Three years ago, at the start of his pastoral visit to the United States, Pope Benedict XVI asked: “Is it consistent to profess our beliefs in church on Sunday, and then during the week to promote business practices or medical procedures contrary to those beliefs? Is it consistent for practicing Catholics to ignore or exploit the poor and the marginalized, to promote sexual behavior contrary to Catholic moral teaching, or to adopt positions that contradict the right to life of every human being from conception to natural death? Any tendency to treat religion as a private matter must be resisted. Only when their faith permeates every aspect of their lives do Christians become truly open to the transforming power of the Gospel.”
Jesus solemn warning at the conclusion of his Sermon on the Mount - “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my father in heaven” [Matthew 7:21] - was not addressed to people generically, but rather very specifically to those who believe in him – that is, to us. Surely, we have all heard that old cliché: If I were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict? Well, guess what? On Judgment Day, Jesus warns, it will not be enough to have believed, to have said ‘Lord, Lord’, to have professed faith in Christ and considered oneself a disciple, without having also therefore lived in a way which warrants one’s being recognized as such – by him first of all! Even those entertaining superstars who drive out demons and do mighty deeds don’t get guaranteed a place in the kingdom without corresponding, recognizable action. Once again, we are being reminded that we really are what we do. That is: what we do, how we live, reveals who we are – and who we hope to be, the kind of person we will in fact be for all eternity, thanks to our actions in the here and now.
In this regard, I really like the image Jesus uses of the house – the house built on rock vs. the house built on sand. So often Jesus’ parables reflect their rural roots in the agrarian society in which they originated. Fair enough, but not all of us live on farms or in rural villages. But everybody everywhere needs and depends on adequate shelter – and so can relate to the universal image of a well-built house.
Jesus’ image, however, should also us that we do not build our house entirely on our own, all by ourselves. The faithful disciple may indeed be like the one who builds a great mansion on a foundation of solid rock. The rock, however, is not built by the builder. It is there for us to build upon, but it is not of our own making. It is, so to speak, a gift, to which we respond by building well upon it. We give thanks for that gift by what we build, by the life we live, all made possible in the first place by the firm foundation we have been given.
Often in recent years, riding the bus between New York City and Newark Airport, coming out of the Lincoln Tunnel, I have often found myself staring at a particular building built on top of an especially impressive outcrop of solid stone at the end of a Jersey City street. I think it’s a public library now, but it was obviously originally built as a private house. Looking at it is almost enough to make one want to sing a verse or two of John Rippon’s stirring 18th-century hymn that begins: How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in his excellent word!
So, even before we worry about building, first and foremost we have to make sure we are building on a firm foundation – and not on any of the faulty structures that seem so tempting today. Jesus famously promised to build his Church on the solid rock of the revelation of who he is and what he is all about, rather than the shifting sands of popular alternatives.
This coming Wednesday, we will all come to church to be signed with blessed ashes – reminding us of our mortality, calling us to conversion and repentance, and identifying us publicly, for all the world to recognize, as his professed disciples. Jesus challenges those who would want to be recognized by him as his disciples to build ambitiously upon the firm foundation of his freely given grace. Rather than sink into the superficially seductive sand that so deceptively lures us every which way, let us build - with God’s gift of himself as our firm foundation – a beautiful building for all eternity, out of what we make of our lives in the here and now.