Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Church as Israel Renewed by the Holy Spirit

Pentecost of Year B
(John 20:19-23)
May 31, 2009

ORIGINALLY, Pentecost was an agricultural feast, during which the first fruits the land produced were offered (Exod 34:22), and was later associated with the giving of the Covenant, fifty days after the celebration of the Passover at the departure of Israel from Egypt (Exod 19:1-16). In the Christian dispensation, however, it is not, strictly speaking, a commemoration of the birthday of the Church, but rather celebrates the giving of the gift of the Spirit to the renewed Israel , which is the Church, fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus. It marks the giving of a new life—the life of the Spirit—to the community which Jesus began to establish through his life, ministry, but especially but his passon, death and resurrection. That is why, in the Gospel read for this feast, we are given a Johannine account of the giving of the Spirit: “Then he breathed on them and said: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” (John 20:22).

The giving of a new life has for its background the Genesis account and Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones. The action of Jesus first of all recalls the story of God forming man out of the clay of the ground and blowing into his nostrils the breath of life, on account of which man became a living being (Gen 2:7). Under the influence of Greek philosophy, this has been taken in the past to mean the creation of the soul. But to the Hebrew mind, this simply means that it is Yahweh who gives life, and on whom human life directly depends. In Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones, God instructed the prophet to prophesy to the dead bones so that a new spirit would revive the bones (Ezek 37:1-10). The vision is not really about the individual resurrection of the dead, but a visionary description of the new life that was to begin for the people of Israel . But what is important for us is the point that both stories emphasize--God gives a new life to his people.

And Pentecost precisely has that significance: the giving of a life—the life of the Spirit--to the renewed Israel , which is the Church. It may be recalled that because of sin, of turning away from God, misfortune fell on Israel : “Lo, the hand of the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. Rather, it is your crimes that separate you from your God. It is your sins that make him hide his face so that he will not hear you” (Isa 59:1-2). Because of sin, Israel became a divided nation, was scattered all over the world, and it became a land of violence, evil judgment, lies, adulteries, usury, disregards for rights and other sins which created a social disorder. Such social disorder is aptly prefigured in the story of the tower of Babel . Because of man’s proud idolatry, of his arrogance in trying to build a tower, God chastised him; among others, he confused mankind. For the biblical writer, the diversity of languages was a consequence of sin, and it conveys the message that our economic, political, religious and cultural divisions and quarrels, our scrambling for power, intrigues, competition and envy result from our arrogance and proud idolatry.

In depicting the Spirit as being poured out at Pentecost, Luke wishes to affirm that the event overcame the division among men. The Holy Spirit inaugurated the reconstitution of Israel , fulfilling Ezekiel’s prophecy that God would gather again his people into one (Ezek 37:23). Pentecost signifies that Israel is now renewed. The people of the renewed Israel gather around the Lord who makes his dwelling among them (Ezek 37:28). The confusion at Babel (Gen 11:1-9) is replaced with unity at Pentecost (Acts 2:6). The nature of that renewed community is echoed by Paul: “All of you who have been baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with him. There does not exist among you Jew or Greek, slave or freeman, male or female. All are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:26-28). Luke pictures the unity in this fashion: “The community of believers were of one heart and one mind. None of them ever claimed anything as his own; rather, everything was held in common”(Acts 4:32). There may be diversity in the community, but it remains as one body (cf 1 Cor 12:12-13). However, the effect of Pentecost is not limited to the renewed Israel . Indeed, tomorrow, all the nations of the earth will experience this unity. This is why the Holy Spirit appears on the apostles in tongues of fire so that the gospel will be understood in the language of all the nations (Acts 2:6-12). The messianic community extends to all peoples. This is concretely manifested in the so-called “Pentecost of the pagans” (Acts 10:44-48).

Christians with Little Faith—Must they Preach the Gospel?

Ascension of Year B
(Mark 16:15-20)
May 24, 2009

TODAY, we celebrate the feast of the Ascension to signify Jesus’ final withdrawal from physical presence to his disciples and his risen state that celebrates his victory. In the first reading (Acts 1:1-11), Luke pictures this by saying that forty days after his resurrection, Jesus, while the disciples were looking, was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight. Luke’s chronology, of course, is not meant to be a literal account of what happened, but simply a way of emphasizing the event which is, theologically, an integral part of one single mystery: the passion, resurrection and ascension of the Lord. If ascension is celebrated as a separate event, it is meant to underscore the end of Jesus’ physical appearances to his disciples and the new life which he acquired. In the liturgical celebration, the meaning of the event is well phrased in the preface of the Ascension: “In his risen body he plainly showed himself to his disciples, and was taken up to heaven in their sight to claim for us a share in his divine life.”

But the Gospel (Mark 16:15-20) obviously wishes to stress another point that the feast of the Ascension brings—which is about witnessing to faith. Witnessing has an honored place in Christian life, and by witnessing is meant simply living out the Christian life. One does not only profess his faith; even more important, his faith is evidenced by his life. It is for this reason that we criticize preachers like priests, religious, missionaries and evangelizers who dare announce the Good News but whose life hardly exhibits the same gospel they preach. We tend to think that those authorized to speak the Word of God to others are only those who have lived the Gospel in their lives. Undoubtedly, this is a sound principle. As the Romans were wont to say, nemo dat quod non habet, one cannot give what one does not have. One who speaks of justice must first of all be just. This, in fact, has much basis in the Scriptures. In various places of the Bible, we are asked to live what we believe. “You are the light of the world…. your light must shine before men so that they may see goodness in your acts and give praise to your heavenly Father” (Matt 5:14-16).

But must it always be that those who preach the faith should themselves have great faith? If one’s life does not show his belief, can he not proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ? However sound such a principle, the Gospel today obviously gives us an exception. For Mark does not hide the fact that the disciples were hard of faith. They were hardly models of belief. Several times, the Markan Jesus upbraided them for their lack of faith. When the disciples encountered a storm on the sea, they were scared to death, despite the fact that Jesus was with them. And the Lord rebuked them: “Why are you so terrified? Why are you lacking in faith?” (Mark 4:40). After his death, Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene, but when the disciples “heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they refused to believe it” (Mark 16:21). Later on, he was revealed completely changed in appearance to two disciples who were walking along on their way to the country, but when these men retraced their steps and announced the good news of the resurrection, the other disciples “put no more faith in them than in Mary Magdalene”(Mark 16:12-13). And these raise the question: since these disciples lacked faith, should they be allowed to preach the Gospel of Jesus resurrection? How could they tell others of something that they themselves were not convinced of?

Nonetheless, in today’s Gospel, Jesus commanded his disciples to preach: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the good news to all creation. The man who believes in it and accepts baptism will be saved; the man who refuses to believe in it will be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16). Strangely, the disciples Jesus commissioned to preach were the very the same people he upbraided for their unbelief: “He took them to task for their disbelief and their stubbornness, since they had put no faith in those who had seen him after he hade been raised” (Mark 16:14). He did not wait for a time when the disciples could show great faith. Obviously, he was convinced that if his disciples preach the Gospel, they would acquire faith in the process. Obedience to Jesus’ Word gives birth to faith. Unbelief is conquered by putting man in the service of faith. Of course, the dimensions of unbelief are evident in the practice of many Christians—their trust in power and money, their secular attitude, their neglect of the poor, among others. But how are we to overcome them? Obviously by commissioning them to preach. The grace of conversion is given to those who listen to his Word and proclaim it.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Church as a Community of Lovers

Sixth Sunday of Easter B
(John 15:9-17)
May 17, 2009

In last Sunday’s Gospel (John 15:1-8), we draw an ecclesiological implication of the parable on the vine and the branches, namely, the principle of unity. We noted that in the Church, the one that binds the members to the head and to one another is a person—Christ himself, unlike in government and other organizations where law and authority gather the members into one. In the Church, he dwells in the members, even as the members dwell in him; there is a mutual indwelling: “Live on in me, as I do in you… I am the vine, you are the branches… A man who does not live in me is like a withered, rejected branch, picked up to be thrown in the fire and burnt” (John 15:4a.5a.6). From today’s Gospel (John 15:9-17), one may draw a theme that continues the ecclesiological implication of last Sunday’s. It could be taken as answering the question: how do we know that we remain or live on in Christ?

If we ask the question, “what is the evidence that one is an Israeli?” probably one will say, “his citizenship, which is printed in his passport.” The evidence that one is a lawyer is his membership in the Integrated Bar of the Philippines . But what is one to show that he is a Christian? Time was when one can easily distinguish a Catholic from a Protestant, since the latter was identified with the Bible, whereas the latter was associated with the Rosary or devotion to Mary. But neither the Bible nor the devotion to Mary gives testimony to one’s being Christian, even though to be one, he ultimately has to have both. According to the Gospel reading, our abiding in Christ is validated by love. “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Live on in my love. You will live in my love if you keep my commandments, even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and live in his love,… The command I give you is this, that you love one another” (John 15:9-10.17).

But we should take a special note about this love. This love is not our feeling for Jesus, or our good disposition toward other members of the Church. It is not even our effort, however heroic, to serve the community. Rather, this love results from chain of loving that begins with God the Father himself. First of all, the Father loves Jesus; then Jesus loves the disciple; and finally, the community members love one another. It is not, then, a question of our own love. It is rather about divine love itself. We love the brothers with the love that, through his resurrection, we share with the Lord, whose love comes from the Father. And the greatest love one can exhibit in the community is love unto death. This is the love which Jesus had for us, and we are to imitate this love in the community of brothers. “This is my commandment: love one another, as I have loved you. There is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12-13). John expresses this different in his letter: “The way we come to understand love was that he laid down his life for us; we too must lay down our lives for our brothers” (1 John 3:16).

Today’s gospel, then, makes precise what was initially described in last Sunday’s. In the latter, it was noted that what primarily unites the community is not law, but Jesus himself, for the Church is not first and foremost a legal society. Ours is not a religion of the code, even though law has a place in it. We do not call one a Christian simply because he perfectly obeys the Ten Commandments of Moses and the Five Commandments of the Church, although if one is a Christian, his religion will include both. On the contrary, it is first of all a community of personal relationships, whose center is Christ, the one who makes it one community. It is a community where there is a mutual indwelling: Christ abides in the members, and the members abide in Christ. In the Gospel reading today, John adds a precisely description of that indwelling: it is an indwelling of love. In the Church, the members allow themselves to be loved by Jesus who himself is the bearer of the Father’s love. With this transforming love of Jesus they love one another. The Church, therefore, is a community of lovers, of disciples who abide in the love of Jesus. Their love for Jesus is evidenced in their laying down of their lives for the members of the community. It is through this love that we know one abides in Christ. This implies, of course, that abiding in Christ and loving one’s fellow members cannot be separated. The one who abides in Christ is one who loves the members of the community, and one who loves necessarily believes in Christ who sustains him. One cannot love without being a believer.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Church as Vine and Branches

Fifth Sunday of Easter B
(John 15:1-8)
May 10, 2009

WHEN some people think of a church, they usually associate it with an organization, governed by laws that define the relationship among the members. In their view, it is a society as visible as the political set-up, hierarchically structured, that mediates salvation to all its members by means of the preaching of the Word, prayer, and the administration of the sacraments. And as in any organization, what unites the members is law that regulates the life of the church. Law, in other words, is the principle that binds the members to one another. This Sunday, however, John provides us an alternative view of its principle of unity.

Admittedly, today’s Gospel (John 15:1-8) is not primarily about the Church. It is obviously about Jesus who, in contrast with Israel of old, came to fulfill the calling to be fruitful for God. In the Old Testament, the image of the vine is used to describe Israel (Hos 10:1; Ezek 15:1-6; 17:5-11; 19:10-14; Jer 2:21). Despite Yahweh’s lavish care for her, Israel bore bitter or non-existent fruits. Now in the gospel, Jesus claims to be the true vine. But in portraying himself as the vine, Jesus describes the relationship that ought to exist between him and the disciples, that is to say, between the head of the Church and its members. For this reason, the parable can be applied to the Church. In a passage that has ecclesiological overtones, Jesus says: “Live on in me and I do in you… I am the vine, you are the branches” (John 15:4a-5a). And one way of looking at this text is to interpret it in terms of what binds the members of the community to their head and their fellow members.

Unlike in the government where people are bound to their head by virtue of law, the members of the Church are linked to Christ in virtue of the fact that Christ himself calls each one and sustains them. The members, on the other hand, are to be committed to him in person. The Church, therefore, is a relationship of persons, and the principle of unity, the one that binds the head and the members, is the person of Jesus himself. A comparison is probably in order. In the government, one need not be sustained by President Estrada or believe in his slogan Erap para sa Mahirap to be a functionary. As long as one believes in the class struggle and the revolution, one can be called a communist without having the follow the footsteps of Karl Marx, the founder of communism. But in Christianity, it is entirely different. To be called a Christian is not a matter of following a law or a principle. In Christianity, the central place is not given to the law, or even the Ten Commandments. There is only one who grafts a person to the Church—Christ, who binds all the members in unity, and all of them are personally bound to him. This is why St Paul can even say that it is Christ who makes us grow and joins each member to the body: “Through [Christ] the whole body grows, and with the proper functioning of the members joined firmly together by each supporting ligament, builds itself in love”(Eph 4:16).

Since the principle of unity in the Church is Christ, binding each member to himself and to one another, it is obvious that for one to be a part of the Church, he has to live or abide in Christ. As the Johannine Jesus declares, “Live on in me, as I do in you” (John 15:4a). One then has to be faithful, and make a constant decision for faith. His existence is always in relation to Christ, both as a purpose and as a norm. It is too obvious to note that one cannot be a Christian apart from Christ. Just as a branch that is severed from the vine dies, so it is with a Christian in relation to Christ. For it is Christ who nourishes the Christian, and once he no longer lives on in him, the Christian dies. “A man who does not live in me is like a withered, rejected branch, picked up to be thrown in the fire and burnt” (John 15:6). This means, of course, that the personal relationship is mutual. Christ must remain in the Christian, just as the Christian must abide in Christ. Both are aspects forming one reality, which is the unity of persons in the Church.

Obviously, we have here a different perspective of what unity in the Church is all about. Law, of course, has a place in the Church. As a hierarchical body, it shares the nature of human organizations that need laws to put order to human relations. But to make law the sole principle to regulate the relationship between the head and the members, and among the members, and to unite them into one body is certainly inadequate. What the Gospel today emphasizes is that personal relationship between Jesus and the disciples has a central place in the unity of the Church. The Acts of the Apostles expresses the unity in quite similar language: “The community of believers was of one heart and one soul” (Acts 4:32). Christianity, after all, is a religion of a person, not of law. Being Christian is not about about laws to be fulfilled, but about life—the life of Christ—to be lived in the body of relationships: the vine sustaining the branches, and the branches remaining in the vine.