5th Sunday of Easter, Cycle C (2)

Today’s readings remind us of the reason for hardship in our pursuit of the Kingdom of God. Through that hardship we’ll be united with Our Lord one day in love and never experience hardship again.

Today’s First Reading recalls the end of Paul’s first missionary voyage. In his lifetime he made three missionary voyages, and just like when he was knocked to the ground and blinded, he had no idea where his missionary voyages would lead him. Today he arrives back in Antioch, the Christian community who had sent him out at the Holy Spirit’s instruction, and he tells them something none of them expected: the Gentiles, the non-Jews, were welcoming the Gospel too. He encourages them to keep the faith, since, as he says “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” Paul is saying that from experience. On the mission he just finished he had almost been stoned in one town, mistaken for the god Zeus in another, and in a third was dragged outside the city, stoned, and left for dead. The path to the Kingdom of God is not easy, but worth the hardship.

In today’s Second Reading John tries to describe what the Kingdom of God will look like one day when all the hardship is over: the Church, as splendid as a bride on her wedding day, with Christ as her spouse. In every celebration of the Eucharist we try to imitate what the Church will be like to Christ on that day. The Baldachin (in Italian Baldacchino) built over the main altar in many classic church designs is a symbol evoking the canopy used in Jewish weddings. During the liturgy we wear nice clothes and fine vestments, sing beautiful music, and use items made of gold, silver, and other precious materials to celebrate Jesus coming down to be with us and come down into our hearts. Some day we will all be united, just like those people listening to St. Paul in Antioch, just as when we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, rejoicing forever with God among us and all the pain and sorrow wiped away.

St. Paul describes the path to Heaven as hardship, but Our Lord in today’s Gospel calls it the moment of his glorification. When John in his gospel talks about glorification, he is referring to Jesus being crucified. As Judas goes out to betray Our Lord, the Lord says, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him.” He knows that the suffering and hardship that he is about to undergo will make what John sees in the Second Reading come true: all of us, united with him in joy forever. “The One on the throne” in the Second Reading today is Jesus Himself, and he says, “Behold, I make all things new.” Death, sickness, tiredness, and effort are a part of life, but Jesus will re-new everything again: not just spruced up, new again. He is always coming into our hearts to renew us with his love, and, one day, things will be as if they were brand new, forever, like a flower in the fullness of bloom that never wilts again. If we continue to love one another as he has loved us, he can continue to make all things new.

Paul taught the Corinthians, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it” (1 Corinthians 9:24). The author of the Letter to the Hebrews had similar thought: “let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1). Are you racing to win in your Christian and spiritual life, or just making the occasional jog and walk? We not only have a finish line in life, but a time limit. No one knows how much time they have to complete the race, but ever race devised involves running and the risk of not reaching the finish line in time. The Christian life is no different: “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable” (1 Corinthians 9:25).

Readings: Acts 14:21–27; Psalm 145:8–13; Revelation 21:1–5a; John 13:31–33a, 34–35.

4th Sunday of Easter, Cycle C

In today’s readings we see the word of God is addressed to all, and it is a call to gather around Our Lord, the Good Shepherd, so that he can lead us, care for us, and take us to Heaven.

In today’s First Reading Paul and Barnabas try to share the word of God counting on the home field advantage: preaching to their fellow Jews. The initial results were very encouraging, but then the competition got jealous and got political. Paul is not one to be intimidated, and told them it was their loss, not his. They were rejecting the word of God. The loss of some jealous Jews became the Gentile’s gain. They had been seen as second class in comparison to God’s chosen people, but now they found that they too could hear and benefit from the word of God. The whole region benefitted from Paul and Barnabas’ ministry until political machinations made it too difficult for them to work. Our Lord had taught his disciples to shake the dust of a town that rejected him of their feet, and Paul and Barnabas did, moving on to another town. Despite these setbacks, the word was out: the word of God, the good news of salvation, was destined for all, not just the Jews.

In today’s Second Reading the apostle John describes a vision he had of the saints in Heaven gathered around Our Lord. He paints the scene using symbols. The saints are a multitude that “no one can count.” They are there because the Lamb made them able to stand before his throne, the throne of God, through his sacrifice. The washing white of their robes refers to the salvation they received from the blood of Christ, the Lamb on the throne. The white robes represent the newness of life the saints received through Baptism, and their palm branches are a sign of their ultimate victory: perseverance in the faith.

The elders, twenty-four in all, represent the Apostles and the Patriarchs of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The Lamb does not just reign over them. He “shepherds” them, which goes beyond leadership and includes sheltering and caring for them forever. This is the point of arrival hoped for by everyone who hears the word of God and heeds it: gathered around the Lamb who has led them there, rejoicing together forever.

The Lord, as he explains so poignantly in today’s Gospel, has always seen his mission as a pastoral one, which is why we speak today of pastors and pastoral work. He is the Good Shepherd. As the Second Reading evoked today, the Lord wants to shepherd us toward the greenest of pastures: Heaven. He leads us back to the Heavenly Father. With Our Lord as our Shepherd we have nothing to fear, either now or in eternity, if we let him shepherd us. The word of God, addressed to all in today’s First Reading, is the call to gather into the one flock, Our Lord’s, to let him shepherd us and lead us to eternal life.

We hear the written word of God in every celebration of the Eucharist. Hopefully, we all have a copy of the Bible and it is not gathering dust in some forgotten corner of our home. If we’re exposed to any Christian culture at all we can say we hear the word of God, but do we listen to it? A good Easter resolution (since Lent is over) is to start meditating on the word of God and seeing how it shapes our lives. Commentaries and homilies on the Sunday readings are plentiful. Choose a source that strikes a chord in you. Pope Benedict XVI’s post-synodal exhortation on the Word of God, Verbum Domini, describes a classic technique for meditating on God’s word: lectio divina (nn. 86-87). Try it.

Readings: Acts 13:14, 43–52; Psalm 100:1–3, 5; Revelation 7:9, 14b–17; John 10:27–30.

3rd Sunday of Easter, Cycle C (2)

The Lamb in today’s Second Reading, surrounded by everyone and everything falling down in worship before him, is the same person who makes breakfast for the disciples in today’s Gospel after a long night fishing. Do we let that sink in? You cannot pigeonhole Our Lord in once place and role or the other: if you try to either just place Our Lord in Heaven or on the shore cooking breakfast, you cannot understand what motivates him. He deserves our adoration, and woe to us if we don’t give it to them. At the same time, he wants our love. He doesn’t need our love, but he wants it.

In today’s First Reading the Apostles are happy to have suffered dishonor for the sake of Jesus, because they knew he was worthy of both their love and their adoration. The Sanhedrin were the religious authorities of Israel until Our Lord came and turned that all on its head. They had him executed, but the Lord rose from the dead to show they no longer had authority over him or anyone else in the eyes of God. They never believed in Our Lord, so when reports start coming in of what Peter and the other Apostles are preaching they filter it, out of a lack of faith, and see the Apostles as simply seeking to incriminate them for the injustice they’d done. They order the Apostles to no longer speak in Jesus’ name.

Peter’s response on behalf of the Apostles shows that they adore Jesus as Lord: “We must obey God rather than men.” After all they’ve lived and experienced, they are obliged to teach, preach, and act in Jesus’ name. Everyone knows that doing what you’re obliged to do does not always make you happy. The Apostles leave the Sanhedrin’s presence “rejoicing that they had been found worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.” That reaction does not come from obligation. It comes from love. The Lord loved them and suffered so much for them that they are happy to love and suffer for him in return, just as every believer should be.

In today’s Gospel Our Lord reminds us that he wants unconditional love from us, but also realizes our weakness and failings. It is not reflected in the English translations of this passage, but in the three times Jesus asks Peter “do you love me?”, the Greek original shows us Jesus is inviting Peter to profess the greatest love a man can have, and, gently, Peter responds that he is not up to that after everything that has happened between them. It passes from an invitation to ἀγαπάω (a deep and unconditional love) to φιλέω (a brotherly love or an openness to friendship). In the first invitation Jesus asks Peter if his love is deep and unconditional, and Peter responds that he has a brotherly love for Jesus. In the second invitation, Jesus asks Peter the same thing and Peter responds the same way: not a deep and unconditional love, but a brotherly love. Finally, in the third invitation, Jesus asks Peter whether his love for him is brotherly, and Peter, hurt that he keeps asking, responds in kind.

With this invitation Jesus has brought it down to Peter’s level and Peter has had an opportunity to really explore and state his level of love for Jesus after having said before the Passion that his love was until death and then denied Jesus three times (see Luke 22:33–34 and John 18:15–27). Jesus asks us for complete and unconditional love, but when we are weak, the love we can muster is enough, if it is from the heart. As Jesus extended the invitation to Peter, who knows whether he was asking him if Peter was still so confident that his love for Our Lord was total, but in the love Peter offered, he was firm. Our love will always be imperfect, but it must be firm, trying to grow and never losing ground.

God Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth, created us out of love, but when we estranged ourselves from him he came to love us in Person. Even as believers we sometimes focus on loving those distant from us at the expense of those who are closest to us, whether at home, at work, or at school. Our familiarity with those closest to us sometimes makes it more of a challenge to love them than to love a total stranger. Make an extra effort this week to love those closest to you this week. Our Lord came down from Heaven to be close to us and love us in Person.

Readings: Acts 5:27–32, 40b–41; Psalm 30:2, 4–6, 11–13; Revelation 5:11–14; John 21:1–19. See also 3rd Sunday of Easter, Cycle C, 2nd Week of Easter, Thursday (2)7th Week of Easter, Friday and Easter Friday.

2nd Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy Sunday), Cycle C (2)

This Sunday, as we conclude the eight-day solemnity of Easter and continue into the liturgical season of Easter, we celebrate the gift of divine mercy. It’s easy to forget sometimes that mercy is not something to which we have a right. The Lord has freely given it to us.

In the First Reading we see the power of healing flowing from Peter and the faith of the people who sought him out. Peter over this last week’s readings has been the first to tell us that the power comes from Jesus, not from him. People in today’s First Reading are just trying to fall under the Peter’s shadow in order to be healed. Peter himself would probably admit that he is a shadow of Our Lord, but the Lord uses him to heal those who seek him, just as those who seek forgiveness and healing through the sacraments draw close to our sacred ministers, knowing that it is Our Lord who heals and forgives through them.

In today’s Second Reading the apostle John has a vision of Our Lord holding the keys “to death and the netherworld.” Our Lord is not identified by name but reveals himself as the “first and the last” to John, who is imprisoned on the isle of Patmos for giving witness to Jesus. His keys represent his authority: specifically, to bind and to loose. If we ask him to liberate us, he will, but we have to ask him. When you see sin as a liberation, not an imprisonment, you see the great gift of mercy. Our Lord’s mercy is the key to liberation from our sins.

Our Lord didn’t have to forgive Thomas for his lack of faith in today’s Gospel, just as Adam and Eve didn’t have to receive mercy after the Fall, a Fall that condemned all their posterity (all of us) to separation from God forever. We didn’t commit the Original Sin, nor was the Lord obliged to forgive it or redeem all of us from its effects. In appearing to the Apostles today Our Lord’s message is one of peace and reconciliation, not condemnation. Our Lord in today’s Gospel empowers his Apostles to be instruments of his mercy.

When a priest or bishop absolves his penitent from his sins, that mercy and power come from Jesus. Instead of remaining in doubt and regret about whether we’ve truly been forgiven Our Lord has given sacraments that in faith we know bring us his forgiveness. Baptism, which we remembered in a special way over these last eight days as we celebrated those who were baptized in the Easter Vigil a little over a week ago, also wipes away sins. All these means of healing and mercy are freely given gifts of Our Lord. We don’t have to receive them, but we’d be fools not to seek them out.

The Risen Lord offers the same gift of lasting peace to us that he offered his first disciples in today’s Gospel. His peace is a gift, and a gift can be accepted or rejected. Are we ready to leave aside the pain and sorrow of sin and really accept his peace? Ask Our Lord for the grace of accepting his peace. You won’t regret it.

Readings: Acts 5:12–16; Psalm 118:2–4, 13–15, 22–24; Revelation 1:9–11a, 12–13, 17–19; John 20:19–31. See also 2nd Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy Sunday), Cycle C2nd Sunday of EasterSt. Thomas the Apostle, and Pentecost Sunday.

Pentecost Sunday, Cycle B

Today the Easter season concludes with Pentecost Sunday, remembering that moment in the upper room where timid disciples waiting to see what would come next received an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit emboldened them to become tireless apostles who would spread the Gospel throughout the world and throughout history. Today we also celebrate in a special way the Person of the Most Holy Trinity who expounded on the teaching of Our Lord and the words of the Father and paved the way to us to live a truly fulfilling life: life in the Spirit.

In today’s First Reading we see that at Pentecost the divisions and discord caused by sin, as the Old Testament story of the tower of Babel teaches us, start to be reversed by the Holy Spirit who enables believes to understand each other again and to welcome the Gospel into their lives. The work of salvation has been powered by the Holy Spirit from the beginning: it was in the power of the Holy Spirit that the Word became flesh in Mary’s womb, and raised Jesus from the dead.

After Our Lord’s Ascension the Holy Spirit gives that vital impulse to help the Church to grow and reach unheard of places, even today. The Spirit continues to make Our Lord present through the sacraments and pours grace into our hearts. The Spirit helps the Church’s shepherds to remain faithful to the Gospel message handed down from Christ through the Apostles. As the story of Pentecost reminds us, the Holy Spirit makes the Gospel understood by everyone of good will, and that knowledge leads to a new life.

In today’s Second Reading (Galatians 5:16–25) Paul reminds us that if the Spirit of God is within us we should live and be led by the Spirit, not by the desires of the flesh. The “flesh” is everything base and carnal. It is focusing on self-gratification to the exclusion of all else. The path of self-gratification is ultimately the path of striving after things that will never ultimately or completely satisfy us. We always need another, more intense “fix,” with the anxiety that more may not be forthcoming or what we have might no longer be enough.

The Spirit opposes those things because they separate us from him and close us off from the Kingdom of God. The Spirit strives to show us the right path, the path that will grant us peace in our earthly life and eternal happiness. The path traced out by the Spirit is deeper than just volatile feelings. It comes from deeper and nobler convictions that engender love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are all fruits of letting the Holy Spirit lead us to a life in the Spirit.

In today’s Gospel (John 15:26–27, 16:12–15) before his Passion and death the Lord promises to send us a new Advocate to help us after his Resurrection and Ascension, someone new in our corner looking out for our interests. We know from Saint John’s Last Supper Discourse that we abide in the Lord, and the Lord abides in us if we keep his commandments. Our Lord promises that Father and Son will send this Advocate to those who love and obey God. The whole Trinity is involved. The Holy Spirit comes to be in our corner, to Advocate for us, and to help us remain faithful to Our Lord’s teachings and Our Father’s will. Our Lord’s promise to send the Advocate to the Apostles is fulfilled on Pentecost. The Holy Spirit, sent by the Father in Jesus’ name, taught them and reminded them of everything. Through the Apostles’ successors, the bishops, the Holy Spirit continues to teach and remind the whole Church.

At Pentecost the Holy Spirit helped the Apostles translate the Good News into something all their listeners could understand, overthrowing the pride that lead to the linguistic chaos of Babel. The Good News for those first listeners was translated into a new life, a life led by the Spirit and not by the desires of the flesh. The Church continues to share the Good News, and the Gospel still needs to be translated into life. We start by translating it into our own lives, because others see our lives and, if they’re impressed, change their lives accordingly. The best evangelization we can do is living a Gospel life, led by the Spirit. Let your life, helped by the Spirit, be the best translation of the Gospel it can be.

Readings: Acts 2:1–11; Psalm 104:1, 24, 29–31, 34; 1 Corinthians 12:3b–7, 12–13; John 20:19–23. See also Pentecost Sunday.