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Homily - Fifth Sunday of Easter - Bishop McKeown


This is a time when there is much need for renewal in the church. The purpose of renewal is not to make the church strong and make ourselves feel in control. Jesus focussed his mission on bringing the love and mercy of God to those who felt most distant from hope and from grace.

by Bishop Donal McKeown

St Eugene's Cathedral, Derry
Sunday, May 5th 2024

One of the names given to Jesus was Rabbi. He was seen as a teacher, and described as one who taught with authority – and as one who said 'you were taught x,y,z – but I say to you’. Week in, week out, the Liturgy that has been celebrated in this site for over 150 years has sought to give glory to God and to help God's holy people learn about and from Jesus the teacher. The different shape of church buildings reflect ways of understanding God and his People – sometimes emphasising the majesty and distance of God, at other times in a simple building, giving us the message that the God of the Cross is in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, sometimes reflecting the idea captured in one of the Irish words for church, the teach an phobail, the house of the people.

And during this Easter season, after the announcement of the Resurrection, recent Sundays have focussed on who we are because Jesus is risen. We are his flock; we are the branches of the vine – and today the Gospel calls us to be a people marked by a love for one another that reflects Christ's love for us. This parish is not just a supplier of religious services. It is a community where the faithfulness of the shepherd and our shared life in the vine are reflected in how we live together. The Risen Christ calls us to be a community united in him, not merely individuals who pray and pay. What might we learn from Jesus the Teacher today?

Firstly, love is a widely used word – and our second reading proclaims that God does not just love. God is love. However, the love of Jesus is not merely a sweet and passing emotion. Jesus showed that his love for people involved faithfulness, even when he was rejected or misunderstood. St Paul writes that God loved us and Jesus died for us, not because we were good but while we were still sinners (Rom 5:8) The most unexpected people discovered that they were lovable because they were loved by the eternal God – lepers, public sinners, tax collectors and Gentiles. In Jesus they encountered what Pope Francis called 'the face of the Father's mercy'.The whole process of faith is rooted in coming to know the love of the Father here as a preparation for enjoying it hereafter. As St John wrote to the early church, we begin, not with our love for God but with God's love for us. Our prayer and weekly Mass are not merely time to hope for gifts from the almighty God. As we see from the opening lines of the Our Father, prayer and liturgy are focused firstly on giving glory to God for his love revealed in Jesus. For the early church, the Resurrection was proof of the victory of God's love over sin and brutality. Jesus told his apostles that it would be by their love for one another that people would know that they were his disciples (Jn 13:35).

Secondly, there is an old song with a line that says, that it is love that makes the world go round. St Paul writes elsewhere that we might be able to do marvellous things – but that, if we have no love, we are just a noisy empty gong booming. Our modern culture is very much focussed on feelings. I am what I feel here and now today. And many people believe that the best we can expect is a series of semi-detached relationships. The love of Jesus points us to an understanding of love that goes beyond just being based on feelings. Families know that, when the going gets tough, love is very often a decision. Adults and children benefit from knowing that they are loved, even when they mess up. The Christian understanding of marriage is clear that maintaining relationships is difficult – but that faithfulness is possible. When young people have little contact with life-long committed relationships, they risk growing up in a world where they expect little from their own future relationships. It is love that makes the world go round – and Jesus wants us to believe that love is not an unrealistic dream but something that can bring out the best in all of us, especially when the going gets tough.

Thirdly, some people criticise faith in Jesus as a distraction from real life. But Jesus does not want to take us away from the difficult realities of life. Because of the Resurrection, he tells us that grace can transform even the apparently most hopeless of situations. Because Jesus has risen from the dead, death and failure do not have the last laugh. Grace is stronger than sin. That conviction helped people here to dream magnificent churches that would point to the glory of God and give confidence to God's people. We filled churches with rich artwork that would inspire people and point to God. And all of that art is centred on the love of God revealed on the Cross and celebrated around the altar each weekend.

This is a time when there is much need for renewal in the church. The purpose of renewal is not to make the church strong and make ourselves feel in control. Jesus focussed his mission on bringing the love and mercy of God to those who felt most distant from hope and from grace. What he detested was those who wanted to feel superior to others and who loved to condemn. All our synodal conversations are about how we get the message of Jesus to those who most need healing and joy. If God is love, then there is nobody who does not have the right to know of that love. Next Sunday we celebrate the Ascension and the following Sunday is Pentecost. Jesus is preparing us to know who he is and who we are – so that we can be sent out to make that love and mercy known. Jesus tells us that he calls us friends. Today we celebrate the almighty power of love as revealed in Jesus when he told us about the God who is love. We live in a culture that doubts the possibility of love. Are we getting ready to take the infinite love of God seriously and to make it known in our time and place? That is what Jesus calls his friends to do.

+ Donal

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Francis Street, Derry
BT48 9AP

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