Sunday, May 15, 2016

A Personal Pentecost

May 15, 2016 –– Pentecost Sunday
Acts 2:1–11 / Romans 8:8–17 / John 14:15–16, 23b–26
A Personal Pentecost

Today is Pentecost Sunday. All around the world Christians look back to that day in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples and fulfilled the promise of Jesus. Each week we “confess” I believe in the Holy Spirit… So here is a question for us on this Pentecost Sunday: What are we expecting to happen today because we believe Jesus has given us his Spirit?

Think for a moment about the things Jesus said the Spirit would do. Jesus will no longer be with his disciples to give them guidance, so the Spirit is the Counselor. Jesus will no longer be with his disciples to teach them, so Jesus says the Spirit will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus himself, and the effect of the Spirit is that Jesus is made known and glorified in and through his followers.

Before Pentecost the Spirit had not yet come as promised. The disciples did not have the power to stand firm. When the soldiers came to the garden to arrest Jesus, the disciples had flushed like a covey of quail. Peter did follow “at a distance.” But in the courtyard, when he was accused by a servant girl, Peter cursed and denied that he knew Jesus at all. Then, after Jesus' death and resurrection, the disciples locked themselves in a room because they were afraid. Were these men really the ones Jesus said would do greater works than these in my Name?

Then it happened….. a noise like a strong driving wind…. what seemed to be tongues of fire resting on each of them…. speaking in different tongues. It so affected them that onlookers thought they were drunk. Now here is a big question: Do we believe the Holy Spirit wants to do the same thing in us? I do not mean a copying of all the particular phenomena and events. Rather, do you believe the Holy Spirit so wants to invade and control your life that unbelievers will think something is “wonderfully different” about you?

One brief reading of this Pentecost story is enough to show that these were changed men. The Spirit had come in power and it was evident. Where before things were not fitting together, now these so-called ignorant and unlearned men have the power to understand. They remember the Old Testament teachings and the words of Jesus, and see them come together in the death and resurrection so that their lives are totally transformed.

A holy boldness entered the lives of people who had previously been characterized by timidity and downright fear. Peter, who would not own up to a slave girl that he was a follower of Jesus, is now able to give a contextual teaching of who Jesus was in terms of Old Testament prophecy.  And Peter is bold––even confrontational––as he proclaims the resurrection of Jesus while at the same time accusing his hearers of being the ones responsible for crucifying God's Messiah. This is the fulfillment of Jesus' promise, But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses…

So each week we confess, I believe in the Holy Spirit…. We would likely say we believe that the Spirit of God is powerful. It was the Spirit who brooded over the earth in creation. It was the Spirit who was at work raising Jesus from the dead. So why shouldn't the people in whom the Holy Spirit dwells understand the plan of salvation and have boldness declaring it? Or for that matter, why shouldn't people who have the Spirit living in them almost routinely be a channel of healing and other miraculous signs? The Spirit did that through Jesus, and––because of Pentecost––did the same through those early followers.

I assume most of us believe that, at least “conceptually.” We believe the Holy Spirit indwells Christian believers. But that should only heighten a crucial question for us: Where is the boldness among so many who say they are Christians to give public witness to their faith? Where is the miraculous in our fight against sin? How often is world looking at us in the Church and saying, “Wow, what is it with you?!” You see, what we believe about the Holy Spirit is not only found in our doctrines. It is fleshed out in our day to day lives. Life in the Spirit means we open ourselves to be invaded, as it were, by an outside entity––to allow someone else to come in and control our lives.
I think part of the problem is that much of our faith formation does not make it clear and does not emphasize that Christians are people who give their lives away. Maybe we try too hard to make things easy and inviting. Jesus did not do that. He told people to count the cost. Paul told the Romans that life is either controlled by the “flesh” (the temporal, that is passing away), or the Spirit (who is the very power and holiness and life of God). The “world, the flesh and the devil” tell us lies; we are tempted to be seduced by giving our priorities––our hearts––to things that have no lasting value. God wants to give us his Spirit––the very source of life and love.

There is one huge question for each of us on this Pentecost Sunday: Have you had a personal Pentecost? Have you come into a living relationship with Jesus through a conscious indwelling of the Holy Spirit? This is more than confessing right things about the Holy Spirit; it’s about his living presence and control in your life. Jesus wants to transform our lives.

God is doing some wonderful things in our congregation; the life of the Spirit is evident. We have much to be thankful for. But periodically we need to examine ourselves, and Pentecost is a great time for that. I freely confess to you that I regularly need to face whether the Spirit is free and powerful in my own life, or if practices and patterns have crept in that grieve and quench the life of the Spirit. On this Pentecost Sunday we are reminded that we are here to be changed so that our lives are becoming more and more like Jesus. Jesus calls us to an indwelling intimacy of his Spirit within each one of us. Jesus wants us to be his witnesses so other people will give their lives away to him. You see, Pentecost is not only something that happened in the history of the church almost 2000 years ago. Pentecost is what Jesus wants to do in us.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

In Christ

Thursday: May 5, 2016 –– The Ascension of the Lord

In Christ

Ever since the first disobedience the full glory of God and his truth has been veiled from our world. While the glory of God is certainly present in all of Creation’s splendor, human perception is blurred, distorted, and sometimes blind. There is a “flat” way of looking at what we think is reality.

So, physically, if I am “here” I cannot be “there”. There is a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) mentality. This is so dominant that it continues to infect us as Christians. While giving assent to many orthodox details, it seems that too many people do not “connect the dots.”

So, for example, we affirm that Jesus is bodily present in the Eucharist. Jesus is here! Yet just a few minutes before the Real Presence happens on our altars, we affirm in the Creed that Jesus ascended into heaven  and is seated at the right hand of the Father. And even as Jesus is both on the altar at our parish and seated at the right hand of the Father, he is also present in countless other churches around the world. There is a mystery here. It goes beyond our “flat” understanding of the world. Jesus is in heaven. Jesus is here.

On this Solemn Feast of the Ascension we rejoice and celebrate that Jesus bodily ascended into heaven. Why? How is the Ascension really significant for us?

There is a little phrase that occurs especially in St Paul’s letters again and again. It is simply in Christ (or in him). This little word in is pregnant with meaning. In Christ is explosive, and it’s our identity.

Jesus goes ahead of those who follow him and in every way he leads and opens and achieves for us what we could never do for ourselves. It starts in Baptism. Jesus was baptized for us, and when we are baptized we start a journey of faith that is based in Christ.

When we are in Christ, all that Jesus does becomes the paradigm of our personal salvation. When Jesus lives obedience to the Father…. when Jesus suffers…. when Jesus dies… when Jesus rises from the dead…. it is all for us. When we follow him, he leads us into and through each of those things, and they are our salvation. The Ascension tells us that what Jesus did up to and through his death and resurrection was not enough! After Jesus was risen he ascended into heaven.

This is not just because heaven is Jesus’ true home; it is because heaven is also our true home. And how shall we get to heaven? Yes, it is through the death of Jesus for our sins and his rising in victory over death. But it does not stop there. We have hope of heaven because Jesus, our Savior, ascended into heaven ahead of us––for us––to lead us there.

Now here is where it gets mystical and yet truly relevant to us in the here and now. Just as Jesus, ascended, is in heaven and sitting at the right hand of the Father and yet is also physically present with us in the Eucharist––in other words, both in heaven and on earth at the same time, the same is also true of us in a mystical way!

Christ is the Head; we are the Body. St Augustine’s closing words in the Office of Readings for today affirms: “the body as a unity cannot be separated from the head.” When Jesus ascended into heaven, he took us there with him. When we gather to worship and feed on the Body and Blood of our Lord, he is here with us. Both are true all the time.

Yes, our physical bodies are still quite limited here on earth. In our bodily existence we have joys and sorrows, exhilarations and pains. Yet something else is true. This is how St Paul expresses it to the Colossians: Since you have been raised up in company with Christ, set your heart on what pertains to higher realms where Christ is seated at God’s right hand. After all, you have died! Your life is hidden now with Christ in God (Colossians 3:1ff). Our hearts are in Christ, our Head, in heaven.

As Christians we are in Christ. He has gone ahead of us in every way to make our salvation possible. We follow him in death to cancel the debt of sin. We follow him in resurrection for victory over death. We follow him in ascension to our home in heaven.

But in the meantime, while our physical bodies are still on earth, our “hearts” are with Christ in heaven. When some earthly pleasure wants to steal our hearts away, we remember that our hearts are not our own––they are in Christ in heaven. When some earthly pain threatens to crush the very life out of our souls, we remember that our hearts are not our own––they are in Christ in heaven.

Jesus has ascended. Because we are in Christ, we follow him––today and every day until our physical death––to our true home. That is salvation––in Christ.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Bearing Truth

Wednesday: April 4, 2016 –– 6th Week in Easter

John 16:12–15
Bearing Truth

How often do we think, “I wish God would just show me everything and make it plain”?  Maybe imagining God as the Jack Nicholson character Col. Jessep (or not!) in the movie A Few Good Men, would tell us why he doesn’t…. “You can't handle the truth!”

Jesus, shortly before going to the cross, tells his disciples: I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.

What if, when he first invited those early disciples to follow him, Jesus had been explicit with who he was, what was going to happen to him, and…. what was going to happen to them if they followed him?!

They were not ready for what would come later, when the Spirit of truth…. will guide you to all truth. First Jesus had the disciples walk intimately with him for three years, listen progressively to his teachings, and observe first hand the many and mysterious miracles that shattered all expectation and understanding.

Then––on the other side of the cross and resurrection––the Spirit of God (the power of God that first moved in the incredible acts of Creation, and then raised Jesus from the dead) fell upon and filled the spirits of those disciples. It was then, after Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances and teachings, it all came together and they understood. There are two things I want to emphasize from this.

First, as we read the Gospels––which are accounts of Jesus’ mighty words and mighty deeds during his earthly ministry––the fullness of what it all means is not given. We are given a faith-motivated account of what the disciples saw and heard during those seminal years. This in itself is the basis for what the Catholic Church later called “Development of Doctrine.” It is the idea that while the New Testament gives us truth––reliable, authoritative, and even inerrant truth, it does not give all truth. Rather, the details of truth…. the implications of truth…. the fullness of truth, is unfolding as the Spirit makes it clear to the Church.

It is important here to understand there is no “new” truth, in the sense that something else can be interjected where there was nothing before. Rather, truth is an unfolding of what has always been, even though hidden for a time. More simply, something that was once true is not, later, going to be false; conversely, something that was inherently false and wrong is not later going to become right and true.

Holding to this universal paradigm is essential. It allows for progress in understanding, which is dynamic and life-giving; it also holds to an unshakable core, which while static gives the kind of foundation necessary for endurance. This tension is always present in the Church.

Yet this tension is also present in our personal spiritualities. Even as Jesus was laying the foundation for the Church, he was also lovingly shepherding each of those men who followed him. With wisdom and compassion he gives them just what they need at just the right time. He did not project a “Pentecost standard” on them until they were ready for it and had experienced it. Rather, he patiently took them through each step toward the ultimate purpose and goal he had for them both personally and corporately.

Think of your own spiritual journey. If you have a “healthy” Christian life, you should know and experience and understand more now than you did ten years ago. There are things now you could not have handled then. And if we stay open and humble and obedient (and if we live another ten years), we will know and experience and understand more then than we do now. Why doesn’t the Lord give it to us all at once (we sometimes impatiently ask)? Jesus says, I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.

This is true even among different Christians. Some learn faster. Some are capable of more. Some Christians seem almost to “ooze” holiness while others seem to fall way short of a most basic Christian identity. Can we believe that one reason is what one person can “bear” compared to another?

St Jane Frances De Chantal once made this observation about what is sometimes called a “white” martyrdom (in which the person lives a marked life of total surrender––in contrast to a “red” martyrdom, in which a person suffers a violent death for the faith):

When another sister asked how long the [“white”] martyrdom would continue, the Saint replied: “From the moment when we commit ourselves unreservedly to God, until our last breath. I am speaking, of course, of great-souled individuals who keep nothing back for themselves, but instead are faithful in love. Our Lord does not intend this martyrdom for those who are weak in love and perseverance. Such people he lets continue on their mediocre way, so that they will not be lost to him; he never does violence to our free will.”

This is another way Jesus says to his disciples, I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. If we are open and humble and obedient, Jesus knows how much to draw us into the unfathomable mysteries of his life and grace…. and passion. For all of us who own his Name, the goal and our destination is sainthood; the rate at which we get there is dependent––yes, a bit on our own will, but more––on the loving mercy of the Lord who calls us. Listen to him saying, I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. 

If you are hearing his voice and trusting, know that whatever is happening in your life right now is exactly what Jesus has given for your journey to sainthood. And wherever you might be on your journey, it remains: I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.

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