Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – July 4, 2010 – St. John’s, Goshen
We heard as our second reading today the last five verses of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. This is the toughest, most uncompromising, most passionate, of the Apostle’s letters. It was written to communities that he had founded by his preaching and that he felt were at risk of falling away from the gospel he had preached. A group of Jewish Christians had come from Jerusalem and were urging the largely Gentile Christians of Galatia to start following Jewish practices. Paul is very harsh in his condemnation of such people and such ideas, which were undoing the message that a right relationship with God was not a matter of ethnic identity and its practices, but had been won at the cost of Christ’s death and was assured by his resurrection. “I am amazed,” he wrote, “that you are so soon deserting him who called you in accord with his gracious design in Christ, and are going over to another gospel. But there is no other. Some who wish to alter the gospel of Christ must have confused you. For even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel not in accord with the one we delivered to you, let a curse be upon him. I repeat what I have just said: if anyone preaches a gospel to you other than the one you received, let a curse be upon him! (Gal 1:6-9) He even allows himself the hope that those who were trying to restore circumcision would “go the whole way and castrate themselves” (Gal. 5:12)!
That passion remains right down to the end of the letter. The verse just before the ones we heard today has a last reference to the people who were insisting on the necessity of circumcision even for Christians. The Apostle once more is forceful as he presents the necessary alternative: “God forbid that I should boast in anything other than in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom the world is crucified to me and I to the world.” He sets the cross of Christ, and his resurrection, in opposition to any effort to boast about a relationship with God on the basis of ethnic identity or of religious rituals. We are so used to the cross as a symbol of our religion that we may neglect what a shocking symbol it is. Crucifixion was the horrible form of execution, reserved for the worst of criminals and for revolutionaries. To appeal to a cross would be the equivalent of seeing an electric chair as the focusing symbol of a place of worship, or seeing a hangman’s noose prominent in the church of African-Americans. And yet faith in the resurrection of Christ had already transformed this symbol of agonized death into such a symbol of life that Paul could say that it was his only boast.
But now Paul not only reminds the Galatians of the sole ground of any boasting, but associates himself with it: Paul, too, must undergo the same experience as Christ, being crucified to the world, and the world to him. “World” here means in particular the world human beings have made: the ordinary human world of achievement and failure, of taken-for-granted meanings and values, the cultural and social world. All of that must be re-evaluated and re-interpreted in the light of the cross. In baptism, St. Paul said elsewhere, the Christian dies with Christ and rises with him to a new life. Here Paul calls that life “a new creation,” a new beginning, entrance into a new and truer world, the world of meanings and values opened up for those who are not ashamed or hesitant to boast in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I chose to concentrate on this text rather than on the Gospel because I think that at times we are tempted to look elsewhere for our Christian and Catholic identity. We Catholics have many practices, many traditions, many doctrines, many laws. We engage in many important tasks in the world, particularly in today’s world the defense of human life from conception to natural death and efforts toward justice and peace. But, important as these practices, traditions, doctrines, laws, engagements are, it is not in them that our religion centers, not upon them that it is built, not they that are our boast. Our relationship with God as Catholic Christians is grounded in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; it is a relationship with God that Christ’s sacrifice has made possible, in a new and vibrant life that is our share in his victory over death. All of those other aspects or dimensions of our Christian life in the end derive their meaning from the work of Christ.
I heard recently people speak about the need for the Church, for us, to get our “Big Story” across. Christ is our Big Story. He is the answer we should give if anyone asks us why we are Christians, why we are Catholics. I am a Christian, I am a Catholic, we ought to be able to respond, because I believe that in Christ God has reconciled the world, has reconciled us, to himself, because to be a Christian, to be a Catholic, is to live in the world enabled and illumined by Christ’s death and resurrection. I am a Christian, I am a Catholic, because I believe that this is the only true world, the world that God created, the world that Christ redeemed, the world that the Holy Spirit enlivens. That’s why I am a Christian–because of Jesus Christ.