Sunday, May 9, 2010

6th Sunday of Easter - Mother's Day

Winston Churchill once said, “I’m always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught.” I think the same could be said of the Church.

The Second Vatican Council reminded us of the wonderful image of the Church as pilgrim, a community of believers on a journey of faith (see Lumen Gentium 48-50). As part of that journey, we are also ecclesia semper reformanda, a Church always in need of reform. But being a very human institution, we find that idea a lot easier to endorse in the abstract than in practice.

It also helps to explain why the Church, especially those who lead us within a hierarchical system of authority, seems so slow to respond to the various crises that afflict the body of Christ. It is easy for many to point fingers at the Vatican or our bishops. The reality, however, is that almost all of us resist change—especially we have a stake in the status quo or “skin in the game.” Very often, we resist it so strongly that we almost have to be forced to change.

But just as history has demonstrated an often strong resistance to reform within the Church, it also reveals a remarkable capacity for change in response to the signs of the times and the needs of the people. Today’s scripture readings give us reason to trust in Jesus’ words to his disciples: “Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.” They give us a promise, a vision, and a practical incarnation of that promise and vision in the life of the early Christian community.

The promise comes from Jesus. The passage that we read from John 14 is part of what is called the Last Supper Discourse of Jesus, an extended reflection and prayer for his disciples and all who would come after them. Here Jesus assured his disciples that he would not abandon them but would remain with them through two gifts: (1) a peace which the world could not give; and (2) the Holy Spirit to teach them and remind them of all that he had taught them.

The vision comes from John in our second reading from Revelation 21; and it is of a new heaven, a new earth, and a new Jerusalem in which the light would come God, the fullness of wisdom and love. It was this vision that helped sustain an early Church brought to the brink of collapse from persecution, including the brutal attack by Titus and the Roman army that destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem—the visible sign of God’s presence with his people—in 70 CE.

We see the practical incarnation of Jesus’ loving promise and the hopeful vision of disciples like John in our first reading. The Church c. 50 CE found itself facing controversy and division over a fundamental issue: the prerequisites for membership and salvation. The question could be boiled down to this: Must one first embrace the Law of Moses before he or she could embrace the Way of Christ and also be embraced by the Church?

What could have torn the Church apart at a formative and fragile state of its development did not do so. That it didn’t was a testimony not only to the decision that was reached but even more the seven-step process the produced it, which we can find in Acts 15, a portion of which we heard today.

(1) Identification (vv. 1-2a, 5)—An issue—who belonged in the Church and how —needed to be resolved.

(2) Convocation (vv. 2b-4, 6)—“Paul, Barnabas, and some of the others” went up to Jerusalem “to the apostles and elders” (the forerunners to our present-day pope, bishops and priests) for what has become known as the Council of Jerusalem. This spirit of meeting over important issues has continued to this day in ecumenical councils, special synods, and other structures in the life of the Church. In areas as challenging as varied as sexual abuse, ensuring access to the sacraments, and the roles of women, what would happen if the Church gathered and heard from all of those impacted in some way…and at the same time?

(3) Consultation—The apostles and elders in Jerusalem didn’t just hand down an edict but instead listened to what those gathered had to say.

(4) Discussion (vv. 7-12)—The leaders of the Church heard from a variety of voices, including Peter, Paul and Barnabas. There were different voices at the table, even dissenting views, yet all got a hearing.

(5) Discernment (vv.12-13)—It is mentioned twice that the assembly was silent while listening. How easy is it for us to merely pretend we’re listening at a meeting when in fact we’re thinking about our own responses and debating points? This can happen in the Church as easily as it happens in Congress!

(6) Decision (vv. 14-21)—Once he had heard from everyone James, acknowledged as the leader of the Church in Jerusalem, announced a decision that was in fact a compromise.

(7) Communication (vv. 22-31)—This section, which covers the bulk of today’s first reading, not only notes the message that was delivered but how it was delivered: in person, by those who helped make the decision and who had been empowered to carry it out. The result was that when the message was read, the community not only received it but also “rejoiced over its encouragement.” They were strengthened in faith.

Of course, one meeting and one letter didn’t resolve this whole matter (see, e.g., Paul’s reflections in Galatians 2), but they did provide a foundation for the early Christian community to move forward together. It’s a good lesson to learn, along with the dictum attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.” +


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