The Pope’s Example
April 4, 2005
1 Peter 1:3-9Just a few hours ago our Holy Father Pope John Paul ll took his last breath and brought to a close nearly a quarter of a century of leading the Catholic church. For many days now the world has been in vigil anticipating the pope’s death. Already many commentators have begun to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of his pontificate from political and religious standpoints. But for us gathering today on this second Sunday of Easter in our local parish church, I would like to pose a more fundamental question concerning the life of Pope John Paul ll. This question is one which is not only posed to a pope, but to anyone who is baptized. In what ways did the life of this person reflect the truth of the gospel? Some day each one of us will face that question. How did our lives reflect the good news of Christ and perhaps lead others to follow Christ more closely?
When you ask that question of someone who has lived as long and as publicly as John Paul ll, there are of course many ways to answer it. But I would like to suggest today two qualities of his life, which truly reflect the Gospel and also open the way to imitation. Both of these qualities flow from what is clearly the predominant theme of his pontificate: the belief in the value of human life. John Paul ll from the time he ascended the throne of Peter began to speak forcibly for the dignity and the sacredness of life. His teaching on life did not neatly attach itself to any particular political agenda. He spoke regularly upon the importance of protecting the life of a child within its mother’s womb. He spoke regularly upon protecting the life of prisoners on death row. He spoke of the value of each human life and how every life had a sacredness that could not be removed. His view of on the sacredness of human life beautifully reflects the words of 1 Peter in today’s second reading. We have an inheritance “imperishable, undefiled, unfading.” Yet John Paul was not about simply teaching these things. He lived them. This leads to the two qualities that I would like to highlight from his life: the example of his happiness and his suffering.
John Paul ll was a happy man. Those of you who can remember when he became our pope recall that he was described as “the smiling pope.” We had a number of good popes in the 20th century; Pious Xll, Paul VI, but they were rather grim in their appearance. John Paul ll exuded a joy, a happiness. It might seem commonplace to say so but he loved his job. He loved being the one who could give voice to the presence and love of Christ in the world as the leader of the Catholic Church. It was that happiness in his work that moved him to visit as many countries as he did throughout the world proclaiming the joyous nature of being a follower of Christ. Joy is something we can undervalue as a superfluous addition to life. But true joy is an indisputable sign of the presence of God. John Paul was as successful as a pope because people knew he was happy with his life, happy as a follower of Christ.
That joy of the pope is a challenge to us. It testifies to the truth that God wants us to be happy. Sure there will be trials and troubles in life, but fundamentally being a Christian is being one who is called to joy. Therefore, if you find yourself in chronic sadness whether in your marriage, your job, or in your relationships, the testimony of John Paul ll challenges you to recognize that something is wrong. God is not calling you to sadness, to depression. God is calling you to happiness, to joy. When we find ourselves in a continual state of sadness, the Gospel calls us to change—to change something in ourselves, to change something in our circumstances. Our God calls us not to sadness, but to joy, and the witness of John Paul ll gave testimony to that truth.
His life also gave witness to suffering. In his latter years we all watched as the Parkinson’s disease and the aging process took its toll. A once vigorous and active pope became more and more frail and feeble. There were some people who called for his resignation saying it was time for him to step down in light of his sickness. That request would have made a good deal of sense were the pope simply an administrator, a CEO of the Catholic Church. But John Paul ll saw his role as more than an administrator. He saw his mission to give witness to what it meant to follow Christ. Therefore, as his health failed, as his life became more difficult, he chose not to hide that deterioration but instead to display it to the world. This flowed from his belief that life, even when reduced by aging and sickness, still had value in the eyes of God. This truth challenges us all. We will age and will have to deal with sickness and diminished vitality. If we truly appreciate the gift of life, we will understand that that diminished life does not rob us of our sacredness or dignity. We will understand that we do not need to hide or apologize because we are less of the person than we were 30 or 40 years ago. We still have value because we still have the life that is God’s gift to us. Moreover, those of us who are younger and who still have our health should examine our attitude to those who are aging and sick. They are not people we should hide away or neglect, but rather cherish and support. However diminished, they still carry God’s sacred gift of life within them.
For the next few weeks the eyes of the world will be on our church as we say farewell to John Paul ll and choose his successor. There is a sadness in leaving a man who so forcibly showed the example of the Gospel. But even as we mark his passing we should be thankful for what he showed us about life and its value. John Paul II showed us the importance of being happy in what we are called to do and the value of our life even as we cope with sickness and age. We entrust the holy father to the Lord’s care and we believe that he is now in the presence of the God whom he served. We can do nothing more to honor his memory than to follow his example—to live our lives committed to the joy of the Gospel and always believe that no matter what sickness or trouble we might attack us we retain the sacredness and dignity of being daughters and sons of God.
A Body to Touch
March 30, 2008
John 20:19 – 31
I would like to focus today on just one aspect of this dramatic passage from the Gospel of John: that curious invitation by Jesus to Thomas to take his finger and place it in the nail marks of Jesus’ hand and to take his hand and place it into the gash of Jesus’ side. Why would Thomas want to do this? Why would Jesus invite him to do it? What is the significance of this strange and gruesome action?
Now to answer that question we need to remember that each of the Gospels tells the story of Jesus in the context of the events of its own community. At the time that John’s Gospel was written there was a significant debate going on in the early church—a debate about who Jesus was and what our salvation entailed. There was a certain group of early Christians who did not believe that Jesus had a physical body. They did not believe that Jesus was human as we are human. These early Christians believed that Jesus was a spirit and that he only appeared to be human, he only seemed to have a physical body. Now tradition has called this group of early Christians “Docetists.” The word comes from the Greek word Dokeo which means “to appear” or “to seem.” The word is appropriate because this early Christian group believed that Jesus only appeared or seemed to have a human body. Once we realized that a debate over Jesus’ body was going on at the time of the writing of John’s Gospel, it becomes very likely that Jesus’ invitation to Thomas is the way that the Gospel chooses to disagree with the Docetists. By having Jesus ask Thomas to touch the wounds in his hands, the Gospel is emphasizing that Jesus had hands, that he had a physical body. By asking Thomas to put his hand in Jesus’ side, the Gospel is asserting that Jesus’ wounds were not just spiritual wounds, but were actual physical wounds in a body of flesh and blood.
Thus this invitation by Jesus to Thomas in the Gospel of John is the way this Gospel asserts that Jesus was not some elusive spirit but human as we are human, that Jesus had a physical body which shared in the glory of His resurrection.
Now why is this important? Why should we care that Jesus had a physical body? It is vitally important, not only because it tells us something about Jesus, but because it also tells us something about our salvation and our mission in following Jesus. You see the Docetists refused to believe that Jesus had a physical body because they were influenced by a certain trend in Greek thought that considered the body, and all physical things, all of creation, as valueless. In this Greek way of thinking the only thing which was valuable in the human person was that person’s spirit, the soul which all of us possess. Therefore for this Greek way of thinking salvation was escaping from the body, leaving creation and all physical things behind, and moving towards a state of pure spirit with God in God’s presence.
Now the Gospel of John and the majority of early Christians disagreed with this Greek way of thinking. They disagree with the Docetists. They insisted that creation is good and that physical things including our physical body have value. Therefore they insisted that Jesus had a physical body and his body was raised up on the third day. They insisted that we who follow Jesus will have our bodies raised up as well. Our salvation involves the physical world. Being saved does not simply mean going to heaven, even though at the time of our death our soul goes to be with God. Our mission is to bring God’s will into this physical world, to see that God’s kingdom comes to this earth. This is very important for all of us who would follow Christ, because it means the goal of our faith is not getting to heaven but bringing heaven to earth. We are called not to escape the evil of the world but in fact to change the world so that it would be less evil, less unjust.
We like Thomas are called touch Jesus’ glorified body as a reminder that every body, every person, all of creation is destined to share in the glory of God. We like Thomas are called to touch Jesus’ wounds as a reminder of how many real physical wounds continue in our world—wounds of sickness and violence, of prejudice and sexism, of poverty and war. Our mission is not to escape the world but to confront the evil of the world and to bring God’s love and kingdom into the lives of the flesh and blood brothers and sisters with whom we share this planet.
We do not believe that Jesus was simply a spirit, that he only seemed to have a physical body like ours. We believe that Jesus was human and that he was like us in all things but sin. We see God’s raising up Jesus from the grave as God’s commitment to heal the brokenness of our physical world, the actual human woundedness of all of us. We who follow Jesus commit ourselves to work until that day when God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
The Saving Wounds of Easter
April 30, 2011
Peace be with you—I just lost my job. Peace be with you—I worry about my daughter’s relationship with an abusive boyfriend. Peace be with you—my spouse and I do not even talk; we lead parallel lives. Peace be with you—I’m flunking English. Peace be with you—I’m not feeling well and I’m beginning to worry.
Three times in today’s Gospel, Jesus addresses his disciples with the greeting, “Peace be with you.” It is a way of promising life, healing, and joy. We desire these gifts. But very frequently Jesus’ greeting of peace is at odds with the worries and the troubles of our lives. As these worries and troubles press in around us, it is understandable why we might question: Can we believe in Jesus’ greeting? Is there reason to hope in the promise of peace?
Now, this is a very serious question. Many people who criticize religion would suggest that faith is only a denial or an illusion—a way of pretending that things are fine when they really are not. From this perspective, Jesus’ greeting might come across as a string of empty words. But there are more than words in today’s Gospel.
Immediately after Jesus greets his disciples, he follows it with an action. He says, “Peace be with you,” and then he shows them his hands and his side. There is not even a breath space between the greeting and the scars. Jesus unites peace with woundedness. He does this to show us that woundedness is not to be hidden but to be shared. When we share our woundedness, it leads to compassion which, in turn, leads to peace.
Now, Jesus is not telling us that we should go around dumping our pain on everyone who we meet. We all know someone who uses their misery as a way of manipulation. But Jesus is telling us is that in relationships of friendship and love, we can sometimes serve the other person not only with strength but also with weakness. When someone we care for is worried, fearful, or in pain, our immediate response is to fix the problem. But in so many circumstances, that ability is not given to us. We cannot always take away that which threatens the one we love.
What we can do—and what Jesus invites us to do—is to display our weakness, to let the person whom we love know that we too have fears, worries, and pain. When we share our weakness, we say to the one we love, “You are not alone. I understand. I will be with you.”
All of us are wounded. All of us have fear, pain, and worry. Today’s Gospel tells us that our woundedness is not to be hidden but to be shared. Our struggles are not to be denied but used to bring healing to others. For when we share our weakness, it leads to compassion, which in turn leads to peace.
The risen Jesus still bears the scars of his passion. He uses his woundedness to bring Thomas to faith, to bring the disciples to joy. He does this as an example for us. We should never be ashamed of sharing our woundedness with those who we love. In doing so they can see in the truth and honesty of our weakness someone who stands with them. That sharing of weakness opens the door to the peace and joy of the risen Christ.
So We Do Not Have to Touch
April 27, 2014
John 20: 19-31
Some American Indian tribes employ a rite of passage to initiate their members into adulthood. The details of the rite are secret and carefully guarded. On the longest night of the year, a young boy of 12 or 13 years is taken to a tree in the forest. There, alone, and without provisions or weapons, he is told to stand still until the dawn. The young boy must face the threat of wild animals, the darkness of the forest, and the terrible fear of the unknown. You can imagine how happy he must be when at last he sees the rays of the dawn. But then, he sees something else that makes him even happier, because at dawn, out from one of the trees nearby, steps his father. Although the boy thought he had been alone, his father was watching and guarding him all through the night.
The experience of the disciples in today’s Gospel can be compared to that of this young boy. Their story, like his, took place at night. They too were alone and afraid. They were alone because Jesus, to whom they had pledged their lives, had been brutally crucified. All their dreams of serving in his company had been brought to an abrupt end. They were afraid because the power of Rome that so efficiently brought Jesus to his death could at any time be turned against them. So they gathered behind locked doors and trembled in fear. Then, suddenly, Jesus steps into the locked room and offers them peace. Everything changes in that greeting. The apostles now see that Jesus is alive. They realize, as did the young Indian boy, that although they thought they had been alone, Jesus had been watching them and guarding them. Now they could see and hear him. Now Thomas was invited to touch him. Jesus’ presence was obvious.
But the most important lines in today’s Gospel are the lines that Jesus says to Thomas: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” We are the ones that Jesus is blessing in those lines, because we have not seen his risen body and yet we have faith. You see, the reason the disciples saw the risen Christ was so that we do not need to see him. The reason that Thomas touched the risen Christ is so that we do not need to touch him. If we believe in the witness of the apostles, we can believe that Christ is near even when his presence is not obvious.
When we have to face a crisis in our life, when we lose someone that we love, are hurt by someone that we trusted, have to face the consequences of a terrible mistake, we want to see Jesus. We want the assurance that he is with us. But Easter tells us that even when Christ is not visible to us, we are visible to him. When we have to face decisions about our future—what school should we attend, who should we love, what career should we follow—we want to touch Christ. We want the confidence of knowing that he is with us to help us make the important decisions in our life. When we face sickness, when we begin to realize that our life is coming to an end, we want to hear Christ say to us, “Peace be with you,” so we will know that he will be there to greet us when our life is through.
The apostles were allowed to hear those words so that we do not need to hear them. If we cling to their witness, then we will know that Christ is truly risen. And with that faith we will not need to be afraid. Although at times it may seem like we are standing alone, Easter faith will tell us that Christ is watching and guarding us all through the long dark night.
A Second Greeting of Peace
April 23, 2017
John 20: 19-31
When the risen Jesus appears to the Apostles in today’s gospel, the first thing that he says to them is, “Peace be with you.” There’s nothing strange about this greeting. After Jesus’ horrible death, the disciples imagined that they would never see him again. So when he appears to them unexpectedly, and even though the doors were locked, they needed some reassurance. Jesus’ greeting of peace is his way of saying, “Yes, I am really here. Believe your eyes. I love you still.” The greeting of peace makes perfect sense.
What is peculiar is that Jesus repeats this greeting a second time. After the disciples have seen him, after he has shown them his hands and his side, after the disciples have rejoiced, Jesus says again, “Peace be with you.” Why does he repeat this greeting again? Why is not one expression of reassurance enough? Perhaps Jesus repeats this greeting, not because the disciples are sad, but because they are happy, not because they are distraught, but because they are overwhelmed with joy. In the very minute that they realize that Jesus is risen, Jesus is with them, there might be a part of them that begins to worry: What will we do if he leaves us again? A part of them might conclude this is simply too good to last. So Jesus repeats a second time, “Peace be with you.” And, thereby he directs them to leave their worries to the future, center on the joy that they have today, and leave the rest to God.
Sometimes in our moments of greatest joy, sometimes when we are truly overwhelmed with our blessings, we can begin to think, “What will I do if this changes?” In that moment Jesus reassures us and again gives us his peace. When you look at a newly born son or daughter and you are overwhelmed by the bliss of new life and the love that you have, even in that joy, there can be part you that begins to worry: “What if he or she develops health problems, makes a bad decision, is unable to find happiness in life?” In that worry, Jesus says to us again, “Peace be with you. Embrace the blessing you have today and rejoice.” When you find yourself in an ideal work situation, when you enjoy what you do and the people you are doing it with, even in that happiness there can be a part of you that begins to wonder, “What will I do if someone leaves or business turns negative?” In that worry Jesus says to us again, “Peace be with you. You are blessed today, be productive and thankful.” If you are fortunate to enter retirement with security and a partner who loves you, even as you enjoy the blessings of leisure, it is possible that you begin to think, “How long will this last. How long before I have to face sickness and say good bye?” In that worry, Jesus comes to us and says, “You have the person you love now. Do not let the joy slip through your fingers. Embrace that joy and be thankful.”
Jesus gives the greeting of peace to his disciples a second time so that they can focus on the joy they have today and leave the rest to God. Jesus’ greeting of peace is effective, because that greeting is not just a matter of words. Jesus’ peace is connected to his person and to his presence, and he is always with us. So Jesus greets us with peace today that we might rejoice, and he promises us that he will be with us in the future to offer us peace again, no matter what kind of challenges we will need to face.