“No Greater Love” – Fr. Bob’s Homily for Sunday, May 15, 2022

“It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God”.  

This is Paul and Barnabas’ message to the new Christians in all the towns they have been visiting during their first mission trip into pagan territory. This is uncompromising teaching for sure. No candidate running for political office would strike such a harsh realism to potential voters. But Paul and Barnabas are not running for political office. They have been preaching the gospel about Jesus in several cities around what was called Asia Minor, now known mostly as Turkey. If you follow the account of their journey in Acts of the Apostles, chapters 13 and 14, you will see why they speak about persecutions. This has been the story of their mission, ever since the Holy Spirit set them apart for it. They have followed the Spirit’s leading and they have gone into town after town, and had great success in converting pagans to Christianity, but not without cost. They have gone into the local synagogue, preached to the Jews that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, and Savior, and been received for the most part quite well, but the moment Paul and Barnabas try to reach out to the local pagan community with the gospel message, the Jews become jealous and start attacking the apostles, and forcing them to flee to the next town. Even there they are not safe from pursuit, because the Jews come after them there and attack them once more. 

Now if it had been me suffering persecution from the Jews, I would stop reaching out to them. And yet, in every town they enter, Paul insists that they go first to the synagogue and preach to the Jews. For this, he gets death threats, is stoned, beaten up, imprisoned, flogged and left for dead – mostly, as I say, from his fellow Jews. But this never seems to put him off. There is no way to explain why Paul puts himself through such suffering and persecution than because of his love for his own people. For Paul, it is a matter of the greatest torment that the Jews seem to almost universally reject Jesus as their Messiah, their Savior. Since it is only through Jesus that we can be saved, this is a matter of the gravest concern for Paul. In his letter to the Romans, he speaks about this very forcefully. In chapter 9 of that letter, he says:” I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people”. (Vv 2-3). That is quite extraordinary. Do you realize what Paul is saying? That he would willingly give up his own chance for salvation if it would help his fellow Jews gain salvation instead. In chapter 10, he goes onto say:” My heart’s desire and prayed to God for them is that they may be saved”. (Verse 1). The desire of my heart, my greatest wish, says Paul, is that my brethren come to conversion to Christ and thus to salvation. And yet his own people continually give him the brush-off and shut their ears against his preaching and try to kill him. And yet he perseveres against all odds, trying to win them over, putting his body on the line in so doing. Assuming that Paul is no masochist, there is no other explanation for his behavior, than that he loves his people, really, really loves them. This is agape love, unconditional, undying love, the highest form of love. “Greater love has no one”, says Jesus in John’s gospel, chapter 15, verse 13, “than to lay down their life for those they love “.

Where has Paul learned to love like this?   Only from Jesus.  Jesus who says to us, in Matthew 5: 44,” But I say to you, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you “.  Jesus who appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus at the moment when Paul, breathing threats of slaughter, was doing all in his power to destroy the name of Jesus, and persecuting his followers to death. This is extraordinary. While Paul was trying with all his strength to destroy Jesus, Jesus was reaching out to him, to save him. Years later, Paul, reflecting on this experience, will write:” But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners, Christ died for us…If while we were enemies of God, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life “(Romans 5: 8, 10). It blows my mind that, in the years when I was rebelling against Jesus, striving to live my own life, making my own decisions and choices, without any regard to Jesus, He was offering His sacrifice on the cross to his Father in heaven on my behalf, asking his Father to forgive me. 

I think about my family members, and my friends, who do not know or accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. And I lament over them, as I am sure you do for your own loved ones who no longer go to church or have anything to do with religion. I love them, and yet I fear for them, that they may end up in Hell. I try to speak to them about Jesus, and they laugh at me, or shrug their shoulders to dismiss me. What do I do? And the word of God says that I must love them, with agape love, I must continue to pray for them, and use the opportunities they give me to speak to them about faith in Jesus. Every funeral that I perform, I point to the casket or urn, and I say to the congregation:” That will be me some day, and that will be each one of you. And do you know what happens to you at that time? Have you resolved the great questions of faith, of heaven and hell?” I don’t know what response this provokes in their hearts. But my desire for them to come to faith in Jesus and to salvation makes me say the same thing at each funeral. Because I imagine the person they have come to honor, and I think of their love for the people who are present at their funeral, and I try to speak on behalf of the deceased and urge them to look at their lives and make the decision for faith, for life and for salvation. 

I pray for my family members who have rejected faith in Jesus, that God will, in the words of our first reading, “open a door of faith” for them. I know that only God can do this, that I can try with all my might to preach to them, but so often they switch off and dismiss me with pitying thoughts. I cannot be the Savior for my family and friends. Only Jesus can do that. But I can pray for them, and suffer for them, and fast for their salvation. And Jesus can take that prayer and fasting and suffering and use it to break through the resistance in their hearts, the veil that the enemy has pulled over them, the lies that the world, the flesh and the devil has sown into their hearts. But I will only do that if I truly love my family and my friends, and those who reject me, and resist me, and laugh at me, or get angry with me. I get all kinds of anguished enquiries from people who are distressed because their family members no longer pursue their faith, or go to church, and refuse to listen when they try to speak of faith to them. I have to ask them, “How much do you love your family and friends? Do you have real agape love for them? Are you willing to forgo your own salvation, if they would come to faith?” 

And I try to tell them, that Jesus loves their family and friends more than they could ever know, even more than they love them. I remind them that “God desires that all people be saved and come to knowledge of the truth”, as St Paul reminds us in 1 Timothy 2:4. Jesus  will not stop reaching out to them and offering his sacrifice on the cross to His Father for them, as the book of Hebrews puts it, “living for ever to make intercession“ for them (Hebrews 7:25) And we also, in turn , must never turn away from our loved ones , must never stop loving them with true agape , undying, unconditional, disinterested, love, and continue to offer our prayers, our fasting, our sufferings to our Savior, Jesus Christ, on behalf of those who reject us and scorn us, and laugh at us for our faith . We have to ask Jesus to fill us with the same love for our family and friends, and even our enemies, as Jesus has for us. St Paul says that “hope will not disappoint us, because the love of God is being continually poured into our hearts through the holy Spirit, who has been given to us “(Romans 5:5). Hope for the salvation of our family, friends, loved ones, and, yes, even our enemies, will never disappoint, so long as we allow Christ to fill us with the same agape love as he has for them. How many of us, brothers and sisters, are willing to allow Christ to fill us with that love for others?