Sixth Sunday of Easter

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As we have gathered these last several weeks to continue our celebration of Easter, maybe you noticed that we have always had a reading from the Acts of the Apostles as our first reading.  In these readings, we have been hearing about an almost idyllic community, a community that has shared its resources, taken care of the poor, and even worked through a dispute with a grace that is rarely seen anywhere.  If you’re like me, it’s almost hard to relate to such an exalted community, and maybe you find yourself wondering why we would read these readings, when they only contradict the way Christians really live in the world.

I had a seminary professor who used to tell us “the Christian life looks like something,” “discipleship looks like something.”  If we don’t have a picture of what discipleship means or know something about how the Christian life looks, then we have nothing at all to strive for.  So, even though the First Community in the book of Acts seems a little out of step with our experience, if we never read about them, well, then we’d have nothing to strive for, no goal to achieve.  Today’s readings, in particular, I think, give us a picture of what the Christian life looks like.  Our Liturgy of the Word has proclaimed to us that the Christian believers’ lives are marked by joy, holiness of life, and love.  Let’s take a look at each of these.

First of all, the Christian believer’s life is marked by joy.  We saw that pretty clearly in the first reading.  “There was great joy in that city,” the Acts writer tells us, and for pretty good reason.  The particular reason for their joy was that “unclean spirits, crying out in a loud voice, came out of many possessed people, and many paralyzed or crippled people were cured.”  Anyone who experiences such radical, miraculous blessings cannot help but be overcome by joy.  But again, how close is that to our experience?  When was the last time you saw Fr. Ted or me walk into a room and evil spirits came out of people with loud cries?  Sometimes I’m at a meeting where I wish I could do that, but I digress…

The point is that we believers are all on for exorcising demons and binding up the wounds of the broken and healing those who are paralyzed.  Because people are possessed by all sorts of demons: addictions, sinful behavior, ignorance, just to name a few.  When any of us witnesses to those people, walks with them through their pain, or mentors them, we are exorcising their demons.  And people are paralyzed by all sorts of things.  Failure, grief, and depression paralyze people all the time.  Whenever one of us reaches out to someone in those conditions and helps them to get back on their feet, we are healing them.  And that kind of healing, that kind of exorcism, goes on all the time.  And because of that, there should always be great joy in Naperville.

Teilhard de Chardin wrote that “joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.”  Those of us who have been healed or forgiven, those of us who have been raised up out of our weakness know that it is through the presence of God that that has happened.  God may may well be working through the hands and lips of one of our brothers or sisters, because that is often the way that he chooses to make known his abiding presence.  Maybe the demons don’t all go away at once, and maybe it takes a little therapy before we can really walk steadily once we’re back on our feet, but God is present in all of that, and for that we should not cease to celebrate with great joy.  We are called to a joy that persists even amid the stormy times of life, a joy that we can find in those who reach out to us, or gratitude for small blessings.  My grandmother used to say, “Thank God for small favors!”  We are a people who are blessed even when our life is a mess, because God is still and always present to us.  The Christian believer’s life is marked by joy.

Secondly, the Christian believer’s life is marked by holiness of life.  This is a tough one and we would probably all be quick to object that we are not, nor could we ever be, truly holy.  But this is not the time for self-deprecating false humility.  Until we accept the fact that every single one of us, through our baptism, is consecrated, set aside and called to be a saint – yes, a saint – until we realize that and accept it, we have not even begun to live the Christian life.  Listen to what St. Peter says to us in our second reading once again:

Always be ready to give an explanation
to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope,
but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear,
so that, when you are maligned,
those who defame your good conduct in Christ
may themselves be put to shame.
For it is better to suffer for doing good,
if that be the will of God, than for doing evil.

So he calls us to three specific forms of holiness here: hopefulness rooted in Christ, gentleness and reverence to all people, and clarity of conscience.  We have to have a hope that is rooted in Christ.  Some days, it’s hard for some people to find any reason to go on.  But even when everything seems to be falling apart, there is still Christ.  Even if we think we are worthless, we certainly are not, because God created us in his image, and sent his Son to redeem us.  We have been purchased at a very great cost, and so it is with this confidence in Christ’s love for us that we can be hopeful people who look toward the future with conviction and courage.  But even in doing that, we are called to be gentle and reverent to all.  We have absolutely no business being engaged in racism, hatred, or even moral self-righteousness.  We are made good and redeemed by God, but so is everyone else on the planet.  We have no right to treat anyone with anything less than gentleness and reverence.  And finally, we are to be people of clean conscience.  This means avoiding scandal, not getting caught up in anything remotely immoral, always providing all people with a holy example, so that no one will be led astray.  This means we have to flee all sorts of evils, all kinds of obstacles that would and will drag us down if we let them.  In hope, reverence, gentleness, and clarity of conscience, the Christian believer is marked by holiness of life.

Finally, the believer’s life is marked by love.  In the last two sentences of the Gospel reading today, Jesus uses the word “love” four distinct times.  Listen again: “Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me.  And whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and reveal myself to him.”  As my father used to say, “actions speak louder than words,” and so the love we are called to is a love that is evident by the way that we live and the way that we treat others, more so than a sentimental, warm fuzzy love where we’re all joining hands and singing “Kumbaya.”  Jesus is very specific here that the love we are called to is a love that begins with God and returns to God, a love that manifests itself in following the commandments.  The commandments of Jesus are also wrapped up in love.  Remember that in Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus is asked which of the commandments is most important, he says, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the greatest and the first commandment. 
The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Matthew 22:37-39)

So Jesus tells us today that we are called to love by keeping his commandments, and these commandments consist in loving God and neighbor, the commandment that distinguishes the Judaeo-Christian way of life.  In today’s Gospel, it almost seems like it’s a quid-pro-quo kind of love: “whoever loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and reveal myself to him.”  But we know this is not true.  We can love each other and love God because God loved us first, and loves us best.  Even when we are clearly unworthy of it, God’s love still draws us back to him.  We celebrate a season of God’s love right now: we remember that nothing, not even the cross and grave could stand in the way of God’s love for us.  What is happening in today’s Gospel is that Jesus is calling us to love in that same way.  Our love, too, must be unconditional, sacrificial, laying down our lives for one another and for our witness to God in Christ.  The Christian believer’s life is marked by love.

I’m sure at this point you’re thinking, “thanks Father Pat, none of this makes me feel like living the Christian life is any easier, any closer to something I can do.”  And you’re right.  You can’t.  I can’t.  None of us is ever capable of persistent, abiding joy, of holiness of life, or of unconditional, sacrificial love all on our own.  We just don’t have the capability for that kind of living.  But the good news is that we don’t have to be the ones to do it.  We who often fail to find joy in our living, we who struggle for holiness of life and fall flat on our face on our better days, we who yearn to be able to love as we are loved, we are given the incredible grace of the Holy Spirit to be able to make it happen.  Having converted Samaria to the faith, the early Christian community sent them Peter and John.  When they got there, they prayed for the newly-baptized Samaritans and it was then that they received the Holy Spirit.  In our Gospel today, Jesus says, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth…”  We who are baptized in Christ and anointed with the spirit have the special grace to be surprised by joy seemingly out of nowhere, to find strength to make a difficult choice for holiness of life, and to love those in our lives that are sometimes seemingly unlovable.  We do all of this guided by the strength and grace of the Holy Spirit, who is just as much a part of our lives as the air we breathe.  This gift of the Holy Spirit is why the Psalmist today can sing, “Come and see the works of God, his tremendous deeds among the children of Adam.” And we can reply, “Alleluia!  Let all the earth cry out to God with joy!  Alleluia!”

St. Mark, Evangelist

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St. Mark the EvangelistWe aren’t completely sure who St. Mark was.  He might have been the first bishop of Alexandria, Egypt.  Some scholars say he might have been the one described in chapter 14 of Mark’s Gospel, at the arrest of Jesus: “Now a young man followed him wearing nothing but a linen cloth about his body. They seized him, but he left the cloth behind and ran off naked.”  But others question whether he ever saw Jesus in person at all.  We know that he was a companion of Peter and Paul in the missionary journeys, and that he was the first to write about Jesus’ life.  It is estimated that the Gospel of Mark was written around 60 or 70 AD, after the death of both Peter and Paul.  As you might expect since this was the first Gospel written, it is used as a source for both Matthew and Luke’s Gospels.

Whoever Mark really was, I think the key idea for this feast today is that he was one who willingly embodied the command of Jesus that we have in today’s Gospel reading: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature.”  His missionary work, and his work as the Evangelist testify to his passion for the Gospel and his efforts to see that the whole world came to believe in Jesus.

What we celebrate on his feast day, though, is that the work of that command is far from complete.  There is so much of the world that has yet to hear of Jesus.  Some of them are in far off lands, others are in our workplaces, schools, and communities.  Because of that, it is imperative that we all continue the work of Mark and the other Evangelists.  We are the ones who have to testify to the Gospel in word and in deed, witnessing to what we believe in everything that we say and do.  Our life’s work is not complete until we are sure that those who know us also know the Lord in and through us.

“The favors of the LORD I will sing forever;” the Psalmist says today, “through all generations my mouth shall proclaim your faithfulness.”  May we, like St. Mark, sing of the Lord’s goodness in every moment of our lives.

 

Thursday of the Fifth Week of Easter

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I love it when engaged couples pick this reading for their weddings.  Not just because it’s sentimental, all talking about love and everything.  I like it because of the way it talks about love.  Because it would be easy enough to say that if we just love each other a little more, everything will be fine.

 

But Jesus reminds us that this is not how love works.  And that sentiment is not at all what he had in mind when he said “Remain in my love.”  The word “remain” here is a translation of the Greek word meno, which is a word that connotes an abiding presence, a rootedness at one’s core.  “Remain” is too passive a word, kind of like sitting around and doing nothing, all covered with the love of God.  I think the better translation would be “live and breathe always in my love.” 

 

And that’s what Jesus goes on to say.  “If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.”  So this remaining in Jesus’ love involves keeping his commandments.  Do you remember what those commandments were?  Well, they revolve around love.  In Matthew’s Gospel, when the scholar of the law asks which of the commandments was the greatest, Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the greatest and the first commandment.  The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Matthew 22:37-39)

 

Putting God and neighbor first in the same way as Jesus did for us is what this kind of love entails.  And note carefully that the way Jesus put us first was by laying down his life on the cross.  Remaining in Jesus’ love, the command he gives us today, involves loving others in a sacrificial way, putting aside our own interests and ambitions at times, dying to self, so that we can give life to others. 

 

But this is not to make ourselves martyrs or even grumpy Christians.  This love leads to true joy, because in many ways it takes away the worry of having to think about ourselves.  “I have told you this so that my joy might be in you and your joy might be complete.”  And so it is with great joy that we remain in Christ’s love; loving others as he has loved us – sacrificially and unconditionally.  And with this great love, as the Psalmist says, we “Proclaim God’s marvelous deeds to all the nations.”

 

Tuesday of the Fifth Week of Easter

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What wonderful words of encouragement and consolation we have in today’s Gospel reading: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.”  We can think of all sorts of situations in which these words would be welcome.  We have all experienced health problems in ourselves or in those close to us, job difficulties, family problems, and so many more.  How wonderfully consoling it is to know that in the midst of the many storms we daily face, our Savior is there offering us peace.

But the peace Jesus offers us in this reading is a bit different from what we might expect.  It’s not the mere absence of conflict, nor is it any kind of placating peace the world might offer us.  This peace is a genuine one, a peace that comes from the inside out, a peace that calms our troubled minds and hearts even if it does not remove the storm.  There is a contemporary song that says, “Sometimes he calms the storm, and other times he calms his child.” 

God knows that we walk through storms every day.  He experienced that first-hand in the person of Jesus as he walked our walk in his earthly life.  He knows our joys and our pains, and reaches out to us in every one of them with his abiding presence and his loving embrace.  Just because he does not walk the earth today, does not mean God has left us alone in it.  His presence abides in us through the Church, through the holy people God has put in our lives, through his presence in our moments of prayer and reflection, and in so many ways we could never count them all.  This peace from the inside out is one that our God longs for us to know, whether we are traversing calm waters or braving a vicious storm.

Our Psalm today responds for us to this gift of peace: “May my mouth speak the praise of the LORD, and may all flesh bless his holy name forever and ever.”  In our quiet moments in today’s liturgy, we should all take some time to realize the gift of God’s peace. 

Fifth Sunday of Easter

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I remember – vaguely – the experience of moving into a new house when I was little.  I was about eight at the time, but events like that stand out because they are so significant in our lives.  Anyway, I remember going out with Mom and Dad and looking at some new houses.  They liked one very much, and that’s the one they bought.  In the weeks that followed, they went out to the new house a few times to get it ready for us to move in.  There were parts of the house that needed a good deep-cleaning, some nail holes to fill up where pictures had once hung, and more than a few coats of paint were needed in the living room to cover a pretty hideous shade of, well, I guess it was green.  Other little tasks were accomplished as well, and finally on Memorial Day weekend of that year, we were able to move in to the house.

That’s almost the picture I get when we hear Jesus say today, “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?”  But it’s not that way, of course.  In the case of God’s dwelling place, we needed our Savior to return there so that the way could be paved for us.  Because we fallen people had no access to God’s house – our sinfulness had cut us off from God, and it was only the death and resurrection of Christ that could ever restore us to the inheritance that God always wanted for us.  So Jesus wasn’t going back to the Father just to put a few more coats of paint on our new dwelling place: he was going back to the Father to ready the way for us.

So today’s Scriptures, I think, give us the goal, the way to get to the goal, and the effects of achieving that goal.

The goal is made pretty clear in the Gospel reading today.  The goal is that mansion that Jesus speaks of – the Father’s house in which there are many dwelling places.  It’s a mansion in which there is room for everyone, just as long as they find the way to get there.  This reminds us that as nice as our home may be here on earth, there is something better awaiting us.  It also serves as a reminder to those whose earthly home is difficult, or even non-existent, there is a place where they truly belong.  Whatever our current living situation, however entrenched we are in our earthly life, we are reminded today that we are not home yet, that ultimately there is a place where we can live that will make us feel truly at home for all eternity.

So our goal is our heavenly home.  The way to get to that goal is made pretty clear in the Gospel too.  Jesus is very direct about saying, “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  So if we want to get to our promised inheritance, there is just one way to get there, and that is through Jesus Christ whose sole mission was to pave the way for us to get back home.  Notice very carefully that Jesus does not say, “There are several ways, and I am just one of them; there are many possible truths, and you can hear one of them in me; you can live your life all sorts of ways, and my life is a nice one.”  No – he says “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  This is a statement that has all sorts of implications for the work of evangelization, because if we believe this, seriously believe it, then we have to make sure that everyone comes to know the Lord.

Does this mean that those who do not ever come to know the Lord will never receive the heavenly inheritance?  Put another way, more directly perhaps, does this mean that non-Christians don’t go to heaven?  That’s a tough one.  Vatican II addressed that concern by stating that while the fullness of the means of redemption were present in the Catholic Church, still there are elements of redemption present outside the Church.  It says, “… some and even very many of the significant elements and endowments which together go to build up and give life to the Church itself, can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church: the written word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, and visible elements too. All of these, which come from Christ and lead back to Christ, belong by right to the one Church of Christ.”  (Unitatis Redintegratio, 3)  Basically, we don’t have a monopoly on how Christ reveals himself to people, and we cannot know the depths of God’s mercy.  Still, helping people to come to know the Lord needs to be at the top of our to-do lists.

So the goal is heaven, and the way is Christ.  The readings today also give us the effects of achieving the goal.  Those effects include a community where relationships can overcome difficulties, a relationship with God the Father, and an ability to do amazing works in the name of Christ.

In the first reading, we see the early community addressing perhaps the first challenge they have had.  There is an inequity in the distribution of aid to the widows, and presumably, their children.  This is not unlike inequities that exist in parishes everywhere at one time or another.  But, being that they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and that they had chosen Christ as their way, truth and life, they were able to resolve the issue in a prayerful way.  They are able to appoint seven members of the community to take care of that, so that the Apostles can continue to preach the word.  There is an attention to the needs of the less fortunate, there is a sharing of authority, and an empowerment of the community.  These are all fruits of trusting Jesus to be our way.

The second effect of achieving our goal is a relationship with God the Father.  This is very directly what Jesus came to accomplish.  Jesus, the one who was completely united with the Father, came to our world so that we could have that same relationship.  That would not ever have been possible without Christ, because the only way to know the Father is to know him.  Because of their complete unity, when we see Christ, we see the Father.  As Jesus says to Philip, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.  How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?  Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?  The words that I speak to you I do not speak on my own.”  This also has implications for us believers.  Because people come to see Christ in us, they will come to see the Father in us as well.  This promise makes it all the more important that we make sure that we are not an obstacle to people coming to know the Lord.

And finally, the third effect of achieving our goal is that we can do great works in the name of Christ.  Some people say that Jesus never came to establish a Church, but today’s readings tell us that is patently false.  He certainly came to establish a Church, because after his death and resurrection, it was the actions of the Church that continued his saving work.  It was the Church that continued the healing, reaching out to the needy, preaching the Word, and all the rest.  And the Church continues this saving work in our own day.  We are empowered to do wonderful works: to preach, to heal, to serve and love in the name of Jesus Christ.  None of this happens on our own, or as a result of our own ambition.  It only happens by joining ourselves to the One who is the way,
the truth and the life.

There’s a lot at stake in our Scriptures today.  There is a world that needs to know Jesus so that they too can know the Father and experience the joy of a real home.  There is a world that needs to know the touch of Jesus so that they can be healed and strengthened for life’s journey.  There is a world that needs to hear the Word of Jesus so that they can come to the way, the truth and the life.  It’s on us now, none of us can be passive observers or consumers only.  As St. Peter says today, we “are ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that [we] may announce the praises’ of him who called [us] out of darkness into his wonderful light.”  We are not home yet, but we can get there through our Jesus, our way, our truth, and our life. 

Thursday of the Fourth Week of Easter

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Today’s readings are full of messengers.  In the first reading, Paul is a messenger bringing news of the real meaning of the ancient Scriptures in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus.  And he speaks of another messenger, John the Baptist, who paved the way for the coming of Jesus by preaching a baptism of repentance.  In the Gospel, Jesus points out that a messenger is never greater than the one who sent him, and that those messengers sent by Christ should be accepted as Christ, since Jesus himself was sent by the Father.  Accepting the messenger is accepting Jesus is accepting God the Father.

The word messenger goes back to old French and Latin words for “send” and is closely tied to the word “mission.”  The messenger is truly on a mission from the one who sent him.  When you think of it, all of us disciples are messengers on a mission.  We all have been charged with the mission of proclaiming the Gospel and witnessing to Christ.  We do that in our own ways; sometimes, as St. Francis would say, we use words.  But often we do not.  Most often our witness depends on how well we live our mission, the message that we send comes in the things we do and the way we live.  As my father used to say, “actions speak louder than words.”

And so we come to this place to be nourished for our mission.  We hear the words of Scripture that gives us the message to preach and receive the Eucharist that gives us strength for the journey.  People will come to know Christ as they come to know us.  We pray that our message might be a good one, a message that compels everyone we meet to turn to our God.  Because the mission, the message that we have is better than anything on earth.  As the Psalmist says, “For ever I will sing the goodness of the Lord.”

Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Easter

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When people ask you where you are from, the way that you answer that question probably depends a lot on the context.  For instance, if it was a stranger who asked you that question when you were on a vacation out of the country, you might answer, “I’m from the United States.”  If you’re at a business meeting at your corporate headquarters in another state, you might say, “I’m from the Chicago area.”  If you just move into a house and you’re meeting your new neighbors for the first time, you would tell them where you used to live.  If you are at a ministry function with people from other churches, you would probably say “I’m from St. Raphael’s.”  If the person asking isn’t someone you want to know details of your personal life, you might say, “I’m sorry, that’s classified information.  Witness protection, you know…”

But seriously, today’s Scriptures ask that question in the context of our faith.  Where are you from?  In the first reading, we find there are Christians in Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, but all of them had their hearts – their true citizenship – in the new Jerusalem, the city of God.  They may have been from all over the known world at the time, but they were one in faith, united as brothers and sisters in Christ.  The Gospel reading has some Jews gathered around Jesus in the Temple, asking if he was the Christ.  They wanted to know where he was from.  And it was obvious – they had seen his works and heard his words.  But they could never be united, because even though they were in the same place, their hearts were from different places.

So where are you from?  We could answer that one all kinds of ways.  But spiritually, at our core, we are citizens of heaven.  Our life’s journey takes us all sorts of places, but its source and its destination are one and the same: our true home is in the City of God.  And right now, we are not home yet.  As always, the Psalmist says it so well: “One and all were born in her;” – that is, the City of God – “And he who has established her is the Most High LORD.”