The Solemnity of Pentecost

Today’s readings

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
w
ho proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.

We say these words every Sunday, and unfortunately I think they can become a little rote.  And that’s too bad, because they are beautiful words, and they have been given to us at great cost.  We should pray them perhaps a bit more reflectively today, on this feast of the Holy Spirit.

So these words are the part of the Creed that speaks of the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity, whose feast we celebrate today.  Today is the birthday of the Church, the moment when the Spirit descended upon those first Apostles and was passed on through them to every Christian ever since.  The Holy Spirit emboldened those first disciples and continues to pour gifts on all of us so that the Church can continue the creative and redemptive works of the Father and the Son until Christ comes in glory.  That is what we gather to celebrate today.

At the Ascension of Christ into heaven, which we celebrated last Sunday, the apostles had been told to wait in the city until they were clothed with power from on high.  This is exactly what we celebrate today.  Christ returned to the Father in heaven, and they sent the Holy Spirit to be with the Church until the end of time.  That Holy Spirit is absolutely necessary so that God can continue to work in the world and be in the world while Christ was no longer physically present.

I don’t know if we understand how radically the Holy Spirit changes things.  The Fathers of the Church wrote about it very plainly.  Saint Cyril of Alexandria writes: “It can be easily shown from examples both in the Old Testament and the New that the Spirit changes those in whom he comes to dwell; he so transforms them that they begin to live a completely new kind of life.  Saul was told by the prophet Samuel: The Spirit of the Lord will take possession of you, and you shall be changed into another man.  Saint Paul writes: As we behold the glory of the Lord with unveiled faces, that glory, which comes from the Lord who is the Spirit, transforms us all into his own likeness, from one degree of glory to another.”

And we do see the work of the Holy Spirit on those disciples of the early Church.  They were confused people.  They had no idea what to do now that Jesus had died and risen.  Think about it.  What if you were there?  What would you have made of all that?  Would you know what to do next any better than they would?  I don’t think I’d do very well!  But it was the Holy Spirit that changed them.  And thank God for that, or we wouldn’t have the Church to guide us today!

The Spirit changed Peter from an impulsive, bumbling disciple to an Apostle of great strength.  He shared his own gift of the Holy Spirit with many others, baptizing them and confirming them in the faith.  He guided the Church from its rough beginnings to the birth of something great.  The other Apostles likewise went out, bringing the Gospel and the gift of the Holy Spirit to all corners of the then-known world.  Their witness eventually brought the Church to us, in our own day.  The Spirit changed Saul from a man who oversaw the imprisonment and murder of Christians into Paul, a man who was on fire for the faith.  His preaching and writing converted whole communities of Gentiles and helped them believe in the Gospel, and continues to inspire us in our own day.

The Holy Spirit has continued to work in the hearts and minds of countless saints through the ages, making up for any personal inadequacies they may have had and giving them the strength to teach truth, write convincing testimonials, reach out to the poor and needy, bind up the broken and bring hurting souls to the Lord.

That same Holy Spirit continues to work among us in our own day, if we are open, if we let him do what he wills.  The Holy Spirit is still making saints, guiding men and women to do things greater than they are capable of all on their own, for the honor and glory of God.  This is the Spirit who enables you to have words to speak to someone who is questioning the faith, or to a child who wants to know why the sky is blue, or to a friend who needs advice that you don’t know how to give.  The Spirit even speaks for us when we are trying to pray and don’t know quite what to say to God.

The Spirit gives us the inspiration to do acts of mercy and love.  It is the Holy Spirit who encourages you to take on a ministry at church, or to coach a softball team, or to look in on a sick friend or neighbor, or give an elderly parishioner a ride to church.  It is the Spirit who inspires us to pray in new ways, to grow in devotion, to spend more time getting closer to the Lord.  All in all, it is the Holy Spirit who helps us to find the way to heaven, the goal of all of our lives.

We should pray for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit every morning of our lives.  It’s amazing how much that changes me over time.  The prayer I learned at my Confirmation is as good a way to pray that as any, and maybe you know it too.  If you do, pray along with me:

Come, Holy Spirit
fill the hearts of your faithful
enkindle in them the fire of your love.
Send forth your Spirit and we shall be created,
and you shall renew the face of the earth.

Amen.

Tuesday of the Seventh Week of Easter 

Today’s readings 

Today’s Liturgy of the Word represents a kind of wrap-up to the lives of St. Paul and Jesus, respectively. They both have completed the mission for which they had been sent, and both are now giving the mission back to God who would continue it as He alone saw fit. Paul’s mission had been one of conversion, beginning with his own, and then reaching out to the Gentiles he met traveling far and wide. Now he did not know what would happen to him, only that the Holy Spirit kept telling him it was to be an end filled with hardship, from which Paul refused to shrink.

Jesus, one with the Father from the beginning, had come from the Father and was now going back to the Father. He brought God’s love to bear on the aberrations of sin and death and had drawn disciples into the mission to continue the work. It could not continue unless he returned to the Father and sent the Holy Spirit upon them. Doing that has brought the Gospel into every nation and into the lives of millions. He too faced an end filled with hardship, from which he refused to shrink.
We disciples will come to our own ends as well. Will we too be able to give the mission back to the Father, confident that we’ve done it as best we could, and confident that it would be continued as God saw fit? Have our days sometimes been filled with hardship, and if so, have we also refused to shrink from it? We disciples are part of the mission that God has in the world. We take it for a time and will eventually have to hand it back over. Please God, may we all be able to do so with confidence that God’s will has been done in us!

The Ascension of the Lord

Today’s readings 

Have you ever been at a loss for words? Have you been in a situation that was so astounding that you were just … speechless? Hopefully it was for something astoundingly wonderful, as for the apostles as their Lord ascended to heaven. Can you imagine what was going through the disciples’ minds as they stood there watching the Ascension of the Lord? Think about all that they’ve been through. Three years following this Jesus whose words were compelling and whose miracles were amazing and whose way of life was uplifting. But still, there was something about him that they just never seemed to get. He said he was the Christ, the Anointed One, and so their strong cultural definition of the Messiah was something they projected onto Jesus, but time after time it just never fit. Then he gets arrested, tried in a farce of a proceeding, put to death like a common criminal and buried for three days. After that, he is no longer in the tomb, but has risen from the dead and appeared to them many times. Now they’re gathered forty days later, and he promises the gift of the Holy Spirit. They breathlessly ask the question that has always been on their minds, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” They still don’t get it.

And so Jesus promises them the Holy Spirit again, and ascends into the sky. Can you imagine it? It’s like a roller coaster of emotions for them. Their heads had to be spinning, they had to be completely lost as to what to do now. First he was dead and buried, then he came back, and now he’s gone again. What on earth are they to do now? Well, the two mysterious men dressed in white garments have all the advice they’re going to get: “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.” It’s almost as if God is telling them, “You’ll see what comes next, just get on with it.” And so they do, and they’ll get more help next week on Pentecost, with the coming of the Holy Spirit. But until then, it’s enough for them and us to be a bit speechless.

We should be a little speechless too. Honestly, I think these stories have become so engrained in our cultural experience of our religion that we just tend to treat them as nothing special. But we should be speechless, because the Ascension, as well as the Resurrection, are game-changers for us. Nothing like that ever happened before, and it made possible our eternity; the greatest gift we’ll ever have. We should be astounded!

And then, like the apostles, we need to get on with it. Because the Ascension has very specific meaning for our mission. I think we get three directions in today’s feast. First, Christ promises us that he will be with us always. That’s what Jesus says to the disciples – and to us! – in the very last words of the very last verse of the very last chapter of Matthew’s Gospel: “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” This is such an essential point of faith for us to get: Jesus our Lord will be with us every day, every moment, right up to the end of the age. And he is present in our Church today. His abiding presence is with us when we gather in his name, when we worship, hear the Word proclaimed and celebrate the sacraments. And he is with us, too, when we serve others, being those hands and feet of Jesus in a tangible way.

The second direction that the Ascension gives us is that Jesus has gone to heaven to prepare a place for us. He goes to heaven to pave the way, because we had lost the way, affected as we all are by original sin and by the sins of our life. Since we did not know the way, he prepares it for us: opening the door, so to speak, and greeting us. So we believers who have forged a relationship with our Lord can now look to him to see how to get to that heavenly reward. All we have to do is follow, and we will find ourselves in that place God intended for us from the beginning.

And finally, the Ascension reminds us that the Christian Mission has been entrusted to our hands. Christ has ascended into heaven, he has returned to the Father. So, yes, on this feast of the Ascension of the Lord, we are rightly struck speechless, but now it’s time for us to take up the Cross, to preach the Word in our words and actions, and to witness to the joy of Christ’s presence among us. If people are ever going to come to know Christ, if they are ever going to be challenged to grow in their faith, if they are ever going to know that there is something greater than themselves, they’re going to have to see that witness in other people, and it needs to be us. We have to be transparent in our living so that people won’t be caught up on us, but will come through us to see Jesus, to see the Father, to experience the Spirit. We are the ones commanded to “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…” The mission is entrusted to us now.

The speechlessness has to be over. The Psalmist tells us that God mounts his throne to shouts of joy. We must be joyous in living our life as Christians, assured of God’s abiding presence until the end of time, looking forward to our heavenly reward, and living the mission for all to see. We must no longer be speechless, but instead be a blare of trumpets for the Lord!

Monday of the Sixth Week of Easter 

Today’s readings 

Today, Jesus has for us good news and bad news. The good news is that he is eventually going to send the Holy Spirit upon the world. The Holy Spirit will be a new Advocate for us, and will testify to everything that Jesus said and did. The Spirit’s testimony will be further evidence of God’s abiding love for us, a love that did not come to an end at the cross or the tomb, but instead triumphed over everything to make known his salvation to the ends of the earth. The testimony of the Holy Spirit, combined with the testimony of the Apostles, would be the birth pangs of the emerging Church, given by Christ to make the Gospel known in every land and every age.

But the bad news is, that glory won’t come without a price. Those Apostles would be expelled from the synagogues and misguided worshippers would think they were doing God’s will by killing them. Jesus knew this would be the lot of his baby disciples and he cares for them enough to warn them of what is to come. It is an important aspect of their discernment to know what is to come. Also, by warning them, he is preparing them for what is to come so that when it does happen, they may not be flustered or frightened, but might instead hold deeply to their faith, knowing that God’s providence had foreseen these calamities and they might know that in God’s providence, these calamities would not be the end of the story.
We are beneficiaries of the good news and bad news of today’s Gospel. We have heard the testimony of the Spirit and the Apostles, have been nourished by the Church they founded, have been encouraged by all that they suffered to bring the Good News to us. It is important that we too know that there is good news and bad news in the future of our discipleship. The Spirit continues to testify and the Apostles continue to teach us – that’s the good news. The bad news is, sometimes our faith will be tested, and sometimes our faith with cost us something. But in the end, it’s all Good News: even our suffering will not be the end of the story. God’s love triumphs over everything.

The Sixth Sunday of Easter

Today’s readings

So today I want to address a topic that I think doesn’t get enough attention, and that is the topic of hope.  Saint Peter in today’s second reading urges us to “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope…”  And that’s a bigger challenge, I think, than we realize sometimes.

First of all, I think we don’t really understand what hope is.  In common usage, I think hope means something like a wish.  We often say, “I hope that …” or “I hope so,” as if to say, “It probably won’t ever happen, but it would be really nice.”  That’s not what hope means, and that’s not the kind of hope that Saint Peter is asking us to be ready to explain.  Even the definition of hope leaves this discussion wanting.  Merriam Webster defines hope as “to cherish a desire with anticipation; to want something to be happen or be true.”  Anticipation implies more than a mere wish, certainly.  But wanting something to happen or be true entertains the possibility that it will not.  That’s not the kind of hope we’re talking about either.

But Merriam Webster also provides what it calls an “archaic” usage, which defines hope in one word: trust.  And now I think we’re closer to home.  The hope that we have in Jesus is something in which we can certainly trust, because he promises its truth, and God always keeps his promises.  All we have to do is attach ourselves to that hope so that we can be caught up in it in all the right moments.So what is it that we hope for?  In what do we place our hope, our trust?  Maybe it would be better to ask in whom we hope: Jesus is our hope, and through his death and resurrection, he has set us free from the bonds of sin and death, and opened up the way for us to enter eternal life in communion with the Father.

Our world needs this hope.  Just tune in to the news to see that lack of hope: wars, skirmishes and unrest in many parts of the world; bizarre weather and killer tornadoes in many places of our country this spring; cataclysmic natural disasters over the past few years that have left whole countries reeling.  Closer to home, we could cite high unemployment, rising prices on everything from gas to food, violence in our cities, and so much more.  It doesn’t take much looking around to feel like there’s no hope of hope anywhere.

So the problem, I think, is in what or where that we place our hope.  Often we place our hope in ourselves or our own efforts, only to find ourselves at some point over our heads.  Or maybe we place our hope in other people in our lives, only at some point to be disappointed.  We sometimes place our hope in Oprah or Doctor Phil or their ilk, only to find out that their pep-talks at some point ring hollow and their philosophies are shallow.  You can’t find much hope in sources like these, or if you do, you might find that hope to be short-lived.  And so, as I said, if we want real hope something in which we can truly trust, the only place we need to look, the only one we should look to, is God.

Now, I say this, knowing full well that some of you have prayed over and over and over for something to change, only to be disappointed after you say “Amen.”  And there’s no way I’m going to tell you that all you have to do is pray and everything will work out all right.  God doesn’t promise us perfect happiness in this life, and so often we are going to go through periods of sorrow and disappointment.  That’s the unfortunate news of life in this passing world.  The sorrow and disappointment are not God’s will for us, they are by-products of sin – our own sin or the sin of others – and those things grieve God very much.

But even in those times of grief, God still gives us hope, if we turn to him.  The hope that he offers is the knowledge that no matter how bad things get, we don’t go through them alone, that God is there for us, walking with us through the sorrow and pain and never giving up on us.

Today’s readings give us a foundation for this hope.  In the second reading, Peter awakens our hope of forgiveness.  He says, “For Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God.  Put to death in the flesh, he was brought to life in the Spirit.”  Even our sinfulness is no match for God’s mercy.  Because of Christ’s death and resurrection we have hope of eternal life in God’s kingdom.  Because God loved us so much, he gave his only Son for our salvation, and now we have hope of forgiveness, hope for God’s presence in our lives.

In the Gospel, Jesus tells us that we can hope in him because we will always have his presence.  Even though he ascended to the right hand of the Father, as we’ll celebrate next week, he is with us always.  “And I will ask the Father,” he says, “and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth…”  We receive that Holy Spirit sacramentally in Baptism and Confirmation, and we live in his Spirit every day.  The presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives gives us the hope that we are never alone, even in our darkest hours; that the Spirit intercedes for us and guides us through life.

We disciples have to be convinced of that hope; we have to take comfort in the hope that never passes from us, in the abiding presence of God who wants nothing more than to be with us.  We have to reflect that hope into our sometimes hopeless world.  As Saint Peter said, “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts.  Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope…” The reason for our hope is Christ.  We find our hope in the cross and resurrection.  We experience our hope in the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit.  We spread that hope in our hopeless world by being Christ to others, living as disciples of Jesus when the whole world would rather drag us down.  Even when life is difficult, we can live with a certain sense of joy, because above all, we are disciples of hope.

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 wouldn’t 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.