Sunday, April 28, 2013

The kingdom of God

There is an interesting difference between our first reading and our second reading today.  Both readings present an essentially true aspect of the Christian life, but they seem to be in total disagreement.  First, St. Paul says to the disciples “it is necessary to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”  In the second reading we hear what that kingdom will look like: “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes, there shall be no more mourning, wailing, or pain.”  So here is the discrepancy: on the one hand, Paul says there will be hardship and pain in the Christian life, but then we hear in Revelation that God is taking away all our pain and hardship.  Both are absolutely true, but they seem to contradict each other.
There are a couple of ways we can understand this tension.  First, we can say that Paul is referring to the life we live in the here and now.  Being a disciple of Jesus means that while we are not to be of the world, we do live in the world.  As a result, we will see our fair share of pain and suffering.  The quicker we recognize this, the better off we will be, because if we acknowledge that there will be pain and suffering in this life, we will be ready for it.  Then, we will interpret the message in our second reading as referring the next life.  While we experience pain, sadness, grief, suffering, and persecution in this life, we are destined for a better place.  We are destined to spend eternity with God, and when we get to that place, God will wipe away every tear, destroying pain and sadness.  And, this is true too.  We believe in the resurrection, we believe that there is a full and new life in store for those who believe in Christ. 
So, to summarize, these readings are in tension but we explain it like this: St. Paul reminds us that in this life there will be hardships and pain, but we all look forward to that day when we experience the new life of the resurrection, where pain and suffering are destroyed forever.
This is a totally legitimate way to understand these readings.  But, I would offer one brief suggestion.  I think, all too often, we can think of the kingdom of God as being only a future oriented reality.  So, our life of faith can seem like a holding pattern.  We understand that this life is full of pain and misery, but if we can just hold on, we will make it to heaven.  Or another way, life is full of temptation toward sin, but if we can just dodge the potholes, we will make it to heaven.  And rather than truly living and embracing life in communion with God in the here and now, Christian living becomes a matter of dodging sin and waiting for the day when we will have a relationship with God.  Rather, while we will only experience the fullness of the kingdom of God in the resurrection, we live that kingdom even now.  While we will never be completely rid of pain and suffering, trial and temptation, God can and does wipe away our tears even now.  Even now, by God’s grace, pain, suffering, and persecution can be transformed into the pathway of our salvation.  In the gospel, Jesus tells us how to do this.
Love one another, as I have loved you.  Love has the ability to overcome pain and hardship.  Love can turn hate, into friendship.  Love can turn mourning, into acceptance.  Love can turn selfishness, into service.  A heart full of love can bear all things, while a heart without love sees everything as an imposition.  Now, love is not easy.  It killed Jesus.  But, in the very death and resurrection of Jesus that we celebrate during this season of Easter we see the tension of our two readings very clearly: on the cross Jesus suffered and died, but through the cross he came to the resurrection.  This transformation takes place because of love.  The good news of the gospel is that this transformation can take place in our lives as well if we follow the command of Jesus: love one another as I have loved you. 

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Christ, the Good Shepherd

 “My sheep hear my voice, I know them and they follow me.”  Very often this Sunday is called Good Shepherd Sunday.  It is a good time for us to reflect on Jesus as the Good Shepherd.
Sheep rely on their shepherd to provide for them, to protect them, and to lead them to safety.  Now, these things apply to us as well.  God provides for us, everything we have and everything we are comes from God.  Without God we would have nothing, we would be nothing, everything comes from him.  God protects and defends us, he helps us to overcome our sinfulness, and he sent Jesus to protect us and defend us against Satan and against death.  And, God leads us to safety through the person of Jesus.  If we would just follow Jesus, he would lead us to eternal life.  I want to reflect briefly on what it means to follow the voice of Jesus.
If we are going to be followers of Jesus we have to be able to hear him.  If we do not listen to the voice of Christ, we will never be able to follow him and if we don’t follow him we will not find our way to eternal life.  It is just that simple.  Christ alone is the way to eternal life, there is no other path, there is no other way.  After Original Sin, we were lost; we could not find our way back to God, which is why God sent his Son Jesus.  He came as a lamb among the sheep, he came to lead us back to God.  He did not come as an outsider, but came as one of us so as to lead us to eternal life.  There is no other name under heaven by which we can be saved. 
We are saved by following Jesus, by listening to his voice.  Hopefully, this is an exciting message for us.  Hopefully, we are intrigued by this message of Jesus.  Jesus is the Good Shepherd who will lead us to eternal life, those who follow him will never perish.  Don’t we want that?  I think that deep down in the heart of every single human being on this planet this message strikes a chord.  The bombing in Boston reminded me this week that life can be quite fragile.  We realize that there is suffering and death in this world, and we also realize that we are made for more than that.  Isn’t it interesting, we want to live forever, we want to be with our loved ones forever.  Jesus says, You will have eternal life if you follow me.
How do we hear his voice?  It is certainly the case that Christ speaks to each one of us.  We all have a relationship with Christ.  We nourish this relationship by our lives of prayer, by our reading of the scripture, by our participation in Mass.  Our personal life of faith is very important, by it we will hear of the voice of Christ and he will lead us.  But, I really find this first reading quite interesting.  It says that practically the whole city was gathered there to listen to Paul and Barnabas.  But, the way the author phrases it is a quite interesting, it says the whole city was gathered to hear the word of the Lord.  When the apostles speak, they proclaim the word of the Lord.  I think this is a beautiful reflection on the role of the Church in our lives.
All of us, I think, want to follow Jesus.  We believe that he is our Good Shepherd, that he provides for us, protects us, and will lead us to eternal life.  We know that to be followers of Jesus means to hear his voice.  But, how can we be sure we are hearing his voice?  We rely on each other.  There is no such thing as a solitary Christian.  It is certainly true that we each have a relationship with Christ, but that relationship always leads us to the body, to the Church.  Here, we find support for living out the Christian life.  Here, we hear the voice of the Lord, we receive guidance and direction.  Here, we celebrate the Holy Mass.  Here, our Good Shepherd speaks to us in his Holy Word, he feeds us with his Body and Blood.  And, if we continue to rely on the Church, if we continue to listen to the voice of the apostles, to support one another, then Christ will lead us all to eternal life.  Christ is the Good Shepherd who came to lead us to the father.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

We have to be brave in the face of persecution!

3rd Sunday of Easter Year C:
We gave you strict orders, did we not, to stop speaking in that name.  The stakes were high.  The apostles were given strict orders.  They knew what they were up against.  By now they were already starting to feel the effects of this pressure.  They had been harassed and imprisoned; soon they will start getting flogged, abused, attacked, and even killed.  They are certainly becoming more and more unpopular.  Why not just go with the flow?  Why not just adapt their message to their modern audience?  Why not just conduct a poll to see what ideas are current, what are they trying to do?
The apostles would have made terrible politicians.  I’m sure none of them would have been able to be elected to any office or political position.  The apostles stubbornly refused to compromise, refused to back down.  They laughed in the face of pressure and oppression.  And their response today is so telling: We must obey God rather than men.
Either the Apostles were wise, virtuous, inspired disciples of Jesus Christ, willing to offer their lives in witness to the God made man.  Or they were foolish, silly followers of a traveling preacher, all of whom end up dying because they refused to get with the times.  Our opinion of the Apostles rises and falls with the truth of the faith.  If Jesus Christ is really God made man, if he really came to set us free, if he really rose from the dead and is sitting at the right hand of the Father, if we are really united to him by baptism, and if we will really participate in eternal life by following him, then the apostles are amazing examples, saints worthy of emulation and exaltation.  But, if Jesus was just some guy, just some teacher, if Jesus is not what he said he was, then the apostles were fools.  They should have simply caved in and yielded to the pressures they faced.  But, they didn’t.  They refused.  They were stubborn, almost every one of them gladly died rather than to cave in to the pressures of the majority around them. 
What about us?  Obviously we must have accepted the truth of the gospel or else we wouldn’t be here.  How do we respond to pressure?  How do we respond to persecution?  Are we willing to suffer and to die rather than deny the truth?
There is a profound crisis of truth in our modern world.  No longer do people see the truth as something objective, something received.  Rather, many people see the truth as something personal, something subjective, something each one of us gets to create.  What is true for me is not true for you.  I have to say I ranged between slightly amused to kind of annoyed during the election of the pope.  Many of the media types were saying that perhaps a new pope would set about changing a bunch of things in the church.  Now, it is certainly the case that Pope Francis will make a number of changes, but he will certainly not change the essentials of the faith; because the faith is not made up, it is not subject to opinion polls or the whim of the majority.  I always find it fascinating when people say: I know the church teaches x, but I just don’t believe that.  The apostles would have been baffled by this kind of thinking.  They did not invent the gospel, they did not invent the resurrection.  They were witnesses of the resurrection and they accepted the gospel as being true.  They gladly suffered persecution, even to the point of death, because they could not deny this truth.  Amazing!
No wonder we admire the apostles.  They are Christian superheroes.  And if we want to be like them we need to rely on the same source of strength that they did.  Simon, son of John, do you love me?  It has to be our relationship with Christ that gives us the strength to endure persecution, to overcome societal pressure, to be stouthearted disciples of Jesus who would rather die than to deny the truth of our faith.  What a privilege it is for us then to gather here at Mass and to hear the voice of Christ speak to each one of us again: do you love me?  Feed my sheep.