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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Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (June 26th, 2016)

The Church’s first scripture for today is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of Kings.

The Book of Kings is one of the historical books of the Bible, describing people, events and circumstances that contributed to the rise and fall of the Kingdom of David. The Kingdom of David is important because it was the means that God used to unite the tribes of the Israelites into a single people. Strengthened by their unity, the Israelites could better accomplish their mission, which was to invite the world into a relationship with the one, true God.

The Kingdom of David was subverted from its beginning by pride and idolatry, yet despite human folly, God’s plan would be accomplished. God’s plan was fulfilled when the Christ-child was born into a remnant of the family of King David. Thus God came into the world. The Kingdom of David would fail to bring the world to God and so God would come into the world in Christ.

Throughout the history of the Kingdom of David, God would send prophets to the Israelites to remind them of their unique mission. Two of the greatest of these prophets were Elijah and Elisha. Both men were forces to be reckoned with, great wonderworkers and today’s scripture details how the prophet Elisha was summoned by God to mission.

Elisha abandons everything the world considers to be important- his family and wealth- for the sake of his mission. His focus on what the Lord wants him to do will be singular. He risks poverty and loneliness, trusting that God will provide for what he lacks. Heroic efforts always necessitate heroic commitment and true prophets are God’s heroes and no one becomes a hero without risk and sacrifice. Where an act of faith in God is accompanied by risk and sacrifice you have the possibility of a hero and the potential for a saint.

The heroism of Elijah and Elisha, indeed of all the biblical prophets endures in the Church in those men and women who eschew family and wealth for the sake of the Church’s mission. These men and women can be found in what are called religious orders, communities like the Benedictines, Franciscans and Dominicans. Without the witness of the prophets, the Israelites languished in mediocrity and lost a sense of God’s purpose for their lives. Without the witness of men and women religious, the Church falters and fails in its mission.

The Church is not merely a secular corporation or a nation state, whose goals can be accomplished by only by salaried employees and bureaucrats. God advances the mission of the Church through the efforts of men and women willing to take great risks and make great sacrifices. Inasmuch as the Church’s communities of prophets, men and women who accept a religious life of risk and sacrifice, fade and diminish, so also will the Church. As the Church fades and diminishes, so also does the love of Christ that the Church bears into a loveless world.

The mission of the Church by necessity requires heroes- men and women of risk and sacrifice. The age of God’s heroes did not end with Elijah or Elisha, but even now is the age of heroes. Who are God’s heroes right now? Who will be God’s heroes for his Church? Who is God calling into mission- into risk and sacrifice? Is it you? Remember: It is not just you who choose your mission- it is God who has chosen a mission for you.

In the Church’s second reading for today the Apostle Paul offers a distinction between a way of life which is given direction by the flesh in contrast with a way of life given direction by the spirit.

This might seem confusing. St. Paul is using the categories of “flesh” and “spirit” to indicate the difference between a way of life that is directed by God’s purpose as contrasted with a way of life that is directed by self-interested or self-indulgent purposes.

A self-interested or self-indulgent way of life tends towards conflict, antagonism and violence, whereas a truly spiritual life, one that is intentionally directed towards God’s purpose tends toward love- and by love St. Paul means willing, or desiring, the greatest good for other people.

St. Paul muses that if only we could love one another as Christ has commanded us to love, then most of the laws that become so necessary to reign in our selfish ambitions and desires, laws that can so quickly become stifling and oppressive would fall away. Loving as Christ loves opens up for us the possibility of true freedom, for freedom is not getting to do what we want, but doing what is good.

Love for the Christian is not merely an emotional experience or the fulfillment of a personal desire. Love is an act of the will, and it is willing for another person what is really and truly good. This good is not by necessity what the person wants, or even what you prefer to give, but it is what is good, it is the good that God wants.

Love reduced to emotional need or affectation will inevitably lead to antagonism and conflict. It becomes an exercise in self-interest and self indulgence. Love expressed as willing what it is truly good for other people is the manner in which God in Christ loves us and it is the way in which Christ commands us to love one another.

Christ the Lord has some words of advice for his disciples as they go out into a culture on mission. Remember, the purpose of the Church is missionary. The Church is not merely a faith-based clubhouse or an institution that we matriculate through and use to fulfill our personal goals. The Church is a missionary endeavor. The mission of the Church is to introduce people to Jesus Christ and invite people to share his unique way of life. Through the Church people meet the Lord Jesus and from the Church people receive from him the gifts he wants people to enjoy.

Christ’s advice to us as we go out into our neighborhood and introduce people to Christ is this:

Number One: Accept people’s hesitancy, even opposition, with an attitude of kindness. Do not threaten those who refuse our invitation. As Pope Benedict aptly said the Church proposes, it does not impose. We seek freedom to live our unique way of life, but our way of life must be freely chosen, it cannot be imposed on people by force or threats.

Number Two: Mission will always entail sacrifice and risk as well as an attitude of trust in God to provide what we need. You cannot, as a disciple, postpone your mission until you have everything figured out. We might have plans, but Christ’s plan takes precedence. What Christ asks of us is never all that easy, and at times outcomes may be uncertain, but as I said earlier, without risk and sacrifice there cannot be heroes and Christ wants us to be his heroes- he wants us to be his saints.

Number Three: Mission necessitates that we have a broader understanding of family than one that is limited to merely our own relatives. The Gospel expands our sense of family to include people in our lives who are not related to us, different than us, and people who we may not of our own desire want to know or become friends with.

The Church cannot by her essential nature simply be limited to those people with whom we are related, or those people whom we feel comfortable with, or those people that we prefer to associate with. Christ makes the Church his family and chooses those whom he wants to be in his household. The Church is not a sect or a club. The Church is not simply an expression of nationality or ethnicity. The Church is the people Christ has chosen, not only those people that we have chosen.

The Church is not just ours to make into whatever we want, it is a gift that we receive from Christ and this gift is a mission- a mission to introduce people to Jesus Christ and share with people the gifts that Christ wants all people to enjoy!

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Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time (June 19th, 2016)

The Church’s first scripture for today is an excerpt from the Old Testament book of the Prophet Zechariah. The prophet Zechariah proclaimed God’s truth during a time of restoration and renewal for the Israelites. A time of great trial and tribulation was coming to an end, as the Israelites were freed to return to their ancestral lands after a long and painful exile in Babylon. The Israelites had languished in Babylon as captives after the catastrophic events of 587 BC, when the Kingdom of David came to a violent end, conquered by the armies of Babylon.

The Israelites had literally lost everything in 587 BC, but during the ministry of the Prophet Zechariah, things changed in favor of the Israelites. The Israelites were going home. Thus the prophet Zechariah proclaims that God has given the Israelites a second chance and new opportunities.

 

The specific passage from the Prophet Zechariah you heard today is very mysterious. He foresees that one day the Israelites will look upon a man who is pierced, and in their grief they will recognize that God has visited his people in an extraordinary way, and from this pierced man will come forth an opportunity for communion with God.

Christians have understood the Zechariah’s words as referring to Christ. Christ is the pieced one of Zechariah’s vision, a vision that becomes reality in his cross, which is contrary to all appearances, God’s means of offering us communion with his divine life.

This might seem hard to understand, but here in your sanctuary is a monumental representation of Zechariah’s vision- the image of the crucified Savior, the pierced and wounded Christ. This image of Christ crucified is not merely a decoration, but a point of reference that helps you to understand what is happening in this place, in the Holy Communion of the Mass. It is always in relationship, in communion with the Pierced Christ that God reveals himself to us.

For it is the cross that God’s identification, his relationship with us is most profound and deep- God experiences for himself the pain of suffering and the loneliness of death. God is with us, and he is with us, not just in some things, or in pleasant things, but in all things, all the events and circumstances of life. This is the covenant of his Body and his Blood (the Pierced Christ)- it is his promise that he keeps and it is the promise that he renews each time the Mass is offered and the Blessed Sacrament is adored and received.

The Church’s second scripture is an excerpt from the Letter of St. Paul to the Galatians. In his testimony, St. Paul makes it very clear that the categories of identity that the world considers important- political, ethnic, familial, economic, cultural are not as important as the identity that is given to us through our Baptism, the identity that comes from being in relationship with Christ.

All the worldly categories that we prize and deem so important will all one day fall away. When we meet the Lord Jesus face to face, all the worldly markers of identity that we cherish and value will merit barely a fraction of a second of the Lord’s attention. He will not see us in accord with the identities that we construct out of our worldly categories, but will know us and measure us and judge us only in reference to the identity that he has given us- that being a son and daughter of God.

This is not pious boilerplate. It is a revelation. In the end, when each of us comes to meet Christ face to face, he will not ask us what political party we belonged to, or what university we attended, or what degrees we attained. He will not ask us how much wealth we created or the status of the corporations we owned or worked for. Christ will not ask us our nationality or ethnicity or our family name. What he will be interested in is what we did with the gifts he bestowed on us, the opportunities he placed before us to love and to serve- and most importantly he will demand to know whether or not the Baptism he gave us was appreciated and taken seriously.

We might not take our Baptism seriously, reducing it to merely a quaint custom, convince ourselves nothing much is at stake in our Baptism, but God in Christ takes it very seriously, because it is the only identity we take with us from this life to the next. Any identity that we have in this world passes away in the world to come- except that identity that comes from our Baptism.

The Christian knows this, and for this reason, the Christian does not cling to worldly identities that are passing away, but holds fast to the identity Christ gives to us in Baptism- the identity of being a beloved member of God’s household, a member of his family, a brother or sister of the Lord Jesus- a son or daughter of God.

This is the meaning of the Apostle Paul’s testimony, his insistence that for those who are baptized in Christ, all are one, and the worldly distinctions we make absolute and cling to, are all just passing away.

Much of the hard work of being a disciple is letting go of worldly identities and coming to fully accept our Baptismal identity, our relationship with Christ.

Christ begs a question of his disciples in his Gospel, and in begging a question of his first disciples- he begs the same question of us- who do you say that I am?

Note that Christ has only cursory interest in what others have to say about him. He is not interested in a disinterested answer, the kind of answer a journalist or historian or biographer would contrive.

Instead he insists that each of his disciples answer the question personally- and further, he indicates that there are many wrong answers and only one answer that is really and truly right. Our idea about him, or our opinions or our feelings do not make him who he is. He is always boldly and serenely himself. Christ is asking us to profess our faith and to tell the truth. Who do we think that he is- and in terms of what we think, are we getting him right or just making things up, or worse, remaining passive and indifferent.

Do we know who the Lord Jesus really and truly is?

Now mind you, the question is not what we know ABOUT the Lord Jesus, but whether or not we know him personally- as one knows a friend. To be in relationship with Jesus Christ is to be a friend of God. It is only in this relationship of friendship that the fullness, the grace and truth of the Lord Jesus is revealed.

If we truly know Christ as a friend, then we can introduce him to others, and in our willingness to introduce others to Christ, the Church can flourish and grow.

But if we do not know Christ as one knows a friend, then the Church will falter and fail, for the purpose of the Church is to serve as a means of introducing people to Jesus Christ.

You see, the Church is not merely an institution we fund with our surplus wealth or a private religious club of our own making. The Church is the means that God in Christ has chosen to make himself known. The Church is first and foremost, the way Christ chooses to introduce himself to people. It is through the Church that a relationship with Jesus Christ happens and it is relationship to Christ and the Church that one becomes a Christian.

Therefore, being a Christian, is not about being a privileged recipient of faith based services or matriculating through Catholic-themed institutions. You can do these things and still not be a Christian- or worse, be a bad Christian.

Being a Christian, in faith and in truth, is about knowing Jesus Christ as one knows a friend and inviting others to know him too!

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Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (June 12th, 2016)

The Church’s first scripture for Sunday Mass today is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of 2 Samuel.

The Book of Samuel is one of the most remarkable books in the Bible. It details the rise and fall of the Kingdom of David, providing details about the Israelite Kingdom ruled by David and his successors. Because it deals with real people and real events, the Book of Kings can be rightly described as a history book. But more than a history book it is also a brilliant work of literature, a study in human character and desire. But more than a history book or a work of literature it is also a magnificent theological statement, presenting the truth that God is not merely a distant, cosmological force, but an active and interested presence in all of human affairs- religious, yes, but also politics, economics, art, indeed all of culture.

(If you like “Game of Thrones” you will like the Old Testament Book of Kings).

Today’s excerpt from the Book of Samuel presents a dramatic confrontation between King David and the prophet Nathan. David had committed adultery and, to cover up his crime and because he desired to marry another man’s wife, a woman by the name of Bathsheba, he had the woman’s husband murdered in an elaborate scheme. The man he had betrayed and murdered had been a trusted advisor and loyal friend.

Through his actions, David had indicated that he had succumbed to the great temptation that afflicts all men and woman of worldly power- this temptation is to act as if you are accountable to no one for your actions and exempt from any standard of justice other than the standard you create for yourself. David the King’s actions demonstrated that he believed that he was accountable to only himself- not the law, not the prophets, not even God!

And Nathan sets David right. He confronts David, exposes his treachery and then places a kind of curse upon him and his house. The violence and treachery he had inflicted on the man he murdered would be visited upon his own family. In the prophet Nathan’s words “the sword shall never leave your house”.

Overcome with guilt, David repents of his crime and his sin. Nathan assures David that God is merciful, but that David, because of his treachery, will have to endure troubling consequences for his actions, and only through enduring these consequences can the wrong he has done be set right.

The lesson?

Worldly power is dangerous and easily gives way to destruction if we succumb to the same temptation that afflicted David the King. If we come to believe we are accountable to no one but ourselves, if morality becomes merely an exercise in self-interest, if we come to believe that we are above the law, and not even answerable to God, our arrogance will give rise to destruction- if not only for ourselves but also for others.

God is not mocked and his creation bends in accord with his justice. We can break his commandments, but we cannot evade the consequences of our defiance. We may, in the immediacy, receive some benefit from breaking God’s commandments, but in the long term, God’s justice prevails.

David the King’s treachery would haunt his family for generations. In fact, in the great drama of the Book of Kings, it is David’s treachery against an innocent man that is the beginning of the fall of his Kingdom.

Our second reading for today is an excerpt from a New Testament book, St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians.

In this text, St. Paul testifies that he has been delivered from something that he call “the law” and his deliverance from this “law’ has made possible a new kind of life- a way of life that he describes as a relationship with Jesus Christ.

It is through this new way of life that St. Paul has been given the opportunity to become ever more and more like Christ, and through this opportunity his life has been given a meaning and purpose that he had not dared dream was possible. St. Paul declares that what he describes has changed his life for the better and that what he has received is God’s greatest gift.

The “law” that St. Paul has been delivered from is his former way of life. St. Paul had been a violent man, whose zeal for the righteousness of his causes had made him cruel. His cause had been the destruction of the Church. Yes, in his former life, St. Paul had been a persecutor of the Church. He had hated Christ and hated Christians, but Jesus Christ intervened in his life in an extraordinary way. The life of meaning and purpose that Jesus Christ gave St. Paul was a life of friendship with Christians. Christ had given St. Paul a new way of life called the Church.

It is the purpose of the Church to introduce people to Jesus Christ and invite people to share friendship with Christ in the Church. Once people know Christ, and come to love him, and are then willing to serve him, then they receive the extraordinary gift of becoming like Christ. If fact, this is the point, the purpose, of the Church- to help people become ever more like Jesus Christ. Of course, this will not happen if we construe the purpose of the Church to be that of a clubhouse or institution, or if evade the invitation to know Christ as a friend, to love him and to serve him. Stop thinking of the Church as a thing that you manage and control. Start thinking about the Church as a way of life that gives meaning and purpose to your life.

If you are a Christian, your mission is to share with others what Christ has given to you. What Christ gives you is a unique way of life called the Church. If you are a Christian, your mission is to become like Christ yourself, so that you can help others to become like Christ too!

Today’s Gospel presents an extraordinary scene in which Christ demonstrates that what he desires most of all for those who have sinned is that they repent and find in him the gift of forgiveness and with that forgiveness, a second chance and a gift of peace.

The Gospel presents a contrast between a Pharisee and a woman who is described as a “sinner”, a designation that likely denotes that the woman was a prostitute.

Pharisees were members of a religious movement that emphasized keeping the commandments of God will meticulous and intense zeal. This particular Pharisee in the story, a man named Simon, evidently believes that his zeal for keeping God’s commandments makes him morally superior than others, especially those people, like the woman, who evidently do not keep God’s commandments.

It seems that Simon the Pharisee has divided the world into those who keep the commandments and those who don’t. In his estimation there are commandment keepers and commandment breakers and it is to his credit that he is a commandment keeper. As for those who are commandment breakers, Simon only has contempt. Note that Simon thinks that commandment breakers are so repellent to him that merely touching one is to be contaminated by their sin!

Christ sees through the pretense of Simon’s apparent virtue. Simon knows the commandments of God, he even observes them, but he doesn’t know the God who gave the commandments or the purpose for which he gave them.

God gave us the commandments as a means of rescuing us from misery, the misery we impose on ourselves when we act contrary to God’s will for our lives. Following the commandments leads to human flourishing and that is what God wants for us all- he wants us to flourish.

But what about those people who break the commandments? What does God want for them?

Simon thinks God wants commandment breakers shunned. Christ, who is God, reveals shunning sinners to be precisely what (he) God doesn’t want. God wants sinners to repent, to be forgiven, to be restored. If this happens, he wants sinners to experience mercy, not scorn.

God in Christ rejoices that the woman who is a sinner has repented. Simon, who is zealous in his concern for keeping God’s commandments, should too.

Today’s Gospel evokes the meaning of Pope Francis’ words when he referred to the Church as a “field hospital”. Sin wounds us and what those wounds need is healing. In a world in which there is not only such resistance, but also ignorance of God’s commandments, the walking wounded are all around us.

For some, the wounds of sin are so catastrophic, that they seem to be not only the walking wounded, but like unto the walking dead!

If the walking wounded come to the Church, come to field hospital, will they meet in us the scorn of Simon or the healing power of Christ?

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Sixth Sunday of Easter (May 1st, 2016)

Our first scripture is an excerpt from the New Testament book entitled Acts of the Apostles. Remember, the Church presents select passages from the Acts of the Apostles at Sunday and daily Masses throughout the season of Easter. Whereas the Gospels present the one, true God, who reveals himself in the human body of the Lord Jesus, the Book of Acts presents the revelation of the God in Christ in a new and surprising kind of body- a body called the Church.

Today’s excerpt from the Book of Acts presents the early Church as beset by a conflict. The earliest disciples are struggling to understand the criteria by which one knows a person to be a Christian. Was it criteria established by worldly custom and culture or something deeper or more significant? Is the Church meant to impose on all Christians the dictates the of the Law of Moses, for it was that Law that established the criteria by which people could be identified as Israelites, and, if the Church is the new Israel, might those criteria also apply to Christians?

If the Church imposed the Law of Moses, then all male Christians would have to undergo circumcision and all Christians would have to observe the details of the Law, particularly in regards to which foods were acceptable to eat and which foods were not.

Why was circumcision important for Israelites? Because it literally marked one’s identity as an Israelite in a man’s flesh and indicated that being an Israelite was linked to the very act of procreation- one became an Israelite by being a physical descendent of an Israelite.

The Laws regarding foods were important as they pertained to a reality basic and essential to life and human association. Meals are often in our culture solitary affairs, but in the ancient world, meals were familial, cultural, and public acts. Through the associations of whom one ate with and what kinds of foods you ate with others, you demonstrated who you are. This perspective gives further insight into the popular maxim- “you are what you eat” and extends it further to say “you are whom you eat with”.

The Apostles understood that God in Christ has reconstituted Israel, changed and transformed it, and in doing so opened up Israel to those who were not born as Israelites and did not share their basic customs, like the dietary requirements of the Law of Moses. One could become as Israelite without as a pre-condition, that one would have to have been raised from birth within Israelite culture.

Identity, therefore, would be established, not by circumcision, but by Baptism, and the essential dietary requirement would not be what foods and with whom one ate dinner with, but the sacred meal of the Eucharist.

This makes sense to us because it is the reality we have always known, but it was a reality that was absolutely new to the earliest disciples.

The early Church was comprised mostly of cultural Israelites, men who had been circumcised and men and women who had been raised from birth in the particular culture of the Israelites. These Israelite disciples of the Lord Jesus, many of whom who had likely known the Lord Jesus personally, found this identity question to be vexing- hard to understand and difficult to believe. The Apostles had to help the early Church understand that the criteria for understanding Christian identity were Christ the Lord’s criteria- not culture or custom, no matter how ancient or revered.

For Christ the Lord, one’s identity as a Christian “happens” through Baptism, through a profession in faith and Christ and willingness to serve him… Identity as a Christian “happens” through our participation in the Eucharist. Sacraments are essentials to Christian identity, not customs. The Christian makes an act of faith in Christ, not an act of faith in culture.

The lesson here is that while culture and custom are significant and helpful, and that while both can work to advance the mission of the Church, neither custom or culture has the power to make us Christians.

Christ makes Christians. A Christian is chosen by Christ and the sign of Christ’s election is Baptism. No one becomes a Christian simply because of a historical association of one’s ethnicity or family or nation with the Church. As I said, it is Christ who makes Christians, not custom or culture.

The second scripture for today is an excerpt from the Book of Revelation. We have been privileged to hear select passages from the Book of Revelation throughout the Easter season. The Book of Revelation is the last book of the Bible and it is certainly one of the strangest and most controversial.

I have been presenting these excerpts from the Book of Revelation to you as providing a view of both worldly and heavenly realities from the perspective of God. We are seeing things as God sees things, and this is why what the author of the Book of Revelation describes seems so fantastic and incredible. How things look from our perspective is extremely narrow. God sees so much more than what we can see.

Last week we heard from the Book of Revelation about how God in Christ understands his relationship with the Church- likening it to the relationship of a bridegroom and bride, of husband and wife. This week, God’s perspective shifts and we see another vision of the Church- in this vision the Church is likened to a city.

What are the characteristics of a city? Cities are about relationships, teeming with different people and interests. Cities are full of politics, culture, art, architecture,religion, economics and law. Cities are full of ingenuity, creativity, and all sorts of activities. All these characteristics of cities are also divinely ordained characteristics of the Church.

You see, the Church is not an escape from all those elements through which humanity expresses itself, all those elements that constitute human experience, but instead, the Church is the elevation, the sanctification of all what makes us human.

The vision of the Church as city means that the Church cannot simply be a private club, theological debating society, or spiritual discussion group. Nor can the interests of the Church be limited to only the parochial or the diocesan.

The Church is public, not private and the reality of the Church is divinely ordained to impact all human endeavors and relationships. The Church is, from God in Christ’s perspective, a city, and when we try to reduce God’s vision of the Church and seek to accommodate God’s perspective to our own narrowness, then the Church falters and fails.

Finally, the Gospel for today…

Christ the Lord testifies that his disciples will receive the Holy Spirit.

What is the Holy Spirit?

The Holy Spirit is the love that is shared between the Father and the Son, and by love, what is meant is the relationship of the Father and the Son.

So what Christ testifies that his disciples will receive is his own relationship with his Heavenly Father. Christ intends, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to make us the children of God!

The lesson? Your dignity as a person does not come from the worldly attainments of wealth, pleasure, power and honor. Your dignity as a person does not come from citizenship, political affiliation, race or ethnicity. Your dignity as a human person does not come from the law.

Your dignity as a person comes from the Holy Spirit- that relationship that makes you God’s son or daughter.

Also, Christ testifies that his disciples will have peace. What does he mean by this?

The peace that Christ gives is confidence in his power to overcome sin, death and the devil.

Sin, death and the devil have power over us inasmuch as we fear all three. This fear can paralyze us and tempt us to believe they are more powerful than God. Christ the Lord reveals in his resurrection that God is more powerful that sin, death and the devil, and they only power they have over us is the power we surrender to them.

Christ is God. God proves to us in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus that his power infinitely exceeds that of sin, death and the devil and he promises that those who follow him, he will make available a gift of an uncanny and overwhelming peace, a confidence that comes from the act of faith that sin can be forgiven, death can be overcome and the devil can be defeated.

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Fifth Sunday of Easter (April 24th, 2016)

The four Gospels testify to the marvelous and mysterious revelation that God has accepted a human nature and lived a real human life. Each of the four Gospels provides a unique vantage point, a perspective that imparts to us a vision of the revelation of God in Christ- God, who has, as I just stated, accepted a human nature and lived a real, human life.

What this means is that God, the one, true God presented himself to the world in a body, a human body- the human body of Jesus of Nazareth.

Through this human body of Jesus, God revealed the truth about himself, but also revealed the reason why he created us. He further revealed a way of life through which we could show ourselves to be his friends. All this is what the testimony of the Gospels is about, but most importantly, the four Gospels are about who the Lord Jesus really and truly is- not just a prophet or teacher or activist or politician, but God.

Once you “get” this, that Jesus is God, you “get” what the Gospels are all about. The Gospels are testimony, distilled into stories, from people whose lives were changed because they encountered in Christ, not just a great man, but the one, true and living God! That was the experience that surprised them, shocked them and changed their lives.

The four Gospels present testimony to the revelation of God in Christ as he presents himself in his human body. The New Testament book that serves as a follow up book of the four Gospels, called “Acts of the Apostles” presents testimony to the revelation of God in Christ in a new kind of body, the body of Christ called the Church.

The Church presents select excerpts from the book called “Acts of the Apostles” throughout the season of Easter at Sunday and daily Mass, and each of these readings from the book of Acts is intended to help us to understand how the Church is a marvelous and mysterious encounter with Jesus Christ.

Throughout the Book of Acts, God in Christ intervenes in extraordinary ways to bring people into the Church and also, he begins to act through the Church to continue his mission. The Book of Acts presents the Church as saying and doing the kinds of things that the Lord Jesus said and did.

The point is this: God in Christ has not disappeared, but he remains really present and available to the world in the Church. If the revelation of God in a human body was a surprise, the continued revelation of God in Christ in the Church is also a great surprise.

It remains a surprise to many Christians, as the Church has become, not the marvelous and mysterious Body of the Lord Jesus living and acting in the world, but merely an institution or ethnic identity or social club. Now there is nothing inherently wrong with these kinds of things, but when this is all that the Church becomes, we are getting the Church wrong and missing the point.

The Book of Acts insists that the Church is, marvelously, mysteriously, Christ’s Body- the continuation of the revelation of God, and as such, the Church is a route of access to God and the means by which God offers the world a relationship with himself, and it is through this relationship with Christ in the Church that we become God’s friends.

There is a lot to think about and pray about in what I have just said about God, Christ and the Church. It all may seem hard to understand or difficult to believe, but what I have just said is significant as we live at the time when people, even Christians, are struggling to understand why the Church is necessary or important.

Often times, in our own struggles to make sense of the Church, we reinforce the reduction of the Church to an institution or ethnic identity or a social club. We do this, not out of malice, but because these things are accessible and easy ways for us to understand. But the fact of the matter is that those categories are not what the Church really and truly is or meant to be.

The Church really and truly is an encounter with Jesus Christ, living, present, and active in our lives and in the world. This is why the Church is important and why the Church is necessary.

That’s the lesson that all these scripture readings from Acts of the Apostles are all about.  If the revelation of Christ in the Church seems blocked for us or obscured, maybe this is because we have grown accustomed to thinking about the Church as if it is just an institution, or ethnic identity or social club, and because he are paying so much attention to these things, that we are missing revelation of God in Christ and the relationship that he offers to us in the Church.

The second scripture for Mass today is an excerpt from the New Testament Book of Revelation- one of the strangest, and most often mis-understood books in the Bible.

The Book of Revelation presents what human history looks like from the vantage point of God, and since God sees the deepest meaning and purpose of our lives and experience that we often cannot or refuse to see, what is described in the Book of Revelation seems strange, if not unintelligible to us.

Today’s scripture from the Book of Revelation presents what the Church looks like from God’s perspective, how God sees and understands the Church, and how God sees and understands the Church is not as an institution, ethnic identity or social club, but as his bride, as his spouse, as his wife.

The lesson here is that God understands the Church as a relationship, a relationship with us that is best likened to the love that is shared by a husband and wife.

That’s how God in Christ understands his own relationship with the Church. It might be helpful if we used God’s understanding as the means by which we come to understand our own relationship with the Church.

Finally, Christ, in his Gospel proclaims the primacy of love in terms of his relationship with us, and our relationships with one another.

Love is a nebulous term in our culture, and it has come to mean affirming a person as they are or as giving a person what they desire.

Christ does not intend any of this when he speaks of love. What Christ means by love is willing the good of another person. Love is willing the good for another person. It is not just affirming a person as they are, but willing for that person what is good. It is not just giving a person what they desire, but giving them what is good.

The greatest good we could offer anyone is to make our life a sacrifice on their behalf. This is true love- to make of your life a sacrifice for someone else.

This is what Christ does for us. And this is what Christ asks us to do for one another.

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Fourth Sunday of Easter (April 17th, 2016)

Throughout the season of Easter the Church proclaims excerpts from the New Testament book entitled Acts of the Apostles. The Book of Acts details the extraordinary events that followed after the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and how the revelation of the Lord Jesus was transformed from an encounter with the earthly body of his human nature to an encounter with his life and presence in the Church.

You see, the Church bears the life and presence of the Lord Jesus into the world- this is the purpose of the Church. What is the Church? The Church is the extension or the continuation of the Incarnation in the world, in space and time. On a practical, day to day level, this means that the Church continues the mission of the Lord Jesus. In other words, we Christians should be doing the kinds of things that the Lord Jesus did. Therefore, if we are unsure as to what the Church, indeed this parish, should be doing, we should pay careful attention to the descriptions of what the Lord Jesus did as they are presented in the Gospels.

We Christians don’t have to invent things for the Church to do or make up causes for the Church to align itself with- what the Lord Jesus did, his mission, sets our agenda and determines our actions.

Today’s excerpt from the Book of Acts presents the Apostle Paul and his friend Barnabas on mission- what are they up to? They are inviting people to know Christ and share a relationship with him in the Church.

This is the perennial task of Christians in every age of the Church’s life. It is not a mission that belongs simply to an elite corps of elites. Nor is it a mission that can be delegated away to a caste of ministerial professionals. All Christians are expected to do what Paul and Barnabas are doing- invite people to know Christ and share a relationship with him in the Church. As God in Christ went out into the world so now the Church must go out into the world. The Church is not a private clubhouse or a religious discussion group that remains sequestered behind closed doors. The Church is a missionary movement.

Each generation must come to know Christ for the first time and come to know him from Christians who already have a relationship with him. God has no grandchildren. God only has children. Faith in the Lord Jesus and sharing his life in the Church is not akin to an ethnic identity that is simply passed on through the accidents of our birth. We become the children of God by coming to know Christ and giving our lives over to him.

People do not come to know Christ by osmosis. People come to know Christ because disciples like Paul or Barnabas are intentional in their efforts to introduce Christ to others. If this does not happen, the Church falters in its mission and the Church diminishes. Maintaining faith themed institutions is not enough and recent history has forcefully demonstrated that faith themed institutions will fail if they are not supported by bold, creative, intentional efforts to introduce people to Jesus Christ and invite them to share a relationship with him in the Church.

The Church’s second scripture for today is an excerpt from the New Testament Book of Revelation. The Book of Revelation presents human history from God’s perspective, this is why the descriptions of things in the Book of Revelation are so strange, even frightening. God sees things differently than how we see things. The Book of Revelation is making this point to us.

The Book of Revelation has a particular and beautiful description of God in Christ, of the Lord Jesus- he is the Lamb of God.

What does this mean? Many Christians think that the Lord Jesus is the Lamb of God because they imagine him to be sweet or gentle. Thinking of the Lord Jesus this way is comforting to many people, but it isn’t what the scriptures or our prayers intend when they identify the Lord Jesus as the Lamb of God.

Christ is the Lamb of God because he makes his life a sacrifice for us, a sacrifice that affords us a relationship with God. The Lamb is a reference to the lambs that were sacrificed in the temple of Jerusalem. The purpose of the sacrifice of these lambs was to afford the Israelites a relationship with the God. The Book of Revelation is saying that Christ the Lord now fulfills this purpose.

We receive the sacrifice of the Lamb of God whenever we participate in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is Christ, the Lamb of God, who offers us his life so that we might have a relationship with God. We do not, in the Eucharist, receive merely a symbol of Christ, but Christ’s very life. Nor is the Eucharist merely a symbol of the community’s values or self expression- the Eucharist is the life of the Lord Jesus, given to us so that we might have through his sacrifice, a relationship with God.

In his Gospel, Christ the Lord speaks of his identity and mission as a shepherd, insisting that his sheep, know who he is, and knowing who he is, follow him.

It is likely that few, if any of us, here today have much if any real life experience with shepherds or sheep, especially the shepherds of the first century culture that the Lord Jesus knew.

Most likely, if we do have an image of shepherds, it is a romanticized understanding of rolling green pastures underneath quiet, friendly skies.

This has little or anything to do with what the Lord Jesus is referring to, when he claims the identity and mission of a shepherd or identifies his followers as being his sheep.

Christ is employing an image of God, as God describes himself in the Old Testament as the shepherd of his people, the Israelites. If you look into the Old Testament at the image of God as shepherd, you will discover that God declares himself to be the true shepherd of Israel over against false shepherds who rather than leading the people to God, are leading the people away from God.

These false shepherds can be false gods or false religions, or they can be political, cultural, economic or religious leaders who rather than leading people to God, offer them empty promises regarding the attainment of wealth, pleasure, power and honors.

False shepherds make attractive promises, but they ultimately lead people to destruction and despair.

Christ the Lord is saying that he is God, the true shepherd, and his intention to is guide and protect his people from false shepherds. We should listen to Christ, and our relationship with him will show itself in our willingness to do so.

Listening to Christ means that we are willing to hear what he has to tell us, even when what he has to say is difficult to believe or hard to understand. Listening to Christ means learning from him what he wants us to be and to do.

Listening to Christ opens us can be off putting, even frightening, because he will more often than not, insist that we change, change our minds, our way of thinking and acting. Listening to Christ opens us up to the very real possibility that he will ask us to do things that will change our way of life. Being willing to listen to Christ and being willing to change our way of life is what it means to be his disciple. It is how a disciple demonstrates that they truly know Christ and follow him.

Sheep that would not listen to their shepherd were in danger of being lost. Sheep that listened to false shepherds were in danger of being destroyed. What do we risk when we will not listen to the Lord who is our shepherd?

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