Every Sunday, part of our Eucharist is to proclaim anew our creed using either the Nicene Creed or the Apostle’s Creed. The Apostle’s Creed appears to be somewhat the older of the two although we do not know exactly when it was composed. While it speaks of Jesus as the Son of God and believes in the existence of the Holy Spirit, it does not refer to their divinity. Consequently, we know that it first appeared sometime in the Apostolic Year or first 100 years of the Church’s existence, before the Gospel of St. John was written. The Nicene Creed was first composed in the year 325 A.D. by the first council of Nicaea. It was later amended in 381 by the first council of Constantinople. Unlike the Apostle’s Creed, it affirms our belief in Jesus and the Holy Spirit as divine. Today it is used by many different Christians as part of their liturgies.
Before these two creeds existed, other creedal statements appear in the writings of the sacred writers and early Church Fathers. Chapter fifteen of St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, part of which we proclaim this Sunday, is one such creedal statement. The chapter begins with these words: “Now I am reminding you, brothers and sisters, of the gospel I preached to you, which you indeed received and in which you also stand.” Throughout the rest of the chapter, St. Paul places before the Corinthian community the basic tenets of the faith that he had taught them during the year he spent with them.
Central to St. Paul’s creed is the opening statement of today’s reading: “Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” Hard as it might be for some of us to understand, there were those who had been contradicting St. Paul’s faith in the Resurrection. They had come into Corinth after he had moved on to another community and started preaching a different Gospel, one that did not include faith in the Resurrection. I would like to suggest that you open your family Bible and read chapter fifteen in its entirety today so that you can get a better picture of the situation with which St. Paul was contending.
What St. Paul says to the Corinthians is true for us today as well. If Jesus had not risen from the dead, our faith would be in vain. Our entire creed depends upon this belief. Every Sunday the Church celebrates another Easter Sunday. We come together on the first day of the week, the day on which Jesus rose from the dead, and renew and reaffirm our faith in Jesus’ Resurrection.
St. Paul goes on to say that just as all people died because of Adam’s sin, now all people who believe in Jesus will also rise from the dead because of the Resurrection. You have heard me say before that the people of the Middle East in which our faith developed are not a people who can think of themselves in any way other than as a member of a group. They do not see themselves as individuals as we Westerners do. Their entire existence was wrapped up in their family, their community, their nation. It is this cultural context that helps us to see what St. Paul means when he says that when Adam sinned, we all sinned. Because Adam is the first human, all humans are intrinsically linked to him. We have no choice in the matter. If we claim to be human, we are one with Adam. Consequently, we share Adam’s guilt in what we now call the original sin.
The second part of his argument, however, is based on choice. Because Jesus rose from the dead, all those who believe in Jesus, who link themselves to him and his Church, will all be raised from the dead. Only those who choose to place their faith in Jesus will experience the Resurrection wherein we will live with God forever. It is a choice we make, not something that is part of our human nature.
In the Gospel today, Jesus explains the choice in very plain and simple terms. When we choose to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, care and comfort the sick, and visit the imprisoned, we are actually choosing life with God forever. Notice carefully that this is the sole criterion used in judgment. Jesus says nothing about any of the other activities that we normally associate with people of faith. Nothing is said about prayer, church attendance, honesty in our dealings with others, or sexual morality. Of course these things matter. The fact that they are not mentioned does not negate their necessity. However, notice that it those who are righteous who ask Jesus about when they did all of these compassionate works of mercy. It is the ones who obey the commandments to whom Jesus is speaking. The message is clear. It is not enough to be simply obey the “Thou Shalt Nots.” More is required of those who truly believe. Using the same cultural norm that St. Paul writes of, Jesus says that when we do these things for the least ones, we do it for him.
Today we bring to a close another liturgical year. Next week Sunday we start the cycle again. The Church asks us to begin again so that we will have yet another opportunity to express our faith, to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus, and to remember all that Jesus did for us and what we, in turn, are asked to do. Our faith demands this of us. Our very lives depend upon it.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M.