The power of encouragement
FR. TOM'S HOMILY FOR THE 5th SUNDAY OF EASTER, May 2, 2021:
Consider this quote, “You only love God as much as the person you love least.” This is a quote by Dorothy Day, the holy woman who founded the Catholic Worker Movement and who lived a life dedicated to reaching out to those whom society had cast off. “You only love God as much as the person you love least.” Let that one sink in a little bit as we focus in on our readings today.
As much as Easter is, of course, about Jesus and His resurrection, this season also focuses our attention on another central figure, St. Paul and the life-changing effect of his encounter with the Resurrected Christ. We hear a lot about Paul in the Acts of the Apostles which have such a prominent place in our Easter readings, and of course, we always hear a lot from him, as his letters to the various churches he established are read most Sundays throughout the year.
I think that the church gives us Paul during the Easter season as a point of connection between these great events and our own life. In other words, we are Paul. We relate to him in his struggles, in his doubt, even in his disbelief. And, if we can relate to him in those moments, then we can perhaps also relate to him in his conversion; we can relate to him in his zeal to grow in faith, and to share that faith with anyone he encountered. Our life of faith, after all, is not about a life of perfect belief from womb to tomb. God knows that we often struggle with our faith; struggle to maintain God’s place in our life. We are in need of constant resurrection, constant newness, constant change and return. And Paul reminds us that this is okay. That no matter how far away we sometimes feel from God, we can always return. There is no place that is too far from God for us.
In today’s passage from Acts, St. Paul was still a fresh convert to the faith and newly arrived from Damascus. I hope your ears perked up like mine did at the beginning of the passage: “they were all afraid of him.” Isn’t that stunning? The early Christians knew who this guy was and what he did– he was a persecutor, he was a Christian-hunter. Among the Christians in Jerusalem Paul wasn’t very popular. Nobody trusted him. They even feared for their lives just because he was there. In fact, at the beginning of the chapter we have today, it says, Paul “still breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord...” This was one mean guy.
Which brings us back to Dorothy Day, “You only love God as much as the person you love least.” This very mean Paul is not who usually comes to mind when we think of the great saint. So, what happened? Well, of course, first and foremost, he had a direct encounter with the Risen Jesus, so stunning that we’re told that Paul fell to the ground in that moment and was struck blind and mute for a time. But, it wasn’t just that moment that changed everything. There was also one person in the community of believers who saw something more in him; who saw what he could be in and through Christ. That person was Barnabas. Barnabas believed in Paul’s conversion – and believed in him. Today’s reading says Barnabas “took charge” of Paul. Biblical scholars think it was more than that. One commentator suggested that there would not even be a Paul if there wasn’t first a Barnabas – someone who after that tremendous moment of conversion became a mentor and guide, a friend and confidant; but also a figure who must have had great courage, and patience, and perseverance. Barnabas was someone who personified Christian love. “You only love God as much as the person you love least.”
Years later, when Paul wrote his famous passage to the Corinthians about love – how it bears all things, hopes all things, and never fails – I believe, he was really talking about this. Not something romantic or flowery. But something that is a gift of self, that demands sacrifice and faith. That is unafraid and steadfast. That is willing to risk. Willing, even, to see beyond someone’s past; even a horrible and violent past like Paul’s. In other words: a love willing to “believe all things” – even to believe that a lowly tentmaker from Tarsus, a man who was a sinner, a persecutor, even a Christian-hunter, might have the potential to be a saint.
Let me share one more detail with you about our good Barnabas. Barnabas is not the name he was born with. His given name was Joseph. But just as Simon became Peter, and Saul became Paul, he, too, was given a new name to symbolize his new life in Christ. He was given the name Barnabas, a name which means, “Son of Encouragement.” Encouragement is what he gave to the growing community of Christians – and it surely describes what he offered to Saul who through this encouragement grew into the Saint Paul we have come to revere.
To offer encouragement means to support and uplift. It is taking time to give of self – to give a hand to hold, a shoulder for support, an ear to listen, a voice to calm all doubts and erase all fears. It is to love like Christ loves. To see beyond sin into holiness. This is the effect of resurrection. It will raise us not only on the last day, but it can raise us on this day too, it can raise us every day – right out of whatever weighs us down.
“You only love God as much as the person you love least.” Barnabas didn’t take the route that we too often take when faced with someone or something negative. More often than not, we become sons and daughters of judgment; sons and daughters of gossip; of complaint. But Barnabas, the Son of Encouragement, loved a man that “they were all afraid of”; he loved a man who “breathed murderous threats against them”; and he loved and encouraged him into holiness and a saintly life.
My friends, let us pray today that we too might be Daughters and Sons of Encouragement – for each other, for those we struggle with, for those who seem to need that love and encouragement more than anyone else. Our world of division and conflict needs this kind of Christian encouragement more now than ever.
“You only love God as much as the person you love least.” Let the person we love least be the person we love most and then we will be loving the way that God loves, and we will be encouraging the way that Barnabas encouraged; and we just might become saints in the process – just like Paul and Barnabas did. Let us be Daughters and Sons of Encouragement making our way to Heaven and bringing everyone else along with us.
May the Lord give you peace.
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