Sunday, July 5, 2015

Faith at the Limits

This is a really interesting note that the Gospel ends on, that Jesus was unable to perform any mighty deeds in that place because of their lack of faith. Jesus, Lord of all creation, unable to do something because of the attitudes and beliefs of another. That's worth a bit of attention on our part.

So first let's understand the context. We just heard from Mark's gospel, and we're going to hear from Mark's gospel for most of this year until Advent. Throughout Ordinary Time, we'll hear from it chronologically, and this is pretty early in the story. At the beginning of Mark's gospel, Jesus was baptized by John, then he was tempted in the desert, and immediately he called the apostles and started going around healing people.

So now, this is his first trip back to his hometown of Nazareth, and it doesn't go well. Granted, I don't think Jesus expected to be welcomed with open arms, but the reaction of the people of Nazareth shows what happens when you think that you understand God. All the Nazarenes had been checking their Facebook feeds and they've heard about these supposed healings that Jesus has been doing, and they can't accept it. They know him. They know his family. They know his job. They know that he isn't a healer or teacher, and they're not impressed that he's trying to act like one.

And because they couldn't accept this new thing that the town carpenter was showing them, because they couldn't accept that the carpenter might be a little bit more, he couldn't perform any of the mighty deeds there that they had been hearing about. Now, let's briefly deal with this word "couldn't." When the Gospel tells us that Jesus "couldn't" do something, we shouldn't see it as weakness on God's part. The church fathers, the first generation of bishops and leaders after the apostles, are pretty unanimous in understanding that two things are necessary for a healing to take place: power on the part of the healer and faith on the part of the one being healed. The power of God is of course limitless, but he doesn't force himself on us. He allows his power to be checked by our faith, so inasmuch as the townspeople didn't believe in him, Jesus's ever-present power could have no effect in their lives.

But on the other hand, think of the beautiful miracles that occurred because of the faith of the people that Jesus encountered. Last week we saw him raise a girl from the dead, and we saw a woman healed from a 12 year illness just by touching his cloak. The week before that we saw him calm a storm with just a word. Jesus never forced a miracle on anybody; he waits for faith, because faith dares to ask the impossible. Faith recognizes that the world is bigger than our limited minds can hold. Faith recognizes that the world is more beautiful than the ugliness that our eyes see before us.

So God makes his power dependent on our faith in that power. And yet, like the townspeople in Nazareth, we try to limit God and insist that we understand him. We try to insist that God is big, but he's not that big. When we do this, when we try to define for ourselves who and what God is, then we can miss him when he comes to us in a form we don't recognize, or don't want to recognize, and when we miss him because he's in a form we don't want to see, then we miss the chance to have his power work in our lives.

So what am I talking about here? If we don't accept that God can be present in the poor, if we judge them and just insist that they need to get a job, then we miss a chance for God's power to work in our lives. If we don't accept a piece of Church teaching, if we insist that the Church is wrong or just doesn't understand me when it comes to gay marriage, contraception, abortion, the importance of Sunday Mass, then we limit the power of God in our lives, because he works through our faith.

But on the other hand, if we seek out opportunities to serve the poor-personally and not anonymously-and ignore our own convictions about the reason for their plight, then we let God be bigger than what we can understand. If we embrace all of Church teaching and seek to learn and understand it rather than just insisting that it's wrong, then we let God be bigger than our imagination, and because of that openness God can rush in with his power and transform your life.

God operates at the limit of our own abilities and the limits of our own understandings because it is there that we have to stop relying on ourselves. If I live my life of faith only in ways that I find comfortable, then it's not really a life of faith at all, but rather a life of shallow security, because I depend on myself and my own strength for everything. But if I live at the edge of my comfort, serving those I don't want to, believing that which I do not understand, then that's the spot where I can't depend on my own strength anymore. That's the spot where I have to depend on God's power rather than my own understanding.

And that's what Paul is talking about in the second reading today. He tells the Corinthians about a "thorn in the flesh" or an "angel of Satan" that was given to him to keep him from being too elated. Now, Paul is being intentionally vague so we don't know exactly what this was. Scholars think it was either a sexual temptation, a physical disability like a speech impediment, or a persecution of some sort. Whatever it was, it stretched Paul to his limits so he couldn't depend on himself or his own strength anymore. So the Lord said to him, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." Paul learned to rely on God exactly at the point where his own strength was insufficient, and that's what we need to learn also.

So start here, at this Mass. As we prepare to offer the Eucharist, ask God to teach you the true value of the Mass. The Mass is of such infinite value that we can never really understand it. Learn to rely on God's infinite strength by really learning to see him in the Mass. Rely on God at the limit of your own strength and your own understanding, and his power will be made perfect in your weakness.

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