Witnesses of Hope, Sixth Sunday of Easter (A), May 1, 2005

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A
May 1, 2005
Acts 8:5-8, 14-17; 1Pet 3:15-18; Jn 14:15-21

1) Ten years ago this October, our great deceased Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, addressed the United Nations about the challenges facing our world. One of the great threats he articulated was the lack of hope. The 20th century began, he said, with humanity full of self-confidence and certain that it had come of age; throughout it we saw great developments in medicine, science and technology. But we also witnessed a “century of sorrow,” with two world wars, a protracted cold war, and more people massacred for political and religious reasons than in all other centuries combined. A century that began with such optimism for tomorrow was ending with fear. He then described the Christian response to this situation, and how the Catholic Church wishes to serve the world of our time. The Christian is meant to bring hope, hope flowing from the human person’s being created in the image and likeness of God, hope flowing from natural endowment of conscience, freedom and the natural law God has given the person, hope from God’s grace, hope from God’s love for the human race. He concluded his discourse by giving himself a new title that incarnated what he saw as his mission. He didn’t choose any of the titles long given to the successor of St. Peter — Vicar of Christ, Bishop of Rome, Servant of the Servants of God. He said that he had come to the General Assembly of the United Nations not merely as the leader of the Vatican City State, and not merely as the shepherd of the Roman Catholic Church: He came as a “witness to hope.”

2) More than 1900 years before John Paul II went to New York, his predecessor, St. Peter, addressed the Christians of the first century and us today and told us that we are ALL supposed to be WITNESSES TO HOPE. He said, in our second reading, “Be always ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” St. Peter’s statement implies, first, that Catholics are supposed to be persons of hope; secondly, that we need to be ready to give the reasons for our hope to all we encounter — at home, at work, at school, on the streets, in hospitals and nursing homes, in prisons, even, if necessary, in concentration camps and Gulags. This proclamation of a grounded yet soaring hope is one of the reasons why the Gospel we bear is Good News.

3) And as John Paul II pointed out so well, the world is in desperate need of this Gospel of Hope because so many in our world are living in fear, pain, depression and despair.

a. Many are led to fear and despair by things in the world, the threat of terrorism, the lack of peace in countries like Iraq and the Holy Land, the problems flowing from drugs and poverty in our own country.

b. 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 countless other personal situations.

c. Even within the Church, there are other problems that make people forlorn: how many people are not practicing the faith, the Church closings due to the shortage of priestly vocations, the shame of the clergy sex abuse crisis.

d. 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.

4) 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 for the hope that is within us to anyone who asks.” He himself faced so many of those challenges and more. His first words to the Lord 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 the Rock (Mt 16:18 ) and the living stones (1 Pet 2:5) on which he was to build his Church. Jesus gave them the mission to change world history. They easily could have despaired because that mission far exceeded their human abilities, but they didn’t. 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. Today we ourselves need to focus on those reasons for the hope within our Christian hearts, so that we might likewise be able to take this Gospel to every corner.

5) The fundamental reason for our hope has nothing to do with our individual talents, cheery personalities, upbeat ideas, past deeds, friends or 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 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 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 ).

6) We can further specify some of the fundamental ways that our hope comes from God.

a. 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 Gentiles 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.

b. 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, 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).

c. 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. The great antidote to this 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 have it all (cf. Psalm 23:1) and can do it all (Mt 17:20; Lk 1:37; Phil 4:13).

d. The final reason for our hope that I’ll mention today is the Holy Spirit. Beginning this Thursday with the celebration of the Lord’s Ascension into heaven, the whole Church begins a novena to the Holy Spirit. 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 fills Christians with true hope. But we can briefly sketch the ways:

1. 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. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God [the Father]” (Rom 8:26-27).

2. 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, 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).

3. 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.

4. 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 situation we’re in.

5. 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. By his power working through the priest, our sins are forgiven and the bread and wine a priest 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).

7) 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. And this reality should make very clear to us what is the cause of the LOSS of hope in us and others. 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 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.

8 ) 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: “In your hearts, sanctify Christ as Lord!” 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. Holiness and hope go together, as do sin and despair.

9) 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 the same point: “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 fail 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. 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. It’s pretty simple conceptually, but in practice 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 faithfulness to 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.

10) 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, destruction 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.

a. 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 distanced 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.

b. 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 (Pope 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. And the pain that comes from one’s own or others’ sins against the sixth commandment often brings about a deep sense of betrayal, loneliness and despair.

c. 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.

11) This path of commandments, of “sanctifying Christ as Lord in our hearts” of “keeping our consciences clear” is the way we 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.

12) Our new Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, pointed to this reality of hope in the midst of suffering and anxiety as he inaugurated his Petrine ministry last Sunday with his beautiful homily in St. Peter’s Square. He asked aloud how he, being weak, would be able to assume the enormous task of the papacy. The following day he publicly confided to German pilgrims how much he was filled with trepidation when it became clear in the Sistine Chapel that his brother Cardinals were going to elect him St. Peter’s successor. But then he focused on the truth that Jesus was saying to him, as he said to St. Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). He became convinced that “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13) and that “nothing is impossible for God” (Mt 17:20; Lk 1:37). He knew he was surrounded by a “cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1), the saints of every age — including so many saintly popes — who showed them that it was possible to bear these burdens. Listen to how he grounds his hope on the saints and on the Risen Christ, the hope and glory of God’s holy ones:

“And now, at this moment, weak servant of God that I am, I must assume this enormous task, which truly exceeds all human capacity. How can I do this? How will I be able to do it? All of you, my dear friends, have just invoked the entire host of Saints, represented by some of the great names in the history of God’s dealings with mankind. In this way, I too can say with renewed conviction: I am not alone. I do not have to carry alone what in truth I could never carry alone. All the Saints of God are there to protect me, to sustain me and to carry me. … The Church is alive and we are seeing it: we are experiencing the joy that the Risen Lord promised his followers. The Church is alive – she is alive because Christ is alive, because he is truly risen.

13) The Church is alive because Christ is alive. The Church is alive because the saints are alive in Christ. And therefore the Church is full of hope. The saints are the great witnesses of hope and they’re able to help us to be witnesses of hope by following their example, basing their hope on God, and sharing that hope with all those they encounter. Pope John Paul II was a witness to hope, as he enunciated so beautifully ten years ago in New York. His successor, Benedict XVI, is picking up this witness where his predecessor left off. And all of us are called, with God’s help, to be similar witnesses of hope, grounded on a desire for, and trust in, the fulfillment of all of God’s promises. May the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth sent to us by the Father, help us in this vital mission, so that others, seeing our hope, may be brought to God, the source of all our hope. Come, Holy Spirit!