The Gospel of life (22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, 2023-09-03)

Homily for 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Year A: Jeremiah 20:7-9; Ps 63; Romans 12:1-2; Matt 16:21-27
St. Eugenia Catholic Church, Stockholm (English Mass)

“Evangelium vitae – the Gospel of life is at the heart of Jesus’ message.” – These are the first words of a famous encyclical written by Pope John Paul II. Jesus himself describes his mission in this way: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” We know of many occasions when Jesus healed people of various deseases. He even raised Lazarus from the death. And to his disciples he gave the mission to “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons.” The bodily life of man and his well-being are not irrelevant in the practice of our Christian faith. We are called to respect and protect human life from its first moment to its last.

And yet, in today’s reading, we hear how Jesus freely chooses suffering and death. He is talking about his own crucifixion. How can he willingly choose this? Isn’t this the opposite of the gospel of life?

Apostle Peter is shocked. But Jesus is extremely clear in his words. He sharply rebukes him. And calls his disciples to follow his example: “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Does God want suffering and death?

No, he does not. “God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living”, we read in the Book of Wisdom. But our physical well-being and survival are not the absolute highest good. The Psalm we sang today says: “God, your love is better than life”.

The “abundance of life” that Christ promised us is far more than this earthly, physical life. We are called to share in the very life of God.

John Paul II writes: “it is precisely this supernatural calling which highlights the relative character of each individual’s earthly life. After all, life on earth is not an ‘ultimate’ but a ‘penultimate’ reality; even so, it remains a sacred reality entrusted to us”.

Earthly life is a sacred reality, but it is nonetheless a relative good – it can be relativized, but only by a far higher good, by the supernatural life in God!

According to the Bible, suffering and death came into the world through sin. “Through one person, Adam, sin entered the world, and through sin, death” writes Apostle Paul. Through sin we have also lost our participation in the life of God. God himself has opened the way back for us, in his Son Jesus Christ, through his incarnation, his suffering, his death and his resurrection. The cross of Christ is therefore not a glorification of suffering and death, quite the opposite. It is the way in which God has freed us to eternal life. By voluntarily accepting the cross, Jesus chooses life, not death. He takes upon himself the terrible consequences of sin so that we can live.

It is up to us to respond to the gift of our salvation to eternal life. But how can we respond?

There are those who respond by ignoring God’s mercy. They still “want to save their lives” themselves by seeking all opportunities to maximise their earthly happiness, whatever the cost. At the root of sin there is often a desire for a supposed increase in life, in happiness, in freedom, in well-being. If this desire becomes absolute, then at some point it starts turning against God, against fellow human beings, and in the end also – often without even noticing it –  against one’s own happiness. This mechanism exists not only on an individual level, but also on a collective level. John Paul II coined the term culture of death for it. Whoever tries to save his life in this way will lose it.

How can an appropriate answer to God’s mercy look like? St Paul puts it this way: “Think of God’s mercy and worship him by offering your living bodies as a holy sacrifice, truly pleasing to God.” It is the call to holiness, the call to doing God’s will, and not living for one’s own sake.

That can take on everyday forms, for example in family life: Being a faithful and loving spouse. Accepting children as a gift from God and raising them in the Christian faith. Caring for a chronically ill family member. Caring for parents who have become old. All these examples are not only private issues. They have an effect also on the level of society: The role of family life in building a culture of life cannot be overestimated. And finally, Christian family life cannot simply be done on the side. It demands more, it demands the whole person, and also a good portion of self-denial and heroism. Whoever “loses his life” in this way, will find it.

There is still another way to respond to God’s mercy. Who truly trusts in the gift of eternal life that we received by the Lord’s passion and resurrection can renounce himself, take up his cross and follow Christ, even into the dark realm of suffering and death.

Let us listen to some lines of a famous prayer by the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, written in prison, shortly before his murder by the National Socialists:

And when you pass to us the bitter chalice
of suffering, filled to the brim and more,
we take it, full of thanks and trembling not,
from this, your caring and beloved hand.

But if you want to please us, over and again,
with our shining sun and wondrous world,
let us muse on what is past, and then we shall,
with our lives, in all belong to you.



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