Monday, May 2, 2016

"Community and Healing" - Homily for Easter 6c - Oblate Triennial Conference

St. John’s Convent, May 1, 2016
Homilist: Sr. Constance Joanna SSJD

Acts 16.9-15    Psalm 67   Revelation 21.10,22 - 22.5   John 5.1-9

It is wonderful to have this amazing family altogether for a week. I have heard both Sisters and Oblates comment that it’s a bit like a family reunion, and it’s true. It’s a family has changed and grown over the past three years. We have lost some dear Oblates, including those who were among the very first. We have lost some Sisters too. But we have gained new Oblates, and new Sisters. Our Alongsider program is healthy, and we are looking forward to welcoming both new Alongsiders and the first crop of Companions in September. The Spirit is surely moving among us.

And we see that movement of the Spirit quite dramatically in our readings for this morning – readings that speak to us of community, of growth, and of healing. Growth and healing (whether individual or corporate) always take place in community. And that is a truth that goes back to the Hebrew scriptures, when God established a covenant with the Jewish people. The theme of covenant community – or intentional community as it’s often described today – is woven throughout the Hebrew scriptures and comes to a new flowering in the New Testament.

The gospel narrative today is about community, or more accurately, about a man who is without community but finds it with Jesus. The man has been sick for many years. Because he has no friends or family to help him, he is unable to get into the pool which has the healing waters. No one has reached out to help him.

When Jesus asks him if he wants to be made well, the man does what so many of us do – instead of saying “Yes!” he gives reasons why he cannot be healed – no one will help him be the first to get into the water when it is stirred up, he says. What does he mean? Well, the story behind the Pool of Siloam is that every so often an angel stirs up the water to make it turbulent, and the first person to get into it is the one who is healed. The image of turbulent water is a potent one in scripture. It is always associated with generativist, healing, and new life. And it’s a major theme in some of the key stories of the Easter Vigil – the creation story in Genesis when the Spirit of God moves over the face of the water, the story of Noah and the flood, of Jonah on the turbulent sea, of the Exodus. Today’s story reminds me also of Jesus calming the storm at sea – a story that so captured the imagination of the gospel writers that we actually have 6 different variations on it in the different gospels.

The healing properties of the pool at Beth-zatha and the importance of the water being disturbed is a clue that something important is going to happen to the sick man. But interestingly the healing happens without the aid of the water.

True miracles happen when we become aware of the presence of God in our lives. And that is what happens to this sick man. The promise of the turbulent water hasn’t helped him. For 38 years he has waited his turn to get into the pool when it is stirred up, and he has never made it. But the miracle happens when God walks into his life in the person of Jesus. He doesn’t even need to get into the water. We might think he has missed a kind of baptism. But the presence of Jesus trumps all ceremony, all magical beliefs about angels stirring up the waters. It even trumps the sacraments.

Jesus simply ignores the water and says to the man, “Stand up, take up your mat and walk. “The man obeys. He trusts Jesus, and simply does what he is asked. At once he is healed. And because he is healed he no longer has to depend on his illness. He no longer has to beg. He is one of those people who discovered how following Jesus brought him into a community of love, where the healing power of Jesus has a ripple effect far beyond even the examples we have in the gospels.

The early church began like that, with a group of friends and disciples who tried to follow the way of Jesus after the resurrection, and that’s why we read from the Book of Acts during the Easter season. The community of the first Christians was not so different from this little band of disciples here in this chapel this morning. It wasn’t so different from loving families, or strong parish communities in which people care for each other as well as those outside the church. The early Christians became Christ for one another. They brought resurrection to one another. They allowed God to work in them and through them. And that is where the miracles come in. When we have our eyes open, we can see the presence of God everywhere, and when we are aware of the presence of God in our lives, then we can be open to being healed ourselves and also open to bring that healing love of God into the lives of others.

Today’s reading from Acts describes a dramatic example of that. After the resurrection, the disciples had focussed primarily on spreading Jesus’ message within the Jewish community, and Peter was a leader in that mission. But then along came Paul, a Jew and a Roman citizen, and once he was converted to Christianity, he felt a strong call to share the gospel with the gentiles – those outside the Jewish community. So in today’s reading it’s significant that Paul has a vision – a message from that Holy Spirit really – that he should go to Macedonia, in Greek or gentile territory.

When Paul and his companions come into Macedonia, they go to a place of prayer down near the river (there’s that water again!), and find a group of women there with their leader, Lydia. We are told that “the Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul,” she and her household were baptized, and she invited Paul and his companions to come and stay at her home. Lydia was a mother, the spiritual head of a household that would have included a large extended family, probably not a nuclear family as we might envision it’s the number of people who were baptised was probably quite large. Lydia was responsible for that extended family, that new Christian community. She was also a merchant, we are told, a dealer in purple cloth. Like so many mothers of today, she had to multitask, looking after children, a large household, and her business. Even more, she was a missionary of sorts, helping to spread the gospel to the people in Macedonia, and undoubtedly getting other women in her circle involved in making the church inclusive of gentiles.

What does this have to say to us in the church today? I think it is a call to us to get outside our comfort zone, to take our part in making our Christian communities welcoming and inclusive places – even more, reaching out beyond our communities to those outside the church.

And in all of this, Jesus is here in our midst. All we have to do is recognize him. He is here in the faces of each other. He is here in the love we share with each other and those who share our journeys through life. In a special way he is here in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Unlike the man by the pool of Beth-zatha, we do not now see Jesus in the flesh. But we know him in his risen body, and so we celebrate his presence in the sacrament of thanksgiving – the Eucharist. And we pray for healing and unity – in ourselves, in our churches and communities, in our world. As we receive the bread and wine of the sacrament we anticipate that time when the sacraments are superseded by Jesus himself.

In the reading from the book of Revelation John gives us a vision of that time.
I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb... 
This vision of the holy city, without a temple, without sacraments, with only the presence of God and the tree of life – is a vision of a restored Eden, but more than that, a vision of the unity, reconciliation, and peace that we so long for in our world and so desperately need to pray for. I’d like to end with a prayer for the fulfillment of that vision, taken from the last verse of my favourite Eucharistic hymn. 
So, Lord, at length when sacraments shall cease,
may we be one with all thy Church above,
one with thy saints in one unbroken peace,
one with thy saints in one unbounded love;
more blessèd still, in peace and love to be
one with the Trinity in Unity.