What does Christian discipleship entail?

Homily for 22nd Sunday in Ordinary time year A 2014

Few weeks ago, a parishioner came to me thanking for my prayers for her son. She was very thankful because as she said, her son’s mental health has been restored to its original health. I said to her: ‘It’s not me who’s done it. It’s the one who looks after us from above.’ I just felt so privileged to be a witness to God’s wonderful work. This is the beauty of Christian discipleship. If we follow Christ closely and listen to his words attentively, we would see with the eyes of our faith, what God is doing right before us, right in our day and age.

However, Christian discipleship is not only about feeling awe and wonder of our God. It is not only about watching Jesus performing miracles. It is not just about recognizing Jesus as the Christ, the messiah, the Son of the living God as Jesus would show to Simon Peter as in last week’s gospel wherein Jesus ‘ordained’ as the rock upon whom he would build his Church. It is also not about a promotion in the case of Peter, from being a fisherman to being the first Pope in the Church. Rather as in today’s Gospel, Christian discipleship is also ‘denying ourselves, taking up of our cross, and following Christ.’

  • What does it mean to follow Christ today?

First, getting behind Christ. Jesus is very strong on this. In last week’s gospel, he called Peter the rock, but this week’s gospel (Mat 16:21-27), he called him ‘Satan’ not because Peter was possessed but because, Peter was trying to get in the way of God. In a way Peter was telling God what to do. Peter was looking at things only from the human perspective and expectations. He was expecting of a messiah who is invincible, powerful and strong. But when Jesus told him that He had to go through suffering, trial and eventually death, Peter tried to hinder the way of Jesus because his expectations of a messiah was challenged. From being rock that serves as the foundation, he became the rock that stumbles. How many times when we are challenged by the message of Jesus and we think we couldn’t take it, we tend to deny him, or set him aside, or took no notice of his words?

How many times we are like this? When things are on our side and are going on our advantage, we take the credit to ourselves, but when things don’t go our way, we blame God. I’m actually caught up with this these past few days. As I have mentioned above, I felt good to know the person I’m praying for got on so well. I felt good to know my prayers are being answered. But when I learned of my eldest sister’s death, (one whom I have been praying for, for a while now), I somehow put the blame on God, on why did he answer my prayer for other people and he didn’t answer my prayer (or what I expect to be) for my sister. Upon reflecting this gospel though, I realize I should not be telling  God what  to do. He knows best, I believe. Rather I should just be getting behind Christ and seeking comfort and wisdom from his words.

Getting behind Christ therefore means we learn from him, as he lived his life in relationship with his Father (constant prayer and communication), in relationship with his disciples (listening and understanding their weaknesses and limitations, at the same time encouraging them to make good use of them for the kingdom) and in relationship with other people (by being sensitive to their needs and doing something for them).

Second, as St Paul would urge us in the Second reading (Rom 12:1-2): Let us not model ourselves on the behaviour of the world. Let us live our lives not based on the standards of the world, or the expectations of the world, but on the world to come. This is a big challenge, because the world always offers for us an easy, immediate and seemingly beautiful alternatives or options to live our lives: leisure, power, money, influence, security. These can sometimes take us away from Christ, because of their momentarily promise of gratification. As Christians though, we need to understand there is more to life than money, or power or wealth. Christ has shown us that there is life after this. So as early as now, let us long for that life and start living lives worthy for the eternal life.

Third, like Jeremiah in the First Reading (Jer 20:7-9), we continue to preach the message of God to the people around us, through our lives. lifestyle and our dealings with one another. People might not like us if we do live it out. Well, in Jesus’ time, many people didn’t like him, his words, and his ways either. Yet, He knows what he’s up to and he’s sticking to it no matter what. As Christians, followers we are also expected to know what we are up to. We are up to eternal life, happiness forever, life in heaven, being a worthy citizen of the kingdom of God, and let’s stick on to it by living our lives as signs and symbols of the kingdom to come. We can do this by continually bringing Christ to others and by striving to bring others to Christ. People might criticise us, as they did to Christ, but we must never stop, nor discouraged, nor feeling hopeless, because it is not for our sake, but for the sake of life with God forever. Yes, the horrible events happening in the Church could sometimes make us question our faith, discourage us, disappoint us, or disillusion us, but Pope Francis, has this encouragement for us, in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). The Pope wrote: ‘The evils of our world- and those of the Church, must not be excuses for diminishing our commitment and fervour. Let us look upon them as challenges which can help us to grow. With the eyes of faith, we can see the light which the Holy Spirit radiates in the midst of darkness, never forgetting that ‘where sin increase, grace has abounded all the more’ (Rom 5:20) (EG 84).

So as we continue our celebration of the Eucharist today let us ask ourselves: As a disciple of Christ, are we living out the Christian values and promoting the Christian ideals and aspirations?

If so, then let us show it in our lives. Amen.

Friendship with God

Homily for 21st Sunday in Ordinary time 2014

 While reflecting on the gospel today, I was confronted by the question of Jesus: ‘Who do you say I am?’ I realized this is not only a question addressed to Peter but also to me. Yes I believe that Christ is my Lord and Saviour, but there is something behind my faith in him that makes Jesus so real and personal to me. Jesus has become so real and I  can be as personal to him because He has become my personal friend.

I then tried to put my friendship with him into categories. I did this by looking at the number of friends I have on Facebook. As of late, I have a total of 1,244 friends. I noticed that I have ‘friends’ on Facebook who are friends of my friends who just wanted me to be their friend too. Then another category is that I have friends who are my relatives  (distant and  immediate). Then I have friends whom I can really say true friends, those who ‘are hard to find, difficult to leave, and impossible to forget’ (a beautiful description of a true friend I read in the magnet on our fridge.)

Christ as my friend falls into the third category but He is much more than all my friends.

The thing about friendship with Jesus though is that we can’t see him through our human eyes. We can only see him in the eyes of faith. That is why the gift of faith is so essential in this friendship.  And like Peter, before we can declare or profess Christ as our Lord, our messiah, we need God’s grace to help us see Christ and to hear his message. God’s grace  is already overflowing for us in Christ. Someone even defines grace as God’s riches at Christ’s expense.

This then calls us to seek friendship with Christ or we let Christ be our friend.  ‘If your friendship with Christ’, St John Paul II said to the young people during  World Youth Day in 2002, ‘your knowledge of his mystery, your giving of yourselves to him, are genuine and deep, you will be “children of the light”, and you will become “the light of the world”. Wow! What an expectation, and what a great grace and honour it would be to be a light of the world, especially in our time. It’s a challenge.

Friendship with Christ is beautiful. In him we learn to love as he loves and care as he cares for others. And one more beautiful thing about this friendship with Jesus is that he would empower us, strengthen us, makes us see God’s wonders in a new light, trust us even of the things of the Kingdom. Wow! What a thing to aspire for in a friend! Like St Paul, we could say with great confidence: ‘It is no longer who lives, but Christ who lives in me’ ( Gal 2:20).

Friendship with Christ helps us to be humble because in Him we can see our true selves, we can see who we really are, what we are now, what we are meant to be and do and what we are capable of. St Peter could attest to this. After seeing  a huge catch of fish when Jesus told them to go out into the deep (Lk 5:1-8), Peter said: ‘Depart from me Lord, for I am sinful man.’ Such an expression of humility.

Friendship with  Christ is our assurance to live our lives fully.  He gives meaning to our life. Yes, in him we can expect the cross, the trials, the challenges in life, but if we keep focused on him, we can overcome all those.  He has been tried, he has been challenged, yet because He is so focused on doing the will of his Father for the establishment of the Kingdom, He is now in glory. So we never give up despite the difficulties in life. If Jesus gave up and climb down the cross because He couldn’t bear the sufferings for our sins, perhaps we can give up too, but we  know he didn’t, so are we. Let us be consoled for the meantime though of our hope that Christ will come again in glory   in his second coming and judge us according to how faithful are we, how loving are we, how caring are we as his friends.

Friendship with Christ is not a one-way-traffic. I mean we can’t just let Christ force himself to be our friend. Friendship is always  a two-way traffic. So we need to do our part. In a manner of saying, we need to meet Christ halfway. This is  going back to the gospel for today. To be his friends, Christ expects some things from us

One expectation is that we need to know Christ more personally and more intimately- that knowledge and closeness with Jesus that like St Peter we could declare: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.’ I have a big expectation on myself on this and  I would throw it to you: ‘It is my expectation that people would say of us: ‘Are you Christian? Because I could really see Christ in you.’

Another expectation is that we don’t have to be perfect in everything we do. Jesus doesn’t look at us as a sinners but as someone who is capable of becoming a saint. God knows we are not perfect. Rather we just learn to be humble and acknowledge that as human as we are, we are far from perfection. It doesn’t mean rather, we are just to be content with it. Like St Peter however, we are to constantly look up to Christ, for guidance, for encouragement, for support, for forgiveness and reconciliation, for wisdom,  for life. Apart from Christ, we can do thing. If we think we can fulfil our expectations on our own, we need some checking out.

Another expectation is that we are to be faithful to our Lord and to the Church. This is thing to be noted because we are in the consumeristic time, result-driven mentality and profit-driven attitude. In Christ, we can’t measure the result of what we do for him. Only God knows if we are worthy of Him or not. Only God knows if we are becoming like his Son in our way of loving, or not. Mother Teresa had realized this  early on, the could only say: ‘God has not called me to be successful; He has called me to be faithful.’ If we look at the Church too, there might be things that might disappoint us, discourage us, or disillusioned us, but these must not lead us astray or be unfaithful to the Church. Though it is a Church of sinners, it is still the same Church that Christ has built upon Peter- the Rock, and thanks be to God for keeping that rock standing firm over the centuries, amidst storms of scandals and anomalies, amidst trials, persecutions and seemingly insurmountable challenges, even the gates of hell. For two millennia now, the Church moves on, through the Ministry of St Peter carried on by his successors. And let’s pray that this Church we belong to continue to be a witness to the world, a beacon of light, of hope, of respect of human life, of solidarity and of peace.

So today, let us ask ourselves: Who is Christ for me? What does Christ expect of me? Am I fulfilling these expectations?

Christ: Comfort to the afflicted and affliction to the comfortable

Homily for 20th Sunday in Ordinary time 2014

One of the many things I love about Jesus is that he not only comforts the afflicted, he also afflicts the comfortable. I really felt it as I read and reflected on the gospel of today. See, I have grown comfortable with the Jesus who always listens to the pleadings of the poor and the needy. I have become so comfortable with the Jesus who can’t allow the people to go hungry without giving them something to eat. I have been comfortable with the Jesus who is very compassionate, understanding, forgiving, loving, and caring for those who come to him for help. I have experienced it myself.

Today’s gospel (Matthew 15:21-28) however makes me feeling uncomfortable. It is uncomfortable for me to have Jesus playing indifferent to the Canaanite woman who came to him for help. ‘He answered her not a word’, as Matthew would describe Jesus’ reaction towards the desperate person calling out for his help. It took him few ‘naggings’ from the woman, and a pleading from his disciples, for Jesus to ‘give in to her request. But even then, when Jesus finally spoke to the woman, his words were not even a consoling or comforting words. ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel,’ Jesus said to her. I could only imagine the woman pleading more earnestly: ‘But Lord, it’s not about me! It’s about my daughter! I loved her so much, and I wanted to help her but it is beyond my power to cure her. I can’t do anything for her, but I believed in you. You can do something for her!

But to add insult to injury, Jesus said: ‘‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the house-dogs.” In the Semitic language and expression, calling someone a ‘dog’ or a ‘house-dog’ is a highly derogatory term. In a way, it is looking down at someone. Today, we can equate this to our current issues and events saying: ‘You are an asylum seeker. You’re not one of us. You’re not from here. You jumped in the queue. It’s not fair. Thus, I can’t allow you to enjoy what we are enjoying in here.

But thank God, the particular story didn’t end up Jesus driving the woman away or turning her down. Thank God the woman didn’t give up on her prayers and on her faith. Otherwise, we would have a good scriptural basis for being a racist. Thank God, though Jesus was caught up with racism (Note: I am not saying Jesus is a racist), he didn’t make it an obstacle for him to grant to do something great and to appreciate the faith of the people who come to him.

As I have mentioned above, this gospel makes me a bit uncomfortable. Because, I was once caught up with racism or I really was acting as racist before.

When I arrived in the seminary in Melbourne in 2007, I met this seminarian from Wagga, he is now a priest…He is just absolutely black, shining black. That’s the first time I saw a person as black as he is in person, and I just can’t hold myself, I laughed at him. Thank God, he made light of that awkward situation. He laughed with me too, and I realized he was very funny. I remember when we had our photo taken, he said: ‘I must smile to show my teeth, to have at least something in me seen in this photo.’ And we all laughed about it.

I just felt guilty of judging people by their skin color when in God, we are all one. There is no racism in God. In him we are all equal and none of us is more equal than others in his eyes, though  it doesn’t mean we are to be the same too. In God, it doesn’t matter what or which country do we come from, or what skin color do we have, or what language do we speak. For God what matters is where we are going to- and I hope and pray we are going in the same direction- heaven, eternal life, happiness forever. This must be the basis of our discernment and self-examination everyday- and constantly reminding ourselves to stay on the track leading us to life.

I just wanted to share with you this poem written by an African kid, and which was nominated by the UN to be the best poem in 2006. The title is: ‘And you call me colored?

It goes like this:

When I born, I black

When I grow up, I black

When I go in Sun, I black

When I scared, I black

When I sick, I black

And when I die, I still black

And you white fellow

When you born, you pink

When you grow up, you white

When you go in sun, you red

When you cold, you blue

When you scared, you yellow

When you sick, you green

And when you die, you gray

And you calling me colored ???

And here’s the rub here: When we judged others, we are actually judging ourselves more than we judge the other person.

So God is not a racist. And as sons and daughters of God, we must not put categories, label, or stereotype towards other people too.

 Going back to the gospel however:

In showing that particular attitude towards the woman, which seemed to be an attitude of indifference at first, Jesus was driving at  two very important points: That the house of Israel- that is the chosen of people God would realize how vital their role is and how ‘special’ are they in the story of salvation and the other point Jesus is presenting here is that we are to persist in our prayers.

First point: Matthew wished to stress in here the dream of Jesus for  his Jewish audience to realize how they have taken for granted God’s offer of salvation, who has come to them not just as a prophet but really a God in person. This is what St Paul was lamenting about, in the Second Reading today (Romans 11:13-15,29-32) . St Paul said: “Let me tell you pagans this: I have been sent to the pagans as their apostle, and I am proud of being sent, but the purpose of it is to make my own people envious of you, and in this way save some of them. Since their rejection meant the reconciliation of the world, do you know what their admission will mean?

God has called us to be sons and daughters. What a privilege!

Are we acting like his sons and daughters, as brothers and sisters who love, and care for each other?

Or we are acting as siblings who are rivals in everything?

The second point Jesus wanted to drive at in the gospel is that we are to persevere in our prayer. God always listens to our prayers, even if at times he seemed to be deaf to our prayers, or he seemed to have misheard our prayers because we didn’t get what we are praying for. Like the Canaanite woman, we just need to be humble (kneeling before our Lord), persistent (that is with hope and patience). Patience is a difficult thing. It’s not easy to acquire this virtue. As someone says: “Patience is a virtue, possess it if you can, seldom in a woman, never in a man.”

One way to check if you are a patient person is to examine yourself after every Mass Sunday when you leave the Church. If you say:  ‘The Mass was beautiful only that it is 15 minutes too long’, or if you say ‘The homily is good, but it would have been much better if it’s not 5 minutes too long,’ then perhaps there is a great need still to grow in the virtue of patience.

And like the woman in the gospel we need to acknowledge our littleness. We need to be honest with ourselves. We need to accept that there are saints and sinners in us. And like the woman we need to present this self-acceptance to the Lord. And if we do this, the amazing things happens. God gives in to our request. Not that we bribe God, it is just that God wants us to be truly who we are, no hypocrisy before him. The woman taught us another great lesson here that the ‘dog’ in us (i.e. our littleness, our vulnerability, our neediness, our helplessness at times) can even be God’s opportunity to do something great not only for us, but through us.

As we continue our celebration let us thank God for calling us to be his sons and daughters and for allowing us to be  beneficiaries of his mercy regardless of who we are, what we have done, what language do we speak and what’s the colour of our skin. At the same time, let us resolve to  be sensitive towards one another, and welcoming as Jesus does, though at times he may afflict us  rather than comforting us. Amen.