Friday, April 18, 2014

The Cross of Jesus Christ

April 18, 2014 –– Friday of the Passion of the Lord
Isaiah 52:13–53:12 / Hebrews 4:14–16; 5:7–9 / John 18:1–19:42
The Cross of Jesus Christ

One of the Christian writers who helped form my early Evangelical Faith once said, “Real preaching makes people feel the nails and the thorns.” This is right not only for the pain Jesus himself experienced for us, but also figuratively for ourselves. The cross is at the core of our Christian Faith. Any time we let ourselves drift too far from a “cross consciousness” we are going in a spiritually dangerous direction.

We should “refresh” our personal faith often. Reflecting on some basic perspectives is one way to reinforce our Christian commitment. I offer these:

When we sin (disobey God), we cause an upheaval in the nature of all creation that causes death.

The cross and death of Jesus shows us the true nature of perfect love confronting sin.

Every time I choose something that is in conflict with God and his character of holiness and purity and selfless love, I join my voice to those who scream, Crucify him!

There is not a day––not one moment––that I do not need the grace and mercy and forgiveness that Jesus made possible when he died on the cross.

And so we say with St Paul, May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ (Galatians 6:14a).



Thursday, April 17, 2014

Dying and Serving

April 17, 2014 –– Holy Thursday: Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper
John 13:1–15
Dying and Serving

In these three days of the Triduum we follow Jesus to the cross and his death. On this Holy Thursday we are drawn to the sacred Supper when Jesus, on the night before his death, gave the Church the Mystery of his own Body and Blood. He instituted the Eucharist and Holy Orders. He also instituted the ultimate commandment: Love one another as I have loved you.

But first, Jesus is going to his death. Whatever expectations and hopes the disciples had regarding Jesus, imminent death was not included. Peter’s shock at Jesus coming to wash his feet speaks for the disdain and avoidance we all usually feel for whatever seems distasteful and even demeaning to our own preferences and opinions of ourselves.

Jesus is going to his death, and on this evening with his disciples he shows how totally he embraced the role of humbling himself. Jesus “dies” in so many ways: to others’ expectations.... to the honor he had with the disciples as master and teacher.... to any way of promoting himself by plainly explaining what he was doing. The mystery of the greatness of God is made visible in humility of our Lord embracing a slave’s role of feet-washing. As Jesus prepares for his physical death, he is also revealing a “dying” to himself. This is how Jesus loves.

In our self-centered culture, anything that implies death-to-self is ridiculed, despised and even vehemently hated. All we need to do is listen to the mainstream response when the Church will not condone the If it feels good, do it mentality that is rampant in our society. Even among many confessing Christian Faith we find people wanting to feel good about self without first of all submitting that self to the death of the cross. We prefer to try to “heal ourselves” (or excuse ourselves!) instead of accepting God's verdict on our sins.

In this holy Triduum, as we follow Jesus to his death, we can choose truly to follow Jesus in his death by denying ourselves in order to invite the life of Christ to rule our own lives. It is out of this that we love others. The command to love––to lay down our lives for the good of others–– extends beyond Lent and into all areas of life.

Christian husbands and wives are challenged to deny their own desires and pleasures in order to love and serve their spouses. Christian parents sometimes need to deny their own desires and pleasures in order to love and teach and protect their children. Christian young people may have to die to the opinions of their peers in order be faithful to the Lord. Christians in business may need to put to death the desire to succeed at any cost. All Christians need to put to death any attitudes and values from social and cultural influences that are ungodly. It can be the greed of materialism that promises happiness with just one more "thing." It can be the lust of bodily appetites gone berserk so that physical gratification is the ultimate goal (whether it’s eating or sleeping or exercising or sexual promiscuity). It can be the “normal” response of always wanting one's "rights." Selfishness is always hovering over our shoulder.

There’s a story of a husband who often spoke of his great love for his wife. He would take her into his arms and tell her, “You are the love of my life; I would die for you.” But the story doesn’t stop there. One day the wife finally responded, “Well, while you’re waiting to die for me, I’d appreciate some help around the house!” It’s easy to say “I love you.” Choosing inconvenience and unpleasantness and even personal pain for the good of another is something else.

Jesus says, I [the master and teacher] have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do. Jesus wants his disciples to know that love means denying one’s own desires and pleasures in order to serve others. How do we know that we are committed to Jesus Christ? Is our faith just a good habit we have kept? Do we serve when it’s not convenient? Is our commitment to Jesus modeled by our love?


As Jesus goes to die, he asks us to follow him even there. On the same night that Jesus commanded us to remember his broken body and shed blood that rescues us from sin, he commanded us to demonstrate the new life he gives by loving and serving others. Every time we want our own way––to be selfish––we need to ask the Holy Spirit to let us see Jesus humbling himself before his disciples on this night before his death on the cross. This is the love of Christ. This is our Faith.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Why did Jesus have to die?

April 13, 2014 –– Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord
Matthew 2614–27:66
Why did Jesus have to die?

We are entering the week when we follow Jesus to the cross and his death. It is right and good for us to have this focus. St Paul exclaimed to the Galatians: May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ (6:14a).

Why did Jesus have to die? It is not a simple question with only one answer. Volumes have been written trying to give an adequate response.

A couple of weeks ago I was presented quite spontaneously with this very question. As I was leaving our Friday parish fish dinner, a young mother stopped me and wanted to know what to tell her four-year-old about why Jesus had to die. Okay, from volumes of theology to an answer for a child.....

The Lord had mercy on me. Why did Jesus have to die? The answer I gave that night is what I want to tell you today. 

Death is an awful reality in our world. All of us have to face death. It is awful because it seems so final. Jesus came into our world.... and died.... and came back from the dead to show that death does not have to have the last word.

When we follow Jesus (that’s what having Christian Faith means), we follow him to the cross. Following him to his death is the way he shows us we do not have to panic when we face our own death––or the death of those whom we love.

Jesus died so we can know that the love of God is bigger than death itself.







Saturday, March 29, 2014

Blind

March 30, 2014 –– 4th Sunday in Lent
John 9:1–41
Blind

The Scriptures use blindness as an analogy of sin. But there is a twist––a paradox: Those who are physically blind know it. On the other hand, those most blinded by sin are those who are most adamant about what they think they “see.”

Being able to see––spiritually––means:
––not being wise in our own eyes
––not merely looking on the outward appearance
––not embracing the views of those around us just because they are popular
––not even “adjusting” Christian Faith to our own perceptions

Seeing means looking first to Jesus.... and humbly accepting that we only know Jesus truly through the witness of the Church.


It is in coming to Jesus and His Church, admitting our own blindness, that we begin to see.


The Greatest Commandment

Friday: 28 March, 2014 –– 3rd Week in Lent
Mark 12:18-34
THE GREATEST COMMANDMENT

I think all of us must have heard someone say, "Well, it doesn't matter what your religion is as long as you love people." That kind of sentiment could be called "Dear Abby religion." "Love" is used to justify almost anything––from not going to church to non-boundaried sex. Some people even think Jesus was pitting a sentimentalized love against all organized religion.

What should be our response to God? How do we witness to God's life in us? Well, we need to start with what God has told us. We we cannot find God by ourselves. We cannot see the light unless God opens our eyes. The Scriptures are the record of God revealing himself, and Jesus Christ is the ultimate expression of who God is.

The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.... the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. As Jesus lived among the people who had been given God's commands there were questions. Perhaps the most important is in today’s Gospel: "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?" The answer Jesus gave takes us to the heart of God: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” The second is this: “Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these” (Mk 12:29-31).

At first, one might think the standard of the Old Testament's commands has been lessened––that as long as we mean well, it’s good enough. That's not what Jesus is saying. An earlier reading this week was Jesus saying: Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them (Matt 5:17).

Keeping God's commands is not merely outward behavior. Keeping God's commands is a matter of both pure inward desires and rightly ordered decisions. If we have pure desires above everything else, then we keep the first command––it is the pure in heart [who] see God. Then, if we truly love God, we will keep all the rest of the commands. The problem is that we are not able to love God just by “trying” (even if we try). We are broken people.

When Jesus gave this answer to the greatest command, he was not giving an easy way out. If we think "love" is easy, then we have not truly heard and seen what God has said about love. If we start with our own definition of love, we are putting ourselves first, and that by itself denies God.

Every one of us has something or someone we love most, and we ourselves are usually at the center of it. Jesus showed us what it means to love God most, and it’s a standard we cannot reach by ourselves. John writes in his first letter: ....this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another (1 John 4:10,11).

This brings us to the place where love can actually begin to work through us. When we see and truly believe that our sins can be forgiven only by Jesus having died in our place, how can we respond any other way than to love Jesus and completely give him our lives? After all, the only life we have is the one he has made possible by his death. It's not our life any more––it's his. That's what Paul meant when he said  I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Gal 2:20).

The death and resurrection of Jesus enables him to come live inside us. The Spirit of the same Jesus who died for us comes to live inside of us so that we enter into a relationship with the Father like Jesus had. Having a relationship with the indwelling God is what the Bible calls Eternal Life.

This is when the new commandment, the law of love, begins to be practical for us (i.e., when we can begin to think of "practicing" love). When we love Jesus because he died for us, he lives inside us, and we begin to find out what love is. Then and only then do we, first, love God. Jesus says this the first commandment. When we embrace the cross we begin to know what it cost for him to love us. We begin to understand that his commands are for our good, and not to deprive us. Of course, we do not love perfectly, but his Spirit is always calling us to forgiveness and transformation. Then our love will increase, because God living in us means God loving through us. “Love” is not merely up to us.

It is right to expect our love to begin to be like God's love. We know that God loves people (since he loves us), and so we want to love others the way God does (since it's his love that is in us). This takes care of the second commandment, loving our neighbor.

Jesus amplified this teaching of love in John’s Gospel: A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.  By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (Jn 13:34,35). When we understand that it's God's love we have been given, and it's God's love that we are to give, this teaching that is so misunderstood by the world does not seem so strange (although because of our human brokenness it's never easy). It is certainly not the kind of "love" that is so popular today as counseled in what I call "Dear Abby love." It’s not a not a mere sentimental love, but a love that exists and acts in all that it means to be holy. 


This call to love God and love our neighbor is actually a call to know Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Jesus, the Law, and Us

Wednesday: 26 March, 2014 –– 3rd Week in Lent
Matthew 5:17–19
Jesus, the Law, and Us

The scribes and Pharisees were some of the most outstanding people in the nation. The scribes were the people who spent their time teaching and expounding the law; they were the great authorities on the law of God. The Pharisees were the people who set themselves apart by following a rigid set of rules based on the law of Moses. Jesus contrasted all of that by his interpretations of the Old Testament. Jesus was not a scribe yet his authority was unlike anything used by the scribes. Jesus did not respect the observances of the Pharisees. He healed on the Sabbath. His disciples ate when their hands were ceremonially unclean. Jesus associated with the people that Pharisees avoided and called sinners. So it was said that Jesus did not respect the law of God as given in the Scriptures.

In contrast to that, hear the words of Jesus: Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them (v17). Some say the Old Testament portrays a jealous and wrathful God, and that the New Testament shows a God of love and mercy. But when we look at these words of Jesus we see that such ideas just are not true. There is a unity in all of Scripture, and the unifying factor is Jesus Christ himself.

One word in v17 helps us see this: fulfill. This does not mean "to add to something." Some people think the Old Testament started a certain teaching and carried it to a point, and then Jesus came and carried it a stage further. That is not what Jesus did. Everything was already there. Jesus made it clear. The meaning of fulfill is "to carry out." Jesus portrays the commandments of God. He illustrates them in real life. Thus he shows what obedience means for his disciples.

And there is good news is this: Jesus did completely fulfill the law of God. All that the Old Testament foretold and shadowed has come true in him. He has kept the law for us so that the law cannot condemn us. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2Cor 5:21). And because that is true, the same Jesus who perfectly fulfilled God's law comes, through his Spirit, to indwell those who believe in him. Just as Jesus obeyed the law, his Spirit in us motivates us and enables us to obey God––and not in some external, quantitative way like the Pharisees, but in a way in which our hearts respond to God and seek his righteousness.

The law is fulfilled in us, too, as we become his kingdom people. The life of Jesus in his kingdom people is the way God’s truth can be seen in the world today. Jesus fulfilled God’s law. As Jesus lives in us, God’s law is expressed even through us––that is why Jesus could say, You are the salt of the earth. . . you are the light of the world.


God’s law is beautiful to the Christian. Because of Jesus, it does not condemns us; it shows us what our Father is like. As we follow Jesus, we become like him, even as Jesus is like the Father. That is how things work in the kingdom of God.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Thirst of the Human Heart

March 23, 2014 –– 3rd Sunday of Lent
John 4:5–42
The Thirst of the Human Heart

Image is a big thing in our world. Advertisers work hard and spend millions to manipulate us into thinking that more and bigger and better and “beautiful” are sure ways to find fulfillment and happiness. Most of us are conscious of what we think others expect of us, and we usually “put our best foot forward” almost automatically.

This matches a brokenness in our hearts that we inherit from Adam. And like Adam and Eve did with God, we try to hide the things in our lives that show weakness or cause shame. We know that weakness and shame do not make us happy, and being “happy” is the one thing we think––and that popular opinion tells us––will give us fulfillment.

The human heart hungers and thirsts for fulfillment. We ache to be “satisfied.” It seems that every voice, both within us and around us, says “indulge yourself.” If you can get the applause of those around you, then the big SELF at the core of your being will find peace.

This is one way to understand the context of the woman who met Jesus at the well. She did not volunteer the whole truth, only a discreet and very partial truth: I do not have a husband.

Jesus brings the truth into the open (and not to belittle or condemn her, but to open the door to the true meaning of love). Again, we live in a world that runs from truth and a world that totally distorts love. “Love” is diminished and then used as tool for self-indulgence. This is destined for disappointment and pain because self-indulgence destroys love. They are mutually exclusive.

The “woman at the well”––as she has come to be known––was evidently using men (or allowing them to use her) in a search for “love.” This is not just an old story. This is happening all around us all the time. Our society has accepted it as normal and blesses it as a path to happiness. I do not know of any “happy” people who are living in a cycle of serial relationships.

At this point it might seem this story is about the misuse of sexuality and the need for chastity and purity. This could, indeed, be a sub-theme, but it is not the point of the Gospel. Regardless of what a person might use to try to find fulfillment or even grab a moment of happiness, this story is an invitation to consider the deep cry of the human heart. Perhaps “in the Church” we already know the answer. One popular quote by St Augustine is from his Confessions: You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you. But even if we “know” this, at least in our heads, it does not by itself take us where we need to go.

The true thirst of the human heart is for love, but not the distortion of emotional titillation or lust with their accompanying self-indulgence that the world calls “love.” Love is an acceptance of who we are in a context of what is truly right, good, and true. So much so that Love and Truth cannot be separated; this is why these two characteristics are ultimately defined within the Godhead.

The first way that Jesus loved this woman at the well was to bring her face to face with the truth about herself. Trying to hide behind an image or seeking love from something that is not true ultimately causes pain. It is when we face this reality that we are in a position to receive love.

When truth and love come together in a person’s life, the result is a deep and true happiness. After the truth-telling encounter with Jesus, the woman joyously went into the town inviting others to meet Jesus by telling them the one thing she had tried to avoid and cover: Come see a man who told me everything I have done. The only way such truth can bring joy is when it is coupled with true love. It is that kind of love that satisfies the thirst of the human heart.

Every one of us feels the pull to hide behind an image. All of us likely have things in our lives that we would not easily share with others. All of us are thirsty for true love.

There is a way to find peace and joy in the core of our lives. We see it in this Gospel story, and it is a paradox. Instead of hiding the things about us that make us weak in the eyes of the world, and instead of trying to indulge ourselves with the things that promise a bit of momentary relief, we are invited by a loving God––who already knows the full truth about us––to be honest with ourselves and invite his love and truth to reach deeply into the crevices of our hearts.

We can do this alone in the silence of personal prayer.

But because it is so easy for us to rationalize and excuse ourselves, our Lord has given us tangible help. We have the Sacrament of Confession. There is healing and relief when we are openly truthful about ourselves and receive the love of our Lord in return.

It is also good to be in spiritual direction with someone who helps us with both truth and love. It can be beneficial to have a spiritual accountability partner with whom we exchange truth and love.


Ultimately, we all desire what this woman at the well so deeply wanted: relief for the thirst of the human heart. Jesus is here to meet anyone who is willing to face their own truth. Jesus is here to give us the love that quenches the thirst of the human heart. We can know what the people discovered that day: We know that this is truly the savior of the world.

 
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