Today’s Gospel calls us to examine our perspective. Jesus asks, “What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?” Well, those men he talked to were shepherds, or had shepherds in their family, so they would have responded “nobody would do that!” Why on earth would they risk losing the other ninety-nine sheep to find the lost one?
And as far as the coin goes, why bother staying up all night? It would probably have cost more to light the lamp and search all night than the coin was worth. It would be wiser to wait until she had the morning light and could find it easily.
But here’s the perspective part: God is not like us. Every sheep among us is important, and he will relentlessly pursue us individually until he has us all in the sheepfold. And if we’re lost, he’s going to light a lamp and stay up all night until he has us back. For him, one of us is every bit as important as the other ninety-nine. Even if our own self-image is poor, we are a treasure in God’s eyes.
And that’s all well and good, but we always have to ask ourselves why the Church gives us this reading again in the closing days of the Church year. We hear these kinds of parables typically in the summer months, when the Church wants us to see that God loves us and wants us to be his disciples. But hearing the parables in these days, there’s a little more urgency. Time is running short, and it’s time for the lost ones to be found and gathered up and celebrated. These waning days of the Church year are a foreshadowing of the end of time, and so we need to cooperate with God in making the urgent message of God’s love known in every time and place.
And so that’s what the Kingdom of heaven is like. It’s a relentless pursuit and a flurry of activity until we are all back where we belong. Once we are all with God, the joyful celebration can continue, knowing that we are all back where we were always meant to be.
At the heart of today’s Gospel reading is the question of whether or not we as disciples of Jesus are willing to go where he’s leading us. Much could be said about the posturing of James and John to get the good seats in the kingdom. But their ambition is not the point here. The point, as Jesus illustrates, is that his kingdom is not one of honor and glory. His kingdom is about suffering and redemption, and then honor and glory. To get to the resurrection, you have to go through the cross. And the most honored one is the one who serves everyone else along the way. Let me illustrate with an admittedly somewhat unflattering story about yours truly.
When I was in seminary, there were a number of nice, fancy dinners that would follow important events in the school year. So we would have them after a class received ministries like Lector or Acolyte, or after Mass for a reunion of 25-year or 50-year jubilarians. At each of these dinners, the table would be set up very fancy, and there would be an apron draped over the back of one of the chairs at the table. The idea was, the person sitting in that seat would be expected to put on the apron and serve the others at the table.
When I first got to seminary, when it came time for these dinners, I would rush to get to the refectory so that I didn’t have to sit in that spot and serve the others. I know, not very pastor-like, was it? But one day, I reflected on those last two lines of today’s Gospel: For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. And in that moment, I realized that it was indeed service that I was called to do, and so maybe I could get started by serving my brothers at table.
From that day forward, things changed for me. I would still rush to get over to the refectory as soon as I could, but that was so that I could sit in that seat and serve the others. Not only did I take on the server role, but I actually found joy in it. When you let go of thinking only about yourself, you find that you can actually receive many blessings. The blessings I found were that those dinners were a lot more fun; I had some wonderful conversations not only with the people at my table, but also with the kitchen staff.
Jesus in our Gospel reading today is calling us all to sit in that seat at the table, to put on our aprons, and help serve everyone else. That flies in the face of our entitlement, it tears down the notion of looking out for number one, it means that inconvenience for the sake of others has to become a real option in our daily lives.
Jesus told us that whoever wishes to be great among us must be the servant of all. He washed the feet of his disciples on his last night on this earth; he died on that cross for all of us. We are called to follow his ways if we want to follow him to the kingdom. Let’s none of us be afraid of taking that seat at the table and putting on the apron.
Anything worthwhile costs us something, most especially our faith. If we are serious about it, if we love God and want to be caught up in his life, we’re going to have to pay for it in some way. Jesus speaks to that in today’s Gospel. One of the biggest costs to us, I think, is our comfort zone. To really live the faith, we have to get out of that comfort and do what God wants of us. In the Gospel, Jesus was telling his disciples that they would have to give witness to him. And they understood that that would cost them something – perhaps cost them their lives.
We disciples are also going to have to pay some price for living our faith. Probably not something as drastic as getting dragged before synagogues, rulers and authorities, but something fairly costly for us. For us today, perhaps that cost is giving up a Saturday to clean church pews, or trim a neighbor’s hedges, or sing songs at a nursing home.
Today, on our Make a Difference Day, we take our give strong witness to our faith in our work. As we come together to pack meals at Feed My Starving Children, spend time in adoration praying for our community, or clean up our parish grounds, our presence and concern may be the way God is using us to get someone’s attention and see his presence in her or his life. As Saint Therese of Liseaux used to encourage her sisters, we can make a big difference by doing little things with great love.
Jesus tells us that we will receive gifts of the Holy Spirit that enable us to speak on behalf of our faith. As we engage in whatever we have signed up to do today, that same Spirit may give us gifts that answer prayers we didn’t even know we had in our hearts, and definitely answer the prayers of others. Our work gives witness to who Christ is in our lives; Christ who loves us first and loves us best. Sharing that love in the work we do today is a powerful way to help others know the presence of Christ in their lives.
Living our faith is always going to cost us something and that something could well be status or popularity, or at least the wondering glance from people who aren’t ready to accept the faith. But the volumes that we speak by living our faith anyway might just lay the groundwork for conversion and become a conduit of grace. We are told that we don’t have to hammer out all the words we want to say; that the Holy Spirit will give us eloquence that we can only dream of. And it’s true, if we trust God, if we live our faith when it’s popular or unpopular, we will have the Spirit and the words. God only knows what can be accomplished in those grace-filled moments! I pray that you see Christ everywhere as you witness today.
“It was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians.”
You know, I think the name Christian is so common to us that we take it for granted. For those first disciples, there had to be a mix of emotions that came with being called Christians for the first time. They may have been a bit fearful, because we know what happened to Christ, and so going about doing works in his name and being seen as his followers could certainly be dangerous for them. But they were probably also deeply honored to be called Christian. Being seen as his followers and people who did what he did was exactly what they wanted to happen, and because of that, we are told that many more people were added to the flock. So there had to be a little joy in that mix of emotions too.
So what about us, what does it do for us to be called Christian? For some people, it probably seems like Christians are a dime a dozen, and most of them are not nearly as zealous as were those first Christians. So today, being called Christian isn’t probably a complement or an accusation so much as it’s a way to categorize us, or even bracket us so that our message, our influence, can be ignored.
But our objective has to be the same as those first disciples. We have to want that many would be added to the Lord after they see what we do and hear what we say. In order for that to happen, we have to be people of integrity. Our worship can’t end when we say “thanks be to God,” but instead must continue into our living, into our daily lives. We have to be people who stand up for life, who live the Gospel, who reach out to the poor and the marginalized, who earnestly seek to bring souls to Christ. I think the world is aching to see that kind of authenticity in us. And we have to love them enough to bring them to our Savior.
When we are called “Christian,” it should stir up in our hearts a little fear and a little joy too. The fear should be that we would in any way neglect the mission or tear it down, and the joy should come when we realize that people see Christ in us. The Psalmist today says “All you nations, praise the Lord.” And that’s what we want to happen, to have people of every nation praise the Lord and call themselves Christian too.
Our Gospel today warns us of coming persecutions. At some point, we will all be dragged before synagogues and rulers and authorities of some sort, and we will have to give an account of what we believe. Now for us, it’s not going to be so literal, obviously. But we may have to give an account of why we believe in Christ or why we follow a religion that inconveniently speaks out against threats to life and family. We may have to tell others why it is that we would give up such a beautiful Saturday to clean church pews, or trim a neighbor’s hedges, or play bingo at a nursing home.
Today, on our Make a Difference Day, we take our give strong witness to our faith in our work. As we come together to pack meals at Feed My Starving Children, make blankets for Linden Oaks, or clean up our parish grounds, our presence and concern may be the way God is using to get someone’s attention and see his presence in her or his life. As we engage in whatever we have signed up to do today, God may give us gifts that answer prayers we didn’t even know we had in our hearts, and definitely answer the prayers of others. Our work gives witness to who Christ is in our lives; Christ who loves us first and loves us best. Sharing that love in the work we do today is a powerful way to help others know the presence of Christ in their lives.
Living our faith is always going to cost us something and that something is likely to be status or popularity, or at least the wondering glance from people who aren’t ready to accept the faith. But the volumes that we speak by living our faith anyway might just lay the groundwork for conversion and become a conduit of grace. We are told that we don’t have to hammer out all the words we want to say; that the Holy Spirit will give us eloquence that we can only dream of. And it’s true, if we trust God, if we live our faith when it’s popular or unpopular, we will have the Spirit and the words. God only knows what can be accomplished in those grace-filled moments! I pray that you see Christ everywhere as you witness today.
Have you ever been sure of the Lord’s call in your life and it just terrified you? I have. And for those of us who have been in this position, we can perhaps understand Jonah’s reaction in today’s first reading. He had been called by the Lord to preach to the people in Nineveh. And let’s be clear about this: the people of Nineveh were unspeakably evil and had long been persecuting the people of Israel. And so for Jonah, this call was a bit like being called to preach to the people of ISIS or something like that. Not only did Jonah fear for his life in going to them, but, quite frankly, he also could not possibly care less if they repented and God had mercy on them.
But it’s a little hard to run away from God. He always catches up with you sooner or later. If that weren’t true, I wouldn’t be standing here today, I can tell you that! It would certainly be easier for us Jonahs if we would just give in to God’s will at the beginning and not have to do all this running. But sometimes the human heart just isn’t ready for radical change.
That was true of the scholar of the law in today’s Gospel reading. I think his question is more about testing Jesus than really wanting to be converted, but even so, he can’t help but get caught up in Jesus’ teaching. The question is, is he ready to “go and do likewise?” The reading ends before he can make that decision, but the implication is that it will be very hard for him to really love his neighbor in the same way that the good Samaritan loved the robbery victim.
And so those of us who look a lot like Jonah or the scholar of the law today, need to pray for softening of our hardened hearts. Will it take three days in the belly of a big fish for us to finally give in to God’s will? Or can we just give in and trust?
One of my jobs before I went to seminary was in the sales department of a computer supply company. In that job, they taught us that one of the first good rules of sales was never to ask a question to which you didn’t already know the answer. I think teachers get taught that principle as well. I can’t help but think that Jesus’ question to the disciples in today’s Gospel falls under that heading. Because Jesus certainly knew who he was. But, as often happens in our interactions with Jesus, there’s something more going on. And to figure out what that something more is, all you have to do is go back to the Gospels the last couple of weeks and see in them that Jesus is thirsting for people’s faith. He was thirsting for faith from Peter when he called him to walk on the water. He was quenched by the faith of the Canaanite woman last week as she persisted in her request that Jesus heal her daughter. And now he thirsts for the disciples’ faith – and ours too – as he asks us the 64 thousand dollar question: “Who do you say that I am?”
He actually starts with kind of a soft-ball question. “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they recount all the obvious and probably much-discussed options of the time. If there were bloggers and talk radio people and CNN in that first century, they too might have said “John the Baptist” or “Elijah” or “Jeremiah” or “one of the prophets.” So this is an easy question for the disciples to answer. But when he gets to the extra credit question, “But who do you say that I am?” there’s a lot more silence. And, as often happens with the disciples, it’s the impetuous Peter who blurts out the right answer, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Very good, Peter, you have been paying attention.
But here’s the thing: that answer is going to require much of Saint Peter. You see, his answer not just a liturgical formula or a scriptural title or even a profession of faith in the formal sense that Jesus is looking for here. He is looking for something that goes quite a bit deeper, something that comes from the heart, something integrated into Peter’s life. He is looking for faith not just spoken but faith lived, and that’s why Peter’s answer is so dangerous. If he is really convinced that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” then that conviction has to show itself in the way Peter lives. He can’t just believe that and keep it under his hat. If Jesus really is the One who is coming into the world, the Promised One of all generations, the salvation of the world, then Peter has to proclaim it from the rooftops. He has to be the rock on which Jesus will build his Church. And some people are just not going to want to go there.
So I’m very sorry to tell you all this, but we have all gathered here on a very dangerous Sunday. We too, you know, are being asked today, “But who do you say that I am?” And Jesus isn’t asking us just to recite the Creed, the Profession of Faith. That’s too easy; we do it all the time. He doesn’t want to know what you learned at Bible Study or what you read on Facebook. Those things are nice, but Jesus isn’t going for what’s in your head. Jesus is calling all of us today to dig deep, to really say what it is that we believe about him by the way that we act and the things that we do and the life that we live. It’s the dangerous question for us, too, because what we believe about Jesus has to show forth in action and not just word. Our life has to be a testament to our faith in God. And if we cannot answer that question out of our faith today, if we are not prepared to live the consequences of our belief, then we have a lot of thinking to do today.
Because if we really believe – really believe – that Jesus is who he says he is, then we cannot just sit on the news either. Like Peter, we are going to have to proclaim it in word and deed. In our homes, in our workplaces, in our schools, in our communities – we must be certain that everyone knows that we are Christians and that we are ready to live our faith. That doesn’t mean that we need to interject a faith lesson into every conversation or badger people with the Gospel. But it does mean that we have to live that Gospel. In St. Francis’s words, “Proclaim the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” People absolutely need to be able to tell by looking at our lives that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. If they can’t, then our faith is as tepid as the Pharisees’ and that’s certainly no cause for pride!
Every part of our Liturgy has consequences for us believers. “The Body of Christ.” When we hear that proclamation and respond with our “Amen,” we are saying “yes, that’s what I believe.” And if we believe that, if we are then filled with the Body of Christ by receiving Holy Communion, then we have made a statement that has consequences. If we truly become what we receive, then how does that change the way that we work, the way that we interact with others? “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord with your life.” “Thanks be to God.” If we accept that command, then what? What does it mean to glorify the Lord with our life? Does it mean that we just do some kind of ministry here at Mass? Absolutely not. The first word in the command is “Go” and that means we have to love and serve the Lord in our daily lives, in our business negotiations, in our community meetings, in our interactions with peers or the way that we mentor those who work for us.
So if we really believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, then our lives just became a whole lot more complicated. We may have to give up some of our habits and vices, we may have to make a concerted effort to be more aware of Christ in our daily lives, we may have to learn to treat other people as the Body of Christ. We may have to do all this preaching in a hostile environment, because sometimes people don’t want to hear the Good News, or even be in the presence of it. And this is dangerous, because if we really believe, then we have to preach anyway. Peter did, and it eventually led him to the cross. What will it require of us?
So I don’t know just how dangerous this will be for me or for you. I’m not even sure how we will all answer the question right now. But one thing is for sure, all of us sitting here today have the same one-question test that Peter and the disciples had. Who do you say that the Son of Man is?
Have you ever been at a loss for words? Have you been in a situation that was so astounding that you were just … speechless? Hopefully it was for something astoundingly wonderful, as for the apostles as their Lord ascended to heaven. Can you imagine what was going through the disciples’ minds as they stood there watching the Ascension of the Lord? Think about all that they’ve been through. Three years following this Jesus whose words were compelling and whose miracles were amazing and whose way of life was uplifting. But still, there was something about him that they just never seemed to get. He said he was the Christ, the Anointed One, and so their strong cultural definition of the Messiah was something they projected onto Jesus, but time after time it just never fit. Then he gets arrested, tried in a farce of a proceeding, put to death like a common criminal and buried for three days. After that, he is no longer in the tomb, but has risen from the dead and appeared to them many times. Now they’re gathered forty days later, and he promises the gift of the Holy Spirit. They breathlessly ask the question that has always been on their minds, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” They still don’t get it.
And so Jesus promises them the Holy Spirit again, and ascends into the sky. Can you imagine it? It’s like a roller coaster of emotions for them. Their heads had to be spinning, they had to be completely lost as to what to do now. First he was dead and buried, then he came back, and now he’s gone again. What on earth are they to do now? Well, the two mysterious men dressed in white garments have all the advice they’re going to get: “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.” It’s almost as if God is telling them, “You’ll see what comes next, just get on with it.” And so they do, and they’ll get more help next week on Pentecost, with the coming of the Holy Spirit. But until then, it’s enough for them and us to be a bit speechless.
We should be a little speechless too. Honestly, I think these stories have become so engrained in our cultural experience of our religion that we just tend to treat them as nothing special. But we should be speechless, because the Ascension, as well as the Resurrection, are game-changers for us. Nothing like that ever happened before, and it made possible our eternity; the greatest gift we’ll ever have. We should be astounded!
And then, like the apostles, we need to get on with it. Because the Ascension has very specific meaning for our mission. I think we get three directions in today’s feast. First, Christ promises us that he will be with us always. That’s what Jesus says to the disciples – and to us! – in the very last words of the very last verse of the very last chapter of Matthew’s Gospel: “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” This is such an essential point of faith for us to get: Jesus our Lord will be with us every day, every moment, right up to the end of the age. And he is present in our Church today. His abiding presence is with us when we gather in his name, when we worship, hear the Word proclaimed and celebrate the sacraments. And he is with us, too, when we serve others, being those hands and feet of Jesus in a tangible way.
The second direction that the Ascension gives us is that Jesus has gone to heaven to prepare a place for us. He goes to heaven to pave the way, because we had lost the way, affected as we all are by original sin and by the sins of our life. Since we did not know the way, he prepares it for us: opening the door, so to speak, and greeting us. So we believers who have forged a relationship with our Lord can now look to him to see how to get to that heavenly reward. All we have to do is follow, and we will find ourselves in that place God intended for us from the beginning.
And finally, the Ascension reminds us that the Christian Mission has been entrusted to our hands. Christ has ascended into heaven, he has returned to the Father. So, yes, on this feast of the Ascension of the Lord, we are rightly struck speechless, but now it’s time for us to take up the Cross, to preach the Word in our words and actions, and to witness to the joy of Christ’s presence among us. If people are ever going to come to know Christ, if they are ever going to be challenged to grow in their faith, if they are ever going to know that there is something greater than themselves, they’re going to have to see that witness in other people, and it needs to be us. We have to be transparent in our living so that people won’t be caught up on us, but will come through us to see Jesus, to see the Father, to experience the Spirit. We are the ones commanded to “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit…” The mission is entrusted to us now.
The speechlessness has to be over. The Psalmist tells us that God mounts his throne to shouts of joy. We must be joyous in living our life as Christians, assured of God’s abiding presence until the end of time, looking forward to our heavenly reward, and living the mission for all to see. We must no longer be speechless, but instead be a blare of trumpets for the Lord!