20 May 2012
“‘Therefore, it is necessary that one of the men who accompanied us the whole time the Lord Jesus came and went among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day on which [Jesus] was taken up from us, become with us a witness to His resurrection.’” (Acts. 1: 21-22)
In the name …
Today we get a strong message of continuity when the eleven remaining disciples seek to replace Judas who had betrayed Jesus and who had then hanged himself. The criteria for Judas’ replacement was that he had to be an eye-witness to the entire public ministry of Jesus from John the Baptist through the cross and resurrection. This emphasis upon continuity is meant to counter the absence of Jesus who has now ascended into the heavens. The first followers are faced with the challenge of responsibility. Now they are the ones who will be doing the work of God in the world. Now they will be the ones left to continue the work of Jesus. They’ve been forced to move rather quickly from being the confused witnesses to all that Jesus did to now being the ones responsible for making sure that what Jesus did was not in vain. Remember that it was these same followers of Jesus who only a short time earlier were the bewildered and bumbling hearers of Jesus’ gospel.
When He preached His first parable, these are the ones to whom Jesus had to say: “‘Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables?’” (Mk 4:13) These are the ones who thought they were all going to die when the storm arose on the Sea of Galilee. They abruptly awaken Jesus: “‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’” I can just see Jesus shaking off the sleep, commanding the storm: “‘Be still!’”, and then looking at the disciples and shaking His head: “‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’” (Mk. 4: 38, 39,40) After Jesus has twice amazed His followers by feeding thousands with a few loaves of bread, the disciples still don’t get it, and to them Jesus says: “‘Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes and fail to see? Do you have ears and fail to hear? Do you not remember?’” (Mk 8:17-18) And who can forget the stern reprimand of Jesus after Peter rejects the teaching that the Messiah must suffer and die: “‘Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human.’” (Mk. 8:33) And the examples go on: there was the complete confusion at the Transfiguration; at the same time, there was the inability of the disciples to heal on their own while Jesus was off with Peter, James and John; there was the argument among the disciples as to who was the greatest among them; there was the time that little children were coming to Jesus and the disciples were scolding them and telling them to leave the Master alone, but it was the disciples who got reprimanded instead when Jesus said, “‘Let the little children come to me.’”
And there were still others, and none of these, even when read all together, come close to the collective failure of the disciples when Jesus needed them the most when He was arrested and crucified. They had all fled their teacher in fear and confusion. And the Twelve never got over the fact that one of their own, one who had followed Jesus from the beginning, one who was just like them, that it was one of their own who betrayed Jesus into the hands of His enemies. Judas’ name could not be uttered by the others without the adjective of betrayer.
It was this group who had so often come-up short when Jesus was right there beside them who were being entrusted with carrying His ministry forward now that Jesus was ascended into the heavens. The success of their ministry in the absence of Jesus was anything but a given. This is why Jesus prays for His followers at the Last Supper on the night before His death that God protect them. He says, ‘Now I will no longer be in the world, but they are in the world … Holy Father keep them in your name …’” (Jn 17:11) That the Christian church has not only survived but even emerged in the first place is a miracle, and it is a mystery that we will celebrate next weekend on the Feast of Pentecost, the birthday of the Christian church, the day on which we celebrate the sharing of God’s Holy Spirit with us. It is the presence and the authority of the Spirit that then and equally now guarantees the continuity of Christ and church. The eye-witnesses have come and gone and they cannot be replicated, but the Spirit is always with us. There is no other way than by the Spirit to explain the transformation of the followers of Jesus who so repeatedly got it wrong during His lifetime and yet who were the ones entrusted to get it right after the Ascension. The human failures and frailty that are so evident in the few pages of the Gospels are one of the strongest testimonies that there is, of the Spirit’s work through us as church.
We do not need to be perfect for the work of the church to be accomplished through us. Perfect we can leave to God. But we, just like those first followers we hear about today in the Acts of the Apostles, we need to make ourselves available to God, faults, failures and all. Our limitations become excuses in the church only when we don’t believe in the power of God to work through us. Look at your song sheets again and re-read the prayers of today’s Mass. We are the “ambassadors of Christ;” we are Jesus’ witnesses “to the ends of the earth.” Can you imagine what would have happened if those first followers only looked at their past failures and opted out of the work of church? Jesus’ ministry would have died 2,000 years ago. The Spirit, however, gave them the strength and the wisdom to do what was needed, and in exactly the same way the Spirit still guides and empowers the church today. The church doesn’t belong to the past. We were not more authentically church 2,000 years ago than we are today. The church is always of the present. Sometimes though the hardest part of getting the work of church done is convincing us that we have something valuable to offer. But remember the apostles. They weren’t perfect, but they were committed. That’s the opening that God needs to be able to work through us, and God does need us. Let us pray that we, just like Jesus’ first imperfect followers, may continue the work of Christ in the world by letting Christ work through us. For this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo