6 Easter A – May 25, 2014 – Crossing Borders, Bridging Differences
In 1904 Pope Pius X met with the Viennese writer Theodor Herzl who advocated for the creation of a State of Israel. That pope scolded Herzl saying Israel does not deserve to be a state because of the Jewish failure to recognize the divinity of Jesus Christ. This weekend Pope Francis while visiting Israel, along with the Kingdom of Jordan and the State of Palestine, will lay a wreath at the tomb of Theodor Herzl one of the founders of Zionism.
How times have changed. But have they? Yes. Israel became a nationstate in 1948 and in 2012 the United Nations declared Palestine a State. But the people in these places, a holy land, are still not at peace. Many of them do not trust each other; some hate each other. Just two months ago the negotiations collapsed with both sides blaming each other. The historical ground work for the division is long and deep and is sifted through political, geographical and religious filters.
According to John Pilch, the Middle Eastern culture, in which the early church emerged, was conflict-prone. Its basic social institution was the large and very extended family. Everyone outside the family was suspected of being an enemy.  In the first reading we heard about the challenge Philip faced while preaching to the Samaritans. They had their own cultic practices and worshiped in their own temple (Mt. Gerizim). They were suspicious of the Christians. Philip was in dangerous territory and had his hands full until they saw the signs he worked. 
The first letter of Peter was addressed to Christian communities scattered over the northern half of Asia minor. At that time the Roman authorities were suspicious of any foreign religion. Christians faced slander, misunderstandings and even persecution because of their beliefs. The unknown author encourages the Christians not to retaliate but to continue to practice their faith, abide by their values and keep up their hope, all in a spirit of charity. The letter presents Jesus of Nazareth as a model who suffered unjustly but never gave up. 
Part of the Christian conundrum in Israel and Palestine today has to do with religious freedom. Attacks against Palestinians and Christians by Jewish extremists have escalated in recent weeks. Such hate crimes are becoming more ubiquitous around the world. Consider the pregnant woman in Sudan who was sentenced to death for marrying a Christian man and refusing to deny her faith in Christ. 
All over this planet religion appears to be a tool for division not only in politics but among religions themselves. The same is true in America. Suspicion of people who are strangers to our own cultural households runs high. Immigrants, gays and lesbians and people of color still experience intolerance in many parts of this country.
Jesus’s command to love one another extends beyond the family unit and neighborhood. It is easy to love those we are familiar and comfortable with. In his farewell address Jesus challenges his followers to be true to that spirit of love, a love that knows no limitations.
The primary purpose of Pope Francis’s journey to the holy land is to mark the 50th anniversary of the meeting in Jerusalem between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras. It seems to me that Francis is one of those “signs” we heard about in the first reading. Maybe his pilgrimage offers new possibilities not only for the reconciliation of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches but also for peace in the Middle East. We hope so.
But we cannot depend entirely on Pope Francis. His journey inspires you and me to take similar risks like he has — to cross difficult borders, and to build bridges broken down by prejudice and stubbornness. This is our hope for him and for one other.
It is good for us to be here. Whether you are visiting or come to church only once in a while, know there is always a place for you at our table. This is a church built of “living stones.” (1 Peter 2)
1 John J. Pilch The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle A (Collegeville: Liturgical Press) 1995. pp. 79-81.
2 DeBona,Guerric. Between Altar and Ambo: Biblical Preaching and the Roman Missal Year A. (Collegeville: Liturgical Press) 2013, pp. 134-137.
3 Balch, D. revised by Achtemeier, P. “The First Letter of Peter” in Attridge, H Ed. The Harper Collins Study Bible (San Francisco: Harper) 2006. pp. 2059-60
4 News in Brief: Africa in The New York Times (May 14, 2014, A14)