I was sitting with a friend of mine at a Dismas Fellowship dinner a while back and I was watching him try on a new pair of shoes.
Bobby (not his real name), is a gentle giant of a man. His feet are size 16 and 4E in width, which I understand is about as wide as a shoe is made.
As Bobby got the shoes on he commented on how well they fit. He told me that his state issued shoes (Bobby is on parole) were a size 17 and they hurt his feet when he had to walk any distance. He shared his belief that the prison folks got him shoes that were too large on purpose.
I said to him, “Bobby, why in the world would the corrections staff purposely get you shoes that hurt your feet?”
Without missing a beat he looked at me and responded saying, “because I am an evil person.”
My heart sank at his response. I thought a minute and then said to him:
“Bobby, you are not an evil person, although you may have played one from time to time.”
The road of Bobby’s life has been a rough one indeed. Many painful detours. A lot of them of his own making. Others were thrown at him in ways we will never understand.
Should he have the right to a pair of shoes that fit or is it justice that every step he takes should remind him of the evil things he has done? Is Bobby worthy of compassion? Is he worthy of forgiveness?
Preparing for this homily this conversation with Bobby kept coming into my mind.
The words of this week’s gospel that leap out at me are:
“If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”
This is one of the great paradoxes of Jesus’ teachings.
A paradox is a seemingly contradictory statement that may nonetheless be true.
In the gospel today Jesus tells us that if we try to save our life we will lose it but whoever loses their life for his sake will save it.”
It is a paradoxical statement to be sure but what does it mean to us?
Perhaps the answer lies in another paradoxical prayer that is part of the mass.
As we prepare to receive communion the priest breaks the bread or fractions it so it can be distributed. He holds it up with the chalice and says:
“Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.”
We respond by saying:
“Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”
This is a prayer that was changed rather significantly when we moved to the third edition of the Roman Missel.
Many folks have told me that they just don’t see why this was changed from the more easily proclaimed: Lord I am not worthy to receive you but only say the word and I shall be healed.
I would like to suggest that the change, while at times difficult to say, is more powerful when fully understood.
The new prayer is almost a direct quote from the gospels of Matthew and Luke. A Roman centurion, a pagan and certainly not an outward follower of Christ approach Jesus. He tells him that a servant of his is very ill and in a moment of great faith and trust says to him:
“Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof but only say the word and my servant will be healed.”
Jesus is so touched by this expression of faith that he grants the centurion’s request and tells him to return to his home for under his roof his servant has been cured.
I believe the power of this prayer lies in the paradox it suggests.
There is no way we could ever be worthy of having Jesus join with us in holy communion. There is nothing we could ever do to make us worthy of this gift.
The paradox comes about because at the same time there is nothing we could ever do that would ever exclude us as being unworthy in the eyes of Jesus.
He will always say the word and he will never refuse to heal our soul.
The challenge is with us and our lack of trust in his healing power.
Just before our response the priest holds up the bread and the wine now consecrated as the body and blood of Christ and proclaims that we are to behold the lamb of God.
He has taken away our sin and done it by allowing himself to suffer. His body was broken for us but he is risen and still with us in this Eucharist.
We are called to his table. He invites us to trust him in the way the Roman Centurion did in the gospel. Jesus wants us to die to our old life so we can be reborn into a new life with him at the centre.
On this table he asks us to put our deepest and darkest fears and regrets. When we get to this part of the mass it is an opportunity to die to our past and to have our soul healed.
My friend Bobby for example, if he believed in the healing power of Jesus and trusted enough in his promise , could leave the toxic shame that infects his soul right here on this table. He could choose to stop clinging to the life where he sees himself as an evil person and be reborn believing that he is totally worthy of God’s unconditional love.
Easy for me to say- very difficult for Bobby to actually do.
Many, if not most of us here today also fear losing our old life. Those that suffer from addictions often cling to them because dying to views of ourselves as unworthy would mean we need to change.
Some are addicted to power and success. Others to the need to be perfect. Perhaps we claim that we have a temper and it runs in the family.
Have you come to believe you are of little value and that is why you are bullied at school or work. On the other side of the coin the bully hangs on to a view that he/she must show strength which often comes out as cruelty.
Today as we prepare for communion, in fact every time we behold the lamb of God and pray the words of the Roman Centurion we have an opportunity to trust in the healing power of Jesus’ unconditional love.
Blessed are we who are called to this table, we have the opportunity to die to our ego, to our old life and after welcoming Jesus under our roof and into our hearts through the act of receiving holy communion, we can then truly go in peace and glorify the Lord with our new life.