23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) – September 5, 2021
St. Paul – Lyons, KS
Isaiah 35:4-7a; Psalm 146:6-10; James 2:1-5; Mark 7:31-37
External Change vs. Real Transformation
Last weekend we talked about how the Lord is seeking to truly transform us. Not to change us cosmetically, or to improve some life circumstances—transform us. The examples I used were Extreme Makeover and Extreme Makeover Home Edition, or winning the lottery: you can have a whole makeover or have a ton of cash…but all of those external changes haven’t changed you one bit. And that was Jesus’ point in talking to the pharisees, the pharisees who were so concerned that Jesus’ disciples weren’t following all of the rules and ritual laws: the reason there are all of these problems in the world isn’t because you didn’t wash your hands correctly (because there are some external, cosmetic problems); the problem stems from the heart, from the heart come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, greed, envy, pride (c.f., Mark 7:21-22).
This is why Jesus arrives on the scene. Not to teach us better rules, not to enforce the Ten Commandments. Jesus arrives to bring a power capable of transforming our hearts, our very selves, our life—to give us His own life, to have us share in his own human-divine life. And how does he constantly describe this? “The Kingdom of God is at hand!”
And that’s the point: the power to transform us does not come from ourselves, from following the rules—the power to be transformed is a gift, it is given. It arrives in a person, it arrives in Jesus Christ and the Kingdom he brings. Only the Kingdom of God has the power to transform our hearts. Purity laws, commandments, rules—they’re there for a reason, they’re important. But they don’t fix our problem. They don’t have the power to transform. Only the Kingdom of God has that power.
Jesus and His Miracles
And that’s why this Gospel reading is so important. This Gospel reading we have today is a kind of “part two” to the Gospel we heard last weekend.
Because the natural objection is: “Alright, you’re announcing this kingdom, you’re announcing this new power at work in the world (because that’s a good way to think about the “kingdom,” as a new power, a new power at work in the world)—but we can all make outlandish claims. Prove it. Prove that this kingdom is what you say it is, that it’s here.” If Jesus is going to make claims like, “There is a new kingdom, a new power at work in the world,” he is going to need to back it up. And that’s what this miracle (and really all of the miracles) are about.
Because if I had to guess, we think of Jesus’ miracles in a very particular way. For example, that the miracles prove that Jesus is God. Or, Jesus performs miracles to attract attention and give people things to talk about. And those explanation—well, that’s not what Mark is trying to say. Yes, Jesus is God. But Jesus never performs a miracle and then says, “Ta-da! I’m God.” That’s not the point. To top it off, Jesus usually forbids people from talking about these things—that’s what he does today—precisely because (incredible as they are) they’re prone to misinterpretation. And he’s right. Because we usually misinterpret them just like people then.
In the Gospel of Mark, the word we translate as “miracle” or “signs and wonders,” literally, it means, “works of power.” In other words, these actions aren’t Jesus trying to prove he is God or Mark trying to prove Jesus is God, no. Rather, they are a display of power, to show a power is at work. And time and time and time again, Jesus is seen healing people. By the power of the Kingdom of God, people are transformed. And this kingdom is still breaking in now!
What does this look like?
Our objection, the objection that we have, is the exact same objection! “Fr. Michael is up there talking about how the Kingdom of God is breaking in. Cool. Where? Prove it.”
And when you start asking that question, that is when you begin to ask the right question. Like I was joking last week, the question we usually ask is, “So do we still fast on Fridays? How many rosaries do I have to pray each day?” No, those aren’t right. Those aren’t helpful.
The question is: “Ok, if everything you’re saying is true (and you’re all Catholics, so I assume you agree with the teaching of the Catholic Church) where is this power at work? Where is it? Where is Jesus still doing these ‘works of power’?”
This is a complete shift. All of a sudden we turn away from all of the little rules we need to follow, and all of a sudden turn toward a search, a constant search to find him, to find his presence!
I have shared several stories with you of where the Kingdom of God has broken in and transformed lives. “Jesus sucks” girl. The Crown Royal bag at K-State guy. I’ve told you about how the Lord broke into my life and called me to be a priest. How he broke into my life very powerfully through that time at Totus Tuus camp, going to confession, being in Adoration. I’ve told you about how the power of this Kingdom broke in through living life with my family, through the way my parents formed and shaped us in the Faith.
In other words: it happens all the time! All the time! I can shares so many times Jesus has been present, the power of this Kingdom has broken into my life. In confession, when I receive communion, in times of prayer and meditation, through friendships (especially through friendships), through serving the poor, through preaching. And this isn’t to say it’s easy to see this! It’s not! A constant struggle in my life, a constant prayer in my life, is to be able to see this!
But notice: these are all concrete, real, tangible events; these are all real experiences that are facts. The story of this deaf man with a speech impediment: Mark can’t be more clear about how concrete and real this is: Jesus putting his finger in his ears and spitting and touching his tongue (kinda weird Jesus)—but it’s very concrete. And so I want you to notice: the change began at a concrete moment, in a concrete place, through a concrete way. The Kingdom breaks in at concrete moments, in concrete places, through a concrete way. It’s not just an idea. It’s real. It’s a fact.
Why? So that the Kingdom might break in through us
Go throughout the New Testament and you see this time and time and time again. Jesus does concrete things in concrete places in concrete ways. And in all of them, it begins with an experience. Not sentimentality, not a discourse in theology, not a bunch of intellectual ideas, or morals and values—these are a serious matter. But no, it originates in an experience, in reality—in a real power breaking into the world. People didn’t follow Jesus because of the ideas, or his theology—that’s usually the reason they left. They followed him because of something that happened, some experience.
And this experience changed them. And when people met those people, it changed them too. Simon and Andrew, and those twelve, they left their homes and followed him. And they spoke of this man to their friends. They told other friends, and these in turn told other friends, and others again. This is how the first century passed, and these friends invaded the second century with their faith; at the same time they were invading the geographic world. They reached Spain and even all the way to India during the second century. Then those of the second century told others who lived after them, and these told others after them. Like a great flow that grew wider and wider, like a river that grew fuller and fuller, like a mustard seed it grew bigger and bigger…and they ended up telling my mother–to my mother! And my mother told me when I was small.
And all of a sudden, the power of this Kingdom continued to break in—but now through these witnesses, through the power of the Kingdom at work in them. Again, it didn’t break in because they had the best sentimental speeches, or theology, or ideas, or morals—no. It broke in because they themselves had been transformed and this power was now working through them.
Transformed Into Temples: Renewal Flows Forth
So I’ll close the same way I did last weekend. The power of the Kingdom broke in through Jesus—the human-divine Jesus—and now it will continue to break in through us—us, we who share in his divinity. That should just blow our minds.
The Kingdom of God broke into this world first through flesh and blood: through Jesus. The power of this Kingdom will continue to break in through flesh and blood—but this time through ours, through the flesh and blood of the Church, through the baptized, through the people transformed by sharing in his body and blood, sharing in his Spirit.
God, the work he wants to do, the fruit he wants to bear in the world, he is going to do it through us, through us who share in the life of his Son, share in the life of Christ. Our job is to allow this power to overcome our lives more and more and more—each and every day.