Saturday, May 31, 2008

Walking the walk of faith

Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, June 1, 2008:

Chapter 19 of the Acts of the Apostles reports a curious incident that happened when St. Paul was preaching in Ephesus. Paul was performing so many miracles there that the other religious leaders in the city became envious of him. They were losing their members to Paul. So some of them decided to observe and copy what he was doing. Paul was doing mighty works and casting out demons by invoking the name of Jesus. They thought they had discovered his secret formula, and they took off to go and implement it in their own ministry. Seven sons of a Jewish high priest called Sceva, who were professional exorcists tried to use the name of Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, "I command you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims." But the evil spirit said to them in reply, "Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?" They were not successful in their efforts. The moral of the story: Who you are comes before what you do or say.

"Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?' Then I will declare to them solemnly, 'I never knew you.'" Our Scriptures remind us today that when it comes to faith, we need to walk the walk. Sometimes we take the wrong approach treating faith as some kind of spiritual force by which we ourselves achieve salvation. That's the self-help, New Age, Star Wars point of view, which says that faith is our way of tapping into unseen powers - the Force - and using them to achieve our personal goals.

That's not Christian faith, as St. Paul explains today. He writes, "all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God." In other words, sin has cut all of us off from God. We cannot save ourselves, make ourselves truly happy or give lasting meaning to our lives by our own efforts. We are not gods. Instead, St. Paul continues, we are "justified freely by his grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus." Jesus has redeemed us. Only through friendship with Him can we experience a grace-filled life now and forever.

It is also wrong to think that Christian faith consists only in acknowledging a list of abstract doctrines. There is no faith test - faith in Jesus isn't pass/fail. The doctrines that we believe, that God has revealed to us, have practical consequences for our lives. As Moses says in the First Reading, we need to "take these words... into our heart and our soul."

As Jesus says in the Gospel, to be wise we must not only listen to Christian truth, but we must "act" on it, we must build our lives on it. Our faith, when it is real, should inspire us to live exactly as friends of Christ ought to live. Christian faith is neither an impersonal force nor just abstract dogma: it is a living relationship with God in Christ; it is a way of life.

Imagine that you discovered an ancient treasure map. The first thing you would do would be to learn how to decipher the symbols, shapes, and letters on the map. You would consult experts, find ancient books in secret libraries, and learn to understand what the map says. What would you do then? Would you use your new knowledge to give lectures on ancient treasure maps? Would you put the map in a frame and hang it on your living room wall? Of course not! You would go and find that treasure!

Our faith is kind of like that. There is an acronym for the BIBLE that I love which says that "BIBLE" stands for Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. The Bible is not a group of nice stories to remember, it is an instruction book on how to live. What God has revealed to us through the Bible and Tradition is a map leading to the greatest treasure of all: a truly fulfilling, meaningful life, for ourselves and for those we love, for now and for all eternity. How foolish we would be not to learn all about it and follow where it leads! The adventure lies in understanding our faith and then, with the help of God's grace, living out its consequences.

St. Polycarp, the aged bishop of Smyrna, expressed this beautifully when they put him on trial in the second century. His persecutors told him that unless he abandoned his Christian faith and worshipped the false Roman gods, he would be tortured and killed. He answered: "You threaten me with a fire which burns for a short time, and then goes out; but are yourself ignorant of the judgment to come, and of the fire of everlasting torments which is prepared for the wicked... I have served Christ these 86 years, and he never did me any harm, but much good; so why should I deny my King and my Savior?"

Christian faith is a way of life, but it is not an easy way of life. Jesus showed us that when he died on the cross. In our sinful world, doing what is right and following God's commandments often requires personal sacrifice. Because of that, sometimes we fail. Sometimes, we give in to temptation. Sometimes we sin. This is why we begin every Mass with the act of contrition, publicly calling to mind our sins and asking for God's forgiveness.

But even in the midst of life's temptations, even in the aftermath of our sins, Jesus is close to us. If we go to him, he will help us rebuild what has collapsed. If we go to him, he will protect us from the storms. Today's Psalm beautifully reminds us of this: "In you, Lord, I take refuge." This too shows us the real nature of our Christian faith: a friendship in which Jesus is the perfect friend, the friend who is always faithful.

Maybe the most amazing expression of his faithfulness is the sacrament of confession. We are the only religion that has it. Only Christians can kneel down before God's representative and speak personally, intimately, heart-to-heart about their sins, and then hear the unmistakable words of comfort, compassion and forgiveness spoken directly to them.

Even if we have been building on sand, it is not too late to put in a new foundation. If our house has already collapsed, it is not too late to build another one - with God's help. In fact, nothing would please Jesus more."Remember these commands and cherish them. Tie them on your arms and wear them on your foreheads as a reminder…Today I am giving you the choice between a blessing and a curse." I give you a choice between life and death. Choose life.

May God give you peace.

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