Father Donald Senior, CP

May 19: Fifth Sunday of Easter

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

All things new

Acts 14:21-27; Ps 145:8-9; 10-11, 12-13; Rv 21:1-5; Jn 13:31-33, 34-35

Recently, Catholic Theological Union gave an award to Sister of St. Joseph Helen Prejean, whose dual mission of opposition to the death penalty and care for the victims of violence was spotlighted in her book and later movie, “Dead Man Walking.”

The book tells of her journey of how, through a set of circumstances she had not planned or anticipated, she accompanied a condemned criminal on death row and witnessed his execution — an experience that would profoundly affect her life. The experience also taught her to reach out to those who had suffered the loss of loved ones through violence, even when at first some were suspicious of her.

While a successful book and acclaimed film sound like a lot of affirmation, in fact Sister Helen has faced opposition for her courageous ministry in which she has persevered for over 40 years. At long last, in August of last year, Pope Francis declared that in Catholic social teaching the death penalty is “no longer admissible under any circumstance,” and is part of the church’s stand for the dignity of life in all its manifestations.

I thought of Sister Helen’s experience when reflecting on the readings for this Fifth Sunday of Easter. We continue to hear of the dynamic and fearless mission of the apostles, in this instance Paul and Barnabas as they make their way from Antioch into the heart of Asia Minor. Based on their own experience, the two missionaries tell the disciples to “persevere in the faith,” noting that “it is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”

Here is a fundamental conviction of Christian faith, if there ever was one — the cost of discipleship. This is at the heart of the Gospel story itself: Jesus, the proclaimer of love and justice, of reconciliation and care for the most vulnerable, meets with chronic and deadly opposition, ultimately giving his life for the sake of those he loved. That is the truth that pulsates through the Acts of the Apostles that we are hearing all during this Easter season.

While these early missionaries were exuberant and filled with zeal, they also ran smack into opposition. Peter and the other apostles were imprisoned in Jerusalem. Stephen was stoned to death. Christians fled Jerusalem for their lives. Paul and Barnabas and other missionaries were jailed, flogged, ridiculed and rejected.

But there is very little self-pity to be found in these accounts. These early missionaries were driven to proclaim a message of love and reconciliation — the message summarized in today’s selection from the Gospel of John. “I give you a new commandment; love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love another,” Jesus says. “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” But, at the same time, the disciples knew they would face opposition, just as their master had.

Over the past few Sundays, the second reading has been taken from the Book of Revelation. This, too, was written to a group of churches in Asia Minor that knew the cost of discipleship. The whole purpose of Revelation is to urge these early Christians threatened by the Roman Empire to persevere in their faith. 

The passage we hear today comes from the beautiful final section of this vivid and challenging book. The author speaks of his confidence that God will transform the present world of violence into a “new heaven and a new earth.” The city of Jerusalem, which knew strife and conflict, would become a “new Jerusalem” where God will “wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain.” God promises: “Behold, I make all things new.”

Faith in the Christian vision of a world without violence or inequity, a just and reconciled world, is what inspires a contemporary apostle like Sister Helen Prejean, as it did those men and women described in the Acts of the Apostles. Commitment to building such a world requires endurance and the prospect of suffering. No matter the cost, each of us as followers of Jesus must hold on to the dream and be willing to sacrifice for it.



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