When we think about St. Paul and the early years of the Church’s life, we have to suspend our own reference point regarding the Church as there were no dioceses or parishes or really any infrastructure whatsoever. There was also nothing of what we know as the culturally induced experience of the Church in which the Faith is understood as something akin to an ethnic identity that is passed along generation to generation. What existed in the early years were relationships, and it was the establishment of relationships that would give rise to much of the good that we experience as the Church today.
The Church did not begin with infrastructure, or a kind of Christian ethnicity, but it began and was about relationships. This relationship began with an encounter with an evangelist, like St. Paul, who introduced a person to Christ and invited that person to consider sharing the gifts that Christ wants his people to enjoy. Accepting these gifts meant a surrender of one’s life to Christ and it was this surrender of life that brought one into relationship with other Christians, and through those relationships, incorporated a person into the Church. The priority was not the community in itself, but the community as a means of knowing and serving Christ. The Church was presented and experienced, not as an aggregate of infrastructure that provided faith based services, but as a unique kind of relationship to Christ.
The Church was a way of knowing and serving Christ.
And so it should be for us.
Saint Paul’s letters provide important descriptions of the early Church that challenge and judge what in many respects is an institutional emphasis and narrowness of vision in regards to the Church. Too many of us know the Church in its structures and culture, and serve these things, but do we know Christ and how do we serve him? St. Paul brings to bear upon us the gravity and urgency of the priority of coming to know and serve Christ.
Most of his letters are written to the early communities of Christians but the letter the scriptures present to us this week is addressed to a person- Timothy. Timothy is a young evangelist that St. Paul sends out on mission. His mission is that of St. Paul- to introduce people to Christ and invite them to enjoy the gifts that Christ wants to give his people. It’s not an easy mission and remember that neither Paul or Timothy had much in terms of infrastructure to support their efforts. Neither were salaried religious professionals. Their authority did not come from a degree or a position in a bureaucracy, but because of a particular relationship with Christ.
Timothy experiences his youth as a liability, and people seems willing to dismiss what he has to say and the leadership he offers because he is young. Lacking the gravitas of age, Timothy seems to have little authority and in this respect, Paul advises that he be courageous and demonstrate through his way of life that he is worthy of respect and trust. In other words, begin with ordering his relationships with people to fulfill the demand of love and the respect and trust Timothy needs for his mission will surely follow.
All of us are insufficient in some way- if we are not too young we are too old, gifts and talents are not distributed equally, not all have the same charisms, the challenges of being a disciple of Christ are many and many of us will falter and fail. Yet, much, in terms of inadequacies can be overcome if we seek to fulfill the demand of love, prioritizing that as our immediate concern over and above any cause or self-interested need.
In the end, as the wise St. John of the Cross reminds us, we are judged by our fulfillment of the demands of love, not by the categories of success or failure that we impose upon ourselves or the world imposes upon us.
Today’s excerpt from the Gospel of Luke describes two encounters with the Lord, one is a Pharisee, who justifies himself in relation to God by his pride in his accomplishments. The Lord should see him and affirm him as he is, for there is little if anything that he believes he should seek forgiveness for and little or anything of Christ’s grace that he needs.
The other encounter is with a woman who is soul sick and knows it. She is a sinner and her act of breaking open a jar of precious, perfumed ointment and lavishing this gift on Christ is a symbol of her broken heart, presented to Christ. She does not seek affirmation for who she is but the opportunity to become someone she is not, someone she knows she cannot be unless she lives in relationship with Christ.
For the Christian, the encounter with the Lord and a relationship with him always entails a humble admission that one is a sinner in need of a Savior. Great love always expresses itself in great humility. If one thinks one has no need of forgiveness, then one thinks that one has no need of Christ.
The experience of the forgiveness of Christ is not just a matter of interiority in which I believe in my mind or experience in my emotions that Christ forgives. Instead, the forgiveness of Christ is an encounter with his will to forgive expressed in a sacrament, the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Few, it seems, have recourse to this encounter with Christ, many do not seek this encounter because their hearts have been hardened like that of the Pharisee- they want affirmation, not forgiveness. But some, come to the Lord, and break open for him their hearts, hearts that are accepted by Christ like a precious anointing, and receive from him in return, as the woman in today’s Gospel did, the healing grace of the forgiveness of sins.