Sunday, August 28, 2011

Being Good, Pleasing, and Perfect

All summer long, we have been making our way, Sunday-by-Sunday, through Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans, the longest and historically most influential of his letters. Having begun by denouncing the sins and vices of pagan society, Paul now exhorts us to behave differently. In one sense, I suppose, that’s where we would naturally expect him to go. We’re hardly surprised when Paul’s well argued doctrinal exposition ends in moral exhortation – in the practical expression of how to live now. Moral exhortation we expect, but we may be surprised by how he introduces the topic: I urge you, by the mercies of God to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.
So far, Paul has been stressing what God has done for us. Thanks to what God’s mercy has accomplished on our behalf, we can now be different people from whoever we would otherwise have been, living differently from how we would otherwise have lived. Our bodies – in other words, the actual lived reality of our day-to-day lives – can serve as our sacrifice to God. The moral life of a Christian can be best understood, Paul seems to say, as a life lived as an act of worship.
The pagan Gentile culture of the Hellenistic world, which Paul could see everywhere around him and which he spoke so harshly about, operated out of a very different model from what Paul was proposing. Just watch some episodes of the HBO-TV series Rome from a few years ago! Our society, likewise, operates out of its own unique, post-modern model of human values and behavior, encouraging us to live lives based on feelings. Paul challenges us – as he challenged his contemporaries - not to conform to this age, but instead to transform our lives into an ongoing experience of worship, not conforming our faith to the world’s agenda but transforming that world by our faith.
In contrast to all the negative models we see all around us, Paul points us to the alternative model – Christ himself, whose death on the cross revealed a life lived as the most perfect worship of God his Father.
Peter’s negative reaction to Jesus’ initial prediction of his passion and death ought not to surprise us. If the path to be followed conformed to common expectations, Paul would not have presented it as such a contrast to what he saw around him, nor would Peter have objected, nor would Jesus have rebuked Peter so sternly. In Peter’s resistance, Jesus could hear the echo of Satan’s temptation in the desert – the perennial challenge (not just to Jesus but to all of us) not to be transformed ourselves and certainly not to transform the world.
This sort of came up during the Paulist Vocation Workshop I attended a week ago in New York. It seems evident that many young people who might be interested in some form of religious life are looking for a way to live a "counter-cultural" witness. Perhaps some religious communities may have over-adapted to contemporary culture in the 1960s (and after) and may now find themselves being especially challenged by this. Even so, as our presenter pointed out more than once, any authentic form of religious life is inherently counter-cultural. In a society which sees wealth, sex, and power as primary values, what could possibly be more counter-cultural than poverty, chastity, and obedience? That’s actually just one more reason why the promotion of religious vocations is so important for the Church’s witness to the world.
In some ways, we have of course, quite comfortably domesticated the cross that ultimate symbol of Christ’s world-transforming sacrifice. We have, in fact, often turned it into just an ornament, an item of jewelry. It can serve as a civic ornament also. All Christian kingdoms have a cross on their crowns – something I became very conscious of when stationed in Canada, where the highway signs all have crowns on them. The seal of Los Angeles County, until recently, also had a cross – a historical reminder of the place’s Spanish origin. In a fit of post-modern, secularist triumphalism, Los Angeles county’s cross has been removed, although the seal of the city of Los Angeles still includes the arms of the Spanish kingdoms of Castille and Leon. (I can’t help but suspect that our very Britsh and very Protestant Founding Fathers would likely have found the symbols of the Spanish crown more objectionable than the cross! But that’s another discussion!)
It is indeed no accident that the cross is the central symbol of our Christian faith. Jesus’ death was not some accident, after all, just some back luck that happened to him one day by the shore. It was the direct – and predictable – consequence of a life lived in total obedience to his Father. Such is the life that Jesus commands us to take up and follow him.
Homily for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN,
August 28, 2011

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