A Realistic Disciple
April 6, 2003
John 12: 20-33
About twelve years ago four pizza parlors opened within the same month on the same block in New York city. It soon became apparent that there would not be enough business on that block to support all four. Therefore, the competition for survival began. One owner in an attempt to gain business posted a large sign, “We serve the best pizza in the city.” Another was quick to follow suite claiming, “We offer the best pizza in the country.” Another rose to the challenge and began to advertise, “The best pizza in the world is served here!” The fourth owner was an enterprising woman who finally posted her sign. It read, “We serve the best pizza on the block.” The realism of her claim won her many customers, and that shop is still serving pizza today.
How can we apply a similar realism to our role of being a Christian? What claims can we honestly make as followers of Jesus? I thought of these questions earlier this week as we celebrated our Lenten communal penance service. I have been hearing confessions now for over 25 years. It is clear from my own spiritual life and the lives of others, that from year to year the sins remain the same. Those who were impatient last year are impatient this year. Those who were judgmental and unkind last year are judgmental and unkind this year. Once this pattern is identified, it is only logical to ask, “How good are we as Christians? Can we make honest claims to be followers of Christ?”
The answer to these questions depends upon how we choose to define success as disciples. Pablo Casals was arguably the finest cellist in history. He lived a long life. At the age of 93 he would still practice on his cello from five to six hours a day. When one of his friends asked him, “Pablo, why at your age do you still practice so much?” He answered simply, “Because I believe I am making progress.”
Being a disciple of Jesus does not mean that we have achieved perfection. It means we are making progress. And the progress we make need not be earth-shattering. It can occur in small steps. This is what is so encouraging in Jesus’ words in today’s gospel. We know that Jesus sacrificed and died that we could live. We also know that we are called to follow his example and sacrifice and die to self through good works and avoiding sin. However, when Jesus places this challenge before us, he does so with a very consoling image. He says,” Unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains a single grain of wheat. But if it dies, it produces much fruit.” When Jesus wants to tell us that we must sacrifice and change, he uses the image of a very small thing: a single grain of wheat. By this image he tells us that our sacrifice need not be huge, that our dying can be limited, that our growth can occur in little steps.
To be a disciple we do not have to reach a state where we can claim that we never lose our patience. We only need to be more patient than we were last year. To follow Jesus we do not have to achieve a generosity and simplicity to rival St. Francis. We only need to be more generous than we used to be. In following Christ’s example we do not need to possess a perfect love which never judges another or speaks and unkind word. We only need to have a love which is growing rather than shrinking, expanding rather than turning inward.
Realistically, a disciple is one who is making progress. And it would be wise to set our goals accordingly. So do not say, “I will never lose my temper again.” Just try to be patient with your spouse, with your children, with your parents for one day, for a half a day, for a few hours. That would be a step in the right direction. Do not say, “I will never judge another person or close my mind to a new idea.” Just single out one occasion in which you truly try to listen, in which you take in the truth that another is trying to offer you. That would be genuine growth. Do not say, “I will be totally selfless and only think of others.” Just find one person in need or trouble and put yourself out so the he or she might know that someone cares. That would be a single grain of wheat falling to the ground and bearing fruit.
Being a disciple does not mean we have achieved perfection. It means that we are making progress. You do not have to be the best parent in the world. You only need to be a better parent in your own home. You do not have to be the most generous person in the United States. You only need to be someone more inclined to show interest in the elderly neighbor who requires your help. You do not need to be the holiest person here at St. Noel. You only need to take a step closer to becoming the person God calls you to be.
Life, Death, and Walnuts
April 2, 2006
Jesus is trying to do a difficult thing in today’s gospel. He is trying to promote a positive dimension to death. Jesus describes his own death as his moment of glory, as the time when he will draw all people to himself. But it is difficult for us to hear, to take in this positive dimension of death, because when we think of death, our first response is fear. In fact, most of us spend our lives in denial over the inevitability of death. Think about it. When we hear of someone we know who has passed away, don’t we ask, “How old was that person?” Consciously or unconsciously that question is a way of measuring our own fate. If the person is much older than us we breathe a sigh of relief. There is still time. It is not yet my turn. But if that person is our age or younger, we feel tense. Such a realization breaks through the denial and reminds us that death is a reality. It will come to us as well.
Now Jesus knows the danger of living in denial about death. He knows there can be a positive way to experience death, but only if we begin to prepare for death today. We cannot prepare for something we are trying to avoid. We cannot prepare for something that we are denying is an inevitable part of our future. So how can we prepare for death? Jesus gives us a direction through the image in today’s gospel. “Unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain. But if it dies, it produces much fruit.” Now how does this image apply to us? The next line explains: If we let go of our lives, we can keep our lives to life eternal. To put this in other words, the only things that we will be able to hold in our hands at the moment of our death are those things that we have given away.
A man in his eighties realizing that death was near developed a strong desire to return to the place where he grew up. It was a primitive cabin in the back woods of Georgia. He had not been to the place in over seventy years, and by now it had long been abandoned. As he approached the cabin he was impressed by the large row of walnut trees that lined the pathway. He then remembered that shortly before he left this place as a child, he took a bag of walnuts and planted them along the side of this path. Over the years they had grown up and now they were flourishing. He also remembered that as a child he had decided to take a handful of those walnuts from that bag to keep for himself to eat. He had hid them in a niche in the attic. He wondered if they were still there, so he searched the now abandoned attic. He found them. They were covered with decades of dust and were completely dried up. It struck the man that these walnuts provided helpful parallel to his own life. The things he had let go of, the things that he had planted, would live on and continue to flourish long after he had died. The things that he had tried to keep for himself, were dead already.
You and I prepare for a positive death each time that we plant some of our time, some of our energy, some of our wisdom in the lives of other people. Parents should realize this. The time you spend with your children, telling them stories, teaching them simple things, passing on your values, that time and effort will continue to live on long after you’re gone. Just last week, as I was tying my shoes, I remembered the hours that my father spent teaching how to tie my shoes before I went to kindergarten. I was not good at it. For days he kept showing me how to make the loop and tie the knot. My father has been dead now nine years and each day I still use that simple action which he taught me. The knowledge and wisdom we pass on to our children, to our friends, to our co-workers, will continue to enlighten others for years to come. The broken relationships that we heal will start a trajectory of love and peace which will be passed on from person to person, from generation to generation. Generosity is never wasted. The things we give away are larger than us and they continue to live and flourish long after we are gone.
Now of course, as Christians we believe that after death we will have eternal joy with Christ in heaven. But that good news does not in itself dispel the fear of dying. What can give us comfort and peace is to realize that we have lived well. At our moment of death, we will not find comfort in the things that we kept for ourselves. Those things will be dying with us. Where we will find comfort and strength is in the time, in the energy, in the wisdom that we passed on to others. For when we can see the life we have planted in our children, in our friends, even in the stranger that we helped along the way, that life will be our glory. In that glory we can close our eyes in peace, praying the prayer of every faithful Christian: “Lord I do not come to you empty handed. I bring with me all the seeds that I have planted, all the things that I gave away.”
The Danger of the Cross
March 29, 2009
Today’s gospel is filled with beauty and power. But it also contains within it a certain danger. If we were to misunderstand the words of Christ, that misunderstanding could lead to confusion and to harm. Take for example the beautiful image that Jesus gives us at the end of the gospel. He says, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” Now when you and I hear of that phrase “being lifted up from the earth,” we probably imagine Jesus’ resurrection or his ascension, Jesus lifted up into the clouds. But this is not what the evangelist John has in mind. The last verse of the gospel makes this clear, for it says, “He said this to indicate the type of death he was to die.”
For John, Jesus being lifted up from the earth is Jesus being lifted up on the cross. This makes perfect sense historically, because crucifixion in the ancient world was a form of execution particularly designed to lift up the crucified one, so that his death could be displayed before everyone. The Romans, who practiced crucifixion, intended that the crucified person be seen by everyone who walked by. They wanted his long and anguishing death to be visible, because it sent a message. The message it sent to anyone who saw it was, “Be careful, because you could experience just this kind of death if you challenge the power of Rome.” So lifting up the crucified one was part of the strategy of Roman imperial oppression. Here we see how dramatic Jesus’ words are: “When I am lifted up, when I am crucified, when all can perceive my agonizing death, then I will draw all people to myself, then will all people be saved.”
Now clearly what Jesus is doing is associating his crucifixion with our salvation. We believe this. We frequently say that we are saved through the cross of Jesus. But here is where we need to be very careful. It is important for us to understand how we are saved through the cross of Jesus. What is it about Jesus’ crucifixion that saves us? We know that Jesus’ crucifixion was unjust, brutal, and horrible. We are safe to say that there is nothing about the injustice, the brutality, and the horror that saves us. All of these things were evil things. Had we been present during Jesus’ life, we should have taken every step we could to prevent Jesus—or anyone else for that matter—from experiencing such an unjust and horrible death. So we are not saved by the injustice or brutality of the cross. What we are saved by is the love and service of Christ who embraces the cross and the power of God that raises Jesus from the dead. It is the love of Christ and the power of God that saves us. And that love is stronger than the evil of the cross. To say this in another way: There is nothing good in the cross itself. But good comes to us through the cross because what comes to us through the cross is the love of Christ and the power of God.
Now why is this so important? It’s important because the pattern of Christ’s death and resurrection is a pattern that we find repeated over and over again in our own lives. It is important for us to get that pattern straight, to understand it correctly. Evil enters our life and it enters in many forms: in the death of a child, in a diagnosis of cancer, in the upheaval that addiction and divorce can cause within our families. When these things happen, they are evils in our lives and our faith does not ask us to pretend that they are not. To be a believer is not to say that we believe that these evils are somehow blessings in disguise. They are not. We should do anything to avoid such evils. And it compounds the error to imagine that God sends these evils into our lives. God does not give us evil so that later God can save us from it. We do not need a God like that. We do not believe in a God like that.
God does not send us evil. But when evil comes into our life, we do believe that God has the power to pull new life from that evil. Without making the evil thing good, we believe that God has the power to make good come from it. No matter how horrible a death we must face, God’s love is greater. No matter how heavy a cross we must bear, God’s power can lift us up. That is why Christians are always hopeful. Not because we believe that there is no evil, but because we believe that the love and power of God is greater than evil. God can bring us from evil to new life.
Just like Jesus, there will be times when evil enters our life, when we must face our cross. But just like Jesus, we are called to embrace that cross in love and faith and in the belief that God has the power to bring us out of that evil into new life. And when in time we find ourselves in that new life, when we do in fact experience God’s power and love, then we can look back on our cross and say, “I have come here through the cross.” But it’s important for us to realize that we did not come here because of the cross. We come to salvation through the cross. But we are saved because of the love and power of God.
Planting Potatoes in the Kingdom
March 24, 2012
Today’s gospel does not so much tell us what we need to do, but rather how we need to do it. It reminds us that whenever God asks us to do anything,we will be most satisfied if we give ourselves entirely to the task.
In today’s gospel it is becoming clearer and clearer to Jesus that his life will soon come to a violent end. He is indeed troubled. But he makes the decision that if this is what God is asking of him, he will trust in God’s plan. He will trust in God’s love. He will give himself completely to what God asks him to do. His line, “Father, glorify your name” is Jesus’ way of saying “Yes, I am all in.”
There are many times in our life when we are not all in. When we have to face a difficulty in a relationship or some situation in our life, we sometimes try to hold as much of ourselves back as possible. We give as little as we can. We close our eyes and tell ourselves, “If I don’t pay too much attention, maybe it will all just go away.” There is serious doubt of the wisdom of this approach, because our future will be determined not by what we hold back but by what we freely give.
In the last century there was a territory in China that was known for agriculture, especially for the growing of potatoes. The farmers of that area strategized together to determine the best plan to maximize their harvest and their lifestyle. They decided that each year they would take the biggest and best potatoes of the harvest and use them for food. They would store the smallest potatoes and use them to plant the fields in the upcoming year. Initially this plan was a great success, because each year people had the best potatoes to eat. But over time the flaws of the plan emerged. Because they were planting the smallest potatoes year after year, soon the size of the potatoes which were harvested were reduced to the size of marbles. The farmers had to learn the hard way that holding back the best for now was not the best for the future. Nature had decreed that the harvest would be determined by the planting.
Each time we give ourself in sacrifice to another we are planting a seed that will grow. Today’s gospel asks us to plant the best seed that we have. If we are married, it is easy to take our relationship for granted, to let things ride. But, Jesus asks us in the gospel to give ourself as fully as we can to our spouse, to plant the best seeds of communication, support, and forgiveness. The seeds we plant will determine our marriage relationship in the years to come.
If we are parents, we are charged with a difficult task. Children have many needs and pose constant demands. We can be tempted to hold back and protect ourselves. Of course sometimes that is necessary. But the gospel challenges parents to plant the best seeds of our time, concern, and wisdom in our children. Those seeds will determine who they become and what our future relationship with them will be.
When we face an issue at work, in our family, or in any area of our life, the word of Jesus warns us not to hold back. We should place ourselves as fully as we can into whatever God is calling us to be. The seed which dies produces fruit. The better the seed that we plant, the richer the harvest will be.
Facing the Hour
March 22, 2015
We are thoughtful people. So we realize that there will be events in our future that we will have to face, and those events will not be easy. One day we will have to face the death of someone that we love. One day our children will leave home. One day someone in our family will be hurt by drugs, divorce, or violence. One day after a doctor’s appointment or an accident, we will realize that our life is coming to an end. We know that these difficult days lie in the future. When we think of them, we admit their truth, and then we turn back to our present responsibilities. We rededicate ourselves to what we must do today.
All of this is fine and good. But today’s gospel shows us what we should do when those fateful days arrive. Some Greeks come to find Jesus. When he sees them, he realizes that soon he will suffer his passion. He realizes that the hour has come for him to endure a brutal and unjust death. Now you and I will not have to face the brutality of crucifixion. But if we examine what Jesus does in his hour, it will be an example to us of what we should do when our hour arrives.
Jesus does three things. First he admits that he is troubled, that he is afraid. When a difficult hour arrives, it is a challenge. We do not know how it will unfold or how painful it will be. It is normal for us to worry, to lose sleep, to struggle, and to complain. If Jesus was troubled in his hour, we should expect the same. But like Jesus we should admit our fear and then move on.
The second thing that Jesus shows us is that we cannot escape the hour. Jesus will not pray, “Father save me from this hour.” He understands that not all things are optional, not all things can be changed. Certainly if you and I have an honorable way of avoiding pain and suffering we should take it. But often times the pain we face cannot be avoided. Then we, like Jesus, must understand that the way out is through. We must find a way through the hour knowing that God is with us.
The last thing that Jesus does is turn to his father in hope. Jesus is afraid. He knows that he cannot avoid the hour and so he prays, “Father, glorify your name.” Jesus takes all of his pain and the inevitability of his hour and he places it in his father’s hands. And he not only asks God to assist him through his hour, he also asks God to take his pain and suffering and use it for some good: “Father, glorify your name.” Jesus does not know what God will do or how God will do it. But he trusts that God will hear his prayer.
The good news of today’s gospel is that God did assist Jesus through his hour. God did glorify his name by raising from the dead his only begotten son. That should give us hope. When we must face our hour, when we cannot escape from sickness or family trouble or death, we should trust and believe that God will not only assist us through our hour but also use our pain for some good purpose. We are challenged to believe that our pain and suffering will not be wasted, that God will use it to glorify his name.
When Life Turns
March 18, 2018
John 12: 20-33
Your cell phone rings, and you see it’s your brother. Funny, you think, he never calls me at this time of day. But when you answer, you find out why. He is in the emergency room, and he wants you to come. Your mother, now in her late 70’s, has just experienced a stroke. Now details are not yet clear, but already you can see before you months of family meetings, consultation with doctors, rehabilitation and perhaps a nursing home. In a moment, your life has changed drastically. It all began with that phone call.
You are having dinner with the woman you love. You’ve been dating now for two years, and you are convinced that the two of you are growing closer. You have even considered whether it was time to bring up the topic of marriage. At dinner she seems distracted. Halfway through the meal, she says, “We need to talk.” Your heart skips a beat, and your worst fears come true. She is not as pleased as you are in the relationship. She asks for some “time off.” By the end of the meal, the earth has shifted beneath you. It was signaled with her words, “We need to talk.”
We expect continuity in our lives. We expect one day to flow into the other. But we all know that there are moments when our life takes a drastic and negative turn. Looking back, we can even remember the phone call or the remark that signaled that change. Now we find our self in a place we do not want to be, in a place of fear, doubt, and pain. Our life has changed to a difficult place. Somehow we have to get through it.
Jesus experiences such a change in today’s gospel. He knows that his mission is to draw all people to himself. So when some non-Jews, some Greeks, come asking for him, Jesus sees it as a sign that now is the time to fulfill his mission. The gospel of John calls that mission “Jesus’s hour.” The arrival of the Greeks indicates that now his hour has come. The hour is frightening, because it is the hour of his death. But the important thing of today’s gospel is that Jesus does not call his hour the hour of his death. He calls it the hour of God’s glory. That is because Jesus is convinced that in the sudden turn towards suffering that his life has just taken, his Father will never abandon him. In fact, he dares to believe that, just as a seed that dies produces much fruit, God is able to bring life out of Jesus’s passion.
Our faith centers on the belief that God can bring life out of the most difficult periods of our lives. This faith does not promise that the journey will be easy, nor does it imply that the pain will be slight. But it dares us to hope that as we try to put our life back together after a disastrous breakup, we will learn things about ourselves that can deepen us and heal us. It asks us to trust that as we sit at the bedside of our unconscious mother, we can find thanksgiving or the forgiveness that we need towards the woman who gave us birth. Our life does not always flow from blessing to blessing. This is why today’s gospel assures us that when our life takes a sudden turn towards loss and suffering, we should not give up hope. Like Jesus we believe that our God is with us. And because God is with us, being lost can become being found and our hour of suffering can become the hour of God’s glory.
God Can Change Us
March 20, 2021
God promises a new covenant, a new relationship with the house of Israel, in today’s first reading. This promise comes through the prophet Jeremiah, and the promise is necessary. The Jews were exiles in Babylon. They were helpless and hopeless. Their old relationship with God no longer worked. They needed something new. But they could not bring about that newness on their own. Only God could change the terms of their relationship. That is precisely what God promises to do.
Now, for you and me, the challenge of this reading is not to believe that God could change the relationship to Israel, but to believe that God can change the relationship with us. When you and I look at our lives, we see many things we would like to change. We would like to believe more deeply, forgive more easily, love with fewer conditions. But when we try to move in that positive direction, we often fall short. Despite our best intentions and honest efforts, we remain stuck in our flaws. Like the house of Israel, we are helpless and hopeless. This is why it is crucial for us to believe that God can change us, that God is able to alter the terms of our relationship, that God can make us new.
We believe in God, but when it comes to changing ourselves, we try to do it ourselves. We think that our strategy and efforts can break a habit of sin or make us more generous people. But that is seldom the case. What we need is not different plans or more willpower. What we need is a new relationship. The good news is that that is exactly what God wants to give us.
We enter into that new relationship when we entrust ourselves to God, when we admit our weakness and inability to change, and ask God to transform us. When we say Lord, “I have been so hurt by that person that I cannot bend to forgive. I need you to bend me, so that I can let go of this hate. Lord, I have put such high expectations on my spouse and my children, that they are harming my relationships. I need you to loosen my expectations, so I can love the people in my life as they are, rather than how I want them to be. Lord, I am so quick to judge others because of their race, sexual orientation, or political viewpoint, and that fills me with anger. Lord, I need you to quiet those prejudices, so that I can live in peace again.”
When we are helpless and hopeless, God promises to change us. God promises to write, in a new way, on our hearts. Now, then, is the time to open our hearts, and let God in, so that we can become the people we are called to be.