Friday, April 20, 2018

"YOU HAVE THE WORDS OF EVERLASTING LIFE."


Homily for April 21st, 2018: John 6:60-69.

          There is something poignant about Peter’s response to Jesus’ challenging question: “Do you also want to leave?” Many had already done so: “Many of [Jesus’] disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer walked with him,” John tells us before reporting Jesus’ challenge to the Twelve. What caused their departure was Jesus’ refusal to soften his teaching about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. “Let me solemnly assure you,” Jesus said, “if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” (6:53). That was strong meat indeed, especially for people whose dietary laws forbade the consumption of blood in any form. Still today the kosher laws of observant Jews require that the blood be drained from any meat offered for human consumption. Jesus’ words are also the answer to Protestants who insist that Jesus’ presence in the bread and wine of their Communion services is “purely symbolic” and not real. 

          The apostle Peter was, frankly, not the sharpest crayon in the box. His response to Jesus’ question, “Lord to whom shall we go?” suggests that he may not have understood the meaning of Jesus’ strong words. He was captivated nonetheless by the One who spoke them: “You have the words of everlasting life.”

          Any preacher who is faithful to his commission to preach the full gospel, and not just what people want to hear, will encounter criticism and rejection. I say that from personal experience. It is the preacher’s task to comfort the afflicted – but also afflict the comfortable. When I have said from the pulpit that marriage is possible only for one man and one woman, I have been told: ‘That’s just one opinion.’ The answer is simple: it is the teaching of the Bible, and of the Catholic Church. Told that this teaching is “very hurtful to many of our parishioners,” I remain unfazed. The Lord whose commission I hold to preach “the truth the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” will ask me one day whether I did that; or whether I abbreviated his truth because someone might be uncomfortable and offended. Similarly with the person who was offended by a homily which dealt in part with pornography – which any priest who sits in the confessional soon learns is a serious problem today – and in consequence could no longer attend our church. Jesus encountered rejection. If we who serve him experience only smiles and affirmation, we must ask whether we are doing our job.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

"WHY ARE YOU PERECUTING ME?"


Homily for April 20th, 2018. Acts of the Apostles 9:1-20.

          The story we heard in our first reading is one of the most dramatic conversion stories of all time – in the same class with the story of St. Augustine’s conversion three centuries later. The chief persecutor of Jesus’ disciples, until then a small sect within the Jewish community, becomes overnight the man called by God to carry the gospel message to the whole world.

In Augustine’s case, conversion started with a child’s voice from the other side of the garden wall, saying, “Take up and read.” When Augustine opened the biblical scroll he was holding, his eyes fell on Paul’s words in his letter to the Romans: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof” (13:13f). Those words kindled in Augustine a fire that never went out.

          In the case of Saul (he received the name Paul only when he was baptized), the voice said: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” We might have expected a different question: “Why are you persecuting my Church?” The question came in personal form because the Church is Christ’s body: he has today no voice to speak to people but ours, no hands to reach out in compassion but ours, and so forth.

          Note the reaction of the man God has chosen to baptize Saul, Ananias. He’s scared out of his wits. ‘I’ve heard about this man, Lord,’ he says. ‘He’s dangerous.’ ‘Go,’ God tells him. ‘He is my chosen instrument to carry my name to Jew and Gentile alike.’ Go to St. Paul’s Church just south of Columbus Circle in New York’s Manhattan. Over the altar you will see carved in stone three Latin words: Vas electionis est – “He is my elect or chosen vessel.”

          To those words the Lord adds these: “I will show him what he will have to suffer for my name.” What does this tell us? A personal encounter with the Lord God – like that experienced by Saul, Augustine, and countless others down through the ages – is never just for the individual. God comes personally to chosen souls to commission them to go to others, proclaiming: “I have seen the Lord!” And in every case, the fulfillment of this call means suffering.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

''WHOEVER EATS THIS BREAD WILL LIVE FOREVER."


Homily for April 19th, 2018: John 6:44-51.

          “I am the bread of life,” Jesus says. “Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat and not die.” Jesus is speaking to his fellow Jews. So to understand what he is saying, we must start with the Jewish Scriptures, which we call the Old Testament.

          The rabbis often spoke of the manna which nourished God’s people during their desert wanderings under Moses as God’s word or instruction. Amos, the first of Israel’s prophets to write down his message (earlier prophets spoke orally only) writes about a famine coming on the land, because of the people’s unfaithfulness: “not a famine of bread or a thirst for water, but for hearing the word of the Lord” (8:11f). The theme of bread as God’s word is frequent in the so-called Wisdom books of the Old Testament. In the book Sirach, for instance, we read: “He who fears the Lord … will come to wisdom … She will nourish him with the bread of understanding . . .” (15:1 & 3).

          This is the background for Jesus’ astonishing claim: “I am the bread of life … the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever.” Jesus is telling us that his words are real nourishment. That is why the two disciples who encountered the risen Lord on the road to Emmaus could say, after Jesus had made himself known in “the breaking of the bread” (the oldest term for the Eucharist): “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32).

          All Catholics know that Jesus comes to us in Holy Communion. Many still do not know that he comes to us equally in what the second Vatican Council called “the table of the word.” The rediscovery of that term, which had lain, largely forgotten, in the Church’s attic for centuries, was one of the Council’s great gifts to us. “The church has always venerated the divine Scriptures as she venerates the body of the Lord,” the Council said, “insofar as she never ceases, particularly in the sacred liturgy, to partake of the bread of life and to offer it to the faithful from the table of the Word of God and the Body of Christ” (Verbum Dei, 21).  For a balanced spiritual diet, we must be nourished by both.

         

 

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

"I AM THE BREAD OF LIFE,"


Homily for April 18th, 2018: John 6:35-40.

          An African priest tells about a priest-friend who is studying in Paris. One day the French priest with whom he lives was unwell and unable to celebrate his regular 4 p.m. Mass for nuns in a nearby convent. He asked the African priest to substitute for him. When the African priest rang the convent doorbell at 3.55, the Sister who answered was surprised to see an unfamiliar face. She thought he was a street person asking for help. “I’m sorry,” she told him. “We’re just about to have Mass. We can’t help you now. Come back later.” Fifteen minutes later, the nuns called the rectory to ask where their priest was. Imagine their embarrassment when they learned that they had just turned him away.

          Why did those good Sisters go without Mass that day? It was because the priest who came did not look like the person they were expecting. That was Jesus’ experience. His fellow Jews were expecting that God’s long awaited anointed servant, the Messiah, would come dramatically, descending from the clouds of heaven. Jesus was not dramatic. He was ordinary. When Jesus said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” they thought he must be crazy. “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph?” they asked. “Then how can he say, ‘I have come down from heaven’”?  

          Jesus’ people knew about “bread from heaven.” That was the manna with which God had fed their ancestors during their desert wanderings. But the prophets also spoke of bread as the spiritual nourishment which God gives to those who approach him in faith and try to do his will. So when Jesus said, “I am the bread come down from heaven,” he was using the language of the prophets.          When Jesus says, “I am the bread come down from heaven,” and “I am the bread of life,” we read those words as a reference to the Eucharist. That is correct. But there are two tables in the Eucharist: the table of the Lord’s body, but also the table of the word. The first part of the Mass, the liturgy of the word, is not merely a preparation for the “essential part”: consecration and communion. It is equally important, and equally essential. The Second Vatican Council said in 1965: “In the sacred books the Father who is in heaven comes lovingly to meet his children, and talks with them. And such is the force and power of the word of God that it can serve the Church as her support and vigor, and the children of the Church as strength for their faith, food for the soul, and a pure and lasting source of spiritual life.”

          We repeat then in this Mass the words of the boy Samuel when the Lord called out to him in the Jerusalem Temple: “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening” (1 Sam. 3:10).

         

 

Monday, April 16, 2018

SALVATION IN THE NAME OF JESUS ALONE

Homily for April 22nd, 2018: Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B. 
Acts 4:8-12; 1 John 3:1-2; John 10:11-18.

AIM:  To help the hearers accept Christ=s atoning love through faith, and to share this love with others.
 
Are the different religions simply alternative routes to the same goal? Many people say they are. The Catholic Church respects and honors the elements of truth in all religions, while holding fast to Peter=s statement in our first reading: AThere is no salvation in anyone else [than in Jesus Christ], nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.@
How are we saved? The New Testament gives us two answers to that question. It says that we are saved only by deeds of active love. But it also says that we are saved only by faith. Those two statements seem to contradict each other. In reality they are like two sides of a single coin. Let me explain.
That we are saved only by love is Jesus= clear teaching in his parable of the sheep and the goats (Mt. 25:31-46). There Jesus tells us that on Judgment Day only question will be asked: How much, or how little, have you done for people in need?  Jesus said the same when asked, AWhich commandment of the law is the greatest?@  AYou shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, with your whole soul, and with your whole mind.@ Jesus replied. AThis is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like it, >You shall love your neighbor as yourself=@ (Mt. 22:37-39). And in the Sermon on he Mount Jesus says that even pious words and prayers will not save us, if we lack love. ANone of those who cry out, >Lord, Lord,= will enter the kingdom of God but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven@ (Mt. 7:21). And the apostle Paul says the same when he writes: ALove is the fulfillment of the law@ (Rom. 13:10).
Yet the New Testament also tells us that no one really loves enough to be saved. AWhen you have done all you have been commanded to do,@ Jesus says [and which of us has?], Asay, >We are useless servants. We have done no more than our duty=@ (Lk. 17:10). And Paul says the same: AAll have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God@ (Rom. 3:23; cf. also 11:32).
Even our best efforts to love God and others are never totally unselfish. We look for some return: gratitude, recognition, some reward B if not in this world, then at least in the next. Totally disinterested love does not exist this side of heaven.      
The good news of the gospel is that God himself has made good what is lacking in our imperfect attempts to love him and others. He has sent his Son, Jesus, to love for us; to do, on our behalf, what we could never do ourselves. Jesus, moreover, has accepted the sentence of condemnation which we deserve, because of our lack of love. Jesus, though sinless, accepted crucifixion in our place. AFor our sakes,@ Paul says, AGod made him who did not know sin to be sin, so that in him we might become the very holiness of God@ (2 Cor. 5:21). Jesus confirms this in today=s gospel, when he says that he is the good shepherd, who freely lays down his life for his foolish, wandering sheep.
If God has already done all this for us, what is our role? It is to accept what God offers us through faith in his Son. The technical term for what God offers is Ajustification@, which means Abeing made right with God.@ The Catechism says: AJustification is ... the acceptance of God=s righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ@ (No. 1991). 
The same Scriptures which tell us, as we have seen, that we cannot be saved without love also tell us that we cannot be saved without faith. The seeming contradiction between those two statements disappears when we realize that both love and faith are ways in which we break through the closed circle of our self-centredness. Love directs us to the service of God and others, to the point of self-forgetfulness. Faith admits that even our best efforts to serve are tainted by egotism. Hence faith reaches out in trust to Him who, on our behalf, has made up for our imperfect love; and has borne for us the punishment for failing to love as we should.  

This is the basis for Peter=s assertion in our first reading that Athere is no salvation through anyone else@ than Jesus Christ. If there is salvation for anyone, it is only because of Jesus, the good shepherd, whose care for the sheep is totally selfless; who loves us, his foolish sheep, enough to lay down his life for us. Jesus died as he had lived: for others. Jesus is Athe man for others.@ We are called to be like him; to be ourselves people for others; to spend our own lives in service of our sisters and brothers, as Jesus spent his life for us.

Our call B and our privilege B is like that given to Simon of Cyrene, the man who helped Jesus carry his cross to Calvary. Like Simon, we are privileged to carry the same cross through history. The faithfulness with which we do this affects the quality of life in our generation, and so the fate of millions who may never accept Christ or his teaching.  

We who have become Catholic Christians in baptism are called to supply in our generation a measure of the selfless love we see in Jesus Christ. We are called to trusting faith in Him who alone was capable of perfect love B the love without which human life disintegrates into a ghastly confusion of selfish rivalries and bloody wars. No one has said it better than St. John, who tells us in our second reading:

ASee what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 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.@

"WHOEVER COMES TO ME WILL NEVER HUNGER."


Homily for April 17th, 2018: John 6:30-35.

          “Whoever comes to me will never hunger,” Jesus says, “whoever believes in me will never thirst.” Those are tremendous claims indeed. Only our familiarity with the words keeps us from recognizing how daring they are.

          What do we hunger for? Many things. One hunger, however, is universal. Every one of us hungers for acceptance and love. At life’s beginning, our parents, mothers especially, satisfy this hunger, if they are at least reasonably good parents. Even the best mother’s love pales, however, beside the intensity and fervor of God’s love for us.

          A three-year old Chinese girl in our parish pre-school showed me this not many years ago. Her name was Doris. At the time an only child, her parents told her that she would soon start pre-school. She talked of it with excitement for weeks. When school started, however, there were floods of tears. It was her first time away from her parents. She had never had a baby sitter.

Because I was a close friend of her family -- I had seen Doris for the first time an hour after her birth -- I felt a special responsibility for her. When her three-hour pre-school day ended at noon, I would meet Doris outside her classroom, and stand with her at, or in cold weather inside, the glass door of the school, waiting for her mother to appear to take her home. The instant Doris glimpsed her mother, she would break away from me and run as fast as her little legs would take her to her mother’s arms. What an example of hunger for love! It was heart-stopping.

That hunger for love does not diminish as the years go by. When parental love no longer satisfies us, most of us start looking for satisfaction of our hunger from things which, though good in themselves, leave us still hungry and frustrated, because we can never get enough of them: things like pleasure, possessions, power, and honor.

For many people it takes years, for some decades, before we discover that there is only One in who can satisfy the deepest hunger and desires of our hearts. His name is Jesus Christ.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

TRUSTING FAITH


Homily for April 16th, 2018: John 6:22-29.

AThis is the work of God,@ Jesus says in the gospel reading we have just heard, Athat you believe in the one he sent.@ Or as another translation has it: Ahave faith in the one he sent.@ What is faith? For many of us, I think, faith means belief in the truths contained in the creed which we recite every Sunday at Mass. Faith in that sense is more properly called Abelief@: mental assent. Important as that is, faith has another meaning: personal trust C an affair not just of the head, but of the heart.  Even the creed begins not AI believe that@ but AI believe in.@ To believe in someone is to trust that person. Here’s a story about such trusting faith.

Some Alpine guides in a Swiss village organized a climb late in the season, after all the tourists had departed. They reached their chosen summit without difficulty. They were disappointed, however, not to have found an edelweiss, the delicate star-shaped white flower that grows only at high altitudes and is prized by mountaineers as a souvenir of their exploits.

The group had already started their descent when one of them spotted a single edelweiss on a narrow ledge some thirty feet below. To get it someone would have to be let down on a rope. There was no time to linger, for the weather, which changes rapidly in the high mountains, was deteriorating. The climbers turned at once to the youngest and smallest member of the party, twelve-year-old Hans, making his first major climb with his father. It would be easy to let him down. In five minutes they could be on their way again. 

AWhat about it, Hans,@ they asked. AWill you do it?@

Hans peered anxiously at the narrow ledged with the treasured white flower C and at the sheer drop of hundreds of feet immediately beyond.

AI=ll do it,@ Hans replied, Aif my father holds the rope.@

That=s faith B unconditional trust! That is what Jesus is talking about when he says in today=s gospel: AThis is the work of God: that you believe in the One he sent.@

We pray in this Mass that, through the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit, we too may receive the trusting faith of that twelve-year-old boy.   

Friday, April 13, 2018

"IT IS I. DO NOT BE AFRAID."


Homily for April 14th, 2018: John 6:16-21.

          What began as a routine evening crossing of the lake soon turns into a nightmare for Jesus’ friends in their small boat. When they see a human figure approaching across the storm-tossed waves it is small wonder that they “began to be afraid.” It is Jesus. “It is I,” he calls out. “Do not be afraid!”

Like most people in antiquity, Jesus’ people, the Jews, regarded the sea as the domain of supernatural, demonic forces. To the Hebrew mind wind and waves were perilous: only God could master them. Repeatedly the psalms speak of God’s power to “rule the surging sea and calm the turmoil of its waves” (Ps. 89:10; cf. 93:3f; 107:23-30). By walking on the raging waves, and calming the stormy sea, Jesus shows himself to be acting as only God can do.

          This beautiful story speaks to each one of us individually. Somewhere in this church right now there may be someone facing a personal crisis: an illness, perhaps, your own or that of a loved one; a family problem; a humiliating failure; the sudden collapse of long held hopes, plans, and efforts. You are filled with fear. When you look down, you see only peril and ruin. But look up! Keep your eyes on Jesus. He still has power to save. 

          The story assures us that when the storm rages and the night is blackest; when we cannot see the way ahead; when we are bone weary with life’s struggle and our hearts fail us for fear, Jesus is close. He only seems to be absent. In reality he is never far from us. He knows at every moment the difficulties against which we contend. Across the storm waters of this world he comes to us and speaks the same words of assurance that he spoke to the terrified men in that small boat: “It is I, do not be afraid!”

That, friends, is the gospel. That is the good news.