5 June 2016
10th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
Life happens in waves and in cycles, as we know. There are good times and bad times, times of growth and times of decline, times of peace and times of war. Life is never quite stable; it always seems to be going up or down, backward or forward.
In our spiritual life, we might have times when we feel really connected to God and aware of his presence. And other times, maybe not so much; sometimes we’re in a spiritual desert. Parish communities have their ups and downs, too. Life happens in waves and in cycles, and the Church is not immune from that.
For instance, Saint Paul wasn’t exactly happy with the Galatians. Usually his letters, right in the beginning, have a little expression of thanks to the community he’s writing to. But with the Galatians, he doesn’t give thanks at all; instead, he just kind of hits them over the head and says: “I’m amazed that you’re so quickly ditching the one [meaning, him] who called you by the grace of Christ for a different gospel.”
The Galatians were onboard with Saint Paul and the Gospel of Jesus . . . and then they weren’t. They were being lured away by other preachers with a different gospel. In other words, the ups and downs of life were happening right there in front of Paul’s eyes. And he wasn’t too happy about it—but, when we’re talking about the Gospel, that’s the kind of “righteous annoyance” we need.
Paul wasn’t fighting against the cycles of life; he was trying to lead people into a different cycle of life—a cycle where, even in the midst of the ups and downs, Jesus Christ remains as the stable center. That’s why Paul is so vigorous in pointing out that the gospel didn’t come from him; it came from God himself. He was trying to help them keep Christ as the center of their lives.
And, as we know, the Apostles and the first few centuries of Christians were very successful in that mission. And for about 1,000 years, Christ and his Church were a presence that really changed the course of history. You could say, perhaps, that Christianity was on a “high point” in the cycle of its life. But since about the 15th Century, we’ve been on a gradual downturn. There’ve been ups and downs within that; but, overall, there’s been a decline.
And so, today, we’re in somewhat the same situation as Saint Paul was with the Galatians. Many people—friends, family, neighbors—have stepped away from Christ and the Church. They’ve gone and followed “other gospels” and other communities and ways of living their faith that are, perhaps, more in line with what they’re looking for.
We hear in the Gospel today and in the first Book of Kings about Jesus and Elijah doing their great miracles of bringing the dead back to life. There were blessings all around (for the widows and the communities) because of what they did. And, certainly, we experience the blessings of God ourselves.
There are the “big ones:” the miracle of birth, the joys of getting married, finding that right position in life where we have a sense of purpose. And there are the “little blessings,” too: the smell of rain, the growing grass, the new day, friendship, among countless other blessings. And that’s all good; we should enjoy those blessings. They’re like little rays of heavenly sunlight coming into our lives.
The trouble is: What happens when those blessings seem to go away? What happens when our spiritual life becomes dry? What happens when faith or our relationship with Jesus becomes, well, “everyday” and unexciting—even boring? What happens when our intellect and science and other worldviews seem to undercut our faith? What happens then?
Well, it depends on who (or what) is our god. There’s always the threat in the human heart to let something else take the place of God. It started in the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve thought they knew better than God. For just a brief moment they became . . . their own god. They wanted to try the apple: it looked appealing, and it made sense. They wanted to try . . . just for a second.
Or, here in the United States, we know the largest single denomination is Catholics. And the second largest group is ex-Catholics. Of course, the number of ex-Catholics went up a lot right after the abuse scandal from fourteen years ago. And I remember thinking at the time: “Why are they leaving the Church because of that?” How did the moral integrity of other human beings replace God as the object of faith and hope? How did the Church become God for them?
What happens when the blessings and the goodness of God seem to go away? What happens when life gets challenging? It depends on who (or what) is our god.
A very powerful god that’s arisen in recent decades is the god of . . . Me. “My life revolves around . . . Me.” And the “gospel” message of that god is: “I can be fulfilled; I should be fulfilled; I am entitled to be fulfilled—because I am me. And my happiness, my rightness is what matters.” And “anything that’s boring, or irrelevant, or a burden to me is not good for me, and I need to reject it.”
And that’s a pretty powerful god—the god of “Me;” because some elements of the “Gospel of Me” are true. We can be fulfilled; we should be fulfilled. We should have knowledge of how the universe works, and we should be a servant of truth. We are not made for misery; we’re made for happiness—in fact, the best of happiness. And things in life that are bad for us are bad for us, and we should avoid them. There’s a lot in the “Gospel of Me” that’s true.
Even those Catholics who leave the Church because of the tragic sins of others have a point: We should expect our fellow Catholics to live the faith they profess, and to be men and women of integrity. But the pitfall of the “Gospel of Me and what I think should happen” is that it can so easily—and almost imperceptibly—displace the Gospel of Christ and the Will of God.
What Saint Paul faced with the Galatians is similar to what we face today: competing gospels, competing worldviews, competing gods. Where are so many of our friends and family? Where are so many of our Catholic youth? They’re not here. Perhaps they’re off following another gospel, maybe the “Gospel of Me.” And that gospel isn’t compatible with the Gospel of Christ.
Christ isn’t about himself; he’s about “Us.” He’s all about the community which is the Holy Trinity, and the community which is the Church. The Gospel of Christ is about self-giving. And that’s at the heart of so many of our treasures of life; it’s at the heart of marriage; it’s at the heart of friendship; it’s at the heart of parish-life; it’s at the heart of really making the most of the life we have. And, really, self-giving is at the heart of being ourselves, because we’re made to share who we are, and to let others share with us who they are.
You know, if we wonder why we have a shortage of new priests coming in, why might ask: What gods and other “gospels” are people being drawn to today . . . in our parish, in our diocese? In the younger generations (including my own) the “Gospel of Me” looks pretty good. But if that’s the pool where our priests are supposed to be coming from, we have a problem—because self-satisfaction is totally opposed to what priesthood is all about; it’s opposed to what Catholic Christian living is about.
It isn’t about “what I get out of it;” it’s about “what I give into it.” Saint Luke is right when he says: “Give, and it will be given to you. . . . For the measure you use, it will be measured out to you” [6:38]. As Saint Francis put it: “It is in giving that we receive.” If we want to get to Easter Sunday, we have to go through Holy Thursday and Good Friday. There is no growth without challenge; every athlete knows that. And a plant doesn’t grow unless it’s shoved in the dirt; every gardener knows that.
The challenge for us is to remain true to the Gospel of Christ; to really believe in the hope and faith and absolute love he gives us. In the midst of competing gospels and competing gods today, where is our center—what is the God/god we cling to when life gets tough, or boring, or confusing?
In the first centuries of Christianity, the anchor was used as a symbol of Christ. Way back then when the Christian faith was not the only gospel out there, the anchor was a reminder for Christians to stay connected to Christ. You know, an anchor doesn’t sink the ship; it doesn’t weight the ship down. It just keeps it from being carried off by the waves into oblivion.
Life happens in waves and cycles. There are good times and bad times, times of growth and times of decline, times of peace and times of war. Life is never quite stable; it always seems to be going up or down, backward or forward.
The challenge is to have faith in the Anchor—provided we’re connected to the right anchor.