The Deep Soil (Matthew 13:1-23)

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Before arriving at the famous Parable of the Sower — the Gospel reading for today — we are first given Isaiah 55:10-11 to contemplate. Though Isaiah’s words were written approximately 500 years before Jesus spoke the Parable of the Sower, his parable calls to mind Isaiah’s prophecy so beautifully that it isn’t hard to imagine he might have deliberately intended it that way. Isaiah writes:

Thus says the LORD: Just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; my word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.

My word shall not return to me void, says the Lord through Isaiah. And so Jesus begins to tell the crowds what “the kingdom of God is like…” It turns out that the nature of this kingdom is best revealed through parables, and in one of them, a sower goes out to sow seeds. The sower can be God, and the seeds can be the seeds of his kingdom, the little seeds that God plants in our lives that we have to look for and really notice to find. They are always there; do we see them? Do we notice them? 

But Jesus says this is what the kingdom of God is like. It is like these small seeds. He tells the people that some of the seed fell on the byway, and the birds came and ate it. Some of the seed fell upon the rocks and sprouted immediately in the shallow soil there; but because the soil there was shallow, the sprout had no depth of root, and so it withered when the heat of the sun came. Some of the seed fell among the thorns and brambles, and these choked it after it sprouted and had grown a little bit. 

But — and here, here at last is the seed that will not return void to the Creator — some of the seed fell on good, deep, rich soil. And it formed deep, strong roots in that good, deep soil. And maybe it grew a little bit slower than the seed that had sprouted in the shallow soil. Maybe it was more deliberate and unhurried about it all, taking its time to grow toward the light. But as it took its time it grew steadily, and quietly, and became strong as it slowly but inexorably felt itself pulled toward that light. It knew it would get there in good time, because it knew where it belonged. It belonged in the light, but only after it had been able to form good, strong roots in that fertile soil. 

One day it arrives in the light, and it’s too firmly established for the birds to eat it, and it has deep enough roots to withstand all the heat, nourished by water and nutrients from the cool and stable earth that is the ground of its being. And it is too grounded in the soil and too drawn to the light to be choked off by any thorns. And this seed, Jesus tells the crowd, grows to maturity and bears its good fruit a hundred or sixty or thirty fold. My word shall not return to me void, says the Lord. 

Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Keck 

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His Eye is On the Sparrow (Matthew 10:26-33)

Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time

This Sunday we finally move away from John’s Gospel, where we’ve been for the majority of the fifty-day Easter season and the special Sundays immediately following it, and settle back into Matthew for the majority of this Year A of the lectionary. Here, Jesus is speaking to his disciples’ fears and worries in a time and place when life was lived close to the edge, and proclaiming your faith in Christ and his message could easily lead not only to rejection but arrest, torture, and death. This is still the case today in many places in the world, as the United Nations lists Christians as the most persecuted religious group across the globe today. 

But you don’t need to be persecuted for your faith in Christ, as so many Christians now are, in order to be deeply reassured by Jesus’ message in this reading. He says, “Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge. Even the hairs of your heads are all counted. So do not be afraid.”

Sometimes, we can wonder where God is. Horrible things happen in the world. Sometimes horrible things happen to us or those we love. Sometimes the daily, unremarkable challenges of life simply leave us feeling worn down, or inadequate, or weak and unable. But if we are open to the small signs in our lives, the gentle whispers of life, the simple gestures of love in the world, the call of a bird and the rustling of the wind, the delicate beauty of a flower and the time it takes for the sun to rise over the horizon, we can feel God’s presence within us and around us. We can know that, as the scripture says, God was there “in the still, small voice,” the whisper of sound. 

Last night I was reading about the remarkable story of Walter Ciszek, S. J. A Jesuit priest who had been sent to minister to Byzantine/Eastern rite Catholics in Poland in the late 1930s, he was arrested by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, at some point after the Russians overran Poland in 1939. He spent eighteen years as a Soviet prisoner. Fifteen of those years he endured under a sentence of hard labor in the Siberian salt mines, living in the same gulag that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn made famous with his book The Gulag Archipelago, until the U.S. government finally secured his return home. 

To lose one’s faith and connection with God in those circumstances would have been understandable — even, perhaps, expected. Instead, as he wrote about in his books With God in Russia and He Leadeth Me, his inner life of spiritual contemplation with God became his only constant and the one thing that sustained him. He sensed God abiding with him and his fellow prisoners in the labor camp, and he chose to offer up his life and his hard labor there to God. He also risked his life to minister as a priest to his fellow prisoners, leading secret Masses, hearing their confessions and offering them sacramental absolution. At any time, any one of them could have reported on him for their own gain and turned him in to meet his death. He returned home to America in 1962. 

As I look out my window and I watch the birds gathering food, building nests, and living quiet simple lives of Creator-endowed grace from moment to moment, I can think of Jesus’ words about the sparrows to his disciples. And I can know that just as he watches them in the fields and trees, and just as he watched Walter Ciszek in the gulag, and just as he watches all of us — I know he watches me, too.

“Why should I feel discouraged

Why should the shadows come

Why should my heart be lonely —

When Jesus is my portion

A constant friend is he

His eye is on the sparrow

And I know he watches me” 

(lyrics Civilla D. Martin)

Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Keck

Living Bread, Flesh and Blood (John 6:51-58)

Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi), Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

The content of this Gospel reading would have been thoroughly shocking to its original hearers in its original context. To be candid, it can even sound shocking to us today, and we have the benefit of two thousand years of theology, eucharistic and otherwise, to interpret it. Here is the crux of it in excerpts: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world… Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you… Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.”

If it sounds jarring, it was meant to be. Jesus knew his audience and knew his context, and sure enough, many in the crowd of listeners deserted him after this one. But the thing that made these words so hard to grasp also happens to be the very key to interpreting them. Leviticus 17:11-14 prohibits the Israelites from drinking the blood of any creature that they eat. They are to pour the blood out onto the earth, for it represents the life of the creature, stands for atonement in the case of sacrifice, and may not be consumed. “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your lives; for it is the blood that makes atonement by means of the life” (Lev 17:11). Continuing in verse 14, “For the life of all flesh is its blood. Thus I said to the Israelites, You shall not eat the blood of any flesh, for the life of all flesh is its blood. Whoever consumes it shall be cut off.”

This was the cultural and religious context that Jesus’ listeners knew very well. The Gospel tells us that some of them, therefore, could simply not accept his words on any level, and dispersed. Jesus understood that. But with these words, he is really talking about two central things: his coming into this world from heaven for our sake, and the giving of his life in a definitive sacrifice that demonstrated his love for the very creatures whose dark and murderous impulses led to that sacrifice. It is this divine sacrificial love, culminating in Resurrection, that “makes atonement” for our lives and redeems them from sin and death. 

It is in this way that Jesus’ “blood” is the life that we need to consume. When he says, “unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you do not have life in you,” and “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life,” he knows exactly the background context that is Leviticus 17:11-14. He knows it is written that the life of the flesh is in the blood, and he knows it is written that the blood, by means of its life, makes atonement. So he tells his followers that he gives his body and blood in the definitive sacrifice, fulfilling the first Covenant yet also inaugurating “the new Covenant in my blood” — as he says during the Last Supper, the institution of the first Eucharist. 

The reading from Paul for today, 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, speaks of this Eucharistic meal that Christ instituted for us: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” The Eucharist as the Lord’s Supper was celebrated and practiced even by the earliest Christian community, beginning immediately following Jesus’ death and Resurrection, as his disciples began to carry out the teaching he gave them about the life that comes from his body and blood. 

Atonement and redemption through self-sacrificial love are his divine gifts to us. But we must, he says, “feed on him” — that is to say, we must rely on him, turn to him, get our nourishment from him. We must draw from him and remain in him, and he will remain in us, giving us the gift of eternal life, which is nothing less than to abide in the glory of God’s love forever. 

Redeemer, help us to draw on you, the “living bread from heaven,” for our true sustenance. Help us to open our minds to what your self-sacrifice of redemptive, atoning love means individually for each one of us, and help us to accept that gift of your love. Inspire our hearts to drink in your life, which you want to give in abundance, so that your life may remain in us, and we may dwell with you eternally. 

Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Keck 

Softening the Hard Heart (John 3:16-18)

Most Holy Trinity (Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time)

The Gospel for this Sunday — Holy Trinity Sunday, commemorating the Trinity a week after Pentecost’s great celebration of the Holy Spirit — contains a saying so well known that it’s easy to skim over it, and hard to plumb its depths with new eyes. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him might not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”

Primarily this verse touches us with its emphasis on God’s radical love for the world and love for us, despite all the suffering the human species inflicts upon itself and on other species. That love means that God is not enthusiastic about condemning. God is enthusiastic about redeeming and forgiving, when the hard heart becomes consumed with remorse and looks to its Creator for forgiveness and love. But God’s respect for our autonomy is such that this is not forced upon us. It is a gift freely offered, and can be freely turned down. Our hearts can soften in the face of God’s love, causing us to follow in the divine way of compassionate kindness; or they can remain hard and intractable, continuing to cause pain to others. 

If “perish” in this passage stands as the opposite of “have eternal life,” then looking more closely at what Jesus means by “eternal life” will help us better understand its opposite. In another passage in John, Jesus asks the Father to give eternal life to all whom the Father has given him. He then says, “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). Jesus reassures his disciples that simply to know God in an intimate way — and as he told them elsewhere, just to know him is a direct way to know God — leads to eternal life. This is because it is impossible to know God in our depths person-to-Person and yet refuse to love him. And it is that love, which is the greatest transformative force in the world, that brings eternal life. 

It is that gentle yet most powerful-in-its-gentleness force of love that softens our hearts and causes us to see others and all of Creation in the way that God sees. This, in itself, changes our actions and our disposition and leads into the eternal life of which Jesus speaks. We do not need to perform superhuman spiritual acrobatics, he tells us, to inherit eternal life. We do not need to wear ourselves out trying to “earn” it somehow, or prove that we are worthy of it. We will never achieve that. But neither should we relinquish all responsibility to seek and find God, pat ourselves on the back, and say, “well, I’m all good just the way I am, no need to seek God to improve me!” Both such approaches are nonsense. 

When Jesus says, “Seek, and you shall find; knock, and the door will be opened to you,” he is not telling us to ask for the latest hot consumer item, a more luxurious car, or a bigger house. When he encourages us to “seek,” he means seek God, and seek him in earnest, and God will not hide himself but let you find him. When he says “knock,” he means knock on God’s door, and it will always be opened to you.  

Those who are a part of other faiths can truly seek and know God in their own way, for the spark of the Creator dwells deep within each of his creations. The Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) made this, in fact, a part of doctrine when it wrote that those who are not familiar with Christ and his revelation of God “but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience — those too may achieve eternal salvation” (Lumen Gentium 16). 

As the Trappist monk Thomas Merton reminds us: “It is the will to pray that is the essence of prayer, and the desire to find God, and to see him, and to love him, is the one thing that matters.”

Holy Trinity, triune God, help us always first and foremost to seek you, to knock on your door, to invite you to come and stay with us. By doing so let us open our hearts to be softened and changed by the transformative knowledge of you and your love. 

Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Keck 

“Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:19-23)

Pentecost Sunday

The day of Pentecost, which Christians commemorate as the day the Holy Spirit came to abide permanently within the community of the new church after Jesus’ ascension, marks the fulfillment of his promise not to leave his disciples alone. Now the Holy Spirit, the Paraklētos, has arrived and is here to stay. The Spirit is the worker here on Earth — the “Spirit of truth,” the advocate, summoner, encourager, comforter, helper, counselor, and teacher. The Spirit dwells within us and around us and works to help us discover our true identity in God who is Love, and lead us to grow into that identity. 

The first two readings speak to us about the unifying character of the Holy Spirit. But the unity that the Spirit brings is not a whitewashing of our individual uniqueness; it does not subsume us into any amorphous sameness that takes no account of our unique experiences, personalities, and gifts. No, this is a unity in which each person’s individuality is not only acknowledged, but honored, celebrated, and put to good use.

The first reading, Acts 2:1-11, paints a picture of a large crowd of devout Jewish folk from many nations who had gathered in Jerusalem for the annual religious festival of Shavu‘ot (“Weeks”), which commemorates the revelation of God at Sinai, the covenant with Israel that happened there and the giving of the Ten Commandments. Greek-speaking Jews who hailed from outside Judea called it the Fiftieth (Pentēkostē) Day, so the word Pentecost made its way into the mostly Greek-speaking early Christian community. It was to be on this day that the Holy Spirit would be revealed in a spectacular way. 

Now the Holy Spirit, according to Acts, had just come to the disciples like “a strong driving wind.” The pilgrimage crowd began to hear the disciples proclaiming their message, but they were astounded because “each one heard them speaking in his own language… They asked, ‘Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans? Then how does each of us hear them in his native language? We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs, yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.’”

In this first demonstration of the Holy Spirit, this unique Pentecost event that grew the fledgling church by great numbers, the Spirit proves to be a unifier. But the Spirit speaks to each person in a way that he or she can hear, within the context of his or her own language, nation, culture, and disposition. The Spirit is an equal opportunity teacher, who speaks to us where we are. And this is true as much today, every day, as it was that first Pentecost day. God’s Spirit does not change. 

The second reading, from 1 Corinthians 12, reveals the same idea: unity in diversity, oneness in all our individuality. I have something to give that can only come in its uniqueness from me, and you have something to give that can only come in its uniqueness from you. Paul says it best: 

There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit. As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.

In the Gospel reading for this Pentecost, Jesus speaks of peace and of sending forth. The scene from John’s Gospel is the first post-Resurrection appearance of Jesus to the apostles who were hidden in the upper room in Jerusalem. Although the Gospel for today takes us back in time nearly fifty days before Pentecost, it also reveals the coming of the Holy Spirit. 

Jesus appears in the flesh in the middle of the room, though the doors were locked, and says, “‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.’” 

With this gesture, Jesus gave to his fledgling church the commission to continue to carry out through the Holy Spirit what he saw as his greatest ministry: releasing each of us from the inner bondage of our own sin, when we respond to the awareness of it with a humble and repentant heart. When manifested in what Pope Francis calls the great sacrament of mercy — the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation (Confession) — the priest as the minister of Christ gives these words of absolution to the penitent:

God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Absolution is the assurance of God’s forgiveness, granted to a contrite heart. As the minister of Christ’s mercy, a priest cannot withhold absolution (“retain” the sin) unless the person truly has no contrition and humility in the face of their wrong, and professedly has no intention to attempt to do better, or has no grasp of what the entire process is for. It’s hard to imagine a circumstance where a person would come to Reconciliation at all under such conditions!

But personal confession in the sacrament isn’t the only way the church mediates Christ’s forgiveness of sins. It happens in a general sense at the beginning of all Catholic masses and at the beginning of many Protestant worship services with the corporate declaration of sin, spoken by the whole congregation. The people acknowledge wrongdoing and ask for God’s forgiveness. This too is the work of the Spirit. 

Holy Spirit, this Pentecost day and always, help us to remember that the unity you seek to bring honors and relies on the individual gifts you have given to each one of us as participants in your works of love. Help us be open to what you offer to teach us. Help us be open to the ways you seek to soften our hearts, and help us always be humble enough to seek God’s forgiveness — the greatest gift of all. 

Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Keck 

Where We Belong (John 17:1-11)

Seventh Sunday of Easter

We all need to belong. We need to belong somewhere, and the sense of belonging that is ours when we do truly belong brings with it a corresponding sense of peace, of happiness, of security. The need to feel that we truly belong reflects the truth that we are relational beings. We are not created to be individuals in a vacuum; we did not evolve to exist on our own in atomistic self-sufficiency. Our need for belonging springs from an awareness in our depths that we are meant to be part of a larger whole.

So when Jesus tells his disciples that they (and his disciples today) “belong” to him, this is music to the world-buffeted soul; eternal warmth to the lonely, misunderstood, or rejected. Whether we feel we belong anywhere here in this world, we always, he tells us, belong to him. In this passage in John, Jesus is praying to the Father before his arrest. These lengthy monologues in John often serve to help reveal the nature of the relationship between Christ and the Father, two Persons of the triune God. In this prayer Jesus speaks about the “belonging” of the disciples to himself and to the Father: “I revealed your name to those whom you gave me out of the world. They belonged to you, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word… I made known to them your name and I will make it known, that the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in them” (17:6, 26).

So the disciples then and now belonged first to the Father, their Creator, who has now given them into the care of the Son, who is the Logos of the Creator become human. Jesus speaks about his disciples belonging to him in many other passages in John as well — being joined to him, being one with him, and therefore being joined to the Father too, because he says to the Father that “everything of mine is yours and everything of yours is mine” (17:10). It means that we share in the eternal life of God; and it means that if we ask him he will work with us so that we can be transformed in our depths to become more like him; and it means that our true home is in him.

As Thomas Merton reflects, “To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that love is the reason for my existence, for God is love. Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name” (New Seeds of Contemplation).

Jesus continues in his prayer before his arrest: “Consecrate them in truth. Your word (logos) is truth… And I consecrate myself for them, so that they also may be consecrated in truth” (17:17, 19). By his holiness, we are made holy, because we belong to him. By his consecration of himself, he consecrates us, and we are freed from our own darkness, because we belong to him. By his power over death, we are freed from its power over us, and we share in his eternal life, because we belong to him. He embraces us with his encompassing, radically generous acceptance. This is what it means to belong to him who is Love.

Creator and Redeemer God, help us always remember that you are our home; that our place of eternal belonging is in you; and that your love is imprinted on all your creations forever.

Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Keck

An Advocate to Be With You Always (John 14:15-21)

Sixth Sunday of Easter

In this reading, Jesus promises his disciples that after he has gone, they will not be alone: the Holy Spirit will come to dwell with them and in them, and not just with them but with disciples through the ages. But it will require some movement on the disciples’ part too — on our part — to know the Holy Spirit and work with him. Jesus tells them, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate (Paraklētos) to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept because it neither sees nor knows him. But you know him, because he remains with you, and will be in you.”

The word usually translated “Advocate,” “Counselor,” or “Helper” (Paraklētos) comes from the root verb parakaleo, which has a broad range of meaning: to urge, encourage, ask, console, comfort, and even summon or invite. Because of the multitude of ways that the Holy Spirit works with us — including all of the above — it seems very fitting that the word used to describe the Spirit would be so versatile.

The way that Jesus speaks about this makes it clear that the Holy Spirit, who like Christ is part of the Personhood of God, is not simply going to whir away in the background accomplishing things while not involving us in any way. Jesus tells his disciples, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name — he will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you” (John 14:26). Jesus connects the Holy Spirit with the active result of loving him: keeping his commandments. Through knowing and participating with the Spirit, we will be much better able to keep the more difficult commandments of Jesus, the ones that ask us to subordinate our automatic tendency toward self-focus and to love others with a willingness to sacrifice that self-focus.

When we act on Jesus’ teachings out of love for him, we are transformed. “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him” (John 14:23). How does this happen, and what is the role of the Holy Spirit? Saint Paul writes that, among other things, the Holy Spirit helps us to pray, and thereby to come closer to the same God of whom the Spirit is a part, to know him and to feel him within our depths.

When we sit in quiet prayer, listening to whatever God might have to say to our hearts with his mercy and love, or reflecting on a Scripture passage, or holding other people before our mind’s eye in prayer for them, the Holy Spirit is stirring within us. In this stirring he is helping us to pray, and when we respond with our love and our prayer, he stirs and orients our being toward God all the more. Over time, if we cooperate in the unfolding of this process, a charitable spirit toward others overcomes more and more of our innate selfishness and we become configured to Christ. When this happens we can feel, like Paul, that “it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).

Perhaps we might feel peace, or a desire to pray still more. But inevitably and irresistibly, we will also experience the urge to be a more positive presence in the lives of others — even in seemingly small but actually big ways like practicing more active kindness and compassion, both for strangers and for people we know well, both for people we like and people we don’t. It is for the latter that we must rely even more on the stirring of the Holy Spirit within us. For Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you… For if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?… But love your enemies and do good to them, and lend expecting nothing in return; then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:27-36).

We will know that we’re working with and being transformed by the Holy Spirit when we notice “the fruits of the Spirit” in our being, manifesting themselves in our actions. Paul describes these fruits as “charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, modesty, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). To the degree that we can willingly grow in these through our cooperation with the Holy Spirit, we become more like Christ. And this is what he wants for us, not only for the good of others whose lives will inevitably benefit from our becoming more like Christ, but for our own good. There is nothing better for our souls than to become as closely united to the Source of our very being, the Source of all love, as we possibly can. Only in that Source do we discover our truest selves, the people that our Creator sees in us and wants us to be.

Holy Spirit, Paraklētos, one of the three Persons of the united God, help us to pray, to know humility, to work with you to become more like Christ who is the Way, and thereby to radiate outward the love that we feel in God.

Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Keck

The Way to the Father’s House (John 14:1-12)

Fifth Sunday of Easter

“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” With this metaphor, Jesus begins to tell his disciples that he will be going ahead of them to the Father, and he will prepare a place there for each one of them. He will come back, he tells them, and take them to himself, “so that where I am you also may be.” He intended this as a very reassuring statement. Yes, he must go in a little while; but he will bring each of them there someday, so that they will never be separated from him again. They will be with him in the Father’s house eternally, because he has prepared their place. As his disciples, joined to him in baptism, they are joined to him forever. “Where I am, you also may be.”

To his disciples, however, this was not particularly reassuring. At least not until they could have some time to understand the meaning of who he really was. What did he mean, he was going to the Father’s house? That could mean only one thing: he was going to depart this world. And if he were going to do that, how could he become the great political ruler that they had been expecting — that they assumed the Messiah would be? Wasn’t he going to take hold of his kingdom and rule from Jerusalem, and finally kick out all these foreign empires and put them in their place? Wasn’t that how he was going to fulfill God’s covenant and bring salvation to Israel, and cause the Gentiles to know the God that Israel had known for so long? If not with a political kingdom like the one David had ruled, then how would he redeem the world?

It would not be until later that they would hear him say to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” It would not be until they saw him resurrected that they would understand he had come to save them not from political powers, but from something much more important and dangerous. He had come to save them, and us, from the darkness that exists in each one of us as part of our human nature. The salvation he offers is to save us from ourselves, and the redemption he offers is to redeem us from ourselves, and in so doing show us the reality of Resurrection and bring us into the eternal light of God.

As Thomas Merton writes, “salvation” in Christianity “reflects God’s own infinite concern for man, God’s love and care for man’s inmost being, God’s love for all that is His own in man. It is not only human nature that is ‘saved’ by the divine mercy, but above all the human person. The object of salvation is that which is unique, irreplaceable, incommunicable — that which is myself alone. This true inner self must be drawn up like a jewel from the bottom of the sea… To be ‘saved’ is to return to one’s inviolate and eternal reality and to live in God” (New Seeds of Contemplation). This is one of the most exquisite explanations of the Christian concept of salvation that I have ever read.

But for now, for the disciples, there are only questions. In the midst of their confusion they then hear him say, “Where I am going you know the way.” Thomas asks what they all must have been thinking. “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” It would be like telling a friend that you’re going to lunch, and then telling them to meet you there without saying what the restaurant is. But Jesus lets Thomas know it’s a lot more straightforward than they thought. “I am the way,” he answers. The way to the Father’s house is Jesus himself, because “If you know me, then you will also know my Father. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Now it is Philip’s turn to prove his confusion. “Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.” We can imagine the gentleness in Jesus’ voice as he looks at Philip and answers, “Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” There lies the heart of the truth that Jesus wants them to know. He is the mind, the self of God, God’s idea of Godself, now become embodied in a discrete human being, the Son of God. “In the beginning was the Word (Logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:1-3). The Logos of God had chosen the humble Mary as a human mother and become a corporeal Person for our sakes.

So there is no need, Jesus tells his disciples, to be mystified about who the Father is or how to find him. Who Jesus is, he tells his disciples, is who his Father is. They are of the same nature, one in being, Christ begotten from the Father, “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,” in the words of the Nicene Creed.

Redeemer, help us to seek and find you who are the Way, and by coming to know you, know the mind of our Creator. Lead us to your Father’s house, to the place you have prepared for each of us.

Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Keck

The Gate and The Shepherd (John 10:1-10)

Fourth Sunday of Easter

Many of us are familiar with Gospel passages where Jesus speaks of himself as a shepherd. We know the parable he tells of a shepherd who, noticing that one of his hundred sheep has wandered off and gotten lost (as sheep do), leaves the 99 grazing securely in their pasture and looks for the one who has wandered away. Jesus also refers to himself as the Good Shepherd whose sheep know his voice and follow him: “I know my sheep, and mine know me.” This imagery flows from the images of God as shepherd in the Old Testament. Psalm 23 offers perhaps the most famous example: “The Lord is my shepherd…” But in the Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Jesus is the Gate for the sheep.

What does it mean that he is the Gate? “Truly I say to you, whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber. But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.” John goes on to add: “Although Jesus used this figure of speech, the Pharisees did not realize what he was trying to tell them. So Jesus said again, ‘Truly I say to you, I am the gate for the sheep….A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy; I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.'” But in this cluster of metaphor where Jesus is the gate, he is also the shepherd. He says in verse 14, “I am the Good Shepherd. I know my sheep and my sheep know me — just as the Father knows me and I know the Father — and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

If we think of Jesus not as a physical gate that opens and closes, but as the shepherd who is himself the “gate” because it is he through whom the sheep come and go safely each day, he who leads them in and out, then it becomes somewhat easier to conceptualize him as both the gate and the shepherd. But I think there is another meaning at work here as well. Shepherds who are like Jesus — those who enter through him as the gate — are those who are faithful to his call to care for his people in his name. Jesus distinguishes between these true shepherds — such as Peter, to whom he said, “Feed my sheep,” and faithful priests and ministers today — and the thieves and robbers who pillage the sheepfold by breaking into it far away from the gate. These robbers try to steal the sheep and harm them, pretending or assuming that this sheepfold is theirs. But they are violating it; it is not theirs, because they did not enter through Christ.

We know who some of these thieves and robbers are in the text because John tells us that Jesus is directing this metaphor at the Pharisees. Among the Pharisees were many corrupt religious leaders of the time. It is remarkable that the only people toward whom Jesus ever expresses any anger in the Gospels are those who are self-satisfied, without mercy, and corrupt. Into this category fall many of the powerful and those with status, especially Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes, who are supposed to be religious leaders. Instead, many of them have been corrupted by their status and indulge themselves in self-righteousness, legalism to the exclusion of compassion, and lord their power instead of serving the people and showing them the love that comes from God. In every Gospel, Jesus indicts their self-satisfaction, accusing them of placing heavy burdens on others and then not lifting a finger to help them. He sees through their flattering exterior to their interior corruption, telling them that although they think they have no need of God’s mercy and forgiveness, they are in fact a brood of vipers who have placed themselves far away from God and far away from God’s mercy. By their own choice they have closed themselves off to God’s transformative love.

But the fact that they are sinners is not the problem, according to Jesus. He continually poured out compassion for people who, knowing their sins separated them from God and knowing their need for God’s mercy, came to him and always received the purifying mercy and forgiveness that they sought. The problem occurs when a person does not know of their sins because they will not allow themselves to acknowledge any sinfulness. They are too busy taking pride in themselves to recognize any sins that may be theirs. Not acknowledging their human need for God’s mercy and so never experiencing its tenderness, they cannot and do not show that mercy to others. The Pharisees constantly criticize Jesus for spending time with “sinners,” never recognizing that they should have been putting themselves in that group too, and joyfully doing so! If they had, they could have experienced the same restorative compassion that Jesus poured out to the “sinful” woman with the alabaster jar, and to the woman caught in adultery, and to the tax collectors, prostitutes, and all the others who represented sheep in need of their Shepherd.

If those who are to care for people in Jesus’ name will be true shepherds and not thieves and robbers who harm them, they must enter through the Gate who is Christ. That means they must truly know Christ, and be truly known by him. It means being unlike the Pharisees and more like the throngs of people who came to Christ broken in some way and placed themselves in his care, and received more than they ever thought they could. And then they pass all that beauty on to others because they received it from him. The shepherds must have his gentleness. Only then will the people perceive in their voices the voice of the Good Shepherd who loves them.

Redeemer, may I always be willing to come to you, hiding nothing because I know I do not need to hide anything. May I always remember to let you into my heart, so that I may be continually transformed by your gentleness.

Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Keck

They Knew Him in the Breaking of the Bread (Luke 24:13-35)

Third Sunday of Easter

Luke 24:13-35 shows us two of Jesus’ disciples walking along the road to Emmaus, a village about seven miles from Jerusalem, on the very day of the Resurrection. We know that it was a little later on in the day, because these disciples had already heard the unbelievable story from the women who had gone to Jesus’ tomb only to find it empty and to witness an angel informing them of Jesus’ Resurrection. While this was taking place, the apostles were huddled together back in Jerusalem, having heard the same report but still dwelling in fear and uncertainty, until they would see Jesus.

These two disciples on the road to Emmaus kept talking over the strange events of the past few days, when the risen Jesus himself drew near to them on the road and began walking with them. However, “their eyes were held back from recognizing him.” The Greek root translated “recognize” here is epiginosko, which also means “to fully know, perceive, understand.” He was there with them, but they did not perceive him for who he was. One practical theory to explain this is that perhaps Jesus was wearing some kind of a traveler’s cowl that obscured his face, and this was enough to deter them; after all, the disciples had no reason to expect that he would be anywhere in the vicinity in the first place, and they did not even know what to make of the women’s report that he had been raised at all. Another theory is that they could not recognize him because spiritually they were held back somehow, in a kind of spiritual blindness.

Whatever the case, they do not recognize him. He asks them what they were discussing as they look so downcast. “One of them, named Cleopas, said to him in reply, ‘Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know of the things that have taken place in these days?'” It’s not hard to imagine the incredulity in Cleopas’ voice. Jesus claims that he doesn’t know anything about it and asks them to tell him. So they tell him about how the chief priests and rulers in Jerusalem had handed this man called Jesus over to be crucified, and how their hopes were shattered, for they had all thought he would be “the one to redeem Israel.” Yet it had all come to an ostensibly terrible end in crucifixion. “Some women from our group, however,” they went on, “have astounded us.” And they told him of the women’s report and how some of the men had gone to the tomb to see what the women were talking about; the men had found it empty but they had not yet seen Jesus.

Jesus says to them, while they are still unaware of his identity, “How slow of heart you are to believe all that the prophets spoke; was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Still not knowing it is Jesus who is speaking to them, the two disciples continue walking with him as they listen to him interpret everything that refers to him in the Hebrew scriptures, beginning with Moses and then the prophets. Incredibly, they still have not figured out who he is. Now we come to the crux of the story. The hour has grown late and they have finally arrived at Emmaus, and “he gave the impression that he was going on farther. But they urged him, ‘Stay with us, for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over.’ So he went in to stay with them. And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him [again epiginosko, to perceive and fully understand]; and he vanished from their sight.”

It is in the breaking of the bread that he gives to them that they recognize him. At the Last Supper on Holy Thursday, one of his final actions before his arrest, he had broken the bread, given it to them, and told them it was his Body. He was giving himself for them, in a new covenant. This is who he was and is. And he had told them to repeat it when they would come together to remember him. In this action he was giving them the Eucharist, a sign of his mystical Presence, to be given out over and over again to those on Earth until the end of the age. A way for them, and us his followers today and in the future, to experience his Presence as often as we come to it in this concrete and communal experience, until we are with him more closely in heaven. This has been done over and over again, for over two thousand years and counting, every day now, across the world. And most wonderfully, just as in his multiplication of the loaves and fishes to feed the hungry crowd of thousands who had come to see him, he will give and give yet it will never be diminished. He will give himself and his Presence eternally, to everyone who seeks it and as often as they seek it, without diminishment — just as one candle can distribute its flame to an infinite number of other candles, without ever losing any of its own original light and heat and substance. And so when he broke the bread and gave it to the two disciples in Emmaus, that was when they finally fully understood who he was, and their eyes were opened.

What if they had not invited him to come in and stay with them? After all, when the three travelers arrived at Emmaus, the one who was Jesus — never one to force himself on anyone — looked as though he simply intended to leave them with what he had told them about the scriptures and continue on his way. But they, perhaps sensing something special about him, or perhaps simply acting out of neighborly charity as he had taught them all along, invited him to come and stay with them. That turned out to be the only opportunity they had to finally recognize him. What if they had blown it? What if they had thanked him for his interesting conversation and graciously waved him goodbye on his way? They never would have known what they had missed. They had to invite him in first, for he forces himself on no one. We have to invite him in and give him the space to give himself to us.

Luke concludes, “So they set out at once and returned to Jerusalem where they found gathered together the Eleven and those with them who were saying, ‘The Lord has truly been raised and has appeared to Simon!'” [Perhaps that is where he went when he vanished from their sight at the table]. “Then the two recounted what had taken place on the way and how he was made known to them in the breaking of bread.”

Redeemer, may I always take the opportunity to invite you to come and stay with me. May I always be open to receiving what you want to give me.

Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Keck