“Le Défi d’Obéir au Dieu vrai” (jeudi, le 27 avril, 2017; Jn. 3.31-36; Ac. 5.27-33)

Jurez-vous de dire la vérité, toute la vérité, rien que la vérité? Ceux qui témoignent lors d’un procès doivent répondre « oui » à cette question avant d’être questionné par l’avocat de la défense ou bien par le procureur. Parfois, le témoin aura une main posée sur la Bible alors qu’il promet de porter un témoignage véridique. On peut penser au film qui était à l’affiche en 1992 intitulé Des Hommes d’Honneur, l’histoire d’une cour martiale subie par des militaires américains et les avocats qui étaient chargés de leur défense. Lors de la cène déterminante, l’avocat de la défense, incarné par Tom Cruise, interroge le Commandant des accusés et lui crie « Je veux la vérité! »; le Colonel, bien agité, lui réplique en criant « Tu n’es pas capable de supporter la vérité! » On vit à une époque, en fait, ou on supporte très mal l’idée qu’il y ait une « vérité » qui est vraie pour tout le monde. On nous dit que depuis les années 1960, on se trouve dans la postmodernité, ou le relativisme est le mot d’ordre. Toi, tu as ta « vérité » et moi, j’ai la mienne. N’impose-moi surtout pas ta vérité! Il y a une seule vérité : il n’y a pas de vérité! …
L’évangile judiciaire. L’évangile selon S. Jean ne sait rien du relativisme. Quand on retrouve le mot « témoignage » dans le récit de Jean, il faut comprendre le mot dans son sens juridique. Le « témoignage » de cet évangile n’est pas seulement le récit d’une expérience personnelle et privée (qui n’aura aucune autorité légale); non, Jean nous présente son « témoignage » comme étant la vérité publique et juridique au sujet du destin de tout être humain. L’évangile se déroule comme un procès. La question est « Qui dit vrai? » « Qui parle pour Dieu? » – les gardiens des traditions d’Israël ou bien Jésus de Nazareth? Tantôt, c’est Jésus qui subit le procès; tantôt, c’est « les Juifs » qui le subissent. L’expression « les Juifs » revient à maintes reprises dans l’évangile de Jean; il faut comprendre par-là « les habitants de la province de la Judée »; il ne faut surtout pas oublier que Jésus et les apôtres étaient eux aussi des Juifs. Que ce soit Jésus ou « les Juifs » qui subissent le procès, la revendication de chaque partie ainsi que l’accusation portée contre elle est pareille – et Jésus et « les Juifs » prétendent parler pour Yahvé; les deux parties s’accusent mutuellement d’être des imposteurs. Au chapitre 8, il y a une vive échange entre Jésus et « les Juifs » ou toute une série d’allégations sont portées contre Jésus : on l’accuse d’être un enfant illégitime, un Samaritain, et d’être possédé par un démon (8.41, 48). Jésus, de son côté, annonce à ses confrères Juifs que bien qu’ils prétendent d’être les enfants d’Abraham, ils sont en réalité les enfants du diable (8.39, 44). Qu’est-ce qui se passe ici? Encore une fois, il ne faudra surtout pas percevoir de l’antisémitisme dans ce passage. Ce qu’on voit dans l’évangile de Jean, c’est une confrontation entre le peuple de Dieu et quelqu’un qui se dit un envoyé de Dieu, c.-à-d., un prophète. On retrouve souvent cette scénario dans l’Ancien Testament, ou des prophètes vont confronter les rois d’Israël (et la nation) pour leur faire savoir qu’ils sont dans le champ, qu’ils échouent à leur mission de conduire le peuple de Dieu et qu’ils doivent se convertir, c.-à-d. changer de direction. Lors d’une confrontation prophétique, ça chauffe! Face aux questions qui les concernent plus ou moins, les gens vont souvent adopter une attitude de « tolérance »; mais lorsqu’une question nous tient à cœur, les zones grises ont tendance à disparaître.
Dans les loges? Dès qu’on commence à lire l’évangile de Jean, on se retrouve dans les loges de la salle de tribunal ou encore, peut-être, finalement, c’est nous qui subissons le procès. On constate qu’on doit prendre position – allons-nous croire en Jésus ou non? L’évangile d’aujourd’hui nous parle des conséquences de notre décision – c’est une question de vie ou de mort. À la fin de son évangile, Jean nous révèle sa motivation de l’avoir rédigé : « Jésus a accompli…encore beaucoup d’autres signes qui n’ont pas été rapportés dans ce livre. Mais ce qui s’y trouve a été écrit pour que vous croyiez que Jésus est le Christ, le Fils de Dieu, et qu’en croyant, vous possédiez la vie en son nom. » (20.30-31). Je présume que, si vous êtes là ce matin, c’est parce que vous avez pris votre décision en ce qui concerne Jésus. Mais il reste qu’il y a un danger subtil dans notre société d’aujourd’hui. Notre société démocratique, postmoderne et pluraliste peut très bien tolérer la religion et l’existence des communautés de foi. Il reste cependant que notre culture « tolérante » ait très peur d’une chose – on a peur des gens qui prennent leur religion au sérieux. À quelque part, on se retrouve dans une situation semblable à celle des premiers Chrétiens qui ont lu l’évangile de Jean. On doit faire face, nous aussi, à la question de « vérité »; on doit décider, ultimement, qui on va obéir. Hier, le père David a mentionné la question de « l’aide médical à mourir », c.-à-d. l’ « euthanasie ». Là, on parle bien d’une question de vie ou de mort. Par ou tourner pour avoir la vérité au sujet de la mort? Bien que le gouvernement puisse rire de la notion de « la vérité de Dieu » par rapport à une question éthique, il reste que le gouvernement, lui aussi, veut faire accepter sa « vérité ». Les zones grises commencent à noircir ou blanchir. Quelle « vérité » est vraie? L’évangile d’aujourd’hui nous dit que « Dieu est vrai » (ou « Dieu dit la vérité » : Jn. 3.33). La question revient : Qui parle pour Dieu?
UN DÉFI. Tout d’abord, la Bible assume que Dieu parle : « Au commencement… Dieu a dit, Que la lumière soit! »; « Dieu dit à Abram… » (Gn. 1.1, 3; 12.1). Comprenez-moi bien, on fait bien de se méfier de ceux qui entendent trop souvent la voix de Dieu ou prétendent trop facilement parler pour lui. Une autre question s’impose : À qui ferons-nous confiance? Il y a un personnage dans le récit de Jean qui anticipe la postmodernité – alors que Jésus se trouve à être condamné par ses confrères Juifs, Ponce Pilate, celui qui doit prendre position vis-à-vis Jésus, lui demande « Qu’est-ce que la vérité? » (18.38). Lors du dernier repas, Jésus avait dit aux apôtres, « Je suis la vérité » (14.6). Finalement, la vérité n’est pas confinée entre les deux couvertures d’un livre, mais elle se trouve dans la vie, la mort et la résurrection de Jésus, des événements qui nous sont communiqués par l’évangile qui leur rend « témoignage ».
Obéir. Regardons la première lecture. Les apôtres ont été traînés en justice devant la Cour Suprême juive et on les interdit de parler de Jésus. Les apôtres répondent : Il faut obéir à Dieu plutôt qu’aux hommes (Ac. 5.29; cf. 4.19). Ils continuent en disant qu’ils sont, ensemble avec le Saint Esprit, les témoins de la résurrection et qu’ils ont reçu le « Souffle » qu’avait été promis à ceux qui obéissent Dieu. Dans l’évangile de Jean, Jésus appelle le Souffle de Dieu « l’Esprit de vérité » (14.17, etc.). Ceux qui « obéissent Dieu », c.-à-d. ceux qui croient que Jésus est le Messie, qui se font baptiser en son nom et qui s’attachent à la communauté chrétienne, reçoivent le pouvoir de dire la vérité, même à une société qui ne croit plus dans la possibilité de son existence. Que Dieu nous accorde le courage de vivre d’une manière qui annoncent, haut et fort, que la vie vaut la peine d’être vécue, que la croix nous inspire d’accompagner ceux qui souffrent, et qu’on n’oublie jamais que la résurrection de Jésus est la promesse que c’est la vie qui aura le dernier mot. Amen.

“Breakfast at Jesus’s” (Friday, April 21, 2017; Ac. 4.1-12; Jn. 21.1-14)

ENCOUNTERING the risen Jesus. Have you ever seen a celebrity? Have you ever been walking down the street and happen to have seen someone whom you had only previously seen on TV? John tells us that this was the third time that the risen Jesus had appeared to the disciples, the other two times having been in the house in Jerusalem where the apostles had been lodging (and hiding). At the beginning of the book of the Acts (1.3), St. Luke tells us that the risen Jesus appeared to the disciples during the 40-day period before his ascension. Think about it – the disciples went about their daily lives for 40 days, never knowing when or where Jesus was going to pop up. It must have been a very mysterious time. Just like the answer to Herod’s question as to Jesus’ whereabouts in Oscar Wilde’s play Salome: “He is in every place my Lord, but it is hard to find him”. The risen Jesus is at much at home in God’s space (“heaven”) as in our space (“earth”). For those of us who are familiar with the Chronicles of Narnia, the risen Jesus is constantly going back and forth through the wardrobe that is the portal between our everyday world and the world of Narnia. During these 40 days, Jesus is both present and absent. We can imagine different disciples running into each other on the street, one of them looking excited and bursting with news: “I saw Jesus!” and the response, “Where? When? How? Tell us all about it!”
Back to the scene of the crime. In today’s gospel, we’re back where it all began – Peter, James and John (and a few others) are in a boat on the Sea of Galilee with their nets, and a mysterious character shows up on shore and calls to them… it’s as if the DVD has jumped back to the first scene of the film. Those who had been called to become fishers of men have gone back to fishing for fish. In fact, everything about today’s gospel is orchestrated for Peter’s benefit.
No fish. The details of the story sound familiar – once again, we have Peter – exhausted after having spent the night on the lake with nothing to show for it – and Jesus, who, with a simple command, enables a great catch of fish. If I had been in Peter’s shoes, I might have thought, “Not again! Here is Jesus showing up when I have just experienced failure.” Why couldn’t he appear just when I had managed, on my own, “to bring home the fillets”? Then I could show Jesus just how capable I am and he could be impressed and give me a pat on the back. Peter was a career fisherman; this was the one thing that he was good at. And yet, there he is, as the rising sun reveals that his boat is empty.
A charcoal fire. And the fact remains: Peter had indeed failed, gloriously. Full of zeal at the Last Supper and full of swashbuckling bravado in the garden, Peter lost his nerve when a servant girl recognized him in the light of a charcoal fire (cp. Jn. 21.9 & 18.18) and he had denied 3 times even knowing who Jesus was. Judas had betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver, but then again, maybe that wasn’t such a surprise – after all, Judas had always hung onto the money bag a little too tightly (cf. Jn. 12.4-6; 13.2). But Peter! Peter had always been the natural leader of the 12 apostles, always the first to speak, or rather, as was often the case, to put his foot in his mouth. Even in today’s Gospel, Peter leads his friends out onto the Lake with his confident assertion: I’m going fishing! But Jesus appears now, as if to let Peter know – everything that you will do from this moment on, you will do – not out of your own wealth of experience, your own abilities or confidence – no, from now on, you will act with my power, with the wisdom of my Spirit.
Bread and fish. The disciples had searched for food all night, only to discover that breakfast was already waiting for them on the shore – bread and fish cooked over a charcoal fire (yes, the same type as the one at which Peter had denied Jesus), two more echoes from earlier in the story. This takes us back to chapter 6 of John’s Gospel, where Jesus multiplied bread and fish to feed 5,000 people and then gave a lengthy discourse, as the Johannine Jesus has a habit of doing, identifying himself as the Bread of Life which came down from heaven. Jesus then goes on to say that whoever does not eat his flesh and drink his blood does not have eternal life. Upon hearing this, many of those who had been following Jesus started walking away. (the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist has always been a controversial thing). So Jesus turns to the 12 apostles and asks them: Are you going to leave me too? And that’s when Peter makes his confession: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God” (6.68-69).
Follow me. As chapter 21 of John’s Gospel continues, Jesus and Peter take a walk down the beach. Jesus has 1 question for Peter, and he puts it to him 3 times. As Jesus had told the apostles during the Last Supper, “Without me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15.5). You can’t even catch fish without me. So trust me. I love you. I died for you. I forgive you. And you’re not off the hook. What I said to you all those months ago (perhaps on that same beach), I say to you now: “Follow me” (Jn. 21.19, 22). Jesus’ last words to Peter had also been his first: Follow me. Follow me into the darkness of the world, follow me into the streets full of broken people, follow me into the courtrooms of the powerful, follow me to the cross, follow me to the Father. Oh, and one more thing. As I have fed you, feed my sheep (Jn. 21.15-17; cf. v. 12). This is good news for all of us who have ever failed, or ever felt like failures, or both. Failure does not need to be the end. There is hope. If we can let go of our pride, humble ourselves under the mighty hand of the Father, trust Jesus’ love and forgiveness, and open ourselves to the wind of the Spirit, we can be amazing agents of the love of God in this world.
PROCLAIMING the risen Lord. So the risen Jesus appeared to the disciples during a 40-day period. As often happens in the Bible, this period of 40 days was a time of preparation. Preparation for what? We might ask. The answer is to be found in our first reading. In the book of the Acts of the Apostles, we see the consequences of having encountered the risen Jesus – after the disciples receive the power of the Holy Spirit, they begin to proclaim boldly – in public – that Jesus had been raised from the dead – and they suffer for it. I find it amusing that the members of the Supreme Court of the day take the apostles’ message a lot more seriously than many Bible scholars do. Many scholars dismiss the miraculous claims of the NT, saying that it’s only to be expected that primitive, pre-scientific folk would believe things like the bodily resurrection or the virgin birth. Well, let me just say this: the reason that Joseph considered divorcing his pregnant fiancée is because he knew exactly where babies came from, not because he didn’t know. It is obvious that however the apostles understood what had happened to the crucified Jesus, they thought that it was something that had happened in the real world. They advanced two claims about the resurrection: the tomb was empty and they had seen the risen Jesus, had touched him, and had shared meals with him. And it’s obvious that the Sanhedrin – though they didn’t believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead – thought that the apostles’ message was dangerous enough to warrant them imprisoning, beating and even considering killing the apostles. That’s worth thinking about – why did the members of the Court consider the message of Jesus’ resurrection to be dangerous…? Well, if it’s true that Jesus was raised from the dead, what does that say about the power of those who killed him? If the Jesus who was crucified did not stay in the tomb, then the world has been changed, and those who use death as a weapon know that their time is running out. Back to Herod in Oscar Wilde’s play: “He raises the dead?” “Yea, sire, He raiseth the dead.” “I do not wish Him to do that. I forbid Him to do that. I allow no man to raise the dead. This Man must be found and told that I forbid Him to raise the dead.” The risen Jesus forgives, heals, empowers and sends his messengers into the world. God raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead – this is the revolutionary news that our world needs to hear. Amen.

“Est-ce qu’il y a de la place à la table?” (jeudi, le 16 mars, 2017; Luc 16.19-31)

« Il y avait un homme riche… » Ceux qui connaissent bien les évangiles savent très bien quel sera le ton d’une parabole qui commence ainsi. Dans les évangiles, les riches sont rarement présentés de manière positive. Effectivement, la lecture d’aujourd’hui nous présente deux personnages qui sont aux antipodes l’un de l’autre. D’un bord, l’homme riche, « toujours vêtu d’habits coûteux et raffinés et dont la vie n’était chaque jour que festins et plaisirs ». Il est tout à fait absorbé par son train de vie luxueux. De l’autre bord, Lazare, un pauvre qui « se tenait couché devant le portail de la villa du riche ». Lazare est le type même de la pauvreté et le désespoir. Il est misérable, affamé et …malade. Un autre détail plutôt troublant nous est souligné. Quand le riche mourut, nous dit le texte, « on l’enterra ». Le récit nous laisse croire que lorsque Lazare mourut, il n’a pas joui de ce dernier privilège. On peut même imaginer que son corps a été dévoré par les mêmes chiens qui, de son vivant, venaient lécher ses plaies.
Notre parabole se trouve à être la dernière d’une série de 5 histoires que Jésus raconte aux Pharisiens pour deux raisons particulières : 1) expliquer son habitude de partager des repas avec des « pécheurs » et 2) avertir ceux qui se contentent de se dire « enfants d’Abraham » et d’une observance externe de la loi de Moïse. Les Pharisiens savaient très bien ou était la ligne entre les « justes », c.-à-d. ceux qui « détenaient des billets » pour le banquet eschatologique et ceux qui n’en avaient pas. Mais là, Jésus inverse les rôles… Remontons jusqu’au début du chapitre 15, ou Luc nous dresse la scène suivante : Jésus est à table avec des invités surprise, alors que des Pharisiens viennent sentir. « Les collecteurs d’impôts …se pressaient tous autour de Jésus, avides d’écouter ses paroles. Les pharisiens et les spécialistes de la Loi s’en indignaient et disaient: Cet individu fréquente des pécheurs notoires et s’attable avec eux » (15.1-2). Ensuite, Jésus raconte trois paraboles au sujet des choses perdues et retrouvées : une brebis, une pièce d’argent, et finalement un fils prodigue le retour duquel est souligné par un festin.
Chapitre 16 commence avec une parabole au sujet d’un homme qui travaille comme gérant …pour un riche. Après cette première parabole au sujet des richesses, Jésus dit : « Aucun serviteur ne peut être en même temps au service de deux maîtres …Vous ne pouvez pas servir en même temps Dieu et l’Argent ». Sur ce, Luc nous dit : « En entendant toutes ces recommandations, les pharisiens, qui étaient très attachés à l’argent, se moquaient de Jésus. Mais il leur dit: Vous, vous êtes des gens qui veulent se faire passer pour justes aux yeux de tout le monde, mais Dieu connaît le fond de votre cœur » (16.13-15).
Jésus est venu chercher les pécheurs, les publicains et les pauvres. Jésus se présente comme étant l’hôte du banquet des élus; à sa table, déjà on goute aux délices du banquet eschatologique, déjà le monde à venir se fait sentir. Tous ceux qui accueillent les paroles de Jésus sont les bienvenues à la table du salut. Les Pharisiens observent tout cela, lancent des critiques et s’en moquent. Jésus ne peut pas sentir leur hypocrisie, leur prétention religieuse. Comme tous les prophètes, Jésus insiste qu’une piété qui ne se traduit pas dans des gestes concrets de justice ne vaut rien. Tant par ses gestes que par ses paroles, Jésus indique que le monde à venir est déjà présent et ceux qui aimeront goûter son réalisation complète lors de la résurrection des morts sont mieux de prêter attention à leur manière de vivre dans le présent. Jésus insiste sur le fait étrange que c’est possible de passer toute sa vie dans la maison du père, tout en ayant le cœur endurci et aveuglé, et dont en étant incapable de bénéficier de la grâce généreuse de Dieu. Jésus avait dit au chapitre 13 : « C’est là qu’il y aura des pleurs et d’amers regrets, quand vous verrez Abraham, Isaac et Jacob et tous les prophètes dans le royaume de Dieu, tandis que vous-mêmes vous en serez exclus. Des hommes viendront de l’Orient et de l’Occident, du Nord et du Midi, et prendront place à table dans le royaume de Dieu » (13.28-29).
Revenons à notre parabole de Lazare et l’homme riche. Comme ça se passe souvent dans les histoires de l’époque, une fois que nos deux personnages se trouvent dans l’au-delà, leur sort est inversé. Le riche se trouve dans les flammes de Hadès, ou il veut bien que Lazare trempe son doigt dans l’eau afin de calmer sa soif. L’autre côté de l’abîme, Lazare se trouve au banquet promis, assis à la droite d’Abraham. Maintenant, il faut comprendre qu’à l’époque de Jésus, la richesse était considérée comme étant un signe de la bénédiction de Dieu, alors que la pauvreté était vue comme étant la preuve que la personne démunie était sous une malédiction divine. Le même principe s’appliquait à la stérilité chez les femmes (pensons à Élisabeth). Mais dans son évangile, S. Luc insiste fois après fois que Dieu est venu renverser les attentes des gens « pieux » ainsi que les situations les plus désespérées. Pensons aux paroles du « magnificat » de Marie au chapitre premier: « Il a comblé de biens ceux qui sont affamés, et il a renvoyé les riches les mains vides ». À travers Jésus, Dieu établit son règne de justice, et les pauvres, les méprisés, les malades, et les gens tourmentés par divers maux peuvent se réjouir parce que Dieu ne les a pas oubliés.
« Lazare aurait bien voulu calmer sa faim avec les miettes qui tombaient de la table du riche ». Il n’y avait pas de place pour Lazare à la table du riche – même pas en-dessous de la table! La critique implicite de Jésus contre les Pharisiens se fait entendre : Vous, Pharisiens, vous êtes rassasiés et « justes » aux yeux du monde; et pourtant, vous laisseriez périr les pauvres pécheurs qui sont là tout autour de vous! Vous êtes indifférents et à leur sort matériel et à leur destin éternel! Il faut noter que pour Jésus, pain et salut vont de pair.
Que faire face aux pauvres? …face au « squeegee » au feu de circulation? …face à l’itinérante dans le Métro? …face à l’homme dans l’autobus qui ne cesse de pousser des cris? Un des dangers qui s’attachent à l’argent est que les affluents sont souvent isolés par leurs richesses. Leur argent ne leur permet plus de voir les démunis. Qu’on soit riche ou pas, les pauvres, les souffrants, doivent nous interpeller. Ils détruisent nos illusions d’autosuffisance. En réalité, nous sommes tous dans le besoin – on a tous des besoins différents, mais personne n’est un île. Les pauvres nous appellent à sortir de nous-mêmes, de nos cocons de sécurité et de confort. En passant, les évangiles nous disent qu’il y avait des riches qui étaient disciples de Jésus, ex. Joseph d’Arimathée. Être riche n’est pas un péché un soit. La question est plutôt : qu’est-ce qu’on a fait face aux nécessiteux autour de nous? Dorothy Day, qui a fondé le journal Catholic Worker aux États-Unis en 1933, a dit qu’il y a deux choses qu’on doit savoir au sujet des pauvres : ils ne sentent pas bon et ils sont ingrats. Sommes-nous prêts à accueillir ceux et celles qui nous mettent mal à l’aise? Encore là, on ne parle pas de tolérance. La tolérance se traduit souvent dans le fait d’éviter et d’ignorer ceux qui sont différents. On les tolère tant qu’ils ne nous dérangent pas. Non, le défi qui nous lance Jésus est beaucoup plus radical. C’est le défi d’aimer ceux qui ne sont pas aimables. Si on a goûté à l’amour de Dieu, on ne peut pas rester indifférents à ceux et celles qui nous entourent. Est-ce qu’il y a de la place à notre table? Amen.

“A community of Reconciliation” (Friday, March 10, 2017; Mt. 5.1, 20-26)

What is the point of being a Christian? When I was a kid, I thought the point of being a Christian – of praying, reading the Bible, going to Church – was to avoid Hell. Actually, today’s gospel contains the first reference to Hell in the New Testament. There are 3 Greek words in the NT that are translated by the English word “Hell”. Today’s word is “gehenna”, i.e. the Valley of Hinnom, located on the southwest slopes of Jerusalem and which served as the city’s garbage dump, where fires were continually burning. By the time of Jesus, this garbage dump was being used as an image of the final judgment. In his warnings against the nation of Israel as a whole, Jesus often says that Jerusalem is running the risk of becoming a literal extension of its garbage dump (which actually happened, in the year 70 AD, i.e. one generation after Jesus uttered his devastating prediction).
“Righteousness”. But I digress. If there is indeed more to Christianity than avoiding Hell, what exactly is the point of our faith? What is “salvation” all about? Well, if you had asked a typical Pharisee in the first century, you would probably have received an answer that went something like this: Yahweh has promised salvation to us, his chosen people. The guarantee of this promise is the covenant that Yahweh established between himself and us. However, in order for the blessings of the covenant to become a reality, both parties must be “righteous”, i.e. faithful to the demands of the covenant. Those members of God’s people who act righteously in the present can be assured that they will be saved at the decisive moment when God acts to deliver and save his people. The Pharisees were intent on living righteously, on being faithful to the covenant as expressed in the Law of Moses, and on teaching others how to do so as well. But then Jesus comes along and issues devastating critique after devastating critique of their whole way of going about being “righteous”.
The new Moses. However, Matthew takes great pains in his gospel to demonstrate that Jesus “did not come to abolish the Law” or the demands of the covenant between Yahweh and his people Israel. Throughout his gospel, Matthew presents Jesus as the new Moses, the new lawgiver. The “Sermon on the Mount” is the first of 5 sections of dominical teaching in Matthew’s gospel. Matthew 5 begins with Jesus “going up the mountain” – just like Moses had done at Sinai centuries before him. Jesus issues the alarming statement: “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”. Jesus is establishing God’s kingdom on Earth, beginning with Israel. If you want to be part of this new reality, Jesus says, you’re going to have to do better than the Pharisees. Jesus then goes on to explain how to be “righteous”, i.e. how to be faithful to the covenant with Yahweh.
The new humanity. But what was the point of the covenant in the first place? Why was Israel chosen to be God’s special people? In 5.14f, Jesus says to his fellow Jews: “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid… let your light shine before others…” In the book of Exodus, when the Israelites were gathered at the foot of Mt. Sinai, Yahweh had said that they were a holy nation, a kingdom of priests, set apart among all the nations of the earth. Israel was called to be the new humanity, to demonstrate to a watching world – through faithfulness to Yahweh – what it meant to be truly human. And here we have come to the point, the point of being “righteous”, the point of being faithful to God, the point of the faith of Israel and our faith as followers of the Jewish Messiah. The point is as simple – and as challenging – as being what God has created us to be – human beings who reflect his image into the world. Nothing more, nothing less.
Defining “Hell”. Does this mean that we don’t have to worry about Hell? Well, as human beings, we possess a wonderful and dangerous thing called free will. We are free – free to become more and more what we are: bearers of the divine image. However, we are also free to reject who we are and to become… what would it look like to ultimately and finally refuse to be a human being? C.S. Lewis said that there are ultimately 2 types of people in the world: those who say to God, ‘Your will be done’ and those to whom God says ‘Your will be done’. This is the meaning behind Jesus’ warnings about losing your soul, yourself, your life. We have been given life – we have been given the incredible responsibility to chose what, by the grace of God, our destiny will be. Life has meaning – and this meaning is a challenge.
Constitution of the People of God. Back to the mountain top in Galilee. In this “sermon”, Jesus is presenting Israel with a new covenant charter, a new constitution for how to be the people of God, the true humanity. It goes way beyond keeping rules or deciding that, now that we find ourselves in the 21st century, we can do away with those things in the gospel that we consider to be “old-fashioned”. Even if we are now “postmodern”, Jesus’ challenge to become more truly human is as relevant as ever.
Murder he said. And so to today’s topic – murder. Jesus goes beyond the Mosaic prohibition of murder and forbids the attitudes of the heart that, if given enough time to germinate, will eventually blossom into the actual taking of life. Jesus warns against being angry and insulting a brother or sister, i.e. a member of the believing community. Now, it seems that Jesus is not issuing a total ban on anger. Jesus himself, the gospels tell us, experienced powerful anger at times, and acted upon it. In Mt. chapter 21, Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers and chased out the merchants who were selling sacrificial animals in the precincts of the Jerusalem Temple. (Jesus wasn’t feeling too “meek and mild” that day). It is certainly not wrong to be angry when we witness injustice. But what is the end result of our anger? A movie has been made using only the text of the Gospel of Matthew. I consider it to be one of the most realistic “Jesus movies” out there. When the story gets to chapter 23 – the tirade of Jesus against the Pharisees where he pronounces 7 “woes” upon them for their hypocrisy – Jesus yells at a group of Pharisees with tears in his eyes and when he has proclaimed the 7th judgment, Jesus approaches a Pharisee and embraces him. The scene is brilliantly done. The viewer has no doubt whatsoever that Jesus is incredibly angered and shocked at the Pharisees’ failure to guide the people in the way of true righteousness; however, the viewer has no doubt either that, even as he castigates them for their hypocrisy, Jesus loves the Pharisees…
The way of reconciliation. What Jesus is teaching today is a lifestyle of reconciliation – a way of living in community where one does not let anger fester in one’s heart, but rather “keeps short accounts” with one’s brothers and sisters. Reconciliation is such a difficult thing to achieve. Fortunately, there are examples that show us that it is possible. When Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa in 1994 and Apartheid was dismantled, everyone thought that there would be a bloody civil war between blacks and whites. However, one of the people working for peace was the Anglican Archbishop of Capetown, Desmond Tutu, who founded the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Part of this Commission’s work were public confessions by both white police officials and black resistance fighters who had committed atrocities during the time of apartheid. To the world’s surprise, there was no ethnic bloodbath. Of course, most of the time, our need for reconciliation takes place on a much smaller scale. The goal for any community, for our community, is peace. This is why we offer each other a “sign of peace” before receiving Christ in the Eucharist. How many petty conflicts among us have allowed silent anger to simmer in our hearts? Let us not wait one more day; let us make a point of being reconciled to one another. Amen.

“Votre vie se trouve à la croix” (jeudi, le 02 mars, 2017; Luc 9.22-25)

Avec qui se tient-on dans la vie? Les gens nous catégorisent souvent selon le genre de personnes avec qui on s’entoure. Pour les jeunes au secondaire, cette question d’identité et d’appartenance est presque une question de vie et de mort (parfois, c’est littéralement le cas). Les adolescents se donnent une identité en s’attachant à une des nombreuses « tribus » dans leur polyvalent – les sportifs, les « cheerleaders » (« meneurs de claque »), les gothiques, les intellos, etc. Ta réputation dépend en grande partie de ceux qui font partie de ton entourage. Pour une « cheerleader », être vu en compagnie d’un « intello » pourra être fatal.
Le plus grand des rejetés. On peut imaginer l’excitation qui se trouvait chez les disciples lorsque Pierre a identifié Jésus comme étant le Messie. On peut imaginer leurs réactions, des réactions provoquées par l’orgueil et la crainte. Nous sommes les amis du Messie! Nous ne sommes plus que des simples pêcheurs! Nous sommes les branchés! Maintenant, tous les rêves nous sont permis! Mais, si c’est vrai que Jésus est le Roi, on est mieux d’agir rapidement afin d’être sûre d’avoir un poste clé dans son cabinet. On ne voudra pas être un simple soldat dans le Royaume de Dieu! On peut penser à Jacques et Jean, qui ont demandé d’être assis, l’un à la gauche, l’autre à la droite de Jésus, une fois qu’il était pour « entrer dans sa gloire ». Mais quelle affaire quand même! L’espoir de notre nation est sur le point de se réaliser, et nous sommes là, en plein milieu de l’action!
Et là, Jésus fais éclater leur bulle. « Il faut que je souffre beaucoup et que je sois rejeté par les gens de bien de notre peuple. » Il y a peu de choses dans la vie qui nous causent plus de peine que le rejet. Jusqu’à ce moment-là, Jésus a passé son temps avec les rejetés de sa société – les prostituées, les employés des Romains (= collecteurs d’impôts), les lépreux, les malades, les enfants – et maintenant, Jésus s’identifie comme étant le plus grand des rejetés. Non seulement il sera mis de côté et critiqué, il sera mis à mort. Les disciples se trouvent à être des compagnons de celui qui sera l’homme le plus détesté de la nation. Ceci est pour eux non seulement un sujet d’embarras, mais un véritable danger.
Renoncement à soi. Jésus continue à s’en prendre à l’orgueil des disciples en disant : « Celui qui veut marcher à ma suite, qu’il renonce à lui-même, qu’il prenne sa croix chaque jour… » Jésus s’identifie, non seulement comme étant le rejeté, mais aussi comme étant celui qui est condamné, condamné à mourir sur une croix romaine. Seulement un homme condamné va se charger d’une croix et la porter jusqu’au lieu de son exécution, pour servir d’avertissement à tous ceux qui l’observent. Ceux et celles qui aspirent à suivre Jésus doivent renoncer à leur réputation comme étant les gens « respectables » et doivent accepter d’être « condamné » par la culture environnante. Être condamné à mort, c’est avoir perdu toute crédibilité, toute influence, tout pouvoir, c’est l’ultime rejet que la société peut imposer à quelqu’un. L’égo, le « je, me, moi » doit être renoncer. Notre instinct de nous protéger, au niveau émotionnel, psychologique, social, et même physique doit céder la place à une loyauté absolue à l’égard de celui est rejeté et condamné et qui nous appelle à sa suite.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, un pasteur allemand qui a exercé son ministère à l’époque du régime nazi, a dit le suivant : « Quand Christ appel un homme à sa suite, il l’appel à venir mourir ». Ce ne sont pas là des paroles gratuites d’un prédicateur rempli d’un enthousiasme un peu trop morbide. Non, dans le cas de Bonhoeffer, elles ont été des paroles prophétiques. Le 9 avril 1945, Bonhoeffer a été exécuté par pendaison dans un camp de concentration nazi. À croire ses lettres, Bonhoeffer a eu une prémonition, dès que les nazis ont pris le pouvoir en Allemagne, qu’il était pour perdre la vie dans la cause de la résistance contre le régime hitlérien. Bonhoeffer était un personnage assez intéressant – pasteur luthérien et théologien apprécié, il a travaillé pour l’intelligence militaire allemande en tant qu’agent-double, formant ainsi des contacts avec les pays alliés; il a participé également dans le complot Valkyrie pour assassiner Hitler (un hybride de St. Paul & James Bond?). En passant, Bonhoeffer a aussi trouvé le temps pour établir un réseau d’églises et de séminaires autonomes qui refusaient de prêter serment à Hitler et de rester passif face à la persécution des Juifs. Au moment de sa mort, Bonhoeffer avait 39 ans.
C’est vrai que les paroles de Jésus semblent avoir peu à voir avec notre réalité. Bonhoeffer était persuadé que c’était encore possible de suivre Jésus en Allemagne au milieu du 20e siècle. Bonhoeffer voulait ramener les Chrétiens aux paroles de Jésus, surtout celles qu’on retrouve dans le Sermon sur la Montagne. Voilà une citation intéressante : « Les paroles de Jésus sont incontournables. Pour moi, ce sont les plus grandes paroles jamais prononcées sur le sens de la vie. J’ai abandonné la pratique religieuse, mais la voix de Jésus me revient » (Denys Arcand). Bonhoeffer, pour sa part, a parlé dans ses dernières lettres – rédigées en prison – d’un Christianisme « sans religion »; c.-à-d. un Christianisme basé non pas sur une appartenance culturelle à l’institution de l’Église, mais plutôt une foi obéissante au Christ dans tous les domaines de la vie. Et si Jésus voulait qu’on fasse quelque chose…? Même si en tant que Chrétiens, on passe pour des gens respectables, peu de gens à Montréal en 2017 craignent qu’on aille effectuer des changements dans la société, dans la réalité. Au lieu de désespérer, il nous faut plutôt relever le défi que nous est proposé par notre actualité. Jésus nous invite à sa suite, à courir le risque de tout perdre; mais encore là, si nous appartenons à Jésus, nous possédons déjà tout.
« Celui qui veut sauver sa vie la perdra; mais celui qui perdra sa vie à cause de moi la sauvera. » Ce sont là des paroles sévères, non? Mais j’aime ma vie. Jésus, est-il contre ma personnalité, mon épanouissement? Qu’est-ce qu’il veut dire par ces paroles? Je crois que ce qu’on voit ici, c’est la notion du don. Dieu veut nous donner la vraie vie, une vie sur laquelle la mort n’a aucun pouvoir. Mais pour recevoir cette vie-là, il nous faut lâcher prise – lâcher prise de notre illusion de contrôle, de notre orgueil, de notre crainte, de notre instinct de se protéger. Dieu aime la vie; il l’a créée! Dieu veut nous donner la vraie vie, la vie sans fin. Dans le jardin d’Éden, Adam et Ève ont pris ce que le Créateur voulait les donner. C’est ça le péché d’Adam et Ève – ne pas faire confiance à Dieu, mais plutôt arracher de peur de ne pas pouvoir jouir pleinement de la vie.
C.S. Lewis a dit le suivant: « Soumettez-vous à la mort, la mort de vos ambitions et vos souhaits chaque jour, et à la fin, la mort de votre corps: soumettez-vous avec votre être tout entier, et vous trouverez la vie éternelle. Ne gardez rien pour vous. Seulement ce que vous aurez donné sera vraiment à vous. Rien en vous qui n’a pas mourut sera ressuscité. Si vous vous chercherez, vous trouverez à la longue que de la haine, la solitude, le désespoir, la rage, la ruine et la corruption. Mais cherchez le Christ, et vous le trouverez, et avec lui tout le reste de ce que vous cherchez… » Dans cette saison de Carême, Jésus avance devant nous sur le chemin de la croix. Jésus nous dit : Fiez-vous à moi. Ne craignez rien; ce chemin, c’est le chemin de la vie. Amen.

“What God has joined together…” (Friday, February 24, 2017; Mark 10.1-12)

Not me! In 2011, an Italian-French film entitled Habemus Papam appeared in cinemas. The film begins with a conclave at the Vatican to elect a new Pope. As the cardinals cast their ballots, several of them lift their eyes to heaven and murmur an urgent prayer, each one in his own language, saying: “Not me Lord! Please, not me!” This morning, I feel a bit like those cardinals. If I had taken the time last week to read today’s gospel, I might have repeated the cardinals’ words when I was asked to reflect on this passage from St. Mark. However, I didn’t, and here we are.
A painful issue. Today’s gospel deals with a painful subject – divorce. According to the 2006 census, over 48 % of marriages in Quebec end in divorce. Needless to say, I don’t feel qualified to comment on the issue of marriage and divorce. I take comfort in the fact that the man in the gospel who replied to a question about divorce was himself single. Also, there is a saint who will come to my aid today. I will identify this saint in a moment.
A trap. Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce is provoked by a trick question that the Pharisees put to him in an attempt to trap Jesus into offending the powers that be. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Interestingly, this exchange with the Pharisees takes place in the region where John the Baptist had exercised his ministry – the region of Judea beyond the Jordan (cf. Jn. 1.28). John had been arrested – and eventually executed – by king Herod Antipas. Why? Because John had publicly reprimanded Herod for having married his sister-in-law, who had divorced Herod’s brother Philip in order to marry Herod (cf. Mk. 6). Now, Jesus is visiting John the Baptist’s old stomping-grounds, and the Pharisees attempt to get Jesus to incriminate himself in the way John had. As he will do repeatedly once he arrives in Jerusalem, Jesus outflanks his opponents by setting their question into a larger context and thereby getting to the heart of the matter. While there was provision for divorce in the Mosaic Law, Jesus says that this was because of the “hardness of heart” of God’s people. As is often the case, the Law doesn’t reflect God’s intention, but serves rather to limit the effects of human selfishness – in this case, to provide the divorced Israelite woman with legal proof as to why she now finds herself without economic support and with a diminished social status. In his reply, Jesus goes beyond Moses, back to the beginning, back to Genesis, the place where God first instituted marriage.
Theology of the body. The saint that I referred to earlier is Pope John Paul II. In October 1978, Karol Cardinal Wojtyla arrived in Rome for a conclave. In Cardinal Wojtyla’s briefcase was an unpublished manuscript entitled Theology of the Body. As Pope John Paul II, he would deliver the contents of this document in a series of 129 addresses during his Wednesday audiences between 1979 and 1984. In Theology of the Body, John Paul II examines the subject of man and woman before and after the Fall, and at the resurrection of the dead. He contemplates the sexual complementarity of man and woman and explores the nature of marriage, celibacy and virginity. The following remarks are taken from Pope Saint John Paul II’s text and give us a glimpse of the beauty of God’s plan for marriage.
Made for each other. John Paul II begins his reflections with today’s gospel. In God’s design, man and woman exist for each other. Even though humanity has lost its original innocence and our hearts have grown hard, God’s design for marriage hasn’t changed. In his reply to the Pharisees, Jesus quotes from both creation stories from the book of Genesis. In Genesis chapter 1, mankind is created “male” and “female”, in God’s image and as the summit of the creation. In chapter 2, we have the second account of creation, in which Adam is created first. For the first time, in Gn. 2.18, God will declare something to be “not good”: “the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner’”. Adam names all the animals, only to discover that he is distinct among them. Adam was created in the image of God, he is a person, and after having named the animals, Adam realizes that he is alone. Once God creates the woman, the man is finally able to be in communion with a creature that shares his nature.
A communion of persons. In the book of Genesis, the creation of mankind is only complete when he is created as male and female – two beings sharing one human nature, one life, but distinguished by their masculinity and femininity. The woman is for the man, and the man is for the woman. As a communion of persons, humans are called to live for each other, not just for themselves. Adam and Eve reflected God’s image through their love for each other. In this way, they mirrored the glory of the divine communion of persons – the Holy Trinity. To the extent that they live together in love, man and woman become a picture of the inner life of God. This might be the most amazing thing that we can say about marriage. Of course, God is the loyal God, who is often pictured in Scripture as the faithful husband to His often unfaithful people.
Innocence & redemption. Christian marriage is far more than a contract or a social arrangement. It is a vocation, a path to holiness and salvation. And a solid, biblical understanding of the body, male and female, is crucial to this vocation. Because of sin, it is difficult to see the body as a gift, not an object. But for married couples, awareness and acceptance of the gift-giving and life-giving meanings of the body is essential. It is so significant that, in answering a question about marriage, Christ directs us back to the time of man’s innocence. If, by “the beginning”, Jesus referred only to our lost innocence, his words would be of little relevance to his questioners and to us. But he is not just pointing back – he is also pointing forward – to our redemption. The promise of redemption bridges the gap between our present sinfulness and our original innocence. A theology of the body is of little use unless we live in the hope of the redemption of the body. In Christ and through Christ, what once was lost can yet be regained. This has been merely a hint of the wisdom contained in Pope Saint John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. In today’s gospel, Jesus invites us to look beyond the Law in order to contemplate the beauty of the very costly commitment to give yourself to one person faithfully for life.
Responsibility. In his book Tokens of Trust, Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, claims that Christians must “take responsibility for making God credible in the world”, i.e. we must embrace the responsibility for demonstrating that God is real through the way we live our lives. If I may be so bold as to say it, it seems to me that Christian couples are called to take responsibility to demonstrate God’s faithful love through their marriages. Many people today have become cynical about the very idea of a lifelong commitment to one person. And what does the word “love” mean anyway? I believe that whatever happens, we, as Christians, must not allow the idea of marriage to be cheapened. I thank God for the example of my parents, who recently celebrated 35 years of married life. Let us pray that God will strengthen those couples who give us hope by persevering in love and self-sacrifice and let us also pray for those for whom the experience of marriage has been one of heartbreak, separation and loneliness. May God pour out his mercy and healing grace upon all separated and divorced women and men. Amen.

“Believing is Seeing” (Wednesday, February 15, 2017; Mark 8.22-26)

Not enough evidence. Bertrand Russell was a famous British philosopher who died in 1970. Russell was an outspoken atheist. Once, someone asked Russell what he would do if he was to come face to face with God after dying and if God were to ask him for an explanation for his failure to believe. Russell replied, “I would tell him, ‘Not enough evidence’”. Personally, I would have liked to ask Dr. Russell what kind of evidence would have convinced him that God exists? Everyone – I think – whether they believe in God or not, has an idea of what God would have to do to prove to the world that he is real. Why God doesn’t do it is another question…
A sign refused. But what about Jesus? What do we do with him? In Monday’s gospel, the Pharisees ask Jesus for a “sign”, for proof that he is a genuine spokesman for God. They have their idea of what a legitimate sign would be, and they wait for Jesus to perform one. But Jesus refuses to play their game. No matter what Jesus does – he had just fed 4,000 people with 7 loaves of bread and a few fish – the Pharisees won’t believe that Jesus has been sent by God. Their lack of belief, their lack of faith in Jesus prevents them from understanding what is happening right under their noses. Hence Jesus’ repeated frustration and his warnings about having ears and not hearing and about having eyes and not seeing. People see what they want to see, and they don’t see what they don’t want to see.
Seek first the kingdom. This is also one of the reasons that Jesus is reluctant to perform healings and so often insists on secrecy. His compassion compels him to heal people, but Jesus never performs a healing in order to “prove” that he has been sent from God. Even in Mark chapter 2, where Jesus heals a paralyzed man after having told him that his sins are forgiven, Jesus tells the man to get up and walk in order to demonstrate how relatively easy it is to heal him compared to forgiving him his sins. It is only at the end of the Gospel that we will realize just how “difficult” the forgiveness of sins is for Jesus. Jesus doesn’t want to draw attention to his healings, though sometimes he is angered into healing someone, like the man in the synagogue with a withered hand. Jesus is angered by the fact that the Pharisees put more stock in rigorous Sabbath observance than the good of the sick man. Jesus proceeds to heal the man’s hand; however, Jesus doesn’t base his authority on his miracles. Also, Jesus wants to draw people into relationship with himself, he invites people to trust him, to follow him, not because he is a healer, but because he is the agent of the Kingdom of God, he is the agent of God’s forgiveness, the One who sets people free from guilt and fear. The Jesus we discover in Mark’s gospel doesn’t fit a pre-made profile, he doesn’t fit into any categories that people had at the time. As we will see tomorrow, Jesus doesn’t even fit into the “Messiah” category that the disciples had. Jesus is who he is, and he invites people to follow him – to the cross. The important thing is the kingdom of God, and when the kingdom arrives, it doesn’t look like a “miracle”, it doesn’t seem to be a manifestation of “power”. As far as Mark is concerned, if miracles happen, that’s fine, but they shouldn’t be the focus.
So what? Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury in the Church of England, tells the story of a priest who had the task of hearing confessions in a certain convent. Once, as the priest was praying with a sister in the chapel, the sister poked him and said, “Father, there is an angel over there by the altar!” The priest replied, “Nonsense sister. Get on with your prayers.” The sister obeyed. Afterwards, she insisted: “Father, I really did see an angel by the altar.” The priest said to her, “I know you did. I saw it too. So what?” This is Mark’s attitude to miracles.
Eyes opened wide. In today’s gospel, Jesus cures a blind man. It is a deeply personal story with several interesting details. In order to get the blind man away from the crowd, Jesus takes him by the hand and leads him out of the village. After putting saliva on his eyes and laying hands on him, Jesus asks him if he can see. He replies that he can see people, but they look like trees, walking. Mark doesn’t tell us if the man was born blind, but if he was, the exchange between the man and Jesus leads to some interesting questions. How did the man know what trees – or people – were supposed to look like? Anyway, Jesus lays hands on him a second time, and this time, the man can see clearly. If the man had indeed been born blind, the first thing he ever saw was …Jesus. As usual, Jesus doesn’t want people to know what has happened, and he sends the man on his way, instructing him to avoid the village.
Blind disciples. Mark has deliberately placed the episode of the healing of the bling man right before tomorrow’s gospel reading, which is the story of Peter’s confession of faith. The disciples have not grasped who Jesus actually is, but then again, how could they have? There are several similarities between the two episodes. Jesus leads the disciples to Caesarea Philippi, north of Galilee, away from the crowds. He asks them, “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples give him people’s incorrect answers. Then Jesus asks them a second question, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter then gives a correct answer – even though, as soon becomes clear, he doesn’t have a clue what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah. Jesus then orders the disciples not to tell anyone about him. What good would it do for the disciples to try and tell others about Jesus? They don’t even understand who he is. Attracting attention to Jesus would just lead to more confusion and misunderstanding.
Mark is a dark gospel. However, Mark has let us, the readers, in on the secret from the very first verse: The beginning of the good news of Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God. But as we read the story, we have to let go of what we thought those terms mean. Finally, we get to the climax of the story, and Jesus is crucified. This is the moment where everything will be revealed. We read in chapter 15: “Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (15.37-39). The Roman soldier who had supervised Jesus’ execution finds himself, as it were, standing on the doorstep of the Holy of Holies, and the curtain has been torn open… and he sees, and he believes. This pagan soldier, who had just nailed God to a cross, is the first human being in Mark’s gospel to recognize Jesus as God’s Son! We might be tempted to say that this is a strange conclusion to draw from some very strange evidence. To recognize God in the face of the crucified Jesus and to follow the man from Nazareth requires that the veil be torn, that our eyes be opened, that we be converted. To believe, to trust this man with your life is to see …God. But is this the God we want? Amen.

“You can’t make this stuff up” (Sunday, February 05, 2017; 1 Co. 2.1-5)

Things aren’t always what they seem. How many of us have ever admired a beautiful sunrise or sunset? I don’t know about you, but I always seem to take more notice of the sunset when I’m in a different country. Now, when we’re contemplating the beauty of the setting sun, we’re probably not thinking about what’s going on at the level of the solar system. We speak of the Sun “rising” in the east and “setting” in the west, but we know that this is not what’s actually happening. In spite of the way things look, we know that the Sun isn’t orbiting the Earth; rather, the Earth is orbiting the Sun, all the while spinning on its axis. Every day, the Earth spins around, giving us the impression that the Sun is moving. We might take all of this for granted now, but it was disturbing news when the Italian astronomer Galileo broke the story in the 17th century. Once Galileo had looked through his telescope, our planet could no longer be considered the unmovable center of the universe. This radical idea, that the Earth was orbiting the Sun, seemed pretty unlikely to many people.
Paul’s world. In today’s second reading, we have a few lines from a letter written by an unlikely preacher to an unlikely community about an unlikely message. Why so unlikely? Let’s back up a bit from the frame. The world of Jesus, Paul and the first Christians was the world of Rome. The Roman Empire stretched from Britannia to Judea, from Germany to North Africa. The Romans had adopted the philosophical wisdom of Greece and combined it with their political and military might to create the greatest civilization the world had ever known. As far as the Caesars were concerned, with the rise of Roman civilization, humanity had arrived. The philosophers knew what the world was and what it could be, and the emperors had the power to make it happen. The philosophers had debunked the old gods, though the temples remained and sacrifices continued to be offered, but “intelligent” people knew that it was all nonsense. This doesn’t mean that there was no longer an interest in spirituality. Au contraire, there were more religious movements in the first-century Roman world than you could shake a stick at: a variety of so-called “mystery-religions” involving secret initiation ceremonies promised life-giving knowledge to those who underwent them, and representatives of different philosophical schools were scurrying around the empire seeking to satisfy spiritual seekers. Never had the world seen such advances in technology and knowledge; never before had the world been so interconnected; never had communication and travel been easier; never before had the world seen such an effective political system; the Caesars held the titles of “Saviour” and “Lord”; they had brought “peace” to the world (they had to kill a lot of people first, but…); never before had so much power been concentrated in one person; but of course, it was for everyone’s good; Roman justice assured stability and if there was trouble anywhere, all that was necessary was to send in the troops and deal with the problem. Sound familiar?
Unlikely community. This was the state of affairs when the God who created the world decided to reclaim it, decided to establish his kingdom on earth. This was when the creator decided to finally unveil his wisdom and his power. What would that look like? Even though Paul had tried to explain this to the Corinthians when he founded their community, they quickly forgot what was unique about the “good news” that Paul had proclaimed to them as well as the difference that the gospel was supposed to make in their life together. After Paul had founded the community, other Christian leaders had spent time in Corinth and had encouraged the Corinthians in their faith. Then, disaster struck: the community divided into four different groups, with each group taking on the shape of a philosophical school; each group claimed to belong to a different leader! Each group was proud of the fact that “their” leader was the wisest and the best teacher of the faith, and the different groups were embroiled in jealous quarreling and competition. So, in today’s reading, Paul has to remind the Corinthians of the message that they had responded to at the beginning, and also of the way in which he had proclaimed it.
Unlikely message. The message that Paul had proclaimed to the Corinthians was so unlike anything that the world had heard that no one could take credit for coming up with it. Being a Christian wasn’t a matter of outsmarting other philosophical movements or schools of thought, as if the gospel was simply one more religious option whose success depended on the cleverness of its representatives. No, the message that had given birth to the Christian community in Corinth was about something that had happened, something that the creator God had done to reveal his wisdom and power and thus save the world.
What exactly had God done? When Paul had come to Corinth, he had started talking about someone named Jesus who had been crucified – publicly executed in the cruellest, most degrading way imaginable at the time. That was strange enough. I mean, who goes around talking about the execution of a criminal in some far-off corner of the empire? Why is that “good news”? Paul insisted that the crucifixion of Jesus was the turning point in world history, that this is how the creator God had revealed his wisdom and power, that this Jesus is now “Lord” of the world and is calling all people to be loyal to him. If you wanted to get a new religion off the ground in the first-century Roman Empire, this was not the most advisable way to go about it. As they say, “You can’t make this stuff up”. Paul’s message had a sharp edge to it: he was not simply adding one more choice to the spiritual smorgasbord of the Empire. Oh no; Paul was announcing something much more radical – there is a new Lord of the world, and his name is Jesus. This Jesus has now been enthroned in the position of supreme authority and power and everyone on earth is summoned to be loyal to him, to join those who follow and worship him, and thus become members of the new humanity that God is creating. If all this strikes us as being a bit crazy, don’t worry; it sounded crazy in the first century as well.
Not only did it sound crazy, but it sounded dangerous. As one bishop once said, “Everywhere St. Paul went, there was a riot; everywhere I go, they serve tea”. At one point in his travels, Paul and his accomplices came to the Greek city of Thessalonica. As usual, civil unrest soon broke out and the complaint put before the local authorities was that Paul and his friends had “turned the world upside down”, saying that there was another Lord besides Caesar, named Jesus. In Paul’s world, there was always room for one more religious option; however, there was only room for one Lord. Caesar didn’t care which gods you worshipped, or which religious movement you belonged to, as long as you recognized his ultimate authority, not only as a politician, but also as a divinity.
What Paul was doing was to offer a deliberate challenge to Caesar’s claims, not only by announcing Jesus as Lord, but also by founding communities of people who would give ultimate allegiance and obedience to Jesus. Paul’s Christianity was a counter-cultural, world-upsetting movement – it was a blueprint for a new humanity, a fresh vision of the world, of God, of oneself, of everything. Those who believed Paul’s message found themselves to be members of a new community. They were, as Paul says to the Corinthians, “called to be saints” – called to be upside-down people, or rather, right-side-up people in an upside-down world. This was what it looked like for the power and wisdom of the creator God to reclaim his world, the first-century world and our world too, the world of technological wisdom and the power of brute force.
Unlikely messenger. As we’ve seen, you don’t go around the Roman Empire proclaiming that kind of message and come away unscathed. Paul reminds the Corinthians that they hadn’t accepted his gospel because of his impressive rhetorical skills or commanding physical presence. He had come to them “in weakness and in fear and in much trembling”. And yet, the power of God had accompanied his preaching and the community had come into existence. Paul is determined to get the Corinthians’ focus off of him and the other leaders and to get their focus onto God, the God who had decided, in his wisdom, to save them through the foolishness of Paul’s preaching (1 Co. 1.21).
In orbit around God. The gospel is no more plausible today than it was 2,000 years ago. To a world that had everything figured out, Paul proclaimed the radical message that its true Lord was a “nobody” who had been crucified in an obscure corner of the empire. The message of the cross, the message of the God whose wisdom and power are revealed through foolishness and weakness, still cuts across all our pride and opens us up to the possibility of receiving the salvation that only God can give us. As we gaze upon the horror of Jesus dying on the cross, let’s remember that this is where the true God revealed his power, the power of love. Is all this likely? No. Then again, God does not orbit around us; we are in orbit around God. The gospel is not likely; it is our faith.

“It’s hard to get a handle on this handyman” (Wednesday, February 01, 2017; Mark 6.1-6)

A handy bookworm. Anyone who knows anything about me knows that I love to read. In my room in the rectory, books are to be found from the floor to the ceiling. If I could do nothing but read all day, every day, I would. Reading, learning and speaking seem to be among my natural abilities. However, yesterday, I surprised someone. This person saw me in the process of changing a toilet seat. The person said to me, “I didn’t know you were so handy.” I don’t pretend to be a handyman by any means, but changing a toilet seat is among the few “handy” things that I manage to do.
A wise carpenter. In today’s gospel, we see the same phenomenon happen in reverse. Everyone in Nazareth knows who Jesus is – he’s the local carpenter, the neighbourhood handyman, the son of Mary. But where did he get this wisdom to teach with such authority? Who does he think he is? As we might have said at one time, he’s getting a bit big for his britches. Last week, we saw the building tension between Jesus and the members of his family. At one point, when Jesus’ ministry of healing was keeping him so busy that he didn’t have time to take meals, his family thought Jesus had lost his mind. Then they decided that they would compel Jesus to come home and start behaving like a normal person. However, as his family was lying in wait for him on the edge of the crowd, Jesus looked at those sitting around him and said, “You are the members of my family; whoever does the will of God is my mother, my sister, my brother.”
Homecoming. In today’s gospel however, Jesus has decided to pay a visit to the village of Nazareth, the town where he had grown up and where he had lived and worked until going off to request baptism from John. Then as now, there are no secrets in a small town; and there is a lot of gossip, some of it true, some of it truish. Ever since the day that Jesus had left town, strange reports had been making their way back to Nazareth. We can imagine the talk at the local pub (or wherever people gathered in Nazareth to shoot the breeze): “Remember Jesus the carpenter? He’s wandering all over Galilee casting out demons and healing people – he cured a leper, I heard he even raised a young girl from the dead! Huge crowds are following him everywhere. What do you make of that?” Others might have chimed in, “I knew it was a bad idea, him going off into the wilderness with that crazy cousin of his. I knew no good would come of it.” Imagine the atmosphere in the synagogue that Saturday morning. “He’s back! But who are these 12 people with him? Let’s hear what he has to say for himself.” After listening to Jesus teach, however, the townspeople are offended. They cannot accept that God would have anything unique in mind for Jesus. “Jesus – he used to repair my plough, he redid the roof of my house that one time. For the past several months, he’s been off, God knows where, embarrassing his family; now he comes back, and he thinks he’s going to tell us something about our faith? What nerve! Don’t worry, we’ll bring him down a peg or two.”
More than a carpenter. Then Jesus makes a revealing statement: “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house”. This is indeed what most people outside of Nazareth thought Jesus was; this was the category that came to mind as they watched Jesus go around teaching and healing. In chapter 8, when Jesus asks the disciples who people think he is, they reply that folks think he’s “John the Baptist… Elijah… one of the prophets” (8.28). Now, it’s important to emphasize that the people weren’t completely wrong; they had the right category. Jesus was more than a prophet, but he wasn’t less than a prophet. Think of the prophets of the Old Testament: their primary task was to speak the “word of the Lord”, to communicate Yahweh’s message to his people. This message was often one that the people did not want to hear; it was often a call to repent, to change their ways, to turn away from idols and renew their trust in Yahweh, to reform their worship practices, to stop acting like the pagan nations all around and to live as the people of God. Sometimes prophets would perform miraculous signs and healings. So, as people observed Jesus, they assumed that this was what he was – a messenger from God endowed with the power to heal.
Profession: prophet. Now, the thing about prophets is that they didn’t have what we would call “accreditation”. “Prophet” wasn’t on the list of career options for Israelite boys and girls. There was no “seminary” for prophets. Before being called by God, prophets had a wide variety of professions – some, like Ezekiel and Jeremiah, had been priests; others, like Amos, had been shepherds. They had respected, or at least, recognizable occupations, until the day that God called them to be his prophets, his messengers. We have many stories in the Bible of people being called to be prophets, and all these stories have one thing in common: the person chosen to be a prophet is never happy about it. Most prophets, like Moses at the burning bush, tried to make excuses and worm their way out of their new vocation. However, it’s not easy to say No to God – just ask Jonah. The job of a prophet was one of confrontation – confronting evil and sin and confronting those in power. Think of Nathan confronting King David about his affair with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband or Elijah confronting King Ahab about his murder of Naboth so that he could take his land or John the Baptist confronting King Herod about his affair with his sister-in-law. Needless to say, it wasn’t easy being a prophet.
As a prophet, one was outside of the usual structures of society. If you didn’t like what a prophet was doing, there was no “customer service department” that you could call to make a complaint. It was hard to control a prophet. During the period of the Israelite monarchy, there were some prophets, like Isaiah, who enjoyed official status and belonged to the king’s court. However, the official prophets were often corrupted and manipulated into telling the king what he wanted to hear. Most of the time, prophets operated independently of social and political systems and insisted on proclaiming an uncompromising message of judgment on sin and the hope of salvation for those who would repent. As a result, prophets were often on the receiving end of violence and most were martyred.
Back to Nazareth. With his reply to the folks in the synagogue, Jesus ironically confirms the people of Nazareth in their rejection of him. You are offended, you dishonour me? Of course you do, because I’m a prophet. The people of Nazareth had pigeon-holed Jesus – he’s the carpenter, end of story. There’s something unnerving about discovering that the guy you’ve been going to for years to fix things around the house is actually a messenger of God. I mean, we know how to handle a carpenter, but a prophet? What do you do when you have a prophet for a neighbour? You might close your curtains more often, for one thing. What about us? Have we domesticated Jesus? Do we think of Jesus in such a way that he is simply useful to us? Do we read the whole gospel, including Jesus’ many warnings and exhortations to repent, to change our ways, our attitudes? What do we think of Jesus the prophet? If there is one thing we know about prophets, they are always full of surprises. Amen.

“The Kingdom Code” (Friday, January 27, 2017; Mark 4.26-34)

Codes during WW II. By the summer of 1940, most of Europe had been overrun by the Nazis. The BBC in London transmitted a daily series of coded messages to allow the Allies based in England to communicate with the Resistance in France, to ask them to plot various sabotages and, most importantly, to prepare for the upcoming landing in Normandy, which eventually occurred on June 6, 1944. A few days before D-Day, the commanding officers of the Resistance were expecting a very significant message. When said twice, the first line of the poem by Verlaine, Chanson d’Automne, “Les sanglots longs des violons de l’automne” meant that the “day” was imminent, and when the second line “blesse mon Coeur d’une langueur monotone” was also repeated, the Resistance knew that the invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe would take place within the next 48 hours. Messages such as: “Il fait chaud à Suez” (It’s hot in Suez), “Jean aime Marie” (John loves Marie), or “La Flèche ne passera pas” (the Arrow will not get through), all told the members of the Resistance it was time to go about their respective missions, which included destroying water towers or entire communication networks, or dynamiting selected roadways.
Locating the kingdom. Something similar is going on in Mark chapter 4. Jesus is telling a series of parables about the kingdom of God. In the 15th verse of his Gospel, Mark gives us a summary of Jesus’ preaching – Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming that “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Similar to the correspondence between the BBC and the members of the French resistance, Jesus was telling his fellow Galileans that the moment they had been waiting for had arrived, and it was time to take appropriate action. But what kind of action? What exactly was the kingdom that Jesus was talking about? The kingdom of God was a tricky subject at the time of Jesus, and it still is for us today. We often speak of the “kingdom of God” as if it was a synonym for “heaven”, the place where we hope to eventually arrive at after death. This understanding is probably due in part to the often recurring phrase “kingdom of heaven” that we find in St. Matthew’s gospel. We assume that we know what “heaven” means, so “the kingdom of heaven” must refer to that place of eternal bliss. However, already in Matthew’s gospel, we have clues that this isn’t quite what Jesus had in mind. In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray “may your kingdom come…on earth as in heaven” (Mt. 6.10). So, the kingdom of God is something that is for our world. Another clue is found in St. Luke’s gospel, in the parable of the prodigal son. After having squandered his inheritance in a foreign land, the son comes home and says to his father, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you” (Lk. 15.21). Here we see that “heaven” is code for “God”. So, as far as Jesus was concerned, “the kingdom of heaven/God” did NOT refer to a place one would go after death. So, what did the kingdom of God mean for Jesus? We find a clue in chapter 52 of the book of Isaiah. As Isaiah is describing Israel’s return from exile in Babylon, as well as Yahweh’s return to his people, he says:
“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger … who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” Listen! Your sentinels … sing for joy; for in plain sight they see the return of the Lord to Zion” (52.7-8).
For Isaiah, the result of Yahweh establishing his reign, i.e. his kingdom, would be the restoration of Israel, the forgiveness of sins, the fulfillment of the promises.
Establishing the kingdom. If most people at the time of Jesus were waiting for the moment when God would begin to reign over his people and the world, or perhaps over the world through his people, not everyone was agreed as to what this would look like, and how they should be preparing for it. Different groups had different kingdom-programs, including that of violent revolt against the Romans. As it turns out, Jesus had his own understanding of the kingdom of God, an understanding that was so radical that he had to speak about it in code-language, i.e. in parables.
The Kingdom Code. It is sometimes said that parables are basically straightforward stories that are pretty easy to understand. Didn’t Jesus deliberately tell stories about the realities of his listeners’ daily lives – planting seed, tending sheep, hidden treasure, unpayable debt, fishing, etc. – so that they would easily grasp what he was trying to say? To be sure, phrases like “Jean aime Marie” are very easy to understand, at one level. But what if there is a hidden level of meaning? Actually, Jesus himself said that he used parables in order that people would NOT understand what he was saying! After telling the parable of the Sower at the beginning of Mark chapter 4, Jesus ends by saying, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” (4.9). That’s a clue that there’s more going on in the story than “meets the ear”. Mark goes on to say:
“When (Jesus) was alone…the (disciples) asked him about the parables. And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand…’” (4.10-12; cf. Is. 6.9-10).
Cracking the code. So, how do we crack the kingdom-code? First of all, we need to always keep in mind that, in the Gospels, Jesus was speaking to the people who were right in front of him – first-century Jews who were waiting for the arrival of the kingdom of God. Jesus’ contemporaries were waiting for the fulfillment of Yahweh’s promises in their Scriptures. Actually, the image of a farmer planting seed is a frequent image in the Old Testament prophets for the moment when Yahweh would “re-plant” Israel in the Promised Land after her exile. The prophet Amos had said, “I will plant them upon their land, and they shall never again be plucked up out of the land that I have given them, says the Lord your God” (9.15). Through his parables about seed being sown, Jesus was saying: God is restoring his people, he is fulfilling his promises, through what I am doing. The kingdom is being established, not through an obvious, violent demonstration of military power, blowing Israel’s enemies to smithereens; no, God is rather establishing his reign through a subtle, quiet process of people being healed one at a time, of people following Jesus and finding themselves gradually transformed by his love and mercy. The disciples, those who have faith in Jesus, who trust him, are enabled to understand the mystery of the kingdom. What is the kingdom of God? It is God’s reign, it is God’s power of love to bring healing to a broken world, to broken lives. We are called to be beneficiaries of this kingdom and also to be agents of this kingdom. We are members of God’s resistance against the evil forces of this world. Let anyone with ears to hear listen! Amen.