Sunday, May 21, 2017

Love and Obedience

Image result for st augustine caravaggio
"St. Augustine" by Caravaggio

(Sixth Sunday of Easter (A): This homily was given on May 21, 2017, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read John 14: 15-21.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Sixth Sunday of Easter]

My homily today is entitled, “Love and Obedience.”

In the minds of many people these days, those are two ideas that definitely don’t go together, spiritually speaking.  And this is true even for many Christians!  They say they love God (and I presume most are sincere in making that assertion), but they also believe that obedience to his commandments is optional (here I include the Ten Commandments, as well as the other commandments that Jesus gives us in Scripture and through his Church—like the commandment to love your enemies).

But Jesus never said these laws were optional!  Quite oppositely, our Lord made a direct connection between love and obedience on many occasions.  He did it twice in today’s gospel.  He began by saying, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  Then later on he added, “Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me.”

In the Christian life, obedience is supposed to flow from love; it’s supposed to be rooted in love: the love of a Person (a divine Person) whose name is Jesus Christ.

To the extent that that’s the case—to the extent that our obedience is rooted in love, it will actually be easy; to the extent that our obedience rooted in obligation or something else, it will be difficult.

Bishop Sheen had a great way of illustrating this.  He said, “There isn’t a driver [among us] who hasn’t broken the law against speeding.  [But] did you ever lean over your steering wheel and say an act of contrition [afterward]?  Nobody is really sorry for breaking a law, unless he gets caught.”

Sheen was right.  Keeping a commandment for the sake of keeping a commandment doesn’t provide much motivation for doing what’s right, whereas keeping a commandment out of love for another person does provide that incentive.

Love for God will motivate us to obey him; and it will lead us to repent when we don’t obey him—because we will be conscious of having hurt someone we love. 

Let me change Bishop Sheen’s example just a bit to illustrate this point.  Imagine that you broke the speed limit law one day, drove recklessly and nearly got into a serious accident—with your two little children in the back seat of the car.

In that case, would you say an act of contrition afterward for travelling so fast?

You should!  In fact, I would say that you should probably bring that sin to confession.

In any event, you’d be far more likely to realize you broke a law and to repent in a situation like that, simply because what you did directly affected two people whom you dearly love.

So, if you’re having difficulty obeying one or more of God’s commandments, ask the Lord to fill your heart with love for him.  I do that all the time, in the midst of my own sins—because I know if I love God more I will obey him more (and sin less!).

Here we can all take a lesson from Augustine and his experience back in the 4th century.  Most of us know the basic outline of his story. …

For his first three decades on earth Augustine lived a lifestyle that would have made Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy magazine, proud.  That is to say, for his first three decades on earth Augustine lived the life of a hedonist.  His constant prayer was, “Lord, make me chaste—but not now!”  Yes, he believed in God, but for him, God was “out there.”  For him the Lord was an abstraction to be discussed in a philosophical debate—and God’s commandments were simply a bunch of arbitrary rules that threatened the lifestyle he had chosen to embrace.  Well, finally, thanks in large part to his mother Monica’s faithful prayers, Augustine had an experience of God’s love through the Sacred Scriptures. 

It happened one day when he was in the city of Milan with a friend, trying to make sense of his messed-up life. As is the case for most hedonists, Augustine’s years of debauchery had left him empty and confused and on the verge of despair.   Well, at one point he heard a child off in the distance singing a song that he had never heard before.  One of the lines in the song really struck him: “Pick it up and read it.  Pick it up and read it.”  He thought that maybe God was trying to speak to him at that moment, and so he found a copy of the Bible and picked it up, making the decision to read the very first passage his eyes fell upon.  That turned out to be the text from Romans 13 where St. Paul says, “Not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual excess and lust, not in quarreling and jealousy.  Rather, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.”

At that moment, God reached out to Augustine with his love and mercy—and Augustine knew it!  That proved to be the turning point in his life.

Many years later, reflecting back on his three decades of sin and his subsequent conversion, Augustine wrote this prayer to God—the God he had clearly fallen in love with:

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.
It is not a coincidence, my brothers and sisters, that Augustine changed his life in a radically positive way.  He was touched by the love of God; he began to love God in return—and in response to the love he experienced from God, he was also motivated to obey.  And he obeyed so well, that he eventually became a saint.

It’s my prayer today that we will all follow that very same pattern in our lives.