"FIRST IMPRESSIONS"

7th SUNDAY OF EASTER -C- June 2, 2019

Acts 7: 55-60; Psalm 97; Revelation 22: 12-14, 16-17; John 17: 20-26

by Jude Siciliano, OP

Dear Preachers:

In our liturgical calendar we are in an "in-between-time" – between the feast of the Ascension and next Sunday celebration of Pentecost. Our first reading from Acts tells of the death of the first martyr Stephen. Jesus’ powerful witness and support for his disciples is now gone. The early church was in an "in-between-time." They seem to be without their Lord – and they were undergoing trials and persecutions which tested their faith.

But, though he has ascended to his Father, there are strong clues that Jesus is still in the midst of his community. Does the description of Stephen’s death sound familiar? The Acts account is a parallel narrative to Jesus’ trial and passion. Notice the similarities. As with Jesus, there are false witnesses claiming Stephen announced the destruction of the Temple. Like Jesus, he was brought before the Sanhedrin for trial and, like Jesus, he proclaimed the coming of the Son of Man. Both Jesus and Stephen provoked the anger of their accusers and were put to death outside the city. Stephen’s last words express forgiveness for his executioners – just as Jesus had.

Stephen’s death confirms Jesus’ promise that he would not leave his disciples on their own. Stephen, and the early church, give witness that the Spirit Jesus breathed on his disciples after his resurrection, is very much with them. How do we know this? By the signs of Jesus’ life and death among his followers.

A note on Stephen’s vision of the Son of Man: Christ is standing at the Father’s right side. He is not sitting, as he is usually described in that place. For example, our Profession of Faith: "He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father." Jesus’ standing position shows his readiness to act and intercede on our behalf as we, like Stephen, speak and witness in his name. His standing also signifies his readiness to return – another of his Last Supper promises.

Jesus makes a similar assurance in our Revelation reading. "Behold I am coming soon." During times of trial Christians want to ask, "How soon?" We do our best to stand firm when our faith is tested. Our ancestors in faith gave us examples that we, like them, will meet opposition and suffer persecution. Stephen spoke the truth and paid the price. What kind of "stoning" do we modern Christians face? It might be a faith-testing sickness, or an outright persecution, as many Christians suffer in parts of the world today.

Living in the "in-between-time," as we wait for Christ’s return, can test us, cause us to feel isolated and on our own. Revelation’s image of the standing Son of Man is a reassurance Christ has not left us. We place our faith in the words he spoke to his disciples around the table the night before he died, "I will not leave you orphans, I will come back to you" (Jn 14:18). We also cling to the promise we hear today, "Behold, I am coming soon." As we celebrate the Eucharist today we are responding to Revelations’ invitation, "Let the one who thirsts come forward."

Do you believe in the power of prayer? I know we don’t always get what we pray for and we have to deal with that mystery. Still, there are times we pray for someone and they are helped by our prayer. When we, or someone we love, is in personal need, even if we don’t receive immediate relief, the very fact that someone is praying for us brings comfort and assurance. Their prayer gives us access to a community of concerned believers and that can help us through times of trial, discouragement, temptation and even despair. Prayer can also help us keep focused on our need and dependence on God. When we pray we are not only addressing God, we are also reminding ourselves that, for what really matters in life, we need God.

In today’s gospel we are invited into Jesus’ prayer as he speaks to his Father – not for himself, but for us. He is praying for those who have come to believe in him through the word his first disciples passed on. It is one thing to listen in on a conversation at a table next to us in a restaurant. It is quite another to be invited to listen in on Jesus at prayer – especially since we are the ones he is talking to his Father about.

When one of our Dominican friars or sisters is leaving for a mission assignment, or just to go to preach, we bid our farewells and frequently say a blessing prayer for them. Sometimes we will chant the "Dominican Blessing" over them. (It is also said over those completing a Dominican-sponsored retreat who are about to return to their regular lives.) "May God, Creator, bless you. May God, Redeemer, heal you and may God the Holy Spirit fill you with peace."

Jesus is saying goodbye to his disciples. Biblical goodbyes sometimes end in a blessing. Recall Jesus’ farewell speech in Luke (24:14-38). John follows the biblical pattern: a farewell speech ending in a prayer. Both Luke and John frequently describe Jesus in prayer. Jesus knows that his disciples will be stressed after he leaves them and so he prays that the community will hold together and continue to be his witnesses despite great difficulties.

The word of God is a living, present-tense word. So, Jesus’ prayer is alive; he is praying for us who, like his disciples, are gathered with him and one another around the table. He prays for our unity, that we hold together; not only when the church faces persecution, but also during these painful times, as one after another piece of breaking news reveals still more accounts of clergy abuse and coverups. We need his prayer for unity more than ever, as more and more leave our church because of the impact the scandal has had on them. A woman said recently, "I have been a Catholic all my life, but I have had it with the church!"

We will voice our prayers for healing, unity for our church and for the victims of abuse. As it is with prayer, we express our dependence on God and our trust that the "standing" Jesus of Revelation will come quickly to help us. At times it feels like we are in a perpetual Advent, waithing time and that our prayer is a constant, "Come Lord Jesus." That’s a brief prayer, easily said throughout the day, especially when we need the standing Jesus to come and help us and our worshiping community.

Click here for a link to this Sunday’s readings:

http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/060219-7thday.cfm