In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Grace to you, and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.”
So wrote St. John the Theologian, or St. John the Divine, as he is sometimes called, a Christian exiled for his profession of faith in Christ, on the Island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea some time in the second half of the first century.
Just so, today’s Gospel reading opens with disciples under threat because they are disciples. They are paralyzed with fear for just having witnessed their teacher being arrested and executed, and they have hidden behind locked doors afraid that the authorities will now be looking for them. But a part of the import of the Gospel reading is that this place of fear and hiding becomes the location of God’s gift of grace. These locked doors cannot keep out the goodness that God has prepared for his people.
“Grace” is the supernatural ministry of God in the life of the faithful. Grace is the help God gives to those who trust in him: both to make them holy, and also to enable them to cooperate effectually with his redeeming work in the world: to enable them to do stuff for him – and mainly to proclaim the Good News to those who have not yet heard it – that God loves the world, and sent his Son.
We see precisely this pattern in today’s readings. Those who believe the good news of God in Christ then receive God’s own ministrations, and they are sent out to participate in God’s redeeming work, in bringing all things into subjection under Christ.
Why were the disciples afraid in today’s reading from John? They were afraid because they did not know what to do, the import of what had taken place over the past several days with the Lord’s death and resurrection had not yet come to life in their consciousness, and they did not know what to do, and they did not have the power to do it. So they were afraid; they were anxious; and this little community of Christians had hidden itself away behind locked doors. But suddenly Jesus, the embodiment of all grace, of all of God’s ministrations to humankind from then on… suddenly he is there in their midst. And he shows them his hands and his side – and the import of the previous days’ events dawns on them: Jesus had told them that what he was about to do would be for them, but it is as though until this moment, they had not understood what it was that he would do for them. Now they know: this Jesus, who was crucified for them, is risen for them – the dominion of sin and death over them has come to an end. And their fear and their anxiety are displaced by grace, by God’s own ministry to them in their fear, as Jesus says “Peace be with you.”
And in the next breath, Jesus tells them what to do. “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” Things are becoming clearer. They are being sent by the Son, as the Son was sent by the Father – they are becoming apostles. St. Paul explains what this means in 1 Corinthians: “In Christ,” he says, “God was reconciling the world to himself… and entrusting to us the ministry of reconciliation.”
And so it is. Like the Lord’s first disciples, we too have been entrusted, by the grace of God, with the ministry of reconciliation. We have been SENT. That’s what we are supposed to be all about – that’s what we have been elected by God to give our lives doing, in union with the full, perfect, and sufficient redeeming work of Christ crucified: we are to be bringing those in the world who have not known the gift of God in Christ, who have not known the deliverance from sin and death only found in Christ… to bring them to the grace of that deliverance, by bringing them to HIM – to Jesus, crucified and risen. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
This is the sense in which all Baptized and Confirmed Christians shared in the priesthood of Jesus: because we all share in his mediation. He died for the sins of the whole world, and gave us power and authority to bring the whole world, beginning with our friends and neighbors, to HIM, to the power of his death and resurrection, to the regenerative grace of Baptism into his death, and to faith in his Name – so that they too may then tell their friends and neighbors, and so on, unto the ends of the earth.
That’s how it works in theory. But all too often, like the first disciples, we lock ourselves up in our churches, afraid of what people would say or do if they knew we were followers of Jesus, afraid of what would happen were we actually to speak and live as though Jesus ruled our lives, afraid to speak and live with his power and authority.
And contrary to the more fashionable teachings of our culture, the Good News of God-in-Christ is not that we are not sinners – it is rather that we are FORGIVEN – it is the undoing of sin and death – proclaiming the forgiveness and life that are only possible in the self-gift of God in Christ, crucified for sins and raised to life. Christ has empowered us to proclaim forgiveness and life to the world, because a world polluted by sin and subject to the power of death needs to hear and to know that. The world therefore needs Jesus. And the gift he embodies comes with the power of the Holy Spirit, and with divine authority. Jesus says “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” What an incredible gift and grace! The gift of power and authority that is properly God’s alone (cf. Mat. 9.6-8). A gift to which all Christians have recourse in the sacrament of Confession, and to which we all have power and authority to bring to others, so that they too can encounter the power of forgiving and of being-forgiven.
And after their initial reticence, the first disciples did just this: they obeyed God rather than man; they went out and proclaimed this good news: the Gospel of Forgiveness and Life in Christ. And we know where it got them, for “a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him.” In Acts the disciples will wind up in the public prison; John will wind up exiled on the desert island of Patmos; Peter and Paul will wind up in jail and respectively crucified and beheaded in Rome. The world often doesn’t want to hear the Gospel, or can’t bear it – because the world “out there” has a tendency to harden hearts. Many people seem only able to hear in the Gospel of Forgiveness what they know all to well: that they have sinned, that they have hurt others, that they’ve sometimes hurt those who love them the most, that they have perhaps become embittered toward the God who gave them life and who wants them to be happy. But the only thing that God hates is our brokenness and isolation, and he hates it because good Fathers hate the things that hurt their children. Even though the Gospel is truly good news – that God himself has made it possible for us to be happy, that he always and only waits for us to turn to him so that he can give us love, grace, peace, forgiveness, happiness and life – people often can’t hear it that way, and they become defensive or hostile – and our Christians in places like China or Saudi Arabia often do find themselves in prison, or exiled from their homes, or with a gun to their head for being discovered to be Jesus’ disciples, or for preaching in his name. And in our own country, Catholic institutions and small business owners have hanging over their heads the prospect of having to pay the government debilitating fines unless they renounce certain tenants of the faith that are at odds with the “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.” That’s right here in America. And we do well to remind ourselves that countless others down through the centuries and around the world, beginning as I said with the Apostles themselves, have been murdered for being Jesus’ disciples. “A servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him.” I myself knew a man named Alfred Hill who in 2003, with six companions, was put in a cage and speared to death for being a follower of Jesus.
Yet we are all called, and indeed commanded, to go and proclaim the Gospel to those who have not heard it. And we are given not only the authority to do it, but the power as well. We are helped by the prayers of the Church – on earth as well as in heaven. The saints, those who have done this very thing, who have run the course of their lives faithfully – they protect and help us with their sleepless ministry of intercession before God. And throughout the New Testament, we find angels assisting the disciples in their mission. We have the help of God, and of all of the angels and saints who are our fellow servants, our fellow soldiers in the army of God. But Jesus did not suffer and die so that we could lock ourselves up for fear of what people might think – for fear of being ridiculed or ignored, or sharing the same fate as Jesus.
Each of us should be looking for opportunities to share the Good News of Christ with those in our lives who have not known him. Invite them to church. Look for opportunities in your conversations to tell people what Christ has done for you. And if you don’t know what he’s done for you, then ask him to show you. The disciples didn’t know either, but the Lord appeared to them and made it clear. He will do the same for you if you ask him. If your faith is weak, ask the Lord to strengthen it. Speak to him humbly and directly: say “Lord, I believe in you; help my unbelief. Show me what you have done for me, because I don’t know. I love you and I want to love you more. Proclaim yourself to others in me. Take away my fear and my shame. Give me your forgiveness and life, that I may share it with others.”
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.