Monthly Archives: April 2012

By This We Know Love

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us– and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?

Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.

And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us. 1 John 3:16-24.

In an earlier post, I suggested that John’s first epistle (which really looks a lot more like a sermon) offers us an extended love letter.  In this reading from today’s Lectionary, we see a perfect example of that idea.

St. John begins by asking a hard question:  “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”  If we really love God, how can we stand by idly and watch the pain of His children?  Loving God means that we love each other, in truth and in action.  The love of God, if genuine, creates in us a compulsion to do what we can whenever we find His children in pain or in need.

St. John does not so much conceive of love as an emotion; rather, he sees it as an active consequence of our relationship with the resurrected Jesus.  Love isn’t so much something we feel as something into which our relationship with God compels us.  Only in St. John’s writings do we find the language “God is love”, although that notion is woven throughout the entire fabric of Holy Scripture.

I’ve written before about the grace of charity, not simply consisting of philanthropic donations, but as encompassing our love for each other.  St. John argues that our charity constitutes evidence that we living in Christ.  If we chose not to abide in love, we will miss the gift of Easter, and will ultimately abide in death.  Love, as Christ taught us, will demand self-sacrifice.  That sort of love springs only from a vibrant relationship with the Lord, which infects and spreads throughout our relationships with His “little children”.  Trusting in God finds its expression in a life lived out through love of our brothers and sisters.

If the Christian Church is struggling to find its meaning or its relevance today, it need look no further than 1 John.  John teaches us that our task lies not simply in minimizing need in the world, but in actualizing love.  Jesus drew crowds, not because of good showmanship, doctrinal purity or comfortable accommodations with stadium seating.  Rather, Jesus drew crowds because of the immense depth of his compassion.  I’m convinced that the Church will only find its proper role through making God’s love visible in this fragile world.

Shabbat shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Standing in Awe of Him

1 May God be merciful to us and bless us,*
show us the light of his countenance and come to us.
2 Let your ways be known upon earth,*
your saving health among all nations.
3 Let the peoples praise you, O God;*
let all the peoples praise you.
4 Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,*
for you judge the peoples with equity
and guide all the nations upon earth.
5 Let the peoples praise you, O God;*
let all the peoples praise you.
6 The earth has brought forth her increase;*
may God, our own God, give us his blessing.
7 May God give us his blessing,*
and may all the ends of the earth stand in awe of him. Ps. 67.

We find Psalm 67 in the Daily Office for this morning.  The idea of a blessing provides the principle theme for this psalm, one of the great songs of the people of God.  In the opening verse, the psalmist prays for the blessing of the light of God’s presence.

We see the movement of asking for a blessing in the idea of God revealing Himself (“show us the light of your countenance”) and asking the Lord to make Himself known.  The psalmist, however, seeks not only that God’s gifts be apparent to the people of Israel, but also throughout the world.  He prays “let all the peoples praise you” to “all the ends of the earth”.  We hear the echo of the book of Genesis, in which God told Abram, “‘I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’” Gen 12:2-3.

While the psalm celebrates the prior gifts of God (a good harvest), it calls for God’s blessings throughout the world.  It strikes me that the psalmist really prays for an awareness of God’s presence throughout all creation.  The psalm asks for the light of God’s presence.  I’m struck by the idea that we never actually see “light”; rather we see all things because of the light.  The light which flows from God’s presence, therefore, enables us to see the grace of our blessings.  To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, I believe in God’s grace “as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

When we do become aware of God’s presence in and movement through the world, the psalmist describes our appropriate response:  “may all the ends of the earth stand in awe of him.”  I believe we have been conditioned to avoid experiencing awe.  If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I’m a big fan of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.  He said, “The opposite of good is not evil; the opposite of good is indifference.”  Many of us have become indifferent to God’s presence in and blessings of this world.

We are like guests at a banquet, who have stuffed ourselves and gorged upon the feast for so long that we’ve forgotten how to savor the food.  God’s presence surrounds us; only through it do we “live and move and have our being.”  Acts 17:28.  As Rabbi Heschel noted, “The thought of it is too powerful to be ignored and too holy to be absorbed by us.”  So today, my prayer for you is that, full of the certainty of God’s presence, that you be blessed today, and that you be a blessing.

Pax Christi,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Touch Me and See

While the disciples were telling how they had seen Jesus risen from the dead, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you– that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah 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, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”  Luke 24:36b-48.

Today, we encounter the Risen Christ in the Gospel of St. Luke. This passage follows directly after the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus.  As is true of so many stories of encounters with Jesus after the resurrection, the disciples do not appear to recognize Jesus immediately, and “thought they were seeing a ghost”.  In the Emmaus story, “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.”  Luke 24:16.

We’re left with the impression that there was something about the resurrected Jesus which was contiguous, and yet discontiguous with the man they knew.  While they struggled with the apparent discontinuity, at times this resurrected Jesus seemed quite familiar.  The resurrected Lord could be apprehended, but always escaped both recognition and understanding.  And yet, He bore the marks of his entry into human history; the scars bearing witness to His torture were unmistakable.

Just as the wounded Christ still bears the marks of human history, for the disciples, the trauma of the cross still remained brutally fresh.  He bore the marks of death, but had vacated the tomb.  The resurrected Jesus proved that death itself was nothing but an empty shell which could not separate us from the Source of Life.

Jesus offered to the disciples exactly what he offers to us today.  He told them, “Peace be with you.”  He offered them the peace that comes with knowing their friend still lived, and this wasn’t some ghost.  He showed them that He was “flesh and bone” and he ate some fish with them.  And lots of folks correctly point out that Jesus did this to assure them that he wasn’t simply a spiritual apparition, that He was real.   While that’s certainly true, I think it misses a big part of the story and the import of that broiled fish.

We remember that in the 22nd chapter of Luke, Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, asking that we celebrate the Eucharist in His memory.  He told the disciples that he would neither eat nor “drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” Luke 22:18.  Thus, when Jesus dines with his disciples on the road to Emmaus and in this passage, He announces the arrival of God’s kingdom.  He calls the disciples as witnesses, not only to His bodily resurrection, but also to the inauguration of the kingdom He spoke about so often while He walked among them.  In the language of an everyday meal, He told them the reign of God had begun, and invited them to share in it.  Thus, he directs them to share the good news of repentance and forgiveness of sins to everyone.

Of course, one passage from this reading resonates particularly with me.  Having lived through the bone-chilling barbarity of the crucifixion, the confusion of confronting their resurrected rabbi, Jesus offers a simple prayer for his disciples:  “Peace be with you.”  The disciples surely felt a miasma of emotions:  terror, shame, failure, regret and doubt.  Although escaping comprehension, Jesus offered them a bit of sanctuary within that simple shalom.

Luke describes the disciples thus:  “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering….”  I think that description applies to many of us who have had a variety of encounters with Christ, and still wonder.  Even the very faithful are sometimes very fearful.  And yet, Jesus calls such people (people like you and me) to be His witnesses.   I hope and pray that as we touch Him and see, that same peace Jesus offered to His followers arises within each of us.

Shabbat shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Abiding in Him

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. John 15:1-11.

In the Gospel reading from today’s Daily Office, we find Jesus talking about His favorite topic: relationships.  I think Jesus cared more deeply about this subject than virtually any other, and perhaps we should, too.  In this remarkable passage, Jesus addresses our relationships with Him, with God the Father, and with each other.  I believe the refrain within this passage provides the key to Jesus’ meaning.  St. John uses the word “abide” eight times, so we should probably understand the sense in which he uses it.

One of the greatest problems we encounter in modernity is that vast number of people who feel adrift, who feel isolated from the world and cut off from anything that offers meaning in their lives.  As Willy Loman observed in Death of a Salesman, “After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive.”  Jesus compared such lives to a branch cut away from the vine, which will ultimately wither.  He observed that “the branch cannot bear fruit unless it abides in the vine”.

All of us sometimes feel cut off from our source, and Jesus offers us the remedy:  “abide in me”, “abide in my love”.    Too often, we try to make our way alone.  We forget that relationships provide the very basis of the spiritual life.  To “abide with” means to participate in a very special sort of relationship.  To abide with Jesus and to abide in His love means that we will make Christ our spiritual home.

As with all relationships, abiding with Jesus involves a reciprocal settlement, a complementary arrangement.  Jesus said, “Abide in me as I abide in you.”  Thus, we should ask ourselves, “What sort of dwelling place have I prepared for the Lord?”  Jesus calls us not simply to remain with Him, but also to make a home for Him in our lives.  Unless we permit this mutual indwelling of Christ, we will find ourselves spiritually “dying on the vine”.

St. John does not suggest that we admire Jesus as a historical figure from the past, or that we attempt to emulate something that was quite wonderful once. To abide with Christ does not mean that we merely prepare for that day in the future when we might see Him.  Abiding with Jesus means to make our home with Him here and now.  The term implies persevering, remaining true, and lasting steadily.  When we abide with Christ, we will share St. Paul’s conviction “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Romans 8:38-39.

Abiding connotes that we will remain with Jesus, and He will remain with us.  Like the branches on the vine, our continued existence depends on remaining connected to the Source of our lives.  If we allow the Word to make a home within our lives, we will feel the Divine pulsing and surging across all creation.  At that point, this holy relationship begins to determine how we act and how we love.  Thus, keeping the commandments becomes less like a burden, and more like a presence.  We are thereby grafted onto the tree of life, grafted onto the life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  I think that’s exactly what St. John had in mind when he wrote about a time when our joy would be complete.

I wish you the joy of God’s presence,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

 © 2012 James R. Dennis

What Was From the Beginning

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life– this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us– we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.  1 John 1-2:2.

Already within a generation or two of Jesus’ life, questions arose within the Christian community about the reality of the experience of Jesus.  Some had begun to question His humanity, others questioned His divinity, and many questioned exactly what this all meant.  In today’s reading from the Lectionary, St. John wrote to address those concerns, writing in the shadow of the Cross.

First, he assured his audience that Jesus was a very real human person.  He writes about the Jesus that was seen “and touched with our hands.”  John’s letter offers a deeply incarnational theology. For this reason, this passage complements the reading from John’s Gospel, which I’ve previously written about (here).  St. John describes Jesus as the “word of life”, and we hear the echoes of the opening of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word.”

John writes to assure that community, and us, that the resurrection involved a very tangible, physical reality.  John and the apostles shared in that divine life.    In that remarkable moment, the spiritual world and the physical world collided.  St. John tells us that this union, that fellowship, remains available to us all.

He addresses a couple of false claims that circulated throughout the Christian community at the time.  The first of these was the contention that sin was unimportant.  To this first claim, St. John responded that we cannot claim our share in God’s fellowship if we walk in sin.  Life with Christ, walking with Christ, will require that we walk in the light, and turn away from the darkness.

Secondly, John addresses the notion that of how our relationship with Christ (our fellowship) will change our lives.  Christianity does not inoculate us from sin.  Rather, “walking in the light” will expose our failures and open a path toward the grace of forgiveness.  Thus, St. John notes that we’re fooling ourselves if we deny our sin.  “If we confess our sins,” however, “he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

A number of scriptural passages refer to Jesus’ role as the judge of the world.  John offers a more comforting view of Christ:  that of an advocate.  Advocate may have had legal connotations, suggesting Jesus arguing for us as an attorney might do.  I’m inclined, however, to think of Jesus more as a friend who’s been down this road and has my back.

1 John, perhaps more than any other epistle in the Bible, is a love letter.  St. John wrote, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.” 1 John 4:7-9.

The Easter message  echoes throughout St. John’s letter.  He offers us a vision of Jesus welcoming us home, always ready to forgive, always ready to make a place for us.  We need only ask for it, and God’s mercy will fall down around us like a mighty river.

Shabbat shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Live Like Someone Left the Gate Open

But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.  Matt. 28:5-8.

Okay, so after a week of daily blogging, I’m pretty sure I’ve about run out of interesting things to say.  I never tire, however, of discussing dogs.  I have lived with dogs  since about the age of five.  Most dogs spend the bulk of their lives with a pronounced, undismayed joy.  My dog, Georgia offers the perfect example of this unrelenting, joyful approach to the world.

So, I thought we should at least consider the notion of joy:  a great Christian virtue, a profound spiritual practice, and one of the clear indicia of our faith.  Particularly during the Easter season, we Christians should take a lesson and live like the gate has been left open.  In Matthew’s story of the resurrection, the angel tells Mary Magdalene and “the  other Mary” that Jesus has been raised.  Jesus’ disciples thought they knew how this rotten story ended. When they learned that they were wrong, they left the tomb “with great fear and great joy” and ran to tell Jesus’ followers this good news.

Matthew describes a curious mixture of emotions:  joy and fear, but I suspect that’s exactly what they felt.  They were fearful because they stood on deeply uncertain ground, and this sort of ambiguity would certainly leave one anxious.  They also felt great joy because their rabbi, their Messiah, and their friend still lived.  And so, they ran.  They ran like someone had left the gate open.  You see, that’s exactly what Jesus had done:  He had pried ajar  the gates of hell and flung open the gates of heaven.

In Here and Now, Henri Nouwen wrote, “We have to choose joy, and keep choosing it every day.  It is a choice based upon the knowledge that we belong to God and have found in God our refuge and our safety and that nothing, not even death, can take God away from us.”  So, my suggestion to you, during this holy season of Easter is “Live like someone left the gate open.”  Jesus has freed us from sin and death, and he left the gate to heaven wide open.

Happy Easter!

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Whom Are You Looking For?

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, `I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

In today’s Gospel reading, Mary, the beloved disciple, and Peter discover that Jesus is no longer in the tomb. St. John opens the story with Mary, walking to the Lord’s burial-place early in the morning before sunrise. We’ve studied John’s gospel well enough and long enough to know that he intends to convey a double meaning when he tells us that she walked to the tomb “while it was still dark”. I’m certain that for Magdalene and the other disciples, this was a terribly dark time.

St. John begins the story with a mystery: the body of Jesus is missing. The disciples first encounter only the physical evidence of what looks like a grave robbing. Someone has rolled the stone away, removed the body of the Christ, and left behind only the burial linens. Mary runs to get the other disciples. Peter and the beloved disciple confirm the absence of Jesus’ body, but none of them yet understands what this might mean. Mary then meets a man she assumes to be gardener, and without understanding it, she has encountered the risen Lord.

I’m struck by Jesus’ question to Mary, “For whom are you looking?” We’ve heard Him ask a similar question before. Jesus asked John the Baptist’s disciples, “What are you looking for?” John 1:38. When the soldiers come to the Garden of Gethsemane to arrest Him, Jesus asks them, “For whom are you looking?” John 18:4,7. We also recall in John’s Gospel that some Greeks came looking for Jesus. John 12: 20-21. I suspect that this Easter Sunday, our churches will be full of people who are looking for Jesus, even though some of them may not even know it.

Consistent with John’s repeated theme of misunderstandings, Mary mistakes Jesus for a gardener. Without knowing it, I believe she is right. I think St. John intentionally calls us back, not just to the garden of Gethsemane, but also to the Garden of Eden. Through his resurrection, Jesus has conquered death and re-made creation. That morning, Mary met Jesus and encountered the fulfilment of God’s directive: “Let there be light.” (Gen. 1:2).

It also strikes me that the tomb wasn’t really empty at all. That tomb was full of the visions and hopes of God’s people: dreams of a better world, dreams that they would be better people, dreams that death would not prevail, and dreams for reconciliation with God.

In a sense, that tomb resembles the stable in the Chronicles of Narnia: it is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. The tomb contained God’s dreams for our life with Him. Within that tomb, the disciples will find the revelation that God’s promises were not empty. Those dreams they had weren’t in the tomb any longer; they were walking around and were alive! The shackles of sin and sorrow and death have been broken.

The passage ends with Mary’s affirmation of faith, despite the darkness of the horror on Golgotha: “I have seen the Lord.” I hope that, on this Easter Sunday, you are looking for Jesus. I’m certain that He is looking for you. And I hope that, like that good saint, we can tell the world : “We have seen the Lord.”

Happy Easter! He is risen!

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis