The Twenty-Third Sunday after Trinity
(I Thessalonians 5:16-27, [John 12:44-50])
Religious books are big business. In the United States, sales revenue has recently been around $500 million per year.
About 50 million religious books are sold each year, both fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary. But with so many books to choose from, how do you know which ones have value? Which ones are bad, which ones are good and which ones are great? What would you say is the best Christian book of all time?
Now, although the Bible is still the all-time biggest seller in books overall, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship tried to figure this out a few years ago. Their Emerging Scholars Network had a "Best Christian Book of All Time Tournament," and the final four turned out to be:
The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis.
Confessions by Saint Augustine.
Let’s look at Lewis' book.
Mere Christianity was published for the first time 65 years ago, in 1952. Oddly enough, it wasn't even written as a book. During the darkest days of World War II, Lewis prepared four sets of radio talks on basic Christianity, and these evolved into the book Mere Christianity. Since 1952, the book's popularity has grown, and between 2001 and 2016, it sold 3.5 million copies in English alone. On top of this, it has been translated into at least 36 languages.
So why is Mere Christianity one of the best Christian books of all time? According to church historian George Marsden, Lewis "was determined to present only the timeless truths of Christianity rather than the latest theological or cultural fashions." The book is his attempt to explain and defend "the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times."
Timeless truths. Basic beliefs. Common convictions. Mere Christianity.
In his first letter to the Thessalonians, the apostle Paul is trying to do the same.
He is determined to present timeless truths, and to explain and defend the common ground of the Christian faith. Paul is not interested in creating a distinctively Thessalonian Christian; instead, he wants to help people to be merely Christian. He knows that such Christians will be "sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ."
So what are the timeless truths that Paul presents? He begins with three imperatives: "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances." Such orders strike us as odd and out-of-touch with the painful realities of our lives -- illnesses, breakups, failures and job losses. We would understand if Paul said "rejoice often" ... "pray regularly" ... and "give thanks whenever good things happen." But instead he says that we are to rejoice, pray and give thanks constantly, without regard to the difficulties of our lives. Seems like a perfect reading for the week of Thanksgiving!
Paul takes this tack because he is focused much more on God and on Jesus than he is on himself. His eyes are on the culture of heaven, not on the ways of the world. Rejoicing, praying and giving thanks are important because they are "the will of God in Christ Jesus for you," Paul says. Since there is nothing or no one more important than "God in Christ Jesus," and nothing more true than the facts that "God in Christ Jesus" has created us and redeemed us, then following the guidance "God in Christ Jesus" is at the very center of the Christian life.
In Mere Christianity, Lewis offers a similar perspective. He stands aside and points toward God rather than toward himself. He doesn't say "look at me," notes Marsden, but instead he says "look at that." Lewis guides us from unbelief to faith, pointing to "the time-tested beauty of God's love in Jesus Christ."
By opening ourselves to God's love in Jesus, we are able to love one another. By trusting God to be at work in every situation, we are able to "rejoice always, pray without ceasing [and] give thanks in all circumstances." All of this comes from God, who instills in us the ability to love and rejoice and pray and give thanks. "When you teach a child writing," says Lewis, "you hold its hand while it forms the letters: that is, it forms the letters because you are forming them." The same is true for God -- we love because God loves, and God "holds our hand while we do it."
Being focused more on God and Jesus than on ourselves, and trusting God to work through us -- that's the first step in being "merely" Christian. It requires leaning more on divine power than on human power, more on the Lord than on ourselves. "Give up yourself," writes Lewis, "and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favorite wishes every day ... and you will find eternal life." As Jesus himself said, "Those who lose their life for my sake will find it" (Matthew 10:39).
The next timeless truth Paul gives concerns Christian behavior: "Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil." A person who is "merely" Christian is open to the power of the Spirit of God, blowing where it will and doing the work of transformation. Lewis is clear that "becoming Christian isn't an improvement but a transformation, like a [regular] horse becoming a Pegasus."
Sometime back, in the magazine Leadership Journal, Gordon MacDonald wrote an article on "How to spot a transformed Christian." These folks don't look different from the general population, but they do have characteristics that are signs of inner changes. One of the most important is a passion for reconciliation.
"They bring people together," writes MacDonald. "They hate war, violence, contentiousness, division caused by race, economics, gender and ideology. They believe that being peaceable and making peace trumps all other efforts in one's lifetime."
Transformed Christians "do not despise the words of prophets" - prophets such as Zechariah, who says, "These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another, render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace" (8:16). Transformed Christians follow the apostle Paul in holding fast to what is good and abstaining from evil.
On campuses across the United States, the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship is stressing racial reconciliation in large-group meetings for praise and worship, small-group Bible studies and summer camps for leader training. Their focus is not on political correctness, but on the words of the Bible. Leaders point to Jesus' prayer in John 17 that his followers would all be one, and to the description in Ephesians 2 of Christ breaking down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile.
People who are "merely" Christian tend to behave in a particular way. Instead of quenching the Spirit, they let it fill them and transform them. Rather than tumbling into evil, they hold fast to what is good. Listening to the words of the prophets, they work for peace and reconciliation. All of this prepares them well for "the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ."
The Advent season is right around the corner and there is no better time to focus on the coming of Jesus. His arrival at Christmas gives us a chance to "rejoice always, pray without ceasing [and] give thanks in all circumstances." His life of love and service shows us how to "hold fast to what is good [and] abstain from every form of evil." Best of all, we don't have to do this by our own power, because the God "who calls [us] is faithful, and he will do this."
With the help of God, we can be "merely" Christian. And that's the best type of Christian to be.
Let us pray.
That the Church will stand before the world without stain or blemish, always staying holy and obedient to God’s word. We pray to the Lord. (Lord hear our prayer.)
That Christians in all areas of the world, bearing witness to the Gospel in word and deed, may promote dialogue, peace, and mutual understanding, especially with those of other religions. We pray to the Lord.
For an end to terrorism and for the blessings of peace throughout the world. We pray to the Lord.
Four Christian husbands and wives; that the Lord will give them the graces they need to live in faith the Sacrament of Matrimony. We pray to the Lord.
For the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the sick, the aged, the lonely, the grieving, those who are out of work, those who are facing financial difficulties, and those who have no one to pray for them; that God will raise them up and answer their needs. We pray to the Lord.
For the grace this week to remain sober and alert, attentive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit in our lives. We pray to the Lord.
That in all ways and all situations we may all find reasons to rejoice and give thanks. We pray to the Lord.
That we as Catholics may devoutly adhere to precept and practice in our faith journey without allowing in any form of discouragement to cloud our path. We pray to the Lord.
Loving Father, our souls rejoice and abide in confidence because You will never abandon us. Keep us always strong in faith. We ask all this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA