Friday, April 28, 2017

Everything is Different

Third Sunday of Easter (A)

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Jesus and the disciples on the road to Emmaus
There is a Greek word that is largely unfamiliar to most Christians today but very important to the life of the Church: kerygma. It means "preaching." Specifically in a Christian context it means preaching the core message of the gospel. 

This is what St. Peter preaches in this Sunday's first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Jesus is the Son of God. You condemned Him and killed Him. But God raised Him from the dead. We are witnesses to this. Repent and believe and you, too, will share in eternal life. Persist in your unbelief and you will be lost. It's the gospel in a nutshell.

It's a story that is so familiar to Christians that we can take it for granted. We can forget how radical a story it is. It's a game changer of eternal proportions. Here's why.

If Jesus Christ truly rose from the dead, then everything is different.

It changes everything. It means that miracles are real. It means that there exists something outside of the natural world, and that "something" has broken through into the natural world. It means that Jesus is not just a good man. It means that Jesus is not just some crazy person with a God complex. It means that He is more than a teacher or a guru. It means that he is genuinely of God, with God, and is God. It means we have to take Jesus seriously.

We have to take Him seriously when He says, "I am the way, the truth and the life."

We have to take Him seriously when He says, "No one can come to the Father except through me."

We have to take Him seriously when He says, "Love God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself."

We have to take Him seriously when He says, "This is my body, which will be given up for you," and "Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life within you."

We have to take Jesus, and the whole idea of God, the Church, heaven and hell seriously. And that makes everything different.

We are at the end of an academic year at WCU. Many of you stand at the cusp of great change. We just had our final fellowship dinner of the semester, at which we honored our graduating seniors. Leaving college means transitioning from one stage in life to another; from life as a student to life in the professional world; from someone living under your parents' care to an independent adult. I remember when I was a senior in college. It was scary, knowing that I was entering into a new stage in my life without knowing what that would involve. A year after I graduated I was married. A year after that I became a father and bought my first house. Almost nothing in my life was the same as it was a few short years before. I couldn't have imagined then what my life now would be like.

If graduating from college is a big and scary transition for us, imagine what Jesus' disciples felt after that first Easter. We get a glimpse in this week's gospel account of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, a village a few miles outside of Jerusalem. They are distressed and confused. Jesus, whom they believed to be the Messiah, had died on the cross and was buried. They thought it was the end. But now people are saying He has risen from the dead. They have seen Him! Can this be true? What does this mean?

A man joins them. It is Jesus, but they do not recognize Him. He hides His identity from them. Instead He speaks to them of the scriptures and shows how everything in the Old Testament indicates that the Messiah should suffer and die and rise again from the dead. The gospel says that their "hearts were burning" within them as they listened to His words. Then He ate with them. He took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them. It is only then that they recognized Christ, "in the breaking of the bread."

Having encountered the Risen Jesus, the gospel tells us that they "set out at once" to "tell what they had seen." They preached the kerygma; they shared their good news. Because Jesus is truly Risen! And they knew that makes everything different.

Jesus is Risen. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we encounter Him today in the breaking of the bread, in the Eucharistic feast of the Mass. Have we allowed that fact -- the most important fact in the history of mankind -- to make a difference in our lives? Jesus is Risen. He is the Christ. He is God. Do we take Him seriously? If not, why not? 

This Easter season, I invite you to return to basics. Return to the kerygmatic core of the Christian faith. Meditate upon the Resurrection of Christ and allow it to change your life. Jesus is Risen. Everything is different.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Mission of Mercy

2nd Sunday of Easter (A) - Divine Mercy Sunday

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The second Sunday of Easter is celebrated in the Catholic Church as a feast of Divine Mercy. The particular devotion to the Divine Mercy has its inspiration in the writings of St. Faustina Kowalska, an early 20th century Polish nun and visionary. But of course St. Faustina was not inventing anything new. She was simply reminding us of something the Church has always stressed, and that is the necessity of relying upon the mercy of God.

One of my favorite prayers is the simple one called the "Jesus Prayer" which is taken from the tax collector's prayer in Lk 18:13. All it says is, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. It doesn't say much, but it says all that needs to be said. It acknowledges Jesus as God. It acknowledges us as sinners. And it asks for the one thing all sinners need from God - mercy.

The gospel reading for the 2nd Sunday of Easter is always John 20:19-31. This reading tells of the first time the disciples saw the resurrected Christ. They were hiding (all except for Thomas), in a locked room, afraid. Suddenly Jesus appears in the middle of them and says, "Peace be with you." He then does something very special.

He tells the Apostles, "As the Father has sent me, so I send you." This is what the word apostle means -- "one sent on a mission." The Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, became Incarnate, took on a human nature, suffered, died, and rose from the dead because He was sent on a mission from the Father. What is that mission? Simply put, it is to reconcile sinners to God. It is rescue mission. It is a mission of mercy. And now Christ sends the Apostles on that same mission.

Jesus then gives them to tools they need to carry out that mission. He breathes on them and says, "Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained" (Jn 20:22-23). Jesus Christ, the Son of God, gives His Apostles and His Church a share in His ministry of forgiveness, and the authority to exercise that ministry. This is why we confess our sins to a priest, who share in this Apostolic ministry. This is what happens every time we enter the confessional and say, "Father, forgive me for I have sinned." We become recipients of God's limitless mercy. And as if that were not good news enough, we don't just receive God's mercy one or two times. There is no "three strikes you're out" rule in Catholicism. No, we are able to receive God's mercy time and time again, as many times as we need it, as many times as we are willing to ask for it.

This great gift of God's mercy is why the Church sings Alleluia! It is why the psalmist proclaims, "His mercy endures forever" (Ps. 118). It is why the Apostles went out into the world to preach the good news. Because it is good news. It needs to be shouted from the rooftops. God has come to free us from the slavery of our sins. We have sinned against God, but God forgives us in Christ!

And it is why the Church reminds us, on this second Sunday of Easter, of the importance of relying upon God's mercy. All during the penitential season of Lent we hear messages of repentance. We hear calls to conversion. Our churches may offer extra opportunities for reconciliation. But we don't leave all that behind now that Lent is over. God's mercy endures forever. It is timeless. It knows no season. It is ever present. 

The time to receive God's mercy is now. In the diary of St. Faustina Kowalska, she records a vision of Jesus saying, "He who refuses to pass through the door of My mercy must pass through the door of My justice" (Diary 1146). God leaves that choice in our hands.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Crucifying the King

Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion (A)

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Palm Sunday is unusual, not just because we have two gospel readings (one before Mass begins outside the church), but because of the contrast between the two. Some Sundays are given special names, such as Laetare (Rejoice) Sunday a couple of weeks ago. I like to call Palm Sunday the "Well That Escalated Quickly" Sunday.

We begin our celebration outside the church with a reading from Matthew 21, welcoming Christ into Jerusalem as a triumphant king. We shout, "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!"

Moments later we have the very long gospel reading of the Lord's Passion, recalling how Jesus was betrayed, arrested, tortured, executed and buried. We shout out, "Let Him be crucified!" The reading ends with a cold stone being rolled over the entrance to Jesus' tomb.

What a stark contrast.

We might leave Mass on Palm Sunday with our heads spinning, wondering how the people of Jerusalem could go from welcoming Jesus as a King to crucifying Him as a criminal in so short a time. But don't we do the same?

During our initial conversion, when we first come to embrace Christ as our Lord and Savior, we welcome Him into our hearts. We rejoice and hail Him as our King, with shouts of "Hosanna" (an ancient Jewish acclamation of praise). Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, who frees us from our sins! Hosanna!

But then what? Eventually we sin again. And by sinning, we once more join the crowds shouting "Crucify Him!" For this is the reason why Christ, who was innocent of all sin, had to die on the cross -- for our sins, yours and mine. Each time we sin we should think about the crucifixion and know that it is our sins that drove the nails into his hands and feet.

So what should we do? 

First of all, we don't give up. Because beyond the cross there is the empty tomb. Beyond death there is resurrection. Beyond sin there is forgiveness. Beyond condemnation there is mercy. 

Christ died on the cross for our sins, and if we have a compassionate heart at all, that should fill us with sorrow. Deep down we know that we are the ones who deserve to be punished for our sins, not Jesus. But it should also make us rejoice. It is a great mystery that sorrow and joy can coexist in Christianity. Jesus died for our sins on the cross, and this is good news. Because by so doing He has won our redemption and freed us from our sin. This is why it is a betrayal of Christ any time we choose to sin, because it is a rejection of that freedom He won for us, a freedom from sin.

So  we must learn to hate sin and avoid it at all cost - especially mortal sin. All sin is a failure to love as we should. We all fail in love in small ways throughout our lives, because even though we are redeemed we are not yet perfected. We are works in progress. God is still training us in holiness and that takes time. But some sins are so grievous as to be incompatible with love. These are mortal sins, and by committing these sins we cut ourselves off from God's divine life, which is love itself. So having accepted Christ as our King and welcomed Him into our hearts with shouts of "Hosanna," we should detest nothing more than the thought of evicting Jesus from our hearts by mortal sin.

But when we realize that we have turned away from God by falling into sin, we should immediately turn back. To repent literally means to "turn around." We turn away from our sin and turn back to God, seeking His forgiveness in the sacrament of Reconciliation. Yes, your sin is why Christ died on the cross. Yes, this should cause you sorrow. But yes, it should also cause you to rejoice, because Christ died for all of your sins. Not just one. Not just a few. All of them. Even and especially the ones that you feel guilty about right now. Give them to Christ. He's already paid the price for them. Give them over to Him in the confessional and let Him take their burden off of your shoulders. This is, quite literally, what He came into the world to do. Let Him do it. 

It's really that simple. Strive to be faithful. But when you are not, repent and seek forgiveness. Then strive to be faithful once more. Do that, over and over.  As often as you fall, get back up again. As often as you sin, repent and seek forgiveness. Keep moving forward, following Jesus into Jerusalem, all the way to the cross. Because on the other side of that cross is eternal life and the joy of heaven. Let us follow together our Crucified King.