By This They Will Know You Are My Disciples

Today is my final day with the wonderful folks at First Presbyterian Church of Neenah Wisconsin, and today’s short Gospel was from the 13th chapter of John, where Jesus commands his disciples to love one another, saying this is how people will know they are his disciples.

This Gospel occurs during the Last Supper, the last meal Jesus will spend with his friends and disciples – the last time he will be able to have a real conversation with them before he is arrested.  And what is it important for Jesus to convey in this moment, in his final, intensive conversation with his disciples at the Last Supper?  Judas has just left to betray Jesus, so Jesus knows his time is limited, and he needs to make sure his disciples understand what he has been trying to convey to them.  What does he share?

By this everyone will know that you are my disciples. 

And the this is not whether you were circumcised. 

The this is not whether you do or don’t eat pork. 

And the this is not whether you got divorced several times. 

The this is not about which version of the Bible we read or which creed we recite.

And the this is not any of the myriad ways we try to divide each other up into the good guys and the bad.

By this everyone will know that you are my disciples: if you have love for one another.”  “Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another.”

How embarrassing it should be for many of us who call ourselves Christians to recall that Jesus wanted to make it easy for us by having us focus on this one thing; yet we have found so many other ways to identify true believers, and we often have a hard time putting this commandment into practice even in our own family lives. Episcopal rector Gary Jones commenting on this passage observed,

The Bible and the creed would become terribly important to human beings over the years, while the one thing most important to Jesus would get lost as Christians wrestled with power and orthodoxy.

I suspect Jesus knew people would fight wars over who held correct beliefs, but that was never his primary concern.

 “Love as I have loved you.” 

People argue about what it means to love God.  But Jesus’ uniting of two disparate in the Hebrew Scriptures into his Great Commandment tell us how to we love God: by loving his creatures, loving our neighbors.  We cannot love God without loving each other.

Fifty-five or so years ago Hal David and Burt Bacharach composed a song titled What the World Needs Now.  The opening lines are “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.  It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.  What the world needs now is love, sweet love.  No, not just for some, but for everyone.”

The sentiment expressed in the song is no less true today.  The love that we are called to share – with everyone – is what our world so desperately needs.  A world groaning in pain. Hate crimes. Separation of parents and children at the border. War. Etc, etc, and so forth.

None of us are actively participating in any of that.  And much of the suffering of the world is beyond our direct control. But we do need to ask ourselves how we are implementing Jesus’ command, both on a micro and a macro level.

On a micro level: We can ask ourselves – who (individually or collectively) do I find it difficult to love?  Where is my heart hardened?  Where is the challenge for me to love the way Jesus did – without regard to merit, without regard to what that person does or does not do for me? And what grace do I need from God to love more expansively?

 On a macro level: Does my life bear witness to the love and fidelity of God?  And part of that is: are we sharing the story of Christian hope – of God’s love made manifest in the death and resurrection of Christ? Because the promise is (to quote the title of a book by Evangelical Rob Bell): Love Wins.  However grim things look there will be a new day when we live face to face with God.  When all that has hindered, hurt, and hampered us will be gone.  What will be left is a life with God, filled with relationships of joy and strength with God’s people.

That is a message our world so desperately needs.

Is this the message we proclaim, not predominantly by what we say, but by how we live our lives?

We Are Sheep and Shepherd

This morning I began a week with First Presbyterian Church of Neenah – preaching at this morning’s services and leading adult faith formation between the services. During the week I’ll lead a Bible study and meet with people individually for spiritual direction, and end next Sunday in the way I began it today.

The readings for today’s all, in one way or another employed the motif of the shepherd and shepherding. Part of my sermon addressed what the imagery in Psalm 23 and Jesus’ identifying himself as the good shepherd teach us about what it means to call God our shepherd.

But we are not only sheep to God’s shepherd. The point is not simply that the love and care and guidance of the shepherd characterizes God’s love and care for us, but it describes what we are asked to be for each other.

At the end of John’s Gospel, Jesus instructs Peter – feed my lambs, feed my sheep.  In other words, be as a shepherd to my sheep. And we see this same language used in various of the letters of New Testament – the extension of the good shepherd label to those who would lead it the church.

The question is: for whom is that label intended?  Is it just meant for church leaders?  I shared that my answer to that question is a resounding no – that each and every one of us – is not only sheep, but shepherd.

We have each been given the charge to model our lives after that of the Good Shepherd.  To live lives of love, commitment and sacrifice on behalf of each other. To nourish each other – doing all we can to help each other grow in our relationship with God and flourish as the fully human persons God invites us to be. To look out for each other and protect each other. To be personally, intimately involved with each other – treating everyone with whom we come into contact as the beloved God.

It is a charge that raises the bar for all of us.

Fortunately, we are not asked to do any of this on our own.  I think one of the reasons the Church gives us a long Easter season each year is to remind us that the God who raised Jesus is still active in the world today.

I think that is the reason we hear from Acts every year in the Easter season.  So that we can see what is able to be accomplished through the power of the Spirit alive and present in the world after the resurrection and ascension of Christ.  It shows us that none of the things faced by the early church – persecutions, famines, opposition, violent storms and so forth were stronger than the power of the Spirit.

And, unlike the person who first spoke the words of Psalm 23, or those who first heard it, we can read that Psalm with that knowledge.  Knowing that when the metaphors and images of the Psalm speak in the present, they are truly indicating our present reality.  Today – in our present world – the shepherd leads…restores…comforts….prepares a table…anoints our head.  And in so doing, empowers and strengthens us to do the same for each other.

Yom Ha’atzmaut

This evening begins the Jewish celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Day of Independence, which continues on Thursday. (The modern State of Israel was established in 1948.)  After the World War II, it was thought imperative that the Jews have a place to call their own.

I think it is helpful for those of us who are not Jewish to understand the importance of Israel to the Jewish people.  The history of the Jewish people begins with Abraham, who God tells to leave his homeland, promising him a new home in the land of Canaan.  This is the land now known as Israel, often referred to as the Promised Land, because of God’s promise to give the land to the descendants of Abraham.

Jews have lived in the land now known as Israel continuously for over three thousand years, although they were not always in political control of the land, and, indeed, not even always a majority of the population. A substantial portion of Jewish law is tied to the land of Israel and can only be performed there.  (Some rabbis say that it is a mitzvah to take possession of Israel and live in it; the Talmud says the land is so holy that merely walking there is enough for salvation.  Prayers for a return to Israel and Jerusalem are included in daily Jewish prayers.  That is because living outside of Israel is viewed to an extent as an unnatural state for a Jew; that living outside of Israel is akin to living in exile.

 The Holocaust brought the need for a Jewish homeland into sharp focus; after the World War II, it was thought imperative that the Jews have a place to call their own. Today, approximately five million Jews, more than a third of the world’s Jewish population, live in Israel.  (And they make up more than 8-% of the population there.)

 I do not intend by this post to make any comments about political matters in Israel or between the Israelis and the Palestinians; just to help understand why the land matters to the Jewish people. One can criticize certain actions of the government of Israel without being anti-Semitic, but I do think it is important to understand the fear of Jews of the destruction of Israel and the need to protect against that.

Yom HaShoah

Yom HaShoah, the day in the Jewish calendar set aside for Holocaust remembrance, began last evening at sundown.

I have benefitted greatly from the writings of the last Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. So in commemoration of this day, I share an excerpt from the address he gave marking this day in 2020 (the year he died).

The Holocaust has become more than a Jewish tragedy. It has become, for the West, a defining symbol of man’s inhumanity to man. …

The Holocaust was more than a Jewish tragedy. It was a human tragedy. Auschwitz did more than claim the lives of its victims. Something of the image of God that is humankind died there too. That’s why everyone must remember where the rail tracks of hatred end.

There is one mistake we must never make, namely to think that the victims of persecution are its cause. There was a time when Jews believed that they could cure antisemitism. Were they not hated because they were different? Well, then, they would make every effort to become the same. One by one they abandoned the distinctive features of Jewish life. They integrated, acculturated, assimilated. But antisemitism did not end. If anything, it grew.

Those who hate need no reason to hate. Jews were attacked because they were rich and because they were poor. They were condemned as capitalists and as communists. Voltaire accused them of being primitive and superstitious; others called them rootless cosmopolitans. Antisemitism was protean and logic-defying. It exists in countries where there are no Jews. That is why Holocaust remembrance must not be confined to Jews alone. The victim cannot cure the crime. That demands the rule of law, a respect for justice, and a constant effort of education.

The imperative of remembrance never ends. Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, Chechnya, Northern Ireland, and the Middle East – all these and many others are our reminders that ethnic and religious conflict still scar our world.

Holocaust Remembrance Day does not imply that the Shoah was the only tragedy of modern history. To the contrary, it reminds us that, unchecked, hatred can take many forms and claim many kinds of victims.

Our best defence is not abstract principle but specific memory, the knowledge of what happened once and must never happen again.

The Power of the Spirit

I’m at my “happy place” – the Jesuit Retreat House in OshKosh, where I have been presenting a women’s Ignatian retreat that ended this afternoon. I offered the reflection at the closing Mass today, which I excerpt here.

In her book In Search of Belief, Joan Chittister writes:

Do I believe in the Holy Spirit?  You bet I do.  Nothing else makes sense.  Either the Spirit of God who created us is with us still, either the presence of Christ who is the Way abides in us in Spirit, or the God of Creation and the Redeemer of souls has never been with us at all.  God’s spirit does not abandon us, cannot abandon us, if God is really God.

Every year during the Easter season, our first reading comes from Acts, the book that describes our early Christian history – the mission of the early days of the church.  There are a lot of reasons it is good for us to hear these readings.  To me one of the important things these readings do is to illustrate for us the extraordinary power of the Spirit – of what we are capable of when the spirit of God is working through us.

Today’s Gospel opens with the disciples hunkered down in a locked room, fearing for their safety.  They are afraid for their lives, afraid of their uncertain futures.  They experience doubt, confusion, pain. 

As the disciples are cowering in fear, in walks Jesus – Peace be with you.  And, telling the disciples that as the Father has sent him he sends them, he breathes on them saying “receive the Holy Spirit.”

The disciples were sent by Jesus to carry on his mission of revealing God to the world.  But they were not left on their own in this daunting task.  Instead, Jesus fulfills the promise he had earlier made to them that he would send the Spirit to be with them.

And look at the effect!  The first Mass reading from Acts opens: “Many signs and wonders were done among the people at the hands of the apostles.”

 Remember the Peter of the Gospels?

When Jesus makes his first prediction of his passion, saying he must go to Jerusalem and be killed, Peter says, “God forbid such a thing should happen.”  To which, Jesus responds, “Get thee behind me Satan!”

When Jesus is teaching about forgiveness, Peter asks how many times should we forgive – as many as seven (thinking he is being quite magnanimous), Jesus answers No (knucklehead) – seventy time seven.

When Jesus asks Peter to walk across the water to meet him (in response to Peter’s request that Jesus bid him to do so), he manages one step before falling in fear.

When Peter is on the mountain with Jesus experiencing the Transfiguration, blinded by the vision of Moses and Elijah, what does he come up with, “Um, should we build a tent?”

At the last supper, Peter completely fails in understanding Jesus’ desire to wash his feet.

When Jesus asks his disciples to stay awake with him, Peter falls asleep.

When the soldiers come to arrest Jesus, Peter cuts off the ear of one.

And then, when Jesus is arrested, Peter denies knowing him.  Three times. 

Finally, we see him in today’s Gospel: hiding with the other disciples in fear in the upper room.

The Peter we meet in Acts following the receipt of the Spirit is a very different person.  By the time of the passage we hear in our first reading, Peter has already given a confident, powerful speech that caused 3000 people to be added to their followers.  He has already cured a crippled beggar.  And, he has already boldly told the Sanhedrin that he won’t heed their warning to cease preaching in Jesus’ name.  (Perhaps my favorite words spoken by Peter: “It is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard.”)

In today’s reading we are told that, so confident were the people of Peter’s healing ability, that they believed all that was necessary was for his shadow to fall on one or another of them to be healed.  And they were healed in large numbers.

Pretty amazing!

To proclaim our belief in the Holy Spirit, as we do every time we recite our creed, is to acknowledge our belief that the spirit of God is present and alive in the world today.  And that proclamation acknowledges that the Spirit of God resides in me, in you, and in us

Renewing Our Baptismal Promises

During the Easter Vigil Mass, which many of us will attend this evening, we will renew our Baptismal vows. We can treat it as a rote exercise, or we can really reflect on what those promises mean.

A number of years ago, William Reiser, S.J., posed a number of questions for us to ponder that help deepen our appreciation of what it is we are renewing. They are worth considering today.

Do you accept Jesus as your teacher, as the example whom you will always imitate and as the one in whom the mystery of God’s love for the world has been fully revealed?

Do you dedicate yourself to seeking the kingdom of God and God’s justice, to praying daily, to mediating on the Gospels and to celebrating the Eucharist faithfully and devoutly?

Do you commit yourself to that spirit of poverty and detachment that Jesus enjoined on His disciples, and to resisting that spirit of consumerism and materialism that is so strong in our culture?

Do you accept your responsibility for building community, for being people of compassion and reconciliation, for being mindful of those who are poor and oppressed, and for truly forgiving those who have offended you?

Will you try to thank and praise God by your works and by your actions, in times of prosperity as well as in moments of suffering, giving loyal witness to the risen Jesus by your faith, by your hope and by the style of your living?

Do you surrender your lives to God as disciples and companions of Jesus?  Do you believe that God is Lord of history, sovereign over nations and peoples, and that God’s promise to redeem all of creation from its bondage to death and decay will one day be accomplished?

Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, and life everlasting?

                                       (William E. Reiser America 1986)                        

Transforming Temptation

On this Holy Thursday, we celebrate Jesus’ last meal with his disciples. But the final toast at dinner was not the end of the evening. Rather, Jesus goes from dinner with his friends to what we term his agony in the garden of Gethsemane.

Ronald Rolheiser once wrote this about that episode:

Jesus walked into the Garden of Gethsemane as one tempted, just as we are, towards bitterness, fear, resentment, and self-protection. He was haunted by all the same proclivities that beset us. But, in Gethsemane, he transformed rather than transmitted those temptations. He didn’t simply give back in kind, letting the energy simply flow through him. He purified the energy and took the tension and sin out of it by absorbing them. It cost him his blood, his life, and his reputation. He had to sweat blood, but he emerged from the Garden the truly generative lover who, at the price of giving away everything, gives back peace for tension and forgiveness for sin, absorbing in his own person the tension and sin so as to take them out of the community. The giving over of that kind of blood really does wash away sin.  And, in doing this, Jesus doesn’t want admirers, but followers. The Garden of Gethsemane invites us, everyone of us, to step in, and to step up. It invites us to sweat a lover’s blood so as to help absorb, purify, and transform tension and sin rather than simply transmit them.”

As we contemplate Jesus’ experience in the garden, we might ask ourselfes:

What lessons do we learn from this episode of Jesus’ life?  What does Jesus behavior teach us about how to respond to the dark gardens in our lives?  Am I as willing to undergo suffering as was Jesus?

When have I been like the disciples, unable to stay awake with Jesus?  Can it be said of me that though the spirit is willing the flesh is weak?

Judas’ Betrayal

I spoke today at the Weekly Manna gathering at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. Since this Wednesday before Easter is the day Catholics (and perhaps some other Christian denominations as well) once termed “Spy Wednesday,” I decided to speak about the betrayal of Jesus by Judas. (Spy Wednesday gets its name as the day on which Judas betrayed Jesus to the Sanhedrin.  Because Judas was not an outside enemy, but a traitor from within, his actions conjured up the image of a spy.)

Each of the synoptic Gospels – those of Matthew, Mark and Luke include an account of the betrayal.  Here is Luke’s version:

Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was one of the twelve; he went away and conferred with the chief priests and officers of the temple police about how he night betray him to them.  They were greatly pleased and agreed to give him money.  So he consented and began to look for an opportunity to betray him to them when no crowd was present.

During my talk, I posed three questions in relation to this episode.  Here I summarize my comments on the first question: How did this happen?

To use the term betrayal to describe Judas’ action implies a close relationship that is rendered asunder.  We don’t speak of betraying a stranger or an enemy.  We betray a partner, a friend – someone with whom we are in relationship.

That raises the question: How could someone who was Jesus’ friend and companion, who new first hand Jesus’ goodness and power, betray him?

One commentator asked the question this way and suggested a way of thinking about the issue:

What can have happened to his soul that he would now betray the Lord for thirty pieces of silver?  For it to be explicable, there must have been a long story behind the betrayal that night.  For some time Judas would have been distant from Jesus even though he was still in his company.  On the surface he would have remained normal, but he must have changed inside and become distant.  The split with the Master, the loss of his faith and his vocation must have taken place little by little, as he yielded in more an more important things…In contrast perseverance is doing the small everyday thing with faith; it is supported by the humility of beginning again when we go astray though weakness.

That makes some sense.  The betrayal comes not long after John’s Gospel gives us the account of Jesus and his disciples having dinner at the home of his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus.  (This is after Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.). John records Judas being upset when Mary, the sister of Martha, uses some very expensive ointment to anoint Jesus.“Why was this not sold and given to the poor?”  Judas asks.

  And we are told that Judas concern was not that he cared for the poor, but because he was. A thief and used to help himself to what was in the moneybags.  So Judas had been on a trajectory of sin and hard-heartedness before the betrayal.

Perhaps that gives a window into now only how Judas could have betrayed Jesus then, but how people betray Jesus now.

It doesn’t start with a big betrayal.  But just as each yes to God – in no matter how small a matter – makes each other yes (including bigger yeses) easier, each no to God, each movement away from God makes it easier to take another (and bigger) step away.

 Because whether you literally believe in Satan or some other force for evil, we know we are tempted away from the good.  And that enemy spirit will find a foothold in our weakness, whether it is love of money as Judas suggests or pride or some other weakness and try to exploit that.

So we want to be on guard against little ways we move away from God lest they become bigger.

Protester or Prophet?

I offered the reflection at Mass today at Eastern Point Jesuit Retreat House on this final full day of the retreat I have been on the direction team for. The first Mass reading was from Jeremiah. Part of what I talked about is our need to be prophets not protesters.

Before the verses we heard in the first reading, Jeremiah had been prophesying in the temple court, proclaiming God’s judgment on those who have stiffened their necks and not obeyed God’s word.  In response, the priest Pashur (son of the head of the Temple police) had Jeremiah scourged and placed in stocks.  

Nor was this a single incident of hardship.  Earlier in the book of Jeremiah his family turned against him and even plotted to kill him.  Later he will be attacked by a mob, threatened by the king and ridiculed.  He will be arrested, accused of treason, and thrown into a deep empty well. 

None of this is surprising.  Jeremiah was calling people to a radical transformation, condemning false worship and social injustice.  And he denounced the people for depending on the Temple for security instead of turning to God with their hearts (which, you might imagine, didn’t make him very popular with the religious authorities).

 Yet in the face of people either ignoring or persecuting him, Jeremiah spent forty years delivering God’s message to the people.  Notwithstanding those who tried to plot against him, Jeremiah had confidence that God is with him and that, ultimately, his persecutors would not triumph, a confidence he proclaimed in today’s reading.

 The question I posed is: Do we have the same confidence Jeremiah did?  The confidence that gives us strength and courage even when things are looking bleak? 

 The answer to that question matters because we are all called, albeit in different ways, to be prophets.

 In one of his homilies, the prophet Oscar Romero, Archbishop of El Salvador who was assassinated in 1980, said this:

Those who laugh at me, as if I were crazy to think that I am a prophet, ought to reflect on this.  I have never considered myself a prophet in the sense of being unique among the people, because I know that you and I, the people of God, are a prophetic people.  And my role in this is only to stimulate a prophetic sense in the people.  This is something I can’t give them, rather it is the Spirit that has given it to them.  And each one of you can truly say, “The Spirit came upon me when I was baptized.”

In a similar vein, John Neafsey in a wonderful book titled A Sacred Voice is Calling, while recognizing that some people have particularly strong prophetic imaginations, writes that each of us is called to cultivate our capacity for prophetic imagination, “to find our own way of making the Dream of God a reality.”  Neafsy speaks of a prophetic imagination as an imagination that enables us “to look beyond the world as it is to the world as is could be or should be. 

Prophetic imagination involves more than just criticism and tearing down, that is, more than just protesting.

Protesters do a good job of standing on the sidelines pointing out the problems, of telling us what is wrong.  But they tend not to offer alternatives.

Pointing out what is wrong is not all that hard.  I was a debater in high school and it didn’t take me long to realize that debating the negative side of any proposition was always easier than debating the affirmative side.  It is always easier to tear down than to build up.

I’m not saying protest is not useful.  It is.  We do need people who point to what is wrong. But protest is not enough.

What the world needs – desperately – is people who can point the way to a new reality, to point us toward another future.  People who don’t just yell at the old world, but lead us into a new one.

Our call as Christians is to be prophets, not merely protesters.  Our call is not just to stand out in the square railing against the world as it exists (and there are certainly plenty of issues we could be railing about), but to transform the world into the kingdom of God.  

A good question to reflect on is: am I a prophet or a protester?  I’m guessing that we are all, at least sometimes, protesters.  So the next step in our reflection might be: Where, when I’ve been a protester, could I have taken the next step and been a prophet?  How do I move from the easier task to the harder one? 

At the Ocean with God

I am at the Eastern Point Jesuit Retreat House in Gloucester MA, part of a team directing an 8-day silent retreat. Almost the first thing I did when I arrived Friday was go out the back door of the retreat house and walk along the ocean rocks.

God is everywhere, that I know. But there is something about the ocean, with the waves crashing on the rocks that reveals for me God’s awesome presence. That makes me smile and sing out “How Great is our God!”

And, I admit, I just love climbing along the ocean rocks.

Blessings on your day.