by Fr. Jack McArdle
God is Love. God cannot not love me. Even if I ended up in hell, God's love has not changed. It is just that I have chosen to put myself outside his love. There is a light overhead here as I write. I can go out the door, however, and walk into the darkness. Nothing in this room will have changed, and the light will still be shining. God gives me nothing; he offers me everything. I am totally free to accept or reject. That is the nature of love; it must never impinge on the freedom and the freewill of the other. God will not send me anywhere when I die. Rather will he eternalise the direction my life is now taking. From the first moment of human rebellion, it has always been God's desire to invite us back to the Garden. We saw that in the words of the prophets in chapter one. Now, finally, God sent his greatest and most personal invitation, Jesus. If we reject Jesus, we reject God who sent him. Jesus is both the Messenger and the Message. He is Emmanuel, God-among-us. "They who see me, see the Father; they who hear me, hear the Father. The Father and I are one." In other words, if you reject me, you reject the one who sent me; and if you reject my message, you are rejecting the messenger who brings you that message. If Jesus were on this earth for three minutes, instead of thirty-three years, I believe he would have told us the story of the Prodigal Son, or what could well be called The Forgiving Father. In simple language, Jesus is saying 'Come home, even if you got pig's food all over your face. There is a big welcome and a hug waiting for you.' That is a summary of the Gospel message. 'Come back to me with all your heart. Don't let fear keep us apart. Long have I waited for your coming home to me, and living deep within my love.'
Jesus is the Father's Messenger, and he is the Father's message. The invitation is to nothing less than full entry into the family of God. Jesus tells many a parable about people being invited to a meal. For anyone who wants to listen and hear, the message is very very simple. "They who have ears to hear, let them hear." Once again Jesus, the teacher, brings them from something with which they were all familiar, to another truth, at a much deeper level. An invitation, by definition, implies courtesy, and nothing that smacks of coercion or manipulation. An invitation always demands, and always receives a response. We may put R.S.V.P. all over it, but, even when no reply arrives, that silence, in itself, is a reply. That is the wonderful thing about an invitation. It just won't go away, and, should I choose to ignore it, I cannot deny or cover-up that fact. In an ideal world, the invitation, once issued, frees the sender from any other obligation. If my intended guests are not free to stay away, then I wonder how free they will be if they arrive. Naturally, of course, we are all human, and part of ourselves may go with the invitation. If the invitation is rejected or ignored, we ourselves feel rejected and ignored. That is why I prefaced earlier comments with the words 'In an ideal world'.
God sends an invitation, and he comes in person to deliver it. How he did this, and how that invitation was accepted and rejected is what the Gospels are about. "He came to his own and his own received him not. For to those who did receive him, he gave the right to become children of God. All they had to do was trust him to save them." Once again, I repeat that the invitation is to become nothing less than children of God. We are all familiar with the process of adoption. There are many factors at play here, not least being the permission of the natural mother and/or father. The only central figure not involved in any of the decision-making is the baby.
Regarding the invitation from God, however, the only ones involved are God and myself. To summarise the words of Jesus: "My Father will be your Father, if you become as little children". I will examine this in greater detail later in this chapter. There are two sides to every agreement. In Jesus, the Father has put down a very clear and distinct marker about where he stands. His invitation is clear and unambiguous, and his commitments and promises are unconditional. I honestly believe that the quality of my own response is inspired and deeply effected by my growing awareness of the Father's side of the agreement or covenant. "In this is love", says John. "Not that we love God but he has first loved us." In other words, the saints are not those who love God, but those who are totally convinced that God loves them. It is vital for us to constantly remember that the whole idea was God's in the first place. Being the inheritors of the fall-out from Original Sin, it would be no problem at all for us to take over the whole show, and turn the divine initiative into human endeavour. I cannot respond until I have received and considered the invitation. Repentance, conversion, surrender, and all that is part of what we bring to God, is our response to the invitation. "Come back to me with all your hearts.". "Come to me all you who are burdened and heavily laden....".
In the Old Testament, God, through Moses, issued the following invitation, or offered the following covenant (agreement): "I will be your God if you will be my people." This was offered to a pagan people, who were capable of producing a god of their own at a mere whim. Like any offer or invitation, it put the other in a position which called for a response. In the New Testament, God, through Jesus, offered a new covenant, and issued a whole new invitation: "I will be your Father if you become my children." Jesus emphasised this by telling us that, unless we become as little children, we cannot enter his Kingdom. It was to establish that Kingdom that Jesus came. Herod asked him "Are you a king?", and Jesus replied "Yes, I am, and that is why I came. But my kingdom is not of this world." One of the many things that have changed over the years is how children celebrate a birthday. Presence at the party today is by invitation only! For the child concerned, the excitement begins with the issuing of the invitations. It is certainly not an open invitation. There is a definite selective process in operation. On the other hand, we all are familiar with functions to which there is an open invitation. There is no hierarchy or order of merit. Anyone who receives or reads the invitation is free to come along on the day. In our way of thinking, this is seen as something of lesser importance. It is, literally, a free-for-all, and the idea of invitation is seen as nothing more than an advertisment. When there is an open invitation, there surely will be something on sale, and, perhaps, a few raffle tickets!
The invitation of the Gospel is extremely unique. In a way it is a free-for all, while being singularly personal and individual. "Who do people say that I am?.....Who do you say that I am?" is one of the more central questions of Jesus. Jesus is a very personal God. I must never presume that he is somewhere in the community, in the crowd. Mary and Joseph did that, only to arrive home and discover that he wasn't there at all! Christianity is, essentially, about a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, an acceptance of his message, and a willingness to live it. On more than one occasion Jesus confronts us with a direct personal question. "Will you also go away?" "Do you love me more than these?" Entering into this personal relationship is the journey of the Christian. The shepherds were told the message by an angel, and yet they said "Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing which the Lord has made known to us." The woman at the well brought out her friends to meet Jesus, and they ended up telling her "Now we believe, not because you told us, but because we have seen for ourselves." The early followers of Jesus asked him "Where do you live?", and he replied "Come and see for yourselves." That invitation still stands. How many people believe the truths of the Gospel because they learned them in school? That's hardly good enough! If I were to die this moment, it would make sense to me if Jesus looked me straight in the eye and asked: "Did you yourself really come to know that my Father loved you, or did you believe it on the word of another?" After curing several people, Jesus asked that they not publicise that fact. On first reading, that seems strange. On reflection, I like to think that Jesus is saying "Don't tell anyone, because I don't want them believing in me because you were cured. I want them to come and experience my healing for themselves and in themselves."
Word can mean many things. It can be a word, as in a dictionary, and be something made up of letters to help give expression to something. We can ask "Have you received any word from John yet?", and in this case it means a message, a letter, a communication of some kind. It can mean an announcement when we say that the final word has been spoken, and a promise, when another gives us an undertaking 'on his word'. Jesus is the Word of God. He is all of the above definitions. He is God's message, His announcement, his promise. God is love, and Jesus is love incarnate, is love made up of a human body, with all the attributes of our human nature. Because of the involvement of human nature, Jesus is a Word spoken in our language. He does not need an interpreter, because the message comes complete with the gift of wisdom, discernment, knowledge, and understanding. The paradox is that, in our head-world, in our world of human understanding, the message makes absolutely no sense, is absolute nonsense! It is part of the mystery of God not to be capable of subjection to the laboratories of our minds. "I thank you, Father, for concealing this from the intellectual and worldly-wise, and revealing it to mere children" was the prayer of Jesus.
There is a legend, that would not want to be taken too literally. It speaks of God enjoying the company of Adam and Eve in the garden. He spoke words of love and of belonging to them. They were the focal point of his attention and interest. At an unguarded moment, the devil appeared, and gagged God's tongue, which prevented Him from speaking. Many centuries later, God indicated to Satan that He wished to speak only one word. Satan considered this for a while. He felt that one word couldn't do much harm to the grip he had established on things, and, so, he agreed. God's tongue was untied, and He whispered just one word: JESUS. Right there all the work of Satan, all his bondages on people, all his control of God's creation came crashing to the ground. His reign was over, the tables were turned, and God's original creation was restored. Jesus is the WORD of God. Jesus is the final, complete, and eternal word of God.
I find St. John, apostle and evangelist, a very interesting study. He was with Jesus from the beginning. He was certain of Jesus' love, calling himself 'the beloved disciple', 'the disciple Jesus loved'. His chapters on the final discourse of Jesus at the Last Supper capture the beauty and the simplicity of it all. Many years later, as an old man on the island of Pathmos, he wrote his letters, which are sheer poetry. He had reduced the whole Gospel to one simple phrase 'Little children, let us love one another, because God loves us. If we live in love, we live in God, and God lives in us'. His gospel account is probably the most studied and discussed of all four Gospels. He begins with a crescendo, with an outpouring of proclamation, that can leave one gasping.
Some years ago an American space shuttle was travelling around the moon. There were many anxious moments for all concerned as the shuttle was on the other side of the moon, and, therefore, unable to make contact with base. The great moment that attracted the attention of the world was when the shuttle caught sight of earth again, and one of the astonauts read the opening words of John's Gospel; 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God'. It is not unreasonable to say that John probably knew and understood Jesus better than any of the other apostles. He was with Jesus from the beginning. He was one of the chosen few who went with Jesus when he went aside from time to time. He was with Jesus on Thabor and in Gethsemane. His grasp of the truth about Eucharist was very complete. He gives the miracle of the loaves, the long discourse on the Bread of life, and the details of the Last Supper. He felt so close to Jesus and so at ease with him, that he considered himself to be a special friend. When he comes to write his gospel, therefore, he goes straight to the heart of things. He tells us that Jesus was/is God's spoken word; that he is a statement from God; that he is a man and a message that must be heard. He paints an opening picture with powerful broad strokes. He is re-echoing and rewording the message of the Baptist: 'This is it! He has come. It has happened as promised'. The words tumble over one another as he speaks, because, if ever words were anointed and inspired by God's Spirit, these ceratinly are. John concludes his gospel by telling us that, not only has the Messenger come, but if everything that happened when he came was all written down, 'the whole world, I believe, could not contain the books that could be written'.
Jesus tells us that to know him is to know the Father, to see him is to see the Father, and to hear him is to listen to the Father. In other words, Jesus is the Father's final and definitive word. There is no more to be said. Jesus also said that his words to us would judge us, because if he had not come and spoken to us, we would have an excuse for our sins. We will look at those words, and listen to them again, many many times throughout this book. When it comes to the vastness, the beauty, and the sheer simplicity of the Gospel, I just throw up my hands, and don't know what to say! Thomas Aquinas said "Whatever you say about God, you can be sure of just one thing: You are wrong!" God is so much more than anything we mere mortals might say about him! I write these words, and I dare to do so, only because I trust God to write the music, to compose the melody. If he doesn't, then these words become nothing more than 'sounding brass and clanging cymbal', the 'blabbering words of an idiot, signifying nothing.'
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'Jesus: The Man and the Message' copyright © 2004 Fr. Jack McArdle. All rights reserved.