The Peace Pulpit: Homiles by Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton
|Third Sunday in Ordinary Time||January 23, 2005|
Since it's my birthday this week, when I say I heard this Gospel in grade school, you'll know it was a long time ago.
Many of you, perhaps, have heard this same Gospel used as a way of trying to invite people to a special form of Christian life, to a religious vocation as a priest or a religious woman or brother or as an invitation to leave everything and go out into the missionary lands and baptize people, save souls. That's how this Gospel has often been used: to try to inspire people to be like Peter and Andrew, James and John and just drop everything and follow Jesus.
Well, many people who heard that interpretation and that call to follow a vocation struggled with it. Some would do that and others would not, but you know what? That's not what was happening when Jesus made this call. It wasn't to people who were called to a very special, singular form of life. It was a call to become a part of his whole community of disciples. It is a call that is given to every one of us.
When Jesus established his first community of disciples, and even for hundreds of years after that, there was no distinction in the church between clergy and laity. It was all one community. Various people had different roles, but it was one community.
So when we hear the Gospel today, we must try to understand that it's a call to each one of us, and it is an urgent call.
"The reign of God is at hand!" That's what Jesus was saying. "The reign of God is at hand. If you want to enter into it, follow me. If you want to help make the reign of God break forth in the whole world, follow me." That was his message. People of that time -- Peter, Andrew, James and John -- said, "Yes, we'll follow you." They were with Jesus as he continued to proclaim that message. But it meant changing their lives, changing their lives radically, to have a whole different way of thinking, a different way of acting, to really look to him and him alone as their model.
As we try to bring this down to our own day and time and the circumstances of our own lives, we have to try and figure out: What does this call mean to me? What does it mean for me to be utterly sincere and as authentic as possible in accepting this call and following Jesus?
What does it mean that I must change my life, my attitude, my thinking?
Well, Paul brings out one way immediately in today's lesson. He was speaking to those Christians at Corinth who had said, "Yes, we'll follow Jesus." Paul told them to work for unity within their church community. This is something we need very much today. We need to break down those differences that exist within our church. Sometimes the differences seem to be based on economics. There seems almost to be a church of the rich in our diocese and a church of the poor. They don't connect very often and very well. Sometimes there are divisions because of race. Even now, African Americans sometimes experience being rejected if they go into a white church.
But it is also on the basis of ideology, I guess you would say. There are those who belong to what we term "call to action," others who belong to "call to holiness." One group tries to be very progressive, the other tries to be conservative, to hold on to what we have. Both are all right, but sometimes they become very ideologically opposed to one another and there's a split in the church.
We have to listen to what Paul said to those first Christians: "Look, we follow Jesus, every one of us. Try to eliminate all those barriers that separate us, one from another." That has to start with our thinking and our attitudes; then it will carry on into action. But each of us needs to consider how we can work toward a deeper, greater unity within the church and then beyond our own Catholic church, how we can connect with others who say they also follow Jesus, other Christian churches. We have to interact and try to make happen what Jesus prayed for so earnestly at the Last Supper: that they may all be one. We really have to try to make this happen.
There is something else about that first time Jesus invited his disciples to follow him. For years, we understood this Gospel passage as a call to go and make more Christians, to spread the Gospel message by converting people one by one. So people would go off into foreign lands and try to carry the message, try to baptize people, baptize whole nations if possible. Many Christian churches still think that is the primary thing we must do.
But that really is not what Jesus was about. When he said, "The reign of God is at hand," he was talking about something bigger than simply adding to the numbers of the Christian community. He was talking about changing this world so that it becomes a world that is really following the will of God. A world where there will be justice and peace and fullness of life for everyone.
So being called to be part of this community really means committing yourself to try to transform the world. Yes, of course, we invite people to join us, to be part of our community, but that's not our primary task. Our primary goal, as Jesus says, is to transform our world so that it will become the reign of God.
Now, if we start to think about that, we realize there are many things that we need to do as individuals, and also as a nation.
Perhaps this week, when we inaugurated President Bush for his second term, can be an especially important time to think about what we as a nation might be doing if all of us who are followers of Jesus in this nation were trying to promote what Jesus wanted.
I think if we were, the speech of President Bush the other day would have been very different. When he spoke, he evidently reflected the attitude and the thinking of the majority of the people in this country, many of whom are Christians like ourselves. He set a vision for us, but do you think it really was the vision of Jesus? Yes, he offered a very important goal of trying to bring freedom to everybody, but freedom isn't something that you can impose on people. In fact, it isn't even something that we can give to people. Freedom is a right that every one of us has as a human being. And you can be free even in the midst of the worst terrorist totalitarian government that there is. If you really are connected with Jesus, you are free.
We really don't have to bring freedom to people, and it is impossible to do it through war. That won't work. The almost emptiness of the President's vision is in the fact that very many of the nations that have the most terrible totalitarian governments are nations that are our allies. You think we're going to go to war against China? You think we're going to go to war against Russia? Or against Saudi Arabia? No. Vice President Cheney said last Thursday morning that our next enemy is Iran. See, already we're planning. Now that is not the way to make the reign of God happen. It's impossible. It won't happen that way.
Here's the vision of Jesus. It was articulated very well by John Paul II in his Peace Day statement of 2002, right after 9/11. He told us that if we want to end violence in the world, if we want to make the world come closer to being the reign of God, there are two pillars upon which we have to build: the pillar of justice and the pillar of love, and that special kind of love we call forgiveness.
What if President Bush last week had proclaimed to our nation a new goal?
Two weeks from now, the finance ministers of the Group of Eight will be meeting. These are the people who really set the agenda for the whole international economic order and implement it. What if President Bush said, "I'm going to instruct our finance minister and those who go with him to propose to these nations that we eliminate all of the debts of the poorest countries in the world"? And we could do that. Then those countries would have a chance. The people in those countries would have a chance for a full life. But that isn't going to happen. At least, it wasn't announced the other day, and I'm sure it's the farthest thing from President Bush's mind.
Last week, earlier in the week, the United Nations published a report calling for action to cut poverty around the world in half by 2015, to reduce by half the number of people living in poverty within the next 10 years. They offered a plan. One part of it is for the rich nations to give at least 7/10 of 1 percent of their wealth, their gross domestic product, in foreign assistance, not through corrupt governments but directly to the people. That would be 70 cents for every $100 of our wealth. It doesn't sound like a lot, but we're far from it. We give less than 1/5 of 1 percent, between 10 and 15 cents for every $100 of our wealth. Fifteen cents out of $100! We don't even do that much.
Now, if President Bush had said, "This is what we are going to do. We are going to follow the U.N. plan. This is how we are going to make justice happen in the world. This is how we are going to build a pillar of justice, and then we are going to reach out in forgiveness and love to those who have been our enemies" -- that would be a vision that is the vision of Jesus. That's a vision that would really be a way of making the reign of God happen, and it would fulfill exactly what Isaiah had said.
You may have noticed the connection between our first lesson today and the Gospel, where Matthew tells about Jesus being in the land of Zebulun and Naphtali. Well, in the verses following today's reading, Isaiah in his prophecy shows what has to come about if we are really going to make the reign of God happen. He says, "This light has gone." The light, of course, is Jesus. "The light has gone to those who live in the land of the shadow of death for the yoke of their burden, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressors you have broken it." That's bringing justice, and Jesus is this light.
Listen to what he says next: "Every warrior's boots that tramped in war, every cloak rolled in blood, will be thrown out for burning, will serve as fuel for the fire." When Jesus comes, if we follow his way, we eliminate war, we say no to war. That's what Isaiah is saying because right away he goes on to say, "A child is born to us, a son is given to us. A royal ornament is laid upon his shoulder. His name is proclaimed, 'Wonderful counselor, Mighty God, Prince of peace!' " Those words of Isaiah are fulfilled in Jesus.
So the message of Jesus is to reject war, to build the reign of God, the pillar of justice and the pillar of love. That is the vision that should be our vision, each of us individually. But then we have to promote that vision, to make it the vision of our nation. Rather than planning for the next war, we should be planning how to build justice, how to build love -- those two pillars that will change our world and make the reign of God happen. Listen again to what Jesus says: "Come follow me. Change your life."
Today as we pray this and celebrate this Eucharist, try to hear that call in your own heart and pray for the grace to follow it, to change your lives to make the reign of God happen.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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