17 May 2020 Homily by Bishop Noel Treanor for 6th Sunday in Easter
I “Jesus said to his disciples”
With these lines from the gospel we continue last Sunday’s reading of chapter fourteen of the gospel according to St John. As with so many of the passages in this gospel, the language speaks of intimations and realities beyond language. This discourse, which the author puts on the lips of Jesus, touches on several central elements of what is referred to as, discipleship, that is, the effort to live life in the light of the Good News of the gospel, or to walk the Christian way of life, as we seek to do in our lifetimes.
You will have noted many of those elements as the text was read : love of Christ, the commandments as one’s compass, the Advocate, or Spirit of truth, who inspires and strengthens us on our way through life with its ups and downs, the relationship between Christ and his Father that is referred to as their mutual indwelling. Woven together in this discourse, these terms and others, combine to point to the eternal mystery of God’s love for humanity as manifested in the historic incarnate Jesus of Nazareth and via his continuing presence, despite physical absence, through the presence of the Advocate who, as the text says, “is in you”. (Jn 14. 17).
It is worth taking up this text in our bibles and reading it. At first reading it may seem elusive, mercurial, for it is composition on the horizon of the limits of language. Think for a moment of how you put words on love, on the ecstasy of an aesthetic experience, or on suffering or grief ! Such zones of ultimacy are beyond the power of words, though they are none the less real for all of that.
II “In a short time the world will no longer see me” (Jn 14.19)
This gospel text was produced towards the end of the first century of our era, some fifty years after the experiences of Calvary and the Resurrection, for the community of Christians associated with St John. An issue at stake, as addressed in this text, was an existential question for those first Christians. The issue for them was the extension in time of life with God : if Christ had returned to the Father, had left this earth, how were his followers to relate to him and indeed to God? Was discipleship possible despite (personal) absence? Could faith in a personal God be possible, since Jesus was no longer with them and the expected “end time” had not come? In contemporary terms, one might put the questions thus : what’s the connection with this figure Christ, Son of God , what kind of connection is possible?
Against the background of this preoccupation, that is, the question of the possibility of faith, this discourse, poetic in quality as is so much of St John’s gospel, evokes states both of mind and of being. On the one hand the text alludes to, indeed it even confirms those impulses to truth and integrity, which are universally recognised and recognisable to every person. We all know them – those impulses and out-workings of human goodness, of the “spirit of truth”, which this text describes as being “with you” and being “in you”(Jn14.17). Deep in our being we know and recognise these impulses of the spirit of God in our lives and we also know that, by acting on them, by following them through them, we form habits of virtuous living.
By the same token, the text also brings us straight to earth with its recognition of the resistance provoked and encountered by the Advocate, the Spirit of truth. This too we know and recognise, as we Christians do our best to follow the way outlined by the commandments in our efforts to live to the full the spirit of the Word of God, as revealed in the sayings and actions of Christ himself.
III “Reverence the Lord Jesus in your hearts” (1Pt 3.15)
Such resistance to the Spirit of God, a theme evoked in the use of the term “the world” throughout St John’s gospel, features also in the second reading for today’s liturgy of the Word.
It is worth dwelling on two details from that reading in the light of the gospel text we have read. Firstly, let’s recall the opening words :“reverence the Lord Jesus in your hearts” (1Pt 3.15). This is language comparable with that we have read in the extract from St John. It is the language of the interior life ; it is language of the heart, of one’s personal disposition. In the order of our personal lives, it recalls the indwelling language of the gospel text. It is language which suggests transformation, the transformation wrought in us as we respond, sometimes over a long time and not without great difficulty and inner struggle, to the Word of God. This language denotes working on oneself in the light of the gospel way.
And then there is the second, ensuing detail. It concerns how we respond to opposition, to what St John would include in his term “the world” : we note that we are to respond “with courtesy and respect and with a clear conscience”(1 Pt 3.16), aware that “it is better to suffer for doing right than for doing wrong”(1 Pt 3.17), thus linking our choice of lifestyle directly with the dynamic of divine love, revealed in the life death and resurrection of Christ (1Pt 3. 18).
IV “The people united in welcoming the message Philip preached” (Ac 8.6)
Listening to these extracts from the Word of God through the prism of our contemporary experiences, our sentiments might well align with the reaction of those citizens of the Samaritan town to whom Philip proclaimed the Good News of the gospel. They united in welcoming his message. In other words, they recognised its singular worth and its power to raise their lives to new levels and spiritual vistas.
Observing life on the ground in our communities today as we continue to manage life and risk in the context of the COVID-19, like those Samaritans we are inspired by the goodness we see all around.
- We know of and see the daily heroism of all who care for those suffering with the coronavirus.
- We stand in awe before the heroic dedication and self-sacrificing generosity of doctors, nurses, medical and staff in hospital, nursing homes and hospices. In the word of the first letter of St Peter, they, and indeed their families, “suffer to do what is right” (1Pt 3.17).
- We know of the voluntary work of so many in parishes, congregations and elsewhere, motivated by the commandment to love the neighbour, who mobilise immense efforts through foodbanks and other initiatives to assist the suffering, the isolated and the needy.
- On the wider canvas of life and experience, we can also think and remember those known to us, alive and deceased, who did things great and small beyond the call of duty or mere justice to assist others in need
- Likewise, we can remember those who left this world tragically, unexpectedly, or early in their lives, who searched for God as we do, who smiled on us, who according to their capacities performed acts of care for others.
- And we recall and recognise those exemplars of Christian virtue, who in their humanity, betimes frail like ours, inspired others across generations and centuries to recognise the inspirational beauty of the words from St John’s gospel, that we have just read and heard, and who by their heroic and exemplary lifestyles, dedicated to charity and spiritual care of people, inspired many to render the words of St John’s gospel, the Word of God, a continuing and transformative power in the contradictions, tragedies, failures and successes of history and of the human condition.
In all of these lives, and in our own, the Spirit of God is and has been at work. May we and they remain ever responsive to the promptings of the Spirit of truth as we make our way through the years allotted to us.
On this sixth Sunday of Easter, my dear friends, let us rejoice in the Risen Christ, Son of God, in whose words and actions, in whose life, suffering, death and resurrection, we have glimpsed the mystery of divine, saving love and in whom is our hope of boundless mercy and eternal life.