I realized this past week that this would be my last homily as a deacon. Time has certainly flown by, and next week I’ll be attending the Ordination of a friend in Texas, and the week after that is my turn. Since this is my last homily as a deacon, I am very happy that I get to preach on these particular readings, because they contain some of my favorite lines in all of Scripture. We could certainly spend hours delving into the theological meanings of all that we’re told today, but well, I wouldn’t do that to you in my last homily as a deacon!
The letter from St. John in today’s second reading has one of the most fundamental principles in all of theology: God is love. We all probably learned that somewhere early on in our religious education, and it probably filled us with warm feelings at the time. But we might also agree that the whole idea of “God is love” can be a little trite, the stuff of greeting cards and bumper stickers, perhaps it has become almost meaningless to we who have become jaded with the whole idea of what love is.
But the love that is God isn’t any of the things we think of when we think of love. This love isn’t a mere warm feeling for another person, it isn’t a synonym for “like,” it isn’t physical, emotional or intellectual love at all. The Greek word that is translated “love” here is agape – a word you may have heard – and maybe “love” isn’t even the best way to translate it, but that’s all that our English provides. Agape love is love that lives for and acts for another person; agape love is, as Jesus tells us in the Gospel, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
This is, after all, what Jesus did for us up there on that cross. The most perfect way that God could show God’s love for us is for His only begotten Son to be born among us, to suffer and die to pay the price for our sins, and to be raised up to new life that lasts forever so that the barriers of sin and death that had kept us from God’s love would be obliterated. This agape love is love that is not destroyed by sin nor limited by death; it is a love that is impossible to horde but must be given away; it is a love that does not let distinctions like race or religion or class or way of life divide us: it is a love that is as limitless as God is, because God Himself is that love.
This agape love that is God’s very essence is a love that completely transforms us. This love makes our salvation possible and once it has done that, it bursts forth from us to others in order to make their salvation possible too. Peter was transformed by this love in the first reading, and finally came to the realization that this love was not limited just to Jews but also must embrace the Gentile world as well.
Because God’s love transforms us, we are no longer slaves, as Jesus says, but now God’s friends. Our slavery to the passions and vices and limitations and longings of our flesh can all be transformed by God’s love into the kind of obedience that brings us true joy. God’s agape love forgives sin, heals brokenness, and raises us up to be God’s friends. God’s love sends us transformed lovers out to love others and to help them find friendship with God too. This love makes us sharers in the very love and life of God.
Because God’s love transforms us, we can do the thing that is not in our nature: we can lay down our lives for others. Just as Christ laid down his life on the cross, so we can give of ourselves, often at great cost, to raise children, to serve the poor, to care for the elderly and the infirm, to shelter the homeless and teach the young. All of the things that will never make us rich or famous but which will raise up another person in need are possible because of God’s transforming love.
When we’ve loved others in this way, and when we see them reach out to others in love, we know that God’s love continues to transform our world and continues to raise us up and make salvation possible for more and more people every day.
Having been transformed into God’s friends, we are commanded to love one another as we have been loved by God. God’s love came to us at the incredible price of the life of Jesus Christ, and loving one another will demand a great price from us as well. But we can be confident in our ability to lay down our very lives for others because we are being transformed daily by our God who is love itself.