Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time Cycle A
Isaiah 22:15, 19-23; Romans 11:33-36; Matthew 16:13-20
One of my favorite authors is GK Chesterton. He was an English intellectual who was raised in a home that was nominally Unitarian but did not actively practice any faith. His wife brought him back to the Church of England, the Anglicans, but as he reflected more and more on his faith, he felt that it was what he called a “pale imitation” of the Roman Catholic Church, and so when he was about 50 he joined into full communion with our faith. He wrote a number of books on all aspects of Christianity, and even his fiction works, such as the Father Brown murder mysteries, are full of wonderful reflections about our faith and its role in modern society. One of his more famous quotes is a good starting point for a lesson that we hear in today’s readings. He wrote: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” [ What’s Wrong With the World, Pt. 1 Ch. V, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1717/1717-h/1717-h.htm ]
This topic, the idea that most people don’t really try it, has been on my mind lately. During my mom’s funeral, I looked about the church and noticed how many of my relatives were no longer active members of the church, even though they had all been brought up in the church as children. And I’m not the only one – I hear this again and again at various events we have here at Saint James from parishioners that are sorry that their kids and grandkids have fallen away from the church. And the excuses that one hears for why people do not attend church regularly make us want to say to them that they never even tried to make it work in their lives. To paraphrase Chesterton, it wasn’t found wanting, it was found inconvenient.
I think we can draw some consolation and some instruction from Saint Paul. Today’s second reading is the conclusion of a section that we’ve been reading from for several Sundays from his letter to the Romans, chapters nine through eleven. If you remember from those readings over the last two Sundays, Paul has been sharing his incredible sadness that most of the Jewish people have not come over to Christianity. He has seen quite a bit of success with the Gentiles, but he and the other apostles have not seen nearly as much success with the Jewish people. Now you have to remember that Paul was a Jew himself until he was called on the road to Damascus, and so to see so many of his close friends and fellow members of the Chosen People failing to follow The Way, the path to salvation that Jesus of Nazareth has given primarily for their benefit has been an extreme cause of sorrow and distress for him. Why, oh why, don’t they see what I see, feel what I feel? I think we can all relate to that.
The reasons why so many people have drifted away from the Church seem to me to be of two general categories. The first one is that the Church has not lived up to its own ideals, Christ's teachings. And of course refuting this is difficult, because it is unfortunately true. We see this in the Gospel today. Saint Peter is given the keys to head the Church of Christ because of his great faith, but if our reading had continued just three more verses, we would have heard Jesus say to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” [Matthew 16:23b NABRE]. Our first pope does a face plant within minutes of being given the role of leader and praised for his faith.
The answer to this objection is that Jesus knew that a Church formed by humans would be subject to human weaknesses and problems. Yet still he created it, and his creation has lasted 2,000 years, despite all of the humans running it, some admittedly terrible, the vast majority simply subject to human error and weakness and, yes, sin. So are all other organizations that are formed by humans on this earth, from the simple nuclear family to the local sports teams to the schools to the government, just to mention a few. We must not give up on anyone or anything that we love, and the Church should be one of those. So this objection is weak, and generally is a cover for the real reason, the second objection: I want a church that agrees with my idea of what a church should be.
This would be great if you think about it. I would like to join the Church of Tim Papa. It would be a wonderful church. I will pick out all the things from the bible that I like, skim past those I don’t like, and just do that. The problem with this is that it is not Christianity. Christianity means following the teaching of Christ – all of them. And there are a lot of teachings in the New Testament. It just seems too hard. It is much easier to just skip it all, claim one is moral enough, and sleep in on Sunday.
So what is the solution? Saint Paul told us last week that he believes that the Jews, looking at the great gift of Christianity given to the Gentiles, would become jealous and want to be a part of this great movement. For that reason, he tells us today about “the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!” [Romans 11:33a]. I think Paul is speaking to us here today as well as the Roman Christians of the First Century. We all know that lectures and attempts to guilt people into coming to church don’t work. And yet people yearn for what a church can offer, as much today in our modern society as in Paul's day. Epidemic drug use, suicide, seemingly endless mass shootings and hate crimes – they all point to a need for God in the lives of people, to give them purpose and love that they lack, even if they don’t realize it.
So how best to apply Paul’s advice? He hoped that the Jews would see what they were missing, become jealous, and want to be a part of it themselves. So the natural questions are: do we indeed get joy out of our Christian faith, and if so how do we show that joy to others? Paul talks a lot about how Jews had fallen into a ritual observation of the law, doing all of the 613 rules that are laid out in the Torah, but not fulfilling the spirit of them. The law was there to help us to orient ourselves towards God and so God gave it to them not because he wanted them to obey, but because he wanted them to be God-like and share in the bounty of the world he created. Many Jews of Paul’s time didn’t get it, and so many people today still fall into that same misunderstanding. Joy is not found in the activities in life, nor is it found in knowledge. It is found in relationship only, the relationship we have with God and with the creatures that God has made. If we are not a church where this relationship is found, we are nothing.
Let us try to live up to the faith of Saints Peter and Paul and bring the joy of God to our own lives and thereby show all around us that joy. We will at times fail, as Saint Peter did, as Saint Paul did. But we have our Church to help us get back on track, reorient towards God, and find joy in life – a joy that this world pretends to offer but always come up short, but that God never does, if we only really try it with true faith.
As we continue with the Mass, let God’s great gift of the Eucharist give us the grace we need to be joyful and show that joy to others. Let us proclaim to everyone that we know the truth proclaimed by Saint Augustine, whose feast day is tomorrow, when he wrote in his autobiography: Our heart is restless, O Lord, until it rests in you. To paraphrase GK Chesterton once again, the truth of Saint Augustine's words is not in dispute, or rather it is disputed only by those that have never really tried to live their lives by that truth.