HOMILY FOR THE SEVENTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
Thursday the 14th of May was Ascension Day. On this day, forty days after his Resurrection, according to the Book of Acts, Jesus was taken up before the assembled disciples, and then hidden from sight by a cloud. He vanished from their sight, and from the world, but two men dressed in white assured the disciples that he would return just as he had left.
On the day of the resurrection, Jews celebrated the beginning of the barley harvest. Seven weeks later the Feast of Pentecost comes, when the wheat had been gathered in and the harvest was complete. The Ascension comes 9 days before that feast. The Disciples have been told by Jesus to wait for baptism by the Holy Spirit. This is coming, and they should not leave Jerusalem until it does. It is less than seven weeks after the resurrection, and the believers gathered there are about 120, Luke tells us. Among them are Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.
There is an Apostle missing. Judas has died by his own hand, or by divine retribution, and there is a need to have twelve apostles. There are twelve tribes of Israel. Jesus had promised that the twelve will be on thrones in heaven, each judging one of the tribes of Israel. I am fairly certain this was a metaphor Jesus used for the disciples to understand what it meant to be in heaven with him.
There are two candidates to replace Judas, Barsabbas and Matthias. Both are said to have been with Jesus’ movement since the baptism of Jesus. Lots are cast after prayer and Matthias is chosen. Matthias will later go on, Christian traditions tell us, to preach the Gospel to the cannibals of Ethiopia. He will also take the word of God to the shores of the Black and Caspian seas. The people of the Republic of Georgia claim that Matthias is buried there, under a church. Another assertion is that Saint Helena, the mother of Constantine brought Matthias’ relics back from Jerusalem. They ended up in Trier, in what is now Germany.
In our times Christians eschew games of chance and the casting of lots as a means of making important decisions. Can you imagine electing a Bishop by casting lots, or electing a president of Guatemala that way? Some might say that the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon the Apostles, and that therefore the will of God could be discerned this way, especially since the casting of lots was preceded by prayer. After the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost there is no further mention of the casting of lots, since the Spirit aids in discernment whenever there is a choice to be made in the selection of a Church leader. In today’s readings from Scripture the day when the Holy Spirit descends on the disciples is imminent, but has not yet come.
This is the last Sunday of Easter. Next Sunday we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples. In our Gospel reading today we have one of Jesus’ farewell discourses. Today’s is addressed to the Father but it is about the disciples, and about how Jesus has prepared them to remain in the world without him. Does it apply to us? It most certainly does. We are Jesus’ disciples and we are here to continue his work in this world.
What is Jesus saying about us and to us? He is saying, for one, that we have received the word of God, and that we know that Jesus came from God and we believe that the Father sent him. Jesus is praying to the Father to protect the disciples because he is no longer in this world but we are. Of the disciples given to Jesus by the Father, only Judas was lost. Judas was destined to be lost, he says. I am not sure he was destined to be lost, but I certainly do believe that he chose poorly, and suffered the consequences of his poor choices. He was lost, for certain.
We have been given God’s word, says Jesus, and the world has hated us for it, just as the world has hated Jesus. What does Jesus mean by the world? He does not mean creation. After all Jesus is presented to us in this Gospel as the Word incarnate. By the Word is meant the creative force that is God, which calls all things into being. In the Nicene Creed we say, concerning Jesus, “Through him all things were made”. Creation is good- it cannot be otherwise, since its creator is good. The Word proceeds from the Father. The Father is good, and loves the Son just as the Son loves the Father. So what is meant by the world?
The world in this Gospel is all that which does not come from God. It is the product of our sins, that part of creation which through our sinfulness we have destroyed, perverted and distorted. Our sins and wickednesses have taken us far from God, and left us in the hands of the evil one. Elsewhere in this Gospel Jesus refers to “the ruler of this world” as someone whose condemnation is now certain, but in this farewell narration that is not assured. Jesus prays for the protection of the disciples and of all believers from the evil one, who rules the world.
There is a strong dualism in what Jesus says in these farewell speeches. God is good, what comes from God is good, but the world is wicked, and we are in the world and besieged by it. How does this sound to you in the context of what is daily being revealed about the government of Guatemala and the behavior of leading members of the government? How does this strike you in the light of what ISIS and other radical fanatic groups are doing to innocent people, and to Christians in particular? You might say, as some Christians say, that in this evil world we need to cut ourselves off from it, and turn inward. We must focus on being islands of light in a sea of darkness and defend ourselves against the world, by force of arms if need be.
There is another view that recognizes that there is evil, injustice, inequality, poverty and oppression in this world, which says we cannot turn our backs on this mess, to focus on our own sanctity and sanctification. If we do so, don´t we fall into selfishness and hardness of heart, things which Jesus condemns? Instead we must engage with the world, seeking to change things for the better. We must be bold and brave in this undertaking. We must be as wise as serpents, but as gentle as doves. We need to think strategically, and at the same time be unafraid to act boldly. Above all, we need to ask for the guidance of the Holy Spirit in what we undertake. The stakes are huge. There’s a kingdom to be gained, isn´t there?