According to The Oxford Encyclopedic English Dictionary (Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK: 1994), a promise is: (1) an assurance that one will or will not undertake a certain decision, action or behavior; (2) a sign or signs of future achievements, good results, etc. As such, promises are an inherent aspect of the human experience, and, as experience will attest, some promises are kept while others are broken. Are promises not kept because many of us are convinced, as was Jonathan Swift (Polite Conversation, 1738) that “promises and pie crusts are made to be broken”? … or as Mark Twain once wrote: “to promise not to do a thing is the surest way in the world to make a body want to go and do that very thing”? (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, 1876).
When promises concern matters of considerable importance, the consequences of the breach are all the more grave. For example, when marital promises are not honored, both spouses and their children suffer as a result. Such promises may slide readily off the tongue when the heart is warmed by romantic idealism but the greater challenge lies in the day-to-day faithful commitment to these promises. That marital promises are fragile things requiring constant care is clearly evidenced in the fact that one in two marriages ends in divorce.
Also of considerable importance are the promises made between nations regarding trade relations, humanitarian aid, border disputes or the keeping of the peace. When these promises are not kept, the consequences can be disastrous as is affirmed on any given broadcast of the nightly news. When promises of aid are breached, draught, famine, and disaster claim untold numbers of innocent lives. When promises of peace and when the rights promised to each human being are not reverenced, wars ensue and, in the conflict, entire nations (e.g. Darfur, Rwanda) suffer extinction.
Of importance also, but of seeming little consequence are the promises made by candidates who present themselves for political office. Promises as regards those issues that are significant to voters are readily extended during the campaigns, only to be forgotten or redirected or withdrawn altogether after the candidate is elected. Our experience in this regard prepares us well for understanding why the promises we human beings make to one another are so easily broken. Isn’t it because talk is cheap and our word is no longer our bond? Not so, with the words and promises of God, two examples of which are presented to the praying assembly today.
In the first reading the Genesis author restates the promises which fueled the hopes of a people from the time they were first spoken to their ancestor, Abram, to the time that Joshua and the band of desert-wanderers infiltrated and settled in the land of Canaan (some five or six or seven centuries later). These promises of progeny, prosperity and a land within which to find and claim their identity among the nations of the world, continue to inspire the descendants of Abraham because God’s word is God’s bond and can be trusted completely. In affirmation of these promises, God entered into a lasting and unconditional relationship with humankind, a relationship that found its ultimate and fullest expression in Jesus. In and through Jesus, God kept the promises which continue to stoke our joy and upon which we continue to hang our hopes. In Jesus, who is God’s word and God’s promise made flesh, God remains ever present, ever bonded to us in love and fidelity.
One aspect of the promise who is Jesus is revealed in our midst via today’s Lucan gospel which features the transfigured Lord. Shone in his glory to Peter, James and John, who were thereby allowed to taste of what was yet to come for Jesus and for them, the transfigured Jesus is also held out to us as a promise of the joy with which our faithful service to him and to others will one day be answered. On that day, we shall be, as Paul has reminded us in today’s second reading from his correspondence with his beloved Philippians, citizens of heaven who have finally made it home.
Until that time, we are to live accordingly, anticipating by our words and works, the life that we shall enjoy forever in Jesus. This will require that, like God and like Jesus, we are true to our promises of love and fidelity, true to our promises to be peacemakers and not war mongers, true to our promises to recognize and care for Jesus in God’s loved, least ones, true to our promise to reflect rather than distort God’s image among those whom God sends into our lives, true to our promises to lend our efforts toward establishing God’s justice in the world. For strength and courage in keeping our promises and remaining true to our word, we turn to the One whose promises are never broken, whose word never fails, whose loving mercies endure forever.
Gen 15:5-12, 17-18
In the story of Abraham, as presented and passed on by the authors of Sacred Scripture, it is clear, insists Walter Brueggemann (Genesis, John Knox Press, Atlanta, Ga.: 1982), that the God who calls the worlds into being has also called into being the community of faith. That call to being originated with God’s summoning of Abram and Sarah to become the parents of a people as numerous as the stars in the sky. To their credit, both Abram and Sarah responded to God’s call and their faith was accorded an act of righteousness. It is that correlation, says Brueggemann, between God’s call and their response that offers to us the theme of promise and faith around which the story of Abram and Sarah revolves.
Promise is God’s mode of presence in these patriarchal narratives; the promise is God’s power and will to create a future for a people who will be totally reliant on God’s goodness and fully faithful to God’s purposes. Ironically, God’s promises of progeny as countless as the stars and of a land to call their own were made to an elderly Abram and a barren Sarah. But the promises of God do not depend on, nor are they limited by, a tired and worn out old man and his aging childless wife. Rather, and this Abram and Sarah knew and believed, the promises of God depend on God and the very God who makes the promise has the power to realize, it despite those circumstances that would seem to render the promise null and void. Because of this, Abram and Sarah could move beyond doubt and beyond hopelessness to certitude – a certitude based, not on human reason, but on the profound awareness that God is God. For this reason, Abram’s response to God as well as Sarah’s are held out to us as examples to be emulated. God’s role in these narratives serves to assure believers that God’s promises are reliable, God’s word is true, God’s fidelity is unconditional.
Without ever mentioning the word, the unconditional character of God’s loving faithfulness is poignantly illustrated in the curious ritual action described in verses 9-18. As James Newsome (Texts For Preaching, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Ky.: 1994) has pointed out, we cannot know for certain the meaning of the symbolism involving the split carcasses or why the birds are treated differently than the quadrupeds (v. 10). Scholars suspect, however, that this rite preserves a distant memory regarding the making of treaties in the ancient Near Eastern world. Perhaps the split animals implied a threat that a similar fate would befall the party who breached the agreement. Scholars are more certain that this liturgy is somehow related to the fact that the Hebrew verb which is translated “to make a covenant” is more literally rendered “to cut a covenant.”
In any event, it is God who takes full responsibility in this agreement. Abram believes, yes, and for that is counted righteous, but it is God, symbolized by the flaming torch who agrees to be held accountable. As the story of Abram and Sarah unfolds, and as the story of the community of faith continues to be told, believers can rely with certainty on God’s unconditional commitment and promises. Abram, who is not required to pass through the midst of the split carcasses, could be certain of this, as could Sarah, as can we.
In the recent book entitled Everyday Greatness (Rutledge Hill Press, Nashville, Tenn.: 2006) Stephen R. Covey relates the following experience of world-renowned cellist Yo Yo Ma. When I was seven, said Ma, we moved to New York and my parents signed me up to take lessons from the great cellist Leonard Rose. When I listened to Rose play, I thought, “How can you make such a gorgeous sound?” How can anyone do that? But that’s not what music is all about … which he knew. What Rose said was, “I’ve taught you many things, but now you have to go off and learn on your own. The worst thing you can do is to say to yourself, ‘I want to be just like somebody else.’ You have to absorb knowledge from someone else, but ultimately you have to find your own voice."
Isn’t this precisely the point Paul was trying to impress upon his friends in Philippi? He invited them to imitate him as he imitated Christ. He exhorted them to remember the gospel as he had preached it among them and to live accordingly. He wanted them to absorb from him, from Christ, from the gospel, as much knowledge as they could. But, ultimately, they would have to find their own voice and live their own lives as committed believers in a world that was generally committed to other interests and pursuits.
Some of those interests and those who held them conflicted with the gospel and with those who aspired to live it, as is reflected in today’s second reading. But the true identity of those whom Paul called “enemies of the cross of Christ” is difficult to ascertain. Were they antinomian hedonists whose “god is their belly”? Or were they Jews or Jewish Christians who were so scrupulous in their observance of dietary regulations that their stomachs and avoidance of certain foods seemed more important than their service and devotion to the gospel? Were these the same people to whom Paul had earlier (3:2) referred as “dogs … evil doers … who mutilate the flesh” because of their insistence on circumcision? Whoever these “enemies” were, it is clear that Paul would have his readers be aware of the threat they posed while, committing themselves all the more completely to Christ.
To maintain a clear and constant focus on Christ, Paul reminds believers that “we have our citizenship in heaven.” To find their own voice and to live their own lives in this world, believers must first find their identity in God, in Christ or, as Paul says, “in heaven.” This means that the faithful choose to live by a vision and from a source that is other and unworldly. Inevitably, says Charles Cousar (Texts For Preaching, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Ky.: 1994), the lifestyle of believers will be perceived as strange. To some, the Church is perceived as quaint, its language dated, its ideals unattainable. To others, the Church may seem threatening, subversive and even anti-American. Marching to a different drummer, living in a manner that contradicts and challenges the current culture, the Church’s values are often rejected as alien and, therefore, are not admired or appropriated. Nevertheless, this is our calling, this is the voice with which we are to continue to speak to the world until Jesus, in whom we find our identity and our vision, comes to take us home.
A wondrous albeit a perplexing event, the transfiguration of Jesus has been variously interpreted as a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus projected back into the period of his ministry, an expression of the faith and/or Christology of the early Church, and a vision. If this glorious moment in Jesus’ life is understood as a vision, as the Synoptics seem to imply (Mark 9:9; Matt 17:9; Luke 9:36), then it is, indeed, a powerful one, charged with meaning and possessed of profound consequences. C. Milo Connick (Jesus, the Man, the Mission and the Message, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: 1974) has compared this vision of Jesus, experienced by Peter, James and John, to Isaiah’s vision in the Holy of Holies (Isa 6), to Paul’s vision of the risen Lord on the Damascus road (Acts 9), to Constantine’s vision of the Cross and to Joan of Arc’s vision of the Virgin. In each case, the vision roused both wonder and perplexity and in each instance, the vision also resolved doubts and clothed the person with power and pure purpose.
For his part, Luke offers the most detail in presenting the vision of the transfigured Jesus. While all the synoptics mention Moses and Elijah, who represent the Law and the Prophets, only Luke tells readers the subject of their conversation with Jesus. This disclosure, viz., that they spoke of Jesus’ departure, discloses the meaning of the Transfiguration.
One week earlier, as each of the synoptics recounts, Jesus had predicted his passion, death and resurrection and affirmed the fact that his followers would experience a similar path, through suffering to glory. The week between these predictions and the Transfiguration must have been charged with tension. Never before, insists Connick (op. cit.) had suffering, rejection and humiliation been applied to the expected Messiah. This identification, says H. Wheeler Robinson (Redemption and Revelation, Harper & Row Publishers, New York, N.Y.: 1942) was “the most original and daring of all the characteristic features of the teaching of Jesus” and one that “struck the disciples with the force of a solid fueled rocket” (Connick). It confronted them with an exceeding difficult choice. Whom would they believe, the Scriptures that assured them of a triumphant, kingly messiah or Jesus whose radical notions were not only shocking but also disappointing? This dilemma lay heavily upon the disciples for a week; then came the vision of the transfigured Jesus and the sworn witness of both Moses and Elijah that Jesus’ departure soon to be accomplished in Jerusalem (i.e., his suffering, death and resurrection, his exodus or passover from death to life) was part of God’s foreordained plan. As if to affirm the testimony of the two, most compelling witnesses (Moses and Elijah), the voice from the cloud verified the vision: “This is my Son, my Chosen One. Listen to him” (v. 25).
As a vision, the Transfiguration assured the disciples that the Cross would not be the end of the story or the end of Jesus. Nor would death be the defining end of any believer in Jesus. On the contrary, and as the Transfiguration experience promises, Jesus would live again, fully and forever; so also will they live, who are willing to believe in him, and in their believing, to make their own his way, his purpose, his teaching, his vision, his life and death and resurrection to new and everlasting life.
March 4, 2007, Sample Homily for Second Sunday of Lent
“All the Way to Heaven”
by Fr. James Smith
If our citizenship is in heaven it would be nice to know where heaven is. Primitive people — and many of us — think that heaven is way out there beyond anything else. That is a visual picture to express the truth that God is not part of anything we can see.
That is why the Holy of Holies where God dwelt was largely empty. When the Babylonians captured the Temple and swaggered into that holy sanctuary to find it empty, they boasted that there was no God in Israel. Much the same way the Russian astronaut sneered that he couldn’t find anyGod in outer space.
Both missed the point — that God is not tied to any place, that God is not just some other, bigger thing that could be examined. Any god that could be nailed down and measured would not be God.
So if our citizenship is in heaven, what will we do there? Looking at God all day seems boring. As a child in heaven asked: “If I’m good today, may I play in hell tomorrow?” To make heaven more appealing, we imagine that future state to be totally different. But our past experience of the future suggests that the future is made of the same stuff as the present.
That is why, as we grow older and move into our future and expect to change for the better, we just become more like our old selves — only more so.
So will heaven be like earth — only more so? The physical world that now groans in labor will be reborn in spiritualized form. Our bodies that decayed will be resurrected in some glorified form. But we will retain our basic essence that made us who we are.
Some of us look forward to heaven because we think that we will finally understand all those things that now befuddle us. Probably not. Heaven cannot take away the mental limitations that are part of being human. We may know many more things, and learn them more easily and experience them intuitively, but human knowledge will always be incomplete, always advancing.
We have been told that we will see God face to face; so we think that we will understand everything about God. Hardly. God will always be God, especially in heaven, therefore essentially unknowable. If we knew all about God, we would be God!
On earth, we see God indistinctly, as in a mirror, as reflected in different things of God’s creation. In heaven, we will have an immediate experience of God without going through something else. But it will still be a human experience, therefore limited; And it will be an experience of God, therefore incomprehensible.
The experience of heaven is not just knowing more about God. The point of heaven is to love God better. And everything else will be added to that. As theologian Romano Guardini wrote, “In the experience of a great love, everything else is an event inside that love.” Everything that we cherish on earth will be enfolded in that heavenly love of God. Not dissolved, but embraced in God.
That is why heaven is a state of total happiness. Because happiness is not the possession of desirable things. Happiness is being involved in something great and beautiful. None more so than God.
And what good does God get from our invading the divine space? I’m not sure, but they say that God’s happiness is living in the human heart.