21 January 2012

BELONGING TO GOD’S KINGDOM

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jon 3:1-5, 10 / Ps 25 / 1 Cor 7:29-31 / Mk 1:14-20

If we think that the Word of God this Sunday speaks to priests and those in the religious life only, we are gravely mistaken.  The mere mention of four of the twelve apostles of Jesus and the genesis of their vocation story do not in any way limit the Word of God today.  God speaks to us all – priests and lay people, religious men and women as well as married couples.  God challenges us to venture into something greater than our selves: His kingdom.

The kingdom of God is not only for priests and those who said ‘yes’ to the religious life.  God wants all peoples to belong to His kingdom, regardless of their states in life.  For there is but one vocation – the vocation to holiness of life – while, true, there are many paths to thread towards it.  For a great majority, the married life.  For some, the priestly or religious life.  And still for a few, the life of single blessedness.  Yet, still, all are called to be holy (Cf. 1 Pt 2:9).

To be holy is to belong to God’s kingdom.  Holiness is not necessarily belonging to the Church.  Holiness is much wider than belonging to an institution, if Church means mere institution in this sense.  The Church, as an institution, rather is an important aid for people to be holy.  But belong to the Church does not in any way automatically makes one holy.

The kingdom of God is likewise greater than the Church.  Remember, Jesus came not to establish a particular church.  He did gather people to be church, i.e., an assembly convoked by God.  But it is the kingdom of God that Jesus ushered in into the world.  The fact is, Jesus Himself is the in-breaking of God’s kingdom in our midst and, yes, in our individual lives as well.  The Church, for her part, is the sacrament of that kingdom.  That means that she makes present in the world and to the world the very kingdom of God.  Thus, we can say, as we do in theology, the kingdom of God is already here but not yet.  The kingdom is indeed greater than the Church but the kingdom of God subsists in the Church.  While here on earth we can have a foretaste of the kingdom of God by belonging to the Church.  And while some elements of the truth of salvation may be found existent in other Christian churches, the fullness of that truth subsist in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

Now that we have established the premise, it is in this context of our being Church, i.e., the sacrament of the kingdom of God in the world and the assembly convoked by God to be holy as He is holy (Cf. Lev 20:26 and Mt 5:48), that I wish to propose the following points for our consideration in the light of the readings today.

The Prophet Jonah preaches to the people of Nineveh in the first reading today.  The great city is threatened by the wrath of God for prevalent immoral living of its people.  Jonah, reluctant though he was at first, turns out to be a successful preacher, for at his preaching the Ninevites repented and converted from their sins.  From the king down to it lowliest citizen, Nineveh goes into forty days of fasting, with everyone wearing sackcloth, as a sign of mourning.  Thanks be to God, Nineveh is spared from the destruction.

As Church, we, too, are called to convert from our sins.  The task of renewal, which necessarily includes conversion of life, is a perennial concern for God’s people.  Ecclesia semper reformanda.  We cannot be holy unless we repent just as renewal is merely skin-deep, if not totally nil, without conversion of life.  The Word of God today exhorts us to repent and be converted as individual disciples but also as Church.

Do we answer the call to conversion of life?  In what aspects of our life – as Church and as individuals – do we need conversion?  Do we humbly accept our sins and even more humbly repent from them?  But, since repentance is not sentimentalism, do we set aright what our sins have rendered wrong?  Moreover, do we discern and actually employ necessary structures to assist us in our conversion and in avoiding the sins we already repented from?  Unless we are honest with the painful but liberating questions on conversion of life, we cannot be holy no matter what particular state in life we are in.

St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians today reminds us that belonging to God’s kingdom takes more than just conversion of life.  It demands conversion of values.  The truth is one cannot convert from his or her sins while persisting in his or her values that are contrary to the Gospel of Christ.  The life of every Christian is a constant decision-making between the world and God’s kingdom.  Christian discipleship is a series of choices – done in freedom and prayerful discernment – for the sake of the values that Jesus preached about, lived by, and offered His life for.

However, it is not the teaching of the Church to hate the world and consider it the work of the devil.  No, we are rather challenged to embrace the world – with all its flaws, wounds, and dirt – and re-create it with the paschal mystery of Jesus.  Yes, we are not of the world, but we are in the world now, for this is where God has placed us to be its stewards.  It is an essential component of the spirituality of this stewardship that we use the world, with utmost respect, for the advancement of God’s kingdom, i.e., for the victory of good over evil.  The world is passing away indeed.  We are to use it then properly.  Moreover, we should never allow it to use us.  There is no other proper way to us it except for the greater glory of God and the full establishment of the kingdom inaugurated by His Son, Jesus the Christ.  With God alone as our hope and strength, we do not place our trust in the world, but God does entrust the world to us.

How do we regard the world in the light of our being sons and daughters of God whose kingdom we are co-heirs with Christ?  Do we use the world for God’s kingdom or do we patronize the world at the expense of that kingdom?  Can the world be the locus of our holiness, even with all the temptations and actual sins prevalent in it?  For, after all, as St. Paul said, “Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more” (Rom 6:20).  What kind of Christ’s disciples are we in, to, and for the world?

Indeed how we relate not only in the world but with the world expresses our holiness.  Fuga mundi or “flee the world” used to be the mode of holiness in ancient days but no longer now.  Helping the world rediscover its innate goodness is necessarily consequential to discovering one’s holiness in the world.

But our world is not only the physical world we live in.  While we do have our common world, we also have our unique, personal, and individual worlds.  World for us is not only planet earth.  Our family is our little world and so is our friends, our career, our priorities, our concerns, and still many others, including our attachments.  Anything and anyone we are in anyway attached is world for us.  Thus, we talk of many worlds.

The Gospel today tells us about how the brothers Simon and Andrew, and James and John consider their personal, unique, and individual worlds in relation to the kingdom whose imminent coming Jesus preaches about.  Upon the call of Jesus – “Come after Me, and I will make you fishers of men” – the four, in the strong words of the Gospel, abandon their worlds to follow Him.  They exchange their worlds with the world of Jesus.  Detaching themselves from their former worlds, they now attach themselves to Jesus and become part of His kingdom.

Let us not, even for a sigh, think that such a decision on the part of the four and the rest of the Twelve is made without an ounce of pain.  Leaving our comfort zones is always discomforting.  Abandoning the familiar for the unknown can be very frightening.  Detachment is always a dying to one’s self.  Following Jesus demands taking risks.  Becoming like Jesus requires so much love.  Discipleship is no joke.

As we profess our selves to be disciples of Jesus and, thus, continue to follow Him by living according to the values of His kingdom, our conversion of life and proper relation to the world must lead us into honestly recognizing our other “worlds”.  Can we identify our unique, personal, and individual worlds with the kingdom already given to us by the Father or not?  What and who are our inordinate attachments?  Are we willing to let go of our own worlds so as to allow Jesus to lead us to the kingdom?  Do we create our own worlds and impose them on others rather than give witness to God’s kingdom and help others belong to it?

The Word of God today certainly addresses its self not only to us all – priests, religious, married, and single.  We, after all, should belong to only one kingdom really – the kingdom where the Word of God is not only preached and listened to but, most importantly, lived out by all.

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