As we listen to the reading from the Acts of the Apostles today, there are two elements which are highlighted. Paul and Barnabas are revisiting the communities which they had formed during their first missionary journey. When they return, they proclaim a new message as well as appoint new leadership for the communities.
The message which they preach can be a little disconcerting. “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22b). While we have heard about the trials and sufferings which the apostles endured in earlier chapters and are aware that Jesus told us that his disciples had to pick up their cross and follow him, Paul adds an element which we have not heard before; namely, that suffering is “necessary” if we wish to enter into the kingdom of God. This is the first time that we hear this message from Paul. In the scene when Jesus appears to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus stated that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and die. When Jesus sent Aeneas to Paul after he had been blinded on the road to Damascus, he announced that Paul would have to suffer for the sake of his name. Now that Paul has some experience of preaching the Good News, he realizes that suffering is not just a possibility; it is a necessity.
How does this message resonate with us? We are usually very good at avoiding suffering. We go to some lengths to avoid it, so much so that more than 80% of the pain killers manufactured by pharmaceutical companies are consumed by the population of the United States. Various media reports confirm that addiction to pain medication is at epidemic proportions. Doctors are being advised to stop prescribing so much pain medication in an effort to rein in the progress of addiction.
Physical pain is only one kind of suffering. There is also the pain is part and parcel of standing up for that in which we believe. No one likes to confront evil doers. No one wants to face someone who needs an intervention. Rather than argue we would rather avoid. It is simply too painful to confront that which is wrong. Emotional pain is also something that we would rather avoid. Flight is so much easier. Yet St. Luke, using Paul’s voice, is reminding us that true disciples are those who rejoice when asked to suffer for their faith.
In the second reading for our liturgy today, we are introduced to another vision of the astral seer John, a vision of a new heaven and a new earth, a vision of a new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven. There is a curious line at the beginning of the reading, a short declarative independent clause that simply states that the sea will be no more in this new heaven and new earth. Those of us who enjoy vacationing on the beach, might find this notion a little discouraging. We must remember, however, that for the people of the Middle East, the sea represents chaos and rebellion; it is the untamed part of creation. In ancient Israelite mythology, the sea was the place where the monstrous power of chaos lived, Leviathan or Rahab. These people regard swimming is an exercise of staying alive in the water. These people did not like the sea. So removing the sea from the equation is another way of saying that there will be no source of chaos, no source of pain, no source of fear in the new heaven and the new earth. So while we are told in the first reading that suffering is necessary in this life if we are truly the disciples of the Lord, then the second reading simply affirms that for those who are faithful, the pain and suffering will be no more when we move from this life to the next.
The Gospel reading from the Gospel of John opens with five references to the glorification of God and of the Son. These words appear immediately after Judas leaves the upper room during the Last Supper and refer to the fact that God has been glorified by Jesus’ revelation of the Father in his words and in his deeds while incarnate with us on earth. However, they also refer to the fact that God will be glorified by the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is, therefore, possible for us to say that God is glorified by our suffering as well. If we unite ourselves with the suffering of Jesus, if we enter into the mystery of redemptive suffering with Jesus, we are also agents of glory that redound to the Father.
People who suffer chronic illness know pain and trial and frustration. People with disabilities know the same. All of us know emotional pain from the loss of a loved one or from a host of various human experiences. What we all need to remember is that the way to our salvation is through suffering. Suffering is also the way in which we give glory to God as long as we bear that cross with a spirit of resignation, obedience, and hope in the day when we will cross over into the new heaven, the new earth, and the new Jerusalem where we will continue to live with the God who has chosen to dwell with the people.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator