Burning Hearts: Easter and Restoring All Things (Homily)

Homily for the Third Sunday of Easter

Mosaic (6th century), Church of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy
Mosaic (6th century), Church of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy (photo: Register Files)

This is the prepared text for my homily for the Third Sunday of Easter, preached at the 10:30 AM Mass at St. John’s in Orange, New Jersey.

Some of the thoughts here were inspired by an essay on “The Necessity of the Resurrection” by my daughter Sarah, published at her blog Gilded Weavings. — SDG

The disciples’ hearts were burning as Jesus opened the scriptures to them, St. Luke tells us. And at the end of St. Peter’s sermon in the first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles (also by St. Luke), we learn that the people were cut to the heart.

Burning hearts; cut to the heart. That’s the power of the Gospel when God’s power is at work in the preacher and the hearers. It puts a little pressure on me and on all of us, doesn’t it? Will there be any burning hearts, any cutting to the heart, here today? It can be inconvenient! Those two disciples had been planning to turn in for the night; instead, they up and returned to Jerusalem, seven miles away. And for three thousand people listening to Peter’s sermon, it transformed their lives forever. We might have plans this afternoon, this week. God might have different ones. Are we open to what he may have to say to each of us today?

As we read today about Peter preaching in Jerusalem to Jewish pilgrims — some of whom possibly cheered for Jesus at the Triumphal Entry on Palm Sunday, which we celebrated three weeks ago; some of whom possibly called for Jesus’ crucifixion on Good Friday — something related is happening in our world this very weekend. The successor to St. Peter, Pope Francis, is in another great Middle-eastern capital city — Cairo, the capital of Egypt — also surrounded by people who confess the God of Abraham. A few of them are Jews (not many). More are fellow believers in Jesus: Coptic Christians, including Coptic Catholics as well as Coptic Orthodox. And of course the vast majority are Muslims, followers of Muhammad.

And this comes shortly after another Palm Sunday, actually three weeks ago, when radical Islamist suicide bombers attacked two Coptic churches, in Alexandria and Tanta, leaving 45 dead.

So Peter’s successor, Francis, stands up in Cairo, with leaders of Coptic and Muslim communities, and proclaims two messages — very different — of solidarity, of brotherhood. To the surprise of many people (because it wasn’t on the schedule for his trip), Pope Francis signed a joint declaration with the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church — who’s also called a “pope”; Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria — acknowledging that Coptic Christians and Catholics are brothers in Christ who are united by one baptism, and the baptisms of each will be accepted by the other, and so no one baptized in either Church would have to undergo a new baptism in order to join the other. Which is a new policy for them, not for us; we already accepted their baptisms, but now they accept ours too.

And with the support of another religious leader in Cairo — Egypt’s Grand Imam, the highest authority in the Sunni tradition, which is by far the largest tradition in Islam — Pope Francis issued a blistering condemnation of “every form of violence, vengeance and hatred carried out in the name of religion or the name of God.” Among other things, he said:

Together let us affirm the incompatibility of violence and faith, belief and hatred.  Together let us declare the sacredness of every human life against every form of violence, whether physical, social, educational or psychological.  Unless it is born of a sincere heart and authentic love towards the Merciful God, faith is no more than a conventional or social construct that does not liberate man, but crushes him.  Let us say together: the more we grow in the love of God, the more we grow in the love of our neighbour.

Now unlike Catholics and even Coptic Christians, Muslims have no pope — no one who can speak for all Muslims or decide policy for Islam. And religious violence and hatred is not going to stop because the Grand Imam and Pope Francis hugged one another and the imam supported his message and said that terrorists are ignorantly hijacking isolated verses in the Quran.

Some people might even cynically say what’s the point of the pope going to Cairo and condemning violence and hugging the imam? It’s not going to change anything. There won’t be any burning hearts, any cutting to the heart. God’s power isn’t going to work in this. Really?

And what about us Christians? I assume there are no suicide bombers among us, and that our plans for this week don’t include shooting up or vandalizing any mosques, spray-painting hate messages, desecrating Qurans, tearing headscarves off Muslim women. But these things do happen. Christians in this country do these things. Religious hatred and even forms of violence are not only “their” problem.

And even where outward violence is lacking, of course hatred can be just as deadly. Anger and hatred can make us murderers in our hearts. It’s very easy to come to church on Sunday morning and hate our neighbor as early as Sunday afternoon. Our Muslim neighbor. Our atheist neighbor. Our liberal or conservative neighbor. Our annoying neighbor who yells at their kids all the time, or plays music too loud. Our drunk neighbor. Our gay neighbor. Our undocumented immigrant neighbor.

Very often we don’t admit, even to ourselves, that we hate someone. “Of course I love them as a Christian.” But do we love them in action? Do they feel loved by us? When we talk about them — whoever “them” is — with other people, would those other people guess that we love “them”?

When we see people being treated or talked about without love by others, do we respond lovingly in that situation? Do we do what Pope Francis is doing in Cairo, what Saint Peter did in Jerusalem, and take the risk of trying to shine the light of Christ into some of the darkness in the world around us? Or do we think, what’s the point? It won’t accomplish anything. Haters gonna hate. Really?

Are our hearts burning? Are we cut to the heart?

Today is the third Sunday in Easter, the season between Easter Sunday (when our Gospel story is set) and Pentecost (when our first reading from Acts is set). In this season above all, but also every Sunday of the year, which we celebrate as the Lord’s Day because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we celebrate the work of God that began on Easter Sunday.

The resurrection of Jesus is not just a happy ending to the story of Jesus’ passion and death. It’s not just a show of divine power or proof that Jesus really was who he said he was. The resurrection of Jesus is the beginning of God’s work in restoring all things, of undoing all sin and evil, of healing all wounds, overcoming all divisions between peoples, breaking down all barriers of hostility and hatred, gathering the broken human family into one.

Now that work is not complete until all of mankind is united under the Lord Jesus in heaven and under his vicar on earth, the successor to St. Peter. The Church is called “Catholic” because her mission is to the whole world. Even more than that, the work of redemption is not complete until all of mankind shares in Jesus’ resurrection at the Second Coming, and every one of us receives his or her just reward from Christ.

So the work of restoring all things, the work of redemption, that began with the resurrection will never be completed in this life as we know it. That doesn’t mean that, short of completion, redemption doesn’t move forward — or backward.

Redemption took a step forward in Cairo as the Catholic and Coptic Orthodox Churches drew closer together and as the Pope and the Grand Imam stood together against religious hatred and violence. These are steps forward.

It moves forward in our lives whenever we forgive family members or friends who’ve wronged us, or when we apologize and ask for forgiveness when we’re in the wrong. It moves forward when we visit or call someone who’s lonely, when we do something generous for someone who needs it, out of love for God.

It moves backward whenever we give in to pride or anger, greed or envy, lust or gluttony or sloth. It moves backward when we gossip, when we dwell on the failings of others when there’s no reason to. When we have double standards for “their” faults and “our” faults.

Did you know Pope Francis recently did a TED Talk? You can watch it online. Speaking to a room full of scientists, academics and cultural elites, Pope Francis talked about the need for a “revolution of tenderness.” “Each and every one of us,” he said, “can become a bright candle, a reminder that light will overcome darkness, and never the other way around.”

Now, we can choose to regard those words as merely inspiring rhetoric, like George H. W. Bush’s “thousand points of light.” Or we could choose to take it as a real challenge to live our lives differently. To be tender and gentle even with people who don’t deserve it. We should also note that the Pope says this doesn’t mean being

optimistically naïve and ignor[ing] the tragedy humanity is facing. Hope is the virtue of a heart that doesn’t lock itself into darkness, that doesn’t dwell on the past, does not simply get by in the present, but is able to see a tomorrow.

There are two mistakes we can make here: thinking this is impossible, that nothing’s really going to change, or thinking that we can accomplish it on our own. We can’t. We can’t do any of this — any more than we can raise the dead. But God can, and he did, and that’s where it starts, with God’s power. And it only moves forward in our lives through God’s power at work in each of us.

He offers us that power, above all, in the Eucharist. Like the two disciples on the Emmaus road, we need to know the Lord in the breaking of bread. The Eucharist is the continuation of the resurrection: the body and blood of Christ raised from the dead, glorified in heaven, given to us to eat and drink. May the Lord give us burning hearts to receive him worthily and to extend his work of redemption in every area of our lives.