The Fifth Sunday of Easter [C]
Acts 14:21-27 + Revelation 21:1-5 + John 13:31-33,34-35
April 24, 2016
“‘It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.’”
A few days ago I finished reading a book about ancient Rome: an historical novel, combining fact and fiction. At the start of the book, it was interesting but not compelling. But after a few chapters, the narrative picked up steam. While I read the first quarter of the book in a week’s time, the last three quarters of the book took only another week. It was one of those page-turners that leave you disappointed when you reach the last page: not because the story was bad, but because you felt bad that there was no more to read. In a book like that, the two saddest words are “The End”.
This Easter Season, which today we’re in the midst of, focuses our attention on “the end”. But we have to be careful, because the word “end” has two distinct meanings. One meaning is expressed at the end of a book. The word “end” here means “conclusion”: there is no more. In today’s culture we hear those stirring up fear by asking whether you’re ready for the “end times”. But our Catholic Faith is about a very different type of “end”.
Our Catholic Faith draws our attention to the kind of “end” we talk about when we ask whether “the end justifies the means”. This word “end” means “goal” in the sense of what I’m striving for. When we contrast these two distinct type of “ends”, we can ask ourselves a very demanding question: “What is the end of life?” For some, the only end that life has is death. Those persons have only two options for living their days on earth: hedonism or fatalism: living it up in pleasure, or hunkering down in fear. Our Catholic Faith offers something better. Our Catholic Faith is not about death, but about seeing and understanding that death itself is only a means to a far greater end: namely, God. God is the end of our life, and God’s life never ends: it is eternal, and that’s why it’s Good News, not something to be afraid of.
In light of all this, consider where we are in the midst of Easter. Today’s Gospel passage takes place within the setting of the Last Supper, and that—frankly—seems a little strange: backing up to Holy Thursday when we’re now at the Fifth Sunday of Easter, 28 days after Jesus rose from the dead on Easter Sunday. Why is the Church proclaiming today this passage set during Holy Week?
If we were to pick one sentence that makes this passage fitting for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, it would be the one in which Jesus says, “‘My children, I will be with you only a little while longer.’” Like so much in Saint John’s account of the Gospel, this sentence has a double meaning. On the one hand, Jesus is referring to His arrest and death, which will happen just a few hours after the Last Supper. At the same time, Jesus is also referring to His Ascension to the Father’s Right Hand in Heaven, forty days after His Resurrection.
Holy Mother Church is encouraging us to prepare for the end: the end of the Easter Season. During the final days of Easter, the Church will celebrate the Ascent of Jesus to Heaven, and the Descent of the Holy Spirit from Heaven. Those final two mysteries of Easter—the Ascension and Pentecost—reveal to us the goal or end of Jesus’ mission on earth. This goal is His Church. It’s within the Church that God prepares us for His eternal life.
Reflecting on what the Church is helps us to wrestle with a seeming conflict between those words of Jesus at the Last Supper — “‘My children, I will be with you only a little while longer’”—and the words that He spoke at the moment of His Ascension: “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age”? Is Jesus with us always? At all times and in all places? In all our suffering, and even in our sinfulness?
+ + +
Jesus’ Church is His Mystical Body on earth. She—the Church—is the means by which He continues to be present in this world after His Ascension to Heaven. The Church is referred to as “she”, of course, because the Church is the Bride of Christ. It’s for her that Jesus sacrificed His whole self on the Cross, so that she might have life, and have it abundantly. The Church is our Mother, because it’s through her that you and I have a spiritual life, and continue to receive grace throughout our lives on earth.
Jesus’ Church is the way in which Jesus continues to walk this earth, preach, and serve the spiritual and corporal needs of those without the ability to help themselves. As Saint Teresa of Avila said, “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, / no feet but yours, / yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion / is to look out to the earth, / yours are the feet by which He is to go about doing good / and yours are the hands by which He is to bless us now.” Each of us, through the grace of Baptism, and strengthened in turn through the other sacraments, is only a single member of Christ’s Mystical Body. But when all of those members work together in one Body, Christ continues His saving mission on earth, to bring many others to God’s eternal life in Heaven.
Throughout the Sundays of Easter, our First Reading comes from the Acts of the Apostles, while the Second Reading comes from the Book of Revelation. Both of these New Testament books have the same focus: namely, the Church. But both of these books look at the Church from very different perspectives. Acts gazes at the Church in her first days on earth, following Pentecost, while Revelation gazes at the Church as she dwells eternally in Heaven.
On the one hand, the Church we hear described in Acts is one we can easily relate to, because it’s a lot like our own daily lives. Throughout the chapters of Acts, the various members of the Church argue with one another, work at cross purposes against each other, are persecuted for striving to be faithful, and seem often in their acts of building the Church to take two steps back for every step forward. It’s a lot like your average parish, and your average extended family. This is why in today’s First Reading Paul and Barnabas exhort the disciples “to persevere in the faith, saying, ‘It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.’” That’s just as true for you and me, and will be until the hour of our death.
On the other hand, the Church we hear described in Revelation seems a lofty ideal that’s beyond our reach. Of course, this is the Church in Heaven, so naturally it’s beyond our reach while we still dwell on earth. But even on earth, we can strive for the image of the Church described in Revelation, and we can have hope that one day—after the hour of our death—we will, by the grace of God and our own good works—enter through the gates leading into the Church Triumphant in Heaven. Saint John the Evangelist, in the visions he relates to us in the Book of Revelation, describes this Church Triumphant where saints are robed in white, where roads are paved with gold, and where Jesus has wiped away the tears from every eye. In today’s Second Reading, St. John describes his vision of the Church Triumphant as “the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” If the vision of the Church in Acts describes your and my striving as Christians to do God’s work, then the vision of the Church in Revelation describes the goal that we’re striving towards. In both visions of the Church, Jesus is with His people, for ever. Isn’t that an end that’s worth our lives?
 Matthew 28:20.