Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

May 21, 2011

Church of the Resurrection, Cincinnati


(Based on Acts 6:1-7; 1 Peter2:4-9; John 14:1-12)


Let’s suppose that we in this community were asked to compose a homily on the subject of Baptism—for a community of the followers of Jesus in the year 80 A.D. What would we say? What would the focus be?


My reason for proposing such an exercise is that the second reading in today’s Mass happens to be called a ‘letter’ written by St. Peter, but biblical scholars are in general agreement that it is not really a letter (and surely not written by Peter, who had been martyred by the time it was written). It’s really an exhortation in support of people struggling with the demands of faith in the face of oppression. It challenges them to go deeper in their understanding of what their baptism (and ours) means.


If we are to appreciate the power of this homily we need to hear it in context, with all the associations its hearers could be bringing to it as they listened. It speaks of a spiritual building, a house or sanctuary or temple. And there’s a long history of the Israelites making special places for meeting God.


It goes back to the time of Moses. The people had been liberated from slavery in Egypt. They had wandered in the desert and been fed by the Lord with manna. Then Yahweh entered into a covenant with them: “I will be your God and you shall be my people.” So as a way of insuring that the memory of the covenant would not be lost, a way of continuing to have the Lord’s presence with them, they constructed an ‘ark.’ It was basically a trunk-size chest. In it they placed the tablets with the Ten Commandments and some manna. It was then placed on two long poles and carried on the shoulders of me specially selected for the honor.


The ark was a forbidding presence, surrounded by fear. No one was ever to touch the ark itself. One time when they were carrying it on a bumpy road it began to wobble and there was the possibility that it might topple over. One of the bearers quite innocently reached out to steady it and as he touched it he was struck dead.


Later on it simply faded out of history. The scriptures give no explanation. It was simply lost without a trace—unless you think that Harrison Ford and his raiders actually found it . . .


And then some centuries later there is David. He decides that the Lord needs a splendid house. He commits himself to spare no effort. He will not lie in a house until he has built a temple for Yahweh. It’s a kind of comedy, really, for God says to him, “When did I ever ask you to build me a house? I, who made the earth and everything in it? I don’t need you sacrifices of bulls and oxen. I desire your obedience.” But he continues to build it anyway .


And the Temple, ‘God’s house,’ gradually becomes the center of their religious life. It is destroyed once and they build a replacement, the Second Temple.


It, too, exhibits some forbidding characteristics. There are boundaries, places where everyday Israelites can’t go, much less pagans. Outsiders are restricted to the outer court; priests and levites can enter the sanctuary; only the high priest can enter the inmost room, the Holy of Holies.


And so we come to the time of Jesus. We hear that story of his first entry into Jerusalem, when his disciples from the Galilean countryside are dumbstruck at the splendor of the Temple gold. They’re like rubes visiting the big city. And Jesus has to dampen their innocent awe. He tells them this is all going to pass away, leaving ‘not a stone upon a stone.’ And at the moment when he dies on Calvary the veil of the temple, the symbol of division of accessibility, is torn in two: our God offers access to everyone without distinction!


After Jesus’ departure the story of the early Jewish-Christian communities is one of successive stages of clarification of what baptism into Christ really means. Stage by stage they are compelled to realize that all things really are new, the old ways no longer prevail.


Peter dines with some Gentiles, which was a serious no-no, and the taboo against table fellowship falls. He has his famous vision on the roof of Cornelius’ house; he sees the sheet lowered down and he knows it is the Lord who is telling him to eat. He recoils, protesting that it was forbidden to eat such things, until he remembers ‘the word of the Lord’ and comes to a new insight: “who am I to call impure that which the Lord has made holy?”


More and more Gentiles are joining the community. There is a bitter fight over whether they must be circumcised. Paul goes head-to-head with Peter and James and the Jerusalem church, sarcastically referring to them as “so-called pillars of the community.’  And the community decides that the new life given by Jesus does not require circumcision.


And finally there is the last piece of the edifice: the Jewish people rise up in revolt against their Roman conquerors and the city of Jerusalem, and the Temple itself, is razed to the ground.


Everything that had identified them as Jews was gone: circumcision, restricted community boundaries, purity laws. And the very Temple. What was left?


And that is the context in which the baptismal catechesis of First Peter takes place. There will be no new physical sanctuary, no physical sacrifices of animals, no special places with boundaries to keep the unclean out. They themselves—and we!—have been made the new Temple! And anyone who has faith and trust in Jesus is welcome. It’s not based on restrictions of clan or tribe or race or ethnicity.


There is only one requirement: that Jesus be the cornerstone, the element in the building that tells its story and alone makes sense of all the rest of the structure. The author says, “Come to him.” A living stone. By Baptism we become members of a living organism existing to lead lives of praise for the graciousness of God’s favor.


It all depends on us keeping Jesus the Christ at the center.


Because this ‘letter’ is being written to a church that is showing wear and tear. The solidarity experienced by the followers of Jesus on Pentecost is becoming frayed.


We see it already in today’s story from Acts. Some people interpret it as the institution of the diaconate in the church (which is surely anachronistic) but in any case it’s the story of breakdown in the community. People have lost focus on what is central and have reduced their life as Christians to ‘who gets what.’ It’s described as a conflict based on distinction between different language groups, but at its deepest level it’s about self-interest. Loss of solidarity. Of that on which the whole edifice stands.


Then Paul hears from people at Corinth and discovers the fight going on in that church.


“It has been reported to me about you, my brothers, by Chloe’s people, that there are rivalries among you. I mean that each of you is saying, ‘I belong to Paul’ or ‘I belong to Apollos’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Is Christ divided?” (1 Cor 1:11-12)


By the time of today’s epistle people have begun to falter in their faith because of oppression. The homily is a challenge to them to return to the core meaning of their baptism—and ours.


In today’s gospel Jesus is giving his farewell discourse to his closest disciples. He tells them that they are already people of faith.” You believe in God.” He invites them to take the next step: “believe in me.” It’s not about special places; it’s not about this lovely church where we worship today, it’s not about the cathedral downtown, it’s not about St. Peter’s in Rome or the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. It’s about a personal relationship of trust in this man seated with them at table. He is the way and the truth and the life, not all the externals about which Christians have fought so many useless fights across the centuries down to today.


Jesus makes two amazing statements in this last farewell. “If you know me, you will also know the Father; from now on you do know him and have seen him.” And he goes on to the astounding promise: “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I go to the Father.”


As we make our way to a new outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost let us claim our dignity as members of the body, the Temple, which is the whole Christ: head and members joined inseparably. Let us plead for an ever deeper understanding and appreciation of the heart and mind of Jesus—the Way and the Truth and the Life.