|Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Easter|
The Reverend Ricardo Frohmader
The Gospel proclamations for this Sunday always make reference to Jesus’ self- identification as the good shepherd. In today’s proclamation he is not only the shepherd but the gate through which the sheep enter and leave the fold. The sheep know his voice and obey him. Any others who do not come through the gate to the sheepfold are thieves and bandits. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly”. What does Jesus mean when he says that the sheep of his flock should have life and have it abundantly? At first glance we might say that he is referring to spiritual life, to the life of the soul. Nevertheless I think that Jesus’ meaning is reflected in the way the early church cared and provided for its members. Jesus is concerned for the whole person, and for the wellbeing of each and every one of us. I think we tend to lose sight of that fact, relegating Jesus and our relationship with him to the spiritual part of our lives, rather than integrating him wholly into our selves.
Our first reading today takes us back to the early years of the Christianity in Jerusalem. It describes a system centered on the teaching of the apostles, on the breaking of bread (the memorial of the Last Supper), and on prayer. Additionally there was a system in which personal property was replaced by a system of sharing according to need. “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need”. This system of communal property holding is described again in Acts 4. In Acts 5 there is a description of what happened to a husband and wife who held back part of the proceeds of a sale of property. They were both struck dead.
What is their sin? It is not keeping some of the proceeds for themselves, it is lying to the apostle’s, pretending that the money they are bringing represents the full proceeds of the sale, when in truth it does not. “Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you do think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men, but to God?” He is struck dead. When his wife arrives three hours later and is asked whether the sum brought to the apostles represents the full price of the land, she says it does. She too is struck dead. “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events”. Having money is not the sin. The sin is pretending to give wholeheartedly, but in truth holding back out of greed or avarice.
Sometimes we think that our religious beliefs are bound up with our current economic and political system. Some think that the state should be guided by Biblical principles or teachings, yet these are selectively chosen, most often from the Old Testament. These people reject the teaching of theories of evolution, because the time span is so long that it excludes creationism. They insist that the notion that God created everything in six days some six thousand years ago is literally true and want it taught in public schools as science. What needs to be pointed out is that if we are to apply the Bible literally then we can´t be selective about what we claim is the word of God, and what we choose to ignore. So perhaps these good folk should also think about selling all their possessions and bringing the money to the church leaders, and living a communal life of prayer and service.
The passage we read from Acts tells a different story from what we assume Christianity to be about-it shows us that our faith is not wed to one model of property or wealth management, because in the early years of the church things were run on a communal basis, a primitive communism we might say.
For some Christians this early church was and continues to be a dream and an inspiration because of its concern for the wellbeing of all and the faith-based equality it fostered. We know how unequal Guatemala is. In recent years there has also been increased focus on growing inequality in the United States. The earnings of the middle and lower classes have stagnated while the earnings of the richest have soared. There is general agreement that the standard of living obtained in the 1950s and 1960s by households with a single earner would not be possible today. What helped keep the standard of living at an acceptable level was the massive entry of women into the labor force after 1970, and the emergence of the two earner household. In this context it is important to keep in mind that the church has a vision for social justice based on the denunciations of the Old Testament Prophets, but which also includes what the Book of Acts relates about the earliest communities of believers in Jerusalem.
Some of you may have seen the 1986 British film “The Mission” starring Robert de Niro. In the mid-eighteenth century Jesuit missionaries in what is today Paraguay organized the Guaraní Indians into communities based on the principles of communal property holding as described in the Book of Acts Chapters 2 to 5. The communities achieved ample levels of productivity and wealth. More importantly they protected the Indians from the slave-capturing expeditions of the neighboring Portuguese, which did not endear them to the slave traders or to the plantation owners who needed cheap labor. In the end the Church gave the territories to the Portuguese, and ordered the Jesuit Missions to disband their communities. Some years later they would be expelled altogether from South America, leaving the Indians at the mercy of the Brazilian slavers.
As Christians we are heirs to the prophetic denunciations of corruption, harsh treatment of the poor, the widowed and the orphaned, the perversion of justice. If you consider Jesus’ ministry, it too is filled with concern and compassion for the social outcasts of his time, as well as for the weak-the crippled and women. If we look at the early church and its organization we find that it emphasized community over individualism, and placed strong emphasis on the protection of the less fortunate, especially widows. (We have to remember that inheritance laws of that time very often left widows with nothing).
As Christians we are brothers and sisters, united in the body of Christ which is his Church. We need to care for one another, but also for the weak and less fortunate around us. Just as Jesus is our good shepherd, we need to ask Him how we too can become better shepherds. As sheep of his fold we need to be sensitive to the needs of the other sheep of his fold. Remember Jesus came so that all of us who confess his name might have life, and have it abundantly.
PLANNING A VISIT TO ANTIGUA, GUATEMALA?