Shackled and Condemned
I stand before you tonight as a man accused and found wanting. I accuse myself of falling short of my Christian discipleship, unworthy of the priesthood that has been bestowed upon me. I find myself wanting in the attainment of the holiness to which I have been called. You see, today is Holy Thursday, but this has been traditionally called “Maundy Thursday.” Maundy comes from the Latin word “mandatum” meaning “command.” It is on this day in the liturgical year that we celebrate three mysteries: the Priesthood of Jesus Christ, the institution of the Eucharist and the Command, the mandatum, to love, to serve. “I have given you a model to follow,” says our savior, “so that as I have done for you, you also should do.” It is here that I find myself wanting. It is here that my own conscience accuses me. And like a man shackled and condemned I stand before you with this confession: I have not loved as Christ has called me to love. I have not served as Christ has showed me how to serve. But I invite you too stand on this platform with me. I invite you, with me, to look at ourselves and judge honestly whether or not we, as a Christian Catholic community, have truly followed Christ’s command, “As I have done, so also you should do.”
Over the past couple of weeks, as I have been preparing the RCIA candidates and catechumens for entry into the Church I have been reflecting on the New Testament, and especially on its moral demands. I was able to see in the New Testament a complete list of sins that laid bare my soul and showed me the many ways I am lacking. Among the many sins that St. Paul, St. Peter, St. James and St. Jude enumerated I was deeply struck by one genre of sin that permeated the entire New Testament: communal division. These saints and authors, throughout the entire corpus of the New Testament riled against all thoughts, words and actions that caused the community to be divided in anyway. And as a pastor, I too share this concern to maintain a united family, a parish that operates on the command to love. Frequently the apostles admonished busybodies; complainers; gossips; bullies; contentious people; people who love to dominate, the haughty and the arrogant. All these lists I am enumerating today are taken directly from scripture. And they exposed the disease that causes such actions to rise: pride. Pride is the root of all evil. It is this that caused the devil to fall and it is this that blinds each of us to an honest evaluation of ourselves. Jesus came to destroy pride and restore true humility. The humility to serve one another and to offer our lives, like him, as “a ransom for many.”
For this reason, they taught their followers to not “think of oneself more highly than one ought to think” or to be “wise in one’s own estimation.”
But I see in myself the symptoms caused by the disease of pride then I notice to the actions that pride causes. These too our authors spare no bluntness in exposing. The actions that arise from pride, they say, are judging one’s brother, looking down on one’s brother and passing judgment. How easy it is for me, or for any of us, to blatantly throw around our opinions, as if by merely having an opinion everyone else has a right to hear it. How frequently we forge to filter our words or measure their effect before throwing them out there. Like fist blows, our words can land on the hearts of many, but since words are invisible we tend to minimize their effect. But far worse the fist blows, words do not remain on the surface, rather they penetrate the heart and fester in one’s soul until they birth resentment.
This resentment in turn expresses itself in foul language, slander and fighting. In four different places St. Paul speaks against cursing, foul or obscene language and silly or suggestive talk. So often these tend to be miminized or even excused by many. Such language is even seen as common place in many circles. But the fact is, foul language or suggestive talk is to speech what manure is to the sole of one’s shoe. When one has manure on the bottom of their shoe they can’t see it but they can smell it. So too with foul language, it makes one speech reek with an odor that hits the ears like a nasty smell hits they nostrils. We must purify our speech.
Worse than foul language, which perverts our conversations, the apostles forthrightly condemn all forms of slander. Slander is destroying the good name of another person. It is sharing information that causes another’s character to be smeared. It breaks people down and causes a community to be filled with defensiveness and verbal retaliation. For this reason the New Testament identifies slander as speaking evil of one another; spreading evil nonsense; profane babbling; profane idle talk; insults; or having an evil tongue. This is a cancer to any community and it breeds division; it breeds fighting. And here is where a community erupts.
Refusing to filter our words, recklessly throwing around inappropriate words, and speaking nonsense about our neighbors behind closed doors and in the whispers of side conversations we feed the lava that makes the mountain explode. Like pressure inside a mountain that cannot be contained by the rock, a community that is marked by foul language, slander and gossip eventually explodes into quarrels, mutual friction, fury, rivalries and shouting, as our apostles identify. They explicitly call people down from provoking or consuming one another; from biting and devouring one another and from creating dissensions and factions. When tensions run high and forgiveness runs low; when one focuses on one’s on wounds rather than on the cure that makes a community whole the result is division and factions. People ‘clique up’ and a community of adults reverts to adolescent lobbying that destroys hospitality and welcome. For this reason the apostles warn against persons who have a morbid disposition for arguments and verbal disputes. They saw in their own communities that some people rejoiced in empty and foolish arguments and debates, disputing over opinions and disputing about words. When a Christian community devolves to this level, when such actions go unchecked or unnoticed the result is the splintering of a community either into factions and cliques, or worse, as history has proved, into a divided Christianity that is a scandal to the world. It is a scandal because it expictly denies Jesus’ prayer, “May they be one, as we are one.”
And so here I return to where I began: I stand before you as an accused man found wanting in his Christian discipleship. Who among us can listen to such a list of maladies and not have our conscience panged? Foul language, slander, quarrels; judgmentalism, complaining, and pride – how sad it is that I see in me these illnesses that the Apostles address so directly to remedy. And as a man shackled and condemned, standing before you, I invite you to stand with me too so that we, as a community, may never let these evils take a hold of our parish family. I say this honestly, and I am not lying, I do not see our parish family as chronically divided or overly factioned. I am honored to be a part of a community that has preserved, to a high degree, the Christian unity and hospitality that the Apostles are so jealous to maintain. However, it is only by constant vigilance and honest self-evaluation that we are going to preserve and increase the unity we have. We cannot be blind or ignorant to one of the most pervasive dangers that the New Testament reveals: communal division. We must control our mouths. And we must ‘put on the mind of Christ’ so that we may think as he does, speak as he does and act as he does.
Christ laid aside all of his power and authority in order to put himself at the service of his apostles. “So, during supper, fully aware that the Father had put everything into his power … he rose from supper and took off his outer garments.” Like a king dressing himself in a slaves garment our King stripped himself of his glory, became man, and offered his life on our behalf. He ‘came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” And when he had accomplished all things that he came to accomplish he divested himself to his utter end. “He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end.” He relinquished his divinity and he embraced true humility, even receiving bitter revilement, scorn, derision, not to mention buffets, spitting, insults and crucifixion on our behalf. And he who endured all of this did not respond with insults and condemnation; rather he responded with blessings and forgiveness, even as he hung on his cross.
And today he asks us point blank, “Do you realize what I have done for you?” And honestly, I have to say, “no.” “No Lord, I do not realize what you have done for me because I continue to persist in my sins and minimize my guilt.” “I have given you a model,” he says to us, “so that as I have done, so also you should do.” “I have given you a command: love one another, as I have loved you. No greater love is there than this: to lay down ones life for ones friends.” And even as I stand here shackled and condemned, even as we make ourselves aware of the dangers that lead to division, Christ cuts the ropes that wrap our wrists and says to all of us, “Go and sin no more.” Let us rid our community of obscenity, slander, gossip and fighting. Let us imitate Christ who returned no insult and forgave all unconditionally and let us live this “mandatum,” this command: love one another even as I have loved you.