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Seventh Sunday of Easter (A), 24.05.20: Bonfire of grace

Readings: Acts 1:12-14; Psalm 26(27):1,4,7-8; 1 Peter 4:13-16; John 17:1-11

In today’s particularly sublime Gospel reading, we are listening to Jesus praying to the Father as if he were already in heaven. The text is taken from chapter 17 of St. John’s Gospel which is actually still part of the long discourse Jesus gives to his apostles at the Last Supper. It therefore comes just before the Passion. And yet, Jesus is speaking as if the passion, death, resurrection and ascension have all already happened. In the prayer he says, “Father, I have finished the work that you gave me to do”, and the work of Jesus was the redemption of the human race.

With this prayer, Jesus is allowing the apostles into the most intimate part of who He is, which is his relationship with God the Father, here expressed in his prayer. In this way, Jesus is confirming to his apostles that they are indeed no longer servants but friends. A friend is someone with whom you can share everything, your deepest and most intimate secrets, and know that he will keep your confidence.

What must have particularly thrilled the apostles was that, in his prayer, Jesus spoke of them as the men whom the Father had entrusted to him, their having first belonged to the Father. So, the apostles now understand that they belong to both the Father and the Son and that they are a gift to Jesus from the Father. Hence, this prayer of Jesus is a powerful expression of the esteem, the love and the friendship which he reserves for these men. He is inviting them into his prayer to the Father and therefore into his relationship with the Father. That is the beautiful core of the life of a Christian, that we belong within the intimacy between the Persons of the Trinity. Their prayer is about us! They consider us as part of their divine reality because we have believed in Christ. As Jesus says, “Father they have believed the teaching that you gave to me and which I have passed on to them.”

And there is another dimension to all this: because Jesus says that the Father has taken these men from the world and given them to him, therefore they no longer belong to the world, but to heaven, to God. Even although they are still in the world, they are not of the world. It is very important for us to keep clear the distinction here between, on the one hand, “the world” which God so loved that he gave his only Son to save those who would believe in him and, on the other, “the world” understood as the opposition to Jesus, i.e. those who refuse to believe in him. Jesus certainly came in love to redeem the world, but the whole of the Gospel, especially St. John’s, shows sadly that Jesus experienced great rejection from sectors of the Jewish and Roman establishments who killed him.

So, when Jesus prays about those whom the Father has taken from the world to give him, he is referring to the world as those who refuse to believe in him and reject him. We, too, have been withdrawn from the world because of our faith.

How does Jesus withdraw us from the world? Consider once more that the prayer of Jesus in the Gospel sounds as if he has already ascended into heaven. Consider also that the apostles and Mary are, in the first reading, back in the Upper Room praying as they await the coming of the Spirit. For, yes, it is the gift of the Spirit sent to us by Jesus ascended into heaven which withdraws us from the world. Our faith in Christ opens us up to the world of God and, once we are thus opened up, the Spirit swoops down and into our entire being. But the Spirit comes into us not simply as the result of the prayer of Jesus to the Father to allow him to give eternal life to those who believed in him. No, it was because Jesus died and rose again for our sakes that the Spirit was poured out upon humanity. The Spirit is the fruit of the death and resurrection of Christ, not just, nor primarily, of his prayer for us. The Spirit is the Lord and Giver of Life, as we say in the creed. What life? Eternal life! The Spirit is the eternal life Jesus asked the Father to allow him to give to us.

Jesus tells us what eternal life consists of: “this is eternal life: to know you, the One True God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” The knowledge in question is not just a heady intellectual knowledge, but the knowledge which is born from experiencing God, much like the knowledge a husband and wife have of each other is the result of long years of love and experience of being together. This knowledge of God is made possible for us only by the gift of the Spirit who introduces us not only to God but into God, into his life, his mind, his heart, his entire divine truth.

The practical implication of this for us all is that, as believers in Jesus, we can no longer live according to the standards or values of the world that rejects him. We “no longer belong” to that world. We are in the world, so our feet have to be on the ground and we have to be practical, critical and intelligent as we engage with the world. But by the virtue of our baptism and confirmation we already carry within ourselves eternal life. We are not now living merely with our mortal life. Because of our faith, we are now living in communion with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and therefore in communion with their divine life. Certainly, the eternal life we carry is hidden for the moment and is in seed form. It can be accessed only by our faith, which means by definition we cannot see it. Nonetheless it is just as real as the eternal life of God himself.

As we go through our lives, trying to withdraw ourselves from the world and its unbelief and so-called values, trying to love more and more in accordance with Christ’s commandments, including those who reject him and us, then that eternal life within us is being watered and nourished, also by our suffering, so that, when we come to die, that seed within us will burst open and out we will go into the glory of eternity, face to face with the living God in whom we have believed.

In the meantime, we need the Spirit to help us in our struggle. Recall the baptismal promises we made. We renounce Satan and all his works; we renounce the fascination of evil; we renounce sin. And, at the same time, we profess our faith in the Father, in the Son and in the Holy Spirit. In this life, however, we are constantly being pulled in both directions. That is the sweat, the effort, the daily bread and butter of the baptised and confirmed Christian. For the power of evil, its fascination, is great. It is always attractive, reasonable, justifiable, sweet; it appeals to our senses, it appeals to what’s easy because sin is always the easy option whilst true love and virtue often involve real sacrifice. These latter require us to forget about ourselves and put the other, even our enemy, first. Sin is all about me, what I want – “me, myself and I.”

Hence in the struggle to resist sin, to get our feet out of the mud and quicksand into which it sucks them, we need the strength of the Spirit. Without him, we cannot do it. That’s why Jesus prays earnestly to the Father, even today, to keep sending the Spirit. We already have the Spirit within us, but we need his presence in us to be constantly enkindled. We do that by our prayers, by our sacrifice and by our genuine love and selflessness in the way we serve and help other people in our marriages, in our teaching, in our work, in our hospitals, etc.. Whatever it is we are doing, we do it inspired by the Spirit of God.

That constant effort we make in the Spirit is just another way of talking about conversion, about repentance, about the way of the Cross. It is the effort, the self-denial that we constantly have to engage with. And we can only do it in the power of the Spirit.

So, as we prepare for Pentecost with our prayer, including the Pentecost Novena, let us get ourselves ready for action so that when the Day comes, we experience a renewed enkindling of the Spirit within. “Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and enkindle in them, fan into a flame in them the fire of your love.” That will renew the face of the earth.

No-one us underestimating the difficulty of this. The context in which we live today tends to want to drug us into doing just what we like and what we want. Why make the effort to do these religious things? Aren’t they all just fairy tales and stories? No! The stories and the fairy tales are the suggestions that evil puts in our ears. The real story is the Cross. That’s the story that is the story of all stories. The Cross is not fake news. The fake news is all the stuff about self-indulgence. It is the death and resurrection of Christ which have broken the power of evil and given us the power of the Spirit to enable us to imitate Christ in that struggle and way of the Cross every day.

So, pray for the Spirit to come! Not big long prayers, but short invocations at odd moments and in any place. Pray for a great outpouring of the Spirit, a spiritual wind that blows away the cobwebs, a bonfire of grace on the North Ayrshire Coast, burning with the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit!