The Church proclaims excerpts from the New Testament book entitled Acts of the Apostles during the Easter season and thus far these excerpts have for the most part featured the testimony of the Apostle Peter.
Peter has testified to the reality of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. The resurrection of the Lord Jesus is not merely a symbol or idea or feeling, but an absolutely uncanny event that happened to the very real and very dead body of the Lord Jesus. Jesus Christ, crucified, dead and buried returned to life- and not just an ordinary life, but a new kind of life, a life in which his physical body had been transformed and his identity as God was revealed in a way that refuted all the claims of those who had opposed him and put him to death.
Peter insists that the reality of Christ’s resurrection compels us to live differently, to change, for this revelation has literally changed the world. And so when we profess in faith that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead we are not just trading in platitudes or blandly insisting that he was a great man whose cause goes on. No! We are saying that Jesus Christ is really and truly alive in the most extraordinary way, that he is God, and that our lives have been changed by our relationship with him.
The proper response of the believer to the resurrection is adoration and worship (for faith in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus is an act of faith in the Lord Jesus as God) and this adoration and worship is meant to lead us to a new way of life.
Today, the Church’s reading from Acts of the Apostles introduces us to Saul. Saul was at one time in his life a ferocious enemy of the Lord Jesus and a persecutor of his Church. But Jesus Christ intervened in Saul’s life in a radical way, revealing himself to him as a living divine person. This encounter changed Saul’s life and he would take the name Paul. Saul, the great enemy of Christ and the Church would become Christ’s friend and the Church’s servant.
The conversion of Saul, who had been responsible for a vicious persecution of the Church that had cost many Christians their lives, was a shock to many Christians. Some viewed their former persecutor with suspicion and others rejected him outright.
Saul or Paul would be a controversial figure for the rest of his life and controversy would follow him wherever he would go- and go he went! Saul or Paul accepted the call to be the great missionary to the Gentiles, the means by which those who were outsiders to Israel would come to know the Lord Jesus and be accepted as disciples for the Church.
The missionary work of St. Paul would eventually change the world. The result of his efforts would be a new civilization. We are part of this civilization and it is called the Church.
We are also the heirs of his missionary adventure.
The Church is not a faith based club meant to a privileged few and being a Christian does not mean that one has matriculated through Catholic-themed institutions or that one has the right to faith based services.
The Church is a civilization, a living culture, but more than this the Church is the privileged bearer of the life and presence of Jesus Christ in the world. Those who are Christians are called by Christ into a mission, as St. Paul was called, and this mission is to introduce people to Christ and invite people to share a life with Jesus Christ by becoming part of the Church.
It is through this mission or introduction and invitation that the Church flourishes and grows.
Pope Francis identifies this mission of introducing people to Christ and inviting people into the Church as what it means to be a missionary disciple- and that’s what he envisions Catholic parishes should have as their priority. The priority of the parish should be mission work, and he doesn’t mean by that just supporting faith-based outreach in far off and exotic places- he means your own neighborhood, your own city, your own family and friends.
How many people have you introduced to Jesus Christ? How many people have you invited into the Church? How are the various endeavors of this parish intended as introductions to Jesus Christ? What is this parish’s strategy to invite people to people to know Christ in his Church?
If the answer is “not many” or “no one” or “the endeavors of the parish are meant to serve the needs of the parishioners” or “the strategy is we passively wait for people to come to us” then you are not doing what the Lord Jesus wants his Church to do.
If we Christians are not doing what the Lord Jesus wants his Church to do, we should not be at all surprised if the Church falters and fails.
We cannot introduce people to Christ if we do not know him and we will not invite people to be a part of the Church if we live as if the Church is merely an institution whose purpose is to serve our causes, interests and needs.
The Church is a missionary endeavor and we are meant to be for Christ, his missionary disciples.
You want the Church, indeed this parish, to flourish and grow- then give your life over to Christ as his missionary disciple.
A missionary disciple is, according to our second reading, an excerpt from the New Testament’s First Letter of John, a Christian who believes in Jesus Christ and who practices the love that Christ commanded his followers to practice.
Believing in Jesus Christ does not just mean respecting the Lord Jesus as a great man of history or honoring him as one of many prophets. Believing in Jesus Christ means that love what he loves and serve what he serves. Do you really and truly believe in the Lord Jesus? To answer that question ask yourself- do I know what Jesus Christ loved and what Jesus Christ served? If you do, and you love and serve what Jesus Christ loves and serves, then you believe in him.
And then, only then, can you become his missionary disciple.
Those who believe in Jesus Christ, those who love what Jesus Christ loves and serve what he serves, are in a relationship with him.
In his Gospel, Christ likens that relationship to being that of a vine and its branches. In others words, the believer’s source of life is Jesus Christ.
A branch, severed from the vine, withers away and dies. As long as it remains connected to the plant, it will flourish and grow.
This image of the vine and the branches becomes real for us in the Eucharist, which is, not just a symbol of Christ or an expression of the community celebrating its values. The Eucharist is what Christ, who is God, declares the Eucharist to be- it is his Body, his Blood, which means the Eucharist is his very life!
To receive the Eucharist means to receive the source of your life in Christ- the Lord Jesus himself.
This is why the intentional separation of a Christian from the Eucharist is so devastating and destructive. The life of Christ in us just withers away and dies like a branch separated from the vine!
There has been a drifting away of so many from the Church now for many decades, the reasons for this drift are many, while this situation has been argued about much, and many have lamented the impact on the Church’s institutions, few have been willing to see the drift for what it is- a matter of life and death!
Yes, it is a matter of life and death! If only we had a sense of urgency about this would we truly be missionary disciples! To drift away from the Church means to drift away from the living source of a believer’s life- Jesus Christ, living and present, not as an idea, a feeling or a symbol, but as Body and Blood given to us in the Eucharist. The believer’s faith might linger for a while cut off from the source of its life, but nothing but Christ’s life in the Eucharist can sustain it, nourish it, and enable it to grow.
Without holy communion with God in Christ in the Eucharist, not only the believer, but the Church, risks withering and dying away!
Participation in the Eucharist is not merely a spiritual option or meant only for special events or simply a quaint custom or worthwhile only when it seems entertaining.
Participation in the Eucharist connects us to the source of the Church’s life (Christ’s vine to our branches) and as such it is always, always a matter of life or death.