B: 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time

A Gift Only God Can Give

August 4, 2012

John 6:24-35

A man wanted to take out a rather large loan, and he was willing to offer a tract of land in Louisiana which had been in his family’s possession for years as collateral. The bank, of course, wanted him to ascertain that he had clear title to the land, so he did an extensive title search. He was able to verify that this land had been in his family’s possession since 1803. The bank was not satisfied. It wanted him to trace the title before 1803. This was not easy. After months of frustrating search he finally had his lawyer send his bank this letter.

“In 1803, the United States bought Louisiana from the French who had title to it because they received it from Spain through victory in war. Spain had title to Louisiana through the exploration of Christopher Columbus who discovered the New World.  Christopher Columbus had title to the land because it was supported by Queen Isabella of Spain who underwrote his voyages and proclaimed that anything derived from their discoveries would be in honor of Jesus Christ, the Lord of the Universe. Jesus Christ, as you know, is the Son of God. God, by common agreement, is the Creator of all things including the territory of Louisiana. This proves clear title to the land from 1803 till the time of creation. If you require verification before creation, that is something only God can provide.”

There are some things that only God can provide. Faith in God is one of them. I wish that I would be able to prove to you that God exists, that God cares for humanity, that God has a plan for our lives. But none of these beliefs can be scientifically verified. I cannot show you God’s love like I can show you that the sun is shining or that water is wet. Because the love of God is something that cannot be proven, many people in our world conclude that faith in God is not necessary or reasonable. We see Jesus dealing with issues of faith in today’s Gospel. He has just performed the tremendous miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fish and yet the crowds that saw that miracle will not accept in faith that he is the Son of God. They keep saying to him, “What signs are you going to perform so that we might see them and believe?” They want proof. But proof cannot be given. Even Jesus cannot perform a sign that would force them to believe.

Faith, then, is a mystery. It is a gift that only God can give. You and I are here today because we have faith. But, we have faith because God has given us the gift to believe. God has given us the grace to see those things that cannot be proven. We do not have faith because we are smarter than other people or better than other people. We are simply the people that God has chosen to receive the gift of faith so that we can believe in what has been offered to us. Now this truth about faith is both a comfort and a hope. It is a comfort because I know that there are many people in church today who have people who you love and who do not believe. It might be a son or daughter, a brother or sister, or a close friend. When there are people in our lives who do not believe, it is natural for us to ask whether somehow we are responsible. Should I have been a different parent? A different sibling? A different friend? Is there something I should have said or done that would have made them believe? We want to take our faith and simply give it to the people we love. But faith is not ours to give. So there is a certain comfort in us realizing that we are not responsible when those we love do not believe. That must remain between them and God. But there is also hope. Because in faith, we know the God in whom we believe. We know that God is a God that cares for all creation and all people. We know that God is the one who searches out the lost and struggling. Therefore, we have hope that God loves the people in our lives even more than we love them and that God will continue to care for them, even if they do not believe.

Faith cannot be proven. It is a gift only God can give. But, we can be confident that God wants to give it. Often when we think about people we love who do not believe, we say, “It is my hope and prayer that some day they will find God”. The good news is that this is not necessary. The people we love do not need to find God, because we have a God who can find them.

 

Capital Punishment

August 5, 2018

Ephesians 4:17, 20-24

Pope Francis made news again this week by changing a key moral teaching of the Church. That teaching refers to capital punishment. Although his predecessors John Paul II and Benedict discouraged the use of capital punishment, Pope Francis said this week that it is now Catholic teaching that the death penalty is never acceptable. It can never be used. The Pope added that he intended to use the Church’s influence to abolish the death penalty throughout the world. Francis’ teaching is of particular relevance to us as Americans. Although most Western democracies have already abolished the death penalty, we in the United States still use it. In fact last year we were among the top five countries in the world to execute people—along with China, Iran, North Korea and Yemen. So how can we as American Catholics absorb the new teaching of our Church?

A good place to begin is today’s second reading. The author of the letter to the Ephesians says to his audience and to us that to be disciples of Jesus we must conform ourselves to his teaching. We must put aside old ways of thought and put on a new self that is created in holiness and in truth. The author goes on to say that truth is in Jesus. So far so good. We are to conform ourselves to Jesus’ teaching. But how do we know what that teaching is?

There are a variety of ways. First of course we are to read the Scriptures that contain his teachings. We also should look at the example of holy people who we trust and test our own experience. Also, as Catholics, we should listen to the authoritative teaching of the church. You see that Catholics believe that the Pope and bishops speak to us with the authority of the Apostles. Therefore, it is not a Catholic position to say, “Well I know that Pope Francis is against the death penalty, but that’s just his opinion.” It’s not just his opinion. As Pope he speaks with apostolic authority.

So does that mean that if we disagree with this teaching, we have to leave the Church? We do not. Catholic moral teaching gives pre-eminence to conscience. Therefore any Catholic can after careful study of an issue and prayerful discernment decide to dissent from a particular Catholic position. Now, of course, dissent is never to be chosen casually or often. We should always strive to conform our beliefs to the official teaching of our Church.

Therefore, the task that is before us today is to form our consciences on the morality of capital punishment. I invite you to do this. As we undertake this process, we should carefully consider what the Pope has said. And let me end today by offering two reasons why I feel the Pope’s teaching is correct and should be accepted.

The first is this: Ephesians says that the role of a Christian is to conform one’s self to the teaching of Jesus. Opposition to the death penalty certainly reflects Jesus’ position. Can any of us imagine the Jesus of the gospels teaching that criminals and sinners should be executed? Did not Jesus stop the execution of a woman caught in adultery? Was Jesus not himself the victim of capital punishment? Did he not forgive his executioners and the criminal who was hanging next to him on the cross? Does he not teach that we should love our enemies? There is little doubt that opposition to the death penalty brings us closer to the teaching of Jesus.

The second thing to consider is that opposition to the death penalty makes us a more pro-life Church. Catholics are known to be opposed to abortion, committed to protect innocent life in the womb. We also reject the active termination of life at the end of life. Catholics hold these beliefs because we assert that every life is sacred and should be protected. What Pope Francis has done this week is to extend our belief even to those people who commit serious crimes. Practically such offenders will often need to be imprisoned to protect society. But Church teaching now directs us to see the life of every such criminal as a gift from God, a life that is sacred and should be protected.

This week we are asked to form our consciences in regard to capital punishment. I would suggest to you that in a world where violence is running rampant and where human life is too often and casually extinguished, we should take our stand with Jesus and Pope Francis. Believing that every human life is sacred and every human life should be protected is exactly where we need to be.