Fr. Bryan Howard
17th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C – 28 July 2019
The force of our readings today is that we have been made members of the family of God through the grace of the Holy Spirit which we have received by being baptized into the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. We take it for granted that God is our Father and we are His children, adoptive brothers and sisters of Jesus, but that is actually a revolutionary idea. The Jewish people think of Israel as a whole as a child of God, but the only individual in the Old Testament to be called a Son of God was King Solomon. The Muslims consider it blasphemy to call God Father. They consider themselves servants or slaves of God. In most of our most common prayers we call God Father: I believe in God the Father Almighty, Glory be to the Father, and Our Father who art in heaven.
We know that God is our Father and we are His children, but we don’t always act like it. We bargain with God, make deals with Him, we think that we need to buy our way into God’s family by being “good people,” You cannot earn heaven; there isn’t enough gold in the world to buy eternal life. You didn’t earn your place in your human family, you were born into it as a baby, and, no matter what you do, even if your actions cause you to be separated from the family, they are still your family, and, ideally, you can be forgiven if you truly repent and change your way of life. It’s the same with God’s family. You are born into it, often as a baby, through baptism, which Jesus calls being born from above. You can’t stop being a part of God’s family, the Church, but your actions can cause you to be separated from it, but forgiveness is always available for those who repent and pledge to change their lives. The “Our Father” isn’t just a prayer, it’s an expression of trust in “Our Father.”
In the Mass, at the prayer of consecration over the chalice, the priest says, “Take this, all of you, and drink of it, for this is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the New and Eternal Covenant.” The covenant is one of the most important ideas for understanding what it means to be a Christian. A covenant is a holy, family bond that is sealed by making a sacrifice of blood and taking an oath. Unfortunately, we usually treat the New Covenant as a type of contract. They are both agreements between people which are sealed by a promise and have consequences if they’re broken.
The most common covenant we enter is marriage, where two people who are unrelated go before God, take oaths, and become family and from that point on they share their lives with one another. So, a contract is about the exchange of goods and services; a covenant is about sharing life. A contract is for a limited time; a covenant is for an unlimited time, until death. A contract is sealed by invoking my own name; a covenant is sealed by invoking God’s name, because we recognize that we need God’s help to keep our promises.
At our baptisms the Holy Spirit entered our souls, making us Temples of the Holy Trinity, because God Himself came to live in us. As we sang before reading the Gospel, “You have received a Spirit of adoption, through which we cry, Abba, Father.” There’s nothing we can do to buy our way into God’s family; it’s a totally free and unearned gift, a grace, as it were. However, now that we’re in God’s family, we are expected to live as members of God’s family. St. Paul writes earlier in the same letter that we just heard from, “So, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, walk in him, rooted in him and built upon him and established in the faith as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.” The Holy Spirit gives us the power that we need to keep God’s commandments, but we still need to actually walk in them, to walk in Christ.
How do we know what we should do? Take Jesus Himself as your example. Form your conscience by studying the Word of God in the Bible and by keeping the traditions of the Church. In the traditions of the Church and the lives of the saints, we see the Wisdom of God as it has actually been lived out in real lives over the course of two millennia. There is a lot of wisdom there, and we can make it our own.
Finally, what happens when we inevitably break God’s commandments and commit sins? We sometimes presume on God’s mercy by assuming that He will forgive us, which is disrespectful of God. We also sometimes underestimate God’s mercy and love, by thinking that our sins are too terrible or that we are unforgivable. Read our first reading again. God is eager to show mercy, but we have to want to be forgiven, and for that we need to admit that we’re wrong and that we’ve sinned. If Jesus could look down from the Cross at the very people who put Him there, the Roman legionaries, and pray for the Father to forgive them, then He can certainly forgive us. His heart was pierced on the Cross for our forgiveness, so let us not harden our hearts but break them open in the Confessional and allow God to remake them, to recreate us, in His compassion. The Most Holy Eucharist and the Sacrament of Confession are the Sacraments par excellence of God’s mercy, because it was through the shedding of His blood that the life of God was poured out for us, and through Confession the Divine life that was lost in sin is restored to our souls. Our Heavenly Father is a father who knows how to give good gifts to His children; let us learn to eagerly await those gifts.
Fr. Bryan was pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes from July 3, 2017 to June 2022.