Sermon: We're Not Going Back to Normal
“I pray for them. I do not pray for the world, but for the ones you have given me, because they are yours.”
The season of Easter is drawing to a close as we celebrate this Fifth Sunday after Easter. Thursday will mark 40 days since the Lord’s Resurrection and His Ascension into Heaven. Thus, we have been listening to the Lord’s farewell discourse to the Apostles from the Last Supper. Though it might seem out of place on the timeline, the Lord’s words to the Apostles the night before He died are the perfect preparation for His coming Ascension. In fact, St. John introduces the whole account of the Last Supper like this: “Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1).
Amidst this beautiful discourse, the Lord’s high priestly prayer, He shares some incredible things about that love for His disciples with which He loved them and us until the end. He says that He has prayed for His disciples, for the ones whom the Father has given Him. He says that He has not prayed for the world – not because of any kind of exclusivity, but to emphasize the way that those whom the Father has chosen from before the foundation of the world to be His disciples are recipients of a particular love and affection that come only to those who are in the Son as sons and daughters of the eternal Father through faith.
That is to say, when the Lord says that He has prayed “for them,” He is not just talking about the twelve men gathered around the table with Him for that last supper. He is talking about you. He has prayed for you. In the times when God seems distant – as He certainly has these past few weeks for so many of us – in the times when you feel alone, scared, and sad, remember these words of Jesus on the night before He died, as He prepared the Apostles for His physical absence from His death and later from His Ascension into Heaven – “I pray for them.” He has prayed for you because you have been given to Him by the Father. “They are your gift to me,” (Jn 17:24), He prays. You are the Father’s gift to His beloved Son.
Now, maybe you see this differently than I do, but when I hear these words from the Lord I can be a bit incredulous. I am the Father’s gift to Jesus? When I look at myself and think about those words I cannot help but think, “Some lousy gift, huh?” Yet this is not the way that Christ sees it. He tells the Father that He has prayed for us “because they are yours, and everything of mine is yours and everything of yours is mine, and I have been glorified in them.”
How has Christ been glorified in us? It is easier to understand how we have been glorified in Christ, the one who shared our human nature and raised that same humanity as ours to the glory of only-begotten Son. But how has He been glorified in us?
The answer to this perplexing question is in today’s epistle from the first letter of St. Peter. “Beloved: Rejoice to the extent that you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that when His glory is revealed you may also rejoice exultantly” (1 Pt 4:13-16). Christ is glorified in us when we share in His sufferings, when through our sharing in His Passion we can also come to share in the grace of His Resurrection and glorification. This is why St. Paul is able to say something so seemingly absurd as, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Col 1:24). That is, when we unite our sufferings with Christ’s Cross, He is further glorified in us, and we can rejoice to share in His sufferings.
St. Peter tells us today not to suffer as a murderer, thief, evildoer, or intriguer, but as a Christian. He is talking about Christians who are suffering for their faith amidst persecution, but we can understand his words to apply to other sufferings as well. He makes clear that suffering is not good for its own sake. The suffering of an evildoer is not good because it is the result of moral evil. But when we suffer as Christians – when we unite the crosses that the circumstances of life place in our way with the Cross of the Lord Jesus – we can even rejoice to suffer for the sake of His name.
There is a curious parallel here between St. Peter’s exhortation to rejoice to share in Christ’s sufferings and another time recently when the Sacred Liturgy instructed us to rejoice. On the first Sunday after the suspension of the public celebration of Holy Mass in our area, we celebrated Laetare Sunday. I preached that Sunday on how we are called by the Lord to rejoice amidst suffering. And here we are on the last Sunday of this period of liturgical quarantine, and once again we are instructed to rejoice.
We are probably carrying a variety of emotions right now. Some are excited, some are nervous or apprehensive, some feel resentment and betrayal. Regardless of the particular emotions that each of us experiences right now, the Lord invites us to rejoice – to rejoice that we have been able to suffer with and for Him. Suffering, even spiritual suffering, will not go away just because Mass will begin to be celebrated publicly once again. We may be frustrated about the cautions put in place, about the change in schedules or not being able to sit where you have always sat. You might be confused about why things are not just going back to normal.
We are excited that we will be able to welcome those who are ready back for Mass next Sunday. It is very important that you look through the information posted on our website on our COVID-19 response plan before you come. There is a new schedule that allows for needed social distance protocols and information on what to expect when you arrive. We will also continue streaming a variety of Masses for those who are not ready to come in person yet. In order to make it possible for us to celebrate Mass publicly, we still need a lot of help. Please see our COVID-19 response page to sign up.
At this point, we do not know what normal is going to look like post-COVID-19 or when it will be here. We can only know what it looks like to be as prepared as possible for the situation as it currently is. But regardless, I for one do not ever want things to go back to normal. “Normal” means only 22% of all Catholics at Mass on Sundays. “Normal” means most Catholics rarely going to Confession. “Normal” means losing more people every year to imperfect forms of Christianity or to no faith at all. “Normal” means most people not knowing the transformative power of a friendship with the Lord who came so that we might have life and have it more abundantly. I do not want to go back to normal!
God does not want you to go back to normal either. In the past weeks, Christ has not abandoned us. “I pray for them,” He tells us today. He has equipped so many of us to live our relationship with Him in new ways. He has brought families together to express their faith in Him, to pray together in ways that they have not before. He has inspired young people to take ownership of their life of faith. He has given us opportunities to spread the Gospel using new means of communication and outreach. He has taught us how much we need one another and how much we need Christ’s presence in the Eucharist.
Instead of getting back to normal, our goal should be a renewed faith and a renewed parish invigorated by the apostolic challenge that these times have presented. As we begin to come together again, we have the opportunity to deepen our faith in and reliance on Christ, to renew His place at the very center of our lives, especially through the Eucharist. We have the opportunity to renew connections with those around us and bring those who are longing to escape from isolation and lowliness not only into relationship with other people but with the Person to whom that longing for love and intimacy point.
Do not go back to normal. You were not made for normal – you were made for greatness; you were made to be a gift from the Father to the Son, for a life in which Christ is glorified in you.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist, Goshen
V Sunday after Easter, A.D. MMXX