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

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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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