Diocese of Derry


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Homily - 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time - Bishop McKeown

Jesus has now come to the end of his teaching about himself as the Bread of Life. This discourse began with him meeting opposition from religious leaders. At the end he now meets opposition and rejection from many of his own followers. What does this tell us about being a follower of Jesus? 

Firstly, Jesus is criticised for using 'intolerable language'. Just as in the case of his teaching about being born again in baptism, he does not go back on the words he uses. He challenges his listeners to choose whether to believe him or not. He has laid his cards on the table. He does not invite the listeners to negotiate a more palatable teaching that seems sensible to them.

That is why renewal in Christ's church has never come through those who want to modernise the Lord's message to avoid uncomfortable truths that society finds intolerable. It has come through radical young people who have taken seriously the Gospel call to poverty, community, service of the poor, contemplation and self-denial. The hidden persuaders of today's self-indulgent orthodoxy have planted cuckoo thoughts in the hearts of so many young people. To many, the demands of faith are portrayed as unreasonable and too demanding. But there are also groups of young people who are prepared to stand on the margins and go where young idealistic saints have always gone. Rather than shrugging of any idea of Jesus as the Bread of Life, they opt to delve into that mystery and wrestle with the storm that ensues. They are creating little nests of rebels who will not conform. They see the damage that superficiality is doing to their peers. They seek a radicalism that is born of love and not merely of anger. Like young people in every generation, they will make mistakes and say things that they will later modify. But Jesus always looks to the radicals who inspire others to rebel, rather than to those who would demand that our idealists sacrifice their dreams on the altar of banal unquestioning conformism. They dare to believe that life is more than a joke, full of sound and fury signifying nothing. They are foolish enough to risk all on the belief that Jesus's way offers healing and life to the full. They are the real radicals. The new 'conformists' have nothing to offer

Secondly, part of our second reading causes many to feel uncomfortable. St Paul is writing to the people of Ephesus on the relationship between men and women. His idea of the husband as the head of the wife appears to clash with so many developments of the last century. It raises questions when the role of women in Afghanistan is in the forefront of so many news reports. It raises lots of questions about the much-discussed issue of what male and female mean.

It is clear that St Paul takes complementarity and equality as his starting point. Give way to one another in obedience to Christ, he says. Furthermore, he is writing to a Greek audience for whom bodily resurrection was seen as a joke. His idea of sexuality being something sacred would have been very radical.

The relationship between men and women in the Church is a huge area that is in much need of development in our day . Many past assumptions owed more to the norms of society than to the radical nature of St Paul's teaching. But Christians begin their discernment with the Gospel message even when it is seen by non-believers are intolerable. If we start again without a solid critical eye to the constantly shifting sands of a purely secular worldview, we are going nowhere in a thirsty desert.

Thirdly, Jesus challenges Peter and the apostles as to whether they too will leave. Peter's response is interesting. He does not say that he will stay because he knows exactly what Jesus means. Rather, he will stay because they believe who Jesus is. Faith is based on trust in Christ's ways, especially when we do not know what is happening. Jesus says that his words are Spirit and that they are life. In recent decades, there has been a renewed emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit in leading God's people. In our first reading from the Book of Joshua, the people are asked whether they want to serve God. Our modern challenge is whether we are open to serve the promptings of the Holy Spirit. We have choices to make. Only a prayerful people will have ears to hear and hearts to serve. Only a people that spaces space for God's intolerable language will be led by the Spirit. Like Peter, we do not have to know where the Lord is leading us. All we have to do is trust that God is leading us – if only we are prepared to serve the divine agenda and not merely to bow down before the priorities of false gods. The Church is the body and the Bride of Christ whom he loves with all his heart. And, as in every age, it is mainly young people who point us to the places where the still small loving voice of God is calling us to greatness. They may need our older experience in order to make sense of what the Lord is saying. They may need our support to dare to taste and see that the Lord is good. But as Eli told the young Samuel, all you have to do is say, "Speak, Lord, your servant is listening."

In this long Gospel chapter, Jesus began with the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. But he has brought his listeners to a different place. In every generation, he invites us to listen to our hungers – but to go much beyond what we think is the best we can expect. In the Mass, Jesus comes in Word and sacrament as the Bread of Life. He shares with us his broken body so that we can become part of his Body, the Church, whom he loves with a passion. Christianity begins with us accepting that Jesus is the Holy One of God and that he has the message of eternal life. That is the lens through which we view the issues that secular society raises. That is the context within which we come to know the Father and allow ourselves to be led by the Spirit. This wonderful Gospel invites us to begin again from Christ and to put out into the deep. And Jesus still asks generous young hearts not to be afraid of his intolerable language which he utters with all the love of his heart. As St Paul indicates, he desires their love as much as much as any groom yearns for his bride.

+ Donal McKeown

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

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