May 25, 2019

6th Sunday of Easter: A truly "Catholic" faith

"It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us . . ."

Acts 15: 1-2, 22-29
John 14: 23 - 29 

Allegedly, there is a Chinese proverb which states: “May you live in a time of transition.” While it may sound like wisdom it is meant to be a kind of insult! A wish that someone’s life will be unsettled and uncertain as things often are in times of change and new beginnings.

 I once tried to track that down to see if it truly had its origin in that ancient Asian culture but I found no particular leads.  Nonetheless times of transition such as a move to a new home, a new occupation, graduation, healing after a long illness, retirement in one’s senior years, or as we are experiencing here at the parish, a time of new construction and the challenges that brings to daily life calling for adjustments and some temporary inconveniences. Or, more seriously, it could be a hope extended to you.

These are moments of change and new opportunity but also moments of tension and potential disagreement for all involved. Question such as: “Now where do I begin?” or “What’s next?” may easily arise. So, if someone wishes you to live in a time of transition, tighten your seat belts! The fear of the unknown can disturb us all at times. Still, much good can come from them and they can be necessary for our growth.

Such moments were experienced in the early Church.  Moving from the earthly life of Jesus, to his death and resurrection, to his Ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit, then out to the world on missionary journeys to spread the Gospel both with a sense of excitement, wonder and question is the place we find ourselves in our readings this Sunday.  There are mirror reflections of our experience today.  

Our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles which we hear from consistently in the Easter season, reminds us that the movement of Christianity had a certain momentum that was beyond the power of the Apostles and great missionaries such as Paul and Barnabas.  The Spirit is working wonders among the non-Jewish believers, the Gentiles.  Yet, the “old guard” has stepped in and has taken the Gentiles to task reminding them about the ancient traditions of the Mosaic law, in particular the practice of circumcision for men. They must first undergo these rituals, unfamiliar to them and never in their experience, in order to be accepted into this new movement which contains strong Jewish roots.  In fact their salvation depended on it, so was the message. Yet, we should not be surprised by their reaction.  In light of Jewish history and experience it is understandable.

Obviously, the reaction was unsettling and word is passed on to the Apostles in Jerusalem. “There arose no little dissension and debate” implies much more than a benign misunderstanding or disagreement among the early missionaries with Paul and Barnabas. This was serious stuff and had the power to either relegate the new Jews-for-Jesus movement to past history or to profoundly open up the door to the work of the Spirit and the transition of countless lives to the Gospel of Christ.

In the end, through prayer and discussion, out of compassion and sensitivity, the Spirit guided the infant Church and its Apostolic leaders to make a merciful and respectful decision of how to deal with this crucial issue. In today’s terms we might say this was a wise pastoral response to a serious issue. We see the basis of Church authority, the hierarchy, and the proper process of spiritual discernment in this decision.

The increasing Gentile Christian communities of Antioch and other places are excited about the new movement and have embraced it fully. Yet, I find the sensitivity of this inspired decision amazing.  Peter and the others acknowledge that the unauthorized visit by “some of our number” has: “disturbed your peace of mind.” So, they lay upon them: “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond the necessities.” Those necessities were those practices abhorrent to the Jews which they simply could not compromise on. (see: Acts 15: 28-29) Schism avoided, unity maintained and peace prevailed through the Spirit’s inspiration and the trust of the Apostles. So at this point in our Easter journey towards Pentecost we see a sign of affirmation for God’s intent that all may come to believe. 

This moment of transition from the Church being predominantly dominated by Jewish converts and to open the new way of Christ to the larger world is deeply significant for the future of the Christian movement.  It began, from this point forward, to be a truly “Catholic” Christianity: inclusive and diverse.  As time passed, the Gospel began to reach beyond this tiny section of the Eastern Mediterranean region to the global scene.  God’s way would not be stopped.

So, we find this moment of new life and new ideas writing the history of which we are a part. But, that history tells us that it opened a whole new perspective and in time as the years and decades passed, new questions and challenges to the truth of the Gospel arose. Heresies arose and the peace and unity of the Church was disturbed time and again. Any cursory read of Church history is a testimony to that. How did our fathers and mothers in the faith deal with these transition experiences? – As the Apostles did, with faith and trust, as we must do as well. And here we are reminded that the Spirit Jesus promised, who worked in this early moment, amazingly continues to work today through human instruments and decision making, despite our clear limitations.

Our Gospel reading from John finds Jesus assuring his Apostles that they would not be left on their own.  The very continued existence of the Church is a conviction that his promise was true: “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.” Nothing that Jesus said as related in the Scriptures was just idle chatter.  His word was and is true and his promise of the Spirit’s protection and guide remains the life-blood of the Church.  It is our personal assurance of the challenge to meet those moments of transition, the times of being unsettled, confused, and fearful with faith and trust in his word and the lived experience of the Church.

So, the point here is that we do live in a time of transition between Jesus’ first coming and his second at the end of time.  We prepare to mark the memory of his return to heaven next Sunday with his Ascension and after that the great feast of the Spirit’s coming at Pentecost.  But, we are centuries away from those events, still living in times that evolves from age to age. A faith both ancient and new yet consistently centered on Christ and his teachings.

Christ remains in his Holy Eucharist, in our entire sacramental system, in his word, in prayer and in our gathering for worship. It is the primary way how and where he remains present to us, not by symbol but by real living works in the Spirit. We still hear his voice and see his work alive and well in the leadership of our Holy Father Pope Francis and the Apostles, our Bishops, of this day.  No, we are not a perfect Church; we are sinners constantly in need of reform. How painfully we see that being played out today as the Church is in a particular time of transition and purification. But we are a chosen people, loved by God and called to share in his life.

Until he comes again, we see him among us in our weekly celebration of the Mass – in Word and Sacrament. May this time of transition, as all moments of change and growth, be a time of peace and openness to the Spirit’s guidance and protection.

Grant, almighty God,
that we may celebrate with heartfelt devotion
these days of joy,
which we keep in honor of the risen Lord,
and that what we relive in remembrance
we may always hold to in what we do.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

(Collect for Mass)

May 18, 2019

5th Sunday of Easter: Love and do what you will

"As I have loved you, so you should love one another.
This is how they will know you are my disciples."

John 13: 31- 33, 34-35

St. Augustine was likely the most influential theologian/philosopher of the early centuries of the Church.  His early pagan hedonistic life was profoundly turned around through his eventual conversion to Christianity.  So his famous quote: “Love and do what you will” may raise a few eyebrows and some confusion.  For a time, Augustine did indeed do what he wanted.  He participated in a pagan lifestyle, was active sexually, fathered a son out of marriage, etc. So, what exactly is Augustine referring to when he says: “Do what you want?” The first part of the statement about love for God is clear but “do what you want” sounds like permission to live a double lifestyle?  Not at all.

Here are Augustine’s words: I give you this one short command: love, and do what you will. If you hold your peace, hold your peace out of love. If you cry out, cry out in love. If you correct someone, correct them out of love. If you spare them, spare them out of love. Let the root of love be in you: nothing can spring from it but good. … This love is at the basis of Christianity.

This Sunday in our Easter journey our Gospel from John 13 takes us back to a moment with the Apostles at the Last Supper.  Judas has just left the upper room to carry out his destiny.  We can only imagine the disciples sitting there in some confusion about why he left – or so the Gospels imply such.  Jesus had spoken of betrayal but clearly none of them, except Judas, could imagine what Jesus meant – betray? How could they? 

Nonetheless, Judas appeared to do what he wanted; to cooperate with the power of darkness and become the legendary betrayer of the innocent Lord.  There was no love for God behind his motive and at the very best a now warped sense of loyalty to Jesus. Although Jesus well knew his fateful future, he speaks of glory: Now is the Son of Man glorified and God is glorified in him.  This was the moment of decision when Jesus embraced the fullness of his mission for humankind and submitted himself to the cross which has brought “glory” to Jesus and through him to all humanity through the resurrection. Now, however, Jesus speaks of a new commandment - of love. 

So, it is the end of Jesus ’earthly life that brings everything he said and did to its ultimate meaning – that of love lived out.  A love lived out in self-sacrifice and in relationship with his Father, which motivated Jesus constantly to carry forward with his mission to repair the broken relationship forever between humankind and God, established at the fall of Adam and Eve.  His will was conformed to that of his Father because of the love he had.  So Jesus did what he wanted, which had become his Father’s will to pour out his life as savior and bring hope to a humanity lost in the darkness and separation of sin. That love in action is what Jesus wants for his disciples: “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 power do what what we will out of love, as St. Augustine puts, will be the distinctive mark of those who believe in Christ Jesus.  That behavior has the power to transform society and establish his kingdom values on earth. 

The distinctive mark of the ideal Christian community is that we become so noticed that others are attracted to us and inspired by how we live and pray together. What we want to do is to carry out our Christian mission to repair brokenness, welcome the lost, and heal wounds in the “field hospital,” as Pope Francis has coined, of the body of Christ, the Church. But it is far more than just being nice people. 

Jesus’ own wish is that we give witness to his life by imitating his way of love as he has loved us. It is not a love based in feelings and emotions but a love of conviction and faith in the person of Jesus the Christ. To see this kind of love in community life such as marriage and family and visibly expressed in parish life is our ideal. Why do people walk away from the Church or find it not attractive enough to join?  A variety of reasons but one of the most fundamental is that they either have felt wounded and rejected or they simply do not feel welcome. 

As Paul moved from ancient city to ancient city, as we hear in the first reading from Acts 14, he found himself confronted with the diverse cultural prejudices, philosophies, gods and goddesses, with Greek speaking and Hebrew speaking peoples of Jew and Gentile.  Paul brought this “new” Gospel of Jesus – the new command of love into these communities.  With the faith of Christ himself, crucified and risen, Paul and his band of other missionaries such as Barnabas, rooted these ancient peoples in the power of the Spirit as the Gentile world began to explode with this new vision of God and new way of relating to our fellow men and women.

What brought this diversity into one Body of Christ was the universal call to love.  Many noticed how that was most beautifully expressed in their gathering for Word and Sacrament, when they broke bread together, with faith in Christ’s own presence among them, they saw who they were and had become. As they grew in love for God they did what they wanted, which was to carry out his mission in the world.  We live out and proclaim the resurrection of Jesus in our loyalty to him and in the way we extend that faith in love for others. The world today, as hostile or at least apathetic as it may seen at times to God, religion and people of faith, is in sore need of this higher way to live. 

The same is true today, perhaps even more, as we face the challenges of our own day and culture.  The indifference towards religion, the materialism, the lack of attention towards God, the hostility for mention of religion in public life and on and on should be a wake-up call and an opportunity to live by what we believe.  We attract more by how we live and act than by the words we say.  

Jesus has given us a new commandment; a new way of seeing God and one another.  We have power to transform our lives and those around us so: Love God and do what (he) wants. 

Almighty ever-living God,
constantly accomplish the Paschal Mystery within us,
that those you were pleased to make new in Holy Baptism
may, under your protective care, bear much fruit
and come to the joys of life eternal.

- Collect of Mass - 

May 11, 2019

4th Sunday of Easter: Good Shepherd "are we listening?"

"My sheep hear my voice and they follow me"

John 10: 27 - 30

The other day, driving in the car, I noticed out my left side what appeared to be a very large flock of Canada geese flying high in the sky and in near perfect formation of a clear “V” shape. I know we’ve all seen this in various forms as well.  Trying to not be distracted in my driving I still could not help but look up at the sky quickly and be amazed by the flight pattern of these geese. 

We’ve all seen this with schools of fish in the Ocean who swarm together in gentle movements following each other in unity.  We could go on about what God has designed in nature in regards to instinctual behavior for survival of a species. These sort of natural patterns may indeed remind us of Jesus’ words on this fourth Sunday of Easter.

In our Gospel from John 10: 27-30, we hear: “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”  This Easter season Sunday we are invited to define ourselves by the One we follow – Christ the shepherd who makes promises to us far beyond what any human being could make. Though nature may teach us something about the social order and the importance of living and working in unity, we human beings will often resist conformity. Yet, like other species of animal, sheep need a leader. If they simply followed each other apparently they might stray where they should not go. 

There is a story about a math teacher who one day proposed to her young class a simple problem: “If there are one hundred sheep and one wanders away, how many will be left?” One boy raised his hand and said, “None.”  The teacher commented that this was a simple problem and he had better look again.  He respectfully said, “I may not be very good at math but I do know sheep.  If one wanders, the others will follow.”  

Sheep need a shepherd that will lead and protect them; keep them together for both safety and food.  And despite our individuality and the insistence these days on tolerance for differences, we too need to work in unity, united to a common cause for success.  And the “cause” we align with is our common belief in Jesus Christ who never leads us astray. So Jesus’ image is not about sheep but rather about us and himself as the shepherd who unites us in his Body the Church as we gather together.

Jesus uses this image to explain the absolute importance that we stay united with him and through him united with each other. He spoke the words in today’s Gospel in response to a challenged question from the religious leaders.  That direct question was: “Are you the Messiah?” And his answer is to say, “If you’re asking me, then you don’t recognize my voice for “My sheep hear my voice . . . and they follow me” Jesus’ invitation to follow is a reassurance of God’s own care for us, his sheep.  This is the Church where we find that place to encounter the Lord and to hear his voice in sacrament; in his Word and in the support and inspiration we give to one another. When Christ speaks, God speaks.  And this shepherd has paid the ultimate price for us, his sheep; that of his own life.

Our first reading from Acts of the Apostles 13, illustrates how reliable the voice of this shepherd is to those who follow.   Paul and Barnabas, the two great missionaries of the Gospel to the Gentile, world were met at first with great success among their fellow Jews.  But that momentary success also encountered great opposition from the Jewish leaders who rebuked Paul’s admiring crowds with “violent abuse” and “contradicted what Paul said.”

Filled with determination that the words of the shepherd they preached were the “instrument of salvation to the ends of the earth,” Paul courageously dismissed this violent opposition and moved on to the Gentiles, who continued to embrace the new Way of Christ. The message of the shepherd will not be deterred as the risen Lord who ministers and speaks through his own chosen human leaders and through his Church.

Sadly, though, we cannot deny what we see and feel around us.  Recently, I was listening to a video of a recent presentation given by Bishop Robert Barron of the Los Angeles Archdiocese on the status of the “unaffiliated” – those who identify no Church or religious connection in today’s culture.  He covered many important issues but briefly, he began with some pretty telling figures.

In the 1970’s the vast majority of Americans, 97%, claimed a religious affiliation. In the 90’s it fell modestly to about 94%.  But over the last 20 years, it has fallen significantly to only 75% of Americans claim some Church affiliation which means that ¼ of all Americans have no connection with a religion – 25%.  Among Catholics, only about 30% of Catholics admit they come to Church on a regular basis, meaning every Sunday. 

Even more worrisome, among younger Catholics under the age of 30, 50% have left regular attendance at Church.  For every one new Catholic who joins the Church say at Easter time, six are leaving.   The median age for Catholics who leave the Church is – 13! Has the Good Shepherd simply stopped calling his sheep?  I don’t think so but the world in which we live is very loud and very distracting.  We in the Church should not deny as well that we are experiencing a period of cleansing from scandals and poor shepherding among some of our leaders. We live in a rampant individualistic and secular society and with a culture that resists commitment

So, we can wring our hands and bemoan our losses or we can reach out to the sheep who have wandered.  Many today are too embarrassed to identify their faith publicly and to admit that they know little about the teachings of the Church.   Yet, through God’s grace and our continued unity we can address this effectively.

As we journey with renewed Easter faith, what kind of sheep are we?  Are we the ones who hear, listen and follow?  Or do we sit on the sidelines, waiting only for the good and comfortable? What about our political ties?  Although it is among the two topics we dare not discuss in public, religion and politics, whose voice do we follow when it runs in opposition to what Christ teaches about life, marriage, the economy, justice, the needs of the poor, and our global sense that we are one human family as brothers and sisters created by the same God?

So, we cannot be sheep who just blindly follow; who simply follow but never listen or hear what the shepherd says.  He offers us the courage of our convictions, think of Paul and Barnabas.

In our Eucharist, the shepherd calls through his Word and his Body.  He reminds us that are all his sheep that we can’t simply put on the blinders for his voice is extended to everyone and so must our witness to the faith. Hear what he says, listen carefully with hope and trust, and then go as his missionary disciples.  

Almighty ever-living God, 
lead us to share i the joys of heaven, 
so that the humble flock may reach
where the brave Shepherd has gone before. 
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. 

(Collect of Mass)

May 4, 2019

3rd Sunday of Easter - "We will come with you"

(Meal with the Apostles - James Tissot)

"Come, have breakfast" 

John 21: 1 - 19

There is probably no activity that demands more patience than that of fishing, with the exception of golf. You have to play that game constantly to achieve any accuracy. Or so it seems.

Anyone who has gone fishing well knows that despite their personal efforts, there is no guarantee they will catch anything.  The factors may be the location, the weather, the temperature of the water, or the time of day. Growing up I well remember summer time on the lakes of northern Wisconsin and part of what we did was take out a boat and hope we would catch some delicious fresh water bluegill, sunfish, or the more elusive norther pike or bass. Frankly, it seems we always did - well a bit of a fish story there.   

Today’s Gospel (Jn 21: 1-19) is a favorite post-resurrection story which finds several of the disciples strangely returning to their previous way of life.  It may seem a bit out of place and we may wonder how they could have done so after seeing the risen Lord already twice before. The “ordinary” factor seems a bit out of character for the situation. Did they just forget what happened and who appeared to them? Did they give up the disciple thing? This is a favorite literary device that John uses but surely has some historical basis.

Yet, it serves a purpose.  For the disciples, even after the resurrection, it took time for them to wrap their heads, hearts and minds around its implications. From the shore, in the early morning light of dawn, they see someone. He suggests: “Cast your net over the right side of the boat . . .” Maybe this person can see something we don’t see?  So they do and they catch an abundance, so many fish in the net they “were not able to pull it in.”

Then, the scene dramatically changes: “So the disciple whom Jesus loved (John), said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’” In that moment of recognition, they may have remembered a similar event about three years before when Jesus first called them and told them to do the same, with the same astonishing results (Lk 5: 4 – 11).

Yet now it is the same Jesus but risen who calls to them and they all rush to the shore to find an early morning breakfast cooking for them.  How often had Jesus fed the hungry crowds, gathered around a table at dinner time in the home of “sinners,” appeared to the disciples at Emmaus to break bread, shared a dark moment at the last supper but now all is light and new life. It is dawn, the early morning light, a new day begins. This is not the Last Supper on the night before his death it is now the first breakfast of new life at dawn.

So, the scene in itself is stunning as the disciples sat there, for the third time, before the risen Lord, when I might assume they were somewhat speechless.  After all, what could you say to the now risen Lord and in fact it seems John implies they may have said very little: “None of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they realized it was the Lord.” As further proof this person before them was the same who walked and taught with them, Jesus: “took the bread and gave it to them, and in like manner the fish.” Remember what he did not long before on the hillside before a massive crowd of thousands? Remember how he took that bread and fish and gave it to them?  (Mark 6 and John 6 for example). Yes, it is the same Christ Jesus who is now recognized, as Thomas earlier stated, as “Lord and God.” (Jn 20: 27-29).

So, this became a moment for Jesus to speak to them and Peter in particular.  As Peter denied knowing Jesus just a week or two before, our Lord now asks him: “Do you love me?” Three times Jesus asks Peter this question and three times Peter says: “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” This love is an encounter with fellowship love, (Agape) a commitment that brings about unity and community among God and his people.

As Jesus offers Peter redemption for his abandonment at Jesus’ darkest hour, he now offers Peter, and the other disciples as well, the commission to go and “feed my sheep.” The Apostles may have wondered who would be “in charge” when Jesus is no longer among them.  Here he tells them, Peter.

While Peter is of course first among the disciples, each of them in their own missionary journey, will plant the seeds of faith and the foundations of the Church and they will pay for it with their lives as Jesus did. In spite of their human frailty and ignorance, the risen Lord entrusts the treasure of the good news to them and to many beyond them.

Our first reading from Acts 5: 27-32 illustrates what an impressive transformation the resurrection experience finally made for these crucial men. In spite of fierce opposition and personal threats on their lives, Peter and the now apostles leave the Sanhedrin as Peter fearlessly states: “We must obey God rather than men . .  . so they left the presence of the Sanhedrin rejoicing that they had been found worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the (Jesus’) name.”

And this is now brought to us.  We too gather around food and drink each Sunday.  We are the people of God, in all positions of leadership and responsibility, called to pastor God’s people.  Whether Pope, Bishop, priest, committed religious, lay single person or faithful married couple, we all share in that same missionary call to feed God’s “sheep” each in our own situation and moment in time.

At the celebration of the Eucharist we gather, we are fed by his Word and then Christ feeds us with himself.  And then we are sent to “announce the Gospel of the Lord.”

Jesus certainly knew that his disciples could never accomplish what he asked them to do on their own limited ability.  So, the Spirit is promised and eventually sent to be the keeper of truth and divine guide as we each discern what it is we have been sent to preach and live in the name of Christ the risen Lord.

So, maybe fishing is one activity that can teach us patience.  But, it was also used by God to change the world.  Think of that the next time you look at a lake, river, or the vast Ocean itself or maybe even cast out for a catch. 

May your people exult for ever, O God, 
in renewed youthfulness of spirit, 
so that, rejoicing now in the restored glory of our adoption,
we may look forward in confident hope
to the rejoicing of the day of resurrection. 
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, 
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 
one God for ever and ever. 

(Collect of Mass)