Who Do You Think You Are? (III)

If you follow this blog you know we are in the midst of a series that we have called ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ It began at the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord, when we said that Jesus feels strongly that he was the Son of God, deeply loved by Him. We then said that we have to embrace that reality as our ultimate identity.

Last week we said that this identity is often in contrast with the identity we think we have. We also said that our sense of identity is crucial, because it shapes our actions, it shapes the kinds of relationships we establish and their depth, and it grounds our values (call them priorities, if it helps). We gave examples of different identities that we embrace—for instance, some people are about their work, their job defines them; or some hobby, or political affiliation; material possessions, race, gender, nationality; some people live and die for sports; for some it will be about material possessions, or the way they dress… Some of these identities are positive, some negative, some neutral. But what they all have in common is that they are all based on “passing things.” They are all a partial development of our human potential, when God calls us to fulfillment, to fulfill the potential of the person He created us to be.

We all are, whether we want it or not, whether we act on it or not, children of God—this is how He likes to call us (1 John 3:1.) Within that identity, Jesus is doing with us what he did when he walked on earth: he is calling us to be his disciples. This is what we read in this week’s gospel in Mark’s version: the call of the first disciples (same event in last Sunday’s gospel, then John’s version).

Jesus calls his disciples, taking them where they are—they were fishermen, and he turned them into disciples. Loving them way before they become the person Jesus saw they could become. It is the same for us: Jesus calls us where we are, loving us already, because we are God’s creation. God loves us already with our gifts and talents, but also with our fears, sins, past, mistakes. But in His love, He invites us to go beyond, and the way to go beyond is to answer the call to discipleship, the call to become disciples of His Son.

The call to discipleship is not an easy one. Yet early in his ministry, this is what Jesus did—call disciples. At the end of his life, it is what he commanded us: Go and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Most of us would not have a difficulty understanding that we are called to be Jesus’ disciples. But living that call out, making it part of our life, making it part of our faith, is an extremely difficult task. Why?

Because that kind of uneven relationship is not in fashion at this time and in this culture: master/disciple, teacher/student, mentor/mentee… Discipleship is a process of education, and who has a right to educate us?

Because we say we follow Jesus but we do not know Jesus very well. We know him very superficially, at best, from years and years of going to church. The main source to know Jesus is the gospels, ancient texts that need a lot of context, technique, studying… We have only understood the surface of who Jesus was, and we do not even comprehend completely what it means to establish a personal relationship with him.

Because the way we have been brought up in faith is that all we had to do is to live according to a few rules: come to church on Sundays, contribute a little bit, fast on Fridays in Lent, not to swear too much and if we do we can go to confession, lead a decent life… We have been brought up in a faith that is about keeping some rules, and believing some doctrinal statements (we do not even need to think too much about them.) It is like the Pharisees won! All this is good, but it’s little more than scratching the surface.

Because most people do not have a “Jesus is calling me” moment. Sacramentally, we have become children of God in baptism, but most of us were babies. Some may have experienced some dramatic moment, an accident that may have turned their lives around. We have not felt that moment when Jesus personally called us to follow him.

And because wanting to be a disciple of Jesus is a very serious decision, and we are in a time when many things are “casual.” We have become very casual about the role that faith plays in our lives. We have the intuition that becoming a disciple is anything but casual; it has a cost, it would change our lives, and we do not like change—fear of change seems to be inserted in our nature.

Once we have reflected on the difficulties of accepting discipleship as a call we have received, where is the Good News? I can answer from my perspective, as the person responsible for the pastoral care of a specific faith community: We can focus on discipleship. The same way we reflect about our personal identity, we also are invited to reflect about the identity of our faith community.

Our parishes should be places that focus on discipleship. Our mantra here at Sacred Heart is that we want to be a community that makes and grows disciples. We will continue learning about Jesus and the gospels; we will continue facilitating ways so that people can get to love other the way a disciple is called to do (and here we do it mainly through FaithGroups, our small group ministry); we will continue providing opportunities for service, which begins at our own parish (here, we call it Weekend Ministries) and beyond, learning to be especially mindful of the poor and the marginalized; and we will continue reminding our members that a disciple calls other disciples, especially those who do not go to church anywhere. It is what Jesus gave us in the “great commission” (go and make disciples!) and what he means when he tells the first disciples that he is inviting them to become “fishers” of people.

Any faith community needs to redefine purpose, and we need to communicate this purpose clearly and constantly: again, our goal is to make and grow disciples. It is our identity. Embracing the call to discipleship would change our lives and the life of this, or any, faith community.

Identity FP 2015

Who Do You Think You Are? (II)

If you follow this blog, you may know that we are preaching a series that we are calling “Who Do You Think We Are?” to reflect about the issue of identity and how it affects how we live our life and our faith. It affects our life because who we think we are will have an effect on our behavior (what we do), the kinds of relationships we establish, and it will ground our values (call it priorities, if it helps).

Last Sunday, looking at the baptism of the Lord, we preached that in Mark’s gospel, the baptism is a very strong personal experience of identity. At the baptism, Jesus feels deeply that he is the beloved Son of God, deeply loved by Him. This also is our ultimate identity: a child of God, deeply loved by Him.

Is there any doubt that the issue of identity is very present in today’s gospel from John? John the Baptist is able to see Jesus’ identity—the Lamb of God, referring to events that will happen well afterwards. Two disciples of John ask Jesus, “where are you staying” meaning, “where do you stand” meaning, “who are you,” and only in one day they are able to see that Jesus is the Messiah (Hebrew for the Greek word Christ, or in English we would say, “the anointed one”). And the potential Jesus sees in Peter–upon seeing him he calls him to an identity that goes well beyond what Peter himself could be thinking then.

Admittedly, we began by the end, by identifying our final, ultimate identity. This identity often is in contrast with the identity we think we have, one that we give to ourselves.

Many people see their identity as what they do professionally. Work is very important for them, and thus a lot of energy would go into that. Others may think of themselves in terms of nationality, or race, gender or social class. Still others may base their identity on something as unimportant as sports, but following a team shapes their lives (not a good day to be a Packer fan, by the way). Others will be about material possessions, or about political ideology, or it may be about a pet they own (you all have seen a bumper sticker reading some variation of “My German Shepherd is smarter than your Honor Roll child.”) Finally, I think of people who think of their identity in terms of some quirky personality trait that they love but annoys everyone else.

We may also let others’ lives define our identity: my sense of identity is based on what happens to someone else–my parents; the success of my child; the opinion my parishioners have of me, in my case. Or there is the difficult situation when a person, a victim, has experienced a traumatic event and that defines his or her identity.

The truth is that all these identities—some good, some bad, some neutral—are really incomplete, when God calls us to completeness. These identities are based on “passing things,” when God calls us to eternity. Some of these identities may have an inflated sense of self at the center, when God calls us to identify ourselves in terms of others—what we do with and for others…thus, our ultimate identity is that of what does not pass, what we have received in baptism, my identity as a child of God, beloved by him.  God calls us to fulfill our personal potential.

Last week, in the homily but not in the blog, we suggested that we should start the day with this thought: I am the child of God, deeply loved by Him. I suggest that this week we spend some time answering the question: Who do I think I am? I propose that we use time this week to reflect about the passing things in which we seem to base who we think we are and that we compare our sense of self, our constructed sense of who we are, with the one we all have in common: the child of God deeply beloved by him—which is the final destination of this journey of self-awareness.

Embracing this identity is both, at the same time, a blessing and a challenge. God often communicates with us this way, by sending us something that it is both a blessing and a challenge. It is a blessing because seeing ourselves as beloved children of God should give us solace and confidence, helping us overcome the idea that we are sinful people (an identity that has been branded on us so very often). Yes, I am sinful, but my sins do not define who I am–they are not part of my essence. But it is also a challenge because it forces me to think about how much my actions, my relationships and my values differ from those which are proper to a child of God.

Like Jesus does with Peter in today’s gospel (like God does with Samuel in the First Reading) and as we will see next week, Jesus will take us wherever we are in our journey of identity, and He will deeply invite us to go way further, much beyond.

Identity FP 2015

The Baptism of the Lord: Who Do You Think You Are? (I)

We come to the end of the Season of Christmas with the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord. I believe it is an event that has not been given the importance it has. For me, it is the third most important celebration of the liturgical year, after Christmas (the Incarnation) and Easter (the Resurrection). Jesus is baptized in the Jordan River by John, who has preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

We could begin this reflection stating that John did not “invent” baptism. We know ritual baptisms of purification were performed by many cultures. At the time of Jesus, baptisms in the wilderness, normally taken as groups, were happening in different areas of the Jordan River. What John brings as a novelty is a baptism being performed by one person.

But if the baptism of John was a baptism for cleansing of sins, why would Jesus need to be baptized? Wasn’t he like us in all things, except sin? This question troubled the first readers of the gospels as well.

Indeed, Jesus needed to be baptized. As our baptism still does today, it is not only a baptism of cleansing, but also it gives us a mission and an identity—as signified by giving someone a name when he or she is baptized. While last year we preached about the baptism of mission, this year we will focus on the baptism of identity: by being baptized, Jesus embraces his identity as the Son of God. He could have stayed anonymously in Galilee, but through his own process of human and spiritual growth, Jesus comes to understand who he is, what his real identity is.

Now, the baptism is recorded in all four gospels. Mark’s take on the event is different than the others. In John, it is the Baptist who realizes who Jesus is. In Matthew and Luke, the emphasis is public, it is the crowd who realizes who Jesus is. But for Mark, Jesus has a personal experience—and a very strong one at that. Unlike Luke or Matthew’s account, in Mark, Jesus is the one seeing the heavens being torn and hearing God’s voice. And what God’s voice states is Jesus’s ultimate identity: “You are my beloved Son” and “with you I am well pleased.” Through baptism, Jesus felt he was the beloved Son of God.

Jesus needed to embrace his identity, and in signifying this through baptism, he personally experiences God’s love for him. This also is our own ultimate identity: we are God’s sons and daughters deeply loved by Him.

Last Wednesday, because the readings helped to make the point, we preached to the school children that the opposite of love is fear. The first reading stated, “If God so loved us, we also must love one another,” (1 John 4:11) and the Gospel had Jesus telling the disciples, “Do not be afraid!” (Mark 6:50). The baptism of Jesus should make us accept the fact that our true identity is that we are persons deeply loved by God.

So, who do you think you are? You are the beloved child of God, and you should live accordingly.

Identity FP 2015

Turning One

Dear Friends,

The blog turns one today. It was a year when it started. During this first year we have posted 62 times,receiving 13,554 views from 4,815 visitors. For me, it has been a great tool, either to prepare homilies or to review the ones delivered, while staying in touch with parishioners, but also with friends and family away. I thank you for following and for the contributions in terms of comments, which I hope we can increase. Thank you very much! (and a post on the Baptism of the Lord to follow soon).

Feast of the Epiphany: The Shock Wave of the Good News Reaching Us.

Still in the Season of Christmas, we celebrate today the Feast of the Epiphany. Epiphany, in our faith context, means the manifestation of Christ to all the Nations.

We have been in church many times these last days. We keep hearing all these stories about the birth of Jesus from the two gospels that have them, Luke and Matthew. One of the beautiful things of all these texts in Christmas is to see how the Good News of the birth of Christ has this expansive effect: first, only Mary knows about it; then Joseph; then Elizabeth and Zachariah; then the shepherds (representing the downcast of Israel); and today it reaches all the Nations. Using 21st century language, Jesus goes viral at the Epiphany.

This manifestation of Christ is still happening to us, and it is a matter for us to hear it, and be transformed as the Magi were transformed. When the gospel begins, the Magi are looking for Jesus in Jerusalem, in the center of power of the time, and they thought Herod would be of help. But at the end of the gospel, transformed by the encounter with Christ, they realize that they have to avoid Jerusalem and Herod, to return as different people, carrying with them the good news of Jesus.

We can look at the attitude of the Magi in today’s gospel and learn from them how to let Jesus transform our lives:

(1) The Magi were people who were on a journey, who were searching. The opposite of that is our tendency to settle, in life and in faith, and to stop searching. We tend to become people with all the answers instead of people of questions.

(2) In their search, they read a sign–a star. We believe God continues sending us many signs on how to find Jesus. People and events that happen in our lives are messages from God, but we often do not pay attention, in the midst of our busy lives. We have lost the sensitivity to discern signs.

(3) Once they encounter Jesus, the Magi gave him everything. They gifted themselves to the Child: Gold, representing their material wealth; Frankincense, representing their faith, as incense has in many cultures been a sign of our relationship with the Divine; and by gifting him with myrrh, they have given him also their suffering and their eventual death, as myrrh was used in antiquity as an ointment with medicinal effects, also used to prepare a body for the funeral rituals. The opposite happens when Jesus does not change anything in our lives, as we live faith on the surface. We compartmentalize lives and we do not live all dimensions of our lives following the values of Jesus.

(4) And they were “overjoyed” upon encountering Jesus—and we continue preaching that joy is a choice we make. We all have problems and depressions, and excuses not to be joyful. Does the encounter with Jesus, especially the one we experience when we go to church, fill us with joy?

The Epiphany is an explosion of joy and meaning, and its shock wave is reaching us today. We learn from the Magi how to set ourselves to continue the journey that takes us to the Child and beyond–in constant journey of transformation.

Are we still searching? Are we making the choice of Joy? Are we giving everything to God or in what areas I am still holding back? [These questions are here to provoke dialogue, please comment if you feel like it.]

Blog pic, Epiphany