Today's readings [display_podcast]
As we have gathered these last several weeks to continue our celebration of Easter, maybe you noticed that we have always had a reading from the Acts of the Apostles as our first reading. In these readings, we have been hearing about an almost idyllic community, a community that has shared its resources, taken care of the poor, and even worked through a dispute with a grace that is rarely seen anywhere. If you’re like me, it’s almost hard to relate to such an exalted community, and maybe you find yourself wondering why we would read these readings, when they only contradict the way Christians really live in the world.
I had a seminary professor who used to tell us “the Christian life looks like something,” “discipleship looks like something.” If we don’t have a picture of what discipleship means or know something about how the Christian life looks, then we have nothing at all to strive for. So, even though the First Community in the book of Acts seems a little out of step with our experience, if we never read about them, well, then we’d have nothing to strive for, no goal to achieve. Today’s readings, in particular, I think, give us a picture of what the Christian life looks like. Our Liturgy of the Word has proclaimed to us that the Christian believers’ lives are marked by joy, holiness of life, and love. Let’s take a look at each of these.
First of all, the Christian believer’s life is marked by joy. We saw that pretty clearly in the first reading. “There was great joy in that city,” the Acts writer tells us, and for pretty good reason. The particular reason for their joy was that “unclean spirits, crying out in a loud voice, came out of many possessed people, and many paralyzed or crippled people were cured.” Anyone who experiences such radical, miraculous blessings cannot help but be overcome by joy. But again, how close is that to our experience? When was the last time you saw Fr. Ted or me walk into a room and evil spirits came out of people with loud cries? Sometimes I’m at a meeting where I wish I could do that, but I digress…
The point is that we believers are all on for exorcising demons and binding up the wounds of the broken and healing those who are paralyzed. Because people are possessed by all sorts of demons: addictions, sinful behavior, ignorance, just to name a few. When any of us witnesses to those people, walks with them through their pain, or mentors them, we are exorcising their demons. And people are paralyzed by all sorts of things. Failure, grief, and depression paralyze people all the time. Whenever one of us reaches out to someone in those conditions and helps them to get back on their feet, we are healing them. And that kind of healing, that kind of exorcism, goes on all the time. And because of that, there should always be great joy in Naperville.
Teilhard de Chardin wrote that “joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.” Those of us who have been healed or forgiven, those of us who have been raised up out of our weakness know that it is through the presence of God that that has happened. God may may well be working through the hands and lips of one of our brothers or sisters, because that is often the way that he chooses to make known his abiding presence. Maybe the demons don’t all go away at once, and maybe it takes a little therapy before we can really walk steadily once we’re back on our feet, but God is present in all of that, and for that we should not cease to celebrate with great joy. We are called to a joy that persists even amid the stormy times of life, a joy that we can find in those who reach out to us, or gratitude for small blessings. My grandmother used to say, “Thank God for small favors!” We are a people who are blessed even when our life is a mess, because God is still and always present to us. The Christian believer’s life is marked by joy.
Secondly, the Christian believer’s life is marked by holiness of life. This is a tough one and we would probably all be quick to object that we are not, nor could we ever be, truly holy. But this is not the time for self-deprecating false humility. Until we accept the fact that every single one of us, through our baptism, is consecrated, set aside and called to be a saint – yes, a saint – until we realize that and accept it, we have not even begun to live the Christian life. Listen to what St. Peter says to us in our second reading once again:
Always be ready to give an explanation
to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope,
but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear,
so that, when you are maligned,
those who defame your good conduct in Christ
may themselves be put to shame.
For it is better to suffer for doing good,
if that be the will of God, than for doing evil.
So he calls us to three specific forms of holiness here: hopefulness rooted in Christ, gentleness and reverence to all people, and clarity of conscience. We have to have a hope that is rooted in Christ. Some days, it’s hard for some people to find any reason to go on. But even when everything seems to be falling apart, there is still Christ. Even if we think we are worthless, we certainly are not, because God created us in his image, and sent his Son to redeem us. We have been purchased at a very great cost, and so it is with this confidence in Christ’s love for us that we can be hopeful people who look toward the future with conviction and courage. But even in doing that, we are called to be gentle and reverent to all. We have absolutely no business being engaged in racism, hatred, or even moral self-righteousness. We are made good and redeemed by God, but so is everyone else on the planet. We have no right to treat anyone with anything less than gentleness and reverence. And finally, we are to be people of clean conscience. This means avoiding scandal, not getting caught up in anything remotely immoral, always providing all people with a holy example, so that no one will be led astray. This means we have to flee all sorts of evils, all kinds of obstacles that would and will drag us down if we let them. In hope, reverence, gentleness, and clarity of conscience, the Christian believer is marked by holiness of life.
Finally, the believer’s life is marked by love. In the last two sentences of the Gospel reading today, Jesus uses the word “love” four distinct times. Listen again: “Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me. And whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and reveal myself to him.” As my father used to say, “actions speak louder than words,” and so the love we are called to is a love that is evident by the way that we live and the way that we treat others, more so than a sentimental, warm fuzzy love where we’re all joining hands and singing “Kumbaya.” Jesus is very specific here that the love we are called to is a love that begins with God and returns to God, a love that manifests itself in following the commandments. The commandments of Jesus are also wrapped up in love. Remember that in Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus is asked which of the commandments is most important, he says, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment.
The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39)
So Jesus tells us today that we are called to love by keeping his commandments, and these commandments consist in loving God and neighbor, the commandment that distinguishes the Judaeo-Christian way of life. In today’s Gospel, it almost seems like it’s a quid-pro-quo kind of love: “whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and reveal myself to him.” But we know this is not true. We can love each other and love God because God loved us first, and loves us best. Even when we are clearly unworthy of it, God’s love still draws us back to him. We celebrate a season of God’s love right now: we remember that nothing, not even the cross and grave could stand in the way of God’s love for us. What is happening in today’s Gospel is that Jesus is calling us to love in that same way. Our love, too, must be unconditional, sacrificial, laying down our lives for one another and for our witness to God in Christ. The Christian believer’s life is marked by love.
I’m sure at this point you’re thinking, “thanks Father Pat, none of this makes me feel like living the Christian life is any easier, any closer to something I can do.” And you’re right. You can’t. I can’t. None of us is ever capable of persistent, abiding joy, of holiness of life, or of unconditional, sacrificial love all on our own. We just don’t have the capability for that kind of living. But the good news is that we don’t have to be the ones to do it. We who often fail to find joy in our living, we who struggle for holiness of life and fall flat on our face on our better days, we who yearn to be able to love as we are loved, we are given the incredible grace of the Holy Spirit to be able to make it happen. Having converted Samaria to the faith, the early Christian community sent them Peter and John. When they got there, they prayed for the newly-baptized Samaritans and it was then that they received the Holy Spirit. In our Gospel today, Jesus says, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth…” We who are baptized in Christ and anointed with the spirit have the special grace to be surprised by joy seemingly out of nowhere, to find strength to make a difficult choice for holiness of life, and to love those in our lives that are sometimes seemingly unlovable. We do all of this guided by the strength and grace of the Holy Spirit, who is just as much a part of our lives as the air we breathe. This gift of the Holy Spirit is why the Psalmist today can sing, “Come and see the works of God, his tremendous deeds among the children of Adam.” And we can reply, “Alleluia! Let all the earth cry out to God with joy! Alleluia!”