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“It’s the Lord!”

“Jesus was standing on the shore; but the disciples did not recognize that it was Jesus.” (John 21:4)

The Gospel of John reports that seven of the disciples went fishing on the Sea of Tiberias sometime after Jesus’ resurrection, but they did not recognize him as he called out to them from shore.  It was only after he suggested they cast their nets on the right side of the boat and they caught 153 large fish, did John say to Peter, “It’s the Lord!.” (John 21:7)

During the days following Jesus’ resurrection, most of his closest followers did not recognize him in their first encounter. 

Mary Magdalene thought he was the gardener and did not recognize him until he said her name, “Mary.”  The disciples on the road to Emmaus did not recognize Jesus even after he spent considerable time with them explaining what all of the scriptures had to say about him.  It was only at his breaking of the bread while dining with them that they recognized him.

How often do we fail to see the risen Lord in our lives?  Like Mary Magdalene, he may be calling us by name.  Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, he may be opening our minds to the meaning of some scripture.  Like the seven disciples fishing, he may be suggesting we take an action that will have a surprising (miraculous) result.

Today, as I am writing this blog, we will soon be celebrating the 35st birthday of our daughter Emily who was born with Down syndrome.  At the time of her birth I did not recognize the presence of the risen Lord in our midst.  Later I came to see Jesus in her big beautiful smile, her purity of heart, and her natural inclination to love and hug the people she meets. 

While we may not always recognize Jesus in the people or circumstances of our lives, the apostle John in his first letter says that “God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him.” (1 John 4:16)

Wherever there is love, Jesus is present.  Jesus says, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, I was ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” (Mt. 25:35-36)  Jesus is telling us that when we love others through our actions, we love him and he is present to us. 

 In the musical Les Miserables, ValJean’s closing words are:

“And remember

The truth that once was spoken.

To love another person

Is to see the face of God.”

Let us offer love and receive love, so someone can say, “It’s the Lord.” 

Do you recognize the risen Jesus when you see him?  

Hearts Burning within Us

“Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke with us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32)  

These were the words of two disciples after encountering Jesus on the day of his resurrection.  They were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, discussing the events of Jesus’ death and the surprising reports that he had been seen alive.  Jesus comes up alongside of them, though they do not recognize him, and enters into their conversation. Jesus then begins to explain what Moses and the prophets wrote about him.  He observes how slow of heart they have been to believe all that was written.  

They subsequently recognize Jesus when he breaks bread with them at supper, as he then disappears from their sight.  They make the above statement as they return to Jerusalem to report that they too, had seen Jesus. 

Has your heart ever burned within you by something someone has said, a scripture that leaps off the page, an extraordinary act of love from another person, or the gentle whisper of the Holy Spirit? 

Many years ago after the burial of my father, I was riding out of the cemetery with my mother and brother back to town, and I started to have this overwhelming sense of joy.  It was in the middle of January, on an overcast, cold day.  The snow drifts along the road were covered with soot from the windswept plowed fields of northern Iowa.  It was a bleak dreary scene. 

Yet, here I was, inexplicably experiencing this heightened sense of joy.  I said to my mother and brother, “I know this sounds odd, but I have a great feeling of joy.”  They both looked at me as if I was crazy, but said nothing, not understanding how I could possibly feel joyful.  The next morning while I was praying in my father’s bedroom, the following words came into my mind,“The reason for your joy yesterday was because your father is with me in heaven.” 

My heart burned within me as I heard those words and recalled the joy from the prior afternoon.  It was the Lord, and I wanted to hold onto every word I heard.  I shared it with my mother who cried with joy as well. 

Has your heart ever burned within you from something you have heard or experienced?  

Going with the Crowd

“’Crucify him.’  Pilate said to them, ‘Why?  What evil has he done?’ They only shouted louder, ‘Crucify him.’”  (Mark 15:13-14)

If you were present at Jesus’ trial, where would you see yourself?  Would it have been with the disciples who were absent out of fear?  Would it have been with Pontius Pilate who found no basis for the charges brought against Jesus, but did not have the courage to resist the crowd?  Would it have been with the crowd shouting, “Crucify him?”

If I had never met Jesus, I might have been with the crowd.  Have I not demonstrated my lack of support for Jesus in my sins?  Have I not denied him in my failure to love and serve others on various occasions? 

Even if I had met Jesus, I might have been no different than the disciples who were hiding, or like Pontius Pilate, going along with the crowd.  How many times have I failed to speak up for Jesus or my Catholic faith in a hostile environment? 

Unfortunately, the crowd seldom gets it right.  How often do we see conventional wisdom that is not wise, popular opinion that does not reflect the truth, and consensus that leads to the wrong result?  

Lest we think that the opinions of the crowd are not becoming more hostile to our Christian faith, a study by the Barna Group last year found that sixty-six percent of pastors considered the “culture shift to a secular age” as their most important concern.   

So, how do we resist the crowd of our culture that is becoming increasingly hostile to the practice of our Christian faith?  Acknowledge and repent of our sins, commit or recommit our lives to Jesus Christ, and seek the release of the power of the Holy Spirit received in our baptism. 

It is the Holy Spirit that convicts us, gives us the courage and the power to resist both the crowd and sin.  It wasn’t until I personally experienced the renewal of the Holy Spirit in my life that I was given understanding, motivation and power that makes it now possible for me to resist the crowd.  I am still capable of stumbling if I don’t stay close to Jesus in daily prayer, the sacraments and surround myself with other like-minded Christian brothers and sisters.  But with God’s grace and mercy through the Holy Spirit, I am better equipped to say no to the crowd and yes to Jesus.      

The crowd yelled, “Crucify him!” But the crowd got it wrong.  God redeemed the wrong and took the cross, a symbol of Roman cruelty and oppression, and transformed it into a symbol of love, sacrifice and hope.

What person would you be at Jesus’ trial?

Washing One Another’s Feet

“’No, said Peter, you shall never wash my feet.’  Jesus answered, ’unless I wash you, you have no part with me.’” (John 13:8 NIV)

It is so hard for us to accept being served by someone in authority, particularly when the service involves a menial task.  It upsets our paradigm.  A servant serves his master.  An employee serves his or her boss.  Jesus, the master and teacher, was turning that paradigm upside down.  Peter was the first to proclaim Jesus to be the Son of God.  How could he allow the Son of God to wash his feet?  Unthinkable!

From earliest childhood, we are taught to be self-sufficient.  A young child proudly proclaims, “I did it by myself.”  One of the challenges of a disabling illness or injury is having to depend on someone else to do things for you that you would ordinarily do yourself.  It can be humbling when a disabling condition makes us dependent on another.

Several years ago our family was traveling from New York to the Midwest.  We alerted a former law school friend and his wife that we would like to stop by to see them.  They expected us to stay with them overnight, but we decided to check into a motel, not wanting to impose upon them.  They were offended, interpreting our decision as a rejection of their offer of hospitality.  To use Jesus’ words, we were rejecting having a “part” with them.

Like so many of Jesus’ words and actions, his example offers multiple lessons for us.  While we need to be willing to receive service, it is even more important for us to serve.  As Jesus later explains, “I have set an example that you should do as I have done for you.” (John 13:15)  

In David McCullough’s biography of Harry Truman, he tells the following story.  At a special reception Truman held for Stalin and Churchill at the Potsdam Peace Conference near the end of World War II, Sergeant Eugene List, an American concert pianist, played a Chopin waltz.  List asked if someone in the audience would be good enough to turn the pages.  Truman jumped to his feet, waived off another volunteer and did the job himself.   In a letter to his wife, List later wrote, “Imagine having the President of the United States turn the pages for you!” 

Are you willing to be served by another, and to serve another as well? 

Peter Wept

“The Lord turned and looked at Peter; and Peter remembered the word of the Lord, ‘Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.’  He went outside and began to weep bitterly.” (Luke 22:60-62)

We may be familiar with Peter’s denial of Jesus following his arrest – a denial which took place only hours after Peter had proclaimed that he was ready to go with Jesus to prison or death.  Peter’s failings included pride in his proclamation, fear of being associated with Jesus after his arrest and deceit in his response.  It is ironic that Jesus chose a symbol of pride, a crowing rooster, to humble Peter and make him aware of the extent of his failure. 

No doubt we have all regretted something we have done or said.  It may be an emotional response, lashing out in anger to a word or action of a loved one or friend.  It may involve giving into a temptation or weakness.  It may be a careless word offered without much thought.  It may be an action lacking courage and taken out of fear. 

The positive thing about regret is that it is the first step toward repentance.  In weeping bitterly, Peter reveals a repentant heart, which leads to God’s forgiveness.  Scripture tells us that Jesus did appear to Peter after his resurrection. (Luke 24:34)  I am sure Peter sought and received Jesus’ forgiveness.

In fact, seeking forgiveness is one of the best antidotes for regret while also helping overcome the hurt and anger of the people affected by our wrongdoing.    

Over the course of my life, I have experienced both actions and words that I deeply regret.  In one such incident I didn’t even realize my failure until years later.  It involved an invitation from my father’s boss to attend a dinner in Iowa to honor my father’s retirement from his company after 40 years of service.  I had just been transferred to New York to take on a new position and had a conflict with the date of the retirement party. At the time I thought the conflict was a meeting critical to my new job, but today I can’t even remember what it was about. 

To use today’s language, I was “clueless” about the Fourth Commandment’s call to honor your father and your mother, to say nothing of the excessive self-focus that dominated my life at the time.  My father died before I realized my failure.  Like Peter, I regret and weep bitterly over my actions.  

While a word once spoken or an action taken cannot generally be taken back, we can take solace in the words of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, “And yet, knowing all, the Son of God made Peter, who knew sin, the Rock upon which he built his church that sinners and the weak may never despair.”

Do you have any regrets about actions taken or words spoken now or in the past?  

“Everything I Have Is Yours”

“My son you are here with me always; everything I have is yours.” (Luke 15:31)

These are the words of the father to the eldest son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  In the parable the younger son asks for his inheritance, leaves the home of his father and elder brother, and goes to a distant land where he squanders the inheritance on loose living.  He comes to his senses, and decides to return home.  His father welcomes him home and has a feast to celebrate his return.

When the elder son finds out, he is resentful and refuses to join in the welcoming festivities.  He complains to the father that he has always been obedient, but the father has never given him even a young goat to share with his friends.  The father responds that the elder son is always with him and that everything the father has is the elder son’s. 

What a beautiful illustration of God’s love for both sons.  The loving forgiveness for the younger repentant son is obvious.  The love for the elder son is more subtle.  Some of us may have experienced times in our lives when like the elder son, we have experienced jealousy or resentment of the attention and forgiveness someone has received whom we deem unworthy.      

We brood, we fume, we get ourselves all worked, but God says to us, “My son, my daughter, you are here with me every day, and I am always with you.  Everything I have is yours – my grace, my love, my forgiveness, my healing; my promise of eternal life.  All of these are mine which I share freely with you.  Accept my love and the grace of these gifts.  Accept my invitation to join in the family celebration!

Over the years, I have quietly struggled with being judgmental and seeking recognition. Like the older son, these sins set up barriers in me to experience the fullness of the Father’s love and grace.  Not that the Father withholds his love and grace from me, but that these actions interfere with me being able to fully experience his love and grace.   

Like the older son, do you set up barriers that interfere with your experiencing all that the Father has for you? 

Cleansing Our Temples

“It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a den of robbers.” (Mt. 21:13)

All four gospels relate the story of Jesus going up to Jerusalem at Passover and clearing the temple courts of cattle, sheep and doves and the people selling them and exchanging money.  Obviously, he felt passionate about protecting the sacredness of God’s temple, and he was compelled to clear it of anything that detracted from that sacredness.

Bishop Fulton J. Sheen in his book, Life of Christ, observes that it was naturally a problem for people who came to the temple to offer sacrifice to get ahold of the material of sacrifice.  Accordingly, a flourishing trade in sacrificial animals gradually developed closer to the temple and, for the sake of convenience, eventually moved inside the temple courts.

Three different times in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, he declares that we are God’s temple or that our body is the temple of the Holy Spirit.  “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and God’s Spirit lives in you?” (1 Co. 3:16)  If, as St. Paul says, we are a temple of the living God, then there may be things that need to be cleaned out from our lives in order to maintain the sacredness of our temple.

Like many a building or structure, we may have allowed things to accumulate that get in the way of our relationship with God.  Perhaps we have allowed anger, bitterness and unforgiveness to take up some of our space; maybe an addiction to opioids or pornography?  Have we allowed work or some other activity to become an idol detracting from our responsibilities to family and others?   Have we allowed our busyness and other activities to get in the way of a regular time of prayer with the Lord each day?

When I was young, I remember my mother doing “spring cleaning” every April.   She would take down our lace curtains to clean and stretch them, wash the windows and thoroughly clean the whole house.  My father would clean out the garage and basement of things that had accumulated over the winter. 

Similarly, we may need to do a periodic cleaning of our temple of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes it may require just a good vacuuming or a little dusting; other times, a junk removal service may be needed. 

We can be confident that Jesus, who is experienced in clearing temples of things that don’t belong, will assist us in making our lives a fitting residence for the Holy Spirit and the presence of God!

What needs to be cleaned from your temple? 

How Do We Explain Evil?

“Then Satan entered into Judas, the one surnamed Iscariot, who was counted among the twelve, and he went to the chief priests and the temple guards to discuss a plan for handing [Jesus] over to them.” (Luke 22:3-4)

In all four Gospel accounts of the Last Supper, Jesus announces that one of the disciples will betray him.  Luke specifically says that Satan entered Judas and then he conspired with the chief priests to arrange for Jesus’ arrest.

As one of the disciples, Judas would have traveled with Jesus, listened to his teachings, and seen him perform numerous miracles. What caused him to want to betray Jesus?  Was he a loyal disciple one moment and then suddenly a betrayer?  What caused Satan to enter him?  The Gospel of John suggests that he was a thief and, as keeper of the money, regularly helped himself to it. (John 12:6)

Both Satan and evil are real.  They are spiritual realities just like the Holy Spirit.  While we may not be able to see Satan physically, we can see the effects of his presence, just as we can with the Holy Spirit.  St. Paul describes the contrast.  With Satan and evil, he says we see “immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like.”  With the Holy Spirit we see “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:19-23)

What makes us vulnerable to Satan’s attack?  Peter says, “Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a lion looking for someone to devour.” (1 Pet. 5:8)    Like all predators, Satan attacks our weaknesses, bad habits and self-indulgences, inclining us to serve first ourselves instead of others.  We relate to St. Paul’s statement, “For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want.” (Rom. 7:19)  Satan’s goal is to separate us from God whom he hates.

The antidote to Satan and the putrid fruit he dispenses is accepting Jesus’ offer to dwell in us through the Holy Spirit and embracing his example of death to self – the cross.  This is impossible for us without God’s presence and grace.  But as Jesus says, “With God all things are possible.” (Mt. 19:26)  Many years ago, I met Jesus one evening and asked him to take the present sin and disorder in my life…and he did!  I accepted his offer to dwell in me.  It was truly a life-changing moment.

“Resist the devil and he will flee from you.  Come near to God and he will come near to you.” (James 4:7)  Sin begets more sin.  Grace begets more grace.

Do you recognize Satan’s efforts to pull you away from God?  What are they?

Surely Not I, Lord

“‘Amen, I say to you, one of you will betray me.’  Deeply distressed at this, they began to say to him one after another, ‘Surely it is not I, Lord?’” Matthew 26:21-22

These are Jesus’ words to the disciples at the Last Supper.  Notice how each one of them protested, yet all of them abandoned Jesus at the time of his arrest. And, of course, we are familiar with Peter later denying three times that he knew Jesus.

It seems that our tendency is to resist acknowledging our sin or wrongdoing.  Even when we acknowledge it, we often develop excuses or rationalize our conduct.  We resist correction and then compound our resistance by getting angry with the person who is trying to help us.

This occurs in varying ways.  It can be a job evaluation that indicates we are not doing our best.  Sometimes it shows up in an argument with a family member or friend when we don’t get our way.  We may dismiss our use of negative humor or participating in gossip.  We may go along with a business practice of questionable integrity so as not to rock the boat. 

Following a social engagement with some friends, my wife commented that I had been harsh with one person in connection with a certain political discussion.  I protested, claiming to have been quite reasonable in my comments – “surely not I, Lord.”  It took me a while to acknowledge that what counted was not my perception, but the perception of the person with whom I was having the discussion.  

No matter how long we have been walking with the Lord, we are still capable of betraying Christ’s presence in us, along with his mercy and kindness.  We can deny our wrongdoing, or acknowledge it, seek forgiveness and pray for greater faithfulness.  Proverbs 12:1 gets it right when it says, “He who hates correction is stupid.” (NIV)   

Do I humble myself and acknowledge when I do something wrong, or do I say, “Surely, not I, Lord?”     

Showing Up

“Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?’ ‘Here I am;’ I said; ‘send me!’” (Isaiah 6:8)

These are the words of Isaiah, the prophet, who finds himself in the temple in the presence of God.  He immediately becomes aware that he is unworthy to be there, being a man of unclean lips who lives among a people of unclean lips. An angel touches his lips with a live coal taken from the altar and declares that his guilt is taken away.  Then Isaiah hears the Lord say who shall he send, and Isaiah replies with the above words, “Here I am. Send me!”

A Christian friend mentioned to me a few years ago that he was going to Cuba with a Christian group.  He said that he wasn’t sure what he would be doing, but realized that over the years the most important thing he could do was just show up.  He said that he found that God’s grace was at work in any given situation or need. Since then he and his team have gone on ten of these trips, and their efforts have led to over five thousand professions of faith by individual Cubans.    

Jesus said, “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few.”  He instructed his disciples to declare that the kingdom of God is at hand. “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, drive out demons,” he told them.  “Whoever receives you, receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.”  (Mt. 9:35; 10:8, 40)

Many years ago, I was asked to help start a local chapter of Christians in Commerce, a national organization whose mission is “to encourage and equip Christians to be God’s presence in the workplace by the power of the Holy Spirit, exercising faith, integrity and excellence.” I contacted a couple of close Christian brothers, and we invited about 20 men on a weekend retreat.  The Northern Virginia chapter was established and has been meeting every Wednesday morning since May, 1985, albeit by Zoom this past year.  Over the years, hundreds of men have been invited to experience the Lord Jesus and the Holy Spirit in a much fuller way, countless lives have been changed through these retreats and weekly meetings, and many workplaces impacted. 

I didn’t do anything special.  Like my friend said, I just showed up.  God was already there through his Holy Spirit, touching and changing lives.

Are you available to be God’s presence to the people and circumstances in your life?