Sunday, January 1, 2017

Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the Church

Sunday: January 1, 2017–– Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
Numbers 6:22–27 / Psalm 67 / Galatians 4:4–7 / Luke 2:16–21
Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the Church

The Church teaches that Mary is the Mother of God. Catholics grow up with Mary as a key figure in the life of the Church. That is good.... but it's not so good if there is little understanding of why and how Mary is so important. On the other end of the continuum, though, are many Evangelical Christians, who think––as I once did––that Catholics worship Mary. This means that, other than a brief cameo role at Christmas, Mary is at best ignored and, sadly, even demeaned in order (it is thought) to “correct” the Catholic error. I know this is true because it was part of my journey. One of the biggest hurdles separating most Evangelical Christians from Catholic Faith is the person and place of Mary.

This first Marian dogma goes back to 431 A.D and the ecumenical Council of Ephesus, which raised the question of whether Mary is rightly called theotokos. That’s a Greek word meaning "bearer of God.” One popular teacher, Nestorius, did not want to give Mary the title theotokos, preferring to call her christotokos, "the bearer of Christ" because he separated the divinity and humanity of Christ. The Council of Ephesus said that this destroyed Jesus as one undivided person. Nestorius' teaching was declared heretical and Mary was formally given the title theotokos, “God-bearer”, as the orthodox way to describe Mary.

This title was not meant to exalt Mary so much as to assert the unity of divinity and humanity in her Son. When properly understood, all the Marian dogmas are about Jesus. We use God-bearer language for the mother of Jesus to confess who Jesus really is: the beloved Son of the Father, born of a woman (Gal 4:4), and thus God manifested in the flesh (1 Tim. 3:16). Yet implicit in this is indeed a great honor for Mary. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit Mary says (in the Magnificat): all generations will call me blessed. There was a point where I truly “saw” that for the first time, and with it was a shocking realization: the Christian tradition that had formed me had not taught me to call Mary “blessed.” It was a hard pill for me to swallow when it first dawned on me that it was the Catholic tradition which has fulfilled this prophecy of Mary recorded by Luke.

One of the objections from my past was the argument that Mary does not have prominence in the New Testament––that she has little role in Acts and is hardly mentioned in the Epistles. This point of view ignores the implication of Luke’s early chapters. Where did the details of those chapters come from if not from Mary herself? There is one vignette after another that can only be known because Luke, in composing his Gospel, sat at the feet of Mary and––inspired by the Holy Spirit to do so––recorded her “ponderings” so that we have their fruit today as Scripture.

If we take that as a premise, we then have in Mary a very important figure who is a source of authority for the earliest part of the “Jesus story”. She has stored these memories in her heart and she is highly revered. After she was taken to heaven and the Church was facing great persecution, there was an emphasis on the memory of the holy people who had first formed the Church. From the beginning Mary was uniquely remembered as the virgin in whom the Holy Spirit conceived our incarnate Lord. This was part of the Apostolic Tradition that guided the Council of Ephesus.

The declaration that Mary was the theotokos, the Mother of God, does not imply Mary’s divinity; again, it was primarily about Christ’s humanity. Jesus took his human flesh from his mother. The Church teaches clearly, and has always taught, that Mary is not divine. She is human, a creature, just like us, created by God. When we come to faith in Jesus, we are adopted so that Jesus is our brother (Heb 2:11) and Mary becomes our mother. Then we are all one in Christ in his mystical Body. This Body, of course (as Paul explicitly teaches), has different parts, different roles, and different gifts. Not everyone does the same thing. Mary has a special role: She is Mother, because she is literally the mother of Jesus’ physical body, and as we are joined to Christ through the Holy Spirit as his mystical Body she comes our Mother, too. Jesus, on the cross, explicitly gave his mother to his disciple (and implicitly to the Church). So everything about Mary is connected to the communion of saints, of which we are a part––and of which she is the preeminent member (everything in Catholic Faith interfaces, as a seamless garment). As Catholic piety began to develop and grow, Mary’s role as an intercessor became important as early as the early second century.

Yet this was another cause for concern in my former tradition. How can Mary not be ascribed divine omnipresence if she is constantly able to hear millions of individual prayers all around the world? Then a wonderful analogy came to me: Facebook. It is possible to have a friend on Facebook who has thousands of other friends. That friend can have all other friends tell him their fears and woes. How? Through the internet. I do not mean this to be disrespectful in the least, but the internet functions something like the Holy Spirit. The internet is everywhere. The internet can deliver messages seemingly at the speed of light. A FB friend does not have that power by himself, but it is available. So with prayer, the “vehicle” is always God. We can only pray in and through the Holy Spirit, but because every Christian is a partaker of the Spirit and because physical death does not cut the bond all Christians have in the Spirit, there is a communion of saints, and at the pinnacle of all saints is Holy Mary, the Mother of God. No other human being has greater intimacy with Jesus than Mary. She is is a powerful intercessor. In the Spirit, we can ask for her to pray for us just as we ask for the prayers of our dearest living friend.

Yet there is a caution here. Even as we honor Mary with the title Mother of God and seek her motherly aid, we need to remember than Mary is not the source of holiness, or love, or mercy. Those things come first from God; God’s people have those qualities derivatively as gifts of grace. Let’s not think that is Mary more merciful than Jesus.

But among all the people of God––among all the saints, no one has greater fulness of grace than Mary. She is first in the Church. She is first among the saints. She alone gave flesh to the eternal Word, and in so doing became the very Mother of God. In that grace, and from the very words of Jesus on the cross––Behold your mother, she is our mother, too. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Prepare the Way for the Lord

December 4, 2016 –– 2nd Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 11:1-10 / Psalm 72:1-2,7-8,12-13,17 / Romans 15:4-9 / Matthew 3:1-12
Prepare the Way for the Lord

The promise of Isaiah is fulfilled in the Gospel: In those days John the Baptizer came, preaching....“A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”

Some people were excited. God was visibly at work. Some other people were not so excited––and many of them were religious leaders. John preached repentance. John confronted people with their sins. Many people who knew they were sinners welcomed this invitation to repent and find God’s mercy. Other people, though––mostly the religious elite––did not see themselves as sinners. For them, “evil” was expressed only through the “big, bad sins,” and since they did not commit any of them (at least outwardly), a call to repent was an affront. But the heart of the matter was this: they did not want God messing up their convenient little world. Through John, God was offering the next step to bring his peace into the world, but the people in control did not want it if it meant giving up their place of control.

Down to today, many people are willing to be “religious” as long they can choose what it means. Some make great claims of spirituality, but will not give Jesus Christ his exclusive place. Then there are people who claim to be Christians, but they reserve the “right” to have a “personal choice” on social issues on which the Church has spoken with clarity and conviction: abortion, sexual purity outside of marriage, homosexual practice, etc. Others claim to be Christian but fervently support political agendas that protect extravagant living at the expense of much of the world. Many more claim to be Christian and yet live in relational discord, even with unforgiveness and disdain, with other Christians.

You know, any of us can look around and find other people to judge. If we’re honest, we know we too often do just that. What God was saying through John, and continues to say, goes beyond that: all of us have sins, and repentance should be a regular part of our spiritual lives. The call to repent of our sins and believe the good news was the message of both Isaiah and John the Baptizer, and it is the ongoing message of the Church. As we go into this Advent season of preparing for the true meaning of Christmas, it is right for all of us to repent of our sins and affirm our belief that the only way to salvation is through the forgiveness God gives in Jesus Christ.

We never grow beyond the practice of repentance. I believe a big obstacle to Christian unity is the failure to repent. St Paul calls the Christian community to a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus (Rom 15:5). Hardly anything gives greater testimony to the Spirit of Jesus in a person than saying, “I am sorry; I was wrong. Will you forgive me?” That is repentance, and the Christian community needs to model more of it to a watching world.

It is human nature to balk at this. It is human nature to say, “you don’t know what he did to me!” Yet Paul reminds the Christian community: Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you…. (Rom 15:7). Christmas is the celebration of the birth of our Savior, the one who has become a servant (v8) so that we may glorify God for his mercy (v9). The only claim we have to salvation is God’s mercy, and the only way to allow mercy to do its work in us is through repentance.

This is the Gospel…. and because the Gospel is real and true, there is an effect. John the Baptizer proclaimed a fire (Mtt 3:11b,12) that is unleashed to destroy evil. In a Christian’s life, that fire is a burning love. God’s love is so intense that it consumes sin. We are invited to enter into the love of God with such abandon that all our sin is burned up. That actually happens in the process of repentance and forgiveness. 

But for those who will not repent––who persist in sin––then both Isaiah’s and John’s words give the grim reality: with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked (Isa 11:4), and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering the wheat into his barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire (Mtt 3:12). When God’s burning love is rejected, it turns to fiery judgment. The readings today tell us that true and full peace will only come when God’s burning love destroys all that is evil. Only then will all of creation be at peace so that even among the animals they will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain (Isa 11:9).

As Christians, we long for that, but at the same time we must face a real problem. It’s easy to worry about animals and world peace and yet not be willing let peace start in us with our own families or neighbors or co-workers. As the old spiritual says, Not my brother or my sister, but it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer. Advent is a time for us to face our own sins. The message of John the Baptizer comes down to us today: Prepare the way for the Lord.... Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Let’s Prepare the way for the Lord in our own hearts.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The End Is The Beginning

November 13, 2016 –– 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Malachi 3:19–20a / Psalm 98 / 2 Thessalonians 3:7–12 / Luke 21:5–19
The End Is The Beginning

This is my favorite time of year. The crisp temperatures and the beauty of autumn colors combine to make this season invigorating. I love the longer evenings that give an embrace of coziness. When the celebration of Thanksgiving and the anticipation of Christmas are thrown in, it’s about as good as life gets in this world.

Yet there are those who have different feelings. They see the beauty, but even more they see in autumn a blatant picture of coming death. The warmth of vibrant green is waning; the longer evenings are merely the darkness of shorter days. For them, the cold, dark days of winter bring the same effect to the soul.

Both perspectives are true. As with life in general in this world of ours, warmth and coldness––especially of spirit––are always coexisting. To use the language of spiritual direction, we face a mixture of consolation and desolation. The Church affirms this in many ways, and the Gospel itself illustrates it.

We are at the end of the liturgical year. In two more weeks we’ll be in Advent, which should come as no surprise since the secular version of “Christmas” is already being thrown at us. But while the culture at large wants to rush to what it calls Christmas and find a shot of happiness in the next party, the Church calls us to something quite the opposite. Even before we get to Advent (which is not just a “church-word” for Christmas; it’s supposed to be a time of spiritual examination and preparation), the Church brings its liturgical year to a close with what is called The Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.

The Scripture readings for today are not warm and cozy. The world that is described is not Thanksgiving turkey and pumpkin pies nor Christmas trees and Yule logs. A fire is indeed burning, but it is a fire of judgment on everything in rebellion against God: all the proud and all the evildoers will be stubble. This is not limited to stereotypical Old Testament fire and brimstone; Jesus warns of mighty signs that will bring havoc to the world. And then he says, Before all this happens, they will seize and persecute you…. and they will put some of you to death.

We “know” that Christians have died for the Faith, but such a thing has not literally come close to us––at least not yet. But as we enjoy the beauty of this fall season and anticipate the joys of Thanksgiving and Christmas, the Church––and Jesus––has a warning that corresponds with the waning of the year: Along with the assurance we can have of God’s love, mercy, and grace…. mixed in with the temporal consolations of family and feasts and cultural frivolities…. there is something else (that we’d rather not think about): Every one of us must face the reality of Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.

The world around us tries to calculate ways to secure ourselves: If we can “go green” in time, we can save our planet. If we can just figure out which candidate is the anti-Christ or which candidate is likely to trigger Armageddon and avoid letting that person get in office, the we will be safe. If we will tolerate everything and everybody, then everyone will leave everyone else alone and we can all live happily ever-after. This world just doesn’t work that way.

It is a mercy when the Church keeps these Scriptures before us that remind us that we are going to die. Every one of us is one day closer to our death than we were yesterday.

The judgment of God is coming. All of us will face a particular judgment in which we each will give a personal account to God of our lives. The whole world is moving to a general judgment when all that is unholy will be burned up and a new earth is ushered into the fulness of God’s forever kingdom.

As a result of that judgment, every one of us faces either heaven or hell. God promises heaven for every person who will not shut him out, because the essence of the nature of God is love and Jesus carried the sins of the world to the cross. Yet God gives every one of us the ability to shut him out; love is not forced, and the only way to open ourselves to God’s love is to love him. We cannot love God if we reject his ways. The commands of God are not arbitrary rules; the commands of God are safety codes given in love, Manufacturer’s instructions to insure that we function according to the way we were created.

We look out on a world where many things are not going right: nation against nation…. earthquakes…. famines…. plagues…. These things happen because our world is in rebellion against God. It will not always be this way. One day God will say Enough!

As surely as the year cycles to its place of dying, life in this world faces The Four Last Things. But that is not the final word. The final Word is Jesus. On the other side of death and judgment is a promise from our Lord that comes in the final book of the Bible: Behold, I make all things new (Rev 21:5). That is why Malachi could end his prophecy of the coming fire with these words: for those who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.

It is a grace to listen to the Church’s warning of Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. We end the  old year realistically. This takes us to the true meaning of Advent and Christmas that starts a new liturgical year. In the powerful mercy of God, the end is the beginning.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Context of Mercy

October 23, 2016–– 30th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Sirach 35:12–14, 16–18 / 2 Timothy 4:6–8, 16-18 / Luke 18:9–14
The Context of Mercy

A contrast is not the same as having to choose only between the two options. Jesus extends a stark contrast between the Pharisee and the tax collector. Clearly the tax collector is commended and the Pharisee is condemned. But it’s not as if these two men represent the only options; Jesus is not giving an all-encompassing “either/or” with these two characters.

If we stop to remember, outward appearance does not always match our inner desire or motive. Sometimes that is good: What if our worst thoughts always showed themselves outwardly?! We would be afraid to go out in public. But sometimes our outward behavior is far worse than what we desire or intend; we mean to do good, but it turns out wrong to others. That is one reason Jesus said not to judge. Then there are those people who “do good” on the outside just to promote themselves, because on the inside they are vain and selfish. That, of course, is not true goodness.

Pharisees were the most outwardly religious Jews of their day. The Pharisee in Jesus’ story had have some very commendable qualities (assuming he was telling the truth, and he likely was): He was honest in business dealings. He practiced sexual morality. He fasted. He gave a tenth of his total income. All of those are good. Our world would benefit if everyone did these things.

The tax collector was a despised person in Judea. Usually it was a Jew who collaborated with the occupying and oppressive Romans by doing exactly what they were called: collecting taxes from the citizens so that the conquered had to foot the bill for the conquerors. On top of that, tax collectors usually demanded much more than the tax itself, which they used as a lucrative source of income for themselves. Tax collectors were considered guilty of everything for which the Pharisee smugly announced his innocence.

Is Jesus saying God prefers us to be despicable rather than practice outward goodness? Is he using this contrast to bring our focus to how we appear to others? Of course not. Do outward issues matter? Yes––in their proper place. Today’s Gospel is something else. This particular teaching of Jesus goes to the core of how we come to God.

I do not know how many times in Scripture God gives some kind of welcoming invitation for us to come to him as our God…. our Refuge and Helper…. our Savior…. our Father…. our Friend….  Yet there are requirements; perhaps “protocol” is a good way to understand it. If God is God, then we need to come with proper protocol––an attitude that says, “You are God; I am not the one calling the shots.” This honors who God is. This puts us in the place where we can receive the good things God wants to give us.

The Pharisee in Jesus’ story was focused on himself. A vain and selfish attitude is probably the biggest obstacle that stands between God and people who are estranged from him. When we put ourselves first, we shut God out. God is honored and we are rewarded when we do good things with a desire to obey and please him. But if we try to use good things to justify ourselves and if we expect God’s favor because of what we do, we build our own wall that cuts God off.

So here was the tax collector who was not doing good. He was siding with evil rulers. He was helping to oppress his own people. He was using a rotten system for his own advantage. But somewhere in that mix of awful stuff, he became aware of it. He seemed to realize suddenly that he needed God’s love and mercy more than he needed the benefits of his conniving position. So from deep within the core of his being came this honest and humble cry: God be merciful to me, a sinner! That is an attitude of heart that tears the wall down and allows God to be God. And when God is allowed to be God, his gift is always mercy.

So, if you are aware of things in your life that are not right, let those things show you your need of God’s mercy. If you sincerely pray, God be merciful to me, a sinner, God will give you mercy and mercy truly received will change your life.

In this context, we’re not to worry about the “other person.” We cannot look at what seems to be good or not-so-good people on the outside and fully know what is in their hearts. We’re each to look into our own hearts and always pray, God be merciful to me, a sinner.

To tell the truth, on the outside I’m more like this Pharisee. I seek to live a meticulously moral life. I read the Bible and pray every day. My wife and I tithe regularly. I even fast sometimes (but I’m not very good at it). Everyone who follows Jesus should practice an obedience that models good things. But no matter how “good” I might appear to be, not one thing I do “buys” God’s favor. If God does not have mercy on me––no matter how “good” my outward practices, I have no hope.

I hope all of us know that is true. No matter how much goodness we have attained, we all fall short (Rom 3:23) of always loving as God loves. None of us has yet attained to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ (Eph 4:13). If God does not have mercy, we have no hope. But the whole Gospel is based on this: God is merciful. God be merciful to me, a sinner.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

A Man in Hell

September 25, 2016: 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Amos 6:1a,4–7 / 1 Timothy 6:11–16 / Luke 16:19–31
A Man in Hell

I grew up in a church where “fire and brimstone sermons” were not unusual. As a boy I would always shudder when a visiting evangelist would say, "My text for this evening is found in Luke chapter sixteen." I knew what would come next. He would continue by quoting the line around which his whole sermon would revolve. The old King James language is still clear in my mind, "And in hell he lift up his eyes..."

It may not be popular, but the Church does believe in hell. Preaching about hell is not inappropriate, but it’s always secondary at best. Hell is an eternal antithesis to embracing the glory of God. We take hell seriously because the salvation given to us in Jesus Christ offers us a glorious alternative. The purpose of this story given by our Lord is not just to tell us there is a hell; it tells us why one man found himself in hell. It is a story that warns others not to make the choice this man made.

Why would anyone “choose” hell? It is one's own choice. Of course most people do not make the choice of hell explicitly; people choose hell passively by choosing other things above God. What kinds of choices lead people into hell? There is a stereotypical list of mortal sins, but nothing is said about the rich man in this story being sexually immoral or running an abortion clinic. This is a story of a man who chooses hell when he chooses to do nothing.

In that day and culture it was common to wipe greasy hands on chunks of bread and then toss the bread to the dogs. It was that bread which Lazarus waited for at the gate. It seems the rich man was well-aware of Lazarus (he knows the beggar’s name). Maybe he thought himself quite merciful in not calling the authorities to have the vagrant put away (Lazarus did not help beautify his gateway). No, the rich man was not cruel; he merely lived his own life and let Lazarus live his.

That is how the rich man chose hell. Mortal sin is not limited to acts of violence or illegitimate sex. Sin is not limited to crude and repugnant people. One way to understand the essence of sin is selfishness. Selfishness is merely putting one's self first. Selfishness is living as though other people do not matter as much as “me”. It seemed not to matter one way or the other to the rich man that Lazarus lay at his gate. The rich man was too comfortable to care. He did not have to worry about Lazarus' hunger; he went to bed full of wonderful foods every night. He gave no thought to the rags with which Lazarus tried to cover himself; he was handsomely dressed in the best clothing available. He was not concerned about Lazarus' sores; he was comfortable.

But this warning is not limited to people who can qualify for television's Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous (if that program isn’t current, it seems there are many more which exalt the same values). In Jesus' day a “rich” person was someone who lived very comfortably, had not only enough to eat but a wide variety of foods, someone who lived in a relatively carefree environment with nice possessions, had the luxury of different clothes for different occasions, and enjoyed a social life with the people of his choice. So not only are we rich compared with most of the world's present population, we are “rich” as Jesus would have used the term.

Maybe this word "rich" is a mental block for us. Let's not say "rich"; let's say we are "comfortable." Comfortable people have discretionary income. What do we do with our discretionary income? If we spend it all on ourselves we are like this man in Jesus' story. What story does our homes and wardrobes and tables and vehicles and vacations tell when placed beside our giving? This is exactly what Amos was prophesying as he warned of God’s judgment on people given to self-obsessed pleasures. With a bit of imagination we might bring his words into our world:

This is what the Lord, the Almighty God says: There is bad news for everyone who is living in the delusion of comfort and convenience. You have your Craftmatic and Sleep Number beds; you recline in your La-Z-Boy recliners; you carefully buy from Whole Foods, Fresh Market, and Omaha steaks. You entertain yourselves with your favorite music. You get wine and beer as if there is no limit. You pamper yourselves with the delicacies from Bath and Bodyworks. Yet you pay no attention to the things that break God’s heart; others can be miserable, but as long as you are healthy and happy, you think all is well. It’s about to be turned upside-down. Your comfort is going to evaporate.

We are bombarded with the temptation to be self-indulgent. We want to be comfortable. The rich man wanted this, and who doesn't? We sleep on beds instead of on the floor. And choosing comfort is not all wrong––unless it becomes our top priority. Is our desire for comfort greater than a willingness to love? Are we most concerned with pleasing ourselves or following Jesus? The rich man chose himself, probably without even thinking about it, and in doing so, he chose hell.

It seems the rich man did not know this. That should not be surprising; many people today do not understand it either. Somehow we've gotten sidetracked by limiting sin to a few visible “nasty” sins. As long as we avoid those we think we are good people. In fact, using that standard, it's very hard to discern any difference between "good" people in the church from "good" people who have nothing to do with church at all. Christian Faith––following Jesus––is more than that. God calls his people to love as he loves. Yes, we find it much easier to seek our own happiness and our own comfort; that is our natural tendency because of the Fall. Apart from the grace of God, it is also what causes us to choose hell.

It was in the clutches of hell that the rich man finally understood. He asked if Lazarus could go back from the dead to warn the living. He hoped his own brothers who were caught up in their comforts would be shocked into listening if someone came from the dead. The Gospel is that this rich man's request has been granted. Someone has come back from the dead. Jesus Christ died for our sins and came back from the dead to show us that God’s ways are above human reasonings and hopes. And believing that, we are called to follow Jesus in the way he loves––not putting our own comfort and convenience above a commitment to be like our Lord.

The choice that the rich man made still confronts each of us today.  All we have to do to choose hell is choose to live only for ourselves. I close with a question I ask myself: How am I learning to be different than this man who was so comfortable that he could ignore Lazarus and end up in hell? Only in following Jesus…. Every day, we ask for the grace to follow Jesus. We pray each day, forgive us our trespasses…. We feed on the Living Word. And as we give ourselves to Jesus  he frees us from slavery of our selfish desires. That is the Gospel. That is our hope that our own story will not be like this one about a man in hell.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Look at the Cross

Wednesday: September 14, 2016 –– Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
Look at the Cross

To know God…. look at the cross.

To see the effect of disobedience, of selfishness, of sin…. look at the cross.

To see how God responds to hate…. look at the cross.

To chase the nagging accusations of guilt…. look at the cross.

To have true hope for salvation…. look at the cross.

To stay close to Jesus…. look at the cross.

To know how to respond to others…. look at the cross.

To know how to LIVE…. look at the cross.

“No other god, no other power, no other being in all the world loves like this, gives like this, dies like this. All others win victories by fighting; this one, by suffering. All other gods exercise power by killing; this one by dying.”  (N.T. Wright)

Let us, every day, say with St Paul: May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world (Galatians 6:14).

Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Struggle of Discipleship

September 4, 2016: 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time
Wisdom 9:13–18a / Philemon 9–10,12–17 / Luke 14:25–33
The Struggle of Discipleship

Understood on a surface level Paul’s letter to Philemon is a conundrum. Critics of Holy Scripture––indeed, those who see themselves antagonistic to Christian Faith––love to use this letter as an example how out of touch, or even oppressive, the Bible and Christianity are.

Paul wrote this letter to Philemon, a slave-holder, asking him graciously to take back Onesimus, a slave who had run away. Philemon was a fellow Christian believer. Onesimus had met Paul during one of Paul’s imprisonments and evidently come to faith. In spite of loving Onesimus as a spiritual child and wanting Onesimus to stay with him, Paul is conforming to the law of the land (at the time) and sending Onesimus back to his “owner”, Philemon.

What is going on here? Does the Bible support slavery? Is Paul putting immoral social convention above the law of Christian love? Where is the line between obeying God and the laws of Man? How does this letter fit into Catholic Social Justice or Christian involvement in socio-political issues?

Okay… I’ve asked more questions than I can answer––but, I hope this homily can be an agent for the Holy Spirit to help us think in the context of Christian commitment. Single issues and simple answers are far short of God’s truth. So if we can learn to be thinking always out of an attitude of total allegiance to Jesus and his Kingdom (and God help us to do so), then we will be growing into the kind of disciples that honor Jesus.

It helps to understand that Paul was writing a letter to Philemon as a fellow Christian and not an essay on social justice. The intent of this letter is not primarily Christian social ethics (it’s just that modern sensitivities want to make it go that way). In the context of the day in which it was written, Paul is writing to ask (to sensitize) Philemon to look at Onesimus as a new Christian brother and not as a run-away slave. That in itself, at the time, was revolutionary. Given the social order of the day, the best way to undermine the immorality of slavery was for slave-owners to begin to see their slaves as people who are in the image of God and not as property. That did happen through the expanse of the Chuch, and the change (when it followed that pattern) was transformative rather than insurrection and violent revolution.

So this letter to Philemon is about Christian discipleship. Discipleship always takes place within a given socio-political climate, and Christian discipleship is not primarily a temporal political endeavor. Discipleship will always be subversive when it is properly understood and practiced. This is because no earthly socio-political structure is ever conformed totally to the Kingdom of God. When a nation-state is relatively “good” it is still not worthy of ultimate allegiance. When a nation-state is oppressive (and many Christians have suffered under such in the Church’s history), God’s people still obey the government to the extent they can––but all the more give ultimate allegiance to the King whose Kingdom goes beyond anything we can yet fully imagine.

In Paul’s day, regardless of slavery being legal and normal, Christians were to treat others with Jesus-love. If Philemon honored Paul’s request and treated Onesimus as a Christian brother it would change his status even if Onesimus was technically still a “slave”. The “system” would then have a crack.

This is a real-life example (from Paul’s day) of the Wisdom reading and what Jesus is saying in the Gospel. When our hearts are fully given to the Lord and his ways, there is a different way of seeing the various relationships in the world around us regardless of the circumstances. Under the Lordship of Christ, even family relationships are different. Under the Lordship of Christ, political issues and tactics are different. We need to remember this as we are inundated right now with election hype.

Christian discipleship is always misunderstood by the world-spirit. That is why Jesus says: Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. Anyone who chooses to follow Jesus will have a cross. Onesimus had the cross of being a Christian slave; Philemon had the cross of being a Christian slave-owner. Each had to face the implications of his own discipleship. We all do. It may be the discouragement of something hard (such as the slavery that touched Onesimus and Philemon). It may be the tempting distraction of something that is inherently good (such as the family relationships which Jesus mentions). 

We live in a socio-political environment that has largely bought into the idea that the purpose of government and social mores is to make everyone as comfortable as possible. Paul’s words to Philemon––and Jesus’ words about carrying a cross––make no sense to the so-called “wisdom” of our world. The world-spirit is about convenience and comfort in the here-and-now; Jesus is calling people to be disciples.

If we do not understand that, we cannot understand Scripture and we will not be able to make peace with the true nature of the Church. We are here to follow Jesus. Understanding what that means is not always easy. When we do understand what it means, it is often harder still to practice. But if we open our hearts to the grace that is always saying Follow Me, we will be disciples in the midst of our questions and struggles. Right now you can tell Jesus all over again, Lord, I want to follow…. give me the grace to follow…. I want to be a true disciple above everything else.

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