1 January 2018 At Saint Peter Church in Naples, FL
Number 6, 22-27 +Psalm 67 + Galatians 4: 4-7 + Luke 2, 16-21
Today while celebrating a new year, the Church celebrates the oldest of all Marian feasts. It is a feast uniquely appropriate to those of us concerned with new beginnings, with new resolutions, and renewed hopes. The Gospel we proclaim repeats what we heard on Christmas. It is important to remember that in this gospel the shepherds, considered to be the poor outsiders, are the first informed of Christ’s birth, and who first visit the infant. It is the outsider who bears the good news of what the angels have announced, that the Savior has been born. It is an outsider who helps Mary to deeply know her son. In Luke, Mary represents the ideal believer, for she hears the good news and ponders it in her heart, and fully responds to it. Her heart becomes the place of discovering Jesus and who he truly is. Mary’s life and the Church’s life is centered on that process of pondering who that child really is. In contemplating her son, Mary becomes the church reflecting on the Incarnation. This aspect of Mary’s motherhood is important for our new year, continuing this year, our journey of heart toward God.
All reflection calls for response, and Mary’s response to God should not be considered a choice between right and wrong, good or bad, or some sort of ethical or moral decision. Nor should our choices be only that. Mary gives us an example of what our choice as Christians really implies: that every choice we make reveals who we are. It is not simply what we do. In our choices, we act out of our self and reveal who we really are. For us, freedom of choice is not about choosing which film we will go to see, or what we will wear, or what we will own. It is about how we reveal and define ourselves on the journey to God.
Mary’s choice was not right or wrong, it came from who she was and knew herself to be as a daughter of Israel, a child of God. She is blessed of all women, and we are told in the great Blessing of Aaron in the today’s first reading that God will smile upon those he loves and who love him, that his face will shine upon them. And today, this New Year’s Day, we know that the face that smiles upon Mary as she holds him in her arms, presenting Him to His Father in the Temple, is that of her new-born Son Jesus. This is the face we long to see, the face of God made flesh.
Last Sunday, leading up to this reading today, we heard Jesus insist that his followers “repent.” In my preaching on that text, I was reminded that the word “repent” has been watered down in translation losing the power and the force of “metanoia” which the word Matthew uses in his original text. For most people, “repent” means to feel sorry and maybe try to do better. I do not think Jesus came from the glory of the Father to make us feel sorry. That idea trivializes his life and his death. He came for “metanoia” which means a lot more than feeling sorry and wanting to do better. That Greek word means changing one’s mind, but not like trading one idea for another. It means a complete transformative change of one’s thinking. It also implies a repudiation of the past ways. With that in mind, Matthew leads us to the mountain and unfolds the message of Jesus.
For those who have begun to experience metanoia at the call of Jesus, this transformation becomes crystal clear. For those trapped in an old way of thinking, trapped in the ways of this world, being Blessed sort of means being lucky, or having received a gift. If that is the case, what follows brings conflict and makes no sense. How is someone lucky who is poor or meek, hungry or in mourning? How can these be blessings they must wonder, and having no answer, they just turn the page and go on unaffected and unchanged. They think it is blessed to be rich because they get what they want. They think that the powerful and aggressive are blessed because they see gentleness as weakness. If you are merciful people will take advantage of you. They want none of that. No metanoia here!
The message of the Gospel and the life and teaching of Jesus Christ turns everything in this world upside down, and it repudiates everything this world believes, values, and holds onto. So, here comes metanoia. Blessing no longer means being lucky or fortunate or favored. According to Jesus Christ being Blessed means being like God. It means being the way God made and intended us and all things to be. That is “Blessed”. Whatever is ungodly is not blessed. For those who will go through the metanoia of faith, everything is different, and the past is over.
Those who are Blessed know their need for God and put their trust in God rather than in material things believing that God will give all that is needed. The Blessed know that what makes you rich is not what you possess, but what kind of person you are.
Those who are Blessed are gentle and kind. They know that weakness is a form of strength knowing that the most important things in life have to be bought with pain and sacrifice. They never confuse happiness with cheap thrills.
Those who are Blessed have values and standards and are prepared to live up to them by doing what is right because that’s what life is about.
Those who are Blessed know mercy and give what they hope to receive. Their greatness lies in their readiness to forgive since they never forget to say, “I’m sorry.”
You can go on with the rest of these beatitudes if you have begun to desire and risk metanoia. These beatitudes are the badges of a disciple of Jesus. They make us rich in the sight of God. They open our minds to a new way of seeing and judging. They give us a whole new set of bearings. A person who lives according to the beatitudes is already living in the Reign of God, and the fact that they are made in God’s image is unmistakable. To see them is to see something of God on this earth. Eternal life will merely be the full blossoming of a life that is already full.
January 22, 2017 at St Peter and St William Churches in Naples, FL
The key to unlocking the message of this text and the discovery of what Jesus is doing and asking lies in that word “repent”, but there is a problem. That English word, “repent” lacks the strength or the power of what Jesus was asking for and expecting. The original word, metanoia carries with it a much greater force than “repent” which can be watered down to simply mean being sorry or correcting one’s ways. Jesus is not asking that. In fact, that almost trivializes his life and his message to think that he became flesh and died just to get us to be sorry for our sins and try to do better. He wants way more than that. He wants metanoia! Without it there can be no Kingdom of Heaven.
What he asks of those men in these verses today he still asks of us, and we need to pay attention to what happens to them, and then measure our response accordingly. When it says that they stopped what they were doing, put down everything, and walk away from what they were doing, it means just that; a complete alteration of what they did and who they were. They might have stayed where they were and hung out with Jesus part time. They might have even become friends with him, but that isn’t what happened for them, and it is not what must happen with us. Jesus was not their “friend”. He became their Lord, and with that choice they experienced metanoia.
What we have here is an invitation to a new kind of existence, a different reality. Jesus called this the “Reign of God”. Matthew called it the “Kingdom of Heaven”. This is not a place. It is a way of being, a way of feeling, a way of looking at ourselves, at things and at other people. It is a way of life. The only description we have of this is the very life and work of Jesus. Look at what he did: forgive, heal, reconcile, feed, comfort, and love. In other words, Jesus made things the way they ought to be. An encounter with Jesus was an encounter with the way God desired, willed, and created this life to be in the beginning. The people Jesus met in this way did more than repent. They were totally different because of him, and their lives were never the same.
So, this metanoia is not something you do. It is something accomplished or achieved by being open to it. When the Kingdom of God or the Reign of God is offered by God, there is a decision to be made. That is what we do. We decide to believe what is offered, and we accept Jesus Christ as the Lord, not as a friend, or some prophet, or some healing do-gooder. Jesus is Lord! That is a decision we make based upon what we have seen and heard. We have to decide to believe. This is what we are hearing about in this Gospel today. Those apostles achieved metanoia because when it was offered, they made the most important decision of their lives. They believed what Jesus offered, accepted him as Lord, and left behind everything that looked like a normal life.
This is the greatest obstacle to metanoia. The biggest adversary Jesus faced was not demons or the Romans or the Scribes and Pharisees. It was an attitude of helplessness submission to things the way they were and always had been. It was that nagging belief that nothing ever changes, that heaven might be different, but nothing on this earth will ever change. Sometimes that attitude gets dressed up to look like an odd kind of piety that counsels a virtue of patience and acceptance. That thinking is a greater threat to metanoia than any persecution. In walking away from their boats and their nets, those apostles opened themselves up to what Jesus offered. Rather than catch food, they were ready to become food, to nourish the hungry by their lives. Rather than stay in one place with one family, they would receive a hundred times more, and why should we think that they left their wives and children behind. It doesn’t really say that. I like to think they brought them along sharing their decision and their vision of life with them.
Each of us must decide that our faith is more than just a nice idea or a theory not yet tried. We must decide that it is more than just a comfort when times are hard. The following of Christ is not a sideline; it is the only thing that makes sense of life which is why so many think so little of life itself. They have not followed the Lord. The metanoia to which we are called transforms us into everything we could possibly be that is good and is holy. The metanoia to which we are called begins when we choose to be what God made us to be and live the way God made us to live, holy and righteous in His sight, generous and blameless, peacemakers, forgivers, healers, reconcilers, and people of love without hate, anger, jealousy, or selfishness. That is a whole new way of looking at ourselves and of standing before one another. It is the way into and the very definition of the Reign of God.
In some ways, it can be said the whole of John’s Gospel is an answer to the question, “Who is this Jesus?” The answer comes with a series of signs that begins at a wedding in Cana and concludes at a funeral in Bethany. This is a critical and essential question for every believer. If someone asks, “Who do you believe in?” or “Who is this Jesus you trust and adore?” “Who is this one who has drawn you to this place today?” You need an answer, your answer, not something from a book or something you heard someone else say.
In the verses following today’s text, followers of John the Baptist are intrigued when they first meet Jesus. Jesus sees the question written on their faces, and he turns to them with a question of his own. “What are you looking for?” These are the very first words spoken by Jesus recorded in John’s Gospel. They are words addressed to you and me as well. “What are you looking for?” A famous philosopher (Kant) once wrote that there are three central questions in human existence: What can I believe? What should I do? And what can I hope for? Jesus Christ knows that these questions are at the heart of anyone wondering whether to follow him. So, his response is: “Come and see.” “Come and listen.” When we do, we will discover what we can believe in, what we can do, what we should do, and what we can hope for.
Today, John’s Gospel gives us answers to two of the questions from the people who actually saw and followed Jesus. The first comes from John the Baptist himself. He points to Jesus and says: “There is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” For those who heard him, there are clear echoes of the Passover. In fact, to make the point even more firmly, John has the death of Jesus occur a day earlier than Matthew, Mark, or Luke. John has Jesus death occur on the night of Passover when Jews would have been remembering their liberation from the slavery of Egypt. This celebrates not just liberation from slavery, but release from sin. So, to the question “Who are you?” comes the answer that Jesus is the Lamb of God who gives his life to bring freedom. To those who might ask Jesus himself comes his own answer, “Greater love has no one than to lay down his life for his friends.”
Going even further, John tells us that if you come and see who Jesus is, there is more than a great hero. He is the Son of God. His love is God’s unconditional love, for you, for me, for every human person including sinners. The evangelist who wrote this Gospel tells us that he is writing that we might believe that Jesus is the Son of God so that we might have life in him.
With the season of Christmas now behind us, we move very deliberately toward that day when we shall once again recall the death of the Lamb of God whose birth among us we have just celebrated with such Joy. As we unfold the Message of Matthew’s Gospel next week and for the next six Sundays, we shall be challenged again to confirm what we believe by what we do so that what we do may express what it is we hope for. When that begins to happen within us, there will be no doubt about who we are, why we are here, who it is we believe in and trust, and where we are headed. As we come to see that personally in Jesus Christ we cannot help but be filled with Joy and with Hope. Life, not death is our ultimate destiny, and at this altar where the Lamb of God spills his blood for us, we have the first taste of the eternal banquet to which he leads.
Hidden in this story that is so familiar to us there is a complete summary of the mission of Christ. It is like a preview of things to come. Listen to the final verses of Matthew’s Gospel and you can see what Matthew is giving us here. “When they saw him, they worshiped….. Then Jesus approached and said to them. ‘All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The work of Christ extending salvation to all is previewed by the visit of these foreigners. His mission comes as a challenge to the Jews of his time, and there is resistance and resentment. Their privileged place and their chosen status with its exclusive claim on God confirmed by the Temple and its rites is all finished with the coming of Christ. The all-embracing love of God cannot be reserved or limited to just the Jews, and the journey of these foreigners and their introduction into the story of salvation is the first hint of what is to come: violent resistance. Herod’s murder of the innocents which Matthew records again previews the murder of the innocent Lamb of God. Yet, God’s plan will prevail in spite of that resistance as Joseph leads Christ to safety away from Herod only to return and continue the mission.
All through the Gospel, Jesus knows no boundaries or boarders. Off to Samaria and to Galilee he goes bestowing the healing signs of God’s love on anyone who comes: a Canaanite woman, the Gadarenes, the people of Gennesaret, even a Roman Centurion’s plea is graced with praise as Jesus says: “In no one of Israel have I found such faith.” Then in one final dramatic sign, the Temple veil is torn in two as the work of Jesus is completed. The apostle Paul picks up this mission as we hear it in the reading from Ephesians today: “The Gentiles are co-heirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise of Christ through the Gospel.” What he is describing is God’s vision of the church in which there is no Gentile or Greek, Jew or Roman, man or woman. We are never more church than when we are close to God’s vision and plan. A church that is not inclusive, welcoming, and open armed is not the church established by Christ. Squabbles over language and customs, conversations that speak of “them” and “us” betray a failure to share the vision and the ministry Matthew inaugurates with this story. The real Epiphany of Christ is seen in a church that embraces the world and people who see one another as God sees.
The message of this Gospel comes as a challenge to this world today, and the teaching our church through this Gospel calls into question a kind of patriotism that is exceptionalism. Authentic patriotism is good and honorable because it affirms one’s identity and community; but excessive patriotism that becomes exceptionalism is divisive, and it is at the root of all wars. For one nation or culture to claim it is the best and is the only way drives a wedge between people, stifles understanding, and begins to deny rights and respect to the other. This Gospel proposes a new solidarity and community among God’s children today just as it did for the Jews at the time of Jesu
This solidarity, this community experience is essential to the plan of God. Again and again, when Christ revealed himself to the world, he rarely showed himself to just one person at a time. Think of Christmas night, when the news was announced to shepherds. It was to a group, another kind of community. And then, people from the east, a distant community, another group. This will happen repeatedly. It is the beginning of a pattern. At the Baptism of Jesus there will be a crowd of witnesses. When he preaches, he will speak to the multitudes. At the time of the first sign, the first miracle, it is at a public gathering, a wedding. When he reappears after his resurrection, it is to a roomful of believers. Even on the road to Emmaus, he presents himself not to one person, but to two. This is part of the great message of Christianity. We are meant to receive the good news together, to live it together, to celebrate it and share it with one another.
One simple fact remains which we affirm today. Christianity is not a solitary experience. Thomas Merton put it beautifully: “Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone. We find it with another.” To this truth let the church say: Amen!