Five Disciplines of Discipleship – A Homily for the 13th Sunday of the Year

This Sunday’s Gospel portrays through the life of Jesus some important disciplines for disciples. Let’s look at them and see how to apply them to our lives today.

I. Purposefulness – The text says, When the days for Jesus’ being taken up were fulfilled, he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem, and he sent messengers ahead of him.

Note that Jesus was resolute. He was heading to Jerusalem to suffer, die, and rise; to undertake the great battle and the great mission entrusted to Him. Everything He did was to be oriented toward this goal.

What about us? Are we as determined to seek Christ and head for His Kingdom? Is our direction clear? Have we set our sights resolutely, or do we meander about? Are we on the highway to Heaven, or do we make compromises with this passing world, seeking to serve two masters? Notice how easily we take exits for sin city, vicious village, and injustice junction.

Our goal is to set our face like flint and pursue the Jerusalem of Heaven, just as Jesus set His face toward the Jerusalem of this earth to accomplish His mission.

Scripture speaks often of developing a firm and unequivocal resolve, of being purposeful and single-hearted in our determination to follow Jesus and set our sights on Heaven.

This one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:13).

A double minded man is unstable in all his ways (James 1:4).

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon (Mat 6:24).

There is one thing I ask of the LORD, this alone I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life and gaze upon the beauty of the LORD (Ps 27:4).

Are you focused? Purposeful? What is the one thing you do? Concentration is the secret of power. Water over a large area is a stagnant pond, but in a narrow channel it is a powerful river.

The first discipline of discipleship is to be purposeful, determined, single-hearted, and focused in our pursuit of the Lord and His kingdom.

II. Perseverance – The text says, On the way they entered a Samaritan village to prepare for his reception there, but they would not welcome him because the destination of his journey was Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?” Jesus turned and rebuked them, and they journeyed to another village.

James and John are angry at and discouraged by the rejection of Jesus and the values of the Kingdom, but He Jesus rebukes their desire for retaliation.

Notice how Jesus stays focused on His task. Rejected here, He moves forward. He does not let the devil distract Him or His disciples from the task of proclaiming the Word whether in season or out of season, popular or unpopular, accepted or rejected. Keep preaching; keep plowing; keep walking. Do not give up; do not grow angry; just keep working. Leave judgment to God. For now, just preach, teach, warn, and admonish.

Scripture says,

And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly, I say to you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town. … and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next (Matt 10:14, 22).

Yes, persevere! Remember, we’re called to be faithful, not successful. We need to persevere not just in the face of rejection, but in the face of trials, temptations, setbacks, sorrows, hurts, hardships, failures, and frustrations. Preach, teach, and be tenacious. Remember to trust in Jesus. They killed Him, but He rose.

Many have announced the end of faith. Many have sworn that they will bury the Church, but she has buried every one of her would-be undertakers. They dug our grave but fell into it themselves. Yes, we read the funeral rites over them. We have outlived every opponent.

No weapon waged against us will prevail. Long after the current confusion and pride of the decadent West has gone, the Church will still exist, preaching Christ and Him crucified.

III. Poverty – The text says, As they were proceeding on their journey someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus answered him, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”

Here is another critical discipline of discipleship: following Jesus even if worldly gain not only eludes us but is outright taken from us. Do you love the consolations of God or the God of all consolation? Do you seek the gifts of God or the Giver of every good and perfect gift? What if following Jesus gives you no earthly gain? What if, in fact, being a disciple brings you ridicule, loss, prison, or even death? Would you still follow Him? Would you still be a disciple?

In this verse Jesus’ potential disciple seems to have power, prestige, or worldly gain in mind. Perhaps he sees Jesus as a political messiah and wants to get on the “inside track.” Jesus warns him that this is not what discipleship is about. The Son of Man’s Kingdom is not of this world.

We need to heed Jesus’ warning. Riches are actually a great danger. Not only can riches not help us in what we really need, they can actually hinder us! Poverty is the not the worst thing. There’s a risk in riches, a peril in prosperity, and a worry in wealth.

The Lord Jesus points to poverty and powerlessness (in worldly matters) when it comes to being disciples. This is not merely a remote possibility or an abstraction. If we live as true disciples, we are going to find that wealth is seldom our lot. Why is this? Well, our lack of wealth comes from the fact that if we are true disciples, we won’t make easy compromises with sin or evil. We won’t take just any job. We won’t be ruthless in the workplace or deal with people unscrupulously. We won’t lie on our resumes, cheat on our taxes, or take easy and sinful short cuts. We will observe the Sabbath, be generous to the poor, pay a just wage, provide necessary benefits to workers, and observe the tithe. The world hands out (temporary) rewards if we do these sorts of things, but true disciples refuse such compromises with evil. In so doing, they reject the temporary rewards of this earth and may thus have a less opulent place to lay their heads. They may not get every promotion and they may not become powerful.

Yes, poverty is a discipline of discipleship. What is “poverty”? It is freedom from the snares of power, popularity, and possessions.

Jesus had nowhere to rest his head. Now that’s poor! But it also means freedom from the many duties, obligations, and compromises that come with wealth. If you’re poor no one can steal from you or threaten take away your things. You’re free; you have nothing to lose.

Most of us have too much to lose and so we are not free; our discipleship is hindered.

IV. Promptness (readiness) The text says, And to another he said, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” But he answered him, “Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

The Lord seems harsh here. However, note that the Greek text can be understood in the following way: “My Father is getting older. I want to wait until he dies and then I will really be able to devote myself to being a disciple.”

Jesus’ point is that if the man didn’t have this excuse, he’d have some other one. He does not have a prompt or willing spirit. We can always find some reason that we can’t follow wholeheartedly today because we have to get a few things resolved first. It’s the familiar “I’ll do tomorrow.”

There is a peril in procrastination. Too many people always push things off to tomorrow, but tomorrow is not promised. In the Scriptures there is one word that jumps out over and over again; it’s the word now.

Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD (Isaiah 1:18).

behold, now is the day of salvation (2 Cor 6:2).

Today if ye will hear his voice, Harden not your heart (Ps 95:7).

Boast not thyself of tomorrow; for you know not what a day may bring forth (Prov 27:1).

That’s right, tomorrow is not promised! You’d better choose the Lord today because tomorrow might very well be too late. Now is the day of salvation.

There were three demons who told Satan about their plan to destroy a certain man. The first demon said, “I’m going to tell him that there is no Hell.” But Satan said, “People know that there is a Hell; most have already visited here.” The second demon said, “I’m going to tell him that there is no God.” But Satan said, “Despite atheism being fashionable of late, most people know, deep down, that there is a God, for He has written His name in their hearts.” The third demon said, “I’m not going to tell them that there is no Hell or that there is no God; I’m going to tell them that there’s no hurry.” And Satan said, “Now that’s the plan!”

Yes, promptness is a great gift to be sought from God. It is the gift to run joyfully and without delay to what God promises.

V. Permanence – The text says, And another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home.” To him Jesus said, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.”

When we accepted Christ, we set our hand to the gospel plow and we left certain things behind. We are not to return to those things, things like harmful habits, ruinous relationships, soul-killing sinfulness, and perilous pleasures.

Yes, there are some things that we used to do that we have no business doing now. We need to give up our former ways and not look back.

Scripture says,

Now this I affirm and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds; they are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart; they have become callous and have given themselves up to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of uncleanness. You did not so learn Christ, assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus. Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph 4:17-23).

Therefore, brothers, make every effort to make permanent your calling and election, because if you do these things you will never stumble (2 Peter 1:10).

An old spiritual says,

“Hold on, Hold on! If you want to get to heaven let me tell you how, keep your hands on the Gospel plow! Keep your hands on the plow and hold on! Hold on. When you plow that field don’t lose your track, can’t plow straight and keep a-lookin’ back. Keep your hands on the plow and hold on, hold on!”

Persevere. Hold on and don’t let go.

Here, then, are five disciplines of discipleship. Learn about them and seek them from the Lord. Without them we will surely perish.

 

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.

Four Gifts of Grace – A Homily for the 6th Sunday of Easter

The Gospel for Sunday has a number of “sayings” of the Lord Jesus, which together amount to a kind of litany of love. It is a setting forth of the gifts that He, by His grace, is accomplishing and will accomplish in us. Let’s consider the wonderful gifts of grace.

I. PowerJesus said to His disciples, “Whoever loves me will keep my word.”

Here is a fundamental theology of grace: keeping the commandments and mandates of the Lord’s Word is the fruit of His love, not the cause of it. The Lord says that if you love Him, the keeping of the commandments is sure to follow. Note that we do not initiate this love, God does. Scripture says, We love because he first Loved us (1 John 4:19).

No one can give what he does not have, and no one can possess what he has not received. God is the author and initiator of love. Love always starts with Him. The Lord is not setting up some sort of loyalty test here, as if He were saying, “If you love me, prove it by keeping my commandments.” That is not the gospel! The gospel is that God loved us before we were ever born, before we could do anything to merit His love. He loved us when we were dead in our sins, and He took the initiative to love us even when we hated Him and crucified Him.

If we will accept this love, it will enable us to love God with the same love with which He loves us. With His love in us, we will begin to love what He loves and whom He loves. We will love holiness, forgiveness, mercy, justice, compassion, chastity, and generosity. We will love our brethren—even our enemies. Why? Because God loves them. When His love is in our heart, so is His love for them.

Do you understand this? Love enables us to keep His Word, to live it and to love it. When I was young, I dated a girl who liked square dancing. At the time, I thought square dancing was silly, but my love for her meant that I started to love what she loved; I came to love her family, too. If we let love have its way, it changes our heart and our desires.

If you let love have its way you will keep the commandments. The keeping of the commandments is the fruit of love, not its cause. Love is the power of grace at work in us to love what and whom God loves. Jesus says, If you love me, you will keep my commandments (John 14:15).

II. Presence – [Jesus says,] and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.

One of Jesus’ great desires was to restore us to unity with the Father. Jesus was crazy about His Father and earnestly desired to have us know Him and love Him more deeply.

If we will but accept the Father’s love and His shalom, offered through Jesus, we will have a tender and joyful relationship with our Abba, our Father. Jesus often described His Father almost as doting. He is like a shepherd who leaves the 99 in search of the one. He is like a woman who loses a coin, sweeps diligently to find it, and then celebrates by throwing a party more costly than the coin itself. He is like a father whose son effectively tells him to “drop dead,” but who, when the son finally returns, runs out to meet him and has a feast in celebration.

Do you grasp this? The Father loves you and Jesus has reconciled you to Him. Now run to Him; run to Abba, God. If you take one step, He’ll take two, and then He’ll start running to embrace you!

This is the gospel message: Jesus Christ has reconciled us to the Father at the Father’s own request. The Father loves you. Now run to Him and watch Him run to you. He does not want distance; He wants intimate presence, love, and embrace.

III. Perfection – [Jesus says,] I have told you this while I am with you. The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.

We all know that the Christian journey is not accomplished in an instant. Rather, we make this journey with God, the Holy Spirit, who teaches us and makes us mindful of all that Jesus has done for us and taught us. Little by little, we are given a new mind, a new heart, a new walk, and a new and better life. May God who has begun a good work in bring it to perfection (cf Phil 1:6).

If we are open to Him, He is faithful, and He will do it. The process may be slow, but that is only because we have foreheads of brass and necks of iron (cf Is 48:4). God is faithful and patient. I am a witness; if He can change me, He can change you. He has promised to do so, and He will.

We will be transformed by the renewal of our mind (cf Rom 12:2), for the Holy Spirit will bring to our mind all that the Lord is and all that He taught. Let the Lord change your mind and heart. If He does that, the rest will follow. Sow a thought, reap a deed; sow a deed, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny—and it all begins with the mind.

One of the gifts of grace is the renewing of our mind, and it leads to total transformation.

IV. Peace – [Jesus says,] Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. You heard me tell you, “I am going away, and I will come back to you.” If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father; for the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it happens, so that when it happens you may believe.

What is the gift of peace? Peace is shalom; it is more than the absence of conflict. It is the presence in the relationship of everything that should be there. Peace is the experience that everything is all right.

For us, peace is access once again to the Father. It is being able once again to walk with Him in love, in and through Jesus Christ. We don’t just walk with Him in some earthly garden paradise, as Adam and Eve did. Rather, we walk with Him in Heaven. In Jesus we are seated with the Father in honor at His right hand.

So, what does it mean when the same Jesus who said, “The Father and I are One” (Jn 10:30), also says, “The Father is greater than I” (Jn 14:28)?

Theologically, we can distinguish two ways of understanding this text. Many theologians emphasize that Jesus is referring to His human nature when he says, “The Father is greater than I.” As God, He is equal to His Father, but as man, He is less than His Father. Other theologians remind us that, even in terms of His divinity, the Father has a certain greatness as the source in the Trinity. All the members of the Trinity are co-eternal, co-equal, and equally divine, but the Father is the Principium Deitatis (the Principle of the Deity). The Father eternally begets the Son, the Son is eternally begotten, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from them both. Because Jesus proceeds from the Father from all eternity, He is in effect saying, “I delight that the Father is the principle of my being, even though I have no origin.”

Devotionally, Jesus is saying that He always does what pleases His Father. Jesus loves His Father. He’s crazy about Him. He’s always talking about Him and pointing to Him. By calling the Father greater, He in effect says, “I look to my Father for everything. I do what I see Him doing (Jn 5:19) and what I know pleases Him (Jn 5:30). His will and mine are one. What I will to do proceeds from Him. I do what I know accords with His will.”

This is the source of our peace. With Jesus, we love the Father and always do what pleases Him. Jesus “goes to the Father,” but He takes us with Him, for we are members of His mystical Body. In Jesus, we enter the holy of holies and sit next to the Father in love and intimacy.

Here, then, are some important gifts of grace. It is up to us to lay hold of them and to live out of them. The Lord promises them to us, so they are ours. If at times they seem distant, reach out and take back what the devil stole from you. These are gifts of the Lord’s resurrected grace.

This song that speaks of peace and presence, not to mention power:

 

The Legacy of Love – A Homily for the 5th Week of Easter

The title of this sermon uses the word legacy, which refers to something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor.

Perhaps the most accessible image of this is money. If I receive 100 million dollars from a dying relative, I can the money to start living differently. My bills, which now seem overwhelming, can be paid with just the interest earned from my newfound wealth. I can start enjoying things I thought I could never afford in the past. In other words, a legacy can completely change the way I live and open up new possibilities.

It is in this sense that we explore today’s Gospel, wherein our Lord sets forth for us a new power: the power of love. If we tap into it and draw from its riches, we are able to live differently. If we will but lay hold of it, there is a kind of legacy, a deposit of riches from which we can draw.

Let’s look at today’s Gospel in three stages and discover what the Lord has done for us and has left us by way of a legacy.

I. The Provision and Pivot of the Passion – The text says, When Judas had left them, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and God will glorify him at once.

Note how the text speaks in the present tense: the Son of Man is glorified. Judas’ going forth has started a process that is now underway and will, by God’s grace, result in liberation and glorification for Jesus and for us. The Lord Jesus is no mere victim. Everything is unfolding exactly as foretold. The Son of Man will suffer but, in the end, will be glorified. This glory will make available for us a whole new life.

Now this leads us to a question: What happened when the Son of God died and rose for me? This question is not posed in order to receive merely the answer from the catechism. Expressed more deeply, these are the questions: What difference does the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ make for me today? Are they just ancient historical events that are meaningful only because others say so? Or have I grasped and begun to lay hold of what Jesus has done for me?

Scripture says that Jesus’ death is glorification and new life for us: We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin…We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might have a whole new life (Rom 6:4-7).

In other words, Jesus, the Son of Man, is glorified in His passion and is destroying the power of sin and death by His cross and resurrection. We need to spend our life pondering what happened when the Son of God died for us. It is not merely some historical event. It is that, but it is far more. To the degree that we will lay hold of this saving work, we will come to see and experience the power of the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ to put sin to death and to bring new life forth in Christ.

Of this, I am a witness, for I have seen the power of the cross to quell sinful fears, worldly lusts, and endless preoccupations. On account of what Jesus endures for us, He ascends on high not to leave us but to open the way for us to a greater and fuller life. It is a life in which we see sin put to death and many graces and charisms come alive: charisms of confidence, joy, and hope; it is an increasingly victorious life. It is up to us to grasp this saving work and the new life it offers us by the power of the cross of Christ and Him crucified.

This is the moment of glory, the pivotal point of all things. This the glory and the basis of a new life. Because of what Jesus does at this moment, His glory and ours is ushered in; it is all based on this.

II. The Power and Produce of the Passion – The text says, I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.

When we hear the phrase “Love one another as I have loved you.” we can fall into the trap of thinking, “Uh oh, I have to do more! I have to try harder. Because He loved me, now I, with the power of my own flesh, have to love others.” However, this is not about rules; it’s about relationship. Jesus is not just saddling us with more responsibilities. He is equipping, empowering, and enabling us to love with the same love with which He has loved us.

The point here is to let Jesus love you, to experience His love, and with this love, experienced and embraced, be empowered to love others.

The Lord does not just say, “Love.” Rather, He says, “Receive love and then love with the love that you have received.” Scripture says,

      • We love, because he first loved us (1 John 4:19).
      • As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love! If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love (John 15:9).

In other words, we have the power to keep His commandments and to love others to the degree that we receive and abide—that is, remain—in His love. We love with His love, not merely with our own love.

Do not miss this point! Do you see it? This is the message: by the power of His love and grace we are empowered to love, to keep His commandments, and to see our life changed. Today’s Gospel is not a moralism that tells us to obey a bunch of rules. It is that God has sent His Son, who died for us and rose to give us a wholly new and transformed life, a life that keeps the commandments and loves others with the power of God’s own love, received and experienced.

III. The Proof Positive of the Passion – The text says, This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

We have discussed many times on this blog the fact that the usual Greek word for “know” is richer than our modern notion of “intellectual knowing.” The Greek word for merely knowing something intellectually is oida, but the verb used in today’s Gospel is γινώσκω (ginosko), which refers to experiential knowing, to knowing in a deep, personal, and experiential way.

Thus, the point is that others will notice the legacy of love living us in a very real and experiential way. The faith, hope, and love that we proclaim will not, and cannot, be a mere intellectualism; it must be something that others can see and experience at work within us.

Hence, the proof, the evidence, the picture of God’s love, is not some vague feeling or a mere intellectual attribute in us. It is a powerful and dynamic force that equips, empowers, and enables us to love. The Lord says here that His love is something that changes us in a way that others will notice. It changes our relationships in a palpable, tangible, and noticeable way. We notice and experience its power and so do others.

Yes, we will love even our enemies, and we will do this not out of the power of our own flesh or because have to, but because we want to receive, and have received from the Lord, a new heart and the power to love.

Note also that the love we have will not be a merely sentimental one. It will be a true love, a love rooted in truth. It will be a love like Jesus has, one that does not compromise the truth or water down its demands. It will be a love that speaks the truth but does so not merely to win an argument but to summon the other to fulfillment and flourishing. This is what Jesus did. He loved, but He loved in truth and integrity. Nothing would compromise His love for His Father or the glorious vision and plan of the Father for all His children to abide in truth and holiness.

The proof positive that the legacy of love is at work within us is, first of all, our own transformed lives, which others can see. Second, it is the love that others can and do experience from us. Granted, this love will sometimes challenge and irritate others, but it is a love that is difficult to deny, an integrity that is hard to impugn, a love that, even if disconcerting, is real, palpable, and obvious.

This, then, is the legacy of love. It is a treasure, an inheritance that the Lord Jesus has left us to draw upon. This love is not our work; it is not our wealth, not our power. It is all His. He has left it for us to draw upon. Will we? Or will we make excuses about how we are not able to do the things to which He has summoned us? Don’t you get it? It is not our power, not our love; it is His, and He has left us this legacy, this inheritance, to draw upon.

Lay hold of this power, this love, and let it transform your life. Let it turn you into proof positive of the power of the cross to transform lives and to bestow new life.

 

What Did Jesus Call Us? – A Homily for the 4th Sunday of Easter

The Lord says, “My sheep hear my voice.” That’s right, He called us sheep. Get a little indignant with me here! The Lord is comparing us not to majestic eagles, beautiful gazelles, swift horses, mighty lions, or clever doges, but to sheep. While reality may hurt, the truth can liberate. Although sheep are considered somewhat lowly animals, they are valuable as well. Let’s consider today’s Gospel in three stages.

I. THE SIGN OF THE SHEEP What does the Lord mean in using sheep as a sign for us? Here are some qualities of sheep that may help illustrate what He is teaching.

Sheep are WAYWARD – They tend to wander off. A sheep will graze for a while and then look around and seem to wonder, “Where am I?” He doesn’t know how to get back to the fold unless the shepherd goes out and brings him back. Sheep just keep on going and don’t come back. Dogs and cats can find their way home, horses can find the barn, but sheep can’t manage to find their way back without the shepherd seeking them out and guiding them.

Don’t tell me that doesn’t describe us! Like sheep, we have gone astray, each to his own way (Isaiah 53:6). Yes, we easily become lost. We need the sheepfold of the Church; we need Christ the Shepherd, ministering through His Pope, bishops, and priests. Without that we would just wander here and there.

Sheep are WITLESS – Sheep are just not that bright. We train dogs, birds, horses, and even lions, but you don’t hear about trained sheep too frequently!

We human sheep like to think we’re smart. Sure, we’ve been to the moon, and we have all this advanced technology, but too many of us aren’t even bright enough to pray every day, go to Mass on Sundays, and follow God’s basic directions for life.

We’re so witless that we do things that we know will harm us. Even the simplest directions from God we either confuse or stubbornly refuse to follow. We cop an attitude and say, “We know a few things too.” That’s right, we know very few things.

In fact, we’re so dumb that we think we’re smarter than God! We think our way is better than His way. Now that is really dumb!

Sheep are WEAK – Sheep have no way to protect themselves. Mules can kick, cats can scratch, dogs can bite, rabbits can run away, and skunks—well, you know what they can do—but without the care of the shepherd and the help of sheep dogs, sheep are doomed! The wolf comes and all they can do is stand there get devoured.

So it is with us. If it were not for the care of Jesus the Good Shepherd, we’d be cornered by the world, the flesh, and the devil. If it were not for the Lord and the power of His grace, we would be toast!

We like to think we’re strong; we have armies, political power, monetary power, and star power that can feed that illusion. Then at the slightest temptation we fall! We need the Lord and His grace and mercy, or we don’t stand a chance. We are weak and prone to sin.

YET …

Sheep are WORTHWHILE – In Jesus’ day, many a man counted his wealth by the number of sheep he owned. Shepherds made many sacrifices to breed, herd, and protect these valuable animals, which provided meat, milk, and wool. So it is with us. At times we may not feel worthy, but apparently we were worth saving because the Lord paid the price of our redemption. He knew the price and paid it all—not with silver and gold but with His own precious blood (1 Peter 1:18-19).

Sheep WALK together – Sheep flock together and are safer that way. To be a solitary sheep is dangerous; it’s a good way to get eaten.

Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour (1 Peter 5:8). Scripture also says, Woe to the solitary man! For if he should fall, he has no one to lift him up (Eccles 4:10). Sheep are not supposed to go off on their own, and neither are we.

We are called to part of a flock and to be under the care of a shepherd. Most of us realize this in a parish setting, but in the wider sense, each of us is under the care of a bishop and ultimately the care of the Pope, who is the chief shepherd and Vicar of Christ, the Good Shepherd.

The Lord Jesus said that there is to be one flock and one shepherd (John 10:16). God wants us to be in the protection of the flock with a shepherd watching over us. An old spiritual says, “Walk together, children. Don’t you get weary. There’s a great camp meeting in the promised land.” Too many like to point out that the Pope doesn’t know this or that, but please consider that to wander from the care of the flock and the shepherd is a mighty dangerous thing.

Sheep are WARY – In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, He who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens; the sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers (John 10:11-14).

Sheep have the remarkable quality of knowing their master’s voice and of instinctively fearing any other.

In this matter, sheep are smarter than most of us, for we do not flee voices contrary to Christ’s. Instead, we draw close to those voices and ask, “Tell me more.” In fact, we spend a lot of time and money to listen to those other voices. We buy televisions so that the enemy’s voice can influence us and our children. We spend large amounts of time watching television, listening to the radio, and perusing the Internet.

Yes, we can so easily be drawn to the enemy’s voice. Not only do we not flee from it, we feast upon it. Instead of rebuking it, we rebuke the voice of God. We put His Word on trial instead of putting the world on trial.

We must be more wary, like sheep, and respond only to one voice: that of the Lord speaking though His Church. We must flee every other voice.

II. THE SAFETY OF THE SHEEP – Jesus goes on to say, my sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me. No one can take them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand.

Note Jesus’ promise that He will not be overpowered, no one can snatch from His hand. The Book of Daniel says, His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom that shall not be destroyed, his kingship shall not be destroyed (Dan 7:14). In no way can the devil have power over Jesus or His flock.

This is all predicated on what’s been said: if we want protection and safety, we have to know only Jesus’ voice and stop running after all sorts of false shepherds and contrary voices. We have to stay with the true Shepherd, Jesus, and within the protection of His flock. If you want safety, stay in the shelter of Jesus’ shepherding.

Let us be clear on this point: no weapon waged against us can ever prosper (Isaiah 54:17). Satan cannot harm us unless we open the door. Satan is like a dog on a leash: he can only harm us if we get too close to him through our own foolish decisions! Satan is a chained dog; do not stray into his range or territory!

Yet so many people do! They savor the darkness of pop culture, visit pornographic Internet sites, consume a steady diet of revengeful “action” movies, and are drawn in by commercials telling them to buy the latest product with its promises of empty fulfillment. A steady stream of polluted water and then we wonder why we are sick and weak, full of the parasites of sin.

Is it any wonder that our thinking is distorted, unbiblical, dark, and foolish? At least sheep know to flee a false shepherd. Too many of us are intrigued by the ranting of false shepherds. We glamorize evil and fill our minds with false teaching and improper priorities.

Thus, while no one can snatch from Jesus’ hand, this is not some magical protection that prevents us from foolishly and sinfully walking away from Him. If we do walk away, woe to us; if we stray, our strength will fail!

Pay attention, fellow sheep: do not stray from the Shepherd. The protection of the Lord is only for those who desire and freely choose such protection. He can protect you, but not if you live a double life or open the door to your heart to Satan. The Lord is not a slave owner; He is a lover who invites us to freely accept His offer of new life rooted in a loving and trusting relationship with Him.

Do you know His voice? Do you know only His voice? Do you run form every voice contrary to His, or do you seek counselors who tell you what your itching ears want to hear? (cf 2 Tim 4:3) If you remain true, you have the protection of the Savior Jesus Christ, and nothing will ever harm you (Luke 10:19)—but if you stray, be not surprised at the presence of wolves.

III. THE SALVATION OF THE SHEEP – The text goes on to say, I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.

For the flock of the Lord there is the gift of “eternal life.” Too many Christians equate this with some distant future that they vaguely hope to attain.

Eternal life does mean the capacity to “live forever and never die,” but it is so much more than that! “Eternal” refers not only to length of life but to its fullness.

In this sense, eternal life is now, as we become ever more aware that If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation (2 Cor 5:17). Of this I am a witness, being far more alive in my fifties than I ever was in my twenties! My body ages, but my soul is younger and more vibrant than ever.

Here is the promise to lay hold of: those who are in the shepherd’s care come, in stages, to experience life more fully, to become more fully alive. Jesus our Shepherd promises us eternal life, but this does not wait until Heaven—it is now. We sheep are brought to salvation, to healing, if we will accept it. If we choose freedom and the Shepherd’s cares, it is ours! If we reject some or all of it, then we live apart from His care and vision and become easy prey for savage wolves.

Are you smarter than a sheep? Do you know how to recognize the Shepherd’s voice and follow only Him, or are you foolishly running after worldly advice and sinful priorities? On this Good Shepherd Sunday, strive to be good sheep.

Yes, He called us that—sheep. Sheep have this going for them: they recognize only their shepherd’s voice and run from any other.

 

Back to the Future – A Homily for the Third Sunday of Easter

This Sunday’s Gospel is remarkable in that although the apostles have seen the resurrected Jesus several times, they seem to be retreating into the past. Jesus must summon them—if you’ll pardon the expression—back to the future.

They were going to return to fishing, but the Lord calls them away and points them to the future, in which they go out to all the nations and summon them to saving faith.

This Gospel shows Jesus summoning the apostles back to their crucial call, one focused not in the past but in the future. Indeed, fellow believers, if this had not gone the right way, our faith might well have been in jeopardy. We are the future that Jesus sought to preserve. Our coming to the faith depended on Jesus successfully summoning Peter and the other apostles back to the future.

Let’s look at today’s Gospel in four stages.

I. Regrettable Reversal At that time, Jesus revealed himself again to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberias. He revealed himself in this way. Together were Simon Peter, Thomas called Didymus, Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, Zebedee’s sons, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We also will come with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

The Lord had called Peter and the others away from fishing (e.g., And he said to them, follow me and I will make you fishers of men. Immediately, they left their nets and followed him (Mat 4:19)).

In today’s Gospel we see Peter going back to commercial fishing. This is not recreational fishing; the commercial nets are out. It is surprising that after having encountered Jesus risen from the dead on at least two occasions he’s going back to fishing! Some of this say that holding this view amounts to saying that Peter has lost his faith. But that need not be true. It is possible to struggle and find it hard to know what to do in the  face of new experiences without losing your faith. We go back to the things from which we have been called away without turning away from the faith. Just as He did with the apostles in this Gospel, the Lord must stand on the shore of our baptismal waters and call us out of the past and back to the future, one of holiness and perfection. And this leads us to the next stage. 

II. Redeeming ReminderWhen it was already dawn, Jesus was standing on the shore; but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?” They answered him, “No.” So he said to them, “Cast the net over the right side of the boat and you will find something.” So they cast it, and were not able to pull it in because of the number of fish. So the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord.” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he tucked in his garment, for he was lightly clad, and jumped into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat, for they were not far from shore, only about a hundred yards, dragging the net with the fish.

The Lord stands on the shore and does again for them what he had done some three years earlier, when He called them from fishing to evangelizing. He does not excoriate them; He does not call them fools or some other epithet. He calls out to them, “Children, have you caught anything to eat?” Rather than rebuking them, He asks them to assess the situation, to consider whether their course of action has yielded anything; they admit that they’ve caught nothing. Then he repeats what he said three years before, namely, that they should cast their nets for a catch. 

John draws the obvious conclusion: “It is the Lord!” The Lord has given them a redeeming reminder. He does not rebuke them; he only reminds them. In effect, He says, “Come out of the past. Remember the future to which I have summoned you, a future of going forth to the nations and announcing the gospel for all to hear. Your life is not about fish; it is about humanity!”

What reminders has the Lord put in your life? How has He stood on the shore and called to you with some reminder? Perhaps it was a tattered old Bible or maybe a hymn that you heard. Perhaps it was your grandmother’s rosary beads stored away in a dresser drawer. Perhaps it was a funeral or a wedding.

In moments like these, the Lord stands on the shore of life and calls to you. He reminds you of your call and asks you to consider whether your present course is doing anything for you whatsoever; often it has not. Perhaps there is fleeting wealth or momentary popularity, but otherwise there is little else to show for it.

The Lord calls us back to the future, a future (and a present) oriented toward Heaven. Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, seek the things that are above, rather than the earth below (Colossians 3:1).

 III. Reorienting Repast When they climbed out on shore, they saw a charcoal fire with fish on it and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you just caught.” So Simon Peter went over and dragged the net ashore full of one hundred fifty-three large fish. Even though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come, have breakfast.” And none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they realized it was the Lord. Jesus came over and took the bread and gave it to them, and in like manner the fish. This was now the third time Jesus was revealed to his disciples after being raised from the dead. When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He then said to Simon Peter a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Simon Peter answered him, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” Jesus said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was distressed that Jesus had said to him a third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”

Notice three basic elements through which the Lord reorients them. To reorient (re (again) + oriens (East)) literally means to turn someone back to the East, back toward the rising of the sun (Son), back toward the light and away from the darkness.

FISH

The fish are hauled in; their number is plentiful. The specific number, 153, has significance more for humanity than for fish. While much has been written on the significance of this number, the most likely explanation seems to be that this was the number of known nations at the time. Hence, that exactly 153 fish are caught seems to be the Lord’s way of saying that it’s not the fish but all humanity, all the nations. God can use even our backsliding, our sins, to call us away from them. Yes, He can use our sins as a teachable moment.

FIRE

As Peter comes ashore, he sees a fire. Though the text is silent on this, surely it must have unnerved him, for here was a charcoal fire, the same sort of fire that was in the courtyard of Caiaphas the high priest, where Peter had denied the Lord (Jn 18:18). Unnerved by the recognition of what he had done—or rather failed to do—Peter felt unworthy. Yes, this fire reminded him of his denial of the Lord.

Yet even Peter’s repentance is somewhat egocentric. It would seem that he wonders, “How could I have done this, I, who promised the Lord to be with Him even if all should rage against Him!” In moment of cowardice, he had denied the Lord. Oh yes, this fire, this charcoal fire, is bothersome indeed! The Lord stands next to the fire and looks at Peter much as He had in the courtyard of Caiaphas when, after Peter had denied Him for the third time, He turned and looked at Peter (Lk 22:61). How this fire bothers Peter!

FRANKNESS

Now comes a tender and powerful conversation. To us who read the text in English, the conversation focuses on the fact that the Lord asks Peter the same question three times: “Do you love me?” In Greek, there are subtleties that do not come through in the English translation.

In the English translation, the Lord asks Peter simply, “Do you love me?” Peter answers, “Yes, Lord, I love you.” The Greek text, however, is both more subtle and more specific. In Greek, the Lord asks, Σίμων Ἰωάννου, ἀγαπᾷς με πλέον τούτων? (Simon Joannou agapas me pleon touton? – Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?) Jesus has asked about “agape” love. However, Peter replies, κύριε, σὺ οἶδας ὅτι φιλῶ σε. (Kyrie, su oidas oti philo se. – Lord, you know that I have brotherly love for you.)

The Lord asked for agape love, the highest love, wherein we love God above all things and all people, including ourselves. Peter does not answer with agape love. Rather, he replies that he loves the Lord in a brotherly (philo) way. This is far short of what the Lord asked. (I realize that there are debates about the Greek used in this passage, but I am convinced that the use of the two different words is significant. I have written further on this topic here: Agape vs Philo in John 21.)

In spite of Peter’s response of imperfect love, the Lord still has something important for him to do: Feed my lambs.

A second time, the same dialogue sets up. Again, the Lord asks for unconditional, ultimate love (agape), but Peter can only return a lesser love, a brotherly love (philo), a sort of affection. Again, the Lord does not reject Peter. He accepts Peter’s response and tells him, Tend my sheep.

On the third occasion, Jesus asks Peter, Σίμων Ἰωάννου, φιλεῖς με; (Simon, son of John, do you have brotherly affection (phileis) for me? This third question strikes Peter to the heart and causes him to exclaim that he (only) has brotherly love. Yet again, the Lord does not reject him, but rather assigns him a task: Feed my lambs.

This is one of the most poignant, beautiful, and honest moments in Scripture. The Lord looks with love to a disciple and asks him for the highest love; that disciple honestly answers that he has only imperfect love to offer. Perhaps for the first time in his life, Peter is being absolutely honest. There is no more posing, no more bragging—only an honest answer, born out of sober appreciation of his human lapses. There is nothing more beautiful than honest prayer, for honesty is a prelude to healing. Jesus accepts what Peter is able to offer and (as we shall see) promises him that his heart will expand so that one day he will love the Lord totally, unconditionally, above all things and all people.

What about you? Are you honest with the Lord? Have you experienced His love in spite of your sin? Do you know that if you are honest with Him, He can use you even in your weakness?

IV. Required Remedy “Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when he had said this, he said to him, “Follow me.”

In this whole conversation, the Lord’s purpose is not to stalk or badger Peter. Rather, it is to lead him toward a necessary remedy, to point him back to the future, one filled with evangelical fervor and sacrificial love. Peter is weak now, but the Lord will give him strength. Within ten days after Jesus’ ascension, the Holy Spirit will come and Peter will be quickened, strengthened in the faith.

Even then, the work the Lord needs to do is not finished, for He speaks of the day when Peter will finally have the grace to accept martyrdom. It will be a day when someone will tie him fast and lead him where he would rather not go—but Peter will go, and he will die for Christ.

In the end, Peter will be able to say, without any simulation or exaggeration, “I love you, Lord, totally, with agape love. I love you above all things, above all people, and above even my own life.”

For now, Peter is not ready, but the Lord will lead him by stages and get him ready. How will Peter get there? How will we get there? The Lord simply says, Follow me.

So, fellow disciples, the Lord is leading you to a deeper love, an unconditional love, a love above all other loves. Only the Lord can do this. He did it for Peter and He can do it for 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

Counting the Cost of Condemnation – A Homily for the 5th Sunday of Lent

This Sunday’s Mass features the well-known Gospel of the woman caught in adultery. In it, the Lord intimates to the men of His day that the severe punishment they want to mete out to this woman may be unwise given that they themselves must prepare for their own judgment.

Before we examine the details, let’s consider a few background texts that may help us to better understand what Jesus is teaching. After each verse, I provide a brief commentary in red.

  • Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy (Matt 5:7). Notice that it is the merciful who will obtain mercy. Those who have shown proper mercy will be granted mercy on the Day of Judgment. By implication, the severe and merciless will be judged severely by the Lord.
  • Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you (Luke 6:37-38). The text clearly states that if we use a severe standard of judgment, that same strict standard will be used by the Lord when He judges us. On the other hand, if we are forgiving, merciful, and generous then we can expect a merciful, generous, and kind judgment from God.
  • Speak and act as those who are going to be judged under the law of freedom, for judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:12-13). James gives us three warnings. First, he reminds us that we are going to be judged by the Lord. Second, he intimates that because we are free, we are responsible for what we do. Third, because we are going to face this judgment, in which we will not be able to blame others for what we have freely done, we’d better realize that our judgment will be without mercy if we have not shown mercy. Conversely, if we have shown mercy then we stand a chance on our own judgment day, for mercy will triumph over strict judgment.
  • For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins (Mat 6:14-15). This warning seems clear enough: if we want to find forgiveness on the Day of Judgment, we had better seek the grace to forgive others.

All these texts teach the bold truth that we can influence the standard against which the Lord will measure us on the day of our judgment. The measure we use for others will be measured back to us. If we have been merciful then we will find mercy, but if we have been harsh, unbending, and unmerciful, the Lord will judge us far more strictly.

We need to be sober about this. We are storing up things for the Day of Judgment by the way we treat others. Because we are all going to need so much mercy and because we cannot endure strict standards of judgment, we should consider carefully the need to be merciful and forgiving to others. And now, on to today’s Gospel!

I. COLLABORATORS IN CONDEMNATION – The Pharisees and the teachers of the law bring forward a woman caught in the act of adultery. (There is something curious about this, though: If she was caught in the act, the man involved must also be known. Why has he not be brought forward? The Law of Moses indicates that the man should be stoned as well.)

The accusers want to “throw the book” at her. They want the strictest punishment meted out: stoning. They also hope to discredit Jesus by putting Him in what they think is a no-win situation.

In their accusatory stance, they have become collaborators with Satan. Scripture describes Satan in this way: the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God (Rev 12:10). Thus, these Pharisees, in seeking to hand her over, join Satan.

When we have been hurt in some way, many of us may wish to both accuse and demand punishment of the person before God; this is unnecessary and unwise.

It is unnecessary because Satan is already accusing them “day and night” before God. In addition, God sees and knows all things anyway!

It is unwise because by demanding harsh punishment for others we set ourselves up to judged by the same strict standard. It’s always a better policy to cry for grace and the conversion of sinners.

II. COUNTING THE COST – As God, Jesus knows the sins of all the men gathered. He must be amazed; surely, they cannot be serious in demanding such a harsh punishment for the woman knowing that the day of their own judgment awaits!

Jesus bends down and traces His finger on the ground, almost as if tracing along with the words of a book He is reading about their deeds. Some suggest that perhaps He is writing down their sins. Some liken it to the finger of God tracing the commandments on stone. Still others recall the mysterious hand in the Book of Daniel, which traces the words MENE, TEKEL, PERES on the wall, announcing doom to the Babylonian king.

Whatever the case, it isn’t good. You don’t ever want Jesus to be writing things down about you!

These Pharisees are slow to appreciate the significance of the gesture, so Jesus tries to reason with them, saying,Let him among you who is without sin cast the first stone.” Then He bends down again and continues writing on the ground.

It is almost as though Jesus were saying,

Reason with me, men. If you demand strict justice, if you insist that I “throw the book” at her, you’d better first look and see what is written about you in “the book.” If she is to be judged strictly and without mercy, then you, too, will face the same standard.

Gentlemen, there are things in the book about you—serious things. Have you counted the cost of condemning this woman? Are you sure that you want to demand that I “throw the book” at her?

Think about it, men. Think very carefully.

One by one they go away. It begins with the older men, who are presumably less rash than the younger ones (and may well have committed more sins).

The message for us is clear: we will face judgment. We need to be sober about this. We must count the cost of being unmerciful, unforgiving, and vengeful. The measure that we measure out to others will be the measure that God uses for us.

What kind of judgment are you preparing for yourself? Condemnation comes at a high cost. Are you willing to risk storing up wrath and strict justice for the day of your own judgment?

On the other hand, gentleness, compassionate correction, and merciful love will also be given to us if we show it to others. Remember your upcoming judgment. Be like the wise man, who knows he will need grace and mercy on that day because he will not be able to withstand a strict adjudication of his crimes.

III. CORRECTING WITH COMPASSION – The departure of the accusers leaves Jesus alone with the woman. Though He speaks gently, Jesus is clear: “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”

This Gospel, therefore, does not make light of the woman’s sin. Jesus knows what she has done and so does she. He is clear that she must turn away from sin; she must not commit it anymore. What Jesus does set aside is the condemning “hang-’em-high” mentality that seeks the harshest measures for every situation.

Yes, we must sometimes correct sinners and mete out punishment. This is particularly true if we are a parent, a juror, or someone in a supervisory role.

Before rushing to extreme measures, however, we do well to show mercy and to attempt lesser measures first.

St. Paul has good advice: Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should gently set him right. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted (Gal 6:1).

Gentle and clear correction is the best course. More significant punishments should only be a later recourse. We must be careful not to be tempted to harshness, anger, mercilessness, and lovelessness.

OK, you get the point: count the cost. Be very careful to remember that the measure you measure out to others will be measured out to you. Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.