2nd. Sunday of Easter (A)
(Acts 2:42-47; 1st. Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31)
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, we are brought together on this day to celebrate the glory of Christ and the goodness of God, and also to rejoice in Mother Church for the hope which her proclamation of the Gospel and bestowal of the Spirit opens up for us.
At the Last Supper Jesus offered His imminent crucifixion and death to His Father, saying:
Father, as You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world; and for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also may be sanctified by the truth. I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word. (John 17:18-20)
Jesus was about to sanctify Himself, that is, offer Himself totally to the Father in obedient, sacrificial, love, in order that His disciples -- being sent as His Apostles to continue His mission – might also be sanctified in truth, so that their proclamation of His Gospel might give glory to the Father and enable those who would embrace Jesus as Lord and Saviour to come together as His Church: confessing His Truth and walking fruitfully along His Way in the vitality and power of His bestowal of new Life; all under the guidance of His transforming and gradually-transfiguring Spirit leading them towards the ultimate salvation willed by the Father.
In our first reading we saw that coming-together in the name of Jesus Lord and Saviour beautifully realized in accordance with words He spoke to His Apostles (John 14:17) shortly before His death:
The world cannot receive the Spirit of Truth because it neither sees Him nor knows Him. But you know Him, because He abides with you and will be in you.
Those words are wonderfully comforting for Mother Church then and now in her trials throughout the world. Dear People of God, notice most carefully, humbly, and gratefully, that the Spirit of Jesus is actively with Mother Church for God’s glory and mankind’s salvation before He is in any of us!
That beautiful portrayal of the work of the Holy Spirit in the church at Jerusalem is not, however, to be thought of as an obligatory model for subsequent Christian communities throughout the world, despite the fact that it embodies Christian values that are perennial. The church in Jerusalem of those days was uniquely one, being made up of converts from Judaism delighting in their newly-embraced faith while still living in the very centre of world Judaism and thus being pressurised and compressed, as it were, into a most intense cohesiveness by former well-loved Jewish religious practices and structures now found to be insufficient and becoming day by day more and more inappropriate, as were the emotional relationships and antagonistic attitudes of many former friends now no longer one with them in their tiny Christian minority. The people’s admiration mentioned in our reading was only that of observers; observers who had recently cheered Jesus before accepting or even perhaps calling for His crucifixion; this day, they are friendly but not friends to be relied on, companions possibly walking beside them but not along the Way of Jesus …. for the present at least.
In our Gospel reading we recall the beginning of that Spiritual renewal:
The same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, "Peace be with you." When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. So Jesus said to them again, "Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you." And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit”.
Jesus breathed upon the disciples as a whole. Notice, People of God, Church first not individuals, even though those individuals be Apostles. Later on, in the presence of many other disciples, and of the Jews, the Holy Spirit would appear as tongues of flame over the head of each one of them, consecrating them for their individual apostolic tasks; here, however, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit upon them as the original Apostolic College of Mother Church, that she, through them, might take His Gospel to the furthest ends of the earth for the salvation of mankind, as Jesus said at the Last Supper (John 17:13-17):
(Father) now I come to You, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have My joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth.
People of God, I repeat, recognize the beauty and the glory of Mother Church and rejoice because of her, putting all your trust in God Who, through the truth of her proclamation, the spiritual power of her sacraments, and the gifts of His Most Holy Spirit, will bring about our ultimate salvation and glorification in Jesus as we hear in St. John’s Gospel:
When He, the Spirit of Truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth and He will tell you things to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you. All things that the Father has are Mine. Therefore I said that He will take of Mine and declare it to you. (16:13-15)
Mother Church has not only been thus wonderfully endowed, she is also sublimely protected by God as Jesus both promised and prayed:
The gates of Hades shall not prevail against her. (Matthew 16:18)
Father, I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one (John 17:15);
However, although, thanks to Jesus’ prayer and His gift of the Holy Spirit, the devil can never deceive Mother Church into falsifying the Gospel of Jesus, nevertheless, the same devil is always, and ever more ferociously and cunningly, warring against her and her children, as foretold from the beginning:
The LORD God said to the serpent: "Because you have done this, you are cursed more than all cattle, and more than every beast of the field; on your belly you shall go, and you shall eat dust all the days of your life. And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel." (Genesis 3:14-15)
The serpent will always be trying to “strike at the heel of the Lord”, that is, to lead individuals into sin -- be they mothers and fathers, wayward children, involved laity, religious, priests, bishops, or even popes – and about that we will always be distressed, even greatly distressed, but we should never be scandalized, because it has been foretold and we have been forewarned. We should, however, pray for those who are thus used by the devil in his attempts against our Lord and His Church; for, although individuals always can, and sadly at times do, fail, Mother Church as a whole can never fail in her truthful proclamation of and witness to the Gospel; for in this, her God-given task, she is – as we have learned -- divinely guided and protected. That is why today, as we celebrate the Easter glory of Jesus, we also delight in her, in whom and through whom He continues His saving work in our midst and in the world today.
Finally, we note those other words of Jesus in our Gospel passage:
He breathed on them, and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."
And here we recognise that Mother Church is not only endowed and protected but that she has also been empowered to fight against the devil, as was also foretold from the beginning:
I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He (the woman’s Seed) shall bruise your head.
Jesus bruised the serpent’s head by destroying the tyrannical hold sin and death had exercised over mankind; and, in the power of His victory, Mother Church too continues His work through her prelates and priests publicly and authoritatively condemning sin and forgiving sinners in the world:
Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain they are retained.
But in addition to such ‘official’ conflict with sin, there is a much broader, deeper, conflict generating more intimately and intensely bitter fighting being engaged in by all those faithful disciples of Jesus and true children of Mother Church who, thanks to their union with Jesus and their awareness of and responsiveness to His Spirit at work in their lives, realize that they themselves are called, and have been empowered, to fight – by their own faith and personal witness – not only against the sin which still remains trying to hide itself most secretly in the nooks and crannies of their own hearts and minds, but also against sin cavorting so blatantly in the world around us, with its adherents and followers claiming ever more loudly that there is nothing wrong in what they do, they are just part of mankind shaping its life-and-being according to its own fancy: determining its own possibilities and powers, and above all its own pleasures, and considering itself to be responsible to no transcendent God.
Thus, at every level of her being – in and through her prelates and priests, religious and men, women and even children – Mother Church has to strive with whole heart and mind to extend her Lord and Saviour’s Kingdom of love and truth, and the divine likeness in humanity, throughout all time, over all the world.
My dear people, at this time especially, we should be supremely grateful to God for the gift of the Faith which is ours; and as today we admire Our Lord’s faithfulness unto death on the mission received from His Father, and as we rejoice in His constant love for us and tender solicitude for our well-being, we should pray that, as His disciples, we too -- in Him -- may remain faithful to death in the Faith, and fight the good fight for a share in His Resurrection and eternal glory.
How best can we do this? According to the Scriptures the best way to respond to God’s great goodness to us in Jesus is to praise Him, to thank Him, to obey Him.
Why do many today try to portray steadfast Christian living as a wearisome and unrewarding struggle? The answer is simple: such people look too little at God’s goodness and mercy -- with examples of which the Scriptures and their own lives are replete -- and too much at their own worldly desires and aspirations and the anxieties which these promote. Let us hear again St. Peter writing to encourage those magnificent early Christians who first faced the power of pagan Rome confident in the name of Jesus:
Praised be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In His great mercy by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, He gave us new birth into a living hope, the hope of an inheritance reserved in heaven for you, which nothing can destroy or spoil or wither. You have not seen Him, yet you love Him; and trusting in Him now without seeing Him you are filled with a glorious joy too great for words, while you are reaping the harvest of your faith, that is, salvation for your souls.
May we too walk in their footsteps, with joyous hope in the Spirit, gratitude for God’s goodness in our hearts, and with the praises of Jesus as the most lovingly abundant fruit of our lips.