Homily for The Fifth Sunday of Easter – Year C

I’m sure you’ve seen the words in the same place I have seen them time and time again—printed on bumper stickers, so that anyone stuck in traffic can easily read: “No Jesus (N-O), No peace. Know Jesus (K-N-O-W) Jesus, Know peace.”

In our Gospel passage, Jesus says the words we hear every time we celebrate the Eucharist: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.” These words are startling only when we consider the context in which Jesus says them—on the night before he died. They are startling when we realize that even knowing that he is about to face his own death, knowing full well that one of his disciples has betrayed him and the others will abandon him, Jesus promises that he will come back to them—not to condemn them but to dwell with them, that God himself might dwell in their midst, and that he will send the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to lead them and guide them. It is in this context, then, that Jesus says, “Do not let your heats be troubled or afraid,” reminding them and all of us who seek to be his disciples today that knowing the peace Jesus offers to us means recognizing the fact that we are not alone in the world, but that we are called into relationships—relationships with one another, certainly, but, perhaps more importantly, a relationship with God, as well. They remind us that if we are to be human, then there is no such thing as being a rock unto ourselves, an island, isolated from everything and everyone.

Of course, as persons of faith, we know what those first disciples did not. We know the rest of the story—that death would have no lasting power over Jesus, that God would raise him from the dead and in doing so would give back to humanity what we had lost in the Fall—eternal life lived not in isolation, but rather in the presence of God himself. It is for this reason that Jesus speaks to them and tells them not to be afraid. “He speaks primarily as the redeemer, who overcomes sin and opens the way for a retransformation, for life in the Spirit. He is the redeemer of the body who has the power to inscribe the law of love on hearts of flesh…. He can demand a radical “gift of self”, as he does in this Gospel passage, “because he himself made such a gift of himself to the human race, and his gift is effective”.[1]

But what exactly is this gift of Jesus? Is it something tangible, something we can touch, something we can hold onto for ourselves alone? Pope Saint John Paul II tells us exactly what this gift is and why it brings with it such peace that Jesus, in offering it even on the night of his betrayal, can say to his disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid” when he writes, in Veritatis Splendor: “Jesus himself is the living fulfillment of the law inasmuch as he fulfills its authentic meaning by the total gift of himself: he himself becomes a living and personal law, who invites people to follow him; through the Spirit he gives the grace to share his own life and love and provides the strength to bear witness to that love in personal choices and actions.”[2]

How, then, do we keep the word of Jesus, that we, sinners though we are, living in a troubled and frenzied world, might know the peace which he so freely offers to us?

Perhaps if we are to know and embrace the peace Jesus offers us, we must allow ourselves to become who we were created to be in the first place. If we are to know peace, if we are to know what it means to live without fear, confident that we are keeping the word of Jesus, then we must recognize, as Pope Saint John Paul II also reminds us, in quoting from the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, that who we are as men and women, with our masculinity and femininity, in and of itself contains the power to “express love: precisely that love in which a human person becomes a gift—and, through this gift, fulfills the very meaning of his being and existence”.[3] In one of his Wednesday Audiences, Pope Saint John Paul II explored what it means for us to realize who we are at this deepest, most basic, level by reflecting on the experience of Adam in the Garden in his relationship with God. He writes, “The created man finds himself from the first moment of his existence before God in search of his own being, as it were; one could say in search of his own definition; today one would say, in search of his own ‘identity’.”[4] It was only in seeing the woman for the first time, however, that he was able to fully realize who he was. As Blessed Pope John Paul goes on to state, in a later audience, “the words of Genesis 2:23 speak about this directly and for the first time in the following terms, ‘flesh from my flesh and bone from my bones’. The man speaks these words as if it were only at the sight of the woman that he could identify and call by name that which makes them in a visible way similar, the one to the other, and at the same time that in which humanity if manifested…. In this first expression of the man, ‘flesh from my flesh’ contains also a reference to that by which that body is authentically human and thus to that which determines man as a person, that is, as a being that is, also in all its bodiliness, ‘similar’ to God.”[5] In other words, we somehow must come to realize in the course of our lives that we only fully find ourselves and understand who we are as human beings in relation to another. And we do this most perfectly when we follow the example Jesus gave that very night in which he spoke these words, when we make a gift of ourselves—when we try not to save ourselves or hold onto ourselves or to promote our own agenda but rather when we are willing to let go of everything and to give ourselves away.

What exactly does this mean in our concrete everyday lives? It means, quite simply, that persons are never to be treated as things.[6] Rather, they are to be loved. They are not to be used, as if they were objects to be manipulated, but to be treated with the dignity that is theirs simply because they exist, because they are created in the image and likeness of God.

It sounds so easy, doesn’t it, this personalistic norm? And yet we know from our everyday experience just how difficult it is to live out. How many of us can honestly say that we have never used someone as an object, that we have never manipulated someone to get our own way, that we have never pushed our own agenda upon others quite simply because we thought we were right and they were wrong? How many of us can say that we have always, in every situation, loved others in that we have respected their dignity, their autonomy as human beings without trying to make them into something or someone they were not simply because they did not quite live up to our expectations? This is certainly the experience of the Christian Community in Antioch when they are told that placing their faith in Christ is not enough, that they must first become Jewish and live the Law in its entirety if they are to know the salvation that is found in Christ Jesus. It is against such manipulation that Paul and Barnabas fight and in which they are finally vindicated when the elders of Jerusalem, and we must assume that Peter and the other Apostles are among them, remind the Antiochian Christians that it is not in observing the Law that they will find their salvation, but rather in placing their faith in Christ Jesus—in recognizing that it is in Christ and only in Christ that they will find the peace for which they long.

“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you.” Jesus offers that same gift of peace to each of us, reminding us, at the same time that if we are to find that peace for which we yearn, we must follow his example, allowing ourselves to be poured out for others as he allowed himself to be poured out for us. No matter what our job or life’s calling, no matter what our state in life, whether we are married or single, whether we are a consecrated religious or ordained to service as a priest or deacon, our vocation as human beings is to love as Christ has loved us—to let go of whatever it is to which we cling for our identity so that we can allow Christ himself to be crucified in us. For when we allow ourselves to be crucified with Christ we realize at our deepest core that we were created male and female so that we could give ourselves as a gift and that we find ourselves, we realize who we are, only by giving ourselves away, only by allowing ourselves, our egos, to decrease, so that we might live in Christ and that the light of Christ might increase in us and in the world.

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For further study and reflection:

Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, by Pope Saint John Paul II, Chapter One, Christ Appeals to the “Beginning”,131-223 (TOB 1-TOB 23). Boston, MA. Pauline Books and Media, 2006.

Veritatis Splendor, by Pope Saint John Paul II. Boston, MA. Pauline Books and Media, 1993.

Love and Responsibility, by Karol Wojtyla. San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2003.

Introduction to Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body. Michael Waldstein, 1-128. Boston, MA. Pauline Books and Media, 2006.

[1] Michael Waldstein, Introduction to Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body by Pope John Paul II, 127.

[2] Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, 15

[3] Pope John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, 15:1

[4] Pope John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, 5:6.

[5] Pope Saint John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, 9:4.

[6] Karol Wojtila, Love and Responsibility, 18.

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Fr. John Keehner, a priest of the Diocese of Youngstown, is currently pastor of St. Christine Parish in Youngstown, Ohio.  He has graduated from the TOB Institute Certification program and served as chaplain on three different occasions.  He has also taken part in the TOB Institute Clergy Enrichment Program. 

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