7th Sunday of Easter, Cycle C (2)

Pentecost, the end of the Easter season, is only a week away, and today’s readings remind us that, like the first apostles and disciples, we must let ourselves be shaped by the Word and his Spirit. That may involve taking a new direction in life, drawing closer to the fount of grace in order to achieve a glorious life through giving witness, even unto death, of the glories Our Lord has worked in us and will work through us.

In today’s First Reading St. Stephen, the first martyr, is speaking in a language that his persecutors understand. It is a message that comes with the power of the Holy Spirit, who’s coming on Pentecost to energize the budding Church for her mission that we’ll celebrate in a special way next week. He bears Our Lord’s own words: “Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” Those words brought death to Jesus as well, because they were a testimony that Our Lord was the Messiah. Stephen’s testimony went to martyrdom, and that martyrdom bore fruit: Saul became the great apostle St. Paul.

In today’s Second Reading St. John reminds us that Jesus’ Word is above all an invitation to enjoy eternal life. The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”—the Church, that bride described by St. John—in the power of the Holy Spirit extends that invitation that Christ may come into her life and the life of all believers. Let the hearer say, “Come.”—he wants that invitation to be repeated on our lips as well. He wants Christ to come into our lives, and to come into the lives of those to whom we give witness. That invitation is to satisfy a deep need in man that mankind can satisfy in no other way: “Let the one who thirsts come forward, and the one who wants it receive the gift of life-giving water.” That life-giving water is grace, the love and life of God, which unites us to God and to each other and lets the glory of God shine within us.

In today’s Gospel Our Lord prays for those who will believe in him through the words of his disciples. Like St. Stephen, we must bear the word of Jesus so that others can believe. It means giving witness, it means taking the blows of ridicule, misunderstanding, contempt. We may not suffer a physical martyrdom, but there may be a character assassination, ridicule, and scorn. Through Jesus’ word, he prays that we will be united as he is united to his heavenly Father. Through Jesus’ word, he prays that we will share the same glory that his heavenly Father has given him, and through that unity and glory he prays that the world will know that he was sent by his heavenly Father and that the heavenly Father loves them as much as he loves Jesus.

Irenaeus described the glory of God as being man truly living his life: Gloria Dei vivens homo. Man glorifies God by living his life in truth and love to the maximum degree, bolstered by the grace and love of God. Not just passing things, so many toys that are new, then boring, then discarded—money, career, pleasure, power. Not just surviving in an evil and troubled world. Living the Gospel in all its fullness. Eternal life started in our hearts the day of our baptism and wants to grow, to take hold of us and transform us. That growth is made possible by Christ in the power of his Spirit. His word must become our word. His Spirit must become our Spirit, and through faith and prayer and sacrifice we make his words our own, and his Spirit will fill us and transform us.

Readings: Acts 7:55–60; Psalm 97:1–2, 6–7, 9; Revelation 22:12–14, 16–17, 20; John 17:20–26. See also 7th Sunday of Easter, Cycle C, 7th Week of Easter, ThursdaySt. Stephen, First Martyr, and 3rd Week of Easter, Tuesday (2).

6th Sunday of Easter, Cycle C (2)

Even after the Lord’s Ascension, which we’ll celebrate this week, the Lord promised that we’d always have an Advocate to look out for us and help us: the Holy Spirit. Today’s reading remind us that the decisions made by the Church are always done with the help of the Holy Spirit, whom we’ll be remembering in a special way on Pentecost Sunday in two weeks.

In today’s First Reading there is a dispute at to whether non-Jewish converts to Christianity are required to be circumcised and follow the Mosaic Law of Jewish converts to Christianity. At first the apostles did not preach the Gospel to Gentiles (non-Jews), but Paul and Barnabas, when they saw Jews rejecting the Gospel, started to preach the Gospel to anyone who would listen. Some disciples in Antioch did the same, and soon Gentiles were embracing Christianity as well as Jews. A debate arose about how Jewish the converts to Christianity needed to act, whether Jews or Gentiles. The first Church council was convoked, the Council of Jerusalem, to discuss the matter. When the decision was made, and a letter was drafted to communicate it, the apostles don’t say they’ve reached a decision on their own: “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us…” The Church listened to the Holy Spirit and decided based on what the Spirit had to say. She still does.

In today’s Gospel the Advocate is promised by Jesus to the Apostles to help them in caring for his Church. The Advocate is the Holy Spirit. In St. John’s account of the Last Supper discourse Our Lord knows his disciples will need help when he is gone, and that help comes in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that we’ll celebrated in two weeks on Pentecost Sunday. A recurring theme in St. John’s Gospel is that there were some things the disciples did not fully understand until they were helped to do so by the Spirit. For example, John 7:39: “Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive; for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” On the eve of the Resurrection Jesus breathed upon them and gave them the Holy Spirit (see John 20:22). At the start of today’s Gospel the Lord promised that he and the Father would come and dwell in those who keep his word, and just a few verses earlier (see John 14:17) he promises that the Holy Spirit would dwell in us too. The Holy Spirit helps the Church through her shepherds to remain faithful throughout the ages to the Lord’s word.

John in his First Letter puts us on guard about just blindly following whatever spirit presents itself: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). A lot of people offer advice, but you must examine the spirit behind that advice to avoid false prophets. A feeling or intuition that seeks to influence your decisions may non necessarily have a good spirit behind it in a world that advocates doing whatever feels good and worrying only about yourself. If a choice implies self-renunciation and sacrifice there’s a good chance the Holy Spirit may be behind it, trying to help you accept God’s will, simply because the thought of that choice is costly to you. It may be a choice to be more disciplined, or a choice to be less demanding on yourself or others. The Holy Spirit wants to help you be objective about yourself.

Readings: Acts 15:1–2, 22–29; Psalm 67:2–3, 5–6, 8; Revelation 21:10–14, 22–23; John 14:23–29.See also 6th Sunday of Easter, Cycle C and 5th Week of Easter, Monday.

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.