I look at the readings today and I sigh.
Another week, where the word of God unmistakably provides us with a forceful reminder that, so long as we live as committed Christians in the world, we will face persecution from certain elements in the world. I get criticized from time to time because the homily is meant to be based on the readings at Mass, and where these readings point to certain harsh realities, there my homily must follow. So my message can seem, from time to time, rather dark and gloomy. But if I avoid what the word of God is saying on any particular day and try to serve up a nice dish of Christian-lite food, then I am not serving you as your pastor. I am giving you, what St Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians, is milk, and not meat, not solid food (cf 1 Corinthians 3: 1-3). You give milk to infants, you give meat to adults, along the way from infant to adult, you are training your child to be able to eat solid food.
The same applies to spiritual things.
A new Christian can be given the basic message of the gospel of Christ but as he grows in the faith, more and more substance is given to that teaching ,as he is able to absorb it. When Deacon Louis brings a candidate for RCIA through the process of becoming a member of the Catholic Church, he teaches them the basics of the faith. After they are received into the Church, the candidate goes through further teachings, which have more meat on them, because they have now received a deeper gift of the Holy Spirit, which enables them to understand their faith at a deeper level.
The Book of Hebrews underlines what St Paul is saying to the Corinthians. It says: ”Everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5: 13-14). How are you doing with this, brothers and sisters? How am I? Are we able to listen to various opinions expressed around us, or to us, and tell whether they are true or false, good or evil, according to the litmus test of the word of God? Have we allowed our spiritual faculties to be trained by the constant practice of studying the word and wisdom of God, in Scripture and Church teaching – or are our spiritual faculties drenched instead in the worldly wisdom preached in our newspapers or newscasts or social media? What you eat is what you become, over time.
St Paul gives us another litmus test to show if we are spiritual infants, or adults. He says: ”You are still not ready for solid food . . . for as long as there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not fleshly people, behaving according to worldly inclinations?” (1 Corinthians 3: 2-3).
Again, how are you and I doing with this, brothers and sisters?
St James is clearly speaking, in our second reading today, to a Christian community, who are still living in a worldly, fleshly way. He accuses them of envy and selfish ambition which causes disorder and wickedness of every kind in the community. Imagine! A Christian community where there is disorder and wickedness of every kind!! James goes on to say that the conflicts and disputes within the community come from a failure of the members of the community to discipline the cravings within their hearts, “You want something and do not have it, so you commit murder. You covet something and cannot obtain it, so you engage in disputes and conflicts.” I don’t know if James is saying that there is actual murder going on within the community. I hope not! But I am absolutely convinced that he is saying that people are “murdering” other members’ reputation and good name, through slander and gossip and judgment and criticism, because I have not yet come across a Christian community that does not have such things going on in them. And in the Christian communities that I have been part of, I know, to my shame, that I have done my own share of such slander and gossip and judgement. How about you, brothers and sisters?
St James goes on to say in our second reading, that if we are living, as we should be, from the wisdom of God, and not of the world, it will show itself in lives that are “pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy” and so are able to create a “harvest of righteousness sown in peace.” Wouldn’t you prefer that our Church, our parish, our community, be known by the world as displaying that kind of behavior, brothers and sisters? I know that I would. St Peter declares in his first letter: ”As God who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, “You shall be holy, for I , the Lord your God, are holy” (1 Peter I : 15-16). A great Christian preacher and teacher, Graham Cooke, was giving a talk in an evangelical church in Ottawa a few years ago, and I was present as he gave it. And during his talk, Graham said “You know, Catholics are holier than most other Christians, because they have the sacrament of confession, and regularly go to confess their sins to God.” I had, I admit, a surge of pride in my Catholic faith, when I heard that, because it is rare for evangelicals to say something positive about the Catholic Church. But these days, I would feel compelled to say to Graham Cooke, “I’m afraid, sir, that this is no longer the case. Most Catholics never go to confession anymore, so what does that say about us, and our ‘holiness’?”
But hold on.
It is a mistake that, if we are living such virtuous, holy lives as individuals and as a community, that we will be loved and admired by everyone. The exact opposite is true. We will come in for a huge share of criticism, condemnation, and active persecution. Why? Because we are attempting to live by the wisdom of God, which is opposed, for the most part, to the wisdom of the world. We are going, again for the most part, along a different path from others in the world, we have different values, different goals, and hearts that are set, not on gaining a nice life here in this world, but in gaining an eternal life in the world to come. That is the wisdom of God, and it should be reflected in our speech, our actions and our behavior. As the great Jesuit bishop and doctor of the Church once wrote: ”If you are wise, then, know that you have been created for the glory of God and your own eternal salvation. This is your goal; this is the center of your life; this is the treasure of your heart. If you reach this goal, you will find happiness. If you fail to reach it, you will find misery.”
Those however, who live by the wisdom of the world, think this is all nonsense, a myth, and pity us Christians for holding to such fanciful ideas. Not only that, but they are resentful when we hold to these ideas, because they want everyone else to go along with them and not us, they don’t want their priorities, goals and aims to be shown up for what they are, ultimately lacking in true greatness and substance and hope. So they will seek to shout us down, to isolate us, to misrepresent us and what we believe, and seek any chance to seize on our flaws and thunder about them to others. Ok, we know we are flawed, that we are sinners. That is why we have the sacrament of confession. The Church admits, in its own teaching that we are a Church that is simultaneously holy, and yet always needing reform, transformation more into the image of Christ, our Lord and Founder. But we sin, if we fall short of the expectations of God, not if we fall short of the expectations of the world. “What does it profit a man, if he gains the whole world, and loses his true life?” (Mark 8:36)
So persecution will and must come, if we are being true to our God-given identity and calling. And it is my job, as pastor, as shepherd, to prepare his sheep for this kind of persecution. The great St Augustine, in his address to Pastors, writes this: ”What kind of shepherds are they who for fear of giving offence, not only fail to prepare the sheep for the temptations that threaten, but even promise them worldly happiness? God himself made no such promise to this world. On the contrary, God foretold hardship upon hardship in this world until the end of time. And you want the Christian to be exempt from these troubles? Precisely because he is a Christian, he is destined to suffer more in this world. For as the Apostle Paul says, ‘All who desire to live a holy life in Christ will suffer persecution’.”
Failure to prepare the Christian for such hardship, St Augustine goes on to say, means that you, as pastor, “have built him on sand. The rains will come, the river will overflow and rush in, the winds will blow, and the elements will dash against that house of yours. It will fall, and its ruin will be great. Lift him up from the sand and put him on the rock. Let him be in Christ, if you wish him to be a Christian.”
This is my duty to you as your pastor, brothers and sisters. This is what the word of God is saying in our readings today, and why my homily has taken the road it has. Do with it what you will.