Our readings for this weekend focus on the theme of unity, what it means to be joined together as one. As we look at the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel of St. John, it becomes clear that we are seeing two very different kinds of unity.
In the Acts of the Apostles we hear the account of the stoning of St. Stephen. St. Stephen was one of the first men to become a deacon in the early Church. He is also the first Christian martyr, the very first one to die for his faith in Christ.
St. Luke, the author of Acts, writes about how St. Stephen had been witnessing to the risen Christ and relating to the scribes and the religious leaders that the person of Christ was the one sent by God for our salvation. Finally, at one point, they had heard enough. St. Luke then describes how, suddenly:
They all “rushed upon him together. They threw him out of the city and began to stone him.”
One of the older translations says that they rushed upon him “as one man”; they were that united against him in anger and hatred. And because they were so united, so completely of one accord, they were able to accomplish what they set out to do. They were able to kill St. Stephen…but that’s all they were able to do!
They had the power to kill his body, but it becomes remarkably clear in that description from the Acts of the Apostles that his soul is perfectly intact. He prays, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59), and he even prays for those who are stoning him to death.
As powerful a scene as that is regarding St. Stephen’s faith and the quality of his soul, it is just as revealing with regard to the unity of his attackers. The Crowd mentality or the mob mentality that can be seen all throughout human history—from the time of Christ, when they cried “crucify him”, even into our own time, with terrorism—is essentially a weak unity. It can take away life, but that is all it can do.
How different, the unity Christ calls us to! The oneness Christ calls us to—in Him and with each other—has the power not to take away life, but to bear fruit and bring new life to the world we live in. In His beautiful oration to the Father, Jesus prays for His disciples and for all of us:
That they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they may also be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.
Our unity in Christ is the same unity that Christ shares with the Father in the Holy Spirit. As we know, that unity was able to bear fruit by shedding forth the mercy of God, the love and the grace of God in the world we live in. Our unity in Christ, likewise, is able to bring new life where no life had been before. It is that fruitful, that powerful.
Obviously, that is a spiritual reality. Jesus says that we will live in Him and He will live in us (John 15:4; 17:23,26). The Holy Spirit lives in us by virtue of our Baptism. It is a deeply spiritual reality.
But Christ is not just a spiritual being. He is not a spirit or a ghost. In addition to being fully God He is also fully man, flesh and blood, body and soul, like us. Therefore the unity He calls us to is also a physical reality. It is a unity that we should be able to see, feel and experience.
That physical unity finds its greatest expression whenever we gather together here to celebrate the Eucharist. The reason why Christ gives us His body and blood is to make us one in Him, in the Eucharist.
St. Paul, writing to the Church at Corinth, says it all when he describes how they drink of the one cup, and eat of the one bread, and so become one in Christ (1 Corinthians 10:16-17).
About six months ago, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote a document entitled, Happy are Those Who are Called to His Supper. It explores this very mystery of the Eucharist, the Sacrament of unity in the life of the Church.
One of the topics covered in that document is a question many Catholics are sometimes asked: Who is able to receive communion in the Catholic Church? The document goes on to explain how those who are not in communion with the Catholic Church are not able, therefore, to receive the Sacrament of Communion for that reason. We share a common Baptism with our brothers and sisters of other Christian faith communities. We share their same love for Christ in the Scriptures and hold so many beliefs and doctrines in common.
However, we are not united in our understanding of the foundation of the Church by Christ. They do not accept the role of St. Peter as the head of the Apostles, and the successor of St. Peter in the Pope. They do not accept that structure of the Church regarding the Apostles and their successors in the bishops of the Church, from which we receive the gift of the Eucharist itself. Therefore, while we invite all to join with us in prayer at the Eucharistic table, not all are able to receive Communion in the Catholic Church.
For that matter, the bishops go on to say that there are certain circumstances in which even Catholics should refrain from receiving the Eucharist:
If we are no longer in the state of grace because of mortal sin, we are seriously obliged to refrain from receiving Holy Communion until we are reconciled with God and the Church.
— Happy are Those Who are Called to His Supper.
To go back to our CCD classes growing up, mortal sin is not something that simply happens to us by accident. It involves three things. Firstly, it must be what the Church refers to as “grave matter,” something serious enough to break our communion with God and with each other. Secondly, we must be aware that it is grave matter, to have the knowledge that we are dealing with something that serious in the moral life. Finally, we must be free to chose not to commit that sin, but nonethless go ahead and do so anyway.
We do not usually need a religion textbook or a course in moral theology to tell us when this has happened in our lives. We know when we have sinned against God or others in a serious or grave way. The Holy Spirit is the one who convicts us of sin and moves us towards repentance. That is why the bishops continue by saying:
Catholics who are conscious of committing any mortal sin must receive the Sacrament of Penance before receiving Holy Communion.
It is important to understand what is being said there. They are not saying that those in a state of mortal sin should stay away from Christ in the Eucharist. No, they are saying to those in a state of mortal sin: Be reconciled! Be reconciled to God and to each other, and then come to receive this great Sacrament of Communion.
One final aspect that is not mentioned in the bishops’ document on the Eucharist—I believe because it is rather obvious and perhaps goes without saying—is something that I mentioned at the beginning of this homily. Our communion and unity in Christ, far different from the crowd mentality that took away the life of St. Stephen, is able to bear fruit and bring new life to the world.
That is the reason we come together in the first place: so that we can be strengthened in the Eucharist and then go out and bear fruit in the world we live in. It is the reason why we hear those words at the end of every Mass:
“The Mass is ended, go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”
How is God challenging us to be more united, more completely one than ever before, as we gather together for the Eucharist? And how are we called to bring the fruits of that unity to a world that desperately needs the new life of Jesus Christ?