Sunday, May 26, 2019

Peace the World Cannot Give

The Catholic Liturgy for the 6th Sunday of Easter, May 26, 2019.  Gospel – John 14:23-29. Theme: Peace the World Cannot Give

Throughout Sacred Scripture, from beginning to end, two virtues are praised as blessings from God: love and peace. Not surprisingly, these are also two things that most people - of any faith or no religion at all - say are what they value most in life.   No matter if we are young or old, rich or poor, healthy or sick, we all want to know that we are loved and we all desire to live in peace. In last Sunday’s gospel, Jesus told us what it means to love. In today’s gospel, He speaks to us of peace.

We just heard him say, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you,” So, what did he mean by saying, “not as the world gives…” Well peace as the world understands it typically means the absence of war and the lack of conflict or hostilities between peoples.  Now seeking this kind of peace is, of course, a noble and honorable thing.  We even devote holidays such as Memorial Day to remembering and praying for those who gave up their very lives for this type of peace.

But the peace Jesus is talking about is very different. It is a tranquility and serenity that resides deep within us and has its origin in God. This understanding of peace was so cherished by the Jewish people that it actually formed their daily greeting. “Shalom! God’s peace be with you,” they would say to one another. They thought of peace as the fullness of health and well-being that goes right down to the innermost core of the human person. This peace was so precious that it was considered to be worth living and even dying for. And actually, that’s exactly what Jesus did.

It might help to know that along with “shalom” there is another “s” word that the Bible uses for the gift of peace. That word is “salvation”, something we all have heard a million times. It is derived from the Latin word salus, which means health and wholeness.  Through this salus, this salvation, the human person is spiritually healed and made whole at his or her deepest core. The part of us which we call the immortal soul.  

And it is in our souls where real peace begins. Only God has the power to enter into this innermost part of who we are and bring about the healing and wholeness we need.  This is why Jesus calls the peace that he gives us something that the world cannot give. It is also the kind of peace that we wish one another every time we are at Mass, just before receiving Holy Communion.

But the problem is that we so often try to find peace where Jesus says it cannot be found! We search for this peace in so many ways that are not God. We so often try to find this contentment in our wealth or possessions, by going into one relationship after another.  Some people are always looking for that better job that will finally make them happy, while others think that having nicer cars or moving upwards into bigger houses will do the trick.   We run after these things in hopes of filling up that void inside us that never seems to be satisfied.  All in hopes of quieting that voice inside us that always seems to be telling us that something is not quite right in our lives.

But none of these things will calm our restless hearts. The problem, the void, the brokenness is deep inside us. All the things we chase after can never reach deep down into our core and sooth the disturbances that reside there. They can never calm our consciences of the wrongs we have done and which still haunt us. They can never take away the tension that comes from thinking that we always have to look perfect and act perfect in order to be loved, in order to be happy.

The peace we seek is a fruit of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, which is why Jesus promises to send Him to us in today’s Gospel.  This is also why Jesus connects the gift of peace to the fact that God dwells within us. For when God enters into us by grace his very presence heals our spiritual wounds and brings serenity, peace of heart and soul.  The Spirit’s presence within us will enable us to really see and admit that we do not have the power to fix ourselves.  The Holy Spirit will help us to turn our lives over to the care of God who can do this and who wants only what is best for us.  So, we have nothing to fear; we just need to ask for healing and trust Him. When we do this, and really mean it, we will begin to experience the peace that Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel; the peace that the world cannot give.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

What Does Real Love Look Like?

From the Catholic Liturgy for the 5th Sunday of Easter, May 19, 2019. Gospel – John 13:31-35. Theme: What Does Real Love Look Like?

In today’s Gospel, Jesus says to us, “I give you a NEW commandment…”  so that might make us ask ourselves: what was the old commandment? Well, you might recall that the former commandment concerning love was this, “love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus himself taught it to his disciples up until this night when he “tweaked it”, we might say.

But you see, the old commandment to love for others by treating them as we would want to be treated ourselves was really nothing unique to Christianity. Judaism embraces this kind of love and we see it taught in the Old Testament. Mahatma Gandhi advocated this kind of love as an expression of his Hindu religious convictions. Islam embraces this love in its solemn concept of sacred hospitality. And actually, we can even see this “golden rule” in the lives of people with no religious faith, but who are motivated by humanitarian concerns. But none of these expressions of love hit the mark as to what Jesus is calling us to do and to be in today’s Gospel.

The new commandment calls us to love others as Jesus loves, and the context in which he which he spoke these words is vital to understanding them.  Jesus gives us this new commandment at the Last Supper, on the very night that he will freely offer up his very life and begin to undergo his Passion. And there is the key to our search for what it means to love as a Christian.  To love as Jesus loves means to observe the old commandment and then go beyond it. It means to love others MORE than we love ourselves and to prove this love by the way we act. This is what is unique to Christianity and which forms the very heart of the faith we embrace, profess and live. 

And to be honest, this is a love which is not easily understood by many.  Because from our limited and all too often selfish point of view, God’s love is crazy love, foolish love. It is a love which doesn’t make sense to anyone who is living primarily for themselves. And yes, I would agree that Christ-like love is indeed “crazy stupid love” IF we look at life with selfish eyes.  Christ-like love is most simply defined as self-emptying, self-forgetful, self-giving without concern as to what it will cost the lover, the giver. But literally and only by the grace of God it is indeed possible for those who keep their eyes and their hearts fixed, not on themselves, but on Jesus Christ.

It’s very difficult to define this kind of love, but we know it when we see it, and we admire it when we encounter it. And that’s why instead of standing here today talking about it, I want to share with you a living example of Christ-like love that I have witnessed and which speak much more powerfully than my words ever could (to hear the story listen to the audio version of this homily).

We are all uplifted and inspired by encountering this kind of heroic loving.  We admire the utter generosity, the unbelievable self-forgetfulness. And even though most of us will not be asked to live out Christ-like love in such extreme situations, we are all called to live it in the daily grind of life which can, in all honesty, be just as challenging.  So, we need to look at the outstanding example of people like that husband, or like so many of the saints, and ponder on how Christ is asking us to live his self-giving love in our own situations. Who in my life needs my support in difficulty? Who needs my presence in their loneliness? Who needs my physical help in their disability or illness? Who needs my patience and prayers as they struggle for sobriety and recovery?

And you know, as I see it, the beautiful thing about real love is that it lifts us up out of ourselves, up to higher realms.  As we live it out it teaches us, bit by bit, day by day, that it is indeed very possible for us to become more and more like Jesus. And that, after all, is what Christianity is all about.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Are Your Ears Open to His Voice?

From the Catholic Liturgy for the 4th Sunday of Easter, May 12, 2019. Gospel – John 10:27-30. Theme: Are Your Ears Open to His Voice?

In today’s Gospel, when we hear Jesus declare: “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish…” it should make us ask ourselves, I know it made me ask myself when I was a young man investigating Christianity:  How can I hear Jesus’ voice teaching the way to eternal life today - 2,000 years after he has risen from the dead and ascended to Heaven?

Well, we can find the answer in the New Testament. The Gospels clearly show us that Jesus intentionally provided us with a sure way of hearing his voice after He returned to Heaven.  It was precisely for this reason that he gathered together twelve apostles during his 3 years of public ministry. He specially formed and instructed them to be his representatives. He explained things to them that he did not do for others.

Furthermore, the Gospels show us that Jesus identified himself intimately with these twelve men. He gave them a share in his authority over demons. He empowered them to heal the sick and to cure all kinds of illnesses. He declared to them several times, “whoever hears you speaking is hearing me,” and, “whoever accepts you, accepts me; whoever rejects you, rejects me.” At the Last Supper, he said that the Holy Spirit, whom he would send to the, would teach them and keep them faithful to the truth, so that they could in turn teach others. And on the first Easter night he bestowed upon these apostles the awesome authority to even forgive sins in his name.

Then when we move on from the Gospels to the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, we learn even more about the mission of these men. It makes it extremely clear that these leaders of the Church, were accepted by the first Christians an extension of the Risen Jesus in the world: ministering in his Name and speaking with his voice, which means teaching with his authority and commission. It makes it very clear that the sheep of Christ’s flock believed that the Good Shepherd continued to lead them through these leaders of his Church.

Well, so far so good…my inquiring mind had a good but partial answer to that question…but then I asked myself: what happened to the voice of Jesus after the apostles left this world? Did he go silent? Who would speak for him to me today?  Well, again, the New Testament came to my rescue. It tells us that the Holy Spirit inspired the apostles to hand on and share their leadership with other men.  The Book of Acts shows us that the apostles chose St. Matthias to take the place of Judas and St. Paul became an apostle in addition to the original ones. This passing on of the apostles’ ministry has continued down through the centuries even into our own times.

Eventually these shepherds came to be called bishops, with their leader, the voice of Jesus for all the Church, was called pope. Pope Francis, for example, is the 266th successor of the Apostle St. Peter.  It is the solemn responsibility of the pope, and of the bishops in union with him, helped by priests and deacons, to be the voice of Jesus in every era, to continue teaching and leading the sheep to eternal life.  

But I think, in all honesty, we must admit that it can be very hard for people to hear and accept the voice of Jesus speaking in today’s Church. The fact that some our shepherds have been guilty of extremely un-Christ-like behavior, have been guilty of abuse & harassment, of cover-ups & lying makes many want to close their ears and not hear the voice of Jesus teaching through them. But there is an interesting episode from the life of Jesus that is very applicable to this sad situation. It is recorded in the Gospels and happened before Christianity broke away from Judaism. 

Many of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day were interested in self-promotion, in amassing power and wealth, in living a luxurious life. They did not have the sheep’s best interest at heart or in mind. Sound a bit familiar?  Jesus told his followers to listen to what these leaders taught because they legitimately held the teaching office in Judaism.  But He warned them not follow their scandalous example saying, “Do as they say but do not do as they do.”

Jesus reminded the people that God could and would still teach through these men. And he continues to say the same thing to us today.  You see, the Holy Spirit keeps the voice of Jesus speaking and teaching in every era of history no matter who is leading us. Not for the sake of the teachers, but for the sake of the sheep, for our sakes. We need to hear the sure voice of Jesus teaching us in the midst of a world so full of competing voices!

So, I think the bottom line, the “take away” from all this is that the sins of the leadership cannot drown out the voice of Jesus, unless we allow it. He will not permit the infidelity of some shepherds to stifle his voice and leave us, the sheep, without guidance and direction. Jesus’ closing words in today’s Gospel give us this assurance: “No one can take my sheep out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me is greater than all and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one”