The Church’s first scripture for today’s Mass is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of Chronicles. The Book of Chronicles is one of the historical books of the Bible, detailing significant people, events, places that shaped the Israelites for good and for bad. The great overarching theme of the Book of Chronicles, indeed all the historical books of the Bible, is that God is actively involved in the lives of the Israelites- they are not the simply makers of their own destiny. Human freedom is always in relationship to God’s freedom to act in the world. It is precisely in relation to God’s freedom that the mission and purpose of the Israelites, indeed the mission and purpose of our own lives, is revealed.
This particular scripture from the Book of Chronicles recalls one of the greatest catastrophes that overtook the Israelites and nearly destroyed them forever- the invasion of the Israelite kingdom and the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in the year 587 BC.
This event was truly apocalyptic- everything that the Israelites valued was lost- their land, their wealth, their culture, their king, their temple, and for many, their relationship with God.
The Israelites would languish for years in exile, clinging to whatever hope they could muster, hoping that what had been lost might one day be restored.
This reading from the Book of Chronicles hints at that restoration, briefly describing the circumstances through which the Israelites would return to their homeland and rebuild not only their lives, but their temple, and with that temple, their relationship with God.
Why is any of this significant to us?
Well, remember, the Church does not read and re-read the texts of the Old Testaments as an appreciation course in ancient literature, or to teach us a history lesson, but because we believe that inasmuch the Church continues the story of the Israelites, these Old Testament texts illuminate for us our own mission and purpose as God’s chosen people. In other words, hidden in the histories of the Book of Chronicles and the entire Old Testament are not just stories from the past, but our own story, the story of the Church.
(In regards to all this) Today’s particular excerpt from the Book of Chronicles reveals that our relationship to God through the Church is forged in a crucible of fidelity and infidelity- our willingness to live our lives in accord with God’s will or go our own way and position of own will, our own freedom in opposition to God.
The Book of Chronicles understands that it was infidelity, the willful positioning of human freedom, of choices, of decisions against God, that led to the catastrophe of 587 BC and it was only a radical conversion back to God, fidelity replacing infidelity, that opened up the possibility of restoration.
Note that the foremost sign of infidelity, of defiance of God, in today’s scripture is idolatry- elevating a worldly concern or preoccupation to an ultimacy or significance that properly belongs only to God. The great idols need not be mythological beings, that are most often constructed out of our desires for wealth, pleasure, power and honors, idols which in our own time are embodied in our preoccupations with celebrities, politicians, ideology and economics. These are elevated to the gods that will save us- but that is the same lie that doomed the Israelites in 587 BC and in this regard, this excerpt from the Book of Chronicles is a warning.
Will we be faithful to God or not? Will it be God or our idols? We have to choose. We have to decide. The future of the Church, indeed our own future, will be forged in the crucible of our decision.
In the Church’s second scripture for today, the apostle Paul reminds us that God has intervened dramatically in history. How so? Through Jesus Christ.
The revelation of God in Jesus Christ has changed everything and given us a possibility that we did not have before his coming into the world.
This possibility is communion or relationship with God, a communion or relationship that is not constructed by ourselves, but is, instead accepted as a gift from God himself. In other words, God in Jesus Christ offers us the possibility to be his friends, and those of us who claim the name “Christian” are the ones who have accepted this communion, this relationship, this friendship with God.
Any friendship that is authentic and true will change us, and friendship with God in Christ does precisely that- changes us. Friendship with God in Christ does not affirm us as we are, but, initiates us into a new way of life- changing the way we think, the way we feel, and the manner in which we behave.
The apostle Paul conceives of this change, this transformation through friendship with God in Christ as a movement from sin to grace. By this the apostle Paul means a life lived in defiance of God and in a refusal of his offer of friendship to a life lived in relationship with God in Christ, in which we accept his friendship and the new way of life this entails. This is what it means to be “saved” and being “saved” has profound implications for our lives in the here and now and into eternity.
What does being “saved” look like? Well look at your life, what you think, what you do, what you believe and ask yourself how much of all this indicates that you are a friend of God in Christ.
Being saved is not a “get out of hell free card”. Being saved is not an expression of some faith-based form of identity politics. Being saved is being a friend of Jesus Christ. Being saved is not indicated because you think pious thoughts or because you are a generally nice person. Being saved is indicated in the manner in which you accept the way of life Christ offers to you as your own- this way of life is called the Church, and it’s through that way of life, the Church, that you share communion with God in Christ, have a relationship with him and become his friend.
In his Gospel, the Lord Jesus makes reference to a strange and miraculous event detailed in the Old Testament Book of Numbers (Numbers 21:9) in which the Israelites are afflicted by the poisonous bites of snakes and in response to their pleading, the prophet Moses creates an image of a serpent and lifts it up on a pole- all those who look upon this image are healed.
Christ is using this strange story to illuminate the meaning of his death on the cross- his cross will be for all a sign of healing and of hope. The appearance of Christ on the cross, like the serpent on the pole will be off-putting, bizarre, an apparent contradiction, but to those who look upon it in their fears, their desperation, their pain, they will find a divine source of solace and consolation.
Christ the Lord then testifies that the reason for his revelation is not condemnation, but salvation, redemption- hope.
It is not his purpose or his mission to condemn the world. He will name directly and forthrightly the world’s truth, our truth, but his purpose in doing so is not to destroy us, but to save us from those destructive lies that hold us captive and prevent us from fully flourishing.
In other words, Christ comes to offer to us all a new possibility, the best of all possible second chances, a new way of life. This is his mission. This is his purpose. This is the reason for his revelation.
In this regard, Christ the Lord is very clear. But there is more to this Gospel than that.
Christ tells us what his mission is, but he also insists that we have to make a decision, a choice, (in regards to) what he offers (to us)- and we can still refuse (what he offers).
And our refusal is not without consequences.
Christ raises the prospect that while his purpose is not to condemn us, we can, through our refusals of Christ, condemn ourselves. As I said before, being a Christian does not mean that you are the privileged recipient of a “get out of hell free card”. Our refusals of Christ matter. Hell is our refusal of Christ. And our refusals create personal hells for ourselves and for others, not just in an eternity far from our day to day experience, but here and now.
Our willingness to accept from Christ a new way of life and truly live that way matters.
Christ wants to save us, but are we going to let him?