29 April 2007

Know him, hear him, follow him (Revised)

4th Sunday of Easter: Acts 13.14, 43-52; Rev 7.9, 14-17; John 10.27-30
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Paul’s Hospital and Church of the Incarnation


Who belongs to Christ? Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice.” Who are these sheep he’s on about? What does a flock belonging to Christ look like? Meanwhile over in the Book of Revelation, John is having visions of a great multitude of people from nation, race, people and tongue crowding the throne of God. These are all the saints who have survived the Great Distress. They certainly belong! Paul and Barnabas in Acts tell the Jews who have not converted and who are hounding the apostles in fits of jealousy that they have rejected the Good News and now it’s time for them—the apostles—to turn their evangelical efforts to the Gentiles. Apparently, some of the Jews do not want to belong—an unhappy situation—but the Gentiles now have a shot at belonging and they are delighted. Who belongs? Who can enter this house? Who is worthy? Better: who can be made worthy? What does it take to be made a member of the Body of Christ? And how is it done? And once done, what does a member look like?

These are vital questions on the fourth Sunday of Easter because we are rapidly approaching the birthday of the Church at Pentecost. Some fifty days after the Resurrection, the Holy Spirit sweeps down on the desolate and deserted disciples to swiftly kick them in their collective behind, motivating them to step up to the challenge of giving their lives to the infectious spreading of the Good News. This is the Church. This is what the Church does: spread the Good News. Infectiously. This is what Paul and Barnabas are doing in Antioch. This is what the great multitude crowding the throne in heaven did before they died. This is what those given to Jesus by the Father are grateful to do. Belonging to Christ then is not about the possession of a genetic trait or a political history or an attitude. Belonging to Christ is not about the mere intellectual assent to a theological formula or a philosophical worldview or knowledge of a wisdom tradition. Belonging to Christ means following Christ. Those who belong to him, know him, hear him, and follow him. And that can be anyone. Anyone at all. Any nation, any race, any people, any tongue. Anyone. Anyone given to Christ by the Father…

Wait. Anyone given to Christ by the Father? You mean we have to be given to Christ in order to belong to Christ? Yep. We are gifts to Christ from the Father, given to him for our salvation and the Father’s glorification. God the Father created each of us to desire Him before all things. And for our exclusive benefit we are made to worship Him. Our God has no need of our praise. The longing we enjoy to praise Him is His gift to us for in praising Him we are perfected in His love. We know the itching need to praise God only because He has graced us to do so. Our creation is a grace. Our desire to belong is a grace. Our need to worship is a grace. Our enduring existence is a grace. Our ability to say YES to God is a grace. Our capacity to obey, to be holy is a grace. And we ourselves—created, fallen, loved—are a grace to Christ, a gift to the Son from the Father in the Spirit. And all we need do is know him, hear him, and follow him. When we refuse to do these things, when we contradict the Word, disobey the Body, we do violence to ourselves as gifts, and we do not belong.

To be clear: sin does not hurt God. Sin ravages the sinner. Abuses the Church. Hates friendship. And defies every baptismal promise. Sin is the enemy of belonging, the adversary of a graced communion.

When we sin, the longing we feel for God turns to loneliness. When we sin, the emptying-of-self that imitates Christ turns to abandonment. When we sin, the humility we rightly feel at our brokenness turns to shame and guilt. In sin, our longing for God becomes a rejection of Him and we end up living lonely, empty, and restless lives—not just imperfect but broken and lost. When we disobey—fail to listen to the Shepherd—the creative desire for holiness that seduces us to turn to Christ becomes a destructive appetite for material satisfaction that tempts us away from Christ. We cannot belong to Christ while rebelling against his Word; while rejecting the life of the Spirit he offers us; while mucking around with alien gods and strange wisdoms.

Beloved Sheep, the wolves will do worse than eat you; they will make you into a wolf and give you sheep to eat.

Who can belong to Christ? Anyone, anyone at all. Who belongs to Christ? Those given to him by the Father who know him, hear him, and follow him. Why would anyone want to know, hear, and follow the Son as a gift from the Father? So that they might be perfected in their vocation to become Christ for others. Why would anyone abuse themselves as gifts to Christ by rejecting his saving Word? This is an ancient desire, one whispered by the Serpent in the Garden, the desire to become god without God, to be perfected through unaided efforts, to be made holy by pious works alone; and this inordinate desire is best named Disobedience b/c it is the willful refusal to listen to Christ in his Body, the magisterial witness of the Church, a refusal to listen to the Good News that your life is a gift, your progress in holiness is a gift, your life eternal is a gift. All just given to you freely, without charge or interest, handed over to you, an open-handed donation from God through Christ in the Spirit.

Now, the hard question: what does a life that belongs to Christ look like? You belong to Christ, does your life look like a gift from God, a freely given grace, or does it look like an expensive debt that will never be paid off? If you live your life in Christ like an expensive debt, exactly who is it you think you owe? Christ? The Church? Who? Who among the saints, the Blessed Trinity, or the souls in purgatory has sold you something on credit? Is there a Jesus Christ VISA card I don’t know about? And even if you can identify your creditor, how are you paying off this debt? Good works? Prayer? Mass attendance? Donations? All perfectly good things for a Christian to do, of course; but if you are doing these things out of a sense of indebtedness, then you are not answering Christ with an excited and blessed YES but rather with a begrudged and depressing HERE’s THIS MONTH’s PAYMENT. CHOKE ON IT.

This is most certainly not the Spirit that crashes into the disciples, creating the Church at Pentecost! This is not the Spirit that drives Paul and Barnabas to risk their lives for the joy of the Lord. This is not the Spirit that excites the elders around the throne to worship the Most High. And this is not the Spirit that seduces us, pulls us toward the Lord so that we may know him, hear him, and follow him. We owe Christ nothing. He has already paid every spiritual debt we will ever owe. So, your prayers, your Mass attendance, your good works, your donations are not debt payments at all but down payments for the future of the Church, the church that survives the Great Distress and finds herself circling the throne of God forever.

Paul and Barnabas are expelled from Pisidia. They don’t sue or complain at a press conference or start a petition drive for a ballot proposition. They shake the dust from their feet and they are filled with joy and the Holy Spirit. Are you truly happy to belong to Christ? Does being here bring you joy? If so, praise God for His goodness! If not, let me ask: do you know Christ? Do you hear him and follow him? Do you really belong? And, most importantly, what is it about his joy that frightens you so?

The fear of being joyful for a Christian is a stake to the heart! Is sin real? Absolutely. Shouldn’t we be contrite? You better believe it! But remember: the only way you know that you have sinned and the only way that you can come to true contrition and the only way you can do your just penance and receive absolution for your sins, the only way ANY of this possible is through the grace of God, His gift of mercy to you, to us for our holiness. Why would anyone fear this joy? So, let me ask you again: does your life in Christ look more like a wrecked funeral barge—with weeping and rending of garments and wailing and creased frowning—, or does your life resemble the life Paul and Barnabas are living: joyful, powerful, elated in the Holy Spirit; a muscular witness to Christ even under serious persecution; a life walking with Love held up by a trust more powerful than any fear.

Fear joy at your peril. No sheep of Christ will live long trembling in the shadow of death. Know him, hear him, follow him, and walk free of every fear, every limit, and belong to the only One on whose name we rely for help: Christ the Good Shepherd!

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