Faith and works

The second reading ends with the line: Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works. But I think this is one sentence too early. The next line reads, “You believe that God is one. You do well. Even the demons believe that and tremble.” We must have faith to be saved, but what does it mean to have faith?

Having faith is so much more than the simple ability to say, “Jesus Christ is my personal Lord and Savior.” It’s so much more than saying, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth.” The words are important, don’t get me wrong, but to truly mean those words we say: that is faith. To truly mean those words we say, not only must believe those words in our minds, but we must show that believe those words in our actions.

If I have faith and believe that Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior, that should show in how I live my life. Jesus Christ cared about the poor and the lonely, and he helped them when they allowed him to do so. Jesus Christ taught those around him the truth, even when his life was threatened because of it. Jesus Christ showed compassion to the sick and the lame. Jesus overturned the tables of the money-changers, and He admonished those who were persistent in sinning. Jesus Christ looked at people, and He loved them. Jesus Christ lived the Gospel. If I believe that he is my God, then shouldn’t my life resemble his? If I believe that he is my God, do I have any right to decide that one of these aspects is more important than the others? Perhaps my natural abilities lead me to teaching others and showing God’s love to people, but that doesn’t mean I can ignore the sick or allow sin to go unchallenged. Jesus did all these things. We aren’t God, so we can’t do everything, but we should at least try!

But this is all if I have faith. This is all if I believe in Jesus Christ. It all depends on how I answer one question. It depends on how I answer the question Jesus asks the disciples today: Who do you say that I am? If Jesus was standing in front of you, and he asked you this question, how would you answer? Think about it. How would you answer the question? Say it to Jesus in your mind and be honest. Jesus doesn’t want to hear what your spouse or religion teacher says about him. He doesn’t want to hear the preconceived notions you have of him. Jesus wants to hear who you say that he is. Is he your friend? Is he the one who will always love you? Jesus can handle whatever you say to him. Let’s take a few seconds, right now, and answer Jesus.

Did you tell him? Were you honest to him?

No matter what you just told him, I think Jesus would say to each one of us, “my child, I love you. I love you so much more than you can imagine. I did not come into this world to condemn you, but so that you may have eternal life, and I have so much more I wish to teach you about myself. You have to take the initiative though.” Then Jesus says to as, as he did to his disciples in the Gospel, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.”

Pope Saint John Paul II said that, “These words denote the radicality of a choice that does not allow for hesitation or second thoughts. It is a demanding requirement that unsettled even the disciples and that, throughout the ages, has held back many men and women from following Christ. […] Even today these words are regarded as a stumbling block and folly (cf. 1 Cor 1: 22-25). Yet they must be faced, because the path outlined by God for his Son is the path to be undertaken by the disciple who has decided to follow Jesus. There are not two paths, but only one: the one trodden by the Master. The disciple cannot invent a different way.” 1

We must deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Jesus, because only this path leads us on the road to eternal life. Only Jesus can offer us Heaven and eternal happiness. Following money, prestige, power, worldly pleasures, or anything that is not Jesus else will result in precisely the opposite: eternal misery and separation from God. Self-denial is hard. Any cross given us is hard. Following Jesus is hard. All those things that Jesus does in the Gospel, and then asks us to do: they’re hard. They are exhausting. They tax us. Flannery O’Connor wrote that “people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it if the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe.”

Following Jesus is hard. It is taxing. It depends that we do God’s will instead of our own. But we are not alone when we follow Jesus. God is on our side. He will never let us lose our way, as long as we follow his Son as well as we can. Pope Emeritus Benedict says that we have been “created for greatness—for God himself; [we were] created to be filled by God. But [our] heart[s] [are] too small for the greatness to which [they are] destined. [Our hearts] must be stretched.” 2 Because our hearts must be stretched, “the ways of the Lord are not easy, but we were not created for an easy life, but for great things, for goodness.” 3

Friends, let us do the hard things, let us do the great things. We have God on our side, the same God who calls us to be lights to the world. Let us follow Christ, so that he can lead us into eternal life. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “I have told you this so that you might have peace in me. In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33)

Today’s Readings:
September 16, 2018
24th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B
Isaiah 50:4c-9a; Psalm 116:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9; James 2:14-18; Mark 8:27-35

Reflection for the Feast of Saints Philip and James

When I go out to a restaurant, one of the first things I do is order my food and maybe a beverage. To do this, I could shout my order to kitchen, but it’s much more effective to have the waiter or waitress bring it there for me. Since I don’t like shouting in the middle of restaurants and I like my order to stand a chance of getting cooked, I give my order to a cashier, a waiter, or a waitress. This person takes my request to the kitchen, where another person cooks my food. After my food is cooked, someone will either hand it to me or bring it to me. Often, this is the person with whom I placed my order.

Intercession from the saints functions very similar to this. We begin by saying a prayer, during which we ask for a specific saint to assist us. God will ultimately fulfill our prayer, but the saint has a different mode of access to God. The saints take our prayers and make them more pleasing and acceptable to God, then they present them to him on our behalf. God then responds to our prayer in the most fitting way, often returning his response with the saintly messenger who brought the request to him.

The Gospel today confirms this way of understanding intercession. Jesus is the intercessor for humanity. Only through Jesus will we be able to reach the Father. Even the saints must ask for Jesus to present their prayers to the Father, as no one can go to the Father except through Jesus. Philip had difficulty recognizing this reality. His desire to see the Father was good, but he did not realize that the road to the Father was standing right in front of him. Despite all the miracles that Jesus had done, and all the wisdom that Jesus had taught, Philip still couldn’t connect the dots.

Both Philip and James struggled, at times, to understand the meaning of all the signs and wonders that God worked—even those that God worked through them. Eventually, they figured it out and told everyone around them by spreading the Gospel message: Jesus will lead us to the Father and, God-willing, to our eternal reward, because Jesus is the way and the truth and the life. After Philip and James figured it out, amazing things happened. Philip cast out demons and healed the sick. James was the Bishop of Jerusalem and wrote one of the letters of the New Testament. Both were martyred for their faith, but they were happy to do so, because they had put their trust in Jesus to take them with him to the Father, even in death.

Let us all remember that Jesus is the way to the Father, and if we are having a difficult time understanding that Jesus is the way, let us ask the saints to help us in ways we cannot help ourselves.

Today’s Readings: 1 Cor 15:1-8; Ps 19:2-3, 4-5; Jn 14:6-14

Reflection for the Second Wednesday of Lent

You know that feeling where you must say something, but you know it is going to make everyone mad? You don’t want to do it, but it needs happen. I get that feeling a lot. Sometimes I will try to talk myself out of it, saying “they don’t really need to know that,” or “I’m sure they’ve already thought of this.” Other times, especially when I have to correct someone, I think, “God said ‘judge lest ye be judged,’” or “turn the other cheek.” Maybe if the other person is older and supposed to be much wiser than me, I might think, “I am not smart enough to correct this person, I am just a child.”

I think that Jeremiah probably came up with all these excuses, and probably more. The book of Jeremiah begins with Jeremiah trying to tell God he was too young and not ready to be a prophet. God replied, “Say not, ‘I am too young.’ To whomever I send you, you shall go; whatever I command you, you shall speak. Have no fear before them, because I am with you to deliver.” God had called Jeremiah to proclaim the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple to the people of Jerusalem: his job was to tell everybody “repent or you will all be exiled or killed, and everybody’s stuff will be destroyed.” This would be, to a Catholic in modern times, like someone saying “the Vatican, every government building, and every social media site on the internet will all be destroyed,” and not only will they all be destroyed, but anyone who survives gets to go live among a hostile population. It sounded ridiculous. No wonder the people were plotting to kill Jeremiah! They thought he was a nut job! It didn’t really cross their minds as to whether he might be right.

Jeremiah is troubled by the response of the people. He especially doesn’t understand why he is being “repaid with evil” for doing a good thing. He spent his entire life going where he did not want to go, and preaching to a people who would not listen. I’m sure many of us can relate to this. We do something good and receive bitterness, criticism, and hatred in return.

Jesus definitely knew what Jeremiah was going through. Jesus spent his life preaching of God’s justice, love, and mercy, healing the sick, casting out demons—all very good things to do—and he was repaid with torture and crucifixion. Through Jesus’s death, however, something amazing happened. Because of his sacrifice, Heaven was opened to humanity. His apostles followed him and became servants to all, and most even followed him to their own martyrdoms. Jesus went further though, and called all of us to follow him.

What is in common among Jeremiah, the apostles, us, and Jesus? Suffering. We all suffer. We suffer even when we do good. The apostles all suffered, and Jesus told them it was going to happen! He told them, in front of James and John’s mother, that they would share his chalice, the chalice of suffering. It doesn’t make sense. It hurts. But through our suffering, something we could never expect happens. We are drawn closer to God. We come to a greater realization of what is most important (trusting and loving God!) in our lives. When we see others suffer, we learn to have compassion and to recognize others as worthy of love. Most incredibly of all, we learn to offer our suffering to God. We learn to unite our suffering with the suffering of Jesus Christ on the Cross. Through the Cross our suffering is transformed into something new. It is transformed into a redemptive sacrifice for mankind.

So, in this time of Lent, either in our small and intentional Lenten sacrifices we make to grow, or in the large sufferings thrown at us, let us remember to unite our suffering with Jesus on His Cross. Let us make it a gift to God that will help redeem the world. It will be hard. It will be painful. But God can bring good out of even the worst situations.

Edited for grammar and structure on March 15, 2017.

Today’s Readings: Jer 18:18-20; Ps 31:5-6, 14, 15-16; Mt 20:17-28

Reflection for the Seventh Monday of Ordinary Time / Year I

Today’s Readings: Sir 1:1-10; Ps 93:1ab, 1cd-2, 5; Mk 9:14-29

“O faithless generation, how long will I be with you? How long will I endure you?”

The disciples could not drive the demon out of the boy, because they did not have the faith. Jesus, Peter, James and John are just coming down the mountain from the Transfiguration—an intense experience of prayer for Jesus, and an intense confirmation of faith for Peter, James and John. The other disciples, though, weren’t there. They had faith, but not enough.

Jesus, after casting out the demon, explains to his disciples that prayer is required for this sort of demon to be driven out. But Jesus just said they did not have the faith necessary. Which one is it? Both. Prayer and faith work together. Prayer increases our faith, and faith improves our prayer.

This faith can allow us to do wondrous things, Jesus says it could move mountains, but it also can give us something even great: true understanding—the ability to see things as they are. Seeing things as they are—this is what wisdom is.

When has the story of the wise sage on the mountain ever ended with him telling us to do something in order to fix some problem? The wise sage helps his visitors to see clearly what they already know, what they already have seen in an obscured way.

Faith and prayer helps us to see God, who created all things and gave humanity wisdom. If we have a relationship with Him, properly established through prayer and faith, then we will be able to see other people and the material things of this world as they truly are.

Reflection for the Sixth Saturday of Ordinary Time / Year I

Today’s Readings: Heb 11:1-7; Ps 145:2-3, 4-5, 10-11; Mk 9:2-13

Faith is at the core of everything. The Letter to the Hebrews goes through of creation, showing what we know by faith: that God created and ordered the universe, that we can offer fitting sacrifice to God, that there is an afterlife and that we are invited to share that with God. What do we have if we do not have faith?

Peter, James and John witness the Transfiguration in the Gospel. They are frightened. The voice coming from above tells them “This is my beloved Son. Listen to Him.” Why do they have any reason to heed this voice? It is precisely because they have faith—perhaps in the voice, but even more likely in Jesus himself. Then Jesus told them not to reveal what had occurred until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

Why would Jesus not want them to reveal the incredible miracle of seeing Moses and Elijah speaking with Jesus? I think it is because that sort of miracle can build faith in those who are ready, but it can also stifle faith in some ways. Instead of slowly growing in faith, understanding the deeper realities behind Jesus and his ministries, the Transfiguration would have given an almost supernatural faith. This is a faith to which few people can relate. The disciples had to grow in their faith—slowly and painfully—just like we do today.

Let us never lose our faith, and try to grow it little by little every day. Faith the size of a mustard seed can move a mountain: imagine what we could do if we let it grow!