This Sunday, Good News (and Bad News?) About Our Life in Christ …
Jesus assures us in the Gospel for the Sixth Sunday of Easter Year C that, though he is going away, that’s not a bad thing at all, because of a shocking new reality that should make us tremble with fear and joy: We will live in the Trinity.
But the readings show us that life in the Trinity entails something else that probably gives us more complicated mixed feelings: We will live in the Church.
Jesus says that, after the Ascension, we will remain in his family, living together in his home.
“Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him,” Jesus says. “Dwelling” sounds weird. Other translations use the more natural word, “home.” Jesus says the Father, Son and Holy Spirit will share a home with you.
To understand what that means, don’t think of Jesus’s words as a metaphor. Take them literally. Think of the world as a home that you share with God, who has invited you into his family. This changes nothing about the world while changing everything about the world. In a stranger’s home, you’re never at peace; you’re always out of place. In your own home, you can relax. As Jesus puts it, “My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.” Augustine said the same thing this way: “You made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
Then, Jesus says something else that only makes sense if we think in terms of sharing a home with him. He says, “Whoever loves me will keep my word.”
In a stranger’s house you have to be a moralist: You have to put everything back in its place out of strict duty and you have to avoid dirtying the rug out of fear for what the stranger will think or do. When you know that you are in a family home you share with God, you will outwardly behave in perhaps the very same way, but with totally changed motives: You will be protecting your own home, out of love.
Your mother no doubt at some point informed you that when you fail to take care of your home, you are showing a lack of respect and gratitude for what your family has provided you. Jesus says the same thing. “Whoever does not love me does not keep my words;” he says. “Yet the word you hear is not mine but that of the Father who sent me.”
Being a member of the family of the Trinity and seeing his presence in the world gives us tremendous rights. It also gives us enormous responsibilities.
In order to tell us how we will know our responsibilities in our Trinitarian home, Jesus switches to the plural form of “you.”
Jesus shared these words on the night before he died. He told his apostles, and he tells each of us, not to worry. He will come to be with each of us again. But then he says, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you [plural; ‘you all’] everything and remind you [plural; ‘you all’] of all I told you.”
Christianity is lived in community. I’m not alone in God’s house, enjoying what it has to offer and communing with him alone. I live here with a band of brothers and sisters. And not just any band of brothers and sisters, but one that carries instructions from the Holy Spirit himself. In other words, the Church.
Sunday’s reading from Acts Chapter 15 gives us a remarkable picture of the Early Church that is very much like what we find today.
First of all, St. Luke explains why the Church was needed: Because Christians lacked understanding on a matter of fundamental importance. For them, it was circumcision, which is at once a highly personal matter of the body and a public expression of ritualistic worship. The Church today has its own highly controversial matters touching our bodies, such as its teaching against contraception, and our worship, such as the form of the Mass it authorizes.
Second, the entirety of Acts 15 shows that the Early Church had a full-blown hierarchical structure with elders and apostles, including St. Peter, who introduces the problem and St. James, the leader in Jerusalem, summing things up. Today, we have the pope, cardinals and bishops performing these same functions.
Third, the Second Reading describes how the Jerusalem Council resulted in a formal teaching letter — just like a modern-day instruction from a council or a post-synodal exhortation from the Pope.
Fourth, it explains how bad doctrine starts. “Some of our number who went out without any mandate from us have upset you with their teachings and disturbed your peace of mind,” it says. In other words, Catholic teachers who are very much “of our number” in terms of their standing with the Church may at the same time be disturbingly wrong on major issues, teaching “without any mandate” from the Church.
Most importantly, the Church reports that its conclusions are, “the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us.” Both of those are important. Their decision is fully informed and empowered by the Holy Spirit, but also fully informed and empowered by their own human lights. They haven’t been possessed by the Spirit; they work in concert with the Spirit.
This sounds like a beautiful, unified expression of love. But those who disagreed with the Church must have hated it.
The pro-circumcision contingent of the Church dragged their feet after this Council. St. Paul had to confront St. Peter himself over his failure to follow the teaching of the Church in a kind of early Church dubia.
The same thing happens in our day. Sometimes it’s because of our own ugly pride; sometimes, it’s someone else’s ugly pride. The hierarchical structure of the Church seems to give enormous importance to people no better than us, and in some cases people who are clearly worse. We may have a legitimate problem with the Pope, or the bishop, or both — and they may have a legitimate problem with us that our pride refuses to acknowledge.
It can be hard to remember the Church’s actions come from both the Holy Spirit and human beings — because the human beings (including me) seem to crowd out the Holy Spirit all too often.
If life in the Church is frustrating to you, just wait. Our home with the Trinity will get a lot better. Come along with St. John to see what it will be like.
“The angel took me in spirit to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God,” the Second Reading, from the Book of Revelation, begins.
Again, be literal for a second before getting figurative. Come up with John to a high mountain and look down on the beautiful city he describes. It gleams “with the splendor of God.” It has “a massive, high wall, with twelve gates where twelve angels are stationed.”
It’s a safe place, but not a restricted place. Its gates face in four different directions — welcoming the faithful from the East, the West, the North and the South.
Stay by John’s side, and look. “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God almighty and the Lamb,” he says. “The city had no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gave it light, and its lamp was the Lamb.”
The Church as we know it is compromised. It includes weeds and wheat growing side by side. Sinners are in charge of everything, from top to bottom, and not always repentant sinners, either: Sinners who keep on sinning, in and through the functions of the Church.
Well, what else can we expect? Our human nature started out whole, but we broke it. The Church exists to graft sinners on to Christ, and he will heal those who commit themselves to the project. St. John has given us the great gift of sharing a vision of what it will be like in the end, when the shadows are banished and the tensions resolved and we are truly at home with God, for good.
I stay faithful to the Church so that I can be there for that. Do you?