February 29, 2004 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier First Sunday of Lent
Reading I (Deuteronomy 26:4-10) Reading II (Romans 10:8-13)
Gospel (St. Luke 4:1-13)
In the second reading this morning from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Saint Paul says that confession on the lips leads to justification and belief in the heart leads to salvation. Now when we hear the words “If one simply confesses that Jesus is Lord and believes in their heart that God raised Him from the dead, they will be saved” that makes things sound pretty easy. In fact, for the last 450 years, there have been many Christian people who have believed in just that. All you have to do is believe that Jesus died for your sins, that He is the Son of God and He has been raised from the dead, and you get to go to heaven and it does not require anything more than that. Well, that has been condemned as heresy, and we need to be able to understand exactly what Saint Paul means, because just looking at it on the surface makes it sound pretty good. But there is no such thing as “easy salvation”. Look at the Cross and ask yourself how easy it was to obtain salvation for us. Why do we think it is going to be any easier for us to be able to obtain it and to share in it?
So when we think about the words of Saint Paul, just stop and look again at what he says: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord…” To say that Jesus is Lord means that He is the Master, it means that He is God, and therefore it means that I will be obedient to everything He has told me to do. It means also that every word that comes from His mouth is the Word of God and must be understood as such. Now Saint Paul, quoting the Old Testament, tells us, “The word is near you.” Moses says, “It is in your hearts and in your minds.” Jesus is the Word of God; He is the Second Person of the Trinity, the Word spoken by the Father in the silence of eternity, and the Word that will continue to be spoken for all eternity. That Word has been placed into your hearts and into your minds. You were baptized into that Word, and that Word is a Person. So the person of Jesus Christ, as well as His Father and the Holy Spirit, dwell within our hearts when we are in the state of grace. And so there is this beautiful exchange that happens: God dwells in us, but we dwell in God. Indeed, the Word is near us.
The question, however, has to do with whether we believe. It is not whether or not we believe that Jesus is the Son of God; it is not whether we believe that Jesus is Lord, in our heads. Satan will acknowledge that, and that did not keep him from going to hell nor will it ever get him out of there. And so it is not enough to be able to say with our mouth that Jesus is Lord; it is a matter of being able to accept all the implications of that statement. If I am going to profess that Jesus Christ is Lord, that He is the Son of God Who took flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary, was born for us, lived a human life, suffered, died, and rose from the dead, and Saint Peter tells us, “He has given us an example for us to follow in His footsteps,” and Saint Paul says, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ Who lives in me” then this is the way that we are called to live our lives: according to the pattern set out for us by Jesus.
But it is important also to note in that quote that I just gave you from Saint Peter that there is another word that is in there: “He gave us an example of suffering so that we would follow in His footsteps. These are the things that most people do not like. We would like to be able to say with the non-Catholic Christians that Jesus did all the suffering for us and we do not need to do any of it. I would again challenge you to read the life of any saint and then tell me one – one saint – who either, number one, has not suffered; or, number two, has suggested that we do not have to suffer. In 2,000 years, you will not find a single one, starting with Jesus and coming right down from there. Jesus did not tell us that we did not have to suffer; in fact, He told us we would have to, that we would be hated, that we would be rejected, that we would have to take up our cross daily and follow Him, that we would have to die to ourselves. He did not say it was going to be easy to follow Him. In fact, remember when His disciples murmured and many walked away from Him, He looked at the Twelve and said, “Do you want to leave me too?” He did not say, “It’s going to be easy.” He did not water it down. He laid out for us what is going to be required. The Word is near you, in your hearts and on your minds; the problem is that we do not want to hear it and we certainly do not want to live it.
Now to say that Jesus is Lord, first and foremost, means that we have to be willing to share His Passion. To be willing to do that requires the virtues which He Himself practiced. It requires, first and foremost, humility. He is God Who became man, was born in a stable, lived a life of poverty, was willing to suffer the most ignoble kinds of tortures that humanity has ever invented, and die, in essence, naked on the Cross. Yet we think, for some odd reason, that it is okay to strive for glory, for wealth, for position, for money, for title. Look at today’s Gospel and look at what Satan offered to Jesus: “All this glory I will give to you as long as you bow down and worship me.” He offered to Jesus every single kingdom in the world. Most of us, I do not suspect, would want that; but we all do seem to want a share in worldly glory. We would like to be able to prance down the street with our head up high and be noticed. That is not the way Jesus lived His life.
If we look at the first reading today, what Moses tells the people as they are about to cross into the Promised Land is that when they bring the firstfruits to offer to God they are to confess the truth: “My father was a wandering Aramean. He migrated into Egypt and there he lived as an alien. We were slaves in a foreign land. We were nomads in the desert. Now we have come into a land where other people planted the crops, and other people built the homes.” There is not one single thing they could take credit for. And so as they brought their fruits before the Lord, they had to bow down and worship Him because all of it came from Him. It was not anything that they could look at and say, “Look what I have done.” They picked the fruit – big deal. They did not do anything else; they did not have to. But they had to be humble. They had to accept the way that God had laid out for them.
Now flowing from the humility, of course, is charity. This is the commandment that Jesus gave us – to love one another as He has loved us – which again means to be willing to suffer for someone else, to be willing to put ourselves last in order to put others first. This is contrary to nature, and it is contrary to what Satan is going to tell us. Again, look at the temptation: “If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread. Put yourself first. Let’s go up to the parapet of the temple and take a leap. Show off! Let everybody see that you’re the Son of God. The angels, after all, will come and hold you up so that you don’t dash your foot against a stone; then the whole world can see that you are the Son of God!” Jesus refused and He said, “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” But how often do we do exactly that? We test God. We want to find out if He really is God, if He really loves us, if He’s really going to be faithful. So we test Him because we do not believe. We need to trust. We need to love. To love means that we have to be vulnerable – and we do not like to be vulnerable. Look at Jesus when he was vulnerable and look at what happened to Him. He was pierced in the side. He was whipped and beaten because He was vulnerable. But He was vulnerable because He loved. And because He loved, He was willing to suffer it all. So when we say “no” that we will not be vulnerable, that we will keep our hearts closed, what we are saying is “No, I will not love. I will not follow in the footsteps of Jesus.”
Now to go further, to say, “Jesus is Lord. Therefore, I believe that everything He says is truth because He Himself is the truth,” then again we look and say that Jesus founded one Church, and He promised that Church the Holy Spirit to lead Her into all truth because the Church is Jesus Christ. Again, we can look at ourselves very seriously and ask, “Do I believe absolutely everything that the Church teaches?” – everything – because the Church is Jesus Christ, Who has been given the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth. Therefore, if we pick and choose, if we become “cafeteria Catholics” looking at the whole smorgasbord of all the morals and all the doctrines the Church teaches and we say, “I like that one, but I prefer not to have that; this one looks good, but not that one,” and we pick and choose what we want, we are no longer Catholic and we have no part in Jesus Christ because we have rejected His truth. We have decided to make our own religion. Just remove Catholic and put your own name in there instead. What else is it? Think back 450 years ago: there was a priest who decided to break away from the Church and start his own, and to this day that church is named after him. Instead of calling it Martin’s Church, they just call it The Lutheran Church. Just put your own name in there if you want to pick and choose because it is no longer the faith of Jesus Christ. It is no longer saying “Jesus is Lord” because we have rejected Him as God if we have rejected even one of His teachings, because it is to say that we know better than He, and to say, “I will give Him lip service and I will say, ‘Lord, Lord,’ but I will not do the Will of my Father in heaven.” Jesus told us that He did nothing unless He heard it from His Father in heaven and unless He saw His Father in heaven doing it, and then told us, “Not everyone who cries, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven but only the one who does the Will of My Father in heaven.”
It is not for us to pick and choose. It is not for us to decide what is right and wrong. It is not up to us to be the arbiter of truth because He alone is the Truth, He alone is the Way, and He alone is the Life. And the truth is the way that leads to life. If we want to be able to share in His glory in heaven, then we need to get on the way, the way in which He has walked and left us an example of suffering for us to follow in His footsteps, the way of truth in which we accept the fullness of truth and we do not try to water it down and we do not try to pick and choose and we do not have any if’s, and’s, or but’s. It is to say, “Yes, Jesus Christ is Lord; and if He is Lord then I believe and I obey everything that He has taught.” That is what it means not only to be a Catholic, but to be a Christian. That is what Saint Paul is talking about when he says, “If you confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, then you will be saved.” It is not some nice, gushy feeling: “Because Jesus died for my sins, I’m going straight to heaven.” But rather it is to accept the fullness of what it means to say that Jesus Christ is Lord, and to live it in our lives. When we believe, and when we live what we believe, then that profession on our lips and that faith in our hearts will indeed lead to justification and to the salvation of our souls.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.