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Homily - Second Sunday in Ordinary Time - Bishop McKeown

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Sunday, 15 January 2023

The church's year has seasons when particular themes are emphasised, such as Advent, Lent and the Easter Season. Today we are at the start of those 'ordinary 'times of the year when we do not have a particular season. We are simply invited to walk with the disciples as they see and hear Jesus, wonder who he is and try to make sense of everything from his early years to his death and resurrection. Today we begin with John the Baptist – who had gathered large crowds – inviting them to follow the one for whom he was only preparing the way. What can we learn?

Firstly, John does not present Jesus merely as some nice person who will chase out the Romans or teach pleasant moral lessons. John tells people that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. For a Jewish audience, that was an enormous claim. The Chosen People believed that a Lamb's blood had saved them, from slavery in Egypt – and they constantly offered animal sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus is now proclaimed as the one Lamb who will replace all the sacrifices of the Old Testament. John makes clear what our faith entails. It is not primarily about keeping new laws and values. At the heart of the Gospel is the challenge that his followers constantly faced – do you believe that Jesus is the one who takes away all the sins of the world, if only we bring them to the foot of the cross? That is why the early preaching by the apostles was about the death and resurrection of Jesus, the ultimate proof that he was who he claimed to be. All that we are and do as Christians is centred on knowing Jesus.

Secondly, John has only one purpose in life, namely, to bring people to Jesus so that they can know the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He may well have been tempted to promote himself. But the Gospel shows someone who wants to step aside as soon as Jesus appears. As St Paul shows in the second reading, God is in charge of all that the church does. The church exists only to make Jesus known and loved. We can often get caught up with the idea that we have to work and teach in such a way that makes the church popular, powerful or palatable. John the Baptist and Paul believed that they had been called to spend their life doing one job, namely to build up what Paul calls 'the holy people of Jesus Christ'. He also calls Jesus' followers 'saints'. In this country, we have gotten used to a particular model of church which was remarkably strong and missionary orientated. There is a temptation to think that renewal is merely about getting us back to where we used to be. But today's readings make it clear that all of our structures have to be measured against how well they make Jesus known and how well we are being built up as the holy people of God. It is natural that some believe we should up-date our teachings so that everybody will think we are nice reasonable people. But church is called to witness to Jesus and remember that it is about him, not about us. That is what John the Baptist and Paul are telling us today. The message remains the same. But the structures and method constantly change as our circumstances change. In today's readings Isaiah, Paul and John all believed that they were called by God to be witnesses. We are called to be faithful to the mission of Jesus and not merely to a way of being church that we found comfortable and comforting.

Thirdly, Jesus takes away the sin of the world. Despite appearances to the contrary, sin is not in charge. Sin is not inevitable. Jesus has come to conquer its power over us, a power that has been there since Adam and Eve were tempted. Our culture tends to play down the possibility of sin or assume that bad behaviour is inevitable or really nobody's fault. We are told that it is really up to me to make my choices, that no-one has a right to comment on anybody else's behaviour, that no-one should be made to feel uncomfortable because of their choices. One huge challenge for us as a church is how to speak of the reality of sin in a world that avoids talking about it in ourselves – and yet loves to find and condemn it in others. That journey starts by being conscious of the plank in our own eyes before we start complaining about the speck in somebody else's. Only a church that knows itself forgiven by the lamb of God is in a position to proclaim the forgiveness and healing that Jesus offers. If we haven't experienced resurrection in our own lives, we are just talking hot air. The Gospel is full of stories of people being healed and renewed. The most powerful witnesses to Jesus are those who, in their own life's story have known him as the Lamb that John introduces.

For most of this year in Ordinary Time, we will be following the Gospel of St Matthew on Sundays. In Ireland and around the world, we recognise that we face an uphill struggle if we are to be renewed as Christ's church, his saints. That struggle is the reality in which we are invited this year to get to know the Jesus whom Matthew, the tax collector met one day on the shores of the sea of Galilee. We are called to look at how we are church in this diocese. Restructuring our parishes and preparing lay people for ministry will not be easy. But Isaiah and John and Paul tell us to face those enormous challenges with hope for we trust that God is at work in our time and place. God is offering us a future full of hope, if only we let ourselves be guided by the Spirit's power and not by our paralysing fears. God knows that sin can be defeated – and he asks us to believe that.

I invite you to have a copy of the Gospel. Talk about what you hear and see with others. Pray about words, phrases and passages that encourage you, or make you feel uncomfortable or confused. When you pray to Jesus, worship him as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. When you struggle with sin in your own life, call on him as the one who is stronger than sin. Before you come to Holy Communion remember that you are not just getting vague spiritual nourishment but being fed by the one whose main task is to take away the sin of the world and its effects. John the Baptist announces who Jesus is. It is up to each one of us to decide whether we take that seriously.

+ Donal McKeown


'God has plans for His People' A Pastoral Letter from Bishop Donal McKeown, January 2023

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Francis Street, Derry
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