|Readings:||Acts 13:14, 43-52
Revelation 7:9, 14b-17
April 24-25, 2010 - Fourth Sunday of Easter - Cycle C
We gather today in the midst of what so typifies human life here on earth: a tension between the tragedy of Alex Doucette's death and the celebration of new life in baptism as we celebrate 4 baptisms this Easter season weekend. But first I need to speak a little about the language used in that first reading from Acts.
During the Easter season we hear excerpts from the Acts of the Apostles, the second part of Luke's 2 part logical ordering of the story of salvation. Luke is writing to a mostly Gentile community, but one that has a Jewish component. The particular concern of this community is how are they to believe that God will fulfill the promises Jesus made, when they have seen what appears to be the abandonment of the promises God made to Israel in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.
The Church teaches emphatically that we have to read any part of Scripture in the context of all of Scripture but biblical illiteracy makes hearing the readings during Mass a challenge. If you listen to that first reading casually it seems as if Paul is saying that the Jews have condemned themselves to be unworthy of eternal life. First of all, the context is an angry Paul who is reacting to violence with unChristian-like violence. Second, Paul and Barnabas are both Jews (and Paul very proud of that, as we hear in his letters). The crowd listening favorably to Paul and Barnabas is made up of Jews and converts to Judaism. In fact this section describes the scene when Paul and Barnabas have been invited back to the synagogue a second time because of the favorably impression Luke reports they had the previous sabbath in the synagogue. But most importantly, we have to read this in the context of the Jesus who reveals to us that God is forgiving, not 7 times but 7 times 70 times, which means unendingly. Jesus reveals himself as the good shepherd who seeks out the lost until he finds them and brings them home. Jesus reveals the Father to be the Prodigal Father who loves even the sinner, maybe especially the sinner without counting the cost. So when we hear antagonists referred to as "Jews" in Acts or John's Gospel, we need to understand that as "some of the Jewish leaders" or "a few of the Jewish people" rather than referring to the whole Jewish people. Otherwise it would be like hearing about the crimes of some of the leaders of the Catholic Church, or a few of the Catholic clergy, and then claiming that Catholicism is guilty or that the Church is without moral authority. Of course that wouldn't happen in our day and age, would it?
Just as we need to keep all of scripture and revelation in mind when we try to understand any particular passage, when we are confronted with tragedy, especially the unexpected death of a young person, we have to keep in mind all that we know about God and humans. As I talked to people about Alex's death this week, the age old questions that something like this provokes came up several times: Why Alex? Where was God Monday morning at Nashoba Regional? Why do bad things happen to good people?
Of course there are no definitive answers or explanations for the mysteries of life and death, but our faith does give us fundamental beliefs that help keep us from sinking into despairing ways of answering these questions. Some of these fundamental beliefs are: God is love, and so God never does anything to harm. God did not cause this to happen, nor did God turn away and let it happen. God has given us free will and so God does not micro manage everything that happens on earth. Death is not the end of life and so we believe that our life here on earth is but a shadow and a moment of our life in eternal happiness and joy with God after our death here. How do these beliefs guide us in dealing with this tragedy? Several of Alex's classmates expressed the question, "Why didn't God keep Alex from dying?" Our understanding of free will and why God has given it to us helps us process that very natural question. We are entering a season that brings deep apprehension to every parent and grandparent of high school students: prom season. Every year we lose several wonderful, bright, promising young adults to car accidents. Do you know that every parent has the power to ensure that their child will not be one of those who diethat way this year? All they have to do is forbid their child from getting in a car as driver or passenger where another student is the driver. I know that no teenager thinks that is a good approach. Life is not a series of unconnected events but a seamless fabric where everything is connected to everything else.
And where was God Monday? The easter season and these 4 baptisms give us a better framework for wrestling with this question. The crucifixion reminds us that Jesus is both the Good shepherd and the sacrificial Lamb. At the crucifixion God was not only with Jesus as he hung dying on the cross; Jesus is God, the one dying on the cross. God was there Monday morning in the person of classmate who provided emergency care immediately, in the person of Alex's brother Braden who was able to comfort his brother in his last minutes, and God continues to be present in all who are supporting and caring for the family and affected classmates in the days and weeks to come. God is present in the worshippingof St. John's in Clinton that ritualized Alex's death and burial on Friday.
By baptism, we are called to be the presence of God in a special, visible way to the world day after day. Our living out those baptismal promises gently forms us into the body of Christ, incarnating God's loving presence as individuals in situations like Alex's death and the situations that we each experience in our families, and corporately in situations like the devastation in Haiti, providing education for children at risk, or dinner with dignity at Cor Unum. That is what being a Catholic is about. That is the mission that Jesus calls us to. God loves us so much that He is willing to allow us to experience the consequences of our actions both individually and corporately. There is no such thing as a victimless sin; sometimes our choices have bad consequences for innocent bystanders. But God loves us so much that He is willing to be there, right in the middle of things, walking side by side with us, no matter how bad those consequences. And in the middle of the worst tragedy, God's loving presence can guide us, support us, and strengthen us to bring good out of it. God does not send us these tragedies as tests or punishments; tragedy is not part of God's plan nor is lack of tragedy a sign of God's favor. God's plan is for all of us to live in the kingdom of God. In baptism, you and I are called to be this body of Christ, this presence of God. Because God has given us this power, God has also given us this responsibility, and will not take it back. As we baptize these 4 children this weekend we will renew our own baptismal vows to die to self so as to live in Christ as priest, prophet and king. And we gather at this table to be formed into and strengthened as the body of Christ. And finally, most importantly, every time we gather, we are sent forth to be the body of Christ this week, loving God and one another, making sure that God is present even in the darkest moments of this coming week.