Well folks, I feel like I must continue with my message from last week for a couple of reasons, but especially because I feel like I left you hanging out there on a limb. Actually, I know I left you hanging and I did so purposely. You might remember that last week we heard of the story of the Rich Young Man- the man who came up to Jesus to ask Him what he had to do gain eternal life. We are told that in response to the man’s question, Jesus looked at Him, loved Him and said “There is one thing that you lack. Go sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor. Then come and follow Me.” At Jesus’ words the rich young man “went away sad for He had many possessions.” So what about us, we who also have many possessions? Of course it is true that probably the large majority of us would not describe ourselves as rich, and perhaps we are not by today’s standards, but I am not so sure where we are by Jesus’ standards. I do feel pretty confident, however, that Jesus would consider many of us to be rich who do not consider ourselves to be. So, is that it for us; is the “game over?” I think the Apostles must have feared so. “Then who can be saved?” they asked. Is there something else that we can do; is there another course that the rich young man could have taken, another course that we can take? I think there is, and I am calling it the “gamechanger.” There is something that we can do that will point us in the direction of Jesus and eternal life that will help us to become a better person a better follower of Jesus and a better disciple. First of all we need to be honest with ourselves and admit that for many of us our money and possessions do get between us and the Lord. They can become the scorecard, how we measure ourselves and others and we allow it to compete with God for our hearts. Changing this dynamic is the gamechanger. Money and wealth are indeed blessings from God, but that’s just it-they are from God. What we tend to do is emphasize the gift, and forget about the Giver. I am convinced that there is much about discipleship and life that we will not get right until we get this right. We begin to trust the gift more than the Giver. God is the giver and we need trust Him more than the gift. The only way to do that is to become true givers ourselves. That is how we build up our trust in Him rather than becoming slaves to the gift. Of course the biblical answer is tithing-giving away 10% of our income to God and to the poor. The problem with tithing is that it even that seems so unattainable for us, so like the rich young man we give up. But we don’t have to-and there is no reason for us to do so. We can begin by changing our philosophy around giving and tithing by practicing the “four P’s of giving.” First we make sure that our giving is planned, that it is intentional-we don’t just good to God and the poor randomly and haphazardly, we incorporate it into our budget. Second, we make giving to God and the poor a priority- we make sure that giving comes first not after everything else. Third, we make our giving a percentage of our income; we need to start somewhere, anywhere, even if we start at 1/2% or one percent or 2%- as long as it is more than what we are giving now. We don’t have to start out at 10% but we need to start somewhere and then promise that our giving will be progressive (our fourth) step until we get there. Moving in this direction can and will indeed change our lives. It will open our hearts to more authentic worship and will build our faith. It will serve as an investment toward eternal life-it will build up treasure in heaven and all the while it will help us to become the people God wants us to be. Jesus offers the rich young man and James and John the path to true greatness. I am convinced that this where we start. Remember, you make a living off of what you get. You build a life by virtue of what you give.
And so we come upon him in today’s Gospel, the Rich Young Man. And we find that the rich young man is us. He asks the question that we all ask: “What do I have to do to gain eternal life?” Don’t we all want to have that opportunity, to ask Jesus straight up and point blank what we have to do to get to Heaven, because of course, if we only had a clear straight answer, we would do whatever we had to do to assure ourselves a spot there. Or would we? Do we really want to know what it will take for us to get to Heaven? Did the rich young man really want to know? Did he really want Jesus to answer his question? Or would he have been happier if he did not get such a straight answer from Jesus? You see a part of me wonders that maybe he really did not want the answer. Maybe he wanted to stay in the realm of the intellectual exercise. Maybe deep down there was a fear that Jesus was going to say exactly what He eventually did say but at the same time could not believe that Jesus was going to ask him to sell all His possessions and give them to the poor. Yet, he needed to know. He had everything else that he wanted, what did he have to do to “attain” eternal life? So when he had the chance, he could not stand it any longer and asked the question. And Jesus looked at him, loved him and answered his question. But the rich young man went away sad for he had many possessions. Would he have been happier if he hadn’t asked, or if Jesus gave him an answer that would only prolong his line of questioning as he went away? But now he knows what he has to do-sell all his possessions and give them to the poor- but he cannot do that. So what about us? If we ask Jesus the question, Jesus would give us the same response. He would look at us, love us and tell us to sell our possessions. And we would probably walk away sad too. So what should we do? Only we can decide. But if we are not ready to follow Jesus’ answer, then we’d better be ready to live our lives knowing that it is only the love and mercy of God that will get us into heaven and that we cannot attain it for ourselves.
I do not mean to shock any one by writing this but speaking about marriage and divorce is not on any short list-or long list for that matter-of my favorite things to do. And I believe my sentiment is rather typical of other priests as well. But Jesus taught about marriage and divorce and what He teaches is the truth and His truth sets us free. So here we go. First of all we can be sure that if Jesus is teaching us about anything, it is aimed at our own good and our freedom. In the case of divorce, Jesus is looking out for the well-being of the women and mothers of His day. Did you notice that at the end of this Gospel St. Mark tells us that “people were bringing children to Him that He might touch them?” Who do you think those people were? Bet your bottom dollar they were the children’s mothers. Jesus, in His teaching against divorce was standing up for them. In His time a husband could cast aside His wife on a whim-for virtually no reason at all. Jesus was saying that this practice was wrong because the “two are to become one flesh.” The love that exists between a husband and wife is meant to mirror the love that exists between Christ and His Church. Marriage is not a relationship that is meant to be easily cast aside. You might say “Get real, Father, look around you. It’s just not working out that way.” It is true that some studies document that nearly half of all marriages will end up in divorce-but that doesn’t mean that it is supposed to be that way or that we or our children are better off because of it. Actually that is why we so much need to hear Christ’s teaching on this subject. Also we should know that if a couple goes to Church together every Sunday, there is less than a 2% chance that they will be divorced and that if they study scripture and pray together that chance drops to less than one in 500. God’s teaching works because His teaching is true. I will close with some words of advice from an unknown author for husbands and wives as they strive to live out the vows of their marriage to the fullest degree: "I will do more than belong, I will participate. I will do more than care, I will help. I will do more than believe, I will practice. I will do more than be fair, I will be kind. I will do more than be friendly, I will be a friend. I will do more than forgive, I will love."
They were not in the tent with the 70 who received the Spirit. Yet, they received the Spirit. “Stop them,” Joshua said. “Why?” asked Moses. “Would that all the people shared in the Spirit.” Some man was baptizing in the name of Jesus. He was not one of the Twelve. “Stop him,” the Twelve said. “Why?” asked Jesus. “He is doing good work.” We are graced to live in the age of the Spirit. This wonderful time began when The Father and the Son sent the Spirit upon the world. He is the Spirit of God; the action of God. The Second Vatican Council taught that all who are open to God, who are following their consciences are themselves, in fact, members of the Church, saved by Jesus Christ. Eldad and Medad were not in the tent. But they were empowered by the Spirit. Just as the Spirit empowers that husband who had been away from the Church for years, who mocked all things good and holy, but who, when he looked at his first born, said that he needed to change his life. He returned and returns daily. He continually asks forgiveness for the time he was away. Now, he is leading his children to God. The Spirit has given his life meaning and purpose. Like Augustine he grieves, “Late have I loved thee.” And like Augustine he has learned that God never stopped loving him. Eldad and Medad may not be in the tent, but the Spirit still empowers them. Just as the Spirit empowers that woman who had two babies by two different men, and an abortion due to another man, and now, through bitter tears and daily repentance, has chosen God. She works diligently caring for those who still tread the path of death she had been on. The Spirit is present in the Church. Jesus is present in the Blessed Sacrament. But the Spirit is also present where we, foolish human beings with our feeble attempts to limit God’s power, least expect to find Him. The Spirit was indeed working through Eldad and Medad, and the man baptizing in Jesus’ name. No one can harness the Spirit. He is God, the action of Love that has been unleashed upon the world through the Gift of the Father and the Sacrifice of the Son. We thank God today for the wonders of the Holy Spirit, in our lives, in St. Aloysius parish and in the world.
The more I think about it, what an amazing question. I mean, really, why on earth or in heaven for that matter, why would Jesus, the Lord, the Messiah ask the disciples who they say that He is? Does He not know who He is? Why does it matter who they say He is? Does their answer to the question change who He is? Does their answer change anything at all? And, by the way, who else ever asks us who we say they are? Don’t people pretty much always make their best effort to tell us who they are and not the other way around? It is interesting to me that this Gospel comes up right in the middle of a heated campaign season. I say this because political campaigns do exactly the opposite of what Jesus is doing today in this passage. Politicians all across the country are spending enormous amounts of money on their individual campaigns. But I do not suppose that any of them are asking us who we say they are? I don’t think so. Are they not instead spending huge sums money to try to tell us who they say they are (and who their opponent is) so they might win the election? With their campaigns they are doing exactly the opposite of what Jesus is doing in today’s Gospel. Jesus asks us who we say who He is because He knows that the way we answer that question will determine the kind of person we will become and ultimately go along way in determining whether or not salvation will be ours. Political candidates spend all kinds of money to try to tell us who they are so that they might achieve some kind of office. I’d say that there is a pretty much a dichotomy here, wouldn’t you? So, is there a lesson here-I think there is. As we decide who we are going to vote for, no matter what office it might be let’s make sure that we don’t vote for a political candidate based on who they say they are, but on who we, after a lot of research, prayer and reflection say they are.
We are loved. If there was any message that Jesus wanted His disciples, wanted us, to hear and understand, it is that we are loved. We are loved by God. We are loved by Jesus, the Eternal Image of the Father. Jesus healed the deaf man not just as a sign of the coming of the Messiah, as it certainly is, but as a sign of the love that God has for each of us. He heals us. The healing may be physical, or psychological, but it certainly is spiritual. He sees beneath what the world has proclaimed as success, as prosperity. For true prosperity is found in the account of the soul, not in a bank account. But Jesus’ healing of the deaf man was not to end there; none of His healings are an ending-they are a beginning. Jesus heals us not only as a sign of the Kingdom to come, not only as a demonstration of His love of for us, but also because of His great love for everyone. We are called to spread His love to others. Ultimately that is what justice is-the spreading of God’s love from ourselves to the rest of the world. If we do not spread God’s love we are practicing injustice. So St. James tells the early Christians and us that we need to treat each other for who they are not for what they have. We need to extend to others the dignity that is their God given right. It is how we extend the healing love of the Lord. God sees the goodness of every person. He sees His image and likeness in every person. He also sees how that image can be clouded, hidden behind a door of pain. And Jesus came and said, “Ephphatha, be opened!” He heals because He loves. He heals because He wants us to be the vehicles of His healing for others. As my mother would say His healing love for us is “not for nothin,’” we need to do something useful with it. If His love ends with us, then our story will have a very sad ending.
People of God, we are called to focus our energies on others, not on ourselves. This was the problem with the scribes and Pharisees in today’s gospel. They focused their energies on themselves as an expression of religion while they ignored the needs of those around them. As a result they became spiritually arrogant, hypocrites. The word hypocrite takes its origin from two Greek works, huper meaning beyond, and crisis meaning criticism. The scribes and Pharisees thought that they were so good that they were beyond criticism. Their focus was on themselves and their exact literal following of the Jewish laws. They did not have love in their hearts for others. They disdained the everyday people as worthless rabble. Their method of following God could not bear fruit because they were more concerned with themselves than with finding God in others. It is pretty easy for us to fall into that same hole. Sometimes we forget that conversion is a process, not a static event. The beauty of our Catholic faith is that it is profoundly realistic. It recognizes that we are human beings tempted to make bad as well as good choices and in continual need of having our course to the Lord refined and even restored. We believe that the Lord established the sacrament of penance, of forgiveness, because of our tendency to fall into sin. The problem with the Pharisees is that they gradually established and practiced their own religion-a religion that came from themselves and not from God; a religion that allowed them to give themselves positions of righteousness and to disdain any one who did not meet their standards of practice. They forgot what true religion is. And what is true religion? True religion is this: looking after widows and orphans in their distress and keeping ourselves free from the temptations of the world. People of God, let’s be sure that we faithfully practice our religion, but let’s first be sure that our religion is true.
It was one of those moments that I will never forget, although I admit I do not remember many of the particulars. It was of January of 1990, I and my third theology classmates were taking our comprehensive examinations. They were something we had to get through on the way to our greatly hoped for diaconate ordinations the following May. There was a written component and an oral component. For the oral exam we were allowed to choose an area of concentration. Not surprisingly most of the fellows chose their particular areas based on their interests and where they felt most comfortable and knowledgeable, or which professors who would be questioning for the particular fields. On that basis a number of the men refused to concentrate on the area of moral theology because the department chair, who would be the lead questioner, was very intimidating to us. But me? Well, I chose to go against the grain; I was young and brash and cocky. I told everyone that this professor did not scare me and that I was going the way of moral theology and that was that. However, when the moment finally came when it was time for the oral exams I found myself reevaluating my thought process. I had been sitting in the waiting area for two hours, my scheduled exam time had passed by an hour and a half, and three very distraught classmates had come out of the exam room, basically saying that their experiences had been “brutal.” Of course, at this point I was wondering why I ever put myself in this situation but there was nothing I could do. Finally the door opened, I went in sat down, and answered the first question. I guess I did OK because there was no follow up. Then came the second question, which I cannot remember at all, but I do remember that I swallowed hard and tried to form an adequate answer. I began by saying,” Because Jesus said…,” but I was immediately stopped by the intimidating professor who said, “Excellent! You are absolutely correct. So much of Catholic moral teaching comes down to the fact that it comes from the words of Jesus Himself. We do not need any more of an explanation that. Well done; have a wonderful afternoon.” I couldn’t believe what had just happened but I was in and out in less than 3 minutes! I guess they needed to make up lost time. So I was spared the “brutal” experience of a number of my peers for whatever reason-and I learned a valuable lesson, the same lesson that the disciples were trying to learn in the Gospel today. They were learning that Jesus Himself was the Bread of Life and if they ate of this bread they would never die. And the reason they were supposed to believe this was because “Jesus said ….” They did not need any further explanation and neither do we.
Once again, I am afraid I do not know the source of the following story but I was reminded of it by today’s First Reading: One day while walking down the street a highly successful person was tragically hit by a bus and she died. Her soul arrived up in heaven where she was met at the Gates of Heaven by St. Peter himself. “Welcome to Heaven. What we are going to do is let you have a day in hell and a day in Heaven and then you choose where you want to go.” And with that He put the executive in an elevator and it went down to hell. The doors opened and she found herself stepping out onto the putting green of a beautiful golf course. In the distance was the clubhouse and standing in front of her were all her friends—fellow executives that she had worked with and they were all dressed in evening gowns and cheering for her. They ran up and kissed her on both cheeks and they talked about old times. They played an excellent round of golf and at night went to the clubhouse where she enjoyed an excellent steak and lobster dinner. She met the Devil who was actually a really nice guy (kinda cute, as he always is) and she had a great time telling jokes and dancing. She was having such a good time that before she knew it, it was time to leave. Everybody shook her hand and waved goodbye as she got on the elevator. The elevator went way, way up back to Heaven and she spent the next 24 hours there. She lounged around on clouds playing the harp and singing. She had a great time and before she knew it her 24 hours were up and St. Peter came and got her. “So, now you must choose your eternity,” he said. The woman paused for a second then replied, “Well, I never thought I’d say this, I mean, Heaven has been really great and all, but I think I had a better time in hell.” When the doors of the elevator opened she found herself standing in a desolate wasteland covered in garbage and filth. She saw her friends were dressed in rags and were picking up the garbage and putting it in sacks. The Devil came up to her and put his arm around her. “I don’t understand,” stammered the woman, “yesterday I was here and there was a golf course and a clubhouse and we ate lobster and we danced and had a great time. Now all that’s here is a wasteland of garbage and all my friends look miserable.” The Devil looked at her and smiled. ‘Yesterday we were recruiting you, today...you’re staff.” Wisdom is listening to whatever Jesus says, whether or not we can understand it and staying away from the Devil, no matter how attractive the spread he puts on for us might be.
Jesus words to the Pharisees in today’s Gospel made me think of the following little reflection that I had come across some time ago. To the best of my knowledge the author is unknown. “I woke up early today, excited over all I get to do before the clock strikes midnight. I have responsibilities to fulfill today. My job is to choose what kind of day I am going to have. Today I can complain because the weather is rainy or I can be thankful that the grass is getting watered for free. Today I can feel sad that I don’t have more money or I can be glad that my finances encourage me to plan my purchases wisely and guide me away from waste. Today I can grumble about my health or I can rejoice that I am alive. Today I can lament over all that my parents didn’t give me when I was growing up or I can feel grateful that they allowed me to be born. Today I can cry because roses have thorns or I can celebrate that thorns have roses. Today I can mourn my lack of friends or I can excitedly embark upon a quest to discover new relationships. Today I can whine because I have to go to work or I can shout for joy because I have a job to do. I can complain because I have to go to school or eagerly open my mind and fill it with rich new pieces of knowledge. Today I can murmur dejectedly because I have to do housework or I can feel honored because the Lord has provided shelter for my mind, body and soul. Today stretches ahead of me, waiting to be shaped. And here I am, the sculptor who gets to do the shaping. What today will be like is up to me. I get to choose what kind of day I will have!” As I see it the bottom line is this: we will always have the opportunity to complain but we really never have anything to complain about. Why? Because every day of our lives we can receive the bread that Jesus gives us, the bread that gives us eternal life. As long as we continue to choose to complain, it has to mean that we just don’t get it.
Beginning last week, we have been taking a five week break from the Gospel of Mark and spending time in the Gospel of John on the teachings of Jesus we call the Bread of Life. Last week we read about the feeding of the 5,000 and what it could mean to us today. Today’s Gospel is a continuation of the loaves and fishes story we began last week. Jesus has fed the crowd and amazed them by His miracles. After that miracle and a day of teaching, Jesus and the apostles went away across the lake to get a little rest and privacy, but the people who had witnessed the miracle went searching for Him and found Him on the other side of the lake. Instead of being angry with them, Jesus continues to teach them. He tells them first that it wasn’t the signs and miracles that attracted them, as much as the fact they were being fed. He says that they should be less interested in filling their bellies with food that quickly disappears, and instead, look for spiritual food which will never leave them. When they ask what they must do to get this spiritual food, Jesus replies that they all must believe in the person God has sent. It is in this context that Jesus is the bread of life. God has sent Jesus with all the spiritual food that a person will need, so that Jesus Himself can be seen to be that food. They then ask him for signs so they that they can believe in Him-even though He had just fed the 5,000! Jesus refers to the manna that God gave the to the Israelites through Moses as a comparison but goes on to say that through Him God is not only giving them bread for their bodies but bread for their souls as well. And this is where I think it might be good for us to pause. We, like those people who chased Jesus across the lake because of His wonderful miracles, have followed Him to Church today. But do we know why? Is it for something that will last or something that will fade away? Actually, Jesus will give us both, but He longs for us to long for that which is eternal.
The hero of today's Gospel is a little Jewish boy. He proved himself not only to be smart enough to pack a lunch but also to be among the rarest of individuals. He was willing, after packing his lunch, to give it away. However, in doing so he once again proved his intelligence because he gave it to Jesus. You might say that he made a very shrewd investment. He went home with 12 baskets of leftovers after the huge crowd had had their fill. Because he gave the little he had, we are talking about this miracle to this day.
Let us not forget of course that it was Jesus who mentions that this exhausted mob must be hungry showing once again that He is interested not only in life after death but also life before death. He looks towards His disciples to be problem solvers and that’s how this little fellow was found. Jesus did not embarrass the little boy and his meager offering. He accepted his gifts with ceremony and gratitude. Can you imagine the look on the boy’s face as Jesus starts to share his food with the crowd, and especially as he saw that his lunch never ran out? Maybe Jesus held him up in His arms for the crowd to see. Somehow or other, I think there are some lessons to be learned here. The next time you are asked for something you feel you cannot give, remember this Jewish boy and think again. Even if your gift is small, know that Christ will receive you and your gift with open arms and do amazing things with it. He will literally use it to feed the world. But if we hoard the little that we have, we just might prevent Christ from performing one more amazing miracle. If we find ourselves worrying about whether we have enough money perhaps we should remember this child, and ask ourselves if maybe our worry is a sign that we need to give more away and see what God might do with it. The psalmist says “a child will lead us,” but I leave you with this question, “Are you smarter than a little Jewish boy?
It seems to me that the readings for this weekend reflect on leadership and the fact that we human beings are very much in need of it. We may not like to admit it, but if we are without leadership we will tend to pretty much flounder around like sheep without a shepherd. We have a great need to come together and to unite around someone who can articulate a unified vision or purpose. The trouble is that not all visions, even though they may be passionately and clearly articulated are good for us. History is filled with examples of people flocking to leaders who are far less than perfect. So the question than becomes what are the qualities that we should look for in a leader. Of course, my answer is going to be that first and foremost we should look to Jesus and the type of leadership that He employed. We don’t have to look too closely before we easily conclude that Jesus is among the greatest leaders of all times, but was very different from Adolf Hitler, who is indeed also an example of a powerful leader. Of course, Jesus is different than Hitler in many ways-perhaps primarily in his example of Christian Leadership. Christian leadership is different than any other kind of leadership. It is not based on power; it is based on invitation. It does not feed off propaganda; it thrives on truth. It does not oppress or place burdens on people; it sets them free and calls them to rest. Christian leadership is based on truth love, freedom, caring and service. The Christian leader puts people first and his willing to sacrifice himself for them. Other leaders do exactly the opposite. And the bottom line, and for me this is what it’s all about, is that Christian leadership is the most effective kind of leadership. Don’t think so? Well then let me ask you two questions. Where is Adolf Hitler? Where is Jesus? The trouble is that Christian leadership is rarely ever practiced. And it is something to which we are all called by virtue of our Baptism and Confirmation. Yes. We are all called to be leaders. Christian leaders. So how about if we try it sometime? Let’s live a life that is based on truth, freedom, service, love and caring, and see what happens.
If you ask me, evangelism today should be just like the evangelism that we hear about in today’s Gospel. First, as followers of Christ, we need to understand that we are sent out. We can't simply sit comfortably in our pews; we are called to go work in the field.
Second, we need to be humble. The disciples took nothing with them: no bread, no bags and no money. We need to leave our baggage behind and simply invite people to the banquet. Third, we need to understand that evangelism is all about invitation, and not at all about coercion. Jesus says, "If people don't accept you, shake the dust off your feet and leave." He didn't say to stand and argue with them. He didn't say to condemn them to hell. He told them to spread the Gospel, sow the seed, and let God do the rest. Finally, we are to evangelize with compassion. We are not threaten people with an eternity in hell, or look for reasons why they are bad people and back it up with selected biblical verses. It is wrong bash people over the heads with the scriptures and hope for conversion through osmosis. Rather, we are to kindly meet people where they are. We are to use only words that heal and never words that hurt. Still, even if we follow all these pointers, our efforts will fall short if we don’t fully understand who we are and what we are about when we set out to evangelize. Why do we come to church? Why do we call ourselves Catholic? Why do we believe that our faith is better than any other? Yes, we need to be evangelists; but we need to understand why we are here in the first place. That doesn't mean we have all the answers, but it does mean that we have better answers than, "Because I've always gone to church etc." We need to know what draws us, what excites us, what comforts us. And when we know that, and when we truly live the faith in which we profess belief, then and only then, will we be ready to invite others to join us.
Opinion polls tell us that the public’s view of Congress in the United States is at an all-time low. The division between the parties has led to gridlock on legislation and affected the way most citizens view the work of government. Even the often benighted car salesman gets a much better performance review in public polling, racking up double-digit approval rating over the collective view of members of Congress. Yet for the most part constituents re-elect their own Representatives and Senators again and again. This is a situation that many commentators attribute to the redistricting process that has made many districts “safe” for incumbents by configuring the boundaries in such a way that only the most like-minded residents are constituents for a seat held by one party of the other.
There was no Gallup poll in Galilee in Jesus’ time. But Mark’s Gospel this weekend gives us a pretty clear indication of what his fellow townsfolk thought of him. Instead of a hero’s welcome as “the kid that made good” he is treated as “the kid who has gotten too big for his britches”. The townspeople’s lack of faith actually impacted the ability of Jesus to be the mighty prophet in His native place. Mark writes: “He was not able to perform any mighty deed there.”
The Gospel story is not about the importance of good poll numbers . Politicians are concerned about that-at least if they want to get re-elected. Rather, the story is about the dynamic of faith in our relationship with God. We often “want” a lot of things from God, most notably answers to our prayers. But we need to “give” to the Lord, and for us that means a response to God’s invitation to believe. We must acknowledge our utter dependence upon God, placing all our trust in Him. We will then recognize the actions of God that take place each day for the mighty deeds that they are: God at work in our hearts!
So here we are on the 10th Sunday of Ordinary time, in the third chapter of Mark, very much at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry- and He had already gotten Himself into trouble. Why? Because, He healed a paralyzed man, as proof that He could forgive sins. Because He justified the fact that His disciples shucked grain and ate it on the Sabbath, by saying that He was Lord of the Sabbath and then had the audacity to heal a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath to prove his point. Finally, He was healing and driving out demons right and left and now, in the midst of the wild throngs He called his 12 apostles.
Really, He was causing quite a stir. At this point nobody knew what was going to happen, but they certainly pretty much had a sense that they wanted to see it unfold. No matter where He went, it seems like everyone found Him very quickly. As we begin our Gospel story today, Jesus has returned home but the crowds quickly emerged once again. This time, Saint Mark tells that there were so many people around Him, the crowd was packed so tightly that they couldn’t even eat because they could not so much as move their arms. Now that, folks, is crowded! The scribes got themselves into a futile debate with Jesus, claiming that He was possessed by demons and then we get to the heart of the matter. His own family emerges on the scene and this gives Jesus the opportunity to take advantage of a teaching moment. He makes the point that when it comes to determining relationship with Him, it is not status, but action that matters; it is not whether or not someone is related to Him by blood; it is whether or not we do His will. Now especially at this point in the story no one knows how any thing is going to turn out, but then again we never know that, do we? What we do know is that our relationship with Him, amidst all the turmoil of life, is governed by what we do, not who we are.
My guess is that many of us have found ourselves at one time or another in our lives facing very difficult circumstances, obstacles or challenges. Maybe you are in the midst of one of those chapters in your lives right now. Maybe you’ve felt like, or you feel right now that there is no way you can ever see yourself coming through whatever it is you were or are facing. Maybe during those times you have had people say something to you, something that you know was meant to be a word of consolation, but those words did not do much consoling. Maybe you have heard those words from close friends, family members or even from priests or religious, and maybe you’ve even said those words to others yourselves because you did not know what else to say. The words that I am talking about are certainly well intentioned, but they ring hollow, and they probably accomplish more for the one speaking them than they do for the one hearing them. What are those words? “God does not give you anything that you can’t handle.” A lot of us have heard those words, haven’t we? Probably a lot of us have spoken those words as well. I know that I have spoken them, as a priest to people who were in need of consolation but not for many years now. Why? Because my life experience has taught me that they are simply not true, or at least they are not completely accurate. I have learned over and over again that God does indeed present me with challenges, with situations, with problems etc. etc. that I cannot handle by myself. He does so all the time. And why does He do this? Well, I cannot say that I have the absolute answer to this question, but I will offer two of my best thoughts. First, let’s honestly look at things in our lives that we have handled completely by ourselves. How did they turn out? Did they turn out the way we wanted them to? More importantly, did they turn out the way God wanted them to? Secondly, and I think this an even better explanation, God wants to be our strength. He wants us to come to Him always and especially in times of great pain, distress and confusion, because He knows that’s what’s best for us. To make those words true we need to say something like this: God does indeed give us challenges that we cannot handle by ourselves, but we are never by ourselves. He is always there, ready to walk with us side by side, hand in hand to share our pain and burdens with us and even to provide us with Himself as nourishment along the way. That’s what we celebrate today, on this solemnity of Corpus Christi; that Jesus is always there for us, as close to us and essential to us as food and drink. “Take and eat, this is my body; take and drink, this is my blood which will be shed for many.” He does indeed give us challenges that we cannot handle alone, but we are never alone.
The practical lesson of the doctrine of the Trinity is that since we are made in the image and likeness of God, the more we understand God the more we understand ourselves. Therefore, the question for us to ask today is: What does the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity tell us about the kind of God we worship and what does this say about the kind of people we should be? On this, I have two points to share with you. (1) God does not exist as a solitary individual but in a community of love and sharing. God is not a loner. This means that a Christian in search of Godliness (Matthew 5:48) must shun every tendency to isolationism. The ideal Christian spirituality is not that of flight from the world like that of certain Buddhist monastic traditions where the quest for holiness means permanent withdrawal away from contact and involvement with people and society. (2) True love requires three partners. You remember the old saying “Two is company, three is a crowd.” The Trinity shows us that three is community, three is love at its best; three is not a crowd. Taking an example from the human condition we see that when a man A is in love with a woman B they seal the loving by producing a baby C. Father, mother and child -- love when it is perfected becomes a trinity. We are made in God’s image and likeness. Just as God is God only in a Trinitarian relationship, so we can be fully human only in a relationship of three partners. The self needs to be in a horizontal relationship with others and a vertical relationship with God. In that way our life becomes Trinitarian like that of God. Then we discover that the so-called “I-and-I” principle of unbridled individualism which is acceptable in modern society leaves much to be desired. The doctrine of the Blessed Trinity challenges us to adopt rather an I-and-God-and-neighbor principle. I am a Christian insofar as I live in a relationship of love with God and other people. May the grace of the Holy Trinity help us to banish all traces of self-centeredness in our lives and to live in love of God and neighbor.
I know that I have said this many times before, but this is truly one of my favorite verses in all of Scripture: “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy might be complete.” And this time I can prove it; this is the verse that I chose to have printed on my ordination holy card 27 years ago. You might say that this verse is my “John 3:16.” Why this verse, you might ask, out of all the others? Well I suppose it is because, at least to me, this verse expresses very clearly the desire that is so much in Jesus’ heart-that His joy might indeed be our joy. Isn’t that a wonderful concept? He wants His joy to be our joy and he wants our joy to be complete. That is what he so desires for us; it is why He says everything He says; it is why He does everything He does; it is why He died on the cross-so that we might be full of joy. At the time of my ordination I felt that these words expressed what needs to be at the heart of the mission and ministry of the priest-to express Jesus’ desire that all people might be full of true joy and to be agents of spreading the joy of Jesus to everyone. To this day, I try, albeit very imperfectly, to use these words as a guide to all my thoughts, all my words, and all my actions. The priest is called to strive to be a bridge which allows people to have access to Jesus. To me, that’s what these words are all about. Of course, however, these words are not just meant for priests. They are meant for all of us. They teach us that Jesus’ primary purpose is to help us experience His joy. That is what it is all about- not sin, not suffering not death, but joy-His joy. But not only does He want His joy to be ours, He needs us to spread His joy to everyone. And the way that we do that is to live as if we believe it. If we believe that Jesus wants His joy to be ours, and live as such, then indeed we will spread His joy to others and our joy will be complete.
During this Holy Week and Easter Season, I have often said that the key message of the Easter Season is that “love lives.” Of course I am referring to the fact that Jesus, who is the perfect personification of the love of God the Father, rose from the dead on Easter Sunday and lives eternally. But Jesus is not only the embodiment of love. He is the embodiment of love in action. Jesus is love in action. He is perpetually acting in a loving way. He loves everyone exactly as they are, whether, it is the woman caught in adultery, the rich young man, Nicodemus, the man born blind, the ten lepers, etc. He accepts everyone, He accepts, us exactly as He finds us. But He does not stop there; love does not stop there. He loves us as we are but then He calls us forth just as He called Lazarus forth from the tomb. He forgave the adulterous woman but then commanded her to sin no more. He looked at the rich young man with love but then challenged him to give his wealth to the poor. Love is accepting; but because love is love it is not satisfied with leaving us stagnant. Jesus loves us where we are and because He does He calls us, He challenges us to change, not to remain the same. Jesus calls to “Remain in His love,” and we cannot do this if we remain the same, we have to move, we have to grow and change if we are going to follow Him. That is what the image of the vine and the branches is all about. He is the vine, we are the branches. Our challenge is to remain with Him, to stay connected with Him so that we might bear much fruit. This means that we have to change, that we have to be pruned so that we might become more like Him. If we do not change and grow with Him we will wither away. Love lives. Love accepts. Love challenges.