I grew up in a majority Catholic neighborhood with a vibrant Jewish minority. Recently, I met a Jewish friend from those days on a street in Manhattan. She was with a co-worker about our age. When her companion asked how we knew each other my friend said that we grew up in Blessed Sacrament parish. We all immediately laughed. The Catholic community in New York was once so strong that our parishes formed our lives and defined our neighborhoods. There is much that was wonderful about this, but we should not be overly nostalgic or sentimental, other parts were not so wonderful. St John today will help us identify and build on the good parts.
I preach often about community and that “Belonging comes before believing”. I doubt I would have even thought about this much less preached on it 50 years ago. It was our environment as much as water is to fish. We had our own schools, societies for every age group and rituals from holy hours and parish retreats. Some of us even remember biweekly confessions? All this gave us meaning and identity.
Yet it could be very insular. Thinking was not encouraged, the arts were often disparaged, and differences were, if not punished, ignored. That every family had gay members and that my dad, an orphan, was significantly darker than anyone else on our block was never mentioned. When the world changed in both good and bad ways we were not prepared, and this tight knit community began to slowly unravel. The COVID pandemic finally killed it. Habits can be very good but as we have seen they can be easily lost, and particularly in this final stage some people simply lost the habit of religious practice.
Why wasn’t this community deep enough to survive the changes to our society? We were not one as the Father and Jesus are one. Jesus knew this was a shocking statement and said it again 3 times in this one chapter to emphasize it. This unity is what is expected of the church, and it will come apart without it.
Changing circumstances are not the exception but the rule and Jesus expects us to be ready. We are not only to be ready but to be “glorious”. John begins this passage by saying that Jesus wishes the Father to glorify him as he has gloried the Father. Glory makes someone present; God’s glory is seen in the Old Testament in clouds and fire. The Hebrew word is related to “heaving weight on something”, to experience glory is to feel it. Jesus will show the glory of the Father, make him most present, in his death and resurrection. He tells us today that we – the members of the Church – must glorify him. We must make him felt by others in the world. The most glorious church is not the most physically beautiful or historic but the one that takes Jesus furthest out and brings him deepest into the community.
This is why we are called through a community, a family, not as individuals. St Paul developed this with the image of the body. He was careful to show that we are not individual cells of the body but each an organ or limb: eyes, nose, mouth, feet. We are all important and only when we do the part for which we have been called can the whole body be “glorious” and have a powerful effect.
Thus, we must be one as the Father, and Son are one. The basis and model for the unity of the Church is the unity of God himself.
This requires that we accept “eternal life”. This is not a heavenly reward for services rendered but an earthy gift that forms a relationship with God so close that we can say that we know him not just about him. This John tells us clearly means that we understand that Jesus is the only way to know the Father. His language in this passage is dense but necessary because the principal consequence is accepting that there is no way around accepting that his glory – the way he is physically experienced – is through Jesus’ death and resurrection. This is the word given to us from God himself that will always be hard to accept.
Indeed, it is humanly impossible and points to the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost which we will celebrate next week. This week we look at where we are called to be and why we are not there so that we can receive the gifts of the spirit to bridge the gap.
Pope Francis looking at the gap between the church and the world has made two observations that we should take to heart.
He has used the image of Jesus at the door of the church but rather than trying to get in, he thinks Jesus is trying to get out. Jesus wants to be in the streets with the people who don’t come to church, and you and I are the way he has chosen to get there. Without us, he is not glorified, he is just a rumor. The church too often suffers from spiritual claustrophobia, and we make ourselves sick when we are closed in ourselves.
The other observation is that for 50 years the church has made the preferential option for the poor part of our basic mission. This will certainly put us on the street. But when we get there, we must listen before we preach. We educated members of the global north have much to offer but not everything. I hope to return to community organizing in retirement and will need to remember that I will learn more from those struggling to build housing, get their children a decent education and keep the rats at bay than they will from me. Every educated Christian must learn the same.
Let us then prepare for Pentecost by asking the Holy Spirit that we be not only a vibrant community but a glorious church.