7 Easter B #60
Acts 1, 15-17. 20a-20c. 26
1 Jn 4, 11-16
Jn 17, 11b-19
St. Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.
May 24, 2009
Deacon Tom Cornell
How green it is with all this rain, trees in full leaf, the grass, the vines. The very air is tinted green. Green is the color of hope. Today’s rain will help settle the seedlings we have just planted in their beds. All is well. Even farmers take a day off, to rest and to remember Jesus and to pray for a good harvest, that all might have enough. And we remember our fallen this Memorial Day weekend and all victims of war, man’s most wicked folly, as we hope and pray never again. We remember.
The first Christians – they weren’t even called Christians yet – gathered to remember Jesus on the First Day of the week because that was the day the Lord had risen from the dead, Sunday. Most of them had gone to synagogue the day before, the Seventh Day, the Sabbath, their Jewish Day of Rest. But on Sunday they gathered at someone’s house to sing hymns and psalms and to remember Jesus and the salvation they found in him. They recalled his words and told stories about him; they shared their memories of Jesus, those who had seen and heard him, and what they had been told about him and they pondered, trying to understand more deeply what it all meant, what it means.
After singing a hymn they would read prophecies about the Messiah from their Hebrew Scriptures, about the Christ who was to come. If they had a letter from Saint Paul they would read that, but nobody read from the Gospel because there was no written Gospel, not for decades after Jesus’ Resurrection. The Good News was proclaimed orally, “Jesus is Messiah, the Christ, Jesus Christ is Lord, Jesus Christ is the Son of God, Christ is risen, Christ will come again!”
Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians is the oldest, the first document in what came to be called the New Testament. It was written about the 50th or 51st year of the Christian Era, almost a generation after Jesus’ Ascension. The first Christians thought the Second Coming was right around the corner so they didn’t think to write their memories of Jesus down for posterity; there wouldn’t be any. It wasn’t until 68 or 69 CE that Mark got around to writing the first Gospel account.
After the readings and a sermon or maybe an open group discussion and more singing, the people would gather around a table. Bread and wine would be presented to the bishop or his priest. Then the bishop or his priest would call upon the Holy Spirit to change these gifts into the Body and Blood of the Risen Lord. He would then recall the words of Jesus at the Last Supper, “Take and eat, for this is my body…. This is my blood.” They would share the sacrament, then say a brief prayer, sing another hymn, receive a blessing and go home. The deacons would then take some of the consecrated bread to the sick in their homes and pray with them there. Just like today, all of it.
In that first and second century, the church spread rapidly, starting from Jerusalem, spreading to Greece and Africa, to Mesopotamia and West Asia and South India, to Italy, France and Spain and by the 5th and 6th century to Ireland and Great Britain, then all Europe and in the 15th to the New World, America. It wasn’t the Conquistadores who brought Christianity to America. They brought death and destruction. It was the priests and the monks, the friars and the sisters who brought the faith. What is most interesting to me, and a proof that God wills it, is that throughout that vast area and through those centuries, without any of the modern means of communication, hardly any communication at all, the structure of the church is the same now and everywhere as it was in those first days in Jerusalem. Languages were and are different, cultures, histories, social structures, but the church everywhere had then and has now the same structure of bishops, priests and deacons, the same baptism and the same sacrament that is the center of our lives.
This is the year of Mark, but we have been reading from John’s Gospel. Matthew, Mark and Luke each has a year in the Lectionary, but John’s Gospel gets chopped up and inserted each year in certain places, for a reason. John was the last to write, about 90 CE. His purpose was not so much to tell what happened to Jesus and the early community, the others had done that, but to try to explain what it all meant.
I hope you don’t think it any disrespect on my part, but I can’t help imagining Saint John as a very old man, nodding, maybe in a wheelchair – I know they didn’t have wheelchairs in those days – with a deacon pushing him around, and the people just a little amused at the old man who seemed sometimes to be heading into his second childhood. “Here he comes again, old ‘Little children, love one another John,’ ” they would say, “ ‘God is Love’ John!” Maybe I’m projecting. John’s words rolled off my back when I was a boy. I heard them but I didn’t hear them. Suddenly, I won’t say how long it took, they sank in, and they blew me away.
God is Love. Love is the measure by which we will be judged. The first question is why is there anything instead of nothing, and the answer is love. Some say that struggle, struggle to survive, or class struggle is the engine of history. Others hold that the will to power is the driving force of history, and others say that sex drives history, no kidding! Still others say blind chance – all of this blind chance! I’m not making this up! We know, John tells us, our faith tells us, that love is the motive force of history. God is One and God is Three because God is a community of love. God did not have to create anything, yet he moved, the Unmoved Mover moved, and what could have moved him but love, to share being? At the very first, God’s love moved the elements, “the sun and all the other stars.” Then God so loved the world that he gave his only son. At last he will come again and take us to himself, in love.
Heaven is a banquet, a love feast, and life is a banquet too, even with a crust of bread, where there is companionship, where there is love. To love one another we must know one another. The disciples at Emmaus recognized Jesus in the breaking of bread. And we recognize each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone any more. Maybe you remember these words of Dorothy Day; I’ve used them before. I do it often. And John’s: “Little children, love one another, for God is love.” When these words we have heard over and over again finally sink in and connect with what we know, what we have experienced in life of love and its counterfeits, and what we hope for in our deepest hearts, they will blow you away. You will never be the same.