You may have noticed over the many, many Sundays that you've come to liturgy and listened to the word of God that usually the first lesson and the gospel lesson are easily connected and the second lesson, usually from Paul's letters, is somewhat just put in there for whatever reason. But today I think that second lesson challenges us in a very extraordinary way. Paul says to those Christians and to us, "Be imitators of God." That may sound almost impossible, doesn't it?
Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
How can we imitate God, especially when we begin to think about who God is as God is revealed in Jesus? In the first letter of John (you have heard this before I'm sure), John says, "God is love and this is what I mean by that love: not that we loved God, but that God first loved us." God first loved us without our earning it; nothing we could do to earn it, really. God's love has drawn us into existence. God's love continues to support us, maintain us in existence. God is always loving us. God is love and somehow, we have to try to be like that -- be love.
In today's lesson, St. Paul spells it out in some specific ways, "Do away with all quarreling, no rage, anger, no insults or any kind of malice, be good, try to be understanding, mutually forgiving one another, and reaching out to forgive and to be forgiven -- in other words, to love as God loves. Be imitators of God." How different our world would be if the whole worldwide community of disciples of Jesus really took this seriously and we tried to love as God loves.
We know we fall far short so we have to ask ourselves what can we do to try to, even in a certain sense, begin to be imitators of God, whose love is so extraordinary that it is shown to us in Jesus on the cross, "I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself." Why? Because even as he is being tortured and put to death, his love is flowing out on all of those who are putting him to death and on all of us. Over the years, I think many of us have thought of the death and resurrection of Jesus as a way of paying a price for us, buying us back, redeeming us.
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But rather than thinking of it that way, much more clearly is simply God's love being poured forth by Jesus, Son of God. There's no limit to that love. To try to learn to love that way, we can turn to our first lesson today (and this is only a very small part of the episode in the book of Kings about Elijah), but before that was this confrontation with the prophets of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Elijah had confronted these false prophets and defeated them.
Jezebel, especially, was totally angry and determined to kill him. That's why he flees and heads from the Northern Kingdom where he is, down to the southernmost part of the Promised Land and to Mount Sinai. Along the way, God provides him with nourishment to support him in his journey. God is always there to support him. Then when he gets there, God invites him to enter into a cave on a mountain so that God can speak to him.
Here's what the author tells us, "Go up and stand on the mountain waiting for God. There was first a windstorm -- a wild wind, which rent the mountains and broke the rocks into pieces before God, but God was not in the wind. After the storm an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake a fire, but God was not in the fire. After the fire the murmur of a gentle breeze, and when Elijah perceived it, he covered his face with his cloak, went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then he heard God's voice addressing him."
God is not going to enlighten us in dramatic ways -- earthquakes, wind, fire -- that sort of thing, but only when we listen deeply in our hearts, listen in such a way that we can hear a gentle breeze and God will speak. If we take the time to do this, to go apart -- we live in a very busy world, a very noisy world, and we're confronted constantly. Our senses are being almost attacked, you might say, by noise and all the ways we have of communicating now. We hardly ever are really alone, ready to listen to deeply to God.
That's the first thing we must try to do because then God will help us to understand more clearly what Jesus is telling us in the Gospel today, "I am the bread of life. I've come down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever. Whoever eats of this bread will be transformed into who I am -- God, begin to live like Jesus who is God, begin to reach out in love, to do those things that Paul says, 'Be mutually forgiving; be the one who reaches out first.'"
All of this has to do with our everyday life when we live in our families, in our communities, but even beyond that in our larger world. We have to try to take that bread of life, which we are privileged to receive every time we celebrate the Eucharist and let that bread of life nourish us and change us to be more like Jesus, who is God. Then we can imitate God. There are many ways in which we could look at this in those personal ways that St. Paul speaks about where he tells us to stop quarreling, no anger or rage, be good, be understanding, and mutually forgiving.
Each of us can improve in those ways. But this morning, I ask us to think of a much larger way in which we can try to follow Jesus, absorb this bread of life and let it change us. Today is August the ninth. Seventy years ago today our government, our military dropped a second atomic bomb, this time on the city of Nagasaki. I don't know if you've read during this past week some of the accounts of what happened when that bomb exploded over that city. It had already happened at Hiroshima on August sixth, now a second time.
The heat is so intense that people reach up and touch their face and their skin is melting, falling off. The heat is so intense that some people are simply vaporized, disappeared. Almost 100,000 people killed in a matter of seconds. There was no military establishment there. In fact, there was a most significant Christian community in Japan. For years afterwards people suffered and died horrible deaths from radiation sickness.
I think we have never really repented of that evil, because it was evil. People will say, "It stopped the war." Actually the war was ready to stop. The Soviet Union hadn't started to invade Japan. We wanted to prevent that from happening so we wanted to speed up the ending of the war. Because we never really repented of that evil, right now as a nation we are committed to use such weapons again. We have thousands on hair trigger alert. At any moment they could be fired deliberately or by accident. Our world would be ended.
Is there any way that the use of such a weapon, the use of any kind of violence in fact, is the way of Jesus? Can you look anywhere in the Gospel and find Jesus retaliating, getting even, using violence, overcoming through killing? He rejected all of that. It's a hard lesson, but perhaps if we do what Elijah did -- go away into a quiet place and listen for God's word to enter into our heart and our spirit.
Perhaps every time we come to celebrate the Eucharist, if we really consciously allowed ourselves to reflect that we are receiving the bread of life. This Eucharist is the repetition of what we call the Easter Mystery, the suffering death and resurrection of Jesus where he gave himself over to death out of love, loving even those putting him to death. If we really allowed ourselves every time we receive this bread of life to reflect on that, to ask Jesus to help us to begin to grow in the same kind of love, don't you think our lives would be transformed?
Our relationships with others would change dramatically on an individual basis. But even as a nation and as a Christian community, we could be leading the way to transform our world from a world where there is so much violence and killing and death and war, sufferings, starvation. We could transform this world into what God calls us to be -- into the reign of God where there is fullness of life and joy and goodness and love for every person. Be imitators of God -- that's our challenge, and as we respond to that and grow into the way of Jesus, it will change our lives and we will be working with Jesus to transform our world into a world of peace and goodness and love.
[Homily given at St. Philomena Catholic Church in Detroit. The transcripts of Bishop Gumbleton's homilies are posted weekly to NCRonline.org. Sign up here to receive an email alert when the latest homily is posted.]