What’s the big deal about Jesus? (Transfiguration Sunday: Mt. 17.1-9)

1 – A man of Mystery
What’s the big deal about Jesus? Over 2 billion people around the world claim to “follow Jesus”. But many other people don’t get what all the fuss is about; in fact, many children in the West are growing up without any idea of who Jesus was. The story is told about a Christmas play in a primary school in England. At the end of the play, a young boy raised his hand – he had a question. As he was acknowledged, he asked, “Why did they give the baby a swear-word for a name?”… Whatever people think about Jesus today, it’s clear that he made a huge impression on those who followed him around the villages of Palestine 2,000 years ago. The Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – were written by people who had either known Jesus personally or who knew people who had been close to Jesus. The stories that we find in the Gospels – like today’s reading – are often strange stories. They express the mind-boggling effect that Jesus had on those who were close to him. Make no mistake about it – the Gospel writers weren’t just telling stories for the fun of it. They believed that their stories about Jesus were the most important stories the world had ever heard – and they were willing to die in the effort to tell them to others. Many of them did.
In today’s reading from the Gospel of St. Matthew, we see Jesus and his inner circle – Peter, James and John. These were the first three people to become Jesus’ disciples and dedicate their lives to following his example. And yet, as we read the Gospel, we see that Jesus is often frustrated with their inability to understand who he is and the disciples were constantly being surprised by Jesus – he didn’t fit into their ordinary categories. They called him their “master” – their teacher – and he was, but he is also much more than a teacher. Some people called Jesus a prophet – a spokesman for God – but he is also much more than that. What Peter, James and John experienced on the mountain that day shocked them into realizing that Jesus’ true identity went beyond their wildest imagination…
Let’s look at how Matthew tells the story. In many ways, reading the Bible is like reading an epic tale comprised of several volumes (think of Harry Potter, The Dark Tower, etc.). When you start by reading St. Matthew’s Gospel, for example, it’s like you’re beginning with volume 4 of the series. Volume 4 is exciting, but you won’t fully understand what’s going on unless you go back and read the first 3 volumes. In the case of the Bible, the “first 3 volumes” are what we call the Old Testament. St. Matthew often compares and contrasts Jesus with a famous Old Testament character – Moses. Moses was the one who led his people from slavery to freedom in the great “Exodus” from Egypt. During this great getaway, God manifested his “glory” – his presence, his power – in the form of a great cloud that led Moses’ nation across the desert to the Promised Land, a country of their own. When the people would make camp in the desert, a special tent was set up in the very center of the camp, and the cloud of God’s glory would hover over that tent.
Look at how St. Matthew tells the story of the Transfiguration. He describes Jesus’ clothing in a very similar fashion to the way God’s clothing was described in Daniel’s vision – our first reading. As Jesus radiates with light and glory, and as Moses and Elijah appear from the distant past, Peter has the right instinct – let’s build 3 tents to contain this glory. While Peter is still speaking, sure enough, what happens? A bright cloud overshadows them and the voice of God is heard: Jesus is my Son; listen to him! All the evidence is pointing in the same direction – Jesus is “the son of Man” – the human being who shares the very glory of God. The disciples eventually came to believe that wherever Jesus was, God’s presence was there. That’s why, when they sat down to write the story of Jesus’ life, they use imagery from the Old Testament that described the presence and actions of God himself. St. Matthew’s favourite way to express this reality is to call Jesus “Emmanuel” – “God with us”. The Bible often speaks of God’s desire to be close to his creation, for his creatures to know him. In Jesus, the “word of God” through whom the universe was created became a human being, shared our reality; he came as close to us as he possibly could and spoke the truth to us.
2 – a Man who speaks with God’s authority
In the Gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus is presented as the Master-Teacher. Among the Jews at the time of Jesus, Moses was venerated as the one who had given “the Law” to God’s people – the divine teaching on how to live as the people chosen by God to represent him to the other nations of the world. Already in the first century, one spoke of “the books of Moses”, the first 5 books of the Bible (Genesis to Deuteronomy). As he composed his Gospel, Matthew divided the teaching of Jesus into 5 large sections (chapters 5-7, 10-11, 13, 23 and 24-25). The message is clear – Jesus is a “new Moses”, a teacher of the people who is greater than Moses and worthy of even greater respect.
So, Jesus is the One who instructs his disciples and shows them how to live and how to become authentic human beings. Jesus wasn’t a university professor; he didn’t gather people in a classroom and give lectures. What Jesus did was to say to certain people “Follow me” – come and share my life and “pick up” my way of doing things by observing how I speak, act and how I treat people. Jesus gathered a small group of people around him and shared his life with them. Jesus was always present with his disciples, sharing their experiences and facing challenges together with them.
So what’s the big deal about Jesus? As far as St. Matthew is concerned, Jesus is either the point of everything …or nothing special at all. As a matter of fact, for all intents and purposes, Jesus died a failure – he was publicly executed on false charges of being a criminal, a revolutionary. Whatever movement he had hoped to launch disappeared, and his closest followers went into hiding, thinking it was all over. It should have all ended then and there. But it didn’t. Shortly after Jesus’ crucifixion, his followers started going around telling people that Jesus had been “raised from the dead”. They claimed that Jesus had conquered death and was now alive and was immune from death. They told stories about having seen Jesus alive after his execution, about having touched him and shared meals with him. When you think about it, there are only a very few possible reasons why Jesus’ followers would dare make such extraordinary claims about him after his death. Perhaps they just made it all up and just wanted to start a new religion. If that was the case, you would think they would have covered up the embarrassing part about Jesus having been tortured to death as an enemy of the state. But they didn’t. They actually spoke of Jesus’ death as having been a victory – God’s victory over all the forces of evil and sin and even death itself. Against all the odds, the Jesus movement took off very shortly after his death as his followers travelled throughout the Roman Empire of the first century proclaiming the “good news” that there was hope for the world, hope for everyone. The reason for this hope was the one thing that changes everything; it was the final piece of evidence that demonstrates that Jesus was indeed the living embodiment of God’s glory – that one fact is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Jesus is alive and even death should not make us afraid. Death does not always win. Through Jesus’ resurrection, death has been defeated and the seeds of a whole new world have been sown. Amen.

“Annoncer le Messie, raconter l’histoire de Dieu” (jeudi, le 11 mai, 2017; Ac. 13.13-25)

Un nouveau président. Dimanche passé, Emmanuel Macron a été élu comme le président de la République Française et, à 39 ans, est devenu le président le plus jeune dans l’histoire de la France. Des milliers d’électeurs français ont fait la file sous la pluie à Montréal afin de déposer leur bulletin de vote. Lors de sa première déclaration suite à l’annonce des résultats des élections, M. Macron a dit à ses concitoyens français : « une nouvelle page de notre longue histoire s’ouvre. Je veux que ce soit celle de l’espoir et de la confiance retrouvés ». Voilà – un jeune dirigeant à la tête d’une partie qu’il a lui-même fondé qui promet de réconcilier les divisions au sein de la France, et dont la victoire fait le bonheur de ceux qui aspirent à préserver l’unité de l’Europe. Pour 65 % des électeurs français, la victoire de Macron a été une « bonne nouvelle », une nouvelle qui leur a rempli de l’espoir pour l’avenir de leur pays. Mais qu’est-ce que les élections françaises ont à voir avec nos lectures d’aujourd’hui?
Une bonne nouvelle. En ce qui concerne l’Église, tout a commencé avec l’annonce d’une nouvelle – une nouvelle au sujet, non pas d’un président, mais de celui qui prétendait avoir l’autorité ultime sur toute la création de Dieu. La crucifixion de Jésus avait mis fin à l’espoir des disciples que Jésus avait été celui qui était pour délivrer Israël de ses ennemis. Encore un autre Messie échoué… et là, alors que les disciples démoralisés se cachaient des autorités juives, Marie Madeleine arrive auprès d’eux toute essoufflée. On l’a vu! Jésus est vivant! Le tombeau est vide! Il est ressuscité! (Mt. 28.8; Lc. 24.10; Jn. 20.2). On appelle Marie Madeleine l’apôtre aux apôtres. Que faire suite à la réception d’une telle nouvelle? Les savants bibliques sont d’accord (pour une fois) pour dire que le Christianisme primitif s’agissait bel et bien d’un mouvement missionnaire. Au chapitre premier du livre des Actes, le Jésus ressuscité dit aux apôtres : « vous serez mes témoins à Jérusalem, dans toute la Judée et la Samarie, et jusqu’au bout du monde » (1.8). Il semble que les disciples ont pris Jésus au pied de la lettre. Les premiers chrétiens se sont précipités à voyager et à répandre l’évangile, c.-à-d. la « bonne nouvelle » de la résurrection de Jésus, et ceci, jusqu’aux extrémités de la terre. C’est incroyable, mais on a trouvé des ruines des églises en Chine qui datent du premier siècle. On nous dit que l’apôtre Thomas s’est rendu jusqu’en Inde. Dans le livre des Actes des Apôtres, Paul et les autres missionnaires parcourent l’empire romain du premier siècle en annonçant que « Jésus est Seigneur ».
Un nouveau Seigneur. Pour nous, les mots tels qu’ « évangile » et « Seigneur » relèvent de « la religion », de la liturgie, de la vie de l’Église, qui est plutôt privée. Mais au premier siècle, la situation était tout autre. Au moment de la naissance de Jésus, il y avait déjà un « Seigneur » qui régnait sur le monde romain. Pendant la Semaine Sainte, alors que Jésus se trouvait à Jérusalem et se fait interroger par ceux qui remettent en question son autorité, Jésus demande à ceux qui disputent avec lui de lui montrer une pièce de monnaie. Jésus leur pose la question : « De qui porte-t-elle l’effigie et l’inscription? » La réponse était « César », l’empereur romain (Lc. 20.24). Non seulement l’image de l’empereur se trouvait sur la pièce, mais ses titres s’y trouvaient également. Voici ce qui aurait été marqué sur la pièce qu’on a montré à Jésus : « César Tibère, fils du divin César Auguste, le Seigneur et Sauveur du monde ». Comme Auguste avait reçu l’apothéose – c.-à-d. on disait de lui que suite à sa mort, il a intégré le panthéon des divinités romaines – Tibère se trouvait à être « le fils d’un dieu ». C’était chose courante dans la rhétorique impériale de dire que l’empereur avait « sauvé » le monde en lui apportant la stabilité, la paix, la justice et la prospérité. Encore là, il avait des statues de César éparpillées à travers l’empire et devant lesquelles on rendait un culte au « génie » de l’empereur. Au moment de la crucifixion de Jésus, César Tibère régnait comme « Seigneur » sur le monde connu. C’était chose courante dans l’empire romain de décrire une victoire militaire ou bien l’intronisation d’un nouveau empereur comme étant une « bonne nouvelle ». Suite à une victoire sur « les Barbares » ou suite au couronnement du César, les hérauts impériaux se déplaçaient partout dans l’empire pour annoncer l’ « évangile » de l’évènement « heureux ». Tout ça nous dit que le message annoncé par Paul et les autres missionnaires chrétiens avait deux caractéristiques marquantes – premièrement, l’évangile annoncé par Paul s’agissait d’une nouvelle au sujet des choses qui étaient arrivées, des évènements qui s’étaient produits au sein de la province de la Judée. Pour les premiers chrétiens, le Dieu d’Israël avait remporté la victoire sur le mal, le péché et la mort à travers la crucifixion de Jésus, et la résurrection était le signe que Jésus était bel et bien le Messie d’Israël et donc le Seigneur de toutes les nations. Deuxièmement, l’évangile de Paul s’agissait d’une mise en questions des prétentions de César. Au sein de l’empire romain, tout comme dans le monde qu’on retrouve dans les Écritures, il pourrait y avoir qu’un seul Seigneur. Les romains ont très bien compris la signification de ce que les Chrétiens disaient au sujet de Jésus. Une fois que l’empire a commencé à persécuter l’Église, on avait décidé que l’épreuve qu’on était pour faire subir aux Chrétiens sera celle de les demander de brûler de l’encens devant une statue de l’empereur, comme geste de loyauté et un constat que c’était lui qui était le Kurios, le Seigneur. Beaucoup de Chrétiens sont morts pour avoir refusés de rendre un culte à César, choisissant de demeurer fidèles à leur foi, la foi que leur enseignait que Jésus de Nazareth avait été « élevé à la droite de Dieu, ou il régnait déjà sur l’univers en tant que Seigneur ».
Saul dans la synagogue. Donc, Paul parcourt le monde romain en annonçant que Jésus est vivant et qu’il est Seigneur. Dans la lecture d’aujourd’hui, Paul et Barnabas se rendent dans la Galatie (le sud de la Turquie). On voit les débuts d’une habitude chez Paul alors que les deux missionnaires, en arrivant de la ville d’Antioche le jour du sabbat, ils assistent au culte juif dans la synagogue. Une fois qu’on l’invite à prendre la parole, Paul ne commence pas son intervention en parlant de Jésus. Au contraire, il se met à raconter l’histoire d’Israël à partir d’Abraham jusqu’à l’avènement de Jésus. Jésus se trouve à être l’apogée du plan de Dieu, un plan qui remonte jusqu’au premier chapitre de la Bible. Selon ce plan, un être humain créé à l’image de Dieu régnera sur la création afin que le monde puisse connaître l’harmonie, la paix et la prospérité. Non pas n’importe quel être humain, mais un membre de la nation d’Israël, le peuple choisi par Dieu pour être ses collaborateurs. La promesse de plusieurs Psaumes, dont le Ps. 2 qu’on lira demain, était que le roi d’Israël – le fils de Dieu – régnera également sur toutes les nations du monde, unissant ainsi tous les peuples dans le royaume de Dieu, le royaume ou se trouvera la véritable justice et la véritable paix. Un monde, une humanité, un Seigneur, un Dieu. Voilà la vision qu’animait l’apôtre Paul et qui lui a donné la force et le courage de faire face à toute l’opposition que le royaume de César pouvait dresser contre lui. Paul avait reçu comme mission d’aller proclamer au monde romain celui qui était son vrai roi, son véritable Seigneur. Jésus nous a enseigné de prier le Père « que son royaume vienne sur la terre comme au ciel ». Dans le livre des Actes, on retrouve l’histoire d’hommes et de femmes qui ont pris Jésus au sérieux et qui ont agi en conséquence. Que le Seigneur Jésus nous accorde le courage d’être ses témoins ici, aujourd’hui. Amen.

“What kind of life is this?” (Sunday, May 7, 2017; Ac. 2.14, 36-41; Jn. 10.1-10)

All about life. “I came so that my sheep may have life, and have it abundantly.” Do you feel alive today? How’s life? “Life” is a major theme in John’s Gospel, including what is probably the best-known verse in the whole Bible: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life” (3.16). A certain British biblical scholar once told a story about a custom’s officer at an American airport who obliged him to quote John 3.16 from memory before stamping his passport. The scholar, with his tongue in his cheek and to the officer’s great surprise, proceeded to quote the requested verse … in Greek! By the way, I have also had this experience – at the Lacolle border crossing: once the border guard knew that I was a church-goer, he obliged me to quote Jn. 3.16, which I gladly did (in English). There’s a tip for your next trip to Plattsburgh.
New world. John 3.16 is often interpreted as saying that we have to “believe in” Jesus in order to go to heaven when we die. Please attach your seatbelts, because we’re about to launch into a slightly different interpretation. The Greek expression which is usually translated in the New Testament as “eternal life” actually means “the life of the world to come”, which is how it is translated in the Nicene Creed. This reflects the Jewish hope at the time of Jesus for the “Coming Age” of peace and justice which was supposed to be inaugurated by the Messiah. Some of us may have heard of “New Age spirituality”; sorry, the Bible said it first. The biblical vision of the ultimate future is nothing less than a new world …and the Gospel of St. John claims that this long-awaited new creation has already begun… through Jesus. Many ideologies have claimed that they would usher in a “new world”, whether it was the 18th-century “coming of age” of humanity through the Enlightenment, or the various 20th-century ideologies which promised a worker’s paradise, an Aryan paradise, or whatever. Of course, what these ideologies actually produced was hell on earth and millions of lives destroyed – those who promised liberation turned out to be worse tyrants than those they had replaced. However, the dream of a new world of justice and peace was already there – in Scripture. This might sound strange to us – the Bible is talking about the transformation of this world? If this idea seems strange to us, that’s not a bad thing. The truth is stranger than fiction, although fiction has its uses. G.K. Chesterton once said, “Whenever we feel there is something odd in Christian theology, we shall generally find that there is something odd in the truth.” The most revolutionary vision of all for a new world is to be found in the Bible. That’s a tip for the next time you’re feeling rebellious.
What kind of man is this? Let’s go back to the start of John’s account of Jesus. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… All things came into being through him… What has come into being in him was life … And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory” (1.1-5, 14). For those of us who are familiar with the book of Genesis, we will have the feeling of déjà-vu here; “In the beginning” – these are the very first words of the Bible, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…” John is re-telling the story of the creation of the universe, with Jesus right in the middle of it! What kind of person would Jesus had to have been for John to begin his story of Jesus in this way? I am reminded of a remark made by one of my theology professors – who will remain nameless – he said to us in class one day, “John’s Gospel is best enjoyed while smoking a joint”… Now, let it be known that I disagree with my professor for at least two reasons, one of which is that John himself was obviously not in a state of being “lifted up” as it were when he composed his Gospel, which is one of the great books in the literature of the world. However, it remains the case that John is making some extremely extraordinary claims about Jesus and the Jesus we meet in John’s Gospel has a habit of making extraordinary claims about himself. It’s no surprise that just 10 verses further along from the end of today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is – once again – accused of being insane (10.20). The same thing happens today to people who seem to genuinely believe that they’re God, or Jesus, or Elvis, or whoever. By the way, if we don’t have serious questions about the Bible, we haven’t been paying attention to it. If we do have serious questions about the Bible, we mustn’t stop investigating until we find some answers. I’m worried that often, our picture of Jesus, even of Jesus the Good Shepherd, is basically that of Jesus being a nice guy. But if that is basically what Jesus was, how did he end up on a cross? How did this “nice guy” provoke such hate in certain people that they were determined to destroy him? It appears that we need different categories to adequately understand what Jesus was all about.
A Resurrection-Gospel. There can be no doubt that John has written his whole Gospel from the perspective of the resurrection. John is convinced that Jesus rose from the dead – which is to say that, on Easter morning, the tomb was empty and Jesus was seen to be alive by his disciples. More than that, Jesus was alive in a state of embodied immortality, which is to say, the risen Jesus had a body – a body that could eat food, be touched and yet would never again experience death. John’s entire understanding of Jesus was turned upside-down and inside-out by the resurrection, and as he attempts to put into writing who Jesus is, so that others can encounter him, John bypasses the Christmas story and reaches for …the beginning. The One in whom life itself came into being became a human and John saw his glory – the glory of God that hovered over Moses’ tabernacle in the wilderness and filled the inner sanctuary of Solomon’s Temple. On Easter morning, the prototype of the new humanity came out of the tomb. To get the most out of John’s Gospel, what we need is not weed, but rather faith, trust – “belief” – in the risen Jesus.
You must be born again. So Jesus offers us a new kind of life. We might think, “I’ve got a life, thank you very much”. The sort of people who can quote Jn. 3.16 by heart also tend to know that a few verses earlier in Jn. chapter 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “You must be born again”. What a frustrating thing for Nicodemus to hear. There he was – a good, practicing Jew, a theologian, a member of the Sanhedrin (which was kind of like being a cardinal), who had devoted his entire existence to his religion, and now this upstart Rabbi from nowhere tells him that he’s got to start all over again. Jesus insists that he – and whoever else wants to be part of God’s new world – must receive a new life. And Jesus claims to be the One who can give it to us. In chapter 1, John says “to all who received [the Word], who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God” (1.12). God’s desire is for each one of us to share his own life, that we be united to the source of all life, of all existence. So what’s he waiting for? God created us free – we must choose either to go God’s way, which leads to what the Bible calls life, or to go our own way, which leads to what the Bible calls death or perishing. History seems to demonstrate that the natural human tendency is to choose death, both as a means of getting what we want – if someone’s in your way, just get rid of them – and as a way of existing which is centred on the self. In the Genesis narrative, once the forbidden fruit had been eaten, it wasn’t long before the first murder took place, motivated by jealousy… While Jesus fully affirms human life (don’t forget that his first miracle in John’s Gospel is turning water into wine at a wedding reception), Jesus tells us that there is more – there is a way of being alive that, so far, we have only dreamt of…
What do sheep have to do with it? OK, so the resurrection of Jesus ushers in a new world which we are invited to be a part of. So why this figure of speech about a flock of sheep? At the time of Jesus, this image would have had two meanings in particular. First of all, in the Old Testament, the image of a shepherd and his sheep is used to describe the relationship between Yahweh and the nation of Israel: Ps. 100 says: “Know that the Lord is God… we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture” (v. 3). Secondly, this image is used to describe the role of Israel’s king, God’s “anointed one” who leads God’s flock. By describing himself as the Good Shepherd, Jesus is advancing a double claim about himself – he is the rightful king of Israel (cf. 1.49), the Messiah who will usher in God’s new world. Not only that, Jesus is claiming to be able to do what, in the Scriptures, only Yahweh can do. In the case of Jesus, professing that “the Lord is my shepherd” and that “Jesus is my shepherd” are two ways of saying the same thing. Jesus came to bring life to God’s people, and the only way to accomplish this is for Jesus to “lay down his life for the sheep, and to take his life back up again” (10.17-18), as he says a few verses later.
Three quick points. So what kind of life is this? First of all, God’s life is experienced as we follow the risen Jesus (10.4), as we make him the centre of our lives, our guide to life. Jesus is the door; he is the way, the truth and the life. Jesus has made the life of the world to come available to us, starting now. He has given us his spirit, the very breath of God. Secondly, the life that Jesus offers makes us part of God’s plan for the world. As the Son calls us to the Father through the Spirit, we join the divine dance which spreads God’s love throughout the world. In the readings of this Easter season, we’re tracking what happened to the disciples after Jesus’ death as recounted in the book of Acts. It’s interesting to notice that the disciples didn’t form a Messiah Anonymous group, in order to gather and discuss their experience of the risen Jesus. They did gather and they did take care of each other in a radical way, but the most striking thing that the disciples do after receiving the Spirit is to proclaim, publicly and boldly, that Jesus had been raised from death and is now Lord of the world. As the aforementioned biblical scholar says, “if Jesus has been raised, then the new world has begun and we’ve got a job to do!” We cannot keep the life that Jesus has given us to ourselves; we have to carry this life to the entire creation. Finally, the life that Jesus offers us is a life filled with hope. If we insist that the new creation has begun, we must admit that the old creation has not yet come to an end. Life is not an easy thing – we wrestle with sickness, pain of all kinds, with loss, despair and fear. Yet our shepherd is with us: “Jesus is my shepherd who leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for Jesus is with me.” In Jesus, we can find the courage to face whatever this existence throws at us, knowing that the life that we have received from our shepherd is a life that even death cannot destroy. Amen.

“The first time Saul of Tarsus went to Mass” (Friday, May 5, 2017; Ac. 9.1-20)

A terrifying scenario. Imagine the following scenario. You are at church on a Friday morning. You have arrived early and are taking time to pray before Mass begins, your eyes are closed and your mind is still as you reflect upon your loved ones and those secret requests that only God knows about. Then, all of a sudden, you hear many angry voices shouting just outside. As you turn and look towards the front door of the church, it bursts open and a group of armed men rush in. You have just enough time to see the face of the first attacker before you hear the sound of gunfire; you throw yourself underneath your pew and lie flat against the floor, paralyzed with terror. You hear your friends screaming and begging for their lives. After what seems like an eternity, all becomes quiet… you wait a few more minutes and then raise yourself to your knees, and take stock of what has just happened. Your eyes sweep over the pews, hoping to find your friends alive – some are strangely hunched in their usual spot or lie immobile on the floor, others have simply vanished… An attack on people at prayer. This kind of thing is no longer something that only occurs in the Middle East. It happened in France last summer, as Fr. Jacques Hamel was murdered by Islamic militants while celebrating Mass; it happened in January of this year, as a gunman entered a mosque in Quebec City and killed 6 Muslim worshippers and wounded many others. Now, let’s return to our scenario. Imagine that once the dust has settled after the attack on your church, and funerals have been held for the victims, life is slowly getting back to some kind of normalcy. It’s a Friday morning, and you are back at Mass. As always, you get into the communion line. As you’re shuffling forwards, you glance over at the line of communicants parallel to yours, and your mouth drops open as you recognize the face of that gunman who had terrorized your parish just a few months before…
Saul goes to Mass. Can you imagine what it must have been like the first time Saul of Tarsus went to Mass? – not to arrest and kill followers of Jesus, but to worship with them as a brother? Can you imagine the fear in the hearts of the Jerusalem disciples as they recognized him? “Why is he alone? His men must be just outside! Quick, get the children to safety! What an animal! Why can’t he just leave us alone? …What did he say? He’s a believer in Jesus? Is this his idea of a sick joke? Don’t trust him! We know all these tricks! Our community has been infiltrated by agents of the Sanhedrin before! Don’t give him communion! Get him out of here!” While this is my imaginative reconstruction of Saul’s first visit to the church of Jerusalem, a few verses later in Acts 9, St. Luke tells us in a very few words that, indeed, it didn’t go so well (9.26). Even before Saul returned to Jerusalem as a follower of Jesus, we can imagine the reaction of the disciples of Damascus. Last week, this man had every intention of dragging us off to face trial before the Sanhedrin; now, he’s preaching that Jesus is the Messiah? How is this possible? Within one week, Saul of Tarsus had been transformed from (what we would call) a Jewish extremist, intent on eliminating these heretics, these disciples of the false prophet named Jesus of Nazareth, to a passionate defender of the claims of those same disciples. What had happened? Well, in a nutshell, Jesus had happened. All that Saul could offer as an explanation is the story contained in today’s first reading. This is the first of three times that Saul’s Damascus-road story is told in the book of Acts; the other two times, it’s Saul/Paul himself who tells the story, first in front of an angry mob of Jewish pilgrims in Jerusalem (chapter 22), and then during a judicial hearing before King Herod Agrippa II (chapter 26). This is Paul’s “testimony”.
So what was Saul doing out on the Damascus road anyway? Saul was the answer to the Sanhedrin’s prayers – a young, knowledgeable, passionate young defender of the Jewish faith, ready to go to any lengths and to do whatever it would take to eradicate this insidious Jesus movement from within Judaism. Not content to kill and imprison the disciples of Jesus living in Jerusalem, Saul asked for authorization from the Sanhedrin to travel to Damascus and hunt down converts to the new “sect” among the Jewish Diaspora in Syria and extradite them to Jerusalem in order that they could stand trial for heresy.
So what happened on the road? In a scene that reminds us of the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke’s Gospel (24.32, 35), here Luke has Jesus “revealing” himself and blinding Saul in the process. At Emmaus, when the disciples’ eyes are “opened”, Jesus vanishes; at Damascus, when Jesus appears, Saul’s eyes are “closed”. Encountering the risen Jesus is always a mysterious thing. As with Old Testament prophets who experienced divine manifestations, Saul falls to the ground and, as it turns out, asks the right question: “Who are you Lord?” The Lord responds: “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting…go into the city, and you will be told what to do.” Blinded by the glory of the risen Messiah, Saul sits in the darkness for three days and fasts and prays. Can you imagine what was going on in Saul’s mind during those three days? If that crucified messianic pretender had been raised from the dead by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – then (could it be?) Jesus of Nazareth was the true King of Israel after all – and Saul had actually been fighting against the fulfillment of Yahweh’s promises…
Conversion? This passage of Scripture is often referred to as “the conversion of St. Paul”. However, it’s important to realize that when Saul was baptized and became a follower of Jesus, he did not change religions. He simply came to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah of Israel. Throughout the book of Acts, this is the point of controversy – is Jesus the promised Messiah or is he a false prophet who got what he deserved? The first followers of Jesus were all Jewish, they read the Jewish Bible (i.e. Old Testament), and they worshipped in synagogues and in the Temple in Jerusalem (even after Jesus’ death and resurrection). The apostle Paul never stopped being a Jew; once he became an apostle, he was simply a Jew who believed that the promised Messiah had come and had saved Israel and that his name was Jesus of Nazareth. In Ac. 11.26, we see that the followers of Jesus are called “Christians” for the first time in the city of Antioch, in Syria. Within a generation or so after Saul’s becoming a disciple of Jesus, and as more and more non-Jews joined the movement, we see a “parting of the ways”, as Judaism and what would become known as “Christianity” become more and more distinct from each other. But during the early years, the tension was high – both mainstream Judaism and the Jesus movement were reading the same Bible, they were both claiming to be the true people of God. This is why we see so much conflict in the book of Acts. If Jesus is the Messiah, then the Scriptures have been fulfilled and it’s time to summon all nations to allegiance to the Lord Jesus. However, if Jesus was a demon-possessed, deluded fanatic, then this new cult must be crushed. Those were the options. Jesus’ death on the cross seemed to favour the second option. This was the conclusion of the two Emmaus disciples – we had hoped that he was the one who would redeem Israel, but… obviously, we were wrong, he was wrong…
Vocation. As usually happens when the risen Jesus appears to someone – only more so in the case of Saul – the encounter marks a turning point in the person’s life. Things can no longer be the same. Those who meet the risen Lord see everything differently – they find themselves in a brave new world. Upon “seeing” the risen Jesus, Saul was knocked flat on his face, and that was the easy part. In that moment, he lost everything and found everything (cf. Phil 3.4-11). Once he had picked himself up, dusted off his theology, and received the Holy Spirit and baptism (i.e. “born of water and Spirit”: Jn. 3.5), there was only one thing left to do – hit the road and spread the word that Jesus was alive and that this was the most important news the world would ever hear. Amen.

“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.