07 May 2011

And the number of disciples increased. . .

2nd Week of Easter (S)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Joseph Church, Ponchatoula

Anyone who's worked with college students in ministry can tell you that there is one persistent frustration for the campus minister: a phenomenon I call “overbooking.” Students will commit to several school projects with overlapping schedules and, at the last minute, pick one that seems to be the most interesting. Of course, this leaves whatever project campus ministry is working on with fewer than expected helping hands. We don't need to look too closely at why hyperactive, over-scheduled children of the internet age pledge themselves to multiple, mutually exclusive projects. The serious challenge for the organizer of any volunteer community project is making your project worthy of being selected and attended by those afflicted with a short attention-span and an overbooked schedule. Compared to the merely mortal campus minister, Jesus had it easy. He multiplied fishes and loaves; healed the blind and crippled; exorcised demons; walked on water, and performed the one miracle that would impress even the most jaded college student—changing water into wine! But even more impressive than these miracles is his refusal to be made into a pop celebrity, his stubborn unwillingness to be seen as a circus act, a freak show character. True, Jesus draws the crowds with miracles but he keeps the faithful attentive by doing nothing more than teaching the truth and serving the least among his Father's children.

If there's a theme to the lives of the apostles after the resurrection it has to be: live the gospel faithfully and the Church will grow. We reads in Acts that the apostles went around fervently preaching the gospel, standing up to their persecutors, and organizing their tiny community of believers. There were miracles—Peter healing the crippled man—and there was a dramatic confrontation with the chief priests, resulting in some jail time and an angelic rescue. No doubt these drew the attention of the curious. But there's little enough in these incidents to maintain the faith a large group of believers, especially given that their faith that requires self-denial, constant sacrifice, and could earn the believer a chance to spend some time in prison. So, what's the Something More about the infant Church that lures people in and keeps them there? Free food and wine? Good company? The chance to meet a famous Jewish heretic or two? Maybe but probably not. Luke tells us in Acts that after the apostles laid hands on Stephen and six other “reputable men” that “the word of God continued to spread and the number of the disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly.” When Christ's disciples believe the gospel and act on their belief, God's Word spreads and the crowds see and hear the truth behind the miracles.

We could easily double the size of the congregation here at St. Joseph's by spending a couple of million on high-tech A/V equipment; TV advertising and other promotional material; hire several well-trained ministers for specific groups within the parish; start-up a nursery school, a food bank, maybe a shrine to St Joseph. We could stuff our schedule with programs, seminars, and guest-speakers; invite celebrity musicians and preachers. Our parish rolls would grow and grow. But we'd have to ask: why are we growing? What's drawing people in? If we're drawing crowds with gimmicks, with “attractions,” we have to ask, will they stay? Will they grow in holiness? As disciples, our first and only task is to do give witness to the gospel in our thoughts, words, and deeds—to be disciples and act like disciples; to be filled with faith and the Holy Spirit, seeking God's wisdom and proclaiming the excellent fruits of believing on the name of Christ. Jesus avoided the glamors of celebrity, the foibles of popularity so that he could faithfully preach God's truth in season and out. If we do that and nothing but that, they will come and they will stay. And the number of the disciples in Ponchatoula increased greatly!

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