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Homily - 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time - Bishop McKeown

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In three weeks' time we will mark the last week of the liturgical year with the Feast of Christ the King. And today's Gospel passage comes close to the end of Jesus' public ministry. Thus, we can see this teaching of Jesus as something that summarises much of what Jesus has been teaching for the previous three years. What might we learn?

Firstly, Jesus upsets the question from the scribes. He answers a question on his terms, not on theirs. They wanted a simple answer that could be argued about without ever reaching a solution. Jesus sees the big picture, not just an ideological quibble over some detail. He does not do this just to be smart. He uses his wisdom to teach and to break into the limited understanding of God that the scribes and Pharisees wanted to maintain. They were fixed on keeping the 613 commandments of the Law – but they forgot that love of God and of neighbour were the key to it all. We serve God with our actions – but we can do the right thing and still be hard-hearted. Jesus came to reveal a God of compassion and love, slow to anger and abounding in mercy, as the psalm tells us (Ps 103 cf Exodus 34:6). The loving kindness of the heart of our God is the source and model of what we can become.

Secondly, it may seem strange to talk of a law of love. Love cannot be commanded or faked. Law without love is empty. What Jesus is talking about is always a response to the self-giving love of God in Jesus. God goes out of himself because of his love for those made in the divine image and likeness. For the people of the Old Testament, this was a completely new understanding of who God is. We are created, not out of a battle between gods or because God needed servants - but because he wanted to share his life with us. The bible tells us that God breathed the divine life into us. And even when we messed up, God still so loved the world that he sent his only Son, not to condemn the world but so that through Jesus the world might have life. That is the story that we tell about the world and its history. That meant that the Israelites could look back even on difficult times in their history and believe that God was present. Often we come to God asking for things and recognising how bad things are for us. But faith is not just believing that our prayers might be answered as we want them to be. Can you look back on your story and be grateful for the blessings that you have? Can you remember the ways that you have been blessed and the lessons that you have learned, even in painful experiences? Believing in the love of God for you is the start of the journey of faith. When we grasp that and believe it, then we can love the Lord with our whole heart and soul and mind and strength – and try to love our neighbour as ourselves. Love does not mean always feeling warm and happy. Loving actions can be a real decision because you wish someone else well and never evil. God has loved us even when we think that we are not very lovable. And he asks us to love other people so that a culture of love and not a culture of death can grow in the world. Love is not a law. It is a different way of constructing society and understanding out own life. God is love, St John tells us, and love changes everything. Pope Benedict writes that St John's words mean that love of neighbour is a path that leads to an encounter with God – and that closing our eyes to our neighbour also blinds us to God (Deus Caritas Est 16). Love of God ad of neighbour are inseparable.

Thirdly, our culture wants to trap us in a one-dimensional world limited to what we can see and touch. The God of love wants to burst that prison that impoverishes our vision and our dreams. It is no wonder that so many people feel stifled and disillusioned by life, because we are told that this life is as good as it gets – and that, ultimately, life is just a joke. The church has been renewed in every generation by those who took the liberating love of God seriously. Great young saints like St Francis and Clare, Dominic, Ignatius and Mother Teresa chose to dedicate their lives to loving God and their neighbour. And they found great joy in that self-giving, in the image of the self-giving God. In the Eucharist, we are in communion with Jesus who gave his life for us on the Cross. The Eucharist is the sacrament of that sacrifice. A spirituality that is too concerned with me and Jesus but not concerned with those who need to be loved is not real Christianity. A parish that is not reaching out to the unloved has not understood who Jesus is. Pope Benedict writes that there is an inseparable unity between proclaiming the Word of God, celebrating the sacraments and exercising the ministry of charity. (Deus Caritas Est 25). The sacraments make the love of God visible and tangible to us. We are asked to make that love visible to those who feel far from the love of God and perhaps far from the sacraments. Jesus is the sacrament of God's love and, as his body, we are the sacrament of Christ. That role of charity and outreach cannot merely be subcontracted to the St Vincent de Paul members. Today's Gospel passage asks us to make the love of God real and visible. A church that does not show the love of God does not know the love of God.

Today's words of Jesus were meant to challenge his listeners – then and now. Jesus our High Priest reveals the love of the Father on Calvary and invites us each week to be nourished by the Eucharistic sacrament of his death. There is a temptation to sanitise the reality of Christ's death and to make the Tabernacle look too neat and tidy. Calvary was messy. Reaching out in love to the needy can be messy. Jesus on the cross reveals that God's love is costly - and he asks us to learn that lesson. Love of God and love of neighbour were not easy for Jesus. It is not easy now. But there is no other way in which the world can be healed.

+ Donal McKeown

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Francis Street, Derry
BT48 9AP | Tel: 028 7126 2302

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