Sunday, May 03, 2015

Sponsorship & Space

5th Sunday of Easter (B)

Picture: cc John

Sisters and brothers, what is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word sponsor? What does sponsorship mean to you? If you’re like me, you’ll probably think of the phrase, And now a word from our sponsors... You’ll think of the provision of resources, especially money. And it’s true. Very often, to sponsor something is to finance it. To sponsor someone is to provide her with monetary support. But doesn’t sponsorship have another meaning? One that involves more than money?

When someone applies for citizenship or permanent residency in a foreign country, for example. The applicant is often required to name a sponsor. A citizen of that country, who is willing to take responsibility for the conduct and character of the applicant. And this is true not just of the countries of the world. It’s also true of the community that is our church. As you know, every new inquirer joining the RCIA is assigned a sponsor. A baptised Catholic who accompanies the person through the process. Someone who takes responsibility for him. Someone who sees to her needs. Who teaches him the way things work.

More than provision, sponsorship is also about inclusion. More than just the supply of resources–be it in money, or in kind–sponsorship is also about the offer of hospitality. It’s about making space for newcomers. It’s about helping strangers to find their place in a community. To sponsor someone is to allow the person the privilege of making a new home among us.

And haven’t we all had some experience of the importance of sponsorship in this sense? Don’t we all know what it feels like to be a newcomer? Whether in school or at work. In church or at a party. We all know what it’s like to be on the outside looking in. We all know that feeling of immense gratitude and relief, when someone on the inside takes the trouble to come out to receive us. To ease us into unfamiliar surroundings. To introduce us to new people. To quiet our anxieties. To make us feel at home.

Sisters and brothers, we all know the importance of sponsorship. Of hospitality and inclusion. Isn’t this why we find Barnabas  such a likeable person? In the first reading, Saul is the obvious newcomer to the Christian community in Jerusalem. He is the outsider. And not just any ordinary newcomer. Saul has a history of persecuting Christians. It’s no wonder that everyone is scared of him. Unwilling to welcome him into the community.

Fortunately for Saul, someone on the inside intervenes on his behalf. The reading tells us that Barnabas took charge of Saul, introduced him to the Apostles, bore witness to his conversion to Christ and to how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus. In effect, what Barnabas does is to act as Saul’s sponsor. He helps Saul to find a place in the church in Jerusalem. If not for Barnabas, perhaps Saul would never go on to become the great apostle Paul.

But he does. And we see the beginnings of this radical transformation already in the first reading. Where we’re told that Saul started to go around with them in Jerusalem, preaching fearlessly in the name of the Lord. But what is really happening here? Isn’t Saul doing the very same thing that Barnabas had done for him? Through his preaching, Saul offers his listeners a new home in the community of believers. He speaks of their inclusion in the communion of saints. Just as Barnabas had sponsored him, so now Saul looks to sponsor others.

But that’s not the whole story, is it? That’s not quite the complete picture. If it were, then the church would not be that much different from any other group of people looking to recruit new members. Even credit card companies do this, don’t they? By preaching the good news that membership has its privileges. But the Christian community is not a credit card. The sponsorship we provide is not inclusion in an elite group. A gathering of people richer, or smarter, or more socially connected than everyone else. What then is the Christian version of sponsorship? What are we really members of, if not an elite group?

We find the answer in the gospel. Where Jesus speaks about being the true vine, in whom we, his disciples, are the branches. Jesus is, of course, using an image from agriculture. And yet, what the vine does for the branches is not that different from what the sponsor does for those who are sponsored. Like the sponsor, the vine is the place of hospitality and inclusion. The location onto which foreign branches can be grafted. Where they can make a new home. Where they can find new life. Except that this is no ordinary home. This is not just any ordinary human life. Instead, what we believe is that, in Christ the True Vine, we the branches gain entry into the very life of God! As the second reading reminds us, whoever believes in Christ and keeps his commandments, lives in God and God lives in him.

By telling us that he is the vine, Jesus is offering himself to us as our true sponsor. The one who includes us, who makes a privileged space for us, in the very life of God. This is the marvellous Mystery that we are celebrating, especially in this joyous season of Easter. The Mystery of the life, death and resurrection of Christ. By which, we have all been given a place, a home, in God.

But we only reap the benefits of this sponsorship, if we claim it for ourselves. If we continue to make our home in Christ. If we remain in him. And we do this by acting in the same way that Barnabas and Saul acted in the first reading. By taking the trouble to sponsor others. As the second reading reminds us, our love is not to be just words or mere talk, but something alive and active; only by this can we be certain that we are children of the truth… If the new life of the true vine flows in us, we will bear fruit. If we are truly members of the Church, the Body of Christ, then we will naturally desire to invite others to join our number. To experience our life. To share our home. To partake of our joy.

A joy that many around us are seeking so desperately. Without even realising it. People who may take pride in being the insiders of this world. But who remain outsiders in the kingdom of God. People who think they are living the good life. But who are really dying, bit by bit, with every passing day. If this is true, then is it not our responsibility as Christians to reach out to them? To usher them into the Body of Christ? To graft them onto the True Vine? To sponsor them so that they may share in the life of God?

Sisters and brothers, especially at Easter, we remember and we celebrate the wonderful way in which Christ has already gained for us a home in God. Do you know someone who needs to hear this good news? Someone who needs to come to know Christ?

Sisters and brothers, is there someone in your life who is still looking for a sponsor today?

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