Sunday, August 18, 2013

In the Steps of Jesus: "The Pioneer & Perfecter of Our Faith"

The author of Hebrews, in today’s Epistle, describes the Christian life in terms of a race which has no divisions or categories. We all run it. Today’s passage (12:1-14) follows the previous chapter where the author gives a sort of short course in biblical history. He singles out the great heroes of faith, from Abel to Samuel and the prophets. In Chapter 12, using imagery of a sports stadium, he pictures this great crowd of witnesses, who’ve already run their races, now cheering us on to run well. He notes the importance of running unencumbered by selfishness and bad habits. The race, moreover, isn’t a sprint, but a run which demands endurance. He says that we must run steadily and pace ourselves, which largely depends on where God wishes you and me to be in our life, at the time God determines, and for the purpose God has in mind. 

The greatest incentive for our running, he tells us, is looking ahead to the finish line, to Jesus, the beginner and completer, “the pioneer and perfecter”, of our faith. Jesus’ vision of “the joy which was still before him, in the future” is what gave him the determination and courage to keep going, even to death on the Cross, despite the shame, even despite opposition from enemies who turned out to be his own sisters and brothers. As if anticipating the likelihood that we may quit running at the first sign of temptation, the author of Hebrews reminds us that none of us has yet fully paid our dues: “In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood”, as Jesus did. Suffering, the Cross, is an inescapable part of our human and Christian lives. Though we don’t like it at the time, by God’s grace it is always redemptive and it “yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

In Luke’s Gospel (12:49-56) Jesus tells us in most forceful terms about the demands of following him. Jesus echoes what John the Baptizer once said of him: that Jesus will baptize with Holy Spirit and with fire: “I came to bring fire to the earth...I have a baptism with which to be baptized...Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division...You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
That’s not a message we particularly want to hear! We prefer the quiet, gentle, reassuring Jesus. Luke’s Gospel pictures Jesus and the disciples getting nearer to Jerusalem, the City of Peace where untruth, cruelty and violence -- even death --  will be unleashed on Jesus, as it was on the prophets before him. Jesus goes to the heart of his teaching, namely, the “reign of God”, the reign of truth and all that it implies. Jesus, the Living Word and Example, the Message of God in the flesh, challenges the disciples and each of us to choose whether or not we’ll generously align ourselves for or against the kingdom, the reign of truth.

Eight centuries before Jesus, Micah the prophet had foretold that believing in God can lead to painful anxiety, suffering, and division in all a person’s relationships: even in the closest relationship, to one’s family. In shocking detail Jesus repeats Micah’s prophecy in v. 53! It leaves no doubt that, once you commit yourself to God, God’s truth, God’s reign, there’s no thing, no cause, no person, not even a parent, a brother or a sister, whom you can put ahead of Jesus as a priority. 

In today’s first reading (Jeremiah 23:23-29) the prophet says much the same thing, from a slightly different viewpoint. In condemning the people’s reliance on bogus, hypocritical “prophets”, who say only what people want to hear, God reminds them that God isn’t a part-time God, present only when they need something, but that God is always present, even in the midst of their doubt and suffering. God is very truly God and part of one’s life, even when a person has drifted and is caught up in the pursuit of false freedom, pleasure, and possessions, and in the resulting emptiness and disappointment.

Jeremiah points out that phony prophets come and go in every age, while God remains present. We’re all familiar with so-called “prophets” who offer people, especially vulnerable, suffering folks, a whole range of pious platitudes, sweet assurances, magic solutions, but are, in the end, no real help in their suffering. In fact, preaching a gospel of ease and success, of wealth and blessing often compounds people’s problems. The Cross cannot be removed from the gospel, nor can the gospel preached by false prophets be a reliable defense against life’s real traumas. “Let him who has my Word speak my Word faithfully.”, God reminds the people.

Scripture scholar Gary Peluso-Verdend writes: “One of the common denominators in [today’s] lections is that telling the truth and deciding who is telling the truth often divides people...A contemporary comedian [Stephen Colbert] who satirizes the day’s news and newsmakers coined the term ‘truthiness’, meaning that in today’s parlance, public words that pass for truth are too mushy and questionable. Real truth often divides and evokes anger from those who live in and with lies. It is always time to speak in a truthful manner...It is not good to isolate the need for truthful speech and actions from the needs for compassion and community; sometimes we are afraid to speak of truth for fear of evoking anger or even violence against ourselves. Neither is it good to allow truthiness to go unchecked. Truth spoken in love nourishes even as it tears down in order to build on a solid foundation. Truthiness neither nourishes nor can [it] endure over time…”     

Lutheran pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyred by the Nazis in 1945, wrote from prison that to really believe is to stake your life on the something or Someone in whom you believe. And when you do so, you’re sure to experience, at some point, challenge or opposition or conflict, either from within yourself or from others outside. Religious faith and suffering go hand-in-hand when your life is set on Jesus the Christ. Bonhoeffer observes: “It is infinitely easier to suffer in obedience to a human command than to accept suffering as free, responsible men. It is infinitely easier to suffer with others than to suffer alone. It is infinitely easier to suffer as public heroes than to suffer apart and in ignominy. It is is infinitely easier to suffer physical death than to endure spiritual suffering. Christ suffered as a free man alone, apart and in ignominy, in body and in spirit…” 

If Jesus is, as the author of Hebrews says, the One who begins faith and the One who helps faith become fully mature and adult, then you and I must participate in and share His suffering and anguish. Only by involving ourselves in the “reign of God”, the reign of truth, in the life of this world, wherever we are, can we genuinely live in faith. Bonhoeffer sees this as a kind of Christian “worldliness”. It means, for example, that rather than simply add names to prayer lists, we involve ourselves one-on-one in healing, reconciling, encouraging, feeding and clothing our sisters and brothers. It means immersing ourselves in the family, the parish, the community, the world where God is often absent: a world of prejudice, hatred, and violence; of self-serving politics; of racial and sexist injustice; a world of terrorists and hostage-takers; of deceptive, immoral employers and corporations; a world of families ripped apart by divorce, addictions and abuse of all kinds; a world of lonely people, and people with little hope beyond just getting through tomorrow.

Setting our hearts on Jesus, believing and following him, means allowing ourselves to be caught up in the way of the Cross, the way of life, being in solidarity with Jesus’ sufferings in the life of the world, living in faith with determination and courage. In the words of St. Teresia Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), Holocaust martyr whose feast we commemorated on August 9: “Do you want to be totally united to the Crucified? If you are serious about this, you will be present, by the power of His Cross, at every front, at every place of sorrow, bringing to those who suffer comfort, healing, and salvation.

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