These past ten days we have heard a lot about Heaven's Gate - that cult down in San Diego where 39 people committed suicide. It was a terrible tragedy and different commentators have tried to draw their own lessons from it. The most common is the warning about the dangers of irrational belief. Some have even gone so far as to say Christianity is that kind of unthinking belief.
We have an answer in this Sunday's Gospel. His name is Thomas. He wasn't present that first Easter Sunday when Jesus appeared to the other ten apostles. As you can imagine, they were enthused. But Thomas was not. He was hesitant, skeptical. Show me the evidence, he said.
This desire to see the evidence has always been part of Christian history. There has always been a place for the "Doubting Thomas", the sincere questioner. The Church has never embraced what is called "blind faith."
Let me illustrate that. Back in the early third century there was a priest named Tertullian. He was mighty preacher. He called people to an absolute, uncompromising faith. But he went a little too far. His motto was "Credo ut absurdam. I believe because it is absurd." He wanted people to toss their reason overboard. If some belief appeared unreasonable all the better. But the Church did not accept that. Tertullian wound up leaving the Catholic Church and joining a millenarian sect called the Montanists.
A couple centuries later St. Augustine set out the true Catholic teaching: Faith and reason ultimately cannot contradict each other because both they have the same source: God Himself. And they have the same end: to find the truth. However faith opens up a deeper truth than reason could ever discover. Augustine's motto therefore was "Credo ut intelligam. I believe that I might understand."
While promoting genuine faith the Catholic Church is respectful to reason or science. We can see that in the investigations which are taking place around the Shroud of Turin. It is a linen cloth three and a half feet wide and fourteen and half feet long with the marks of a crucified man. Some consider to be the very burial cloth which wrapped the body of Jesus. It would be tremendous for us to have the actual shroud of Jesus but the Church was willing, even eager, to have scientist do carbon dating on it. Those initial tests indicated that the Shroud did not go back to the first century, but only the 13th. Subsequently other scientists have raised new questions, so there will be some further testing. But the point is, the Catholic Church does not ignore scientific investigation and questioning.
Still scientists themselves know that science alone can never answer the most important questions: Where did we come from - ultimately? (Not just whether we descended from monkeys, but where did the universe come from - before the big bang?) And why are we here? How are we supposed to live our lives? Why do we have a sense inside us that some things are right and others are wrong? And why does man have within himself such a hunger, one that nothing here below seems to truly satisfy? Science can help us to some degree, but really the answers are beyond what the scientific method is capable of. That is perhaps why, according to one study, more than 40% of all scientists in this country say they believe in a personal God, a God who is above this world and who created it.
These scientists who believe in God are people like Thomas. They are used to asking questions, doubting, examining the evidence. That is what science is about. But also like Thomas they are able to make that crucial step of faith. In Thomas' words to Jesus we have the greatest profession of faith in the Gospels: "My Lord and my God."
The act of faith brings us into a personal relation with Jesus. For us as Catholics that personal relationship is lived above all in the sacraments. Last Easter in the 150 parishes of the Archdiocese of Seattle, some two thousand adults became members of the Catholic Church. They did it through the Easter sacraments of baptism, confirmation and Eucharist.
We have a reference to those sacraments in second reading of our Mass today. St. John said that Jesus came through water and blood. Not in water only, but in water and blood. This brings to mind the water and blood which flowed from Jesus when the lance pierced his side as he hung on the cross. The water of course is baptism - the sacrament by which we become members of Jesus. And the blood is the sacrifice of the Mass, the Eucharist. When the priest lifts up the chalice, he says, "Take and drink. this is the cup of blood - which will be poured out for you."
There is more. St. John adds, "It is the Spirit who testifies to this and the Spirit is truth." The pre-eminent sacrament of the Holy Spirit is confirmation. The bishop, or as was the case during the Easter Vigil, the priest, signs the forehead with the Chrism and says "Be sealed with the Holy Spirit."
We live a life now in the Holy Spirit. And it has consequences. As we heard today in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, the early Christians motivated by the Holy Spirit, sold what they had and laid their property at the feet of the apostles - to distribute to the poor. We do that by our Stewardship, our Sacrificial Giving, for example to the parish and to charities.
I saw a dramatic example of sacrificial giving when I was down in Peru for seven years, working with the Aymara Indians. They are a beautiful people, but poor. Some did not have enough money for medicines, for decent food or even to buy shoes to be able to send their children to school. I tried to help those I could, but resources were very limited. One day I received a letter from a woman here in the Seattle area whom I had never met. She told me that she had four sons, two of them teenagers and that her husband had abandoned her and she was struggling to raise them on her own. But she also heard about the need of families and children in Peru. In her prayer, God inspired her to take her entire savings, $5000 and send it to Peru. You know, some people might say that woman was foolish. She should have thought of her own children first. But she gave those boys a better gift than a used car - or a few semesters at a University. She gave them the gift of faith - and concern for those who have so much less than we do.
I have to say I was deeply grateful for her sacrifice. I was able to help so many families in my parish down in Peru. They are people of deep faith. I know they are praying for the ones who helped them when they were in a difficult situation.
That is what our life in the Spirit means. We no longer tighten our fists and say "MY." This my house, my car, my job, my money, my children, my life. No, everything I have is from God. It is his gift. And I am going to have to render an account to God for how I have used it. That is what is wrong with 39 people taking their own lives. Their lives did not belong to them. They belonged to God.
All of us instinctively recognize the difference between suicide and self-sacrifice. For example, those four firemen who gave their lives a couple of years ago in Seattle. We honor those young men. But when someone takes their own life we feel ashamed, even hurt. Why? Because we know that ultimately our lives are not our own. We belong to God and in some way also to each other. A person who commits suicide is thumbing his nose at God, at his family and at every other person on this planet. We have a responsibility to God and to each other. One day we will have give an account to Him for how we have used this great gift of life. That day will come fast enough. We do not need to hasten it.
My brothers and sisters, this Easter season we are called to reflect on the meaning of our lives. To draw near to Jesus, the Risen Lord. To be washed clean by the water and blood which flows from his side. To live a new life in Spirit.
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C