The Reign of God is a Bargain… Any Takers?

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: 1 Kgs 3:5. 7-12; Ps 118; Rom 8:28-30; Mt 13:44-52

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew

JESUS said to the crowds, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field which someone has found; he hides it again, goes off happy, sells everything he owns and buys the field.

‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls; when he finds one of great value he goes and sells everything he owns and buys it.

‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet cast into the sea that brings in a haul of all kinds. When it is full, the fishermen haul it ashore; then, sitting down, they collect the good ones in a basket and throw away those that are no use. This is how it will be at the end of time: the angels will appear and separate the wicked from the just to throw them into the blazing furnace where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.

‘Have you understood all this?’ They said, ‘Yes.’ And he said to them, ‘Well, then, every scribe who becomes a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out from his storeroom things both new and old.’


LATELY, I am getting emails, Facebook, and WhatsApp messages with cute avatars and pictures of products besides a big SALE sign. And if I ignore them for the first time, they seem to keep popping again. Sometimes I do that—sending emails, Facebook, and WhatsApp messages to my boss at home with a cute avatar and pictures of the products besides a big SALE sign and hoping she gets the message.

Today, it is unlikely that we will find buried treasure in a field or vacant lot and then sell all we have to buy it. It is more likely that we hear a good stock tip or racing tip and yes, a half-price sale tip and invest all we have in that. The circumstances may be different, but the response is the same. We love bargains. And when we have the chance to acquire a “treasure” at a bargain rate, we want it.

In our gospel today, it seems Jesus wants us to think that the reign of God is a bargain. Something that we can risk or invest everything we have to get it—because it is worth the cost. And yet, most people of the world do not seem to think the bargain worth the cost. Christians are the minority.

For that matter, even among Christians today—including me and you—though we identify as Christians, many of us are not sure if we are willing to make that big investment. And why is that? Why do people not respond to a great offer that includes knowing the love of God that gives life beyond death?

Maybe the problem lies not in the product. Maybe the problem lies in the one selling the product. I mean, if some shabby-looking character is to walk up to us and say, “I have a great deal for you. All you have to do is take my word for it and hand over all you have,” what would you do?

The same thing with proclaiming the Kingdom. We have a great message! That is why we call it gospel—good news! We have our glories but they are often obscured by other things. Think about child abuse and financial scandals in the church. Just look around us. Sometimes we do or say the most unchristian things to fellow Christians, and worst in the name of Christianity! Somebody told me recently when he sees these things happening he is embarrassed to call himself Catholic.

It is seldom the scandal of the Cross that keeps people from buying into the Kingdom of God. It is usually the scandal of Christians that do so! Maybe the problem lies in the fact that we Christians have not really bought the Good News of the Kingdom ourselves. We are Christians by habit, not by single-hearted desire.

If we look at the amount of energy and dedication and resources people put into worldly pursuits—most of them quite legitimate—health, property, career, education, family, relaxation, etc, and compare the amount of time and energy we put into being a Christian, we might find ourselves embarrassed.

If we do not deepen our knowledge of and love for Scripture, Church doctrines and teachings, if prayer is something we do mechanically if at all, if our relationship and service to others are grudging, if our worship is a wooden formality or something we just have to endure every week, how can we be convincing purveyors of the treasure of God? If we do not invest in it, why should anyone else?

Going back to the gospel, the Kingdom of God is like a dragnet. Everyone who comes into contact with it is drawn in, but the fish who are caught are sent not to the chowder pot but back to the nets to become as fishers. As baptised Christians, we are to be bait for the Kingdom.

Our lives must arouse curiosity, attraction, and, finally commitment on the part of those whom God sends us. And God sends us every one! But we must make the choice. We must invest in the Kingdom

I guess the question we need to wrestle for ourselves is, are we ready to risk everything just to possess the Kingdom? Do we dare to imitate God—who moves heaven and earth just to show his love—and in so doing reveal our priorities in faith and life? I dare myself… and I dare you… any takers of the bargain that is the Kingdom of God?!

Obedience is the path to loving Christ and living life to the full

6th Sunday of Easter (A)

Readings Acts 8:5-8. 14-17; Ps 65; 1 Pt 3:15-18; Jn 14:15-21

A reading from the holy Gospel according to John

Jesus said to his disciples:
‘If you love me you will keep my commandments.
I shall ask the Father,
and he will give you another Advocate
to be with you for ever,
that Spirit of truth
whom the world can never receive
since it neither sees nor knows him;
but you know him,
because he is with you, he is in you.
I will not leave you orphans;
I will come back to you.
In a short time the world will no longer see me;
but you will see me,
because I live and you will live.
On that day
you will understand that I am in my Father
and you in me and I in you.
Anybody who receives my commandments and keeps them will be one who loves me;
and anybody who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I shall love him and show myself to him.’


DURING these Sundays of the Easter Season, the Church takes us back to the Last Supper, giving us a chance to dig deeper into its meaning. Throughout his Last Supper discourse, Christ’s constant refrain is: if you love me, you will keep my commandment. They are special words. We need to hear them, to let them sink in. Because Jesus knows that these twelve men are normal, fallen human beings. They are weak and ignorant, stubborn, and headstrong. And yet, he also knows that they truly love him. That they want to be his disciples. They are just like us: flawed, but committed. And Jesus earnestly desires to teach them how to live out their commitment to him, and so he gives them his new commandment: love one another, as I have loved you.

In his gospel account, John never allowed the word love to devolve into a sentiment or emotion. Its expression is always concrete, always a moral act and, more importantly, it is revealed in obedience. Obedience to his word is the path to loving him and living life to the full. I remember a story of the former archbishop of Manila, the late Jaime Cardinal Sin, who is still fondly remembered in the Philippines for welcoming visitors to the bishop’s residence by saying “Welcome to the House of Sin.”

The former Archbishop of Manila, the late Jaime Cardinal Sin, fondly remembered welcoming visitors to “The House of Sin.”

Once, he celebrated his birthday and his family gave him an expensive set of pyjamas. But when the family visited him the following week for breakfast, they found the Cardinal’s trusted aide and driver wearing the expensive pyjamas. So they asked the Cardinal: “Why did give the pyjamas to your driver? We gave that out of love?” The Cardinal just smiled back and answered: “Well, I also gave it away out of love.” It was such a simple gesture but it shows clearly what following Christ was really all about: “Love one another as I have loved you.” To be a Christian is to be another Christ. But being like Christ is too much for us. If we depend just on our own strength, intelligence, and personality, we will never be able to fulfill the commandment that Jesus has given us—not all the time, not every day. We will become bitter, frustrated, burned out, angry, depressed. I was, in fact, reminded of this just yesterday. We were never meant to do it alone. And Jesus knows we cannot do it alone. This is what Jesus was speaking about when he promised that after he returned to heaven—an event we will commemorate next week on Ascension—he would send us an “Advocate, to be with us always.”

The Advocate is the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Blessed Trinity, who resides in our hearts. This is Christ’s greatest gift to us: our own inner source of supernatural light and strength to live out and, if needed, be reminded of the great commandment of Christian charity. But the Holy Spirit will not gatecrash into our hearts. He waits to be received. So when we think of the wonderful things which the Holy Spirit can do, surely we will put aside some time amid the busyness, the concerns and the anxieties in our lives and wait in silence for his coming.

Yet this same Spirit will make Christ present again in this Mass, and when we make our Spiritual Communion today, let us thank the Lord for this great gift, and let us ask for the grace to live by the power of this Spirit, just like Christ, loving one another as he has loved us. ###

The Facts of our Faith

2nd Sunday of Easter

Readings Acts 2:42-47; Ps 117; 1 Pt 1:3-9; Jn 20:19-31

A Reading from the gospel of John

In the evening of that same day, the first day of the week, the doors were closed in the room where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews. Jesus came and stood among them. He said to them, ‘Peace be with you,’ and showed them his hands and his side. The disciples were filled with joy when they saw the Lord, and he said to them again, ‘Peace be with you.

‘As the Father sent me,
so am I sending you.’

After saying this he breathed on them and said:

‘Receive the Holy Spirit.
For those whose sins you forgive,
they are forgiven;
for those whose sins you retain,
they are retained.’

Thomas, called the Twin, who was one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. When the disciples said, ‘We have seen the Lord’, he answered, ‘Unless I see the holes that the nails made in his hands and can put my finger into the holes they made, and unless I can put my hand into his side, I refuse to believe.’ Eight days later the disciples were in the house again and Thomas was with them. The doors were closed, but Jesus came in and stood among them. ‘Peace be with you’ he said. Then he spoke to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; look, here are my hands. Give me your hand; put it into my side. Doubt no longer but believe.’ Thomas replied, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him:

‘You believe because you can see me.
Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe.’

There were many other signs that Jesus worked and the disciples saw, but they are not recorded in this book. These are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing this you may have life through his name.


AS a former beat reporter for a non-profit news agency in the Philippines, it is fascinating for me watching the news and the analysis of the news, especially these recent weeks about China, the US, COVID-19, and about the High Court’s decisions on Cardinal George Pell and the raid on a journalist’s home, and many others.

The common thread that links all these topics is factual truth, or how people—like me and you—perceive and accept what are the facts and therefore, ultimately, what is true. In our world of social media, of “safe space”, and of identity politics, facts and truth are oftentimes the first things to be thrown out the window. Today, many of us reject facts because they sometimes do not align with our thinking, our ideologies, our agenda, or how we want to perceive the world. We reject the truth because sometimes to admit the truth is painful; it hurts our feelings. It is all about us. And so we would rather live in a delusion rather than to face pain brought about by the truth.

Enter, Thomas from our gospel reading. At first glance, we might think that Thomas was engaging in his own ego-drama; of rejecting the truth about the resurrection of Jesus—even from the witness his fellow disciples. ‘No,’ he said. ‘Unless I see the holes that the nails made in his hands and can put my finger into the holes they made, and unless I can put my hand into his side, I refuse to believe.’ But this very act by Thomas separates or differentiates him from many people of today. He was neither rejecting the facts nor the truth. You see brothers and sisters; from this passage we can suggest that Thomas had two great virtues. One is that he refused to say that he understood what he did not understand. May I suggest that Thomas was an example of faith that St Anselm calls fides quaerens intellectum—faith seeking understanding. Thomas had to be sure. And because of this fides quaerens intellectum, when he said, ‘My Lord and my God’, he went the whole way, no half-way house. He stuck with the facts of faith ‘till the end—his other great virtue.

And here are the facts of our faith: that after three days, the disciples found an empty tomb! That after three days, the man who was crucified and witnessed by many to have died on the cross yet appeared alive to a room full of people! That the risen Jesus even convinced and converted the fiercest persecutor of the early community of disciples—St Paul himself! And the fact is that, by normal historical methods, the accounts of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is far more reliable than, let say, the account of the life of Alexander the Great. This means the account of the resurrection can be traced and attested up to right after the crucifixion while the earliest account about Alexander the Great was 300 years after his death![i]

If we accept the account about Alexander, the Great as fact, why not the resurrection, the basis of our faith? Our faith is not a faith on the fairy in the sky, not a superstition as new atheists accuse us! Ours is always a faith seeking understanding. We do not reject reason. We do not reject facts. We do not reject the truth! And we have this certainty because we are guaranteed by Apostolic tradition and Apostolic succession!

Yes, brothers and sisters, our faith is based on facts. Our faith is based on reason. We may have the faith of Thomas, the faith that seeks understanding. That is good. But we must also remember the words of Jesus. Words that may be specifically addressed to each one of us: ‘Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe. ###

[i] See Prof Gary Habermas’ talk, ‘The Resurrection Argument That Changed a
Generation of Scholars’
, YouTube, 9 Nov 2012, https://youtu.be/ay_Db4RwZ_M

 

‘Incurvatus in se’ and Spiritual Blindness

4th Sunday of Lent

1 Samuel 16:1, 6-7, 10-13; Psalm 23:1-6; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

A reading from the holy Gospel according to John.
(Short form)

AS Jesus went along, he saw a man who had been blind from birth. He spat on the ground, made a paste with the spittle, put this over the eyes of the blind man and said to him, ‘Go and wash in the Pool of Siloam’ (a name that means ‘sent’). So the blind man went off and washed himself, and came away with his sight restored.

His neighbours and people who earlier had seen him begging said, ‘Isn’t this the man who used to sit and beg?’ Some said, ‘Yes, it is the same one.’ Others said, ‘No, he only looks like him.’ The man himself said, ‘I am the man.’

They brought the man who had been blind to the Pharisees. It had been a sabbath day when Jesus made the paste and opened the man’s eyes, so when the Pharisees asked him how he had come to see, he said, ‘He put a paste on my eyes, and I washed, and I can see.’ Then some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man cannot be from God: he does not keep the sabbath.’ Others said, ‘How could a sinner produce signs like this?’ And there was disagreement among them. So they spoke to the blind man again, ‘What have you to say about him yourself, now that he has opened your eyes?’ ‘He is a prophet’ replied the man.

‘Are you trying to teach us,’ they replied ‘and you a sinner through and through, since you were born!’ And they drove him away.

Jesus heard they had driven him away, and when he found him he said to him, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ ‘Sir,’ the man replied ‘tell me who he is so that I may believe in him.’ Jesus said, ‘You are looking at him; he is speaking to you.’ The man said, ‘Lord, I believe’, and worshipped him.


BROTHERS and sisters, the gospel in this 4th Sunday of Lent talks about blindness as a spiritual disease. Jesus told the Pharisees they were blind. He called them blind guides and blind fools. But it is not just them. He also called his own disciples blind when He exclaimed: “Are your minds completely blinded? Have you eyes but no sight?”

Jesus may be calling us spiritually blind right now. How else can we describe what is happening in our community right now? The panic buying and the hoarding of goods—most especially toilet papers, sugar, flour, rice or pasta! Despite the assurance of manufacturers that we have enough. This can also be said on the insistence of some, despite knowing that they may be carriers of the virus, to mingle with the rest of the community instead of self-isolating themselves. Or to insist on doing what we want and getting what we want despite the restrictions placed by legitimate authorities whether in health, public order and yes, even in the religious life.

This is blindness—a spiritual blindness because at the heart of it is the deadly sin of pride—the insistence of focusing and prioritizing the self, the Incurvatus in se or curving in on itself, as St Thomas Aquinas puts it. The deadly sin of pride drives this blindness because all that matters is me, my comfort, my security, my survival. In another sense pride blinds us to the reality that we are not in control. God is. But pride rejects God as the orienting centre from which and toward which we live, and substitute Him with something else—almost invariably the self—as that centre.

How then will we take Jesus’ diagnosis of our condition? Will we become defensive, or will we thank Jesus for telling us the truth? The Pharisees got angry at Jesus for calling them blind. They blinded themselves to being blind. They resented the man cured of blindness and threw him out of the synagogue. They even tried to impose blindness on everyone else. The Pharisees became so blind that they became darkness. As darkness, they hated the light. They hated Jesus, “the Light of the world”, and demanded He be crucified.

Spiritual blindness is degenerative. It turns the heart into a heart of stone. It erects walls of indifference and impatience. It turns into darkness and violence. On the other hand, the light that Jesus gives us is the gift of compassion, the ability to suffer with the poor and the vulnerable; the desire to pull down walls and build bridges, to heroically seek the good of the other.

Brothers and sisters, we must admit our spiritual blindness, especially in this trying and difficult times. And we must ask Jesus to heal us. Otherwise, we will hurt and even crucify our Healer and those whom He has healed of spiritual blindness. Let Jesus heal you from being blind to your spiritual blindness.

Our Cinderella Story

Ash Wednesday (A) 2020

Jesus said to his disciples:

‘Be careful not to parade your good deeds before men to attract their notice; by doing this you will lose all reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give alms, do not have it trumpeted before you; this is what the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win men’s admiration. I tell you solemnly, they have had their reward.

But when you give alms, your left hand must not know what your right is doing; your almsgiving must be secret, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.

‘And when you pray, do not imitate the hypocrites: they love to say their prayers standing up in the synagogues and at the street corners for people to see them. I tell you solemnly, they have had their reward. But when you pray, go to your private room and, when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in that secret place, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.

‘When you fast do not put on a gloomy look as the hypocrites do: they pull long faces to let men know they are fasting. I tell you solemnly, they have had their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that no one will know you are fasting except your Father who sees all that is done in secret; and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.’


WE all know the story of Cinderella, right? A daughter of a loving father but became a victim of a wicked stepmum and stepsisters. She was made a slave; forced to sleep in the ashes. In fact, that is how she got her name—Cinderella, ash girl. Eventually, somebody rescued her—the fairy godmother—turned degradation into glory and freeing Cinderella from slavery and helping her to be the bride of the prince. If we try to reflect the story of Cinderella, we might recognise ourselves with her.

We are children of a loving Father. Yet we are enslaved. Although our enslavement was not primary the doing of somebody else but most of the time, our own choosing. I am enslaved to sin, to self-centredness and selfishness, slaved to laziness, to fear. I am—we are—controlled by advertising, by social expectations, by wrong notions of what is truth, faith and love or by wrong notions of what constitute happiness. We are created into the image and likeness of God and we are called to eternal joy, but we prefer to be enslaved—crouch in the debris of burnt-out hopes and dreams. We prefer to live in ashes.

Today we smear ashes on our foreheads as a reminder of who we are. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.” That means of course, that I will die and decay—we all will. But it also describes our whole life till then. As the Canadian psychologist puts it: life is suffering. We are all Cinderella. But is that it? Are ashes our whole story? Is that where the similarity ends? Is there a godmother who will save us?

Well, welcome to Lent, a time to reflect on our ashiness and our salvation. From now on till the start of the Sacred Triduum we will remember that we are Cinderella sitting in sin. But we are also called to remember the great invitation and promise. “Repent and believe in the Gospel!” Yes, Lent reminds us of the horrible reality of what life could be without God. Emptiness. Nothingness; “Remember that you are dust” could be the whole story—our whole story. But Lent also insists that there is a way out of the ashiness of our lives. In fact, it has already been given, through baptism. The Prefaces for Lent speaks of “this joyful season.” Our loving Father already rescued us through Jesus Christ. All we to do is to want, to respond to the call of conversion, to respond to His invitation.

Brothers and sisters, as sons and daughters of a loving Father we will renew our claim to that heavenly inheritance at Easter. We know that ashes are not the whole story. But many others think they are. So Lent gives us a chance to taste the emptiness of their lives—by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving— so that we will be motivated to share the good news with them that they, like we, are invited to leave our ashes behind and take part in a glorious dance of joy and an unlimited future in God’s love.

In the end, Ash Wednesday and Lent is trying to tell us that we can and we will live happily ever after.

Agape: Love of Wanting the Good of the Other

7th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) 2020

Readings Lev 19:1-2, 17-18; Ps 102; 1 Cor 3:16-23; Mt 5:38-48

JESUS said to his disciples: ‘You have learnt how it was said: Eye for eye and tooth for tooth. But I say this to you: offer the wicked man no resistance. On the contrary, if anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other as well; if a man takes you to law and would have your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone orders you to go one mile, go two miles with him. Give to anyone who asks, and if anyone wants to borrow, do not turn away.

‘You have learnt how it was said: You must love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But I say this to you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; in this way you will be sons of your Father in heaven, for he causes his sun to rise on bad men as well as good, and his rain to fall on honest and dishonest men alike. For if you love those who love you, what right have you to claim any credit? Even the tax collectors do as much, do they not? And if you save your greetings for your brothers, are you doing anything exceptional? Even the pagans do as much, do they not? You must therefore be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.’


HOW often do we hear the accusation: “Jesus speaks of love and yet the Church speaks unlovingly” or not being “nice” whether on hard issues like same sex attraction, IVF, abortion, death penalty or even the seeming trivial issues such as proper church etiquette? And because of this, church critics—and sometimes even ourselves—feel justified saying that we love Jesus but, not the church.

Today we heard in the gospel Jesus saying: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; in this way you will be sons of your Father in heaven.” It is certainly true that there is no other passage in the New testament that contains such a concentrated expression of Christian ethic.

This passage describes essential Christianity in action and at its centre is the word LOVE. All people, even those who do not come to Church, know that Jesus said this, and very often use this passage to condemn professing Christians like you and I for falling so far short of its demand. But maybe the Church—or even religion itself—is seen in a negative way because of our misunderstanding of the word “love”. And if there is a distortion of the meaning of the word—love in this case, that is where all the problem begins.

That is why we must go back to scripture. We must try to find out what Jesus was really saying and what he was demanding of his followers. If we must live the authentic Christian life, we must then first be quite clear as to what it is being asked of us. In other words, what does Jesus mean by loving, in general and loving our enemies in particular? Why is this important? Love is love, anyway, yes? Well, not really. Did you know that in Greek, there are four different words for love? There is the noun storge or stergein, words that describes the love of a parent for a child and a child for a parent—family love if you like. There is eros and the accompanying verb eran—words that describe the love between male and female; there is always passion there. In these words, there is nothing essentially bad; they just simply describe the passion of human love. The problem is, eros is often gets confused with the idea of lust rather than love. Hence we get words like erotic or eroticism that are distortions of what the words really mean. Then there is word philia or philein. These are the warmest and best Greek words for love. It mean’s real affection, real love. It is the word of warm, tender affection, the highest kind of love.

But Jesus did not use these words. The original Greek used in our gospel is agape—a word that indicates unconquerable benevolence, invincible goodwill. If we then regard people with agape, it means that no matter what they do to us, no matter how they treat us, no matter if they insult us or injure us or grieve us, we are called to never allow any bitterness against them to invade our hearts. Instead, we are being encouraged to regard them with unconquerable benevolence and goodwill. Why? Because agape is the word for love which always seek the good—no, the highest good of the other. Agape or Christian love is willing the highest good for the other and doing something concretely about it. Love is something we do. It is not simply an emotion or an attitude.

This is also the reason why agape is compatible with not always being “nice”. Because we always seek the good of the other, we can still correct, admonish, discipline; to speak and act against evil. That is why we can—or rather should speak up strongly against sin and confront an evil, especially if being committed by those who are dear to us. Just think about our dads or mums disciplining us. Think about teachers who are being strict with their students academically and behaviorally. That is not hate. That is not being mean. On the contrary, that is love—call it tough love, yes, especially if we really mean the good of our children, family, friends, our students, our co-workers, our co-parishioners. Because, living out agape, we want everyone to be perfect just like our heavenly father. And we want everyone to share in the glory of our Father in heaven.

Brothers and sisters, we may not always seem to be lovable or seen as a “nice” person. But we can sure try our hardest best to live out this Christian love. And even if we cannot love as God does, in gratitude I can try—we can try. And that willingness to try to live out agape is perfection enough to satisfy our God, our Father.

Build Our Faith on God’s Power, not Human Wisdom

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: Is 58:7-10; Ps 111; 1 Cor 2:1-5; Gospel: Mt 5:13-16

SECOND READING

I came to you to proclaim Christ crucified.


WHEN
I came to you, brothers, it was not with any show of oratory or philosophy, but simply to tell you what God had guaranteed. During my stay with you, the only knowledge I claimed to have was about Jesus, and only about him as the crucified Christ. Far from relying on any power of my own, I came among you in great ‘fear and trembling’ and in my speeches and the sermons that I gave, there were none of the arguments that belong to philosophy; only a demonstration of the power of the Spirit. And I did this so that your faith should not depend on human philosophy but on the power of God.


ST PAUL paints an interesting picture of himself in today’s Second Reading. He tells the Christians in Corinth that when he came to preach the gospel to them, he came in “weakness and fear and much trembling.”

This doesn’t correspond to the super-apostle and miracle-worker image that we tend to have of St Paul. Even the reason why he wrote this First Letter to the Corinthians doesn’t fit with that Herculean image. He wrote the Letter because he had to defend himself against critics who were turning the Christians in Corinth against him.

But his self-defense is kind of strange, isn’t it? He doesn’t point to any special achievements or outstanding personal qualities. Instead, he points to his weakness and his lack of special qualities. It’s as if he were saying: “I didn’t graduate from prestigious colleges or win any major awards; I wasn’t listed in Fortune 500 Magazine and never had my own TV show. So, from a strictly human perspective, I don’t have any qualifications or credentials.” It’s almost as if he is agreeing with his critics!

But then he makes his point, which is very simple, and very important. Precisely because he was such an unimpressive figure, they know that the gospel he preached is true: it is based on God’s power, he says, not human wisdom. The faith of the Christians in Corinth, and the faith of every Christian—including ourselves—needs to be built on the unshakeable foundation of God and His revelation, not on fancy arguments, not in emotional comforts, or human satisfactions.

Each of us needs to ask ourselves: What is the foundation of my Catholic faith? A deep, personal conviction that God is real, that Jesus really died on the cross for my redemption, that God really cares about me? Or something else? It’s not easy to build our lives on God’s power, because our faith doesn’t always make sense in terms of merely human wisdom. That is why we need to constantly look at Christ crucified.

Pope Benedict XVI once said: “Every man and every woman needs to find a deep meaning for their own existence… And for this, books are not enough, not even sacred Scripture. The Child of Bethlehem reveals and communicates to us the true ‘face’ of the good and faithful God, who loves us and who does not abandon us even in death.” (Angelus, 4 January 2009)

So, brothers and sisters again, let us each ask ourselves, what kind of foundation are we building on: God’s power, or fragile human wisdom?

Three litmus tests can help us answer this question accurately. First, prayer. Do we take time out of our busy schedule to spend with God in prayer every day? Do we even know how to pray? Do we pray better now than we did ten years ago? If other things, even good things, continuously crowd personal, heartfelt prayer out of our daily life, we can be sure that we aren’t building on God’s power.

Second, obedience. Christ’s path of redemption was traveled through obedience to his Father’s will, even to the point of dying on the cross. As his followers, we are also called to be obedient to God’s will, even when it’s hard. We can ask ourselves: Are we obeying all of the Ten Commandments, or do we habitually break one or two of them? Are we obeying Church teaching regarding the tough issues of our day? Do we even know or try to find out the reasons behind those teachings? Or do we just go with the flow or worse, misrepresent Church teachings, or stubbornly cling to the version of Church that we want? Obedience is truly a foundational Christian virtue.

Third, the sacraments. If we eagerly look forward and prepare ourselves to receive Christ in the Eucharist each Sunday, and if we make use of the amazing sacrament of confession on a regular basis, then that is a sure sign that we are building our lives on God’s power, not on fragile human wisdom.

Prayer, obedience, and the sacraments. As we continue with this Mass, let’s ask God to enlighten our hearts, to show us how we can live these virtues more intelligently and actively, so that we are sure to build our lives on a supernatural foundation that will last into eternity.

“Reducing the Irreducible God”

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Readings:  2 Mc 7:1-2, 9-14; Ps: 16; 2 Thes 2:16–3:5; Lk 20:27-38

GOSPEL

He is not a God of the dead but of the living.

 

SOME Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, ‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.’

Jesus said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.’

 


THE atheist Richard Dawkins in an interview asserted recently that belief in the afterlife is something people invented to comfort us in our anxiety; of our own realisation that we are finite beings. He then went on saying that he can’t understand why a “made-up” story should be comforting since belief in the afterlife means a belief in the existence of hell. Well, this New Atheism that Dawkins represent is actually not new except they are nastier in their dealings with people of faith than the classical Atheism. Again, this unbelief in the afterlife by the New Atheists in not a new thing.

In our gospel we heard the Sadducees—who were the temple authorities, the religious leaders in Jesus’ time—tried to mock Jesus by bringing up the case of the woman with seven husbands. They wanted to humiliate Jesus; to prove how ridiculous his teaching about the resurrection was by asking “to which of them will she be wife since she had been married to all seven?’ Dawkins and the New Atheists have one thing in common with the Sadducees in their error about the afterlife. They “are thinking of heaven in earthly terms!” Ultimately, the New Atheists, like the Sadducees, are trying to reduce God, applying to God the human restrictions.

And the danger of cutting God down to our size; to regard God as a being among many, even if we think of God as a supreme being, is, nonetheless, to have a distorted view of reality. If God is just another being among many, then we will view God as a competitor—and by extension the Church as a competitor if not as a nasty enforcer of a very competitive God. In fact, the New Atheists and many of us think this way; that the more we think of God, the less freedom we have, the less happiness we have. Hence, the famous quote from the father of Atheism Ludwig Feuerbach: “nein zu gott ist ja zu menschen,” a no to God means a yes to humanity! The result: we becoming cafeteria Catholics. That is, we accept Church teachings that fit our likings, what’s convenient to us—whether social, spiritual or moral.

The Creation, God Introducing Adam and Eve, from an illuminated French translation of the original manuscript written by Flavius Josephus (c.37-100 AD) c.1470-76 (vellum) by Fouquet, Jean (c.1420-80) vellum Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, France
French, out of copyright

The problem with this is we cannot justify any morality, any social ethic and belief objectively apart from God. Because without God all becomes relativise—moral acts become dependent on what I feel good now but maybe not tomorrow, or in two weeks’ time. Therefore we end up with no morality at all. We end up as nothing. No dignity, just lumps of meat—to be used, to be traded or even discarded at the whim of those who have power. That happened with the Nazis. It also happened in socialist Russia and communist China. And guess what? It is potentially happening in our own country—think about the redefinition of marriage, think about abortion, think about euthanasia. Despite the sophistry, the euphemism, these policies are a manifestation of a reality that reduces God as one more being among many other beings, and who is in competition with the world.

But brothers and sisters. We do not believe in a competitor god who obliterates creation whenever it comes in contact with it! Instead we believe in the God of the burning bush. The God that makes the bush burn brightly and yet does not consume it. We do not believe in a god of violence who creates out of the carcasses of defeated enemies just like other creation myths tell us. But we believe in a non-violent God who creates from nothing with a simple utterance: “Let there be…” We do not believe in a competitor god who looks at humanity with envy. But we believe the God who delights in us! As St Irenaeus of Lyon said: “The glory of God is a human being fully alive!” We believe in the God who creates in order to share his life… in eternity!

And precisely because we believe in these, the mystery of the Incarnation make sense; that God love us so much that He humbles Himself to share our humanity so that our humanity if divinized. This is why the paschal mystery—the passion, death AND resurrection—the afterlife, make sense. That is why the teachings of the Church make sense. God does not want to lose us, as we have heard from last Sunday’s gospel and homily. On the contrary, God wants ALL of humanity to be gathered once again with Him. Hence the Church’s mission is to seek the lost, to give every opportunity for the unchurch to be reconnected with the Church and with God.

But if we try to reduce the irreducible God; if we do not believe in the teaching about the resurrection and the afterlife, we are making the same mistake as the Sadducees made. And that is just simply dead wrong.

Becoming Attractive Again

13th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Readings:  1 Kgs 19:16. 19-21; Gal 5:1. 13-18; Lk 9:51-62

GOSPEL

Jesus resolutely set his face towards Jerusalem.
I will follow you wherever you will go.

 

AS the time drew near for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely took the road  for Jerusalem and sent messengers ahead of him. These set out, and they went into a Samaritan village to make preparations for him, but the people would not receive him because he was making for Jerusalem. Seeing this, the disciples James and John said, ‘Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to burn them up?’ But he turned and rebuked them, and they went off to another village.

As they travelled along they met a man on the road who said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ Jesus answered, ‘Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’

Another to whom he said, ‘Follow me,’ replied, ‘Let me go and bury my father first.’ But he answered, ‘Leave the dead to bury their dead; your duty is to go and spread the news of the kingdom of God.’

Another said, ‘I will follow you, sir, but first let me go and say good-bye to my people at home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Once the hand is laid on the plough, no one who looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’


Image result for israel folauA RECENT study in the US finds that a quarter of Catholics have stopped going to Mass because of the abuse scandal that is besetting the Church at the moment. In fact, one could say that Christians in general and Catholics in particular are not an especially attractive group today. We just have to read news and comments surrounding Israel Folau.

Very true, we have had saints and will have more. The Catholic Church through it many agencies and outreach have done and will continue to do much good in the world. We have proclaimed the Good News throughout the world and will continue to do so—presumably till the end of time. But all in all, we must admit that our record as a community—especially in recent history is not impressive. That can be said both for the Universal and local church as well as for our faith community here in Caroline Springs! Are we offended by that claim? Let’s go back to those original followers of Christ. How are they unattractive? For starters let’s look at James and John. They were probably offended when the Samaritans refused not only hospitality to Jesus and his band but also even just allowing them to pass through their town—because of their prejudice against the Jews. And so what did the sons of thunder suggest? To use divine power that will save the world to destroy the whole village—men, women children and goats! As if these disciples could manage to “call down fire from heaven” to toast bread, let alone a village! Then there were those people who would only follow Jesus after they finish doing what they think is more important, like fulfilling family obligations—missing the fact that no worldly duty or desire, no matter how important, is more important than an immediate response to our Lord’s call.

Image result for toleranceWhere are we all in this, you may ask? Well, there are too many James and Johns in the world and in our midst. Those of us who I call “the Militant OFFENDERATIS”—people who get offended easily even with the most trivial matter and who act to get back at those who they think offended them—in the most unchristian manner. And of course those of us who think we’re above others and tries to impose our own brand of piety, our own—and not the Church’s—understanding of faith and religious life. Sometimes, I dread to be alone. Because on that moment, in that unique place where God and I are alone, I am afraid to look into my heart and find a sordid mass of resentments, vengeful thoughts, and a library of nasty things I “could have said” and a museum of nastier things I “should have done.” What about you brothers and sisters? The question for each one of us is how much of our imaginations and conversations consist of attacks upon people who have offended us or who we think have offended us? And where is Christ in all of this? Do we dare to look upon the Cross, to receive Jesus in communion while still having these spiritual rubbish? Yes, I am a member of the apostolic Church. But am I, are we, followers of James and John instead of Jesus Christ? The Christ, who in our gospel, rather than returning hate for hate, responded instead with understanding and patience. The One who forgives and moves on.

I ask again, are we offended by this claim of being an unattractive group? I think we should. Because we know that the faith, the teachings and example of Jesus are far from the accusations being levelled against us—the Church, the bride of Christ. But then, each one of us has the responsibility, the obligation to prove our accusers wrong. By being authentic on how we live our faith, how we relate with one another—even in times when we have to correct others. In fact, Jesus is quite clear on this—and the first step is to “go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If he or she listens, you have regained that one.”

Image result for Mercy is the face of GodWe also hear from St Paul in the second reading that we “were called… to liberty.” But warns: “be careful, or this liberty will provide an opening for self-indulgence”—that is putting ourselves at the centre rather than God. His advice: “Love your neighbour as yourself. If you go snapping at each other and tearing each other to pieces, you had better watch or you will destroy the whole community.” PATIENCE! UNDERSTANDING! And most of all, LOVE! LOVE! For goodness sake, LOVE until it hurts! This is where Jesus becomes demanding—to follow HIM! Follow his example! Because only when we reflect God’s love—when we become authentic Christians, authentic Catholics that is when we will be attractive again to the world. As Christ said: BE HOLY FOR YOUR FATHER IN HEAVEN IS HOLY!

The Church: Shepherding towards Eternal Life

Fourth Sunday of Easter (C)

Readings:  Acts 13:14, 43-52; Psalm 99 Rv 7:9, 14-17; Jn 10:27-30

Gospel
I know my sheep and they follow me

Jesus said:
‘The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice;
I know them and they follow me.
I give them eternal life;
they will never be lost
and no one will ever steal them from me.
The Father who gave them to me is greater than anyone,
and no one can steal from the Father.
The Father and I are one.’

NOT too long ago, I attended a forum on the Mass. Somewhere in the discussion the question on who is and who is not admitted to receiving Holy Communion came up. The invited speaker, a priest, answered the question by explaining the teaching of the Church. However, it seems the priest’s explanation did not sit well with some of the audience. Why, some ask, is the Church being so discriminatory—making some people feel excluded?  The Church, others say, should be in with the times, implying that the Church should change its teachings to be more palatable, especially in our current time.

There seem to be a mistaken belief of what being a Christian is all about, what the Church is on about. Some people seem to think that Christianity is simply about being nice. At times being extraordinarily “nice” or even heroically “nice”. Moreover, many seem to consider that the church merely as a human institution just like governments, schools, social clubs, businesses, and forgetting that the Church has a dimension that is also divine. Being nice is certainly part of our Christian life but it is not the core of that life. Yes, we are called to love. And to live a certain kind of life that involves doing good for our neighbour must be a result of our faith, but it is not the faith itself. The core of our faith is contained in the first two verses that we heard in our gospel reading: ‘The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life; they will never be lost.’ And surely, like any other human institution, the Church seeks to promote the individual and social good. The Church wants us to be happy in living out our lives, to be the best that we can be, to live life fully! Because God wants us to be happy in the here and now!

But the great commission of the Church is not to make people feel good BUT to ensure that all of us achieve eternal life! The Church exists to be the Good Shepherd like Jesus guiding the world to eternal happiness with God. For the Church, it is not just about a 5-year, 10-year or even a 100-year pastoral plan. The Church looks at the horizon of eternity. More than our transient happiness and pleasure, the Church is concerned about the future of our immortal souls! Our Creed keep reminding us of this core of our faith when we say we believe that God is the “maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible”; when declare that Christ, “for us men and for our salvation… came down from heaven”; and when we profess that we “look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”

But this vision of eternity and the reality that we have immortal souls is what we seem to lose with the advance in knowledge and technology, with affluence and the delusion that we can control everything. If we can only regain that understanding and vision of eternity; if only we once again become conscious of the immortality of our souls, then perhaps we will be more mindful of how we think, speak and act, both in solitude and in relation with others. Perhaps, we can also appreciate where the Church is coming from with its teachings, what the Church is really on about. Perhaps we will stop accusing the Church—its ministers and faithful of being bigots, of being out of touch, of being out there just to make us feel uncomfortable and excluded. And perhaps we will recognise that we are the ones who make our own discomfort. We are the ones who exclude ourselves in the love of God and that we are the ones who condemn ourselves. In the end, to SIN is our choice.

A Christian is not basically someone who does nice things. A Christian is someone who has been called to know God’s promise of eternal life. Knowing it, really knowing it in the depths of our being, means we are trying to listen and follow the voice of the Good Shepherd. It means that we will live a particular sort of life. And because of this, the Church does not fear the tongues or opinion or other weapons of the world. The same should also be said about each and every one of us. Because we know they are nothing compared to the eternity that we are aiming for. We can take the risk of loving other people, sacrificing our time, talents and treasures in their service because we know—WE KNOW we have eternity! We do good not because that is what makes us Christians but because what make us Christians –the promise of eternal life – free us to do good.

So Brothers and sisters, it is still Easter time. It is still the season of the Resurrection. It is still the season to recall that my life, your life, our lives are not a matter of the merely day-to-day, but of eternity! ###