Ars Praedicandi: Trying to Say Everything

Sometimes in preaching, the hardest part is deciding what not to say. My general rule is that the words you take out are as important as, if not more important than, the words you leave in. Indeed, I think a quick fix for most homilies would be to delete the first hundred-or-so words, which are usually just intellectual throat-clearing for the homilist—perhaps important for the writing-process, but not all that important to the homily as preached.

The readings for the Sixth Sunday of Easter this year are extraordinarily rich and yet extraordinarily simple in their expression of the Christian mystery. They tempt the preacher to want to say everything. But maybe it is possible to say everything without saying all that much. So I decided to try to say everything that needed to be said about Christianity,* and to do it in fewer than 900 words. Readers can judge (I hope with charity) for themselves how well I did.

What is Christianity all about?
Some might be inclined
to answer this question
by reciting the creed,
and they would not be wrong,
because being a Christian
does involve believing certain things.
Others might be inclined to answer
by pointing to certain moral principles,
and, again, they would not be wrong,
because being a Christian
does involve behaving in certain ways.
But what Christianity is about at its root
must be something more
than a collection of beliefs and behaviors;
it must be a mystery that sinks its roots
into the heart of life itself.

This mystery, however,
is mysterious not because it is complicated,
but because it is so simple.
Today’s readings from sacred scripture
constitute together a kind of refresher course,
in five simple lessons,
of what Christianity is all about.

First, God is love.
This has of course become something of a cliché,
so much so that if you type “God is…” into Google
“God is love” comes up
as the second most popular search item,
right behind “God is good”
(and just ahead of “God is dope” and “God is dead”).
Because it has become something of a cliché
we can forget what a revolutionary notion this was
in the world of antiquity
whose pantheons were populated
by deities that were powerful and crafty,
but not particularly loving.
Yet Christianity says not only that God is loving,
but that God is love itself.
St. Augustine wrote that if the entire Bible
contained only the words “God is love”
we should ask for nothing more.

Second, the love that is God
is crucified love.
We know the depth of the mystery of love
because “God sent his only Son into the world
so that we might have life through him.”
The cross of Jesus shows us
that the love that gives its life for our life
is love that ceaselessly, relentlessly, scandalously
pours itself out.
And it is precisely in not holding itself back,
not hesitating to give itself up,
that this love is “expiation for our sins”—
that is, it is the life-giving mystery
that we call God,
because there is no greater love than this.

Third, we are called to friendship with the risen Jesus.
As he says in our Gospel reading,
“I call you friends…
it was not you who chose me,
but I who chose you.”
We are called to friendship with God
not because of anything we are or do
but out of the depth of love
that is the divine mystery
revealed in the cross.
And the resurrection of Jesus,
which we celebrate in every Eucharist,
but especially in this Easter season,
is what makes possible
our ongoing friendship with him,
our continuous abiding in the love that is God.

Fourth, we cannot love God
if we do not love each other.
As the first letter of John puts it,
“Beloved, let us love one another,
because love is of God.”
We love God
by loving our neighbor as Jesus loved us:
loving both friend and enemy,
laying down our lives for one another
in ways dramatic and ordinary:
in acts of sacrifice and of gratitude,
in patience, honesty,
forbearance, and generosity,
for “whoever is without love
does not know God.”

Fifth, we live out our love
in the community created by the Spirit.
While we are called to a universal love
of both friend and enemy,
we live that love from the heart of the Church.
And the Spirit, who is the divine mystery of love
that shows no partiality,
gathers friends of Jesus together
into an unlikely and motley crew of lovers.
At any given place and time
we have no idea what this community will look like,
except we know it will be filled with people
whom we would not have chosen to love
if we were not friends of Jesus.
Peter, in our first reading,
would never have chosen friendship
with a Gentile like Cornelius.
But the Spirit moved and there it was.
Who was Peter to argue with the Spirit?
Look around you.
These are the people
with whom God has called you
into friendship in Christ
through the waters of baptism:
men and women,
old and young,
conservative and liberal,
gay and straight,
native and immigrant,
courageous and cowardly,
stupid and smart,
handsome and hideous,
saints and sinners,
and every type of human animal
who doesn’t quite know what they are,
except they know this one thing:
the God who is love has called them
into his crucified love.
Look around you.
Who are we to argue with the Spirit?

God is love.
The love that is God is crucified love.
We are called to friendship with the risen Jesus.
We cannot love God if we do not love each other.
We live out our love in the community created by the Spirit.
That is it.
That is what Christianity is all about.
Now believe it and live it
as if your life depended on it,
because it does.

*OK, maybe not everything.

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