St Eugene’s Cathedral
Francis Street, Derry
BT48 9AP | Tel: 028 7126 2302
For most of my life, Mission Sunday was directed at supporting those who were working in faraway lands bringing the Gospel by words and deed, in churches, hospitals and schools. The focus has changed radically as we accept that we have substantially failed to make new followers for Jesus in our own country and diocese. Only a church that is passionate about the mission at home will be committed to the mission beyond our shores. What might we learn from today's Gospel?
Firstly, this Gospel miracle occurs just before Jesus reaches Jerusalem in triumph on the back of a donkey. His first miracle had been the healing of someone possessed by the devil in the synagogue at Capernaum. Now, in this final miracle in Jesus' public life, we see another healing of another unimportant person, a nuisance lying at the side of the road as Jesus prepares to approach the Temple in Jerusalem. But this 'nobody' is given a name, suggesting that he and his story were known by the early Christian community. Jesus calls the most unusual of people to be his disciples, in this case a blind beggar whom the crowd tell to be quiet. Those most in need of healing sometimes make nice people feel uncomfortable. But, despite the noisy large crowd, Jesus hears, not a nuisance but a little person in need of help. He often responds angrily to those who challenge and try to trap him. But he responds so positively to someone who asks only for mercy. Do outsiders see in us a community that has ears to hear those who seek mercy and hope? Or do we feel more comfortable listening out to hear other agendas that would deafen us to the ones that Jesus never fails to acknowledge. The Church has always been at its best when it reached out to those who lie at the side of the road, often ignored and unnamed. The Church has been at its weakest when it thinks there are more important things. Jesus, the suffering messiah, never despises or blames those who cry out for help.
Secondly, there are many voices calling out to be heard in our church today. Too many voices have been unheard for too long. There are those who want their specific concerns to be dealt with. There are others who are concerned about where the Church in Ireland is going and how its missionary spirit can be renewed. Many of these often-contrasting voices share a passionate concern for God's people in the 21st century. They are people of good will. The idea of synodality is precisely to create space where a multitude of contrasting voices can be heard. And that is difficult to manage. It would be much easier to dig trenches and fight a battle, seeing the other as a person of ill will and ourselves as on the side of righteousness. In today's Gospel the crowd tells the blind beggar to be quiet. Everybody in the crowd thought that their voice was very important. The purpose of synodality is to let different voices be heard – but to allow the calming voice of Jesus to take pride of place. That will happen only in the context of prayer. Only a synodal process that prioritises listening for the voice of God will allow the Holy Spirit to remake the Church so that it is fit for mission. Prayerful discernment is a spiritual skill that we need to learn. Our failures in the past arose when we allowed other voices and priorities to dominate. Our hope is that we will make space for the uncomfortable voice on the fringes that allows Jesus to reveal himself as the Holy one of God. Only a Church that does not harden its heart and listens for the divine voice will promote disciples who will follow Jesus along the road. Synodality involves a huge degree of humility and will require conversion by everyone. In this healing the crowd got it badly wrong when they told the beggar to be quiet. Unless we learn to reach out to Bartimaeus, we will not hear Jesus.
Thirdly, if we are to become a missionary church - looking outwards to promote Jesus rather than building walls to protect ourselves - that involves knowing what it is we want to share with our contemporaries who do not know Christ. We are not called to be church to make disciples for ourselves and our wise ideas. In an earlier generation, faith was caught rather than taught. In a very different modern environment, this diocese and its parishes have to ensure that we are both enabling people to meet Jesus and then helping them to know more about what we believe. A parish that does not know the key Christian messages about God, salvation and the moral life will risk descending into deaf arguments rather than into a grace-filled listening to the voice of God in the midst of the crowd and its conversations. In the Christian faith, our values are not decided by how loud people shout or by how articulate they are. There are core values that do not change, no matter how sensible new ideas may seem. Bartimaeus would tell us to listen for the small still voice that call us back to love of God and love of neighbour. Formation in faith as well as a listening heart are essential in a synodal church.
Today we remember those who have given their all to bring the pity and mercy of God to a hurting world. Most missionaries are unknown, except to their relatives and those to whom they minister in often atrocious circumstances. They need our support in prayer and in concrete generosity. Many of them are old. They left a country that believed it had something beautiful to offer in Christ's name and they were ready to spend their lives in that ministry. Mission Sunday calls us to be renewed in our conviction that Christ has the message of eternal life for the people of our time. Jesus is our eternal High Priest in whose sacrifice on Calvary we are called to participate each week. Unless we know and imitate his self-giving, we will become an organisation that offers religiously themed entertainment and popular ideas – but actually not be making followers who will walk with Jesus to Jerusalem. Only at the foot of the Cross will be meet the Jesus who refused to adopt populist ideas. On this Mission Sunday, I invite all our parishes to gear up to have prayer-filled listening conversations. The awkward voice of God is and focused on healing. Disciples will have to walk through Calvary to Resurrection. But that is where our High Priest has gone before us – and where he expects us to follow. If you don't believe me, just ask Bartimaeus.
+ Donal McKeown