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Our Bodies as Spiritual Sacrifices

Homily for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A Cycle)

Our Bodies as Spiritual Sacrifices

Whenever we read from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, one has to keep one biographical fact in mind; namely, Jeremiah was a mere teenager when he was called by God to be a prophet. Listen to the words that open today’s first reading with that fact in mind. He accuses God of duping him, of misleading him by calling him to this role. Jeremiah’s call is recounted in chapter one of his book. Among other things, God said: “Today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to uproot and to tear down, to destroy and to demolish, to build and to plant.” Put yourself in Jeremiah’s place. What teenager, especially a teenage boy, would not be enticed by such an invitation?

So today we hear him twenty chapters later complaining bitterly about how God duped him and tricked him into accepting God’s call. Because he had been inexperienced and naïve, he had promised to be God’s servant, to carry God’s word to kings and priests, to men who would persecute and threaten him, and who would eventually plot his death. Now he is caught between fidelity to his vocation as a prophet of God and his own natural inclinations. He did not seek his calling. In fact, he resisted it from the start. At this particular juncture in his life, he bears a threefold burden: he must deliver a message of doom to his own people, he is mocked by those to whom he has been sent, and he does not feel any comfort from God. He is understandably angry but more at himself than at God.

We hear a different kind of anger coming from Jesus today. As he and the disciples are walking along the road after the intimate moment of Caesarea-Philippi, Jesus reveals what being his disciple is going to mean. Not only is he going to Jerusalem to be put to death. If they wish to follow him, then they too must be willing to take up a cross and suffer with him. Peter balks at the idea. Jesus whirls around and has some harsh words for anyone who tries to pull him away from his destiny. Unlike Jeremiah, Jesus knows exactly what God is asking of him. He will not listen to anyone who tries to tempt him into abandoning the path that God has set him upon.

Sandwiched in between these two readings is two short verses that appear at the beginning of chapter twelve of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. St. Paul urges the Judeo-Christian community of Rome to offer their bodies as spiritual sacrifices. These Christians knew that trouble was brewing and that Nero was going to unleash a terrible and destructive persecution against them. St. Paul draws upon their Jewish heritage of sacrificial worship where lambs and bullocks were slaughtered and then offered to God. St. Paul uses the Greek word “soma” which we translate as body. It refers not only to the person but to that individual’s corporeality or concrete relationship with the world. It is because we have bodies that we are able to experience this world. Yet it is precisely this experience that Paul is exhorting the Christians to offer up as a living sacrifice – a disciplined life, not a sacrificial death. Such an offer will be holy and pleasing to God because it is a total gift of oneself.

The strongest exhortation of this passage is the one that is framed negatively: “Do not conform to this age.” Here again, it is important that we put this in the framework of Greek philosophy which divided human history into various ages. Paul has already preached that by virtue of their baptism, they have moved to the eschatological age of fulfillment. They have been saved through the blood of Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit. They have been transformed into Christ. They have put aside the standards of this world in order to take on the standards of Christ and of the reign of God. Here we see the transformation and renewal of which Paul speaks. He would have the Christians bring their transformed and renewed minds into conformity with the will of God rather than with the world in which they live.

Which brings us back to Jeremiah and to Jesus. While both of them speak in angry words today, their anger is directed at that which would tear them away from their declared purpose; namely, to do the will of God. Jeremiah even admits after his burst of anger that though he tried to keep from announcing God’s word, it had become a fire within him that he could not withstand it. He had to continue. After the disciples had told Jesus that some of the people thought that he was Jeremiah or one of the prophets, Jesus tells Peter in no uncertain terms that he, like Jeremiah, would not stray from the vocation God had given him. Today we are called upon to make the same commitment.

Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator

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