Thirtieth in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Seventh Sunday of Easter
Readings: Acts 7:55-60; Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20; John 17:20-26
In my office at work I have on the wall a series of steps meant to help with facing disappointment, and I’ve given these steps to some co-workers in the past. One of the steps is “Refer to God all problems requiring divine intervention;” the step that immediately follows that one is “Recognize that all problems require divine intervention.” In a way, that’s the message we have been slowly receiving as we make our way through these readings, especially in the last several weeks. We have seen the mystery of God’s unfathomable generosity and compassion. We have glimpsed the renewal that is our heavenly calling. We have struggled with its application in daily earthly living. We have to live as if God is the only One in control, because He is. But now, as the Easter season draws to its close, we must take a moment to face the consequences for doing so – and for failing to do so.
In our Second Reading, taken from the conclusion of the Book of Revelation. the author records the words of Jesus, the One Who is both beginning and end, both root and offspring: “I bring with me the recompense I will give to each according to his deeds.” Another way to translate the same line from the author’s Greek is “With Me are My wages to give away to each according to his works.” Either way, it is something of a terrifying line at first thought. A recompense is an agreed-upon payment, a reward for services rendered. In this case, the services are what we do from day to day as people who live in the light of Christ. Once we have accepted our rebirth, and once we have discerned its application in daily life, then comes the hard part: living that way. How many of us can truly say we have put in, as they say, a good faith effort? How many of us have even tried to discern how Jesus would have us His brothers and sisters act in a given situation, in any given situation, in every given situation? If you, reader, are sure you do, then I congratulate you warmly with all my heart, because you are closer to God than I. Because I know I don’t do it – not all the time, not when it matters (and the kicker is it always matters). How many us have “washed our robes,” like those who survived the tribulation, and “have the right to the tree of life?”
And here are your wages! The First Reading, again taken from the Acts of the Apostles, brings this recompense into sharp focus as it relates the stoning of Stephen, one of the first seven deacons of the Church, instituted specifically to assist the Apostles in serving the people’s physical, temporal needs so the Apostles had more opportunity to tend to their spiritual, eternal needs. He is also the first witness of the risen Jesus to die because he have this testimony (hence, he is called the Protomartyr). He bore this witness consistently and fearlessly to his literal last breath; in fact, with his dying words he cried to his Lord, “[D]o not hold this sin against them.” Like Jesus Himself, he died forgiving his enemies and asking God’s mercy upon them. His prayer was heard, in the most unlikely of ways: the man presiding over Stephen’s execution, “a young man named Saul,” would go on to have his own conversion experience and, as the man we know as the Apostle Saint Paul, he would spread the Gospel truth across the civilized world. Church Fathers through the ages have written sermons and treatises on the subject of this wondrous mingling of justice and mercy, even envisioning the eternal forgiving embrace of Stephen and Paul, both martyrs and both saints, in their heavenly dwellings.
Such a unity is greatly desired by the Lord for all His people. In fact, our Gospel reading is taken from the “high-priestly prayer” Jesus prayed on the night before He died, consecrating Himself and His Apostles to His Father. In this part of the prayer He prays “also for those who will believe in me through their word.” The seeds of Saint Paul’s conversion, which were watered by the blood of Stephen, were planted here in this prayer for unity. Enfolding even generations upon generations yet to be born in the Spirit of Love, the greatest desire of the obedient Son was that all those who believe in Him may be as united as He is to His almighty Father. Stephen’s and Paul’s eternal embrace, envisioned by the Church Fathers, is the consequence of that desire, the consequence of a love so strong that still overcomes the greatest sins.
Perhaps now we can understand this “recompense” that Jesus promises to give. Perhaps we can better understand why He says it is a reward He “will give to each,” not that is due to each. If He gave us only what is our due, none of us could be saved! For if we could save ourselves, the Incarnation was unnecessary, the Passion foolishness, and the Redemption delusional. But “all problems require divine intervention.” Jesus prayed that all His disciples be one with Him and each other so that all could be saved equally through Him and be all of equal dignity. Stephen commended his killers to the mercy of God, and their leader went on to become the Church’s first great missionary and teacher; now both of them reign with Him in heaven. They have both “entered the city through its gates,” and both “have the right to the tree of life.” They are one, with each other and with their God. This is our calling too, and our great responsibility, not just for ourselves but for each other.
Perhaps J. R. R. Tolkien summed it up best in The Fellowship of the Ring: “Many live who deserve to die. And some die who deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”