Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (June 17th, 2018)

Today’s first scripture is an excerpt from the 17th chapter of the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, one of the most beautiful and interesting texts of the Old Testament.

Ezekiel is a priest who is trying to prepare the Israelites for what will be one of the most catastrophic events in their history.  In the year 587 BC, the lands of the Israelites will be invaded by the armies of Babylon, Jerusalem will be ransacked, the royal house of David put to the sword, the temple will be destroyed and the people scattered, enslaved and sent into exile.

In the 17th chapter of his book, Ezekiel offers an allegory which explains how an arrogant and foolish political decision was the turning point for this disaster.  The king will break a treaty with the Babylonians, attempt to form with alliance with the Pharaoh or the Egyptians, and in doing so will provoke Babylon to invade.

This is harsh for the Israelites to hear, because Ezekiel places responsibility for the catastrophe on the Israelites themselves, a reckoning he believes is necessary if they are to repent.  Truth sets us free- all the biblical prophets insist on this and it is especially coming to terms with the hardest truths we refuse to admit that do the most to free us from our self-deception.

At the conclusion to Chapter 17 is the scripture passage we heard this morning.

The meaning is that though the Israelites have been cut off, indeed, cut down, by the terrifying events of 587 BC

In this respect, the surviving Israelites are like the “crest of the cedar tree” that Ezekiel is referencing.  The Lord will take this remnant of a once great and now fallen tree and from it will renew its life.  In other words, the Israelites, reduced and humiliated, will, through God’s power, be restored.

The events of 587 BC haunt much of the Old and New Testament.  In fact, much of what the Lord Jesus has to say about the Israelites concerns the fulfillment of the promises and insights of prophets like Ezekiel.  We know little about the events of 587 BC and their significance, which is one reason why there is a tendency for the scriptures to sound strange, even unintelligible to us.

The sages and saints of the Church have understood that the story of the Israelites from the Old Testament has a great deal to tell us about the story of the Church.  And this is how we can try to understand Ezekiel’s insights.  Coming to terms with our own complicity in events that have diminished the Church is what a prophet like Ezekiel imparts to us.  Admitting the hard truth that if the Church is not flourishing, it is far too easy to blame someone else, rather than accept what we ourselves have done or failed to do, is a necessary crucible.  And further, remembering the Church did not begin as a massive international institution with seemingly unlimited resources and unassailable prestige.  How did the Church begin?  It began small.  And in every age, when through human wickedness the Church falters and fails in her mission, God preserves enough of what is good to assure that the Church continue.

It is most often through small movements, small communities, that the Church is reformed and renewed.  It seems that this is God’s favored way of doing things- he can even take the seemingly diminished and withered Church that is the experience of so many, and from that remnant, make the Church bloom with renewed life and vigor.

The second scripture for today is an excerpt from St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.

The Apostle speaks about his body and our bodies and in doing so he makes a very important point about the Christian way of life- our bodies matter.  But why does the body matter so much for the Christian?

Because it is the Body of the Lord Jesus revealed in his Incarnation that saves us; it is into the Body of Christ, the Church, that the Lord Jesus gives his way of life to us, it is the Body of the Lord Jesus given to us in Eucharist that sanctifies and sustains us, and it is the suffering bodies of the poor in whom Christ dwells that we serve the Body of Jesus himself.

Knowing Christ, encountering Christ is not simply a matter of our mind or our emotions, but of our bodies and it is through our bodies, practicing the Faith of the Church in worship, Sacraments and works of mercy that Christ redeems us all.

Christ reveals himself in a body, a body like our own and in our bodies that his salvation happens to us.

It is mistake to reduce our faith to having the right ideas or thoughts or having the right kinds of feelings- as if ideas and thoughts and feelings are all that it means to be a Christian.  Christian Faith is about the significance of bodies, Christ’s Body, the bodies of our neighbors, and yes, even our own bodies.

This physicality of the Christian way of life is hard for many to take.  Bodies are, after all, messy, often times non-compliant, and very difficult for us to deal with.  A faith that is reduced to ideas and feelings is far less demanding than dealing with bodies.  But the significance of the body is a non-negotiable necessity for the Christian for God in Christ has chosen the significance of our bodies.  How so?  By accepting for himself a body, a human nature, and through that body, living like us, a real, human life.  In doing so, God made the body, our bodies an inescapable fact of our faith and a necessary route of access to him.

Finally, in his Gospel, the Lord Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God, testifying that it will always first manifest itself in what is small, like seeds sown, and as a particular example, a seed as miniscule as the mustard seed, which can produce an enormous plant.

Now, I know we Christians have a tendency to spiritualize the kingdom of God, thinking of it as being an otherworldly reality like heaven, but this is really a mistake.

Connect our first two scriptures with this Gospel: Ezekiel speaks of the restoration of an actual people in this world, the Israelites and St. Paul emphasizes the physical, bodily reality of our faith.  And in his Gospel Christ speaks about a kingdom, a kingdom that starts small and has the potential to grow and grow.

This kingdom of which Christ speaks is a new kind of Israel in this world, a kingdom composed of real flesh and blood, of bodies.  This kingdom is the Church and the Church has and will always start small, but it isn’t supposed to just stay small, because like the small seeds Christ references in his Gospel, the Church is filled with the potential to grow and grow and grow.

The Church is the kingdom of God.  And the seeds of the Church have been given to us to sow into the world.  The seeds of the Church are small, and as such, many Christians try to protect them, keeping them safe as if planting them in the world would mean they would be lost.  But this over protectiveness simply results in a Church that never realizes its purpose and the life that the Church does have ends up withering away and dying.

The task of every generation of Christians is to sow the Church, to plant the Church in the world, that is, to facilitate the growth of the Church and in doing so bring the kingdom of God to life- not just in heaven, but in the here and now.

This task is not something that can be delegated away to religious professionals, it is the mission of every Christian.  So, ask yourself now, because the Lord Jesus himself is going to ask each of us later, and our answer is going to matter more than anything else- are you sowing, planting the seeds of Church and helping the Church to grow?  Or are you missing in action in the fields of the world or worse, tearing up what he has already planted?

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Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (June 10th, 2018)

The scriptures for today all have a particular darkness about them, a raw honesty about what it means to be human that causes one to tremble, but then to exalt in the gift, the grace we are privileged to share in the Lord Jesus Christ.  Spirituality is not, merely the resolution of our problems in a way that pleases us, but the light God in Christ casts over the darkness as we move towards him through everything raw and real in human existence that cannot be so easily explained.

Our first scripture today is taken from the beginning of the Bible- from the Book of Genesis- and it describes a catastrophe.

The catastrophe is the first time human beings defied God’s will and purposes and in doing so brought great suffering upon themselves and all the generations that would follow.  The Church describes this as the “original sin”.  The great Catholic writer G. K. Chesterton once remarked that of all the doctrines of the Church it is only original sin for which the Church has empirical evidence.

Original sin inaugurates an inclination in all of us to believe that we know better than God what is right and wrong and that we can defy God’s will without consequences to ourselves or others.  It is the soul crushing illusion that we can choose evil over good because it is useful and somehow through our own will or power transform evil into good.  Our innate capacity to resist God is passed on generation to generation- it is that insidious, and neither innocence or vigilance can protect us from its effects.

The result of this original sin is described in today’s scripture from the Book of Genesis- turning against God we turn against one another, indeed against creation itself, and a world that was a paradise becomes hell on earth.  The sufferings of the world, of being human, are increased exponentially as a result of original sin and we cannot lift the crushing burden of that suffering by our own efforts.  What is needed is not a self-help program, but a revelation.

In other words, we can no more escape or evade the consequences of original sin than we can escape or evade our own bodies.  It goes that deep within us.  This is the meaning of the scripture you heard from the Book of Genesis, not just to identify a catastrophe that happened before recorded history, but to identify a catastrophe that resides in all of us- right now.  The defiance of God, the accusations, the divisions, the curse, and the exile described in our first scripture are not just a matter of the past, but of the condition of all humanity.

Thus, the lament of St. Paul in Chapter 7 of his Letter to the Romans “who can save us from these bodies of death”?

His answer is not, ourselves, for that is in fact what got us into this predicament in the first place.  Instead, the answer is God, who in Christ overcomes the curse of original sin with the blessing of his grace.  Uniting our compromised human nature with his divine nature, God in Christ gives us the revelation that can deliver us from catastrophe of original sin.  He is the answer to St. Paul’s question.

St. Paul expresses gratitude for this gift in the Church’s second scripture- from the New Testament- his Letter to the Corinthians.  In this scripture, the Apostle Paul not only sees Christ as the revelation that saves from the original sin, offering us a way through and beyond it, but also as a revelation that saves us from death.

The world is not only compromised by sin, but also by death.  All things pass away and we pass along with it.  The strength and vigor of youth gives way to the weakness and decline of old age.  The world offers us much, but in the end, what it offers is consumed by death.  The best we can do is to preserve what this world offers, prolong our experience of life, but in the end, we must yield- despite all our efforts, in the words of St. Paul; “our outer self is wasting away”.

God in Christ reveals to us a possibility beyond death.  This is the meaning of his resurrection and the purpose of his own suffering and death.  This is the reason that St. Paul has the audacity to identify our decline and death as a “momentary light affliction”.  He says this because of his faith that God in Christ has accomplished something in his death on the cross and in his resurrection from the dead which is to our benefit. God, who is Christ, accepted a human nature, and in doing so, accepted suffering, has also in accepting death, transformed what appears to be an end, into a new kind of beginning.

In this world, death will afflict us, but that affliction is not our end, because God in Christ has revealed his power as being greater than death.  The solution to the problem of death is not some power within ourselves, some kind of innovation, that simply prolongs life and insulates us from what is inevitable, but in the power of God in Christ.

God in Christ is greater than our sin and he is greater than our death.  This is why St. Paul acclaims in chapter seven of his letter to the Romans; “thanks be to God for Jesus Christ our Lord”.

Sin and death afflict us, but God in Christ reveals that he gives us greater possibilities than both.  And there is one more affliction into which God in Christ casts his light- the devil.

In his Gospel for today, an excerpt from the testimony of Mark, Christ is accused of being the devil himself or at the very least in league with her.

Christ will have none of this and he testifies that the words of his accusers betray not only their ignorance, but also their malice.  In many cases those who accuse others of being in the thrall of the evil one are themselves her pawns.

But more than this, Christ announces that the days of the kingdom of Satan are nearing their end.  One stronger than the devil and his minions has come into the world, and he has come to take back what the devil has stolen.

That which the devil has stolen are our hearts and our minds and through both the devil acts to usurp God’s purposes for his creatures and his creation.  His purpose is that we flourish in this world and enjoy his company in the world to come, and Satan will have none of this.  In his hatred of God in Christ he seeks to deprive him of that which he loves- us.  God in Christ signals that Satan’s plotting and planning is futile and he will run around and render useless every one of the devil’s schemes and deliver us from his traps.

God in Christ, who is more powerful than our sin and of our death, is also more powerful than the devil.

The Church teaches and insists that we believe that the devil is not just a myth or a metaphor, but a malign entity of great spiritual power that negatively impacts our lives and this world.  His plotting and planning is something with which we all must contend.  But at the same time, there is no equivalence between God in Christ and the devil.  Thus, her power is limited.  The devil is cunning enough to know that directly assaulting God is futile, and so he strikes at what God loves- us, but God in Christ that he is on our side and just as he will not abandon us to the power of sin or death, he will not let the devil have his day.  This is why the Church describes the devils overtures to us as “pomps” (or illusions) and his promises as “empty”.  The only power over us he has is the power that we give to him, but even this God in Christ will seize away.

As I noted in the beginning, there is a darkness that casts shadows over the scriptures for today- shadows of sin, death and the devil.  But the revelation of God in Christ insists that greater than those shadows is the light he casts into our darkness…  We Christians must learn to see not only shadows, but Christ’s divine light!

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The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (June 3rd, 2018)

Today the Church celebrates the great solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, popularly known in Catholic culture as the Feast of Corpus Christi- Latin for “Body of Christ”.

The purpose of this day of worship is to highlight the Church’s Eucharistic faith, meaning the awe filled and wondrous truth that the Eucharist is what Christ declares it to be- the gift of his divine life and presence given to us as food and drink. This is why the Eucharist is called “Holy Communion”, because it is Christ that we receive- he gives to us his divine life and we in turn, in response to his gift, give our lives over to him.

Holy Communion would not be possible if God in Christ was not true to his word and gave to us something less than what God in Christ declares the Eucharist to be- his Body and his Blood, his divine life and presence.

For centuries the gift of Christ’s divine life and presence in the Blessed Sacrament, in the Eucharist, has been celebrated on the day of Corpus Christi, and this day has also been the occasion where the Church’s unique faith regarding the Eucharist has been affirmed.

We do not believe that Christ’s divine life and presence in the Blessed Sacrament is merely metaphorical or symbolic, but real and substantial. Nor is Christ’s divine life and presence in the Blessed Sacrament merely an emotional experience or a matter of cultural expression, but it is objective and it his divine life and presence that we receive, not an affirmation of community values.

Further, the Blessed Sacrament is what it is not because of the will of the priest or of the assembly to make it what it is, but because of the will of Christ to give to us a share in his own divine life. The Eucharist is Christ’s gift and it is by his will, not our will, that it is what it is. The Eucharist is given to us as Christ’s gift, it is not made and taken by us by force of our own will.

Thus, it is Christ that we receive in the Blessed Sacrament. This is why the manner in which we receive the Eucharist and the reverence with which we regard the Blessed Sacrament is meant to indicate how we should respond to and receive Christ himself.

Our attitude towards the Blessed Sacrament, expressed in our bodies, in our words, in our gestures, all profess our faith in what the Eucharist really and truly is- the life and presence of God in Christ.

If you believe that the Blessed Sacrament is less than Christ’s divine life and presence and yet you receive him, then you are receiving him in bad faith, by this I mean a kind of perjury, a lie. If our reverence for the Blessed Sacrament is lacking, then we are indicating with our bodies that we either do not believe that the Eucharist is Christ’s divine life and presence or worse, that we just don’t care.

Receiving Christ’s divine life and presence is not merely a perfunctory gesture, but it indicates a decision of life changing importance. Just to be clear- the word “Sacrament”, the word the Church uses to identify the Eucharist, literally means an oath. Receiving the Eucharist is akin to taking an oath. The oath we take is that inasmuch as we receive the divine life and presence of Christ, we agree that we will give our life over to him. In other words, receiving the Eucharist means that Christ gives his life to you and you agree to give your life over to him. That’s the oath. That’s what is at stake. This oath is ratified when we come forward and in response to the priest or minister’s declaration “The Body (and/or) Blood of Christ” we say “Amen”. Your “Amen means that you accept the terms- his life in exchange for your life. Christ gives you his life and you give him your life. That’s the oath. That’s the Sacrament.

The great challenge in that is are we telling the truth or telling a lie.

The Blessed Sacrament is Christ’s divine life, given to you as food and drink, but it is also Christ’s divine presence, given to you as consolation and hope. Thus the Eucharist, the Blessed Sacrament, is reserved in our churches with great reverence and love, for as long as the Eucharistic elements remain, Christ’s divine presence remains.

The transformation Christ effects is irrevocable- he keeps his word. We do not put Christ’s divine life and presence in the Blessed Sacrament and we do not take it away. What we can do is to choose to receive the Blessed Sacrament with reverence and love or not.

It is because of Christ’s abiding presence in the Blessed Sacrament reserved in our churches that our churches are not just assembly halls or gathering spaces or community centers. Our churches are temples- for just as the divine presence of God made his home in the Holy of Holies of the ancient temple of Jerusalem, so now, in our churches, in the Blessed Sacrament, God in Christ makes his home among us. This is what the tabernacle is indicating and why our deference and reverence of Christ in the tabernacle is so pronounced.

The Blessed Sacrament is not just a sacred object, like a statue or a crucifix. The Blessed Sacrament is the life and presence of the Lord Jesus. Placing ourselves in the presence of the tabernacle we place ourselves in the presence of Christ the Lord.

The scriptures for today all gesture towards the mystery and meaning of the Body and Blood of Christ, given to us in the Blessed Sacrament.

From the Old Testament Book of Exodus we hear of how the covenant of the Israelites with the Lord (a covenant is an agreement that initiates a relationship) is ratified in a tremendous sacrifice. Though the sacrifice of animals to God likely perplexes and may offend us, it was the manner in which the Israelites expressed in the most concrete, raw and realistic terms that there is no love in this world without sacrifice, and that our love for the Lord will inevitably place demands on us, cost us- it will mean a sacrifice. This sacrifice may not mean for us the slaughter of animals, but it will mean that we place our lives at the Lord’s disposal, making ourselves ready to do what he asks for us to do.

Our second scripture is from the Letter to Hebrews. The Letter to the Hebrews is not so much a letter (though it is called such) but a theological essay. This essay explains the meaning of the Church’s worship and how this worship is like and unlike the worship of the ancient Israelites.

The Church’s worship is like the worship of the Israelites inasmuch as there is a sacrifice, but unlike that worship because the sacrifice the Church offers is not animals, but God in Christ. God in Christ makes himself our sacrifice, giving up his life for us so that we might give up our lives for him. This is what is happening in the Eucharist. This is what the Blessed Sacrament really and truly is. This is also what connects the Eucharist eternally to the cross of Christ, what Christ offers on the cross, his life, is what we receive in the Blessed Sacrament.

Finally, in his Gospel, Christ the Lord himself testifies to what the Eucharist is- his Body and his Blood. Christ’s own testimony signals to us that what the Church believes about the Eucharist is not merely a matter of our own ideas or opinions, but an expression of what God in Christ has revealed. The Eucharist is a revelation from God and it is God, in Christ, who makes that revelation what it is and tells us what it is. On our part, we can, if we so choose, accept this revelation as a gift, responding to that gift with love and gratitude.

And this is the decision that each of us must make today.

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The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity (May 27th, 2018)

Today the Church celebrates the revelation of God as the Trinity.

The Trinity is who God is- there is one God who is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

As I said this is a revelation, meaning, that God shows himself to be the Trinity. The Trinity is not an idea about God or a theory about God. Instead, the Trinity is a revelation about God that comes from God himself. The Trinity is not an opinion about God, but a revelation from God, meaning that God tells us who he is, and what he reveals about himself is that he is the Trinity.

We know of the revelation of the Trinity from the Lord Jesus, who while witnessing to the truth that there is one God, he also presents himself as speaking and acting in the person of God, while at the same time testifying to his relationship with God as Father and sending forth God to us as Holy Spirit.

The revelation of the Trinity is Christ’s revelation. It is not something the Church made up to compensate for inconsistencies in her doctrines, but it is the truth about God that the Church receives from Christ himself.

Saints, sages and scholars have presented numerous ways of thinking about the revelation of the Trinity- these ideas gesture towards the reality of the Trinity, but they do not explain it. God is not a problem that can be solved. Nor can the truth about God’s revelation be reduced to our explanations or ideas. I realize that because the revelation of the Trinity inevitably involves referencing realities that are numerical- one God and three divine persons, that there is a tendency to think of the Trinity as some kind of mathematical theorem, an equation of sorts, as if the Church is adding up one plus three and somehow coming up with one, and so we rack our brains trying to think our way through a math problem, rather than facing up to the truth that in the Trinity, God reveals something significant about himself that we could not have figured out and cannot fully understand.

This does not mean that we simply throw up our hands and move on, but that we acknowledge with humility that while we can know God, even relate to him as one relates to a person, we cannot control God and reduce him to our categories of understanding, emotions and experiences.

Whatever we might think about God or feel about him, God is always serenely himself. He doesn’t need our ideas or feelings to be who he is. God is always, as the great St. Anselm opined- that than which nothing greater can be thought. I would dare to add to that that God is also that than which nothing greater can be felt. Just as God cannot be reduced to a matter of our mind, he also cannot be reduced to a matter of our feelings.

In fact, the revelation of the Trinity does, in a way, relativize or radically position all the thoughts, feelings and opinions we might have about God. Whatever we might think or feel or postulate about God, God gives to us the answer of who he really and truly is. God is the Trinity. Whatever we think or feel about God is measured against his own revelation. The Trinity is God’s way of indicating to us that whatever it is that we think that God is or whatever our feeling about God are, the truth of God’s revelation is far richer and infinitely more important.

Just a few more insights:

The Trinity reveals that God is one. In other words, there is only one God. This revelation gestures towards not only the truth about God, but a truth about ourselves- the truth that in our selfishness and sinfulness that we are makers of idols. Humans are quite proficient at taking created realities and elevating them to the status of God. We did that for centuries, taking powerful natural realities like the sun, the sky, and creatures of the earth, and creating cults of these things, hoping to gain a share in their power. But these things are not God.

More common now is to take our desires and elevate them to divine status, making them our ultimate concern. Think about how much we value wealth, pleasure, power and honors, and how our preoccupations with these things, attaining them, sustaining them is akin to a cult. We may not call these things gods, but through our behavior reveal that we certainly believe that this is what they are.

The revelation that God is one indicates to us that we have to make a decision about what God we will worship- we can’t just pick and choose. There is one, true God and the choice we must make us the one, true God or our idols. In this respect, the revelation of the Trinity compels us to a decision- will we give our lives over to God revealed by Jesus Christ, or will we give our lives over to the false gods that oppose him. Not to decide is to decide. We are compelled to a decision.

As a Christian, you do not believe that God is an abstraction or an emotion, or something that you can create out of your ideas or experiences. Further, God is not the sum total of your opinions about God. God is who Christ reveals God to be and this revelation is the Trinity.

Second, the Trinity reveals that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is what Christians mean when we say God is Love. When we Christians say God is Love we aren’t saying our love is God or that our love justifies whatever it is that gives us what we want, but that God is a relationship called the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is through this relationship that God relates to his creation and to each of us personally. The revelation here is that God’s love looks like something, it is not an abstraction or merely a matter of emotions. God tells us what his love looks like, giving us the categories that best describe his love and he reveals his love to be the relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Our takeaway from this is that God is not an indifferent cosmic force or a big being that sets the universe in motion are then moves on to other interesting projects. That God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, reveals that God is personal and capable and interested in relationship with us.

Thus, when Christ reveals what he wants our relationship with him to be, he does not use the categories of math or science, but of becoming the children of God and living as his friends. One cannot have a relationship like this to a cosmic force or an idol, but only to a God who is personal and capable of relating to us and being in relationship with us.

This leads to another important insight- Christ did not come into this world so as to reveal a system of ethics, establish a social service institution, or provide political commentary. These are all things that are important to us, and what the Lord Jesus reveals has deep impact and influence in regards to all of them, but they are not the reasons for his revelation. Christ comes so as to offer to us a relationship with the living and true God. That’s what being a Christian is about- accepting that offer. The Trinity shows us the God who offers us a relationship and the form that relationship will take. A relationship with God in Christ means that you will call God your Father and Christ will be your brother and through the Holy Spirit you will know God with the intimacy of a friend. All this is Christ’s revelation. All this is the reason Christ came into the world, accepting a human nature and living a real, human life.

Finally, Christian faith is mysticism. By this I do not mean that it is arcane or esoteric or irrational, but that our faith cannot be reduced to our privileged ideas or concepts or categories. Why? Because it is an encounter with the living and true God. The Trinity indicates this to us. God is not a creature of our own making. He doesn’t need us in order to exist. He doesn’t have to love us. He is not manipulated by our prayers and the way of life he gives to us is not for his benefit, but for ours. We offer him nothing that would make him greater than he already is, and we can do nothing that would make him less than who he is.

By mysticism I mean that we come to know God, not simply through the postulations of our minds, the passion of our emotions or through the striving of our will, but because God has chosen to reveal himself to us. He doesn’t have to, but he does. This revelation of God has a form, and that form is the Trinity, and it is through this form that God makes himself known and invites us to know him.

This is the mystical truth that the Church reminds us of today on this great solemnity of the Trinity.

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DT 4:32-34, 39-40

Pentecost Sunday (May 20th, 2018)

Today is the great solemnity of Pentecost, some refer to this great event as a kind of birthday for the Church, or the day in which the Church is celebrated in terms of its identity and mission.  The scriptures for today testify to the Holy Spirit and the transformative power of the Holy Spirit- in other words, the Holy Spirit changes lives.

The word Pentecost refers to a festal and celebratory period of time called Shauvot that was mandated by the Law of Moses.  It was an Israelite festival associated with the harvest and involved pilgrimage to the great temple of the Israelites in Jerusalem.  It was during this celebration that Christians remember an extraordinary event that happened during the earliest days of the Church’s life- the Holy Spirit was manifested in power and mystery.  This event is described in the Church’s first scripture for today- an excerpt from the New Testament Book of Acts.

Today’s preaching for today will be catechetical.  I’m going to present two questions about what the Church believes and give you a few insights as to why these beliefs are important and what they mean.

The first question is this- what is the Church?

Now that seems like a pretty basic question, one that seems to be so obvious that it might seem strange to ask.  But if someone were to ask you, “what is the Church” how would you reply, what would you tell them?

For many, even for many Christians, the Church is an institution, a faith-based corporation or private club.  For many others, the Church is an artifact of culture, something akin to an ethnic identity.  In both these understandings of the Church, it’s the purpose of the Church to offer us something- in the case of the corporation or institution we get faith-based goods and services and in the case of the culture or ethnic identity we get a sense of belonging and identity.

Neither of these understandings of the Church are entirely incorrect or inappropriate.  The Church is by its nature a human society and human societies have structure and belonging to a society imparts benefits.  The problem is not that thinking about the Church as an institution or cultural identity is wrong, but that it is really very limited and it has the tendency to reduce the Church to something that simply has to do with us, something that we just make up as we go along, something that serves our needs and gives us what we want.

When that limited understanding is in place, lots of folks become frustrated with the Church because the Church inevitably will fail to meet our expectations.  It won’t deliver what we want or won’t yield to our expectations or support of causes or political expectations and we end up treating it the way we treat a corporation like a public utility or retail store or a restaurant that doesn’t satisfy us- we criticize and complain and we find what we perceive to be a better service provider.  If we don’t like the Church as a culture or as an ethnic identity, we just position the Church as something irrelevant or archaic.

Now if all the Church is is just an institution or a culture, this approach to it makes sense.  But if an institution or culture is not what the Church essentially is then we have a problem.

The scriptures, our privileged source for telling us Christians what the Church really and truly is, never describes the Church merely as just an institution or a culture.  This tells us that neither of these categories, so important to us, were primary in the minds of Christ’s Apostles.  Instead of an institution or a culture, the Church is described in two ways- as Israel, transformed by Christ into something new and as Christ’s Body in the world.

With those two descriptions of the Church in mind, go back to that question “what is the Church?”.  Because the two best answers are “a new kind of Israel” and “the Body of Jesus in the world”.  Did either of those answers occur to you?  If they did, great, but your exceptional in that respect.  Now can you make sense of those descriptions of the Church for others, for fellow Christians, for unbelievers?  Because brothers and sisters, that’s the real challenge of Pentecost.

Pentecost is an ancient Israelite festival.  Why are Christians celebrating an ancient Israelite festival?  Because we are a new kind of Israel, that is, a people chosen by God for a specific mission in the world.  The mission of Israel was to give testimony to the power and presence of the one, true God and invite the world to know this God in a way that was personal and life changing.  That’s Israel’s mission. That’s the mission of the Church. Why?  Because the Church is a new kind of Israel. It is a mission that comes from God, who in the revelation of Jesus Christ, shares that mission with us and makes it our own.

In other words, we don’t make up the Church out of our structures or culture, we receive the Church from God in Christ.  God in Christ makes the Church what it is, gives it a form, an identity, a mission- and then he presents the Church to us and invites us to be a part of it.  The institution or the culture of the Church can be a route of access to this invitation, but the substance of the Church is deeper than the institution or the culture, the substance of the Church is a divine revelation, a divine gift- which we will either accept or refuse.

The Church is repeatedly returning to the stories of the Israelites as privileged frames of reference for who we are and how we are supposed to live.  Why is that?  The interest is not just literary or historical, it’s personal.  Why? Because the Church is a new kind of Israel, and we seek to understand what God wants us to do now through considering what God has asked the Israelites to be and do in the past.

And the Church is Christ’s Body.  This means that the revelation of Christ is not just a matter of the past, but is happening even right now.  Once, Christ inhabited the world in the body of his Incarnation, the body through which God experienced for himself a human nature and lived a real, human life.  This is happening in its own unique way right now in the Church. The Church is the means through which God in Christ is acting in the world.  That really raises the stakes about our association with and involvement in the Church.  We are not just here to offer our financial support to a cause or celebrate a culture but to become for the others the means through which the life and presence of God in Christ is brought forth into the world.

That’s what the Church is supposed to be and do.  Extend in space and time the revelation of Jesus Christ.  Consider how Christ presents himself in the testimony of the Gospels, what he does, that’s what the Church is, or is supposed to be.

I think at times we Christians retreat into the institution or into culture because that stuff seems easier to us than being new Israelites, which means receiving a way of life we don’t get to make up for ourselves or being the Body of Jesus, which the means becoming the way that  Christ makes himself living and present in the world, because then our lives are about him and not ourselves.  We can also walk away from institutions and culture and justify ourselves in that decision.  You just can’t do that is the Church is a way of life God gives to you and that way of life makes you, like Christ, a revelation.

Now the second question in our catechesis for today is “what is the Holy Spirit?”

The Holy Spirit is God, but more specifically, the Holy Spirit is the “love of God” or even more specifically, “the love of God shared by Christ and his Heavenly Father”.

Let’s keep that all that mind.

Now, for many Christians, the Holy Spirit is a Christian version of the force in Star Wars, a kind of nebulous, invisible cosmic power that manifests itself in intuitions or ideas that we have. We support our claim that our intuitions or ideas are important by insisting that they come from the Holy Spirit. Now when we do that, we are simply doing to God what we often times do to the Church, making the Spirit into whatever it is we want it to be so as to serve our own desires or purposes.  That’s not the Holy Spirit.  That’s a different kind of spirit and it isn’t one that is holy!

The Holy Spirit is the love of God in Christ- the love of God shared by Christ and his Heavenly Father, that is, it is the relationship of God the Father and God the Son- this is what Christ gives to us when he sends forth his Spirit, the Holy Spirit- he is giving to us the relationship that he shares with his Heavenly Father.  The kind of relationship, that is, the love, that Christ has for his Heavenly Father is the Holy Spirit.  Let your mind be blown by that are tease out the implications for the rest of your lives.  Christ is placing you alongside himself in his unique relationship with his Heavenly Father.  That’s the Holy Spirit.

It’s that relationship that changes you, makes you different.  It’s that relationship that animates the life of the Church, gives us the Sacraments, makes us capable of being like Christ.  That’s the Holy Spirit.

Now I’m going to give you one more insight about all this: when you come here, to Mass, you are praying in the Holy Spirit.  This means that you are uniquely situated in the relationship that Christ gives to you- the love he shares with his Heavenly Father.  The point of this relationship, this praying in the Spirit, is to make you like Christ.  Why is Christ doing this for you, to you?

Go back to what I told you about the Church- Christ is giving you the Holy Spirit, his relationship with his Heavenly Father, so that you can accept the mission he gives you and become for others a revelation of his life and his presence.

That’s what the Holy Spirit is about.  That’s what the Church is about.

 

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Sixth Sunday of Easter (May 6th, 2018)

The Church’s first scripture for today is an excerpt from the New Testament book Acts of the Apostles.

The Book of Acts continues the story of the Lord Jesus, a story that begins with his revelation in the human body of Christ. Remember: The Lord Jesus is God, the one, true God, who has out of love for humanity, indeed all his creation, accepted for himself a human nature and lived a real, human life. The revelation of God in Christ is called the Incarnation and we hear testimony to the Incarnation in the Gospels- Christ’s followers encountered in him God in our flesh, in a body. God did not make himself known as a nebulous cosmic force or as an idea or as a feeling, but as a living divine person who meets us face to face in a human body.

The Gospels tell us the first part of the story of God’s Incarnation in Christ. Acts of the Apostles tells us the second part of the story- a story of which we are all a part.

This story, the second part, concerns the revelation of God in Christ in a new kind of body- a body called the Church. I know for many Christians the Church is merely an institution, a faith-based corporation, an ethnic identity. But the scriptures never describe the Church in these terms. Instead the Church is mysteriously and really Christ’s body- living and acting in the world. When we get that, then we get the Church, we understand what the Church is supposed to be about.

The Church is supposed to do for the world what Christ did in the revelation of his body, in the revelation of his Incarnation.

Today’s scripture from Acts recalls the testimony of the Apostle Peter and what he tells us is that the Church is meant to be a gathering of all the nations into a relationship with God in Christ. What this means is that Church cannot just be our own private club or limited to our own ethnic identity. Instead, the Church manifests its identity and mission in universality- the meaning of the word “Catholic”.

God in Christ intends for the whole world to know him and share a relationship with him in the Church. The Church is healthy and accomplishing its mission when it intentionally sets out to draw people in. This mission, to go out in order to draw people in is not just the universal mission of the Church, but the local mission of the Church. In other words, what Peter talks about in the Book of Acts today is meant to be happening here.

Your parish is not your social club or a community center. A parish is your mission territory- and its purpose is to be for others an encounter with the living and divine person of Jesus Christ and your mission is to go out into this territory with the invitation that Christ can be known, loved and served here. What are you doing, what are you willing to do, to accomplish this mission?

The second scripture for today is an excerpt from the First Letter of John, and in John’s testimony he tells us that love is foundational to the Christian way of life because God is love. How does he know this? John has himself encountered God in Christ and knows from this encounter who God is and what God wants.

We may have ideas about God or feelings about God, but these ideas and feelings are not in themselves enough to reveal who God is and what God wants. God reveals himself to us, not just in our ideas or feelings (or even primarily in our ideas and feelings) but in Jesus Christ. It is from him that we know who God is and what God wants. Without Christ, we are likely just making things up, relying on opinions driven by our egoism rather than relying on a revelation that comes to us through an act of divine grace. The former is an idol. The latter is the truth that sets us free.

John also speaks in his testimony about love, and our reference point to understand love are not our ideas and feelings, but Christ himself, who shows us what love really and truly is. Love is not merely romantic affection or sentimentality, but an act of will through which we give to others what is really and truly good.

Note that this means that love is not just giving to others what they want or what they deserve, but what is good. This is what God in Christ does for us- he doesn’t just give us what we want to prove his love, and he certainly doesn’t give us what we deserve, but he gives to us what is good and in doing so he “proves” his love for us, and just as importantly, shows us what love really and truly is.

Love in our culture is understood as getting what one wants. It is the feeling of satisfaction that comes when this happens. In regards to all this, Christian love, as revealed in Christ, is a great contrary move and the great temptation is for Christians to abandon their unique way of loving so that we might make ourselves more palatable to the culture. This is a grave mistake. And when Christians do this, true love, real love, will never be revealed.

It is hard to love as Christ did. It is difficult to bear the love of God in Christ into a culture that resists one’s efforts. But this is our mission as Christians. It’s why we are here. And if we don’t do our mission no one else will.

God in Christ gives extraordinary testimony in his Gospel- he calls us his friends. No one is friends with a feeling. No one is friends with an idea. No one is friends with a cosmic force. No one is friends with an institution. You can only be friends with a person and this is what God in Christ is- a living, divine person who offers us a relationship with himself and tells us that he wants to be our friends.

How do we become friends with God in Christ? Keeping his commandments.

The commandments of God are not just arbitrary rules imposed on us to kick us into line, but they are a way of life, a way of life that indicates what our relationship with God actually is. Christ distills his commandments into one profound insight- to love one another as he loves us.

There is nothing sentimental about any of this. Loving another person as Christ loves us means willing what is good for that person, even if that goodness is not deserved, even if that goodness is refused. It is the kind of goodness that is willing to forgive a betrayal and cruelty as terrifying as the cross and is willing to descend into death to recover a soul that has been lost. That’s the kind of love that shows us to be the friends of God in Christ.\

Christian love is something unique. It doesn’t mean just being a good citizen or having a heart of gold. It cannot be accomplished merely by volunteerism and it demands more of us than just supporting our favorite causes. Christian love is about learning to live like and act like God in Christ. Inasmuch as we do this, we are the friends of Jesus Christ.

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Fifth Sunday of Easter (April 29th, 2018)

The Church’s first scripture today is an excerpt from the New Testament Book entitled “Acts of the Apostles”.  The book of Acts is a continuation of the Gospel of Luke and whereas the Gospel of Luke presented the story of the Lord Jesus acting in the world and in the lives of his friends and followers in the body of his Incarnation, the book of Acts presents the Lord Jesus acting in the world and in the lives of his friends and followers in a new kind of body- the body of Christ which is the Church.

You see, the Church is not just a faith-based non-profit corporation or community center or institution.  The Church is both mystically and really the Body of Jesus living and acting in the world.  When we get that understanding of the Church right the profundity of our lives as Christians and the urgency of our mission as disciples becomes really and truly evident and real.

Now, in our scripture from Acts of the Apostles we hear of Saul, a convert to the Faith of the Church, who we learn is not a very popular fellow.  In fact, he is kind of a pariah, viewed with fear as derision by his fellow Christians.  Why is this?  Remember, Saul was a persecutor of the Church.  In fact, his efforts led to acts of violence and murder against Christians and so even in light of his remarkable conversion, folks are understandably angry with him and suspicious of his motives.

A Christian by the name of Barnabas acts as an advocate and friend of Saul and helps him to establish trust and to find his mission in the Church.  Saul will eventually take the name Paul and we know him as St. Paul and his testimony, through his letters, are known to us as holy scripture, reverenced as genuine witness to the faith of the Apostles.

Just as Barnabas guided Paul, so now Paul guides us still, each time we hear his words proclaimed.  In fact, in the great genealogy of the Church’s faith, our own faith can be traced back to that friendship of Barnabas and Paul.

The lesson?  No one comes to the faith alone and no one’s faith can be sustained for very long in isolation.  All of us are Christians because someone at some point brought us to the Lord Jesus and helped us to find our place in the Church.  Who is your Barnabas?  What Barnabas did for Paul should not be understood by us as a task for religious professionals or Church bureaucrats, it is the common and shared mission of all the baptized, of all believers.

The Church grows and flourishes, not simply as a result of annual collections, but because Christians are willing to extend to others the invitation to know Jesus Christ in the Church and to share with them the Church’s unique way of life.

If Christians are unwilling or unable to do this, then no pastoral plan, mission statement or capital campaign can save the Church from decadence and decay.  Always remember, in the beginning there were none of the things that we have come to rely on to grow and support the Church- there were no parishes or dioceses, there was no infrastructure or bureaucracy.  No one understood the Church as an expression of their ethnicity or culture.  Nothing about the Church was taken for granted.  What did the Church have?  Relationships.  Primarily a relationship with Jesus Christ, which expressed itself in their relationships with one another.

Those relationships were not closed, making the Church an exclusive club, but were open to others (open even to a person like Saul, who had hurt them so terribly!).  The Church grew because Christians were willing and in fact saw it as their mission to share the relationship they had with Christ and the Church with others.  That’s what grows the Church.

The Church’s second scripture for today is an excerpt from the First letter of John and in this text we hear testimony to the relationship of love to the commandments of God- in other words, love is not primarily or simply an emotion or a feeling, but an act of your will to do what is good, to do what God wants you to do.

What God wants us to do is to keep his commandments, and in this way, the First Letter of John insists, we learn what it truly is to love.

The relationship between love and the commandments of God is contrary to much of what our culture presents as love- love is understood primarily as an emotion or an intuition to follow one’s heart, which means to do what is emotionally satisfying.  The commandments of God are many times presented as a foil to this quest, inhibiting, rather than facilitating love.

But the sense and sensibility of the Scriptures, insists that true love is found in the commandments of God and that love is not an emotion, but an act of our will in which we seek to do what God asks us to do.  What God asks us to do is not left shrouded in mystery, but it is expressed in his commandments and his commandments are not abstract, but concrete, not theoretical, but practical.  Not difficult to understand, but at times hard to do.

If you want a thick description of what this looks like concretely, look into what are called the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, for in these you can discern the kind of love that emerges when we seek a way of life ordered and directed by the commandments of God.

And there is the lesson: true love, real love, happens only in relation to the commandments of God.

Finally, in his Gospel, the Lord Jesus testifies that his relationship with us is like that of a vine to branches.  In other words, he is the source of the nourishment that enables us to flourish and grow.  The fruit of our vines are works of holiness, virtue and love, from which our testimony to Christ becomes credible and from this testimony, the Church thrives and expands.

Our lives as Christians are not self-sustained or self-directed.  Being a Christian is not an act of self-expression.  Instead, to be a Christian is to live in relationship with Jesus Christ and this relationship is integral and necessary to who we are and to our unique way of life.

Our relationship with Jesus Christ is not merely a matter or ideas or emotions, but of being connected in concrete, tangible ways with Christ.  This is what the Sacraments are for us.  This is what the Mass is all about.  This is what service to the needs of our neighbors and to the poor is all about.  Sacraments are not just cultural expressions, but expressions of Christ’s relationship to us.  The Mass is not just an expression of the community’s values, but an expression of Christ’s relationship with us.  The opportunity to love and serve our neighbors or the poor is not just good citizenship or volunteerism, but a way of loving and serving Christ.

When the Sacraments become only expressions of culture, the Mass merely community self-expression and service merely volunteerism, then we have become like branches detached from the vine, and the faith, indeed the Church, will wither away and die.

Being a Christian is being in relationship with Jesus Christ and being in relationship with Jesus Christ is being in relationship with his Church.

This, friends, expresses the “golden thread” that is tying our scriptures for today together.  Indeed, it is the “golden thread” that connects all Christians together.

We are not as Christians in relationship to an ideal or a culture or an obligation, but to a living divine person, who for the sake of his love for us, accepted a human nature like our own, and lived a real, human life.  This living divine person has given himself the name Jesus and makes his presence known to us through his Church.

All this means that we are not exiles in this world, nor are we alone.  God is not an indifferent cosmic force, but a living person who seeks to meet us face to face and in Jesus Christ calls us his friends.  He is with us in this world, even now, and our relationship with him gives our lives meaning and purpose.  In the Sacraments of the Church we encounter him, and that encounter changes us, makes us different.  Death does not sever our relationship with him, but has in fact, been transformed by Christ as the means to take us to him.

A relationship with Jesus Christ is what being a Christian is about and if we don’t think it is, if we don’t live like it is, then we are missing the point.

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