Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A
May 25, 2014
Acts 8:5-8.14-17, Ps 66, 1 Pet 3:15-18, Jn 14:15-21
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
This is the text that guided today’s homily:
Witnesses of Hope
Today St. Peter tells us in the epistle, “Always be ready to give an explanation to any one asks you for a reason for your hope.” The first Pope’s statement implies two things: that Catholics are supposed to be persons of hope; and that we need to be capable and ready always to give the reasons for our hope to anyone who asks us — at home, at work, at school, on the streets, in hospitals and nursing homes, in prisons, funeral parlors, even in concentration camps and Gulags. This proclamation of a hope that is grounded yet towering is an essential part of the Good News each of us is called to live and proclaim.
This Gospel of Hope is needed today as much as ever because so many people are living without hope. Many are led to fear and despair by things in the world, the threat of terrorism, the lack of harmony in so many places like the Holy Land where Pope Francis today is praying for peace, the problems flowing from drugs and poverty in our own country and city. Many lose hope due to situations in their own lives —problems at home in their marriages or with their children, difficulties with bosses or colleagues at work, various health complications flowing from illness or old age and so many other personal situations. Even within the Church, there are other problems that make people forlorn: how many people are not practicing the faith and coming to worship God with us, the metastasizing immorality in our culture, the closings of Churches due to the shortage of priestly and familial vocations, the failure of many in positions of leadership to lead the types of holy, sacrificial lives that God and his people expect. All of these problems are beyond the personal frustrations we feel when we cannot seem to kick our addiction to sin and succeed in the struggle to live as God wants.
Drawing Hope from what Jesus did with his first followers
Despite all of these challenges, despite everything that can cause us to lose hope, St. Peter calls us to be “always ready to give an explanation to any one asks you for a reason for your hope.” He himself faced so many of those challenges and more and hence his testimony is all the more powerful. His first words to Jesus were that he was a “sinful man” (Lk 5:8) prone to weakness (as he showed in the high priest’s courtyard [Mt 26:48]). He was surrounded by a bunch of other very ordinary men, sinners all, one of whom accounted Jesus less valuable than 30 silver pieces, and all of whom abandoned the Lord when he was arrested. Yet Jesus made them, respectively, the Rock (Mt 16:18) and the living stones (1 Pet 2:5) on whom he was to build his Church. If what Jesus was able to do through them isn’t a cause for hope, then I don’t know what could be! Jesus gave them the mission to change world history. They easily could have despaired because that task far exceeded their human abilities, but they didn’t despair. They counted on the Lord to give them what they needed. That’s why Peter’s words to us today in his first letter are so important. The challenges we face are not greater than the challenges he faced. After Pentecost, he became a witness to hope and was always ready to give the explanation of his hope to others, doing it so powerfully that 3,000 people converted on that day. Today we ourselves need to focus within our Christian hearts on those reasons for Christian hope, so that we might likewise be able to take this Gospel to every corner.
The fundamental reason for our hope that we need to ponder and share
The fundamental reason for our hope has nothing to do with our individual talents, bright personalities, upbeat ideas, past accomplishments, supportive friends or helpful connections. The essential reason of our hope is GOD. Hope is based on the deep conviction that God is faithful to his promises, that he cannot lie, and that he will always give us what we need and what is best for us. He who is the omnipotent Lord of the universe loves us with an everlasting love, from which no human situation, no matter how seemingly desperate, can separate us (cf. Rom 8:39). During this Easter Season, we celebrate the fact that not even public execution on a Cross can extinguish hope! During Paschal tide, we ponder another reason for hope: God the Father loved us so much that he sent his own Son to die for us and our sins, so that we might live with Him forever. As St. Paul asked the Romans, “If God did not even spare his own Son, but handed him over for us all, will he not give us, with Him, everything else besides?” (Rom 8:32). That’s why he was able to say, “We know that everything always works out for the good for those who love God” (Rom 8:28). We have hope because for those who love God even defeats work out for the good, just like God brought the greatest good out of the worst evil on Good Friday.
We can further concretize some of the fundamental ways that our hope comes from God, so that, in pondering these reasons, we can better share them with those who ask us about what makes us as Christians different than the rest.
Our hope is based first on God the Father’s providential love. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes aim at our worrying, which can cause us to lose hope, and tells us instead to trust in the loving care of His Father and ours: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. … Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? … Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the pagans who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Mt 6:25-34). The heavenly Father knows all that we truly need and will give us everything we truly need. That fills us with hope!
Our hope is also based on God the Father’s Mercy. No matter what we’ve done, he loves us with the love of the Father in the parable of the Prodigal Son, and looks for us longingly, hoping and waiting for the day we use the freedom he gave us to come back to his paternal home (cf. Lk 15:11-32). There’s nothing we’ve done that will cause him to withhold his loving mercy. So often the source of our despair comes from the fact we cannot forgive ourselves for what we’ve done. The guilt eats us alive. But if God the Father can forgive us for murdering his own Son through our sins, nothing we could do could ever be as wicked as that. The only thing that can prevent us from receiving this gift of his mercy is our refusal to seek it in the sacrament his Son established to take the guilt and despair away (cf. Jn 20:19-23). His mercy is part of the reason for hope we’re called to give to everyone who asks.
That leads to the third reason for our hope: Christ Jesus’ own love and friendship. Twice during the Last Supper, Jesus said, “I love you.” He said first, “Just as the Father has loved me, so I love you” (Jn 15:9). Later he added, “As I love you, love one another” (Jn 15:12). One of the great causes of sadness and despair is when a person begins to think that no one else cares, when one imagines that he or she is alone in facing all of life’s daunting challenges, when one lives without love.
The hopelessness of Eliot Rodger’s Mass murder in Santa Barbara
If we think that what we’re talking about is just an academic exercise, we had a terrible wake-up call yesterday proving to us it’s not. We saw the destruction caused by a lack of love leading to despair as we saw the horrifying news of the Mass murder carried out by Elliot Rodger, the 22-year-old son of a Hollywood Director, who murdered six, tried to murder many more and then took his own life in the new BMW his mother had given him. I watched his six-and-a-half minute YouTube video yesterday that announced what he was planning to do and why he was planning to do it. This kid who seemed to have so much in life was missing the most important thing: he was missing love. He wanted it. He searched for it. And he didn’t find it in the way that he thought his heart needed, in romantic, sexual relationships with beautiful blond girls. Because his desire for love wasn’t requited, he said, he was going to take out his anger and frustration on a girls’ sorority. He started by stabbing to death his three roommates and then went to the sorority, trying to get in to annihilate those on the inside, but settling for killing people outside and then going on a random shooting spree. This young man was living in the despair of a loveless lust that no amount of sexual liaisons was going to cure.
As St. John Paul II wrote about in his first encyclical back in 1979, “Man cannot live without love,” St. John Paul II wrote in his first encyclical Redemptor Hominis. “He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it.” Elliot Rodger was living that senseless life. The great antidote to this is not to date cheerleaders or sorority girls, because even if one had 10,000 promiscuous relationships with the sexiest, most beautiful supermodels, it’s never going to lead to lasting peace and joy. As St. Augustine learned the hard way, our hearts will always be restless until the rest in God.
The great antidote of this deep yearning for love is to remember how madly Jesus loves us — a madness that made him willing to be tortured and killed so that we might never be alone but live forever with him. Jesus is the solution to all our greatest problems, and his love for us is our great hope. Alone we can do nothing. But with him as our Good Shepherd, we really do have it all (cf. Psalm 23:1) and can do it all (Mt 17:20; Lk 1:37; Phil 4:13).
The greatest tragedy of all in Eliott Rodger’s life is that not that he was dying as a frustrated 22 year old virgin who says he never kissed a girl. The greatest tragedy is that he never knew the love Jesus had for him, which is why he despaired, and why that alienated, isolated, lustful despair turned so destructive.
The hope that comes from the Holy Spirit
The final reason for our hope that I’ll mention today is the Holy Spirit. This Thursday we celebrate the Lord’s Ascension into heaven — a Holy Day of Obligation for us as Catholics! — and immediately afterward, like Jesus’ first followers, the whole Church begins a novena to the Holy Spirit. I’ve printed a novena in the bulletin and I ask you to begin praying it on Friday. To grow in life according to the Spirit is to grow in hope and our capacity to give the reasons for our hope to others.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that when he goes the Father will give us “another Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth, who will be with us forever.” The word Paraclete means an advocate, a helper, a defender, a coach. He says the Holy Spirit will be “another Paraclete,” because Jesus is our first advocate, helper, defender and strong-right arm. Later on during the Last Supper, Jesus tells us that it is better for us that he go, because unless he go, the Holy Spirit will not come (Jn 16:7). He’s telling us that if we had to choose between having Him with us or having the Holy Spirit, that we should chooose the latter! Because many people do not have the same relationship with the Holy Spirit as they do with God the Father and God the Son, they often do not know how the Holy Spirit helps to fill Christians with true hope. But we can briefly sketch some ways:
The Holy Spirit fills us with hope by teaching us how to pray. Prayer puts our hope into action. St. Paul tells us, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (Rom 8:26-27). Prayer helps us to recognize that no situation is hopeless!
The Holy Spirit fills us with hope by making us aware of our dignity as beloved sons and daughters of God. “Because you are children,” St. Paul says, “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God” (Gal 4:6-7). The Holy Spirit convinces us that we are “heirs” of all God has promised us — including the promise of heaven! — which obviously fills us with Christian hope. With St. John we can say, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are! … We are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him for we will see him as he is” (1 John 3:1). Recognition our divine filiation by the help of the Holy Spirit is a great source of hope.
The Holy Spirit makes us hopeful by leading us “into all truth” (Jn 16:13) and teaching us everything (Jn 14:26). Sometimes we can feel so lost and bewildered by events that we begin to despair that there’s any meaning to it all. The Holy Spirit works within us — through his gifts of knowledge and understanding, wisdom and prudence — to allow the truth about God, about ourselves, and about His love for us, to set us free (cf. Jn 8:32). The Holy Spirit does this objectively through the Church, so that we can be even more certain that we’re not deceived and find God’s light when we’re walking in the valley of darkness. This light fills us with hope even on dark days.
The Holy Spirit lifts up our hearts by “remind[ing] us of everything Jesus has taught us” (Jn 14:26). He prevents us from forgetting all that Jesus said and did, and Jesus’ words and actions for our salvation fill us with a deep, imperishable hope, no matter what predicament we’re in.
Finally the Holy Spirit makes us hopeful by allowing us to share in God’s life here in this world. He is active in all the sacraments, making and keeping us a “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 6:19). In Baptism, he comes down upon us, as he did on Jesus in the Jordan (cf. Lk 3:22). In Confirmation, he seals us with his strength for the Christian life. By his power, men are made to be other Christs in the sacrament of Holy Orders and through his dynamism working through those ordained men, our sins are forgiven and the bread and wine become Jesus’ body, blood, soul and divinity. The Holy Spirit’s mission is to overshadow us like he overshadowed Mary, so that we, like her, may be tabernacles of God. When the Lord is with us, and we’re aware of it, we, like Mary, cry out “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!” (Lk 1:46-47). A soul and spirit filled with the Holy Spirit in this way cannot but be hopeful!
So God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — is the principle cause and reason for our hope. His past deeds for us make us confident that he will keep all the promises he made to us. His living presence within us through the diving indwelling of the Sacraments, making us “temples of the living God” (2Cor 6:16), is the deep inner source of our hope and joy.
The root cause of despair
And this reality should make very clear to us what is the cause of the loss of hope in us and others. This, too, is not an academic exercise. Many of you may have already had situations in which people you know — family members, friends, perhaps even strangers — have come to you and mentioned that they were thinking about ending their life. What can lead people to that type of desperation? Knowing how to diagnose the causes is crucial to be able to give them reasons to go on living, precisely the reasons of hope that we contain within us that Jesus wants us to announce to the world.
The principle explanation for despair is separation from God through sin. All the problems in the world and in human hearts — from terrorism and war, to domestic strife, to the bloodshed in Santa Barbara, to the difficulties that plague the Church — are all a direct or indirect result of sin. And the despair that often flows from these problems occurs when we don’t respond to them by turning back to God, but rather allow them to drive us away from the Lord.
Today’s readings address this connection between sin and despair. Before St. Peter tells us to be always ready to give an explanation for the hope within us, he exhorts us: “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts!” And immediately after his summons for us to be witnesses to hope, he says, “Keep your conscience clear!” He knows, from personal and pastoral experience, that unless we’re sanctifying Christ as God in our consciences, unless we’re living moral lives based on his promises, we cannot and will not be people of true hope and therefore will not be able to bring that hope to others. If our hearts and consciences are not “sanctifying Christ as Lord,” then we will be separated from God and suspectible to the despair, sadness and lack of peace that flow from sin that psychologically and spiritually suffocate so many in our day. Holiness and hope go together, as do sin and despair.
Jesus points to the same reality in the Gospel in another way. He points to the connection between love of God and keeping his commandments. The commandments are divine gifts, heavenly road signs to keep us on the path to holiness. “If you love me,” he tells us, “you will keep my commandments.” Later he reiterates, “Whoever accepts my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me.”
Love is ultimately a union with the beloved, a holy communion, which is the source of hope. He tells us that we cannot have that communion with him unless we keep His commandments. There’s a clear reason for this: because Jesus is the Word-made-flesh. We cannot separate Him from the Word he put into flesh. We can’t truly love him and at the same time choose not to love his will expressed in the commandments, because we cannot have a union with him and not have union with him at the same time. We cannot love him and at the same time fail to be faithful to him in comparison to false gods, or in our speech, or on the Lord’s day. We cannot love him and at the same time disrespect or hate or kill him in others, or steal from him, or lie to him in others. We cannot love him and at the same time think that his love is not enough, by coveting what others have, or the ones others love.
This is pretty simple conceptually, but in practice the fact is that so many of us try to separate Jesus from his Word, thinking that we love him as long as we have “positive feelings” about him, “respect” him, and have “affection” for him. But he tells us love is shown in deeds. Just like a husband’s love for his wife is shown not by how many times he whispers “I love you” in her ears, but by his faithful love for her in all his deeds, so our love for Jesus is shown by our loving fidelity in remaining faithful to him in all the areas specified by the commandments.
Out of love for us, Jesus gave us the commandments so that we might be filled with his peace and joy and become people of hope. As he himself said later during the same, lengthy homily of the First Mass, he gave us the commandments “so that [his] joy may be in [us] and [our] joy may be complete” (Jn 15:11). Anyone with a properly formed conscience knows first-hand this connection between the commandments and peace, hope and joy, because we’ve all experienced it from the other side: the sadness, pain and sometimes the despair that flows from sin and the separation from God. After the first sin, Adam and Eve experienced great shame and sadness due to their shattered communion and lack of trust toward God and each other, symbolized by their covering the naked vulnerability from each other and God (cf. Gen 3). Whenever we give in to the devil’s lies, we experience the same shame and sadness. We can take a few examples of how we lose our hope through sin.
When we give in to the lie that we’ll be happier if we “worship God” on our own terms — without “slavishly” going to Mass every Sunday and Holy Day of our Life, without going through the “embarrassing hassle” of confessing to a priest rather than to God himself — we discover after a period of time that our lives are all out of joint, that we’ve become progressively distant from God, and often cannot determine when all of life became so complicated and burdensome. It generally begins by not lovingly keeping the third commandment, which was given to us by God to set us free from all types of slavery (Deut 5:12-15) and help us to recalibrate our existence by grounding our priorities on God and in God on our families.
Second, when we give in to the lie that we’ll be happier if we give free reign to our sexual impulses — through porn, self-stimulation, sex outside of marriage, adulterous affairs and the like — we soon discover, once the momentary pleasure coming from sexual cathexis wears off, that lust is one of the most agonizing types of slavery, changing the entire “intentionality” of our existence from a giver to a taker, from a self-sacrificer to a consumer of other persons (St. John Paul II’s theology of the body). Failure to maintain communion with Jesus Christ by means of the sixth commandment is a recipe for personal, marital and communal destruction. We see this in the life of Elliot Rodger, who even though he wasn’t in a relationship, was absolutely consumed with lust as one sees in his YouTube video. And we see in Santa Barbara what we’ve witnessed up close in so many homes here in our own city: the pain that comes from one’s own or others’ sins against the sixth commandment often brings about a mushroom cloud of betrayal, loneliness and despair.
Lastly, when we buy into the deception to think we’ll really be happier if we tell that “small lie,” we end up discovering to our great dismay we need to tell several others to protect it.
When we cheat on a test, we end up more tortured within by insecurity over whether the teacher will find out and expose us than we would have felt embarrassed by failing it.
When we give in to our anger and let another person “have it,” we generally discover we’re worse off by more seriously damaging that friendship than we would have been had we forgiven or at least temporarily bit our tongue.
The more we sin, the more we make our situations hopeless; the path to hope is the path of union with Christ which is the path of the commandments.
This path of commandments, of “sanctifying Christ as Lord in our hearts” of “keeping our consciences clear” is the way God helps us become people of hope and give explanation in each of our moral actions of the divine reason of our hope — God, his love for us and our love for him. This is a hope based on faith and love that, as St. Peter tells us in the second reading, no amount of suffering or pain can take away. Even and especially when we remain hopeful while suffering out of love for Christ and he remained hopeful when suffering out of love for us, we are able to proclaim a Gospel of hope that can inspire people no matter what their situation.
The daily gift of God’s incarnate hope
In order to help us become men and women, boys and girls of hope, capable of giving reason of our hope to everyone, the Lord Jesus instituted the Mass. It’s here, every day, that God wants to fill us with hope — by giving us his word, but feeding us with his very self, by helping us to experience not only his extreme love but the love and friendship of his family on earth, the Church. God comes to dwell with us and within us so that we are able to bear Him as the true hope of the world.
There’s a beautiful prayer after the Our Father that summarizes what we’ve been talking about today, both the reasons for our hope and how our hope is squandered. The priest turns to God the Father and says, “Deliver us, Lord, we pray, from every evil, graciously grant peace in our days, that by the help of your mercy, we may be always free from sin and safe from all distress as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our savior Jesus Christ.”
The “blessed hope” is the hope of eternal life and love with God, with the communion of saints, with, we pray, all our loved ones, both deceased and alive. But here on earth the Mass is the foretaste of that blessed hope as we receive God within together with each other. May the Hope we here receive in Jesus by the love of the Father and the power of the Holy Spirit, fill us with enduring hope and help us to go, always and everywhere, just as St. Peter did in his own time, and bring that hope, the reasons for it, and the Source of it, to a world that is wounded by despair.
This is the Gospel Jesus at the end of every Mass sends each of us to announce!
The readings for today’s Mass were:
ACTS 8:5-8, 14-17
and proclaimed the Christ to them.
With one accord, the crowds paid attention to what was said by Philip
when they heard it and saw the signs he was doing.
For unclean spirits, crying out in a loud voice,
came out of many possessed people,
and many paralyzed or crippled people were cured.
There was great joy in that city.Now when the apostles in Jerusalem
heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God,
they sent them Peter and John,
who went down and prayed for them,
that they might receive the Holy Spirit,
for it had not yet fallen upon any of them;
they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
Then they laid hands on them
and they received the Holy Spirit.
PS 66:1-3, 4-5, 6-7, 16, 20
Shout joyfully to God, all the earth,
sing praise to the glory of his name;
proclaim his glorious praise.
Say to God, “How tremendous are your deeds!”
R/ Let all the earth cry out to God with joy.
“Let all on earth worship and sing praise to you,
sing praise to your name!”
Come and see the works of God,
his tremendous deeds among the children of Adam.
R/ Let all the earth cry out to God with joy.
He has changed the sea into dry land;
through the river they passed on foot;
therefore let us rejoice in him.
He rules by his might forever.
R/ Let all the earth cry out to God with joy.
Hear now, all you who fear God, while I declare
what he has done for me.
Blessed be God who refused me not
my prayer or his kindness!
R/ Let all the earth cry out to God with joy.
1 PT 3:15-18
Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts.
Always be ready to give an explanation
to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope,
but do it with gentleness and reverence,
keeping your conscience clear,
so that, when you are maligned,
those who defame your good conduct in Christ
may themselves be put to shame.
For it is better to suffer for doing good,
if that be the will of God, than for doing evil.For Christ also suffered for sins once,
the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous,
that he might lead you to God.
Put to death in the flesh,
he was brought to life in the Spirit.
Jesus said to his disciples:
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
And I will ask the Father,
and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always,
the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept,
because it neither sees nor knows him.
But you know him, because he remains with you,
and will be in you.
I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.
In a little while the world will no longer see me,
but you will see me, because I live and you will live.
On that day you will realize that I am in my Father
and you are in me and I in you.
Whoever has my commandments and observes them
is the one who loves me.
And whoever loves me will be loved by my Father,
and I will love him and reveal myself to him.”