Tag Archives: Disciples

Deeds of Power

Jesus left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.  Mark 6:1-13.

Mark’s Gospel for the Sunday Lectionary offers us several insights into Jesus.  You may remember a couple of weeks back, as the disciples were caught in a terrible storm, they wondered,  “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Mark 4:41.  Last week, in Chapter 5, we heard a partial answer to that question, in the stories of Jairus’ daughter and the woman who touched Jesus’ cloak.  I think today’s reading may also help us unlock the answer to that question.

Jesus returns to Nazareth, to his hometown.  Teaching at the synagogue, he astonishes the crowd there.  They marvel at his wisdom, his teaching, and at his “deeds of power.”  Like many of us, however, a profound distrust soon overcomes their sense of awe.  They wonder, “How can this be so?  We know Jesus, and we know his family.  He’s just a simple carpenter.”

Often, I think, we lose the irony of Mark’s next phrase.  “And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.”  Most of us would probably find such a miraculous hearing sufficient, if not extraordinary.

Mark does seem to link, however, the occurrence of the miraculous with the community’s ability to trust God, with the community’s faith.  That’s an interesting reversal of the way we often think of miracles.  We sometimes think, “Lord, if you will only (insert something miraculous here), then I’ll be able to believe.”  Mark, however, suggests that miracles are a consequence of faith, rather than a cause of it.  (The theological footing here may not be completely sturdy, in that it suggests that God’s power hinges on us and our belief.  I have serious questions about that view, but Mark seems to suggest it strongly. I’m inclined to suggest an alternate hypothesis:  Our trust in God opens our eyes to the everyday miracles that surround us.)

In the next passage, Jesus continues his ministry, and actively begins the process of the disciples’ formation.  He sends the disciples out in pairs, giving them authority over “unclean spirits.”  He sends them out with only a staff, and no provisions for the journey.  Jesus sent them out to proclaim his message of repentance, and they cured many and cast out demons.  I think this notion of “travelling light” will also help us answer the question “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Like their Rabbi, the disciples would not travel with either pomp or plenty.  They travelled, as Jesus did, sharing in the people’s need and vulnerability.  The twelve would learn to abandon the illusion of self-sufficiency.  The disciples would have to learn to trust God’s people, to trust each other, and most importantly, to trust God.  They would learn to be the instruments of grace and faith, and learn to be the music those instruments played.  Through the Incarnation of this Jesus, they would learn what the Kingdom looked like, and learn that God wanted to bridge His separation from mankind.

Throughout their time with Christ, they would begin to understand the answer:  “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”  I hope we begin to understand, too.  Lord, we believe; help our unbelief.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Peace! Be Still!

When evening had come, Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”  Mark 4:35-41.

In the Gospel reading from today’s Lectionary, we find Jesus and the disciples after a long day of teaching and healing.  In fact, the crowds had swelled to such a point that Jesus had preached from the boat as the crowd listened on land.  Jesus devoted much of his teaching that day to explaining about the Kingdom of God.  I think we might interpret today’s Gospel in that context, although Jesus will now show the disciples what the Kingdom is like.

When a violent storm arises and threatens to swamp their boat, the disciples feel a genuine terror.  I have often asked the exact question that they raise:  “Do you not care that we are perishing?”  I have often asked God almost exactly the same question:  “Can you not see what’s going on down here?”  We wonder where God is while we struggle through our troubles, our danger, and our fears.  And yet, the disciples found that their rabbi was with them all along, sleeping in the stern of the boat.  So, this story suggests that while we are panicking in chaos and certain that we are perishing, Jesus remains right there with us, in the middle of the storm.

Mark tells us that Jesus rebuked the storm, telling the maelstrom:  “Peace!  Be still!” We all wish that we could give such instructions when chaos arrives.  What would happen if we could rebuke cancer, or automobile crashes, or church fights, telling them:  “Be still!”  Even the wind and the sea obeyed Jesus, but I suspect that’s mostly because Jesus had such a profound trust of the Father.

Earlier, I suggested that this Gospel passage, like those that immediately precede it, is about the Kingdom of God.  Jesus can sleep through the storm because He knows that God reigns over all, and wants to take care of, all creation.  While the control of meteorological events may seem beyond most of us, trusting God is well within our reach.  Perhaps then, we too can be still.

I wish you Sabbath peace,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Do You Understand What You Are Reading?

An angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
     and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
     so he does not open his mouth.

In his humiliation justice was denied him.
      Who can describe his generation?
      For his life is taken away from the earth.”

The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.  Acts 8:26-40.

In today’s Lectionary reading from the book of Acts, we encounter the disciple Phillip.  After the stoning of St. Stephen, while Saul was still persecuting the Church, Phillip preached in Samaria.  Now, Phillip was a layman, a deacon who waited on tables and distributed food to widows.  But while in Samaria, he healed many people and cast out unclean Spirits.  Then an angel appeared and told him to go south toward Gaza.  Without question or protest, Phillip goes down this “wilderness road.”

Phillip then meets this Ethiopian eunuch, a court official in the queen’s court, a man entrusted with the queen’s treasury.  (Because of their castration, eunuchs were considered particularly suitable to work in the courts of royal women. Because of their mutilation, however, good Jews could not touch, eat with, or even talk to eunuchs.) The Spirit directs Phillip to join him in the chariot.  There, the eunuch sits, reading a scroll from the 53rd chapter of Isaiah. 

Phillip asks this man if he understands the passage he is reading. The eunuch does not understand whether the passage is autobiographical or if the prophet is speaking of someone else.  Phillip explains to him the gospel (good news) about Jesus, demonstrating that the early Church had already begun to read the later passages of Isaiah (sometimes called 2nd Isaiah) through the lens of the Christian experience.

As they travel along, something remarkable happens.  They come upon a pool or creek or a puddle of water and the eunuch asks Phillip to baptize him. Phillip does so, expanding the Church well beyond the reach anyone would have imagined before.   Not coincidentally, this happens because two of God’s children read Scripture together, expanding the reach of the Word.  Often in community, we discover new ways to read and understand the good news Christ came to bring us.

Among other things, this passage reveals a remark able shift in the new Christian community:  a shift toward inclusion.  We remember that the holiness codes  mandated the exclusion of eunuchs from the community of believers.  Deut. 23:1; Lev . 21:17-21. The Holy Spirit directs Phillip to go a different direction.  The Holy Spirit (the real “actor” in this book we call Acts) continually pushes the boundaries of the Christian community.  Where we thought the answer was an obvious “no”, the Spirit responds with an enthusiastic “Yes!”  We often underestimate the breadth of God’s intent to save this world and His children.

The Ethiopian, who had been excluded from so much of the religious experience, found Jesus in the middle of the desert.  Out in the wilderness, Phillip saw the power of Jesus at work.  Scripture tells us that this Ethopian, this man excluded because of his brokenness, rejoiced when he was welcomed into the Church.

This passage also teaches that we do not come to the faith alone, and very few of us grow in the faith alone.  I pray that, as we encounter the living God in Holy Scripture and throughout creation, we remain, like Phillip, open to the movement of the Spirit.  And maybe then, like that Ethiopian in the desert, we will encounter Jesus in the wilderness.

Shabbat shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Not One Letter, Not One Stroke of a Letter

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.  Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Matt. 5:17-20.

In the Gospel from today’s Daily Office, Jesus emphasizes his continuity with God’s message to His people, a message first announced in the law and the prophets.  That continuity shines forth in the story of the Transfiguration, which St. Matthew records at Matt. 17:1-9 and which the icon above depicts.  As God announces Jesus as his beloved Son, Christ appears flanked by Moses and Elijah.  We might wonder, “Why those two heroes of the Old Testament?”  Moses and Elijah, respectively, represented the Law (given by Moses) and the prophets.  Jesus comes as the full flowering, the conclusion or completion of the law and the prophets.

Rather than encouraging his disciples to abandon Scripture, he asks them to take it seriously. Like many of us today, the Pharisees and scribes had read scripture as calling us into a worthiness competition.  We find the perfect example of that view in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.  (Luke 18:9-14; see here).  Jesus completes the law and the prophets by showing us that God’s love and grace has nothing to do with our worthiness.

A legalistic vision of Scripture works externally, requiring people to confirm to rules and to require such conformity from those around them.  Jesus calls us to internalize the Scripture, allowing it to transform our hearts so that we can live more deeply into it.  Legalism mistakes the packaging for the contents.  Thus, he tells his disciples that must go beyond the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.  The impulse to legalism always calls us into a kind of idolatry, in which we substitute performance of a given set of obligations for a relationship with the living God.

Jesus asks us to move forward from the notion of right action to the idea of a right relationship with God. We find an example of what Jesus means in Matthew 23:23.  There, He notes that the Pharisees “tithe mint, dill, and cummin, but have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.”  Jesus doesn’t ask us to reject the Law (the Torah), merely to examine the principles which underlie it.  When our principle objective becomes a relationship with the Almighty that pushes us toward justice and mercy and faith, we will read the Law in the right context.

Jesus brings that Law into its fullness, pointing out how narrowly the people had come to understand God’s purposes.  The problem wasn’t that the scribes and Pharisees overvalued the Law; the problem lay in their underestimation of God’s purposes.  Thus, Jesus taught that the good Samaritan actually lived into loving his neighbor, while a more legalistic or superficial view asked, “And who is my neighbor?” Luke 10:29.  Like many of us today, while the scribes may have known exactly what the words of the law said, they had completely missed what they meant.  They had captured the notion of compliance, but missed the blessing of God’s spirit reshaping their lives.

I pray that we find that blessing today.

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

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