Monday, August 22, 2011

What Did He Know and When Did He Know It?

21 Sunday A #121

Is 22, 19-23
Ps 138
Rom 11, 33-36
Mt 16, 13-20

August 21, 2011

Deacon Tom Cornell

Jesus and his disciples have been up north in what is now Lebanon, trying to get away from the crowds that gathered around Jesus. They needed time to think and to pray. So did Jesus. Now they are on their way south to Jewish territory. In this morning’s reading we find them in northern Galilee on their way back to Judaea where the drama will be played out soon enough. They skirt Caesarea Philippi, a city built by Philip, son of Herod and Tetrarch of Trachonitis to honor the Roman emperor. The city lies in ruins, no one lives there now. Still it is a splendid site, reflecting the glory that was ancient Rome. It was built by slaves, and maybe even Jesus had been conscripted from Joseph’s carpentry shop to work on it. Slavery lay the foundation for wealth in the ancient world and it was taken for granted as part of the human condition until the 19th Century, not so long ago in historical terms.

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus asks his closest companions, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They answer him, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “And you,” he asks, “who do you say that I am?”

Did Jesus himself know who he was, precisely? As a little baby in the manger did he know that he was both God and man, the Incarnate Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity? Not likely! Scripture tells us “he grew in wisdom, age and grace before God and men” (Lk, 2, 52.) His self-knowledge developed. As an adolescent Jesus knew he had a special relationship to God. “Did you not know that I must be about my father’s business?” (Lk 2, 49). After his baptism by John, Jesus goes to the desert to fast and pray for forty days to discern his mission. He must not have known what his mission was if he had to discern it. And he is tempted. But he sees the right path and he sets out upon it. Even at the last, on the Cross, he calls out, “Lord, my Lord, why have you forsaken me?” Saint Paul tells us that “although he was in the form of God, he did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at, but emptied himself and took on the form of a slave” (Phil 2, 6-11). Emptied himself! That is, he set aside all divine powers and prerogatives so as to live just as you and I do, as a man, a human being like any other. Otherwise, how could we men and women be called to follow in his footsteps, to imitate Christ?

“Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers for the other apostles. “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.”

Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my heavenly Father. As for me, I tell you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. I entrust to you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you hold bound on earth, it shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth, it shall be loosed in heaven.”

Moments later, when Peter remonstrates with Jesus, telling him that he should not suffer and die in Jerusalem as he has just predicted, Jesus tells Peter, “Get you behind me, Satan!” This is not the only time that Peter fails. And yet Peter is always mentioned first in every listing of the apostles. It is Peter who speaks for all the others. It was Peter to whom Jesus entrusted the keys to the kingdom. It was Peter who gathered the apostles together after the Resurrection when their faith was faltering. It was Peter who was told, “Feed my lambs, feed my sheep” (Lk 21, 15-17).

There were disagreements in the early church, especially as Gentiles, more and more of them sought baptism, in Palestine but throughout the Mediterranean basin. It was for Peter to see that the other church leaders came to agreement and that they did not split up into factions and so weaken the witness to the Risen Lord.

It is our belief that the Bishop of Rome, is the successor of the Apostle Peter. The Pope is the symbol and the guarantor of the unity of the Church. That’s what he’s for above all else, to be the symbol and guarantor of the unity of the Church. Why is unity so important? In the 17th Chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus prays for the apostles and all who will come after them in faith, that “they all be one, Father, just as you and I are one, so that the world might believe that you have sent me.” Three times he prays, “that they be one” (Jn 17, 20-23). Good people, non-Christians look upon a divided church and wonder, which should I join, the Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist – and there are many others. They all claim to have the truth but they do not agree one with another. And so many good people turn away.

Mahatma Gandhi, the Hindu saint, is a good example. As a young lawyer in South Africa, he read the Sermon the Mount and was mightily moved by it. He built a philosophy of action based in good part upon it, satyagraha, nonviolence or soul force. He said that if Christians acted as Jesus did, if they did what Jesus instructed them to do, then he would believe and be baptized. Gandhi freed India with nonviolence and Martin Luther King changed America with it. They believed that, if we come closer to the model that Jesus left us, the day will come when war will be as unthinkable as slavery.

That should leave us all with a question. What does it really mean to follow Jesus? 

Sunday, August 7, 2011

You Bet!

19 Sunday A #115

1 Kgs 19, 9a. 11-13a
Ps 85
Rom 9, 1-5
Mt 14, 22-33

August 7, 2011

Deacon Tom Cornell

Every one of us, every baptized Christian is under the Great Commission to proclaim the Good News and to build the Kingdom. The Good News isn’t just about heaven and the world to come. It’s about the world as it is here and now: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Bishops and priests and deacons proclaim the principles of Gospel justice and peace. But it is up to you, the people, the lay faithful, to apply them, so that, little by little, we advance toward the Kingdom of God and its perfect justice and peace. To do that we must know not only the principles, but the facts, the realities of our day. The Church strenuously defends the right to private property. At the same time the Church teaches that all the world’s goods were created for everybody’s benefit. Those who have must take into account the needs of those who have not and the common good of all. You won’t know the facts from a steady diet of Fox News. And you surely won’t get the principles! “It’s my money, I made it by hard and honest work and I can do with it what I want” is not a Catholic attitude unless what you want to do with it is what God wants you to do with it. Read our own Catholic New York and reliable journals of opinion from right to left and make up your own minds, remembering our Church’s often repeated preferential option for the poor, the young, the vulnerable, the unborn, the elderly, the sick and disabled, the unemployed and the unemployable, immigrants. It is undeniable that there has been a hardening, a coarsening of attitudes toward these “least of the brethren” in the past few years in our country. Make up your own mind in prayer, listening to that small, still voice that comes not in earthquake or whirlwind or thunder and fire but in a whisper, a still whisper, the voice of conscience.

Today’s Gospel reading follows last Sunday’s. Remember Jesus was shaken by the news that King Herod has executed John the Baptist. He is looking for a quiet place to rest and to pray, but he is pressed upon by a large crowd and feeds them all with five loaves and two fishes. That feeding of the five thousand ought to be enough to convince us of his truth, whether it was a physical miracle or a moral one, whether he literally made many loaves out of a few or whether, even more miraculous, he opened people’s hearts so that they opened their hidden bags of food to share. Jesus is still shaken and tired today. Again he’s trying to get away to rest and to pray. Today he walks upon water to calm the storm and rescue his disciples. At first, they think they may be seeing things, maybe a ghost. “Be not afraid,” he assures them. Then Peter calls to Jesus, “If it’s really you, command me to come to you over the water.” Jesus calls to Peter, “Come!” At first Peter sets out upon the waves with confidence. Then his faith falters and he begins to sink. Jesus extends his hand, grasps Peter’s and all is well, he is saved. Then Jesus has a word with Peter: “Oh you of little faith, why do you doubt?” Why do we doubt?

Doubt is natural, normal. If we didn’t have doubt we could not have faith either. Why is anything? Are we alone in a meaningless universe, lost in the stars? Is the universe, is God friendly, hostile or indifferent? Is a Galilean Jew two thousand years dead the revelation of God, risen from the dead, the answer to our questions, the way, the truth and the life, as he claimed? Look at the way history has unfolded. There is proof enough. Not mathematical proof, not the kind of proof that demands assent from any and all honest minds. God does not force anybody to believe. But proof enough for me, that only light can dispel darkness, only good conquer evil, only love overcome hate. Only forgiveness can cancel wrongs. It’s the Sermon on the Mount. It’s the Cross. I know. I have seen it happen, the lame walk, the blind regain their sight and see.

This is the most important hour of the week, when we hear the Word of God and are strengthened in faith by sharing his Body and Blood to go out and do his will. Those who are not here today – do they know what they are missing? Tell them! Billions of people for almost two thousand years have lived their lives for this faith and literally millions have gone to their deaths for this faith, in our own day 37 priests murdered in 2009, about the same last year and a bishop or two, and so many lay people that figures are unreliable! Is it a faith worth dying for? You bet it is! There is nothing to fear. All is well, all will be well. Christ had died. Christ is risen! Christ will come again. You can bet your life on it!