Who Do You Say that I Am?

In high school, I had a friend that was very suspicious of organized religion, and specifically, Christianity.  What was his problem?  He saw too many Christians not living up to the faith.  And so, he said to me, “I respect the person Jesus Christ.  But I do not believe he was God – just an outstanding moral/social teacher.” Gandhi had a similar issue.  After reading the Gospels he famously said that if he ever met a Christian who actually lived out the Christian life, he would become a follower of Jesus Christ.  Wow…

This view, that Jesus was merely a good moral teacher, never sat well with me.  Intuitively, even though this young man is very smart, it seemed odd to say, “Jesus was a good man, but he wasn’t who he says he was!” How can someone be such an outstanding moral teacher and lie about who he is at the same time?

Jesus asks us this weekend, Who do you say that I am? And the disciples respond: Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets. Then Peter speaks,  Jesus, you are the Christ the Son of the living God.  Peter gets it right.  He recognizes that the person Jesus Christ is someone greater than the prophets – he is God among us!  And Jesus blesses Peter and says, Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. 

So what we have here is that knowledge of who Christ is – or rather – the process of coming to know the Divine Person Jesus Christ, happens through the Church. Upon Peter, says Christ, will I build my Church, because Peter knows that Christ is the Son of the living God. The purpose of the Church is to bring all of us into an encounter with Christ.

Here’s the question I have been reflecting on… why is it difficult for good people like my friend and Gandhi to see who Christ is?  I think the answer is humbling. The answer lies in the recent events of our country.  I find the increased racial tension in our country very disheartening.  The challenge in following Jesus Christ is that he has called us to be “One Body”, members of His Church, where race no longer divides us.  The unfortunate reality today is that there are many Christians who perpetuate the sin of racism.  The sins of many Christians has caused great evil in the world.  Therefore, they do not want to belong to “a church” but will respect the moral and social teachings of Jesus Christ as a good man.

If Jesus were to ask each of us today, Who do you say that I am, What would we say?  My friends, this is the challenge for all of us this weekend. We are called to know who Christ is. This is why we have the Church.  This is why we come every Sunday because we need to learn who Christ is in the Scriptures.  We need to be fed and nourished by Christ in the Eucharist.  And finally, we truly need the love and support of each other as a faith community.  And My friends, this is the challenged, all of us here are called to actually live out the Christian life, and to do that we must imitate Christ.  Friends, Gandhi once said that we must be the change that we wish to see in the world.  If we truly want racism to end in this country.  If we truly want others to know just how much Christ loves them.  Then we have to know who Christ is, become more like him, and live like Christ in the world.

In Christ,

Fr. Stephen

Prayer – Keeping our Eyes Fixed on Jesus

“One can only admire [Peter’s] faith.  Despite what follows, Peter shows himself courageous and trusting in a way that the other disciples do not”.  Peter goes out to the stormy sea so that he can join Jesus.  Everything is fine at first because Peter’s eyes are fixed on the Lord.  But suddenly it changes.  Peter sees the severity of the weather.  “To say that he ‘saw’ the severity of the weather implies that he took his eyes off Jesus… Having turned his attention away from the Lord, who enabled him to do by grace what he could never do by nature, Peter is left to rely on his own feeble power.” And so, he falls into the sea, and cries out “Lord, Save me!”

Our readings this weekend remind us how important it is to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus.  During my time in the seminary, Bishop Barron reminded us, seminarians, that our lives had to be centered on our Lord Jesus.  This, he emphasized, was essential for any parish priest, because if we are to share with others the good news of Jesus Christ, we have to know him.  The same is true for all of us here.  Christ has to be the center of our lives.

How do we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus?  The answer is simple: it’s by cultivating an intimate prayer life with Jesus.  I find it sort of humorous that at the beginning of our Gospel this weekend, Matthew writes, Jesus made the disciples get into a boat and precede him to the other side.  Jesus needed some space.  So he sent his disciples on ahead of him so that he could have some quiet time for prayer so that he could talk with His Father.  Prayer was a central element of Jesus’ life.  And so our prayer life with God, really ought to be the central element of our lives.

In our first reading, Elijah is told to Go outside and stand on the mountain before the LORD; the LORD will be passing by… [and] After the fire, Elijah finds God, in a tiny whispering sound.  This is prayer.  Jesus teaches us this weekend that we find God in the quiet of our hearts.  Intimate prayer happens when we find solitude with God.  Another way to express it is that prayer is when our hearts speak to the heart of Christ.

In today’s busy world, we have every distraction available, and these can make prayer difficult.  But our challenge this weekend is to seek solitude.  Our challenge is to imitate Jesus, who sought time to pray and talk with His Father in heaven. 

Prayer will not take our storms in life away.  But, prayer, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus Christ, will give us the grace to persevere through any storms we may experience.  But Prayer is much more than God rescuing us in a time of need.  Prayer is a relationship, where God constantly fills us with his love, gives us purpose and identity.  Prayer is communion and friendship with God.  May the Eucharist we receive this weekend strengthen our fidelity to prayer.

In Christ’s Friendship,

Fr. Stephen

The Feast of the Transfiguration

“Peter volunteers to house Jesus and his heavenly guess; but what he is really trying to do is catch the ecstasy, house the glory and beauty of God that are pouring down over them, capture the experience of transcendental joy and communication so as to make it a permanent possession of man.  Who could blame him? Peter indeed senses that heaven and earth have come together… [which] unaccountably satisfies the deepest longings of our nature.”

Peter gives us great hope.  Just before our Gospel scene today Peter has an interesting exchange with our Lord.  We know it well.  Jesus asks the Apostles, Who do people say that I am? (Mt 16:13). And Peter confesses You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God (Mt 16:16).  And Jesus blesses Peter for understanding this.  But then, Jesus begins to tell his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly… and be killed and on the third day be raised (Mt 16: 21).  Peter, confused, looks at Jesus, no way man, No such thing shall ever happen to you! (Mt 16:22). Now frustrated Jesus says to Peter, Get behind me, Satan! (Mt 16:23).

Immediately after this scene, we have our Gospel today.  Jesus brings Peter, James, and John up the mountain and he is transfigured before them.  And Peter speaks again.  By this time, we are hoping that Peter says the right thing. He looks at Jesus and says: Lord it is good that we are here… If you wish, I will make three tents (Mt 17:4).

I think Peter responds like all of us would, which Jesus even says: [Peter], you are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do (Mt 16: 23). Peter sees the glorified Jesus.  It’s a glimpse at what the resurrected Jesus will look like.  Where the divinity of Jesus shines through his humanity, and he shines like the sun. This moment, the transfiguration on the Mount, is so beautiful, that Peter wants it to last. It’s a moment where he senses that heaven and earth have come together and Peter wants to cling to it. But the problem is that Peter is thinking as a human being does. Peter does not want to go to Jerusalem.  He certainly doesn’t want to see Jesus die.  He wants to hold on to this moment of the transfiguration. In short, Peter wants the fruit of the Resurrection, with out the crucifixion…

Jesus’ transfiguration, is an experience that is supposed to give Peter, James and John hope to go on the mission with Jesus.  This is the turning point in Matthew’s Gospel.  Jesus’ identity has been established:  He is the Messiah, the son of the living God (Mt 16:16).  But now he is to go to Jerusalem so that he can finish his work.  So that he can accomplish his Mission.  And he wants his disciples to trust him and to go with him.

It can be easy for us to fall into the mindset of Peter… We want certain graces from God now without the journey that goes with it.

If we are struggling with sin in our lives, then we might be impatient with ourselves and beg God to take it away now.  But the journey towards freedom can teach us about our need for God. Or, maybe someone close to us is struggling in their faith.  A good friend of mine called me this week to ask prayers for her son.  Her son is struggling in his faith and isn’t sure of God’s love in his life.  It broke this mother’s heart.  The temptation for her is to be like Peter. But the son needs his journey so that he can have an experience of God in his life.  And so, for those of us accompanying others in situations like this, the journey itself can strengthen our bond, intimacy, and trust in God.

Fr.  Tony, myself, can also be like Peter. Fr. Tony and I, and I’m sure many of you also, have dreams for this parish. We have dreams about it being the Catholic hub, a parish completely on fire.  A parish where people come here because they know that they will encounter the Lord here.  And even for our desire to have a rockin parish, we have to remember that we are blessed, and have been blessed in many ways.  That our journey as people of God will bring more people to Christ.

But here’s the point my friends. The inevitable journey should not paralyze us in fear.  It should not prevent us from moving, growing, and being open to be transfigured.  Instead, the journey should inspire us!

My friends, the transfiguration today gives us hope for the end of the journey.  It gives us a glimpse at what resurrected life will be like.  But there is a journey we need to take.  Just as Jesus needed to go to Jerusalem, each of us has a special journey.  May the Eucharist we receive today strengthen us for this journey so that we too can be transfigured.

In Christ’s Friendship,

Fr. Stephen

Our Pearl of Great Price

Jesus continues to speak to the disciples about what the kingdom of heaven will be like.  This time, he likens it to someone who finds a treasure or one who finds a pearl.  My friends, we are called to pray for the ability to recognize the gift.  Are we able to recognize our gifts?

All of us, I’m sure, can think of examples where gifts seem to be wasted or unappreciated.  I think of an athlete, who is so talented and for whatever reason has gotten into trouble.  And now, no longer is able to participate in his sport.

Friends, we are called to be aware of the gifts we have received from God so that we do not let them go to waste.  In the first letter of Peter, we read, As each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of God’s varied grace. The gifts we have received are not meant for ourselves, they are meant to be shared with others, and with God too!

What is the greatest gift that we have received?  The greatest gift that each of us has received is the gift of our salvation.  John writes beautifully in his Gospel, that Jesus loved his own and he loved them to the end.  This is our pearl of great price because there was a great cost

One way that we honor our Lord, is that we recognize both the gift of our salvation and that this gift was bought with a great price.  As saint Peter reminded us, the gifts we have been given are meant to be shared.  This is why Christ is speaking these parables to the His disciples because he wants to increase their urgency/desire to evangelize the world.  Fr.  Arrupe, a Jesuit priest, writes about how we respond to this gift:

Nothing is more practical than finding God, than falling in Love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, whom you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in Love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.

May the Eucharist we receive today remind us of the gift of God’s love in our lives, and inspire us to make others aware of this precious gift.

In Christ’s Friendship,

Fr. Stephen

We Will Shine Like the Sun

Notes: “However, if we exclude the possibility of conversion by too literal an interpretation of the text, we face the theological absurdity of a parable within the Gospel that presents a Christian view of the world in which the very essence of the Gospel, metanoia (conversion)… is an impossibility.”

“The whole Gospel consists in God’s invitation for us to join in this exodus from demonic darkness into divine light, which is … God’s most passionate desire for us”.

“God’s Being can embrace for all eternity only what has become like himself, that is, what has come to share in His own nature as fiery love”.

A couple of months ago I saw Beauty and the Beast.  I loved it, but I was surprised that it included some new songs.  One of those songs was entitled “Days in the Sun”.  I was captured by this songs depth. It allowed those watching the movie to experience what the servants of the castle were experiencing.  They longed for transformation.  They longed to be transformed back into human beings; as most of you know, the servants of the Castle had become material items (clocks, candlesticks, wardrobes etc.) they were no longer human.  Why?  Because they were included in on the curse that turned the young prince into a beast. This may seem unfair to us, but Mrs. Potts explains that they were all responsible for the man that the prince had become, and as a consequence, they too were ‘punished’ for their sins… So this song, Days in the Sun, expresses their hope that one day they will be human again: Days in the sun will return, we must believe, as [people who love] do, That days in the sun will come shining through

This weekend, we too, are called to long for our own transformation.  In our first parable, the servants come back to the Master, the sower of the field, and ask:  Master, should we remove the weeds that the evil one has planted? He says emphatically, No!  Why?  One reason could be that the servants were unable to distinguish from the weeds and the wheat.  The particular weed mentioned would resemble wheat in its early stages of growth. So, the master sends back the servants to the fields not to purge it, but so that the servants themselves will grow and mature in the process.

Jesus, this weekend, is asking us to listen carefully to the words of the parable: He who has ears, let him hear — In other words, Jesus is warning us “against understanding” this parable “as clearly defining ‘us the saved’ (wheat) over ‘them the damned’” (weeds).  This parable can lead us to categorize ourselves too quickly.  Some of us hearing it immediately might think, “well, of course, I am one of the good ones, I am among the wheat!” Those in this situation, believe they have already become saints, that they are no longer in need of conversion.  Conversely, some of us hearing this Gospel might think, “well, of course, I am one of the evil ones, I am among the weeds.”  Those in this situation, usually are despairing of God’s love, and sadly, view themselves as lost already…

But here’s the reality check, we are all in fact still in the process of maturation.  We are the servants sent back into the fields called to be transformed. For the servants in the Gospel, it was too early for them to tell which of the crop was weeds and which was wheat.  The same is true for us.  But! The purpose of the Gospel, we hear from Jesus over and over again, is to Repent and believe in the Good News – to be transformed! Jesus is serious in his challenge! He wants us to seek transformation.  This means actively responding to God’s grace in overcoming the sins in our lives.

We hear in our first reading that God is patient.  We hear also that God judges with mercy.  We also hear that God gives His children good ground for hope that He would permit repentance for their sins. Yes, God is serious about repentance.  Yes, God is serious about us turning away from our sinful lives.  But God is also patient.  I am reminded of one of Pope Francis’ most beautiful comments regarding God’s mercy:  God never tires of forgiving us; we tire of forgiving ourselves.   Whenever we recognize that we have fallen off track, and are in need of God’s mercy, we have the beautiful gift of the Sacrament of Reconciliation to put us back on track.

Friends in Christ, if we want to join the kingdom of heaven, the place that our parables speak about today, the place that God desires for all of us, then let us have hope.  Let us have hope that the God who has become man, can surely change each us.  Christ indeed has the power to change each of us from weeds and the power of the evil one, into wheat as children beloved by God.  For Christ assures us in the Gospel that one day we will shine like the sun in the kingdom of our Father.

May the Eucharist we receive today, transform us and make us more like Christ, so that when the day of God’s kingdom arrives, God will recognize us as one of His own.

In Christ’s Friendship,

Fr. Stephen

The King of Peace

Is anyone here searching for peace in their lives?

Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.  These are very comforting words for all of us to hear.  But what kind of burdens are we carrying?  In what way is the Lord going to give us rest?

The Lord gives us rest by offering us peace.  In our first reading from Zechariah, we hear about how the future King who will come to us by riding on a Donkey.  Many scripture commentators point out that the king who comes riding on a donkey is a sign of humility.  And that certainly is true, but it also has another deeper meaning.  Bishop Barron explains, in ancient times, the way Kings would enter into their cities depended on the situation.  If it was a time of war, the king would enter in a grand way, on a great battle horse. But when a king would come in peace, he would come on a colt, or a donkey. He would come to establish peace.

And so Jesus says to us today, come to me all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. If I were to take a poll right now I’m sure these would be some of the burdens each of us carry:  frustration over the never-ending violence in the world and especially frustration over the violence in our own country, sadness due to broken relationships in our families, exhaustion due to the busy-ness of our lives, and finally, we are burdened by the reality of our own struggles with sin.  I’m sure there are more examples, these are just some of the common ones we all experience.  But Jesus wants us this weekend to know of His peace. 

How do we obtain this peace?  Jesus invites us to take on his yoke, to learn from him who is meek and humble of heart.  It’s a strange image, isn’t it? Putting on a yoke evokes the image that we are servants or slaves.  And in a sense that is true, we are to be servants of Christ.  But here lies the paradox, we become servants in order to obtain freedom.  We are christ’s slaves because he wants to break us free of from our chains and to take away our burdens.  Putting on the yoke of Christ means putting on the yoke of freedom. 

And it is through the yoke of freedom that Christ gives us peace.  And so how do we experience this peace?  First, we experience it here, together as a Christian community united by the bond of peace in the Eucharist.  So, when we become frustrated with the violence in the world, we bring our prayers to the Lord in the Eucharist for peace in our world.  When we experience division in our own families, we hand over our loved ones to God in prayer and trust that he will take care of them.  And when we face the reality of sin in our own lives, we remember that Jesus heals us with these words, Peace be with you. As followers of Christ, we will continue to experience frustration, trials and suffering, but these burdens become lighter and more bearable with the Lord’s help.

The Lord truly does help us.  I think of that beautiful scene in the Gospels, when Jesus is tired an carrying His cross.  Eventually, he needs some help, and along comes Simone of Cyrene.  This cross is not unlike the yoke we are called to wear.  Christ’s message to us this weekend is that his yoke that we put on, means that he is with us to carry us through our trials, anxieties, and suffering to give us peace.

We hold on to the peace of Christ by staying close to Jesus in both prayers and in the Eucharist. May the Eucharist we receive today give us the spiritual peace we all seek.

 

Pax,

Fr. Stephen

 

Whoever Receives you, Receives me

Notes: “Our love for Jesus is to be as spontaneous, unconditional, and inevitable as our love for father, mother, or child, only infinitely more absolute”.

“Once again Jesus reveals his divine origin, his divine nature as Son of God, not conceptually, through abstract definition, but dynamically, by proclaiming himself more worthy of any man’s love than the very beings to whom that man owes his physical life.”

The words of our Gospel this morning I find very moving.  They are a great encouragement for me as I begin my time here at Our Lady of Consolation.  Jesus says, Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.  Friends, I have been sent here by Bishop Walkowiak, to serve you as your parochial vicar.  His hope is that I, along with Fr. Tony, are able to bring each of you into a deeper relationship with God.  It is a hope, most likely, shared by each of you.  And so, you expect, and hope, that as you receive me here at this parish, you will encounter God in a deeper way.  These words for me have been an encouragement and a challenge: How will I represent Christ’s love to this community? We’ll pray for one another as we begin our time together at OLC.  And, I’m excited to be here. 

But our Gospel has a strange message… Jesus says, Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.  Why would he say this? Further, why does it seem like we have two separate messages for us in our Gospel today? The truth is that these two statements, 1) whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and, 2) whoever receive you receives me and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me are very intentional statements said together by Christ to emphasize something. They are together a profound Christological statement.  They teach us about who Christ is.

Is Jesus saying that we should not have a deep love for our parents? For our sisters and brothers? And for our close friends?  Of course not.  But what is he saying?  The verb that Christ uses for love in this statement is Phileo – it evokes a tender love for another person.  In other words, it evokes that same kind of love we exhibit with our family.   The bond and connection between the family, for us, can be the highest kind of love we experience on earth.  The closeness and tenderness that can exist amongst family members is unconditional.  We love our family simply because they are family. 

So when Jesus says you must love me more than your father and mother, he is asking for us to give our hearts to him totally.  Christ wants a close and tender relationship with all of us.  But here is why the call to love him more than members of our family is a profound statement about who Christ is.  For the Jews, something that was already expected was to love God with one’s whole heart, mind, and soul.  They would not have been scandalized at all if Jesus had said, whoever loves father or mother more than God is not worthy of Him.  But instead, he referred to himself.  But, “Only God can deserve such absolute love from each person individually and from humankind collectively”.  Jesus asks for us to love Him with all our being; as if he is God, and it is because he is God.

Jesus has revealed his divine origin.  Whoever receives one of his disciples, receives the one who sent him.  Jesus’ mission is to proclaim the Heavenly Father to the world.  So, if we receive Jesus, and seek to love him, the kind of love experienced between close friends, then we, in fact, come to know God in a more intimate way.

And this reality that Christ comes from God – that Christ is God – changes us!  Saint Paul reminds us of the beautiful gift that we have received from Christ by being baptized.  He says, Brothers and Sisters, Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?… so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.  One of the most amazing truths about our Christian faith is how we come to know God.  In other religions, finding God is our task, our search for God.  But what separates Christianity is God’s search for us.  God sent his son Jesus, into our lives to reveal himself to us and his profound love for us.  Our challenge is to take the call of our baptism seriously.  To turn away from our old selves, our bad habits, vices, and struggles with sin.  Now we are defined by who we are in Christ.  Each of us a son and daughter of God. 

So today, as we receive the Eucharist, we come before Jesus with gratitude, that it is truly God that we approach.  May the Eucharist we receive strengthen us to turn away from our old lives and live in the newness of life that Christ has given us.