Fifth Sunday of Easter
Scripture Readings: Acts 6:1-7; 1 Peter 2:4-9; John 14:1-12
Many years ago, in the 1950’s, a little girl heard that Jesus lives in the hearts of those who love him. One day she climbed into her mother’s lap and pressed her ear tightly against her side. Her mother asked, “Honey, what are you doing?” She made a sign to be quiet and said, “I’m listening for Jesus inside you.” Enjoying the feeling of closeness her mother waited awhile, and then asked, “Did you hear Jesus within me?” Her little daughter replied, “Yes, I did. It sounds to me like he’s making coffee.”
Why not? In the book of Revelation Jesus says: “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him and he with me.” (Rev. 2:20). But what are we to think when our friendship with Jesus involves suffering and tragedy?
A few years after that little child heard Jesus making coffee, two teenage girls were crossing a busy street in Milwaukee. An intoxicated driver didn’t see them until it was too late. The girls were killed. Their parents nearly went out of their minds with grief. In the face of such tragedy must they say like holy Job, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord”?
After the Last Supper when Jesus faced the horror of his approaching crucifixion he prayed with great abandonment, “Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” A common response to suffering throughout centuries of Christianity has been to accept it as God’s will for us. But is this all that Jesus teaches us about the Father’s love for us in the face of tragedy?
At the Last Supper Jesus said, “Philip, he who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn. 14:9). And, “He who sees me, sees him who sent me”(Jn. 12:45). “I and the Father are one” (Jn. 10:30). “If you knew me, you would know my Father also” (Jn. 8:19). In other words, every action and word of Jesus reveals the Father to us.
For example, when we see Jesus praying, “Let this chalice pass from me, yet not as I will but as you will,” he is showing us the Father saying, “If it be possible let this chalice pass from you, yet not as I will but as you will.” When Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he is revealing the Father crying out, “My Son, my Son, why have you left me?” Or, to use the prophetic words of King David mourning the death of his son, Absalom, we may hear the Father saying, “O my son, Jesus, my son. My son, Jesus. Would I had died instead of you. O Jesus, my son, my son.” There is no difference between Jesus and his Father. To see one is to see the other. Both Jesus and the Father are grieved by suffering and death which entered the world through sin. Jesus and his Father are not engaged in a struggle with each other. Rather, together, they are struggling against evil and all its consequences. They have one Spirit. When the parents of those two girls who were stuck down by a car wept in agony over the death of their daughters, Jesus and the Father grieved with them. The girls died as a consequence of evil, not as a consequence of God wanting them to suffer and die.
Fr. Karl Rahner writes, “Wherever we find the idea of a … God who has to be conciliated by great effort on the part of Jesus, we have an unchristian, but popular notion of redemption that is incorrect.” 1 Jesus reveals that the Father does not cause our grief. He shares our grief. The Dominican theologian, Fr. Edward Schillebeeckx, explains it this way: “By creating human beings with their own … free will, God voluntarily renounces power. That makes him to a high degree dependent on human beings and thus vulnerable.” 2 Abandonment to divine providence means falling into the arms of a loving God who weeps with us. God’s love promises to bring good out of our suffering and death, because in everything God works for good (Rom 8:28). God’s love is like having a cup of coffee with our best friend who shares in all our joys and sorrows, because to see Jesus is to see the Father.
- The Christian Understanding of Redemption. Theological Investigations vol. 21.
- For the Sake of the Kingdom, p. 93.
Fifth Sunday of Easter
Scripture Readings: Acts 6: 1-7; l Peter 2:4-9; John 14:1-12
Way back in 1969, a man named Laurence Peter wrote a book whose main thesis has stood the test of time. He modestly called it the “Peter Principle.” It asserts that people are promoted to their level of incompetence. They are doing fine work at some lower level of the hierarchy (e.g., really good at organizing things in the mail room) and are moved up to higher levels of responsibility. But eventually they come to a level which is out of their league and where they are in over their heads. The skills and abilities they had honed previously aren’t adequate for this level. The job description didn’t include methods for coping with surprises or the unpredictables of sudden change. New jobs or situations are occasions of self-discovery and awareness. We can find ourselves doing something for which we hadn’t realized we had the potential. Conversely, we can find we don’t have some capabilities that we had imagined we would be able to produce when the time came. We come up against our incompetence.
At this point, the safe option is to withdraw back into familiar territory. We stick with reassuring routines and clear definitions of what can be expected of us. ”That’s not what I signed up for.” Our approach to life and even our faith can assume the characteristics of a job, a task which is somehow distinct from who we are. In the book we are currently reading in the refectory (When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi), the author describes fellow medical students who were deciding their specialization on the basis of work environment, hours, benefits, pay, and lifestyle opportunities. That, he says, is how you find a job, not how you discover a calling. Life itself becomes a job if our focus is on performance, security, recompense, individual freedom, or even a celestial pension of inclusion behind the pearly gates. Then we feel entitled to be impatient or angry with anyone who upsets that fine balance our competency seeks to maintain.
When we understand our life as a calling, as a vocation, it enters into a new dimension where it is attentive to needs and imperatives that can take it beyond its familiar dwelling places, beyond our feeling of being competent. I am going to prepare a place for you. I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be. We are addressed as unique persons who are offered a place, a role, and a responsibility in that great web of relationships—the work of the Father’s house or kingdom. You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own so that you may announce the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his own wonderful light. This is uncharted territory with no guiding formulas. We are drawn into the mystery of the Father’s presence in his Son as it unfolds in time and space.
This is Mother’s Day, and the model of the relation of a mother and child is an apt way to understand the transcendence of a call within the bounds of a task or job. The biological and physical needs must be met. They are necessary but insufficient without the unconditional love and trust that forms the relationship. Mere competence cannot circumscribe what is meant by a mother’s love, by the mutual trust which enables both mother and child to be themselves. The relationship must continually be re-imaged and re-imagined.
The Gospel constantly draws us beyond the definitions and places that no longer allow us to respond to its demands and needs. The early church already experienced the need to redefine its job descriptions, as we heard in the first reading. The Twelve found their own competency challenged by the complaints of neglect toward the Hellenist widows. Neglect, lack of attention, lack of devotion can numb our hearts and stop our ears from hearing the cries of those in need. Our concern with keeping our sense of competence intact can blind us to challenges which are seen as threats. In his address at the Coliseum on Good Friday, Pope Francis spoke a litany of shame (and of neglect): shame for our reticence and apathy in the face of evil, shame for having forgotten our first love, our initial enthusiasm and total availability, letting our hearts and consecration rust. The Church grew and the Word spread when changes and adjustments were made. The structures responded to the perception of new needs. They did not become stumbling blocks, but proved to be living stones. We are, in fact, being called and promoted to incompetence. We are not competent or complete in ourselves. Our very incompetence opens us up in trust to Christ who invites our trust, not our competence or perfection. We are allowed to be imperfect, to know ourselves as incomplete and as sinners, and yet caught up in the working out of a great mystery. We are not asked if we know a lot about Christ. But we do hear the question, Have I been with you so long and you still do not know me? Our trust comes alive in those times where we are walking in uncharted and unmapped territory, where we come up against our incompetence, but where we know the inner confidence that comes from knowing Christ. We don’t know where you (or we) are going, so how can we know the way? When we trust, we are in and on the Way which is itself the goal of our search.
Fifth Sunday of Easter
[Scripture Readings: Acts 8:5-8, 14-17; 1 Pt 3:15-18; Jn 14:15-21]
Newspapers regularly feature stories of government officials wringing their hands over lack of funds in the budget to repair crumbling infrastructures. The roads are crumbling, bridges are collapsing, power outages are immobilizing people. We usually take the services of these infrastructures for granted. We turn on a switch or twist a faucet and expect light and water. It is when they fail us, when they stop working that we notice them that they suddenly break into our awareness. The doors of our perception are now open to them. We become aware of how dependent we had become on their hidden and humble functioning. Their withdrawal opens a door to the fragility and precariousness of the structures of life, the habits of life, we had been building upon them.
Unfortunately, it often takes some kind of a shock to awaken us to the consciousness that much of life is not in our control. Rather than admit this, we can just “move on”, find other answers to our wants and needs, deny that what has been taken from us was really ever important to us. We have other options. We have imbibed from our culture what Pope Francis has called the “technocratic paradigm.” This says that life is about possession, mastery, and transformation of the world around us to meet our desires. Fragility, vulnerability, precariousness are problems which need to be solved. We can find other structures to promote our happiness. The door to deeper awareness has been closed.
The door remains open if we begin to admit that these shocks of withdrawal, these collapses of our supposed infrastructures, are intimations of mystery in which we dwell. They can tell us much about ourselves and how our desires shape the way we live. Rather than a paradigm of possession, mastery, and external transformation, the paradigm of the kingdom is one of gift, one of submission and acceptance, one of self-transformation through suffering. “It is necessary for us to suffer many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God.” Loss and suffering can reveal the roots of our desire that surprise us at their depth and breadth.
When Jesus says “I will be with you only a little while longer”, perhaps he is talking about more than just a chronological ending that is in sight. Certainly, he knew what was in store for him. But maybe he is also speaking of that withdrawal that is woven into deep relationships, that withdrawal that knows it cannot possess the other, that withdrawal that leaves the other person free. This is a withdrawal that opens the door to the deep mystery of our relationship with him. There is an element of the eternally new in his saying this. He speaks to us now, as we are, and invites us to share that life which comes only as gift. This is the infrastructure that underlies all infrastructures. It is an infrastructure that subverts all structures based on fear and domination. “Love one another.” We throw up a barrage of excuses, rationalizations, and reinterpretations of this simple new command. Its simplicity and universality overwhelm us. “I give you a command.” The word of God does not offer us options and alternatives. It is an imperative rising from the will of God. “Let it be.” It cuts through our preferences for attractiveness, charm, appeal. It does not even allow us to feel gallant and magnanimous. The superstructures and infrastructures we have assembled all crumble as short-termed and short-sighted.
“As I have loved you.” Our ability to heed this new commandment does not flow from a power that we can summon up. It flows from our experience of having been loved. Not just our consent to often repeated formulas that “God loves you.” Not just our being included in a class action liberation (which hasn't resulted in a sense of really being free anyway). It takes some humility to let that loving gaze of Christ fall into the depths of our being. In fact, it is pride that does not want to be loved “too much”, that wants to retain a stake of independence and close off some private territory. It is pride that needs to ask, “Why do you love me?” and will not yield to being made new by this love in the depths and breadths of our desire. “I make all things new.” Christ loved by not setting up any barriers between himself and others. He loved by not being afraid to be at the disposal of others. This gave him the freedom, warmth, affection and spontaneity to be totally present in love. He was free enough to delight in his being loved, to delight in those whom he loved, to uncover the delight and joy there is in real love. To love one another as I have loved you is to let loose this divine love in all our relationships, in all that we do. Our heart comes alive in being loved and in finding delight in all the ways we can love.
Fifth Sunday of Easter
[Scripture Readings: Acts 9:26-31, 1 Jn 3:18-24; Jn 15:1-8]
Today's readings are about conversion. The Vine and Branches discourse presumes the listeners are converted to faith in Christ. Now they must sustain that faith after He is visibly gone from them. Why would they need to be told this?
The first reading from Acts relates the suspicion on the part of the apostle's and first disciples of Saul's conversion. It was not like theirs. Barnabas, from outside the inner circle of the apostles, had heard him “speak out boldly in the name of Jesus.” He could identify with Saul's experience and becomes his advocate. So one reason why they need to be told this is to guard against inner division caused by confusion between politics and principles. “Us-Them” thinking separates.
The First Letter of John addresses the role of conscience. It says “If our hearts do not condemn us we have confidence before God.” Here “heart” means conscience. And (John writes) our hearts have confidence if we believe in Christ and love one another in our Christian community. Notice the plural pronouns. It all comes down to community. A community and the story it lives shapes character. The faith of a community is centered on a person: Jesus Christ. That is a principle, the vine that should nourish and unite them.
In John's gospel for today he tells us what to do when Jesus has brought us into His community: REMAIN. His vine and branches discourse today is given to His closest disciples which means He is talking to them about the conversion they have already undergone. “You are already pruned because of the word I spoke to you.” That includes the word Jesus spoke to Saul on the road to Damascus. Their past, including the apostle's desertion in Gethsemane, is converted, too. There is no going back to the status quo; their former existence is no longer possible. Conscience would not allow it. They have simply to REMAIN.
The Greek word meno, is prominent in John's Letter and in this gospel. It means “to remain, stay, abide, dwell; to last, endure, or continue.” It is also translated as “to await” or “wait for.” By doing this, a disciple is sustained. This is the root of our monastic stability.
Jesus is telling them to remain because conversion is on-going. “Without me you can do nothing.” It is those who have responded to the call of Christ who are in a precarious situation should they decide to give in to pride and “go it alone.” Connection to community is crucial. It gives the security that makes humility possible. It sustains during certain adversity. Community's story and its fellowship develop conscience.
The on-going conversion is expanded when one shares with the community an ultimate end: the kingdom of God. With this in view, a disciplined way of life is lived toward it. All is ordered to sharing in the mission of Christ. It is Christ who nurtures through community.
This is how one remains on the vine. One lives in community in “deed and truth.” When Christ remains in us, the story is on-going “because of the Spirit He gave us.” Principle prevails; one bears fruit.
When one is separated from the vine the withering is a slow process that one is not usually aware of. Gradually the disciple begins to assert a right to spend his life as he chooses. There is a big community out there with its own story about that! One decides to “do it my way.” Imperceptibly one squanders the gift of being that Christ represents. That gift requires only our gratitude for it and our willingness to imitate His self-gift which is our deepest vocation. But this cannot be done apart from the vine of Christian community and story. This is the vine tended by the God of Love. The mark of a faithful community is not similarity of its members, but how it loves.
Fifth Sunday of Easter
[Scripture Readings: Acts 6:1-7; 1 Peter 2:4-9; Jn 14:1-12 ]
I think I was in my thirties, living in Omaha, enjoying a very rewarding career when I first began to discover the difference between a lifestyle and a way of life. Things like summer softball with the Wazoo Pugnuts, Fall volleyball with the Slam-dunked Egos, and a winter bowling league along with travels made for a lifestyle. It was a life with a lot of different sources of fun, pleasure, and camaraderie. All one had to do was follow the next whim. There was no end or goal in sight so there was nothing to take too seriously. Things got their value from how they made us feel right now.
It was about in my mid-forties that I discovered what a way of life was. The main difference was that a way of life has an end to which one orders his life. Everything gets its importance from its contribution to the end one is consciously living toward.
But there is another difference related to this end, a difference Jesus is emphatic about. It is the difference between the broad way and the narrow way. The word way in John literally means “path”. We have a lot of paths in our forest and they are made by someone, many someone's, walking that way before us over and over. They've worn it down. It is clear … but narrow.
A path is narrowed by boundaries on the left and the right so one can tell he or she has gone off the way and is no longer following those headed toward the end.
So the path gets part of its significance from who made it. Jesus is emphatic that He did not just make a path; He is the path. He trod the path. The problem, then, with straying off the path is that we are not following Him; we're following someone else. We have to make a firm decision about who we will follow. So Jesus tells us “You have faith in God; have faith also in Me.”
He has beaten out a path and every man and woman who has followed after Him has kept it worn down. That is what the crosses in our cemetery represent. That is what our seniors represent. That is what couples married for decades represent.
A path gets its greatest significance from this: it points beyond itself to its end. The end is what those trodding the path are living for. The end this path called the Christ leads to is the Father. “No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, then you will also know my Father” The Father is what we are living for, so when we know Jesus as the path we know the life. In following Him to the Father He promises that we will have life and have it more abundantly.
These words of Jesus are words of encouragement. Jesus is not saying, “You can do it!”. He is saying, “This won't be easy, but we will have each other.” He is saying that the end is worth it
And as the way He Himself is authentic. He is the truth. It is when we live by the way and the life that the truth becomes real in us. If we don't live toward this truth, then, as we implied at the beginning, we surrender to whatever is strongest or currently in fashion. But truth's power is not imposed on us; we give it power by recognizing it, acknowledging it, and consenting to it. In short, we surrender to it. That is why Jesus tells us to “believe in me or else in the works that I do.” In other words, Jesus is giving a new understanding of life: that it is destined to be lived for the good of others. That is life's purpose because when the Father gave us Jesus, He gave us everything He has to give.
Fifth Sunday of Easter
[Scripture Readings: Acts 14: 21-27; Rev 21:1-5a; Jn 13: 31-35.]
We occasionally read a news story about a parent who has left or abandoned her baby. It is so horrible because it seems to be a violation of nature; it is so inhuman. A helpless child should have the right to be given support and nurture by the one expected to provide it. Literature and life are full of stories of the withdrawal of support and even betrayal by those who were trusted. The story of King David who had Uziah put into the forefront of battle and then ordered that all supporting troops be withdrawn is a strong and dark image of abandonment and betrayal.
I think most of us are walking around with our own stories and history of the experience of abandonment. This usually starts with that first experience of our parents gradually withdrawing the immediate satisfaction of our every need and desire. Hindsight says it was necessary, but the experience of the helpless and bewildered child revolts at this unjust and unreasonable loss. It doesn't take long in life to begin to accumulate a list of experiences in which we felt left, abandoned and betrayed by others. So we learned to cope, to mature, to take care of ourselves; to be wary, cautious, circumspect. We adopted the motto of many countries: “Negotiate from Strength.” That this meant most of life would be lived in impersonal exchanges, that we might be isolated and unconnected was the price you had to pay to avoid disappointment. We learned the skills of finding satisfaction in available commodities, which could be replaced by newer, more attractive, more satisfying ones. Other people were important because of their ability to satisfy or attract us. This became all that we could look for in relationships. We would not succumb to that still living sense of being bewildered and helpless and abandoned.
All this effort at self-protection can lead to a near-total repression of another need: to be known, to be affirmed, to be recognized, to be loved for who we are. And maybe even a need to know, affirm, recognize, love another. Am I glad for the existence of an other? Is someone glad for my existence? Love and affirmation “see to the heart” and do not satisfy themselves with qualities or utility. They do not “reduce” a person to observable characteristics or fit someone into leveling categories. As Martin Buber says, in real personal relations we “imagine the real.” We creatively penetrate to the dynamic center of a person(however hidden), the place of uniqueness and wholeness and common humanity. He says this only happens when we “stir part of our own being into the being of another.” This is not a detached, calculating, protective presence. Are we able to meet another without protection? Are we able to learn this kind of behavior and response?
This is the form of love which Christ has placed at the center of his Church, of his community of disciples. The love which can meet another without protection. This is the way he loved. This is the way he loves us now. This is the love he is calling us to learn: “Love one another as I have loved you.” In loving one another, you will know how I am loving you. This is why this is a new commandment: it is received as a gift in the love we receive from Christ. The Giver is not separated from the Gift. The Giver is glorified in the Gift. The Gift is a possibility and now a commandment flowing from our being “an interactive fellowship centered on the living person of Christ” (Rowan Williams). In the person of Christ, God's own passion and love have merged themselves with the passion and love of humankind. “Behold, God's dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God Himself will always be with them, as a bride adorned for her husband.”
Christ's enduring manifestation of this love is made in the context of abandonment and betrayal. It does not protect itself. The Gospel scene of today is suffused with the sense of risk and abandonment: the disciples are uncomprehending and one of them has just departed to set in motion the process of his death. Ultimately, he will utter the cry “My God, why have you abandoned me?” He manifests his love not in power or superiority, but in the intimacy of honesty and truth, of openness and vulnerability, of personal confession of what is most personal and unique. The gift of love is offered, but it is not imposed. The gift is incomplete if it is not seen, not accepted. Since it is offered in honesty and vulnerability and confession, it can only be accepted and received in the same way. Are we able to meet this love without protection? The effect of accepting this love is then to love in the same way. Love each other as I love you. Can we learn to love this way unless we learn to be unprotected, honest, vulnerable and responding from the heart of our own being? How can Christ's love work our salvation unless we let it work in our hearts, teach them, and transform them?
As Henri Nouwen has written, “We have good reason to be afraid. Love means openness, vulnerability, and confession. It is very risky to be honest, because someone just might not respond with love, but take us by our weak spot and turn it against ourselves. Our confession might destroy us. Revealing our past failures and present ambivalence can make us losers. We can be thrown away in a gesture of contempt. This is not only a possibility but a cruel fact in the lives of many who feel that love and forgiveness is a utopian fantasy.” There is a great drama, yet unfinished. Do we leave Christ's offer unmet, unaccepted, abandoned by our preference for protected lives? Do we betray our own truth, abandon our real life for the comfort of honing our skills of evasion and distance.
Fifth Sunday of Easter
[Scripture Readings: Acts 14:21-27; Rev 21:1-5a; Jn 13:31-35]
In one episode of the comic strip Peanuts, Snoopy walks up to Charlie and Sally Brown and gives each of them a great big hug. When he rests his head on their shoulders a little heart floats up into the air around them. In the last scene Snoopy walks off smiling from ear to ear and Charlie Brown says to his sister, Sally, “You can always tell when Snoopy has been listening to tapes by Leo Buscaglia.”
Jesus says you can always tell who has been listening to him by the love his disciples have for one another,. What kind of love? Mother Teresa describes it this way, “Spread love everywhere you go: first of all in your own house. Give love to your children, to your wife or husband, to your next door neighbor … Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of God’s kindness: kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile, kindness in your warm greeting.”
In a culture where love is often synonymous with sexual freedom we need to relearn how to love from the great school of love, the heart of Christ. Jesus tells us, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another,”. What is this love that Mother Teresa learned from the heart of Jesus?
In his book, The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis teaches that there are four Greek words for love in the bible. The first is eros, a physical, passionate, erotic love. The second is philia, the affectionate love of friends for each other. The third is sterge, the familial love of parents and children, of sisters and brothers. And the fourth is agape, the strongest kind of love. Jesus describes it as laying down one’s life for another, even for one’s enemies. St. Paul writes that while we were still sinners, enemies of God, Christ died for us. The first three forms of love are spontaneous, pleasing, enjoyable. But the fourth, agape, is a form of love we have to receive from Jesus. It is difficult, it is self-sacrificing. But it is this love that makes the others all together charming and beautiful, transforming them from selfishness to selflessness.
C. S. Lewis describes the danger of selfless love. He writes, “To love is to be vulnerable. Love and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket of your selfishness. But in that coffin-so safe, dark, motionless, airless-it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable … The only place outside heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers…of love is hell” .
A lonely person once wrote, “I live in a shell, that is inside a wall, that is within a fort, that is inside a tunnel, that is under the sea where I am safe from you. But if you really love and care for me, please break through and find me.” Agape is a saving love, it breaks through the barriers and defenses of ones own selfishness and that of others.
We cannot learn or practice this love by our own efforts, or by listening to the tapes of Leo Buscaglia. To love as Jesus loves is the gift of the Holy Spirit given to us in Baptism and nourished by the Eucharist. We receive this love by tasting and drinking from the heart of Jesus.
Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece of the Last Supper captures the terrible moment when Jesus announces his impending betrayal. The disciples look at one another with great shock, all, that is, except Judas, who refuses to look Jesus in the face and clutches the money bag to his heart. There is a legend that Leonardo da Vinci asked a handsome young man to be his model for John, the beloved disciple. Then the painting remained unfinished for years while he searched for someone to be his model for Judas. At last he found someone whose features were torn and twisted by a life of dissipation. When Leonardo completed the painting the man asked, “Don’t you remember me? Many years ago I was your model for John.” There is something of the John and the Judas in all of us. The Roman poet, Catullus, experienced the conflicting movements of John and Judas in his heart when he wrote, “I hate and I love: why I do so you may well ask. I do not know, but I feel it happen and I am in agony”. Fifty years after Catullus died, Jesus was born to teach us how to love. The difference between becoming a beloved disciple or a betrayer is agape, loving as Jesus loves.
In another episode of Peanuts, Lucy stands with folded arms and a stony face, while Charlie Brown pleads with her. “Lucy,” he says, “be more loving. The world needs love. Make this world a better place by loving someone else.” Lucy whirls around angrily and Charlie goes flipping over backwards. “Look, you blockhead,” she yells, “I love the world. It’s people I can’t stand!” But to love as Jesus loves means loving people who may even be our enemies. That’s not erotic love, nor the love of close friends, nor familial love. It’s agape, the kind of love Jesus commanded, “As I have loved you, you also should love one another.” It the kind of love that is willing to die for the good of another, even an enemy. But many times I know that I am more like Lucy than like Jesus. I have much to learn from the heart of Jesus, the school of the strongest kind of love.
Fifth Sunday of Easter
[Scripture Readings: Acts 9:26-31; 1 Jn 3:18-24; Jn 15:1-8]
In 1992, the Supreme Court of the United States issued this statement in its response to the case of Planned Parenthood vs Casey: the justices wrote: “At the very heart of freedom is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” There are theologians who have suggested that these words constitute one of the most important modern statements of America’s very distinctive notion of freedom. Listen to exactly what these words are saying. We’re told that, belonging to the very essence of human freedom, the freedom we all treasure as human beings and especially as Americans; at the essence of freedom, is each individual’s right, to define; to determine by himself or herself what human existence is; what human existence means; what the universe means. Freedom, in this view, is confirmed by each individual person defining; working out for himself, or herself alone what is the very mystery of human life — this statement coming from the best legal minds in the land.
Is it true? Is freedom, in its essence, the capacity of each individual to define and determine for himself or herself his very own personal concept of existence, of meaning, of the mystery of human life? Is that what freedom is? Is that the freedom we desire with all our hearts?
A young man runs away from home, and begins hitch-hiking across the country. He is finally on his own. He no longer has to answer to parents, to teachers, to pastors, to anyone – he’s on the road; at liberty to go where ever he wants to go, in the company of whomever he chooses to travel with,directed by whatever notion of right and wrong make sense to him at the moment. All possibilities are open to him, even the possibility of defining by himself and for himself, who he is, what his existence means, what the mystery of human life itself means. He is unfettered, undecided—and alone. Is he free?
His travels take him to New Melleray Abbey, where he hangs around for a while—and is intrigued. He makes an appointment with Fr. Stephen to ask some questions about the monks and the monastic way of life. Fr. Stephen tells him: “He who clings to his life in this world loses his life, but he who loses his life, and dies to himself for love of Jesus, finds life; true life!—life that never ends!” The young man goes off and thinks about that for a while. The next day he comes back to Fr. Stephen and says: “I thought about what you said—and, on the basis of my seventeen years of experience of life, and in light of my own definition of existence which I’ve worked out for myself over the course of those years, I have determined that what you said—is nonsense. It was nice to meet you. I’ll be taking the next bus out of Dubuque.” An hour later, the young man is gone. Is he free?
The community at New Melleray Abbey and many of our neighbors are farmers. We are people who have some experience working with vines and branches. Most of us here would be quite astonished to hear someone suggest that a branch, looking thin, discolored, and a little flimsy, might prosper better if we were to—cut it off the vine! And yet, everyday in America we hear suggested that freedom; true human freedom, consists precisely in the capacity of an individual to define and determine for himself what he is, what life is, and what his own ultimate destiny is.
Jesus said: “I am the vine, you are branches . . .” It is the Father, Jesus says, who plants the vine. Life, all life, in whatever form it takes, comes the Father of life. Existence, your existence, my existence—is a gift. If we believe that, there really is no question of our defining or determining the meaning of our own existence. We are creatures; God is our Creator. You and I are not actually authorized to determine the meaning of our existence because we are not the authors of our existence. My existence is a gift! If I wish to know what my existence means, I can learn that from the One who is the author of my existence. What I come to know in this way is called “revealed truth.” Roman Catholics are people who base our lives and choices, on a body of revealed truths guaranteed by an authoritative, two thousand year old tradition. Some people think elements of that tradition need to be questioned. That may be true, but that is a discernment we do together; each of us thinking in the church, with the church and with a mature and responsible respect for the church’s teaching authority. No one can do that discernment by himself.
We are branches; Jesus is the vine. The good news is that Jesus is so patient with us; so kind; so merciful, that even if a branch actually succeeds in cutting itself off, it is not forgotten and is even loved and invited back to the vine, as we know from Jesus own words to a woman who attempted to be the master of her own destiny; failed miserably, and never actually said she was sorry, and who at last heard the Lord say to her: “Has no one condemned you? Neither do I condemn you. Go, and sin no more.“
Fifth Sunday of Easter
[Scripture Readings: Acts 14:21-27; Rev 21:1-5a; Jn 13:31-35]
One Fall day in 1968 in a little cottage somewhere in the woods outside of Bangkok, Thomas Merton, the famous writer and Trappist monk, stepped out of a shower and died instantly when he touched a running fan and was electrocuted. Paul Elie, in the book we are reading in the refectory, The Life You Save May Be Your Own, takes a moment to reflect on the meaning of the curious circumstances of Merton’s death: a beloved public figure, peace activist, spiritual teacher and writer, dies prematurely in a violent altercationwith an electric fan . . . What did Thomas Merton’s death mean?
Well, it seems to me, it means that it is very difficult to construe Merton’s end as a destination, and that is a rather unpleasant thought to dwell on. One feels uneasy considering the possibility that after a long life which he himself described as a “pilgrimage“, Thomas Merton may not have actually arrived anywhere. Not that this would have been a big problem for the man himself. Actually, I can imagine someone telling Merton, ten years before the event, exactly how he would die, and him throwing back his head; laughing and saying: “Ha! – that’s perfect!” and walking away wagging his head. Reading the many books he wrote, one has the impression the purpose of his life was never really about getting anywhere. Thomas Merton was searching; searching for the absolute, and, to hear him speak, you might conclude that the search itself was for him the fulfillment of his deepest human and spiritual needs. For Merton, and a generation inspired by his example, the search was itself a sort of destination; the day by day living of this search being recorded first in his journals, a conversation with himself, And later in an extensive correspondence in which the discussion broadened to include many and diverse others. In the context of this ongoing discussion, Merton was quite capable of admitting he had no idea where he was going and did so in fact in a famous prayer which many at the time
received with joy and worked up into a rather attractive poster.
Today a younger generation has come along who are addressing these followers of Merton rather pointedly. They are saying: “We realize that, in the old church you grew up in, the church that had all the answers, the confession that you had no idea where you were going must have felt for you like a liberationwe can understand that. What we find difficult to comprehend is that you seemed to think your not knowing where you were going would be a liberationfor us whom God has entrusted to you as our parents, our teachers, and pastors.” This “disconnect” between older and younger believers can make discussion between them very difficult: the younger wanting the discussion to arrive at a conclusion and in the certainty of truth; the older less hurried, content to have the answers ambiguous, relishing the give and take of the discussion itself. The tension between them can at moments be palpable, but, a generation of Catholics now entering their sixties and seventies continues to strive valiantly against all odds, to keep the discussion going, and hence, the especially vexing question for them of the odd circumstances of Merton’s death. It wasn’t that he died in the middle of his life, or the middle of a successful public career, or that he died in the middle of the woods somewhere outside Bangkok. Most troubling for those who loved and admired him, is that Merton died in the middle of a discussion; a discussion they have come to believe is ongoing and is not supposed to end. Merton’s death confronts us with the reality that one day, the discussion is going to end.
Which doesn’t mean we cant, for the moment, try to keep it going. Nowhere is investment in keeping the discussion going more dramatic than in the Anglican Church at the present moment: the world-wide Anglican communion now in danger of breaking up over the issues of practicing homosexual bishops and the blessing of same sex marriages. If you attend closely to the controversy you realize that those Anglicans who advocate the blessing of same sex marriages are not necessarily calling on their counterparts in Africa to adopt this practice, they simply think the merits of doing so are worth considering and so should bediscussed; discussed for as long as it takes; discussed into the indefinite future, maybe forever. They don’t necessarily fault their opponents for resisting same-sex marriages; they fault them for refusing to take part in an ongoing discussion. How obnoxious!
Rowan Williams, the pastor selected by God to preside over this crisis is a scholar and a brilliant one. Most people concede that, whatever your opinion about his views on homosexuals, he is making a heroic effort to preserve the Anglican communion; showing remarkable charity and patience with both factions and, following his profoundest instincts as a scholar, trying to keep both sides talking to each other; trying at all costs to keep the discussion going. The Catholic Church and Benedict the XVI in particular have a reputation for effectively “clipping” discussions like this one, and so many people today have turned to the Anglican controversy as the arena where certain burning questions of the day might finally get resolved: Is there an end to discussion? How do you know when it’s time to end the discussion? When discussion breaks down, becomes impossiblewhat do you do next?
I earnestly hope that Rowan Williams succeeds in his efforts to preserve the Anglican communion, but I can foresee the possibility that he may not. A moment may be coming when discussion between Anglicans about same sex marriages is no longer possible and, then . . . something is going to happen. And maybe this is what many of us fear more than anything; the fear awakened in us the day Thomas Merton died: a fear greater than that of nuclear holocaust, or the consequences of the destruction of the ozone, or the next terrorist attack or anything. We fear a moment is coming when discussion is going to break down; we won’t know what to do next, and then, somethingsomething is going to happen.
In light of this very particular fear gripping many of us today, this morning’s gospel might have a very pertinent message. The gospel recounts, very briefly, the end of a discussion; the most tragic and momentous breakdown of a discussion in the whole history of the world: the night the conversation ended between Jesus and Judas. The dreaded moment has arrived. Jesus and Judas have nothing more to say to each other, a reality confirmed when Jesus tells his betrayer: “What you intend to dodo quickly“. This discussion is finished. Something is going to happen. Judas, making no reply, rises from his seat and walks out of the cenacle. A moment later, Jesus is talking again, but he is not talking to Judas; he is talking to the other disciples and he is talking to us. Something is going to happen. Jesus is describing it: “Now the Son of Man is glorified. Now, God is glorified in Him. If God has been glorified in Him, God will in turn glorify Himsoon.”
The discussion is over; broken beyond repair, and all Jesus can talk about is glory. What is happening here? Jesus is truth; the truth that is a love sterner than death; divine love come in the flesh for the redemption of ungrateful sinners. A whole lifetime spent trying to maintain and guide discussion toward this great truth has now failed. His violent death will be the result, and with his death, the vindication of all truth. Standing in the truth; being Himself the truth of God’s enduring love, Jesus has much to grieve, but nothing really to fear, at that moment the discussion ends. Neither do you or I need to fear that moment if we are standing with Jesus in love and in truth.
In today’s gospel Jesus calls that moment”now.”
Fifth Sunday of Easter
[Scripture Readings: Acts 9:26-31; I Jn 3:18-24; Jn 15:1-8]
A young parishioner once came to me lamenting that despite her efforts to live a good Christian life, she met oppositions beginning with her own family. She was always seen as the little girl that seemed not to grow. When the mother asked her to do an errand, and she was not immediately disposed to execute it as was told, the parent would at once blurt out, “What then is the use of your being a Sunday churchgoer? You are not even a good, obedient girl.” I was tempted to quote to her Jesus’ saying that no prophet is without honor except in his native place, among his own kindred, and in his own house (Mk 6:4). Instead, I advised her to lightly take her mom’s comment and say teasingly, “Mom, if I don’t go to church at all, I would be worse than this.” She laughed.
Indeed it is tempting to think that once we make a commitment to Jesus, life would already be easy. No doubt, it is, because then it would be easy to carry the burdens of Christian living, which means also the oppositions brought about by being with Christ. St. Paul was a former persecutor of the Christians in Jerusalem. When the Lord called on him, it simply meant more troubles for him. Three years have passed since his conversion experience in Damascus before he returned to Jerusalem. There he was still seen as the Jewish persecutor of Christians. People were afraid of him. The more militant Christians tried to kill him. Were it not for the help of Barnabas his friend, it could have been worse for Paul. For his safety, he was escorted out of the Holy City and was sent off to Tarsus, his hometown. The next time we see him was fourteen years later, again with Barnabas .
Where was Paul during these years? What did he do? We cannot say in exact details what were his activities and preoccupations then. In his vocation story, he tells the Galatians that he went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, in the modern day Turkey. Since these regions were near his hometown Tarsus, perhaps he preached the Gospel to the people there. But basically, he stayed in his native Tarsus. It was there that Barnabas fetched him and brought him to Antioch later . From Antioch in Syria, he would begin his first missionary journey. By simple calculation then, after Damascus up to his active missionary work, he spent around fourteen to seventeen years in Tarsus. That was quite a long time to reckon for one as restless and dedicated as Paul before beginning any formal apostolic life. What then transpired during this decade and a half of his years?
Just like the experience of the growing Jesus in Nazareth, Paul lived his hidden life in Tarsus — in order to grow in wisdom and strength in the Spirit. The conversion event in Damascus was dramatic. He made a radical turn to Jesus from his fealty to the Law. But he needed a steady and gradual growth in his love for Jesus so that when more trials would come his way, he was much prepared for them.
In today’s gospel, Jesus presents a fitting analogy in our relationship with him and how this relationship develops . “I am the true vine, my Father is the vine grower…you are the branches,” he says (15:1, 5). It is a tripartite relationship: that of the Father, Jesus his Son and us, the disciples of Jesus. The Father grows and tends the vine, Jesus is the vine and we are branches of that vine. A vine can provide shades during the searing summer heat. But essentially, it is meant to bear fruits, produce the grapes that could be made into wine also. However, the grapes are good based on the quality of the vine and the proper care it receives. The vinedresser makes sure that with a good vine, due care is given so that it yields quality grapes.
In relation to us as the branches in the vine, Jesus depicts the care and attention of the Father. The Father prunes the barren branches and trims clean the fruitful ones to increase their yield. In both instances, it is a painful process for the branches. The dead branches are already numb to any pruning works. All efforts to save them are futile. There is no life flowing in them from the vine, and it is but a matter of cutting them off that their death is sealed. They are ready to be burned. On the other hand, the living branches still need trimming to bear more fruits. This is like being put in the crucible of discipline and purification. It is painful, just like when we have to carry a heavy burden, or cross. A living branch “weeps” when it is pruned, but soon its energies burst forth into shoots that signal new life. In due season, the fruits indicate radiant energies to nurture more life on a higher level. Failure in one’s career, sudden illness, broken relationships, poverty, presence and experience of injustice—all these are painful. They come, even unexpectedly and beyond our control. For those who lack faith, such pruning experiences are fatal. However, ingested by one alive in faith, trials in life may renew and transform him, thus enabling him to ascend new heights of living and meaning in life.
To keep us alive, both during the pruning period and the time of growth, three elements are key factors in our relationship with Jesus. The first is the power of Jesus’ word. “You are clean already, thanks to the word I have spoken to you,” Jesus tells us. We hear him speak in the Gospels, and his words are echoed in the teachings of the Church or in the proclamation by his minister. We must heed him. His word enriches, cleanses and purifies. As in a mirror set before us, we see ourselves reflected and how much we need to emulate the Lord. Secondly, to be transformed further in Jesus, we need to remain in him. Jesus remains in us, but we must also remain in him—through thick and thin.”Without me, you can do nothing,” he reminds us . There is no contest of wills and powers with the Lord, but we must show steadfastness and fidelity to him. By keeping his commandments, we grow and bear abundant fruit in him. In winter, the vine hibernates. But it is only the branch that sticks it out with the vine in winter that will make it during the spring and summer seasons. With an intimate prayer life, we remain attached to the Lord and learn to love him and things about him. Lastly, by remaining in Jesus, we glorify the Father . We become attuned to his will and live it freely. We fear not to ask anything and he will grant it to us. After all, when we are one with God, the Father and His Son, the Spirit helps us intercede before them. Love begets love.
Sometime in mid-nineties, we held the Second Provincial Council of Manila to assess our resources and plan out the directions of the local Church. The first one took place some 226 years earlier. A provincial council is a meeting of the heads and representatives of an ecclesiastical province, that is, an archdiocese with its suffragan dioceses. The council was a two-week long series of conferences and discussions. Resolutions were made through the united efforts of the participants. At the end of the historic event, the closing program included a festive meal, dancing and music, culminating in rounds of fireworks. It was a colorful affair. While the participants and guests were awed at the beauty of the fireworks, amid the crackling din, one monsignor shouted: “And there goes the Provincial Council!” Those around him laughed. I grinned but it made me think also. The resolutions of the council could easily go off and fade, unless there was a consistent follow-up and implementation. This is likewise true with our prayer life and our Christian life in general. Any prayer and faith-experience, even through a touching liturgy, could readily fizzle out into naught and oblivion unless I stick it out with Jesus who remains in me. Today as we listen to Jesus’ word, let us enkindle our love for him. We need not see stars and sparkles to stay with him, but even in rote and rods, we faithfully remain in him. When some disciples started to leave Jesus because of the Eucharistic discourse, he asked the Twelve whether they were leaving too. Simon Peter spoke in the name of the group said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life….We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God”.
Fifth Sunday of Easter
[Scripture Readings: Acts 6:91-7, 1 Pt 2:4-9; John 14:1-12]
Recently, New Melleray was offered some helpful advice by a consumer psychologist who interviewed sixteen of our “Trappist Caskets” customers to find out what attracts people and motivates them to buy our caskets. In one video taped interview, a woman spoke of how surprised and how deeply moved she was to learn that the monks, who so lovingly and skillfully crafted that beautiful casket for her late husband, these same monks, when they died, would be buried in the groundwithout a casket. This fact rather amazed her and she insisted on its importance at some length, actually breaking off once or twice to fight back tears. Six other monks and myself, watching this video, were initially a little puzzled by the woman’s fixating on this particular detail of our life, but having shared with us several more interviews, the psychologist explained that what this woman and other customers find deeply meaningful about a Trappist Casket is that they believe it was made by men without ulterior motives; men who have renounced material things, and so are clearly not trying to enrich themselves by the sale of caskets. According to our customers, monks, (and sadly they tended to make a distinction between monks and priests), monks are men you can be sure care more about others than they care about themselves. Remembering a famous saying by St. Francis, I thought to myself: “May God grant the monks of New Melleray the grace to become all that these good people believe we are.”
This experience highlighted for me something I already knew: that many people today are deeply wounded by disillusionment; disillusionment especially with representatives of government and religion. People worry almost obsessively about others approaching them with “ulterior motives”; others not being what they seem to be. Scandals involving priests abusing children, in particular, have left lasting scars on people’s hearts. A lot of people today wonder about priests: are they part of the solution, or are they at the very heart of the problem? Traditionally, the priest was someone we trusted. People wonder: “Can we still trust him?” And behind this question, there is perhaps an even deeper and more disturbing one, not so often expressed: “Did the traditional priest really ever exist at all?” We all remember a priest we knew once who we regarded as a holy man. Today a dark thought creeps into people’s minds: “Who knows”, they wonder, “with all you hear these days . . . was that holy priest of my memory, actually the man I thought he was? Does that good and holy; humble and selfless priest whose image I’ve always carried in my heart, exist anywhere but in my imagination and in movies?”
I have a feeling the emotional intensity of the current debate about the credibility of our political and religious leaders, arises from our fear that this ideal servant of God, whose image we carry in our heartshas died. But this humble, good, and sincere servant of God, whom our hearts cherish is someone vitally important to us and when we think he has departed from us, we are panic stricken. Like the disciples listening to Jesus’ parting discourse at the Last Supper, many of us today feel we have been forsaken by someone whose presence we need desperately; someone we are not sure we can survive without.
In the gospel we just heard, Jesus, at supper with his friends on the last night of his life, is saying good-bye. As they listen to Jesus, the disciples become anxious and begin to question him. He reassures them: “Have faith in God and have faith in me“. Jesus confirms that he is, in fact, going away, but adds the all-important words: “I am going awayin order to prepare a place for you.” He goes on to say: “There are many mansions in my father’s houseotherwise how could I go ahead to prepare a place for you?” Here is the key to Jesus’ reassurance to the disciples and to us: I am going away, only that I may go before you, to a place I will prepare for you in my Father’s house; so that where I am, you may be.
In recent weeks, we have seen over and over again the photo of John Paul II’s last public appearancesitting in the window of the papal apartments waving good-bye to the world. Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, preaching at the Pope’s funeral, recalled this image and assured us that our beloved shepherd is now “standing in the window of his Father’s house” beckoning us to a place prepared for us. These words emphasized what all of us already knew: that since his death, John Paul II is mysteriously and powerfully alive; strikingly present and exercising an unmistakable influence in our world.
John Paul II was a good man and a good priest. We may not have always agreed with him or entirely understood him, but we trusted him; trusted him deeply as a man of integrity and courage, who bore much personal suffering in the defense of values and traditions he believed must be upheld for the good of others. Today, John Paul II is dead, andis very much alive, and the proof that he truly is alive, is that he is today, transforming the contemporary debate about the credibility of priests and religious authority. After months and months of withering, pessimistic public discussion about the credibility of religious leadership, people all over the world are celebrating the memory of this good and faithful priest who loved with a genuine self-transcending love, and without ulterior motives. When we recall the photo, of him waving good-bye from the window of his apartment high above St. Peter’s square, we rejoicenot primarily for him, but for ourselves because by his witness of faith and courage, we can permit ourselves again to believe that that ideal servant of God we always envisioned in our hearts, has not forsaken us. He has not gone away. He has gone before us. He has died, only in order to be more vibrantly alive and present to us; to prepare a place for us in his Father’s house where every tear will be wiped away; where suspicion, fear and death will be no more.