Sunday, September 18, 2016

An island big enough for everyone

Homily: 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C
          There certainly is a wealth of lessons to be learned and insight to be gained from our Scriptures today.  There always is, of course, but today there just seems to be more to “sink our teeth into” than normal.  Obviously I can’t cover it all in one homily, so I’ll have to choose something.  I think that this year, in particular because it is an election year, it would be good if we focused in on the reading from Saint Paul’s letter to Timothy.  First, a little background on these letters.
          Three of Saint Paul's fourteen New Testament Letters are called his "Pastoral Letters". Two of these were written to Saint Timothy and one to Saint Titus.  Both Timothy and Titus were disciples of Paul. Timothy's mother was Jewish and he had become a Christian through the influence of his grandmother, Lois. Titus had no Jewish background at all; he was a Greek convert from paganism. Timothy and Titus each accompanied Saint Paul on some of his missionary journeys around the Mediterranean and they also served as Paul’s messengers to churches that he was trying to guide from a distance. At the time when the New Testament Letters to Timothy and Titus were written, the two disciples had stopped traveling with Paul and each had been made an overseer, or "bishop", of a local church. The Letters contain advice and instruction from Saint Paul on how to lead their respective communities. In the passage we just heard, located near the beginning of Saint Paul's First Letter to Timothy, many themes emerge: themes that are as important for us today as they were for our Christian brothers and sisters in the first century. Today, however, we’ll just focus two of them.
          The first has to do with the Church's relationship with the world around it. In the first century, the civilized world in which Christianity was taking root was still pagan. The different cultures around the Mediterranean Sea had been forcefully united under the Roman Empire. The Empire's fabulous wealth opened the door to a pleasure-loving lifestyle among the rich and powerful. It also required the spread of slave labor and the injustice and misery that went along with it. Furthermore, it allowed for the spread and interaction of the many different pagan religions native to each culture. At that time, in the midst of this sea of paganism, Christianity was still only a tiny island.
          In his instructions to Timothy, Saint Paul lists as the first responsibility of those living on that “island” to pray for the pagan “sea” all around them—especially for the "kings and for all in authority"—the Emperor, the governors, and the other civil leaders… many of whom had already begun to persecute the Christians. You see, in Paul's mind, the Church was not only a boat journeying to heaven—or an island of refuge in the midst of a hostile sea—but it was also God's chosen instrument for the spread of a stable and prosperous society here on earth, in which everyone could live a "quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity." And the primary way for the Church to do that, Paul instructs, was through prayer.
          Today, once again, the Church is an island in a sea of paganism. The island is bigger now, but the surrounding culture is still hostile to Christian values. So today it is still our responsibility as God's ambassadors to pray for peace, justice, and prosperity in society: which means, of course, to pray also for our leaders. God wants our culture to be healthy and our society to be stable and he chooses to use our prayers as channels for his grace to achieve this end.
          The second theme has to do with the extension of Christ's saving mission. Jesus Christ came as the Savior, but who exactly did he come to save? Did he intend to save only some members of the fallen human race? This is what some traditions of separated Christianity have taught and still teach. John Calvin, for example, one of the most influential figures in the Protestant Reformation back in the 16th century, taught a doctrine called "double predestination". This doctrine stated that from the moment when God creates a human soul, he destines that person either to heaven or to hell, and nothing that the person does can change that destiny. But that, of course, is not true. As Saint Paul wrote to Timothy, "God our savior... wills everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth."
          When Christ offered his own life as a sacrifice for our sins, he offered it as a sacrifice to atone for ALL our sins, for the sins of every human being who ever lived and who ever will live. This is what Saint Paul means when he writes to Timothy saying that, "Christ Jesus... gave himself as ransom for all." God doesn't play favorites and he doesn’t exclude. He offers the gift of salvation to every single person and he wants every single person to accept salvation by believing in and following Christ. But he won't force anyone to accept the gift: because then it wouldn't be a gift at all. This is why it is not a contradiction to say both that God wills the salvation of all people, but that all people will not necessarily be saved.
          And so, do you see now how important it is that we pray for “kings and for all those in authority”?  If we decide that some people don’t deserve our prayers because we don’t think that they should receive the gift of eternal life from God, then we have set ourselves against God’s will; and if we are against God’s will then we ourselves are in danger of losing the gift of salvation that comes to us from Jesus Christ!  And besides, are we any better than that dishonest steward about whom Jesus speaks in the Gospel if we try to hoard the treasure of salvation for ourselves, instead of praying that everyone would share in it?  No, we’re not!
          And so, in the Gospel reading, when Jesus seems to agree with the master’s commendation of the dishonest steward’s actions, it isn’t because he agrees with the steward’s actions, but rather it is to make a point: that the dishonest are better and more committed to being dishonest than the good are at being and being committed to being honest!  And he makes this point to make a further point: that is, that in order for the Gospel message to be received as authentic, then Christians must live the faith authentically.  My friends, this begins with charity; and today Saint Paul teaches us that an essential part of charity is to pray for everyone, without discrimination.
          My brothers and sisters, our faith is a vast treasure house of truth and light: a treasure that our world so desperately needs today! And so today, as Christ comes once again to nourish our souls in Holy Communion, let's thank him for this priceless gift of our Catholic faith, let's pray for the salvation of the entire world, as Saint Paul encourages us to do, especially for the politicians and government officials that seem to be lost, and let's renew our determination to follow Christ faithfully this week, so that we might be authentic witnesses to the Gospel that lead all those around us to the joy of eternal life.

Given at All Saints Parish: Logansport, IN – September 18th, 2016

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