Sermon: You Are Called to Be a Prophet
“God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer: that your love may increase ever more and more.”
To love the Lord with your whole heart, mind, soul, and strength; and to love your neighbor as yourself. This, as we saw four weeks ago, is the highest ideal of Christian charity. But what if the highest form of love is something even greater than we can achieve by our own efforts? And what if the love that God is calling us to doesn’t look quite like we expect it to?
St. Paul today writes to the Christians at Philippi, believers he likely baptized with his own hand while proclaiming the Gospel there for the first time. Paul is writing from prison, either in Rome or in Ephesus. His heart longs to resume his missionary activity and continue spreading the saving Gospel of Christ throughout the world. And he longs for those Christians whose lives of faith are signs of the effectiveness of his witness and mission.
He longs for them, though, not just with all his own heart, but “with the affection of Christ Jesus.” Paul’s love and longing are not just his own, but the love and longing of Christ within him. How is that possible? How could we love with the very love of Christ Himself? Isn’t that a goal too lofty for mere mortals?
On a merely natural level, yes, this sort of love is not possible. To love, remember, is not just a matter of emotions, but of willing the authentic good of another. So loving like Paul does “with the affection of Christ Jesus” means that we have to desire not just an earthly good for the person we love, but in order to have this highest kind of love, we have to desire what God Himself desires. Paul can say that he is loving with the heart of Christ because he desires and longs most earnestly for the salvation of his beloved Philippians.
There is also another possible interpretation of Paul’s loving “with the affection of Christ Jesus.” The original words he uses literally mean, “in the heart of Christ Jesus.” Paul is able to love the Philippians “with the affection of Christ Jesus” because his heart has been so transformed to be like the heart of Christ. His heart, through God’s grace and his own heroic pursuit of sanctity, has begun to beat with the rhythm of Christ’s heart. We could also take him to mean that he desires his friends to be in the heart of Christ, that is, that they love Him more intimately, and that they may be loved by him (Aquinas, Commentary on Philippians, 15).
St. Teresa of Avila points out to us how this highest love of God and neighbor are inseparable: “We cannot be sure if we are loving God, although we may have good reasons for believing that we are, but we can know quite well if we are loving our neighbor. And be certain that, the farther advanced you find you are in this, the greater the love you will have for God; for so dearly does His Majesty love us that He will reward our love for our neighbor by increasing the love which we bear to Himself, and that in a thousand ways” (Interior Castle, 5, 3, 8).
So how do we love with this intense love that is the love of Christ’s heart? Do we just need to try harder? And why are we trying to make so many distinctions about love? Why make complicated what is so simple and beautiful? And what does all this have to do with Advent and getting ready for the coming of Christ?
Today we are introduced to John the Baptist, the precursor of Christ, who made the final preparations of the Jewish people for the coming of the Lord. He does so by inviting the whole countryside to the river Jordan in the wilderness to be baptized. Washing with water was an important part of Jewish life. Almost any family ritual (like a meal) or any religious rite had to prepared for by ritual washings. So in some respects, John’s invitation to baptism was not extraordinary. But to the careful observer, one distinct difference in John’s baptism would be apparent: it was not to be repeated.
While Jewish ritual cleansings had to be performed over and over again, John promised to his followers a new and definitive point in their preparation for the Messiah. His prophetic action showed them that his followers did not have to continue purifying themselves over and over again by their efforts alone. Instead, John foreshadows what Paul will teach the Philippians and us: “the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus.”
To love as Paul does with the heart of Christ is possible because the Sacrament of Baptism has transformed our souls not only to be like Christ, but to be members of His Body. Baptism is not just a ceremony by which we are admitted to the Church, or the wiping away of original sin – important as those two realities both are. Baptism has actually transformed us, made us different, so that our hearts, when properly attuned, can beat in rhythm with the heart of Christ and thus love not only like Him but as Him, in His heart.
It’s still not clear, though, how we know when we are loving with Christ’s heart and when we are loving merely with our own imperfect love. Once again, an important way of knowing is by the goods we desire for others. St. Paul VI wrote that, “A sign of love will be the concern to give the truth and to bring people into unity. Another sign of love will be a devotion to the proclamation of Jesus Christ, without reservation or turning back” (Evagelii nuntiandi, 79).
John the Baptist, then, is not just a prophet with a message for us. He is in fact a model of how we can ourselves prepare for the coming of the Lord and love with the heart of Christ. By your baptism, you are a priest, prophet, and a king. We live our baptismal priesthood by sanctifying ourselves and those entrusted to our care. We live our baptismal kingship by rightly ordering our lives and the world around us. How, though, do we live the call of our baptism to be prophets?
When we hear the word “prophecy” we probably think of a crystal ball – prophesying the future before it happens. But this isn’t really the image of the prophet we get in the Bible. Remember last Sunday we saw the prophetic action of Jeremiah buying the property as a sign of the Israelites’ eventual return from captivity. We are likewise called to prophetic actions as a witness to Christ.
Take, for example, generosity to the poor. When we exercise charity towards those in need, we don’t just help someone out, but we actually live our baptismal, prophetic office by a prophetic action that announces the coming of Christ’s kingdom, where there will be no more hunger, suffering, want or need and every tear will be wiped away.
Prophecy isn’t just about what is to come, though, but about living in the truth here and now. The prophets revealed to the people their own sinfulness and called them to return to the Lord and His mercy. “You brood of vipers,” John the Baptist charges the Pharisees, “who told you to flee from the coming wrath?” While the force of John’s language may not usually (or ever) be appropriate to our own circumstances, the force of his conviction should be ours as well. God wants to use us, in our baptismal prophetic office, to level the mountains and straighten the winding roads of our world.
We cannot just sit back and lament the direction of our world. Preparing for the Lord’s coming means preparing not just our own hearts, but exercising our prophetic office to prepare the world around us as well. A great example of that in our own days was the American Catholic laywoman, the servant of God Dorothy Day. Dorothy Day established the Catholic Worker, a movement to live side by side with the poor and marginalized of the world and to wake up Catholics throughout the world to the sufferings around them and live the Gospel in all its radicality. One may or may not agree with Day’s politics (she espoused a “Christian anarchy” that continues to be controversial), but in her life of living side by side with the poor, she announced the coming of Christ’s kingdom through prophetic action. Her great goal was to contribute to building a world in which it was easier to be a saint.
Through charity and through truth we love with the heart of Christ when we make this our mission: building a world where it is easier to be a saint. In so doing, participating in the prophetic office given to us at our baptism, we can live authentic love in truth and participate in the Lord’s work of making the winding roads straight and the rough ways smooth.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
II Sunday of Advent, A.D. MMXXI
Image: Servant of God Dorothy Day. Source