Sixth Sunday of Easter
by Father Charles Irvin, M.Div, J.D.
The Easter Season culminates in the Feast of Pentecost, the
outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples. Through the Gift of
the Spirit, the disciples continue to lead and guide the
Church. This week we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus into
Heaven, made reference to in John's gospel today. As Jesus worked with the
disciples, He wanted them to recognize that they were witnessing more than just random events.
He wanted them to know that everything is connected and part of a
Divine Plan. This God in our midst, this
presence of God's Word seen in the figure of Jesus, gave up His life
for us. By dying on the Cross, by
rising, by appearing to the disciples and then ascending and sending the Holy
Spirit, Jesus fulfills God's Plan.
Jesus' life, death and resurrection serve to shift our perceptions of
God's presence in the world. Now we see that God dwells within
His people, within the believers. We become the temples of God's presence.
We become the vehicles through which God ministers to the world.
Throughout history, we have struggled to maintain a balance between
two issues: That which is truly of God and that which is of
men. We can at times add on to the message of Christ and actually be
taking away from it. The first reading from the Acts of the Apostles makes it
clear that from the very beginning of the Church this dilemma existed. There
were people speaking in the name of the Church, and what they spoke was not
truly of the Spirit. We believe that the Holy Spirit - the
Gift guiding the Church - plays a very important role. The
Spirit's role is somehow to balance everything. The Gentiles were very excited about
Jesus' teaching. They were delighted about the way in which the message worked in their
Jesus' message spoke of this great Gift of Spirit being
given to individuals. This Gift was a spirit of understanding and
forgiveness that empowered them to accomplish God's work. As the Gentiles
embraced the message, they dealt with other converts to Christianity - those
whose roots were in Judaism. The Jewish converts wanted to retain many facets of Jewish law as they converted over to
Christianity. One of the great marks that a man would carry as a part of the Jewish community was circumcision
. In many ways, circumcision at the time had the same significance we attach to
Baptism. It was a sign of being a member of the community, and a guarantee of being assured eternal life.
It was obvious that the Jewish converts would want circumcision to be adopted by all the members of this
new community, thinking, "This has always been important to God and to us."
What we often fail to realize, however, is that the heart of God's message never changes -
even though much around it does. We evolve. We grow. We develop. In the gospel passage,
Jesus says He is going to send the Holy Spirit to
instruct and remind us. The ongoing work of the Spirit in the
Church is to help people understand more fully what Christ has been saying.
It's a never-ending evolution. Always changing and growing, this is what it means when we talk about remembering
what Christ said.
We are asked to remember what was at the heart of Christ's message
from the very beginning. Otherwise, we may get caught up in all kinds of non-essentials. The disciples gathered together
and said, "This adherence to Jewish law is causing a lot of pain and dissension. Some of the
converts don't seem to understand why circumcision is demanded. Let's go to the elders and ask them what we should do."
They ask the question, and I love the way the response is worded. When the letter instructing the community is read, it basically
anticipates an event where Judas (also known as Barsabbas) and Silas will return to the group to proclaim something.
The proclamation is that the Holy Spirit has instructed that the issue of
circumcision be settled in this way: "Circumcision is not required. It is not necessary. It was necessary in the
old system, but now we have a new system." I find the language interesting. They don't say, "We
sat around and thought about this." They don't say, "We voted." Instead,
they say this decision was the Will of the Holy Spirit. In the
minds of those who made the decision, there must have been a leaning on this Gift of the Spirit in the
community, a power moving through their midst that instructs and
reminds. By relying upon the Holy Spirit, the early
Christian Church was able to resolve one of the early issues of possible dissension.
My experience of the Church is that these kinds of conflicts keep
cropping up. We are reminded that we must always return to the heart of Jesus' message.
If there is anything that the Second Vatican Council sought to do, it's just that: to go back to our
Tradition and make sure that everything we are doing is in
line with the heart of Christ's message. Then we celebrate the mysteries and
Sacraments of our Church according to the
Tradition, rather than commemorating a compilation of little things
that got tacked on over the years.
When Judas and Silas return to the people to tell them they no longer have to worry about
circumcision, they go on to say that there are certain things the people should do, even though they don't
want the Church to become "excessively burdened with a lot of rules and
What a wonderful thought! They tell the people they should abstain from the meat of strangled animals and from
illicit sexual union. If we read that literally, it can be confusing. We might ask:
"What's the big deal about those animals? What's the difference if you eat the meat of animals that were
strangled or those whose heads were chopped off?" These images are connected to
pagan worship. The people are asked to abstain from their old ways of worshiping pagan gods. They are asking the
people to turn away from a god who demands sacrifice, to a God Who has already
made the sacrifice for us.
As far as relationships are concerned, they are asking the people to enter into healthy relationships
that produce goodness and life. If we look at the Ten
Commandments, it's clear there are two themes. The first
three commandments have everything to do with God desiring a relationship with us that is
healthy. He wants us to be in a relationship
with Him where we honor and believe in
Him, where we don't use His power in a destructive
way. He asks us to rest in Him. The other seven
commandments are about right relationships with each other. We are to respect each other's
rights to property, to the truth, to possessing life. All of this is about
healthy relationships. The issue is not whether we are circumcised or not; it's about whether we are in
right relationship with God and our brothers and sisters.
The Vision of Saint John - by CANO, Alonso -
from Wallace Collection, London
The wisdom in going back to the heart of the message sets
the tone for our own view of Church. The reading from Revelation gives us a sense of our own direction. John
sees an angel in this revelation, carrying him to the top of a mountain. That's another way of saying that John is being taken to a
place where he will have an insight, where he will see more. John sees the city - an image of the Church and
us as the community - "sparkling like a diamond.''
The city's wall or foundation has twelve gates, symbolic of the twelve apostles. The Church has a
rock foundation. The foundation is an experience of Christ that the twelve apostles
shared. We celebrated the feast of Matthias this week, a follower of Jesus who took the place of
Judas, the disciple who betrayed
Jesus. When the disciples were looking for someone to replace Judas, they had to determine their
criteria in selecting his successor. The key questions were: Did this person eat, speak with, and spend time
with Jesus? Did this person see Jesus after the Resurrection?
Did he witness the Ascension? They were looking for someone who had a rock-solid experience of
Christ so that this person's faith would be unshakable.
The Church we are moving toward is founded on the absolute certitude that we have a
God Who is on our side. He is for us. This whole image of religion is founded on the
belief that our faith is our best chance of living life abundantly. In the image
from Revelation, we see that there is no Temple in the city. The Temple is gone
because the Spirit of God - always considered to be residing in the Temple -
now resides in each individual. Each person now has the sense that the structure we have always looked for outside is now inside
of us. Another image of that structure is light. God has given us
wonderful light. The challenge is for us to embrace this image of the Church
as a model community. This community of great conviction recognizes that God has come not so much to force us
to work or live a certain way within an exterior structure but to place a structure inside of us, the Gift of a
Spirit that guides and nurtures us. In the gospel,
Jesus discusses His departure with His disciples.
Jesus tells the disciples that the heart of the Church and religion is to make them understand
one issue: the love God has for us. God's work is
to love us, and all He asks is that we love Him
in return. If we love God in return, then we will be true to
His Word and to His Commandments. If we understand the Commandments as
our commitment to being in touch with God and in right relationship with our
brothers and sisters, it makes sense why Jesus speaks of the heart of the work as always being
Jesus converses with the Eleven -
by DUCCIO di Buoninsegna -
from Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena
We flourish, grow and develop as
community when we live in an atmosphere of love and acceptance. Jesus goes on
to say that He will give the disciples a gift as He
leaves. Jesus' disciples must have been absolutely ecstatic to have Christ with
them after His death. It must have been very exciting. They must have spent
hours in conversation about these events. Even though Jesus is going to leave them in terms of
His physical presence, He does tell them that
He will not be leaving them orphans. He will give
them the Gift of Spirit - a light and a life that
will enter into them. Jesus wants them to trust in this Inner Voice that will
guide them. That is the Heart of the Church.
Our challenge as people living almost two thousand years after this event is to understand the
nature of the whole process. Jesus' core message is so attractive to the Mind
and Heart that really hears it. We have a problem when that message
gets so full of static, when it becomes full of demands that really aren't part of the Heart of it. When I
see people angry at religion because it seems to be crossing boundaries that it shouldn't or demanding things
that seem unnecessary, then I pray that people will have the ability to see past those structures to the
Heart of this message. The danger of the Church
is that it can get caught in a lot of accidentals. The challenge is to open ourselves to the
beauty of this message. As we move toward Pentecost, let us embrace the
marvelous image of a community filled with the Spirit that leads and guides us wherever we may be.
How is the Church enabled to lead men to salvation?
The Church is enabled to lead men to
salvation by the indwelling of the
Holy Ghost, Who gives it life.
work of salvation is the result of the operation of all three (3)
Persons of the Blessed Trinity,
it is especially the result of the Redemption
by Christ, and because this work is one of
Divine Love it is
attributed to the Holy Ghost,
Who is the Soul of the
Church, of which Christ is the
From the Baltimore Catechism
[Back to Easter Home Page]