Homily for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity B 2015 (May 31)

May 23, 2015

Homily for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, Year B 2015 (May 31)

Jewish worship from the earliest times was distinguished from the thought of other nations by the concept of only one God. In our reading today from the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses summarizes this Jewish belief and makes clear to all his people that there is only one God in heaven or on earth, and that there is no other. This was not the common belief of any of the other nations surrounding them, and so while it may be a concept ingrained in us in our society almost from birth, the cultural milieu in which they lived, the writings, the architecture, the art all around them suggested otherwise.  It was so predominate, in fact, that the history of Israel seems to be the history of a people being tempted and succumbing to the belief in other gods.

Moses tells his people that they are a blessed people, set apart. What other nation has been so honored to hear the voice of God, speaking out of fire. What other nation has been adopted by God, and proven to be so honored by signs, wonders, holy war, and terrifying displays of power as when they were led out of Egypt. Finally, this God has promised them a land, and all they need to do is keep his commandments, commandments which made them more civilized, more sensitive to others, and more holy.

The Psalm today then speaks of the love of this God who has chosen us, and how our soul was created to wait for God, how God is our help and protector. This one true God has made himself known in his creation and in his commandments which raise us up, a similar idea to that which Moses spoke to his people.

Since all of this was true and was the oldest tradition of Israel, imagine how upset traditional believing Jews must have felt with the new idea that Jesus was God. It upsets the whole apple cart! Yet, from the very beginnings of Christianity we see this belief that Jesus was indeed God made human. How is this possible? Then it is further complicated, perhaps, by the coming of the Holy Spirit who is also ascribed to be God.

In our second reading from Paul written even before the Gospels we hear the term Spirit of God when Paul says: All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons and daughters of God, and he speaks of the glorification of Christ, a term that refers to a God-like status. And in the Gospels, Matthew today puts it all together when he tells the Apostles to go out baptizing “in the name of the Father, and of the on and of the Holy Spirit.”

This Trinitarian concept has been around since the advent of Christianity despite the fact that it seems to abandon the earliest Jewish beliefs – and these are all Jews who were writing, remember! From earliest times theologians have tried to explain the concept of Trinity and the belief in the one true God. The bottom line: it is really not explainable!  We can get glimpses of ideas about it, and theologians have come up with theories of three persons in one God – and we intact state those beliefs each week in our Creed, but they are really quite inadequate because they are beyond our total comprehension. The best we can probably do is exactly what the earliest disciples did – pray to one God through the terms which Jesus gave us: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Probably not many of us question this because it has been such a part of our Christian heritage, most of us just accept it, realize that it is a mystery, and move on. A few others will contemplate some of the metaphors used in the pst to help our understanding, like the shamrock, perhaps, but it is just that – a small help

So what is important about this Feast today and important to our lives. Jesus once said: No one comes to the Father, except through him. I know that for centuries this has been interpreted as only Catholics get to heaven, but I don’t think it means that at all. I think it means that no one comes to an understanding of the God the Father, except by looking at Jesus and how he lived and what he did and what he said. Jesus is God made visible, so if we look at Jesus carefully and imitate his life to the best of our ability, we can move to be perfect as God is perfect.And what help do we have to do that? The Spirit, first described in the Bible as God’s breath or the wind over the waters, provides the impetus to know God. Again, our Psalm 33 today tells us that “Our soul waits for the Lord”. There is something deep inside each of us that wants to know God, that needs to know God, that aches to understand God and the meaning of life. To know God, we have to know Jesus whose humanity was not just a metaphor but an actuality. He is the example of the human who led a life of perfection. To imitate him is to know God, and it is the best we can do until we die and are able to know God intimately and perhaps even understand the great mysteries which elude us now.

Let us pray that this week’s emphasis on the Trinity in our lives can bring us to living our lives on the road that leads to perfection through imitation of the God-man Jesus, and the through the inspiration and persistency of God’s spirit.

And that is the Good News that was preached from the very beginning of the Christian era of the one, true God, the God of our fathers and mothers.

Bishop Ron Stephens

Pastor of St. Andrew’s Parish in Warrenton, VA

The Catholic Apostolic Church in North America (CACINA)

[You can purchase a complete Cycle A and Cycle B of Bishop Ron’s homilies, one for every Sunday and Feast, from amazon.com for $9.99 – “Teaching the Church Year”]

Homily for the Feast of the Pentecost, Year B 2015 (May 24)

May 17, 2015

Homily for the Feast of the Pentecost, Year B 2015 (May 24)

Last week I spoke about the promises that Jesus made before he left the Apostles and ascended. Those promises were all centre around the coming of the Spirit, a free gift of God to those faithful to Jesus, which would allow them to experience and continue to experience Jesus in their lives.

In Acts today the coming of the Spirit is imaged by violent wind and the appearance of tongues of fire resting on each person. Whether that is a literal image or the best description they could come up with for what had happened, the important thing to note is that it had an affect. It changed the Apostles. The first major change that came about was the ability to speak or be understood in many different languages. It is not made clear whether they actually spoke those languages or the hearts just heard everything in their own languages.

The concept of the spirit of God had been in Jewish writings and beliefs for many years. We read in the Psalm today: “when you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the earth.” If you remember back to Genesis it was the breath or spirit of God that originally blew over and created the earth. The Jews looked forward to a renewal of that original creation.

The coming of the Holy Spirit took place on a Jewish holiday – the Feast of Shavuat or in Greek Pentecost, fifty days after Passover. It came to be associated with the giving of the Torah, the Law, to Moses. On that feast God put his spirit into the two tablets of the Law for his people to follow. Now, at the Christian Pentecost, the Spirit comes into their hearts. There are comparisons with both comings. There was a theophany, or visible manifestation of God at Sinai and in the house at Pentecost. Both had fire – one in the form of a burning bush seen by all, the other as tongues of fire given individually. There were many people – non Jews present after both events, and both were accompanied by many tongues or voices. (See Stern, David H.  Jewish New Testament Commentary, p.221). Another word for Torah is teaching and the Holy Spirit was sent also to teach. If Shavuat is considered the birth of Judaism, Pentecost is often considered the birth of Christianity.

The Gospel reading today, however, gives a different interpretation of the coming of the Holy Spirit by having Jesus breathe on the apostles and saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Most scholars consider this not the Pentecost experience but Jesus preparing them for that experience. John’s Gospel is often different from he Synoptics because his purposes are more theological, coming longer after the others. The purpose here seems to be one of preparation for the power that they were to receive. John does not concern himself with what happens to the Apostles as much as follow what happened to Christ. So he does not include Pentecost but ends with Jesus talking about coming again.

St. Paul today also expounds about the Spirit. He says that without the Spirit, none of us would be able to believe in Jesus. We see the early signs of our understanding of the Trinity also in Paul today. He talks about the Spirit giving many and various gifts, the many and various services we do in Christ’s name, and the activities we carry out in God’s name. But it is one God activating everything. If we are one body in Christ, the Spirit is our life blood coursing through that body to give life and strength to all the limbs.

So the importance of Pentecost for us today is more than just a birthday; it should be a reminder of our unity through the Trinity and through the workings of the Three Persons in One. Being part of that one body, we should not distinguish any member or part of that body being better than any other member. That is why Paul ends with “we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greek, slaves or free. Arguments about priests being better than lay people, men better than women, rich better than poor, different better than same – should have no place in a Christian’s heart. The Spirit unifies us all. And though we may play different parts, just as the function of the heart is different from that of the right arm, we all work together for the wholeness of the body, and we celebrate the health of each part, since it all affects us in some way.

This way of thinking is a different paradigm than we have in modern society. Can we bring our Christian paradigm to the forefront of our own lives, and convince others by our love and care to do the same. That is the challenge of Christians today, and it all began at Pentecost – the Good News that we celebrate at the end of our Easter season.

Bishop Ron Stephens

Pastor of St. Andrew’s Parish in Warrenton, VA

The Catholic Apostolic Church in North America (CACINA)

[You can purchase a complete Cycle A and Cycle B of Bishop Ron’s homilies, one for every Sunday and Feast, from amazon.com for $9.99 – “Teaching the Church Year”]

Homily for the Feast of the Ascension, Year B 2015 (May 14 or 17th)

May 9, 2015

Homily for the Feast of the Ascension, Year B 2015 (May 14 or 17)

In a certain way, today is about saying goodbyes. It is not the seemingly permanent goodbye that we experience when someone dies, but more like the ‘goodbye’ that takes place when you move away to a different state or country and you think you might not see that person or persons again for a long time, if ever.

The Apostles had already said their shocked goodbyes in their hearts to Jesus when he died on the cross and was buried. Getting him back again was a miracle of the highest order and we are told many times how joyful it made them. But it was not to be a permanent stay. The resurrected body was not quite the same as Jesus’ body was before, as we have noted. We teach that heaven isn’t a physical place; Jesus was physical, in that he was seen and touched by the followers, but not physical, in that he could go through walls and appear, and even change or cloak his appearances so he was not known. So his return to the Father is not something that we can quite comprehend. The image we use metaphorically is that heaven is up and the world of the unsaved dead is down, and so Jesus was seen to be lifted up and disappeared.

This story is related to us in all three readings today so it is a story which in itself is so miraculous that all the writers comment on it or tell it.

After getting Jesus back, it must have been very saddening to think that they were going to lose him again, and Jesus knew that.  That is why Jesus is full of promises to them, to make sure that they knew it wasn’t abandonment they were facing, but that he would still be with them, but in a different way. We are told that he had been on earth in his resurrected state for forty days – a number that appears many times in the Bible – forty years in the desert the Jews wandered, Moses sent spies to the Promised Land for forty days, Jonah warned that Nineveh would be destroyed in forty days, Jesus went into the wilderness for forty days. Obviously the number forty had some significance metaphorically. Generally it referred to a testing period or a trial period. The Apostles had been fortified by Jesus for forty days to prepare them for his leaving.

During this time Jesus taught them, and prepared them to take over his ministry. He told them that he would send the Holy Spirit to them. Having the Holy Spirit in them meant that they would be able to do the things that Jesus had done because God was in them. Mark says they would be able to cast out demons, speak in tongues, be unhurt by poisons or snakes, and heal the sick. In other words, they would be given special power. Jesus even uses that word when he says: …you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses…”

So these last forty days had been a time of rejoicing because Jesus was with them and a time of preparation for taking over in order to spread the kingdom of God on earth.

Just a few years later, St. Paul was able to observe all that had been happening since the Ascension, and he says it in such a beautiful way. Paul describes what has happened to the disciples since the coming of the Spirit on them, and he begs them to continue being worthy of those gifts – to live in humility, gentleness and patience, bearing with each other in love to maintain that unity of Spirit. He reminds them that they are all one, just like that vine metaphor that Jesus had used, and they must work together to maintain that strength of being in one Lord, one faith, one baptism, in one God. Then Paul talks about all the gifts that the Spirit had brought them. Their purpose, he reminds them, was not for self-glory, but to build up the body of Christ. Paul doesn’t want them to forget that these wonderful gifts have been given so that they may bring everyone to know Christ as mature Christians, unified in the faith.

So the ‘goodbye’ that we celebrate today, though similar to many goodbyes in our lives, is different. It isn’t just through memory that the person we say goodbye to will be with us, but Jesus will be part of us, inside us, inspiring us, helping us, making us stronger. These are such hopeful sentiments that I think we often take for granted or forget. Jesus didn’t go away. he is right here, and right there [the tabernacle], and when we call on him he can’t but help to hear.

Good News! Yes. And good news that we need to shout to the ends of the earth as we celebrate today his final promise to us – the coming of his Spirit which we will celebrate next Sunday.

Bishop Ron Stephens

Pastor of St. Andrew’s Parish in Warrenton, VA

The Catholic Apostolic Church in North America (CACINA)

[You can purchase a complete Cycle A and Cycle B of Bishop Ron’s homilies, one for every Sunday and Feast, from amazon.com for $9.99 – “Teaching the Church Year”]

Homily for the 6th Sunday of Easter, Year B 2015 (May 10) Mother’s Day

May 2, 2015

Homily for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year B 2015 

Today’s readings, appropriately, are all about love and gifting. I say ‘appropriate’ because when I think of the word ‘mother’, I think about both love and giving.

The love that a mother has for a child is somehow different from that love which a man has for a child, I would imagine. I don’t think a man can feel what it must be like to have a person grow inside of you, to bond for nine months with something that is so integrally a part of oneself. In that sense the birth of the child must be somewhat traumatic when the time comes to rend apart. But what can’t be pulled apart is the intimate feeling of love for that child, so helpless, so needy, but reflecting the mother herself.

I think God must be like that. I know we have mental images of God as the Father, very male, but God is really sexless, and so since the beginning of time Jesus was with God, his transition to a human person, so helpless, so needy, reflected God as well.

I think that is why we can see God as love, and why God is love, and why God has gifted us with Spirit, with grace, with everlasting life, even though we are so mortal and so undeserving – so helpless and so needy.

In the first reading today we read of the gift of the Spirit in the early Christian community. We learn that this gift which comes from love was not just for the Hebrew people who had a testament with God, but was for everyone.  God’s love knows no bounds.

We can sing God a new song because we recognize what God’s son has done for us and we recognize the gifts he has given us. God has indeed done marvelous things, as the Psalm prays today.

The end result of this love and this gifting of God is proclaimed both in the Epistle and Gospel today by John. In the Second Reading John tells us how we need to react to this love of God and the gifts he sent. We are to love one another. It is as simple and as complex as that. We are to love one another. The model for that love is God, the gratefulness we need to show is to reflect that love of God, and the life we need to live is one where love is the abiding factor.

Over and over we are reminded that we did nothing to merit God’s love, and it is not through anything we do that we earn God’s love, but because God’s great love for us, shown by God’s sending his Son to be the atonement for our sins, that we can know about and mimic that love in our own lives.

In the Gospel Jesus says that he loves us, just as the Father loves him, that same intense, unbridled love that we see in mothers, and Jesus teaches us that if we want to continue to live in that state of love with God, we need only keep his commandments willingly.

Jesus says the result of that will be joy. There seems to be so little joy in the world today. I seldom read the paper or watch the news today because the news is never joyous. But Jesus says: “I have said these things so that my joy may be in you, and that your your joy may be complete.

When was the last time you experienced complete joy? Jesus says that we must keep his commands to love God and one another, and by doing so you will achieve complete joy. He doesn’t say when, he doesn’t say how, but he says you will experience it. That is why it is so important to get the priorities of lives straightened out, to forgive others, to be merciful to others, to help others, to show love to others. That is what it is all about. That, according to Jesus, is the meaning of life – devoting ourselves to God and others.

So many philosophers have sought the answer to that question “what is the meaning of life?’ but here we have it in Jesus own words – he tells us how to do it. Will it be easy? Nothing worth having is ever easy. Ask a mother. She will tell you how hard it is sometimes to love unconditionally, but that is what we are directed to by no other than God him or herself.

Think about it. Reflect on it. Act on it.

That is the extremely Good News that answers the most existential of question – why we are here!

Bishop Ron Stephens

Pastor of St. Andrew’s Parish in Warrenton, VA

The Catholic Apostolic Church in North America (CACINA)

[You can purchase a complete Cycle A and Cycle B of Bishop Ron’s homilies, one for every Sunday and Feast, from amazon.com for $9.99 – “Teaching the Church Year”]

Homily for the 5th Sunday of Easter, Year B 2015 (May 3)

April 25, 2015

Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B 2015 (May 3)

In John’s Gospel Jesus often speaks with “I” messages – I am such and such, usually as a metaphor.  We saw last week that he metaphorically described himself as the Good Shepherd, a metaphor that would be part of the every day life of the people he was dealing with. They would have run across shepherds all the time, but in our culture we have probably not run across too many shepherds of late,  although most of us know who they were and what they did.

Today, Jesus gives another “I” message, and also uses something very familiar to the Galileans of that time, and even two centuries later, which might be more applicable to you and me since we are very much in a wine cultivating county here. Jesus says he is the true vine, an interesting metaphor.

But if Jesus is the true vine, what is an untrue vine? If a person were an untrue vine, it would seem to me that they would lead lives that looked righteous and good, but were really not good. If Israel was the untrue vine because it gave all the outward signs of following God and believing in the Scripture, but in the end would not acknowledge Jesus or see Jesus as the Messiah, this might be what Jesus was talking about here. Or not.

Let’s look at the extended metaphor a little more closely. Jesus first says that he is a vine, a true vine. He also states that the grower of the vine, the cultivator of the vineyard is God. The vine grows and has to be pruned. God prunes away branches that bear no fruit. What immediately this suggests to me is that if I am bearing no fruit, God will hack away at me to remove those things that are stopping me from bearing fruit.  This is a really positive message of love and care. It is God tenderly taking care of us and lifting us up and helping us realize what we need to do to get rid of the distractions in our life that cause us not to bear fruit.  Even if we are bearing fruit, we will still have to be pruned in order to make us bear more fruit. We cannot reach perfection in this life, though we can and must try.

What does all this pruning and cutting away mean in our lives? How does God prune us? In order to interpret this we need to make sure that we do this in the context of Jesus’ entire message of unconditional love and faithfulness, and knowing his mercy and grace.

Jesus says that “Every branch that bears fruit, he prunes to make it bear more fruit.” Does this mean he helps us to see the sins in our life, or God forces us to repent for the sins in our life, or just feel more sorry for what we have done? The word “pruning” in Greek is also the same word as for “cleansing”. And if you notice in the very next line, Jesus told us that “You have already been cleansed by the word I have spoken to you.”  Was Jesus contradicting himself?

I am going to prune you, clean you, but then he says, you are already pruned or clean!

Perhaps this is because it is a steady process – we have been made clean by our baptism. We are clean, innocent, sinless, but as life goes on, we do commit transgressions, things that are unworthy of God or Jesus, things that stop us from growing, and so we have to be pruned, made clean again and forgiven. And we know that Jesus is a model of forgiveness, so it should give us great comfort and hope.

The extended metaphor continues and we need to see ourselves as part of the vine of Jesus, getting sustenance from the vine in order to bear fruit. Those who become dead to the vine, who turn away from Jesus and his words will be cut away from the vine and left to wither and be burned. This is not literal, but indicates that apart from Jesus, their lives will not be fruitful and they will be on their own and godless.

I want to say a few words now about “fruit”. What does it mean to bear fruit? Does it mean the eternal goal of being with God after we die? Is being with God the grape, which is rich and ready to be picked? Perhaps. Does it mean learning and applying the Word of God in our lives. Possibly. Does it mean living the kingdom on earth right now – with the two great commandments of loving God and neighbor. Probably.

However, to make it simpler and to be able to apply it to our own lives today St. Paul offers us a definition of fruits of the Spirit in Galatians. He says: …the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness [and] self control. (5:22-23) That list is the list of fruits that we should be developing, growing, producing in our own lives, and Jesus says he is there to help us do just that, pruning away what isn’t that, always with the realization that if we are part of the vine of Jesus, if we are in Jesus, that we are already cleansed and have been pruned, helping us to succeed and bear even more fruit.

And I started today with the word “true” when Jesus said “I am the true vine. John’s letter today picks up on the word truth. We can be great fruit and can accomplish what John begins his Epistle with today: …let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. We can’t just talk about love… we really have to take action and show it. If we do this we will truly abide in Christ through the Spirit that continually prunes and cleanses us, just as the early apostles in Acts today built up peace by living in awe of God and being comforted by the Holy Spirit.

Let us pray today that we can accept the pruning of God in our lives, recognize that we are already cleansed by God and on our way to bearing the fruits that Paul names, thus bringing about the kingdom of God right here and now.

And this is the God News of the allegory of Jesus as the vine!

Bishop Ron Stephens

Pastor of St. Andrew’s Parish in Warrenton, VA

The Catholic Apostolic Church in North America (CACINA)

[You can purchase a complete Cycle A and Cycle B of Bishop Ron’s homilies, one for every Sunday and Feast, from amazon.com for $9.99 – “Teaching the Church Year”]

Homily for the 4th Sunday of Easter, Year B 2015 (April 26)

April 18, 2015

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B 2015

After Pentecost, when the Spirit was directing the Apostles, and giving them the courage and spark they needed to continue to preach Jesus’ teachings and ‘good news’, they were not very welcomed by the establishment. It seems understandable to me, looking at it from the other side of the fence, that the Jewish leaders did not want to hear about anything that would adapt their beliefs or stir up the people to believe in another God – for that was what the followers of Jesus seemed to them to be doing.

So Peter and John were apparently arrested on religious grounds and brought before the men in charge, along with the elders and the scribes. What had them upset was a healing that had taken place, apparently performed by Peter. Their question to Peter is very direct – they want to know what God gave him the power to do this miraculous cure.

Peter is quite straightforward in his reply to them. He said that his cure was merely a good deed done to help someone, and it was not his power that achieved the cure, but it was the name of Jesus of Nazareth. But he also used the word Christ to define Jesus – stating boldly that Jesus was the Messiah.  Then he quotes Jewish Scripture so that they can see the relationship of Jesus to them and how this was all described in Scripture. He quotes the Psalm that we have been singing the last few weeks – describing Jesus as the cornerstone that had been rejected by the builders – the Messiah that the Jewish leaders had rejected. He then states that Jesus, being the cornerstone of salvation is the one that all Hebrews need to recognize if they want to be saved. This last statement would really upset the Jewish establishment for they felt that because they had a covenant with God, there was nothing else needed. But that covenant, though it promised lots of things, did not promise salvation from sin.

The second reading from John’s letter unites us with Jesus because it says that we, too, are children of God, and our inheritance hasn’t yet been revealed to us. It is interesting to note that John expects that we will be like God, seeing God as he is. Some commentators think that John came to this conclusion because in the Old Testament we are told that no one can look at God and live. So, they reason, if we do look at God and live, we have to have been changed in some major way – and that way may be in our resurrected bodies. Just as Jesus had a different type of body after resurrection, so will we, too.

The Gospel today is pre-Easter and is once again about the metaphor of Jesus being the good shepherd.  We have to remember that shepherding was not considered a great job in Jesus’ day, and that many felt that shepherd’s were low and scum. Perhaps that is why Jesus is not just the shepherd, but the good shepherd. Good shepherds, ones who really takes their jobs seriously, will make sure that nothing happens to their flock, even if they put their own lives in danger. He will be the one that will fight the wolf who is attacking the flock, even if it puts his own life at risk.

Jesus calls himself the good shepherd in John. He is willing to die for his flock, his followers. And not just this flock, but he says there are other sheep out there, and he must gather them, and bring them into he protectiveness of his flock, until there is only one shepherd and one flock. The other sheep he is referring to are the Gentiles, and his present flock are the Jews.

Then Jesus makes it clear that he is fulfilling a plan of God’s, and that he is doing it willingly.  There is no plot going on, and he is not being victimized, but is doing this of his own accord and free will, because the Father has asked it of him. In John, Jesus also knows that something awaits after he gives up his life. He doesn’t yet term it resurrection, though he will, but he says: I lay down my life in order to take it up again. And that taking up, seems to refer here to the mission of bringing in the other sheep into the fold of Israel. And this, of course brings us back the first reading because that was what the Apostles were doing throughout the Acts of the Apostles as they opened up Jesus to the non-Jews, the Gentiles.

What can we apply to our own lives today? If we are truly following the wishes of Jesus, at least in regards to what we read today, we will continue to try to be examples through the Spirit of what it means to be a good Christian, and allow others to see our light. Not many of us are ready to go door to door or to proclaim on street corners today, but i truly believe in the phrase – They’ll know we are Christians by our love. If in all our dealings, we can be a reflection of Christ, people will see it and be attracted by it. And if the Spirit gives you the courage to invite others to join us, to celebrate with us, all the better. If it is through the name of Jesus that we can be saved, then we need to believe that with our whole heart and soul and act on it.

And this is the Good News that we need to reflect on and preach in our daily actions and lives.

Bishop Ron Stephens

Pastor of St. Andrew’s Parish in Warrenton, VA

The Catholic Apostolic Church in North America (CACINA)

[You can purchase a complete Cycle A and Cycle B of Bishop Ron’s homilies, one for every Sunday and Feast, from amazon.com for $9.99 – “Teaching the Church Year”]

Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Easter, Year B 2015 (April 19)

April 11, 2015

Homily for the Third Sunday of Easter, Year B 2015

The history of the relationship between the Jewish people and the early Christian Jews is an interesting and tragic one. We know that Jesus was a devout Jew as were almost all his followers. Yet, by the second century, the Christians had pretty well pulled away from their Jewish roots and made the Jews out to be the villains. It was I suppose somewhat inevitable, especially since the church came to be made up of more Gentiles or non-Jews than of those with Jewish backgrounds.

We can certainly see it happening in the Gospel of Luke today. Luke is the only non-Jewish writer in the New Testament and his sympathies throughout his Gospel and certainly in the Acts of the Apostles, his continuation of the Gospel shows signs of this.

In the first reading today we have Peter addressing his fellow Jews, trying to convert them. already though in Luke’s description and in the speech he has written for Peter, you can see an I versus them attitude. Peter begins with their common ground – they all have the same God – they share the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the patriarchs. But then his speech changes to a rather damning “you”… even though he is one of the Jews himself. “You handed over… you rejected…you asked to have a murderer handed over…you killed…” Luke has already had Peter separate himself from his Jewish heritage.

Peter tells them that they acted in ignorance. They just didn’t know or didn’t understand what they were doing. That was true. Jesus himself said the same thing on the cross. And Peter rather justifies their ignorance by saying that it was, in fact, a rather good thing, because it allowed God to fulfill what he had promised through the prophets. Peter the hopes that ‘they” will repent so that there sins will be forgiven.

The second reading from John picks up this theme of forgiveness of sin and sets up the atonement theology which the Church has understood ever since. Christ was the atoning sacrifice for our sins, in fact, the sins of the whole world. This was the gift of God – that we were forgiven, but it also involves acting on that forgiveness – in gratitude we are to keep the word of God, the twofold command to love God and neighbor – and in doing so, we will know that we are in God.

To understand atonement and sacrifice we need to look again at our Jewish heritage when every year an animal would be killed – a scapegoat – representing all our sins and sinfulness – and offering to God. That understanding which was part of the Jewish ritual allowed early Christians to see Jesus as that scapegoat – that lamb – who being sacrificed could take away the sins of the world – something we say three times at every Mass.

That is why in the Gospel reading today Jesus makes such a point in teaching the disciples on the road to Emmaus what Jewish scriptures were actually saying. In turn, it tells us why Jewish Scriptures are still so important to us. Jesus, in this reading, speaks particularly about the prophets and the psalms and he taught them how he was the fulfillment of all of the prophecies and of the law. His final words take us back to t he common thread of all three readings which is forgiveness. Jesus says: “Thus it is written, that the Christ is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations…” This is what is meant by Good News!

I know that in the past some of us have not felt the teachings of the Church were always very good news for us. Like the Pharisees in Jesus’ time, we often get bogged down in detail and add rule upon rule, losing sight of the frighteningly beautiful news that we are forgiven…God forgives us…over and over….over and over. We have only to repent, to try to turn around. We don’t deserve this. It is God’s gift to us, and so we need to give back to God by trying our best to “be perfect as the Father is perfect”. The end result of all this is what Jesus says each time he appears “Peace be with you.” When we know there is unconditional love supporting us, and some of us have seen that in our own parents and in ourselves toward our children, we can feel at peace about ourselves and the world even in troubling times.

Too often we forget the Good News, but we can’t let that happen. It needs to be central in our hearts and in our actions.  Each week, as you have probably noticed by now, I try to find a way to remind you of the Good News because I feel it is central to our religion and needs to be central in our lives. It brings joy, it brings peace, it brings happiness, it brings hope in a too troubled life.

So that is yet another reminder of the good news of the Good News I bring you again his week.

Bishop Ron Stephens

Pastor of St. Andrew’s Parish in Warrenton, VA

The Catholic Apostolic Church in North America (CACINA)

[You can purchase a complete Cycle A and Cycle B of Bishop Ron’s homilies, one for every Sunday and Feast, from amazon.com for $9.99 – “Teaching the Church Year”]

Homily for the 2nd Sunday of Easter, B 2015

April 5, 2015

Homily for the Second Sunday of Easter, Year B 2015

In our first reading today we get a description of what was going on in the church not long after the Resurrection event. This reading also takes place after Jesus’ ascension and after Pentecost, so we see a real change in the Apostles. We note that they are quite involved in doing two things, teaching and Eucharist. Both involved what is translated as fellowship, because as I have indicated to you the early Christian church was not a private devotion but was very much communal. Interestingly the work for teaching in the Greek is the same word as for Torah which would indicate that they were teaching from what we now call the Old Testament and putting a “Jesus twist” on it. The Eucharist or what we have come to call the Mass was known as “the breaking of bread”. Bread was the staple of every Jewish household, and since meat was expensive, often he meals contained no meat. So the breaking of bread became synonymous with the whole meal. For example, saying the blessing over the bread meant the blessing of the meal. So again, community was important as they ate together, but this was more than just a meal as it involved prayer, and obviously the memory of the Passover meal before Jesus’ death.

The community aspect was also seen in the fact that they held things in common, perhaps what we would call a commune today, sharing resources, and making sure none of the group was in need. They also retained their Jewish faith, something that we often forget, and the early church, according to our reading today “spent much time together in the temple”. There was not a separation of Jew and Christian at this point, but they were a sect of Jews who acted a little differently because of their belief in Jesus. Because of the “wonders and signs” that they were performing, the life style they were leading and the obvious care and concern they had for each other, their numbers started to grow.

Now some theologians and historians feel that this is a very technicolored canvas that Luke was writing on, that things probably weren’t as rosy as this reading makes it out to be, and that may be true. We tend to remember what we want to remember and gloss over problems when we are trying to show our good side to people. In any case, the concept of solidarity in teaching, and the need for community in worship and in living were the general principles on which Christianity became based. Christ was indeed the cornerstone as the psalm says today. And note that it wasn’t so much about the worship of Christ but the spread of Jesus’ teachings and living the life he had recommended they lead.

St. Peter’s letter today is a little less brightly colored. He does talk about some of the harder things about following Jesus, although he indicates that it is well worth the struggles and that the community rejoices still in the revelations of Christ. He tells us that the early Christians had to suffer various trials, but that suffering could be good. Just as we put gold through fire to rid it of its impurities, so too, the Christian suffers to get to that pure, holy, sacred place in our lives. Peter is writing a few years after the ascension and the Christians he is writing to had apparently never seen Jesus in his lifetime, and they were taking this on faith. Peter is very impressed that their faith has made them so loving, so joyous because they seem to have really understood the message of salvation. Peter has obviously done a good job teaching them.

This idea of belief without sight is again highlighted in our Gospel reading today which takes us back to the time immediately after the Resurrection when the Apostles were terribly confused, did not know what repercussions the Resurrection might bring, fearful of the Jewish group that was anti-Jesus, and in fact, not at all sure whether the stories they were hearing of Jesus’ rising from the dead were actually true.

Their confusion ceases when Jesus appears to them in the room though the doors were locked. They recognized the wounds from his crucifixion and were convinced that their Lord had been raised and returned to them. Jesus wishes them “Peace”, a traditional greeting but a meaningful one in the context of their fear. In this version of the story by John, Jesus mandates the forgiveness of sins as something that the Apostles could do through the work of the Holy Spirit. He creates on them – the first confirmation!

The John returns to the idea that faith is more than seeing is believing.

The apostle Thomas had not been in the room that day for some reason. When he came back – from shopping perhaps – and was told that Jesus had appeared, he didn’t believe them. He wanted to see for himself, through his sensual experience that this was really Jesus and not some figment of their imagination.

Jesus makes a return visit and shows Thomas his wounds, even asking Thomas to touch them and see the reality of it. Thomas, of course, does, but the oft quoted line of Jesus comes right after: Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.

This line is, of course, very important, because as time would march on, and the eye witnesses all died, everyone at that point would have to come to faith and belief without seeing for themselves the physical body of Jesus. Other things may have taken the place of that for a few – healings, witnessing of love, being filled with the Spirit – but Jesus has told them that their belief, without seeing, makes them more blessed than Thomas and the Apostles.

So what Jesus is talking about today, my friends, is us. We are the generations who have come to believe without the proof of our senses. Why do we believe and so many others don’t? Some of us were born to families who believe, and so it was part of our upbringing perhaps. Some of us have studied and read and have come to belief, but in all cases it was with the help of the Spirit. I don’t think we can accept all this just by ourselves. I think the Spirit has gifted us with that ability to believe. Not that we never question, but that deep down we see the truth and the light and the beauty that Jesus’ teaching have opened up for us.

Let us today thank God for our blessings, especially the blessing of our belief. This is indeed Good News, and we need to celebrate it as often as we can!

Bishop Ron Stephens

Pastor of St. Andrew’s Parish in Warrenton, VA

The Catholic Apostolic Church in North America (CACINA)

[You can purchase a complete Cycle A and Cycle B of Bishop Ron’s homilies, one for every Sunday and Feast, from amazon.com for $9.99 – “Teaching the Church Year”]

Homily for Easter Sunday, The Resurrection of the Lord, 2015

March 29, 2015

Homily for Easter Sunday, The Resurrection of the Lord, 2015

St Paul in 1st Corinthians tells us, though not in the readings today: “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” Those are pretty strong words and certainly in Paul’s eyes make the Resurrection of Jesus one of, if not ‘the’ most important event in church history, and indeed in the history of the world. The resurrection is also the one thing that many people find difficult if not impossible to believe – it is a terrible stumbling block especially in this scientific age where we need to have proof before belief.

In reality, I am not sure that Paul is totally correct. I have a feeling that there are many people out there who take the resurrection with a  grain of salt and yet still have great faith in Jesus. The reason that Paul thinks it is so important is because his whole theology hinges on the Jewish idea of sacrifice for atonement of sin and that only in God’s own death can enough atonement be made. The resurrection shows that indeed Jesus was up to the task because he was truly the Son of God. In today’s reading Paul concludes: “For our Paschal lamb has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the festival…”

Paul also uses the image of yeast but we have to understand that yeast was not really a good thing for Jews. Yeast was a fungus, and for bread to be pure, it needed to be unleavened. That is why in the Passover feast the bread was unleavened by order of God, and even why we use unleavened bread at Mass (though often what we use looks more like a potato chip that what we are used to as ‘bread’. So in the image Paul uses today, we are to throw out the old bread that has the yeast fungus which in Paul’s metaphor means wickedness and bad intentions, and celebrate with pure, unleavened bread, Paul’s metaphor for sincerity and truth.

The facts of the Resurrection as we know them are contained in Paul’s letters and in some of the Gospels, and particularly in the Acs of the Apostles by Luke. Our first reading today is a news report of sorts, with the eye witnesses telling us that God raised Jesus from the dead and that he was seen by a chosen few after the Resurrection event and that they even ate and drank with him. The eye witness reports were obviously important in pleading their case for this very unnatural event.

When we get to John’s Gospel today, we read a description that was written some forty to fifty years after the event, and has been influenced by the original witnesses surely, but also the stories that built up around Jesus in those fifty years. In that period of time and with communities in different locations it is no wonder that a few of the ‘facts’ differ int he Resurrection accounts, but they are still remarkably similar. In John’s account it was Mary Magdalene that got up very early, before light even, and went to the tomb. She saw that the stone blocking the entrance had been removed. She must have peeked in because she ran immediately to Peter and another disciple and told him the tomb was empty and the body had likely been moved or stolen. The two men she told ran to the tomb, the younger getting there first, but in deference to Peter he did not go in, but merely looked inside from the door.

What he saw were the white linens in which Jesus’ body had been wrapped still lying there.

When Peter came and they both went in, the also found that someone had taken the time to fold the linen that had been on Jesus’ head.

Apparently, however, they still never thought about Jesus being resurrected, even though they had been told by Jesus that he would rise again, and that Scriptures had foretold this as well. The two men went home but Mary Magdalene, upset that she didn’t know where the body was so that she could mourn, stayed at the tomb and cried. Someone came to her – it may still have been dark even – and asked why she was crying. She turned to the man and told him why but didn’t recognize Jesus. She thought he might be the gardener and would know where they took the body. When the stranger called out her name, she immediately recognized Jesus, and apparently fell on her knees and wrapped herself around Jesus legs. Jesus asks her not to hold on to him. It seems that the resurrected body is somewhat different from the ordinary body, and we will explore this fact over the next few weeks as we see that people sometimes do not recognize him, that he can come and go at will, even through walls, and can move great distances. Yet, at the same time he can be touched, he can eat and drink, and he has still the wounds from his crucifixion. It is also interesting to me that the person he first shows himself to is a woman, and that she is the messenger to bring the Good News to the apostles, just as Mary, Jesus’ mother, is the first to answer Gabriel’s message and feel the child in her womb, and brought the Good News into the world. It is clear to me that women are the bookends that hold the story of Jesus together.

This day is the day we have been preparing for for 40 days. After a fast, food tastes especially good.  If you have done things to prepare yourself, this day should especially feel good for you as well. It is our yearly reminder of one of the most important events in the life of Jesus and the church, and foreshadows our own resurrections from the dead.

The Sequence today summarizes what should be our feelings beautifully: Share the Good News, sing joyfully: His death is victory… Christ the Lamb has saved the sheep!

This is the Good News that we all share in today! Rejoice and be glad!

Bishop Ron Stephens

Pastor of St. Andrew’s Parish in Warrenton, VA

The Catholic Apostolic Church in North America (CACINA)

[You can purchase a complete Cycle A and Cycle B of Bishop Ron’s homilies, one for every Sunday and Feast, from amazon.com for $9.99 – “Teaching the Church Year”]

HOMILY FOR THE EASTER VIGIL, YEAR B 2015

March 29, 2015

HOMILY FOR THE EASTER VIGIL, YEAR B 2015

It is not hard to see the both the importance and the beauty of this evening’s ceremony. in some ays it is the most rich and the most beautiful of all the liturgies in the Catholic Church. All our senses get involved in the service, and the symbols reflect that sensuality: images of light and darkness, reflected in the fact that we enter church in darkness and gradually the light of Christ in the Easter candle spreads throughout the church. Incense can add the sense of smell, or the burning wood as we prepare the Easter fire. Our sense of touch is involved as we hold the candles and become ourselves light for the world. Our hearing is enriched by the glorious song of the Exulted, the psalms and the many readings that take on on the journey through time from Creation, through the Exodus, through the Prophets and into the fulfillment that is Christ Jesus. And we conclude by tasting our Lord in wine and bread as we become one with him in his Resurrection.

We use also the symbol of water, remembering our baptismal rite and we are doused again in the waters of baptism, remembering the journey through the Red Sea to salvation and liberation.

In our poster this Lent that invited people to our Holy Week services we asked you to come and spend a Liberating week with us, and so i would like to say a few words about liberation as well.

This week we have seen that through the death of Jesus we have been liberated, freed from our sinfulness by a gift so generous and amazing that it is hard to believe. God so loved us that he gave his only Son. He didn’t have to do it, he didn’t have to do it this way. But he did. He loved us so much that he took away our slavery to sin and opened the gates of the kingdom for us. St. Paul explains this evening that “we have been buried with [Christ] by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, … we too might walk in the newness of life.” This is our liberation – that “we might no longer be enslaved to sin… death no longer has dominion…”  The sheer enormity of this event, this act of liberation sometimes fades into something we take for granted, but each year on this night, we hopefully get some sense of the awe that that should inspire in us, the hope it should generate, and make us feel that love that generated such a response from God.

St. Mark’a Gospel, unlike the other Gospels, ends the Easter event with the women fleeing from the empty tomb in amazement and terror – and in fear  They had not yet understood what had happened, they could not yet feel the liberation they were soon to feel. But they did feel! Awe and amazement are striking emotions! The event of he Resurrection had not yet come clear to them and in their fear they did not know what to do, so they did nothing.

I think that for many of us, the implications of the Resurrection create the same response in us. because we have not truly felt or understood the enormity of this event, we do nothing – it doesn’t affect us in any way. We so need to meditate on this event, and to discover along with the travelers to Emmaus, the apostles as they came to slow realization, St. Paul as he saw the light and countless Christians who changed their lives because they finally understood the enormity of this liberation.

I pray this evening that all of our parishioners, those here present and those not with us, come to feel and know the enormity of God’s love, and the amazing richness of the gift God has given us, so that we can have a private Easter in our own lives, and come to God with awe and thanksgiving. Our secular culture has made Easter a bunny rabbit day and a coming of Spring celebration rite, and are so missing the point of the liberation. I was so saddened when I googled Easter images on line to see if i could find some pictures to use, and all i got were flowers, rabbits and eggs. No sign of Jesus at all. How sad.

Let us definitely put Christ back into the Easter of our lives, see the movement through history to this remarkable day, and come to it with great gratitude for our liberation from sin and death. And a truly enlightened Easter to all of you!

This is the tremendous Good News of liberation we bring you tonight!

Bishop Ron Stephens

Pastor of St. Andrew’s Parish in Warrenton, VA

The Catholic Apostolic Church in North America (CACINA)

[You can purchase a complete Cycle A and Cycle B of Bishop Ron’s homilies, one for every Sunday and Feast, from amazon.com for $9.99 – “Teaching the Church Year”]


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