January 30, 2021
St. Paul encourages us to seek the greatest gift of God: Agape
- The early Christian communities experienced many manifestations of the Holy Spirit, but as years passed, a lot of that died down except in the lives of the saints.
- Paul says to make love your aim, desire spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. He who prophesies, edifies the Church.
- The Catechism says this charity or agape, is a theological virtue which we love God above all things and to love our neighbor as ourselves for love of God. This is the greatest gift of all gifts.
- People fail to understand that nothing avails without charity. Agape is patient and kind and bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
- The greatest example we have of agape is Jesus crucified, especially at the cross. Agape never ends.
- Agape is a humble gift that will triumph forever over all evil, over all suffering, over all death. We must receive God’s love who is agape Himself.
- If we are living truly this agape, this Christian love, we have no idea how many graces that might be contributing to throughout the Church.
- Make agape your aim. Even if we fail, just the fact that we’re aiming for that, already permits the Holy Spirit to act.
St. Paul is saying that agape is the greatest of all the gifts. But we often don’t even think of it as a gift because in many ways, it seems so humble. And this is a gift which is not just given to one or another. This is a gift, which is given to each one of us, to each Christian.
St. Paul’s words, “make agape, make Christian love, make charity, your aim.” Because the Corinthians were aimed at all sorts of things, I want to have that special knowledge, I want to have that special power. And he says, no, “make agape your Aim.”
St. Paul is writing in the passage we had today, writing to the Corinthians. Corinth was a large, pagan city. It was known for its immorality, for its sensuality, and to be a pagan city known for its immorality, you had to be pretty far gone. And there was a lot of hostility to this new Church that was beginning. A hostility from the Greeks and hostility from the Jews, a lot of persecution. The Corinthians were struggling, how can we be instruments of the Holy Spirit in this situation? And so, St. Paul is guiding them. And there’s a lot to help us today in the situation we’re facing where there’s a lot of pagan spirit in our world, Christians are being persecuted in many ways. And there’s a crisis in the Church, and we can be struggling to know, what are we supposed to do? What can I do in this situation? And so today, we have a very famous passage from the 13th Chapter of the letter to the Corinthians. But we often forget the whole situation with St. Paul’s writing this. There had been a lot of response in Corinth, and so the Church there was growing. And they were experiencing a lot of what St. Paul calls, manifestations of the Spirit. And he mentioned a number of them. He speaks of tongues, prophecy, healing, miracles, discernment of spirits, words of wisdom, words of knowledge. It’s just some of these manifestations of the Holy Spirit that the Corinthians are experiencing, in this great challenge they have beginning. And there was a lot of that not just Corinth, but a lot of the Christian communities as we see in the Acts of the Apostles. But gradually, as the years passed, and as the Church became more established, a lot of those died down. And they were not so common, except in the lives of the saints or in certain places, like when there was an apparition of our Blessed Mother, or our Lord. And then it was at the beginning of 20th century, in the Pentecostal renewal, among the Pentecostal precisely began in Pentecostal churches. And then it was in 1967, in the United States that there began, what we call the charismatic renewal among Catholics, which suddenly, many Catholics began experiencing these similar gifts. In my own family, because of my uncle, who is a priest, we were introduced very early on in the early 70s. There was an outpouring of a lot of these gifts that St. Paul was talking about. And oftentimes it would happen it, there would be an outpouring of those gifts for a while, and then gradually, they would kind of die down. But the charismatic renewal in the Pentecostal movement, we might not be aware of how vibrant it is, throughout the world. And rapidly growing in many parts, especially in Latin America, and Asia and Africa. One expert a couple of years ago said that it’s the fastest growing religious movement in the world. So, these experiences that the Corinthians were experiencing 2000 years ago, are similar to many experiences that are today. St. Paul goes on in the chapter that follows the chapter that we have today, chapter 14, to explain this a little bit more, explain about these gifts. And unfortunately, that chapter is omitted in the Sunday readings. And I think that’s very unfortunate, because it we forget some things, which I think are actually very important. Because right after the chapter we read today and we’re gonna come back to that, St. Paul says, “Make love your aim, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may,” what? He says, earnestly make love your aim and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may, and I hope the regulars here know what the answer is, especially that you may, this is not me making that up right, this is St. Paul. You can pick out your Bibles and see that’s right there. He says, “especially that you may prophesy.” Well, you don’t think of that the way and it goes on to say, “he who prophesies, speaks to men for their upbuilding, encouragement and consolation.” And we need upbuilding, encouragement and consolation today. So, we often think of prophecy as a warning. And that’s true, that’s part of it. But more, it’s about upbuilding, and consolation and encouragement. And so, St. Paul in chapter 14, but again, that’s a chapter which follows the one we have today. He’s talking about, he is not denying tongues as he wants them to pray and speak in tongues, but he’s pointing out the superiority of prophecy. He says, “He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the Church.” And that’s what St. Paul is so focused on, edifying the Church, he who prophesies edifies the Church. And those of you come here regularly know how much I think that’s something the Lord has asked the Mission Divine Mercy, is to help the Church become more aware of how the grace of prophecy continues today in the Church. And I won’t go into that, because we’ve often spoken of that, but that’s very much part of the message of St. Paul. So that’s the chapter that follows chapter 13. The chapter that precedes it was what we read a part of it last week, St. Paul’s talking about how the Church is a body, that we are part of a body, the body, the Mystical Body. And the Lord gives a great diversity of gifts. The Holy Spirit gives a diversity of gifts for the good of this body, a diversity of gifts, of ministries of service of activities. And he says, “So, since you are eager for the manifestations of the Spirit,” because the Corinthians were experiencing all this outpouring of the Spirit, and this was really cool. And they were, they were really eager for these gifts, these manifestation of the Spirit. So, St. Paul says, “since you’re so eager for this,” he says, “strive to excel in building up the Church,” edifying the Church, strive to excel in building up the Church because that’s what these manifestations are for, they’re to build up the Church. So, each one of us is he’s saying, is a special part of this body. You know, I don’t think there’s any generic parts of our body. Each part of our body has a special function. And so, each one of us is created for something special in the Church. And so, St. Paul’s emphasize in how important it is that all of us contribute according to our different gifts and graces, and talent, to the building up of the Church. He says, “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit,” for what, “to each is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good,” for the common good. So, these graces are not something that I’m supposed to keep just for myself, but they’re for the service of the Church, to build up the Church for the common good. And so that also helps free us from envy of other’s gifts, because the gifts or gifts of others, are also for my benefit, just like the abilities of each part of my body are served for the whole body, the ability of my eye to see and my ears to hear, of my feet to walk and so forth. That’s for the benefit of the whole body. So, the Corinthians are experiencing this great outpouring of gifts of the Holy Spirit. But there’s problems with that. So, they are really gifts of the Holy Spirit, but the problem is, they’re being given to sinners, that now they’re Christians, but they’re still struggling with sin the way we are. So, there’s problems and there’s dangers, there’s dangers of lack of discernment. There’s a danger of giving priority to the gifts that seem more impressive, and sensational. There’s a big danger, a big danger of pride and arrogance and boastfulness, my gifts are better than your gifts. My understanding is better than yours. so that also creates envy. For why is so and so, I wish I had so and so’s gifts. And then that also creates confusion. And there’s a danger of disorder and divisions. That’s a big problem in Corinth with divisions. And so, these are real gifts of the Holy Spirit, but because they’re sinners who are receiving them, there’s a lot of problems. And so, St. Paul is showing how we need a mature, balanced understanding of these manifestations of the Spirit, of the spiritual gifts. So, balance between two extremes. One extreme is to deny them all, and just reject them all. And another extreme is to be just focused on extraordinary manifestations of the Holy Spirit. St. Paul is, on the contrary, given this mature understanding, which recognizes that the Holy Spirit is really pouring out these special manifestations. But it’s important to see them in their proper place, with order, in their proper place. So that’s the word we heard today, at the beginning of the passage today, he said, “earnestly desire the higher gifts, and I will show you a still more excellent way.” And that’s the passage we have today. This more excellent way. Now there’s a problem about this passage, a big problem because the central word that St. Paul is using, we don’t have a good substitute in English. Because the word love covers all sorts of things. And sometimes what we call love is actually selfishness. And so, the word St. Paul and St. John are using. They’re both writing and Greek they’re not using the word for sexual love, which would be “eros”, or the word for love of friendship, which would be “philia”, or the word for just a natural affection. But the use of the word which is very rarely used by most Greeks, which was “agape”. And so that word is translated into Latin and by “caritas”. And so, we translate that into English caritas by charity. But unfortunately, our word for charity, like a charitable organization, is a lot more limited than what St. Paul means here. So, we could call it and sometimes I’ll just use the word agape, which is word saying this Christian love. And we could use the word also charity, but we have to understand it’s not charity, the way we usually use it, but it’s a much deeper meaning. Here’s what the Catechism says about this, this charity or this agape, he says, “it’s the theological virtue, like faith and hope also, by which we love God above all things”, so love God, above all things, “for His own sake,” for His own sake, not for what we get out of Him, but for His own sake. And then the second part is, “we love our neighbor as ourselves, for love of God,” not just because of whatever good I might send to the neighbor, whatever attracts my neighbor, but for love of God. And so, St. Paul is saying that this is the greatest of all the gifts. But we often don’t even think of it as a gift because in many ways, it seems so humble. And this is a gift which is not just given to one or another. This is a gift, which is given to each one of us, to each Christian. And so, it’s not that they were very drawn by having a special knowledge of prophetic or mystical knowledge, or special powers of healing or miracles, but Saint Paul is saying, much greater than any of those, is this gift of agape. He says, “If I speak in the tongues of men, or of angels,” so the most exalted of tongues, “ but have not agape, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers,” so again, St. Paul’s going to speak about how important prophecy is, “but without love, it’s nothing. And I understand all mysteries and all knowledge. And if I have all faith,” and again, St. Paul speaks often of how important faith is, but it has to be faith with love, a living faith, “if I have all faith, so as to move mountains, but have not agape, I am nothing. If I give away all that I have, and I deliver my body to be burned, but have not agape I gained nothing.” St. Thomas Aquinas says, “Some believe faith alone is sufficient for salvation.” St. Thomas is writing several centuries before Martin Luther would precisely say that. “Some believe faith alone is sufficient for salvation. Others believe that they will be saved by Christ sacraments alone, others rely on works of mercy alone and think that they can sin within pure impunity. Such people fail to understand that nothing avails without charity.” So how does this agape act, he says, “agape is patient, and kind.” This is not the great gifts, great impressive mystical gifts. This does not, this doesn’t sound very impressive, patient and kind, that doesn’t sound so fantastic. Who wants that? “Agape is not jealous, or boastful.” So, he is saying precisely the things that you’re being jealous and boastful, that’s not what’s really of God. “It is not arrogant, or rude. Agape does not insist on its own way, it is not irritable, or resentful. It does not rejoice at wrongdoing but rejoices in the right.” And maybe as we read this list, we can feel kind of real. Because we see so much of how much we fall for that. “Agape bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” So, he’s not talking about a passive feeling. That’s one a big danger is we often confuse love with a passive feeling, which is easily manipulated. Not it’s not a passive feeling. It is active self-giving. Not a passive feeling, but active, self-giving, like a parent, for their child, or like a child, for their elderly parents. Or like a soldier in a difficult battle. And so, the great example we have of agape, we have it right here in front of us, is Jesus crucified, especially at the cross. And what that reminds us, as many of us are experiencing the cross in our own lives right now, when we’re experiencing a cross, it doesn’t feel at all like love. We might feel anger and bitterness and hatred and sadness and obscurity, and maybe even feeling abandoned, and even betrayed by the Lord. We might be struggling with all of that, as we know, even Jesus Christ Himself said, “my God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” So, it doesn’t feel at all good. It doesn’t feel at all loving, it doesn’t feel all spiritual. And yet those are precisely the moments in which agape is most lived. And so precisely the moments over which we may feel farthest away from God and farthest away from love, can be precisely the moments in which we are living it the most. Those hard moments which seem useless, and St. Paul’s saying in those can actually be what is most precious, and the most precious gift of the Lord. So precisely the things are that the Corinthians who were seeking, after great wisdom and great knowledge, a great power. And St. Paul is saying, actually, what did St. Paul say? It’s precisely the same but the Corinthians he says, “the Greeks are searching for wisdom and the Jews for power.” And he says, “when I was among you, I did not want to know anything except Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ crucified,” Jesus Christ crucified. He said, “that’s the great gift that we should be seeking.” It goes on to say, “agape never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away. As for tongues, they will cease. As for knowledge, it will pass away,” for our knowledge is imperfect. Our knowledge on this earth is always imperfect. And our prophecy he says is imperfect, but when the perfect comes the imperfect will pass away. “For now, we see in a mirror dimly, but then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part, then I shall understand fully.” So, Faith, Hope, and Agape, by these three theological virtues, these three, “but the greatest of these is agape.” This very humble gift, which is often lived in the battle, and the struggle, and such humiliation is what will triumph forever over all evil, over all suffering, over all death. This is precisely the moment in which He seems destroyed, and which He is triumphant because of His agape. And so, this might seem like an impossible thing for us to live. But we have to remember that it’s a gift above all, it’s God Himself, God himself who is agape, like the sun, which is always giving, the sun always giving its’ warmth, and its’ light. So, Jesus says, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.” So, he’s saying, first of all, it’s We who are loving you and given Our love to you. So, what we need to do first of all, is receive His love. St. John says, “We love because God first loved us,” this is not something we can just do by our own effort, we have to first of all, and always receive His love. And again, they take the example of a window, and we don’t have exactly windows here, but the kind of windows and so think about just a window, a window doesn’t give light by itself. The window doesn’t just say I’m going to try to be real light today. A window gives light by letting the light from the sun come through it. And so, we need to receive the love of God in ourselves so that that love can come through us to others. It’s not something that comes only from us, it has to come from God, but we can let it flow through us. St. Paul says, “the love of God has been poured out into our hearts, through the Holy Spirit that has been given us.” So even though we might not feel this love often, it’s already there, like a little seed, a divine seed in our hearts that we can cooperate with so that it can grow. There’s a famous passage of St. Therese of Lisieux, where she wanted to be everything. She wanted to be a martyr. She wanted to be a priest. He wanted to be a missionary. She wanted to be a preacher, she wanted to do so many different things. And she’s now she’s a Carmelite nun, in a cloistered convent. And so, she’s frustrated, because how can she be all these things. And then she reads, she’s led to read this passage of St. Paul. And then she realizes what her vocation is hidden in this little cloistered Carmelite monastery where she doesn’t seem to be having a big impact. She just seemed to be with this little group of nuns. But she realizes that she is called to be in the heart of the Church. She is called to be love, agape in the heart of the Church. And if she shows she can help fund the heart for all these graces to flow throughout the Church for all these other vocations. And so, the point of that is that, even if our role might not seem to be that important, if we are living truly, this, agape, this Christian love, we have no idea how many graces that might be contributing to throughout the Church. And so, as we celebrate this Mass today, that the key passage I want to leave with you is St. Paul’s words, “make agape, make Christian love, make charity, your aim.” Because the Corinthians were aimed at all sorts of things, I want to have that special knowledge, I want to have that special power. And he says, No, make agape your Aim. Aim for that. Even if we struggle, even if we often fail, just the fact that we’re aiming for that, that we’re focused on that, that we’re trying to do that, already permits the Holy Spirit to act. And so, as we as we celebrate this Mass right now, the Mass is where God gives His love, giving himself in Holy Communion, and His sacrifice which is represented on the cross, but which is made present at the Mass. But he’s asking each one of us to unite your sacrifice to His, all the sacrifices and all the sufferings and all the humiliation and the obscurity in the struggles that you’re experiencing, that you have experienced. You can offer those with Jesus. So that those things which seems just so negative, just like that the killing Jesus was such a negative thing, but by His sacrifice, He changes it into a victory of agape, a victory of divine love. And so, we can take all the negative suffering dark, ugly parts of our life, and by offering it to Jesus, it becomes agape, the sacrifice which united to his sacrifice brings salvation to our world. Make agape, you’re aim. Amen.