CHOICE, FREEDOM, PROMISE!
5th Sunday of Easter, Year A
April 20, 2008
Diversity, divergence, disputations, and displacements of various forms characterize our readings today. Two big rival groups from among the ranks of believers, the “Hellenists” and the “Hebrews” open up the scene marked by complaints of neglect and what may sound like modern-day “favoritism” and “political patronage.” Widows were being shunted aside. In the 1st Letter of Peter, displaced – and therefore – disgruntled Christians were being exhorted and uplifted to a sense of Christian transcendence, with a message of hope that has their Master’s experience as proof, pledge, and promise: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own.”
The Gospel report from John, for its part, presents two seemingly dissenting disciples, who dispute Jesus’ discourse of encouragement with two questions. One comes from the same Thomas who, three weeks ago, desisted from falling easily for the reports of his fellow disciples with his doubts and all. “Unless I see … unless I touch … I will not believe.” “Master, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” The other comes from the winsome and person-oriented Philip, who has a knack for searching and finding, and who minced no words as he told the Lord pointblank: “Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us!”
How much clearer can the Christian Scriptures get when it comes to painting the reality of our lives, the reality of what John Paul II calls the “modern anxieties of our times?” How timelier could Luke and his writings on the Acts become for us, enmeshed as we are, too, in our own stories of division and dispute, tension and even eventual treason! (Nicholas, one of the seven laid hands on, eventually started a breakaway heretical group, called the Nicolaitans!)
Problems beset disciples … then and now. Tension gripped the Church … then and now. But the mystery of God’s choice and the gracious gift of Christian freedom get the upper hand … then and even more so, NOW!
The Liturgy that we celebrate points to an event that we not only narrate, but more so, proclaim as an ongoing, unfolding saving event. The Liturgy that we “do in memory of him” who suffered, died, and rose is the making real and the making present of the workings of the same God whose Spirit continues to infuse His Church, and continues to raise new members and servants, sent to keep alive His promise: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me.”
God’s choice is clear. God’s will is definite. No, He does not want us to wallow in dispute, division, and despondency. “Coming to him, a living stone, rejected by human beings but chosen and precious in the sight of God, we are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Yes! This theme of election, this theme of God’s choice, of God’s predilection and prevenient love for us, His beloved sons and daughters, is the foundation of our freedom. “We share in the glorious liberty of the children of God.”
In our times, owing to the erosion of authentic and genuine autonomy, pulled and pushed as people are everywhere by the siren songs of individualism, hedonism, and materialism, which make minimalists out of people, and leads them to become reductionists, reducing everything, including life in this world, to an endless search for sordid, material gain, we all tend to lose sight of the fact that we are chosen, precious, and FREE. Contemporary experts from the world of sociology, political scientists, cultural anthropologists, and social psychologists seem to be one in decrying the loss of personal responsibility in today’s postmodern culture. The buck does not stop with me. Nor does it stop in anyone else’s doorstep. Everyone is a mere victim of circumstances, of bad parenting, of ill-conceived laws, or of uncontrollable impulses and urges. In such a culture, it is no wonder the famous film “Ocean’s 11,” done and redone in 1960 and 2001, respectively, shows different endings. The original thieves of 1960 did not get to keep the stolen money. Their younger, more recent versions, got to keep it – with impunity!
This is the ground upon which the seeds of today’s Word need to be implanted. This is the arena, that, following the late Pope John Paul II, we may call the modern-day “Areopagus” in which the good news needs to be proclaimed (Redemptoris Missio), whether popular or not, whether appealing or otherwise.
God’s choice, man’s freedom, and God’s promises are no respecter of times and seasons. What the liturgy speaks of today, what the early Christians experienced of yore, what Thomas and Phillip, in their honesty and sincerity asked for from the Lord, is what we also, perhaps even in our faltering faith and wavering hope, now ask from the God of promises: “Lord, let your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you.” (Responsorial Psalm).
We live in the worst of times. Nicholas and his ilk abound in our midst – members and even leaders in the Church we love whose prophetic passion and prominence do not seem to go beyond decrying the “cultural and doctrinal backwardness” of the institutional Church. “They stumble by disobeying the word, as is their destiny.” They teach that the task of the Holy Father is to change the Church to comply with the world’s views, and contemporary society’s expectations and desires.
We live in the worst of times. In an age where all authority is held in suspicion, where all that smacks of dogma is rejected and denied, where the culture of narcissism and self-absorption, the rise of celebrity worship and entitlement (the showbiz and bongga culture in Philippine setting, with apologies to my American readers), all combined with the distraction provided by the so-called “war on terrorism,” the stage is set for people to complain, as Thomas did, “We do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
But today, like Charles Dickens said, I venture to add, we live in the best of times. We live in times rife with promise from above. We live in the best of times when believers, sorely tested and tried, can have the rare opportunity to claim their right to the glorious liberty of the children of God, when they can lay claim to personal autonomy and to Christian authenticity.
We live in the best of times. Besieged on all fronts by an erosion of the culture of personal responsibility, followers of Christ can learn to transcend their fears at the expression of the Lord’s tender concern for all of us: “In my Father’s house, there are many dwelling places … I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am, you also may be.”
Sometimes, as in Thomas’ experience, we may not know the way, or we may feign ignorance of the same. Sometimes, as in the case of Philip, our visions may become blurred: “Show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”
But it is precisely in those times when we can, like Thomas and Philip, acknowledge and name where lies our deepest need and longing, when we can put the same into words as poignant and pointed as those of the two disciples, when we can gather up the concerns, fears, and woundedness of the world, that all our disputes, divisions, and displacements can begin to see the rare but graced opportunity to be transformed into hope.
“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” The prayers of Thomas and Philip occasioned a personal revelation from the Lord. Their deepest “holy longing,” to use Rolheiser’s famous phrase, was answered more than sufficiently.
We live in the best of times. We live in an age of hope and courage. Even as we mourn the passing of a great Pope, we celebrate a life spent “announcing the praises of him who called [us] out of darkness into his wonderful light.” Like him, we are challenged in the midst of hopelessness and fears, to take part in the exaltation of Jesus. This we do, like the early Christians did, by transforming disputation and division into a community of reconciliation. This we also do by proclaiming “obedience to the faith,” by spreading the good news to a world deeply steeped in the bad news of the worst dispute of them all – war by whatever appellation, for whatever reason, for whatever purpose. I end with a slightly paraphrased Opening Prayer for today:
God our Father, you have looked upon us with love, chose us, and redeemed us in Christ. Give us true freedom and bring us to the inheritance that was your promise. Through Christ our Lord.