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.

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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.

Both the Giver and the Gift

18th Sunday Ordinary Time 8-5-18

Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15, Ps: 78:3-4, 23- 25, 54; Ephesians 4:17, 20-24; John 6:24-35

If you missed Bishop Ron’s homily last week, you missed a great introduction to the 6-week series of reading we are in the midst of from the Gospel of John. As Bishop Ron explained, John wrote his gospel some 50 or so years after the other Gospels.  He wasn’t writing to convert people to Christianity as much as he was writing to bring already converted Christians into a deeper faith.  Time had given the early Church an opportunity to clarify what they believed; and John was part of that process.

Today, Jesus uses a common strategy which encourages people to ask a series of questions. Jesus would then answer by re-directing their thinking.  He encouraged them to consider what bread might symbolize, and what work might be – beyond just a way to buy bread.

It starts by the crowd looking for Jesus near Tiberias on the west shore of the Lake of Galilee.  He’s not there, but they find him on the north shore near Capernaum.  They ask, “When did you get here?”  Jesus immediately redirects, since the conversation needs to be about “The Bread”.  He says, “That doesn’t matter. Your real goal was to find me, not because of the miracles I do, but because yesterday you got to eat all the bread you wanted.”

Having established the topic of conversation, Jesus then talks about what their goal should be. He says, “Do not work for food that perishes, but for food that lasts for eternal life, food which the Son of Man will give you…”  He acknowledges that their days are filled with work, work that typically paid only enough to buy food for just that one day.  It was a treadmill –type existence where they were exhausted and all their earnings, their day, and their strength were spent, and their food was gone.  Jesus is not talking about food that lasts eternally, but rather food that gives eternal life.  This food is a gift that comes from Jesus.  The “seal of God on Jesus” is a way of saying that Jesus is telling them the absolute truth.

Bishop Ron also asked us to think of food we eat daily; to consider the role food plays in our lives, about the necessity of food for each and every person alive on earth, to realize how little control we have over food production. We come to realize that even a simple loaf of bread is a work of God.  Jesus is asking the crowd to think in broad ways and look for meaning beyond tomorrow.

So the crowd asks their next question. “What work can we do, then, to please God?”  Jesus has the answer ready: “This is the work of God: have faith in him whom he sent.”  Remember back a month to July 1st, when we read the story of the woman who was healed when she touched Jesus’ robe, and Jesus said to her, “Your faith has saved you.”  Remember that?  Now Jesus tells the crowd, “This is the work of God: that you believe in the one he sent.” He is telling them to have faith.

Today we use the word “faith” to mean the teachings and practices of a particular church. That is not how the word “faith” or “belief” was used in Jesus’ day.  Then it meant faithfulness, loyalty, commitment, solidarity.  Belief was the social glue that together; it was not head knowledge, but a deeply emotional value that was obvious to other people; it was a complete and binding relationship.  Faith was not a toe checking the temperature of the water; faith was complete and overwhelming one-ness.

But the crowd has not forgotten the bread; they are still hoping for free bread that does not require work, sort of like us when we buy lottery tickets. At that time, Jewish rabbis were already teaching that there was deeper meaning to the story of the “manna bread” given to the people of Exodus.  They taught that the manna was a symbol of the Jewish scriptures.  Those scriptures were the Word of God, which satisfied the hunger of the human spirit for wisdom and understanding better than anything else.  They also taught that the manna would re-appear.  That was what the people who lived a day-to-day existence heard and remembered.  So the crowd demands a “sign” of manna before they will commit to belief.  Jesus answers: He is the manna; He is the Bread of Life.

John is writing to argue against a Christian faith which does not go beyond a sign or which does not extend to what is signified. What does that mean? In this case, the words “sign” and “miracle” mean the same thing.  So, the miracle of Jesus multiplying the loaves and fishes was not just about everyone getting something to eat that day, it has greater significance and leads to deeper truth.  That miracle opened the door for people to have an insight into who Jesus was and how he will “feed” our souls for eternity.  We discover Jesus as both a gift of God and the one who gave his life so that we might live.

We do not celebrate the Eucharist just to have something concrete to remember Jesus. We celebrate the Eucharist to give thanks to God for Jesus and to open our eyes to who Jesus was and what he did to open the door to eternal life for us.  The Eucharist is not ours alone, but we are to share this bread, to multiply those who come here to learn and believe.  We join with each other around this table so that we might have understanding beyond bread.  We come for the sharing of our faith, to be in solidarity with fellow Christians in our belief, and support each other in making our faith obvious to others.

To end this passage, Jesus says, “I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” Jesuit Father Dennis Hamm said it best when he wrote, “Jesus is known to us, through faith, as the Word of God made flesh, and who was revealed most fully in his death and resurrection.  It is he who can satisfy our deepest hunger to know what life means and who we are in order to live it (fully).”

Faith that will save us

14th Sunday ordinary time, 7-8-18.

Ezekiel 2:2-5; Ps 123:1-4; 2 Corinthians 12:7-10; Mark 6:1-6

We pick up today in the Gospel of Mark where we left off last week. Between last Sunday’s stories about the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ robe and the girl who was announced to be dead, and today’s story, Mark gives us only 1 sentence of transition, “Jesus departed from there and came to his native  place (Nazareth), accompanied by his disciples.”

This is typical of Mark’s Gospel. If you want an eloquently told tale, then read Luke.  If you want a story told with the speed of a tractor-trailer on the Interstate, read Mark.  In fact, the Gospel of Mark tends to be so fast moving and bare-bones straight to the point, it has been called “the Passion of Jesus with a long introduction.”

But this story we read today is unique in other ways. First, we get a very harsh, negative rant from people about why Jesus was not the big deal that everyone was making of him.  Oh sure, they had no phones or texting or internet, but they had heard all about the miracles and the healing and the preaching that was so astounding.  But they didn’t believe it. They didn’t believe Jesus was capable of such things.  And furthermore, they were offended by Jesus and thought he ought to be back in the carpenter shop where he had grown up and doing the trade Joseph had taught him, talking about the weather and what was for dinner tonight.

Now think for a minute. If you were Mark, and you wanted to prove Jesus was the “Son of God”, would you tell a story about people who didn’t believe him, and a place where “he was not able to perform any might deed”? There are people, now, who will tell you that the “miracle of the loaves and fishes” was not so much as miracle as it was that Jesus got the people to openly share what they had.

But here, openly and remarkably authentic, Mark writes about Jesus being a failure in his home town. That ought to be enough motivation for us to ask “Why?? What is going on here?”  And Mark, in his brief and pointed way gives us an answer, “(Jesus) was amazed at their lack of faith.”

Say that again? “Their lack of faith”?  That needs an explanation. So we need to back up a little, to last week’s readings, and hear again what Jesus has to say about healing miracles and “faith”.  The woman who had been sick for 12 years thinks, “If I but touch his clothes, I shall be cured.”  Jesus’ response to her: “Daughter, you faith has saved you.  Go in peace and be cured of your affliction.”  The people from the official’s house said, “Your daughter has died.”  Jesus responds: “Do not be afraid; just have faith.”

So I turn to my old friend, Mr. Webster, to check out what this word “faith” means. “Faith” is used as a label for organized religious groups, such as, “what faith are you – Christian, Jewish,” etc.  Or we say, “I have faith in him, he’s a good guy, you can trust him,” Or “keep the faith” meaning continue to share a common goal. But then I find this in my dictionary: “Belief and trust in God.”  So we know that Jesus wasn’t doing a series of “Magic Acts” , he was not a clever trickster who just woke up sleeping girls or knew that people were hiding their picnic baskets full of fish and bread.  This has to do with belief, trust, and God.

The Catechism is also helpful in times like this. It says that “Faith” is a personal act where a person has the free choice to respond to God.  God is revealed to each of us, and some of us respond.  Faith is an interaction between a person and Jesus.  A relationship develops, and is nurtured in trust and love.  We see the same thing in human relationships.  If we have faith in our spouse, if we learn that we can trust them, we grow in love with them, and if it a mutual act, then we begin to have faith that that person will continue to be there for us, that we can depend on them, and they will be faithful to us.  Likewise, Jesus offers himself to us, and we can choose to willingly receive him and build an ever deepening relationship with him.

Does this help to explain why Jesus told the woman that her faith had saved her? Her “faith” was not just a moment, but a lifetime commitment of belief which would surely sustain her for all time.  Jesus told the girl’s father, to “just have faith”.  Both these people had made great effort to come to Jesus, to find him, to press thru the crowd, to risk shame & ridicule; they both came believing that Jesus was the solution to their unsolvable problems, that Jesus was the answer to their questions.

If “faith” is your relationship with Jesus, then your faith is mutual, having your life and your very being entwined in an unconditional and active intimacy with Jesus.   Those are words we can seldom use in our society, “unconditional and active intimacy”,  so different from the loneliness and isolation that is so common.

The opposite, of course, is when we shut down and refuse to respond, when we do not listen, when we turn away or deny the relationship. For it is not only the heat of criticism that stops faith from growing, but the cold of indifference and casual ignorance that is so common in churches. We shrug, we tell ourselves faith doesn’t really matter, or is irrelevant, and faith and love and caring wither away.

This was why Jesus was such a dud in the “old home town.” He opened himself to them, he came to teach and to help and to heal, and they would have nothing to do with him, other than to criticize and demean.  They wanted to have him be small and inconsequential in their lives, be there to make a table or chair when they wanted one, but not “interfere” in their lives or be part of their lives all the time.  They wanted him just to be the guy who lived on the corner, not someone they cared about or made sure they had a chance to talk to every day.  They didn’t want to really know him, but wanted him to be waiting when they needed a favor, just the status quo.  There was nothing to build a relationship on.

So, how do we treat Jesus? Is Jesus inconvenient for us?  Are we interested in really knowing him?  Or do we just stop by church when we have the time, expecting him to do a little carpentry work for us?  Do we want to have a relationship of trust and love?  Have we read our Bible enough to know what we’re missing?  Do we understand the faith we profess or seek out ways to learn more?  Do we have faith of the kind that will save us?

4 gifts from John the Baptist

Feast of St. John the Baptist 6-24-18

This is the last Sunday in our old location.  Next Sunday, we will have Mass at 11:30 at St. Timothy Episcopal Church, 432 Van Buren St., Herndon, VA 20170

Isaiah 49:1-6; Palm139: 1-3,13-15; Acts 13:22-26; Luke 1:57-66,80

 

Today I would like to look at 4 aspects from John the Baptist’s life which should be familiar and which are relevant to us as we leave this space and face new beginnings for Holy Trinity.

#1 Luke  1: 39-44 (John leaps for joy when The Blessed Virgin met her cousin Elizabeth)

“Elizabeth exclaimed to Mary, ‘Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb! For…when (your) voice…came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy.’”

John is a reminder to us that having Jesus in our lives is a great and wonderful gift – so great that the yet unborn John leaped for joy. When is the last time you felt the urge to leap for joy?  When were you last so filled with the Holy Spirit that you were moved to act out your faith in a new way?

John was the one who bridged the old and the new periods in human history – before and after Christ. John is the icon of new beginnings.  Holy Trinity is in a wonderful God-given period of new beginnings.  Let us feel the joy of a fresh start, a new chance to grow in love of the scriptures, and love of our neighbors.  Let us grow in the ability to share our faith.  Let us become people that are recognized as Christians because of our love.  May God bless us with the ability to grasp new ways to be church, in leadership, in outreach, and in worship. May we find joy in creativity and change as we are moved by the Holy Spirit.

#2 Acts 13: 22-26  (John’s humility, self knowledge & recognition of who Jesus was)

“One is coming after me; I am not worth to unfasten the sandals of his feet.”

I find John’s confession that he was not worthy to kneel down and untie Jesus’ sandal one of the great realizations of human history. Do you realize the implications?  If we understand what John said, it would be impossible to pollute or waste our natural resources because of the profound respect we would have for God and God’s creation.  There would never be wars, for we would obey God’s word – we would not kill or covet or steal; for wars are really fought over wealth and land and resources.

What if we admit our vulnerability and dependency on each other? Then we would know how necessary our neighbor is to us, and really value children, immigrants, and the elderly.

What if we knew Jesus when he came to us sick or hungry or a victim of violence? I can hardly image the change in our society if we knew ourselves and Jesus.  Humility, self-knowledge and recognition of Jesus are the keys to being true church where no one is greater than the other.  Everyone who comes in our door is seeking God at some level.  Our attention must always focus on the Divine in each person.  Outward focus on others can make our problems fade in importance.  Focusing inward, on ourselves, make us a barrier to God’s love.

#3 John 1: 35-42 John directs his disciples to follow Jesus

“(The day after John baptized Jesus) John was standing with 2 of his disciples, and as he looked, Jesus walked by; he said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples, Andrew and John the son of Zebedee, heard him…and they followed Jesus.”

John was an extraordinary man. He was not owned by his possessions or his prestige.  When Andrew followed Jesus, he also brought his brother, Simon Peter.  So John deliberately sent his followers to Jesus.  John was not concerned about counting his followers.  He was concerned with freeing people from their sins, with baptism as the symbol of their forgiveness and fresh start on life.  He knew his job was not the main event, but rather he was a messenger, to prepare the way of the Lord.  He taught that we are to “bear fruit that befits repentance.”  John reminds me of the old Methodist preacher who told me, “I’m not in administration, I’m just in sales.”  John knew that he was just bringing the faith to people, and was not in charge.

Most churches need fewer people who think they are in charge and many more that are out in the trenches of life, knowledgeable about their faith, focusing on love and the Good News of Jesus. We need to act like Christians!  John was working for God, and everything he said and did was for the glory of God, and not his own glory. The Holy Spirit is not bound by rite or ritual or human doctrine, and the church is not ours, nor is the space nor the possessions, nor the people, nor the future. It all belongs to God.

#4 Matthew 11:2-19  When John was imprisoned by King Herod & sent his disciples to Jesus

“John sent word by his disciples (to ask Jesus) ‘Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?’”

John was in prison for nothing more than telling King Herod that he should not have married his brother’s wife – he confronted immorality of the kind that tears the fabric of society. The letter that Bishop Ron has issued about asylum seekers coming into the US over the Mexican border is a present day example of how the Church must confront injustice and evil. John is our model for speaking out when leaders overstep their authority and damage the church or nation.  For that, John died a martyr’s death.

Consider that John, the last prophet of the old age and Jesus, the one who began the new age, both preached repentance and God’s love, and both died fulfilling their rightful place in God’s Kingdom.   John knew that Herod murdering people on a whim, and John had every reason to be fearful.  He had put his faith in Jesus, witnessed to his divinity, and, in a moment of despair, he needed reassurance that he had chosen well.  He had not lost his faith, but had serious questions, and he turned to Jesus for answers.

How do we respond when life is hard, when we are fearful and losing hope? Let us be a church where people can express doubt and fear.  Let us be a place where people are never silenced, but where people can express themselves and their opinions; a place where we can learn together and support each other, where we take care to listen before speaking and when we speak, we tell the truth.

John the Baptist has a great deal to teach us. John would be a good patron saint for this time of transition.  The real questions that face us are not Mass times or attendance.  John gives us the real questions: “How do we bring the message of love and forgiveness to our neighbors so that we all experience the joy of knowing Jesus?”  “How do we know ourselves so that we bring God’s Word to others with the gentle humility that comes from knowing God?”  “Have we identified what is really important instead of being stuck in the past or pretending ownership of that which belongs to God?” Finally, “Can we grow past fear and doubt by learning from and supporting each other with the truth Jesus gave us?”  I believe we can do these things, and we must, to fulfill the role we have in God’s kingdom.

“Do This”

Sunday of the Body and Blood of Christ 6-3-18

Exodus 24:3-8; Psalm 116:12-18;Hebrews 9:11-15; Mark 14:12-26

 

In the largest sense of human history, the Solemnity we celebrate today is the story of God’s relationship with all of creation; an intimate relationship of The Creator with the creation. Without the soil and the sun and the rain, the plants do not grow, and there is no food.  Without food, there are no animals.  Without God, nothing exists.  It is a good day to pause and remember our interrelationship and the necessary balances God established in creation to sustain life.

But meditating on the largest sense of human history can make us feel tiny, and we can feel too tiny to think about the enormity of it all. So, perhaps it is well to focus on the small parts of creation at a level where we can better grasp ideas that seem to impact our lives more personally.

Our reading from Exodus is about Moses sprinkling the blood of animals which have been sacrificed as peace offerings to God. Moses sprinkles the blood on the altar, as our rituals might have us incense the altar.   Then there is a reading of the covenant with God, and the people renew their vows to be God’s People and obey the commandments God has given them, just we renew our baptismal promises on Easter.

Then Moses sprinkles blood on the people, just as we sprinkle the water of baptism. But there is another side to this idea.  Our Eucharist speaks of “the cup of my blood”, the blood of Jesus which is shed for all so that sins are forgiven.  Today we have dozens of laundry products specially designed to remove stains.  Blood and wine are always first on the list of difficult stains to remove.   It is a startling idea that the blood of Jesus should not stain us and ruin us, but instead washes us clean of sin, removes all guilt and eliminates the need for punishment, allowing us to live eternally with God.

Our Psalm speaks of the “cup of salvation”. This Psalm could have been written by a contemporary Christian poet.  We take up the communion cup of salvation, calling on the name of the Lord, who has freed us from evil, selfishness and sin.  We remember our vows to God.  In order to give thanks to God, we must sacrifice our overinflated egos and all our “dead works”, as our 2nd reading calls our behaviors such as attempting to reduce God to an hour on Sunday.

So, like the early Christians, we experience the Body and Blood of Christ in the Mass as a sacrament, meaning an effective sign of grace, which works to give us divine life through the Holy Spirit. How did that look just after the first Pentecost? Well, in Acts 2:42 we find that (Christians) “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”  The identity of Christians, then, was formed in unity, unity in belief and charity, both of which were founded in Eucharist, centered in thanksgiving for the gifts of Christ’s body and blood.

Some twenty years after Pentecost, The Church in Antioch left us a manual of liturgical prayers which we call the “Didache”, Greek for teaching.  In about the year 100, Pope Clement wrote a letter to the church at Corinth, saying, “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might!” Ignatius of Antioch wrote to the church to “Confess the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ.”  In about the 150’s Justin Martyr wrote a detailed description of the Mass as it was celebrated in Rome.  We have historical evidence of the Mass in letters & prayers.

What was the impact of this Mass on the early church? The church had a growth rate estimated at 40% per decade, and by the middle of the 4th century, there were 33 million Christians in an Empire of 60 million people.  The Church Fathers quoted Malachi 1:11, “From the rising of the sun to its setting, my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, with a pure offering” –  as to say that always and everywhere in the Empire, the Mass was offered.

By then the Mass was called, “the Breaking of the Bread”, “the (once-for-all) Sacrifice”, “the Liturgy”, “the Mysteries”, “the Table of the Lord”, “the Lord’s Supper”, “the Altar”, and “the Communion.” But “the Eucharist” won out, because it was the Greek word for giving thanks, and Mark 14:23, Matthew 26:27, Luke 22:17, and 1 Corinthians 11:24 all used that word. Although great care was taken to keep the liturgy within Christian tradition, the spread of the Gospel from place to place included new and local ways to express worship, but the Words of Institution as found in 1 Corinthians 11 were kept intact. (“On the night when he was betrayed, he took bread and when he had given thanks; he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me…” Likewise the cup..)

We keep these words because Jesus commanded us to do so at a most solemn moment anticipating his death. St. Paul emphasized that this action is at the center of the church.  The cup “is the new covenant in my blood.”  Thus, all the subsequent generations have meticulously preserved the Lord’s words and actions as precious and divine.  The many ways that the Christian liturgy shares the prayers of our Jewish brothers and sisters is a fascinating study all by itself.

For early Christians, Mass was the meeting of heaven and earth. But the Mass was also preached as the unifying power of the church.  “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1Cor 10:17).  Ignatius wrote, “For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup to show forth the unity of His blood.”  Great reverence and care were taken with the elements, which were regarded as more precious than gold or jewels.  Likewise, clergy were to give careful attention to the worlds of the liturgy, and great emphasis was placed on John 6:51, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, they will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Finally, the disciples on the road to Emmaus did not recognize Christ when he opened the Scriptures for them, but rather in the breaking of the bread. In the same way, many millions of people have come to know Jesus after he ascended to heaven.  It reminds me of a quote from Pope Benedict XVI – “Evangelization is…the opening of the heart…(we are) agents of the Holy Spirit helping people have a profound experience of Jesus’ love…a love that opens them to the Word of God and the sacraments…”

We have here a sacrament of depth beyond our imaging, a sacrament which has roots in the earliest moments of creation. We have a liturgy for this sacrament which opens the hearts of people to God with the same power that it did centuries ago.  We have words and actions which we share with those who have gone before us and which we are responsible for passing on to those who come after us.  May the Holy Spirit lead us in this journey, may you find the fullness of God’s mercy and grace, and may Jesus remain in you as you partake from his table.