Our first scripture for today’s Mass is an excerpt from the Book of Jeremiah, one of the most beautiful texts in the all the Bible- made all the more so because it is so very sad.
The prophet Jeremiah lived in catastrophic times, indeed for the Israelites, the times would be best described as apocalyptic.
The Kingdom of David, once one of the mightiest powers in the ancient world, was not only about to fall, it was about to come crashing down.
Jeremiah would himself see the stunning conclusion of David’s Kingdom when in the year 587 BC the armies of Babylon would encircle the walls of the holy city of Jerusalem. The armies of Babylon would overcome the city’s defenses and bring the Kingdom of David to a ruinous end. The city would be sacked. The great temple burned to the ground. The royal family would be killed. No one would be spared the destruction.
Those who managed to survive fled as homeless refugees or were sold into slavery.
Jeremiah saw all this as the culmination of a long history of corruption that had rotted the souls of the Israelites. The corruption was rooted in idolatry, the worship of false gods- gods of wealth, pleasure, power and honors. The seeds of this idolatry has been planted and nurtured by the ruling elites of the Israelites- their priests, prophets and kings, who consolidated their power over the people by sanctioning the desires of the people for false gods, rather than modeling for them and inviting them to sanctity.
The one, true God was kept as a fixture of custom and culture, but his commandments were treated with contempt and his worship was tolerated as helpful anachronism and appreciated more as a matter of aesthetics or performance art rather than being an act of holy communion with God.
Identity as an Israelite had become a merely a matter of citizenship, rather than a mission to be for all people a route of access to the one, true God.
All this corruption gained momentum over time until it led the Israelites over a precipice of destruction- and that destruction was interpreted by the prophet Jeremiah to be the terrible events of 587 BC.
Jeremiah excoriated the “shepherds”of Israel for their role in this catastrophe. We heard a brief sample of his cry of indignation this morning. He is really, really mad- especially at those who survey the situation and cast the blame at God. It wasn’t God, the prophet insists, but the shepherds who ruled the Kingdom of David.
Now, by shepherds here, Jeremiah is not speaking about those men who cared for the flocks of sheep and goats, but the cultural elites of the Kingdom of David- the kings, the priests and the prophets. As a reference point in terms of your own experience think of the cultural elites of our own time as like the shepherds that Jeremiah has in mind- politicians, celebrities and financiers. High status folks like that.
Folks like these were supposed to be leading people to God and instead, led them to idols.
Jeremiah understands that the terrible events of 587 BC had what he believed to be the positive effect of clearing these people out and in their absence, Jeremiah foresaw the possibility of new shepherds, of new leaders, who would lead people to God, rather than to idols.
These new shepherds would set right what had gone so terribly wrong.
Who would these shepherds be? Were would they come from? When would they be revealed?
Jeremiah gives only one hint- that God would act to raise up from the fallen and ruined House of King David a worthy shepherd for his people.
The great surprise of the revelation of God in Christ is that God himself inserts himself into the House of David, creating for himself a place in that family, and God himself becomes the good shepherd that the prophet Jeremiah foresaw would come.
We Christians recognize Christ the Lord as our Shepherd. We do not look to politicians, celebrities or financiers as our guides in our discernment of right and wrong or for the meaning and purpose of life or for the way of knowing God and serving him will. We Christians look to Christ, for he, and he alone, is the Lord our Shepherd.
We Christians should be the ones who have learned the lesson of 587 BC and who therefore know the one, true God from false gods. We know that false gods make empty promises and that in Jesus Christ, God reveals that he keeps his promises. We know the one, true Shepherd Christ and can distinguish him from simulations of Christ or from people who demand from us an allegiance that belongs only to him.
That’s the lesson for us from the prophet Jeremiah.
It is also the point that St. Paul is making this morning in his magnificent letter to the Ephesians. The apostle Paul stresses the priority of Christ, his centrality to our lives. It is Jesus Christ who has given to us a privileged relationship with God.
Remember, that in Jesus Christ, we have become the children of God. In Jesus Christ, we have become the brothers and sisters of God. In Jesus Christ we have been given a mission that gives meaning and purpose to our lives. And perhaps most spectacularly, we have been given a relationship with God that is like the Lord Jesus’ own relationship with his Heavenly Father.
This is what Jesus Christ has accomplished for us and it has only happened and can only happen because of him.
When St. Paul testifies that God has in Christ “abolished the law and its legal claims”, what he is saying is that it isn’t cultural, political or economic structures that imparts our relationship with God, but Jesus Christ does this.
Jesus Christ is means by which we have a relationship with God and no one and nothing can give to us the kind of relationship with God that God in Christ wants to give.
This relationship with God in Christ is not a theory for our minds or an emotion for our hearts. This relationship with God in Christ is not a matter of culture or ethnicity. This relationship with God in Christ is given to us in the Sacraments of the Church, which are the privileged means by which Jesus Christ enters into a relationship with us. Jesus Christ enters into a relationship with us in the Sacraments of the Church and through our participation in the Sacraments of the Church we can have a relationship with Jesus Christ. This relationship we have with Christ in the Sacraments of the Church is always personal because God is a person, a divine person.
The great revelation of God in Christ is that God is a person who desires to have a relationship with us, and so strong is this desire that he is willing to become human himself to make that relationship happen. This is what happens, this is what God reveals in Jesus Christ! The Sacraments of the Church are the means that the Lord Jesus uses to bring you into relationship with him. The Sacraments serve the same purpose that the revelation of God in Christ as a man served. Like the humanity of Jesus, the Sacraments serve as a route of access that will take you to him.
That’s why the Sacraments are necessary. That’s why the Sacraments are important.
That’s also why when out of ignorance or fear the Sacraments become distorted, becoming only cultural rites of passage or ethnic customs or family obligations that the grace of a relationship with Jesus Christ through them becomes frustrated and the Sacraments lose their meaning and purpose and people drift away from them.
The Sacraments are given to us by Christ for one purpose- to lead us to him, if we try to use the Sacraments for some other purpose, we will be deprived of the blessing that Christ wants to give to us through them- and this blessing is a relationship with him!
Finally, in his Gospel, Christ experiences the desire that people have for him. The people need him. The people want him. There is a desperate longing in this world for Christ the Lord.
Our mission, the mission of the Church is to bring people to Jesus Christ. In fact, this mission is the whole purpose of the Church summed up succinctly.
The purpose of the Church is not to provide for my own faith based needs or to support the causes that I have determined to be important, but to bring people to the Lord Jesus, and offer to others what we have received from him- a relationship with Christ in his Church.
The decadence and decline of so much that is good in our culture… The prevalence of idolatry… The elevation of the pursuit of wealth, pleasure, power and honors to divine status… The dogmas of individualism and materialism… The callous regard in which the most vulnerable among us are treated…
All these are symptomatic of how desperate people become when the Church’s invitation to know Jesus Christ is frustrated or blocked or when we, as Christians, are no longer, as Pope Francis calls us, “missionary disciples”- people who are willing to risk much so that others might know Christ in his Church.
People are looking for Jesus Christ. We Christians are supposed to be the ones who are the means by which they find him.