26 Apr 2015
4th Sunday of Easter, Year B
[Scripture Readings: Acts 4:8-12; Ps 118:1,8-9,21-23,26,28,29; 1 John 3:1-2; John 10:11-18]
Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior? I know: That’s a rather Evangelical Protestant question to be asking. But it’s a legitimate question. It’s pretty much the same question Peter asked the Jewish leaders. They had rejected Jesus. But that saw all the things the Apostles were doing, and so Peter threw the question to them: So, my Jewish brethren, are you going to accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?
About ten years ago when I was in college for music, someone came up to me on campus. He gave me a flyer and asked if I knew Jesus. And I just said to him, “Yes, thank you,” and went about my business. I’m pretty sure I threw the flyer away in the next available trash can (I admit it). But the question stayed with me. And even today when I hear that question, I remember that guy on campus who’d asked me if I had accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior.
Now, at the time I was already busy working in a parish as a musician and choir director, and going to school so I could get better at it. I’d already committed myself and my life to God and the Church—how much more could I prove that I’d accepted Jesus? But that question—or some variation of the question—was still on my mind. And, similarly, the assertion of Peter that there is no salvation through anyone but Christ is still on the mind of humanity today. It’s a legitimate, relevant question.
Really, Peter seems to be getting at the basic question of commitment. He was saying to the Jews: “If you want to be true to God, then commit yourselves to Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And he says the same to us and to all people today—and he does so without mincing words: “There is no salvation through anyone else,” but Jesus Christ alone. And so, Peter asks: Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?
It’s actually a pretty startling question; it doesn’t matter who’s asking it—whether it’s an Evangelical Christian on the streets or St. Peter in the pages of Scripture. And all the readings from Scripture today hit again and again on this idea of “commitment.”
The psalm proclaims that “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man.” It’s better to commit yourself to God than to other people. And it’s good to give thanks because the Lord has “been my savior.” In the first letter of St. John, he writes that we are “children of God,” we belong to God; God has committed himself to us. And in the Gospel of John we hear about the good shepherd who commits himself to his flock to the point of laying down his life for them. We also hear about the sheep who commit themselves to the good shepherd, who know the shepherd’s voice and who follow him.
Scripture brings out very clearly today the idea of “commitment,” and especially our commitment to the Lord and—by extension—his Church. But this notion of “commitment” isn’t talked about a lot. Nor do we see it or experience it as often as we should.
Consider the divorce rate among US Catholics. It’s about 28%, which is pretty high considering the weight our faith gives to the idea of “commitment.” And the rate among Americans overall is about 45%. And the very idea of getting married in church or anywhere else has been falling off for decades now. Even the numbers of couples getting married in our local Church here in Appleton is just a handful. We don’t see that commitment of marriage as often as we should—especially within the Church.
Consider the falling numbers of vocations to the priesthood. It’s good that we’ve been averaging two ordinations a year for a while now. But when we have a dozen or so priests who retire or die each year, we have a problem. Anybody who knows to how to balance a checkbook knows that when there’s more going out than coming in, there’s eventually going to be a problem. And with more priests going out than coming in, we’re going to have a problem.
Bishop Ricken is known to remark that there isn’t a shortage of vocations to the priesthood—rather, there’s a shortage of “yeses” to God. In other words, there’s a shortage of the value of commitment: commitment to prayer, commitment to the idea of considering priesthood, commitment to something bigger than ourselves.
Consider also some of the other ways we might expect to see the value of commitment at work, but don’t always; for example, liturgical ministries. Here at Sacred Heart, the number of altar servers we have is low—it’s beyond low. The same can be said for Readers, Hospitality Ministers, and musicians. It’s a beautiful thing to commit yourself to serve at the altar of God, to serve as a proclaimer of the Word of God, to serve the people of God by being the face of God when they come to worship. And yet, we struggle with our liturgical ministries.
Now, it might be a long-shot to try and connect, say, the need for more altar servers with that question: “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” But they are connected: It’s a question of personal commitment to God, a commitment which plays itself out in the life of the community. Being an altar server is a way to express one’s commitment to God. Being a Reader, being a hospitality minister, being a deacon, being a priest, being a musician, being a faith formation catechist . . . they’re all ways we concretely live out our personal commitment to God.
Of course, there are literally countless ways that we show our commitment to God. But all that we do comes—firstly—from who we are. And who we are is a community of people who commit themselves intentionally to the one Lord Jesus Christ. The Good Shepherd “lays down his life” for his sheep. And we here at Sacred Heart—in this little corner of the Lord’s pasture—we would, ideally, lay down our life for our Shepherd. Not as a matter of Catholic guilt, but as a matter of committed love and adoration for God. We do it out of passion for God and our faith.
We serve at the altar of God out of love for God. We proclaim the Scriptures out of love for the Word. We get ordained, we get married, we practice the virtues of faith, hope, and charity out of love for God and others. Ideally, we do these things because we are fully committed to the Lord as our Lord and Savior. Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way.
If we’re going to be honest with ourselves, we have to admit that sometimes we’re not as committed to God as much as we can be. And that’s not just a Catholic problem; that’s a more broadly cultural problem. The prevailing culture today isn’t a Catholic culture—it’s not even necessarily a Christian culture. The prevailing culture that we live in today—and in which our children and youth are immersed daily—is a largely non-Christian, and even anti-Catholic culture.
When we come here for an hour a week, we get just a pinch of Catholic spice in our life. And the other 167 hours of the week we’re immersed in a broader culture which often doesn’t nurture or even support our Catholic values—the value of “commitment” being one of them. How can this not affect the shrinking number of new priests we have? How can this not affect our views on all the big questions of life: birth, death, marriage, family, human dignity? How can this not affect the numbers of people who truly want to be altar servers, or readers, or hospitality ministers, or catechists, or whatever?
Our one-hour-a-week commitment to come to Mass on the weekend just doesn’t do it. Maybe in years past it worked . . . when Christian values were all over the place in society—on tv, in the stores, at school, in the home. But that’s all changed. We step out the doors of this church and into what? Into a culture which isn’t too interested in what Catholics have to say. And so, today’s Catholics are going to be those who are intentionally Catholic. Today’s Catholics are those who’ll take personal responsibility for committing themselves to God.
Nobody “out there” is going to push you to do that—except for, maybe, the Evangelical Christians and the megachurches. They’re the ones who’ll get in your face and say: “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” They’re the ones who’ll test your sense of commitment. But not too many people are going to hold you accountable for your specifically Catholic faith. And so, we have to hold ourselves accountable.
Every weekend we stand here before the altar of God and we profess our faith. “I believe in God, the Father almighty. I believe in Jesus Christ his Only Begotten Son. I believe in the Holy Spirit. I believe in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” I believe. Not your neighbor, not your spouse, not your friends, and not even God. It’s “I” believe. It’s your personal commitment to God—and by extension—your personal commitment to the faith he’s given to the Church throughout the ages.
Just after Christmastime, there was a little note put into one of the offertory baskets. And on this note there was a question. It went something like this: “How can you (the Parish) say that all are welcome to the Eucharistic celebration, but that only Catholics are able to receive Communion? It doesn’t sound very Christian or loving to me.” That’s an excellent question. And the answer gets down to the basic Christian value of “commitment.”
When we say “All are welcome,” we mean that “all are welcome to commit themselves to God through the Catholic way of life.” That’s what we mean. Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist—those are the steps in the process of being initiated into this community we know as the Catholic Church. And all are welcome to be initiated into the community of faith—into a global community that values the idea of personal commitment to something bigger than ourselves. And the Eucharist is for those who have made that commitment . . . a commitment, above all, to God, but also to their brothers and sisters who have made the same personal commitment.
At the heart of our worship, at the heart of our lives as Catholics is the Eucharist—a Flesh and Blood reminder that the Good Shepherd lays down his life because he is committed to us. He doesn’t ask us to give ourselves in exactly the same way. But he does ask that we give . . . something. And that something is the most basic act of love we can give—it’s our sincere commitment to the other. And that requires a spirit of selflessness, a spirit of generosity and humility, a spirit of goodwill and patience.
The broader culture isn’t going to push you to commit yourself to God or Christian values, certainly not Catholic values. But you can push yourself. I’m sure God will give you a nudge if you ask for help. The staff here will give you some help, and so will your neighbors here who are intentional about their Catholic faith. The commitment to God and faith and Church is something we each have to make on our own. But we make it with the help of others.
And then, there, in an atmosphere of real, selfless commitment to God and one another, a truly Catholic culture might emerge—or at least, the beginnings of a renewed Catholic culture. It might be small to start out but, then again, so was that little group of Twelve Apostles who transformed the world with their concrete witness to faith and the value of commitment.
And so, the question of the Evangelical Christians still lingers. St. Peter’s question still lingers: “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” It’s a question of trust and love. It’s a question of personal commitment. And the life of the Church depends on our answer to that question.