Sunday, June 30, 2013

Competitors to Christian Commitment

June 30, 2013 –– 13th Week in Ordinary Time
Luke 9:51-62

What is the most important thing in your life?  One way to answer that is to think of what dominates your free time, that on which you spend your money, and perhaps especially what you most enjoy talking about.  In other words, where are your priorities?  Most of us know that our commitment to Jesus and his kingdom should be the most important thing in life.  Most of us have also found out that that kind of commitment is easier to talk about than to actually practice in day to day life.

We need to hear Jesus in the context of the things which touch us so deeply.  One thing to remember is that Jesus is en route to Jerusalem where he knows he will die.  As people face the issue of discipleship and what commitment means, we remember that ultimate commitment is modeled by Jesus. Jesus doesn't call for a commitment in others which he himself has not first embraced.  

Another thing to see in Jesus is his honesty with would-be followers.  He does not down-play the commitment.  He did not make things easy just to win a convert.  A commitment cannot be made if a person doesn't know what the conditions of commitment are.

One other thing about Jesus that we see here builds on his honesty.  Some might even think it is a harshness, but again, remember that Jesus has begun the walk toward his own death and is in no mood for half-heartedness in those who say they will follow.  In v60 he tells the man, Let the dead bury their own dead.... Jesus does not want a partial commitment.

Then, there are these three men who face the call of discipleship. There was nothing really sinful about any of their issues.  They were normal concerns that all of us identify with very easily.  They were "needs" that are common to all human beings, and that is just the point when it comes to Christian discipleship: human "needs" are not automatically justified in the realm of Christian commitment. The starting place in Christian commitment is not our felt needs.

Consider what the competitors to Christian commitment are.  Jesus' reply to the first volunteer disciple is, Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.  In other words, the very human need for security and the very human desire for comfort must take a back seat to a commitment to Jesus. Does this mean that no Christian should have a fixed home?  It doesn't say that.  Remember, Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem and this fellow says he will follow Jesus wherever Jesus goes.  For him, discipleship would have meant no home.  Following Jesus would have precluded that.  The particular issue with this man is just an example of the general truth that security and comfort cannot be more important than following Jesus if you have to choose between the two.

It was to the second man that Jesus explicitly said, "Follow me."  The man's answer was an example of misplaced priority.  Following Jesus accepts no higher priority.  If the man's father was dead and waiting for burial, Jesus' reply seems uncaring.  The point, though, is that the call of the kingdom cannot wait for even the most urgent earthly reasons.  The implication of Jesus' words is, "Let the spiritually dead bury the physical dead."  Some things can be done by almost anyone; the work of Christ can only be done by those who are fully committed to him.

Actually, we don't know if the father of this man was even dead.  A typical Eastern response to a commitment that upsets life patterns is to wait until things are more convenient.  What this man did not know is that for important events in life there is frequently a crucial moment.  This was a now or never proposition.  Following Jesus is that way, but the response of many people is "wait" –– wait until I'm older.... wait until I've had my fun.... wait until I'm secure in life.... wait.... But what is worth more than commitment to God's Son?

The third man only wanted to go back to tell his family goodbye.  That's not such an awful request, is it? God put us in families. They are important.  Children are to honor their parents and husbands are to love their wives just like Jesus loves the Church.  I don't think it was a verbal goodbye that Jesus was refusing this man; he was uncovering a divided loyalty, and there's no earthly loyalty that can compete with allegiance to Jesus and his kingdom, not even family.

I am an only child living almost 600 miles from my widowed dad who is now 93.  There are many times I'd rather be closer, but almost 50 years ago I surrendered my life to Jesus Christ and I made a commitment to not turn back.  If that means almost 600 miles from the family networking that so many other people take for granted, then my commitment is to be here. Yet even as I make that commitment, there will always be competitors.

What is it that will keep us from divided loyalty, from giving in to the competitors?  It will not be a mere cognitive “accepting” the teachings of Jesus, for Christianity is more than that.  Christian commitment means an identification with Jesus in his life and death and resurrection.  We get a good picture of that kind of person in the Apostle Paul.  He was the opposite of these three men.  He was willing to travel, having no permanent home.  He was not one who waited for things to get more convenient.  He held no other relationship above the one he had with his Lord.

One way that you to reflect more on this text is to read Paul's letter to the Philippians and notice how often he refers to Jesus.  He is a man totally entranced with Jesus Christ.  Note how he gives Jesus the priority: For to me, to live is Christ... (1:21);  I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things (3:8); I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings (3:10); I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus (3:14).  Those are the words of a person who is winning the battle with competitors to Christian commitment.

So I end the reflection on these verses with my opening question: What is the most important thing in your life?  These men who encountered Jesus help us see the competitors that we face in our commitment to Jesus.  Who or what are we putting first?

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Two Models of Religion

Wednesday: 19 June, 2013 –– 11th Week in Ordinary Time
2 Corinthians 9:6–11 / Psalm 112:1–4, 9 / Matthew 6:1–6, 16–18
Two Models of Religion

“Religion” is getting bad press these days. There are certainly awful things to give religion a bad name, and Jesus names some here: people who are so stuck on themselves that they do religious things to get attention. Of course, there are worse things than that done in the name of religion, but Jesus wants us to know that even doing legitimate “religious” things for the wrong reason is odious.

Again, it’s not that giving, praying and fasting are bad things. Jesus says, When you give.... When you pray.... When you fast.... There is the explicit assumption those things will be done, but the issue is how and why –– not ostentatiously and not for personal glory. The Psalm says that the man who fears the Lord.... lavishly gives to the poor.... The focus, you see, is on the Lord. As people who have received mercy and grace, we in turn give to others. This is the healthy cycle of prayer and fasting and giving.

The Epistle gives the proper model: God loves a cheerful giver. When our hearts are so turned to the Lord that we live in an awareness of his gifts to us, we cannot help but have an attitude that wants to gift and bless others. Paul tells the Corinthians: You are being enriched in every way for all generosity.... In other words,  God gives to us so we can give to others. This is “right religion” (and James gives explicit support to this in his letter, Jm 1:27).

When I was child there was a Sunday School song we learned. I have forgotten the last part of it, but the first part is indelibly stamped in my memory: Jesus and others and you –– what a wonderful way to spell JOY...  This is what the readings are telling us today. When our focus is on ourselves it only brings misery to us and those around us. When we choose to focus on the Lord and allow that to shape our attitude toward others, we find ourselves giving and forgiving and modeling just the kind of religion that brings honor to God (and that he, in turn, honors). Jesus and others and you –– what a wonderful way to spell JOY....

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Loving Like Jesus

Tuesday: 18 June, 2013 –– 11th Week in Ordinary Time
Matthew 5:43–48
Loving Like Jesus

We know that Jesus sometimes used hyperbole (e.g., if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off or hate father and mother, wife and children). Some would like to think Jesus is exaggerating his point here as well: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Yet the text and the witness of earliest Christianity only gives evidence that Jesus is being quite literal. We are to be like the heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust

There is a protest: That’s not normal! And of course, that is true –– anyone can retaliate. It does not take the grace of God to hit back. Again, Jesus is clear: if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Then he extends the contrast with what “normal” people (unbelievers) do. Yes, Jesus is being quite literal.

Then the protests really begin.... the “what if” questions: “What if someone has killed your family?” I remember a class lecture from seminary by the best professor I’ve ever sat under. He was addressing this passage under the category of the “ethics of the kingdom.”  He told the story of giving the same lecture on a mission trip to Africa and one of the students –– perhaps one who had been affected by inter-tribal violence –– asked that very question. I’ve never forgotten the answer....

The prof said he looked at that young man who had pain on his face and yet an obvious desire to be faithful to the gospel, and he didn’t know what to say. But then, in the way that the Spirit has of giving us deep truth in our desperate moments, he found himself replying, “Humanly, I do not know what I would do; I am a man like you. But let me tell you what I would want to do: I’d want to love the way that God loved me when I killed his Son.”

And we react: That’s not natural! This is too true. Christianity is a supernatural faith. It is based on the supernatural death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is lived out of the supernatural indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This is why Jesus says, So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect. It doesn’t take the grace of God to hate or hit back. Christians are called to love.... like Jesus. (And no matter how much we fall short, we cannot lessen the standard –– Lord, help me grow in your love!)

Sunday, June 2, 2013

This Is My Body

June 2, 2013 –– Corpus Christi Sunday
Genesis 14:18–20 / 1 Corinthians 11:23–26 / Luke 9:11b–17
The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ

Almost unbelievable to me now, for over thirty years of my ministerial life I honestly did not give one explicit thought to what Jesus meant when he said, This is my body.... I never saw the inherent continuity with the Melchizedek priesthood, or the manna given to the Israelites, or the implications of covenant and eating the sacrifice, or Jesus feeding the 5000.

In my former tradition, Communion meant eating a piece of bread, sipping a little cup of grape juice and piously (with great stress on the need to focus with inner piety) “rememberig” what Jesus did for us. Pious feelings can be good things (but they should not be a barometer of one’s faith). And there is certainly nothing wrong with remembering what Jesus did for us –– we need to do that. But, is that all “Communion” is? Many Protestant Christians believe that is, indeed, all Communion is.

This has caused no small consternation among some people who were so close to my wife and me in our former setting. I still sometimes get critiques of our Catholic beliefs from well-meaning people, and every time it is so obvious there is misinformation and a lack of understanding. I was sent one lengthy critique of the Eucharist written by a man who says he grew up Catholic and was well-catechized (the implication is that he is therefore an authority and his castigation of the Church must be right). His argument then turns to human logic used to defy the Church, and disclaimers on the basis of technicalities. This is one of his claims: “The belief that the nature of the host changed at the consecration did not become an official doctrine of the Catholic Church until the Lateran Council of 1215.” This may be technically true in terms of an explicit formal statement, but it is presented in the article to imply that the Eucharist was a late-developing and “institutionally Catholic” belief having no basis in the early history of the Church. Nothing could be further from the truth!

Recently I read a rather comprehensive overview of writings by the early Church Fathers on the Eucharist. Among the oldest is Ignatius of Antioch, whose life overlapped that of the Apostle John, and he was likely mentored by John. St Ignatius warns c.106 A.D. of “men who have perverted notions about the grace of Jesus Christ which has come down to us, and see how contrary to the mind of God they are.... They even abstain from the Eucharist and the public prayer [the Liturgy – the Mass], because they will not admit that the Eucharist is the self-same body of our Savior Jesus Christ....” (Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 6, 7 in Early Christian Writings, Penguin Books, 1968, p102–103).

An honest look at the documents of Early Church history offers overwhelming testimony that Jesus’ words were taken literally: This is my body.... this is my blood.

It had bothered me for years that Communion was not taken more seriously in the tradition where I pastored. Even apart from the issue of the literal Real Presence of Jesus, I had an implicit recognition and a gnawing discomfort that we were not doing something that the earliest Christians did regularly and with a great importance.

About mid-way in my journey to the Church (as I look back now), I began to move my congregation toward a more frequent Communion. Actually, I had initiated Communion to every other month when I first came to the congregation (instead of the 3–4 times a year that had been the previous practice). But after coming back from my month at the monastery, I moved our observance to once a month. Remember, we had no fixed liturgy. Pastors had the freedom to shape the congregation within the tolerances of the people. I soon discovered where the lines were with Communion.

As soon as we began monthly Communion, people began to complain. A few people told me that “if we have Communion too often it won’t be special any more.”  I wanted to ask the first woman who told me that whether she would be content if her husband said “I love you” only quarterly, and that if he said it too often it would not be “special”! Can a serious I love you be said too much? If my grandchildren run up to me with a hug and an I love you every time they see me, I assure you, it will not cease to be “special.”  How much more do we need the regular intimate love of our Lord that he has provided in the mystery of the Eucharist.

The time came when I knew that anything less than weekly Communion would be disobedience on my part. It was also obvious that weekly Communion would never be accepted in the tradition I was serving at the time. I knew I was the one who had changed; resigning was my only option.

It was during this process that I began to look more closely at the claims of the Catholic Church about the Eucharist. The testimonies of the Early Fathers were overwhelming. The biblical connections I had never seen before began to come into focus with amazing continuity. This is my body.... this is my blood.

Then it became obvious: All of Christian Faith is an overwhelming mystery. God, the maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible, was able to “condense” himself into a single Man –– a real human being. When people saw Jesus on earth, they saw.... a man. There was no comprehension at the time that Jesus was the maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.  In a parallel way, today we “see” only bread and wine. But through the power of the same Holy Spirit that brooded over Creation, and the power of the Holy Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead, there is a power of the Spirit unleashed through the Church so that the priest –– who is conformed to Christ through a succession going back to the very beginning –– can say these words over the bread and wine: Make holy, therefore, these gifts we pray, by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall, so that they may become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.... This is the faith of the Church. This is the very gift of himself from the One who died and rose from the dead so that our sins can be forgiven, and we can be raised to new life.

This is my body.... this is my blood.

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