Last week I received a phone message from a Dominican in Eugene, who asked me to call, and told me it was an emergency.
As his phone rang I wondered; what is the nature of the emergency? Who’s involved? How will it affect me?
He told me my friend Sue, the campus minister at Oregon State, and my unofficial adopted sister, had died suddenly of unknown causes.
Sue had Cushing’s disease, and at 49 years old, had already lived nearly a decade longer than her doctors predicted, yet in one of our last conversations, she had fretted about how she was going to save up for retirement!
And I had worried about that for her, too.
We so easily deny that our life is short and its end unpredictable.
So I think those deceitful desires that the author to the letter of the Ephesians refers to are not those that stem from greed, gluttony and sex.
Rather, any desire that is not corralled by the knowledge that death takes every possession away from us is deceitful!
The adage, “You can’t take it with you,” was meant to teach us to hold on to our possessions loosely, but today it seems to imply, “therefore go for the gusto in the here and now!”
The death of a loved one, serious personal sickness, and economic struggles have always been a kind of “wake up call” for those who have the luxury of comfortable complacency.
The futility of our minds that Ephesians attributes to pagans, is the mindset of those who are spiritually asleep, who have not yet experienced conversion.
“Wake up” is the basic message of the OT prophets through John the Baptist.
Jesus himself, begins his ministry with the call to ‘repent, for the kingdom of God is upon you.’
St. Paul urges the Romans, “Now is the time to awake from sleep, for the night is far spent and the day draws near.”
Ephesians takes up this language of repentance and change, this time with baptismal overtones.
We are to “put away” the old person, and “put on” the new, just as the newly baptized put on white baptismal robes to signify the conversion that led them to the baptismal waters in the first place.
But neophytes did not just “put on” robes; they were to “put on” Christ.
The turning away from an old life means turning to a new one found only in Jesus.
If we look at today’s Gospel, we’ll see this pattern in what Jesus says to the crowds.
The first part of any conversion is being confronted with the truth about ourselves.
The desperately sick or those who undergo significant economic loss can no longer easily deny the fact that life ends and possessions are fleeting.
That stripping away can unmask our “deceitful desires,” and begin the conversion process.
Jesus confronts the crowds with the truth about their deceitful desires: “you are looking for me not because you saw signs?but because you ate the loaves and were filled.”
They are not seeking Jesus, but security, at least in the area of food.
How true is that for us?
How many of us participate in a “transactional faith,” where “being good,” or “practicing the faith,” is offered to God in exchange for material well-being?
The prosperity Gospel is mercenary, seduces us with the promise of security and control, and successfully preached by more than just television evangelists.
Jesus unmasks this pseudo-Gospel in his next sentence, “Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”
There it is; Jesus invites us to change the object of our desires from that which dies, to that which never dies – and this new object of desire is not something that is earned, but received!
We are to desire Jesus himself.
And Jesus says the one work we are to do is to believe in him.
You and I hear, “believe,” and think he means a mental assent to what’s revealed by an authority .
But in Jesus’ culture it meant something more personal.
“Belief” was a relational word describing values like loyalty, commitment, and solidarity that led to social, externally manifested, emotionally rooted behaviors.
That’s why Jesus can link believing in him with doing the things he does in John 14:12.
That’s the invitation he gives you and me today: to seek the life that is found only in him.
Jesus doesn’t offer us any economic incentives to linking our life to his – he had ‘no place to lay his head!’
Jesus doesn’t rely on peer pressure as a positive incentive either. Quite the opposite: he tells us the world will hate his disciple as much as it hated him.
And even moral incentives are not going to be very strong in our post-modern culture, which denies absolute right and wrong.
Instead, Jesus simply offers us himself as a gift, as if that should be enough incentive.
He gives no promises about how this relationship will change me; just that I will be changed - more fully alive with his life.
How do we answer this emergency call?
First of all, by realizing our need to change, and our helplessness to change on our own.
So rather than try to change particular behaviors that might lead us to individual sins, we need to pursue our relationship with Jesus; to seek Him first.
I’d suggest we pray to love and desire him more than anything else.
Let’s pray to that God points out what we seek in a relationship with him besides Him – so we can recognize when we desire security, or happiness, or peace instead of God for God’s sake.
In addition to prayer, we can pursue a relationship with God by immersing ourselves in Scripture, the word of life.
Human relationships grow through time together and conversation.
God’s side of the conversation is the Bible, and I have to listen knowing it has the power to challenge, heal, and transform.
But of course, prayer and reading the Bible takes time – and we’re all short on that commodity.
So I’d suggest we look at our lives and identify some things that we desire more than Jesus, and repent – turn away – from them: perhaps TV, or video games, a fanaticism for a sports team, or relationships that lead us to sin, or the pursuit of social acceptance.
Turning away from what occupies our time and energy is already a demonstration of belief as Jesus and his listener’s understood it.
It is an initial way we demonstrate loyalty, love, and personal adherence to Jesus; and it is only possible if we cooperate with God’s grace.
Finally, Jesus himself tells us, “Whoever loves me will keep my word.”
It is not enough to simply pray and read the Scriptures.
As we get to know Jesus, we must grow in our trust in Him, and put his words into practice.
Only by living in his word will our trust in Him grow; and putting his word into practice gives life for the world.
I promise you, if we begin to live in his word, we will come to see the world differently and undergo transformation.
And the world will see us differently, and not always with pleasure.
But don’t be misled into thinking putting Jesus’ words into practice is simply an act of willpower.
It is not. It is a supernatural act.
Any good you or I do is a cooperation with the Holy Spirit and God’s grace.
Even the desire to love Jesus more, to do good, to change, is a response to grace.
So, in reality, there are opportunities to recognize God’s saving activity in our lives each day.
And that ability to see God at work daily is the mindset of someone who is becoming a saint.
The saints are great non-conformists and often quite original and creative.
They don’t gloss over problems they see in the world, or wring their hands in helplessness.
They know God is already at work in their lives, and trust him to act in them and through them – even when it’s hard or impossible to see how.
They are really alive and living in the One who calls himself the resurrection and the life.
These readings have the potential to be a wake-up call from God for each one of us.
He says it is an emergency – a matter of life and death.
A matter of new life that is a sampling of the life to come, or our comfortable old life, which ends in death.
May we have the courage to answer the call.