St Eugene’s Cathedral
Francis Street, Derry
BT48 9AP | Tel: 028 7126 2302
Over the last weeks, we have heard Jesus as he makes his disciples feel uncomfortable. For the Jesus who will die on Calvary, there is nothing more destructive than feeling comfortable. Today, he tackles the temptation to believe that a group of believers can corner the market and exclude others. The Spirit of God is always working in strange and unexpected places – and expects Christ's disciples to be open to finding grace at the margins. What might we learn?
Firstly, we are beginning a new and challenging chapter in the history of Christianity. That has happened so often in history. Old certainties are being questioned. And, at the same time, there are so many hurting people who are looking for something that will bless their lives. You see that especially at funerals of young people, whose lives have been tragically cut short. Many are looking for a vocabulary and a ritual that will help them make sense of loss and sadness. And established structures of faith are often not trusted as offering anything helpful. They are seen as unable to cast out the devils of pain and despair that torture many people. Sometimes, the grieving seek solace in espousing other causes. But those often turn out to be poor nourishment for a hungry spirit.
Over the last weeks, Jesus has been inviting his disciples, not to bring people into an inoffensive grouping but to offer healing to those whom many people judge to be offensive. And history tells us that this is always where Church growth comes from. It comes through those who are not afraid to take risks to reach those most in need of freedom from the devils that torture them. That is where so many great saints met and carried the Lord. After all, Jesus identified himself with the least of his brothers and sisters. The Church has to go out before it can expect people to come in.
Secondly, Christians are often criticised for being preoccupied with sin. But Jesus was very open about the reality of sin and how it ensnares so many. He did not emphasise sin in order to oppress people with guilt - but so that they might be liberated. Today, he talks about being prepared even to get rid of a part of the body that causes us to sin. For Jesus sin is a serious business. It is the work of the evil one who is the enemy of the human race. Sin destroys people, relationships and the physical environment. Much of our modern consumerist culture has canonised whatever I want – and obeying your thirst is good for the market. But people get confused. On the one hand, we are told that life is too short to say 'no'. And on the other hand, we are bombarded by stories of random violence, unsafe streets, brutal sexual crimes and terrorist atrocities. We are told that self-control and self-sacrifice are unhealthy – and yet we see the results of self-indulgence. We are told to cherish the right to define who and what I am. Nobody should tell me what to do. And yet we yearn for belonging and for a hope-filled story that makes sense of the struggles of life. We are fed a story of me being the one who decides what is right and wrong – and yet we are offered only woolly criteria for deciding what is good or bad. We are offered the bling of alleged instant solutions to all problems – but have lost the ability to stand before the mystery of pain and loss, trusting that there is one who will make sense of the apparently meaningless. Jesus wants to offer salvation that comes from outside me and us. We are not on our own. So many end up trusting neither themselves nor the God that they have heard vague rumours about.
Thirdly, there are many people of all ages who can fit into the category of 'little ones'. Jesus criticises whose who become obstacles to them. Much damage has been done to Christ's credibility by those who have taken advantage of little ones – physically, emotionally and spiritually. The real loss has not been the damage done to the institutional church, but the scars caused to those who seek help and assume that Jesus has nothing to offer. That reality has changed the narrative from one of a glorious church, heroically fighting for Jesus to one of a church that has never done anything of value. A balance will return – but it will be built only on the basis of a humble church which seeks the welfare of the little ones and not just the comfort of those who think they are big.
Thus, today's readings challenge us to seek to be credible witnesses of Jesus and then to avoid abusing credibility for our own selfish purposes. The Bible challenges sin among his followers and in all those see themselves to be strong. St James underlines that in terms of economic exploitation of the disadvantaged. We see obscene displays of wealth and pathetic displays of arrogance But, there are many people who have provided employment and wealth for thousands. As in church, so too in the economy and politics, all power comes with enormous responsibilities. That will be all the more important as we face economic uncertainties in the years ahead. People of faith will not just have to support those who are suffering but also be called to promote just structures. Both greed and dependency demean people.
For Jesus, faith was not a private affair that people could enjoy in their spare time. It was something powerful that changed everything. That is why the powerful of his day wanted rid of him. Renewal of Church will come when we can proclaim the Gospel in all its fulness, challenge the strong about the reality of sin and have the humility to count ourselves among the little ones who can walk with little ones of our time. Jesus hung with the rejected-on Calvary. He was the Lamb of God, slain to take away the sins of the world. As we join ourselves to the sacrifice of Calvary, we ask for the divine grace to be open so that the Lord can give his Spirit to all. For people of faith, these are exciting and uncomfortable times.
+ Donal McKeown