The whole world.

And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Par’thians and Medes and E’lamites and residents of Mesopota’mia, Judea and Cappado’cia, Pontus and Asia, Phryg’ia and Pamphyl’ia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyre’ne, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians, we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” 

A strong driving wind. The City of Jerusalem filled with visitors from throughout the world. They heard it, were shocked and amazed, and came to attention. They came running. The light of the Holy Spirit’s fire filled the precinct where the Apostles were staying. They appeared to the crowd, on fire, lit by the Holy Spirit. They spoke in the languages of the world. Each person, with their cares and worries, with their outlooks and prejudices and opinions heard, no distinction. The Holy Spirit at work through these Apostles – witnesses – focused them on renewing the face of the earth.

The fire of the Holy Spirit and His gifts of wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and holy fear were operative that day and have been ever since.

On that day, of the approximately one million people in Jerusalem, three thousand came to be baptized. Three thousand came to realize that cares, worries, outlooks, fears, prejudices, and opinions were the work of the opposer, of the devil. What the three thousand discovered was that human distinction meant nothing. They learned that the unity of the body, as Paul would later write, was what mattered, for they were the body of Christ in the world. They were the Holy Church.

The world remains afire, afire in opposition. Cares and worries, outlooks and prejudices and opinions – the ability for humans to ignore the image of God in each other burns. We have, as a people, resolutely ignored the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

The seed of change must start with us. We must listen to the Spirit, we must accept His gifts, and not just count them theory, and a nice thing to have, but as the mark of our lives; the mark we will leave on society, our cities, towns, and villages, and upon the whole world. We are that three thousand.

As the new three thousand we must allow the Holy Spirit to burn away cares, worries, outlooks, fears, prejudices, and opinions. We must allow the Spirit to open our eyes to the dignity and worth of every person. We must be serious and be the witnessing Church, the body of Christ, for and with all, here and now.

Realization.

“Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?”

Let’s start again this week from music. Would we happen to know how many songs talk about ‘hearts on fire,’ ‘hearts aflame?’ There are at least twelve. Probably a lot more.

Songwriters like the image of hearts on fire because it evokes a passion and desire so necessary to them in drawing pictures of love and even loss. Bryan Adams ‘Hearts On Fire’ is from his album ‘Into The Fire.’ Those titles, cobbled together, speak to what the disciples on the road to Emmaus were experiencing. They went from hearts burning within them to hearts on fire for the gospel, for bringing people to the knowledge of Jesus. Their hearts would not let them stop as long as there were souls in need of salvation.

In their journey with Jesus the disciples felt their hearts being enkindled by the words of scripture, and in fact by Jesus’ very presence. They were experiencing God with us, Emmanuel, Jesus in their midst. They felt. within themselves, an urge for more.

Hearts on fire is a motivator to action and to living the gospel way. We, like those disciples, are called by the fire within us to go out into the fire, to bring Jesus word and way to souls in need of salvation. 

St. Paul traveled about, proclaiming the gospel message, often to people who wanted nothing to do with it. He could not, nor would he, stop. We might ask ourselves why he did it. After government officials, Jews in the diaspora, followers of empty stone rejected him over and over, after they tried to stone him, after numerous arrests and ninety-nine plus percent of people rejecting his message – why still try? Because the fire would not let him stop, not even rest. It needs to be the same for us.

In this time of crisis, we feel the fire deeply. If we long for normality, if we long for something in particular, how much greater our longing should be for, our fire be, for the salvation of souls.

The debate over faith of the heart or the brain has gone on for ages. Is faith felt or intellectualized? The reality is that Jesus speaks to each of us in the way that best ignites the fire, the passion, the drive to be His witnesses to all who are without hope, whose hearts and minds also cry out to be lit aflame by the Lord. Now is the time to self-listen, to recognize our hearts already aflame with the Lord, His gospel, and to help others realize their faith and hope are in God.

Stir it
up.

stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands. For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control. 

St. Paul is writing a closing letter to the Bishop he installed over the Church in Ephesus. Timothy had been Paul’s student and coworker, traveling on Paul’s missionary journeys. Timothy learned from Paul and like Paul was filled with zeal for the faith. He wanted people to know about Jesus, and like him, to leave all behind to follow Jesus. Timothy cowrote some of Paul’s letters to the Churches and he was entrusted with important missions. After being installed as bishop, he oversaw the Church in Ephesus for thirty-three years.

In spite of all this, the co-work, zeal, the fact he left everything behind for Jesus, Paul issues this last letter filled with reminders. Included therein, thankfulness for Timothy’s work, today’s reminder on the gifts Timothy received, examples of the suffering Paul endured as a reminder that Timothy will also be called on to suffer at times, reminders about proper conduct as a witness to the power of the gospel, the care Timothy must use in facing the dangers of the last days, and a reminder of the reward that awaits him.

While only four very short chapters, this letter reminded Timothy, and reminds us, of the deep obligation incumbent on us to preach the word and to make Jesus known with patience, courage, constancy, and endurance. We have the gifts to do all this and more even in the face of opposition, hostility, indifference, and defection.

I mentioned, in spite of all this… Timothy could have said, look at all I have done. I don’t really need reminders. But he did and so do we. In reality it is far beyond reminders. Stirring it up is more than someone helping us recollect what we are called to. It is igniting our passion – passion for Jesus’ way of life. Passion that calls us to exemplify, in even the smallest of things, the gospel life. Passion that will not help but cause us to sing out rejoicing in our salvation. Passion that will not let us sit by and let any go unsaved.

Paul called Timothy, as he was called by Jesus. He passes those words to us: Guard this rich trust with the help of the Holy Spirit that dwells within us. Reach up! Stir it up!

Getting out of
the fire.

Then he sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” Taking a child, he placed it in their midst, and putting his arms around it, he said to them, “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.”

As I was listening to the radio the other day, the song: ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’ by Billy Joel came on. Throughout the song he provides a retrospective on the past seventy-eight years. That story is retold in the hearing of names and events that range from Nazis to modern terrorism. He explains that the bad (mostly) has been with us since the world began. The song sets a somewhat hopeless perspective on the state of the world. We didn’t start the fire, but it was always like this. It will still be like this after we are gone. We tried to fight against it, but lost because nothing will change. The flood of people and events leaves the singer crying out – I can’t take it anymore.

As we walk through our readings we get the same sort of narrative. Wisdom foretells the way the Son of God would be treated in the fire of evil. Let’s attack Him, He is obnoxious, He shows the world our horrible truth, our hypocrisy. Let’s deliver Him to His enemies. Let them mock and torture Him. Mockingly they say – Let’s see what He will do. Let’s see if God defends Him. The writer of Wisdom was not making this up out of whole cloth. He knew what people, particularly powerful people, were like – the hypocrisy, arrogance – the fire of evil they burned with.

Similarly James was pointing out how the people of earliest Church – his was probably the first letter written – were already at each other’s throats. They had the evil fires of jealousy, selfish ambition, disorder, foul practice, wars, conflicts, and covetousness. They had already lost sight of Jesus.

Jesus is explaining what will happen to Him in the fire of worldly evil as He and His disciples walk along. They paid no attention; they were fighting over which one of them was the best, the greatest, the most important. They were in the midst of the fire of evil ambition.

Jesus puts out the fire of evil this way. He places a child, a symbol of innocence in their midst. He wraps the child in His arms – the perfect absence of evil. He says that we have the answer, the antidote to the fire of evil. Receive and live in Jesus – free and out of the fire.

Growing, learning,
blazing forth.

I remind you, to stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands. For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control. So do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord, nor of me, a prisoner for his sake; but bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God.

St. Paul wrote these words to his beloved co-worker, Timothy, who helped Paul by co-authoring and/or delivering six of Paul’s letters. He was addressed directly in two others. Timothy was originally from Lystra in Lycaonia, the son of a Greek father and a Christian mother. Paul commended Timothy’s sincere faith and mentions that the same faith was previously alive in Timothy’s grandmother Lois and mother Eunice. This is a great testimony to the power of family and its example in the Christian life. Timothy joined Paul around 49 AD and worked with him throughout his life. Timothy was with Paul and Silvanus when they first established Christian communities in Philippi, Thessalonica, and Corinth. After training Timothy, and seeing his faith, gifts, and his family’s example, he ordained him as chief pastor and bishop of his community.

As with Timothy, God has placed a gift in each of us. But, like coals burning under the ashes, sometimes God’s gift remains hidden. The challenge is to reveal and awaken it. How to do it?

Jesus spoke of mustard seeds several times. This small seed, this life filled ember, needs to be nurtured and grown. Jesus asks us to have at least faith like that seed. In prayer we help that faith to grow, to become a large bush in which the world can find refuge. We turn it from a smoldering ember to a blazing fire. That fire causes us to do more than the minimum God asks, it helps us in becoming God’s saint heroes.

By praying and in worship we begin to discern the gift God has placed in us. We awaken it and help it to grow into something that is so much more. This is our contribution to the process.

Others also contribute by awakening the gift of God in us. When we look at ourselves, it can happen that we only see what we lack. That leads to discouragement. When someone looks at us with trust, it can transform us. That is how Timothy discovered his gifts – through his grandmother and mom who had planted the seed and encouraged him, and through Paul who trusted him. This is how his mustard seed of faith grew into a blazing fire of witness.

God is the One who awakens His gift in us. God believes in us and trusts us for what we are. God himself has given us “a spirit of strength, love and self-control” He has given us the inner strength to dare to give our life for others, to grow our small seeds and to blaze forth; to encourage all we meet so their flame of faith may grow.

Reflection for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

set me afire

That’s one tough
prophet!

Jesus said to his disciples: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!”

Jeremiah was one tough prophet. He made everyone angry – but not for the purpose of inducing anger.

Jeremiah was a priest born in Israel around 650 BC. The Lord spoke to him and told him that he would be His prophet. Jeremiah was afraid, but the Lord promised to make him strong. God gave Jeremiah the words he was to use.

Jeremiah did as God asked. Afraid as he was, and knowing God’s message wouldn’t be well received, he went and told the people what the Lord was asking of them. He did this for 40 years among great difficulty. Jeremiah was attacked by his brothers, beaten and put into the stocks by a priest and false prophet, imprisoned by the king, threatened with death, as we saw today – thrown into a cistern by Judah’s officials, and was opposed by a false prophet. The people mocked him.

God’s words to the people called them back to faithfulness – they needed to worship God, and only God. God asked them to express sorrow for their unfaithfulness. If they would do this God would bless them once again.

We wish there might have been a happy ending, but there wasn’t. The people continued to worship false gods. They world not listen to Jeremiah or God’s other prophets, choosing instead to listen to false prophets because they gave the people what they wanted. Because of this continuing unfaithfulness, Jerusalem fell.

Jeremiah’s experiences made him lament. The key to understanding how Jeremiah felt is in understanding how much he loved God. He suffered primarily because of this love. He not only said what God wanted said, but felt God’s anguish at the people’s unfaithfulness. Jeremiah knew that even if he wanted to, he couldn’t stop speaking out. He said: “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.

Jesus asks us to have that kind of closeness to Him, that deep and passionate love. God indeed is a burning fire – and Jesus wants us to be filled with His fire. This isn’t just perseverance in faith, it isn’t even a life dedicated to God – it is more. It is a life that is so in tune with God that we cannot hold it in. It is a life that has to bring God’s fire into other’s lives. It is a fire that burns away the words of today’s false prophets. Faithfulness to God can be tough. We have to be that kind of tough.