NB. Had to edit this one. . .too long.
6th Sunday of Easter (A)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA
Was it easier back then, I wonder, to believe in and witness to Christ? “Back then,” of course, being during the first few decades after the resurrection. Was it simpler? You just believed, met Christ in the Spirit, and then ran around telling everyone what you now know: He is risen! It had to be less complicated, less involved to be a follower of the Way way back then. Well, it wasn’t easier in the sense of having to run for your life every the temple guards or the Roman soldiers showed up. Then there were the crowds who weren’t happy about you blaspheming their elder gods when you preached the gospel. Not to mention the growing factions of Christians who polluted the Word with Egyptian occultism, Roman blood rituals, Greek mystery philosophies. And then there’s that whole martyrdom business—arrows, blades, fires, crucifixions. Belief itself was easier, I think. Though believing came at a much higher price than it does for us now. Of course, by “us” I mean, “western Christians.” Christians can still find the blade, the jail cell, the shot to the head in some parts of the world. Still, reading the Acts of the Apostles you get the sense of a greater faith among the early Christians, a more urgent fervor than we have now. Jesus had to know that the fire he kindled would burn hot for a while and then begin to settle into a warm glow before turning to ash altogether. How much more would his friends and their students begin to feel the pressure of family, friends, neighbors to return to the traditional ways once it became clear that he wasn’t coming back tomorrow or next week or even several years down the line? You would think that someone as smart as Jesus would have a plan in place to keep his Word burning down through the centuries. The Good News is: he did and that plan is called the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, our Advocate and Counselor!
Look at Philip in Samaria. The crowds paid attention to him because he “proclaimed the Christ to them.” He freed people from unclean spirits, healed the paralyzed, and “there was great joy in [Samaria].” So successful was Philip’s preaching there that “the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God…” They sent in the Big Guns, Peter and John, who “prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for it had not yet fallen upon any of them…” Philip had preached and healed and baptized, but Peter and John laid hands on these new members of the family, and “they received the Holy Spirit.” Notice here that though Philip brought the Word to Samaria, the larger Church—represented by Peter and John—brought the Holy Spirit. Look at Philip in Samaria! He went down to that city and the Samaritans paid attention to him. Why? Because he “proclaimed the Christ to them.”
Who then is this Holy Spirit? Go back a little while and remember the promise of Christ as he says farewell to his friends, “…I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth…” This is the first part of his promise. What’s the second? Jesus promises, “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.” So, who is this Holy Spirit? Christ himself, that’s who: “In a little while the world will no longer see me,” Jesus says, “but you will see me, because I live and you will live.” If we live and he lives then it must be the case that we—all of us and Christ himself— we live together. What do we live in, together? The Holy Spirit! But then Jesus says, “…I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you.” So, it’s not the Spirit but the Father we live in? Not quite. It is the Father and the Spirit that we live in…we live as Christ, the one who made us sons of the Father through the Spirit.
How then you do you love God? This is not a rhetorical question. This is a question about your eternal destination. Most deeply, most basically, at the heart of everything you are and hope to be, ask the question: how do I love God? In what manner do I love God? Peter helps us here. He writes, “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts.” Meaning, make the One who died for you, everything he is and everything he did, make him ruler of your very being, God of your thinking, your believing, your doing, your living and your dying. He must rule, or someone else will. Peter continues, “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope…” Why do you hope? Seduced as you are to spend eternity with God, why do you trust? Knowing that your answer might lead to ridicule, abuse, violence, even death, why would you tell anyone why you hope? Peter says, “For it is better to suffer for doing good…than for doing evil.” If it is God’s will that you suffer, it is better to suffer telling the truth; it is better to suffer while witnessing to Christ’s suffering for you.
Jesus, looking at his friends, knows that such a witness will draw the most maligned accusations against them. He knows this because he himself knows that even his friends—those sitting in front of him—will betray him. If your friends will abandon you in your most painful moment, why would you expect those who never knew you, even your enemies, to hang around and help? Peter writes, “[Jesus] was put to death in the flesh, he was brought to life in the Spirit.” And so it must be for us as well. Given this truth, why do we stay the course to the Cross?
Don’t you think that it was easier back then? They were closer to Christ. They knew him flesh and bone. They heard him with their own ears, watched him with their eyes. They knew him in a way we never can. And yet, here we are. Gathered together in his name as his Body, offering his gifts on the altar of sacrifice, saying AMEN to lives bound to one another in charity. Here we are—loving him as he loves us so that he might reveal himself to us. What does he reveal? He reveals that in his love, we too are Christ! We abide, live, move and have our being, we plan, grow, thrive, harvest in his love; we work, play, sleep, eat, study in his love; we do everything we do, think everything we think, feel everything we feel in his love. It is no more difficult now than it was then. The Spirit moved then, and the Spirit moves now. The Spirit set them on fire then, he sets us on fire now. The Spirit gave them what they needed to explain their hope; he gives us now the words, the courage, the power to preach and teach our hope in him now. Yes, he suffered; so do we. Yes, he died; so do we. Yet he lives, and so do we…in him, with him, through him. We live as Christ.
It is no easier then than it is now. The Devil has a deal for you. Unclean spirits still plague us. Aren’t we tempted to surrender to our neighbors and say yes to the culture of death? Aren’t we ridiculed for our naïve faith in ancient tales of miracles? For believing that we need salvation from the stain of sin? For our hope that one day he will return in the flesh to take us away? Sure, of course, we are. The same spirit of despair, darkness, loathing, and destruction still haunts the Church. We must remain unmoved by this spirit of desolation. Love Christ. Follow his commandment to love. Remain in him, and he will remain in you. If He can change the sea into dry land and deliver His children from slavery, then he can give you the Word of Life to speak in His name. Keep your conscience clear and be ready. The Devil has a deal for you. He prowls like a hungry lion hunting for someone to devour. If you want to be the meat between the devil’s teeth, then let go of Christ, surrender to despair, abandon your friends in the Body, and run toward the easier choice of living without our Father’s rule, without His love. This is the freedom the world has for sale and the Devil is ready to make a deal just for you. He'll let you have this world's freedom for as little as your immortal soul. Tell him you are bought and paid for: the Advocate, the Paraclete owns you, body and soul.
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