HOMILY, Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time
February 1, 2015
Fr. Charlie Fox, Spiritual Director, St. Paul Street Evangelization (www.streetevangelization.com)
Why should I believe the Church?
When I was a boy, probably around 12 years-old, my Grandpa Murphy gave me my first copy of the Baltimore Catechism. Those of you who are “of a certain vintage” will remember that the Baltimore Catechism was a book published by the bishops of the United States and summarized in a very clear question-and-answer format the teachings of the Catholic Church. My grandpa’s own summary of why the Catechism was important was this: that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that Christ Himself established the Church, and that the Catholic Church teaches with the authority of Jesus. No matter how much I have studied theology over the years, I always come back to those basic truths and have never found a good reason to doubt them.
These days, when we follow media coverage of the Church, or discuss the Catholic faith with others, we can’t help but notice that people spend a lot of time talking about certain “hot-button” issues. These issues come up again and again, in governmental debates, in courtrooms, in the news, at the office, and even with Uncle Larry at the family barbeque.
We can probably all immediately think of particular examples of these issues, but they tend to be about the Church’s teachings on things like the sanctity of human life, marriage and human sexuality, the relationship between Church and state or between the Catholic faith and other religions, and the priesthood and the sacraments.
A big part of the difficulty here is that there are lots of people who oppose Church teaching not because they are truly hostile to the Church, but because they don’t fully understand the Catholic faith. And if we are honest with ourselves, most of us would have to admit that we are not always well-equipped to give good, persuasive answers to the questions and challenges people have.
There can be lots of reasons for our struggle to explain and defend our faith, but one reason for our difficulty is that we have a tendency to look at the Catholic faith in the same way the media looks at it—treating these issues as if they were totally separate from one another. As an antidote to this piecemeal approach, today’s readings help us stop putting the cart before the horse, to begin at the beginning, and to fix our attention on the source and center of our faith: The Lord Jesus, and His teaching authority as the Son of God.
The coming of Jesus was prophesied in today’s first reading by Moses, who said that the Lord would “raise up for you” a prophet who would speak the words of God, and that those who do not listen to the words of the prophet would be held accountable by God Himself.
Jesus, of course, not only delivers God’s words, but actually is the Word of God in human flesh. In other words, Jesus not only delivers the message, He is the message. Twice in today’s Gospel the people were struck powerfully by the teaching of Jesus, and said that He taught with authority. And we should understand that in the original Greek “authority” means that Jesus shares in the very being of God the Father and speaks with God’s authority. The Gospel says that the people were “astonished” and “amazed” as Jesus acted on that authority, teaching and casting the demon out of the possessed man.
And just after Jesus frees the possessed man, the people ask a very powerful question, one that we would do well to consider ourselves: “What is this?” It can be very easy for us to take Jesus for granted. But again and again we need to consider the basic and fundamental questions of our faith, to consider them carefully and to pray about them.
When we take these questions to God in prayer, we will begin to see more clearly the truth about God, about ourselves, about the Church and the world we live in, and why all these truths are connected.
As Catholics, we need to be very clear about Who Jesus is, and what He teaches, and how He acts both in Scripture and in the Church. We don’t need to know everything, but we have to begin by knowing the basics clearly, believing in them firmly, and sharing them enthusiastically.
We need to see the ways Jesus teaches and acts in the Church today, and to understand that although the Church’s leaders and members are imperfect people, the Church herself is made perfect by Jesus and shares in His divine authority, an authority so obvious to the people in today’s Gospel.
The Church exists to do the work of Jesus: to preach the Gospel, to fight against the forces of evil, to heal the sick and help the poor and to work for that justice and peace that only Christ can give. We do this when we uphold and defend the faith of the Church—always in a spirit of love—wherever our faith is challenged, whether it is at the highest levels of government or by Uncle Larry at the family barbeque.
In doing so, we need to put first things first, to begin at the beginning. Only then will we understand where all of these teachings come from, how they are connected, and how the teaching authority of the Church comes from Jesus Himself. As the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, in a text which also happens to be the episcopal motto of our archbishop, we need to “keep our eyes fixed on Jesus” (12:2). We need to see Jesus present and acting in His Church, so that we can be faithful and sure guides, pointing others to Him Who is our salvation. We need to bring others to the One Whom we worship at this Mass, Who has died and risen and given us His Body and Blood. We need to bring others to the One Who teaches us the truth about Who God is and Who we are, Who empowers us to become holy as He is holy, all so that we “might have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).
[Pictured: Illuminated manuscript in the Romanesque style from a Book of the Gospels, c. 1220]