The Stuff that Works – Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Lectionary: 73

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, proclaiming the mystery of God, I did not come with sublimity of words or of wisdom. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling, and my message and my proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of Spirit and power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God. 1 COR 2:1-5

My friend, Deacon Leroy Behnke, frequently reminds us that one of the greatest beauties of our faith is that this is “the stuff that works.” The moral laws and guidelines, the natural order explicitly and implicitly defined, the religious practices and habits, the reality and consequences of sin – they are not arbitrary expressions of an omnipotent God who hated bacon in the old testament, and wants to make our sex life boring in the 21st century; they are an expression of what brings us life and joy, and what leads to death and destruction in this universe God creates and populates with the people he loves. I see this in Paul’s message to the Corinthians.

Paul tried rhetoric. He went to the Areopagus, where he engaged in debate with those present. He presented inculturated theological and philosophical arguments, applying his prodigious intellect and education to persuasion. It wasn’t incredibly effective, since not many wise or learned people are called, and ‘when they heard about resurrection of the dead, some began to scoff, but others said, “We should like to hear you on this some other time.’ And so Paul left them. But some did join him, and became believers.” (Acts 17:32-34)

Did Paul learn from his mistake? Why the shift in style?

I think this is another case of “the stuff that works.” Jesus sent his disciples out (Luke 10:4) without purse, sandals, swords, or staves, and then again (Luke 22:35-38) with instructions to take with them all those staples of travel. That doesn’t mean Jesus changed his mind about swords or extra shoes, but rather that he was giving the best advice for the mission at hand.

Saint John Chrysostom (d. 407 AD), in reflecting upon this passage, and addressing those of us who do not simply dismiss the record of miracles as mere fables, says

But some one may say perhaps, “If the Gospel is to prevail and hath no need of words, lest the Cross be made of none effect; for what reason are signs withholden now?”

How then, you will say, is it that signs were expedient then, and now inexpedient?

And that this is the truth, hear what He saith unto Thomas (St. John 20:29) “Blessed are they who have not seen, and yet have believed.” Therefore, in proportion to the evidence wherewith the miracle is set forth is the reward of faith lessened.

Saint Chrysostom proposes that miracles are not prevalent now, because their brute persuasive force is overwhelming, and robs us of the opportunity to freely exercise faith. Again, signs, miracles, and simple words in one context, and persuasive arguments in another. Do the stuff that works.

Saint Augustine, in meditating upon this fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel, has a similar thought

It is wont to perplex many persons, Dearly beloved, that our Lord Jesus Christ in His Evangelical Sermon, after He had first said, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven;” said afterwards, “Take heed that ye do not your righteousness before men to be seen of them.”

But he who is of a right understanding, fulfills both, and will obey in both the Universal Lord of all, who would not condemn the slothful servant, if he commanded those things which could by no means be done.

The very words of the Gospel carry with them their own explanation; nor do they shut the mouths of those who hunger, seeing they feed the hearts of them that knock.

The intention of a man’s heart, its direction and its aim, is what is to be regarded. For if he who wishes his good works to be seen of men, sets before men his own glory and advantage, and seeks for this in the sight of men, he does not fulfill either of those precepts which the Lord has given as touching this matter; because He has at once looked to “doing his righteousness before men to be seen of them;” and his light has not so shined before men that they should see his good works, and glorify His Father which is in heaven. It was himself he wished to be glorified, not God; he sought his own advantage, and loved not the Lord’s will.

Do the stuff that works, and do so from the perspective of a heart seeking the glory of God.

By no means am I suggesting we should abandon the absolute truths of the Gospel, or the Christian praxis that has proven reliable for almost two thousand years, but part of living out our Christian witness is doing the stuff that works. A hallmark of living things is our constant state of change. The church, the body of Christ, and the Church (one, holy, catholic, apostolic) are living, and also in constant change. I wonder if we tend to fall into camps inclined to either cling too tightly to the stuff that worked, or to cling too tightly to the idea of change for change’s sake. Perhaps we should cling to the stuff that works, and the God who ordered the universe so, whether that is ancient tradition, or modern innovation.

On another note, I was terrified and yet somehow comforted to read this as I continued to consider Saint Chrysostom’s words…

Why then do not all believe now? Because things have degenerated: and for this we are to blame.

For, “Let your light so shine before men,” saith He, “that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” (St. Matt. 5:16) And, “They were all of one heart and one soul, neither said any man that aught of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had all things common; and distribution was made unto every man, according as he had need.”; (Acts 4:32, 35) and they lived an angelic life. And if the same were done now, we should convert the whole world, even without miracles.

But we are desirous of enjoying great luxury, and rest, and ease; not so they: they cried aloud, “Even unto the present hour we both hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwelling place. (1 Cor. 4:11) And some ran from Jerusalem unto Illyricum, (Rom. 15:19) and another unto the country of the Indians, and another unto that of the Moors, and this to one part of the world, that to another. Whereas we have not the courage to depart even out of our own country; but seek for luxurious living and splendid houses and all other superfluities.

Chrysostom went to be with the Lord one thousand, six hundred and ten years ago, and he bemoaned the degradation of faith and commitment from the days of his ancestors. We’ve certainly fallen even further in the intervening 1600 years, and yet the faith marches on, the church endures, and people are still converted to Christ.

The recipe is the same now as it was in the days of Isaiah, and of Christ, and of Paul, and of Chrysostom, and it does not require, or even necessarily benefit us to speak eloquently or perform miracles, but rather consists in finding a need, and meeting it. Rarely, we’re called to greatness, but always we are called to simple (albeit difficult) things: share our bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless, clothe the naked, satisfy the afflicted, remove oppression, false witness, and malicious speech, and do so with the sincere desire of witnessing to God’s love.

This is the stuff that works.

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