Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Parish, New Bedford, MA
Seventh Sunday of Easter, Year B
May 28, 2006
Acts 1:15-17,20-26; 1John4:11-16; Jn 17:11-19
1) We are now within the novena between the Lord’s Ascension and Pentecost Sunday. On Ascension Thursday we saw that as the Lord was ascending to heaven, he left his disciples with a mission, specifically HIS mission. He himself had come from heaven to earth in order to bring the entire human race into a communion of love, a family. He prays in today’s Gospel that we may be one, as He and the Father are one. While he could have chosen to remain on earth to fulfill this mission of loving communion himself, he loved us so much, and trusted us so much, that he put this mission into our hands. And he told us how we would accomplish this mission of bringing about real unity, genuine communion with God and with each other in his last words: he said “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature… , baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to carry out everything I have commanded you” (Mk 16:15-18; Mt 28:18-20). Notice that there were three things needed to bring about this communion:
a. Proclaiming the Gospel — In order to come into communion, we must first realize that and why we need it, and be invited into it. This communion is based on the truth about God, about us, about the destiny God wishes to give us, and that is what makes this preaching such Good News and so necessary. We cannot possibly have the type of communion that exists in God if we are still in ignorance.
b. Baptizing in the name of the Blessed Trinity — This communion toward which we’re called is something beyond our own abilities. We need God’s help for it to be achieved and he gives us that help through baptism and the sacraments to which baptism leads.
c. Teaching others to carry out everything Christ has commanded us — To remain in communion, we must live the Christian moral life, doing what Christ told us we would need to do to keep our union with him in all our choices. The Christian moral life is summarized in the dual commandment of love of God and love of neighbor. As we discussed last week, , Jesus says “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (Jn 15:10).
2) The Church was founded by Christ at the end of this first novena between his Ascension and Pentecost in order to be the “sacrament of communion,” the external sign of communion with God and with each other that brings about what it signifies. The Church is meant to be a visible witness of communion with God and with each other and is the means God has chosen to achieve that communion. Pope Benedict, in his beautiful first encyclical Deus Caritas Est, released four month ago, shows that the essence of the Church involves the three elements Christ described right before his Ascension. He referred to them by the Greek terms used by St. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles: kerygma/martyria, leitourgia, and diakonia.
a. The Church first must be distinguished by kerygma, which is the Greek word for the proclamation of Christ’s saving work. The is the first step in the building of communion, because no one can come to faith in Christ unless others proclaim the Gospel. St. Paul asks the early Christians in Rome, “How are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?” (Rom 10:14). For others to come into this communion, the Gospel must be preached. We wouldn’t be here today unless the first Christians took up this mission, unless the second generation was faithful to it, unless the third did their part, unless our parents did their part, and unless so many priests, religious and catechists did their part during our lifetime. And others, in our own generation and succeeding generations, will not come to this communion for which Jesus died unless we do our part. This proclamation to which Jesus calls us is not done exclusively with words. This is what the second word Benedict gives us signifies — martyria, which literally means “witness.” The Gospel is proclaimed not just by our lips but by our body language. St. Francis of Assisi, the spiritual father and mentor of our patron St. Anthony, before he would send out his friars two by two to every part of Italy and Europe, would instruct them: “Preach everywhere and always, and if you have to, use words.” He wanted them to preach by their joy that they were filled with the love and the peace of God. He wanted them to preach by their works of love for others how much the recipients of that love are loved by God. In our own day, Mother Teresa’s message would have been just as strong even if she had had laryngitis her entire life long, because she was a Missionary of Charity, and gave a tangible witness to the Gospel by teaching others how lovable they are in God’s eyes — by seeing that love in her eyes. But this word martyria also refers to martyrdom, when we proclaim by the witness of our choices that Jesus is someone worth living for and worth dying for, the pearl of precious price (Mt 13:46) worth giving up everything else we have, including earthly life itself, in order to obtain.
b. The second thing which the Church must do to symbolize and effectuate communion with God and each other is leitourgia, the worship of God through the sacraments. We get our word “liturgy” from this Greek root. Lturgy refers to all the public prayer of the Church, but particularly the most important public prayer, the celebration of the sacraments. The liturgical actions of the sacraments bring us into communion with God, restore us to that communion, or deepen it. Baptism, for example, wipes away sin and brings us, as God’s beloved sons and daughters, into his family. Holy Communion brings us into communion with God, through the reception of Jesus’ body and blood, and into communion with each other as members of that same body. To have true communion with Christ we need to have communion with each other.
c. The third and final essential aspect of the Church’s nature is diakonia, the Greek word for loving service. We get our word “diaconate” from this service, because deacons are supposed to carry out the love of Christ in service to the needy. If we recognize the communion that God wills to exist, we realize that everyone is called to be our brother or sister and we’re called to love them as we would a brother or a sister in need.
3) Pope Benedict says that for the Church to be true to her mission, she must be marked at every level of the Church — parish, diocese and the Church as a whole — by all three of these activities Christ gave us as he ascended to heaven. Here at St. Anthony’s, Christ calls us to excel in each of them.
4) The readings given to us today help us to focus on all three of these aspects. Christ says at the beginning of today’s Gospel in prayer to his Father, “Just as you have sent me into the world, so I send them.” The Father sent Jesus into the world to found a family in loving communion, and before he ever commissioned them to do it in the three ways he described, he modeled for them what needed to be done. As I’ve repeated many times, Jesus never once stated merely “Do what I say,” but always said “Follow me!”
a. Jesus himself sought to bring about communion by preaching the truth. It’s hard to read the Gospel without seeing Jesus’ great compassion on the crowds shown first and above all by his teaching them about the truths that are in the final analysis the most important of all. In his interrogation by Pontius Pilate on Good Friday, he summarized his whole life saying, “I came to give witness to the truth” (Jn 18:37). In his three years of preaching and teaching, he showed the criteria about how to be his “mother, brother or sister” by “doing the will of my Father in heaven” (Mt 12:47).
b. Jesus likewise came to establish the sacraments as the means by which that communion would be symbolized and effectuated. He sent the twelve out to baptize. On Easter Sunday evening, he said to the apostles, “Just as the Father sent me, so I send you breathed on them, gave them the Holy Spirit, and empowered them with the ability to forgive and retain sins in God’s name (Jn 20:21-23). He ordained them priests on Holy Thursday and sent them out to continue the celebration of the Mass, telling them to “do this in memory of me.”
c. Finally Jesus came not just to teach us about how we should behave but to lead us by example, telling us that our charity is supposed to be modeled on his own: “love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 15:12). He symbolically did the work of a slave on Holy Thursday and washed his disciples’ feet, telling them, “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (Jn 13:15).
5) The Lord who gave us this great commission to carry on his saving work in these three areas also taught us by word and example that this mission of bringing the world into communion with God and with each other would not be easy. He told us there would be opposition. He died for it after all. He told us that we would suffer for it as well. In today’s Gospel, he prayed to his Father that he might “protect us … from the evil one” — so that we may be one as He and the Father are one. The evil one, of course, is the devil. The word for the devil in Greek is diabolos, and it means literally the one who “throws us off course.” If God’s plan is to unite us in an eternal communion with him and with each other, then the devil’s goal is to thwart that communion. And if God’s means to bring about that vertical and horizontal communion is through preaching, the sacraments, and works of charity, then the devil is going to try to steer us off course in all three of those ways.
a. If Jesus prayed in today’s Gospel that we be “sanctified in the truth,” which is the word of God, the devil, whom Jesus called “a liar and the father of lies” (Jn 8:44), is going to try to get us not to take the word of God seriously. He tries to do this in a lot of ways. For many people, he has been successful in getting them to ignore the word of God altogether. They never read the Bible, they never come to Mass, they never watch the many programs on television, etc. For others, he tries to convince them that they should show no initiative with becoming one with the word of truth that will sanctify us. They may hear the word of God at Mass, but they’ll never really water the seeds of the word, or pick up the Bible on their own and allow God to make them holy through it. With others, he tries to poison the seeds of the word with weeds, with lies, as he is presently doing with the lies of The Da Vinci Code. One way or the other, he tries to take our attention off the word of God which is the means by which God has given us to “sanctify us in the truth.”
b. The second means the devil employs to steer us off path is through trying to separate us from the sacraments. He tries to get us to think that baptism isn’t really necessary for salvation; it’s just a beautiful ceremony to celebrate the birth of a baby. He gets us to think Sunday Mass is optional and that we’ve got so many more pressing things to do. He tries to separate us from Christ in the sacrament of reconciliation, so that we may never receive the forgiveness without which we cannot be saved. He tries to separate couples who have been joined by God in the sacrament of marriage, driving wedges between them.
The division in the family is one we can stop and concentrate on for a second. At one part of St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus described the battle between God and the devil in the family. 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). Sometimes people can look at this passage and think that Jesus is the one who divides, but he’s not; he’s the one who unites. The one who divides is the devil. We see this for example when a wife starts to put God first and come to daily Mass, or join the Legion of Mary, or start to teach CCD. The husband can start to get jealous and the marriage can go through a difficult stretch. It’s not because of the woman’s faith that this happens, but because of the man’s sinful jealousy that his wife loves Jesus more than she loves him. We can also see this familial division when, for example, a daughter tells the parents that she is thinking about becoming a nun, or when a son says that he thinks God’s calling him to be a priest. The parents, especially those who may have only one child, can fight the child’s vocation, saying to themselves, “My family name will die” or “I’ll have no grandchildren.” They’ll start to try to talk him or her out of it or forbid them to follow the Lord’s voice. This is the work of the devil. He always tries to divide sow division from Christ and from those to whom Christ has sacramentally united us, and he has been particularly successful at this in our country with its skyrocketing divorce rate. We need to see this for what it is and prevent the devil from continuing to do it.
c. Third, the devil tries to steer us off course with respect to works of charity. Real charity is shown in forgiveness and in sacrificing ourselves for others, especially for those for whom we would not normally make sacrifices — like our enemies, or strangers, or those whom we find on a human level unlovable. The evil one can try to lie to us to convince us that “justice” says not to forgive, or that we shouldn’t help them so that they can learn to help themselves, etc. He can convince us that we are loving and good people, because we love those who love us, those who are good, those who are faithful, etc. But God calls us to love EVERYONE, including those we do not like. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (Mt 5:43-46). So we, too, must make our sun rise on the evil and the good, on those whom we think deserve our love and those who we think do not, on those who have forgiven us and on those who have not yet forgiven us. The only way to real communion is merciful love, and God wants us to be loving and merciful. The devil wants us to maintain grudges.
6) All three of these aspects are essential, but if there’s one that’s particularly necessary today, it’s the first. Jesus prayed to his Father in the Gospel than we might be “sanctified in the truth,” the truth of his word. He said that he made himself holy so that we might be likewise made holy through that word. Many times we can think that the task of studying and proclaiming the Gospel belongs just to priests and deacons, but that’s just another harmful lie that the evil one has gotten many to bite on. By our baptism and particularly by our confirmation, we were consecrated by God and to God for this verbal witness. In the first reading today, we see what happened in the early Church. After Judas’ betrayal, the early Church convened to see who would take his place. They prayed to God saying, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen.” The lot fell to Matthias, and he began with them to preach the Gospel until he was eventually martyred for the faith. Likewise, today, after so many Christians have been unfaithful to God — lay people, religious, priests, even some bishops — we turn to God, who knows every heart, and pray, “Show us whom you have chosen,” and he responds by choosing US. You and me. He’s done this in the sacraments. The Second Vatican Council said that all of us through baptism share in Christ’s three-fold mission as prophet, priest and shepherd, to proclaim the word of God, to participate in the sacraments and to lay down our lives for others out of love. The Lord has chosen us to give this witness. If we love God and love others, we will proclaim the Gospel, because if we really believe in the Lord, we know that he is the answer to every question and problem we and others have. St. John says in the second reading that God’s love “abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God.” If we know God and love God, how could we not talk about him?
7) In addition to opposition from the evil one, there’s also the open antagonism of those who consciously or unconsciously cooperate with the evil one. Jesus told us in today’s Gospel that the world has hated us just like it hated him, because although we’re in the world, we’re not of the world. Those who are worldly will hate us because our very presence calls them to a conversion they’re not willing to make. Those who have made sex a god will hate us because we proclaim that sex is so sacred that it is meant to be expressed only as the bodily expression of the one flesh union of man and woman brought about by God in the sacrament of marriage. Those who have made money a god will hate us because we proclaim that the worship of God is more important than a Sunday job, and that the poor in spirit, those who are not owned by money, will inherit God’s kingdom. Those who have made power a god will hate us, because we obey God above them and that makes us a threat. Jesus promised us in the Gospel, “You will be hated by all because of my name” (Mt 10:22; 24:9), but he likewise told us, “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets” (Lk 6:22-23). If we proclaim the Gospel like the prophets, like Jesus, then we will suffer, but that is the only means by which we will inherit their reward.
8 ) To help us overcome the devil and all those who will try to shame us for our fidelity to Christ, Christ promised a great gift. As he was ascending to heaven, he told the disciples to return to the Upper Room and pray for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Not only would the Holy Spirit work in all the sacraments to bring us into encounter with God, not only would he fill our hearts with love and help us to serve others with genuine Christian charity, but he would help us to proclaim the Gospel as we should. Jesus said that the Holy Spirit would lead us into all truth (Jn 16:13) so that we might sanctified by the truth. He would teach us everything and remind us of everything Christ has said to us (Jn 14:26), so that we could put it into practice and pass it on to others. Against all opposition, Jesus said, “Do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit” (Mk 13:11).
9) The Holy Spirit has been given to the Church to help us to accomplish the very mission for loving unity that Jesus entrusted to us. As we get ready to celebrate next week the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the first generation of disciples, we ask Him to come and fill the hearts of us, his faithful, and enkindle in us the fire of his love, so that we may always remain in that love of God and love of others which is the whole mission of the Church. We have no greater teacher of what this means than she who is the model of the Church, Mary. She meditated on the word of God so much that the word actually took on her flesh. She was so docile to the Holy Spirit that the Holy Spirit overshadowed her not just at Jesus’ conception but throughout Mary’s whole life. And after Jesus’ ascension, so that they might be made ready to be sanctified by God’s word and strengthened for the mission of love he gave them, the apostles huddled around Mary to learn from her these lessons. Today, as this month dedicated to Mary draws to a close, we do the same. The same Holy Spirit that overshadowed her is about to overshadow this altar and all of us. The same Word that took her flesh is about to enter us. It is through our holy communion with Christ, made possible by the action of the Holy Spirit in the Mass, that we become united with others. Hence it is fitting that it was in the celebration of the first Mass that Jesus prayed the words of today’s Gospel that we, all his disciples, may be one, just as the persons of the Blessed Trinity are one. Through this communion, may the Lord bring about that union, and help us to be his instruments to bring everyone else into it as well.