The Church’s first scripture for today is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy means “second law”, which is a way of saying that it is a second of two law books, the other being the Old Testament Book of Leviticus.
The Book of Deuteronomy presents the content and promulgation of the Law of Moses. The Law of Moses is more than just a collection of rules, it is a description of a culture, a unique way of life, through which the Israelites displayed to one another and to the world their relationship with God. The Law of Moses as a unique way of life made the Israelites a visible sign of God’s presence in the world.
Moses was, of course, the great savior of the Israelite people, having acted as God’s instrument to free his people from bondage to the false gods of the Egyptians. However, once freed from this bondage, the Israelites needed a way to be a people, they needed an identity and a mission, and this is what the Law of Moses gave to them.
The liberation of the Israelites from bondage to the false gods of the Egyptians is described in the Old Testament Book of Exodus and in this book God declares war on the gods of the Egyptians and in terrifying displays of his power, he defeats them. These displays of power are truly frightening and impressed upon the Israelites that God was not to be provoked and his direct intervention in their lives was not be necessity something to look forward to.
Thus, in today’s scripture, the Israelites insist that they desire that God’s power and presence would be mediated for them, that someone would stand between them and the Lord and this someone would make his will known.
Moses then announces that this is precisely how God will act. The Lord will call forth prophets, like Moses, and through these prophets, he will speak. Great and lofty will be the mission of a prophet, but lest the unworthy grasp at this vocation, great and terrifying will be the judgment that falls on false prophets.
This scripture from Deuteronomy helps us to understand the significance of prophets in the Bible. Prophets are not mere predictors of the future, but they are mediators between God and his people, communicators of his will.
The biblical prophets remind the people who God is and what God wants.
But this scripture also indicates how God desires to act in our own lives and in the world- through secondary causes rather than directly. In this way God can meet us in the midst of the events and circumstances of our lives, making his presence known in what is apparently ordinary. Remember, the one, true God is not an idea or a feeling or a cosmic force, but a living, divine person, who seeks a relationship with us, and who chooses those ways in which we relate to the world and to one another as the means of making himself known.
This preference by God, to meet us in the events and circumstances of our lives, reaches its great culmination in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is God, who in his desire to share his life with us, accepts a human nature as his own and lives a real, human life. The mediation of God’s will, his presence, his power in the prophets prepares us to receive God’s will, presence and power in Jesus Christ. In the Old Testament God speaks his will through the voices of the prophets. In the New Testament God speaks his will through the human voice of Christ the Lord.
Listening to Christ we listen to God.
St. Paul speaks to us through his first Letter to the Corinthians and his words express a message that is as off putting and counter cultural today as it was two thousand years ago.
His words are for Christians, for the Church and in them he expresses that his preference is that Christians choose celibacy as an expression of their fidelity to Christ and availability for the Church’s mission.
Family life produces enough demands on the Christian and the person who accepts celibacy will be able to accept different responsibilities and dedicate themselves to important aspects of the Church’s mission that the responsibilities of a family would inhibit.
Paul insists that the commitment to celibacy should not be imposed, but that it should be freely chosen and Christians should consider as whether or not they have been chosen by God to remain unmarried so as to give a unique witness to Christ and make themselves available in extraordinary ways for the mission of the Church.
What St. Paul is saying is, as I said, no less off putting and counter cultural today as when he said it centuries ago. Remaining unmarried for the sake of Christ and the Church seems to many Christians to be so radical and extreme that it is unintelligible and perceived to be dangerous. Celibates are caricatured as sad losers or hiding some kind of pathology. For other Christians, it is merely a quaint archaism, a hold-over from another time that the Church would be well rid of, its endurance in the Church today inhibits the modernization of the Church and makes it difficult to take care of pragmatic concerns.
And yet, for centuries, it has been the willingness of men and women to choose a celibate life for the sake of Christ and the Church that has moved the Church’s mission forward and often times, take the Gospel into places that most others would not prefer to go.
Finally, in his Gospel Christ the Lord confronts the dark powers in of all places, a holy place, a place of prayer and worship, a synagogue.
Christ is not simply opposed by worldly powers, but by darker and more malevolent forces that have sought to subvert God’s plans from even before the world was created. The Gospels present Christ as actively engaged in defying these dark powers and liberating humanity from their influence. As it was then, so it is now.
The dark powers know that with the revelation of Christ in the world, their domination and influence is threatened, indeed, that it is coming to an end, and since they have been rendered powerless to harm him, they strike out against what Christ loves. Christ will protect us, but we must let him, inviting his power and presence into our lives, into our minds, into our hearts, and letting him defend us.
But what the dark powers fear most from Christ, and therefore from the Church, is the manner in which he teaches- with authority, with the truth- and not merely some worldly opinion elevated to truth, but with God’s truth- God’s word about who we are, what he wants and what will lead to human flourishing. This is the truth that Christ speaks with authority and it is the truth that Christ gives to his Church to speak on his behalf.
The dark powers prefer that the Church would contain the power of Christ’s truth, reducing it to clichés or dumbing it down and making it insipid. The dark powers would prefer that the Church would not speak with authority, but would instead reduce the truth to an idea and a feeling, a mere opinion, that has little power to change one’s life and even less power to redeem and save.
Christ will have none of this and we should have none of it too!
There is another lesson in this Gospel- one even harder to take and more frightening.
Sometimes, opposition to Christ comes, not from outside the Church but from within, from our own no to Christ, our own refusals to love and to serve. We must never forget that in each of us there lurks the potential to refuse Christ, even betray him. In this case, the dark power that opposes him is not a power outside of us, but within us. The enemy is not a demon, the enemy is ourselves.
It is our own refusals of Christ that subvert the Church more than anything else. It is our own resistance to Christ’s authority that deprives the Church of the energy needed for our mission.
Let us not forget that Christ comes into our lives to protect us from dark powers, but also, and perhaps more importantly, he comes to liberate us from our own refusals and resistance to his presence and his power.