Fifth Sunday of Easter - May 18, 2014
The mystery of our spiritual union with Christ lies at the heart of the liturgy for the Fifth Sunday of Easter this year. In the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles (6:1-7), we learn that a clear perception of the diversity of offices and duties in the first apostolic community arose very quickly.
In verses 1-7, the Hellenists were not necessarily Jews from the diaspora, but were more probably Palestinian Jews who spoke only Greek. The Hebrews were Palestinian Jews who spoke Hebrew or Aramaic and who may also have spoken Greek. Both groups belong to the Jerusalem Jewish Christian community. The conflict between them leads to a restructuring of the community that will better serve the community's needs.
Service of the Word
The essential function of the Twelve (2-4) is the "service of the word," including development of the kerygma by formulation of the teachings of Jesus. In verse 2 we read: “It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve at table.” Some scripture commentators think that it is not the serving of food that is described here but rather the keeping of the books that recorded the distribution of food to the needy members of the community. At the Apostles' invitation the disciples chose seven men: "Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas and Nicolaus. The Apostles prayed over them and laid their hands upon them" (5-6).
The real purpose of this whole episode is to introduce Stephen as a prominent figure in the community whose long speech and martyrdom will be recounted in Acts 7. After Stephen and the others are chosen, they are never presented carrying out the task for which they were appointed (2-3). Rather, two of their number, Stephen and Philip, are presented as preachers of the Christian message. Stephen is the most representative of the group of seven companions. Our tradition sees in this group the origins of the future ministry of "deacons", although we should keep in mind that this particular ministerial distinction is not present in the Acts of the Apostles.
Let us remember that in addition to charitable work, Stephen carried out the work of evangelization among his own people- the so-called "Hellenists". Luke insists on the fact that Stephen, "full of grace and power" (8), presented in Jesus' Name a new interpretation of Moses and of God's Law itself. Stephen reread the Old Testament in the light of the proclamation of Christ's death and Resurrection.
One of the powerful lessons we learn from Stephen's witness is that charitable social works must never be separated from the bold, explicit and courageous proclamation of the faith. There is no question that Stephen was one of the seven entrusted with the works of charity. But it was impossible to separate charity and faith. Thus, with charity, he proclaimed the crucified Christ, even unto his own martyrdom. Charity and the proclamation of faith always go hand in hand.
Christ the cornerstone
Today’s second reading from the First Letter of Peter (2:4-9) presents us with the striking image of Christ who is the cornerstone that is the foundation of the spiritual edifice of the Christian community (5). To unbelievers, Christ is an obstacle and a stumbling block on which they are destined to fall (8). Christ who is "the living stone" of the "spiritual house" will transform us too into "living stones" (5). Each time we gather together in Church, we, as the community of faith, the "living stones" of God’s edifice, are called to be the true "spiritual house" of which the Lord is the "cornerstone" and in which are offered "the spiritual sacrifices which Jesus Christ has made acceptable to God" (6).
A community of living stones
I recall my first visit to the site of Capernaum on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee back in 1988. I was privileged to be guided that day by one of my mentors and great friends, the late Passionist Fr. Carroll Stuhlmueller who was teaching at Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union. Fr. Stuhmueller gave us a marvelous teaching on the “Bread of Life” discourses in the ruins of the third century synagogue in the center of the town. He then led us through the narrow streets of Jesus’ home base in Galilee, pointing out to us how the dwellings of the town were built of small, blackish stones. It appeared that no mortar kept these stones together. He told the small group with him that these were called "living stones." They were rubbed together until they fit together perfectly. That image has remained with me ever since. I always found it to be a very apt image of the church today- a community of living stones – where are all-too-frequent friction is actually useful for the whole edifice. It is only when we rub up against one another or are forced to do so, that we learn what real charity and real community are all about. Only then are we able to grow and change and to fit together in a way that is strong, sturdy and durable for the long haul.
Jesus’ master building project
In the second reading, Peter suggests that, "like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood." So we offer ourselves to God as living stones, but just what is this "spiritual house" that's being built? That leads us to today’s Gospel (John 14:1-12). John’s Gospel presents us with the other house – in fact a mansion with many dwelling places. Is it not natural to assume that "My Father's house" refers to heaven, and that the "many dwelling places" are the places in heaven that await each of us as we move from earthly life into the next? It is a viable and a beautiful interpretation of this passage, and we should allow it to penetrate our hearts especially in lonely and troubling moments when we have lost a loved one. But we cannot limit the text only to moments of loss.
Jesus is concerned not only with the afterlife but with the here and now. When Jesus spoke to his disciples at the last supper about “many dwelling places,” he was also speaking to them about the present moment. The disciples and the early Church needed to hear that they would be able to carry out their mission and ministry even after Jesus ascended to the Father. Jesus says, "Let not your hearts be troubled . . . in my Father's house there are many dwelling places." Not one place, but many! The Lord has gone ahead of us to prepare many places, even for those who are “outside” the Church community. In his day, Jesus went out of his way to prepare a room for all, especially for those for whom no one else would make room. The master building project of Jesus is one that makes a home of many rooms for the variety of God’s people. And this dwelling of many rooms is built with living stones.
Foretelling his departure
At several moments during this Paschal season, Jesus foretells his departure – his ascension and return to the Father. Let us recall those moments. First at the Last Supper: "When Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world to the Father...knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God..." (Jn 13:1-3). Jesus had in mind his death which was already near, and yet he was looking beyond that and spoke such words in view of his imminent departure, of his return to the Father through the ascension into heaven: "Now I am going to him who sent me" (Jn 16:5); "I go to the Father, and you will see me no more" (Jn 16:10). At that time the disciples could not fully comprehend what Jesus had in mind, all the more so since he spoke in a mysterious way: "I go away and I will come to you," and then he added: "If you loved me, you would have rejoiced because I go to the Father; for the Father is greater than I" (Jn 14:28). After his resurrection the disciples would understand these words as a prophecy of his ascension into heaven.
Thomas’ question to Jesus: “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” expresses the concern felt by every human being when awakened to a sense of responsibility for the life that God has so generously given us, when faced with the need to give direction to life’s activities. When Jesus identifies himself as “the way”, this expression is also a designation of Christianity (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22.) In the early Church, Christians were known as the followers of the Way.
Challenges in transmitting the faith today
In light of today’s rich readings, I would like to refer to another section of the Lineamenta (preparatory document) for the Synod of Bishops on “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith.” The Synod will took place in October 2012 at the Vatican. This particular section deals with “The Fruits of Transmitting the Faith (#17).”
“The goal of the entire process of transmitting the faith is to make the Church a community of witnesses of the Gospel. Pope Paul VI states: "She is the community of believers, the community of hope lived and communicated, the community of brotherly love, and she needs to listen unceasingly to what she must believe, to her reasons for hoping, to the new commandment of love. She is the People of God immersed in the world, and often tempted by idols, and she always needs to hear the proclamation of the 'mighty works of God' which converted her to the Lord; she always needs to be called together afresh by Him and reunited. In brief, this means that she has a constant need of being evangelized, if she wishes to retain freshness, vigor and strength in order to proclaim the Gospel.”
“The results of this ongoing project of evangelization, which are generated in the Church as a sign of the life-giving power of the Gospel, take concrete form in the responses given to the challenges of our times. Families need to become true and real signs of love and sharing, with a capacity to hope in virtue of their openness to life. Forces are needed in building communities which have a true ecumenical spirit and are capable of dialogue with other religions. Courage is needed to sustain initiatives of social justice and solidarity, which put the poor at the centre of the Church's concern. Joy needs to be more evident in the dedication of one's life to a vocation to the priesthood or the consecrated life. A Church which transmits her faith, a Church of the "new evangelization", is capable in every situation of demonstrating that the Spirit guides her and transforms the history of the Church, of individual Christians and of entire peoples and their culture.”
Questions for reflection this week
Recalling that charity and the proclamation of faith always go hand in hand, how do our charitable efforts and activities and programs of social justice offer us distinct opportunities to proclaim Jesus Christ and his message to those we are assisting?
How are our Christian communities “living stones”, places in the Church which provide people with a spiritual experience? To what extent do our faith programs have as an objective not only the intellectual adherence to Christian truth, but also the creation of an experience of a personal encounter, communion and "living" the mystery of Christ?
How have listening and discussion groups on the Word of God becoming common tools in the Christian life of our communities? How do our communities express the centrality of the Eucharist (celebrated and adored), and, based on this, program their life and activity?
What major fruits have been produced in our Churches through the transmission of the faith? How much are individual Christian communities prepared to acknowledge these fruits, to sustain them and to nourish them? What fruits are greatly lacking?
What obstacles, trials and scandals impede this proclamation? How have communities learned to live these moments by drawing from them opportunities for spiritual and missionary renewal?