A New Way of Life

"It is better for you that I go, for if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you" (John 15:7).

Jesus' departure in his death, which for John is also his ascension and the sending of the Spirit, is necessary for his disciples to experience his presence in a new way. As long as he remains, they are focused on him and a mission only he is able to accomplish.

The long farewell discourses in John's Gospel were to prepare his discipes for the crucial transfer of power from Jesus to the church. The first followers were frightened and felt totally inadequate. But there is no Plan B. If they do not seize the torch and take up the task, there will be no church and no mission.  

The interval between Jesus' earthly departure and the birth of the church was a time of profound prayer and openness to what can come only as a pure gift. No human genius of initiative can kindle the spark that sets the world ablaze with a love so powerful it creates the world anew.  But once that love takes hold in a believing community, history is turned in a different direction, from futility and death to hope and new life. 

Evidence of this renewed presence of the risen Jesus is found in today's readings from Acts 16. Paul and Silas are imprisoned for preaching the Good News. But in the middle of the night an earthquake opens the prison. Set free, the APostles minister to the jailer and his family and they are baptized.  The joyous scene ends with a meal.

If the story seems familiar, it is a perfect parallel to the resurrection of Jesus. Neither tomb nor prison can chain the Gospel, which liberates and saves anyone who believes in it. A meal celebrating the death and resurrection of Jesus is now the pattern of our lives. 

Do we perceive this same pattern now? If we die to ourselves and live for Christ, no obstacle or suffering can contain or prevent us from living as Jesus did, for we are now his presence and power in the world. 

The Cost of Discipleship

"The hour is coming when everyone who kills you will think he is offering worship to God" ( John 16:3). 

When Paul crosses over from Asia Minor to Macedonia, he makes contact with the Roman colony of Philppi. This will  begin his ministry in a more expansive way until he finds himself in Rome, by way of arrest and transport there to be judged by the emperor because he claimed his right as a Roman citizen.  But this transition will have deadly consequences for both Paul and Peter and for most of the apostles, who were martyred for the faith. 

Jesus had already told them to expect resistance and even death. The Good News was never a harmless call to brotherly love, but was a revolution that would turn the world upside down. The Romans understood just how subversive the Christian message was as it moved through the empire winning converts first among slaves and the lower classes, then reaching the educated upper classes, including independent women like Lydia. The growing Christian community in Rome was scapegoated by Nero after Rome burned. In the roundup of victims, both Paul and Peter were executed. Subsequent persecutions would claim the lives of many martyrs in the first century of the life of the church. 

We live in a time of profound ideological and religious conflict, when murder has again become a sign of devotion to this or that version of "god." Distorted views of both Islam and white supremacist Christianity have brought a new age of terrorism in which targeted minorities are persecuted for economic and political gain, and even governments kill indiscriminately in the name of national security. The cost of discipleship is always high, but now it is being paid in blood. We pray to be steadfast in faith in both crisis and in the ordinary, daily cost of following Christ. 

 

Being Christ in the World

"Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope" (1 Pet 3:15). 

With this Sixth Sunday of Easter, we sense the shape of this long 50-day Easter season as guiding us to the Ascension and then Pentecost. The Jesus of history who lived and died in the first century passes his identity and ministry to the early church. With his departure, they, and now we, become his living presence and activity in the world.

It must have been a crucial transfer for the first generation of believers, filled with anxiety and a sense of inadequacy. How could they take up the mission of their Lord? Yet it was in the crucible of this dark interval that their faith took form. Their emptiness became the vessel of clay into which the Holy Spirit was poured, an overwhelming sense of power as their own gifts were brought into play with the charisms of the Spirit, making them courageous and capable witnesses to the Good News of God revealed in Jesus. 

In this special time of preparation called "mystagogia," we, too, are invited into the inner dynamic of radiating love described by John's Gospel. The love of God in Jesus is poured out into the disciples, who in turn give it to the world. The members of the body of Christ become temples of the Holy Spirit, little churches that reveal the indwelling of the Trinity. God, once hidden and mysterious throughout human history, but now revealed among us in Christ, then through us -- God in all things, the whole universe a sacrament drawing us into encounter with God. 

This vision remains hidden until it is embodied and lived.  The saints are those who immerse themselves in the mystery and let it surge into their own development as mature human beings, amplifying their natural gifts to have spiritual effects in all their relationships, every word and action producing a fruitfulness that permeates community and society. Where there is darkness, light; where there is division, unity, where there is fear and hatred, hope and compassion. 

There is no substitute for daily prayer -- a mindfulness of God's presence in us-- and the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, where we nourish our identity as God's Body in the world.  What is life except the vehicle for this unfolding mystery? What other destiny do we have but to return to the Source of our existence? We have been created, called, loved and redeemed by Christ, in whose image we come to know ourselves as the children of God. This is the joy of the Gospel. 

 

The Peace of Christ

“Not as the world gives peace do I give it ” (John 14:28).

In the 1954 classic film “On the Waterfront,” a failed prizefighter defies the mob controlling the longshoreman’s union on the New York waterfront. In the final climactic scene, he is beaten mercilessly and left on the docks, but rises to lead the other workers into the warehouse, effectively breaking the mob’s influence.
 
In today’s Acts reading, Paul does something of the same by rising up after being stoned during one of his missionary journeys in Asia Minor. His determination to preach the Gospel despite any opposition or adversity characterized the rapid growth of the early church.
 
Jesus sought to strengthen his disciples before his departure: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.”  Jesus knew that the disciples would be shaken as the “ruler of the world” struck back at God’s redemptive plan. But death was not to overcome Jesus or his followers.  Jesus rose from the tomb to proclaim a new creation, a new beloved community for all of humanity.
 
Paul learned the nature of Jesus’ other-worldly peace in the midst of his trials and sufferings on behalf of the Gospel. He would not be spared the fury of this world, its stones, floggings, courts, mobs and threats, but he would never lose his conviction that Jesus was with him, strengthening and blessing his mission. 
 
We may seldom experience the kind of opposition Paul faced in living our Christian lives. But we can expect at times be assailed by the doubts and fears that every counter-cultural movement knows as it breaks conformity with the dominant values of society. The cost of our discipleship will be revealed as we learn just how different Christ’s peace is from the peace the world gives to its followers.  Suffering comes to all of us, and blessed are those who suffer for justice and on behalf of others.  We are called to fight the good fight, to run the race and to keep the faith.  But isn’t this truly the joy of the Gospel?
 
Pencil Preaching will stop to catch its breath after this entry, and be back up around Sunday, May 21.     
 

Formed by the Word

"Whoever loves me will keep my word" (John 14:24). 

We honor someone by saying that he or she "keeps his word." Integrity is about being consistent in word and action. People build their lives around the words spoken to them by someone they loved and trusted. A short mantra or passage of poetry is learned "by heart" and carried like a compass through the storms of life. 

Jesus has spoken the words recorded in the scriptures to form us. Even more intimately, he is the Word we encounter when we listen deeply to our own hopes and dreams and realize that he is the fulfillment of everything we really want. To keep his word, to treasure and ponder it, is the path to life.  

We, like our brother Jews and Muslims, are all "People of the Book."  To see a Jew at prayer, or to hear a Muslim reciting the Q'ran in Arabic, is to witness a soul defined by the sacred promises of God. Jesus taught his disciples the "Our Father" to show them how to enter into relationship with the mystery of God. Mary, the mother of Jesus, surely modeled for her son as a child the embrace of God's word so completely that it becomes flesh in us.  

Let the Word be on your lips and in your heart today. Let it guide you in prayer and action. This is the secret of Life. This is the joy of the Gospel. 

Living Stones

“Have I been with you so long a time and you still do not know me?” (John 14:9).

A remarkable convergence of themes in both the readings and in current events brings this weekend to life in an urgent way.
 
Americans celebrate Mother’s Day this weekend. Pope Francis just completed a visit to the Shrine at Fatima in Portugal to pray to Our Lady and Mother for world peace. His devotion to motherhood and to families was evident during his short visit to canonize two of the children who witnessed an apparition of Mary 100 years ago in 1917 as World War I raged on. 
 
The pope’s reverence for mothers was also evident earlier this month when he expressed dismay at the dropping of a large bomb on combatants and civilians in Afghanistan by the U.S. military dubbed the “Mother of All Bombs.”  For Francis, the word “mother” is synonymous with life, not death and destruction.
 
The Scripture readings for this Fifth Sunday of Easter emphasized Christ as the “cornerstone” of the church. All the baptized participate as “living stones” in this structure.   It has endured rejection and been assailed by violence throughout history, but it stands firm.  St. Stephen, deacon and the church’s first martyr, was stoned to death to stop his preaching, but the church in the Acts of the Apostles only grew larger and stronger.
 
In John’s Gospel, Jesus consoles his disciples as he prepares to depart with the promise that in his Father’s house there are many mansions.  He is going to prepare a place for them. He and the Father will return to them in the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and they will dwell with them. This indwelling now is an intimate foretaste of the divine life in the Trinity we are destined to enjoy forever. 
 
This promise is the cornerstone of the church that will survive every attempt to suppress it.  Jesus assures us that whatever we ask for his name will be done, and even greater things than Jesus himself has done, because he is going to the Father.  His earthly mission is complete and we are now his continued presence in history.
 
We are the living stones of the house of God, members of the body of Christ. Though our world is filled with trouble and suffering, we must go about the work of redeeming the world with the gifts God provides to us.  Pope Francis prayed at Fatima that "humanity might have the courage to choose a culture of encounter over a culture of conflict and would tear down all walls.  
 

I Am With You Always

"Do not let your hearts be troubled" (John 14:1),

Jesus gave his farewell address to his disciples at the Last Supper, the night before he died.  It is understandable that they were deeply upset at the prospects of life without him. He spoke about returning to his Father and about their mission to proclaim and live his message of love to the world.

The shock of his departure affects them profoundly.  "Where are you going?" they ask. "How will we find you."  How can we know the Father you have spoken about?"  "What will happen to us when you are gone?"

Jesus was preparing them for the transformation that would occur when his earthly life over, when the Holy Spirit would enter them at Pentecost and empower them to be his visible presence in the world.  What seemed impossible to them at the time would happen only when he was gone from history. He would always be with them, but in a different way, not limited by space or time but present in every generation of the church, his body in the world. 

While it is natural and helpful for us to imagine Jesus during his time on earth, the real challenge of faith is to believe that he, now present as the risen Christ, dwells in us, is active through our words and actions. How can this be, except that this is what he promised.  Only if we live in intimate confidence in him will we experience it and grow to maturity in our Christian lives. 

What is a saint if not someone who simply believes that what Jesus promised really happens if we open ourselves to him each day and to the promptings of the Holy Spirit in everything we say and do.  

   

We Are Sent

"If you understand this, blessed are you if you do it" (John 13:17).

One of the key dramas in the Gospels is the moment of transfer from Jesus to his followers. Disciples--those who learn-- must become apostles--those who are sent. Like the millions of young people graduating from high school and college this month, the real test of education is if it has prepared us to act. 

Jesus taught in words but mostly by example. In today's short Gospel he has just washed the disciples feet. They are to wash one another's feet as a sign they are ready to graduate into a life of loving service. As he himself was sent by the Abba, so they are sent to live the love they have been taught. 

Do we feel this great flowing narrative of love in our own Christian lives?  God has given us everything, and now it is our turn to pass it on to others. Jesus the Teacher has poured his mind, heart and Spirit into us. We will reveal this by imitating him in the way we live.  

We Children of God

“Whoever sees me sees the one who sent me” (John 12:45).
 
We commemorate today St. Damian of Molakai (1844-1889), who gave his life to serve a leper colony on a remote island among the Hawaiian islands. When he discovered that he had contracted the disease, he began his sermon with the words, “We lepers…”
 
This is perhaps the best witness to the mystery of the Incarnation ever expressed.  Christ came among us as one of us.  “We human beings…”  Jesus was like us in all things, except for sin, the distortion that  brought suffering and death into the world. He who was without sin took our sins upon himself, and he who was the Lord of Life accepted death on our behalf that we might live forever.
 
Jesus tells his Apostles at the Last Supper that their human encounter with him is a divine encounter with God. “To see me is to see the Father.”  His unity with God is extended to them if they remain in his love and obey his commandment to love one another. Their mission is to proclaim this same love to the whole world.
 
We are now part of this outward radiating gift of God’s unconditional love, which reconciles the world to God and restores the original promise of divine life, intimate union with the Trinity. 
 
St Damian was contaminated by his beloved community with leprosy. He in turn contaminated them with the love of God, the source of Life itself. This is the joy of the Gospel. 
 

Listen

"My sheep hear my voice: I know them and they follow me" (John 10:27).

Spiritual hearing is one of the keys to discipleship. The most important commandment for Jews is "Hear, O Israel..." Many of the psalms are about listening, being fully attuned to the whispering voice of God. The prophets rail against those "who have ears but do not hear."  Jesus heals the deaf, restoring them to the community of hearing as a sign of this deeper necessity of spiritual listening.

The Good Shepherd guides the flock by the sound of his voice. It is a beautiful sign of the intimacy that binds the sheep to their guide and protector.  They will not follow any other voice. How many love stories involve the sound of someone's voice, pining to hear that voice on the phone or across the table in a restaurant. Once we have met the person we love, we cannot get enough of their voice, which conveys like music every nuance of who they are for us. 

So it is with Jesus. To remain with him, in the range of his voice, is to have life, to feel safe. Prayer becomes a conversation, the familiar exchange of voices that define marriages, family life, friendship. Parents know their children, husbands and wives communicate almost in code, with gestures and glances, fewer words needed to say everything they share. Lovers sigh, laugh, like instruments in tune, their unique symphony of two uniting their lives. 

Life with Jesus, like all are other relationships, will include silence, cries and whispers, even shouting,  anguish and anger, hurt and desperation. The Psalmist demands, "Where are you, Lord?" Jesus cries out to his Abba from the cross," Why have you abandoned me?"  But these moments make the whole of a relationship, the most important bond we have as our live unfold and find fulfillment.  

Our first act after rising from sleep is to listen for the voice of God. Then the day is set, and we are good to go.

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