Today marks the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (18-25 January). This year’s theme, ‘We will all be Changed,’ is inspired by I Corinthians 15:51 and has been developed by the Polish churches.
The Irish School of Ecumenics, where I work, annually produces resources for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. These resources are available online, and include an order of service, homily resources notes by Polish priest Marcin Lisak OP, and alternative hymns.
This is the homily by Marcin Lisak:
‘We will all be changed by the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Cor.15:51-58)
Saint Paul warns us and gives us encouragement simultaneously. Firstly, all people are touched by corruption, whether in a physical way – such as illness and death – or in a spiritual way – such as that caused by the deception of sin. The latter is far more radical and hazardous. Sin is the cause of death and as long as there is but one sin in this world, there will be death.
As Paul says, sin is strengthened by the law, but this does not mean that the law is sinful in itself. However, each of us breaks every God-given law multiple times. And that gives laws a strength to measure human weakness and judge over sinners. On the other hand, there can be a fascination that puts us at risk when we become fixated on the letter rather than the spirit of the law, or on strict formal observance without epikeia (reasonableness which allows for setting aside a rule to achieve a greater good).
Concurrently with the obtuseness of the law and the poisonous power of sin, every human person is saved and will be deeply and finally changed by the triumph of the Messiah who has fulfilled the law, cleansed us from sin and restored us to wholeness of life. With the victory of Jesus Christ, no longer is sin strengthened in the life of a believer. Rather, the grace of the Holy Spirit now carries the faithful across the road of despair into the life in God.
To understand better how promising is the hope given by Paul in his letter, we need to go back again to the warning text: “The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law”. Then wherever there is sin, death can deal a fatal blow, but wherever sin has been paid for, forgiven, and removed death has neither a sting nor does harm. It is sin that is our real enemy. And I would like to call to mind that each and every sin has its social consequences.
I remember as a teenager living in Poland, my country of birth, in the grey and faded world where ordinary people did not trust one other and suffered a lot of pain. That was the time of so called “real communism” or “real socialism”. Making social distrust stronger was an agenda of the government which purposely followed the rule of divide et impera (divide and conquer). There were, of course, some physical attacks inflicted on ordinary people of the time – maltreatment, persecution, violence, martial law. But probably just social exclusion and disorder were the worst – a lack of transparency, a ban on freedom of speech and association can be a sickness far more devastating than physical persecutions or even death.
From that point of view it seems to be clear that social oppression, or we should rather say – social sin – is a real weapon against humanity, and accordingly, in Paul’s words – a sting of death. Avoiding defeatism in social life and working to prevent social mistrust were the most demanding challenges. In the end, the impulse of social solidarity emerged from the Christian calling to rebuild the community and strengthen solidarity with one’s fellow countrymen and women . Thus, determination, activity, creativity and the sense of human subjectivity became the very remedies for the social structures of sin. But the risk of social mistreatment is still not far away. It calls to my mind a warning of Pope John Paul II:
“[…] it is not out of place to speak of “structures of sin,” which. . . are rooted in personal sin and thus always linked to the concrete acts of individuals who introduce these structures, consolidate them, and make them difficult to remove… “Sin” and “structures of sin” are categories which are seldom applied to the situation of the contemporary world. However, one cannot easily gain a profound understanding of the reality that confronts us unless we give a name to the root of the evils which afflict us”. (John Paul II, Sollicitudo rei socialis, 36).
Social structures of sin had devastated the people living under the communist regime in Central and Eastern Europe. But even now, in our different corners of the world, we are not immune. Dangers lurk within the neoliberal economy: social irresponsibility, whether in economic management or money-making without any respect for “human ecology” reproduces other sinful structures. So, it is not only physical persecution and harassment that cause suffering and death. We should remember that sin is the sting of death – sin with all its social consequences.
Fortunately, we are promised that death shall vanish and we are not going to die. We will be changed by the victorious power of the risen Christ Jesus. With the birth, obedience, death, and resurrection of his Son, God made death to be swallowed up forever. St Paul says that death is defeated, but he warns that death still has its power to deceive (Hoses 13.14). Paul’s reference to the “sting” – as of a bee or a venomous snake – is reminiscent of Eden. If we want to realise how flourishing is the victory of Christ we need to distance ourselves from sin today, and work for reconciliation amid so many signs of social disorder, at one with Christ who breaks down the walls between people of different cultures and nations.
Marcin Lisak OP