Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Twelfth Sunday in OT, C
June 20, 2004
Zech 12:10-11;13:1; Gal3:26-29; Lk9:18-24
1) “Who do the crowds say that I am” and “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked these two questions of his disciples two millennia ago and asks these questions of us today. The answers from the crowd haven’t changed much in two thousand years. Most of the people thought Jesus was a good man, maybe even a great man. They compared him to the great and holy men they knew: John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets. Likewise today many people say that Jesus was a good person, a great teacher, perhaps the holiest man who ever lived. But that wasn’t enough for Jesus then and isn’t enough for him now. And it’s no surprise that the crowds turned on him and eventually shouted “crucify him,” just like they turned on most of the holy prophets before him. Jesus wanted more from his disciples; he wanted a certain precision. This was not, of course, because he had an ego and just wanted people to understand him and give him his due. Jesus knew that their understanding of his identity was crucial to their understanding of their own identity. So he asked, “Who do YOU say that I am.” The disciples fell silent. Peter stood up and gave a much better approximation than what the crowds were saying:“You are the Messiah of God.” He wasn’t just a great man among good men, but he was unique. The Jews knew that there would be only ONE Messiah and Peter confessed that Jesus was that long awaited anointed one. But Peter went even further than that. In St. Matthew’s account of the same scene, Peter, illumined by God’s grace, responds, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God” (Mt 16:16-17). Jesus was the LIVING GOD’S SON. That was enough for Jesus to announce that he would found his Church on Peter and on this confession of faith in Christ’s identity. The Church that Jesus came from heaven to earth to establish is comprised of all those who, like St. Peter, believe and confess that Christ is the “Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”
2) This reality of who Christ is — the Son of God — also grounds who we are. As St. Paul says at the beginning of today’s second reading, “In Christ Jesus you are all CHILDREN OF GOD through faith, as many of you as were baptized into Christ.” Just as Jesus’ identity is found in his relationship to his Father — Jesus is the Son of the Living God — so our most profound identity is discovered in our relationship to the same Father. Jesus came to us to reveal the love of the Father for us and to bring us into that communion of love. In St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to the merest of children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Mt 11:25). Jesus has chosen to reveal the Father to us and the mystery of his incredible love. During the Last Supper, he confessed, “The Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God” (Jn 16:27). The Father LOVE US. Through baptism, we have been adopted as God’s children and God the Father says about each of us, just as he did about Jesus as he ascended from the Jordan river, “You are my BELOVED Son in whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3:17) That is why the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council were able to say about the Father, Christ, and us: “Christ, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His Love, fully reveals man to himself and makes his supreme calling clear” (Gaudium et Spes 22). We understand who we are ultimately in the mystery of God the Father’s love for us and in the call to remain in that love for ever.
3) So today, as we mark Father’s Day throughout our country, it is fitting for us to “honor our Father” in heaven, from whom, as St. Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians, “EVERY FATHERHOOD in heaven and on earth takes its name” (Eph 3:14). Just as the deepest thing that could be said about Christ was his relationship to the Father, so, too, the deepest thing that can be said about us involves our exalted dignity as children of God. St. Paul rejoiced in one of his letters, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved” (Eph 1:3-6). St. John mentioned how this was the plan of the Father’s love: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.… We are God’s children now!” (1 Jn 3:1-2).
4) The better we understand our relationship to God the Father, the better we will know our identity and our exalted dignity. The better we understand how God the Father loves us and treats us, the better we will also know how human fathers are called to love their children. Just as there is a “crisis of fatherhood” in our society in general, as so many sociologists and public commentators point out, wherein far too many children grow up without a deep, loving relationship with a human father, so, too, I think, there is a “crisis of Fatherhood” in the Church, because so many Christians often live their lives without really having a deep, intimate relationship with their Father in heaven. And so today let us allow Jesus, who came to reveal the Father to us, to reintroduce him us today, so that we might know him more profoundly, experience more fully his deep love, and love him in return much more intensely.
5) Jesus speaks to us about his Father over 100 times in the Gospels. We could spend our whole lives plumbing the depths of what he has revealed, but I would like to focus on five of the aspects that Christ revealed:
a) He reveals that the Father is a provider — He instructed us to ask the Father each day in prayer, “Give us today our daily bread!,” knowing that the Father wants providently to give us such nourishment each day. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus almost couldn’t stop talking about the Father’s providential love for us, his children. Listen to him with fresh ears: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? … And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you — you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things” (Mt 6:25-32). He adds later: “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Mt 7:9-11).
b) He reveals that the Father is a protector — Jesus teaches us to pray to him, “Deliver us from evil,” because God the Father wants to protect us from harm. The greatest evil from which the Father wants to defend us is sin. But he will protect us from other evils, too, unless out of those evils he wants to bring out even greater good for us. Jesus had complete confidence that the Father would protect and defend him if he needed it. After Peter had struck the high priest’s servant in the garden, Jesus told him to put his sword back in its sheath, asking “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Mt 26:53). But the Father didn’t send those 1200 angels, which leads us to the third point.
c) Jesus reveals that the Father doesn’t spoil or pamper us — The Father wants to raise us to be responsible adults in the faith. He who created us knows our potential, but also is aware that the only way for us to grow up is to learn how to suffer, to bear the contradictions of each day well. If he spoiled us by removing all suffering and contradictions from our life, we really would not mature as his children. “The Lord disciplines those whom he loves,” we read in the letter to the Hebrews, “and chastises every child whom he accepts” (Heb 12:6). This is what we see in the life of Jesus. Once St. Peter, moved by grace, confesses Christ to be the Messiah and Son of God, Jesus tells the disciples that he will accomplish his mission as the Messiah through suffering: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Then he says that if we want to live out to our dignity as children of God and his disciples, we, too, must follow him on that way of the Cross. “If anyone wants to become my follower, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it and whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” The only way to save our life is to die to ourselves, our egos, via the Cross, via suffering. Just like an earthly father who, after having taught his child how to ride a bicycle, takes off the training wheels, even though he knows his child may initially fall and gets some cuts and scrapes, so God the Father takes off our spiritual training wheels, knowing that it is necessary for us to be able freely to ride more quickly on the way to heaven. He has confidence in us and tells us, “you can do it!” Sometimes we do fall on the way, however, which leads to the fourth point:
d) Jesus reveals that the Father is always merciful — In the parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus taught us about the unending, forgiving love of the Father. After the son treated the Father as if he dead so that he could profit from the father’s death and gain his monetary inheritance now only to waste it in a life of sin, the Father never gave up on the child, and waited for him, looking out for him. As soon as the son “came to his senses” and started to return home, the Father saw him from a distance and ran out out to greet him and restore him to his proper dignity, throwing a massive celebration that his son who had been dead had come back to life (cf. Lk 15:1-32). God the Father loves us and welcomes us back the same way after we’ve sinned. Jesus taught us to ask the Father for this forgiveness, “Father, forgive us our trespasses [sins] as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.” One of Jesus’ last words on the Cross pointed to the Father’s undying mercy: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
e) Jesus reveals that the Father is worthy of all our trust, because he would do anything to save us — Jesus trusted the Father implicitly, even in the midst of tremendous pain and suffering. He knew that the Father loved Him and knew that the Father’s plan and will was what was best for Him and best for all. That’s why, in the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus asked the Father, “Father, take this chalice [of suffering] away from me,” he finished his prayer, “but not my will, but thine be done” (Lk 22:42). Jesus trusted the Father so much that he said “yes” to the Father’s will in everything. Even from the Cross, he entrusted his whole life to the Father in his last words before his death, “Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46). Jesus entrusted everything he was and he had to the Father, and loved and trusted the Father so much that he made the Father’s will his own. In St. John’s Gospel, he summarized why he had come from heaven, “I have come to do the will of my Father in heaven,” and later revealed what that will was: “This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day” (Jn 6:40). The Father’s will is that we be saved and Jesus entrusted his whole life to this plan.
6) The application to our lives as disciples is straightforward. For us to become whom God created us to be, we, like Jesus, need to trust in the Father’s providential love, in his “strong right arm” (Ps 89:13) to protect us from ultimate harm (sin, and what sin leads to, eternal death), in his lovingly giving us the Cross to help us to die to ourselves and become truly free, in his merciful love, and in his will, even when it may seem to our human eyes to make little sense. Following Christ in relating to the Father in this way is the secret to real peace and happiness in this world.
7) But these characteristics of God the Father that Jesus reveals to us are also key to helping earthly fathers fulfill their paternal vocations in the world. They, too, are called to provide for their families, not just “daily bread” through the grace of God the Father, but also the spiritual nourishment that will feed their children’s deepest hungers. They’re entrusted with the protection of their children, especially from the spiritual evils that can cause their loved ones the most damage. They’re called to train their children responsibly, by taking off the training wheels at appropriate times, by helping them to bear the contradictions of life well and by allowing their character to be formed by suffering not always getting what they want. They called to be patient and merciful to their children, who, just like their fathers, will make mistakes, too. Finally, they’re called to be worthy of their children’s trust, and concerned above all with their children’s eternal salvation.
8 ) This is a challenging set of characteristics indeed. But God the Father will help human fathers live up to them. Right after parents have brought a newborn child to receive the sacrament of baptism and become a child of God, there is a special blessing — which has no expiration date! — for the mother and father, respectively, to help them live up to their mission. The Father gives his special blessing to human fathers in the following words: “God is the giver of all life, human and divine. May he bless the father of this child. He and his wife will be the first teachers of their child in the ways of faith. May they also be the best of teachers, bearing witness to the faith by what they say and do, in Christ Jesus our Lord.” God is blessing human fathers so that they might fulfill their vocation to be teachers of their children in the ways of faith, by what they say and do. The greatest way they do this is by exemplifying with regard to their children, as best they can, the love, the mercy, the trustworthiness of God the Father for each of His children. Today as we, throughout our nation, honor our earthly fathers and give God thanks for them, we turn to God the Father and ask Him to bless them with the graces He knows they will need to fulfill this mission. And if the Father has already called them from this life, we ask Him to show his merciful love for them to the end, by welcoming them into His eternal home.
9) As we come forward to receive the body and blood of that Father’s beloved Son in holy Communion, we ask the Father to help us to become more and more Whom we eat, to grow more deeply into our identity, in Christ, as sons and daughters of God. The Eucharist is the greatest gift given to us in this life and the greatest means by which we become who God created us to be. It’s also the greatest means by which we are strengthened to be witnesses of the Father’s undying love for all his children in the midst of the world. We finish with the inspired words of St. Paul, which praise God the Father and indicate our mission to share the love we have received from him with all others we encounter:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation,
who consoles us in all our affliction,
so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction
with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God” (2Cor 1:3).