The Gospel for Sunday, July 30th, 2017

The Gospel for July 30th, 2017: “Treasures New and Old”

Matthew 13:44-52

Reflection: Surprised by Hope

This week’s gospel continues in the vein of last Sunday with Jesus telling his disciples more parables about the Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew 13. Another similarity is the inclusion of a disconcerting line about the end of the age. Jesus tells them, “The angels will go out and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth” (49-50). I would like to reflect on this line in light of a book I’m currently reading by Anglican theologian N.T. Wright called Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.

Wright’s book attempts to set straight what he considers are common misunderstandings among most Christians about the resurrection and its role in our hope for salvation. Wright argues we need to return to an understanding that is closer to the first century Christians. The misunderstanding he describes is recognizable. He claims when Christians talk about hope for resurrection, generally they equate that with going to Heaven as a disembodied spirit after they die. While this does offer some hope and comfort in times of bereavement, it also devalues God’s creation in this world both in our physical bodies and in the rich biosphere that surrounds us. However, Wright claims it is not what Jesus meant or how the first disciples understood what He meant about resurrection.

If I may summarize Surprised by Hope with broad strokes, Wright explains that the Jewish understanding of resurrection would be a new life in physical form after death, just as Jesus gave Lazarus and to which His own resurrection refers. This is what the Pharisees believed in that the Sadducees did not. It is not a purely spiritual state far away in a realm called Heaven. Jesus came to join Heaven and Earth—to unite the perfect with that which was marred by sin. Therefore, salvation is a restoration of God’s perfect creation, removing sin, death, and decay. So the “end of the age” Jesus refers to is not a rapture, as some argue, where Jesus will collect the worthy, transporting them to Heaven, and leave behind the sinners on Earth to languish in an eternal Hell. Instead, Wright argues the resurrection has two parts. The inaugural resurrection is Easter Sunday, Jesus’s resurrection, which proved He is God-made-man, the joiner of Heaven and Earth who came to save His lost sheep. With Easter, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, meaning the building of Christ’s Kingdom begins. The second resurrection will arrive with the second coming of Jesus to Earth, when all of God’s people who have died are resurrected, their bodies restored to the perfection of the intention of their creator, free from sin, death, and decay forever. So our hope is for being resurrected to walk in the Kingdom, not as spirits who have shed off defective earthly bodies, but as holy creatures born again into a physical perfection we cannot imagine in this life.

This raises some questions. What happens between death and this completion of the salvation story? I do not have the space to try summarize all of Wright’s claims on this. He acknowledges the view of purgatory, but his Protestant leanings show he is dubious of a spiritual purgatory. He posits the view that it is possible our suffering on Earth is what purges and that with death we truly rest in peace spiritually until the resurrection mission is complete. Frankly, I don’t think this question needs to be answered in detail as a condition for accepting his understanding of the resurrection.

The other question is why the resurrection occurs with this process starting on Easter and lasting into an unknown future? Again, let me caution I am trying to put together Wright’s argument with my own understanding, in my own words. However, I think it a reasonable approximation of Wright’s answer to state he believes the salvation plan involves all of humanity, God’s created stewards, participating in the victory over sin through the unselfish love of our Creator. We strive to live the gospel message of love of God and neighbor in every moment, as the first parable suggests by selling all we have to buy the treasure of Christ’s kingdom. Since we share this love of others through our relationships, Christ’s salvation, the purging of sin through selfless love, spreads through all creation. It may well be that the final resurrection occurs when all have been saved (or at least all who assent to be saved)  which only seems possible through faith in Christ.

Despite all the theological ends I may have just loosed, let me return to the gospel with this basic understanding of Wright’s book in mind. The notion of a “fiery furnace,” a Hell for sinners, sometimes does more harm than good in the sense that fear of eternal damnation is not an impetus to love freely through the Holy Spirit. So the result from scare tactics is too many Christians of all denominations act on that fear by trying to save themselves, instead of moving toward the people and parts of God’s creation most marred by sin and decay in the spirit of mission. So instead of bringing God’s love to poor, sick, and dying, they isolate themselves in comfortable “Christian” enclaves, waiting for life’s suffering to end, and for that prized trip to Heaven. They are not concerned about restoring Heaven on Earth through love in the forms of faith, hope, and charity, which Wright claims is Christ’s salvation plan. I can honestly say that like those waiting it out, I spend far more time worrying about my own salvation than about all of humanity, the scattered tribes of Israel if you will.

So why then does Christ bring up the “fiery furnace” and “weeping and grinding of teeth” if not to scare us away from sin? I think He is describing the purging of sin that will take place after His Easter resurrection, not as a damnation of sinners, since all of us are marred by sin, but as the holy perfecting of those very sinners. In the case of this parable, Jesus is not talking about the fish in the net as individual saints and sinners; rather he is comparing the net to the Kingdom of Heaven. Could it be that the bad, throw-away fish are not individual people, but sin itself? Could Jesus be giving a glimpse of pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth being burned away in a fiery furnace of God’s love so that what remains is a kingdom where all of God’s creation has been restored to its full glory? In such a scenario the wailing is not the cries of the eternally tormented, but instead the resistance we experience in letting go of our attachments to the world. It is not easy to give up our sins because we still must choose God’s love over them. But in the end, it is a tremendously hopeful idea that God’s love is irresistible and that all of humanity will surrender to the joy of the kingdom and let go of sin to allow the final resurrection and Jesus’s return.

In the end, I guess I believe in a universal salvation for all. I think our hopes our tied up together as God’s creatures. Just as sin is corporate, so too is salvation. We are given Christ’s mission of love so that in saving others we will participate—choosing freely—to save ourselves. Perhaps the second coming of Jesus to complete the restoration of the kingdom is a function of our willingness to take the mission to the ends of the earth. It will happen eventually, but it takes longer when we selfishly resist the call to love others as Christ loves us.

Why is this so hopeful to me? Because I know my sins. Every time I am confronted with the idea of sinners being cast away to Hell, I think I deserve such a fate. So my hope has to be in a mercy that is so divine that we can all be saved. If I can treat others with unselfish love—of which  the challenge often does make me wail and grind my teeth inside–maybe that merciful love spreads to further the ultimate resurrection. I choose to believe Jesus is a savior who cannot lose a single one of us. I believe that all the good and beauty in the world is not here on loan from Heaven, but rather to change hearts and stomp out sin. All the manifestations of God’s love are active agents in preparing the way for the final resurrection that will complete the joining of Heaven and Earth.

 

Book Review: Catholicism

Book Review:

Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith by Robert Barron

I read this book as a result of two happy accidents. First, I was channel surfing and watched about 15 minutes of the documentary series of the same name narrated by Father Barron on ETWN. To emphasize the good fortune of that find, I should point out I am at best an occasional viewer of ETWN (no offense to regular viewers—it’s a fine ministry). Since I had a prior commitment, I was forced to turn off the TV before finishing the episode. Still, it was fascinating to watch, and I left thinking a series this good may have a companion book that goes with it. So I remembered the title and went on with my day. A few days later, I found myself in a bookstore with time to kill. This usually means I will end up buying something. I started thumbing through some used book selections thinking, I wonder if I can find a book about the TV documentary; and seconds later, I found a paperback version of this book, which on close inspection was exactly what I had hoped to find. Grace or good fortune? Take your pick. Either way I was thrilled.

Like my brief encounter with the documentary, Barron’s book did not disappoint. Following a lead from the back cover, I have since become familiar with Father Barron’s international media ministry called Word on Fire, which includes videos, podcasts, and blogs. His work reflects an extensive scholarly education, a deep appreciation of the Catholic Church’s rich tradition as a source of guidance and faith, and a love of good story-telling that can be enhanced by modern media technology. So what you get in reading Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith is a recasting of essential beliefs that draws on wonderful and fresh stories from scripture, catechism, and tradition in equal parts. In addition, you also get a collection of pictures of church art, architecture, and destinations which contribute to a multi-media, international experience in the mere pages of a book. It is a journey that inspires a sense of awe. For these reasons, I think it would be equally appealing to knowledgeable Catholics who enjoy a renewed appreciation for the faith and to the new and the curious as way to understand what it means to be Catholic, if he or she is a fairly sophisticated reader.

At 279 pages, the book covers a lot of ground. To give a taste of its contents, let me provide in detail an anecdote that I found particularly compelling, in part because it was unfamiliar to me. It is a story about Thomas Aquinas that Barron tells in a study of the two liturgies of the mass, the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. In his discussion of the latter, he tells a story about Aquinas to illustrate the incredible significance of the doctrine of the real presence and the idea of transubstantiation.

Barron recounts:

One of the most articulate defenders of the real presence was Thomas Aquinas. Thomas Aquinas loved the Eucharist. He celebrated Mass every morning, and immediately after his own Mass he would concelebrate at another. It is said that he rarely got through the Liturgy without weeping copious tears, so strongly did he identify with the Eucharistic mystery. It has also been reported that when he was struggling with a particularly thorny intellectual difficulty, he would go to the tabernacle, resting his head on it and begging for inspiration. Toward the end of his relatively short life…, Aquinas composed… a treatise on the Eucharist. When he had finished this remarkably thorough and complex text, he was still unconvinced that he had done justice to this great sacrament. Therefore he laid his treatise at the foot of the crucifix in the Dominican chapel in Naples and he prayed. A voice came from the cross: “Bene scripsisti de me, Thoma” (You have written well of me, Thomas), and then, “What would you have as a reward?” Aquinas said simply, “Nil nisi te” (nothing except you).

Until reading this story, I had viewed Thomas Aquinas as a rather dry, dusty road on my Catholic journey which I tried to travel down a couple of times and quickly turned around in a sense of bewilderment. But this anecdote shows a saint whose absolute faith is moving and inspirational, and whose scholarship is truly a gift from the Lord. The work of Thomas Aquinas is back on my life-long reading list.

Hopefully, this example provides a decent sense of Barron’s skill as a story-teller and guide to the faith. Each chapter teems with an abundance of such gems like the Aquinas story. Therefore, I highly recommend this book and a visit to the Word on Fire website. They are both enlightening and entertaining. Furthermore, the TV documentary series, Catholicism, joins Thomas Aquinas on my Catholic bucket list. Fortunately, the series can be purchased at wordonfire.org and some previews and excerpts are on Youtube also. Good news for the curious and those who are not avid readers.

Book Review: Matthew Kelly’s Rediscover Catholicism

Book Review: Rediscover Catholicism

With a 2002 publication date, Matthew Kelly’s Rediscover Catholicism as well as aspects of its message is already familiar to many Catholics. To give an example, I recently read Kentucky Basketball Coach John Calipari’s Players First where I discovered Coach Cal uses the expression “the best version of yourself” in his program with his players as a motivator and guiding principle. This same expression is central to Kelly’s message in the book and is encountered frequently in his speaking[1]. While Calipari does not reference Kelly as the source of this mantra, he reveals he is Catholic and a daily attender of mass. I am willing to make the plausible jump to the conclusion this is not merely a coincidence, but rather a connection between his Catholicism and a familiarity with Kelly’s ideas and thereby a sign of their influence among other Catholics.

In my opinion, this influence is merited. Kelly has a unique ability to take principles of the faith and explain them with contemporary language and analogies to make them relevant to those of us who, affected by a secular worldview, find the vocabulary of the Church at times distant or off-putting.  Kelly’s use of the principle that it is God’s plan for each of us to become “the-best-version-of-yourself” provides a good case in point. It calls to mind the familiar cultural imperative for self-improvement. Yet, his use of this expression is very specific to Catholic doctrine. He makes the case that if we are striving to know God and his mission for us, we will become more virtuous and active in answering His call over time, in other words, to become the-best-version-of-ourselves. By keeping this guiding principle in view, we will commence on a journey to a life focused on serving God and others rather than a self-absorbed and self-serving one. Kelly admits he is simply restating Vatican II’s emphasis on answering the universal call to holiness, that we are all called to be saints. However, it reveals this in a way that keeps in mind our unique gifts for service and the insight we don’t have to be saints now to become holy by the end of our life’s journey.

Kelly explains this central theme in this way:

Once we are aware of our yearning for happiness and the world’s inability to satisfy it, the adventure of salvation begins. Our yearning for happiness is one way God invites us to join this adventure. God has a dream for you and a plan for your life. He wants to deliver you from everything that stands in the way of becoming the-best-version-of-yourself… With this term I am not suggesting a narcissistic, self-seeking approach to life. Rather, I am inviting you to a dynamic collaboration with God. It is in and through this collaboration that we become the-best-version-of-ourselves, in which the loving nature of God is most present. God has a plan of salvation for each of us. Your adventure of salvation is unique and different from mine.

He uses this concept to create a context to discuss the practical usefulness of what he refers to as the “Seven Pillars of Catholic Spirituality:” confession, daily prayer, the mass, bible reading, fasting, spiritual reading, and the rosary. Drawing on the model of the saints, Kelly elucidates how each of these time-honored practices are highly effective methods to help us in our journeys to our personal Christian missions and vocations, ergo the-best-versions-of-ourselves, helping us recognize and live the genius of Catholicism.

For this review, I had re-read Rediscover Catholicism two years after my first reading motivated me to renew my own faith. I found it as insightful, engaging, and compelling as the first time. I think it is an appealing book for anyone interested in Catholicism including the unfamiliar, the fallen-away, and the devout as a source of both inspiration and practical advice.

[1] Although this is a book review, I will insert a plug for Kelly’s CD “Becoming the Best Version of Yourself” and his other CDs and DVDs as well. They are another great way to hear his message. His Australian accent is mesmerizing and, along with his sense of humor, brilliantly enhances his message. Visit dynamiccatholic.com to learn more.