14 December 2006

Mission Two: Grace and Divinization

Advent Mission Two: 2 Peter 1.3-7
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Alva, OK

I was born in the Mississippi Delta into a cotton-growing family. This means that I grew up in the middle bible-believing Baptists—hard-shell, heart-felt, deep-down Jesus folks who were certain of their salvation, possessed of a perfect understanding of their redemption. There was no doubt, no hemming or hawing, not even the passing shade of a question that Jesus is Lord. Their personal meeting with Christ defines who they are and who they will become: upright, moral people, righteous, God-fearing and heaven-bound. Salvation for them is an acre-sized mural painted with sharp lines, undiluted colors, and exactly framed. And this mural hangs, perfectly balanced, in the center of their lives. These folks know their faith. They can tell you what you need to know about Jesus, the Bible, about sin and salvation, and they can do it with profound conviction.

Here in Alva, OK you have no doubt heard the following questions: are you saved? Have you accepted Jesus Christ into your heart as your personal Lord and Savior? Do you know Jesus?

As a Catholic, how do you understand your salvation? When we talk about our redemption, what do you hear? If you were asked by a Protestant friend—“Are you saved?”—what would you say? Another (more indirect) way to ask this same question: what are you doing when you come to church? Why do you show up here on Sunday morning? Meeting an obligation? Did mama drag you outta bed? Wife badger you into showing up? Guilt? Habit? Piety? The need for true worship? The presence of the Risen Lord in the sacrament? Why do you come here? Answer me that and you can answer me this: “Are you saved?”

Do you as a Catholic understand what it means to be in a redeeming relationship with the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit?

In his second letter, Peter points us unswervingly to the conclusion that for us to be saved in Christ we must become Christ; we share in his cup and his sacrifice, partake in his divine nature. There is no other name under heaven given to us by which we can saved. We are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed, but we do know that when what we will be is revealed we shall be like him. Ss. Irenaeus and Thomas Aquinas have proclaimed: Brothers and sisters, see what love the father has bestowed on us—He became man so that we might become God!

Are you saved? Have you accepted Jesus Christ into your heart as your personal Lord and Savior? Why are you here this evening? I hope you are here this evening to hear of God’s mercy; to listen to the Word proclaimed and preached; to offer praise and thanksgiving to God; to ask for what you need and to ask for others what they need; to place yourself—your worries, your loves, your resentments, jealousies, your impatience, yourself—all of you, placed on the altar to be offered to God, sacrificed, made holy in surrender. All of your wounds can be closed up. Now the question is: do you want to be healed? Will you do what is necessary to properly use God’s gifts to you? In other words, will you go out there and look and work and play like a redeemed child of the Father? Or will you refuse your redemption by failing to use your gifts for the service of others?

For Catholics, to be redeemed is not to be “holistically integrated as a person,” if by this we mean nothing more than to be made psychologically balanced. Jesus did not die on the cross and rise again to treat a psychiatric diagnosis. For Catholics, to be redeemed is not to be “made one with Earth.” All of creation will be redeemed in time, but Jesus did not die on the cross and rise again to show us the love and faithfulness of Mother Earth. For Catholics, to be redeemed is not to be “absorbed into the Universal Oneness.” Jesus did not die on the cross and rise again so that we might be dissolved into stardust and fall back into the ocean of space like a drop of water. For Catholics, to be redeemed is not to be “liberated from oppressive economic and gender hierarchies” Jesus did not die on the cross and rise again to spark an academic revolution that fetishizes authoritarian political correctness and moral anarchy.

For Catholics, to be redeemed is to be made a son and daughter of the Father through the freely given sacrifice of the Son in the love of the Holy Spirit. To be redeemed is to be repaired, to be rescued, to be healed. We are found by our shepherd. Loved as children; raised from death by the Only Name given to us for our salvation. To be redeemed is to be brought to Him as an votive offering, a sacrifice; made holy, perfected in His image and likeness. To be redeemed is to be transformed into Christ through Christ. And to do what Christ did while we wait for his coming again.

The longest tradition of the Catholic Church understands our redemption and sanctification, our one time rescue and our growing into holiness, as an on-going process of turning each of us individually and all of us together into Christ. The Biblical tradition, the Patristic tradition, the scholastic tradition, and all of the traditions of the Church loyal to the magisterial ministry of Peter agree: God became man so that men might become God. That’s right. You heard me correctly: to be saved is to be made God. We call this deification or divinization—the God-initiated, God-driven, God-bound process of bringing a man or woman into the fullest possible participation in the divine life. Think about what the phrase “to partake” means. We can partake in a meal. Partake in a game of poker. Partake in an discussion. This means that we are involved, engaged, deeply committed to the activity, and open to the players, the actors; open to the game, and ready to be caught up, absorbed, taken in and changed. You eat a steak and that steak becomes part of you. You drink a glass of water and that water becomes part of you. You marry and your single flesh joins another single flesh to become one flesh. You eat the Body and drink the Blood of Christ and you become Christ. You are what you eat!

To partake of the divine nature, then means to share in, to participate in, to live with right now and forever the Blessed Trinity. To be supremely intimate with God the Father who loves His Son in the Holy Spirit. But we have to be absolutely clear about one thing: we do nothing to deserve this gift of the divine life; we do nothing to merit our redemption in Christ; we cannot reach for God until God teaches us to reach; we cannot grasp at an everlasting life until God teaches us to grasp; we cannot pray, sacrifice, sing, forgive, confess, repent, show mercy, grow in holiness—none of this!—we can do none of this until God teaches us to pray, sacrifice, sing, forgive, confess, repent, show mercy, grow in holiness.

Last night, I preached about Adam and Eve and their disobedience. They fell for the lie of the serpent who told them that they could become gods w/o God. Essentially, the serpent told them that they could make themselves into gods. Common sense tells us that no imperfect thing can make itself perfect. How can two creatures of the Creator make themselves into the Creator Himself? Impossible! It is not impossible, however, for the Creator to bring His creatures to Him and make them a part of His life. Adam and Eve enjoyed God’s favor until they decided to become gods w/o God. Now, thanks to these two, we are plagued by the same temptation, the same devilish bait; and we fight—I hope we fight!—against the seduction of a divinity that cannot be ours unless it is given to us by God Himself.

And thank God that He does want to give us a share in His life. God has been calling us back to Him for generations, for centuries, through empires, wars, prosperity, disaster, and leaps in human development, and we have responded eagerly at times, soberly at others, sometimes violently and sometimes joyfully. Regardless of our response, He wants us with Him but He wants us freely, of our own accord, or not at all. Because of the Fall we are unable—alone—to say Yes to God, to come to Him as He wishes. So, we are graced. The Catechism defines grace this way: “Grace is favor, the free, undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life”(n. 1996).

Thomas Aquinas teaches us that grace is God’s invitation to live the divine life with Him. To say, “I am graced” is to say “God has invited me to live with Him forever.” To say, “God gives me the grace I need to resist temptation” is the same as saying “God’s invitation to me to live with Him forever is all I need to obey His will for me.” Grace is not magic; it is not quantifiable in inches or pounds; it is not measurable in minutes or hours or days; grace cannot be bought, sold, or exchanged. There is no economy of grace that runs on barter, credit, or your good looks! Grace, by definition, is free. Gratis. It is a gift. Unmerited. Undeserved. And without limit or appeal.

God wills that you be with Him always. He also wills that you come to Him freely. To free you from sin—a slavery of disobedience—He sent His only Son to become one of us, like us in all things but sin, to take on our humanity in order to heal humanity, to restore us to a right relationship with Him so that His invitation to us to spend eternity with Him could be clearly heard. Jesus spoke this invitation over and over and over again, healing, preaching, teaching, praying, publicly witnessing to the Father’s grant of mercy, witnessing to the death sin’s power, calling everyone, from everywhere to come to Him, to confess their disobedience, to repent, and to live a life of holiness now, waiting on the coming of the Lord so that we might live in holiness with Him forever.

You see, brothers and sisters, the Devil has convinced us—at least some of us!—that we do not deserve God’s grace and that we should be horrified that He would grant us anything much less mercy for our sins. The Devil, as usual, is only half-right. We don’t deserve God’s grace. Getting what you deserve is called justice. Getting a favor granted when there is no good reason to have it granted is called a gift, a grace. The Devil needs for you feel bad about this grant of mercy. He needs for you to be upset that your sins so are easily forgiven. You are supposed to say, “I can’t believe that God just wiped all those sins away! I’ve been horrible!” Then you are supposed to worry that your sins haven’t really been forgiven or that only some of them have been forgiven or that God is playing a game where He says He’s given you but really He’s waiting to pounce later on and punish you for your disobedience. The Devil needs this from you b/c he wants you focused on your misery, your contrition; he wants you anxious about many things, the most prominent being the possibility, the likelihood that you will sin again and fall into despair. He wants despair. He wants you to come to think that your sins are so awful, so heinous that there is simply nothing God can do in the face of your terrible treachery, your murderous betrayal. If he can get you here, you will stop asking for God’s grace. What’s the point of grace when you’ve done nothing to deserve it?

Be careful! When you start believing that you have to be good or do good to make God love you, you are standing on the edge of a bleak abyss, a soul-sucking desert that will draw you in like moisture to a dry sponge and set you on a spiral of self-destruction and chaos that has no other end than your permanent death in Hell. Let me say that again: if you think that you can earn God’s love, in some way work your way into God’s favor or somehow wrangle a bit more love out of Him by “being good,” then you are poised right on the edge of handing your soul over to the Devil. Do you think I’m being too dramatic? The whole point of grace, folks, is that it is undeserved. Gifts are freely given. If you give a gift to get a gift, it ain’t a gift! It’s an exchange of goods. If you give a gift to get a favor, it’s not a gift; it’s a bribe. We, as creatures, are in no position to bargain with God. We have nothing He needs. Everything we have and everything we are is His already. We don’t need to convince God to love us. God is love. It is Who He Is to love. And He loves us most of all!

Now, we have to be careful again. The Devil is always a liar and sometimes he lies by telling the truth. It is absolutely true that God loves us unconditionally. He grants us His favor without condition. Christ died once for all. Everyone is invited to the banquet table, everyone gets an invitation to the wedding feast. But remember: Gods wants us to come to Him freely. He freed us from the slavery of sin so that we might come to Him unhindered, that we might travel His Way to Him without restraint. No angel, no devil, no person can stand in the way of your journey. No one but you. God’s grace strengthens your legs to you to walk His path. But grace will not walk the path for you. God’s grace holds out a helping hand. But grace will not grab you and drag you home. God’s grace will enlighten your mind on the way. But grace will not overwhelm your will. You cannot be a puppet and love God. Only the freed children of the Father can love in freedom.

It is true that God loves us unconditionally. But this doesn’t mean that God’s love has no consequences for our lives. God loves us to change us. He loves the adulterer, the rapist, the murderer, the pornographer, the child molester. He loves the liar, the thief, and the wife beater. He loves men who gossip, women who cheat at cards, teens who lie to mom and dad, men who look too long at the check out girl, and boys who spend too much time in the bathroom. But we must not think of God’s unconditional love for us as approval for our sin. God loves the murderer to change him into a saint—to make him passionate for holiness. God loves the gossip to change her into a prophet—to make her tongue into a witness. God loves the wife beater to change him into a good husband—to change his rage into furious charity. God’s grace is never permission to sin or to remain in sin or to plan to sin some time down the road. The Devil will whisper to you on the Way, “Ah, go ahead and do what you want. God loves you regardless, right?” Yes, He does. And He will love you as you choose again and again to defy Him and He will love you when you make your final choice to live without Him and He love you right into Hell. Your choice. Not His.

Peter tells us tonight that God’s “divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness [so that we may] become partakers of the divine nature.” Therefore, brothers and sisters, b/c God has granted you all that you need to live in abundance and to grow in holiness, work to enrich your faith with good habits and work to strengthen your good habits with wisdom and use your wisdom with temperance, with self-control and charity. Show your godliness with affection for your brothers and sisters in Christ. Mean-spirited holiness is like muddy cleanliness or dirt poor wealth. Doesn’t make sense. If you are unwilling to show charity. Don’t expect it. If you are unwilling to forgive. Don’t wait to be forgiven. Jesus assures us that we will judged in the same way that we judge others—measure for measure. You’ve been warned! So be careful that you do not become your sin. Be careful that you do not allow pride or envy or greed or lust to set up an altar in your heart and demand worship from you. The Psalms tell us that those who worship idols become the idols they worship. Will you become the nothingness that never gets full, the blackhole of want and need that never closes, never stops taking and taking?

Are you saved? Do you know Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior? If you have been baptized by water into the Body of Christ and in the name of the Blessed Trinity, and you have received the seal of the Holy Spirit in the anointing of oil, and you have eaten at the altar the Body and Blood of Christ himself, then you had better believe you know Jesus as your Lord and Savior! And what’s more you have stepped into the adventure of living with Christ in the Father’s love and growing holier and holier with the grace of the Spirit. Do not be made a fool by the Devil: we are the freely adopted sons and daughters of a loving Father who wills that we come to Him now and stay with Him forever. We can’t live just Now and ignore Forever. Nor can we live just Forever and ignore Now. We are given the difficult task of living Now as if we were in heaven already. But thank God we are also give all the grace, all the gifts we need to do all this perfectly.

Tomorrow night we will gather here again to celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation. Between now and then I want you to ask yourself two questions to prepare for your conversion: 1) when have I failed to use my gifts to serve others for God’s glory? and 2) how do I plan to make better use of God’s gifts tomorrow and tomorrow?

Remember: as Catholics we do nothing alone! Our holiness is an art and a science. We paint with bright lines and pure colors. And we grow in wisdom and knowledge. But we do so only b/c God has loved us first. And He loves us even now!

1 comment:

  1. About 3 years ago I dropped into a black hole – four months of absolute terror. I wanted to end my life, but somehow [Holy Spirit], I reached out to a friend who took me to hospital. I had three visits [hospital] in four months – I actually thought I was in hell. I imagine I was going through some sort of metamorphosis [mental, physical & spiritual]. I had been seeing a therapist [1994] on a regular basis, up until this point in time. I actually thought I would be locked away – but the hospital staff was very supportive [I had no control over my process]. I was released from hospital 16th September 1994, but my fear, pain & shame had only subsided a little. I remember this particular morning waking up [home] & my process would start up again [fear, pain, & shame]. No one could help me, not even my therapist [I was terrified]. I asked Jesus Christ to have mercy on me & forgive me my sins. Slowly, all my fear has dissipated & I believe Jesus delivered me from my “psychological prison.” I am a practicing Catholic & the Holy Spirit is my friend & strength; every day since then has been a joy & blessing. I deserve to go to hell for the life I have led, but Jesus through His sacrifice on the cross, delivered me from my inequities. John 3: 8, John 15: 26, are verses I can relate to, organically. He’s a real person who is with me all the time. I have so much joy & peace in my life, today, after a childhood spent in orphanages [England & Australia]. God LOVES me so much. Fear, pain, & shame, are no longer my constant companions. I just wanted to share my experience with you [Luke 8: 16 – 17].

    Peace Be With You