Third Sunday in Ordinary Time – January 23, 2011 – St. John’s
During the first of the Sundays in Ordinary Time, as they are called, our second biblical reading will be taken from the first Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians. We heard the first verses of this letter last week when the Apostle spoke of the believers in Corinth as having already been sanctified, that is, made holy, and at the same time as “called to be holy.”
It may help us, as we listen to these snippets from this rather lengthy letter, to keep a couple of things in mind. First, when Paul refers to the Church there, he was referring to a rather small group, surely no more than five hundred all told, perhaps even fewer, which met, not in special buildings, but in private houses, so that any particular gathering of believers was almost certainly not as large as this one here this morning.
Second, as today’s reading already illustrates, this little community, founded perhaps four years earlier by Paul’s preaching, had many problems. If Paul could refer to them as “saints,” that is, as “holy ones,” he didn’t mean that they walked around with haloes over their heads, eyes piously turned toward Heaven. These were flesh-and-blood people, and Paul had to address various problems in their midst: divisions, a case of incest and other kinds of sexual immorality, taking legal problems to external courts, disagreements about what it was licit to eat, divisions between rich and poor affecting how they celebrated the eucharist, the place of women, rivalries about charismatic gifts, denial of the resurrection of the body. Quite a list! If you’re ever worried about the state of the Church today, keep in mind that it’s not the first time that we’ve been in difficulty.
The problem St. Paul addressed in today’s passage is one that we Catholics know today: divisions in the Church. The believers in Corinth were dividing up, some after Paul, some Apollos, some Cephas (Peter), some, perhaps tiring of it all, saying simply that they belong to Christ! We don’t know the precise grounds for these group-differences. In today’s Church, we hear of progressive Catholics and of traditionalist Catholics, of those who are all for the old liturgy and those for the new, those who appeal to Rome and the Pope, others who want a more American Church, those who follow one of the newer movements, others who are content with the old devotions. Some of these differences are relatively minor, and tolerable within a large-hearted Church, but sometimes they can be emphasized so much that it’s almost as if we were talking about different Churches, and we find Catholics speaking of other Catholics in rude and dismissive terms that they would never use if they were talking about third-parties. Sometimes it seems like we need an ecumenical movement among Catholics!
St. Paul’s response was to call the Corinthians back to basics by his rhetorical questions: “Has Christ been divided into parts? Was it Paul who was crucified for you? Was it in Paul’s name that you were baptized?” In other words, all of them had been baptized in Christ’s name, in the name of the one who had been crucified for them, so that they could not set themselves up in groups named after someone else. It was absurd that that little group of believers in Corinth should be divided when the whole reason for their being gathered as a community, as a Church, was because of what the one God had done for them all in Christ. Their unity in God’s love, in grace, in faith, should count for more than any other allegiance.
We Catholics today could take a lesson from the way in which the ecumenical movement has started to overcome some of the obstacles to Christian reunion. The first great step was to start the conversation with what we have in common with other Christians–the Orthodox, Anglicans, Protestants–and then, within a common acknowledgment of what unites us, to go on to discuss what divides us. Could we not try to do something similar with our fellow Catholics? The late Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago proposed something like that in the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, which had some success although it seems to have petered out of late. We should not let any other allegiance make us forget that Christ died for every one of us, and that makes everyone of us as worthy of love as those we agree with.
The Church, both in Paul’s time and in ours, has no unity except the unity of our faith, hope, and love–there is no Church apart from this unity. The eucharist is called the sacrament of unity, and at each Mass we ought to remind ourselves that everyone in the actual assembly needs, no less and no more than others, to be challenged and comforted by the same word of God, that no one of us is any more, nor any less, worthy of God’s love than any one else, that we have all been brought from the death of sin into the life of grace. A very early Christian hymn put in simply: as grains of wheat were gathered from the hillsides to make a single loaf of bread, so the Church is gathered from all of us and made one body in Christ. This is what we ought to be aware can happen at every Mass and does happen if we open our minds and hearts and let God bring it about.