Divine Mercy Sunday
Preached April 28. 2019; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon
Today’s 1st reading seems most unreal; because of its unreality it could seem a rebuke to the Catholic Church and even a challenge to the whole Christian faith.
Many signs and wonders were done among the people at the hands of the apostles. Where are those signs and wonders today? Especially, at the hands of the successors of the Apostles, the bishops? Back then, the people esteemed the apostles, but today who has become more of a laughing stock today than their successors, the bishops.
Don’t get me wrong, there are good bishops today and the Lord continues to work many signs and wonders today, true miracles, but they tend to get lost in the crowd and the hardly seem to characterize the life of his Church.
Belonging to the Church in the time of the Apostles must have been quite an exciting thing; though dangerous, morale was high. Today belonging to the Church can still be dangerous – just look at Sri Lanka – but public morale is very low.
Many of you meet with this reality in comments you inevitably hear in the workplace or among family members who no longer practice the faith.
Today, people speak of the “institutional Church” in order to distance themselves from the disgrace, as though there were some “pure” Church that stands apart from the visible institution.
In today’s Gospel we heard that the Apostles were gathered behind locked doors, because of their fear.
We might think, “There is the problem. We are just like those Apostles, hunkering down behind closed doors, because of our fears. We need to be brave and bold and go out and proclaim the Gospel to the world.”
There is certainly some truth to that, but let’s not make light of the Apostles fear; they had every reason to be afraid. Their leader had just been crucified.
They could not go out and boldly proclaim that Jesus had risen from the dead because as yet they did not know, understand, and believe. For our part, we cannot go out as bold witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection, if he has not touched our lives by his grace and power.
What we really need is to encounter Jesus coming into our midst and saying, Peace be with you. We do not want to hear this as empty words, but as the speech of the very Word of God, who was in the beginning with God, through whom all things were made, the Word who was made flesh, was crucified and rose again from the dead. His word is spirit and life.
We need to encounter Jesus in the sacrament of penance giving us the peace that comes from the forgiveness of sins. We need to encounter Jesus in the intimacy of holy communion, speaking from within, and saying, Peace be with you.
After rising from the dead Jesus would visit and instruct the disciples repeatedly during the course of forty days before he ascended into heaven. (cf. Acts 1:3)
St. Luke tells us that before departing from them Jesus said, It is written that the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses to these things. Behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high. (Lk 24:46-49)
The Apostles were sent to proclaim the Gospel as chosen witnesses of the resurrection, but only after they had received the gift of the Holy Spirit, the promise of the Father, that clothed them with power from on high. That took place on Pentecost, fifty days after Easter. Only then were they equipped to go out from behind the closed doors and speak fearlessly, in the face of all opposition, working signs and wonders, winning the admiration of the people.
We might think there is a contradiction here: We are accustomed to thinking that the Holy Spirit comes only on Pentecost after Jesus’ ascends to the right hand of his Father. Yet, in today’s Gospel, Jesus gives his Holy Spirit to the Apostles on the very day of the Resurrection, Easter Sunday.
There is, however, no contradiction: On Easter Sunday they received the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of sins in the sacrament of Penance; On Pentecost they received the Holy Spirit to be bold, public witnesses, proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection.
We have been given this power in the sacrament of confirmation, but we do not know it and we do not make use of it.
There is no contradiction between the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost and on Easter, but there is surely a connection and an order; everything God does is wisely ordered.
In order to pass from the defeat of Good Friday to the boldness of Pentecost, the Apostles needed to spend time behind closed doors and receive the gift that Jesus’ brought them by his presence, the gift of pardon and peace. Indeed, the gift of true inner peace comes to us precisely through the forgiveness of sins that sets us in right relationship to God.
On Easter Sunday, Jesus came to the community of those who had already been baptized before his death on the Cross, but had failed him on the Cross. Even the women had failed him because their faith had failed; they had gone to the tomb looking for a dead man. Only the Immaculate Virgin Mary remained as an unshakeable beacon of faith.
Jesus came on Easter Sunday and brought his forgiveness to the Apostles, but they needed to bring his forgiveness to the rest of the community of the baptized through the sacrament of penance. The whole community needed to be forgiven, healed, instructed, and strengthened in preparation for Pentecost. They needed Jesus to come to them, risen from the dead, and stamp them, so to speak, with the reality of his presence.
We are now in the Easter Season; we must not let anything cast us down or discourage us or take away the joy of the season. Nevertheless, the outer visible reality of the Church today is rather like that of Good Friday, represented in the burnt out hulk of Notre-Dame or the bombed ruins of the churches in Sri-Lanka.
We cannot proclaim the glorious joy of the resurrection outwardly to world (as we are meant to do) unless we first live inwardly by the life of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. Those who truly possesses the life of Jesus Christ within themselves cannot help but show it outwardly to the world.
Here is the point: we must first go inside to find Jesus (or to let him come to us as he did to the disciples behind closed doors) before we can boldly go outside to proclaim him. Otherwise all our proclamation is nothing but empty propaganda, human stratagems, or worldly politics.
In a certain passage in the Book of Revelation Jesus speaks to a Church that appears rather as an empty shell, much like the Church in the world today. After calling them to repentance he says, Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, then I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me. (Rev. 3:20) The problem is that he stands at the door and knocks, but we are not at home; we are outside pretending all sorts of things. We need first to return inside, to come to our senses like the prodigal son, only then will be able to hear him knocking, only then will we be able to open the door to him, and have him come into our midst and say, Peace be with you.
If once we hear Jesus speaking those words to us, with power, our lives will be changed. We will be set into relationship not only with the eternal Son of God, but with the man who stands beyond the gates of death, who is alive and active here and now, who transcends all the turmoil of this passing time, who summons us to the peace of eternal life. Only then will we be able truly to receive his mercy and having received his mercy become messengers of his mercy.