In the very first part of the Acts of the Apostles, which is the history of the early church, St. Luke records Jesus’ telling his disciples when he was about to leave them for good. He says, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the earth.” In today’s first lesson, we heard how that began to happen.
After that persecution in Jerusalem where among others, Stephen was martyred, the first of the disciples to be put to death for Jesus, the people scattered, and then we hear how what Jesus said to the disciples is happening. Philip, one of those who were part of the community in Jerusalem, headed to Samaria and began to proclaim the Gospel there, and got extraordinary response because he proclaimed it with such power and with such joy and hope. People were attracted to the message of Jesus, and they began to follow in great numbers.
SixthSunday of Easter
But now as we reflect on that, we also remember that Jesus says, “It will not just be in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, but to the ends of the earth that the Gospel is to be proclaimed — proclaimed with joy, with hope, with love,” and that brings it to us this morning. We’re the ones now who are to proclaim this good news — the good news about Jesus — that the son of God came into our midst, became one of us so that we may become bearers of God’s light, sons and daughters of God, brothers and sisters of Jesus. Good news: “Death is overcome! Death is destroyed,” as Paul says, “because Jesus had gone through death to new life.”
See, and that’s how we are to proclaim the message of Jesus — to be witnesses with joy, with love, with hope, in a world where there is so much tragedy, so much suffering, so much violence. It’s almost incredible, isn’t it, when you think about what’s happening? Was it yesterday or the day before when the young man drives slowly through a college town and begins to kill people because he felt isolated and neglected, I guess. A very disturbed young man; killed seven people, including himself, injured seven others.
But we’re — in the midst of such a thing — we’re to be people of hope and joy, proclaiming the good news of Jesus, that even out of suffering and death can come new life. We have a great model don’t we, today, right now in the current time, in the bishop of Rome, Pope Francis. From the very beginning of his being bishop of Rome, he has shown a spirit of joy, a spirit of hope.
We’ve all seen the images on television, pictures in the papers and elsewhere, of Francis’ reaching out to people, embracing people — little children, people with great deformities, suffering people — and now this weekend he’s doing it again. He’s taking that good news of Jesus into a very troubled place in the Middle East — Jerusalem, Palestine, the Holy Land. He went first of all ... this is typical of him; he’s very courageous.
You know most of the time you could travel to the Middle East, you must go through Israel, fly into Tel Aviv, and then from Israel go into Palestine if you wish. But instead, Pope Francis goes to Jordan and then takes a helicopter directly into Palestine, kind of showing that this is an independent state, which they declared themselves to be and the United Nations has recognized. It’s a very courageous political moral statement the pope is making: “We’re bringing the good news to the Palestinians.”
But even while he’s in Jordan — one of the poorest countries in the world, a country overwhelmed right now with refugees. They’re coming in by the tens of thousands through Syria, and they have been coming in by the tens of thousands for the last almost 10 years from Iraq. There’s hundreds of thousands of people who are homeless — been driven from their land — and Pope Francis goes first of all to visit them, just like Jesus.
He always goes to those who are suffering, who are in need, and he brings a message of hope and joy to them, pledging this, as he did to the king of Jordan, that he will help with the funds that come to him from around the world to pay for these refugees. This poor country is accepting all of these immigrants, not pushing them away, and there’s something that we need to learn from Pope Francis.
We, I mean people of the United States, what will we do with our immigrants? We have 12 million or so that have been pushed by dire economic difficulties to leave their Central American, Mexico — their homelands — to come and try to find the possibility for a life for their family, and their children especially.
But what do we do? We gather them up and put them in detention centers. We don’t really give them that much hope. In fact just today (I read this in the paper this morning), we not only put them into detention centers instead of welcome them into our midst, we exploit them. We exploit them: “The kitchen of the detention center here was bustling, as a dozen immigrants boiled beans and grilled hot dogs, preparing lunch for about 900 other detainees.
“Elsewhere, guards stood sentry and managers took head counts, but the detainees were doing most of the work — mopping bathroom stalls, folding linens, stocking commissary shelves — and relying on these tens of thousands of immigrants each year to provide essential labor paid 13 cents an hour.” Thirteen cents an hour and they’re not guilty of a crime. They’re civil immigrants, and we exploit them because we have a detention system, a prison system, that’s privately owned, making profits off of the poor.
How different that is from what Francis is showing us and what the country of Jordan shows us. Francis publicly praised the king for what he and his people are doing. Don’t we wish that Francis could praise us because we’re following the way of Jesus and welcoming the homeless and the immigrant, the refugee?
If we’re really going to be witnesses to the Gospel of Jesus, isn’t it time that we began to change and welcome these poor people, many of whom are simply children, even some now leaving the dire circumstances on their own? We have to do a lot to change if we’re going to be really witnesses to the Gospel message of Jesus.
We have to change in regard to how we welcome the poor, reach out to the poor, reach out to the homeless and those who come to our shores, and also in view of what happened yesterday with that violence. One of the fathers of the youngster who was murdered deplored when he said, “Our country that allows guns in such numbers that are used to kill innocent people. Can’t we begin to put some controls on who can get arms and weapons and do this kind of terrible killing?”
See, when it comes down to it, to be a witness to Jesus means taking some real steps that might be even, as St. Peter suggests, a cause for people to be upset with you, because not everybody would be very happy if we welcomed immigrants. And there are those who don’t want any limits on who can have a gun, and they will despise those who try to preach the message of Jesus. Yet, doesn’t Francis show us how to do it? He shows us the way — the way of Jesus.
And now I think, as we reflect on these Scripture lessons today and we hear how we’re called to take the message of Jesus to the ends of the earth, into our own land and to spread it even elsewhere, we have to begin to try to listen to God’s word and see what it means to be truly a witness to Jesus. If we listen carefully, those words that Jesus says in the Gospel will become really true for us.
Jesus says, “I will send you my spirit. That spirit will come into your heart, will transform and change you. And that spirit,” Jesus says, “I am in God and God is in me, and I am in you.” If we touch into that light of Jesus in our hearts, we can change. We can be the joyful, loving people that Francis shows us how to be, and we can bring the good news of God’s love into our world — even now at this moment, here in our country. That’s our job — taking the message of Jesus to the ends of the earth, to bring that message of joy, hope, and love wherever we go.
[Homily given at St. Hilary Parish, Redford, Mich. The transcripts of Bishop Gumbleton's homilies are posted weekly to NCRonline.org. Sign up here to receive an email alert when the latest homily is posted.]