07 April 2006

Almost against hope

5th Week of Lent (F): Jer 20.10-13; John 10.31-42
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory and Church of the Incarnation

Hear it!
If you don’t believe me, believe the works I do. Jesus is sounding very American this morning, very modern, downright pragmatic even! Why the pragmatism? Why the common sense argument based on evidence? Jesus is doing his job as a teacher, as a preacher, and as One Anointed for sacrifice: he is opening every way, every door, any possible avenue to understanding, to knowing who he is and who he is for us. He is giving the crowd what they need to make the jump, to see their blind spots, to hear what they will not hear, to skip around their settled ideological categories and know cleanly the truth of Jesus’ Messianic claim: “I am the Son of God […] the Father is in me and I am in the Father.

At the risk of sounding a little too Baptist, how did you come to know Jesus as Lord? I mean, how did the full awareness, the complete understanding that Jesus is the Christ, the Anointed One get planted in your head and heart? Think for a moment what you have to believe to be true to draw this astonishing conclusion: you have to believe that there is a God Who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; that this God is creator, redeemer, and sanctifier of His creation; that the most filial relationship possible between a Father and His children was violated by disobedience; that centuries of Law, prophets, animal sacrifices, and divine interventions in history and nature failed to bring us back to righteousness; that the second person of the triune God, the Son, took on human flesh in the womb of a virgin and was born a man among us; that he taught the truth of freely abundant mercy, the necessity of repentance and good works, and that he performed sign after sign after sign, pointing unambiguously to his divinity.

This is the historical, theological, philosophical, religious, trail that leads to Jesus’ black and white claim: “I am the Son of God […] the Father is in me and I am in the Father.”

Why do you believe this claim? Why do you believe the truth of the claims that lead to this Messianic claim? None of us here saw Jesus walk on water. No one here saw him raise the dead or heal the blind. No one here heard his preaching. But many began to believe in him. Why? Because though John himself never performed a sign, everything he said about Jesus was true. John’s witness, his word about Jesus, was true. And the next step is the first step toward cultivating a habit of trust that produces again and again the good fruits of holiness. That step is? Surrender. To do what the crowd, the Pharisees, the scribes could not do. What Pontius Pilate would not do: accept the opened way, surrender, believe, come to the Father’s love, know Him, and step—one foot after another—into the habit of trust, a life lived steeped in faith, vibrating with the promise of ready abundance, and the fruits of his permanent victory over sin and death.

Surrender to what is to come. Jesus enters Jerusalem. He shares one last meal with his friends. He washes their feet. He suffers betrayal. Brutal violence. Denial. Abandonment and death. And we wait. Vigilant. Against the tomb. Almost against hope. And then we hear, just under the wind, a voice say what we have known all along: “I am the Son of God!”

02 April 2006

Will you hear a difficult teaching?

5th Sunday of Lent 2006: Jer 31.31-34; Heb 5.7-9; John 12.20-33
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Paul’s Hospital and the Church of the Incarnation

Will you hear this difficult teaching: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces good fruit.” You must change. Move from seed to fruit, from kernel to harvest. You must move from what you are to what the Father made you to be at the first flash of creation. There is that moment, that instant when you surrender, when you truly say yes to God, that single breath, that single catch in your throat when the clarity and depth of a foundation-shaking decision dawns in your soul and you say with flesh and bone and heart, “Father, glorify your name in me!” Then you will suffer. Then you will die. And then you will rise again.

Surrender. Suffer. Die. Rise again. This road of redemption is open to you because Jesus walked it first. “Whoever serves me must follow me.” This road is open to you because our Father will have you back. Our Father will love you into your perfection. He will have you again, whole, complete. He loves you to change you.

You are the seed of His glory.

Here are the hard questions of Lent and Holy Week: will you die today? Will you surrender to Christ and follow him? Will you suffer to be with him at the cross? To be with him on the cross? Will you hear this difficult teaching: “Where I am, there also will my servant be.”

The Greek converts to Judaism come to Jesus seeking an audience. They approach Philip and say, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” Philip and Andrew go to Jesus with the request and Jesus, in a moment of bleak clarity, knows. Knowing all along that his life will end in pain and blood, Jesus whispers what has shouted in his heart since his baptism: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” His voice a sigh, resigned and determined, he warns Philip and Andrew that to follow him to glory requires that they do what he does. Surrender. Suffer. Die. Rise again.

Will we hear this difficult teaching? Are we prepared to hear it? We are prepared to hear that we are loved. We are prepared to hear that we are forgiven. Are we prepared to hear that we must surrender, suffer, and die to be with him forever? This is a road that we watch him travel every Lent, every Holy Week. We watch him, in the last days before Golgotha. We watch him take our licks, bleed our blood, cry out our pain. We watch his flesh tear against the nails and this blood seep out of his wounds. We hear his last words. And feel the ground shake.

Yes, we travel with him in our way. But does it seem second-hand to you? Does it seem that we suffer and die with him three or four steps away? Behind the barricade, across the street, and around the corner? We can’t be there, literally. Not historically speaking, we can’t. We can enact, of course. Dramatize. We can recreate in gesture, symbol, word. Third person participation in a First Person act of vicarious sacrifice. It tastes of plastic, made up and weak.

Does it have to? No, it doesn’t. The chances that any of us here will find ourselves scourged and nailed to a cross for the faith are right at zero. This is a fact of historical circumstance; it is where we are in time and the place we live. We might suffer humiliation in the media or a kind of death in scandal. We might even act in such a way that we find ourselves jailed for our beliefs. I suppose we could find ourselves martyred in the right part of the world: Islamic Africa, communist Asia, killed just for being the voice of Christ, a witness to his freedom.

But I don’t think we have to be jailed, beaten, and killed to find a way to surrender, suffering, death, and resurrection. Will you hear this difficult teaching: “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.” If you cling desperately to who you are right now, with no other purpose, no end beyond living the next minute, the next hour, you will lose the life you have been given. Why? Your life has purpose, meaning—to live with God in holiness now and in beatitude forever! If you turn that goal into mere existence, dumb living, then the point of your being here is murdered. If you hate the life the world tells you to live—the life of momentary pleasure, easy sin, temporary happiness—then you will see beyond the illusion of the Lie and serve what is permanent and life-giving, liberating and eternal. You will serve him, the one who has given your life to our Father.

To do this, to serve him, you must give yourself to Christ. Surrender completely. No reservations. Nothing held back. This means that what God wants for you must become your first concern. His will for you must come before your politics, your “needs,” your self-control, your anger, your grudges, your debts, your hatreds, your loves, anything and everything must be heard and seen through the Father’s will for you. We must be subject to the Father. Perfected in obedience. And nearly ready to explode with the need to serve! We must be ready at any moment, at every hour to repeat Christ’s prayer: “It was for this purpose that I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name in me.”

That’s surrender. What of suffering? We suffer well if we feel our pain with a purpose. Having surrendered everything to Christ, even our pain, everything of ours now belongs to Christ and perfects his work in us. We can experience pain like an animal. Or we can suffer, experience pain with a purpose, use it to perfect our obedience, our permanent openness to hearing the Father’s will for us. There is a stark, white clarity to suffering; a way that it has of focusing the spirit, tightening the will. Put it to work serving others. Give it to Christ for them. To what he did and suffer for them.

That’s suffering, what of dying and rising again? Not yet. Two more weeks. Death and resurrection in two more weeks.

Until then, remember: you are the seed of His glory. And you have some hard questions to answer before and during Holy Week: will you die today? Will you surrender to Christ and follow him? Will you suffer to be with him at the cross? To be with him on the cross?

Will you hear this difficult teaching: “Where I am, there also will my servant be.”