Tag Archives: Easter

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

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