Monday, June 24, 2013

Belonging and Suffering

This weekend, I was privileged to give the homily at three different parish churches: St. Matthew's in Gillette and its missions of St. Patrick's in Moorcroft and Blessed Sacrament in Wright. The Sunday readings were all about belonging, but you've got to look hard to find it. We all want to belong, we may not be able to identify it, or we may deny it (like I did when I was a teenager), but we all want to belong to some group, whether it's a family or church or social group. I want to explore this idea of belonging in the readings today, but stick with me because we'll have to look hard to find it.

To start looking at the idea of belonging, I actually want to start with the second reading. The second reading, from St. Paul's letter to the Galatians, we can see the the theme of belonging starting to emerge. Before Paul wrote his letter to Galatia, he had already visited In Galatia, Paul had already established the Church there, and after he left, problems arose and this required him to write his letter to them. In Galatia, there were Jewish Christian missionaries who had come in after Paul left and started telling the Galatian Church that they had to follow all the Jewish laws if they wanted to follow Jesus Christ. Paul, throughout all his writings, insisted to the Gentile converts that they did not have to follow all of the Jewish laws to follow Christ and be saved. They would be saved only through faith in Jesus Christ. Through faith in Jesus, they too could belong to the people to whom God had promised so much. That group is the Church, it's us. Paul wanted to tell the Galatians, and he wants to tell us, that through faith, we become heirs of God's promises, we belong to this group of God's chosen people. 

Then, if we back up to the first reading, the theme of belonging seems to disappear, and instead we hear a prophesy about Jesus, "him who they have pierced," and we hear about how this pierced side will be a fountain to purify us from our sins. This pierced side, this crucified Jesus, actually unites us into one common people.

In the Gospel, we see Peter declare that Jesus is the Christ, the promised one of God. In this reading, immediately after Peter declares who Jesus is, "You are the Christ of God," Jesus says that to follow him, to belong to this group, you have to carry a cross and even lose your life in order to follow him.

So let's imagine ourselves for a minute as one of Jesus apostles, as one of the Twelve that follow him around. In Luke's story, a lot of cool things have happened so far. It all started with that huge catch of fish, we've seen Jesus healing the sick and crippled, and he even raised a person from the dead. He's been telling the Pharisees off and making them look dumb, and we especially like that because we don't really like them anyway. And then we fed 5,000 people with only a couple of leaves and fish. Add all of this together, and we know we are where we want to be. We definitely want to on Jesus's side, because he is going places. Now, Peter has his great confession, he declared exactly who Jesus is! He figured it out! Can life get any better?

But then, Jesus talks about suffering. It's easy to understand that the apostles did not see this coming. Look at all the cool things were doing, we don't want to think about suffering and crosses. It's easy to imagine the apostles trying to hush him up when he says this, because so far they've only been wandering around, helping people and having a good time. You can imagine them saying, "Sometimes, Jesus says crazy things. Normally he's a great guy, but sometimes he says these off-the-wall things. We just ignore him when he says things like this."

Also, imagine how shocking it is to hear Jesus talk about a cross. The cross is an instrument of humiliation and execution, brought in by the Roman powers that are occupying Israel. To those who heard him, the cross could not be a path to holiness, and to talk about it like everyone needs to get themselves one of these tools of execution could not win him any friends. 

But if we believe him when he commands us to forgive our neighbor, if we believe him when he tells us how much the Father loves us, then we have to believe him when he tells us that we too must suffer. We have to believe him when tells us that following him requires carrying a cross.

I think sometimes we lose sight of the value of suffering. Sometimes, we forget how suffering, how undergoing trials and difficulties in our life, actually brings us closer to God. The saints all throughout our history, from the earliest martyrs to the saints of our own time, testify to the importance of suffering. But what sort of suffering am I talking about? It depends on the person, I think. Some people are invited to physically Jesus's pain on the Cross. For most of us, joyfully accepting the sufferings of daily life is all The Lord asks of us. St. Terese of Lisieux, one of my favorite saints, talked about the Little Way to holiness. She emphasized how much God loves us, and how we could love him in return simply by accepting joyfully the little things that come along with our daily life. She talked about the importance of fulfilling the duties God puts before you, duties to your family and your work, and fulfilling them well. 

This suffering that was predicted for Jesus, this suffering that is necessary for us, is how we belong to him, it's a necessary part of belonging to this group of Jesus's followers. It's necessary because Jesus suffered, and so we must suffer with him. Paul tells us that baptism and faith in Jesus is a necessary part of belonging to this group, and Jesus tells us that suffering is another component that is inseparable from the Christian journey.

It's never a fun thing to preach about suffering, but if Jesus talks about it then I have to also. We know, however, that suffering is temporary, but if we belong to this group of Christians, this group of sufferers, and if we endure through it, then the joy of heaven follows. So whatever sufferings your life entails, and I'm in a tough position because I don't know most of you well enough to know what your particular suffering is, accept it joyfully. By this suffering, you are being purified. By this suffering, you are growing closer to Jesus. So accept it and live it joyfully, because one day all sufferings will indeed end in heaven.

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