SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER – B – May o6, 2018

A reading from the Acts of the Apostles 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48
A reading from the first Letter of John 4:7-10
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John 15:9-17

 

Dear Reader,

As the Father loves me, so I also love you.  Remain in my love.  A verb’s tense has everything to do with the impact of the statement.  Here the tense is present active.  That means it is happening now and is on going.  The words are addressed to you.  Hear what Jesus is saying to you and dare to believe it.

But there is a problem.  There are times when we need immediate experiences to support what faith declares.  If one has never known what it means to be loved, how can s/he accept that that one is loved by God?  When all the signs point to the contrary, it is easy to conclude that one is unlovable, even is beyond the pale of God’s love.  Or, perhaps God has stopped loving.

Many years ago I taught a religious education class in a prison.  I was young, naïve and convinced of my ability, dare I say of my gift for teaching.  In an early class, I used the above text as my starting point.  I wanted to awaken in the hearts of my hearers a sense of their worth in God’s eyes.  I rhapsodized about the wonders of the Father’s love and how every earthly father’s love reflected and expressed the Father’s love.  The class grew restive.  One man crossed his arms and legs and turned to the side, signaling that he was tuning out.  Other’s found different ways to convey the same message.  Some rolled cigarettes and proceeded to light up.  The hour dragged interminably on and so did I.  Invitations for questions or responses fell like millstones inn a pond.  At last the bell sounded that ended the class.  One by one the inmates rose and walked out.  Not one said a word to me.  No one said, See you next week.

Devastated, I made my way to the Director’s office and poured out the details of my failure, protesting all the while how well I had prepared for the presentation.  Silence.  He drummed his fingers on his desk.  I fidgeted.  Then he looked up at me and said: What did you expect?  I told him that I thought the class would be moved, comforted, even consoled as I reminded them how they were loved by the Father, just the way the Father loves Jesus.  But they would not hear me.  When I squirmed like a fish on the end of a line, he smiled and asked: Do you know what their experience of father is?  I could only respond with a blank stare.  The director went on to explain what now seems so obvious.  You have a good experience of fatherhood from your own father.  Am I correct?  So it is easy for you to transfer that experience to God.  Many of these men have no such experience in their memory.  Some have no memory of a father in their lives.  Some remember an abusive father.  They can’t make the leap you ask of them to accept that God loves them like a father.  They have no idea what that means.

What your present situation is may determine how you will hear this Sunday’s gospel.  If you know what it means to be loved, if you know what it means to be accepted for who and what your are, if you are secure in relationship, if life is going reasonably well for you, you might be able to revel in this text.  As the Father loves me, so do I love you.  If, on the other hand, things are not going well, if a primary relationship in your life has failed, if nothing is happening that speaks to your dignity and worth, then you just might be tempted to cry out: Prove it.  Or, do what the inmates did, turn away and ignore.

There is no easy answer.  Sometimes the demands of faith mean believing in spite of so many signs to the contrary.  But look at the One in whom we believe.  Where were the tangible signs that the Father loved him?  There may have been crowds.  There may have been miracles that followed his touch and his command.  But all in all, he was a failure.  Some said he was crazy.  Some said he was possessed by the devils.  No wonder he took to the hills and spent nights alone in prayer.  How else could he rest in and be strengthened by that love that was his source and his life?  The Agony in the Garden was Jesus’ torment that he ultimate failure he faced in his impending arrest and crucifixion might be construed to be a sign of the absence of the Father’s love.  The Father could will to let this chalice pass from Jesus without his having to drink.  Easter proved his vindication.

That may be why Jesus says to us: Remain in my love.  How do we do that?  By loving the way Jesus loves.  Love is not a feeling.  It is a decision.  The decision means pouring out yourself in service of others because that is what Jesus does.  It means making a fundamental option for the poor because you recognize Jesus in the poor.  It means affirming that the poor are your brothers and sisters in God’s family.  It means loving the ones society deems unlovable, the outcasts, the scorned, and the shunned.  It means forgiving the unforgivable even if what they do to you feels like crucifixion.  No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

In spite of whatever else might be happening, listen to what Jesus says in this sixth week of the Easter celebration.  To follow Jesus means to keep his commandments.  His commandments are not the Decalogue, not that they are negated, but the fact is, Jesus has only one commandment: Love one another as I have loved you.  By this will all know that you are my disciples.  The result will be an ongoing relationship of love with Jesus.  Some would rather think of themselves as Jesus’ slaves, as subservient to Jesus.  But, believe it or not, that is not what Jesus wants.  I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father.  Can you accept the fact that you are an equal with Jesus, a co-heir with Jesus, and like Jesus, that you are God’s beloved?  Pretty heady stuff, isn’t it?  Heady or not, this is what this gospel proclaims.

If we enter into Easter and believe, there are a number of things we have to accept.  These can be boiled down to basic truths: we are God’s friends, God’s intimates, and God’s children.  That means a different kind of relationship from the one we might first have thought was ours when we first came to believe.  What becomes apparent is that our God is not one who wants to lord it over people, to have people grovel before God.  Ours is a God who pleads with us to let God be our God so that we can be God’s people.  Would you believe that God wants to serve us rather than to be served?  Think of the Last Supper and who it was who washed the disciples feet.  All God asks of us is to do what might seem the impossible were it not for the fact that Jesus empowers us when we live in his love.

What did I do to deserve this?  In this context, that is not a bad question to ask.  Still, the answer should astound.  You and I did nothing to deserve this.  It didn’t begin with us.  It began with God and with God’s son, Jesus.  It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will endure.  See yourself seated under the fig tree and hear Jesus tell you that he saw you there even before you knew anything about Jesus.  That is what Jesus said to Nathan.  Nathan heard and believed.

You did not find God.  God found you.  God seized you, identified you with Jesus and loves you with the same love he has for Jesus.  Like it or not, that is the way it is.  There may not be that much going on in your life right now that would support that fact, but the fact remains.  There might not be that much positive going on in the world right now that would support that fact, but the fact remains.  You are the beloved of God.

There is a paradox that I leave you with today.  You cannot rest in this love.  You must live it.  If you rest in it you will begin to doubt it.  If you live it and pour yourself out in imitation of that love, others will come to believe in that love, too, even when you are finding it hardest to believe.  They are the fruit that remains.  Many of those we call saints endured long periods of darkness that terrified.  St. Theresa of Avila.  St. John of the Cross.  St. Teresa of Calcutta.  St. Ignatius of Loyola.  Charles de Foucault.  And many more.  Their dark nights increased their capacity to love and be loved.  That may not be a comfort now, in the midst of your struggle.

Perhaps what you have to do is use Jesus’ words as a mantra in your prayer: As the Father loves me, so I love you.  Remain in my love.  Could this be the challenge that inspires the teachings coming from Pope Francis?  Is this what he sees in a poorer church serving the needs of the poor?  In the end it is about love.

We must remember and be motivated by remembering what caused the initial spread of Christianity in the midst of the Roman persecution.  See how these Christians love one another.  A thirst was created for that same experience of love.

So we assemble at the Table to continue our Easter celebration.  We do what Jesus does.  We take bread, bless it, and break it.  We bless the cup.  Jesus continues to pour himself out for us.  We take and eat.  We take and drink.  And renewed and refreshed, we are sent to do this in my memory.  We are sent to do this until Jesus comes in glory to take us to live in that love in a glory that will never end.

Sincerely yours in the Risen Christ,

Didymus  

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FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER – B – April 29, 2018

A reading from the Acts of the Apostles 9:26-31
A reading from the first Letter of John 3:18-24
A reading from the holy gospel according to John 15:1-8

Dear Reader,

It is easy to be self-absorbed even when we are thinking about faith.  We may talk about the challenge to love and in reality be tapping into the desire to be loved.  Our fifty-day celebration of Easter is a great time to reorient those priorities and to come face to face with the truth that faith results when God breaks into our consciousness.  We do learn how to love when we accept that the One who called us into being loves us.  This does not begin with us.  It begins with God.  The lesson we have to learn is Jesus, who he is and what he does.

Eliza Doolittle demanded: Don’t talk of love.  Show me and show me now!  John, in the second reading, says the same thing: Children let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth.  There is only one way to do that – translate the gospel journey into action.  Think of that dramatic encounter between Peter and Jesus that followed the Transfiguration on the Mount.  The moment of glorious revelation confirmed all of Peter’s expectations regarding the one for who he had left everything in order to follow.  The glory that Peter had seen emanating from that radiant face and those shimmering garments convinced him that this was the Messiah, and Peter would have a major role in the messianic kingdom that would soon result.  Instead, Jesus talks about his immanent betrayal, suffering, and death.  Peter rebukes Jesus for such thoughts protesting that such things should never befall him.  How could the glory and power that seemed to radiate from Jesus in that moment on the Mount come about if Jesus were to die like a criminal?  What would be Peter’s reward for all he had given up?  Jesus rebukes Peter with harsh words:  Get behind me you Satan and learn from me!  What Peter must do, so must we.

Don’t worry.  Jesus is not calling Peter a devil in the sense of the evil one.  He is calling Peter a tempter, one who argues against the way that Jesus sees resulting from God’s will for him.  The challenge for Peter and for us is to walk in Jesus’ footsteps, to look over Jesus’ shoulder, as it were, and watch what he does, how he meets and treats people, and how he calls them to fuller life.  With Jesus everything begins with the emptying of self.  In his Incarnation Jesus emptied himself of everything that was divine, its power and glory, and took on everything that is human, weakness and vulnerability, in a uniting of the human and divine that will never end and will always express itself in the pouring out of self for the other.  It did not make sense then.  It does not make sense now – without faith – that vision that only God can give.

Read the lives of the saints and many times you will read accounts of conversion, moments of encounter that changed them.  Leprosy was one thing that repulsed St. Francis.  Then one day he saw a leper by the side of the road, begging.  Francis intended to go by, but something froze him in place and compelled him to ponder the leper.  In a moment his revulsion transfigured into adoration as he recognized Christ in the leper.  Francis knelt and embraced the leper, kissed him, bathed him and dressed his wounds and clothed him.  Then he shared a meal with the poor man.

The Gospel’s challenge to love does not equate with loving the lovable.  It has nothing to do with romantic love and everything to do with self-emptying love.  Whom would you find to be most difficult to love?  Who repulses you?  In whom would you find it impossible to see Christ?  That is the one the Gospel demands you to love in deed and in truth.  That is never easy until it happens and changes you for the rest of your life.  Of course the experience might put you on the Cross in a way you never expected.

The transforming insight happens when we realize that the one who repulses us is beloved of God.  Dead Man Walking is Sister Helen Prejean’s account of how she came to dedicate her life to ministering to people on Death Row.  Nothing in her book ignores or denies the horrific actions that brought individuals to that perilous place.  She had been asked by another nun to begin a pen-pal relationship with a convicted killer.  The result was a coming to know the person and a desire for that person to know forgiveness and God’s love.  The result changed her life forever.

Of course it is easier not to go there.  It is easier to turn away and to ignore.  The result will be impoverishing.  On the other hand, if you do go there, if you do love the one you had thought unlovable, you will know the love of God in ways you have never imagined.  Dorothy Day is a modern-day saint.  Read her biography, the story of her conversion, and you will begin to understand.

Something you will discover when you love this way is that you will become less and less mindful of self and the cautions that self imposes.  One of the damning catchphrases used to describe the values of contemporary society is: it’s all about me.  Self-absorption that blinds one to others needs is prevalent.  The chasm that separates the elite from the poor widens.  Some see nothing wrong with amassing fortunes while ignoring the poverty that enslaves and demeans others.  Pope Paul VI said that we do not have a right to excess wealth as long as others live in poverty.  That statement like much of the Church’s social Gospel is widely ignored.  The result is loving in word and speech but not in deed and truth.

Pope Francis, emulating his namesake Saint, from the moment he accepted the responsibility of the Bishop of Rome, has been challenging the leaders in the Church to get behind Jesus and learn from him.  His call is to a servant Church serving the needs of the poor.  Some were shocked and disgusted when Francis said the shepherds should shepherd in the midst of the sheep and even smell like the sheep.  That is not what motivated some to become bishops.  How dare the Bishop of Rome wash the feet of criminals, young men and women, some believers some not?  He lives on the ground floor in a small apartment, invites street people in to share breakfast with him, and drives himself in a small car.  It took great humility for Pope Francis to apologize for the mistake he made in responding to a sexual abuse scandal in Chile.  He invited the victims and their families to visit him in the Vatican.

The Second Vatican Council proclaimed the Eucharist to be the source and summit of all we do in faith.  The danger is to think that the reference is to Eucharist as object, something to be adored, rather than Eucharist as action, our giving thanks to god in the renewal of Christ’s dying and rising in Bread and Wine.  From that action comes a sharing of the one Bread and one Cup.  From that action there is a sending forth of those who co-celebrated to be in the market place a continuation of bread being broken and cup being poured out, a self-emptying in imitation of Jesus’ way of loving.  But, as we said before, that way of loving can also put you on the cross.

If we spend time contemplating the Easter Mystery, if we seek to live it, we will come to yield to the insight proclaimed in this Sunday’s gospel.  I am the vine and you are the branches.  The newly baptized among us rejoice because they have put on Christ.  So did we in that same experience.  Christ lives in us as we live in Christ.  This speaks of intimacy with Christ and with each other, an intimacy that reflects Christ’s intimacy with the Father.  We are not on our own as individual sojourners.  We are one in Christ, you and I and those we might be tempted to despise.  That is what resulted when God seized us and empowered us to believe.  On that first Easter night Jesus breathed the Spirit on us and wished us Peace.  That is what resulted when we were plunged into the waters and the heavens opened over the chaos and God’s voice proclaimed: This is my beloved one.

Look around the next time you gather around the Table.  Do not indulge in the temptation to think that what is happening is a moment of isolation between you and Jesus.  Dare to believe that the action is a realization of one Bread, one Body, of one vine and the life flowing through the many branches, still one Vine.  Then dare to go and bear fruit, the fruit that results when you love as Jesus loves.  Do not be surprised if in that moment the Cross makes sense, not because the horror of the cross is gone, but because you will see the Cross’s transforming power that does not end in death but leads to Resurrection and Life – forever.

Sincerely yours in the Risen Christ,

Didymus

FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER – April 22, 2018

A reading from the Acts of the Apostles 4:8-12
A reading from the first letter of John 3:1-2
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John 1:11-18

Dear Reader,

The only sound in the church was the burbling of the water in the baptismal font.  It was late afternoon and the sun, deep in the western sky, shimmered through the stained-glass windows and dappled the church in reds and blues.  My practice was to sit near the Font for vespers, my evening prayer to end the day.  Light played on the water’s surface as the tower bells tolled the Angelus.  These waters are your tomb and your mother.  One of the early Fathers of the Church coined that phrase regarding the Font that has fascinated me from the first time I heard it.

Some may think the phrase to be an oxymoron, a combination of contradictory terms that the mind struggles to wrap around and to reconcile.  Some, failing to do that would dismiss one part of the phrase or the other.  My choice is to ponder and plumb the depths for meaning.  Sometimes that can be a scary course that surfaces implications that are difficult and demanding, with implications with which I would rather not have to deal.  The tomb part, the dying, isn’t so bad.  The possibility of dying to sin and everything that would separate us from the love of God comforts a troubled spirit.    One can rest there.  It is the birthing part that troubles.  Entering the tomb to die is essentially passive, a letting go.  The community baptized me.  It was done to me.  Maybe being born is passive, too; but the implications are phenomenal, the ensuing responsibilities, tremendous.

In the early Church, when adults were baptized in the course of the Easter vigil, the elect came to the Font’s edge and shed their clothes, stripping themselves of everything that was of their former lives.  Naked, they entered the waters to be immersed in them.  Drowning is an apt image.  So is dying.  But then they rose from the depths and crossed over to the other side.  As they emerged, they were clothed in a white, alb-like garment.  You have put on Christ.  In him you have been baptized.  That is the birth that goes deeper than putting on as one would a shirt or a pair of trousers.  The new birth results in identification with Christ.  The new life lived is Christ’s own.  The love bond that results is tremendous and will never be broken.

John spells out the implications in bold relief.  Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed.  Christ is the Word made flesh.  Christ is the only Son of God, the Father’s beloved one.  The baptized are born into that relationship and assume the mantle of God’s beloved.  There may be passivity in accepting this new identity; we cannot be passive in living out what that identity means.

The baptized are called to do what Jesus does, called to act in, with, and through Christ and to do all in his name.  What power resides there!  That is what peter declares as he reminds the leaders of the people that the healing of the crippled man that now incriminates him was done by the power and in the name of the Risen One whom they condemned.  Peter says this, not to denounce the leaders, but to invite them to repent and embrace the Name.

Hear the words of the Gospel today.  Jesus speaks of his role as shepherd, the Good Shepherd who knows his sheep, just as the sheep know him.  The language speaks of intimacy of relationship, reflective of Jesus’ relationship with the Father.  I know mine and mine know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.  Be vulnerable to those words.  Let them penetrate to the core of your being.  Hear the conclusion to the declaration: I will lay down my life for the sheep.

Not to belabor the issue, but we might be comforted to know we are sheep.  Not the brightest of God’s creatures, sheep cannot possibly have much of a burden or conscience or responsibility.  They simply follow.  Not so here.  Being identified with Christ means taking on the responsibility of shepherding and knowing the sheep.  At once we are both sheep and shepherds.

The language begins to limp.  So let us speak in clearer terms.  What is your experience of Church?  What is your experience of parish?  What role do you play?  The call to membership is not to embrace passivity.  The Church, the parish is a communal reality; all members have shared responsibility.  The faith resides in them.  Members must know each other and must reflect the depth of that knowing.  The members come together to celebrate the Sacraments.  It is the community that baptizes.  The members of the community are co-celebrants of Eucharist, and not mere passive spectators.  As the Assembly, they are called to full, active, and conscious participation.  Passive attendance will not cut it, if you will.  When you gather with your parish community, is love so strong that you know the others would lay down their lives for you, just as you would for them?

Sometimes the evening news doubles as a powerful catechist.  The image of people, most of them strangers to each other at this point, realize that there is a young man, the cycle rider, under the car.  No one hesitates.  They move in on the burning car and together lift it.  One of their number stoops down and pulls the man from beneath the car and saves his life.  Later, to a person, when their deed is praised, they refuse to be called heroes.  They just did what anyone would do in those circumstances.  Would that that were so!

There is more.  Jesus says: I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.  Jesus’ call is universal.  His desire is that there be one human family, and that all believe they are sisters and brothers in the human experience.  Our sense of responsibility must be universal, too.  No one is beyond the pale. Kenyans and Ugandans are our brothers and sisters.  So, too, are Israelis and Iraqis.  So are those of every family and tribe on the face of the earth.  That is not easy to deal with; but it is the truth and is our responsibility if we have put on Christ.  That is what it means to live in Christ and for Christ to live in us.

The Gospel concludes with Jesus’ being confident as he moves toward the crucifixion.  I lay down my life in order to take it up again.  No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own.  No wonder the cross, that horrid instrument of torment, has become for us a symbol of hope and life.  Jesus suffered these things and so entered into glory.  So will we if we do the same.

Where will all this take us?  God only knows.  But if we believe that God loves us with the same love God has for Christ, what does it matter?  Hear again what John says in the second reading.  Listen and remember.  Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed.  We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.  That will happen even if the worst befalls us.  That is the promise.

So it is that often I paused by the Font and remembered.  Remembering gives the courage to go on.

Sincerely yours in the Risen Christ,

Didymus