Fr. Scott Lewis, S.J

Fr. Scott Lewis, S.J

Fr. Scott Lewis is an associate professor of New Testament at Regis College, a founding member of the Toronto School of Theology.

He is a past president of the Canadian Catholic Biblical Association.

Ascension of the Lord (Year A) June 5 (Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:17-23; Matthew 28:16-20)

Angelic figures floating on clouds and playing harps — that is the image of heaven portrayed in many cartoons, stories and works of art. In an ancient worldview it makes perfect sense — God is “up there” in the sky from where He dispatches thunderbolts, rain, sun, plagues and so on. But this view came unravelled with the arrival of modern science and the growth of human knowledge. One of the first Soviet cosmonauts remarked smugly to a believer that he hadn’t seen any God during his trip into space.

But our encounter with the transcendent, God, is not spatial or temporal. It is relational, and relationship begins on Earth through our relationships with one another, with the created world and with the deepest part of our own soul. Jesus is about to reveal this to the assembled disciples. First of all, they want a quick fix: are you going to throw the Romans out and re-establish the Kingdom of Israel now? But He rather brusquely dismisses their concerns, in effect, it is none of their business but God’s, and God has other plans. Their mission is to sit tight and wait for the bestowal of power from on high — the gift of the Holy Spirit.

May 17, 2011

God is love

Sixth Sunday of Easter (Year A) May 29 (Acts 8:5-8, 14-17; Psalm 66; 1 Peter 3:15-18; John 14:15-21)

What happens when the Holy Spirit descends on a community? The passage from Acts is very explicit: evil is expelled, people are healed and joy and hope take the place of despair and negativity.

The spread of the faith to Samaria is a concrete example of the universal mission of the Spirit as described in the Pentecost account. There was certainly no love lost between Samaritans and Jews, just as the relationships between various Christian churches today are characterized by negative stereotypes and attitudes. But they responded eagerly not only to Philip’s proclamation but to the dramatic manifestations of the Spirit’s power. Although the community in Jerusalem was delighted with the news of their acceptance of the Good News, there is the curious observation that they had not yet received the Spirit, having been baptized only in the name of the Lord Jesus. In the early decades of the Christian movement the gift of the Spirit was separate from baptism and was conferred by the laying on of hands — on everyone, not just office holders. As the Samaritans eagerly embraced the Good News the apostles called down the Spirit on them and they received its gifts. Great things happen when the Holy Spirit is permitted to be more than a theological term or concept. Allowed to do its work, the Spirit can enliven and enlighten individuals, churches and communities. But if it is regarded with fear and suspicion or kept tightly controlled it is emptied of the power that it bears. More joy, life and spiritual energy would certainly not hurt any religious body.

Why should we sanctify Christ as Lord? Isn’t He sacred or holy enough? But the biblical meaning of “holy” or “to sanctify” is to set something aside and keep it pure and uncontaminated. It is not permitted to become diluted or ambiguous. Sanctification of the Lord in our hearts helps to ensure that faith is kept alive and well regardless of what may come our way. The author of the letter insists that this inner sanctification will also give us a joyful hope that will be noticeable to others. When they ask for the cause of our hope and joy we can tell them of our faith in Jesus — that is the only sort of “preaching” that is convincing in a rather sceptical and cynical world, for all search for reasons to hope. The letter also assures us of the privilege of suffering for our faith but warns of the danger of spiritualizing our own sins and errors. People and institutions cannot wrap themselves in the cloak of religious language of crucifixion and suffering when it is due to their own mistakes, infidelities and shortcomings. In those instances only the language of repentance will do.

How can we know God? How can we communicate with God? How do we know truth? In his usual convoluted manner, the author of the fourth Gospel sums up the answer to these questions with one word: love. Love is what impels the believer to walk in God’s ways, and God’s ways are love — in fact, God is love. Through this bond of love one can receive the spirit of truth, which is a stand-in for Jesus Himself. And this Spirit continues to teach and reveal God to the believer personally. But it is clear that all of this depends on love — if there is no love, there is no revelation or guiding spirit. People tend to look everywhere for God except where God can be found — deep within the individual heart and soul. John’s Jesus invites His faithful followers to enjoy the same relationship that He has with the Father. Through the bonds of love they will abide in Him and by so doing they will experience the interior presence of both Jesus and the Father. In effect, they will be people through whom the divinity shines.

In our own time many experience the absence or disappearance of God and feel a great sense of insecurity and emptiness. John offers a solution: the one who abides in Jesus can never claim to be alone nor can they say that God is distant or absent. God dwells within them in a rich, life-giving and transforming way and they can truly say that they know God.

Fourth Sunday of Easter (Year A) May 15 (Acts 2:14, 36-41; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:20-25; John 10:1-10)

Some of the crowd had been laughing and jeering at Peter and his companions, who seemed to be babbling and very emotional and excited about something. The conclusion of elements in the crowd: they had been in to the wine and were drunk.

Peter quickly disabuses them of this misconception. He explains (in the omitted verses) that this is the pouring out of the Spirit prophesied in Joel and that it signals the arrival of the end days. Things are going to be very different now because all believers were being empowered by the Spirit rather than a chosen few. Peter also relates the story of Jesus — the deeds of power and compassion, the wonders and signs, and His status as the one sent by God. He hurls a barbed accusation at his fellow Jews by recounting the betrayal and execution of Jesus. God reversed their judgment and affirmed the status and teachings of Jesus by raising Him from the dead. Peter drives home the point that Jesus is now enthroned as Lord and Messiah. As the import of his words sink in there is only stunned silence — then the inevitable question: what can we do now? But the gift that Jesus brings is for everyone and the invitation to be baptized is accepted by many that very day.

Third Sunday of Easter (Year A) May 8 (Acts 2:14, 22-28; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:17-21; Luke 24:13-35)

Many people fear the light and run from the presence of God that calls for change. Strangely, religious people are not an exception and at times the worst offenders. Every new glimmer of hope and light has been opposed, resisted and feared from the beginning of time until today. People continue to persecute and kill those who challenge humanity to move beyond fear and blindness.

The truth is rarely pleasant and change is difficult. In the case of Jesus, human sin — fear, rigidity, jealousy and suspicion — did their best to destroy Jesus and everything He stood for. All of this was despite authenticating signs and wonders; in fact, these probably increased the level of fear. Peter does not pull any punches in his speech to the crowd. But something that is of God cannot be silenced or killed for truth has a power all of its own. By raising Jesus from the dead God vindicated all that Jesus said and did. Death cannot hold Him — not now or ever again.

Things do not change very much. We still are not noticeably open to people who challenge our perceptions, prejudices and ways of thinking nor do we treat them with much kindness or respect. It is far easier to condemn the ideas of others than to engage in dialogue. After all, there is the terrible possibility that they may be right! We dare not read a passage like the one above with any sense of smugness or superiority. We must always ask the honest question: would we have behaved any differently?

Some look at history and see nothing but a chaotic mass of events without direction or meaning. The author of 1 Peter sees something else: from the very beginning of time Christ was destined to redeem humanity. There has never been a moment in the history of the world in which God was not at work in some way on our behalf. But our author asks: in view of the blood and effort that has redeemed us can we justify a lacklustre or half-hearted response? We should exercise careful and grateful stewardship of the life that we have been granted.

Often we can amass a pile of facts but lack understanding and the ability to see the big picture. In a teasing cat-and-mouse game on the road to Emmaus with the two disciples, an incognito Jesus questions them about the things that have happened in Jerusalem. The broken-hearted and disappointed disciples had witnessed the words and deeds of Jesus but they had unfortunately also been present for His judicial murder. Their bitter story ends with the account of the empty tomb related to them by the women and the fact that the empty tomb had been verified. But in spite of all this there was an absence of understanding and faith on their part. Debates about the existence of God or the truth of Christianity have a rather dismal success rate — they appeal to “facts” and “proofs” but deeper layers of the mind and heart need to be engaged.

The disciples were struggling with suffering — and they have a lot of good company. It is the oldest philosophical and religious question in the world. An even greater difficulty is faced in trying to reconcile suffering with God or God’s representatives. How could God’s anointed one suffer? The passion and death of Jesus was the stumbling block for the first generation of Christians. A rather exasperated Jesus carefully unravels the hidden mystery of redemption in the Scriptures. His suffering is not a fluke or accident but is part of the divine plan — the same one mentioned in the second reading. It is only at the moment of the breaking and distribution of the bread that their eyes were opened and they recognized Jesus — who promptly vanished from their sight.

This gives us an insight into how the early Christians read, interpreted and appropriated the Hebrew Bible — it was the key to understanding the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. But it was also in the breaking of the bread — the communal meal and prayer — that they encountered Jesus and experienced His guiding presence. Authentic Christian community is more than socializing. It is a place of acceptance, mutuality and trust and where we encounter the Lord in Scripture, prayer and one another.
Second Sunday of Easter (Year A) May 1 (Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 118; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31)

What fuels the negative forces at work in our world? Human competition, greed, fear and selfishness do the job quite well without blaming Satan or some other sinister force for our troubles. It doesn’t really matter if we are competing for oil, trade, power, military strength, economic advantage or even God. When we are convinced that there is not enough for everyone and that we feel threatened or fearful the “fun” begins — the game of trying to do others out of what we want for ourselves.

This deadly game usually ends in blood and tears. Luke’s depiction of the ideal Christian community challenges this dreary inevitability and offers us a luminous path out of the darkness. This first generation of disciples began to renounce the cause of so much human misery — the notion of personal wealth and property especially at the expense of others. This practice of the radical common life was not common — the Dead Sea Scroll community was a noted exception. But the first Christians were convinced that this was the pattern of the new age that was being born in their time. It was the pattern of a community in which the need for competition or jealousy would be lessened and no one would be humiliated or denied the basics of life.
Easter Sunday (Year A) April 24 (Acts 10:34, 37-43; Psalm 118; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-18)

What was Cornelius the centurion expecting to hear? Although a foreigner, a pagan and an officer in the hated Roman army, he was a thoughtful and just man, giving alms and offering prayers to the God of the people whom he was governing. That prayer was heard — in a vision, a dazzling figure stood before him and commanded him to ask that Peter come to his house. He has no idea who Peter is or what he is going to say. Peter simply relates the story about Jesus that is travelling through Judea: divine anointing with the Spirit, compassionate deeds of power, betrayal and death. But that is not all: God vindicated Jesus by raising Him from the dead, thereby affirming His teaching and deeds. He has transcended death and some of His followers are witnesses.

At this point Cornelius might say, “Fine — great story and a great man, but what does that have to do with me?” The answer is stark and simple. Jesus now stands astride history itself as the judge of the living and the dead but with the desire to grant forgiveness to those who believe in Him.
Passion Sunday (Year A) April 17 (Isaiah 50:4-7; Psalm 22; Philippians 2:6-11; Matthew 26:14-27:66)

When people find meaning in their suffering they can endure almost anything. This was the insight of the great philosopher and psychologist Viktor Frankl, the author of Man’s Search for Meaning and how right he was.

The enigmatic suffering servant figure of Isaiah is a case in point for his suffering had the highest meaning. We do not know who he was or even if he was a particular individual but we do know that he suffered much abuse in the course of his ministry. This is not some sort of masochistic suffering for its own sake nor does it excuse injustice and cruelty. But one thing is clear: he is able to undergo such suffering and abuse because he knows that he is bearing the divine teaching within him and that he is fulfilling God’s mission. As long as he is continually renewed and instructed within he is able to remain focused with a laser-like intensity and purpose. Whatever is received from God is for the sake of others — our teacher continually gives hope and encouragement to the weary and discouraged. This is the model of the great men and women in history who have given their lives over to the advancement of humanity and have often paid a big price. There is so much today that is worth striving and suffering for — we need only listen to the voice of the spirit within us for guidance.
Fifth Sunday of Lent (Year A) April 10 (Ezekiel 37:12-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45)

Death is our greatest fear. People have stood in the presence of death from the primal origins of humans up until the present. They are filled with both dread and wonder — what happens after death? Where does the individual go? Does he or she live again or continue to live in another place? Prehistoric people buried their dead reverently with flowers and grave goods and all human cultures since have surrounded death with memorials, rituals and awe.

The sting of death is even more painful when it is unjust and unfair — especially when visited upon whole communities of people. It can seem like the light of life is snuffed out forever. In the sixth century BC, Ezekiel dealt with these feelings that he shared with his fellow Israelites. Israel lay in ruins with her population either dead or in exile. The temple was destroyed and its worship silenced. Would Israel continue? Was this the end of the line? Ezekiel’s vision (vv.4-6) assures the Israelites of two important things. First of all, God is faithful and has not abandoned them — they are still His chosen people. Secondly, God is the author and giver of life. By human standards, Israel is finished, but by God’s standards, Israel’s life has barely begun. Just as the graphic and somewhat macabre image of bones coming to life signifies a return from destruction and death, so it will be for Israel. God will raise her from the ashes of destruction and defeat and breathe life into her.
Fourth Sunday of Lent (Year A) April 3 (1 Samuel 16:1. 6-7, 10-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41)

What is a person worth? Most cultures teach us subtly and at times blatantly that appearance is everything. A person’s worth is measured by their beauty, the proportion and appearance of their bodies, the clothes they wear and the way their hair is styled, and that indefinable quality that seems to cling to celebrities, sports heroes and entertainers. Lookism even plays out in political campaigns with the advantage going to those with a better media image.
Third Sunday of Lent (Year A) March 27 (Exodus 17:3-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-2, 5-8; John 4:5-42)

The experience at Massah and Meribah is a recurring theme in the history of the human race. The Israelites have just been rescued from slavery and led out of Egypt by means of powerful signs and wonders. God has humbled the superpower of that age and made mockery of a pharaoh with divine pretentions. They are free, and God has promised to lead them to a land where they can continue to live in freedom.

But now the adrenalin of the escape has abated and reality has set in. They are in a hostile desert — food and water are scarce — and they have no idea where they are or where they are going. With the onset of fear come the complaining, quarrelling and the testing of God that will characterize their entire journey through the wilderness.

People have notoriously short memories when it comes to the graces that God bestows on them. For that matter, this memory deficit also applies to the good that others do for us. Their cry echoes with those of so many throughout history even in our own day: Is the Lord among us? Does God even exist? The attitude of the Israelites at that point is shared by people everywhere: If I am a believer, why should I suffer? When the going gets tough, faith is the first victim. And the Israelites want to go back into Egypt, their place of slavery, because in their minds the life was easier and more predictable and secure. Forgotten is the pain and bitterness of slavery.

People usually want to go back into their own Egypt. Sometimes they imagine an earlier time in which society was more wholesome and nice and people were more civil and kind. They might remember a previous job, conveniently forgetting how badly they were treated by the boss. Or they might want to return to a romanticized period in the Church rather than face the challenges of the present. All of these reactions are long on fear and short on faith. Faith is not doctrine or creeds but an unwavering trust in the presence and the loving care of God. It does not cut and run at the first sign of adversity, confusion or suffering.

Paul recognizes that it is by means of this faith that we are placed in right relationship with God. With this faith comes reconciliation and peace but even more: the gift of the Spirit of God that is poured into our hearts. This Spirit enables us to be loving and faith-filled people regardless of what is going on around us. It is a sure sign that God is with us and that we share in God’s glory.

In this haunting and rather mysterious story of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well we learn that God is still providing for our needs but now the focus is on more than day-to-day survival. Jesus has stepped beyond the ordinary in this encounter: He is in hostile Samaritan territory; He is talking to a woman alone. The conversation gets off to a shaky start with her brusque and sarcastic response to His request for water. Jesus does not help the conversation for He speaks in riddles, symbols and metaphors in His attempt to enlighten her. Just as God provided water for one kind of thirst in the desert, God now provides “living water” for a deeper sort of thirst. The Spirit will quench the thirst for God and transcendence and will never fail or give out.

But with this gift of the Spirit there is a challenge. When the woman asks for the legitimate place of divine worship she is told that from now on it is neither Jerusalem nor Mt. Gerizim. God is now to be worshipped in the human heart and soul through the presence of the Spirit. In a sense, the ground upon which we stand is holy for God is present. Worshipping in spirit and truth describes a personal and direct encounter with God. This personal gift of the Spirit must never be domesticated or given into the control of others for it is the gift of access to God that Jesus Himself gives us. Is the Lord with us or not? Look within!