The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity (May 31st, 2015)

This Sunday the faithful gathered here and throughout the world celebrate the great revelation of God as the Trinity.

The Trinity is not just a theory or an idea about God- the Trinity is who God reveals himself to be in Jesus Christ. The revelation of Jesus Christ is not simply how to live an ethical way of life based on being nice, polite and kind (those things are important to human flourishing, but they are not what the revelation of the Lord Jesus is essentially about). The revelation of Jesus Christ is a revelation about who God is and what God wants- and this revelation is the Trinity.

The Bible indicates that God prepared the world to receive his revelation as the Trinity over the course of time and in particular ways. God indicated first that he actually existed by making himself known to us through his creation and then in more direct ways, he revealed that he was a person who desired to be in relationship with us.

This relationship was expressed in something called covenants. Much of the Old Testament is about how God relates to people through covenants.

Then God revealed that he was not just one of many gods, but the one, true God, whose greatness exceeded that of any other spiritual or worldly power. There is one, true God and anyone or anything that positions itself as a rival to him is a false god.

All these revelations happened in real life circumstances to real people.

Finally, having laid the groundwork, God acted in a most extraordinary way to reveal himself- he accepted a human nature and lived a real, human life. This revelation is Jesus Christ, who is not just one of many prophets or philosophers or great men of history. Jesus Christ is God and through his revelation of God, humanity sees the Trinity.

Before I go any further into the revelation of God as Trinity, let us prepare ourselves, by considering the Church’s scriptures for today- all of which are teaching us important truths about the God in whom we profess our faith.

Our first scripture for today is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy. The Book of Deuteronomy is about how God revealed himself to the Israelites during a critical time. The Israelites had been liberated from slavery in Egypt by God. The people had languished for many years as prisoners of the false gods of Egypt and the one, true God, intervened, having heard their pleading God acted in an extraordinary way and waged war against the false gods of Egypt and defeated them.

The Israelites are coming to terms with all this and the Book of Deuteronomy is expressing how God’s revelation to them came with a renewed sense of meaning and purpose- a unique identity and mission.

This is precisely what the scripture you heard this morning from the Book of Deuteronomy is all about. Moses, the great prophet of the Israelites, reminds the people of what God has done for them and then insists that because of what God has done their lives are now different. Those who live in a relationship with God live in such a way that shows forth that relationship. This relationship expresses itself by keeping the commandments of God, and it is keeping the commandments of God that lead to human flourishing.

What does this mean to us?

First, it means that we do not believe that God is some kind of cosmic force that exists at a distance from the world. The God of the Bible is intensely interested in human affairs and acts in the world in ways that are seen and unseen. The God of the Bible is personal, and this means that we can have a relationship with him and he with us.

Second, it means that faith in God is not merely a matter of having the right ideas about God or of having emotional experiences about him. Instead, faith in God expresses itself in our acceptance of a way of life, this way of life is the embodiment of God’s commandments.

We live in a culture that prizes autonomy and doesn’t like commandments, especially God’s commandments. We certainly like to command, but being commanded ourselves is something we have a strong aversion too. But commandments are essential to being in relationship with God.

Now if the word commandment makes you bristle with resistance because of your cultural conditioning, then think of the commandments as a way of life. Our first scripture for today is saying that those who are in relationship with God will live a particular way of life. If you want a description of that way of life, the Ten Commandments are a good place to start.

Lastly, in terms of this way of life, it isn’t just something we can make up for ourselves. Instead, our way of life, like our relationship with God is a reality that we receive from God. Again, this kicks against the cultural understanding of “spirituality” that has come to mean ideas and feelings about God that I choose because they reinforce my opinions, support my causes and serve my needs. The Bible presents a different vision of spirituality, which does not mean the relationship with God I make up for myself. It does mean: the relationship that God offers to me- and this relationship expresses itself (in its most succinct form) in the Ten Commandments.

We are free to make up a spirituality for ourselves, the Bible acknowledges this, but it also has a name for made up spiritualities- such things are called idolatry- worshipping false gods rather than living in a relationship with the one, true God.

But who is the one true God? St. Paul testifies about the one, true God in today’s excerpt from his great letter to the Romans, one of the most important and influential texts in the Bible.

Who is the one, true God? The one true God is revealed in Jesus Christ, and in this revelation, God defines our relationship with him as being not only a matter of commandments, but of being a member of his own family. This means that in Christ, God reveals that he desires to relate to us as a father relates to his children.

Now I know that trends in the culture and the experience of some with their own fathers make this testimony seem problematic. The culture presents fathers as buffoons or oppressors (and many fathers in the culture seem willing to rise to these expectations).

But our reference point with how God is our Father is not the culture or even our experience of our own fathers. Our reference point for how God is our Father is the Lord Jesus’ relationship with God as his Father, a relationship that expresses itself in the qualities of fidelity and mercy and grace. This is how God is Father to Christ and through Christ, this is how God is our Father.

Therefore, the reason the Church privileges praying to God as our Father has nothing to do with culture, and how culture has understood what it means to be a father. Our faith in God as Father is not just one, big projection of cultural or personal experiences of fathers. Instead, the Church privileges calling God our Father because we receive from Jesus Christ as our very own relationship with God, his relationship with his Heavenly Father. Praying to God as our Father means that God desires to relate to us the way that he relates to the Lord Jesus! The revelation of God in Christ is God’s way of showing us in the most concrete, particular way possible how he wants to be in relationship with us.

We receive this relationship in a particular way, and this particular way of being in relationship with God is identified for us in the Gospel for today by the Lord Jesus himself. We receive our relationship with God through our Baptism. This is why Baptism is important and necessary, because without, we are lacking an extraordinary gift that God in Christ wants us to have, and without which, our relationship with God is less than what God intends for it to be.

This relationship, that God gives to us in Christ, a relationship in which he reveals himself as our Father, is the move God makes to reveal the Trinity.

Now I know, that you have probably heard priests and preachers telling you for years about how incomprehensible the mystery of the Trinity is, and this is true, but the fact that the Trinity is deeply mysterious to us can become a reason to dismiss the importance of the Trinity. What happens as a result of that dismissal is really dangerous. Because then we are tempted to reduce God to whatever it is we want him to be rather than accept him on his terms. Usually this expresses itself in taking our ideas and feelings about God and creating idols out of them.

We Christians do not just profess faith in theories, ideas or feelings about God, but in the revelation of God as the Trinity.

A lot of bad preaching and teaching about the Trinity has resulted in the impression that the Trinity is an invention of theologians or the hierarchy of the Church. No!

As I have said, the Trinity is how God reveals himself in Jesus Christ.

The Trinity is how God reveals himself and describes himself to us in the revelation of Jesus Christ. The Gospel that the Church proclaims is not just sources for life lessons or texts of historical interest. The Gospel are testimony to the revelation of God in Christ as being much more than we thought he could be- and this “more than we thought” is the Trinity. So, then what is it?

The New Testament evangelist John identifies the Trinity with the succinct statement that God is Love, which is the best description of the revelation of God as the Trinity.

Why? I’ll tell you. Listen to this:

That God is love does not simply mean that God is capable of doing loving things, but that there is a relationship in God that precedes his relationship with us. Love is not just something that God does, but is mysteriously, who God is. This relationship is called the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. It is out of this relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, that God loves us- that he creates us, redeems us, and makes us holy.

Please don’t sentimentalize any of this. The revelation that God is love is anything but sentimental, for it means that God will create a world he doesn’t need; offer himself as a servant to those who would use and abuse him; venture out into a creation that has become hostile towards him; suffer and die for the sake of creatures who hate him; and seek a relationship with those who would scorn him; forgive those who don’t deserve his forgiveness- all this God does because he is the Trinity, because he is Love.

That’s what the Church celebrates today. That’s what Jesus Christ reveals the Trinity to be. That’s the God in whom we Christians believe.

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Saturday of the Eighth Week in Ordinary Time (May 30th, 2015)

This past week the Church has presented as the first reading for daily Mass excerpts from the Old Testament Book of Sirach.

The Book of Sirach is an example of what is called Wisdom Literature, a specific genre of literature in the Bible that begs the questions as to what is the meaning and purpose of life and how does one best live in relationship to God and neighbor. Much of the Wisdom Literature is presented in the form of essays, proverbs and maxims.

Some of the content of the Wisdom Literature of the Bible is poetic and lyrical, and today’s excerpt from the Book of Sirach is a fine example of this. In today’s scripture from the Book of Sirach the author presents his dramatic pursuit of wisdom, whom he represents as a woman with whom he is in a passionate, romantic relationship. This relationship with wisdom has given meaning and purpose to the author’s life.

What is wisdom?

Wisdom is a quality of knowing that exceeds mere facts and figures. Rather than being content with the material, wisdom seeks after truths that transcend the experience of the world- seeing and appreciating all that there is and through this experience marveling at the gift of existence and wondering as to why there is something rather than nothing and what it means that the world greets us as knowable and intelligible. Wisdom begs from human experience the question of the existence of God and considers the meaning of existence that the answer to this question God’s existence imparts.

We live in culture that favors knowledge of facts and figures rather than wisdom. The pursuit of wisdom is seen as merely a diversion that is secondary to pragmatic concerns. Our schools and universities do not so much favor wisdom in their curriculums as they do practical skills. The question of how to best make something that humans can use and buy and sell preoccupies our culture’s attention more than discerning the answer as to why there is something rather than nothing. As such, the Book of Sirach’s passion for wisdom might seem strange.

The Church Fathers, those scholars, sages and saints of the earliest ages of the Church’s life, understood this love poem about wisdom to be a kind of foreshadowing of Christ, who is himself “holy wisdom”. Like the personification of wisdom of the Book of Sirach, in which wisdom is a person who is capable of love and being loved, a person with whom one shares a relationship, so is Christ, revealed to us in his incarnation.

Christ is not merely an idea, but a living, divine person and a relationship with him reveals, as wisdom does, the answers to the kinds of questions raised by human experience.

Not all the answers that Christ offers to us are the answers we want or that we prefer, but they are God’s answers and as such they are always true whether we accept them or believe them or not.

The authority of Christ is at issue in the Gospel for today. Christ makes extraordinary claims about God, about himself and about those things that the Israelites value. In terms of the law and the temple he presents himself as having an authority above that the Israelite’s priests, prophets and kings. He speaks and acts in the person of God. He claims an authority that is not bound by culture, custom, politics or social convention.

The religious authorities are teasing out the implications of Christ’s authority and the conclusion that they are reaching fills them with a sense of anxiety and dread. What they are coming to understand is that Christ is presenting himself to be the God of Israel in the flesh and this was not a revelation that they expected or believed was even possible.

And so they press the question, they want Christ to tell them directly- is he really who he is presenting himself to be?

Christ does not present himself as accountable to their authority to even question him and as such answers their question- he is an authority higher than the law, than the temple, and certainly higher than the rulers of the people, be those rulers priests, prophets or kings. The only authority higher than all that I have mentioned is God.

We should not fail to appreciate the startling revelation of the Lord Jesus. The revelation of the Lord Jesus is that he is God and when we profess to believe in Jesus that is the claim that we are making.

If we truly believe that Christ is God than nothing else in our lives or in this world can have priority over our relationship with him- nothing else. The Gospels help us to understand what this means and invites us to place everything else in our lives in proper relationship to him.

A Christian is someone whose whole life is willingly placed under Christ’s authority. When this happens the Christian is truly free, this freedom expresses itself in a life that looks very much like Christ. The freedom of a Christian is not the freedom to do what we want, it is the freedom to be like Christ- and be like him, not just in some things, or in what we choose, but in all things.

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Thursday of the Eighth Week in Ordinary Time (May 28th, 2015)

This week the Church presents as the first scripture reading for daily Mass excerpts from the Old Testament Book of Sirach.

The Book of Sirach is one of the last books of the Bible to be written and it seems to represent a compilation of Israelite wisdom about the meaning and purpose of human existence. The God of Israel has created the world and given the gift of life to humanity- but what is our place in God’s creation, what constitutes a good life, toward what goals or ends should human beings aspire to? The Wisdom of Sirach begs the answers to questions like these.

Today’s reading from the Book of Sirach praises and recounts the mighty deeds of the God of Israel. This hymn of praise is signaling something of great importance to us about a vision of life informed by the Bible. The meaning and purpose of human existence can only be fully appreciated in relation to the revelation of God, without that revelation, we might have some sense of life’s meaning and purpose, but that sense will be incomplete. This revelation does not simply happen in the manner described so many times in the Bible, in which God intervenes in mysterious ways in human history, but also through creation itself.

The Creator signals his existence in his creation and signals to that the Creator wants his creatures to know him.

The Biblical vision insists that God discloses to us that we have been created by God and for God, and therefore, as St. Augustine opined, “our hearts are restless until the rest in thee”.

The plaintive cry of Bartimaeus in Christ’s Gospel “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me” should be our own cry as well. In fact, our relationship with Jesus Christ has as the condition for its possibility a humble disposition that acknowledges our own insufficiency and worthiness and our willingness to receive from Christ gifts that we cannot achieve or earn for ourselves.

God in Christ reveals himself to the world as Savior, which means our souls are sin-sick and need to be healed. God in Christ reveals himself to the world as Redeemer, which means we languish in a prison of desires, entrapped by the guilt and regret of what we have done and failed to do.

It is from this bondage that Christ liberates us.

Bartimaeus was delivered from physical blindness, but for many, it is spiritual blindness that devastates and debilitates. This spiritual blindness narrows one’s vision of life to immediate needs and self-centered concerns. This imposes a kind of myopia on the soul and our field of vision diminishes. As this myopia takes hold of the soul, there is a steady descent into darkness, for having habituated oneself to a narrow, self-centered vision of life, the soul soon can see nothing else but its own self-centered needs.

The soul in the thrall of this blindness gropes endlessly for meaning and purpose, yet in its blindness grasps at all the wrong things and the darkness deepens.

Christ reveals on the cross that he is willing to extend his divine presence into this darkness. In the darkness he calls out to us and seeing us in our misery he offers us his light to dispel the dark.

Hearing the sound of his voice in the dark will we cry out to him as Bartimaeus did?

Or will we prefer the darkness to his light?

Pentecost Sunday (May 24th, 2015)

The Church here and throughout the world celebrates the great solemnity of Pentecost.

Pentecost commemorates the revelation of the Holy Spirit to the apostles and disciples. This revelation happened after the Lord Jesus ascended to his Father, and took his rightful place as Lord of our lives and Lord of the world.

Prior to his Ascension, the Lord Jesus promised that he would reveal the Holy Spirit. This happens in an extraordinary event that is described for us today in the Church’s first scripture, an excerpt from the New Testament book entitled “Acts of the Apostles.”

We learn from this eyewitness account, that the Holy Spirit was revealed with frightening power, in what appeared to be wind and flame and the shaking of the earth. This power overtook the apostles and disciples of the Lord Jesus and transformed them, enabling to enact mighty and wondrous deeds, to do the kinds of things that the Lord Jesus had done, and invigorated them with the courage to speak openly, publically about the Lord Jesus.

The Holy Spirit was the driving force that impelled the apostles and disciples out from behind locked doors and closed rooms and into the world.

The Church is not meant to be a private, faith-based club, but an open, public, missionary society that goes out into the world. The fundamental task of the Church is the proclamation of Lordship of Jesus Christ and the invitation to know Christ and serve him in the Church. The acceptance of this invitation expresses itself in a willingness to repent, to live a different way of life, a way of life that expresses itself in a unique way of worship that we call the Mass and in works of mercy that seek to sustain the bodies and souls of those in need.

The Church’s unique way of life, her proclamation, her worship, her works of mercy give rise to a civilization, a living culture that transcends the boundaries imposed by ethnicity and language, and is, here on earth, an expression of the Kingdom of heaven.

None of this would be possible if disciples of the Lord Jesus sequestered themselves in a private, faith-based clubhouse. In fact, the Holy Spirit will resist our attempts to reduce the Church to a private club by withdrawing his blessing if we give in to this temptation. Christians are meant to be overtaken by the power of the Holy Spirit and when they are they are like fire, earthquakes, and hurricane winds- they are forces to be reckoned with, whose impact on the world is evident in their bold proclamation, beautiful worship and lively works of mercy. In a world where so many dwell imprisoned in darkness and cold and death, the Christian filled with the Holy Spirit is a reprieve of light, warmth and abundant life.

Christians who resist the Holy Spirit languish in narrowness, frustration and self pre-occupation and their private faith-based clubs show forth these negative qualities- repelling, rather than attracting, closed and locked, rather than open to invite the world in; unsure of Christ, rather than knowing him as one knows a friend; concerned more with maintenance of programs and structures, rather than with accomplishing the mission Christ gives his people.

St. Paul doesn’t mince words about the characteristics of Christians who resist the Holy Spirit.

In his Letter to the Galatians, he provides a dirty laundry list of the negative characteristics of Christians who resist the Holy Spirit- he pulls no punches. He has no qualms about airing the dirty laundry of his fellow Christians in public. Listening to his list this morning we shouldn’t think that any of those characteristics would not be found here or that the effect of what St. Paul identifies could be safely contained in the privacy of our homes. The kinds of things that St. Paul identifies in his dirty laundry list are the kinds of things that Christians do that poison the Church.

Why is St. Paul nagging at us about things that most people in our culture would protest are private matters?

St. Paul wants us to examine our consciences and we all should. Pope Benedict aptly observed once that Christians who speak of God but who live contrary to him, open the doors to unbelief and further that the Church’s greatest need in this present moment of the Church’s life are people who make God credible by means of their way of life.

The worldly dabble in trying to divide character from morality, identifying success in terms of wealth, pleasure, power and honors as being of higher value than truth and goodness. The self-esteem of the celebrity is preferred to self-gift of the saint. Christians attempt to live their faith in ideas and emotions rather than in acts of repentance and works of mercy. This is all contrary to the Holy Spirit.

If something on St. Paul’s dirty laundry list strikes at your conscience, good. Praise God! That means that you are not yet completely lost!

Those who are overtaken by the Holy Spirit manifest the presence of the Holy Spirit in lives that look a lot like the life of the Lord Jesus- they know him, they love him, they serve him- and they do so by loving what he loves and serving what he serves.

St. Paul describes the attitude, the demeanor of a Christian who loves and serves what Christ loves and serves. You meet in these Spirit-filled Christians the qualities that best describe God in Christ: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Are those qualities in you? They can be- if you surrender yourself to the power of the Holy Spirit.

Now, I have spent a great deal of time speaking about the effects of the Holy Spirit as he takes hold of our lives and we take hold of him.

But what is the Holy Spirit specifically?

The Holy Spirit is not an invisible magic force that gives us superpowers.

The Holy Spirit, is, simply put, the love of God in Christ, specifically he is the love that is shared between God the Father and God the Son.

In other words, what you receive in the Holy Spirit is Christ’s own relationship with his Father, and in doing so, he gives to you the possibility of becoming like him!

This is what the Lord Jesus is speaking about in his Gospel today. In words that sound cryptic and mystical he is telling you that he loves you so much that he wants you to have what he has- and the most important thing that the Lord Jesus has is his relationship with his Father.

That’s what he wants to give you. The means by which he gives that relationship to you is the Holy Spirit.

The Christian Faith, the Church’s Faith, is about many things- so many things that at times we are distracted from seeing, understanding the one, necessary thing that our Faith is all about- a relationship with God in Christ.

God revealed himself in Christ and in the Holy Spirit not just so that his expectations in terms of justice, morality and worship could have the proper point of reference for our understanding. Contrary to what many Christians have come to believe, God’s revelation in Christ and the Holy Spirit cannot be reduced to ethics and values or the support of institutions (any more than it can be reduced to ideas and emotions).

God’s revelation in Christ and the Holy Spirit is ultimately about his desire to be in a relationship with us. God wants us to know him so that he can express his love for us and offer us a way to be like him. God comes into the world and into our lives in the Lord Jesus to let us know that this is what God intends to do. And it is for this reason, that God in Christ sends the Holy Spirit to us- and this Holy Spirit is what happens to us when we are really and truly willing to be in a relationship with him!

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Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord (May 17th, 2015)

Today the Church here, and throughout the United States, celebrates a mysterious event called the Ascension of the Lord. (The Church throughout the rest of the world celebrated the Ascension of the Lord this past Thursday. Better late than never I guess!)

As I have said, the Ascension of the Lord is mysterious, and as such, at times misunderstood. Many people have come to believe that the Ascension of the Lord is about how, at a certain point of time, the Lord Jesus disappeared from the planet, drifting off into the stratosphere, and from a place in the sky, he moved off into heaven, where he remains to this day, with us, but only at a distance.

This mistaken perception has been reinforced by simplistic interpretations of the descriptions of the Ascension in the New Testament, which are using unusual language to describe an event that was really and truly experienced by the Apostles and disciples of the Lord Jesus.

The language of that they use to describe this event is meant to indicate that what the Apostles and disciples saw had to be understood in the categories given by the prophets of the Old Testament. I know that this sounds complicated, and it is, but to put it simply, the Apostles and disciples who witnessed the Ascension of the Lord Jesus wanted, first and foremost, to provide a theological description of their experience- and to do so they used the scriptures of the Old Testament as their guide.

The prophets of the Old Testament had foreseen that God would act in the world in Christ and that he would change the world in an extraordinary way. The Apostles and disciples came to understand that what the prophets had foreseen, had all come to pass in the Lord Jesus.

Thus, the Old Testament was filled with signs indicating who the Lord Jesus really and truly is and what his mission in the world is all about.

The Apostles and disciples refer to these signs from the Old Testament in their descriptions of their experiences of the Lord Jesus.

Now, since we might only be vaguely familiar with the Old Testament, or even if we are somewhat familiar, not really sure of what precisely the prophets of the Old Testament were referring to, some of the ways in which the Apostles and disciples describe their experience of the Lord Jesus might seem unintelligible. For example, what do the Gospel writers really mean when they say that Christ is the Son of David or that he is the Messiah?

You would have to know something about what the prophets of the Old Testament said about such things or something about the historical books of the Bible, and if you didn’t you really wouldn’t know what the Gospels are referring to.

This is the case with the Ascension of the Lord Jesus, an event that is described for us today in an excerpt from a New Testament book called “The Acts of the Apostles”. The Acts of the Apostles is a follow up to the Gospels, particularly the Gospel of Luke, and it offers a glimpse at the great events that happened after Christ’s resurrection from the dead.

The excerpt from Acts of the Apostles that you heard today is from the first chapter and it describes the Ascension of the Lord Jesus as “Jesus being lifted up and disappearing into a cloud”. The language here is a description of signs from the Old Testament. The first sign is manifested in Christ being “lifted up” which captures the meaning of imagery from the Old Testament that refers to the revelation of God beginning a new age for the world and new time in human history (Book of Daniel, Ancient of Days, Son of Man).

The second is the reference to the cloud, which is a reference to how the divine presence reveals itself (Exodus, the Temple, etc).

What the Apostles and disciples are testifying to is that at a certain point the revelation of Jesus Christ risen from the dead changed.

Christ revealed himself, not only in the physical body of his resurrection, but also in a new way in which great signs from the Old Testament were being fulfilled. The two signs were a new age for the world and a new revelation of God’s presence.

Christ was at the heart of the matter for both this new time in history and this new revelation of God’s presence. This is what is being signified when the Acts of Apostles says that the Lord Jesus was “taken up to heaven”. It doesn’t just mean he disappears into a different metaphysical plane of existence, but that he will now reveal himself, here on earth, in a new and surprising way. This new and surprising revelation will change the world and change how people experience the divine presence here on earth. This is what the Ascension of the Lord Jesus is all about- not that he disappears, but that he reveals himself in a new, surprising and very mysterious way.

Further, it is through this new time in history and this new revelation of God’s presence that God in Christ would bring certain promises he had made about the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel. The fulfillment of these promises would happen as future events associated with the new age of the world and the new revelation of God’s presence would be revealed.

The Apostles and disciples would be major players in these future events. In fact, they would receive a share of divine power so that they could fulfill their mission. This power would be called the Holy Spirit.

So, the excerpt you heard from the Acts of the Apostles this morning is not best understood when it is isolated from the rest book that it begins.

This particular scripture is setting things up for a great big story- the story of God in Christ continued revelation in the world, in history, in the Church.

You see, the Acts of the Apostles will tell us that the life and presence of Christ continues to be revealed in the Church. The Church is not merely something that the followers of the Lord Jesus invented, but instead, that the Church is a revelation of the Lord Jesus himself. The Church is the sign that a new moment in history has begun and is the privileged bearer of his divine life and presence in the world.

The Church continues the revelation of the Incarnation of God in Christ in the world. Bottom line: this is what the Ascension of the Lord Jesus reveals. NOT that the Lord Jesus drifted off into the stratosphere, but that his revelation changed. The Lord Jesus doesn’t just exist somewhere out there, but he is, even right now, acting to bring heaven to earth in the Church.

This is the reason that an angel tells the Apostles and disciples to stop looking off into heaven for the Lord Jesus after the Ascension has taken place. He is not off “out there”. Christ is present in the world in a new and surprising way. Once, he revealed himself in the body of his human nature, and now, he reveals himself in a new kind of body- this body is called the Church.

It is the Church that will fulfill Christ’s promises about a kingdom too!

Now these promises about a kingdom were not, as some had misconstrued, about the creation of a utopia of sorts. No. Instead, the promises about a kingdom were about the defeat of worldly and spiritual powers that were opposed to God’s plan in Christ.

These worldly and spiritual powers were not abstractions, but very real entities, and they made themselves the enemies of God in Christ and stood as obstacles to the people receiving the new revelation of God’s divine presence in Christ the Lord.

One of these powers was Rome, a mighty, worldly empire and as the great big story of Acts of the Apostles continues, we see the beginnings of Christ’s strategy to deal with Rome. God in Christ will overcome the Roman Empire, but the way he will do it will come as a total surprise.

In reference to that surprise, let me just say that when God in Christ wants to deal with the enemies of his Kingdom, he doesn’t send in tanks and legions of soldiers, he sends his Church.

And lets make that the lesson for today: too many of us Christians have such a diminished and desiccated understanding and experience of the Church. We think the Church is merely some kind of faith-based corporation that provides services for its members or acts as a contractor to help the government with social services.

If that is all that the Church is, it is no wonder so many people lose interest in the Church and drift away.

The Church is revealed to be, in the Ascension of the Lord Jesus, the extraordinary means by which God in Christ is acting in the world.

And there is a deep implication for us in this and we all need to get ourselves ready for what this implies- we are not called by Christ into his Church so as to receive faith based services that we pay for.

In fact, if you take today’s Gospel seriously, you see that Christ never said anything about the purpose of the Church being to establish faith based infrastructure for the benefit of its members. NO! What Christ wants his Church to do is to make disciples. The purpose of this vast network of institutions is not to serve our faith based needs, but to create the conditions for the possibilities for more disciples. If the infrastructure we are maintaining is not fulfilling the purpose of making disciples, then what purpose does it serve? Christ’s? Or someone else?

If we use the Church for any purpose other than for what Christ intends, our efforts will falter and fail.

We are called by Christ into his Church to advance the cause of his Kingdom.

And it is the cause, the purpose, of Christ’s Kingdom to change the world.

God in Christ wants to change this culture in much the same way he changed Rome.

Listen to this (and believe it) when God in Christ wants to change the situation on earth- he sends us, he sends you. He has sent the Church.

What are you here for? What is the Church for?

To bear Christ’s heaven into this world, and in doing so, change your life, and in changing your life- change the world…

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Saturday of the Seventh Week of Easter (May 23rd, 2015)

The New Testament book of the Acts of the Apostles concludes with Saint Paul imprisoned in Rome. Likely the charge is sedition, meaning that he was considered to be a person whose actions threatened the stability of the Roman Empire.

That charge was in fact true. Saint Paul was a threat to the Roman Empire because the way of life that he proclaimed was contrary to the way of life of Rome, which prized above anything else, wealth, power, pleasure, honors and domination. In Roman culture people were things to bought and sold and to be used by the powerful to advance their causes and agendas.

The way of life of St. Paul is the way of a disciple of the Lord Jesus and this way of life prizes above all the love of God in Christ- a love that eschews the worldliness and seeks first and above all, faith, hope and charity. All are made in Christ God’s children and brothers and sisters.

As I mentioned the other day, St. Paul and his companion missionary disciples have been on a covert mission- sent by Christ to deal with the Roman Empire that crucified him and persecuted the early Church.

To the Romans, it seemed that arresting St. Paul and bringing him to Rome as a prisoner would stop this covert mission. But that is not what happened- St. Paul’s arrival in Rome is the beginning of the end of the Roman way of life based on power and domination. God in Christ undermined Rome by using Rome to accomplish his purpose, which was to bring St. Paul to Rome!

The culture of Rome was corrupt, but the Roman people were loved by God in Christ, and in his love he sent St. Paul and the other missionary disciples so that the Romans could be delivered from corruption and become part of a new culture. This new culture is the Church, which is meant by Christ to be the means by which he advances his Kingdom.

St. Paul did not seek the destruction of Roman culture, but its transformation in Christ. So it must be with our own missionary efforts in regards our own culture. The purpose of our missionary efforts is to offer, as St. Paul did, a new way of life, and through this new way of life, imbue the culture with the love of God in Christ. This is the way of a missionary disciple.

Our purpose as missionary disciples is not just to identify what is wrong with the culture, but to show forth in our own lives a wonderful opportunity for a new way of life.

Displaying this new way of life is the purpose of a Catholic parish. A parish is not a faith-based clubhouse or a community center. A parish is a particular example of the Christian way of life. All the endeavors of a parish are meant to be an introduction to Jesus Christ and an invitation to people to know Christ and receive his gifts in the Church. As such, the efforts of a parish are meant to be directed outward, towards the culture, inviting people who live within the culture to see, experience, and understand the unique Christian way of life.

Parishes must do more than just provide faith-based services to their contributing members. If that is all that happens in a parish, then it is nothing more than a private club, rather than a sign of Christ’s Kingdom in the world. The private club model of parish life is precisely what Pope Francis is referring to when he criticizes what he calls “a self-referential Church”.

In his Gospel, Christ the Lord addresses the concern of Peter that he (Christ) seems to have signaled out one of the disciples for a special favor. Christ affirms the truth concerning what Peter perceives, but indicates that his favor is given to advance Christ’s purposes. Peter should not be preoccupied or concerned about it. Why?

Because all will receive particular gifts from the Lord- these gifts will be different for each person and will all contribute in our own way to Christ’s purposes for that person and for his Church.

No one is diminished in the Church because the gifts given to one are not given to another. To think that you are diminished because Christ gives to someone else something you don’t have and want for yourself is an attitude of worldliness.

Striving in envy after gifts that do not belong to us and that Christ gives to another person acts as a spiritual poison in the soul and in the Church.

We all have a role to play in the great drama of God’s salvation in Christ. We are all assigned a place in the story of the Lord Jesus as it continues to unfold in the life of the Church. Finding our place in the story of Christ in his Church is discerned in the challenge of our vocation, but we will not find our place in the story if we allow ourselves to be distracted by envy or resentment over a desire for gifts that Christ does not intend for us to receive.

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Thursday of the Seventh Week of Easter (May 21st, 2015)

It is quite clear from the Church’s scripture readings from Acts of the Apostles that St. Paul is the paradigmatic example of what Pope Francis referred to as “making a mess.”

The Holy Father encouraged the youth of Brazil to “make a mess” in an address to them during his pastoral visit to Brazil a few years ago.

What the Holy Father meant was not that young people engage in petty and self-interested acts of rebellion, but that they embrace as their own way of life the way of a disciple of the Lord Jesus- and it is the way of a disciple of the Lord Jesus that will upset routines and upend the status quo. All this upheaval is for the sake of love for Christ, a love that transforms lives and changes the world.

For St. Paul, the love of God in Christ meant challenging the prevailing culture of his time, one that was based on power and domination (which were the great values of the Roman Empire and understood as the sure and certain way to attain wealth, pleasure, and honors). In the face of the values of his time, St. Paul proclaimed the way of the Lord Jesus, a way in which power was manifested, not in domination, but in the will to love and to forgive and greater than wealth, pleasure and honors were faith, hope and love.

St. Paul was not merely a spiritual guru or social activist, he was to the depth of his being a servant of the Lord Jesus and as Christ’s servant he knew it was his mission to “make a mess” by proclaiming the truth that the way of the world (the way of Rome) was not the way that God wanted.

One of the key moves of the story of the early Church in the Book of Acts is the movement of the Church outward, from Jerusalem, and into the world. But it is not only the movement of the Church outward and into the world that is significant, but getting the Apostle Paul to Rome. Why?

The answer: Because Rome, was the center of the world, but there is another reason:

That reason is because the disciples of the Lord Jesus were on a covert operation to subvert the mighty Roman Empire from the inside. The great and mighty Roman Empire that had crucified Christ and made itself the enemy of Christians would itself be subverted by small bands of missionary disciples who went to Rome to “make a mess”, proclaiming that Jesus, not Caesar, is the world’s true ruler. Christ did not send his Christians, did not send St. Paul to Rome to promote a new kind of faith-based initiative. He sent his Christians to Rome to make a mess that would change the world.

St. Paul will arrive in Rome as Rome’s prisoner, but it turns out that it is really God’s Providence that is bringing St. Paul to Rome. His arrival will signal the beginning of the end of Rome’s power and domination.

We are the successors of those first missionary disciples. What kind of mess are we making? Are our efforts merely a tired old affirmation of the current culture’s status quo? Or are we offering to others an invitation to know and receive the way of a disciple of Jesus Christ? Or is our way the way of the world, a way like the old Roman way, the way of worldliness wrapped up in a faith-based package?

Christ continues in his Gospel to speak of mystical unity with his divine person- of becoming one with him. What does this mean?

It means loving what Christ loves and serving what Christ serves. Professing faith in Christ does not mean making that faith up to serve our interests, causes and needs. Instead is means a conscious, deliberative, intentional act of knowing Christ as he wants us to know him. Knowing Christ does not mean knowing facts or theories about him, but knowing him well enough to love what he loves and serve what he serves.

This is true Christian mysticism: loving what Christ loves and serving what Christ serves- in this we become more than just people who know something about Christ- instead, we become Christ’s disciples.