THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (A)
Today St. Paul gives us a message crucial to living an authentic Christians life. He is writing to the Church in Corinth, which is experiencing difficulty and division. "For it has been reported to me about you," he writes, "...that there are rivalries among you. I mean that each of you is saying, 'I belong to Paul,' or 'I belong to Apollos,' or 'I belong to Cephas,' or 'I belong to Christ'" (1 Cor 1:10-13).
There is division within the Church at Corinth. The faithful are separating themselves into different factions, claiming loyalty to different leaders. This is wrong, and it is against Christian unity. Christ prayed to the Father on the night before He suffered, "That they may be one, as You and I are one" (Jn 17:21). When there is division within the Church, it is against the mind of Christ.
Certainly this applies to our own day, when it is not hard to see division within the Church. One only has to look out upon the vast landscape of Protestantism to see the results of division. Our Protestant brothers and sisters are a part of the Church. The Catechism calls theirs "a certain, although imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church" (CCC 838). But they "have not preserved unity," as the Catechism also states, quoting from the Second Vatican Council. The division began with those who said, "I belong to Luther," and later expanded to those saying, "I belong to Zwingli," or "I belong to Calvin," etc. And it continues today with "I belong to Joel Osteen" or "I belong to Robert Schuller," or "I belong to Rick Warren," and so forth.
Every schismatic or heretical movement has begun with someone sanding up to exert their own will and judgment as supreme. I know better what it means to be Christian. Follow me.
But if you look at the names St. Paul mentions to the Corinthians, there are no Biblical counterparts to Martin Luther or John Calvin. There are no reformers, heretics or schismatics in the list. The people of Corinth are saying, "I belong to Paul," or "I belong to Cephas (Peter)," and even "I belong to Christ." Certainly St. Paul and St. Peter were not going around stirring up division within the Church. They were not preaching their own egos; they were preaching only Christ.
And notice that Our Lord Himself has made the list! Some in Corinth are claiming, "I belong to Christ." We may rightly ask, "What is wrong with that!?" Certainly all serious Christians today should be able to say, "I belong to Christ and Christ only. He is my Lord and my God." That's what being a Christian is all about.
It is not St. Paul or St. Peter, and certainly not Christ, who are sewing division within the Church. Rather it is the people of the Church who are confusedly and misguidedly grouping themselves into different factions, based on who baptized them, who taught them the faith, or for whom they feel a personal allegiance. And St. Paul reminds them this is wrong. This is against the spirit of the very Christ they claim to follow.
Christ established the Church as the earthly means of our salvation. The Second Vatican Council calls the Catholic Church "the universal help toward salvation" through which "the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained" (Decree on Ecumenism 3, 5). The Church is Catholic, which means "universal." And so within the Church we find great diversity of culture and language, and even spiritual practices. After all, St. Paul also told the Corinthians of the body of Christ having many members -- some of us are feet, some are eyes, some are hands, etc. Some of us are teachers, others prophets, others priests, and so on (1 Cor 12:12-31).
But the Church is also One, which means within that diversity there must be unity. We all may be different members of the Body of Christ - hands, feet and so forth - but we are members of the same body. And the Body of Christ is the Church. Christian unity can be found, therefore, only within the Church. One cannot say, "I belong to St. Paul" without the Church. Even though St. Peter is the head of the Apostles, the visible source of our unity here on earth, and the one to whom Christ gave the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, we cannot say, "I belong to Peter" without the Church. (The name Cephas is the Aramaic form of Peter).
And even though Christ is head of the Church, one cannot say, "I belong to Christ" without the Church, anymore than one can say, "I belong to the head without the body."
To be a follower of Christ, then, means being humble enough to submit yourself to be a part of His Body, the Church. This can be a hard lesson to learn. A few decades after St. Paul wrote his letter, the Christians in Corinth were still having difficulties. There was still division. And so they received another letter, sometime in the 90's, from Pope St. Clement.
St. Clement was the fourth bishop of Rome, and so our fourth Pope. He succeeded Cletus, who succeeded Linus, who succeeded Peter (the life expectancy of the Pope was pretty short in those days of persecution). As successor of the head of the Apostles, Clement wrote to the Church in Corinth and exhorted them to be united with Christ, and with each other, in the Church. He speaks of Christ being sent by God, and the Apostles being sent by Christ, and the bishops (and the priests and deacons who serve them) as being appointed by the Apostles as successors in their ministry. And he speaks of the humility required on the part of the faithful to submit to the rightful authority of the Church.
Humility is the key to Christian unity. Humility enables us all to say, "I cannot save myself," and "I am not my own judge." Humility enables us to submit to rightful authority and to do so with joy. Humility within the Church's leadership ensures that they lead with the authority of Christ and not their own. So that they would be as horrified as St. Paul was to hear Christians saying, "I belong to Paul," if they were to discover that a cult of personality had grown up around them.
There can be a strong temptation within us today to pin our faith to a charismatic leader within the Church. This does not have to be someone famous, like Pope Francis or Pope Benedict XV. Maybe it is your pastor. Maybe your campus minister, or youth minister. These people may be holy people, but if you idolize them you miss the point of their message. You are being like the Corinthians. For what happens when your pastor is transferred to a new parish, and you aren't quit sure you like the new guy? What happens when a new pope is chosen who looks and acts different from the last one? If these things challenge your faith, perhaps your faith is misplaced.
We rightly admire the saints (both the great ones named by the Church and the small ones in our own lives). What makes the saints great is that the holiness that shines forth through them does not emanate from within themselves but from Christ. To allow Christ to live in you requires a dying to self, and this begins with humility. To be united with Christ means being united with His Body, the Church. Even if that is hard at times. And even if you don't know what that may mean in your life. "Submission" has become a dirty word in today's society, but it is a requirement of the Christian. Submission to right and Godly authority is not a source of weakness, but strength. Dying to self means living in Christ.
In today's gospel reading, Jesus calls to Peter and Andrew as they are fishing in the Sea of Galilee. The gospel says, "At once they left their nets and followed Him" (Mt 4:12-23). They had the courage - and the humility - to abandon their way of life and all that they knew to follow Christ. From this faith the seeds of the Church were planted. Pray today that we may be just as prepared to die to ourselves and our own ways so that we may also follow Christ as members of His body, the Church.
You can read the letter St. Clement to the Corinthians online by clicking here.