Friday, April 27, 2018

5th Sunday of Easter Yr B (Gospel: John 15:1-8) Cut off from me you can do nothing

One of the most successful movements ever started which has been able to help people get their lives back together from addiction, is the group known as Alcoholics Anonymous or AA. By now there are also many other ‘Twelve Step’ groups, as they are called, such as Narcotics Anonymous, Workaholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, and others. The interesting thing is that the Twelve Step program on which they are based, is basically a summary of the Christian life. The twelve steps involve admitting that you are powerless over your problem, whatever it might be; that your life is unmanageable, that only God (as you understand God) can help you and so you must turn to him; also that you need to atone for the hurt and damage that you may have caused others. But the main reason why these groups have helped so many people is because they are based on the idea that we need the support of like minded people if we are to be able to live any kind of way of life.

Our coming to mass on a Sunday has a very similar thinking behind it. We come together primarily to worship the Lord, but also because we need the support of like minded people who also believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Holy One of God. This was exactly why the early Christians began to come together in each other’s houses, so that they could share their faith together, listen to the Word of God, receive the Lord Jesus together in the Eucharist and be encouraged by each other’s presence and witness. Our approach to coming to mass on Sunday also makes a big difference. If I tell myself I have to go, we have immediately given ourselves a mental obstacle. If I think of it as an encounter with the living God, who wants to meet me and speak to me, that can make all the difference in the world. What does God want to say to me? In each mass I can be united to Jesus in the most intimate way possible by receiving his Body and Blood.

Today we do the same thing but in a more organised way. But the reason we still come together is not just because it’s Sunday and we have to go to mass, but because we need the support of others who believe as we do. We need to listen to God’s word for guidance and inspiration, so that we can learn how God wants us to live and most importantly to receive Jesus in the Eucharist. We are nourished by Jesus himself when we receive him in Holy Communion and we are intimately united with him in the most extraordinary way. The Lord knows much better than we do how much we need this kind of strength and support and that is why he has set it up for us this way.  All of this is for our benefit, because we need this kind of support.

In the second reading St. John says that what the Lord asks of us is this: to believe in the name of Jesus Christ, that He is the Son of God, and to love one another. If we can do that much we are doing a lot.

More and more in our society it becomes obvious that we don’t all believe in the same thing and that is alright, there is room for everyone. In fact it is a good thing. But if we are to survive, we need the support of each other and to know that we are not on our own. We also need to look out for each other, because that is the practical way of living out our faith. It is not easy to live as a Christian, but then it never has been. In the Gospel Jesus says, ‘Cut off from me you can do nothing.’ If we are serious about following this way of life, then we must recognise what it is we need. Just as with someone suffering from an alcohol or drug addiction, if they want to get well, they need to work the Twelve Step program. It is the same for us. If we hope to grow as Christians, we need to stay close to Jesus, to listen to his word, to receive him in the Eucharist and to love one another. Jesus is our source of life in every sense. If we wish to remain alive as Christians, we must be rooted in him. No one else will give us life as He does.

I am the vine, you are the branches... Cut off from me you can do nothing.’

Friday, April 20, 2018

4th Sunday of Easter, Yr B (Gospel: John 10:11-18) Of all the names in the world given to men, this is the only one by which we can be saved

There is a Religious sister from Ireland, by the name of Sr. Briege McKenna. I think she lives in Florida a lot of the time. Sr. Briege is a sister of St. Clare, whom God has called to an extraordinary ministry of healing and to priests. She travels all over the world and many physical miracles have occurred when she has prayed with people. Everywhere she goes she always draws huge crowds. She has written a book called Miracles Do Happen, which is well worth reading.

Some years back she was invited on the Oprah Winfrey show, which I’m sure many of you know is one of the most popular chat shows in America. It has a viewership of something like 18m. Sr. Briege was invited on the show to talk about her work and her ministry. Oprah was asking her about the healings and miracles which often take place and Sr. Briege was saying that it is through name of Jesus that these things take place, just like it mentions in today’s first reading. And then suddenly Oprah said to her, ‘But Sr. Briege isn’t the name of Jesus just another name. There isn’t really anything special about it?’ And sister Briege said that in her head all these alarm bells started going off and she realised that what she would say next was really crucial. And she said, ‘No, it isn’t just another name. It is the only name under heaven by which we can be saved.’ In the first reading today, it says, ‘Of all the names in the world given to us, this is the only one by which we can be saved.’ Because the name of Jesus isn’t just another name, just as Jesus isn’t just another person, and Christianity isn’t just another religion. Jesus is the Way to God. It is only in Jesus, that our lives make any sense. Without him we are just creatures with no purpose. 

God calls us to share in his own divine life. We are getting ready to be with God forever. God has created us in his image, meaning He has given us the gift of free will and the ability to love. That is why we have such dignity, such worth, as people. God has also called us to share in his life and that’s what makes us very different from any other creature that God has made.

Many people around us, many of the people we love, are living as if this life was the only one and so many have become selfish and greedy, because they are trying to find fulfillment in this world. Nothing this world can give us will ever make us completely happy, because God has made us in such a way that we will only be complete in him. We will only find true fulfillment in him and Jesus is, you could say, the doorway, to God. That is what this Gospel reading is about. It’s about Jesus bringing all people to himself, which he will do. It says in the letter to the Philipians, ‘All creatures, in the heavens, on earth and under the earth will bend the knee at the name of Jesus, and every tongue confess, that Jesus Christ is Lord…’ One day, all people will recognise that Jesus Christ is the Lord.
But what do we mean when we say that we are ‘saved’ by Jesus? Saved from what? Saved from the emptiness of what the world offers. Saved from the destructive power of sin and of evil. Saved from loneliness, and saved especially from meaninglessness. Only in God does this life make any sense. We do not make sense without him. The very name of Jesus means, ‘who saves’.

We are all destined to go to heaven. That is what we have been created for. That is what God has planned for us. If we reject God, then we get hell, which is the complete loss of God and all that that would mean.  But it is one or the other, there is no where else. There is no neutral ground. And so we must choose for Jesus, because he is the way to God.

Imagine if the Pope was suddenly to visit this church, right now. Wouldn’t you love to be able to shake his hand? Wouldn’t you feel privileged if you could? The Pope isn’t going to be here, but Jesus is. And Jesus will do more than shake your hand. He will come to us in such a way that we can take him into ourselves, in Holy Communion. Don’t trade him for useless wealth that will not bring you happiness. Jesus is the one who will fulfil us. Only in Jesus does our life make sense.

Of all the names in the world given to us, this is the only one by which we can be saved.’

Friday, April 13, 2018

3rd Sunday of Easter (Gospel: Luke 24:35-48) ‘You see how it is written that the Christ would suffer...’

Several times I’ve had the opportunity to go to Medjugorje (the place in Bosnia Herzegovnia where Our Lady has allegedly been appearing since 1981) on pilgrimage. Once when I was there I heard the visionary named Ivanka describe the experience she had when Our Lady told her she would no longer be appearing to her on a daily basis, but only once a year. Before the vision finished she asked Ivanka if there was anything she would like her to do for her. Ivanka asked Our Lady if she could see her mother again. Her mother had died just a few months before the apparitions had begun. In Ivanka’s own words she says that just after she asked this of Our Lady suddenly her mother was in front of her and she was able to talk to her and hug her. Her mother told her that she was really proud of her and to be obedient to what her grandmother told her. At the end of this testimony Ivanka said, ‘I am living proof that heaven exists. I saw my mother and spoke with her several months after she died.’ To listen to Ivanka recall this experience in her own words was very moving and watching her tell this story it is certainly hard to doubt it.

In today’s Gospel we hear another account of Jesus suddenly appearing to the disciples after the resurrection. To help them believe that what they were seeing was real Jesus does a beautiful and very human thing. He eats something in front of them. He takes a piece of fish from them and puts it in his mouth, chews it and swallows it. He wanted them to be convinced that they weren’t dreaming. This helped them to believe that this was the same Jesus with real flesh and blood that they had lived with for three years, a bit like Ivanka being allowed to speak with and hug her mother. They were left in no doubt after that.

Another interesting thing that Jesus did this time was to help the disciples understand that everything that had taken place—his suffering, death and resurrection—made sense. He showed them that the prophets had foretold it and that the Scriptures referred to it and then he said to them, ‘So you see how it was written that the Christ would suffer and on the third day rise again...’ In other words he was saying that all the events that had taken place, which were so horrifying and disillusioning for them, had their place. They were meant to happen and they fitted into God’s plan for the world. That was something that took the disciples a while to get their heads around, as suffering never makes sense to any of us. So Jesus had to help them understand not only that he was alive, but that all that had taken place was meant to happen.

All of us are continually faced with difficult situations of suffering. Sometimes it is suffering that we ourselves go through, such as sickness or relationships breaking up, and sometimes it is watching people dear to us suffer, like when someone we love dies. It never seems to make sense and it always seems unfair. We find ourselves crying out, ‘How can God do this to me? Why does God allow this?’ When I worked in a hospital as a chaplain I remember often hearing people ask me, ‘Why has God done this to me?’ So often we cannot make sense of why we have to suffer and we may even see it as a punishment.

Even though we don’t have a direct answer to this question, what Jesus says to his disciples in this Gospel is a help, because it reminds us that everything that happens fits into God’s bigger plan. The struggles we go through don’t make sense to us and sometimes they may even be caused by the wrong-doing of others. How could this be part of God’s plan, we ask? The point is that God can bring good out of every situation, even situations of evil, but for the most part we cannot see that. We are just faced with each individual situation of suffering and that is hard. However, the Lord is telling us that there is a bigger picture which makes sense of everything that happens. When we die we will then see that picture and it will all make sense to us. 

St. Pius of Pietrelcina—better known as Padre Pio—used the analogy of a tapestry. He said that our life is like a tapestry in God’s hands. We are looking at it from the back, like a child looking up at it while her mother works at it. All the child can see is the various bits of string hanging out, but seen from the other side, the Creator’s side, it is a beautiful work of art. So much of what we go through makes no sense to us, but the Lord asks us to trust that He knows what He is doing. One day when we see the tapestry from the right side, we will see the beautiful picture that the Lord has created.

So you see how it was written that the Christ would suffer and on the third day rise again... 

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Easter Sunday 2018 (Gospel: John 20:1-9)

There is an extraordinary line in St. Matthew’s account of the passion.  During the trial of Jesus, because there is conflicting evidence against him which is of no use to them, the High Priest eventually asks Jesus directly: I put you on oath by the living God to tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.”

And Jesus answered:
 “The words are your own.  Moreover, I tell you that from this time onward you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Mt 26:63-64).

In other words, Jesus says “Yes I am the Son of God.”  For Jesus to make a claim like that he must have been either a liar, insane, or he was telling the truth, because it is an extraordinary thing to say.  We believe it was the truth and that is exactly who Jesus is, not just a holy man, or a prophet, but the Son of God.

In the book of Revelation, or Apocalypse, St. John the disciple of Jesus who stood at the cross, recalls a vision he had where a man appeared to him.  He says that he saw what seemed to be a man.  His hair was white as wool, or snow.  His eyes were like fire.  His skin was like shining bronze and out of his mouth came a double-edged sword.  He says that he was so afraid when he saw this that he fell down as if dead.  Then this person or being that he saw touched him and said 
Do not be afraid.  I am the first and the last, the living one.  I was dead and now I am to live forever and ever and I hold the keys of death and of the underworld” (Rev 1:17b-18).

Who was this person?  It was of course Jesus, risen from death.  Not just the Jesus whose name we so often hear used carelessly as a swear word, but Jesus who is the Son of God.  Now John, who had this vision, had known and lived with Jesus for at least three years, so why would Jesus appear to him in such a terrifying way?  Perhaps to remind him and us of who Jesus really is, that is, the Son of God.

From a human point of view Good Friday is the ultimate sign of despair.  Everything falls apart and everyone is devastated.  There is a terrible miscarriage of justice and Jesus, the one everyone was putting their hope in is tortured in a very savage way and killed.  Even Jesus on the cross feels abandoned by God.  He is not actually abandoned by God but that is how he feels and he cries out “My God, my God why have you abandoned me.”  The ultimate suffering is to feel that we have been abandoned even by God.  From a human point of view it couldn’t get any worse. 

Then we have the silence of Holy Saturday when Jesus is in the tomb.  People are in shock, numb from what has happened and not sure what to do next.  And then we come to Easter Sunday, the opposite of Good Friday and the ultimate symbol of hope.  The unimaginable happens and rumours start to spread that Jesus is alive.  ‘But that is impossible!’ many said. Most of the disciples would not believe it initially, yet that is what happened.  From a human point of view it is impossible and naive to think such a thing could be possible, but there is more than human work here.  The power of God has brought about something extraordinary which no human mind can take in.  This is what God has made known to us.

The reason Easter is the ultimate symbol of hope is because now the worst thing imaginable, which is death, is no longer permanent.  God has opened a doorway for us to something wonderful when we die, so that we can see and be with our loved ones again.  Think of the people you love who are dead.  Without Easter they could not experience happiness now and neither could we when we die.  So now our life has greater purpose than just what happens here and that gives us a greater hope than anything else.  Now we have reason to keep going even when things are difficult.  Now we are given purpose and we have a better sense of what our life is about; that is, our journey that will lead us to God if we remain open to it.

Do not be afraid.  I am the first and the last, the living one.  I was dead and now I am to live forever and ever and I hold the keys of death and of the underworld.”