About ten years ago now, the U.S. Bishops issued a document entitled “Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us: A Pastoral Plan for Adult Faith Formation”. In the plan the bishops invite us to re-imagine the place of adult faith formation in our parishes. More often than not, faith formation in our churches is focused on our young people with any continuing adult faith formation viewed more as a by-product and not the real heart of the ministry. The bishop’s document invites us to turn that perception around. Our churches need to recognize that formation in our faith needs to be seen and promoted as a lifelong journey and not just the “convenience-store mentality” of an occasional visit when necessary; “Okay, we will be ready to get you confirmed and then we hope to see you again when you get married and as children come into the scene and sacraments are needed we will do the formation needed for those also. Come back when you need us.”
The bishops’ plan goes on to even make the rather revolutionary appeal to shift the structure of faith formation in parishes from being centrally focused on our young people to that of a view encompassing the whole of life where adult faith formation opportunities bear just as much weight as religious education for our young people.
Faith formation is a lifelong journey of encountering Jesus and coming to know him more deeply as our risen Lord and Savior.
In a spirit of continuing formation I took some time during this Christmas break (from ministry at the university while the students are away) to read up on the Gospel of Matthew. (Matthew is the gospel that we read from during this year’s cycle A of the Sunday Mass readings.) I learned more about Matthew’s proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ during this time of study and reflection and realize that I still have much more to learn.
There is one thing that I would like to share though that I learned from this time of study and reflection. We know that the gospels work on a variety of levels in their proclamation of Jesus Christ and some levels are more subtle than others. In Matthew’s gospel there is a distinction in the titles different groups of people use in addressing Jesus. Those who stand outside of belief in Jesus – the Jewish authorities, Roman authorities, those who scoff and question – address Jesus either as “master” or “teacher”, a human title of civility and etiquette. Those who believe – the disciples, the sick who have faith, the poor and outcasts – address Jesus as “lord”, a proclamation of faith. To further underscore this distinction; Matthew in his gospel has Judas address Jesus only twice and each time Judas uses the title “master” – unlike the other disciples – he does not use the term “lord”. The title “lord” can assume both of the other titles: “master” and “teacher” but neither of these two can automatically assume the title “lord” because “lord” moves beyond mere human custom and etiquette into the realm of faith.
On the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord and throughout Matthew’s gospel the fundamental proclamation of faith is put before us: “Jesus is Lord!”
In the first reading for the Feast we hear these words, “Thus says the Lord: Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased, upon whom I have put my spirit…” (Isaiah 42:1) In the second reading from Acts we find Peter in the house of Cornelius saying these words, “You know the word that he sent to the Israelites as he proclaimed peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all…” (Acts 10:36) In the gospel we hear the very voice of the Father proclaiming, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Mt. 3:17)
Human custom can bring us to “master” (i.e. the title “sensei” in Japanese culture). Etiquette can bring us to “teacher”. Faith alone brings us to “Lord”. It is more than a title; it is a proclamation and a cry from the depth of our being and behind it stands all of salvation history and the fullness of God’s Kingdom that is coming. Jesus Christ is the first of the new creation – of which we are all a part through baptism and God’s grace. When we say, “Jesus is Lord” we say all of this … and all the powers of hell shall not prevail against it.
The bishops – in their teaching authority – are right. It is a lifelong journey to come to know Jesus Christ and to fully realize what the title “lord” truly means.