Church institutions have to continue to change through our experience of Jesus

by Thomas Gumbleton

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As I was reflecting on these Scripture lessons during this past week, I was reminded of a book that I had read quite a long time ago that had left a great impact on me. It's called Jesus Before Christianity. In other words, before there was a structured, organized, institutional church, in the very beginning -- Jesus before all that organization took place. It's written by a Dominican theologian priest, Fr. Albert Nolan.

Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts 9:26-31
Psalms 22:26-27, 28, 30, 31-32
1 John 3:18-24
John 15:1-8
Full text of the readings

It's a very startling book, in a way, because it really makes you begin to understand what it must have been like at that very beginning, as we heard in the first lesson today from the Acts of the Apostles. The community of disciples were those who had been with Jesus, had experienced his resurrection, and they were continuing to gather then, in his name, and they began to spread the good news. Other people joined them. But now, suddenly, there's someone who comes to them, who in fact has been a persecutor of the Christians. What right did he have to come now and try to be part of their community?

Well, just before what we heard in the passage today, we had the famous story, which I'm sure we all recall from the Acts of the Apostles, about Saul, who later becomes Paul -- Saul on his way to Damascus to arrest Christians, to persecute them, even to execute them as they had Jesus, but then suddenly, he is overwhelmed with an experience of Jesus: "Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?"

"Who are you that I am persecuting?"

"I am Jesus."

And Saul understands. Jesus is alive! The one that he is trying to denounce and whose followers he's trying to destroy, he is really alive and he has made himself known to Paul. (Saul changes his name, and it's now Paul.)

But then when he comes back to Jerusalem to join the disciples, they don't know what to do with him. He hasn't been one of the witnesses from the beginning. They haven't any plans about how the church is going to grow in this way. So in the beginning, the first way the church really grew was not because people began to hear about the Holy Roman Catholic church and began to learn about its history and its commandments, its rules and all the institutional structures; there weren't any, so the whole thing depended upon if you came to know Jesus.

Paul had come to know Jesus, so he automatically would be part of the community of disciples of Jesus. That same thing is emphasized by Jesus himself in the Gospel today. It isn't by going to a church that we're saved, that we really share in God's goodness and God's love. No, it's much more intimate than that. "I am the vine, you are the branches." Think about that -- the vine and the branches -- they are totally connected. It's one life that keep the vine and the branches alive -- the life source is in the vine, but then it flows out through all of the branches.

Jesus says that's how we are, how he is to us. He's the vine, we are the branches, so the most important thing for any of us is to become aware of this and to be very alert to the fact that the spirit of Jesus is alive in this world, and that when we are aware of Jesus and that when we begin to experience Jesus, he becomes alive in us. We are one with him, and that's really what the church is and has been from the beginning -- a community of disciples of those who come to know Jesus, experience him alive in their spirit, in their hearts, alive in our midst as we gather in his name.

Over the years, I think, to some extent, we have put so much emphasis on the church, the institution, that we somewhat neglected the more basic understanding of how you become a disciple. It's not just by becoming a Roman Catholic; no, it's much deeper. It's because God comes alive in us through Jesus. He is the vine, we are the branches. That's what Father Nolan was trying to bring out in his book, that over the years we had let the establishment, the institutional church, sometimes be much more important -- the hierarchy, the rules of the church, organized throughout the world.

Yes, that's necessary, that any group of people who want to survive as a group have to organize in some way. In the early church, the first communities, the community of John was a very charismatic community. It depended upon its leader to bring people together, and they clung to him, the disciple John. But once the charismatic leader was gone and there was no structure left, that community disappeared. We find in Matthew, the community of disciples gathered around Matthew, they began to organize, so that structure stayed and that evolved into what we have today.

So we do need a structured, institutional church, but we cannot let that be the dominant thing in our lives. The rules and the organization, the institutions of the church -- they have to continue to change and to grow because our experience of Jesus. I hope that as we listen to the Scriptures today, we realize how important it is for each of us to try to know Jesus. We'll never have the experience of Paul, I don't think, where it was so overwhelming, so overpowering that he was even knocked to the ground and had that instant, full enlightenment about Jesus. But gradually, as we reflect and enter into our own spirit life and begin to understand God living deep within us, we can experience Jesus.

That brings with it (and this is made clear in today's lesson) the necessity of a response. In that second lesson from the letter of John, "Whoever keeps my commandments remains in God and God in them." When we follow the way of Jesus, then that life of Jesus grows within us. He abides in us, we abide in him. What does it mean to follow Jesus? Well, in that same letter, "This is how we have known what love is; he gave his life for us. We too ought to give our life for our brothers and sisters."

In other words, if you're going to follow Jesus, you must love him and love others. In fact, it's made very clear, if anyone enjoys the riches of this world but closes their heart when you see a brother or sister in need, how will the love of God remain in such a person? This tremendous gift of Jesus alive within us is nurtured not only when we begin to try to be aware of it and respond to Jesus, but when we reach out to our brothers and sisters.

"My dear children, let us love not only with words and with our lips, but in truth and in deed." We have to reach out. And isn't that what Pope Francis is showing us so dramatically, time after time, when he cries out for the poor, the immigrants who are being drowned in the Mediterranean in the thousands, fleeing persecution, fleeing violence, fleeing war, fleeing poverty, trying to find a home? Those at our borders: Do we reach out in love to them? We must love, not in words but in deed and in truth.

There are so many ways, everyday life in your neighborhood, in your family, reaching out to one another in your community. We all must learn. That's how we make Jesus truly come alive within us. But then there's also something else that I think is a very clear example, that happened just a couple of weeks ago, of how important it is to know Jesus and to follow him and not just to obey the church. Remember a couple of weeks ago, when the newspaper published the article in the Detroit Free Press about the church in the Lansing diocese, where the pastor organized a training program carried out by the parish, for the parish, so that people could be certified to carry concealed weapons, even into church?

Imagine -- a Catholic church were Jesus is present in that community and in the Eucharist, and you're going to have people with guns? The Jesus who told Peter when he was trying to defend Jesus, "Put away your sword! Those who live by violence will die by violence." Well, what happened there in Lansing, the diocese. The bishop did speak out, and of course, he did tell the priest, "No, you can't do that on Catholic church property. We can't have people coming into church with guns." And the priest obeyed him.

So the church intervened, and in some sense, the problem was resolved, but when you look at it more deeply, seems to be what the bishop should have said, "Go back to your Scriptures. Learn who Jesus is. Teach the people about Jesus, the Jesus who rejected violence, who gave himself over to death and responded to that violence and that hatred with love." If you've really connected with Jesus, then you don't need a bishop to tell you not to bring guns into church. You would know that Jesus rejects that, and that he proclaims a way of love to transform the world.

This is why it's so important for us, if we're really going to be witnesses to Jesus Christ, to spread the good news about his death and resurrection and new life, if we're really going to be his disciples, we must get to know him better, know what he says, how he acts, and then we must try to follow him. So we go back to the very beginning of the church then, in a sense, where the good news was spread, because people began to experience Jesus in their lives, and we, too, must make this effort to come to know Jesus deeply, to love Jesus faithfully, and to follow Jesus without hesitation and with full following of his way. Then that's how the good news will continue to spread in our world.

[Homily given at St. Philomena Catholic Church in Detroit. The transcripts of Bishop Gumbleton's homilies are posted weekly to Sign up here to receive an email alert when the latest homily is posted.]

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