Sunday, August 16, 2015

Jesus in the Eucharist…. Jesus in Us

August 16, 2015 –– 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Proverbs 9:1–6 / Ephesians 5:15–20 / John 6:51–58
Jesus in the Eucharist…. Jesus in Us

Perception affects us far more than we usually realize. Our “personal perspective” shapes what we understand as reality. This is true on so many levels: gender, age, family system, race, religion, social and national identity, education…. A comprehensive understanding of reality can be known only to God. This is why people need what theologians call revelation (God “revealing” to us what we otherwise would not recognize nor understand). It is also why we need the Church––a faith community with continuity that can make reasonable claim for trustworthiness and authority. As individuals we are just too limited to discern reality and truth.

This is one of the reasons I became Catholic. As I will make clear a bit later, I came into the Church from a wonderful tradition. Yet no Christian tradition other than the Catholic Church has the fullness of Christian Faith. That leaves Catholic people with a lot to live up to.

My early Christian formation was in a tradition that did not recognize the literal Body and Blood of Jesus in the Bread and Cup of Communion. My tradition had an intensity of faith in and commitment to Jesus Christ, but it was blind to a Catholic understanding of the Eucharist. I have no idea how many times I read the sixth chapter of John in my pre-Catholic life. I do remember one of my grad school teachers making a big deal out of “The Bread of Life Discourse” that progressively unfolds in this chapter, but there was no recognition of any connection to the Eucharist. It’s a matter of perspective: if you can’t see it, you don’t get it.

Once you see it, though, there is a shift in perspective. Once you see it, it is impossible not to see it. I have been on both sides, and I have experienced the WOW of an expanded perspective. I do understand how many Christians just don’t see it; I was once one of them. But now I see it, and there’s no going back.

Yet my journey into the Church extended over eight years. I did not see at once everything that brought me to a crisis of decision about the Church (and I should remind all of us again that none of us sees “everything”––no matter how great our personal perspective, so we always need the constant help of the Holy Spirit and the Church!). But as I began to see the almost unbelievable things Jesus says in this chapter of John’s Gospel, I was also plagued with questions that seemed discouraging. Then I saw this was exactly what happened even as Jesus gave these words. In the following section that is part of next Sunday’s readings, Many of Jesus’ disciples who were listening said, “This is hard; who can accept it? ….As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.

I had some particular hindrances and discouragements. My thoughts went something like this: If Jesus is literally present in the Bread and the Cup, then where is the power and the glory? Why aren’t we all driven to our knees every time the Tabernacle door is opened? How can people who dishonor the Sacrament not be burned to ashes on the spot? Well, those answers came rather easily. When Jesus was walking the roads with his disciples, people looking at him did not see power and glory. They saw an ordinary-looking man who at times was conspicuous and intriguing, but nothing that compelled their belief. The only time Jesus revealed his glory was at the Transfiguration, and that was to the three “top” disciples so that they would have something tangible to hold onto when they later had to face Jesus’ crucifixion. So the true nature of the Eucharist is usually hidden just as Jesus went around mostly incognito. God does not overwhelm us to force our belief.

I had a second, and more troubling, question. If Jesus is literally in the Eucharist, and Catholics really believe this, then why aren’t all Catholics conspicuous because of their holy lives? Jesus says, Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. One of my earliest obstacles to giving the Catholic Church any serious consideration was most of the Catholics I had ever met. To refer again to my earlier tradition, I had been formed by people who both modeled and taught that being a Christian means inviting Jesus into one’s life and allowing the Holy Spirit to do a process of conversion that changes a sinner into a saint. I was taught that the words I use matters. I was taught that how I respond to others in everyday life matters. I was taught that the way I spend my money matters. I was taught the implications of what St Paul says in today’s second reading: Watch carefully how you live, not as foolish persons but as wise…. be filled with the Spirit…

Then the Lord gave me another insight. I would not have wanted the congregation I was pastoring to be judged by its worst member; likewise, the Lord let me see I was not to judge the Catholic Church by “Catholics” who were not living it. Venerable Fulton Sheen once said, “There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.” We who are in the Church shape the way onlookers perceive the Catholic Church (so again I’m back to the sub-theme of perception).

I once had a perspective that did not see the Real Presence of  Jesus in the Eucharist: “literally and wholly present—body and blood, soul and divinity”. On the other hand, most Catholics grow up hearing that the Eucharist is the Real Presence of Jesus, or at least grow up in a context where this is assumed. Could it be that the Eucharist is so assumed in our Catholic contexts that we lose our perspective? It seems we can come to Communion with presumption: it’s just what we do…. yeah, the Church says this is Jesus, so “okay”…. “Well, I’m here, but I don’t expect much because it seems that not much ever happens….”

The Lord helped me see even more: For whatever reason, the practical effect of the Sacraments depends on us (again, I think it’s because God refuses to overwhelm us in order to make us love him). There is inherent power in the Sacrament, but the effect of the Eucharist in your life depends on the degree to which you open yourself to Jesus. Our response of faith affects the power of the Sacrament in our lives. Think of Jesus in his hometown: he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith (Matt 13:58).

Truly listen to what Jesus said: I am the living bread that came down from heaven; the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world…. Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life…. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. These are the words of our Lord. This is the core of who we are called to be as Catholic Christians.

Now hear again the invitation in our first reading: Wisdom says, “To the one who lacks understanding (and this is all of us; we do not graduate from the school of faith in this life), come eat of my food and drink of the wine I have mixed…” In a former sermon I made the point You are what you eat. In the name of our Lord I call all of us to believe and “feed” on Jesus with our bodies and in our souls: Ask Jesus to unleash the power of his life within you when you receive him in the Eucharist. Be open to him. Seek him. Obey him. If we will do this, our lives will be transformed and we will be a testimony to the truth of our Lord’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

God and the Cross

John Stott once said, “I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in,” he said, “is the One Nietzsche ridiculed as ‘God on the cross.’ In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?”

Sunday, August 2, 2015

You Are What You Eat (revisited)

August 2, 2015 –– 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Exodus 16:2–4, 12–15 / Ephesians 4:17, 20–24 / John 6:24–35
You Are What You Eat (revisited from 8/19/12)

Every rational person on earth, every day, is making decisions about the most basic issues of meaning and fulfillment. Even subconsciously we all choose the things we think will make us happy. How do we decide what is good for us?

Some think that personal pleasure is high on the list. The physical senses and appetites are strong and we can easily think physical pleasure is the recipe for happiness. The Israelites, hungry and thirsty and feeling their vulnerability in the desert, told Moses: If only we had died at the Lord’s hand in the land of Egypt, as we sat by our kettles of meat and ate our fill of bread! Yet here we are immersed in physical comforts: food choices beyond description, homes that can maintain our ideal temperature, access to medical care that is almost unbelievable…. and beyond the physical, we have options for personal entertainment that are past numbering. Yet how many truly contented people do you know?

Another way of understanding this is self-centeredness––selfishness. Countless people around us believe that if they can always get their own way they will be happy. This can mean cutting others off when they drive. It can mean doing whatever it takes to be at the head of the line. It can mean being deceitful or back-stabbing others to get ahead at work. It simply means living Me first! St Paul identifies this kind of mentality in the second reading when he warns not to live as the Gentiles (or pagans) do, in the futility of their minds….

So, whether it is a hedonistic life indulging the senses…. or a steady ingestion of entertaining distractions to avoid facing the hard issues of life…. or a way of living that “feeds” on trying to be in control…. the underlying truth is simply this: You are what you eat.

Think of the way most people in our culture seem to live. They feed on a steady diet of prime-time entertainment. There is broad acceptance of main-stream media with its assumption of relativism and self-gratification. Then we wonder why so many people are impatient to the point of being mean, feel constant stress, and express cynicism instead of having hope for anything better. There is a disconnect so that cause and effect seem imperceptible. How often do we think: You are what you eat?

It is in this context that we hear St Paul’s words: Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. You are what you eat. So Jesus gives us a different choice that can make all the difference in this world––and for all eternity. He presents the two options clearly: Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you. We are surrounded with voices clamoring for “the food which perishes”, but how do we find “the food which endures to eternal life”? Jesus gives several facets of the answer.

First, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” This is not mere mental assent. This is not taking “Jesus” from our shelf of options when it’s convenient (or when life is inconvenient and we are forced to admit that we need help). Believing in Jesus means taking seriously that Almighty God came into our world as a real human being and both told and showed us what is most important. If we “believe” him, we will not give priority to the food which perishes.

Second, this means a right understanding of what is real and true: “my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world.” We live in a world that gets “real and true” upside down and backwards. Our world questions whether anything is absolutely true and rejects any authority that questions our “right” to choose as we please, But there is another option: Jesus Christ came down from heaven to give us the truth and show us the way. Only Jesus is able to give life to the world.

As Catholics entrusted with the fullness of Christian Faith, we believe that Jesus gives himself to us in a wonderful and mysterious way: I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst. His words become even more explicit as this Bread of Life chapter develops its conclusion. With growing emphasis the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel beckons us to face one thing: You are what you eat.

I have been challenged by one of my friends from some years past who would not watch more hours of TV each week than he spent in public and personal worship. How can we feed on spiritual junk food (or even media “poison”) and hope to become more and more like Jesus? There is cause and effect in the spiritual world.

St Ignatius is known for his discerning of spirits. In the early stage of his conversion he was attracted to “worldly” things like books of fiction and tales of knights and battles. In today’s world he would have liked action movies and video games like Call of Duty: Black Ops. But as he read first his fiction and then stories of saints, he began to notice something.

When Ignatius reflected on worldly thoughts, he felt intense pleasure; but when he gave them up out of weariness, he felt dry and depressed. Yet when he thought of living the rigorous sort of life he knew the saints had lived, he not only experienced pleasure when he actually thought about it, but even after he dismissed these thoughts he still experienced great joy. (From the life of Saint Ignatius from his own words by Luis Gonzalez)

He was learning the basic lesson: You are what you eat. And so I end where I began. Every day,  each of us is making decisions about the the most basic issues of meaning and fulfillment and the things we think will make us happy. How many truly contented people do you know? You are what you eat. Jesus calls us to feed on him with all our heart and soul and mind and strength.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

The god of Eros

A little reflection: It is is extreme irony that the god of Eros, which attracts its devotees with "love" and pleasure, shows its ultimate nature with such intolerant cruelty.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Storms of Life

June 21, 2015 –– 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Job 38:1, 8–11 / Psalm 107 / 2 Corinthians 5:14–17 / Mark 4:35–41
The Storms of Life

This is classic Bible story. As a child I sang a song about Jesus commanding the storm to stop. Long before the day of video we had “flannel graph” illustrations to visualize each stage of the story. There are eyewitness details to establish the setting: other boats, the exact time, how the boat was filling with water, how Jesus was asleep in the stern on a cushion, the honesty of the disciples' terror…. But this is not mere Bible story for children; this story is given to encourage faith in Jesus.

It starts with a common occurrence for Jesus and his disciples. Getting into a boat on this lake was, for them, like me getting in my car to drive from E-town to Mechanicsburg––not without possible danger, but still something that is done routinely. This time, though, a storm hit. It was a sudden and furious squall, and so bad that even these experienced fishermen were afraid. We know the story: Jesus was asleep, they awakened him, he told the storm to be still, and it did.

Now if life for Christians always followed this paradigm, we wouldn't have any problems. But life is not always like this, even for people who believe. "Storms" still come into ours lives––cancer, miscarriage, violent deaths, traffic accidents, the loss of income, natural disasters…. It is threatening even to watch the daily news. There is plenty in our world to cause fear, and there is not always immediate deliverance when we cry out. So what does this story really mean?

We read this story of Jesus and the storm and wonder why, if God loves us, the power of Jesus doesn't intervene every time. We want God to fix the here and now instead of, what seems to us, playing a game of hide-and-seek. Is he with us in the storm or not? How does the world of Bible stories intersect with the realities of life in our world?

This takes us to the heart of faith. Faith is not merely believing in the miraculous. Faith is easy when there is an unmistakable miracle. Faith calls us to trust in the presence of Jesus when it seems nothing is going right. Jesus wanted the disciples to understand that even the storm did not matter if he was with them. He chose, on that occasion, to still the storm to prove his point, but obviously he did not keep the storm from coming.

Still, we want know: If Jesus can still the storm, then why doesn't he do it every time? It's the age old question: if God is all powerful and all loving, then how can such awful things continue to exist in the world? How can we be expected not to be afraid when it's so easy for us to be hurt?

We know only what God has revealed to us. We know that we have been given an ability to choose. We know that choosing disobedience to God has opened the whole universe to chaos (Romans 8:20). Hard and horrible things happen. This is the nature of our present world.

Yet God has also revealed himself as coming into this hard world to be with us. Think about this: If God were to stop all bad things, it would change the nature of our response to him. It would not be faith directing our responses but rather his intervening (and dominating) presence. We would not choose to love God, but rather be overwhelmed by him. If God acts to prevent the consequences of choice, the true gift of choice is withdrawn. The very Passion of Christ would not exist in a world where God always delivers from fear and suffering.

God does not give temporal deliverance every time. When God became one of us in Christ, he never promised us an easy time or said that Christians would be always be spared the horrifying things. In the life of the early church, when persecution threatened to overwhelm its very existence, the disciples had to learn a different way that Jesus was with them in the “storm”. In early Christian art the Church was depicted as a boat on a perilous sea. In fact, when Mark was writing this Gospel, the lions in Rome were already looking forward to their first taste of raw Christian. The Jesus who stopped the storm that day for his disciples also said: Take up your cross and follow me. Mark's point in this story is that when Jesus is with us, we do not have to be ultimately afraid.

This is the true nature of Christian Faith. What Jesus affirmed to the disciples that day on the boat was that he was with them. In times of fear, Jesus invites us to have faith and to believe that storms do not last forever and they do not have the last word. Jesus is bigger than our “storms”, and when we invite him into our lives he is with us.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Suffering Love

Tuesday: 16 June, 2015 –– 11th Week in Ordinary Time
Matthew 5:43–48
Suffering Love

Christian Faith is full of hard things. Some things, like the Trinity, are hard to understand. Other things, like today’s Gospel, are hard to do.

The essence of Christian practice is loving like Jesus. That is enough to keep us perpetually on our knees, at least figuratively. Loving like Jesus is not just some lofty idea. Christian love is not mere sentiment and its effect is not the “warm fuzzies”.  In this broken world, love hurts.

Jesus both teaches and models what real love is. That is one way to get a practical handle on the Gospel readings yesterday (Matthew 5:38–42) and today. In yesterday’s reading, Jesus tells us what love does not do: love does not resist an evil person…. love does not hit back. In today’s reading Jesus tells us what love does: love even loves enemies…. love prays for those who persecute.

It is hard to get around this when Jesus modeled it so fully. Peter is explicit in his first letter: 

For what credit is it, if when you do wrong and are beaten for it you take it patiently? But if when you do right and suffer for it you take it patiently, you have God's approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. He committed no sin; no guile was found on his lips. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he trusted to him who judges justly. (1Peter 2:20–23)

One way to express the essence of God’s character––and again, Jesus models this totally––is suffering love. This is how followers of Jesus are to find basic orientation as we journey through this world.

I cannot begin to deal with the many implications of this in a daily homily. Perhaps that is good. Maybe we all need to spend time reflecting on the general orientation before we pursue the side-trail implications. Yet I do need to acknowledge the big “what if” question that is always asked when any focus is given to the nonresistant love of Jesus. To do this, I’m reminded of a day when I was in seminary listening to a NT lecture about “Jesus and Ethics of the Kingdom”.  I’ve never gotten over what I heard that day…. and I hope I never do.

The prof––my most incredible teacher, ever––had taken us to what is, at the same time, this most exhilarating and most awful climax of what it means to follow Jesus in suffering love. He did so with humble honesty. Even as he exalted our Lord who humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Phlp 2:8), he confessed his––and our––weakness in contemplating such a thing. Then he told of a time when he gave the same lecture while on sabbatical in Africa. One of the students responded, asking the what if question: “But what would you do if a man had killed your son and violated your wife or daughter?”

My prof said that in that moment the Holy Spirit gave him an answer: “I don’t know what I’d do…. but let me tell you what I wish I could do…. I wish I would be able to love that man the way that God loved me when I killed his Son.”

That is suffering love. That is how we need to hear Jesus in these Gospel readings. And if we do, we’ll know that every moment of every day we need to be on our knees…. at least in our hearts. That’s the only way we can totally follow Jesus in suffering love.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Three Is One

May 31, 2015 –– The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity
Deuteronomy 4:32–34, 39–40 / Romans 8:14–17/ Matthew 28:16–20
Three Is One

There seems to be an irony in that one of the most basic and important doctrines of Christian Faith is also something beyond human understanding: Three is One. We embrace the Trinity as a truth so significant that it is a major divide between us as Christians and all other religions. Every week we confess belief in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Yet, when pressed, it is somewhere between extremely hard and impossible to explain how God is both One and Three Persons.

Yet there is some comfort to be found in this enigma. A god who can be fully understood by us would be no greater than we are. Speaking through the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, God himself says:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts. (55:8,9)

This is one reason we worship. By faith––but not apart from reason––we embrace the God who has revealed himself to us. It is by faith because we cannot fully understand. There is a mystery to the One who tells us my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. Yet it is not without reason. Christian Faith, rightly understood, gives the best answers for all the questions we have about the big issues of existence and meaning and values (one of the best expressions of this is Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis). At the heart of these answers is the Most Holy Trinity.

From “the beginning” (in human language, since we can hardly think outside of time), there is a trio of personality in one single expression of purpose and character. The essence of this Being is Love, so that love is the motivation behind all that exists, and love is the defining purpose and expression of all that it means to be human.

But right away we are in trouble because our very understanding of love is diminished and twisted. We need to be directed toward real love––and we have been: This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 Jn 4:9,10). God––Father, Son, and Holy Spirit––who created us (and all there is) in love, has given us the ultimate expression of love––selfless sacrifice––so that we can receive God’s love all over again…. and then learn to give it to others.

Could it be that “fussing” over trying to understand the Trinity (and chasing other intellectual bunny trails) is actually a diabolical diversion to keep us from the real issue of learning to accept and give Love? Speaking outside the context of Christian theology, Shimon Peres, the Israeli Prime Minister, has said: “If a problem has no solution, it may not be a problem, but a fact––not to be solved, but to be coped with over time.” Instead of assuming we can fully understand God and all his ways, what if we opened ourselves simply to take God seriously and respond to what he has given us?

That was Moses’ word to Israel: you must now know and fix in your heart that the Lord is God…. and that there is no other. You must keep his statutes and commandments…. that you and your children may prosper….

Our loving God desires us as his children twice over: first as our Creator and again as our Redeemer. The fusion of love that exists among the Trinity is made available to us. Notice how all this comes together in St Paul’s words to the Romans: The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ….

This is the message of the Church. This is the Gospel. Eternal Love has created us and Eternal Love calls us into the real love that is Eternal Life. The world around us is dying. People are killing others and themselves because they do not understand the love of God––Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

We are here today because the Love of God is at work in our lives. Can you believe you are a part of the final words Jesus gave to his disciples before ascending to the Father?

Jesus leaves us with a fact, a command, and a promise:
All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me (the power of evil and death does not have the last word; God’s love is stronger).

Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations (because Christian Faith is the ultimate Truth), baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (while the word “Trinity” is not in the Bible, the three Persons of the Godhead certainly are), teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you (what Moses said so long ago is still pertinent)

And behold,  (here is the promise) I am with you always, until the end of the age.

On this Trinity Sunday, we worship the Father who gave his Son so that we could be filled with his Spirit and live in true love. This is who we are.

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