Saved by Grace through Faith working through Love, 28th Thursday (I), October 19, 2017

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Thursday of the 28th Week in Ordinary Time, Year I
Memorial of SS. John de Brébeuf, Isaac Jogues and Companions
October 19, 2017
Rom 3:21-30, Ps 130, Lk 11:47-54


To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click here: 


The following points were attempted in the homily: 

  • At the end of this month, we will mark the 500th Anniversary of what scholars call the beginning of the chain of events called the Protestant Reformation, when Augustinian monk Martin Luther published 95 theses. Central to the Reformation was the question of “justification,” of how we’re saved. Never in Church teaching, but in the practical living and misunderstanding of some of the Church, it seemed that we were saved by our own actions, by our good deeds. Jesus, after all, implies that salvation is dependent on whether we care for him or neglect him in those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, a stranger, ill or imprisoned (Mt 25:31-46), but, while we are certainly judged by our deeds, today St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans makes clear what the teaching of the Church always was: we are saved by the grace of God through faith. To quote the Apostle, we are made right with God “justified freely by his grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus, … by faith
    apart from works of the law.” Salvation, in other words, is God’s free and gratuitous act that we receive in faith. Deeds are important. As St. Paul would say in his Letter to the Galatians, what counts is “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6), because, as St. James says, “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:26). If we have truly received God’s self-gift with faith, if we have been changed by his love, we want to love him back and to love others as he loves them.
  • This proper understanding of justification was mutually affirmed in a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification signed by the Church and the World Lutheran Federation in 1999 — and subsequently by various other Protestant denominations. It teaches clearly, “Justification is the forgiveness of sins (cf. Rom 3:23-25; Acts 13:39; Lk 18:14), liberation from the dominating power of sin and death (Rom 5:12-21) and from the curse of the law (Gal 3:10-14). It is acceptance into communion with God: already now, but then fully in God’s coming kingdom (Rom 5:1f). It unites with Christ and with his death and resurrection (Rom 6:5). It occurs in the reception of the Holy Spirit in baptism and incorporation into the one body (Rom 8:1f, 9f; I Cor 12:12f). All this is from God alone, for Christ’s sake, by grace, through faith in “the gospel of God’s Son” (Rom 1:1-3). The justified live by faith that comes from the Word of Christ (Rom 10:17) and is active through love (Gal 5:6), the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22f). … That is why the Apostle says to the justified: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:12f).” It repeats later, “In faith we together hold the conviction that justification is the work of the triune God. The Father sent his Son into the world to save sinners. The foundation and presupposition of justification is the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ. Justification thus means that Christ himself is our righteousness, in which we share through the Holy Spirit in accord with the will of the Father. Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works. … Through Christ alone are we justified, when we receive this salvation in faith. Faith is itself God’s gift through the Holy Spirit who works through word and sacrament in the community of believers and who, at the same time, leads believers into that renewal of life which God will bring to completion in eternal life. … As sinners our new life is solely due to the forgiving and renewing mercy that God imparts as a gift and we receive in faith, and never can merit in any way.” About works, it stresses, “We confess together that good works – a Christian life lived in faith, hope and love – follow justification and are its fruits. When the justified live in Christ and act in the grace they receive, they bring forth, in biblical terms, good fruit. … Both Jesus and the apostolic Scriptures admonish Christians to bring forth the works of love. According to Catholic understanding, good works, made possible by grace and the working of the Holy Spirit, contribute to growth in grace, so that the righteousness that comes from God is preserved and communion with Christ is deepened. When Catholics affirm the ‘meritorious’ character of good works, they wish to say that, according to the biblical witness, a reward in heaven is promised to these works. Their intention is to emphasize the responsibility of persons for their actions, not to contest the character of those works as gifts, or far less to deny that justification always remains the unmerited gift of grace.”
  • St. Paul writes about the proper ground of justification by grace through faith working through love today because it was an issue for the Church in Rome. There were many “Judaized Christians” there, Christians influenced by a Pharisaical mentality that said in order to be a good Christian, one first needed to be a good Jew, and to be a good Jew meant to keep the Mosaic law in it’s entirety. The emphasis in justification in this conception, in other words, was on our fidelity to the Mosaic law, on our end of the Covenant God made with his people. Their notion of the Covenant was a little different from ours. They looked at it as basically bilateral, whereas St. Paul was looking at it fundamentally as God’s gift to which we respond; that built into the properly Christian notion of the Covenant is asymmetry, which allows us more easily to stress grace. St. Paul used to be a Pharisee and lived by a principle that one became right with God — justified — precisely through one’s own deeds but he grasped in and after his conversion, as he writes today, that we are justified freely by God’s grace and the way we respond to it, by faith, apart from all the actions of the law. God’s grace received with faith is supposed to be transformative and performative: it’s supposed to change us and that change can’t help but be seen in the way we behave, as we strive and struggle to behave more and more according to God’s grace, according to faith. But everything starts with God.
  • When we begin spiritually by putting the cart before the horse, by focusing too much on ourselves and our actions rather than God, when we say faciam rather than fiat (“I will do” instead of “Let it be done to me,”), we begin the process of taking our eyes off of God and placing them on our actions and on ourselves. When that happens, we can start to drift away from God even in the midst of seemingly religious activity. Today Jesus finishes a couple of days of very sharp words about those Pharisees who for all their external religious practices turn out to be murderers on the inside: in imitation of the way their ancestors killed the prophets, they would conspire to have Jesus himself killed. Their essential defect in the understanding of their relationship with God was a focus on their own external actions in fulfillment of the law of the Covenant rather than on whether they were branches attached to God the Vine, whether they were in fact loving God with all they had and loving their neighbor to the extreme or whether they were opposing God and hating or slaying their neighbor. We similarly need to be aware of this tendency, so that in our priesthood and religious life, so that in our basic baptismal living out of the faith, we don’t imitate the Pharisees in “straining out a gnat and swelling a camel,” as Jesus said elsewhere, focusing so much on little things that we miss the “weightier parts of the law,” and the weightiest part of all is God’s action, God’s love, God’s self-giving in the Covenant, God’s mercy. In all that we do, we need to see first God’s gift and then respond with active, living faith.
  • A great example of those who lived this way we have in the North American Martyrs. Conscious of the gift they had received from God, they responded in faith working through love, leading them to tremendous deeds of heroism and self-sacrifice to bring the faith to those who hadn’t yet heard God’s saving news. The eight Jesuits whom we call the North American Martyrs — Jesuit Saints René Goupil, Isaac Jogues, John de Lalande, Anthony Daniel, John de Brebeuf, Gabriel Lalemant, Charles Garnier, and Noel Chabanel — in the early 1600s, zealously brought the Gospel to New France, which encompassed most of eastern Canada as well as some of the areas of upstate New York. Practically speaking, it meant carrying the word of Jesus Christ to the native Americans — the Hurons, the Mohawks, the Iroquois — who by the time the Jesuits arrived in 1625 had already earned a reputation for resisting missionaries and making them martyrs. St. Jean de Brébeuf was one of the first Jesuits to arrive in 1625 at the age of 31. Earlier, he had been rendered an invalid by tuberculosis, but having recovered his strength, he wanted to use the health he had to pass on the treasure of the faith, becoming rich in what matters to God and seeking to help the natives likewise grow in that richness. As soon as he arrived, he began to study the difficult Huron language. Over the course of three years of hard work, living alone among the Indians, with much suffering and constant danger, he did not gain a single convert. When England took over Canada in 1629, he was summoned back to France. It would have been easy for him to say he had paid his dues and spend the rest of his life at the Jesuit institutions of Europe, but when France re-obtained title to the Canadian colonies four years later, he was on the first boat back. For 16 more years he labored about the Hurons, with his perilous adventures covered in detail in The Jesuit Relations. He would drag his canoe and bags over mountains and valleys for miles, going from location to location, wherever the Hurons were. His apostolate began to bear fruit, especially with the young. In 1649, the Iroquois attacked the village where he was stationed and he was sentenced to death. His death is about as gruesome as that of any missionary ever recorded. He was stripped naked and beaten with clubs on every part of their body. Then they cut off his hands, applied white-hot tomakawks to his armpits and groin, and fastened searing sword blades around his neck. Next, they covered him with bark soaked in pitch and resin and lit him on fire. During all of this, as the eyewitness account records in The Jesuit Relations, he continued to encourage and exhort the Christian converts around him to remain faithful. To stop his preaching, the savages then plugged up his mouth, tore off his lips, cut off his nose, and then, in mockery of baptism, put him in a tub of boiling water. They proceeded next to cut off his flesh, roast it and eat it in front of him. The final blow came when they sliced open his chest and ripped out his beating, valiant heart, so that they could drink his blood when it was still warm. This was the faith working through love that radiated through his life. The missionary life and death of Isaac Jogues are similarly inspiring examples of what that faith looks like. He arrived in New France in 1636 at the age of 29. His hard work among the Hurons bore fruit; in 1637, he rejoiced to baptize 200. In 1642, the Iroquois attacked the village where he was. He was beaten to the ground with clubs, and then had his hair, beard and nails torn away and forefingers bitten off. He was then made a slave. Eventually, he was rescued by the Dutch and sent back to France, where he was greeted both with both pity and as a hero. Because he no longer had the fingers to hold the Sacred Host, he was technically incapable of celebrating Mass, until Pope Urban VIII gave him a special dispensation. “It would be unjust that a martyr for Christ,” Urban said, “should not drink the blood of Christ.” Despite all that he had suffered, however, when the opportunity came to return to New France in early 1644, he jumped at the chance. It didn’t take long for him to receive his imperishable wreath and cash in the great portfolio of faith he had amassed through so many deeds of faith. He was ambushed at a meal by the Mohawks, who tomahawked him as he was entering the cabin. They cut off his head and placed it on a pole facing the direction from which he had come, as a warning to other missionaries.  But what the Mohawks were not planning on was that the blood of Jogues, Brébeuf and the six other North American martyrs would soften and fertilize the Indian soil to receive the Gospel. At the very place where Jogues was killed in Auriesvilles, New York, ten years later Saint Kateri Tekakwitha would be born. Even though they didn’t experience many conversions during their missionary work, the North American Martyrs’ heroic deaths, perseverance in the faith, and zeal for the salvation of their torturers would become renown not just in the Christian world, but even among the sadistic executioners. When the next wave of courageous missionaries arrived, they would Christianize almost every tribe they encountered. The blood of the martyrs is indeed the seed of Christians. And we continue to grow in faith in the state that St. Isaac’s blood sanctified.”
  • When we look at their martyrdoms, though, we can often focus so much on their actions, their faith, their heroism to the point of death. But that’s not the way they looked at it. They looked at it as a gift. This morning, in the lesson from the Office of Readings that the Church ponders on their feast, we pondered St. John de Brebeuf’s approach to martyrdom, which he looked at as a great grace. This is what he wrote in his diary: “For two days now I have experienced a great desire to be a martyr and to endure all the torments the martyrs suffered. Jesus, my Lord and Savior, what can I give you in return for all the favors you have first conferred on me? … I vow before your eternal Father and the Holy Spirit, before your most holy Mother and her most chaste spouse, before the angels, apostles and martyrs, before my blessed fathers Saint Ignatius and Saint Francis Xavier—in truth I vow to you, Jesus my Savior, that as far as I have the strength I will never fail to accept the grace of martyrdom, if some day you in your infinite mercy would offer it to me, your most unworthy servant. … On receiving the blow of death, I shall accept it from your hands with the fullest delight and joy of spirit. … May I die only for you, if you will grant me this grace, since you willingly died for me. Let me so live that you may grant me the gift of such a happy death. In this way, my God and Savior, I will take from your hand the cup of your sufferings and call on your name: Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!”
  • Today as we come to Mass we have a chance to focus on God’s continuous work of sanctification that flows from justification. We see the same interplay between grace, faith and works. We begin by God’s grace: “Blessed are you, O Lord, God of all creation, for through your goodness we have this bread [wine] we offer you, fruit of the earth [vine” We receive it with faith working through love: “and work of human hands.” God’s self-gift in the Eucharist is, together with the grace of baptism, the greatest grace in life, and we come here saying our “Amen!,” and then seeking to receive from God’s generous and unmerited loving action the strength to make our whole life a commentary on the words of consecration, giving our body and blood out of love for God and others, imitating the faith-filled love of the North American Martyrs in whichever way God graciously will allow.

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1
ROM 3:21-30

Brothers and sisters:
Now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law,
though testified to by the law and the prophets,
the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ
for all who believe.
For there is no distinction;
all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God.
They are justified freely by his grace
through the redemption in Christ Jesus,
whom God set forth as an expiation,
through faith, by his Blood, to prove his righteousness
because of the forgiveness of sins previously committed,
through the forbearance of God–
to prove his righteousness in the present time,
that he might be righteous
and justify the one who has faith in Jesus.
What occasion is there then for boasting? It is ruled out.
On what principle, that of works?
No, rather on the principle of faith.
For we consider that a person is justified by faith
apart from works of the law.
Does God belong to Jews alone?
Does he not belong to Gentiles, too?
Yes, also to Gentiles, for God is one
and will justify the circumcised on the basis of faith
and the uncircumcised through faith.

Responsorial Psalm
PS 130:1B-2, 3-4, 5-6AB

R. (7) With the Lord there is mercy, and fullness of redemption.
Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD;
LORD, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to my voice in supplication.
R. With the Lord there is mercy, and fullness of redemption.
If you, O LORD, mark iniquities,
Lord, who can stand?
But with you is forgiveness,
that you may be revered.
R. With the Lord there is mercy, and fullness of redemption.
I trust in the LORD;
my soul trusts in his word.
My soul waits for the LORD
more than sentinels wait for the dawn.
R. With the Lord there is mercy, and fullness of redemption.

LK 11:47-54

The Lord said:
“Woe to you who build the memorials of the prophets
whom your fathers killed.
Consequently, you bear witness and give consent
to the deeds of your ancestors,
for they killed them and you do the building.
Therefore, the wisdom of God said,
‘I will send to them prophets and Apostles;
some of them they will kill and persecute’
in order that this generation might be charged
with the blood of all the prophets
shed since the foundation of the world,
from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah
who died between the altar and the temple building.
Yes, I tell you, this generation will be charged with their blood!
Woe to you, scholars of the law!
You have taken away the key of knowledge.
You yourselves did not enter and you stopped those trying to enter.”
When Jesus left, the scribes and Pharisees
began to act with hostility toward him
and to interrogate him about many things,
for they were plotting to catch him at something he might say.