Sunday, July 30, 2017
ALL Things Work for Good (17.A)
There’s been so much going on in the parish—Father Paul leaving, Father Giovanni coming, the delightful visit of Sister Helen—that you probably didn’t notice we’ve been reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans for more than a month. I confess I wasn’t paying attention to that myself.
But this Sunday the second reading jumped right out at me. No surprise there, since it’s my favourite passage in Scripture. I’ll tell you why in a minute or two, but first let’s look back a few weeks, when we heard the Apostle say “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed in us.”
With those words, St. Paul begins one of the most encouraging passages in the entire Bible. He offers three truths to encourage and console the suffering Christian. And since all of us suffer some of the time and some of us suffer much of the time, we need to understand his teaching and how it applies to our lives.
The first ground of encouragement, the one we heard at Mass two weeks ago, is simply that present sufferings aren't worth comparing to the glory that is to come: that is “the great disproportion between the sufferings we endure in this life” and our future reward. Earthly sufferings just don’t compare with heavenly glory. This is a logical conclusion—we think like this all the time when we undergo something painful, whether it’s chemotherapy or surgery or even dieting, because the gain far outweighs the pain.
The second ground of encouragement, which we read last week, is that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness.” We don’t face suffering alone: we have God’s help. We don’t even need to pray by our own power: the Spirit intercedes for us. Even the faith we need to benefit from that first source of encouragement, the hope of heaven, comes more from God than from us.
And today St. Paul presents the third ground of encouragement for those facing trials or sufferings: the fact that all things work together for our good.
Think hard about what he means by “all things.” Not some things, and not only good things. Many things that happen in our lives and in our world are evil things. “It is the marvel of God’s wisdom and grace” that he makes even the worst things work for good.
Not one single thing “works ultimately for evil to the people of God.” The end result of the greatest misfortune is good for those who love God. *
Obviously, the three words “those who love God” are the key that unlocks this wonderful promise. We’ll come back to that later.
I told you this was my favourite passage in the Bible. Let me explain why.
Some years ago I went to the doctor and he asked me a question. “If I could write you one prescription that would lower your blood pressure, help you cope with stress, ward off Alzheimer’s, diabetes, heart disease, and many cancers, would you take it?”
“You bet,” I said with real enthusiasm.
“Then exercise every day,” he said.
I never filled the prescription, sad to say.
But I’ve had more success with Romans 8:28, where St. Paul promises even more than the doctor did. This is the verse of Scripture that I've used constantly to make sense of my life and lives of others; it’s the number one truth I use to understand the world and history; and it’s my antidote to discouragement of every sort.
There’s something important in how Paul begins this verse. He says “We know that all things work together for good…” He’s speaking from experience—not just his, but that of the Christians to whom he’s writing.
That God turns everything to the ultimate good of his people is not something to take entirely on faith, something we’ll see proved only in heaven. Like St. Paul, I can stand before you this morning and say we know this. We know from experience God’s plan and power to transform bad things to our ultimate good.
To respect the privacy of people, I can’t tell you detailed stories of individuals and families; and to avoid embarrassment, I won’t tell you detailed stories about me! But you know these stories—the troubled marriages that have been strengthened by misfortunes, the characters that have been built by financial or other hardships, the spiritual growth that’s come in times of illness, and so on. Throughout history, and throughout my ten years in this parish I have seen moral failures transformed into victory and growth by the power of God.
I like the simple example of the Canadian TV and movie star Michael J. Fox, who called himself “a lucky man” because Parkinson’s disease interrupted a life of complete selfishness. The misfortune was, in a sense, his salvation.
Personally, the fact that God works for good in all things helps me face my fears, even of things that are highly unlikely to happen. I am convinced that if I was falsely accused or imprisoned, paralyzed by illness, or facing a premature death God would use these great evils to give me spiritual goods vastly greater than the evils themselves.
Knowing God defeats evil—even our sins—can be a way of knowing God better. What makes his majesty and his sovereignty clearer than his power over even the greatest evil? It’s easier to accept God’s dominion over death when we understand his dominion over sin.
People often ask me about unanswered prayers. That’s based on an understandable and common human assumption, that we know what is best for ourselves and those we love. But when we believe God is always at work for our ultimate good, we may be more inclined to accept that things don’t always work out as we planned—since we know they’ll work out as he plans.
And God works for good not only in the lives of individuals. He works for good—if we let him—even using the sins and failures of society and the Church. For instance, you all know how many Catholics, especially young ones, have left the practice of the faith. The Catholic culture that filled churches has evaporated, creating what looks like a crisis.
But such is God’s power and providence that the crisis is already proving to be an opportunity. Pope emeritus Benedict, while still a cardinal, said “Maybe we are facing a new and different kind of epoch in the Church's history, where Christianity will again be characterized more by the mustard seed, where it will exist in small, seemingly insignificant groups that nonetheless live an intense struggle against evil and bring good into the world...”
What will happen remains to be seen. But we already know that the collapse of cultural Catholicism has given rise to what we’re calling intentional disciples—men and women who come to church not out of duty or social pressure but because they want to meet Jesus in Word and Sacrament and a community of fellow believers.
Clearly God is at work drawing good from the present situation, distressing as it is—because, of course, there were many blessings to be found in the Christian Catholic culture that’s now all but disappeared in Canada.
God works for good in all things—I rely on those words, and quote them often to myself and others. But they’re not a cure-all or a magic potion. We have to let St. Paul finish his thought: All things work together for good for those who love God. And he says “all things work together,” because the promise operates within the framework of discipleship and of faith; it’s not automatic.
And therefore, it’s one more reason we are striving as a parish community to love God more by knowing Jesus better and following him more closely.
I hope we all leave church this morning feeling stronger than we came in, assured that God rewards us with heavenly glory, that he gives us the help of the Holy Spirit, and that he turns all things to our ultimate good. These three encouraging promises give us practical confidence and consolation in our daily struggles and in every suffering we face in our own lives or in our families.
I'll end with a line I stumbled across on the internet: “Sometimes when things are falling apart, they may actually be falling into place.”
* My source for this and other thoughts in today's homily is the commentary by Prof. John Murray in The Epistle to the Romans in The New International Commentary on Sacred Scripture, pp. 300-315.