9th Sunday of Ordinary Time–Love One Another

It seems like there’s a big difference between the words of Saint Paul and the words of Jesus in today’s readings.  Paul writes to the Romans “a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”  Sola Fide.  Faith alone.  Once saved; always saved.  Many of our protestant brothers and sisters believe this passage justifies their belief that all we have to do to be saved is to accept Jesus Christ as our savior.

But then we have Jesus’ words in Matthew’s Gospel.  “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”  So what’s the deal?

There’s more than one answer to this question, but take a close look at what Paul said.  “For we consider that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law.” What are these works of the Law?

In the Jewish faith there are 613 laws which are taken from the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament.  Included in these 613 laws are the Ten Commandments.  But the Jewish religion has rules on every aspect of life;  what to eat, what to where, how to worship, how to speak.  You name it and the Jewish Law, the Halakhah, has a rule for it.

Now, at the time, there was a dispute among the early Christians about whether you had to be a Jew to be a Christian.  Did you have to follow the Halakhah to follow Christ?  The biggest issue was circumcision.  Remember, there was no such thing as anesthesia and circumcision was kind of a deal-breaker for adult men.  Scripture doesn’t say, but I imagine the women of the time didn’t think it was such a big deal.

Anyway, when Paul writes that a person is justified by faith, “apart from works of the Law”, that’s what he was talking about.  You could be a Christian without having to observe all 613 of the Laws.  The Ten Commandments were still in, but a lot of the other things were out.  Around the year 50 the Church held it’s first Council meeting, which we call the Council of Jerusalem to settle the issue.So, our protestant friends ask, wasn’t Jesus’ death on the cross enough?  Do we human beings really think we can add anything to that?  Why aren’t we justified by faith alone?

I think Jesus gives a pretty good answer in today’s Gospel reading.  “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”  Yes, Jesus’ death was enough, but we have to complete the work He started.

I think if I had to choose one passage in the New Testament that’s my favorite, it would be John 15:14.  It’s part of Jesus’ story of the vine and the branches.  “I am the vine and my Father is the vine grower.” He goes on to tell the Apostles that they must remain on the vine lest they wither and die.  The Father will cut away the vines that don’t bear fruit.  In verse 14, right in the middle of his monologue, he says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” What is His command?  “Love one another as I have loved you.”

That’s it!  Our whole faith is summed up in that one thought.  “Do what I tell you.  Love one another.  Then you’ll be my friend.”

So, how do we reconcile the idea of “faith alone” with doing good works?  Do we not need to run Catholic hospitals, and Catholic schools, and Catholic Charities, and Saint Vincent de Paul?  Should we bring all our missionaries home?  Of course not.  We know we’re saved by our faith in God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  But we also know that our faith requires us to do what Jesus tells us.  To be his friend, to stay on the vine, we’re called to love one another.  And we fulfill that love by doing good things.  We feed the hungry, and shelter the homeless, and visit the sick, and a thousand other works of mercy, not because we have to, but because we want to be Jesus’ friends.

That’s all there is to it.  Love one another.  Eat pork if you want to.  Eat shellfish if you want to.  If you like your steak rare, that’s ok.  And circumcision is definitely optional.

Now, you may be thinking, “wait a minute, deacon.  Lent starts next week.  We’re not supposed to eat meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and all the Fridays of Lent.  How’s that different from Jewish Law?  The difference is this.  We abstain from meat as a form of penance.  It’s a way of sharing in Jesus’ suffering on the cross.  We do it because we’re Jesus’ friends.  But it’s not a law.  You’re not going to hell if you eat a hamburger on Ash Wednesday where the consequences for a Jew who eats a pork chop is a whole different matter.

We observe the Lenten traditions because we want to, not because we have to, in spite of what your mom may have told you forty years ago.  Think about it.  How big a sacrifice is it to skip meat for eight days each year?  I mentioned in this week’s bulletin that “fish fry season” is my favorite time of the year.  I’m already working on my Friday dinner schedule for March and part of April.  It’s not a sacrifice.  It’s not penance.  But the Church asks us to do it, so we do.  What I’m suggesting this morning is that we all find some other form of penance for the next six weeks, something we either add or take away from our normal routine that requires a little effort, or maybe a lot of effort.  And, hopefully something that makes you a better person; a better version of yourself.

The Church today has gotten away from a lot of the “must dos” and I think it’s a shame.  No one in the history of the world has done more for us than Jesus of Nazareth.  He gave up His life for us and all He wants in return is for us to love one another as He’s loved us.  It seems like a very, very small price to pay.




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