Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Holy Spirit: Love Stronger Than Death

The Rev. John Shearman, of the United Church of Canada, has said: “The history of the Christian Church from the very beginning is the story of how the Spirit continually challenges the faithful to carry the gospel to the world...” Today’s readings from Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, from Revelation, and from John’s Gospel all confirm the truth of that statement. 

The reading from Acts (11:1-18) deals with a reality common to any organization of two people or more, especially if the organization has set up any sort of established procedures. It could be summed up in the oft-repeated exclamation frequently heard from longstanding members of church congregations: “We’ve always done it this way!” “So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’”   

It must’ve been very difficult for Jews who had come to believe that Jesus was truly the expected Messiah to come to terms with realities which challenged their long-held Jewish loyalties.  Though there was a long and ancient history of Jewish tradition, Jesus made no excuses in interpreting it in a fresh way.  The bottom line was all about ritual purity. How often had Peter’s critics prayed: “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts...” (Psalm 24:3-4) 

Pastor Shearman says that “The whole of Israel's liturgical practice and the architecture of the temple itself as well as the accepted customs of eating rested on the right answer” to the questions posed by Psalm 24.  The Temple structure was designed to preserve the purity of the Temple through a series of courts: the Inner Sanctuary of the Temple itself was divided into the Court of the Priests, the Court of the Israelites, and the Court of the Women. The separate area, outside the Temple, was known as the Court of the Gentiles whose purpose was to exclude all non-Jews and those who didn’t perform the strict ritual observances to purify themselves and their offerings before entering.  And even among the priests, ritually purified men who had the sole right to offer sacrifices, it was the high priest alone who could, only on the Day of Atonement, enter the Holy of Holies, the symbolic dwelling place of the invisible God.

Jesus of Nazareth, however, believed otherwise. Professor George B. Caird ("The Apostolic Age." Studies in Theology, London: Duckworth & Co., 1955. p.83-84.) notes that strict Jewish orthodoxy demanded appropriate ritual practice rather than belief.  Jesus and his band of followers were at first viewed as just another of many Jewish sects.  Their beliefs were common to most other Jews: e.g., about the Messiah, the resurrection, and the final age to come.  Thus no one accused them, at least at first, of religious disloyalty, because they continued to observe the ancient ritual laws prescribed by the Torah.  But Judaism was a nationality more than a religion, a religious precept, combining both social customs and civil laws, a sort of national ideology.  A faithful Jew who abandoned the Torah as a national way of life effectively became denationalized.

Jesus felt that every Jew had the right to come before God in worship and to make his/her own offering.  He didn’t necessarily observe all the strict dietary laws.  When he cleansed the Temple, driving out the money-changers, he acted out a clear challenge to the exclusive priestly establishment’s authority, as well as to the ancient traditions. The result: betrayed by one of his own, Judas Iscariot, perhaps because even Judas disagreed with his convictions, Jesus was hauled by the Jewish authorities before the Romans and eventually executed. 

Jesus had shown even more disregard for the ancient traditions by  including notorious sinners, prostitutes, and non-observant Jews in his day-to-day dealings, especially in his frequent table fellowship, which was intentionally meant as an example for the community of his disciples.  In his own mind there was no doubt that these gatherings were made sacred and acceptable, by and for God, as pure and holy worship.  This was eventually what separated the followers of The Way from the Jewish community. Luke’s story in Acts of Peter and Cornelius’ household was part of this coming to terms with Jesus’ vision. 

The “Aha!” moment for Peter came, at two points. The first was as a result of the vision, repeated three times, at Joppa, and recounted in today’s first lesson. Peter, obviously, as on other occasions, was a slow learner! When he meets the gathering of Cornelius’ family and friends, in Chapter 10, Peter says, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean...” (10:28) Then in today’s passage, Peter says that “The Spirit told me to go...and not to make a distinction between them and us...” (11:12) The second moment of recognition came, as Acts 10 describes it, “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles... Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’” (10:44-45; 47) Today’s reading describes Peter’s reaction: “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?...” (11:17)

The Spirit’s presence and outpouring, confirming Peter’s actions, is the driving force behind the transformation of the Jerusalem community, and once Peter explains it to his critics, “when they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God...” (11:18)
So how does all this speak to the Resurrection mystery which we celebrate and contemplate, especially during these 50 days after Easter, but also throughout all our lives? During Easter time I read a book called Immortal Diamond, by Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr. It’s a follow-up on one of his previous books, Falling Upward, both of which I heartily recommend to you. Fr. Rohr emphasizes what an incredible grace humankind was given in the way God led Saul of Tarsus, later Paul, step-by-step to his mission of bringing Christ to the Gentiles, such as you and me! Chapter 9 of Acts, just two chapters before today’s passage, tells us of Paul’s conversion. God tells Ananias, whom he sends to Paul, “...I have chosen [him] to bring my name before Gentiles...”, and Ananias advises Paul that he’s been sent partly so that Paul can “be filled with the Holy Spirit.

Fr. Rohr exults in the reality of God’s unboundedness, and in the fact that, as he says, “God is very clearly not a mere tribal God...” God can’t be fenced in or boxed up; no organization, not even the Church, can ever confine or control God, though we still, foolishly, try do it. My dear friend, the late Lutheran monk, Fr. Arthur Kreinheder, once exclaimed to me, “God is so lavish!” God’s Spirit blows where it will!

After his conversion, Paul wrote that from the creation of the world onward, God’s everlasting power and divine nature, even though invisible, are accessible to everyone “through the things God has made.” (Romans 1:19-20) God isn’t so stingy as to have to squeeze Godself, who is Being itself, into any “specific time frame, culture, or vocabulary”. If God, who is Being itself, can be understood and seen through the things God has made, then creation’s timeless message will be evident to us: viz., that all things live, then die, then live again in new ways. You and I voice this each time we use Eucharistic Prayer A to proclaim “the mystery of faith”: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” Many people of faith, even the many disciplines of science, philosophy, mysticism and poetry, confirm this, using different metaphors.

The point of the mystery of the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus is that, through our face-to-face relationship with Jesus the Christ, initiated in Baptism, the Incarnation has become the Resurrection in you and me. Eastertide through Pentecost, meaning the span our whole lives rather than just the annual seasons of the Church year, is, in Fr. Rohr’s words, like a “laboratory for resurrection” where you and I learn the ultimate truth: that Love is stronger than death. He says “The Crucified One is God’s standing solidarity with the suffering, the tragedy, and the disaster of all time, and God’s promise that it will not have the final word.” Because of that you and I can face all the evil, all the tragedies, all the wars, all the failures and sufferings of our lives, a sampling of which we endured just two weeks ago in Boston. We can even learn to cope with our personal deaths, whenever and however we will pass through them.

Note how curious it is that in the Gospel passage (John 13:31-35), Jesus, speaking to his followers the evening before he is to die, is focussed on “glory”: the Son of Man being glorified, and God being glorified in him. Jesus is fully aware of what lies ahead the next day, and Scripture attests to his predictable human reactions to that prospect. Yet, he’s given the inner wherewithal, by the Father with whom he knows himself to be one, to look beyond tomorrow, and to see that death will not be the final word. 

The reason that this is possible for us, says Fr. Rohr, is that “The Risen One is God’s final word about the universe and what God plans to do with all suffering.The Book of Revelation, in the second reading (21:1-6), speaks of “a new heaven and a new earth...See the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them...God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more...I am making all things new.” The price of all that is having to first “walk through the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4) with Jesus, and perhaps to wait at other people’s tombs, family or friends, as the Marys of the Gospel do.

In John’s Gospel Jesus tells his friends, “I give you a new commandment...Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (11:34) A little later he tells them that, if they can accept this, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth...You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you...” (14:16-17)

Fr. Rohr identifies “the human problem” as: 1) “we fear, and 2) we kill what we should love.” Think about that for a minute. The dysfunctions of the world, of our nation, of our community, of our family and home, come down to fear and violence to the other, in some form. But Love, as Jesus has shown us, is the Holy Spirit who is God. God only and always loves: everyone, always -- no exceptions. In the Letter to the Romans St. Paul claims that our sufferings in the present aren’t worthy to be compared to “the glory about to be revealed to us.” He says that you and I and all creation are waiting, during this time between the Resurrection and the coming of God’s reign, “on tiptoe” for the ability to recognize the love already abiding in us, which is the Holy Spirit. Paul says our groaning during this time is like labor pains, though us men wouldn’t know much about that...unless, of course, you’ve had kidney stones, as I have! Nevertheless, says Paul, “...the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words...” (8:26)

Fr. Karl Rahner wrote: “...[The Risen Jesus] is in the ineffable yearning of all creatures who, without knowing it, yearn for a share in the transfiguration of his body. He is in the history of the earth...He is in all the tears as hidden joy, and in every death as the life that conquers by seeming to die. He is in the beggar, to whom we give a coin, as the secret rich reward that returns to the giver. He is in the miserable defeats of his servants as the victory that belongs to God alone. He is in our weakness as the strength that dares to let itself seem weak, because it is invincible. He himself is even right in the midst of sin as the mercy of everlasting life that is prepared to be patient to the end. (The Eternal Year, p. 93)

And all this comes to pass through the Holy Spirit with us and in us, whom he sends, who is the Love challenging you and me each day to “cry the Gospel with our lives”.



Sunday, April 21, 2013

Through Sorrow to Joy, By Way of the Ordinary

Given the events of this past week, in Boston and in Texas, today’s Scriptures couldn’t be more relevant! Let’s continue to pray for and remember those who lost loved ones, and were injured and traumatized by both events, and give thanks for the hard work, professionalism and restraint of all the law enforcement officials. 

Fr. Romano Guardini, a 20th century Italian priest, philosopher, and writer said that, if we accept the mystery of what happened between the day of Resurrection and Christ’s return to the Father, “then we must ask what they mean in the life of the Lord and what their significance is in our own Christian existence.” (The Lord, Longmans, Green & Co., London, 1956)

Today’s second reading, (7:9-17) taken from the Book of Revelation, certainly gives us a vision of the Resurrection’s ultimate meaning for us. Undoubtedly, few readers or hearers of Scripture today would deny that the Book of Revelation, sometimes referred to as The Apocalypse, is one of the most challenging books of the Bible. Please note that the book’s title is not Revelations, but the Book of Revelation or simply Revelation. The Greek equivalent, apokalypsis, means an uncovering, an unveiling, a disclosure, a revealing of something. 

From the opening chapter, Revelation is an unveiling or revealing of the complete work which the Risen Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, God’s anointed One, has already accomplished for the benefit of all humankind to the glory of the Father. And so “what must soon take place”, referred to in Revelation 1:1, points to the continuous unfolding of God’s providence now in the fullness of time. According to the writer, John, there’s an order in God’s method of revealing these mysteries, reflected in the sequence of persons who receive: God to Jesus to an angel to John to the reader to the hearer. Blessedness, true hearing of the message, according to Revelation, is guaranteed to the one “who takes to heart what is written in it...”, for in that person the true purpose of the disclosed message is lived out.
The Book of Revelation is probably the most misunderstood, misused, and, sadly, the most needlessly neglected writing in the Bible. What it reveals or unfolds for us are past, present and future hidden things. The writer’s primary purpose, however, is pastoral. John writes, not to foretell the future or to satisfy curiosity, but to strengthen people’s faith, to give hope, and to encourage perseverance of fellow followers of Jesus in a string of churches in the western sector of Asia Minor in the late 1st century. They, as we, lived in a society full of anxiety, fear, upheaval, and uncertainty, particularly because of Roman government-inspired religious persecution. Because they faced active opposition, the writer had to communicate in a cryptic way, a sort of code, in terms which they, but not their adversaries, would readily understand. His message is expressed with symbols and images recognizable within the believers’ community, but not by the surrounding pagan culture. 
The first caution for us modern readers of this immensely hopeful book is to not get caught up in the minute, specific details and symbols, but rather to look at the bold and broad strokes which the author paints: to get an overall sense and “feel” for the message which he’s trying to communicate in coded language.

The late Fr. Raymond Brown, a great student and interpreter of John’s writings for most of his life, summarizes it this way: “How can Revelation be presented in a way that is both factual and meaningful? To a contemporary culture that idolizes science and calculable knowledge, apocalyptic is an enduring witness to a reality that defies all our measurements; it testifies to another world that escapes all scientific gauges and finds expression in symbols and visions. That world is not created by imagination, but images serve as an entrée. Artists...have understood that...On a religious level mystics have offered insight. Liturgy, properly understood, brings ordinary believers into contact with this 
heavenly reality. To a world that accepts only what it can see, hear, and feel, Revelation is the final scriptural gateway to what the eye has not seen and the ear not attests forcefully that at every moment of human history, even the most desperate moment that causes people to lose hope, God is present...” (An Introduction to the New Testament, Yale, 1997)

Another theologian, Fr. Karl Rahner, puts it even more succinctly: “...[God] has told us that he has sealed us with the seal of [God’s] eternal love and that [God] sends down no road that will not lead to [God], puts us into no history that will not end in [God’s] beatitude, calls no one into existence who is not chosen and sealed with God’s eternal love...” (Biblical Homilies, Herder, 1966)

Today’s passage from Revelation (7:9-17) captures the essence of what these two men try to convey. It’s a sort of snapshot of the Communion of Saints surrounding the God who is one, yet three. It describes a glorious, pull-out-all-the-stops heavenly liturgy, full of ecstatic glorification of God, in words of love, hope, and life. It’s to this vision-become-reality that the Risen Christ continually invites you and me. 

The conclusion of the Book of Revelation, especially the last nine verses (22:12-21), speak of Jesus as “the Alpha and the Omega”, “the First and the Last”, “the Beginning and the End”. Jesus encompasses everything: the history of humankind, from the creation to the final coming; every age of the Church, from Jesus onward; and all the years of each of our individual lives, from the moment of birth to the moment of death. Seven times in Revelation (1:3; 14:13; 16:15; 19:9a; 20:6; 22:7; 22:14) Jesus declares “blessed” all those who have entered or will enter into and embrace his offer of salvation made possible through the shedding of his Blood. “Seven” is a biblical symbol of fullness, completeness. Repeating this seven times shows that it’s not just a passing statement of Jesus, but, rather, a promise. The blessedness offered is the gift of everlasting life, symbolized by the Tree of Life and by Jesus’ action of ushering the redeemed directly into the heavenly City, the New Jerusalem.

The Spirit of Love, who is the very life of the Bride, the Church, and who, as St. Paul says, intercedes “with groans that words cannot express”, moves the Church and each individual soul to respond to Jesus’ invitation to “Come! into this blessedness, an invitation repeated five times within the last two verses. There’s a sense of urgency, of passionate desire, of anticipation. It moves all of us, who are the Church, to voice our willingness in words commonly used by the 1st century Christians: “Marana tha! Come! Come, Lord Jesus!” And John records as Jesus’ final response to the Church in all ages, and to each of us, what is also repeated seven times in the Book of Revelation (2:5; 2:16; 3:11; 16:15; 22:7; 22:12; 22:20): “Yes, I am coming soon.” It, too, is not just an offhand statement, but a sure and absolute promise.
As if it were a bonus, in today’s Gospel passage (John 10:22-30), John the Evangelist adds these words of Jesus, the Good Shepherd: “...I have told you...The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me;...My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”  
What greater expression of joyful Resurrection hope and encouragement could Jesus himself offer to you and me? Such hope motivates us to put aside our fear and worry. It enables us to look beyond, while not ignoring or down-playing, the evil and unjust suffering around us, and which we ourselves experience, to believe that Jesus continues to achieve God’s purpose for us through the very way in which you and I live our lives.

John writes these words in the very beginning of the Book of Revelation: “Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it...” The way we live and treat other people indicates whether or not you and I take the Word seriously. Luke’s story about Tabitha of Joppa, in the first reading (Acts 9:36-43), is quite revealing. He describes her as one “devoted to good works and acts of charity”, apparently to many of the community’s widows. She becomes ill and dies. Her friends, hearing that Peter is close by in Lydda, send two men to summon his help. As all weep and lament Tabitha’s passing, they show Peter samples of her handiwork, “tunics and other clothing”, which she created to clothe those in need. Peter prays, and Tabitha is restored to life. Could there be a better example than this woman’s simple, humble devotion to the body of Christ and to the community?  

The Book of Revelation speaks of many 1st century issues which continue to plague us today: false claims of political and economic systems which hurt or destroy principles and people to whom, as followers of Jesus, you and I are committed; complicity with evil and injustice of the surrounding society, in any sector, whether international, national, local, or even within the Church itself; dangers of sectarianism and exclusivism in any form, whether outside or inside the Church, which pervert the Gospel by claiming to have a special wisdom or special authority to alienate, penalize, or exclude others. It would be irresponsible for you and me to ignore such issues. But perhaps we, like Tabitha, need to act most in the ordinary everyday venues in which we find ourselves: in our local community, or school, or office, or family, or home.
John the Seer helps us to recognize that God the Father, the Risen Jesus, and the Spirit of Love are to be glorified through faithfulness in living, whatever the cost; to what we’ve pledged ourselves to do in Baptism: to devote ourselves to “good works and acts of charity” and to share the living Word of eternal life, as someone has said, by “crying the Gospel with our lives”.

To the One who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom, priests to serve his God and Father -- to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.


Sunday, April 14, 2013

"Jesus Revealed Himself Again..."

27 years ago, this week, I was in the process of being considered for the position of Rector at St. John’s in Chico, and I was called there a month later. During that same week I attended an ecumenical clergy day at the Newman Center in Sacramento, on the topic of mixed marriages. The keynote speaker, a Catholic monsignor, I believe, from the Diocesan Marriage Tribunal, failed to show up, so an ad-lib panel, including The Rev. Ann Hallisey, who later became the wife of our current Bishop Beisner, was hastily convened. It was similar to those many occasions, which most of us have probably experienced, where “man proposes and God disposes”. Unseen changes occur which set us on edge, unnerving and frustrating us and our plans. In the end, such experiences only go to prove who’s really in charge. As writer Anne Lamott would put it: “God is such a show-off sometimes!” Such is the reminder given us in today’s Gospel passage (John 21:1-9).

The first thing to be said about this passage is that it’s an add-on to John’s Gospel. Last week’s reading, from Chapter 20, ended with the comment: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book...” By way of introduction, and using Fr. Raymond Brown’s translation, St. John begins today’s passage by saying: “Later on Jesus [again] revealed himself to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias, and this is how it took place.” Fr. Brown sees this as as “an added account of a post-resurrectional appearance of Jesus... used to show how Jesus provided for the needs of the Church.” 

It’s kind of interesting, then, to note who was gathered together on the beach: Peter, of course, who’d been to Jesus’ tomb and had seen him with the others once before this; Thomas, the doubting Twin who, according to Jesus, had finally “believed because you have seen me”, a week after the Resurrection; Nathanael, presumably the one who, in John’s first chapter, had been blown away when Jesus, at their first meeting engineered by Philip, called Nathanael a “genuine” and “guileless Israelite”, having seen him under a fig tree even before Philip had invited him; the two sons of Zebedee, James and John, a.k.a. “The Sons of Thunder”, although John, the “Beloved Disciple”, seems to have been closer to Jesus; and finally “two other [unidentified] disciples”, possibly Andrew and Philip.

Peter announces to the others, “I’m going fishing.” Fr. Brown notes that Peter’s statement expresses more than just momentary intention. He really means that he plans to go back to his previous life as a fisherman for good. This is corroborated by an ancient non-canonical document called The Gospel of Peter, dating from the second half of the 2nd century, quoted by a number of early Church Fathers, and first discovered in Egypt in 1886, wherein Peter says: “And I, Simon Peter, and Andrew my brother, we took our fishing nets and went off to sea...” It’s rather astounding, given all that Jesus and he have gone through over the past three years, given the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead, and given that he and the others had witnessed the visible changes which Jesus had undergone because of it! Back to business-as-usual. The others say, “We’ll come along with you”, and off they go in the boat!

At this point, it’s important for you and me to go back to the opening line of the passage: “Jesus revealed himself, showed himself, again to the disciples...” This story comes to grips, for the disciples and for us, with the reality of how one lives life in the days after the Easter event, in the midst of day-to-day routine. For the Apostles to go fishing after all the breathtaking events of the preceding weeks, in fact years, is quite an anti-climax. The vision seems to have quickly grown dim, their sense of mission to have become unfocussed. Boredom has set in and they’re antsy to get back to their old routine of life.

John the Evangelist observes: “However, that night they caught nothing.” The impression he leaves is of a group of people for whom each day is again ordinary, unproductive, without mountaintop experiences, giving no evidence that anything has really changed. It’s like us trying again and again, in fact every Sunday, to recapture the freshness and joy of what the Resurrection might means for us! Sometimes it’s there; but many times we leave the Sunday celebration, returning to the “same old, same old”.

In the story it’s at daybreak that the Risen Jesus reappears, standing alone on the shore, unrecognizable to the disciples out on the Sea of Tiberias. The Greek word, paidia, which John has Jesus use for calling out to them, is delightful and touching: “my boys” or “lads”.  “Lads, you haven’t caught anything to eat, have you?” Much like us parents addressing our children! “‘No’, they answered.” In their self-reliance and their forgetfulness of all that Jesus had done with and for them in the recent past, they’d come up short. “‘Cast your net to the right of the boat’, he directed, ‘and you’ll find something.’” They cast, and the haul is so large that they have to begin dragging it in. They come to know in this moment that the Risen Jesus must be back, working on their behalf. “It is the Lord!”, Peter recognizes, and with his predictable impetuosity, he “tucked in his outer garment (for he was otherwise naked) and jumped into the sea...” Just as the disciples fished, but without success, there’s no way that you and I can rely simply on our own resources and strength, for a day or two, or even every week. Without the Risen Jesus we know only poverty and powerlessness. The Risen Christ is now the focus of John’s Gospel story. John even gives us visual images of forward movement towards Jesus: Peter, leaping into the water, eager to get to the shore; the others, close behind, towing in the catch. The message is unmistakable: everything depends on the Lord.

Peter becomes a sort of model for how a believer might act because of the grace of the Risen Christ. The story pictures him doing some things completely uncharacteristic of a fisherman: he lets go of the net; he immediately jumps into the water, abandoning the catch, in order to be closer to Jesus. Symbolically, that’s the kind of action that seems called for over and over again, a radical choosing on our part, i.e., a choosing that goes to our very roots. It’s what Jesus hinted at when he talked about leaving father and mother and family, about taking up one’s cross and following daily. That terrifies us, because we so depend on our own selves, we so need to be in control of what happens in our lives. To follow Jesus is to let go, like Peter, to let the Risen One be in charge.

The disciples are further astounded when they finally land on shore. The Risen Jesus, ever the perfect host, has a charcoal fire ready, with some fish already frying and bread toasting. But he refuses to shoulder the whole responsibility himself, without involving the disciples and their gifts. “Bring some of the fish”, he says, “the fish which you caught just now.” Peter hops to, and hauls the sturdy net ashore with 153 fish. “Come and have breakfast”, Jesus bids them. In contrast to John’s earlier observation that “none of the disciples knew that it was Jesus” on the shore, he now says that no one dared ask Jesus who he was, “for they knew it was the Lord.” Just as he’d done so many times in his ministry, Jesus provides for them. He comes to them, takes bread and gives it to them, then does the same with the fish. Jesus, though risen, is still the Servant of all, and holds up for the disciples and for us an example of how we’re to deal with others, especially those who are hungry and thirsty, inwardly and outwardly, those who are in any need, including ourselves.

Taking the example of servanthood even a step further, Jesus later asks Peter, not just once, but three times, if Peter loves him. Peter responds twice: “ know that I love you.” After the third question, Peter is “hurt”. We can imagine that he might still be carrying around a lot of residual embarrassment and pain because of his threefold denial of Jesus during the Passion. But undoubtedly this is also mixed with the passionate love of one who has truly repented of his cowardly betrayal and has come to a new depth of understanding. “Lord, you know everything; you know well that I love you.” Three times Jesus also confirms that Peter is, first, to “feed” the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem, teaching them, preaching the Good News to anyone who will listen. Weak though he is, Peter and Jesus share a close friendship. Taking his example from the Noble, the Good Shepherd, Peter now, along with his cohorts, is to see that people are inwardly fed and nourished. Secondly, Peter and the other Apostles are to “tend” the “sheep”, to lead, guide, guard and see to whatever needs people have.

In the future Peter will hopefully remember this time spent with Jesus on the seashore. He’ll recall again and again, and remind others, that they can only be true “fishers for people” by following the example of the Risen One, through his grace and that of the Spirit sent upon them. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote this: “Could not Jesus have initiated the public into some new religious experience, and leave them as they were before? He would have done so, had He not been the incarnate Son of God. But since He is the Christ, He must make it clear from the start that His word is not an abstract doctrine, but the re-creation of the whole life of man. The only right and proper way is quite literally to go with Jesus. The call to follow implies that there is only one way of believing on Jesus Christ, and this is by leaving all and going with the incarnate Son of God.”  

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The One Who Comes & Stands With Us

The Day of Resurrection: Easter Sunday, which we celebrated just a week ago, is the greatest feast of the Church’s year, the feast from which all others originate. Every other Sunday during the year is an Easter-in-miniature, a reminder for you and me, of its central place in our spiritual and liturgical life. 

Aside from being Christ’s definitive victory over evil and death, Easter hints at resurrection in other ways. With the arrival of Spring, varying as it does in degree from year to year, we see in nature a transformation, a resurrection, from cold and wind and storm to budding trees and blooming flowers. Fr. Pius Parsch says that “Springtime is nature executing her Easter liturgy.” (The Church’s Year of Grace, Liturgical Press, Vol. III, p. 13) Nature is a holy symbol, a picture book of God’s beauty and love. 

 Another kind of resurrection takes place within the Body of the Church. For many people, Easter is the actual anniversary of their baptism. For the rest of us it’s at least a renewal of our baptismal promises during the Easter service. As the Church, you and I are part of an annual new and holy revival, a fresh opening of our minds and hearts to the energizing forces of the Risen Christ. 

 John’s account of the resurrection and its aftermath in his Gospel records four instances of people’s reactions to it: first, Mary of Magdala, who finds the tomb empty, to her great distress, but, when called by her name, joyfully sees and knows that the supposed gardener is really the Risen Jesus; second, John the Beloved, who looked into the empty tomb and “saw and believed”; third, the disciples, whose cowering fear is mixed with joy as Jesus comes and stands among them, even nibbling on some broiled fish; and finally, Thomas, in today’s Gospel passage, wherein Jesus “comes and stands” once more (John 20:19-31). For the Gospel writers Jesus coming and standing is a way of describing how the disciples experience Jesus’ resurrection. 

 John the Evangelist writes from the perspective of an increasing split between the Jewish tradition and the newly emerging Jesus Movement toward the end of the 1st century, even from before Jesus’ death. Joseph of Arimathea had kept his discipleship secret “for fear of the Jewish leaders”. Many people were reluctant to openly support Jesus’ ministry for the same reason. The blind man’s parents at the Pool of Siloam fear to tell the truth “because they feared the Jewish officials”. Not long after the Gospel was written, a writer of John’s tradition penned the 1st Letter of John, wherein the writer speaks of another split which has riven John’s community. Dissenters within the Christian community have compromised the truth which Jesus handed down. He says: “They went out from us, but they did not belong to going out they made it plain that none of them belongs to us.” When people or groups lose hope and become fearful, Christian confession weakens. Confusion, doubt and misunderstanding creep in and soon faith is shaken, even lost. 

 In the midst of their hopelessness and fear, in the Gospel, Jesus suddenly appears with the disciples on the first day of the week, even though the doors had been locked. “Shalom = Peace be to you!”, he says. They see that it’s really him because he shows them his hands and his side. Though there’s also some hard-to-name difference, they’re nonetheless reassured that it’s Jesus and they rejoice, their sagging spirits replaced with smiles. 

 Jesus repeats his wish of peace, and tells the disciples that even as the Father has already sent him and continues sending him, so Jesus is now sending them. The word Apostle means “one who is sent; an emissary”. Jesus actualizes his prayer with an important visible action. Breathing on them, he says: “Receive Holy Spirit”, the Hebrew of which literally means holy breath. What the Risen Lord is doing is putting God’s creative power into action, releasing it, within the community of his faith-full followers: certainly not in order to achieve some sort of spiritual pyrotechnics, such as fantastic miracles or babbling in tongues, but to carry forward in their lives and in their dealings with others Jesus the Word: his message, his compassion and forgiveness, his servanthood. That beautiful Collect which we prayed earlier hints at this: “God of life, you reach out to us amid our fears with the wounded hands of your risen Son. By your Spirit's breath revive our faith in your mercy, and strengthen us to be the body of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord...” 

 Throughout his Gospel and letters, John the Evangelist views sin as unfaithfulness, unbelief. In today’s Gospel the Risen Lord empowers his community of followers, through the Father’s life-giving Spirit, to isolate, repel and negate all that is sin and evil. Easter is Jesus’ resurrection, his glorification as God’s Son, and the giving of the Spirit all rolled into one. This understanding finally enables the community of faith to shed its fear and doubt, and to realize that it is never abandoned or alone. The Risen One comes and stands with them, always. 

 Someone has said, “A person who has never doubted is a person who has never thought.” Thomas wasn’t with the other disciples the night Jesus came to them. Thomas appears twice previously in John’s Gospel: once in Chapter 11 where he’s referred to as “the twin”, and again in Chapter 14 when, at the Last Supper, he says to Jesus: “Lord, we don’t know where you’re going. How can we know the way?” Only in 1945, with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi writings in Egypt did scholars become aware of a series of references to Thomas the Apostle, which Jesus’ followers would’ve heard about or with which they’d have been familiar. This was a collection of 52 writings, including a well-preserved early Christian, non-canonical sayings-gospel, called the Gospel of Thomas, as well as several other books. In that Gospel Thomas is called Didymos Judas Thomas, didymos being the Greek for twin. He’s pictured as a mystic seer, in contrast to his depiction in John’s Gospel. In the commissioning scene in the Gospel of Thomas Jesus challenges the disciples to tell him what he, Jesus, is like, comparing him to something. Peter exclaims: “like a just angel”; Matthew responds: “like a wise philospher”. Thomas says: “Teacher, my mouth is utterly unable to say what you are like.” In this Gospel, Thomas is a hero and the others seem less knowledgeable, but in John’s Gospel, it’s a literal-minded Thomas who seems not to understand. When the other disciples tell Thomas that they’ve seen the Lord, Thomas reacts somewhat negatively and harshly: “Unless I see the mark of the nails...and put my finger in the mark of the nails...never will I believe!” Thomas personifies the lack of faith of some 1st century Christians. He needs to see, to prove, to have it all nailed down first. 

 A week later, John recounts, Thomas is with them as Jesus makes a return appearance, again declaring “Peace!” Jesus gets right down to business, inviting Thomas to “put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Don’t be faithless, but believing and faithful.” Thomas is dumbfounded. John doesn’t record whether Thomas ever actually took Jesus up on his invitation. Once the Risen Jesus had come and stood in front of him, all Thomas could do was to acknowledge the reality in words echoing Psalm 34:23 (“...arise to my defense, my God and my Lord!"), as well as echoing the historian, Suetonius, who tells us how Domitian, during the time-frame of John’s Gospel, required that he, the Emperor, be called, “our Lord and God”. Thomas, here voicing his faith in an ultimate confession, stammers: “Yes, this is Jesus and he is Lord and God!” 

 Jesus’ next question to Thomas, and a good reality check for you and me, is kind of like: “Really?...have you believed just because you saw me?” He challenges us to really examine the quality of our faith. The late Anglican Franciscan and biblical scholar, Barnabas Lindars, observes: “Being absent when Jesus appeared to the disciples on Easter night, Thomas was virtually in the position of the Christian who has not seen the risen Jesus, and he should not have needed a further appearance in order to come to faith.” “Blessed are those,” says Jesus, "who haven’t seen...” and yet have faith that Jesus isn’t absent, but is always with us, always coming and standing in front of us in order that we can have faith. 

 John concludes with words which originally, before editing took place, concluded the whole Gospel. John says that he’s narrated these signs, only a few of many, many signs which Jesus did, “so that you may continue to believe”, to set your heart on, to stake your life on, the Risen One who gives you and the whole Church light, love and life through a release of Holy Spirit as he comes and stands among us.  

Spiritual writer, Frederick Buechner, says: “...if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Love Beyond the Touch of Love

"...the Lord waits to be gracious to you; therefore he will rise up to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him... He will surely be gracious to you at the sound of your cry; when he hears it, he will answer you. Though the Lord may give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself any more, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, 'This is the way; walk in it.'" (Isaiah 30:18-21)

Mary of Magdala, whoever you were, whoever you are, you were the first to see the Teacher: first witness to the Risen Christ, and first to be sent, apostle to the Apostles. You, of all people, knew what it meant to cry over the "bread of adversity", to be carried along in the currents of the "water of affliction". But only for awhile, because the Teacher, who was there all the while, opened your eyes to see: "Mary!", "Rabbouni!" -- in an instant, through the intimate bond of a life-changing relationship, in the experience of love.

But what is this he's saying: "Noli me tangere", "Don't touch me, for I've not yet ascended to the Father." Doesn't he love her? Is his body, through some curious new reaction, resistant to human touch? Mary's perplexity is understandable. From our vantage point, centuries later, it wouldn't seem that touch was the problem. Within a few days he'll actually be inviting Thomas the Doubter to explore his hands, feet and side up close and personal. "Oh well," some might conjecture, "the answer is obvious: she's a woman!" Certainly not true. Only look at the Gospel record and see how utterly at ease Jesus is with people, especially women, how a loving touch is a routine part of his manner of ministering to others. Perhaps the Greek translation of "Noli me tangere" conveys Jesus' intent more accurately: "Don't hold on to me, don't cling to me." As beautiful as the human, loving relationship is which they share, there's something much deeper, more enduring, more life-giving.

Jesus immediately sends her with a message for the Apostles: "I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God." But after going to them, her words are simply "I have seen the Lord." The Teacher has opened her eyes and heart to a larger vision, of relationship, of love, of life. His being raised up by the Father for the salvation of the world ("I, when I am lifted up, will draw all to myself.") in the Passion, Resurrection and Ascension, the love shared between God Maker, Lover, and Keeper draws the Risen Jesus back to the Center, like a magnet, so that he might in glory continue what he was originally called to do, and which he described for his followers at their final meal together.

"If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive... You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them...Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them...I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you...Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. 28 You heard me say to you, 'I am going away, and I am coming to you.' If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father...And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe."

Mary understands. "I have seen the Lord!"