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Posts Tagged ‘Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety’

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Salvation:  A Gift, Not a Commodity

Sometimes it can be a stretch to figure out what Jesus is getting at in some of his teaching.  What’s the issue that bothers him?  What’s behind the testy response that he sometimes gives to people?  Even the apostles had to wonder once in a while, so we shouldn’t be surprised if we have our own questions too.  And so, for example, when Jesus speaks of the “kingdom of God among us” or “within us,” what in the world is he talking about?

In college I read what was for me a mind-expanding book entitled Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety.  In it the English scholar E. R. Dodd outlined what he saw to be a fundamental divide between pagans and Christians in the 3rd century;  and it centered on an issue that ironically still haunts some Christians today.

BA9CC741-4B38-491F-853F-219EBCC7AEF4The anxiety about which Dodd wrote has to do with our relationship with God — or the gods in the case of the pagans.  At the end of the day, after the last bull or lamb or goat has been sacrificed, can we ever be sure that we have appeased the gods?  Have we done the rituals correctly?  Are the gods happy or upset with our performance?  In the pagan world we never really know; and if we worry about those sorts of things, then the anxiety will never end.

This is where Jesus offers us a radically different approach.  At the end of the day it doesn’t really mattter how many bulls we have sacrificed or whether everything has been ritually correct.  That’s because salvation is not a commodity to be bought or earned, but rather it is a gift to be accepted.  Salvation is a gesture of love from a generous God as well as a relationship to be lived.  But it is definitely not the result of some heartless contractual relationship.

That provides the context for Luke 17: 20-25, a passage in which Jesus brushes aside the legalism and says that the kingdom of God is to be found within us.  God’s kingdom is no visible state with magistrates and a legislative code designed to appease a demanding god.  Rather, the kingdom of God rests on the awareness that God loves us and reaches out to us — sometimes even in spite of ourselves.

So it is that Jesus reminds us of a different path to God — one in which God is not some distant observer.  Instead, God loves us and walks with us through the toughest moments of life and in the moments of greatest joy.  Jesus reassures us that God is no fearsome judge, looking to trip us up or catch us unawares when we stumble.  And finally God is not some distant or aloof being.  Rather like a parent or a friend, the Lord beckons us to make a place for him in our hearts.

To my mind, at least, that’s what Jesus intends as he speaks to us of the kingdom of God within us.  That’s how Jesus reassures us that God prefers a pure heart — one in which there’s room for God to live and love.  Make no mistake about this, however.  In such a heart are found the normal anxieties of human life.  But never for a minute should there be a doubt about God’s love for us.  That, I would submit, is the good news of the gospel.  That’s the gospel of the Lord.

C715E218-0F04-4404-9F9D-716B0512DB0CNOTES

+Perhaps the highlight of the week for me was my arrival in New York for a meeting.  As the taxi turned onto the block where the hotel was located, it was clear that something was amiss.  Stretched out ahead of us were a block and a half of fire trucks, and the street was pretty much blocked off.  Thankfully the hotel was at the near end of the block, and so I could get out and cross the street and enter the hotel.  That’s when I realized that all those trucks were there to visit the hotel.  There had been a fire, and it was quite a while before I could check in.  Besides the aroma of smoke, most of the elevators were out for a couple of days.  That made a trip up or down a major expedition.  On Sunday morning it took twenty minutes of waiting to get an elevator down.  I assumed that it was the rush to get to church, since that’s where I was headed.

+I was happy to read in our School of Theology newsletter that our confrere Fr. Dale Launderville has been elected president of the Catholic Biblical Association.  Fr. Dale is dean of the School of Theology at Saint John’s and is a prolific and respected researcher and writer.

+Today’s post is a sermon I delivered this week on Luke 17: 20-25.

+One of the surprises of the Camino to Santiago was the visit that we made to the cathedral in Astorga.  The town itself dates back to Roman times, but obviously the cathedral arrived a bit later.  It is filled with dramatic gilded side chapels, as the third photo indicates.

+Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year, and not just because there is no vigil Mass that keeps us up well into the night.  Our normal routine is to gather for Mass at 11 am on Thanksgiving Day, and shortly afterwards we head to the refectory to enjoy the traditional feast.  In advance, I wish you a very happy Thanksgiving Day!

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