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THE FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER – C

Acts 14:21-27

Revelation 21:1-5A

John 12:31-33a, 34-35

The telling of John’s vision in the Book of Revelation was meant to give comfort to people who were suffering for their faith.  Believers were being forced into exile.  Others were being imprisoned and put to death for their faith in the Risen One.  How could this be happening to people who put their faith in the Messiah, the One who had said he brought God’s peace to the world?  Of course he had suffered, too, and been put to death, but death had not conquered him.  This people believed in the Risen One who would return to bring them all into God’s Kingdom of peace and light and eternal life.  In his vision, John heard the One seated on the heavenly throne proclaim: Behold, I make all things new. What was made new? Heaven and earth, and Jerusalem, resplendent as God’s bride.  In the midst of the glory came the proclamation: Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race.  God will dwell with them and they will be God’s people. Because of that divine indwelling, tears will be wiped away and death and mourning, wailing and pain will be no more.

Do you believe this?  It’s difficult when there is nothing in your present experience that would support it.  Surely, faith means believing in what can’t be seen.  Still, there is something in us that wants our faith to be supported by tangible evidence.  It is natural to wonder where God is when everything is failing, when natural disasters kill people and when people kill each other.  Famine is not nearly as threatening to faith as people’s inhumanity to people.  It was difficult for the infant church to grasp that the call to follow Christ did not mean anything other than doing what he did.  He commanded that those who would follow him must take up their crosses every day and follow him.  Carrying the cross entailed being willing to die on it and so enter Christ’s new life.

We must not miss the truth that John’s vision reveals.  People are used to thinking of God as remote, transcendent, and difficult to reach.  The truth is that the Incarnation, the Word taking on human nature, means that God dwells with us and in us.  God has taken on all things human.  If that is so, heaven has already begun.  Heaven is in our midst.  Is it possible that the early church missed what contemporary believers might continue to miss and that is what kind of God it is who chooses to dwell in us?  This is not Thor thundering from the mountain’s top.  Certainly it is within God’s power to do that.  But Jesus revealed a servant God, a god who wills to wash feet and bear burdens, wipe away tears and lift up the weary.  That is what Jesus did in his public ministry.  That is what those who believe in Jesus and follow him as the Christ must be willing to do.  And that is what the church must do and be about in every age.

Paul and Barnabas were hugely successful in their first mission among the gentiles.  Huge were the numbers of those who heard their preaching, believed, and were baptized.  Successful as their journey was, there were sufferings, too.  On an earlier journey, Paul was stoned in Lystra and nearly died because he had healed a crippled man.  This time the visit is to check on the progress earlier converts were making and to see how their numbers were growing.  In urging them to be strong in their faith and not lose heart, he reminded them what we need to remember as well: It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.

The success of this missionary journey would be cause for rejoicing in the church.  Little faith communities were being formed with elders to pastor them.  Paul continued to pray for the communities and their elders that the faith might grow and the members be faithful to the end. But there were many who were scandalized that Christ was being preached to Gentiles.  It was hard for some to accept the universality of God’s love poured out through Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection.

Neophytes learn what it means to live as members of the church during this Easter season.  This period for them is called Mystagogy. They are helped to a deeper appreciation of the sacred mysteries they have experienced in the course of the Easter Vigil, particularly Baptism and Eucharist.  Most importantly they are invited to see the implications these sacraments have for how they will live their lives and die their deaths.  After all, they have put on Christ.  They are invited to let his life living within them radiate through the works they do in union with him.  Just as the Eucharist is the source and summit of all they do in faith, so is the call to imitate what they do and allow themselves to be bread broken and cup poured out as long as there are any who are hungry, thirsty, homeless or abandoned.  It is through service that all will experience God’s living in their midst and his Kingdom coming to be.  The more seasoned members of the Church must never forget these basic lessons either.  The Church is not about being served but serving.

Over 40 years ago, the final session of Vatican Council II closed.  New dogmatic constitutions were issued that redefined the Church and its mission.  The Council proclaimed that the People of God are the Church.  The faith abides in them.  The Eucharist is Christ’s sacramental presence among us.  So is he present in the assembly as the Body of Christ and in the proclaimed Scriptures – the living Word.  The assembly co-celebrates the Eucharist with the Priest who presides in persona Christi, in the person of Christ.  The Church in the Modern World is the instrument of God’s peace and justice and must always proclaim and exercise a fundamental option for the poor, i.e., the poor must have primacy of place and concern.  And there is so much more.  Great was the rejoicing as again God’s people seemed to hear the One who sat on the throne (saying), Behold I make all things new. That includes the Church, the New Jerusalem, the Bride of Christ.

40 years is a moment in the life of the Church, but that is long enough for some to lose that initial excitement and recoil from the demands that rise from a sense of the immanent God.  They would rather keep God distant and remote.  Some love power and the exercise of it.  Some long for the former authoritarian church and the old way of worshiping, thinking that the Tridentine Liturgy must have been the way Christ celebrated the Last Supper.  They are feel unworthy and therefore are reluctant to exercise the priesthood that came to them through their baptism.  They see worth only in the ordained priesthood.  Alas.

So, on this 5th Sunday of Easter we return to the Upper Room and, after Judas has gone out into the night, we hear Jesus speak of being glorified and God being glorified in him.  This is the fullness of the revelation of God in Christ and that fullness will be revealed through Christ’s dying and rising.  Those hearing him could have no idea what Jesus was saying, not before the Easter event.  But warning them of the impending absence of his physical presence, Jesus tells them again how they are to live.  My children, love one another.  As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. Love is the new law.  And that should be apparent to all who have any contact with the Church today.

These are difficult days for the Church.  Scandals abound in this country and in Europe.  The evils done are real and atonement needs to be made.  Perpetrators must be held accountable.  Victims must be comforted and helped to experience healing so that they can come to forgive.

Then there is the scandal of division in the Church that exists between the so-called Vatican II Catholics and the neo-conservatives.  There is an indication of the re-emergence of anti-Semitism.   As bad as these times are, they only seem to be the worst because we are living in them.

The neophytes and the seasoned, the young and the old, males and females, the ordained and the laity must hear Jesus’ command to love and to live out that commandment.  Authorities must admit poor judgments and mistakes and seek forgiveness for them.  Where tyranny has reigned, a servant Church must emerge.  Parish communities must be affirmed in the conviction that they are the Church, called to celebrate Eucharist, to minister to the poor, and to be instruments of justice, love, and peace.  Some may suffer for their convictions, but there is nothing surprising about that.  So has it been in every age of the Church.  That is how the One seated on the throne will make all things new.  We must never forget that Jesus promised, This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

Please God, we will have the strength of faith to love and to live in that hope.

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER – C


Acts 13:14, 43-52

Revelation 7:9, 14b-7

John 10:27-30

Imagine those first years of preaching the Good News of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ!  Then imagine what it must have been like to hear the Gospel for the first time.  That is what is happening in today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles.  Paul and Barnabas are on their mission and have arrived in Antioch.  They go the synagogue, and when invited by those in attendance, Paul preaches.  He must have been charismatic, filled with the Spirit as he was.  The people were spellbound as Paul took them on a brief tour of their salvation history, beginning with the Exodus experience and God’s guiding the Israelites through the desert to the Promised Land.  He spoke of the ups and downs of the relationship between the people and God.  He put David before them, their great king, who, at the end of his reign, died.  From his line came Jesus who preached the forgiveness of sins and salvation.  Some of the Jews rejected Jesus and crucified him.  But unlike David who died, Jesus went through death to resurrection and then, as God’s beloved, to reign at God’s right hand.  Those who believe in Jesus as Lord and Messiah will be found worthy of eternal life.  Those who reject him will not.  The people are ecstatic in the reception of the message and ask Paul and Barnabas to return on the next Sabbath and tell them more.

By the next Sabbath, the mood has changed and jealousy has reared its ugly head.  Some of the Jews, when they saw the huge turnout for Paul and Barnabas, stirred up hostility toward them and reject them from the synagogue.  The apostles take it as a sign and tell the Jews that Paul and Barnabas will be turning their attention from them to the Gentiles who remain eager to hear their message.  Many believers were added as the result of the preaching and the message began to spread throughout the whole region.  Now some of the Jews turn the important people against Paul and Barnabas and they are ousted from the region.  Rather than being broken in spirit by their being rejected and by the persecution that is erupting, the disciples shake the dust from their feet in protest against them, and heading for Iconium to a new audience they are filled with joy and the Holy Spirit.

A caution as you hear this reading – do not hear in it a justification for anti-Semitism.  Some of the first converts, Paul among them, were Jews, as were the first disciples.  The present pope and his predecessor both voiced apologies for the times in the Church’s history that the Jews were persecuted for being Jesus’ killers.  Both condemned that notion.  John Paul II prayed at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.  Benedict XVI has met with Jewish leaders and visited a synagogue.  As Christians we must never do or say anything that would deny the fact that the Jews are the chosen people of God and descendents of Abraham.  So, too, by the way are the followers of Islam.  They are not outside the pale of salvation.  Remember, God wills the salvation of all people.  Paul said that and so did the Second Vatican Council.  There will be enough room in heaven for all of us.

For us in this day and age, the responsibility remains to carry on the mission of Paul and Barnabas and announce the Good News of Salvation.  Some will do that through preaching as they did, but the majority will do that through imitation of Christ in charitable works.  Think of those who responded to the devastation in Haiti and ministered to the survivors.  They acted out of love and poured themselves out in service of all those wounded and orphaned ones who lived through the earthquake.  The same marked the response to the quake in Chile.  Helping people find reason to hope is the Gospel in Action and is a far better response than the horrific judgment of Pat Robertson and those of his ilk, that the disasters are the result of God’s judgment against the Haitians and the Chileans.  It’s hard to hear the Gospel in that.

The Second reading continues John’s vision proclaimed in the reading from the Book of Revelation.  John is trying to describe the indescribable.  In his vision, he sees Christ as the Lord of Lords with the entire world responding, but here the One seated on the throne is the Lamb.  There is a role reversal that thrills.  In the Gospel, Jesus is the Good Shepherd, the one who went out into the dangerous territory in search of the lost lamb and, when he found it, put it on his shoulders and carried it home to the safety of the flock.  Now it is the enthroned Lamb who will shepherd the people who have been suffering in the bitter persecution, wandering homeless, experiencing hunger and thirst.  The Lamb will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear.

John wants those in the midst of persecution to see things differently.  Don’t we tend to think that the victims who have died are the defeated ones?  Their families and friends grieve the loss.  They did in John’s time and they do in our own.  But John wants all to look through a different lens with a new perspective.  Those who lost their lives are the ones forming the great multitude from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stand before the throne of the Lamb in white robes and carrying palm branches.  Instead of victims, they are victors and their joy knows no bounds.  These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. They have borne the cross to its ultimate and are now raised to new life in Christ.  The Lamb has shepherded them safely home.

If you’re not careful this Sunday, the proclamation of the gospel will be over before you notice that it has begun.  Just five brief sentences, they proclaim the heart of our faith as Christians.  Here we are back to the traditional roles of shepherd and sheep.  Notice the intimacy between the two.  Jesus said, My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me. How well do you know Jesus?  How much time do you spend with him?  We don’t get to know anybody well except through being together in good times and in bad over a period of time.  It is said that one flock of sheep could mingle with another and be indistinguishable, one from the other.  But when the shepherd made his whistling or clicking sound, his own separated themselves from the rest and walked with the one whose sound they recognized.  It is the intimacy of relationship that Jesus wants with his disciples.  And that relationship will keep the disciples safe regardless of the situation – even impending death.  None will perish.  No one can snatch them from his grasp.  None.  No one.  Neither allows for exceptions.  Jesus gives his followers eternal life because it is the Father’s will.  And the greatness of the Father makes it impossible for anyone to take them out of the Father’s hand.  The Father and I are one.

Be comforted by that last six-word sentence.  Jesus reveals his identity to us.  Now we know who Jesus is.  That revelation is the core of our faith.  Believing it, for us, is eternal life.  We thrill at the proclamation.  Some of those who heard Jesus in John’s Gospel cried blasphemy and picked up rocks to stone him.  He walked through their midst and away to safety.  His hour had not yet come.  We thrill because we are affirmed in our belief that Jesus is the Son of God, our Savior and our Lord.  The challenge is for us to live with Christ now, to believe that Jesus is with us always, that we live in him and are one with each other in Christ.

We continue the Easter celebration.  The neophytes among us still look to us seasoned ones to see what living in the Risen Christ means in practice.  They look to us to continue to learn how we worship and celebrate Eucharist as the Body of Christ.  If we reach out to each other and support each other, encouraging each other along the way because we know him, the Church will be revived and renewed.  And that proclamation will call out to the multitudes from every nation, race, people and tongue to enter here and be welcome as we gather at the Table until we are caught up to share in Christ’s glory.

Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER – C

Acts 5:27-32, 40b-41

Revelation 5:11-14

John 21:1-19

Struggling with faith does not mean there is no faith.  What we learn from the struggle is that believing is not easy and demands the support of grace.  The readings for this Third Sunday of Easter are important for the neophytes to hear.  Those of us baptized some years ago can benefit from hearing them too.

Often times it is not long into the faith walk before the newly baptized begin to wonder if they believe at all.  They remember the thrill, the elation they felt as they came out of the font, were confirmed, and were admitted to the Table for the first time.  Their experience can be reminiscent of the three disciples at the Transfiguration.  Peter asked Jesus if they couldn’t erect three tents and just live in the splendor of the moment.  The emotional highs that envelop the neophytes can be so intense that it might never occur to them that they won’t live in that high for the rest of their lives.  The three disciples didn’t want to come down the mountain either.

Some people are addicted to the highs, to the intensity of the emotions of new relationships, of falling in love.  Some respond to vocations the same way.  The thrill of the call and the assurance of capacity that comes with it, convince the responder that s/he will feel that way every day.  Ah, but then reality sets in.  The emotions calm as the demands of the ordinary, the day-to-day routine of daily living return.  Relationships break up and vocations cool because people don’t feel anymore what they thought they would feel always when they first responded to the inner call.  And so they miss the height and depth and breadth of love tried and proved.

In the first reading from Acts, we hear that the apostles are already suffering because they are preaching Christ crucified and risen.  The Sanhedrin and the high priest are furious because they have ordered the apostles not to teach in that in that name. What is worse, their teaching implies that the Sanhedrin and the priests are responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion and death.  But Peter, speaking for the rest, says that they must obey God and continue to preach because God exalted (Jesus) at his right hand as leader and savior to grant Israel repentance and forgiveness of sins. It’s God’s will that this be announced and the Holy Spirit, given by God, supports their vocation and mission.  The reading skips the few verses that describe the flogging of the Apostles as punishment before they are released and ordered once again to stop speaking in the name of Jesus. And the apostles go out rejoicing because they have been found worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name. For them this was proof of discipleship.  They remembered that Jesus had said they could not be his disciples unless they took up the cross every day and followed him.  Suffering is part of being on the Way with Jesus.

It is said that the reason many people refuse to accept Jesus as the Messiah is because all that was supposed to mark the Messianic Age did not happen with Jesus.  Suffering continued.  Persecution did, too.   How can that be if Jesus is truly the Messiah?  How can innocent people still have bad things happen to them if we live in the Messianic age?  Why are there still wars?  That is why John wrote the Book of Revelation.  Revelation is apocalyptic literature.  The Book deals with the final things.  John is caught up in the mystery of mystical experience and has visions full of signs and wonders.  He records his experience for the benefit of the church that is already being persecuted.  The visions of Christ reigning at God’s right hand and all creation singing his praises affirm the truth that was preached in the name and is meant to encourage the suffering church not to lose faith or their hope in Christ. Those who endure in persecution can hope with confidence that they will share in that heavenly glory because they will rise just as Christ did.  That is God’s will realized in Christ.

In the gospel, the Apostles have not yet found direction for their lives.  Peter announces that he is going fishing.  We can’t hear that without remembering that Peter had fished the night through when Jesus called him.  In the morning, nets suddenly engorged with fish because the fishermen followed Jesus’ instructions became a sign to them that God was working through Jesus.  Upon reaching shore, Peter said to Jesus, Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man. Jesus persevered in the call and told Peter that from now on you will be catching people. And Peter and the others left everything and began following Jesus.

Now, in these first post-Easter days, it is as though Peter is floundering.  He hasn’t yet found his purpose and so he decides to go fishing again.  There is comfort in returning to the familiar.  He and his companions, as they did that other time, again spend the night fishing and catch nothing.  A Stranger on the shore calls out to them: Children, have you caught anything to eat? When they say that they have not, the Stranger tells them to cast their nets to the other side.  They do as they are told and once again net a huge number of fish.  You might say that signs abound, but Peter as yet isn’t able to interpret them.  The disciple Jesus loved who had accompanied Peter to the tomb Easter morning, as he did then, again sees the signs and believes.  He tells Peter: It is the Lord. Notice, though, that still Peter does not see for himself.  The gospel says that when he heard the disciple tell him it was the Lord, he is thrown into confusion.  Embarrassed that he is scantily clad, he throws on clothes and then leaps into the sea.  The others row the fish-laden boat ashore only to find that already Jesus is broiling fish for their breakfast as he invites them to bring some of their fresh catch to add to it.

There are some important symbols that we shouldn’t miss.  Peter’s boat represents the Church.  The nets cast out stand for the preaching mission of the Church: From now on you will be fisher’s of people. The nets, filled as they are, do not break.  There is room for, a place for everybody in the Church.  Peter and the others follow Jesus’ instruction and make their catch.  As long as the Church imitates Jesus and is led by the Spirit, the results will follow.  It is when that is not the case that they do not hear and respond.

When Peter comes onto the beach, he must be embarrassed.  He had denied Jesus three times, swearing the third time that he did not know the man.  Now, Jesus asks him three times if Peter loves him.  Each time Peter says that he does love Jesus, Jesus vests Peter with the mission to tend the lambs and the sheep, to be a shepherd like Jesus.  Now pay close attention to how the scene ends.  It will be important for the Church in persecution to hear what Jesus says, and for those facing martyrdom to take the words to heart.  So, too, should those facing the indignity and infirmity of old age or physical disability.  Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.

Peter will preach Jesus.  He will also imitate Jesus in pouring himself out in service.  And he will be like Christ in his dying.  Martyrdom is not defeat but victory.  Christ triumphs in Peter and in those others who give up their lives for the gospel.  (Faith enables us to recognize Christ in the enfeebled and in the disabled and to see clearly their dignity and worth.)  Jesus’ words to Peter may well be one of the reasons that from the earliest days of the Church, the most honored ones were the martyrs.  In the catacombs, the tombs of the martyrs were the first altars on which the Eucharist was celebrated.  To the present, relics of martyrs are in the altar stones of every parish church.   The lesson is for us, helping us to recognize that because of Christ’s dying and rising, death has been conquered and those who lose their lives in this world for the gospel are the victors and will live with Christ forever.

Two things should register as challenges for the Church, three if we think about it.  First, we are a servant Church whose first call is to take up the cross every day and walk in Christ’s footsteps as we shepherd the lambs and the sheep.  Second, nowhere should the desire to forgive and reconcile be more evident than in the Church.  Third, all are welcome in this Church.

The net that is cast out is the Gospel.  If Christ directs the casting, multitudes will be drawn in.  Just as he did on the beach that morning after an all night’s fruitless fishing, the meal that Christ prepares for our strengthening is the Eucharist so that, having eaten and drunk, we can go out and labor again, always casting the net as Jesus directs.  Of course Christ expects us to do our part.  And Christ will bring what we do to perfection.

Let Jesus’ final words in this gospel echo in your heart.  Hear them at the beginning of each day and as you fall asleep at the end of your day’s labor.  It is all the neophytes will have to do.  It’s really all any of us ever have to do.

Follow me.

Sincerely,

Didymus