Christ and the Cross
“For I received from the Lord, what I handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and after he had given thanks, broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant, in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes,” 1 Corinthians 11: 23 – 26.
“What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He did not spare his own son but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him? Who will bring a charge against God’s chosen ones? It is God who acquits us. Who will condemn? It is Christ Jesus who died, rather, was raised, who also is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? . . . No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, not life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,” Romans 8: 31 – 39.
Paul resolves to “know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified,” (1 Cor. 2:2). What does it mean to live the message of the cross every day? What is the message?
The cross is a great act of love…God accepts, affirms, sustains, and supports us –He loves us – by taking His place with us, in and through Jesus. He has chosen to be with us in our brokenness. He has come to stay. There is no dark corner of human existence which will ever be able to separate us from him again. Now suffering and death are signs of his presence and power. This is why we proclaim the death of the Lord (John Dwyer’s “Theology of the Cross”).
Jesus did not suffer because suffering is good in itself. It is not the physical pain and death of Jesus that saves us. It is the love that filled him even when evil came up against him that assures us that God is always there to save us, to help us. Jesus never gave up hope. He placed all his trust in His Father. Jesus asks us to imitate him in this way. That is exactly how Paul lived, and encourages us to do the same!
When we look at a cross:
- The cross shows us how awful, how cruel, how destructive evil is.
Evil can only hate and destroy. It is evil that made Jesus suffer. We need to work to overcome any such sin in our lives.
- The cross is even more a sign of God’s power that gives us love, hope, and goodness. No matter how powerful evil can seem at times, God remains in charge. God’s love is greater than any sin or evil. God can save us and restore us to new life. Death is not the final answer.
- Jesus makes the invisible God visible. Jesus is the one who forever and completely shows us what God is like. So on the cross, Jesus shows us how deeply and totally God loves us. God is one with those who suffer. We can be sure of God’s presence when we are in need.
- We also need to see Jesus in anyone who is suffering or in need. We need to do all we can to help others – as if we were helping Jesus himself.
And so, the cross is also our promise to try to love as Jesus loved!
“Realize who you really are. The Messiah died and was raised; you are in him; therefore, you have died and been raised – and you must learn to live accordingly,”(NT Wright, Paul, A Biography, p. 293)
2nd Reading: Philippians 2: 6 – 11
This is one of the earliest indications of an understanding of the Incarnation of Christ. Jesus is in the “form of God”, “in human likeness” and “God greatly exalted him”. Theologians debate whether Paul was truly speaking of preexistence, that Christ existed (in the form of God) before he became the man of Jesus on earth. This would not be resolved until the councils of Nicea (325AD) and Chalcedon (451AD). This passage is often called the “Christ Hymn” because of how poetic it is. It was probably used as a creed or response in early worship, or maybe it was sung. Maybe Paul wrote this piece himself or maybe he was quoting something the Philippians would have been familiar with (Powell, Introducing the New Testament, p. 349-351.
Reflect on some of the other phrases in the hymn…did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. For the words to be closer to the original Greek, it would be translated as, “Jesus did not think it robbery to be equal with God, something to be snatched at.” Jesus didn’t have to snatch his equality with God because it was his right, his being. He didn’t hold it tightly either, keeping it for himself. He offered it freely to ALL(Barclay, Daily Study Bible Series, p. 36). This gift of beautiful life is a constant letting go. We can’t hold on too tightly. We are meant to give ourselves away, like Jesus did. Not to be doormats, or be used by others…it is conscious choice. We find the gift of who we are within ourselves and be that fully, opening ourselves with that intentionality. We find that the gift comes back to us in abundance! We “pour out as a libation”, but it only makes more room for God to fill us.
Flesh and Spirit
N.T. Wright says, “Paul is using letters to teach his churches not just what to think, but how to think,” (Paul, A Biography, p. 274). And so we are being taught too!
Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us not become boastful, challenging one another, envying one another. Galatians 5: 19-26
For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Romans 8: 6-9
Flesh: Paul is referring to the Greek word sarx, not soma. Soma simply means body, but sarx is the whole person. Even more so, it is the whole person that is the little (or partial) self: trapped, insecure, wounded, broken and attention-seeking.
Spirit: The Greek word is pneuma, or God’s power in itself, and as he shares it with those who believe. At the same time, spirit is our true self, knowing and trusting in God’s love. As we empty and open ourselves to spirit, we become more whole, more connected to God and more of who God intends for us to be.
In baptism, we die to the little self (flesh, like circumcision) so we may rise to spirit and live in Christ (Christ-ening).
This makes it sound like flesh is bad and spirit is good, but there is more here. Realistically, we can’t get out of our flesh. Richard Rohr connects sarx with ego. He says, “Sarx or ego is the self that tries to define itself autonomously, apart from spirit, apart from the Big Self in God. It’s the tiny self that you think you are, who takes yourself far too seriously, and who is always needy and wanting something else. It’s the self that is characterized by scarcity and fragility—and well it should be, because it’s finally an illusion and passing away. It changes month by month. This small self doesn’t really exist in God’s eyes as anything substantial or real. It’s nothing but a construct of your own mind. It is exactly what will die when you die. Flesh is not bad, it is just inadequate to the final and full task, while posing as the real thing. Don’t hate your training wheels once you take them off your bicycle. You should thank them for getting you started on your cycling journey!” (www.cac.org for 4/6/18). He ends his reflection saying, “The problem is not that you have a body; the problem is that you think you are separate from others—and from God. And you are not!” Our faith journey is a fluid movement from flesh to spirit. But it is messy!
“The relationship of Jesus to the Spirit is central to Paul’s thought. The Spirit is, for Paul, simply the power of the risen Jesus, as he establishes his lordship in and through Christians. This lordship is itself a gift – in fact, it is THE gift. The power of Jesus takes over and assumes control in such a way that the individual becomes the one through whom the lordship of Jesus Christ is extended throughout the world, “ (J. Dwyer, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, p. 78).
So what does this mean for us? We become robots and just succumb to whatever God’s will is? No, it is a partnership. We must say yes to it. We participate in the relationship.
Margaret Silf talks about a way of participating in Inner Compass. See the image. The center is Spirit. “When I move inward toward the center of myself, I move closer to the person I most truly am before God,”. It is there we grow our Godseed. “Discovering the Godseed in our hearts, noticing the golden threads of meaning in our own life’s journey, and becoming increasingly aware of God’s continuing presence in our lives and in everything and everyone we encounter are just a few of the possibilities for opening ourselves up more and more to this unconditional love, even as we stand face-to-face with the nature and extent of our own fallenness and the fallenness of all creation,”.
“What you seek is what you are. The search for God and the search for our True Self are finally the same search.” R. Rohr
2nd Reading: Philippians 3: 8-14
The word ‘rubbish’ is skubala, which has 2 meanings. It can mean that which is thrown to the dogs, but medically it can mean excrement or dung. So then Paul is saying, “All my life I have been trying to get into right relationship with God. I tried to find it by strict adherence to the Jewish Law; but I found the Law and all its ways of no more use than the refuse thrown on the garbage heap to help me to get into a right relationship with God. So I gave up trying to create a goodness of my own; I came to God in humble faith, as Jesus told me to do, and I found that fellowship I had sought so long,” (Barclay’s Daily Study Bible Series, p. 62).
In knowing what we now know about flesh and spirit, perhaps this could be interpreted as moving from a life in the flesh to a life in the spirit, a life in Christ Jesus.
Notice that we are not called to perfection…we will never get there in this life. We are called to continue our pursuit in Christ with great hope! As in Thomas Merton’s prayer, “…the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please You does in fact please You.”
Paul is Christ-centered.
Paul believes Christ has died for our sins. Moreover, God raised Jesus from the dead. Those who confess that Jesus is Lord and place their trust in him will be saved. Jesus is the image of God; Jesus is the Son of God (There is no Trinitarian theology yet.), (Powell’s Introducing the New Testament, p, 248-249). And so we see everything Paul lives, breathes, writes, proclaims and dies for…is Christ. How can we make Christ our center? What would that look like for us?
Paul’s view of Salvation
Paul reminds us that what has happened through Jesus is the launching of a new creation. The messianic events of Jesus and the spirit are not simply another religious option, a new twist on an old theme. If anything, the creator God has called TIME! on the old creation and has launched a new one in the middle of it. No wonder the new reality is uncomfortable (NT Wright’s Paul, A Biography, p. 158). And so God’s plan had always been to unite all things in heaven and on earth in Jesus, which meant, from the Jewish point of view, that Jesus was the ultimate Temple, the heaven-and-earth place. This, already accomplished in his person, was now being implemented through his spirit. Paul always believed that God’s new creation was coming, perhaps soon. But the present corrupt and decaying world would one day be rescued and emerge into new life under the glorious rule of God’s people (p. 401-402). In this way, salvation is NOW and TO COME!
Because of his own profound life experiences, Paul knew that he was not saved by the law or by his scrupulous, self-righteous fulfillment of the Law. He found in Jesus Christ a God who accepted him and called him while he was yet a sinner – and empowered him to live an entirely new life – a life in Christ Jesus. So Paul is again our example-living a saved life right into eternity.
On the cross, God shares in our destiny and takes residence with us; and in doing this, God reconciles us with Godself. Paul’s basic statement is that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Godself. In and through Jesus, God shares in our human fate, our human destiny. God becomes vulnerable and takes the brokenness of the world and our lives into God’s very self. When God takes our brokenness, up to the point of death, into God’s self, it means not the end of God but the end of death, (John Dwyer’s “That We May Live in Joy and Die in Peace: God’s Gift on the Cross of Christ). What does reconciliation mean to you? How do we live as reconcilers?
“Reconciliation” is the Greek legal term used of husband and wife (see I Cor. 7:11). But Paul applies it to the process of salvation here. God is the agent of reconciliation, and we are reconciled. Christ is the means, which is extended to the world. By being reconciled, we become a new creation, the holiness of God, (Dictionary of the Bible, p. 722-723). From the Catechism #460, “The Word became flesh to make us ‘partakers of the divine nature’:78 ‘For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God.’79 ‘For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.’80 ‘The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods., 81” . Do you hear a sense of oneness in these descriptions? The Trinitarian relationship Father/Son/Spirit have with each other is one that we are invited to enter into. We are called to join in the divine dance!
2nd Reading: 2 Corinthians 5: 17-21
For context: When Paul was in Ephesus, he got word of problems in Corinth and so wrote 1 Corinthians. After that, things got messy. Paul had said he was going to take a trip to Macedonia and then visit the Corinthians on his way back to Ephesus. He changed his mind and decided to visit Corinth on his way to Macedonia as well. Perhaps he caught them unawares; in any event, it didn’t go well. He had some kind of confrontation, something that later he would claim actually hurt the entire congregation (2 Cor 2:5). Paul left in a huff and canceled his plans to visit them on the return trip, so he wrote a letter which is lost (although some theologians think it is actually segments of 2 Corinthians). This letter repaired the relationship between Paul and the Corinthians and they repented, so Paul wrote them again, which is most likely most of what 2 Corinthians is (Powell, p. 294-298).
The word ambassador in Greek is presbeutes. It was a person that was directly commissioned by a king or ruler. Paul is using it here to help us understand that we are commissioned to bring God’s terms of mercy and love to sinners so that they can be welcomed into the family of God. (Preaching Resources, March 2004)
“An ambassador from any country is always conscious of the fact that he has a tremendous responsibility because he is the representative by whom his country is going to be judged. And to us is given the privilege and responsibility of being the representatives of the Son of God in this world. We stand for him, people judge him by what they see in us, and they are perfectly entitled to do so because we are the ones through whom and in whom he is glorified. Do we, I wonder, always realize this?” Martyn Lloyd-Jones, a Welsh Protestant Minister.
As new creations in Christ we are to offer to others the same love and forgiveness that has been offered to us. Selfishness and self-righteous attitudes do not lead to joy, to celebration. Such a lonely road leads to isolation and misery. (From “Exploring the Sunday Readings”, March 2010) But being a new creation is not an assured possession! It is something that must constantly be worked at. To renew that status is the work of the apostolic ministry – the “ministry of reconciliation,” as Paul calls it (liturgy.slu.edu, March 14, 2010).
This image is “Conversion on the Way to Damascus” by Carvaggio. People often picture this artwork when reading about Saul/Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ. However, there is no horse mentioned in scripture, and it wasn’t a conversion from Judaism to Christianity. Revelation may be a better word. For everything Paul knew and understood as a learned, Jewish man became fulfilled in Jesus. There was no “Christianity”. There was “The Way”. Paul had no goal of turning away from Judaism and starting a new religion. Instead, he saw Jesus as God’s continuously unfolding plan for Israel’s salvation. Jesus is the new covenant God is making with all people (U.S. News & World Report 4/5/99, “Reassessing an Apostle”, p. 54).
From NT Wright’s Paul, A Biography:
“For Paul, what mattered was that Israel’s God, the creator of the world, had done in Jesus the thing he had always promised, fulfilling the ancient narrative that went back to Abraham and David and breaking through ‘the Moses barrier,’ the long Jewish sense that Moses himself had warned of covenant failure and its consequences…At the heart of Paul’s message, teaching, and life was radical messianic eschatology.
Eschatology: God’s long-awaited new day has arrived.
Messianic: Jesus is the true son of David, announced as such in his resurrection, bringing to completion the purposes announced to Abraham and extended in the Psalms to embrace the world.
Radical: Nothing in Paul’s background had prepared him for this new state of affairs (p. .130).
But now the big question: Did one need to become a Jew first to become Christian? Jewish law required keeping the Sabbath, eating certain foods, being circumcised, etc. What are the Gentiles to do? This is what a lot of Paul’s letters deal with, and this caused great debate not only in these communities but also among the original disciples of Jesus.
Doctrine of Justification
Also by NT Wright: “God will put the whole world right at the last. He has accomplished the main work of that in Jesus and his death and resurrection. And, through gospel and spirit, God is now putting people right, so that they can be both examples of what the gospel does and agents of further transformation in God’s world. This is the heart of Paul’s doctrine of justification…It isn’t about a moralistic framework in which the only question that matters is whether we humans have behaved ourselves and so amassed a store of merit (“righteousness”) and, if not, where we can find such a store, amassed by someone else on our behalf. It is about the VOCATIONAL framework in which humans are called to reflect God’s image in the world and about the rescue operation whereby God has, through Jesus, set humans free to do exactly that, (p. 407-408).
Because of his own profound life experiences, Paul knew that he was not saved by the law or by his scrupulous, self-righteous fulfillment of the Law. He found in Jesus Christ a God who accepted him and called him while he was yet a sinner – and empowered him to live an entirely new life – a life in Christ Jesus. For Paul, faith is that response to this free gift offered to us by God. Like all gifts it cannot be forced. It is a matter of life for those who now live in Christ. It reconciles us with God by accepting his love and trusting it with our lives. And it empowers us to be reconciled to each other – and to be ambassadors of reconciliation for others.
2nd Reading – I Corinthians 10: 1-6, 10-12
Paul’s community in Corinth was under a great deal of pressure because of the temptations and lures of the culture’s religious and intellectual oddities. People were succumbing to pagan influences. The Corinthians, like their ancient counterparts, were beginning to take God’s gifts for granted. Some believed that baptism and eucharist were all that was necessary for salvation. Paul referred to the OT identifying story of exodus to set the record and beliefs straight. Sacramental grace cannot substitute for the believer’s cooperative efforts at good living and loving service (Birmingham, W&W, 143).
Paul’s statement about the “rock that was following them” (v.4) refers to the Jewish tradition that the rock that Moses struck (Exodus 17:1-6) became mobile and traveled with them furnishing a steady supply of life-giving water. (This was a widely known legend.) Paul, of course, sees this rock as Christ, our source of life-giving ‘water’ – grace. Yet, Paul also reminds us that God’s graces and gifts are not automatic assurances of salvation. Rather, God challenges and invites, but we need also to cooperate with God’s Spirit. It’s not magic(Celebration, March 2001).
God wants “spiritual fruit” not “religious nuts”! Each of us is asked to be a good steward of our own gifts and abilities. But it’s more than just doing works. In our zeal to do good works we may go “nuts” and overdo it. It’s not about how many committees, meetings and work parties we fit into our life. God seeks spiritual fruit from us. We are asked to discover the ‘buried treasure’ of God’s presence within us. We may need to slow-down – notice the burning bushes in our lives. Let us take time to touch Holy Ground and hear the voice that speaks from deep within the ‘burning bushes’ of our lives. This kind of prayer can cultivate and fertilize. Then, we will not be blinded by harsh daylight, and fail to see the God-light all around us. (Celebration, March 2004)
From What Paul Meant by Garry Wills:
Paul’s writings were almost always “fired off to deal with local crises”, dictating them to “answer problems or refute opponents”. We see Paul writing and “thinking under pressure” and the outcome is a sort of “lava-flow of heated words”. He is not a cool detached philosopher, but an “embattled messenger” as well as “a mystic and a deep theologian” – a “man busy in many fronts, often harried, sometimes desperate”.
Paul’s letters are the earliest part of the New Testament – all written 25-50 years before any of the gospels. They were probably written about 20 years after the death/resurrection of Jesus. There are 13 letters relating to St. Paul:
Undisputed Letters of Paul:
- 1 Thessalonians
- 1 Corinthians
- 2 Corinthians
- 2 Thessalonians
- 1 Timothy
- 2 Timothy
Paul describes himself as, “If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.” (Philippians 3:4-6). What is the source of this zeal, which we feel so much in his letters?
From Paul, A Biography by N.T. Wright: Paul was raised studying the Torah, wearing the tefillin on his arms and head. Tefillin were small, leather boxes containing key scripture passages that were strapped on as Moses had commanded all male Jews to do when praying the morning service (p. 27). We lived and breathed his faith, and learned early on that it was God’s people against the rest of the world. Outsiders were considered a threat. One must strive for righteousness. The Hebrew word for righteousness is tzedaqah, or more closely translated as a committed, covenanted relationship. There is a covenant between God and God’s people to be bonded. Zeal was the outward badge of the unbreakable relationship (p. 31).
So when Paul met the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, this zeal was challenged AND channeled in a new way.
- Challenged in that ALL people are God’s people now, not just the Jewish people.
- And channeled in that it is ALL for Jesus. Paul is the Messiah Man!
His zeal is read throughout all of his letters.
2nd Reading – Philippians 3: 17 — 4:1
- A prominent town in the Roman province of Macedonia
- The Via Egnatia is the road constructed by the Romans in 2nd Century BC. Paul would have used this road when leaving Philippi to Thessalonica.
- Agricultural plains and gold mines nearby. On those plains Oct 42 BC Antony and Octavian defeated Brutus and Cassius (slayers of Julius Caesar). Octavian made Philippi a Roman colony.
- Mimicked Rome in having forums, theaters and coinage inscriptions.
- Strategic site in all of Europe. There is a range of hills which divides Europe from Asia, east from west and just at Philippi there is a dip into a pass. That city commands the road (Barclay, p.3)
- First “church” on European soil, birthplace of Western Christianity (Powell, Introducing the New Testament, p. 346).
- 100 years later, Polycarp speaks of the firmly rooted faith of the Philippians (Brown, An Intro to the New Testament, p. 484).
This is written probably when Paul was in prison. How does knowing this affect our understanding of Paul’s words? What meaning does this reading have for you?
From Exploring the Sunday Readings, March 2001 and 2007:
When Paul talks of the “enemies of the cross” he is warning the people of those who would come to take their faith in Christ away – those religious leaders who still insist on being saved by religious, ritual law – dietary laws (“their God is their stomach”) and circumcision (“their glory is in their shame[ful parts]”. They are so caught up in the letter of the law that they miss its spirit – that which gives life. Jesus had said the Sabbath and the laws of religion were created to assist us – to bring life not division.
Today, perhaps, there is another way to understand the ‘god of our stomachs’. Could we see this as a symbol of our yawning hunger for acquisition of every kind? We want, we desire, we wish, and we yearn. We window-shop, surf the Net, and dream of something more . . . greed can often feel like need, but is it? Augustine reminds us that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. May we find ways this Lent to be hungry for the living God, the one who can satisfy us with real food.
One might wonder what was on Jesus’ mind, on God’s mind, when he picked these two to be the examples of what a disciple should be. You and I would probably agree that Peter and Paul were probably two of the worst examples of disciples what a disciple should be. Peter was a traitor, he denied Jesus three times, and Paul a persecutor, he hunted and killed Christians before his conversion. Yet Jesus saw something other than a traitor and persecutor in them. Indeed, Peter’s confession that Jesus was the Messiah was astonishing. Only someone very special could have seen so clearly, as Peter did, who Jesus really was. All this suggests something quite important and theological. We should never dare to judge anyone, not even ourselves, as the stories of Peter and Paul teach us.
None of us is living up to the beauty that is inside us, a beauty that only God can see clearly. All of us, no matter how terrible we live our lives, can turn them around. If a traitor can become the pope, and a persecutor one of the greatest of Jesus’ disciples, then imagine the potential within us, a potential that God can awake and make real if only we would let him.
The feast of Saints Peter and Paul is not only a celebration of the lives of these great saints but also a celebration of the good that is inside us, locked up, and ready to spring open when God touches our hearts like he did with Peter’s and Paul’s. Once Peter and Paul met Jesus, as John before them, they did not live for themselves any longer. The names of both of them were changed.
Simon was named Peter, the rock for the building of the church. Saul became Paul, made into an apostle after his conversion.
My friends, at Baptism we, too, were given a new name and a mission to find God in all the circumstances and events of our lives and to give witness to Jesus Christ through our self-giving and our love. That might mean to be willing to serve others at all times, to sacrifice hours and days to the care of our children, our spouses, or aging parents; to give our own comfort up sometimes for the good of others; to give up our sense of competition; to silence a harsh word we are about to utter; and so many other small things that come up in the source of a normal day in our lives.
So why not just let Jesus unlock our hearts and minds so that we can better serve God and one another by using those wonderful gifts God has given to each one of us. Especially the gifts of Jesus, our example and the Holy Spirit, our enabler, let’s just live our Baptismal promises.
Reading I: Isaiah 62:1-5
Your God rejoices in you! You are God’s Delight, God’s Espoused! How does this speak to you? When were you so full of joy you could not be quiet?
The conferral of a new name designated God’s almighty power over creation. When one was given a new name, that person was made a new creation, (Birmingham, W&W, p. 88). Isn’t it endearing when someone calls you by a nickname? It draws you close to each other. God calls you by name, for you belong to God. Relish in it.
Reading II: Acts 13:16-17, 22-25
In this reading, Paul is connecting the messianic promise in the Hebrew scriptures to its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Paul wants to be sure his audience is listening to this message. Jesus came to save them – and us! Know that this Christmas. Jesus comes to us as a small child, unlike any image of Messiah anyone could have possibly imagined. But Jesus comes to us now, in our hearts. We must listen for it.
Gospel: Matthew 1:1-25
Matthew begins with this genealogical lineage, almost like a commercial before the main event. It was so important to the people at that time to see a link between Abraham, the Father of their faith, and Jesus. The important link is Joseph, since he is Jesus’ legal father and heir to the house of David. The genealogy shows that God used ordinary, unknown men and women to be part of the greatest story over told. Not just unknown – some were downright scoundrels! David himself was no saint, and others were horrible kings. But everyone has a place in history. We all may have a sordid family tree – Jesus understands that! (Remember that when you are at your family gatherings this Christmas!) Jesus stands as a beacon of light in the midst of relational darkness, (Birmingham, W&W, p. 90).
From Celebration Dec. 2004:
On keeping Christmas all year long: believe and live as if love is the strongest thing in the world – stronger than hate, stronger than fear, stronger than death. “God-with-us” – God’s power and love is forever involved with all that is human.
From The Daily Study Bible Series: The Gospel of Matthew Vol I, Barclay:
Jesus is the answer to the dreams of men [and women]. It is true that so often we don’t see it that way. We see the answer in power, wealth, material plenty and the realization of anticipated ambitions. But if ever our dreams of peace and loveliness, and greatness and satisfaction, are to be realized, they can find their realization only in Jesus Christ.
The relationships in this passage are bewildering…first Joseph is betrothed to Mary, then he wants to divorce her, and suddenly she is his wife. These are the steps to a normal Jewish marriage procedure in those days:
- Engagement: This was usually done when the couple were only children, through the parents or a matchmaker.
- Betrothal: This was the sealing of the engagement. The girl could withdraw up to this point. Once entered, it was binding and lasted a year. The couple would be called man and wife even though they didn’t quite have the rights yet. Only divorce could end a betrothal. This is the stage Mary and Joseph were in.
- Marriage: Full marital consent.
Jesus is the Greek form of the Jewish name Joshua, meaning Jehovah is salvation. Jesus was born by the action of the Holy Spirit, a Virgin Birth. What does this mean for us? According to the Jewish idea, the Holy Spirit was the person who brought God’s truth to humanity. It was the Holy Spirit who taught the prophets what to say and what to do. This is how Mary and Joseph would have understood it. Jesus would be the one person who could tell us what God is like, and what God means us to be. In Jesus we see the love, the compassion, the mercy, the seeking heart, the purity of God as nowhere else in all this world.
From Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing:
God takes on flesh so that every home becomes a church, every child becomes the Christ-child, and all food and drink become a sacrament. God’s many faces are now everywhere, in flesh, tempered and turned down, so that our human eyes can see him. God, in his many-faced face, has become as accessible, and visible, as the nearest water tap. That is they why of the incarnation.
God is still here, in the flesh, just as real and just as physical, as God was in Jesus. The word did not just become flesh and dwell among us – it became flesh and continues to dwell among us.
1st Reading – Exodus 32: 7-11, 13-14
In this story we find Moses foreshadowing the role of Jesus as a mediator before God on our behalf. Jesus like Moses prays on the cross: “Father, forgive them.” Here is a God who is willing to forgive even though his anger is great at the evil that has been done. And, of course, we believe that Jesus shows us the fullness of the real God – the visible image of the invisible God. (Reginald Fuller, “ Scripture in Depth,” http://liturgy.slu.edu )
This event is an example of how religions can confuse the voice of the people with the voice of God. Any religion has the capacity to produce a “calf” to meet the needs of the people who are in opposition to the will of God. In the Israelites’ case, all it resulted in was a compromise that threatened the integrity of their relationship with God (Word & Worship, Birmingham, p. 472). How often do we place our needs in the way of God’s will? Maybe more often than we think. Yet our God listens to us. Moses intercedes for his people, and God hears.
Notice too how God tells Moses they are “your people”, like an angry mother telling a father what happened with the children while he was away at work. Does the angry mother’s love ever diminish for her children? She is there for them anyway and loves them completely, no matter what they do. How much more God is.
2nd Reading – 1 Timothy 1: 12-17
“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” What does this personally mean to you?
The Pauline authorship of this letter and the rest of the so-called pastoral letters (2 Timothy, Titus) have been disputed since the 19th century. The pseudonymous author for these letters wrote as if he were Paul and included valuable information about the apostle and his ministry. It is emphasizing that Saul-Paul was like the elder brother of the gospel story who had been desirous of punishing the ‘brothers’ he deemed to be unfaithful and heretical. By the glorious grace of the God he found in the Risen Christ, he recognized the error of his ways. He began knowing God in an entirely new way, a way that leads to new life, not judgment and death. (Celebration, Sept. 2001)
How does this passage lead us into the parables of lost sheep, lost coin, lost son?
“There is something good in the worst of us and something bad in the best of us.” We may not be Paul, a former blasphemer and ‘thug’ – we may not be worshipping molten calves in a frenzy – but we can all be overwhelmingly grateful for the merciful love of God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. Repentance is always the start of good news. (Kavanaugh, “The Word Engaged” http://liturgy.slu.edu)
The Gospel – Luke 15: 1-32
Here is the whole chapter from Luke on the ‘lost and found’. It is sometimes called ‘the gospel within the gospel’ because it so profoundly shows us the essence of the good news we find in Christ Jesus. What do find good in these parables? What do you find challenging?
From Living Liturgy, 2004:
This parable reveals the dying and rising of the paschal mystery at work. The prodigal son is brought to repentance because he is in dire need; he is “dying from hunger.” There is nothing he does to deserve the father’s response except return. Yet, his decision to repent (turn from death) is met with warm welcoming love and feasting – at least from the father. For all of us, the invitation to repent is always there – to turn from dying-ways to new life and feasting. What can bring us – and the elder son – to the feasting?
Notice also, that sin is ‘going away to a distant land’ – it is about losing who and where we are called to be. Repentance is about ‘coming back to our senses.’ Sin is an alienation from ourselves, like the son who no longer deserves to be called his father’s son. Sin affects our relationships – with the father – and with others (the elder son). But in the father, we find a love that bridges the gap.
From John Pilch, “Historical Cultural Context”, http://liturgy.slu.edu :
In this culture fathers were greatly discouraged from distributing inheritance before their death. The younger son acts very shamefully by effectively wishing his father dead. The elder son is no better. He makes no effort to reconcile his father and brother as the culture demanded. When he ‘comes back to himself’ and repents, the younger son is willing to become a servant and take the rejection and physical abuse that the village will heap on him for his shameful behavior. In this, he does show some measure of honor. But then the father acts totally out of cultural character. He runs (very inappropriate for an elder) the gauntlet the village has prepared for the wayward son. He publicly forgives the son by kissing him, giving him the best robe (which certainly would be the father’s), putting a ring on his finger (a sign of trust), and sandals on his feet (a sign of a free man not a slave). Killing the fatted calf means that the whole village will be invited to come and accept this son and celebrate. (This size calf could feed 100 people.) And then, what does the elder son do? Instead of honoring his father’s wishes, he publicly insults and humiliates his father. Yet, the father also goes out to him (another shameful thing for the father to do). The parable ends here with the father pleading with his son . . . what did the elder son do? What would you do?
1st Reading – Genesis 14: 18 – 20
Melchizedek is mentioned in only three places in scripture: this reading plus Psalm 110:4 and Hebrews 5:6, 10; 6:20-7:22. He is said to be the king of Salem; its name means peace. This place becomes the city of Jerusalem, the center of Israel’s kingdom.
It was customary for a king to be hospitable toward a victorious leader, but there are no ulterior motives here. Instead, there is a beautiful blessing ritual, to which Abram gives thanks. Note that Abram did not take his victory greedily. He only wanted to save his nephew Lot and retrieve the possessions that were taken from him. For the victory and the blessing, he gives thanks to God. How do you give thanks to god for the victories and blessings in your life?
Later Christian writers would evoke this episode in history and consider it a prefigurement of Christ. Jesus would offer the blessing of his life – the effect would be irrevocable and would be the gift of God’s self to the entire world – redemption. Jesus is the only true priest because of both his humanity and his divinity (Birmingham, W&W, p. 560-561).
2nd Reading – 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26
This is the earliest written account (maybe 53-55 AD) of Jesus’ Last Supper and the words that have become our Eucharistic prayer.
From Celebration, June 1998:
Eucharist is about a remembering (anamnesis) that does not simply call to mind the past events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. The Eucharist makes present here and now, within the gathered assembly of believers, the reality of Jesus’ saving death and resurrection. Each Eucharist is a “living remembrance of Jesus’ act of love.” By our participation (offering our ‘hungry selves’, hearkening to God’s Word, sharing peace, and then eating and drinking) in the Eucharist, believers proclaim and are integrated into that death and are given a taste of the resurrected life to come.
We “proclaim the death of the Lord” . . . What does this mean? In Eucharist Christ comes to us as the one in whom God participates in the emptiness and negativity of life, as the one in whom God accepts us in the most unrestricted way possible, and as the one who in virtue of this acceptance, lays claim to all that we are and can be. The Eucharist is not simply a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus or the fact that he now lives. Rather, it is a celebration of the fact that it is the crucified one who now lives; it is a celebration of the God who came into the brokenness, the ‘unwholeness’ and the unholiness’ of the human situation, and who came to stay. In Jesus, God has come to be with us where we are. To proclaim the death of the Lord is to find in his death a new definition of ourselves – a new understanding of the meaning of success and failure, of the meaning of life and death, of what it means to be a human person. (John Dwyer, The Sacraments, “Chapter Eight: the Eucharist” p.129-130)
The Gospel – Luke 9: 11-17
It is important to place this gospel story within the context of the overall gospel of Luke. Chapter 9 had started with Jesus commissioning the Twelve and sending them out to proclaim the Kingdom of God. After they go out Luke tells us of Herod’s curiosity about Jesus: “I beheaded John. Who then is this about whom I hear such things?” Then the Twelve return. They withdraw in private to Bethsaida, but the crowds follow Jesus, and yet, he welcomed them . . . here then, is where the gospel story begins. It ends with a superabundance of satisfying food.
From “Working with the Word,” http://liturgy.slu.edu:
Too often we narrowly view Eucharist in the context of the Last Supper and its elements of bread and wine. This gospel expands our perception to include the whole event of hungering, and then gathering, blessing, breaking, giving, eating, and being satisfied. Evil diminishes life and enslaves people; God’s kingdom restores life and liberates them from hunger – ‘malnutrition’ and oppression. This story illustrates Jesus’ Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor, the kingdom is yours . . . and the hungry will be satisfied.
It is at Eucharist that we experience most intimately the communion of saints. Communion of saints in Greek is koinōnia hagiōn. Koinōnia is any partnership, fellowship, activity, experience or relationship where people come together. It is togetherness for mutual benefit and goodness (Barclay, The Apostles Creed p. 245). Hagiōn literally means sacred things, hagiōi meaning members of the Church as saints, or sacred people (p. 247). Imagine the sacred things as being that which we share in Eucharist, the body and blood of Jesus. In that sense, we are sharing sacred things as a communion (koinōnia) of sacred people. In the Byzantine liturgy, the priest says, “Holy things for holy people” at the distribution of Holy Communion (Shannon, Catholic Update May 2005, p.4). We become the body of Christ.
In the book With God in Russsia by Walter Ciszek (an autobiography of a Jesuit priest), he recounts being in Poland in a concentration camp and celebrating Mass. It was forbidden to do so, so it had to be done in secret. Fasting before Eucharist from the midnight before was common practice then. Since the inmates were only given 2 meals of gruel a day, giving up the morning meal was a true sacrifice. If guards did not make it possible to celebrate at the scheduled time, they may go even longer without eating. So this priest and those he celebrated Mass with truly held Eucharist in deep, deep faith (Nolan, Hungry, and You Fed Me, p. 273-275). Consider this as you receive Eucharist this week.
Let us pray:
Christ, be vital food; bread for our souls.
You were broken because we are broken.
You bless us beyond all telling.
Your grace expands like loaves and fishes.
You lavish love on us each time you come to us
and make us one,
since you are our very food and drink.
Help us to pour this love out to one another. Amen.
Do you ever feel like you have too many expectations? Maybe there are too many balls in the air? Forgot to take a juggling class? Sometimes either we expect too much from ourselves, or others expect too much from us. It can be maddening at times. Too much to do and not enough time to do it. Sometimes it feels like we can’t give anything our complete attention.
Now, I’m not talking about shirking responsibility. It is good to work hard and see the fruit of your effort. A little stress is healthy. It keeps you moving forward. I’m talking about a weight of stuff. A to-do list gone crazy. Like one more thing might put you over the edge. We’ve all been there, right? What are we to do with all these expectations?
Learn from St. Paul! Paul said, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been ineffective, ” (I Corinthians 15:10). I always think of Popeye when I read this. “I yam what I yam!” But Paul speaks such truth. We can only be who we are. Thanks be to God! That is all God wants from us. God only wants us to be God’s beloved children. That is it. If we get that, the rest feels easier. Knowing this gives us the strength to do the rest of it. God’s only expectation of us is to love God. He even gives us the ability to do it. Allow God’s love in, and God will fulfill all of your expectations.
So next time you are feeling overwhelmed, keep this song in mind!