The last time I was in Jerusalem, a few years ago, I did one of those things that as I look back on it now, I’m grateful I did it, but I can see how potentially stupid and dangerous it was. I had gotten to know this Armenian Christian, Lavonne, on a previous trip. He lives in the old city of Jerusalem and he invited me to join his family for dinner. Without really thinking about security or anything like that I agreed to go. Dinner was fascinating and at the end of dinner as we continued to talk into the night, I picked his brain about the situation in the Middle East. You see, the old city of Jerusalem is a great encapsulation of what is going on in the middle east. It has Muslim, Jewish, and Christian sections all walled in, creating a very narrow and confined space. People with different views and cultures are sort of forced to figure things out in a tight area.
Now I don’t claim to understand even the beginnings of the struggle that is going on in the Middle East. But, as we talked that night, Lavonne talked about the differences in religion and how difficult it was for so many devout people, whose families have had roots in the area for over a thousand years and who moved there because of the sacredness of the place, all trying to live together with a vastly different understanding of religion. As we talked, he began to explained that even our understanding of who God is different. He said as Christians, we believe that Jesus is the only Son of God who came into the world. He is the love of God made present in our midst so that in love we might be drawn back to Him. The Jewish people are still waiting for the Messiah and thus a strict observance of the law is all they have. Then he went on to explain that the Muslims have this idea that if they submit to God they will find the peace and true way forward. Three radically different understandings of faith and God. As I left that night, walking through the old streets of Jerusalem to my hotel, I found myself asking how do I see my relationship with God. And so, this morning I put that question to you. You are here in the pews; you believe in God and want a relationship with Him. But how do you see that relationship with God?
When we read the Bible, it is clear that Jesus wants to have a loving relationship with us. He wants us to follow His way, not because He wants to control us, but because He knows what is best for us and He knows that if we follow this path it leads to our fulfillment. You see, Jesus is clear in today’s Gospel that our obedience to His law must be more than external submission to what God tells us to do. God doesn’t require that we simple submit or that we give in and just follow. Rather, He demands the obedience of our hearts. Parents, I think you know this better than any of us. Think about the rules that you give your children. While they may complain at times that you give them those rules just to control them and hold them back, you know that nothing is further from the truth. The rules that you impose on your children are there because you see your children’s potential and you want what is good for them. You lay those rules out there so that they will follow the path God has prepared for them. If that is true for parents and children, why wouldn’t it be true in our relationship with God?
You see, Jesus wants more from us then just simple to follow the rules. He wants what is best for us and so He gives us these rules and these teachings of our Church to lead us to what is good, to what is holy, to what is best for us. God wants us to live our lives from the inside out not from the outside in. It is an important distinction. He desires that we have hearts that are burning with love because when we love God, we are not going to break His law. When we love God, we recognize that He loves us and we want nothing more than to follow the path He has prepared for us. As Catholics we believe that Jesus is the fulfillment of our lives. He is the one who can raise us to a new level. It is ultimately His love which propels us forward.
You see, two thousand years ago, people were waiting for the Messiah and they totally missed Him because they wanted the savior on their own terms. Yet, Jesus didn’t come to abolish the law and the prophets. No, He came to order them to, to fulfill them, by teaching us that we must have hearts of pure love so that the laws of God naturally flow from that love that we have for Him.
I don’t know if your life is anything like mine, but if it is, I think at times, as Catholics we can think of our faith as simply a set of rules that we must follow. But the Catholic faith isn’t about simply submitting to a set of rules and obligations, it is about an encounter with the Risen Christ. The rules are there to help us have that encounter to help us see, the way, the truth and the life. I think, if we are honest, at times, we can fall into the bad habit of practicing our faith only out of obligation. While that is a good start it totally misses the point.
Parents again, I think you understand this better than anyone else. Think about how little joy there would be in your house if you only cared for your children out of a legal obligation. What a miserable life it would be if you woke up in the morning, fed your children breakfast and made sure they had a coat as they headed out to school simply so DFS doesn’t come knocking at your door. No, parents get up in the middle of the night, they sacrifice so much, not because the law says they have to, but because they love and when it’s done from that place of love, even in the most difficult things there can be joy in the midst of the challenge. Again, parents if that is true in how you raise your children why would it be any different in the way that God tries to raise us?
I think at the core, today’s Gospel, challenges each and every one of us to ask ourselves what is the motivation for my faith. Why do I live out my faith? Why is it that I do what I do? Do our actions come from a place of submission or a place of love? When they come from a place of love, then faith begins to make sense. I think our Gospel invites us to ask ourselves why do I do what I do. So, this morning, I’ll leave you with the question I pondered as I left that Armenian Christians home in the old city of Jerusalem. How do you see your relationship with God and how does that motivate you to live out your faith?