Apr192014
The work of DignityUSA on April 19, 2014 is proudly sponsored by Robert Downtain.
"My first day at Dignity in 1976"

MAY 29, 2011: SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER

Readings: 

Acts 8:5-8, 14-17
1 Peter 3:15-18
John 14:15-21

Throughout his recent book, The Social Mission of the U.S. Catholic Church, Charles Curran marvels at the Catholic Worker movement. He not only points out that it is "the longest lasting lay social movement in the U. S. Church, he provides us with two characteristics which help explain its longevity.”First, the movement is based on the Sermon on the Mount: the radical call of the Gospel which emphasized corporal works of mercy. ... Second, Dorothy Day (its founder) did not believe in structure or organization.... The movement was open to development and adaptation precisely because there was no rigid organizational structure."

In some ways the author of John's gospel agrees with Dorothy Day. Johannine scholars like Raymond Brown always emphasize the evangelist's opposition to lots of church structure. We see this tendency especially in the contrast he develops between the beloved disciple and Peter. (Of course, this same scholar reminds us that someone -either the original author, or one of his disciples - added the "Peter do you love me?" chapter 21 to the gospel as a way of saying, "Perhaps we do need some structure.")

For John, our faith revolves around two Christian phenomena: the love of Jesus and his gift of the Holy Spirit. That's why both surface so often in Jesus' Last Supper farewell discourse, as they do in today's pericope. "If you love me and obey the commands I give you, I will ask the Father and he will give you another Paraclete to be with you always: the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept, since it neither sees him nor recognizes him; but you can recognize him because he remains with you and will be within you." Without any rigid structure the followers of the risen Jesus are able to carry on Jesus' ministry of love by constantly falling back on the Holy Spirit who helps them develop and apply that love to people and situations the historical Jesus never encountered. John doesn't need a hierarchical organization or hierarchical statements. Jesus' disciples know what's expected of them because they have both the risen Jesus and the Holy Spirit pointing the way.

Even those authors of the Christian Scriptures, like Luke, who believe in some structure, still emphasize the necessity of the Holy Spirit. In today's Acts passage, for instance, Peter and John are the church leaders who come down to Samaria from Jerusalem to complete Philip's evangelization. But even after the two "impose hands" and the new Christians receive the Holy Spirit, Luke still presumes the Holy Spirit, not the apostles, is the major force in these converts' life of faith.

Defining "mystery" as a tension in our faith which pulls us in at least two different directions at the same time, the Holy Spirit is at the top of Christian mysteries. The Spirit operates in those dimensions of our lives which humans rarely visit. The author of 1 Peter seems to be referring to this part of our existence when he talks about the pain often inflicted on Christians simply for doing good. Precisely during such undeserved pain we're expected to imitate Jesus' suffering and live a new life "in the Spirit."

History shows us that rigid structures eventually stifle its member's spirit. Even if these structures purport to profess Christianity, its members often are more faithful to the institution than to the spirit which should enliven the institution.

Along with Fr. Curran, we're grateful that that prophetic, determined anarchist Dorothy Day, carrying out John's theology, has given us an almost 80 year example of what people of real faith can accomplish by simply giving themselves over to Jesus and the Spirit he's given us.