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The Fourth Sunday of Easter
May 12, 2019

 

     There is controversy in today’s readings, and confusion, and consolation. Enough controversy to make it all very real, enough confusion to raise an eyebrow or two, and enough consolation to give us hope.

     Chalk up the controversy and confusion to the preaching of St. Paul - the fallout from his preaching in the synagogue of Pisidian Antioch, a Greek city in Asia Minor. The Jews who lived there were a decided minority, and like all minorities, they had to be strong and even stubborn in order to hold onto their Jewish faith. And then, along comes St. Paul preaching to them about Jesus, telling them that their entire history had pointed to this prophet from Nazareth whom the Romans cruelly crucified but whom God raised from the dead.

     Well, to those devout Jews, this sounded like heresy and many of them rejected it as a matter of conscience, convinced that the only way they could be faithful to God was to cling to what they knew, to the great teachings and traditions of their faith. Commendable? Yes, but also problematic. God’s revelation, a living thing, had become such a closed book for them that they simply couldn’t bring themselves to believe that God could be doing anything new in this Jesus that Paul kept preaching about.

     St. Paul saw it differently, of course. He had had that encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. In a blinding flash, Paul’s faith, which was deeply traditional - totally focused on the Law and the Prophets – suddenly exploded into something utterly new and deeply personal. No longer was his faith strictly limited to the sacred teachings; his faith had become a living thing: a relationship with the risen Christ. And that changed everything!  

     For Paul, it changed his understanding of God and how God works and, with that, came a new perspective on the teachings and traditions that had defined his whole life. Religious traditions are good and holy things, of course, and faith would be empty without them, but fidelity to them is not the same as fidelity to God, and slavish adherence to them can turn respect for tradition into a dead traditionalism that blinds a person to the God of surprises, the God who makes all things new.

     Look at today. I see a parallel with St. Paul’s day. Sadly, we have deep divisions within the Church - some brought about by people who treat traditions and teachings too lightly, dismissing them out of hand; and others are brought about by people who are so locked up in them that they leave no room whatever for God to do or inspire anything new. These latter can be very vocal and they sow a lot of confusion. I think, for instance, of the confusion they sow in their outspoken, hostile attacks on Pope Francis, even calling for his resignation. I often wonder if he takes comfort in the thought that St. Paul also had to deal with great opposition and with people who accused him of heresy!

     I began by saying that there is controversy and confusion in today’s readings.  Both came about because of St. Paul’s preaching which called for complete conversion, a total change of mind and heart. And conversion like that can lead to confusion. It can bring about the uncomfortable realization that ‘my truth’ may not be the only truth or the whole truth, and who wants to deal with that?  The Jews who struggled with St. Paul’s teaching certainly didn’t, and I don’t think we do, either. It’s not easy to come to terms with the fact that God is always bigger than our certainties, our convictions, our theology; it’s not easy to own that the container in which we try to hold God may be far too small.
 
     This takes me to today’s brief passage from St. John’s gospel. “My sheep hear my voice,” we heard Jesus say. “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”  That’s the consolation to be found in today’s readings.  There is great consolation and comfort in knowing that Jesus is our shepherd, that he knows us and speaks to us, and that we can actually hear his voice. We can, if we listen. And Jesus goes on to say that “no one can take my sheep out of my hand…because the Father has given them to me.” And there is comfort in that, too. But, my friends, there is also challenge. Hearing the voice of Jesus and following him isn’t all sweetness and light, comfort and consolation. Often, Jesus calls us to leave behind our comfort zone, to step into the dark and let him take us - or take the Church - in some new directions. And that’s not always easy.

     Think, for instance, of when his voice may be calling the Church to re-examine the role of women - to identify significant leadership and decision-making roles for them. Or when his voice calls us to take unpopular stands like speaking up and speaking out on behalf of the unborn, or against the death penalty, or against the inhuman treatment of migrants and refugees fleeing oppression, seeking safety for their children. Or when the voice of Jesus calls us to advocate for the homeless, or for more human and compassionate services for the mentally ill, or to care for and protect this endangered planet, our common home. The voice of Jesus is far more than a voice from the past: Jesus speaks to us now! The question is: do we hear him?

     Dear friends, St. Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ changed everything for him. His boundless energy and zeal became an all-consuming, passionate relationship with Christ, a fire burning within him. Our Easter encounter with the risen Christ can – and should - do the same for us!

Father Michael G. Ryan

 

 

 

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