Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts 14:21-27 | Revelations 21:1-5a | John 13:31-33a, 34-35
Almighty, everliving God, constantly accomplish the Paschal mystery within us that those you have pleased to make new in holy baptism may, under your protective care, bear much fruit and come to the joy of life eternal. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
You may have noticed that in these Sundays of Easter we no longer are reading the first reading from the Old Testament but rather the Acts of the Apostles, which is an interesting work, because it is a description of the way in which the church evolved, how it began to take form. It’s so interesting to me, because it focuses on gatherings, gatherings of the disciples with followers and the celebrations that they felt, how enthusiastic they were, how they saw people change, and you see in that first reading of today’s liturgy, you see the church being formed. There’s these credible, spirit-filled disciples, and they’re going around, and they’re finding communities of people so excited about this new way of life. And then they’re leaving people there to guide them, like elders, and in a way, it’s the beginning of the institutional church.
What’s so interesting to me about all institutions is they have a kind of shadow that they have to struggle with. It seems like they all begin with the intention of being of service to some cause, some need, some work, and then corruption can slowly slip in. They end up being not so much focused on a ministry but somehow protecting themselves, and it’s so interesting that the early church was founded on the collapse of an institution, the temple. One of the things about the temple that always strikes me is that it was a place where God dwelt, and therefore those who ran the temple, in a way, had the advantage of being enabled to connect with God. Then they would share that connection with people, and they became a kind of intermediary. Then they would, in a sense, dole out the grace, the forgiveness of God. It had gotten so bad that they were anything but real teachers. They were not putting people in touch with God, and Jesus was so clear in his condemnation of the Pharisees, blind guides, blind people leading other blind people into a pit. They did not see who they were or what they were there for.
So we see in the second reading a kind of — sort of battle cry, in a way, of those who came to overthrow the temple and its authority. The description is so clear in the vision of John in the Book of Revelations. He’s seeing the proclamation that this God no longer dwells simply in a place that is run by a certain group of people who can then make people available or make God available to them. No, God’s dwelling is in us. God’s dwelling is in his people, and it’s so interesting that that indwelling presence of God was given so generously, so freely that it was never considered to be something that you had to earn or be cleansed for in order to receive it. The receiving of it was a cleansing. So there was a radical shift, not only in where God is but what it takes to receive him, and it’s interesting to me — I grew up in the church of the ‘40s and ‘50s and then experienced the Vatican Council. I remember one of the major changes in the council was the way it saw the work of laity and, in particular, the holiness of the laity. It was saying very clearly in those documents of Vatican II that this incredible, incredible acknowledgement of the presence of God in our lives was to be done by a person who received it as a gift, not as somebody who worked and struggled and sort of renounced all of the things that weren’t really of God and then, in a way, earned this indwelling presence. No, it was given to human beings as they were, and nothing is more clear in the scriptures than who it was given to. It was given to the gentiles, the outcasts, the sinners, the no-goods, the broken people, the poor people. That just ran in the face of everything that the Old Testament was grounded on in terms of the temple and the requirements of the law. You see why they were so excited.
In fact, it’s interesting. The synoptic are like a three-part play, each of them with the same theme. The God/man comes into the world and saves us and fills us with divinity, and in Matthew, the focus in that first act, you’d say, is the fact that God is telling each and every person what is true. So in Matthew’s gospel, we’re all learners, students, receiving wisdom, and in Mark, it’s different. We’re followers. He talks about what it’s like, once you believe and understand the truth, how your life changes, and then Luke, the one we have now in this cycle of the church year, we have this wonderful image of people being so celebratory about this incredible, wonderful thing that’s happened, how glorious it is what God has done.
So in John’s reading today, we see this beautiful image of God announcing through him, through this vision, “Tell the world. God has come, and his dwelling is within you. Don’t go looking for him somewhere, but go within.” And this indwelling presence is what transforms us, and it’s not up to us and our human will and our discipline to prepare ourselves to receive it. No, his presence is what transforms us, very important. So we see that truth being celebrated in this vision of John, and then you see the response in Luke’s gospel. “God, you are so glorious. What a glorious thing. You have given us glory also. You have promised us something. You’ve come to give us this new life, and we are just overwhelmed by it. Your glory is you choosing to live within us, and our glory is our willingness to accept it.” What a perfect description of those early celebrations when people got together to break bread and drink wine. They must have been always so celebratory. “This is all happening to us. Can you believe it? Can you believe it?” And sharing stories, which would have been like the scriptures we use today, sharing stories about the transformation in people, how compassion and empathy started to well up in communities, and people were shocked as they watched these Christians do things that didn’t make any sense to the old law, where you weren’t supposed to help people who were being punished by God by their suffering. And so they saw something so radically new. It must have been so wonderful, those early celebrations, and yet we call the very celebration we have now, the Eucharist, we call it thanksgiving. We’re supposed to come together week after week and celebrate with a community these wonderful things that are going on in our lives. It’s so interesting that instead of that we often come together and try to figure out what the scriptures mean and then go through a ritual that is very routine. Sometimes it has this really intention of relaxing us and putting us in a kind of zone, and sometimes that zone, we go off into what we have to do later that day and what we have to take care of this week. Our minds drift, go through a ritual of eating and drinking this gift of God’s presence, and it tends to be routine. “Did I leave my purse back there? Should I get it back?” We’re human. It’s okay. It’s okay, but that’s why the scriptures come back over and over again and try to engage us in the beginning of this incredible thing we call spirituality. Spirituality, it’s not being holy. It’s not being good. It’s about a way of life.
I want to stress something. I mentioned Vatican II and its insistence on the dignity of the human person to receive holiness as a gift, not to earn it, but that council went on to say a lot of things about us, the laity. I find it interesting now, where we’re surrounded by news of our hierarchy. Their failure, perhaps, to be transparent is at least a big issue in the press, to say the least, and so many people, when they see the hierarchy failing in some way, it threatens their whole sort of sense of the integrity of the church. Like, “Oh, my gosh. What if they’re not telling the truth? Where do we go? They’re the professionals. They’re the ones that are modeling for us a way of life.” But that’s really not the church. It’s not what we’ve been taught. It’s not what — in a way, I would say, Vatican II gave us a way to imagine what we’re in now, and if it weren’t for Vatican II, I don’t know if we could have done it the way we are invited to do it now, with forgiveness and understanding and not letting it threaten our existence as a valid representation of Christ, the church. The church doesn’t seem to have the integrity that it should have if it represents God, but does the church really find its full representation in the hierarchy and in the clergy? Not really. If you look at our tradition, the real promise in the New Testament and in the gospels is each individual, each person that opens themselves to this mysterious indwelling of God as they are, they find themselves evolving very quickly, being transformed into people that are like the Christ. That’s what nurtures, creates, sustains this thing we call church. It’s the laity, and it’s not to say the hierarchy is not important. They have a very important role, but the church is really formed by the witness of the transformation that is happening in people who claim to believe in this thing that seems almost impossible to believe in, that God is living inside of me, and I’ve been changed. My ability to do things, which I didn’t have before, I now have, because he’s in me. And I don't know how to describe this mysterious union, but it’s like becoming one with something, someone.
So it’s not that we go around preaching and teaching all the time, Francis’ great line about preach and teach the gospel always, only now and then or when necessary use words. So when you look at it, I guarantee, most people are drawn to Christianity because of Christians, and most people leave Christianity because of Christians, not because of the institution, but the institution has a role and a responsibility to witness something that they seem to be failing at today. But nevertheless, it’s still important for you and for me to recognize what is the plan of God, the heart of God. He enters into human beings. He transforms us. We become more like him, and as we witness that to each other, the power and the strength of this mysterious thing we call grace gets stronger and stronger and stronger. It’s all done, in a way, by each of us engaging in a spirituality, a spiritual life. I spent so many years of my life trying to get rid of all my weaknesses and all my failings so I could somehow represent God to the world, and I don’t think people are that impressed with people that are so pure and so holy that they don’t really fall into the trap of what everybody else falls into. That other-world holiness thing has never been very effective, but what is effective is seeing someone just like me, with all the same faults and frailties and mistakes and foul language or whatever, doing things beyond what a normal human being does. We see it so often in tragedies. We see it in school shootings and those kinds of things where people become heroes, and they’re selfless and care for others and go way beyond what normal human nature might do in terms of self-preservation and self-interest. You see that, and you say, “Oh, wow. This is so encouraging. That’s the church.” It doesn’t matter what religion it is. It doesn’t matter which denomination, rather. It’s people loving and living selflessly and, somehow in that act, transforming other people to live selflessly and transform others. That’s where it is. Maybe this day and age we’re in is a call to look at that more seriously and to take hope that we are truly the church.
Father, your presence is our ticket. The ride is the life you’re calling us to live, that’s like the life you lived, loving, forgiving, healing. It’s our destiny, our surrender, our acceptance, our belief that this presence in us is so effective, so powerful, and the task is just to allow you to flow through us. We enjoy accomplishing things, and in this case, we have to enjoy you accomplishing things through us. And we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.