Sunday, May 25, 2014

Year A Sixth Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 8:5-8. 14-17; Ps 66:1-7.16.20; 1 Pet 3:15-18; John 14:15-21

Last Sunday, in our first reading from Acts, we heard about the apostles, who, after a period of discernment on their part and that of the earliest Christian community in Jerusalem, laid hands on seven men who, ever since, the Church has celebrated as the first deacons. In our first reading today we hear about Philip, one of those men. It seems that Philip, sometime after being set apart, left Jerusalem and set out for the city of Samaria, which was in the province of the same name. Once in Samaria, Philip began to proclaim Christ to the inhabitants. Additionally, he performed healings, both physical and spiritual. Just as on the day of Pentecost, people responded to the Gospel by being baptized. In order that those who came to believe might also be baptized with the Holy Spirit, the apostles Peter and John came from Jerusalem “that they [the new Samaritan believers] might receive the Holy Spirit, for it had not yet fallen upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:15b-17).

Even prior to the arrival of Peter and John, the author of Acts noted, “There was great joy in that city” (Acts 8:8). Indeed, my brothers and sisters in Christ, the Gospel, the Good News, brings great joy. Being here together on this glorious Sunday of Easter should make us joyful, should cause us to rejoice. Think of the words we sang just a few moments ago:
Let all the earth cry out to God with joy. Let all on earth worship and sing praise to you, sing praise to your name! Come and see the works of God, his tremendous deeds among the children of Adam (Ps 66)
One of the unique features of joy is that it is contagious. Authentic joy cannot be contained. True joy comes from God, through Christ, and is, as St. Paul noted in his Letter to the Galatians, one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:22). Like Philip the fired up deacon, we are exhorted in our second reading from 1 Peter to “Sanctify Christ as Lord in [our] hearts” (1 Pet 3:15). An entire class, a week-long retreat could be given on what it means for each one of us to “sanctify Christ as Lord in [our] hearts.”

I don’t want to get too academic, but I think it is worth noting that the Greek word translated here as “sanctify” is hagiazo, which, in this context, means to separate from profane things and dedicate to one’s self entirely to Christ, to living His teachings.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the most influential philosophers of the past century, at the beginning of a rather surprising passage on what it means to have faith in Christ’s resurrection, wrote about what it means to “sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts.” He began by citing 1 Corinthians 12:3, where St Paul wrote, “And no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the holy Spirit.” After noting the truthfulness of these words, Wittgenstein went on to say of himself, “I cannot call him Lord… I could call him ‘the paragon,’ ‘God’ even – or rather, I can understand it when he called thus; but I cannot utter the word ‘Lord’ with meaning.” The reason he gave for not being able to utter the word “Lord” in reference to Jesus with meaning was because he did not believe that Jesus, as we recite in the Apostles Creed, is going to return to “judge the living and the dead.” He insisted that particular belief “says nothing to me.” He ended this part of his reflection on a curious, but telling, note: “And it could say something to me, only if I lived completely differently” (Culture and Value, 33e).

Just as Christ “was brought to life in the Spirit” (1 Peter 3:18) through what He suffered, by our dying and rising with Him in Baptism and by receiving the fullness of the Spirit in Confirmation, the effect of which, as our reading from Acts today shows, “is the special outpouring of the Holy Spirit as once granted to the apostles on the day of Pentecost" (CCC 1302), we too are to live Spirit-filled lives.

In our Gospel for this Sixth Sunday of Easter, which is taken from Jesus’ Last Supper discourse in St. John’s Gospel, after enjoining His disciples to keep His commandments, which can summarized as, love one another as I have loved you (John 13:34-35), He promised not to abandon them, but to send the Holy Spirit. Cutting to the chase, it is by the power of the Holy Spirit that we have come to know Christ. Knowing Jesus Christ, sanctifying Him as Lord in your heart, is how you know the Spirit is “in” you. Because we have the Holy Spirit we are the ones who make Jesus visible now. Knowing Jesus is Lord by the power of the Holy Spirit is the singular source of our joy because knowing Him is what infuses life with purpose and meaning. At the end of a somewhat similar passage in the very next chapter of St John’s Gospel, after, once again exhorting His disciples to keep His commandments, Jesus said, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete” (John 15:11).

In his wonderful book The Lion’s World: A Journey Into The Heart of Narnia, Dr. Rowan Williams noted that the purpose of our lives is joy, to be joyful, joy-filled, and not only eventually in the eternal bye-and-bye, but even now amidst life's trials and strains. Writing of this joy, Williams pointed out:
If joy is thought of first as the gratification of the will, we are hardly likely to grasp the idea that it is only 'solid' and 'lasting' (in the words of a familiar hymn) if it is the fruit of participation in what is not the will or ego - if it is what comes from the contact with something radically other, whether finite or infinite in its otherness. Lewis wants to persuade us that we are to find our fulfilment in receiving rather than in demanding (69)
When we were confirmed, while being called by name, as we were in Baptism, while at the same time being anointed with Sacred Chrism, then these words were spoken: “Be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit.” My friends, this was your invitation to joy. In a few moments we will together receive, not take, but receive, the Eucharist. In our receiving, may we, once again sanctify Jesus Christ as Lord in our hearts so that we may be re-filled with that joy, that fruit of the Holy Spirit, which we just can’t keep to ourselves, that joy we simply must share and that causes us to live in a completely different way, the way of God’s love, the Way that is Jesus Christ.

In light of what Fr Martin preached on few weeks ago, namely our need to be both sacerdotal and presbyteral here in our parish, we can’t simply park it there. Hand-in-hand with that goes being more diaconal, that is, serving others. This past week I came across the question, “What difference does it make that my parish exists in my community?” Of course, our being here should make all the difference in the world. I do think this parish makes a huge difference here in the downtown community. In light of that, it seems to me that the question for each of us is, What difference does my being a member of this parish make? Stated differently, How do I, or how can I, be of service? It is in giving that we receive. What we receive from giving is joy. Joy is the realization that I don’t exist for myself, but for God by selflessly serving others.

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