Geraldine Thompson, a Sister of Saint Joseph who taught English at Saint Michael’s College, Toronto, was utterly charming in person, . . . and challenging in conversation. Once she asked me, “Why is it that preachers will explain in detail aspects of the Sunday readings that everyone knows and but say nothing about other passages that we all find perplexing?” For instance, she might have wondered why Jesus told us to cut off a hand or tear out an eye: “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.” Perhaps she has a point, because I’ve never heard a sermon address that verse. Well, what could be said about it? To begin with, I may note that there are times when anyone would gladly tear out an eye, if it were cancerous, for example, and had to be sacrificed to save his life. Our Lord, in his dramatic way, was telling us to be as concerned about our spiritual health as we are about our physical well being; for to preserve the former may require actions as desperate as those we embrace to safeguard the latter.
Would anything in the readings for the fifth Sunday of Easter fall into the category that Sister Geraldine described as “perplexing?” Certainly not the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, recounting the appointment of Stephen and six others as assistants to the Apostles, traditionally taken as the beginning of the diaconate. The second reading, from 1 Peter, is perhaps a bit more challenging because of the comparison of Christians to “living stones,” but in context the meaning is clear in that we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,” built upon the chief cornerstone, Jesus Christ. And John’s Gospel, often mystical and mysterious, is nevertheless generally accessible to us who see in Jesus the Word made flesh.
And thus, on this fifth Sunday of Easter, the priest—whatever his venue—may resort to the usual platitudes in his homily, as long, that is, as he omits any reference to the final line of the Gospel: “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father.” If Sister Geraldine were present, she would surely ask, “How can anyone do greater works than Jesus?” That’s an intriguing question in that it may be addressed on two levels: first, creation and then redemption. The Gospel of Saint John opens with praise for the eternal Word, present to the Father and the agent of creation: “All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” It is an indication of the nobility of man that he uncovers possibilities latent in creation by making things that are not found in the natural order, such as a violin or a computer. There is thus what one might term a development, but, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, it can never be against but always in harmony with the laws of nature; science and technology may make use of gravity, e.g., but they cannot ignore or eliminate it, much less “conquer” it. It is a mark of man’s fallen nature, however, that ingenuity governed by greed or misled by ignorance can destroy rather than enhance the perfection of nature as we see in the pollution of the oceans, to cite but one egregious instance.