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May 14, 2017

Father Donald Senior, CP

Both human and divine

May 14: Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts 6:1-7; Ps 33:1-2, 4-5, 18-19; 1 Pt 2:4- 9; Jn 14:6

A few weeks ago, I was privileged to give an address to the annual meeting of the National Association of Church Personnel Administrators, an organization composed mainly of human resource professionals who work in Catholic institutions. As you can imagine, these are people who confront on a daily basis the very human dimensions of the church: problematic personnel issues, questions of hiring and firing, resolving disputes. Often the work of such administrators is not fully appreciated in church circles — their responsibilities seen as something of a “necessary evil” and not at the heart of the church’s ministry.

Since I spent a lot of my priestly work as the president of a graduate school, I was very aware how essential to the church’s mission is the work of administrators like these. In my presentation, I pointed out that such issues as personnel problems, conflicts and various sorts of human problems were part of the church’s life from the very beginning, a necessary reality of a church that believes in the Incarnation.

The “Word became flesh,” that is, fully human as well as divine. So the church, too, has these different dimensions — both human and divine.

That is illustrated clearly in the readings assigned for this Sunday. In the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles we learn that, even in the very enthusiastic days of the early church in Jerusalem, there were very human problems. The Greek-speaking Jewish Christians (distinct from the Hebrew-speaking Jewish Christians) were complaining that their widows were being neglected when the community distributed food and other assistance.

To keep peace and ensure equity, the Twelve Apostles propose the appointment of “deacons” to make sure things were done properly and fairly. As the story of the Acts of Apostles unfolds we will hear of other such human problems (for example, Ananias and Sapphira try to cheat the community; Paul and Barnabas have a dispute and go their separate ways; the Jerusalem apostles are wary of Paul, etc.).

But the other readings for today remind us that this human and fallible community is also shot through with the divine. The First Letter of Peter, which is one of the New Testament’s most beautiful books, describes the church in exquisite terms. Through the grace of God, this human community is also a “temple” of God.

The author of the letter urges his fellow Christians to see themselves “as living stones … built into a spiritual house,” a community that is “a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Drawing on beautiful biblical images that described God’s people Israel, the author reminds those who make up this living temple that they are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own.” The letter speaks here not simply of ordained ministers but of all the baptized who have this great dignity and who are able to give praise to God, the one “who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”

If the first two readings for today remind us that we are human community and also a sacred people, the Gospel reading from John tells us why. It is the abiding presence of Jesus with the church that gives the community of faith its meaning and its sacredness.

This selection from the final discourse of Jesus on the eve of his death is one of the most treasured of Gospel passages, often read as a comfort at funerals: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me.”

Philip’s question — “Master, show us the Father and that will be enough for us” — draws from Jesus the heart of Christian faith. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”

As Pope Francis has so beautifully said, “Jesus is the human face of the Father’s mercy.” It is this fundamental Christian conviction about the Incarnation — “the Word made flesh” — God’s embrace of the human, that enables a very fallible community to also be graced with God’s living presence.

Senior is a New Testament scholar.

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