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May 24, 2015: Pentecost Sunday

Posted on 23 May 2015 by patmarrin

“Jesus breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20:22).

The story of the sending of the Holy Spirit into the followers of Jesus recapitulates the story of Creation. In the beginning, the Spirit — ruah – breath, or life, of God hovers over the primordial waters. Creation occurs when the face of God is reflected in the shapeless potential of pre-being, and the voice of God says “Let there be light.” The divine light enters the void, giving structure and purpose to the material universe now existing in time, wholly initiated and sustained by the divine Will.

Creation unfolded from that original moment according to its inbuilt laws, organizing itself, separating light from darkness, sky from earth, land from sea, exploding with life forms, plant and animal, genus and species, lower to higher consciousness, until human beings emerged, able to respond to the Creator and to share in the work of shaping the world. Only one thing was lacking -- free will for humans so that friendship with God and not just automatic obedience could be possible. With the gift of freedom also entered the rebellion of sin into the world, distorting the divine image in us and delaying the divine purpose by sowing chaos and conflict into human affairs and into the order of creation.

It was into this warp that Jesus came as the revelation of what a full human being was meant to be. Jesus was in perfect union with the Creator, his nature suffused with divine identity, like us in all things except sin. His life and death laid down the template for the universal restoration of humanity and the recalibration and reharmonization of creation with God’s original plan.

Jesus’ self-sacrifice on the cross, the fulfillment of Passover, opened again the path to God obscured by sin. So it is for us, that by dying to self, we rise to new life in God with Jesus, whose resurrection reveals a new heaven and a new earth for everyone who follows the new Adam, the Christ, into the new creation.

Pentecost, celebrated 50 days after Passover, completes this sign with the outpouring of the Ruah of God over the old creation, restoring it to its divine destiny -- life with God forever. This promise was foreshadowed at Jesus' baptism as he came up out of the water and a dove hovered over him, like the dove that signaled new life for Noah after the flood.

Pentecost celebrates the birth of the church, the new Ark holding the restored creation. The symbols of the Spirit as wind and fire shake the world to its foundations. Behold, God is doing something new, and we, by virtue of our baptism, are part of the plan. We emerge from the waters of fear, despair and cynicism to take up the eternal promise God has revealed to us in Christ. This is the joy of the Gospel.

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Do You Love Me?

Posted on 22 May 2015 by patmarrin

“Lord you know everything; you know that I love you” (John 21:16).

If you are reading this today, it is because Jesus forgave Peter on a sandy beach after breakfast two millennia ago. This moving story of mercy and restoration is part of our story. Its implications are about us being the church right now.

All history, not surprisingly, is written looking back. But what may surprise us is how later interests shaped the story to hold up certain individuals as crucial. This selective, interpretive filter reveals the truths the community wants to protect that validate its own decisions.

Today's two readings, from Acts and John, show how the early church recognized and even rehabilitated Peter and Paul, two controversial figures whose martyrdoms in Rome became the foundation for the primacy of that church over other centers of Christian belief in Jerusalem, Alexandria and Antioch.

How Paul ended up in Rome is explained in Acts 25, when he escapes Jewish enemies by using his Roman citizenship to appeal to Caesar to decide his case. In John 21, an addendum to the fourth Gospel, Peter is restored as leader of the Apostles after his heartbreaking denial of Jesus.

It was apparently important to the church to “canonize” Peter and Paul as leaders of the Jewish and gentile converts who formed the expanding community of faith in the Mediterranean world. What we learn from this history lesson is that the church is constantly recreating itself in each generation to apply the basic faith tradition to changing circumstances.

We are the church in 2015, and Pope Francis is calling us to recover the essential Gospel of mercy as our message to a troubled world. The age of doctrinal consolidation and warrior popes, Baroque churches and liturgies, fortress mentality and unbending legalism are not what is needed now by the global community on the brink of enormous challenges to its survival and future direction. What this world needs now more than anything else is hope and reconciliation.

Pentecost 2015 may someday be a marker in the history of the church as the time we changed the course of history toward a more sustainable planet, one human family and the beloved community God asks us to be. Will you join that effort? The Holy Spirit is poised to give every gift needed to save the world, and is only awaiting our yes.

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One in Love

Posted on 21 May 2015 by patmarrin

"May they all be one, as you, Father are in me and I in you, that they may also be in us, that that world may believe that you sent me" (John 17:21).

Because we are created in the image and likeness of God, our destiny is to realize this image within and among ourselves. God is a Community of love, and our mission is to reflect that beloved community. Wherever a group of people attempts this unity in love, God is revealed. This can be in a marriage or partnership, a small intentional community, even a simple friendship. Mutual love is the sacramental sign of God's presence.

Creating community is never easy. When we attempt love we uncover the self-centered, exclusive tendencies we all exhibit as part of the influence of sin. We want our own way, our own space, and we are quicker to see selfishness in others than in ourselves. This is why so few communities advance beyond initial attraction to reconcile differences, forgive and renew their common purpose in order to deepen mature love.

Jesus, in John's farewell discourses, reveals the secret of his own inner life as one with the Father. His disciples will share this unity by loving one another. God's inner life of love is the source of all creation, and by restoring the primal pattern and design of love, the world will be restored to God's original plan. We, as part of this mystery, advance God's plan every time we love others, create community and model reconciliation.

The greatest threat to the church is not an attack from without, but division within. When we refuse to seek unity through forgiveness and dialogue, we distort the central sign of unity that is the Gospel we are to preach to the world. A divided church fails to witness the mystery of God.

The sign that the Holy Spirit has truly come to rest on us at Pentecost will be our love for one another, especially where conflict divides us. Unity in diversity is what will show the world that God truly dwells among us.

Consecrated in Truth

Posted on 20 May 2015 by patmarrin

"I do not ask that you take them out of the world but that you keep them from the Evil One" (John 17:16).

What does evil look like? We seldom hear the word outside of religious conversations, as though in our modern world the idea of some malevolent force at work in society were an outdated, prescientific myth.

On my drive home yesterday I caught an NPR story about the apparent erosion of ethical standards in the financial services industry, especially among younger brokers and managers. "This is the future," said one of the story sources, describing the profession on which the integrity of global commerce depends. It is as though films like "The Wolf of Wall Street,' rather than serving a cautionary tale, have opened the door to a compelling vision of get-rich, live-fast lifestyles that can wreak havoc in a system that holds the mortgages, pensions, investments and savings of most ordinary people. Also at risk is the political process that is supposed to regulate financial services and the trillions of dollars whirling around the globe electronically every hour of every day.

What is evil? If we need metaphors, the breakdown of basic values in even a small number of unethical traders capable of crashing a vital institution could be one of them.

Jesus warns his disciples that their mission to transform human culture with justice and love will be resisted at every step by those who benefit from inequality and exploitation. In his farewell address at Miletus, Paul warns the church that after he departs, “savage wolves” will ravage the flock. The Holy Spirit is at work in the world, guiding history toward God's ultimate plan of a beloved community, but because free, human cooperation is part of the plan, other spirits will also attack the process. When the desire for wealth and power infects human beings, truth and justice are often the first casualties. Murder and mayhem follow, and the most innocent are its first victims.

There is also great good in the world, holding the high ground against evil. We pray to be among those with courage who work each day for fairness and generosity. Pope Francis’ challenge to change the course of history away from violence and greed toward fairness and responsibility has awakened both hope and resistance. We live in momentous times, and every one of us has a chance to choose life and the common good. We pray for a full measure of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Only together and with the help of the Spirit will we advance God’s plan for the world.

In the World, But Not of It

Posted on 19 May 2015 by patmarrin

"Now I will no longer be in the world, but they are in the world, while I am coming to you” (John 17:11).

One of the key challenges facing the church has always been how to relate to the "world," that is, the power structures and cultural norms that direct human society. This includes economic and political systems. History reveals times when the church was persecuted for opposing secular power and other times when it accommodated itself to the state, blessing its policies in exchange for protection and privilege.

The Acts of the Apostles tells both stories. After the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70, both Jews and Christians were dispersed throughout the Roman empire. Both Peter and Paul are said to have been martyred in Rome under Nero. Sporadic persecutions of Christians continued into the second century. The Book of Revelation, the last book in the New Testament, is a thinly veiled depiction of the struggle of the church within the empire.

At the same time, Acts and other New Testament writings reflect the effort by the church to show that Christianity posed no threat to secular power. Paul uses his Roman citizenship to escape Jewish persecution. We know from history that by the fourth century, under the Emperor Constantine, Christianity was an accepted, even privileged, religion, beginning a long history of church-state complicity that even afforded enormous worldly power to the church.

Our belief that God entered human history to save rather than condemn the world cautions us not to reject anything human, social and cultural. We embrace the world, participate as good citizens in the world in order to bring the leaven of truth, love and justice to its systems. But to do this also means standing up to the abuse of power or policies that restrict religious freedom, exploit and oppress people.

Faith means that we are both in the world and not of the world. Our union with the risen Christ gives us citizenship in this world and in the world to come. God's reign is both already here and not yet here. So we live in the tensions of everyday reality, but guided and inspired by the vision and values of the future toward which God is drawing creation and the human community.

Prepare for the Spirit

Posted on 18 May 2015 by patmarrin

“We have never even heard that there is a Holy Spirit” (Acts 19:2).

In his missionary journey Paul encounters a group of believers who received the baptism of John, but have not yet heard about the gift of the Spirit of Jesus. He instructs them and lays hands on them, and they receive the Spirit and begin speaking in tongues.

Acts gives us a window into the expanding church and the progressive stages believers go through to engage the full mystery of Jesus, no long physically present in history but in his disciples through the Holy Spirit.

This is us. We are the body of Christ in the world for our time. Our Christian formation is gradual, a process of coming to maturity in stages as we gain experience and confidence that God indwells us. This is a communal experience, a collective identity we share with other baptized believers. The Eucharist is the center of that community. It brings us together again and again to hear the Word and break the bread, the sign of Jesus' death, from which we receive new life.

Yet how many Christians have never really heard about the Holy Spirit? Or if they have heard the words, how many can say they have experienced the Spirit at work in their lives? All of us must continue to grow in our understanding of our faith in order to deepen our encounter with God, with Jesus and the Spirit.

In this important interval between Ascension and Pentecost, the entire church is told to prepare for the coming of the Spirit. Our preparation is simple -- to open our minds and hearts, to say yes to God's will in our lives. That is all we can do, but if we do it, God will take us to the next level. The world waits to witness even a single mature Christian, one who is living each day in the mystery of Christ's death and resurrection. This is the engine of history, the wellspring of liberation, healing and reconciliation that Jesus initiated and then entrusted to his followers to continue. This is the joy of the Gospel.

Ascending and Descending, Holy Commencement

Posted on 15 May 2015 by patmarrin

“Why do you stand here looking up at the sky?” (Acts 1:11).

Our small Catholic Worker group gathered in prayer around the small wheeled table that holds the bread for evening meals served at the house here in Kansas City. It had been a rough week, said Mark, one of the live-in staff members, with lots of anger and hurt coming to the surface in the guest community and lots of stress for everyone. The scriptures this time of year promise empowerment for those who would offer the healing promised by Jesus to his disciples. So why do we feel so powerless in the face of so many unresolved issue in our conflicted, violent society: racism, classism, the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots? What does ur faith tell us to expect as we approach Pentecost?

Liturgically, the Ascension of Jesus signals the close of the Easter Season as the church approaches Pentecost, the reanimation and empowerment of the disciples with the Spirit of Jesus. This second Incarnation—the first being the conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary—makes us the body of Christ in the world. We are the living manifestation of the crucified and risen Jesus extended in time and space for the redemption of the world.

The Ascension, like the Transfiguration, is a theophany rich in fulfillment texts and allusions to other heroic and prophetic figures in the Bible. The departure of Elijah, carried aloft in a fiery chariot as his successor, Elisha, watches, then receives Elijah’s cloak and a double portion of his spirit, is one of them. Other images connect Jesus' departure to the right hand of God as the moment of triumph when the conquering hero hands over everything to the king, then divides the spoils of victory to his companions.

It is a theological event, and the evangelists would be surprised to know that some readers try to make it a actual event. For John, the author of the fourth Gospel, the most sophisticated and nuanced interpreter of the life of Jesus, the ascension occurs on Calvary, the final sign of God’s self-emptying love. The Son of Man is lifted up—crucified and glorified, drawing everything to himself, then giving birth in water and blood and breath to the new creation. But only eyes of faith will see this.

For us, the departure of the earthly Jesus begins the most intense and important “retreat” we make each year in the 10-day interval between the Ascension and Pentecost. Like the first disciples, gathered in the upper room with Mary, fasting and praying in preparation for the sending of the Spirit, we are invited to empty ourselves in order to be filled with Jesus. His risen presence among us as head of the body is what makes us the church, empowered to do everything Jesus did. This moment of transfer is crucial. There is no Plan B. The question is: Will we open ourselves to this empowerment?

Franciscan Sister Jan Cebula offered this thought during our shared reflection on the readings for the Ascension. “Most young people leave home to grow up. But in the case of the church, it is Jesus who has to leave so we will grow up.”

Unless he departs, we will focus all our expectations on him. This is what the angels warned the disciples standing there looking up at the sky when Jesus disappeared. Why do you stand here? He has gone ahead of you into the world. You will find him there, especially among the poor, the crucified of history. He is counting on you to be his hands, his face, his voice, his healing, forgiving presence to a wounded world. Be the one you are waiting for. Now is our time. Receive the Holy Spirit. Don’t be afraid. Be the church. Be Christ to the world.

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Yes

Posted on 14 May 2015 by patmarrin

“As the Father has loved me, so I also love you. Remain in my love” (John 15:9).

The story moves quickly and decisively as we approach the crucial hand-off from Jesus to his disciples (and to us). Liturgically, the interval between the Ascension and Pentecost is fraught with tension and promise. There is no Plan B. Either the disciples will take up the mission of Jesus after his departure or they will not. The Holy Spirit will enter them only if they are open, for their freedom, like the freedom Mary had at the first Incarnation, is necessary, for God proposes rather than imposes the divine plan.

The Buddha says, “Leap, and the bridge will appear.” Every pregnant woman begins the birthing process knowing that pain and uncertainty are part of the moment that will yield the child she has carried from conception. The disciples gather behind closed doors to pray and, for 10 days, they experience their utter inadequacy and powerlessness to accomplish anything. But it is their emptiness that welcomes the Spirit. It is the depth of their longing that will determine the size of the space that receives the gift God can give them.

In every life crisis, whether it is a major decision or some transition from old to new, we are reduced to that single narrow passage. Yes or no, go or stay, risk everything or choose security. But act freely and take full responsibility, because you cannot stay here any longer. Go forward or hunker down. Create the future you want or accept the limits circumstances have defined for you. The Gospel is always about liberation.

The one constant that makes change possible is the promise that love never departs. Jesus prepares his disciples for passage through death to new life by telling them to remain in his love. If they trust that love, they will survive and grow.

Jesus, in bodily form, hovers between time and eternity, then disappears. But his love remains, like a seed planted in his followers, whose lives will nourish and become the next bodily manifestation of his presence in the world. We are that body of Christ, filled with the Holy Spirit. If we say yes. For if conception occurs, birth will follow. Every hope, dream and holy metaphor converges on us and our response: “May it be done unto us according to your Word.”

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An Unknown God

Posted on 13 May 2015 by patmarrin

"What you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you" (Acts 17:24).

A recent national survey showed a sharp increase (from 16 percent in 2007 to 23 percent this year) of Americans who say they are unaffiliated with any church. Over one third of young adults self-identify in this category. All mainline Christian denominations have lost ground, including Catholics. Many of the unaffiliated say they are atheists or agnostics.

The survey only speculates on reasons for the drop, but the failure of mainline Christianity to attract and hold young people is an acknowledged factor. This speaks to a shift in culture and the perception by many seekers that formal religion has not offered real meaning and purpose or modeled an effective way to address social justice problems or answer people's personal questions.

In today's reading from Acts, St. Paul was visiting the hilltop in Athens where shrines and statues identified deities popular among the Greeks. Greek thinkers were known for exploring basic questions of meaning. Paul's approach was to explain how "natural theology," represented by the "Unknown God," could lead to acceptance of an all-knowing creator by rational argument. But when he tells his audience that a Palestinian Jew revealed this God by rising from the dead, they laughed at Paul and politely excused themselves. Like the Romans, many Greeks saw religion as merely a civic exercise in a secular culture, but they did not commit to personal faith beyond that.

The journey to faith has many thresholds. The more experience people have, the more they understand how mysterious life is. Adversity teaches resilience; struggle exposes our hopes and fears; love teaches us values that go beyond this world and our own brief lives.

Jesus tells his disciples in today's Gospel that thy have much to learn, but they cannot bear it all at once. Only with time and experience, and the help of the Holy Spirit, will they enter the deeper mysteries of self-sacrifice as the path to glory.

Knowing little and believing less can actually be a good place to start because the mind is not cluttered with assumptions. When we let Life itself be our teacher, it sets us on the road to faith by urging us to face our questions and problems honestly. A sincere heart and an open mind inevitably lead to the source of our own existence, the God who knows us by name and loves us more than we can imagine.

We Are the Church

Posted on 12 May 2015 by patmarrin

"It is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, The Advocate will not come to you" (John 16:7).

Absence makes possible a different, even deeper, kind of presence. Jesus tells his disciples that his departure (death, ascension) is necessary for the Spirit to come. His time on earth, physically present with them in that moment in history, is complete.

They are totally dependent on him, and they cannot imagine going on without his leadership. This is the point of his departure. Unless he goes, they will not internalize him, become him in time and place through the gift of his Spirit. There will be no church, the body of Christ advancing in history through them and successive generations of believers.

So it is necessary that he depart, so they can experience their own birth at Pentecost, filled with the mystery of God incarnate in the world through them.

The reading today from Acts 16 is a deliberate parallel to the story of Jesus' resurrection. Paul and Silas, beaten and jailed for preaching the Gospel, are liberated from the innermost cell, surrounded by guards, when an earthquake happens in the middle of the night. Astonished and afraid, the jailer is about to kill himself when his prisoners call out to him, then baptize him and his entire family.

We have been invited to carry the mystery of the risen Christ in our lives. In this final week of Easter time, we are being prepared for the celebration of the Ascension, Jesus' departure so that Pentecost can follow, our birth as the church.

Like the first disciples, perhaps we are dismayed at the thought of taking up the presence of Jesus and his mission to the world. The church invites us to pray from this place of fear and inadequacy. It is into this need that the Spirit will come.