Diocese of Derry


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6 minutes reading time (1265 words)

Homily - Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time - Bishop McKeown


Sunday, 7 February 2021

We are still in the first chapter of St Mark's Gospel and with these early events in Jesus' public ministry, he is teaching his disciples his style of ministry – and laying down his model for how the Church in every generation should act in his name. As we face an uncertain future in civil and church life, we are called together each week to learn from how Jesus ministers and to see what the core elements of our Church ministry are, however the post-pandemic future may develop. When we have glimpsed how we need to reorientate our proclamation, we can enter the Lenten journey, asking that the Lord will remake us through penance, prayer and almsgiving.

Firstly, we see from Jesus and St Paul that service is never merely a job. Paul says that he has made himself the slave of everyone, so as to win as many as he can for Christ. He was imitating Jesus who taught in the synagogue and healed a demoniac. Then Jesus went to Peter's family home, healed Peter's mother-in-law and had something to eat. That evening, when the Sabbath had ended, he was swamped by crowds of suffering people, individuals tortured in mind and body. After getting some sleep, he sought time to pray alone – and even then, people were still looking for him. So, he insisted on continuing his ministry, because that was why he had come.

Only a Church that has the commitment of Jesus will have credibility and speak with authority in his name. Christ responds to the needs of people. Many of the sick and tormented will have been persistent and demanding. He did not check their religious credentials before he encountered them. Engaging with their sicknesses was not a prize for faith but rather part of his preaching. The absence of hope and love very often makes it hard for people to have faith in a God who has faith in us. When you have been scarred by rejection and abuse from those you trusted, it can be difficult to take the risk of trusting the God whom you cannot see. We are challenged to model ourselves on the generous Jesus, and never on the judgemental Pharisees.

If we focus our planning on those who always came, we may have numbers in Church but risk having little credibility as authentic witnesses to Jesus, who was concerned with the power of integrity and not merely with developing his slice of the religious market.

Secondly, many of our parishes have worked very hard in response to the pandemic. As we look forward to the re-opening of all our witness, it is important that we plan for a range of possible futures. But pastoral plans are not merely concerned with sanitising seats or ensuring social distancing so that the regulars are reassured. That is important to facilitate Jesus' mission to the outsiders. But today's Gospel tells us that we need to begin by asking what will be tormenting the people to whom Jesus wants to minister today. It is quite insufficient merely to ask how we will get our traditional congregations back for our normal routines. The core question for Jesus and St Paul was, "Who most needs to hear and experience God's healing grace and in their lives?" If we are seen to focus on those who are crying out in their pain, people will give glory to God. If we focus our planning on those who always came, we may have numbers in Church but risk having little credibility as authentic witnesses to Jesus, who was concerned with the power of integrity and not merely with developing his slice of the religious market. We will not inspire young people to dedicate their lives to the service of the self-sacrificing generosity of Jesus. There is always the temptation to build high walls to protect us from those who are hurting. And we may end up deceiving ourselves that we are protecting the honour and divinity of Jesus. But today's Gospel passage suggests that Pope Francis' image of Church as a 'field hospital', is close to how Jesus acted. As with the great founders of radical religious orders and movements in Church history who are remembered for their prophetic work, our credibility today will be measured by the level of our crazy generosity in Jesus' service. When we give ourselves to Christ's service, our comfort ceases to be relevant, for he will ask us to do many uncomfortable things as a sign that grace is at work in our day. A Church that aspires to be comfortable will never be able to bring comfort to the afflicted. The risky job of taking seriously the pain of others is a sign of the Kingdom. It is never a bridge too far.

Thirdly, Jesus engaged with the people who were in front of him. He did not choose them. And we face many painful situations in our diocese and country. That is why I am amazed at the number of social media posts that I get which are passionate about the outcome of the US elections. I don't doubt that there are many people who are interested in US politics. But Christians on this island are called to deal with the realities that we face here, not wasting energy in taking sides in a political soap opera three thousand miles away. When we canonise any political agenda, we risk selling our souls for an earthbound cause. During the awful years of the Troubles here, Church leadership sought to articulate concerns without being conscripted into taking sides in a bitter war. When the divine voice of Christ is hijacked by a worldly movement, we have lost our ability to witness in Jesus' name. When we espouse the political agenda of a particular leader, we forget that Jesus resisted the temptation to acquire political power by compromising the Gospel. A watered-down power-oriented Gospel may suit the strong – but it will not build God's Kingdom.

Jesus has a radical message for every generation. And how does he sustain his ministry, in face the temptations to take an easier route? He makes time for communion with his Father in prayer. Christianity has a political impact on how we run society, but it is always based on a divine manifesto and not on human power games. It is nourished by prayer, sacraments and grace and not by testosterone. It shows itself in hearts that are full of service and never puffed up with arrogance. As Job wrote in our first reading, life is tough for most people much of the time. That is the messy reality that Jesus faced and that he asks his followers to engage with today. Prayer is not a cosy escape from the messy world outside. The prayer and sacramental life of the Church are where we are nourished to face the harsh realities of so many lives in Jesus' name. Jesus revealed God's love and mercy from Galilee to Calvary. It will never be revealed today if Church is too concerned about its own rights or status.

+ Donal McKeown

6 February 2021 | Episode 3, Series 3 

In this episode Bishop Donal begins going through the New Testament, starting with Matthew's Gospel outlining: - what the word Gospel means; - where the Gospels came from; - who was Matthew; - who Matthew's audience was; and - Matthew's approach to explain who Jesus is, His message and the theme of Mission. 

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Contact Info

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

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