Being in Communion with Christ, 7th Sunday of Easter (C), May 23, 2004

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
7th Sunday of Easter, C
May 23, 2004
Acts 7:55-60; Rev 22:12-14,16-17,20; Jn 17:20-26

1) In today’s Gospel, taken from Jesus’ prayer during the Last Supper, Jesus pours out his heart to his Father in prayer, praying first for his apostles and then praying for all of us, who would owe our faith in Christ to the preaching of the apostles and their collaborators and successors. “I pray not only on behalf of these [the apostles], but on behalf of all those who will believe in me through their word.” Jesus prayed for something specific and on-the-face-of-it mind-blowing: “that they may be all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.” He was asking first that our unity among each other be as complete as the perfect unity that exists between the persons of the Blessed Trinity; and that we may “be in” the Trinity just as the Father and the Son abide in each other.

2) We might be tempted to dismiss Jesus’ prayer as something that sounds beautiful, but which is obviously utopian and beyond our grasp. But Jesus would never have prayed for something IMPOSSIBLE. He, through whom we and the whole world were created, never engaged in “wishful thinking.” He not only knew the Truth about us and God but enfleshed that Truth, fully aware of what was possible and what was not. It is also true that the Father would never refuse the prayer of his Son. As Jesus prayed before the raising of Lazarus, “I thank you, Father, for having heard me. I know that you ALWAYS HEAR ME” (Jn 11:42). Therefore, if Jesus were praying that we be one, that we be as united among ourselves as are the Persons in the Blessed Trinity and that we abide in them as they abide in each other, then that must mean it is possible and is what should be the reality among us. This dual communion is, in fact, what will happen in heaven. If by God’s mercy we follow Christ all the way to heaven, we will be in full communion with the Communion-of-Persons-in-Love who is the Holy Trinity and in that communion, we will be in full communion with everyone else in the communion of saints.

3) Jesus was praying, however, that we would have this type of communion (“union with” God and with each other) in THIS world, not just in the next. He prayed to his Father during the same discourse, “I am not asking you to take them out of the world… As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (Jn 17:15,18 ). He wanted our unity in THIS world to be the greatest sign of all of who God is and how God loves us. “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, SO THAT THE WORLD MAY BELIEVE that you have sent me” and “so that the WORLD MAY KNOW that you have sent me and HAVE LOVED THEM even as you have loved me.”

4) What is obvious to us, though, is that we do NOT have this union in this world. Take any three of us here this afternoon — even three members of the same family — and we would be hard-pressed to be an image of the communion of love that exists between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Jesus was praying that ALL OF US BE ONE, that all of us in the WORLD might enter and live in that communion; but what he was saying about all the human being he has created, he was certainly saying in a stronger way about his disciples. The first disciples seemed originally to have had something approaching that type of communion. We read in the Acts of the Apostles that in the early Church, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. … All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people” (Acts 2:42-47). And the impact of their loving union was dramatic and obtained the result Jesus prayed such union would bring about: “Day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47).

5) What happened among Jesus disciples since then? It seems that the history of Christianity has been a chronicle of various divisions, from the Orthodox schism with the Church in 1066 to the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, to countless other separations throughout the centuries. Even among those who call themselves Catholics today, there is much disunity. Is it because Jesus’ prayer was ineffectual? No! Jesus’ prayer was heard and the Father would certainly not withhold the graces necessary for this communion. The reason rests in our rejecting those graces, in the actions various Christians have committed over the course of the centuries against communion, and in the various things we have failed to do in order to keep communion. Every sin ruptures communion. Every failed act of love weakens communion that should be there. If this communion with God and with each other meant so much to the Lord that he poured out his very soul praying for it to the Father, then each of us who loves him must make it our life’s mission to try to bring about that union of love. But the question is: how can this communion be brought about?

6) The first thing we can say is that it will NOT be brought about by seeking a “lowest common denominator” version of the faith, removing from our interactions everything that is controversial. Some Christian denominations and even a few Catholic parishes have attempted this type of “Can’t-we-all-just-get-along?” type of Christianity. But this doesn’t heal any divisions; it just ignores them. It doesn’t bring about real communion. The people are not in union with each other; they just “agree not to disagree” publicly. Christ, in fact, came to bring such hidden disunity to the surface. Once he said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household” (Mt 10:34-36). Jesus was not coming, of course, to divide families, but was saying very clearly that some families would be divided by him. This happens still in our day. As soon as someone in the family put God first and tries to serve him above all, others in the family who wanted to be first will start to become hostile to the believer and to the faith. It’s not the faith that divides, but the lack of faith in others that divides. For there to be real unity in a family or in God’s family the Church, there must be not a “lowest common denominator” but a “highest,” in which everyone seeks to love God with their mind, heart, soul and strength. It’s the FAILURE to do this that brings disunity.

7) St. Paul pointed this truth out in his letter to the Ephesians, who were struggling to accept the Gospel fully on God’s terms and live in communion with God and with each other. He begged them first to adopt the VIRTUES consistent with loving communion and then to realize the SOURCE of that communion: “I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:1-6). Each of us is called to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which we’ve received,” “making every effort” “to maintain the unity of the Spirit.” Our communion with each other will be based on our mutual communion with the one God, one Lord, one body of Christ, one faith, one baptism.

8 ) The Lord Jesus knew that living this type of communion with God and with each other would be impossible for us on our own. Therefore, out of love, he left us a means by which he would help us achieve the “hope of [our] calling” here in this world. Right before he prayed for the two-fold communion of us with God and with each other during the Last Supper, he left us a means bring it about: COMMUNION WITH HIM in the Eucharist. To make us one body with Him and with others, he commanded us to consume his body. It is not coincidental that since the beginning, we have called our reception of the Lord Jesus’s real presence “holy communion,” because by receiving God inside, we are supposed to be caught up into communion with God and with all of the other members of the Church, the “body of Christ.” But for this actually to occur, we have to be IN COMMUNION with Christ. The Eucharist is a SACRAMENT, which means an external sign that communicates the grace it signifies. The reception of holy communion is supposed to be sign of a communion that ALREADY EXISTS and a source of a deepening of that communion.

9) The greatest analogy of what is meant to happen in Holy Communion is what happens in marriage when a couple makes love. This love is supposed to be both a SIGN of their loving union in one flesh and a MEANS by which they grow in love and in union with each other. The reason why the Church has always taught that sexual relations are reserved for marriage is because making love is supposed to express in the language of the body what a man and a woman profess publicly in marriage, that they give of themselves wholly and entirely to the other person in love and receive fully the other’s self-gift, holding nothing back. Married spouses alone are capable of becoming one flesh with each other through the act of making love because God has already joined them in one flesh through marriage (cf. Gen 2:24). If a man and a woman were to attempt to have sexual relations outside of marriage, they would be living a lie, proclaiming by their body language that they are really united in one flesh, while they have not yet united themselves yet marriage, while God has not joined them in one flesh. Making love would not be a SIGN of a union, because they are simply yet not united.

10) In the same way, our reception of Holy Communion is meant to be a sign of our loving union with Christ and a means by which we grow in love and in union with Him and through Him with each other. It’s no coincidence that in the ancient basilicas in Rome and elsewhere (like St. Peter’s), the altar has been covered with a huge baldachino or canopy, just like beds used to be. The reason for this was because the altar is really the marriage bed of the union between Christ, the Bridegroom, and His Bride, the Church. Just as on a marriage bed in this world, the bride takes within herself the body of her husband and they become one flesh, so we, the Bride of Christ, in Holy Communion take within ourselves the flesh and blood of the Divine Bridegroom, Jesus, and become one flesh with him. This is one of the most beautiful and deep things we can say both about the Eucharist and about marriage. But just as the act of making love for a married couple — which is meant to be a sign of their loving union, a source of its growth, and an invited cooperation by God into his glorious work of creating other human beings in His image and likeness — can turn from an act of grace into a sin when the couple is not yet united through marriage, so in the same way, the extraordinary gift of Holy Communion can turn from a grace into a SACRILEGE if we are not truly in communion with Christ the Bridegroom.

11) The Sequence for the Feast of Corpus Christi that we’ll chant in three weeks talks about this reality whereby the “Bread of Life” (Jn 6:48 ) becomes the “Bread of Death” for the person who receives the Lord without truly being in communion with him: “Bad and good the feast are sharing, of what divers dooms preparing, endless death or endless life. Life to these, to those damnation, see how like participation, is with unlike issues rife.” The sequence takes its truth from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, in which he said, “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves” (1 Cor 11:27-28 ). Our “Amen” in Holy Communion is a public profession that we ARE in communion with Christ, that we’re “married” to him, and that “we’re submissive to Him” in all things in reverential love (cf. Eph 5:21-22).

12) All of this discussion up to this point is the proper background to understand what the bishops of our country have been discussing concerning whether politicians who publicly dissent from the teachings of Christ and his Church on defined issues of faith and morals are fit to receive Holy Communion. Several parishioners have been asking questions about this lately and I hope that what we’ve said so far provides the proper background so that we might understand what the bishops have been saying. While many in the media have been focused on whether particular bishops would REFUSE such a politician Communion, ALL OF THE BISHOPS have been saying that such a politician SHOULD NOT APPROACH to receive Holy Communion and force a particular bishop or priest to refuse them. The reason for this is nothing new. The condition for receiving Holy Communion has always been the same: to BE IN COMMUNION with Christ. If someone is not in communion, then that person should not receive. This teaching is presented to everyone, not just to politicians.

13) The criteria of what it means to be “in communion” and therefore fit to receive Holy Communion go back to the earliest days of the Church. In the middle of the second century, St. Justin Martyr wrote, “No one may share the Eucharist with us unless he believes that what we teach is true, unless he is washed in the regenerating waters of baptism for the remission of his sins, and unless he lives in accordance with the principles given us by Christ” (First Apology in Defense of the Christians, Chapter 66). In other words, to be fit to receive Holy Communion, one must be in ECCLESIAL, MORAL and DOCTRINAL communion with Christ and the Church he founded:

a) Ecclesial Communion means that one must be a Catholic. St. Justin Martyr says that one must be baptized — “washed in the regenerating waters of baptism for the remission of his sins.” When he wrote these words in the 150s, every Christian was a baptized member of the one, true Church. There were no “orthodox” or “protestants.” What he refers to do today would be that to receive Holy Communion, one must be in sacramental communion with the Church which is Christ’s body. This is the reason why our Protestant brothers and sisters cannot receive Holy Communion, because they are not in full sacramental communion with the Catholic Church.

b) Moral Communion means that we must, as St. Justin says, “live in accordance with the principles given us by Christ.” This is the reason why, when someone has committed a mortal sin and killed off Christ’s life within the soul, that person must first go to be reconciled with Christ through the sacrament of the forgiveness of sins before he or she can come up to Holy Communion.

c) Doctrinal Communion means that we must share the Church’s faith and, therefore, not reject anything the Church proposes as Catholic doctrine on faith and morals. St. Justin says that “no one may share the Eucharist with us unless he believes that what we teach is true.” This is the reason why someone who wants to claim that the Church is wrong in her teaching on abortion, or embryonic stem cell research, or euthanasia — to take a few examples — would not be in doctrinal communion with Christ’s body and therefore should not present oneself for Holy Communion.

14) To present oneself for Holy Communion when when is not in this three-fold communion with Christ and the Church he founded is simply dishonest and hypocritical. It’s also very dangerous. Such a person, if he or she did so with knowledge and deliberate consent, would be consuming Holy Communion “in an unworthy manner” which would make him “eat and drink judgment against themselves” and “ answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.” (1 Cor 11:27-28 ). In other words, St. Paul says that instead of entering into a communion of love with God, one would be “murdering” God and making himself guilty for the Lord’s death. In this respect, a bishop who refuses such a politician Holy Communion would actually be doing him an act of mercy, preventing the public figure’s becoming yet another Pontius Pilate, responsible for the Lord’s blood, or a Judas, who, after he received Holy Communion, went out and betrayed the Lord. No bishop or priest would ever relish refusing a Catholic Holy Communion, but if such a politician continues to ignore the bishops’ statements that he should not receive Holy Communion, a bishop would certainly be within his rights and duties under canon law to refuse that person Holy Communion, to remove the scandal and try to prevent a sacrilege (Code of Canon Law, 915).

15) Christ wants every one of his faithful followers to strive to become more and more in Communion with Him, with His teaching, with his moral virtues, and with the Church he founded. To the extent that any one of his followers knows that he or she is not in communion, that person needs to work to grow in that communion of love. Christ said two things in the Gospel that seem at first to be contradictory, but when further understood, give us all an action item. He said both, “Whoever is not with me is against me” (Mt 12:30) and “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mk 9:40). The Fathers [early saints] of the Church said that, understood together, these passages point to the truth that in each of us, part of us is with the Lord, and part of us is not. What each of us needs to do is to take that part of us that is not yet fully “with the Lord” and, with the Lord’s help, grow in greater communion. If we’re a Protestant and not yet fully in ecclesial communion but wish to receive Holy Communion, that means that we should speak to a priest and enroll in our parish RCIA program. If we’ve committed a serious sin against one of the commandments, that would mean going to confession. If we disagree with one of the central teachings of the Church on faith and morals, that means we have to hit the books and study why the Church Christ founded is right, and maybe ask someone who knows the faith better to explain it to us. Whatever it is, it is keeping us from the Lord and we need to put in the effort, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to change.

16) Right after Jesus gave the apostles Holy Communion for the first time, he prayed to His Father that they — and us through their word — might be as one with each other and with God. His prayer was heard by the Father and the Father will give us all the help we need to enter into that communion. As we get ready to receive His Son, who is the source of Communion between us and God and us and others, we ask him to fill us with the courage to LIVE this communion with Him, so that “the world may believe” in Christ and come to experience the fullness of the Father’s loving Communion, in this life and in the next.

Praised be Jesus Christ!