1 Peter 1:3-9
We know when we have entered the space we call the Sacred Scriptures. We know its spareness — so little is said — and we know its profound depths and towering heights — so much is signified. There is nothing else like it for both its quiet and its richness. In part it achieves this spare brilliance simply — by bringing things together that resonate with each other, having hidden meanings, permitting us to hear and feel the vibration.
This morning, we begin by reading seven, brief sentences from the Gospel of St. John, which unlock secrets of the Christian life and answer deep riddles that continue to challenge would-be Christians today. But we must read slowly and meditate on these very few words in order to receive these gifts.
An Evangelical Christian who lives near the Hermitage told me recently, "I walked into a Catholic church, but it was too bloody for me. You people worship a dead Man; we worship a living Man. Haven't you heard? He is Risen?" I replied, "Truly He is risen. But we must not be ashamed of Him pushing Him into the background. We receive Him as He reveals Himself to us, for the very first thing the Risen Christ does among His Disciples is to point them to His wounds."
But I am getting ahead of myself, for so much occurs in these seven, brief sentences: the Risen Christ is revealed to the Disciples; the Holy Spirit is given; the Church is founded; the Apostles are sent; and the whole nature of authentic Christian life is laid out like a blueprint. This last part is very important, for the Lord calls us away from the world; St. Paul instructs us to die to the world, to be cleansed of it; yes, we must continue to be in the world, but we must not be of the world.
So much takes place and said so briefly that many people miss what has happened altogether .... recalling only the "Doubting Thomas" story, which follows it. Let us slow down then and listen carefully. A scene is set: a small room where the disciples are gathered, set apart, for the door is barred, and the world is far away. The mood is one of fear. And God Who is able to look ahead might comment, "Well might these men fear, for all will be persecuted, tortured, and martyred, save one, within a few, short years. Well might they be gathered in fear." And here our fragile human nature might reply, "Then why has Jesus chosen men He has calls friends away from their families, away from their livelihoods, away from the ... joy of living, that they might be tortured and killed? Surely He knows all this at the moment He calls them!" And this is our passage's first riddle.
The Disciples share a feeling of at-one-ness as any cloistered group might. It is exactly the scene — "where two or three are gathered in my Name" — in which the Lord promises to appear, and He does appear: the Risen Christ, standing in their midst, enlivening them, transforming their fears with His peace. And we are are still only in the first sentence!
Then, immediately, He shows them His wounds. But why is He wounded? Is He not the Lord of Life?! Is He not the great Physician and Healer?! Is He not the Victor over disease and death and certainly injury and woundedness, ..... and yet He is wounded?! Moreover, He insists that we gaze upon His wounds, not as a general fact, but in particular, one by one, individually: "He showed them His hands and His side." (And of course this elaborated a little later when He seems to be placing St. Thomas' hands inside His wounds.) And here we have the second riddle of our passage.
In sentence three, we hear of their gladness .... but in such an odd place to be glad: a general atmosphere of fear and of woundedness. Yet, they are they at one with the Lord .... and then, in a twinkling, they are no longer cloistered Disciples but sent Apostles. For in the next sentence, sentence four, God breathes into their nostrils Divine Life: the Holy Spirit, and He sends them out. And here the Church is founded.
St. Luke will present this same scene dramatically and with a flare for operatic, with great scale and magnificence, which we call Pentecost. But that is St. Luke's way: high drama. Think of the Magnificat, the Nunc Dimittis, the Benedictus. He likes his main characters to sing solo arias (anticipating the invention of opera by fifteen hundred years!). But that is not St. John's sense of things. St. John understands that the Church is founded within the vulnerability and mercy and sacrifice of scared men. And here is the third riddle. Why should the Church be founded in vulnerability? Why should it be founded in Christ's wounds? Why not His victory? Why not in pomp and royal dignity and splendid array? Looking back on this event, that is precisely what St. Luke insists upon: not the quiet breath of the Lord, but a mighty wind, a Ruah, from Heaven; not the fellowship among tender hearts, but tongues of fire descending from the firmament; not a quiet space of discerning souls, set apart from the world, but a grand, public square. But we must remember, St. Luke was not present in this barred room. He hears what was said; he understands the significance; and he renders the scene in his own writing at a scale that he believes is proportional to the significance of the events. Among the Evangelists, only St. John was present according to his the Gospel. It is right that St. Luke should commemorate this high moment in the high style, for the Church is being born. And we must not begrudge him his highly stylized impulses, for he wants to underline a grand event that he fears will be missed in a few, quiet sentences.
Jesus does found the Church in this room and at this quiet moment. Here is the Church: the Risen and wounded Christ and His sacraments rightly and duly ministered to God's people, who gather to become Him in the mystery of the Body of Christ. And we must remember that Jesus does not set a cornerstone with mortar and then parish churches and parochial schools and chanceries. As our own experience teaches us, these things are neither holy, nor are they permanent. The only thing in His Creation that is holy and the only thing He made that is permanent are His beloved human creatures. We are intrinsically holy, beginning in Him and ending in Him (at least!), and He made us to live forever. And so He founds His Church in His Apostles. He founds His Church by planting deep within them His sacraments. The sacrament of Baptism He instituted with His own Baptism and by commanding the Apostles to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The sacrament of Eucharist was instituted only two and half days earlier by divine command: "Take. Eat. This is my Body. Do this!" The sacrament of orders is closely related: "Do this in memory of me." The Perpetual Memory He commands can only be fulfilled through ordination. Most important, it is the Apostles themselves into which He plants the sacraments. For each Apostle is the center, the nucleus, of a living cell made up of deacons, who serve with him, of priests (who are fragments of the Bishop, so to speak), and the faithful. Each living cell is complete unto itself, an instance of the Church Catholic. (The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches this.) Larger bodies of the Church are formed through relationships of Communion among these living cells. And until the eleventh century the Body of Christ was mostly one whole (the word Catholic means according to the whole) as these cells shared in the sacred bond of communion nearly universally.
But let us return to the Church's moment of birth. It is at this moment that the Lord gives them one, final sacrament: the sacrament of reconciliation, the forgiveness of sins. With this, we come full circle to the beginning of our seven sentences. The Lord of Life bears wounds because the world is broken and wounded. For this reason He call His Apostles in their vulnerability to become wounded men. In effect, He tells them and us that we overestimate death. And aren't His angels and the Lord Himself constantly telling us, "Be not afraid!" "Yes, you will have trials. Yes, you will have tribulations. But be of good cheer! I have overcome the world!" This world is not the thing, He reminds us. And one of the holiest priests I ever knew confided, "When I was a young priest, baptisms and wedding were among my greatest joys, but now that I am old, I see that it is the Requiem Mass, which is cause for our greatest rejoicing."
All of this has happened in seven, brief sentences, and we recall C. S. Lewis' words that once there was a stable that contained something larger than the entire universe. For gathered in this tiny room are all instances, present and future, of the Church Catholic and with all of salvation-history-future now unfolding.
"Be not afraid!" He tells us. "Follow me!" And one more thing: "Love one another!"
The world suffers. 800 million people go to sleep each night hungry. Half the world's people live on slightly more than $2 a day. 80% of the world's population lives on less than $10 per day. And He sends us out. And He confers upon us the greatest dignity and the holiest consecration we could ever hope to call our own: to bear the wounds of this broken world .... like Him. Did you know that the twentieth century saw more Christian martyrs than all previous centuries combined?
If Divine Mercy means anything in the space of our own lives, it means to trust Him, to follow Him, and to be merciful. And we cannot be merciful, we cannot relieve suffering, unless we are willing to give of ourselves, which means that we must suffer in some measure, too.
And as He goes, He takes our hand in His.
He holds our hand with both of His,
guiding us, teaching us, reassuring us to trust Him.
And He points us toward His wounds.
Be not afraid!
Love one another
as I have loved you.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.