Sunday, May 17, 2009

6th Sunday in Easter (B)
Fill Her Up!

Readings: Acts 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48; Psalm 98:1, 2-3, 3-4; 1 John 4:7-10; John 15:9-17
Picture: cc Dalboz17

Sisters and brothers, have you ever experienced having your car run out of gas on the road? One can imagine how distressing it must be when that happens, especially if the nearest gas station is many miles away and you don’t have an AAA membership. On such occasions, we receive a painfully effective reminder that we can’t move our vehicles by sheer force of will alone. We realize how helpless we are without gas. We are forced to acknowledge that, if we wish to enjoy the convenience of zipping around in a snazzy automobile, we also have to take care to refill the tank from time to time. In fact, I know someone who always gets a full tank of gas every time a trip to a new destination is planned. That’s because this person is prone to getting lost. And, of course, it’s especially important to fill up before going on a road trip. You never know when you might lose your way.

Isn’t this very much like life in general? Isn’t life very much like a great road trip? Isn’t it true that, amid the many twists and turns on the highways and byways of our human existence, it’s difficult to predict when one might get lost? Who knew, for example, that a big fire would destroy 80 homes in southern California in the month of May? (Isn’t fire season supposed to be in the fall?) Or that a swine flu outbreak in Mexico would threaten many lives on a global scale? (I thought all we got from pigs was ham.) Or that the stock market would plummet suddenly, bringing with it various huge corporations, including banks and auto companies, not to mention our own retirement savings and mortgages? (Wasn’t GM supposed to last forever?) Who knew that these things would happen? And when such things do happen, when we find ourselves lost in them, aren’t we made painfully aware of how vulnerable we are?

Whatever others may say, at such times, we are made to realize that, just as an automobile needs gas to keep running, we Christians are dependent upon a power beyond ourselves for the strength to soldier on. And by soldier on, I don’t just mean physical or financial survival – although that’s often difficult enough. I also mean continuing to think and act in ways that befit a human being. For especially in times of crisis, it’s truly tempting to start looking out only for our own interests, or to vent our frustrations by engaging in destructive criticism, or to give in to depression and despair. From where might we gain the energy – the gas – to continue to act in Christ-like ways, to do as Jesus would?

This is where our readings prove enlightening. Not only do they help us to understand the nature of this gas that powers the vehicle of our Christian life, but they also indicate to us how we might go about filling ourselves up with it. The nature of this spiritual fuel is spelled out for us in the second reading, where John tells us that everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God… for God is love. Indeed, as cheesy as it may sound to some, from a Christian perspective, the world runs on love. Love is what keeps us connected to God even, or especially, at times when we are most likely to feel lost. Isn’t this why, in the gospel, in his farewell speech to his disciples before going forth to face the great crisis of his Passion, Jesus sees fit to offer them, and us, this crucially important reminder: As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love?

Yes, it’s quite clear from the readings that love is what fuels our meandering road trip through life. But, at least in my own experience, it’s often all too easy to misunderstand what this means. When we hear Jesus give us his great commandment to love one another as I have loved you, it is tempting to quickly focus first on what we have to do. We have to love others, no matter what. But isn’t it true that as soon as we try, with any degree of seriousness, to do this, we come face to face with our own weakness and powerlessness? Can we truly be expected to love everyone – even to the extent of laying down our lives for them? Everyone? All the time? Difficult enough to speak civilly to the neighbor whose political views are diametrically opposed to mine, or to tolerate the hard-of-hearing housemate who watches TV at a thousand decibels, let alone give my life for the terrorist who’s trying his darnedest to it take away!

The one who tries to love others on his/her own strength is not unlike the motorist who expects to operate a vehicle on an empty gas tank, by sheer force of will alone. For the love we are commanded to have for one another is not something that comes ultimately from us. As the second reading reminds us: In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.

In order to keep chugging along in the Christian life, it’s important that we take care to fill our gas tanks from time to time. And we do this by visiting three privileged locations where a refill might be obtained. The first location is found by looking back. It is found in the Mystery that we have been celebrating in a special way in this Easter season, and at every Mass. In the words of the responsorial psalm, the Lord has revealed to the nations his saving power through the Dying and Rising of Christ the Son. And we draw from this power every time we remember, as we are doing now, what God has done for us in Christ.

If the first location involves looking back, the second requires that we look ahead. Consider Peter’s experience in the first reading. Till now, Peter has witnessed the Spirit working powerfully among circumcised Jewish believers after they had been baptized. But in Cornelius and his household, Peter witnesses a new thing. He is led to see that the Spirit is also at work in uncircumcised Gentiles, even before they are baptized. And, to his credit, Peter willingly forsakes his prejudice in order to follow the Spirit’s lead. He orders that the Gentile believers receive baptism. And by doing so, Peter allows himself to tap into the power of God that has been moving ahead of him. Could it be that, even today, we need to attend carefully to the ways in which the Spirit might be moving powerfully ahead of us in unexpected ways?

When we engage in the practice of looking back and looking forward on a regular basis, we also come to find a third location from which to tap into the power of God’s love. Gradually, we come to experience the truth in Jesus' words in the gospel, where he calls us not servants, but friends. It is in the nature of a friend to remain not only behind or in front of you, but also to walk by your side. In recalling the Father’s love behind us, and in yielding to the surprising action of the Spirit moving ahead of us, we learn also to recognize the friendship of Christ beside us. Which brings to mind those moving words from St. Patrick’s Breastplate:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

Sisters and brothers, on the road trip of the Christian life, we are truly surrounded by gas stations.

How full is our tank today?


  1. Fr Chris,
    For some reason this morning, I was thinking of my strapping 16-year old son, and what I used to say to him 10 years ago, when he was retreating from the fearful uncertainties of an overwhelming school day--petrified as he was in a classroom of a thousand decibels and the intimidating presence of a screaming lady teacher...
    I used to console him through his fears and tears, "Son, did you lose your soul today (however bad the day seemed)? No? Then you can still survive tomorrow with God's help."
    I repeated these words this morning to a now confident, compassionate and congenial young man I am releasing to a world fraught with uncertainties and unknown spiritual dangers; knowing full well that it is no longer the secure, protective, parental embrace that will be his daily fuel stop, but the inner reserves of the Spirit's presence within him--which I pray to God: has been growing and is being "fanned into flame" as he walks into the
    future ...not alone...

  2. "The one who tries to love others on his/her own strength is not unlike the motorist who expects to operate a vehicle on an empty gas tank, by sheer force of will alone."

    This reminds me of my many clumsy attempts at trying to rollerskate. We know in theory what we're supposed to do. But in practice, we just have to keep trying clumsily to get it right... until we finally managed to move into "flow" mode and so ride on the Lord's power and not our own! :-p


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