16 May 2008

Deny, Take Up, & Follow

6th Week OT (F): James 2.14-24, 26; Mark 8.34-9.1
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Serra Club Mass, Church of the Incarnation

Is it possible to desire to follow Christ but fail to take up Christ’s cross? Is it possible to want to be a Christian but fail to follow after Christ? Jesus tells the disciples and the crowd, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” How do we deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow him? Good questions. The better question, for now, is: what does it mean “to wish to follow Christ”? And what does it mean to wish such a thing and fail to do what is required in order to see this wish come to fruition? James, in his oh-so-pointed manner clarifies this murky problem for us: “…faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” In other words, you cannot wish to be a Christian and refuse to trust God; likewise, your refusal to trust God is all the evidence we need to conclude that you do not, in fact, wish to be a Christian.

Jesus is a genius. What he understands better than we do is that it is impossible for us to desire what we lack and at the same time fail to do what is lacking. In our very desire to be Christ, we do what Christ did. To have faith in Christ is to do Christ’s faithful work. Think of the alternatives: faith without works, works without faith. Faith is the good habit of trusting God. How does one possess a habit without actually doing the habit? If I say that I have the bad habit of lying, you rightly assume that I lie. What if I then say, “No, I never lie.” You can justly accuse me of being very confused about what it mean “to have a habit.” If I say that I have the good habit of loving others, you rightly assume that I am a loving person. What if I then say, “No, I pretty much hate everyone.” Again, I am showing that I am very confused about the nature of habit. The same sort of confusion flows from the notion that I can do truly good works without faith. Let’s say that you catch me feeding the poor on a regular basis. You can justly say that I love the poor. If I say, “No, I really hate the poor, so I feed them on a regular basis,” you are again right to point out my confusion.

Christ denies himself, takes up his cross, and leads to Calvary anyone who wants follow. So, if you deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Christ, you are a Christian. You do what Christ did. Faith is a good work. Good works are always faithful works. However, we can neither trust God nor do trusting work without God Himself. Our desire to follow Christ and the works we do that mark us as followers of Christ are themselves gifts given to us by God. We do not want God until God Himself shows us what we lack without Him. And when we are shown what we lack, or more precisely “who we lack,” we are moved to desire Him and His perfection. This is not an Armchair Desire, a merely abstract wanting that we can safely rope off and hold at bay with appeals to practicality or common sense. Nor can we simply intellectualize this gnawing hunger as a delightful puzzle or amusing concept. Once the starving man is shown the feast, he must eat or die. And so it is with us: once we are shown the perfection of following Christ, we must follow or die…or rather, follow and die: for what good is it for us to be given the riches of the whole world and refuse to love the one, the only one, who gives us a life to live richly?

We cannot desire to be Christ without doing what Christ did. We cannot do what Christ did without desiring to be who Christ is. Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow. There is no wanting without working, no desiring without doing. To quote Master Yoda, “Do or do not. There is no try.”

12 May 2008

Here's your sign...

6th Week OT (M): James 1.1-11 and Mark 8.11-13
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Church

Can’t you just imagine how weary Jesus must be at this point, tired of being doubted, tested, wrung through the wringer of having to prove again and again who he really is. His word alone is not enough for most. For some, even his miracles lack the umph that pushes the incredulous over their disbelieving hump. This is not to say that there aren’t perfectly good reasons for believing that Jesus is not who he says he is. His claims are fairly ridiculous, not just odd but downright bizarre. It would take a massive exertion of will to move oneself from disbelieving to believing w/o some sort of external assistance. The Pharisees are again clamoring for signs, bugging Jesus for more and better evidence. They are harassing him not b/c they are committed to the pursuit of truth and seek the truth of his nature; they are testing him in order to find fault so that they might then charge him, arrest him, and execute him. His teachings are too dangerous. Even so, they risk their incredulity by asking for more signs. They risk their critical distance, their practiced cynicism by approaching him and asking him to do that which might confirm their worse fears about him. What if he did something, something spectacular, miraculous, something so bold and beautiful that even the hardest Pharisaical heart is torn open and the truth of his identity and mission pour in? That’s what they risk by asking for a sign. Does any of this sound familiar? How often do we ourselves hold Jesus at arm’s length on the pretense that we don’t really understand fully who he is, but at the same time we’re willing to mull over the possibility that he is who he says he is, but then we recognize what such a revelation would mean for our daily lives, so we demand further proof, more signs, knowing (hoping!) that such proof will be denied us, and then we can rest comfortably in our polite but practicing Christian agnosticism defended against the extremes of charity and not at all roused from the routine of stopping Christ at the threshold of our hearts and gently inviting him to take a seat and wait on our need for more information. There will be no further signs. The Church herself, born yesterday at Pentecost with the coming of the Holy Spirit, is the sign of Christ’s presence. If we are not enough, there will never be enough, and Jesus will sit in the waiting room of our soul, while you, the suspicious Pharisee, poke at his arguments and ponder his words and sift his motives and slowly but ever so surely waste the body and soul you have been given, picking apart ever syllogism, every piece of evidence. But you won’t do this, will you? The Holy Spirit has you gripped by the heart and mind, otherwise you wouldn’t be here this morning. Jesus got in a boat and went across the sea to get away from the nagging doubters. Put yourself in that boat with him, go across the sea with him and ask him the only question that finally matters: Lord, how do I serve you?

11 May 2008

Receive the Holy Spirit!

Pentecost Sunday: Acts 2.1-11; 1 Cor 12.3-7, 12-13; John 20.19-23
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Paul
and Church of the Incarnation

We start in fear, shaking in darkness. The doors locked against our enemies.

On the evening of the first day of the week, while we huddle together, fearful and dreading the noises of the dark, Jesus comes and stands in our midst. He says, “Peace be with you.” To show us his peace, he shows us the violence done to him on the cross; he shows us his hands—pierced, bloodstained—and he shows us his side—cut open, leaking water and blood. There is a small, quiet pause in our fear, just a whisper of doubt, of hesitation; we just barely slow our racing hearts, just long enough for hope to possess us again, and then: we rejoice! The Lord is with us…as he promised. He is with us always, even to the end of the age! He calmed the raging sea with a word; he calmed our dark-terror with a word; now he asks that we calm ourselves again and listen: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” The Father sent Christ. Now Christ sends us; breathing on us, he says: “Receive the Holy Spirit.” And we are sent.

Indeed, we ARE sent! But sent where? To whom? Why? What are we sent to do? These questions assume that we understand Who it is we are receiving! Jesus says to us, “Receive the Holy Spirit” and so we are prepared to receive. But it is one thing to hear the command to receive and quite another to obey. If we obey, if we receive the Holy Spirit at Christ’s command, Who or what is it that we are receiving? We could say that we are receiving the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity. We could say that we are receiving the Word of Creation, the Wisdom of the Father, the Fire of Divine Love. We could say that we are receiving the Pure Mercy of God, Divinity Himself, Perfect Beauty. What if we say that when we receive the Holy Spirit we receive the Gift of God Himself from Himself? God gives Himself to us, freely hands Himself over to us. Not a divine power, an ability, a function. Nor are we given a divine title, an energy, or a name. We are given—gifted with—God Himself, as such, Himself: Father, Son, Holy Spirit!

Now that we know that the gift is God Himself, and we receive this gift rejoicing, we may ask: where are we sent? To whom are we sent? Why are we sent? And what are we sent to do? All of these questions are answered in a single command: “Peace be with you”—our Lord’s simple imperative, his singular order to rest serenely, without fear, without any anxiety; to rest in the all-consuming fire of his love for us, for all his creation. Peace be with you. We are sent to every nation, every continent, the four corners of the world. Peace be with you. We are sent to every soul—the poor, the oppressed, the slave to sin—every living thing. Peace be with you. We are sent to be the peace—the quiet, the stillness, the certainty—of everyone and everything he rules. Peace be with you. We are sent to be Christ for the world. Baptizing in his name, teaching what he taught, preaching what he preached, and accomplishing everything that he commanded us to do. Therefore, peace be with you and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, God Himself freely given to us by God Himself.

All of the disciples are in one place together. As a Body they come together, hearing the Word, receiving the grace of baptism, giving everything they have and everything they are to the Body. Together they are in one place at the one time of Pentecost, fifty-days after our Lord’s resurrection from the dead. And together they hear “from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind…Then there appear[s] to them tongues as of fire, which [divide] and [come] to rest on each of them.” And because they have received the gift of sanctifying water and because they have received the gifts of charity and faith and because they have received the gift of unity together as one Body, “they [are] all filled with the Holy Spirit…” And the Church is born. And here we are: the Church, born of the Spirit, the gift of God Himself given to us by God Himself to be Christ for the world. We too are gifts for the world, given to the world by God Himself.

Paul writes to the Corinthians, “As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ.” The fire of the Holy Spirit arrives in the locked room as a single flame, then divides to rest on each disciple. One flame, many fires—the same Spirit setting diverse souls on fire, each soul receiving as he and she can the gifts of the Spirit. Paul writes, “To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit.” The first benefit for each soul is the peace of a mission, a purpose, a designated task written by the Word in the flesh and the spirit. Each will walk away—Jew, Greek, slave, freed slave, man, woman—each will walk away full to the brim with the gift of God Himself. Paul writes, “…we [are] all given to drink of one Spirit.” One Spirit, one drink, one Body, one mission.

Looking at the Church in the 21st century, it is too easy to point out our differences. We can point to differences in language, politics, morality, health and wealth, ease of witness, difficulties with sin. We can point out how we differ theologically, philosophically, liturgically. We can point out the incredibly wide-ranging differences among those who believe with the Church, those who believe against the Church, and those who believe despite the Church. Some would have us celebrate these differences as Creative Diversities and others would have us mourn our differences as Destructive Divisions. Both of these groups—those who would make an idol of diversity and those who would make an idol of conformity—both would impose on the Body ideological straitjackets, chains that would bind us to a particular era of our history (whether the 1940’s or the 1970’s) or a particular idea of our identity (whether the church as Perfect Society or the church as religious democracy). This is not the peace that Christ gives us when he breathes the Spirit on us. This is not the peace that makes us Christ, sends us to the ends of the earth, gives us the Word to preach and teach, or heals the sins of the world. When we celebrate our diversity at the expense of our unity, we are a broken body divided against itself. When we celebrate our unity at the expense of our differing gifts, we are a broken body held together by a fearful conformity.

You fall to the temptation of schism when you believe that any of what you do as Christ for the world is primarily about you and your wants, your desires, your needs, your choices and preferences. When your spiritual focus is centered in your belly, your appetites, when your spiritual eye is trained on yourself alone, you fail and the rest of us fail along with you. The heart cannot be diseased without the whole body falling ill. The coming of the Holy Spirit, the birth of the Church, is not an opportunity for us to impose a narrow ideology, a singular means of being Christ for the world. The coming of the Holy Spirit, the birth of the Church, is not an opportunity for us, each in his or her own special way, to twirl off into the cosmos, celebrating any and every thing as good and holy. The coming of the Holy Spirit, the birth of the Church, IS the breaking open of human history for the entrance of Truth into our common lives. He comes among us to make us One. And so, we must, if we are to accomplish what we have been given to do, we must, always, always, we must always think with the Church, preach with the Church, teach with the Church, be together in the Church—his One Body given life and purpose by the Spirit. For the Christian, baptized and anointed, there is no life outside the Church, no purpose outside the Church. There is nothing for you, for us, beyond the Church, beyond the Body of Christ. We live and grow together, or you die and rot alone.

If you would return to the locked room, shaking in fear, then make an idol of our past, worship the cold heart of a museum-Church and fall prey to the Devil’s own pride. Likewise, if you love the locked room and its dark fear, make an idol of this age, worship the Zeitgeist, the ebb and flow of human fantasy, and fall prey to every snake that tempts you. However, if you will to do what Christ has ordered you to do, do it all with the Church, do it with us, the body and soul of the Church, the Holy Spirit among us, with us. Do this, and peace be with you “for in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” to be Christ, the one Christ, the only Christ, to be the suffering servant of our Father’s needful creation.