Does anyone know who the Stephen in the first reading from Acts is? And why this is a scary reading for a deacon about to preach? He is one of the seven first deacons, and the first martyr after Jesus' resurrection. We don't hear much about him because his feast day is December 26 so his story gets lost in the Christmas story. So that first reading is about a deacon who preached so powerfully to the rulers of Jerusalem that they had him hauled out and stoned to death. I had mixed emotions when I was praying to the Spirit to guide my preaching this weekend.
Stephen had been spreading the Gospel so effectively that some of the people were jealous and had him arrested and dragged before the council. Filled with the Holy Spirit he basically challenged the council members for their closed hearts. He reminds them that out of fear that Jesus might stir up the people and bring Rome's wrath down on them, they chose to put Jesus to death. They chose to bow to the pressure of their culture than open themselves to God. And so they had Stephen killed.
Unfortunately the Church in this part of the world is in a very similar situation. For too many years now, instead of being the leaven that changes the culture around us, we have let the culture form us. For the most part, those of us charged with pastoring the faithful have turned to program after program to try to satisfy the needs of our parishioners, a very consumerist approach. In trying to satisfy the consumer, the Church in most of the first world has moved from a force that is to change the world to one that is slowly dying. We have forgotten why the church exists. And we are seeing the fruits of this. Here at St. Isidore and the Archdiocese of Boston we have seen participation decline, financial support dry up to the point that 40% of the parishes in Boston cannot pay all their bills, and the faith has become irrelevant to our younger generation. The blunt truth is that unless there is a dramatic increase in participation here at St. Isidore's, I think this parish will disappear and be absorbed into St. Elizabeth in the next few years.
Today's readings remind us in a very blunt way what we should be about. Jesus prays for unity; not some vague feel-good notion of unity but he prays that those of us who are his disciples may be one with Jesus and Jesus is with the Father. Jesus prays that we might participate in the very life of the Trinity; that is what we mean when we hear the phrase "eternal life". It doesn't mean life without end; it means the very life of God. And the mission of the Church is to spread the good news of what being one with Jesus, and the Father, and the Holy Spirit means to us.
I am sure you have heard the term the New Evangelization. Pope John Paul II started focusing the Church on this back at the turn of the century, and it is the reason for, and the guiding framework of, this Pastoral Planning here in the Archdiocese of Boston. Evangelization starts with our understanding through experience what it means to be one with Christ. Without that we cannot share that good news. It is about as far from a program that seeks to satisfy the needs of parishioners as you can get. As we see with Stephen, it can get us killed. But there is no other way.
Our culture tells us that we are fulfilled when we compete and defeat everyone else. We are surrounded by sounds of division in Washington, in Syria and Korea, at our borders, yes, even in our Church. Can anyone really say that they have found peace and fullness of life in division?
But think about how being one makes you feel. Yes there a lot of people that find pleasure in hating the Yankees. But be honest, how did you feel when you heard that two days after the bombing, they played Sweet Caroline after the 3rd inning at Yankee Stadium? Or what about when you hear or see a story like the one out of El Paso this past February. Coronado was playing Franklin for an undefeated basketball conference record. They were up by more than ten with a minute and half left when the coach put special needs student Mitchell Marcus in. Mitchell has been the team manager for 4 years but had never played. After he missed his first shot and let the ball go out of bounds, it looked like his dream of scoring was over. But a Franklin player, called him over and tossed him the ball from out of bounds. Then all the Franklin players backed off as one of Mitchell's Coronado teammates helped him take 5 more shots, finally sinking the last one. Rivals becoming one to accomplish something that made all of them winners.
It is not just sports. If you reflect on the times of your life when differences were put aside and people were one, I think you will see that that is what we are made for. Maybe some family event, or an orchestral concert, or this week I saw a news item about Gov. Christie of NJ, a Republican, sitting side by side with former NJ governor McGreevey promoting the need for increased resources for women imprisoned for addition and mental illness related actions. That is how we become fully human, and it is how salvation comes to this world. Paul says it succinctly in several places in his letters: God's plan is to bring all things into one under Christ. Becoming one does not mean being the same. Think of the Trinity: they are one but Jesus, who is human as well as divine, is very different from the Father, and the Spirit. When we become one with Christ we become more of who we were created to be. Think of an orchestra where the sound requires all those different instruments, playing as one, not in unison but as one.
So what would it look like to be one with Christ so deeply that we are driven to share that experience with others? I don't know the answer to that but I think the questions would be very different.
Instead of "How can we increase our collections?" it might be "how can we share what we have to help those who are in need?"
Instead of "How can we get more people to come to mass?" it might be "how can we bring Christ's love to people where they are?"
Instead of "How can we get our young people interested in coming to church?" it might be "how can we challenge our young people to bring God's love and forgiveness to others?"
Instead of "Do I have to go to Mass, or GOF, or Confirmation class?" it might be "How do I learn more about Christ and what it means to be one with God?"
Jesus' prayer is for us to be one with Him. My prayer today is for us to pray Jesus' prayer, and mean it. Be careful though; we might get what we pray for.