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!

 

The Enduring Love of God – A Homily for the 4th Sunday of Lent

The readings from Sunday Mass speak to us of our desperate condition and how God’s abiding love has not only set us free but has lifted us higher as well. God was not content to restore us to some earthly garden, paradise though it was. No, He so loved the world that He sent His Son, who opened Heaven itself for us and has given us a new, transformed, and eternal life.

Let’s look at some of the themes and ponder how God demonstrates His ardent love for us and persistently works to lift us higher. If there are any problems, they are not from God; they are from us.

I. ProblemsIn those days, all the princes of Judah, the priests, and the people added infidelity to infidelity, practicing all the abominations of the nations and polluting the LORD’s temple.

Here we see our repeated infidelity, worldliness, and impurity. It is not as though we have had just a few bad moments; we have been consistently, persistently sinful. The cup of human wickedness never seems drained. This is what God has been dealing with in the long and often sad tale of human history.

Are there good chapters? Certainly, but any honest look at human history will reveal that there is something deeply flawed in human nature. We are living in a fallen world, governed by a fallen angel, and we have fallen natures. Thrice fallen! This is what God is dealing with. Despite our ruinous state, God does not remove His love; His love for us remains ardent.

II. ProphetsEarly and often did the LORD, the God of their fathers, send his messengers to them, for he had compassion on his people and his dwelling place. But they mocked the messengers of God, despised his warnings, and scoffed at his prophets, until the anger of the LORD against his people was so inflamed that there was no remedy.

God’s first attempt is to call us through the prophets and through His Word. Like any loving Father, He does not seek merely to punish, but to instruct. Perhaps we will hear and mend our ways.

Have we? Is the presence of God’s Word among us a saving remedy? Again, the answer is mixed, but in general, we have responded poorly.

To some extent Jesus’ call to love has led to greater healing in this world. The light of faith, which once informed the Western world, gave rise to, love for the poor, respect for human dignity, hospitals, the university system, and the scientific method. The barbarians of ancient Europe were given faith, and many of them found unity in the bosom of the Church, in more stable governments, and in respect for just law.

Unfortunately, too much of human history, even in the Christian era, has been marked by violence, war, lack of forgiveness, injustice, unchastity, and a lack of commitment to the truth of the Gospel.

Yet God continues to send His prophets in and through the Church. Can the world really say that St. John Paul the Great and Benedict XVI have not been prophets? How about Saint Teresa of Calcutta, St. Padre Pio, Venerable Fulton Sheen, C.S. Lewis, and countless others?

Despite our ruinous state, God does not remove His love; His love for us remains ardent.

III. PunishmentsTheir enemies burnt the house of God, tore down the walls of Jerusalem, set all its palaces afire, and destroyed all its precious objects. Those who escaped the sword were carried captive to Babylon, where they became servants of the king of the Chaldeans and his sons until the kingdom of the Persians came to power.

Punishment is not God’s way of venting anger; He does not seek vengeance.

The purpose of punishment is to allow us to experience the effects of our sins in smaller ways so that something worse does not befall us. Thus the ancient Babylonians afflicted Israel, and God punished and purified His people.

God may well permit great suffering to come upon us, not to vent His anger but rather to summon us to repentance, lest something worse befall us, namely the eternal fires of Hell.

We humans are a difficult case. With the decline of the West one would think we’d have come to our senses by now. Our families are ruined, our birthrates have plummeted, our educational system is in steep decline, our economies are out of control, we have debts we cannot pay, and we seem incapable of chastity or of making commitments and keeping them. Yet we stubbornly persist in our path away from God and His gospel of truth and freedom.

Will we come to our senses or will we vanish like empires before us? That remains to be seen, but the Church will persist; though punished and pruned, she will endure.

Despite our ruinous state, God does not remove His love; His love for us remains ardent.

IV. PurposeAll this was to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah: “Until the land has retrieved its lost Sabbaths, during all the time it lies waste it shall have rest while seventy years are fulfilled.”

Sin causes damage and that damage must be repaired. We must understand that sin is not just the breaking of abstract rules; it causes real harm.

The Christian term “reparation” refers to the repair that must be made for the damage caused by sin. The verse in today’s reading talks about healing the breach caused by sin.

While God never withholds His love, He must journey out onto the wayward paths we have taken in order to lead us back. This is a work of God’s, not just a wave of His hand, not just a legal declaration.

We have done more than disobey a legal precept; we have strayed far away and a journey of reparation must be made. The Lord Himself will shepherd us back!

Despite our ruinous state, God does not remove His love; His love for us remains ardent.

V. Persevering – (from the Sunday Gospel) For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.

Thus is fulfilled the great and passionate love God has for us. His own Son comes and finds us in all our wayward places and leads us back.

Despite our ruinous state, God does not remove His love; His love for us remains ardent.us.

VI. Promotion – (from the Epistle) God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ—for by grace you have been saved—raised us up with him.

Thus is our redeemed state even greater than our original justice. We have been raised up with Christ. Grace has brought us higher than we ever were before.

Now no mere earthly garden is granted, but Heaven itself.

Despite our ruinous state, God does not remove His love; His love for us remains ardent.

VII. Peril – (from the Gospel reading) – Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed. But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.

Many who love to quote John 3:16 (God so loved the world …) stop before getting to the lines above. Yet they are critically important to the overall passage because they remind us that we must welcome the saving love of God.

God has done everything to help us and to summon us to Him, but He does not force the deal. He stands at the door and knocks (Rev 3:20). He does not barge in; we must open ourselves to Him.

But some do not open! Why? Because they prefer the darkness to the Light. To them, the Light is harsh and convicting. It exposes their deeds for what they are: wicked, sinful, and unjust. Pride and obstinacy keep many from answering God’s call. They reject the saving love He offers and the many ways He has reached out to them.

Here, then, is the peril of human free will. God offers, but some reject Him, preferring sin and darkness. God permits this rejection because He wants our love to be offered freely. Love cannot be forced; it must be given freely. God wants to save us and lift us higher. The peril is that many prefer wickedness, darkness, and earthly pleasures. They would prefer to “reign” (they will not) in Hell rather than serve in Heaven. The peril comes from us, form our obtuse hearts. It is not from God.

For those of us who do open ourselves to Him, God’s love is ready to lift us higher. He offers us eternal life, the fullness of a life that grows richer every year until it opens to one so full and beautiful that eye has not seen nor has ear heard of the glories waiting for us (cf 1 Cor 2:9). Praise God! Rejoice!

I know that this song isn’t religious, but transpose it to a higher key, the way the Song of Songs does the Bible. Consider these lyrics as referring to the Lord and how His love satisfies all of our desires and lifts us higher:

Your love, is liftin’ me higher
Than I’ve ever been lifted before
So keep it up, quench my desire
And I’ll be at your side forevermore.

Now once I was downhearted
Disappointment was my closest friend
But then you came and he soon departed
And you know he never showed his face again
That’s why your love is liftin’ me, higher, and higher …

I’m so glad I finally found you
Yes, that one in a million
And with your loving arms around me
I can stand up and face the world.

 

From Trials to Transfiguration – A Homily for the Second Sunday of Lent

What is it that gives hope, peace, and serene joy to the Christian life? Briefly, it is the vision of glory, a glimpse into the Promised Land of Heaven, which the Lord can and does give to His people. Today’s Gospel shows forth a kind of process through which the Lord lays the foundations of hope, peace, and joy.

The Paradoxical Prelude – The text says, Jesus took Peter, James, and John and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves. Note that in order to get them to a place where they can see glory, the Lord must first lead them “up a high mountain.”

It’s easy to pass over this fact: they had to climb that mountain. Anyone who has been to the site of Tabor can appreciate just how difficult a climb it is, almost 2000 feet and steep as well. It takes the better part of a day and the climb might well have been more dangerous back then. Once at the top, one feels as if one is looking from an airplane window out on the Jezreel Valley (a.k.a. Megiddo or Armageddon). So Tabor is a symbol of the cross and of struggle. It was a difficult, exhausting climb for Peter, James, and John and it tested their strength.

I have it on the best of authority that as they climbed they were singing gospel songs like these: “I’m comin’ up on the rough side of the mountain, and I’m doin’ my best to carry on!”; “My soul looks back and wonders how I got over!”; “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder, every round goes higher, higher.”

This climb should remind us of our life here on this earth. We’ve often had to climb, to endure; we’ve had our strength tested. Perhaps it was the climb of earning a college degree, or raising children, or building a career. What do you have that you really value that did not come at the price of a climb, of effort, of struggle? Most of us know that although the climb is difficult, there is glory at the top. We have to endure, to push through. Life’s difficulties are often the prelude to success and greater strength.

Herein lies the paradox: peace, joy, and hope are often the products of struggles, climbs, and difficulties. These things are often the prelude to seeing and experiencing glory. Scripture says,

We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they are good for us—they help us learn to be patient. And patience develops strength of character in us and helps us trust God more each time we use it until finally our hope and faith are strong and steady (Romans 5:3-4).

In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These trials are only to test your faith, to see whether or not it is strong and pure. It is being tested as fire tests gold and purifies it—and your faith is far more precious to God than mere gold; so if your faith remains strong after being tried in the test tube of fiery trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day of his return (1 Peter 1:6).

Yes, there is a paradoxical prelude to glory and it can only come through God’s wisdom—human beings just don’t think this way. An old hymn says,

“Trials dark on every hand. And we cannot understand, all the ways that God will lead us to that blessed promised land. But he guides us with his eye and we follow till we die and we’ll understand it better by and by.”

The Practice Portrayed – The text lays out various aspects of how Peter, James, and John come to experience a joyful peace in the presence of the Lord’s glory. The text says, And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them. Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses, and they were conversing with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here! Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” There are three things Peter, James, and John do that enable them to come to this joyful peace:

Note how they Savor the moment. Peter wants to stay on the mountaintop, to pitch tents and stay put. Some preachers give him a hard time for this, but I see it as a good thing, even if a bit excessive. The point is to savor glory, to store good memories and experiences deep in our soul, to cultivate a deep gratitude for the wonderful things the Lord has done for us, to savor deeply our experiences of glory.

The Prescription Proclaimed – The text then says, Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them; from the cloud came a voice, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone but Jesus alone with them.

The prescription couldn’t be simpler and yet how poorly we often follow it. Listen to Jesus! In other words, carefully ponder every word of His teaching and begin to base your life on what He says.

How much pain, anxiety, and strife come into this world and our lives simply because we do not listen to the Lord and obey His teachings! Our stubbornness, our lack of forgiveness, our unchastity, our greed, our lack of concern for the poor, our idolatry, our lack of spirituality, and the fact that we are often just plain mean, bring enormous suffering to us and to others.

If we would but give our life to the Lord and ask Him to conform us to His word, so much suffering would vanish. We would have so much more peace and would experience greater joy and hope.

Listen to Jesus and by His grace conform your life to what you hear Him say. There is no greater source for joy, peace, and hope.

The Persevering Purpose – The text says, As they were coming down from the mountain, he charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone, except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

There is fairly universal agreement that the purpose of this mountaintop experience of glory was to prepare the apostles for the difficult days ahead. Thus, while Jesus tells them to keep it to themselves, He wanted them to keep it, to remember it. Having seen and savored glory, having “seen what the end shall be,” having been bathed in beams of Heaven, they need to keep the memory alive and remember who Jesus is as the Passion begins. If they do this, they will be able to endure the folly and suffering of the cross.

Did they successfully persevere in keeping the memory alive? Only John made it to the foot of the cross, but one out of three isn’t so bad. Having experienced peace and joy, and having seen the Lord’s glory, John made it to the cross, enduring its shame and remembering the glory he had seen.

What about you? Have you seen the glory of the Lord? Have you experienced His love and glory deeply enough that, when difficulties come, you don’t allow them to overwhelm you? Have you come to experience and possess a peace and joy that the world did not give and hence cannot take away? Have you allowed the Lord to lay a foundation of hope in your life? Have you let Him take you up the mountain and show you glory? Have you seen the promised land and have you seen what the end shall be? This is what this Gospel describes and promises.

There is an old hymn by Charles Tindley that says,

“Beams of Heaven, as I go, / Through this wilderness below / Guide my feet in peaceful ways / Turn my midnights into days / When in the darkness I would grope / Faith always sees a star of hope / And soon from all life’s grief and danger / I shall be free someday.”

Notice what it is that gets us through: beams of Heaven!

Yes, it was those same beams of Heaven that Peter, James, and John saw on the mountaintop. Those beams, having been experienced and remembered, shine on every darkness and show the way. Those beams of Heaven give us hope and turn our midnight into day. Let the Lord show you His glory. Savor every moment and never forget what the Lord has done for you. The light of His Glory will light every way.

The hymn goes on to say,

“Burdens now may crush me down / Disappointments all around / Troubles speak in mournful sigh / Sorrow through a tear stained eye / There is a world where pleasure reigns / No mourning soul shall roam its plains / And to that land of peace and glory / I want to go some day.”

Losing our Leprosy – A Homily for the 6th Sunday of the Year

In the Gospel this Sunday, we see the healing of a leper (this means you and me). In Scripture, leprosy describes more than just a physical affliction; it is a metaphor for sin as well. Obviously leprosy itself is not sin, but its effects are similar. Like leprosy, sin disfigures us; it deteriorates us; it distances us (lepers had to live apart from the community) and it brings death if left unchecked.

The following passage can be seen as comparing sin to leprosy:

There is no soundness in my flesh because of thy indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin. For my iniquities have gone over my head; they weigh like a burden too heavy for me. My wounds grow foul and fester because of my foolishness, I am utterly bowed down and prostrate; all the day I go about mourning … there is no soundness in my flesh … My friends and companions stand aloof from my plague, and my kinsmen stand far off (Psalm 38).

Perhaps a brief description of leprosy might be in order so that we can further appreciate both the physical disease and by analogy how sin gradually devastates us. I have compiled this description from several sources, among them, William Barclay’s Commentary on Mark.

Leprosy begins with an unaccountable lethargy and pains in the joints. Then there appear on the body, especially on the back, symmetrical discolored patches with pink and brown nodules and the skin becomes thickened. Gradually the symptoms move to the face and the nodules gather especially in the folds of the cheek, the nose, the lips, and the forehead. The whole appearance of the face is changed till a person loses his human appearance and looks more like a lion. The nodules grow larger and larger and they begin to ulcerate, and from them comes a foul discharge of pus. The eyebrows fall out and the eyes become staring. The voice becomes hoarse and the breath wheezes because of the ulceration of the vocal cords. Eventually the whole body becomes involved. Discolored patches and blisters appear everywhere. The muscles waste away; the tendons contract until the hands look more like claws. Next comes the progressive loss of fingers and toes until a whole hand or foot may drop off. It is a kind of a terrible and slow, progressive death of the body.

The disease may last from ten to thirty years and ends in mental decay, coma, then finally death.

Yet this was not all. The lepers had to bear not only the physical torment of the disease, but also the mental anguish and heartache of being completely banished from society. They were forced to live outside of town in leper areas. Everyone they knew and loved was lost to them and could only be seen from a distance.

In the middle ages, when people were diagnosed with leprosy, they were brought to the Church and the priest read the burial service over them, for in effect they were already dead, though still alive.

This description of leprosy shows how the illness develops, how it disfigures, deteriorates, and distances the leper. At that time, not every diagnosis of leprosy was accurate (there are many skin conditions that can resemble leprosy in its early stages). If the skin cleared up or at least did not deteriorate, the supposed leper could be readmitted to the community.

What about us spiritual lepers? How are we to find healing? Today’s Gospel suggests four steps to find healing from the spiritual leprosy of sin.

1.  Admit the Reality – The text says, A leper came to Jesus, and kneeling down, begged him and said, “If you wish you can make me clean.” The man knows he is a leper; he knows he needs healing. He humbles himself and pleads for cleansing.

Do we know our sin? Do we know we need healing? Are we willing to ask for it? We live in times in which sin is often made light of; confessional lines are short. We often excuse our faults by blaming others or perhaps we point to some other sinner who is apparently “worse” than we are and think, “Well, at least I’m not as bad as he is.”

All of us are loaded with sin. We can be thin-skinned, egotistical, unforgiving, unloving, unkind, mean-spirited, selfish, greedy, stingy, lustful, jealous, envious, bitter, ungrateful, smug, superior, angry, vengeful, aggressive, unspiritual, and un-prayerful. Even if everything on that list doesn’t apply to you, certainly many of them do, at least at times. And that list isn’t even complete! We are sinners with a capital S and we need serious help.

Like the leper in the Gospel, we must start with step one: admitting the reality of our sin and humbly asking the Lord for help.

2.  Accept the Relationship – Notice two things:

First, the leper calls on the Lord Jesus. In effect, he seeks a relationship with Jesus, knowing that it can heal him.

Second, note how the Lord responds. The text says that Jesus is moved with pity and touches him. The English word “pity,” though often considered condescending, comes from that Latin pietas, which refers to familial love. Jesus sees this man as a brother and reaches out to him in that way. Jesus’ touching of the leper was an unthinkable action at that time; no one would venture near a leper let alone touch one. Lepers were required to live outside of town, typically in nearby caves. But Jesus is God and He loves this man; in His humanity, He sees this leper as a brother. Scripture says,

For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified have all one origin. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying, “I will proclaim thy name to my brethren, in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee” (Heb 2:11).

It is in our relationship with the Lord, a relationship established by faith, that we are justified, transformed, healed, and ultimately saved. If we want to be free of the leprosy of our sin, we must accept the saving relationship with Jesus and let Him touch us.

3.  Apply the Remedy – Having healed the leper, Jesus instructs him to follow through in the following manner: See that you tell no one anything, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.

Among the ancient Jews it was the priests who were trained to recognize leprosy and distinguish it from ailments with similar symptoms. Priests were trained to observe and then make the final determination. A confirmed leper was banished from the community. Sometimes, out of an abundance of caution, a person was expelled on suspicion of leprosy, but the condition cleared up or remained stable. It was the priest who made the decision for the community as to whether the person should be readmitted.

Of course this is a metaphor for sacramental confession. What does the priest do in a sacramental confession? He assesses a person’s spiritual condition. If he sees God’s healing mercy at work in the person’s repentance, he reconciles him. In the case of a serious sinner who repents, the priest readmits him into the full communion of the Church. It is God who forgives, but He ministers through the priest.

To us spiritual lepers, the Lord gives the same instruction: go, show yourself to the priest …” In other words, “Go to confession.” The Lord tells us that we should offer for our cleansing what is prescribed. That is to say, we should offer our penance.

Why should the leper bother to do that? After all, the Lord has already healed him. To this we can only answer, “Do what Jesus says: show yourself to the priest and offer your penance.” It is true that God can forgive directly, but it is clear enough from this passage that confession is to be a part of the believer’s life, especially in the case of serious sin.

4.  Announce the Result – When God heals you, you feel that you have to tell someone. There’s just something about joy that can’t be hidden—and people notice when you’ve been changed.

That said, there are aspects of this Gospel that are perplexing: Jesus warns the healed leper not to tell a soul other than the priest.

This (and other passages in which the Lord issues similar commands for silence) is puzzling. The reason is made clear later in the passage. Jesus did not want His mission turned into a magic show at which people gathered to watch miracles occur and see “signs and wonders.” This man’s inability to remain silent means that Jesus can no longer enter a town openly and that many will seek Him for secondary reasons.

That said, commands to remain silent cannot hold for us who have this standing order: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age (Matt 28:19).

Hence it is clear that we need to shout what the Lord has done for us and give Him all the glory. When God acts in your life, there is joy that cannot be hidden or suppressed. If our healing is real, we cannot remain silent. To quote Jesus at a later point (when the Temple leaders told Him to silence His disciples), I tell you, if they keep quiet, the very rocks will cry out (Lk 19:40).

The heart of evangelization is announcing what the Lord has done for us. An old gospel song says, “I thought I wasn’t gonna testify … but I couldn’t keep it to myself, what the Lord has done for me!”

Yes, tell someone what the Lord has done. If your healing is real, you can’t keep quiet about it.