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Don't Be Afraid

Posted on 22 April 2016 by patmarrin

“Do not let your hearts be troubled” (John 14:1).

How many believers have found deep comfort in Jesus’ words to his disciples at the Last Supper: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” On the night before his own death on the cross, Jesus is attentive to the fears of his closest friends, who do not fully understand what is about to take place, and whose own concerns are about being left alone, like orphans, as Jesus prepares to depart.

We say it to each other: “Don’t worry, everything will be all right.” But in times or real crisis and loss, it is impossible to feel confident and unafraid, and comforting words help, but they are not enough.

The greatest comfort, whether from a friend or family member, comes from those who have themselves been through crisis. A patient awaiting surgery gets a visit from someone who had had the same surgery. A parent who has lost a child is embraced by another parent who has endured the same loss and anguish. This is comfort with authority, counsel from experience.

Jesus can comfort us in an ultimate sense because he has experienced the full range of human struggle and suffering, to the point of death. When he says, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled,” we hear the voice of one who has endured every kind of suffering imaginable, both physical and psychological, in his own person and in all his relationships. There is no horror or humiliation that he does not understand from the inside. And because he God among us, our Lord and brother, to be with him is to have the ultimate hope in the face of any threat.

Fear is the enemy of faith. How much good was never risked because good people were afraid? How many movements of hate and exclusion might have been stopped early on by a few courageous people who stood up in their communities and said, “This is wrong.” Every corporal work of mercy involves some risk, but how many have been fed, clothed, accompanied and comforted by those who took that risk, overcame their discomfort at plunging in among the needy, the rejected and those labeled as dangerous or unworthy?

So Jesus addresses us in the darkest hour of his own life: “Don’t be afraid. I am right here beside you. Open your heart to me and nothing can truly harm you or separate you from my love.

The Darkness Before Dawn

Posted on 21 April 2016 by patmarrin

"I am telling you before it happens, so that when it happens you may believe that I AM" (John 13:19).

Jesus has just finished washing his disciples feet, including those of Judas. Night is overtaking everyone with fear and confusion. Before the dawn breaks, Jesus will be in custody, condemned by the Sanhedrin, betrayed by Judas and denied by Peter. It seems the shocking end to a story once filled with hope and promise. Jesus is about to be crucified and his disciples will scatter, filled with anguish and incrimination.

So Jesus, in the final hour at the table in the upper room where they had gathered to celebrate his final earthly Passover, foretells this great failure in order to prepare them not to let despair overwhelm them. His suffering and death are necessary to make clear that the victory over love revealed by his resurrection is the message God is sending the world. God's mercy is greater than any human weakness and sin. The life being offered is greater than death. Don't be afraid, but believe.

The pattern of goodness emerging from evil runs like a thread through our human experience of failure and defeat, reflected in art, literature and religion. "It is always darkest before the dawn" captures this intuition. But it takes real experiences and real models of this paradox to convince us that goodness and truth do triumph over any disaster that can befall us. It also takes deep faith and the inspired patience believers must pray for to endure and never lose trust that God is always there and always in charge.

The Church in the World

Posted on 20 April 2016 by patmarrin

"I did not come to condemn the world but save the world" (John 12:46).

One of the central goals of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) was to reconnect the Catholic church to the modern world. Pope John XXIII wanted to shift the focus of the church from the image of a fortress of doctrine over against modernity to a partnership in dialogue with the modern world to help guide it by promoting values the church believes are necessary to real human development. The pope's first encyclical was titled "Mater et Magistra," to present the church first and foremost as a "mother and teacher."

Church history contains a long argument among theologians over the concept of dualism, a view of reality divided between church and world, spirit and matter, heaven and earth. Many thinkers and leaders accepted this oppositional view while others, beginning from the Incarnation, emphasized that God is in the world, working through creation, sanctifying everything from within.

Today's Gospel reveals the early church's view that in Jesus, God loved the world and sent his beloved Son to save, not condemn, the world. Just as Pope John XXIII sought to restore this perspective, so Pope Francis sees the church's immersion in the world as essential to her identity and mission. This principle underlies every other program and policy change the pope has initiated, especially the year of mercy and his emphasis on pastoral ministry and evangelization.

We are part of this perspective. To believe that God loves us and the world is to commit ourselves to engaging everyone and everything with the belief that grace is always present and at work in everyday life. Our own words and actions, however insignificant they seem, are channels of God's love.

I Call You Friend

Posted on 19 April 2016 by patmarrin

"How long are you going to keep us in suspense?" (John 10:23).

When we read the Word with faith, we encounter Jesus. His voice whispers into the space in our minds where our consciousness dwells, where other inner voices carry on a constant stream of interpretation as we move from our waking moments into the day. This interior running commentary is one of more fascinating aspects of what it means to be alive and human.

Whether we actually listen to the Word is another matter, and most of us live each day caught up in the practical demands of getting from here to there, remembering names, tasks to be done, schedules and obligations. Or we daydream and fantasize as feelings and memories intrude. Habits of prayer help shape our day, and taking time to read a passage from the Gospels -- what Pencil Preaching promotes -- can also guide our thoughts.

The image of the Good Shepherd in John 10 focuses on how believers become attuned to the voice of Jesus. Without faith, this is meaningless, but with faith, we grow into a companionship, a constant awareness of a living presence as near to us as our heartbeat and breath. The intimacy of human friendship is a kind of prelude to friendship with God. This is challenging because God seems so distant and so spiritual. But because of Jesus, we can encounter God in human terms. Jesus is the face of God, and a lively, intimate friendship with him is possible.

And like all real friendships, we grow in love through trial and error, conflict and resolution, absence and presence, even estrangement and recovery at a deeper level. We often find ourselves in suspense, not knowing how things will work out. We know we have a real friend when we survive failure and misunderstanding, because the gift shared goes deeper than surface tranquility or artificial peace.

The Good Shepherd shows his love for us by laying down his life that we might grow to wholeness. Our passage to eternal life is possible because of Jesus’s death and resurrection. If we listen to his voice and follow him, we will make this same passage through death to new life. In the final analysis, this is why friendship with him is the most important decision we will ever make.

Truth at the Crossroads

Posted on 18 April 2016 by patmarrin

"I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture" (John 10:9).

Pope Francis' exhortation on family life has again raised the question of whether Catholic doctrine can ever change? Both readings for today's liturgy are about the radical adaptation of the church to new challenges and the need to protect essential truths from misinterpretation.

In Acts 11, Peter eats with gentile converts and is accused of eating "unclean" foods. To defend himself, Peter describes a vision in which animals of every kind are lowered in a large sheet from heaven, and a voice commands him to eat. The scene is a window into the crucial debate over whether Christianity was an extension of Judaism and therefore all gentile converts must follow Jewish law, or whether something new had happened because of Jesus that frees everyone from circumcision and the laws and rituals of Judaism. It was a critical threshold for the church.

In John 10, Jesus describes himself as the "gate" of the sheepfold. Later in the Gospel, John will have Jesus say, "I am the Way, the Life and the Truth." This is not only a profound truth, but also an indication that when this gospel was being composed near the end of the first century, doctrines were still in the early stages of formation. The author of the fourth gospel wanted to make clear that Jesus was himself the measure of truth. Any version of the Christian faith being circulated that did not acknowledge Jesus as Incarnate Lord was the work of false shepherds.

Both examples reveal Christian teaching as a living and evolving process, a defense of the radical core teaching, but constantly being adapted to make it relevant to changing situations and audiences. Without this process, Christianity would be a small Jewish sect today, or a broad, watered-down presentation of Jesus as all things to all people.

The Church's teaching on the family, on marriage and human sexuality is only intelligible in this same dynamic tension: Jesus, both divine and human, is the measure of human maturity and the fullness of our divine destiny. As the revelation of God's mercy, Jesus meets real people in the midst of real life with all of its struggles and limitations, constantly calling us toward holiness, especially the holiness of unconditional love. No one is beyond God's gracious love, including those who fall short of legal or ritual perfection. The path to life requires only that we hear and follow the voice of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, the Gate, the Way, the Truth and the Life.

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.