Sixth Sunday of Easter

[Scripture Readings: Acts 15:1-2, 22-29; Rev 21:10-14, 22-23; John 14:23-29]

Today is the 6th Sunday of Easter. In our liturgical calendar, there are seven Sundays of Easter. In fact, in our Catholic understanding of time every Sunday is Easter. Saint Athanasius whose memorial we celebrate tomorrow put it like this: "the grace of the feast is not limited to one time, nor does its splendid brilliancy suffer an eclipse; but it is always near, enlightening the conscience of those who earnestly desire it." (Let 5.) The "splendid brilliancy" of Easter Athanasius talks about calls to mind the Easter candle that was lit at the Easter Vigil and stands, as the Exultet then put it, "bravely burning" throughout the seven weeks of the feast. Even more, Athanasius talks about enlightened consciences, and what he means is that the Easter feast is not about liturgical celebrations, however beautiful and joyful they may be; it is about human persons themselves becoming Paschal candles bravely burning; or, to use a phrase from our second reading today, Easter is about us gleaming with the splendor of God (Rev 21:11). Again speaking of the Easter Christian Saint Athanasius says, "it is not the sun, or the moon, or the host of those other stars which illumines him; but he glitters with the high effulgence of God over all." We are like the Holy City, whose Temple is the Lord God almighty, alight with the glory of God.

In contrast to this almost digitally enhanced depiction of the Christian living in Easter light while still in the world, is the unremarkable visible aspect of the Risen Body of Jesus himself. In the Gospels' presentation of the Risen Christ there is nothing about brilliant light, nothing about flashing colors, nothing about gleaming garments. In fact, I think Michelangelo got it right in his grey-white marble sculpture in the Dominican church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome of a naked Risen Jesus standing half leaning on his Cross and half embracing it as an inseparable friend. There are only the wounds that distinguish this Body,

The wounds, in fact, are ours. The wounds are us, because the Passion of the Lord, and his Resurrection, too, are the ultimate and climactic moments of a great drama of exchange that started in earnest when Mary said "Let it be" and the Word became flesh in her Womb. The Easter exchange is that Jesus absorbs our darkness and gives us his light.

"Peace I give you." The Peace the Risen Jesus gives to us is a peace intimately connected with his death on the Cross. As Jesus himself had said, the peace of the Resurrection is a peace the world cannot give. The gift of undying Peace to us from the Risen One comes through the Love for us of the Crucified One. His is a peace, as Paul will say, that surpasses our understanding, but not our capacity to live from, to enjoy, and pass on to others.

In some ancient manuscripts of the Gospel, when Jesus says to his disciples, showing his wounds, "Peace be with you" he adds, "it is I, do not be afraid." The phrase is almost a definition of the Risen Jesus, it is almost as if he is telling us who he is: I am Peace-with-you, I am for you Fear-not, and this would make sense. It makes the gift of Easter peace specific and concrete. In fact, the disciples had a great deal to fear, and precisely because of those wounds.

They understood darkly that they, in fact, were largely responsible for their being there. If Jesus were really alive again, they had his righteous anger to fear, and if the resurrection were truly the Day of the Lord foretold by the prophets, then they had a terrible reckoning before the judgment seat of God to face. But instead, It is really I, and therefore, peace be with you, and don't be afraid. This isn't Jesus saying "forget it, it's no big deal;" it's him saying, "it's a big deal, and you will never forget it, but I hold no grudge; I forgive you; always have and always will. That is what the Great Exchange is all about. You can count on me, that I am for you. I am Peace-to-you, I am have-no-fear." Peace, in other words, Easter peace, is the sign and the fruit of total forgiveness, Forgiveness is the other name of Peace. Love makes a home: "Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them." In his recent teaching on marriage and family life, Pope Francis talks about forgiveness. "The opposite of resentment is forgiveness, which is rooted in a positive attitude that seeks to understand other people's weaknesses, and to excuse them." But, Francis adds, realistically, "no one can say [forgiveness] is easy" (AL 105). "There is no family that does not know how selfishness, discord, tension, and conflict violently attack and at times mortally wound its own communion" (AL 106). "If we accept that God's love is unconditional, that the Father's love cannot be bought or sold, then we will become capable of showing boundless love and forgiving others even if they have wronged us" (AL 108).

Still, as we all know, "it is not easy" to pay forward the forgiveness and peace that is ours from the Spirit of the Risen Lord. After the seven weeks of Easter, we recommence Ordinary Time through the summer and fall of the year. In the Gospels and in the other readings from Scripture the Holy Spirit will be teaching and reminding us of a new way of living, a resurrected and forgiving life modeled concretely on the mind of Christ and on the lives of the saints who did the same. As Saint Athanasius says in another of his letters, Jesus has given us an example of a resurrected way of life, that we should live in the world after the pattern he began (Let 2.).

Sixth Sunday of Easter

[Scripture Readings: Acts 10: 25-26, 34-35, 44-48: 1Jn. 4: 7-10; Jn. 15: 9-17]

As we remember the love that we received from our mothers, it is an appropriate time to reflect on Christ's commandment to love one another as he has loved us. I think we all have at least an intuitive realization of our basic need for love. A number of problems develop for a person who has not had an adequate experience of being loved by another. Perhaps not so well recognized in our me-centered society is that not only do we need to experience being loved by another, we also need to share love with others. Neither our need to be loved nor our need to love others is optional. Both are necessary for our growth as healthy human beings.

Since grace builds on nature and completes nature it is not surprising that our human need to be loved and to love another directs us toward the way of loving others as God loves us. Loving as God loves calls us beyond loving only our family and friends. It calls us beyond loving those toward whom we have positive affections, or those with whom we share common views. God's love is universal. There are no exceptions. We are called to love casual acquaintances. We are called to love strangers. We are called to love those who oppose us and make life difficult for us; those who do not return our love for them.

Loving others as Christ loves us is not an optional decision on our part. It is a command we have received from Jesus Christ. Yet to love as Christ loves is beyond our natural ability. God does not ask us to do the impossible. If Christ commands us to love others as he has loved us, he also enables us to love others as he has loved us. The experience of God's love for us revealed in Jesus Christ empowers us to love others. God's love is not simply one more phenomenon that we add to our list of interior experiences. The Holy Spirit has been poured into our hearts and the Holy Spirit transforms us and makes us a new creation. We are begotten by God and through the Holy Spirit we share in God's nature. As the early Church frequently put it: We become by grace what Jesus Christ was by nature.

Because we have been begotten by God and share in the Holy Spirit, we are empowered to behave like God. Jesus Christ shows us the way to use the new life he has given us. Jesus' way was the way of self-sacrificing, universal love. As St. Paul reminded the Romans Christ died for us when we were still sinners. The example of Jesus and new life in his Spirit enable us to love those to whom we are not attracted by natural affections and even those who oppose us and make life difficult for us; those who are our enemies.

Loving others as Christ loves us is not an occasional practice; sometimes we do and sometimes we don't. We are to remain in Christ's love; day by day and year by year; when we feel like it and when we don't feel like it. This too is beyond our natural ability. Nevertheless it is a command that we have received from Jesus Christ. It is a command that can leave many of us intimidated and at the point of exasperation. I'm not there and it is easy to wonder if I ever could be. The way of Christ is a way of growth. We need not be discouraged because we have not reached the goal. Jesus Christ is not only our goal. He is the way on which we are called to walk, the truth in which we walk and the life that empowers us to follow his way. Christ's commandments are not meant to be a cause for fear and discouragement. Christ's commands lead us to the fulfillment of our joy. When we accept them in faith and hope we are empowered to advance along the way of loving others as Christ loves us. Having heard God's word and strengthened by the Eucharist, let us continue on Christ's way.

Sixth Sunday of Easter

[Scripture Readings: Acts 8:5-8, 14-17; 1 Pt. 3:15-18; Jn 14:15-21]

Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments … I will come to you … and you will see me.” What does it mean to love Jesus, to follow him in everything that he wills? Here are three ways I have learned obedience and love for Christ in the monastery.

The first is service. Fifteen hundred years ago St. Benedict wrote a rule for monks. It is the way of life we vow to live here at New Melleray. St. Benedict calls the monastery a school of the Lord’s service. In this school I served many years as librarian, electrician, and finance officer. But Christ was never any of those things, so in what way am I following him? Jesus was not a librarian, but he gives us the Words of life; he was not an electrician but he is the Light of the world; he was not a financial administrator but he offers us Treasure in heaven. Whenever we serve the needs of our sisters and brothers we are following and loving Jesus who came not to be served, but to serve.

A second way to express our love for Jesus is to follow him by entering into the mysteries of his life:

Are you tired and weary? Christ who carried the cross invites you to follow him.

Are you angered by injustice? Christ who preached Beatitudes to the persecuted asks you to follow him.

Are you filled with joy and gratitude? Christ transfigured with glory on the holy mountain says, “Follow me.”

Are you unwilling to forgive an insult? Christ slapped and spit upon calls you to follow him.

Are you caught in habits of sin? Christ nailed to the cross says, “Your sins are forgiven, rise up and follow me.”

Are you fearful of martyrdom? Christ who sweat blood asks, “Will you stretch out your hands and follow me?”

Are you approaching the end of life? Christ who ascended into heaven says, “Follow me.”

This is how the Church follows Christ, entering into his mysteries throughout the liturgical year.

A third way to follow Christ with love is to leave everything. But what does that really mean? The apostles James and John, Simon and Andrew, left everything and followed Christ. Yet, after the Resurrection they still had their boats and fishing nets when Jesus appeared to them on the sandy beaches of Sea of Tiberias and asked if they had caught anything. It took awhile before love of Christ led them to walk down the long dusty roads of the Roman Empire proclaiming the good news in far off places.

Matthew got up and left everything when Jesus called him from the custom’s post. But afterwards he still had his large home and could afford to throw a great party in honor of Jesus, inviting all his fellow tax collectors and sinners to the celebration. It was awhile before Matthew wanted to do nothing more than take up his quill and parchments to write a love story about Jesus, the Gospel of Matthew.

I once left everything to become a monk at the age of 19. Or, so I thought. But I took self-centeredness with me. To leave everything does not mean primarily physical things. It means to let go of my own selfishness. It is a Hebrew way of saying with St. Benedict, “Prefer nothing to the love of Christ.” To do that I need a divine physician who is able to heal my sinfulness, my self-will, my self-centeredness. By baptism, Jesus, the divine physician is already at work within our hearts. And in the Eucharist Jesus gives us his own body and blood, his embodied love, to heal us from the inside out.

Today we have left everything else to be with each other here at this Eucharist. That’s Christ’s love working within our hearts, calling us together to celebrate a great feast, to express the joy of being in love with Christ and one another. Elisabeth Leseur expressed it so well: “Throughout each year we live in this great collective life of the Church, uniting ourselves with the joys and sorrows experienced by Christ in his compassion for the whole world, joining our feeble prayers with his fervent prayers, our weak voices with his powerful voice. It is sweet to relive our Savior’s life, from his birth to his death and Ascension, to tell him of our faith and love, to adore him in company with others and with those who have adored him throughout the centuries, to be a living cell in the great union of Christ’s Mystical and Eucharistic Body, to follow so many who have gone before us, and to precede so many who will follow after us, offering our love to the infant God, the suffering Christ, and the risen Lord.”1

So, let us love Jesus. First, by serving others generously and kindly. Second, by uniting ourselves with Christ in all the mysteries of his life, by a life of interior prayer within the solitude of our hearts, and by a life of exterior prayer together, the great work of praise that we offer every day in the Liturgy of the Hours and the Sacraments. And third, by preferring nothing to the love of Christ and his will for us, letting go of our self-centeredness and self-will. Then Jesus will bring us all together to everlasting life when we ascend to meet the Lord.

Sixth Sunday of Easter

[Scripture Readings: Acts 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48; 1Jn. 4: 7-10; Jn. 15: 9-17]

Many years ago when I was in college one of my cousins sent me a letter and included five dollars. She wanted me to have a good time. (That was back when you could have a good time with five dollars!) At the end of letter she said, “Don’t worry about paying me back. Do something kind for someone else.” Most of us have probably been in situations where someone has done us a kindness and there was no question of repayment. It wasn’t expected and it would not have been possible in any case. In those situations the only adequate response is to follow my cousin’s advice and do something kind for someone else.

At a theological level St. Bernard asked himself how he could repay God for God’s love for him. He knew that he could not love God as God deserves to be loved. He could only love God as much as he was capable of loving. The readings we have just heard show us how to put our love for God into practice: We are to love one another. However, we are to love one another as Christ has loved us. That puts us in a dilemma. We cannot love God as God deserves to be loved, but can we love one another as Christ has loved us? And the gospel is clear. To love one another is a commandment, not a suggestion.

Left to ourselves, we would be in an impossible situation; but we have not been left to ourselves. Love is always a response to love. We can love one another as Christ loves us, because God has loved us first. We accept God’s love for us by becoming followers of Christ and living according to his example and teachings. Not only do we become followers of Christ; we become Christ’s brothers and sisters, and we become God’s sons and daughters. Because we are begotten by God we can love one another with God’s love for us.

We may feel uncomfortable thinking about love in terms of commandments and obedience. Certainly love is free, but just as certainly love is not optional. There is much in modern thought that calls us to altruism and tells us that we should love simply because it is right to love. In effect what this says is that we should become like God, but it leaves God out of the picture. Then all we can do is lower our understanding of love below the gospel; and too frequently that is what happens. Love becomes a contract and we bargain about love. I will love you, if you love me, or at least act in a way that makes me feel like a loving person.

That is not what the gospel calls us to. One way or another we will be called to lay down our lives for one another in imitation of Christ. I may think that is too much for me, but love like faith and hope, indeed only with faith and hope, grows. Like St. Bernard we can only love to the extent that we are capable, but as we accept God’s love for us and put Jesus’ command to love one another as he has loved us into practice, we will grow in our likeness to God and hence in our ability to love.

Sixth Sunday of Easter

[Scripture Readings: Acts 8:5-8, 1 Pt. 3:15-18; Jn 14:15-21]

Fr. StephenSome years ago two young girls were crossing an intersection near my grade school in Milwaukee. At the same time a drunken driver was speeding down the avenue. He went through a red light and drove straight into the girls in the opposite crosswalk, killing both of them. Their parents nearly went out of their minds with grief. In the face of such tragedy should they say, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord,” like holy Job? Is that what loving the will of God means? At the Last Supper, the apostle Philip asked Jesus to “Show us the Father.” Did Jesus reveal a Father whose will is suffering and death? At first, it seems that way.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus faced the horror of his approaching crucifixion he prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; yet, not my will but yours be done,(Lk 22:42). And when Jesus was hanging on the cross he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,(Mk. 15:34)? His agony in the Garden of Gethsemane and his crucifixion seem to reveal a Father who wills suffering and death. As holy Job expressed it, “Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and not evil?

But in the Gospel of John, when Philip said, “Show us the Father,” Jesus replied, “Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father,(Jn 14:9). Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus keeps repeating this fundamental principal: that all his actions and words show us the Father. Jesus said, “If you knew me, you would know my Father also,(Jn. 8:19); “The Son can only do what he sees the Father doing, (Jn. 5:19);I and the Father are one,(Jn. 10:30); “The words that I speak to you I do not speak on my own. The Father who dwells in me is doing his works, (Jn. 14:10); “If you know me then you will also know my Father, (Jn 14:7).

So, 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 showing us the Father crying out, “My Son, my Son, why have you left me?” Or, in 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 his Father are repelled and infinitely grieved by suffering and death which entered the world through sin. Jesus and his Father are not engaged in a struggle of wills with each other. Rather, together, with one heart, one mind, one will and one Spirit they are struggling against evil and all its consequences.

The compassion and love we see in Jesus is exactly the same in his Father. When Jesus grieved at the death of the only son of the widow of Naim, and when he wept with Martha and Mary over the death of Lazarus, he was showing us his Father’s tears. When the parents of those two little girls killed by a drunken driver wept in terrible agony over the death of their daughters, Jesus and his Father and the Holy Spirit wept with them. To love the Father’s will means to love a Father who grieves and weeps with us over suffering and death.

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 not correct.”1 Jesus reveals that the Father does not cause our grief. Rather, God grieves with us.

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 Suffering and death exist because of God’s vulnerability to our freedom. They make God angry, angry enough to die for us, to save us from the eternal consequences of evil. Keeping God’s commandments, obedience to God’s will, abandonment to divine providence means climbing into the arms of a compassionate, vulnerable, loving God who desires intimacy with us, who delights in our love, who weeps with us when we suffer, and who comes with the Holy Spirit into our hearts to comfort us in every sorrow. Our Father’s will is intimate love, a divine romance, a promise to bring good out of suffering and death.

After a nine-year old boy, named Darrell, was in a fire, a volunteer for the hospital in Kenosha, Wisconsin, could see only Darrell’s lips and blistered face; the rest of his body was wrapped in layers of sterile gauze. Four members of his family were killed in that fire, and he was terribly burned. The magnitude of his suffering was heartbreaking, especially when the sterile gauze had to be changed. From far down the corridor the volunteer could hear his screams and cries as the dressings were torn away. One day another patient, in great anger, complained loudly to the volunteer saying, “How can God do this to an innocent child?” Darrell overheard the complaint and replied, “Don’t say anything against God! When it hurts, God cries with me.”

That little boy understood the promise of Jesus: “I will not leave you desolate; … you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. … You will be loved by my Father and I will love you and show myself to you, (Jn 14:18-21). God cries with us, but he will not leave us desolate. Jesus makes another promise to us, saying, “You have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you,(Jn 16:22).