When someone comes to visit, what tasks do you have to do to prepare for them? You probably go out and buy some extra food, make sure you clear out your schedule as much as possible to be able to have time to visit with the visitors, and clean those parts of the house that you otherwise neglect. You probably don’t go around your household and figure out what each member doesn’t like about the visitors so that you can ask them about it. Yet, that’s exactly what most news networks did prior to the Pope’s visit. NBC News and the Wall Street Journal took a poll where they asked Americans such questions as, “"In general, do you think the Roman Catholic Church is in touch with the views of Catholics in America today, or is it out of touch?" "Currently, Roman Catholic priests cannot get married. Do you favor or oppose that policy?" and "Do you approve or disapprove of the way the Catholic Church has handled the issue of sexual abuse of children by priests?" Other news outlets just invited dissident theologians and angry former catholics to come on and vent while they showed pictures of the pope in the background. To me, the message was two fold: a message to catholics reminding us that we don’t really agree with this old man and a message to the Pope reminding him that we don’t really want him to come here. Yet, even NBC news had to acknowledge a painful reality. When asked, “Do you have a favorable or unfavorable impression of Pope Benedict the 16th?" 74% of Catholics in the United States did and only 13% did not. We love our German Shepherd.
I was visiting with a student this week that was, similarly, frustrated with the way our news was treating the pope’s visit. The poor guy just kept saying that he couldn’t understand why this is the week we need to talk about sexual abuse, women priests, and married priests, and all the other controversial issues and I repeated to him the words of our Lord in the gospel this day, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” We both thought it was either incredible luck or just awe-inspired planning that brings the pope to this country at this point in the liturgical year. You may remember that last Sunday we heard about how Christ is the good shepherd who both guides and protects his church. He continues to do this in a special way through the apostles and their successors, the bishops. It is, therefore, only fitting that the successor to the Apostle of last week’s first and second reading, Peter, be visiting us.
This week we don’t hear a rousing speech from Peter letting us know that “God has made both Lord and Christ this Jesus whom you have crucified.” Instead, we hear about the first “growing pain” of the early church. As the church started to grow, there is a division in the church. There are Greek speaking Jews who believe in Christ and Jews who can speak Greek but whose primary language is Hebrew or Aramaic. In other words, this is not yet the controversy that will force Paul to be the apostle to the Gentiles while Peter is the apostle to the Jews. Both the Greeks and the Hebrews were Jewish before they came to faith in Christ. The controversy deals with the responsibilities of the Apostles. They are having to do the practical tasks of feeding the hungry so much that there is no time to spread the gospel. Basically, they realize they can’t do everything on their own. So, they ask the Greek speakers to choose seven servants, or deacons, to do the practical tasks so that they can just do the work of calling people to faith. It was a call to openness and sharing the gifts and talents God has given us, a call to be the dwelling place Christ is preparing for us. Let me explain what I mean by this.
In the gospel, after Jesus tells us not to be afraid, he tells us that he is preparing a place for us. It’s tempting to see in this a reference to some far-off place in the clouds where Jesus and his Father are working diligently on a mansion with many rooms for all the different religions. The Catholics will be close to the center, of course, with the Orthodox very close by. But, I’d like to suggest that this vision of a remote mansion is the exact opposite thing that Jesus is trying to convey to the church. The second reading makes clear that the mansion being prepared is not far off, not a real building at all. We are being built into a spiritual house, “Come to him, a living stone, rejected by human beings but chosen and precious in the sight of God, and, like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house…” Jesus is building this by building his church. It is very close to us, as close as he is to us and he is to the Father. He is preparing a place for us by preparing us as his dwelling place. We, in turn, have to be open to God’s Extreme Makeover, Home Edition. How are we preparing a place for Christ so that he can prepare a place for us?