Third Sunday of Easter (April 15th, 2018)

The Church’s three scriptures for today are magnificent, almost too much for a single homily to express.

So, one way of encapsulating the meaning of these sacred texts is to look for a “golden thread”- a single commonality that ties all three together and if you look carefully you find it.  What is it?  Sin.

Note in our first scripture the Apostle Peter insists that we “repent and be converted so that our sins may be forgiven.

And in our second scripture, from the First Letter of John, we hear that the purpose of this text is that it is written so that we “may not commit sin” but if anyone of us “does sin, we have an Advocate”- Jesus Christ.  And that he is “expiation for our sins”.

And then in our Gospel, Christ the Lord testifies that the purpose of his revelation, of his death and resurrection is “that repentance might be preached in his name for the forgiveness of sins”.

Now I know that preaching about sin is likely not “trending” right now.  It’s not considered positive and barely mentioning it evokes emotions of resistance.  Sin is not positive and isn’t the purpose of preaching to edify and lift us up, not weigh us down with guilt?

But if the scriptures, rather than our opinions or emotions are our guide for proclamation, we can’t ignore the “golden thread”.  The scriptures for today are identifying sin as a reality, a predicament and offering us the possibility of deliverance.  We can ignore this and rest in pious generalities rather than facing a reality of human existence or we can take our medicine, swallow the bitter pill and trust that the end result is hope and healing.

What is sin?

Simply put, sin is willfully and deliberately resisting the will and purposes of God, specifically God’s will and purposes expressed in his commandments.  Sin is a refusal.  God offers us a possibility for our lives and our answer is no.

Now with this refusal comes consequences, and sin initiates these consequences and we might think of the consequences of sin as a trap from which it is near to impossible for us on our own to extricate ourselves from and sin, our refusal of God, can be so insidious that we intentionally or inadvertently trap others in our predicament.  In other words, sin has a viral quality to it, and the misery of sin is rarely just our own, but it’s consequences are usually shared by others.

So, think of the commandments of God, not as a grim list of prohibitions, but God’s wisdom, a warning about the kinds of refusals that lead toward misery for ourselves and for others.  Through his commandments, God is not trying to seize our joy, but to maintain it.  He is not inhibiting our flourishing, but enhancing it.

God’s response to our sin is not, as many think, merely condemnation, but a rescue operation led by God himself- Jesus Christ.  Christ comes into the world as God’s response to our sin- our refusals of God.  This is clearly expressed at the very beginning of Gospel, in the first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, which testifies that the purpose of Jesus, expressed in his name is “to save his people from their sins”.

Now, the Gospels are clear that God’s rescue operation in Christ is not simply to reinforce existing commandments or offer us a self-help strategy that will guarantee us our best life now.  Instead of these, what God in Christ does is to enter into the human condition itself and confront the reality of our refusals with his will to love us.

He manifests this in his willingness to forgive us for our worst, our worst being manifested in the horror of the cross, and then through his death, enter himself into the deepest and darkest consequence of our refusal which is death.  He does this to reveal the extent to which God is willing to go to forgive us and to find us- our refusal can look like the cross and he maintains his power to forgive us for even that and we our refusal could go as far as far can go- even into death itself and even there we would come face to face with his will to rescue us.

In other words, God in Christ reveals that it might be our intention to live in alienation from God, but it’s not God’s intention simply to accept that situation as our status quo.  Our capacity for refusal is always met with God’s capacity for rescue.  That’s what God in Christ is all about.  That’s his mission.  That’s his purpose.  That’s the reason for his revelation.  God in Christ is the one who is strong enough to get us out of the trap.

God reveals in Christ that his response to our sin, to our refusals, is not merely to condemn us, but to rescue us from the trap and he does this by entering into the predicament that the consequences of our sin, our refusals creates.  This is what the cross and resurrection of the Lord reveal.

It’s also the reason for the joy of Easter. The joy of Easter is not our elation at the fact that winter has turned to spring or life proves itself to be resilient in the face of tragedy, or even that God is powerful enough to pull Jesus alive out of a grave, but that God in Christ has successfully enacted his rescue operation and in doing so demonstrated that sin, our refusals of God, need not be the last word or the final judgement.   God in Christ has in the revelation of his resurrection given us the most surprising and best of all possible second chances.

Now, in order for this to be true, it all has to have really happened.  And that brings us to a point the witness of the Gospel is making today that deserves our attention.

In today’s Gospel there is an account, an eyewitness account of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus and this testimony goes out of its way to insist that the resurrection of the Lord Jesus happened not in metaphor or in simply or as a matter of mind or emotions, but in the real body of the Lord Jesus.  The resurrection was and is a physical event, not some kind of symbol.  Note, only is the body of the Lord Jesus real, but he demonstrates how real his body is by eating.

The resurrection is so outrageous, so outside the realm of what we conceive possible that there is a tendency to make of it something other than what the scriptures describe- but the actual testimony is stubbornly insistent that none of our qualifications or equivocations of the dense physicality of Christ’s resurrection will do.  We can dabble in symbolism all we want, but none of that will save us from our sins.

Sin is not an abstraction.  It does not just happen in our minds or imaginations.  Our refusals of God happen in the real world and have real world consequences. The very fact that we are so uncomfortable hearing about sin is testimony to its power over us. Rescuing us from sin is not a matter or revealing metaphors or symbols, but of entering into the real world and this is what God goes in Jesus Christ.  Sin is a real world problem that demands a real world solution.

The forgiveness of sins is real because God in Christ is real- as real as his being born into this world, living in this world- as real as his death on the cross and as real as his resurrection.  The reality of his body is demonstrating this to us.  So, in regards to the resurrection, paraphrasing the words of the American writer John Updike “let us not mock God with metaphor”.

If Christ has not been truly raised then our refusals of God are the final judgment and there is no way out of the trap.

the-resurrection-of-christ-pietro-novelli

Advertisements

Thursday of the Thirteenth Week in Ordinary Time (June 30th, 2016)

The prophet Amos spoke the Lord’s word of truth during the reign of King Jeroboam II, one of the most effective of the Israelite monarchs. Jeroboam’s long reign brought great prosperity to the Israelites, he brokered lucrative deals with foreign powers and filled the royal treasury with gold and silver. The wealth and power of the Israelites left the prophet Amos troubled and unsettled. Whilst he saw the positive benefits afforded to the elites of the Israelites, the needs of the poor were ignored and they languished, crushed under the burden of their poverty.

Amos warned the Israelite elites that wealth could not buy God’s favor and their power could not deter God’s wrath- the Lord hears the cry of the poor, and in response to their cries acts to cast the mighty down from their thrones.

If wealth and power had been granted to the Israelites, then these gifts were meant to serve a divine purpose, not self-interest. Amos testified that the Israelites had chosen the latter, not the former, and the consequences would be severe. Even their worship of God had been corrupted, tainted by grandiosity and self reference- it would not save. It was not leading the people to works of mercy, it was leading the people to celebrate themselves as the recipients of prosperity and power.

Of course, the testimony of the prophet Amos was not popular and it was resisted. He spoke the truth, but the truth was not something that the people wanted to hear.

As it was then, so it is now.

The words of the prophet Amos, indeed all the biblical prophets, addresses, not a people from long ago, but the Church right now. The Church is the new Israel, and the Old Testament is proclaimed to illuminate God’s truth in our current circumstances.

The desire for the prophets to tell us what we want to hear, to reduce their mission to that of affirmation and consolation is a perennial temptation. But prophets are not sent to affirm us as we are, but to speak God’s word of truth, so that we might repent and be saved.

Repentance means that we are willing to change, to order our lives in accord with the commandments of God that we have either chosen to ignore or have rejected. God is the great giver of another chance, but we must be willing to take the chance he offers to us.

The opportunity that God offers to us is the forgiveness of our sins, mercy for what we have done and what we have failed to do.

This opportunity is revealed to us in all its holy radiance in Jesus Christ, who comes, so that we can be forgiven, reconciled to God, and once reconciled to him, reconciled to one another. Those who accept the forgiveness of God in Christ are filled with a joy that manifests itself in a willingness to offer to others what they have received- forgiveness. We who have been forgiven much will be willing to forgive much.

The great school of God’s forgiveness is the Sacrament of Reconciliation, where God in Christ offers to us what he offered to the paralytic in today’s Gospel. The paralysis of the poor man in today’s Gospel was physical, and God in Christ relieved him of his distress. Our paralysis might not be physical, but for many, it is moral, a paralysis of the soul burdened by the refusal to love and to serve. God in Christ can alleviate our misery and he offers this chance to us in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

But is this a chance that we are willing to take?

Amos-prophet

Thursday of the Twenty-fourth Week in Ordinary Time (September 17th, 2015)

When we think about St. Paul and the early years of the Church’s life, we have to suspend our own reference point regarding the Church as there were no dioceses or parishes or really any infrastructure whatsoever. There was also nothing of what we know as the culturally induced experience of the Church in which the Faith is understood as something akin to an ethnic identity that is passed along generation to generation. What existed in the early years were relationships, and it was the establishment of relationships that would give rise to much of the good that we experience as the Church today.

The Church did not begin with infrastructure, or a kind of Christian ethnicity, but it began and was about relationships. This relationship began with an encounter with an evangelist, like St. Paul, who introduced a person to Christ and invited that person to consider sharing the gifts that Christ wants his people to enjoy. Accepting these gifts meant a surrender of one’s life to Christ and it was this surrender of life that brought one into relationship with other Christians, and through those relationships, incorporated a person into the Church. The priority was not the community in itself, but the community as a means of knowing and serving Christ. The Church was presented and experienced, not as an aggregate of infrastructure that provided faith based services, but as a unique kind of relationship to Christ.

The Church was a way of knowing and serving Christ.

And so it should be for us.

Saint Paul’s letters provide important descriptions of the early Church that challenge and judge what in many respects is an institutional emphasis and narrowness of vision in regards to the Church. Too many of us know the Church in its structures and culture, and serve these things, but do we know Christ and how do we serve him? St. Paul brings to bear upon us the gravity and urgency of the priority of coming to know and serve Christ.

Most of his letters are written to the early communities of Christians but the letter the scriptures present to us this week is addressed to a person- Timothy. Timothy is a young evangelist that St. Paul sends out on mission. His mission is that of St. Paul- to introduce people to Christ and invite them to enjoy the gifts that Christ wants to give his people. It’s not an easy mission and remember that neither Paul or Timothy had much in terms of infrastructure to support their efforts. Neither were salaried religious professionals. Their authority did not come from a degree or a position in a bureaucracy, but because of a particular relationship with Christ.

Timothy experiences his youth as a liability, and people seems willing to dismiss what he has to say and the leadership he offers because he is young. Lacking the gravitas of age, Timothy seems to have little authority and in this respect, Paul advises that he be courageous and demonstrate through his way of life that he is worthy of respect and trust. In other words, begin with ordering his relationships with people to fulfill the demand of love and the respect and trust Timothy needs for his mission will surely follow.

All of us are insufficient in some way- if we are not too young we are too old, gifts and talents are not distributed equally, not all have the same charisms, the challenges of being a disciple of Christ are many and many of us will falter and fail. Yet, much, in terms of inadequacies can be overcome if we seek to fulfill the demand of love, prioritizing that as our immediate concern over and above any cause or self-interested need.

In the end, as the wise St. John of the Cross reminds us, we are judged by our fulfillment of the demands of love, not by the categories of success or failure that we impose upon ourselves or the world imposes upon us.

Today’s excerpt from the Gospel of Luke describes two encounters with the Lord, one is a Pharisee, who justifies himself in relation to God by his pride in his accomplishments. The Lord should see him and affirm him as he is, for there is little if anything that he believes he should seek forgiveness for and little or anything of Christ’s grace that he needs.

The other encounter is with a woman who is soul sick and knows it. She is a sinner and her act of breaking open a jar of precious, perfumed ointment and lavishing this gift on Christ is a symbol of her broken heart, presented to Christ. She does not seek affirmation for who she is but the opportunity to become someone she is not, someone she knows she cannot be unless she lives in relationship with Christ.

For the Christian, the encounter with the Lord and a relationship with him always entails a humble admission that one is a sinner in need of a Savior. Great love always expresses itself in great humility. If one thinks one has no need of forgiveness, then one thinks that one has no need of Christ.

The experience of the forgiveness of Christ is not just a matter of interiority in which I believe in my mind or experience in my emotions that Christ forgives. Instead, the forgiveness of Christ is an encounter with his will to forgive expressed in a sacrament, the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Few, it seems, have recourse to this encounter with Christ, many do not seek this encounter because their hearts have been hardened like that of the Pharisee- they want affirmation, not forgiveness. But some, come to the Lord, and break open for him their hearts, hearts that are accepted by Christ like a precious anointing, and receive from him in return, as the woman in today’s Gospel did, the healing grace of the forgiveness of sins.

christ