Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Homily for 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Homily for the
18th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Aug. 3, 2014
Rom 8: 35, 37-39
Holy Cross, Fairfield, Conn.

“What will separate us from the love of Christ?” (Rom 8: 35), Paul asks in the 1st sentence of our 2d reading.

The sense of the question is, “Is there anything that could possibly keep Christ from loving us or that could put us beyond the reach of his love?

That may beg a question:  what does “Christ’s love” mean?  For starters, it means the forgiveness of our sins; it means God the Father’s love embracing us, his children, because Christ has embraced us; it means the promise of resurrection on the Last Day and eternal life with Christ among all the saints.

So, Paul asks, can anything separate us from Christ’s love?  He lists some things that might daunt us, might give us the impression that God doesn’t really care about us, that might tempt us to put Christ aside.

Anguish and distress—these are part of our lives:  all sorts of emotional turmoil, brought upon us by many causes.  We have family concerns, health concerns, social and political concerns.  We’re concerned about wars around the globe and violence in our towns and cities, about the environment, about the economy, about children migrating a thousand miles alone, about children whose lives have been shattered by war in Syria and Gaza and Congo.
Refugees at Don Bosco Center, Goma, D.R. of Congo
Paul adds “famine, nakedness, or peril.”  We could add hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires, unemployment, homelessness, people living in refugee camps, human trafficking, drugs, alcoholism, broken families, terrorism.  Sometimes nature seems to be at war with us, and sometimes human beings create unbelievable suffering.

Paul also lists “persecution” and “the sword,” which are the same thing.  Persecution, discrimination, harassment, the threat of mob violence, and even death were part of being a Christian in the 1st century.  After Paul’s own death—by the sword, by beheading during Nero’s persecution—Christians could have their property confiscated, those few Christians who belonged to the upper class and thus had property to be confiscated; they could be sentenced to hard labor, be horribly tortured even if they weren’t beheaded, burned alive, or put into an arena with wild beasts.

St. Paul in St. Peter's Square,
holding a sword symbolic of his martyrdom
and a scroll symbolic of his letters
In the last few weeks we’ve heard fresh stories about the persecution of Christians in Iraq and Syria—Christians run out of town or executed, their property seized, by the so-called Islamic State; Christians blown up in Nigeria; churches being destroyed in China.

In the face of persecution, some people do separate themselves from Christ—publicly renouncing the faith in favor of the prevailing government policies or social pressures.  It happened in the Roman persecutions, it happened behind the Iron Curtain—as our Slovenian and Croatian parishioners know well—and it happens today in China and Islamic societies.  None of us can be sure how faithful we’d be if faced with the threat of losing our livelihood, our freedom, even our lives.  Which doesn’t mean that Christ would have separated himself from us; no, he’s the good shepherd who ever goes looking for his lost sheep; he’s the loving father constantly on the lookout for his wayward children.

In fact, in our own country you could be put out of business if you believe that your college, radio station, hospital, bakery, or photography studio should observe Christian moral principles.  Our faithfulness, too, is being tested.  Unlike the Christians of the Middle East, tho, we can insist publicly on our constitutional rights to live what we believe, if we are truly attached to Christ, if separation from him is truly the worst thing that we can imagine.

Probably, tho, more people feel they’ve been abandoned by God, separated from God, if they feel that way, by some great tragedy—in their own lives, such as the death of a loved one or some unbearable suffering, or something more public like a natural disaster or a horrible act of violence.  Where was God in Newtown?  Where was God on 9/11?  Where was God during the tsunami in the Indian Ocean?  Where was God when my parent or my child was dying from cancer?  Where is God when I’ve been out of a job for 2 years?

A tiny bit of tsunami damage, 2004
Those are hard questions, questions without any sure answer in this life.  Paul states flatly, “No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us” (8:37).  Who has loved us?  Jesus Christ!  Jesus, who was a child refugee from persecution, who went thru unbearable suffering and violent death—a most unjust death, an undeserved death—in the same human condition, the same human nature, in which you and I live.  If the Son of God came down from heaven to be with us and go thru a human life like ours, how could he not continue to stand with us even now?  He is the living expression of God’s solidarity with us.

When we lose someone we love—our parents, too often a son or daughter, a friend—it can be devastating.  I still miss my mom, who died 27 years ago; my dad, who died 8 years ago; some of my Salesian confreres who died way too young. My Boy Scout troop still hasn’t recovered fully from the loss of our Scoutmaster on 9/11.  Every one of you could make a similar list.

With Dad at provincial house, 2003
Does death separate us from the love of Christ?  No!  It is, in fact, Christ who will reunite us with those we love.  If we believe that Jesus is risen, if we believe as we profess every Sunday in “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come,” then we believe that on the Last Day every human being will be raised up from the grave, from the depths of the sea, from ashes—no “height nor depth … will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:39)—and we will be with all our loved ones forever.  The only proviso, of course, is that we and they shall have responded to God’s grace in this life and shall be counted among the sheep whom the Eternal Judge, according to Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25, will set to his right side as “blessed by” the Father and welcome into “the kingdom prepared for [them] from the foundation of the world” (v. 34).  That parable tells us how we are to respond to God’s grace:  by sharing the love of Christ with our less fortunate brothers and sisters, by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those in prison, caring for the sick, etc. (vv. 35-36).

What can separate us from the love of Christ?  Nothing, says Paul; and Jesus adds that we are to be the love of Christ to others, so that they may not feel any separation, just as Jesus in today’s gospel showed compassion for “the vast crowd” that came to him, and healed them and fed them (Matt 14:13-21).  As Jesus said to the expert in Jewish law who questioned him and induced him to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:25-37).  Go and show the love of Christ to your families and to everyone you encounter, so that no one will think he or she has been separated from that love.  “Go,” as we say often at the end of Mass, “and announce the Gospel of the Lord.”

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