Sixth Sunday of Easter – A – May 21, 2017

A reading from the Acts of the Apostles 8:5-8, 14-17
A reading from the first Letter of Saint Peter 3:15-18
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John 14:15-21

In the Book of Revelation, God withers the people saying, I would you were hot or cold; but because you are lukewarm I will begin to spit you out of my mouth.  I am sure you have heard the saying.  You might wonder what the Lord means.  To whom do the words apply?  Surely not us!  In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s of the last century a question seemed to be posted nearly everywhere.  If you were accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?  The two statements are closely related.  We might add a third for flavoring: Actions speak louder than words!

It would not take a careful reading of the Church’s history to reveal eras during which the love Christ commanded us to live was absent.  Do you think the Gospel called for the burning of heretics?  Are Christians supposed to shun?  How often has the message gone forth regarding those who should not present themselves for Holy Communion?  First and foremost remember, to live as disciples of Christ, the first order of our lives must be to love as Christ loves and as we are loved.  Pope Francis proclaimed that message loudly and clearly during his recent visit to Egypt, adapting it so that it could resonate with those who are not Christian as well.

We are near the conclusion of the Easter Season and are closing in on Pentecost.  Our Neophytes have had these weeks to experience the reality of their new life in Christ.  The rest of the Church has had the time to see the fruits of their period of penance during Lent, and the renewal of their baptismal promises around the Font in the celebration of Easter.  For both groups, enough time has gone by to begin to experience the humdrumness of the routine of daily living the faith.  How are the lives lived now different from the lives lived before the encounter at the Font?

Peter, in this week’s second reading, speaks words of comfort and support to Christians under siege.  They are on trial and facing death for being Christian.  Their witness and their mode of living have been deemed unacceptable by the civic authorities.  The Christians no longer hope in Caesar.  Their hope is in Christ’s Resurrection.  The jaws of the lions loom.  Peter urges them to act with gentleness and reverence so that when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame.  Apparently these Christians were not lukewarm in their faith response.  They are on fire with the Spirit living in them.  Their actions speak loudly.  The risen Body of Christ living in the hearts of the Baptized continues to scandalize.  What we must not forget is that we are listening to the Living Word.  Peter is speaking to us now.  May we accept the challenge and seek so to live that the lavish works of charity seen to be ordinary in our lives scandalizes people.

We might be tempted to forget that Jesus gave scandal.  We might be tempted to soft pedal the charges related in the Gospels.  This man welcomes sinners and shares table with them.  In our minds’ eyes those sinners can become sanitized and not really be sinners.  We see them as plaster-of-Paris saints fit for depiction on Barkley Street holy cards.  Surely they are not really prostitutes, tax collectors and other generic sinners.  We can accept that Jesus was comfortable among the poor.  We are consoled that he approached lepers and touched them.  Surely that’s what the Gospel text means by sinners.  Do you think so?  I don’t.

Sinners are sinners.  They were in Jesus’ day, too.  Some were prostitutes.  Some of them were tax collectors – which translates into being in cahoots with Roman suppression and being extorters of their neighbors.  Some of them were thieves.  You name the vice that repels you and more than likely you could find a representative in Jesus’ company.  He was comfortable with them.  Then add the off scouring of society and you will have a digest of Jesus’ table fellows.  Jesus ministers to them unconditionally.  He loves them for who they are.  There is no indication that all of them changed their ways and became disciples.

What is my point?  The danger I see in our times is Catholics being too antiseptic in the practice of the faith.  Our Assemblies can be too homogenous.  It is fine to be in choir stalls and to have splendidly florid liturgies.  That makes no one uncomfortable.  In the Assembly, what evidence of diversity is there?  Are disabled people able to make their way through the Worship Space?  Are they welcomed to serve as Lectors, and Greeters, and Extraordinary Eucharistic Ministers?  Would sinners feel welcome?  Would minorities feel welcome?  What about gays and transgenders?  Does the Liturgy evoke the full, active, and conscious participation of the Assembly?  Does the Assembly rush forth, renewed by the Meal they have shared, to be themselves broken and shared until all have been fed.  Are they on fire?

This December will mark the 52nd anniversary of the closing of Vatican Council II.  Some of us can remember the days of excitement that followed the closing as the renewal began to be felt.  There was upheaval as always happens amidst birth pangs.  Something new and wonderful was being brought forth.  The new Church was being born.  Think of Archbishop Oscar Romero who left the serenity of the Bishop’s manor to go into the streets to stand as shepherd in the midst of the poor and call for justice for the people of El Salvador.  Call to mind Dom Helder Camara whose witness to absolute solidarity with the poor became a precursor to the controversial Liberation Theology linked to Archbishop Romero.  Even though he was an Archbishop, he lived in poverty among the poor.  Camara said: When I give food to the poor they call me a saint.  When I ask why the poor have to food they call me a Communist.  At the time of the Viet Nam War he wrote The Cycle of Violence in which he challenged the young people to break the cycle of violence to which previous generations have become addicted.  Archbishop Romero and Com Camara are the spiritual ancestors of the present Bishop of Rome.  You recognize their themes in Pope Francis’s preaching and service to the poor.

In those tumultuous years following the Council there were sit-ins and demonstrations on college campuses.  Students were shot to death at Kent State.  There were demonstrations in the streets of Chicago during a Democratic Convention.  Have you heard of the Berrigan brothers?  Look them up and be inspired even as some were scandalized by their actions.  They spent time in prison because of their protests against the war.

No one would want to relive the years that spawned the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and of John and Robert Kennedy.  But the violence of those times should not lull us into complacency in our own time.  There are still the poor who are hungry.  There are still homeless people, refugees among them, who live without shelter.  There is no shortage of injustices that cry out to heaven for vengeance.  Will a more obviously shepherding episcopacy emerge in these times?  Will the faithful scandalize by their outpouring of self in service of even the undesirables?

If you were accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?  That is what the Neophytes must ask themselves.  That is what we seasoned Catholics must ask ourselves.  Jesus says to us in this Sunday’s Gospel: If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  Which ones?  There are only two, really.  Love God with your whole being.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  Stated in another way: Love one another as I have loved you.  Add to that: Love your enemy.  Do good to those who hate you.  That love must be practical.  It is in the act of loving that we come to love Jesus and in turn come to know that we are loved by the Father and loved by Jesus who lives in us.

Let’s see what happens on Pentecost.  Imagine the wind that could blow then, and the fire.

Sincerely,

Didymus

FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER – A – May 14, 2017

A reading from the Acts of the Apostles 6; 1-7
A reading from the first Letter of Saint Peter 2:4-9
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John 14:1-12

Did you notice that this Sunday is called the Fifth Sunday of Easter?  That is, not the fifth Sunday after Easter.  It is important for us to remember what is supposed to be happening during these weeks.  We might miss the point since we have been in the Easter Season nearly as long as we were in Lent.  We live in the dawning reality and implications of the moment that changed everything forever.

Sad but true, we might see lent as more fitting than Easter to be a season.  During Lent we focus on the Cross and on fasting, praying and alms giving.  Holy Week comes and we make the Passion and Death journey.  We witness defeat.  We looked on and saw Jesus betrayed, rejected and broken.  Except for three, even the disciples fled in sadness and left Jesus to die on the Cross.  They had hoped Jesus would be the one to set Israel free.

We do not live in the past.  The mysteries of Jesus’ dying and rising are timeless.  Through the proclamation of the Liturgies of Holy Thursday and Good Friday we recognize their continuation in the events of our times and our entry into them.  There is not much in contemporary culture to encourage the recognition that there is one human family, each person created in the image and likeness of God, loved by God, destined to live in that love for all eternity.

Today’s gospel, if you will, is the proclamation of the primacy of self.  What are the goals today’s children are taught to set for them selves?  To be number one.  To be powerful.  To be wealthy.  There is little sense of social conscience, that we have a responsibility to seek justice for the poor and the down trodden.  Wars rage and millions flee seeking refuge.  Saber rattling increases with every newscast.  As I write this, one state in our Union in three days has executed three men.  There is violence in our streets with innocents being gunned down in drive-by shootings.  A man murdered his infant daughter on camera.

Many have walked away from the Church.  The message being proclaimed is not resonating with the masses.  If there were more evidence of the bishops, clergy and faithful living the social Gospel there just might be full churches on Sundays besides Easter.  It should be clear that the Catholic Church is present in those marches proclaiming that Black Lives Matter.

Faith in Christ has been found wanting because some of those who witnessed to it professionally have been found wanting.  There are scars physical and emotional that attest to a tyranny.  Pope Francis preaches a poor church serving the needs of the poor.  Some in the Church do not want to hear that message.  Who wants to smell like the sheep?  Serve in the midst of the sheep?  How many aspire to be feet washers of Muslims, and Jews, and convicted Mafia members?

Now remember what happened on this Easter Sunday.  All around the world churches filled to over flowing for Sunday Mass and other religious services.  Many parishes witnessed the Baptism of neophytes joining the ranks.  Perhaps Easter remains the day people gather, hoping against hope.  And the Good News must be proclaimed clearly so that those nearly broken ones, caught up in the wave of scandal and defeat can be renewed in Spirit and be reminded of who they are in Christ and the hope that is theirs in Him.

Pope Francis clearly proclaims a primacy of place for the poor.  The hierarchy is being challenged to live more simply.  Crowds seem to hang on his every word.  A Rabbi is among his closest friends.  He has meaningful conversations with a newspaper editor who is an atheist.  Many resonate with the Bishop of Rome’s message and some are returning to the Church.

Easter is a Feast of 50 days.  The message proclaimed is that Christ has triumphed over everything humankind fears.  Death no longer has power over us.  The little ones in Christ are the beloveds of God.  Throngs are strengthened and rejoice in the Word, just as they did in light of the first Easter.

Hear what is happening in the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles.  The Twelve are busy about proclaiming the Good News.  Many listen and respond and are baptized.  The numbers grow.  As they do some essential services don’t happen.  Some needy ones are being neglected.  So, some good and faithful ones become official servants of the poor, thereby allowing the Twelve to be faithful to their charisms as preachers and teachers.  That is how the Order of Deacons came about.  What we are witnessing is the realization of mutual responsibility for each other among the faithful.  The Priesthood of the Baptized emerges.

Forgive me if I keep referring to Pope Francis, but his witness inspires me.  He stands and serves among people shocked by what is happening in Ukraine, and Iraq, and Syria.  People struggle to reconcile church bells and alleluias with the A>IDS epidemic and starvation and malaria and sleeping sickness and human trafficking all ravaging Africa and others parts of our world.  How can the triumph being celebrated be reconciled with the horrors unless they are identified with the Cross?  Reason for hope is found in our sharing in Christ’s triumph over sin, suffering and death.  Imagine what can happen when the faithful accept again that they share in that triumph and therefore can inspire hope in those who falter.

We are supposed to understand that if we follow Christ in Resurrection, suffering ought not surprise us.  Yes, the battle is done.  Yes, the triumph is won.  But we must remember that Christ’s Victory remains a work in progress that will continue to the end of time.  “Behold I am with you always, until the end of time.”

Those people who entered the Font during the Easter Vigil emerged from the waters gleaming with oil and were dressed in white, signs of their identification with Christ.  Their sins are washed away.  They have new life in Christ.  What happens when they are confronted with the reality of sin that has survived in their lives, when they have to deal with the fact that their struggle must still go on?  They must press on for their participation in the Victory that lies before them.  And so must we who with them are the Body of Christ, the Church.

If we recognize Christ in his rising, we must be open to Christ’s help to see all reality in a new light.  Then sometimes what seems like victory to others will be recognized as defeat.  What seems like triumph will be seen as failure.  We struggle on to say no to sin, to the temptations subtle and otherwise to lord it over others, and to see ourselves as superior to others.  In Christ’s Victory we are called to be servants of the servants of God.

That is what Saint Peter reminds us of in today’s second reading.  Christ is the living stone, rejected by human beings but chosen and precious in the sight of God.  So are we in Christ.  Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.  Those words resonate and should remind us of the call of the Second Vatican Council in which it was declared that the Church is the People of God.  The faithful are called to full, active, and conscious participation in the Liturgy.  We share in the Priesthood of the Baptized.  As Peter says: You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of (Christ’s) own, so that you may announce the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.  Do you believe that?  Can you live in that reality?  Do you feel the support of your local parish to live that priesthood?

In the Gospel we hear Jesus speaking to the disciples during the Last Supper of his impending death.  They cannot begin to comprehend what he means that even though he dies he will be with them forever.  He is returning to the Father who sent him, there to prepare a place for them.  If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be.  Our journey of faith leads to that eternal union.  There is one way to accomplish that goal.  We must know Christ and imitate him in word and action.  I am the way and the truth and the life…. Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father.

Do you see why it takes a time to celebrate the reality of Easter and to drink in the implications?  Each time we gather to celebrate Eucharist it is to give thanks to God through the renewing of Christ’s dying and rising.  We see Christ broken and poured out for all.  We experience his Resurrection as we take and eat and take and drink.  Then we are sent to do what Jesus continues to do through his living stones.  As the faithful we go out to love others as we are loved.  That includes our enemies, by the way, again as Jesus taught.  It is all about love.  But this is not a love that prompts us to take anything to our selves.  This is love that empowers us to empty ourselves in service.  We go out to wash feet the way Jesus did.  In the midst of all that seems to spell the defeat of Christianity, we live in the triumph of the Cross as we emerge the new creation begotten in Baptism.  Just as the numbers of faithful grew so rapidly in that first Easter Light, I will wager that if the faithful heed Pope Francis’s invitation and become recommitted to imitation of Christ, the numbers will flourish again.

It may take a while.  But I believe it will happen.  Do you?

Sincerely,

Didymus

FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER – A – May 07, 2017

A reading from the Acts of the Apostles 2:14a, 36-41
A reading from the first Letter of Peter 2:20b-25
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John 10:1-10

Dear Reader,

It is hard to celebrate something for fifty days, even if that something is Easter.  Notice that these Sundays are not Sundays after Easter, but Sundays of Easter.  We are celebrating the one event of the Lord Jesus’ dying and rising and our call to live in that dying and rising.

Every year, most parishes rejoice with groups of people who have journeyed with the faith community through their catechumenate.  They came to the Assembly Sunday after Sunday during their quest.  With the Assembly, they sat under the Word and felt the encouragement and support of those with whom they gathered.  In the process they learned how this people worship and celebrate Mystery.  In the process, they experienced Jesus in this Body of Christ called Church.  In the process, their hunger and longing intensified.  They journeyed through a full Church Year, through a complete Cycle of Readings, through a year of being on the Way with Jesus, following in his footsteps to learn from him.  The hunger and longing?  To go from the Table of the Word to the Table of the Eucharist.  Sunday after Sunday they were dismissed from the Assembly at the conclusion of the Liturgy of the Word to further digest the readings, to be nourished by the Word, and so be formed in the likeness of Christ.  The process was long and demanding, but so was their conversion to the life to which they were being called.  The Holy Spirit invited them to enter the sheepfold through the gate.  Jesus says in today’s Gospel, Amen, amen, I say to you, I am the gate for the sheep.

The preceding Lent was a fifty-day period during which the Church’s attention was focused on these seekers, a time during which they were called The Elect.  That period of fasting, praying, and alms giving was a time in which the Church prayed that the Spirit would strengthen the incipient faith of the Elect and form them in the likeness of Christ, looking forward to the day they would join the Assembly in the Eucharist.  Then came the glorious night and the celebration of Easter.  In the light of the Easter Candle, the principal symbol of the Risen Christ, they were plunged into the waters that are the tomb and womb for those who would die with Christ and so rise with him to newness of life in Christ.  With the Sacred Chrism glistening on their brows and clothed in their white robes, they journeyed to the Table to stand with those others, now their brothers and sisters in Christ, to celebrate Eucharist and to know Christ in the Breaking of the Bread.

The intensity of emotions can induce tears and laughter.  For the first time the Bread is broken and shared with them.  The joy of their union with Christ can be overwhelming.  The applause of the Assembly welcoming them can be thrilling and humbling as they come to realize that they are now one with this people in truth and in fact.  It is not unheard of that the Neophytes, as the newly baptized are called, wish the Night could go on forever.  But there is a dawn coming with the First Sunday of Easter, and the beginning of the fifty-day celebration of the first day of the rest of their lives.

No one can live on an emotional high indefinitely.  It is like the first stage of love, wonderful but shallow.  Love matures through the pouring out of self for the other, so that people can wonder as years go by if they were in love at all in the beginning, so deep and different is their love on this tenth, twenty-fifth, fiftieth anniversary of their love.  So it will be for the Neophytes, as it is for the seasoned Assembly of which they are now a part.

As their emotions moderate through these fifty days, the danger can be that they begin to wonder if they really believe.  Lovers can wonder if they really love when their emotions calm.  They can fail to recognize that the door opens to a deeper love.  The Neophytes are invited to go to deeper levels of faith.  No wonder we have Lent every year.  For the Neophytes and for the whole Assembly, whenever they celebrated their first Easter, that is, on the day of their Baptism, they began a process of conversion that will continue for the rest of their lives and will be the focus of every Lent.

It is all about the Breaking of the Bread.  In the beginning of faith, the believer can focus on the gift of the Eucharist, on Christ’s giving his body for them.  Of course that is true.  That is what we believe.  But that is only half of the story.  There is a challenge inherent in the Eucharist.  Believers are to imitate what they take and eat.  During every celebration they will hear Christ’s invitation to do this in my memory.  Believers, as co-celebrators of the Eucharist, must be willing to be broken and given until all have been fed.  That isn’t easy.  Of course no one ever said that it was.  Jesus never said that it would be.

Perhaps this Easter we can learn the lesson of history.  Look at the story of the Church as it has unfolded over the last 2000 years.  There have been highs when Christ could be seen clearly working through the people.  There have been lows when some might have wondered if Christ had abandoned the effort.  What we come to realize through hindsight is that earthly highs and lows do not correspond to faith’s highs and lows.

How long did it take for the faithful to recognize and accept the fact that Jesus reigned from the Cross?  What the world saw as ignominy and shame was actually Christ’s entering into Glory and establishing the Kingdom of God, the beginning of his reign at God’s right hand.  We don’t have time or space for a history lesson here.  You know as well as I that those periods of greatest temporal glory for the Church often corresponded to periods of greatest corruption for the Church.  It has to do primarily with the use and abuse of power.

What is true for the Church as a whole can be true of each and every individual in the Church – for popes, for bishops, for priests and deacons, for vowed religious, for all who share in the priesthood of the baptized.  There is an ancient adage: Power corrupts.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely.  All the baptized must learn the true nature of the calling.  Jesus said it bluntly and without equivocation.  Learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart.  And I stand in your midst as one who serves.  Pope Francis reminds us that we are a servant Church.  As soon as one lords power over another that lesson is lost.  There are those in the Church both ordained and lay that bristle at the pope’s challenge to shepherd in the midst of the sheep, even to smell like the sheep.  Shepherds in the Church must know the people by name and serve them.  They must imitate the Shepherd in today’s Gospel and walk ahead of them, the strength of their faith-witness giving courage to those following through many a dark valley.

Ah, but before you breathe a huge sigh of relief and succumb to the temptation to point an accusing finger, remember that all the baptized are identified with Christ, and are given a share in Christ’s shepherding ministry.  How vulnerable are you willing to be for the sake of your brothers and sisters in Christ?

How long does it take to recognize the grace of God in your being patient when you suffer for doing good?  Read carefully what Peter says in the second reading for today.  Here is the example that is put before us today: When he was insulted, he returned no insult; when he suffered, he did not threaten; instead he handed himself over to the one who judges justly.  In other words, through the whole of the Passion, Jesus emptied himself and trusted the Father.

In the end as in the beginning it is about love.  We cannot look for escape hatches by being content to love the lovable.  That is not what Jesus did.  My friend, do you betray me with a kiss?  Jesus loved Judas even as Judas betrayed him.  So must we love even those who would betray and harm us.  We must trust the same God Jesus did.

What are the limits on this love?  When can we say we have done enough?  I come to see that there are no limits and no enough.  That might be the significance to the witness in John’s Gospel who attests to the last drop of blood and water flowing from Jesus’ pierced side.

The Neophytes continue to journey with us, the more seasoned followers.  What a blessing it will be for them throughout this fifty-day celebration of Easter, if all they witness will be a people willing to pour themselves out for others, even for those who would harm them or betray them, even to their shedding the last drop of blood and water.  And may there be no shortage of witnessing to the only source of strength for carrying out this self-emptying imitation of Christ – the Eucharist we share.

Sincerely,

Didymus