Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

Homily for the 34th Sunday in Ordinary Time- Christ the King of the Universe, Year B 2015 (Nov. 22)

November 15, 2015

Homily for the Thirty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time- Christ the King, Year B 2015 (Nov. 22)

Our theme today is best expressed in the Responsorial Psalm antiphon: “The Lord is King; he is robed in majesty”. This last Sunday of the church year we look at the now and at the future when the kingdom of heaven, here now but veiled, will be seen in all its glory as the King of the kingdom of heaven comes to claim his throne – a throne that will be everlasting and that shall never be destroyed. It is the same kingdom of heaven that the Gospels tells us about over and over.

We start with Daniel’s dream six hundred years before Christ. He uses the term “son of man.” The term “the Son of Man” is a Biblical term that we hear a lot in the Gospels and in a sense it just means “a human being”, someone born of a human. The term is used a great many times in the Gospels, and it has been suggested that it is just a poetic way of saying “myself”.  If you google the term it will tell you that interpretation of this term, son of man, has been divided and there is no one agreed-upon answer to what it means.

It first appears in the Book of Daniel, but it is specified there for the person coming with the clouds of heaven is one “like” a son of man. Looking backwards into the Bible, for Christians, this is an obvious reference to Christ who is both human and divine. He is the son of man, meaning a human being, but he is also Son of God, which allows him to come with the clouds of heaven and be given dominion, glory and kingship. To me, this is an early reference to Christ as an incarnated God. Whether we completely understand the term or not, however, it is clear that Daniel’s vision today is one where this heavenly human was made by God king of all peoples, and that he should be served by all nations, all peoples, in all languages. This was the vision of Daniel hundreds of years before the coming of Christ. It was a vision that came true.

When we get to the New Testament we hear the terms ‘son of man’ and ‘son of God’ quite often.

The kingship of Jesus was something that the Gospel writers  and Paul talked about and tried to prove often in their writings. It also had messianic overtones because the Hebrews believed through the prophets that there would be a great king to rise up from the line of King David who would save them by conquering all other lands. He would be the king of kings. While all of this came true, it didn’t happen in the way that they thought. There was no armed King who would conquer lands and lead them through war and revolution to this new kingdom.

Instead, they got a different kind of king, but a king no less. The last book of the Bible, Revelations, is particularly appropriate for reading today because it is all about endings – the ending of earthly kingdoms, the end of time as we know it, the end of Jesus being apart from us for he comes again. The Book of Revelation echoes much of the vision of Daniel, and so we see Christ coming in the clouds. He began all things with his Word and he will now end all things as we know it. He is Alpha and Omega, A and Z, beginning and end. Just as in Daniel our response to Jesus is to give him glory and dominion forever. We know that he has redeemed us and that he loves us beyond any sense of love that we may ourselves know and understand.

So, the first two readings today are prophetic, dream-like and visionary, full of high theology and difficult metaphor and symbolism. But when we get to the Gospel we turn to simplicity itself. Jesus is on trial, presumably for blasphemy because he equated himself with God, and for claiming that he was a king in his own right. Pilate is very direct and asks him specifically about it. “Are you the king of the Jews?”. In other accounts, Jesus is silent, but in John, he answers Pilate at first in the negative because he is more than a king of just the Jews. He answers with the truth: “My kingdom is not from this world.” The kings of the world are temporal, area-bound kings. Jesus is spiritual king receiving his power from God and from his obedience to the Father, and thus his kingdom is over all people and all things.

Then Jesus says that the whole reason he was born and came into the world was to testify to the truth, to which Pilate infamously and possibly sarcastically replies, “What is truth”. For John, the truth is God. He is the essence of truth, and going back to the opening of John’s Gospel we remember that God sent his Word, which would then have to be truth itself. So we, as humans,  can only know the truth by listening to Jesus. The kingship presented by John then is knowing that we are loved, held, cared for, saved, and chosen by a Triune God that we willingly want to serve and thank for the blessings he has bestowed. That we have been freed from our sins by his blood! as Revelations announces today, and which we celebrate as a community each week in remembrance of him.

As we end our church year we need to put kingship, so foreign to Americans, into the perspective of our needing to be grateful and to serve a Creator who is Truth and Love and all Good Things. Having our Thanksgiving so close to this feast is a wonderful reminder also of what we need to be thankful for – physical things, of course – harvest, sunsets, health, family – but also, of what he has done for us in the spiritual realm by humbling himself by becoming human, loving us enough to die for us, destroying the effects of death so that we can live eternally, and all without our having done anything to merit it or deserve it. So much to be thankful for! So let us give thanks to this spiritual King who will someday be a physical resurrected King of the earth as it meets heaven and close our church year with awesome images of the end of the world instead of all the ‘fearful’ terrifying ones we get in the media. Christ is our King, Christ is our Truth, and we know God, by knowing Him.

Just a few things to ponder and really Good News to close out our church year!

Bishop Ron Stephens

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

The Catholic Apostolic Church in North America (CACINA)

[Prepare for next year! Volume 3 (Luke) of Bishop Ron’s homilies, one for every Sunday and Feast, is available from amazon.com for $9.99 – “Teaching the Church Year”]

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Homily for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B 2015 (Nov. 8)

October 31, 2015

Homily for the Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B 2015 (Nov. 8)

It is pretty easy today to come up with the connection between the first and Gospel readings. Both concern the charity of widows who had very little for themselves but were willing to share what they had with those even less fortunate. I love the story in 1st Kings that we began with today because I actually find it a little humorous. Imagine the scene. This woman was a widow who was left with a child when her husband died. She was in dire straits because she had to take care of her boy and there was no way that she could earn any money. When Elijah sees her, she is out gathering twigs in order that she might have a fire to cook the very little she had left. She hoped to make a little bread with the food remaining in the house.

Now it seems pretty forward of Elijah to call out to her – first of all, she is a woman and most male strangers would not put themselves int he position of talking to a strange woman to begin with. But Elijah does and is even quite demanding by our standards. He doesn’t  introduce himself; he just asks for a little of her water, and when he sees that she is amiable to give him some, goes further and asks for a piece of bread.

Now we have talked before how important it was in this time period for travelers to ask for the help of people in villages when they were passing through, and how Jewish custom asked people to be kind to these strangers who were traveling because it was so difficult.

So the woman who would probably like to give him a piece of bread tries to explain to him that she hadn’t baked any yet, and in fact, she was just gathering wood to do so. Unfortunately, though she didn’t have much grain or much oil left. I find it almost humorous the way she adds that she was just going to bake the last of it and then sit down and die. But she probably meant it.

Elijah asks her to bake the bread with what she has left, but to trust in God that a miracle would happen and she would never empty the vessels of grain and oil till the next rainfall. If someone told you that, would you think he was crazy? The woman must have been very trusting or had a great faith in God because she went and did what he said – giving up what was to be the little she had left. But the miracle occurred!

The other story of the widow in the Gospel does not contain a miracle at all, but shows a picture of someone whose faith in God is so strong that she was willing to sacrifice the little she had because it was what God had asked her to do. Tithing was specified in the Bible. If she gave that away, how would she live. She didn’t know, but she did what she felt was the right thing and left the rest to God. Jesus admires her great faith.

What he doesn’t admire so much is the great show that people were making of the large amounts that they gave. The offering of rich people was more to inflate their own egos or make them look great in the sight of others. Their motive was not pure like the poor widow’s.

The story of this widow began with an admonition to watch out for the scribes who loved to put on a show and fought to be respected and given the best place. Scribes were a later addition to Hebrew life and were men who were educated scholars whose job it was to interpret the Old Testament. Their actions show what they are really like. Jesus says that they devour widow’s houses. As if the widows of this period don’t have it bad enough, the scribes were finding ways to take their property from them for non-payment – all very legal, but leaving the widows destitute. We see examples of this all the time today when people call senior citizens on the phone and try to dupe them out of money, or when  tele-evangelists make pleas for them to give up their money for ‘better” causes or by intimidating them with guilt or fear. The Scribes apparently had the same thing down pat. Jesus remarks only that “they will receive the greater condemnation.”

It might be good to note that I don’t think Jesus was indicating that we should give more than we have to the point of suffering. He was using the woman as an example of someone who had been duped into that way of thinking by the scribes. Immediately after these verses Jesus indicates that the very thing she has been giving her money to was going to be destroyed. And the Temple was destroyed not long after.

The real sacrifice that was greater than either widow is the one talked about by Paul to the Hebrews today. Jesus didn’t just give up his livelihood, but he gave up his godhead, becoming human like us, and then gave up the very human life he had taken on in order to remove sin and bring forgiveness. What do we do that could compare with that kind of love? The widows showed love and faith in God, but Jesus went the whole way for us, Paul says.

There has been a lot of talk over the last month of the message that Pope Francis has brought to America, and I find it interesting to read what our “scribes” today have been saying about it, as they try to justify their economic way of life. But the Pope’s message was clear, Jesus’ message today is clear, and the Psalm is a wonderful summary today of the message: the Lord executes justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry, sets the prisoners free, upholds the widow and orphan and brings to ruin the way of the wicked. We need to be as aware as possible of our Christian obligation to the oppressed in our society, and each of us needs to try to find our own way to help – in money, in time, in friendship, in prayer – in love!

My prayer for you this week is that we use today’s widows as examples of faith and concern for others and that we be very wary of becoming scribe-like ourselves, all too easy to do in our capitalistic society that can brainwash us with the wrong motives.

And this is the Good News of Jesus, Mark, the widows and Francis I remind you of today!

Bishop Ron Stephens

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

The Catholic Apostolic Church in North America (CACINA)

[Prepare for next year! Volume 3 (Luke) of Bishop Ron’s homilies, one for every Sunday and Feast, is available from amazon.com for $9.99 – “Teaching the Church Year”]

Homily for All Saints Day (replacing the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time), Year B 2015 (Nov. 1)

October 24, 2015

Homily for All Saints Day, Year B 2015 (Nov. 1)

At a recent New Testament Study group, someone asked the question “Did the idea of praying to saints come about as to appease  those converts who had come from religions with many gods and many holidays for them?” A good question. While I imagine that praying to the saints might have been appealing to new non-Jewish converts because they were used to praying to different gods, the Christian use of ‘saints’ in our prayer life and in the life of the church really more stems from the idea of the Mystical Body of Christ, a term for the idea of the Church being the body of Christ with Christ as the head. Those who have died in the state of grace and have achieved that perfect union with Christ are the body of Christ who have achieved the state of heaven with God. These are the martyrs, the miracle workers, the pious, the men and women of simple faith who have gone before us into eternal life with God. Some of these we have recognized ourselves, but the wonderful things they have done while on earth, their complete faithfulness to the Gospel, and our surety that they are with God, is why we give them the name of ‘saint’, acknowledging their virtuous lives and our belief in their closeness to God and Christ. We do not worship these people – they are people, just like we are, not gods, but they have fought the good fight, to quote Paul, and because they are so close to God, we pray to them to intercede for us if they are so able.

There are, of course, many saints who are not acknowledged by us or whom known about. That is why we celebrate this feast today. It is a to publicly acknowledge all those who have lived and died in Christ through the centuries, known and unknown, but who are close to God now.

So, in preparing the liturgy for today, the Church has chosen readings which reflect these teachings. In our first reading from the book of Revelation, John has had a vision of heaven. Now when we try to describe something which is totally unknown to us, we have to use a metaphor, because we have no actual words for that description. A person from the past who was able to visit us today and saw a television or a cell phone would have no words to describe those things, and so they would have to say it was like something else that people might be familiar with. So here with John, we get a metaphorical description of what he saw in heaven. In this vision, he saw a great number of people who wore seals on their foreheads- one hundred and forty-four thousand – who wore what looked like a seal that a king or important person might put on a letter, etched into their heads. This number is not an exact number; it just means a lot of people, as though we might say we went to a park and there were thousands of people there that day. The seals meant that they were of God – “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages…robed in white” who bowed down and worshiped the Lamb, symbolic, of course, of Christ. When John asked who all these people were, the answer he is given is that “they have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb”, and interesting paradox in itself, and who had come out of the great ordeal – which may have meant persecution, but which I think is just life itself. The wonderful thing about this from my point of view is that although there are people there from the tribes of Israel in heaven, there are others too – from every country and language. We can all hope to be saints one day!

In the second reading, John also gives us hope in that we have become, through our baptism, children of God, and at the time of our deaths or at the end of time as we know it, we will finally understand, and we will see God as God is. We will become saints, too. It is our hope in God that purifies us, says St. John, and that purification is the same as the white robes that the saints wore in Revelation.

So how do we get to become saints? Well, the Gospel states this very clearly in Matthew’s description of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus gives his strongest teaching on what it takes to be a Christian, and it is not a list of “Do not’s” like Moses received with the Ten Commandments, but more a list of “Do’s”. We know these as the Beatitudes, and we are very familiar with them because we read them many times during the church year and we sing them in our hymns.

So Jesus tells us what to do to be blessed, to be a saint: be poor in spirit, mourn for the dead, be meek in our actions, be passionate about righteousness and justice for all, be merciful, have pure minds, strive for peace, and if you are persecuted, know that God will be with you. That’s what it takes to be a saint, and that’s what we celebrate in the many men and women over the centuries who have lived their lives in such a way that they exemplify those beatitudes. We honor these men and women, we pray to them to make a case for us, we strive to become like them. Their reward is great in heaven right now and we trust it is ours is to come.  It should give us all great hope that we too will wear the white robes, washed in Christ’s blood. We need to go out today, remembering what we have to do. And being a saint  is possible – we have the saints today who have proved it to be so in great number.

And that is the really Good News that our honoring the saints reminds us of today. Work on those white robes!

Homily for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B 2015 (Oct 18)

October 11, 2015

Homily for the Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B 2015 (Oct 18)

The thing that joins the two integrated readings today, the Old Testament reading and the Gospel, is the very early theology of Jesus as a servant taking on the sins of us all and offering himself in sacrifice in our place. Isaiah talks about the righteous one, who is God’s servant, making many right with God by bearing their iniquities, carrying their wickedness. Isaiah says that this servant’s life is an offering for sin, not his own, but others’ sin. Not only that he will be in pain – he will be a suffering servant.

Very early on these prophecies of Isaiah were seen by the early church to be referenced to Jesus, and that the prophecies had come true. It helped them especially to make some sense of the senseless death of their friend and teacher. By looking backward to the prophecies of Isaiah they were able to piece together a theology of redemption – where one divine person was to suffer and die to compensate for the sins of the world.

I am sure that the initial death of Jesus had to throw the followers into more than panic that their leader had been killed. More, what was going to happen to them, what would happen to his teachings, what disappointment over the expectant messiah, what craziness to kill such a gentle, miracle man!

I am sure it took time and the influence of the Holy Spirit for the group to sort it out. The fact that they stayed together and still believed in what Jesus said was a real tribute to his followers. Often when a leader is killed, the others run off in all directions.

Writing the first Gospel, Mark has had the time, twenty years or more, to reflect on this situation, to go back to the Word of God in the Old Testament and notice the prophecies which seem to have been written with Jesus in mind. He then incorporates this throughout his Gospel so that that others can see that the story of God is a progression that moves toward and away from Jesus till he comes again.

We see this in the Isaiah reading today which seems to a Christian to be an apt description of exactly what Jesus life had accomplished. “The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities,” Isaiah foretold.

In today’s reading Mark shows Isaiah’s ‘servant’ comment with the little power struggle going on with the Apostles. We have seen again and again in Mark that the apostles were rather clueless and often just didn’t get the paradigm shift that Jesus was preaching. James and John ask, metaphorically perhaps, to sit at Jesus’ table in heaven. This is basically a power grab. The people who sit at the right and left of the host are the most honored guests, and of course, James and John knew that.

Then Jesus asks if they are up to letting what happens to Jesus happen to them. At this point, they don’t know he will be crucified, of course. They reply that they can take it, whatever.  Jesus explains that though he would do what he could for them, it was not his decision to pick the most honored guests – it was God’s. But they would share in his drink and his baptism. Little did they know that this meant his death and his suffering. Well, they got half their wish, anyway!

When the other Apostles heard what they had asked, they got pretty upset – they saw it for what it is was – a grab for power and favoritism in the group. They were pretty rough and tough men, and I am sure they made their feelings clear to James and John.

Time for an object lesson, saw Jesus! He called the group together and explained for the first time his theory of power and greatness. It must have made very little sense to the apostles when they first heard it because it was revolutionary – totally against the thinking of the time.

The powerful men that they knew – the Roman rulers and the Jewish leaders all lorded it over each other, doing what they wanted and thought best, and maintained a tight control over everyone.

But Jesus turns it around as he will once again at the Last Supper.

If you want to be great, Jesus said, you must lower yourself to be the servant of everyone – in fact, not just a servant, but a slave. The concerns of others must be your concern. Pleasing others must be your concern. Doing the wishes of others must be your concern.

Not the usual way of looking at power and greatness, even today, though it seems to me democracy should come close to it if the leader really does listen to his electorate and try to act on their needs and wishes. That’s the theory, isn’t it?

What does this mean for us this week? How can we be better servants to others, particularly those we have some control over. Many parents are able to balance this need to be a parent with knowing and understanding the needs of the children as well. But, if you are in charge of anyone – in an office, or as head of a committee, or as a Board member – how can you increase serving the needs of others and thinking of your own needs less. When I came in as the new principal of a large high school, I knew that the person I replaced had been a bit of a dictatorial leader. At my first staff meeting, instead of talking at everyone, I asked them to break into groups and discuss what were their greatest priorities for the school year. No one even moved. Finally, one of them got up and said, “We don’t do things like discuss here! Just tell us what to do, and we’ll do it.” It took me bout three years to get them to see that I really was interested in what they had to say and would move in the directions that the group needed and wanted. I think they actually ended up liking it – though I lost a few in that paradigm change.

I also want you to consider being a servant to other church members here. At base, what this means is that you don’t come to church for yourself – you are here because it is important to the others here. Without you, there is a gap…something is missing. Just coming as regularly as you can is being a servant to the others in the congregation.

Look around this week and see if there are ways to put Christ’s servant-leadership into practice in your life. You might be amazed at what happens, and how freeing it actually becomes for you as well.

This is some Good News that we can all work at and I wish you well in trying it.

Bishop Ron Stephens

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

The Catholic Apostolic Church in North America (CACINA)

[Prepare for next year! Volume 3 (Luke) of Bishop Ron’s homilies, one for every Sunday and Feast, is available from amazon.com for $9.99 – “Teaching the Church Year”]

Homily for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B 2015 (Sept 20)

September 12, 2015

Homily for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B 2015 (Sept 20)

We continue today our study of faith. With this reading of St. James, the second reading today, we enter one of the biggest unresolved theological arguments since the Protestant Revolution.  To summarize it as succinctly as I can, St. Paul has told us that we are justified, forgiven, not through any merits of our own but simply because God loves us. Nothing we can do or any sin we commit can change that fact. Yet, James today seems to indicate that we can’t be justified unless we do good acts.

According to St James today, it is hard, if not impossible to show anyone your faith. It is an abstract quality. How do you hold it up and show it, evaluate it, compare it? You can’t.  The only way, James says, that you can see faith is through good works. They go together, James says.

We see human condition since the Fall as a sinful condition. How many of us have not sinned in some way? We all have. Despite that, God has seen fit to show mercy and to send to us a savior who offers forgiveness from sins. We didn’t do anything to merit it, in fact, just the opposite really. But God in his divine mercy has forgiven us, “justified” us as Paul says. This comes from nothing that we have done.

Our response to that needs to justify (there’s that word again, with a different meaning) or give evidence to the faith we have been given. And we do that by doing good works. It is a way of thanking God, and showing our faith and gratitude for what he has done for us. Seen this way, both the Protestant and the Catholic point of view can be combined, I believe, and there is no controversy between Paul and James. To say that you are Catholic or to walk by the begging street person and wish him good day is sweet, but it doesn’t show your faith or show gratitude for the gifts that you have been given, no matter how we justify it (there’s that word again) ourselves. That is the point James is making today.

I started with the reading from James today because it has been highly controversial in church history and one of the reasons for the split in the Catholic church around the time of Luther. But how does it relate to he Gospel today? I would suggest that we center our attention on Jesus last words in the Gospel today: “Whoever wants to become my follower, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake, and for the sake of the Gospel, will save it.” We become followers of Jesus because we have faith. Jesus, too, indicates along with James, that to show that faith, to be a follower, requires that some action be taken.

What does it mean to deny oneself, the first of the two things Jesus says we must do? Is he talking about fasting? not buying the latest TV or computer? giving up candy for Lent? No, he is talking about putting trust in God rather than oneself. Jesus models this in the agony in the garden when he says: Not my will, but yours be done.” Basically, it is submitting our will to God’s will. When someone makes us angry, we don’t lash out, but we turn the other cheek, that is, we humbly submit to the censure. It doesn’t mean that we are punching bags. We can still stand up for ourselves, but we do it with humility and with the understanding that God or someone else could be right.

The second is the action that we must take when we have submitted ourselves to God. We must take up our cross. This is a scary concept. Crucifixion was a terrible ordeal and perhaps Matthew uses this image after the fact of Jesus’ crucifixion to remind us of that. It means that we need to die to our selfish ways, to our sins, to our pride, to think of the other and the other’s needs first. Notice that the image is not of dying on the cross, but of carrying the cross – think of the weight of it, the purpose of it, the shame of it. We bear all this with a happy heart because we know that there is resurrection after the cross.

We follow Jesus because we see something better, and we give up ourselves in order to get to that something better. And that is the Good News that we are begged to follow!

Bishop Ron Stephens

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

The Catholic Apostolic Church in North America (CACINA)

[Bishop Ron’s new book containing a full year of 73 homilies for Cycle C which begins Nov. 29th will soon be available on Amazon.com  ]

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Homily for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B 2015 (Sept 13)

September 5, 2015

Homily for the Twenty Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B 2015 (Sept 13)

The suffering servant of Isaiah that we heard spoken of today in the first reading is all about someone hearing God’s call, and not rebelling from it or turning away. The call involves all sorts of self-sacrifice: the servant is struck, his beard is pulled out, he is insulted and spat upon. Nevertheless this servant has great faith in God and feels no one can judge him but God. In the end he will be vindicated and glorified along with all those who stand with him.

The early Church saw this prophecy as reflecting the life of Jesus and from the beginning the Gospels have looked backward at its fulfillment in Jesus Christ, the suffering servant of God. Similarly, the Psalm talks about all the distress and anguish that followers of God seem to have to deal with, though in the end they know their reward will be a great one. The psalmist says that God has delivered his soul from death and when he was brought low, he was saved.

The Gospel reading today is itself a prophecy, and the very early followers of Jesus knew that people responded to Jesus as though he were a prophet. When Jesus asks his disciples who people were saying that he was, the names that he gets are the prophet John the Baptist, the prophet Elijah or at least one of the great Prophets. Only the disciples are able to see him for what he is – greater than a prophet, a Messiah or Savior.

Upon hearing this, Jesus favors the Apostles by giving them a vision of the future of this Messiah, but it was not at first very heartening. This Messiah was to endure great suffering, would be rejected by the Jewish authorities, and be killed by them. This should be immediately apparent that that it is similar to Isaiah’s suffering servant.

But then Jesus adds the glorification: he would rise from the dead after three days. Imagine how startling this must have been to the Apostles. But Peter seems not to have heard it. His only concern, the only thing he seemed to hear,  is that Jesus said he would suffer and die. He forgets that Prophets – and Messiah’s – follow the will of God no matter where it leads. That is why when Peter rebukes Jesus, Jesus can say “Get behind me, Satan.” Don’t try to tempt me to disobey what God has said would happen. God’s ways are not our ways. God has a plan, a purpose, that is different sometimes than ours.

Then Jesus takes his disciples and brings them out to the crowds following him, and again he delivers a very hard message. If you want to follow Jesus’ way, you have to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow him.

Those are pretty strong words so it would be good to look at them. Basically Jesus is saying that because he was going to suffer and die, they, too, would have to suffer and possibly even die, if they were taking on Jesus’ life as a role model. This is followed up by a paradoxical statement; “whoever wants to save their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for the sake of the Gospel, will save it. Now this doesn’t mean the Gospel as we have it because it wasn’t even written, but he means Jesus’ own teachings.  Basically Jesus is saying that if we want to be true followers of his we have to commit to him to the extent that we will renounce our own needs for the needs of others, accept and bear our sufferings, and if necessary, offer our lives in sacrifice for others. This is not easy to hear.

Most of us go through our busy lives, some attending church regularly, some managing to pray a little each day, some doing good works as James talks about today in his letter, but we don’t often think of going the whole way – always thinking of others before ourselves, offering up our sufferings and annoyances, standing up for what we believe in, telling others the Good News. This takes guts, it takes commitment, it takes understanding, it takes self-awareness, it takes a developed love of Jesus and his teachings.

This week I urge you to ponder the final paradox of the Gospel today and see how it applies to your life. Are you doing everything you need to do to be a true follower of Jesus or are you just a hanger-on, with no commitment, maybe just trying to pick up a good vibe! We need, Jesus says, to do more than that. We need to do what Jesus says in order to turn this world of ours into the kingdom that it can be, the kingdom that Jesus suffered and died for – a kingdom of peace and love and concern for others. That is the Good News which challenges us today to break from our protective shells and get with the program: the way of Jesus! Now we have to share it.

Homily for the 23rd Sunday in ordinary Time, Year B 2015 (Sept. 6)

August 30, 2015

Homily for the Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B 2015

All three readings and the psalm today express the same idea: that God protects and cares for the outcasts, the helpless in society. This is a basic premise of Christianity and has been since Jesus walked the earth. Jesus showed us that care in his healings of the blind, the plagued, the lepers, and the deaf, which we read about today. Particularly in his time, the sicknesses we just referred to were seen as punishments by God for sin, so the people who suffered from them multiplied their woes by being outcasts as well.

From early in the Bible, however, we begin to see references to how God is particularly attracted to helping the helpless in society, those who Isaiah says are of a “fearful heart” because of their plight. Don’t be fearful, Isaiah says. God will protect you, will avenge you and punish the people who treat you badly and do not help you. There will be a “terrible recompense”, he says.

After this “recompense”, this repayment, God will open the eyes of the blind, unstop the ears of the deaf, strengthen the limbs of the paralyzed, and give voice to the mute person.

Why is God so attracted to the needy? Often, it is because they are the ones with the strongest faith. Think of the times that you have needed something and gone to God, when yourself or someone close to you was seriously ill, and you went to God. It is that kind of time that brings out our faith in God.

Secondly, it is a simple matter of justice. Those who suffer in this life will have that turned around in the next. As the psalm says: “the Lord executes justice for the oppressed.” It is like that folk cliché: ‘what comes around, goes around’. The same psalm from today talks about how God will help the alien (the stranger), the orphan and the widow.

St. James, writing late in the first century, reminds the Christians that God has chosen the poor in the world. They are the ones who are rich in faith, and they will inherit the kingdom of heaven. That is why we are not to cater to the rich or show favoritism to those well-off. Unfortunately, we could give the same message to the many churches today that are so into collection of money, that they do favor the rich and court them. But if we really believe in Jesus as we profess we do, then we cannot ignore the cries of the poor and needy in our society.

Coming from Canada as I did, where there is universal health care, whether or not high taxes are a result, I can only think that that country is acting in a very Christian way. Yes, the rich pay more taxes to support the needy, the unemployed, the outcasts – but isn’t that what Christ would want us to do? I don’t often get political in my homilies, but this is one topic that I can only see as something every Christian needs to wrestle with his or her conscience over, and understand that we have an obligation to share our wealth, to share our good fortune with those who have no fortune, who can barely exist.

The Gospel reading today is unusual in that it is one of the three healings we know about where Jesus used physical matter, mud, in this case, to bring about a miracle. Usually, his simple word was enough. There has been much conjecture about it, and I might be able to summarize the reasons he used mud. First, it may have been a return to the creation story where man was made from the mud of the earth, thus paralleling the creation story. Perhaps he used mud as one of many ways of healing to show that it wasn’t something he did and had a magic method he used, but to show through many different ways that it came from God. Lastly, it could be that the spit or saliva which was often used in Jesus time because they thought it had a healing factor inherent in it, was being used a sign that a healing was going to take place.  For whatever reason, Jesus used the spittle and mud to effect the cure of the man’s hearing and speech. Jesus was the healer that Isaiah was prophesying, and the people began to recognize Jesus first as a healer and gradually to realize that he was more than that. Jesus asked them – ordered them, in fact, to tell no one about the healing. Why was that? It could have been a matter of crowd control. Once every one heard what he could do, people would rush to be cured of all sorts of things and that really wasn’t what Jesus was setting out to do. It was more a by-product of his teaching. Secondly, Jesus or God the Father may have been orchestrating the time Jesus was on earth, and it was not time for him to be arrested and to die, which would have happened because of the criticisms he was making of the Pharisees and the revolutionary teachings he was proposing. Lastly, it could be because he didn’t want to be :”Jesus Christ Superstar”. Ask any celebrity how difficult it is to cope with the kind of public attention a celebrity gets. Jesus would find it difficult to hide from that, to find time to pray, to finish what he set out to do. So there were probably very good reasons for Jesus not wanting anyone outside of the observers to know.

What can we do this week to follow Jesus and the gospel message? ( I know that there are a lot of social works going on in this parish, and so I am not really talking to those of you highly involved in them.  But for those who may not be yet.) Obviously, try to find ways to share what you have with others. I don’t mean just financial, either. Time is a commodity which is worth a lot in our culture, especially in the Northern Virginia area. Giving of your time to help another is certainly a way to act out the Gospel message. I am going to be involved in a committee this month to help get drivers to take cancer victims to their chemo appointments, and will be telling you more about that soon. Once again, I remind you that it doesn’t have to be something very big that we give or do. Just giving or doing some thing could be a reminder for us of how we can bring about the kingdom, and to assure that we will be part of that beautiful city!

And this is the Good News preached by Isaiah, David, James and Jesus today. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

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 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B 2015

August 22, 2015

Homily for the Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B 2015

Our first reading today is from the Book of Deuteronomy, one of the books ascribed to Moses and the one dealing with the end of his life and the imminent entry into the God’s Promised Land. Moses and the Hebrews have been wandering through the deserts for forty years and they are about to enter their homeland, but Moses is an old man now and knows that he will not enter it with them. In this reading Moses is talking to his people and reminding them that they have messed up badly over the years, which is why the promise took 40 years too fulfill. Over and over they have forgotten the one true God and the teachings of their God.

In the selection we read today, Moses is being very practical with his people, and giving them good political advice as well as spiritual. In the spiritual or moral dimension, Moses is telling them to remember what God has done for them in leading them out of slavery, and that God has given them a pattern to live by with the commandments. Moses urges them to be diligent in following God’s commands to show their love and gratitude to God, first of all, but that it would also be good for them politically, to show the other nations that they are a cultured, wise nation.  At this time there were not many countries that had as civilized a law as did the Hebrews. Moses says that they could be a light to other nations, and make it possible for other nations to see the immanence of Israel’s God – the fact that God is with them, hears them, and answers them.

The Torah, then – or the teachings of God given to Moses – makes the Hebrews stand out to other nations, achieving two great purposes – serving God and presenting the one God to other nations.

The teachings (which we translate as Laws) that Moses gave the Hebrews were the Ten Commandments certainly, but also other teachings that separated the Hebrews or set them apart from other nations. Many of the Laws, especially those of purity came about as comments on the Law, just as today many of the the ideas in the United States Constitution have been ruled on and more laws and amendments have been created over the years.

When Jesus attacks the scribes and Pharisees because they say he is not following these created laws of purity, many of these were traditions and not always Biblically based. Some of them came about for hygienic purposes or to suit the needs of the priests or ruling bodies.

When Jesus was accused of breaking these so-called laws, he reminds them that they are merely human traditions, and that more importance is being placed on these than on the actual teaching words of God.

So Jesus uses this as a way to explain that God created everything as good and that it is what we do with God’s creation is what creates something bad. Evil comes from inside a person. And this is what the original commandments or teachings of God was really about. When we look at the list of things that Christ calls evil coming from the heart of man, we see murder (5th commandment), fornication and licentiousness (6th Commandment), theft (7th commandment),  deceit and slander (9th commandment), avarice and envy (10th commandment),  with pride, folly and wickedness involved in all ten of them. Jesus was getting back to the basics by reminding them that God’s commandments are more important than the traditions that had become the sole concern of the Pharisees of his day. I think we do the same thing today when we take individual moral problems like abortion, homosexuality, birth-control as ‘the’ most important issues in our religion. We tend to have pet concerns that override the really important issues of loving God and neighbor and sharing with the poor. That isn’t to say they are not at all important or connected – they certainly are – especially abortion – but we enlarge them to be more important issues, honoring God with our lips, as Jesus says, but ignoring the heart.

The letter of James today really summarizes what I have been trying to say when he defines a “pure and undefiled” religion in a way that seems very simple and narrow. Purity of religion is caring for others, loving your neighbor, especially those who can’t care for themselves like widows and orphans, and not following the ways, the traditions of the ungodly world. James also adds that we need not to just listen to God’s word, but we have to follow through and do it.

So how can we be doers of the word this week? First of all let us focus on the two great commandments this week. Find a way to let God know of your love, spend some time with him, talk with him. He is both immanent and transcendent. We acknowledge his greatness and vastness, God he also became one of us and so we can talk with, complain to, beg, and thank God. Then, find a way to focus on our neighbors in need. Perhaps donate time or food to a mission or food bank, or donate to a cause that helps others. Bring extra peanut butter in for next Sunday’s peanut butter drive. Do “something” to remind yourself of the Word of God presented to us this week.

And that will be really Good News for God and for the recipients of our love 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 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 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B 2015 (Aug 16)

August 8, 2015

Homily for the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B 2015 (Aug 16)

Once again this week we are invited to look at the continuing teaching on the Eucharist as presented by Jesus in John’s Gospel. And once again, we have an Old Testament reading that looks forward to the eucharistic event. Proverbs says: “”You that are simple, turn in here!” To those without sense [Wisdom] says, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity and live…””

And again we sing in the Psalm: Taste and see that the Lord is good.” Even so, Paul, or pseudo Paul” in a voice that is censuring excess at Eucharistic meals, says don’t taste too much: Do not get drunk with wine, but be filled with the Spirit”…and that will lead you “to sing and make music to the Lord”.

So today is all about celebration of the fact that the Eucharist is a wonderful, miraculous, freeing, forgiving thing!

The Gospel repeats and then picks up what we heard last week, re-iterating that the bread from heaven, the flesh of our Savior will give us life now, and eternal life after. Because Jesus has been raised and we are “in Jesus” we too shall live because of him. Hopefully, you found time last week to think about some of these things that we often take for granted.

Because today is so celebratory about the Eucharist I would like to take a few minutes to remind you how many times this ‘bread of heaven” comes up in our Sunday Mass.

We start most Sundays by my saying “As we prepare to celebrate the mystery of Christ’s love, let us acknowledge our failures.”  The mystery of Christ’s love is another way for saying eucharist. Christ’s love for us allows him to give himself up for us, and he does this by giving up his body. Each week at Mass we re-enact that great mystery.

When we get to the Offertory of the Mass after we have finished the readings and said our Creed, the people bring the gifts to the altar, the priest takes them and prays over them. Since I am concentrating on “bread from heaven” today I will only talk about the first one. The priest says..”Through your goodness we have this bread to offer, which earth has given and human hands have made. It will become for us the bread of life.” The bread of life! Jesus has taken something from the earth, it is refashioned by our hands and the refashioned again into Christ’s body. A threefold mystery.

In the Canon of the Mass, just before the consecration, the priest asks that this bread and wine “become the body and blood of Jesus Christ your only son our Lord.” Immediately following we hear the words from the Last Supper repeated: Take this [bread], all of you and eat it: this is my body which will be given up for you.” This is the moment in the Mass when we most clearly know what is happening and what sacrifice Jesus was going to make for us.

Immediately after when we proclaim the mystery of our faith, one of the responses is that “we proclaim your death, Lord Jesus until you come in glory”. How we proclaim that is, of course, the Eucharist.

After the consecration we are again reminded that what we are doing at Mass is reenacting the perfect sacrifice. We are told “we offer to you, God of glory and majesty, this holy and perfect sacrifice: the bread of life and cup of eternal salvation.” Both themes are proclaimed loudly in today’s Gospel – the life-giving effect of the Eucharist and the everlasting effect of it. Then we are reminded of three examples of offerings being given in the Old Testament. We are reminded of Abel who offered up the fruits of the land to God, of Abraham, who was willing to offer the body of his son, and Melchisedech, a Gentile King, who brought gifts of bread and wine to Abram. We see Melchisedech’s gifts as a forerunner of the gifts Jesus transformed.

At the end of the Canon we proclaim that these gifts are filled with life and goodness, and are blessed and holy.

In the Our Father when we say “give us this day our daily bread”, we can hear echoes of the Old Testament and the manna in the desert which was a daily bread and echoes of the Eucharist as well. In this we are asking for the eucharist’s life-giving qualities.

After the Lamb of God litany has reminded us of the fact that sins are forgiven again, the priest takes a piece of the consecrated bread and drops it into the chalice of blood and silently says: May this mingling of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ bring eternal life to us who receive it. So there it is again – the two prominent qualities of the eucharist – forgiveness of sin and eternal life. When the priest consumes the bread, you may not realize but he silently says: ‘May the body of Christ bring me to everlasting life’. In cleansing the vessels the prayer uttered is: May [these gifts] bring me healing and strength.

So you see that in each Mass we have structured our worship and praise of God around the idea of repeating the perfect sacrifice of the bread from heaven and the wine of the covenant.

Coming back to John’s Gospel today we might end by repeating Christ’s explanation to us: “My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” “This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.

I ask you this week and going forward to watch for the mentioning of the bread of heaven at Mass in attempt to not let us take the Mass for granted, but to make it a real eucharistic meal binding us to Christ and to one another. Then we can echo the final prayer of the priest: Lord may i receive these gifts in purity of heart. May they bring me healing and strength, now and for ever.:

This is Good News, and it is news that bears repeating today.

(Please note that the Catholic Apostolic church still uses the post Vatican II translation of the Canon, which I have used 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 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 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B 2015 (Aug 2)

July 25, 2015

Homily for the Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B 2015 (Aug 2)

As I mentioned last week, we are taking a mini-sojourn into the Gospel of John and specifically those sections of Jesus’ teaching on the Eucharist. Before we begin that today, though, the Church provides us with the Hebrew background that we need to know in order to put Jesus’ words into the context of Jewish life two thousand years ago.

We begin today with the reading from the Book of Exodus which, as you know, contains the movement of the Jewish people out of their slavery in Egypt and their forty year trip to their new Promised Land.

In our reading today, we hear the Hebrews complaining about their stay in the desert, or what they call the wilderness, and it could not have been very pleasant. There were a lot of people, and because they were traveling, there was no way to grow food. Yet everyone had to be fed. They found there was, of course, not enough food that they could scrounge to feed everyone, so they were starving. It was not an unfounded complaint they were making.

Presumably Moses brings their complaints to God because God sees their hunger and finds a way to feed them. They had apparently brought a few animals with them that they could kill and eat, but they would soon run out and they had nothing else. So the Lord says: “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you.”

God then sent quails each night that they could catch and kill, and in the mornings on the ground was a substance much like bread that they could gather and eat. The Israelites named it manna, bread from heaven.

The Psalm today remembers God’s kindness to the Israelites in the desert, and although they never ate or tasted the manna, they remember through the stories that their grandparents and great grandparents passed down to them about it. They thanked God for his goodness for this bread of heaven and this bread of angels.

So the background we need to know is that God took care of his people as God always does, and specifically in this case by nourishing their physical bodies that were starving by giving them the bread from heaven.

Last week in the Gospel, we saw how Christ was able to also feed the hungry with physical bread in the miracle of the loaves and fishes. The crowd had been amazed that they had all been fed, and even though Jesus tried to escape them, they followed Jesus. Jesus says that they had followed him only because he took care of their physical needs, their hunger, not for the reasons that they should have followed him. Jesus is more concerned with their spiritual lives, and feeding their spiritual lives with food that will last forever. He says that they need to work for that kind of bread that will last forever, and the work that they have to do is to believe.

We have seen that idea of the importance of belief in Jesus many times over the last few months, and here John picks up that theme as well as Mark had.

Now our background from Exodus will help us. The crowd tells Jesus that Moses gave their ancestors bread from heaven. They ask, what are you going to do to help us believe? Rather odd, since Jesus had just done a rather major miraculous thing for them by feeding five thousand!

Jesus reminds them that it wasn’t Moses that fed them bread from heaven, but God. God sent them bread from heaven and gave physical life to the world. And now God is sending bread to give spiritual life to the world. And this is where it must have really shocked the people listening to Jesus. They asked where is this bread that God is sending? And Jesus tells them…”I am!”

As Catholics, we were all brought up on this outrageous idea and it doesn’t really seem so foreign to us, but try to imagine what it must have sounded like to the crowd following Jesus. Jesus is bread? Jesus was sent to God for them to eat? If they come to Jesus they will never be hungry spiritually? How crazy must that have seemed to them on the first hearing.

We are lucky, because we know what followed, and we know how Christ’s body becomes present in the eucharist – the bread we consume here each week. But the enormity of this idea, the craziness of this idea, the bizarreness of this idea should have shocked his listeners. And maybe we need to be shocked every once in a while, too.

We have this amazing gift each week – bread that gives life, that allows us never to be hungry or thirsty spiritually and food that will bring us eternal life! Yet, so many people ignore all that and try to be spiritual in their homes and away from the eucharist. If we really understood and believed the immensity of this gift, nothing would be able to stop us from having this pure gift each week. Unfortunately, through unbelief, through repetition, through busy lives, it doesn’t seem all that important or amazing to us any more.

We talk about Good News each week. Well, this news of Jesus today really is good. Let us spend the week reflecting on what a gift it is to us, how by taking the eucharist we can never be spiritually hungry or thirsty, and how we can better prepare ourselves and take advantage of the remarkable powers of this sacrament. Truly good news for a truly good people!

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”]