The readings today are an interesting look at the early church. In acts, we see that the apostles calling together the community to resolve the issue of everyone being served. 7 Greek men were chosen and we see a description of an ordination and the beginning of an order of servers, especially for the Greek converts, who we later called deacons. But think about it, the church started with the twelve apostles and Jesus’ close disciples. As their numbers grew they set up convenient ways for the community to meet and carry on and to spread the word. Many were practical spur of the moment decisions meant to solidify the community and spread the word. Of course, humanity, being what it is, took these decisions and institutionalized them building a huge structure that probably would confound the apostles themselves. In fact, the message is service and is as important today as in the early church. The mission is to bring Christ’s love and his way so all may come to believe.
The gospel today is Jesus’ farewell speech. It is kind of fascinating as he is a man standing in two places, a door between two realities. As he stands with his disciples, he is trying to show and explain his father’s house. It is a place of many dwellings. He says he is going to prepare a place for each of his followers. When it is ready and time, he will return and bring them to that place. But even at the end of his time on earth, his disciples were confused. Who was the Father, what was the way? Jesus said he and the Father are One. If you see Jesus you see the Father. Jesus has been given to us to see and know the Father. He becomes the way, the visible means of knowing and pursuing the Father. Knowing Jesus and doing his works is the way to the Father. Simple, yes but at the same time complex in that it requires our faith, our commitment, our “I believe” and our living it out. To speak the words is easy, to live it out is a life’s work.
The readings today on the 4th Sunday of Easter seem misplace as the reading from Acts is from Pentecost Sunday and the Gospel is from the time of Christ’s ministry. However, if we step back and look at the readings from the perspective of the resurrection we can get a look at the all encompassing love of God for the world through his Son Jesus. As members of his church or flock, we have an intimate connection with him and with each other and ultimately all believers and people we care about. God’s love embraces all and includes forgiveness if we open our hearts and forgive as Jesus does. Love can conquer and cover over many things and bring unbelievers and sinners closer and in some way within the circle of God’s love. Is it not so that God love every one and actually turns no one away. The interruption of a relationship with God is not the doing of God,but the rejection or walking away of someone. God is like a father who sadly accepts rejection but is always loving and ready to forgive. What more powerful proof of this could there be than the very life, death, resurrection and ascension of his Son. If this life-giving, loving act can not be accepted, then what is left? All of history seemingly revolves around that very act. Humanity has been slow to believe and share and spread the word, but God still is looking out for the world in ways we don’t understand. What we need to do is to reach out and embrace others with love, as in doing so we are sharing God’s love and even spreading his forgiveness and hopefully spreading his word. It is what the Lord commanded, to love each other as he loved us.
Promises and Blessings, Now and Then
Last Sunday we read the Emmaus story, in which Jesus walks with two disciples. They do not recognize him, but “he interpreted to them (the parts which) referred to him in all the scriptures.” Later they say, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?” Today our situation is the similar. I cannot tell you how many years I heard Peter’s Pentecost homily with my eyes glazing over as I wondered where those scripture quotations came from, what they meant, and how they were relevant. Without interpretation, our readings do not come to us full of meaning and context.
This interpretation is complicated by our readings jumping around in the scriptures during the Easter Season. If we read the text of the New Testament book “The Acts of the Apostles” straight thru, we would have already read of the Ascension. We would have read also about the after-Easter period of prayer for apostles, Jesus’ mother Mary and his brothers, and the other women who had been part of Jesus’ ministry. Then The Spirit came at Pentecost, the very day that Peter proclaims his homily. We read part of his homily last week and part today.
When he begins, Peter quotes the Old Testament book of Joel. The prophet Joel uses a terrifying invasion of locusts as a visual starting place for his teaching. He compares the arrival of the locusts to the last days of the world, also called “the coming of the Lord”. Basically, he’s saying that the locusts will destroy all the crops and the nation will starve to death if God doesn’t save them. This could be the “end of their days”- a euphemism for death. So, says Joel, why don’t you humble yourselves before God, cast aside your senseless reliance on yourself, shed your false pride, and admit your frailty and powerlessness, for your only hope is to call out for God’s grace and mercy. And the people do just that.
God responds to them, promising to remove the locusts, restore the crops and give them all the food they can eat. In addition, (God is always lavish in blessing us) God promises to pour out his Spirit on the people, even down to the lowliest servants, and rescue (save) “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord” in the last days. God says, “For on Mount Zion, (the temple hill in Jerusalem)…in Jerusalem there will be survivors- whom the Lord shall call.” This pouring out of God’s Spirit and call from God (remember Pentecost was also an auditory experience), foretold in Joel, is happening as Peter speaks from the temple hill in Jerusalem!
Peter tells the Joel story to create these parallels between Joel’s day and Pentecost. Peter began by saying, “let the whole house of Israel know for certain” (“the whole house of Israel” refers to those who are saved in the Last Days) “that God has made Jesus both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified. The people of Joel’s day were saved by humbling themselves and calling on the Lord’s mercy. Now something new has happened. Now Jesus is “Lord”, God. In other words, the people hearing Peter must humble themselves and call on the mercy of Jesus to forgive them for their sins, including the crucifixion. How do the people call on the Lord Jesus’ mercy? They must be baptized in Jesus’ name and receive the gift of God’s Holy Spirit.
But Peter isn’t done yet. He says, “For the Promise is made to you …and to all those far off, whomever the Lord our God will call.” Who are the ones “far off”? That’s us, the Gentiles. What is “the Promise”? Think; who was the “father of faith” that God made all those promises to? You know, “as countless as the stars in the sky”. Abraham was promised in Genesis 22:18, “In your descendants all the nations of the earth shall find blessing.” How do they find blessing? The blessing, according to both Luke (Acts) and Paul (in Galatians 3: 2-9), is in baptism & the gift of the Spirit.
Peter still has more to say. The passage in the 1st Letter of St. Peter, that is our 2nd reading, is a pretty clear interpretation of the “Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52 thru 53. That is obvious because Peter quotes verse 53:12 “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” What is Peter’s goal here? The Jews taught that this was about the prophet Isaiah, as a witness to all the nations. Peter interprets it as about Jesus, who came to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy. Isaiah was the warm-up band, not the main attraction. Jesus is the sinless servant, who willingly suffered for the sins of the people, who saves them – us- from just punishment for sin. This is the source of Christian teaching that the sufferings of Jesus healed us, he gave his life for us and accomplished God’s will. Jesus bore our guilt and won pardon for our offenses. Peter says, (We) “had gone astray like sheep, but have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of (our) souls.”
Finally, our Gospel is primarily an interpretation of Ezekiel 34, (well worth reading, hint, hint) although there are certainly many other scriptural references to shepherds. That is too much to cover today, but I want to make just one point about shepherds. Usually, the Jewish priesthood and religious leaders are targeted as the “Bad” shepherds. But in that same 1st Peter 2:9 we find, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of God’s own, so that you may announce the praises of God who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” Not just priests and leaders, but each and every one of us has a responsibility to examine our words and behaviors in the light of God’s truth. Part of doing that is to take very seriously our scriptures along with our Catholic Tradition, with a capital T, so we have a fuller grasp of the gifts and grace God has lavished on us, who were once “far off”, now drawing ever nearer to the Lord of all.
Two distraught, downtrodden, defeated men were walking to Emmaus. A stranger joined them and their conversation came alive and something was different, but what they didn’t know. A shared dinner was about to begin when the Stranger broke the bread, they recognized Jesus but then he was gone. The question I have for you today is, do you even see the people who come into your life. In church, every time we gather, we break the same bread, we share the same blood. Jesus is here he comes to us, we share his body and his blood. Can you feel and believe that presence here and now? Yes, this is my Body, this is my blood given for you. He is here, not only on the altar, but among us and in every one of us intimately sharing the Holy Spirit with us. Remember how often he reminded us that he is in everyone? How can we forget that he said what the least you do to anyone, you do it to me? His love, his life calls out to us in so many ways for us to respond. In the history of the Jews, God prepared them for the coming of his Son, but how little were they prepared to recognize him because they had their own selfish expectations of who and what the Messiah would be. What they wanted or expected was an earthly ruler along the lines of David or greater. This is a great lesson here, for how often do we pray for one thing or another. How often do we presume to ask for exactly our need as we want it, literally not really knowing what is best for us. What we must learn is to know and accept that God cares and gives what is best for us, not always what we expect or sometimes even want. His love is such he knows what is good and most importantly what we need. He knows and understands disappointment, pain, and even suffering. None of these, even in their difficulties can remove a certain inner peace and strength born of our faith and the presence of the risen Lord and his Spirit.
Let us remember, his presence is real and all around us. He should enliven our hearts and our actions to all we meet and come across each day. In this we can find joy and fulfillment.