THIRD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR – JANUARY 26, 1992 – BLESSED SACRAMENT
We have a tendency, I think, as we listen to the readings from St. Paul’s Epistles, to idealize the churches to which he addressed them. To idealize them, first, by thinking of them somewhat abstractly, apart from the women and men who composed them and from the specific conditions of their common life; and to idealize them also by imagining that they were perfect embodiments of what churches should be, so close were they to the founding events of Christianity and watched over so carefully by the Apostle himself.
If there was one of Paul’s churches which should not be idealized in either way it was the church he had founded at Corinth. He had preached the Gospel there only a couple of years previous to this first letter to them. The letter was a reply to one which they had sent to him and also a response to problems about which Paul had been told by some who had visited Corinth. The central sections of Paul’s letter of reply address a series of major problems which had been drawn to the Apostle’s attention: the community was dividing into factions claiming different apostolic authority or exalting their own spiritual excellence; there was a case of incest in the community; members were dragging one another into secular law-courts; there was evidence of sexual license and of divorce; master-slave relations were in trouble; controversies had arisen over eating food sacrificed to idols; there were problems with regard to the liturgy: about proper dress there, about divisions between rich and poor; certain dramatic charisms were being overstressed and causing confusion; some people were denying the reality of the resurrection. This was not a perfect community! Catholics today who are troubled by changes and confusions in the Church in the decades since the Council can perhaps take some consolation from the fact that many of these problems existed within twenty-five years of the death and resurrection of Christ and right under Paul’s watchful eye.
The readings we heard last week and today address one of those problems: how to judge and reconcile the variety of spiritual gifts existing in the church-community. Last week we heard Paul’s basic statement that both the variety of gifts and ministries and the unity of their origin in God were to be fully respected. All had received various gifts, but these gifts came from the one Lord and they were to serve the good of the one Body, the Church. In today’s reading Paul develops this argument by an appeal to an ancient comparison of a social body to a person’s physical body. Our bodies have different organs and members, developed for different purposes, and the health of the whole body requires that each of of these members and organs perform the function for which they were designed. They need one another; they depend on one another; and care of one is care of all, because all the functions are needed for the one Body in which they subsist to be healthy. When one is ailing, they all ail; when one is healthy, they all benefit.
Paul is clearly addressing a situation in which some of the Corinthians were exalting their own gifts and disparaging the gifts others had received. They were isolating their own talents and interests out from those of others and from those of the whole community. They had lost a sense of their common life as one Body, and of their interdependence. And in these verses, and the chapters that surround them Paul begged the Corinthians to recognize that they were together the very Body of Christ, interdependent members of one another, needing one another. He was asking them to recover a sense of that unity, to that sense of oneness we feel in our physical bodies when if one member suffers, all suffer, if one member is honored, all the members rejoice.
Surely this is a word still valuable for the Church to hear. Many of us remember when our Church was known and experienced for its unity, but this is, as I appreciate each year more as my students get younger and younger, something that a whole generation of Catholics has not experienced and known. What has happened in our Church since Vatican II in many respects has been a needed reaction to a uniformity and clericalism that did not sufficiently reflect the variety of gifts Paul should have taught us to expect and welcome in the Church. But, on the other hand, who would deny that many developments have also led to rivalries and dissensions within the Church that are not dissimilar to those at Corinth! Many Catholics find it easier to speak courteously and charitably with non-Catholics or even with unbelievers than they do with their fellow Catholics. We seem to have much less of a sense of our community, so intent are we on pushing our own agendas, whether in liturgy or in doctrine or in social action. Fr. Avery Dulles spoke about this last Friday night in a talk at the Paulist seminary.
To appeal to us all to reflect on Paul’s message today is not an appeal to return to a sterile uniformity nor is it a denial that the Church faces real problems about which Catholics do differ and for which solutions are not always easy. But it is crucial to recognize that they are differences within the one Body, and that the health of the whole Church should be our chief concern, for we only exist as Christians within this one Body of the Church. This requires us regularly to recall to ourselves how much we have in common, and especially the common blessing we all share in that we have all been called out of a common sinfulness into the reconciled community of God’s love that is the Church. Were we to reflect on this more, perhaps we would more easily find words to reconcile rather than to alienate, to enlighten rather than to confuse, to foster a co-operative search for solutions rather than to pursue our jealously guarded ideas and plans. We live by a common life, which God has freely given us individually and together. Let us treasure it together and individually and make our own the lessons the Apostle sent not only to Corinthians, but to us too.