Monday, 25 May 2015

Homily for the Seventh Sunday of Easter (Part 1 - Unity of the Catholic Church)

This is the first of a series homilies on the unity of the Catholic Church preached at St. Thomas More Catholic Church, Toronto

May 17, 2015

"Holy Father, keep them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one just as we are one.”

In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles the events take place during the days between Christ’s Ascension and Pentecost. On Thursday we celebrated His being taken up in glory, and next Sunday we will celebrate His sending of the Holy Spirit upon the Church.

Jesus’ prayer in the Gospel today also captures the mood of departure and the anticipation. He is telling us today how it will be when he is no longer physically present in the world. By His ascension, the Lord has established his throne in heaven, as we sing in today’s Psalm. The kingdom of Jesus has established an outpost here. The Church continues Christ’s mission on earth.

The Gospel reading recounts the prayer that Jesus offered on the night of the Last Supper: Holy Father, keep them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one just as we are one. He also asks that by the action of the Holy Spirit, the Father in union with the Son: Consecrate them in the truth. Thy word is truth.

Jesus says this in the context of his institution of the Holy Eucharist -  the sacrificial memorial of his suffering and death. Clearly we are dealing here with a prayer that reflects the Church’s very foundation. Jesus has offered this prayer on the night before he will die, for the sake of his one Holy Catholic Church, on the night when he has given to us the ministerial priesthood, the commdment (mandatum) to love one another and has instituted the Holy Eucharist.

Jesus’ words tell us of the Church’s very identity. We must be one in faith. Moreover, we must have visible unity, precisely so that the world can see the truth of Christ’s message. That message is not one that comes from us, but from Christ himself. The Church receives from Jesus all that she is, and all that she is called to do for the Kingdom of God.

Jesus fashioned the Kingdom of God as a new Jerusalem, as a new House of David (Psalm 122:4-5; Rev. 21:9-14). He entrusted this kingdom to His twelve apostles and their successors who preside at the Eucharistic table.

The Church is one, because Jesus, the Messiah or Christ has made her one by teaching her a unified faith, giving her the seven sacraments as visible instruments of unity, and providing one system of governance and teaching, founded on the Apostles led by St. Peter (the Magisterium).  The Church, then, is called to bring what she has received to the world – unity in Christ. We see that the Church’s mission flows from her very identity. Christ unifies her, giving her the truth. With this truth, the Church’s mission is to unite humanity, to spread that saving truth throughout the world.

The twelve apostles symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel and the fulfillment of God’s plan for Israel (Galatians 6:16). That’s why they pray that the Holy Spirit will guide them to find a replacement for Judas. The Church in its fullness, the Apostles together with the Blessed Mother, Mary, then receives the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

St. Peter’s leadership of the apostles is a key to understanding how Church may continue to be faithful to the gift of truth while growing and developing . Notice that in the Acts account, St. Peter unquestionably bears authority, interpreting the Scriptures, deciding a course of action and defining the nature of the apostolic ministry. The ministry of Peter continues in the Petrine office of his successors.

No one has ever seen God, as we are told in today’s Epistle. Yet the Church, led by the Apostles, witnesses to the resurrection. And so the world has come to know and God’s love and that Jesus, the Son of God, is our Saviour.

Through the Church, Jesus’ pledge still comes to us. If we love (caritas) one another, God will remain with us in our trials and protect us from the evil one. By God’s word of truth the Holy Spirit will help us grow in holiness, which is the perfection of love.

What does the Church need to accomplish her mission? Once again, we must remember the context of our Lord’s prayer for unity and consecration in the truth. Jesus prays for unity and truth as he gives the Church the Holy Eucharist and the Priesthood and the mandate to love one another.  These are essential to our identity as the Church. Without the Holy Eucharist—without the Mass—we can be a community, but not the Church. The same goes for the Bishops and priests of the Church: without the ministerial priesthood, we can be a community, but we cannot exist as the sacramental Church. Without the gift of the Holy Spirit strengthening us to love our neighbour we cannot bring the message of God’s love to the world. Without unity in Eucharist, priesthood and service we cannot be one as our Lord has prayed.

We see this from the very beginning of the Church’s life. Recall the first reading. Judas had died and was no longer with the eleven Apostles. St. Peter calls for them to choose a replacement, who ends up being St Matthias. In other words, the office of “Apostle” is seen both as something essential for the Church, and as something that can be passed on. We also see this when the Apostles ordain bishops as their successors. The bishops not only hand on the teachings of the Apostles, and govern with their authority, they also make possible the celebration of the Holy Eucharist in the local Churches. In this way, we see that the Church, which Christ established, continues to exist and spread in every time, and to every place.

This is the one Church Catholic, in which we are grateful to be members, empowered by the Holy Spirit and called into the fullness of Catholic unity and service.  As we come, then, to this celebration of the Holy Eucharist, we are returning to the very source of our identity and mission: Christ himself, truly present to us, drawing us to himself, drawing us together by the Holy Spirit and consecrating us in the truth, handed down from the time of the Apostles. These graces are meant not only for us, but also to empower us, as we take our part in the mission of bringing the whole world to unity in Christ.

"Holy Father, keep them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one just as we are one.”

Acts 1:15-17, 20-26; Psalms 103:1-2, 11-12, 19-20; 1 John 4:11-16; John 17:11-19

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