Homily by Deacon Al

Homily and Scripture Readings for Baptism of the Lord, Jan 13, 2019

Reading 1  IS 42:1-4, 6-7
Thus says the LORD:
Here is my servant whom I uphold,
my chosen one with whom I am pleased,
upon whom I have put my spirit;
he shall bring forth justice to the nations,
not crying out, not shouting,
not making his voice heard in the street.
a bruised reed he shall not break,
and a smoldering wick he shall not quench,
until he establishes justice on the earth;
the coastlands will wait for his teaching.

I, the LORD, have called you for the victory of justice,
I have grasped you by the hand;
I formed you, and set you
as a covenant of the people,
a light for the nations,
to open the eyes of the blind,
to bring out prisoners from confinement,
and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.

Responsorial Psalm PS 29:1-2, 3-4, 3, 9-10.

  1. The Lord will bless his people with peace.
    Give to the LORD, you sons of God,
    give to the LORD glory and praise,
    Give to the LORD the glory due his name;
    adore the LORD in holy attire.
  2. The Lord will bless his people with peace.
    The voice of the LORD is over the waters,
    the LORD, over vast waters.
    The voice of the LORD is mighty;
    the voice of the LORD is majestic.
  3. The Lord will bless his people with peace.
    The God of glory thunders,
    and in his temple all say, “Glory!”
    The LORD is enthroned above the flood;
    the LORD is enthroned as king forever.
    R. The Lord will bless his people with peace.

Reading 2 – ACTS 10:34-38

Peter proceeded to speak to those gathered
in the house of Cornelius, saying:
“In truth, I see that God shows no partiality.
Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly
is acceptable to him.
You know the word that he sent to the Israelites
as he proclaimed peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all,
what has happened all over Judea,
beginning in Galilee after the baptism
that John preached,
how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth
with the Holy Spirit and power.
He went about doing good
and healing all those oppressed by the devil,
for God was with him.”

 

Alleluia CF. MK 9:7

  1. Alleluia, alleluia.
    The heavens were opened and the voice of the Father thundered:
    This is my beloved Son, listen to him.
    R. Alleluia, alleluia.

 

Gospel LK 3:15-16, 21-22

The people were filled with expectation,
and all were asking in their hearts
whether John might be the Christ.
John answered them all, saying,
“I am baptizing you with water,
but one mightier than I is coming.
I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

After all the people had been baptized
and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying,
heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him
in bodily form like a dove.
And a voice came from heaven,
“You are my beloved Son;
with you I am well pleased.”

My Homily

If the definition of “Epiphany” is the manifestation of the Divine, this morning’s reading is the 3rd of many extraordinary Epiphanies in the four Gospels.

The first is in St. Luke, when God comes to Bethlehem of Judea, manifesting Himself as a vulnerable infant among the poorest of the poor, namely the shepherds. He comes as a Shepherd just like them but as a Shepherd of women and men – not of sheep and goats; He also comes as their Savior who will head an army of angels in the fight for justice and peace on earth. The Scripture tells how the shepherds were engulfed by a Heavenly Host of Angels – but the actual word in Greek is στρατός (stratios) – which means “an army.” They were encircled by an army of angels.  The infant Jesus comes as a Davidic warrior who is head of this army that will do battle for good. He also manifests Himself as Food for the world, literally laid in a trough where animals eat. He comes so that he can relieve the suffering of all humankind and satisfy our hunger for God.

Then in Matthew God is manifested as King and worshiped as such by the Magi who bring him royal gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. On that day He joins them not only as King, but as the Wisest of Wise Men – because he embodies the divine Wisdom and kingly power of the Almighty.

Today God manifests Himself yet again – this time as THE Prophet – the One to whom all the prophets of Israel pointed – including this last among the long, long line of Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist. John came to prepare the way of the Lord through a Baptism of repentance, but now the Lord is actually here – and HE will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. He also comes as Son of a Father who declares His pleasure in Him by opening the heavens and having His Holy Spirit descend on him.

Following today’s Gospel many more “epiphanies” follow. God manifest Himself as Master of the Elements starting in St. John’s account of His first miracle at the marriage of Canaan where he turns water into the finest wine. Then He manifests Himself as Teacher in His parables and in the Sermon on the Mount; then as Priest and Victim on the cross; then as Redeemer and Conqueror of sin and death at His Resurrection; and in the final epiphany – he manifests Himself as Eternal Ruler and Judge at his Ascension.

Our God is in a constant and eternal process of Epiphany – of manifesting Himself to the World and to each of us.

The question for us this morning is, are we vigilant enough? Perceptive enough? Wise enough?  …to see God when He comes?

John the Baptist knew when God came into his life. Remember a few weeks ago, when Mary came to visit her cousin Elizabeth, the baby John leapt in his mother’s womb at the sound of Mary’s voice and the approach of His Savior.

And here today Luke tells us that John points to his cousin as One mightier than he…one of whom John is “…not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals.”

John’s baptism was one of repentance …and he knew Jesus had no need of repentance…but Jesus embraces Baptism as a model for us. Or, as the gospel teaches, the one who had no sin to repent of, takes his place among those who had sin to repent of…just as the one who was sinless takes on the sins of all on the Cross to make reparation to the Father. Jesus starting now at his Baptism, becomes the walking example for us all of how to live in total obedience to God.

In John the Evangelist’s account of this same story, the Baptist is heard to say, “Behold the Lamb of God” …and later, “He must increase, and I must decrease.” The word “Baptism” itself comes from the Greek βαπτίζω (baptiso)  meaning to “submerge and resurface” or better yet to “take a plunge” into something. The Baptist is saying we must take the plunge into God. To allow God to take over …to increase in us.

This is the perfect response for when we meet God – and it mirrors what we did at our own Baptism. At our Baptism, we were “submerged” in water to cleanse us so that we could plunge into Grace. We were arrayed in a new white garment to symbolize our re-emergence into new life as a child of God infused with the Holy Spirit.  And every time we say in the Lord’s Prayer “Thy will be done…” we are aligning ourselves with the Baptist and saying, “increase in me oh God. Let my will decrease and your will increase.”

Today Luke manifests Jesus to us as The Christ, as God and as Savior – but we also witness an announcement – an Annunciation.  Luke after all is master of “Annunciations.” Today we hear the 4th such annunciation in his Gospel.

Several weeks ago, we heard the first Annunciation when Gabriel announced to Zechariah that his elderly and barren wife Sarah was to have a son…Then we heard Gabriel’s BIG Annunciation to Mary that she was to conceive and bear a Son who would grow up to rule His people Israel. The Messiah was coming!

Then to Joseph when an angel announced to him that he should not be afraid to take Mary as his wife for she was bearing the Son of the Most High.  And now “. . . A voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’”

In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ Baptism, the heavenly voice says, “This is my beloved Son,” making it an annunciation to others. But in Mark, and here today in Luke, the Annunciation is: “YOU are my beloved Son …with YOU I am well pleased.” In the baptism story of both Mark and Luke, it is that Jesus who discovers WHO HE IS. This is an Annunciation to Jesus Himself.

Today’s first reading hints at how Jesus will please His Father. He will be a different kind of prophet. The first reading is from a part of the Book of Isaiah known as the Song of the Suffering Servant of Yahweh. Isaiah is reflecting on the implications of responding to Yahweh’s call. He never doubts God has called him to ministry; but he’s to be a prophet like no prophet before him, certainly not a “fire and brimstone” preacher – “Not crying out, not shouting . . . a bruised reed he shall not break, and a smoldering wick he shall not quench . . ..” Isaiah quickly learns he’s unique, with almost no role models on which to fall back.

Jesus is also to be unique – a prophet and teacher like none who had come before him. Jesus is also no “fire and brimstone” preacher, not a foreteller of “doom and gloom” as John the Baptist was. Instead, Jesus will show us by his life how we are to serve God. That is why at his baptism, the gentlest of birds – a dove – descends on him – to mark his commission as our Savior. Jesus is a Savior who will ask us to “Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls.”

By His baptism Jesus identified with the people, the sinful people He came to save. And by His baptism Jesus submitted to the will of the Father, beginning His service as the Suffering Servant who would die for the sins of the world.   And God the Father approved it …and sent God the Spirit to empower it …and John witnessed it.

God desires each of us to make a commitment to do His will and doing that will means sacrificial service–to God, and to others. That is what the Christian life is all about. It is connected with Christian baptism, because the ritual of baptism was a tremendous sign of commitment to the Christian way. The Christian life is not natural; it is supernatural. Many of us are still realizing what that means. We know that it will not be a natural or easy way of life…and we will need the empowerment of the Holy Spirit–far more than Jesus did.

Let us ask God today, that through prayer and study and by participating in the sacraments – especially the Eucharist – that we will find the courage to take the plunge into God that our Baptism called us to do.

May God bless you…

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Where is God’s “House”?

The Holy Family, 12-30-18

1 Samuel 1:20-22, 24-28, Ps 84:2-3, 5-6, 9-10, 1 John 3:1-2, 21-24, Luke 2:41-52

Our readings start with 1st Samuel, and the story of the prophet Samuel as a child. His mother had not been able to have a child, so she had gone to the Temple and prayed, telling God she would bring the child back to the Temple for a lifetime of service there. The Hebrew phrases it more like she had borrowed the child, and them returned him to God. In our terms, Samuel became an “adopted” child of God, a child who grew up in God’s “house”. It sets the stage for the Gospel nicely in terms of the importance of the Temple as a place representing God’s “Home” and presence among us, and the way we connect deeply with God for a lifetime.

Many people have translated today’s Psalm into modern English. Leslie Brandt starts it: “O God, the center of your will is truly the place of fulfillment. I long incessantly for the peace and security of walking with you. You are the only purpose and meaning for my life. Those who discover and follow you are forever blessed.”

Nan Merrill finishes the Psalm this way: “Blessed are they who put their strength in you, who choose to share the joy and sorrows of the world. They do not give way to fear or doubt; their lives are quickened by Divine Light and Power; they dwell within the peace of the Most High, They go from strength to strength and live with integrity.”

I know of no one who can live this way solely because of their own intellect or self-determination. Life is too complex to live without love, too full of stumbling blocks to be without God’s strength, too short to be without hope and faith.

Our second reading from 1st letter of St. John also used to prepare us for the Gospel. John writes that we are “children of God”. It does not mention the Temple. The Temple was probably destroyed by the Romans before this was written, but it was definitively written after Pentecost. John writes somewhat differently about what it is to live in God’s “house”.

He says: God’s commandment is that “(1) we should believe in… his Son, Jesus Christ, and (2) love one another as he commanded us.” So John concludes that “Those who keep (God’s) commandments remain in God, and the way we know that God remains in us, is from the (Holy) Spirit God gave us.” So, God’s dwelling is no longer understood as a building where we go to be with God. Instead, God is within us – which is a huge step when you think about it. But it makes sense, since we were created “in God’s image”, and God proclaimed us “good”, as Fr. Peter talked about last week.

If we are the dwelling place of God – “God’s House” – what is an appropriate and sensible way to run our lives? When God’s dwelling was a building, it was easy to understand there were certain ways to act and behave in God’s house. Ever since God had Moses create a Tent which housed the Ark of the Covenant, great care was taken to use the best of building materials, precious metals, and furniture and lamp stands of certain shapes. Desecrating the Temple was to show contempt or be irreverent. Being abusive, profane, sacrilegious, or disrespectful in the Temple was something that only mortal enemies did after every-able bodied person had given their lives to prevent it.

But my question was this: If God dwells in us, if we are God’s house, what are our responsibilities? John’s answer is straightforward: “to believe” and “to love.” We can trust God; there is no nanosecond of time when God does not love us; God never turns away from us. God is never out of town, or asleep or glued to a screen. Too many people have treated God like “Santa, Baby”- a demanding relationship where we stop believing in God if the blue convertible, the ring, the condo and the checks weren’t delivered by Christmas.

For the Gospel, we must return to the 3-level way of reading. Level 1 is the story line – most of us have heard this story before. Level 2 is the deeper meaning and symbolism. Level 3 is how to make use of it in our lives.

Finding deeper meaning may include asking: How did Mary and Joseph look for Jesus? They looked first among friends and family.  They looked to those who they knew well, they trusted, and who shared their faith and values.  That’s why we have God parents, and faith communities – because we need to be surrounded by people of faith.  But Jesus was not there.

They returned to the Temple, which they saw as the House of God, the center of faith and truth, where they went to be devout and faithful people of God, and observe the time-honored customs of worship.  They diligently conducted an intense search for a child they loved, and who was precious to them.  They would not leave until they found him, the child Jesus was all they thought about. They looked for their son in every corner of the Temple, not just in the open courts.  They even went to the special places where the teachers, the wise ones and the scholars met, those who devoted their lives to the study and practice of their faith, and they found him there, to their astonishment.

How do we use the passage we read to find Jesus in our own lives? In the first paragraph of Luke’s Gospel, he writes that he has closely studied the life of Jesus “from the beginning…from eyewitnesses and ministers of the word…so that (we) may know the truth…”  The Bible, then, is a good place to start the search for Jesus.

The community of faith often searches for Jesus together, sharing what their experiences have taught them. But that is not enough. Our search must be diligent and intense, including regular daily prayer and study time, which may mean re-working your daily schedule. We choose to be obedient to God and grow in wisdom.  Becoming an active participant in the worship of the faith community is important. This is the pattern of faithful Christian living that brings us to fullness of life. Continuing the search persistently is absolutely necessary.  It must continue until our last day.

So these readings are not just story lines from long ago, not just poems about a God that lives in a place far away. Rather, they point us toward a way of life – the Christian Life, a life of community of belief, and a pattern of love.  They are about the way we are to live going forward from the manger where the child was born, the God who created everything we know, who came to earth to live with us and live as one of us, and live within us.

See Both Sides Now

 

All Soul’s Day 11-2-2018

Isaiah 25: 6-9; Ps 27: 1, 4, 7, 8b, 9a, 13-14; 2Cor 4:14-5:1; John 14: 1-6

The celebration of All Souls Day is a day in the life of the Church that is unique. What other day better shows the result of Easter, the long –term impact of the resurrection? The joy of the resurrection of Jesus on Easter morning is the other side of grief and loss.  The difference the two is beyond our imaginations; and Biblical writers in our readings today use several approaches in attempting to describe it.

In Isaiah, the joy of the resurrection is described for us in symbols. “On this mountain”, it starts.  The Temple in Jerusalem was built on a hill – the “temple mount” it was called.  Living in Virginia, I have come to better understand this.  There is Bluemont, Thurmont, Philomont, Airmont, so many villages that use the suffix “Mount” in their name.  “Mount” does not necessarily mean a rocky peak that must be scaled with special rock climbing equipment, although life often feels like that.  A Mount is a high place where you can get new perspective from seeing the valleys around you.

So the temple mount is a symbol of heaven, a place above us, where God “provides for all peoples.” What does God provide? The heavenly feast, a banquet, a place where there is no hunger, no needs that go unmet, where all are welcomed, where no one is subjected to prejudice and no one is marginalized.  But first, a veil, like a heavy fog, must be removed.  The veil is loss, pain, misery. When it is lifted, we see the reality of God and God’s love.  We are given real freedom, which includes freedom from death and tears.  And we will know who has saved us; it is the Lord that we had searched for, and who came to find us.  Then we can rejoice and be glad that we are finally truly with God.

Our Psalm is a song of joy for that day of freedom. We will be in the house of the Lord all the rest of our days –for eternity, and we may simply look on the loveliness of the Lord.  We will be in the presence of God and know that from the day that God first “knit us together in our mother’s womb” God has been our light and our salvation.

But St. Paul had faced death and writes in this 2nd letter to the Christians of Corinth some words encouragement, telling how God renews us each day with grace.  As Jesus lived after death, so will we, and grace is given to us abundantly now, in the same way that our needs will be met abundantly in heaven.  Paul goes so far as to call the difficulties of life “momentary light affliction” when compared to the “eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison”.  As the Psalmist (84) says, “One day in the house of God is better than a thousand days elsewhere.  It is better to be a doorkeeper in the house of God than live in the tests of the wicked. ” No matter what happens to our earthly bodies, our eternal wholeness is ensured.  Life does not end, but changes.

Finally, Jesus offers us a promise of certainty. “Don’t worry,” he tells us.  “Have Faith!”  In our Bible readings we encounter “Fear not” and “Have faith” so many times. The promise is real, all that we have told about -and more- is waiting for us and those we love.   Jesus adds that he will return to see that we are safely shown the way to the presence of God.  Jesus purposely came to earth for us, to teach us, and to better show us the way to eternity.  He opened the door, he shows the way, he evens gives us the desire to follow him.

All this is not a “description” of heaven as such; it does not provide the GPS coordinates that we might find eternity in our own way or at our own time. It is not concerned with golden streets or jewels or thrones.  Instead it tells us eternity it will be very different from the sickness, the violence, the striving for material goods, and the status and power games of earthly life.  It reminds us of how far we have to go to be like God in our love of each other.

And finally, it eases the pain we feel for the loss of those we love. Knowing that the present pain is transitory, but the goodness that is to come is eternal, our hearts dare to hope that suffering will end and be replaced with loveliness.  Carry that message with out with you- take the copy of the readings as well as the hope, as you leave today, for it is the message, the Good News, which the cornerstone of our faith brought to us. For the good news is the resurrection, that other side of loss and grief.

Love, not Legalism

27th Sunday Ordinary Time 10-7-18

Genesis 2:18-24; Ps 128:1-6 ; Hebrews 2:9-11;Mark 10:2-16

These readings are often used to preach about the ideal marriage. Marriage is a life-long job, requiring patience, gentleness, compromise, graciousness to sometimes carry more than your half of the relationship, and maturity to weather the hard times.  I have been married and divorced twice, so that is all I have to say about marriage.   But this is an interesting Gospel today, and I do have a few things to say about it, for it is NOT primarily about marriage.

It is about what we will call “Legalism”. I don’t like labels, but legalism is generally defined as depending on laws rather than… faith.  In Galatians 3:3, Paul writes, “How foolish can you be?  After starting your Christian lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort? Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles…by…the law, or because you have heard about Christ and believe?” Another problem with legalism is that someone is always blamed.  The people of CACINA say that we “are Catholic without the guilt”.  What if we could approach issues without finding fault? “Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged,” Jesus tells us in Matthew 7:1

Jesus and the disciples leave Galilee for the last time on their way to Jerusalem.  Jesus has spent time on the road privately teaching his disciples, and discussing his upcoming death.  Their public ministry begins again now, and the Pharisees arrive from Jerusalem in an attempt to justify their plot to kill him.  They are “testing him;” Mark uses the same word he used in Chapter One, when Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days and enduring “testing” by Satan. He is clear that the Pharisees’ intent is evil.

The topic of divorce was a minefield for the Jews. If Jesus denied the legality of divorce, he will sin by contradicting the Law of Moses.  If he tried to make divorce a morality issue, he will be following in John the Baptist’s footsteps.  John was beheaded by Herod for that approach.  Various groups of Rabbis had positions on if only men could ask for a divorce, the acceptable grounds for divorce, and so forth & so on, endlessly.  The Pharisees thought for sure they could trap Jesus in this web of opinion; surely Jesus would offend someone.

Jesus responds to their question about divorce by asking “What did Moses command you?” Moses tolerated divorce as an existing custom for the purpose of stabilizing the community.  But God said in our first reading, that two people are to “become one flesh.” Jesus, Moses, and the Pharisees all understood that God’s command did not include divorce.  Once again, Jesus defeated the Pharisees’ ploy by using the Scriptures to prove their question was not sincere, only a political trick.  But that left the disciples riled up about the issue of divorce.  They later privately ask Jesus, and he simply states a fact: “whoever divorces their spouse and marries another, commits adultery.”

Is Jesus throwing us under the bus? About 35-40% of all Americans who have been married are divorced. If you have read the Gospels, Jesus never throws any sincere person who comes to him under the bus! Read Mark 2:17: “Jesus said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do.  I did not come to call righteous people, but sinners.” Are we not aware of the times Jesus outright forgave the sins of people? In Luke (19:10) Jesus said: “For the Son of Man came to seek and save what was lost.” And in John 12: 47, “If anyone hears me and does not obey me, I am not his judge—for I have come to save the world and not to judge it.” We always start each Mass with, “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  There is great power in those words! In Mark 3:28-30, Jesus says: “Truly I tell you, all sins and blasphemes will be forgiven … (except) blasphemes against the Holy Spirit.”

So here it is: Jesus said that divorce is wrong, and forgiveness is waiting for all who confess and repent. It doesn’t seem like a secret to me!  In fact, I think the voice that accuses any divorcee of committing a sin that denies them the sacraments, is the voice of evil.  Jesus responds to that voice in John 10:10: “(Satan) comes only to steal and kill and destroy.  I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”  Revelation 12: 10-11 says it again, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers (and sisters) has been thrown down… And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb…”

Jesus even stopped those who would stone a woman “caught” in adultery, with these words: “I do not condemn you either. Go, but do not sin again.”  Jesus makes clear that adultery is a sin, but forgiveness is freely given.

All in all, our reading is another trap for Jesus to deny God or the Scriptures, set by men who already have decided to break God’s law themselves by killing Jesus. This time the issue chosen to bait the trap is divorce.  But Jesus prevails by knowing Scripture and knowing what his mission is.

Marriage is one sign of the social nature of humans in which the “two shall become as one.” Another sign is the Eucharist, for as Paul says in Romans 12:5: “We, though many, are one body in Christ…” Fr. Gerald Darring wrote, “Marriage and Eucharist are signs of sharing lives and living (in unity).  The unity of humankind is shattered every day by the evil of injustice: racism, sexism, poverty, hunger, homelessness, war. We are constantly violating the fundamental principle: ‘Let no man separate what God has joined’.  God has joined us in a society of brothers and sisters because it is not good for us to be alone: let no one separate that society through injustice.”

Law will never unify us, but love will.  I said last week, that Jesus was always making the circle larger, always including people that were different, who had experiences unlike the others.  He did not make laws and rules to bring those people together, but taught them to love God and love their neighbors like themselves.  “Now faith, hope, and love remain—these three things—and the greatest of these is love.” (1Cor 13:13)

Choices and Decisions

21st Sunday Ordinary time 8-26-18;

Joshua 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b; Ps 34:2-3, 16-21 Ephesians 5:2a, 25-32; John 6:60-69

We need to take the readings in order today because they work nicely together to make a particular point about choices that we face.  For a Bible scholar, Joshua 24 is highly important in the history of Israelite traditions. It preserves remnants of an ancient liturgy for the renewal of the covenant.  Joshua led the tribes of Israel into the Promised Land after the death of Moses.  He wanted to have the people united by worshiping a single God.  Joshua calls all the people and leaders together, and he puts before them the question of who that God will be.  Will it be one of the idol-Gods that the neighboring tribes worship?  Joshua makes clear that he and his family will worship the Lord.  And the people also vow to worship the Lord, for the Lord was the one who freed them from slavery.  They have seen the great miracles the Lord did to protect them and feed them. The Lord was their God and they were the Lord’s people.

The reading from Ephesians is also about a choice. Because of cultural misunderstandings, and a very questionable translation of very complex Greek grammar, this passage has been inappropriately used to twist the love of Christ for the Church into an invalid excuse to claim that St. Paul is demanding that wives be “subordinate” to their husbands.  As the passage was read today is closer to the real meaning.  It starts by saying that Christ chose to come to earth because he was deeply in love with us, a love which far exceeds anything else we experience in this life.  You know, of course, that the word “Church” as used here is not a religious institution created by humans.  Rather, it means all of the people who believe in the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, and who strive to follow Christ’s life of love.  Through Christ’s gift of love, we are presented to God in splendor, without spot or wrinkle, holy and without blemish.  We are to model that relationship in our love of each other, particularly our spouse, but we are to commit to love within a marriage with that level of depth and intensity.  Paul is not talking about convenience or hormones, but choice.  Once again, the covenant agreement that the Israelites made with the Lord is the same image as marriage vows between spouses.

Now we are ready to look at a choice to be made between Jesus and the people he is teaching. A reminder – anyone could or can be a disciple of Jesus.  The disciples of Jesus were and are a very large group of people who want to live the life he teaches.  The Twelve Apostles are a small group who were selected by Jesus to be with him through his entire ministry on earth.

It’s best to go thru this Gospel reading closely to see what is happening. When we left off last week, Jesus had just said, “The one who feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him…” Not surprisingly, many of the disciples respond, “This saying is harsh; this sort of talk is hard to take.”   The sense of the Greek is that what Jesus said was somewhere between fantasy and offensive. They hear him say it, but they cannot accept it.   Jesus says, “Does it shock you/ scandalize you, or does it shake your faith?”

Have you ever found yourself in that position, where something shook your faith? I knew an Independent Catholic priest whose young adult son died of cancer. His father was so shocked that he walked out of his church and never returned. He felt certain that prayers would save his son, that he would be healed. He was so overcome by his loss that he walked away from his faith. The idea of disciples walking away from Jesus because of something harsh or scandalizing is not just an event in the Bible; it is something that happens now, too.

So then Jesus proposes a question. “What if you were to see him ascending to heaven?” Of course, John’s Gospel was written after the ascension of Jesus, so this question makes perfect sense to the readers. Back in verse 42, the crowd had already protested when Jesus had said he had come from heaven (“don’t we know his father and his mother?”) But this crowd couldn’t imagine such a thing.   He continues, “It is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh is useless.” Flesh is like flowers that wither and fade, worth no more than to be thrown in the fire.

You are probably thinking, but – Jesus had just said in verse 52 that …”my flesh is true food…the one who feeds on my flesh …remains in me and I in him.” Perhaps you also noticed in the first two readings in our series from John, Jesus talked the “crowd”. For the last two weeks, Jesus has been talking to “the Jews” and now Jesus is talking to his “disciples.” We simply do not know how or when or why or who made these changes. Some people find the seeming inconsistencies in Scripture difficult, or scandalizing. One theory is that later editors of the Scriptures have made changes or added teachings to make the reading reflect the changes that happened as the understanding of theologians became clearer and more unified among the churches. As archeology and scholarship advances, we come to different conclusions about the early church. Our knowledge of the way words were used and our understanding of the culture of Jesus’ day have grown. We have the guidelines of the Bible and Tradition to help us get through these changes with our faith intact and even enriched. And the Holy Spirit is there to translate the words of Jesus to us in a true and helpful way. We have been given the Spirit that we might have a fuller life, more abundant truth, and the Spirit’s intercession with God. As Jesus said, “The words I have spoken to you are both Spirit and life…”

At the time John wrote this Gospel, there were heresies that taught that Jesus was not divine, but only a prophet or wise man. That is why Jesus is described here as all-knowing, having divine knowledge of who will believe in Jesus’ teachings, as illustrated by the comment that “Jesus knew from the beginning who would not believe in him.” In no way does this suggest that people lack the full capacity of free choice and or that they cannot change.

Again, a note about culture: in the Mediterranean world, allegiance between each apostle of a group and its leader was strong. The leader recruited each apostle personally and individually. So Peter answers Jesus’ question about the apostles leaving. Peter’s response translated into Mediterranean cultural values is: we have made a commitment to you, no matter what (“we have believed”). I think John is hoping that we will recognize Peter as the leader of the apostles after Jesus’ ascension, and that we will be strengthened in difficult times by his response. Peter gives 3 reasons not to leave the faith in the face of crisis. One, there is no alternative to the One true God. Two, Jesus has given us the words of eternal life. His teaching not only has wisdom, but Jesus has opened the way to eternity. Lastly, Peter has been convinced by what he has seen and heard; that Jesus is the long-awaited “Holy One”.

Even, or maybe especially, when life is hard, the way seems dark, and we struggle, we must continue in the faith, stay in the Word of God, and cling to the Holy Spirit. That is the decision Peter made, along with the other apostles, and the choice that John is urging us to make, too.

What is an Inclusive Church?

We are an inclusive church. When we do not strive to be inclusive, we fail to be what we are called to be.  Our church was never intended to be a group of “cookie-cutter” people, all of the same race, socio-economic status, nationality, age, gender, or sexual orientation.  It was intended to be the church that Jesus, out of love, showed us how to be. Very deliberately and purposefully, Jesus called the people on the edges of society to be part of his mission.  Being inclusive is not being weak about our beliefs.  When we are inclusive, we know exactly what we believe, and why we believe it.  Here is an example of how one person saw an inclusive church:

 

Immigrant’s Apostles Creed

            I believe in Almighty God, who guided the people in exile and in exodus,
the God of Joseph in Egypt and Daniel in Babylon,
the God of foreigners and immigrants.

I believe in Jesus Christ, a displaced Galilean,
who was born away from his people and his home,
who fled his country with his parents when his life was in danger.

When he returned to his own country he suffered under the oppression of Pontius Pilate, the servant of a foreign power.
Jesus was persecuted, beaten, tortured, and unjustly condemned to death.
But on the third day Jesus rose from the dead,
not as a scorned foreigner but to offer us citizenship in God’s kingdom.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the eternal immigrant from God’s kingdom among us,
who speaks all languages, lives in all countries,
and reunites all races.

I believe that the Church is the secure home
for foreigners and for all believers.
I believe that the communion of saints begins
when we embrace all God’s people in all their diversity.
I believe in forgiveness, which makes us all equal before God,
and in reconciliation, which heals our brokenness.

I believe that in the Resurrection
God will unite us as one people
in which all are distinct and all are alike at the same time.
I believe in life eternal, in which no one will be foreigner
but all will be citizens of the kingdom
where God reigns forever and ever. Amen.

 

Attributed to Rev. Jose Luis Casal, Director of Presbyterian World Mission, himself an immigrant from Cuba.

Love and The Body & The Blood

20th Sunday Ordinary time; August 19, 2018

Proverbs 9:1-6; Ps 34:2-7; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58

Our Gospel reading today is likely one of the top ten hardest readings to preach on. Even the people Jesus was speaking to “quarreled” among themselves when He spoke about the living bread saying, “…the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”  You need to know that the word “quarreled” in Greek is a word for violent fighting, not just a mild spat.  These words have been the source of division among Christian communities always, a major fountain of violence during the Reformation, so contentious that people were tortured and killed over different views of the meaning of the Mass. In fact, 3 years ago when we came to these readings, I preached on the 2nd Reading from Ephesians instead of focusing on the Gospel.

Three weeks ago, Bishop Ron told you that John was written to deepen the faith of people who were already Christian believers. The Last Supper or the original “Mass” is found in Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 22, and 1 Corinthians 11.  It makes sense that John would not see a reason to repeat that in his Gospel; but John did spend time and effort teaching about the Mass.

It also makes sense that John would present multiple teachings on the Mass. The first was the “Wisdom and Understanding” approach.  We have a sample of that from Proverbs for our first reading today.  Wisdom is portrayed as a woman (whole different homily) who prepares wine and food and sends out invitations over the city, inviting the simple and those lacking understanding to come to her table.  Our 2nd reading tells us to be wise, to be filled with the Spirit, and to gain understanding of the will of God.

Then there is the symbol of bread that ties into a long history of sacred bread in Jewish liturgy and practices in the temple, as well as in the scared Jewish writings. Unleavened bread and wine are major components of the Passover celebration.  Manna is a significant part of Exodus.  But keep in mind that it was an abomination for the Jews to eat human flesh and drink blood.  Blood was understood then as the substance of life, for without blood we die, and it was a substance of great mystery.  Any contact with blood required a ritual cleansing. All this helps us understand the image of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus to give us life.

So in the opening of today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” It seems a pretty direct reference to the crucifixion. Of course, the Temple ritual sacrifices called for the slaughter of animals.  Historians tell of blood running down the streets of Jerusalem during Passover, with the slaughter of hundreds of animals.  To make the scene even more vivid and realistic, Jesus uses a word for “eat” which is best translated as “gnaw or munch.” And how can anyone eat his flesh without him being slaughtered like an animal? Then, Jesus adds, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.”  So after the slaughter comes the resurrection.

Jesus does not let this teaching slide by quickly. He goes on to insist that his flesh and blood have genuine value as food and drink.  Also, he adds the image of “remaining”.  Jesus tells us that coming to communion is a way to really be “into Jesus”, a way to remain with him always, the way to have life always. He explains how the bread at communion is not like the ordinary bread we eat, or even the heavenly manna which fed the Israelites as they escaped from Egypt.  Those other types of bread we eat, they only feed us for a day, and do not remain with us.  The bread Jesus gives us stays with us forever, and gives us eternal life.

That being said, we still have an elephant in the room. Catholics teach that when the bread and wine are consecrated by a priest, they become the true body and blood of Christ.  It is called transubstantiation (a change of the very substance of the bread and wine).  Christ then is present whole and entire in each crumb of the bread and drop of the wine. It is one of the mysteries of our faith, and requires a leap of faith, as our eyes do not see the change.  If there is any place in the Bible that says this is true, this reading is identified as that place.

I stand at this altar and I say those words. I have come to believe that altars such as this are very sacred places, and that by saying the words of the Mass, we do indeed enter a very holy moment.  I also recognize that not everyone experiences what I experience when I stand there.  I also know that it is not because of my holiness, but a gift of God.  So I do not pressure others to believe what I believe.  When I offer the consecrated bread and wine to people, I say that it is open to all who come in reverence; they must come respectfully and with dignity, and hopefully with a sense of awe.  My task and duty is to offer an opportunity to understand the ancient history of this sacrament, its basis in wisdom tradition, and the traditions and teachings of the Church which surround it.

But on Tuesday, as I was writing this homily, the Attorney General of PA announced that a Grand Jury had possession of internal documents from six Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania showing that more than 300 “predator priests” have been credibly accused of sexually abusing more than 1,000 child victims, dating back to 1947.  Their report said that the numbers may be “in the thousands”, as records have been lost and people are still afraid to come forward.  Quoting from the report, “The men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades… priests, bishops, archbishops, and cardinals have mostly been protected….”  Once again, the Holy Spirit is grieved, as are we.

Jesus gave us a commandment to love one another. He also said in Matthew 18:6 , “… whoever ensnares one of these little ones who trust me, it would be better for him to have a millstone hung around his neck and be drowned in the open sea.”  That is very harsh, and we should be quick to pray for the healing of those children, as well as forgiveness for those clergy, and that strong steps be taken to prevent this in the future.

My friends, it is right and good to understand our sacraments and continue to learn about them, expanding our faith. But I would best like to be identified as a Christian by the way I show love to others and the way I protect the vulnerable and innocent.  It makes sense to me that Jesus would want us to be his body and blood by the lives we live.