5th Sunday of Easter 2013
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA
The traitor leaves the table and goes to complete his betrayal. Jesus watches him go; without a word, Jesus bears witness to his friend's treason. When the door closes behind Judas, our Lord turns to the remaining disciples and declares the beginning of the end, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him.” Now. Immediately. At this moment. With Judas gone and the door closed, our Lord is given glory for his Passion: the Father's strength and the Spirit's fire—the divine majesty. With the Son of Man glorified, God is glorified in him. Amplified. Magnified. Made more brilliant. So elevated, he says to his disciples, “My children, I will be with you only a little while longer.” Can they see/feel the glory suffusing their teacher? Do his friends know that the traitor's departure started the countdown to Golgotha? Rather than accuse Judas, or flee to the desert, or shout a call to fight, our Lord issues a new command. Watching Judas leave the table, watching him go to sell his teacher and friend to their enemies, Jesus shares his glory with those who remain, who remain loyal: “Love one another,” he commands, “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” If we love one another, all will know that we follow Christ.
Two disciples who love one another in Christ, Paul and Barnabas, travel through the churches of Asia Minor, strengthening the spirits of the other disciples and exhorting them to persevere in the faith. How do these two instruct the other disciples to persevere? They spread this bit of good news: “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” How is this any sort of good news? How is this truth supposed to strengthen the disciples, or urge them on to persevere in the faith? Wouldn't it have been better for Paul and Barnabas to encourage the others with smiling personal affirmations, or rousing songs about the wonders of achieving social justice? How about a few calming homilies on how wonderful we all are? Or how good it is that we can come together to be church? Paul and Barnabas reveal to the others a difficult truth: entering the kingdom of God is an obstacle course, a regime of hard choices, harder consequences, and frequent failures. These barriers to joining the kingdom are not God's doing. These barriers belong to the world. To enter the kingdom, we must overcome the world. And to overcome the world, we must love one another. That's the hardest truth of all.
“Love one another” can heard as a glib slogan, a mushy motto meant to soothe a jagged conscience. It trips easily off the tongue, a nice catch-phrase that catches all the sentiments we tend to think will ease conflicts, dissolving differences into a numbing peace. When our Lord orders his disciples at the Last Supper to love one another, he does so after Judas leaves to betray him. He waits until the traitor exits the room to issue his last command. With Judas gone and the door closed, our Lord is glorified, raised up, given the honor due his impending sacrifice; and the fullness of God's revelation is made manifest in him; that is, at the beginning of his Passion and death, Jesus shines with whole glory of God, the full strength of the Father and the fire of the Holy Spirit. The treasonous disciple cannot witness this. Even had he stayed with the others, we could not see it. He does not love the Lord; he does not love his brother disciples. He loves worldly glory and riches, and so he is blind to the heavenly glory that Christ shows to those who choose to love him. Had he stayed, Judas would not have heard Jesus say, “Love one another.” The ears of a traitor are closed to loyalty and love, to faithfulness and perseverance. And b/c loving one another is its own hardship, betrayal come easily to those to who refuse to love.
“It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” Paul and Barnabas spread a bit of good news throughout the churches of Asia Minor. This good news sounds a whole lot like bad news. And it would be bad news if these hardships were sent from heaven. But they are not. Look at the hardships that Paul and Barnabas themselves have endured: arrest, imprisonment, floggings, threats from civil authorities, denunciations from religious officials. Both apostles are martyred. Paul was beheaded at the order of the Emperor Nero. Barnabas was stoned to death by Jewish authorities in Cyprus.* Every hardship, every obstacle to their apostolic ministry comes from the powers of this world, or from those allied with them. So, Paul and Barnabas understand—with the bodies and souls—that the hardships of loving one another come by way of the world. They also understand that we overcome the world while standing in the glory of God, loving one another despite the world's obstacles, sharing in the divine majesty given to the Son at the beginning of his Passion and death. And by sharing in his Passion and death, we give God glory in our own hardships.
All this talk of hardships, glory, death, and love seems a bit abstract, a bit airy, unsubstantial. Let's put some meat on these bones. We lay claim to an inheritance through Christ, a portion of the kingdom that he announced 2,000 yrs ago. As heirs to this kingdom, we are also its stewards, responsible for seeing to the growth and maintenance of all that God has given us. Traditionally, Catholics talk in terms of “time, treasure, and talent” when we speak of stewardship. And there's nothing wrong with that. However, there is a more fundamental sense in which all of us steward God's gifts. Look at Judas. What did he squander for 30 pieces of silver? Fellowship among the disciples; his relationship with Christ; his historical reputation as a faithful disciple. But more than these, he sold his soul; that is, he allowed the powers of this world to buy his integrity, his strength as a Good Man, a man of God. He used his friendship with Jesus to sell our Lord to his enemies. The powers of this world set a hardship for Judas. And he chose the easy work-around, the profitable dodge. In other words, he compromised the very thing that made him a man of God, worthy of trust. Judas accommodated himself to the spirit of the age and ended his own life with a noose.
The spirit of our own age is busy setting hardships for us. Oddly enough, these hardships are not all that different from the ones Paul, Barnabas, Judas, and all God's children in the early Church tackled. They were tempted to dilute the Gospel with false religions. Compromise with secular power for material gain. Accommodate moral principles for the sake of social standing. Surrender their freedoms in the name of state security. And more than many lost their struggles with these temptations. More than many exhausted their strength, extinguishing the fire of the Holy Spirit in their resistance. Here's what we need to know now: when we love another as Christ loves us, we have no need for a gospel other than the Gospel of Jesus Christ; when we love one another as Christ loves us, we don't need material gain, social standing, or security from the state. Everything we need is given by God so that we might live wholly in His love. Judas did not believe this. Paul and Barnabas did. Judas died a traitor's death. Paul and Barnabas died as witnesses, preaching the Good News to the end. Love tells the truth; it never compromises or accommodates, nor do those who love one another. Jesus orders us, “As I [love] you, so you also should love one another.” His Passion and death began when the traitor left the table. Ours begins when we approach the table and dare to share in his last meal.
*Unfortunately, this is probably a legend, but it's the only info we have on his death.
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