Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time – October 2, 2011 – St. John’s
The passage we heard as our second reading today comes from near the end of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians. My seminary biblical professor once said that he thought that this letter displays a greater affection between St. Paul and the community at Philippi than is visible in any of the letters he wrote to other communities. Perhaps it is because Paul was writing this letter from prison, where the possibility of his death was, as we learned two weeks ago, very real, and he found himself torn between wishing to be with the Lord and staying in order to be of service to his people.
The letter begins with this expression of love: “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always, in every prayer of mine for you all, making my prayer with joy, thankful for your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now…. God is my witness how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.” In what reads as a kind of last will and testament, he exhorts the Philippians to “let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ”; he is particularly insistent that they foster unity among themselves, and he gives a first list of what he wishes to see in them: “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” His exhortation to humility and selflessness he buttresses by quoting the early Christian hymn that we heard last week: of how the one who was in the form of God emptied himself and took on our form and became obedient even unto death on a cross and was exalted by God above all things so that we may proclaim with all creation, “Jesus Christ is Lord.”
We heard today a second list of what Paul would like to see in his people: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” It is a list of qualities that would have been familiar to people of the time, the kinds of things that philosophers of the time would have urged and defended. It is not specifically Christian, but describes what a good human life must be like. In reading it, I was reminded of talks we sometimes heard in the seminary, about cultivating what were called the “natural virtues.” They were called that in distinction from such supernatural virtues as faith, hope and love. Fervent religious life was not to be purchased at the price of neglect of the cardinal virtues of temperance, prudence, courage, and justice or of such “ordinary” virtues as consideration, courtesy, politeness, generosity, magnanimity, etc. A Christian should not be a thug.
Both lists occur in this one epistle: the virtues that focus on communion in the life of Christ and the unity of mind and heart in which it should result, and the virtues of a genuinely human life. I wonder if we Catholics today don’t need to hear this message as much as St. Paul thought the Philippians needed to hear it. I think that the life of the Catholic Church would be greatly improved today if both sets of virtues were cultivated more eagerly. There is so much polarization in the Church. I take part in an online discussion that mostly involves Catholics, and it is sad to see how quickly and how easily a discussion can deteriorate into a dialogue of the deaf, with lots of people speaking, even shouting, and few seeming to listen. Implied, and sometimes explicit, name-calling can occur: one group is to the other a bunch of “fundamentalists”; to the other group their opponents are “heretics.” We seem so far from “the same mind, the same love” Paul wanted to see among the Philippians. Even the common graciousness, sense of honor, devotion to truth that he wanted them to display is often lacking. Simple courtesy seems impossible.
“Consider these things,” St. Paul wrote: “consider these things.” Well, perhaps we should consider these things. We could start by remembering how much we have in common: fellowship, communion, in the Gospel and in the Spirit. Making our Church a more human Church is also part of living a life worthy of the Gospel. And let us not think that this is a challenge that affects only other people. It is our responsibility, too; we are, after all, the Church in this area, and so we are the ones who determine how well the face of Christ is reflected in the Church here and now.