The Near Occasion of Sin

After [Judas] took the morsel, Satan entered him.  -John 13:27

There is a beautiful (free!) video series about the Holy Spirit and all his works hosted by Fr. Dave Pivonka called, “The Wild Goose is Loose.”  In one of the segments, Fr. Dave is standing just outside the St. Louis Arch and explains how while the Arch is a symbolic gateway to the West;  for Christians, the sacraments are like a gateway for the grace of God to enter our souls and bless our lives.  It’s a beautiful thought and a powerful image of the desire for God to enter into our lives and carry out his work through us.  As one priest recently said, “God only needs us to open the doors of our hearts–even just a small crack– and he will squeeze his way in!”

Today, we read what I see as another “gateway” in John’s account of the betrayal of Judas.  The gateway of sin. In this passage John tells us that Jesus announces to the twelve that one of them will betray him.  After John asks him which of them it will be, Jesus says, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.”  Then Jesus dips the bread and hands it to Judas.  I love John’s account of this incident, because it’s more like my experiences with sin in my own life.  The way I see it here Judas has two choices–either take the bread, or DON’T take the bread.  Now, clearly I have the benefit of 2000+ years of history to help me know the ramifications that come from taking the bread. So this is why I can’t help but think, “Oh, Judas, why would you take the bread?” Still, he does.  Even though Jesus has just said that the one who he hands it to will betray him, Judas takes the bread.  And it is only after he does this, John tells us, that Satan enters into Judas.

I’d like to think I don’t know what’s going on here.  I’d like to pretend that I would NEVER take the bread under those circumstances and that I would fall at the feet of Jesus begging his forgiveness.  But, like I said, I have the benefit of history on my side, and so I know better.

But do I?  Allow me a simple, but very real, true story.  We have a local bakery here that is amazing.  It bakes the yummiest, most sweet and delicious desserts and pastries you’ve likely ever encountered.  It’s won prizes for it’s heavenly-tasting foods and when you walk into the store it has plates and plates and plates of generously sized samples sitting out for you to try, all free of charge.  You can just go in and sample your day away if you’d like.  They have Danish Kringles in flavors you’ve only dreamed about, breads and flavored butters, and some days even whole slices of angel food cake…to eat as a SAMPLE!  It’s amazing. But only if you like sweets.  And I don’t just like sweets.  I {head-over-heels, heart-eyed-emoji, over-the-moon} LOVE these sweets!  I always tell people I could never tell you what I don’t like at our local bakery, I can only tell you what I like least.  There is no bad pastry in the place!

But.

It is not a place I can even drive near when I’m trying to cut out carbs and sugar.  Or my car will go in and park, my legs will walk me in and  I will  sample the day away.  And before I know it my sweet tooth will be craving all the days it’s missed of sweets and then some.  Because at my local bakery, when I take even one piece, I cannot control how many more I will take.  

And this is where I can relate to Judas.

And I see that just as the sacraments are a beautiful gateway to God’s grace, my poor choices are sometimes a gateway into actions and ramifications that quickly go beyond my control.  God is not the only one looking to squeeze his way into the cracked-open doors of my life.  Satan is waiting, too.

And for some of us this sounds perfectly normal.  But for many, Satan seems so unreal.  Much of the world has done a great job of making “the devil” sound like a fantasy creature.  Someone who can be dismissed–along with the “boogie man” and the “monster under your bed” –after we reach a certain age of reason,   And it’s easy to see why.   Because how is he depicted so often?  With his red horns, a spiked tail and a pitchfork?!  Of course that’s silly and childish!  But that’s not who he is!  Of course not. The devil is no more that, than God is an old man on a cloud with a beard and a lightning bolt smiting people down.  These are symbols of two very real, spiritual beings that, while both invisible, are both more powerful than us.  And while we can stand confident in knowing that God is more powerful than the devil, we must realize that we are not!

So what can we do?

Well, of course we can pray for the strength to close the door on our bad choices and sin.  But we also  need to avoid the behaviors and things that put cracks in the foundation of our faith and build barriers that block that endless flow of God’s grace in our lives.  We sometimes call these things the “near occasion of sin.”   While the bakery is not in and of itself a sinful place, in terms of healthy eating,  for me, it is a “near occasions of sin.”  Because it is an entry-way into a slippery slope of poor food choices that can unravel days and even weeks of hard work.  It’s best to be avoided–or at least severely limited–in my life.  Because when I frequent the bakery I can begin to lose sight of my healthy goals,  and I can even fall into a kind of despair about never being able to eat healthy again.

And once I open the door to despair, like Judas, I find myself disappearing into darkness. A darkness that I cannot overcome on my own.

But we don’t all have to suffer the fate of Judas.  We can follow Peter.  Peter who also betrays our Lord (not once, but three times!),but never gives up hope.  Peter grasps that he is not all-knowing and that he can be forgiven when he has made bad choices.  Even bad choices that harm those he loves very deeply.

There is always forgiveness.  There is always God’s mercy.

Today, identify and avoid one “near occasion of sin” in your life, and let your heart be flooded with the power of God’s grace.

Reflect:  “Do you reject Satan and all his works?  And all his empty promises?”  These are the opening questions to a Renewal of Baptismal Promises recited during the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation.  Spend time thinking about your answers to this today as well as why the Church asks this.  While we don’t need to give the devil a lot of our thoughts and time, it is helpful from time to time to remind ourselves there is a force more powerful than us that is working contrary to God in our lives, and look for those “cracked-open doors” that we may need to shut in order to see God more clearly.

Pray:  Heavenly Father, thank you for your endless gift of grace!  Wash me in your mercy and forgiveness, so that I may be free to see clearly the places where my actions are contrary to your will.  Help me to avoid even the near occasion of sin in my life so that I may walk more closely with you.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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