The Gospel for Sunday, June 25th, 2017

The Gospel for June 25th, 2017: “Courage Under Persecution”

Matthew 10: 26-33

Reflection: Seeing Jesus in Our Enemies

Last night I saw a regional theater production of Sister Act: A Divine Musical Comedy. The production is inspired by the highly successful, Whoopi Goldberg movie from the nineties, and both tell the story of Deloris Van Cartier, a lounge singer who witnesses her gangster boyfriend commit murder and seeks witness protection by hiding among an order of nuns in a run-down, neighborhood parish. The show is noticeably different from the movie version in many ways. One is that the musical develops the internal conflicts of some of the nuns in greater psychological depth, including that of the Mother Superior (played by Maggie Smith in the movie version), who struggles to accept that the arrival of Deloris, which rejuvenates her sisters and their parish through her musical talents as the new choir director, is a blessing, not a curse. As the choir adopts a more ostentatious, less modest, look and sound, which draws new parishioners and financial support to the sagging church, Mother Superior questions whether the changes are really better for her order. The tension reaches a climax in the second act when she admits to the Lord in prayer she is afraid in the song “I Haven’t Got a Prayer.”

It is this poignant moment, the emotion of which musical theater often captures so well, that comes to mind as I read today’s gospel, which thematically focuses on fear. The reading begins with Jesus preparing the twelve apostles to go forth to preach and heal. In anticipation of them encountering those who will persecute them for their counter-cultural message, He tells them, “Fear no one…do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy
both soul and body in Gehenna” (26-28). Precisely speaking, Jesus is not referring to the kind of enemy Deloris Van Cartier represents to the Mother Superior in Sister Act. Instead, He was addressing the religious and political authorities who would object to their ministry and have the power to imprison or harm them. And while such enemies still exist to Christians in this day and age, for those of us who live in countries with freedom of religion and reasonably safe conditions, the enemy like Deloris, who threatens Mother Superior’s authority and faith with her secular ideas that are so appealing to the other nuns, is perhaps more likely the kind of enemy to be feared. She threatens the Mother Superior with loss of autonomy and ego-death, two of the five most common fears cited by Karl Albrecht, PhD, in “The (Only) Five Fears We All Share.” This is why Deloris strikes fear in Mother Superior and why she is just as formidable an enemy to the head nun as the men of the Sanhedrin or Pontius Pilate were to Jesus and the early Christians.

One of the remarkably refreshing aspects of the musical Sister Act is that it is rather explicit about the fact that God is at work in the character of Deloris. Mother Superior’s struggle is to see Jesus in this unlikely and unwelcome intrusion into her life. Indeed, the pastor, Monsignor Howard tells her as much when he says, ‘God has answered your prayers. You just don’t like the answer.’ It is so easy to forget that every perceived enemy has been created by God for a specific purpose and worthy of our love and attention. The fear they strike in us is a challenge for us to realign our lives with God’s plan and move away from our own willful understanding of how things should be. If we truly have faith, we will remove the mental label of enemy from over the head of all those people in our life who challenge us to be unselfish and faithful; instead, we will be grateful for their role in helping us grow in humility and to live without fear. To miss Jesus in our enemies, to miss the hand of God in their existence, is to deny Jesus, who said “love your enemies” (Matthew 5: 43-48). We must not give in to fear and go down this path. In faith, we must surrender our fears to God and trust He will provide for and care for us. Eventually His wisdom will make sense to us and show the foolishness of our fear. “Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known” (Matthew 10: 26).

The Gospel for Sunday, March 12th, 2017

The Gospel for March 12th, 2017: The Transfiguration

Matthew 17: 1-9

Reflection: Rest on Faith and Listen

The Transfiguration gospel speaks to my need for control and familiar routines. I have spent years trying to strategically respond to and ultimately control the circumstances of my life with a highly self-centered focus. When the unfamiliar comes, do I see God’s gentle hands at work? No, I am terrified by that which I don’t understand and desperately try to first, wrap my mind around it, and second wrap my arms around it to hold and control.

I see Peter react similarly at first in his experience with Jesus, James, and John high on the mountain. In this rarified air, Jesus reveals more of His divine presence than Peter is ready to understand based on his previous experience. Jesus’ appearance is magnified by a brilliant light, and He manifests His fulfillment of Old Testament law and prophecy by appearing to converse with Moses and Elijah (2-3).

Peter, in his disorientation, grasps on to this glimmer of recognition and tries to react with a familiar plan. He suggests to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (4). There is nothing wrong with this plan from a logical standpoint. It is rooted in tradition. His intentions are honorable and respectful. And yet, it is not God’s will that he try to tame this moment within the limits of tradition. Peter, James, and John are in the midst of genuine encounter with their God in the person of a fully divine Jesus the Son. If they watch and listen, they will grow closer to their salvation.

So God the Father intervenes and tells them, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased, listen to [H]im” (5). Now if the transfiguration of Jesus was overwhelming, a direct encounter with God in heaven is terrifying.  They “fell prostrate and were very much afraid” (7). In this moment of distress, Jesus comforts them, and when they look up, “[T]hey saw no one else but Jesus alone” (8).

Just like the Transfiguration, our encounters with God may manifest themselves as disorienting, frightening experiences, ones we mistakenly try to avoid or end quickly. If we let go of the natural desire to control these experiences—“to listen—“we too may hear God and be comforted by Jesus in those moments. May the deprivation of comforts of Lenten fasting and almsgiving open our hearts to such experiences, instead of  trying to fear and control them. It may be that deliverance from sin and death lies in resting on faith and listening for the voice of Jesus.

The Gospel for Sunday, June 18th, 2017

The Gospel for June 18th, 2017: The Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ

John 6: 51-58

Reflection: The Beautiful Mystery and Logic of the Eucharist

I am quite sure when I was a younger man I did not appreciate the awesome power of the Eucharist. Perhaps if I had, I would not have fallen away from the Church for a number of wasted years. I thought I could make myself happy through the pleasures of the world and could not appreciate the need to commune with my savior, to become one with Him in this holy meal. The peace I experience these days directly after communion is the best part of my week. All the passions and appetites of my body are in order, and I feel Christ’s love in my heart. I also feel saved at that moment from life’s troubles and filled with the hope of eternal salvation.

That Christ should come to us in this way is a deep mystery. When we speak aloud the fact we eat the body and blood of Jesus in order to join with Him, it either stretches belief into faith or causes one to reject the whole premise of Christ as our savior. John’s gospel makes it clear the latter is a natural reaction by including this detail: “The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’” (52). It simply cannot be understood by the logic of our previous experience. It has to be believed and tried to experience its truth firsthand. It is a beautiful mystery.

And yet once experienced, it has a beautiful logic. If God’s people are to be gathered up with Him in eternity, we need to be purified of sin. Divinity cannot be conjoined with sin. Furthermore, we cannot remove sin on our own. So what greater expedient could there be to removing sin than to become like the one who lived without sin, than to bring Christ himself into our bodies and hearts to heal us? It makes perfect sense. The Eucharist is a sacrament not to be missed. We need this joyful union to transform our sinful lives and find the peace of God’s love. I like the wording of Jesus in this gospel: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him” (56). The phrase “remains in me and I in him” is about as close as I can imagine to capturing in words a perfect state of existence, the place where sin is no more, the state of salvation.

Jesus saves.

 

The Gospel for Sunday, June 11th, 2017

The Gospel of June 11th, 2017: “The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity”

John 3: 16-18

Reflection:

When I was a teenager watching sports on television in the 1980s, occasionally the camera operator would scan the crowd and pause on a fan holding up a sign that read John 3:16. Looking back I have great appreciation for those particular acts of evangelization because they planted seeds in me. Granted, they took a long time to sprout and take root. I was unfamiliar with this verse then and did not go to a Bible to look it up. However, the strangeness of placing a verse citation on a sign stuck with me and when I became an avid reader of scripture many years later, I paid special attention to this verse when I encountered it.

John 3:16 begins today’s gospel on the feast of the Holy Trinity and reads, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”

The wisdom of those sign-holding fans is apparent to me now. There may not be another verse in scripture that so pithily captures the depth of God’s love for us and the beauty of His salvation plan for humanity. There is, however, a contingency that must be met before one can appreciate the profound implications of these words: one must accept that he or she needs saving.

The objection has been raised by many a non-believer and believer alike that asks why we should all have to pay for Adam and Eve’s original sin? If I am trying to be a good person now, why should I still be responsible for an act that had happened eons before my birth? Furthermore, if my sinfulness is inherited, it is not really my fault that I am a sinner anyways. Why should I be punished for it?

These are reasonable questions about deep mysteries. If I may inadequately purse them in this blog and others, I pray that it be for God’s glory only. To suggest a starting point for this answer, I would like to share a long excerpt from one of the great interpreters of theology for us non-theologians, C.S. Lewis. In The Problem of Pain, he explains our need to accept our sinfulness with the powerful analogy of the damaged foster child:

“Theoretically, I suppose, we might say ‘Yes: we behave like vermin, but then that is because we are vermin. And that, at any rate, is not our fault.’ But the fact that we are vermin, so far from being felt as an excuse, is a greater shame and grief to us than any of the particular acts which it lead us to commit. The situation is not nearly so hard to understand as some people make out. It arises among human beings whenever a very badly brought up boy is introduced into a decent family. They rightly remind themselves that it is ‘not his own fault’ that he is a bully, a coward, a tale-bearer and a liar. But none the less, however it came there, his present character is detestable. They not only hate it, but ought to hate it. They cannot love him for what he is, they can only try to turn him into what he is not. In the meantime, thought the boy is most unfortunate in having been so brought up, you cannot quite call his character a ‘misfortune’ as if he were  one thing and his character another. It is he—he himself—who bullies and sneaks and likes doing it. And if he begins to mend he will inevitably feel shame and guilt at what he is just beginning to cease to be” (Kindle edition, pgs. 82-83).

Now I hope this quote is not taken literally as an indictment of all foster children, especially boys, by myself or C.S. Lewis. The foster child who is “a bully, a coward, a tale-bearer and a liar” due to his unfortunate upbringing is you and I, male and female alike, sinners all of us. The instructiveness of this analogy is not because Lewis found another way to point out we are all fallen creatures, but rather in his ability to help us attempt to see things from God’s point of view.

God is love, which is to say He wills His goodness to others. He created us not because He needed us, but because He acts with this love always. However, to share the gift of love with His creation, He gave us free will, so that we too could will the good of others and fully participate in His eternal love. For God the Father to create us without free will would be like parenting robots who could only simulate love through algorithmic programming. Such cyborg children would know no choices other than those permitted by their programming; therefore, they could not choose to love unselfishly because they would not know they had a choice to choose their own selfish desire instead. In such a state, they could never experience God’s love of choosing the others needs first.

Given this, we were created with free will. And once our ancestral parents chose their own will over God’s in the garden of Eden, the possibility of choosing selfishly, to deny God’s love, was born into the world where it became an option—or better yet, an irresistible temptation. And with each surrender to temptation,  our hearts harden a little more to God’s love, creating the downward spiral of sin.

So what is God to do? Remember, He is the father of us damaged foster children who wills our good always. He must change our behavior so that we act like Him, with unselfish love, which is what we really want anyways because it is the only reality that will not disappear like other temporary pleasures. Only God is eternal. So He sends us Jesus, the perfect union of divinity and man, who loves unselfishly His entire life. He accepts it; He teaches it; and He models it perfectly.  Jesus’ forgives His executors, conquers sin and death, and then sends us the Holy Spirit–the manifestation of God’s love—so that we may have hope for redemption and salvation. We cannot save ourselves because that would be a willful rejection of God’s gift of love to us, which is His son. In this awesome, mysterious theo-drama, God warms our hearts to choose His love, to choose His will that others may be only treated with good intent. In those moments in this life and after our deaths when we surrender to this will, we find peace and happiness with the perfect harmony of God’s love as it is manifest in the Holy Trinity. This is the Kingdom of Heaven that is at hand.

And so what are we to do? Accept the gift. To do anything else is to choose unhappiness. We were  born in God’s love and  our only peace is to participate in it. The fact the Jesus already came means it there for us now and it is there for us in the future, even after we forget that God’s way is the best way and choose selfishly. This inheritance of sin is not a set-up or an excuse to reject the Christian life. It certainly is not a sign of an uncaring or vengeful parent. It is simply a necessary reality so that we may be saved. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3: 17). There is such peace in that knowledge. The burden is no longer on me to save myself. I just have to surrender to God’s love.

The Gospel for Sunday, June 4th, 2017

 

The Gospel for June 4th, 2017: Pentecost Sunday

John 20: 19-23

Reflection: Hole-Hearted to Whole-Hearted

For Pentecost Sunday, when we celebrate Jesus sending the Holy Spirit to His disciples after His ascension, I am going off my usual script of close, analytical reading of the gospel followed by carefully cited, evidence-based reflection. The reason is I had a moment of inspiration in the last two weeks that could very well be grace for this humble blogger. I was with a colleague who was playing the “I heart 90s” radio channel. The song “Hole-Hearted” from the group Extreme came on, which was vaguely familiar and musically intriguing. I remembered their song “More than Words” and how I thought it was kind of pretty, but that I didn’t like their long-haired, 80s rock look. I consciously did not jump on the Extreme bandwagon in the early 90s out of snobbery. Consequently, I missed the clever pun of the title of their other popular song, “Hole-Hearted,” due to unabashed snobbery. Depending on the spelling, “whole-hearted” or “hole-hearted” could mean could a sense of complete and sincere commitment or a state where that completeness is not possible due to flaw or absence of a necessary ingredient. A romantic reading suggests the missing piece of this life that yearns to be filled with love is a girl, the “you” who is the only one to fill the hole in the troubadour’s heart. He sings, “There’s a hole in my heart that can only be filled by you.” Once he has the girl, he will be whole-hearted and happy. This is quite original word play even at face value.

However, the reason I have not been able to get this out of my head is I kept thinking the “you” could just as precisely refer to the Holy Spirit. For that substitution to work, I think I need to be clearer as to what the Holy Spirit is, and if it can function to fill a hole in the heart. I prefer to use the rather theological definition used Bishop Robert Barron in his June 1st, gospel reflection. He describes the role of the Holy Spirit in the Trinity this way:

“[T]he paschal mystery is intelligible only in the light of the doctrine of the Trinity. This acrobatic act of love is possible only if there is, in the very being of God, a sender and one that he can send, only if there is a Father and a Son. The Father and the Son are united in love, and this love is itself the divine life. And thus there is a spirit, co-equal to the Father and the Son, which is the love shared between them.”

So what is the Holy Spirit? It is the spirit of divine love, sent directly to us, to provide us with the gifts of knowledge, wisdom, counsel, understanding, fortitude, piety, and fear of the Lord. It is what we need in our hearts to love God and all His creation unselfishly.

Let’s revisit the lyrics of the Extreme song with this definition in mind as the meaning of “you” in the refrain.

“Hole Hearted”
Life’s ambition occupies my time
Priorities confuse the mind
Happiness one step behind
This inner peace I’ve yet to find

Rivers flow into the sea
Yet even the sea is not so full of me
If I’m not blind why can’t I see
That a circle can’t fit
Where a square should be

There’s a hole in my heart
That can only be filled by you
And this hole in my heart
Can’t be filled with the things I do

Hole hearted
Hole hearted

This heart of stone is where I hide
These feet of clay kept warm inside
Day by day less satisfied
Not fade away before I die

Rivers flow into the sea
Yet even the sea is not so full of me
If I’m not blind why can’t I see
That a circle can’t fit
Where a square should be

There’s a hole in my heart
That can only be filled by you
And this hole in my heart
Can’t be filled with the things I do
There’s a hole in my heart
That can only be filled by you
And this hole in my heart
Can’t be filled with the things I do

Hole hearted
Hole hearted
Hole hearted
Hole hearted

Does this substitution aptly describe our need to call on the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts? I think it does. This insight did lead me on quick cyber-search to see if this non-sexual, double entendre in the song was intentional by the artists. The best I could come up with is a “maybe.” It really doesn’t matter. The usefulness persists either way. In general I enjoy humming and singing popular songs as a tonic for difficult moments. What an incredible gift to be able meditate on these words as soaring prayer to the Holy Spirit. Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful, fill the hole in my heart punctured by sin. “There’s a hole in my heart that can only be filled by you. And this hole in my heart can’t be filled with the things I do.” While I don’t expect this song to be grace-filled prayer or mediation for everyone, the larger takeaway is there is so much divine beauty in the world—in the arts, in nature, in people, in relationships—where we can see the Holy Spirit, know its fulfillment, and act with the love of Jesus when we leave the four walls of the Church and go forth to proclaim the good news. We just have to seek and welcome the spirit of God’s love in our hearts. It’s everywhere that sin is, offering us a better choice for our happiness.

 

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.

The Gospel for Sunday, April 30th, 2017: Third Sunday of Easter

The Gospel for April 30th, 2017: “The Appearance on the Road to Emmaus”

Luke 24: 13-35

Reflection: Jesus is Near

“And it happened that while they were conversing and debating, Jesus himself drew near and walked with them, but their eyes were prevented from recognizing him” (15-16).

We are all on the road to Emmaus. We are all moving through life becoming distracted by the chaos our senses perceive, preventing us from recognizing our Savior is near. Our eyes, which are supposed to grant us vision, do not see what really matters because they are instruments of the temporal flesh. And so we draw the damaging conclusion that God is distant and choose sin in our despair.

This gospel reminds us that the victory and redemption of Christ’s resurrection is the truth and that he is indeed near if we trust our hearts instead of our eyes. He walks with us on life’s journey, on hand to provide all we need. Our faith and worship reveal His nearness.

Why doesn’t Jesus just grab us and shake us from our distraction? I think our free will ensures that we will choose to love Jesus and His creation–not out of forced duty, like slaves, but out of simple joy, like children. This can only be sensed through open and faithful hearts to the purely unselfish love of our Savior. We must choose to be conjoined with our God.

In a broken world this state does not come easily to us. However, the gospel tells us the one way the hold of our senses can be suppressed and our hearts warmed is by breaking bread with Jesus, as the disciples on the  road to Emmaus do. When we celebrate the Eucharist, we recognize He is near all along. Note the disciples’ words after their meal with Jesus: “Were not our hearts burning [within us] while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?” (32). They were. The disciples just needed the internal presence of the Eucharist to mortify their other senses that were distracting them from the fire of Jesus’ love in their hearts.

And so it is with us. The mass is central to our relationship with Jesus, our Savior. Let us celebrate often and know He is near.