Sunday, August 17, 2014

Salvation Through Christ

(20th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on 16 and 17 August 2014 at St. Brigid Church in Johnston, R.I.; See Romans 11:13-32 and Matthew 15:21-28)

In Christmas 2012 I had the wonderful opportunity of making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with my dear friends the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist.  At one point we were walking through the ruins of the Temple of Jerusalem, of which Christ had prophesied, “there will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down” (Matthew 24:2).  

As we continued on our way we came upon a group of Jewish art-history students; they were sitting along the path we were walking on, listening to a lecture about the Temple.  Realizing that we were passing through, they politely shuffled to each side of the walkway to let us by.  Suddenly a young Jewish woman smiled and said, with much kindness and perhaps in an attempt to allay the awkwardness of the moment, “Look, the Christians are parting the Jewish sea!”

The next day I spoke to the sisters about how theologically appropriate that comment was for that brief gathering of Jews and Christians.  The parting of the Red Sea is a remarkable event in Sacred Scripture that Jews and Christians alike both believe and cherish.  In fact, Christians believe that miraculous event is a foreshadowing and a sign of an even greater reality: Baptism.  Baptism?, You might be thinking.  How is Baptism a greater reality than the parting of the Red Sea?

At the Red Sea the People of Israel were being pursued by the Egyptians only to discover that they were completely closed in; in desperation they cried out for the Lord to save them.  Suddenly the waters opened up before them, and the Israelites “went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left” (Exodus 14:22).   As their enemies followed after them the waters closed up again, destroying them and making safe the passage to the Promised Land.

As Christians we believe that this miraculous event, which dramatically portrays the salvation of Israel from certain destruction, is a sign of our own salvation in Jesus Christ.  Jesus Christ, who suffers and dies on the cross to destroy the enemies of sin and death, is raised up to new life on the third day.  When we are baptized into Christ, says St. Paul, we are baptized into His death so that we may walk, even now, in newness of life and share in His resurrection from the dead (see Romans 6:3-11). 

The Rite of Christian Baptism expresses this truth beautifully in the blessing and invocation of God over the water:

Through the waters of the Red Sea you led Israel out of slavery, to be an image of God’s holy people, set free from sin by baptism.

This great message of salvation comes to us first, of course, through the Jews.  In our Gospel this morning Jesus Christ announces that He has come specifically for “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24).   God reveals His plan of salvation firstly to the Jews.  Unfortunately they did not completely receive Jesus as their Messiah.  To be sure, many of them did.  The Blessed Virgin Mary, a young Jewish girl from Nazareth, received Him tenderly and with great faith.  The Twelve Apostles accepted Him, as did a multitude of disciples throughout the nation of Israel.  But the majority of the Jewish people did not accept Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ.

St. Paul, once a staunch persecutor of the Church, after his conversion would travel from synagogue to synagogue announcing Jesus as the Messiah.  He was often met with resistance and rejection.  In our Second Reading today, in his Letter to the Romans, he is writing to the Gentiles (non-Jewish believers) about this mystery of salvation and speaking specifically to those who have accepted Christ.  He also writes of those who have yet to receive the Anointed One sent by God:

I am speaking to you Gentiles.  Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I glory in my ministry in order to make my race jealous and thus save some of them.
—Romans 11:13-14

St. Paul was a devout Jew.  He announces here his intention to stir up the Jewish people so that they will want the very graces being poured out mercifully on the Gentiles in the person of Jesus Christ.  Paul’s great desire is that the Jews would see the joy of forgiveness and a vibrant newness of life in these Christian believers and be moved with holy envy! 

At the same time St. Paul is reminding the Christian believers of his day—and also those of our own—that God has not forgotten the Jewish people.  This great message of salvation that came first to them is still extended to the Jews with great love.  “For the gifts and the call of God,” says St. Paul, “are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29).  They will always be the chosen people of God and the Messiah, for whom they long, ever longs for them.

These readings are extremely relevant for our times, when this message of salvation offered by God is so little understood.  We have all heard it said, “there are many different ways to God.”  Frequently people will insist that faith is completely subjective: the Jews follow their own particular faith, Christians follow Jesus and the Gospel, the Muslims follow the Quran, Buddhists follow the teachings of Buddha, etc.  In the end, we hear it said, everyone finds his or her own way to God.

But this is not the Gospel God revealed to the world in history and in time.

This is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

This is not the Gospel that the Apostles and martyrs of the Church were willing to die for, nor is it the message that has been transmitted down through the centuries in the Roman Catholic deposit of faith.

In fact, there are not many different ways to God. 

There is only one Way: Jesus Christ.

In St. John’s Gospel Jesus Christ reveals plainly to His disciples: “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). 

Our Lord is not being egocentric; He is not appealing to some kind of religious elitism.  He is simply expressing the most essential truth of our salvation: that He alone has the power to redeem humanity and bring us home to eternal life.

Jesus Christ alone has the power, as God, to take on our humanity and bring our fallen human nature to the cross.  Jesus Christ alone is willing to suffer and die for the forgiveness of our sins.  Jesus Christ alone has the power to lay down His life and the power to take it up again (John 10:18), and we who are baptized into Christ have the power to be raised up again to eternal life with Him. 

You might be reading this now and thinking: That sounds really narrow!  What a narrow-minded way of understanding God and salvation.  And I would agree, because that is precisely the word Christ uses when He describes this way which leads to eternal life:

Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.  For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.
—Matthew 7:13-14

This is not the way God would like the situation to be; it is the way He finds the situation to be.  There are many who move from day to day, without a real and living experience of the awesome presence of God in their lives.  There are many who feel overwhelmed by the guilt and shame that weigh heavily upon them and they long for a different experience of life.  They long for the forgiveness and peace of God.  Truth be told, they long for the mercy and grace that has the power to set their hearts free and flood their souls with light. 

We who have heard this message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and who walk in this narrow way are called to be that light in this world.  We are called to be that salt which preserves those who have found the God who is constantly searching for them.  How desperately the world needs believers to live their Christian faith with passion and vitality!  How desperately the world we live in needs to see the light of Jesus Christ in us!

This past Monday we heard of the tragic and shocking loss of the comic genius Robin Williams.  In the days that followed so many people tried to make sense of that difficult and painful reality of this troubled soul who chose to take his own life.  Perhaps the saddest attempt is the message posted on the marquee of the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles’s Sunset Boulevard, where Williams did stand-up comedy for years.  It read: 

Robin Williams
Rest in Peace
Make God Laugh

But God is not laughing after that terrible tragedy this past week.  God is not laughing any more than the rest of the people who truly loved Robin Williams are laughing.  This is a troubling and sad moment that really calls for a response of faith and not empty witticisms.   

We do not believe, as the marquee suggests, that everyone who dies, whatever the circumstances, suddenly goes to heaven and laughs with God.  What we believe is that God’s mercy is overwhelming and He is constantly reaching out to us until our final breath, and so in hope we pray for Robin Williams.  We commend his soul to God and ask that—through the mercy of God, through the blood of Christ, through the forgiveness God never ceases to offer until the final moment of life—Robin Williams may one day enjoy the laughter of God in that heavenly kingdom. 

How desperately our secular culture needs God!  More than laughter, more than entertainment, more than an empty and fleeting happiness, what we really need is faith! 

If we look to the Gospel this weekend we discover Christ drawing out the gift of faith in the Canaanite woman and in His own disciples.  This woman comes to Christ, begging for Him to heal her daughter.  Jesus’ response is one of silence.  The disciples ask Him to send her away for she is bothering them!  Christ does not heed their request either . . . It must have been very awkward in that room with all that silence.

Suddenly Christ begins to speak to the woman: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24).  Both the disciples and the Canaanite woman continue to focus on Christ to see where this will lead.  Whatever they thought they knew about Him, He is testing them and helping them to grow in their desire for the things that matter most.  He often does that.

But then the dialogue seems to take a turn for the worse as Jesus say to the woman:  “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs” (Matthew 15:26).  What a response!  Yet this woman, to our amazement, is undaunted.  She must have sensed the great love with which Christ spoke those surprising words and seen the acceptance in His eyes, because she remains with Him.  She does not hesitate, perhaps with a sly smile of her own, to reply “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters” (Matthew 15:27). 

With that the dialogue comes to its conclusion and Christ finally reveals His hand: “O woman, great is your faith!  Let it be done for you as you wish” (Matthew 15:28), and her daughter, we are told, was immediately healed.  Faith brought healing into the world when Christ had made it strong enough to accomplish that healing.  He often does that, too.

Are we as prepared to persevere in our prayer and in our faith?  When we see the world growing darker in the violence of Iraq and in the persecution of so many innocent children, women and men?  When we see the sorrowful consequences of the choices so many people make in the world, and when some of those choices and consequences are ours, are we willing to seek out Christ and persevere in our faith?  Because however dark the world may grow, Jesus Christ will always seek to draw out light and hope for us and for those around us.  Might we be that light and persevere in our faith, like this Canaanite woman, so that the healing of God and the blessing of God will continue to touch this world, so desperately in need of Jesus Christ, the God of our salvation.