In today’s Gospel Story (John 20:19-31) the disciples had locked locked themselves in a room because they were afraid, and Jesus came to them. He said, “Peace be with you, as the Father has sent me, so I send you, receive the Holy Spirit”. Thomas wasn’t there, and when they told him what happened, he set conditions as to how he would receive Jesus. Next week they again locked themselves up and Jesus came again and had a chat with Thomas about setting conditions on encountering Him: there can’t be any.
This Story reflects what is going on in our church these days. For a long time the institution has locked itself up in its traditional and time worn ways and chosen not to recognize Jesus calling them, giving them the Holy Spirit, and sending them out to the people of whom they did not approve. It is safer for the institution to have all the answers and demand that people agree with them or else, not tolerate discussion, and punish or expel members who do not agree, in other words to control and inflict harm on folks to protect the institution.
Pope Francis seems to be aware of this, and has begun calling the church to be open to the Spirit, leave its locked doors and go out to the people. On Easter he said to the people in the square, “Let us become agents of this mercy, channels through which God can water the earth, protect all Creation and make justice and peace flourish”. By his own example he is calling the church to be less concerned with non-essential customs, clothes, and rituals and focus instead on being witnesses of God’s love and mercy to the folks on the periphery, the poor and suffering, and folks who feel alienated from the church. He is calling the church to lead by example, for its members to live Jesus’ love wherever they are, and not impose conditions on whom they will choose to share God’s loving mercy.
He tells us not to be afraid of God’s surprises, not to lock ourselves up behind ideas, doctrines, rules, etc, but to go outside and live the Gospel wherever we are, to bring God’s mercy, not our own judgement and condemnation of others. He is telling the Church not to be “self-referential”, not to look at the world through its own regulations and doctrines, but to unlock the doors and be guided by the Spirit. Some of these rules and ideas cause much more harm than good, and they certainly do not reflect the loving God who creates us and keeps us in existence, the God who lives and loves within and among us, the God whose image each and every one of us is whether or not they agree with us or have lifestyles we do not approve.
Francis reminds us that we are persons, not subjects, that we are not defined by our social status or lifestyle, that each of us has our own journey, our own story, our own difficulties and pain, and none of us has the right to impose our values on others. We have the responsibility to live the Gospel wherever we are, to be ministers of God’s healing love, and not presuming to judge others by our standards. Always firmed up by our own prayer relationship with Jesus, we are to do our best to imitate him and live as he lived, imitate Jesus bringing his mercy in this world, and not be focused completely on the next world.
When he washed the feet of the juvenile prisoners, including the two women, Francis showed us we cannot let outdated notions keep us from living Jesus’ Gospel today. He said pretty much the same when he chose to live in the guesthouse rather than the papal apartments, to wear ordinary black shoes, etc. What matters in the church is fidelity to Jesus and the Gospel. Everything else is secondary. Externals, whatever they may be, have to reflect this. If they don’t they are no longer needed.
Jesus did not create a religious institution or system. He did not give his followers rules and regulations, or questions and answers, or anything to use as a weapon to control folks’ thinking and living. He gave them an example, telling them to live as he had lived. He tried to point out his Father’s loving presence in everybody, whether or not they believed in him, and told his followers to be so in tune with God’s presence in them that they would be able, by their own lived example, to help others become aware of this divine life and presence in their own life. This is the role of any who claim to be following or representing Jesus. They are to teach by example. Jesus did not make his followers the means to get to God, but gave them the mission to point out God already present. They were not to establish rules to determine who can approach God, but to point out God already present in everybody.
“Blessed are those who have not seen, and have believed.” Our role as followers of Jesus is to reflect this, to live in such a way that we really bring God’s loving mercy to all who hurt, to lead by example, not impose by fear. It is easier to impose by fear than to lead by example. Fear keeps folks out, while example invites them in. Jesus knew this, and so does Pope Francis. But, do we, do I . . ?
Just sayin . . .