Jesus Christ, Public Enemy Number One

Lev 19: 1-2, 17-18; I Cor 3: 16-23; Matthew 5: 38-48

What happens when the solution to our problems no longer works? Honestly, we have to prepare for it because the typical means of dealing with problems, these evils of the world, and so on, it is typically done through violence and fear. What happens when it doesn’t work anymore? Think about it, Jesus himself was public enemy number one. He was hated by the scribes and pharisees, as well as the political authorities of his day. He rattled their cages. He challenged the status quo. He preached this awful message of loving enemies, and yet, he was that person. For it, public enemy number one faces death, death on a cross. Why on earth would be we surprised that we would do the same thing? If we can do it to God, to Jesus, why not get rid of anyone and everything that stands in our way, our enemies. Yet, the message today is to love them.

So where do we begin. We first get rid of anyone with brown skin. We lock up black people. We bar Muslims. We can dump the President. We can get rid of Congress. There’s no need for the Church or any institution for that matter. Now, of course, we can throw in the press and the desire for truth and honesty. Let’s just get rid of everyone and everything that has become an enemy to our way of life. There is so much out there right now trying to open us to a place to look at ourselves and where we need to grow. But then what? When all else is gone, using the image that Jesus uses today, after I hand over my tunic and my cloak as well, I now stand naked, exposed, with no one else to blame for my problems, out of solutions, and after I use both my words and actions to take down the enemy, I’m left with myself and the greatest enemy of all, lying deep within myself, my own hurt and pain that I finally come to realize I can no longer outrun and no longer blame everyone else for in my life. If we’re willing to do it to Jesus, and none of us are innocent in this game, the only one left to destroy so often is myself.

Martin Luther King, Jr, in his sermon on this very passage said most of us live with “a persistent civil war that wages within”. It becomes the easiest of paths and the path of least resistance when we choose violence and hatred. It does make it easier, though, when we remove God from the scene. It’s the challenge that Leviticus faces in the first reading today. The writer speaks and writes of a God that is distant from the world. It’s so often easier to justify our wrongdoing and the bitterness that we hold onto in our hearts. It is so often that Christ within that tries to rattle all of our cages, moving us to a place of freedom in our lives where we can begin to deal with the injustices of the world and of our country. We mustn’t allow the oppressed and those who feel oppressed become the oppressor in return. If we are not living in that place of freedom ourselves, we so often resort to violence, and no, maybe not always physically, but with our gossip and talking about others behind their back. Violence doesn’t come just in the form of war, but often from our own mouths. That civil war becomes a persistent part of our lives when we desire to move to the place where we can love our enemies rather than destroy.

Paul warns of destroying God’s temple, which I am and you are and the community is, with Christ as the head. Paul warns them about taking advantage of those who may feel oppressed in the community of Corinth and beginning to think that somehow it’s about me and what I want rather than recognizing that we become instruments of God’s grace, a God who works through and with and in us. When we keep God at a distance we can put ourselves in that place of power, a power that is so then often abused and so the war begins of trying to take out anyone that stands in my way. Jesus was public enemy number one and if we’ve done it to him, who’s next? What happens when this solution to our problems, the deep hurt and pain we so often want to hold onto, no longer works, when we find ourselves, as individuals and as country, standing naked before the true God and the world, with no one else to blame for our problems, but now exposed for our own pain. It’s a humbling place to stand when we no longer have to fight that civil war and we can learn to love our enemy.

Sure, there are plenty of enemies in our world and plenty of evil at play. But the journey of faith that Jesus invites us into these weeks, leads us to that place of pain and the place of humility when I can finally begin to see that that damn enemy that I have been fighting all along is right within me, looking for attention and to be loved. Jesus understood first-hand, knowing that he was that enemy to so many, or so they thought. If he teaches us anything, it’s that when we allow ourselves to go to that place of pain and ask ourselves why we do hate and why we even desire to have enemies and what it is about them, we can finally hold the mirror to ourselves, individually and collectively, and realize it’s not a solution that we desire, but rather healing, forgiveness, reconciliation, and love. An alcoholic will always think that alcohol is the solution to his problems, but in the end, it’s a destructive end to himself and others. Hurting people will always think that violence and “getting rid of” is the solution to our problems, but in the end, it’s destructive to ourselves and others. Sure it may give an immediate gratification and stroke our ego, but it’s never a long-term reality of the Kingdom that Jesus preaches.

The civil war will only persist in our lives if we don’t first deal with the enemy within ourselves. Otherwise, we continue to project it onto the world, continuing to hate and to hurt. We must live a life of resistance that heals, a resistance that forgives, a resistance that leads to a deeper love. That is why this gospel stands as one of the most difficult and most challenging that we hear all year. It’s not easy to love people around us sometimes let along those whom we have deemed enemy. It’s a sad way to live our lives when we give into such hate and violence. When we resist the temptation, and it will always be a temptation, to retaliate and exact revenge, we finally move to that place of freedom, free of any oppression in our own lives, to then begin to tackle the real problems that exist. Hate leads to more hate. Violence leads to more violence. It’s time to accept the challenge for all of us to hold that mirror up, with public enemy number one looking back, leading us to a place of love, forgiveness, and healing, first in ourselves and then for the salvation of the world.

If You Are…

This feast, Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, is a fairly new feast in the Church, only 91 years. It began in 1925 by Pope Pius XI as a response to a rising secularism, especially in Europe. Of course, it doesn’t seem to have somehow altered that history. If secularism were a religion, and it is in some ways, it would probably be one of the largest on Earth. Pius XI saw the separation of religion from government that was worrisome. Today, though, it goes even further and maybe a step backwards to individualism. It’s now individuals who are separating themselves from something and someone larger than themselves not just governments. It seems to even escalate here in the States and in Europe this sense of separation, that nations become the center of their own universe. Only time will tell where it will lead us. In the past it has often led to war due to separation and this sense of isolation that causes speculation and mistrust.

When we do begin to separate ourselves from something and someone larger than ourselves is often when we find ourselves getting into trouble. We start to make selfish choices that we think only impact us and forget about those around us. David was such a person whom we hear from in Second Samuel today. He was considered the ideal king. He was young and had lots of energy. But it eventually goes to his head. He eventually begins to believe that he’s all that and not only the King of Israel but also the king of his own life. It begins to impact his relationships and will bring about a fall, a sense of humility has he’s put in his place in life and once again reconnects with the true King and he truly does go onto be one of the greatest. He comes to the realization that he can’t do it on his own and must keep his eye on the true Kingdom.

This tension that exists in our lives as well, between individualism and the reality of the greater Kingdom, plays itself out in today’s gospel from Luke. It’s the last we’ll hear from Luke this year as the liturgical year comes to a close. Jesus finds himself hanging between these two realities. He’s faced with the same temptation that he does in the desert that we heard back in Lent. There’s the crowd and the one thief that puts pressure on Jesus to prove himself. They’re so closed in on their own pain that they miss what’s really going on. There’s the temptation to do it yourself, in somehow I’m able to save myself and no need of a God or anything or anyone bigger than myself. Of course, though, on the other side hangs who we often refer to as the “good thief”. There’s an acknowledgement on his part that he is in need of something bigger, a need for mercy and forgiveness. And there’s Jesus, hanging smack dab in the middle of the two and standing in the middle of our own tension with that reality, that sense we can do it ourselves and don’t need God and a place within us crying out for something more, mercy and forgiveness.

In his letter to the Colossians, Paul, in one of the oldest hymns in the New Testament, tries to give community after community this same perspective in their lives. He speaks of not a Christ of the Universe but rather a cosmic Christ that has always been and continues to be to this very moment, unfolding within and yet beyond us. It’s a hymn that expresses the deepest desire of our hearts, this desire for expansion. But it is only the one who stands as mediator that can expand hardened and hurting hearts. The more hardened they become the more we rely upon ourselves, not in need of any God. Our own pride gets in the way. We want to blame everything under the sun as to why people don’t need God or want Church, from soccer fields to wanting to be spiritual and not religious, but there is always a deeper reality at play, that often goes unseen. It is often our own struggle with the two thieves in our lives and often giving into the one that steals our freedom and convinces us that I am enough for me and that salvation is up to me rather than seeing salvation as a communal reality.

This feast will hopefully continue to give us pause in our lives, not only today but with each passing day that we are given, not only as individuals but as community, nation, and world. The more we separate ourselves from the source of life the more we become hardened and no longer feel the need for something or someone bigger than ourselves. Not Christ but I become the center of the universe. We begin to fear expansion like globalization and try to hunker down and isolate ourselves as fear takes root in our hearts. What we truly desire is the expansion of our hearts, to embrace all we encounter and recognize the need for the other and the Other. There will always be that part of us that thinks we can do it alone, the rise of individualism in our own lives, but we must recognize the tension and the desire for connectedness and oneness, the seeking of that Paradise that is promised, not by me, but by the mediator, the one who stands at the center of this tension in our lives and world, Jesus Christ, the true King of the Universe.

It’s Too Hard

Ephesians 5: 21-32; John 6: 60-69

I came across a book this week entitled Thieves in the Temple. The basic premise of the book is that religion in America has become bankrupt in many regards, it’s lost it’s purpose. The author cites that it’s become much more about entertainment, money, and membership, a more business model rather than the intended purpose of salvation of souls and the conversion of hearts and minds. Now he is speaking of a very large umbrella of the institution of church, beyond just Catholic, but has also at times. I thought of that as I was looking at this gospel that we hear today and how what it is that Jesus speaks of is too hard for the some of the disciples. We look for the easy way out, least amount expected of us, choosing sides, and so often fear-based over the life-giving faith that Jesus speaks of to the disciples. It’s too hard for them and often for us.

But think about what we’ve listened to the past few weeks in this Bread of Life discourse. We’ve heard this constant bickering and tension between Jesus and the Pharisees and in the middle of it all, listening to every word, are the disciples. They’re left with a choice and many choose to go back to what is known. I’ve thought about it, the Pharisees would have at least been perceived as the greater threat. They’ve already heard what they’ve thought about Jesus and the animosity towards him. If they’re being called to live such a radical life are they willing to face the same thing. Fear has a way of taking a strong hold on us and them in those situations. It was never that Jesus was even expecting them to give up what they held so closely, the law that they knew, but rather to fold it into something deeper, to reconcile these pieces of life that often become fragmented over the course of our lives. It’s hard work, living a life of faith and living wholly and holy in the way Christ calls. Even for Peter, despite his firm acclamation in today’s gospel, we know when the going gets tough at the end, he too is taken hold by fear and will have to be led to a place of reconciliation as well. It’s hard stuff when we commit ourselves to a life of faith; how easy it is at times to choose the easy way out…settling for entertainment, money, and simply filling the pews. That’s not faith and rather than blaming the world, sometimes we have we have to be willing to look at ourselves and see how we are contributing to the problem. If we’ve strayed from our purpose of conversion and the salvation of souls, not only does religion become bankrupt but so do we. We become divisive, violent, make politics into a religion. It’s hard but it’s the way to life.

Then there’s this second reading from Ephesians. Paul takes a lot of heat for it and quite honestly, there’s question whether he’s really the author of this letter to begin with! I did a little research to see what was going on culturally and in society at that time as to why he would write these words. At that time there was a struggle with differing understandings of marriage. There was, of course, still that sense that the woman becomes property of the man and Paul is trying to reconcile that with faith. Maybe most importantly is that at the end of the reading he too returns to the roots of who they are and speaks of the two becoming one from the Book of Genesis. It’s where Jesus tries to lead the disciples, although some split by differing values, to a place of oneness within themselves, a life of wholeness and holiness which only comes through a reconciliation of our “former way of life” to what it is that Christ calls us to; that’s how we become one but it’s also why this is so hard and why some choose not to proceed and accept the call. It’s easier to choose the lesser and be satisfied. I do wonder, though, that once the word has been planted, do any of them begin to feel something missing from their lives when they return to the former way? Will they go away restless for something more in life?

As we wrap up this jaunt through John’s sixth chapter, the Bread of Life discourse, we ask ourselves if it’s too hard for us. What kind of life are we looking to live? Can we be satisfied with anything less that the word that has and gives eternal life, Jesus Christ? It’s easy to say that we are committed, but when push comes to shove as it will for Peter, what will we do? Will the former way of life look all the more appealing in that moment? When we commit ourselves to Christ and a life of faith, we will never be satisfied with anything less. It may be hard, but a life of wholeness and holiness is hard to beat and nothing else will do!

You Are God’s Building

Ezekiel 47: 1-2, 8-9, 12; 1Corinth 3: 9-11, 16-17; John 2: 13-22

Since the beginning of salvation history, as read in Scripture, there is an ongoing tension of where one praises, thanks, worships, God. There is this tension that it must happen in a specific place, such as this church or that that temple or some synagogue. Certainly there is some significance to that and we continue to do it today. But God is not simply found in this structure. Jesus breaks that mold by moving around and ministering and being present in so many different places and leads us to finding God in all things.

In this day and age, when churches are closed and merged in many different ways, it too is challenging us to see and view church in new ways. I know my home parish up in Pennsylvania is no longer open and functioning. It’s hard for people because we become attached to the structures. They mean something to us throughout our lives but so often can no longer be sustained. The readings this weekend provide us the opportunity to look and see beyond church as a building and a specific place. As a matter of fact, Paul says today in his letter to Corinth, “You are God’s building.” It is you, me, we that make up this church beyond the building. If the building were to be fall today, church would still be because we would still gather and pray. It would still be a living body, growing, changing, and seeking conversion to newness of life.

Paul wanted that for the people of Corinth. He eventually works his way up to the many challenges facing the community but begins with this ongoing dialogue of what church and community are and can be. He has high expectations for the people. Yet, he is aware that there is divisions in the community. He realizes that some are being excluded from the eucharistic celebration of the community. Some are being singled out by others, and so he reminds them of their foundation in Christ. Christ was not one to exclude from the body but found ways to be inclusive, even when others thought they should be excluded. If they are to become the body, with Christ as the foundation, then they must build from that in including, especially those who are hurting, exiled, banished, and being pushed away and judged and deemed unworthy by the community.

Ezekiel, in the beautiful first reading we hear today reminds us that that life comes and flows from within each of us, building on what Paul says as we being the church, the building, we are mindful that we too must seek conversion and change in our lives, as individuals and as a community. If life isn’t flowing and we’re not being moved to change within, then we become a stagnant water, drying up, lacking fruit. We begin to age and the building begins to fall down and away from us, in need of repair. It can happen to us and it can happen to community. At times, we become an obstacle for others being church.

Jesus addresses that in today’s gospel from John. John wants to send a message loud and clear that there is something different about Jesus. In the other gospels this episode happens near the end of his time but John places it right at the beginning. This is a God that is going to disrupt the natural flow and stagnant water. The sellers and money exchangers become an obstacle to those seeking God, even at their holiest time of year. They prey on the weakness of the people. That’s why Jesus gets angry with them; they too are making the choice who to exclude, and as usual, it is those who truly desire and seek conversion and the living presence of God.

Although this feast doesn’t seem to mean a whole lot to our daily lives, I do think it and the readings today provide us the opportunity to reflect on church and what it means in this day and age and how we can continue to become God’s building, ever-present, ever-changing, a community of conversion. Yes, the building, structure, institution has its place, but it is also more. That is why we come here as a body. Not to exclude or judge or anything else. Yes, it’s important for us to come as our whole, not just what we have deemed holy in our lives, but our darkness and shadow as well because that is where we seek conversion. As the body of Christ, we come not just to receive something; that makes us consumers. We come in order to continue to become what it is that lies before us, here on this table; the body of Christ becoming the Body of Christ, broken, seeking wholeness, seeking conversion, seeking to become God’s building, the living body of Christ in the church and in the Church.

Threshold to Life

Numbers 21: 4-9; John 3: 13-17

It’s always good when these Feasts like we celebrate today, the Exultation of the Holy Cross, fall on Sunday’s because it shakes us out of the normal routine of Ordinary Time. There may be no greater feast for us to spend some time reflecting on than the gift of the Cross! We’ve also, however, used it casually. We talk about the crosses we have to bear or it’s my cross that I carry and so on, and that’s not to minimize anyone’s suffering; suffering is real and painful, but the Cross is something more than that as well. There’s also the risk of making it simply a historical event of the past or a future reality hoped for, but it must speak to us today, at this very moment of our lives. I’d like to consider it from the perspective as a doorway to an authentic way of life. The cross stands as the threshold to an authentic life as individuals and as an authentic relationship with God.

Although the Israelites would not have understood the language of the cross when this first reading is written, they certainly knew about standing on thresholds to something new. It’s a great reading because I think we can all relate. They love to complain about everything. Nothing is ever good enough for them. They always expect more. They complain that they have been led out into the desert. They complain because of the food they have to eat. I dare say, what holds them back the most from crossing into the Promised Land is their own history. They become victims of their own history, their past. They hold onto who they think they should be. They hold onto who they think God has called them to be. All of it holds them back from crossing that threshold to salvation, the Promised Land, the fullness of life that God truly desires for them. But they can’t do it and won’t do it until they pass through the Cross and are stripped of what holds them back. The irony of it all, once you cross over, there’s no turning back. Life in the Promised Land is too big now for going back. The old way will never suffice; it will never be big enough compared to where God has led them.

It’s also the journey of Nicodemus. This is one of three times we encounter him in John’s Gospel with Jesus, beginning in the darkness of night. He will gradually go through the desert of his own life and come out into the light. He will be the one left with Joseph of Arimathea taking Jesus to the tomb. But until then, he too holds onto to the known, unwilling to take the risk we call faith. He’s afraid of what the Pharisees will think of him going to seek out Jesus. Obviously something about Jesus is drawing him from the dark of night into the light of day. Gradually in the Gospel he will take the step out, taking the risk of stepping over the threshold of the Cross into an authentic way of life. First stepping back and forth but eventually an experience of salvation in this moment unfolds in his life and in ours.

We, like those Israelites, will do everything to try to avoid that threshold and passing through that doorway. We are comfortable with the known, even if it means bringing about suffering in our own lives. We will hold onto our ego, thinking that’s where it’s at. We will hold onto our past, our own history, being the victim over and over again, each time not recognizing the invitation that lies before us to crossover. It’s hard. It’s painful and it requires great risk on our part to let go, let things die, a necessary part of the journey, in order for new life to take shape on the other side of that threshold.

My friends, as we celebrate this great feast of the Holy Cross, we can exclaim our gratitude. We can be thankful that Jesus died on that Cross and shows the way. We can be thankful that salvation has been won for us. But it doesn’t mean we can sit idly by, waiting for things to happen, reclaiming our victimhood, which just comes down to our unwillingness to trust, and doing the same thing over and over again in our lives. We pray this day for the grace to take a risk, as individuals and a community, to step out and cross that threshold. It’ll be hard. It’ll be painful at times, but when we pass through, we will know how much it was worth it. We pray for that grace today to cross the threshold, let go of what must die and be stripped at that cross, and celebrate the new life that has been promised for the ages to come.

The Wounded Healer

John 20: 19-31

As I stood listening to the gospel proclaimed at Mass this morning something had struck me about the Lord and Thomas and the other disciples that had gathered, locked in the upper room. Despite this display of the wounds to Thomas and the other disciples, there was never a time when their wounds were exposed and yet, somehow they were healed through Jesus exposing his own. So often in our lives we fear exposing our own wounds because of that very fact, that they are wounds and they have brought on much pain in our lives. As much as Jesus never mentions their wounds, they obviously weigh heavy on their hearts when he appears. They know how their own wounded-ness has been displayed in recent memory as they fled from his presence in his greatest moment of need, as he suffered and died on the cross. His wounds would have been a deep reminder of what was and had happened, yet, it’s never addressed. He doesn’t abandon them, now in their greatest time of need as their own lives will be threatened. No, he simply offers them what they need, peace.

Jesus understands their anxiety, their pain, the darkness and fear that they allowed to consume them in that moment, when the pressure was on to deny. In their moment of weakness they now lock themselves in the upper room for “fear of the Jews”; yet, it is only Christ crucified and raised who can move through the hearts that have become locked shut in fear and terror to bring about not condemnation or judgement or guilt or shame. They, I’m sure have done enough of that themselves as they blame each other and themselves for what had done, but no, peace. And not the peace that world tries to give but a peace that can come only from the Divine who offers limitless mercy in our lives, even when we have locked ourselves inside our hardness and fear.

Peter tells us in the Second Reading today, “Although you have not seen him you love him; even though you do not see him now yet believe in hi, you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, as you attain the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” We all see and desire that salvation of our souls and once again, Jesus shows the way through the disciples. He doesn’t need a key to get into those places in our lives, rather, like the disciples, in that moment of our own weakness when we finally begin to surrender that “we can’t do it anymore” and find ourselves locked inside, the wounded healer appears, never to judge, but to heal and offer us that same gift of peace.

A Hungering for Life

Genesis 2: 7-9; 3: 1-7; Romans 5: 12-19; Matthew 4: 1-11

In the beginning God created.  Male and female he created them; in his image and likeness.  And it was very good.  Then this happened, the fall.  Adam and Eve in the garden who have everything except one thing.  It wasn’t enough and they became envious of God and wanted to be God and the fall happens.  Born in his image and likeness and it’s very good and yet, not enough for the two of them.  Deep within them and us, there is a hunger that can never seem to be satisfied by anything.  It’s as if God created us with that longing to return to Him!  The entire commercial industry is based on that one premise, that we’ll never be satisfied and always want more and if I just have that one more thing…I’ll feel “full” and it never happens and the fall happens and we begin the journey home once again.

Much has been written about these creation stories of Genesis from those who see them literally as historical figures, giving room to easily blame them for the downfall of humanity and all that goes wrong to myself who sees them as the great mythological, iconic figures who aren’t someone out there or of the past, but rather, Adam and Eve are me and they are you, born in God’s image and likeness, very good, and yet, at times, unsatisfied with what we have and wanting more or to be God, thinking somehow we know better than God and constantly try to fill the hunger and longing within and again, fall.  It’s not that we can avoid the fall or that it somehow won’t happen; it’s going to happen.  Leaving the garden is part of life only to find ourselves wanting to return.

Yet, it is the story of salvation history that continues to unfold within our very lives.  It was the journey of Adam and Eve, it was the story of the Israelites, seeking out the Promised Land, and it is our story.  When we fall, and we will fall as we learn from these iconic figures, the pilgrim journey and the journey of this Lenten season is about going home, back to the Garden, returning to God with our whole heart.  Yet, like them, we are tempted to believe in the midst of our own doubts that somehow we are less than we are and something that we are not.

The temptations or testings of Jesus aren’t just about this one moment in time when he is driven out into the desert.  He enters the scene already hungry, Matthew tells us.  He is at a vulnerable time in his life.  Before he begins his public ministry and is confronted with the realities of his time, he is tested in the same way as Adam and Eve; his story is enfolded in their story and journey.  He will confront these same temptations throughout his ministry through the aspirations of his own disciples and their own misguidance and wanting to be him.  He will ever so gently try to lead them back to the Garden, reconciling their sinfulness and the sinfulness of the world with who they really are; born in God’s image and likeness and it was very good.

Paul continues in his Letter to the Romans today that where sin increases in our lives grace overflows all the more.  It so often seems that we have a much easier time believing in our fall then the grace that flows from the fall.  We tend to identify ourselves with our sinfulness, our hunger and longing, and try to hide it as Adam and Eve do, in shame they cover up their bodies seeing themselves not as who they really are but how they have identified themselves.  It wasn’t enough to be born in God’s image and likeness they wanted to be God and nothing else is going to compare.  Yet, that’s how we get ourselves into trouble and yet at the same time, open ourselves up to the grace of God.  It seems as just when we are on the cusp of believing it and returning to the Garden through conversion in our own lives, we fall and the process begins anew, to a deeper understanding of who we are.  We aren’t our sin as much as we want to tell ourselves.  Yes, a part of us but not our whole or our worth.  It’s no accident that just prior to the fall of man in Genesis and the temptations of Jesus in the desert, their true identity is revealed.  Born in God’s image and likeness; this is my beloved Son.  And yet at that moment, we stumble and fall.

As we begin this journey as individuals and as a community, we enter into it mindful of who we really are…sinners loved by a God who is always calling us home, even in a mess of temptations that exists in this battle of good and evil that we often find ourselves.  We are a people who long and hunger for God and a return to the Garden and everyday we will go every which way to try to get there, thinking something will fill the hunger. How are we filling that hunger in our lives? It will only be in God’s voice calling us back to the Garden that will fill us and we know it’s where we belong because deep down, despite and in spite of and even through our fall, we still know who we really are.  In the beginning, God created.  Male and female he created us and it was and it is very good.