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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Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (January 28th, 2018)

The Church’s first scripture for today is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy means “second law”, which is a way of saying that it is a second of two law books, the other being the Old Testament Book of Leviticus.

The Book of Deuteronomy presents the content and promulgation of the Law of Moses. The Law of Moses is more than just a collection of rules, it is a description of a culture, a unique way of life, through which the Israelites displayed to one another and to the world their relationship with God. The Law of Moses as a unique way of life made the Israelites a visible sign of God’s presence in the world.

Moses was, of course, the great savior of the Israelite people, having acted as God’s instrument to free his people from bondage to the false gods of the Egyptians. However, once freed from this bondage, the Israelites needed a way to be a people, they needed an identity and a mission, and this is what the Law of Moses gave to them.

The liberation of the Israelites from bondage to the false gods of the Egyptians is described in the Old Testament Book of Exodus and in this book God declares war on the gods of the Egyptians and in terrifying displays of his power, he defeats them. These displays of power are truly frightening and impressed upon the Israelites that God was not to be provoked and his direct intervention in their lives was not be necessity something to look forward to.

Thus, in today’s scripture, the Israelites insist that they desire that God’s power and presence would be mediated for them, that someone would stand between them and the Lord and this someone would make his will known.

Moses then announces that this is precisely how God will act. The Lord will call forth prophets, like Moses, and through these prophets, he will speak. Great and lofty will be the mission of a prophet, but lest the unworthy grasp at this vocation, great and terrifying will be the judgment that falls on false prophets.

This scripture from Deuteronomy helps us to understand the significance of prophets in the Bible. Prophets are not mere predictors of the future, but they are mediators between God and his people, communicators of his will.

The biblical prophets remind the people who God is and what God wants.

But this scripture also indicates how God desires to act in our own lives and in the world- through secondary causes rather than directly. In this way God can meet us in the midst of the events and circumstances of our lives, making his presence known in what is apparently ordinary. Remember, the one, true God is not an idea or a feeling or a cosmic force, but a living, divine person, who seeks a relationship with us, and who chooses those ways in which we relate to the world and to one another as the means of making himself known.

This preference by God, to meet us in the events and circumstances of our lives, reaches its great culmination in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is God, who in his desire to share his life with us, accepts a human nature as his own and lives a real, human life. The mediation of God’s will, his presence, his power in the prophets prepares us to receive God’s will, presence and power in Jesus Christ. In the Old Testament God speaks his will through the voices of the prophets. In the New Testament God speaks his will through the human voice of Christ the Lord.

Listening to Christ we listen to God.

St. Paul speaks to us through his first Letter to the Corinthians and his words express a message that is as off putting and counter cultural today as it was two thousand years ago.

His words are for Christians, for the Church and in them he expresses that his preference is that Christians choose celibacy as an expression of their fidelity to Christ and availability for the Church’s mission.

Family life produces enough demands on the Christian and the person who accepts celibacy will be able to accept different responsibilities and dedicate themselves to important aspects of the Church’s mission that the responsibilities of a family would inhibit.

Paul insists that the commitment to celibacy should not be imposed, but that it should be freely chosen and Christians should consider as whether or not they have been chosen by God to remain unmarried so as to give a unique witness to Christ and make themselves available in extraordinary ways for the mission of the Church.

What St. Paul is saying is, as I said, no less off putting and counter cultural today as when he said it centuries ago. Remaining unmarried for the sake of Christ and the Church seems to many Christians to be so radical and extreme that it is unintelligible and perceived to be dangerous. Celibates are caricatured as sad losers or hiding some kind of pathology. For other Christians, it is merely a quaint archaism, a hold-over from another time that the Church would be well rid of, its endurance in the Church today inhibits the modernization of the Church and makes it difficult to take care of pragmatic concerns.

And yet, for centuries, it has been the willingness of men and women to choose a celibate life for the sake of Christ and the Church that has moved the Church’s mission forward and often times, take the Gospel into places that most others would not prefer to go.

Finally, in his Gospel Christ the Lord confronts the dark powers in of all places, a holy place, a place of prayer and worship, a synagogue.

Christ is not simply opposed by worldly powers, but by darker and more malevolent forces that have sought to subvert God’s plans from even before the world was created. The Gospels present Christ as actively engaged in defying these dark powers and liberating humanity from their influence. As it was then, so it is now.

The dark powers know that with the revelation of Christ in the world, their domination and influence is threatened, indeed, that it is coming to an end, and since they have been rendered powerless to harm him, they strike out against what Christ loves. Christ will protect us, but we must let him, inviting his power and presence into our lives, into our minds, into our hearts, and letting him defend us.

But what the dark powers fear most from Christ, and therefore from the Church, is the manner in which he teaches- with authority, with the truth- and not merely some worldly opinion elevated to truth, but with God’s truth- God’s word about who we are, what he wants and what will lead to human flourishing. This is the truth that Christ speaks with authority and it is the truth that Christ gives to his Church to speak on his behalf.

The dark powers prefer that the Church would contain the power of Christ’s truth, reducing it to clichés or dumbing it down and making it insipid. The dark powers would prefer that the Church would not speak with authority, but would instead reduce the truth to an idea and a feeling, a mere opinion, that has little power to change one’s life and even less power to redeem and save.

Christ will have none of this and we should have none of it too!

There is another lesson in this Gospel- one even harder to take and more frightening.

Sometimes, opposition to Christ comes, not from outside the Church but from within, from our own no to Christ, our own refusals to love and to serve. We must never forget that in each of us there lurks the potential to refuse Christ, even betray him. In this case, the dark power that opposes him is not a power outside of us, but within us. The enemy is not a demon, the enemy is ourselves.

It is our own refusals of Christ that subvert the Church more than anything else. It is our own resistance to Christ’s authority that deprives the Church of the energy needed for our mission.

Let us not forget that Christ comes into our lives to protect us from dark powers, but also, and perhaps more importantly, he comes to liberate us from our own refusals and resistance to his presence and his power.

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Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (January 29th, 2017)

 

The first of the Church’s scriptures for today is an excerpt from the book of the

Old Testament prophet, Zephaniah. Zephaniah spoke the Lord’s word of truth in

the years preceding a horrific catastrophe- the destruction of the Kingdom

established by David by the armies of Babylon. This catastrophe is foreseen by

Zephaniah, but he discerns more than destruction- God will act, the prophet

testifies, God will act to effect the restoration of his people. But this restoration

will not produce an Israel like before, worldly, pre-occupied with wealth, pleasure,

power and honors, but an Israel that will manifest to the world their relationship

with God through humility and lowliness. The mighty kingdom of David will pass

away, but the remnant, what appears to the world to be nothing and nobodies,

will be precisely the means through which God reveals himself to the world.

 

In other words, Zephaniah understood the catastrophe that the Israelites would

face, the loss of everything the world considered to be important, to be not just a

loss, but an opportunity. Stripped of worldliness, Israel might become what God

had intended his people to be- true representatives to the world of the one, living

and true God. Bereft of the distractions of wealth, pleasure, power and honor,

the Israelites might better appreciate and understand what it truly mean to be

God’s chosen people.

 

The lesson in all this for us is properly understood by correlating or connecting

what the prophet Zephaniah says to the Israelites and to the Church. The

prophet’s words are for us- for the Church (and by Church I do not mean just the

hierarchy, but all the baptized). How are we enamored by worldliness? How

much of our time and efforts is spent in pursuit of wealth, pleasure, power and

honors? And what does our attainment of worldly things contribute to our

mission as representatives of God in the world? The prophet insists that the

chosen people of God will make him known in humility and lowliness- what would

the prophet make of us? What does God make of us?

 

The Church’s second scripture is from the New Testament letter of St. Paul to the

Corinthians. In this text, the Apostle Paul speaks of a reality that appears to the

worldly to be foolish and weak, a nothing and a nobody, contemptible and

despised. What is this reality of held in such contempt by the worldly?

 

It is Christ and those who belong to him- Christ and his Church.

 

However, what appears to so worthy of the world’s contempt, is in actual fact,

God and his chosen people. In other words, the worldly have got everything

wrong- what the worldly think is power is actually their own weakness, and what

the world thinks is glory, is actually their own foolish pride. What the worldly

think matters most, doesn’t actually matter all that much at all.

 

In Christ, God reveals himself to the world in a way that confounds and confuses

all the expectations of who God is and what he is supposed to do. In Christ, God

makes himself small, in fact, he makes himself seem like a nothing or a nobody,

going so far to allow himself to be maligned, tortured and executed, all so that he

can reveal his power over death, and in doing so, show the worldly just how

empty their own claims to power really and truly are.

 

As it is with Christ, so it is with his Church. Real power, divine power in the

Church is not revealed by those who manage her wealth, preside over her

bureaucracies, or who receive the most in terms of public attention. Real power,

divine power, in the Church is foremost revealed in her Sacraments and in her

Saints- for in her Sacraments and Saints, the Church is most like Christ. The world,

indeed many in the Church, think little of either the Sacraments or the Saints,

preferring the Church’s wealth and power as their preoccupation, but true power

resides in the Sacraments and the Saints. The worldly cannot see and appreciate

this, but to those who are faithful to Christ- they see things rightly and they

appreciate and they understand.

 

Finally, the Church presents to us a select passage from the Gospel of Matthew-

and it is one of the most cherished and renowned passages in the Gospel!

 

The Gospel for today are the Lord Jesus’ own words concerning beatitude or

blessedness. In other words, how does one discern God’s favor?

 

Whom does God single out for his particular attention? Who are the ones that

God chooses to be the means through which he reveals his will and his purposes?

 

The answer to this is revealed to us by God in Christ in today’s Gospel.

 

The worldly insist that divine favor is manifested in worldly attainments- in

wealth, in pleasure, in power and in honors. The worldly prize success in terms of

worldly attainments- who is the richest, who is the most powerful, who is it that is

recognized and rewarded, who is it that lives in comfort and security? The

worldly consider such success as blessedness, as beatitude. These things

represent God’s favor and having these things is the measure, the evidence of

blessedness or beatitude.

 

But God in Christ reveals something else entirely. God in Christ identifies himself

with those who often have little of what the worldly deem to be valuable and

important. In his beatitudes, in his revelation of who is truly blessed by God and

why, Christ overturns our expectations of who has divine favor and what it really

means to be in an authentic and true relationship with God.

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Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (July 3rd, 2016)

This morning’s scripture from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah presents the city of Jerusalem personified as mother, feeding and nurturing her children. Remember, Jerusalem was not just a city, but instead it is a representation of the spiritual heart of the Israelites. It was in the temple of Jerusalem that the one, true and living God made his home and shared his life and presence with Israel, and through Israel, with the world. Isaiah imagines Jerusalem as the mother of all the Israelites.

This imagery is understood by Christians as now an image of the Church, which is not merely an institution, but is properly likened to be our mother, for it is from the Church that we are reborn in Christ through Baptism, fed and nurtured with Christ’s Word and Sacraments, and when mature in our faith, sent out as witnesses into the world.

Many Christians have sadly come to have an impersonal, institutional understanding of the Church- she is no longer a nurturing mother, but an “it”- a non profit corporation whose resources are meant to be leveraged on behalf of our causes. The “it” Church produces little in terms of life, if any life at all and cannot nurture us as no one is ever nurtured by balance sheets, actuarial tables and procedural manuals. Some prefer the “it” Church because, unlike a mother, there is no moral demand placed on us to love her in return and no reason to care for her as one would care for one’s own mother.

Instead, the Church as an “it” or as a corporation is a thing to be used, and if no longer useful, cast aside. This would not be as easy if one considered the Church to be one’s mother.

But the Church is our mother. And we are diminished when we try to make the Church into in “it” rather than accept her for who she really and truly is.

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

In this text, the Apostle Paul testifies that he boasts (celebrates) in the cross of Jesus Christ. To us, Christians, perhaps over familiar with the cross of Jesus Christ, and so often accustomed to the cross as merely a vague religious symbol or as a religious trinket, it might seem that the Apostle Paul’s boast is unintelligible. What does he mean? Why does he boast in the cross?

Remember, for St. Paul, the cross was not a universally recognized symbol of Christianity, it was an instrument of torture upon which human beings were killed in the most shaming and brutal way possible. Nothing was worse than the cross and no one in their right mind would boast in the cross- the cross provoked only derision and fear.

Not for St. Paul. And not for us. Why?

For St. Paul, the cross represents the unimaginable- God in Christ descends into shame, into suffering, into death. The cross is not simply the occasion in which Christ dies heroically, merely as a martyr for a cause, but it is a startling revelation that illuminates God’s willingness to identify himself with humanity, not just in some things, but in the midst of all the events and circumstances of life- even shame, even suffering, even death.

The entry of God into our shame, our suffering, our death, transforms the reality of these experiences forever. However these things might feel or seem, God is with us in the midst of them, and he is there with all his power to save, to transform and redeem. We may not be exempt from the experience of the hard facts of being human, but we are not alone as we make our way through them- God is with us. How do we know?

The cross. Christ’s cross.

If God can transform his cross into an occasion for hope and resurrection, we can trust in his promise, that he will not allow our shame to be without vindication, our suffering to be devoid of meaning and our death to be our final end. The Christian does not believe in a God who remains aloof and distant from the world or who engages with us as some vague cosmic force.

The Christian believes in God in our flesh, God in Christ, the one, true God who accepts a human nature and lives a real human life. The God who unites his divine nature to our own nature, and through the power of that divine nature, penetrates to the depths of all that it means to be human- even the experiences of shame, suffering and death. And because of the God in whom we believe, do we Christians, along with St. Paul, boast in the cross of Jesus Christ.

Today’s Christ presents Christ the Lord appointing seventy two disciples to go out on mission, sharing with others what they have received from Christ.

This Gospel passage mirrors Moses appointing elders for the Israelites in the Old Testament Books of Exodus and Numbers (Numbers 11:16 and Exodus 18:25). In other words, we are to understand Christ as acting as a new Moses, having founded a new kind of Israel, he calls forth from this new Israel, servants for the mission of the new Israel.

The new Israel is the Church.

Pope Francis aptly refers to Christians who are mature in their faith as being missionary disciples. We are as disciples the servants of the Lord Jesus and our service to the Lord Jesus takes the shape or form as a very specific mission.

This mission is to introduce others to the Lord Jesus and invite people to share a relationship with Christ in the Church. In other words, our mission is to increase the numbers of the new Israelites, going out, as these first 72 disciples, as missionaries.

To be a missionary seems to many Christians to indicate oversees social work in third world countries, but this is really the wrong way to think about what it means to be a missionary. Christ calls people into relationship with him in the Church so that they can be his missionaries. Which means, missionary is not the work of a privileged few in the Church, but all the baptized. Missionary is to happen, not just as social work in countries far away, but in our own neighborhoods.

The public (and private) spaces right outside the doors of this church, indeed, right outside the doors of your own home, (including the family that dwells within your home) are the people that every baptized Christian has a responsibility to introduce to Jesus Christ. This missionary task is not a job for someone else- it is your responsibility and it is Jesus Christ himself who has asked you to do it.

Are you ready for this mission?

For many years, parishes, have been considered by many Christians, as branch offices of a corporation church from which a person can receive faith based services if the requisite fees are paid and the correct procedures are followed. This understanding of the parish has dominated people’s perceptions and the spiritual poverty it has inflicted on people has left the Church in a state of precipitous decline.

The work of the Church was limited to paid professionals and the mission of the Church reduced to matriculating through institutions and programs.

All this has been contrary to the nature of the Church as presented in the great Second Vatican Council, the Magisterium (teaching authority of the Church) and the modern popes from Pius XII to Pope Francis (and most importantly, but the Lord Jesus himself). The Church is not merely an institution, but a mission, and a parish is not merely a branch office of a faith based corporation, but it is mission territory- it is the area that a community of missionary disciples has been assigned in which they work to introduce people to Jesus Christ and invite them to share a relationship with Jesus Christ in the Church.

Is this how you understand what a parish is and does? Is this how you understand who you are and what Christ wants you to do?

To be a Christian is to be a missionary disciple- and unless this is who you are and what you aspire to be, the Church will falter and fail.

But if you will to become the missionary disciples Christ desires you to be, that like the 72 chosen to be missionaries in today’s Gospel, you will witness a Church that flourishes and grows!

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Saturday of the Seventh Week of Easter (May 14th, 2016)

The story of St. Paul began in acts with a martyr. Remember, Paul is introduced to us as a persecutor of the Church who is present at the stoning of Stephen, the first of the Church’s martyrs.

The Book of Acts presents Paul as coldly approving of Stephen’s murder.

We then learn that Christ the Lord intervenes in the life of Paul in an extraordinary way, revealing his divine identity and also that his life and presence endures in this world in the Church. Paul learns that in persecuting the Church, he has set himself in opposition to God.

Christ offers Paul what he needs the most, forgiveness and the gift of another chance. Paul the Persecutor becomes Paul the Friend of Christ and his Church. Paul’s acceptance of Christ’s gift transforms him, and leads to the transformation of the world.

We are, all of us, who are the descendants of Gentiles, are also the spiritual descendants of St. Paul.

Today’s scripture from the Book of Acts presents Paul at the end of his missionary adventures. He had intended to go west, to Rome, the center of the known world, and Providence has brought him to Rome, but he arrives as a prisoner. He will be tried in Rome and executed. His story, a story that began with a martyr, will end with a martyr. Paul himself will be the martyr this time. The man who presided at the death of the Church’s first martyr will become a martyr himself.

Eventually the empire that killed St. Paul will fall. Caesar is long gone and his empire with him. It is the successor of the missionary adventure of St. Peter and St. Paul who now presides over the city of Rome, and Rome, which once sent out armies to conquer the world for Caesar, now sends forth missionaries to bring the world to Christ.

We who are the spiritual descendants of St. Paul now share in his mission. Our mission territory is not in far off lands, but here, in our own neighborhood. It is here in this our mission territory that we are supposed to do what St. Paul did, introduce people to Christ and invite them to share his gifts in the Church.

Those who know Christ and accept his gifts must share with others what they have been privileged to receive. This is how the Church flourishes and grows. This missionary work cannot be delegated away to others, but all the Baptized are to advance, as St. Paul did, the cause of Christ and his Church.

St. Paul knew that the missionary adventure would entail sacrifices, indeed he was willing to sacrifice his life. Perhaps far less is asked of us in terms of sacrifices, but we are asked to make an offering for the sake of the Church’s mission. What that sacrifice is will be particular to each Christian, but Christ will ask us for something.

At the very least Christ insists that we be open with others about our identity as his followers and that we come to know him well enough that we can credibly introduce him to others. Christian faith is a way of life that is lived publically and openly. But, you cannot share with others what you do not know, and as such, getting to know the Lord Jesus is necessary. Missionaries must know Jesus, not just vague speculations and scholarly opinions, but they must know him as one knows a friend.

We come to know the Lord Jesus in the Church. He presents his life and presence to us in his Sacraments and in the Scriptures we come to know his identity and mission. Through prayer, we make ourselves available to him, and in our service to the poor, we serve him.

It is in the Church that we become, like St. Paul, a friend of Jesus Christ, and it is from the Church that we go out into the world as missionaries and it to the Church that we bring the world to know Christ, share his gifts and become his friends.

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Thursday of the Seventh Week of Easter (May 12th, 2016)

St. Paul’s missionary adventure is about to reach a startling climax. He has been making his way towards the west, towards Rome, but now he discovers that in order to move forward, he must go back. He returns to Jerusalem, or better said, he is returned to Jerusalem.

Paul has been arrested. His testimony to Christ and proclamation of the Gospel has created enough conflict and consternation that Roman officials have placed him under arrest. In their attempts to try to make sense of the situation, they determine that it is a matter of theology, a religious matter, that should properly be settled by the leadership of the Israelite religion. And so Paul is sent to Jerusalem and a council of the leadership of the Israelite religion is assembled in an attempt to adjudicate, if not resolve, the matter.

This effort proves futile. The religious leadership of the Israelites proves that they are themselves divided about Paul and the testimony that he gives to Christ the Lord. The leaders of the Israelite religion cast more heat than light on the situation. In fact, Paul’s testimony incites such a strong reaction, that his life is endangered.

Paul will be sent to Rome, but he will not go there in freedom, but in chains.

All this might perplex us, accustomed as we are to forms of Christianity that eschew any possibility of conflict or controversy. It is likely that most of us have grown accustomed to forms of Christianity that seek to be benign, neutral, accommodating, polite, therapeutic and inclusive. These values are assumed to be normative for Christian faith and as such, render Paul’s testimony unintelligible. Paul’s witness, a witness that causes such an adverse reaction, is something that we likely find difficult to understand if not hard to believe.

The Romans were ready to accuse Paul of treason and sedition. The Israelites were ready to accuse Paul of apostasy and heresy. What was Paul saying or doing that provoked such an adverse reaction?

For the Romans, Paul’s proclamation that Christ was savior and redeemer was considered a taunt against Roman power that acclaimed Caesar as savior and redeemer. Remember, it was Caesar’s authority that had been wielded to torture and crucify Christ.

The Romans were not fools, they knew that Paul was setting up Christ as a rival to Caesar and that his testimony was revolutionary and offered an alternative to the Roman way of life, a way of life that valued above all, wealth, pleasure, power and honors. In contrast to the Roman way, Paul’s way of life proclaimed the primacy of faith, hope and love. All the established political arrangements, political arrangements that insured Roman domination, would be overturned, if what Paul was preaching were to be accepted.

For the Israelites, Paul’s testimony that Jesus is Lord meant that Jesus is the God of Israel, and must be worshipped and obeyed as such. This meant that the Israelite way of life as they had known it would be radically transformed. For the Israelites, Paul’s proclamation was also revolutionary, an upsetting and overturning of established norms and institutions.

Today’s proclamation from the Book of Acts might serve as a reminder us that thought we might insist that form of Christianity that we prefer be benign and neutral, the revolution that Paul proclaimed is not over.

Christ’s Gospel for today continues his assurances that he will be with his disciples even though it seems to the world that he has departed.

Christ is with us, literally, really and truly. He has not disappeared into the stratosphere or passed from this world never to return. Christ is with us in the Church, abiding with us, teaching us, intervening in our lives and in the world in extraordinary ways that the worldly cannot perceive. Christ is present to us, not merely as a symbol, or idea or feeling, but as a living, divine person, and his manner of being with us is called the Church.

Christ’s disciples have as their responsibility to bring people to Christ in the Church. We can be bridges or blocks, routes of access or walls in this regard. If people are not meeting Christ in the Church, the judgment falls on us, not on those who in meeting us, cannot find him.

Christ is present to us in his Church, but it is not enough for us to bask in his presence ourselves, we must make his presence known to others, inviting people to know Christ, and share with us, the gifts he offers in his Church.

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