Our epistle this morning (1Thess 1:1-5) may have seemed little more than a formal “g’day” and list of acknowledgments like my greeting at the start of Mass.
Yet these were in fact the very first words ever written for the New Testament. And like the start of any good story, they are intended to grab our attention and make us think.
First, Paul says he’s writing “with Silvanus and Timothy” – that is, with the rest of the Church in Corinth – and writing to “the Church in Thessalonica”.
So even this early in the evolution of Christianity we were a Church of various localities, of which Carnes Hill is just the latest, in communion with each other in “the grace and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”. That sense of being both universal and local, diverse yet united, old yet young, has been key to the Catholic thing from the beginning.
Next, we notice that Paul says he’s interceding, thanking and remembering these guys in his prayers.
Christians have always taken an interest, not just in their own families and neighbours, but in the whole Church and all humanity. Indeed, our goal has always been to make all humanity one family, our very own neighbours.
In saying he gives thanks for the Thessalonian Christians Paul uses the word Eucharistomen from which we get our word Eucharist; already, at the dawn of Christian history, one part of the Church was offering Mass in thanksgiving for another!
Why does Paul intercede, appreciate and remember the Thessalonians? He explains that it is because of “how you have shown your faith in action, shown your love in your work and shown your hope in your perseverance.”
This is the first time the three Christian or “theological” virtues of faith, hope and love were articulated (cf. 1Cor 13:3) but ever since they have been regarded as the paramount Christian virtues. By virtues we mean excellences of character or habits of heart, that incline people to do good and do so consistently.
To have these Christian virtues is to be the kind of person likely to act faithfully, hopefully and lovingly. And we call them theological virtues because they come from God as gifts and point us towards God as destiny.
Thank God, Paul says, that you guys have got faith. Faith is our search for God, our discovering God and the things of God revealed to us, and our response to that. In one short word, then, we capture the hunger for the transcendent, the desire for God written in our hearts, our best answers, and the joy found only in Him.
God’s loving revelation, of Himself to us and of us to ourselves, was completed in Jesus Christ, handed down to us from the Apostles, guarded in the Scriptures and Tradition, and received as a gift.
It is a lamp to guide us through the darkness of this world, but also a plan of action: hence Paul’s talk of giving thanks for “how you have shown your faith in action”. In our Gospel this morning, Jesus tells us to “render unto Caesar” – to the secular authorities, the state, the culture – “what is Caesar’s and to God” – to Christ, the Church, your household – “what is God’s” (Mt 22:15-21): we submit to God our minds that He might enlighten us, our understanding that He might teach us; we do not let state power or contemporary fashion tell us what to think.
Thank God, Paul says, that you guys have got faith; thank God, also, that you’ve got hope. It can be hard to believe when things are going badly, when people or things around us are unsupportive. Without hope, faith will not survive adversity.
Hope focuses our attention on a promised future, the kingdom of heaven, and our need to rely on God’s strength, not our own, on our way there. It inspires and aspires; it makes us steadfast in storms and keeps us from discouragement in tribulation; it opens up our hearts in expectation of eternal happiness. And once again, it’s seen in our actions, as Paul says “I give thanks that you have shown your hope through perseverance”.
In giving Caesar what’s rightly his and to God what’s rightly His, we do not put our ultimate hope in any worldly powers or projects: we submit our imaginations to God that He might show us the brightest future, our wills to God that He might lead us there.
Thank God you’ve got faith and hope; but finally, thank God you’ve got love – of God and neighbour. Charity is the new commandment: loving as Christ loved. Charity is the fruit of life in the Spirit: by it we abide in God and God in us. Charity is focused in a special way on God’s little ones, the poor and powerless, and calls us to justice, solidarity, mercy.
Without it we are nothing (cf. 1Cor 13:1-4). Yet again Paul praises the Thessalonians: “I give thanks that you have shown your love by working out of love.” In rendering appropriately to Caesar and to God we love God before all else, and then our dearest neighbours and beyond. We give our hearts to God who is love, rather than this world, for only He can expand our hearts and fill them with an ever-greater godly love.
So there was a lot packed into those few verses from Paul to us this morning. One last thing: “We know, brothers, that God loves you and has chosen you,” Paul says, “because of the way you Thessalonians, you Carnes Hillbillies, received the Gospel not as mere words but as spiritual power and utter conviction.”
It is the Holy Spirit, as Pope Paul VI pointed out, who is “the principal agent of evangelisation: it is He who impels each individual to proclaim the Gospel, and it is He who in the depths of consciences causes the word of salvation to be accepted and understood.” His Spirit is the spirit in your hearts!
This parish church was dedicated to that Principal Agent of Evangelisation by my predecessor, Cardinal Pell, on July 15, 2007. The parish had already been in progress for some time before that, and today we thank Fr Danny Meagher for building the parish and Fr Pat Hurley for building the church.
Though still so young, Fr Joseph assures me that this is a vital parish, gifted with members from many different cultural backgrounds but, like the Church at Pentecost, united by the Holy Spirit and enabled by Him to participate in word and sacrament as a Spirit-filled people.
Word-sacrament-community: without these we cannot sustain our faith, hope and love: it is the Word of God – proclaimed, preached, catechised and lived as witness – that feeds our faith; it is the sacraments celebrated, received, shared with others that nourish our hope through trials; it is our community sustained by our volunteering and enlarged by our outreach that builds up our love. And so while much has been achieved, there is still so much to do! Thanks be to God for each one of you!
This is the edited text of the homily by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP for the Mass of 29th Sunday Ordinary Time, Year A, and 10th anniversary of the dedication of Holy Spirit Church at Carnes Hill on October 22, 2017.