13TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: CHRISTIANITY AS DISCIPLESHIP

 Christianity is much more than religion. It is a discipleship, an apprenticeship if you like–an apprenticeship with Jesus. What kind of apprenticeship does Jesus leads us to?

In the Gospel Reading today, Jesus said to his apostles:

“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me,
and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;
and whoever does not take up his cross
and follow after me is not worthy of me.
Whoever finds his life will lose it,
and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

This is shocking! Jesus is asking us to leave behind the greatest resource of our lives—our family—in order to follow him. Not just our family, Jesus asks us to lose our own lives so we can gain our lives in him. And what kind of life is he offering—the way of the cross. St. Paul in his letter to the Romans in the second reading calls this life, baptism into Christ’s death.

This is too much for us to accept, let alone, understand. No wonder, many of us have turned to religion. Christianity as a religion is easier to understand and to practice: Going to mass, receiving the sacraments, following the 10 commandments, and many other religious things. It also became a lot easier for the church to preach about religious matters like observing correct rubrics and moral issues like contraception, abortion, etc.

Jesus certainly did talk about religion. But he did so to challenge and critique the religious ways of his time which have actually alienated human beings from God and one another. Jesus instead talked more about God and how God’s kingdom is breaking out into the world.

To enter into God’s kingdom, Jesus called us to join a new family, a family beyond blood, race, culture, gender and yes, even religion. When we are members of this family, God is our Father and we are all brothers and sisters with Jesus our older brother. To enter into God’s kingdom, Jesus ushered us into an apprenticeship that not only taught us new values, ways of doing and living but sought the purpose of why we live. It is an apprenticeship fulfilling the meaning of life. In seeking the purpose of life, however, Jesus proposes an apprenticeship that goes against the popular routes that the world gives. Jesus’ apprenticeship is to trek the road less travelled. Unfortunately, it also implies going beyond what many people hold dear about their religion.

For Jesus the most important things are greater than matters of religion. Sometimes we talk more about religious liberty, catechism and the code of canon law than about Jesus’ gospel. It’s time once again to talk about Christ and his gospel values not just about a list of do’s and don’ts, doctrines, commandments, canon law, and obligation. We need to recover Jesus’ way of talking about faith—that faith is a change of thinking (metanoia) in accordance with God’s  ways and thoughts.

This calls us to repropose the message of Jesus in our times today. Our world today is hostile and cold to the Christian message especially in secularized countries. This is worsened by the scandals in the church like child abuse and dubious lifestyle of some of the hierarchy. This should not deter us to proclaim the gospel of Jesus. As St. Paul said, “Woe to me, if I do not preach the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:16). We need to proclaim the gospel in the way Jesus proclaimed it more than 2,000 years ago, bold and daring but also compassionate and hopeful. In word and in deed, we need to proclaim, what Pope Francis has proposed, the joy of the Gospel.

The purpose of the church is more than just calling people to the church to attend mass, liturgy and the sacraments. The church’s main purpose is to support and encourage people in their apprenticeship with Jesus. After all, the church is the members of the one body of Christ following, and many times stumbling, in their journey of apprenticeship with Jesus.

5TH SUNDAY OF EASTER: THE CHURCH OF “THE WAY”

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This Sunday is fifth Sunday of Easter which coincides with the special celebration of Mother’s Day.

Since its Mother’s day, let me begin by talking about my mother. My mother died 15 years ago. I regret that I was not always there during her last days here on earth. But I believe and hope that she is now in one of the many dwelling places of the Father’s house that Jesus promised in the gospel today. I remember during the days before she died how she was so concerned about us taking care of her, even worrying that she is taking too much of our time and spending so much money because of her sickness. She was less concerned about what will happen to her and more about what is happening to us because of her illness.

In today’s gospel Jesus felt so much the fear and anxiety of his disciples before his imminent departure. So Jesus begins by telling his disciples “not to be troubled”. On the night before his agonizing death, Jesus was less concerned about what will happen to him and more with what will happen to his disciples during his suffering and after his death.

The gospel today is part of the long after dinner discourse of Jesus (chapters 14 – 17 of John) when Jesus had his last supper and the foot washing with the disciples. The eminent American Biblical scholar Raymond Brown says that this discourse is comparable to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, or Luke’s collection of Jesus’ words as he traveled from Galilee to Jerusalem.

Sensing their confusion and anxiety Jesus promised his abiding presence to the disciples. “I will come back again and take you to myself, so the where I am you also may be.” The Greek word “dwelling place” (14:2) is the noun of John’s verb “abide.” Jesus’ departure will not cut off the ties between him and his disciples; even as he prepares a “dwelling place” for them, he will “abide” with them.

But the disciples are confused. It is as if Jesus and disciples were speaking in two different worlds. Thomas asked: “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Jesus’ response is one of the most beautiful quotes about Him: “I AM the Way. I AM Truth and I AM Life.” Jesus does not only tell us where to go. He is himself the Way. If Jesus abides with us and we abide in Jesus, we will know the way.

Interestingly, one of the first names people call the early church is “The Way”. In fact, this is the name which was widely used for the early church. They were known more widely as “the Way”, than as “Christians”, especially as Paul introduces himself as a follower of “the Way” to the Governor, and not as a “Christian”(Acts 24:14), even though they were known as “Christians” in Acts 11:26. This name probably originated from today’s gospel where Christ called Himself “The Way”(Joh 14:6).

Like the disciples, we are many times confused. We have lots of doubts, uncertainties and questions in life especially now during this pandemic. Jesus said to his disciples and is saying to us now that a life dedicated to following him is a life of abiding in him who is the way. In the times of the early church, believers were referred to as “followers of the way.” Following Jesus as way implies tension. In the long after dinner discourse, Jesus speaks of himself as one between two worlds: he is here with his disciples and yet no longer a part of this world (16:5; 17:11). As followers of Jesus we experience the tensive character of our existence in this world; we are in this world but we are not of this world.

Our life here on earth is always on the way as this is not our final destination. We are not at ease on earth as our final destination is the dwelling place in the Father’s house that Jesus has prepared for us. We are viatores or pilgrims towards becoming beatorum—one with God at the end of times. As the medical doctor Robert Herrmann explains in his book, Expanding Humanity’s Vision of God,

Between the resurrection and the final “kingdom of God” the church is not ecclesia triumphans but ecclesia viatorum. As ecclesia viatorum the church has not yet reached its fulfillment, but it is already on its way. In a similar vein, since the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the whole creation (heaven and earth as well as nature and culture) has become a creatio viatorum on its way to the final completion and transformation. As a creatio viatorum creation is characterized by a temporary simultaneity of the old and the new.

While we are on the way here on earth we are called to become “living stones” as Peter proclaims in the second reading. We the disciples form the stones that make up the visible presence of the invisible God. And as Jesus said in the gospel, to continue his presence in the world we will “do the works I do.” Jesus even said that the believing community will have power to do “even greater works than these.” This is not about worldly power, but the divine power who will do greater things in the followers of Jesus so they may become signs of God’s kingdom “already here but not yet.”

The Eucharist is the celebration of this tension as well as the sacrament that gives food and drink in this tension-filled journey. The Eucharist is making present the memory of Jesus as well as the glory of his return in the end; it is a memorial of the past as well as a rehearsal of the future.

3RD SUNDAY OF EASTER: JESUS WALKING WITH US ON THE ROAD

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on the road to the mission area, Cagayan Redemptorist mission 2014

Today’s gospel is my favorite resurrection story in the New Testament. It is a beautiful story full of symbolism and overflowing with meaning.

The gospel story is the story of the risen Jesus’ appearance to two disciples on the road to Emmaus. One of the disciples is named Cleopas while his companion remains unnamed. Emmaus is roughly 10 to 12 km from Jerusalem.

The name Emmaus is derived from the Hebrew form hamma or hammat (חמת) which means “warm spring.”  Emmaus may have been a spa or a resort place; it would be fair to say, the Las Vegas or Pansol in those days. Why are these two disciples going to Emmaus on the afternoon of the day when they were supposed to celebrate because Jesus resurrected? As we can glean from the gospel, they were walking away from the hurt and humiliation in Jerusalem and going to a place which could take the pain away or at least distract them from it.

In other words, the journey to Emmaus was a walking away from Jerusalem which was supposed to be the fulfilment of their dream but has been shattered by the shame and humiliation of the cross. When they entered Jerusalem together with Jesus, they were hoping that Jesus will sit in glory like the kings and emperors. As it turns out, Jesus was an epic failure, dying in the most shameful way. This is too hard to take; feeling dejected, they walked away. Unknown to them, Jesus rose from the dead on the third day, as he promised.

Despite the two disciples walking away from the resurrection, the Risen Jesus walks with them as a fellow-traveller. Despite that the disciples betrayed, abandoned, and denied him during the time that he needed them most—in his hour of passion, suffering and death; despite not believing in his words that he will rise up again, Jesus walks and accompanied them in their doubts and frustrations as they walk out of the resurrection.

But why on earth did they not recognize Jesus in spite that Jesus walks side-by-side with them? It is utterly ridiculous not to recognize Jesus whom they have ardently followed and recognized as their Master for the past three years.

We can only conjecture two reasons. First, the humiliation and pain of unfulfilled expectation were so heavy that in spite of Jesus walking with them side by side, their eyes was closed even to the people around them.  Second, perhaps they did not recognize Jesus because the appearance of the resurrected body of Jesus might have been different from the earthly body of Jesus they have followed and interacted with before.

It was on the road that Jesus had to explain to them once again why he had to go through his suffering in order to fulfill the promises that God had told the prophets. The messiah has to go through suffering and death but attains glory and emerge victorious from death in the end. This is a powerful symbol of discipleship–Jesus and the two disciples walking, following and listening to Jesus who is the way.

The story of Emmaus represents the deepest truth of our lives. We have experienced many times in our lives walking away from failures and disillusionments – not recognized for the true worth of our efforts, not getting the job we wanted, not being loved by the one whom we love, not achieving our goals, etc. On the other hand, these experiences have taught us great lessons about life and have made us a stronger and better person.

But the gospel story today points us to the biggest fundamental walking away that we need to hurdle in life – the walking away from following Jesus’ passion, death up to the resurrection in Jerusalem. We can never understand the core meaning of our lives unless we learned not to walk away from our own death and resurrection. The core meaning of life as Jesus showed us is giving up life. Not giving up on life but dying to one’s life. In other words, the core meaning of life, the reason why Jesus gave his life for us on the cross, is love.

The redemption of the story is that the two disciples returned to Jerusalem to announce the good news and never to walk away again from the life-giving vocation that Jesus did in Jerusalem.

But this realization happened to the two disciples not without the Eucharist. The story of Emmaus is also the story of the Eucharist. Eucharist is the celebration of Easter. It is the celebration of the Risen Lord walking with us through life’s journey even if we walk away from resurrection.

In the Eucharist we who are followers on the road gather together and encounter Jesus. First, in the Liturgy of the Word as the Scriptures are broken open and explained, and, second, in the Liturgy of the Eucharist, where what Jesus did for us through his suffering, death and resurrection is remembered with thanksgiving and the bread that is now his Body and the wine that is now his Blood, is shared among those who are the Members of that Body to strengthen their union and their commitment to continuing the work of Jesus.

23RD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: THE FREEDOM OF BEING DISCIPLES OF CHRIST

youth-Laoag

Some of the misconceptions put forward against Christianity is that it curtails freedom. Some atheists and agnostics argue that Christianity is very stifling and suffocating as it puts a lot of demands.

On the other hand, true believers in Christ can attest to the fact that following Jesus is a very liberating experience. They truly experienced Jesus’ words: “The truth will set you free” (John 8: 32). They experienced true freedom after they discovered the truth about themselves and the world as a consequence of following Jesus. Subsequently, this entailed throwing off the lies and deceptions to which they have been captive for so long.

In the second reading of today’s 22nd Sunday in ordinary time, St. Paul wrote to Phelemon on behalf of Onesimus, a runaway slave who had wronged his owner Philemon, to receive him no longer as a slave but as a “brother beloved.”

that you might have him back forever,
no longer as a slave
but more than a slave, a brother,
beloved especially to me, but even more so to you,
as a man and in the Lord.
So if you regard me as a partner, welcome him as you would me.

St. Paul’s letter to Philemon is a prison letter, co-authored by Paul with Timothy, to Philemon, a leader in the Colossian church. It is often assumed from the letter that Onesimus, a slave, had fled Philemon, his owner, after stealing money, as Paul states in verse 18 that if Onesimus owes anything, Philemon should charge this to Paul’s account. Sometime after leaving, Onesimus came into contact with Paul, although again the details are unclear. He may have been arrested and imprisoned alongside Paul. Alternatively, he may have previously heard Paul’s name (as his owner was a Christian) and so travelled to him for help. After meeting Paul, Onesimus became a Christian believer. An affection grew between them, and Paul would have been glad to keep Onesimus with him. However, he considered it better to send him back to Philemon with an accompanying letter, which aimed to effect reconciliation between them as Christian brothers.

There is a very radical idea that Paul puts forward in this letter. Paul was implying to Philemon that the consequence of Onesimus’ conversion to Christ is that the runaway is no longer simply a slave but a “brother in the Lord.” Let us remember that slavery was an accepted institution in Paul’s time. In this letter, therefore, Paul states a revolutionary idea, especially during those times, that there are no longer divisions between slaves and free people in Christ. In fact, as Paul wrote in another letter – the letter to the Galatians (3:28) – all divisions and exclusion should be eliminated in the new family of God:

There is no longer Jew or Greek,
there is no longer slave or free,
there is no longer male and female;
for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Baptism into the body of Christ created an equality of dignity that transcends distinctions grounded in race, law, and even gender. Paul has planted a seed here that, with painful slowness, will come to fruition centuries later.

The Christian paradox of freedom is written all over the letter. Although Paul was in prison, he was proclaiming about freedom. His external environment may have been the prison but internally he was absolutely free. He talked about the new-found identity of Onesimus who is no longer a slave but a brother on equal putting with fellow Christians because of his conversion to Christ. He was imploring Philemon to accept Onesimos back into his care with this new found freedom in Christ.

Indeed, you cannot hold captive a person even if you incarcerate him. The names of  Nelson Mandela, our national hero Jose Rizal, St. Thomas More, Dietrich Bonhoeffer,  immediately comes to my mind. Sometimes those who are in jail are freer than those who are living outside of jail but are held captive by their own internal demons for so long.

Paul’s sensitive and clever letter of intercession illustrates well the point of this Sunday’s Gospel. When Jesus lays down the shocking teaching that following him entails a readiness to turn one’s back on family members, he states a stark consequence that accompanies good news: finding and following the will of God in Jesus makes us part of a new family that goes deeper (and wider) than blood.

This comes, however, at the expense of one of the harshest words of Jesus about family life found in the New Testament:

“If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother,
wife and children, brothers and sisters,
and even his own life,
he cannot be my disciple.
Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me
cannot be my disciple.”

American biblical scholar, John J. Pilch commented that in Jesus’ time, the main rule of behavior is: family first! A disciple who deliberately cuts ties with family and social network will lose the ordinary means of making a living. This is the “economic cross” the disciple has chosen to carry.

No longer able to make claims to a livelihood based on blood ties and advantageous social network, a disciple have to rely on “hospitality,” which in the Middle East is extended exclusively by strangers to strangers (see Lk 9:4-5; 10:3-12). This risk-filled option is quite a cross to carry.

By joining a new, fictive family consisting of other disciples of Jesus, however, a “family-hating” person presumably has a new source of livelihood. Nevertheless, a disciple who has accepted these challenging exhortations will effectively have given up everything. Therefore, a would-be disciple must seriously calculate the costs.

Two brief parables (about construction and waging war) drive this point home. Anyone who weakens and abandons this determination will become the butt of ridicule and shame. A disciple must remain firmly committed.

Jesus teaches us today that discipleship requires both renunciation and calculation. Those who wish to follow him must renounce everyone and everything that gets in the way of a single-minded response to Jesus’ invitation to be his disciple. At the same time, disciples are not naively to follow Jesus. They must calculate and consent to the cost—the price is giving their all, even their own life. What the One who calls gives disciples in return, however, is beyond calculation—fullness of new Life

Christian freedom is one of the many paradoxes of the Christian faith. True freedom means willingly becoming a slave to Christ, which happens through an ever growing relationship with Him (Colossians 2:16–17).

To follow Jesus of taking up of one’s cross is a sheer act of freedom. Following Jesus is liberating. It frees us from all attachments, prejudices, possessions and barriers to experiencing the redeeming grace of the cross. At the cost of leaving behind our own family and our own small lives, however, we gain a hundredfold of families and we become fully human and fully alive.