Proposal For Conversion

The BeginningThis is a proposal I sent to an organization called Communion and Liberation.  They have an annual convention once a year called New York Encounter.  They are accepting proposals from people who have something to share that would fit with their theme.  A different theme each year.  For next year it is “something to start from”.  Hopefully what I write below fits.  It is attended by many people who are not necessarily Catholic or even Christian of any kind.  So I do speak in doctrinal terms here but hopefully in an approachable way.   

Enjoy,

Jason Miller

Greetings in Christ,

My name is Jason Miller, and I am a Catholic convert after over 30 years of practicing as a faithful and engaged protestant. Professionally, I am an Arizona-based therapist and my therapeutic approach is partly strengths-based in supporting clients towards their goals. In addition to my work as a therapist, I am also a certified catechist in the Diocese of Phoenix. 

My proposal for my exhibit is called “Critical Impressions in Conversion.”  I write, “Critical Impressions” due to first impressions of Jesus discipling people in the first week of His public ministry.  What could be limited to first impressions, I suggest, are to be always applicable “critical impressions” as Christians are called to ongoing conversion. 

In humanity we often are restless and repelled from conversion though it meets our  inner hunger summed up well by how “our hearts are restless for thee” (St. Augustine of Hippo). The chief traits of the gospel addresses this restlessness are how “God is with us” in the Incarnation, has “mercy on us” in the Cross, and continues victory in us by the Resurrection.  Grace can work in our hearts a conscious awareness of knowing Jesus is looking at us to engraft this reality in our souls.  It is in his gaze we know God wants holistic salvation as “grace perfects nature” (St. Thomas Aquinas).  A good place to start from.  Engagement in communion with Christ and the Church lifts up those parts that are meant to be fulfilled in him.  Guesses with reason alone point only to natural faculties of the person and lack the dimension of the “religious sense” that Fr. Giussanni wrote of. 

In my experience as a therapist, where I cannot explicitly refer to sin or share the gospel, behavioral sciences show the gaps in the person to be recognized then perfect in grace. I want to address several inner tensions to authentic conversion, and how they look if  they can be contextualized with grace.  I use an acronym to groups that approaches this with a neutral then strengths-based perspective. These concepts are in the acronym GOSCAMP:guilt, openness, skepticism, confusion, anxiety, manipulation and preparation.  These are the points of the human condition we are meant to meet Jesus and be changed in. What I do with each is show how each in the pure sense are neutral. 

The analogy I make is without being an athlete I can push a large truck down the road on one condition: put it in neutral for me.  So too can someone dealing with the factors below without a reminder in the right direction or too often in this fallen world in the wrong direction on these key points.  After having “de-neutralized” each, I challenge the hearer to drive slowly forward rather than staying neutral on those terms. 

But Jesus, if fully interpreted as Savior, addresses these things and so should the Church.  I thus point to the first week of Jesus’ public ministry to illuminate how the divine encounter of Jesus transforms the very fiber of our being.  This Chief Shepherd and Bishop of our souls (1 Peter 2:25) does this work in the full presentation of gospel essentials, proper formation of the conscience and a mindfulness of his presence in our silence before him alone.

More substantively, for “something to start from” I will be pointing to the first days of Jesus discipling people in divine yet mundane encounters.  Below I outline how Jesus, who does not change, converses with the common struggles in humanity and draws them to himself.  So too can those who want more of the light of Christ can be discipled in and pass on to others like one beggar telling the other where to find bread.  These are indeed critical impressions by which conversion fits largely on the merit that Jesus does not change. 

Day One is the prophetic encounter with truth.  In this case it was John the Baptist  who shook up precious paradigms and even personal places of power meant to be shifted.  Some hear this today and stay for more.  Those who do stay choose the way of preparation for whatever comes next in the Lord.  It is to “make straight the paths of the Lord”.

Day Two- – Some saw Jesus “fulfill all righteousness” as they then would “Behold the Lamb” being baptized. We are meant for openness to see Jesus but on his terms.  God works to show us his ways in matter.  It is to be heavenly minded while in context of earthly good. These are like two rivers meant to flow together. Confusion is an initial reaction to this which can give way to see spirit and matter contradicting rather than complimentary like the gnostics. Grace perfects nature and makes them complimentary in contemplation. 

Day Three- – Some saw Jesus as someone to dwell with and therefore fellowshipped with the Lamb- Holy Friendship. One only knows more if they “come and see” as Jesus said to his first followers.  At 4pm the future apostles John and Andrew went and stayed with Jesus. 

Day Four- Jesus here calls one to personal mission of service in his kingdom as happens with Peter.  In the early encounters of Jesus with Peter his struggle with guilt turns into shame.  Guilt is spiritual pain. Guilt is for the mistakes we make or the sins we have done against our conscience.  Shame says that we are a mistake putting us into spiritual shock and not seeing hope for change.   Ongoing mission, like in the early encounters with Peter, is key here in grace. Though Peter tells Jesus to get away from him with his “resume”, Jesus responds with mission.  Mission is manipulation redeemed for it educates us in the pure sense like pure education.  Education comes from educare which draws from within.  The calling of Jesus addresses how his life is walked out individually. 

Also the same day Jesus invited the openness of hard inquiry. Nathanael asked behind Jesus’ back if anything good could come out of Israel.  Jesus miraculously responded by complimenting him on his straightforward demeanor in place of “guile”.  While Ignatius of Loyola would call for contemplation, which is valid,  there is a beauty of skepticism. Ongoing engagement of reason is not an enemy of faith.  “The Truth, which is Christ, imposes itself as an all-embracing authority which holds out to theology and philosophy alike the prospect of support, stimulation and increase (Fides Et Ratio, para.92). Without skepticism, we are not stimulated. I could guess that he had anxiety, but his anxiety of Jesus that could have been on the exposing miracle, but changed to fear of the Lord.   

Days 5 and 6 on their way to a wedding in Cana-  One takes time in contemplation of Christ on their favorite angle of him.  I would suggest that the initial and ongoing follower of Jesus Christ needs them all like flashpoints of conversion.  To sum up on these points I would say the first and ongoing critical impressions of Jesus are preparation over stagnation, contemplation over confusion, communion over isolation, grace over shame, and skeptical seeking over blind cynicism. 

But not with Our Lady since she is best disciple of them all.  She asked “how can this be”? about conceiving as a virgin.  It says, twice “she pondered these things in her heart”. She had a sense of esteem in God’s love in saying “I am the Lord’s servant”.  These first impressions of this mysterious carpenter/rabbi from Nazareth were critical and lifelong impressions for Mary who was full of grace and leads us to Jesus. In our case, gazed upon by Jesus in all of the parts of us, we can be also filled every day. 

Day 7-   The conversion of the heart.  One now believes in Jesus with willingness to obey like the disciples did at the wedding at Cana.  You are a friend of Jesus and a witness of the wedding far above the one studied in the verses below.   Some wrongly think Jesus rebuked Mary for her approach about fixing a wine situation.  But the idiomatic impression meant there is nothing between him and her.  Though we were conceived in sin, we can be asked to be filled with grace now and push the throttle of faith on the upside of our internal struggles in receiving everything Jesus that he wants to be in us.  Today we can know God’s narrative of ourselves with a holistic understanding of the gospel that saves the whole person. 

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Meekness, Wonder and Discovery

MeeknessI heard and interesting definition of meekness once: power kept under control.  To have the power and not flaunt it is no small challenge unless one is very humble.  For the crowds around a celebrity who approach a fanaticism about the that person, the trajectory is meant to be up, always up, including when it is really not.  In an example of the opposite end, there are celebrities that get old, weak and eroded of glorious beauty.  In that case, the public does not forgive. 

Such is the significance of what is called Palm Sunday by Christians in a crucial day in the life of Jesus.  Jesus made an entrance with much acclaim but his demeanor was really low key.  He proceeded on a donkey but was hailed with words fit for a king.  Before coming into the city of Jerusalem, he spoke with knowledge and authority that was determined and very set telling his disciples  “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find an ass tethered, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them here to me” (Matthew 21:2). A donkey was a status symbol of a fresh new car.  But was not meant to be speedy.  It was slow enough that one could chat with the people and be approachable rather than being on a high, fast horse.   

Jesus spoke from knowledge, authority and determination because his standpoint was from eternity and not just one age.  Taking a step back and seeing Jesus through a prophesy lens shows more in the preparation than his ride.  “This happened so that what had been spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled: ‘Say to daughter Zion, “Behold, your king comes to you, meek and riding on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.” ” (Matthew 21:4-5). There is power and authority shown here but again there is meekness because there is a reference to the “daughter Zion”.  The prophecy that is quoted here has those two words to show the gentle favor like one would have for a daughter but saying Zion since that was a term for Israel of how God keeps his promises without an end. 

“Hosanna” is a word quoted from the crowd in all four gospels for this event.  It comes from the Hebrew words yasha  (“deliver, save”) and anna (“beg, beseech”) which forms what we say down to English, as “hosanna.” Literally, hosanna means “I beg you to save!” or “please deliver us!”  Later that day by the temple they would repeat it again much to the dismay of the religious leaders.  There is something noble to their praise, but it is worth keeping in mind the question: how many in the crowd would not forgive him like society does of those who grow old for not being so super? How many matter of 5 days later would being saying “Crucify him!”?  when appears in a mockery of royal robe and crown of thorns?  They generally may be calling for Jesus to save them only half on what matters and 150% on what does not. 

This comes back to why the apostles and the early church preached and taught Jesus as crucified but then risen.  If we call out to Jesus without a well rounded understanding of his sacrificial love, we will be set up to love without meaning and sacrifice without endurance.  So too for those who call themselves by the name of Christ, we will shine for the radiance of Jesus to the world.  To speak and live out the fulness of the good news of Jesus Christ in a robust manner is to let out Matthew, Mark, Luke and John like a lion from of a cage. 

There is a recurring mentioning for evangelizing with the gospel to “lead by beauty” (Bp. Robert Barron). Praise was given with palm leaves and personal clothes laid in the his path which could be considered beautiful in its simplicity.  “And when he entered Jerusalem the whole city was shaken and asked, ‘Who is this’ And the crowds replied, ‘This is Jesus the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.’ “ This was a simple insight in that someone important was there to see but next the chance to hear him. And if this turned out to be a prophet truly sent from God then there was a new direction to come. 

With the emergence of Christianity that was based on the cross and the resurrection the impact would be more than a shaking via a proposition but a provocation into the darkness of the world.  Decades later, associates of  Paul would be responded to accordingly with an adverse commentary.  “But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some brethren to the rulers of the city, crying out, ‘These who have turned the world upside down have come here too. ‘ “(Acts 17:6). 

Such is the pattern of Christ encountering the individual or the culture.  First the shaking by beauty and then the flipping of the paradigms.  Even this same day we see a hint of it.  “He entered Jerusalem and went into the temple area. He looked around at everything and, since it was already late, went out to Bethany with the Twelve” (Mark 11:11).  This seems like a quiet happening until one considers that only months ago he was there solo in a confrontation with the religious leaders when he healed a man born blind whereas they were troubled due to deeming Jesus and the man unworthy of a miracle.  Now Jesus comes with the Twelve.  These were the apostles of the Church.  The day would come when they would be teaching in what is equivalent to the temple basement.  Change would be coming outside of the box of the elite.  Today he begins to serve them notice that grace was here and it would be unstoppable as it is the hand of God.  Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, rebuke your disciples.’ He said in reply, ‘I tell you, if they keep silent, the stones will cry out!’ “ (Luke 21:39-40). 

Also it is worth noting the irony they were leaving the temple where the leaders do not understand him to Bethany where he was understood.  In Bethany, Jesus had revealed himself to be the resurrection and the life in raising Lazarus from the dead.  It was there that his sister Mary was used as object lesson of what it is to listen to him and adore him.  Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha served as a microcosm of community that is formed by Jesus and receive teaching in the context of being more formed towards him.  Such a people formed even more from the fullness of what Jesus did and is would likewise be prone to cry out. 

Thus we should consider Palm Sunday for what it can be.  It marks not the fulness of revelation of who Jesus is but is an appetizer of who he and his kingdom. But drawing from this scene we cry out to him now as Lord and Savior. 

Right Road On The High Road

string-broken-hutong-wallsI think about “Rocky Mountain High” when I think of retreat.  People who have an intentional life of faith sometimes go on a retreat to the beach or mountains and set aside time for prayer which can be a good experience.  But eventually we have to come back to earth.  We are meant to walk this earth announcing in word and deed that God is relevant.  That is at the heart of Jesus’ nature.  “God so loved the world…” is not just a catch phrase at a sports game but a way of life. 

After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus (Matthew 17:16). 

took with him – – It is not enough for the believer to white-knuckle themselves by willpower to their retreat or in any Christian growth experience.  The grace of God comes first always whether it is clear to us or not. 

There he was transfigured before them- Much fanfare is given in light of the spectacular descriptions here.  Pope Benedict VI makes a point that in a way this was the moment in Jesus’s earthly life where he ironically was not transfigured but was his normal self and thus meaning his glory was hidden otherwise. 

Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus- – In God’s involvement on the earth before, during and after the events of the gospels there are adornments in person or things that confirm what God has done or is doing.  In a parallel passage on the same event there is more detail here where it is pointed out how  they “appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31). 

The wording in the original Greek is literally what the Greek translation of the Old Testament uses for the exodus of Moses.  The word meant “the way out” of Egypt but here it is a heavenly direction. “What he was going to accomplish” is about the work of redemption on the cross. 

Lord, it is good for us to be here- – God really does not need our good ideas.  And we do no favors to ourselves when we emphasize a geographical location due to what the think it is intrinsically to be.  Such are the thoughts that we can have when we are unsettled and absent God’s peace. 

I will put up three shelters- –  The following could be an imaginative translation of what he is getting at. 

What an awesome experience!  Let’s turn this into a new village! We’ll hang out, do a  Torah study with Jesus, Moses and Elijah and Jesus will bring the wine.  Sure, I’ve got a wife down the mountain and there are masses of people that want to get into this new kingdom thing (whatever that is) but let’s settle. Letting his excitement get ahead of him, Simon Peter puts Moses and Elijah on equal footing with Jesus.  The Father loves them, but not like He loves Jesus.

Peter is centering on this experience to be the end all. The kingdom of God does go beyond earthly things and is across the generations and in part he is right to recognize that.  But those are things and not a person.  Christianity is based on the person of Jesus and his central work of being crucified and being raised from the dead.  Days earlier the cross was a scandal in his mind.  When Jesus was first announced by John the Baptist it was as the Lamb of God (which in Jewish tradition is sacrificed).  If one does not get that and keep this truth engrained they will miss how sacrifice in the gospel and the Christian life is entwined. “Love without sacrifice is meaningless.  Sacrifice without love is unendurable” (Dr. Scott Hahn). 

a bright cloud covered them- – Through the Bible there is a theme of clouds as symbolic of covenant or community.  Here it is both in the sense of God being a community of holy persons and that the establishment of The New Covenant is drawing near. 

This is my Son, whom I love- – But with that overwhelming presence of God the Father, Simon Peter gets his perspective readjusted.  But notice it is not, “Listen to my Son or I will smite thee.”  The Father brings it back to love and repeats what He said at the baptism of John the Baptist.  He is well pleased in Jesus.  Jesus is enough. Jesus and the message of sonship for those in him does not change

Listen to him- – Where John the Baptist says “Behold” the model of ongoing conversion is “Listen”.  That is a means by which faith comes (Romans 10:17). 

they fell facedown to the ground, terrified- – At best they interpret the love going on as only to Jesus and the Father is fresh out of mercy.  But the gospel shows us that “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). 

But Jesus came and touched them.- – Coming to the end of ourselves and admitting we are powerless over our sin is a sobering experience. Wrong does not mean one is bad and deserving only punishment.  So Love Incarnate steps in and does what He does: He pushes out that fear. But Jesus embodies perfect love and “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:17).  Jesus will manifest his presence in some way for that if we let him.  Where shame immobilizes us in a sort of spiritual shock, Jesus changes the story.    

When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus- – The story comes to the full circle with Jesus being central.

When I was a Protestant, Peter was the comedy relief in a lot of sermons.  Now with a passage like this, I have to laugh at myself.  What goose bumps have I raised to the level of Jesus?  Have I mistaken a definition for myself that is like being too spiritually minded for any earthly good?  Where has Jesus called me down from my “Rocky Mountain High” and I have refused to come back to the simplicity of devotion to Christ (2 Corinthians 11:3)?   

Again, Jesus does not change.  But He does love us enough to call us to Himself in purity and practicality.  Let’s cast off pretentious ideas, listening, and surrender to him. 

A Most Kingly Goverment

Son of DavidTo understand the gospel in a macro perspective best there is an important launching point in the word  “Christ”.  The Greek word for it is christos.  This was a Greek word used in the pagan world for one anointed with favor shown in oil to rule or command.  This Greek word makes its way into the New Testament from early Christians who used that in the Greek translation of the Old Testament.  But when they called Jesus the Christ, they meant also like how Jews turned Christians had the Hebrew term meshiach (Messiah). This was also seen through the lens of kingdom; but not just any kingdom but the kingdom, but of David. 

This was shown in the Gospel of Mathew which says, “This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham (Mathew 1:1).  In fact, there is much scholarship that suggests that the Gospel of Mathew was originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic or Syriac (the latter two being close derivatives of Hebrew) and then translated into Greek.

A good view of the kingdom of God in Christ is that the “Old is revealed in the New and the New is concealed in the Old” (St. Augustine).  The gospel of Jesus Christ is articulated in covenantal language not embedded by shadows of covenantal promises like the law of Moses.  Instead it is a matter of covenantal love with Jesus as the fulfillment of the Law of Moses. With this accomplished Jesus has a magnified expression of David’s line of succession and true worship.  The following is a gospel proclamation of Jesus as the Anointed One. Notice that David is pointed to due to God’s covenantal faithfulness and an agenda that unfolds over the centuries. 

Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:11-14). 

A king is not really a king without a kingdom.  But does the David reference extend to Christianity?  And if so, what would it look like? 

The writer of Hebrews touches on this with the reference of Mount Zion which is where King David was anointed king after all question of rivals was put aside.  Writing to Christians it is described as transcendent stating, “But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly (Hebrews 12:22). 

            The kingdom of God in Christ glorifies Christ, transcends earth, is universal for application and holistic to the person.  Paul, a fulfilled Jew in Jesus as the Messiah, connected the gospel of Jesus to David.

the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 1:2-4). 

          In a way, one could say exactly where the “Mt. Zion” is for Christianity: the tomb of the Resurrection.  The preaching of this is the whole gospel of the kingdom, for the whole person for the whole world.  As of the term “appointed” this makes sense in light of the Isaiah prophecy that the “government shall be upon his shoulders” (Isaiah 9:6)). 

Jesus as the son of David rules a kingdom now with the logical consequences of being who he is in a Davidic pattern of kingdom.  On the fourth day of Jesus’ ministry Apostle Nathanael called him the King of Israel. Like King David, Jesus chose someone to have the keys over the household of faith as the chief steward. The chief steward also served the kings descended from David who were like a vice president or a chief of staff. The first for Christianity was born Simon son of John but was renamed Peter on the fifth day of his ministry.  Peter could bind and loose like a household manager and chief teacher and there has been someone in that same chair for 2,000 years.  The kingdom of Jesus has a Queen Mother named Mary instead of Bathseeba mother of Solomon.  People came to the Queen Mother in each generation of David’s descendants for their intercession.  Likewise, Mary interceded for his first miracle (John 2:1-11) on the seventh day of Jesus’s ministry. The Bible says that all generations will call her blessed.  All of this is also what comes with the fulness o the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Yes, King David is one more part of the tapestry in salvation history that inspired me to become Catholic. 

The Holistic Definition

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“I don’t that word means what you think it means” is one of the funnier moments in the Princess Bride film.  This statement humbled someone who  incorrectly use a word because he lacked a full understanding of the what it meant. 

Likewise a term like gospel can be used too lightly or wrongly.  Incorrect or shallow meanings can be dry information, politics, morals do’s or don’t’s, a specific culture’s paradigm or esoteric philosophy.  The Roman “gospel” was definitive, authoritative and expected to bring clarity in the world per a specific world view.   

“The term [Evangelion] has recently been translated as ‘good news.’ That sounds attractive, but it falls far short of the order of magnitude of what is actually meant by the word evangelion. This term figures in the vocabulary of the Roman emperors, who understood themselves as lords, saviors, and redeemers of the world.  The messages issued by the emperor were called in Latin evangelium   regardless of whether or not their content was particularly cheerful or pleasant . The idea was that what comes from the emperor is a saving message, that it is not just a piece of news, but a changing of the world for the better. “When the Evangelists adopt this word, and it thereby becomes the generic name for their writings, what they mean to tell us is this: What the emperors, who pretend to be gods, illegitimately claim, really occurs here – a message endowed with plenary authority, a message that is not just talk but reality…. the Gospel is not just informative speech, but performative speech – not just the imparting of information, but action, efficacious power that enters into the world to save and transform. Mark speaks of the ‘Gospel of God,’ the point being that it is not the emperors who can save the world, but God. And it is here that God’s word, which is at once word and deed, appears; it is here that what the emperors merely assert, but cannot actually perform, truly takes place (Pope Benedict VI, Jesus of Nazareth Vol 1 pp. 46-47).

There is a higher declaration in the message of Jesus.   We are told from the Bible that Jesus means “God saves”.  How does God save?  What does God save in us? This gospel speaks of transformation and not only of mental assent nor limited to only a personal paradigm. 

First, we should address it with a proper anthropology of the person.  A way to describe my physical existence is that I am physical and not that I have a body.  But I also have a mind, a heart, a soul and strength under the same view.  I am called to love God with all of them.  But without the grace of God, I cannot do that.  Jesus means “God saves” because we are saved by grace through faith in him connecting to his divine life. “The word of God is quick and powerful, to the dividing asunder between soul and spirit, joints and marrow and thoughts and intents of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). The word is Jesus and he became flesh (John 1:14) to be the Way. 

Divinity is key to understanding Jesus as Lord.  Isaiah wrote the Messiah would be “God with us”.  Jesus saves fully for those who receive him because he is fully God.  If Jesus was only 99% divine then the cross would not work because it would be an intervention of a finite being into finite material. 

Thus Jesus saves the whole person.  The Greek word for save is sozo.  That word is used for so much more than avoiding hell.  It is for all of the parts of the person and is ongoing.  When a woman with hemophilia was healed by Jesus the Greek word for healed was also sozo.  Several times in the Bible someone receives God’s touch on any dimension they are “sozo’d” or made whole. The demonstration of the gospel of Christ is a declaration of freedom from oppression (Acts 10:38).   Jesus so wanted to emphasize this that he said that to have true life one should eat his flesh and drink his blood (John 6). 

One can see Jesus’  salvation through foreshadowing events in the Old Testament and into the New. Jesus is bridegroom, overseer of our souls, shepherd, servant, healer, forgiver, deliverer, living bread that comes down from heaven.  There would need to be a  natural habitat of these aspects of Jesus to be nurtured and allowed to grow in being understandable as channels of grace and by no means obstacles or else it is just more law. But how it begins is with the anointing of the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son (Council of Nicea 325) flowing in sacraments such as “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins (Nicea).    

Early Christianity broadened from the Greek word for covenant, diatheke, to Latin expression of the word sacramentum.  As actions speak louder than words, Jesus articulates salvation with the sacraments. They are fruit of the cross which  Jesus initiates in love to the world through words and form by his people.

I will now repeat the biblical themes above shown in the sacraments. A common criticism is they are a “sacramental system” and “manmade traditions”.   I would respond the kingdom of God is familial.  It is kinship by covenant and not any more “system” than the joy of gifts being unwrapped by children on Christmas morning. They are centered on Christ.

Bridegroom- – Matrimony.  Holy matrimony speaks to Jesus who is returning at the end of the age for a pure and spotless bride. 

Overseer of our souls- Holy Orders with a bishop (episcopi).  This is a matter of a bishop being a sacramental sign of Jesus who watches over our souls (1 Peter 2:25). 

Shepherd- Holy Orders with a clerical priest (prebuteros).  This speaks to the priestly ministry who is also a doorkeeper in the local assembly of good or bad doctrine.  Ultimately Christ is the Apostle and High Priest of our good confession.  A local priest is an extension and not a hurdle.  At the local level he is on the front line of dispensing the sacraments of Holy Unction and Penance (see below).  This does not take away from the priesthood of all believers. 

Servant – Deacon (diakonos).  Christ was a servant of the world. 

Healer- Sacrament of Healing or Holy Unction.  Christ is healer and at times uses this sacrament to communicate that. 

Forgiver- – Sacrament of Penance/ Reconciliation.  Jesus was able to say that someone’s sins were forgiven.  He passed this on to his apostles who have passed that on to others (John 20:22-23). 

Deliverer- Baptism which is the initiation of the priesthood of all believers. It is the normative way that we are saved (John 3:3).  “Baptism now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21).  There was a baptism in Moses (1 Corinthians 10:1-3) for the exodus (exhoda) from Egypt.  Jesus said he was the Way (hoda) which plays in words that he was the way out of the slavery of sin. 

Living bread that comes down from heaven- – Eucharist (eucharistia— thanksgiving).  Jesus gives us the means through his flesh that is made real in the Eucharist.  Jesus in communion is the “engrafted word of God that can save your souls” (James 1:21). 

But God is not bound to sacraments. My conversion to Jesus on a rainy day in Newport, Oregon was with the Protestant tradition“The Sinner’s Prayer”.  It but it is not something that one can point to in the scriptures nor anytime before the 19th century.  We are called to Jesus but ideally expressed as together  through the authoritative, universal, “according to the whole”, called out and together Catholic Church (ecclesia katholikos) which is the “church, the pillar and foundation of truth (1 Timothy 3:15).

The gospel can be articulated more holistically when applied sacramentally. This is not dependent on the individual holiness of the instrument he uses but by grace (ex opere operato).  Next is only how receptive we are (ex opere operantis).  God has something to say of all of us and to all of us but never forcing us.   

The Simple Party of Five

judith-in-art-salviNot all gatherings are divine.  Some are get-togethers of people who have only goals that are shallow and of this earth.  Some people gather seeking The Deity as they understand and are truly open to what will happen.  Some gatherings are mixed in intent. Maybe wanting God but on very tight terms. But true openness to gather in God’s presence is always an encounter with God in intimacy and grace.

A factor we can see in a true gathering in God is in the meeting of species like when the angel Gabriel came to human Mary passing on a divine proposal. Case in point of two humans with a resolutely divine purpose is Mary coming to her relative Elizabeth.  Mary carries Jesus and Elizabeth carries John who would prepare the way for Jesus. In this gathering is a calling and a called out gathering in the Greek is ecclesia.  Ecclessia is where we get church or iglesia in Spanish.  To an observer with the carnal eye it is a meeting of two women who may have lumps in their bellies.  To a divine observer there was more than two by far, as we will see, with women of great significance to salvation history.

“During those days Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah,  where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.  When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the holy Spirit,  cried out in a loud voice and said, “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.  And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?  For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled” (Luke 1:39-45).

traveled to the hill country….. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord[n] should come to me?—–  These lines show this great fellowship to be a case of the “Old is revealed in The New” (Augustine of Hippo).  These details have been pointed out by Scott Hahn in Hail, Holy Queen and Tim Staples in Behold Your Mother as closely related to when the Ark of The Covenant went to the hill country of Obed-Edom and then to King David who said parallel wording to that of Elizabeth. What we see here is a special recognition of the presence of God in a place that is out of the way but yet appointed.

and Elizabeth, filled with the holy Spirit,  cried out in a loud voice—— In this line is a layer of worship in spirit and truth (John 4) that speaks of a new Ark of The Covenant and its proper devotion.  The Old Testament was written in Hebrew and translated into Greek.  The New Testament was generally written in Greek including Luke. In the Old Testament the term “cried out” is used many times but there was one word for it that was used only when the Ark of the Covenant, an object that was sanctified by the presence of God, was used.  This word was used seven times in the Old Testament and used only once in the New—-right here.  True this conversation was originally in Aramaic but Luke has a way with words in translation for a theological purpose.  As to our devotional purpose we can see the presence of Jesus as both divine and inherently a worship event whether quiet or not.

filled with the Holy Spirit,…. the infant in my womb leaped for joy—- This shows us that this church on this front yard in Judea is bigger than two.  We know from other scriptures that the Holy Spirit is a person.  That makes three.  We know the Holy Spirit fills people and not things so John makes four.  And if John is a person in the womb then so is Jesus so that makes a party of five.  We can apply right there that in a valid church gathering there should be an openness to life in all its forms and the filling of the Holy Spirit.  We see this repeated by Luke in his sequel, Acts, in how the early established church had that experience.

Blessed are you who believed—– This is the last but not least mark of true church we can get and if we blink we will miss it.  Mary is not to be understood as a model of faith because she was a bullseye target for the Holy Spirit to conceive Jesus and be an incidental vessel.  She is known in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition to be one who cooperated her faith and works with God’s will.  This shows the mark of a true church to be obedient to God’s will in pursuit of holiness. The theme we get so much in the bible is that believe is a pregnant word that assumes a corresponding action to what God asks.

If ones experience of God’s kingdom begins and ends with personal happiness then it is not God’s kingdom but a kingdom of self. In this passage we see that the Holy Spirit indwells, all are counted with a culture of life and we come with resolved manner of obedience.  I frequently ask “What’s stopping us?”  Today I ask, are you caught up with the gatherings and mentalities of the world that would prevent you from those that are divine?

Most blessed are you among women—  If we get out into a higher mindset, we can be a light in the world that casts out darkness.  This term is also used in the Old Testament for women that nail or cut off the head of the enemy literally (Jael, Judith).  If you are in sync on the details above, how does one not take the fight to the enemy with spiritual weapons?  We do that by continually relying on God’s grace and applying such grace in simplicity. 

Years later Paul saw it this way saying, “The weapons of our warfare are not carnal” (2 Corinthians 10:4).Paul goes further in the implication for how Christians engage in warfare in basic principles.

“For while your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, I want you to be wise as to what is good, and simple as to what is evil; then the God of peace will quickly crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you” (Romans 16:19-20).

Plenty of Gracia Plena

AnnunciationIt takes two perfect people to have the perfect relationship. Some spouses will compliment the other one saying that the other person’s perfection makes it happen.  That sounds sweet, but it is not entirely accurate when humanity is involved.  But not so if one is divine.   But if one is divine and changes the setting for the human involved then the whole dynamic is different. Grace tends to do that.

A prime example for one who could see the kingdom of God for all it is as part of long-term called out community of God was someone who was “full of grace”.  This is why the first “micro-church” I will address is Mary of Nazareth.  For a teenage girl, she had a lot to say because she was “full of grace” and was a daughter of Zion. Such is the case in the Bible when one comes to Mary. 

Here we see the most perfect collaboration between the infinite God, through an angel, and a finite, specially touched human.  She was specifically a young woman in an age where women were not highly esteemed.  But in relationship to God, she is empowered in a faith journey that is not for cowards of either gender. She has faith and knew what it was to step up in courage. 

There is another part to the historical backdrop in the Bible before getting to Mary: unfaithfulness.  God’s people in the Old Testament were described as unfaithful with those who  struggled righteously and unrighteously living one day at a time.  God starts things anew with someone in Mary that had a context of being faithful to God and called to be on the offense just like what light does with darkness.

  “And he [Gabriel] came to her and said, ‘Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!’ But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be.  And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David,and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.”(Luke 1:27-33).

Hail— The “Hail” is not a casual “hi”.  If one looks at the correspondence of the first century between highly esteemed officials, this word is used only to someone of notable, royal distinction.  Mary had that going on as one set aside by the King of the Universe for a special station in life.

Yet from an Old Testament perspective there is a Zion, or Davidic dynasty, connection.  The following verse from Pope Benedict XVI is pointed out also with that same Greek word, “Rejoice, daughter of Zion; shout, Israel…the king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst” (Zephaniah 14-17).  Pope Benedict also states, “The essential reason for the daughter of Zion to rejoice is stated in the text itself; ‘the Lord is in your midst’.  Literally it says: ‘he is in your womb’ (Pope Benedixt XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives).  What is being heralded in just that word alone is like a shorthand for God’s kingdom to come—- and is coming now in the Christmas Story.

Full of Grace—  The original Greek is Kecharitomene, the perfect passive participle, shows a “completeness with a permanent result. Kecharitomene denotes continuance of a completed action” (H. W. Smyth, Greek Grammar [Harvard Univ Press, 1968], p. 108-109, sec 1852:b; also Blass and DeBrunner, p. 175).  Or one can say she was too full of grace to have room for anything else.  Therefore, to me, she stands as the perfect prototype, as the Theotokos (God-bearer as defined in the Council of Ephesus 431), and how the Bride of Christ is supposed to be.  The words I have commented on here and others to come in the infancy era of Jesus indicated she was without sin.  The Early Church Fathers were unanimous on this point and also Luther for those of you who are Protestants.

“But the other conception, namely the infusion of the soul, it is piously and suitably believed, was without any sin, so that while the soul was being infused, she would at the same time be cleansed from original sin and adorned with the gifts of God to receive the holy soul thus infused. And thus, in the very moment in which she began to live, she was without all sin…(Martin Luther, Weimar edition of Martin Luther’s Works,

English translation edited by J. Pelikan [Concordia: St. Louis], Volume 4, 694).

So here we have royalty for a grand scale and grace with even grander ramifications all set for an expanding influence as demonstrated further.

The Lord is with you…she was greatly troubled—-  This is not a goose bump phrase. This phrase in the Old Testament was for servants of God like Moses, Joshua and David who would go into the land promised to them by covenant.  They were used by God for natural warfare for that level of revelation in the Old Covenant.  Mary was to be used, launched in the contexts of covenants, to expand God’s influence through a spiritual warfare but at that moment she did not know that.  She just knew that this greeting indicated a level and form of influence beyond what she would think was her humble state in life could handle.  So there was some fear there. Her scope of knowledge would assume a troubling battle of flesh and steel like a middle-eastern Joan of Arc.

Do not be afraid, Mary… you have found favor with God. — Mary was full of grace but Gabriel elaborated that God’s favor for her and her mission was in grace to overflow by the direct hand of God with one undeniable fact—  the source and summit of the grace and favor for her was external to her in God.

you will conceive—  as the angel unfold’s God’s plan for her life there is a connection to the Incarnation.

you shall call his name Jesus—- Jesus means “God saves”.   The Incarnation means salvation in some way yet to be revealed.

He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High;—-  Here is the framework in that it will be in the pattern of David as the throne is from David.  This savior would be one with a visible kingdom. 

and of his kingdom there will be no end——  The declaration of God Incarnate and being savior of the world happens within a framework of a kingdom that has no end and thus continues.

On the devotional side, how can a modern person relate to these lofty subjects?  Well, we know through the rest of the story that Mary cooperated with a kingdom that is personal, holistic, authoritative and beyond our early lives.  These are ways that God initiates to us for full participation.  But in some ways our calling is not as good as Mary’s, in that moment, but better.  She was to carry God in her womb.  If we respond in the same humility to the gospel of the kingdom, we carry Jesus in our hearts. Could that be better?  Could that be possible?  What’s stopping you?