Tag Archives: Salvation

You Can’t Go Home Again

aThe full readings for today can be found here.


In the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus read from the book of the prophet Isaiah, and began to say, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way. Luke 4:21-30.

When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

 In the name of the Living God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

          Good morning, good morning. It’s a pleasure to be with you today, and I want to thank you for your warm hospitality these past few weeks. I’m going to tell you all something and some of you may find this a bit shocking. Think of it as my confession. Those of you who know me well may not find this surprising at all, but I’m not sure I have been saved. I’m not sure that accurately describes the situation at all.

          I’m going to tell y’all a story about me, back when I was just a wee little boy back in Odessa, Texas. My family raised me as an Irish Catholic and I attended kindergarten and first grade at a Catholic school. But when I was in the second grade, my folks decided I should go to the public school and I began attending Burnett Elementary School.

          And it was during the first week when I was there on the playground, at recess, when I was surrounded by a ring of my classmates.  And I’m pretty sure they were Baptists because I think most everyone in Odessa was. And my new friends began to interrogate me and asked, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior?” And I honestly don’t know where this answer came from because I was not a thoughtful child. There were a lot of words used to describe me in my childhood, but “thoughtful” is not one of them. But I looked at them and said, “Kind of. I don’t think he came just to save me. I think he came to save the whole world.” But I’ll circle back to that idea of salvation here in a bit.

          Speaking of hometowns, in today’s gospel we find Jesus back in his hometown, Nazareth. Now, Nazareth wasn’t a particularly important place, and it was largely known as a poor region, a place populated by rabble rousers and troublemakers. So when folks there heard about the good things Jesus was doing in other cities, I’m sure they were full of expectations and curiosity, a little pride, and perhaps a little envy.

And Jesus stood up there in the synagogue and he reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

          And then, he tells them, “Today this has happened, and you’ve been here to hear it.” It’s a startling announcement: it’s shocking. And in the most clear expression we can find in the Gospels, Jesus makes the claim: “I’m him. I’m the Messiah you’ve all been waiting for.” And while the people are initially impressed, it doesn’t take long until they’re asking themselves, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”

          They’re suggesting: Wait a minute. We know this man, and there’s nothing particularly special about him, or perhaps they are alluding to his dubious parentage. I’ve got a feeling that Jesus knew this town, these people and their narrowness. Jesus had probably heard the whispers about his mother and her “virgin birth.” And these people were confident they knew all about Jesus. Of course, we know that familiarity breeds contempt. And that’s not unusual: we all get accustomed to thinking about people in a certain way. Neuropsychiatrists tell us that human thoughts and ideas travel along well-worn pathways in our brains. These people pretty sure they’ve got Jesus all figured out, and they also know what the Messiah should look like and this upstart . . . well, this isn’t him at all.

          And Jesus knows they want him to do the same stuff in his hometown that he did in Capernaum. You know, all that miracle stuff. As C.S. Lewis once observed, one of our great human weaknesses is to tell God “Encore! Do that again!” Because we want God to be predictable; we want a God we can do business with.

          But Jesus, he’s going to thwart their expectations. In essence, He tells them, “I didn’t come just for you people.” This is not what we’d call an “effective marketing strategy.” Jesus reminds them about Elijah, who was also rejected by His own people, and brought deliverance from sickness and hunger and death to a Gentile woman. He reminds them about Elisha, who cured the Gentile Naaman although there were plenty of lepers in Israel. This is a bitter pill to swallow; this is hard medicine for the hometown crowd, and the crowd has what modern doctors would call an “adverse reaction” to this medicine.

          Luke tells us they were filled with rage, and they ran him outside town and were going to throw him off a cliff, when Jesus somehow just slips away. And that seems a little strange, because it’s hard to get away from an angry mob. But maybe Luke is telling us that when we are full of self-assurance and when we’re filled with rage, it’s very hard to find Jesus.  Rage and fear and self-assurance act like God cataracts: we just can’t see God when we feel that way.

          Jesus is always upending the expectations of those who think they’ve got God figured out: they’ve got a God they understand, a God they can do business with. He does it again and again. It’s one of his character traits, and I think He got that from his Father. The minute we think we’ve got God all figured out, He up and does something we just didn’t see coming. And for those disappointments which prove to be our salvation, we should give thanks every day.

          So, I want to circle back to that concern I shared with you early on. I don’t think I can honestly say that I have been saved. I don’t think my salvation is my rear-view mirror. But I do think I’m being saved. My salvation began over two thousand years ago when God’s son was born into the stench and muck of a cow barn and walked and lived among us until he walked up that hill called Golgotha, the place of the skulls. I am being saved daily, working out my salvation with fear and trembling, through prayer, encounters with the Scriptures, the Sacraments, and the love of Christ’s body, the Church. And I believe I will be saved at the last day through God’s love and mercy: through the mercy of a God who, despite my best efforts, simply will not stay in any of the boxes I try to fit Him into. This, I believe, and this, I give thanks for. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2016


James of Jerusalem: A Homily

St. James

All the apostles and elders kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles. After they finished speaking, James replied, “My brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name. This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written,
`After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; from its ruins I will rebuild it, and I will set it up, so that all other peoples may seek the Lord– even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called. Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things known from long ago.’
Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood. For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every sabbath in the synagogues.”

Then the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, decided to choose men from among their members and to send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. Acts 15:12-22a.

In the name of the living God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Well, good morning, good morning. It’s good to be with you all this morning as we observe the Feast of James of Jerusalem, sometimes called James the Just and sometimes called the brother of our Lord.
When we look at the Gospel for this morning, we see James (along with the rest of Jesus’ family) being used as an argument against Jesus’ authority. Having heard Jesus teach and seen his deeds of power, Jesus’ family is used to make the argument that he’s nothing special. We know his mother, we know his brother, he’s the son of a working man. It’s so difficult for us to recognize holiness in our everyday lives. But that’s how God works: he makes the everyday holy. But it’s hard to see sometimes. Even James, we think, did not accept Jesus as messiah, as his Lord, until he witnessed the resurrection.
So, the reading this morning, from the Book of Acts, puts St. James in a place many of us know something about: he is smack dab in the middle of a church fight.  Very often in church fights, as is sometimes true in marriages, the fight isn’t really about what the fight is about. The fight isn’t about how messy and chaotic the drawers in the desk are; the fight is about how messy and chaotic our lives are. Or the fight isn’t about the style of worship; it’s about people feeling like they’re losing the church they grew up in. But sometimes a church fight can clarify doctrine, or can offer the Church what we now call a teaching moment.
One of my Jesuit brothers said, “Unity in the essential things, liberty in the nonessential things, and charity in all things.” This fight was about essential things—about the essentials of becoming a Christian and following Jesus and about salvation. So, James is caught up in a fight, and it’s a doozy.
Luke says, “certain individuals” were teaching that circumcision and following the law was necessary for salvation. Now, these folks were Pharisees. And they had heard what was happening with the Gentiles down in Antioch. And they were certainly right: they were correct about what had been the custom of the Jews in Jerusalem. But, like we so often do, they had confused those things that are customary with those things that are necessary.
And on the other side of this fight were Peter and Paul and Barnabas. And Peter, in the verse immediately before this passage we read today, argued that none of those things in the Mosaic law were necessary anymore. He said, “We believe that they will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as we will.”
It’s an important lesson for us today as well. Don’t try and out-God God. We so often underestimate the Holy Spirit—underestimate the power of grace. And when it comes time to make a decision, James (the head of the church in Jerusalem) speaks for the whole Church. He hears the voice of the prophet Amos in what’s been happening with the Gentiles. And he concludes, we shouldn’t trouble those who are turning to God. He knows that grace is enough; grace alone suffices to sustain us, to save us. Now, he does caution them about abstaining from food offered to idols, and otherwise acting like pagans. In other words, he advises them not to abuse their liberty.
So, the story of my namesake, St. James, is not a story about a guy who knows the truth in an instant. It’s a story about a guy who makes a couple of mistakes before he finally gets it right. We all need to hear the story of St. James, because it’s a story about the only necessary thing: God’s grace in our lives. And it’s a story about second chances. And, after all, ours is a religion of second chances.

Pax Christi,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2013 James R. Dennis

To an Immeasurable Extent

 Anyone who is a slave to sin should prepare himself for true regeneration by means of faith.  He must shake the yoke of sin off his back and enter the joyful service of the Lord.  He will be thought worthy to inherit the kingdom.
Don’t hesitate to declare yourself sinners.  Thereby you will be put off your old humanity that was corrupt because it followed the bait of error.  And you will put on the new humanity, the humanity newly clad in intimacy with the creator.

The regeneration of which I am speaking is not the rebirth of the body, but the second birth of the soul.  Bodies are procreated by the father and mother, but souls are recreated by means of faith, since the Spirit blows where it will. [John 3:8]
God is kind and he is kind to an immeasurable extent.
Don’t say: “I have been dishonest, an adulterer, I have committed grave offenses innumerable time.  Will he forgive them? Will he deign to forget them? Listen rather to the Psalmist: “How great is your love, O Lord.” [cf. Ps. 31:19]
Your sins piled up one above the other do not overtop the greatness of God’s love.  Your wounds are not too great for the skill of the Doctor.
There is only one course of treatment for you to follow: rely on him in faith. Explain frankly what is wrong to the Doctor and say with the Psalmist: “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity.” [Ps. 32:5] Then you will be able to go on with the Psalmist to say: “Then did you forgive the guilt of my sin.”

Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechesis (from Drinking from the Hidden Fountain).

We think St. Cyril of Jerusalem lived between 313 and 386 A.D. He has been venerated as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church and the Anglican Communion. At a time of great strife and discord within the early Church, he worked for peace and reconciliation. He became the bishop of Jerusalem, and was loved there for his works of charity (which included feeding the poor at the expense of selling the church treasury).

I love this little piece of his, in part because it echoes one of the major themes of this blog: our capacity to sin can never outrun God’s deep and abiding love. The Cross teaches us how much God cares for us. We will never be able to reason, or to behave, our way into God’s love, which He pours out like a steady rain onto all of us.  I hope we can all hear God’s voice calling to us, affirming us as His beloved.

We can never go so far down the road to ruin that we cannot turn back, and our Father who sees us from a long ways off, will come running to meet us. As Cyril said, our wounds are not too deep for the Doctor to heal.  Never.  Never ever.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis


I’m going to be taking a break from writing for  a while.  You will remain in my prayers, and in my heart.

“Peace be within your walls,
and security within your towers.’
For the sake of my relatives and friends
I will say, ‘Peace be within you.’
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your good.”

The Keys We All Carry

When you hear the words: “Peter, do you love me?” [John 21:15] imagine you are in front of a mirror and looking at yourself.
Peter, surely, was a symbol of the Church.  Therefore the Lord in asking Peter is asking us too.  
To show that Peter was a symbol of the Church, remember the passage in the Gospel, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. [Matt. 16:18]
Has only one man received those keys?  Christ himself explains what they are for: “Whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” [Matt. 18:18] If these words had been said only to Peter, now that he is dead who would ever be able to bind or loose?
I make bold to say that all of us have received the keys.  We bind and loose.  And you also bind and loose.
Whoever is bound is separated from your community; he is bound by you. When he is reconciled, however, he is loosed, thanks to you because you are praying for him. 

Augustine, Serm. Morin 16 (Miscellanea Agostiniana)

My travel schedule remains quite hectic, so once again this will be a short post.  I found this bit of wisdom in Thomas Spidlik’s wonderful little book, Drinking from the Hidden Fountain.

I think Augustine points out several things that matter a great deal for our spiritual lives.  As we read Scripture, we should read it as if Jesus were speaking to us personally.  Jesus wasn’t only explaining to the a first century audience about the kingdom of heaven: He was speaking to you and to me.

I think too often we think of the keys to the kingdom as something that Jesus left as an inheritance to Peter, or to the Twelve, and perhaps we might even go so far as to think our clergy have inherited it.  Augustine suggests, and I believe, that those keys are our inheritance, yours and mine. So, when I withhold forgiveness from my brother or sister, I hold that sin bound.  (I think one could seriously question exactly who is bound up when forgiveness is withheld, but perhaps we’ll talk about that another time.) On the other hand, each of us have the power to loose our brothers and sisters.

We can loose them by forgiving them; we can loose them from the burdens they carry; we can loose them by righting an old wrong or through our acts of charity and kindness.   Jesus left us these keys, left them to you and to me.  So, I wonder, what locks will we open today?

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Have Salt in Yourselves

John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell., And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” Mark 9:38-50.

Jesus had a funny habit.  He often encountered those who would try to draw a boundary between the holy and the unholy, between the sacred and the profane, between the clean and the unclean.  Whenever he ran into these boundaries, Jesus would step on the other side.  He did it with lepers. He did it with tax collectors. He did it with prostitutes and those who were sick and lame and even the Gentiles.  He even crossed the boundaries drawn around the Sabbath. He did it so often that we begin to wonder if there’s a message in there.  And in today’s Gospel, He does it again.

In the first section of this passage, the disciples express their concern that someone outside their circle has also engaged in the healing ministry. It’s at least worth noting that this passage in Mark follows the scene in which the disciples were squabbling among themselves about who was the greatest. Mark 9:32-34. That story ended with Jesus taking a small child (another outsider in that society) into his arms and explaining that those who welcome such a child actually welcome Jesus and his Father. In today’s reading, Jesus continues teaching his disciples about letting go of their sense of self-importance and widening the circle of holiness far beyond themselves.

We hear the echoes of John’s criticism (he was “not following us”) too often as we hear Christians speak of other believers, other denominations, and other faiths. Jesus wants to “welcome” the children; John is concerned with those who are “not following us.” Jesus affirms even the simplest act of kindness, a cup of water, done in His name.

Jesus sharply contrasts those who offer kindness, who encourage, with those who get in the way of someone’s journey to the Father. Those who scandalize these little ones or cause them to stumble, Jesus teaches that Gehenna awaits them. (Gehenna, the Valley of Hinnom, was a ravine south of Jerusalem where child sacrifices to Moloch had taken place.  Jeremiah 7:31; 32:35.)  After King Josiah destroyed the altar to Moloch, it became a continuously burning trash, used as a metaphor for the torment of the wicked.

Jesus teaches that we must rid ourselves of whatever causes us to stumble, even if it’s our hand, our foot, or our eye. I don’t think Jesus is advocating self-mutilation.  He’s telling His disciples to separate themselves from anything that interferes with their path to the Father. He advocates a clear focus on the things that bring us closer to the kingdom of God, even if we must shed ourselves of ourselves.

The closing paragraph may seem strange to our modern ears.  At the time, however, both salt and fire were used medicinally.  They were used to treat wounds; thus, Jesus is saying that everyone will find their healing, their wholeness. To “share salt” with someone, to share a meal, carried with it the implication of fellowship.  The expression “have salt in yourself” meant “be at peace with yourself.”  Salt was also used as a preservative and carried with it the implication of permanence. Jesus thus encourages His disciples (and us) to find our healing and reconciliation by making peace with ourselves, and with our brothers and sisters.

I pray we find that peace, not by excluding others from the circle of holiness, but my looking for God and His kingdom in all times and all places.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Letting Go of Fear

If someone really does not care whether they live or die it is hard to threaten them.  If our identity lies in whose we are, and not just who we are, then even loss of reputation will only be a temporary setback.  The need to be someone, to have clout, to command respect, to have prestige or position, these are shackles every bit as strong as those of materialism.
To be seen as holy, or spiritually mature, someone of depth, having a quiet authority: are these not also ambitions, or bolsters of our status?
If we can only reach the true poverty and yieldedness of not “needing to be” anything (even a humble nothing), then we will be truly invisible.  We will be unable to be bought by any pressure.

–Celtic Daily Prayer

Today’s reading from Celtic Daily Prayer offers us several lessons about our spiritual lives. I taught a class Sunday on one of the primary threats to our relationship with God: fear.  When we turn onto the highway of fear, we find that it’s full of toll roads.  Fear may be our Ancient Enemy’s most powerful weapon.  When I look back on the worst mistakes I’ve made in my life, I find that they were motivated by a common denominator:  I was afraid.

Fear can manifest itself in a number of ways.  The more our wealth increases, the more we fear that we might lose it: through thieves, market fluctuations, taxation, or that it just might not be enough. Thus, Jesus regularly cautioned us about letting go of our wealth.

Today’s reading, however, cautions us about another kind of fear: the need to be well thought of, to command respect, and achieve spiritual advancement.  It’s a caution that I take to heart.  From a very early age, I wanted to be “the smartest guy in the room.”  And for those of us in the religious life, our fear can push us into a fear of spiritual disrespect.  It’s a very special kind of pride, which can manifest itself in a particular type of fear.  We wonder, “What if they don’t listen? What if they think I’m shallow?”

And yet, Jesus taught us that the kingdom of heaven would belong to the poor in spirit. Matt. 5:3. What does spiritual poverty mean to us?  The notion reminds me of Job, who lost everything there was to lose. (Coincidentally, the readings from the Daily Office are focussing on Job. The icon above is a very old icon of Job.)  Every last bit of pride was stripped from him. And yet, Job never abandoned the Source of his life. In many ways, I think the Book of Job is one of the most Christian books of the Old Testament.

The trick, I think, lies in remembering (as Celtic Daily Prayer reminds us) not so much who we are as whose we are. We are beloved children of God and we belong only to Him.  Nothing else matters so much as that.  And when we come to that realization, like Job, we find comfort in the knowledge that “my Redeemer lives.”  Job 19:25.

May the peace of Christ disturb you profoundly,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

 © 2012 James R. Dennis

The Bread That Came Down From Heaven

Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 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.” John 6:51-58.

This week, the Lectionary’s Gospel passage offers us Jesus’ assurance, an assurance linking the Eucharist to eternal life.  Before we get there, however, it’s worth putting this text in a bit of context.

First, let’s look at the historical context.  In first century Palestine, bread wasn’t simply one of the four basic food groups, something nice to eat with a hearty meal.  More often than not, bread was the meal.  In other words, bread generally stood between a person a starvation; bread was the difference between living and dying.

If we turn to the textual context, we find earlier in the same chapter that Jesus fed the five thousand with a meal of bread and fish. I think John uses this passage to explore the truth and the mystery of the loaves and the fishes.  In the midst of want and hunger, Jesus used bread to teach the crowd about God’s abundance and love for them. Within the same chapter, Jesus appears to the disciples who are terrified when they see him walking on water. So, within this chapter, we see Jesus taking away our hunger and our fear.  Now, we come to today’s reading.

Jesus assures the crowd that he will “abide in” those who partake of his flesh and his blood. It’s pretty clear that the Christian community in which John dwelt had an established Eucharistic tradition, and John’s Gospel links the Eucharist to  Jesus making a permanent home with those who share in that great feast. Through the bread and the wine, we invite Jesus into our lives and take comfort in His promise that He will remain with us through all the things that frighten us: hunger, frailty, and even death.

Six times within this chapter St. John uses Greek word καταβαινω, which we translate as “came down” or “descend.” John’s Gospel presents us with a deeply incarnational narrative:  the story of God coming down to dwell with us in the flesh. That incarnational theology is deeply tied to the Eucharist:  Jesus said “This is body.  This is my blood.”  This isn’t philosophical or ethereal; Jesus invites us to share in a real feast. He invites us to feast on His life.

Jesus invites us to share in a deep sacramental mystery.  Somehow, our new life (abiding with Him) lies in that bread and that wine. I don’t pretend to understand how this works but as C.S. Lewis observed in Letters to Malcolm, “The command, after all, was Take, eat: not Take, understand.” I pray we all take and eat of the Living God who came down and dwelt among us, and who abides with us still.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

 © 2012 James R. Dennis