17th May, 2009

The Sixth Sunday of Easter

by Fr. Mark D. Stuart

Garrison Keillor tells the story of his uncle who at annual family gatherings during Holy Week would read the story of the passion and death of Jesus. And each year, when he came to the verses describing Jesus’ betrayal he would burst into tears. The family would sit awkwardly until the man would regain his composure and continue the reading. Keillor commented that his uncle took the death of his Lord “so personally.” And then added, “The rest of the Church had gotten over that years ago.”

Many of us have resisted taking the death of Jesus “personally” perhaps out of a desire to distance ourselves from those who stress their personal walk with Jesus, which seems to narrowly exclude the rest of us (and a thinking and tolerant faith as well.) And yet our Gospel lesson today brings us again to experience the intimacy with one’s closest friends, sensing the pain of what is to come and realizing, perhaps, how personal it all really is. The sum and substance of our faith is in fact deeply personal and relational.

When we hear of Jesus washing his disciples feet, an intimate act if ever there was one, and after He institutes the Eucharist declares, “the greatest among you must be as one who serves” we are given the clear message that servanthood is far from an impersonal and powerless role! The task then it seems to me, is not trying to keep Jesus, facing death, as a distant and aloof divinity nor the opposite by reducing his teachings and example to a narrow individualized command. Rather, our call is to see in the life of Jesus a wonderfully human challenge. A challenge: To live in relationship – “I have longed to eat this meal with you.” To live in community – realizing that “this is my Body… this is my Blood” as a profound testimony to community. And to use our reason and our hearts and our faith in service beyond ourselves – “I am among you as one who serves.”

How we do all that – live in relationship, community, and service – has many responses. The central issue is the struggle to discern what really matters and then to act upon that discernment.

Jesus tells His disciples in St. John 15:”I give you a new commandment that you love one another.” Christians are invariably tempted by the culture around us to define love as emotion. Christian love is often likened to that inane stuff of how I feel about you and how you feel about me, sort of like Jesus as a divine Barney singing “I love you. You love me. We’re a happy family.”

One of the kindest observations of the early Church was: “See how they love one another.” Many congregations think that means, “See how much fun we have together,” or “See how much time we spend laughing and giggling at coffee hour after Mass.” In fact, I have never heard of a congregation define itself as anything but “friendly.” But, of course, the proof in the pudding is how the complete stranger describes us. And yet being a friendly church is not the same as being a loving church as our Lord intends. Indeed being a loving church according to Jesus’ meaning has little to do with how close the people feel toward one another. The fact is, our Lord equates Christian love with humble service. Of course there are plenty of places in Holy Scripture where Christians are exhorted to watch how we talk with each other and how we act with each other and how we act outside the community of faith. But when Jesus gives the new commandment to love, He is not commanding us to make nice, be all smiles and hugs, and hold hands in a circle singing “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord.” Too often Christian love is equated with hospitality, but they are different.

Our blessed Lord shows us the look of love: It is getting your hands dirty. Christian love is best imaged by the crucifix which is the supreme look of love.

Every time I stand in the pulpit I could string together a bunch of jokes and funny stories and call it a sermon and put on a big happy face smile and say: “Remember God loves you… and so do I.” And then everyone could go home feeling all warm and fuzzy and entertained and feel what a positive church we have. It happens like this all over America and they call it Christianity.

But one of the important messages for Christians, is that a feel-good Church is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. By no means am I saying Christianity is a grim, puritanical business. As St. Paul reminds us in Phillipians: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say to you, Rejoice!” But if Christianity were nothing more than making each other feel good with plastered on frozen smiles, then God would not have sent His only begotten Son to die for the sins of the world – for you and for me. Each time we come to the altar to receive our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, He gives Himself to us completely so that we indeed become children of God. In this sacred meal Christ shows us the true meaning of Christian love. As He poured out His blood on the cross He offers us forgiveness and fellowship, filling us with the power of His endless life, so that we might go out and do as He has done.

This is the very personal Jesus we worship. This personal Jesus is not the property of the religious right, nor is He an interloper into the structure of our religion (though many think that is so.) The personal Jesus is not an embarrassing concept, nor a passive recipient of injustice. If we believe in relationship characterized by sensitivity and caring, we need to grapple with more than ideas.If we believe in community in all its messiness, we need to grapple with more than concepts. And if we long for tolerance, compassion, peace, and justice, we need to grapple with more than principles.

I am convinced that a faith that affirms reason and openness and reflection needs to recapture the “problem” Garrison Keillor’s uncle had: taking the death of our Lord “personally.” To do so is not to abandon our quest for an inclusive society by hiding behind an individualized faith, but rather to empower us for the challenge that quest entails. If we can reclaim that personal Jesus in a manner that sustains us in a quest for authentic relationship, for servant community, and for a just and peaceable world; then we can proclaim a Jesus whose intimacy is as meaningful as His teachings are powerful. The richness of our religious heritage is dramatically present to us every Sunday and we are called to rediscover the personal Jesus profoundly present to us as we approach the Blessed Sacrament of the altar: “Do this in remembrance of me.”





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