The Hell There Is – A Homily for the 26th Sunday of the Year

092813In the Gospel for today about the rich man and Lazarus the Lord gives us some important teachings on judgment and on hell. Now it is a fact that we live in times where many consider the teaching on Hell to be untenable. Many struggle to understand how a God described as loving, merciful and forgiving can assign certain souls to Hell forever. No matter that the Doctrine of Hell is taught extensively in Scripture and quite a lot by Jesus himself, the doctrine does not comport well with many modern notions and emphases of God, and, hence many think it has to go.

But this reading goes a long way to address some of the modern concerns about Hell and so we ought to look at it. Prior to doing that however it might be important to state why Hell has to exist. I have done that more extensively on this blog here: http://blog.adw.org/2010/07/hell-has-to-be/ However I summarize that lengthier article in the next paragraph

Hell has to exist essentially for one reason: “Respect.” God has made us free and respects our freedom to chose his Kingdom or not. Now the Kingdom of God is not a mere abstraction. It has some very specific values and these values are realized and experienced perfectly in heaven.

The values of the Kingdom of God include: Love, kindness, forgiveness, justice to the poor, generosity, humility, mercy, chastity, love of Scripture, love of the truth, worship of God, God at the center and so forth.

Now the fact is that there are many people in our world who do not want a thing to do with chastity, or forgiveness, or being generous and so forth. And God will not force them to adopt and live these values. While it is true that everyone may want to go to heaven, heaven is not merely what we want, it is what it is, as God has set it forth. Heaven is the Kingdom of God and the values thereof in all their fullness.

Hence there are some (many, according to Jesus) who live in such a way that they consistently demonstrate that they are not interested in heaven, since they are not interested in one or many of the Kingdom values. Hell “has to be” since God respects their freedom to live in this way. Since they demonstrate they do not want heaven, God respects their freedom to choose “other arrangements.”

In a way this is what Jesus says in John’s Gospel when he states clearly that judgment is about what we prefer: And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil (John 3:19). So in the end you get what you want, light or darkness. Sadly many prefer the darkness. The day of judgment discloses our final preference and God respects even the preferences he would not want for us.

Now this leads to today’s Gospel which we can see in three stages.

I. The Ruin of the Rich Man As the Gospel opens we see described a rich man (some call him Dives, which simply means “rich”). There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day.

Now it is clear he lives very well as has the capacity to help the poor man, Lazarus, outside his gate. But he simply does not.

His sin is not so much one of hate, but of indifference. He is living in open rejection of one of the most significant Kingdom values, that of the love of the poor. His insensitivity is a “damnable sin” in the literal sense since it lands him in Hell. So the ruin of this rich man is his insensitivity to the poor.

Now the care of the poor may be a complicated matter and there may be different ways of accomplishing it, but in no way can we ever consider ourselves exempt from caring for the poor if it is in our means to help them. We simply cannot avoid judgement for our greed and insensitivity. As God said in last week’s reading from Amos regarding those who are insensitive to the poor: The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Never will I forget a thing they have done! (Amos 8:7) God may well “forget” many of our sins (cf Is 43:23; Heb 8:12) but apparently, trampling the poor and disregarding their needs isn’t one of them.

Hence this rich man has willfully and repeatedly rejected the Kingdom and is ruined by his greed and insensitivity. He lands in Hell since he doesn’t want heaven where in the poor are exulted (cf Luke 1:52)

Abraham explains the great reversal to him: ‘My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.

II. The Rigidity of the Rich Man– Now you might expect the rich man to be finally repentant and to have a change a heart but he does not. Looking up into heaven he sees Lazarus next to Abraham. But rather than finally seeing Lazarus’ dignity and seeking his forgiveness, the rich tells Abraham to send Lazarus to Hell with a pail of water in order that the rich man might be refreshed. He still sees Lazarus as beneath him (even though he has to look up to see him). He sees Lazarus as a “step and fetch errand boy” and wants him to come to Hell.

Notice too, the rich man does NOT ask to be admitted to heaven! He is unhappy with where he is, but still does not seem to desire heaven and the Kingdom of God with all its values. So he has not really changed. He is regretful of his currently tormented condition but does not see or desire heaven as a solution to that. Neither does he want to appreciate Lazarus’ exalted state. He wants to draw him back to the lower place he once occupied.

Now this helps explain why Hell is eternal. It would seem that there is a mystery of the human person which we must come to accept. Namely, that we come to a point in our life where our character is forever fixed, where we no longer change. When exactly this occurs is not clear. Perhaps it is death that effects this fixed quality.

The Fathers of the Church often thought of the human person as clay on a potter’s wheel. As long as it is on the wheel and moist it can be molded, changed and fashioned. But there comes a moment when the clay is taken off the wheel and placed in the fiery kiln (and fire is an judgment day (cf 1 Cor 3:15)) and in that fire it’s shape is forever fixed and cannot be changed.

The rich man now manifests this fixed quality. He has not changed one bit. He is unhappy with his torments and even wants to warn his brothers. But he apparently does not intend to change, or somehow experiences his incapacity to change.

Hence, the teaching that Hell is eternal since, having once encountered our fiery judgment, we will no longer be subject change. Our decision against the Kingdom of God and its values (a decision which God in sadness respects) is forever fixed.

III. The Reproof for the Rest of Us – As already noted, the rich man, though he cannot or will not change, would like to warn his brothers. Perhaps if Lazarus would rise from the dead and warn his brothers they would repent!

Now let’s be clear, we are the rich man’s brethren. And we are hereby warned. The rich man wants exotic measures but Abraham says no, They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.’ The rich man replied, ‘Oh no, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ Then Abraham said, ‘If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.'”

Of course, this reply is dripping with irony given Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

That aside, the fact is we should not need exotic signs to bring us conversion. The phrase “they have Moses and the Prophets” is a Jewish way of saying, they have Scripture.

And the scriptures are clear to lay out the way before us. They give us the road map to heaven and we have but to follow it. We ought not need an angel or a ghost, or some extraordinary sign. The Scriptures and the teachings of the Church are sufficient.

Their instructions are clear enough: Daily prayer, daily scripture, weekly Eucharist, frequent confession and repentance all lead to a change of heart wherein we begin to love the Kingdom of God and its values. We are more merciful, kind, generous, loving toward the poor and needy, patient, chaste, devout, self controlled and so forth.

In the end we have to be clear: Hell exists. It has to exist for we have a free choice to make, and God will respect that choice even if he does not prefer our choice.

You and I are free to choose the Kingdom of God, or not. This Gospel also makes it clear that our choices lead ultimately to final and permanent choice wherein our decision is forever fixed.

The modern world needs to sober up. There is a Hell and its existence is both reasonable and in conformity with a God who both loves us and respects our freedom.

Herein we ought to consider ourselves reproved, if we have any non-biblical notions in this regard. Popular or not Hell is taught, as is the sobering notion that many (sadly) prefer the darkness of it to the light of God’s Kingdom.

On Being Faithful in a few things before being ruler over many things. – A Sermon for the 25th Sunday of the Year.

092113The Lord Jesus gives a penetrating analysis of the state of the sinner and some very sobering advice to we would-be saints in today’s Gospel. Let’s look at the Gospel in two stages: The Analysis of the Sinner and the Advice to the Saints.

I. ANALYSIS OF THE SINNER The Lord Jesus describes a sinful steward in the opening lines of this gospel. Let’s look at the description:

A. DELUSION (of the sinner)- Jesus said to his disciples, “A rich man had a steward – Notice he is called a steward not an owner. God is the owner of everything, we are but stewards. A steward must deal with the goods of another according to the will of the owner. This is our state. We may have private ownership in relation to one another. But before God we own nothing, absolutely nothing.

Part of the essence of sin is to behave as though we were the owner. We develop an arrogant attitude that what I have is really mine to do with as I please. We think, “It’s mine, I can do what I want with it…..I call the shots…..I can do as I please with my own body….” and so forth. But the fact is everything belongs to God.

Scripture affirms, The earth is the LORD’S, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein (Ps. 24:1). Even of our bodies which we like to think of as ours, Scripture says: You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body (1 Cor 6:19). And old song says, “God and God alone created all these things we call our own. From the mighty to the small, the glory in them all is God’s and God’s alone….” So the Lord defines the sinner as a steward, though the steward acts as if he were an owner.

B. DISSIPATION (of the sinner) who was reported to him for squandering his property. The Lord here describes the essence of many of our sins: that we dissipate, we squander the gifts of God. We waste the gifts we have received and using them for sinful ends.

For example in greed we hoard the gifts he given us to help others. Instead of helping, we store them up only for ourselves. Yet all the goods of the world belong to all the people of the world and they ought to shared to the extent that we have excess.

Other examples of squandering the things of God are in gossip, lying and cursing wherein we misuse the gift of speech; in laziness wherein we misuse the gift of time; in all sin wherein we abuse and squander our freedom. This is dissipation, this is the squandering of God’s goods.

God has given us many good things, and instead of using them to build the Kingdom, we squander them and dissipate the kingdom.

C. DEATH (of the sinner) He summoned him and said, ‘What is this I hear about you? Prepare a full account of your stewardship, because you can no longer be my steward.’ – Here the Lord teaches and reminds us that someday we will all be called to account and our stewardship will end. Elsewhere scripture reminds us So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body (2 Cor 5:9 ).

We have an appointed time to exercise our stewardship but our stewardship will end and the books will be opened. Here too Scripture reminds: And books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. (Rev 20:11)

While it is true that many pay little heed to the fact of judgement Scripture warns Say not, “I have sinned, yet what has befallen me? For the Lord bids his time. Of forgiveness be not over-confident, adding sin upon sin. Say not, “Great is his mercy, my many sins he will forgive.” For mercy and anger are alike with him; upon the wicked alights his wrath. Delay not your conversion to the Lord, put it not off from day to day. For suddenly his wrath flames forth; at the time of vengeance you will be destroyed (Sirach 5:4).

Every steward (us) will die, our stewardship will end, and we will be called to render an account. It thus follows that we ought to listen to the advice which the Lord next gives.

II. ADVICE TO THE SAINTS- After analyzing the sinner the Lord has some advice for those of us sinners who want to be saints. He gives Four principles we ought to follow:

A. Principle of INTENSITY – The text says,  The steward said to himself, ‘What shall I do, now that my master is taking the position of steward away from me? I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg. I know what I shall do so that, when I am removed from the stewardship, they may welcome me into their homes.’ He called in his master’s debtors one by one. To the first he said, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He replied, ‘One hundred measures of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note. Sit down and quickly write one for fifty.’ Then to another the steward said, ‘And you, how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘One hundred kors of wheat.’ The steward said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note; write one for eighty.’And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting shrewdly. For the children of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. –

The Lord is telling us here many of the worldly are more crafty in what matters to them than the Spiritually minded in what (supposedly) matters to them. The fact is many of us are very intense and organized when it comes to worldly matters. We spend years of preparation in college training for careers. We work hard and are dedicated to climbing the company ladder.

In worldly expertise many are dedicated to developing skills, and becoming incredibly knowledgeable. In earning money and holding a job many display great discipline, getting up early to go to work, working late and hard to please the boss.

But when it comes to faith many of the same people display a third grade knowledge of things spiritual and show little interest in advancing in the faith or of praying. They will please the boss, please man, but not God. Parents will fight for scholarships for their children to get into the best schools. Students will compete for scholarships. But when it comes to saving truth, the pews are empty, Sunday School is badly attended.

To all this, the Lord says to us here that the spiritually minded ought to show the same intensity, organization, dedication and craftiness that the worldly show in their pursuits. We ought to be zealous for the truth, for prayer, for opportunities to sharpen our spiritual skills and increase our holiness. We ought to be as zealous to be rich in grace as we are to be rich in money. So the first principle the Lord gives us is intensity.

B. Principle of INVESTMENT I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. –

As to what the Lord means by “dishonest wealth”, read here: What does the Lord mean by “Unrighteous Mammon”

The Lord tells of how the dishonest steward made use of the money at his disposal to make friends who would help him in the next stage of his life. How about us? Are we willing to use our money and resources to bless others, especially the poor, who can bless us in the next stage of our life?

On the day of your judgment will the poor and needy be able to speak up on your behalf? Will they be among the angels and saints who welcome you to eternal dwellings? I don’t know about you, but I am going to want the poor to pray and speak to God on my behalf the Day I am judged. Scripture says that the Lord hears the cry of the poor and needy.

In this world the poor need us, but in the next world we are going to need them. In this world those with money and power get heard, in the Kingdom it is the poor and suffering who get heard. It is a wise investment to bless the poor and needy.

In effect the Lord Jesus tells us to be wise in our use of worldly wealth.  Just as the world tells us to take our wealth and invest it wisely so that it will reap future rewards, so the Lord says the same thing. He says, “Use your money wisely. Invest it well.” How? By storing it up it up in up in heaven. How do we do that? By giving it away! Then it will really be yours.

You can’t take it with you but you can send it on ahead. Scripture elaborates this elsewhere: Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life. (1 Tim 6:17) Notice how the passage says that through their generosity here the rich lay up treasure in heaven.

This is the scriptural principle and the great paradox in the Kingdom of God: that we keep something eternally by giving it away. We save our find our life by losing it, we keep out treasure and store it in heaven by giving it away.

So invest my friends, invest wisely! Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. (Matt 6:20)

C. Principle of INCREASEThe person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones; and the person who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones. If, therefore, you are not trustworthy with dishonest wealth, who will trust you with true wealth? If you are not trustworthy with what belongs to another, who will give you what is yours?

What is the “small matter” of which the Lord talks and in which we can prove trustworthy? The small matter is money. We make money the most important thing in life. But Spiritual matters are more important.

Scripture attests to this clearly: The Book of 1st Peter says our faith is more precious than fire-tried gold. The Book of Psalms (19:10) says The words of the Lord are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb.

So God says let’s see how you are in the small but significant matter of money, then I’ll see if you are able to able to handle bigger blessings. Do you think you can handle heaven and the spiritual blessings of holiness? Well let’s see, if you are trustworthy with worldly wealth, God will give you true wealth. If you’re trustworthy is what belongs to God, he’ll give one day what is yours.

You want more even here? Use well what you’ve already received. Then God will know he can trust you with more. You want increase? A gospel song says: You must faithful over a few things to be ruler over many things. Be faithful unto death, and God will give you a crown of life.

D. Principle of INDIVISIBILITYNo servant can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and mammon.

Pay attention. To serve, means to obey. Most people obey money, affluence and worship the American standard of living before they obey God. They meet their world obligations first and then give God what is left over.

But we are called to obey God alone, to have an undivided heart. The wording here is strong You CANNOT obey the world (money) and think you’re also going to obey God. You have to choose what will be more important.

Now don’t tell me we don’t need a lot of grace and mercy here! Money and the lure of the world is very powerful. It’s to get on our knees and pray for a miracle to prefer God to the world.

This song says, You must faithful in a few things to be ruler over many things. Be faithful unto death, and God will give you a crown of life…. The sung builds to wonderful refrain: Well done good and faithful servant, Well done!

Crazy! A Homily for the 24th Sunday of the Year

091413Crazy! – The three parables of today’s lengthy Gospel challenge our conventional thinking. All three of them are quirky and describe people doing things that we most likely would NOT do. In fact all three of them, especially the first two, seem crazy. Who would ever do what the shepherd of the lost sheep and the woman of the lost coin do? No one, really. Likewise the Father in the Story of the Prodigal Son breaks all the rules of “tough love.” His forgiveness has an almost reckless quality. No father of Jesus’ time would ever tolerate such insolence from his sons. It just wasn’t accepted. So all three of these parables, at one level, are just plain crazy.

But that is one of the most fundamental points Jesus seems to be making here. The Heavenly Father’s love for us is just plain “crazy.” I do not mean it is irrational by using this word, but it does stretch the limits of our human thinking. Neither do I intend irreverence by using the word “crazy.” Permit a preacher’s hyperbole so that we can enter into the astonishing quality of God’s love and mercy. It cannot be understood or really explained in human terms. Who really understands unlimited and unconditional love? Who can really grasp the depths of God’s mercy? His grace is “amazing” in that it goes completely beyond my ability to comprehend. It transcends merely human concepts. Thank God! If God were like us we’d all be in trouble, frankly, we’d all be in Hell.

Let’s look at each Parable. The Gospel texts are too lengthy to reproduce here. But you can read the whole of it here: Luke 15

I. The Parable of the Lost Sheep The Lord speaks of a shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep to search for one who is lost. Would a shepherd likely do this? Probably not! The passage drips with irony, even absurdity. Perhaps if the lost sheep was near at hand he might venture over the next hill. But the average human shepherd would cut his losses and stay with the ninety-nine. Many of us might even consider it irresponsible to leave ninety-nine to search for one.

Some people try and make sense of this parable by appealing to possible shepherding practices of the First Century. And while theories abound, this seems to miss the point that God’s love is extravagant, personal, and puzzling. In the end, it would seem that God loves us for “no good reason.” He seems to love us even “more” when we stray. He intensifies his focus on the one who strays. To us this is not only crazy, it is dangerous, possibly enabling. But don’t try to figure it out. Don’t analyze it too much. Just be astonished, be amazed. Yes, this is crazy. That God loves me is crazy, unexplainable.

II. The Woman and the Lost coin A woman loses a drachma. It is a small coin. Not worth that much really, perhaps one day’s wages for an agricultural worker. In modern terms less than $100. Not insignificant, but not really huge amount either. She sweeps diligently for it. So far, this seems reasonable. I’d probably look around a while for a missing “Benjamin” ($100 bill).

But then it gets crazy. She finds it and rejoices to such an extent that she spends most, if not all of it, on a party celebrating the found coin! Crazy!

But that is exactly the point. God doesn’t count the cost. He doesn’t weigh his love for us in terms of if it is “worth it.” Some commentators try to explain the craziness away by suggesting that perhaps the coin had sentimental value as part of her dowry or ceremonial head-dress of ten coins. But here too, over analyzing and trying to explain or make sense of it may well miss the point.

This woman is crazy because God is “crazy.” His love for us is extravagant beyond what is humanly reasonable or explainable. Don’t try to figure it out. Don’t analyze too much. Just be astonished, be amazed. Yes, this is crazy. That God loves me is crazy, unexplainable.

III. The Prodigal Son A young son, entitled by law to a third of the Estate (since he was the younger son) tells his Father to drop dead. He wants his inheritance now and the old man isn’t dying fast enough. Incredibly the father gives it to him!

Crazy! No father in the ancient world would ever tolerate such irreverence and insolence from a son. The Father is a nobleman (land owner) and could hand his son over to serious retribution for such dishonor. The son leaves his father and goes off to “a distant land” where he sinks so low, he ends up looking up to pigs. He comes to his senses, rehearses a speech and returns to his father, hoping only to be a hired worker.

But here’s where it gets even crazier! The Father sees him a long way off (meaning he was looking for him). He does something a nobleman would not do: he runs. Running was considered beneath the dignity of a nobleman since it would imply he was either a slave on an errand or a fugitive running. Further, in order for a person to run in the ancient world, they had first to gird the loins of their garments. Since the garments were long flowing robes they had to be “hiked up.” Otherwise, the legs would get tangled in the garment and the person would trip. But for a nobleman to show his legs was considered an indignity.

Get the picture? This nobleman, this father, is debasing himself, humbling himself. He is running and his legs are showing. This is crazy. Do you know what this son has done? Does he deserve this humble love? No! This father is crazy! –

Exactly! The heavenly Father is “crazy” too. He actually loves me and humbles himself for me. He even sent his own Son for me. Do you and I know what we have done? Do we deserve this? No! It’s crazy.

The second son is also a handful. When he hears of the party for the wayward brother he refuses to enter. Again this is unthinkable in the ancient world for a son to refuse to report when summoned by a father. What does the father do? He comes out and pleads with him!

Again, crazy! Unthinkable. No father in the ancient world would ever permit a son to speak to him in the way this second son spoke. The son basically calls him a slave-driver who issues orders and refuses to enter the party that his father is hosting. He says he’d rather celebrate with his friends than with his father. But (pay attention here), the goal in life is not celebrate with your friends. The goal in life is to celebrate with the Father in heaven.

This father is crazy. He is crazy because God the Father is crazy. Do you know what it is to refuse to do what God says? And yet we do it every time we sin! The heavenly Father should not have to tolerate this. He is God and we are creatures. If he wanted, he could squash us like a bug. But he does not. The father in this parable is almost “dangerously” merciful. Shouldn’t his sons learn a lesson here? Shouldn’t he punish them both for their insolence? Yes, all our human thinking kicks in.

But God is God, not man. There are other scriptures that speak of his punishments. But in the end, none of us get what we really deserve. The point of Jesus here is that God is merciful and his love is crazy. It makes no human sense. His love for us is extravagant beyond what is humanly reasonable or explainable. Don’t try to figure it out. Don’t analyze too much. Just be astonished, be amazed. Yes, this is crazy. That God loves me is crazy, unexplainable.

Crazy!


And here is a video just because I couldn’t resist:

Four Descriptions of Discipleship – A Sermon for the 23rd Sunday of the Year

090713In today’s Gospel Jesus defines four Demands of discipleship. We can look at them one by one.

I. The CONTEXT of the discipleship. The text says that large crowds were following Jesus and so he turned to address them. Just about any time you find a mention of a large crowd fasten your seat belts and prepare for a hard teaching. Jesus didn’t trust the big crowds who were often out for the goodies. They were looking for miracles, multiplied and free bread, physical healings and a fiery sermon. So upon sensing a large crowd the texts says, rather provocatively, that Jesus turned to address them. He then gives a series of “hard sayings” which seem almost designed to thin the ranks and to distinguish true disciples from the “lip service” crowd.

We will see in a moment what he says. But let’s take a moment and examine other incidents where the gospels demonstrate Jesus’ tendency to distrust big crowds:

  • Mat 7:13 Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.
  • Matt 22:14 For many are called, but few are chosen.
  • Luke 6:26 Woe to you, when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.

There is also the tendency in the gospels for the mentioning of a large crowd to be followed by a “hard saying:”

  • Matt 19: 1-6 When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan. Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there. Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” (cf also Mark 10)
  • Luke 11:29 As the crowds increased, Jesus said, “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.
  • Luke 14:26-27 (Today’s Gospel) Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
  • John 6: 2 and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the miraculous signs he had performed on the sick….and He said to them, I am the living bread come down from heaven…..the crowds murmured.

So, the CONTEXT of discipleship is not usually with the crowd. Though many are called, indeed all are called, only few make the cut and become true disciples. There is a kind of remnant theology at work here, to be sure. But it is a common pattern that Jesus thins the ranks and distinguishes the many who are called from the few who are chosen.

This is a fact not only in the Scriptures but it also remains true that the Lord has often had to prune his Church. Even now we are seeing a large falling away, a kind of pruning as large numbers depart who are not able to take the “hard sayings” of Jesus and the Scriptures about sexuality, forgiveness, love of one’s enemies, heroic charity and generosity, and so forth. The CONTEXT of discipleship is with the few, rather than the many.

This insight about the context not usually being the crowd is also important, because there are many today who have a mentality that argues that the Church should “get with the times,” that the Church should listen to the people, and give them what they want, that the Church should reflect the views of the faithful. But this is not the job of the Church. The role of the Church is not to reflect the views of its members as if it were some political party. Rather, the role of the Church is to reflect the views of its Founder, Jesus Christ who handed on his teachings through the apostles and evangelists. More often than not, these teachings will not be in simple lockstep with what the crowd says, what is popular, or what is current.

The context of discipleship is often at odds with the great crowds and this we see, when Jesus turns on them. The first reading today reminds us: For the deliberations of mortals are timid, and unsure are our plans. For the corruptible body burdens the soul and the earthen shelter weighs down the mind that has many concerns. And scarce do we guess the things on earth, and what is within our grasp we find with difficulty (Wisdom 9:13-16)

II. The CENTRALITY of the discipleship. Jesus indicates that we can prefer or love no one more than him if we are going to be his disciples. This extends even to our family relationships: If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Now “hate” here does mean that we are to have contempt for others or nourish unrighteous anger toward them. What we are dealing with here is a Jewish idiom. The Hebrew language, for some reason, has very few comparative words such as: more, less, greater, fewer, and so forth. Hence in ancient Hebrew if one were to prefer vanilla ice cream to chocolate one would say, “I love vanilla but hate chocolate.” But what “hate” means here in context is that I “prefer” vanilla, not that I literally hate chocolate.

So, what Jesus means is that we cannot prefer anyone or anything to Him. He’s first, he’s number one. Jesus says, I must have absolute priority over the closest human relationships in your life.

If there’s anyone in your life that can talk you out of obeying God, forget ‘em! Anyone who keeps you away from God has too much power. Anyone who can keep you from your Christian walk has too much power. Anyone who can pull you into unrighteousness has too much power.

So if The boss instructs us to do something immoral – sorry boss. If the accountant or lawyers advise saving money by paying unjust wages or cutting necessary benefits – sorry boys. A boyfriend pressures his girl friend to have sex – sorry dear. Peers pressure to use drugs or abuse alcohol, skip school, or steal – sorry buddies. A spouse calls his or her mate away from teaching the children the ways of faith. – sorry honey. A child pressures a parent to that which is unwise or wrong. – sorry child of mine.

So, do you get it? No one is to have priority of Jesus Christ and what he teaches. The word “hate” here may not be literal but on second thought, if Jesus really does have priority in our life it may cause some to say, “You’re so devoted to him, I think you hate me!”

We need to attend to this since too many of our human relationships cause us to sinfully compromise our walk with Jesus. Some people have too much power, a power that belongs to the Lord.

III. The CROSS of discipleship. Jesus says, Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me
cannot be my disciple. So if we want to be a disciple we must be willing to carry the cross.

Now the cross comes in many forms, but in the end, to be a disciple does not mean we are in any way exempt from the troubles and trials of this world. Jesus indicates that we will be hated by the word (cf Jn 15:20), persecuted and sorely tempted by this world. But if we hold out, victory will be ours.

It is a simple rule: No cross, No crown. There are some who want to preach a prosperity gospel. There are others who demand a gospel stripped of its moral imperatives. Still others demand an updated faith that tickles their ears and affirms their aberrant behavior.

But Jesus points to the Cross, not to torture us, but because it is the only way to glory. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world (John 16:33). Now, for a little while you may have to suffer various trials…(1 Peter 1:6). And this wisdom is already evident, when we consider that even in this world, all of what we most value, Family, talents, career, achievements, all came at the cost of sacrifice. Sacrifices bring blessings. Jesus is not into pain for its own sake, but because sacrifice brings blessings.

IV. The COST of discipleship – And thus Jesus continues: Which of you wishing to construct a tower does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if there is enough for its completion? Otherwise, after laying the foundation and finding himself unable to finish the work the onlookers should laugh at him and say, ‘This one began to build but did not have the resources to finish.’ Or what king marching into battle would not first sit down and decide whether with ten thousand troops he can successfully oppose another king advancing upon him with twenty thousand troops? But if not, while he is still far away, he will send a delegation to ask for peace terms. In the same way, anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.

Jesus asks us to count the cost of what he is teaching here. Discipleship is costly. Jesus gives the image of someone building a tower or of a king going to battle. But, truth be told, these examples are distant from us. So Jesus brings it home and says to us: anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.

The Greek word ἀποτάσσω (apotasso) translated here as “renounce” also means, “to say farewell.” And the Lord is reminding us that heaven costs everything. Ultimately we must say farewell to everyone and everything we consider precious here in order to inherit heaven. This of course is not something that waits merely for death.

At one level, we give back everything to God as we go, little by little. We have all given back loved ones. Perhaps too we have given back youthful figures, strength, good health, and so forth. Ultimately we will give it all back.

But at another level the Lord is clear to say here that we must be willing to part with anything that hinders discipleship now, not later. The fact is that many things attach us to this world and make discipleship difficult. Are we willing to de-clutter our life, simplify and get more focused on being disciples? Or will we go on setting down roots here and amassing a worldly kingdom?

What’s it going to be, the world or the Kingdom? Count the cost. See what it really means to be a disciple and what it cost, then decide. In the end, heaven costs everything. But you’re going to lose it all anyway. It is a wise man who gives away what he cannot keep to gain what he could never buy.

What Jesus is looking for are disciples who, having counted the cost and realistically assessed it, are ready, nonetheless, to be his disciples. Tag-alongs, lip service Christians, fair weather folks, need not apply. So today Jesus is looking at a big crowd and teaches in a way that is meant to distinguish true disciples from the “lip service” disciples. We are asked to ponder in which category we most truthfully belong.

You’ve Gotta Serve Before You Sit – A Meditation on the Gospel for the 22nd Sunday of the Year

083113In the Gospel for this weekend’s Mass the Lord Jesus summons us to a deeper appreciation for what brings true honor, for what makes a person truly great. As you may imagine, what the world thinks of as great and honorable is rather different that what God thinks and sees. Let’s look at this Gospel in three parts and discover it’s paradoxical vision.

I. THE PERSON who HONORS The Lord is at a banquet and notices how people vie for seats of honor. He gives the following teaching: When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not recline at table in the place of honor. A more distinguished guest than you may have been invited by him, and the host who invited both of you may approach you and say, ‘Give your place to this man,’ and then you would proceed with embarrassment to take the lowest place.

Now what the Lord is really reminding us is, that at formal banquets, it is the host who determines where we sit. This is of course most common in our culture at wedding receptions where seats are determined and assigned by the couple ahead of time. For someone to walk in and sit at the head table reserved for the wedding party is both rude and pompous. The polite and expected thing is to report to the entrance table, and receive a table number and graciously take your seat.

And of course the banquet we are invited to is God’s Kingdom. And in that kingdom God has a place for us, but we must be clear that it is God who assigns each his place.

Recall that, when a dispute arose among the apostles as to who was the greatest Jesus responded: I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom (Luke 22:29).

Another time James and John approached and asked for seats at Jesus right and left (i.e. the places of honor) and Jesus responded: But to sit on my right hand and on my left hand is not my to give; but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared (Mk 10:40).

So, our places in the Kingdom are determined by God.

It is a true fact that many miss this point and like to assign themselves places and honors in God’s kingdom. But in the end, that belongs to God. Some go through life resentful that they are not as rich as others, or as powerful, or as advantaged. Others wish they were taller, thinner, prettier, smarter etc. They are jealous of what they see as the advantages of others.

But be very careful here. It is not for us to determine what is best for us. It is not for us to assign our own seat. Just because we think it is better to be rich than poor does not mean this is correct. The Lord warns how difficult it is for the rich to inherit the Kingdom of God. So being rich isn’t necessarily the blessing we think it is. It is for God to decide what is best for us. Riches, power, popularity, good looks etc. are all things that tend to root us in the world. These things are not necessarily blessings. Having a “good” job like some one else, a family like someone else, a talent like someone else, may not be what is best for us.

God decides all that and gives us the talents and blessings, as well as burdens and challenges he knows are best. So don’t just walk into God’s Kingdom and seat yourself! Check in with the host and find His will in terms of your seat. He’s got just the right one for you.

II. THE PARADOX of HONORS Now another thing to note about this Gospel is that Jesus was noticing how they were choosing the places of honor at the table. In effect he is struck at how people perceive honor, and vie for what they think is honor. They want to impress folks and be thought of as important.

But remember, this is God’s banquet and the qualifications for the seats of honor are very different from worldly honors. In the world, we are impressed by things like: bling, brawn, beauty and bucks. We’re impressed by big cars, big houses, big hair, and a big entourage. The limo pulls up and watch the eyes turn. Out come the popular, the powerful, the glitterati and game changers. The cameras flash and the applause ensues. We’re quite impressed actually. This is what WE notice, this is what draws OUR eyes.

But what of God? At the banquet of God’s kingdom, who draws his eye? As God looks around the banquet hall of the Kingdom who catches his eye? The Lord gives that answer in many places in Scripture:

  1. Mark 10:43 Whoever would be great among you must be the servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
  2. Luke 22:26 Rather let the greatest among you become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who do you think is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves.
  3. Ps 138:6 Though the LORD is on high, he looks upon the lowly, but the proud he knows from afar.
  4. 1 Cor 1:27 But God chose the foolish and low born things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things–and the things that are not–to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.
  5. James 2:5 Listen, my beloved brethren. Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him?
  6. Luke 13:30 Many who are last shall be first, and many who are first shall be last.
  7. Luke 1:52 He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.

So, back to our question: In the banquet hall of God’s Kingdom, who catches his eye? Is it those at the “Head table?” It is those on the red rug and behind the rope line? No. If we apply God’s works, those who catch God’s eye are not even at the table, but are those who wait on the tables, those who serve, those back in the kitchen cooking and washing dishes!  It is the lowly, the humble and the servants of all.

Here is the paradox of honor in God’s kingdom: It is not about being powerful in the worldly sense. God is not impressed by the size of our house, car or bank account. Our popularity does not impress him. It is our service, our humility, our love for others that catches his eye. Here are the seats of honor, the places closest to God’s heart, they are for those who serve.

You gotta serve before you sit in any place of honor in God’s banquet.

III. THE PRESCRIPTION for HONORS And hence the prescription is clear enough. Jesus instructs us in today’s Gospel: when you are invited, go and take the lowest place so that when the host comes to you he may say, ‘My friend, move up to a higher position.’

Now what all this adds up to is that if we want to be great in the Kingdom of God then we had better become a servant. Jesus says, take the lowest place. Serve before you sit. What makes you great is to serve. The greatest thing about us is not our paycheck, our fancy house or any of that stuff. What is greatest about us is that we serve.

We are great when we identify with the lowly and humble and seek to serve rather than to be served. We are great when we use our wealth, power, talents and abilities to build up the people of God and extend God’s Kingdom. Even in things which we are paid to do can still be service if serving is the primary reason we do it.

Jesus then adds: When you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. What this amounts to is a complete change in the way we see what is great in this world.

Jesus is giving us more than a moralism here (i.e. be generous to the poor). He is offering us a new vision for who is greatest in his Kingdom. We ought to run to the poor, the blind the lame, the afflicted, for they give us the ability to serve and this, in the end, is our greatest honor: to serve others, especially the poor and afflicted who cannot repay us.

A final dimension of all this is to learn that some of the greatest and most honorable people we know are those who serve us. Since to serve is the greatest honor in the Kingdom of God, we ought to hold in high honor those who wait on our tables, who clean our houses and work places, who do the “dirty work,” those also who serve in our hospitals and all those who care for us and serve us in countless ways. They are doing something honorable and we ought to treat them with respect, kindness, and honor. We ought to give generous tips where that is appropriate, but above all we are to honor them.

For the greatest among you is the servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. (Mk 10:43)

You gotta serve before you sit.

This song says, “Sit down servant, I can’t sit down….My soul’s so happy that I can’t sit down. And this video also depicts a wide cultural expression, a Thai Choir singing and African American Spiritual!

The Battle is Engaged…Choose Sides! A Homily for the 20th Sunday of the Year

081713The readings today speak of a great cosmic battle that is taking place all around us. In the Gospel, Jesus speaks vividly of it, and of his own mission to engage our ancient foe and to gather God’s elect back from the enslaving clutches of Satan, who was a murder and a liar from the beginning (cf John 8:44).

And so, as Jesus approaches Jerusalem for the final time, He describes the battle that is about to unfold. It is a battle he wins at the Cross and Resurrection, but it is a battle whose parameters extend across time to our own era.

We also do well to look at the second reading, which describes what ought to be our stance in reference to the great cosmic battle. Though the victory is ours, we can only lay hold of it by clinging to Christ and walking with him. The Hebrews text gives us a kind of battle plan.

But we begin this reflection on the readings by considering Jesus’ description in the Gospel of the cosmic battle and of his own great mission as the great Shepherd of the sheep, and the Lord of armies (Dominus Deus Sabaoth!).

I. Passion to Purify –  Jesus begins by saying, I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!

Fire is a powerful and transformative reality. Nothing goes away from fire unchanged. Fire does gives warmth, and it makes food palatable, but it also consumes and destroys. But nothing goes away from fire unchanged!

The Lord has come to purify us,  by the fiery power of his love, of his grace, and of his Word. He has a passion to set things right.

But purification is seldom easy or painless, and hence, there is the image of fire. In this great cosmic battle,  fire must be cast on the earth, not only to purify, but also to distinguish. There are things that will be made pure, but only if other things are burnt away and reduced to ashes.

This image of fire is important, because many people today have reduced faith to seeking enrichment and blessings. And faith does surely supply these. But it is also true that faith demands that we take up our cross and follow Christ without compromise. And many, if not most enrichment and blessings come only through the fiery purification of God’s grace, which burns away sin and purifies us of our adulterous relationship with this world. Fire incites, demands and causes change. And change is never easy.

Therefore, Jesus announces the fire by which he will judge and purify this earth, and all on it, rescuing us from the power of the evil one.

And this is no mere campfire around which we seeing cute songs. Jesus describes it as a blaze which must set the whole world on fire!

So, how do you get ready for fire? By letting the Lord set you on fire! John the Baptist had promised of the Lord: He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire (Matt 3:11) And indeed, the Lord sent forth his Spirit on the early Church as tongues of fire (cf Acts 2:3) so as to bring them up to the temperature of glory and to prepare them for the coming judgment of the world by fire.

The battle is engaged! Choose sides. And if you think you can remain neutral or stand on some “middle ground,” I’ve got news for you about which side you are really on. No third way is given. You’re either on the Ark or you’re not. You’re either letting the fire purify you or being reduced to ashes. You’re either on fire by God’s grace, and thereby ready for the coming judgment of the world by fire or you are not. But the choice is yours. Jesus is passionate to set things right. He has come to cast fire on the earth.

II. Painful path. The text says, There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!

In coming among us, the Lord does not merely come to get us out of trouble, but to get into trouble with us. Though himself sinless, Jesus takes upon himself the full weight of human sinfulness and manfully carries it to the cross. He accepts a “baptism” in his own blood on our behalf.

In waging war on our behalf against the evil one,  he does not sit in some comfortable headquarters behind enemy lines, he goes out “on point,” taking the hill of Calvary, and  leading us over the top to the resurrection glory. He endures every blow, every hardship on our behalf.

And by his wounds we are healed by being baptized in the very blood he shed in the great cosmic war.

It is a painful path he trod, and he speaks of his anguish in doing it. But having won the victory, he now turns to us and invites us to follow him, through the cross the glory.

But the choice to follow is ours, and in this sense the cosmic battle continues as Jesus describes in the verses that follow.

III. Piercing Purgation – In words that are nothing less than shocking, the Lord says, Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three; a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father, a mother against her daughter and a daughter against her mother, a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”

The words shock but they speak a truth which sets aside worldly notions of comprise and coexistence with evil. In order for there to be true peace, true holiness and true victory over Satan, there must be distinction, not equivocation, there must be clarity, not compromise. Fire and water do not mix. One hears the conflict when they come together of hissing, popping, searing and steaming. One must win, the other must lose. Compromise and coexistence are not possible.

The Lord said (back in Matthew 10:34) that he came not for peace but for the sword. And thus there is a kind of analogy to a surgeon’s scalpel. The surgeon must wield this “sword” to separate out healthy flesh from that which is diseased or gangrenous, cancerous growth cut away from that which is  normal flesh. Coexistence is not ultimately possible, the diseased flesh has to go. The moment one talks of “coexisting” with cancer or gangrene, the disease wins. Were a doctor to take this stance he would be guilty of malpractice. When there is cancer or gangrene, the battle must be engaged.

And thus the Lord, in this great and cosmic battle cannot and will not tolerate a false peace based on compromise or a non-critical coexistence. He has come to wield a sword, to divide. Many moderns do not like it, but scripture is clear, there are wheat and tares, sheep and goats, those on the Lord’s right and those on his left, the just and wicked, the lowly and the proud, the wide road to damnation and the narrow road to salvation, and those on each of them.

And these distinctions, these divisions extend into our very families, unto our most intimate relationships. This is the battle. And there are two armies, two camps. No third way is given. Jesus says elsewhere, Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. (Matt 12:30)

Of all this we must be sober and work for our salvation, and the salvation of all. For while there may no be a season of mercy and patience now, the time is short for us all when the distinction between good and evil, righteousness and sin will be definitive and the sword must be wielded.

And thus the Lord speaks to us of a cosmic battle in the valley of decision (cf Joel 3).  Jesus has won, and it is time to choose sides. And even if family members reject us, we must choose the Lord. The cosmic battle is engaged, the fire is cast, sword of the Spirit and God’s words is being wielded. The Lord has come to divide the good from the wicked, the sheep from the goats and judgement begins now, with the house of God. Scripture says,

For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? (1 Peter 4:17)

If this be the case, How do we choose sides, practically speaking. And having chosen sides, how do we fight with the Lord in the cosmic battle. For this it is helpful to turn to the Letter to the Hebrews from today’s Mass, a magnificent text that summons us to courage and constancy. Note four prescriptions in this letter for a solider in the Army of the Lord:

A. Lay Hold of the The PROOF of faith – The Text begins Since we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.

What do witnesses do? They testify to what is true, to what they have seen, heard and experienced. In the previous Chapter of Hebrew (11), we were given a litany of witnesses from the Old Testament who learned to trust God and were rescued from ungodly men and innumerable snares. And individually and collectively they stand before us summoning us to courage and declaring that God can make a way out of no way, that he can move mountains and deliver his people, that He can do anything but fail.

And thus we are to hear their testimony and be summoned courageously to the Battle and to choose the Lord’s side, knowing that the Lord has already won the Victory. To the litany of Old Testament heroes is an innumerable list of saints in our Catholic experience who speak to us of victory and summon us to faith and steadfast courage.  Yes there is the Cross, but Resurrection always follows!

These witnesses say, Choose the Lord, he has already won the victory. Live the life of faith by adhering to the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church, let the Sacraments strengthen you, rest in prayer, and walk in fellowship with other Catholic believers in the Army of the Lord.

Jesus is the Lord of Hosts, he is the King of Glory, he is the Head of the Body, the Church. We ought to listen to the testimony of these heroes and accept their witness as a proof of faith.

B. Live The PRIORITY of faith – The text says, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith..

We are given the example of a runner in a race. What does a runner do? He runs the race! Runners do not stop to watch TV, they do not stop to make small talk or take stupid detours or go in the opposite direction. They do one thing: they run the race. So too with our faith, it has priority. Nothing should be allowed to hinder us.

Runners also know where the finish line is and what the goal is. They do not run aimlessly. They keep their eyes on the prize and single-hardheartedly pursue the goal. Not one step is wasted. No extra baggage is carried that would hinder them of weigh them down.

And so it must be for us. We must have our eyes on Jesus. He and the glory he offers are our goal. every step must be toward him. All that weighs us down or hinders us must be set aside. Increasingly our life s to center on one thing, one goal. As St. Paul says,

This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:13-14)

The Rose window at the upper right (from my parish Church) depicts the Medieval world’s Christocentric vision of all things centered on Christ. Every petal of the window is precious: family, spouse, children, work, career, vocation, but all centered on Christ, flowing from him and pointing back to him. How different this Medieval notion is from the modern anthropocentric and egocentric world, with man at the center, the ego on throne and God relegated to the edges.

Let Christ be your center. An old song says, “Jesus you’re the center of my joy.”

C. Learn the PERSPECTIVE of faith. The text says, For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God.

It is clear that there are crosses, setbacks, disappointments and suffering in life. But do you know where these lead? To glory, if we are faithful! And thus the text reminds us that the Lord Jesus endured shame and the cross for the sake of the joy and glory that lay ahead.

There is no place in the Christian life for a discouraged hang-dog attitude of defeat. We’re marching to Zion, beautiful Zion! Glories untold await us. Whatever the cost, as Scripture says, For our light and momentary troubles are producing for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Cor 4:17-18)

So keep this perspective of faith. The devil wants you to be discouraged, but just rebuke him, and tell him you’re encouraged because whatever you are going-through, it’s producing.

D. Last unto the end through the PERSEVERANCE of Faith – the Text says,  Consider how [Jesus]  endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood.

It is not enough to answer an altar call or get Baptized. It is necessary to persevere. In this cosmic battle Jesus says, At [the end] time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. (Matt 24:10-13)

And thus, in a cosmic war like this, endurance to the end is essential. We must make it over the hill of Calvary with Jesus and unto the resurrection. Victory is promised, but we must make the journey, and make it with Jesus.

Scripture says,  Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. ( 1 Cor 15:1-2)

OK, a tough Sunday. Not exactly the prosperity gospel, or a “Consumer Christianity” focused on enrichment without sacrifice, and crowns without crosses. But this is the real Christianity and the only faith that can save. Jesus describes the cosmic battle, and moves forward manfully to vanquish our ancient foe. But then he turns and says follow me: hear the Proof of faith, make it your Priority, see by its Perspective and Persevere unto the end.

At the end of the day there will be only two groups: the victors and the vanquished. Since you know the outcome by faith, why not pick the winning team?

The Battle is Engaged, Choose sides!

This video shows pictures from my Parish Church which features the “Great Cloud of Witnesses” up on the clerestory level.

Some Biblical Roots of the Teaching on the Assumption of Mary

081413While the actual event of the Assumption of Mary in Heaven is not recorded in the Scriptures, nevertheless there is a biblical basis for the teaching that, considered as a whole, confirms Catholic teaching as both fitting and in keeping with biblical principles.  Let’s ponder this feast in three stages:

1. Explained – To be “assumed” means to be taken up by God bodily into heaven. As far back as the Church can remember we have celebrated the fact that Mary was taken up into heaven. We do not just acknowledge that her soul was taken to heaven, as is the case with all the rest of the faithful who are taken there (likely after purgation). Rather Mary was taken up, soul AND body into heaven after her sojourn on this earth was complete. There is no earthly tomb containing her body, neither are there relics of her body to be found among the Christian faithful. This is our ancient memory and what we celebrate today, Mary was taken up, body and soul into heaven.

2. Exemplified – The actual event of the Assumption is not described in Scripture. However, there are “assumptions” recorded in the Scriptures and the concept is thus biblical.

  1. It happened to Enoch in the Old Testament The Book of Genesis records: Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away (Gen. 5:24). Hebrews 11: 5 elaborates: By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death; and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was attested as having pleased God.
  2. It also happened to Elijah as he walked with Elisha: And as they still went on and talked, behold, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven….And he was seen no more. (2 Kings 2:11 ).
  3. Some say Moses too was taken up since his grave is not known. As we read in yesterday’s first reading at Mass: He was buried in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is (Dt. 34:6). The text of course does not say his body was taken up and if it was, it occurred after death and burial. Jude 1:9 hints at the fact when is says, But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses….. (Jude 1:9) Some further credibility is lent to the view of him being assumed by the fact that he appears alongside Elijah in the Transfiguration account. Some of the Church Fathers held this view and there is also a Jewish work from the 6th Century AD entitled The Assumption of Moses that represents the tradition of his assumption. But in the end the Assumption of Moses only a view held by some and it not officially held by the Church.
  4. And While it is true that the historical event of the assumption is not recorded in Scripture nor are there historical accounts of the event, there may be one other scriptural account that evidences Mary’s whereabouts, body and soul. The Church presents for our consideration in today’s second reading a passage from the Book of Revelation wherein John records his sighting of the Ark of God:

Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant. And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake and a great hailstorm. A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads… The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter. (Rev 11:19 – 12:5)

The Woman is clearly Mary since the child is clearly Jesus (though she also likely allegorizes other realities such as Israel, and Mother Zion). And where is Mary seen? In heaven.

Now some may argue the text does not necessarily indicate her body is in heaven but may only be referring to her soul. However the physicality of the description of her is rather strong. Some also argue that Mary is linked to John’s sighting of the Ark of the Convent which is seen by John in Heaven. He mentions the Ark and goes on to describe the woman clothed with the sun (Mary) and there is a possibility that he is still describing the Ark he sees in Heaven. (I have written on this elsewhere. See here: Mary: The Ark of the New Covenant) If she is the Ark described that Ark is clearly described as being in heaven.

So, the Biblical record, while not recording the event of the Assumption, does set forth other assumptions and thus shows that assumption is a biblical concept. Further, Mary’s physical presence in heaven seems hinted at by John and some would argue that the passage actually attests to her physical presence there.

But remember, the Church does not rely solely on Scripture. In this case what we celebrate is most fundamentally taught to us by Sacred Tradition in that the memory of Mary’s assumption goes back as long as we can remember.

3. Extended – The Feast of the Assumption may be of theological interest to some and may provide for interesting biblical reflection but eventually the question is bound to come: “So What?” How does what happened to Mary have impact on my life and what does it mean for me? The answer to this question is bound up in nearly every Marian Doctrine. Simply put, what happened to Mary in an profound and preliminary way will also happen for us in the end. As Mary bore Christ into he world, we too bear him there in the Holy Communion we receive and in the witness of his indwelling presence in our life. As Mary is (and always was) sinless, so too will we one day be sinless (immaculate) with God in heaven. As Mary cared for Christ in his need, so do we care for him in the poor, the suffering, needy and afflicted. And as Mary was assumed, body and soul into heaven so too will we be there one day, body and soul.

For now our souls go to heaven once purified but our body lie in a tomb. But one day when the trumpet shall sound, on that “great gettin’ up morning” our bodies will rise and be joined to our soul:

For we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”…….Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor 15:51-57)

So our bodies shall rise shall be assumed and joined to our soul.

Improved model! Now a older woman once said to me upon hearing that her body would rise: “Father if this old body has to rise, I’m hoping for an improved model!” Yes indeed! Me too! I want my hair back, my slender figure and knees that work! I want to upgrade from a general issue late model version, to a luxury model. And God will in fact do that. Scripture says:

  1. He will take these lowly bodies of ours and transform them to be like his own glorified body. (Phil 3:21)
  2. But someone may ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body…..So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; …..And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven. (1 Cor 15:35-49)
  3. Yes we shall also be taken up, assumed, and then shall be fulfilled for us the saying of Job: I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another ‘s (Job 19:25-27).

The assumption of our bodies, prefigured by Christ in his own power and also in Mary by the gift of God, will one day be our gift too. For now, it waits till that “great gettin’ up morning.” Until that day, and on that day, fare you well, fare you well!

This song is an African American Spiritual and speaks of that Great Gettin’ up morning when our bodies will rise. And if we have been faithful they will rise to glory!

I’m gonna tell you about the coming of the judgement (Fare you well) There’s a better day a coming….In that great gettin’ up morning fare you well! Oh preacher fold your Bible, For the last soul’s converted….Blow your trumpet Gabriel…..Lord, how loud shall I blow it? Blow it right calm and easy Do not alarm all my people….Tell them to come to the judgement…….In that great gettin’ up morning fare you well. Do you see them coffins bursting? Do you see them folks is rising? Do you see the world on fire? Do you see the stars a falling? Do you see that smoke and lightning? Do you hear the rumbling thunder? Oh Fare you well poor sinner. In that great gettin’ up morning fare you well.

On Forsaking Fear By Remaining Ready. A Homily for the 19th Sunday of the Year

081013In the Gospel for this weekend (Luke 12:32-40) the Lord Jesus presents a “Recipe for Readiness.” He gives this recipe so that we can lay hold of his offer that we not be afraid. But he is not simply saying, “Be not afraid.” He is explaining how we can battle fear by being ready.

It is frequent problem in the modern experience of the Christian life that many remain vague about what is necessary to be ready to meet God. Many also make light of the day of Judgment and consider it all but certain that they and most of humanity will be found approved.

Jesus does not however adopt this posture. In fact he teaches the exact opposite and consistently warns of the need to be ready for our judgment. As such, He does not counsel a foolish fearlessness rooted in the deception that all or most will be saved. Rather he counsels a fearlessness based on solid preparation for the day of judgement. Jesus tells us at least five things to do in order to be ready, and therefore not afraid.

If we are not ready by these sorts of preparations, Jesus warns, later in this text that He will come when we least expect and, like a thief, take away all that we wrongly call our own. Jesus says elsewhere, But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap (Lk 21:34) And the apostolic tradition adds, that to those unprepared, disaster will fall on them as suddenly as a pregnant woman’s labor pains begin. And there will be no escape. (1 Thess 5:3).

Thus, while Jesus begins by saying that we ought not fear, (for the Father wants to grant us the kingdom), he also warns that being free of fear is contingent on embracing and following a plan that he (Jesus) sets forth for our life.

 So lets look at this plan and see how we can forsake fear by becoming and remaining ready. Jesus gives us five specific and concrete things to do that will help us to be ready when the Lord shall call us. It is not an exhaustive list, for no one passage of Scripture is the whole of Scripture. But here are some very practical and specific things to reflect on and do.

I. REASSESS YOUR WEALTH. Jesus says, Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your belongings and give alms. Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven that no thief can reach nor moth destroy. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be. In effect the Lord is giving us here a triple teaching on wealth. First he says that we ought to

  • Fore-go Fear. In the end it is fear that makes us greedy and worldly. We grab up the things of this world because we are terrified of not having enough for tomorrow. But what if we could receive the gift to trust God more and know and experience that he will give us our daily bread? He has given us the Kingdom, why not everything else besides? He may not give us everything we want but we can learn to trust that he will give us what we really need. Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these other things will be given unto to you (Matt 6:21). If we can just allow God to diminish our fear we will be surprised how easy it is for us to be generous with what we have and not hoard it.
  • Forward your Fortune– We store up treasure for ourselves in heaven when we are generous to the needy and poor. Treasure is not stored in heaven by way of a rocket ship or balloon. It is stored there by generously distributing our wealth to others in wise and creative ways. This was discussed in last week’s reading more substantially see here: Instructions on Income While it may not be appropriate for us to sell everything and go live on a park bench, the Lord is surely telling us to be less attached to and passionate about money and things for they root us in this world. And where our treasure is, there also will our heart be.
  • Fix your focus – Our focus is wrong and worldly because most of us have our treasure here. But once we become less fearful and more generous, our obsession with worldly treasure subsides and our joy in heavenly treasure grows. And this fixes our broken focus. For now our heart is where our treasure really is and ought to be: in heaven with God. So simplify, be less rooted in this world and come to experience that your greatest treasure is God and the things waiting for you in heaven.

So, reassess your wealth. What is it and where is it? That will tell you a lot about your heart too.

II. READY TO WORK – The Lord says Gird your loinswhich is the ancient equivalent of “roll up your sleeves.” The Lord has a work for us and wants us to get about it.

Surely the Lord has more than a worldly career in mind. He has in mind things like raising kids in godly fear, pursuing justice, and growing in holiness. The Lord wants us to work in his Kingdom. We must commit to prayer, Sunday worship, the reception of the Sacraments, to obedience and holiness.

And the Lord has a particular work for us based on our gifts. Some can teach, others are good with senior citizens, still others are good entrepreneurs and can provide good work for others at a just wage. Some are skilled at medicine and the care of the sick. Some are called to priesthood and the religious life. Some are called to suffering and to offer that suffering for the salvation of souls. Some serve in strength, others in weakness. But all are called to serve, called to work.

So work with what the Lord gave you to advance his kingdom. Part of being ready means doing our work.

III. READ THE WORD – The Lord says, light your lamps.”

At one level, the phrase “light your lamps” is simply a symbol for readiness (eg. the Wise and Foolish Virgins in Matt. 25:1-13)

But in another sense “lamp” is also a symbol for Scripture. For example, You Word O Lord is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path (Ps 119:105). Or again, We possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable. You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts (2 Peter 1:19).

So here we can also understand that the Lord is teaching us that an essential part of being ready is to be rooted and immersed in the Scriptures and the Teachings of the Church. It makes sense of course. There is just too much stinking thinking in this increasingly secular world hostile to the faith to think that our mind is going to be anything but sullied if we are not reading Scripture every day. How will our minds be sober and clear if we are inebriated by the world?

Clearly, being ready means reading Scripture each day and basing our life on it.

IV. REMAIN WATCHFUL – The Lord says, “And be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks…..Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour when the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come

Now there are different ways to watch and wait. There is the passive watching and waiting that we may do when waiting for a bus. We just sit there and look down the street. But there is another way of waiting that is more active. Consider the kind of watchfulness that one has who waits on tables. This is an active waiting and watching. It observes what is necessary and what will soon become necessary and moves to supply what is needed.

There is also an eager sort of waiting intended here much like the eager waiting of a child on Christmas Eve. The Child does not wait in dread for the coming of “Santa” but with eager expectation.

And so it is that a watchful waiting and an eager waiting are what the Lord has in mind here. It is like that active waiting when we have invited a guest to our home eagerly prepared the house, and all is readiness. We know that his arrival is imminent and so we joyfully prepare and place all in order.

And to set our house in order is to sweep clean our soul of sin and all unrighteousness by God’s grace, and to remove all the clutter of the worldliness. Regular confession, daily repentance, sweep clean the house, and simplifying our lives and freeing ourselves from worldly attachments de-clutters the house of our soul.

Have you prepared the home of your soul for the Lord’s arrival? If not, the Lord says, you may experience him as a thief. Now the Lord is not really a thief for everything belongs to him. But if you and I have not renounced our worldliness and greed, if we have not de-cluttered our lives of attachments to this world, the Lord WILL come to and take back what is his, but he will seem like a  thief because we think it is ours.

It’s never a good idea to call God, the Lord and owner of all, a thief. Bad move.

V. REFLECT on your reWARD The Lord says, Blessed are those servants whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival. Amen, I say to you, he will gird himself, have them recline at table, and proceed to wait on them. And should he come in the second or third watch and find them prepared in this way, blessed are those servants. –

The Lord is clear that he has a reward for those who are found ready!

It is prefigured in the banquet of the Eucharist wherein the Lord prepares a meal and feeds us. The Lord says, Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me (Rev 3:20). And again, And I confer a kingdom on you, just as my Father has conferred one on me, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom (Luke 22:30). We have so much easy food today but in the ancient world one of the most pleasant things they looked forward to was a hearty meal in the company of good friends and family.

The Lord offers us the magnificent blessing of heaven wherein we will be with him and those whom we love forever in unspeakable joy and peace.

Do you meditate often on heaven and long for its rewards? One of the stranger aspects of the modern world is that, even among believers, we talk so little of heaven. True, it is not a place any of us have been yet so it’s hard to fully understand what it will be like. But reflect often on the joy waiting for you in heaven.

Part of being ready to go home to Lord is to long for that day to come. When we want to do something we eagerly prepare for it, we are motivated and make sacrifices to do it.  When we desire it we will more naturally get ready and lay aside whatever is necessary to make the passage there.

So here are five elements constituting a recipe for readiness. Better set your house in order ’cause he may be coming soon!