Homily for 6th Sunday of Easter

May 1, 2005

St. Martin dePorres, Cincinnati

(Based on Acts 8:5-8,14-17; Psalm 66; 1 Peter 3:15-18; John 14:15-21)

Over the past six weeks unfolding the mystery of Easter, the church has been leading along three tracks simultaneously.

First there is the ongoing story of the spread of the Gospel in the early church; our story really. The word has spread out from Jerusalem after Pentecost and it reaches further and further, expanding into the Roman Empire, across Asia Minor. And as it does the church touches worlds the first disciples could never have imagined. Today's account tells of the Good News reaching even the Samaritans, people the Jews had considered beyond the pale of God's favor.

These accounts are only the beginnings of a pattern that has persisted down across the centuries The Spirit has stretched the imagination and heart of believers again and again, compelling them to open themselves up to people and situations that challenge our tendency to want to confine God's grace in a box where we are comfortable. It makes us ask where we are trying to impose limits on God in today's world. The Word of God can't be contained.

Then the second track has been unfolding the meaning of our Baptism, through the First Letter of Peter. That letter is really a piece of early catechism more than a 'letter.' It unpacks for us what we really committed ourselves to when we renewed our baptismal vows along with those completing the RCIA at the Easter vigil. Each year we have to start over, to reach a deeper appreciation of what Baptism really means.

And then in the Gospels for this season we have been hearing passages from three of the great talks of Jesus in John's account.

First there was the long presentation of Jesus as the bread of life, in chapter 6. We saw Jesus telling the disciples of the amazing way he would feed them. And we know that for many this 'saying' was just too much. "I can follow this fellow only so far; this does it." They walked away and Jesus had to ask his closest disciples if they, too, were going to leave him. It's a poignant moment. And Peter says, "Lord, where else could we go? You have the word of everlasting life."

Then for a couple of weeks we reflected on Jesus' description of himself as the Good Shepherd, in Chapter 10. It was one of the most consoling images in the spirituality of the early Christians, the first way Jesus was depicted, on the walls of the catacombs.

And finally in the past two weeks we have been listening to Jesus' words at his final meal with his disciples, in chapter 14. The whole talk begins with him telling them "Don't let your hearts be troubled." Don't be afraid!

It's an amazing request, really. They had followed him, they had staked their lives on him, and he is going to leave them --- in some mysterious manner that they can't comprehend but know it is somber. And they are not to be afraid?

In today's Gospel he begins to lift the veil ever so slightly. He is really going away but they --- and we --- will not be orphans. He will return to them. But in the meantime he offers us himself in yet another form. He will remain with us in a new way, in the form of a new helper, a new person to speak up for us. He will come to be with us in the shape of a mysterious Holy Spirit. Just as he himself had been sent on a mission from the Father, this Spirit will be sent on his own mission.

The mission of the Spirit can only be begun by Jesus departing from our sight, but in this new way he will remain with us till the end of time.

And what is the mission of the Spirit? To enable us to see Jesus in a new way. We will enjoy a new life because he will reveal himself to us in a new fashion.

It's all very exciting. But it involves a dramatic change in our way of living. The answers now are not going to be 'out there' but inside us where the Spirit will dwell. Ezechiel and Jeremiah had spoken of God taking out of us our hearts of stone and giving us hearts of flesh, and that requires a whole new discipline of attending, of learning to see.

In our society we have those people who think everything will be better if we just display the Ten Commandments everywhere. They don't seem to realize that the tablets would become just as unnoticed as all the other monuments which we pass every day without really seeing them. Jesus is about a much more demanding spirituality, compelling us to search him out in manifestations that are much more subtle and even ambiguous, where he's really able to be seen but only in a cloudy mirror, where seeing involves taking the risk of personal commitment.

Jesus will remain with us as food, as nourishment in the Eucharist, but that's not the whole of it. There is this power which will enable us to see -- even when he is no longer accessible in his earthly form, and even as times and circumstances change and it's no longer first-century Palestine with real sheep.

And down through the centuries Christian men and women have seen. In Psalm 66 we were invited to cry out with joy and praise at the amazing works God has brought forth in our midst, again and again. Individuals have seen what needed to be done and have stepped forward, all by themselves, to do it.

By taking the name of Benedict our new pope has invited us to think of the first Benedict. He lived at a time when the civilized world was falling apart on every side, as the Vandals and Goths and other marauding tribes were laying waste whole countries, destroying the heritage of Western civilization. And Benedict saw. And he acted. Instead of shutting his monks up in closed monasteries in fear of that emerging world, he opened his monasteries up. He invited people from the countryside --- illiterate people of the land --- to come in, to learn, to read and study and be moved by the works of art that were being preserved and created. The monasteries were to be centers of learning and creativity. Actually they were the first parochial schools, if you think about it.

And can such things happen today?

We might think of Sr. Dorothy Stang, a woman who grew up right near us. She saw the condition of her people in Brazil and had to speak out for them, even at the cost of her own life.

But I'd like to look at a different example, not a church person enjoying the backing of an institution.

Maybe you have been as impressed as I have been at the story of Marla Ruzicka. At 28 years of age she could have remained just another pretty face living the laid-back life of a normal young person in the La-La world of Southern California. But she saw something. She noticed that in all the words and images from the war in Iraq people were paying attention to the politicians and the generals and soldiers, but no one was even bothering to look at all the innocent victims on all sides who were being killed and maimed and left homeless. She wasn't caught up in the big ideas: terror and democracy and freedom. She just couldn't stop thinking of the little people who were caught up in the middle of it all. And she had to try to do something for them.

She had no resources, no institutional base behind her. She just went there on her own. She spoke directly to the victims and asked them what they needed and how she could help. And then she returned to the States and knocked on the doors of the powerful to make them see. She got to the senators and other big-shots. And then, against the advice of her friends, she went back. And gave her life.

Did Marla Ruzicka 'know Jesus?' Was she aware of the Holy Spirit? I don't know. But in a sense it's not important. Because she saw. And she acted. And she eventually did the thing that is only possible through the grace of God: she laid down her life for her neighbor.

Jesus lives. Through the actions of his Spirit he can be seen. Even in our technological, cyberspace, information world. As we praise the Lord for what Benedict saw and did, as we praise God for what Marla Ruzicka saw and did, let's pray that when the Spirit of the Lord invites us to see Jesus -- in the way that only each of us can, in the neighbor the world can't see because it doesn't know him -- we may have the freedom to respond in love.