Monday, August 11, 2008

Celebrating a Saint and a Seminarian

Editorial Note: The following homily was preached at a Eucharist celebrating the Feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola (July 31) and the completion of Kevin Johnson's summer internship at St. Peter's

The lives of the saints are a source of constant encouragement to us. In celebrating their lives we are reminded that God works mightily even in the most difficult and confusing of times through all kinds of people. In the lives of the saints we discover the many dimensions of sanctity and the infinite beauty of God's redeeming work. There is the intellectual sanctity of a Thomas Aquinas, the gentle sanctity of a Francis of Assisi, the patient sanctity of a Francis de Sales, the mystical sanctity of a Catherine of Sienna and the zealous sanctity of an Ignatius of Loyola, whom we celebrate today.
Ignatius of Loyola was an upwardly mobile Spanish knight and courtier who was badly injured defending the city of Pamplona from French attack in 1521. During a long recovery period marked by painful operations on his legs, Ignatius read devotional literature, searched his soul and had a profound religious experience. The direction of his life was profoundly changed: he left off devoted service to the powerful Hapsburg monarchy and surrendered himself to the service of Jesus Christ.
Ignatius went on to study theology at Paris in 1528 and a circle quickly gathered around him. Eventually this circle organized itself as the Society of Jesus and in 1540 it became an official religious order. Within twenty-five years, the Society had three thousand men serving on three continents. Today, of course, we know Ignatius' society as the Jesuits. His intention was to form spiritually disciplined men capable of undertaking the work of spiritual direction, instruction and evangelizing. They would be so formed that instead of the world shaping them they would shape the world. And they did. The Jesuits have produced a long stream of theologians, teachers, parish priests and missionaries.
The encouragement offered by Ignatius' story is the knowledge that God is ever renewing his Church by calling to himself those who whom he has given a zeal for the Gospel. Kevin, tonight we pause to offer thanks to God that you have been called into this service and granted this zeal. In you we see the zeal of St. Ignatius.
As you prepare to depart St. Peter's, I have the charge of delivering some parting words, words of encouragement and advice. What I would like to focus on tonight is three dimensions of ministry.
(1) Calling: Kevin, we begin with your old friend Jeremiah, who has been one of your companions this summer. In the account of his call in Jeremiah 1:4-19 we discover the foundation of all true ministry: the Creator of heaven and earth who mysteriously and gratuitously calls human beings into his service. For me, the dramatic contrast in this scene is between God's complete knowledge of Jeremiah and Jeremiah's painful sense of inadequacy. God tells Jeremiah "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you" (1:5). Understandably, Jeremiah is overwhelmed by this calling: "Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth" (1:6).
Kevin, calling is the source of all proper humility in ministry. The work that lies ahead of you is not work that you have selected for yourself but work which God, who knows you completely, has selected for you. Remember, therefore, that what is at stake in all you do is not your ego, career or reputation but the honor and reputation of God. We are called to a constant humility about ourselves but we are never called to be humble about the One who has called and sent us.
Ministry involves travail and suffering. There will be times when you find yourself pressed to the limit and wondering how you got into this mess and even wondering if you are really doing any good. Sometimes you will wonder if you are going to make it with your sanity intact. These are what we might call "Jeremiah moments" and I have no doubt that you know exactly what this means because you know Jeremiah. In such moments, God's word to Jeremiah will become important to you: "Do not be dismayed...behold, I make you this day a fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze walls, against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests, and the people of the land" (1:18).
Always remember Paul's heavily theological question about his own apostolic ministry in 2 Corinthians 2:16: "Who is sufficient for these things?" The answer, of course, is "none of us". The fact that none of us is sufficient to serve God properly apparently does not bother God overly much and so it should not bother us overly much either. Moses offered a whole list of excuses for why he was inadequate and God did not listen to him; God is still not listening to people with excuses today. As a matter of theological fact, there is something significant about our weakness: "But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us" (2 Corinthians 4:7). In short, your calling, Kevin, constitutes a promise: God has called you and will sustain you in this calling.
(2) Church: It is impossible to understand what ministry is without understanding what the Church is. Unfortunately, the default position of many American Christians is a profound lack of seriousness about the Church--one which borders on contempt or cynicism. As I read the New Testament, it does not appear to me that Jesus gives us the option of choosing between himself and his Church. This certainly does not mean that the Church is without error, fault or sin; it simply means that we are not free to completely separate Christ from his people--he does not wish to be so separated.
Ephesians 5:25-32 seems to make this point in a dramatic way: Christ is related to his Church as a husband is related to his wife. And just so that we don't forget how a husband is related to his wife, Paul quotes Genesis 2:24 in Ephesians 5:31: husband and wife become "one flesh". There are people who don't take the Church seriously (some of these people are bishops and priests) and so turn her into a social club, a political party or a prop for their own ego. There are people who don't take the Church seriously (self-designated "seekers" and skeptics) because they consider themselves too spiritual, too good or too sophisticated to mess with her. Both kinds of people commit blasphemy against the Bride of Christ. To reject the Church is to reject her Lord. To despise the Church is, in Paul's graphic phrase, to crucify Christ all over again (cf. Hebrews 6:6).
The state of the Church is always a cause for scandal--since Good Friday the Church has always been a cause of disappointment. But we need to remember that our faith directs us not to what she is right now but to what Christ has promised she will be: "that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor...that she might be holy and without blemish" (Ephesians 5:26, 27).
People tend to love the Church generally for the wrong reasons--because of sentimental attachments, architecture, self-interest or denominational loyalty. We are called to love the Church for one reason: because Christ loves her.
Kevin, I hope that your ministry will always be sustained by a deep love of the Church because real love for the Church does not blind us to her faults but, rather, allows us to see her for what she truly is and will be when Christ perfects her.
(3) Connection: One of the things the lives of the saints remind us of is that Christ is not simply a figure from the past but is our contemporary. The Jesus who sat at table with his disciples in the Upper Room also comes to join us as we gather to celebrate the Eucharist. It is not we who discover Jesus through historical research but it is Christ who discovers us in our present--being eternal and by virtue of his ascension, all times are part of his present.
In John 15:1-17 Jesus uses an organic metaphor to describe his relationship to us: "I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing (John 15:5).
Notice that this metaphor emphasizes two things. First, the metaphor emphasizes the organic, living connection between Christ and his people. Apart from a living connection to Christ we are lifeless and fruitless branches--we are capable of nothing. Jesus must be our contemporary because we can not live without him. Second, the metaphor emphasizes the organic connection among Christ's people, the branches of the vine. The Church is truly a fruitful vine when she lives in intimate communion with Christ and when her members live in intimate communion with each other through him.
One thing that this text suggests is the centrality of eucharistic fellowship. The Eucharist is a central way in which Christ knits us together both with himself and with each other. To take this seriously, is to recognize that what holds the Church together is not friendliness, like-mindedness or even our attractive personalities. What holds the Church together, when she is really the Church, is Christ's act of granting us communion with himself and, therefore, his act of granting us communion with each other.
It is important to remember that this communion is given for the sake of mission: "If you abide in me, and my words abide in you...you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples" (John 15:7, 8).
Kevin, you will discover that the Eucharist can be two very different things in a congregation: it can be a largely fruitless routine or a life-giving connection with the risen Christ and his work. The difference between the two is largely due to the willingness of those who receive the sacrament to allow Christ to transform them. Our lives are truly "eucharisticized" when we can say with Paul "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (cf. Galatians 2:20).
The Eucharist is a tremendous source of energy for ministry. Not only does Christ promise to feed us with this sacrament, he gives us this sacrament as a sign of his living presence among us. As St. Thomas Aquinas says, the whole of our salvation is shown forth in this sacrament. In this sense, the Eucharist is to the New Covenant what the Tabernacle and the manna were to the Old Covenant. As we gather at the altar, the Eucharist is our Tabernacle reminding us that the risen Christ travels with us on our journey and our manna which sustains us until we arrive at our destination. The last verse of the book of Exodus foreshadows well what the Eucharist is to the New Covenant: "For the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys" (Exodus 40:38). Throughout all their journeys.
All this is a complex way of making a simple point: The great secret of the Church, the great secret of all faithful ministry is a hope which is wider than the world; wider because it comes from beyond the world. We are sustained by the hope that in Christ's death, resurrection and ascension God has already triumphed over the world, the flesh and devil. The tremendous burden of redeeming the world and redeeming ourselves does not fall on our shoulders. The burden of redeeming the world and of redeeming our lives has been shouldered by God himself, the God who always keeps his promises, the God who does not lie and who will indeed bring his work to a glorious conclusion: "And he who was seated on the throne said, 'Behold, I am making all things new.' And he said, "Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.' And he said to me, 'It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End'" (Revelation 21:5,6).

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