Archive for the ‘Early Church’ Category

Called by the Spirit — 3rd Sunday of Easter—Year A

May 5, 2014

Gospel: Luke 24:13-35

Let me tell you about the neatest thing that happened to me this week. Since Easter, our parish has been reading the book Rediscover Catholicism and discussing it on Thursday evenings in the rectory. In the latest chapter, Matthew Kelly writes that today’s Catholic Church will become all that she is meant to be only through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

“[T]he ways of man will not get us from where we are today to where we are called to be. I also know that in every place and in every time since Pentecost the Holy Spirit has been present to guide you, me, and the whole Church. I am certain that the Church needs less and less of your ideas and mine, and more and more guidance from the Holy Spirit.”

Holy Spirit Dove - Sacred Heart Catholic Church -  Wauzeka WIMatthew Kelly then pauses in his text to invite the reader to pray the traditional prayer for the Holy Spirit to “renew the face of the earth.”

I was reflecting on these things while I was driving down the highway. Am I inviting the Holy Spirit to guide my everyday life? I try to do my best and make good choices, but my flesh is weak and my knowledge is limited. I work and hope for the best, but the Holy Spirit has power I ought to be open to and insight I should be more docile to. So I prayed to the Holy Spirit anew. And then a curious thing happened: the thought came mind to call my old friend, Colleen.

It was curious because I had not been previously thinking of her or thinking about calling anyone at all. Yet I wondered, “Is this coming from you, Lord, or is this just me?” I hesitated because I was aware of no reason to call. If she were to ask me what I was up to, or what I wanted to talk about, I would have nothing to say. So, to avoid embarrassment, I constructed some good reason for calling (to thank her and her husband for coming to a party I threw for old friends two weeks ago) before selecting her number on my cellphone.

She answered, and after greetings I asked, “So how are things going?”

Great,” she replied, less than enthusiastically.

“Is that an actually-great, or a sarcastically-great?”

It was the second. That morning, Colleen had quit her job without giving two-weeks notice. She said she had been at the end of her rope at work for some time and had quit in a fashion which precluded her return. She was anxious at losing her health insurance and uncertain about what she would do next. Then I knew the reason for my call. I mentioned that even though these events had come unexpectedly to her, they were no surprise to God. I encouraged her to ask Him to show her–and to lead her–where to go next. By the end of our chat, Colleen’s spirits were noticeably better than before.

I share this story because I cannot tell anyone else’s first-person account as well as my own, and as Pope Paul VI said, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” I may be misrecalling a phrase or two, but I know that my story is true. It reconfirms for me that God intervenes in our world, working miracles big and small, and that God would personally speak to you and me (not just to long-ago saints, or crazy people.)

Encounter on the Road to Emmaus — Luke 24A personal relationship requires two-way communication. Since God desires a personal relationship with every person, we should not be surprised that he would speak to us. When He speaks it is usually subtly, perhaps by a thought or through a friend. He comes discretely, like Jesus came veiled to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and He does not force Himself upon us, just as Jesus “gave the impression that he was going on farther.” God can speak to us through whatever we’re paying attention to if we’re open to listening to Him and welcoming Him.

The apostles and the first disciples were ordinary people, made of the same stuff that we are. They worshiped just like we do, opening God’s Word and encountering Jesus in the Breaking of the Bread, but they also had the expectation that they would see God work mighty deeds in their midst and actively sought to be led by the Holy Spirit. Wouldn’t God want the same for us today?

What sort of things would the Lord like to do through us? In today’s gospel, the two men walking their road away from the holy city were visited that first Easter evening by Jesus incognito. Their encounter with Him restored their Christian faith and brought them back to the early Church in Jerusalem. One thing Jesus would like to do today is to encounter those who are far from His Church using us as His subtle disguise. Let us ask the Holy Spirit to inspire and lead us to invite and draw others to our parish. At worst, they’ll decline, but very possibly their lives could be changed and it could be the neatest thing that happens to you all week.

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in us the fire of your love.

Send forth your Spirit and we shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth.

One Bible, Many Interpretations

April 29, 2014

Mormons teach that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three Gods, and that we too can become Gods in our own right someday.

You may reply to them, for instance, with James 2:19, “You believe that God is one. You do well. Even the demons believe that and tremble,” but Mormons will have some explanation for that New Testament passage which fits their theology.

Oneness Pentecostals teach that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not three persons but three manifestations of one divine person, God.

You may ask them who Jesus is praying to in Matthew 26:39 when he says in the Garden of Gethsemane, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will,” yet Oneness Pentecostals will offer some answer for why Jesus is not praying to another person.

Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that Jesus is not God, not divine, but God’s first and greatest creature and that the Holy Spirit is not a person but the active force of God the Father in the world.

You may answer with the beginning and end of the Gospel of John: with John’s prologue where we see “the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … And the Word became flesh,” and the gospel’s climax, John 20:28, “Thomas answered and said to [Jesus,] ‘My Lord and my God!'” However, Jehovah’s Witnesses will surely have some reply for these verses.

A diagram of the ancient, orthodox, Christian conception of the Holy Trinity

A diagram of the ancient, orthodox, Christian conception of the Most Holy Trinity: One God, Three Divine Persons

In my personal experience, advocates of Mormon polytheism, Oneness Pentecostal modalism, or Jehovah’s Witnesses Arianism-esque theology have all been sincere, friendly, rational, and not unintelligent people. They were all well-versed in the Bible, regarded it as God’s infallible Word, and used it to support their beliefs. They all proudly claimed the name of “Christian.” However, the undeniable fact that their theologies contradict each other proves that these admirable personal traits are not enough to guarantee a true understanding of the Christian Faith. The problem is that there seems to be more than one possible internally-coherent interpretation of the Bible. Just as texts out of context can suggest several defensible, though incorrect, meanings; interpreting biblical texts outside the context of Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church leads to many errors.

Last week, two very nice Jehovah’s Witnesses visited me at my rectory and we spoke for a couple of hours. I believe we were debating whether one of Jesus’ “I Am” statements in John’s Gospel was a profession of his divinity when one of my guests remarked, “We can’t really be certain what he meant.” I replied to the effect, “You’re right!–If your opinion and my opinion are all we have to go on, if there’s no visible authority on earth with power from Jesus Christ to infallibly answer biblical questions, then we can never be certain our interpretations are true–since many sincere, reasonable, and even scholarly Christians firmly disagree. Without a clear, external teaching authority within the Church, we would be left as sheep without a shepherd and inevitably scatter.” Most Christians revere the Holy Scriptures as God’s infallible Word, and this is right and good, but for some reason many of them reject the Catholic Church through which the Scriptures come.

Recall that Jesus wrote nothing in the Gospels (except perhaps something in the dust near the woman caught in adultery) but Jesus did establish a Church. Through this Church the New Testament was written, collected, canonized, and revered. However, this process was certainly not completed in the first century AD. In the early Church there was much debate over which New Testament writings were inspired and should be included in the canon. The Shepherd of Hermas? The Book of Revelation? The Didache? The Letter to the Hebrews? The Epistle of Clement? Some early Church Fathers included works such as these in their lists of Bible books, while others left them out. It was the Catholic Church that ultimately canonized the New Testament books which all Christians acknowledge today.

One teaching shared by Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses is the belief that a Great Apostasy occurred in the early Church. The New Testament contains verses which warn about false teachers arising who will mislead many. A great deception, those religions say, happened soon after the death of the apostles and explains why the majority of self-professed Christians in history have held core doctrines widely different from their own. I would agree that false teachers and heresies arise in every age, but was there a Great Apostasy soon after the apostles that devastated Christ’s Church and caused his central teachings (like the true nature of God) to be discarded and forgotten?

Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter by Pietro Perugino (detail)

Jesus entrusting the keys of his Kingdom to St. Peter (Matthew 16:19)

All Christians will agree that Jesus was a wise man. Jesus was a wise man indeed, who built his house on rock. Jesus declared to Simon, “‘I say to you, you are Peter [that is, you are “Rock” in Greek] and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.'” (Matthew 16:18) If Jesus was a wise man who built his house on rock we can be assured that even though “the rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house–it did not collapse; [his Church] had been set solidly on rock.” (Matthew 7:24-25)

After building his Church on Peter for some forty years, did Jesus let it go into shambles and fail to repair it for about eighteen centuries, until Joseph Smith or The Watchtower came along? If so, Jesus really dropped the ball. If the Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses are right, then God managed to get all of the New Testament books infallibly written, correctly canonized, and faithfully preserved throughout millennia, but could not maintain the truth about himself in his Church on earth in the hearts and minds of believers much beyond the death of the apostles. More likely, our Lord Jesus Christ succeeded in preserving his teachings and the visible hierarchical authority he gave to his Church, from St. Peter (the first pope) and the apostles to Pope Francis and the bishops in communion with him today. A clear and necessary line of teaching authority runs though the centuries, through the laying of hands and apostolic succession.

You may encounter people who will present you with internally-consistent but very different interpretations of Scripture. Do not let your hearts be troubled. There are good reasons for everything we believe as Catholics. They may “know” the Bible, but we are blessed to know God’s Church from which the Bible comes. If you love Jesus Christ, love his Catholic Church. As even St. Joan of Arc, who personally experienced the complexities of the Church as a divine and human institution, said, “About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they are just one thing and we shouldn’t complicate the matter.” If you love Jesus’ Church you will love him well. Jesus Christ is risen and his Catholic Church, though ancient, has never died. Christ’s Church, the Bride he protects and for whom he laid down his life, is very much alive.

The Significance of Standing — Tuesday, 3rd Week of Easter

May 10, 2011

There’s a curious detail about Stephen’s vision of Heaven in our first reading today:

“Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked up intently to heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and Stephen said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’”

Stephen looks up to Heaven and sees Jesus standing at the Father’s right hand, but both the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed (which we say each Sunday) describe Jesus as “seated at the right hand of the Father.” What are we to make of this?

In the ancient world, to be seated at someone’s right hand gave you the place of higher honor. At a meal, this favored seat granted a special closeness to the host. In a kingdom, the one seated at the right hand of the throne would share in the king’s authority and rule. Of course, describing Jesus as “seated at the right hand of the Father” is only an image (God the Father is unlimited, pure spirit and doesn’t have a right hand.) But this phrase from our creeds does describe a reality: that Jesus is now in the intimate presence of God the Father, sharing supremely in His glory and rule. In his vision, Stephen beholds Jesus in the place of honor, at the Father’s “right hand,” but Stephen sees Jesus standing. So why is Jesus standing?

Did you know that whenever the President of the United States enters a room, everybody stands up? It doesn’t matter if it is a room full of Democrats or Republicans, members of the press, or ordinary citizens, everyone stands up for the President. The same goes for a judge in his courtroom: “All rise, the Honorable Judge So-and-so presiding.” And a gentleman knows that he ought to stand up whenever he greets a lady. Why do they stand? Because it is a sign of respect. If you think about it, whenever we’re offering prayers in the Mass, provided we’re not kneeling, we’re standing up to pray. We stand to pray as a sign of respect to God.

Sometimes, people stand as a sign of respect not so much for the individual but for the greatness of the office they possess. Even a U.S. President’s most hostile critics in Congress, political opponents who couldn’t say one good thing about him, will stand up when he arrives to give his State of the Union address out of respect for the office he holds. It wasn’t for this reason that Jesus stood. No one on earth could have demanded Jesus’ respect by holding an office higher than his.

Jesus stood up because he wanted to show Stephen a sign of His respect. Jesus stood up because he was proud of Stephen. I think that we forget that Jesus is a real human being, with human feelings and emotions about the human events he sees. At the same time, He is also God; and therefore, He sees us all.

When you’re alone, and overcome temptation to do what you know is good, Jesus sees you and He’s proud of you. When you give an anonymous contribution or do a secret kindness, Jesus sees it and He’s proud of you. When you are opposed like Stephen, by people who hate you, or that just don’t understand you, when all the while you’re trying act with love, you do not stand alone. Remember that when you do what’s hard for Jesus, He sees it, and He sees you and He’s proud of you for it.

Sodium Chloride Reaction — 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time—Year A

February 8, 2011

Let me tell you two stories about chemicals that produced quite a reaction in me. In summers when I was a kid, I liked to go to the Osseo city pool. They had there a brown door with red letters warning something to the effect of: “Danger, Deadly Chlorine Gas, Staff Only!” I needed no further persuading. Years later, my high school science teacher put a bucket in the snow, and in the bucket he put some water, and in the water he put in a chunk of pure sodium, using tongs. The water steamed and bubbled and exploded a couple of time. It was awesome, but also rather threatening.

What do you get if you put these two dangerous elements together? You get sodium chloride. I warn you that this compound is now found in our environment and in our homes. The oceans are full of it. It’s on our city streets. It’s even in the food we eat and feed to our children. Sodium chloride sounds rather threatening, but you know this benign compound by another name: Salt.

Like salt, Christianity is pervasive, it’s everywhere. Like salt, people can fear and oppose Christianity, thinking it’s harmful for people and bad for our world. But in truth, Christianity, like salt, is necessary for life. Christians, to the extent that they are truly Christians, are the salt of the earth.

The world’s irrational fear and opposition to our faith is nothing new. Listen to this anonymous letter written to a man named Diognetus that dates from the second century. Listen for how Christians resemble the salt of the world, ubiquitous, helpful and good, and feared and opposed:

“Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. … With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign. And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives.  They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh.

They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they, rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life. They are attacked by the Jews as aliens, they are persecuted by the Greeks, yet no one can explain the reason for this hatred.

Why does the world oppose devout Christianity, now as then? One reason is that the Christian dedicates himself exclusively to Jesus Christ, in a way that worldly people think is disproportionate and dangerous. They imagine the believing Christian behaves like sodium in water, hot with intolerance and hatred, violent in their reactions. In fact, a Christian’s total commitment to Jesus Christ is what leads Him to have mercy for all and extend love toward all. Who is more responsible for ‘sharing bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless, and clothing the naked’ in history of the world than Christians in general and the Catholic Church in particular?

Another reason why the world hates Christianity is that worldly people think it lethal to the joys of life. Like inhaling chlorine gas, they fear that Christianity stands to afixiate their happiness. This too is nothing new. In Roman times Christians were charged with “hatred of humanity” for it was thought, “whoever loves man will love what man loves.” As the writer to Diognetus observed in the second century, “The world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because [Chritians] are opposed to its enjoyments.” It is still so today. It is as Jesus said: He calls us the light of the world, and elsewhere notes, “Everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed.” We tell the world that some things that it loves are false roads to happiness, and it hates us for it.

So what are we to do? First, realize that the modern world’s hostility to Christianity is nothing new. Don’t wait for the world’s hostility to pass, it won’t. And don’t think your faith is a shameful thing, it’s not. Instead, do as Jesus teaches, “your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” If you are a Christian, people who know you should see something different in you and ask, “What’s your secret.” And when they do you should say, “It’s because of my relationship to Jesus Christ and His Church.” Pray for this grace. Pray that you may be a witness to Christ in both your words and deeds. Then, as the psalmist said, you will be “a light in darkness” and you will help to save many souls in the world.

Uniquely Different — October 28 — Sts. Simon and Jude

November 3, 2010

[Jesus] called his disciples to himself,
and from them he chose Twelve,
whom he also named Apostles:
Simon, whom he named Peter…
Simon who was called a Zealot,
and Judas the son of James,
and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.

In the early days of their ministry, whenever Jesus called out for ‘Simon’ or ‘Judas,’ more than one head may have turned. Among Jesus’ apostles there were two Simon’s and two Judas’. There was Simon Peter and Simon the Zealot, and Judas (or Jude) the son of James and Judas Iscariot the betrayer. Though these pairs shared the same names and the same calling to be apostles, they were different in important ways.

Simon Peter was called to be the Rock, the leader of the apostles and of the nascent Church. Simon the Zealot may have shared his zeal, but he was not meant to have the same role as Peter. Each saint’s apostleship was unique to him.

Sometimes Christians who eagerly desire to be saints themselves strive to impersonate their favorite holy heroes. We do well to learn from the lived examples of the saints, for St. Paul did say, “Be imitators of me, as I imitate Christ,” but there can truly be only one St. Paul, one St. Francis, or one St. Therese of Lisieux. Every saint in history has been unique, and every future saint will be, too.

The two Judas’ teach us a lesson, too. Even after years of preaching the Gospel, I can imagine some people felt an initial uncertainty towards Judas the son of James. Intellectually, Christians would know that this apostle could not possibly be Judas the betrayer (because he one took his own life,) yet they might feel wary about this “Judas” in their midst.

Sometimes our feelings toward other people are influenced by who they remind us of. For instance, if you meet someone whose face resembles a person who has hurt you in the past, you may be involuntarily uncomfortable around them. In psychology, this shift of emotions from one person or thing to another is called transference. This is the stuff that prejudice is made of, and the good apostle, Judas, caught some of its unjust, negative effect.

Though the apostles shared names and a common calling, they were unique individuals. The two Simons teach us that each is called to live out their own, unique, holy life. The two Judas’ teach us that we must always receive others in their own personal uniqueness.

Friday, 23rd Week in Ordinary Time—Year I

September 12, 2009

Jesus says, “No disciple is superior to the teacher;
but when fully trained, every disciple will be like his teacher.” And Saint Paul says, “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and an arrogant man…” So this raises the question, who was St. Paul’s teacher?

From the book of Acts we learn that Paul ‘was thoroughly trained in the law at the feet of the Master Teacher Gamaliel, a Pharisee in the Sanhedrin respected by all the people.’ (Acts 22:3, 5:34) In fact, some of Gamaliel’s wisdom even appears in Scripture.

In the early days of the Church, the apostles were arrested and interrogated by the Sanhedrin for the signs and wonders they were doing near the temple. When they spoke out boldly about Christ, some in the council wanted to put them to death, but Gamaliel ordered the apostles to be put outside for a short time.

“Fellow Israelites,” Gamaliel said to the council, “be careful what you are about to do to these men. …If this endeavor or this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself. But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them; you may even find yourselves fighting against God.”  The Council was persuaded by him to spare the apostles’ lives. (Notice that Gamaliel’s wisdom was in admitting the possibility that a wooden beam might be lodged in the Sanhedrin’s eyes, obscuring their vision toward the new religious movement.)

By all accounts, both Jewish and Christian, Gamaliel was a good and wise man. Some legends even say that he went on to become a Christian and a saint. So how can it be that St. Paul was “a blasphemer and a persecutor and an arrogant man” if he was this good man’s disciple?     The answer must be that St. Paul had not yet been fully trained by Gamaliel, for every disciple when fully trained is like his teacher.

The same could be said for us as the disciples of Christ. How can it be that we commit the acts of arrogance, the offences, and the blasphemies we do if we are Christ’s disciples? The answer must be that we have not yet been fully trained by Christ, for every disciple when fully trained is like his teacher.

So take comfort in the fact that we have not yet exhausted the wisdom which Christ has to teach us. If we do not abandon his training, the Master Teacher Christ will ‘show us the path to life, the fullness of joys in His presence, and happiness at His right hand forever.’