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Homily - 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Bishop McKeown

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Sunday, 14 August 2022 

There are some parts of Europe that have been living with very hot weather and some would find it ironic that Jesus in today's Gospel is saying that he has come to bring fire to the earth. But we all know what he means, as he continues his journey up to Jerusalem and the final showdown with the religious and political establishment there. What do his words teach us?

Firstly, our second reading provides the context for what Jesus says. The Letter to the Hebrews speaks on two occasions about sin - the battle against sin and how sin clings to us so easily. When Jesus announced that the Kingdom of God was near at hand, the apostles seem to have thought that he meant an earthly kingdom where they would have important roles. But Jesus tried to show that there was a battle going on between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the evil one, between grace and sin. His healing miracles and the forgiveness of sin were signs that grace and goodness were winning. The Resurrection was the ultimate proof of that victory.

Thus, the journey of following Christ means being prepared to battle against sin and its terrible effects on the lives of so many. That is not meant to depress people but to inspire. Evil can be faced down and defeated. Those who are scarred by sinful behaviours in themselves and in others can be given a fresh start. The face of the earth can be renewed by grave. But that involves a battle. That is the fire that Jesus wants to bring to the earth.

Secondly, Jesus shows us how that battle with sin is to be waged. There has been the temptation down through the centuries to identify the Kingdom of God with earthly kingdoms and to assume that the slaughter of infidels or the harsh suppression of wrongdoing was a divine command. It is easy to cloak human agendas in theological language. That was not the sort of battle that Jesus fought. He faced down evil with care for those who felt most crushed. He knocked down barriers with Samaritans and Gentiles, with sinners and lepers, barriers that others wanted to maintain. He challenged those who thought they were superior and self-righteous. He had no time for those who had no time for the weak and stumbling.

The message that Christians bring is therefore always a message of hope, even in the face of the Cross. Hope is not merely keeping your fingers crossed that things might get better. Hope means acknowledging the past and all its pain. It involves recognising the reality of sin in our lives and in the lives of others from whom we might have expect more and better. For Jesus it meant enduring the cross, disregarding the shamefulness of it. It involved opposition from sinners who did not want sinful and unjust systems to change, because they had a vested interest in them. We are in a struggle and Jesus invites us to use his weapons in that battle and not to lose courage.

Jesus came, not to build a watery church that goes with the flow and causes offence to no one. That would suit sin and the strong very well. He came to bring fire that would renew the face of the earth.

Thirdly, the Church faces the process of discerning where sin has to be fought in our day. Where is sin destroying and enslaving people in our place? It is easy to flee from the harsh realities of our society and seek solace in a private Jesus. But he wants us to be part of the struggle between the Kingdom of God and the reign of sin. That will not be easy. It will involve looking at where Church and its structures have developed in ways that do not promote the values of Jesus. It means speaking out against the powerful in society who benefit from the way society and education are set up. It means being the Good Samaritan for those who have fallen by the wayside. It will means living our faith in such a way that is clearly based on what Jesus taught and how he lived. The prophet Jeremiah in the first reading ended up being persecuted because he spoke uncomfortable truths to the people of his day. Speaking the truth will set people against one another, including members of the one family. Remember that even some of Jesus' family thought that he was mad. So many great saints were mocked for being unreasonable and over the top. But a church without a radical voice for Kingdom of God is not being true to Jesus.

The Church on this island is at a critical point. The particular model that existed 50 years ago had its strengths – but it, too, was scarred by the reality of sin and the abuse of power. It is with strength born of experiences that we can point out the arrogance of some new leaders who are intolerant of dissent and blind to the damage that their ideology is doing to so many who lie at our street corners or in hospital. Jesus came, not to build a watery church that goes with the flow and causes offence to no one. That would suit sin and the strong very well. He came to bring fire that would renew the face of the earth. He came to say that the Kingdom of God is possible through grace, that cruelty and death do not have the upper hand, that a prophetic voice will make many feel uncomfortable. But as he walks towards Jerusalem, he invites disciples to follow him and keep fighting to the point of death. In the Mass, we celebrate what Jesus did in the face of death and in a crisis of hope. We gather each weekend so that we can discern together where Jesus is calling us in Ireland today to build his Kingdom. This Gospel passage makes it clear that the way forward is not paved with an insipid version of Christianity. Jesus showed us what it will cost to fight sin. He simply tells us not to be afraid to follow him and to be open to his grace in word and sacrament.

+ Donal McKeown


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St Eugene’s Cathedral
Francis Street, Derry
BT48 9AP | Tel: 028 7126 2302

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