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.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Never taken lightly

Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

Parishioners often feel frustrated by my hesitation to initiate new programmes in the parish. I can often sense the non-verbalised exasperation painted on their faces, “Why are you taking so long?” “What’s there to wait?” The answer, or some may say “my excuse,” for this hesitation lies in this little wisdom that I’ve acquired over the years – it’s easier to begin something than to sustain it over a long period of time. The initial enthusiasm launches people with a great deal of excitement, but it requires determination to maintain or finish a project. Disciples of Jesus need to know that it takes commitment.  I’m constantly reminded of the warning that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” This is a warning I cautiously repeat to myself and others especially when enthusiasm overcomes the reality of the hard work that is to follow. Our Lord Jesus clearly understood this and thus warns all potential well-intentioned disciples against making wild promises which they have little resolve to keep.

Today's Gospel reading begins a long section unique to Luke's Gospel. Jesus begins his journey to Jerusalem, which will end with his ministry in Jerusalem. Traditionally, it has been called the “travelogue”, a conflation of two words, “travel” and “dialogue.” It is a catechetical journey that would not only take them from the north to the south, but also move them from being tentative followers of Jesus to committed disciples willing to lay down their lives for the gospel. All along the way, he instructs his followers in the meaning of true discipleship. We see in this reading that the disciple must be willing to encounter rejection (“the Samaritans would not welcome him”), poverty (“nowhere to lay his head”), sacrifice of one’s previous priorities (“come away and proclaim the Kingdom of God”), and a decisive break with one’s entire past.

For those who can see portents and omens in tiny details, the poor start to this journey already forewarns us how it would all end badly with Jesus. As we had just heard in today’s gospel, immediately Jesus is met with rejection, as a Samaritan village will not receive him because he is going to Jerusalem. Jesus is undaunted. James and John want to call down fire from heaven to destroy the people in the village, but Jesus rebukes them and moves on. He’s not going to let this tiny set back derail his plans to reach Jerusalem.

The rest of today's reading is about the radical demands of discipleship. Walking resolutely along the road to Jerusalem, knowing what awaits him at the end of journey, he encounters three potential disciples who demonstrate the examples of poor discipleship, persons who possess loads of good intentions and little else. These three persons show that they do not understand the demands Jesus will make of them. Neither care of self, care for the dead, nor care of one's family (as required by the Fourth Commandment) can come before the demands of discipleship.

To the first man who makes this spontaneous promises which sounds like blank cheque, “I will follow you wherever you go,” Jesus provides a more nuanced perspective. The man did not know where Jesus was headed and what would be involved. Jesus applied some reality and informed this first volunteer that following him involved hardships; that even the animals in the wild have more security than do Jesus and his followers. We are not sure whether such a reality check would have dampened the enthusiastic spirit of this man but it is clear that Christians are not meant to naively commit themselves to this way of life unless they knowingly and freely are able to commit themselves to the cross. Freedom is premised on such knowledge. Discipleship must always be deliberate and intentional. There are no accidental disciples.

But Jesus did throw a challenge to another man to follow him. This man, however, like so many of us scrambled for excuses. This man, who wants to bury a parent, is reminded that the demands of proclaiming the Kingdom of God take precedence. The phrase, “to bury my father,” meant more than just burying a dead father. It is quite likely that the father wasn’t dead yet and was still hale and hearty and had many years ahead of him. Thus the excuse is basically this – I have to fulfill obligations and would only be “free” to follow Christ, once I am freed of these obligations, upon the death of my family members. It is a tentative answer that would or would never be fulfilled in an undetermined time. “Yes, but not yet. Let me see.”

And the third, who wants to say farewell to his family, is reminded that once you put your hand to the plough you cannot look back or the furrow will be crooked. This man stands in contrast to the response of Elisha in the first reading. As opposed to the third man in the gospel, we have in the first reading an example of resoluteness in decision making. The act of slaughtering the oxen and burning the plough expresses Elisha’s decision to pursue wholeheartedly his new vocation as a prophet. He is burning his bridges. There is no turning back.

Most people who misunderstand this text would believe that the demands of Jesus are unreasonable. This is when Christianity is perceived as a religion which lays unnecessary and even unnatural burdens on a human person. Today’s world has canonised sin and mediocrity as the perennial human condition; thus the demands of Christ and of His Church are regarded as inhumane and a form of enslavement. The Church is constantly being pushed to lower the standards, to make it easier, lighter and certainly more convenient. Just because something is easier or lighter, does not necessarily make it any freer. On contrary, freedom can only be offered together with the gift of Truth – the truth will set us free. What the world fails to recognise is that our Lord, through his cross and resurrection, had come to free us from the tyranny of sin and the power of death. Christian freedom therefore is far from an abstract philosophical ideal. It is the result of a historical event: the victorious death of Jesus.  The freedom ultimately becomes ours when we deliberately and freely choose this way of life.

Yes, the demands of Jesus seems harsh here, but he is only asking of his disciples what he asks of himself. Jesus' unconditional commitment to God's saving work will demand of him his life. Our Lord used himself as the benchmark. Without hesitation, without flinching, without any excuse or delay, Jesus resolutely took the road for Jerusalem and made the ultimate sacrifice.

What the Lord wants of us today as he has been asking from the very beginning is total commitment. Therefore we cannot make this challenge easier by saying that it was just for a particular situation and is no longer practical or relevant for today. From the very beginning of Christianity - as we read in scriptures, in the history of the Church, we have seen in the living and dying testimonies of so many Christians who have heard Christ's call to renounce normal ties of family and country, and to keep before their eyes the goal of total discipleship. They understood that there are no half measures, no turning back, not just an ideal to be contemplated, but a call that can never be taken lightly.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Without the Cross we are Nothing

Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

Uniquely found in the Gospel of St Luke, is the context provided for St Peter’s confession. The exchange arises from Jesus’ prayer time. Several times in the Gospel we find Jesus praying in solitude: before being tempted in the desert, when He elected the Twelve, at Gethsemane. It is as if St Luke provides us with the bread crumbs to locate Jesus. Where can you find the Lord, except in prayer? Only the experience of silence and prayer offers the proper setting for the growth and development of a true, faithful and consistent knowledge of that mystery. After this experience of prayer Jesus asks a critical question: “Who do you say that I am?”  Jesus’ question tries to teach them how their faith, to be true, must be separated from the views of the world. Pope Benedict XVI explains that, “there are two ways of “seeing” and “knowing” Jesus: one – that of the crowd – is more superficial; the other – that of the disciples – more penetrating and genuine. The disciples were invited to move beyond the perceptions of the crowds. But this was not enough. They were now challenged to move beyond their own personal confessions.

In the Synoptic Gospels Peter’s confession is always followed by Jesus’ announcement of his imminent Passion. The passion predictions are not meant to be stand alone. To understand Jesus’ true identity, to understand the role, identity and mission of a disciple who is called to be a follower of Jesus, one needs to understand and assume the challenges that came with the Passion. Indeed, the titles attributed to him by Peter – you are “the Christ”, “the Christ of God”, “the Son of the living God” – can only be properly understood in light of the mystery of his death and Resurrection.

And the opposite is also true: the event of the Cross reveals its full meaning only if this man who suffered and died on the Cross is truly “the Christ of God.” If the identity of “Christ” can never be separated from his passion, then the identity of a Christian can never be separated from the cross.

Luke’s gospel adds a certain intensity to the demand of discipleship expected of those who wish to follow Christ. The disciple is not only expected to take up his cross once in his lifetime, but the cross is to be taken up ‘daily.’ The cross is thus lived in the every-day of on-going history. For a disciple of Christ to take up his cross is for him to be willing to start on a death march. To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to be willing, in His service, to suffer the indignities, the pain, and even the death of a condemned criminal.

I’ve heard people describe our crosses as burdens we have to bear in our lives—the chronically ill relative, the alcoholic or unfaithful husband, the demanding boss, a short temper, recurring health problems. So taking up your cross means putting up with these things, enduring them and soldiering on. We basically have no choice in the matter. With self-pitying pride, they say, “That’s my cross I have to carry.” Such an interpretation is not what Jesus meant. The cross was never meant to be a mere accident, an unwanted burden. Grudging reluctance to bear the cross daily can only lead to resentment – to see life as a curse, rather than a blessing even in the midst of our daily crosses. What made the cross salvific was precisely the freedom and deliberateness by which Christ chose to embrace and die on it.

Commitment to Christ means taking up your cross daily, giving up your hopes, dreams, possessions, even your very life if need be for the cause of Christ. And this must be done with utmost freedom and love, rather than to assume that it is an unfortunate lot that has fallen upon us, one which we cannot avoid. The cross becomes our salvation only because we can choose to accept it and deny it. Thus discipleship becomes an act of freedom, of choosing to lose everything for the sake of the kingdom. For those who freely choose the cross, it is no longer a symbol of misfortune, a curse or an unwanted burden. The beauty of the cross only becomes apparent when we embrace it for love of Christ. Thus, we can echo the words of that medieval mystic, Thomas à Kempis, when he unabashedly confessed that “in the Cross is salvation; in the Cross is life; in the Cross is protection against our enemies; in the Cross is infusion of heavenly sweetness; in the Cross is strength of mind; in the Cross is joy of spirit; in the Cross is excellence of virtue; in the Cross is perfection of holiness. There is no salvation of soul, nor hope of eternal life, save in the Cross.”

It is only in recognising the necessity of the cross in our Christian lives,that we can choose to resist the temptation of fleeing from it. Our two Popes have given us a potent reminder of the pervasive necessity of the cross. In his last address to an emotional crowd, Pope Emeritus Benedict reminded the Church that his resignation did not mean coming down from the cross. He must have been prophetic as proof of this is found in his continuing crucifixion by critics of the Church and pseudo-fans of Pope Francis. The latter extol the simplicity of the new Pope at the cost of tarnishing the character of the old one. They equate the Pope Emeritus with their own poor notion of the Middle Ages—dark, backward and decadent—and speak as if the saintliness of the new Pontiff is an anomaly among the Successors of Saint Peter. Pope Emeritus Benedict continues to bear the cross, not just as a misunderstood figure, a victim of a relentlessly aggressive media, but he chooses to bear the cross for the whole Church. His decision to live a monastic life of prayer within the confines of the Vatican, hidden from the world, is his free and deliberate decision to bear his cross for the Church and the World. It is a sign of courage, not a sign of cowardice; it is an act proclaiming the victory of cross, rather than resigning oneself to defeat.

It is indeed providential, that as one Pope concluded his pontificate with reference to the cross, a new Pontiff would begin his reign by speaking of the necessity of same object. The path of the Church always entails difficulties, Pope Francis said in his first homily after his election to the pontificate, and Church leaders should be prepared to embrace them. He explained that “when we walk without the Cross, when we build without the Cross, when we profess a Christ without the Cross… we aren't disciples of the Lord.” The Pontiff therefore reminds us once again, that without the cross “we are worldly. We are bishops, priests, cardinals, popes, (and I would add lay and religious) but not disciples of the Lord.”