Saturday, July 5, 2008

Beginning the Pauline Year

(14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, A)

Last week the universal Church began the year of St. Paul, a celebration of the bimillenium of the birth of this great apostle to the nations. That is to say that for the next twelve months, until the feast of Ss. Peter and Paul next year, we are celebrating the 2000th anniversary of Paul’s birth.

Paul’s influence on our faith is incalculable. Apart from Jesus, Paul is the only person in the New Testament that we really know anything about in terms of personal history. The Pauline epistles, written either by Paul himself or his disciples, associates, or those inspired by him, actually make up the majority of the New Testament.

And yet, I think we don’t often hear about Paul’s teaching at the Sunday Eucharist. I guess that this is at least partly due to the way the readings are arranged for us in the lectionary. In these weeks of Ordinary Time we read continuously in one of the Gospels. This year, of course, we have been reading along in Matthew. The first reading is then selected to match with the Gospel, showing the hidden presence of hoped for Christ in the Old Testament. For example, in the Gospel today Jesus speaks about how God passes over those who are clever and learned by the world’s standards and reveals himself to those who receive him simply like “little ones.” To complement this, in the first reading we hear the prophecy of Zechariah, who looked forward to the Messiah who would arrive like a “little one,” seated on a donkey. And we know well that this prophecy was fulfilled by Jesus in the humble arrival at Jerusalem we celebrate each Palm Sunday.

The second reading, however, at least in these Sundays of Ordinary Time, proceeds on its own cycle and isn’t necessarily related to the Gospel or the Old Testament reading. So, I think that faced with a beautiful Gospel and an Old Testament related to it, preachers often concentrate on those, and leave the second reading alone. But it’s in the second reading that we hear St. Paul. So, in celebration of the opening of the year of St. Paul, and because we are in the midst of Paul’s beautiful and deep letter to the Romans, I want to preach a little on St. Paul.

In the selection we have from Romans today, we hear Paul setting up the classic device of “there are two kinds of people in this world.” There are those who live according to the flesh and those who live according to the Spirit. Now here we have to be very careful. By “flesh” and “Spirit” Paul is not talking about two parts of ourselves, like our soul and our body. Instead, he is talking about two spheres of influence or two centers of spiritual power which are in constant competition for our attention, allegiance, and obedience.

The flesh is that center of power which is set against God. It is everything out there in the world—and in our own hearts—that is selfish, that puts us and the welfare of our own bodies, communities, and nation ahead of the good of all. It is the culture of violence that believes in retaliation, preemptive war, and puts convenience ahead of the sanctity of life. The glittering promises of this arrogant world of the flesh are all around us. We see them everyday in the world’s advertisements, for example.

But to follow this selfish world that Paul calls the flesh leads only to misery and meaninglessness. That’s the mystery of Jesus’ own words that the one who seeks to save his own life will lose it. Paradoxically, concentrating only on ourselves—whether it be me, my community, or my country—leads to unhappiness. And just as a life lived “in the flesh” has the proximate result of misery, depression, and isolation in this world, so Paul tells us that it terminates in eternal death.

The other option, Paul tells us, is a life lived “in the Spirit.” What is this Spirit? Paul tells us: it is “the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead.” Think about that for a moment and notice how amazing it is! The exact same Spirit which effected the Resurrection of Christ is available to you and to me. Because of the humanity that we share with Christ we are linked with him and the same Power that raised him from the dead lives in us. This is the meaning of our Baptism, by which we are baptized into the dying and rising of Christ. It is the meaning of the Eucharist, by which we become the Body of Christ we receive. As the great mystic of the Dominican Order, Meister Eckhart said, the difference between physical food and spiritual food is that the physical food we eat becomes us, but when we eat spiritual food—as in the Eucharist—we become it. That’s why we’re here at the Eucharist: to be transformed into the Body of Christ risen from the dead and the place where the Spirit lives in the world.

Thus, to live in the Spirit is the opposite of living in the flesh because the Spirit teaches us how to let go of our addiction to selfishness, how to let go of the tyranny of thinking only of ourselves or only of our families, communities, and nation. Paul says that just as the Spirit raised Jesus from the dead, the same Spirit living in us—if we allow it—will raise our “mortal bodies also.” This means that here and now the Spirit of God can lift us up from whatever holds us down—whether it be sin or selfishness, anxiety or depression. To live in the Spirit is to be free and at peace, knowing that God is with us. It also means that those who live in the Spirit, because they are already lifted up in the Resurrection of Christ, have their eternal destiny in that same Resurrection. There they live forever as those who were willing to become the self-sacrificing Body of Christ on earth and that now lives forever with God in heaven.

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