The Gospel for Sunday, May 28th, 2017

The Gospel for May 28th, 2017: Ascension Sunday

Matthew 28: 16-20

Reflection: Why is the Ascension Important?

Because I only post for the Sunday gospel, I am choosing to write about the Ascension, which may have been celebrated in some parishes last Thursday but also may be celebrated on this Sunday in others.  Interestingly enough, Matthew’s gospel for this feast does not in fact mention the Ascension of Jesus to heaven at all. So how does one consider the importance of Ascension Sunday when it is not mentioned?

Despite its absence from the Matthew gospel reading (it is found in Luke), the first reading from Chapter 1 of Acts describes this further development in salvation history. The drama of the moment is curiously understated; however, what follows is rather memorable. The apostles are standing looking up at the sky when subsequently they are addressed by presumably two angels who ask, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven” (Acts 1: 11). Notice the wording. They make it clear Jesus’ departure has not changed who He is or why He came. Still, I think the angel’s question provides a useful bridge to the Matthew gospel.

To understand this connection, let me back up to lines 6 and 7 of the Ascension episode in Acts 1. Before Jesus departs, the disciples ask Him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus replies, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” I have heard Bishop Robert Barron cite N.T. Wright with the insight that when first century Jews heard Jesus say the kingdom of God is at hand, they would understand that as the scattered tribes of Israel would be gathered. Barron points out this was one of the tasks prophesies said the Messiah would achieve. So the apostles very likely expected Jesus to restore Israel before leaving. Their question is quite reasonable. So why didn’t He?

Because He wants us to join Him in this mission! Part of the Lord’s salvation plan is that we participate in the reuniting of God’s people—all His people. The scattered tribes of Israel are all of the beloved sons and daughters of humanity who are divided by sin. Sociology and psychology and science may give us scores of reasons by other names to explain why we ignore, fight, and separate from one another, but ultimately it is our sinful natures that respond to pride, hate, and greed and fall short of loving each other as Jesus loves us. But through God’s grace we may purge sin by participating in bringing others back to Jesus in small acts of kindness and love. He is the body that gathers us all in divine love. We accept the gift of the Holy Spirit and are joined to Christ in love. The apostles had it wrong. Israel was not a worldly Kingdom that Jesus would preside over like some ancient monarch. Israel is the fulfillment of salvation in Jesus which will be accomplished as the Holy Spirit works through Jesus’ disciples.

Listen to Jesus’ words to His disciples before leaving in the Matthew gospel:  “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 18-20).  The joining of heaven and earth, the salvation of mankind involves us. His teaching is done, He is who He said He was, and the Kingdom is at hand in His person who is gathering all His creation.

So the angels’ question for the apostles holds true for all of us: “Why are you standing there looking at the sky?” There is no more waiting for a Messiah. We have been given the keys to the kingdom: to love each other as He has loved us. What are we waiting for? We can find the peace and joy of God’s kingdom today.

Note: I referenced Bishop Barron wonderful CD, “Who Do You Say That I Am?” I highly recommend obtaining a copy for listening.

 

 

 

 

The Gospel for Sunday, May 21st, 2017: Sixth Sunday of Easter

The Gospel for May 21st, 2017: “The Advocate”

John 14: 15-21

Reflection:  God’s Love is Unselfish

Over the years I have heard preachers on more than one occasion explore the meaning of the Greek word “agape” as a particular kind of love that is in contrast to romantic or filial love. The Wikipedia article on agape defines it with the characteristic of “a universal, unconditional love that transcends, that serves regardless of circumstances.” While I have always found these explorations of etymology interesting, the distinction has often been lost on me. Love is love, right?

As I reflect on Jesus’ introduction of the “Advocate,” the Holy Spirit, into John’s Last Supper discourse, I see, perhaps for the first time, how the manifestation of our Creator as a Holy Trinity reinforces the path of agape love to salvation through the relationships based on that kind of love.

The description in lines 15-17, which is echoed again in lines 20-21, reads awkwardly due its recursive logic. Jesus states, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows it. But you will know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you.” The awkwardness is due to the number of actors He mentions who are related by a love that comes from keeping God’s commandments. The actors include the disciple, Jesus, God the Father, and the Holy Spirit.

Why all these relationships? The answer lies in the nature of agape love. It is the opposite of self-love and requires another to be expressed. If we follow the path of this unselfish love, the significance of our need to serve others–as Bishop Robert Barron often says, to will the good of the other–becomes clearer in God’s salvation plan for us. God created humans, the disciples, out of an act of unselfish love. He does not need us, but He desires to spread His goodness to His creation to share in His glory. Our relationship is maintained with God the Father when we follow the two overarching commandments: we put God and others before our own selfish desires, so that we participate in His unselfish love. However, with the gift of free will, we sometimes act selfishly and sin, which breaks our relationship with God through our own doing. So God acts unselfishly to rescue us by sending Jesus, God Incarnate, to us—not to punish, but to show us the true meaning of agape love. Jesus placed God’s will and our benefit first and died for our sins, the purest act of agape love in human history. When Jesus’ mission was complete, He knew we could only act unselfishly if we, as line 17 suggests, remained in Him. So another missionary of the Father, the Holy Spirit was sent back to us through the good will of the Son to complete the series of relationships that connects humans to their creator in the agape love of God’s glory. In every case, the members of the Trinity are acting with love for the other and are radiating this glorious love directly into our beings through the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Hence, Jesus says “it remains with you, and will be in you.”

The web of relationships based on agape love that connects disciple, Jesus, God the Father, the Holy Spirit, and disciple again does not save all of humanity without our participation. We too are called to use this gift of agape love to love others—neighbors and enemies alike. It is a mission that only is possible if we put God’s will to love His creation above our own selfishness. We cannot do this without God’s help. And yet we have that help in “The Advocate.” When we turn to Him in worship and prayer the strength of the Holy Spirit helps us to love others unselfishly to carry out the mission.

As a conclusion to this reflection, allow me to take a step back from all this theorizing and look at a scriptural example of agape given by John the Baptist. John is preparing the way for Jesus’ coming by preaching repentance. He understands we will not recognize or know our Lord—we will be incapable of entering into a relationship with Jesus—unless we turn away from our own selfish desires and focus on loving on others. So John the Baptist gives this simple advice to the disciples: “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise” (Luke 3: 11). This is simple advice for Christ-like action that even a child can follow. When all the theology and doctrine overwhelm us, we return to simple acts of unselfish love toward others. This is why agape, love of God and others, and Jesus’ death on the cross are fundamental to God’s salvation plan. He wants us to love each other as He has loved us from the beginning and still loves us. In this, His will is done.

 

The Gospel for Sunday, May 14th, 2017: Fifth Sunday of Easter

The Gospel for May 14th, 2017: “Last Supper Discourses”

John 14: 1-12

Reflection: Ecumenism is Biblical

Sometimes I strive for a comprehensive, thematic reading of the gospel, and other times I choose to focus on a small part of the reading because it is important in its own right. The latter is the case with today’s gospel. Today’s reading contains a discussion between Jesus and his apostles at the last supper. Jesus is preparing them for the shock of His eventual departure, both in His death on the cross and in his ascension after the resurrection. Part of this dialogue is Jesus’ assurance that even with his departure as God-Made-Man, God will remain among His people as the Holy Spirit, or God-In-Spirit. During this discussion, Jesus makes a statement that I find an interesting case for ecumenism among the varying Christian churches and competing religious groups. He says, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?” (2).

The “many dwelling places” Jesus speaks of could mean many things. Perhaps He means a place for a select group of repented and confessed saints under the same roof as the place for angels and the triune God. But I cannot help but wonder if Jesus is speaking to the many varieties of Christians in the world, or even to the many varieties of God-fearing peoples on the planet. Could it be possible there is a dwelling for Catholics, Protestants, Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, or even Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists, to name a few? Could it be there is room for every person who opens his or her heart and surrenders to Jesus’ unselfish love of others, in spite of theological or dogmatic differences? For every one of these faiths are filled by a sinful people who are created by God and struggle with the press of the gospel to love one’s neighbor. One could even make the case that most, if not all, of these groups aspire to righteous worship of God and contain His inherent goodness as well.

This brings me back to the challenges of ecumenism. While this may seem paradoxical or contradictory to some, I wonder if Jesus intended that we would all worship in precisely the same way. It seems unlikely that the salvation of the diverse billions of God’s people would be through a one-size-fits all religion when we see Jesus reach out to some many in the gospels who were perceived as different and criticize the Pharisees who championed legalism over love. Could it be that when Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20), He meant that believers might have to gather in smaller groups as a diverse people to worship their creator? Furthermore, could it be that in His Father’s house there are “many dwelling places” for these small groups of believers who by design are not meant to gather as a monolithic people, speaking in one voice, but rather in many smaller groups speaking “in our own tongues” (Acts 2: 1-11). Under such a paradigm, the triune God may still gather all those into one house built on His unselfish love for all His creation. Unity is only through God’s grace in such an explanation, consistent with God’s salvation plan through Christ’s resurrection.

I recognize this interpretation and the territory of ecumenism is fraught with the possibility for the destructive rationalization of selfish forms of worship and behavior that is not Jesus’ intent. I am uncomfortable writing about this for fear of providing justification for myself and others to reject God’s will. Yet, I cannot ignore the notion of how unlikely it seems that the way Jesus intends for us to love our enemies—especially when they are so different from us—is to attempt to convert them into a life that is just like our own. It seems like a prideful conceit that does not fit with how Jesus treated outsiders in the gospel. In addition, it seems even more unlikely when such attempts at conversion through human history have been used to justify violence against one’s enemies instead of love. Let me end this uncomfortable reflection with this thought. There are ecumenical projects in many churches and religious organizations throughout the world. Let us pay closer attention to their work and what they have to teach us about their efforts at dialogue and finding common ground. It is quite possible we may find God’s will at work in these efforts, which aims to teach humility before His creation, a humility that allows us to live peaceably under His roof.

 

 

 

The Gospel for Sunday, May 7th, 2017: Fourth Sunday of Easter

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The Gospel for May 7th, 2017: “The Good Shepherd”

John 10: 1-10

Reflection: Grace to Get through the Narrow Gate

Jesus, in drawing the analogy of Heaven as a sheepfold, said: “I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture” (9).

In considering this I cannot help but think about what narrow gate He is. Indeed, Jesus mentions the narrowness of the gate to Heaven in Matthew: “How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few” (7:14).

So with the resonating deeply in my mind—my sinful mind—I prefer to consider the gospel in light of the second reading from Peter (1 Peter 2: 20B-25). He says to the Gentiles in Asia Minor, “If you are patient when you suffer for doing what is good, this is a grace before God.” Notice how suffering for the “good” brings God’s grace. This is the opposite of how I have viewed grace because I am afraid to suffer. I pray often for God’s grace when trial comes. This has dominated my prayers recently. And yet, when real trials actually arrive, I find myself panicking and falling into old habits of escape and selfish reactions. And then I think, why didn’t God’s grace arrive to protect me?

The reading from Peter puts suffering before the arrival of grace. How else can we truly act with faith in the salvation plan if we are not willing to suffer as Jesus did? I have been viewing this all wrong. Instead of asking for preventive grace to avoid suffering and temptation, I think I need turn my prayers during good times toward helping others who are not suffering. And when my own trials arrive, then I should ask for God’s graceful intervention at the moment of my own suffering. Furthermore, that prayer should be that God’s will be done in that moment and not selfishly for relief of my personal pain. Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane is powerful reminder of how to respond to life’s trials. If they come from God, which all things do, we need to accept them and wait for His grace.

I am so often humbled at how weak I am in the face of life’s troubles. However, every new day brings a fresh chance to walk more closely with Jesus, to enter through the “narrow gate.” For this, may my morning prayer be filled with gratitude, not with petitions for safety motivated by fear. Sometimes it is so hard to trust in Jesus’ way. But I do believe He is the gate. And so I keep trying to let go of my fears and put my faith in Him. Thy will be done, Lord. Thy will be done.