Our first scripture is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of Job.
The Book of Job is part of a collection of writings in the Bible which are known as “wisdom literature”- think of these texts as the result of the coming together of theology, spirituality, culture and philosophy, the purpose of which is to give consideration to the deed questions that rise up in humanity as a result of our experience of the hard facts of life.
The Book of Job takes a folktale about a wager between God and Satan concerning a good man named Job, who will lose absolutely everything, and in doing so, come to question his faith in God. The Book of Job uses that folktale as a means to beg the question as to why good people suffer. What is God’s intentionality in creating a world in which terrible things not only happen, but also happen to good people? What then is the point of being virtuous if it is little or no protection against the power of evil?
The Book of Job hurls us into the face of these questions in elegantly, crafted, poetic treatises, which all come to a terrifying conclusion in a revelation of God. God’s answer to the questions is illuminating, providing insight, but doesn’t seem, for many, to bring things to a satisfactory resolution. God’s purposes, in terms of suffering, exceed our comprehension, and demand an act of trust, that God’s power can and will set things right, but will do so, not on our terms, but his own.
You get a bitter taste of the Job’s exasperation in today’s excerpt from the Book of Job.
In terms of the deep questions that are raised as we all negotiate the harsh facts of human existence, it is never helpful to be glib. There is no one answer that seems to satisfy, and God’s answer, revealed in the cross of Jesus Christ, does not indicate that resolution comes from being delivered from the harsh facts of life, but through them. Suffering and death are as integral, in this world, to human experience as all the joys of being alive. We do not get to choose between joy and suffering, life and death. Being human includes all and if we try to excise what is hard or unpleasant, we end up with less, not more.
Thus, in the revelation of God in Christ, God does not accept for himself only part of what it means to be human, but immerses himself in its totality. God, who accepts the fullness of a human nature in Christ, allows himself to experience suffering and death. If God did not accept these realities, his revelation, and his power to save and redeem, would be incomplete.
God in Christ suffers and dies, going where all of us must one day go. His revelation indicating that though we will go where he goes, he will be with us, and that the experience of suffering and death is not itself the end, nor is it meaningless or devoid of purpose. On the other side of suffering and death is a reality much greater, a reality that makes sense of the hard facts of being human. The great sign of this reality is the resurrection of the Lord Jesus from the dead.
What I have just described is the act of faith that Christians make as we face of the limits of the answers that are proposed to the deep questions that we discern, not only in the Book of Job, but in our own experience of life.
St. Paul is speaking to us today about his strategy for his mission to proclaim and teach the Gospel. He is not just acting out of a hunch or throwing himself willy nilly into his mission, but has given thoughtful consideration to the situation into which he will preach and teach, the people he will encounter, and the very real demands of what God in Christ has asked him to do.
He is willing to make great sacrifices so that the mission of the Church might advance. In terms of the Church’s mission, St. Paul is not considering how much it costs him or what he will receive, but what does he have to give and in what ways can he serve.
St. Paul’s efforts, along with the small band of companions who accompanied him on mission, literally changed the world. The effectiveness of his efforts demonstrates how God most often uses what is small to effect great things. He had no real infrastructure, no massive endowments of cash, very little institutional support and yet in wake of his efforts a vast network of Christian churches would rise, born of his willingness to trust and to take risks. We are, ourselves, the living legacy of St. Paul’s missionary efforts. One man, who in faith trusted, and allowed Christ to act through him, transformed the world.
The institutional era of the Church’s life is now over, and along with it, the idea that being a Christian is merely a matter of having matriculated through faith-themed institutions. Whatever purpose those institutions served in the past, if they are to endure into the future, will be radically altered as the need of the Church is no longer institutional maintenance, but missionary activity.
The end of the institutional era of the Church’s life is particularly in evidence in older, urban dioceses like our own. The Church runs of great risk, that in seeking to expend its resources maintaining infrastructure that it end up with a collection of mostly empty buildings.
The institutions will not save us.
In fact, while many lament the dissolution of the Church in the Old World, in Europe, remove the populations of recent immigrant Catholics, from South and Central America, Africa and Asia, from this diocese, and the level of participation in the Church here is no better than that of Europe.
Participation is really at about 7% in our parishes, with likely around 20% demonstrating a marginal interest and the rest being either uninterested or alienated from the Church. Fewer and fewer people will ever darken the doors of our faith-themed institutions and many of these institutions have little real power to bring people closer to Christ and engender acceptance of the Church as a way of life.
For the 7% of us who are engaged, it’s time to stop expending our energies seeking faith based services for ourselves and worrying about maintaining a status quo, and take as our own the disposition of St. Paul- what can I give, how can I serve? How can I make my life the life of a missionary disciple?
7% is a small number, but no worries, God uses what is small, to accomplish great and mighty deeds. Christ didn’t start the Church out with a vast network of buildings and endowments, he started the Church with relationships, and built bridges of trust through those relationships, and through those bridges, brought the world into holy communion with his divine life.
That’s what the witness of St. Paul is all about.
That’s what the mission of the Church here should be all about.
Some of us are afflicted by a kind of fever, which we can liken to the fever that afflicted St. Peter’s mother in law in today’s Gospel.
This fever prevents us from serving the mission, from serving the Lord Jesus. It is an enervating state of soul that throws up obstacles, resists making sacrifices, becomes easily discouraged, and often times hysterical. This fever inclines us to displace the centrality of Christ from our lives and setting up idols in his stead. One of the symptoms of the fever is defensiveness, and a refusal to repent.
The source of this fever is the devil, who does not want the mission of the Church to advance and uses our own fear and resistance as the means by which the mission is subverted. This fever takes hold of not only people in the Church, but works its way into structures, so that even the best efforts of good people are ruined.
Such a fever, can only be cured by the power of God in Christ, and such a cure only happens when the power of devil, which makes its way into the Church through all our resistance of Christ, all of our refusals of Christ, is cast out.
In the delirium of this fever people in the Church have done bizarre, even hateful things, much of what is beautiful, good and true in the Church has been distorted, subverted, even destroyed, but deliverance comes from Christ and in him there is the possibility of healing and hope.
The same power of Christ, described in today’s Gospel, that went forth into the world, casting out the power of the devil, is still at work in the Church- now let that power do its work in your own life.
It is time to rise from the sick bed of this devil-induced fever and serve…