St Eugene’s Cathedral
Francis Street, Derry
BT48 9AP | Tel: 028 7126 2302
Firstly, we are all complicated as individuals. Everyone's story is unique. For some people, faith seems the most natural thing in the world. You couldn't imagine life without the patterns and traditions of church life. For others, faith has come because of a major conversion experience. And for many, there are major personal barriers to faith, that may come from bad experiences or a narrative that they have about the evils of church.
Today's Gospel underlines how faith is never merely about an organisation but about who Jesus is. His neighbours in Nazareth reject him, despite the evidence. Today Jesus challenges us always to examine not just what we believe but why we believe. Are we followers mainly out of habit and are we satisfied in believing in a rather tame Jesus? Or have we rejected Jesus for reasons that have nothing to do with him? Real adult faith grows when we can both answer the profound question of Jesus "What are you seeking?" and hear the message of Jesus about God's mercy and challenge. Faith is the fruit of an encounter between the complications inside the real me and the person of Jesus. There is nothing childish about that!
Secondly, there is apparently a narrative in Nazareth about this upstart of carpenter. "Who does he think he is? We have known him for 30 years." The narrative about church that I grew up with was laced with stories of heroism, persecution and brave missionaries. Now there is a dominant counter-narrative which reveals painful truths from the past but tends to suggest that faith and church are merely promoters of evil and to be rejected by any sensible person. Where once there was a heavily dogmatic approach from Church, there is now a widespread anti-faith dogma. Our pride blinded us to the truth of what was happening before our eyes. But the new dogma can be equally blind. Despite the evidence of the corrosive effects of self-indulgence, there is a narrative insisting that Church teaching should wise up and respond - like the market - to my desires. Right from the beginning Jesus refused the temptation to allow his mission to be shaped by what would be easy and popular. The development of a populist narrative is a perennial temptation for his followers and for those who would reject him. Narratives that focus on victimhood in church or outside it generally blind all of us to seeing the liberating truth.
Jesus also challenges people who prefer merely to build defensive walls and to condemn the critical narrative of outsides as evil. But what Jesus does immediately after his rejection is to send out the apostles in pairs to all the local villages to preach. In Jesus, the love of God for people is stronger than any sense of pain or rejection. A faith that loves to condemn is not born of a grace-filled love for the sinner. St Augustine said that the less we concentrate on our own sins, the more interested we become in the sins of others. It is dangerous to criticise rather than to correct. Unable to excuse ourselves, we are ready to accuse others. (Office of Readings in the 'Prayer of the Church' (Breviary), Week 14). Even when Jesus encounters a narrative that rejects him, he keeps going with his mission. In the face of opposition, he responds with the balm of mercy and not with the rod of anger. The only people that he gets really frustrated with are those who like to wield the rod of anger in God's name. Thus, the synodal process in Ireland involves hearing contrasting human voices – but then together discerning where Jesus is in the midst of that. Those who think they already know the issues and the answers will avoid hearing the real Jesus questions.
Thirdly, St Paul has a lesson for us. He was a hugely dedicated missionary. But he knew the temptation to be proud of what he was achieving. We do not know what the so-called 'thorn in the flesh' was. It may have been an illness or a disfigurement. But he saw it as a grace which allowed God's power to come through more clearly. Church has been at its best when it is aware of its embarrassing failures. Church has been as its weakest when it thought it was strong and became too closely allied to the powerful. Paul had to be taught not to trust in himself but in the power of Christ over him. When he was at his weakest, he believed that Christ could best use him to witness to the Cross. Humility rather than perceived strength is the key quality of Christian witness. That is why those who have known God's forgiveness are so much better apostles that those who think that only someone else needs the forgiveness. Those who feel strong tend to have little compassion for those who stumble along. The synodal pathway means being content to come with our weaknesses more than with any self-centred confidence.
These are challenging scripture readings. Because Jesus' teaching is not easy to take on board, Christ calls us together each week. He wants us to gather us as his disciples so that we can engage with his uncomfortable teaching that will bring him to the Cross – and then to nourish us with the sacrament of that Cross and its foolishness. Jesus does not want to merely satisfy us with 'a nice Mass'. He wants to enable us to meet him and his grace. He will shake us, make us feel uncomfortable - and yet loved. He will enable us to hear the truth about God and to live with the truth about ourselves. He wants us to know, like St Paul, that when we are weak, we are strong. The way forward means challenging comfortable narratives than blind us. Jesus is the only one who can give us back our sight to see the truth that is staring us in the face.
+ Donal McKeown