Sunday, April 27, 2008

6th Sunday of Easter (A)
Cultivating the Harvest of Hope

Readings: Acts 8:5-8, 14-17; Psalm 66:1-3, 4-5, 6-7, 16, 20; 1 Peter 3:15-18; John 14:15-21
Picture: CC World Bank Photo Collection

Always have your answer ready for people who ask you for the reason for the hope that you all have…

Dear sisters and brothers, what do you make of these words from our second reason today? Do you have a ready answer for those who ask for the reason for your hope? Hearing these words on this 6th Sunday of Easter two things are brought to mind. The first is the front page of the Home section of yesterday’s Straits Times. It carried two stories side by side. The one on the left told of how some conmen managed to cheat no less than eighty people of a total of $1.13 million dollars by promising them winning 4-D numbers. The story on the right reported that two men have died and five others are severely ill as a result of taking illegal sexual enhancement drugs. These are stories about quite different things. Greed and gambling on the left, and drugs and sex on the right. But they are also very similar. They are both stories of hope, or rather what often passes itself off for hope in our world today. These are stories of false hope, of hope misplaced, misguided and cruelly manipulated. They are stories of how the greedy are made gullible, of how the impotent are made ill.

Of course, these are not stories that we can easily identify with, we who are more respectable, more religious, better educated. We are wise enough not to hand over our hard-earned money to cunning crooks. We know better than to rely on cheap counterfeit drugs. Even so, don’t we also place our hope in the financial and property markets? And don’t we also pursue counterfeit forms of happiness, often at great cost to ourselves and those who love us? Don’t these stories invite us, above all, to examine the genuineness of our own hope? In what or whom do we place our hope? What does authentic Christian hope look and feel like?

The second thing that’s brought to mind is a talk I heard last Friday evening. A religious sister was sharing her long experience of accompanying condemned prisoners. The stories she told were as moving as they were incredible. She spoke of how one can sense a powerful aura of God’s love on death row. She told of how ruthless murderers and hardened drug traffickers come to accept Christ during their time in jail. And the proof of the genuineness of their conversion is seen in the way in which they face their deaths – many with a song of praise to God on their lips. Experiencing the love of God among condemned criminals? Singing a song of praise at the end of a hangman’s noose? Isn’t this all but unbelievable? And yet, don’t sister’s stories bring out for us a key characteristic of genuine hope?

Authentic Christian hope miraculously brings together ideas and experiences that at first seem contradictory: love in the midst of condemnation, new life in the face of death. This really shouldn’t surprise us. For isn’t this a crucial aspect of the Mystery we are celebrating in this Mass, and especially in this season of Easter? Isn’t this coming together of opposites what we find in Jesus Christ our Lord? As we proclaimed in our opening prayer today, he is the Son of Man born of woman, but without beginning; he suffered for us but lives for ever. Isn’t this the incredible miracle, isn’t this the awesome power, of Christian hope?

How then does one come to experience this miracle? How does one receive this power? If we see the experience of authentic Christian hope, the experience of the condemned yet converted inmates of death row for example, as a field of grain ripe for the harvest, then how do we cultivate this plentiful crop? What is the secret behind its growth? What are the steps in the process?

Being in Singapore, we might be forgiven if our first response is hard work. But the harvest of hope is not produced chiefly through the sweat of our brow. When we are struggling without much success to forgive someone, for example, the strength to keep trying does not really come from us. It is produced neither by the gritting of our teeth nor by the making of solemn resolutions, as helpful as these may be. The harvest of authentic Christian hope is ultimately the work of God. It is produced in us by the One about whom Jesus speaks in the gospel today, the Advocate… that Spirit of truth whom the world can never receive since it neither sees nor knows him… This is also the One whom the Samaritan converts received in the first reading when Peter and John laid hands on them, the same One in whom we have all been baptized and confirmed. As Jesus reminds us in the gospel: you know him, because he is with you, he is in you…

If this is true, then part of the secret to letting hope flourish in and among us is first to acknowledge and to accept our own hopelessness, our own weakness, our own impotence, and to beg for the Spirit’s help. This is one request that our loving Father never denies. For if we know how to give good gifts to our children, how much more will our heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him (see Luke 11:13).

But it is only meaningful to have the power to make things grow if there is something to grow in the first place. Which is why Jesus tells us that the Spirit is received by us to the extent that we accept the seed that God the Father sows into the soil of our hearts, the seed who is Christ himself. If you love me you will keep my commandments. I shall ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate. Isn’t this what we see in the first reading? The Samaritans are able to welcome the Spirit through the prayer of Peter and John only because they have first received the seed sown by Philip, who proclaimed the Christ to them. Before the growing, there must first be a sowing.

But how then does the soil become receptive enough to receive the seed? How do hardened hearts come to embrace God’s Word in its fullness, even to the extent of accepting both Christ’s dying and his rising? Often this happens because the sowing has been preceded by a plowing, a time when the soil of our hearts is painfully churned up to soften it for the seed. Isn’t this what the inmates of death row experience? In the apparent hopelessness of their condemned state, even as the final appeal for clemency has been rejected, their hearts are tenderly pried open to receive the Good News of God’s inexhaustible love.

We, of course, are not on death row. And neither should we go out of our way to do wrong so that our hearts can be plowed. As we are told in the second reading: it is better to suffer for doing right than for doing wrong. Still, don’t we each have our own fair share of painful experiences, times when we have had our hearts plowed by the trials and tribulations of life? The Good News is that, whether these experiences are the result of right- or wrongdoing, whether on our part or on the part of others, they can all be used for plowing. They can all serve to prepare our hearts to receive the seed of God’s Word. The pain of our suffering can be the first step in the cultivation of a rich harvest of hope, a harvest that we can then share with others, such that the cycle continues unto the fullness of life in God’s kingdom.

Sisters and brothers, as Christians we are all called to be cultivators of God’s great harvest of hope.

But how truly Christian are we?


  1. (Another) awesome reflection, Fr Chris. Thank you very much.

    In the present day astronomical oil prices, galloping inflation and rising food prices, I've been plumbing the depths as to how to preserve the value of whatever little savings I have, so they are not eroded by inflation. There are as many gurus who preach alluring ways to invest as there are investment instruments. The truth of the matter is that they are all out to make a quick buck of the nervous and insecure.

    I know with my heart that authentic Christian hope lies in God Alone but (i) have never stretched this hope beyond things spiritual, and (ii) have never been put to the test. Well, this is crunch time for me: I will leave the management of my finances to Him, not in a defeatist sense, but to be guided by the promptings of the Holy Spirit. I am reminded of a sign outside a Filipino store: "In God we trust; all others pay cash".

    Just as "love in the midst of condemnation, new life in the face of death", perhaps God is tilling the soil of my heart in anticipation of a good harvest?

    As Fr Chris pointed out: The power of authentic Christian hope is ultimately the work of God.

  2. I'm reminded of one of Henri Nouwen's messages, "Life of the Beloved":

    "To be taken (chosen), to be blessed, to be broken and to be given is the summary of the life of Jesus who was taken, blessed by God, broken on the cross, and given to the world. It is also the summary of our life because just as Jesus, we are the beloved.

    "...If we live our life as people who are taken, blessed and broken, then we can give ourselves... The mystery is that as we let go for others our lives start bearing fruit.

    "...Jesus says, "It is good for you that I die because when I die I can give you my spirit and you will bear much fruit in your life." I really believe that is the final call, to give ourselves."