I am reminding you, brothers and sisters, of the Gospel I preached to you, which you indeed received and in which you also stand.
1 Cor. 15, 1
Where do we stand and what must we stand by? Today’s reading from 1 Corinthians challenges us with a most fundamental question. Paul tells the Corinthians, who have been swayed in their beliefs by doubters of the resurrection, that they are to stand in the gospel he has preached to them. He then reiterates that gospel in simple and direct terms: “. . . that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures; that he appeared to Cephas and then to the Twelve.” (I Cor. 15: 3-4)
To read this passage is to feel, for all the threatening dangers that were a part of the life of the early Church, a bit of nostalgia for a “simpler time” in which there was far less information to absorb. Perhaps it was no easier then to know where one stood, but, given how difficult it is today, our imagination tends to fantasize that it was easier to stand someplace definitively when people were not constantly assaulted with more and new information.
All of which is to say, it is very challenging for us to know where we stand and what we are to stand by in all circumstances. When I was young there was a certain moral, religious, and cultural filter of information and even of experience. So much of what is part of common discourse and life today was never spoken of and perhaps never known two or three generations ago. Yet, with increasing communication and technology, alternate and very unfamiliar modes of human experience are now communicated to us. Paul speaks to the Corinthians of how, as they hear new perspectives and points of view on the resurrection of the body, they are to remain firm in the gospel which he preached to them. Today, that challenge and dynamic is all the greater, as we cannot help but be exposed to so many different experiences and perspectives that are as deeply held as our own.
The struggle involved in knowing where we stand, however, is really not a new one. One of the most significant moments in the history of Christianity in the West was Martin Luther’s stand at the Diet of Worms. When asked to recant his theses, he said: “. . . my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.” Perhaps less dramatically but with no less personal significance, we all know the struggle at times between conscience and ecclesial norms and teachings. The struggle played out at Worms continues in the church and in our relationship to it to this very day. In some form or other we struggle with the question, “Where does ultimate authority reside?”.
The question posed today, however, is not only of theological and religious significance. Particularly as citizens of the United States and part of its tradition, we raise to the level of inalienable an individual’s right to his or her own opinion. We understand democratic tradition to mean that every person’s opinion has a place, and, at its most egalitarian extreme, that each opinion is of equal value and worth. So, we must ask ourselves, “Do we stand in our own opinion of the moment?” Is this the foundation of the choices we make? Are we responsible only to our momentary conviction?
An aspect of this particular moment of the information age is that people are constantly talking. Among the most recognized members of our culture are people whose avocation appears to be merely constantly giving their opinion. We have experts who analyze and make predictions at a moment, and, when those prove to be untrue or inaccurate, then make new ones with a similar conviction and with no accountability for their past mistakes and untruths. The same is true for our political leaders. No doubt one of the causes of our impoverished political discourse is that the proposals and policies of the past are held to no historical scrutiny. Thus, ideology holds sway over reality. Despite the historical evidence, the political arguments remain the same cycle after cycle.
So, be it for pundits, politicians, or ourselves, are we held to account for the truthfulness of our words and actions? Has talk become cheap? When there are so many words, is it possible to be held accountable for them and to stand by our own words? Which brings us to the truly difficult question. In our work, our relationships, our words, and our actions today, where do we stand? What is truly the measure of our day? Are we all “politicians” in the sense of speaking and acting in service to our own self promotion in the moment? Are we “politicians,” in the sense that far too many of our church leaders are, in speaking and acting in service of our own power and position? Or is there a “truth in the heart” to which we are responsible in what we say and how we act? According to Psalm 15, it is the person who “speaks the truth in the heart” who lives in God’s holy tent and dwells (stands) on God’s holy mountain.
Lord, who will sojourn in Your tent,
who will dwell on Your holy mountain?
The ones who walk blameless
and do justice
and speak the truth in their hearts.
Who slander not with their tongue
nor do to others evil
nor bear reproach for their kin. (Psalm 15: 1-3, Robert Alter, trans.)
To stand in the gospel requires a continuous and vigilant attempt to stand in the truth, to hold ourselves accountable in word and deed for their integrity and honesty. We cannot know their truth in an absolute and objective way, of course. Yet, we can come to know their truth in the fruits of our words and actions, in their outcome. Perhaps we fail to stand more solidly and truthfully, because we fail to learn from our mistakes, from the ways in which we have acted and spoken dishonestly and selfishly. To stand in the gospel perhaps requires of us a daily accountability from the heart for the daily fruits of our words and actions. That accountability is our responsibility to the One who is truth and who has given us life for the good of the world. In the end, we shall be accountable for how we have used that life. It is when we live responsible to that judgment and mindful of that mercy that we stand in the truth of who we are and of the gospel.
To be open to a genuine encounter with others, “a kind look” is essential. This is incompatible with a negative attitude that readily points out other people’s shortcomings while overlooking one’s own. A kind look helps us to see beyond our own limitations, to be patient and to cooperate with others, despite our differences. Loving kindness builds bonds, cultivates relation- ships, creates new networks of integration and knits a firm social fabric. In this way, it grows ever stronger, for without a sense of belonging we cannot sustain a commitment to others; we end up seeking our convenience alone and life in common becomes impossible. Antisocial persons think that others exist only for the satisfaction of their own needs. Consequently, there is no room for the gentleness of love and its expression. Those who love are capable of speaking words of comfort, strength, consolation, and encouragement.
Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia, 100