Sunday, July 31, 2011

"What will separate us ...?"

For the 5th consecutive Sunday, the 2nd reading today is taken from the 8th chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans [Romans 8:35, 37-39]. Today’s text is a rhetorical flourish, which concludes both this chapter and the whole 1st half of St. Paul’s letter.
What will separate us, St. Paul dramatically asks, from God’s love for us as revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord? His answer: nothing will! Not that there isn’t plenty out there to get in the way of our experience of God’s love! Not for Paul the complacent, self-satisfied posturing that pretends that there are no obstacles and that everything is automatic! Paul knows only too well what obstacles there are and how powerful they seem to be. He even enumerates a bunch of them: anguish, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, the sword.
Paul’s point is not that these things are no longer real or that they don’t threaten us, but that God’s power is greater than the forces that oppose it – and so can overcome all obstacles that threaten to separate us from God and the salvation his love intends for us.
Nor does Paul confine his concern to impersonal forces. Like most people for most of human history, he experienced his world as affected by the presence of powerful beings, demonic beings, who make this world a very dangerous place. In Paul’s time – as again in our own increasingly re-paganized society – desperate people turned to the falsehoods of astrology in order to cope with the threats from present things and future things.
Paul’s conviction, which he intends should become ours as well, is that God’s power is greater – awesomely greater – than that of any being that might oppose him in order to separate us from the salvation God’s love intends for us.
I know I’ve told this story before, but one of the 1st phone calls I had in my 1st assignment after seminary was from a someone who was anxious because the Devil was throwing books at her. Nothing had particularly prepared me to respond to this particular problem. So what I did was to try to assure her that God really is more powerful than the Devil, and that in Jesus God really has defeated the Devil once and for all.
That may or may not have been what she wanted to hear. If, however, we really believe in God’s omnipotence and in his love for us as revealed in Jesus, then we will react differently to the many stresses and challenges we might otherwise be beaten down by. The point is that we have to believe in both God’s omnipotence and his love. A God who was not all-powerful would be of at most limited value for us in this threatening and dangerous world. An all-powerful God who didn’t also love us, however, would only add to the danger. That was precisely the problematic premise of the pagan religions the Gospel was liberating so many Paul’s contemporaries from. No wonder scared, terrified pagans consulted astrologers! Can you blame them?
If God had not revealed himself – and his love for us – as he has done in his Son Jesus, we too would be equally desperate, clutching at any superstitious practice that promised to placate perhaps and maybe manipulate such dangerous powers.
God, however, has revealed his love for us – not as an abstraction, but as a person, Jesus, whose heart is moved with pity for us and satisfies us with food we could never buy on our own.
There will always be an insurmountable gap between our meager human resources – our 5 little loaves and 2 fish [Matthew 14:13-21] – and what God can accomplish on our behalf. Once we are willing to put ourselves at his disposal, however, God’s great love for us, present and active among us in Jesus, will transform us by his blessing and enable us to accomplish, on his behalf, what we could never ever have imagined doing on our own – to conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us.
And so the same Christ who feeds us whenever we assemble in his presence also commands us – as his disciples, as his Church – to join him wholeheartedly in feeding the world with the bread of joy that comes from recognizing and sharing his presence in our world.

Homily for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate conception Church, Knoxville, TN, July 31, 2011.

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