When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.
At the time he disciples were thoroughly discouraged, deflated and fearful. (This is often a precondition for a spiritual experience.) We can take the image of the wind filling the room as the Spirit “inflating” the apostles as a group and as individuals. The image of being inflated, however, does not mean having an inflated ego. Nor does it mean becoming larger while losing value as does inflated currency. What should a disciple who is inflated by the Spirit look like?
Acts tells us that the apostles went into the crowd preaching to foreigners in language that they could understand. In the second reading (1 Cor 12:3B-17, 12-13) we will hear that there are:
There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.
Some of the disciples will evidence their newly inflated status with the gift of wisdom. Others with faith, healing, mighty deeds, discernment, or tongues. Some will become quiet and contemplative. Others will be dedicated to the active life.
You won’t be able to spot the “inflated people” by looking or listening to what they proclaim, especially if they proclaim about themselves. You will be able to tell by their fruits.
On Ascension Sunday (May 17) the readings for Mass will tell us of the disciples standing confused as they watch the Lord ascend (Acts 1:1-11). In the gospel these same disciples who would be “standing there looking up at the sky” would be urged to:
“Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature”
How could they move from a state of timidity and confusion and begin an effort that would lead to an amazingly rapid spread of Christianity?
We get an answer in our second reading - a prayer that Paul sent in his letter to the Ephesians:
“I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power."
Once enlightened and filled with hope they could go forth and preach with fire and passion.
Sadly, too many of us approach the study of faith (i.e. theology) with the eyes of our minds alone. (I certainly did.) Our religious education tends to focus on the law and abstract truths. While there is value to law - it can set boundaries that will protect us from harm. We know of many young people and adults who have come to grief by transgressing boundaries. However, when we become overly focused on the law, we cease seeing the world through the eyes of our hearts. Then we look on transgressors as people who deserve the suffering they now experience. Even more sadly, we can look on ourselves as sinners who deserve our current suffering.
The way out of this is to see through our hearts as well as our minds. A heart enlightened with hope can look on others with gentleness and mercy. We will see sufferers through hopeful eyes, helping them to find a safe path out of suffering and move onto the “glorious inheritance among the saints…”
On the Sixth Sunday of Easter (May 10) the scriptures for Mass include a gospel reading that brought memories of my Cursillo in 1973. One verse changed my view of the faith. The first reading from Acts 10 tells the story of how Christianity began to spread to the Gentiles. The second (1 Jn 4:77-10) emphasizes love:
"….In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him…."
Had I heard this at the time, I would have thought: “that is true, heard it before, but it doesn’t change anything for me.”
However, the gospel (Jn 15:9-17) includes this:
“Jesus said to his disciples…I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have told you everything I have heard from my Father…”
For me, the concept of a God high in the sky filled with wondrous power, however loving, seemed abstract and impersonal. However, a God who approached on foot and speaking of friendship was accessible and words of friendship were moving.
The entire weekend had faded into memory. This Sunday’s gospel reading brought it back. I’m grateful.
In the scriptures for Fifth Sunday of Easter (May 3) the word “remain” will be repeated 10 times. (Twice in the second reading (1 JN 3:18-24) and eight times in the Gospel (Jn 15:1-8).
Maybe we should pay attention. Clearly something more than a metaphor is intended. I can think of ways in which loved ones and friends remain in my consciousness even when we are apart. I am aware of their idea’s, attitudes and opinions, taking them into consideration as I go through the day. This means more than a common experience of friendship. The word menein is also translated as “abide” or “dwell.”
Whatever the translation, this is an astounding claim. I am not about to claim that God remains, abides, or dwells in me while standing on the street corner or visiting a neighborhood picnic. We all have character defects and shortcomings that keep us from believing that we are good enough for God to dwell within us. Our minds search for an interpretation of the word that lessens the impact. Yet the scriptural evidence is abundant. The Contemplative Outreach site lists seven texts from the Gospel of John alone.
Perhaps it is best to avoid focusing on the indwelling, accept it as best we can and draw hope from two other portions in Sunday’s readings:
Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence in God and receive from him whatever we ask, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. (1 JN 3:21-22)
If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. (JN 15:7)
These are also astounding claims. The best we can do is go forward in hope and trust that they will come true in their own way and their own time.
The scriptures for the Fourth Sunday of Easter (April 26) provide us with an arresting image, one that we usually miss. In the gospel reading (Jn 10:11-18) Jesus tells a story that must have been startling to those who heard it:
A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. A hired man, who is not a shepherd and whose sheep are not his own, sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away, and the wolf catches and scatters them. This is because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep.
At this point the listeners might have been asking themselves: “So the wolf kills the shepherd. Who will protect the sheep now?” Jesus continues, saying that not only will he lay down hs life for his sheep, he will go get even more sheep and enlarge the flock. It is an arresting image, one that might have been even more vivid to the disciples after the Shepherd was dead and they had scattered.
The listeners have barely thought of the question when they get a surprising answer:
“…I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again.”
What was the response from his listeners? (We have to go beyond today's gospel reading which stops at verse 18.)
“Again there was a division…. Many of them said, ‘He is possessed and out of his mind; why listen to him?” (Jn 10:19-20)
We who know the rest of the story think don't stop to consider the listener's response. Had I been there at the time, and heard Jesus' claim I would have suspected that he was out of his mind. Today I can be grateful that we have a living Shepherd.
The scripture readings at Mass for the Third Sunday of Easter (4/19/15) challenge us first to turn our lives from one direction to another and then to give witness. Sadly, it is nearly impossible for many of us to make that turn. When our face is set in one direction we find it difficult to change, even if the current direction is bringing us physical, social or emotional suffering. Ben Franklin defined this as insanity - doing the same thing over and over while expecting a better result.
The first reading (Acts 3:13-15, 17-19) calls upon us to make that turn. In gospel terms this is metanoia (“conversion”). Thomas Keating writes that this means to change the direction in which we are looking for happiness. Once this is done, and we have found happiness, witnessing to our new lives will follow naturally.
The challenge is to make that turn, to change the direction in which we are looking for happiness. This is difficult when we are “set in our ways.”
The Gospel reading (Luke 24: 35-48) describes how the disciples changed. They experienced confusion, elation and fear following the resurrection. It was not until Jesus
“..opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.”
that they were able to turn their lives to witnessing “to all the nations.”
So must it be with each of us. We can try to understand. We can be confused, elated and afraid - but we will not be able to turn and witness until after our minds are opened. Note that we use the passive voice. We cannot open our minds (active voice) by ourselves. We must wait for them to be opened. Psalm 4, describes the gift that follows:
“…But you have given my heart more joy than they have when grain and wine abound. In peace I will lie down and fall asleep, for you alone, LORD, make me secure.”
The scripture readings for the Second Sunday of Easter give us a powerful story of witness and unity, followed by dissent from a believer. We hear in Acts 4 that the “community of believers was of one heart and mind,” sharing all amongst themselves. However, in John 20 we see the first example of disunity in the church. Thomas, who had spent his life reciting the Shema (“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one. ….” ), had reason to doubt. If the Lord was one, how could the impossible have happened. Jesus, who had been killed, was walking alive and was the Lord as the apostles testified?
Thomas set conditions for his belief, telling the disciples:
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
Yet the disciples kept the door open for this man, whom we might call a “resurrection denier.” The Lord met his conditions, saying to Thomas:
“Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.”
Thomas’ answer, given that he spent his life reciting that the the Lord was one, is stunning:
“My Lord and my God!” (Christians would spend the next three centuries devising an explanation of how this could be true.)
Thomas had to be challenged to overcome a lifetime’s conception of who God was and how God should act. Thomas had a confirmation bias that almost prevented him from seeing how God was acting. His story is, to a large extent, our own.
Dt. 26:4-8 gives us a clue as to how to listen to the 9 readings and re-sponsorial psalms during Great Vigil of Easter. We by reporting what happened to our ancestor: "My father was a wandering Aramean and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation…" In the next verse we identify with what happened to the Israelites: "But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer,…. Then we cried out to the Lord…"
The story of our ancestors is, somehow, our story as well. In our parish we will start after dark with a bonfire and follow the newly lit Easter Candle in procession into church. (This same candle will lead the casket in procession for anyone who will be buried during the coming year.) As we follow, singing the lumen christi (light of Christ) we can imagine that, like the Israelites, we are being rescued and escaping from Egypt. What is Egypt to us? It is the slavery of attachments, resentments, anger, fear and whatever else binds us and keeps us from becoming the people we can be. We are on the way, not fully in the promised land - but making spiritual progress not perfection. Perfection will be attained when we follow that candle one last time.
In reflecting on the scriptures for Passion Sunday (March 29) believers are frequently urged to meditate upon Jesus’ suffering while on the cross. We should also reflect on the psychic and emotional suffering before the actual crucifixion.
Imagine Jesus in Gethsemane, looking down through the ages and visualizing the multitude of humanity trapped in behavior that is destructive of others and self. He realizes that he alone can provide a safe path out of the trap - and that the path goes through the cross. Kathleen Norris writes in Amazing Grace that the original meaning of the Hebrew word “yeshua” can mean rescue or making a safe path. This, to my mind, is what happened. Jesus looked across the world and down through the ages, saw us trapped and realized that he had to provide a path. This would lead us out of slavery to our own destructive behavior patterns. He must have realized that he did not have to go forward. He pleaded with his Father to be allowed to avoid walking this path. Yet his understanding of the text of Isaiah:
I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.
The Lord GOD is my help, therefore I am not disgraced; I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.
told him that he had to proceed. How did he find the strength and courage? Paul writes to the Philippians that Jesus:
“Who, being in very nature] God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death even death on a cross!” (Phil 2:6-11, NIV)
Once we grasp that his rescue set us free, we can only be grateful.
In the scriptures for the Fifth Sunday of Lent (March 22) we will hear what, IMO, is the most challenging statement in all of the gospels. Before we get to this, we will hear a promise in the first reading (Jer 31:31-34) and a plea for help in Psalm 51. Then, in the second reading (Heb 5:7-9) we get a foundation for meeting the gospel (Jn 12:20-33) and for meeting the challenge.
In Jeremiah we get this promise:
But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD. I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
No longer will we have an external law, one that we must obey under the threat of punishment. We will have one that lives in our hearts and is followed out of a sense of joy. Yet we sense that we can not do this ourselves, and so we pray in Psalm 51:
A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me.
Lest this seem impossible, the writer of Hebrews gives us the foundation for our hope:
Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered; and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.
Then, in John, we have the challenge issued to the Greeks who wished to see Jesus.
Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be. The Father will honor whoever serves me.
The phrase “hating his life in this world” calls for some explanation. What it means to me is that, true to the promise, the Lord will plant his law in our hearts. The Lord will also create a clean heart within us - but we must desire for our hearts to be open. The challenge, then, is to be willing to give up those things in our hearts which keep them closed. When we see what it is in this world that is closing our hearts will will “hate”, ie. love it less, and be willing to give it up.
Sometimes the challenge is not just becoming willing to give up obstacles to God’s presence within us. It is simply becoming able to identify the obstacles. If we take inventory we may find that the obstacles are numerous and that some of them are disguised as good things. Thus, with David we pray:
Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness; in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense. Thoroughly wash me from my guilt and of my sin cleanse me.