Today, in his first letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul insists that he is compelled to preach the Gospel.
What does this mean?
Preaching is an act of witness- it is testimony and St. Paul’s witness, his testimony, is to Christ. The Lord Jesus has laid claim to St. Paul’s life, called him, entered into a relationship with him, transformed him, and sent him out on mission. St. Paul desires to give to others what he has received from Christ. He cannot hold onto the gift of his relationship with Christ, but he gives it away, knowing that what he has received from Christ increases only in the measure that he is willing to give it away.
All this signals to us is that a relationship with the Lord Jesus, though always deeply personal, is never intended as merely private. Christ sends out mission those whom he shares his life with. If we do not share with others what we receive from Christ, that gift in us diminishes into a narrow kind of spiritualized self-preoccupation, what Pope Francis calls “self reference”. As such the compulsion that St. Paul speaks of today is a dynamic that should characterize our own lives, especially the endeavors of a parish. Rather than resting in self-reference, we should be actively engaged in mission.
What is our mission? It is the same mission as St. Paul’s!
Our mission is to invite people to accept a relationship with Christ, a relationship that will be given to them in his Church. There is no other mission that compels us but this and there is no other endeavor that claims priority over us. Once called we will be sent, and to be sent we must be prepared for our mission.
St. Paul likens the attitude, the disposition, the preparation for and our commitment to the Church’s mission, as akin to an athletic endeavor. The purpose of the Church is not to prepare us for relaxation, but for movement, for mission. Just as the athlete prepares for competition, so should be our determination and desire to prepare our selves for mission.
Consider the sacrifices an athlete must make! Athletes must have strength, flexibility, endurance- and work to attain these qualities.
Athletes must have singularity of purpose, intensity of focus, determination in the face of adversity, a willingness to try and fail, an openness to risk.
Even greater are the sacrifices that will be demanded of a disciple!
This image of discipleship as athletic intensity challenges a prevailing attitude that the Church is a kind of soft, self-indulgent therapeutic form of faith based entertainment, that affirms us “as we are” and provides us with self-help strategies.
In this ethos discipleship is reduced to institutional matriculation and the parish becomes a faith based venue for special events. Contribution and commitment is kept as minimal as our expectations. The hard facts of the Gospel are buffered by bureaucracy.
Little is sacrificed and even less is asked.
No athlete who engaged his/her training in this manner would ever be adequately prepared for competition. Neither can the disciple be prepared for mission if this is the ethos that prevails in the Church.
Christ insists that his disciples must be willing to become like him, a transformation that means that we must accept that he is the master and we are the servants, he is our teacher and we are his students.
Being like Christ only happens if we know Christ. We cannot become like someone that we do not, or scarcely know.
Christ is never a construct of who we want him to be. He is always boldly, creatively himself and he reveals himself to us in the Church. The real Christ, the true Christ, is the Christ to whom the apostles give testimony, a testimony that is expressed in the Scriptures which are understood in communion with the Church, a testimony that is vividly embodied in the practices of the Church’s creed, sacraments and worship.
Any other way that we might seek to know the Lord Jesus blinds us to his truth- it is like a plank or splinter that obstructs our spiritual vision.
Only in knowing the apostolic testimony can we know the Lord Jesus in truth, love what he loves and serve what he serves.
And only in knowing the Lord Jesus can we become the people that God desires us to be.