"Are You With Me?"

“They tried to arrest him; but he escaped from their power” (John 10:39).
 
The forces aligning against Jesus are closing in on him.
 
He has aroused the attention of the Romans because of his popularity. King Herod is haunted by John the Baptist, whom he beheaded, and he sees Jesus as his reincarnation. The chief priests fear his stirring up of the poor as a threat to their control. The scribes and Pharisees are building a case against Jesus for blasphemy.
 
With each confrontation, the tensions rise and a decision is reached that he is threatening the intricate balance of power that holds Jerusalem in balance. He needs to be taken down.
 
Jesus himself is on mission and forges ahead to complete his Father’s will. Like Jeremiah, he knows his hour is coming and that even his friends are unsure of him:  “All those who were my friends are on watch for any misstep of mine.”  The air is filled with whispering.
 
His enemies are set against him and everything he says. The only thing left is what he is doing. His deeds reveal the work of God. Jesus is perfectly aligned with his Father, doing only what he sees the Father doing, saying only what he hears the Father saying. If this is not enough, no further witness will convince them.
 
John the Evangelist tells the story of Jesus but is also describing the struggle for faith for the church two to three generations after the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection. As the faith is attacked from without and undermined by doubt from within, will the church hold? 
 
Lent ends this Sunday with the celebration of the Palms and the reading of the Passion.  We, too, have been brought to the moment of decision whether we will continue with Jesus into Holy Week. Do we believe in him? Do we trust him? Is he who he claimed to be?   The reading of the Passion will invite us to enter the scorn of the crowds, the fear of the disciples, the rejection of the leaders and the tears of the women.
 
There is no turning back. “Who do you say that I am?”
 

The Secret Revealed

“Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be I AM” (John 8:58).

The confrontation between Jesus and his religious critics culminates in his claim to be so intimately identified with God that he transcends history and existed before Abraham.
 
It is an astonishing claim, and his opponents reach for stones to execute him for blasphemy.
 
As we approach Palm/Passion Sunday and the start of Holy Week, we are also brought to the culminating claim of the Christian faith. If Jesus is only a human being, we can admire him; If he is God, we must obey and follow him. 
 
The divinity of Jesus, together with his full humanity, is also the focus of our quest to understand ourselves before God. Just who are we? We are created in the image and likeness of God, enabled by our baptism to enter with Jesus into the life of the Trinity.   
 
The Gospel of divine life, the heart of the Good News, has been called Christianity’s best kept secret. It so surpasses the promise of religion to take good people to heaven after death, it almost seems like blasphemy. Yet, because of Jesus, we will share the inner life of God as adopted children of God. 
 
This astonishing truth reveals the purpose of the Incarnation: Jesus took on our human nature and experience, including temptation, suffering and death, in order to transform it.  He became human in all things except sin in order to perfect our nature. He revealed what St. Irenaeus later proclaimed, that "a human being fully alive is the glory of God!" 
 
 Jesus healed our estrangement from God that brought death to all through Adam and Eve. He rescued us not as a divine hero from without, but from within as our human brother. Jesus is our bridge to God, offering us his own intimate relationship with God.
 
This is the gift of divine mercy, poured out on saints and sinners alike.  To believe this is to enter the mystery of Easter. Let the Spirit testify: “Alleluia!”
 

The Truth Will Set You Free

“If you remain in my word. You will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 11:15).
 
In today’s gospel selection, the evangelist John takes up a question that St. Paul explores thoroughly in his Letter to the Romans. Those who place their confidence in the Law continue to be subject to its power, while those who put their faith in Jesus experience the liberating power of grace.  The Law has the curious effect of defining what is right and wrong, making us accountable while also enticing us, since what is forbidden becomes even more desirable.
 
The scribes and Pharisees know the Law of Moses, but Jesus tells them they are still not fully children of Abraham, whose righteousness depends not on the Law, which had not yeat been revealed, but on his trust in God’s promises.
 
This theological exchange in John’s Gospel focuses us away from religion as such and on a love relationship. It is because we are united in love with Jesus and incorporated into his body by baptism that we share in his life. We are set free from fear and servitude, obsession with rules and rituals that reassure us we are pleasing to God. 
 
To be with Jesus is to share in the Father’s love for him. God sees us and says, “You are my beloved child.” Even in our daily failures and weaknesses, God’s mercy is never withdrawn. We are God’s family, brothers and sisters of Jesus and one another. We walk confidently and freely through life, trusting that God is always there.
 
This freedom of the children of God is why we can live fully, even take risks in loving others, going with the flow of the Spirit, discerning  each day and, even if we fail, going forward with joy.
 
Our Lenten journey serves to free us from fear and anxiety, so that when we encounter the inevitable challenges of life, we will not lose hope or stop trusting that God is present in every experience, supporting and comforting us especially when life is difficult or disappointing.
 
This is the joy of the Gospel, and it never ceases to be the Good News that defines us and keeps us moving forward in Christ. This is the truth that sets us free.

God So Loved the World ...

“When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I AM” (John 8:28).

In this passage from the fourth Gospel, the latest and most theological of the four Gospels, the author again identifies Jesus as I AM, the name for God given to Moses from the burning bush.
 
The phrasing, “When you lift up the Son of Man” also links to two other scriptures, The first is today’s first reading from Numbers 21:4-9, the account of the attack of saraph serpents in the desert on the people, and Moses’ instruction that a bronze serpent be lifted up so that anyone who looks at it can be healed.
 
The other reference is to the “Son of Man” from the Book of Daniel. A mysterious figure who is both human and a divine figure will come on the clouds on the day of judgment. This is one of the few titles Jesus accepts, calling himself the ultimate representative of humanity before God. the "Son of Man."
 
So, in a confrontation with the Pharisees, the Gospel witnesses to Jesus as this human-divine figure God has sent to save the world. What is so astonishing about this claim is that the redemptive act that will reveal God’s love for a sinful world is when the Son of Man is “lifted up,” a reference to the crucifixion and death of Jesus.
 
Jesus’ moment of glory will be his death on the cross. Those who can see (believe) will grasp that what appears to be a curse is in fact a blessing. By his death we are given life. By his suffering we are set free of sin, our exodus from slavery to freedom.  Jesus will lay down his life so that we, his brothers and sisters, might be lifted up by his resurrection..
 
This is the Gospel of Mercy, God’s unconditional love revealed in Jesus. It is pure gift to anyone who opens his or her heart to the ineffable mystery of God, who “so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Our long Lenten journey brings us to this single act of faith, and on it hangs eternity. Someone is about to lay down his life for love of you and me. How can we not respond?  Good Friday is about to reveal Easter Sunday.
 

Mercy and Justice Embrace

“Let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone at her” (John 8:8).

To interest my high school students into opening their Bibles, I used to give out a list of required readings, but added a second list they were not supposed to read.  Needless to say, all of them found and read the story of Susanna in the garden.
 
This dramatic and lurid account of the lustful judges who surprised a naked woman in her bath and demanded sex with her was so well known that the evangelist John created a somewhat parallel story about Jesus, whose wisdom, like that of the boy Daniel, saves a woman accused of adultery from death.
 
Daniel cross-examines the evil judges and trips them up. Jesus shames the woman’s accusers by catching them in their own self-righteous trap.
 
Both scenes, like all lynchings, are lust-driven. The scribes and Pharisees, who just happened to be there when the woman and her lover were having sex, catch her, not him, and drag her before Jesus and a large gathering of men (only men could stone someone). If he lets her go, he breaks the Law of Moses; if he assents to her execution, his message of mercy and forgiveness is destroyed in the eyes of the people.
 
Jesus does neither, but instead puts the dilemma to the accusers. Stone this women, but only if you are yourself without sin.  Blood lust drains from the crowd as each man considers his own faults, and, beginning with the eldest, they slip away in shame. 
 
Two women are saved, Susannah and the unnamed woman before Jesus. But there is a difference.  One was innocent, while the other, together with her paramour, were not.  Adultery is no small matter.  Yet Jesus sends her away with only a warning, not condemnation, knowing the suffering and humiliation she has already suffered.   Such is the real price of sin, which unleashes chaos into our lives. 
 
Justice is there, but so is overwhelming mercy and compassion. This is the joy of the Gospel. How blessed we are to have Jesus watching over us, sinners every one.    
 

Lazarus, Come Out!

“Let us also go to die with him” (John 11:15).

The story of the raising of Lazarus, a favorite Gospel for many funerals, adds another spectacular “sign” to the identity of Jesus, who tells Martha, “I AM the resurrection and the life.” 
 
It is in fact a miracle of resuscitation that restores Lazarus to his former life, but it prepares us for the glory of Jesus’ resurrection, a total transformation that breaks through the barriers of time and space and opens human destiny to eternal life in God.
 
The story has many moving touches.  We are told that Jesus loved Martha, Mary and Lazarus. Despite this, Jesus delays going to Lazarus until after his physical death in order to highlight the divine sign behind the temporary restoration of human life.  The disciple Thomas (the "doubter") gets it right when he says, “Let us also go with him to die.” What Jesus will endure on the cross every disciple will also endure.
 
When Jesus comes to the tomb with Mary and witnesses the grief of everyone gathered there, he himself breaks down and weeps.  The Greek word that describes Jesus’ response conveys the idea of gut-wrenching anguish. Lazarus was his friend, someone he loved, and his death moves Jesus profoundly.
 
Some funerals try to gloss over the death of a beloved person with spiritual imagery or theological happy talk about that person being in heaven (playing golf or smiling down on everyone). Faith in resurrection is wrenched out of the deepest grief we can know, forged into a desperate prayer to God to bring us though this loss and sorrow to a deeper understanding of the mystery of death. Only if we let our hearts be broken by the reality of death can we penetrate the mystery of the resurrection that affirms Love's power over real death and separation. 
 
Jesus experienced this grief, and he did not side-step the reality of death because he was God’s beloved Son.  He emptied himself of blood and breath on the cross to accomplish his mission to claim for God the full human experience, from birth to death.  Because of this, all of human experience, including grief, is holy, meaningful and redemptive.  
 
Jesus issues three commands at the tomb of Lazarus that apply to us. “Take away the stone.”  “Lazarus, come out!”  “Untie him and let him go free.”
 
Faith enables us to hear his voice as it clears the path for our journey to Holy Week, calls by name, invites us to follow him through death to life. We are told  to let go of any obstacles that prevent us from freely believing and then proclaiming Easter with joy. 
 
 

The Harvest is Near

“I did not come on my own …” (John 7:29).

John’s Gospel is richly liturgical, and in today's gospel passage, the Jewish Feast of Booths provides some themes that help reveal Jesus’s identity.
 
The annual feast celebrated both the harvest, when workers lived in temporary huts in the fields, and also commemorated the Exodus, when Israel was in transition from slavery to freedom in the Promised Land.
 
Jesus is the ultimate pilgrim, in the world but not of the world, a true immigrant and refugee, a mysterious stranger those without faith cannot recognize. He moves in secret, and his critics know neither where he came from nor where he is going.  
 
Recall  the Transfiguration, when his disciples wanted to build booths as they witnessed Jesus in glory speaking to Moses and Elijah about his transition, his Exodus, which he will accomplish in Jerusalem.  They are seeing the harvest of salvation to come.
 
For us on our Lenten journey, all this theology and liturgy is meant to help us understand the hidden meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross. He is God’s presence in the world, and though the world does not recognize him, he witnesses to God’s unconditional love for the world, sacrificing himself so we can have life. 
 
This is why God sent Jesus into the world, to reveal this absolute mercy, even in the face of our ignorance and resistance to the gift being offered.  It is because we are slow to understand and weak in faith that we need this long journey of Lent with Jesus, so that day by day, step by step, we can begin to grasp God’s love for us, even while we are sinners. Easter is just ahead, and we are being offered eternal life as followers of Jesus. Keep your eyes on the prize. 

Eyes on the Prize

“If you had believed Moses, you would have believed me, because he wrote about me” (John 5:26).
 
It is not hard to see in the current criticism of Pope Francis by some in the hierarchy for his nuanced and compassionate approach to divorced and remarried couples some of the same themes found in today’s gospel reading.
 
The scribes and Pharisees attacked Jesus for healing people on the Sabbath. If he interpreted the law differently or put people ahead of the letter of the law, he must be a heretic, and he certainly cannot be from God!
 
In today’s standoff in the church, one prominent American cardinal has even suggested that Pope Francis could receive a “formal correction” for his emphasis on pastoral discernment in these difficult cases of couples in second marriages seeking communion. 
 
Jesus preached brilliantly, performed many miracles of healing and exhibited a holiness ordinary people recognized as genuine. But the religious leaders only saw their authority as being challenged. They were the experts at interpreting the Law of Moses, not this hill country preacher from Galilee.
 
Jesus challenges this directly, saying that these so-called leaders claim to know the scriptures, yet do not know its central message of divine mercy. Moses himself will condemn them for their pride and blindness. 
 
Critics of Pope Francis quote abstract principles and abstruse theological arguments to support their positions, but seldom cite the example of Jesus in the scriptures. He knew the law, but he always applied it according to the higher Law of Love. He scandalized the righteous people of his day by eating with sinners, welcoming the weak and the imperfect, making mercy the one quality that most reveals the face of God.
 
Our Lenten journey takes us beyond the clearly defined road and signposts that reassure us we are heading the right way. With Jesus, we now break fresh ground across trackless desert wastes. The letter of the law cannot guide us in every situation, only the presence of the spirit in our hearts. This is the only compass that is true and trustworthy. 

Jesus is heading into controversy and condemnation. Either we turn back or we continue with him. If we keep our eyes on the prize – Jesus himself – we will never lose our way. Easter lies ahead, but first we will enter the fog of Jerusalem and the dark night of Golgatha.  Step by step, let us finish the journey we began.

Like Father Like Son

“My Father is at work until now, and so I am at work” (John 5:17).

The fourth Gospel, attributed to John, is the last and latest of the gospels and it has the highest Christology. From the Prologue to the Epilogue, Jesus is presented as the divine Son, the Word of God.
 
In today’s exchange with the religious leaders, Jesus’ claim to intimate union with God is so explicit, it becomes the blasphemy  that will justify condemning and killing him.
 
Jesus draws on the powerful analogy of the relationship of father to son. In the ancient world, a son represented the full identity and authority of his father. Jesus claims that the Father, God, is at work in him. In fact, everything Jesus says and does is what he sees his Father doing and hears his Father saying.

It is also, orf course, apparent how much Mary influenced Jesus, and this also becomes a key to our discipleship. Like mother like child.  
 
Perhaps this  paternal God image was rooted in Jesus' relationship to Joseph. As a child in the wood shop, Jesus imitated Joseph, doing whatever he saw him doing.  As an adult, Jesus is identified as the “carpenter “ or “son of the carpenter.” As far as his neighbors are concerned, this is who he is.
 
For the gospel writer, this intimate union expresses the central mystery of the gospel: Jesus is God made flesh, the very presence of the divine Source of all life and the whole universe, standing before his disciples and critics in this world, speaking and acting ob behalf of God.
 
St. Paul says that baptism unites us with Jesus in the same relationship he has with his Father. 
Our humanity is joined to his humanity, which is inseparable to his divinity. Because of this we are destined to share in the divine life of the Trinity.
 
Paul tells us to “put on the mind of Christ,” to welcome the divine indwelling of Father, Son and Spirit. Our spiritual journey is guided by listening to and watching Jesus. We discern our path by imitating him, doing and saying whatever he does and says.  Consider going through a day asking: What is Jesus doing in this situation? That is what I will do. What would Jesus say in these circumstances, to this person I am encountering? This is what I will say.
 
Lent is meant to free us from the distractions and ego agendas that rule our consciousness, unless we interrupt them to invite Jesus into our minds and hearts.  This surrender to him is a paradox, because when we obey him we are being most true to ourselves.  A disciple finds himself and herself when they imitate Jesus. For this is the greatest mystery of all, the Christ in you, the Christ in me, coming to maturity and destined for eternity.
 

Do You Want To Be Well?

“Rise up, take up your mat, and walk” (John 5:6).
Jesus heals the man who has been waiting for many years by the pool of Bethsaida. There he has competed to get into the water first when an angel was believed to stir the pool. Someone else always gets in first.
 
Jesus asks him pointedly, “Do you want to be well?” The question touches a theme relevant to other miracles involving people who are sick and disabled and living on alms. Their entire lives and identities have been built on their illness and dependence on others.
 
Jesus' question contains a challenge put to everyone who expresses a desire to change. If your prayer is answered it will change your entire life. You will have to leave behind your beggar’s cloak and spot near the pool or the road. You will then have to “pick up your life and walk.” 
 
When the man is healed, the religious authorities are right there asking him how this happened. When they learn that Jesus has healed the man, they dismiss the obvious miracle and focus only on the fact that it was performed on the Sabbath.
 
Legalism triumphs over grace. Keeping the rules is more important than a man restored to life after years of suffering. For bringing grace and freedom into the world, Jesus is condemned by his enemies. They know nothing of compassion and God’s mercy.
 
On our Lenten journey, perhaps this Gospel invites us to consider the ways in which we choose limited lives over the risk of real discipleship, rule keeping over the adventure of love in new and surprising ways.  Do we want to be free?  Do we want a larger and more challenging life?
 
If we say yes, Jesus will call us to take the next step, and the next, and the next. This is the joy of the Gospel, but it comes only to those who want it and have the courage to live it.
 

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