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.”


  1. Fr. Powell,

    Excellent stuff as usual. You may not know it, but you seem to have been given the "side" mission of making my CCD classes easier to teach well.

    Pax Dei,


  2. Joe,

    As a teacher myself I am always happy to help out another teacher!

    I think it is this sort of "side mission" that the Order had in mind when it commended the use of the internet to the friars for teaching and preaching. The benefits are too many to count!

    Fr. Philip

  3. Fr. I just read your homily on "Will You Hear a Difficult Teaching?"

    I am really in a struggle right now to do exactly what you are teaching in your homily. I have ended an affair outside of my marriage and have asked for and been given forgiveness, through the sacrament of reconciliation. So has the other lady. I am trying to stay the path most pleasing to God and the path that is the most righteous. I have read many versus in the bible on how wrong infidelity is, how much imagery is given to weddings, how Psalm 51 is David's begging for forgiveness for committing adultery, having one of his top generals killed in battle, and how he is tasked himself with helping others avoid making the same mistakes. I contemplate those words at every mass....."Lord, wash away my iniquities and cleanse me of my sins." From the same Psalm.
    I have been the stronger of us in this relationship that involves a co-worker who lives in another state. She is 28, I am 43. She has no children, I have 3. Neither of us were looking for this to happen and both of us had and still do believe we are immensely blessed with the gift of our spouses and marriages. I take little solace in St.Paul's words of 2 Cor 12:9 My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness"
    The chemistry that has engulfed us at times is too much to take and my weakness is never more vulnerable. I continue to try very hard to avoid contact with her, but with IM, text messaging, etc, it is almost easier to communicate than if she lived close by. We both know the reasons for doing the right thing, yet we are so deeply attracted to each other that it feels overwhelming. We both come from strong traditional family Catholic backgrounds and both practice our faith. I have even helped friends of mine who were having affairs and contemplating leaving their families to see the severity of their mistakes and understand the importance of the sacrament of marriage. That Jesus' first miracle, I believe, was no coincidence having been performed at a wedding.
    I don't know if there is a panacea for my struggle. To die to oneself, and deny the earthly fruits for a greater gift with God later on, is the example Jesus taught us. Assistance with such a test as what I am confronted would never be more treasured than now.