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I Am the Good Shepherd

Posted on 16 April 2016 by patmarrin

“My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27).

Among the many metaphors used to describe Jesus and his relationship to the church, the image of the Good Shepherd is rich in meaning, even for our contemporary understanding. A watchful shepherd had a personal knowledge of each member of the flock entrusted to him or her. Guiding them to pasture for weeks at a time, day and night, produced an intimate and mutual recognition between sheep and shepherd. The faithful shepherd took total responsibility for the flock, and the sheep were totally dependent on his or her care. The shepherd knew that he had to bring the flock home safe, accounting for each one and for any lambs born during the grazing time.

The imagery used in the gospels reflected earlier scriptural passages from the prophets (cf Ezekiel 34), the psalms (23), and the memory of leaders like David and Moses, who were shepherds. But in the case of Jesus, the metaphor was also expanded to include his role as the Passover lamb, sacrificed to mark the doorposts with blood and as the food of Exodus. So he is both shepherd and lamb, leader and sacrifice. To follow him in faith is to enter into this identity as our participation in the Paschal Mystery. Like Jesus, we care for one another, even to the point of laying down our own lives for the flock.

For John in today’s gospel reading, the emphasis is on the faith that enable us to recognize the authentic voice of Jesus in the midst of other voices, false shepherds intent on fleecing the flock, false leaders who flee when the flock is threatened. From the scandal of abuse to those who pocket church funds, today’s readings indict anyone who would seek their own advantage in any official church role.

At the same time, even in the midst of crisis and scandal, Jesus declares his absolute commitment to the church and to each of us. Because we have been entrusted to his loving care by the Father, Jesus will not lose any of us, but will bring us home safely. He has already laid down his life to claim us for all eternity, so if we follow him we need not be anxious or afraid. This is the joy of the Gospel.

If you want to see what a Good Shepherd looks like and does, watch Pope Francis during his visit to the refugee camp on the Greek Island of Lesbos at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bu5i5xWX-LY

Paul's Born-Again Conversion

Posted on 15 April 2016 by patmarrin

"I will show him what he will have to suffer for my name" (Acts 9:15).

The conversion of St. Paul was so crucial to the spread of the Gospel that it is described three times in the Acts of the Apostles and once in Paul's own letters. Saul the persecutor of the church becomes Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles and the primary theologian to integrate the meaning of the Christ event for the first Christians. Paul's letters predate the composition of the four Gospels, which rely heavily on his interpretation of baptism and transformation into the death and resurrection of Jesus that all Christians must undergo to be disciples.

Paul's many sufferings, foretold by the risen Jesus, are enumerated in 2 Cor 11:21-33. But this list does not include the conversion experience itself. Paul undergoes a mind-blowing and heart-rending change of his entire worldview and essential spirituality when he encounters Jesus on the road to Damascus. His confusion is so great that he goes blind, an outward sign of the inner challenge he faced emotionally and intellectually to realize that he had been wrong about everything.

The heretic Jesus of Nazareth, corruptor of the Law and enemy of the Temple establishment, turns out to be the Christ, standing at the right hand of God. Paul receives in that encounter the new organizing principle of the message he will write about and live for the rest of his life. That God would choose him to be an Apostle is an overwhelming act of mercy and the basis for Paul's preaching that all salvation is a free gift through Jesus Christ, not a prize we can earn by legal and ritual perfection. God is pure mercy. To know Jesus is to be called to take up his mission of reconciling the world to a merciful God.

If we have never had such an experience of deep conversion, it may be a sign that we have never been challenged in our assumptions about reality. A closed mind easily leads to a closed heart, the inability to encounter or learn anything beyond our small worldview. No one grows as a human being, much less someone open to encountering the mystery of God, without some kind of conversion. So we must pray for it. But if we do ask for it, we are advised to put on a helmet and fasten our seatbelts, for God is always ready to reveal the truth in surprising and challenging ways. Yet any suffering we endure cannot be compared to the grace of a face-to-face encounter with the living God, which is the very purpose of life itself.

Drawn by God to Faith in Jesus

Posted on 14 April 2016 by patmarrin

"No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him" (John 6:44).

Faith is mysterious. We may be attracted to a religious idea or group by its logic or someone's example, but our entry into a faith relationship is always more than intellectual assent. Like falling in love, we "know" something not by mind but by heart. Faith, or love, is an invitation, and once we accept it we pass through one of those rare, decisive moments we look back on as "before" and "after." Our whole life is changed because of that personal decision.

Jesus says that no one can come to him unless the "Father draw him." Every conversion story involves this sense of being drawn, even pulled, toward a truth we can no longer resist. Evelyn Waugh once described the moment of repentance as a "twitch upon the thread." Even when we are at the edge of despair or sin, God draws us ever so gently back to our true self.

If we apply this to the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch on the road to Gaza (Acts 8:26ff), we see grace in action. The court official is reading Isaiah while riding in his chariot. Philip runs alongside and is invited to ride. He explains the passage, and when they pass some water the eunuch asks Philip to baptize him. He has been drawn to faith through the scriptures and Philip's explanation of it, but deep down, by the Spirit.

The account is rich in detail worth pondering if we consider that the man is a eunuch, someone castrated as a child to render him "safe" for service in the Queen's household. This violent loss and his personal suffering are reflected in the passage from Isaiah about a "lamb silent before its shearer, a sheep led to slaughter," a humiliation applied to Jesus himself. The eunuch is united to Jesus in that moment and his suffering takes on redemptive meaning. Apparently in the ancient world, gender suffering or isolation was no barrier to baptism or full participation in the church.

We rejoice in the power of God to draw us into such love and acceptance. Is this not the joy of the Gospel?

Bread Rising

Posted on 13 April 2016 by patmarrin

“There broke out a severe persecution of the Church in Jerusalem” (Acts 8:1).

Today’s first reading recounts in two paragraphs the first steps of the early church toward the wider Mediterranean world. Stephen, the first martyr, is buried. Saul of Tarsus, who had witnessed and approved of the stoning of Stephen, mounts a search-and-destroy pursuit of the heretical Christian movement, rounding up known suspects and throwing them into prison. Philip goes into Samaria to evangelize with great signs and preaching.

Adversity becomes the energy of the nascent church. The more they are opposed, the more they grow. “The blood of martyrs,” in the words of Tertullian a century later, becomes “the seed of conversion.” Saul encounters the crucified and risen Jesus on the road to Damascus and becomes St. Paul, the greatest evangelist and theologian of the early church, extending the Gospel into the gentile world.

Pope Francis has reminded us that when the church stops evangelizing, it ceases to be the church, for preaching the Gospel is the essence of its identity and mission. A church that withdraws from the world into a self-referential, condemning clique quickly loses its vitality and purpose. The Spirit is always moving outward, inspiring growth at the edges, where faith meets culture and need. Jesus is the bread of life, leavening the church to rise and expand to feed a world starving for meaning and mercy.

The pope’s new exhortation on the family following the two synods is inseparable from evangelization. Francis sees pastoral engagement in the realities facing modern families as not just good for families, but also a matter of survival for the global church. What benefit is there in having all the answers, or a comprehensive set of doctrinal ideals, if the church does not know the questions and can only exclude everyone who is falling short of perfection?

Church history holds the lesson of expansive enculturation and change as the only way the Gospel has ever been proclaimed to an ever changing world. If complexity and adversity are the norm, then the church is truly being blessed by the Spirit to take up the challenge of being the presence and power of Jesus in today’s world. This is the joy of the Gospel, the joy of authentic love.

Our Common Home, Our Family Table

Posted on 12 April 2016 by patmarrin

"I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger" (John 6:35).

It has been said that wealth is the power to eat. Good nutrition means health and energy. The necessity of food for survival for the many has become the pursuit of fine dining for the few, or dieting to remain youthful and attractive. In our global consumer societies, chronic hunger is the fate of the have-nots, while obesity is the curse of millions of super-sized haves.

Gandhi once said that if God were to come into a world, it would be no surprise if he came as bread. Jesus fulfills this insight by revealing himself as the "bread of life." The desperation he saw in the people of his own time was from both physical hunger and a deep hunger for meaning and purpose. People were starving for love, to belong, to see their children flourish, to spend their lives doing more than scrambling for basic necessities. Jesus said, "I have come that you might have life, life to the full."

Pope Francis and many others want us to see the world as our common home and its resources as the family table. Every human being has a right to be at that table, and the disparity we see in today's world is deeply troubling and an indictment of global systems of production and distribution, controlled surplus and want. Change is needed if the world is to become the beloved community God wants us to steward.

Until this comes about, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice. Their voluntary fast is a sign that a different world is both possible and necessary.

The Risen Christ in You and Me

Posted on 11 April 2016 by patmarrin

"Master, when did you get here?" (John 6:26).

All of the Gospels were written after the fact, so the evangelists know the whole story and often mix later events into the middle of the narrative. The Jesus we meet in John 6 is both the historical Jesus and the risen Christ. Details like the miraculous appearance of Jesus walking on the lake are no doubt post-resurrection encounters filled with meaning for the early church.

Jesus' dialogue with the crowds who want to know when (and how) he got to the other side of the lake when he did not cross in the boat with the disciples is also a post-resurrection exchange between the church and its rabbinic critics.

Jesus tells them they are looking for him not because they believe in him but because they are hungry for earthly bread. In other words, like Nicodemus in earlier Gospel readings, they are still thinking in worldly terms and not spiritually.

John's references to bread are about the multiplication stories that link Jesus to Moses and the gift of manna in the desert, but they are also about the Eucharist. It is at their eucharistic gatherings that the early church communities are meeting the risen Christ in the scriptures and in the breaking of the bread. The Jesus John is testifying to in his Gospel is this Jesus, risen and glorified, revealing himself to his followers some 70 years after the life, death and resurrection of the historical Jesus.

So this Gospel is for us. We meet the same risen Christ when we gather at the Eucharistic Table that they knew at the end of the first century. This is Jesus Christ, yesterday, today and forever redeeming the world, generation by generation, toward the ultimate revelation at the end of history of God's plan for all of creation.

Peter: Missionary of Mercy

Posted on 09 April 2016 by patmarrin

“Simon, son of John, do you love me?” (John 21:12).

Francis, our current pope, took a page from Simon Peter, our first pope, in his exhortation on the family. The story of Peter’s encounter with the risen Jesus in John 21 shows how the leadership of the church was indelibly stamped from the outset with the mystery of Mercy.

Peter is prepared to preach mercy by first being the sinner primate, someone chosen by Jesus as his confidant and intimate friend, who, in the hour of crisis, denies that he even knows Jesus. This experience so purges all pride and judgmentalism from Peter, it carves out the soul space that is then filled with the mercy he will announce to the world. After Peter, there is no sin so devastating or irreversible that God’s love cannot retrieve the sinner from despair.

Pope Francis, self-declared “sinner,” shows how well he understands his role as sinner primate made missionary of mercy by God’s infinite love. In his letter to the church, Francis applies this emphasis on mercy to a host of difficult questions and pastoral challenges that canon law and doctrinal orthodox have never been able to address adequately.

Francis writes for real people in the real world, struggling in real marriages and a whole range of irregular situations where suffering and estrangement from the church have prevailed for lack of pastoral care based on mercy.

Francis write to his brother bishops and priests, telling them to trust both God and the People of God to discern how best to reconcile their lives with love, which covers over a multitude of sins. No one is beyond the reach of grace, which God gives freely in every situation. Priests are to be witnesses and servants of this grace in each encounter.

Peter’s heart-wrenching journey from total failure to pastoral leadership is the greatest love story in the Gospels. Francis, by putting the Gospels ahead of all other theologies that have so long trapped the church into a logic of gatekeeping God’s grace, has opened the door of mercy. With this openness, evangelization is possible. Without it, the church will fail to carry out its primary mission -- to announce the Good News of God's mercy to the world.

The story of Pope Peter is being lived by Pope Francis in the sight to the whole world. This is joy of the Gospel, and we rejoice to be part of it.

Bread Given Freely to All

Posted on 08 April 2016 by patmarrin

"Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to the crowd" (John 6:10).

Pope Francis released his long-anticipated letter on the family today. It is helpful to put his words into the context of today's Gospel about the multiplication of the loaves and fishes.

Jesus looks out at a huge crowd, hungry for instruction and also for food. He engages his disciples in the problem of the cost of buying enough food to feed everyone. Philip, ever practical, calculates that it would cost 200 days wages, while Andrew, naïve but trusting, presents a boy with five barely loaves and two fish. Neither suggestion meets the problem realistically.

Jesus then miraculously multiples the small amount of food at hand to feed everyone, with 12 baskets of leftovers. There are no distinctions about who is worthy or unworthy to receive this bounty. Anyone who is hungry is satisfied. In John's account, the food is blessed and distributed by Jesus himself. Abundance flows directly from him, as the disciples witness in awe the power of God's unconditional love meeting the needs of the crowd.

Pope Francis addresses the bishops and pastors of the church as Jesus addressed his disciples: "How can we meet the needs of this huge crowd?" Francis challenges his brother priests to be as open and generous as Jesus always is, grace flowing freely to everyone who needs it. Need defines the moment, not criteria of worthiness or protocols of control. All are welcome and everyone is fed, as much as they need.

The pope's letter will challenge everyone, including those who seek mercy and truth from the church, to enter into conscientious discernment about where they are in their life situations and what they need to do to grow and be at peace with God, themselves and others. Like hunger, each person must discern their needs, join in the community that shares God's gifts equitably and fairly, for the good of all.

Clergy are challenged to be pastors, accompanying their people, immersing themselves in their struggles and sufferings, helping them discern what is right without judging their inner state before God and where they are on the long journey toward the holiness that only God can give any of us. Priests are not the source of God's grace, but witnesses to the miracles of love occurring in every life.

The pope's letter will challenge most those bishops and priests who see themselves as gatekeepers to God's mercy and not as servants of the mystery of God's encounter with each individual. Whole new skills will be needed for some, not to speak of hearts immersed in the common human condition of weakness and uncertainty. If the pope's letter is a new approach, it is primarily one of attitude and openness for the church's minsters. We will see how they receive the pope's words.

We rejoice to witness a church alive to God's mercy and to the needs of the world for grace and guidance. The Spirit is evident in these events and in all of us.

Sailing to Heaven

Posted on 07 April 2016 by patmarrin

"The one whom God sent speaks the words of God. He does not ration his gift of the Spirit" (John 3:34).

The Apostles appear before the Sanhedrin and declare their intention to continue to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus: "We must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:30). In today's Gospel, Jesus continues his conversation with Nicodemus about the heavenly realm and the earthly realm of understanding. Because Nicodemus is still thinking in earthly terms, he does not understand who Jesus is or what it means to be "born from above."

Human existence has its own logic while faith brings a transcendent dimension to our thinking that can seem to the worldly-wise to be illogical or even illusory. Why would someone lay down his life for a cause? Why would anyone sacrifice her advantage for some dreamy ideal, especially when society punishes her for it?

Jesus tells his followers to listen to and keep his word as the path to life, both in this world and beyond. The price we pay cannot compare to the blessing of friendship with God, who pours out the gifts of the Spirit on those who remain faithful. While faith may seem irrelevant to practical necessity, it holds the ultimate value of being one with God.

In both readings today, we hear clearly that we must choose the path we will take. We cannot drift in the winds of culture or history and expect to arrive anywhere but where those winds take us. A disciples must raise the sails of faith and guide his small craft through the sea of life toward heaven's harbor. It is a deliberate voyage, but one we can complete if we listen to the voice of Jesus in prayer and in his word.

Get Out of Jail Free

Posted on 06 April 2016 by patmarrin

"The men you put in prison are in the temple preaching" (Acts 5:24).

The Acts of the Apostles, sometimes called the second book of Luke, tells the story of the church. So it is not surprising to find parallels between the life of Jesus and the life of his church.

In today's first reading, the resurrection of Jesus is reflected in the liberation of the Apostles from prison. Just as the tomb of Jesus, guarded by soldiers, is found to be empty, so the cell where the Apostles are being held under guard is found to be empty. Nothing can chain or contain the preaching of the Gospel.

Today's Gospel from John continues the story of Nicodemus' night encounter with Jesus, as Jesus utters the famous lines of John 3:16: "God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. "

Contained in this proclamation is John's entire theology of Jesus. He is the only-begotten Son, the Word of God, through whom the world was created. As the Father loves the Son, so God loves the world, which is the material manifestation in time and space of the eternal Word made flesh. Creation and the Incarnation are a single divine act. Jesus is sent to restore a broken, errant creation to its original blessing. Those who believe in him recover the image and likeness of God.

The world might have been created and held on course toward perfection, but God wanted his children to respond freely to the divine initiative. Salvation history is about creation's fall from grace, which made necessary the entry of God into human history in Jesus to draw us back our authentic selves, destined for eternal life.

Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew are planning to visit the detention camps on the Greek Island of Lesbos to highlight the suffering of Syrian refugees caught between the war in their homeland and Europe's reluctance to allow them a safe haven. This tragedy reveals just how far from redemption the world remains, even two millennia after the Christ event. But the Gospel of life must be proclaimed, and so the pope and the patriarch are going to stand in solidarity with these displaced and abandoned victims.

We are invited to stand with them, even as some voices in our political campaigns call for the exclusion of immigrants and refugees in desperate need of our compassion and assistance. Why should we care? Because we are Easter people.