You might wonder why I would ask that question at this point. Obviously, you had gone through a period of preparation, and you’re here today, and there is excitement and joy in the church. So why would I ask, “Do you really want to be confirmed?” Well, the reason is that when you accept this sacrament of confirmation, and you receive what now is the fullness of your initiation into the church, you take on a very important responsibility, and that is to be witnesses to your faith.
Fifth Sunday of Easter
You people who are ready to stand up for what you believe in, to live it faithfully and with integrity, and so when you stand there and say, “Yes, I want to be confirmed,” you are giving witness to that faith. That’s important for all of us — that we come together as a community of disciples of Jesus, and we witness to one another right here in this church every time we come here for a Sunday liturgy. Each of us is witnessing “I believe,” and that strengthens the faith of the whole community.
So today when you accept this sacrament, you are committing yourself to be a public witness to the faith, to be a disciple of Jesus and to show, not maybe so much by your words, but by how you live that you really believe, you follow Jesus, you are his disciple. You are going to live according to his way and be witnesses to him.
That’s why it’s important that we ... when you answer that question, everybody can hear you, that you really are giving witness. And if we listen carefully to the Scriptures today, I think they help us to understand — and not just the ones being confirmed, but all of us who have been confirmed and committed ourselves to be witnesses to Jesus. These Scriptures help us to understand what that means.
It’s the fifth Sunday of Easter and the lessons that we hear today are lessons that are assigned for that Sunday, but how appropriate they are for this sacrament of confirmation. See, first of all in the second lesson today from the letter of St. Peter, that passage that we heard today is really part of a sermon that is recorded of Peter at a time when early Christians were being received into the church, receiving the sacrament of baptism and the sacrament of confirmation.
So Peter is trying to impress upon them who they are now as disciples of Jesus, and it’s really a marvelous passage where Peter tells us, “You are living stones built into a spiritual temple. A holy community, offering spiritual sacrifices to God.” He goes on to say, as we heard, that Jesus is the foundation stone of this church, this temple, but every one of us is a living stone that make up this church of God, this church of community of disciples of Jesus.
That gives us a great dignity, and even further on, Peter says, “You are a chosen race, a community of royal priests, a consecrated nation, a people of God.” See, that’s who we are when we become … confirmed disciples of Jesus. We’re the people of God; we’re a holy priesthood. See, when we gather for the Eucharist, all of us offer this praise to God — this adoration and worship of God through the Eucharist — because all of us share in that priesthood of Jesus. What a great dignity that is for us, and that’s what’s happening here today as we celebrate this sacrament of confirmation.
These young people are becoming a people of God, a holy race, a chosen priesthood. But as we do this — as we become the people of God as Peter proclaims — there are responsibilities that we accept. In this same sermon, in a different part of it, Peter says, “Since you have purified yourselves by obedience to the truth, for sincere mutual love, love one another intensely from a sincere heart.” See, as the people of God, God loves us. God makes us God’s people. God shares God’s spirit with us, but now God wants us to love one another.
Our first lesson today shows us the early church in action. Like [what] happens today, sometimes there are factions in the church, there are conflicts, there are people disagreeing with one another, there’s some hostility sometimes. Well, that happened right at the beginning, as we hear in the first lesson today. There was a dispute in the church because ... and when they were distributing, you may remember in that early community, everybody brought their goods, and then they shared with everybody so nobody was without what they needed.
Well, it turns out that some of the widows were the ones especially in need, who happened to be, as St. Luke tells us in the Acts, the Greek-speaking ones who were people who had come back to the Holy Land, had emigrated. They lived in another culture for a while; they came back. They were Greek-speaking, but then there were the Jewish-speaking ones who were right there from the Holy Land, like the disciples themselves. And there was a dispute about who was getting what and so on.
That could happen so easily, right? It could happen in any community. Well, what did they do to resolve the problem? They called the whole community together. See, we’re all the people of God. It isn’t just one person saying, “Okay, you do this or do that.” The whole community comes together. They talk it out; they figure out what to do, and so now they name new people to begin the distribution of the goods. So they settled the conflict in a very peaceful, loving way. They are carrying out what God expected them — to love one another intensely.
And when we come to the Gospel lesson today, it’s so clear how God loves us. This passage that we heard today is from the long conversation Jesus had with his disciples at the Last Supper, and it’s a very beautiful conversation. It’s very poignant because Jesus is going to be killed, executed the next day. The disciples are sad, discouraged, and what did Jesus say to them? “Don’t be afraid; don’t be upset because I am going to go to prepare a place for you, and then, where I am, you also will be.”
We sometimes hear this at a funeral celebration. It’s very consoling to think that Jesus, before he himself was going to die, or even put to death, he’s telling his disciples, “Be at peace, because yes, I’m going to be killed. I will go, but I’m going to prepare a place for you. Why? Because I love you; you are mine. You are my people, and I will make a place ready for you.” So Jesus shows us in this passage how much he loves us. But again, once we begin to realize that and accept what is happening to us — that Jesus loves us, Jesus is making a place ready for us forever — we have to do what he also says, “Love one another.”
Further on in this conversation, Jesus puts it in a very powerful way when he tells his disciples, “My one commandment, my one commandment is that you love one another as I have loved you. Love one another as I have loved you,” and that love of Jesus for us is unconditional. It’s without limit, and it goes so far, Jesus tells us, “Don’t just love those who love you, love your enemies.” That’s one who really gives profound witness to the truth of Jesus, where he tells us today, “I am the way, the truth, and the light.” If we’re going to follow Jesus, we have to love one another as he has loved us, and even love our enemies.
That’s a very difficult commandment to live out, but sometimes we find people who give us extraordinary examples of that kind of generous, unlimited, unconditional love. Just this past week, you may have heard in the news how they dedicated this new memorial in New York City at the point where that terrible atrocity happened on Sept. 11, 2001.
Now, you young ones being confirmed don’t remember that; I’m sure the rest of us do. But you’ve seen the pictures probably — those airplanes flying into the World Trade Center, and the Trade Center exploding into fire and eventually come down, killing almost 3,000 people.
An act of hatred, and yet in the midst of all that, as President Obama pointed out the other day, and I have read this in the paper, he told the story about the man in a red bandana, and here’s what was happening: “Bewildered and frightened, the people huddled in the smoke and darkness that day on the 78th floor of the World Trade Center’s south tower.” There was smoke everywhere, darkness, and people were huddled. They’re at 78 floors.
“And then suddenly they heard a voice, clear and calm, leading them to the stairs and to safety. Their guide was a young man holding a red handkerchief over his face. Having helped them — he led them all the way down those 78 [floors] stairs — having helped them, he then went back up the stairs to help others. Now, they didn’t know his name, they didn’t know where he came from, but they knew their lives had been saved because of his courage and his love.”
Now later when Allison Crowther heard this story a few months after the towers collapsed, she knew that hero was her son, Welles Crowther, 24 years old. The young man who had kept a red handkerchief with him since he was a boy was one of almost 3,000 people who did not survive the attacks. One of his bandanas is now on display at the museum.
That’s the kind of love that we’re talking about and the courage. “Greater love than this,” Jesus said, “no one has, than to lay down your life for another.” That’s what that young man did. He was willing to go back up those stairs and lead other people down, and he finally was killed in the collapse of the tower.
Now, we’re probably not going to be challenged to the same extent, and yet that’s what Jesus is talking about: “If you’re going to be my witness, you have to be a witness of love in this world — a love that’s without limit, a love that’s without condition, a love that even extends to our enemies.” Don’t just love those who love you, love your enemy, just as Jesus did on the cross — “Father, forgive them.” He loved those who put him to death.
It’s an extraordinary challenge to be a disciple of Jesus, and we might wonder if we could ever do it. Could we be as courageous and as loving as that young man? Well, when we open ourselves to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, we receive those gifts of the spirit with understanding, right judgment, courage, knowledge and love, and a profound reverence and awe for God. We open ourselves and God pours forth the spirit into our hearts. We receive the gifts of the spirit. We can love with the courage and the joy and the goodness that Jesus shows us that’s the way, the truth, and the light.
As we celebrate this sacrament then today, I ask everyone to pray deeply as we go into the ceremony, asking God to send forth the Holy Spirit, especially on our young people today, but on all of us because all of us need to recommit ourselves to go back out into our world to give witness to Jesus — to the love of Jesus that is a love without limit, without hesitation, a love that’s filled with courage. And if we witness to this, gradually our world will be transformed until the reign of God is present, and we bring peace and joy and goodness wherever we go as followers of Jesus.
[Homily given at Confirmation Mass at Our Lady of La Salette Parish, Berkley, Mich. The transcripts of Bishop Gumbleton's homilies are posted weekly to NCRonline.org. Sign up here to receive an email alert when the latest homily is posted.]