The Essentials (4.29.2017)

Scripture Readings

Whenever the Church calls us to reflect on the passage from Acts that is our first reading, I’m always grateful for its encouragement.  Sure, it doesn’t say much about the promises of heaven, not does it eloquently restate the Christian mystery.  However, there are three concrete areas where I sense the Lord’s peace as I read the passage.

First, I’m encouraged by how the passage starts.  No, not the line about the church growing, rather the mention of the dispute.  Some days my spirit is heavily burdened by the tensions within the Church and even divisions in Christianity, but there is a peace that I find in taking off my nostalgic glasses and realizing that issues have been present since the beginning.  My heart still aches when I think of our divisions and disputes.  But it longs for a unity we have yet to see instead of being burdened by the thought that we lost something we once had, and that, for some reason, seems easier to respond to, especially as we approach the second source of encouragement.

In response to the dispute, a solution is offered, and so the essential role of service (diakonia) is affirmed.  A dispute was solved.  Our issues in the church today, old as they may be, can also find solutions.  That is good news!  The even better news that I see speaks to me on a personal level.  The Apostles and the community agreed (that is a cool thought) that not every believer has to be all things to all people.  I don’t have to be crushed by the burden of doing everything and neither do you.  We can specialize, assuming we don’t box ourselves in and we support, encourage, pray for, and praise those who serve differently.  Imagine the freedom the Apostles felt as they blessed the work of the seven deacons knowing the widows would be fed, the Word would be proclaimed, and the Church would still gather for their communal prayer (the liturgy).

The fruit of that freedom was evident in the growth of the Church.  As the early Church proclaimed the Gospel, gathered to worship the Lord through the breaking of the bread, and served those in need, her true face was shown and Acts tells us that, “The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly.”  Not just names on a registry, but disciples.  This gives me peace as well.  This tells me that if we stick to the three essentials of the Church — our three practical implications — then the Lord will find fertile ground for disciples.  Everything else is filler and fluff if inquirers and seekers aren’t becoming disciples.

May the God who is three and one, help us find peace and unity through the Holy Spirit.  May we humbly acknowledge that only Christ is all things to all people, and we are called to let him shine through us.  Knowing the face of the Lord, may we share the truth of His great love, reveal his goodness though our actions, and discover His beauty in our worship.

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Spiritual Envy

Saturday of the Fourth Week of Easter

I don’t like sin.  I think that is a good thing.  However, what I really don’t like is owning up to my own sinfulness.  It is a piece of cake to hate sin in another person’s life, but difficult to hate my own sins.

To help overcome this potential blindness I have been practicing putting myself in the shoes of someone in scripture.  I avoid being a bystander, or Jesus, or one of the seemingly swell people.  Instead, I try to imagine what it was like for Judas to hear Christ prophesy his betrayal.  Or what was it like to be a Pharisee.  Or in today’s first reading, what it was like for the Jews of this city as they chased out Paul and Barnabas.  This practice stops me from casting a hasty judgement on these people.  As opposed to distancing myself from them I ask the Lord to show me how I make similar mistakes in my own life.  The practice has been eye-opening.

Today, my struggle with pride and spiritual envy was laid on my heart.  This is what happened with the Jews in the town.  They likely felt pride in their place as God’s people.  They were a people chosen to reveal God’s goodness and righteousness to the world through their devout adherence to the Law.  Thus, when Paul and Barnabas attract large crowds and begin professing that God’s choice has expanded through the death and resurrection of Christ to include the Gentiles the Jews became jealous.  Acts tells us so in these words, “When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy.”  In their pride they became jealous.  In my pride I become envious.

But this is not Jesus’ way.  Instead, in the Gospel Jesus promises, “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these.”  It’s absurd that I can be so prideful that I am envious when someone is better than I am, while our living God is so humble that He gives His greatness away.

In giving out greatness, God lavishes us with a diverse spread of gifts and talents.  Today, go out of your way to swallow pride and cut off envy by sincerely acknowledging and praising the gifts and talents you see in another person.  Go one step further and offer this encouragement to someone who the world would see as your competitor.

Names Have Meaning

Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Easter

Today, the title Christian comes with all sorts of preconceptions.  It comes with baggage and blessings and no small amount of controversy over who can and can’t or should and shouldn’t be called Christian.  Before all of that, a group of disciples were called Christians in Antioch.  We find it here at the end of the first reading from Acts, “And it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians.”  It seems a little crazy that there had been mass conversions, people had been persecuted, and Stephen had even been martyred for the faith, and yet, they were only just now being called Christian.  Moreover, the passage gives the impression that they didn’t create the name, but were given it by others.  As we reflect on this, let’s take some time to consider what Christian would have meant to those who first heard it.

To our ears, Christ sounds like a name.  We can truly empathize with the person who thinks Jesus was the son of Mary and Joseph Christ as if it was his last name.  We forget that it is a title and a title with significant meaning.  To a 1st Century Jewish person, the Christ was the anointed one, the Messiah.  The Christ was the ointment to soothe Israel’s centuries of longing and waiting.  The fulfillment of the desires of the prophets.  The early Church professed this fulfillment so adamantly that they were called Christians.  They were identified by their belief that God kept his promises, that fulfillment was more than possible, it was a reality.  That our longing has an answer.  That answer, they professed, is Jesus.

To the Gentile, unfamiliar with Judaism, to call someone a Christian would mean “someone who belongs to the anointed one”.  Anointing has its own significance, and I have no intention of guessing what each culture makes of it, but it seems worth noting that they were not described as belonging to Jesus, but instead to this “anointed one”.  This might get at the subversive nature of the Gospel.  These are people who don’t belong to Caesar, but to Christos.  That is merely a guess, but the idea exists that we belong not to our nation or even this world in the same way that we belong to Christ.  When Christ is our life, the factions and identities of this world seem so fleeting.

Finally, we should not forget that Acts tells us “the disciples were first called Christians.”  Before they were called Christians they were called the disciples, and disciples are always known by who their master is.  Too often today, people can know we are Christians without a shred of evidence that Christ is our master.

Maybe we need the reminder of what it meant for the first Christians to be called that.  Are we a people professing fulfillment in Christ?  Do we belong to him more than our nations, political parties, and other factions?  Like disciples who only make sense if you know the master, do we only make sense if you know Jesus?pantolarge

What Happened?

Scripture Readings

Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles can leave us wondering, “What happened?”  The passage describes an idyllic, utopian community of believers that are single-minded in their wholehearted love for the Lord and His people.  They care for the needs of those around them and trust the Apostles to distribute their earthly goods as justly as possible.  Today, we look around at Christianity and we see divided hearts and minds among the thousands of different denominations.  We hear suspicious accusations cast upon our leaders in the Church as well as upon the needy.  We are compelled to ask, “What in the world happened?”

Fear happened.  Fear crept into the Church as it had crept into the garden and whispered that we should not trust.  This lie, told by the Liar, is a starting point for sin, for instance, when I fear for my happiness I seek fleeting remedies like overindulgence in alcohol, tv, etc.  So many sins can be shown to have a connection to fear: Pride fears that God doesn’t know that He is doing, Envy fears that another’s happiness diminishes mine, Anger fears that justice will never be fulfilled, Sloth fears that I will never have enough time, Greed fears that without possessions I have nothing of value, Gluttony fears that if I don’t get mine now I’ll never have it, and Lust fears that without pleasure there is no fulfillment.  Thus, if we want to be anywhere close to the Church described in Acts we need to become fearless again.  For you see, the prevailing undercurrent of all three readings is that there is a trust in God that overcomes fear and it is these three points I wish to present for our reflection.

In Acts, the power of the Resurrection, and Apostles witness to it, fostered fearless trust.  Would our bishops, priests, and lay leaders be easier to trust if they courageously bore a stronger witness to the resurrection of Christ?  Does the Resurrection of Jesus possess power in our minds and hearts, or has it been relegated to a cultural celebration and religious novelty?  Does it help us overcome the fear of death?

The Psalmist finds great assurance in Gods firm trustworthiness.  Do we share that view?  Do we find firmness and stability with the Lord?  Do we find God’s decrees trustworthy or do we fear that they will impugn upon our freedom?

Finally, in the Gospel, we find Christ prophesying his own death.  He said, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”  Christ thus shows his trust in the Father’s plan.  Do I trust that my life serves a definite purpose?  Do I fear to die to myself because I do not trust God that there is truly fullness of life available to me, even now?

Lord, give us the grace to trust you in such a radical way that sin diminishes in our lives and that we can reflect the one heart and mind of the Church in its infancy.