Sunday, 10 May 2020

5th Sunday of Easter 2020

The Gospel is rather repetitive in the sense that on Friday and yesterday, we read from almost the same passage. Reflecting on it feels very much like attempting a 3rd squeeze of santan (coconut milk) from grated or desiccated coconut.

What is significant in the Gospel is the imminent departure of Jesus. It was the Last Supper and to a certain extent, the Disciples were at a crossroad, each wondering if he should leave or stay. We know that Judas left. In this Farewell Discourse, Jesus spoke of His impending death and His return. It would make sense if He were referring to His appearance after the Passion, but the context of the conversation was otherwise. He was speaking of a future return. Two observations to be made of the coming future.

Firstly, it is certain in the sense that His absence would not be a sign of abandonment but rather a groundwork of preparation. He is going to prepare us a place so that where He is, we may be too. Hence, speaking to their disquiet, He exhorted them to trust in Him.

Secondly, between now and the future, we have an interim to live. As Thomas enquired on the direction to this heavenly destination, Jesus gave Himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life, the guide here that will lead us there.

Within this interim is where we work out our salvation. How?

In the first reading, we hear of how the early Church was expanding. Last week, the focus in general was on the priesthood of the ordained. This Sunday, we have a sort of continuation. As with all human organisations, progress is measured by the development of structures to accommodate increase and expansion. In other words, the Church, like all human groupings, went through the pains of growing up. As she grew in stature, she needed to differentiate through the separation of roles. St Peter himself noted, “It would not be right for us to neglect the word of God so as to give out food…”. The need had arisen for a separate service to free the Apostles so that they could concentrate on their spiritual duties. They elected deacons to serve the temporal challenges of an expanding community. However, this differentiation of or “ordination” of deacons in the community did not result in a kind of hierarchy of exclusion meaning that everyone shared in the one covenant of belonging to the chosen race, the royal priesthood, the consecrated nation and a people set apart for God. Later in the Letter to the Corinthians, St Paul would describe the diverse charisms given to the Church for her good. Therefore, our salvation is worked out in the many ways we serve God and people.

In the 2nd Reading, St Peter speaks of salvation as a life-long process whereby we grow closer to Jesus. As paths towards any centre converges, we too draw closer to each other and in the course of growing closer to Jesus, we also learn how to love one another. Quarrels may sound jarringly scandalous as we read in the 1st Reading—so early in the history of the Church we see how fractious the community was, divided as it were along linguistic lines. But quarrels could also illustrate the learning mechanism in community building. They were learning how to love. As with anything in the order of grace, when we keep close to Jesus, we will be able to love—even our enemies.

Therefore, loving each other in Christ becomes a powerful message of salvation as well as a mission in the world as we bring it to everyone. It is neither an easy message to embrace nor a painless pursuit. We recognise how fragile human relationships are because we effortlessly get entangled in the awkwardness of race, the complexities of languages and the convolutions of genders. In this gigantic cauldron of pity party, where everyone is a victim, it is easy to flag any one of these badges of “honour”. A current example is that it has not taken long to raise the racial nationality of Covid-19.

Racially divisive or not, we will soon meet with the challenge of discipleship in a post-covid-19 world. The situation will call for our Christian response to the reality of economic disaster for individuals and families. If an incoming tide raises all boats, then the outgoing flow lowers will usually translate into financial hardship or ruin for all who are at the bottom rung of the economic ladder. Since we are socially distancing, the ripple effect of a near total shutdown on the economy is not fully felt yet. As things stand, we are helping to deliver cooked food to migrant workers who are left high and dry as their services are not required now.

What is relevant for us is a recognition that right at the very beginning, in building up the community, both salvation (the message of the Apostles or heaven) and service (election of the deacons or the interim) went hand in hand. In other words, each Christian serves according to his or her charism as he or she follow the way marked out by Christ Himself. There is a proportionality between heaven and service. The more we hunger for heaven, the more we take in the word of God, the more we want to serve Him here. That is the mark of the Saints. They never run away from hard work and sacrifice because of their love for God.

In the Gospel, Philip asked to see the Father whom Jesus loves so much. So, Jesus gave him this answer: “I am the image of the Father. To see me is to see the Father”. St Paul in his letter to the Colossians called Jesus the Image of the Unseen or Invisible God. In the language we are familiar with, Jesus is the Sacrament of God the Father. Analogically, this could also be said of the Church—to see Church is to see Christ. Somehow, we balk or flinch with this audacious comparison because we see how scarred the image of the Church is, even in the 1st Reading and recently with all the scandals we have. These are not signs of God’s failure or that His message is not valid but rather of Satan’s presence.

In our endeavour to faithfully serve to Him between now and heaven, we can be sure of one thing. Satan would do his utmost best to convince us otherwise. As our little prayer at the end of Mass asking St Michael’s assistance indicates—Satan prowls the world seeking the ruin of souls. All our efforts would come to naught if we do not guard ourselves against the agent of perdition—Satan.

For now, know that nothing, not even the most heinous crime, invalidates this truth that every act of Christian kindness and generosity is really a reflection of who Jesus is. Whether we live up to our calling or not, He is still The Way, The Truth and The Life. So, instead of focusing on that which is unchristian, perhaps we should look for evidence that following Christ is still a viable option—we see this in the men and women who continue to serve without counting the cost. The other day, I volunteered to be a driver to help my sacristan send food to the migrant workers. At one of the stops, we waited for quite a while for the recipient to come down from his rented flat to collect food. You would think that people on the receiving end would be grateful and therefore be hasty. I was grumbling in my head and finally, the person did not show up. Those delivering food must have endured this on a daily basis and NOT a complaint escaped their lips—indeed a humbling lesson to learn on Christian charity and service.

Finally, we are progressing towards the Ascension. The choice of the Gospel makes sense. Jesus has gone to prepare a welcome for us and He would return when the time is right. As we wait between now and eternity, we have His blueprint which marks the sure Way to heaven as we serve the Truth and embrace His life.