2ND SUNDAY OF EASTER: LIVING AS A RESURRECTED COMMUNITY

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Eight days have passed since Easter. But the conditions we are living today seem like we are still in the Lenten season. With the quarantine and lockdown, we are relegated to stay home and distanced ourselves physically from each other. The poor suffer the most as they experienced hunger from the loss of day-to-day income.

Nevertheless, we have 40 more days to go to celebrate and ponder on the meaning of Jesus’ and our resurrection. How are we living the spirit of Easter during these difficult times? The question is not just on a personal level but more so on a communal level. How are we living as a community of the resurrection?

The readings for today’s second Sunday of Easter reflect on the qualities of a living community of the resurrection. The times after Jesus’ resurrection are no different from the times we live now. The early Christians lived in constant fear because of persecution from both the Jewish and Roman authorities. The Christians were also one of the most oppressed and poorest sectors in those times.

Despite the many miseries and difficulties, the early Christians lived out the spirit of resurrection. Our readings today gives us some clues on how the early Christians lived as a community of the resurrection.

First clue: The Community as Signs and Wonders of God

In the first reading we hear about how the early Christian communities witnessed the resurrection. Let’s hear it directly from Luke in his book the Acts of the Apostles

Many signs and wonders were done among the people
at the hands of the apostles.
They were all together in Solomon’s portico.
None of the others dared to join them, but the people esteemed them.
Yet more than ever, believers in the Lord,
great numbers of men and women, were added to them.

The early church after the resurrection of Jesus performed many signs and wonders through the leadership of the apostles. The apostles continued the divinely empowered ministry of Jesus (soon to be illustrated by the healing of the lame man through Peter and John [Acts 3ff]).

Because of this, new converts were “added.” It was God who added them; it was not the Church that added new members. The new converts did not become members on their own, but God brought them into the redeemed community.

Second Clue: Living the Resurrection not as Individuals but as a Community 

It is always heartwarming to hear that Jesus died and resurrected for me. But Jesus died and resurrected not for you and me alone. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection we are redeemed not as private individuals but as individuals interconnected with one another, in other words, Jesus died and resurrected for us as a community.

The apostles after the resurrection, despite their fear and misery, did not go on their own but gathered and lived together as a community. After the resurrection, they were able to regain their strength because they came out of isolation and regroup. Although each of them had their own mission territory to go to, they never saw their mission as individual mission but the mission of the whole body of Christ.

The word used in Greek to describe the life of the early Christian church is koinonia. It is a derivative of koinos, the Greek word for common. The word has such a multitude of meanings that no single English word is adequate to express its depth and richness. It can mean either one or all of the following: fellowship, partnership, sharing, friendship, relationship, solidarity, and communion.

The early Church lived in koinonia of the word, prayer, eucharist and material goods.

All who believed were together and had all things in common;
they would sell their property and possessions
and divide them among all according to each one’s need.
Every day they devoted themselves
to meeting together in the temple area
and to breaking bread in their homes.

The early Church lived in koinonia of the word: The early Church regularly listened to the proclamation of the Word by the apostles. They constantly reflected on the word of God in the light of their situation.

The early Church lived in koinonia of prayer: The early Church regularly prayed together both in good times and bad times. They regularly prayed for each other.

The early Church lived in koinonia of the eucharist: The early Church always gathered in the temple area and in their homes for the “breaking of the bread”–the earlist term they used for the eucharist. They faithfully fulfilled Jesus’ words: Do this in remembrance of me.

The early Church lived in koinonia of material goods: The early Church had all things in common. They sold their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need.

Even if one has a deep personal relationship with God, to live the resurrection, therefore, is not to live alone, but to live in communion with fellow believers in prayer, sharing of goods, proclaiming the Word of God and celebrating the Eucharist.

Third Clue: A community forgiven and redeemed by Jesus also forgives and redeem others in Jesus’ name.

After the resurrection of Jesus, the disciples were still living in fear and despair. In the evening of Easter, the disciples were huddled in the cenacle afraid to go out because they are terrified of the Jews (John 20:19). The disciples were perhaps thinking that, if they had done this to our beloved master, how much more to us, his ordinary disciples.

“On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews…

Then suddenly,

Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them,
‘Peace be with you’ ” (Jn 20:19).

The first words of the risen Jesus was “Shalom”–peace! The disciples betrayed, abandoned, and denied Jesus during the time that he needed them most—in his hour of passion, suffering and death.  Despite their cowardice and disloyalty, Jesus unconditionally forgave them. He does not complain or demand an apology. He simply offers peace, no vengeance and holding of grudges. What an act of unconditional forgiveness and unwavering friendship!

The risen Jesus passed through the walls and doors of the locked cenacle. This shows that Jesus’ love and forgiveness will traverse any walls of apathy, betrayal and fear. The resurrection will triumph over any hatred and animosity.

This is the reason why St. John Paul II declared this Sunday, Divine Mercy Sunday.  God’s mercy is infinitely rich and no amount of human transgressions and obstinacy can stop it from being given to all humanity and God’s creation. The responsorial psalm of today’s liturgy proclaims this theme of mercy. In Psalm 118 we sing, “His mercy endures forever.”

As Jesus has forgiven the disciples, he empowered his disciples to pass on the gift of peace to others. The community of resurrection must be a community of healing and forgiveness. He said to them,

Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them,
and whose sins you retain are retained.”

Fourth Clue: Faith amidst Doubt

This Sunday is unfortunately remembered as the the story of doubting Thomas. This is in reference to the Apostle Thomas, who refused to believe that the resurrected Jesus had appeared to the ten other apostles, until he could see and feel the wounds received by Jesus on the cross.

While Thomas expressed doubt, when confronted with the resurrected Jesus, he was one of the apostles who proclaimed the strongest expression of faith with his statement “My Lord and my God” (John 20: 28). He was also one of the apostles who travelled the most in proclaiming the gospel. Tradition maintains that he founded churches in Mesopotamia, Ethiopia and even in India. Tradition also maintained that he died a martyred death there. Perhaps, the doubt of Thomas has made him a stronger and more passionate apostle.

Jesus’ response to Thomas’ declaration of faith was a recognition of the faith of the thousands of generation after the apostles who have come to believe despite not seeing Jesus.

Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.’ (Jn 20:29)

We have not seen with our eyes the resurrection of Jesus but we are blessed because we all have believe!  Walking by faith and not by sight is an important mark of the community of the Risen One. This does not mean, however, that we have not experienced doubt in our faith. It rather means that despite our doubts and lack of faith, we continue to follow the Risen Lord and live the new life that he has bestowed upon us.

The heightening of doubt pretty much reflects today’s ethos. There is proliferation of fake news which make us skeptical about the truth across all topics – culture, politics, science and religion. We live in a time of skepticism and doubt that like the apostles of the the early church, believing entails sacrifice of time, talent and even of our very life.  The community of the Risen Lord continue to uphold God’s love, life and goodness despite all the doubt and despair in the world today.

Fifth Clue: A Community Transformed and Sent

The risen Lord having forgiven his disciples, empowered them to spread God’s mercy to others and immediately sent them.

As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

The resurrection of Jesus transformed the disciples from a bunch of cowards to a band of brave men who preached the Gospel all over the Mediterranean and confidently faced death, some by crucifixion also. Peter, Paul and most of the Apostles suffered the same fate as Jesus. They were persecuted and martyred because they were continuing what Jesus had started – going against a heartless culture and caring for those in need.

As we continue our journey in Easter, let us continue to receive strength from the Risen Lord so that we may continue to be an Easter people.

Let me end with the opening prayer in the mass today:

God of everlasting mercy, who in the very recurrence of the paschal feast kindle the faith of the people you have made your own, increase, we pray, the grace you have bestowed, that all may grasp and rightly understand in what font they have been washed, by whose Spirit they have been reborn, by whose Blood they have been redeemed. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Amen. Alleluiah, Alleluiah, Alleluiah.

30TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: THE CHURCH AS FIELD HOSPITAL

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Redemptorist Church in Tacloban after supetyphoon Yolanda

“There is no saint without a past, no sinner without a future.”
― St. Augustine

In August 2013, Fr. Antonio Spadaro, S.J., editor in chief of La Civiltà Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit journal, conducted one of the earliest interviews of Pope Francis after he was elected as Pope.  The very first question Spadaro asked Pope Francis was,

“Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” (Pope Francis’ real name)

After a few seconds of silence, Pope Francis answered,

“I do not know what might be the most fitting description …. I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”

This humble admission of being a sinner is nothing new for Pope Francis. In his general audience at St Peter’s Square on 13 April, 2016, just a month after his election as pope, Pope Francis describes the church as not a

“a community of perfect people, but disciples on a path who follow the Lord because they recognise themselves as sinners and in need of his forgiveness,”

In the same interview with Spadaro, Pope Francis describes what the church needs be today. The church today demands that it need not be a magnificent building secure on itself but a field hospital after a battle.

“The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds. … And you have to start from the ground up.

In the gospel of today’s 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Jesus told a parable about two people who prayed in the temple in Jerusalem, one was  a religious person and the other a notorious sinner. In an unexpected twist of fate, the sinner went home from the temple justified rather than the religious person:

“Two people went up to the temple area to pray;
one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.
The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself,
‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity —
greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’
But the tax collector stood off at a distance
and would not even raise his eyes to heaven
but beat his breast and prayed,
‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’
I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former;
for whoever exalts himself will be humbled,
and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Jesus’ verdict favoring the tax collector must have been outrageous to his hearers. Jesus did not mean, however, that the Pharisee was wrong in his deeds of morality and piety, or that the tax collector was right in being a swindler and extortioner.

The Pharisee was quite right in performing his religious and moral duties. He was not like other people—extortioners, unjust, adulterers. He practiced strict observances of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and tithing. The tax collector, on the other hand, had nothing to commend him. He was no better than the rest of his kind. There was no question but that he was the “bad guy.”

But being “justified” means being in right relationship with God, faithful to the covenant relationships. Luke says pointedly that Jesus addressed this parable to those “who trusted in themselves” that they were righteous (or justified). In other words, the target of the story is those who foolishly thought their righteousness was based on their own action rather than the grace of God. They placed their faith more in themselves than in God, thereby undermining the foundation of their covenant connections with God and the community.

The greatest enemy of religious belief today are not the atheists or agnostics but self-righteous people from within a certain religion or church. They give religion or church a bad name.  They repel others from the church, especially those who are struggling to rectify their relationship with God and others, because they impose their moral compass which they think is above all others.

On the other hand, one cannot justify the statement, “Why go to church if the church are full of hypocrites and self-righteous people, anyway.” The reason we go to church is not because we are perfect but because we want to seek God’s mercy out of our imperfections.

Jesus’ parable today, as every parable, is Jesus’ way of teaching us about divine reversal. God’s ways and values are, more often than not, a reversal of the ways and values of the world. This is true in prayer, God hears not the rich and sufficient in themselves but the poor and the oppressed, as the first reading today from the book of Sirach says:

Though not unduly partial toward the weak,
yet he hears the cry of the oppressed.
The Lord is not deaf to the wail of the orphan,
nor to the widow when she pours out her complaint …
The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds;
it does not rest till it reaches its goal,
nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds,
judges justly and affirms the right,
and the Lord will not delay.

In prayer, we can discover in our failures and sinfulness, examples of divine reversals, a better plan, a more rewarding venture. What may initially look as a set-back can be an opportunity for course correction. Thus, Jesus parable today, as every parable, is an open-ended story. We’re supposed to end the parable in our own lives and apply what this parable means to us and make the changes that it demand from our lives today.

24TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: SHARING IN THE EXTRAVAGANT MERCY OF GOD

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Once in a while, we rejoice and celebrate extravagantly. We throw out a party and provide abundant food and drinks. Some people think that these parties and celebrations are excessive and senseless. Think, for example, of a poor family who would extravagantly prepare a banquet during fiesta and feed the whole barrio when throughout the whole year they would just be eating mostly rice and dried fish.

When was the last time you celebrated extravagantly? Perhaps it was on a special event like wedding or birthdays, or when you got promoted or closed a business deal, or when you achieved a major milestone in your profession or when you found something of great value, which you have lost for a long time.

In the gospel for today’s 24th Sunday in ordinary time we hear about God’s extravagant rejoicing and celebration. We hear of God’s extravagance from Jesus in not just one but three parable stories–indeed, an extravagant way to teach about God’s extravagance.

In the first story, the parable of The Lost Sheep, the shepherd leaves behind the 99 sheep to search for the 1 lost sheep. When he finds it, the shepherd rejoices with friends and neighbors. The second story, about a poor woman who will not stop searching until she finds her lost coin. And when she find it she calls together her friends and neighbors to rejoice with her. In both stories, Jesus ends with the punch line:

I tell you, in just the same way
there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents
than over ninety-nine righteous people
who have no need of repentance.

there will be rejoicing among the angels of God
over one sinner who repents.”

Finally, the third parable story, the longest and most memorable parable in the Gospels, the story we have come to know as The Prodigal Son. Just as in The Lost Sheep and The Lost Coin, this story (found only in Luke) is really about the seeker. The loving father is at the center of this parable. Even though his second son runs off with his father’s inheritance and squanders the money, the father waits for him, hoping for his return. Upon his son’s return, the father, “full of compassion,” runs out to embrace and forgive him before the son can utter one word of repentance. He orders the slaughtering of the fattened calf and celebrate with a feast.

Jesus portrays God’s extravagance in all three parables as God’s finding and celebrating the return of repentant sinners who are of greatest value to God. God’s joy is the return of the lost who have found or re-found their treasure in God.

In short, we can describe the extravagance of God in one word – mercy! Jesus’ portrayal of God’s extravagant mercy in all three parables was in response to the heaps of criticism he received from the Pharisees who saw him welcoming and eating with “tax collectors (social outcasts) and sinners”.  But God’s mercy goes against common sense. God is merciful to the extent that God would “foolishly” leave behind the 99 good ones to seek out the 1 lost and rebellious one. The “foolishness” of God represented by each of the main actors in the parables reflects in some way the supreme “foolishness” of God’s love demonstrated in the Cross (cf. 1 Cor 1:21-25).

Heaven is the ultimate expression of God’s extravagance. God’s celebration of “these lost ones being being “found” or “re-found” by God is nothing other than a reflection on earth of a much greater celebration going on in heaven (v. 7; v.10; vv. 23-24; v. 32). Heavenly joy is the gathering and sharing in the banquet of God of all sinners, deserters and reckless ones who have rediscovered their original goodness and returned to the source of their goodness–God. Heaven is not the place for perfect people but for the crooked, transgressors and weaklings perfected by God’s grace.

The Second Reading is a narration of a personal experience about this “foolish” mercy of God. Paul, in his letter to Timothy, explains that he once was a persecutor of God’s people. He doesn’t gloss over his own evil then or make himself a moral idiot. But Paul says that he obtained mercy from God anyway, because God could see the man that Paul could become. For the sake of the man Paul could be in the future, God had mercy on him.

Today’s readings invites us to rejoice with God and share in his extravagant mercy and acceptance for the lost and sinners. This could begin with ourselves. The lost and repentant sinner could be you and me.  By experiencing God’s extravagant mercy we can be extravagantly merciful to our fellow sinners and lost ones.