"FIRST IMPRESSIONS"

13th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (A) June 28, 2020

2 Kings 4: 8-11, 14-16a; Ps 89; Romans 6: 3-4, 8-11; Matthew 10: 37-42

by Jude Siciliano, OP

Dear Preachers:

I wish Paul would be a bit more diplomatic, soften his tone, or make an apology for some of his lines. He could ease us into them so that they don’t broadside us the way they sometimes do. Weren’t there public relations firms in Israel when Paul wrote who could have helped him sell his "product?" Couldn’t he have been more like a mother soothing and preparing her two year old for an injection at the doctor’s office? "There, there, this is going to hurt for just a little while bit, then it will be ok. And the doctor has a lollipop for you when it is all over."

That’s just not Paul’s style, is it? He doesn’t sugar coat the tough message, or only preach the happy and appealing side of the gospel. So, as if to waking slumbering, or distracted Christians, he says, "Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?" There, you went and did it again Paul, you blew your chances of drawing a big crowd of ecstatic followers. I do get "unaware": that this union with Christ in baptism has a death to it; that I have not gotten a guarantee that being a Christian will flood me with rosy feelings; or that I will always be number one in my priorities and life will go smoothly; that my comfort level will be above the average and that I will drive a new Mercedes with a bumper sticker that proclaims, "Honk if you love Jesus."

Instead, taking on baptism, or recommitting myself to it at this eucharistic celebration, may call me to: die to the very values my own friends and family enshrine; spend my energies for doing the right, if not the most popular things; be the one to stick my neck out to heal a strained relationship in my family; stand up at a meeting and defend the rights of the undocumented, or the propertyless; be the first to say, "Of course I forgive you"; see all of my life and not just some moments, as a vocation, a full-time response to a personal invitation I have heard from Jesus.

Baptism was supposed to have made a difference in our lives. It meant our sins died with Christ and "newness of life" was given us. It also meant we are supposed to see our lives in a different perspective. Whereas before, we might have measured the success, or failure of our lives, by those of our prosperous and comfortable neighbors, now we use Jesus’ life as our yardstick – and his death as well. We were, Paul reminds us, "baptized into his death." What we have come to believe is that out of death, God has brought life. For example, what is sacrificial for the good of others and serves the needs of the poor, opens us to receive a new kind of life we never could have gotten on our own.

Turns out, Paul does have some good "selling points" for his gospel message. If is not just about death he tells us, in the end, it is finally about new life. It is a new life that we can even experience here, for example, as we discover the deeper presence of God below the surface of suffering and in the presence of the poor. Where we, or society, have drawn a dead end, God breaks through the road block offering life and a new beginning. On the cross and in his death, Christ slipped out of our hands and away from our usual norms for success, into the waiting arms of God. In our baptism we do the same; we die to the many other options the world offers and, instead, come alive in the arms of God, all the while being breathed upon by the Holy Spirit.

Let’s not make this sound too ideal, romantic, or easy – it isn’t. In our daily experience, baptism isn’t a one time fait accompli, a dying once and for all. All of our journeys, from the baptismal font till our deaths (when our coffins will be draped with the white cloth that symbolizes our baptismal garment), will require many deaths along the way. We will have to die to our too narrow vision; we’ll have to broaden our tent pegs so as to include many and diverse people into our lives – the insiders and the outsiders. We’ll keep trying to open our hearts and minds to Jesus’ way of seeing others. Though at times hesitant, we will even let go of our self doubts and self loathings and welcome God’s love, which has been so eloquently revealed to us in Christ’s dying. We will die to much; but will "live with him" in infinitely grander ways. Emily Dickinson said, "the world is not conclusion." And we would add, "Nor is death the conclusion – life is." To reverse a favorite Jewish expression (which says, "From my mouth to God’s ear."), Paul is speaking for God today, "From God’s mouth to our ears."

We are focusing on Paul and the conversation has been around baptism. Let me make a digression. Some have complained that preaching from the Lectionary avoids addressing the "doctrines" of the church. The argument goes: people are ignorant of their faith, and these 10 or 12 minutes on Sunday are an opportunity for the preacher to do some educating to an uniformed laity. Gerard Sloyan wrote an article in the mid-80's entitled, "Is Church Teaching Neglected When the Lectionary is Preached?" Sloyan made a strong argument for preaching from the Lectionary. He reminded us that the homily is primarily an act of worship and praise, of thanksgiving and petition, and is not something apart from the entire liturgy. Instruction on another "topic" would thus extract the homily from its liturgical moorings. The homily is meant to be exhortation and encouragement and to evoke in us a consideration of the divine graciousness we have received in Christ. (Paul says it today in his way, "...you too must think of yourselves as dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus.")

The homily invites us to respond to the gifts God is offering us; the preacher’s job is to help us recognize these gifts, to name them for us. Sloyan sees biblical preaching as a corrective to all the theological misses in our Christian history. He challenges Catholic preachers not to fall back on childhood notions and pieties; but to put in the necessary prayer and hard work to discover and preach the good news of God’s love for us. What about the hard-working biblical preacher who still thinks the congregation needs education in central doctrinal issues? Well, there is the parish bulletin, he suggests. It is a good place for pastoral instruction and formation and is usually read by the congregation (one hopes not during the preaching!).

In addition, if preachers keeps an open eye and ear, we will notice how core doctrinal issues also come to the fore in our Lectionary readings. To discover what these doctrinal issue are, Sloyan suggests, requires serious study and preparation of the texts by the preacher. Having made this lengthy aside – let’s turn back to Romans and discover how Paul raises an opportunity to include instruction on baptism in the preaching today.

The Romans reading gives us an insight into Paul’s theology of baptism. His imagery might make more sense if we remember that, when first practiced, baptism was by immersion. It looked and felt like a burial as the candidate held her/his breath and was plunged under the waters. When the newly baptized came up for air, they were a new creation, from then on breathing the breath of God. Each breath after baptism was a new breath, a new life force within the baptized. Hence, because his readers would have been aware of the usual method of baptism by immersion, Paul’s language speaks about being, "buried," "raised" and "dying." The symbolism was clear to those immersed in water; to be baptized like this was to experience the death and resurrection of the Lord. There is no time difference here. We who are baptized are not separated from the event of the death and resurrection by a huge gap of time. Instead, when we are baptized the event is present to us here and now. Jesus’ death to sin is now our death to sin; Jesus’ resurrection to new life is now our resurrection as well. In baptism, an old way has died and a new resurrected life had taken its place.

Click here for a link to this Sunday’s readings:

http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/062820.cfm