10 February 2019

Homily - The Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time - 10 February 2019

The Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Dear brothers and sisters,

Today, the Apostle tells us what is “of first importance” (I Corinthians 15:1). Think, for a moment, about your life, about your goals, your hopes and dreams, about what most occupies your thoughts when things are quiet and you are alone. Thoroughly sift them for a moment in the sieve of your heart.

What is of first importance to you? Your spouse? Your children? Your work? Your retirement? Your freedom? Yourself? However important any of these may be, Saint Paul does not name any of them as being of first importance; rather, what he says is of first importance is what he has himself received. This little detail is of the greatest significance because it shows that Paul did not invent what says is most important; rather, he received it from the Lord Jesus and from the Twelve.

Contrary to what some claim today, Saint Paul is not the creator of Christianity; rather, he himself received the Christian faith and, having received it, endeavored to bring it to the entire world. For this faith, he willingly – and even gladly – endured shipwrecks and beatings and imprisonments and hunger and thirst (cf. II Corinthians 11:23-27). All of these he suffered because of what is of first importance, namely, “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures; that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve” (I Corinthians 15:3-5). When you thought about what is more important, did you think of the Gospel?

MS M.302 fol. 3r
The Morgan Library & Museum
Saint Paul says the Gospel is of first importance because he knew himself to be the “foremost” of sinners (I Timothy 1:15). He had “persecuted the Church of God” and in doing so had persecuted Christ Jesus himself (I Corinthians 15:9; cf. Acts 9:4). Being a sinner, he knew himself to be in need of salvation; he knew that without salvation he stood condemned, and he knew he could not save himself. This is why he knew that “Christ died for our sins” is of first importance, both for him and for us, for we are sinners, too, each one of us.

Have you ever wondered how the first Christians knew that Jesus’ death on the Cross was for our sins? To ask it another way, 

How did the early Church know that the death of the Master was not just the unfortunate execution of a prophet who claimed to be divine but actually the most important event in the history of the world, the redeeming death of the Son of God, by which all mankind could find forgiveness of their sins?[1]

They knew Jesus’ death to be of the greatest importance because they searched the Scriptures and remembered the words he spoke to them (cf. Luke 24:8).

On the one hand, they saw in these words of the Prophet Isaiah a clear foretelling of all the Messiah would endure for the salvation of his people:

He was pierced for our sins,
            crushed for our iniquity.
He bore the punishment that makes us whole,
            by his wounds we were healed.
We had all gone astray like sheep,
            all following our own way;
but the Lord laid upon him
            the guilt of us all (Isaiah 53:5-6).

On the other hand, as they read these words, they remembered what Jesus said at the Last Supper: “…this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). The good news of the forgiveness of sins and of victory in Christ Jesus, is, as Saint Paul says, “the gospel I preached to you, which you indeed received and in which you also stand” (I Corinthians 15:1).

Ruins of Corinth
The Church at Corinth was something of a raucous bunch, made up of some Christians who fully embraced the Gospel and its demands, yes, but that also contained no small number of Christians who refused to fully give themselves to Christ, as even a cursory reading of Saint Paul’s letters to the Corinthians shows. What is it, then, that kept them together, that kept them from fracturing and each going further along his own way? It was the Gospel that they received, the forgiveness of sins in Christ, and in which they stood; as often as they strayed away from it, they returned to stand upon that which is of most importance. “The emphasis falls on the last word: holding on to the original proclamation is the only thing that keeps them together and stable. It brings salvation and eternal life” and for this reason, Saint Paul says, “through it you are also being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you, unless you believed in vain” (I Corinthians 15:2).[2]

Some of our Protestant brothers and sisters are found of the question, “Are you saved?” When asked this question, many Catholics are uncertain how they should answer it. When asked this question, you should respond with the words of Saint Paul; you should say something like this: “I was saved, I am being saved, and I hope to be saved.” We were saved in the waters of Baptism, yes, having been redeemed by the Precious Blood of Christ. But we are also being saved now because it is possible, through our free choices against Christ and for mortal sins, that we might lose our salvation. This is why Saint Paul tells us elsewhere to “work out your salvation in fear and trembling” so that we might one day be finally saved (Philippians 2:12).

Despite what some claim, Saint Paul teaches us quite clearly that salvation is guaranteed to none of us; he says, “Whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall” (I Corinthians 10:12). How often do we fall? What do we do to keep from falling? This is why we have come today to the altar of God. Just a few moments ago, we acknowledged our sinfulness to the Lord, some of us more sincerely than others. In just a few moments more, we will sing in the sight of the angels, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts! All the earth is filled with his glory” (cf. Psalm 138:1; Isaiah 6:3)! We come before the Lord to say to him, “Here I am; send me” and to entrust to him whatever boat of ours it is that he wants to make use of (Isaiah 6:8; cf. Luke 5:3). We have come to receive the Gospel, to be saved by it, and to share it with others so they, too, may be saved. Salvation, then, is the of the first importance, even though we so often think of it last.

Saint Augustine reminds us that, as he went about his missionary efforts, “Paul did not labor in order to receive grace, but he received grace so that he might labor.”[3] In other words, we are not bound to tell others about Jesus and to help them encounter him because of some benefit to ourselves; it is not about us, but about Jesus. Whatever we do or say, it is always about Jesus and his salvation. May the angels, then, remind us of this continually, so that as we are being saved and perfected by the Gospel, we might sing with them both now and eternally, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!” Amen.

[1] George T. Montague, Catholic Commentary on Scripture: First Corinthians (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2011), 263-264.
[2] Ibid., 262.
[3] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Proceedings of Pelagius, 14.36.

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