St Eugene’s Cathedral
Francis Street, Derry
BT48 9AP | Tel: 028 7126 2302
Jesus continues his journey up to Jerusalem. Over the last weeks, he has talked about the fact that he will have to die on the Cross and that there is a narrow gate that people have to enter if they want to come with him. But great crowds still follow him. Yet again he tries to warn them about what following him actually will involve. What might we learn from today's Gospel?
Firstly, following him is guaranteed to come at a heavy personal cost. It involves dying to part of our personal agendas. He is not merely talking about himself carrying a cross. Every disciple of Jesus must take up a cross if they are to follow him. Jesus uses strong words when he says that his followers have to be prepared to hate their own life. That was a difficult message in Jesus' time. It is difficult today as well. Our modern culture assumes that I have to pamper myself, because I'm worth it. To many people it seems strange that Jesus should expect us to put ourselves out or make difficult decisions or sacrifice anything. Many conversations about the future of the church seem to have accepted the modern belief that chastity, celibacy, self-sacrifice or abstinence are too much to expect from modern people. Today's Gospel contradicts the belief. If you want to follow Jesus, you must be prepared to give up anything that gets in the road, no matter how precious it may be to you.
Secondly, there are so many things that families have to do – work, sports and so many other engagements. Today's Gospel asks all of us where we put faith on our list of priorities. Does faith get squeezed in around the rest of my priorities? Is the practice of faith mainly a nice little frill on my otherwise busy weekly schedule? Or does my faith determine what my priorities are – however inconvenient that may be? Is going to weekly Mass just a quick slot in the week – which leaves no memory or trace in my life? Is church going mainly a bit of soothing sweet words but with little content? Do I live in such a way that God does not really get a chance to intrude on what I want to do and on those things that others tell me are important? That is precisely the question that Jesus is asking of the great crowds that follow him as he heads for Jerusalem. He is not trying to fool anyone into following him with sweet promises. He has come to build the Kingdom of God, to renew the face of earth. Right from his baptism, he was tempted to water down his message. But he refuses to offer religious candy floss - full of sugary sweetness but of little value. He does not want us to opt for an easy path.
Thirdly, that brings us to the question as to what sort of church we want to be in modern Ireland. Or more importantly, what sort of church Jesus wants us to be in modern Ireland? Many of the topics covered in the parish conversation seem to have assumed that we have to tone down the message of cross in order to remain attractive and sensible. In today's Gospel Jesus challenges us to be radical and not sensible. Sin will not be defeated by a watered-down Gospel message. In this Gospel passage, you might say that Jesus is being quite unreasonable. It seems excessive to expect us to take up our cross if we want to follow him. But that fits in with the whole story of the bible. It begins with Adam and Eve assuming that they know better than God. From the book of Genesis onward there is the message that obeying our thirsts can be very destructive. Jesus comes, not to tell us that life is too short to say no, but to free us from being our own worst enemies. We are always torn between the pressure to purchase and the divine invitation to do the right thing. We can see the enormous damage that slavery to over consumption is doing to the environment. Pope Francis in this Season of Creation ask us to work and pray for the courage to make wise choices that help our children to have hope for the future.
In the Mass each week, we celebrate Jesus at his most unfree – captured and nailed to a cross yet choosing to accept his suffering for the sake of the world. Freedom is not merely the ability to do what I want, the right to choose. Mature adult freedom is the grace to choose to do the right thing, despite all the pressures that come from addiction, anger, greed or self-pity. The purpose of advertisements is to play on our weaknesses and insecurities. The purpose of Jesus is to call on our ability for greatness. Today he tells the crowds that they have to choose whether they really want to follow him. Today he tells us all the same thing. If Christ's followers are to be a blessing on modern Ireland, we have to do more than bend the knee before the gods of the marketplace and the passing assumptions of our constantly changing culture. If we actually stand for nothing, we will fall for absolutely anything – and expect Jesus to fall for it as well.
I am convinced that young people will come to know Jesus and follow him if they meet the radical Jesus who healed lepers and called on disciples to take up their cross in the battle against sin. Young people in every generation have been fascinated by the idealism and generosity of Jesus. They have never been drawn by a politically correct Jesus who doesn't call them to greatness. Our popular saints like Saints Patrick, Francis, Clare, Ignatius, Mother Teresa took Jesus seriously. Our Irish missionaries down through the centuries were generous to the end. Those are the sort of people who knew the wise foolishness of Jesus.
This weekend this parish begins a new chapter with a new PP. With him you face many challenges in how you hand on your radical faith to young people. Can I suggest that you do not begin with human ideas about how we might make Jesus and church more attractive. Discernment is a matter of prayerfully discerning where God is already at work, where God is drawing us with Jesus through Calvary to Resurrection. That will not be an easy road. But as our first reading says, the reasonings of mortals are unsure and our intentions unstable. It is only prayerful hearts who will learn the wisdom that God offers us in Jesus.
Don't forget this uncomfortable passage of the Gospel as soon as you leave the church this morning.
+ Donal McKeown
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