Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Mystery of Ministry

The Mystery of Ministry
 The Sixteenth Sunday of The Year: July 17, 2016 (Year C)


The Responsorial Psalm answers the question, “Who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy mountain?” The answer is, “Those who do justice shall live in the presence of the Lord” (Psalm 15).

What does it mean to live “in the presence of the Lord”? Does it depend on our environment? On how quiet or busy we are? Does ministry distract us from God? What enables us to be always conscious of God?


The Entrance Antiphon tells us, first of all, that everything depends on God: “God himself is my help. The Lord upholds my life.” But a lot depends on the attitude we have toward what we do: “I will offer you a willing sacrifice.” The question is not how busy we are, but how willing we are to be doing what we are doing.

Finally, the Entrance Antiphon gives us a practical suggestion: a crucial one: “I will praise your name for its goodness.” We need to include praise in our “rule of life” — deliberately choosing to express praise —  consciously, consistently, constantly expressing admiration and gratitude for everything we see that is good, both in God and in every person we deal with. Praise is a way of life. It fosters appreciation and awareness. It keeps us in the presence of God.

Both options for the Opening Prayer focus us on the “gift of life” — the “new life” that gives us a “new purpose” (Prayer After Communion) And they identify it with the form it takes in action in us: “faith, hope and love.” To live in the presence of God is to be consciously “alive in Christ Jesus.” For this to become our way of life, we need to be “always eager to serve,” “watchful in prayer,” and “true to Christ’s teaching.” The readings will expand on this.

To “do justice,” serve

Genesis 18: 1-10 shows us Abraham “doing justice” by observing the sacred custom of hospitality. And, whether he knows it or not, he is in the special presence of God. The story, from different traditions, says “the Lord appeared to Abraham” and that his visitors were “three men,” the same as the “two angels” who visited Lot (in 18:16, “men” set out, but in 19:1 “angels” arrived). It was in any case an experience of the divine, as it is for us when we minister to others in “mutual love.” In serving others we may be “entertaining angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).

If we remain “watchful in prayer” and “true to Christ’s teaching,” we will know that in ministering to others we are serving Jesus himself: “as often as you did it for one of my least brothers or sisters, you did it for me.” Those who minister in faith are always in the presence of the Lord (Matthew 25:40).

What is ministry?

Luke 10: 38-42 shows two sisters ministering in different ways. One was in the “presence of the Lord” and one wasn’t – but not for the reason we might think.

Mary is often presented as a symbol of the contemplative life, a life of withdrawal from the world, of silence and prayer, while Martha is a symbol of the active life, a life absorbed in service and ministry to others. Both presentations are wrong.

First of all, prayer is ministry. When we pray for others we are serving them and ministering to them as truly as if we were teaching, preaching, nursing in a hospital, raising children, or meeting people’s needs through business. No one’s need is ever met adequately without the involvement of God:

Unless the LORD build the house, they labor in vain who build it. Unless the LORD guard the city, in vain does the guard keep vigil. It is in vain for you to rise early or put off your rest, you that eat hard-earned bread, for he gives to his beloved in sleep (Psalm 127).

Prayer is a service to society. And this includes the prayer of discipleship, listening to God, because those who think when they pray are the ears of the nation.

It is also a mistake to restrict the “contemplative” life to those who are not caught up in the business and busy-ness of this world. St. Thomas Aquinas, using the Aristotelian principle that “the nature of anything is determined by its end,” defines a “contemplative” as anyone whose goal in life is to arrive at the “perfection of divine love,” regardless of how many hours one spends in activities or in silent prayer. He argues that this goal presupposes one is intent on growing in loving knowledge of God, without which the “perfection of love” is impossible. And so, regardless of how fully or successfully one is engaged in cultivating it, if this loving knowledge is one’s goal, one is in the “contemplative life” (See David M. Knight, “The Active-Contemplative Problem in Religious Life,” Review for Religious Vol. 35, 1976/4, pp. 497 ff.).

So, no matter how much time we spend in religious activities, whether in prayer or in ministry, we need to ask about our goal. Many sincerely “religious” people have never accepted “the perfection of love” as their goal; nor does this end determine their way of life. They are content to just “keep in bounds,” helping people when they feel they can, doing all the things they are supposed to do, without any explicit desire to grow in faith, hope and love. If asked what Jesus meant when he said, “I came that they might have life and have it to the full,” they would probably answer, “Heaven.” Whatever fullness of life they are seeking on earth, they do not identify it with growing in knowledge and love of God.

These are in the “active” rather than the “contemplative” life, because their highest purpose is just to do what has to be done — or even much more than that, serving others generously — without the express purpose of growing into deeper and deeper union with the person of God. They have not chosen the “better part.”

When Jesus reproached Martha for being “worried and distracted by many things,” and said, “There is need of only one thing: Mary has chosen the better part,” his point was that Mary was distracted, not that she was busy. She was not “watchful in prayer” while she was working. If she had been, and had been aware in faith of what she was doing, she would have been just as much “at the Lord’s feet” as Mary was, whether “seated” at them or not.

Another problem is that Mary was not truly offering “a willing sacrifice.” She was not really “eager to serve,” because she complained, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work?” To “do justice” in the way that enables us to “live in the presence of the Lord” we have to minister with willing hearts — which is not the same as feeling like doing what we are doing! It just means that, like Jesus on the cross, there is nothing else we would choose to be doing at the time. To give ourselves to ministry in this way is to be united to Christ in heart and will. That is to “live in the presence of the Lord.

Ministry and Mystery

In Colossians 1: 24-28 Paul takes ministry into mystery. The key to his preaching and teaching, here as elsewhere, is the mystery of Christ in us.

This is the mystery that has been hidden from ages and generations past but now revealed to his holy ones. God has willed to make known to them the glory beyond price which this mystery brings to the Gentiles — the mystery of Christ in you, your hope of glory.

No matter how absorbed we are in works of ministry, or in any other work (although if we are “true to Christ’s teaching” we will understand everything we do as ministry), we will be always “in the presence of the Lord” provided we understand that Jesus is working with us, in us and through us.

For this we have to understand that by Baptism we have become Christ. That is why Paul could say, “In my own flesh I fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ.” Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was complete, lacking in nothing. But for his new life to be extended to the world, Jesus has to go on “suffering” —enduring the labor and difficulties, the trials, hardships and frustrations attendant on all ministry and service to others — in his present body on earth, which we are. Paul knew that in him Jesus worked and suffered and continued his mission on earth. His ministry was an experience of being united to Christ, of being Christ.

This was Paul’s way of life: to be Christ: “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” To live in the presence of God is to live conscious of this. To keep ourselves conscious of this is to live always in the presence of God.

Paul said this is the mystery, “the Christ we proclaim… and teach… in the full measure of wisdom, hoping to make every person complete” — to make every Christian “mature in Christ.”

Do I see a connection between humility and patience? Humility and love?

Initiative: Give God’s life:

When fear or impatience inclines you to push things--or to use power—surrender all power to God and pray to the Holy Spirit for guidance. Give life by loving.

1 comment:

  1. I hear so many “nice” homilies, but so few that ever really challenge or enlighten me. More often than not, when I listen to the homily at Mass, I wonder why the priest is pitching the message so low. It seems to me that we are usually being subtly encouraged to just be “nice people”. Hospitable. Kind. Generous. The homilies rarely challenge me to be more than a “follower” of Jesus. Often, they don’t even ask me to do that much.

    I think part of my problem is that the homilists often ask us to be “disciples” but they use the term in the generic, common sense. Followers of Jesus. I rarely hear the homilist discuss what discipleship actually is. I guess they assume that the folks in the pews have a more or less common understanding of what a disciple is. I wonder, how average church-goers would respond if asked what the term “disciple” means. Probably the answers would include, “follower of Jesus”, “someone who believes in God,” “someone who generally agrees with the Christian message,” or “someone who attends church regularly.”

    But Jesus did not ask us to merely “believe in”, “follow” (like one follows the news or follows a favorite author or musician), “agree with Him”, or “show up once a week.” He asked us to BE HIM. We are commissioned to BE the extension of Christ on Earth. To BE HIM. We are told that unless we give up everything for Him, we are not worthy of Him. We are to lovingly abandon ourselves and our lives to the One Who IS LOVE. This is so much more than mere belief, following, showing up, or agreeing with his message.

    The homilies I hear are sometimes uplifting or encouraging. Sometimes they enlighten me on some biblical or scholarly point. But rarely does a homilist ever seem to even try to inspire me to abandon myself to God, to trust Him completely with every facet of my life.

    The prayer of the faithful is usually even more bland and routine, as it fails to address the truly gut-wrenching realities of our local or world communities. We usually pray for such things as: the bishops and priests to continue to preach the Gospel; the many blessings of this day, the (generic poor), the military and their families, etc. This is pretty generic stuff when the average person in the pew is watching the daily news and sees that innocent people are being blown to pieces by terrorists; the children of our cities are starving for knowledge, food & love; families are falling apart; our friends and family members have lost the faith; some members of our community live in constant fear of injustice and even physical mistreatment, etc.

    Why are the “prayers of the faithful” pretty much the same day after day, for years on end, when there are so many specific situations and people in dire of our prayer, and when Jesus commands us to pray for our enemies and those who wish to harm us? (When is the last time we prayed at Mass for terrorists, murders, etc.? Why do we pray for our military members to be protected when we should be praying that Christians will stop participating in the acts of war?)

    Aside from one particular ordained priest I know who routinely pleads with those at Mass to BE CHRIST, I never here that from anyone else. So I sit at Mass day after day, week after week, year after year, listening to homilies that subtly communicate to me and my children that to be a Christian is to verbally assent to a general message of “Jesus is love”, to show up at Mass, and to follow the basic rules of the Church.

    When will the priests and laity challenge one another to make every aspect of our lives have to do with the person of Jesus Christ? We are supposed to be about giving our whole souls, whole minds, whole bodies, and with all of our strength to God. Somehow, sitting in the pew on any given Sunday, this is not what comes across to me.

    Somehow, we as Church, seem to be almost completely missing the point of Christianity.


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