Born Again

"When a woman has given birth, she no longer remembers the pain because of her joy that a child has been born into the world" (John 16:21).

Conception must occur before birth can happen. The powerful metaphor Jesus uses to describe the experience his disciples would have to endure to become the church is deeply instructive for us as we await Pentecost.

The full story of our conversion includes the time of questioning and longing that brings us into relationship with God. Our consent is needed to make this encounter in faith a love story. Within that love story we open ourselves to receive the gift of divine life that begins in us like a seed. The Word of God can come to us in crisis, like a cry in the night, or gradually like a whisper. What God initiates is ours to nourish by prayer, and it grows in stages as we respond. Like gestation, the Christ in us takes form in the womb of our consciousness, becoming our identity and the organizing principle of all our values and our sense of purpose. 

No mature faith occurs without struggle. What love begins comes to birth in labor, our need to choose and commit ourselves to one path over others, find and obey our authentic selves before God by relinquishing every false promise or compromise. Vocation supersedes career as discipleship takes control or our lives and all our goals. 

What we experience personally and individually is a parable of the collective response that makes us the church. One Holy Spirit sings the same new song in every believer, uniting us to be the body of Christ in the world. it does not happen without our free, conscious participation, including a life of prayer and the sacraments.  What child grows without nourishment? So a serious Christian life needs the Eucharist in all its implications, especially the full use of our gifts within community.  

What human person reaches maturity without discipline and socialization that teaches virtue and responsibility. So every mature Christian grows up by sharing with others the burdens of justice and service, a life for others, habits of awareness and compassion, integrity and steadfastness, openness and truthfulness.

What tragedy if we spend our lives without becoming ourselves, the person God called us to be from the beginning. What joy if whole communities become together the presence of Christ in a parish, a neighborhood, and society and nation.  Isn't this why we we were born, both as human beings and as the children of God?

Ascension

"He was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight" (Acts 1:9).

The Ascension of Jesus  fulfills another dramatic ascension described in 2 Kings 2, when the prophet Elijah was taken up in a whirlwind, dropping his cloak and a double portion of his spirit on his successor, Elisha.  

The Ascension is about the transfer of power from Jesus to us. The entire liturgical season devoted to Easter is our preparation to receive the Spirit of Jesus as he departs history and his earthly sojourn. The church is born, animated by the risen Christ through his Holy Spirit, poured out on us in full measure so we can carry on the work of redeeming the world as members of his mystical body.

This transfer of power is also celebrated in Ephesians 4, when Jesus, like a victorious general taking his place at the right hand of the Emperor, proclaims his sovereignty over all the principalities and powers of this world. He takes "captivity captive," liberating the universe from its former enslavement to sin and death, and he distributes the spoils-- all manner of spiritual gifts needed to guide and nurture the church.  

This important solemnity in the liturgical year expresses one of the most dramatic moments in the Christian mystery. Each generation of believers is called to take the light of faith from the generation before. Now is our time, our watch, our chance to live what we believe, to become what we consume at each Eucharist, to embody and express the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ. 

We are right to feel wholly inadequate and powerless to accomplish this mission. The liturgy will give us 10 days to fast and pray in anticipation of what God alone can initiate and sustain in us. The early church huddled in an upper room doing just that before the Spirit came like wind and fire to fill the disciples with power on Pentecost.  

So we pray: "Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth your spirit and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth."

Can We Bear It?

"I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now" (John 16:12).

What is it we cannot bear? The loss of a child, a broken marriage, a devastating diagnosis?  We each have our list of unbearables -- experiences we believe we could not survive? 

Yet people just like us face and endure all of the above and worse. Even terrible things are endured over time, in stages, and people adjust, cope, make decisions about how to deal with suffering, find community with others, and renewed faith that gives meaning to senseless tragedies and unspeakable losses. 

In one sense, Jesus knew that his disciples would enter a time of bewildering shock and confusion when he was crucified. The Gospels do not tell us how long the dark interval was from his death to the glorious revelation of the Good News that he was alive and among them. The symbolic "three days" suggest only a tragic weekend that ends in joy, but other accounts suggest the disciples were dispersed and did not encounter their Lord until they had returned to Galilee. After a long night on the sea of Galilee, seven distraught disciples trying to be fishermen again encounter a stranger who is revealed as the risen Christ. In any case, Easter faith was born in a travail of rebirth and forged in a fiery baptism of grief that carved out a space large enough to hold an immense gift of new hope. 

In another sense, Jesus was also talking about a joy so deep, he knew they could not bear that either, not all at once. Whatever they experienced, the disciples were totally dislocated from their former reality and thrust into in a new way of understanding everything: Jesus, God, themselves and history. 

Do we have a list of unbearable joys? A lost child returning home, a love relationship restored after rupture, a breakthrough after long suffering, recovery from an addiction or near-fatal injury?   Easter faith is about believing that whatever happens, God is always with us and is the ultimate happy ending to every tragedy, even death itself. 

The Ascension of Jesus positions us to pray with the same intensity the first disciples experienced as they awaited the promise of Pentecost. The Spirit came to them as a whirlwind and an earthquake. Why should it be any different for us?

The question is, are you ready to bear such unbearable joy and overpowering love? 

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 disciples 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 or 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.  

   

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