Fifth Sunday of Easter A 2011

Last week, a good priest friend of mine attended a conference on Hispanic ministry.  He informed me how different gestures suggest completely different things in a different cultural context.  For instance, when we signal for someone to come here, we make a gesture with our hands.  That same gesture means something completely different for the Hispanics; it means wanting to know someone in the biblical sense of knowing.  A Hispanic person would never extend their hands to say that a person is growing like we do.  That gesture is reserved for inanimate objects, but not people or animals. 

Besides gestures assuming different meanings in different cultures, so too do words.  Even literal translations often fail.  Famously, Pepsi’s “Come alive” campaign was misunderstood in Chinese.  Pepsi was understood as saying, “come out of the grave with Pepsi” or “Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead.”  Now if it were true, I think Pepsi would win the coke wars.

I say this because today’s first reading shows the complexity of diversity.  The Book of Acts begins with a message of hope.  The earliest Christians were united in mind and spirit.  But we know how quickly the ideal was lost.  In today’s reading we hear how two groups were fighting with one another – the Gentile Christians fought against the Jewish Christians.  Tensions arose because they followed different customs, spoke different languages, and had different histories.  The oneness that they had in Christ was divided. 

The Gentile Christians felt as if their widows were neglected as the Jewish Christians were in charge of distributing the food, so they called upon the apostles who appointed seven men to serve these tasks.  .  Often, these seven are thought to be the first deacons; however, there is another tradition that dates back to St. John Chrysostom who believed these were the first priests.  After all, even though they were appointed to carry out rather mundane tasks, several of them left the area and became missionaries in their own right.  We know nothing about Steven’s service to the widows but we hear how he boldly proclaimed Jesus Christ and was crucified.  We hear about how Philip left and started evangelizing non-Jewish people.  These first deacons or priests recognized that there was an injustice that had to be corrected.

In our own day, division in our church is widespread.  One hundred years ago, ethnic churches were widespread.  It was not enough to be Catholic, but one was an Irish Catholic, a German Catholic, a French Catholic, an English Catholic, a Polish Catholic, or a Lithuanian Catholic.  These groups often mistrusted one another.  Today we are blest in the United States with many immigrants from Asia, Africa, and the Central and Southern America’s and there is still widespread mistrust among various groups.  Even when all people have the same language or culture, we segregate people and forget that the Holy Spirit is involved in the diversity as much as the Holy Spirit unites all people together.  We still need reconcilers to bring people to a greater understanding and respect for one another and to foster unity in the midst of diversity.  The Catholic Church can embrace any language or culture because God is at work in them.  At this Eucharist, we pray to be open to the Gentiles in our own day. 

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