The Extent of the Church: Visible and Invisible
by Paulist Fr. Rich Andre
May 13, 2018

Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily – his first homily as a priest – for the 7th Sunday of Easter on May 20, 2012 at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in New York, NY.  The homily is based on the day’s readings: Acts 1:15-17, 20a, 20c-26; Psalm 103; 1 John 4:11-16; and John 17:11b-19.

In many parts of the country, the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord is celebrated on the 7th Sunday of Easter. However, in some parts of the country (including New York), the Ascension is celebrated on the previous Thursday, and these readings are used on the 7th Sunday of Easter.

Religion’s a curious thing. It is highly personal, and yet we believe that it has a communal component that is essential to it. It’s about the big things in life that can’t be seen, and yet it’s also about trying to make these intangible things visible through sign, symbol, and ritual.

All three of our readings today give us a chance to think about the seen and the unseen, or, as we say in our Creed these days, the “visible” and the “invisible.” 

Our first reading is from the Acts of the Apostles, which is the second volume of two books by St. Luke. Luke makes all kinds of connections between the two books, clearly intending them to be read as a unit. It’s interesting that even though Luke goes to great lengths to make connections, he NEVER mentions the disciples named Justus and Matthias in his gospel, even though he tells us in the Book of Acts that they accompanied the other apostles “the whole time” of Jesus’ earthy ministry. Matthias and Justus are invisible to us if we only consider the Gospel of Luke, but they become visible to us in the Acts of the Apostles. 

Today’s gospel passage comes from what’s called “the priestly prayer” of Jesus. In some ways, this is the apex of the Gospel of John. Jesus has spent the preceding 4 chapters washing the feet of the disciples and instructing them. The final 4 chapters are about Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection. But this chapter comes in between, in which Jesus prays a long, impassioned prayer to God. It’s sort of Jesus’ last will and testament regarding the ministry he’s carried out already, but even more, it’s a prayer for the Church that Jesus now places in God’s hands. It’s the ultimate expression of Jesus’ intimacy and union with the Father. It’s the moment when past, present, and future combine in a cosmic way. And what does Jesus pray for? He prays for things that are hard to see.

Jesus prays that God will make all of his followers “one” just as he is one with the Father. Most of us here believe that Christ is one with the Father. But do we believe that all of us may be one in the same way? 

And then there’s the first letter of John. In its beautiful, compelling repetition, John affirms that although none of us can see God, we still have definitive proof that God loves us: God’s love for us is demonstrated in how we love one another. 

It was this passage that led me into my first public debate about Scripture. The year was 1994. The place was the second floor of Anderson Hall at the University of Rochester. For the first time in my life, I was attending a Bible study. We were studying this passage from the first letter of John, and one member of the group insisted – based on this passage – that people who are not Christians cannot be considered part of the people of God.

I was nervous. I had no training in Scripture, but I was confident of my personal experience. “My best friend doesn’t believe in God,” I said. “And yet, I’m sure that he belongs to the people of God. He’s a very loving, caring person. If all love comes from God, how can you say that someone who is genuinely loving can not be part of God’s people?”

Well, we never resolved the tension in the room that evening, but for me, it began my lifelong fascination with how religion deals with the tension between the seen and the unseen. I think of my few friends who consider themselves to be atheists.  They are people who say that they cannot see God. I think of my many friends who consider themselves to be “spiritual but not religious.” These are people who say that they cannot see God in the Church. 

But of course, as the first letter of John tells us, no one has ever seen God. And no one has ever seen the full extent of what the Church is. Or rather, no one has ever seen the full extent of who the Church is, of who is included in the Church. If the proof of God’s existence is that we genuinely love one another, perhaps we’ve overly limited our understanding of who God is and who is part of God’s Church. 

Whenever we gather for Eucharist, we are rehearsing for the heavenly banquet. We break bread with people from across the country, from across the world, and from across the ages. And when we get to the actual heavenly banquet, we’ll surely be surprised at some of the people who are there with us as part of the Body of Christ. There will be more than a few people like Justus and Matthias, people who walked among us but we never noticed them.

We believe that God answers our prayers. Jesus prayed that we may all be one as he and the Father are one. For today, can we believe that God answered Jesus’ prayer? We are one in the love God.