Tuesday, April 26, 2016

6th Sunday of Easter

Peace be with you.  These were the first words Jesus spoke to the Apostles when he appeared to them in the upper room after his resurrection.  They are also the same words used by the Bishop after having been “sealed with the Holy Spirit” during our Confirmation.  But what does this “peace” mean?  As our readings will show, it means allowing space for the Holy Spirit to work around us, within us, and through us…

Acts 15:1-2, 22-29
Psalm 67:2-3, 5, 6, 8
Revelation 21:10-14, 22-23
John 14:23-29

How does the Church handle a problem?  This is the challenge faced in our first reading from Acts of the Apostles, which gives us a summary of the Council of Jerusalem.  The question they need to address:  Do Gentile converts need to be circumcised?  Circumcision was established under the covenant with Abraham, and codified in the Mosaic Law.  Though circumcision was traditionally done during infancy, it also was a requirement for any male who was converting to Judaism.  So what of those Gentiles converting to the Church?  Put another way, looking at the larger ramifications, did a person have to become a Jew in order to become a Christian?  The Apostles learn of some others who were teaching that this was necessary, while others felt otherwise, so all the Apostles and presbyters are called to Jerusalem to discuss the issue, coming to the conclusion that this was an “undue burden” that was not necessary.  Our Psalm response, “O God, let all the nations praise you!” reflects the ideals of the Jerusalem Council… that God’s salvation is open to everyone.

Our second reading continues our study of the Book of Revelation.  Last week’s passage showed us a new heaven and a new earth.  This week we are shown a vision of the new Jerusalem… with gated for all the twelve tribes of Israel, built on the foundation of the twelve Apostles.  Most significantly is that this new shining city does not have a temple, because the Lord now lives among us.  It should be noted that this vision of a new Jerusalem would have been quite compelling to those who first read this book because it comes to us at a time not long after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

Our Gospel from John continues with a passage from the Last Supper discourse.  Here Jesus establishes the root of our Trinitarian belief by his connection to the Father and the Holy Spirit.  By loving Jesus, God the Father will return that love, and to help us stay in that love Jesus sends us the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to support us and guide us.  In this passage you will also find the source of one of the central phrases used in our Eucharistic prayer:  “Peace I leave you;  my peace I give you.”  Jesus says this just before going to his death, made all the more poignant when we hear him say, “Peace be with you” when he appears in the upper room after the Resurrection.

Final thoughts:
The Council of Jerusalem is a significant moment for us as Church.  While much can be said for the questions discussed and their subsequent outcomes, perhaps the most significant element is how the Church addressed these issues:  They gathered as Church and came to consensus.  It is said that this ancient pre-ecumenical council set the model for all subsequent councils.  If the Apostles followed Roman protocol, James or Peter could have made the decision and issued a decree.  If they followed Jewish protocol they could have left the decision to the king or the governing body in Jerusalem.  Instead they all gathered, the twelve Apostles and all the leaders (presbyters) of the established Christian communities, and discussed the issues as a group, allowing the Holy Spirit to guide them in their deliberations.

It is a shame that the common impression of Catholicism (even among some Catholics) casts role of the Pope like that of a king or emperor, with the rest of us dutiful (mindlessly) hanging on his every word as if it were a command from on high.  While there may be some historical precedent for this view, nothing could be further from the truth.  At its heart, the Church still addresses issues much like they did at the Council of Jerusalem:  by the consensus of her leaders.  Though the Holy Father holds a certain primacy as the Bishop of Rome, his authority still rests on the collegiality of the Bishops and those fellow cardinals who elected him.  And they all rely on the Holy Spirit to guide them with the loving peace that Christ instills in us.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

5th Sunday of Easter

“Behold, I make all things new.”  These were God’s words to the prophet Isaiah.  These were the words spoken by Jesus to his disciples.  These were the words that drove the disciples onto the street to spread the good news.  How fitting that in our celebration of Spring and Easter has our readings looking at something new:

Acts 14:21-27
Psalm 145:8-9, 10-11, 12-13
Revelation 21:1-5a
John 13:31-33a, 34-35

Our first reading from Acts of the Apostles has us continuing our journey with Paul and Barnabas as they continue to spread the good news.  But not all has gone well.  While they continue to gather followers, they also find themselves literally being dragged out of some towns.  After a successful stay in Derbe, we rejoin Paul and Barnabas as they are now heading home returning through the cities they had visited earlier.  As they return they find communities of believers and appoint elders to lead them.  They eventually make their way back to report to all the disciples how they had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.  This is indeed something new, and the joy they brought with them is heard in our Psalm as we sing, “I will praise your name for ever, my king and my God.”

Our second reading also speaks of something new as we continue our study of the Book of Revelation.  This week’s passage gives us John’s memorable vision of a new heaven and a new earth.  The great battle between good and evil is over!  God has prevailed and with it comes a new start.  God now dwells with his people and there is no more death.  What was has been wiped way, making everything new, and as followers of Christ, we are part of this new heaven and new earth.

Continuing our theme, our Gospel from John gives us the New Commandment:  Love one another.  How simple.  All the 10 commandments… all of what is in the Mosaic Law, parsed down to this one simple rule.  So important was this teaching that all the four gospels mention it, but only John’s version gives us something new to consider.  After instructing them to “love one another,” Jesus says, “This is how I will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  In other words, Jesus is teaching that our actions will speak louder than any words we could use.  All those who love will be counted among his disciples.  It’s one thing to profess one’s discipleship to Christ, but true discipleship is measured by one’s actions.  And this test isn’t just for those who profess to follow Christ.  With this call the doors of salvation have been blown open for anyone who can find it in themselves to love one another.

Final thoughts:
Some of you may be aware of a new miniseries on the National Geographic Channel, The Story of God with Morgan Freeman.  This six part mini-series explores various cultures (ancient and modern) on their belief in God.  Freeman takes an enlightened and balanced approach that both believers and non-believers should appreciate.  Episode 2 is titled “Apocalypse.”  It addresses a topic that crosses religious boundaries more readily than you might think.  The entire episode is good, but I found its closing lines most profound as it summarizes our Catholic perspective on the Apocalypse and the entirety of the Book of Revelation.

Mr. Freeman says:
I set out to understand what the apocalypse means to people of many different faiths.  I had always thought of it as a… all destroying doomsday, but I’ve discovered that some people yearn for the apocalypse.  They want to be free of injustice.  They want to escape suffering.  They want a better world.

“Apocalypse”.  It’s a Greek word meaning “lifting the veil.”  It’s not about war, it’s about enlightenment.  It’s not about death.  It’s a state of mind and heart that helps us to see the truth.  Not some far off day of judgment.  It’s here.  It’s now.

I couldn’t have said it better…

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

4th Sunday of Easter (Good Shepherd Sunday)

The image of Jesus as “the good shepherd” is a popular and beloved representation of Christ.  Even for those of us long separated from this type of agrarian life, the image of a shepherd as someone who is both leader and caretaker is one that we can easily understand.  It’s an image for our Lord that has been used often by the prophets, none have done it better than John’s gospel which we read today, leading us to refer to this day as “Good Shepherd Sunday.”

Acts 13:14, 43-52
Psalm 100:1-2, 3, 5
Revelation 7:9, 14b-17
John 10:27-30

Our first reading from Acts of the Apostles has us traveling with Paul and Barnabas’ on their first journey to Antioch..  Their first visit to the Synagogue went so well that they are invited to come back the following week.  Our narrative opens with their next visit, only this time their reception is mixed.  This rejection by some of the Jews drives Paul to take their message to the Gentiles in Antioch, where it is much better received.  The disaffected Jews manage to get the Apostles ejected from the city, thus giving rise to the phrase “shaking the dust from their feet” and moving on.  The passage tells us that the Apostles “were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit.”  That joy is reflected in our Psalm as we sing “We are his people, the sheep of this flock.”

Paul and Barnabas were happy because they believed in Christ and his message, and were able to spread that joy to others causing them to believe.  Still, as our story says, not everyone was convinced.  Rather than argue, however, the Apostles chose to move on, and continue to spread their message to those more willing to listen.

Our second reading continues our study of the Book of Revelation.  This week’s passage shows us a great multitude of people, all races and nations, dressed in white robes.  These are those who believe, and they are lead off to “springs of life-giving water.”  This particular vision of John’s resonates deeply with those in the RCIA process, for it depicts baptism to new and everlasting life for these “elect” of God.  For those who have made it through difficult times, God provides comfort and “wipe away every tear.”

Our gospel from John reiterates this promise of eternal life.  In this very short but very significant passage, Jesus says “My sheep hear my voice.”  Those of us who believe know his voice and follow him, and in doing so eternal life is theirs.  Further, as it is God himself that has lead them to Jesus, no none can take them away.  This particular passage comes to us at a fairly significant time in Jesus’ journey, placed just after the story of the man born blind, but just before the raising of Lazarus… that last great miracle before his Passion.

Final thoughts:
For as much as we love the image of Jesus as the good shepherd, that “warm fuzzy” tends to quickly fade when we realize that WE are the sheep.  We are the SHEEP?  Wait a minute… that doesn’t sound like a good thing, does it?  I mean, sure, even with the likes of Jesus being our shepherd, it’s still hard to escape this understanding that we’re cast as just “dumb animals.”

Throughout literary history there has been a negative connotation with people being referred to as “sheep.”  People mindlessly following a person or a cause, usually to their self-destruction.  In fact, it’s an image that non-believers like to throw in our faces as evidence of our lack of reason.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  Just as we consider Jesus to be above any ordinary shepherd, we, as his sheep, are far above ordinary sheep.  For you see, God has gifted us with reason and free will.  This reason and free will is part of our human nature, and separates us from the other animals.  When Jesus, through John, refers to us as “sheep,” he’s not taking away our reason and free will.  In fact, he’s recognizing it and reinforcing it through our right to hear and to choose Christ.  In fact, it’s a subtle joke against those with whom he is debating in the Temple area (at Solomon’s Portico, where we heard Peter preaching in Acts of the Apostles in our readings two weeks ago):  Those of us who are smart enough to hear the truth will also know who best to follow.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

3rd Sunday of Easter

Answering the Call.  The Lord calls us to be with him, to follow him… but what is our response?  Our readings for this Third Sunday of Easter all show us how others have answered that call…

Acts 5:27-32, 40b-41
Psalm 30:2, 4, 5-6, 11-12, 13
Revelation 5:11-14
John 21:1-19

Our first reading, from Acts of the Apostles, takes place shortly after our reading from last Sunday.  After preaching and healing in Jesus’ name outside the Temple, the Sanhedrin had the Apostles arrested and put into jail.  That night, however, an angel of the Lord opened the jail and let them out, whereupon the Apostles returned to preaching and healing.  This takes us to our passage today where they are brought before the Court and told that they are forbidden to teach in Jesus’ name.  Here Peter, who only a few weeks ago was so afraid of the Sanhedrin that he denied his connection to Jesus, now speaks passionately in his defense, proud of the fact that they had the courage to accept whatever punishment may come their way.  There is now a joy and a freedom in Peter’s voice that is echoed in our Psalm when we sing “I will praise you, Lord, for you have rescued me.”

Just as our first reading has the Apostles in the Court room of the Sanhedrin, our second reading from the book of Revelation gives us John’s vision of the Heavenly Court.  Here we see the throne surrounded by the elders and 4 other “living creatures” giving praise to the Lamb.  The Lamb, of course, represents Christ.  The elders and the creatures, shouting their affirmation, stands in sharp contrast to what we see with the Sanhedrin.  The four other creatures, which are described in Chapter 4, are winged creatures with eyes all around, the first resembling a lion, the second a calf (or ox), the third with the face of a man, and the fourth an eagle.  Though these images of the four living creatures mirror those found in Ezekiel 1 and 10, we Christians more readily remember them as the symbols of our four Evangelists, Mark, Luke, Matthew, and John respectively.

Our Gospel, from the second conclusion of John, offers us one of my favorite images of the risen Jesus.  After recent events (with both Jesus’ death and resurrection) Peter is restless, so he grabs some of the other Apostles and goes fishing.  In a scene reminiscent of their calling, they’ve spent the night on the sea but have caught nothing.  As dawn breaks a voice from the shore tells them to cast their nets one more time.  As they manage the great haul to shore, Peter recognizes the Lord, jumps in and swims to shore to greet him.  Jesus is preparing them breakfast.  Jesus then queries Peter, “do you love me?”  Peter replies affirmatively, whereupon Jesus tells him to “feed my lambs.”  He does this three times.  Just as Peter denied Jesus three times, Jesus now gives Peter the chance to reconcile that moment of weakness by taking up the challenge of tending to the “flock” which Jesus has gathered in his name.

Final thoughts:
One of the greatest things about spending the Easter Season with the Acts of the Apostles is the opportunity to witness Peter’s growth as a leader and a saint.  As Catholics, when we think of Peter, we often think of him as the wise senior statesman, the great saint, the keeper of the keys… our first pope.  but that image of Peter lies in stark contrast to the Simon-Peter we see in the Gospels.  There we see someone who is somewhat conflicted… someone who’s heart is in the right place, but who’s actions belays that heart (as during Jesus’ Passion.)  And yet we as church feel a great connection to Peter, because in him many times we see ourselves.  But how do we bridge this gap between the Peter of the gospels and the great St. Peter in our stained glass windows?  The simple answer is with the Holy Spirit.  That same Spirit that we can call upon to help us when we need help.  That same guide to lead us to the Lord.  But we also know it’s not always that easy… which brings me back to the Acts of the Apostles.  Even with the Holy Spirit, Peter and the others had their troubles.  Acts now tells us that story.  By spending the Easter Season with the Acts of the Apostles, we get to follow them on their journey from sinners to saints… and perhaps learn something ourselves… something that will help us to answer the call.