Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Rejoice that your names are written in heaven

Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

Pope St Gregory the Great may have gained fame for inventing the liturgical chant which carries his name but he is also the Pope who had a deep concern for the English people and the mission to evangelise them. In 597, this saintly Pope sent St Augustine with a contingent of monks on an evangelistic mission to England which proved exceedingly successful. Not only did St Augustine establish a foothold on English soil but began to expand Christian influence over different parts of England. The Pope remained concerned about the happenings in England and therefore kept a weather eye lest his envoy succumb to pride. Augustine might have had grounds for this since everything appears to have turned out well. There were even rumours of miracles. But St Gregory helped to get things in proportion as we can see from one of his letters recorded by the Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History (chapter 31). Here Gregory insists that the success of the mission was because of God’s predilection for the English. Augustine, though drawn to the people himself, was simply God’s instrument.

Since these signs and wonders performed by St Augustine and his monks were God’s means for attaining his end they must not become an incentive to human pride.  Pope Gregory in his letter to Augustine issues this warning, “At the same time, beware lest the frail mind becomes proud because of these wonderful events, for when it receives public recognition, it is liable to fall into senseless conceit.” Here, surely, we have a blueprint for ministry in the Church, and especially for those called to exercise leadership and oversight. People and their salvation matter far more than any blowing of a personal trumpet.

The above story seems déjà vu as we recall what we had heard in today’s gospel. The Seventy two returned from their mission all excited and abuzz about their power over demons. Things could not be going better for Jesus’ disciples. “The seventy-two came back rejoicing,” our text says. Things must have gone well. The seventy-two tell Jesus, “Lord, even the devils submit to us when we use your name.” But Jesus helps them put the whole matter in perspective. There is nothing to gloat or pride themselves about. Power over demons, as wonderful as it is as a harbinger of the Kingdom of God, is nothing compared to the immense privilege the disciples have of salvation. God is not nearly so impressed with miracles as we humans. The very greatest value is belonging to God. Our abilities, our deeds, our spiritual gifts gain us no standing with God. Rather, Jesus says, “Rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

At one level, Jesus encourages them. He assures them that he has seen Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Apparently Jesus understands this trainee mission by his disciples as a sign of Satan’s overthrow, accomplished in principle at the cross. But he does not stop at giving a positive appraisal. He continues to tell his disciples that they will witness yet more astonishing things than these. It would be far too myopic to just rest on their laurels and focus on their success and achievements. What they should truly be rejoicing over is that their salvation has been won for them by Christ.

So this is what Jesus would have you rejoice in, as the main thing. It is so easy to rejoice in success. Our self-identity may become entangled with the fruitfulness of our ministry. And then the danger, of course, is that it is not God who is being worshiped. Our own wonderful acceptance by God himself no longer moves us, but only our apparent success. And when we begin to idolise success we surreptitiously end up idolising ourselves. Few false gods are so deceitful. When faced with such temptations, it is desperately important to rejoice for the best reasons—and there is none better than that our sins are forgiven, and that by God’s own gracious initiative our names have been written in heaven. It’s fine that you can get things done for the Church. That’s great. But even greater, far greater, is what God has done for you through the sacrifice made by His Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ. This is something which we did not acquire through our own hard work or earn through merit. God did them for us. This is the real reason for rejoicing.

Now, is it good if you can do some work for the parish? It is good that you remain faithful to your prayers and your spiritual practices? Yes, by all means. Do we want people who will give generously to support the work of the parish? Yes, of course. That is much needed. Do we want people who will volunteer their time and effort to do various tasks around the church–cleaning up, serving on various apostolates and commissions, and so forth? Sure. Very much appreciated. Praise and thank God for having given you gifts that you now so generously offer to the whole community. That’s terrific. But don’t put the cart before the horse.

Don’t lose sight of the main thing. Your membership in the Church is not based on how much you can do for Christ or for His Church. If you can do a lot, don’t get big-headed. If you can’t do very much anymore, don’t feel like you are unloved or not valued. If someone else seems to do more than you, you shouldn’t feel jealous. Nor when someone else doesn’t meet up to your standard of service, doesn’t make him any less valuable a member in the Church. There’s no need to make comparisons or match each other in terms of commitment or service. You see, it’s not about how good a worker you are for the church. That’s not it. That’s secondary–good, and important, if you’re able to do those things, but still secondary. The primary thing, the reason you are in the Church, is, first of all, because you are a recipient of God’s gratuity. That is why you are here. He offers us our salvation through Word and Sacrament.

So let us heed that timeless advice given to a wise bishop by a wiser pope, “beware lest the frail mind becomes proud because of these wonderful events, for when it receives public recognition, it is liable to fall into senseless conceit!” Rather, rejoice in God’s initiative in offering us salvation. Rejoice that I can do all things well through Christ who strengthens me (Phil 4:13). That is faith. That is rejoicing in the main thing. Rejoice in the Lord who sustains his people, who nurtures them like a mother, who offers them peace and consolation in times of distress. Rejoice because “we have seen the marvellous deeds of the Lord.” Rejoice in “the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom the world is crucified to me, and I to the world.” Rejoice because your names are written in heaven!  Rejoice because you are chosen of God for eternal life!  Rejoice because you are now the children of God through faith and the power of baptism! Power to become the children of God is to be valued far more than power to work miracles or cast out demons!  Our salvation is much more precious and worthy of more rejoicing than all our spiritual gifts and authority! Indeed, the supreme law is and always will be the salvation of souls.

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