The Most Reverend Glen John Provost
Bishop of Lake Charles
24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 13, 2009
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?”  James 2:14

A few years ago I came across an article in a newspaper (Wall Street Journal, 2006) analyzing religious practice in this country.  It reported that more and more churches were concentrating less on a message of repentance, meaning  a change of heart from sin, and more on a message of personal success.  The message was health and wealth.  Have God on your side and you will be prosperous and successful.  Yet, is this what we read in the Gospel?

In the Gospel today, Jesus sounds a theme that He repeated throughout His ministry and teaching.  As a matter of fact, He left His own personal example to follow in regards to it.  “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” (Mark 8:34-35).  Jesus actually added these words not included in our reading for this Sunday.  He continued, “What profit is there for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (Mark 8:36)).   I hear no “comfort” Gospel here.  I hear a teaching that requires self-sacrifice.  I hear that if we wish to be saved, then we must lose ourselves in Christ.  I hear that each of us has a cross.  To deny it is to deny a fundamental link to Christ.  To accept that cross as part of redemption is the prelude to eternal life.  That is what I hear.

Not long ago someone asked me the question, “Why is everything in the Catholic Church so sad?”  That is an interesting question.  Catholicism for me has always been a very joyful thing.  I think perhaps the person who posed that question thought that there should be more “with-it” activities in the Church.  Perhaps there were implied questions of relevancy to current topics.  The question is difficult for me to answer because I do not understand the operating premise.  In other words, I do not know where the question is coming from.

Worship in the Catholic Church has always been, as it was for the Jews, a matter of sacrifice.  Worship is simply what we offer God.  Salvation is what God offers us.  Worship is not really a question of coffee and donuts, fellowship, videos for the kids, or games for the pre-teens—as worthy as these may be and as necessary for establishing a sense of community in a parish or church.  When I come to worship, I must have something to offer.  I offer myself, but if the self I offer is grateful that I am not like everybody else, then what am I offering God?  My pride?  My hubris?  If my offering only involves what God can do for me, then isn’t that like a child who only calls his parents when he needs something?  Some might say, at least he is calling out to his parents.  True, but what a pity there isn’t more.

What we are talking about is something essential.  We are talking about what makes us pleasing to God, and pride, self-satisfaction and self-congratulation are not what pleases God.  If we think this way, then we indeed are “thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Mark 8:33).  “What good is it, my brothers and sisters,” St. James asks in the second reading, “if someone says he has faith but does not have works?” (James 2:14).   St. James asks a hard question.  It is the question of the sheep and goats.  On the Day of Judgment, Jesus says, the question posed will be did you feed me when I was hungry, cloth me when I was naked, welcome me when I was a stranger?  (Matthew 25:31ff.).   In the vocabulary of salvation, it is never a question of words.  It is a question of action, and that action is the giving of self.  “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?” (James 2:15-16)  To those who embraced the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters, however, the Lord will say, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father.  Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me food” (Matthew 25:34-35).  I hear nothing of the Gospel of health and wealth.  I hear everything about the gift of self.

This gift of self is what links the life of faith to the life of worship.  When I come to worship and I am consumed with what I am offering to God beginning with the very offering of myself, then I learn a very important lesson about living.  The essential lesson is what we see before us, Jesus hanging on a cross.  There is an empty tomb, but there is no tomb without death.  That we cannot forget.  We must learn it now and never forget it.  “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” (Mark 8:35).