Sunday, 22 April 2018

Easter Week 4 Sunday (Year B)

We have already received so much. We have been introduced to Jesus and have been given the name which is above all other names. We have been adopted as children of God, sons and daughters of the Father, brothers and sisters of Christ. We have been called to belong to his sheepfold: he has called us by name, we belong to him, hear his voice and he leads us out. It is a matter then of knowledge, love and unity. These are themes in the readings of today’s Mass.

It is a bit of a cliché that we are all supposed to be mortally offended at being compared to sheep. Preachers often begin their preaching on today, Good Shepherd Sunday, by rehearsing this cliché. Offended though we may be, it remains very difficult to stand up and to stand out from the crowd where courage is needed and we fear that others will be offended or angered by what we have to say. We can always take the comparison with sheep this way: we are creatures that need to be cared for, comforted, protected, ministered to in various ways. If we decide that we are not creatures who are needy in these ways then there are consequences, not only psychological but spiritual.

A renewal programme in ministry and theology used to invite participants to take it in order to ‘minister to yourself’. But this is precisely what we cannot do. We need humility to allow ourselves to be ministered to, we need the openness to receive and to accept what others have to offer us.

The kind of life we are now speaking about consists in knowledge, love and unity. These are the themes of the Good Shepherd discourse.  ‘I know my own and mine know me’, Jesus says, ‘just as I know the Father and the Father knows me’. ‘I lay down my life for my sheep – greater love has no man than this’ and ‘having loved his own, he loved them to the end’. ‘That they may be one’, he prays in John 17, that the scattered sheep may be brought back into unity, all of humanity (all those ‘other sheep that are not of this flock’) are to be brought into unity.

We have already received so much and so are not only sheep needing to be cared for but also, at the same time, shepherds entrusted with the care of others. It is the calling of each person who follows Christ, of everyone who belongs to the priestly people. What we normally refer to as the ministerial priesthood is there not just for practical reasons but in order to give us sacramental signs within the community of knowledge, love and unity, signs that this life of the community is not natural but supernatural.

Easter Week 4 Sunday (Year B)

-->Readings: Acts 4:8-12; Ps 117; 1 John 3:1-2;John 10:1-10

In describing himself as a good shepherd and his followers as sheep, Jesus emphasises the intimacy and warmth of the relationship they have with him. The heart of this relationship is mutual knowledge and love: ‘I know my own and my own know me’. That would be significant enough but Jesus adds ‘just as the Father knows me and I know the Father’. In many passages in the Gospel of John the little word ‘as’ reveals the height and depth of the relationship with God that Jesus has made possible: love one another as I have loved you; as I am in the Father and the Father is in me so may you be completely one in us; as the Father sent me, so I send you.
The intimacy of this relationship is seen in other ways. The good shepherd calls his sheep and they recognise his voice. Peter says in the first reading that there is no name other than the name of Jesus by which we can be saved. When Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene after his resurrection the moment of recognition is when he calls her by her name. Then she knows who it is, and knows also that she is known. The relationship with Christ in this life is in a glass darkly, Saint Paul says, but a time will come ‘when we will know even as we have been known’.
Saint John’s way of putting this is: ‘we do not know what we are to be in the future, except that we shall be like him because we shall see him as he really is’. This echoes an idea in ancient philosophy that the person who wants to look at the highest reality must become like that reality, must have an eye, mind, or soul, adapted to such a vision. Jesus adds something extraordinary to this: he teaches us that the highest reality is already looking at us, knowing us and loving us, calling us into being and calling us by name. It is not, then, that we must make an effort to draw God into a relationship with us (that would be paganism) but that God has alerted us to the relationship he wants us to have with him. And he has firmly established that relationship between humanity and himself in the sacrifice of the only Son.
The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. This is another way in which we see that this relationship with the good shepherd is a relationship of love. Jesus is committed to his disciples, fully given for them. The Eucharist shows this most clearly, the gift he gave them on the eve of his death so that they might remember his sacrifice. That sacrifice originates, he says, not in any justice to which God must be obedient, but simply and completely in the love of the Father and the Son. ‘The Father loves me because I lay down my life. I lay it down of my own free will and this is the command I have been given by my Father’.
The relationship of intimacy and warmth into which we are invited is the relationship between the Father and the Son. It is their mutual knowledge and love, what we call ‘the Holy Spirit’. Their knowing and loving is the foundation stone of our lives, our point of reference in all things, the originating source of the new creation, and the ground on which to build our lives.
There are other sheep that are not of this fold. It is not immediately clear what Jesus means by this. There are others who will come to be disciples through the preaching of the apostles? When he is lifted up from the earth, Jesus says, his sacrifice will draw all people to himself. So the others who are not of this fold are, it seems, everyone else. All humanity is potentially the one flock of which he is to be the one shepherd.
The good shepherd calls and leads his sheep to participate in the knowledge and love he shares with the Father. His teaching is all about this new relationship we can have with God. The mysteries of his suffering, death, and resurrection seal God’s commitment to this project and cause it to begin. Our job is to recognise his voice and call on his name, to believe in his knowledge and love of us as we seek to grow in our knowledge and love of him.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Easter Week 3 Thursday

Readings: Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 66; John 6:44-51

The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are two parts of the same work, interrupted in our Bibles by the Gospel of John. So in fact, in this great two part work, the account of Stephen's death comes just eight chapters after the account of Jesus' death. We have seen how the trial and execution of Stephen mirror in so many ways the experience of Jesus. Similarly just eight chapters after the account of Jesus' appearance to the disciples on the road to Emmaus comes the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch whom he ends up baptising.

Similarly there are striking similarities between the events recorded in Luke 24 and those recounted in Acts 8. The protagonists are on the road away from Jerusalem. In each case we find a person or persons musing about God's dealings with the world. In each case we find a person or persons puzzled, to say the least, by the 'suffering servant'. He and they are wondering who this figure might be, what God could possibly be doing through him, The two disciples on the road to Emmaus thought he would be the one to redeem Israel. The Ethiopian is completely at a loss.

In each case the traveller or travellers are joined by a stranger who, beginning from a text, 'explains' the suffering of the Christ for them. In Luke 24 and Acts 8 we have a liturgy of the word leading to the celebration of a sacrament. In the gospel it is the breaking of bread, the moment in which the two disciples recognise Jesus, just as he is taken from them. In Acts it is the baptism of the Ethiopian - 'what is to prevent me being baptised?' (which has the ring of a question from an early Christian liturgy). The two sacraments are the ways in which those who have come to believe may participate in the paschal mystery of Christ, identify with it and make it their own. Baptism is the sacrament in which faith in that mystery is first bestowed, just as it conforms the baptised person to Christ in his dying and rising from the dead. And just as Jesus disappears in the moment in which he is recognised so Philip disappears after the baptism and the Ethiopian sees him no more.

Applying all this to our own experience we can say at least this much: that our liturgies and sacramental celebrations are similarly structured. There is a liturgy of the word followed by a celebration of the sacrament. We too need the riches of the scriptures to be opened up for us just as we need our hearts, minds and eyes to be opened to the presence of Christ with us. Just as for these first believers, the suffering of the Christ remains at the heart of things: 'was it not written that the Christ should suffer and so enter into his glory?' Had he not said (today's gospel reading) that the bread he would give would be his flesh, for the life of the world?

We continue to need help, whatever the direction in which we are travelling, whatever our perplexity or puzzlement. We have not yet entered fully into the mystery of the cross which remains a stumbling block and a folly. But whatever road we are on, whatever questioning we have, however far we might be from the destination, the Spirit seeks us out. He will find ways to assure us of the presence of Christ, help us to understand the mystery of His love, lead us to a deeper experience of the mysteries we celebrate in our liturgies and which we seek to live out in our lives.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Easter Week 3 Wednesday

Readings: Acts 8:1b-8; Psalm 66; John 6:35-40

Not for the last time we hear of external events that, in spite of themselves and even contrary to their explicit purpose, favour the spread of the gospel. Whether it is persecution, as here, or resistance and indifference, arguments among the preachers themselves, or the need to recover from a bruising encounter - there are many extraneous things that result in great leaps forward in the preaching of the gospel. Scattering because of the persecution that breaks out in Jerusalem after the martyrdom of Stephen, a persecution whose most energetic promoter is Saul, the Christian preachers go to different parts of the Holy Land and so fulfil the second part of the prediction Jesus made at the beginning of Acts: 'you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth' (1:8)

Part of the original preaching of the apostles is that even the decisions and actions of the enemies of Jesus were used by God to achieve the purpose which had always been within God's intention. He sent the Son into the world because he loved it so much, so that everyone who believes in him might not be lost but might have eternal life. The Son is to lose nothing of what has been entrusted to him but is to raise it on the last day. These divine purposes are achieved through the events of the passion and death of Jesus, which seemed to bring an end to his mission and were designed by human agents to do precisely that, but which in fact were the means God used to bring that mission to its fulfillment.

So parts of John 6, such as the section we hear today, can seem to be not only about the Eucharist but about the whole event of the birth and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. This is as it should be because the Eucharist contains the entire mystery of the Incarnation. The Eucharist is, as the Second Vatican Council puts it, 'the source and summit of the Christian life', that from which everything flows and that to which everything flows. An earlier writer, commenting on John 6, puts it this way:

'Even if it were true that this chapter does not refer to the Eucharist but to the whole work of Christ whose Incarnation feeds the souls of men, it nevertheless shows the place of the Eucharist in Christianity just as strongly as if its referenece were more directly Eucharistic. For the language of 'bread' and 'eating' and of 'blood' and 'drinking' is the Christian's Eucharistic language, and to express the Incarnation in the language of the Eucharist betokens the importance of the rite just as emphatically as to express the Eucharist in terms of the Incarnation' (A.M. Ramsey, The Gospel and the Catholic Church, New York 1936, p.106).

In his commentary on John 6 Thomas Aquinas says similar things. As he puts it more succinctly in his antiphon for the feast of Corpus Christi, in the Eucharist we receive the whole mystery of Christ, we renew the memory of his passion, our souls are filled with grace, and we receive a pledge of eternal glory. In other words the entire work of the Incarnation is contained in the Eucharist - the Word becoming flesh to reveal the Father to us, the Son sent from the Father to be the sacrifice that takes our sins away, the Risen Lord recognised in the breaking of the bread. All of this is contained in the Eucharist, to human eyes a simple and routine ritual of readings, prayers and actions, but for those who believe the sacred banquet in which we feast on Jesus, our bread of life and our living bread.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Easter Week 3 Tuesday

Readings: Acts 7:51-8:1a ; Psalm 31; John 6:30-35

The people look for a sign and we are not superior to them: we too would like to be given signs that would confirm God's presence and action for us. But the readings today do give us a number of signs. Stephen is one sign, particularly his courage in speaking up to the authorities and in dying for the faith. We see it again and again in the readings from Acts of the Apostoles: the transformation in the apostles and disciples after Pentecost is remarkable, striking, thought-provoking.

Stephen is also a sign in the way his passion, trial and execution so closely follow those of Jesus. Like Jesus he speaks of the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven and this provokes outrage. Like Jesus he prays for those who execute him: 'do not hold this sin against them'. Like Jesus he commends his spirit now into the hands of Jesus whom he sees standing, as his advocate, at the right hand of God.

An even more remarkable sign is in the making since we are here introduced to a man called Saul. We know that he will later be Paul and that one of the most extraordinary transformations of heart and mind will come about in him. That human beings would change so significantly, not only that they would change at all but that they would change in such striking ways: is this not one of the most compelling signs we are given as we read about the life of the first Christian communities?

Of course the greatest of signs is Jesus himself, and it is their communion with him which makes it possible for the others to change in the ways they do. He is the bread given by the Father. This refers to his teaching but also, as he will explain, to his very person. He is himself the bread of life and the living bread, given to nourish the life of God's people. All the other signs we see in the Christian community - the example of holy people, the works of charity, the courage of martyrs, the teaching of preachers, and so on - have their source in this great sign which is Jesus.

He gives himself to us in the Eucharist. It is a simple and remarkable sign, the breaking of bread and the sharing of the cup. But in this way Jesus gives himself to people in all times and places, as their food and drink, to share his own life with them. This is the Sign of signs, the source of whatever power and grace we encounter in any of the other signs.

It is from this communion with Jesus that the saints draw their strength and inspiration, here they find nourishment and grace. Let it be so also for us sinners, that we may look always to this great sign and participate in it, receiving Christ, living from his life, allowing the transforming Spirit to turn us into the signs God wants us to be in the world.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Easter Week 3 Sunday (Year B)

Recently I heard an Easter hymn in another language which said something like ‘soldier, tell us what you saw, in the darkness of the night, as He rose’. We do not have such an eye-witness account, however. In any case, if there were such a testimony it would mean that a reality of the new creation could be seen with eyes that belong to the first creation. The fact that there is not such a testimony is an invitation to think about how the Risen Lord could be ‘seen’. What kind of eyes are needed? What would such an experience be like? And what would be the consequences for the seer?

Although we have no report from the soldiers guarding the tomb, we do however have much evidence to support our faith in Jesus risen from the dead, a collection of different kinds of experience and different kinds of testimony. When we put it all together the most reasonable conclusion is the one at which the apostles and disciples arrived: Jesus is alive, He is risen from the dead, and His kingdom is underway.

What is the evidence? Firstly we have an empty tomb. It proves nothing just by itself since there could be various explanations of it. But at least it makes us suspect a plot  of some kind, whether human or divine.

In the second place we have encounters with the Risen Lord and now the question raised by the empty tomb begins to be answered. We see that there is both continuity and discontinuity between Jesus alive and carrying out his mission in the first creation, and Jesus alive and carrying on his mission in the new creation. The disciples do and do not recognize Him. They need help, reminders, confirmation, that it really is the One who was crucified who is now with them again. ‘Look at my hands and my feet’, Jesus says, ‘and give me something to eat’. ‘It is I myself’ and I am not a ghost. They need to be pacified, and their confusion and doubt need to be resolved, if they are to make the transition from seeing to believing. In this the wounds of Jesus play a crucial role, those marks in his body which confirm that it is really He.

In the third place we have the Bible, the scriptures which, Jesus says, already contain all the information needed if we are to understand and believe what has happened. As he had opened the scriptures for the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, so he does now for the rest of them, showing how all that has happened is foretold in the Law, the Prophets and the Writings. This is a way of referring to the scriptures in their entirety. He is saying that we have a guidebook to the Resurrection if we learn to read the scriptures in the light of that new reality. This reading has two aspects. It opens the mind so that we understand more than we did before, we see more in familiar texts and we now see what many of the prophecies meant. But it is also a way of reading that enflames the heart – ‘did not our hearts burn within us’, the Emmaus disciples say, ‘as he opened the scriptures for us’.

It is not just about truth then, it is always also about love. If we enter the scriptures keeping an eye out for the Risen Lord we not only grow in knowledge, we grow in love. It has to be so because the new creation, the world of the resurrection, is about mutual knowing and loving, it is about new relationships, it is about a new kind of communion between human beings and God, and among human beings themselves, a new way of being together.

And this is the fourth kind of testimony that supports our faith in the resurrection. We have the empty tomb, we have encounters with Jesus risen from the dead, we have a new way of reading the scriptures given by Jesus to his disciples, and we have the community
of believers itself which becomes a ‘proof’, evidence, testimony, a witness that generates and supports faith.

We know we know Him, Saint John says in today’s second reading, if we are keeping his word and living according to his commandment of love. The kind of truth established by the resurrection is not just a new kind of physics, or a new kind of biology, interesting as those questions are. It is a transformation of relationships because it means conversion, it means pardon for sins, it means expiation and reconciliation, it means healing and new life. Human ignorance, which each day kills the Author of Life, the sinfulness in us that would turn the whole world into an empty tomb, this is undone and its consequences overruled by the actions of God. In fact, says Peter in his sermon recorded in the first reading, God even uses our ignorance and its consequences in fulfilling His own purposes for the world and its salvation.

If we open our minds and hearts to the evidence and testimony that are given then we can come to only one conclusion: He is truly risen and everything is changed. This cannot be simply a notional or intellectual conclusion. It must be a real conclusion that involves faith and generates a great hope. It is a conclusion that opens our hearts as well as our minds. It is a conclusion that requires conversion and recognition, not just of a relationship with Jesus and the Father in the Spirit, but also of a relationship to creation and particularly to other human beings in the same Spirit. It presupposes not only faith and hope but charity as well, the Love Jesus brought into the world. He is truly risen, we are in a new world, alleluia!