Sunday, June 29, 2014

Peter and Paul

Saints Peter & Paul   June 29

It was a beautiful June 29th in the summer of 1986 and I rode my bike to early morning Mass. It was the feast day of Saints Peter and Paul. The martyrs' scarlet red altar cloths and priestly vestments were quite a contrast to the olive green of ordinary time. I often went to daily Mass, but something about the celebration of Peter and Paul remained with me. I have met many saints in the liturgy - both those officially canonized and those in the pews around me. Daily Mass can be a great blessing in our lives.

Saints Peter and Paul, the two saints that we celebrate today, are the two pillars of the Church. Peter and Paul were both martyred in the city of Rome, executed during Nero’s persecution between 64 and 67 A.D. Peter first and then Paul.

Let's take a look at the scripture to witness their faith, beginning with Simon-Peter. 

Jesus had left his hometown of Nazareth and was living in Capernaum, a port city on the Sea of Galilee, home to many fishermen. Jesus may well have lived a few doors down from Simon-Peter.

One day after teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum, (Lk. 4.38-41), Jesus "entered the house of Simon. Jesus cured Simon-Peter's mother-in-law. (I wonder if Peter thought that was a good thing?) Anyway, at sunset, many of the sick with various diseases were brought to Jesus. He laid his hands on each of them and cured them. He also performed many exorcisms. All at Peter's house

Then a few days later, after Simon-Peter had been fishing all night long and had caught nothing, he was cleaning his nets and looking forward to going home to sleep, when Jesus happened along. The Lord asked Simon-Peter if he could stand in his boat to teach the crowd gathered on the shoreline. When he finished speaking,  he asked Simon to take the boat out again: "Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.”

Simon-Peter said in reply, “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing....But at your command - at your word - I will lower the nets!"

[Luke 5.6-11] When he did so, his nets were so full of fish they were nearly tearing...but Simon-Peter knelt before Jesus and said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”

Note that once Simon says to Jesus, “Depart from me, Lord - leave me - for I am a sinful man," that it is then that the Lord can work in Simon-Peter's life.

Once Simon-Peter recognized that he was a sinner and Jesus was the Lord and Savior, Jesus could then utilize him because in his humility and recognition of his need for a savior, Jesus was then able to work through his life.

Yes, there is a risk in being Jesus' neighbor, allowing Christ to enter your home, your boat, your workplace. He will change our life if we let him in.

And how many of us still recall Jesus' question that echoes throughout history: "Who do you say that I am?"

And Peter confesses his faith: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." 

Jesus declares: "Blessed are you, Simon...And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven...." (Matthew 16:17b-19).

After the Resurrection, Jesus asks Peter three times: "Do you love me?" Do you love me more than the fish?

We must know Christ in order to love him.

How are we to love Christ if we do not know Him?

And how are we to know Him if we do not love him?

And when Jesus was arrested, Simon-Peter even denied that he knew Jesus, but even after the crucifixion, the disciples still recognized him as the chief apostle.

From the day of Jesus' Resurrection onward, and in the Acts of the Apostles, Peter is recognized as the head of the church community, and later became the "papa" of the Jewish-Christians and converts to Christianity in Rome, This was rooted in Jesus' decision to call Peter the rock, the chief apostle, and to give him the keys of the kingdom, which symbolize the authority of the Church. Hence the title papa, or "pope" is associated with this first bishop of Rome and all subsequent bishops of Rome.

Let us now turn to Saul of Tarsus, Saint Paul. Saul was a strident Pharisee, and as a Jewish theologian he was a staunch defender of Judaism against the followers of Jesus of Nazareth - even to the point where he oversaw the death by stoning execution of Saint Stephen.

Yet this ardent enemy of Christ, on the road to Damascus to arrest members of the Church, was blinded by the light of the Risen Christ Jesus and his life was changed foverer. 

That event was the impetus that made him one of the most passionate and courageous ambassadors of Christ in Church history, making him the Apostle to the Gentiles.

Persecution, humiliation, and weakness became his daily cross thereafter.  Paul went through much for Our Lord. "...imprisonments, ...beatings, and numerous brushes with death. Five times he received forty lashes minus one. (40 was considered lethal); Three times he beaten with rods, once he was stoned and left for dead, three times he was shipwrecked, he passed a night and a day adrift on the open sea;  in dangers..from robbers...dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers at sea, and dangers among false brothers...." (2 Cor. 11. 23-26).

But Paul assures us: "The sufferings of the present are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed in us" (Rom. 8:18-21) and  declares in Galatians 2.20 . "I have been crucified with Christ, for it is no longer I who live, but Christ Jesus who lives in me...the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me." 

Like both Peter and Paul, once Christ encounters us, and calls us each by name, we are wounded with mercy, our hearts are seared with his love, and our minds with his truth ; this is why we will desire to keep His Commandments and follow Church Teaching....
and when we taste His goodness, experience his love, and his mercy, we long for more....for we are wounded by His love. This longing for the beautiful, for the good, the true, all that is holy, is what Saints Peter and Paul experienced.

They abandoned everything to follow Christ - Peter was crucified upside down and Paul was beheaded - as enemies of the state, the decadent Roman world. They were witnesses to the Truth of Christ and took up the Cross, and it was as difficult then as it is now where the only truth is that nothing is true. 

Yes, both Peter and Paul embraced Christ because He had embraced them; He had called them as disciples and taken possession of them, and sent them forth as Apostles.

Peter and Paul certainly knew the Mercy of Christ for they were shown great mercy. We too are called to allow Christ to possess us and in turn we are to share the same mercy with those we encounter today and every day.
Like Peter, once we recognize our need for mercy, Jesus can then step into our boats, enter our homes, work through our broken lives. Like Paul, no one is beyond the scope of God's mercy - not even the enemies to the faith.

These two men underwent extreme change and yet kept their eyes on Christ. And in the midst of their radical changes, in following Christ, they didn't focus on themselves, or worry and say: "What's in this for me?"
They didn't wait around to see how this whole Christian thing turned out. They couldn't. They were right in the middle of the maelstrom...they didn't have the luxury of sitting back and watching while others worked to make Christianity happen. They were what was happening. and they gave their last ounce of courage, their last drop of blood...literally.

Their willingness to follow Christ required a total commitment in faith and hope.

After Christ taught about the Eucharist, thousands of disciples left him. Jesus turned to the twelve and asked: "Will you also go away."

Simon-Peter answered: "Lord, to whom else shall we go? You alone have the word of everlasting life."


Where is our faith unless we are willing to risk something?

As we celebrate these two very different men, is it a coincidence that we are here?  The mission of our new parish will not require a recognition of our limits, but awareness of God's abundance. God will provide!

At the Transfiguration, Simon-Peter declared: "It is good for us to be here!"

It is good that we are here at Christ the King and Holy Spirit Parishes, as we unite this week into the merged Parish of the Annunciation.  

May we, like Peter and Paul, respond to the Lord when He calls each of us by name, and persevere in faith - even amid our sinfulness and doubts and denials and fears - knowing that if the Lord can work through the fallible and complicated characters of Peter and Paul, then certainly He can work through us. 

And at the end of our journey, we can pray, as did Saint Paul: "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith" (2Tim. 4:7-8).

Yes, I am so glad I rode my bike to early morning Mass back on June 29th 1986. And I hope the celebration of the Eucharist - the fervent prayer of the Church - continues to transform you and me, just as it did Saints Peter and Paul.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Feast of the Ascension - Where Do We Go From Here?

Over the past few weeks I have been doing some long-overdue spring cleaning. Going through literally 30 years of papers, notebooks, photos, books and CDs.

All of the memories can be a bit overwhelming.

It's hard to let go of the past.

One wonders if this is what plagues those who cannot throw anything away, they cannot part with their possessions: old papers, pictures, matchbooks; ticket stubs, paper clips, old shoes, worn-out clothes - an overflowing, unimaginable heap, a veritable mountain of memories.

We often want to keep everything as it is - preserve life as it was.

Maybe this is why hoarders cannot let go. It's just too hard to go through all of their things and get rid of the old.

If we don't rid of the old, we won't have room for the new.

Yet human nature is weak.

For "there is comfort in the familiar even when the familiar is uncomfortable."

The disciples of our Lord knew this temptation. They didn't want Jesus to go because they wanted to cling to what was, what was familiar, what they knew.

We, too, do not go gently into that dark night of faith.

But enter we must.

I wonder - if - in a way - this was what the disciples were experiencing as Jesus led them out to Bethany (according to Luke's account of the Ascension - Luke 24.50-51)

* He led them out as far as Bethany. This little detail is easily passed over, but let us see why Christ did this.

The village of Bethany is about 2 miles east of Jerusalem on the south-eastern slope of the Mount of Olives; the home of Lazarus and his sisters Martha and Mary.

By taking leave of the disciples outside of Jerusalem, this meant that they passed through the garden of Gethsemane where he suffered, past the hill of crucifixion, Golgotha, and past the garden where an empty tomb confounded the world.

He then raised his hands which bore the marks of the nails and blessed them.  *Adapted from Fulton Sheen's Life of Christ, chapter 61, The Ascension).

In this simple act, Christ calls the disciples to relive the passion, the Paschal Mystery, so as to enter into the joy of the risen savior and prepare them to receive the Holy Spirit.

Yet After Christ ascends to heaven, the disciples remain staring into the sky. The disciples are confused. They don't understand.
The two men in white robes ask them: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?

Seriously, how often are we just as confused as they were - if not more? 

Maybe that’s where we are right now: Looking up into heaven unsure about what to do next.

But the message seems to be: get your heads out of the clouds, and go do what he told you to do. Be His witnesses throughout the world, get to work, you are sent forth, you have a mission!

Be not afraid. Go!
Admittedly, there is something melancholy about the Ascension of Christ even though he has promised them the Holy Spirit and is sending them forth on a mission.

The disciples know that Jesus is not going to be with them in the same way as before, as he had been.

There is a sense that something so good has come to an end. They want to hold on to Christ in the same way as before, but He invites them to a deeper faith.

We all likely know that feeling of transition in life where a loved one moves on. I have seen it here: the children grow up quickly and graduate from 8th grade; they get confirmed; they graduate from high school; they leave for college or the military; they move away; get married; and begin their own families.

We also experience this loss in death or separation. A beloved friend or child, a brother or sister or spouse is separated from us. Or becomes ill or dies unexpectedly. We feel abandoned.

There are those who wish they could have walked and talked with Jesus when he lived on earth, but we cannot get lost in this kind of thinking. 

His Ascension does not mean he was jettisoned somewhere into deep space past Alpha Centuri or is somewhere lost in the cosmos.

No, on the contrary, He is present now, here, but in a new way.

Christ has gone to heaven to prepare a place for us.

Though Christ is seated the Father’s Right Hand, He is accessible, there is a real presence.

He comes to us today in His Word and, as Pope St. Leo the great reminds us: "In His Ascension our Redeemer's visible presence has passed into the sacraments."

So in Christ's Ascension He is still present, but in a new way.

He intercedes for us at the Father's Right Hand. And when He comes again at the end of time he will take us to Himself. This is our hope.

But, let’s face it, coming down the mountain after experiencing Christ’s Ascension was hard work for the disciples; And living the faith, day in, day out, is going to be difficult for us as well.
Perhaps that is why some misguided Christians skip over the gospels and obsess over the book of Revelation, staring into the sky with their apocalyptic calendars, trying to predict the times and seasons of Christ's return - thus doing the very thing the Lord has told us NOT to do!

Jesus’ words: “It is not for you to know the times or seasons” seem to have been ignored or dismissed by the end-time preachers and those groups that attempt to calculate the exact day and time of Christ’s return and preach an invisible coming of Christ where he will rapture the saved, snatching away true believers, leaving the rest of us behind while the world is destroyed. The idea of a rapture is not even found in scripture. It may sound biblical, but it is not. “The bible does not provide a predictive screenplay for [a rapture of only true believers and] worldwide violence and disaster” (Barbara Rossling).

So like those first disciples, we cannot remain staring into the sky. We cannot remain staring into the sky waiting for Christ to get us out of here. No. That’s the tough part. You and I have work to do.  

And it’s not just the priest’s job; it’s not simply the deacons’ responsibility. It's not the RCIA team's job or the ushers' task. It cannot be someone else's vocation.

Each of us must set out to follow Christ intentionally, purposefully, as disciples; living our lives on purpose, for a purpose, with a purpose.

We are all called to bear witness to Christ’s resurrection,  teaching others what Christ taught! Making disciples! Every single one of us is commissioned with this task!

The Ascension of Christ changed things for the disciples, and changes things for each of us.

We often want to cling to what was, to what we had in the past, cling to all that was comfortable, but Christ calls us to something new, a new way of living -- and for us, even a new way of being a parish.
Yet if we fail to trust, and allow Christ to be the Glorified Lord, we won’t be able to receive the Holy Spirit. 

He calls us to let go of the old so that the new can enter in. 

Christ’s ascending to heaven is not a death…it is part of the Paschal Mystery… and when we enter into that mystery, yes, we will die to sin and death so that new life can enter.  We cannot cling to old hurts, old agendas, failed expectations.

So after Christ ascended to heaven, the two men ask: Why are you standing here? Go! New things are about to happen! You will not be alone. The Holy Spirit will guide you. Go make disciples and teach all that Christ commanded. 

And as Saint Paul tells us: "May the father of our Lord Jesus Christ enlighten the eyes of our hearts that we might see how great is the hope to which we are called." May we see the new way Jesus Christ is present to us, to the surprising ways the Holy Spirit can work, even amidst difficulty and pain.

For in His Ascension, Christ raises our human nature to the joy 0f heaven.

Christ assures us:

Behold, I am with you.


To the end of time.