Blessings and great joy to each and all of you on this 5th Sunday celebration of Easter.
The Easter season extends over 50 days to Pentecost, and it serves as a reminder to us that transformation-of a spiritual, or a biological nature-requires time. Each breath we take brings a new moment of life, yet the cells on the lung’s surface are fully renewed each two to three weeks. Our blood supply is refreshed every 90 days, but renewing our bones can take 10 or more years.
And the message of Easter, which begins to renew us from our earliest grasp, is certainly one that needs to steep into our very bones, as we live into it. So 50 days to renew our life in the Spirit of the risen Jesus Risen is not too long.
This 14th chapter of John’s Gospel gives us a clue that discipleship will take some effort. You say “Follow me” and I say “Where??”
You say, “You know.” I say “No, I don’t, but I’ve heard the death threats.”
You say “Believe me; I’m going to come back and take you to God.”
“Show us this God.”
Philip and Thomas speak for our fears too. Which of us doesn’t want to know “where will this life of following take me??”
Perhaps I want to be a believer, but I’m alone in that among the people in my family, work or social life. Not something they would get. Or, I find joy in my faith and I want to share it BUT…how? With whom? Can I do that here? Disciples know “awkward”.
Speaking of truth, of justice at school or in the workplace; speaking of faith or mentioning prayer among certain friends, neighbors or even family members, can be “awkward’.
And that’s the least of it.
Because by not taking that extra step, when someone has shared a raw need, shame, or grief, when faith is the one thing you have to offer, you may pass on a unique opportunity to witness the very love that heals and frees. We are, Peter writes, ‘God’s own people in order to proclaim the mercy and the might acts of the one who called us into marvelous light.’
Maybe the name of Jesus first came to our ears as infants or young children, and gradually become part of our vocabulary through prayer and instruction. Conversely, you may be new to this faith venture. Here we converge into an extraordinarily blessed and gifted community of believers with so much to share. The Gospel we hear is not a treasure to guard but a mission to share. And that sharing we must continually practice together. Here, in the dining room and in our study groups, and out in the gardens and prairie and our homes, we practice. In time- in our lifetimes, by prayerful listening and loving, and with God’s mercy, we will become transformed by the Holy Spirit. We will grow into ever clearer, bolder witnesses speaking truth in the world on behalf of God’s own.
Dorothy Day once remarked, If I have achieved anything in my life, it is because I have not been embarrassed to talk about God.”
Stephen was a respected member of the growing early community of disciples. He was first draft pick of the 7 deacons called to a fair distribution of food to the widows. Stephen fully embraced his call, and as a Greek speaker he preached to the Hellenist believers; he even worked signs and miracles. He also held his own in debates with the most learned members of area synagogues.
They were unable to match his wisdom and Spirit as he proclaimed Jesus’ message, and defamed Stephen as a blasphemer of Jewish tradition. In response, the Deacon led his detractors through a full summation of salvation history, ending it by boldly calling out his opponents for their consistent resistance to the Holy Spirit.
And thus Stephen was elected the first to follow Jesus through martyrdom, to see the Glory of God and Jesus standing at God’s right hand. As the Sanhedrin literally covered their ears to the truth. In his final witness to the risen Christ, he forgave his murderers.
(Saul, standing in approval of this stoning, was not ready yet to hear the witness, but Jesus would soon enough knock him from his high horse to begin his own transformation.)
Stephen was first, but the line of martyrs stretches to our day, and across the world.
A new saint for the Americas will soon be lifted up by Pope Francis, and Salvadoran Christians dearly hope that word will come today that canonization is moving quickly to honor their deeply beloved Monsignor Romero.
Oscar Romero was himself a Roman educated priest who toed the magisterial line for the first 25 years of his priesthood. He trusted neither the Second Vatican Council nor liberation theologians, and was favored by the right wing. In 1977, as a bishop working directly among the people in Santiago de Maria, he first experienced the oppression of the Salvadoran poor. He began to question the status quo, even writing to the president. Shortly afterward his fellow Jesuit and personal friend, whose work had been empowering of the poor, was assassinated. “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead I thought ‘if they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path”.
In Romero’s response to this murder, he became the bold witness. He excommunicated the assassins and closed every church but the cathedral the next Sunday, where he celebrated an outdoor mass for over 100,000 Salvadorans. I am merely the pastor, a brother, a friend to this people who knows of its suffering, of its hunger, of its anguish. In the name of these voices I raise my voice to say: don’t idolize your wealth. And Romero never backed down: Christ is King just because he brings his Kingdom with him, and in their discernment of this reality Christians must be “fellow workers in the truth”(3rd John 3). His last public and most famous homily was a call for the Salvadoran soldiers to lay down their arms and hold to God’s law to not kill, rather than obey the unjust orders to kill their brothers and sisters. He knew he was going to be killed and days before his murder he told a reporter: “You can tell the people that if they succeed in killing me, that I forgive and bless those who do it. Hopefully, they will realize they are wasting their time. A bishop will die, but the church of God, which is the people, will never perish.”
Thirty-four years ago Oscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez was assassinated while offering a spontaneous post-homily prayer of thanksgiving. He, too, must have seen the glory of God in that moment. Since then, his death as the fulfillment of his life’s witness has heightened among people of good will our anticipation of “the new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells.”(2nd Peter 3:13).
We can’t know where our discipleship will take us. Martyrdom is rarely the result. We are simply called to follow Jesus, “Believe in me, that I am I God and God in me, or believe because of the works themselves. Just come along, and don’t be afraid, I am with you.