Sunday, May 5, 2013

Gates & Walls

   Sixth Sunday of Easter   C 

This coming Thursday—forty days after Easter—
the Church will celebrate the Ascension of the Lord,
when the risen Christ returned to the Father who sent him.
At this time every year—and very appropriately so—
the Church has us listen to one or another portion
of Jesus’ farewell address to his disciples.
The Lord is giving them—and us—
instructions on how we are to carry on
when he is no longer physically present here among us on earth.
That’s why we hear Jesus saying things like:
I am going away, but do not be troubled;
If you love me, keep my word;
The Holy Spirit will remind you of all that I told you.

One of the main thrusts of Jesus’ farewell remarks
(and we’ll hear this especially next Sunday)
is for his disciples to stick together.
Father, he prays, make them one as we are one.
As was the case for Israel,
salvation is offered not to any individual but to a people.
There’s safety in numbers—for soul as for body.
A community will be far better equipped than any single person
in both preserving and proclaiming the Gospel.

But this sticking together—as obvious as it may seem—
is not nearly as easy as it first sounds.

One of the biggest challenges to sticking together
confronted the Apostles pretty early on:
the foundational question of who’s in and who’s out.
When Christ walked about from town to town,
it was a simple enough thing to decipher:
those who stayed close to Jesus
were counted among his company.
We must remember that not everyone who heard him followed,
and not everyone who followed him stayed.
But after Jesus has ascended to the Father—
when the Apostles are coming in and out of hiding,
when the Church is beginning to grow
and Christ’s message is beginning to spread—
reckoning just who is on the list becomes much more difficult
as people’s bonds with the Lord become much less visible.

We might know we ought to stick together…
…but with whom ought we to stick?

In the Book of Revelation,
we hear of John’s vision 
of the heavenly Jerusalem.
Amid all the exotic images 
and symbolic language,
we should note that he describes a city
which has both gates and walls.
Gates are about getting in.
Gates tell us that this City of God 
is a gathering place:
a home where there is welcome 
and room enough for all.
But walls tell us something else.
Walls give a place shape.
Walls are about form and identity.
Walls tell us that there are 
definite characteristics  
which define those who call 
this city their home.  (cf. R. Barron)
Thus the Lord’s community—
on earth as in heaven—
is open not only to twelve chosen tribes, 
but to all the nations…
…yet it has clear boundaries 
which the Lord himself has established,
and which we have no ability to alter.

The debate first had among the Apostles and elders  long ago
continues on in our own day…
…though the question no longer centers on Jews versus Gentiles.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York
recently shared this folksy story from his childhood.
My buddy Freddie from across the street and I
were playing outside—he said
Mom called me for supper.
“Can Freddie stay and eat supper with us?”  I asked.
“He’d sure be welcome,
if it’s okay with his mom and dad,” she replied.
“Thanks, Mrs. Dolan,” Freddie replied. 
“I’m sure it’s okay, because mom and dad are out,
and the babysitter was just going to make me a sandwich
whenever I came in.”
I was so proud and happy. 
Freddie was welcome in our house, at our table. 
We both rushed in and sat down.
“Freddie, glad you’re here,” dad remarked,
“but . . . looks like you and Tim
better go wash your hands before you eat.”
Simple enough . . . common sense . . .
you are a most welcome and respected member now
of our table, our household, dad was saying,
but, there are a few very natural expectations this family has. 
Like, wash your hands!  (Blog, 4/25/13)

A city with both gates and walls.
A family of both warm welcome and necessary expectations.
A community which both accepts us as we are
and loves us enough not to leave us that way.
This is the vision of the Church
which was laid out for the Apostles,
and which has—across the ages—been handed on to us.
It’s never been an easy vision to live.
Some of us need to get better at throwing open the gates:
being more respectful of those who differ from ourselves,
making every effort to understand their point of view.
And some of us need to better learn how to live within the walls:
to recognize that what, in fact, most needs changing
is not the rules, but me.

Who’s in?  Who’s out?
Both before and after his Ascension,
the essential criteria remains the exactly same:
it’s all about staying close to Jesus.
And that’s precisely what we’ve come to do in this Eucharist.

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