Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Easter by Bishop Donal McKeown

10 May 2020

It is now four weeks since Easter Sunday and, since then, we have all been struggling to seek encouragement and find hope of Resurrection in this strange situation where we appear to be moving but not really going anywhere. Sometimes we may wonder where our faith is leading us. But asking such questions actually puts us in good company, standing in the shoes of two straight-talking apostles in today’s Gospel.

First of all, we see Thomas the Doubter. He is blunt when Jesus says something about the way he is going. “We don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” People of faith are not afraid to ask questions because that is the only way to discover the Truth. And then there is Philip. His comment may seem harmless, “Show us the Father and then we shall be satisfied.” But a careful reading of John’s Gospel reveals that this is the fourth time Philip appears. The first time, Jesus meets him and says, “Follow me”. And in his initial enthusiasm, Philip finds his friend Nathaniel and brings him along too. Friends are not afraid to hide their sometimes-naïve enthusiasm. Then, a few chapters later, it is to Philip that Jesus turns as he prepares to feed the five thousand, asking him where food could be bought. And the poor man has no idea what could be done. It is to Philip, the close confidante of Jesus, that Greeks turn when they want to see Jesus. And now, on the eve of his death, Philip still wants a simple answer to his question.

Faith is a permanent journey into uncertainty without easy solutions. A cosy faith that suits my agenda has little to do with the mystery of Jesus.

Most of us, like Philip, would like faith to be cleared up and then stay uncomplicated. But Jesus is preparing to drag the apostles through the dark horror of Calvary and the adventure of being sent out to proclaim Jesus. Philip, it turns out, will be sent to engage with an Ethiopian and tell this foreigner about Jesus. Faith is a permanent journey into uncertainty without easy solutions. A cosy faith that suits my agenda has little to do with the mystery of Jesus. For Philip, faith means believing that this man in front of him is the revelation of the God who made the sun, moon and stars. For us, we are constantly challenged to go beyond what suits us and believe in a God revealed in Bethlehem and in the Eucharist, on the Cross and in Confessions, in human love and in imperfect communities. It is there that we see the Father whom Jesus has come to reveal. The question is not whether God exists in heaven but whether you believe that God is being revealed in the middle of our confusion and searching. Faith is not the result of a mathematical equation nor a philosophical argument. As Pope Benedict wrote, being a Christian is the result of an encounter with an event, a person which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction (Deus Caritas Est, 1)Thomas and Philip might well tell us that it is in doubt more than in certainty that we must search for the God of Jesus. But journey with Jesus and he will give you enough glimpses of the Father to sustain you through the struggle.

Secondly, Jesus says that he is the Way, the Truth and the Life. He doesn’t offer a semi-detached relationship or a set of rules. Know me, he says, and you will have seen the Father. Jesus says that there is Truth outside what I would like to believe. Jesus is the Truth, I am not the author of my truth. Truth draws me out of my limited world, not deeper into my own confused logic. Adam and Eve could have taught us that! Pope John Paul II wrote nearly 30 years ago that much modern thought will “end by detaching human freedom from its essential… relationship to the truth.” (Veritatis Splendor 4). As John Henry Newman wrote, “Conscience has rights because it has duties.” (quoted in Veritatis Splendor 34). An informed conscience is the result of an uncomfortable search for the truth, and not merely on the basis of what I want. If ‘obey your thirst’ is the basis for moral decisions, there is no freedom.

… the Truth will not let us adopt politically driven narratives that seek to find and damn the enemy out there in our perceived opponents.

Specifically, the search for the Truth brings us beyond the rival scientific arguments about the Corona virus or the arrogant assertion about who was to blame for its origins and how poorly some countries have controlled its spread. Jesus, the Truth will not let us adopt politically driven narratives that seek to find and damn the enemy out there in our perceived opponents. Jesus knew that it was easier to remove the splinter from another’s eye rather than tackle the plank in one’s own eye. Those who perpetrate self-serving narratives about the past can never build a future. Only the truth will set us free and help us come to terms with the painful legacy of our divided and brutal past. Jesus both helps us to see the Truth and to find forgiveness for the times that we rejected it. We will flourish as a society only when we have leaders who are big-hearted enough seek the truth and cut themselves loose from any big-headed promotion of fake news. Jesus died on the Cross because he tackled the abuse of truth in his day. His message is equally unwelcome today.

Thirdly, where might we find the way to God through Jesus? The great saints down through the centuries have been clear that it is in the love, compassion and mercy of God for the world. Jesus says that he is the Life. Through his love and forgiveness for the broken, he loved them back into life. The Father’s love for Jesus was stronger than the power of human brutality and sin on the Cross. It is what we do for the least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters that God’s dream for the world is. It is in the practical truth of divine mercy that God is revealed and not merely in a strident proclamation of my comfortable truth, especially when it is intended to make somebody else feel uncomfortable. That was what Jesus condemned so strongly in the Pharisees. When theological truth is separated from practical compassion, we can end up with much religion but little faith. Discipleship means imitating how Jesus was and not just mouthing his truths. Unless people see a Church that pulsates with the mercy of Jesus, they will not come to us looking to see either Jesus or the Father.

Like Philip, we discover that if we really want to know Jesus, we have to journey with him. God is in charge, not human beings. In every stage of the journey God is Emmanuel, with us and teaching us truths, if only we had ears to hear. That was not easy for the apostles in Holy Week. It would be a tragedy if we came out of this pandemic and had learned nothing about how we have organised Church and our society. It would be an awful waste of this Covid Cross if we failed to be led on a new way, not being afraid of the truth and prepared to imagine a new way of life.

But, if – through prayer and penance – we can let our hearts be remade, then we will really know what Resurrection means. And, by the grace of God, that is what the Church in every generation has discovered.

+ Donal McKeown