The celebration of Easter brought with it the renewal of our Baptismal promises. The covenant that Baptism strikes between the follower of Jesus and the Trinity gives the disciple the power to take up the mission (work) of Jesus on earth. Perhaps we have heard this so often that we are in danger that sheer familiarity may breed bored indifference both to the power we have been given by the Spirit, and to the work that the power will make possible. Thus, throughout the Easter Season we are called by the Church to ponder carefully the mission of Jesus embedded now in the Church in this time and place. Two aspects of mission jump out at me from today’s readings: conflict that clarifies and focuses the task, and the importance of “remaining” in Jesus.
The first reading from the Acts of the Apostles tells us rather matter-of-factly of the first major controversy and conflict among the apostolic leaders (and the communities they founded or served) in the first decades of the Church’s existence. The crisis over gentile acceptance of the Jewish Law, including and especially the command to circumcise all male children, was a watershed event in the early communities. The conflict was intense. Its difficult resolution set the stage for the breadth of the mission among the gentiles, locating salvation and discipleship for gentiles within a baptismal relationship with Jesus and all his disciples. The theological and practical aspects of the controversy forced early Christians to recognize this personal bond of identity in Jesus (Paul will later be understood to say “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.”). It also became clear that gentile participation in God’s promised redemption of Israel is accomplished through a unity of Being in Jesus, a circumcised Jew. Because we are “in Christ” and he is circumcised we don’t have to be.
On the dark side the controversy probably caused Paul to lose his life because those who turned him over to the Roman authorities were folks convinced that the commands of the Mosaic Law had to remain in place. Another negative consequence resulted from the interpretation of New Testament literaturec (developed in the controversy) which contributed to a strong streak of anti-Judaism in Christianity that was to bear much bitter fruit right down to the present.
In case we miss the importance Baptismal immersion into the being of Jesus, both human and divine, we need to attend closely to the second reading from John, in which Jesus is pleading with us – even commanding us – to “remain” in him as he will remain in us. Then, whatever we accomplish will have affects (fruit) beyond our wildest imagination and most certainly infinitely beyond our limited human capacity to produce anything worthwhile.
This principle of remaining in Christ as he remains in us reminds me of an occasion some years ago when I was preaching a mission in one of the parishes of the Boston Archdiocese. It was during the “year of the Eucharist” and I had been speaking on various aspects of Eucharistic faith for months. I love the topic, but this mission was taking place late in the Lenten season and I was up against many deadlines in my studies and my work, family were visiting from out of town, and I had just begun to recover from a bout of some virus or other. I was out of sorts and felt remarkably out of touch with the people to whom I was privileged to speak. At the end of the presentation I did not feel that I had done a very good job. The dauntingly unemotional New Englanders in front of me did little to inspire any hope that the evening might bear some spiritual fruit. But as I was leaving the Church after the prayer service I was stopped by an elderly man who asked me a question based on what I had said in the talk. When I confirmed my earlier statement about Christ’s presence remaining within and among us he began to weep. Then he told me of a long life as a baptized Catholic with minimal catechesis and little appreciation for the richness of his tradition that had suddenly been unlocked during the presentation that evening. The power of Christ remaining in me produced fruit that I could neither have hoped for nor imagined in this man’s life. He, in turn, gave faith back to me in his joy and gratitude. How appropriate it is to respond to God’s mercy: Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord! (Ps 122).
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