09 May 2008

Loving Jesus More than We Do

7th Week of Easter: Acts 25.13-21 and John 21. 15-19
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Albert
the Great Priory and Church of the Incarnation

“________, do you love Jesus more than the rest of us here?”*

How many times in the gospels does Jesus ignore a question asked of him and instead answer the question that should have been asked? Easily, most of the time. The few times he directly addresses the question put to him, he answers in a parable or turns the question around on the questioner and ask his own penetrating question! This shouldn’t surprise or confuse us given who Jesus really is, but it is nonetheless frustrating when we consider the tremendous faith required to believe what Jesus is teaching. Wouldn’t it just be easier if Jesus answered the questions we all have about life, death, heaven, and our salvation? Instead we get stories about mustard seeds, vines and branches, sheep and shepherds, mansions, rocks, houses built on sand, and a wayward son returning home to a grand welcome. This morning/evening, however, we read that Jesus decides to put a question to Peter: “Do you love me more than these [other disciples]?” Peter, thinking that this must a trick question or some sort of weird, last minute test of his faith, replies, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus, unsatisfied with the answer, puts the question to Peter two more times. Why does he do this? One possibility is that Peter, following his Master’s example, doesn’t answer the question!

The classical interpretation of this passage—that Jesus is portending Peter’s three-time denial in the Garden—is very likely the best interpretation of this scene. Jesus knows Peter’s heart but he also knows Peter’s weaknesses. To shore up his faith and his fortitude, Jesus gives Peter the chance to instill in his heart a last moment of intimacy between them, a moment that Peter will remember after the coming of the Spirit and call upon to invigorate his preaching-witness. Nothing wrong with that reading. Another interpretation holds that Jesus is questioning Peter and using Peter’s answer to place him in charge of the other disciples, making him the leader of the group based on his love for Christ. This recalls Jesus’ earlier question about his identity and Peter’s answer: “You are the Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus names Peter the Rock. Also, nothing wrong with that reading. However, when we look at how questions and answers are exchanged in the gospels, can we come to another reasonable conclusion?

Notice that Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me more than these?” “These” being the other disciples. Peter answers, “Yes, you know that I love you.” That doesn’t answer the question directly. Peter doesn’t say, “I love you more than the others do.” Maybe this is nit-picking, but given the earlier disputes about who takes precedence among the disciples, you would think that Peter would jump at the chance to take the more honorable place. He doesn’t. Instead, he gives Jesus a response to an unasked question. Peter says, “Yes, Lord, I love you.” Jesus puts the question to him again and again. Finally, deeply distressed by the questioning, Peter answers, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Satisfied with this answer or perhaps sensing Peter’s anxiety, Jesus goes on to give Peter one of his famous, cryptic stories, concluding with “Follow me.” Even so, Peter never directly answers the question put to him: do you love Jesus more than we do, Peter?

Why does the man named “the Rock” by Jesus himself shy away from this question? What if I asked you now in front of everyone here, “Do you love Jesus more than the rest of us, ______?” What could you say? Yes? Maybe? I don’t know? You would likely shy away from any answer b/c any answer you would give would pick you out as either prideful or ignorant or boastful. You might also shy away from the question b/c any answer you would give would come with a potentially dreadful task, a commission based on that excessive love. If you said, Yes, we might say, “Good! Lead us to our martyrdom preaching the gospel.” If you say, No, we might say, “Where is your faith?” If you say, Maybe, we might say: “You don’t know how much you love Jesus?” Do you see Peter’s dilemma?

Jesus sees that same dilemma, so says in reply to Peter’s anxious answers: “Follow me.”

*I directed this question to members of the congregation.

06 May 2008

The person of Christ, the Church

7th Week of Easter (T): Acts 20.17-27 and John 17.1-11
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory

This priestly prayer, prayed by the High Priest himself, Jesus Christ, marks for us, the Church, a transfer of authority, a transfer of mission and purpose from the person of Christ Jesus to his Church. Jesus goes to great lengths in the prayer to point up several truths about the relationships between and among the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, and those chosen to form the earliest Body of Christ; principle among these is the relationship between the Father and the Son, and the Son and his Church born in the Spirit. Of this relationship Jesus says, “I revealed your name to those whom you gave me out of the world. They belonged to you, and you them gave them to me, and they have kept your word.” There were those in the world who belonged to the Father whom the Father gave to the Son so that the Son might reveal the Father’s name to them, and in revealing the Father’s name to this elect, the Son showed them the means to their supernatural end: eternal life. But before the enlightened elect join the Father and Son in their glory in heaven, there’s work to be done down here, so Jesus says, “I pray for them. I do not pray for the world but for the ones you have given me…I have been glorified in them. And now I will no longer be in the world, but they are in the world, while I am coming to you.” And so, we are in the world but not abandoned to the world because we are the Father’s children and everything of Christ’s is the Father’s and everything of the Father’s belongs as well to Christ.

Did you get all of that? Sometimes these passages from John sound a bit like an auctioneer: I in you, you in me, we in them, them in us, and we in thee and thee and me; so, it’s we and me? It’s almost like a pronoun/preposition smoothie whirling around in an incarnational blender! How easy is it to get completely lost in this apparently very tangled web of relationships. But, of course, Jesus is not just being strangely Greek here. He is, as I said earlier, pointing up some vital truths about who we are as the Church and what we are supposed to be doing down here. What we have in the priestly prayer of Christ for us is a description of how the Blessed Trinity operates in the world. That operation, that mechanism is the Body of Christ (the Church) and the Holy Spirit. Body and soul, if you will, the person of Christ in the world, us, all of us.

Christ prays, “And now I will no longer be in the world, but they are in the world, while I am coming to you.” We just celebrated the Ascension, Christ going, body and soul, to the Father’s right hand. But in leaving us, he sends the Holy Spirit at Pentecost; thus making us his presence in the world. So, though he has left us, he is with us always in the person of the Church. The Fathers of Vatican Two call the Church a sacrament, the sign of Christ presence for the world’s salvation. And so, we are the glory the Blessed Trinity, those elect who do what Christ did so that the promise of eternal life for all believers might be preached to the end of the age.

Luke reports in his Acts of the Apostles that Paul, before heading off to Jerusalem, says farewell to the priests of Ephesus, “I served the Lord with all humility…I earnestly bore witness for both Jews and Greeks to repentance before God and to the faith in our Lord Jesus.” Paul, fully aware of the dangers in returning to Jerusalem, continues, “…I consider life of no importance to me, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I have received…to bear witness to the Gospel of God’s grace.” Our task as the Church, the continuing presence of the person of Christ in the world, is no different. We serve the Lord with all humility. We earnestly bear witness to repentance and to the faith of Jesus Christ. And we must consider life itself of no importance if we are finish this course and the ministry we have been given.

Paul, like Christ, and we, like Paul and Christ, are “compelled by the Spirit” to go to Jerusalem and Rome and London and New York City and Dallas, to go where we are sent to bear witness, to bear up and under the gospel of God’s grace and to offer the weightless yoke of His salvation to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear. As the psalmist sings, “Blessed day by day be the Lord, who bears our burdens; God who is our salvation.”

05 May 2008

R. I. P.

The Southern Dominican Province has lost two wonderful brothers in just four days. Fr. Albert died May 1st and Fr. Boley died today. I knew these men while serving as a deacon at Holy Rosary Parish in Houston, TX. Fr. Albert, a pioneer in Catholic bio-medical ethics, was always stretching my mind by challenging my assumptions. Fr. Boley, a pioneer in the art of the Really Bad Pun, was always stretching my funny-bone with his outrageous jokes. I am truly saddened to see these men gone from us! Please pray for them. . .

Fr. Albert Moraczewski, OP

Fr. William "Boley" Brenda, OP

Heaven and Hell

Never done one of these before. . .better late than never, right?

When the organizer for this event contacted me about speaking, I agreed before asking about the topic. . .typical Dominican response: "Sure! I'll talk. . .oh, what's the topic?" I sent him an email with my fingers crossed that he wouldn't ask me to speak on eschatology (i.e., The Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, Hell). This is my least favorite sub-category of systematic theology b/c so much of what happens to us after death is simply unknown. Anyway, he writes back: "How about heaven and hell?" HA! This is the third time in as many years that someone or some group has asked me to speak on heaven and hell. . .do you think the Lord is trying to tell me something?

Anyway, I will give it my best shot. . .

Y'all come!

P.S. Here's a link to the only definitive pronouncement on life after death made by the Church, Benedictus Deus, issued by Pope Benedict XII in 1336. Good luck!

04 May 2008

Just standing here looking at the sky

The Ascension of the Lord: Acts 1.1-11; Eph 1.17-23; Matthew 28.16-20
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Paul
and Church of the Incarnation

Why are you standing there looking at the sky?

The Eleven go to Galilee. On the mountain there they meet Jesus—again—and he gives them their final orders. Having lost him in the garden, having betrayed him by fleeing in fear, the disciples find themselves again and again in the company of Jesus. After his resurrection, our Lord stays with his students, instructing them, comforting them, promising them his constant company. And yet, they doubt. They obey, but they doubt. They worship, but they doubt. Jesus lays out for them their mission as apostles, their duties as men who will receive from him his Holy Spirit. And he gives them these final instructions just before he departs to sit at the Father’s right hand in heaven. Fully God and fully man, Jesus rises to the Father, body and soul, and leaves his friends to do what he has ordered. Even as they stand there, hearing his words, watching him with worshipful hearts, they doubt. Nothing he has done has moved them to fully believe, to accept, completely, with whole hearts who and what he is. They worship, but they doubt. And so, they stand there looking at the sky.

On this side of Pentecost’s history, we know that that doubt is burned away by the fire of the Holy Spirit. We know that whatever hesitations, whatever reservations they might have had about Christ and his mission are set on fire and turned to ash with the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. But we are on this side of history, looking back. We read in Acts, Jesus says to the disciples, “…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” We read in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, “…[God] put all things beneath [Christ’s] feet and gave him as head over all things to the Church, which is his body, the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way.” This is not the witness of timid men, men who doubt yet worship. These are men who worship in spirit and in truth! We can easily understand how such faith and passion is possible, looking back as we do, standing here after the coming of the Holy Spirit. But then, way back then, as they stand on that mountain in Galilee, looking at the sky, they doubt.

And how does Jesus treat their doubt? How does he answer their vacillation, their dithering? Before this moment he indulges their need for evidence, presenting his glorified body for their inspection. Before this moment he chastises them, “Do you still not believe!?” Before this moment he teaches them again where to find him in the prophecies of scripture. And they still doubt. Do we find this doubt so difficult to understand? Probably not. How often do we find ourselves in the throes of questioning our faith, struggling with answers to questions we barely understand? How often, when evil seems to defeat us, do we question God’s promises? Question His love for us? More often than we would like admit? And yet, we worship. We pray. We come to praise His name and Him thanks. We do what they did and will likely do so again. How does Jesus handle this all-too-human distrust, our misgivings about his witness? He gives them, his Church, he gives us, his Church a monumental job to do.

It makes no sense at all for you to give a job to someone you do not trust, a job, which left undone, undoes everything you hold dear. And it makes no sense for you to be given a job, which left undone, leaves you and the one who has given you the job wholly defeated. We entrust important jobs to those we know will do what needs to be done. We are given jobs because we are trusted. And yet, there Jesus stands, on the mountain in Galilee, in front of his doubting disciples, saying to them, “Go…and make disciples of the nations, baptizing them…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Why does he trust them? Why, knowing their hearts to be brimming over with fear and hesitation, why does he give them this monumental task? Because he knows that the work he is giving them to do is his work and that because he is ascending to the Father, he will send them the Holy Spirit, thus fulfilling his final promise to them: “And, behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”

The ascension of our Lord is the fulfillment of his promise to be with us always. By leaving us, he remains with us. By going to the Father, he sends his Spirit, who abides, even now, always, forever with us. This solemnity is not about celebrating another miracle or recalling another sign of his heavenly power. Do we really need such a thing? This solemnity is about teaching us again that Christ’s work is our work and the job we have to do, we do not do alone. Even together, as the body the Church, we cannot witness, cannot teach, cannot preach, cannot do justice, cannot pray without his company. Without his company, we are nothing. And Nothing cannot do what needs to be done. With him, we are Christ, baptizing, teaching, observing his commandments. With him, we are his heirs among the holy ones; we are the very revelation of the Father to the world; we are this world’s hope, this world’s sacrament, this world’s salvation. Without him, we are nothing. With all of our doubts on full display—our faults, our failures, our sad little sins—we are everything with him. And everything we are is Christ.

I am firmly convinced that the Devil’s greatest power is his ability to convince us that we cannot preach or teach or do God’s work in this world because we are not yet good enough to do so. When he shows us our sins and points out our failures, we humbly confess that we are not worthy and flee into the desert of a crippling doubt. Though ultimately temporary, he triumph over the Church is complete when we accept the lie that we must be perfect in order to witness. The Devil shames us into bending our necks to stare humbly at our bellybuttons and we let the world pass by untaught, unevangelized, unloved. We say, what good am I as a witness when I remain so vulnerable to sin? What good am I as a sign of God’s love when I cannot love as He does? I have done nothing to be worthy of this task. I am nothing in my sin and Nothing cannot do what needs to be done. But Nothing can stand there looking at the sky!

Are we sinful? Yes. Are we unworthy to do Christ’s work? Yes. Will we fail? Yes. On these counts the Devil is absolutely correct! We can’t baptize. We can’t teach or preach? We can’t show the world God’s by doing good works. The Church is powerless, faithless, utterly without hope or love. To believe anything else is prideful! But to believe that we are forgiven in Christ, made worthy by Christ, successful with Christ; to believe that we work for the Good because of Christ, to accept, believe, and exercise these truths is humility itself. To see and love the Church as powerful with Christ, faithful with Christ, hopeful with Christ is to see a bald-faced reality so clear, so distinct that all doubt is burned away, all fear is swept away, all hesitation, all of our dithering is killed, dead, and buried.

So, standing there on the mountain in Galilee with his anxious disciples, our Lord charges his friends to complete his work despite their doubts; he gives them the greatest commission found in scripture in order to spite their false pride. Who says you will do these things without me? Who is telling you that I am relying on your good will and human strength? I am with you always. You will not do my work without me. And so, immediately after Jesus is taken up, two men in white appear and ask the dumbfounded disciples, “Men of Galilee, ummmm, why are you standing there looking at the sky?” What are you waiting for?

That’s an excellent question for the Church! What are we waiting for? We have our mission statement—“Go, baptize, teach, observe God’s commandments.” We have the leadership. We have the personnel. We have the training. All the resources we need are at hand—scripture, tradition, magisterium, sacraments, the communion of saints in heaven, one another. We have Christ. So, why are we standing here looking at the sky? If you are paralyzed in your faith, unable to move, grow, to do what needs doing for the gospel, remember Jesus’ promise to his friends, to us: “…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses…I am with you always, until the end of the age.”

I am with you always.