“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.

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The Trinity Today – in Action

Holy Trinity Sunday, 5-27-18

Deuteronomy 4:32-40, Psalm 33, Romans 8:14-17, Matthew 28: 16-20

 

We’ll start with a little background for our first reading. Josiah (Joe-zi-ah) became king of Israel about 600 years before Christ.  He took the throne when he was only 8 years old, after a series of wicked kings who had turned their backs on God. But Josiah led the people back to worshiping God.  The Temple in Jerusalem had been allowed to fall into disrepair, so he began renovations.  During the work, a “book” (scrolls) of the laws of Moses was found. (2 Kings 22) That “book”, according to Tradition, was the Book of Deuteronomy, from which our first reading is taken.

 

Deuteronomy is a series of three speeches by Moses, and ends with the death of Moses. In essence, this book records Moses’ last words.  The speeches not only repeat the Covenant that the Israelites had with God, but they interpret it in more contemporary terms.  Our reading today is the end of the 1st speech.  The question Moses puts to the people is this:  “Do you realize how great God is?”  He reminds the people that God created the entire world, including us – all human-kind.  No one else had ever claimed that their God had spoken to them.  No other god had claimed their nation for his own, had done wonders and miracles, and had protected that nation by military might, defeating a large nation like Egypt to bring the people out of slavery.

 

Moses also told the people that all this evidence demands that people must obey God’s commandments and keep God’s laws which will enable them to live a long and prosperous life. Our Psalm gives us the same message in a poetic way:  “By the Word of the Lord the heavens were made…the eyes of the Lord are upon those who fear him…to deliver them from death and preserve them in spite of famine.”

 

There was one problem with all this – the Israelites came to believe that they were the “Chosen People” and that God would always protect them and provide for them, however faithful or unfaithful they were to God. This was despite the clear instruction by Moses that when people are not faithful to God, they break the covenant, thereby removing themselves from God’s protection. It was Jesus who came to resolve this constant breaking of the covenant, when he said, “…this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant, which will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven.”

 

Our 2nd reading speaks of the Spirit of God leading the sons and daughters of God.  God’s spirit is not one of oppression or fear.  Instead the image used is one of God “adopting” us.  Each of us then enters the inner circle of family, enjoying the highest level of love and protection; we are raised as the siblings of Jesus.  The Holy Spirit assures us with this beautiful image of close and enduring relationship with God.

 

Finally our Gospel is the last paragraph of the Gospel of Matthew, and gives us the final words of Jesus. Notice the similarity to our first reading, which records the final words of Moses.  Following ancient tradition, the last recorded words of a famous person or a great leader summarize the goals of their lives, and leave important and final advice for their followers.  Our Biblical authors use the same tradition.

 

So Matthew writes that Jesus’ last words were words of assurance: “I am with you always…” But some people may be amazed at the other thing Jesus emphasizes.  “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me”, he says.  All right, that fits with our understanding of the Risen Christ.  But what are we supposed to do with that information?  Well, we are to make sure everyone knows it; we are to teach it; and we are to share all of Jesus’ teachings.  “GO, therefore,” says Jesus, “And make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

 

It’s one thing if you view this as some kind of abstract statement of doctrine, something that someone else is responsible for. “Let someone else do it,” we think.  We put a $20 check in the mail and let some overseas mission team help the Christians in Palestine or Pakistan or Puerto Rico.

 

It’s something very different if we understand that Jesus was speaking to us. In a 4-mile radius circle of where we are sitting right this moment are thousands of people, and I can assure you that there are lots people who have never heard the teachings of Jesus, nor been baptized, nor know that God loves them.  I have every reason to believe that Jesus was speaking to us, personally, calling us to action, expecting us to look outward to our neighbors.  This interpretation is supported by the parable of the Good Samaritan (who is my neighbor?) and the parable of the talents (if we fail to invest in God’s Kingdom, we stand to lose what little we have!).  Pope Paul VI made it clear when he proclaimed, “Evangelization is in fact…the church’s deepest identity.  The church exists in order to evangelize.” Pope Benedict told us 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.”

 

So Moses urgently begged us to view God as the Creator of our world and of life itself. In turn, we are to love God and willingly follow the path, the guidance, and the life style God has shown us.  The result is a close and deep relationship with God.  The Spirit brings enduring love to us that can never be broken or stolen from us.  And Jesus is with us always, helping us make sure that all our neighbors join in this love and intimacy of family.  It is a view of the universe which far exceeds all our prayers and longings – but it must start by our action, our reaching out, our sharing of the faith and the joy that God brings us.

Do We Hear God’s Voice?

4th Sunday in Ordinary time

Deut 18:15-20; Psalm: 95:1-2, 6-7, 7-9; 1 Corinthians 7:32-35; Mark 1:21-28

Our 1st reading today starts with a reminder of when Moses brought down the 10 commandments from the mountain (Exodus 20: 10).  There was thunder and lightening.  The earth trembled, the clouds were thick, and there was a sound like trumpets blasting.  It was scary; the people were afraid.  They believed that they could die from getting too close to God.  They never again wanted to hear the voice of God.

We believe God loves us, “and we long to see his face.” But have you ever wondered why God does not speak to us directly?  Have you ever said, “I wish God would just tell me the answer to my problems”? We complain that God does not communicate with us clearly, making it hard to know the right thing to do.

In Moses day, there was an answer to the problem – people were called to be “prophets”. A prophet does not foretell the future; a prophet just relates a message clearly and accurately from God to a person or a group of people.  Of course, that was no guarantee that anyone would do what the prophet said.  The Old Testament is filled with the stories of people who found God’s message too difficult, or found the advice of other people more appealing, which always lead to humiliations and hardships.

Our Psalm mentions one of the occasions when this happened. While traveling from Egypt to the Promised Land, God gave Moses and the Israelites manna and quail to eat.  But when they camped at a place which had no water, the people quarreled and rebelled against Moses’ leadership.  They still failed to trust when Moses told them that God would provide for them, even after they had eaten the manna and seen God’s strength lead them out of slavery in Egypt!  They rebelled against both God’s message and the prophet who brought the message.  That is why the place was named Massah (quarrel) and Meribah (rebel).  Once again, their fear had stopped them from hearing God.  The Psalm is a prayer that we might to be able to hear God without a messenger.

Finally, our reading from Mark follows immediately after Jesus calls Peter, Andrew, James and John from their fishing to follow him. It is the first time Jesus teaches in a local synagogue and does a healing miracle.  They know Jesus only as the son of Joseph, a carpenter.  The amazement of the people is somewhat skeptical.  How is Jesus able to speak and teach with more understanding and knowledge than even the scribes, who are educated, who read and write with ease?  Why is Jesus so sure of himself and teaches as one with vast experience and understanding? He is like a prophet who confidently announces words which come from God, and heals, too!

The unclean spirit in the man recognizes Jesus’ authority. The spirit cries out, literally shrieks in fear of Jesus, as Moses’ people had feared God.  The spirit is unable to disobey and leaves the man. The people debate among themselves, trying to understand what they have witnessed.  But they cannot deny what they have seen, and the news spreads rapidly.  The fame of Jesus builds as the people recognize, even if they do not name the source of it, his authority and his power.

If only Mark had recorded the teaching! We do not know what he said, only the stunning impact he created on the people.  It is hard not to wish we had been there to experience what amazed the people so. We also wish we had the clarity of Jesus’ teaching and his presence among us.

But we do! We have 4 Gospels, 4 different and fascinating records of the life, teaching, and miracles of Jesus.  We also have all the letters by Paul and others that have been saved. We have some 2000 years of church history and Tradition.  Many wise and faithful Christians have left their legacies, their lives, their writings, their studies for us.  It is an incredible and vast collection to help us grow in the faith.  We no longer have to wonder who Jesus was.  Jesus has given us the Holy Spirit; we have the Spirit indwelling in our hearts to guide us.

But what if we fail to read or study the teaching of Jesus? We are like people who read only the first paragraph of each chapter of a book and think they are ready to attend a book club discussion. We would be like students who don’t read the assigned text book, expecting a couple of important bulletin points to be emailed to them by the professor.  Hearing just short passages on Sunday robs us of the crucial settings and background of why, for example, Jesus told a particular parable.  Jesus often refers to Moses and Abraham – how can we understand those references unless we know those characters and their stories.

Have you ever been pressed to explain or defend baptism or the Eucharist, and had difficulty? Do we take the Traditions of the church seriously? Do we learn all we can about why we pray as we do, why we have the sacraments and the depth of their meaning? No wonder we are so hesitant to tell other people about our faith and what it means to us.  For our message to be attractive to others, it must include our knowledgeable and personal experience with God as Father, Brother, and Friend.

Perhaps we think God is silent because we are silent about God. Perhaps we have stopped listening to God and focused on all the “thunder and lightening” of our culture instead.  Perhaps we still fear God, because we do not yet know God.  Oh, that today we would hear God’s voice!

 

Homily August 6, 2017 the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord

trans 4Today’s gospel of the Transfiguration is from Matthew. Luke’s account is read in reading cycle 3 in Lent leading up to Christ’s passion. We also see today in the second from 2 Peter that the author writing in the tradition of Peter gives an eyewitness account to “this is my Beloved Son”. Why Jesus chose just three of his Apostles is not completely clear, but in some way he was preparing them for what was to come. The meeting with Moses and trans 3Elijah was very significant because of their place and importance in the history of the Jews. Jesus shining face was alluding to His place and his coming ascension to the Father. The idea of visions was not unknown in the Jewish tradition. The fear of the Apostles, we see assuaged by Jesus plus his charge to keep the whole thing secret for the time being.

For us, I think we can see as we look at all three readings that we are looking at Christ and our savior teacher and also as the resurrected-ascended Son of God. Clearly, it is a celebration of our faith and an affirmation of Jesus and his teaching us the way. It is another way of affirming: “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.”

The Continuing Miracle of the New Manna

Most Holy Body & Blood of Christ / Corpus Christi, 6-18-17

Deut 8:2-3, 14b-16a, Ps: 147:12-15,19-20, 1Corinth 10:16-17, John 6:51-58

             The Continuing Miracle of the New Manna

We started our readings today in Deuteronomy, when God fed the people with the miracle of manna as they escaped from slavery in Egypt.  God had told Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven” for you.  According to Exodus 16, manna was a daily reminder of the promise of God’s goodness.  Manna had never been seen before, never appeared on the Sabbath, was present for 40 years, and then stopped forever when the Israelites were able to eat produce in the Promised Land (Joshua 5:12).

Ps 78:24 reads, “Man ate the bread of the angels; God sent them food in abundance.” Wisdom 16:20 reads, “You nourished your people with food of angels and furnished them bread from heaven.”  This manna was recognized as holy, and a jar of manna was kept in the Temple’s most holy place with Ark of the Covenant.

It won’t surprise you that there were many Jewish Traditions about manna. One was that manna was kept in the Heavenly Temple where God dwells.  They believed that manna was an eternal reality, existing long before it “rained down” on the Israelites. Another Tradition said when the Messiah came, he would be a “new Moses” and manna would return to earth; the miracle of manna would again occur between the coming of the Messiah and the final resurrection of the dead/ the final judgment.  That, in fact, is the period of time we live in, and Jesus gave us the new manna.

Why am I telling you Jewish Traditions that are found in rabbinic writings from the first and second century? Well, here’s an idea for you: the whole context of Jesus’ bread of life discourse in the Gospel of John is centered on the Jewish hopes for the coming of a New Moses and the return of the manna from heaven.

Chapter 6 of John starts with the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000. Jesus, like Moses, provides all the bread (and more) the hungry crowd could eat.  The people “get” the symbolism and prepare to “take (Jesus) by force and make him king”, which fits their political interpretation of the role of Messiah.  They call out, “This is indeed the prophet (Moses) who is (prophesized) to come into the world!”  They pursue Jesus and demand a sign, saying that “Moses gave (the people) bread from heaven…give us this bread always”.

So Jesus responds, “I AM the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they (later) died; this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die.  I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever and the bread that I give… is my flesh for the life of the world.” (Jn 6:51)

Many of his followers were horrified! Jews in Jesus’ time had good reason to doubt.  Jews were directly forbidden to drink blood in the Law (Lev 17:11), because it contained the very essence of life, and to never eat the flesh of another human.  What Jesus said truly offended them, and they left him and returned to their former way of life.  They thought they understood, but they did not believe him.   Peter emphatically says he & the apostles believe, but not so much that they understand.  No one understood until Easter.

This is the point in the Gospel at which our lectionary stops, as do most homilies. However, it is also the point at which Jesus begins an explanation.  Obviously, Jesus is talking about the Last Supper – the elements of the Mass, and we have to return to the discussion of “manna”.  Once again, John uses “bookends.”  Jesus starts this part of the discourse with “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness” (6:48) and ends it with “This is the bread that comes down from heaven.  Unlike your ancestors, who ate and still died; whoever eats this bread will live forever.” (6:58) Manna is the teaching vehicle.  This is how it works: OT/ NT, prefiguration/ fulfillment, foreshadowing/clarity.   Just as Moses was a great father of the faith/ Jesus was the Son of God. If the old manna was “food of the angels”, then the new manna couldn’t be just bread…and wine, but the food of eternity for all people.

John’s Gospel provides us 2 keys to understanding. 1st key: Jesus says, “What if… you were to see (me) ascending to where (I) was before?”  Would it change your mind? Remember that Jesus claimed the authority to forgive sins (Mark 2); that he was the Lord of the Sabbath (Matt 12); and referred to himself as God by saying “I AM” (John 8) –when Moses asked God his name, God said, “I AM” (Exodus 3).  He had come from heaven and was divine.  God.  The discussion has changed from human to divine.

2nd Key- equally important-Jesus says, “It is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh (a Greek expression meaning earthly things, not meat) is of no avail.” (John 6: 63) What you see & touch on earth can’t create life.  Instead, he was talking about his risen body and blood; his resurrected body is Spirit, the Spirit of Life.  His body then was no longer bound by earthly time, form, or space, as we know from the post-resurrection appearances.  We are no longer talking about daily earthly events.  We moved to the rhelm of eternity.

The Spirit came with the appearance of the familiar, yet fully divine. Jesus links his resurrection to our resurrection when he says, “(They) who eat my flesh and drink my blood (meaning the fullness and very essence of the eternal God who created life) have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.” (John 6:53-54). Jesus said, “God is Spirit” in John 4:24, and now says, “It is the Spirit that gives life”.  Bread feeds our cells and allows us to live on earth; the manna of the Mass feeds us for eternal life.

I was thinking as I wrote this that if I showed my cell phone to the disciples, they wouldn’t have understood it. We have difficulty understanding the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.  Thinking of eternity in the mystical sense is more than tough for us.  Yet, I can’t describe what I feel when I kiss the altar nor can I count the number of people who have believed in the Eucharist thru the years.  Even Melchizedek, in the time of Abraham, already seemed to have this “bread & wine” ritual.  I know this: it must be from God.  As you receive today, focus on that fullness of life, the resurrected Christ in these elements, and know that he is able to bring you, pure and made whole, into the presence of God. It is God’s gift to you, so come in faith and give thanks.