Sunday, January 16, 2011

Homily for 2d Sunday in Ordinary Time

I didn't have an assigned Mass this weekend, since I was supposed to be away on a Scout trip (which trip didn't come off, but that's another story). So I don't have a fresh homily. The following one, on today's epistle reading, is 24 years old.

Homily for the
2d Sunday

in Ordinary TimeJan. 18, 1987
1 Cor 1: 1-3
Holy Cross, Fairfield, Conn.

We’ve been using the new lectionary for 17 years, with its 3 readings each Sunday instead of 2 and its 3-year cycle instead of the same readings year after year.

You may have noticed that the 1st and 3d readings are always thematically related, usually more clearly than today’s theme of Jesus as God’s servant for bringing salvation to the world. But in Ordinary Time—the “green season”—the middle reading is almost never related to the other 2. The 2d reading, instead, presents a week-by-week sequence from the letters of the NT. Thus today we begin a 7-week series from St. Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians, which will take us up to the beginning of Lent.

We have selections from St. Paul all year long, and students of the Scriptures probably know him better than any biblical personality except Jesus. Yet I suspect that few of us really understand Paul. I propose, then, to take us into Paul and 1 Corinthians during my homilies in these 7 weeks.

The 1st thing we want to know is who these Corinthians were. They were a small group of Christian converts living in Corinth. Corinth was a thriving commercial center, a major crossroads of the Roman Empire, the largest city in 1st-century Greece. It was built on a narrow peninsula connecting the northern and southern halves of Greece, separating the Adriatic Sea and Italy from the Aegean Sea and Asia. Its people came from all over the Roman world: traders, craftsmen, merchants, sailors, soldiers, government officials, priests, athletes, slaves, and even tourists and refugees. The city was famous for its shrines, above all the great temple of Aphrodite, which was a center of worship and of tourism.

You know that the pagan Greeks and Romans were not Puritans. But even in the ancient world, Corinth was notorious for its licentiousness; its name was synonymous with pleasure and vice. The term “Corinthian girl” meant a prostitute; “to live like a Corinthian” was to lead a depraved life. Aphrodite’s temple was served by 1,800 slave girls, and you can bet they sold more than incense! How better to commune with the goddess of love and beauty than through the ministrations of her servants?

Into this social setting came Paul of Taurus in 51 A.D., preaching Jesus Christ. He received a warm welcome and stayed a year and a half. A substantial number of Corinthians, both Jews and Gentiles, mostly lower-class, became believers—but only a tiny minority of the total population.


St. Paul preaching. Painting (part of a large series) in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome.
But soon after Paul’s departure, serious problems and theological questions arose—problems so serious that they would still be plaguing Corinthian Christians 40 years later. Indeed, some of them are with us still. As soon as Paul became aware of the problems and the questions, he wrote a letter to try to straighten things out; eventually he had to go in person, and between 54 and 57 wrote as many as 4 letters to the Corinthians.

What sorts of problems did the Corinthians have trouble with? Their church was divided into 3 or 4 factions. They argued over various charismatic gifts and ministries. They asked about the relative value of marriage and of virginity and about the role of women in the Church. They disputed the relationship between their pagan culture and their Christian faith. The rich and the poor were at odds. They wanted to know how to celebrate the Eucharist and what the resurrection was like. They had serious problems and even scandals concerning sexual morality.

You’d never guess all that from the 1st and 3d verses of 1 Corinthians, would you?

When we write a letter, we follow certain forms. We begin with the date and then greet the addressee, “Dear So-and-So.” At the end, we put a closing, “Yours truly,” and sign our name. Ancient letter writers had forms too: “Sender to addressee, greetings.” That’s what Paul’s doing here: “Paul…to the church of God in Corinth…grace and peace.”

But Paul expands the usually simple “X and Y, greetings” formula considerably. When we read his introductory formula, we already begin to understand Paul and his message.

1st, the sender, Paul, identifies himself—reminds his readers that he’s more than a friend or acquaintance or business partner: Paul is an apostle of Jesus Christ, called by God. Paul speaks with divine authority, apostolic authority. Today we have to remember, further, that Paul’s surviving letters are sacred Scripture, the inspired Word of God.

We also find out that Paul has a coworker, Sosthenes—one of many people who collaborated with Paul.

2d, the addressees are identified in several ways. They are “the church of God which is in Corinth.” They are God’s church, his people, his assembly. But they aren’t the whole Church, only the part of it that’s in Corinth, a part related to a whole. It seems to me that we American Catholics need to remember this point. We belong to a universal Church, a Catholic Church. From a lot of the nonsense that you read in the papers or hear on TV, you’d think that the universal Church were oppressing us or that 2 men, the Pope and Cardinal Ratzinger, were tyrannizing over 52,000,000 American Catholics. The reality is, rather, that the universal Church, speaking through the Holy Father and his assistants, is reminding us that we are God’s people, not the lords of our own destiny; that we’re his universal people, and not just his American people.

Paul continues with that theme of connectedness or catholicity by sending his greetings not only to the Corinthian Church but to “all those, wherever they may be, who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:2). He must have supposed that other Christians from the area would read the letter as well as Christians passing through the city on business.

Paul further identifies his correspondents as men and women “consecrated in Christ Jesus and called to be a holy people.” All the Christians of Corinth have been consecrated and sanctified in Baptism. God has called all of them to lead holy lives, to be saints. And if Paul were to address us, my brothers and sisters, he would also address us as God’s holy people, consecrated in Christ Jesus and called to be saints.

Sometimes I’ve been around people and someone’s used a vulgar word or said something improper. Then realizing I’m there, he’s said, “Sorry, Father.” Now there’s nothing in the NT about priests or brothers or nuns being holier than any other Christian. Paul is reminding us that all of us are consecrated, sacred, holy; all of us deserve respect and consideration. If someone has to say, “Sorry, Father,” or “Sorry, Sister,” what he said was inappropriate for any Christian to hear—or to say. Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior of us all.

Finally, Paul gets to the greeting. In classical Greece, the normal salutation was χαίρε (chaire), literally “rejoice.” That’s what the angel Gabriel said to Mary, the word we usually translate as “Hail.”

But Paul’s Greek doesn’t say χαίρε. He uses a new, Christian greeting, more intense even than the typical Latin salve or salus, “good health.” He wishes the Corinthians “grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” This is the ultimate form of health, the ultimate cause for rejoicing. Paul invokes God’s favor and good will, as in that phrase we heard from the angels on Christmas Day, “Peace on earth to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14). It is God’s favor, his grace, that bestows forgiveness and peace upon us and makes us holy in his sight.

So we have in these 3 verses a miniature Gospel, a synthesis of Paul’s theology. And we begin to see how relevant his preaching remains today.

Grace and peace be with you!

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