The Church’s first scripture for today is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of Kings.
The Book of Kings is one of the historical books of the Bible, describing people, events and circumstances that contributed to the rise and fall of the Kingdom of David. The Kingdom of David is important because it was the means that God used to unite the tribes of the Israelites into a single people. Strengthened by their unity, the Israelites could better accomplish their mission, which was to invite the world into a relationship with the one, true God.
The Kingdom of David was subverted from its beginning by pride and idolatry, yet despite human folly, God’s plan would be accomplished. God’s plan was fulfilled when the Christ-child was born into a remnant of the family of King David. Thus God came into the world. The Kingdom of David would fail to bring the world to God and so God would come into the world in Christ.
Throughout the history of the Kingdom of David, God would send prophets to the Israelites to remind them of their unique mission. Two of the greatest of these prophets were Elijah and Elisha. Both men were forces to be reckoned with, great wonderworkers and today’s scripture details how the prophet Elisha was summoned by God to mission.
Elisha abandons everything the world considers to be important- his family and wealth- for the sake of his mission. His focus on what the Lord wants him to do will be singular. He risks poverty and loneliness, trusting that God will provide for what he lacks. Heroic efforts always necessitate heroic commitment and true prophets are God’s heroes and no one becomes a hero without risk and sacrifice. Where an act of faith in God is accompanied by risk and sacrifice you have the possibility of a hero and the potential for a saint.
The heroism of Elijah and Elisha, indeed of all the biblical prophets endures in the Church in those men and women who eschew family and wealth for the sake of the Church’s mission. These men and women can be found in what are called religious orders, communities like the Benedictines, Franciscans and Dominicans. Without the witness of the prophets, the Israelites languished in mediocrity and lost a sense of God’s purpose for their lives. Without the witness of men and women religious, the Church falters and fails in its mission.
The Church is not merely a secular corporation or a nation state, whose goals can be accomplished by only by salaried employees and bureaucrats. God advances the mission of the Church through the efforts of men and women willing to take great risks and make great sacrifices. Inasmuch as the Church’s communities of prophets, men and women who accept a religious life of risk and sacrifice, fade and diminish, so also will the Church. As the Church fades and diminishes, so also does the love of Christ that the Church bears into a loveless world.
The mission of the Church by necessity requires heroes- men and women of risk and sacrifice. The age of God’s heroes did not end with Elijah or Elisha, but even now is the age of heroes. Who are God’s heroes right now? Who will be God’s heroes for his Church? Who is God calling into mission- into risk and sacrifice? Is it you? Remember: It is not just you who choose your mission- it is God who has chosen a mission for you.
In the Church’s second reading for today the Apostle Paul offers a distinction between a way of life which is given direction by the flesh in contrast with a way of life given direction by the spirit.
This might seem confusing. St. Paul is using the categories of “flesh” and “spirit” to indicate the difference between a way of life that is directed by God’s purpose as contrasted with a way of life that is directed by self-interested or self-indulgent purposes.
A self-interested or self-indulgent way of life tends towards conflict, antagonism and violence, whereas a truly spiritual life, one that is intentionally directed towards God’s purpose tends toward love- and by love St. Paul means willing, or desiring, the greatest good for other people.
St. Paul muses that if only we could love one another as Christ has commanded us to love, then most of the laws that become so necessary to reign in our selfish ambitions and desires, laws that can so quickly become stifling and oppressive would fall away. Loving as Christ loves opens up for us the possibility of true freedom, for freedom is not getting to do what we want, but doing what is good.
Love for the Christian is not merely an emotional experience or the fulfillment of a personal desire. Love is an act of the will, and it is willing for another person what is really and truly good. This good is not by necessity what the person wants, or even what you prefer to give, but it is what is good, it is the good that God wants.
Love reduced to emotional need or affectation will inevitably lead to antagonism and conflict. It becomes an exercise in self-interest and self indulgence. Love expressed as willing what it is truly good for other people is the manner in which God in Christ loves us and it is the way in which Christ commands us to love one another.
Christ the Lord has some words of advice for his disciples as they go out into a culture on mission. Remember, the purpose of the Church is missionary. The Church is not merely a faith-based clubhouse or an institution that we matriculate through and use to fulfill our personal goals. The Church is a missionary endeavor. The mission of the Church is to introduce people to Jesus Christ and invite people to share his unique way of life. Through the Church people meet the Lord Jesus and from the Church people receive from him the gifts he wants people to enjoy.
Christ’s advice to us as we go out into our neighborhood and introduce people to Christ is this:
Number One: Accept people’s hesitancy, even opposition, with an attitude of kindness. Do not threaten those who refuse our invitation. As Pope Benedict aptly said the Church proposes, it does not impose. We seek freedom to live our unique way of life, but our way of life must be freely chosen, it cannot be imposed on people by force or threats.
Number Two: Mission will always entail sacrifice and risk as well as an attitude of trust in God to provide what we need. You cannot, as a disciple, postpone your mission until you have everything figured out. We might have plans, but Christ’s plan takes precedence. What Christ asks of us is never all that easy, and at times outcomes may be uncertain, but as I said earlier, without risk and sacrifice there cannot be heroes and Christ wants us to be his heroes- he wants us to be his saints.
Number Three: Mission necessitates that we have a broader understanding of family than one that is limited to merely our own relatives. The Gospel expands our sense of family to include people in our lives who are not related to us, different than us, and people who we may not of our own desire want to know or become friends with.
The Church cannot by her essential nature simply be limited to those people with whom we are related, or those people whom we feel comfortable with, or those people that we prefer to associate with. Christ makes the Church his family and chooses those whom he wants to be in his household. The Church is not a sect or a club. The Church is not simply an expression of nationality or ethnicity. The Church is the people Christ has chosen, not only those people that we have chosen.
The Church is not just ours to make into whatever we want, it is a gift that we receive from Christ and this gift is a mission- a mission to introduce people to Jesus Christ and share with people the gifts that Christ wants all people to enjoy!