Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, "Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.”
Paul has travelled to Athens, a city known for its interest in the divine and its openness to discussion of philosophies and religions. In respect for the citizens, he has taken the time to travel through the city to observe religious shrines and has found altar after altar, each one dedicated to a different god. At last, he has come upon one `To an unknown god,' and he quickly takes advantage of this to begin preaching the Gospel of Jesus.
What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things
This isn’t a difficult reading to understand. In ancient times and in many places in Europe today small altars, or shrines, appear along the way. They are places where a traveler may stop to worship, to rest and reflect on the presence of the divine. In our country today, such shrines still exist, but today’s shrines are not the small religious way-stations of old.
If Paul were to visit our world today, we know what altars he would encounter. Walking down the street in the center of town he would pass window after window offering all the things we desire. These windows are places where people pause to yearn for what they see. Some windows contain printed signs while others flash the offerings of their gods in neon. Driving down the highway Paul would see billboard after billboard to our gods, and he would note, were he watching TV, how our gods interrupt the entertainment to force their message on viewers.
Faith instructs and aids us as we deal with life, the world and each other. Today, we put our faith in stuff, in things. We fear death, and in order to combat our fear we amass as much as we can of what makes us feel secure. We may not think we live in a pagan world, but when security and status rest on the car we drive, the cell phone we carry, the goods and wealth we can amass – we need to think again.
Paul reminds and cautions us we are meant to search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him. …Since we are God's offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.
Jesus said to his disciples, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
In last week’s Gospel Jesus talked to His disciples, and to us, about trust. This week, He moves on to speaking about love itself. What He has to say is not just a statement. It is also a demand. Jesus has told us that to live fully and according to God’s plan for us, we must love Him and keep His commandments.
Being told we must love and must keep commandments sounds strange to modern ears. What harm can we face if we aren’t as vigilant as Jesus says we must be? Our society today doesn’t hold the same values and beliefs as the society of Jesus’ time. For one thing, while we today seem to think belief in evil is optional, the disciples believed in evil. The “ruler of this world”, the evil one, was real to them, so they understood there was a genuine choice to be made between the evil that society held in high regard, and that which Jesus said was important, loving and keeping His commandments.
What was valued by everyday folks then is the same as what we value today; safety, security, comfort for ourselves and our families, and when possible the pleasures that money can bring. We view evil as violence, discrimination of all types, and anything which causes pain and suffering to another. We don’t see the conflict between our love of pleasure, of material objects, and our love for Jesus.
Until we accept that loving the pleasures of the world actually sets up a conflict with Jesus’ command to love Him and to love each other as He loves us, we will have difficulty really grasping what it means to be one of Jesus’ followers. In Matthew’s Gospel we are cautioned that you cannot love God and money, and accepting this as truth is the beginning of understanding what Jesus offers us, what He demands from us, and what he expects us to forsake. There’s a real choice to be made; the world or the Lord. When we choose Jesus, we can begin to love as He has commanded us to do.
We are all in danger of being owned by the world. I’ve had friends who, sorting through their “stuff” have told me that they don’t own it, it owns them. There’s a wonderful scene in the film “Beckett”, where King Henry II of England tells his friend Beckett that he, Beckett, is to become a priest and then Archbishop of Canterbury. Henry thinks this is a sly political move on his part, which will get the Church on the side of the king, but the worldly Beckett finds in it something entirely different. As, in preparation for his ordination, Beckett gives away all his goods and possessions, he suddenly discovers a freedom, a love, he has never known. In the end, Beckett belongs to Jesus, and Henry discovers he has created a formidable adversary.
We, of course, don’t have the luxury of being able to give away everything we own, and this isn’t what Jesus asks us to do. We need to understand “the world” isn’t only the stuff we own and the things we covet, the world is also inside us, part of us. What Jesus wants from us is a switch in allegiance, a change in that upon which we depend. We are called to shift our focus and our hearts from longing for the things of this world to longing for that which Jesus offers us. If up until now we’ve trusted in our own abilities and accomplishments, our income or savings account, Jesus wants us to instead trust Him. If we love the pleasures of this world, we are to break that attachment, and instead to completely love Jesus and, following His commands, love each other as He loves us.
This isn’t something Jesus expects us to accomplish on our own. Even as He was leaving His disciples, He knew that they were terrified, trying to think how they would manage to continue without His physical presence among them. We know how a leader can become the focus of his followers, and we’ve seen how groups often disband and disappear when their leader leaves or dies. So Jesus tells the disciples, and us, make this choice I demand of you, choose Me, and I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is a gift for those who trust and love Jesus. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus is the first Advocate, the one through whom all things were made. He loves us so much, He became incarnate that He might suffer and die for us. His love is such that He gives Himself for us, to win us away from the world and back to God the Father. This is love so deep and intense it’s difficult to comprehend, and the manifestation of that love, the second Advocate, as John sees it, the Holy Spirit, is in us through our baptism. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
Thus we have two different forces within us – the world and the Holy Spirit. What we are called to do is choose, to let go of the world and embrace Jesus’ gift. Then in God we can live and move and have our being, guided, supported, and defended by the presence of the Holy Spirit within us. It sounds simple, but as we all know, simple and easy aren’t the same thing. How do we achieve this union with Jesus?
In a series of letters written in the seventeenth century, a monk named Br. Lawrence set out his life plan. It’s called “the practice of the presence of God”, and even today it provides a helpful guide to living our lives as Jesus wants us to do. In everything Br. Lawrence did, he attempted to remember that God was present. He saw every action he did as a form of prayer.
He felt, “that it was a great delusion to think that the times of prayer ought to differ from other times. His prayer was nothing else but a sense of the presence of God, and when the appointed times of prayer were past, he found no difference, because he still continued with God, praising and blessing Him with all his might…”
Brother Lawrence wrote, “We ought, once and for all, to heartily put our whole trust in God, and make a total surrender of ourselves to God, secure that He will not deceive us. We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.” We too can begin the practice of recalling that Jesus is always with us, and what we begin as an exercise can soon become the habit of a lifetime.
Evil does exist! The closer we draw to God, and the better we get at following Jesus commandments to love as He has loved us, the more evil will try to distract us. But if we sometimes fail, and we will, we need only remind ourselves that Jesus is with us, and in us. If we continually practice the Presence of God, we can make a habit of living our lives toward God, doing everything we do for love of Him. Br. Lawrence lived a life, not of great material wealth, but of great joy.
St. Gemma Galgani asked a question we might also ask ourselves. "Oh, my soul, how much longer do you wish to be so stingy with Jesus? Why so negligent towards Jesus who made you? Why so lazy towards Jesus who redeemed you? Who do you want to love, if you do not want to love Jesus?"
In the end it doesn’t matter how much stuff we own, or if we are rich and successful, what matters is how much we love, because God sees only our love.
They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.
Let us pray:
Lord Jesus, spirit of calm and peace, grant us, Your followers, a deep awareness of Your indwelling presence, that we may have total confidence in You. In pain and weariness help us to turn to You, knowing that we are surrounded by Your love. Help us to keep Your commandments, that our lives may reflect and spread Your love on earth. All this we ask for Your love and mercy’s sake. Amen.