First Holy Communion, 2016
Some friends of mine used to have a cat that needed help in order to jump up on the furniture. Like all pets, the cat wanted to climb on the furniture, and be around its owners, but it couldn’t jump high enough even to get onto a low-lying footstool. The reason that it couldn’t jump up onto the furniture was that it was too fat. It would sit on the floor, and stare longingly at the sofa until someone picked it up, and put it on the sofa.
It wasn’t really the cat’s fault that it was so fat; it was destined to be a fat cat. It was destined to be a fat cat because of its owners, my friends. They are the sort of people who love their pets so much that they can’t stand to deny luxuries to their pets. Consequently, their pets are pampered, and usually over-fed. As soon as that cat entered my friends’ house, it was destined for a cushy, pampered life, and a big round belly.
People are also destined for a particular outcome in life, just like that cat was destined for a particular lifestyle. People who study their school lessons, and work responsibly at their jobs, are destined for happiness and a sense of fulfillment. People who put others ahead of themselves are destined for love relationships that last a lifetime. People who put God first in their lives are destined for a blessed life and an eternity with God. This is what the author of the Acts of the Apostles meant when he wrote, “All who were destined for eternal life came to believe, and the word of the Lord continued to spread through the whole region.” (Acts 13:48-49)
The first reading is an account of the preaching of St. Paul about the destiny of those who put their faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior, and who then lived according to Jesus’ teachings. Some people misunderstand St. Paul, and think that he put no value on human freedom; this wasn’t the case at all. Human freedom and human destiny exist only in the presence of one another.
Paul didn’t believe that a person’s life is like a school work assignment. Students get no choice about doing homework or taking tests; those things are assigned by the teacher, and the teacher expects them to be done on time and in the proper fashion. You students will be relieved to learn that life is not like school. Your life isn’t assigned to you; you have a free choice about how to live.
St. Paul believed firmly in the value of free will. When he wrote about people having a destiny (Romans 8:29-30), he had in mind the same kind of thing that happens in every area of life. If you study your school lessons, you will be destined to be treated as a capable, responsible person. If you are kind to other people, they will be kind to you because you are destined to receive kindness in return for kindness. If you forgive those who harm you, you will be forgiven because you made yourself destined to receive forgiveness. If you happen to be a cat in my friends’ house, you will be pampered and given kitty treats because you were destined for a cushy life by virtue of where you live.
It is for this reason that we gather each Sunday to hear God’s Word and receive the Eucharist. The Scriptures teach us to know and love God; hearing the Scriptures is listening to God’s voice. The Eucharist that we receive at Mass is the real presence of the Crucified Jesus. The Eucharist is also the presence of our destiny as Catholics because in the Eucharist we see the reflection of how we ought to live, and the promise of God’s mercy when we live holy lives.
In a few minutes you, who are in our First Communion class, will receive the Sacrament of the Eucharist for the very first time. You’ve watched your parents, and the other members of our parish, receive communion for all the years that you’ve attended Mass here. Today, you join us in our sharing in Jesus’ Last Supper. It’s a very important occasion for our parish, and a very important occasion for you and your families. The Eucharist is the Sacrament of the Crucified Lord, and it is the Sacrament of our destiny as Jesus’ disciples. Those who receive the Eucharist, and participate in the life of the community of believers, have put themselves on the path toward living with God every day and forever.
A note on the Scriptures
Today’s first reading, taken from the Acts of the Apostles, recounts an event from St. Paul’s first missionary journey. The speech delivered at Antioch in Pisidia (not the same Antioch where Paul received his commission to be an Apostle), is a creation of the author of Acts, but it does represent authentic Pauline teaching. In this case, it is an aspect of Paul’s writing that is easily misunderstood.
Before Paul’s arrival there were no believers in the city. The Acts of the Apostles represents the beginnings of that church community by saying, “All who were destined for eternal life came to believe, and the word of the Lord continued to spread through the whole region.” (Acts 13:48-49)
From time to time people ask me about the idea of predestination. It is a very complicated topic only because of the many layers of erroneous meaning that were applied later to St. Paul’s vocabulary. It is, however, fairly easy to understand what St. Paul really meant when he used the term “predestined.” (Romans 8:29-30)
St. Paul’s understanding of “predestination” is based on a very simple observation. A similarly simple observation is the background material behind the statement in today’s Gospel reading, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:27) Sheep do not understand the content of human speech, but they can recognize the voice of the shepherd who cares for them. Even a casual observer can see that domesticated animals respond to their human owners.
When Paul spoke about some people who were destined for justification, he was making a simple observation of perceptible truth – exactly like the simple observation that animals can recognize the voice of the ones who feed them. The observed truth was this: some of those who heard the announcement of the Gospel message came to have faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior, and some of those who accepted Baptism went on to grow into the image of Christ.
The church communities which Paul visited and founded were composed of those who had responded to the apostolic preaching, but not all responses were equal. Some grew in the grace of Baptism, and others foundered. Paul held no illusions about human nature. He knew that the mere fact of a Baptism was no guarantee of holiness of life. In fact, he had to deal with several problematic situations in which baptized church members embraced false teaching and/or morals antithetical to Christianity. (1 Corinthians 11:27)
According to Paul, those who made the effort to grow in the grace offered by God were destined for a share in eternal life when the Lord returned in glory. The simplicity of this observation and assumption cannot be overstated; Pauline predestination is entirely a matter of common sense and not at all a matter of complicated theology. “Predestination” in the preaching of St. Paul was a characteristic of church communities composed of those who were making actual progress toward being conformed to the image of Christ. (Romans 8:29)
“Predestination,” therefore, is not an automatic consequence of anything. The outcome of one’s spiritual life is as much a consequence of free choice as is the outcome of one’s relationships or employment or leisure activities. The “predestined” are those who make the conscious effort to persevere in the Faith until the end. (Revelation 7:14)
God desires all people to persevere in faith, and thereby come to eternal life in the resurrection. Perseverance, however, remains a free choice. Perseverance in the faith, remaining in the on-going process of conversion, is the result of the conscious choice by an individual to remain actively involved in the life of the community of believers. Destiny comes to us as a possibility, but has to be chosen in order to become our individual destiny.