Sunday, September 21, 2014

Beyond “Fair”

September 21, 2014–– 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 55:6–9 / Philippians 1:20c–24, 27a / Matthew 20:1–16a
Beyond “Fair”

It has been said that there are two types of people in the world, including those who divide people into two groups and those who do not. I think one of the most basic contrasts is between the attitude of people who believe they always “deserve” what is best or even fair as opposed to those who tremble at the thought of getting what they deserve. There is another way to say this: proud and humble gets to the root. Jesus’ story of the proud Pharisee and the humble publican comes to mind.

Our human nature has an inherent recognition of right and wrong. We instinctively know when we are treated unfairly. Except… fair is not really much of a biblical theme. God’s revelation to us has a lot to say about justice and mercy and love, but “fair” is much more a human construct. Fair is almost always connected to what we think we deserve, and what we think we deserve is tempered ultimately by whether we are, in biblical language, proud or humble.

The Gospel of John (ch 6) tells of an incident in which people come to John the Baptizer with praise and adulation. His response is, No one can receive anything unless it has been given to him from heaven. St Paul confronts the Corinthians with the same thought: What do you have that was not given to you? (1Cor 4:7a). This is a picture of biblical humility.

Contrast this attitude with that of the prophet Jonah. He had a proud, uncharitable spirit. Jonah neither expected nor desired the welfare of the Ninevites; he only went there to declare and witness their destruction. It was all about Jonah. Sometimes even God’s people show us how not to be!

Several of our popular magazine titles illustrate this. First there was People (all of us), then there was Us (as opposed to “them”), and then there was Self, which mostly reduces the focus to me. My point is to suggest that a very large portion of “popular culture”, as evidenced by our magazine names (and even more by their content!), is almost completely opposed to anything that is essentially Christian.

This takes us to Jesus’ parable about the vineyard workers. It is typical of our fallen human nature to see things selfishly from our own point of view. The all-day workers complained––it was “unfair” that the one-hour workers were paid the same. And yet this story has a much greater point: the mercy of God goes beyond fair. God does not give us what we deserve. He certainly does not give us less than we deserve. God gives us more than we deserve. Beyond fair.

To grasp this, we need to be converted. We need to be changed. We need to be transformed from people who look at the world around us and our own situations merely from our own selfish perspective (What’s in it for me?). When our focus is on ourselves––how much do I get?…. is yours bigger or better than mine?…. why am “I” having to go through this hard thing?…. ––we are only making ourselves miserable (and worse, cutting ourselves off from being able to see God’s mercies). St Paul expresses transformation when he tells the Philippians, For to me life is Christ, and death is gain. This world is not all there is. So Paul asked the Corinthians, What do you have that was not given to you? What we have is mercy. From God’s perspective, if we got what we deserved, we’d have less than nothing; we’d be in hell. It’s all about gift and grace. Beyond fair.

This is what God is saying through Isaiah: ….my thoughts are not your thoughts…. your ways are not my ways…. Humbling ourselves before the greatness of God is not meant to demean or discourage us. It is the greatness of God that goes beyond fair. This is why we can dare to be different and have hope in spite of all the things that seem so unfair and the many things which are, indeed, unjust.

There is an incredible picture of what this looks like which happened not too far from us in this part of Pennsylvania, and with which most of us are familiar. It is the epitome of what we would call “unfair”. On October 2, 2006 a milk truck driver named Charlie Roberts who serviced the local community drove to the West Nickel Mines Amish School in Lancaster County (PA). Then the sound of gunfire was heard from inside. When local police broke into the one-room schoolhouse they found 10 Amish girls ages 6-13 had been shot by Charlie Roberts, who then committed suicide.

In the midst of their grief over this shocking loss, the Amish community didn’t cast blame, they didn’t point fingers, they didn’t hold a press conference with attorneys at their sides. Instead, they reached out with grace and compassion toward the killer’s family. On the afternoon of the shooting an Amish grandfather of one of the girls who was killed expressed forgiveness toward the killer. That same day Amish neighbors visited the Roberts family to comfort them in their sorrow and pain. Later that week the Roberts family was invited to the funeral of one of the Amish girls who had been killed, and Amish mourners outnumbered the non-Amish at Charles Roberts’ funeral.

In a world where violence and suffering dominate the news, and in a society that often points fingers and blames others for what is “not fair”, this reaction seems incomprehensible. Many have asked, “How could they forgive?” The short answer is simple: This is Christian Faith. This is how God has loved us through his Son, and so we pass that kind of mercy forward. The Amish understand that part of Christian Faith so well, and we need to know it has its origin and home in Catholic Christianity. If the world is divided into two kinds of people (and I believe it is in many ways), we are to be those who live, in Jesus Christ, beyond fair.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Exaltation of the Holy Cross

September 14, 2014–– 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Numbers 21:4b–9 / Philippians 2:6–11 / John 3:13–17

The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Each one of the Scripture texts for today is worthy of book-length reflection, but perhaps it’s best to make three basic points.

The Numbers story illustrates the nature of sin: Sin is a poisonous snake always ready to bite, and its venom means death (apart from intervention beyond anything we are able to do for ourselves). [1] If you are “playing with sin” today––any kind of sin––you are risking eternal death.

The Epistle and the Gospel tell us what God has done. He has provided a remedy for the poison of sin. The Divine Son takes the sin of the world upon himself, and because he is God, he “absorbs” sin and defeats it. Just as Moses mounted an image of a snake on a pole and invited those bitten to look upon it and be healed, [2] when Jesus was lifted up on the cross the salvation of everyone who believes in him was accomplished.

If this incredible thing is true, why are the effects of sin still so devastating in our world and even in our personal lives? God does not force spiritual healing on anyone. Moses mounted the image of the snake, but each Israelite had the personal responsibility to look at it in order to be healed. Jesus makes the same point in his words to Nicodemus: ….the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. Clearly one meaning of lifted up is the literal physical crucifixion of Jesus, so when Jesus mounted the cross he was taking the sin of the world upon himself. Every week––and for some of us, every day––we acclaim, Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world.

Still, there is more in what Jesus said. What marks a person who has faith in the saving death of Jesus Christ? What does “believe” mean (for it can so easily be a cliché)? There is a figurative way to understand lifted up––it is extended to us! [3] When we model faith in his death on the cross for sin, so that our very lives proclaim Jesus Christ is Lord, then in each and every Christian believer, Jesus Christ is being lifted up.

On this day when the Church calls us to exalt the Holy Cross, let’s be people who do just that by honoring Jesus Christ in all that we are and all that we do. The foundation for real living is knowing that Jesus Christ was lifted up on the cross to save us from the poison of sin. Then––starting from the inner passion of our hearts and extending into the way we live each day––we can truly be his witnesses. When our own lives cause Jesus to be lifted up, we join all those for whom every knee bend[s] and every tongue confess[es] that Jesus Christ is Lord. This is the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Responsible Love

September 7, 2014 –– 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Ezekiel 33:7–9 / Romans 13:8–10 / Matthew 18:15–20
Responsible Love

This past Wednesday was the Feast Day of St Gregory the Great. He was elected Pope as the Church entered the 7th Century, was one of the four great Latin Fathers and named Doctor of the Church. In the Office of Readings for that day there was a selection taken from his writings based on the text in Ezekiel:

….a preacher is called a watchman. A watchman always stands on a height so that he can see from afar what is coming. Anyone appointed to be a watchman for the people must stand on a height for all his life to help them by his foresight.

He goes on to confess how hard this is, for human preachers have to deal with their own weaknesses and the distractions of life in this world: “So who am I to be a watchman, for I do not stand on the mountain of action but lie down in the valley of weakness?” Then he gives the only solution that offers any peace: “Truly the all-powerful Creator and Redeemer of mankind can give me, in spite of my weaknesses, a higher life and effective speech; because I love him, I do not spare myself in speaking of him.”

Preaching is a fusion of two seemingly incongruent things: the knowledge and authority of God joined to the weak limitations of a human messenger. But because we believe God has spoken, and that he has formed the Church to be the medium of his truth, those of us ordained by the Church (to proclaim what God has said and done) do this often criticized act of “preaching”. One way that I seek to give integrity to my preaching––to take seriously what I believe comes from God––is preach to myself and invite you to listen. I do this because of the serious charge given here to Ezekiel. If I do not declare God’s truth faithfully, then God holds me accountable for my listener’s sins. If I do declare God’s truth faithfully, then (speaking of a wicked man) if he refuses to turn from his way, he shall die for his guilt but you shall save yourself. It is a frightful thing to be a preacher!

The bottom line here is that we take who God is and what he says as top priority. This is why Jesus says, If your brother sins…. go and tell him his fault. If he does not listen, take one or two more others with you…. If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. This extends beyond “preachers” to all  Christians.

What is going on here? First, Jesus wants us to take sin seriously. In the Epistle reading St Paul tells us to love one another. “Love” is a loaded word in our world. It is used (and abused) to speak of many things, from the trite and ridiculous to the grossly immoral. How do we know what love really is? Paul puts “love” here in the context of keeping the commandments. Jesus said, If you love me you will keep my commands (Jn 14:15). Jesus is also saying in today’s Gospel that love for our brothers and sisters means being concerned about sin in their lives. Remember, all Christians are called to be holy ––“different for Jesus’ sake.” And, we are to help each other!

Just as there is a tension in the act of preaching––the contrast of strength and weakness (in God and a human messenger), there is a tension in our mutual quest for holiness. We are to be both critical and humble. Jesus says that if two people can come to one mind about what is right, then that is doubly good. Maybe it takes the counsel of several; often our perspectives are too much our own (or that of the world around us). The ultimate arbiter and authority is the Church. I do not ask you to live according to my opinions and practices, and you are not to judge me merely from your personal understanding (although we cannot escape our personal perspectives, and sometimes they are right). But we are all called to subject our thoughts, words, and actions to the teachings of the Church. It is in the Church that whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

Do we take what God says through the Church seriously enough that we truly try to live it? Do we take what God says through the Church seriously enough that we are willing to confront our brothers and sisters with it? Do we take what God says through the Church seriously enough that we all are willing to be humble with each other and admit that we are a work in progress? Do we remember each day, and embrace the reality, that as Christians we are called to be saints?

Not all of us are called to be preachers, but every one of us who owns the name of Christian is responsible to let the life of Jesus flow into and through us. And we are responsible to others who also own that name; they are our brothers and sisters.

You shall love your neighbor as yourself…. love is the fulfillment of the law. Love means telling each other the truth, and humbly letting God’s truth come to us through the Church.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Other Side of the Gospel

August 31, 2014–– 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jeremiah 20:7–9 / Romans 12:1–2 / Matthew 16:21–27
The Other Side of the Gospel

Gospel means Good News. The Good News can be expressed a number of ways. Perhaps the most well-known is John 3:16––For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. God’s love is a major and recurring theme throughout Scripture. A popular Evangelical cliché says “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” So, again, Gospel means Good News.

There is a prominent TV preacher (whose name I’ll forgo) who uses a stadium for the crowd that gathers each week to hear his always positive “talks” (I can’t bring myself to call them sermons). Now, only the Lord knows his heart, but he is not proclaiming the whole counsel of God. His is an incomplete and stunted “gospel”. I have never heard or read anything from him that boldly proclaims Jesus’ words in today’s 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 will find it. This is the other side of the Gospel.

There is no good news without bad news. The very word “good” requires a larger context that provides its contrast. No one has reason to be happy about being found if they have no idea that they are lost. To have any comprehension of being “saved” we must first know that we are in grave danger. The Good News of the Gospel comes to us in the context of the bad news of sin and the very real and appropriate fear of a holy God.

We live in a part of the world that can avoid facing this. We can insulate and distract ourselves from ultimate reality––for a while. Our danger right now is not that of our Christian brothers and sisters in Iraq and Syria. For them, the danger is a very real persecution. They are faced with the issue of whether Christian Faith is worth dying for (the very literal application of Jesus’ words here). Our greatest danger is seduction. We are inundated in an atmosphere of comfort, convenience, and pleasure. We face hard things, of course, but we want answers that do not cost us the price of even a personal inconvenience. The world tells us we should be able to spend our money on what makes us feel good. The world tells us that our culture’s obsession with sex as a means (and a so-called “right”) for personal pleasure is not so wrong. The closest we get to persecution (so far) is the ridicule and vitriol directed at us when we try to give a witness to traditional Christian values and morality. And there is a suggested way to avoid that: keep religion private; do not give your “personal” beliefs expression in the “real” world because “faith” (instead of being any kind of objective reality) is just an inner feeling that helps some people feel good. This is a betrayal of the Gospel.

We can too easily forget––too “conveniently” avoid––facing a huge divide that is clearly revealed in Scripture and taught by the Church. Jesus warns Peter about thinking not as God does, but as human beings do. We do not like to hear this. It goes against everything the culture around us believes. It goes against our natural desires for ease and comfort. It is obvious that a one-sided “positive” gospel can attract––the popular stadium preacher proves it, but that does not negate Jesus’ warning in another place: Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few (Mtt 7:13,14).

The Scriptures give this other side of the Gospel over and over. God speaks through Isaiah:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts (55:8,9).

This is what St Paul is exhorting in today’s Epistle: Do not conform yourselves to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind…. (Rom 12:2). If we are too much like the world around us, our souls are in danger!

Yes, our salvation is based totally in Jesus Christ. Yet this is more than what Jesus has done for us. Christianity is not merely forgiveness. Billy Graham’s famous Crusade invitation was accompanied by the song Just As I Am. That is indeed the love of the Gospel. God welcomes you just as you are. We do not have to become, first, “good enough” to gain God’s attention or earn his love. But––and this is a huge interjection––God does not leave those who belong to him where they are. We are to be transformed. We are to become like Jesus.

Christian Faith means following Jesus. And before we can hope to follow Jesus into the glory of the resurrection, we first follow him to the cross. This is the other side of the Gospel. The way that we are transformed into his likeness is to put to death in us all that is not like Jesus. When I want to please myself instead of loving and serving others, the Spirit of Jesus in me wants to put that to death. When my thinking is not as God does, but as human beings do about things such as money, possessions, sex, power, or even “freedom”, then I need to follow Jesus and submit my errant thinking to the cross.

It would be nice if the role of a Christian preacher was only to make people feel good. Sometimes I feel like Jeremiah in today’s reading: 

I am ridiculed all day long;
    everyone mocks me.
Whenever I speak, I cry out
    proclaiming violence and destruction.
So the word of the Lord has brought me
    insult and reproach all day long.
But if I say, “I will not mention his word
    or speak any more in his name,”
his word is in my heart like a fire,
    a fire shut up in my bones.
I am weary of holding it in;
    indeed, I cannot.

I have been called a “Bible thumper”. I have known people to leave the congregation because what was preached offended them. But some day I am going to stand before the Judge of all the earth––as are each of you––and there will be an accounting. Matthew gives us these words from Jesus: I promise you that on the day of judgment, everyone will have to account for every careless word they have spoken (12:36, CEV). I do not want to be “careless” in my preaching. I want to be faithful to what God has said. To be faithful to my calling, I must give the other side of the Gospel, especially when the Church faithfully draws our attention to texts such as these.

But before I quit I want to be clear. It is not my intent––and Jesus did not say these things––to discourage us or merely make us feel guilty. Notice that I said “merely”. Guilt is a good thing when it accomplishes its intended purpose. Paul told the Romans: God has locked all people in the prison of their own disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all (Rom 11:32). God wants us to know the full hard truth so that we run to him. That is the Gospel. In spite of the hard things––even through them––God is at work for our salvation. Jesus gives us the whole truth because he is our Savior.

Hear, truly hear these words of our Lord: 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 will find it. This is the Gospel.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

God At Work

August 24, 2014 –– 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 22:19-23 / Romans 11:33-36 / Matthew 16:13-20
God At Work

Peter’s profound declaration about Jesus and the response of Jesus to Peter is one of the bedrock Scriptures of Catholicism. We hear this and it seems so apparent. Yet there are devout Christians who read and hear this and do not see it. I was one of them for almost fifty years of a dedicated faith life. When I finally “saw it”, it was as if someone gave me a major missing piece to a puzzle. After years of trying to be sure I was interpreting the Bible properly and faithfully proclaiming Christian Truth, I found relief in this text about the Church because it released me from trying to figure out all the things of God within my own understanding. Jesus has provided a protected authority.

On the other hand, being overly familiar with a text––as most practicing Catholics are with this Gospel––can limit one’s understanding. Even as I found a new “release” in these words, it is also possible for some people to hear this with a “restriction” from seeing beyond one basic truth. There is more here than Jesus founding the Church and establishing Petrine primacy.

This is not some isolated incident. It does not stand alone. It is not meant to be lifted out of its scriptural setting and isolated into one of several key dogmas. As we read and hear Scripture, we are being pulled into the activity of God who is at work for all that is right and good and true. This is part of God at work for our salvation. I say “part” because God was at work before this and he has been at work since. God is at work right now for our salvation!

God was at work when Isaiah was writing. There had been unfaithfulness in Israel. God’s desire for his people had been corrupted. Instead of being a model to the nations of who God is, Israel had become like the pagan nations around them. But in the words of St Paul in last week’s Epistle, the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable. God never abandons his purpose to have a people who are distinctively his, and belonging to God “distinctively” means being holy––“different, for Jesus’ sake”. There comes a point where God says Enough! to the Shebnas who profane his name; God raises up people like Eliakim, people who honor the ways of God.

Think about this: God at work means, among other things, that he uses real people. Eliakim was a man, like us, who had a heart for God. Peter was a man––very much a regular human person with idiosyncrasies and weaknesses just like we have––but Jesus set him apart in a very special way for the work God is doing to save us.

In last week’s homily I differentiated between the big-picture––macro––activity of God and the small, detailed––micro––ways that God works in individual people. Peter was selected for a huge role in the big plan of God. The scope of the Church is beyond any one person’s comprehension, yet Peter was indeed a single individual. Jesus responded to Peter on the basis of who he was as one person. The same can be said today of Pope Francis. There is excitement and a palatable Spirit of Life in Pope Francis because he opens himself to Jesus.

Now, just because the “big” and the “personal” come together so demonstrably in people like Eliakim and St Peter and Pope Francis does not mean the same dynamic does not happen in people like you and me. We may not have recognition nor high visibility in the Church at large, but you and I can be personally so plugged into the big activity of God at work that we give witness to what is right and true and good within our own circles. When we confess with personal conviction that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, as Peter did, we get pulled into the same saving scope of God at work that has marked all the people of God through centuries and millennia. Each one of us can model holiness: being different for Jesus’ sake.

As we gather week by week in the Church that Jesus inaugurated with Peter, you and I––as individual persons––are participating in what it means––and has meant through the ages––that God is at work for our salvation. It is so intimate and at the same time so immense that we cannot fully comprehend it. All we can do is worship…. to bow our minds and hearts before the God who can work a salvation big enough for the whole world––truly a catholic salvation, and at the same time meet each one of us at the point of our personal need. Do you see it? God is at work in the Church founded by Peter; God is at work in you as you give yourself to him

What is your response to our Lord? How can we express such grandeur? The Holy Spirit has given us words through the Apostle:

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways! "For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” "Or who has given the Lord anything that he may be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory for ever. Amen.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Macro and Micro Salvation

August 17, 2014 –– 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 56:1, 6-7 / Romans 11:13-15, 29-32 / Matthew 15:21-28
Macro and Micro Salvation

We frequently hear the words macro and micro in a technological context of some kind, but today’s Gospel brings these two concepts into a biblical and theological focus. Just to be clear, “macro” refers to the largest scale and “micro” to the smallest scale.

If you think about it, both of these are the object of God’s concern in the Scriptures. The Psalmist juxtaposes the two when he writes: When I look at the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have established; what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him little less than God, and you crown him with glory and honor (8:3-5). From the macro heavens to the micro individual person, God is intricately involved.

It is important to see this distinction when we turn our attention to salvation. Sometimes the Scriptures address macro salvation––the big picture. Sometimes the focus is more on micro salvation––the individual person. In the first reading, the Lord says My salvation is about to come. This has the macro perspective of a panoramic scope. Here we are reminded that God has been at work in what we call Salvation History for longer than we can comprehend. Salvation is a BIG thing, and it belongs to God. I hope you know the comfort of a salvation that is bigger than you are. While we do have a response to make, salvation is something God has initiated. It is God himself who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1Tim 2:4).

Yet God has created us with the privilege (and responsibility) of true choice. It takes time and considerable drama for God both to save us and at the same time honor human decisions. God does not force our personal salvation, and he even allows us to choose evil (and how well we should know that!).

The Romans reading is dealing with the huge issue of salvation among Jews and non-Jews. The details of God’s promises and purposes were first revealed and offered through Abraham and his physical descendants. Those promises are still important. St Paul affirms that the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable. This is macro––big picture––salvation. It does not mean, though, on the micro level, that every single Jewish person is going to embrace the promises of God.

It is important to grasp these two perspectives when we come to today’s Gospel story. It appears that Jesus is totally out of character––seemingly cold and non-compassionate. He refuses to answer the woman’s cry. Then, he tells her his mission is only to Israelites. Finally, he implies she is a “dog” (which was an epithet commonly used back then for non-Israelites). Is this our loving Savior?

Yes. First, he was testing her. (How many of us get what we ask of the Lord after the first prayer?!) Second, Jesus is keeping his primary mission in focus. In order to bring salvation to a single Canaanite woman––or you and me––he must first accomplish that for which he was sent: to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. In other words, Jesus was in the world first of all to work salvation on the macro level in the unfolding plan of God––his death and resurrection for the salvation of the whole world.

But it was not all of one and none of the other. In other words, Jesus modeled micro salvation (mercy for the individual) even as he did everything necessary for macro salvation (unleashing righteousness for all people). If you think about it, it could be no other way: the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable. God’s salvation works on the micro level because it has been secured on the macro level. And because God has chosen on the macro level to save, it means that you and I––on the micro level––can have confidence in the mercy and grace of God.

We see a great picture of this in the Canaanite woman. She believed Jesus was Lord––the Son of David sent to bring salvation. Because she believed this, this woman would not be deterred. She was desperate. Any parent who has agonized over the need of a child understands. Somehow this mother was able to understand: “Jesus, as you fulfill your destiny as Savior of the world, let some of that grace spill over right now on my need.” In the big picture of salvation, you and I are part of the detail. The huge grace of God is for little ol’ you and me.

Are you discouraged? Do you sometimes wonder if God knows you are here? Is your guilt or pain or bewilderment so big that you feel swallowed up? I repeat something from last time: Jesus knows that when we are vulnerable we are most open to God. Sometimes a hard thing is the very thing that gets us beyond our own agenda so that we can receive the grace we need.

In the big sweeping work of God––his macro salvation––there is a place for each one of us. Personal faith draws us into God’s great salvation on the micro level. What is man that you are mindful of him?  ….you crown him with glory and honor. In the big plan of God, there is a place for you.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Jesus Christ Is The Son Of God

August 10, 2014 –– 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Matthew 14:22–33
Jesus Christ Is The Son Of God

The Gospels give us stories about Jesus with a single underlying conviction: Jesus Christ is the Son of God. That same conviction is what makes a Christian a Christian; it is what makes the Church the Church. The fundamental reason for preaching is this same underlying conviction: Jesus Christ is the Son of God.

Yet we see that Jesus gets alone with the Father in order to pray. If the Son of God needed to make time for prayer, then what of you and me? I need to do better at creating time to pray. It was possibly toward 9:00pm by the time Jesus made his way into the hills alone to pray after a long day with the people. Jesus was making his way to the disciples during the fourth watch of the night––about 3:00am, so Jesus had been praying for maybe six hours. That kind of prayer is consistent with many of the great saints of Christian history. This challenges all of us in our prayer life. To be like Jesus, we need to be going deeper and deeper in prayer.

Another thing worth noticing here is that the disciples had gone out into the night and onto that big lake in obedience to Jesus (he made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead). At the risk of pointing out the obvious, note that obeying Jesus did not mean no problems for the disciples. In fact, they were fighting an angry sea precisely because they had obeyed Jesus and gone out in the boat. And since they had departed before Jesus dismissed the crowd and left to pray, they had been fighting the sea for maybe 10-12 hours. It seems that Jesus had even set them up. The disciples often fell into disasters whenever Jesus was absent, and Jesus knows that when we are vulnerable we are most open to God. I try to remember that when my stress levels seems at maximum level.

There is so much in one simple story from the Gospels. Again we find Peter in the limelight, another emphasis on his primacy among the original disciples. Undoubtedly, though, the emphasis is found in the response of all the disciples as they witness an incident that went beyond any natural understanding. A modern mindset wants to dismiss Jesus walking on water as an example of creative symbolism or pious legend. The disciples got the point: Truly you are the Son of God. The only way any of this makes sense is to remember that Jesus is God. This has something to say to us on several levels.

First, we need to face head-on this claim of the Gospels and the Church: Jesus Christ is the Son of God. We “say” it every time we confess the Creed, but do we believe it? As we live the routines of day by day, are our lives different because of an overwhelming conviction that Jesus Christ is the Son of God? That is the standard of Christian Faith for everyone who owns the name of Jesus.

A minister to young adults wanted to find out why so many young Christians lose their faith in college. He did this by actually asking them. One of the students said, “Christianity is something that if you really believed it, it would change your life and you would want to change the lives of others. I haven’t seen too much of that.” Again, are we living lives that show that we actually believe what we say we believe?

Yet, to be honest with the inherent weakness of our humanity in this broken world, we can often feel too much like the disciples here––alone and scared and not able to figure out the circumstances which engulf us. This story should help encourage us, though, because if we are where Jesus has told us to be, we can have confidence even if the storm is kicking and we are struggling. He knows where we are. And if his response to our trouble scares us to death, (“get out of the boat and come to me”) let's also try to remember that Jesus is repeatedly allowing us to be in situations so we can see his glory. But if we can't handle it yet, he's still not going to abandon us. His first words to the disciples were to identify himself and say, Do not be afraid.

Again, the only way any of this makes sense is to remember that Jesus, the Son of God, gives himself to us. His Spirit lives in all who believe in him, and he is wanting to extend his very life through us. To do that, we have to be open to this truth, which is why we have the Church to teach us. This is why there is preaching. But we also need to face our personal role in having a spiritual life. Remember that Jesus spent time with the Father. We all need to be growing in prayer, and we learn to pray by praying.

As Christians, we are to have a single basic focus. Above everything else––undergirding and surrounding all that we are and do––Jesus Christ is the Son of God. This is the center of everything else that happens in what we call "everyday life.” Jesus wants us to “step out” and meet him in all the circumstances of our lives. 

Are you asking Jesus to be Lord of your everyday life? Do you truly believe that the Son of God wants to live in and through you?  Jesus wants to meet us in our turbulence. He wants us to believe the confession of those first disciples: Truly you are the Son of God.

The one thing this requires is making a choice––a choice that turns into a lifetime of ongoing response. You are invited to give an unqualified yes in your life to Jesus Christ, the Son of God. He came into our world for that very reason. So in your own storms (and we all have them), invite Jesus to be Lord of all your days.

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