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?

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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.

Truth Comes To Us With Joy

Pentecost  May 20, 2018

Acts 2:1-11;  Psalms 104; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13;  John 15:26-27, 16:12-15

 

This is probably my favorite Sunday of the year. That may seem like a strange thing to say, given most people would choose Christmas or Easter.  But when you think about it, Christmas is the birth of Jesus, the joyful day we celebrate that God came to earth to be with us.   And Pentecost is the day that the Holy Spirit came to be with us on earth.

So why did the Holy Spirit come and what does the Holy Spirit do? Good questions!

Jesus says that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth and that the Spirit comes to us personally to tell us the truth. The Holy Spirit is the “Advocate”.  That title gives us some clues of what the Spirit does.  An advocate is a supporter or defender.  When we are having a difficult time, it’s really good to have a supporter.  A supporter tells you the truth about how you’re doing.  A supporter says things like, “That was really good.  Your hard work is really paying off and you’re really improving.”  A defender says things like, “Don’t worry about someone laughing at you.  You’re doing the right thing.  I will stand with you no matter what.” We all need supporters and defenders in our life.

An advocate also does things like ask if we can have a second chance to do something. An advocate really believes that we can learn to do things right after we have made a mess of something.  An Advocate prays and intercedes for us.

Let’s look more closely at our Gospel. Jesus says that the Spirit “proceeds from the Father.”  This is not to be confused with the theology of our Apostle’s Creed.  The point of what he is saying here is that the disciples… and all Christians… need the help of the Spirit as we share the Gospel in the world around us.  The Spirit “will testify” the truth to Jesus, and the disciples “will (also) testify” the truth to everyone around them – because they had heard the truth directly from Jesus all the time they had been with him.  We then carry that Truth forward, generation to generation.  WE can testify/ give witness/ share this truth because the Spirit is sent to us to personally tell us the Truth.

In Acts 1:8 Jesus says, “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses.” The image that comes to mind is one of being in court on the witness stand, having sworn on the Bible to tell the truth. We live in the “court” of the world, where we are witnesses about the Truth of Jesus.  We can do this with confidence only because we have the assurance that the Spirit does not speak on its own.  What the Spirit speaks is exactly what the Creator has spoken.

When Jesus tells us that the Spirit “will declare to you the things that are coming,” he is telling us in yet another way that the truth the Spirit tells us is from God. There are many verses in the Old Testament, such as Isaiah 46:9, which state that only God can declare the future.  Declaring things to come is not a privilege that false gods have.  An example is the dream Joseph had to take Mary and the Christ child to Egypt; God knew that Bethlehem would not be a safe place for them in the near future.

Jesus really presses this all home as he prepares to leave his disciples.   It would be normal and natural if we felt we could not possibly understand everything we need to know to share the Truth of God fully and correctly.  And Jesus assured the disciples, that there was more to know; he said, (there is) “much more” or “still many things” to learn, and we are just not able to learn it all at once.  That is why the Spirit stays with us, to guide us along the “way of truth”, reminding us that Jesus told us, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6)

We cannot begin to understand or even image all that Jesus did for us, until we live our lives, mature, experience many things, pray, and study the scriptures. As we grow in our faith, we grow in our ability to understand what seemed impossible when we were children or new in the faith.  “I have more to tell you” is a promise that we will have a deeper and fuller faith as time passes.  The things we cannot accept at one time are the things we may find to be a source of real consolation later.  God knows and has always known all truth; we struggle to grasp truth by bits and pieces at a time.  The Spirit is there to give us the precise truth we need at the moment we need it.  We might think of it in terms of always being fed the ideal food our bodies need in the exact way we will most enjoy at every single meal.

Then Jesus says, “(The Spirit) will glorify me, because he will take from what is mine and declare it you. I get confused when I read that.  When we glorify someone, we given them honor or high praise; it also means to worship someone as greater than ourselves.  We make clear our praise by doing something people can hear or see, like clapping our hands or bowing, by giving our very best things as a gift.  We glorify God when we worship, by kneeling or bowing or giving thanks, and also by sharing what we believe with other people and encouraging them to glorify God.  Likewise, the Spirit glorifies Christ by sharing with us the truth that we in turn share with our neighbors.  It becomes, not a duty or a burden, but a great honor and a privilege to be able to share the faith.

And this completes a pattern we have seen over the last three weeks. 2 weeks ago we talked about being chosen by God and remaining in Jesus.  Last week we read that as Jesus ascended, he told us to “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.”  Now, Jesus sends us the Spirit from God to better enable us to awaken our neighbors that they too have been chosen.  The Spirit remains with us so that we might grow in awareness of the teachings of Jesus and the fullness of truth in God.  In turn, we honor God as the Spirit honors Jesus.

May the truth which the Spirit speaks to you fill you with joy.