Thursday of the Fifth Week of Easter

Today’s readings

In our first reading this morning, we have from the Acts of the Apostles a rather defining moment for the early Church. Jesus hadn’t given them a precise rule book of how to make the Church develop: he simply sent them out to baptize. But he also told them to make disciples of all the nations, and that’s what’s at stake in today’s reading. Because the nations didn’t observe all the laws that the Jews did. And so admitting non-Jews to the Church meant deciding whether they had to be circumcised, and whether they had to observe all the other laws of the Old Testament.

Well, obviously, this little mini-council, swayed by the great stories of Paul and Barnabas, decided that the Spirit could call anyone to be disciples, and they shouldn’t get in the way. So they decide to impose very little upon them, outside of avoiding idol worship and unlawful marriage. And then the Psalmist’s prophecy, “Proclaim God’s marvelous deeds to all the nations” came to pass. If it weren’t for this little council, we very well might not be Christians today. Praise God for the movement of the Spirit!

And now the command comes to us: we have to be the ones to proclaim God’s deeds to everyone, and not to make distinctions that marginalize other people. God’s will is not fulfilled until every heart has the opportunity to respond to his love.

Monday of the Fifth Week of Easter

Today’s readings

Today’s readings are a reminder that we disciples have to be discerning. It is important for us to discern what the truth is so that we can be led to the one who is Truth itself. The Gentiles, who worshiped idols, didn’t have the context of monotheism – that there is one God – to help them. Paul and Barnabbas did their best to catechize them, but there was much work to be done to overcome something that had been for the Greeks so culturally ingrained. The Gentiles didn’t have a context of God working through human beings, so they naturally mistook Paul and Barnabas for gods.

And in today’s Gospel, Jesus spells out how one can discern who is a true disciple. The true disciple, claiming that he or she loves God, will be one who keeps God’s commandments. If the disciple truly loves God, keeping God’s commandments would be second nature for him or her. But if one were to see someone claiming to love God and be his disciple but not obeying God’s commandments, one could conclude that person is not a true disciple.

Discernment is important for us, because we want authenticity in our worship and in our belief and understanding. Discernment is a gift of the Holy Spirit. When we come to know the One who is Truth itself, then we will be filled with the Holy Spirit and come to know the truth.

The Fifth Sunday of Easter

Today’s readings

One of the most exciting lines in today’s Liturgy of the Word comes in the second reading: “The One who sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’” The book of Revelation is all about the persecution of the early Christians, and it looks forward to the day when God would put all that persecution to an end. People were dying for the faith, being forced to give it up or be cast out of the synagogues. That left them open to the persecution of the Romans who demanded that they take up the worship of their pagan gods or face death. They were a people looking for newness, healing, and re-creation. So it is with great hope, then, that John reports what is heard in his vision: “Behold, I make all things new.”

There is a clamor for newness, I think, in every age and society. We are a people who could use some re-creation even today. Look at the way our own faith is received. The voices of death have such a foothold that they have many faithful Catholics believing that babies can be aborted in favor of personal choice. Sunday family worship takes a further back seat to soccer games, baseball, and other activities, as if worshipping God were just one possible choice for the many ways people could spend the Lord’s day. Rudeness and hurtful language are used in every forum, and we call it entitlement. Prayer is not welcome in almost any public location, for fear that someone might be offended by our religiosity. Concern for the poor and needy, and a longing for peace and justice are bracketed in favor of capital gain. And that is to say nothing of those Christians in the Middle East, especially Syria, who face danger and death for living their faith. We Christians today are persecuted just as surely as the early Christians, whether we pay for it with our lives or not. We Christians today are in need of hearing those great words: “Behold, I make all things new.”

The good news is that as an Easter people, we can already see the newness that is God’s re-creation of our world. We know the story of our salvation: This world was steeped in sin and we are a people who, though created and blessed by our God, time after time and age after age turned away from our God. Every generation turned away in ways more brazen than the last. We are the heirs of that fickle behavior and we can all attest that our sins have led us down those same paths time after time in our own lives. But God, who would be justified in letting us live in the hell we seemed to prefer, could not live without us. So he sent his only Son into our world. He was born as one of us and walked among us, living the same life as ours in all things but sin. He reached out to us and preached the new life of the Gospel. And in the end, he died our death, the death we so richly deserved for our sins. And not letting that death have the last word in our existence, he rose to a new life that lasts forever. He did all that motivated by the only thing that could ever explain away our fickle sinfulness, and that motivation is love.

I give you a new commandment: love one another.

As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.

This is how all will know that you are my disciples,

if you have love for one another.

The love that Jesus is talking about here is not some kind of emotional infatuation that fades as quickly as it grows. It is not a love that says “I will love you if…” Perhaps you have heard it yourself: “I will love you if you remain faithful to me.” “I will love you if you are successful in school.” “I will love you if you meet all my own selfish expectations.” “I will love you if you ignore my imperfections.” “I will love you if you become more perfect.” But the kind of love that says “I will love you if…” is not love at all. If God loved us if… we would be dead in our sins and there would be no reason to gather in this holy place day after day. If God loved us if… we would have nothing to look forward to in the life to come.

No, God does not love us if… God loves us period. As we know, God is love. God is love itself, love in all its perfection. Love cannot be experienced in a vacuum, so God created us to love him and for him to love us. We are the creation of God’s love and God cannot not love us! The kind of love Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel can only be summed up by the cross and resurrection. Jesus takes our sinfulness and brokenness upon himself, and stretches out his arms to die the death we deserve for our unfaithfulness. It wasn’t nails that held him to that cross, it was love, and we are totally undeserving of it. Even greater then, is the gift of the Resurrection in which we see that, because of love, death and sin have lost their sting. They no longer have the last word in our existence, because our God who is love itself has recreated the world in love.

And with this great act of sacrifice that restores us to grace, Jesus also gives those who would be his disciples a commandment: Love one another. Which sounds like an easy enough thing to do. But the second line of that commandment gives us pause and reminds us that our love can’t just be a nice feeling. He says to us: “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” And we know how he has loved us, don’t we? Whenever we forget, all we have to do is look at the nearest crucifix. Our love must be sacrificial. Our love must be unconditional. Our love cannot be “I will love you if…” but instead, “I love you period.” Our love must be a love that re-creates the world in the image of God’s own love.

And so it is with great joy that we welcome our two candidates for full communion with the Catholic Church.  Jessica and Erin have experienced God’s love in a way that wants to be fulfilled in the promise of eternal life that we have through the Church.  In love, we joyfully welcome them today and eagerly look forward to the day when they can celebrate fully at the Altar.

We live in a world that is broken and dark and evil at times. But our God has not abandoned us. Taking our death upon himself, he has risen triumphant over it. In spite of our unfaithfulness, he has re-created us all in his love. So now we disciples must continue his work of re-creation and love the world into a new existence.

“Behold, I make all things new.”

The Fourth Sunday of Easter

Today’s readings

Today’s brief Gospel reading begins with the wonderful line, “My sheep hear my voice.” But, I wonder: how are the sheep to hear the shepherd in this day and age? There are so many things that vie for our attention, that it would be easy to miss the call of the shepherd altogether.

So that’s what I want to reflect on today: What will it take for us sheep to hear our Master’s voice? We who are so nervous about any kind of silence that we cannot enter a room without the television on as at least background noise. We who cannot go anywhere without our cell phones and/or ear buds implanted firmly in our ears? We who cannot bear to enter into prayer without speaking all kinds of words and telling God how we want to live our lives? If even our prayer and worship are cluttered with all kinds of noise, how are we to hear the voice of our Shepherd who longs to gather us in and lead us to the Promise? Yet Jesus makes it clear today that entering into the silence and listening for his voice is the only way we can survive spiritually, the only way we can come at last to eternal life.

Here’s a deeper question: how are we to hear the Shepherd’s voice if there are no shepherds to make it known? Today is the world day of prayer for vocations. And I want to talk about all vocations today, but in a special way, I want to talk about vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Because these vocations, and especially the priesthood, are called upon to be the voice of Christ in today’s world. This is a special, and wonderful challenge, and I know there are young people in this community that are being called to it. We hear in today’s Liturgy of the Word that this task is not always easy because it is not universally accepted, as Paul and Barnabas found out. But it is a task that brings multitudes of every nation, race, people and tongue to the great heavenly worship that is what they have been created for. People today need to hear the voice of the Shepherd, but who will be that voice when I retire?

We know that every person has a vocation. Every person is called on by God to do something specific with their life that will bring not only them, but also others around them, to salvation. Parents help to bring their children to salvation by raising them in the faith. Teachers help bring students to salvation by educating them and helping them to develop their God-given talents. Business people bring others to salvation by living lives of integrity and witness to their faith by conducting business fairly and with justice and concern for the needy. The list goes on. Every vocation, every authentic vocation, calls the disciple to do what God created them for, and helps God to bring salvation to the whole world.

On this Mother’s Day, we can see in our Blessed Mother, the model of living our vocation. Through her fiat, she embraced the Father’s will for her, and put her life in his service.

Nineteen years ago on this very Sunday, I was struggling with my vocation. I knew that God was calling me to give up the life I had been so comfortable with, and go to seminary to study for the priesthood. But I did not want to. I was already doing what I thought I wanted to do with my life, and thought it was going pretty well. But on some level, I knew that life as a disciple required me to do what God wanted, and not necessarily what I wanted. There was an open house that day at the Diocesan Vocations Office. I wasn’t interested and I wasn’t going. And that day, the celebrant preached on vocations and made the point that living as a disciple meant that at some point we have to stop asking the question, “what do I want to do with my life?” and start asking, “what does God want me to do with my life?” And I already knew the answer to that question: God wanted me to go to that vocations open house that day, and so I did. Four months later, I was in seminary.

What about you? Are you doing what God wants you to do with your life? Maybe your answer won’t require such a radical change as mine did. Maybe it means you renew your commitment to your family, your work, your life as a disciple. But if you’re a young person out there and have only been thinking about what’s going to make you successful and bring in lots of money, maybe God is today asking you to stop thinking only of yourself and put your life’s work at the service of the Gospel. Maybe you’ll be called on to be a teacher, or a police officer, or a health care professional. And maybe, just maybe, God is calling you to enter the priesthood or religious life. On this day of prayer for vocations, I’m just asking you to pray that God would make his plans for your life clear to you, and that you would promise God to do what he asks of you. I can tell you first hand that nothing, absolutely nothing, will make you happier.

So I ask you all to join me in prayer for all holy vocations:

Faithful God,

You sent your son, Jesus,

to be our Good Shepherd.

Through our baptism

you blessed us and called us

to follow Jesus who leads us on the path of life.

Renew in us the desire to remain faithful

to our commitment to serve you and the Church.

Bless all who dedicate their lives to you

through marriage, the single life, the diaconate,

priesthood, and consecrated life.

Give insight to those

who are discerning their vocation.

Send us to proclaim the Good News

of Jesus, our Good Shepherd,

through the power of the Holy Spirit.

We ask this through Christ our Lord.

Amen.

Thursday of the Third Week of Easter

Today’s readings

I don’t believe in coincidences. Being in the right place at the right time isn’t usually a coincidence. Far more often than we realize, it’s the work of the Holy Spirit. Certainly that is the case in today’s first reading. How else would we explain an angel directing Philip to be on a road at the very same time as the Ethiopian eunuch passed by, reading a passage from the prophet Isaiah that referred to Jesus? Seizing the moment, Philip proclaims Jesus to him in a way that was powerful enough and moving enough that, on seeing some water as they continued on the journey, the eunuch begged to be baptized.

The same is true for those who were fortunate enough to hear Jesus proclaim the Bread of Life discourse that we’ve been reading in our Gospel readings these past days. Having been fed by a few loaves and fishes when they were physically hungry, they now come to find Jesus who longs to fill them up not just physically but also, and more importantly, spiritually. Their hunger put them in the right place at the right time. 

What I think is important for us to get today is that we are always in the right place at the right time, spiritually speaking. Wherever we find ourselves is the place that we are directed by the Holy Spirit to find God. Wherever we are right now is the place where the Holy Spirit wants us to find God and to proclaim God. That might be in the midst of peace, or chaos, or any situation. We never know how God may feed us in those situations. Because we never know when there will be someone like an Ethiopian eunuch there, aching to be filled with Christ’s presence and called to a new life. 

It is no coincidence that we are where we are, when we are. The Spirit always calls on us to find our God and proclaim him as Lord in every moment and every situation. 

The Third Sunday of Easter: Do You Love Me More Than These?

Today’s readings

What Satan wants is a community of disciples so mired in their sins, that they do nothing to foster the Kingdom of God and live the Gospel. Bookmark that thought, because I’ll come back to it in a bit.

I love today’s Gospel because it features one of my favorite characters, Saint Peter. Saint Peter has been inspirational to me because, despite being called to do great things for God, he does a lot of messing up and often has to pick himself up and start all over again. Today’s Gospel reading has him trying to figure things out. He’s very recently been through the arrest and execution of his Lord and friend, only to find out that he is risen, and has appeared to various disciples, including Peter himself. I think today’s story has him trying to make sense of it all and figure out where to go from here. But he’s trying to figure it out in the midst of having fallen again, since he denied even knowing the Lord three times on the night of Holy Thursday.

So, in an effort to figure things out, he goes back to what he knows best, which is to say he goes fishing. And he takes some of the others with him. And, as is very typical of Peter’s fishing expeditions recorded in the Gospels, he catches nothing even though he’s been hard at it all night long. It’s not until the Lord is with them again and redirects their efforts, that they eventually pull in an incredibly large catch of fish. Jesus then invites them to dine with him, using one of my favorite commands in all of Sacred Scripture, “Come, have breakfast.”

Then we have this very interesting, and in some ways tense, conversation between Jesus and Peter. Jesus takes him off to the side after breakfast, and just as he redirected Peter’s efforts while they were fishing earlier, now he redirects Peter’s efforts in his life. There are a couple of points of background that we need to keep in mind. First, just as Peter three times denied his Lord on the night of Holy Thursday, so now Jesus gives him three opportunities to profess his love and get it right.

Second, the Greek language has a few different words that we translate “love.” Two of them are in play in this conversation. The first is agapeo, which is the highest form of love. It’s a love that always wills the best for the other person, a love that is self-sacrificing and enduring. It’s the love that God has for us. The other kind of love that is used here is phileo, a bit lower form of love that is something like a strong affection for someone else. Where agapeo is an act of the will, phileo is more of a feeling. Many scholars don’t see this as an appreciable difference and say John in his Gospel just uses two different words to mean the same thing. But I think John is careful with language, and the two uses mean something, as we will see.

So the conversation begins, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” That’s literally a loaded question, so let’s look at it. First of all, Jesus calls Peter “Simon, son of John.” But Jesus is the one who changed his name from Simon to Peter. So this seems to be a bit of a rebuke: Okay, Peter, if you’re just going to revert to your former self and pretend you haven’t known me the last three years, then I’ll just use your old name. I’m sure Peter didn’t miss the inference. Then at the end, “do you love me more than these?” Scholars have a lot of opinions on what “these” are: Do you love me more than you love these other guys? Do you love me more than these other guys love me? Do you love me more than this fishing equipment, the tools of your former life? It doesn’t matter what he meant by “these,” the effect is the same: Peter is called to a higher love, which is evidenced in the word Jesus uses for love, which is agapeo. Peter responds, acknowledging Jesus’ omniscience, “Lord you know that I love you.” But he uses phileo, perhaps acknowledging that he is not capable of the agapeo kind of love. And he’s probably right about that, since sin does diminish our capacity to love. He receives the response “Feed my lambs,” of which I’ll say more later.

The conversation continues in the same manner, using the same forms of the word “love” in both the question and the response, and ending with the injunction, “Tend my sheep.” But the third question is interesting. Jesus asks the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” But this time Jesus uses the word phileo, as much as to say, “Okay, Peter, do you even have affection for me?” And Peter seems to get the inference, because he responds emotionally: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” And he’s right: Jesus does know. But Jesus needed Peter to know it too. Jesus, in his Divine Mercy, has healed Peter, forgiven his sins, and helped him to remember his mission, redirecting his efforts to “Feed my sheep.”

Because if Jesus hadn’t done this, Satan would have won. He would have had that community of disciples so mired in their sins, that they do nothing to foster the Kingdom of God and live the Gospel. And then we wouldn’t be here today, would we?

And let’s be clear about this. We, like Peter, all have a mission to accomplish. We all have some part of the Kingdom to build, or extend, or proclaim. We may not be the rock on which Jesus will build his Church, but we are indeed part of it. And we are all affected by our sins. We have all denied our Lord in one way or another by what we have done and what we have failed to do. And so the Lord in his mercy says to us today, “Patrick, do you love me?” “Susan do you love me?” And we respond with whatever love we’re capable of. In that moment, Jesus redirects our life’s efforts too, so that we can do what we’re called to do. We, who have been purified by our Lenten penance, are now called to live the life of the Resurrection, in which all God’s lambs are cared for, and all his sheep tended.

Jesus puts the question to us today: “Do you love me more than these?”

Saints Philip and James, Apostles

Today’s readings

Today is the feast of Saint Philip and the man we call “St. James the Lesser” because he is probably not the Saint James that we know as a relative of Jesus and the traditional author of the book of James.  Unfortunately, all that we know about this Saint James is that Jesus chose him as an apostle, and that Jesus appeared to him after his resurrection, as we hear at the end of today’s first reading.  Saint Philip we know a bit more about.  We hear of him in the Gospel story of the feeding of the multitudes because he is the one who tells Jesus “Two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little.”  In today’s Gospel we see him again as an apostle who is slow to believe. “Show us the Father,” he says, “and that will be enough for us.”

So this, I think, is the feast for all disciples who don’t put themselves in the limelight.  Maybe we too have been slow to believe, or were never really sure how to accomplish the mighty deeds God requires of us. Maybe we’re pretty unknown in discipleship circles.  And maybe that’s good enough for us.  Today’s feast says that’s okay.  It says that our efforts of faith, small though they may be, make us great believers in God’s time and in God’s eyes, led to the Father, as we always are, by our Savior.  It says that we might need a little convincing that we can do the work God asks us to do, but that filled with the Holy Spirit, all things can be accomplished. It says that we don’t have to be on the cover of the book to live our faith with conviction.

Today is the feast of apostles who are called to make God’s love known despite their imperfections or apparent lack of ability.  It is a feast for all of us who know that we are called by God and led by the Spirit to do great things in Christ.  To Philip and James and all the rest of the Apostles, Jesus said then, “Whatever you ask in my name, I will do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.  If you ask anything of me in my name, I will do it.”  Jesus says that to us today, too, all of us disciples who are slow to believe and understand.  “Whatever you ask in my name, I will do.”

Easter Thursday

Today’s readings

The time between Easter and Pentecost is often referred to as the period of Mystagogy. Mystagogy is a Greek word meaning “looking back on the mysteries.” It is a time of unpacking what we have just been through, and coming to see, with eyes enlightened by faith, the meaning of things we may never have noticed before.

The disciples in today’s Gospel reading are beginning that period of Mystagogy. They have seen the risen Lord, and now things they wondered about are all starting to make sense to them. Remember, they didn’t have the Gospels to guide them like we do; they had to live through all of this and it’s so clear from the readings of Lent and especially Holy Week that they were confounded by what Jesus was doing and what was happening to him. They were horrified and disillusioned and grieved by his death. But now, seeing him risen from the grave, they are beginning to make sense of it all. As the Gospel says today, “he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” and they came to see how the Scriptures applied to Jesus.

This is a special period for those we just received into the Church at the Easter Vigil. They will use this time of Mystagogy to grow in their new-found faith. It will be a time for them, too, to look back on the mysteries. They will reflect on their faith journey that began in childhood and eventually brought them here. They will reflect on the wonderful rites they have experienced, from the Rite of Acceptance into the Order of Catechumens, to their Election by the Bishop early in Lent, to the Scrutinies we witnessed with them, all the way to their Baptism, Confirmation and First Eucharist on Holy Saturday night. They will see God at work in their lives and make sense of things they may have been confused about before.

But this Mystagogy isn’t just limited to the disciples and our Neophytes. We are all mystagogues. Mystagogy, I think, is a life-long process, and all of us, converts and cradle Catholics alike, spend the rest of our lives unpacking the mysteries, reflecting on our lives of faith, coming to see who Jesus is for us in whole new ways, appreciating more deeply the love and grace poured out on us every day. Every day is a new opportunity for Mystagogy, and an opportunity to exclaim with our Psalmist today, seeing the wonderful mysteries that have unfolded for us, “O Lord, our God, how wonderful your name in all the earth!”

Easter Sunday of the Resurrection of the Lord

Today’s readings

I often tell the children in our school that if there’s just one thing they ought to know about God, one thing they ever learn about God, and that is that God loves them more than anything, that would be enough.  It’s the thing that I hope they remember me saying, because that’s the message I feel called to proclaim.  God’s love is the most important thing we have in this life, the most precious gift we will ever receive.

It is true gift, because there’s nothing, not one thing, that we can do to earn it.  Filthy in sin as we are, we certainly don’t do it. And entitled as we can sometimes be, there is no way we can ever say that we have a right to it.  But we get it anyway.  God freely pours out his love on us sinners, not because we are good, but because he is.

God loves us first and loves us best, and it’s a love that will totally consume us, totally transform us, if we let it.  It’s a love that can break our stony hearts and transform our sadness into real joy. It’s a love that can change us from people of darkness to real live people of light and joy.  It’s a love that obliterates the power of sin and death to control our eternity, and opens up to us the glory of heaven.

And even if we live our lives passing from one thing to the next and barely noticing anything going on around us, we have to pause and appreciate God’s love on this most holy morning.  This is the morning that confounded Mary of Magdala; it’s the morning that got Peter and John out of their funk and sent them running.  It’s the morning that John finally starts to get what Jesus was getting at all this time.  He saw and believed.

He saw that his Lord was not there, that death could not hold him.  He saw that the grave was no longer the finality of existence.  He saw that Love – real Love – is in charge of our futures.  He saw that there is real hope available to us hopeless ones.

“To him all the prophets bear witness,
that everyone who believes in him
will receive forgiveness of sins through his name.”

That quote, from Saint Peter’s testimony in the Acts of the Apostles, today’s first reading, is the Easter faith to which we are all called.  We have to stop living like this is all there is. We have to stop loving our sins more than we love God.  We have to live like a people who have been loved into existence, and loved into redemption.

That means we have to put aside our disastrous sense of entitlement. We have to learn to receive love so deep that it calls us to change.  And we have to love in the same way too, so that others will see that and believe.

We’ll never find real love by burying ourselves in work or careers.  We’ll do nothing but damage our life if we seek to find it in substance abuse.  We’ll never find love by clinging to past hurts and resentments.  We are only going to find love in one place, or more precisely in one person, namely, Jesus Christ. We must let everything else – everything else – go.

Today, Jesus Christ broke the prison-bars of death, and rose triumphant from the underworld.  What good would life have been to us, if Christ had not come as our Redeemer?  Because of this saving event, we can be assured that our own graves will never be our final resting places, that pain and sorrow and death will be temporary, and that we who believe and follow our risen Lord have hope of life that lasts forever.  Just as Christ’s own time on the cross and in the grave was brief, so our own pain, death, and burial will be as nothing compared to the ages of new life we have yet to receive.  We have hope in these days because Christ is our hope, and he has overcome the obstacles to our living.  

The good news today is that we can find real love today and every day of our lives, by coming to this sacred place. It is here that we hear the Word proclaimed, here that we partake of the very Body and Blood of our Lord. An occasional experience of this mystery simply will not do – we cannot partake of it on Easter Sunday only.  No; we must nurture our faith by encountering our Risen Lord every day, certainly every Sunday, of our lives, by hearing that Word, and receiving his Body and Blood.  Anything less than that is seeking the living one among the dead.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

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