Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Salvation in Jesus’ Name Alone

Homily on the Fourth Sunday of Easter B
(John 10:11-18)
May 3, 2009

MORE than ever before, today we realize that the world is characterized by a diversity of religions and sects. In the Philippines , we find a number of them: Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity and, lately, New Age. And even in Christianity itself, we are aware of the various churches and communities that claim to be the true Church founded by Christ: in addition to the Roman Catholic Church, we have the various Protestant Churches, the Iglesia ni Cristo, Ang Dating Daan, Jesus the Healer and various fundamentalist and Pentecostal churches, movements and sects. In face of this diversity of religious beliefs, there seems to be an attitude of many, even Catholics, from one which is skeptical toward non-Christian religions and Christian sects to one which accepts any form of religion. For them, since all religions and sects are means to have contact with the divine world and to salvation, it does not matter whether one is a Muslim or Christian, or whether one is a born-again Christian or a Catholic. According to this view, all religions are of equal value; ours is not any better than any other religion. What is of utmost importance, it is proposed, is that one is sincere in one’s religious belief, and one can be saved in it.

Such an attitude, however, seems not grounded in Christian faith, nor in the Sacred Scriptures. In the 1st Reading , Peter’s apologia, trying to explain the source of the power that healed the crippled man, points to the name of Jesus apart from whom no one can be saved. “There is no salvation in anyone else, for there is no other name in the whole world given to men by which we are to be saved” (Acts 4:12). (“Name” here probably reflects a healing formula used by exorcists in the early Church; it does not mean the word that identifies a person, but the person of Jesus Christ himself, the risen One.) Through his death and resurrection, God gave Jesus power to heal and to save. In the Gospel, John presents Jesus as the Good Shepherd, who laid down his life for his sheep (John 10:11,15b,17a). In the Johannine literature, the “laying down of one’s life” is associated with the image of the Lamb of God who was slain to take away the sins of the world (Rev 5:6; John 1:29). Precisely because he was slain and was justified by God, the Lamb became a fountain of life (Rev 7:17; 22:1). In other words, since Jesus laid down his life for others, he was constituted the means through which salvation is given.

What are we to make of this biblical teaching? Does this mean that there is no other means of salvation apart from Jesus, since it was only he who underwent passion, death and resurrection in obedience to the Father? If the body of Jesus is the Church, does this imply that outside the Church there is no salvation, and therefore the individual attains salvation only through his explicit membership in the Church, which is the sole mediator of Christ’s salvation? Are we then to affirm that all other non-Christian religions are false, Christian sects are in error, mere human attempts at coming in contact with the divine world which is revealed in Jesus Christ? Are we then to propose that we must bring everybody to the Church if all are to be saved? Can we tell those outside the Church that they cannot partake of eternal life, since the grace of salvation comes only through the Church?

Probably not. It does mean, however, that since it is only in the name of Jesus that salvation is possible, persons can be saved only by the grace of Christ. Admittedly, this grace is offered to all, even to those who have not heard of him. When the Bible says that God has spoken in Jesus and that salvation is possible through him, it teaches that he is the constitutive mediator of salvation; without him, no salvation is possible. As the readings today emphasize, precisely because Jesus laid down his life for us, precisely because he suffered, died and rose from the dead, salvation flows from him. Since Jesus is constitutive of salvation, no one could be saved apart from his life, death and resurrection. It is in this sense that we have to understand Peter’s claim that there is no name in the world given to men by which we can be saved except through Jesus. For this reason, it cannot be said that all religions are of equal value. Because the Church is closely linked with Christ, the sign of his presence among men, salvation is mediated through her. Consequently, the grace of salvation is available to those outside the believing community through the Church. One cannot just say that as long as I do good works and not offend my neighbor, I am sure I will be saved. It matters whether one belongs to the Church or not.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Vindication of God’s Servant

Third Sunday of Easter B
(Luke 24:35-48)
April 26, 2009

FROM hindsight, it became clear how the death of Ninoy Aquino galvanized the Filipinos into a formidable opposition to the Marcos dictatorship; it served as a rallying point for the hitherto disparate or disorganized opponents of the regime to unify them into a mammoth opposition that finally dislodged the Marcoses. But as the events of the 1980s were still unfolding, his death was seen differently. Among others, it was considered as a signal that the era of traditional politics which revolved around the charisma of politicians was about to end. Or, he was viewed as simply one more victim of the repressive martial law regime. His death, however, acquired a new meaning when seen from the perspective of the events after his assassination and from the impact it made in Philippine history. Today, most tend to regard him as martyr of Filipino freedom.

This observation gives us an inkling of the meaning of Jesus’ fate, and its place in God’s plan of salvation.

What happened to Jesus must be seen in the context of God’s plan to save us. Divorced from the resurrection event, his fate, as most Jews would have perceived it, resulted from his claims and activities which raised the question of the origin of his authority. Examples of such claims and activities were his interpretation of the law contrary to traditional interpretation (Matt 5:21-48), his assumption of divine prerogative (Mark 2:1-11), his teaching (Mark 1:22.27) and his preaching (Mark 1:15). In terms of Old Testament criteria as read by the Jews, he was a false prophet (Deut 18:20-22), a rebellious son (Deut 21:18-21), and a beguiler who led people astray (Deut 17:1-13). Eventually, the religious leaders saw him as a threat to the nation, because of what he taught to the people and his action that threatened the Temple (John 11:45-53). Of course, these accusations would not make sense in a Roman Court , and so the Jewish authorities had to present him as a messianic pretender, a political insurgent who claimed to be a king of the Jews. And when he was put to death, the Jewish authorities thought that it was the end of him.

But he rose from the dead. Hence, the resurrection vindicated the person and mission of Jesus. Condemned as a false prophet, a rebellion son, a beguiler, a messianic pretender, Jesus was confirmed God’s faithful son who obeyed the Father’s will. From hindsight, his fate came to be understood as similar to the fate of all God’s messengers. In their faithfulness to the mission given them, they encountered opposition, even violent, from ungodly men, secular powers, or people of stony heart who did not want to listen. “Though you refused to listen or pay heed, the Lord has sent you without fail all his servants the prophets with this message: Turn back, each of you, from your evil way and from your evil deeds; then you shall remain in the land which the Lord gave you and your fathers, from of old and forever”(Jer 25:4-5). One such messenger was Jeremiah whom the Lord called to prophesy against Israel in the hope that they would turn back from their evil ways (Jer 36:2-3). For this King Jehoiakim many times attempted to kill him. According to tradition, he was in the end murdered in Egypt by his fellow countrymen.

Jesus was therefore God’s faithful servant, and his resurrection was a vindication of his faithfulness, and proves that the human judgment on him—a blasphemer, a wayward son, a heretic and false prophet and a messianic pretender—was wrong. The Jews were wrong in their interpretation of the Scriptures. “You put to death the Author of life. But God raised him from the dead” (Acts 3:15, 1st Reading ). The resurrection was God’s declaration that Jesus was the Messiah. Therefore, they misread what was written concerning God’s servant. That is why, in today’s Gospel (Luke 24:36-48), Jesus reminded his disciples: “Recall those words I spoke to you when I was still with you: everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and psalms had to be fulfilled”(Luke 24:44). Of course, one cannot find a specific reference to the suffering Messiah in each of these groups of writings. But then, to look for it is to miss the point of Luke. For according to the evangelist, the whole of Hebrew Scriptures—Law, Prophets, Writings—found fulfillment in Christ. Hence, it had to be reread in the light of the resurrection. It is not so much about understanding Jesus from the point of view of the Old Testament as about understanding it in the light of what happened to Jesus. Read in the light of what happened after his death, Jesus, in other words, was not what human judgment thought of him, but the Messiah to which the Scriptures testified. He was approved and vindicated by God.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Peace of Christ

Second Sunday of Easter of Year B
(John 20:19-31)
April 19, 2009

WHENEVER we celebrate the Eucharist, we observe the rite of peace before receiving the body and blood of the Lord. How this is done varies from country to country. In the Philippines , one bows to the person next to him, while saying the greeting of peace: “Peace be with you.” Of course, this does not prevent others from expressing the wish by shaking hands. Many would even take this as an occasion to give secular greetings. But the question is whether we ourselves know the significance of what we are doing. Do we really mean it, as liturgy itself wishes to teach us, and if so, what do we do about it? This has to be asked because this is not meant to be an empty gesture. On the contrary, it is meant to signify the peace that Jesus brought to us.

But what is this peace that Jesus gave us (John 20:19-31)? There is no doubt that Jesus’ “Peace be to you” (John 20:21a) is not to be taken as a simply greeting of peace. It is to be noted that peace has been promised in the passion narrative: “Peace is my farewell to you, my peace is my gift to you. I do not give it to you as the world gives peace” (John 14:27). In today’s gospel on the resurrection narrative, Jesus fulfilled that promise. He gave his peace as a gift for the whole duration that he was no longer with them in flesh. For Jesus, peace is not the absence of war or division, as is commonly understood. This peace is the gift of the risen One who promised to be with them in the person of the Holy Spirit. This coheres with the thought of Paul who says that peace is established through the sacrifice of God’s Son (see Rom 5:1), through the blood of the cross ( Col 1:20). For this reason, the gift of peace is more than a greeting. As a gift of the risen One—and this is how the liturgy probably understands it--it refers to the right relationship (among community members and between God and his people) that comes from the presence of the risen Lord.

The right relationship among community members is depicted in the 1st Reading . With the presence of the risen One, the early Christians formed a unity of mind and heart. Their relationship was marked with harmony and love, evidenced in the sharing of goods: “The community of believers were of one heart and one mind. None of them ever claimed anything as his own; rather, everything was held in common…. nor was anyone needy among them” (Acts 4:32-34). In the 2nd Reading , the relationship between God and his people is described in terms of faith and love. Since the Christian community forms a family of God, the children love their father, and that love for their father is shown in their love for one another. “We can be sure that we love God’s children when we love God and do what he has commanded.” (1 John 5:2). But the family members are, first of all, believers that Jesus is the Christ (1 John 5:1). Their faith moves them to love God and express it in their love for the brothers. When such relationship obtains, the peace of the risen One is there. Peace, thus, is envisaged as the work of faith and love. It cannot happen apart from the community which the risen One himself initiated.

That is the meaning of peace. Therefore, when before receiving communion, we greet each other with the sign of peace, we ought to have this in mind. But this kind of peace is not to be confined to the assembly gathered for the liturgy. In the context of our readings today, the kiss of peace is not simply a gesture to prepare us to receive the body and blood of Christ worthily. It must spill over to the world outside the worshipping assembly—in the market, in the school, at the office, in the streets, etc. For after imparting his peace to the disciples, he instructed his disciples: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). The peace which Jesus gave to his disciples and which we celebrate in the liturgy must be brought to the world. Peace-making is therefore part of the mission of the community of believers. Obviously, it will not take the form of a peace process in which might is right, or in which wealth dictates the terms of peace-- which is the way of the world (cf John 14:27), but it has to take a concrete form. We have to overcome the world (cf 1 John 5:4). In our world today, it may not be expressed apart from forgiveness of the third-world debt, disarmament, equality in trade and development, and justice.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Coming to Faith in Christ’s Resurrection

Homily on Easter Sunday of Year B
(John 20:1-9)
April 12, 2009

CONTRARY to what many people assume, statements of faith are not, in Christianity, of the same weight. The belief that Mary appeared in Fatima is not of the same value as the belief in her Immaculate Conception. In Roman Catholic theology, there is what theologians call hierarchy of truths. Some truths belong to the core of Christianity, some are more important than others. One would not be excommunicated if he denied that St Anthony of Padua preached to the fish, but this cannot be said of a Catholic who refuses to believe in the resurrection of Jesus. For the belief in the resurrection is central to Christian faith. The core of the earliest kerygma contains this belief: “we believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, the Jesus who was handed over to death for our sins, and raised up for our justification” (Rom 4:24b-25). This is the Christ event that we celebrate today. It is so central that Paul can assert: “if Christ was not raised, our preaching is void of content and your faith is empty, too…. if Christ was not raised, your faith is worthless” (1 Cor 15: 14-17).

But how do we come to believe that Jesus rose from the death? If we look for evidence that Jesus rose from the dead, people might be inclined to point to the empty tomb. Of course, in today’s Gospel (John 20:1-9), it is assumed that Jesus rose from the dead because, when Peter entered the tomb, all he saw was the piece of cloth. The Beloved Disciple also saw the burial clothes and believed that Jesus rose (John 20:7-8). John Chrysostom puts the argument thus: “If anyone had removed the body, he would not have stripped it first; nor would he have taken the trouble to remove and roll up the soudarion [the piece of cloth that covers the head] and put it in a place by itself.” That he left the burial clothes indicates that Jesus did not intend to use them again.

But the empty tomb is not an indisputable evidence of Jesus’ resurrection. John himself allows for a different interpretation in the case of Mary Magdalene who thought that some people could have taken away the lifeless body of Jesus: “Sir, if you are the one who carried him off, tell me where you have laid him” (John 20:13). The argument that the disciples themselves stole the body occurs in Matthew 28:13-15. Some rationalists have explained that Jesus merely swooned on the cross and subsequently extricated himself from the burial clothes. Strictly speaking, what the empty tomb proves is simply that Jesus was not there.

For the early Christians, what was decisive for the faith was not the empty tomb; rather, it was the appearances of the risen Lord. In the New Testament, the risen Lord appeared many times: to Mary Magdalene (John 20:11-18), to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-31), to Peter (1 Cor 15:5), to Paul (1 Cor 15:5-7), to the women (Matthew 28:9-10), to seven disciples (John 21:1-14), to more than 500 (1 Cor 15:6), among others. Of course, the appearances cannot be proven; but they were a reality for those who were previously prepared to believe. Nonetheless, the skeptic may be at a loss to account for the radical transformation of the disciples without the reality of the appearances. That Paul transformed from a Number One persecutor of the Church to an apostle to the Gentiles cannot be explained unless one is prepared to believe that Jesus truly appeared to him. Of course, there are skeptics and skeptics, and they will always try to explain the appearances in various ways other than what is said in the New Testament. In times past, it was argued that they were merely projections of the disciples who were convinced that he was alive

Of course, one would easily believe if Jesus continue to appear to the believers of today. Unfortunately, however, this is not the case. Hence, the question: since Jesus no longer appears to us as he did in the early Church, how then are we to believe that he rose from the dead? Whence comes the faith in the resurrection? If we are to provide the answer from the readings today, the Easter faith comes from the testimony of the first witnesses: “We are witnesses to all that [Jesus] did in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem . They killed him, finally hanging him on a tree, only to have God raise him up on the third day and grant that he be seen, not by all, but only by such witnesses as had been chosen beforehand by God—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead” (Acts 10:39-41). All this, of course, is a matter of faith. The appearances were not proofs to compel faith or to dispel doubt, but were more of assurances to those who believe in him that he was alive.

Death as Victory

Homily on the Passion Sunday of Year B
(Mark 14:1-15:47)
April 5, 2009

FROM the 1980s to the 1990s, the country of El Salvador has been described as a land full of violence against the poor. During these years, thousands of Salvadorans, including farmers, teachers, elderly, and children were killed, not sparing the innocent. Among the victims of the regime was a certain Christian named Oscar Romero, an archbishop. In the exercise of his prophetic ministry, his mouth was unstoppable; it gave voice to the cry against the violence to the poor. He was the outspoken critic of the regime. Treated as an Enemy of the State, he was brutally murdered on March 24, 1980, while celebrating the Holy Mass. That his death occurred during a Eucharistic celebration has much symbolic value, because it imitated the body and blood of Jesus which he was consecrating, themselves signs of God’s love for the poor, even as Archbishop Romero died defending their cause.

But apart from its symbolic value, the death of Oscar Romero is a concretization of what, in the theology of the Gospel of Mark, the death of Christ means for us. Although Jesus was treated by his enemies as a criminal, and died like one, yet he gave up his life as the faithful Servant of Yahweh. In the Old Testament, the figure of the Servant of God is described in Isaianic four songs (Isa 42:1-4; 49:1-7; 50:4-9, 52:13-53:12) which attempt to give sense, meaning and purpose to Israel’s historical experience of exile in Babylon. The author probably hoped that in identifying themselves with the Servant of Yahweh so described, the people of Israel would find meaning in their seemingly senseless history, painful and humiliating as it was. The 1st Reading is part of the third song which portrays the Servant who does not refuse the divine vocation to bring the message of liberation to God’s people. Though people do not accept him, yet he persists in obeying God, willingly submitting to insults and beatings: “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting”(Isa 50:5-6). He has great confidence not in his own power but in the power of God who called him (v 7),

The Church takes the Servant of God in Isaiah to refer to Jesus who, according to the 2nd Reading (Phil 2:6-11), was obedient to the Father’s will. Like the suffering Servant, he accepted the task of proclaiming the gospel to the poor, taking up their cause, and of liberating men from sin. His faithfulness to the task was proven by his acceptance of his death on the cross, a shameful and humiliating death, even as the Servant of Yahweh, though harshly treated, submitted and opened not his mouth, like a lamb led to the slaughter (Isa 53:7). Because of his faithfulness, God proved him right, and glorified him (Phil 2:11). His death is therefore not his defeat. In Mark’s understanding, the battle with Satan that began in the temptation story (Mark 1:13) ended with the victory of Jesus who, in his crucifixion, was acknowledged as the Son of God (Mark 15:39). Hence, those who mocked him, derided him, and crucified him were proven wrong. For this reason, Jesus’ loud cry before he died on the cross (Mark 15:37) should be interpreted as a cry of victory over his enemies.

It is, of course, not difficult for us, as Christians, to see in the death of Jesus an example to follow (cf 1 Pet 2:21-25). And Archbishop Romero was one of those who understood the exemplary meaning of Jesus’ death. Like the Eucharist which he celebrated (1 Cor 11:26), his death was a proclamation of the death of the Lord. But what is relevant to us is the view that even though Romero died, his death did not mean the triumph of the government which had a hand in the assassination to silence him. The Salvadoran government did not become a showcase of justice with the murder of the Archbishop. Rather, like Jesus’, his death can be seen as part of the fulfillment of God’s plan to liberate the people of El Salvador , especially the poor, from misery. His death was an act of liberation itself. It brought light to the plight of the poor. It made clear how evil the regime was. It had a saving value for the people of El Salvador . Therefore, he was not really defeated, nor was he silenced. Indeed, like the Servant of Yahweh, one can assume that Romero has already been crowned with victory in heaven, for he was obedient to his vocation to proclaim the gospel of liberation to the poor. Our analogy, to be sure, has its limits, because, for one thing, unlike Christ’s, Romero’s death has no eschatological significance. Still, it somehow gives us an idea how the death of Jesus was a victory over the forces of darkness.