Sunday, April 28, 2013

Love One Another

April 28, 2013 –– Sixth Sunday of Easter
Acts 14:21–27 / Revelation 21:1–5a / John 13:31–33a, 34–35
Love One Another

It seems the one thing about Jesus that almost everyone knows is his message of love. Yet most people seem to have little idea of what Jesus means by “love” –– love is a nebulous, slippery word these days, but it is right to think of “Jesus” and “love” as belonging together. Jesus shows us the love of God by coming into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him (Jn 3:17b). Jesus said, Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends (Jn 15:13) –– and then Jesus showed us God’s kind of love by dying for our sins.

In today’s Gospel Jesus tells his disciples what this means for all who want to follow him: A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another (Jn 13:34), and then he says: By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (Jn 13:35).

Think of the ways people give witness to Christian faith. Some have bumper stickers. Some have fish symbols on their various possessions ― cars, guitar cases, backpacks –– or wear distinctive clothing of some type. There is nothing wrong with any of that.... if their character backs it up.

This story has made it through the internet in various forms, but the point is the same:

   A woman was being tailgated by a stressed out man on a busy boulevard. Suddenly, the light turned yellow, just in front of her. She stopped, even though she could have beaten the red light by accelerating through the intersection.
   The tailgating man hit the roof ― and the horn, screaming in frustration as he missed his chance to get through the intersection. As he was still in mid-rant, he heard a tap on his window and looked up into the face of a very serious police officer. The officer was thorough in his inquiry of all the driver’s documents, taking time that frustrated the man even more. He finally snapped at the officer, asking what the problem was.
   Finally the officer told him,"I'm sorry, but you see, I pulled up behind your car while you were blowing your horn and flipping off the person in front of you. I noticed the Choose Life license plate holder, the What Would Jesus Do? and the Follow Me to Church bumper stickers, and then the chrome-plated Christian fish emblem on the trunk lid. I just assumed you had stolen the car."

We know what “Jesus-love” is. We know when we fall short, and we know when we see the real thing in others. There are almost countless examples of Jesus-love on a grand scale. Here is one: In February 1941, Father Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest, was arrested by the Gestapo, sent to Auschwitz, and assigned to Barracks 14. One night a man escaped from that unit. The next morning there was tension as the ranks of skeletal-thin prisoners lined up for roll call in the square. The commandant ordered the dismissal of all but Barracks 14, who were forced to stand still in the hot sun all day long. By evening the fugitive had not been found. “Ten of you will die for him in the starvation bunker!" he screamed. This torture forced a person to go without food and water until death. After the ten were chosen, a cry rang out from one of the men chosen, "My poor children! My wife! What will they do?" Suddenly there was commotion in the ranks. Father Kolbe stepped out and calmly said, "Let me take his place.”

The commandant ordered it done. As the hours and days passed, the camp became aware of something extraordinary happening in the death cell. Past prisoners had spent their dying days howling and attacking one another in a frenzy of despair. But now, those outside heard the faint sound of singing. This time the prisoners had a shepherd to lead them gently through the shadow of the valley of death, pointing them to the Great Shepherd.

Jesus said, 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 will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one anotherOur calling as Christians is to love like Jesus.

In one of my wedding homilies I tell the story of a husband who often would express his deep love for his wife. He would take her into his arms, look into her eyes and say, “I would die for you.” The bigger picture comes into focus, however, when you hear what the wife finally said: “That’s wonderful, Dear, but while you are waiting to die for me would you mind helping me with dishes?”  For most of us love is shown (or not shown) in the many small things. We are fooling ourselves if we think we can love with our literal lives when we are not willing to love with our time and money and basic attitudes.

You see, we are either loving like Jesus or living for ourselves. Our natural desire is to be comfortable, to get what we want, to do what we want. The idea of love is distorted by the world. We tend to think that “love” always results in warm, fuzzy feelings.  We think that “love” will make everything good for everybody. Loving like Jesus means laying down our lives. True love, according to Jesus, is doing what is best for another when it is inconvenient ― even painful or deadly ― for ourselves. And the “others” we are to love are not merely those who love us. The real test of love is how one relates, not to saints, but to rascals.

God has provided a place for us to practice this. It is called the church. Think of how often we fall short of loving like Jesus right here in the church. We so easily complain about what we do not like, and we sometimes manipulate to get our own way. This is the opposite of laying down our lives in love. When we are critical and talking about others, we are selfishly pushing our own opinions and concerns. In contrast to that Jesus says, love one another.

What if all who followed Christ obeyed this command to love in the words they used? What if every person who claimed to follow Christ would choose to lay aside his own desires for the good of others around him? What if we humbly admitted that we do not always know what “the good of others” means? (The line between truth and love is often a knife-edge.) What if we looked for the best possible reasons for another’s behavior instead of so quickly assuming the worst?

I know this is a high standard, but if we do not keep God’s standard before us we’ll not keep growing toward the goal for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:14). We are called to be saints, and that means becoming like Jesus.... loving like Jesus.

Someone has said, “The height of our love for God will never exceed the depth of our love for one another.” Jesus puts it this way: love one another even as I have loved you.... By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Feed My Sheep

April 14, 2013 –– Third Sunday in Easter
Acts 5:27–32 / Revelation 5:11–14 / John 21:1–19
Feed My Sheep

There is a mental and even spiritual fog permeating our society. Social media flood us with both issues and poorly-formed opinions. Too many people speak more quickly and more often than they listen. But who are we to listen to?  Huge things are at stake: issues that touch our safety and security; others go to the core of the definition and meaning of human life. We find ourselves debating what is right or wrong, good or bad, false or true. How are we to form our thinking on such crucial matters? What resources are available to take us beyond our own (unreliable) personal feelings? Who are we to trust?  Today’s Scripture readings help answer these questions, but it takes some thinking and process.

We can start with Peter. Peter’s prominence among the apostles is obvious, but for most of my Christian life I was oblivious to the implication that is so crucial in Catholic Faith. Matthew’s Gospel tells of Jesus giving explicitly to Peter the “keys of the kingdom” along with the name of Cephas –– Rock –– and the promise that Jesus would build his church on this “rock.” As the book of Acts unfolds, Peter is the spokesman. Peter is the one whose presence verifies the gift of the Spirit as the Faith extends from Jerusalem to Samaria and then to the Gentiles just as Jesus said. The church is, indeed, being established by Peter.

It is in this unfolding narrative of Peter that today’s Gospel gives the story of Jesus affirming Peter three times, surely for each of Peter’s three denials. For each time that Peter had proclaimed “I don’t know the man,” Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” And each time that Peter humbly and tenderly tells Jesus, “you know that I love you,” Jesus tells him, “Feed my sheep.”

There are numerous biblical themes converging here. Earlier in John’s Gospel Jesus refers to those who follow him as his “sheep” –– My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me (10:27).

When we embrace our baptism –– when we own the name of “Christian” –– we are among those Jesus calls “my sheep.” This brings us to my opening observations and questions: How are we to hear the voice of Jesus? As the issues of our world whirl around us with a cacophony of voices trying to tell us to think this... do that.... be for something or against something.... we need to be able to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd.  How do we recognize Jesus’ voice? Many people in our world claim to speak for Jesus, and they often totally disagree with each other. Who are we to trust?

Jesus makes that clear.  He calls Peter and gives him the opportunity to express his heart: “Do you love me?” And when Peter declares his love Jesus tells Peter, “Feed my sheep.”

We see Peter doing this in the Acts reading. He and the other apostles are preaching Jesus. The very ones who arrested Jesus and had him put to death now arrest Peter and the others. They are blunt: “Quit doing this.”  They threaten the apostles, but Peter is a changed man. He does not back down: We must obey God rather than men.  Peter is feeding the sheep.  He is declaring what is true. He is modeling how the sheep are to follow the Good Shepherd.  It’s not what human authorities say. It’s not what popular opinion thinks.

Jesus had also given a word for the sheep. Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” and then said “Feed my sheep.” Earlier in John’s Gospel, Jesus says to all who would follow him: If you love me, you will keep my commandments (Jn 14:15). In our Acts reading Peter shows us one thing that means: We must obey God rather than men.

How do we know what Jesus commands? How do we know what to obey? For almost 2000 years the Apostolic Rule of Faith initiated and confirmed by Peter has formed and guided Catholic belief and practice. Above all the other voices trying to get our attention for the many issues inundating our world, we are called to listen to the teachings that flow from the Petrine Office. When our bishops instruct us, warn us, and seek to guide us, they are living out this calling Jesus initiated with Peter: Feed my sheep. When we listen to the Church –– the Magisterium –– and obey, we show that we are sheep who hear the Shepherd’s voice.

Jesus told Peter, Feed my sheep.

Peter declared boldly: We must obey God rather than men.

Jesus tells all of us, If you love me, you will keep my commandments.

These are inseparably connected.  I hear of so many “Catholics” today who do not seem to understand this. When the Church speaks, Peter is feeding the sheep! There are many voices competing for our attention. Who do we listen to?  Who do you love?

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

This One Thing

Wednesday: 10 April, 2013 –– Second Week in Easter
Acts 5:17–26 / John 3:16–21
This One Thing

Peter had met the risen Jesus and been filled with his Spirit. Peter was a changed man.

At Jesus’ mock trial, the “old” Peter cringed and swore his denial when confronted by a simple slave girl.  Peter’s foremost thought was saving his own neck.

Now Peter and the others had been put in prison by the same ones who brought Jesus to his death. The power of God released them in the night and gave the instruction: Go and take your place in the temple area, and tell the people everything about this life. In other words, go right back where you were and say the things you were saying that caused you to be put in prison.

Did they run? Did they ask, “What about our safety?” Did they cautiously advise, “Maybe we should let things calm down a bit....”  Not at all.

What raised their sights beyond themselves? What was worth imprisonment and other threats? What changed Peter and the others to the extent that we ourselves can know the same change?

The Apostles had become personal witnesses of this one thing: God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but have eternal life.

Peter and the Apostles had become impassioned with This one thing I know....

May it be so with us: This one thing I know.....

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

“Normal” Christians

Tuesday: 9 April, 2013 –– Second Week in Easter
Acts 4:32–37 / John 3:7b–15
“Normal” Christians

Sometimes the most obvious thoughts are the most profound –– and the most easily overlooked. One day in seminary I was listening to a lecture by my favorite prof on loving one’s enemies as part of the Gospels’ “Life in the Kingdom.” As that day’s class progressed I became deeply aware of these words: You don’t have to be anyone special to act normal –– to do the “natural” thing; anyone can do that. But it takes the grace of God not to hit back.

The particular application becomes secondary. Anyone can do the “natural” thing, but it takes the breath of God in us to live selflessly and distinctively for Jesus.

We live in a society where acquisition is the norm and the goal –– consumerism. We are surrounded by advertising manipulation. We are urged to have realistic goals for financial security. As soon as we can “afford” something bigger and better, the expectation is to do it.

The early followers of Jesus were different. There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the Apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need.

Giving away what we worked so hard to have? That’s not natural!
Doing without myself just because someone else didn’t plan well? That’s not normal!
If you don’t take care of Number One, no one else will!

Jesus said to Nicodemus, “You must be born from above.”

People born from above are not “normal” or “natural” –– at least not by this world’s standard. God give us the grace not to be normal Christians.

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