Sunday, February 26, 2017

Homily for 8th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Homily for the
8th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Feb. 26, 2017
1 Cor 4: 1-5
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.

“Thus should one regard us:  as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor 4: 1).

The passage from 1 Corinthians that we read this evening/morning comes on the heels of last week’s passage, as well as earlier ones, in which Paul lamented that there were factions within the Church at Corinth.  Different groups proclaimed some sort of allegiance to various preachers and apostles, including Peter, Paul, and Apollos, while others said they belonged to Christ.

Sounds interesting, doesn’t it?  Wouldn’t we love to know a lot more about all that!  Can you imagine the tabloids in the supermarket checkout lanes?  But Scripture scholars and Church historians know precious little.  And it would be mostly beside the point, anyway, for our celebration of the sacred liturgy and taking home a message from the Word of God.

Paul, of course, isn’t happy about serious divisions or factions within the community.  Those are never good—whether the community is the body politic or the body ecclesiastic.  For the Church, Paul preaches unity based on Jesus Christ, even while the believers come from different social and national backgrounds (slave and free, Jew and Greek) and have different gifts or charisms within the community, and probably different preferences about some things.  There’d be nothing wrong, for instance, with preferring the preaching style of Paul to that of Peter, or Apollos to Paul, or Fr. Dave to Fr. Mike.

St. Paul Preaching at Athens, by Raphael
But the preacher or the apostle, Paul insists, must be a “servant of Christ and steward of the mysteries of God.”  This applies to Apollos, to Peter, to Paul himself.  And it must be apparent that it is so:  “thus should one regard us.”  This is how we should be seen.

Paul’s point remains absolutely valid today.  The preacher must preach Jesus Christ and not himself.  He must serve Jesus Christ and not himself.  He must seek to gather and safeguard disciples for Jesus and not his own little flock of devotees or fans.

What does it mean to be a “steward of the mysteries of God”?  A steward is a householder’s chief servant, like the butler in aristocratic households, or a great landlord’s estate manager, like the “dishonest steward” in Jesus’ parable (Luke 16:1-8).  He’s the President’s chief of staff—Leo McGarry in The West Wing or, in real life, Rahm Emanuel and 4 others under Obama.  (Pop quiz:  name them!)

So Paul teaches that the apostles and other preachers of the Gospel must be “stewards of the mysteries of God.”  The apostle or preacher doesn’t own the household or the mysteries.  He’s not really in charge.  He’s a caretaker and guardian.  He sees that the mysteries are available or accessible to the rest of the household, for which he’s responsible.  You may remember that Jesus speaks of “the faithful and prudent servant whom the master has put in charge of the household to distribute to them their food at the proper time” (Matt 24:45).  The steward sees that the proper rations assigned by the master are dispensed, and he must dispense them without diluting or substituting them.

The steward of the mysteries of God—Paul, Peter, or Apollos; John Paul, Benedict, or Francis; or any bishop, priest, catechist, Catholic school teacher, or Catholic parent—is a steward of the mysteries and has the responsibility before God of teaching and preaching and handing on “the mysteries of God”—not his own opinion or sentiments, but the apostolic faith received from Jesus Christ and preserved by Christ’s Church.

What are these “mysteries of God” or “divine mysteries”?  At the beginning of almost every Mass, we “prepare to celebrate the sacred mysteries.”  “The mysteries,” 1st of all, are the Eucharist and all that it contains or implies.  We can only begin to sum that up by professing that the Eucharist is the Body and Blood, soul and divinity of Christ our Savior; that it is the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross made present and effective for us; that it is the living Christ, triumphantly risen from the tomb and ascended bodily into heaven; that our sharing in the Eucharist is a sharing in the eternal life of Jesus Christ; that it is an anticipation of Christ’s return on the Last Day as universal king and judge.  We proclaim as “the mystery of faith”:  “your death, O Lord, and your resurrection until you come again,” or some variation of that liturgical text (you’ll find 3 forms in the missalette).

All that is what Paul means when he calls the apostles “stewards of the mysteries.”  But wait!  There’s more!  “The mysteries” include all the sacraments:  those visible, audible, physical signs that somehow—“mysteriously”—convey to us the spiritual life of God, the life of grace, the “mystery” of salvation.  Ordinary water can cleanse our body; sacramental water with the power of the Holy Spirit cleanses our souls.  Anointing with oil may perfume our bodies or have some physical restorative power; anointing with sacred oil heals our souls or thru the power of the Holy Spirit transforms a man into an alter Christus, “another Christ.”
Anointing the hands of a newly ordained priest with chrism
Finally, beyond the sacraments, “the divine mysteries” of which Paul speaks refers to everything that has to do with our relationship with God; e.g., that Christ has redeemed us thru his cross and resurrection; that Christ truly forgives our sins when we repent; that Christ has established the Church to continue his redemptive work thruout the world and thruout the ages; that God is 3 and God is 1, and God has called us to share in his Trinitarian life for all eternity; that the Bible is the unique, powerful Word of God addressed to us.

So far, I’ve spoken mainly of “us” in Paul’s text as referring to the apostles and other preachers of the Gospel.  But Paul’s addressing the whole Christian community at Corinth.  He’s been challenging all of them—as we’ve been hearing since Jan. 22—to separate themselves from the “wisdom” of this world or of the present age, and to cling to the wisdom of Jesus Christ, which Paul also calls the foolishness of Christ crucified (1:18-25).  We are all “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.”  We’re all responsible for holding, preserving, and passing on the Gospel of Jesus in its purity.

Today’s passage continues with a short discussion of conscience and our being under God’s judgment.  Suffice it to say for now that Christ will come as our final judge—“he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead” (Creed)—to judge our actions, our words, and our motives (4:5); that we must all form our consciences well in the light of Christ’s teachings in the Sacred Scriptures and Christ’s teachings mediated thru his Church, to which he gave the keys to the kingdom of heaven (cf. Matt 16:19); and that we must examine our consciences, not by what our friends and relatives or our enemies think of us, or how good we think we are—“I do not even pass judgment on myself,” Paul says (4:3)—but by the standards of Jesus Christ.  For several Sundays we’ve been listening to some of those standards in the Sermon on the Mount; we’ll hear more of those standards during the 40 days of Lent.

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