Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (January 31st, 2016)

The Church’s first scripture for today is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of the Prophet Jeremiah.

Jeremiah was the great prophet whom the Lord raised up during a terrifying time in the history of the Israelites. The once mighty Kingdom of David was tottering on the brink of total collapse and all would soon be lost. Jeremiah understood this catastrophe as a consequence of the Israelite’s rejection of the one, true God. Idolatry had consumed the Israelites, a rapacious desire for wealth, pleasure, power and honors, which had made them numb to the needs of the poor and to the righteousness that comes from adhering to the commandments of God.

A deep moral and spiritual corruption set in that manifested itself in political intrigues and a cultural malaise. Attempts to forestall the cultural decline were sought in political arrangements and economic imperative. New and ever stranger gods were invoked and superstition flourished while the authentic religion of the Israelites was reduced to little more than a perfunctory custom.

Jeremiah was called by God to speak his word of truth, and through that word to provoke conversion, a change of mind and heart which would lead to a change in the Israelite way of life.

Today’s scripture evokes the call of the prophet Jeremiah. By “call” is meant his realization of his life’s purpose, and therefore his mission in life. Jeremiah discerns that the Lord had intended him to be a prophet from even before he was born.

This highlights an important truth of our faith as Christians- no one is here by accident and no one is created by God without a purpose. And further, the purpose for which we have been created is not self-determined, but God-determined. God has a plan for every person and meaning and purpose for our lives only unfolds in relation to his plan.

What I have just described to you is what the Church calls the mystery of vocation. A vocation is God’s choice for your life, a decision he has made in terms of who he wants you to be and what he wants you to do. Discernment of your vocation is crucial, for without knowing and accepting your vocation, meaning and purpose for your life becomes frustrating and elusive.

God knows our vocation and as such cultivating a relationship with God through prayer is a necessity. Perhaps one of the most important prayers that must rise from the depths of our souls is to ask what God what vocation he intends for us to accept.

Jeremiah is honest about his God-given vocation- it is not easy, and no vocation ever is. But despite the difficulties of a person’s God-given vocation, there is meaning and purpose in it, and this makes any hardship not only bearable, but also suffused with creative and redemptive possibilities- both for ourselves and for others.

Have you truly and really discerned your God-given vocation?

The Church’s second scripture for today is one of the most beloved texts of the New Testament- St. Paul’s poetic treatise concerning love.

This text is often chosen to be proclaimed at weddings, and as such, the love that St. Paul identifies is often identified with romance, a beautiful and lofty ideal, that we might cherish as an idea or feeling, rather than accepting as a raw fact for a real way of life.

The fact of the matter is that St. Paul wrote this elegant treatise, not for weddings, but in response to a Christian community in the midst of a crisis- a community that had divided itself into factions and rivalries.

These factions and rivalries had been fomented by Christians who through eloquent, though cunning arguments, or claims to mystical intuitions or prophecies or through the appearance of intense asceticism, brought division into the community- setting Christian against Christian.

With Christians so divided the Church was faltering and failing in her mission.

To counter the influence of those who fomented divisions, St. Paul appeals to the priority and primacy of love as the true sign of a Christian leader. Yes, indeed, there are leaders who are eloquent, or who are mystics, or who are heroic in their sacrifices, but without love that looks like Christ’s love, these gifts can easily be used to manipulate or to subvert the mission of the Church.

The love that St. Paul describes is the love of God in Christ, not an ideal or an emotion, but a gift that comes into the world in Christ himself. We learn from the Lord Jesus the love he bears into the world and he intends that we practice his love as a way of life.

When Christians love Christians in the manner that St. Paul describes we become Christ-like in our words and actions, and when this happens the Church will flourish and grow. When Christian love others who are not Christians in the manner that St. Paul describes, people come to know Christ and understand the Church, not as an institution or private club or political movement or a social service agency, but as the real, living presence of the Lord Jesus in the world.

What St. Paul described to us today is not meant to be understood as a romantic ideal or limited to romantic affection, but as a densely textured description of God in Christ’s love, and also the kind of love that should be evident in the unique, Christian way of life.

Can we learn to love one another with the Christ-like love that St. Paul describes?

Today’s Gospel can only be appreciated and understood in relation to a mysterious figure that the Old Testament describes as the Messiah. The Messiah was presented by the prophets of Israel as a person of extraordinary power who would be sent by God to rescue the Israelites from their enemies and restore the glories of the Kingdom of David.

One of the primary purposes of the Gospels, indeed the New Testament is to testify as to how the Lord Jesus is the Messiah foreseen by the Old Testament prophets.

In last week’s Gospel the Lord Jesus proclaimed an Old Testament scripture in the synagogue located in his hometown of Nazareth. He cited a text from Isaiah, which would have been understood by those who heard it as a reference to the Messiah. When Christ declared last week and as he declares this week, “today this passage is fulfilled in your hearing,” what he is announcing that the Messiah has now come, and those listening would have made the connection- that the Messiah the Lord Jesus had proclaimed as coming was meant to be understood as himself.

Today we hear that while those who listened to Christ’s proclamation were initially impressed by his claim, they were quickly turned off and became so angry at the Lord Jesus that they sought to do him bodily harm.

Why the change? What the anger? Why did people who one moment, it seems, were impressed by Christ, suddenly turn so violently against him?

Today’s Gospel gives us the reason as Christ cites another Old Testament scripture, a story from the Book of Kings, which describes the adventures of the prophet Elijah. In these stories, the prophet Elijah acts (and therefore God acts) on behalf of people who were not Israelites and in doing so demonstrates that the mere fact that one is born as an Israelite is not some automatic guarantee of divine privileges and favor. The Lord Jesus is saying that he, the Messiah, has come, not just for the sake of the Israelites, but even for those perceived to be the enemies of the Israelites, indeed for the whole world.

The divine favor, the divine gifts that the Messiah bears into the world will be made available as possibilities for whomever God in Christ chooses.

This is what seems to have angered some, who interpreted Christ’s testimony as a kind of betrayal. For these folks, the Messiah should be a manifestation of God’s wrath towards outsiders and enemies that they held in contempt.

Whatever benefits the Messiah had to offer should be limited to those that they deemed worthy. God, they believed would come, not for the many, but for an exclusive few, and would come as a punishment for most. Christ resists this and as a result, some people resist Christ.

What does this have to do with us?

We are all the beneficiaries of God in Christ’s generosity. The Church is not our exclusive club, but it is the new Israel that God in Christ, the Messiah creates. And God in Christ creates the new Israel, the Church, as a means of sharing his gifts with the world. We come into the Church on Christ’s terms, not our own, but all are invited to know Christ in his Church and through the Church, become new Israelites for a new Israel.

Some still recoil in anger at this, insisting that the Church should only accept into herself those with the correct ideological perspective, be it the left or the right, or even worse than this, that the Church is realm meant only for the perfect, rather than as a refuge for sinners.

In the midst of our protests, Christ the Lord is serene. The Church is Christ’s, not ours to do with what we want. Christ creates the Church for his purposes and in accord with his plan. Christ gives the Church her mission. Christ the Messiah cannot be leveraged to re-make his Church in accord with norms and conditions that we think are acceptable for us for membership. There is only one cause that the Church is about and this cause is the cause of Christ.

We are Christ’s disciples, not his masters.

Some are angered by this- let this not be said of us. For we are not a people made Christ-like in our anger, but in our will to love.

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