HOMILY, Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time
February 8, 2015
Fr. Charlie Fox, Spiritual Director, St. Paul Street Evangelization (www.streetevangelization.com)
The Greatest Story Ever
I hope that each of you has had the chance, at one point or another, to meet someone who was a really gifted storyteller. Every family, office, and pretty much every group of any kind should come equipped with one. Some cultures hold storytelling in especially high regard. The Irish, for example, give their best storytellers the title seanchaí (SHAWN-uh-key), which basically means “storyteller”, but is a special title reserved for those trained and gifted in the art of Irish-style storytelling.
This gift of good storytelling is the result of several talents blending together harmoniously in one person: a strong speaking voice, a certain “stage presence”, an ability to emphasize and deemphasize just the right points, and a flair for the dramatic. Perhaps the talent that impresses me the most in a really gifted storyteller, however, is his or her ability to weave together just the right content in each story. A good storyteller knows just what to say and in what order to say it, including many details other people would never have thought of in the first place, yet makes sure to keep the story going through the main points of its plot without getting bogged-down, all leading up to a satisfying finish that neither comes too early nor too late.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that the reason He has come to us is to preach the Gospel. Saint Paul tells us in today’s Second Reading that he has a duty to preach the Gospel, and adds, “Woe to me if I do not preach it!” What does it mean to preach the Gospel? Among other ways we could describe this preaching, it means telling the story of Jesus—what one movie calls “The Greatest Story Ever Told”.
Saint Paul makes it clear that our storytelling is not for the sake of entertainment. In lots of traditional cultures, storytelling has been a way to pass down vital information about God, about what it means to be human, about the meaning of life, and about religion, culture, and family. Telling the story of Jesus is about all of these things and more. Remember that the name of Jesus means “God saves” (Matthew 1:21). To tell the story of Jesus, then, is to tell the story of God, the story of those He came to save—us—and to tell the story of how this all works in our lives.
Now, we aren’t all going to have all the talents of a great storyteller. We need to pray to the Holy Spirit for whatever gifts God wishes to give us, with confidence that He does want to give us gifts and that whatever He gives or holds back from us fit exactly with His plan. There are no accidents with God.
No matter what other gifts God gives us, though, one tool we can all cultivate in ourselves is knowledge of the content of the story, at least in its basics. I said earlier that I am always impressed at how a good storyteller knows just what to say when telling a story. I’m impressed because when I try to tell a story I tend to miss important details, or to have only a vague sense of what to say in my mind, when what’s needed is a concrete and vivid description. Many people can be kind of foggy in this way when they’re telling a story, and this certainly happens a lot when it comes to the story of Jesus. We have a general sense that Christ loves us and that we are to love Him, that being close to Jesus is important for going to heaven, and that there are certain terrible things people can do to break-off their relationship with Jesus. Beyond that, the details can get pretty sketchy for a lot of Catholics, let alone for other people.
So what are the basic building blocks of the story of Jesus? What are the key points that St. Paul shared with the people of his day, and that we are called to share with people today? Here is a version of the Gospel in seven simple points:
1. GOD CREATED EACH OF US, THE UNIVERSE, AND EVERYTHING IN IT OUT OF LOVE. We are not accidents! When we consider the beauty and order of creation—from the incredible pictures we see of outer space to the wonders of the way our bodies work—it just doesn’t make sense to say that this is all the product of purposeless processes with no higher power making it all and making it all work. Even our desire to understand creation is due to the fact that our Creator has planted this desire in our hearts. Science has lots of wonderful things to say about how the world works, but we need to look elsewhere to find the answer to the question why. God has revealed to us that He exists as three Persons in one God, and that this one God “is love” (I John 4:8). He created the universe from nothing, and humanity is the crowning achievement of God’s visible creation. Unfortunately, we haven’t always acted like it.
2. SIN INFECTS THE WORLD. DEATH IS THE CONSEQUENCE OF SIN. The British Catholic author G.K. Chesterton once described the problem of sin in the world as a truth “as plain as potatoes.” When we look at the world around us and, frankly, when we look inside of our hearts, we know that things are not the way they ought to be. There is evil in the world, and each of our hearts is infected with some measure of evil desire. We believe in two kinds of sin: Original Sin, a condition of sin we all inherit from our first parents, who made the first break from God; and personal sins, the sins each of us commits. It was not God’s plan for us to die, but through sin we have said “no” to His plan for us, and set for ourselves a course for death and even hell, eternal separation from God.
3. WE CANNOT SOLVE THE PROBLEMS OF SIN AND DEATH OURSELVES. Like a child who breaks something valuable and tries to fix it with Elmer’s Glue, we simply don’t have the power to fix what we’ve broken through sin. We need to be rescued, or death is our only possible destiny. In the meantime, while life has certain joys, apart from God it is most often a drudgery at best, and at worst can lead us to despair. Today’s First Reading from the Book of Job captures this plight powerfully when Job says, “Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery?” and then, “My life is like the wind; I shall not see happiness again.” Any one of us could say those words truthfully if we had been left to ourselves to recover from the wounds of sin.
4. GOD HAS COME TO THE RESCUE…AND THEN SOME! God has not left us to recover from the wounds of sin on our own. In His unfathomable love for us, He has sent His only Son to become one of us (cf. John 3:16). Jesus has come, in the words of St. Athanasius, to become human, so that humans could become divine. In other words, Jesus does more than restore us to what we were before the Fall of Adam and Eve. In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus saves us from condemnation and wins for us a life beyond anything we could have imagined. He offers us the power to become like Him, to share in His life forever.
5. WHAT GOD HAS DONE IN JESUS, HE HAS DONE ONCE AND FOR ALL. St. Peter says in the Acts of the Apostles, “There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved” (4:12). Any person who is saved from sin and death, without exception, is saved by Jesus Christ. Only Jesus is the perfect bridge between divinity and humanity, since He is both God and man. Even in the case of someone being saved without explicitly believing in Jesus, that person must somehow implicitly say “yes” to God with all his heart, without being at fault for his ignorance of Jesus or for staying outside of His Church. In such a case (whatever the probability of such a case is), that person is saved by Jesus, the one Savior of the world.
6. GOD’S “ONCE AND FOR ALL” RESCUE STRETCHES ACROSS TIME AND SPACE IN THE LIFE OF HIS CHURCH. God “wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2:4). And so Christ established the Church, calling Peter “the rock” upon whom He would build His Church (Matthew 16:18) and telling His first apostles to “proclaim the Gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15), to baptize and teach God’s commandments (Matthew 28:19-20), to celebrate the Eucharist (Luke 22:19), and that the Eucharist would bring to the baptized the gift of eternal life (John 6:54-55). Every gift God wants to give His people, He offers in and through His Catholic Church, united under Peter, our pope. And for 2000 years the Church has been working to distribute the gifts of God to every corner of the globe, beginning with those first apostles.
7. “WHAT MUST I DO TO BE SAVED?” (Acts 16:30)—“REPENT AND BE BAPTIZED” (Acts 2:38). Salvation is a gift, not something we earn. But as with any gift, we need to be receptive and make good use of what we’ve been given, with a spirit of gratitude. God is calling each of us to turn our lives over to Him. Each of us is called to repent of our sins, to believe in Jesus Christ, and to become united to Him through the Sacrament of Baptism. Baptism makes us members of God’s family in the Church, and then we are called to live as a family, in union with Christ and with each other. We do this especially at Mass and in the celebration of the other sacraments, in prayer, in works of charity, and in sharing our faith with others. Jesus came so that we might “have life, and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).
This is the story of Jesus, and it is our story as well. It is truly the greatest story ever told. Each of us needs to learn this story and pray for the grace and courage to share it with others. God is calling us to communicate His love to them, so that they might become part of this great story themselves. Let’s pray for these graces, and for all those who don’t fully know God’s love, as we offer the Sacrament of God’s love—the Body and Blood of Jesus—in this Mass.