Jesus and the level playing field

26th Sunday Ordinary time, 9-30-18

Numbers 11:25-29; Psalm 19:8-14, James 5:1-6, Mark 9: 38-48

I was talking to a priest friend a couple of weeks ago, and we were discussing how to make our faith lives more meaningful. She said she had bought a “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelet.  I was pretty skeptical that a bracelet would help; I asked, “Really?” “Yes,” she said with great enthusiasm, “It makes me think about what I’m doing, and ask if Jesus would do it.”

And that is exactly what all of our readings are about today. They all are “rubber meets the road”/ “what would Jesus do” situations.  If you heard Fr. Joe’s homily last Sunday, you heard him explain that a child was the least valuable person in a household in Jesus’ day.  A child was not an asset, but a liability!  And yet Jesus teaches that if anyone welcomes a child into their life (and we can expand that to mean any social outcast or any marginalized person), then they welcome Jesus into their life, and not only welcome Jesus but also God.

Our reading in Mark begins today with the very next verse; you could call it an attitude adjustment session. John speaks up and asks about a man he saw performing a healing miracle in the name of Jesus. This is the same John who was arguing last week about being the greatest of the apostles. John would like to shut that healer down, since that man wasn’t with Jesus and the apostles.  He says, “We tried to prevent him from doing it”. That guy was a “them” and not one of “us”.  Jesus says, “Don’t stop him!  If he can do a miracle in my name to heal someone, at least he won’t be bad mouthing me!”

This is a wonderful answer, so very practical, with a touch of humor. At the same time, it tells us exactly what Jesus would do when confronting prejudice, or exclusion by someone who thinks they are elite and an insider, someone who imagines they have  privilege and priority over others just because of the people they know or travel with.  Some people always try to make the circle smaller.  By that I mean, they want to keep the power for themselves. They want to only associate with people who will agree with them.  Jesus is always making the circle bigger, including non-Jews, a tax collectors (Matthew), women, (like the one who washed his feet with her tears), political activists (Simon the zealot), a thief (Judas), fishermen (Peter/James/John),  and Paul (a Pharisee-of all things- and tent maker), to name a few.

Wait, there’s still more about any ideas of feeling superior. What about the poor and the needy?  Jesus has a way of making this very personal to the apostles.  There must have been many times that an apostle was given a cup of water on the long, dusty road to Jerusalem (no vending machines).  Jesus says that a person will be given a reward by God for as simple a thing as giving a follower of his a drink of water. In Luke, the apostles wanted to call down fire on a Samaritan village that wouldn’t give them water. (9: 54) A cup of water was important, just like many simple kindnesses we can do for others.  People can be rich or poor and still need kindness.  There is no “us” or “them” for Jesus.  Jesus is the ultimate level playing field.

What about the “children” of the world- those who are innocent, or naïve, those who are not clever, not quick, not wise, not experienced; those who have no one to protect or teach them, those who struggle with their faith or are easily led astray? There is no “me” and “you” in the kingdom of God, but there are severe consequences for taking advantage of the vulnerable or using them unfairly – like being thrown into the sea with a millstone around their neck! Have you ever seen a millstone? It doesn’t take a WWJD bracelet to figure out Jesus’ attitude toward those who prey on the vulnerable.

Finally, we get the three ways Jesus uses the body to give us an image of how important our choices are. Your hand, your foot, or your eye, he says, is a small price to pay to avoid sin and the punishment of “unquenchable fire.”  But loss of a hand or foot or eye is an enormous loss; the loss is great to illustrate how very great the consequence is.  Jesus is suggesting, of course, that while old habits die hard and change is difficult sometimes, we must change our attitudes, our thoughts, and our behaviors to be his followers.

But there is another lesson here, equally important or possibly more so, about our desires to feel “greater”. To understand, we must look more closely at Jesus.  Two weeks ago I asked you, “How do we, on 1 hand, confess that Jesus is the Christ, and on the other hand, accept the violence and shame and humiliation of the cross?”  Jesus tells the apostles three times that he will be killed; he will die at the hands of men in Jerusalem. St. Paul wrote “We preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and foolishness to the Gentiles.” (1Cor1:23)

Some people found the humility of Jesus to be ridiculous, absurd. The Messiah, they thought, would come with thousands of angles, who would wipe out the Romans, and take control. They expected a strong, military leader, like King David, who would use force to set the world right – or at least, right for them.

Yet this Jesus was the Son of God? Who allowed himself to be berated and ridiculed, beaten and whipped, tortured and crucified? He traveled with “lowlife” fisherman, people who were sick, and known sinners, instead of demanding the power and status of a god.  Jesus held no property, had no job or income, had left his family and never used his popularity for political gain.  James says “He offered no resistance (to his death).

Can people look at me and see anything that looks like Jesus?  Does my life show humility?  I think I need to have 2nd chances on some things.  Can others tell I am a Christians even I never speak?  Can we live as the last of all and the servant of all?  Maybe the behavior of Christ speaks even louder than his teaching, and “What Would Jesus Do?” is, in fact, the pivotal question.

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Hear, see…..and do!

25th Sunday Ordinary Time September 23, 2018

Wisdom 2:12, 17-20, Ps 54:3-8; James 3:16-4:3; Mark 9:30-37

Last Sunday we “saw” our readings in the very center of Mark’s Gospel. Jesus is beginning to reveal himself for who he really is.  The readers, like the disciples, are beginning to see the true face of Jesus – his actions, his teaching, his miracles come together  to prove him to be the Messiah.   While the Gospel might at first look appear to be simple, we are finding the arrangement of the events and teachings are carefully woven together.  This Gospel can be compared to a complex tapestry.  If we look at the reverse side first, we see the colors, but the pattern seems random and disorganized.  Only when we turn the tapestry over to the front, we see the artistry and the picture that those many threads were woven together to create.

So, again as last week, our lectionary has omitted some important and relevant events. Shortly after Jesus’ teaching about his upcoming crucifixion, death and resurrection, he takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain to witness the transfiguration.  Jesus’ appearance changes, they hear the voice of God, and see Elijah and Moses.  What Jesus has said is now experienced by the 3 apostles.  It strengthens Jesus for his upcoming death, and better prepares the apostles for the trauma of his death and the shock of his resurrection.  Again, Mark wrote his Gospel as if it was it was a picture being woven– the readers, along with the apostles, are given threads that must be assembled, with the resurrection and Pentecost completing the picture.

They come down the mountain from the transfiguration. The disciples who stayed behind have tried to heal a boy who has had terrible seizures since birth.  They are unable to heal him, and the Jewish scribes are verbally attacking them.  Jesus intervenes and heals the child, then takes the disciples aside privately.  No doubt the disciples are embarrassed and saddened at their failure, and ask Jesus what went wrong.  He replies that “This kind (of illness) can come out by nothing except prayer.”  No matter how well trained, how gifted, how experienced, or how well intentioned we are, our ability to overcome struggles, temptations, and evil all rely on God’s strength, not our own.  Prayer connects us to God, and allows God to heal through us in ways that are impossible otherwise.  This incident, directly following the transfiguration, should have made crystal clear to the apostles the difference between human beings and The One True God.  It should do the same for us.

Our reading begins with the disciples alone with Jesus, walking through Galilee toward Jerusalem.  For the 2nd time, he says, “The Son of Man is being delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him.  And after He is killed, He will rise the third day.”  The statement, a repeat of what we heard last week, is delivered in the third person.  Jesus does not say “I” but by the title of “The Son of Man”, stressing his divinity, and making clear this is a true prophecy of a divine event.  This is not a magic show contrived by a man.  This teaching draws in all that the disciples have watched, heard, and participated in over the last few weeks.  Like us, they struggle with the intense needs of the people around them, their own desires to control what happens in the future, the (somewhat selfish) pride they feel from being in the center of attention as they travel with Jesus, and the fear they experience as the Temple leaders threaten them and the very life of Jesus.  If Jesus will be killed, what will happen to them?  Jesus has told them to “Take up their cross”, and follow in his foot steps. They were afraid to ask, probably because they were afraid to know.

Their response is very human. Their fears become anger, and in their anger they try to grasp power.  It’s an attempt to deny that they are not in control of the situation.  I strongly expect their emotions were obvious, for on arrival in Capernaum, Jesus asks, “What was it you disputed among yourselves on the road?”  Embarrassed by his question, they realize their big posturing and proud words were really just cover for their feelings of fear and inadequacy. It’s something that frightened people do, regardless of age. It’s why politicians and salesmen tell you that you are in harm’s way and that something terrible will happen if you don’t buy their product or vote for them.  Fear is a very old way to control people who have not listened to wise teaching and/or searched out facts.  So now Jesus has their attention, and he teaches the facts that will remove their fear.

How can we say this in modern language? If you want to be a leader, your concern must not be centered on yourself. Your attention must be on the people around you.  Instead of striving for wealth and possessions, you must use wealth to see that others have what they need.  You must use your influence and position to ensure others are treated with compassion.  Grasping power and status will not calm your fears. Instead, ease the fears of others with truth and transparency and wisdom.  Reach out to the “children” of the world – people with physical and emotional problems which limit their chance to gain employment, safe and decent housing, and access adequate education and training.  Mentor those people who do not have support from their families, those who have lived with fear and bullying, abuse and neglect, those isolated in prisons and institutions.  Treat those who are considered the “least” in our society as the most valuable, uncover the value of those people which awaits underneath the pain of their past.  In doing this, you will find not only your own value, but you will find God.

How to do this? We don’t need to just talk about it, but actually do it.  Let’s start by getting more information from St. Timothy on their many existing outreach programs.  Many programs need time more than they need money.  It is what Jesus asked us to do.  It will be rewarding to work with other Christians who share our goals.  It will bring us closer to God.  Why not?

Can You See it Now?

24th Sunday Ordinary time, September 16, 2018

Isaiah 50: 4c-9a; Pa 116:1-9, James 2: 14-18, Mark 8:22-37

At first glance, the Gospel of Mark may look like a bunch of stories about Jesus strung together randomly. Only does it begin to make real sense when you realize how very carefully the stories are arranged to illustrate what Jesus is teaching.  Today’s Gospel is an ideal example of that.  This is why I have copied the paragraph below which comes just before the reading in the missal – the two are meant to go together.                                                                                                                                                           (Mark 8: 22-26: When they arrived at Bethsaida, they brought to him a blind man and begged him to touch him. 23 He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. Putting spittle on his eyes he laid his hands on him and asked, “Do you see anything?” 24 Looking up he replied, “I see people looking like trees and walking.” 25 Then he laid hands on his eyes a second time and he saw clearly; his sight was restored and he could see everything distinctly. 26 Then he sent him home and said, “Do not even go into the village.”)

We are reading from the center and pivotal point of the gospel of Mark – up until this point Jesus is portrayed as a sort of “mystery man” by Mark. Jesus is full of secrets and hides his true identity from people.  Now the mystery begins to be revealed.  Jesus gives the first prediction of his Passion / crucifixion, and then goes on to discuss the cost of the discipleship.  He suddenly speaks very plainly and openly.

So we begin the reading with a man who has lost his sight. Jesus takes him away from the crowd, and puts his hands on his eyes.  The man sees, but the images are distorted.  He only sees men walking who are near to him, and they look like trees.  Then Jesus puts his hands on his eyes again, and has him look up, out into the distance.  This second time, the man sees clearly.  Just like last week, the healing fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah’s description of the Messiah.  This healing is unique, in that is in two parts, for near sight and far sight.  Why is that?  Hold that question for a couple of minutes, for the disciple’s spiritual eyesight will also be tested in this Gospel reading!

After the healing, Jesus and the disciples set out for Caesarea Philippi. They go out of their way to go there.  Where is their final destination? In fact, they are now walking toward Jerusalem for the final time.  Why a side trip to Caesarea Philippi is relevant?  In ancient times, this area, now known as Balinas, was the center for Baal worship, the idol-god of the Phoenicians.  The prophet Elijah had the show-down with the prophets of Baal there over what God the Israelites would worship. We know the area in the Old Testament by the name of Canaan, now called Lebanon, north of Israel.

The Greek mythological god Pan, was said to have been born in Caesarea Philippi also, in a cave where the waters of the Jordan River originate.  Finally, a temple was built in Caesarea Philippi for Caesar Augustus, ruler of the Roman Empire.  Augustus was declared a god shortly before Jesus was born.  What an interesting place Jesus chose, to bring the question of his identity out into the open!  Was Jesus a mere man, a myth, or the Messiah?   The debate continues still today, but any choice eliminates the others.

So we start with, “What do others say about Jesus?” The answers are John the Baptist, Elijah, or other prophets- answers which are all variations on the idea that Jesus is a great and unique man, but still, a human being. But the moment for truth is when the 2nd question is asked: “Who do who say that Jesus is?”  Peter gives the answer we treasure: “You are the Christ.”  It is a confession of faith which is probably stuns everyone to hear it said out loud.  Now it’s no longer speculation, no longer whispered or hesitantly suggested in a round-about way.  Still, Jesus knows Peter and the rest do not fully understand yet what being the Christ means, so he tells them not to tell anyone else.  They will be ready to tell others only after the resurrection and ascension.

In many ways, Peter is like the blind man. He can see Jesus up close as the Christ.  He can recognize the Christ from his teaching, his behavior, and his miracles.

But Peter’s far sight, his ability to understand why they were on their way to Jerusalem is not so good yet.  When Jesus openly launches into the topic of suffering, torture, rejection, and crucifixion, as well as resurrection, Peter reacts like a man still blind; he did not see that coming, and he cannot see the far-reaching implications of his identification of Jesus as the Messiah (Hebrew) or Christ (Latin).

If you think about it, Peter’s reaction is really quite appalling! He is sharp and blunt with Jesus; he tells him off as if Jesus were a fool.  He scolds Jesus as if he is entirely wrong and confused,  like an errant child.  But that doesn’t last long.  Jesus responds even more sharply, calling Peter, “Satan”!  Jesus tells Peter he is short-sighted, blind to the things of God, and he can only see the short-term desires of a selfish man.

Then Jesus gathers the rest of the people around him to press the lesson home. To follow Jesus, a person cannot expect to have wealth, power, social status; Jesus will not become one of the religious leaders, a ruler in a palace, he will not have a great army.  He will be humiliated, ridiculed, and give himself over to those who value political gain over honesty and honor.  Jesus has given up his home, his family, the security of the carpentry shop, and is putting his future into the hands of evil men.

When I read about miracles like the healing of the deaf and mute man last week, or the healing of the blind man today, I think of all those people who have given up on God. They have prayed for healing for a loved one, only to have a broken heart when there was no healing; only suffering. They say Christianity is a lie, because their life never worked out, good behavior was never rewarded.  Yet Jesus turns around these expectations.  Life will be painful and seemingly tragic.  The search for “security” can lead to loss.  Freedom and material success are not promised. Relationships disappoint.

We are to live with eternity in mind, not just today. We are to live to glorify God, not ourselves.  We are to gain our soul, not an estate.  We are to take up our cross, not search for a crown.  So how do we confess that Jesus is the Christ, and accept the cross both?  How do we face conflict and struggle and not lose our faith?  How do we become real agents for social justice and compassion?  These are the questions that Jesus is asking us to answer, and we will continue with this theme for the next 2 weeks.

Astonishment

23rd Sunday Ordinary time, September 9, 2018

Isaiah 35:4-7a; Psalm  146; James 2: 1-5; Mark 7: 24-31

When kids go back to school, they tell their friends and classmates about their summer vacation. When adults return to work after a summer vacation, they tell their co-workers about where they went and what they did.  It may sound a little odd at first, but our Gospel reading today tells about Jesus’ “summer vacation”.

Jesus started his ministry by teaching the people at the local synagogue, and he healed a sick man there. The people were amazed!  Soon everyone was talking about Jesus, and all the people in the city gathered around the house where he was staying.  So many people came to see him and hear him that he had to go out in the countryside to have enough room.

All this was good. But some of the religious leaders from Jerusalem became jealous because Jesus had become famous.  They wanted to be in charge, they wanted to be in power.  So they started charging Jesus and his followers with sins – they didn’t want Jesus to heal the sick on the Sabbath, they even said that Jesus was evil, a terrible lie.  But Jesus kept on teaching and healing and even raised a little girl who had died back to life.  He was so busy that he and the apostles had no time even to eat!  People followed him, and when he walked from one village to another, a new crowd was waiting for him. People recognized him, where ever he went   He was working non-Stop!

Then Pharisees came to criticize him again for not washing his hands according to tradition. Jesus told them that what we eat or some dirt on our hands isn’t evil, but the evil we do comes from within us.  It comes from what we think about and our failure to love God with all our hearts. The Pharisees were really angry with him, wanting to end his teaching & healing permanently.

Now, we’re all glad to go on vacation because we work hard, we’re busy, we need time for rest, to get away and do new things. If you think your life is hard, and that no one understands, you need to talk with Jesus.  Sit down and tell Jesus that you work too hard, the demands are too great, and people around you are cruel.  He’ll know exactly what you’re talking about.

So Jesus told his apostles, “Come away to a lonely place, and rest a while.”  Jesus and the apostles got away from the crowds and the threats of the Pharisees.  They got out of town, out of the country of Israel, away from Galilee, to the region of Tyre and Sidon (sy’don).  It was very different there – the culture was different.  And would you believe it?  Immediately, a woman with a sick child had heard of Jesus, and came and fell down on the dirt in front of Jesus and begged him to heal her child, and she kept asking him, over and over.

So, here’s what you need to know to understand what he said to her: She was Greek, meaning she is not Jewish, as Jesus was.  The Jews referred to themselves as “The Children of God”.  Jesus is not calling her or her child a dog.  He is saying that any Father (God) would feed his children before he would give that food to dogs, even cute little puppies.  Remember the interaction he’d just had with the Pharisees.  They were religious; they spent their days studying the Scriptures.  Yet they had not only tried to block his teaching, they had refused to listen, and they were even plotting against him, calling him “evil”.  But she answers with deep humility; all she wants is a little crumb of healing for her girl.  She does not want riches or power or social status or fame, but only enough for her daughter to be well.  What a contrast between this mother, who has thrown herself at Jesus’ feet, desperately begging for a crumb, and the Pharisees who threaten Jesus in their jealousy of his God-given power by which he helps people.  Jesus praises her, and assures her the child had been cured.

The rest of Jesus’ summer vacation must have been the quiet and restful time he and the apostles had been wanting, for we hear no more of Jesus until he has returned to Galilee.  It’s a walk that could have taken months.  And now, like you, he is back to work. He is surrounded by crowds again. A man is brought to him who was deaf and whose speech couldn’t be understood.   We have that word, “Ephphatha” (ef-fa-tha’), an Aramaic command to open, which gives the scene real authenticity.  And immediately, says the Gospel, he could hear and speak plainly.  Jesus says to tell no one; the crowd is already so large.  Perhaps Jesus even thinks back to those quiet times he had on vacation. But the word spreads quickly.  “And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, He has done all things well; he makes both the deaf to hear and the mute to speak,” they say, coincidentally matching the description of the Messiah in Isaiah 35.

When was the last time you were astonished beyond measure? When was the last time you heard something that left you breathless and so delighted that you were at a loss for words?  Do you even remember?  But there are those days when a heartfelt prayer is answered, when you laugh and cry at the same time; and those moments always seem to come from The One who does all things well.

Perhaps this day of Homecoming should not only be a day of returning to Church, and all the opportunities for worship and service, but also a day to return to astonishment, the type of astonishment that comes from a deep and certain confirmation that Goodness is alive and well and available to us in this world.

Perhaps it is time to get away from the anger and hatred of the Pharisees, and go to love and desire to help others, like the Mother. It is time to seek healing from God, like the deaf man.  Change always takes courage, but the littlest crumbs from God’s table are enough to cure the soul. It is always the season for a change of heart.  The time to open our ears to hear God and speak out clearly about God’s love is always right now.

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.

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.

Culture and Changes

19th Sunday Ordinary time, August 12, 2018

Texts:  Kings 19:4-8; Ps 34:2-9; Ephesians 4:30-5:2; John 6:41-51

We continue to read from the Gospel of John, chapter 6.  Two weeks ago, we read the miracle of the loaves and fishes, where Jesus fed a crowd of 5,000 or more people with 5 barley loaves and 2 fish.  Everyone ate as much as they wanted, and still there were leftovers.   We also learned that John’s Gospel was primarily written for people who had already accepted Christianity, and John’s goal is to deepen their faith and their understanding of Jesus.

Last week we found Jesus trying to enlarge the crowd’s understanding of “bread” and “work”; he told them to not work for food which perishes, but for food that leads them to eternal life. They ask Jesus for manna, the heavenly bread that God gave the Israelites after they escaped Egypt.  Jesus responded that God gives the true bread from heaven, and they ask for that bread.  Jesus then says, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” He talks of becoming close to God, of gaining wisdom and understanding.

We pick up there today, and we begin to notice some changes in the way the story is told. First, we start off with “The Jews” murmured about Jesus because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”  In our first two readings, the crowd is referred to as “the people” or just “they”.  Suddenly they are referred to as “the Jews”.  That label, in John’s Gospel, indicates unbelievers, especially those hostile to Jesus in Jerusalem. The crowd came looking for free food, and they are disappointed that no magic bread has appeared.  They are critical because Jesus said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” Oddly enough, John did not record Jesus saying that exact statement in the previous verses.

There are two pieces of Mediterranean culture you need to know to understand this scene. First, “Honor” was very important, and honor required that a person stay in their family’s social status, maintain it, and never consider “getting ahead.” Unlike our culture, any attempt then to raise your social status or behave differently from your birth status was shameful because it was seen as divisive and disruptive to the community. Second, the way that people were pressured to follow the rules of society was to be sharply criticized and shamed. So the crowd immediately and bluntly reminds Jesus of who his parents are (not from heaven) and what their social status is, in attempt to belittle him and “keep him in his place”. Jesus tells them to stop complaining.

John used the exact same word for their “murmurs” (or complaints) as is used for the complaints of the Israelites in Exodus (the people who received the manna from God). Those people were portrayed as shallow people who had just been divinely rescued from hard labor and slavery and were not only ungrateful but outrageously rude to and demanding of God. The crowd who, a few verses ago, had difficulty grasping the symbolism of bread now sounds like Rabbis arguing about scripture. Now they use the formal “How can he say” format that was traditional when debating a meaning of the scriptures.

The crowd is behaving just as the label “The Jews” would indicate, with hostility. So Jesus offers the crowd an alternative to hostility. He says, “No one can come to me unless the Father…draws him…” Draw means to “bring near”. In this case, it means to bring someone near to Scripture, and open to them the knowledge of God. For John, when we listen and learn from God, we become close with/ near to Jesus. Jesus quotes a verse from Isaiah 54:13, that in the New Jerusalem, in the last days, “(the people) shall be taught (directly) by God”, a very personal relationship indeed.

It seems that someone different wrote this part of our reading, maybe a later editor added something or changed it. Biblical studies can be complicated by such events. We don’t have the originals of any of the Gospels, only copies that have been made by scribes whose tedious jobs were to copy them by hand, and the copies do not always agree. We do not know for sure who the original writers were, and who may have changed or added information, and Bible experts do not always agree even to what the author meant.

This is a good place to look at our other readings. In 1st Kings, we see the angel of God bring bread to Elijah, who was in deep despair and exhausted. It was a way to heal and restore Elijah to health and wholeness; it shows great care and gentleness. Likewise, the 2nd reading urges us to be kind, compassionate, and forgiving. Bitterness, anger, shouting, abusive language, and intent to harm or injure others has no place in our lives and grieves the Holy Spirit. We are to imitate God, living in love as Christ loved us. The Psalm urges us to “taste and see” how good God is. All 3 readings speak of God’s love and goodness.

So today we had new and different language (“The Jews” instead of ‘the crowd);  we have the mood of the crowd change, as they belittle Jesus. Last week, I said, “The miracle of the multiplication of the loaves opened the door for people to have an insight into who Jesus was and how he will “feed” our souls for eternity. Now, we have a new image for the bread, a more traditional Eucharistic image of the bread as the body of Christ. Now Jesus says, “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.” This is the introduction of another way of viewing bread, one that speaks strongly of the Eucharist rather than just manna/bread and learning wisdom and coming to understand God. And that is where we will pick up next week!  Join me then!