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.

May They All Be One

"There will be one flock, one shepherd" (John 10:16).

As the Easter season continues, the focus is now on Jesus as present in his church and the effect this is to have on us.  Jesus is the Good Shepherd, the fulfillment of a rich biblical theme going all the way back to Abel, Abraham, Jacob, Moses and David. The Prophet Ezekiel provided a profile of shepherd leadership that underlies the passages in John's Gospel. Bad shepherds have harmed the flock over the centuries, but God provides the faithful leader who will lay down his life to protect and save the sheep. 

Jesus speaks of having "other sheep not of the fold" whom he will also save. All ecumenical and interreligious dialogue efforts have been inspired by this passage.  In fact, the primary sign that the church is fulfilling the very purpose of the resurrection is increased unity in love.  

Jesus came to reveal the love that exists within God, who is love.  He loved his disciples as the Father loves him. They show this love by loving one another.  Their mission is to take this love into the world as ambassadors of reconciliation. The only way the world will know that Jesus came from God is if this love overcomes divisions and hatred. This is the central mission of the church.

We rejoice in this vision of love radiating from God through Jesus to us, and through us to others.  We must also pray for an increase in this love, for the world is certainly in desperate need of reconciliation and the power of God's peace.  

We Are All Called To Be Good Shepherds

“The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want” (Psalm 23).
 
Pope Francis’ choice of an ordinary metal cross instead of an impressive papal pectoral cross tells us much about his simplicity and the goals of his papacy. Instead of a traditional crucifix, his cross features Jesus as the Good Shepherd.
 
From his first days as pope, when Francis famously remarked that bishops should “smell like their sheep,” we have seen a leader determined to shift the emphasis from a ruling church to a serving church, from  law and obedience to pastoral care and mercy.
 
Jesus set the standard in his parable of the lost sheep. Francis wants us to go to the margins to find those who are wounded or lost and to bring them back to the church as a “field hospital” instead of for judgment and a scolding.
 
The readings this Sunday focus on Jesus as both the Good Shepherd who lays down his sheep and as the Gate through which the flock go out to pasture and return with security.  No more fleecing the flock or abandoning those who stray, because Jesus wants his church to be a safe haven for all.
 
Psalm 23 is perhaps the most famous prayer of all. How many people have discovered it in times of danger and suffering and found comfort in knowing God was not judging them but out searching for them, eager to bring them home. 
 
Jesus’ searing critique of religious leaders in his own time who exploited or neglected those entrusted to them has resonance today. Greater accountability can only benefit the institutional church, and we should laud the efforts by the pope, bishops and priests to increase safeguards and rapid responses to victims of abuse in order to recover trust from the People of God, who depend on their leadership.
 
We rejoice that we do have good shepherds. We pray for more good shepherds, even as we pray to be good shepherds ourselves.

The Body of Christ

"Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you" (John 6:53).

Today's two readings -- the story of Paul's conversion from Acts and Jesus' words in John-- are both about the mystery of the body of Christ. 

Paul was on his way to Damascus to crush the heretical "Jesus" movement when he encounters the very Jesus, crucified and risen, who tells him to stop persecuting him.  By attacking the Christian community Paul was attacking Jesus himself. This revelation is burned into Paul's consciousness and will become the basis for his entire, unfolding vision and ministry. It is so powerful that it blinds him at first, and he will spend the rest of his life learning and articulating the implications of his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damscus. 

Jesus, Son of Man and Son of God, human and divine, is inseparable from from the members of his body, the Church. This union is no superficial affiliation but a flesh and blood reality.  Anyone who persecutes the disciples, wounds their bodies and spills their blood, is persecuting Jesus. Anyone who joins the disciples by baptism is now flesh and blood with Jesus. As th Christian family of God, we are blood relatives, brothers and sisters, and we share the divine image as our family resemblance. This intimacy is comparable only to the nuptial union of husband and wife, who become one flesh, another image of the biblical covenant between God and Israel as bride and Bridegroom. 

What a marvelous realization. It changed Saul into Paul, a zealous persuecutor into a tireless Apostle. The rich foundation of theology in his letters gave us our christology, spirituality, sacramental theology and the the Paschal Mystery, the core program of transformation every Christian undergoes by dying and rising with Christ as the pattern of our daily lives. 

The Second Vatican Council recovered the Eucharist and the Mass with this vision. When we gather to celebrate, Christ is truly present in the Word, in the consecrated bread and wine, and in the assembly. We receive the body and blood of Christ in order to become the body and blood of Christ. We go out to be Christ in and to the world, and our service and suffering is redemptive because Jesus is at work with us and in us.  

This is why Jesus is so adamant in John's Gospel that incorporation into his body, sacramentally and communally, is the essential source of nourishment that makes us grow in the mystery of God in the world. To neglect or turn away from the eucharistic table is to starve to death spiritually.

Come to the banquet. Let all those who hunger and thirst for God come to the Table of the Lord. Jesus is the perfect Host, and if we are his guests, we too shall host and feed others who will come to God through us. This is the joy of the Gospel. 

Drawn to Jesus

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

The moving story of the eunuch and the Apostle Philip on the road to Gaza is a perfect example of the way faith is inspired and develops. 

The eunuch, a  trusted official in the court of Candace, Queen of Ethiopia, is riding in his chariot while he reads from the book of Isaiah. When he gets to the part about the suffering servant who went like a sheep to the slaughter and a lamb silent  before its shearer, the injustice and humiliation of his own castration lights up the text. 

Who was this silent victim and why is Isaiah lifting him up?

Philip appears beside the chariot and joins the eunuch. Philip explains to him that the suffering servant in the text foreshadowed the person of Jesus, who surrendered his life on a cross to save the world from sin and death. The eunuch is so moved that he asks Philip to baptize him at the next roadside pool of water.  A mysterious grace and the coincidence of Philip's presence draw the eunuch to Jesus, whose suffering had encompassed his suffering, filling his life with new meaning and a profound joy. For Jesus, too, was victim who revealed God's compassion for all victims of violence and injustice.

The suffering of Jesus has drawn many to the mystery of God. No victim of violence and injustice can say that God does not know human suffering, for God was revealed in Jesus. No suffering is meaningless when united to the power of Jesus' redemptive love. No victim is ever alone because God is always with them.

We remember today the victims of child sexual abuse, sex trafficking, domestic abuse, gender-based discrimination and injustice, sexual harassment, forced servitude and humiliation. Jesus knew every sort of human suffering, including those that can crush the human spirit and strip people of their dignity. They have God's preferential  love, and anyone who reaches out to defend them and demand justice for them has God's most poignant and powerful blessing.   

See the Father

“Show us the Father” (John 14:8).
 
On this feast of the Apostles Philip and James, we pause to consider the very human qualities of these first companions of Jesus during his ministry and as witnesses to his death and resurrection.
 
Philip seems to have been quite practical. In the scene when Jesus is besieged by hungry crowds in the wilderness, it is Philip who calculates the cost of feeding everyone. What seemed an impossible situation becomes an astonishing miracle of communal sharing.
 
In today’s gospel from the last discourses of Jesus at the Last Supper, when he speaks of being the “way” to the Father, Philip asks Jesus bluntly, “Show us the Father.”  Typical of the fourth gospel, Philip’s misunderstanding occasions Jesus’ intimate revelation that anyone who sees him has seen the Father.  Jesus is the visible, human face of the invisible divine Abba, the Father. 
 
In human terms, when we love someone so much we want to really “know” them, we also encounter their parents, their family, their past experience and every influence that has shaped their personality.  This is why every intimate friendship takes time, patience and many different shared experiences that reveal the “real” person, not just their appearance or activities. 
 
So it is with Jesus. We come to know him through our experiences of  the members of his body, the faith communities we call the church.  We know him through the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, and through delving into the scriptures, which someone has called “God’s love letters to the world.” 
 
For when we know Jesus, both about his earthly life and in the mystery of the risen Christ, we arrive at the most intimate encounter of all:  We come face to face and heart to heart with God. Jesus promises that if we keep his Word, he and the Father and their Holy Spirit will come an make their home in us.  This Trinitarian presence makes us personal tabernacles, little churches where we come to know God with every breath, every thought, feeling and prayer.  
 
What an amazing reality, yet this is what Jesus promised Philip, James and the other disciples in today’s gospel.  We are these disciples today. 

Threshing the Wheat

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

On his way to Rome and martyrdom, St. Ignatius of Antioch spoke of his death in the teeth of lions as having his bones crushed like wheat threshed to make bread. HIs was eager to offer his life a Eucharist, his share in the Body of Christ.

So, in today's reading of Acts, Stephen is crushed under a hail of stones, the first martyr of the early church. He, too, was witnessing to his union with Christ "in the breaking of the bread."  In today's Gospel, when the crowds asked Jesus to give them bread from heaven, Jesus declared that he himself was that bread, manna from heaven: "I am the bread of life."

It cannot be emphasized enough that our faith in the resurrection is intimately tied to our participation in the Eucharist. This is where we will encounter the risen Christ, even as the disciples on the road to Emmaus encountered him. Together with sharing the Word of God, receiving Communion is the most important way for us to nourish our transformation into Christ. 

This commitment to celebrating the Mass ritually with our communities of faith is, of course, also inseparable from recognizing the larger implications of the symbols and sacraments of the church. They remain empty if we do not see Christ in the members of his body, our fellow believers. We will not know Christ if we do not see and respond to him in the poor, hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, imprisoned, refugee and immigrant brothers and sisters all around us in our world. This is where Jesus promised to be, waiting for our love and service as the true test of discipleship.

Easter is a way of life, an attitude and an awareness that makes us ready to act whenever the Spirit prompts us. The harvest has begun, the wheat is being gathered to make the bread of life that will nourish us all the way to heaven. Those who understand this and live it are already experiencing the Beloved Community God has promised us in eternity. Why not start early, today, right now? 

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