My name is Elias – and I grew up in the busy port city of Ephesus – on the coast of Ionia – for you, present day Turkey. And I recently became a follower of the one they call Christ: Jesus of Nazareth – perhaps you have heard of him??
I want to tell you about an experience I had in the year 67 --- shortly after I became a follower of Jesus.
I heard Jesus’ mother, Mary, and his beloved disciple, John, recently moved to Ephesus – and, recent convert that I was – I thought it important for me to actually speak to someone who knew Jesus – and who better – than his very own mother?
When I arrived at their home, I told Mary how I had recently been Baptized and received the gift of the Holy Spirit. And that I believed it was the Holy Spirit who sent me to ask her a few questions about her memories of Jesus.
I told them to be with Jesus’ own mother and his beloved disciple, for even a brief time – would be such a special grace to me.
“You must know that we love to talk about Jesus,” Mary said. “And please trust and believe what he taught us: wherever two or three gather in his name – he is with us. So Jesus is with us right here, right now.”
“What do you wish to ask us about Jesus,” John said.
“Well,” I said, “ I have been thinking about my own call to discipleship and the mission Jesus gives us all – to go and preach repentance – the turning around of one’s life so it is directed totally to Jesus.
“So, I just have some questions about what qualities Jesus’s first disciples had to do that important kingdom-work ----- so I can figure out if I should even attempt it.
“I know you were both there the day he named the twelve. So how did he come upon those specific twelve? Why them – and not others?”
John began to laugh and said, “stop smiling like that, Mary.”
Mary said, “I smile and John laughs, dear Elias – because that’s just the way my son was. He was always surprising us by the way he broke all the rules or set expectations.
“Yes, there were other followers of his who were more educated in the tradition of our Jewish ancestors or who showed more potential for leadership or who had earned a level of respect within our group. But Jesus had his own ways.”
John picked up the story. . . “I remember the day. Everyone who was there was feeling this powerful attraction to him. I somehow knew that he would fill up everything that was lacking in me by his love.
“Still, when he called out MY name – my heart started beating faster and I was both shocked and thrilled. And when he told us to share the good news that ‘the kingdom of God is at hand,’ you just felt the excitement grow among us.”
“But did you have any sense at all why he called you, specifically – and then sent you out with authority to speak in his name?” I asked. . .
And was surprised when John said, “NO. I had no sense at all – other than feeling very humbled.”
Mary said: “you see, Jesus had such a sense of the human heart. I think he picked those specific twelve because he knew their hearts were open – even though he knew there was a weakness in each one of them.
“They all had their thorns in the flesh, as our new brother Paul speaks of faults. But Jesus could take care of those weaknesses – his grace would be sufficient --- but he could not force anyone to have an open heart – that is completely voluntary – the choice to follow after him . .
“Yes,” Mary continued --- “Jesus knew they each had fears in their hearts and sins in their past. But again, Jesus can take care of the fears & sins. He knew they had limitations and vulnerabilities --- but he knew they were freely choosing to follow after him – and freely choosing to open their hearts to his teaching. That’s why I think Jesus chose them.
“And I watched those twelve very closely during the coming years,” Mary continued, “and how they formed a close knit community as they traveled together with Jesus.
“They all grew – through the GRACE of God.
“Yes, Peter was impulsive – but all of us could tell even impulsiveness can be used for the good of God’s kingdom.
“Nathaniel was innocent and naïve. Thomas was precious in his demand to be sure before he believed. And of course Judas, the one who betrayed Jesus – was so complex and resistant to surrendering to Jesus way.”
“And so Jesus picked them BECAUSE they were weak???” I blurted out. . .
“Let me take this one, Mary,” John said.
“It is probably better to say that Jesus knew then and knows now – that we are all sinners. Whoever he chose would have been weak. He picked us – and I might add, he picked you, Elias,
-desiring to help us all know we need a Savior. After touching our hearts with his loving mercy – Jesus is able to better send us to do the one thing he calls us to do: love others – including other sinners – the same way he loves us.
“I think the important thing to remember,” John continued –“ is that if YOU hear Jesus’ words and keep them close to your heart and live them --- you will be as close to Jesus as we were when Jesus lived.
“Let Jesus love you and forgive you. And remember, it was the gift of the Holy Spirit – not our own gifts or talents or personal qualities --- it was the Holy Spirit--- that set our hearts on fire and allowed us to do great things.
“The mistake Judas made, and so many others do even to the present time – is Judas wanted Jesus to come around to HIS way of seeing and doing things --- instead of Judas coming around to JESUS’ way of seeing and doing things. And that’s possible only with an open heart. Surrendering one’s heart is necessary.
“So open your heart – and let the Holy Spirit help you come around to Jesus’ way of seeing and doing things, and you will be a faithful disciple.”
After thanking Mary and John for their time – I could not wait to go off and preach repentance for the kingdom of God. Who cared what I took – or left behind? It would all be a small sacrifice to be counted among Jesus’ chosen ones.
So I am Elias. And I hope you have learned something from my visit with Mary and John in Ephesus. Just remember – in Jesus – you are called and sent forth to be his disciple. And regardless of your weaknesses, worries, shortcomings or sins – Jesus can use you – for his grace will be sufficient.
When we read the stories of the lives of the saints, we find their lives filled with very ordinary events – but also some very extraordinary ones.
Like St. Faustina, the little Polish nun who had visions of the Lord Himself, who asked her to make known the message of God’s Divine mercy.
The three children of Fatima, St. Bernadette and St. Juan Diego were all visited by the Blessed Mother.
St. Theresa of Avila, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Alphonse Ligouri are said to have often levitated/floated in their time of prayer.
The New Testament describes several ordinary events in the life of St. Paul – like his tent making in Thessalonika – and then some extraordinary events also – the most well-known of these is the life-changing encounter he had with Christ on his way to Damascus.
And as we recently heard in a reading at daily Mass – St. Paul wrote about mystically being taken up in his body to the third heaven – whatever that is supposed to mean. . .
In our second reading today -- Paul writes about an “abundance of revelations” he received from the Lord.
And then – Paul writes of a very strange phenomenon --- “a thorn in the flesh was given to me” he writes – “an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated.”
Some think this thorn may have been some skin affliction Paul suffered from.
Others think it may have referred to a reoccurring sensual temptation – or an unwanted attraction to something Paul knew was bad for his soul --- which he had to remain vigilant against.
Or Paul may have been speaking figuratively – referring to an especially difficult challenge in his ministry, or a certain group of people that continually gave him a hard time.
What Paul’s thorn in the flesh was – we do not know – except that he clearly was not talking about some little passing problem.
We DO know that Paul prayed to be delivered of it. We heard him say : “Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me.” But it did not.
I think we can all relate to Paul in some way or another. Who among us hasn’t had some challenge, some obstacle, some temptation, some suffering --- that no matter how much we prayed – we could not be rid of it???
Certainly, anyone who struggles with any type of addiction knows what Paul was feeling and experiencing. . . many of whom refer to their addiction as a demon they cannot be free of.
But no doubt – every one of us, has some thorn, some physical – psychological – emotional – or spiritual problem that won’t go away, even when we pray for deliverance or help.
So why WON’T the Lord deliver us – why WON’T God answer our prayers and free us from our thorns??
Most likely to teach us the same lesson God taught Paul: “Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but the Lord said to me: “My grace is sufficient for you.”
God wants to teach us that grace is all we need. .
So what do we mean by grace? The unmerited and unearned love of God – the free gift of strength and help and power which God’s gives us ----- is enough.
No matter what our suffering consist of – an illness, a loss, a temptation, a fear, a persecution, a hardship --- God’s grace is sufficient for us – to what? To have life and to have it abundantly and joyfully! All to become the people God made us and wants us to be.
When we connect to God’s grace – we become instruments of God’s will – no matter how much we suffer!
In other words, we can endure anything when we live by God’s grace. In fact, every illness, every loss, every temptation, every hardship – can become an opportunity to grow in grace – rather than starting a pity party.
For those who follow Christ – behind every curse is a blessing. Behind every suffering there is joy. Behind every hardship there is an opportunity for growth – all because God’s grace sustains us and accomplishes what might seem impossible through us.
Our thorns are proof that God wants something great from all of us: God wants us to trust in grace so as not to be mediocre in our faith but great in our holiness. God wants us to deflate our egos so as to fill ourselves with God’s grace, spirit, and being: allowing ourselves to be conformed into the image and likeness of Christ
Our thorns are reminders that none of us are finished products – we never reach a point in holiness that we become independent of God. In fact the only way we become holy is to know that we are dependent on God – for all that we are and all that we have.
In the Gospel today, Jesus himself is rejected by his neighbors, his townsfolk. What a thorn that must have been!! – to be rejected by the people you grew up with.
It could happen to us also – if we are living our faith, and being dependent on God --- we might face similar rejection. We might be mocked for belonging to the Church these days – made fun of for prioritizing our weekend so as to attend Mass, your children or grandchildren may totally turn their back on what you believed and followed all your life.
But in those times we need to trust that our task IS NOT to be liked by everybody – but to stand firm in the faith and be a witness to Christ.
Likewise, remaining faithful to the Church or its moral teaching, or its leaders – might feel like a painful thorn in the flesh. . . or a pain somewhere else -- but we don’t just practice Christianity when it is easy or convenient.
No, we discover, like St. Paul, that our weaknesses are made strong by God’s grace, and what we endure for the sake of Christ, brings about a powerful change and transformation in our hearts and in our world.
So we pray for each other and pray with each other – to remain faithful when we suffer the thorns of the world – knowing that God’s grace is sufficient.