Strength of Faith

Yet we are courageous, and we would rather leave the body and go home to the Lord. Therefore, we aspire to please him, whether we are at home or away.

Over the next twenty-six weeks we are going to focus on how we live out the Christian faith, how we can walk in Strength of Faith.

In the text of today’s Epistle, we hear Paul say that we aspire to please him [i.e., God], whether we are at home or away. Hearing that immediately took me back to the days of family vacations. At home or away.

The first family vacation I remember was to Florida, Coral Gables, and my Uncle Frank’s house. Both of our families had been touched by tragedy, the loss of my dad and Frank’s loss of his wife, his children’s mom. This was still a pretty fresh memory for all of us.

This time gave us some freedom from those thoughts. I recall each thing we did, the visit to the breach, the salt water of the ocean, shells, going to the Venetian Gardens and its beautiful pools, running away after taking a wedge out of the green on a very nice golf course (I think they’re still looking for me). Being with my cousins. Visiting Ma Easter, an in-law to Uncle Frank, a great, very funny, and vivacious southern woman. Going to the planetarium and seeing moon rocks.

Some of this was culture shock, most just plan fun, and parts even scary. Life is like that, and the overriding question is: How do we approach life? Paul was writing about how we are to live. He boils it down to living in the strength of faith.

The love of God encompasses everything. Grounded in God’s love through Christ’s grace and the Holy Spirit’s communion, we can be what we have been called to be; commending ourselves with confidence to everyone regardless of circumstances, regardless of where we are.

In fact, all that we do while we are in our bodies will be manifest before “the judgment seat of Christ” – the moment when Christ, coming in power, will judge all. This reference to Christ’s “judgment seat” and how we are to live is not a threat or something we should fear, but rather a promise and an expectation of the fullness of the kingdom for those who live in strength of faith.

Although we live in a world where tech savvy, wealth, power, and the call to constant conflict with neighbors seem to override and even wipe out thoughts of God’s steadfast love, justice, and righteousness, we can be confident that God, and we who live His way, will prevail in the end. 

Our “transformation” into Christ’s image takes place not in some otherworldly place, only at the end, but here and now in how we live. Here is where we need to live and act in strength of faith, to go the way of Christ when we feel the pull to conflict, greed, the need to repost criticisms, to finger-point, to REACT. God’s grace is sufficient power to overcome, to live in strength of faith and to be truly Christian.

The Banquet.

“Take it; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, and they all drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many.”

Who remembers their first communion? Mine remains a very vivid memory for several reasons. The first was the suit (dark blue), shirt (white), bow tie (white), silk buttionier, new prayerbook, rosary, lapel pin. In Buffalo you went to the old Polish neighborhood to Spolka Clothing on Broadway to get your first communion clothes. Since first communion was in May, it was still pretty cold the day we went shopping. The changing rooms at the back of Spolka were freezing. Do I have to? Yes. Ok mom. A few days later, having been chilled to the bone, I was sick.

There was class of course, learning what happens in Holy Mass, what we were going to receive. It was amazing, here we are, a group of seven- and eight-year-olds, and Jesus was coming into our hearts. We were going to receive Jesus, not some token, not some plain old bread, but Jesus in all His reality, body, blood, soul, divinity.

The preparation went on. Next on the list, my hair. We had to train the part and hold that cowlick down. Brylcream was your friend. It took weeks of combing and gluing to make it cooperate.

The day arrived. My sister in white with a blue and gold cape. Those of us with younger sisters had them there as our ‘angels.’

The angels processed into church first, followed by all of us. Hair in place and walking and standing straight as a board with hands perfectly folded on that bright sunny morning. We genuflected and knelt in perfect unison. Holy Mass proceeded and the precious moment came, we were going up row-by-row to kneel at the altar rail and receive Jesus. I was so happy.

As we left church the heavens opened up and it poured. Rushed to the car, we were off to the banquet, in the Knights Hall, that my family held just for me, the guest of honor. A feast after the great eternal feast I could now participate in anytime I was spiritually prepared.

 I share all this not just for the sake of reminiscence, but rather as reminder of the importance of what happens at Holy Mass, how the lessons learned though all the care in preparation we took inform us today. Each occasion to receive is equally important, equally precious. It is an equal participation in the great eternal feast, the heavenly banquet. We are equally privileged and also obligated to come forth prepared.

This special day in the Church year calls us to re-recognize the majesty of what we receive, to remember our first reception of Jesus, coming into our hearts and lives, and to ensure each encounter with Jesus’ body and blood is met with the same importance. Recognizing all this, let us rejoice for Jesus’ banquet is ever prepared for us and we share in the eternal feast.

Mystery & Challenge

“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

Trinity Sunday, and every pastor is suddenly digging into the Church Fathers, the great theological treatises, and some good old-fashioned bad analogies so they can explain the mystery of God to their congregations. I even witnessed a brother in the clergy ask an entire group: ‘How are you going to approach this Sunday?’

I am thankful, not because I have the answers, but exactly because I do not, nor do I have to try. There is no theology, no treatise I can share that adequately captures the mystery of God: Father, Son, and Spirit. What I can share is the word I will now repeat for the third time: Mystery.

People love to solve mysteries and expend a whole lot of energy trying to do exactly that. They engage in an effort to unlock the secret of God’s self-revelation as Father, Son, and Spirit, and in doing so focus on the wrong mystery. We must ask then, what mystery does God wants us to focus on?

Indeed, God has called us to do something far different. He challenges us to focus on a different mystery, one easily solvable. His challenge is far different than a scientific study of an unfathomable mystery. God calls us to spend our time on the mystery and challenge of love.

I told the brother who asked: Skip the bad analogies and focus on the attributes of God.

You see, people get to know one another through the attributes they see in the other. He or she is good, caring, spends time, is cautious, is deep, likes to share. We get to know people that way. So, it is with God. How do we know His mystery? It is through His attributes and the attribute of the Trinity that has been and is ever before us is the attribute of love.

The mystery of love is God’s challenge to us. When He said: Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you He was not speaking of any other rule, any other thing than love. Teach, show, and welcome in love.

See how God has revealed His love: In creation – particularly that of humanity, saving His people, rescuing them, and finally sending His Son and punishing Him for our sakes, sending the Holy Spirit to be with us. Even though we may ignore His call, He remains with us. He tells us, we have the Son’s inheritance even though we would otherwise be unworthy. All because of God’s attribute of conquering love.

Love’s mystery is the call to give fully for the other. How can we do that? The answer is that we, as God’s children, can do it exactly because God loved us first in Jesus. God showed us all His love. Now we understand the mystery and set out to live the challenge of love.

Say it!

Brothers and sisters: No one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.

Happy birthday Church.

The Solemnity of Pentecost, after Easter, is the Church’s greatest celebration. In fact, in the early Church, people could only enter the fullness of the Church through baptism on either Easter or Pentecost. Pentecost is that important. Pentecost is that vital, for without this day all of Jesus’ work and teaching would have died off with the Apostles and disciples. Pentecost was that moment in which we were all commissioned to proclaim Jesus’ saving message. We, the people of the Church received the strength, the grace of the Sevenfold Gifts of the Spirit, necessary to carry Jesus’ message to the whole world.

What the Apostles and all those in the upper room did this day is exactly what we are called to do. It is the methodology by which we are to proclaim salvation in Jesus the Lord. It is by our standing out there, on the balconies of the world, it is by our voices raised in praise and proclamation, that salvation in Jesus the Lord is proclaimed.

Today is about our status as full members of the Holy Church and what our work is to be. For today, Jesus’ promised sending of the Holy Spirit was fulfilled and with the Spirit’s decent into our lives (and note I am not saying into the world) we were born to be Jesus’ hands, feet, and voice; to proclaim Jesus is Lord!

We are set apart from the world, we do not belong to it any longer. The Holy Spirit is ours exclusively so we might do God’s work. Our cause is to go out and say Jesus is Lord. Our home is the Kingdom.

When was the last time any one of us met someone and in the course of our conversation said to them, Jesus is my Lord and Savior? 

Without the power of this day all of Jesus’ work and teaching would have died off. So today, we recall that unless we say it from the balconies and at every opportunity, it will die off with us.

We often take pride in the fact that we can speak out on whatever, whenever, and to whomever we want. Yet, how often do we say Jesus is Lord except in the secret of our minds, or in our homes, or within the walls of this building? How often are we quicker to speak on some other trivial matter than to speak of Jesus. If we spend our time as Church saying Jesus is Lord and eschew worldly matters, which should be dead to us, the lost will be converted.

Pastors tell their people, ‘Wear red today.’ A nice sentiment, but nothing unless the Holy Spirit’s fire is burning within us, unless the statement Jesus is Lord is on our lips. Let us look in the mirror tonight and say Jesus is Lord out loud. Say it over several times, and if we can, we know we have the Holy Spirit in us. Knowing that, let nothing stop us for Jesus said, “I send you.”

Consecrated

“Consecrate them in the truth.  Your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world. And I consecrate myself for them, so that they also may be consecrated in truth.”

We all know what happened on the birthday of the Church which we celebrate next Sunday on the Solemnity of Pentecost. As with the Apostles that day, so we have received the Spirt and have been consecrated so that everything Jesus had taught would come pouring out of us and into the world. As the Apostles were sent, so we are sent.

We have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit calling us to a life defined by the gospel and to strong proclamation of the gospel message to the world. Repent and believe!

As we listened to Jesus’ prayer in today’s gospel, did we believe He was speaking about us? If we doubted that, here is where we need to alleviate that doubt. Indeed, Jesus was praying for us, for you and me. He asked His Father to consecrate us in truth, the very Gospel, and then He stated that we are sent by Him.

For the Apostles and disciples, Jesus’ prayer came to fruition Pentecost day. There and then they fully understood their consecration and undertook living it. For us, Jesus’ prayer is not just some words from the past, but a living and active prayer that has consecrated and sent us. So, we must understand we are consecrated and undertake to living our consecration.

To be consecrated means to be set apart, to be fully dedicated to God’s Divine purpose. Do we think we are? Are we living that way? Are we grabbing the opportunities laid before us to witness to the gospel entrusted to us?

Think of the importance of the word consecrated – for it is the word which describes the greatest of the sacraments, the bread and wine mystically made the Body and Blood of Jesus. Consecrated. Just as a church building and priests are consecrated for sacred work, so has Jesus prayed that we be consecrated for His work.

Being consecrated tells us that we are kept in the Father’s Name, that we are all one, that we are partakers (sharers) in Jesus complete joy, and that we, like Jesus, bear the Father’s word – that Word placed into our hearts, minds, and hands in trust by Jesus.

We are that important to Jesus and therefore are to live the consecrated life.

John the Apostle understood what that meant, and he shared this understanding with us. It means that we remain in Him and He in us, that He has given us of His Spirit. It means we must tell people, testifying that the Father sent His Son as Savior of the world. It means that we who acknowledge that Jesus is the Son of God have God remaining in us and that we are in God. Let us then be reinforced in how we live as God’s consecrated people. 

What’s next?

“It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain,”

We are now celebrating the Sixth Sunday and the start of the Sixth Week of the Easter Season. Is the thrill gone?

In the first few weeks of the Easter Season, we stood in awe with the apostles and disciples as they continually encountered the Risen Lord. We could sense their joy, the celebration and thrill that lifted their hearts and opened their minds to the truth of Jesus’ claims. He was indeed the fulfillment of all contained in the Law and the prophets.

Jesus had spent this time connecting the dots for His followers and so armed them to bear fruit by lived faith, to continue the message of freedom that is the gospel, and to bring people to repentance and membership in His body, the Church. As we heard last week, to graft people onto the True Vine.

We all know how it is. We spent time celebrating, thrilled, but now we have to turn what we learned in the celebration into physical action. We have to move the trill to lived witness to the risen Lord. Today, next Sunday, and for the rest of the year, we reinforce how we should be living.

Looking forward, we know what Jesus’ followers did not quite grasp, that Pentecost was coming, that Jesus’ instruction we will hear this Thursday, to remain and pray, would situate them for the awesomeness and trill of that day. Everything He had been teaching them, all the dots He connected, would in a flash of the Holy Spirit’s coming. pour out of them and into the whole world. Is that power pouring out of us? Is that trill with us or are we bored by Jesus?

In today’s readings and gospel, we see Jesus’s direction, how His followers carried it out, and how we should be doing it; what should be pouring out of us as we remain thrilled to be His followers.

It starts in the great commandment – restated today, This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.

Peter understood it in the house of Cornelius where people he would never associate with became his brothers and sisters in the Lord, who also received the Holy Spirit. He saw the trill they encountered, knowing Jesus changed them completely, and he was again renewed.

John, the disciple Jesus loved, went on to continually proclaim the power of love – for love is a thrill when it is lived genuinely, honestly, and effectively.

We live in the trill of being chosen, being free because of Jesus’ resurrection, sharing in His love for us, and our mutual friendship. We are so free, and love filled, that if called upon we will give our lives for Him and each other.

What’s next for us is what was next for the disciples, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, strong proclamation, a life defined by the gospel. And the everlasting trill of Jesus risen.

I am a ________ branch

“I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit”

Years ago, we added a new deck to our house and on one end of the deck we added a very tall wood slat screen. Now some might think it was for privacy. In fact, it was meant to be a support for growing grape vines. The vine would be an ever-present reminder of our True Vine and our life as His branches. The vine also would be the source of the grapes used to make the wine for the sacrifice. That little project still needs to be started. Perhaps it is that wooden screen, absent the vine, that starkly recalls what life would be like without Jesus, the True Vine. It would resemble those barren wood slats that are no more than dead wood and yield nothing.

Our gospel this morning calls to mind what we have by our union with the True Vine. In Jesus we are nourished, we prosper, we live. We are strengthened and disciplined through the Father’s pruning of our lives which makes us better able to provide the abundant food the world needs – Jesus’ gospel and sacraments.

Jesus uses the analogy of a vine to give us the opportunity to think about where we are and what we are a part of. We know that the vine, Jesus, is strong and capable of sustaining and nurturing all the branches. But to receive His nourishment we need to not just be attached to the vine; we need to live in it. 

As with any plant, some branches are fully alive – green and fruitful. Some may be in need of correction and pruning to return to full life. Some may be attached but in actuality are dead, their veins separated from the life of the vine. Jesus’ word calls us to look at ourselves. It gives us the chance to consider, ‘What kind of branch am I?’

Perhaps I am that fruitful living branch, strongly attached to the vine. I remain fervent in prayer, spending time in His presence and allowing Him to speak to me. I receive the sacraments, almost as if it were the very first time, I give thanks for the way His sacramental grace renews and sustains my soul. I strive to use all of my gifts and talents to build up and encourage; I also challenge things have gone wrong in my life and in the world. I demonstrate through my actions that I am willing and eager to help others in and outside of my circle. I let my light shine brightly from the hilltop and call people to Christ. I know that this describes each of you because I see it in you.

Perhaps, however, I am the pruned branch, waiting for renewed growth, ready to leave failings behind and prepared by God for the next part of my Christian mission journey.

Perhaps, I am the dead branch, and if I am, it is time to trust in the God of life who can restore me. I just need to want it.

Our call today is to look deep within and honestly ask, which branch am I and then to set forth by the grace of God to fully live as or become that fruitful branch.

The Lord is my…

Jesus said: “I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. A hired man, who is not a shepherd sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away. I am the good shepherd, and I know mine and mine know me, and I will lay down my life for the sheep.”

Today is a good day to recall the words of our esteemed English teachers. Recall when they used to ask us to compare and contrast works by different authors, poems by different poets.

Jesus breaks right into a compare and contrast with His listeners today. Compare the good shepherd and the hired worker. He cites their motivations, one of concern, love, and sacrifice versus a pecuniary motivation – getting paid and not really caring. He cites their reactions – defense of the flock or running away.

Beyond that immediate compare and contrast, Jesus speaks of those listening as belonging to a fold and another group of people who do not currently belong to that fold. While they were of different folds at that time, Jesus tells His listeners that they will all be brought into one fold, one flock, with one Shepherd.

What Jesus was trying to impress upon those listening is that there is an ideal – a way of being that is unique to followship with Him. 

In this new reality – in the Kingdom and the gospel way of life – we need not worry about who might care for us. We have a Chief Shepherd Who is I AM – God Himself among us – watching over, guiding, guarding, and caring for us. We need not worry about what tribe, nation, people, or party we belong to for that is all worldly death. Instead, we belong to the one fold, the one flock of Jesus.

Peter, on trial with the other disciples, clearly tells the court of the old Israel, “There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.” There is no other fold, or flock, or Shepherd. There is one, only one, for salvation and it is the flock of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. 

St. John expounds: See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Children of One Father, brothers and sisters of the One Lord, no longer separate and apart from God and each other. One flock.

Brothers and sisters, we have a new reality in Christ Jesus. Our esteemed English teachers called us rightly to compare and contrast, and so we should. What was I before Jesus (apart, alone, afraid, without hope beyond today) and what am I now (an heir to eternal life and a member of the eternal family of God)? Who was God to me before Jesus (judge, accuser, punisher) and Who is He now (Good Shepherd)?

As we go forth from this blessed day, let us continually reflect on who the Lord is in our lives. Let us give thanks that we are in Him, the Good Shepherd, the cornerstone, where we together lack nothing. 

Membership.

But whoever keeps his word, the love of God is truly perfected in him.

The words membership and identity are hot terms in these days. That said, they have been terms used throughout history to impose or self-impose a sense of communal belonging. 

In some cases, membership and identity were imposed upon others as a result of prejudices – in an accusatory manner – to differ the other from self, to reduce people’s humanity. In other cases, we have taken on our own memberships and definitions of identity.

If we took a moment to pull out our wallets and purses, we could quickly list some of our memberships. Here are some of mine: SEFCU member, NY driver, PACC member, AARP member (how did that happen?), BJ’s Club member, and others. A quick look at someone’s Facebook – memberships and identity markers abound. Where in all of that is our Jesus card?

The most significant sign of our belonging to Christ is that we bear markers that cannot be reduced to a card or social profile.

Our communal membership, our mutuality, our identity as Christians starts with that which was written on our souls at Baptism-Confirmation, our regeneration, from which our membership and identity as family, as brothers and sisters permeates our entire being and way of living.

Jesus, joined with His disciples as recounted today, told them that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in His name to all the nations. This statement directed His disciples to go out and bear witness throughout the world. With the gifts of the Holy Spirit and, as St. John’s letter describes, the keeping of His word, they grew the family of faith. Out of people of every nation, class, status, color, and gender the Church grew as family.

Faithfulness to Jesus does not make us individuals, separate from each other. Rather, we are defined by our belonging, our obligation to God and each other.

We, the people of the Church, are not a separate people, each on his or her own path who just happen to get together for a moment. Instead, our getting together in worship is sign and symbol that we belong to God, that He belongs to us, and that we belong to each other. God infuses us with a grace to see beyond self to the family. He causes us to share with the Body of Christ as a symbol – a sacrament – of our love and of each person’s dignity.

In today’s Psalm we hear, for you alone, O LORD, bring security to my dwelling. This is not just our home, a physical structure in which we reside. Rather, the term my dwelling refers to our house, the place we reside together. He secures us in the family of faith and calls us to show our Jesus card by being “witnesses of these things” and bearing perfected love.

Say what?

Thomas, called Didymus, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples said to him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “I will not believe.”

As usual, on this Low Sunday, we consider the consternation St. Thomas faced when confronted by the news of the resurrection.

The consternation St. Thomas faced is what we might call ‘say what-ed-ness.’ We all do that, don’t we? Someone tells us something and we proclaim, ‘Say what?’ We shake our heads in a state of perpetual disbelief. I don’t get it. I can’t accept it. This is too foreign to me.

If you ever want to test your own or others ‘say what-ed-ness,’ tell them what the Church teaches in truth and power. Jesus is God and man – He is not just a nice teacher. His words are the Word of God and must be obeyed. We must take up our cross and follow Him, walking the gospel path. All people are the children of God, and each of the baptized are co-heirs with Jesus to the promises of the Father. The Church’s teachings are not just an option but required belief. Say what?

Within the first three Chapters of the Book of Acts we learn that: The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common. With great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.

We do not even have to imagine the ‘say what’ reaction of the people who witnessed the life of the early Church. The reaction of the established leadership was negative. It is well recorded throughout Acts and the Epistles. We can hear the voices: What do you mean? They sell everything they have and share in the proceeds equally? They proclaim Christ without fear, with no apprehension, but publicly and with great power? Say what? We need to shut them up. That still rings true today.

Our ability to elicit ‘say what-ed-ness’ from the worldly is founded upon the power we have as recorded in St. John’s writings: Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is begotten by God… Whoever is begotten by God conquers the world. And the victory that conquers the world is our faith.

As a people empowered by the salvation and inheritance we have in the risen Jesus – the God-man who overcame for us – we need to be a people of resolute faith, a people who truly believe and own, within our hearts as well as shown by our actions and words, the power of the Risen One.

We are called then to go out, dressed in Easter joy, with power, to challenge the ‘say what-ed-ness’ of the world. We are called to proclaim truth and liberty, freedom from death in sin to life in the resurrected Christ. The next time we hear ‘say what?’ let us respond with ‘Let me tell you about Jesus.’ “My Lord and my God!” He lives. In Him we have life. Come and believe.