“Master,” the Apostle Philip said to Jesus in the Gospel we just heard [John 14:1-12], “show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.” Now, most of us were brought up to be respectful to our teachers. So we instinctively peg Philip as a bit bold. Jesus’ response would seem to confirm our instinctive sense that what Philip was asking was really rather over-the-top. “Have I been with you for so long,” Jesus said to Philip, “and you still do not know me?” Ouch!
On the other hand, if we’re really honest, isn’t that what we all want? Don’t we all want a direct line to God? Or at least some tangible sign of his reality and activity – some tangible signs that God cares about us and acts in our best interest?
Thirty years ago this summer, I entered the Paulist novitiate – then located on 1100 acres of rocks and trees in northern New Jersey. It was, on balance, a great year, a fantastic experience. But it was hard at times. And it was made harder for me in the early months by the fact that I kept comparing myself with others, who had a more charismatic style of spirituality and so, in my estimation, a higher quality relationship with God. Eventually, I set myself a deadline – December 8 – by which date I was to receive the gift of tongues. Exactly what would happen after December 8, if I didn’t get what I was asking for, was left unsaid – and unsettled. Maybe I was smart enough – or just cynical enough – to suspect it wouldn’t happen, and that I would then still have to figure out what I was doing there. Needless to say, December 8 came and went. Shortly thereafter, when I described the whole episode to my Novice Master, he responded with what were probably some of the wisest words of advice he ever gave me (and he gave me many). “God answered your prayer,” he said to me, “by showing you that you didn’t need what you were asking for.”
God had in fact answered my prayer precisely by getting me to understand that he was already present and active in my life. Responding to Philip, Jesus said something similar. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” Jesus is our direct line to God, and we experience God’s presence and activity in our lives most effectively in our experience of Jesus.
(There is an added irony in this Gospel story. A few days earlier, some Greeks had asked to see Jesus, and Philip had served as their liaison, their conduit, to Jesus [John 12:21-22]. Already, Philip was evangelizing. Often, in fact, we may be evangelizing without fully knowing that we’re doing it! )
Now the normal way we meet Jesus – and also the normal way we share him with others – is in the Church, where we do so not as isolated individuals, but as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own,” as St. Peter proclaimed in today’s 2nd reading [1 Peter 2:4-9], quoting God’s words at Mount Sinai to the people of Israel [Exodus 19:5-6]. What God told Israel and (according to Peter) applies now to the Church is to be the liaison, the conduit, between God and the world, which we are because, like Philip, we too experience Jesus, the Risen Christ, living among us, always present in his Church.
As our unique and indispensable connection with Christ, the Church continues Christ’s mission in us and in our world, proclaiming the uniqueness and centrality of Christ for all the people of the world, thereby echoing Jesus’ words in today’s gospel: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, then you will also know my Father.”
It was precisely the apostles’ confidence in the Risen Christ’s continued, living presence – as Lord – in his Church, that enabled them to take the bold step we just heard described in today’s 1st reading, from the Acts of the Apostles [Acts 6:1-7]. If nothing else that story reminds us once again of the perennial problem of factional conflict, of cultural and ethnic divisiveness, of ideological division and polarization, that can so easily undermine the unity and universality of the Church and get in the way of its mission – not just in 1st-century Jerusalem but in every time and place. Certainly, one of the unfortunate features of the decades after the Second Vatican Council was how its call for a greater engagement in the Church’s mission to the world so often became instead an occasion for conflict and division between different groups in the Church.
But there was something else to that story. Confident in the Risen Christ’s continued, living presence – as Lord – in his Church, the apostles appreciated how the challenge they were faced with could become an opportunity instead of a threat. Thus, the apostles paved the way for their little sectarian community to expand linguistically and eventually to become the world-wide, multi-cultural Church it now is.
Today we continue to be challenged to be that same liaison, that same conduit, Christ intended his Church to be between him and all types of people – to be as alert as were the apostles to the challenges and equally as ready to respond to the opportunities this complicated and diverse world offers.
Homily for the 5th Sunday of Easter, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, May 21-22, 2011.