THE TWENTIETH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – C – August 14, 2016

A reading from the book of the prophet Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10

A reading from the letter to the Hebrews 12:1-4

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 12:49-53

 

Dear Jesus,

People are used to thinking of John the Baptist as a fire-and-brimstone, repent-or-perish kind of preacher.  You are portrayed popularly as the soothing, calming influence, the bringer of peace.  Your words in today’s Gospel should set the record straight.  Of course, it isn’t that you are threatening to call down fire from heaven upon those who are in your audience that fail to respond to you.  You rejected that kind of vindication sought on another occasion by James and John as a payback for a perceived insult.  Here it seems that you want those who are considering becoming your disciples to have no illusions about what they would be getting into, should they opt to go with you on the Way.

From this perspective it is difficult to imagine, much less appreciate, the difficulties incurred by converts in the early Church.  Couldn’t life go on pretty much the same after as it had before Baptism?  Some people seem to think that is possible today.  Wasn’t the important thing the new relationship with you?  Wouldn’t it be all about faith put into practice?  How can the present generation comprehend the totality of the death died in the Font in those early days following your Resurrection?  The shedding of their old clothes, their being stripped naked as they stood at the edge of the Font in preparation for being plunged into the depths was the sign of that death.  They would be plunged into the depths of the waters and there die to all that was, and so rise to newness of life in you.  As they came out of the font, the neophytes were clothed in white garments that symbolized their putting on Christ.  It is more than being clothed with, isn’t it?  The reality is that the baptized are identified with you, entered into the community of love that is God, and loved by God with the same love God has for you.  What could be more wonderful?

That was only the beginning, wasn’t it?  That is why you voiced the cautions and challenge would-be followers to consider the consequences of what they do.  Just as they were stripped of their old clothes before entering the Font, so, in many cases were they stripped of former occupations incompatible with their new life.  Jewish converts were thrown out of the synagogue.  If they were the only members of their families to take up the new way, they would have to be willing to endure being rejected by their families in order to follow you.  Was it better that they be warned that they could find themselves suddenly at odds with everything they had held familiar before they went any further, lest, putting their hands to the plow, they would regret their decision once they began to experience the implications?

I talked with a friend recently about the process of preparation for Baptism.  My friend asked me why the process had to be so lengthy and complicated.  Why should someone have to spend a whole Liturgical Year in the RCIA (The Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults)?  Isn’t that asking too much?  Shouldn’t it be sufficient that the person wants to be baptized?  Why should s/he have to spend the time in process, pondering the Scriptures, journeying through a full Liturgical Year, journeying with a sponsor and discerning in the midst of a faith community before being able to take the plunge, so to speak?

I prayed before I answered.  I wondered if you would agree with what I said.  In effect I came back to the readings for this Sunday.  Look at Jeremiah in the first reading.  Jeremiah was the reluctant prophet, the one who thought he was too young for the prophetic role.  Initiating the relationship, summoning Jeremiah to a faith walk, God touched Jeremiah’s lips and gave him the words to speak.  Faithfulness to his calling and to that word, and his announcing an unpopular message resulted in his being cast into a cistern.  Would he have taken up the role of the prophet had he known what he would have to endure because of his fidelity to God and to his vocation?  It might be better not to no what the future holds.

I told my friend that you, on the other hand, while not revealing the future to your disciples, wanted them to be aware of the implications of accepting your invitation, of responding to the gift of faith the Spirit placed in their hearts.  You do not want people to leap into the Font only to regret and retract their decision when trouble ensues.  You woo for a time, as do lovers in their period of engagement, that time to get to know each other, to deepen and intensify the bonds of friendship, and so be sure that this other is the one and only.  Then they stand before god to pledge the love and fidelity to each other that they will live for the rest of their lives.  I told him the RCIA was like that period of engagement.  The one feeling the call to Baptism spends time getting to know you and the experience of you through your body the Church.  Engagement can be a time of emotional highs when reason is muted and the couple feels indomitable.  Some marriages begun in haste unravel in short order.  The commitment evaporates.  The thing of beauty that is meant to mirror the community that is God dies and is no more.

It is a matter of commitment with you, isn’t it, a commitment to you and to the people you form and call your Body?  You want the person coming to faith and Baptism to make that commitment and keep it for all eternity.  You set yourself as the example of the commitment and fidelity as described by the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews: For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God.  For the sake of the faltering faithful, the reading continues: Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart.  In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood.  You want the neophyte to know that s/he might have to resist to that same point – and beyond.

We paused over our second cup of coffee and I realized that I had been caught up in the emotion of the telling.  As I stirred the fresh cup, I looked at my friend and wondered what difference all this would make to him?  Would it discourage him from jointing in the pursuit?  I said, “Don’t be afraid.  You won’t be alone on this trek.  The Lord who has given you this desire will support you along the way, and so will the people among whom you now gather to hear the proclamation of the Good News.  With them you will devour the Word broken for you.  You will continue in the formation process until the Night of the Great Vigil.  Then the whole Church will attend as the heavens open over you and God calls you, Beloved.

Then, do you know what happened as silence wrapped us?  I remembered the Font.  I remembered standing by it, watching the waters in motion and thinking of that day when the waters parted for me.  I looked up from the font and saw the Table where your people, having passed through the waters, gather to Break the Bread and Share the Meal.  Had I known then what would happen along the way and where following you would take me, would I have entered the waters that would be my tomb and my mother?  If that is what it would take to be part of you and your people, what do you think my answer would have been?

Sincerely,

Didymus

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