A peace the world cannot give
(Readings: Acts 15:1-2, 22-29; Apocalypse 21:10-14, 22-23; John 14:23-29)
Introduction to Mass
The readings in the latter half of the Easter Season concentrate on the approaching departure of Jesus, the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and beginning of the Churchís mission to bring the whole world to the knowledge of salvation through Christ. In the gospel today Jesus promises his followers that he will always be with them as they carry out that mission, imparting his peace to them - a peace which, as he says, the world cannot give.
So to prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries...
When Jesus had appeared to his disciples several times after his resurrection he started to prepare them for the fact that he wasn't going to remain in their company indefinitely. It seems that God's plan, and the final stage of Jesus' mission, was that he should leave the community he had gathered around himself and return in his resurrected state to the Father. It's this mysterious departure of Christ's that we commemorate in the Feast of the Ascension next Sunday.
This Sunday the dominant note in the gospel is one of reassurance and encouragement: Christ reassures his followers that although they won't see him again in the way they had several times after his resurrection, he will, he says, remain present to them and active among them, in the form of the Advocate, the Holy Spirit. And the power of the Spirit will keep them strong in their faith in him and in their knowledge of everything that he taught them.
It's easy to imagine the feelings of dismay and panic that affected the disciples when they learn that they won't be seeing Christ again in such a direct and obvious way. But, as so often, Jesus' advice is: don't panic. "Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid," he says. I might be going away but "I give you my peace - a peace the world cannot give". This peace will be another aspect of effect that the Holy Spirit will have on the community of Jesus' followers.
The contentment that comes, say, from good health and material security - very important objectives in the lives of many people today; the sense of security that comes from being respected and liked by other people; the feeling of satisfaction that comes when we realise our cherished plans and projections - Christ doesn't promise his followers peace in any of those senses. If anything he consistently warned people to anticipate trouble and sacrifice as a consequence of becoming his disciples.
The only thing God gives us, in a sense, is himself, and any sense of peace or happiness that he gives us can only be the effect of our contact with him and our growing attachment to him.
The experiences of the apostles themselves in the early days of the Church's existence, the experiences of many of the saints during the Church's history, testify to the fact that God doesn't often keep his servants free from anxieties and difficulties. Many holy men and women buckled, or suffered a breakdown in their mental or physical health, as a result of the pressures and obstacles they encountered as they tried to carry out God's will.
But they're the same people who declared most loudly that its often in exactly those circumstances - and not before they find themselves in those circumstances - that God imparts his Spirit, his presence and the underlying strength of his grace in the way Jesus promises in the gospel: the Spirit will teach you everything, remind you of all I have said to you and make it easier for God to make his home in you.
So a life of faith in Christ isn't likely to be a carefree life, a life free from all trouble. It's more a life where God himself is the anchor in the midst of all our troubles.
I think we can even interpret some of the mysterious language of the second reading today in this sense, where St. John says in effect: the Old Covenant with God is gone; the temple in Jerusalem no longer has any value as a way making God present to people: God and his Son are available to people directly now, in themselves. Again: for those who love God and Christ and keep God's commandments, they will come to them and make their home in them.
If we turn to the first reading today we see that the first followers of Christ didn't regard this new relationship with God as their private property to be guarded possessively and restricted to as few people as possible.
The Acts of the Apostles and the many letters by Saint Paul and other apostles that make up a large part of the New Testament all show that when Jesus ascended to the Father the community he left behind wasn't disorientated and didnít panic. The opposite was true.
After Jesusí departure his followers understood that they had to move from being a small circle of people united by their personal knowledge of Jesus to being a missionary community, committed to spreading the Christian message across the whole of the known world. That meant debating the issues and taking the decisions that we see them doing in todayís first reading, and it was through those debates and decisions that the Church took the shape that it did.
The earliest Christian communities seemed to realise quite quickly that although Christ wasnít present physically, or in person, any more he did remain with them, and active among them, in the way the Holy Spirit guided and shaped the Church Ė and continues to guide it and shape it. And although it might to over-simple to say that Jesus "founded" the Church with the seven sacraments, the papacy, and all the other well-known features of Catholic Christianity, neverthless I think we have to see the Church as having developed the way it did through history under the impact of the Holy Spirit, and according to what God willed, as the vehicle for spreading the message of salvation.
Maybe itís something that our modern mentality is apt to lose sight of: that the Church isnít just a human community and it was never simply the creation of a group of human beings.
Pope John Paul II certainly made great efforts while he was still alive to remind Catholics that although of course the Holy Spirit blows where it wills, the Church is the continuation of Christís presence in the world in a very particular way and the privileged place of encounter with Christ, especially in the sacraments, where we meet Christ and are drawn close to him in a particular way.
Itís also - taking our lead again from the first reading - a missionary community and the essence of the Church is to bring the gentiles to know and follow Christ, today as much as in the founding period.
These are the themes that are prominent in the latter half of the Easter Season, and we hear more about them in the readings over the coming Sundays. But in any case, I think todayís readings focus on these particular aspects of our faith and invite us to recover, if we need to, that conviction which Jesusí first followers had of the way he makes himself present to us most of all through his body, the Church, and the responsibility that gives us to encourage the pagans of our day to come to know and embrace the truth of salvation through Christ.