24th Sunday in Ordinary Time 2012

September 16, 2012
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church
Springfield, Va.

“Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am?”
In a way, this question of Jesus is perhaps the most important question
any man can ask himself: “Who do I say Jesus is?”
And St. Peter gives the most important answer any man can give:
“You are the Christ,” the Messiah, the Savior, the Lord.

This is the answer every Christian must give
—it is the Christian’s fundamental profession of Faith.
Without this, then the rest of the Gospel is useless
—if for no other reason that Jesus admitted that he was the Christ
—and if Jesus wasn’t the Christ he was a liar—not to be believed at all.

But even more to the point,
if Jesus wasn’t the Christ,
then his death was useless and not salvific,
his promise to bring all those who love him
and follow his commandments to heaven.
and his promise to give us the grace to lead the life he calls us to
is empty.
Every thing he said is useless

But Jesus is the Christ
—and because we believe that, all the other things he said make sense,
and we can believe in them
and be open to the grace and the life they offer.

Faith in Jesus as the Christ—the redeemer the Messiah, the Son of God—
is the key to our salvation.

But is faith all we need?
Some of our protestant brothers and sisters, especially evangelicals, think so.
In the words of Martin Luther in the 16th century,
many protestants believe that we are “saved by faith alone”: “Sola Fide”.
Maybe you haven’t encountered this directly.
but I bet most of you have been asked, or at least heard,
the question:
“have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?”
This question is really another way of saying: “who do you say Jesus is”?
And to answer, “yes,” is to say, “I have faith in Christ.”
And because they believe that faith in Jesus is all you need to be saved,
when they ask this question, they are really asking “are you saved?”

Now, let me be clear: not all Protestants accept this doctrine nowadays.
But Luther and his modern day disciples,
believe that there is nothing we can do to be saved
—that Jesus did it all for us on the cross
and he pours the grace of the cross on us today
—so we can do nothing but believe in what Jesus does for us,
and that belief will save us.
It doesn’t matter what else you do—
—if you do or don’t sin, do or do not obey the commandments,
or if you do or don’t receive the sacraments,
or if you love your neighbor or not
—as long as you believe in Jesus.
As Luther wrote: “sin boldly, but believe more boldly”.

Now, Luther didn’t just make this notion of salvation by faith alone out of thin air
—he based it on several statements made by St. Paul,
and by Jesus himself.
For example, St. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans:
“a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”
And Jesus says:
“he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live,
and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.”
So if you were to take these kind of statements on their own,
they do seem to affirm that faith is the only thing that matters.

And Luther was not the first one to fall into this false understanding of faith.
Some of the early Christians were also tempted to make this same mistake.
And so St. James wrote to correct this error.
As we read in today’s 2nd reading from St. James:
“What good is it…if someone says he has faith but does not have works?
Can that faith save him?
….faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

And as St. James goes on to say just a few verses later:
“Even the demons believe–and shudder….
You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.”

And of course, St. James is not the only one to reject “faith alone”
and acknowledge that are works are essential to our salvation.
St. Paul also taught this.
As he went on to write the Romans:
“On the one hand, to those who persist in good work,
…he will give eternal life.
But for those who …reject the truth and follow evil,
there will be wrath and anger.”

But most importantly Jesus himself taught this.

He tells us to be saved we must be holy:
“For I tell you, unless your righteousness
exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees,
you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
He tells us to be saved we must follow the commandments:
the rich young man
“came up to him, saying,
“Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?”
And he said to him, ….If you would enter life,
keep the commandments.”

He tells us to be saved we must love our neighbor:
“a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying,
“Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
He said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read?”
And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
….soul, …strength, and …mind;
and your neighbor as yourself.”
And he said to him, “You have answered right; do this, and you will live.”

He tells us we must do good works:
“I was hungry and you gave me no food,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
….’Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these,
you did it not to me.’
And they will go away into eternal punishment,
but the righteous into eternal life.”

And he gives us the sacraments which he tells us we must partake in:
For example, Baptism:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit,
he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
And of course the Eucharist:
“Truly, truly, I say to you,
unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood,
you have no life in you.”

Now some Protestants who follow “sola fide”
counter the idea of the necessity of doing good works
as simply being proof of our faith:
if you believe, naturally you’ll do good things.
You might ask, but what about people who do terrible things,
but claim they believe in Christ.
Luther’s response is that those people never really believed in the first place
—that if you really believe you won’t do terrible things,
because once you truly believe,
you can never ever lose your salvation.

But if that’s true why did St. Paul—who surely was filled with faith—
write that he was afraid of losing his salvation
by not doing what he should?
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete,
but only one receives the prize?
So run that you may obtain it.
…I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air;
but I pommel my body and subdue it,
lest after preaching to others
I myself should be disqualified.”

Faith is the key to salvation.
But it is not all there is to salvation.
The key of faith opens the door
to all that we need to know and to do to be saved.

In today’s Gospel Peter is the first to declare the Church’s faith in Christ.
In St. Matthew’s Gospel, the evangelist records that Jesus tells Peter
that this insight has come from directly from God, his Father.
But later on when Peter refuses to believe Jesus
when he explains that he has to go to Jerusalem to suffer and die,
Jesus says: “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”

Friends, to think as God does, is to believe in Jesus and His Gospel.
But the thing is, that Gospel has a content—Jesus taught us what God thinks,
and how God wants us to live, and do and love.
And to say we believe in Jesus,
but reject the content of his teaching,
including the things he said we must do to gain eternal life,
whether it’s keeping the commandments,
or loving God and your neighbor,
or being baptized,
or receiving and adoring the Eucharist as his body and blood,
or following the teachings and discipline
of Peter and his successors, the Popes,
if you reject those, well, as St. James says today: “what good is that?”

Jesus goes on to tell us today:
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
take up his cross, and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake
and that of the gospel will save it.”
It is true that Christ’s Cross—and the love it expresses—
is the only thing that saves us.
But unless we live as he did, love as he loved, do as he commanded,
even if it means suffering for others,
or even losing our lives for the sake of what we believe–the Gospel
—we cannot live as he lives:
in the eternal and perfect joy and glory of heaven.

I am confident that our Protestant brothers and sisters who hold to “faith alone”
believe in Jesus Christ.
I am also confident that they also love the Lord Jesus,
and do many good works.
But we must not be confused between the relationship between faith and love,
and between believing and doing.
Eternal life comes to us not because we believe it will,
but because God loves us
and allows us to chose live in his love today and forever.

So let us have faith in Christ and believe and live the entirety of his teachings.
Including the teaching passed on to us by St. James:
“faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”