catholic editions of the Bible. And here it is in the book of Wisdom. I always associate Wisdom with the key passages in chapters 7-9, about the role of wisdom in creation, including one of my favourites: omnia disponit suaviter, [widsom] arranges all things delightfully. So finding this other theme of the Bible, the grace of God that makes way for the sinner’s return, there in Wisdom is, well, delightful.
And it is, of course, this path-breaking grace of God that drives Zacchaeus up the tree. The change has already begun. Can it be anything other than the Holy Spirit that draws Zacchaeus to Jesus? I don’t think so, and I could quote some early church theologians to support that claim. Besides, Jesus does just what the verse in Wisdom says: he “overlooks” Zacchaeus’ sins, so that he can repent. Religious leaders aren’t supposed to hang out with infamous sinners, but Jesus doesn’t seem too worried about that. He sees beyond the sin, sees the person who needs the space to repent. Jesus makes repentance possible.
Two things follow from this, for me. First, I am struck by the space-making work of Christ. I have noticed it elsewhere in the gospels (see Mark 5: 30-34, for example), but never connected it to Zacchaeus, to repentance. So also, I realize, Jesus is making space, always, for my repentance. Am I perceiving it? Do I enter into that space, or do I avoid it? (I’m not certain, but I am more determined to get to confession this Saturday!) Second, and this is something that has been tugging at me for a little while, Jesus makes space for pretty unpleasant people. Tax collectors are the bad guys in the first century, not the people the messiah is supposed to befriend. Who are the people around me that Jesus wants to befriend? I’m guessing they’re not the people I would ordinarily find friend-like.
No wonder I haven’t seen that space for repentance as space for me: I have just divided the people around me into people like me (friend-like) and people who need space for repentance. The fact that both (1) that Jesus makes space for me to repent and (2) Jesus makes space for “obvious” sinners–the “tax collectors” of our day–to repent means that I am not so different as I might like to think.
Luckily, there’s plenty of that prevenient grace to go around.
Deo gratias.