Every year, at the beginning of Ordinary Time, the Church gives us in our Mass readings, passages from St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. You might think that this is because the Church of God in Corinth was a model Christian community, full of holiness and peace and love. But, in fact, this was far from the case. As we will see when we continue to read these passages over the next several Sundays, the Corinthians exhibited all kinds of unchristian behavior: quarrelling, divisiveness, jealousy, pride, even a case of incest that Paul singles out for instant excommunication (cf 1 Corinthians 5: 1-5).
Why, then, does the Church, in her wisdom, decide to give us such readings right at the beginning of the year? Because she wants to present to us a mirror, in which we can see our own shortcomings and failings, both individually as Catholic Christians and corporately as a Catholic Christian community. We are all, like the Corinthian Christians,” called to be saints “as Paul says in our second reading today. But all of us fall far, far short of this ideal. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” he says in his letter to the Romans. Even Paul himself has to admit that he is a sinner,” for I do not do the good that I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Wretched man that I am!” (Romans 7: 19). This is not to lead us to despair, as if we were all hopeless cases, for we are all, nonetheless, “called to be saints”. But we have to face up to the fact that we are not yet fully saints, we are not yet made perfect. It is a grim truth we have all got to face about ourselves, and about our parish and, indeed, the whole Church of God. We are not perfect, and our church and our community are not perfect either. Get used to that fact, says the Church. Indeed, at the Second Vatican Council of bishops, held in Rome in the 1960s, in its document on the Church, we are told that the Church of God is semper reformanda, always in need of repentance and conversion and reform, something which the scandals of recent years have made abundantly clear, unfortunately.
It is no good us getting upset, then, with the weaknesses of our own parish community, pointing the finger at others, and wishing they were not in church with us. Nor is it necessarily a good idea to decide to leave the community, and go in search of the ideal parish, where our “goodness and holiness” will find a home. Such a community does not exist, never has. All we are doing is bringing our own weaknesses and failures to another community, which, believe me, has plenty of its own shortcomings! As Groucho Marx once famously said “I wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have someone like me as a member”.
We are a community of sinners, yet called to be saints.). That this has always been the case, from the very beginning of the Church, is clear from a reading of the New Testament. The Acts of the Apostles shows us the early church and at first paints a picture of a community living in harmonious unity and peace and love, sharing their possessions, abiding by the teaching of the apostles. Yet, even St Luke, the writer of the Acts, has to admit this is not the whole truth. Early on, he tells the story of two Church members, Ananias and Sapphira, who sell a piece of land, and claim to be handing over all the money they get for it to the church, so it can look after its poor. In fact, they both collude in fraudulently appearing to be virtuous in the sight of the community’s leaders, whereas in fact they deliberately hold back some of the proceeds of the sale for themselves.
But it is when we turn to the letters of St Paul, addressed to different communities of Christians, that we get a fuller picture. Not one church community manages to avoid being criticized by Paul for unchristian behavior. We have seen the situation in Corinth. In his letter to Ephesians, Paul castigates them for their sins of anger, theft, evil and malicious talk, bitterness, slander, all of which, he says, “grieve the Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 4: 25-31). The Philippians he charges with, among other things: “murmuring, arguing, selfish ambition and conceit (cf Philiippians 2: 3, 14). And don’t get me started on the Galatians!! Over and over again, Paul is scandalized by these examples of sinfulness, which shouldn’t be happening among Christians, who have already been , as he says in our second reading today, “sanctified in Christ Jesus”, “made a new creation: by our baptism (2 Corinthians 5:17) and, who, because of their baptism, should not be sinning like this. St James, in another New Testament letter, also takes his community to task, because of the way the rich Christians treat the poorer members of their community- despising them, treating them as second-class citizens when they gather in church. James is driven to expostulate in one place: “I’m not sure that you really are Christians. Yes, you may have been baptized and go to Mass, but the way you behave towards each other makes me question whether you truly are a believer in Christ” (cf James 2:1ff).
What is to be done about this sad state of affairs in our church, in our parishes, in ourselves?
Firstly, we must face the awful truth about ourselves, put so bluntly by St John in his first letter: “If we say that we have no sin in ourselves, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). We have to admit and cry out with the prophet Isaiah: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6: 5). In other words, I am a sinner, and so is everyone in my community, and just as I need them to accept that about me, so also, I need to accept that about myself and about them. I need your forgiveness, brothers and sisters, and you need mi ne. This is why the sacrament of reconciliation is given us by God, because it is meant to be exactly that: a gift. It is true that confession is good for the soul. To be able to admit to someone else, and before God, that you have sinned, and hear them say on behalf of God “Your sins are forgiven” brings tremendous grace and peace to us. Those who have not been to confession for years, really don’t know what they are missing, unless they believe they are already perfect, which, as I have been saying, is just deceiving oneself. St John, in that passage I quoted from earlier, having bluntly stated that “if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” goes on immediately to say “if we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1: 9)
Secondly, and this is the good news, in case you are feeling overwhelmed by all the bad, sad news of our sinfulness: God loves us, all of us, the whole of us, even the bad parts, the sinful parts, the parts which we find hard to accept about ourselves, God loves us, as we used to say, “warts and all”, It has taken me a lifetime to understand that, and it still has the capacity to blow me away. God loves me as I am, all of me, even the sin, even when I cannot love myself, especially the sin parts. “I would love you even if you were evil “God loves even Satan and all the other devils. God would love us even if we went to hell.
Thirdly, we have a remedy for our spiritual sickness, we have a Saviour, and we have just been celebrating the fact over the last couple of weeks, that Jesus has been born into the world, to save its people from its sins. As John the Baptist points out in our gospel, indicating Jesus, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”. Not just our individual sins, but the whole sad state of the world, its sin, and its consequences, which is everlasting death and hell. To accept Jesus is to accept that we need a Savior, that we need forgiveness for our sins. If we cannot accept and face the fact of our sinfulness, and its consequences, then we cannot accept God’s gift of salvation in Jesus. When St Paul says in his letter to the Romans, as I have already quoted, that “everyone of us has sinned and has fallen short of the glory of God”, he immediately goes on to say that “we have been made right with God by his grace as a free gift , through the redemption from sin that is through Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood , made effective by our faith” (Romans 3: 24-25). To accept that we are sinners from our birth, and unable to free ourselves from sin, is to accept that we need the forgiveness of sins that God puts forward in his mercy through the sacrificial, atoning death of Christ on the cross.
Fourthly, we always stand in need of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Jesus is the one, according to John the Baptist in our gospel today, who “baptizes with the Holy Spirit”. We need, you and I need, the Holy Spirit continually at work in our lives. We have received the Spirit in our baptism, and that gift was deepened in our confirmation. But for many of us, that was a gift that barely simmers in our lives, and we need to turn the heat up under this gift, so that the Spirit can fill us with the mercy and love and peace of God, and power to resist temptation and sin, and live a good and holy and righteous life. So, I am going to pray again for the renewed gift of the Holy Spirit in our lives, that we can come into this new year with a fresh determination to have done with sin and live more fully than ever before in the grace and peace which God the Father bestows on us in his Son, Jesus, let us pray.