Rev. Mr. Roger J. Landry
Domus Sanctae Mariae Guadalupensis, Rome
Tuesday of the Second Week of Easter
April 13, 1999
Acts 4:32-37;5:1-11; Jn 3:7-15
In today’s Gospel, Jesus says that one has to be born again from above by water and the Holy Spirit. In the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we see where and how the Holy Spirit was doing this in the early Christian Community: blowing them toward concrete imitations of Jesus, their exalted-Serpent-imitating Savior.
St. Luke tells us in Acts that the community of believers was of one heart and one mind. And they proved it. Their unity in the faith extended all the way to their divesting themselves of what was proper to them and laying all of it at the feet of the apostles. Remember that the Jews’ identity came from their association with land; hence selling their property and putting all of the proceeds at the apostles’ disposal was tantamount to putting their entire life, all they had and were, at the good of the whole Body of Christ. Where did such extraordinary self-giving generosity come from? From Jesus, who, as St. Paul tells us, though he was in the form of God, emptied himself, took on the form of a slave and became obedient all the way to death on the Cross — out of self-giving love for us. The Body of Christ was simply following the lead of Christ the Head.
St. Luke, inspired by the Holy Spirit, stressed twice in the Acts of the Apostles that such communal generosity, sacrifice and trust in God and His apostles are definitive of the Church. St. Luke and the Holy Spirit weren’t promoting communism, but rather a community of love, a true Christian family that was recognizable by its concrete total, loving self-sacrifice. As Jesus himself promised in John’s Gospel, the characteristic sign of his disciples would indeed be their love for one another. Hence, because love is so characteristic of true Christian discipleship, and because love is so often over- and misused in our culture, it would be good for us to spend a little bit of time meditating today on why this type of love is so important for the Church, in order to help us check our own consciences to see how our lives match up to those of the first disciples. I’d like to do this by focusing briefly on the objective and subjective goods of this loving sacrifice, contrasting them respectively with an episode from the life of St. Martin, whose feast we celebrate today, and with another, from Ananias and Sapphira, the story of whom immediately follows today’s passage in Acts.
First, love is an objective good. That means, love does good for others, for the world. It builds up the world. St. Luke mentions the clear good of the sacrifice of the first disciples: there was no one needy among them. The Christians looked out for each other and were in solidarity. They loved each other enough to sacrifice what they had to help out their brother and sister in Christ, just as the members of a family do. Such a concept was so deeply ingrained in early Christianity that while St. Martin, the last pope to be martyred, was in exile in 656, he was scandalized by how little support he got from the so-called Christians he was pulled away from here in Rome. Listen to his words and how he calls them to examine their consciences at just how far they had fallen from the example of the first Christians. He wrote:
I am surprised at the indifference of all those who, though they once knew me, have now so entirely forgotten me that they do not even seem to know whether I am in the world. I wonder still more at those who belong to the Church of St. Peter for the little concern they show for one of their body. If that church has no money, it has no want of corn, oil or other provisions out of which they might send me a small supply. What fear has seized all these men that it hinders them from fulfilling the commands of God in relieving the distressed?
St. Martin couldn’t understand how Christians could abandon one of their own in need, because it was antithetical to the spirit of Christianity. Objectively Christians are to do corporal works of mercy, seeing, serving and loving Christ in others. The first question is how attuned are we to loving and helping those Martins, those Christs in our midst?
The self-giving sacrificial love God calls us to, however, is not just about helping others in need. It’s also meant, principally, to help us, so that we might be formed by God into an ever closer image of Christ, who gave himself up completely for us out of love. This is the subjective good of love, the good that happens in us who love. When we forget ourselves and our selfishness and completely give over our lives for the help of others out of love for God, we become more Christ-like. Barnabas was a son of encouragement because by selling his farm and donating it to the apostles, he was encouraging all to continue walking in the loving footsteps of our Savior.
Barnabas’ example is contrasted with that of Ananias and Sapphira, the story of whom immediately follows the passage we heard today. You remember their story: they sold their property, but knowingly kept back some of the proceeds, laying only a part of them at the apostles feet. Peter, filled by the Holy Spirit, accused them of lying to the Holy Spirit by holding back some of the proceeds. They were then both struck dead.
This episode in many ways is a jarring one to modern ears. Perhaps that is why the Church has completely eliminated it from all liturgies over the course of the year. But the power of this true story was not lost on the Christians in the early 17th century while they were decorating St. Peter’s Basilica. They placed the huge altar mosaic of Sapphira’s being struck dead by Peter in a very prominent and important place: Immediately opposite the entrance to the Sacristy, next to where the old confessionals used to be. Why there? Because the Church wanted every priest processing out to celebrate Mass to look up and see Sapphira — dead — in order to help him examine his conscience before Mass. The Church was essentially saying, “You, O Priest, have promised publicly that you have left Father, Mother, Brother, Sister, Wife, Home, Career, everything, and have laid down all of your talents at the feet or disposition of the successors of the Apostles, in order to follow the Lord completely. Did you mean it? Were you, are you telling the truth, or are you just faking total self-giving, like Ananias and Sapphira? If you meant it, then renew that commitment in the Mass you’re about to celebrate. For if you’re not giving everything you have in love, as Jesus did, as the Apostles did, and as Ananias and Sapphira didn’t, then your lying selfishness will corrode whatever love you still have and inevitably lead, sooner or later, to your death.”
We, too, my sisters and brother in Christ, have promised to lay everything down, all our talents, at the feet of our superiors who stand in the place of God. And we can ask ourselves the second question inspired by the example of the first Christians: Have we kept anything back that is preventing our growth in imitation of our Savior and our contribution to the creation of a true Christian community of love? This Mass, in which we are about to receive Jesus’ full self-offering out of love of us, is a good time for us to renew the promises we made at our ordination or our profession. The Church calls us to love each other completely, and it is in only in dying to self, in this complete, generous act of loving, as St. Francis says, that we will be brought to the goal of all our strivings: eternal life. O Jesus, hear our prayers and make us of one heart and one mind with You and each other, both here and now on earth and forever and ever in heaven. Amen.