Bottom line: In today's Gospel we see what faith offers us: eternal life.
When an adult begins preparation for baptism, the priest says to him: "What do you ask of God's Church?" The person responds: "Faith."
The priest then asks a second question: "What does faith offer you?" The man replies, "Eternal life."
Faith and eternal life - that is theme for this Sunday.
Let's start with faith. This weekend we begin the "Year of Faith." Of course, every year is a year of faith. We cannot live one day, let alone one year, without faith, but Pope Benedict has made this designation for a specific reason: to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Vatican Council.
By taking a new look at Vatican II we can grow in faith. I was seminarian during the time of the Vatican Council. I'm not saying this to brag but I did read all sixteen documents of the Council. This year I hope to re-read them, especially the three central documents: 1) the Dogmatic Constitution On the Church (Lumen Gentium), 2) the Dogmatic Constitution On Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) and 3) Pastoral Constitution On the Church In the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes).
The teachings of the Vatican Council are profound and beautiful, but we flawed human beings have not done a great job implementing them. This Year of Faith is an opportunity to return to the sources and make a new beginning.
In spite of disappointment with how we implemented the Council,* I remain grateful for many of its gifts. I would like to mention just one: Opening the Bible to those who participate in the Mass. The Council gave a three-year cycle of Sunday readings and a two-year cycle of Bible readings for daily Mass. Called the "lectionary" it gives us selections from 45 of the 46 Old Testament books and all 27 New Testament books.
If a person listens carefully at Mass, he will enter "deep in Scripture." Not only the Liturgy of the Word, but every part of the Mass is based on the Bible. In his "Pocket Guide to the Bible" Dr. Scott Hahn gives references for the parts the Mass - including not only what we say (e.g. Lamb of God, Lord I am not worthy) and do (e.g. Sign of the Cross, Kiss of Peace), but also what we see (e.g. altar, vestments and consecrated celibates).
The Mass flows from the Bible, but it has a greater purpose that simply learning the Scriptures. Conscious participation in the Mass expresses and deepens faith. Without faith, we cannot have a relationship with God - and even with each other.** I cannot have a relationship with you and you with me unless we believe in each other. That takes work, but ultimately it is a gift. So it is with our relationship with God. It requires honesty, forgiveness, healing - in a word, faith. For that reason Pope Benedict invites us to dedicate an entire year to the gift of faith.
What do you ask of the Church? Faith. And what does faith give you? Eternal life.
In today's Gospel the young man says to Jesus, "Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" What a great question!
A recent survey showed that the majority of Americans believe in life after death. For Protestants and Catholics it is part of our creed: "I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come." But also, according to this survey, most Jews - and even those who profess no religion - believe in personal existence beyond the grave. In that case, the most important question is: "Where will I spend eternity?"
When you think about it's more than an important question. It's the only question that really matters. I could win the lottery tomorrow, but I would still be like Damocles - eating a luxurious banquet, but every time I look up, a sword hangs above my head suspended by a single horse hair.
Compared to eternity this life is a moment. As the song says, "When we've been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we've no less days to sing God's praise than when we've first begun."*** Any suffering, any sacrifice is small - measured against forever. But will we spend eternity with God or separated from him? The rich young man asks the correct question, "Good Teacher, what must I do to have everlasting life?"
The answer ultimately is faith, but as Jesus makes clear, faith has two parts. The first part of faith is keeping the commandments. We cannot say we love God unless we do what he tells us: Respect human life, respect marriage, respect the property of others, tell the truth, honor your father and mother. God has written these commandments in the human heart, but because of our fallen human nature we often do not see them clearly or try to find ways around them.**** But Jesus says clearly, "You know the commandments." When we stand before the judgment, our excuses will sound hollow.
So, first step, observe the commandments. And if you are falling down in some area, ask for forgiveness and grace. That's the first step, but there is something more. Do you remember last week how we talked the the language of the body? The shape of our bodies, male and female, speak about total giving to the other. Our bodies, our souls, our entire being is made made for total giving. Jesus says, "You are lacking one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor." You and I are made for self giving and one day we will have turn everything over: our health, our possessions, our very lives. Jesus is saying, "Why not do it now?" Give me all you are and all you have. Have faith and I will return it to you a hundred-fold, in ways you can barely imagine.
So this Sunday we begin the Year of Faith. That's what we ask of the Church: faith. Come to Mass and be attentive to God's Word in the Bible readings and you will grow in faith. And in today's Gospel we see what faith offers us: eternal life. Amen.
*The biggest single mistake: Taking away meatless Fridays. Our English and Welsh cousins have re-instituted the practice. May others follow their example.
**We homilists must emphasize this point, especially for our young people:
Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton conducted a 2005 study that showed America’s teens had embraced the kind of therapeutic theology that Rieff saw coming forty years earlier. They said the dominant thinking of modern teens was "moralistic, therapeutic deism." That discovery has been widely discussed in popular and academic circles for good reason. This is where most young Americans are in terms of religious faith. Smith and Denton found that most teens and younger adults did not understand what their churches had taught them or they did not care to believe it if they were taught orthodox faith. What they actually believe is a "de facto creed" that (according to Smith and Denton) has five premises:
1) A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life.
2) God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3) The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4) God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
5) Good people go to heaven when they die.
This is how Smith and Denton arrived at the now much-used descriptor: Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism. But Douthat suggests that this term is not entirely right. Therapeutic it is but deism suggests a distance between God and man, a sense of divine detachment. These five points do not suggest anything like 19th century deism. The truth is that this modern therapeutic thinking has brought God very near but he has drawn near to us as a therapist who is there for our happiness. God is more like (and this is Smith and Denton speaking now) "a combination of Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is always on call, takes care of any problem that arises, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves."
See The God Within Emphasis in Modern Religion by Missional-Ecumenist John H. Armstrong
***A way to understand this is to imagine that scientists invent a robot-bird to take the water on earth to Mars. It carries a drop in its beak and the trip takes one hundred years. When that robot-bird has transported all the water on earth - oceans, lakes, rivers - eternity will have barely dawned.
****The push for same-sex "marriage" is a sobering example of people trying to erase God's law from the heart. But before condemning gay activists, we need to recognize that we do the same. We look for ways that God's law about lying, adultery, stealing, care for parents, etc., somehow does not apply in my circumstances. Of course, hypocrisy is one thing and giving to Caesar what belongs only to God is something else.
From Archives (Homilies for 28th Sunday, Year B):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)
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