I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I have learned a thing or two in my life. So here’s one: if anyone tells you that they have the secret to anything, please politely ignore them. It doesn’t matter what it is: the secret to love, the secret to investing, the secret to happiness, or the secret to writing a good homily. Despite the efforts of some to convince me that the secret to writing a good homily is to keep it under seven minutes, I’ll still insist that there has got to be more to it than that. Life is too complicated to have such simple answers to almost anything we do. Of course they never say “a secret.” No, you couldn’t sell many books that correctly indicated that, after reading them, there would still be a lot of other things you’d have to know and do to succeed at what you want to accomplish.
Jesus never offers us “the secret.” Even in today’s Gospel, He promises us a way out of darkness to a great light, and even then tells us to “repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.” But this is no special secret. The command to repent is replete throughout the Old Testament. And repent of what? That would be of sinning, going against God’s desire for us when he created us, but that, once again, is complicated. Four apostles answer the call to follow the Lord in today's Gospel, but answering the call is not the secret -- they will spend the next three years learning from Christ just what that really means, and even then The Acts of the Apostles contains numerous examples of where they continued to struggle and to learn more throughout their lives.
Paul in the second reading is dealing with the fallout that comes when people feel that they have figured out a secret, that they have a better understanding of what it means to be Christian than others. This breaking into factions is of course a phenomenon that affects all aspects of our life. Both major political parties in our country sell themselves as having the answers to our problems, but the truth is that there is wisdom on both sides of most issues. This is part of the beauty of the Church’s insistence that marriage be between a man and a woman; there is no doubt that decisions regarding family life and children are better when two different viewpoints are offered and compromise is lovingly achieved. Of course there are situations, such as the death of a spouse, where this is not possible and the single parent makes every effort to make wise decisions. But this is not the preferred solution, and does not take advantage of the wonderful diversity that God has created in people.
Paul was right to be concerned about factions, since it has continued throughout the history of the Church. It is easy to lament that our Protestant brothers and sisters have left the fold, but we have factions within our own Church. Often labeled as conservative Catholics or liberal Catholics, these labels are not very informative. I prefer to look at these and other factions as groups who have preferences on a wide range of activities about how our Church engages the modern societies and cultures in which it operates. And these preferences can be very strongly held because of the importance that our relationship with God has for us.
Paul is speaking to those in our Church who are constantly arguing about these various points and insisting that they know “the” correct answers. He is telling the Corinthians then, and us today, to avoid arguments and steer clear of affiliations but instead come together in Christ. We are members of the Catholic Church, and all of you know that the word Catholic means universal. We can all be a part of a diverse Christian community which celebrates that there are different ways to approach questions and reach all people. I’m not saying that there are not wrong answers to questions. If the Scriptures are clear on a point, then we must follow that teaching. Christ said that Moses allowed divorce, but He does not, then we have clear direction with more clearly defined boundaries. When Christ said at the Last Supper that, “This is my Body,” and, “Do this in memory of me,” we have clear direction and understanding. But the Church has always allowed discretion where possible, and has always taught that easy answers are not possible, especially in a rapidly changing world.
Paul’s lesson for the Corinthians is speaking to us today, and is as important now as it was then. We are all trying to determine how we should best follow Jesus Christ, and we should embrace the many diverse ways to doing so. Our Church is wonderfully diverse, and encompasses many different styles. If you like the Latin Mass, it’s there, but of course the vernacular form predominates. If you like charismatic speaking in tongues, the Church accepts this as well, but is equally prepared to welcome those who wish to pray in more traditional ways, such as using standard prayers in a predetermined structure such as the rosary or the novena. The spirituality of a philosophical writer such as the Trappist Father Thomas Merton I found uplifting, but it had the opposite effect on some of my classmates in diaconate formation. The Church, in her wisdom, keeps a central core of beliefs and practices which are not optional, so as to keep us all aligned on the ultimate goals: the worship of God, the making of disciples, and the spread of the teachings of Christ to love God and one another and all that this entails. Beyond that central core, we should allow for differences. There is much too much finger pointing. I have seen too many factions on the web who want to blame all of the Church’s problems on this group or that way of thinking. Please do not be a part of this.
At the end of the day, we must acknowledge our human frailty. Time and time again, Jesus rebukes the scribes and the Pharisees for presuming to understand what God wanted and their obsession on outward rites of observance over inward piety and change of heart. The law is important – Christ said clearly that he was not here to overturn it – but the fundamental law is to love God and to love one another as ourselves. Petty spats and scapegoating are not in accordance with our Christian mandate. They drive away people from the Church, instead of doing what Christ demanded of us: to make disciples of all people. In his first letter, Saint Peter counsels us: “clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for 'God opposes the proud but bestows favor on the humble.” So humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time.” (1Peter 5:5b-7).
As we continue with the Eucharist, let us come together to be what Christ intended, the communion of all into one community. Let us be respectful, acknowledging that although we have strong preferences for what is important to us, others were made, by God, differently and have equally strong preferences which may contrast with our experiences and traditions. We honor God when we humbly praise the diversity which God has created in our world. We must love God and love what He created. Christ called Simon, Andrew, James and John in the Gospel today to follow him. He calls us today to do the same, in the way that our bishop has adopted as his motto: “walk humbly with your God.”