The Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]
II Kings 4:8-11,14-16 + Romans 6:3-4,8-11 + Matthew 10:37-42
July 2, 2023
Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, is a bountiful giver of gifts. He gifts us beyond measure. Yet the measure of a Christian disciple is the extent to which the disciple accepts these gifts.
All of Jesus’ gifts to us have one aim. That aim is to make each of us like Him. Or to use the more lofty language of theology, the aim of Jesus’ gifts is to conform each of us to Christ. Or to use the language that Jesus employed at His Last Supper, the aim of Jesus’ gifts is for the Christian disciple to abide in Christ, and for Christ in turn to abide in the disciple. Jesus’ gifts make that mutual indwelling—the disciple in Christ, and Christ in the disciple—possible.
The catch, however, is that the Christian has to actively accept each one of Jesus’ gifts. The Christian disciple is not like an empty glass that God fills with water. Instead, at any given point in the disciple’s spiritual life, Christ offers His disciple the gift that He wants the disciple to have, and it’s up to the disciple to accept that gift, or to reject that gift.
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It all starts with the Sacrament of Baptism. Baptism is the first gift by which Jesus’ aim can be accomplished. St. Paul speaks to us today in the Second Reading about this gift.
Now, to put today’s Second Reading in context: the passage is from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Out of the 27 books of the New Testament, 21 are letters written by various apostles. Out of those 21, two-thirds of them—fourteen of the 21 letters—were written by St. Paul. Out of those fourteen letters written by St. Paul, his Letter to the Romans is the longest and most challenging. That’s why when you open the pages of your bible, you find that Romans is the first apostolic letter, right after Acts of the Apostles.
Another point that helps us appreciate today’s Second Reading is just how different the apostles who wrote those 21 New Testament letters were from each other. Just like the various pastors of a parish, the various apostles had the same job, but went about that job differently, because they were different persons. After all, Father Sam and Father H, and Father Philip Allen, and Father David Linnebur are and were different priests, but all carried out the same work as your pastor.
The same thing is true of the apostles, and that’s seen in the variety that we hear when we listen to the 21 New Testament letters written by the apostles. If you were to put all of those apostles who wrote New Testament letters along a spectrum, according to how they relate to their congregations, then at one end of the spectrum you’d find St. John the Apostle. At the other end would be St. Paul the Apostle.
In the New Testament letters that St. John wrote, he’s constantly calling his congregation “beloved” and “little children”. For example, he writes: “Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God” [1 John 4:7]. And: “Little children, let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth. By this we shall know that we are of the truth, and reassure our hearts before him” [1 John 3:18-19]. So St. John is like the old Irish pastor who could convince the stingiest parishioner to give his life savings to the parish school.
Then, at the other end of the spectrum, you have St. Paul. St. Paul is like the cantankerous German pastor, who tells his congregation not what they want to hear, but what they need to hear. (St. Paul was even known to send the collection basket around a second time if it didn’t fill up.) St. Paul neither spared the verbal rod, nor spoiled the little children. In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul writes: “You stupid Galatians! I told you exactly how Jesus Christ was nailed to a cross. Has someone now put an evil spell on you?” [CEV: Galatians 3:1]. (If St. Paul were around today, he’d probably be sent off for sensitivity training.)
Given how cantankerous St. Paul could be, in today’s Second Reading he’s preaching rather mildly. At the start of the passage, St. Paul uses one of his more gentle means of correction. Like a parent trying to correct one of his teenagers, St. Paul asks the Romans a rhetorical question, which he hopes will wake the Romans up: “Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?” St. Paul might instead have been more direct in his criticism, stating: “You Romans are obviously unaware of the fact that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death.”
We might wonder why St. Paul, on this particular occasion, chose to be more gentle in his criticism of the Romans. Very possibly, St. Paul went easy on them because he knew what a difficult and demanding truth he was preaching about. Baptism is a great gift. But it’s even more so a great demand. These two facts—that baptism, at one and the same time, is a great gift and also a great demand—calls to mind another saying of Jesus: “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more” [Luke 12:48].
In Baptism, you have been entrusted with the great gift that St. Paul explores in today’s Second Reading: the gift of dying to yourself. St. Paul’s teaching corresponds with the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel Reading: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
The fact is that whenever you live for yourself, your life ends up much smaller than the life God has in mind for you. What’s more, when you live for yourself, your life becomes much more difficult.
Of course, it’s true that losing your life for Christ’s sake is also difficult. The difference is, when you live for yourself, you have to live by yourself: that is, you have to live by means of only your own human gifts and your own human lights to deal with the difficulties that the world, the devil, and your own sins throw up in your path as roadblocks. Whereas when you lose your life for Christ’s sake, then God, through Christ, will offer the graces—the gifts—needed to overcome those roadblocks. The bottom line, however, is that you have to actively accept the gifts that God offers you.
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Consider a personal example of the words of Jesus and St. Paul. Consider a real-life example of someone who lost his life for Christ’s sake, and in doing so found his life. Consider a real-life example of someone who lived his life aware that he had been baptized into the death of Christ Jesus.
This past Monday, June 26th, the Church celebrated the feast day of St. Josemaría Escrivá. St. John Paul II called St. Josemaría “the saint of ordinary life”. This Spring, on my pilgrimage to Europe, I learned a lot about St. Josemaría Escrivá. One of the countries I visited was Spain, the nation in which he was born. Throughout many different churches in Spain, I saw chapels dedicated to him, with statues and paintings of him. In the United States, he’s not as well known as he is in Spain, though he ought to be.
St. Josemaría Escrivá was born in 1902. He was ordained a diocesan priest, but in 1928 he founded a religious organization that in some ways resembles a religious order. His organization includes laypersons because a large part of the mission of this organization concerns living the Gospel in ordinary life: embracing daily dying to self in a joyful, fruitful manner.
You know, one of the gravest struggles within the Church today is the ignoring of ordinary life, and its importance: ordinary life being the very place where holiness is to be found. Instead, more than a few people within the Church today encourage a view of the spiritual life which focuses upon what’s bright and shiny and flashy, instead of what’s plain and ordinary. The problem is that what’s bright and shiny and flashy is like the seed that’s planted on the path: it sprouts and then withers because it lacks roots. Ordinary life, by contrast, is the seedbed for the holiness that flourishes.
That contrast, very sadly, is one reason why marriages today wither for lack of roots. Some spouses look for within marriage what some Christians look for within the spiritual life: what is bright and shiny, what is flashy and spectacular, instead of what is ordinary, down-to-earth, and self-sacrificial. Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel passage apply as much to the marriage vocation specifically as they do to the spiritual life generally: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
Consider a passage from one of St. Josemaría Escrivá’s best known works, titled simply The Way. In a section of the book about mortification, he writes about simple ways to practice self-sacrifice:
“The appropriate word you left unsaid; the joke you didn’t tell; the cheerful smile for those who bother you; that silence when you’re unjustly accused; your kind conversation with people you find boring and tactless; the daily effort to overlook one irritating detail or another in those who live with you… this, with perseverance, is indeed solid interior mortification” [The Way 173].
That’s not flashy, and it’s not bright or shiny. It’s the Gospel, pure and simple. In the same section, St. Josemaría writes: “The world admires only the spectacular sacrifice, because it does not realize the value of the sacrifice that is hidden and silent” [The Way 185]. The world’s admiration is for those who hold the world as their treasure. But if we want to reach Heaven, our time and energy is better spent accepting God’s gifts, in order to have the strength inside us to put into practice the words of Jesus Christ: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”