If You Can Use Anything Lord, You Can Use Me – A Homily for the 11th Sunday of the Year

The readings for this Sunday speak of God’s providence, which is often displayed in humble, hidden, and mysterious ways. While it is true that God sometimes works in overpowering ways, His more common method seems to be using the humble and even unlikely things of the created order to accomplish His goals.

For us who are disciples, there are three related teachings given to us that speak of how God will make use of us and others. It is also good to link these teaching to Father’s Day, which occurs this weekend here in the U.S. These three teachings can be described as Adaptability, “Awe-Ability,” and Accountability.

ADAPTABILITY – In today’s first reading and in the Gospel, we hear how God can take something humble and adapt it to be something mighty and powerful.

The tender shoot of the first reading becomes a mighty oak: I [the Lord] will take from the crest of the cedar…a tender shoot, and plant it on a high and lofty mountain. … It shall put forth branches and bear fruit and become a majestic cedar (Ezekiel 17:22-23).

The mustard seed of the first reading which becomes a great shade tree: The … kingdom of God … is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth. But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade (Mk 4:32-33).

Yes, God adapts us for His purposes and no one should say, “I cannot be used.” An old song says, “If you can use anything Lord, you can use me.” There’s a litany I’ve seen floating around the Internet that says,

The next time you think God can’t use you, remember

Noah was a drunk
Abraham was too old
Isaac was a daydreamer
Jacob was a liar
Leah was ugly
Joseph was abused
Moses was murderer had a stuttering problem
Gideon was afraid
Samson had long hair and was a womanizer
Rahab was a prostitute
Jeremiah and Timothy were too young
David had an affair and was a murderer
Elijah was suicidal
Isaiah preached naked
Jonah ran from God
Naomi was a widow
Job went bankrupt and was depressed
Peter denied Christ
The Disciples fell asleep while praying
Martha worried about everything
The Samaritan woman was divorced, more than once
Zaccheus was too small
Paul was too argumentative
Timothy had an ulcer
and Lazarus was dead!

No excuses, then, God chooses the weak and makes them strong

In fact, it is often our very weakness that is the open door for God. In our strength we are usually too proud to be of any use to Him. Moses was too strong at age forty when he pridefully murdered a man, thinking he was doing both the Jews and God a favor. Only forty years later, at the age of eighty, was Moses weak and humble enough to depend on God. Only then could God use him.

We are invited in this principle to consider that it is not merely in the “biggie-wow” things we do that God can work. It is also in the humble and imperfect things about us—the mustard seed of faith, the tiny shoots, the humble growth—that God can magnify His power.

So, God can adapt even the humblest, most ordinary, lowliest things and from them bring forth might and lasting fruit. Never despair of what is most humble about you, or that you are of little account on the world’s stage. It is precisely our humble state that God most often uses to bring forth His greatest and most lasting works.

“AWE-ABILITY” – This is the capacity to reverence mystery and to have wonder and awe at what God does. In today’s Gospel, Jesus emphasizes that although a man plants seeds, he does not really know the deeper mysteries of life and growth:

This is how it is with the kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and through it all the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how (Mk 4:26-27).

Despite our often-self-congratulatory celebration of our scientific prowess and of how much we know, there is much more that we neither know nor understand. We do well to maintain a reverential awe of the deeper mysteries of God’s works and His ways. We are also rather poor at assessing the effectiveness of our methods. We may come away from a project considering it to have been very effective, and yet little comes of it in the long run. Conversely, sometimes what we consider to have been an ineffective effort may bear great fruit. God works in His own ways and we do well to remember that He can surprise us, reminding us that He is able and is in charge.

Some years ago, a friend of mine had on her desk a “God can.” It was a metal cookie tin with the following saying on its lid: He worketh in strange and mysterious ways, his wonders to perform. Into this box she would place slips of papers on which were written the challenges, struggles, and failures of her life. When she reached the limits of her strengths and abilities, she would say, “I can’t, but God can.” So, into this metal “God can” went the slips of paper, placed there in the hope that God would make a way out of no way. Quite often He did.

We do well to cultivate a sense of wonder and awe at who God is and how He works. Not only does this bring us joy, but it also opens us to hope. It reminds us that God can work in hidden ways to exult what is humble and to bring great transformation to those who are cast down and troubled. As we saw in the “adaptability” section of this post, it is often in the humblest things that God performs His mightiest works.

ACCOUNTABILITY – If it is true that we can’t, but God can; if it is true that God can use us mightily despite our humble state, our weakness, and even our sinfulness; then there can be no excuse for not bearing fruit in our life. Each of us is accountable to the Lord for how we let Him use us and work through us to further His Kingdom.

The second reading reminds that we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense, according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil (2 Cor 5:9-10).

God is able to adapt and to work in wondrous and hidden ways to lift us up, even if we are humble and struggle. Given this capacity of God’s, we must one day render an account of how we have responded to God’s grace and His invitation to be used for His work.

On that day of judgment, the answer “I couldn’t” will ring hollow, because God can. Today’s readings remind us to be open to what God can do, often in mysterious ways, and even with the most humble things in our life.

Today is also Father’s Day, and so the following litany of resolution seems appropriate:

I DO solemnly resolve before God to take full responsibility for myself, my wife, and my children.

I WILL love them, protect them, serve them, and teach them the Word of God as the spiritual leader of my home.

I WILL be faithful to my wife, to love and honor her, and be willing to lay down my life for her as Jesus Christ did for me.

I WILL bless my children and teach them to love God with all of their hearts, all of their minds, and all of their strength.

I WILL train them to honor authority and live responsibly.

I WILL confront evil, pursue justice, and love mercy.

I WILL pray for others and treat them with kindness, respect, and compassion.

I WILL work diligently to provide for the needs of my family.

I WILL forgive those who have wronged me and reconcile with those I have wronged.

I WILL learn from my mistakes, repent of my sins, and walk with integrity as a man answerable to God.

I WILL seek to honor God, be faithful to His church, obey His Word, and do His will.

I WILL courageously work with the strength God provides to fulfill this resolution for the rest of my life and for His glory.

As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord (Joshua 24:15).

This resolution comes from the 2011 movie Courageous, which I strongly recommend seeing.

All of us, men and women, will be held accountable, for even if we can’t, God can. Even if we feel too humble and insignificant, God does His greatest work with humble things and humble people. For us, it is simply to say that we have an adaptability that God can use. This should inspire in us an “awe-ability” that joyfully acknowledges God’s often secretive and hidden power. If that be the case, then, knowing our accountability, it simply remains for us to say, “If you can use anything, Lord, you can use me!”

 

Three Teachings on Corpus Christi

The feast of Corpus Christi affords us an opportunity to renew our understanding of the Holy Eucharist and Sacred Liturgy. It also helps us clarify certain errors that have crept into our thinking. Let’s look at the readings today under three headings: The Righteousness of our Worship, the Reality of our Worship, and Readiness of our Worship.

The Righteousness of our Worship – In the first reading today Moses has the faithful swear an oath:

Taking the Book of the Covenant, he read it aloud to the people, who answered, “All that the LORD has said, we will heed and do.” Then he took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words of his.”

Jesus too gives a solemn command at the Last Supper:

Take and eat, this is my Body… take and drink this is my Blood of the new and everlasting Covenant…do this is in memory of me.

He too seals the covenant, not with the blood of animals, but with his very own blood. We who would heed and do all that the Lord commands cannot skip out on Holy Communion and absent ourselves from the Sacrifice and Liturgy that is at the very heart of the New Covenant.

Too many people today think of Sunday worship in rather egocentric terms. They speak of “being fed.” But usually what they mean by this is that the preacher gave them an uplifting message in terms that please them and seem relevant to them, or that the choir sang well and there was good fellowship. These are all fine.

But the first and most essential reason that we are to show up on Sunday is to worship God, to give Him the thanks and adoration He is due. To worship is an act of justice and righteousness. St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa does not put worship where we might expect it, (likely under Faith or Love). Rather he puts worship in his treatise on Justice. We owe God praise, gratitude and adoration. He is the source of every blessing, all that we call our own is really His, everything, quite literally every thing is his and generously shared by Him. God has been too good to us for us to shirk our duty to worship and obey him. Even our troubles work together for our good, if we trust God. To fail in our duty to worship God on his terms is to fail in righteousness and justice. When Jesus says, “Do this is remembrance of me,” we owe him obedience in this regard. Our faithful Sunday worship and regular and worthy reception of Holy Communion is our righteous worship and an act of Justice.

The Reality of our Worship – In the Gospel today Christ makes it clear that we are receiving him: Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. The Eucharist is no mere symbol of Jesus. Sadly today, many Catholics, according to polls, have lost faith in the Eucharist, seeing it as only a symbol. But we do not partake of a symbol; the Eucharist is truly the Lord. Neither is it a “piece” of His flesh; it is Christ, living, glorified, whole and entire. Scripture attests to this in many places.

And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after supper, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:19-20).

The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a partaking in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a partaking in the body of Christ? (1 Cor 10:16).

They recognized him in the breaking of the bread. (Luke 24:35).

For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. (1 Cor 11:29).

I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh. (John 6:51).

This last passage is a profound theology of the Eucharist from Jesus Himself. He makes it clear that we are not to think of the Eucharist as symbolic.

As Jesus spoke the words saying that the bread was His flesh, the Jewish people grumbled in protest. Jesus did not seek to reassure them or to say that He was speaking only symbolically. Rather, He became even more adamant, shifting His choice of words from the polite form of eating, φάγητε (phagete, meaning to eat), to the impolite form, τρώγων (trogon, meaning to munch, gnaw, or chew).

So insistent was He that they grasp this, that He permitted most of them to leave, no longer following in His company due to this teaching (cf Jn 6:66). Yes, the Lord paid quite a price for His graphic and “hard” teaching (Jn 6:60).

Today, He asks us, Do you also want to leave me? (Jn 6:67) We must give our answer each time we approach the altar and hear the words, “The Body of Christ.” It is at this time that we respond, “Amen,” as if to say, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:68).

Would that people grasped that the Lord Himself is truly present in our Churches! Were that so, one would never be able to empty our parishes of those seeking to pray with the Lord. As it is, though, only about 25% of Catholics attend Mass regularly. This is more evidence of the “narrow road” and of how few there are who find it. Two thousand years ago, Jesus experienced that most left Him; many today continue to leave Him (or stand far away), either through indifference or false notions.

What father would not be alarmed if one of his children stopped eating? Consider, then, God’s alarm that many of us have stopped eating.

The Readiness of our Worship – Notice that in preparing for the Last Supper and First Mass, Jesus told two of his disciples to enter Jerusalem and look for an unusual thing, a man carrying a water jar. This was usually women’s work and thus a man doing so would stand out. They were to follow him, and: he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready. Now, this is for us a spiritual prescription for the inner room that is our soul:

    • It is to be large, a spacious place not cluttered with sin and worldly trinkets trappings and distractions. There is to be plenty of room for the Lord, who is the guest of our soul in Holy Communion!
    • It is to be furnished with holiness, justice, patience and love to receive so great a guest as Jesus!
    • It is to be ready. That is, it is to be clean, free of the filth of sin and fully apportioned unto the great liturgy about to occur in every Mass. The heart and mind are to be eagerly alert, awaiting in full readiness our divine Guest!

Of course, at the heart of this large upper room furnished and ready, is to be free of serious sin as St. Paul admonishes:

The Lord Jesus, on the night He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same way, after supper He took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me….” Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Each one must examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. (1 Cor 11:24-29)

Because of this, the Catechism of the Catholic Church plainly states: Anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation before approaching Holy Communion (Catechism # 1385). For how can the upper room of our soul be spacious, furnished and ready if it is filled with sin? In my own parish we hear confessions before every Sunday Mass to ensure the faithful an opportunity to confess if necessary or simply out of devotion.  If we priests are to be sincere in promoting the worthy reception of Holy Communion, we must be generous in celebrating the Sacrament of Confession and the faithful must be zealous in seeking it when necessary.

Here then are three teachings and reminders about Holy Communion. May we be righteous in our observance, real in our understanding and ready in our souls!

 

 

One and One and One are One. A Homily for Trinity Sunday

Trinity

There is an old spiritual that says, “My God is so high you can’t get over Him. He’s so low you can’t get under Him. He’s so wide you can’t get around Him. You must come in, by and through the Lamb.”

It’s not a bad way of saying that God is “other.” He is beyond what human words can describe, beyond what human thoughts can conjure. On the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity we do well to remember that we are pondering a mystery that cannot fit in our minds.

A mystery, though, is not something wholly unknown. In the Christian tradition, the word “mystery” refers to (among other things) something that is partially revealed, something much more of which remains hidden. As we ponder the Trinity, consider that although there are some things we can know by revelation, much more is beyond our understanding.

Let’s ponder the Trinity by exploring it, seeing how it is exhibited in Scripture, and observing how we, who are made in God’s image, experience it.

I.  The Teaching on the Trinity Explored

Perhaps we do best to begin by quoting the Catechism, which says, The Trinity is One. We do not confess three Gods, but one God in three persons: [Father, Son, and Holy Spirit] … The divine persons do not share the one divinity among themselves but each of them is God, whole and entire (Catechism, 253).

There is one God and each of the three persons of the Trinity possesses the one divine nature fully. The Father is God; He is not one-third of God. Likewise, the Son, Jesus, is God; He is not one-third of God. And the Holy Spirit is God, not merely one-third of God.

It is our human experience that if there is only one of something, and someone possesses it fully, then there is nothing left for anyone else. Yet mysteriously, each of the three persons of the Trinity fully possesses the one and only divine nature while remaining a distinct person.

One of the great masterpieces of the Latin Liturgy is the preface for Trinity Sunday. It compactly and clearly sets forth the Christian teaching on the Trinity. The following translation of the Latin is my own:

It is truly fitting and just, right and helpful unto salvation that we should always and everywhere give thanks to you O Holy Lord, Father almighty and eternal God: who, with your only begotten Son and the Holy Spirit are one God, one Lord: not in the oneness of a single person, but in a Trinity of one substance. For that which we believe from your revelation concerning your glory, we acknowledge of your Son and the Holy Spirit without difference or distinction. Thus, in the confession of the true and eternal Godhead there is adored a distinctness of persons, a oneness in essence, and an equality in majesty, whom the angels and archangels, the Cherubim also and the Seraphim, do not cease to daily cry out with one voice saying, Holy, Holy, Holy

Wow! It’s a careful and clear masterpiece, but one that baffles the mind. So deep is this mystery that we had to “invent” a paradoxical word to summarize it: Triune (or Trinity). Triune literally means “three-one” (tri + unus), and “Trinity” is a conflation of “Tri-unity,” meaning the “three-oneness” of God.

If all of this baffles you, good! If you were to say that you fully understood all this, I would have to say you were likely a heretic. The teaching on the Trinity, while not contrary to reason per se, does transcend it and it is surely beyond human understanding.

Here is a final image before we leave our exploration stage. The picture at the upper right is from an experiment I remember doing when I was in high school. We took three projectors, each of which projected a circle: one red, one green, and one blue (the three primary colors). At the intersection of the three circles the color white appeared. Mysteriously, the three primary colors are present in the color white, but only one shows forth. The analogy is not perfect (no analogy is or it wouldn’t be an analogy) for Father, Son, and Spirit do not “blend” to make God, but it does manifest a mysterious “three-oneness” of the color white. Somehow in the one, three are present. (By the way, this experiment only works with light; don’t try it with paint!)

II. The Teaching on the Trinity Exhibited – Scripture also presents images of the Trinity. Interestingly enough, most of the ones I want to present here are from the Old Testament.

As a disclaimer, I’d like to point out that Scripture scholars debate the meaning of these texts; that’s what they get paid the big bucks to do. I am reading these texts as a New Testament Christian and seeing in them a doctrine that later became clear. I am not getting into a time machine and trying to understand them as a Jew from the 8th century B.C. might have. Why should I? That’s not what I am. I am reading these texts as a Christian in the light of the New Testament, as I have a perfect right to do. You, of course, are free to decide whether you think these texts really are images or hints of the Trinity. Here they are:

1. Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness …” (Gen 1:26)

God speaks of himself in the plural: “Let us … our …” Some claim that this is just an instance of the “royal we” being used. Perhaps, but I see an image of the Trinity. There is one (“God said”) but there is also a plural (us, our). Right at the very beginning in Genesis there is already a hint that God is not all by himself, but rather is in a communion of love.

2. Elohim

In the passage above, the word used for God is אֱלֹהִ֔ים (Elohim). It is interesting to note that this word is in the plural form. From a grammatical standpoint, Elohim actually means “Gods,” but the Jewish people understood the sense of the word to be singular. This is a much debated point, however. You can read more about it from a Jewish perspective here: Elohim as Plural yet Singular.

(We have certain words like this in English, words that are plural in form but singular in meaning such as news, mathematics, and acoustics.) My point here is not to try to understand it as a Jew from the 8th century B.C. or even as a present day Jew. Rather, I am observing with interest that one of the main words for God in the Old Testament is plural yet singular, singular yet plural. God is one yet three. I say this as a Christian observing this about one of the main titles of God, and I see an image of the Trinity.

3. And the LORD appeared to [Abram] by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men stood in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the earth, and said, “My Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, while I fetch a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said (Gen 18:1-5).

From a purely grammatical standpoint this is a very difficult passage because it switches back and forth between singular and plural references. The Lord (singular) appears to Abram, yet Abram sees three men (some have said that this is just God and two angels, but I think it is the Trinity). Then when Abram addresses “them” he says, “My Lord” (singular). The tortured grammar continues as Abram suggests that the Lord (singular) rest “yourselves” (plural) under the tree. The same thing happens in the next sentence, in which Abram wants to fetch bread so that you may refresh “yourselves” (plural). In the end, the Lord (singular) answers, but it is rendered as “So they said.” Plural, singular … which is it? Both. God is one and God is three. For me as a Christian, this is a picture of the Trinity. Because the reality of God cannot be reduced to mere words, this is a grammatically difficult passage, but I can “see” what is going on: God is one and God is three; He is singular and He is plural.

4. Having come down in a cloud, the Lord stood with Moses there and proclaimed his Name, “Lord.” Thus the Lord passed before him and cried out, “The Lord, the Lord, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity” (Exodus 34:5).

When God announces His name, He does so in a threefold way: Lord! … The Lord, the Lord. There is implicit a threefold introduction or announcement of God. Is it a coincidence or is it significant? You decide.

5. In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the Seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory” (Is 6:1-3).

God is Holy, Holy, and yet again, Holy. Some say that this is just a Jewish way of saying “very Holy,” but as Christian I see more. I see a reference to each of the three persons of the Trinity. Perfect praise here requires three “holys.” Why? Omni Trinum Perfectum (all things are perfect in threes). But why? As a Christian, I see the angels praising each of the three persons of the Trinity. God is three (Holy, holy, holy …) and yet God is one (holy is the Lord …). There are three declarations of the word “Holy.” Is it a coincidence or is it significant? You decide.

6. Here are three (of many) references to the Trinity in the New Testament:

  1. Jesus says, The Father and I are one (Jn 10:30).
  2. Jesus also says, To have seen me is to have seen the Father (Jn 14:9).
  3. Have you ever noticed that in the baptismal formula, Jesus uses “bad” grammar? He says, Baptize them in the name (not names (plural)) of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19). God is one (name) and God is three (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).

Thus Scripture exhibits the teaching of the Trinity, going back even to the beginning.

III. The Teaching of the Trinity Experienced – We who are made in the image and likeness of God ought to experience something of the mystery of the Trinity within us, and sure enough, we do.

  • It is clear that we are all distinct individuals. I am not you; you are not I. Yet it is also true that we are made for communion. We humans cannot exist apart from one another. Obviously we depend on our parents, through whom God made us, but even beyond that we need one another for completion.
  • Despite what the Paul Simon song says, no man is a rock or an island. There is no such thing as a self-made man. Even the private business owner needs customers, suppliers, shippers, and other middlemen. He uses roads he did not build, has electricity supplied to him over lines he did not string, and speaks a language to his customers that he did not create. Further, the product he makes was likely the result of technologies and processes he did not invent. The list could go on and on.
  • We are individual, but we are social. We are one, but we are linked to many. Clearly we do not possess the kind of unity that God does, but the “three-oneness” of God echoes in us. We are one, yet we are many.
  • We have entered into perilous times where our interdependence and communal influence are under-appreciated. The attitude that prevails today is a rather extreme individualism: “I can do as I please.” There is a reduced sense of how our individual choices affect the community, Church, or nation. That I am an individual is true, but it is also true that I live in communion with others and must respect that dimension of who I am. I exist not only for me, but for others. What I do affects others, for good or ill.
  • The attitude that it’s none of my business what others do needs some attention. Privacy and discretion have important places in our life, but so does concern for what others think and do, the choices they make, and the effects that such things have on others. A common moral and religious vision is an important thing to cultivate. It is ultimately quite important what others think and do. We should care about fundamental things like respect for life, love, care for the poor, education, marriage, and family. Indeed, marriage and family are fundamental to community, nation, and the Church. I am one, but I am also in communion with others and they with me.
  • Finally, there is a rather remarkable conclusion that some have drawn: the best image of God in us is not a man alone or a woman alone, but rather a man and a woman together in the lasting and fruitful relationship we call marriage. When God said, “Let us make man in our image” (Genesis 1:26), the text goes on to say, “Male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). God then says to them, “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28). So the image of God (as He sets it forth most perfectly) is the married and fruitful couple.

We must be careful to understand that what humans manifest sexually, God manifests spiritually, for God is neither male nor female in His essence. We may say that the First Person loves the Second Person and the Second Person loves the First Person. So real is that love that it bears fruit in the Third Person. In this way the married couple images God, for the husband and wife love each other and their love bears fruit in their children (See, USCCB, “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan”).

So today, as we extol the great mystery of the Trinity, we look not merely outward and upward so as to understand, but also inward to discover that mystery at work in us, who are made in the image and likeness of God.

On the Paradoxical Connection Between Love, Law and Joy – A Homily for the 6th Sunday of Easter

In the Sunday Gospel, Jesus cuts right through the modern Western tendency to place love in opposition with law, and law in opposition with joy. Jesus joins all three concepts and summons us to a new attitude.

I. Announcement of the Principle – Jesus says, As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy might be complete.

Note how the Lord joins the three concepts of love, law, and joy. This is precisely the opposite of what Western culture does. The best that Western culture will admit of law is that it is a necessary evil; more routinely it is viewed as an unloving imposition by the powerful on the weak, the hierarchy on the laity, the (evil, oppressive, pharisaical) Church on decent people.

Whereas the modern world disconnects law from love, Jesus links them. How do we both experience and show God’s love? Jesus says that we do so by keeping His commandments. He sets forth a vision whereby we, having experienced God’s love, desire and rejoice in His commands. 

Again, this is quite contrary to modern notions. According to the modern world, a “loving” God has few or no rules. He merely affirms, encourages, accepts, and includes—or so goes the thinking. If someone is confronted by a moral truth that displeases them, their retort may be as simplistic as “God is love.” It implies that God does mind what we do since he is loving and merciful. It also confuses love with mere kindness. Kindness is an aspect of Love, but so is rebuke and correction. No loving parents will simply affirm bad behavior in their children. They will correct them, and, if necessary punish them because they love them. 

Jesus too is  surely loving, especially of sinners. He encourages us, he includes the outcast, and so forth, but He also speaks of sin and rebukes it. He embraces the sinner but directs him to “Sin no more.” He sets forth a demanding moral vision even as He shows mercy. In this Gospel, Jesus joins love and the law, saying that the law brings joy. They are not opposed. It is not an either/or, but a both/and. Jesus was not just the “affirmer in chief” who went about saying nothing but pleasant things. He, and his apostles who spoke for him, also speaks against anger, greed, malice, neglect of the poor, divorce, fornication, adultery, impure thoughts, homosexual acts, lack of faith, revenge, dishonesty, the sin of human respect, false and worldly priorities, and countless other matters.

II. Application of the Principle – The two greatest Commandments that summarize the whole law are to Love God and to love our neighbor. Hence,  to further connect the Law and the Love of God,  we should consider that when we love the Lord, and his love remains in us, that we will love what he loves and who he loves. Hence, with the Lord’s love in us we will love justice, chastity, forgiveness, generosity, and so forth. We will also come to love others more deeply, even those that trouble us. So there comes to us a deep love of the Commandments when we truly love God. We can say, “God has been good to me and I love him. If God wants it, I want it too. If God doesn’t want it neither do I.”  Hence, Jesus says, “If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love.”

As for the love of neighbor, here too, the Commandments are essential. They foster a common moral vision that helps us to live together, protect the vulnerable (especially children) and live within accepted boundaries. Good fences make good neighbors and God’s commandments set proper limits and delineate expectations and rights for communal living. Accepting and living the Commandments brings blessings and averts a lot of trouble. We do not keep the Commandments merely for our own sake, but for our families, community, Church and nation. So, keeping the Commandments is a way of loving our neighbor.

Though some see the Commandments as prison walls, they are not. They are defending walls that keep the wolf and devourer, the devil, away.  This too is a way of showing love for our neighbor. What ever we can do to limit the devil’s influence is a blessing not only for us but for others.

III. The Animation of the PrincipleIn the today’s Gospel, not only does Jesus link love to the keeping of the commandments, but also says that the keeping of the commandments leads to joy: I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy might be complete.

Of this, I am a witness. When I entered the Seminary nearly forty years ago I was poorly catechized (having been largely reared in the 1970s). I don’t think I could even have listed most of the the Ten Commandments. But as I entered I was amazed at the rich legacy of teaching, truth and wisdom that came from the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church I was studying. God’s truth and law made sense, it was practical, good, true and beautiful. I was animated, thrilled in my soul to learn of it and somewhat angry at how much was denied me in the crazy 1970s. In my life now, I rejoice to study God’s law and truth, to preach it and teach it to others. In it are contained saving truths, and truths that explain the purpose of our life. So many today live without real meaning, and they focus on passing things and fads. But God’s Law is tested and true. It has endured because it makes sense and works. I am mindful of the words of Baruch: Happy are we O Israel, for what pleases God is known to us! (Bar 4:4)

Indeed, O Lord, how I love your law! It is the joy and center of my life. It gives me understanding and purpose. It teaches me your wisdom and summons me to be the man you created me to be. Yes, Lord, it is my immense joy and privilege to proclaim your Law in the great assembly and joyfully announce your wisdom and your decrees. Keep me faithful Lord unto death. 

The Law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the LORD is trustworthy,
making wise the simple.

The precepts of the LORD are right,
bringing joy to the heart;
the commandments of the LORD are radiant,
giving light to the eyes.

The fear of the LORD is pure,
enduring forever;
the judgments of the LORD are true,
and altogether righteous.

They are more precious than gold,
than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
than honey from the comb.

By them indeed Your servant is warned;
in keeping them is great reward.

Psalm 19: 6-11

The King of Love My Shepherd Is – A Homily for the 4th Sunday of Easter

On this fourth Sunday of Easter, we turn a corner of sorts. Up until now we have been reading of the resurrection appearances themselves. Today we begin to see how the risen Lord ministers to us as the Good Shepherd. In effect, the Lord gives us four basic pictures or teachings of how, as the King of Love, He shepherds us. Here, then, are four portraits of His love:

I. Passionate love – Jesus says, I am the Good Shepherd, a good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. Purely gratuitous love is a hard thing to come by in human relationships. In one sense we are too needy to be able to give it purely. In another sense our motives tend to be a mixture of self-love and love of the other. This is our human condition, and few of us rise above it in a consistent way.

But Jesus loves us purely, gratuitously, and for our own sake. His love is passionate in the sense that it is sacrificial. He lays down His life for us, doing it though we are still sinners and often alienated from Him. He dies for us though we cursed, mocked, and ridiculed Him. He loves us and lays down His life for us though He gets nothing out of it.

Hired shepherds, on the other hand, work for pay; above all else they seek their own good. When there is a danger to the sheep, hired shepherds will not risk themselves to rescue the sheep. Theirs is a service based on pay; it is subordinated to their own needs and safety.

Only one Shepherd died for you. In this world there are many politicians, musicians, movie stars, and organizations that seek our loyalty, our votes, our membership, and our dues. They also make us promises in return, even as they want to influence us and exercise leadership over us. None of this is necessarily wrong. People form relationships and seek leaders for any number of reasons. But note this important difference: none of these leaders or “shepherds” ever died for you. Only Jesus died for you.

There remains this problem: many Christians have greater loyalty to political leaders, musicians, movies stars, and the like than to Jesus Christ. Too many people tuck their faith under their politics, giving greater credence to what popular figures say than to what Jesus says in His Word and through His Church.

Only Jesus died for you. Human beings too easily bring along their own needs and agendas. Only Jesus Christ loves you perfectly; only He died for you. Only He is deserving of the role of Chief Shepherd of your life.

II. Personal love – Jesus says, I know my sheep and mine know me. No one knows you the way Jesus Christ does, because He knew you before He ever formed you in your mother’s womb (cf Jer 1:4). He has always thought about you; He created you; He knit you together in your mother’s womb and every one of your days was written in His book before one of them ever came to be (cf Ps 139).

You’ve never been unloved. No matter what you think you may have done to cancel His love, He knew you would do it before He ever made you—and yet still He made you. Do not doubt His love for you or that He knows you better than you know yourself.

An old hymn says,

Perverse and foolish oft I strayed,
But yet in love He sought me,
And on His shoulder gently laid,
And home, rejoicing, brought me.

Jesus also says that His sheep know Him. And that is both our invitation and our call. We often like to quote the 23rd Psalm “The Lord is my Shepherd.” But this is not a slogan, nor is it merely a psalm of consolation. It is a psalm of confession: that I am one of the Lord’s sheep. The Lord says, “My sheep know me.” He does not say that we merely know about Him.

Do you know Him? To be in the Lord’s flock is to be in a life-changing, transformative relationship with the Lord. To know the Lord is to see our life changed by that very relationship. It is to know the voice of Jesus and be able to distinguish it from others. As Jesus says elsewhere: [The Shepherd] calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice. (John 10:3-5). Are you smarter than a sheep? Do you run from other voices contrary to Jesus?

Now be very careful as well for many today have wanted to remake and refashion the true Jesus of Scripture and thereby distort his voice. On of the most common ways this is done is to screen our his less pleasant teachings such as when he warns (alot) about judgment and hell or says “woe.” Another was is to set up a false dichotomy between the Gospels and the Epistles. And thus it is often said that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality, etc. Yes, he did, in numerous places, through his apostles whom he commissioned to speak in his name. He said to them, “He who hears you hears me.” Further never wrote a book or a word. He entrusted his entire teaching to his apostles to preach, teach and write in his name.

The Gospels and epistles have the same level of authority and are inspired and authored by the same Holy Spirit. To say that Jesus never said something but only Paul (or James or John or Peter) is to set up a false dichotomy. To hear an apostle speak in either the Gospel (for the apostles and evangelists wrote the Gospels) or the epistles is always to hear Jesus who said: Whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me; but whoever rejects me rejects him who sent me. (Luke 10:16) and also, You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

Be very careful therefore of those who try to distort the voice of Jesus by limiting it. The Apostles and Evangelists spoke for him in toto and Jesus continues to speak in the doctrinal teachings of the Church and the living voice of his magisterium which apply his word given through he apostles.

III. Persistent love – The Lord says, I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold, These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock and one shepherd. Jesus is not content merely to shepherd a few thousand Jewish disciples in the Holy Land. He wants His love to spread to the whole world. He wants to embrace and hold close everyone He has ever made. He wants to call every human person into a saving relationship.

Part of our journey as disciples, as sheep of the Lord, is to experience the call to evangelize. But that call will only take flight when Christ’s love for all people fills our heart.

Christ has a persistent love to embrace and hold everyone close to Him. Do you sense that love? He wants to draw others to Himself, through you. Many people leave the work of evangelizing and growing the flock to the priest. But shepherds don’t have sheep, sheep have sheep.

IV. Powerful love – Jesus says, I lay down my life, in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, I lay it down on my own. I have the power to lay it down, and I have the power to take it up again.

We see how Jesus does this for Himself. But as Lord and Shepherd of our life He does it for us, too. Our old self was crucified and died with Him. We have also risen with Him to new life. And this life is the totally new and transformed life that Christ died to give us.

He has the power to crucify our old and sinful self as well as the power to raise it up again. And it is not merely our old self that rises; it is a new and transformed humanity that the Lord takes up on our behalf. He has the ability to do this, for His love powerful.

I am a witness of this and I pray that you are as well. He has the power!

Thus, as King of Love, Jesus the Risen Lord shepherds us with a love that is passionate, personal, persistent, and powerful. No one loves you more than Jesus does, with His Father and the Holy Spirit. He is the King of Love and He is your Shepherd. Here is the final line of the beautiful hymn “The King of Love My Shepherd Is.”

And so through all the length of days
Thy goodness faileth never;
Good Shepherd, may I sing Thy praise
Within Thy house forever
.

 

You Are Witnesses of These Things – A Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Easter

This Sunday’s Gospel speaks to the necessity of becoming witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection Jesus. It begins with the necessary foundation of the Church’s proclamation: The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon! (Luke 24:34) This solemn declaration forms the doctrinal certitude of the resurrection. On this foundation of the truth, the personal witness of every Catholic must be built. In this gospel we see how the Lord confirms His resurrection through the teaching authority of the Church, confirms the apostles in its truth, clarifies their faith, and then commissions them to be witnesses. Let’s see how the Lord does this.

I. The Certainty of the Resurrection And [the disciples from Emmaus] rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem. And they found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together, saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.

In the early hours of the first Easter Sunday, the news began to circulate that Jesus was alive and had been seen. These reports were at first disbelieved or at least doubted by the apostles. They dismissed reports from both women and men. Several women, including Mary Magdalene, had seen Jesus alive. St. John had seen the empty tomb and had “believed.” And though Luke does not mention it here, Mark records that when the disciples returning from Emmaus first sent word they had seen Jesus, they too were at first disbelieved (Mk 16:13).

As we pick up the story that evening, there is a sudden change, a declaration by the apostles that the Lord has truly risen!

What causes this change? After the early evening report from the disciples returning from Emmaus, Peter slipped away, perhaps for a walk. According to both Paul (1 Cor 15:5) and Luke (Lk 24:34), the risen Lord then appeared to Peter privately, prior to making Himself known to any of the other apostles. Peter reports Jesus’ appearance to the others and it is at this point that the resurrection moves from being doubted to being the official declaration of the community, the Church. The official declaration is worded as follows: The Lord has truly risen, and he has appeared to Simon!” (Luke 24:34)

Did the women’s and the laymen’s declarations mean nothing? Of course not. Indeed, the Lord later upbraids the apostles for being so reluctant to accept the testimony of the others (Mk 16:14). He calls them “hard of heart” for this reluctance, especially given that He had said He would rise on the third day. Even to this day the Lord often presents apparitions of Mary, the saints, or Himself to the faithful. The clergy must carefully discern such actions, not quickly believing or disbelieving them. However, no apparition or devotion (e.g., the Divine Mercy Chaplet) can become official teaching of the Universal Church until the Church, in union with Peter’s successor, rules it worthy of belief.

This is even more the case with a dogma like the resurrection. It becomes an official teaching when proclaimed so by Peter and his successors. Pope Benedict, writing as Joseph Ratzinger, sees an ecclesiological dimension to Peter’s special role in causing the resurrection to go from being merely attested to being “true indeed.”

… This indication of names [Cephas and then the Twelve], … reveals the very foundation of the Church’s faith. On the one hand “the Twelve” remain the actual foundation stone of the Church, the permanent point of reference. On the other hand, the special task given to Peter is underlined here. … Peter’s special witnessing role is confirmation of his commission to be the rock on which the Church is built. … So, the resurrection account flows naturally into ecclesiology. … and it shapes the nascent Church [Jesus of Nazareth Vol 2., pp. 259-260].

So, the resurrection is now officially declared by the Church; it is certain and true. Faith is a way of knowing. Our faith in the Church as stated in the Creed (I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church) leads us to the certain knowledge of the resurrection by the Church’s dogmatic declaration: The Lord has truly risen, and he has appeared to Simon!” (Luke 24:34)

However, even though the faith is a communal and official declaration of the Church through the College of Apostles with Peter as its head, it cannot remain simply this. Faith must reach every member on a personal level. It is not enough for us to say, “Peter says …,” or “The Church says …,” or “Scripture says …,” or “My mother says …” We must also be able to add our own voice to the witness of the Church. We must be able to say, “Jesus is risen; it is true! What the Church has always taught, I, too, have experienced. All her teachings and doctrines, all that the Lord has taught and revealed is true because in the laboratory of my own life I have tested them and found them to be true!”

Thus, we must stay with these disciples in their journey to experience the proclamation of the Church: “The Lord has truly risen, and he has appeared to Simon!”

II. The Contact with the Resurrection – While they were still speaking about this, he stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” But they were startled and terrified and thought that they were seeing a ghost.

The truth, if we will lay hold of it, is consoling and freeing. Jesus, in the truth of His resurrected glory, stands before them and says, “Shalom,” peace. While the truth does liberate and bring peace, a journey is usually necessary to realize and accept this. Before we can receive the gift of truth, we must often accept the conflict that it introduces into our life.

As we all know, the truth can startle and even upset; it can break conventions and challenge what we know and think. The apostles are at first startled. It is one thing to hear and accept that the Lord is risen, that He has appeared to Peter, but it is another thing to be personally confronted with the truth.

It is one thing for them to believe with the Church and say, “The Lord is truly risen, and he has appeared to Simon!” But it is another for them to personally experience this. It breaks through everything they have ever known. Their belief is no longer abstract; it is no longer merely communal. Now they are personally in contact with the reality of it.

So, too, for us on our journey to deeper faith. It is a faith declared by the Church, but a faith that we must come to know and experience personally. Thanks be to God that the Lord is willing to help us to do so. For He does not simply shatter our notions. Rather, He helps us to “connect the dots” between His truth and what we already know.

III. The Clarification of the Resurrection – Then he said to them, “Why are you troubled? And why do questions arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have.” And as he said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While they were still incredulous for joy and were amazed, he asked them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of baked fish; he took it and ate it in front of them. He said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and in the prophets and psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.

The truth can often startle us; it can challenge what we know and think. For this reason, some avoid it or resist it, at least initially.

But the Lord, in His mercy, often sends us assurances. He helps us to “connect the dots” between what challenges us and what we already know, between what is new and what is ancient and attested to. Truth has a unity; greater truths build on lesser ones. God prepares us in stages for the full truth. Jesus once said to the apostles, I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth (Jn 16:12-13).

Thus, in this Gospel the Lord sets forth a kind of continuity and clarification for them. Through various methods He shows them that though gloriously risen and transformed, He who stands before them now is also the same Jesus who walked with them days before. He shows them His hands and side to indicate that He was indeed the one they saw crucified. He bids them to touch Him and see that He is not a ghost. He eats to console them and to show them that He still has fellowship with them among the living; He is no shimmering apparition from another realm. Finally, He opens their minds to the understanding of Scripture, so that they may know that all that happened is not some radical break with or tearing up of God’s plan. Rather, it is a fulfillment of all that was written, all that was prophesied.

What seems new and different is in fact in line with, in continuity with, all that has gone before. This is the new Passover that opens the way to the true, more glorious and eternal Promised Land of Heaven. This is not failure; it is fulfillment. This is not rejection of the Old Covenant; it is the ratification of it and the transposition of it to a higher and more glorious level than ever before. Moses gave them manna, but Jesus gives Himself as the true bread from Heaven. Moses gave them water, but Jesus changed water into wine and wine into His saving blood. The blood of the Passover lamb staved off a death that would come later, but the Blood of the True Lamb cancels the second death of Hell.

This is clarification. Jesus is helping them to “connect the dots” between what they have known and this startling new reality: that He has overcome torture and death. It is really He, though as the resurrection accounts indicate, He is transformed. He has not merely taken up His former life; He has elevated it to a new and mysterious level. He has a humanity that is not only risen from the dead, but is glorified. His Lordship and glory shows through as never before. He can appear and disappear at will and is able, it would seem, to alter his appearance.

So here is a truth to which we must journey: Jesus is not a mere Rabbi or ethical teacher from the ancient world; He is the Lord. He is our brother and yet also our Lord. He raised our humanity from the dead but glorified it as well. He lives at a new level, and we who are baptized into His death also rise with Him to a new and higher life (Rom 6:4). Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come (2 Cor 5:17).

In our journey to what is new, the Lord does not destroy what is behind, what He has done. He takes it up, fulfills it, and elevates it. His truth builds, and while what is new challenges us, it does not destroy or cancel our reason or what we have already come to know as true (if in fact it was true).

It is for us to cooperate with His grace and personally lay hold of the truth declared by the Church. The Lord does this in a way that respects our intellect and our sense of the faith. In this way our conflicts are gradually overcome. Our faith is deepened and though communal, also becomes more personal. Now we are ready to become witnesses to the Church’s unchanging declaration, “The Lord is risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” and to every other teaching that flows from this.

IV. Commissioning of the Resurrection – And he said to them, “Thus it is written that the Christ would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”

What is a witness? Well, it is not someone who merely repeats what others have seen and heard; it is one who testifies to what he himself has seen and heard. The apostles, having contacted personally the certain truth of the resurrection proclaimed by the Church and having had it clarified for them, are now ready to go forth as witnesses. Bishops, priests, deacons, catechists, and parents must move beyond merely repeating formulas, precious and necessary thought they are (please, do not go out and invent your own religion!). That Jesus is risen from the dead is certain and true because the Church solemnly proclaims it: “He is risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!”

Next must come that moment when we allow the Lord to stand before us and affirm what He proclaims through the Church. Having this contact, we must allow Him to clarify it and then commission us to go forth as His witnesses. As witnesses, we can and must say, “The Church says that He is risen. The Scriptures say that He is risen. And I say to you that He is risen.” You are witnesses of these things.

Are you?

God’s Perfect Mercy – A Meditation for Divine Mercy Sunday

We live in times in which mercy, like so many other things, has become a detached concept in people’s minds, separated from the things that really help us to understand it. For indeed, mercy makes sense and is necessary because we are sinners in desperate shape. Yet many today think it unkind and unmerciful to speak of sin as sin. Many think that mercy is a declaration that God doesn’t really care about sin, or that sin is not a relevant concept.

On the contrary, mercy means that sin does exist. Thanks be to God for the glory, the beauty, and the gift of His mercy! Without it, we don’t stand a chance. I don’t know about you, but I’m certainly going to need boatloads of grace and mercy to make it. Only through grace and mercy can we be freed from sin and healed from its effects, or ever hope to enter the presence of God’s glory in Heaven, of which Scripture says, But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false (Rev 21:27). Somebody say, “Lord, have mercy!”

Mercy does not mean there is no judgment; mercy exists because there is a day of judgment. Mercy does not mean there is no Hell; mercy exists because Hell does. Somebody say, “Lord, have mercy!” Without mercy we are lost. With it we stand a chance, but only if we accept our need for it. Mercy, Lord, have mercy!

Oh, thanks be to God for mercy! So let’s consider the glory and the gift of mercy on this Sunday of divine mercy. The Gospel for today’s Mass speaks both to the need for mercy and the glory of it. Let’s look at four teachings on mercy, God’s perfect mercy.

I. The Prelude to Mercy – There is an old saying that if you don’t know the bad news, the good news is no news. And thus as this Gospel opens we enter a room where ten Apostles are gathered in fear; the doors are locked. These are broken, troubled, and disturbed men. All of them but John had fled, deserting the Lord. One of them had denied even knowing Jesus, not once but three times. Here they are, humiliated, downcast, and sinfully without faith. Never mind that Jesus had told them on numerous occasions that He would rise on the third day. Even though several women and two disciples from Emmaus had said they had seen Him alive, on this the third day, these men persist in sinfully rejecting this news that conformed to His promise. Yes, we enter a locked room of fearful men who are downcast, disgraced, and disbelieving.

But it is here that we find the prelude to mercy! They are about to blessed and to experience profound mercy. But don’t miss this prelude. Again, if you don’t know the bad news, the good news is no news; so don’t miss this picture.

One of the great errors of our day is the proclamation of mercy without repentance, without reference to our sinful condition. So many pulpits have gone silent on sin! And therefore are silent on the true glory of mercy and the astonishing gift that it is! Ah, mercy! Divine mercy! Perfect mercy!

But the point of mercy is not to go out and tell others how terrible they are, but rather to tell them about the forgiveness of sin! Now this is why we need a mercy Sunday. On the one hand we’re living in rebellious times, times in which many are dismissive of sin and have refashioned God into just a nice fellow who doesn’t really care all that much about sin (despite what His own scriptures say to the contrary), reducing mercy is to mere kindness and a sort of blindness on God’s part.

On the other hand these are also times when many are scared and angry with God, rejecting His judgments and glorious moral vision. A lot of people know that their lives are in disorder: their families are broken; they are confused; greed, materialism, lust, and other sinful drives are taking a heavy toll. Many are angry with the Church because deep down they know we are right; they don’t like being reminded that people don’t have any business calling good what God calls sinful.

But most of all, many are confused and angry because they don’t know forgiveness. Consider what Psalm 32 says so beautifully:

Blessed is the one whose fault is taken away, whose sin is forgiven, to whom the Lord imputes no guilt!As long as I would not speak of my sin, my bones wasted away and your hand was heavy upon me. Then I acknowledged my sin to you, my guilt I did not hide, and you took away the guilt of my sin!

You see, the key to having this blessed state is the acknowledgement of sin.

The Lord said to St. Faustina,

You see what you are of yourself, but do not be frightened at this. If I were to reveal to you the whole misery that you are, you would die of terror. … But because you are such great misery I have revealed to you the whole ocean of my mercy (Diary II. 718).

Now some reading this sort of text think, “There goes that Catholic guilt thing again.” But let’s be honest, it’s not really an exaggeration. The truth is that most of us can be thinned-skinned, egotistical, unforgiving, unloving, unkind, mean-spirited, selfish, greedy, lustful, jealous, envious, bitter, ungrateful, smug, superior, vengeful, angry, aggressive, unspiritual, un-prayerful, stingy, and just plain mean. And even if all the things on the list don’t apply to you, many of them do. In addition, even that long list is incomplete. We are sinners with a capital ‘S’ and we need serious help.

And thus, just as Psalm 32 says, the glory of mercy is unlocked by the acknowledgment of sin. Jesus said further to St. Faustina,

My love and my mercy [for you] know no bounds! … The graces I grant are not for you alone, but for a great number of other souls as well. … The greater the sinner the greater the right he has to my mercy (Diary II.723).

Do not forget this necessary prelude to mercy: the acknowledgement of our sin. If you don’t know the bad news, the good new is no news.

II. The Peace of mercy – Into this upper room filled with men who are dejected, disgraced, doubting, humiliated, hurt, sinful, and sorrowful, the Lord came. The text says, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.

Do you see the glory and the gift of this moment? The Lord says to them, “Peace be with you.” Now I don’t know about you, but if I had been hiding out, denying Him, and running from responsibility at the critical moment, and then suddenly the Lord whom I had let down and offended appeared, I might be a little nervous! But what does the Lord say to these embarrassed and dejected men? “Peace be with you!”

What is peace? It is more than the absence of conflict or division. Peace is the presence in a relationship of all that should be there: justice, integrity, reciprocity, mutuality, and so forth. The Greek word used is eirḗnē, which is from the root eirō meaning “to join or tie together into a whole.” So it means wholeness, a state in which all essential parts are joined together. Peace is God’s gift of wholeness.

Do you see the glory of this moment? The Lord does not merely say, “I will not punish you for what you have done.” He says, “Between you and my Father there is now peace, there is wholeness, there is completeness, there is present in the relationship all that should be there, there is justice.” The Lord does not merely overlook what a mess we are, He makes us whole and pleasing to His Father.

All is well, all is complete, all that is necessary is supplied by my atoning death and resurrection!

Such mercy, such a grace, such a gift!

In English, the text says that they rejoiced. But here, too, the English translation does not capture the richness of the Greek word ἐχάρησαν (echarēsan), which means to delight in God’s grace. It means to powerfully experience God’s grace (favor), to be conscious of and astonished by (glad for) His grace! This is no mere passing happiness. This is abiding astonishment at the sheer gift of God’s mercy and grace. The Apostles do not just get happy for a moment; they are given the gift of stable, serene, confident joy at the unfathomable gift of God’s mercy and goodness. They had sinned and yielded to fear; they had run from the Lord and ignored His teaching; but the Lord stands before them and says “Shalom, Peace be with you. May the full favor of the Lord be with you. May you experience that God is pleased that you are well and seeks to draw you more deeply into His love.”

Here is mercy; sweet, beautiful, soul-saving mercy; and astonishing and unexpected grace! There is shalom; there is peace; there is deep, abiding, and confident mercy. It is a joy and mercy that is unmerited. It is stable because it is rooted in the stable and abiding love of God.

III. The Priesthood of Mercy – The text says, As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”

There is not time here to develop a full apologetic of the Sacrament of Confession entrusted to the Church. But to those who say, “I don’t have tell my sins to any priest, I can just go straight to God,” the Lord Jesus never got your little memo. He gave the power to forgive sins to the Apostles and their successors. That is clear in this passage. The Lord does not do pointless, foolish things; what He says here is to be taken seriously. He tells these imperfect men, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”

There is something deeply personal, even if imperfect (on account of the imperfection of priests), in the way the Lord wants us to experience his mercy. But the emphasis is on the personal.

There is a beautiful story of St. John Paul and a fallen bishop. The bishop had fallen from grace; he had had an affair with a woman, and although he ended it, the story came out later and he resigned. Some months later he was called to Rome to meet with Pope John Paul. As he waited to see the Pope, he was nervous. Had the Pope called him to rebuke him? He sat alone, waiting for the Pope to enter. The door opened and the sainted pope walked across the room and greeted the fallen bishop. “I have one question to ask you,” said Pope John Paul. “Are you at peace?” “Yes,” he replied. “Thanks be to God!” said Pope John Paul. The fallen bishop took the joy of that mercy into the remainder of his life and went on to care quietly for the spiritual needs of religious who were underserved in a certain part of this country. He never forgot the mercy he experienced and the story was told at his funeral, for he himself told it often.

There is just nothing that surpasses the way the Lord can convey his mercy in the deeply personal way of the confessional. There is nothing more precious than those words that conclude every confession: “I absolve you of your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Go in peace. Thanks be to God!”

The Lord did not want his mercy to depend on some self-generated notion that mercy was extended. He wanted us, for whom faith comes by hearing, to hear those precious words: “I absolve you from your sins … Go in peace.” There is nothing more wonderful and certain than those words spoken by the Lord through His priests.

IV. The Prerequisite of Mercy – But one of the Apostles, Thomas, was missing. Here was the most wounded of all the Apostles, so wounded that he drew back from the only place mercy could be found, for where two or three were gathered the risen Lord appeared in the midst of them. In drawing back, Thomas blocked his blessings.

The point is this: the Lord unfailingly offers His mercy. He says, No one who calls on me will I ever reject (Jn 6:37).

The question is, will we call on him? There is only this one need, this one requirement for mercy: that we ask for it. Jesus says, Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me (Rev 3:20). The door to our heart and to repentance must be opened from the inside. The Lord will not force His mercy. This is why there is a Hell. Without God’s mercy we are doomed; we don’t stand a chance. His mercy is free except for this price: we must surrender our pride, admit our need, and open the door.

Thanks be to God that St. Thomas did not persist in his impenitent stance, but instead rejoined the community where mercy and the Lord were to be found. Sure enough, where two or three were gathered the Lord appeared once again and St. Thomas found mercy. The Lord rebuked Thomas’ lack of faith but rewarded his penitence.

St. Thomas opened the door from the inside of his heart. The Lord lovingly entered and built up his faith so that never again would Thomas think that he could find the Lord on his own terms. Rather, Thomas would seek the Lord where He could be found: in the Church, among those gathered in His name. Mercy is found where God is found. He knocks but it is we who must open the door and receive Him into our hearts on His terms not ours.

St. Thomas fell to his knees, astonished by the Lord’s mercy; such mercy, such a glorious gift. “My Lord and my God!” The Lord never stopped calling Thomas. The Lord did not give up but waited until Thomas answered the door. “Peace, Shalom, Thomas. I am glad you are here. Now never again stop believing in my mercy and love for you. Never again draw back thinking I am lost to you. I love you with an everlasting Love. I have called you and you are mine. Peace to you, and mercy, Thomas.”

Mercy! So great, so divine, so perfect. It is a mercy that does not deny the need for its own existence. When humbly received, it conveys peace through the priesthood that Christ Himself established. It is a mercy which, as a prerequisite, respectfully knocks and waits for our “yes.” Lord, give us your perfect mercy.

I have it on the best of authority that Thomas sang a song later that night, a song that sang of the Lord’s mercy and persistence, of His abiding call when we would give up. Yes, I have it on the best of authority that he sang,

I almost let go;
I felt like I just couldn’t take life any more.
My problems had me bound;
Depression weighed me down;
But God held me close
so I wouldn’t let go.
God’s mercy kept me;
so I wouldn’t let go

I almost gave up;
I was right at the edge of a break through,
but couldn’t see it.
The devil really had me,
but Jesus came and grabbed me,
and He held me close,
so I wouldn’t let go.
God’s mercy kept me,
so I wouldn’t let go.

So I’m here to day because God kept me
I’m A live today only because of His grace
Oh He kept me, God kept me
God’s mercy kept me,
so I wouldn’t let go

God’s perfect mercy: divine, healing, calling, converting, and soul-saving. Mercy, yes, perfect mercy.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: God’s Perfect Mercy – A Meditation for Divine Mercy Sunday

The Cross Wins, It Always Wins. A Meditation on the Gospel of the Fifth Sunday of Lent

The Gospel today is, to the world and to those who are perishing, utter madness, utter foolishness. For Christ, in effect, declares that dying (to this world) is the only way to true life. While the world’s so-called wisdom declares to us that the way to life is power, prestige, possessions and popularity, Jesus says, die to all that and you’ll find true life.

The word “paradox” refers to something that is contrary to the usual way of thinking. And the true gospel, (not the watered down, compromised one) is a real insult to the world.

Indeed, most of us struggle to understand and accept what the Lord is saying. But the Lord can give us a heart for what really matters, a heart for God, for love, and for the things waiting for us in heaven. But the way to this new life is through the Cross. Jesus had to go to the cross and die to give us this new life. And we too must go to his cross and die with him to this world’s agenda in order to rise to new life.

To those who would scoff at this way of the Cross there is only one thing to say, “The Cross wins, it Always wins.

Let’s examine the Lord’s Paradoxical Plan to save us and bring us to new life.

I. The Plan of Salvation that is Acclaimed: As the Gospel opens we find a rather strange incident. The text says,  Some Greeks who had come to worship at the Passover Feast came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.

What is odd is the apparent “over-reaction” that Jesus has to the simple fact of some Greeks wishing to speak to him. From this seemingly simple and unremarkable (to us) fact, Jesus senses the stunning fact that his “hour” has now come. Yes, now the time for his glorification, that is, his suffering, death and resurrection, to take place. He goes on later to say, “I am troubled now. Yet what should I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour. Now is the time of judgment on this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” He said this indicating the kind of death he would die.

Yes, all this from the simple fact that certain Greeks, i.e. certain Gentiles wish to speak to him.

Even more remarkable, is that nothing in the text indicates that Jesus in fact goes over to speak to them. Having given this stunning soliloquy and announced that the drama was to unfold, there is no evidence that he eagerly goes to the Greeks to evangelize them. We will see why this in a moment.

But first let us examine why this simple request throws the whole switch on for Holy Week to unfold. In effect, the arrival of the Gentiles fulfills a critical prophecy about the Messiah wherein He would gather the nations unto himself and make of fractured humanity one nation, one family. Consider two prophesies:

  1. I come to gather nation of every language; they shall come and see my glory. just as the Israelites bring their offering to the house of the Lord in clean vessels. Some of these I will take as priests and Levites says the Lord….All mankind shall come to worship before me says the Lord. (Is 66:18, 23)
  2. And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, every one who keeps the Sabbath, and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant– these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. (Is 56:6-7)

Thus we see that one of the principle missions of the Messiah would be to save, not only the Jewish People, but all people and to draw them into right worship, and unity in the one Lord. Jesus explicitly states elsewhere his intention to gather the Gentiles:

I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd (John 10:14).

And so it is that this apparently simple request of the Greeks (Gentiles) to see Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, carries such significance for him (and us).

But why not run and greet them at once? Simply put, the call and salvation of the Gentiles must wait for the death and the resurrection of Jesus to be accomplished. It will be his atoning death that will reunite us with the Father and with one another. A simple sermon or slogan like “Can’t we all get along” isn’t going to accomplish the deeper unity necessary. Only the Blood of Jesus can bring true Shalom with the Father and wit one another, only the blood of Jesus can save us.

Consider this text from Ephesians:

But now in Christ Jesus you [Gentiles] who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who has made us both {Jews and Gentiles] one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. (Eph 2:13ff)

Thus, nothing but the Blood of Jesus can make us whole, can save us or make us one, either with the Father or each other. There is no true unity apart from Christ and he secures it by his blood and the power of his cross. Only by baptism into the paschal mystery do we become members of the Body of Christ and find true and lasting unity, salvation, and true peace.

So the door has opened from the Gentiles side, But Jesus knows the way through door goes by way the Cross. His apparent delay in rushing to greet the Gentiles makes sense in this light. Only after his resurrection he will say, Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.... (Matt 28:19) for now there is the power through baptism to make all one in Christ. The Price of our salvation, our new life, our peace with each other, and the Father, is the death and Resurrection of Jesus. And thank the Lord, Jesus paid that price. An old songs says Oh, the love that drew salvation’s plan! Oh, the grace that brought it down to man! Oh, the mighty gulf that God did span! At Calvary!

II. The Plan of Salvation Applied – Jesus goes on to say Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be. The Father will honor whoever serves me.

Now while it is true that Jesus pays the price for our peace and unity, with the Father and which each other, it is also true that he sets forth and prescribes a pattern for us and applies it. Note that Jesus says, Amen, Amen I say to YOU….and again he says, Whoever serves me must follow me.

Thus the pattern of his dying and rising to new life must also be applied to the pattern of our life. And if we seek unity and peace and to enjoy this new life with the Father, we must die to rise again. We must follow in the footsteps of Jesus. If we want peace we have to be willing to accept the pattern of dying fro it and rising to it.

How must we die for this? Well we have to die to:

  1. Our ego
  2. Our desire for revenge
  3. Our hurts from the past
  4. Our desire to control everything
  5. Our sinful and unbiblical agendas
  6. Our irrational fears rooted in ego and exaggerated notions
  7. Our hatreds
  8. Our unrealistic expectations
  9. Our stubbornness
  10. Our inflexibility
  11. Our impatience
  12. Our unreasonable demands
  13. Our greed
  14. Our worldliness

Yes, we have to be willing to experience some sacrifices for unity and to obtain new life. We have to let the Lord put a lot of sinful and unhealthy drives to death in us. New life does not just occur, Peace and unity do not just happen. We have to journey to them through Calvary. We too must allow the Lord to crucify our sinful desires and thereby rise to new life.

But remember, the Cross wins. It always wins.

III. The Plan of Salvation At day’s end. – Jesus speaks of a great promise of new life but presents it in a very paradoxical way. He says: Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.

In other words, if we are not willing to follow the pattern he sets forth above of dying to ourselves and to this world, we cannot truly live. And if we go on clinging to our worldly notions of life and live only for ourselves, and for power, possessions, popularity, and prestige, we are already dead. For indeed, if we live only for the things of this world (and many do), ours is a cruel and laughable fate, for we die and lose all. Yes, total losers.

But if we allow the Lord to help us die to the this world’s agenda, to its pathetic charms, then, and only then do we pass increasingly to real life, to true unity with the Father and to deeper unity with one another in Christ.Only then does a newer, deeper life dawn upon us and do we see our lives dramatically transformed day to day.

Jesus had to die to give this to us. And in order to have it bestowed on us, and we must be configured to Christ’s death to this world in order to live in him and find this new life. We die to a sinful and overrated world, to live in a whole new way in a life open to something richer than we can ever imagine.

Note too, Jesus calls this new life, “eternal life.” But eternal life means far more than to live forever. Rather “eternal,” while not excluding the notion of endless length,  more deeply means “to become fully alive.”

And for those who know Christ, this process has already begun. At age 50, my bodily life has suffered setbacks. But spiritually I am more alive than I ever was at 20, and wait till I’m 80! Our bodies may be declining, but our souls are growing younger and more vibrant, more fully alive, if we love and trust Christ. Yes, I am more joyful, more serene, more confident, less sinful, less angry, less anxious, more compassionate, more patient, more alive!

But all of this comes from dying to this world, little by little and thus having more room for the life Christ offers.

What is the price of our Peace and our new life? Everything! For we shall only attain to it by dying to this world. And while our final physical death will seal the deal, there are all the ten thousand little deaths that usher in this new life even now. Our physical death is but the final component of a lifelong journey in Christ. For those who know Christ, the promise then will be full. For those who rejected him, the loss will be total.

An old song says, Now I’ve given Jesus everything, Now I gladly own Him as my King, Now my raptured soul can only sing Of Calvary!

Yes, the promise is real, but it is paradoxically obtained. The world calls all this foolishness. But you decide. Choose either the “wisdom of this world” or the folly of Christ. As for me, call me a fool, but make sure you add I was a fool for Christ. I do not mind. The cross wins, it always wins.

This song says:

Years I spent in vanity and pride,
Caring not my Lord was crucified,
Knowing not it was for me He died
On Calvary.

Refrain:
Mercy there was great, and grace was free;
Pardon there was multiplied to me;
There my burdened soul found liberty
At Calvary.

By God’s Word at last my sin I learned;
Then I trembled at the law I’d spurned,
Till my guilty soul imploring turned
To Calvary.

Now I’ve given Jesus everything,
Now I gladly own Him as my King,
Now my raptured soul can only sing
Of Calvary!

Oh, the love that drew salvation’s plan!
Oh, the grace that brought it down to man!
Oh, the mighty gulf that God did span
At Calvary!