HOMILY EASTER SEASON – WEEK 07 03
Important Words of Departure
Memorial: St. Boniface – Bishop and Martyr
(Acts 20:28-38; Ps 68; Jn 17:11-19)
When someone is leaving us whom we know we will never see again, or dying, we tend to hang onto their last words as precious memories of them and teachings that will stay with us.
Today’s liturgy focuses on the last words of Paul to the Ephesians and of Jesus to his disciples before his passion. They invite us to ponder the reality of servant leadership, the importance of unity, and the power of God’s word to heal and transform us.
First, both St. Paul and Jesus are concerned about what will happen after they are gone in terms of leadership. Jesus asks the Father to protect and guard the apostles as they carry on without him, and then models what genuine leadership looks like by humbly giving his life away freely to redeem humanity. He had already rejected, during the temptations in the desert, the false gods (possessions, prestige and power) so many world leaders crave and cling to, at the cost of immeasurable human tragedy and misery (think Stalin, Mao, Hitler and countless other dictators). Now he would carry out the ultimate gesture of selfless, servant leadership by his death on the cross. There should be no need to say more – yet still there is too much of that precise reality in all kinds of leadership in our society and yes, even in the church.
St. Paul, in his own way, underlines the same theme of servant leadership to the elders, encouraging them to follow his own example (“I coveted no one’s silver or gold or clothing … worked with my own hands to support myself and my companions – giving you an example so that we might support the week … and live the words of Jesus who said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”) Paul certainly lived the words of Jesus – “The Son of Man came to serve and not to be served.” And so must we, especially those of us tasked with leadership in the church.
A second concern for both Paul and Jesus was the unity of the Body of Christ. Paul mentions for three years he did not cease to warn them, with tears, of the danger of disunity, of “savage wolves” coming into the flock to distort the truth and divide the community. There are two words we use for the evil one – Satan and Devil. The word devil comes from the Greek diabloswhich means “to divide.” So, whenever there is a divisive force in a group, however subtle, in or out of the church, it can be seen as touching on the diabolical, and that is cause for great sadness. Satan is just the opposite – he gathers people together but for the wrong reason – to destroy and kill (think ISIS, Boko Haram, gangs, etc.). There is the creation of community, but a shallow, fearful, imposed cohesion for a negative purpose – to wreak havoc and disturb. That has no place in the Church.
Jesus addresses the same issue but from a very positive and challenging perspective – inviting the apostles to maintain a unity among themselves that will mirror the very intimate relational energy of the Holy Trinity – to be one as the Father, Son and Spirit are one. What a challenge and goal for us to try to emulate! Certainly, that warrants all the energy we can muster up to work for unity and ecumenism through dialogue, common projects and seeking common ground, rather than what divides us. We need to be like Jean Vanier, who saw all diversity and differences not as threats to community, but as graces to help build stronger community.
A last concern felt by both St. Paul and Jesus is the power of God’s word to heal and transform, although each expressed it differently. Paul speaks of the message of God’s word that can build up and give them “the inheritance among all who are sanctified.” He is speaking of the eternal life of peace, healing and joy that only the Spirit of Jesus can give. Sanctification essentially means “healing”– a true gift of the Holy Spirit.
For his part, Jesus speaks of the apostles being “sanctified in the truth,” healed through the truth of who he is and the truth of their lives. As the Messiah, Jesus came to redeem and sanctify, to forgive and to heal. So, through faith in him and the power of his Spirit, they and we are forgiven all our sins and wrongdoing, and also healed of all our painful emotions and negative attitudes, and even our addictions. That is good news indeed and the source of our unbounded joy – through our faith in Jesus, we can truly be set free to live in the kingdom of the Father, and it does not get any better than that.
Today the church honors St Boniface, who lived fully these teachings of St. Paul and Jesus. He was born around 680 in Devonshire, England, given the name Wynfrid and was raised in Benedictine monasteries. By 717, he was a renowned teacher and preacher, but gave up his work in response to a call to the mission field of northern Netherlands. In Rome, Pope Gregory II renamed him Boniface. He was made archbishop of Mainze by Pope Gregory III. He was one of the truly outstanding creators of the first Europe as the apostle of Germania. Through his efforts to reorganize and regulate the church of the Franks, he helped shape Western Christianity, and many of the dioceses he proposed remain today. At Geismar, Boniface made a tremendous impression by destroying the great Oak of Thor, an object of pagan worship, without being harmed by “the gods” (a missionary practice we would question today).
Boniface is called the “Apostle of Germany.” He was martyred in Frisia in 754, along with 52 others, and his remains were returned to Fulda, where they rest in a sarcophagus which became a site of pilgrimage. Boniface’s life and death as well as his work became widely known. After his martyrdom, he was quickly hailed as a saint in Fulda and other areas in Germania and in England. His cult is still notably strong today. Boniface is celebrated (and criticized) as a missionary, but he is regarded as a unifier of Europe, and is seen (mainly by Catholics) as a Germanic national figure.
The Eucharist is both a source of and celebration of unity, as well as an experience of forgiveness and healing. It also mandates us to go out to the world as servant leaders, to live out these teachings of both Jesus our Lord and St. Paul, the world’s greatest evangelizer, with the intercession and example of St. Boniface to aid us.