The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Although I am an ordained deacon of the Catholic Church, the opinions expressed in this blog are my personal opinions. In offering these personal opinions I am not acting as a representative of the Church or any Church organization.

Monday, May 4, 2020

COVID-19 Bible Study Reflection #5: To Be a Disciple

Note: The following is the 5th of my COVID-19 Reflections, written on May 1st for our parish Bible Study participants.

"Our difficulties of the moment must always be dealt with somehow; but our permanent difficulties are difficulties of every moment." - T. S. Eliot, The Idea of a Christian Society


As we make our collective and individual way through this pandemic, it’s easy to get distracted and allow immediate needs to eclipse that which is truly important, to allow the ephemeral to obscure that which the poet, T. S. Eliot, called, “the permanent things.”

The other day, for example, as I retrieved my mail at the neighborhood postal station, a woman screamed at one of her neighbors for getting too close to her. As he approached his mailbox, he had passed perhaps three or four feet from her, certainly closer than the recommended six feet. Her screaming seemed to embarrass everyone present, everyone, of course, but her. Interestingly, because masks cover half the face, eyes become more evident. And one thing I noticed was the fear in her eyes. I just turned toward her and said quietly, “Don’t be afraid.” Her eyes widened even more but she said nothing and walked quickly to her golf cart. 

I know nothing about this woman. That’s another problem with face masks: you don’t always recognize others. Is she a Christian, a disciple of Jesus Christ? If so, it seems she has let her fear of this disease overwhelm her faith. I realize I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: fear and faith cannot coexist in the human heart.

This morning, as I drove to our church, I noticed a sign in a yard in Wildwood. It simply read: "Faith over Fear." How good to remind us that only faith drives fear from our hearts.

Jesus, who knows our hearts, told His disciples again and again, “Be not afraid!” In saying this He emphasized what God had been telling His people from the very beginning. I’ve long taken comfort in God’s words to His people found in Isaiah 41:

“Do not fear; I am with you; do not be anxious: I am your God. I will strengthen you; I will help you; I will uphold you with my victorious right hand… For I am the Lord, your God, who grasp your right hand; it is I who say to you, Do not fear, I will help you” [Is 41:10,13].
Indeed, throughout Sacred Scripture we are told repeatedly not to fear, that God will help us in time of trouble. And yet, so often, weak in our faith, we succumb to fear. So often we are like the father of the boy who suffered from convulsions. Concerned for his son, he approached Jesus for help. When the man’s weak faith was challenged by Jesus, he immediately realized his weakness and uttered this prayerful plea to Our Lord:

“I do believe. Help my unbelief” [Mk 9:24].
To me these seemingly contradictory words perfectly describe the paradox that defines the faith of many, perhaps most, Christians. Yes, we believe, but the doubts remain, don’t they? Hovering in the background, they wait for difficult times, times when faith is tested, and then rush forward trying to overcome our faith with fear. Reading the lives of the saints, we encounter deep faith, but so too do we find doubt and weakness. Even the apostles, after being with the risen Jesus for weeks, were plagued by doubts:
“When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted” [Mt 28:17]
Back in my teen years, my family hosted a young, newly ordained Irish priest for a few months while he participated in a theological symposium at Fordham University. A bright and gregarious young man, fresh out of the seminary in Rome, he overflowed with enthusiasm and confidence. In the evening, at the dinner table, he often shared his thoughts on the sessions he had attended that day. One evening, as he and my father discussed the gift of faith, he waxed eloquently about his personal faith, claiming he never experienced doubt. His last comment: “God has blessed me with perfect faith.”

At that point, my mother, who had remained silent throughout the entire discussion, simply asked, “How fortunate for you, Father. Have you moved many mountains today?”

In her own quiet way, Mom brought to mind Jesus’ call to humility and His reproach of the disciples for their weak faith:
He said to them,
“Because of your little faith. Amen, I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you” [Mt 17:20].
Yes, indeed, it’s hard to be humble when you think you’re perfect. That young man actually went on to become a wonderful parish priest, who I’m sure learned much from the deep and humble faith of many of his parishioners, the faith that can move mountains of fear.

After all, “Be not afraid!” isn’t a suggestion. It was, and remains, a command. But like so many of Jesus’ commands – for example, “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect” [Mt 5:48] – it seems far beyond our capabilities. And guess what? It is! That’s right, to carry out the work of God, we need God’s help. We need to open ourselves to the gift of the Holy Spirit, the gift of His grace. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, grace:
“…includes the gifts that the Spirit grants us to associate us with His work, to enable us to collaborate in the salvation of others and in the growth of the Body of Christ, the Church” [CCC, 2003].
The good we do, and the good we encounter in the world, is nothing less than God’s grace acting through the lives of His people. Who are His people? Everyone, every single one of us, created in His image and likeness, each created in a single act of divine love. God didn’t create anyone to be disposable, to be forgotten or ignored, most especially by His disciples. This is why He gave us that final command, just before He ascended to the Father: 
“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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” [Mt 28:19-20].
What, then, is our task as disciples of Jesus Christ? Nothing less than to make disciples of others, all others. This is God’s hope, His will, as St. Paul describes beautifully in his First Letter to Timothy:
“First of all, then, I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity. This is good and pleasing to God our Savior, who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth” [1 Tim 2:1-4].
Do you and I pray that God will save everyone? Or do we condemn others either openly or in our hearts? When we pray those words, “Thy will be done or earth as it is in heaven,” do we also accept that He “wills everyone to be saved?”

Brothers and sisters, we are plagued by more than viruses; we are plagued by fear and hatred and selfishness and so much more. Offer “supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgiving” not only for others, but for yourself. Called as we are to help others respond to God’s gift of faith, we can’t give others something we don’t ourselves possess.

As disciples, then, we must first turn to God, not in fear but in faith. The world, of course, encourages, even insists, that we fear. We need only watch the evening news or glance at the headlines forced on us through our internet browsers. Disease, economic collapse, terrorism, climate change, violence, hatred – yes, indeed, we are told there is much to fear. With all of this challenging our faith it becomes an even greater challenge to carry out God’s call to evangelize.

St. Paul, too, faced challenges. In his First Letter to the Corinthians, he addresses two major obstacles to the spreading of the Gospel.
“For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles...” [1 Cor 1:22-23]
Yes, Paul tells us, our salvation is all about Christ crucified…but a lot of people didn’t, and still don’t, like to hear about that. They demand miraculous signs and human wisdom. As he preached the Gospel during the Church’s earliest days, Paul faced opposition from Jews who did not accept Jesus as the Messiah and pagans who considered these Christians at best fools or at worst traitors.

To the Jews who rejected Christianity, Christ crucified was a major stumbling block, a scandal. That the one God would lower Himself to become a mere human, one of us, and then allow Himself to be crucified, rejected by His chosen ones…well, the very thought was an abomination. How could God ask us to believe such a thing?

To the Greeks, the gentiles and pagans, a crucified God was sheer folly. No God would allow Himself to be executed like a common criminal…a ridiculous idea, the height of foolishness. Jesus certainly didn’t fit the pagan image of the divine.

In effect Paul is telling the disciples in Corinth: Hey, you’ve got your work cut out for you – well, you would, if it were your work; but it’s not. It’s Christ’s work and He has the wisdom and the power to ensure its success.

Too often we think it’s our work, as if we must show God how smart and capable we are. Too many Christians treat their faith as if it’s just another human activity. A few years ago, I actually heard a bishop encourage his pastors to prepare marketing plans for evangelization. Yes, we fill our human minds with so much, as opposed to St. Paul who tells his flock:
“For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” [1 Cor 2:2].
In this Paul simply obeyed Jesus:
“When they take you before synagogues and before rulers and authorities, do not worry about how or what your defense will be or about what you are to say. For the holy Spirit will teach you at that moment what you should say” [Lk 12:11-12].
Take a moment now and open your Bible to John 2:12-22. Read that wonderful passage describing Jesus’ janitorial work in the Temple. The scene John describes took place in the outer court of the Temple, the Court of the Gentiles.
Now a lot of Christians are uncomfortable with this passage because it conflicts with their image of Jesus…you know, the happy Jesus, or the concerned Jesus, or the group-hug, Kumbaya, Jesus. Yes, we sometimes expend a lot of effort creating a Jesus in our own image and likeness or one we can tolerate. But in doing so we’re actually trying to make Jesus our disciple, aren’t we?

Why did Jesus act as He did? Well, He had good reason to do so. You see, old Caiaphas, the High Priest, and his friends on the Sanhedrin, controlled the Temple and all the business conducted there.

The priests had to inspect all animals being sacrificed, and so it was very convenient to approve only those animals purchased within the Temple walls – animals that were sold at exorbitant prices, as much as 10 or 20 times the going rate.

Every Jew also had to pay a Temple tax, but he could pay it only in shekels, because the Roman coins displayed a graven image, the face of the pagan emperor. Shekels didn’t. But shekels could be obtained only from the Temple money changers, again at exorbitant rates.

Finally, the filth of the animals, the cacophony from all the buying, selling, and money changing made it impossible for well-disposed Gentiles to pray in peace in the only place open to them, the Court of the Gentiles.

You see, they hadn’t just turned God’s House into a marketplace; they had turned it into a den of thieves…and a filthy, noisy one at that. And so, Jesus took the place apart. He did so to cleanse it, to purify it.

Now what does all this have to do with our theme of discipleship? Well, interestingly, the very word, disciple, has its root in the Latin, “dis” meaning apart, and “capere” to take. And that’s just what Jesus did to the Temple: he took it apart. And that’s exactly what Jesus does to us when we turn to Him in response to His call to discipleship: He takes us apart. He must because we’ve cluttered up His other Temple. How did St. Paul put it to the Corinthians?
“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?” [1 Cor 6:19]
That’s right…these Temples we walk around in belong to God not to us. And if we don’t own our bodies…well then, brothers and sisters, we own nothing! As the theologian would say, we are “contingent beings;” that is, creatures whose past, present and continued existence depend totally and solely on God’s will. True discipleship demands that we accept this truth, that without God we are nothing.

Only then can we respond to Jesus’ call to discipleship.

Only then can we allow God to take us apart, to remove the clutter and grime accumulated in His Temple, to tear us down to our essentials.

Only then can we abandon the old, all that is behind us, and begin anew, re-created by the power of God’s Holy Spirit.

And the wonderful thing is: God is happy to do all of this. Jesus doesn’t care how much sin we’re lugging around. He doesn’t care what we’ve done or how long we’ve done it – whether we’re on death row or at death’s door. He doesn’t care that we’ve spent a lifetime dodging Him, running from Him, hiding from Him.

He cares only that we respond to His call – and do so today. And, believe me, you and I have all been called – over and over and over again – for God never stops calling. Our job is the simple part. We need only respond.

Because it’s His work, He handles all the complicated stuff. He’s the one who forgives, and heals, and teaches, and inspires, and challenges, and loves. He wants to do it all and do it all through us. If we do our part, if we respond in love to God’s call, He’ll take care of the rest.

Oh, yes, one more thing. Despite what some folks might tell you, this response of ours isn’t a one-time thing. No, God’s call demands an ongoing, continuous response.

I said it was simple. I didn’t say it was easy. As the vendors and moneychangers in the Temple discovered, when Jesus cleans house, when we allow Him to purify us, to change us, to take us apart and re-create us, it’s not always pretty.
Don’t let pandemics, or fear, or anything else distract you from God’s work, the work you are called to share: to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

No comments:

Post a Comment