A Reflection for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time
Elections matter. In them individual decisions determine the direction of a community, state or nation. As important as the upcoming November selection is, however, there is another decision that matters even more: the election of God, the loving choice that God makes of us.
Sometimes learning our faith requires some unlearning. We must jettison false presumptions and prejudices. Our understanding of divine election might be one of those falsities. The notion that God chooses and calls individuals is not a given in religion. There are many varieties of religion that never speak of anyone being chosen, of someone being selected to play a pivotal role in the life of a community. Indeed, the idea that spirituality involves a community, rather than an individual, is not universal among religions.
Being jealous of God’s election of others or being resentful about it are hindrances to discipleship.
It would be a challenge, however, to find a single book of the Christian or Jewish Scriptures that does not speak of or presuppose divine election, even though both faiths insist that God loves all men and women. Perhaps rather than saying that God loves all equally, we should say that God loves all completely. “Equally” is fine if you mean that God does not withhold love from anyone. But if by that adverb you mean that God treats every person the same, that God has the same intentions for each person God creates, you are not speaking of the God revealed in our Scriptures. Indeed, the God of revelation never seems to stop choosing one rather than another.
On that day I will summon my servant
Eliakim, son of Hilkiah;
He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem,
and to the house of Judah (Is 22:20-21).
The great dividing line among the religions of the world is history. Some religions understand the deity or whatever is absolute to lie beyond history. Some even suggest that our human fixation upon what happens to us in history is the principal hang-up, keeping us from spiritual insight.
Our faith, in contrast, says that God reveals himself in history, especially in our personal stories. God enters history through the election of individuals and their decisive deeds: Abraham, Moses, David, Peter and Mary. Most especially, God enters through the person of Jesus Christ, whom God has chosen to be our savior.
If you understand religion to be something that delivers you from this world, you need not be concerned with a community or what happens to it in time. But if you understand religion to be something that saves this world, it must do so in the unfolding of human history, in the life of a community that travels through time and develops within it.
Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah.
For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.
And so I say to you, you are Peter,
and upon this rock I will build my church,
and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it (Mt 16:17-18).
Our Christian faith is configured by calling. It has offices, vocations that we see as more than a question of human necessity. We see them as divine elections, God taking an active role in the life of our community by calling some to unique offices, roles and tasks in the church. Not all of these are institutionally established. Many of our greatest saints never held an office or exercised a public ministry in the church.
In our baptism, each of us has been chosen. So many others in this world have not. This cannot be because God loves us more than them.
Remember those presumptions and prejudices that keep us from understanding our faith? Every sacrament stands in danger of being misunderstood if it is not laid against the template of baptism. Office in the church is not a historical accident; it is an unfolding of the church’s inner constitution. In baptism, each of us was called by God into a community, called into a specific and unrepeatable role in the life of the church. If we had a singular relationship to God rather than a communal one, we would be a member of the Trinity, not the church.
As a member of the community that we call the church, each of us was given a role, a task, an identity that will only be fully disclosed when Christ is revealed as the omega point of history.
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!
How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways! (Rom 11:33)
Being jealous of God’s election of others or being resentful about it are hindrances to discipleship. So, too, are the presumption and preoccupation with the self that can tempt those with a public calling. Remember that in our baptism, each of us has been chosen. So many others in this world have not. This cannot be because God loves us more than them, so we must constantly ask ourselves: “What will you have of me, my Lord? Why have you chosen me?”
More on this Sunday’s readings:
- Can Scripture help you discern good leaders?, by Jamie L. Waters
- Why are there so many statues in Catholic churches?, by the Rev. Terrance Klein (2017)