Spiritual obedience means listening deeply to God

by Thomas Gumbleton

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In the Gospel lesson, Jesus reminds us, as he had proclaimed many times before to his disciples, "If you really want to be my disciple, take up your cross and follow me." And if we listen carefully and deeply to the lessons of today for a few moments, I think we will discover in a very deep way what Jesus means by that, and also we will be aware of the challenge it takes truly to follow Jesus. And first of all, I think it's important for us to realize that in what Jesus is to undergo.

Fifth Sunday of Lent
Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalms 51:3-4, 12-13, 14-15
Hebrews 5:7-9
John 12:20-33
Full text of the readings

And we enter now the last two weeks of Lent, and we'll enter Holy Week next week and recall his sufferings and journey to Calvary, and then his terrible death on that cross. As we kind of relive all of this, we need to be very aware that Jesus endured all of this as one like us in every way. You know I think many times we have sort of an understanding, in the back of our mind at least, "Well, it couldn't have been so bad for him. He knew he was going to rise from the dead."

But you see, we have to understand that the incarnation, Jesus in his humanness, is totally separate from his identity, and so he's one like us. He had to trust in God just as we do, and he found that very difficult, just as we do. If you listen carefully to that passage from the letter to the Hebrews, you find Jesus described in a way that I think is almost shocking: "Jesus, in the days of his mortal life, offered himself in sacrifice with tears and cries. He prayed to God, who could save him from death."

He prayed to God to save him from death. He was afraid; he dreaded what was to happen. And then the author tells us, "And although he was son -- in one way he was divine -- yet he had to learn through suffering what obedience was." And that seems to me to be kind of a strange thing, that you have to learn through suffering what it means to be obedient. But if we understand what obedience is, it becomes more clear.

Obedience doesn't mean just following a command of somebody else, what we call blind obedience, doing what you're told and so on. The word itself clearly means to listen deeply. To listen deeply, and in the spiritual sense it means listening deeply to God, and that's possible for every one of us as it was for Jesus. If you remember our first lesson today where Jeremiah proclaims how the time is coming, God says, "When I will forge a new covenant with the people of Israel, the people of Judah," and with us.

See, it will not be, God says, "covenant like that of old," where commandments were written on stones and we were told, "Follow these." No, this is going to be something new and very different. "This is the covenant I shall make with Israel after that time. I will put my law within them. I will put my law within them, and write it on their hearts." In other words, God is going to be living very deeply within us, within our spirits, within our hearts. And if we take the time to go apart, to be quiet, to listen, we will hear God speaking to us, telling us how to fulfill this covenant where God is our God and we are God's people.

And that's what Jesus did; he listened deeply, even though, as we hear in the Gospel today, he found it very difficult to face up to what God was asking of him. You see, when these outsiders came to Jesus -- "the Greeks," as John calls them, people who were not part of the chosen people -- Jesus wanted to be sure that they did not misunderstand who he is and what was going to happen to him.

He was a wonder-worker. See, people got to know about him, and these strangers were coming to find out, "Well, who is this person?" And they wanted to make his appointment to get to know him more deeply. But he was afraid that they were just thinking of him as a wonder-worker who could solve all their problems, so that's why he talks about his death.

And you get a sense that Jesus is trying to reassure himself about his death, that it will not be permanent. Because, as he tells the two who come to him, "The hour has come for the son of man to be glorified" -- he means to be put to death. That is when he tells that little parable about the seed falling into the ground, and that is reassuring, isn't it? Perhaps you've heard it sometimes at a funeral Mass: "Unless a seed falls into the ground and dies, it remains itself alone, nothing happens. But if it dies, it breaks forth into new life and grows."

And so that's what Jesus is saying to himself: "That's what's going to happen to me. I will die, be buried in the ground, but rise to new life." And yet you can see his humanness, though, when you go on, and just a short moment later, he's saying, "But now my soul is in distress." He's totally upset, afraid, dreading what's going to happen. "And shall I say, 'God, save me from this hour?' " He's tempted to say no, but then, "But no, this is why I have come. God, glorify your name."

And so Jesus says yes, and he's willing to go through his death, trusting that like that seed falling into the ground, he will rise to new life, trusting in God and God's love. But as we finish that paschal lesson, we have to listen, too, to what Jesus says about what happens through his death: "I, when I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself." And what Jesus is telling us is what happens through his death and resurrection. It isn't that he has paid the price, that we can be redeemed, bought back.

No, he's saying: "Because I am willing to die, give my life over into the hands of my enemies and not resist but rather love them, forgive them, pour forth love upon this world, I will draw all people to myself. Love will transform the world. Love will change each one of us. Love can help us to change others. Love will change the whole world." That's the message of Jesus. "If you want to be my disciple, take up your cross and follow me."

It is a powerful teaching here. Jesus is telling us the world is not going to be transformed through power and might, military force, nothing of that kind. The only way that our world will be transformed and changed into the reign of God -- where everyone has a chance for a full human life and where our world is transformed into the fullness of the blessings of heaven -- the only way that's going to happen is when we follow Jesus and never return evil for evil. Always being quick to forgive, loving even our enemies, doing good to those who hurt us.

"If you want to be my disciple, deny your very self, take up your cross, and follow me. Follow the way I go through death to new life." Is that possible? Can we really expect to be able to follow Jesus in this way, to give up violence and hatred and revenge and getting even and all of that which is so common in our world? Well this week, March 24, is the 35th anniversary of a person who was martyred because he only followed Jesus in love.

I'm speaking of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who on March 24, 1980, while he was celebrating Mass in a small chapel in San Salvador, the archbishop -- who had spoken out again and again for the poor and the oppressed, who had tried to overcome the injustices and the oppression within his own country and made enemies who wanted the system to be the way it was -- as he's celebrating Mass, an assassin enters the small chapel, fires one shot, and the archbishop falls to the floor and dies. It's because he's hated by those who were the oppressors, those who were destroying the poor in that country.

And it's clear that he knew what was happening. Just two weeks before he died, he was asked the question, "Don't you know your name is on the death list? They're going to kill you. They hate you." And the archbishop, when he answered: "Well, of course I've been threatened with death many times, but I don't believe in death without resurrection." See, he was ready to follow Jesus, be that seed falling into the ground that would rise to new life.

And then he went further. He says, "As a shepherd, I'm obliged by divine mandate to give my life for those I love, that is for those who may be going to kill me." See, he was ready to die out of love for his enemies. And when they shot him to death, I feel certain, even as he looked up and saw that gun pointed at him, he was ready to forgive. And then, because in fact, as he said in that conversation two weeks before he died, "You may tell them even now," those who are going to kill him, "Tell them even now, that I bless and forgive those who do it."

An extraordinary example of one like us, a human, who followed Jesus. Now, we're not going to be asked, obviously, to be shot to death, but certainly, there are many ways in our lives in which we are being asked to change, to be willing to reach out in forgiveness to all ... and refuse to use violence in response to violence. To overcome the culture of violence that pervades our culture and our world, and only respond to love, even to hatred and evil.

Archbishop Romero did it following Jesus. We can do it if we, too, go deeply into our hearts to listen to God speaking to us there, and saying, "Yes," to Jesus, follow him and truly become his disciples. During these last two weeks of Lent, we have an opportunity now to deepen our prayer life, to take more time to look deeply into our hearts, to listen, to obey and listen to God speaking to us, asking us to change. Follow Jesus, bring his love and his goodness into our world wherever we are.

[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.]

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