Sunday, June 26, 2016

Christian Freedom

June 26, 2016 –– 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 Kings 19:16b, 19–21 / Psa 16: 1–2, 5, 7–8, 9–10, 11 / Galatians 5:1, 13–18 / Luke 9:51–62
Christian Freedom

Throughout my forty-plus years of pastoral ministry I have listened to people complain about the difficulty of understanding St Paul. There are a number of reasons for this, but a crucial one is that Paul cannot be read superficially. If you try to read a few verses of his letters apart from their context (which means reading the whole letter and discovering its setting), you’ll not understand Paul very well. It’s also important to learn about the issues Paul often addresses as well as some words Paul uses in a technical way. The letter to the Galatians is a great example. We discover a very Pauline vocabulary with words such as freedom, law, love, flesh and Spirit. 

One of the gifts God gave to his human creation was freedom. We have a “free-will” that can make rational and autonomous choices. That is why our world is broken today; Adam and Eve chose to disobey. Inherent with freedom is an inevitable repercussion. The Catechism says: Freedom makes man a moral subject. When he acts deliberately, man is, so to speak, the father of his acts. Human acts, that is, acts that are freely chosen in consequence of a judgment of conscience, can be morally evaluated. They are either good or evil (CCC 1749).

St Paul’s letter to the Galatians is about the interplay of God’s law, human freedom, and the tendency to commit sin (this is one way to understand his word flesh). This is in contrast to the way God’s Spirit works in us. Grace works in our lives to help us obey God––to be the kind of humanity God intended when he first created us.

What should we expect from God? Some people mistakingly think grace and Christian faith is merely "forgiveness." There was a popular bumper sticker that said Christians aren't perfect, only forgiven. The Christian gospel does offer forgiveness, but forgiveness is only the beginning. God has made a way to forgive our sins so that his life––his Spirit––can come into us. Salvation is given to restore us to what God first intended, before disobedience and sin entered our world.

This means God's work in us creates change. St Paul told the Corinthians: If anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come (2Cor 5:17). The way to understand what Paul says here about freedom is to see it within the big picture of salvation. Christians do not keep God’s law in order to earn grace. We are forgiven through the death of Jesus. But here is the question: does "freedom" mean that Christians are free to sin?

Let's consider this thing of freedom a bit more. Freedom means we are not in bondage to guilt and fear just because we fall short of God’s perfect law. Freedom is the joy of knowing God loves us and wants our best. Freedom means Christians have been loosed from the tyranny of self-effort. Freedom means a liberty to respond to God from our hearts.

We need to hear that last one again and again: Freedom means a liberty to respond to God from our hearts. This is the crux of "Christian living." Because of what God's Spirit does, Christians are “free” to respond to the God who saves them––but not “free to sin”. The freedom we have in Christ is God's gift. It is incongruous that God would give us a gift that sanctions sin. What St Paul says in his letter to the Galatians is that God gives us a gift that frees us to be like him––a gift that frees us to love.

There is a sense is which every human being is free" to love whatever he or she desires. We all have a God-given desire for happiness and fulfillment. Every one of us is "free" to respond to that––and we do. Yet left to themselves, people want to do what they want to do. We too easily desire wrong things. Self-will is at war with God’s will; there is a warped view of “freedom” in our world. Paul calls this life according to the flesh. It’s also true that a Christian (a person in whom the Holy Spirit dwells) can, in specific actions, act like someone without faith. We live in a world that tells lies about values, and morals, and happiness, and having once had our identity in those lies, everyone is susceptible. But a person who has been born of the Spirit does not have to live that way because God's work is always urging a person on to true life and obedience. This is what Paul is talking about here:
For the flesh has desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you may not do what you want. But if you are guided by the Spirit, you are not under the law (vs 17,18).

The good news of the Gospel is that Christians are “free” ––truly free to love and obey God, but not free to sin. We are free to love because love is such a basic character of God. When God sets a person free, it is a freedom to respond to God and be like him. St Augustine has been quoted: “Love, and do what you will.” God-given love is not just a sentimental feeling; God-given love is a Christ-like attitude that his Spirit works into us. God comes into his people so that they can be like him. So Paul says the whole law is fulfilled in one statement: You shall love your neighbor as yourself (v14).

And yet, as important as it is, “trying to love” is not the focus. We cannot love, God-style, by ourselves. Love is a by-product: Jesus loves through us as we focus on him. Paul says if you are guided by the Spirit, you are not under the law––in other words, we live unto Jesus instead of trying to keep a list of what Christians “do” (or don’t do). The essence of Christian faith is that God comes to live in us so that his life can be expressed through us! Think what would happen if everyone in the world always lived in the Spirit and said no to the flesh! It would be heaven on earth. We are “free” to love God. Are you doing your part? Are you staying open to God’s Spirit?

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Being Real About Forgiveness

June 12, 2016: 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time
2 Samuel 12:7–10,13 / Psalm 32 / Galatians 2:16, 19–21 / Luke 7:36–8:3
Being Real About Forgiveness

Two things are crushingly hard: trying to live up to something you’re not, or for most people to think of you as an awful person. We see both in the Gospel reading.

We probably do not think often enough of how we live in a culture obsessed and warped by image. People often give more attention to looking good than being good (in so many contexts). What if everyone spent as much time caring for the soul as the body? Yet we too easily focus on the veneer. It’s threatening to us simply to be real.

This comes into focus in the two characters from the Gospel reading. First, consider Simon. Simon used other people of reputation to elevate himself. His hospitality was actually patronization. Being at his table was a big deal. That is why he was not courteous to Jesus; Simon's mind was on himself. He wanted to look important. Simon had no spiritual discernment in spite of his outward religious identification as a Pharisee. His assessment of things was based on the outward appearance. Simon wanted Jesus in his house because Jesus was reported to be a mighty prophet. He could tell everyone that he knew Jesus–– "had him over for dinner the other night.”

Then there is the woman. Luke tell us she is a sinner. This means something specific, beyond what is generally true of all us. Tradition says this woman was a prostitute. She suffered from a horrible image. We have no details, but almost never does a person choose a sordid lifestyle as a preference. Sometimes it’s “collateral damage” ––people crash to an awful bottom when they’re caught in a bubble that bursts. Others try to live in a fantasy of their own making. Both are crushing, and God wants better for us.

These are the dynamics at work between Simon and the woman. Simon is focused on his image, even as his projected image of Jesus fades––If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him… Simon was thinking of himself and his reputation. What would happen when the word spread about this incident at his dinner? There was no concern nor consideration of the woman, and Simon did not really know Jesus.

Simon had two options. Simon could have recognized and rejoiced at this woman’s demonstrative but humble display that said so powerfully: I need forgiveness and love. But to do that Simon needed to recognize his own sin, and that's hard to do. Simon had a respectable image. How could he identify in any way with this groveling wretch of a woman who had disrupted his dinner party? Simon had never faced his deep need of forgiveness, so how could he appreciate what this woman experienced?

The one who recognized the most about Jesus was this woman. The woman had no difficulty  showing her need. At first it seems odd that such a person would have that measure of intuition. Yet when you think about it, the greater a person's need, the greater the awareness. It's the person with no pretenses, the person who is humble and honest, that is most open to the reality of love and forgiveness. It was because this woman was down and out––because she needed love so badly––that she recognized what kind of man Jesus was. She was so close to bottom there was nowhere else to go. That comes into focus when we look at Simon, this woman, and Jesus.

I have an outward reputation as a Christian. But if that’s all it is, I’m in serious trouble. Think also of David. He was king, and that certainly carried the pressure of an outward image. What if David had chosen privilege and image over honesty and repentance? This is an issue for most of us who are regularly in church. There is an external pressure to be outwardly righteous and we sense that. At one level that can be good. Yet it is here that we need to guard against the world’s exaltation of image. Sin tries to tell us it doesn’t matter as long as the outward appearance looks good. It’s easy to fall into an attitude that's more like Simon than the penitent woman.

If we try to live behind an image we are being like Simon the Pharisee––and we could end up like the woman before her restoration. Today we are reminded that forgiveness is a basic issue for all of us. We all need to be forgiven. Early in the Liturgy we have the Penitential Act. The Confetior reminds us: I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned…. Do we mean it? Do we embrace an awareness of our need for love and forgiveness that can only come through Jesus? Do we extend that mercy to others?

We can be like Simon and be more concerned with what other people think of us instead of what God thinks of us. We can be critical and unforgiving toward others, especially if we think doing so can make us look outwardly good––but that’s only image.

We need to be like this woman. We can admit our need of forgiveness, and in doing so, find the kind of forgiveness that causes us to respond to our Lord with abandon. 

When you respond to the “altar call” at Communion, do you come freely admitting that you are a sinner who need forgiveness? The invitation is to come just as this woman did. In our hearts we can fall before him and bathe his feet with our tears. Then we can become models of the love we have received. Having received grace, we respond to God in gratitude. Having been dealt with graciously, we practice graciousness toward others. That's what this story tells us, and that's what we are called to in every Eucharist.

Let’s be real about forgiveness. It’s so much more than image.

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