Following is the Homily delivered by Archbishop Charles Jason Gordon at his Mass of Installation as the 11th Archbishop of Port of Spain, Wednesday, December 27, 2017, Feast of St John the Evangelist
Readings: 1 Kings 19:9,11–13; 1John 1:1–4; Resp. Psalm 96; John 20:2–8
At the heart of today’s Gospel passage is a mystery: Who is the Beloved Disciple or the disciple Jesus loved? This figure is one of three at the Transfiguration. He appears again at the Last Supper leaning against the breast of Jesus. He is at Gethsemane. We find him at the foot of the cross and again, in our text, entering the tomb after the Resurrection. We finally encounter him in another Resurrection scene when the disciples catch an abundance of fish. Who is this mysterious figure?
Mary Magdalene, in today’s Gospel, comes to Simon Peter and the disciple Jesus loved, and says: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we don’t know where they have put him.” Peter and the other disciple ran to the tomb. The other disciple arrived first, saw the linen cloths lying on the ground but did not go in. Peter arrived, went in and saw the cloth that had been over his head in a separate place.
The details of the run are symbolic: not just an older man vs a younger man, a slower man vs a faster man, but rather a race for faith, a race for encounter, a race for comprehension and understanding. It was not youth but love that propelled this disciple to arrive at the tomb first. But reverence and respect deterred him at the entrance, till Peter entered.
The Gospel is situated in the disillusionment of the disciples after Calvary. Their dreams and hopes had been dashed with Jesus’ brutal execution. Now Mary comes to say the body has been stolen. The last earthly contact with him was gone: no hope, no way forward.
The context of our reading reverberates and resonates with the age in which we live. Many people have spoken to me about the challenge of keeping hope alive in Trinidad and Tobago today. Our dreams as a young independent and post-colonial nation have been shattered.
Dr Eric Williams who brought us into independence said we would be the new Greeks. Through education, diligence and dedication, we would lead the world with intelligence, dedication, production and tolerance to show the rest that small islands were amazing places to live. In the 1960s and 70s we dreamt of a Caribbean civilisation where our value system, founded on the values of our foremothers and forefathers, would be the bedrock of a civilisation of integrity; a civilisation where all people would have a place, where the poor will be included and the marginalised will be reverenced; a civilisation where we would be at home in our own skin and at home in our nation and at home in our Caribbean region.
We dreamt dreams of being mighty people in small islands, showing the world that this La Trinity with all of its ethnic diversity could shine a light on unity and its people live as one. We have come to a time in our nation and in the whole Caribbean, where the dreams of independence and post-colonisation have been challenged so significantly that we ask ourselves what is there to hope for. Many live barely on the edge of existence in our country, under the poverty line: they experience no care and are shunned by those who ‘walk by on the other side’. The challenge to hope is real.
But our reading moves us from the hopelessness to the next stage. When the disciples heard of the empty tomb, they did not stay where they were and send a tweet or ‘a WhatsApp’. They did not stay where they were, grumble and complain, rather they ran quickly to the tomb, the Beloved arriving first and Peter second, but entering the tomb first – seeing, looking, surveying. Because they were willing to look at the evidence, because they looked beyond the half-truths, lies and innuendoes, all the suspicion and rumours, because they were willing to look at the evidence afresh, they found reason for hope. They found in the evidence a reason for belief. The Beloved went in, he saw and he believed. We too must go into the tombs. There too we may believe. That is faith. Faith is a dimension of human living that opens new and exciting possibilities.
We have to look again at the evidence of this Caribbean civilisation, the evidence of this Trinidad and Tobago. We need to look again to those on the margins of society doing extraordinary things with scant resources. We need to look again at the evidence and see there is good news for those who want to see it. In our villages, in the north and in the south, in the east and in the west, there are amazing people living heroic lives and doing amazing things. We need to look again; we need to see the truth of our twin-island State. We need to believe again in our dreams and in our people.
The real mystery in the Gospel before us resides in this central character called the Beloved Disciple. Who is he? Many people believe they know. But look at the evidence again. He is not named in the Gospel. He is a mystery to be contemplated. He is named by office, not by name.
I happen to be the Archbishop of Port of Spain now. Archbishop Joseph Harris, Archbishop Gilbert before him and Archbishop Pantin of happy memory all occupied this office before me. There are those still to come who will occupy it. This is an office not a person. The office of the Beloved Disciple is to be filled by every disciple who chooses to give his life to Jesus Christ. Every disciple! We are all called to be beloved disciples. That is the truest identity we have, the deepest sense of our personhood. We are God’s beloved! That is our vocation – our call. It is only when we realise that identity we become the best version of ourselves and can dare to dream dreams of ‘a civilisation of love’ that is based on integrity, truth, justice and love, a civilisation based on mercy and compassion, where all come to experience the incredible love of God in a tangible way in their lives. To come to this, we need to look at the evidence and not go for the gossip and rumours anymore.
Our First Reading is a wonderful text about the Prophet Elijah. Earlier he had confronted an army of prophets with their false gods and idols when the whole of Israel went into idolatry. All the false prophets together with the king and queen who ruled Israel ganged up against him. Elijah alone stood up against the 400 prophets of Baal. He invited them to sacrifice one of two animals and to call on their god to descend on the oblation by fire. But there was no response from their god. Then, Elijah sacrificed the other animal, made a simple prayer and his offering burst into flames.
In today’s reading Elijah went to encounter God, thinking that maybe in the storm he would encounter God. But God was not in the storm: neither was He in the earthquake or the fire. Elijah would encounter God in the gentle breeze. When he realised it was God, he wrapped his cloak around his face, went out of the cave and stood before God. God spoke to him in the gentle breeze. The text speaks to us about the life of grace, the path to discipleship, and about conscience, about doing the right thing because it is right. The tradition teaches us that, the voice of conscience is the voice of God. Elijah leads us to the heart of the mystery of being a beloved disciple.
To be a beloved disciple we have to dare to go into the quiet space of our heart and dare to cultivate the life of grace. We have to dare to pray in silence, dare to move away from all the noise, to hear and encounter the incredible love of this God for us. We have to dare to live the spiritual life as if it is the core and essence of our living. We have to dare to find God in the silence and in the quiet moment. Because Elijah knew this God he was able to confront the prophets of Baal and their idolatry.
One of the great challenges facing Caribbean civilisation today is idolatry. We have made money into a god. We have made pleasure into a god. We have made power and honour into a god. We have put these things before the living God. Once we put anything before God that is idolatry. When we bow to idols, we forget the poor and we devolve into violence.
When we became a young independent nation we functioned in a social democracy, where the common good was more important than individuals, even those with power. Those on the margins received access to education allowing them to succeed and flourish and realise their capacity. We lived in communities where people cared for one another and the economy was structured to ensure distributive justice and to enable the marginalised to receive what they needed for decent living and human flourishing. We have many great intellectuals, artists and leaders who emerged from troubled communities and poor families.
We have now gone to an economic model that follows the creed of the rap artist 50 Cent —“Get rich or die trying”. As long as we are willing to put money as our highest good, we will continue to experience our society’s present ailments. The philosopher Aristotle, over 2,300 years ago, said any civilisation that made money and wealth their primary good, would devolve into violence. Armies and the police cannot fix the violence in our country and our region; it has to be fixed by a conversion of heart which puts God first. Until we are willing to put God first and live as if God is our all, we will continue to keep looking at the false evidence and fake news and not see the hope in front of our eyes. We will continue with our despair.
Our Second Reading from the First Letter of John, begins: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched, concerning the Word of life … this we proclaim” (cf 1Jn 1:1–2). St John is saying that that Word, which existed from before all time, he has seen and touched. The Word became flesh and pitched his tent amongst us. The Word became manifest to us in Jesus Christ.
St John goes on to say that what we have seen and heard and touched calls us to unity. In Greek the word is koinonia—the fellowship of disciples, a bond of unity to which we are all called. The acid test of conversion and discipleship is for unity to break out among disciples. This is what happens when we give our lives to Christ. If we dare to allow this God to consume us with everything that we have – to take our hearts and lead us where He wants us to go – we will dream different dreams. Then, we will see things we have not yet seen; we will experience the fullness of God’s grace reshaping us as a people, as a nation and as a region. Then, all people will know that God is here; that God is with us.
We all want someone to fix the problem. You are the solution to this problem! In so far as you are willing to bring your heart to God, you are the solution! The real power of the Church is not in having an archbishop or priests or religious. The real power of the Church is the depth of discipleship of its members. When the people of God, from the bishop to the most recently baptised, are living as beloved disciples of Jesus Christ, the Church will have real power.
I believe the readings of the day are the word of God for that day: today’s readings are the word of God for this day and for this occasion. These readings are a clarion call to me to become a beloved disciple of Jesus Christ. Pope Francis will say a ‘missionary disciple’. If I, through God’s grace, manage to achieve anything at all, I pray it is to invite you to missionary discipleship, that you and I together will find the path to live discipleship with our hearts open wide and our life laid down in service of this God. Then, God will do with us more than we can ever ask or imagine.
To become a beloved disciple we need to face the tomb, the spaces of death and destruction. We need to look at it again till it yields to belief and hope. We need to cultivate a deep interior life in the silence where we encounter God in the gentle breeze. We need to live by our conscience, doing the right thing because it is right. We need to speak truth about God, and about the plight of the poor.