2d Sunday of Lent
March 12, 2017
2 Tim 1: 8b-10
Gen 12: 1-4
Matt 17: 1-9
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.
“Beloved: Bear your share of hardship for the Gospel with the strength that comes from God” (2 Tim 1: 8).
In the wonderful musical Camelot, Lancelot du Lac arrives at the court of King Arthur as an incredibly proud knight, boasting in the song “C’est Moi” not only of his physical courage and prowess but also of his moral purity: “Had I been made the partner of Eve we’d be in Eden still.”
Lancelot didn’t prove to be as pure as he boasted. By the story’s end, he’s entered an adulterous relationship with Queen Guenevere and helped destroy the “most congenial spot for happily-ever-aftering that was known as Camelot.”
In Christianity there’s a long history of self-reliance, of believing that we can be so good that God must reward us with heaven. That actually isn’t so different from what Jesus’ foes in the Gospels believed: perfect observance of the Torah was what made people pleasing to God, and less observant mankind—including all of the Gentile world—was doomed. It’s not so different today from what’s known as the “prosperity Gospel,” which preaches that if you live a virtuous life God will make sure you prosper even in a material sense. And from a belief in one’s own virtue, it’s not a far stretch to think, as many do today both inside and outside the Church, that we’re entitled to define what is virtue, what is morally good, regardless of what the sacred Scriptures or the Church may teach.
Jesus had a hard time with the self-described virtuous (or righteous). Instead, he welcomed and forgave sinners. He offered grace, i.e., God’s pardon and eternal life, not as something earned by the practice of virtue but as God’s freely given gift.
Who hasn’t sinned? Who has kept God’s law perfectly? We know very well the answers to those questions. St. Paul speaks to us today of relying on the strength of God and not on our own strength. Our own strength is no more powerful against our sinful inclinations and the baneful influences of the world than Lancelot’s strength was.
Recall last weekend’s readings. Had we been in Adam’s or Eve’s place in Eden, how would we have responded to the tempter’s appeal to our pride and self-esteem? Had we been with Jesus when the devil came to him in the desert, would we have whispered to Jesus: “Yes, Lord, do it! I’m hungry! Let the world see how much God loves you! Think of all the good you could do if you ruled the world! And you can just be pretending to worship Satan. You know he’s the father of lies, so you can lie back to him. What’s a little white lie, anyway?”
Instead, St. Paul reminds his faithful disciple and helper Timothy, “God saved us and called us to a holy life, not according to our works” (1:9). God has called us for holiness, but that holiness isn’t the fruit of our own good deeds or virtuous actions. On our own, we’re a bunch of Lancelots.
If God were to call you the way he called Abram in today’s 1st reading—“Leave your father’s house and your kin, leave your homeland, pack up your immediate household, your tents, and your flocks, and move to a new land that you’ve never seen, among other tribes and nations whom you don’t know” (cf. Gen 12:1)—would you do it? No road map, no GPS, no compass; no texting, no telephone, no mail; only some word-of-mouth knowledge about where you’re heading. Would the virtues of obedience and trust be strong in you?
Even priests and religious struggle with that kind of directive sometimes when their bishop or provincial superior tells them to pack up and move to a new assignment.
The Lord's Agony
We can imagine that Jesus struggled with his “assignment.” At his transfiguration (Matt 17:1-9), he conversed with Moses, the giver of the Law, and Elijah, Israel’s 1st great prophet. What did they converse about? I’m sure it wasn’t the weather, the stock market, or the Cubs. Immediately after the vision experience, Jesus charges his 3 favored apostles, “Don’t tell anyone about the vision until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead” (17:9), which strongly suggests that Moses, Elijah, and he had been conversing about his “assignment,” his fulfilling the Law and the prophets thru his approaching passion, death, and resurrection. In fact, in his account of the transfiguration, St. Luke says that is what they talked about.
To go thru with that, Jesus certainly needed “the strength that comes from God,” from his Father in heaven. If you doubt that, re-read the Gospels about the agony he suffered in the Garden of Gethsemane, when there was still time for him to run away, or even—as he says to Peter while he’s being arrested—time for him to “call upon my Father and he will provide me at this moment with more than 12 legions of angels” (Matt 26:53) to protect him from the malice of the Romans, the Jewish leaders, and the devil.
So, assuredly, we need God’s help to live holy lives. God has called every one of us to holiness. That call doesn’t depend upon our own goodness, our own virtue, but only on “God’s own design and the grace bestowed on us in Christ Jesus before time began” (2 Tim 1:9). God has had a plan for your holiness and mine forever, even before he created the universe! His plan doesn’t depend on our goodness but only on “the appearance of our Savior Jesus Christ, who destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light thru the Gospel” (1:10).
Sometimes it’s hard to live a holy life. You know that, even if God doesn’t give you a dramatic call like he did to Abram, or if he doesn’t knock you on your tail like did to St. Paul when Paul was persecuting the Church. Sometimes it’s hard to be truthful, to be faithful to our spouse, to work diligently, to be patient with people, to follow the Church’s moral teachings on sexuality, human life, and biotechnology, to spend a little time every day in prayer or Scripture reading, to be known among your co-workers or fellow students as a Catholic. “Beloved: bear your share of hardship for the Gospel with the strength that comes from God.” We need God’s strength to be faithful. With his strength we can be faithful. With his strength we can live the holy lives to which he has called us. His holy ones will enjoy eternal life because Jesus has “destroyed death and brought life and immortality”—as a gift to us from God, who called us because he loves us and wants us to be with him.