Sunday, August 26, 2018

To Whom Shall We Go?

August 26, 2018 –– 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
Joshua 24:1–2a, 15–17, 18b / Psalm 34 / Ephesians 5:21–32 / John 6:60–69
To Whom Shall We Go?

Christian Faith would be easy if we never faced the challenges of pain and temptation and doubt. Of course, without those things Christian Faith as we know would not exit. The essence of Christian Faith is the hope we have in spite of hard things because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

There are all kinds of hard things. There are the hard things we bring on ourselves when we make choices that have bad repercussions. There are times when hard things “ricochet” on us when other people close to us make bad choices. There is also a hard side to nature; St Paul tells the Romans the creation was subjected to futility (8:20) when Adam and Eve abdicated their role in the Garden as vice-regents of God. This means we are subject to things like disease and accidents, floods and drought, hurricanes and tornadoes, earthquakes and volcanoes.

Perhaps the hardest thing of all is our difficulty with spiritual understanding. Until we are willing to lay aside the autonomy of wanting to think for ourselves (which strikes at the heart of the Original Sin), we will not be able to hear God and understand what he says.

God often says and does the opposite of what we, in our brokenness, expect. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus describes an “upside-down kingdom.” At the core of Christian Faith is the belief that we win by giving up and we live by dying. That is hard, and even in the Church it is rather easy to find some teachers who explain it all away. But if we change the essence of Christian Faith to something that is more palatable––less radical, we no longer have Christian Faith.

From the beginning Jesus, and then the Church, said hard things…. loving our enemies and being willing to lay our own lives in love for others. And then there is today’s Gospel where many of the first disciples reacted against Jesus when he said: The man who eats my flesh and drinks my blood enjoys eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. My flesh is real food, my blood is real drink. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives continually in me and I in him (Jn 6:56–58). John tells us they said, This saying is hard; who can accept it? Then many of his disciples turned away.

If we are honest, too often we want God to come to us on our terms rather than us continually coming to God on his terms. We come up to something hard; our weak humanity cries out and we are tempted to turn away.

So Jesus asked the Twelve, Do you also want to leave? Forever the leading spokesman, Simon Peter answered him, Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”

Eternal life…. The Life of God is always out to shatter death. If we choose something that leads to death (thinking it will make our lives more easy and pleasant), we will find ourselves fighting against the very Life of God. There is ultimately nothing harder than that.

We are facing some horribly hard things in the Church right now because some people, as leaders in the Church, embraced things that cause death instead of Life. So we go to the heart of our Faith and turn again and again to Jesus.

Jesus knows the pressures and discouragements we face. It with great tenderness that he asks us the same thing he asked the Twelve so long ago: Do you also want to leave?

Let’s recognize the truth of what Peter said: Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Let’s give the answer that Joshua so boldly proclaimed to all of Israel: As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.

I have no idea what our many hurts are, but I know we all have them. I also know all our questions will not be answered, but out of all the options in this world none are better than what Jesus offers us.

I know that serving the Lord will not shield us from all hardships, but we follow the One who died and came back from the dead to show that this world is no match for God.

Our hope is not in anything merely human. As the Psalmist said, Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.

To whom shall we go? As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord. He alone has the words of eternal life.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

What must I do to have eternal life?

Sunday: 12 August, 2018 –– 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 Kings 19:4–8 / Ephesians 4:30–5:2 / John 6:41–51
What must I do to have eternal life?

Belief in a world “beyond” this one is almost universal in human nature. Rising out of this comes a common question––and it is a question people asked Jesus again and again in one form or another: What must I do to have eternal life? Isn’t that the concern for each of us? Isn’t that why we come to church? Isn’t that what we ultimately want from a homily? What must I do to have eternal life?

There is a reason people asked Jesus this question, and it is why people still turn their attention to Jesus today. A few chapters later in John’s Gospel Jesus explicitly says: I have come that they may have life....  In the previous section of this sixth chapter––this Bread of Life Discourse––Jesus has told the people: I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst. Then Jesus says, This is the will of the Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life.

The people did not understand what Jesus was saying. There were questions. There was misunderstanding. There was disagreement. There was offense and anger. If we take an honest look around today at all who claim to be listening to Jesus, it seems that not so much has changed. There are questions. There is misunderstanding. There is disagreement. Unfortunately, there is still offense and anger. And yet there is an underlying unity; we all want an answer to our deepest anxiety: What must I do to have eternal life?

In today’s Gospel reading we can find Jesus giving the answer to this question three different ways. Hear this carefully: Jesus is not giving three different answers; Jesus is giving the answer three different ways. It seems not everyone understands this. I say this because the three ways Jesus speaks of eternal life have been separated into different emphases of Christian expression, as if one is exclusive of the others.

The first is what we do. This is implied when Jesus says: Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me. The natural context for this saying would be the Commandments (which Jesus quoted when questioned another time by the Rich Young Ruler). Some denounce this approach to God as “salvation by works” (as if faith and good works are opposed to each other). Perhaps a little story will provide a correction.

 A man dies and goes to heaven. St. Peter meets him at the pearly gates. Peter says, "Here's how it works. You need 100 points to make it into heaven. You tell me all the good things you've done, and I give you a certain number of points for each item, depending on how good it was. When you reach 100 points, you get in."

"Okay," the man says, "I attended church every Sunday."
"That's good,” says St. Peter. "That's worth two points."

"Two points?" he says. "Well, I gave 10% of all my earnings to the church."
“Wow!” answers Peter. “Let's see, that's worth another two points. Did you do anything else?"

"Two points? Whoa! How about this: I started a soup kitchen in my city and worked in a shelter for homeless veterans."
"Fantastic, that's certainly worth a point, " responded Peter.

"Hmmm...," the man says, "I was married to the same woman for fifty years and never cheated on her...."
"That's wonderful," says St. Peter, "that's worth three points!"

"THREE POINTS!!" the man cries, "At this rate the only way I’ll get into heaven is by the grace of God!"
Peter says, “You got it…. Come on in!"

There are those who teach “faith alone.” Jesus does say: Whoever believes has eternal life. This is a major theme in John’s Gospel and St Paul’s letters. It was Paul’s answer to the Philippian jailer: Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved….  So many Evangelicals say that believing is simply “accepting” that Jesus did it all for us. There is a great truth here. Christian Faith is indeed a total trust in Jesus. There is a strong personal––individual––element to saving faith. The danger, though, in emphasizing “belief” more than anything else is that Christian Faith is reduced to an abstraction––a cognitive head-trip. “Believing in Jesus” is more than a mental check list.

The third way Jesus answers the question of eternal life is familiar to Catholics, but just as puzzling to many others today as it was when Jesus first said it: I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever....  Catholic Faith, from the earliest testimony of the Church Fathers, teaches that when we come to Communion we are literally partaking of Jesus. This was one of the compelling realizations that drew me into the Catholic Church. Yet it is important to understand that eating the living bread is more than a mechanical gesture.

So, the question remains: What must I do to have eternal life? Is it by “listening and learning” so that we do right things? Is it by “believing”? Is it by “eating the living bread”? Surely when asked this way we can see that it is supposed to be all of them! “Believing” means we will “listen and learn.” As we “listen and learn” we will discover that part of Christian Faith is a mystery––a union with Jesus’ very Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. These three answers, which Jesus gives to our questions about eternal life, all interface with and support each other.

The other two readings today give support to this. It was when Elijah believed, listened to and obeyed God that he was fed in a supernatural way. Then––notice what the Scripture says––he was transformed: strengthened by that food he walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God....

You and I are on a journey. We want to get to the mountain of God: eternal life. How do we know that we are believing and listening and learning (which is another way of saying “obeying”)?  What results can we expect?  What should be the effect in us when we eat the living bread? We find that answer in the Epistle reading: our faith affects us in basic, tangible ways.

When we feed on Jesus––when we receive Jesus in the Eucharist (in true faith, as the Church teaches, and not holding on to unconfessed sins)––we are nurturing the life of his Spirit in us. And when the Holy Spirit of God is freely at work in us, we are being transformed into different people.... distinctive (holy) people, in the name and power of Jesus.

What does that look like? It looks like…. Jesus (that’s what eternal life is: the life of Jesus in us). What must I do to have eternal life?  Believe.... listen and learn.... eat the living bread.... expect to be transformed.  Jesus wants his eternal life to grow into its fullness in us!

Sunday, August 5, 2018

The Life of God in Us

August 5, 2018: 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Exodus 16:2–4, 12–15 / Psalm 78 / Ephesians 4:17, 20–24 / John 6:24–35
The Life of God in Us

Saint Paul tells of an old self and and a new self. We’re all too familiar with the “old” and it’s not very good. God did not intend awful things; he created us to know and obey him, but he also gave us the dignity of choice. Long ago the choice was made to disobey God and choose by ourselves what is right and wrong. That is why something is horribly wrong in the world. We were not created to live without God.

But God did not abandon us. He could have left us to self-destruct. Instead, he became one of us in the person of Jesus Christ. And when people killed Jesus in anger because his life revealed the evil of their own lives, God let it happen. Jesus took the evil, and even death itself, and absorbed it. Then he rose from the dead to show that God is bigger than evil and death, and God invites everyone to believe it.

In today’s Gospel Jesus says we are to believe in the one [the Father] sent. This is not mere mental assent––a mind game; it is an issue of spiritual ownership and control. And so Paul gives the Ephesians this exhortation: you must no longer live as the Gentiles [people who do not know God] do, in the futility of their thinking (4:17). There is a right and wrong way to live in this world. Trying to live life by our own understanding brings havoc; opening ourselves to God’s ways leads to life. We are called to live out of the truth we confess. Each week we declare together: I believe…. It’s not just words; it is something to embrace and live.

Through Jesus Christ and the regeneration of the Spirit, Christians have been given new life. Our old self––the old person we were––was crucified with Christ (Gal 2:20). Paul tells the Corinthians: if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come (2Cor 5:17). It is because Christians have a new self that we can be exhorted to put away the practices of the old life––a life lived by ignoring the reality of God’s truth.

Christian faith understands that the old life is death. The old life is rooted in Adam and the lie our first parents believed: that disregarding God can make us happy or give lasting comfort and security. That is the futile thinking (the futility of their thinking) of Paul’s opening words.

The alternative to futile thinking is to be renewed in the spirit of your minds. Paul says this is based in righteousness and holiness of the truth. We do not know how to do this by ourselves; it takes wisdom––God’s wisdom that comes to us as Jesus lives in us.

How does this happen? First, it is a gift of God. God’s grace brings death to life. Our Faith starts there: believing that, in his love, God has chosen to do for us what could never do for ourselves. 

But life must be sustained. Life needs to grow. So we find that God provides this too, but we need to be open to God’s ongoing gifts of grace. This happens on what we might call two levels.

One is an ongoing attitude of faith. It is staying open to the Lord. It is doing disciplines like prayer, spiritual nurture, and obedience. This is what is usually called the personal part of faith.

But it’s not all up to us individually. Yes, Jesus wants us to have a personal relationship with him, but he takes us beyond ourselves with graces that go beyond what we could ever do alone.

Christian Faith is not only “a personal relationship with Jesus.” Christian Faith is being adopted into the family of God. Christian Faith is being incorporated into the life of Jesus’ Body, the Church. And in the Church we are given graces––Sacraments––that go so far beyond what we can ever do by ourselves. This is the corporate part of faith. 

Jesus nurtures us with his very self. This has been astounding people from the time Jesus first proclaimed it:
Amen, amen I say to you… the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world…. I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.

The Holy Spirit brings us to new life so that we are not left to the ravages of life without God. The life of the Spirit in us helps us grow in understanding and new patterns of living. But we are not left to our own efforts––Jesus feeds us. In the Church we are given the grace of the Eucharist, the bread of heaven,  who is Jesus Christ our Lord.

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