Tag Archives: The Kingdom of God

Sown in Peace for Those Who Make Peace

Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a.

Within today’s Lectionary, the New Testament offers us this wonderful passage from the Epistle of St. James.  We think, but are not certain, that this letter was written sometime around 48-50 A.D. In many ways, James is one of the most “Jewish” books of the New Testament, and echoes with themes and language of the Wisdom literature. Clearly, at this time, Christians were being persecuted by the Gentiles (including the Romans), the Jewish authorities, and sometimes by others within the Christian community.

As to the conflicts within the Church, James observed that many who boastfully claimed to have the authority of truth were motivated by “bitter envy and selfish ambition.” Real wisdom and understanding, writes James, manifest themselves through gentleness and peace.

Many of us today find ourselves embroiled in conflict and controversy within our churches.  James doesn’t suggest we resolve that the way the world does, through power and banging a few heads together until people learn how to behave. Rather than the wisdom that comes from the Father, James calls that way of resolving conflict earthly, unspiritual,  and devilish.

James offers a vision of God that suggests a gentle Lord, the good shepherd, the Prince of Peace. Reading James, we might think of the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God. He outlines the attributes of divine wisdom: first purity, “then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” James 3:17. That’s the kind of wisdom which might pray “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” Luke 23:34.

What would our churches look like if we recognized the willingness to yield as real wisdom?  How would our churches operate differently if we saw gentleness as a quality of Christian leadership?

In The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer wrote: “The followers of Christ have been called to peace .… And they must not only have peace but also make it.” James suggests that, as Christians, we must not only live in peace; we must create peace. When we decide to live without a trace of hypocrisy, we can no longer preach Christ while engaging in conflict. He calls us to set aside some of our personal righteousness, choosing divine righteousness instead.

If we surrender to God and resist the devil, James tells us, the devil will flee from us.  Our ancient enemy always calls us toward the idea of our own merit, our own righteousness.  In the Book of Genesis, the serpent told Eve that if she ate of the forbidden fruit she would not die.  Rather, “‘God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’”  Gen. 3:5. In the temptation in the desert, Satan offered Jesus the glory and authority of all the earth’s kingdoms.  Luke 4:6.

James suggests quite a different path:  surrendering to God.  Walking with God in all humility may lead us to a quite different destination than that to which the world points. If we follow it, the world may yet see a sign of hope in the Church, a sign of hope in those who call themselves the friends of God.  And if we draw ourselves closer to the Living God, James tells us that God will draw Himself closer to us.

My Dominican brother Thomas Aquinas instructed us that we were created for just such a purpose: we were made for intimacy with God.  We cannot achieve that kind of intimacy while we are bickering with each other. And we might just discover that a pure love of God leads to an unmixed love of His children.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Doing the Word

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.

You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act-they will be blessed in their doing.

If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. James 1:17-27.

I have always loved today’s Lectionary reading from James, for a number of reasons. He reminds us that following Jesus requires living into our beliefs, rather than merely accepting certain concepts or propositions. I love good, challenging theology, but that’s not James’ purpose. This is deep, richly practical Christianity.

James begins with the remarkable statement that all our works of love come down from the Father of lights. All of our charity, all of our generosity, all of our love: James tell us these come from heaven. This means, of course, that God constantly works to better this world.

James then cautions the believers to be quick to listen, although slow to speak and slow to anger. As I listen to squabbles within my own denomination, or heaven forbid read the flaming posts that carry on religious debates on the blogosphere, I understand why the Church thought James’ epistle needed to be in the Bible.

James advises us all to stop and think a few moments before we respond with a quick anger and find ourselves regretting patiently. Mother Teresa once made a powerful observation about the genuine function of Christian speech.  She said, “I am a little pencil in the hand of a writing God who is sending a love letter to the world.”

He warns us against fooling ourselves: all our piety, if we can’t bridle our tongues and live into the life of Christ, is nothing more than self-deception. At that time, the most vulnerable members of society were widows and orphans. They lived on the margins of first century Palestine.  James cautions the Church: real religion consists of taking care of God’s children when they can’t take care of themselves and avoiding the stain if sin.  James calls that the “pure religion,”and everything else is just holy smoke.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

To Whom Can We Go?

Jesus said, “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.” He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”

Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” John 6:56-69.

The Lectionary brings us now to the final and critical passage from the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel. To place it in context, Jesus has fed the five thousand, has walked on water, and now tries to teach the crowd about his flesh and blood as the road to eternal life.  That message does not go over so well.

John reports that many in the crowd could not accept this “difficult” teaching. Even some of his disciples muttered and complained.  As we hear about the disciples grumbling about this teaching, we hear the echo of God’s people grumbling about bread in the wilderness during the Exodus.  Jesus knew the crowd found His teaching offensive; his words were scandalous and incendiary, and the crowd began to turn away.

We shouldn’t judge those who turned away too harshly; Jesus’ teachings ran contrary to scripture. Leviticus clearly instructed, “If anyone of the house of Israel or of the aliens who reside among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood, and will cut that person off from the people.” Lev. 17:10.  We find the same prohibition in the Book of Genesis:  “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.” Genesis 9:3-4.

Leviticus reveals the reasons for this prohibition: For the life of every creature—its blood is its life; therefore I have said to the people of Israel: You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood; whoever eats it shall be cut off. Lev. 17: 14. Moreover, this is one of the “I Am” passages in John’s gospel in which Jesus identifies himself with YHWH (“I am who am”). Thus, the crowd would have struggled with Jesus’ teaching on several levels.

Jesus instructs the crowd to consider the ways of heaven, and turn away from their focus on the ways of this world. He tells them, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” Scripture taught them not to eat blood because it contained the essence of life.  Jesus tells us that He wants His very life coursing though our veins, through our lives. His spirit will become our food, the life force animating and running through us.

John tells us that many in the crowd turned away from Jesus, turned back into “the things of the past” (eis ta opiso in the Greek). They returned to a spiritual life that was more traditional comfortable, more comfortable. They returned to a religious life that seemed much more safe.

Now we reach the climax, the fulcrum upon which the entire sixth chapter of John (in which we’ve spent several weeks) turns. Jesus turns to the Twelve and asks them, “Are you going to leave me, too?”  And Peter (stumbling, clumsy Peter) responds, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Peter’s answer, in one sense, is heartbreaking:  “Where else are we going to go?”  It’s a question we sometimes ask ourselves as we confront the heartbreaking moments in our lives.

The disciples have come to that remarkable point at which there’s really no turning back for them.  Wherever Jesus is going, no matter how difficult, that’s their path as well. Whatever they’ve found in Jesus is beyond this world, beyond the Temple, and yes, beyond “religion”. They are coloring outside the lines now, because the life of Christ has begun to run through them.

In the past, I’ve written about the tremendous mystery of Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist.  In this passage, we see the Twelve drawn into perhaps the greatest mystery of all: God’s deep and abiding love for us. I pray that we will all be drawn by the Father into that mystery, until the life of the Holy One flows in and through us.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

 © 2012 James R. Dennis

No Hands But Ours

“God aids the valiant…both to you and to me He will give the help needed.”

–St. Teresa of Avila

Not all that long ago, I went through a very dispiriting week.  Three of my friends had been struggling with cancer.  The husband of my oldest friend in the world was being treated for bladder cancer at M.D. Anderson.  Another very close friend had just been diagnosed with stage 4 throat cancer.  That same week, my cousin was treated for the fourth reoccurrence of thyroid cancer.

Each of them had endured that ghastly, medieval horror we so unhelpfully call a “treatment”: chemotherapy.  Two had adopted children and taken them into their homes.  One of them is a single parent.  One of them had no insurance, so I had a little skin in the health care debate and I was terrified about what this might mean for my friend and the family.

I’m not sure why, but way too often the people I love and terminal illness have intersected.  All of that provides the backdrop for the week I was telling you about.  That Thursday morning I got a call that a friend of mine, a law school classmate with whom I played lots of golf and lots of 42 (a poor man’s bridge played with dominos), had been killed while riding his bicycle with his 17-year-old son.  The son had gotten winded and stopped to rest, while Larry rode ahead.  A few moments later, his son rode up on the scene of the accident where his father lay dying.  My friend Larry was struck by a car driven by a 22-year-old girl, and we’re not sure why she veered out of her lane of traffic.  Then on that Friday morning, I got another early morning phone call.  Another law school classmate of mine lost his 27-year-old son in a bizarre accident.

I reached a couple of thoughts about the gut wrenching kaleidoscope of these events.  The first of these is that I may be a bit of a Jonah, and would understand perfectly if folks were to scootch away or avert their eyes when they see me walking toward them.  Second, I think being a friend, being a Christian, is a contact sport.

As Teresa of Avila said, “Christ has no body on earth but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours.”  Nothing in this world is harder, or more essential to the Christian life, than being present while someone you love suffers and bearing witness to their pain with them.  I think that’s part of the power of the image of Mary at the Cross, watching and aching as her son gave up his life.  Seeing these events unfold around me, I’m reminded of something the Tin Man said in the Wizard of Oz: “Now I know I have a heart, because it’s breaking.”

Third, when I heard about my friend Larry’s accident, I actually found the strength, through God’s grace alone and no achievement of mine, to immediately say a prayer for the young woman who had struck him.  I have no idea how this accident will change her life or the life of her family, but I know she needs God’s presence through this.  And somehow, I felt better myself after praying for her.

A couple of years ago, I was asked if I was involved in pastoral care at the church, and I answered that no, I was not.  While my answer was honest, I’m not sure that it was accurate.  I think all of us are called upon, regardless of what we consider to be our ministry, to be the hands and face of Christ from time to time.  Maybe these events were just some sort of coincidence.  Or maybe, as Einstein once said, “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”

I think that what might pass in the secular world for caring and compassion is, for us Christians, a statement of our faith.  It is our way of cursing the darkness with which this world confronts us, and speaking to the love of Christ and the promise of Easter.  As the chaplain of Austin College recently observed, “Easter is not about denial, it’s about defiance.” Our caring for one another speaks to the power of love to overshadow pain.

Depending on the circumstance, as I have confronted these events, I may not have even mentioned Jesus or faith or prayer.  I tend to follow St. Francis’ advice in these circumstances, that we should preach the gospel in all times and in all places, but only use the words when necessary.  I hope that I won’t hear Jesus telling me someday that I did it wrong, that he won’t recognize me because I didn’t recognize him in this context.  I know that it is only through my faith that I can stand to watch people I love suffer, and that I can go on living without making sense of these events.  I’ve begun to believe that, for those of us who follow Jesus, the work of bearing witness to the love of God through moments of pain may be the real cost of taking up the cross.

God’s great peace on you and your house,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

The Prophet Amos: Speaking Truth to Power

This is what the Lord God showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the LORD said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said,

“See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I  will  never again pass them by; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,
      and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste,
      and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”

Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. For thus Amos has said,

`Jeroboam shall die by the sword,
      and Israel must go into exile
      away from his land.'”

And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”

Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, `Go, prophesy to my people Israel.'”  Amos 7:7-15.

One of today’s Old Testament readings in the Lectionary comes from the Book of the Prophet Amos.  Amos came from the southern kingdom of Judah, and began his prophetic work  around 750 B.C.  (A few years later, the Northern Kingdom would fall to the Assyrians in 722 B.C.)

During this time, under the rule of Jeroboam II, the Northern Kingdom enjoyed great power and wealth.  As is so often the case during such times, they neglected the poor and the downtrodden. They divorced their religious observance divorced from their sense of social justice and ethics. Although Amos came from Judah, he directed most of his prophetic message at the Northern Kingdom of Israel.

In this passage, God tells Amos that He will measure the people of Israel according to a plumb line.  (The plumb line was an ancient engineering device, using a string, a weight and the force of gravity to determine whether a wall was straight.)  Never a popular strategy, Amos brought the message of God’s disapproval.  He announces the destruction of the Kingdom, the death of the king, and the desolation of their high places. In an apparent reference to the Passover (the meta-narrative of God’s salvation of the Jewish people), Amos reports that God will never pass by them again.

The priest Amaziah reports Amos’ dire warnings to the king.  Rejecting Amos’ message, Amaziah apparently assumes Amos is a professional prophet, and tells him to go back home.  The priest directs Amos to return to the southern kingdom and prophesy there, but Amos continues to proclaim his message of God’s disfavor with the king and the priestly caste.

Amos answers that he does not come from a line of prophets, rather, he makes his living as a shepherd and from agriculture.  Thus, as opposed to the sanctioned, professional prophets of his day (who suggested that Israel’s prosperity was a sign of God’s blessing), Amos claims prophetic authenticity.  Amos claims legitimacy through his status as an outsider.  His message comes from God, rather than from the recognized human authority.

I wonder sometimes how willing we are today to have God’s plumb line held up to our country, or our churches.  Would we be willing to listen to the prophetic voice, or like Amaziah would we tell him to go preach someplace else?  Are we so addicted to the smooth and pleasing words of blessing that we cannot listen to God’s call for things to change?

It’s worth considering the notion that today’s religious authorities may be too closely allied with power.  As Amaziah told Amos while shooing him away, “This is the king’s sanctuary and a temple of the kingdom.”  Those words should terrify us, as we look at the perhaps too easy alliance between empire and ecclesia.  I worry that too many of our churches have “Do Not Disturb” signs on their doors. Rather than cathedrals of conversion, have we erected sanctuaries of the status quo? Amos reminds us that God comes to comfort those who are disturbed, and to disturb those who are comfortable.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

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

Loving Everyone

Do all you can to love everyone.  If you are not yet able to, at the very least don’t hate anyone.  Yet you won’t even manage this if you have not reached detachment from the things of this world.
You must love everyone with all your soul, hoping, however, only in God and honouring him with all your heart.
Christ’s friends are not loved by all, they sincerely love all.  The friends of this world are not loved by all, but neither do they love all.
 Christ’s friends persevere in their love right to the end.  The friends of this world persevere only so long as they do not find themselves in disagreement over worldly matters….
 This is the Love about which it is written:  “if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and have all knowledge, but have not love, I am nothing.” [I Cor. 13:2]
Whoever has love has God, because God is love.  [1 John 4:16].

                                       –Maximus the Confessor, Centuries on Charity

I found this wonderful bit of wisdom in the reading for today in Thomas Spidlik’s book, Drinking From the Hidden Fountain.  I have previously written about Maximus the Confessor (see here), and won’t repeat that discussion in this post. I have, however, always found Maximus to be a source of great wisdom.

Perhaps no part of the Christian life challenges us more than Jesus’ injunction that we are to love all of God’s children.  This means loving the clerk in the grocery store who really perturbs me, the fellow in the gym who seems so full of himself, and the horrible gossip at Church.  It means loving the people who’ve wounded me, even those who remain unrepentant.

The Christian life demands that we love without regard to the question of who deserves our affection, without regard to their kindness, without regard to their history, and without regard to their merit.  That’s no small part of what underlies the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and it certainly  provides the foundation for Jesus’ teaching:  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” Matt. 5:43-46.

Those of us who follow Jesus walk down a difficult path, especially the road of loving our enemies.  Too often, I hear people make the Faith sound easier than it is.  Following Christ is hard; it is as hard as the nails on the Cross.  St. Maximus urges us take the discipline of the Christian life seriously.  I need to hear his voice more often.

I wish you a safe and happy holiday, and may the peace of Christ disturb you profoundly,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis