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Terrance KleinJune 29, 2022
A heart drawn in the sand next to the water on a beach.Photo by Khadeeja Yasser on Unsplash.

A Reflection for the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Times

Isaiah 66:10-14c  Galatians 6:14-18  Luke 10:1-12, 17-20

It was the day life changed, becoming something it had lacked any capacity ever to be on its own. It is the day that your loved one entered your life.

Often, when I visit with the family of someone who has died, I ask how their parents met. The story is almost always known. Perhaps it is not often mentioned, but it is passed on, like an heirloom. Of course, if one of the spouses survives, one hears a richer tale: not just the place and time of the first encounter but the reactions of both, their thoughts about this new person who came and changed life itself. Why is everything altered? Because he or she brought what none of us possesses on our own, someone else to love.

There are those who like to concentrate upon a Jesus which their own minds construct, but they notice that the story of Jesus includes those whom he sent forth to preach in his name, both before and after his death.

At that time the Lord appointed seventy-two others
whom he sent ahead of him in pairs
to every town and place he intended to visit.
He said to them,
“The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few;
so ask the master of the harvest
to send out laborers for his harvest” (Lk 10:1-2).

Of course, the emissaries of Jesus are included in the tale! How would we know the story without them? Our written Gospels are but crystallizations of their very human voices, calling to us, speaking to us in his name.

If you have found Christ in the Gospel, you have found him through the church, through the men and women who followed him and were willingly sent forth by him. You still find Christ in those who continue to proclaim him in word and action.

Jesus did not come, nor did he send forth his followers, to proclaim new places, which we now call heaven and hell. He came to proclaim the advent of a person, himself.

Some have suggested that the corrosion of contemporary church life is due to a simple fact: We no longer know the meaning of heaven or of hell. Admittedly, our celestial images have always been weak. Those of hell were stronger, but they depended upon belief in a God who might send us there. That God seems to have disappeared. People cannot even imagine such a God.

The problem is that our eschatology became focused upon place rather than person, and that is a fundamental distortion of the Gospel preached by the disciples.

Jesus did not come, nor did he send forth his followers, to proclaim new places, which we now call heaven and hell. He came to proclaim the advent of a person, himself: the beloved, the one whose very presence fundamentally alters our lives because he offers a fulfillment that we can never know on our own.

Some folks mistakenly believe that the concepts of heaven and hell are part of our basic human imagination. Any scholar of religion, believer or not, knows that this is not true. Ancient people imagined a place, a region, where their dead would go, because, frankly, it was nigh impossible to imagine a soul, a known personality, simply ceasing to be. But Hades, Sheol, the Netherworld—these were neither regions of reward nor retribution. They were just places where the shadows wandered.

We distort the Gospel if we preach that Jesus came to announce two new pieces of real estate: a place where we will be rewarded for obeying God and one where we will be punished for disobeying. It is a misrepresentation, because it presents salvation as extrinsic, something outside us, in both the offer and the result.

No, Jesus came announcing himself as the very presence of the God of Israel among us. The ancient lover of our souls had suddenly become flesh so as to make impetuous love upon us, with us and for us.

Our choice now is that of all the lovers we have ever known. Either we say “yes” to this love and receive the completion of life, which it offers; or we say “no,” letting it pass by. But is punishment the right word? The departed lover does not remain behind to chastise us. No, love just leaves.

The Gospel must be preached, but how shallow it is to reduce it to rewards and punishments.

Love itself—a world, a future—was offered, and whether we say “yes” or “no,” we come to understand, with time, that we were created and fashioned for this love, that part of who we were meant to be once stood outside ourselves, offering the self to us. It is gained or lost forever.

The best revision of our contemporary images of heaven and hell is to jettison pictures of places and picture the person of Christ. If you think of the afterlife as a person—the complete and final revelation of love—then you realize that those who find reward in love and those who refuse it do not go to separate places. They both stand before the ancient lover of our souls: one in rapturous delight; the other in the heart’s most abject affliction, regret.

The Gospel must be preached, but how shallow it is to reduce it to rewards and punishments. It must be preached because someone loves us enough to change our destinies. Christ promises to gather all the loves of our lives into a single flower, but first he must propose his love to us.

How we say “yes,” who says “yes” and who says “no:” These things are beyond our ken. We cannot even claim to know the many faces that the Beloved assumes. We do know this: Everything changes, one way or another, when love reveals itself.

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