For the readings, please see this link: Pentecost Sunday Readings PDF
It is Pentecost, a harvest celebration for the Israelites and the birthday of the Church for Christians. This is the day that the Apostles spoke in multiple languages after the Holy Spirit descended upon them and “appeared to them tongues as of fire.” On the feast celebrated by the Jews as memorializing the day when God gave Moses the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, Christians celebrate God giving himself in the third person of the Trinity so that people of every nation and language “hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.”
The Greek word for Church is ecclesia, which was in ancient Greece a term to describe the people who would be called out to serve their civic duties. We are “called out” as the people of God, and we celebrate the beginning of that ministry when the fathers of the church received the courage to speak of our mighty God to everyone. The transformation of the Apostles over the past 50 days is remarkable: Good Friday saw them disperse from Calvary for safer places, Easter Sunday they learned of the empty tomb but still did not comprehend what had happened for them. A week later we celebrate the doubting Thomas who refuses to believe another’s testimony and will only believe when he has touched his master’s side and felt the wounds in his hands. Jesus is recognized a few more times, in the walk to Emmaus and when the Apostles endure a fruitless night of fishing. But they recognize him generally after the fact, and there seems to be little follow-through by them.
Well, all of that ends Pentecost Sunday. The fearful Simon bar Jonah becomes the Rock, St. Peter. He preaches up such a storm that visitors from as far away as Egypt and Pontus hear the Good News and are touched in their hearts by it.
We are the disciples of Jesus today, the ones following in the footsteps of St. Peter and the other Apostles. We are the church he founded upon his rock, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. This is a great comfort and a great challenge. It is a great comfort to know we are on the winning team. It is a great challenge to make the effort worthy of such a gift. We cannot coast our way to Heaven, for the way to Heaven is the way of Jesus which is the way of the Cross.
We are called out by Christ to be his church. What do we do, and how do we do it? St. Paul tells the new Christians of Corinth that the body of Christ is one body with many parts. He tells them “there are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord.” Thus the Church is a holy blend of preachers and teachers and do-ers and be-ers. It is St. Peter and St. Paul and Martha and Mary. Nothing that we do in response to the call of Christ is done in vain or lacks merit. If we give of ourselves to His glory, he is glorified even if the gift is something as mundane as cleaning the bathrooms when we would much rather enjoy the sunshine outside by the pool. God does not keep score; he reads our hearts. He called us out to walk with him and serve his children. Service comes from the heart, and service comes in many forms.
We receive the breath of life in the Holy Spirit. With the breath of Life comes Peace, which Jesus gives us. From Peace comes the Strength to serve Him wherever we are and however we are. Peace and Strength give us Joy, the bliss Jesus offered his disciples in the Upper Room when he told them “Remain in me that your joy may be full.” Joy is not a contingent emotion. It does not depend on circumstances or conditions. Jesus was filled with Joy as he walked to Calvary. Stephen was filled with Joy as he was killed by stoning. We can be filled with Joy as our plane is delayed or we are cut off by somebody in traffic. We can be filled with Joy if we discover cancer inside ourselves or somebody we love.
We are called out to live a joyful life remaining in the Love of God and serving his people. We are called out to live a joyful life sharing the Good News of God with his people. We are called out to live a joyful life unpacking the treasure we received by the Cross. This is Jesus’ new commandment: love one another as I have loved you. We could put it another way: go be joyful, Church!
During the inquiry process for application to the Permanent Diaconate formation program, we heard from a number of deacons about their experiences before, during, and after the formation program. One in particular was very funny, and he said something that stuck with me. He said, “The only difference between before I was a deacon and now is more keys.”
|Here is my key ring as of Friday.||And as of Monday.|
Progress? Perhaps it is really nothing more than motion, a sign that I am moving forward in time through the formation calendar. While I hope and pray to progress spiritually throughout the formation program, I do hope I now have all the keys I will ever need.
For the readings, please see this link: 7th Sunday of Easter Readings PDF
“The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’
Let the hearer say, ‘Come.’”
These words are taken from the Revelation of St. John, and they speak of the depth of relationship God wants with us. The Triune God, the mystery of the Holy Trinity, is the ultimate depth of relationship. The three persons are one God. God the Father is love, his Son is the Word of Love, and the Spirit is the outpouring of the Love. It is all Love.
We see in the prayer of Jesus in the Upper Room the plan of Love, and we see in St. Stephen the courage that Love provides. Stephen is the first martyr for the Church. Martyr is the Greek word for witness, and Christians use that term to mean a costly witness. Stephen paid for his witness with his life. He spoke truth to power, and power stoned him to death. Stephen’s last words were, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen could speak truth in love and offer his life joyfully to the glory of God. During later persecutions by the Romans, Christians would be noted for singing as they were fed to the lions in the Coliseum.
In Stephen and other martyrs we have regular people who cooperated with the plan of Love. What is it that gives people such courage and strength to carry that Cross and follow Jesus? It is the Holy Spirt, the breath of life. We first encounter the third person of the trinity in the creation story in the book of Genesis. Yahweh breathed on Adam. Adam received the breath of God, that life-giving Holy Spirit.
We use the word ‘community’ a lot in and out of Church, but the mystery of the Holy Trinity invites us to grope for a word that captures the deeper one-ness of the godhead. We speak of the communion of the Holy Trinity to indicate the mystery that the three is one. When we come together in worship, we are a community. We are all together in one room, yet we remain separate and distinct persons. There is clearly the end of one and the beginning of another. You and I are not one being. Yet in the Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one. This conclusion we cannot reach entirely by our own powers of reasoning, yet we can accept it as true. By reason, one is one and one is not three. By revelation, we know truths greater than we can find on our own. The communion of the Three Persons in the One Godhead is such a divine revelation.
Accepting statements as true is wonderful, but we need more. We need the divine self-revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ. When we have a relationship with Jesus, we not only know truths, we know the Truth. Relationship starts for us with community. When our community gathers for worship, we have a liturgy of the Word and a liturgy of the Eucharist. By the power of God, what looks like bread and wine becomes the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Despite the best efforts of our deepest thinkers, we cannot explain how it is so. Yet we know it is so, for Jesus said so repeatedly during the feeding of the five thousand as recorded by his intimate apostle, St. John, in the sixth chapter of his Gospel. Like the mystery of the Trinity, the Real Presence is a mystery. We know it is true, but it is beyond our powers of reason and only available to us by divine revelation. As our relationship with Jesus deepens, these mysteries stop being puzzles with with we struggle and become contemplations in which we joyfully dwell.
During the liturgy of the Eucharist, we are invited to the Table of the Lord to receive him. Holy Communion is the time we, firmly set in this world, go up one by one to receive the “root and offspring of David.” We eat the Bread of Life, and we are in that moment, “filled with the Holy Spirit” as Stephen was. We are community, as we all go forward. We are alone as we receive Him. We have an earthly glimpse of true communion at that moment in our community’s worship service. We move beyond community into communion. We have communion with Jesus. We are gifted by him with the love which the Father loved Jesus. This is the communion of love.
Having experienced the communion of love, we can more fully live the life of love in our community. When a sinner like me lives a new life of love, the community knows it it didn’t happen because of what I did but because of what He did in me. My new life in Christ is one small way that the world may believe in Him and choose to be with Him. My new life in Christ can be my witness. My new life in Christ can give me the words of Stephen when my witness proves costly. Having a relationship with Him, I can offer the Love that is Him when I pay the price of my witness. Perhaps, wrapped in the Holy Comforter, I will be able to say what Stephen said, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
I can live the prayer of Jesus. I can make known to the world the name of God so that the love with which the Father loved the Son may be in all of us. St. John’s revelation consoles us with the promise that “the one who gives this testimony says, ‘Yes, I am coming soon.’” We have been given this day, and every day, to live the communion of love and reply, “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!”
For the readings, please see this link: 6th Sunday of Easter Readings PDF
On whose authority does one preach and teach? It is clear that the Holy Spirit is with us to teach us everything and remind us of all that Jesus told us. In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we see that even in that early period there was misunderstanding of what God teaches, and we see the need for correction and clarification.
The question for God’s people on earth is how do we respond to the fact that the Word of God comes to save us yet men and women are ill-equipped to live the lives God gives them? We receive, and our forefathers received, perfect Love, perfect Wisdom, yet we cannot hold it under our own power. We are given the Truth, but we cannot handle the truth. We slip and stumble and fall due to our sinful desires and sinful ways.
We ask the Holy Spirit to call from us a few who will in a public way consecrate their lives to serving God by serving our spiritual needs. Pastors and priests, brothers and sisters, these men and women answer that call and have the mantle of leadership thrust upon them. But they on average are not any more holy than we are on average. They are just as tempted by sin as we are tempted. They fail as we fail.
We need a system of leadership and governance to continue as the People of God. We have an eternal King, but we need an earthly Regent. A regent serves on behalf of the true king. We have earthly kings, but we need a spiritual regent. As Christians, we have had long and loud debates about the constitution of that regent. Should it be one man or a council? Should the man or the council speak for the entire people of God or for some smaller congregation of God’s people? Should the regent’s speech be taken as guidance or as commandment? What should be done if one or more regents disagree?
These are not new questions faced by the Church. Readings from the Acts of the Apostles are often factual accounts of the issues faced by the Church in the first generation of Christians. This is the time before the earliest letter written by St. Paul. The readings from the Gospel according to St. John are reflections on the life and ministry of Jesus as experienced directly by one of his most intimate disciples. John remembers what his Lord and his brother said to the Twelve on the night before he handed himself over to be sacrificed on the Cross. “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.” (Jn 14:25) Yet we read in Acts chapter 15 that there were “some of our number who went out without any mandate from us” and “have upset you with their teachings.” (Acts 15:24) How can it be that the Holy Spirit was left to the Church but the Church could hardly go a few years before it was preaching a confused message?
The answer is found in St. Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth: “now we see dimly but then face to face.” Even with the Holy Spirit to guide us, we err and stray like lost sheep. Even with the Holy Spirit’s protection, our spiritual regents fail from time to time. We are like St. Peter, quick to jump out of the boat to move toward Jesus but suddenly afraid of drowning. Our faith is inconsistent. Our actions are inconsistent. It should not be a total surprise, therefore, to find that our preaching and teaching is inconsistent.
We do not preach and teach and try to live the Kingdom of God in a vacuum. The Prince of Lies is active. He is the king of this world, and he likes his position very much. He spent forty days in the desert trying to tempt the Son of God away from the Father, and we read in the Gospel that at the end of those forty days Satan withdrew for a time. That is to say, he did not give up. He never gives up. He thought he won on Good Friday, when the Son of God was killed. God won, a sacrifice once and for all that conqured Death and Sin and opened the way for his children to find their way back to the Father.
Between now and the day we find our way back Home, we live in this world ruled by the Devil. Though Jesus promised that the Church would not founder, he did not promise that it would be always filled with pefect men and women. As we see in the Book of the Acts, some of the Church preached conversion to Judaism as a pre-requisite to conversion to Christianity while others did not. There is no sense that the misleaders were evil; it is more likely that they were trying to live holy lives and worked out their position on the matter in the spirit of charity and truth. They were just wrong, or misled. In a similar spirit of charity, the leaders of the Church came together to pray for guidance from the Holy Spirit for a definitive teaching. Having received it, they corrected and clarified things with a letter and some emissaries to the people of God.
This pattern of correcting and clarifying has been repeated over the ages since Pentecost, the birthday of the Church. The people of God are easily led astray. Sometimes the leaders are malicious, but not always. Sometimes the Church wanders astray in the face of persecution, as when Christians denied their faith under Roman persecutions. Other times it wanders astray as it reigns over the culture, as was the case in the late Middle Ages. Today, the Church lives in a new age of paganism. Today’s false God is known as rationalism, or secular humanism.
In today’s tolerant age, we in the Church are told that the teachings of God will not be tolerated when it comes to matters of sex and marriage. From the very earliest days of the Israelites, sexual relations were inextricably linked to fecundity, and sexual relations were strongly directed towards marriage. At the time of Pentecost, marriage was between one man and one woman. Sexual relations that led to pregnancy led to something joyful. How much of that is true today?
As the news reports fill with stories of attacks on the traditional definition of marriage, we look for the “apostles and elders, in agreement with the whole church” to send a message to the broad Church correcting and clarifying what God intended for marriage. Our society proclaims in the name of tolerance that marriage is whatever the parties to it want it to be. What should the Church do in the face of this teaching? It is no less important than the question in the early days of the Church on whether or not circumcision was a necessary part of conversion. But the regents of the various faith communities have profound disagreements on the proper response. What should we do, and to whom should we turn?
We wait, and we pray:
Come Holy Sprit, fill the hearts of your faithful and enkindle in them the fire of your love.
Send forth your spirit and they shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth.
It is only when we are led by the Holy Spirit that we can accept and receive the corrections and clarifications that we need to protect us from erroneous and malicious teachings. We must call upon the Holy Spirit for a spirit of love and humility to defend us against the Father of Lies who rules this world, so we can be with our loving Father in the next. We pray to God that he send us faithful regents and give us the spiritual docility to follow them in faith. By the fire of God’s love we will renew the face of the earth.
For the readings, please see this link: 5th Sunday of Easter Readings PDF
Our readings for this Sunday are set in the past, present and future around the continuing celebration of the Risen Lord in the season of Easter. We reach back in the Gospel of John to the words of Jesus to his disciples after Judas leaves. Jesus gives them a new commandment. We are in the present as Paul and Barnabas are evangelizing and establishing new communities of faith. We see the future in John’s Revelation: a new heaven and a new earth where God’s dwelling place is with the human race.
The Way that is offered to us is lived under the new commandment given by Jesus to his disciples: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” It is in how we live in community and in love that the world will know we are His. We will be known by our actions. If love marks our actions, then we are rightfully called Christians. There is no other way to be a Christian.
Jesus tells the eleven remaining Apostles that he is coming into his time of glory. “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him.” Since we have read in recent weeks the entire Passion story, we know – as the Apostles did not at the time – that the Son of Man would be glorified by submitting to crucifixion. The Cross, the Sacrifice, is the Glory. When Judas leaves, the Passion starts. The Passion is the new Passover: a lamb will be sacrificed so that the Angel of Death will pass over the household. Jesus is the Lamb who is offered so that Death is conquered once for all time. There is no greater love, Jesus has said, than for one man to lay down his life for another. And in the Passion, Jesus, who is the Word made flesh, lays down his life — he who IS life — for us. In this act of love, the Son of Man is glorified, and God is glorified in him. The Cross, that ugly brutal instrument of torture and death, is the Way to Glory. It is the triumph of Love.
We are destined for a new heaven, and God’s dwelling place is with us. There will be no more death, no more mourning, no more pain. John’s vision is glorious, and we rejoice to know our blessed destiny. The Cross, the life of love, is how we live in the former earth that we know will ultimately pass away. It is how we have the kingdom of God on this fallen Earth. Our hearts — our innermost selves — live already with him. Our lives lived according to our hearts will mean kindness reigns in the face of unkindness, selfishness is returned by generosity, anger by empathy, and harshness by gentleness. This is how all will know we are His disciples. We will have love for one another.
God made us for communion with him, as John saw in his vision. “God’s dwelling is with the human race.” We need community to live the new commandment Jesus gave us, for none of us is strong enough to face the Devil alone. Only Jesus was able to do that; for 40 days in the desert he was tempted by the Devil. In the early Church, the Desert Fathers were a few holy men who went to the desert to be spiritual warriors against the Devil. They rarely remained alone for long. Our ingrained sense of, and need for, community is so powerful even those holy men drew men to them and lived in small communities. The monastic life is likewise one lived in spiritual warfare and sacrificial service in community. We need each other if we are to live as we are called to live.
We also need some structure to our communities of faith. From the earliest days, Paul and Barnabas and the other evangelists would roam the world spreading the good news. We see in the Book of the Acts that they went from city to city through all of Asia Minor. And they “made a considerable number of disciples,” as it says. For the community to remain effective, however, it needed some kind of leadership that would be in place after the Apostle left. Acts tells us they “appointed elders for them in each church.” These disparate communities in Palestine and Asia Minor, and then in Greece and Rome, constituted the New Jerusalem.
This is a time of Glory. We are still reveling in the glory of the Resurrection, and we are given glimpses of the eternal glory for which we are destined. Today, we are given a few words on how to get from here to there: love is the way of Glory, the Cross is the way of Glory, sacrifice is the way of Glory, and community is a principal means of how to live the Way.
So the next time you say, “Brother” or “Sister” to another believer, understand the depth of meaning in those words. We must live our lives for our brothers and sisters because that is how we live our lives for our Lord. It is the Way.
The story of Genesis from the Fall in Chapter 3 to the discovery of a silver goblet in Benjamin’s bag in Chapter 44 is one of brother against brother to the point of theft and murder. Abram and Lot’s herdsmen quarrel over grazing (Gn. 13:7), there is rampaging war between the four kings and the five kings in chapter 14, and then the contesting becomes intra-family as the story turns to Abraham and his descendants.
Isaac, who lost his relationship with Ishmael because of Sarai’s jealousy, is the father of sons who contest in the womb even before they are born. This sets the stage for deception and dissension at the end of Isaac’s life, when Jacob obtains a blessing meant for Esau (Gn. 27:29).
The pattern of fraternal enmity and violence continued in the sons of Jacob, as Joseph’s dream drives his brothers to consider killing him before choosing the kinder path of slavery when they sell him to travelers on their way to Egypt. Years later, Joseph’s dream does come true, and through a series of deceptions on his part, all his brothers are together with him without knowing it is Joseph to whom they bow (Gn. 42:26). Joseph lays a trap for his brothers, so that the youngest, Benjamin, will be found with stolen goods in his possession.
The cycle of wickedness, deception, and killing stops when Judah offers himself in place of Benjamin (Gn. 44:33) in an act of filial devotion to Jacob and his special love for Benjamin. Judah’s act of sacrificial love heals the fracture and is the first step in establishing the nation of Israel. It is also a foretaste of the sacrifice by Jesus to heal the fracture of the relationship between Man and God.
In Judah’s offer, we see that God has a plan for salvation, for us, and he works it out over time inviting us to co-operate with his will and his plan. In Judah’s act, we are reminded that what looks like weakness is often really strength, that sacrifice is noble and good, that brothers are each others’ keepers, and that communio is what we were made for. In our daily lives, we can follow the path that Judah followed, and in so doing we can break the cycle of pain and division. If we love our Heavenly Father, as Judah loved his earthly father, we will be strong enough to display our weakness and overcome the strength of the world with strength beyond the world’s comprehension.
For the readings, please see this link: 4th Sunday of Easter Readings PDF
On this Sunday when we read of the Good Shepherd, we are reminded that Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me.” (Jn 10:27) We are told in the Acts of the Apostles that the Lord’s disciples preached the Good News first to the descendants of Jacob but then to all nations, the Gentiles. And those that heard the Good Shepherd’s voice – whether they were Jews or not – were invited to follow Jesus.
What happens to those who follow him? Jesus says, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.” Those who follow Jesus will receive eternal life. We read in the Revelation of St. John that the Lamb will “lead them to springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Our eternal home is the heart of Jesus; our eternal life is to stand before God’s throne and worship him day and night in his temple. In short, we are promised the Beatific Vision. We go home to the Garden of Eden, where we remain eternally with God in exultation and adoration of the Good Shepherd who is one with the Father before all ages.
Today we focus on the surety of our eternal destination. We are on the winning team. We know the final score before the clock has run down to zero. We get to dump the Gatorade on our coach, and the confetti will be falling on us in victory. But the game must still be played all the way down to zeros on the clock. The great multitude from every nation, race, people, and tongue seen by John in his vision are described to him as “the ones who have survived the time of great distress.” Every time on this earth seems to have room for great distress, whether it is something systemic like grinding poverty or something sudden like a crude bomb at the Boston Marathon that kills and maims our friends and children.
One of the greatest distresses that should grip our hearts just as strongly is the distress of having the Word rejected. The message of salvation is offered to all, but it is not accepted by all. God loves us so much he will not force himself on us, and some of us have responded as the Jewish leaders in Antioch responded to the preaching of Paul and Barnabas.
The call of Christ means we should lose ourselves to gain Him. The crowds will focus on Him instead of us. The world will become Christocentric instead of egocentric. A Christocentric world is ruled by peace. An egocentric world is riven with jealousy, pride, and anger. We see some of this in Antioch as the established religious leaders react ignobly to the spread of the Good News. We see it today in our own lives as we resist the demands of charity. When we insist on choosing the egocentric path, we reject the life of communion inherent in Jesus’ claim that “I and the Father are one.”
To be with Jesus in blissful eternity is the gift we have been offered. If we accept the gift, we must accept that in reaching that place of eternal glory our robes will be made white in the blood of the Lamb because we endured the time of great distress. In our day right now, we can joyfully endure — even embrace — our distress because we know we are destined for an eternal embrace by the Good Shepherd.
I have said more than once that it is possible to condense the entire message of the Bible into two words: “love” and “obey.” The Jewish people regularly recited the “Shema” (Deuteronomy 6:5): “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” And Jesus connects love with obedience in the Olivet discourse when he tells Phillip and the others, “If you love me, keep my commands.” (Jn. 14:15) He says later to Judas (not Iscariot), “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching.” (Jn. 14:23). Love is a state as much as it is will or emotion. Obedience is the means to that state. Somewhat related is a maxim often heard from oldtimers at a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous: “bring the feet and the head will follow.” Sobriety is a state; to not drink and to go to meetings is the means to that state.
After the Fall, man does not see clearly. St. Paul acknowledges this difficulty when he says, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully.” (1 Cor. 13:12) Not able to discern perfectly, we need the helps that are the laws of the Church just as the Hebrews needed the Law of Moses. Truth and love are a Person, the one who declared, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” (Jn. 14:6) If we practice obedience to what we accept despite lacking full comprehension, we will find ourselves living the Shema and seeing less dimly. Pope John Paul II wrote in his encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, “Truth enlightens man’s intelligence and shapes his freedom, leading him to know and love the Lord.”
Frank Sheed opened his magisterial masterpiece Theology and Sanity with a beautiful summary of the importance of seeing clearly in order to act in accordance with what ultimately is our heart’s desire: to be in communion with our Creator and Redeemer:
The soul has two faculties and they should be clearly distinguished. There is the will: its work is to love — and so to choose, to decide, to act. There is the intellect: its work is to know, to understand, to see: to see what? to see what’s there. (p. 3)
The law reminds us what is reality. It is there speaking for reality even when we are dominated by our subjectivity and cannot find the positive motivations for which we were made. Using Sheed’s terminology, our will is impaired. Despite an impaired will, burdened by sin, we still have a path back to relationship with our Lord. Obedience is seeing – truly seeing – and then submitting to the truth we see. It does not depend on our subjective condition for its efficacy. This is the great gift of obedience: it does not depend on our current state of holiness to move us toward our intended state of holiness. We can obey even when we don’t want to. We can obey even when we are not “feeling it.” Repeated obedience will inevitably reform our will and lead us to know and love the Lord.
For the readings, please see this link: 3rd Sunday of Easter Readings PDF
In the season of Easter, we read from the Acts of the Apostles instead from one of the books of the Old Testament, and we read from the Revelation of John instead of from one of the Epistles. In this joyful season of Resurrection, it is appropriate to read from the book that is a vision of the Heavenly Banquet led by the “Lamb that was slain.” Sunday’s reading is a glimpse of the eternal hymn of praise in Heaven, where the cherubim and seraphim continually do cry, “Worthy is the lamb that was slain.”
Many times during Lent and particularly during Holy Week, we read from the second chapter of Paul’s Epistle to the Phillipians that Jesus “emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave … humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:6-8). The posture of obedience and humility that Jesus modelled for us in his Passion is rewarded in eternity by his Kingship, in which we will participate if we likewise humble ourselves in obedience.
When Peter is challenged by the High Priest in Sunday’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, he replies “We must obey God rather than men.” Ordered by the Sanhedrin to stop speaking in the name of Jesus, he and the others left “rejoicing that they had been found worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.” Our suffering for the sake of the name — our suffering for Love — is a gift pleasing to God. He wants our whole being, not just the good times but the bad. When he told us to “pick up your cross and follow me,” he was foreshadowing the price of love. He loved us enough to make an awful day the earth shook into a day we call Good Friday, and three days later the earth shook in a different way on account of the resurrection as Death was destroyed.
We are made for eternal life, and we are offered eternal life. Eternal life is not free, however. In Acts, we see the Apostles — even before the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost — begin to comprehend what has happened. Through a number of stories like the walk to Emmaus, Jesus is revealing who he truly is. The Apostles who seemed so completely befuddled during the Passion are growing in strength and courage to take up their crosses and follow the risen Lord.
The reading from the Gospel according to St. John indicates another aspect of the price of love. Love requires action. First, we are presented with downhearted Apostles, and with a tone of frustration Peter announces he is going fishing. In doing so, Peter reminds us that we are called to action; in the Garden of Eden, Adam worked. For Love is not passive, it is active. Jesus appears after a fruitless night of fishing and tells them to put out their net yet again. And they obey him, “and were not able pull it in because of the number of fish.” In this obedient action, the Apostles recognize the Lord.
Jesus has further commands for them: “Bring some of the fish you just caught” to a fire already loaded with fish and bread. On the basis of our rational powers it would not make sense to bring more fish to a meal already cooking fish. But Peter obeys, dragging ashore a net “full of 153 large fish.” After the work, Jesus invites them to the communal meal which corresponds to the Last Supper and the Eucharist: he takes the bread, he gives it to them.
Jesus then turns to Peter, the rock on which he would build his Church against which the powers of Hell would never prevail, and he asks him three times the question. “Do you love me?” Three times Peter says yes, with a rising tone of hurt and distress. At each affirmation, Jesus gives Peter a command of action. Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep. Love, love, love. Obey, obey, obey. Action, action, action.
Finally, Jesus intimates to Peter the price of love. Obedience to God’s will is costly. To Peter, his rock, he says “when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Peter is told this to signify “by what kind of death he would glorify God.” Peter would die in the persecution under Nero by the means the Romans used to send a message: crucifixion. The price of love is the cross, and the wisdom of the cross is folly to the world. But we live for eternity, not for today. And we live for God, not for man. And we live for love, not selfishness. And we will live with him forever.
Since the late 18th century, and particularly from German Lutheran universities in the 19th century, Bible scholars have developed advanced techniques of analysis to apply to the canonical writings of Jews and Christians. Historical critical analysis, in which we examine the historical context of the human writer and his contemporary human audience, has helped modern readers more fully understand the world in which the people of Israel and the people of Hellenic Palestine lived. Literary criticism, in which the words chosen by the author are drawn out to demonstrate distinct themes and perspectives, helps make sense of Biblical writings that otherwise might be repetitive or contradictory. Source criticism helps the reader better understand how the various books in the Bible are connected. Form criticism, which analyzes structures for communication, illuminates the ways in which the Biblical teachings are communicated. And redaction criticism considers how the oral stories were transferred to written media.
These powerful tools help the serious student of the Bible see the connections that stretch through the centuries as well as the phenomena that were limited to particular groups or periods in time. A thorough understanding of the post-Alexandrian Hellenization of the land of Judah, for example, helps the reader understand the motivation of the Maccabeans as he reads in the books of the Maccabees about religious uprising and revolt. Likewise, redaction analysis spurs the reader to notice and then consider why quotations of the Old Testament in the new Testament are not necessarily direct and contiguous but sometimes separate verses patched together.
As powerful as these tools are, the carry with them a risk that must be acknowledged and considered by the Catholic student of scripture. These tools are the tools of the empiricist; they examine evidence and draw inferential conclusions about books the Catholic Church holds to be the Word of God. These tools are those of the rationalist; they apply reason – and only reason – to books the Church teaches contain some truths attainable only through revelation. The new methods introduced by the Germans are a blessed counterpoint to believers who read the scripture literally with no appreciation for the other ways the words can be examined. The authentic Catholic is not limited to this either/or choice. Believing in a transcendent God who is being itself rather than a being, who by his will alone binds up all existence including time and space, the authentic Christian student of scripture will use the new methods while not losing sight of the deeper realities and the a priori truths of Church doctrine.
We are not limited to evidentiary approaches, we are not limited to what we can reason to by our own efforts. We claim a God who is truth, who is beyond our vocabulary and beyond definition. Our scriptural study and our preaching on scripture should use the full range of analytical tools to communicate the Good News to the faithful. We must speak to the head and the heart, reading the scripture as family history, literature, poetry, and a call to our deepest interior. Assisted by knowledge of the times, the form, the words and the edits, we read and preach scripture to meet a Person.