Reflection for the Seventh Sunday of Easter. Year B. 2018
– By Fr Ugo Ikwuka
Every Good Friday, churches in the UK match together through the city centres to witness to the Christian faith. I have participated in these matches on many occasions.
My experience has always been that the matches lack drive and conviction. Every successive year, an inter-denominational committee is set up to re-strategise so that the next match would be more robust. Yet, we would end up walking through the city centre like people who have lost their way.
The matches don’t inspire anybody and the reason is simple; you cannot effectively witness to Christ and God who is love as a divided body. Jesus knew this, and that is why he so fervently prayed, just before his passion, as we read in this Sunday’s Gospel, that his followers may be one as he is one with the Father.
The division in Christianity is a scandal considering that Jesus clearly stated that it is by the love his followers have for one another that the world would know that they are his disciples (John 13:35).
The early Christians didn’t need to match through the cities to witness to Christ. The love that held them together so marvelled the pagans who exclaimed: “Behold, how they love one another” and were consequently drawn to conversion in droves.
Efforts at bringing the churches together (ecumenism) should be of primary concern to every Christian. Commendable bridges have been built between many of the churches especially in the developed world.
In the UK, for instance, many communities are served by just one church which the different denominations use at agreed times. When my church in London was undergoing restoration, the Anglican church adjacent to us generously welcomed us and we held our Sunday Masses there throughout the period.
Ironically, this solidarity (unity) would rather scandalise some very “pious” people, especially in the developing world. Growing up in south-eastern Nigeria, we used to have a mocking catechism that asks: “Would the Anglicans go to heaven?” The answer: “Yes, but it would not be easy!” In some places in the region today, parents are still punished by the local church if their children marry outside their denomination.
Continuing this important prayer Jesus noted: “I gave them your word and the world hated them because they do not belong to the world.” Since they accepted the message of Jesus, they will be hated by the world as Jesus himself was hated because, like Jesus, they do not identify with the world and its values and priorities. Unless you are hated by the world, you are not following the one whose life ended on a cross. Therefore, whoever that is in this business of faith for universal popularity is in the wrong place.
Jesus himself cautioned: “Beware when all men speak well of you …” (Luke 6:24). The great Winston Churchill would always say: “a man has enemies? Good! It means he stood for something.” Someone who has got no enemies is bland. It’s not a thing to be proud of, to be everybody’s cup of tea. What is important is that one has the right enemies. At the same time, Jesus makes it very clear that he is not asking that they be removed from the world’s environment, only that they be protected from its evil influences.
Precisely because the world is so opposed to the way of Jesus, it is always tempting for Christians to distance themselves. The ultimate purpose of the church is not contemplative isolation but the transformation or purification of cultures, armed with the truth and the integrity of the Gospel.
If God takes us out of the world, He would therefore simply be removing the leaven necessary for the rising of the dough. We are, as Jesus said elsewhere, to be “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world”.
To conclude his prayer, Jesus declares: “For their sake, I sanctify myself”. The founder of the Salvation Army, General Booth, once said: “Without any boast, without any vanity, I can assure you that when I gave myself to God I did so more to save others than to save myself.” That may sound strange because we assume that the sole purpose of being a Christian is to save one’s soul. But he clearly reflects the mission of Jesus who came that “others” may have life, and have it to the full (John 10:10).
Jesus used his miraculous powers to help others than to help himself; he multiplied bread to feed the hungry but when he was hungry in the desert he refused to turn stones into bread to feed himself. That Christian charities are the leading NGOs today, involved in efforts to eradicate poverty and disease in the world is a response to this “social” Gospel demand for selfless interest in others. However, the second part of the statement “I sanctify myself” counterbalances the first. Sanctifying oneself means to make oneself holy.
Jesus was always there for other people, yet he did not forget to sanctify himself through prayerful relationship with God. People who are so involved in works of social justice and peace that they forget their own personal relationship with God are soon carried away in activism. How can one be doing the work of the Lord and forget the Lord of the work?
On the other hand, there are people who are too prayerfully focused on God that people who seek their attention are seen as distractions. None of these approaches is sufficient alone. Authentic Christian life involves holding this two in good harmony.