Friday, January 23, 2015

Matthew 3 - Baptism: More Than Just Getting Wet




The third chapter of Matthew’s Gospel focuses on John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus. There is a clear connection between baptism and mission. We come to the waters of baptism and are transformed, born again as new creations. The old sinful self is replaced by the abiding presence of God. There is a fundamental and indelible change in our very nature and existence, something that marks us for all eternity as belonging to God.

With this new identity comes a new purpose and meaning for our lives, for we are baptized not just to save us, but that we may go forth and bring the Good News of salvation to others. It is no coincidence that Jesus’ public ministry begins after his baptism. He sets the example and standard for us to follow. As the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus at his baptism, we received that same Spirit at our baptism.

Baptism grafts us into the life and ministry of Jesus, into his death and resurrection, and empowers us to continue his mission on earth. Christianity is not a spectator sport. Each and every person, by virtue of their baptism, is called to get in the game and play. Certainly there are different roles and responsibilities, but none of us a called to just sit on the sidelines and watch others do the stuff. It takes discernment and practice to find our place in the mission field, but rest assured there is a place waiting for each of us. For some it may be a vocation to priesthood or religious life, for others street evangelism, still others works of mercy among the poor and needy, and still others a life of prayer and sacrifice.

John the Baptist was very critical of the Pharisees and Sadducees in Matthew 3. He was angered by the entitled attitude of self-righteousness displayed by many of them. Some wanted to rest on their heritage and position. Some were adept at keeping others from engaging and participating in the work of the Kingdom. The message of the Baptist, and of baptism, is to turn away from those ways of thinking and living, and to understand that all of us are called to find our place and live out a missional lifestyle that infectiously invites others to believe the Good News that God’s Kingdom has come.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Matthew 2 - Following in the Footsteps of the Magi




“Let us also follow the Magi. Let us separate ourselves from our barbarian customs, and put them far behind us, so that we may see Christ—since they, too, would have missed seeing him if they had not been far from their own country…Let us also rise up. Though everyone else is troubled, let us run to the house of the young Child. Though kings and nations and tyrants stand in the way, let our desire not fade. In that way we shall repel all the dangers that we face.” (St. Joh Chrysostom, Homily 7 on Matthew)


What can we learn from the Magi? So often we focus on the gifts they brought, but St. John Chrysotom reminds us that they can also be a model for discipleship.

The Magi took a leap of faith. They traveled from far off lands—something that was not without a fair amount of danger in those days—to seek after the new King. They left behind their homes not knowing for certain if they would ever return, but they deemed it worth the risk. This really isn’t all that different than what the Apostles did when Jesus called them to follow him. They left behind their way of life to start out on an unknown journey not knowing for certain where it would take them. We too are called by King Jesus to follow him and to leave behind anything that would hinder us. We are called to give up our former lives in exchange for unknown adventure. Like the Magi, we bring with us certain gifts to offer to Jesus.

As St. John Chrysostom points out, the Magi also had to face the threats of “kings and nations and tyrants” who would oppose the coming of Jesus. Our own culture of death isn’t that different than the reign of Herod, marked by debauchery, immorality and the slaughter of innocents. But in the midst of so much darkness there is light and life found in the manger. One can only imagine the impact that encounter with the Holy Family had on the Magi as they returned home, no longer guided by stars, but by the word of God delivered by an angel. If will open ourselves to the risk and wonder of following Jesus and coming to know his great love for us all of our fears can be replaced by the assurance of his presence. 

Monday, January 12, 2015

Blogging Through the Gospels - Matthew 1




I have to admit, it is very tempting to just skip most of the opening chapter of Matthew. After all who wants to waste time going through all of that "so and so begat so and so who begat so and so and so forth." Earlier in  my faith I wondered why Matthew (or the Holy Spirit) would bother with all that genealogy anyway. It wasn't until I took the time to look deeper that it all began to make sense.

 Ancestry.com is a private family tree tracing company with Morman roots (pun intended) that boasts over 12-million records, more than 2-million paying subscribers, and had nearly $400-million in revenue. Cable TV network TLC has a reality show called "Who Do You Think You Are?" that highlights celebrities finding out about their family histories and it averages 5 to 7-million viewers per episode. People are fascinated with genealogy, and it's no secret why.

Where we come from and our family histories can have powerful impacts on our lives. Blessings and curses can be passed on from one generation to the next. Every family has its share of of heroes and skeletons, some may be more well known than others.The more we learn the more we can appreciate who we are and how far we've come, to count our blessings and appreciate the obstacles overcome.

The genealogy of Matthew 1 is no different. It's a story full of heroes and goats, saints and sinners. From the con man Jacob to the harlot Rahab to the foreigner Ruth to the adulterous couple of David and Bathsheba, the family tree of Jesus certainly has its share of crooked branches--and that should be very encouraging to us. God saw fit to work with misfits and malcontents in order to bring his mercy, grace and love into the world. When Jesus entered that family tree he redeemed it and all the shortcomings found in it. That's what Jesus does. He reaches down into the ashes of our lives and makes something beautiful, more beautiful than what was there to begin with. 

If you think about it, the genealogy of Matthew 1 sets up the rest of the Gospel, because from the very next scene in Bethlehem to the passion, death and resurrection of Christ, the whole mission of Jesus is found in the idea of redeeming all of us and our ancestries. He came to make us whole, to buy us back as our kinsmen redeemer, to make straight our crooked paths. 

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Love Came Down

This post was originally published on Catholic365.com

“This I command you, to love one another.” (John 15:17)
It is said that when the Apostle John was living in Ephesus in his old age he would often address the church there with the same simple exhortation, “My little children, love one another.” The elders of the community, tired of hearing the same repeated message, would press John to share with the church some great insight about Jesus or being a disciple. John would double-down by telling them that these simple words were the commands of Jesus, and if they had nothing else of the Gospel to truly live these words would be enough. 

Love is hard, at least the kind of love that Jesus spoke of, modeled and expected of his disciples. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that he should lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:12-13) This is the love that God is calling each of us to, and it is the only kind of love that can truly change the world. This is the love that each person who calls himself “Christian” is called to live by, and it is not easy.

Consider St. Paul’s reflection on this kind of love: “Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Cor. 13:4-6) This is nothing less than the job description for being a Christian. Unfortunately, it is not how many Christians consistently live—including me. We are too often consumed with being right than being patient, kind, and humble. Perhaps we allow fear to keep us from fully loving. The two cannot co-exist for “perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18) 

I think this is why Pope Francis is so easily misunderstood, because he is calling the Church to the way of love, and that way is messy. This is not to say that love is not concerned with truth, or that love is a blank check for sin or error. But love is patient. It is patient with the sinner. It is patient with the error. Love does not insist; it invites. I heard someone say that Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI had as the hallmarks of their papacies the virtues of hope and faith respectively. They provided the emphasis and leadership the Church needed in navigating the turbulent post-conciliar waters. They gave the Church a Catechism and a reformed liturgical life to enrich our hearts and minds. They cared for the flock of the Church. (Note: I’m not saying JPII or Benedict weren’t loving, or didn’t care about love, etc. I am saying that their papacies had certain thematic elements in their preaching & writing that emphasized hope & faith.) 

Pope Francis as caused a stir, not because he has changed the message, but because he has changed the audience and the emphasis. The 99 have been cared for and feed and built up for the last 40 years, now it is time for the shepherds to go looking for the lost sheep. Francis is calling the Church, firmly rooted in knowledge of what we believe, to go out and to love the world. Love is the most powerful weapon the Church has against her enemies. Love is the most faithful way of imitating Christ. It is the very reason he came. 

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.” (John 3:16) 

“God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) 

This is when love is tested most. We live in a world that does not love, that does not know the meaning of love. Our world has twisted true, sacrificial love “that does not insist on its own way” into mere sentiment driven by seeking whatever brings the most self-pleasure. We are told that we are living in the midst of a culture war and that good Christians must stand and fight the good fight. We want to take up arms in the battle for morality and decency, but Jesus calls us to lay down our lives and surrender in love. Only by freely, unconditionally loving one another, even our “enemies”, can we ever hope to spread the joy of the Gospel. In the words of St. Paul, “Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4) 

The glorious truth of Christmas is that God chose to love us and give himself to us when we were his “enemies”. The Incarnation demonstrated the absolute and perfect love of God for us, and challenges us to love others in the same way. Too often, and from good intentions, we put too much emphasis on fighting sins and not enough on simply loving people where they are. Disciples aren’t made by first ridding their lives of their sins and bad habits, but rather by first encountering the love of God in Christ Jesus. That encounter with love is what inspires them to turn from their sins. Listen to the words of Pope Francis: 

On the lips of the catechist the first proclamation must ring out over and over: “Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you.” This first proclamation is called “first” not because it exists at the beginning and can then be forgotten or replaced by other more important things. It is first in a qualitative sense because it is the principal proclamation, the one which we must hear again and again in different ways, the one which we must announce one way or another throughout the process of catechesis, at every level and moment.” (The Joy of the Gospel #164, emphasis added) 

No one wants to reform his life for a stranger. No one will change her ways for someone she doesn’t know. But for love, many men and women will do great things for their beloved. Think of Jesus at the well with the Samaritan woman. What if he had begun his conversation with a discourse on the sanctity of marriage? Would that woman have really heard Christ and had her life changed? By reaching out to her in love Jesus opened the door to her heart first by showing that he cared for her. 

Yes, God hates sin. We should hate sin. However, the sin we are called to hate is primarily the sin in our lives. It’s interesting that “hate” can be found 36 times in the New Testament (most in reference to Christ/Christians being hated, or commands not to hate others) while “love” appears 261 times. All too often Christians are so busy hating the sin that we often forget to first love the sinner. 
What would it look like if we decided to look less at the sin in others and pour out all of our energy in simply loving others, especially those who could be considered our enemies? What if we stopped caring about being right and just cared for people, especially those least like us? Converts to the early Church were won over by the love of Christians, not merely by theological debate. Christianity conquered a culture of violence, sex, hedonism, and pantheism by the witness of love. They followed the admonition of Jesus to love one another and to be known to all by that love. That is our calling. That is our challenge. That is the only way to win the world for Jesus.