October 10, 2010
The Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity
In September I started a little series on why we should attend church. We took a brief hiatus, so today we will visit this again. This time, we shall bounce around many examples, as opposed to the one or two that I did in the previous two sermons on the topic. As I mentioned before, this is as much for our people here today as it is for those who read my sermons online.
In March of this year, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York gave a similar sermon that had some interesting points. As an example, he stated that “Anybody 50 or older can remember when faithful attendance at Sunday Mass was the norm for all Catholics. To miss Sunday Eucharist, unless you were sick, was simply unheard of. To be a "practicing Catholic" meant you were at Mass every Sunday. Over 75 percent of Catholics went to Mass every Sunday.”
This is a very true statement. There was a time when if you missed Mass, or going to church in general, it was considered a grave sin. Society today does not view it this way today. The “rules” haven’t changed; just people’s views of them. Sunday was developed as the Christian answer to the Holy Sabbath. As most of us here know, God gave a commandment to keep the Sabbath holy and to do nothing work related on those days. Sad to say, that we have let this fall by the way side. Many people not only work on this day, but ignore God’s desire for us to spend it with him.
The fourth commandment of the law that God gave Moses, was to set aside the seventh day of the week, which happens to be Saturday on our calendars, as a holy day to the Lord. "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy", as it states in the book of Exodus. This was, and will always remain, the official Sabbath. However, after Jesus rose from the dead on the first day of the week, Sunday, the early Christians began meeting together on this day as well as with the Jewish community in the synagogues on the Sabbath. History indicates that due to the enmity of the orthodox Jews toward the Christian Jews in their midst, the Jewish Christians were eventually ostracized. And although they were no longer bound to a rigid code of laws, it is believed that they came to view Sunday as a combined observance of the Sabbath and the resurrection day of Jesus. This day of Christian worship came to be called the Lord's Day, a day to fellowship in celebration of the resurrection, to worship, pray and study the Word together.
The Fourth Commandment and the Sabbath is not all about not working. Jesus made that clear to the Pharisees when they questioned why he allowed his Disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath. The Sabbath was made for mankind, not mankind for the Sabbath. Yes, God wanted us to take a day of rest, as it were, but he also wanted us to take time to spend with him. Whether that be in quiet reflection or in a joyful worship service. He wants us to remember first and foremost that we are his creation and we have an obligation to him as our creator. All that we have and do is because he allows it. As Timothy Dolan also said, “If you want your faith to wither up and die, quit going to Sunday Mass. As the body will die without food, the soul will expire without nourishment. That sustenance comes at the Sunday Eucharist.”
He further states, “In recapturing our sense of Sunday, of the Christian Sabbath, it is important to grasp this key point, that the Sabbath rest is our liberation from the profane and our encounter with the sacred. The Sabbath is not rest so that we can work harder.” By profane he is using the word in its correct definition of taking something sacred and treating it with irreverence.
Archbishop Dolan continues asking us to listen to Rabbi Heschel: "The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life. Man is not a beast of burden, and the Sabbath is not for the purpose of enhancing the efficiency of his work... The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of the Sabbath. It is not an interlude, but the climax of living."
“The idea of the Sabbath making present the covenant, reminds us Catholics immediately of the [importance of the] Mass. In the Mass, the one sacrifice of Calvary, the new covenant ratified in the Blood of the Lord Jesus, is made present anew. It is not another sacrifice, but the one sacrifice of the Cross. It is not repeated, as though Christ were being crucified again, but rather made present to us across time and space.”
“The heart of Sunday must be the Mass! How could it be anything else? The Mass is nothing else but the supreme work of the Lord Jesus, and nothing else will do to mark the Lord's day, the day of salvation, the day of the Church!”
When we think about it, these are all very good points that Archbishop Dolan makes. There are always those who simply do not go to church because they would rather do something else, or are too lazy, or put other things such as entertainment and amusements before God, or who harbor bitterness or indifference toward other believers. None of which are good reasons to not come to church and worship God. Some would say that they can worship God anywhere. Not so! That is simply a lazy cop-out! When you attempt to do this, there are too many distractions to take your mind off of God. Here at church, the distractions are actually of God. When one simply looks around, you see nothing except that which reminds you of God and your need to worship him and be replenished with the Word of God and the Holy Eucharist.
The Gospel of Matthew (10:32-33) indicates Jesus telling his followers that they should gather together in mutual belief of God. Going to church is a visible, tangible expression of our love and worship toward God. It is where we can gather with other believers to publicly bear witness of our faith and trust in God, something that is required of all Christians and it is where we can bring Him offerings of praise, thanks, and honor, which are pleasing to Him. We were created to worship God. People are often motivated toward church attendance for how it will bless themselves, however we should remember that the primary purpose of the corporate gathering is to bring "service" to the Lord as a blessing to Him. This is the reality of why we were created by God.
Receiving the preaching and teaching of the Word of God increases our faith and builds us up spiritually. Every believer knows what it is to face spiritual conflicts to their faith, and must realize the importance of being fed spiritually so that they can overcome the challenges. Paul states that Christians face a wrestling match with the Devil and his evil spiritual forces, and warns that the church must put on spiritual armor for protection, as it will take everything at our disposal to stand. It is thus so important that we take every opportunity available to receive ministry, and be strengthened by God's Word and the Body and Blood of our Lord in the Eucharist each Sunday. "So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God". So, you should go to church because that is where you can hear the word of God explained and applied to your life, see how God works in people's lives, and experience the friendship of others.
There is the promise of a special visitation of the Lord's presence whenever two or more gather specifically in the name of Jesus. By implication, this means whenever "Jesus" is the object of gatherings of prayer, worship, praise, preaching, etcetera. Even though Jesus resides within the heart of every believer, he honors a gathering in his name by coming in the "midst," with his power, awareness, and anointing. In such a gathering, Christ is able to do things in hearts that he may not at any other time. The scripture says that God inhabits the praise of His people, and in such an atmosphere the Holy Spirit will often manifest spiritual gifts that minister to the body of Christ. "For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them" (Matt. 18:20).
We are also called to gather at church due to the various gifts we have that can benefit the common good. I Corinthians 12 makes it clear that God has given spiritual gifts to every Christian. And verse 7 states unmistakably that these abilities are not provided to make you feel good; they are abilities to minister to those around us, and thus should be used for the common good! I Peter 4:10 commands us to use spiritual gifts to help each other.
Paul explains that each part of the body exists to meet the needs of other body parts. In the same way, God intends each of us to meet the needs of other believers, using our strengths to help in their areas of weakness. In Corinthians it says "The eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of you." Neither can a Christian claim to be self-sufficient today. Soaking God up at the beach just does not cut it.
The New Testament is full of “one another” commands. We are to comfort one another, build up one another, confess our sins to one another, pray for one another, and many more. How can we obey these directives if we stay away from the gathering of believers? A single verse should actually be sufficient answer for this question: Hebrews 10:25 warns its readers against “forsaking the assembly of yourselves together, as the manner of some.
God designed the church as a place where spiritual leaders could watch out for our welfare, as a shepherd guards the sheep (I Peter 5:1-4; Hebrews 13:17). A Christian who answers only to himself can easily rationalize sinful attitudes or actions; regular contact with other Christians can keep us sharp.
And what about faith?
St. James tells us, “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead”. We have often heard James’ teaching put this way: faith without works is dead. Or in other words, faith is exercised in our daily lives or it is no faith at all. These views of James are not bad or incorrect. However, they narrow the scope of what I believe is James’ original, much broader, point. His message touches every corner of our lives each moment of every day.
Since the Reformation and the Reformers’ emphasis upon salvation by faith alone, theologians and preachers have tossed this passage back and forth in arguments about the role of works in our salvation. This passage is a favorite among those who remind us of our Christian duty to relieve the suffering of the poor and the oppressed. Some argue that we are saved by faith alone. However, when we state this, we have forgotten that Jesus himself stated the need to put faith together with action. When did we feed him, clothe him or visit him in prison, and the many other things we could do for one of the people of God. (Matthew 25)
Writers and commentators often use the term “faith” to mean the opinions individuals hold. In today’s multicultural, increasingly secular world, it is especially the case that faith is understood to be the purely subjective beliefs that an individual may hold or reject for his or her own private reasons. There is great cultural pressure to treat these beliefs as private, that is, to keep them to ourselves. It is considered intolerant to impose our faith upon others, since faith has come to be defined as my purely subjective opinions, and we believe that everyone has a right to his or her own opinion.
This all sounds very civilized until we look seriously at what Jesus and St. James teaches us. Faith involves actions or it is no faith at all. Being a Christian is not just about the ideas we hold to be true. Nor is Christian faith merely a credo of good works based on a theory of social justice or moral conduct. First and foremost, Christianity is about following Jesus Christ with our whole mind, heart, body, will, imagination, time, and substance. We believe ideas and thus model our behavior according to certain patterns because we trust and follow Jesus Christ. We can’t keep our faith to ourselves. To be faithful is to have an impact on the world around us!
Faith is not a set of opinions that we can just keep to ourselves. Faith is the posture we take toward our neighbors and our world as an expression of our relationship with God. To put this in a slightly different way, faith is how we engage the world we inhabit as people who follow Jesus Christ into that world.
So what does exercising our faith look like? We might speak about our moral life, the place of Christian study, the importance of committing ourselves to a ministry within the church, evangelism, outreach, and tithing. But let’s begin at the beginning: our devotional life. The Christian life begins in prayerful response to God’s loving initiative toward us. Worshipping our Lord is an act of surrender. We give ourselves back to the one who has given himself utterly to us.
So how do we put our faith to work? How about weekly worship with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Daily personal prayer devotions at set times. Make a date with God to give thanks, ask forgiveness, seek guidance, intercede for others, and above all, give our Lord praise. Daily devotional Bible reading. Saying the blessing before every meal, even when out in public. Spontaneous silent prayers during the day in response to events around us or thoughts as they occur to us. Maybe attend the Confirmation Classes taking place after Mass currently.
Much more can be said about each of these dimensions of our devotional lives. An exercise will only have its most positive effects if it becomes a daily habit.
What about those who say they are “‘Spiritual’ but not ‘religious’.” If there were a church of the Spiritual but not Religious, it would be one of the fastest growing denominations available. But, what does it mean?
We live in a culture and society that tells us we should think for ourselves. We live in the United States, after all, so we are taught that one of our freedoms is to think and do what we want. People who call themselves ‘spiritual but not religious’ are simply saying that they think for themselves, and will not usually accept anything anyone else says as being true.
So, when they reject “organized religion”, they think they are rejecting having someone tell them to believe in a different way or act in a different way. They think that being a part of “organized religion” somehow takes some of their freedom away to think for themselves and believe what they want. They apparently haven’t visited our church, in which we allow people to think for themselves, as long as they respect each other’s views and are open to the Holy Spirit working through the pastor to communicate God’s word that may be different from their own!
However, how can you come to a belief if you do not allow yourself to be informed of various views, studies and facts? How can you think about something that you have not allowed yourself to be informed of? We all give a great deal of credit to science, because we feel it can be proven or has been proven. Little do we know that science is a “study” of something in physical reality. Science is not a perfect answer; it is a study of something. I do not hear people saying they are scientists, but they don’t believe in organized science. It would be illogical to make such a statement, because it is well known that we must share scientific facts to find answers to that which we are studying.
Just as science is the method by which we seek the truth in the physical realm, religion is the method we use to explore the spiritual realm. That is why we exercise our faith, by being a part of “organized religion” because it is in this capacity that we have the ability to investigate the spiritual realm that we know exists, but are unsure as to exactly how. Religion, or Church, gives us the freedom to explore the reality of God.
So, as I conclude this series, let us ask ourselves if we need the church; if we need to go there to be fed. We go to grocery stores to buy nourishment and other daily necessities for life. If we did not do so, we would eventually die. Our spiritual life needs to be fed too. We need to allow ourselves to be re-nourished with the word of God and the worship of God. When we are feeling down and out, sick or simply unworthy, those are the times that we need to go to church the most. If we do not take action, how can we expect God to? I am sure you have all heard the phrase, “even a miracle needs a hand”. That is because God wants our involvement, not just bland unexercised belief.
Jesus Christ mandated that the Church become a reality when he stated that St. Peter would be the rock upon which he would build his Church. Jesus knew all too well, that we need some ‘physical’ form to help us in our faith. Jesus knew that we needed priests and ministers to act as his agents to help us stay on the path toward him and to ensure we lived a life in promise to each other. When we miss an opportunity to go to church, we not only miss an opportunity for ourselves, but also an opportunity to build up one another and most importantly, to be in the presence of God more fully than we can do on our own!
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.