Fifth Sunday of Easter
(Acts 9:26-31; 1 Jn 3:18-24; Jn 15:1-8)
In today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Luke, speaking about the Church throughout the then-known world, makes the enviable comment, “The Church throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria was at peace.” How nice that must have been—for the people, for the leaders of the local communities, and for the apostles like Paul and Barnabas who had left all things in order to proclaim the Reign of God. When we look around at the state of the Church today—be it our parish church, the Local Church, or the Universal Church, we do not see this enviable peace. Marriage amendments and mergers, the role of the laity and of women in particular, clergy abuse and cover-ups...all these things and more give us pause and tell us that it’s no small wonder that people remain a part of such a flawed body. And so one of the things the Scriptures challenge us to ask ourselves—individually and as a community of faith—is how can we return to—how can we know—the early Church’s deep sense of peace?
In truth, we cannot, because in many respects it never existed! One needs only to read the letters of Paul to see that all was not well with many of the local communities or the Church as a whole. Paul publicly denounced Peter as a hypocrite in Antioch; he cursed anyone who disagreed with him on the essence of the Gospel; he constantly berated the Corinthians for the ways in which they conducted their lives; and he reminded those who criticized him for his past as a persecutor or the Church that he was in no way inferior to the apostles who had the privilege of being called by Jesus. When we consider that, we think, “That’s more like it! That sounds more like the Church I know!”
In telling us that the Church was at peace, Luke is not really lying to us. Instead, he is giving us the ideal Church, rather than the messy one that existed, reminding us—maybe even challenging us—to see that it is still possible to know deep peace even while enduring persecution from the outside and challenges from within...that even though we don’t all agree with one another or have the same understanding of the Church...we can still be one body in Christ. It is interesting that this very passage in Acts describes Paul’s meeting with the pillars of the Church in Jerusalem—men who were responsible for leading both the local communities as well as the larger Church. Having known him as a persecutor of the Church, they are not quite convinced of his sincerity. Barnabas, a respected man known to them, assures them that Paul is truly one of them and, as result of his testimony on Paul’s behalf, Paul is able to move about freely and he is ultimately accepted by them.
That kind of intimacy and trust must be rooted in Christ. In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that he is the vine and we are the branches. He reminds us that without him, we wither and die, but with him and through him, we flourish and produce great fruit.
If we want the Church to be at peace—locally and on the larger scale—we should gracefully and graciously accept that the Church includes leaders and members who run the gamut in terms of their theology, how they understand Scripture, and the ways in which they are inspired by the Holy Spirit. We need people in the pews as well as pastors and bishops who can be stretched and challenged. And we need wise and respected people like Barnabas who know how to bring them together. We need to know that the arms of God are wide and that within them all are embraced. Above all, we all need to know that we draw our life from the vine that is Christ.
The late Walter Burghardt, a renowned preacher and respected Jesuit theologian, made this observation on the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination:
In the course of a half century I have seen more Christian corruption than you have read of.The Second Vatican Council taught us that we are a Church of churches and that our uniqueness and diversity—what makes us us, individually and as a parish community—helps us to understand better the life of the Spirit. Through it all, let us strive to be at peace.
I have tasted it.
I have been reasonably corrupt myself.
And yet I love this church, this living, pulsing, sinning people of God with a crucifying passion.
For all the Christian hate, I experience here a community of love.
For all the institutional idiocy, I find here a tradition of reason.
For all the individual repression, I breathe here an air of freedom.
For all the fear of sex, I discover here the redemption of my body.
In an age so inhuman, I touch here tears of compassion.
In a world so grim and humorless, I share here rich joy and earthy laughter.
In the midst of death, I hear here an incomparable stress on life.For all the apparent absence of God, I sense here the real presence of Christ.
– Fr. Anthony M. Criscitelli, T.O.R.