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The Peace Pulpit: Homiles by Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton
|By special arrangement, The National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company is able to make available Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton's weekly Sunday homilies given at Saint Leo Church, Detroit, MI. Each homily is transcribed from a tape recording of the actual delivery and made available to you as an NCR Web site exclusive. You may register for a weekly e-mail reminder that will be sent to you when each new homily is posted. From time to time, Bishop Gumbleton is traveling and unable to provide us with the homily for the week. NOTE: The homilies are available here five days after they are given, always on Friday.
|Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time||September 5, 2004|
Here is a sentence of 12 words that I think pretty well sums up today's Gospel: "When Jesus calls someone he bids that person, 'Come and die.' "
Those words were written by someone who learned that truth in a very difficult way. They were written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran Christian who resisted Hitler during World War II and was hanged in April 1945 because of that resistance. He wrote a book, The Cost of Discipleship, that reflects on what it costs a person to be a disciple, to follow Jesus. When Jesus calls you, he bids, "Come and die. Give up everything. Be ready to change your life dramatically."
When you first hear this sentence, you might think it is an exaggeration. But if you do, then you really did not hear what Jesus said today in the Gospel. Listen:
One day when large crowds were walking along with Jesus, he turned and said to them, 'If you come to me without being ready to give up your love for your father and mother, your spouse and children, your brothers and sisters, and indeed yourself, you cannot be my disciple.'
You've got to be ready to give up everything to follow Jesus. At the end of that passage, he said again, "None of you may become my disciple, if you are not ready to give up everything you have." It's very clear: Jesus demanded a lot. He said follow me, not the world in which you live, not the culture of which you are a part, not members of your own family who might persuade you otherwise. Follow just me and my way.
We can think of examples of people who have heard that message and were genuine disciples of Jesus. Many times we think about Dr. King. The night before he was shot to death, he said, "No, I don't want to die, but if that is what it takes I'm ready." And he was killed the next day. Or Oscar Romero, who proclaimed, "By divine mandate God asked me to give my life for those I love, that is, for those who may be going to kill me. I have to give up everything in order to love my enemy as Jesus demands of his disciples."
In today's lessons, St. Paul would be able to verify what Jesus said. He was a disciple, and where was he when he wrote that letter to Philemon? In jail! He was in jail because he was resisting the Roman empire, its pagan culture and all that it stood for. He was proclaiming the message of Jesus Christ, and so he was in jail. We know that later he would be beheaded. He knew what it meant to be a disciple. He was ready to give up everything, and he did.
Or the friend that he was writing to, Philemon. He had this slave, Onesimus, who had run away, even robbed him before he ran away. But St. Paul drew Onesimus into the community of disciples; even while he was in jail he converted Onesimus, baptized him, made him a member of the body of Christ. So now he was a son of God, a brother to Jesus, and Paul sent him back to Philemon, who was a slaveholder. Paul pleaded with Philemon, "Give Onesimus his freedom, total freedom, because he is no longer a slave; he is your brother."
That has to change your thinking. No one can be a slave any longer. Jesus has come into the world and called all of us to be sons and daughters of God, brothers and sisters of Jesus. Among the followers of Jesus there is neither male or female, slave or free, rich or poor. We're all equal in freedom and dignity.
We don't know how Philemon responded to this challenge. It would have taken a tremendous shift in thinking for Philemon to say, "Yes, I can do what Paul asks." Paul sent the letter; we have never heard the response. There are traditions about it. A person by the name of Onesimus shows up as a leader in a community later on in Christian history, but we're not sure if it's the same person. So we don't know what Philemon did, but Paul was challenging him, "Change your thinking. Give up your idea that anyone can be a slave to another person, that you can have someone as property. Everybody is a child of God, made in the image of God. We have to recognize that. If you want to be a disciple of Jesus, give up your idea that slavery is OK."
So there are people who have been challenged to be disciples of Jesus, and who have accepted that challenge. What is being asked of you and me right now? Do you want to follow Jesus? What would you have to give up? Each of us has to ask ourselves, where in our lives are we not being faithful to the call of Jesus? And we have to be ready to give up those things that keep us from faithfulness.
I would point out two things in the culture in which we live that I think are clearly violations of everything Jesus stood for. One is the culture of wealth that makes material goods so important. This week, I came across a book that is a study of the impact of advertising on infants. If you can believe it, in the culture in which we live, people are so desirous of making money at whatever cost to others and to their dignity that they have studied ways to project advertising on tiny babies, almost from the day they're born. The study found that by the time a child is 18 months old, she or he is already bonded to a brand name and begins to demand from his or her parents, "I need this. I want this." And they grow up "branded." That is the advertisers' goal, to make us want more and more -- whatever is new, whatever is "best," we want to have it.
We live in this culture that constantly calls us to go after material goods, to have more and more, better and better, all of it. Jesus says, "Blessed are the poor. Blessed are those who share what they have, who give it away." That is the beginning of being a disciple of Jesus, giving away some of your material goods, not letting those goods become the object of your life, which so often they do. Not letting yourself be "branded." Not let your children be "branded." It is a struggle, a constant struggle in this world in which we live, in this culture.
The other thing I would point out is -- I am sure many of you have guessed it already -- violence. Violence is so much a part of our culture. We are living in a world that has become more and more violent. Look what happened last week in Russia. Chechnya has been a colony of Russia for hundreds of years, and the people there are struggling for their freedom. These people -- we call them "terrorists," they call themselves "freedom fighters" -- use grotesque means, like invading the school in Beslan. It ended up with more than 330 people killed, over half of them children. What is the response of President Putin? Well, just like the response of President Bush: "We'll crush them! We'll kill them! We'll do anything to root out this terrorism."
More violence. What sense does it make? Can't we see that what Jesus calls us to do is to give up violence? To respond to hate with love? To love even our enemies?
It's an extraordinary message, and most of us probably don't really accept it, but if you want to be a disciple of Jesus, then, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, "Jesus says to you, 'Come and die.' " Be killed rather than kill. That is a hard choice, isn't it? Today's scriptures call us to really think through what it means to follow Jesus and to make a decision. Do I want to be a disciple of Jesus or will I at least try to become a disciple of Jesus? Maybe you or I cannot drop everything right now and do it, but we can at least begin and pray that God will help us.
If you notice, when St. Paul wrote to Philemon, he didn't threaten him. He didn't say, "Either do this or we'll rule you out of the church." He pleaded with him. He begged him, "Make your own decision." That is what we have to try to do. I bring this up as a warning to us. None of us can become morality police for other people. So don't look around and say, "This person isn't really a disciple and that person isn't really a disciple. Don't let this person receive Communion, and so on."
Every one of us has to respond in freedom to this call from Jesus. Yes, it is an extraordinary call, but listen again to what God says in the Book of Wisdom:
Human reasoning is timid,God's ways are so different. This morning I hope we will pray that we may begin to understand God's ways and be willing to take that first step of saying yes to Jesus: "I will follow you wherever you lead."
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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