Today’s gospel is about death and peace. Fear is the opposite of peace and Jesus is telling us that we should not be afraid of anything unless it can kill our soul. We know that if we believe in Christ and walk with him, we have life already and it will continue on even after death. With that life we should have peace and have confidence in God. Yet, I ask you as we live in this world, when everything is well and we are at peace, does it not seem that there is some kind of uneasiness or doubt that something could go wrong. In many ways this is true because we are still in a world and time that sin and evil are still around and we can be effected by it. However, God knows and watches and our faith ultimately prevails as long as we keep faith and weather any storm or hardship on the way. Jesus pointed out that the common sparrow or pigeon simply lighting on the earth is known by God. How much more is he not aware of his human creatures? So that Jesus is saying is that death is not to be feared for it is not an end in itself if we are truly men of faith and at peace, the true peace that knows God embraces us and awaits us as we finish our earthly journey. No matter what we face, it is a step or a moment to a final peace and union with God. All of us have seen loved ones go before us, and it is difficult to know why and understand. But let us all remember we are God’s creatures and we live in his time and in his kingdom. Certainly, we have questions and concerns at times, but his peace, his way is fully ours if we surrender ourselves and realize all our doubts and questions will be satisfied when we are fully embraced into his love at the end of our time.
Today’s readings are about food, manna in the desert and Jesus’ flesh and blood as food for us. Our food we call the Eucharist or communion, that is we come together as a community to celebrate Christ’s life and passion and death and resurrection and are fed his body and blood. John tells us today that whoever eats Christ’s body and drinks his blood will have Christ in him and will be able to have eternal life. As manna was meant for the Israelites as a people escaping slavery and without food and a need to reconnect not only with God but also with each other as a community and nation bound together. This need of coming together and acting as a nation is a strong reason why they remained in the desert for forty years as they bonded their lives together and became once again God’s people. So it is for us, that Christ’s body and blood binds us to him not only individually as he comes to us, but also a community that is bound together to look out for each other and to bring Christ’s Word to the world. It is a principle act of the church which brings us together frequently so as to be prepared to live out and proclaim our faith and love to the world. As our body craves and needs food, so does our soul need Christ’s special food which keeps us ready for the journey that we walk together. And so in this special way, Christ is present and comes to us and remains with us as he has remained with the church throughout the ages. His love is ever-present and remains in us.
Promises and Blessings, Now and Then
Last Sunday we read the Emmaus story, in which Jesus walks with two disciples. They do not recognize him, but “he interpreted to them (the parts which) referred to him in all the scriptures.” Later they say, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?” Today our situation is the similar. I cannot tell you how many years I heard Peter’s Pentecost homily with my eyes glazing over as I wondered where those scripture quotations came from, what they meant, and how they were relevant. Without interpretation, our readings do not come to us full of meaning and context.
This interpretation is complicated by our readings jumping around in the scriptures during the Easter Season. If we read the text of the New Testament book “The Acts of the Apostles” straight thru, we would have already read of the Ascension. We would have read also about the after-Easter period of prayer for apostles, Jesus’ mother Mary and his brothers, and the other women who had been part of Jesus’ ministry. Then The Spirit came at Pentecost, the very day that Peter proclaims his homily. We read part of his homily last week and part today.
When he begins, Peter quotes the Old Testament book of Joel. The prophet Joel uses a terrifying invasion of locusts as a visual starting place for his teaching. He compares the arrival of the locusts to the last days of the world, also called “the coming of the Lord”. Basically, he’s saying that the locusts will destroy all the crops and the nation will starve to death if God doesn’t save them. This could be the “end of their days”- a euphemism for death. So, says Joel, why don’t you humble yourselves before God, cast aside your senseless reliance on yourself, shed your false pride, and admit your frailty and powerlessness, for your only hope is to call out for God’s grace and mercy. And the people do just that.
God responds to them, promising to remove the locusts, restore the crops and give them all the food they can eat. In addition, (God is always lavish in blessing us) God promises to pour out his Spirit on the people, even down to the lowliest servants, and rescue (save) “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord” in the last days. God says, “For on Mount Zion, (the temple hill in Jerusalem)…in Jerusalem there will be survivors- whom the Lord shall call.” This pouring out of God’s Spirit and call from God (remember Pentecost was also an auditory experience), foretold in Joel, is happening as Peter speaks from the temple hill in Jerusalem!
Peter tells the Joel story to create these parallels between Joel’s day and Pentecost. Peter began by saying, “let the whole house of Israel know for certain” (“the whole house of Israel” refers to those who are saved in the Last Days) “that God has made Jesus both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified. The people of Joel’s day were saved by humbling themselves and calling on the Lord’s mercy. Now something new has happened. Now Jesus is “Lord”, God. In other words, the people hearing Peter must humble themselves and call on the mercy of Jesus to forgive them for their sins, including the crucifixion. How do the people call on the Lord Jesus’ mercy? They must be baptized in Jesus’ name and receive the gift of God’s Holy Spirit.
But Peter isn’t done yet. He says, “For the Promise is made to you …and to all those far off, whomever the Lord our God will call.” Who are the ones “far off”? That’s us, the Gentiles. What is “the Promise”? Think; who was the “father of faith” that God made all those promises to? You know, “as countless as the stars in the sky”. Abraham was promised in Genesis 22:18, “In your descendants all the nations of the earth shall find blessing.” How do they find blessing? The blessing, according to both Luke (Acts) and Paul (in Galatians 3: 2-9), is in baptism & the gift of the Spirit.
Peter still has more to say. The passage in the 1st Letter of St. Peter, that is our 2nd reading, is a pretty clear interpretation of the “Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52 thru 53. That is obvious because Peter quotes verse 53:12 “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” What is Peter’s goal here? The Jews taught that this was about the prophet Isaiah, as a witness to all the nations. Peter interprets it as about Jesus, who came to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy. Isaiah was the warm-up band, not the main attraction. Jesus is the sinless servant, who willingly suffered for the sins of the people, who saves them – us- from just punishment for sin. This is the source of Christian teaching that the sufferings of Jesus healed us, he gave his life for us and accomplished God’s will. Jesus bore our guilt and won pardon for our offenses. Peter says, (We) “had gone astray like sheep, but have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of (our) souls.”
Finally, our Gospel is primarily an interpretation of Ezekiel 34, (well worth reading, hint, hint) although there are certainly many other scriptural references to shepherds. That is too much to cover today, but I want to make just one point about shepherds. Usually, the Jewish priesthood and religious leaders are targeted as the “Bad” shepherds. But in that same 1st Peter 2:9 we find, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of God’s own, so that you may announce the praises of God who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” Not just priests and leaders, but each and every one of us has a responsibility to examine our words and behaviors in the light of God’s truth. Part of doing that is to take very seriously our scriptures along with our Catholic Tradition, with a capital T, so we have a fuller grasp of the gifts and grace God has lavished on us, who were once “far off”, now drawing ever nearer to the Lord of all.
Recently, we had the experience of sharing in the birth of little Isaac. What is there not to love in the birth of an infant? But, you know what comes to mind in seeing this, is that each infant, each person in this world is entirely unique. Even identical twins or triplets etc, are individually unique because at gestation everything becomes different for each one. Each person though does have a relationship with God, even if the person chooses not to pursue it. As each of us develops, we are certainly conditioned by family and all our surroundings and experiences. Jesus himself was a unique human being, but even more so as he had a second nature as he was divine also. His life, his work was to make it possible for humans to have a relationship with God. His life seems to have been a period of gradually preparing to do his ministry. After his baptism, we see today he goes off alone to the desert to contemplate, to prepare. As is common in Mediterranean culture and the middle east, the spirit of evil or the devil appears to once again challenge humanity to somehow be equal to God as we saw in the Genesis reading today. As we see in today’s gospel, Jesus rejects the devil and moves on to his ministry.
For us, the gospel and the story of the garden reminds us that as human beings we are vulnerable to overestimate ourselves, to have an inflated notion of our very self, to want to stand out in some way. Yes, our uniqueness can sometimes make us feel more important or even superior to others. We all know that within a family it is important to know and accept each other as they are, and so it is in the family of humanity itself. Christ’s message of love and care of each other means that we live and work and accept others. In doing this, we must learn and accept the abilities of all and the role we play in working together. While we certainly can not solve all the ills of the world, we certainly shouldn’t be adding any to the list. As we look forward to the coming weeks, we should be positive in examining all the good things we do and what more we can do or change to further the kingdom Jesus has given us. This will truly make us ready for Easter Morning.
“Seek first the kingdom of God and righteousness, and all these things will be given to you”
The kingdom of God is the kingdom we share now in this world, a kingdom of believers called to live out the Word. It means to answer God’s call right now in this life. It is not a call to not care or worry, but a call to place your self in God’s care. Jesus was from the poor of his time, he was aware of the difficulties and problems of daily life and the struggle to survive day to day. All of us have dreams and cares and so to speak a plan for life and living. But, I ask you, how many people do you know who mapped out a plan at 20, were still in the parameters of that plan at 50? Life is unpredictable and changing. All of us do the best to prepare and live accordingly. A certain amount of anxiety is normal, but nothing we do will completely remove the anxiety unless we place ourselves in God’s plan. No amount of wealth possessions and even power assures a long healthy life with a successful career. Only by doing our best and living as best we can within the precepts of Jesus’ commands are we assured of the true comfort of God. It is always a battle to not put ourselves first all the time and see the needs of others. Yet, the poor, the hungry, the homeless in one way or another find a way to get by because of the goodness of God and good people who see the need to help out and share with those in need. Jesus was always harsh on the Pharisees and scribes simply because their concern was themselves and their immediate comfort. Their own self planning overlooked those for whom they were called to look after. As Jesus pointed out, instead of relieving struggles, they added to them. Thus, Jesus called for love, and service, for a life of walking together as sister and brother amid all the days of life.
When we are wronged, most of us really get our back up and want justice or revenge. We get so angry, we want the most extreme punishment possible. In Leviticus, to temper anger and even out justice, we hear the dictum ”eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.” It was not meant as a prescription, but a restriction of what we do. A person could not exact a penalty, harsher than what was done to harm. Yet, how often do we hear these words used to justify actions and revenge even today. Sure we heard Jesus say them, but what followed? He said don’t resist evil! If challenged with the law give in, if forced into service as the Romans used to do, just do it. Don’t turn your back on those who wish to borrow. The hardest thing of all, he tells us to love our neighbor. But, he tells us our neighbor includes our enemies. How could that be? Well God created both our loved ones and our enemies. God gave the world to both good and evil people. If as Jesus says, we love only those who love back, what good is that.
God’s love is embedded into our hearts with Baptism and the coming of the Spirit. God’s love takes over and with prayer we come to know and discern what is right. Love tells us the things we must do, it helps us navigate through a whole life’s journey. God’s love enables us to journey through the minefields of life today. Modern day Pharisees and Scribes at times seem to burden humanity just as the people of Israel were once so burdened. Jesus call and commandments are no less essential today as they were when He was put to death for daring to challenge the comfort of written the love God implanted on all our hearts. Finally Jesus said be perfect, as God is perfect. We know such an ideal is impossible yet are we called to any less?