Today’s readings represent a big change for Christ’s followers in how they look at life. Jewish life in Israel was very much a life born out of a culture of tribes and family and later small villages. Marriages were often between first cousins and always strangers and outsiders while reasonably treated were viewed with suspicion and remained apart. Without the familial connection, a person was alone, set apart. Yet, Jesus says today that his followers must deny family and friend and follow him. Family and familial relationships are to become secondary to following him. He is proposing a whole new way of life, one of giving and service and thus in life sharing in a relationship with God. It is a whole new concept of relationships. Paul goes even further today as he says we are baptised into Christ’s death and must ourselves die to the sin and evil of the world. Remember, baptism was full immersion in water and symbolized dying to this world and coming to new life symbolized when the newly baptised emerged from the water. In this new life we are called to relate to all whom we meet and to spread Christ’s word wherever we go and share our special relationship with God. Christ’s call is one that goes beyond a tribe or region or family. It is universal and needs to be shared everywhere. Through all this, Christ will share his love with us.
Gains or Loss?
Our Gospel reading is a continuation from last Sunday. Jesus is commissioning the apostles as they begin to minister. Jesus not only gives them authority, but he also prepares them with good advice and what we would call “full disclosure” of the hazards and dangers of the task. They are not to pack all kinds of supplies, but should accept the food and shelter offered to them. They are told not to fear, but instead trust in God’s care. Now, just 5 sentences remain in what Jesus has to say.
The first two sentences are conditions of discipleship. First, he says, “Whoever loves father or mother or son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” This would make an unlikely ad for a job opening. This was a particularly outrageous idea in the 1st century Middle-East. “Family” at that time meant extended family, all living together in the same compound. The idea spouse was a cousin. Should you turn your back on the family, all financial and emotional support was withdrawn, and you would lose any claim to the family land or the produce from that land. In short, you would find yourself homeless, without food, shelter, clothing, or love.
Now we better understand why he says his disciple must take up their cross; this discipleship will endanger their relationships, their future, and their lives. “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” suggests danger, while also promising rewards.
As I wrote this, I couldn’t help but think of thousands of people who have gone to war or signed on to high-stakes adventures hoping for rewards. Why did men rush to Alaska when gold was discovered? The possible monetary rewards somehow out shadowed the probable frostbite and death. Why do soldiers still become paid mercenaries, if not the reward of money, adrenaline rushes, and glory? What is the difference here between these people and the apostles?
Well, the apostles would sleep under trees, go hungry at times, depend on benefactors. Peter’s denial of Christ was based on having the kind of fame no one wants. Their material possessions would be minimal; they would endure ridicule. They would fear the collaboration of the Jewish leaders with the brutality of the Romans. But above all else, they believed Jesus to be the Messiah, who taught and led and healed like no one else. They witnessed his miracles, and innately sensed his authority, both of which were unquestionably divine in origin. They were seeking –not rewards- but the privilege of his presence.
The last three sentences of Jesus’ closing remarks to the apostles are about rewards. Oddly enough, it’s not about the rewards for being an apostle, but the rewards people would get for the hospitality and receptivity they offered the apostles. Matthew wrote, “If you receive a prophet as one who speaks for God, you will be given the same reward as a prophet.” To “receive” prophets is to listen to their teaching, to entertain them generously; and show them respect because they are faithful ministers of God.
What is the reward for doing this? The prophet may interpret the Bible to you, or share wisdom. Besides , there is God’s reward: a place in the kingdom of God, a reward of grace; since both prophet and host, in their own ways, serve the Lord.
A righteous person is kind and good, and you show respect to them purely because you recognize the Spirit of Christ within. And the reward? The righteous person will not fail to pray for you, to bless you, and share their faith with you. And both of you gain eternal life.
What about the cup of cold water? It seems a little thing. But think of the climate and geography of the Middle East. A cup of cold water even today can literally be the difference between life and death. Pope Francis recently wrote, “Access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights. Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity.” Put in such terms, it no longer seems a little thing.
But Pope Francis makes a good point, in that he brings Jesus’ teaching into the light of 2017. Perhaps you would want to explore how drinking water is provided to areas with none, and what agencies or foundations do this. That could be our national charity next year. We are accustomed to donating money as a way to share our faith and care for our needy. This is good; funding is crucial.
We cannot walk the ancient road of Judea with Jesus, but we can walk in Food cupboards, soup kitchens, recreation centers, ESL classes, in prisons, in nursing homes and hospitals. We can walk in our own neighborhood, especially as this church is so close to subsidized housing and struggling schools. We need to learn about the Muslim faith, and build relationships with the Muslim families we live near and work with. Nothing brings peace better than one-on-one friendships. This is the way we put Jesus ahead of bias and counteract the hatred and violence that puts the innocent on crosses.
We have two copies of this book*, which I highly recommend. It is easy reading, and answers a lot of questions about multi-faith interaction in a changing world. I would ask that you circulate these books so everyone has a chance to read it, and then maybe we can have an after-Mass discussion group after Labor Day. I don’t think Matthew was thinking about the 12 apostles when he wrote this teaching about discipleship. I think he was thinking about us.
*Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? (Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World) by Brian D. McLaren, 2012, Jericho books ISBN 978-1-4555-1395-6 (pbk)
Promises and Blessings, Now and Then
Last Sunday we read the Emmaus story, in which Jesus walks with two disciples. They do not recognize him, but “he interpreted to them (the parts which) referred to him in all the scriptures.” Later they say, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?” Today our situation is the similar. I cannot tell you how many years I heard Peter’s Pentecost homily with my eyes glazing over as I wondered where those scripture quotations came from, what they meant, and how they were relevant. Without interpretation, our readings do not come to us full of meaning and context.
This interpretation is complicated by our readings jumping around in the scriptures during the Easter Season. If we read the text of the New Testament book “The Acts of the Apostles” straight thru, we would have already read of the Ascension. We would have read also about the after-Easter period of prayer for apostles, Jesus’ mother Mary and his brothers, and the other women who had been part of Jesus’ ministry. Then The Spirit came at Pentecost, the very day that Peter proclaims his homily. We read part of his homily last week and part today.
When he begins, Peter quotes the Old Testament book of Joel. The prophet Joel uses a terrifying invasion of locusts as a visual starting place for his teaching. He compares the arrival of the locusts to the last days of the world, also called “the coming of the Lord”. Basically, he’s saying that the locusts will destroy all the crops and the nation will starve to death if God doesn’t save them. This could be the “end of their days”- a euphemism for death. So, says Joel, why don’t you humble yourselves before God, cast aside your senseless reliance on yourself, shed your false pride, and admit your frailty and powerlessness, for your only hope is to call out for God’s grace and mercy. And the people do just that.
God responds to them, promising to remove the locusts, restore the crops and give them all the food they can eat. In addition, (God is always lavish in blessing us) God promises to pour out his Spirit on the people, even down to the lowliest servants, and rescue (save) “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord” in the last days. God says, “For on Mount Zion, (the temple hill in Jerusalem)…in Jerusalem there will be survivors- whom the Lord shall call.” This pouring out of God’s Spirit and call from God (remember Pentecost was also an auditory experience), foretold in Joel, is happening as Peter speaks from the temple hill in Jerusalem!
Peter tells the Joel story to create these parallels between Joel’s day and Pentecost. Peter began by saying, “let the whole house of Israel know for certain” (“the whole house of Israel” refers to those who are saved in the Last Days) “that God has made Jesus both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified. The people of Joel’s day were saved by humbling themselves and calling on the Lord’s mercy. Now something new has happened. Now Jesus is “Lord”, God. In other words, the people hearing Peter must humble themselves and call on the mercy of Jesus to forgive them for their sins, including the crucifixion. How do the people call on the Lord Jesus’ mercy? They must be baptized in Jesus’ name and receive the gift of God’s Holy Spirit.
But Peter isn’t done yet. He says, “For the Promise is made to you …and to all those far off, whomever the Lord our God will call.” Who are the ones “far off”? That’s us, the Gentiles. What is “the Promise”? Think; who was the “father of faith” that God made all those promises to? You know, “as countless as the stars in the sky”. Abraham was promised in Genesis 22:18, “In your descendants all the nations of the earth shall find blessing.” How do they find blessing? The blessing, according to both Luke (Acts) and Paul (in Galatians 3: 2-9), is in baptism & the gift of the Spirit.
Peter still has more to say. The passage in the 1st Letter of St. Peter, that is our 2nd reading, is a pretty clear interpretation of the “Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52 thru 53. That is obvious because Peter quotes verse 53:12 “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” What is Peter’s goal here? The Jews taught that this was about the prophet Isaiah, as a witness to all the nations. Peter interprets it as about Jesus, who came to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy. Isaiah was the warm-up band, not the main attraction. Jesus is the sinless servant, who willingly suffered for the sins of the people, who saves them – us- from just punishment for sin. This is the source of Christian teaching that the sufferings of Jesus healed us, he gave his life for us and accomplished God’s will. Jesus bore our guilt and won pardon for our offenses. Peter says, (We) “had gone astray like sheep, but have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of (our) souls.”
Finally, our Gospel is primarily an interpretation of Ezekiel 34, (well worth reading, hint, hint) although there are certainly many other scriptural references to shepherds. That is too much to cover today, but I want to make just one point about shepherds. Usually, the Jewish priesthood and religious leaders are targeted as the “Bad” shepherds. But in that same 1st Peter 2:9 we find, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of God’s own, so that you may announce the praises of God who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” Not just priests and leaders, but each and every one of us has a responsibility to examine our words and behaviors in the light of God’s truth. Part of doing that is to take very seriously our scriptures along with our Catholic Tradition, with a capital T, so we have a fuller grasp of the gifts and grace God has lavished on us, who were once “far off”, now drawing ever nearer to the Lord of all.