Saints Peter and Paul, Apostles

Today’s readings

In today’s Gospel, Peter and the others are asked, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”  We heard this Gospel story just last weekend.  Now, both Peter and Paul were committed to the truth about who Christ was.  They had too much at stake.  Having both messed up their estimation of who Jesus was earlier in their lives, they knew the danger of falling into the trap.  So for them Jesus could never be just a brother, friend or role model – that was inadequate.  And both of them proclaimed with all of their life straight through to their death that Jesus Christ is Lord.  We too on this day must repent of the mediocrity we sometimes settle for in our relationship with Christ.  He has to be Lord of our lives and we must proclaim him to be that Lord to our dying breath.  We must never break faith with Saints Peter and Paul, who preserved that faith at considerable personal cost.

Perhaps Saints Peter and Paul can inspire our own apostolic zeal.  Then, as we bear witness to the fact that Jesus is Lord of our lives and of all the earth, we can bring a banal world to relevance.  Perhaps in our renewed apostolic zeal we can bring justice to the oppressed, right judgment to the wayward, love to the forgotten and the lonely, truth to a society that settles for relativism, and faith to a world that has lost sight of anything worth believing in.  One might say that that is the Church’s mission, but actually the mission is what is of primary importance.  And so we believe that the apostolic mission has a Church, and it’s time for the Church to be released from its chains and burst forth to give witness in the Holy Spirit that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Saints Philip and James, Apostles

Today’s readings

Today is the feast of St. Philip and the man we call “St. James the Lesser” because he is probably not the St. 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 St. James is that Jesus chose him as an apostle, and that Jesus appeared to him after his resurrection, as we hear in today’s first reading.  St. 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 of us disciples who don’t put ourselves 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 front page 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.”

The Ascension of the Lord

Today’s readings

For the early Apostles and disciples, today’s feast had to be a kind of “now what?” experience for them.  Think about what they’ve been through.  Their Lord had been betrayed by one of their friends, he had been through a farce of a trial and put to death in a horrible, ignoble way, they had been hiding in fear thinking they might be next, they had questioned what they were supposed to do without their Lord, and then they witness the Resurrection: Christ walks among them for a time, appearing to them and making himself known.  They had seen redemption of a way of life they almost had abandoned, and now, on this feast of the Ascension, their Lord is leaving them again.  In our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, you can almost feel the amazement and desperation they are experiencing as they stare up into the heavens, incredulous that their Lord is gone, again.

So once again, God sends two messengers, two men in white garments, to set them straight.  God had sent two men in dazzling garments to the women at the tomb on the day of the Resurrection as well.  That time, the men reassured the women that the Lord had not been moved or stolen, but had risen from the dead.  This time, the men appear to the Apostles, assuring them that the Lord would return in the same way as he had just departed from their sight.  Both times, it was the same kind of messengers, with the same kind of hopeful message.  Go forward, don’t worry, God is in control.

One of the great themes of Catholic theology is the “already, and not yet.” Basically, that means that we disciples of Christ already have a share in the life of God and the promise of heaven, but we are not yet there. So we who believe in Jesus and live our faith every day have the hope of heaven before us, even if we are not home yet. And this hope isn’t just some “iffy” kind of thing: it’s not “I hope I’ll go to heaven one day.” No, it’s the promise that because of the salvation we have in Christ, we who are faithful will one day live and reign with him. This gives us hope in the midst of the sorrows that we experience in this world.

Another great theme of Catholic theology is that our God is transcendent, but also immanent. Transcendent means that our God is higher than the heavens, more lofty than our thoughts and dreams, beyond anything we can imagine. Whatever we say about God, like “God is love” or “God is good” – those things only begin to scratch the surface of who God is, because God is transcendent beyond anything our limited words can describe. But our God is also immanent. God is not some far off entity that has brought the world into existence and set the events of our lives in motion and then drops back to observe things from afar. No, our God is one who walks among us and knows our sorrow and our pain and celebrates our joy. Saint Augustine said that God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves. Our God may indeed be mysterious and beyond us, but he is also the one we can reach out and touch.  If that weren’t so, the Eucharist would be pretty meaningless.

As you can see, Catholic theology is generally speaking not exclusive. We are not either already sharing in the promise or not yet sharing in it, but we are “already and not yet.” Our God is not either transcendent or immanent, but both transcendent and immanent. These two great theological themes come to a kind of crossroads here on this feast of the Ascension.

Today, as Christ ascends into heaven, our share in the life of God and the promise of heaven is sealed. We have hope of eternal life because our Lord has gone before us to prepare a place for us. If he had not gone, we could never have shared in this life. So, although Jesus has left the apostles yet again, they can rejoice because they know that the promise is coming to fulfillment. We do not possess it yet, because we are not home yet, but we share in it already, because Christ is our promise.

Today, as Christ ascends into heaven, he once again, with the Father, is transcendent, because we, along with the Apostles, can no longer see him. But he remains immanent by his promise to be with us always. Again, I will quote St. Augustine who said of Christ that “He did not leave heaven when he came down to us; nor did he withdraw from us when he went up again into heaven. The fact that he was in heaven even while he was on earth is borne out by his own statement: No one has ever ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man, who is in heaven.” St. Augustine teaches that the notion of time is that everything is present to God all at once. This explains how our celebration of the Eucharist in a few minutes brings us to Calvary at the moment when Jesus gave his life for us. And it explains how Jesus can ascend into heaven and yet remain among us. Time is a limitation for us humans, but not for God who created time in the first place.

All of this theology can be heady stuff, but what it boils down to is this: because Jesus died, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven, we now have the hope of heaven and of sharing in the very life of God. Even though we do not possess heaven yet, we know that it belongs to all who have faith in Christ and live that faith every day. And even though we do not see Jesus walking among us, he is still absolutely present among us and promises to be with us forever. The preface to the Eucharistic prayer which I will sing in a few minutes makes this very clear; it says:

Christ, the mediator between God and humanity,
judge of the world and Lord of all,
has passed beyond our sight,
not to abandon us but to be our hope.
Christ is the beginning, the head of the Church;
where he has gone, we hope to follow.

Jesus, having explained the Scriptures to his Apostles yet again, tells them “You are witnesses of these things.” And so they don’t have the luxury of just standing there, staring up into the sky for hours, dejected and crushed because the One who had been their hope had disappeared. No, as the Gospel tells us today, they “returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the temple praising God.” They are witnesses, “clothed with power from on high,” and they must be filled with the hope and joy of the resurrection and ascension of the Lord.

We disciples are witnesses of these things too. We must witness to a world filled with violence and oppression and sadness that our God promises life without end for all those who believe in him. And we have that hope already, even though not yet. We must witness to a world languishing in the vapidity of relativism and individualism and New Age Oprah and Dr. Phil philosophy that it is Jesus Christ, the Lord of All, who is one with us in heaven, and present among us on earth, who fulfills our hopes and longings and will never leave us. We must be witnesses to all these things, living with great joy, continually praising God because, as our opening prayer said so eloquently, Christ’s “ascension is our glory and our hope.”  We too might hear those men in dazzling white garments speak God’s words of hope to us: go forward, don’t worry, God is in control.

Saturday of the Sixth Week of Easter

Today’s readings

Today we’re gathered on what is, for us, the eve of the Ascension.  While the reading that we have in today’s Gospel is from John’s account of the eve of the Passion, the words could well have been spoken to the Apostles on the eve of the Ascension too.  Jesus speaks of leaving the world and going back to the Father, this time until he returns in glory.  The Twelve had to be broken hearted all over again.  They had lost their friend and Lord briefly to death, but had been encouraged by him as he appeared to them after the Ascension, and now he is preparing to leave again.

But the truth of it is that nothing will happen with the fledgling Church until he does leave.  Only then will the Father send the Holy Spirit to be with the Church until the end of time, giving the early disciples and us later disciples the grace and strength to go forward and proclaim the kingdom and call the world to repentance and grace. If God’s purpose is to be advanced on this earth, then Jesus has to return to the Father. If the Spirit does not descend, the Church would not be born. If the Church were not born, the Gospel would be but an obscure footnote in the history of the world.

The Good News for us is that the Holy Spirit continues to work among us today, as often as we call on him.  “Ask and you will receive,” Jesus says, and so we ask and receive the indwelling of the Holy Spirit for the glory and praise of God. We disciples, we friends of Jesus, can count on his blessing, the rich gift of the Holy Spirit, the great witness of the Church. Our lives are enriched by our faith and our discipleship. What we do here on earth, what we suffer in our lives, what we celebrate — all this will bear fruit for the glory of God.

Ss. Philip and James, apostles

Today’s readings

Today is the feast of St. Philip and the man we call “St. James the Lesser” because he is not the St. 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 St. James is that Jesus chose him as an apostle. St. 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 of us disciples who don’t put ourselves in the limelight.  Maybe we’re slow to believe, or aren’t 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 we will become great believers in God’s time, led 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 front page of the book to live our faith with conviction.

Ss. Simon & Jude, apostles

Today’s readings

Today, we celebrate two apostles who, as often is the case, are relatively unknown except that they were followers of Jesus.  Jude is called Judas in Luke and in the Acts of the Apostles.  Matthew and Mark call him Thaddeus.  We have in the New Testament the letter of Jude, which scholars say is not written by the man whose feast we celebrate today.

Simon was a Zealot, a member of a radical party that disavowed all ties with the government, holding that Israel should be re-elevated to political greatness under the leadership of God alone.  They also held that any payment of taxes to the Romans was a blasphemy against God.

Neither of these men held any claim to greatness here on earth; they found their glory in following Christ.  Their joy was, as St. Paul instructs us in his letter to the Ephesians, in their citizenship which was of course in heaven, as it is for all of us.  We are merely passing through this place, and our task while we are hear, as was the task for Simon and Jude and all the apostles, to live for Christ and to live the Gospel.  The reward for them, then, as is for all of us, is in heaven, their and our true home.

St. Bartholomew, Apostle

Today’s readings

Will the real St. Bartholomew please stand up?  Bartholomew is one of the saints that we know almost nothing about.  He is mentioned in the lists of the apostles, but nowhere else in Scripture.  So, as is true of many of the saints, what we know about him belongs mostly to the realm of the Church’s tradition.  Not that we should look down on tradition, because it comes from the lived experience of the early Church, and is also inspired by the Holy Spirit.

What tradition tells us about St. Bartholomew is that he is often identified with Nathanael in the Gospel.  That explains why Nathanael is prominent in the Gospel reading for today.  Nathanael – or Bartholomew, take your pick – is picked out of the crowd by Jesus.  Nathanael is surprised at what Jesus says about him: “Here is a true child of Israel.  There is no duplicity in him.”  We should recall that Jesus considered it his primary mission to seek out the lost children of Israel, so seeing Nathanael as a “true child of Israel” with “no duplicity in him” means that Jesus considered Nathanael a role model for his people.  He was one whose faith reached beyond mere observance of the Law or the Torah, and extended into the realm of living the Gospel.  And because he was able to do that, then we should consider him a role model for all of us as well.

It’s very interesting, I think, that we do know so little about the Chosen Twelve.  I mean, aside for characters like Peter, John, Matthew, and, well, Judas, we don’t have a lot of details.  Still, these Twelve were chosen as Apostles to bring the Gospel to all the corners of the world.  And maybe that’s all we need to know about them.  It is because of their efforts that we know about Jesus today and are able to seek after the life of grace.  Their preaching continues today in every land as Jesus intended, and we continue to have as our example these men in whom there is no duplicity; indeed the sole purpose of their life became the preaching of the Gospel.

That’s where we are all led, I think.  When it comes down to it, there is nothing more important than living the Gospel, and every one of us is called to do it.  If our spiritual life is not our primary concern, then we have nothing to look forward to.  But the good news is that, by the intercession and example and preaching of the Apostles like Bartholomew, we have every hope of eternal life.

Saints Peter and Paul

Today’s readings

In today’s Gospel, Peter and the others are asked, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Both Peter and Paul were committed to the truth about who Christ was. They had too much at stake. Having both messed up their estimation of who Jesus was earlier in their lives, they knew the danger of falling into the trap. So for them Jesus could never be just a brother, friend or role model – that was inadequate. And both of them proclaimed with all of their life straight through to their death that Jesus Christ is Lord. We too on this day must repent of the mediocrity we sometimes settle for in our relationship with Christ. He has to be Lord of our lives and we must proclaim him to be that Lord to our dying breath.  We must never break faith with Saints Peter and Paul, who preserved that faith at considerable personal cost.

Perhaps Saints Peter and Paul can inspire our own apostolic zeal. Then, as we bear witness to the fact that Jesus is Lord of our lives and of all the earth, we can bring a banal world to relevance. Perhaps in our renewed apostolic zeal we can bring justice to the oppressed, right judgment to the wayward, love to the forgotten and the lonely, and faith to a world that has lost sight of anything worth believing in. To paraphrase Cardinal Francis George, the apostolic mission still has a Church, and it’s time for the Church to be released from its chains and burst forth to give witness in the Holy Spirit that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father

The Solemnity of Pentecost

Today’s readings

Come, Holy Spirit, come!
And from your celestial home
Shed a ray of light divine!

veni_creatorI have come to discover about myself that I am not real good at languages. I took a couple of years of French in junior high and I don’t think I remember one word of it. In high school and in college, I took Spanish, and I was okay with it, but never got to the point of being able to have a conversation in Spanish. In seminary, I went to Mexico for six weeks to learn Spanish, and discovered that wasn’t even close to long enough. I can muddle through a little Spanish in the Liturgy, but to preach in Spanish or hear a confession in Spanish is insurmountable to me. I also took one unit of Greek in seminary, and that was almost disastrous. I was glad it was a zero-credit-hour class, so it didn’t get me thrown out on academic probation! I think some people are good with languages, and some are not; that ability is truly one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

But, the disciples in our first reading weren’t picked out for their especially good facility with languages either. They were ordinary men, who probably didn’t even have the grammar of their native language down to a science. On these men, the Spirit descended and gave them the gift of proclaiming the Gospel in every language of the known world. This event is miraculous, I think, on two counts. First and obviously, they are given the ability to speak in languages they did not already know. Second, they were given the gift of being able to speak out boldly on behalf of the Gospel. These are men who would not necessarily have commanded the respect or attracted the attention of anyone. They weren’t naturally gifted in public speaking. Yet, they are able to proclaim the Gospel boldly and convincingly, making the message known in the ear of anyone who heard it, regardless of their native language.

This was the first manifestation of the Spirit in the fledgling Church, indeed in some ways it is the birthday of the Church. The Spirit came in power to fill ordinary men with grace to proclaim the Gospel and make it heard by everyone on earth. This is the beginning of the fulfillment of Jesus’ command last week at his ascension: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature.” They had no idea how to do that before the Spirit came; now they have the power of the Spirit to speak to every creature in every part of the world in a language that could be understood.

We’ve gathered today on the Solemnity of Pentecost … the commemoration of this great event. Today, we have one last opportunity to celebrate the joy of the Easter season. For fifty days, we’ve been celebrating our Lord’s resurrection, his triumph over the grave, and his defeat of sin and death. We’ve been celebrating our salvation, because Christ’s death and resurrection has broken down the barriers that have kept us from God and has made it possible for us to live with God forever. In the last week, we’ve been celebrating our Lord’s Ascension, with His promise that though He is beyond our sight, He is with us always. And today, today we celebrate the wonderful gift of the Holy Spirit, poured out on the Church, who breathes life into all of us, giving us the power to accomplish the preaching of the Gospel.

The Hebrew word for Spirit is ruah, with is the same word they use for “breath.” So the Spirit who hovered over the waters of the primordial world also breathed life into our first parents, giving them not just spiritual life, but physical life, and life in all its fullness. The psalmist today makes it very clear that this Holy Spirit is the principle of life for all of us: “you take back your spirit, they perish and return to the dust from which they came; when you send forth your spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth” (Ps. 104:34).

That renewing of the earth is accomplished in so many different ways. But the most important way is by the preaching of the Gospel. All of us who have been given to drink of the dew of the Spirit are called upon to preach the Gospel. We may not, as St. Francis suggests, use words all the time, but we must continually express the Gospel in every single moment. Our families need to experience the Spirit in the way that we love them and care for them. People in our workplaces need to experience the Spirit in the integrity we bring to our businesses and the concern we show to employees, employers, colleagues and customers. People in our schools need to experience the Spirit in the way that we learn or teach. People in our communities need to experience the Spirit in the way that we reach out to the needy among us. People in our world need to experience the Spirit in the way that we treat the earth and join efforts to help the poor in other lands.

We need to be a people, filled with the Spirit, who fill our families, workplaces, schools, communities and our world with the grace of the Spirit by the way that we live. We were not given the gifts of the Holy Spirit to keep them for ourselves. They have been poured out on us in order to share with others and join in the Spirit’s effort to re-create the whole world.

Our second reading reminds us that no one can say, “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit. It is this Spirit that gives us the grace to say anything truly worthwhile. In our own parish, we value the gift of shared wisdom. This is the way that our commissions and committees discuss issues and make decisions. Ultimately, we don’t vote on an issue; we look for consensus, we strive to come to a decision that everyone can live with, through the process of shared wisdom, guided by none less than the Holy Spirit.

But this process of sharing wisdom is a great responsibility. It means two things. First, it means that if the Holy Spirit gives us something to say on an issue, we have no business keeping it to ourselves. We must engage others in dialogue about what’s right, or we run the risk of grieving the Holy Spirit, which we never want to do! Second, it means that we don’t just say the first thing that rolls off our tongue; we don’t fire off that terse email when we’re angry and can hide behind a keyboard; we wait for the gift of the Spirit, we pray, and we engage each other face-to-face. In my time here at St. Raphael’s, I’ve come to treasure this gift of shared wisdom – you taught that to me. That doesn’t mean that any of us – you or me – have always done it perfectly, but I love that we have been learning it together.

This process of shared wisdom and consensus seeking is another way that we as a parish strive to speak the Gospel in language we might not have as part of our native tongue. The Spirit gives us the words to speak, the prayers to pray, the wisdom to share when we don’t have them. And together, we all cry out “Jesus is Lord!” with the grace of the Holy Spirit, so that everyone who crosses our paths can hear it loud and clear, in a way they can understand it.

Having gathered today in this place on this great Feast, we now pray for not only an outpouring of that Holy Spirit, but also for the openness to receive that Spirit and the grace to let that Spirit work in us for the salvation of the world. We, the Church, need that Holy Spirit to help us to promote a culture of life in a world of death; to live the Gospel in a world of selfishness; to seek inclusion and to celebrate diversity in a world of racism and hate; to effect conversion and reconciliation in a world steeped in sin. Brothers and sisters in Christ, if people in this world are to know that Jesus is Lord, it’s got to happen through each one of us. One life and one heart at a time can be moved to conversion by our witness and our prayer. Let us pray, then, that the Holy Spirit would do all that in us.

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

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. 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.