I am at St. Nicholas church in Valentine, Nebraska this weekend. All of Nebraska celebrated last Thursday as a holyday of obligation, the feast of the Ascension. So today we are celebrating the 7th Sunday of Easter. Here's my homily:
Imagine: at the Last Supper Jesus thought of you and prayed for you. That's what today's Gospel (John 17: 20-26) tells us. It says: "Lifting up his eyes to heaven, Jesus prayed, saying: 'Holy Father, I pray not only for them [the apostles], but also for those who will believe in me through their word...'"
And what was Jesus' prayer for us? "That they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me."
These are Jesus' last words to his apostles, his farewell address, before going to his death. Jesus prayed that they and we might be one with him and one with each other.
That makes sense. If, as the first book of the Bible Genesis says, we are made in the image and likeness of God, then we are made not to be isolated individuals. Rather, reflecting the loving communion that is the divine nature, we are made for communion. We are created for union with God and the communion of saints.
And this communion is essential to evangelization, to spreading the good news of God's love. Jesus said that the world will believe that Christianity is true when it sees Christians in loving union with one another, a union that is grounded in their union with God.
What makes this union possible? First of all, the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the bond of love between the Father and the Son. This is the mystery of the Holy Trinity which we will celebrate in two weeks. Next week we will celebrate Pentecost, recalling the day when the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles and the Blessed Virgin Mary gathered in prayer in the upper room. The Spirit came with great power in the form of tongues of fire. It was the fire of love that united those who received that outpouring of the Spirit. Those who saw the effects of the Spirit were amazed to hear the apostles preaching the good news and to understand them, even though they came from diverse countries and spoke and understood diverse languages.
The Spirit brought them together. The people understood the preaching because the apostles spoke a universal language, the language of love.
Love usually involves feelings, but it is more than an emotion or sentiment. It is ultimately an act of the will in which one desires the ultimate good of the other person no matter how one feels about him or her. We see this in the First Reading (Acts 7: 55-60), the story of St. Stephen's martyrdom.
I don't know how Stephen felt about the people who stoned him to death, but I would suspect he didn't like them. Yet, he loved them. How do we know this? Because he prayed for them, saying "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." He prayed for their salvation, not their condemnation. He prayed that they would experience God's mercy and be converted.
This was a powerful prayer for their conversion that was joined to Stephen's sacrificial suffering. And it had a great effect on one of those present--Saul. Stephen's prayer was a channel for God's mercy to one day reach into Saul's hear. It led to a conversion.
Do you remember that conversion? Saul was on the road to Damascus intending to round up Christians and bring them back to Jerusalem in chains to be imprisoned and tried. He encountered a blinding vision of the risen and ascended Christ on that road. And what did Jesus say to him? "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?" He didn't say, "Why are you persecuting my Church?" Nor did he say, "Why are you persecuting my followers?" He asked "Why are you persecuting ME?" He was confirming a teaching that he gave in a parable that we find in Matthew 25: whatever we do or do not do for or to one another, we do or do not do for or to Christ himself. Jesus was teaching Saul that we and Jesus are one. He is the Head and we are the Body. We are in union with Jesus and one another just as the parts of a physical body form a one flesh union.
And that brings us to the second way that we enter into union with God and one another--through the Holy Eucharist, a mystery that we will be celebrating three weeks from today, after we have celebrated Pentecost and the feast of the Most Holy Trinity.
See how it all fits together, these three feasts? We have the mystery of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit to whom Jesus was referring when he said in today's Gospel: "Righteous Father, ... I made known to them your name and I will make it known, that the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in them." The Holy Spirit is, as we said, the love between the Father and the Son. The Spirit reveals to us the mystery of God, Three in One, the Holy Trinity in whose image we are made. And in addition to the Holy Spirit bringing us into union with God and one another, there is the Holy Eucharist which brings about a one flesh union with Jesus, God-made-flesh, and communion in the Body of Christ, the Church.
Now the challenge is to live this oneness with God and God's other children. This is what Jesus prayed for at the Last Supper. There are so many divisions among Christians. There is so much conflict in the world. The answer to Jesus' prayer begins here, with you, with me. Like Stephen we are called to pray for our enemies, those who have hurt us. We are called to let go of resentments and pray that there may be healing in our relationships. And we are to pray for those people in other parts of the world who hate us and want to see our destruction. We pray for their conversion, that they may come to know the love of God, receive that love, and be brought into union with God and us. We pray for their ultimate salvation..
This was so important to Jesus that in his final words to his apostles, before going to his suffering and death, he made this his prayer. It is so important to him that from time to time he sends his own Mother to beg us to pray for the conversion of sinners. Only when the prayer of Jesus is realized in us, in the Church, and in the world will there be peace.