Fr. Paul's Homily
A number of years ago I attended a week workshop in Utah put on by the Stephen Covey Institute, a name that some of you might be familiar with. Stephen Covey was a guru in time management and wrote a highly successful book, entitled, “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” One day during the week we were taken outside in the Utah heat and divided into groups. With about eight in the groups, were asked to pick up a rock. Some picked up large rocks, others small ones. We were told that there would be a race of about 20 feet during which all 8 members had to cross the finish line. The challenge was that you could not touch the ground, but had to use each other’s rocks to step upon. This was when we all realized that we should have picked up big rocks! Lining up, we all stood on our rock, straddled between our rock and our neighbor’s rock. Then the last person in line started to move forward, leaving his rock and stepping on each team member’s rock. This often required stepping on each other’s feet and holding on to each other so no one slipped on the ground. Once the person reached the front of the line, his or her stone was moved forward and we started over again. Twenty feet was a long way off!!
What was so amazing was that we all worked together, forgetting whose stone was whose. I would hear people yell, “Go ahead, step on my foot, step on my foot!” No one worried about turf or niceties because we were so focused upon winning the race. We could only win with each other, and we knew it!! The exercise was a powerful demonstration of how much a group can accomplished when they work together and have a common goal to unite them.
So, should we try to follow Jesus alone, or as part of church? Let’s talk about this in relation to our readings.
The gospel that we have today is the same each year on the first Sunday after Easter. It is the story of Jesus’ appearance before the disciples on Easter Sunday, and a return appearance one week later. The disciples are huddled together in a room, fearful of the Jews, and Jesus suddenly appears in their midst. His first words are, “Peace be with you.” He then shows them his hands and his side, and again says the greeting, “Peace be with you.”
Let’s notice a couple things. First, the disciples have stayed together and it is to those who are together that Jesus appears. At this time, the community of disciples is built around two things: they all know Jesus and they are afraid! As Jesus was crucified, they are fearful that they might also be executed also.
When things are difficult, it is better if we are part of a community. The disciples could have scattered across Israel, looking for safety in being apart, but they stayed together. Why? Maybe they needed the common support that could only be given by those who understood their fear? Maybe they needed to be with people who understood the whole range of emotions in which these last few days have immersed them? Maybe they just needed to stay together because their hope and faith in Jesus would be stronger together, than apart?
I believe being a part of a community of faith helps us confront and survive the painful moments of life. Pain and suffering will hit us, and when there is a faith community to surround us, we have a much better chance of surviving and thriving. I have heard people tell me over and over again how much the prayers of the community meant to them when they were going through a difficult time. As a community, we understand the crosses that each other may carry. For example, how many in this church, right now, have experienced the death of a spouse? How many have experienced the loss of a child? How many have faced cancer? How many have known severe depression or loss of job? I could continue on, but the point is made. In church we will find those who can share our pain and who can also share our hope in Jesus: these two things together, shared pain and shared faith, will help us survive and thrive! The early disciples were terribly afraid, but they stayed together to share their fear and to share their hope.
Jesus first words to his followers after the resurrection were, “Peace be with you” which he repeats to emphasize. Jesus wants us to know his peace so that when they problems of life confront us, we have our faith, our relationship with Jesus to rely upon.
The Gospel story goes on to talk about Thomas, also called Didymus, who was absent when Jesus appeared on Easter. With skepticism, he says that he will not believe until he puts his finger into the nail marks and his hand into his side. In all honesty, we might have said the same thing if confront by this new knowledge that Jesus had appeared. It was a week later that Jesus appeared again to the disciples and this time Thomas was with them. Jesus confronted Thomas on his doubt and Thomas responds by giving the most complete of all faith statements: “My Lord and My God.” Amazing.
Thomas is often referred to as “Doubting Thomas,” but maybe a better moniker would be, “Absent Thomas”. Thomas did not experience Jesus on Easter Sunday because he was absent from the group (from the church), and it was only when he was reconnected to the group (the church), that Jesus came to him. Might this be true in most of our lives? Our chances of meeting the Lord are so much higher when we are part of the church, the Christian community.
I suspect there are people in this church right now, who went through a period of time in your life when you were not a part of any faith community…when you were going it alone. It might have been when you were young and you drifted away from your faith. Or perhaps when sometime painful happened and you got angry at God. Now, you are back in the church, so I ask you, are you closer to the Lord as a member of a faith community, or were you closer to the Lord when you were in the world, by yourself? I cannot answer for you, but I would suspect that the Lord is going to be found in the community, far more than outside of the community.
For the early church, the experience of community was at the heart of what it meant to be a believer. Let’s take a look at the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Written between 80-90 A.D. by St. Luke, the Acts of the Apostles tells of the early years of Christianity. St. Luke begins our reading today by saying, “The community of believers was of one heart and mind.” This speaks to a beautiful harmony that existed between the members of the church. They shared their property with the community so no one went without. Amazing!!
Total harmony in the church is probably not realistic in our pluralistic society, yet that should not stop is from striving to achieve such harmony. A hint for achieving this is found in the phrase, “Of one heart and mind.” When we find something that unites us in both heart and mind, then amazing things can be achieved. If I were to suddenly announce that a serious accident had just occurred outside the church involving a packed school bus and everyone was needed to help the injured, I have no doubt that everybody would get up and head for the door. We would do whatever would be necessary to help the people. We would forget political differences and theological perspectives. Why? Because people needed our unity far more than our differences. If someone dies and the family needs a mercy meal following the funeral, we don’t ask, “Were they a Republican or Democrat? Or, were they white or Hispanic?” We don’t ask, because it is not important. We know the pain of death and we know how people need community to support them. So, we fix our casserole and we set the table and we love those who need the blessing of community. We have one heart and one mind.
So, reflect upon, “What is the source of unity in this church?” On the deepest level that is Jesus Christ. Now, has this Source touched our hearts and our minds? And is the source of unity stronger than the reasons for division?
I am glad we stand in this church, not only with the people in this room, but all who will attend our six Masses this weekend. But not only with them, but I rejoice with all who will attend any Mass throughout the world. But only with them, but with all who share our wondrous faith in Jesus Christ.