The Dominican friar, Blessed Humbert of Romans O.P. once said "First the bow is bent in study, then the arrow is released in preaching..." These are the sermons of fr. Lawrence Lew O.P., a Friar Preacher (Dominican), interspersed with art and some of his photographs.
Sometimes people seem to think that assertions about doctrinal truth, or that Jesus is the only way to salvation is limiting and restrictive. So some people tend to buck against doctrine, and refer to the teaching of the ‘institutional Church’ as merely about authority and power, as something that restricts my personal freedom. Instead, they would opt for ‘spirituality’ and their own spiritual intuitions.
And yet, the Truth is not restrictive because only Truth brings freedom. As Christ says elsewhere in St John’s Gospel: “The truth will set you free”. Because Truth is none other than God himself, so Truth is more spacious, more expansive, more free than we can ever imagine or inhabit. This, I think, is what Jesus’ image of the many-roomed mansion is getting at because heaven, of course, is not a place, but is union with God himself, living and being in God, sharing the expansiveness and freedom of his divine Life.
But some people are tempted to read this Gospel in a pluralistic way, as though to say there are many roads to God, so that it doesn’t really matter what we believe, or they might posit that every religion is somehow a valid means of salvation. But it’s clear from what Christ says in today’s Gospel that this doesn’t follow.
“In Antioch the disciples were for the first time called Christians”. Before that, followers of Jesus were sometimes called “Nazarenes”, and it seems that the people of Antioch first used ‘Christians’ as a derisive term. And sometimes today it is still being used in a dismissive and derogatory way. But the early Church seemed to see the name ‘Christian’ as a badge of pride, and we should too. Why? Because Jesus told his disciples in John’s Gospel, “A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (15:20). So, if the name Christian is used to denigrate us, we can be happy that our behaviour has in some way marked us out as belonging to Christ, as followers of his who are persecuted by the world as he is. As Jesus puts it in today’s Gospel, we Christians are his flock who hear his voice and follow him, who belong to him. And because we belong to him, he promises us that we will never perish, no matter how we are persecuted or ill-treated, but have eternal life.
However, this raises an interesting question, and one that is much debated on the internet these days. Who can be called a Christian, or a Catholic? Can a pro-abortionist politician? Or a Catholic University that teaches against papal teaching? Perhaps today’s Scripture readings can shed some light on these questions.
What does it mean to say that something is good? In the first instance, we’d probably think of moral excellence. But if I say that Cecilia is a good singer, we’re more likely to mean that she can sing well, and so possesses a talent or skill to a high degree of excellence. And what if I say that this wine is good? This probably means that it is exemplary, a fine specimen of its type; it is properly what it is meant to be. But each of these meanings of good is in some way pleasant, attractive, and enjoyable. Hence we also speak of a good time, or a good night out, and we are naturally drawn to good things.
It is this sense of the attractiveness of the good that underlies how we should understand Jesus as the “good shepherd”. The Greek word being used here that is translated as ‘good’ is kalos. And its primary meaning is beautiful. But not a kind of superficial, skin-deep, cosmetic beauty, nor the debased sense of beauty we often have today which sees beauty as something purely subjective, but rather, beauty as something more essential and objective, that is independent of us, which belongs to a person or thing, and which we encounter and appreciate in another.
Although the period beginning tomorrow is no longer called Passiontide, even so Lent has shifted into a higher gear, focusing on the Passion of Christ and culminating in the Crucifixion on Good Friday. in our readings, the noose is tightening, so to speak, and the opposition and hostility to Christ have mounted, as the plots against him begin to take shape. But the plotting of mankind takes place amid division and confusion. In contrast to the maneuvering and bickering among the plotters, St John is clear that God is in control and has the master plan in hand. Hence, as we heard yesterday, and again today, Christ is not arrested because his hour had not come.
There may be times when we feel caught up in the wrangling of human beings, of politicians, bankers, and institutions. But our faith in a good and loving God tells us that God holds all things in his Providence, and is always bringing about our good in every situation. No human plot can frustrate this. So, with the serenity that comes from faith in God’s plan and his goodness, Jeremiah says: “I have committed my cause to you”. And, of course, these words are now being attributed to Christ, who is the Suffering Servant. He, who has been sent by the Father, also commits his cause to God. And because the Son does the will of the Father, so, his cause is to carry out God’s will. His cause is to do God’s cause with perfect obedience and trust.
Why did the Jewish authorities hate Jesus? A few days ago, St John tells us that it is because Christ “not only broke the sabbath but also called God his Father, making himself equal with God” (Jn 5:18b). So, religious reasons are given and, sadly, it is not uncommon for people to hide behind religion to justify their hatred and violence. But today’s First Reading offers an incisive look into the hearts of those who sought to kill Christ, looking at the actual reasons why they wanted to kill him: he challenges their worldview and their power; his light exposes those things we’d prefer to keep hidden in shadow. Hence: “He is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law, and accuses us of sins against our training” (Wis 2:12). So, let us ambush and get rid of him.
If we’re honest, there have probably been moments when the truth is somewhat inconvenient, or when someone’s goodness just shows us up. The temptation, then, is to silence or conceal the truth by lying, or drowning it out with arguments and rationalizations. Or we may just ignore such people, or discredit them by exposing their sins. Hence the Jews declared Jesus a blasphemer and accused him of breaking the Sabbath.
Yesterday’s Gospel spoke of judgment, of making a decision, a choice for Jesus. By placing our trust in Christ and believing his Word we already have eternal life. With lives founded on faith in who he is, sustained by hope in his promises, and motivated by love for him in our actions, heaven has already begun for those who believe in Christ. For these theological virtues make of our simple lives “something beautiful for God”.
But there are many who are still searching for God, so that, like the Jews in today’s Gospel, they search books, even reading the Scriptures, and they look to great thinkers and leaders for guidance. But somehow, they fail to recognize the One to whom every authentic quest for Truth, Goodness and Beauty points. Why is this?
In part, I think it is because Man is prone to creating images of himself, to glorying in created things, and to trying to conform God to his limited worldview rather than letting the Uncreated One, who is Other than His creation, challenge and expand Man’s horizons. For that is who Jesus is: the One who initiates us into the freedom and expansiveness of God, so that, by his grace, our humanity is elevated beyond natural horizons to the supernatural, making us partakers in his divinity.
The word ‘judgment’ comes from the Greek word, krisis, which means a choice, a decision. And that decision has an impact on our lives now, affecting our moral choices.
In St John’s Gospel, it is mankind who has to make a decide whether or not to trust Christ; we make a judgment about who Christ is, and we choose accordingly whether or not to live according to his teaching. So, the choice that we make is borne out by how we live; belief is always followed by moral action. Unlike the other Gospels which see judgment as an event that happens after death, St John’s distinct idea is that it is our present conduct based on our decision concerning Christ that judges us now. If we choose Christ and trust in him, then our actions reveal that we have eternal life now; heaven has already begun for us because Christ is our light, our way, and our life. If we choose otherwise, then our actions reveal that we are already dead.
Such a view takes seriously our human freedom to choose life or death, and, because we are free, it also takes seriously our responsibility for our choices, and their consequences. It may be that sometimes we do not know what we are doing. God’s merciful response in such circumstances is given by Christ on the Cross: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”. But that is not always the case. We do, often, know what we are doing, and we can make consciously sinful choices. That is the terror and mystery of human freedom: that we can knowingly choose to go against Christ’s word, favour our own desires, and act badly. And the mystery of God’s love is that he gives us this freedom to choose, even poorly.
Ezekiel’s vision of a restored Temple is a promise that God will restore the fortunes of Israel, that God will be with his people. And God has fulfilled his promise in Christ. Because Jesus is Emmanuel, God-with-us, and as we hear in the Gospels, Jesus is the Temple because it is through him that God encounters his people, and God dwells in him. Indeed, he is God in the flesh. So, all that the Temple stands for finds its perfection in Christ.
When Christ hanging on the Cross was pierced with a lance, blood and water flowed from his side (cf John 19:34), and these are taken to be symbols of baptism and the Eucharist. The waters that flow from the right side of the Temple in Ezekiel thus stand for the waters of baptism into which we Christians are immersed. The river teems with life, and brings life for “everything will live where the river goes”. This is a beautiful image of baptism because it is through the waters of baptism that we receive the grace that leads to eternal life. Ezekiel’s river is full of fish of “very many kinds”, just as people from all over the world are preparing now to be baptized at Easter, and receive life from the Church’s font. So, it is the baptized, us, who are like the fish swimming in this river of life. For this reason, the early Church referred to the baptismal font as the piscina, the fish pond. The river brings life so that all kinds of fertile trees will grow. This is an evocation of Eden, and likewise, baptism restores humanity to Paradise, to the innocence of Eden when humanity was in friendship with God.
The Greek root word that recurs in today’s Gospel is krinw, which basically means, to decide, to separate, to distinguish. In this sense, there is a judgment, a choice, to be made. Hence, in today’s Gospel the words derived from krinw are translated as judgment (krisis), and condemn (krine). The problem is that both these words have become quite emotionally charged.
Hence the Media is fond of the word crisis, which is derived from the Greek krisis, but which, in its origin just means ‘judgment’, ‘decision’. A crisis point is that point when a decision has to be made, and it is only fraught and laden with pain and anguish, as crisis seems to mean these days, if one doesn’t know what decision to make, or if it is a hard choice one has to make. A krisis is only a crisis when we don’t know what to do and how to go forward, as was the case when Greece was about to default on its loans again, and the Greek government didn’t know if they should swallow further austerity measures and stay in the Euro or not.