|The Conversion of St. Paul|
Sometimes, I think it is tempting on our part to think that since we live in the year 2012, that we are somehow far more advanced than those Corinthians, Ephesians, Romans, and Galatians. But if we read St. Paul with any sort of openness, we discover there that we are much the same. When I read St. Paul, it is like I am reading an instruction manual on how to be a shepherd. The burdens that St. Paul experienced two thousand years ago are still around today. The shepherds of today are sent to communities that perhaps lack knowledge of the Faith or who are attracted towards those things in the culture that are contrary to the Faith. There are still controversies surrounding the well-ordering of the Liturgy just as there was in St. Paul's day. In St. Paul's day, there were those who liked to stir up division and controversy and this is still the case today.
St. Paul writes to his people with love, but not with weakness. He preaches Christ and he preaches what is hard, but he does so for love of Christ and love for those to whom he writes. St. Paul preaches with a zeal, an urgency, and with a sacrifice that is still necessary today. Jesus Christ is actively at work in the life of the Church today. We are not living off of some distant memory of Christ. The urgency of Christ and the Gospel is an urgency for today, not just for yesterday. The need for the Gospel did not die with St. Paul. The need is urgent. St. Paul reminds us--by his life, his preaching, his pastoral zeal, and by his death that there is urgency.
Today, in the Letter to the Ephesians that we will hear at Mass, St. Paul urges the Ephesians (and us) to "put on the new man." St. Paul wasn't speaking to people who hadn't heard of Christ. He was speaking to Christians. But St. Paul knew that there was always a risk present that Christians would return to their former ways of life. There was always a risk that they would slip back into their old life of sin and slavery. And this risk wasn't unique to Christians living in Ephesus in the first century. This risk is present everywhere and at all times.
In today's Gospel, Jesus says, "I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst." "Believes" and "comes" are present and active. They are not past tense verbs. As Christians, we have to be constantly and actively believing in Christ. If we allow our Catholicism to be a mere cultural description of ourselves, then we put our whole life in jeopardy. The risk to returning to the "old man" is real.
If we are actively and presently believing and actively and presently coming to the bread of life, then we will not look to satisfy hunger elsewhere. But, if we are not constantly engaged in coming to Christ and believing in Christ, then we will inevitably feel hungry again. And, we risk returning to the old ways of slavery. We risk returning to those things that can never satisfy our hunger. The deadly sins always promise to give us what they cannot. Pride, Greed, Anger, Lust, Envy, Sloth, Gluttony. If we do not turn to Christ, then we will turn somewhere to satisfy our hunger and thirst.
Probably most of us have a little of all the deadly sins in us, but it's likely that there's one that exercises a predominance in us. It is the one that convinces us most easily that it provides the answer to our hungers. Wealth, pleasure, food, revenge, drink, drugs, laziness, esteem . . . whatever it might be, this is the way in which we slip back into the old ways of slavery.
So, St. Paul helps us today by warning us that it is entirely possible to give up our freedom in Christ for the slavery of the old ways of life, returning to the ways of the pagans. We should be cautious not to think ourselves so advanced and so "beyond" the Ephesians that we have no cause to worry about such silly things. What St. Paul wrote and preached is as necessary and as urgent today as it was then. Sin is as deadly today as it was then. The risk of returning to the ways of a pagan culture with its idolatry, impurity, and sophistry is as great today as it was then. The harm caused by factions, divisions, and sin are as great today as it was then. And the need for preaching Christ, the Bread of Life and the giver of true freedom is as urgent today as it was then.