Sunday, April 25, 2010

4th Sunday of Easter

Shall we circle the wagons or hit the road?

This is a question that the Church has had to ask itself from the earliest stages of its development in the wake of Christ’s death and resurrection. On the one hand, the disciples could not ignore the commission that Jesus had given them to preach, teach, heal and baptize (see Mt 28:16-20, Mk 16:1-20, Luke 24:36-53, John 20:18-23, and Acts 1:1-9). On the other, they had to contend with many who rejected the gospel and the ministry that Jesus gave them. For such people, what the disciples had to share was anything but Good News.

Persecution, controversy and misunderstanding have been with Church from the beginning, right along with the Holy Spirit. The days immediately following the resurrection found the disciples huddled in fear behind locked doors (John 20:19, 26). In the wake of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to the disciples gathered in Jerusalem, some were ready to dismiss their powerful testimonies and speaking in tongues as little more than drunken blathering (Acts 2:1-13).

Then things got serious.

Stephen was stoned to death for his prophetic stand for Christ, and a wave and persecutions and arrests followed—many led by a man named Saul (see Acts 6:8-8:4). Soon after, this same Saul encountered the Lord on the road to Damascus and was radically transformed by the experience (Acts 9:1-19). The nascent Church’s greatest foe became its greatest missionary; and many of his former compatriots then wanted to kill him (Acts 9:20-23). Our first reading today features Paul and Barnabas bringing the gospel to the synagogue in Syrian Antioch and getting a decidedly mixed reception.

This fragile but growing community that was so troubled from the outside was also bedeviled by a host of internal problems, including: dishonesty and hypocrisy (Acts 5:1-11); complaints of discrimination (Acts 6:1); attempts to do commerce in spiritual gifts (Acts 8:9-24); disputes over orthodoxy and membership ( see Acts 14-15); and a host of sexual and relational sins and dysfunctions (1 Corinthians 5:1-9 and Romans 1:18-27).

That helps to put the Church’s current struggles, controversies, persecutions, and sins into greater perspective, doesn’t it?

Of course, that doesn’t absolve us of dealing with those problems. In this age of the internet and 24/7 global communications, news (especially bad news, it seems) travels fast and can stick around a long time. In recent months, we have all seen more than our share of bad news about the Church. Ironically and tragically, most of it has been generated by those who were ordained to serve, lead, and proclaim the Good News.

Today’s scripture readings, however, give us reason to hope, even in this season of troubles.

Our second reading from the Book of Revelation was written during a time of a widespread and vicious campaign against the Church. It was instigated during the reign of Domitian (c. 81-96 CE) and had the full force of the Roman Empire behind it. Inspired by a vision from the Lord, John wrote to a community under siege by forces bent on destroying it. His primary message could be distilled as, “Hold on, hold out, a change is gonna come!”

He could not promise them comfort and rewards in this life. That was a difficult promise to make when people were being rounded up, tortured, and killed all around them. Instead, John offered them a joyful, peaceful, and consoling vision of life in eternity: if they remained faithful with the holy ones on earth, they would one day join the communion of saints in heaven.

It’s a beautiful vision; but it’s not enough. The Lord also calls us to also make real here on earth the love, goodness, and peace of his kingdom. He wants us to make real our prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Here on earth, a Church that is so easily frightened, distracted, divided and willful has been promised and given a Shepherd: Jesus Christ. True, we have pastors (the Latin word for shepherds)—priests, bishops, the Pope and other ministers—but all of us, no matter who we are, must ultimately heed the voice of Jesus…and his voice alone; and the only way that we can heed his voice is if we learn to recognize it. We do that by developing an intimacy and familiarity with the Lord through prayer, meditation, contemplation, action and reflection, especially on his word.

Prayer—We offer prayers of thanksgiving, petition and even lament, both individually and communally, acknowledging our need for the Lord and his grace. Prayer is also at the heart of our liturgical life.
Meditation—We still our bodies and the “inner ears” of our hearts and minds and develop a spirit of attentiveness to the Lord.
Contemplation—We rest in the Lord and wait for the Spirit to move us.
Action—We respond to that Spirit and fulfill our vocations.
Reflection—We “check in” with the Lord and each other, to make sure that we are truly responding to his voice and not others’.

If we are true to the Lord’s voice, we will soon realize that “circling the
wagons” and living as a Church under siege is not really an option—not if we would follow the one who opened his arms on the cross for us. +

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Low Easter Sunday (Divine Mercy), Year C

We’ve all heard the expression that “seeing is believing.” Very often it is uttered as a manifestation of distrust, particularly after broken promises and dashed expectations. One spouse cheats on another and promises to be faithful. The cuckolded spouse says, “Seeing is believing.” The leader of one particular party encourages the support of a particular piece of legislation by claiming that it will actually lower the government’s deficit. The leader of the rival party responds, “Seeing is believing.” In today’s gospel reading, the disciples who witnessed the risen Lord proclaimed to Thomas that the one crucified was now alive. His response was, “Well, seeing is believing.”

Today’s scripture readings, however, invite us to turn that expression of skepticism on its head and to also recognize that believing is seeing! That is, if we are able to view our world and experiences through the eyes of faith, we may be able to see something entirely different than most people allow themselves to see.

John found himself exiled to the Greek island of Patmos, a late first century CE Roman penal colony during what most scripture scholars say was the reign of the emperor Domitian. His physical eyes may only have been able to behold a place of isolation and punishment for his refusal to offer sacrifices to the Roman gods and the emperor himself.

But because he came to the island with the eyes of faith—a faith that he wanted to instill and nurture in the early church—he was able to behold a vision that began with a vision of the risen Christ, assuring him, “Do not be afraid. I am the first and the last, the one who lives. Once I was dead, but now I am alive forever and ever.”

That vision, which John was commanded to write down, became the basis for the Book of Revelation—one of the most read (and least understood) books of the Bible—which helped to encourage and sustain the early church through some very trying times. Ultimately, not even the force of an empire could destroy it.

When the apostles were reported first to have cured people, they were typically greeted with doubt, fear and persecution. The passage from Acts 5 in today’s first reading followed several other dramatic ones in which Peter and James cured a crippled beggar in the name of Jesus (3:1-10), which led them to be persecuted by the elders and scribes (4:1-22). Meanwhile, the love, trust and unity of the nascent church in Jerusalem (4:32-37) buoyed their faith.

Yet while “none of the others” (that is, the disciples beyond the apostles) “dared to join” the apostles as they boldly continued their ministry of teaching and healing, “the people esteemed them.” Further, news of the healings drew people not only from Jerusalem but also from the surrounding towns and villages. These people had not seen what the apostles had done, they had only heard about it. But they believed…or at least they wanted to believe; and their faith was rewarded.

We can imagine that Thomas wanted to believe, too. After all, he was one of the twelve whom Jesus himself had chosen. But he couldn’t bring himself to it without seeing first. Perhaps the trauma of the Lord’s passion and death was too overwhelming. After investing so much of himself and his faith in following Jesus and hoping that he was the Messiah, it must have been a crushing and demoralizing blow to have it all seemingly end in the pain and humiliation of the cross.

It would not be surprising if Thomas felt not only a sense of deep personal loss and disappointment but even disillusionment and betrayal. Whatever his feelings, he wasn’t willing to trust anything but his own eyes.

What he failed to remember, however, is that our human sight is limited. We can’t see everything, everywhere, all the time. In fact, sometimes our eyes can deceive us. This is particularly true when our vision is clouded or narrowed by things like loss, confusion, or prejudice. We choose what we will see in the mistaken belief that it will somehow insulate us from the pain of seeing more. Sometimes it can…for a while.

But life has a way of crowding itself into our field of vision. Like Jesus, people and things step in front of us even when we have locked the doors, and we are forced to put our hands into the nail prints and lanced sides that we have tried so hard to avoid.

Lord Jesus, in your mercy deepen our faith! In a world where “seeing is believing,” open our eyes to also understand that “believing is seeing.” +

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Easter Sunday, Year C

A man was running late for a meeting. In his rush to get across the street he failed to look both ways, was hit by a truck and died.

His soul traveled up toward heaven and he was met by St. Peter at the pearly gates. “Welcome to heaven!” Peter said. He glanced down at his intake computer and a look of concern came over his face. “Hmmm,” he said.

"Is there a problem, St. Peter?” the man asked.

“Just a little one…I hope,” Peter answered. “What kind of work did you do?”

“I am….I was a United States Senator!” the man said with pride.

“Oh, no wonder,” Peter said. “We don’t get a lot of your kind here…at least on the direct flight. The ones who make it usually have a bit of a layover.”

“I always liked the direct flights anyway,” the senator replied. “Why not just let me in?”

“Sorry, sir,” Peter said firmly. “We have our orders from higher up. You’ll have to spend one day in hell and another in heaven and then make up your mind about where you’d like to spend eternity.”

“Really,” the man contested, “I’ve made up my mind. Heaven is just fine with me.”

“I’m very sorry, Senator,” Peter insisted, “but we have our rules.”

With that, St. Peter escorted the man to an elevator that went down, floor after floor, past the P (Purgatory) floor, to the ground floor, parking garage, basement, sub-basement, sub-sub-basement, and finally to Level H: hell.

The doors opened, and to his shock the man came upon a scene of laughter and luxury! He saw many people he recognized there. They greeted him, handed him a drink, and invited him for a round of golf, which was followed by a dinner featuring steak, lobster and gallons of champagne. A dance followed, during which he met a gorgeous woman. He thought he remembered her from the movies. His time in Hell just seemed to fly.

St. Peter, however, soon reappeared in the scene. “Time’s up,” he said. “Now you have to spend a day in heaven.” With that, they got on the elevator and returned to paradise.

Heaven was nice, too—good food and a nice gym, plus a lot of praying, singing and uplifting conversation. But it was pretty quiet, perhaps even a little dull.

After a day, St. Peter returned and asked the man, “Well, Senator, you’ve had a taste of both heaven and hell. Which will it be? Where would you like to spend eternity?”

The Senator scratched his head. “Well,” he said, “I never thought I’d say it, but I really prefer hell.” St. Peter asked if he was sure, and the man insisted that he was.

So they got back in the elevator and down they went, floor after floor, until they again reached Level H. The doors opened, the man stepped out, and the doors closed behind him.

The Senator looked up and froze. He was on top of a landfill, with flames of methane gas shooting out from pipes. His friends were dressed in rags and picking up garbage as it fell from the sky. The devil approached. “Welcome to hell!” he laughed as he put an arm around the man.

“I don’t understand,” the Senator stammered, “I was here a day ago and people were laughing, playing golf and dancing, eating steak and lobster, and drinking champagne. Today it’s a garbage-filled wasteland and my friends look miserable. What happened?”

“Oh that,” the devil said as he chuckled, shook his head, and waved his hand dismissively. “Yesterday we were campaigning. Today was your election.”

Easter is, understandably, a day of great joy. After forty days of Lent and its penitential practices and after the solemnity of Good Friday and our remembrance of the great suffering that our Lord endured on the cross, we recall the great miracle of his resurrection from the dead and we welcome the gift of everlasting life that he won for us.

But our scripture readings also remind us that even Easter, like life itself, isn’t just sweetness and light, nor is it a past event only. It’s a hard lesson to absorb. After all, who of us wouldn’t rather focus on bunnies, jelly beans, and chocolate cream-filled eggs? It’s estimated that Americans this year will spend over $13 billion to celebrate Easter—most of it on candy, food, and new clothes. We all like a good party.

Our gospel reading points out, however, that the women who came to the tomb on the first Easter weren’t exactly in a partying mood. They had come with spices to anoint Jesus’ body and complete the preparations for his burial. Instead they found the stone covering his tomb rolled away and were confronted by “two men in dazzling garments.” Luke’s gospel noted that they were terrified, bowing their faces to the ground.

After being reminded of Jesus’ own testimony about his death and resurrection, these women became the first of his disciples to proclaim the good news that he was indeed alive again, just as he had promised. They ran from the tomb and told the apostles, whom our tradition teaches were the predecessors of our bishops and priests. Unfortunately, the two Mary’s and their companions didn’t get a very good reception: Luke notes that the apostles dismissed their story as “nonsense.” The lone exception was Peter, who ran to the tomb and left the scene “amazed” at what he saw.
Fear, skepticism, and amazement seem like a long way from marshmallow Peeps and Easter vacations. But they remind us that the resurrection of Christ and the new life we have because of it have consequences, no less the cross. One of them is to live with courage and hope, even when it’s difficult. With all the bad news about the Church that has lately been in the newspapers, TV, radio and the internet, we can sometimes feel like those women and the other disciples on that first Easter morning: fearful, confused, not especially confident of our leaders, and not entirely sure of what will happen next. But they worked through it; and two thousand years later so can we.

Another consequence of the resurrection is going beyond our comfort zones for the sake of the gospel, just as Peter did when he encountered the faith of Cornelius and his household—all gentiles. Take time this week and read all of Acts 10 and you will see that he had to work through the limitations of his own background and experiences to share the gospel and embrace those who were different than him as brothers and sisters in Christ. But he worked through it; and two thousand years later so can we.
In our second reading from 1 Corinthians 5, St. Paul urged the church in Corinth—a church struggling with many controversies and divisions—to be renewed, just like a fresh batch of dough at Passover. It was hard, but they worked through it…and two thousand years later so can we.
Two thousand years ago a group of trembling women stood before a tomb and were asked, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”(Luke 24:5) Two thousand years later, we are asked the same question and face the same choice—the same election.

Happy Easter! +