“Modelling the Faith” – Fr. Bob’s Homily for Sunday, October 29, 2023

Our second reading today, from St Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, bring out two important ideas that Paul is very keen on repeating in his letters over and over again. The first is that of being a “model” or “example” to others in the way we live out our faith in Jesus. Paul saw himself as just such a model to the Thessalonian community, and they, in turn, were a model to other believers. Being a good example to others was an integral part of Paul’s mission, just as it should be for ourselves. Paul often describes himself as an imitator of Christ: e.g., “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ”, (I Corinthians 11: 1). This is especially true as this related to his sharing in Christ’s suffering: “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Colossians 1:24). 

In saying all of this, Paul is not being egotistical and arrogant. Firstly, he is clear in telling others that they should only imitate him insofar as he imitates Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). But secondly, if we were to say to Paul “That’s ok for you, Paul, but I certainly don’t see myself as a model of faith for others to imitate”, Paul would probably answer “Why not?”. As I said earlier, it should be an integral part of our lives as Catholic Christians that we provide good example to others, both to non-Christians, and to fellow believers. If we are not providing a good example, we have to ask ourselves ‘Why aren’t!?”. Of course in Paul’s Greek-based culture, it was considered an important part of one’s life, to be an example of a virtuous life to others, so that they could see and imitate us, or be ashamed of their own behavior compared to ours, and make efforts to change to a better life for themselves. The great philosopher, Socrates, you remember, killed himself, when he was attacked falsely for corrupting minors. Even though, as I say, the accusations were not true, still he felt ashamed that his students might believe them, and so he took poison to end his life. That is a bit of an extreme reaction, of course, and a mortal sin, but it should stir us to ask ourselves: “Well, what kind of example of Christian living am providing, especially to young people and children? This can lead to some uncomfortable conclusions, but, if that is a spur to us making changes for the better in our lives, then it is an eminently worthwhile process. 

Parents to their children, teachers to their students, and, yes, pastors to their parishioners, may need to sit them down and apologize for giving bad example, and ask for forgiveness. It is humbling, to be sure, but what an invaluable lesson that will give to young, impressionable minds that, at times, we need to repent of our behavior. Those who think that, if they did that, it would lower the others’ respect for us, not only fail to understand that, by contrast, it will increase such respect, but also that they are teaching a crucial life-lesson to these young charges  of theirs. Hopefully, they will grow up to appreciate that it is a sign of maturity to be ready to admit wrong  when we do it, and not become that kind of obnoxious person who will never, under any circumstances, admit that they might be wrong  (teaching to first reconciliation parents). This, by the way, is why the Church has us begin Mass with the Penitential Rite, where we pause to remember our sins and to ask God’s forgiveness, what are we thinking about, or doing, during this important part of the Mass – our sins, or something else entirely?

So St Paul commends the Thessalonians for providing a good model for other Christians, especially in the way they patiently endured persecution for their faith: “you became imitators of us and of the Lord”, he says, “for in spite of persecution you received the word of the gospel with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia”. The way we, as Christians, cope with suffering in our lives will have an enormous effect on believer and non-believer alike. Do we respond with ill-humour, complaining and whining, with loss of faith and with fear? Or do we respond with patience, endurance, trust and prayerfulness? I leave you to decide which response inspires and edifies others. St Pope Paul VI once wrote “Modern man listens more readily to witnesses, than to teachers. And if they listen to teachers, it is because they are also witnesses.”  As someone once said, “You may be the only gospel that others read today.” 

The second important theme in our second reading today is that of conversion. Paul says to his readers that other churches have reported how the Thessalonians “turned from idols to faith in a living and true God”. This “turning to God” comes from an underlying Hebrew idea (shub) which expresses a complete turn-around on the road and heading in the opposite direction. The most important and basic “turning around”, of course, is when a non-believer comes to faith in God and is baptized and becomes a fervent Christian. Many of us love reading or hearing about such conversions, and St Paul himself, of course, knew such a dramatic “turn-around” in his own life on the road to Damascus. But conversion can also come about when someone who was a lukewarm and indifferent nominal Christian suddenly changes and becomes on fire with love for Jesus and returns to the practice of their faith. I am sure we have either experienced that ourselves or know people for whom that has I remember attending a youth rally where the leader introduced four young men to the audience and said: “Here we have a former violent criminal, a thief, an alcoholic and a drug addict. All of them have given their lives to Christ and become changed men. And I myself”, said the leader,” used to be a drug dealer”. That really blew the audience of young people away, I can tell you. 

Of course, not all conversions need to be so dramatic on a grand scale. But it can be dramatic on a smaller scale. When the Spirit “punctures” our indifference, or egotism, or bad habits, and brings about a noticeable change in our attitude and behavior that is witnessed only by our family and close colleagues, that is absolutely as precious to God as any of the big conversions that we read about.