3rd Sunday of Lent
Preached March 24, 2019; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon
The gardener in the Gospel today gained from the landowner another year for the fig tree; Jesus Christ, through his death and resurrection has gained for humanity another “year”, the “Year of the Lord”, Anno Domini (AD), in the presence of God. We do not, however, know how long this ‘year’ will last.
Meanwhile, in terms of ordinary years, it seems that every year now we meet with in the Scripture readings at Mass that seem disturbingly real.
Today Jesus makes reference to the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with the blood of their sacrifices – in other words he had sent his soldiers into the Temple and they had massacred worshippers in the Temple.
Now most fresh in our memory is the March 15 shooting at the mosque in New Zealand. I would not consider a mosque to be a temple, nevertheless men and women were gunned down while they were praying.
Last October worshippers were gunned down while praying in a synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Those two incidents, however, pale in comparison with the growing frequency of attacks on Christian churches. To mention just a few of the more prominent recent attacks: In 2017 there were the Palm Sunday bombings St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Alexandria, Egypt and also St. George’s Coptic Orthodox Church; May 13, 2018 there were bombings at three churches, one of them Catholic, in the second largest city in Indonesia; on January 27 of this year two bombs exploded at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, in Jolo, Sulu in the Philippines. Yes, all those bombings were the work of Muslim terrorists.
Jesus gives us today a very simple message about all of these events: If you do not repent, you will perish as they did.
How did they perish? They died in this world, but the more important question is what happened when they went before the judgment seat of God? Just because they were in a church praying does not mean that they were ready to go before God. No doubt some of them were ready and are now together with him in heaven. Quite likely some of them were not.
To repent means to remember that we might die at any time and that we must seek to be prepared at all times to stand before the judgment seat of God, even if we
happen to die a violent death in a church – and it will make a difference if it is a church, a synagogue, or a mosque.
Whenever we make a complete and sincere confession we anticipate and in a way prepare for our final appearance before God’s judgment seat.
If we turn now to today’s 2nd reading this message of repentance comes across very clearly. The reading refers to the experience of the Israelites in the desert as an example and warning for Christians in the practice of their faith. It will help if we flesh out this example just a little.
Moses, as God’s chosen instrument, led the people of Israel out of their slavery in Egypt and through the 40 years of wandering in the desert. Moses and all the generation of adults that left Egypt, except for Joshua and Caleb, died in the desert. Joshua led the next generation into the promised land.
In today’s reading St. Paul speaks of the life of the people as united by their common ‘baptism into Moses’ (which refers to the experience of crossing the Red Sea) and sharing the same spiritual food and drink, the manna and the water from the rock.
Not even Moses and Aaron were completely faithful during this time, but only Joshua and Caleb.
Consequently, their common baptism into Moses and their common spiritual food and drink were not enough to ensure their entrance into the promised land.
Nevertheless the only ones to enter the promised land (Joshua, Caleb, and the new generation that grew up in the desert) were those who belonged to the people of Israel, were baptized into Moses, and ate the same spiritual food and spiritual drink. It is not enough to belong to the people of God, but it is necessary to belong to the people of God.
We can now apply this to the Christian life. The Church, as the new people of God, has been led out of the slavery of sin and death by Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. We have all been baptized into Christ and we all share the same spiritual food, the Body of Christ, and the same spiritual drink, the Blood of Christ.
At present we find ourselves in the desert of this life, of this world, making our way to the promised land of the world to come and the resurrection from the dead. Only Jesus and Mary, because they are completely sinless, had no need to die to their pride and self-will in the desert journey of this life. For the rest of us, the old man that came out of slavery in Egypt must be put to death, while we are still in this life, because only the new man, which we received in baptism, will be able to enter into the promised land of eternal life.
Just as those Israelites who desired evil things and grumbled against God and Moses failed to enter into the life of the promised land, so those members of the Church
who desire evil things and grumble against Christ and his Church, if they do not repent, will fail to enter into the promise of eternal life.
Now much more is at stake. It is written in the Letter to the Hebrews: How shall we escaped if we neglect so great a salvation? (He 2:3)
We see that it is not enough to be baptized and to receive holy communion; it is not enough to receive the sacrament only in outward, visible fashion; a person must receive also the grace and power of the sacrament and so be transformed in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
St. Paul writes: Whoever eats the bread and drinks the cup unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself. (1 Cor 11:27-29)
It is not enough, then, just to belong visibly to the Church, but one must live by the interior life of the Church. There can be found in the depths of hell even some of those who in this life represented, in different ways, the visibility of the Church as Popes, Cardinals, Bishops, Priests, Monks, and Nuns.
It is not enough just to belong to the Church; but it is necessary to belong to the Church.
Repentance, then, means more than recognizing my sins and seeking to change my ways. Repentance requires not only reconciliation with God, but also reconciliation with the Church through the sacrament of penance. We must walk together with the Church in this world. Repentance means that we must stop living only on the visible surface and enter into and live by the deep reality of the Church. Through true repentance the grace of our baptism becomes a living and dynamic force in our life; through true repentance we begin to be truly nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ.
Repentance leads us to live already here and now in union with the God who is, the God is the source of all that exists, that God upon whom all things depend at every moment for their existence.
In the letter to the Hebrews it is written: Our God is a consuming fire. (Heb 12:29) This divine fire is the fire of love. Nevertheless, that very fire of love will destroy forever in hell those who refuse love; on the other hand, that fire will transform and make blessed forever those who say ‘yes’ to the love of God, like the Virgin Mary, and so become like the bush that Moses saw in the desert.
As I live, says the Lord God, I desire not the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way, and live. (Ex 33:11)