Before I reprove, let me exonerate:
Christianity is about personal transformation – the transformation that is love penetrating into our whole being. You can’t talk about Christianity without talking about how it changes us, and thus an awful lot of our talk, an awful lot of preaching, even the majority of Scripture, is about what that transformation looks like.
But that talk has to take place against an essential backdrop, and too often the backdrop fades away into nothingness. Too much of our preaching is nothing but moralism. To the contrary, our preaching should focus more on that “backdrop” than on the transformation.
That’s why the Epistle at Sunday Mass is important: the apostolic preaching never turns into mere moralism. Scholars think Paul’s letters were written well before the Gospels. I like that, because it suggests that the Gospels – which do contain an awful lot of moral exhortation – were written and read only for people who first understood the message of St. Paul.
To put it another way, I like to tell my students, Jesus is not our gym teacher. He’s not there merely to tell us how we should be better. The Cross encourages us, sure – but it’s not like the poster we put up of our favorite athlete, merely encouraging us to try harder on our own power.
No, Christ is not our gym teacher, he is our savior. He is the one who makes moral transformation possible. He is the one who brings about our moral transformation: not I but Christ in me. If I change, it is only because he changes me. Sure, there’s a place for taking about how I will look when I am changed. But too often we act like it’s all up to us.
Luther said reading the moral teaching of Scripture leads us to despair, so that we know that we need a Savior who will overlook our moral weakness. That’s not quite right – but it’s more right than the Pelagianism that so dominates Catholic preaching. When was the last time you heard a homily where Christ did anything at all for us – other than act like a gym teacher?
The moral teaching of Scripture reminds us that without Christ we are a disaster. But it also shows us what Christ can do for us.
That’s a lot of lead up to this past Sunday’s readings. The first reading, from Ecclesiastes, basically said, “you can’t take it with you.” We focus on the things that are passing away, and it is so stupid.
Here divine revelation is only pointing out what ought to be obvious, if we weren’t so morally bankrupt. (Since we are morally bankrupt, it’s a good thing Scripture states the obvious.)
What Ecclesiastes doesn’t tell us is how to change. What, should I just try harder? Thank you, gym teacher, but I need more than that. I need a Savior. If I don’t believe that, I am simply not a Christian. Buddhists can tell me that wealth is vanity – and they will be right. But we haven’t yet gotten to Christianity.
Remarkably, our Gospel reading says little more. Jesus gets a little deeper, telling us that we should be “rich in what matters to God” (or just “rich in God”). He reminds us not only that earthly riches are dirt, but also that there is a higher wealth. Buddhism is weak on this, but it’s still something a good philosopher should be able to tell you (if he weren’t morally bankrupt, and if you were morally with-it enough to listen).
What the Gospel adds to Ecclesiastes is . . . a different atmosphere. Somehow it feels different coming from Jesus. But this Gospel reading doesn’t explain that difference. We have to know Jesus as Savior to understand why it’s different coming from his lips.
And that’s why the Epistle is so important. Our reading from Colossians tells us not just, “seek what is above,” but “If you were raised with Christ, seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.” We can seek what is above because Christ is our moral and spiritual resurrection – because he has lifted us up.
“You have died” – in Christ. “Your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Yes, you need to “put to death the parts of you that are earthly” – that language makes us the agents. But even “earthly” takes on a new coloring: it is not merely that, like a philosopher or a Buddhist, we focus on transcendent things, but that we get beyond trusting in our own strength and are “renewed in the image of our creator.”
“Christ is all and in all.” We are more than Buddhists, more than philosophers, more than moralists, because Christ is our Savior. It is Christ who will lift us up, not we ourselves.
At what point today did you trust too much in your own strength? How could you preach the Gospel better?