Saturday, June 29, 2013

Knowledge and the Kingdom


Church of Ss. Peter and Paul
Day 1 of Triduum in Preparation for Patronal Feast

Picture: cc Ronald Peret

Sisters and brothers, what do you think would happen to me if I were to board an MRT train, or a public bus, or if I were to walk into a shopping mall, light up a cigarette and start smoking? You know what would happen to me, right? Very likely I’d get into plenty of trouble. Probably have to pay a hefty fine, because smoking is prohibited in all these public areas. And we all know why. It’s because smoking is bad for us. And not just for the smoker, but also for everyone around him or her. Today, we all know the dangers of second-hand smoke. We know that it can cause cancer and other lung diseases. We know all this. And yet, some of us still smoke, don’t we? Why do you think this is so?

I’m not sure. But I think it’s because we can know something, and still not really know it. There is someone, for example, who used to be a heavy smoker, who finally died of lung cancer. Just before he died, this person took the trouble to warn his friends not to smoke. At the end of his life, this person finally came to realise the danger of cigarettes. But don’t you think he already knew this even while he was still smoking? Of course he did. He knew it, the way I know it. The way most of us know it. He knew it in theory. Not so much in practice. He knew it, and he didn’t really know it.

It was only after he was actually stricken with cancer, that the dangers of smoking became real to him. Really real. Cancer meant that he was unable to sleep, because he was up all night coughing. Cancer meant that he had to struggle hard just to breathe, even while he was doing nothing but sitting up in bed. Cancer meant that he had to go through many rounds of chemotherapy. And suffer the terrible side-effects. Before cancer, he already knew that smoking was dangerous. But he also didn’t really know it. At least not enough to change his life. We can know something, and still not really know it.

And what is true of the dangers of smoking is also true of the promises of God. We can know them, and still not really know them. At least not enough to have them affect the way we live. Isn’t this what we see in our first reading today? The passage is taken from the 16th chapter of the book of Genesis. Earlier, in chapter 15–yesterday’s first reading–God had made several promises to Abram. God had promised Abram an heir. A son of his own flesh and blood. God had promised to make Abram’s descendants as many as the stars in the sky. And also to give him the land of Canaan. Abram knew all this. And yet, in today’s reading, it’s as though Abram did not know it. It’s as though he had not received any promises. Why else would he agree to the plan proposed by his wife, Sarai? Why bother to have a child with the slave-girl Hagar, if Abram really knew that God wanted to give him an heir? If he really trusted in God’s promises to him? Isn’t it true that Abram knew, but also didn’t really know?

We find something similar in the gospel reading as well. We have already seen how important it is to know the dangers of smoking. It is a matter of life and death. Similarly, in the gospel, we find a kind of knowledge that is also a matter of life and death. Not just earthly life. And not just earthly death. But eternal life and death. In the gospel, Jesus invites us to meditate on an important question: How does one gain entrance into the kingdom of heaven? The answer is quite surprising. It is not those who say to me, “Lord, Lord,” who will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the person who does the will of my Father in heaven. In other words, we don’t get to heaven simply by calling upon the Lord Jesus. It’s not just a matter of lip service. We have to do the Father’s will. But this is not really so surprising. We know this already.

What is more surprising is how Jesus goes on to describe what these same people will say to him on the day of judgment. Did we not prophesy in your name, they will say, cast out demons in your name, work many miracles in your name? Notice how active all these people are. They prophesy, cast out demons, work miracles... They don’t just practice lip service. They are actually very busy people. And busy doing things in the Lord’s name. Yet, surprise surprise. When the day of judgment comes, Jesus rejects them. And notice what Jesus says, as he turns them away: I have never known you…

I have never known you. What this tells us, sisters and brothers, is that in order for us to get into the kingdom of heaven, in order for us to do the Father’s will, we have to somehow allow Jesus to get to know us. To somehow allow ourselves to get to know him. This is the crucially important kind of knowledge that we need. The kind that comes from an intimate personal relationship with the Lord. The kind that the people who say Lord, Lord do not have. They claim to know Jesus. They claim to do works in his name. But they don’t really know him. They know his name. But they don’t really know his person. They don’t really know how he feels. How he acts. What he values. What he loves.

Isn’t this also the experience of Simon Peter at Caesarea Philippi. You will, of course, remember how, at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asks his disciples this question: Who do you say I am? In Mark’s gospel, Simon Peter replies by saying You are the Messiah (Mk 8:29). And, in a way, this is the right answer. Jesus is indeed the Messiah. The Anointed One. Peter knows the right words. But he doesn’t really know their proper meaning. He may be thinking the way many other Jews were thinking at the time. That the Messiah would be a mighty general, who would lead an army to fight against the Romans. So that when Jesus starts to tell his disciples about how he is going to have to suffer, and die, and then rise from the dead, Peter objects. And he gets scolded by Jesus. Get behind me, Satan! At Caesarea Philippi, Peter already knows Jesus. But he also doesn’t know Him. Not yet.

How then, sisters and brothers are we to know Jesus? To know him and to allow him to know us in a way that can gain us entrance into the kingdom of heaven? Jesus himself gives us the answer in today’s gospel. It’s not enough to know his name. It’s not enough even to do many many things for Him. What we need is to make Him the very foundation of our lives. To make Him the centre of everything we think and say and do. Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a sensible man who built his house on rock. Rain came down, floods rose, gales blew and hurled themselves against that house, and it did not fall: it was founded on rock.

To make Jesus Himself the bedrock of our lives. Not just someone to whom we turn when we need something... And then forget when everything is well again. Not just someone we think about once a week, on a Sunday, because otherwise we might be in danger of committing a mortal sin. We need to make Jesus our everything. The reason why we get out of bed in the morning. Why we marry. Or stay married. Or remain single. The reason why we rejoice. The reason why our hearts are broken with sorrow. There are no half measures. We need to make Jesus our all. This is the only way we can truly get to know him. This the only way we can truly learn to do the Father’s will. By getting to know Jesus. By allowing ourselves to be known by Him.

This is not easy, of course. In fact, we could not do it on our own. The Good News is that Jesus Himself wants to help us. Jesus Himself wants to be close to us. And He wants it bad enough even to hang on the Cross for us. All we need to do is to ask Him. To call on Him for help.

Sisters and brothers, how does the Lord wish to get to know you better today?

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