The Peace Pulpit: Homiles by Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton
|Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time||November 7, 2004|
In this Gospel lesson today Jesus, perhaps more clearly than he does anywhere else in the scriptures, affirms that there is life after death, that we do rise from the dead. "Yes the dead will be raised," that's what Jesus says but it was a bit unusual for a Jewish person at the time of Jesus to make such a definitive and clear declaration that there is resurrection from the dead, that we will live forever.
In the Jewish tradition it was only up to about 100 or 150 years before the coming of Jesus that the tradition really became open to the conviction that there is life after death. For most of the history of the chosen people, they believed that when you died there was nothing more. That's why there was such an emphasis in the Jewish tradition on making justice happen and why people who had a full life and a long life were considered so blessed. However, gradually they came to have this understanding of life after death.
Jesus easily disposes of their absurd question simply by saying, "Everything in heaven, of course, is different than here. The afterlife is not like this life. We will still know and love one another but there isn't the same corporeal life that we would have in this life. It's transformed. It's new. It's different, totally."
That is important for us to understand, but what is even more important is to understand how Jesus gets this strong conviction that there is life after death. And he goes back to the law, the same books that the Sadducees accepted. They only accepted the first five books of the Bible. Jesus goes back to the book of Exodus to find that example that we hear used in the Gospel. He reminds them what happened at Sinai. It is a reference to when the Jews were traveling through the desert and they stopped at Mt. Sinai. It was a very formative experience for the Jewish people, crucial for how they became God's people.
Moses went up the mountain apart from the rest of the people and prayed. I'm sure you remember this passage from the Old Testament, from the book of Exodus. While he was praying, he had that profound experience of God. God seemed to be in a bush that was burning but the fire never consumed anything. That was a symbol of God's presence for Moses.
What was more important about this experience wasn't just the symbol but the reality of the experience: knowing God and discovering who God is. That is where God says, "I am who am." This is an attempt to use human words to give some expression of who God really is. God is the one without beginning, without end. The one responsible for everything there is in the Universe. I am who am -- God who always is. This is God! Moses experiences that God and then experienced God saying to him, "I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob ..." This goes back into the very beginning of Jewish history to those great heroes and ancestors of the Jewish people. "I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob."
Jesus draws from that an important conclusion, "Abraham, Isaac and Jacob must be alive because God is not a God of the dead! God is a God of the living. They are alive!" Jesus was trying to impress upon the Sadducees and upon the people whom he taught at that time -- and he wants us to understand today -- God is a God of the living, not a God of the dead. So when we die, we continue to live in God.
On Sinai was the moment, too, when the covenant was made with God. God said to Moses, "I will be your God. You will be my people." This is what formed the Jewish people into God's people. This vast horde of people traveling through the desert trying to find themselves, trying to get to a promised land, trying to discover who they really were, they discover that they were God's people. And God made a covenant with them. "I will be your God. You will be my people."
God, of course, is always faithful, and so God's covenant cannot end. God cannot ever not be faithful. Out of this truth they came to know, as Jesus said with such conviction, that God is a God of the living. When God makes a covenant that covenant will go on and on and on, because God doesn't break promises, doesn't break a covenant. Once God makes a covenant with us -- as he did with the chosen people of old -- God will be faithful to us forever. With this knowledge, we can begin to deepen our conviction that God's love for us never stops. We don't die and it's over. God's love goes on and continues to love us into being, to keep us alive forever.
Some people give us extraordinary examples of confidence in that covenant with God and of the conviction that, yes, no matter what happens to us, we will live forever. If we listen closely to the first lesson today those young men and their mother are willing to face death because they knew it was not the end. They would be faithful to their covenant with God, and God would be faithful to God's covenant with them. And they would live forever. No matter what was done to them, they were not afraid, because they trusted that God would not break the promises God made.
St. Paul writing to the Thessalonians said something along the same lines, but it's not as clear in today's lesson as it is in another of Paul's writing. In the letter to the Church at Rome, St. Paul offers a strong conviction about the faithfulness of God: "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Will it be trials or anguish, persecution or hunger? Lack of clothing or dangers or a sword? No, in all of this we are more than conquerors thanks to God who has loved us.
"I am certain," Paul says this with such conviction, "I am certain that neither death nor life, angels nor spiritual powers, neither the present, not the future nor cosmic powers were they from heaven or from the deep world below, nor any creature whatsoever will separate us from the love of God which we have in Christ, Jesus our Lord." Nothing separates us from the love of God which we have in Christ Jesus our Lord. The covenant is unbreakable. God will never let go of us.
This morning as we reflect on these lessons, we pray that we will have that kind of deep conviction that God's love is unbreakable. We can be examples to one another as we gather together to pray and celebrate the Eucharist as we do today and every Sunday. We demonstrate to one another our faith in our conviction. It helps us to grow and strengthen our faith.
This past week, I had an extraordinary experience of a person who has this deep conviction. It was inspiring to visit with Fr. Gerard Jean-Juste in jail in Haiti last Wednesday morning. I was not sure of exactly what to expect when I went into the jail. We were hoping to see him, and the jail officials did allow us, but I wasn't sure what to expect because I knew he had been beaten up when the Haitian police arrested him last month. They also had treated him with great cruelty, and he had been in jail about two and a half or three weeks.
The jailers allowed him out of his cell, and we sat and talked for over an hour and a half. It was amazing. He was filled with energy. He was joyful. If you can believe it, he was completely determined to keep spreading God's word right there within that jail. He reminded me of what Paul said when he was in jail, "You can chain me up but you cannot chain up the word of God." And Fr. Jean-Juste is like that. You can't chain up the word of God! He was proclaiming the word of God there in that jail.
What is so amazing about it is the kind of treatment he has already endured. When they came to arrest him, he tried to resist and get away, but there were too many men. At one point they tried to handcuff him and they got one cuff on his left wrist. It was put on so tight -- he showed us -- the bone had been dislocated or broken. He could feel it; it was terribly painful.
The first seven days he was in jail, he was in a cell 15 by 24 feet and between 18 and 20 people were jammed into that space. He said the first night there wasn't room for everyone to lie down. Some people were able to lie down but he didn't. This story, in fact, tells you how he has kept his sense of humor in a way even in this horrible situation. There is no bathroom facility except a bucket that everybody has to use, so you can imagine the stench and how bad that would be. But he said, that first night, he leaned against the wall and watched the people who where lying down. He said, "When I saw all the mice crawling over them I was almost glad I couldn't lie down." The rats. You see, this is a hell hole. Yet he comes out of that with a sense of humor.
They finally put him in a different jail, but he is still in very harsh conditions. The food is not good, and he's not allowed out very much. Yet, in all of this, he could joke. One thing he told us was: "I had my vacation set from Oct. 18 for three weeks and so I have a priest to come to my parish. God arranged things so I got arrested. My vacation is in jail but my parish is covered."
He thought it was pretty good that God would take care of things for him.
But he also said: "This prison represents inhumanity and brutality at its ultimate. They savage the prisoners here." In the midst of that, he is also able to say: "This is the top experience of my life. It's a great grace. For one thing, now I know as I've never known before what it's like for those who are in this jail." And there are thousands of people.
He finds it a grace for him to be in their midst, to know first hand what they're going through. It's deepened his determination not to let this go on. And so in that jail, he teaches them to sing, he shares the Liturgy of the Word with them. He is making sure that God's word is not chained up. He's filled with energy, with joy, with love, even with gratitude. But that's because deep down he has that conviction that we've been talking about today from the scriptures. God's love is unbreakable even in these horrible circumstances. God's covenant is not breakable.
He trusts in that. He puts all of his hope in that. All of his conviction is in the love of God which is made present to us in Christ, Jesus our Lord, and no one can take that away from us.
Being with a person like that, for me, was an extraordinary experience. I share it with you because I hope you -- all of us -- can deepen our own conviction, our own hope, our own confidence, in a God who never breaks the covenant of love that God has made with us. I hope that no matter what is happening in our lives, we can trust in God, that God is at work. God's love is at work. No matter what is happening in our nation or what is happening in the world, we can trust in God. God's love is present. God's love is at work in every circumstance in our lives.
God is with us. God's covenant is unbreakable. God is always faithful. We need to have this conviction. From our scriptures today, from the example of Fr. Gerard Jean-Juste, perhaps all of us will have a deeper conviction and we will know deep in our hearts and experience very deeply God is with us, God loves us and that love goes on forever. And so will we.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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