Greg Maddux, Jesus Christ and the Sword of the Spirit

Scott Elmer

In the Church’s eternal wisdom, the feasts of Easter and Pentecost fall around the start of baseball season. Some might be tempted to pass this off as “coincidence,” but I tend to favor providence in this matter. My favorite baseball memory occurred on June 10, 2005. The Cubs were playing the Red Sox and Greg Maddux took the mound against Bronson Arroyo. Now, you should understand that Greg Maddux is my favorite ball player of all time. I witnessed him dominate on the North Side in his early years, shared in the bitter-sweet glory of his championships in Atlanta and welcomed him home in a triumphant return to the Windy City.

On this day, Greg Maddux not only won (obviously), but he hit a home run, which used to be very rare for pitchers. It was the bottom of the sixth inning and I remember seeing the ball hit his bat and I immediately rose to my feet with both hands raised as the rest of Wrigley sat and chatted. No one expected it because frankly, Greg Maddux was an awful hitter; he could lay down a bunt with the best of them but anything more than a single was a once in a season type moment. Eventually, and it seemed like forever, the ball barely fell in the basket and the stadium erupted.

The reason why Greg Maddux is my favorite player has nothing to do with his bat, but his masterful pitching. You may think that meant that he threw a lot of strikeouts, but while he fanned his fair share, Greg Maddux pitched to contact. He had a mean sinker that made players want to swing only to ground out and into double plays. He wasn’t afraid of the batter swinging; in fact, he welcomed it — it was his whole dang plan.

When I read the Gospels, I see Jesus on the mound dealing just like Greg Maddux. He doesn’t avoid contact or conflict. Instead, he seeks it out. When Mary and Joseph presented Jesus in the temple as a baby, the prophet Simeon proclaimed, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed” (Lk 2:34). Conflict is Jesus’ vocation. As an adult, he confirms this when he says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Mt 10:34). That’s the Jesus I’m throwing out there on Opening Day and you can bet the house that we’re coming home victorious.

That is truly our Jesus, our Head, our Savior and our King. Have we made him into something else — someone, perhaps, a little quieter? Gentle? Not as offensive? I know I’m guilty of doing so in the past, but whatever I made him into isn’t who he is and always will be. As we are built up by the Mass readings from Acts this Easter, and as we approach Pentecost, I’m calling on every man and woman of good will to reconsider who Jesus really is.

We are people who were born to achieve peace by way of war. If not, why did Jesus bring a sword? Was it to mount on our wall and only reference when we speak of Church history? St. Paul speaks of Christians receiving the Sword of the Spirit in Ephesians. I believe that the Lord is offering us a new sword this Pentecost. But like every gift, you have the choice to receive it and use it, or not to. We need to take a good, hard look at ourselves as a Church. Scripture says that, “David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine” (1 Sam 17:48). I know there is no shortage of Philistines, but are you running toward them to conquer?

I love listening to the bridge of “Christ is Risen” by Matt Maher during Easter. The lyrics, quoting St. Paul are, “Oh, Death, where is your sting? Oh, Hell, where is your victory?” I look out on the world and see the sting of death and the advancement of Hell all around me. I also see the grace of God abounding in miraculous and overwhelming ways. So, my question to us is: Church, where is your sting? Christ has proved victorious; are we willing to call down the reign of Heaven in the face of Hell? If you are, join me in this prayer:

Lord Jesus, you are my King. Give me boldness and courage to proclaim your Gospel in the public square. I give my life to you again today. Release your Spirit and your Kingdom in me Lord, that I might exist for the praise of your Glory. Amen.

COMING UP: Healing hatred and anger after Charlottesville

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The confrontation in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the nationwide reaction to it are clear signs of the tensions simmering just below the surface of our society. But we know as people of faith that these wounds can be healed if we follow Christ’s example, rather than the path of revenge.

It was with a heavy heart that I learned about the Aug. 12 clashes between white supremacists and counter protesters in Charlottesville that resulted in the injury of around 34 people and the death of Heather Heyer. It was an “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” melee.

These events remind me of Pope Francis’ 2017 World Day of Peace message, in which he pointed out that “Jesus himself lived in violent times. Yet he taught that the true battlefield, where violence and peace meet, is the human heart: for ‘it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come’ (Mk. 7:21).”

What we witnessed in Charlottesville was an outward expression of hundreds of hearts, and as a shepherd of souls, I cannot stand by silently while people allow hatred toward others rule their hearts. Particularly reprehensible were the derogatory words the neo-Nazis and their white supremacist allies shouted toward African Americans, Jews and Latinos. This is not how God sees his children!

Every human being is bestowed from the moment of conception with the dignity of being made in the image and likeness of God, and we are all loved by him, even amid our sin and brokenness. Satan seeks every opportunity to twist these fundamental truths in the hearts of human beings and we can see the devastation it brings throughout history.

It can be tempting to respond to these attacks on our fellow man with violence, just as the members of the Anti-fascist movement (known as “Antifa”) did in Charlottesville. But this is not what Christ taught, since it allows hatred to gain a foothold through a different avenue. It is worth repeating: the human heart is the true battlefield.

Jesus’ response to violence and persecution stands in contrast with the way of hatred and anger. Instead, he taught his disciples to love their enemies (Mt. 5:44) and to turn the other cheek (Mt. 5:39). Christ’s radical answer is only possible because God unconditionally loves every person and is ready to forgive us when we repent. God’s love is the only thing that can cut through the hatred that is bringing people to blows, heal the human heart and form it after his own. As people of faith, we are called to bring the truth of love to these festering wounds so that hearts may be healed by Christ.

Joseph Pearce, the Catholic convert and former white supremacist, is a perfect example of this. In a recent article for the National Catholic Register, he recalls how it was his encounter with the objective truths of the faith that demolished his race-centered identity and seeing his enemies love him when he confronted them with hatred that changed his heart. We must pray for the grace to love as Jesus loves, to love as the Father loves.

“The way out of this deadly spiral,” Pearce says, “is to go beyond the love of neighbor, as necessary as that is, and to begin to love our enemies. This is not simply good for us, freeing us from the bondage of hatred; it is good for our enemies also.”

May all of us follow the great example of Mark Heyer, the father of the woman who was killed after the white supremacist rally. His daughter’s death, Heyer told USA Today, made him think “about what the Lord said on the cross, ‘Forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.’”

Jesus desires that every person have a heart that is whole and free from hatred, anger and pride. He desires to form our hearts, and that only comes about when we are receptive to his unconditional love, for only in receiving his unconditional love will we be able to give it to others. I pray that all the faithful will be instruments of healing for our country by bringing Christ’s forgiveness to their neighbors and their enemies.