Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

We have, for the past few weeks been reading from the First Epistle of St. Paul to his young apprentice, Timothy. Reading this rather discursive letter as a whole, we find that Timothy’s church in Ephesus was beset by a myriad of false teachings and false teachers. Impious superstitions; speculation which both wasted time and drew people away from the Faith once received; consent to scandalous and illegal behavior; condemnation of perfectly proper, Christian activities, like getting married and even eating.

False teaching was legion in this little church, and so were those who propagated the heresies. Worst of all, these false teachers were making a killing. We learn in today’s reading that the besetting sin in this community seemed to be love of money. They put their faith in mammon, hoping that wealth would save them. This is what in theological terms is called a “false soteriology”, which is a fancy way of saying that one can find life, and truth and purpose and salvation where these things are not to found. It is something that we fallen people fall back into, time and time again. So did Blessed Paul, who counted himself the foremost of sinners.

We are not in a world much different from Paul’s, I’m afraid. I know that I am barraged every day with false objects of hope, and sinner that I am, sometimes I put my trust in those things, hoping to find salvation there: whether it’s money, or the positive regard of my fellows, or self-sufficiency, or any of a number of countless idols the world constructs for me or I for myself. I suspect few of us are saintly enough to avoid placing our trust in these things from time to time; but it is not at the altars set up by this sin-sick world where we find salvation.

Anyway, that is what it is to live life on the terms that the world has set for us, and that is what the apostle is warning us against. The good life, he says, is forged by virtues like righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. These are what St. Paul tells us to pursue, but the pursuit of these virtues isn’t what leads to salvation, either. Rather they are the proper response to the gift of salvation already wrought upon the cross and given freely to those who would accept it. Salvation is not primarily about how we live our lives, as important as that may be, but who it is that gives us life.

Indeed, after he lists the virtues of the Christian life, Paul goes on to explain why we ought to cultivate them: Fight the good fight, keep the faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. Our Lord made the good confession before Pontius Pilate, Paul tells us, and we find that confession in St. John’s Gospel: My kingdom is not of this world. We are meant to live as a people set apart, because we really are. By virtue of our Baptism we are made citizens of a kingdom that is not of this world. We are a priestly people, brought by Baptism into the Mystical Body of Christ and continually fed and reconstituted by the Very Body of Christ.

In the Fourth Century A.D., St. Ambrose of Milan, that Doctor of the Church and champion of the Faith in one of Christianity’s darkest hours, wrote a hymn which remains popular on the feast days of Apostles. The hymn extols the virtue of those whom the church recognizes as saints, but much of it applies equally to the ordinary saints of the church, the regular saints, like you and I, who are saints not by virtue of wondrous deeds, but by a simple confession of our belief in our Lord and our Baptism into His Body. From the third verse of that hymn:

Theirs is the steadfast faith of saints,
and hope that never yields nor faints;
and love of Christ in perfect glow
that lays the prince of this world low.

These aren’t miraculous acts, but the simple acts of faith we are called to live out as baptized people. To pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance. It is in living by these uncomplicated, but sometimes impossibly difficult virtues that we show forth to the world that though we are in the world, we are not of it. We show the world the power of the God in whom we find salvation. We show that in the waters of Baptism we are truly changed and will never be the same. We show to the prince of this world that the Kingdom of God will prevail, and for this there is much rejoicing in Heaven.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen