Archive for May, 2014

Homily for the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord, Year A 2014

May 25, 2014

Homily for the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord, Year A  2014

The Feast of the Ascension is one of the five major feasts of the Church year. It occurs in two Gospels and, more fully, in the Acts of the Apostles that we read today. Comments about its celebration exist from the 4th Century.  However, It has always presented some theological problems for me. I used to wonder, even as a child, that if bodies were taken up to heaven, as we profess that Jesus’ was and Mary’s was, certainly, then heaven must be a place. Yet, I was being taught that heaven was a state of being. So how could a body exist there? Did it need to eat and drink? Heavy questions for a child!

As I grew older, this became even more of a problem as I learned that the Biblical and medieval view of the three-tiered universe obviously didn’t exist as described. To me, it remains a mystery, one that I haven’t been able to figure out, but it is part of our Creed, so the most I can do is look for clues in the Gospels and Acts which help me understand its meaning for us today.

The Ascension joins together the work Jesus did on earth and his work as exalted high priest in heaven. Redemption has happened and Christ returns to the Father and we have been redeemed. The Gospel of John particularly uses the imagery of the lifting up on the cross and Jesus being lifted up to heavenly glory after sending the Spirit to remain with us. John has Jesus tell us that he is going away to prepare a place for us, and that it is good that he does – for if he goes away, he can send the Spirit to us. As we know he does this 10 days later on the feast we celebrate next Sunday – Pentecost.

The bookend readings of Acts and Matthew today are both important. The Acts we read today is the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles. Luke tells that he is writing to a person, Theophilus, though it may not be a person since that name Theophilus means ‘lover of God’, and it could be a word that describes any new Christian.  The first book he mentions is his Gospel, the Gospel of Luke, and Luke says he wrote that to tell the reader all that Jesus did from his birth to his ascension, and what instructions he had given to his disciples to carry on. Luke tells us that he wanted the Apostles to remain in Jerusalem where they would be baptized by the Holy Spirit. 

The Apostles, despite everything that happened, still did not understand that the Messiah was not going to be a political leader who would restore Israel to self-government. When Jesus spoke of the ‘kingdom’, that was still the kingdom they were thinking he must have meant. It had been ingrained in Jewish thought that the Messiah, the Savior, would be the conquerer, so the Apostles ask Jesus if this is the time that he will restore the kingdom to Israel. Note, however, that Jesus doesn’t correct them, and in fact implies that Israel will become free again, by simply saying that the Father has all that in control and nobody knows when it will happen. The implication is that it will happen because that is one of the truths of the Old Testament, part of the original covenant God made with Israel and we know God keeps his end of the bargain.

But Jesus adds to that that the Spirit will give them a new power and through that power they would be able to witness him to the ends of the earth. Matthew’s Gospel today expands on this very theme. The 11 apostles go up to a mountain that Jesus has asked them to climb, and there he appeared to them. Most knelt and worshipped him but some were still doubtful apparently. Jesus tells them – his last words, and the last words of the Gospel of Matthew – “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”  So the first part of this final speech of Jesus in Matthew is really saying the same thing as Luke in Acts. The disciples were to go out and witness – that is teach what Jesus had taught and commanded us to do.

The very last line of Matthew deserves special attention though, and the second reason why we are to be joyful about Jesus leaving us – “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” How can Jesus both leave us and be with us? 

One way, of course, is in the Eucharist – that special gift that he gave us. This is our Catholic belief in the real presence of Jesus in the bread and wine. But there are other ways he is present as well. The Constitution on the Liturgy in Vatican II puts it succinctly and beautifully: 

“Christ is always present to His Church, especially in liturgical actions. He is present in the Sacrifice of the Mass in the person of the priest; ‘He is the same one, now offering by the ministry of priests, who then offered Himself on the Cross [citing the Council of Trent].’ But He is most greatly present under the Eucharistic species. He is present by His power in the Sacraments, so that when anyone baptizes, Christ Himself baptizes. He is present in His word, for He speaks when the Sacred Scriptures are read in the Church. He is present, finally, when the Church prays and sings the Psalms, He who promised ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst'”(Matthew 18:20)

At this point Jesus was lifted up – this could be metaphorical or Biblical reference (note our Psalm today – “God has gone up with a shout”) – but more important, a cloud took him out of their sight. In other words he disappeared into a cloud. The disciples gaze up perhaps to see where he went, perhaps to worship, when angels tell them to stop staring, get to work and that Jesus will come back again someday in the same cloudy way.

The story has meaning despite whether we can understand its mystery or not. We know that Christ is always with us, will return someday the same way he left, will send and now has sent the Spirit to us so that God and He can be within us, and that he will give us power to follow his word and teach others to do the same. That is our Christian hope, our Christian faith, and our Christian joy! As St. Paul puts it today: “[God] seated him at his right hand in heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion” and we, the Church, are now his physical body – he resides in us as well.

When we leave the walls of this church this Sunday, we need to recognize that we carry Christ within us, and that we are witnesses, signs, to all the world of that twofold Christian command to love God and love each other. How do we achieve that, how do we integrate that into our daily lives, how do we become Christ for others in our daily journey to the kingdom? 

That is the Good News that challenges each and every day of our lives, and that I leave you to ponder today and all this 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 of Bishop Ron’s homilies, 75 of them, from amazon.com for $9.99 – “Teaching the Church Year”]

Homily for the 6th Sunday of Easter, Year A 2014

May 18, 2014

Homily for the  6th Sunday of Easter, Year A  2014

As we rapidly approach the Feast of Pentecost, the event that Jesus promised the Apostles would happen and would complete his mission on the earth, the readings we have today all concern themselves with the Spirit. In our first reading today, as we continue through the history of the early Church in the Acts of the Apostles, Luke gives us what we would consider evidence today for the sacrament of confirmation.  As you know, the sacrament of confirmation is the full receipt of the Holy Spirit that traditionally comes for a person that has been baptized as a child, when the child reaches the age of reason and has the ability to choose to follow his or her faith.  With adults the sacrament of Confirmation usually accompanies Baptism.  In the story we are told today, we hear about the preaching of the disciple Philip that brings about the beginning of the Samaritan church. Philip obviously makes a great impression on the Samaritan people who seemed to be quite eager to hear his message to them. Along with his preaching there were many miracles and healings that took place which convinced many of the people there to accept the word of God that Philip was preaching. Philip apparently baptized a great number of the Samaritans.  It is interesting if you remember here that the Samaritans were considered enemies of the Jews, even though they believed in the same God and followed the same Scriptures. It would have been quite an event for people considered sinners and enemies to become part of the emerging Christian communities. It shows us how accepting we need to be in our own church today.

After this event, the Apostles Peter and John went to the Samaritans to pray for them, laying hands on them and allowing them to receive the fullness of the Holy Spirit. We still use this model today when we ask the local Bishop or his representative to come and confirm at each parish.

The Second Reading from First Peter also is about the Spirit. The author is concerned with giving suffering some meaning, because many of the followers of Christ were being persecuted at this time. Peter suggests that if one suffers even though they are doing good works or for being a Christian then they become part of the sacrifice that happened for us when Christ suffered and died. They are able to join in with his suffering, suffering that leads to something good or something better. Peter says we are not to be afraid to profess our faith and our hope, and that we should be gentle and reverent in preaching the Good News. The last lines of this section bring us to the Spirit. Peter says that Jesus was put to death in the flesh but was made alive in the spirit. The Spirit is Jesus alive with us today. The Spirit works with us, through us and is in us.

This is the Spirit that Jesus today in John’s Gospel calls the Advocate. An advocate is someone who pleads for another in court or who intercedes for others when they can’t speak for themselves. This theologically dense section of the Gospel today is the best description we have of the working of the Holy Spirit. Jesus first indicates that he himself is our advocate to the father in heaven. He has taken the case of men and women and pleaded to the Father. Because he cannot be with us forever, since his advocacy involves dying for us, God the father will send another Advocate who will always be with us till the end of time.  Jesus tells the Apostles that this advocate will be the Spirit of truth, and will be someone that the world does not understand because it cannot know the Spirit. Once again the will of God is not like our own. The world neither sees the Spirit or knows it.

But Jesus tells the Apostles that they will know the Spirit because the Spirit will come to them, be in them, and abide with them. Jesus knows that he must leave the Apostles physically, but he does not want to abandon them – to leave them orphans. 

He and the Spirit are one and so through the Spirit Jesus will be with us. In worldly terms, Jesus will not be physically present and the world will not see him, but he tells the Apostles that they will see him, and because he live-in the Spirit, they will live also. The we have the beautiful sentence which ties the Trinity to us: “On that day you will know that i am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” God will be present in each of us. We are indeed temples of the Lord.

Finally, Jesus stresses and re-iterates his law of love. We love Jesus by carrying out  his double commandment of loving God and neighbor. Because of that love, God will also love us and Jesus will reveal himself to us. This is really a high theology that John is describing, hard to understand in human, earthly terms, but in spiritual terms is so hopeful, so beautiful, so loving. 

Next week we will celebrate the Ascension of the Lord – the moment when Jesus goes back to the father and sits at his right hand. After just a few days in our time, the Spirit, promised by Jesus, will be present for the first time as the Apostles receive it at Pentecost. All the readings today look forward to that event as we near the end of our Easter season. This week let us look at how we are able show our love of God and neighbor, find ways to show that love and prepare for the two great feasts that are soon coming.

Let us continue to celebrate and hear this Good News as we approach the birthday of the Church, the coming of God’s Spirit to us.

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 of Bishop Ron’s homilies, 75 of them, from amazon.com for $9.99 – Teaching the Church Year”]

Homily for the 5th Sunday of Easter, Year A 2014

May 11, 2014

Homily for the 5th Sunday of Easter, Year A  2014

I have always admired this section of the Gospel of John we read today, and, in a way, wished that the name the early church had given to themselves – the followers of the Way – had stuck. All of us are on a life’s journey and there are so many different paths to follow. Through sin, the path to God had been blocked – the bridge was out – so God wanted to find a way to open the way again, and he did it by becoming one of us, and through his death and resurrection opened up the path for us again. Jesus gives us a path to follow, shows us a path to follow, and John reminds us that Jesus, himself, is the path – the way. And if we follow the path or the way of Jesus, we will eventually get to his Father’s house where there will be room for everyone, and Jesus himself will have prepared our guest room for us.

This is such a hopeful theology presented in such a brief passage. “ I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” Jesus is the way to God, and possessing God we will know all truth, and we will have eternal life. Although Jesus was trying to instill hope, the poor apostles didn’t quite get it. They seldom do in the Gospels. Thomas, who we already know is a doubter, is probably thinking in moment-to-moment terms when he asserts – “We don’t know where you are going”.  He is probably questioning whether they are on their way to Jerusalem or to the next town or to Samaria. Jesus’ vision is the journey to God the Father.

Have you ever wondered at what point the Apostles had their eyes opened and were able to figure out that Jesus was actually God? We have a lot of people today who insist he was just a man like another man, that there was no divinity in him, that he may have been a great man, but hardly a God! John’s Gospel was written, we believe, some 50 years after the death of Jesus. In those 50 years from Pentecost, when their eyes were truly opened by the Spirit and they began to understand, the theology – the question – of Jesus’ identity – was one of the first things that the believers began to grapple with. By the 90’s, we can see in the Gospel of John that they had grappled with the question, so the identification of Jesus with God was pretty complete. In the passages today, after Philip asks Jesus to show them God the Father, Jesus, through the words of John, very clearly indicates that he is God. “You know God, because you know me.” He adds, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.”

The statement “No one comes to the Father except through me” needs, I think, to be taken in that context. I don’t think Jesus is saying that only Christians will get to heaven here; I think this statement means that since Jesus is God, if you are following Jesus, you are on the path to God, following God. There may be other paths that lead to God as well – I don’t think he is ruling that out here, but Christians can be sure of where their path leads. Maybe that is why there are so many room there waiting for us!

All of these statements are pretty revolutionary in their thinking, and you can see how a Jew might be upset that a man is identifying himself with God. We often lock up people today who think they are God. But most revolutionary are the final words of the passage, and those words that are applicable to us today. “The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and in fact, will do greater works than these…” Can we really believe that we are able to do greater works than God can! And yet that is what Jesus tells us. Perhaps it is because God has taken on humanity that he has limited himself. Perhaps it is because of the “I am the vine – you the branches” allegory that he has used just previous to this passage, that we can do unimaginable things because we are part of the vine, part of God…. but how wonderful that we can assist in the actions of God, partake of the works of God, create as can God, and do even greater things than Jesus himself did. That is why our prayer life is so important – remember Jesus did these miraculous things by always prefacing them with prayer to God. Why we have seen so many cures, remissions and comfort as a result of our combined parish prayers. That is why we can feed 20,000 people in a few hours of work. Isn’t that rather like the loaves and fishes – and Jesus only fed 5000 that day!!

From the earliest times of Christianity, as we saw in our first reading from the Acts, Christians were doing such works of charity and feeding the poorer members of their communities – so much so that they had to organize a bit better, and get some help. Deacons were created so that more people could be served. Already, in earliest times, the concerns of Jesus were being met and greater things were happening.

So what I really would like us to consider today is how can I contribute to the work of the church?  How can I do ever greater works than we already do. Jesus has not set any limits on this – he has simply said that we will do greater works than he did. Please keep this in mind and set goals for yourselves. As Peter told us today in his epistle: You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness and into his marvelous light. Let’s continue to let our light shine in the things we do, and aspire do even greater things. Let’s dream it and do it!

And this is the Good News that Jesus leaves us with today!

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 of Bishop Ron’s homilies, 75 of them, from amazon.com for $9.99 – Teaching the Church Year”]