Who Do You Say I Am?

After the disciples had been following Jesus for a while, he asked them, “Who do the people say I am?” The disciples answered, “Some say John the Baptist; others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 

Then Jesus pointedly asked, “But what about you? Who do you say I am?” (Mark 8:27-29)

No more hiding in the crowd; Jesus was asking the disciples, personally and individually, “Who am I to you?  Matthew quotes Peter as saying, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16)

The same question that Jesus asked of the disciples, he asks of us, “Who do you say I am?”

Like Peter, are willing to say with the same depth of conviction that Jesus is the son of the living God who became one of us, and sacrificed his life for us to save us from our sins?

Interestingly, Jesus goes on to define what is required of us to fully acknowledge that he is the Son of God.  He says we must pick up our daily cross, love as he loves and suffer as he suffered.  He says we need to die to self and give up our will for his in all things.  The following story illustrates an initial failure of this standard followed by the action of God’s grace in redeeming the outcome.

After working for a large international company for over 30 years, Jim (not his real name) sensed it was time to do something different with his life.  After several months of prayer and discernment, he accepted an opportunity to work full-time in a Christian ministry.

He informed his boss and set a date for his retirement.  A couple of months before the scheduled date, the company announced that it was merging with another company.  In order to encourage employees to stay on until the merger was completed, a retention bonus was offered to various employees, including Jim.

As a result, Jim decided to postpone his retirement and the date he would start working for the ministry.  After all, he reasoned, it was estimated to be only six months, and the retention bonus would provide an additional cushion for his retirement account.

A couple of months later Jim was flying home on a business trip, looking out the window at an interesting cloud formation, thinking about the future.  All of sudden he felt like the Lord was saying: “So, you tell me you want to work for me in ministry.  I arrange an opportunity, and now you put me off for some extra money!”  Jim said, “It was like a slap in the face.  What had I done!”

The next day Jim told his boss that he had made a mistake.  He had made a commitment to begin working for a Christian ministry and needed to keep that commitment.  He would not stay on until the merger was completed.  He would forgo the retention bonus.  As it turned out, the merger took almost two years to complete.

“For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8:35)

Advertisements

Preparing the Soil

009-parable-sower-seedIn three of the gospels, Jesus tells The Parable of the Sower, in which the sower is God and the seed is his Word.  He describes four kinds of soil onto which the seed may fall, which serves as an analogy to where our hearts may be relative to receiving and acting upon God’s Word. (Mark 4:1-20)

  • A soil that is hard and packed down so the seed cannot penetrate, resulting in Satan snatching the word before it can take root and impacting our way of life.
  • A rocky soil where God’s word is received and even welcomed, but not allowed to take root. When the first sign of trouble or persecution comes along, we forget what the word says and resort to our old ways.
  • A soil that is full of thorns where the word is heard and we want to act on it, but the worries of life, the deceitfulness of wealth, the lure of recognition and fame, and the pride of our own agenda chokes out the word from having a positive effect on our life and conduct.
  • A good soil that receives the word, provides conditions for it to germinate and grow so it can multiply thirty, sixty or even hundred times what was sown.

Notice how Jesus observes that people whose soil accepts God’s word may produce different size crops.  The more fertile the soil, the greater the yield of the seed, the more fruit it provides in a person’s life, and the more a person can be used by God to fulfill his purpose and will. 

Jesus is always knocking on the door of our hearts, waiting for us to invite him into our lives.  We have to be intentional in opening the door and inviting him in.  Once we invite him in, we need to spend time with him in prayer and with his word as given to us in Holy Scripture.   

If we are a part of a sacramental church, we should partake in all of the sacraments that are available to us, for we receive grace upon grace through them.  The Holy Spirit that we receive in baptism is particularly beneficial in opening our minds and hearts to the meaning of God’s word and his will for us in the daily choices for our lives.

Being prayed with many years ago for the release of the power of the Holy Spirit that I received in baptism as an infant made a huge difference in my life.  It opened my heart and mind to God’s word and helped the soil of my heart be more fertile for the Lord’s purpose in every aspect of my life – family, work, ministry, etc. 

John tells us that the Word existed before all else and was God; and that the Word became flesh in Jesus. (John 1: 1, 14) Paul tells us that the Word of God is Spirit and is living. (Heb. 4:12; Eph. 6:17)  The Psalmist tells us that the Word is flawless. (Ps. 30:5)  May we prepare the soil of our heart so that the Word yields a harvest many times what is sown.

“Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near.” (Isaiah 55:6)

Kinship with Jesus

How do we grow in kinship with Jesus?  A curious story reported by Matthew, Mark and Luke may provide some insight.

At one of the many times that Jesus was surrounded by a large throng of people, he was told that his mother and brothers were outside.  Jesus asks, “Who are my mother and brothers?”  Mark reports, “Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, ’Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:31-35)

This seems to be a rather curious and harsh response by Jesus.  Yet, he is not denigrating his mother or kinship as much as he raising those who do God’s will to the importance and level of kinship.  For most of us, there can be no more honored status than our mothers who gave us life.  Jesus is saying that those who do God’s will are similar in status and importance.

Jesus is using what appears to be an extreme statement to get our attention on how important it is to do God’s will in all things — in all our daily choices, large and small.  The following story may serve to illustrate.

Ruth’s co-worker, Stella, was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  After frequently talking with Stella on the phone, Ruth came to realize that the Lord was putting it on her heart to bring his word to Stella.

Ruth’s first reaction was one of apathy and denial.  “Lord, are you sure you want me to do this? I am not very good at this sort of thing,” she observed.  After lots of prayer and several sleepless nights, Ruth asked Stella if she was receiving visitors.  Stella said yes, and also mentioned that she had been having several dreams and that Ruth was in each of them.  Ruth took this as a sign that the Holy Spirit was bringing them together.

When Ruth visited her the following day, Stella spoke of her religious upbringing as a child; she asked about the right way to pray and wondered if her illness was a result of something bad in her life.  Ruth assured her that was not the case and that God loved her more than she could comprehend.  All she needed to do was invite God into her life.

Ruth said, “Over the next few visits, we continued to talk and pray, and Stella invited Jesus into her life.  The last time I saw her she had an angelic, peaceful quality about her, and although she could barely whisper, she assured me that she was praying and would be fine.”

Although Ruth initially resisted the promptings she was receiving, she eventually yielded to God’s will to bring God’s word and offer of salvation to Stella before she died.  By doing so, Ruth was furthering her kinship with Jesus.

We remember the words of Jesus before his arrest, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.  Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39)

“I am Willing”

Early in Mark’s Gospel, a man with leprosy comes to Jesus and begs him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”  Mark says, “Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing,’ he said.  ‘Be clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him.” (Mark 1:40-42)

The Apostle John tells us that God is love.  It is God’s nature to have compassion for the many maladies that afflict us.  At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry he read from the scroll of Isaiah that he had come to preach the good news to the poor and bind up the brokenhearted.  The Gospels are full of stories of Jesus manifesting his compassion by healing the blind, the lame and other illnesses; forgiving sins; and freeing people of various forms of bondage.

Yet, we know from our own experience that many people experience illness and other forms of adversity, prayers are offered, and the adversity appears to continue.  Why are some people healed in response to prayer and others appear not to be healed?  Maybe a better question is what is God doing in this particular situation or need? 

Paul says, “Suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” (Ro. 5:4) James tells us to “Consider it pure joy whenever you face trials because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete.” (James 1:2-4)

Our life experiences also teach us that we grow more in our trials than we do in our consolations and successes.  God often uses adversity to draw us closer to him.  He uses final illnesses to bring us into his presence. 

A number of years ago, I was diagnosed with an advanced and aggressive form of prostate cancer.  My wife, children and friends prayed for my healing.  My treatment included surgery to remove the prostate followed by three and half years of hormone therapy.  The surgery revealed that the cancer had migrated outside the prostate to at least one lymph node.  One of my friends, who himself was suffering from renal cell carcinoma, prayed for me several times including in the pre-op room after persuading the nurse that he was my brother [Christian, that is].

While he and I were good friends and Christian brothers before my cancer, we became particularly close afterwards.  We now shared a similar adversity that could be potentially life threatening.  I prayed for him and he prayed for me.  When we were together our conversation often took on deeper meaning.

A couple of years later he died.  I am still alive.  We could ask why, but again, the better question might be what was God doing with us?  Perhaps my friend was ready to come into God’s presence, and I was not.  These are mysteries for which we will never know the answer in this life, “for who can know the mind of the Lord?”

While we may never know why God responds in different ways to different circumstances, we can know by faith that out of compassion and love he is “willing” to do what is best for us.       

Hearing God’s Voice

Knowing when we hear God’s voice is a major challenge for most of us.  Our lives are filled with continuous noise in today’s culture.   Television, radio, I-pods, robo calls and e-mail boxes stuffed with spam — all contribute to a cacophony of noise that tends to drown out the Lord’s whispers to our heart and spirit.

Samuel did not recognize the Lord’s voice the first time he was called.  He thought his elder, Eli, was calling him instead.  Each time he heard his name being called, he went to Eli, thinking it was he who was calling him.  It wasn’t until the third time that Eli realized that the Lord was calling Samuel, as he guided Samuel to say, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” (1 Samuel 3:1-21)

Samuel went on to become one of the great prophets of the Old Testament.  “The Lord was with him, not permitting any word of his to be without effect.” (1 Samuel 3:19)

Do we recognize God’s voice when he is calling us or asking us to do something?

When I was in my mid-30’s, I started to serve in the religious education program for high school students in our parish in Armonk, N. Y.  One of the other teachers whose name was Ann started to befriend me.  She was a noticeably joyful person and began to invite me to various prayer meetings, conferences and other spiritual related events.  After declining each of her several invitations over a period of several months, she started inviting my wife who agreed to attend a Life in the Spirit program at a nearby parish being conducted by some nuns from Scarsdale.  The program took place over five evenings from Sunday through Thursday.

My wife asked if I wanted to join her but I initially declined indicating I had a brief case full of work.  Each night when she came home, I noticed how happy she seemed to be. On the fourth evening when she walked in the door, she was absolutely radiant.  Then she said, “You know I think I could forgive almost anything of anyone.” 

I thought to myself, “Wow! I have to check this out.”  I told her I wanted to join her the next evening even though it was the last evening and I had missed the four previous sessions.  The following night, I met the Lord Jesus Christ in a new and very personal way, and my life was forever changed.  I later experienced the release of the Holy Spirit in my life, and I have been trying to walk every day since with the Lord in all the venues of my life – family, work, social and ministry.

Like Samuel, I was not recognizing the Lord’s call when Ann was extending me all of those invitations. It was what I saw God doing in my wife’s life that helped me to respond to his call in my life.  

“You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9)

Imitating the Star – A Prosecutor Leading a Defendant to Christ

untitledAs we know from listening to the story of the Magi every Christmas season, it was the star that guided and led the Magi to the Christ child.

Saint Leo the Great (Pope, 440 to 461) said we should imitate the star of Bethlehem in guiding and leading people to Jesus.   How appropriate, following on our celebration of Christmas and the incarnation of God becoming one of us in the person of Jesus!

God calls us to be an extension of his incarnation – God’s presence in us through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus said, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching.  My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” (John 14:23)

Just as God took on flesh and blood through the power of the Holy Spirit with the Virgin Mary, so too, he takes on flesh and blood in us through the power of Holy Spirit – in our baptism and as we continue to open the door of our hearts to Jesus. (Rev: 3:19-20)

God calls us to be his presence in the world and to bring that presence to the people in our lives — family, friends, colleagues and strangers.   In leading people to Jesus, we tend to think that this has to happen from our words of persuasion, but most of the time it is our conduct that persuades more than our words. 

John was a county prosecutor from Duluth, Minnesota.  One of his early prosecutions involved a former high school friend, Jim.  Over the next 26 years John would prosecute Jim a dozen times for theft-related crimes to support a chemical dependency.  During the first few prosecutions John looked on Jim as just another hopeless criminal.  Then John started praying for Jim.

In the last prosecution of Jim it was determined that he was terminally ill with sclerosis of the liver, and the judge assigned him to a hospice outside of prison.  Jim requested his attorney to ask John to pray for him.

Over the next six months, John did more than just pray for Jim.  He visited him two to three times a week at the hospice facility.  They reminisced about growing up in the 1950s and talked about their favorite baseball teams.  They also started reading the Bible together.  That fall, Jim repented of his sins and surrendered his life to Jesus Christ.  He died in late November.

“Over those last six months I frequently called Jim ‘brother’ because we had become brothers in Christ,” said John.  “Jim loved reading and praying the psalms.  God used Jim to teach me about acceptance of suffering and perseverance, and he showed me that it’s never too late to say yes to the Lord, no matter what we have done in the past.”

John concludes, “Because God answers prayers, Jim said ‘yes’ to Christ before he died, and I know he is in paradise today – just like another thief who died on a cross next to Jesus 2000 years ago.” 

Like the star of Bethlehem, John led Jim to Jesus through his visits, conversation, prayers and love.  He was God’s presence to Jim.

Fear vs. Trust

shadow-of-christmas-massacreFear and insecurity can be a terribly destructive force in our lives. 

This is illustrated by the visit of the Magi with King Herod who told him of their search of the “newborn king of the Jews.”  Matthew reports that “When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all of Jerusalem with him.”  Herod consulted with the chief priests and scribes who told him that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem.  When Herod learned that the Magi had ignored his instruction to return and inform him of the location of the Baby Jesus, he was furious and ordered all baby boys two years and younger in Bethlehem to be killed. (Mt. 2:1-18)

This horrific act was precipitated by Herod’s fear and insecurity of losing his position as King of Judea.  According to the Jerome Biblical Commentary, the Jewish historian, Josephus, “depicts Herod as being pathologically jealous of his power – a number of his family were murdered by him because he suspected them trying to supplant him.”

The potential list of fears for many of us runs long and deep.  We fear for our safety, the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job or position, the loss of our money and possessions.  We fear how we will look or be judged by others. We fear underperforming or not doing our best.  We fear illness, disability and loss of independence.

In the workplace, we may be tempted to tell the boss what he or she wants to hear rather than the truth, out of fear of incurring his or her disfavor.

We may even fear getting too close to God and what he may ask of us.  When Peter saw the miraculous catch of fish as a result of Jesus’ presence, he said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” He and the others were seized with fear, but Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, from now on you will be catching men.” (Luke 5:8-10)

Jesus does not want us to live our lives in fear.  Instead, he wants us to trust in him – in his love and provision.  For a long time I have suffered from insomnia at various times that has resulted in my becoming fearful of not going to sleep.  Neither sleeping pills nor the proverbial nightcap provided a reliable remedy.  In discussing my situation with a priest friend a few months ago, he suggested that my problem may not be insomnia as much as a lack of trust in God.  He encouraged me to pray several times a day, “Lord help me to trust more in you.”

I have followed his advice and my sleeping has improved many-fold without resort to the prior presumed aids.

How ironic that out of fear, Herod sought to destroy the one true antidote to fear – Jesus, the Messiah and son of God.  For the King of Kings says:

“Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear.” (Mt. 6:25)  To Jarius, when told that his daughter had died, Jesus said, Do not be afraid; just believe.” (Mark 5:36) On the night of his arrest, he told his disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27)