Currently, there are a number of countries around the world facing political and social turmoil. In many instances, the elected government is facing opposition from a person or political party which claims legitimacy despite the lack of an elected mandate.
These types of situations raise some interesting questions about the qualifications for legitimate political leadership. Does a person become the legitimate head of government solely on the basis of winning an election? Can a person become the legitimate head of government by popular acclaim? Isn’t it preferable for a legitimate head of government to have both qualifications: election as well as popular support?
While many people would answer in the affirmative to all three questions, the questions themselves remain purely speculative. In the cases of the specific nations facing political turmoil today, the issue of legitimate leadership will probably be resolved by practical matters rather than by a theoretical discussion.
Today’s second reading proposes a practical resolution to a religious issue similar to the political issue I mentioned above. Paul’s lengthy discourse on the Body of Christ was occasioned by social and religious turmoil in the church community at Corinth. Some members of the church community had adopted the belief that baptism automatically caused a person to share fully in Jesus’ resurrection; this group opined that, by virtue of their baptism, they were no longer subject to the laws of this world, they no longer had need to learn about God’s will, and they no longer faced the possibility of being held culpable for their sins. They had a magical, fantasy-based belief rather than a real faith in Jesus.
Paul agreed that baptism incorporated a person into the Body of Christ, but he pointed out a practical truth: Christ was already risen from the dead, but the baptized are not. Baptism can make one a member of Christ’s body, but such membership amounts to a living relationship with God and the Church; this relationship must be maintained and developed until it bears fruit on the day of general resurrection.
Today, some people are of the opinion that receiving the Sacraments is an automatic guarantee of salvation; others believe that living a morally upright life is sufficient to merit eternal redemption. St. Paul was of the opinion that both are necessary and, further, one without the other is insufficient.
Receiving Baptism and Eucharist is a good thing; everyone should do so. Living a decent life is a good thing; again, everyone should do so. Real faith, however, leads to both active participation in the Sacraments and living according to Jesus’ teachings.
St. Paul’s very practical perspective on faith is worthy of our attention. Baptism and Eucharist are necessary, but insufficient on their own because they don’t have magical, automatic effects. Living a decent, moral life is necessary, but insufficient on its own because our own efforts are incapable of bridging the gap between this world and God.
Believing in God is a very practical matter that is worked out in the very practical terms of church membership and active discipleship. Theoretical arguments about the minimum necessary requirement to win admittance to heaven are nothing more than attempts to avoid the very practical demands of faith.
In his book What’s Wrong with the World, G. K. Chesterton wrote, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried.” It’s easy to take refuge in magical thinking. It’s easy to find solace in self-righteousness. It’s not at all easy to maintain an active, growing relationship of trust in God and fellow believers.
In a few minutes, we will receive the Body of Christ from this Altar. The act of receiving Holy Communion is not an automatic guarantee of holiness and salvation; receiving Holy Communion is not a magical remedy for a life of tepid devotion.
Of course, there is a guarantee that comes with the reception of Holy Communion, but it’s a guarantee that reflects the difficulty of living what we profess to believe. Those who receive worthily by living according to Jesus’ teaching are guaranteed God’s favor; those who receive unworthily bring judgment upon themselves. (1 Cor. 11:29) The consequences of our actions can’t be avoided by theoretical argument. The absence of virtue from our lives can’t be ameliorated by appealing to fantasy-based thinking. The life of faith is a very practical matter that consists of living according to Jesus’ teaching and waiting hopefully for the Last Day; nothing less than this suffices.