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I am not going to preach about the Gospel this morning, but I do want to point out to you, as I did during Holy Week, that this power given to the Apostles to forgive sins is another example of the connection between the Last Supper and the Sacrifice of the Cross. We know that our Lord’s death on the Cross was a redeeming sacrifice that made it possible for all mankind to enter into the ways of salvation. The Apostles were given the power to make that very same sacrifice of Calvary present everywhere, without regard to time and place, in an unbloody manner as priests according to the Order of Melchesidech, offering the body and blood of our Lord under the appearances of bread and wine.
In priestly ordination, a man becomes a priest when the bishop lays hands upon his head and utters a prayer asking God to “... invest him with the dignity of the priesthood....” At that moment, he is fully a priest, but a second imposition of hands takes place near the end of Mass, which specifically confers the power to forgive sins. The Gospel today took place on Easter Sunday night. It is quite possible that the Apostles already possessed the power to forgive sins, since they had received the priesthood of the New Covenant some four days earlier. The forgiveness of sins is, after all, nothing less than the application of the graces and forgiveness of the Sacrifice of the Cross to individual penitents, rather than to all of mankind at once. Again, I mention this to you to remind you of the inseparable connection between the Mass and the Cross.
The Epistle this morning is just a bit cryptic, so a few words about it are in order. It would not hurt for you to go home and read it in its entirety for yourselves—there are only five brief chapters to this First Epistle of Saint John. His purpose in writing to the people of what today would be the country of Turkey, was to urge them to keep the Commandments, particularly the Commandment to love God and to love one another. He urged them not to develop attachments to the things of the world, and cautioned them against worldly teachers (whom he called “antichrists”) who would try to lead them away from the truth which they already knew, and convince them that Jesus was not the Christ, the anointed Son of God. One can either be of God, or of the devil; there is no in between ground.
The fourth chapter of the Epistle contains a particularly striking phrase, which is often quoted: “God is love, and he who abides in love, abides in God, and God in him.”[i] God loved us so much that He sent his only-begotten Son into the world, in order to redeem us, and to give us the opportunity of becoming His adopted sons and daughters.
At the beginning of the fifth chapter, from which we read today, John wrote: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God.”[ii] It is the very same Saint John who wrote in that Gospel which we read at the conclusion of most Masses: “to as many as received Him, He gave the power of becoming sons of God.”[iii] And today, he makes it clear that the way of receiving Him is through faith. And please note that this idea of “becoming sons of God,” is one of continuous action, not something which is entirely done once and never revisited. (For those who know grammar, the participle is ongoing in the present, rather than in the past.)
What exactly is this thing called faith? First of all it is not an emotional thing. It is not a matter of getting up at some sort of “revival meeting” to excitedly testify about some arousing acceptance of Jesus Christ. It is possible, of course, to be emotional about the Good News of salvation—but that excitement is not faith—and the public testimony is often gimmick to brush over the lack of true faith in the denominations that do not have it—adrenaline is substituted for virtue!
Far from being emotional, faith is a virtue of the intellect. Now, I do not mean that faith is something we can set out to acquire through human means. The fellow with a doctoral degree in theology may have far less faith than the young girl who knows little more than the mysteries of the Rosary. Faith is a free gift from God. In the order of time, we can say that it is God’s first gift, for it is faith which prepares us to receive all of God’s other virtues and graces. It is faith that prepares the adult convert for Baptism. It is faith that is instilled in the infant at Baptism. Hope and charity follow thereafter with the Sacrament.
Faith is the personal belief in what God has publicly revealed to be true. It consists of all of the things revealed in the Old Testament, through Moses and the Prophets, as well as all of the things revealed by Jesus Christ and entrusted to the Apostles and their successors. Now, that may sound like an awful lot to know, in order to believe—and, of course it is, and may well be beyond the comprehension of most of us. It is, however, fully adequate to say that one has the Faith, if he simply acknowledges that God knows all things, always tells the truth, and is incapable of deceiving us. More precise knowledge can come later.
The truths of God are much more than some abstract system. They are the truths of the Son of God, “who came in water and in blood.”[iv] This expression may be a little strange to us. Most likely it refers to the start of our Lord’s public mission of truth telling beginning with water, in His Baptism in the Jordan—and culminating with His Sacrifice on the Cross, with His blood. Saint John is relating to us the powerful witness of our Lord’s public life: Jesus’ teachings must be those of God, both because He is the Son of God, and because no man would spend three years of His life, living in poverty, and ultimately dieing a painful death, in order to deceive us. His words must be true.
There also seems to be a secondary meaning in what Saint John wrote. “The water, the blood, and the spirit” just about cry out to our understanding, to be interpreted as the Sacramental means which Jesus instituted to give us grace, and to enhance our faith in God. It is improbable that we will hear those words, “The water, the blood, and the spirit” without thinking of Baptism, the Holy Eucharist, and Confirmation. And we should make that association, precisely because it is necessary to nourish our faith, and these things (together with Confession, about which we heard in the Gospel) are the means by which we can do so.
I said before that it is adequate simply to accept the idea that God has revealed His truths, and that we believe them—whatever they are—because He is incapable of deception. But we should remember that faith is a virtue, and spiritual virtues are very much like the talents and good habits which we must develop in our natural lives. The virtues ought to be exercised in order to reinforce them. Just as talent alone, without practice, doesn’t make a concert violinist, or world class athlete, or a university professor—the virtues must be exercised and practiced if we are to become the really good Catholics God would like us to be. Since it is a virtue of the intellect, that means that our faith would benefit form the exercise of learning some of those truths which God has revealed.
There are a lot of ways to learn the truths of the Faith. The most obvious is regular attendance at Mass, where we not only receive the graces of Holy Communion, but also have the opportunity to hear the readings of the Scriptures, and perhaps to hear a sermon explaining them. There is a lot of good Catholic literature on the book rack. Modern technology gives us easy access to the writings of the Apostles, evangelists, fathers, and doctors of the Church. And let me plug our Tuesday night Catholic Studies Group, where we have an opportunity for guided study, and to learn from one another. We have abundant opportunities to know the truths of the Faith, and to exercise that God-given virtue within us.
Where then, does this leave us in the practical order of things? What must we do? “This is the victory which overcomes the world, our Faith.... He who believes the testimony of the Son of God has the testimony of God Himself.... this is the testimony that God has given us eternal life, and that life is in His Son.”[v] So all of us must pray to God for a vibrant and holy faith, we must nourish that faith with His Sacraments (particularly the Most Blessed Sacrament of His Son), and exercise it by learning to know about Him and what He has revealed. If we do these things we will love Him, we will keep His Commandments, and we will have eternal life.