Fifth Sunday of Easter – Year A
May 07, 2022 – 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community – Palm Springs, CA
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Acts 6:1-7 | Psalm 33:1-2;4-5;18-19
I Peter 2:4-9 | John 14:1-12
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
Divisions within Christianity are nothing new. If you Google the question, “How many denominations of Christians exist,” you will find that the answer is we now have over forty-five thousand! And, of course, there are divisions within denominations as well. The Anglican world has high church and low church. The Roman Catholics have Latin Mass aficionados and mainstream Novus Ordo proponents. In light of Jesus wishing that we all may be one in his high-priestly prayer, I wonder what Jesus thinks about what his church has become.
Today’s Gospel is from that portion of John called the Farewell Discourses, where Jesus addressed his followers after the Last Supper, knowing that he would die his earthly death the next day. He had just instituted the Eucharist. During the few hours that preceded his arrest in the garden of Gethsemane, he conversed with them and bequeathed them his spiritual testimony.
Jesus shared with his followers his innermost thoughts with those nearest and dearest to him. He spoke directly to them about his divine nature instead of communicating his identity through signs, such as raising Lazarus or working miracles. He invited them to know God directly through him by telling them about his identity with his Father. In doing that, he was not simply providing information about God but inviting them to have a relationship with God through him.
Jesus told them not to be troubled by his departure. He made clear that even though he would no longer be alive with them as a fleshly human person, he intended that the work he started would carry on through his followers.
Today we hear about some of those followers in the First Reading from the Book of Acts. It talks about the Greek Christians complaining against Jewish Christians that the Greek widows were neglected in the daily food distributions. Essentially, this was a complaint about the unequal distribution of resources. The early church solved the problem by appointing seven individuals to distribute the food. Not only was the distribution problem solved, but the Apostles could now devote more time to preaching God’s word.
The story in today’s First Reading was not only a creative solution to a conflict, but it was the beginning of the ordained diaconate; the First Reading tells us that these seven individuals received the laying-on-of-hands to commission to serve the Christian community, just like Sharon did when she was ordained to the Vocational Diaconate, and just like me when I was ordained to the transitional Diaconate.
Today’s Gospel makes clear that Deacons are not less important ordained ministers than Priests and Bishops. The Diaconate has a dignity and charism all its own. The English word, Deacon, comes from the Greek word Diakono, meaning “servant. All ordained clergy of the Catholic tradition of Christianity start out, and remain, Deacons throughout their lives. Remember always that we clergy are not your commanders. We are your servants and will remain such forever. Maybe today’s Gospel is a wake-up call to the church to continue the prolific serving of its people as more important than the denominational loyalty and clerical camaraderie of today’s world.
But ordained people are not the only people that matter in the Church. Lay people matter, too. All of us, whether or not we are ordained as Deacons, Priests, or Bishops, are part of the priesthood of all baptized persons as explained in today’s Second Reading from First Peter, which explicitly does not define the priesthood of the Church as exclusively populated by ordained priests like me. Rather, the entire church, that is, all baptized persons, are identified as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”
In the Jewish and ancient other mid-Eastern traditions, the function of the priests was to offer sacrifices as an act of mediation between humanity and divinity. That is exactly what is expected of all of us as baptized persons. No, we are not going to slay and burn animals on a stone altar as priests did in the Temple in the time of Jesus. Psalm fifty-one tells us that God does not want burnt offerings, but instead, a humble and contrite heart.
The sacrifices God wants from us are spiritual ones. A spiritual sacrifice is conduct that honors God. When you do anything inherently good, like improving someone’s lot in life by loving or helping someone or studying scripture, that is a spiritual sacrifice in the name of Jesus that glorifies God.
The God we worship wants us to offer ourselves wholeheartedly, that is, the entirety of our souls and bodies. It is living for God with every part of our being. All Christians at their baptism promised to proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Jesus, to seek and serve Jesus in all persons, and to respect the dignity of every being. We do this by sacrificial giving of ourselves and our personal behavior wherein we offer ourselves to become a living sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to God.
Just as the very early Church adapted itself to changing conditions, Jesus calls us to adapt ourselves in the world in which we find ourselves through new concepts in ministry. The public now expects churches not only to provide worship services but to act as social welfare agencies, educational institutions, counseling services, and venues for music and art. But only large churches with huge budgets have the resources to do all of that.
The reality is that small churches like ours do not have the personnel or the budget to be all things to all people all the time. Many large churches have become small churches over the past few years because of the pandemic and the ongoing disaffection with organized religion amongst younger generations.
Going forward, that is exactly how the Church will continue to evolve. Church communities will be smaller and more narrowly focused on specific missions. Some will serve homeless and unfortunate people. Others will emphasize spirituality, pastoral care, or education. Still others will lead the way in evangelism or preaching. This is similar to law and medicine, where lawyers and doctors are moving away from serving as jacks or jills-of-all-trades general practitioners and toward specializing in specific fields of law and medicine.
Here at Saint Cecilia’s, we are not, and will never be, all things to all people like a large church is. For now, our two missions will remain worship in the beauty of holiness driven by quality music and sacramental justice with an emphasis on serving the Hispanic community.
This past week, I did sacramental justice by visiting a dying woman and administering last rights after being informed by the hospice social worker that my services were needed because the family had a falling out with the local Roman church. This is not the first time I have responded to such a situation, and definitely will not be the last. When Rome abdicates its responsibilities, we step in and take care of God’s business.
Nonetheless, we are open to the Holy Spirit evolving us into other areas and adapting accordingly. For example, if we are able to find a bilingual assistant pastor, we may start a twelve-thirty Mass entirely in Spanish. We are also exploring the possibility of making our space available for the musical instruction of children in keeping with our long-standing ministry serving the specific spiritual needs of musicians and music lovers.
All of that said, what Saint Cecilia’s does have in common with all churches of the Catholic Tradition, both large and small, is that we who are baptized are the living stones that constitute the Church. We are not just ordinary stones, but we are extraordinary stones. We are and must be, stones that stand out in the world.
While Christians may be a majority in the United States, on a worldwide basis, we are a minority. Christians are thirty-one percent of the world’s population. In many areas, Christians suffer for their religion just as they did in the very early days at the hands of the Roman Empire. Yet, although we are often the stones that the builders rejected, ultimately we will become chief cornerstones by following the way of Jesus, the way of unconditional love.
Despite the plethora of Christian denominations, it is the Way of Jesus that we share in common amongst us. Now more than ever, we look to the Way of Jesus to help us navigate our world. But Jesus represents not only the way but truth and light as well. Jesus calls us to be seekers of truth and to shine light into the dark corners of ignorance. In those dark corners, things arise that we do not expect.
Our lives are full of surprises. When our community started in April, two-thousand-fifteen, I never dreamed we would be the way we are today. Through continuous diversifying, as the early church did in establishing the Diaconate, we are able to continue to evolve so as to facilitate the continuing work of Jesus. To use a metaphor relating to today’s Gospel, the Church adapts itself to its mission by adding more and more mansions to God’s house. That is exactly what Saint Cecilia’s did last year. We literally added rooms. In addition to worship space, we now have a Friendship Room, an office, another bathroom, and storage spaces.
God’s house with many mansions is a metaphor for the church. Each local church with a specific mission in God’s house of many mansions. We here at Saint Cecilia Catholic Community are a house with many musical mansions.
The house with many mansions image is also the figurative big tent for all of humanity, all of whom were created in God’s image and likeness, and to use the words of today’s Second Reading, we are all chosen and precious in God’s sight. The church is an assembly of persons who rejected living stones become cornerstones. Our mission of sacramental justice does exactly that by explicitly welcoming those rejected at other churches.
Today’s gospel may sound like hyperbole, but in it, Jesus claims that his followers will accomplish deeds even greater than those he himself performed. This promise remains a challenge for followers of every age, including the early to middle twenty-first century, in which we find ourselves in the journeys of our lives.
For the Christian, our entire life is a journey whose ultimate destination is oneness with God. We do not know, on a conscious level, what that will be like, or what we will do when that happens. Those estachological things are mysteries beyond human understanding. Yet that ultimate goal is always in the back of our minds.
What is the challenge for Christians today in a world broken to pieces by the war in Ukraine? Do we support Ukraine’s fight for justice, or do we accede to Russia’s demands as the price of peace?
What is the challenge for Christians today in a world that seems to value possessions more than people? How do we maintain a rising economic tide to lift every boat that floats on it, yet maintain the dignity of all humanity, not just that of a select few?
What is the challenge for Christians today in a world that finds it difficult to admit its limitations? Do we continue to burn unlimited amounts of fossil fuels without attention to the environmental harm that causes?
I do not have specific and detailed answers to any of these challenges, but I do pray that the leaders of the world’s countries cooperate to craft practical solutions rather than advance political ideologies or pursue an agenda to use their military and/or economic power to subjugate others.
Addressing all of these, and other, important challenges are the greater works Jesus calls us to do in today’s Gospel. We do this by continually adapting the church to accomplish the mission of the hour.
That is what will call us out of darkness.
That is what will make us chosen and precious in God’s sight.
That is what will sanctify us as a holy nation.
That is what will commission us as a royal priesthood.
That is what will enable us to show forth the praises of God in every generation. AMEN.