14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Preached at Assumption Parish in Bellingham, WA
[Nótese Bien: No hubo misa en español esta semana, así que no hay traducción al español.]
Last week, one of our parishioners sent me a beautiful e-mail about a recent homily of mine, with the following, slightly modified, quote: “[Your homily made] me feel as if I should simply hang it up, quit pretending to be a Christian and drop out, because I will never, ever, be able to come even close to living the sort of life you’re telling us we must lead. […] [It made] it sound impossible for a cynical, selfish person such as I to make the grade. Talk about depressing!”
It sounds negative when I quote it out of context, but this e-mail was truly very supportive. Taken with the rest of the e-mail, I was deeply moved and honored by this person’s reflection. Here is someone who is authentically seeking Jesus and who is confronting the fact that following the Lord is hard, certainly too hard for any of us flawed and broken humans. I feel compelled to quote this person because how many of us have felt exactly the same way? How many of us hear the commands of the Lord, hear the call to Christian perfection, and think that such a life is impossible for us? How could we not think that?
Enter our second reading, which is worth exploring line-by-line.
St. Paul begins, “Brothers and sisters: You are not in the flesh; on the contrary, you are in the spirit[…]”
Now, it is important that we do not read St. Paul through a gnostic lens that believes that body and soul are separate entities only temporarily linked to each other. Orthodox Christianity has always held that body and spirit were created together and will exist together for all eternity. Instead, St. Paul is referencing the idea that we humans are born into a world corrupted by sin and dominated by death, a world he refers to as the world of the “flesh.” But Jesus, through his Resurrection, inaugurated a new world of holiness and life, which St. Paul refers to as the world of the spirit. Both words have bodies and souls, both worlds exist side by side until the second coming of the Lord. But St. Paul wants us to remember that our primary identity is in the world of resurrection, not the world of death; in the spirit and not in the flesh.
St. Paul continues in our reading: “you are in the spirit if only the Spirit of God dwells in you. Whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.”
The Spirit of God certainly dwells in us. It was promised to us at Baptism and was sealed by the sacrament of Confirmation. We cannot be sacramentally joined to Christ, as we Christians have been, without in turn receiving his Spirit. Unfortunately, even after baptism, we retain the freedom to reject our baptism and the Spirit of God given to us. If we do this, we reject the Spirit of Christ and we no longer belong to him.
Next, St. Paul says: “If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit that dwells in you.”
I find this part incredibly consoling. The Spirit of God will give life to our mortal bodies also. Even though we feel caught between the world of the flesh and the world of the spirit, the Spirit of God can animate both. We are not alone in our struggle against our old, fallen nature, because the Spirit of God can purify even that.
St. Paul concludes: “Consequently, brothers and sisters, we are not debtors to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
Here we return to the themes of the e-mail. The reason that we all, at some point, feel overwhelmed by the demands of the Christian life, by the demands of the life of the spirit, is because we feel like we are alone in the struggle, because we feel like the entire burden falls exclusively on our shoulders. This is what St. Paul refers to as living according to the flesh. Living according to the flesh does not just mean giving in to the sins of our fallen nature; it also means relying only on the powers and efforts of our fallen nature. And if we live according to the flesh, we will die.
BUT, if we live by the Spirit, we will live. Why? Because living by the spirit means not just following the commands of God, but it also means relying on the efforts and the power of the Spirit of God dwelling in us. It is, in fact, God himself who fight the fight, God himself who wins the victory, God himself who brings us to life. We can do nothing life-giving apart from the Spirit of God.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, what are we to make of the Lord’s exclamation in the Gospel today? “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to little ones.”
The wise and the learned rely on their own efforts; they are living according to the flesh. The little ones, however, those who realize that they are powerless on their own, they live by the spirit and rely on the Spirit of God. This is why they and they alone are privy to the mysteries of God.
It remains absolutely true that, for us, authentic Christianity is impossibly hard and that all of us ought to “hang it up, quit pretending to be a Christian and drop out.” But, we easily forget that Christianity is not our burden. Christ is the one who brings about the Kingdom, in us and in the world. Christ is the one who wins the victory, in, through, and despite his followers. Christianity is impossibly hard for us, but it is not impossibly hard for him.
And this is where we find our rest. We find our rest by abandoning ourselves to the Spirit of God. By giving God the power and the space to do his work. If we labor and are burdened, we must give our labors and our burdens to him. If we carry a yoke, we must place that yoke on him.
As Christians, we have one and only one responsibility: to try to grow closer to God every day. If we do that, the Spirit of God dwelling in us will take care of the rest.