Sunday, October 26, 2014

Homily for 30th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Homily for the
30th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Oct. 26, 2014
1 Thess 1: 5-10
St. Ursula, Mt. Vernon

“You became imitators of us and of the Lord, receiving the word in great affliction, with joy from the Holy Spirit, so that you became a model for all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia” (1 Thess 1: 6-7).

We began reading 1 Thess last week, and so we know that the “us” and “we” of today’s reading are Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, who have brought the Gospel to Thessalonica.  Their preaching seems to have been very successful, and if Paul’s testimony in this passage is true, that success would seem to be in part because the missionaries have backed their preaching by their actions:  “You know what sort of people we were among you” (1:5), people worthy of imitation.

If the whole Church is missionary, as the 2d Vatican Council has reminded us, and Pope Francis has reminded us; if all of us are to be evangelizers of the people and the culture that we inhabit—then the 1st form of our preaching is necessarily our lifestyle, our example, and not our homilies, catechism lessons, radio programs, Facebook, etc.  Contrariwise, the scandalous lives and words of some Christians serve to drive some people out of the Church and to alienate some who weren’t believers to begin with.

St. Paul
St. Mary's Church,
Fredericksburg, Va.
Paul takes that role-modeling a step further:  “You became imitators of us and of the Lord.”  “The Lord” here refers to Jesus, whom every Christian is called to imitate, on whom every Christian is supposed to model himself or herself.  Paul is also saying that he and his collaborators are doing exactly that, so that by imitating them the believers at Thessalonica are at the same time imitating Jesus.

Isn’t that the way we’re all supposed to live, sisters (and brothers)?  to live so that people see Jesus in our actions and words, and are attracted to imitate those admirable actions and words?  In recent years, how many kids have wanted to be no. 2—not Avis, but Derek Jeter?  They pretend to hit like him, field like him, throw like him, and perhaps hope someday be a Yankee like him.  Shouldn’t young people look at their parents, their teachers, their church leaders, their coaches or Scouting leaders, and see role models whom they want to imitate and who are worthy of imitation?  If we don’t provide good models of Jesus and the saints for them, then we leave them only athletes and entertainers to look up to.

Paul says that the Thessalonians “received the word in great affliction, with joy in the Holy Spirit.”  That seems like something of a contradiction, affliction and joy both coming from the word—the word of the Gospel that Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy have preached.

How might God’s word afflict us?  By calling us to conversion!  Who finds change easy and welcome, especially moral change?  Even we who already profess to be Christians find it hard to shake off our sins, to renounce our vices.  Doesn’t the idea of going to confession, admitting our guilt out loud and committing ourselves to greater fidelity, afflict many of us, maybe most of us?

Secondarily, God’s word is a source of affliction for those who take it seriously because a serious Christian life is a sign of contradiction in the world.  We don’t feel at home in our contemporary culture, do we?  We’re afflicted, or conflicted.  We may feel pressured to conform; as kids may be pressured to engage in inappropriate behavior, so may adults be.

At the same time, the word of God gives us “joy from the Holy Spirit.”  We receive the word of forgiveness, of reconciliation with God, and of God’s offer of eternal life—all reasons for profound joy and peace of heart.

That kind of joy is contagious.  “You became a model for all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.”  By imitating Paul and his companions, by imitating Christ, by committing themselves to conversion of life and taking on the hostile world, the Christians of Thessalonica have themselves become models for other believers.  While Paul may be exaggerating to some extent about how far their fame has spread, still, it’s no little thing that all the local churches of mainland Greece, such as those at Philippi and Corinth, look up to them.

“From you the word of the Lord has sounded forth,” Paul continues (1:8).  Paul uses a word suggestive of a trumpet blaring out a regal command or a battle signal, something really noticeable, something one must pay attention to.  The Thessalonians haven’t kept their faith quietly to themselves, like the ill-fated servant in Jesus’ parable (Matt 25:14-30) who buried his master’s gold talent in the ground, carefully preserving it but also leaving it barren and useless.  Rather, they’ve let the whole world—at least the Christian portion of it—know that they’re disciples of Jesus Christ.

What that “sounding forth” entailed is a bit hard to say.  Did they send out missionaries?  Did they send messengers of fraternity to the other Christian communities?  Did they send financial assistance to the needy?  Were they outstanding hosts of travelers coming from the other churches on either ecclesiastical or personal business?

Whatever it was, “in every place your faith in God has gone forth” (1:8).  Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing if that could be said of us?  that everyone knows what committed and faithful Catholics we are, by our words and even more by our actions?  We might think now of some of the tributes paid to the late Fr. Benedict Groeschel not only for his TV appearances, his books,  his homilies, or his teaching but also for his work for and among the poorest people of our nation;
Fr. Ben Groeschel, St. Joseph's Seminary
April 22, 2009
or of the tributes paid to journalist Jim Foley, whom ISIS murdered in August and who was a very committed Catholic.  One of Foley’s peers wrote of him:  “Foley was a devout Christian who, unlike most journalists I've known during my almost four decades in the field, was unapologetic about his heart for social justice and the inspiration he found for his beliefs in the New Testament.”[1]

How does our faith go forth—to our children and grandchildren, the people we work with and socialize with, even our fellow parishioners?

Finally, Paul gives a bit, a tiny bit, of a summary of the Gospel that he preached in the middle of the 1st century:  “you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God and to await his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus, who delivers us from the coming wrath” (1:9-10).

There you have the conversion:  “turning from idols to serve the living and true God.”  In the case of the people of Thessalonica, there was a literal turning away from idols, the pagan gods of Greece, to serve the one and only God.  A lot of our contemporaries commit themselves to different sorts of idols, different false gods, that they serve ambitiously and enthusiastically.  Those gods include money, power, fame, and pleasure in many, many forms.  A lot of Christians serve those gods, too, and all of us pay them homage from time to time—those moments that we call “sin.”  Following Jesus means giving ourselves wholeheartedly—ambitiously and enthusiastically—to serving God alone; exactly as Jesus says in the gospel today (Matt 22:34-40).  Our conversion into Jesus’ disciples is an unending process of learning to do that, repenting of our slip-ups, starting again, doing our best to “love the Lord our God with all our heart” and to practice love of our neighbor.

All of which we do because we believe Jesus is risen, and we await his return, when he’ll lead his followers into eternal life, “delivering us from the coming wrath” of God’s judgment on unrepentant sinners (judgment that was illustrated in Jesus’ parable 2 weeks ago when a guest who refused to clothe himself in the repentance that opens up for us the banquet of heaven was thrown out of the feast).  That’s also why, like the Thessalonians, we evangelize, live the Gospel publicly—so that we may be models and our joyful good example may lead others toward eternal life with our Savior Jesus Christ.

An adapted version of this homily was delivered to the Ursuline nuns at their Willow Drive convent, Oct. 26, 2014.

        [1] David McKay Wilson, The (Westchester County, N.Y.) Journal News, Aug. 24, 2014, on-line.

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