7th Sunday of Easter Acts of the Apostles 7:55–60; Revelation 22:12–14, 16–17, 20; John 17:20–26
Thus far the Master We the disciples must complete the Master’s work.
The great Italian composer Giacomo Puccini wrote a number of famous operas. Among these are La Bohème (Bo-em) and Madame Butterfly.
In 1922 the 64-year-old Puccini was stricken with cancer. In spite of the disease, Puccini was determined to complete his final opera, Turandot (Tour-en-doe), which many now consider his best.
He worked on it day and night. Many urged him to rest, thinking he couldn’t possibly finish it anyway. When his sickness worsened, Puccini said to his disciples, “If I don’t finish Turandot, I want you to finish it for me.’’
Then came the fateful day in 1924 when Puccini was taken to Brussels for an operation. He died two days after surgery.
Back in Italy, Puccini’s disciples gathered together the various scores from Turandot. They studied them carefully and then completed the opera.
In 1926 the world premiere was performed in Milan’s magnificent La Scala Opera House. It was directed by Puccini’s favorite student, Arturo Toscanini.
Everything went beautifully until the opera reached that point where Puccini was forced to put down his pen. Tears ran down Toscanini’s face. He stopped the music, put down his baton, turned to the audience, and cried out, “Thus far the Master wrote, but he died.’’
Then there was silence throughout the Milan opera house. No one moved; no one spoke.
After a couple of minutes, Toscanini picked up the baton again, turned to the audience, smiled through his tears, and cried out, “But the disciples finished his work.’’
When Turandot ended, the audience broke into a thunderous applause. No one there ever forgot that moment.
The story of the writing of Puccini’s Turandot bears a striking resemblance to the story of Christianity. In particular, it recalls that moment in the history of Christianity that is referred to in today’s gospel.
Before Jesus the Master was able to complete his work of establishing God’s kingdom on earth, he died. But before he died, he asked his disciples to complete his work, just as Puccini asked his disciples to complete Turandot.
Today’s readings place us at that point in the history of Christianity when we cry out, “Thus far the Master wrote; then he departed from us.’’
And now it is the disciples’ job to complete the work that Jesus began, just as Puccini’s disciples completed the work he began. That brings us to this congregation gathered here today. The work of Puccini was completed by a few disciples within a few years. But the work of Jesus will require generation upon generation to complete.
And it will require the work not of just a few disciples, but of every disciple of every generation.
And so today we gather as a community of disciples to recommit ourselves to the Master’s work. It’s fitting that we do this on Mother’s Day. For of all the people committed to the Master’s work, mothers rank at the top of the list.
Henry Ward Beecher explained why this is so when he said, “The mother’s heart is the child’s schoolroom.’’ And Napoleon Bonaparte put it this way: “As long as France has good mothers she will have good sons.’’
The reason why mothers rank at the top of the list is that mothers shape the hearts of those who ultimately shape the world.
But there is yet another reason why mothers rank at the top of the list. No one is more familiar with completing the Master’s work than is a mother.
When a child is born into the world, an angel in heaven cries out, “Thus far the Master’s work. Now it’s up to the mother to complete what the Master began.’’ Each child is a masterpiece begun by God and given to some mother to complete. Each child is God’s gift to a mother; what the mother does with that precious bundle is the gift she gives back to God.
And so it is to you mothers that we turn for our inspiration and guidance. For it is to you that the Master gave the most important role in his work of spreading his Father’s kingdom on earth.
One writer described a mother’s role in God’s plan in these moving words:
“When God wants a great job done in the world or a great wrong righted, he goes about it in a very unusual way.
“He doesn’t stir up his earthquakes or send forth his thunderbolts. Instead he has a helpless baby born, perhaps in a simple home . . . [to] some obscure mother.
“And then God puts the idea into the mother’s heart, and she puts it into the baby’s mind. And then God waits.’’ E.T. Sullivan
The greatest force in the world is not an earthquake, or a thunderbolt, or nuclear power. The greatest force in the world is a newborn baby in the arms of a loving mother. Let’s conclude with a toast to mothers that appeared in Ann Landers’s column:
“Here’s a toast to [mothers], those blessed creatures. Rise and shine! You are worth your weight in gold. And you are beautiful.’’ And we add:
You are blessed among all God’s creation. It is to you that we turn to draw inspiration and guidance as we recommit ourselves to the Master’s work: the spread of God’s kingdom on earth.
Series II 7th Sunday of Easter Acts of the Apostles 7:55–60; Revelation 22:12–14, 16–17, 20; John 17:20–26
Letter to a stranger We “teach all nations’’ not only by word but also by the example of our lives.
Years ago Guideposts magazine published an article by Julian Motheral, called “Letter to a Stranger.’’
It was addressed to “Someone Out There.’’ The “someone-out-there’’ was a young robber who knocked Julian down during a service station holdup.
The robber then shot him as he lay on the ground. The bullet entered Julian’s spine and left him totally paralyzed.
Julian began his letter to the robber by saying that he could never forget that terrible night when all this happened. He wrote, and I quote:
“Until that night, I could walk on moonlit nights with my wife. Until that night, I could run and play with my young son.
“I have not been able to do any of these things now for almost ten years ever since you put a bullet in my spine.’’
Julian went on to describe the mental and the physical agony that he suffered. At times it got so bad hat he seriously thought of suicide.
As the painful days stretched into weeks and months, Julian began reflecting on the Gospels, especially Jesus’ suffering and death. As he did, grace began to operate in his life, and he experienced a remarkable transformation of mind and heart.
He concluded his letter to the robber, saying:
“I do not know your name, and may never know it. . . .
“Do I forgive you?
“By myself I couldn’t do it. . . . But when I remembered Jesus on the cross, I found I could pray . . . ‘Father, forgive the boy who shot me, for he didn’t realize what he was doing.’ ’’
The story of Julian Motheral bears a striking resemblance to the story of Stephen in today’s first reading.
Like Stephen, Julian was knocked to the ground, and his life was taken from him in a violent way.
And like Stephen, Julian didn’t hold the crime against his attacker. Rather, like Stephen, he forgave him. The story of Stephen and the story of Julian are fitting stories for us to contemplate on this Sunday after the feast of the Ascension, which we celebrated last Thursday.
For these stories show Stephen and Julian carrying out the command that Jesus gave to his followers just before he ascended to his Father. At that time Jesus said to them: “Go, then, to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples: . . . teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Matthew 28:19–20
Stephen and Julian did just that. And they did it in the most powerful way that one person can teach another. They did it by example. Someone once said that people are moved more by sermons they can see than by sermons they can hear.
And that’s the kind of sermon that Stephen preached in today’s first reading. It’s also the kind of sermon that Julian preached by accepting his tragic life and forgiving his assailant.
Both Stephen and Julian preached sermons that people could see. Both preached the good news of Jesus by example. This brings us to an important point.
The reason Stephen and Julian were able to teach by example was because of something else that Jesus did just before he ascended into heaven. He prayed for his disciples in these words that we find in today’s gospel:
“Father! . . . I made you known to them . . . in order that the love you have for me may be in them, and so that I also may be in them.”
Stephen and Julian were able to bear witness to Jesus by example because Jesus had prayed for them and because the Father’s love and Jesus himself dwelt in them.
This is what we celebrate on this Sunday.
We celebrate the fact that what Jesus promised just before he ascended into heaven has come to pass.
The love of the Father and Jesus himself are present in his followers, enabling them to carry the good news to the four corners of the world, not only by word but also by example. What Stephen did and what Julian did, you and I too are called upon to do.
We are called upon to carry the good news to the four corners of the world, by word and by example. This is what Jesus commissioned us to do before he ascended to his Father.
And to help us carry out this task, Jesus promised that the love of his Father and that he himself would be with us.
It is this promise of Jesus that we celebrate in this liturgy.
It is this promise of Jesus that makes it possible for us to do what Stephen and Julian did.
And if we carry out the task Jesus gave us, we too will someday share with Jesus and the Father the joy of eternal life in the kingdom of heaven a kingdom of life and truth, a kingdom of grace and holiness, a kingdom of love, peace, and justice. Lord, help us remember always that without you we can do nothing. But with you, we can do all things: cross any desert, ford any stream, climb any mountain, overcome any obstacle.
Series III 7th Sunday of Easter Acts of the Apostles 7:55–60; Revelation 22:12–14, 16–17, 20; John 17:20–26
Prayer of Jesus Lord, teach us to pray.
Jesus said,] “I pray not only for [my disciples], but also for those who believe in me because of their message.” John 17:20
Aprisoner in a Florida work camp had just begun to meditate daily. He wrote to a priest (the author):
One evening I was feeling down. And believe me, it is easy to feel down in this place. Anyway, I was looking at the ceiling, trying to find something on which to focus while I meditated.
I located some dark spots and gradually found the smallest one. Then this thought came to me:
Of all the people that ever were, that are, and that ever will be, I’m just one small speck, an insignificant grain of sand.
Then another thought came to me! God and Jesus love me just as much as they love people who are far more important and significant than I am. That thought brought me and continues to bring me a wonderful sense of warmth and comfort. That passage from the prisoner’s letter illustrates in a down-to-earth way how we should begin each session of serious prayer. We should consciously try to set aside all other thoughts and turn to God alone. Like the prisoner, many people find it helps to focus on an object. It can be anything from a picture in a book to a crucifix on the wall. Sometimes, closing the eyes helps.
The important thing is that whatever we do, it helps us turn our thoughts to God, and to the fact that God is present in the room with us and loves us, regardless of our situation.
Placing ourselves in God’s presence is the indispensable starting point of all prayer.
In his book How to Pray, Father Bernard Basset, S.J., says this about the first minute or so of prayer:
I must stop thinking of everything else for the moment, while I stand and put myself in the presence of God. . . . An awareness of God’s presence is a gift. If God gives it to me, as he does from time to time, then I do no more than stand or sit or kneel in his presence.
Any effort on my part to make myself feel God’s presence is nearly always wrong.
In his book The Taste of New Wine, Keith Miller says that when he first began to meditate daily, he did not always feel or experience God’s presence. In fact, he rarely felt it. One day Keith told a friend about this problem. His friend said that he, too, worried about this problem when he started to pray on a daily basis. Then one day it dawned on him that feeling wasn’t the point of praying.
Those words from his friend helped Keith immensely. They gave him a new insight into himself. He writes:
I realized that so much of my life I had been a spiritual sensualist, always wanting to feel God’s presence in my prayers and being depressed when I didn’t. . . .
So I tried praying . . . whether I felt spiritual or not and found for the first time in my life that I can live on raw faith. Moreover, I found that often the very act of praying this way brings later a closer sense of God’s presence.
This brings us to an important point we need to keep in mind about prayer, namely, that the “grace of prayer” often comes later, outside the time of prayer.
In other words, the “seeds” we plant during prayer often take time to germinate, grow, and bear fruit.
That brings us to a second passage in the prisoner’s letter. He writes:
I have the habit of marking the pages of my little daily meditation book that I want to revisit.For example, I marked one that had to do with feeling God’s presence. . . . A mistake we can make in meditating is to confuse faith and feeling. He then adds:
It may be wishful thinking, but sometimes when I pray, I can feel God all around me almost hugging me.
I have this feeling now, and it makes all I’ve been through this last year well worth it.
That brings up a question: How do I respond when I “feel God all around me almost hugging me,” to use the prisoner’s own words?
Father Armand Nigro, S.J., writes:
In these moments God’s special communication may come with a deep personal sense of his presence.
Sometimes he makes his presence felt (experienced) by us. And when he does, let it continue. Let his presence hold or carry you,just as water holds up a floating body. Stay with it until it fades. “Prayer—A Personal Response to God’s Presence”
In other words, simply be grateful and remain silently in God’s presence.
Acollege student once said:
I couldn’t understand how simply remaining in God’s presence could be meaningful. Then one night I was sitting with my girl on the shoreline of Lake Michigan.
It was a beautiful night, and the light from the full moon created a shimmering path across the waters of the lake.
After remarking how beautiful it was, we both fell silent. We stayed that way, holding hands and just being present to one another for nearly half an hour.
It was a wonderful experience, just being together and saying nothing.
Let’s close with this thought:
I pray because I am a Christian, and to do what a Christian must do, I need strength. . . .
I pray because most of what I have has been given to me, and I ought to give thanks.
I pray because Jesus prayed, and if he considered it important, so should I. M.L.