The Church is moving us ever deeper into St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans (the Letter to the Romans has been the first scripture proclaimed at daily Mass for several days).
Remember, the Letter to the Romans is considered by many to be St. Paul’s “magnum opus”- his greatest work. The content of the letter is a sustained argument through which St. Paul attempts to clarify what he believes about God, about God’s revelation in Christ, and about the relationship of Israel and the Church.
The Church presents the Letter to the Romans in the lectionary excerpts, and this is not ideal. We have to listen carefully and be attentive to detail and nuance if we are to receive a spiritual benefit from what we hear.
Today’s excerpt from the Letter to the Romans can be understood as being about conversion- the non-negotiable necessity of the Christian life. The Gospel (“good news”) of Jesus Christ is not about self-help or self-actualization or self-affirmation, but about transformation. No one who meets Christ and gives their life over to him can simply continue their life with the same beliefs and behaviors. Christ means to change us and the disciple is a person who has been changed by an encounter with the Lord Jesus.
All are welcomed by Christ, but a relationship with him is on his terms, not our own. He meets everyone where they are at (so to speak) but he doesn’t just leave us in our status quo.
St. Paul insists that as a result of our relationship with Christ, a relationship that has as the condition for its possibility our conversion, we are freed from death. St. Paul refers here to physical death, which because of God in Christ’s passage into its reality, has been changed forever (no longer being an end, but a route of access to God). But more than just physical death he refers to those attitudes and actions that kill our souls, that make us less than vibrant in the new life we receive in our relationship with Jesus Christ.
Those attitudes and actions that mortally wound or kill our souls are all the ways we resist God’s will and purpose for our lives, a will and purpose that have been revealed to us in Christ.
One of the most dangerous ways in which we can mortally wound or kill our souls is to resist conversion, to stubbornly cling to those attitudes and actions that are essentially a “no” to Christ- a refusal of love, love of God and neighbor.
In each of us there lurks a “no” to Christ, and it is precisely in this “no” that Christ will come to us and insist that we change. The “no” to Christ manifests itself in our insistence that Christ conform to our expectations, that means that he change for us, rather than having to change for him.
Unfortunately, many would prefer to be ruined rather than change, but this is not what Christ wants. Our “yes” to Christ means we open ourselves to the way of life that he gives to us- a way that always and inevitably means conversion, a willingness to change, to believe what Christ reveals and to do what Christ commands us to do.
Because Christ insists that we change and accept a way of life that will be different from not only our own preferred status quo, but that of the world, the invitation to being Christ’s disciple, or living the unique way of life he gives us, will provoke resistance.
Not everyone who encounters Christ will like him and not everyone will accept the disciples who follow him. Christ is a “sign of contradiction” and so to are his followers.
Most people do not like conflict and the need to be liked is a nearly universal desire, because of these tendencies, disciples of the Lord Jesus may be tempted to soften the sharp edges of the Gospel, to create a facsimile of the Lord Jesus that conforms to better to the world’s expectations, to re-create the Church as a community of minimal expectation. These efforts may provide a short-term benefit, but because they are dishonest, the short-term benefit is quickly exhausted and the mission of the Church falters and fails.
Christ did not come to affirm us as we are, but to offer us a new way of life. Christ does not send his disciples into the world to accommodate the world as it is, but to effect the world’s restoration and renewal.
There is a legitimate inclusivity to the Church and the invitation of Christ is for all people, but there is a razor’s edge to both the Christ and the Church that cuts through all the insincerity and pretense that would make both into nothing more than a pleasant diversion.
The disciple of the Lord Jesus must be prepared, not only to be accepted and affirmed, but also to be refused, and even scorned.