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John 3:16

Posted on 13 September 2014 by patmarrin

"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son" (John 3:16).

If you decided to get a tattoo, what would it be and where would you put it? The question is hypothetical and, for many of us, implausible, but it still invites each of us to consider what image or phrase is so important that we would be willing to wear it more or less permanently on our body.

The familiar scripture phrase in today's Gospel from John, "For God so loved the world ...", is a favorite of evangelicals for a reason. It sums up the message of the New Testament about who Jesus is and why he came into the world. Jesus is the "Son of God," John's way of expressing the mystery of the Incarnation -- that God's most intimate Self-expression in human form was Jesus, the eternal Word made flesh. God sent his only Son out of love, not to condemn the world but to save it.

One way to make this Word flesh and to keep it before our eyes at all times might be to tattoo it, chapter and verse, on the palm of our hand. Another way, more intimate and direct, is to recognize that the image of God is already imprinted on our bodies, for we have been created in the God's likeness. Every human being bears this image of divine identity and eternal destiny as a child of God. By baptism, Christians are privileged to know it consciously and to treat one another with the dignity we all share.

In the same breath that Jesus reveals this to Nicodemus in today's Gospel, he also gives him a hint of the paradox of how God will save the world through him. The "Son of Man," another biblical name for the Messiah, will be lifted up for the whole world to see, the way the bronze image of a serpent was fixed to a pole and raised up by Moses as the antidote to the deadly attack by snakes on the people in the desert (Numbers 21:9). The "lifting up of the Son of Man" for John was both Jesus' crucifixion and his resurrection. It would be by the death of the Son of God that the world was to be saved.

Whether visible or invisible, every Christian is marked with the sign of the cross, a permanent bodily reminder of just how much God loves us. It is a glimpse of our ultimate identity and our hand-held map to eternity. In Christ, and by his death and resurrection, we are bound for glory.

Formed by the Word, We Dare to Witness

Posted on 12 September 2014 by patmarrin

“Woe to me if I do not preach” (1 Cor 9:16).

In his 2013 exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis emphasizes that the church is by definition missionary. When it ceases going outward to share the Gospel, it ceases to be the church, which exists to preach and witness to the Good News revealed in Jesus. Evangelization is the essential activity of the church. The pope identifies three dimensions of this evangelization: first to the committed members of the church, in continual need for formation by the Word; second, to members to who have drifted to the margins and need to be reclaimed; and third, to those outside the church who have yet to hear the Gospel.

St. Paul expresses this about himself and his role as Apostle to the Gentiles: “Woe to me if I do not preach.” This is the purpose of his life, and if he withdraws from his call, he relinquishes his identity in Christ. His dramatic statement echoes that of the Prophet Jeremiah: “If I say, ‘I will not remember him or speak anymore in his name,’ then in my heart it becomes like a burning fire shut up in my bones; And I am weary of holding it in, and I cannot endure it” (Jer 20:9).

Pope Francis describes the mission to evangelize as a joyful burden. The more we witness to the presence and blessing of God in our lives, the more it grows and connects to the same experience in the lives of other believers. A great network of joyful believers is what the world should see when it looks at the church. Woe to the church if what outsiders see is infighting, defensiveness, criticism and judgment, or stressed out, depressed Christians, like “people coming from a funeral,” Francis says.

The Gospel message is like love; the more we give it away, the more we have. It may seem odd to pray that God will increase our call if it means carrying “fire in my bones.” But isn’t this the secret of joy—to be captured and compelled by a purpose so much bigger than ourselves that we end up forgetting and losing ourselves in our eagerness to share it with others? The root of the word “enthusiasm” is to be “in God.” A single enthusiastic witness to the love of God is worth an army of half-hearted Christians in name only.

Measure for Measure

Posted on 11 September 2014 by patmarrin

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27).

It may be just one of those calendar coincidences that today’s Gospel selection falls on the anniversary of the 9-11 attacks in 2001, but it certainly shows the sharp contrast between Jesus’ approach to hostility and the ordinary political and military response to hit back and hit back hard when attacked. It raises painful questions not just about Christian pacifism, often caricatured as helpless passivity in the face of violent threat, but also about what is an effective strategy against such threats. Has the U.S. response to mount a global “war on terror,” costing hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars, been an effective response? Has a decade of xenophobic politics and the militarization of every aspect of our domestic lives made us safer?

An argument can be made that what Jesus proposed by telling his disciples to love their enemies was a more effective way to defuse conflict and disarm violent aggression. He called for the restoration of right relationship, the just resolution of underlying causes for conflict and reconciliation between adversaries based on truth and restitution. These are all recognized as the means to ending conflicts before they become violent, the essence of diplomacy. The blunt and irretrievable impact of war as a first resort or preemptive strike has seldom solved anything, creating instead cycles of hurt and revenge that fuel future wars and spawn whole generations defined by hatred and distrust.

The paradoxical nature of Jesus’ teaching is easily lost in the heat of the moment, once the drums of war appeal to national pride and the desire for vindication. Another cycle of violence begins. Ten years from now what conclusions will we draw from today’s decisions to again go to war with our enemies? "Christianity," G.K. Chesterton once lamented, "has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried."


Posted on 10 September 2014 by patmarrin

“Blessed are you …” (Luke 6:20).

There is a moment when filling a glass with water drop by drop that the water crests at the lip of the glass and then overflows with the next drop. It is full.

The Beatitudes describe a life lived at the point of fullness right before overflowing. Faith is poised there, still incomplete, still expectant, but already at the edge where earth and heaven meet. Jesus called his disciples to live in that moment, blessed in their want, their hunger, their tears, when the world ridiculed and rejected them as dreamers and troublemakers: “Rejoice, leap for joy on that day! Behold, your reward will be great in heaven.”

Likewise, those who were content with what this world offers, satisfied, applauded for being worldly wise, wary of prophets. Woe to them for settling for happy when they might have had joy.

The Beatitudes are on the other side of the limits we set to protect our lives from exuberance and compassion. Each time we risk going beyond ourselves, we deepen the blessing that is always there where earth meets heaven, where life overflows and love is replenished faster than we can give it away. Blessed are those who learn this early and practice it daily, for they already live in the presence of God.


Posted on 09 September 2014 by patmarrin

“…and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor” (Luke 6:19).

Jesus spends the night in prayer on a mountain, then descends and calls his disciples to gather around. From among them he chooses 12 to be Apostles, which means “those sent.” They will be specially prepared to represent him and to extend his mission when he is gone.

The last name in the list is that of Judas Iscariot. His name is a form of Judah, which means “God is praised.” The surname, "Iscariot," could indicate family, that he belonged to a group of nationalist zealots called sicarii, who were assassins, or be an epithet regarding his death by choking. Luke leaves the door open as to the character of Judas by saying that he “became” a traitor, meaning he was not one when Jesus chose him.

Because Jesus spent the night in prayer before calling the Twelve, we may assume that he knew the potential of each one. So his choice of Judas was deliberate. The question for us is how Judas in fact carried the message of Jesus to the world as an Apostle, and how God was praised by his role in the story.

Like Peter, the first name in the list of Apostles, Judas demonstrated God’s unconditional love by failing to be worthy of it. Both Peter and Judas were total failures. The only difference was that Peter survived his ordeal to become a messenger of God’s mercy, whereas Judas hanged himself in despair. But God has the last word. Jesus, too, is hanged on the cross in parallel to Judas' death. One of his final cries is “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

These words, together with Jesus’ descent into hell (the Apostle’s Creed) to retrieve the lost sheep (Luke 15), become the most complete expression of the Gospel of mercy imaginable. Judas the Apostle made this outpouring of forgiveness possible and thus lived up to his call and to his name, “God is praised.”


The Birth of Mary

Posted on 08 September 2014 by patmarrin

“This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about” (Matt 1:18).

Genealogies serve to connect and credential the present to the past. Luke’s genealogy shows that Jesus is in the direct line of the promise made to Abraham and of the House of David. But unlike most family trees, it is Jesus who gives significance to all his ancestors, for their purpose was to point forward to his coming.

Also unusual is that the flesh and blood lineage takes flight at the end to reveal the spiritual paternity of God. Jesus is not the son of Joseph, son of Jacob, son of Matthan, all the way back to Abraham. He is the son of Mary by the Holy Spirit. His Father is God. This leap from flesh to spirit marks the end of the Old Covenant and the beginning of the New. Disciples of Jesus will be born again of water and Spirit, baptized to be children of God, heirs to divine life.

Mary is the human bridge to the divine promise, the mother who bears the Incarnation, the body of Christ, by which all believers find their destiny in God. We honor her birth today and her yes to God’s plan, not just for her, but for all of us.


Holy Consensus

Posted on 06 September 2014 by patmarrin

“Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them” (Matt 18:20).

Just two Sundays ago, the gospel passage from Matthew 16 was about the famous conversation between Jesus and Peter in which he gives him the keys to the kingdom and the power to bind and loose. The passage is famous because it became the basis for Rome’s claim that the pope, the successor of Peter, holds ultimate authority over the church.

Today’s gospel passage from Matthew 18 appears to extend that same authority to all the disciples: “I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (18:19). Jesus promises that agreement in prayer or consensus by even two or three disciples guarantees that he will be present with them.

Together, the two passages reflect the long debate in the church over the balance between the role of the pope and the role of the college of bishops (papal primacy and collegiality). This debate was central to the Second Vatican Council, which, in the end, leaned in a complicated compromise toward papal supremacy.

Pope Francis, by calling himself the “bishop of Rome” instead of a traditional title like “supreme pontiff,” by appointing advisors on every issue and by opening next month’s synod on the family to a broad consultation with the whole church, seems to lean toward collegiality as a better approach to leadership than autocratic fiat. Consultation is far more complicated than fiat, and consensus requires that every view be heard and respected before debate reaches a conclusion everyone can support. But the benefit of consensus is full participation itself and the likelihood that in the end the group will own decisions they have helped make.

Today’s Gospel does not resolve the debate but does affirm that Jesus is with the church in the process and blesses all our efforts to reach communal decisions as something good in itself. Any parish that struggles to reach agreement on any issue is already witnessing the church’s message that dialogue, consensus and reconciliation are possible in our fractious world.

Sunday liturgy is an exercise in gathering all our differences around the one altar, the one sacrifice of Christ, and taking from that altar a Communion in love that is our mission to the world.


New Wine, New Wineskins

Posted on 05 September 2014 by patmarrin

“No one pours new wine into old wineskins” (Luke 5:37).

The question was about fasting. Jesus answered with a wedding. No one fasts at a wedding. So his disciples do not fast as do those of John the Baptist, because the bridegroom is with them.

Something new is happening. It is like new wine, bubbling up, expanding, effervescent, alive. Don’t put it in old wineskins, already stretched and tight, for it will burst the seams and spill out. No, new wine into new wineskins.

Something new is happening. It is not about institutional change or structural realignment. It about love that transforms relationships, creates new life, new possibilities. It is unpredictable and risky. Be ready to expand with it, accommodate it, wait for it to reveal itself.

God gives bread to sustain us, but wine is to make us joyful, exuberant, vulnerable to one another. The first sign was given at Canna, a wedding feast, where the water of legal and ceremonial washing was changed into fine wine for the celebration of love. The Bridegroom is here.

Pray for new wine, but first pray for a new heart to hold it. Make your life a wedding feast. Joy is the surest sign of the presence of God. The Bridegroom is here.


The Call

Posted on 04 September 2014 by patmarrin

“Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8).

The story of the astonishing catch of fish in Luke is also the story of Jesus’ call of Peter to become a disciple. It contains what photographers have called the “decisive moment” that tells the whole story. The look on Peter’s face is not just about the catch of fish where all night there had been no fish. He has just experienced a theophany, an encounter with God in the man standing before him in the boat. And the light of that revelation makes transparent his own naked sense of inadequacy, his sinfulness. “Depart from me, Lord,” he says to Jesus as he falls to his knees.

The call of Peter is not unlike other biblical calls: Moses at the burning bush; Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel; the conversion of St. Paul. In each case, the person being called feels the floor of their very existence fall out from beneath them. They are overwhelmed by their own unworthiness and inability to do what they are being invited to do. The call is what empowers them to go beyond themselves to a new kind of life. What the evangelicals call “conviction of sin” clears the way for the gift of salvation, to make sure the person knows it is not something they have earned or deserve.

There are human equivalents to this experience. Perhaps the most exhilarating is the “look of love” two people see in one another’s eyes that invites them into a mutual relationship they know is pure gift, total acceptance that defies logic and sets aside all inadequacy. I choose you. Or a moment of unconditional forgiveness that wipes clean some offense and restores a life-saving friendship. In either, case, love calls us to a deeper level of responsibility and loyalty. There is no turning back now.

We know the rest of Peter’s story—a life-changing journey of both courage and failure that will unite him to Jesus in both life and death.


At Sunset

Posted on 03 September 2014 by patmarrin

“He laid hands on each of them and cured them” (Luke 4:40).

Mothers know that children get particularly cranky in the early evenings. After a long day of learning and conforming (more or less) to adult expectations, children “fall apart” around bedtime, cry a lot, need to be soothed.

Nursing home staff experience that same phenomenon with some residents, even have a name for it: “sunset syndrome,” when the mix of medications and the approaching night hours seem to disorient and cause anxiety. Patients need to be soothed.

In today’s gospel, Jesus first heals Peter’s mother-in-law, then, at sunset, faces a large crowd of people suffering from various diseases and disturbances. He touches each person, quieting and curing them, dispelling evil spirits from some. As darkness falls and the usual night terrors approach that all sick and elderly people (and all of us) have encountered at times, peace falls over the town. The source of all Life is among them; there is no need to fear anything.

There is no medicine more soothing than the touch of someone who loves you, or more reassuring words than “I’m right here with you.” We have all known the dark hours that test the soul and make us feel utterly alone. No one comes to human maturity without a sleepless night. It is only then that we learn to pray, and when we come to know that for every sunset there is a sunrise.