Saturday, April 17, 2010

3rd Sunday of Easter, Year C (Gospel: John 21: 1-19) Feed my lambs

Some time back I was talking to a friend of mine over lunch and he said to me, ‘Isn’t it a bit arrogant of you Catholics to claim that you have the true faith, when there are so many different religions?’ I surprised myself with what I said to him, I believe it was really the Lord who inspired me. I said, ‘Well the way I see it is this: it is not so much that we claim that we are right as that God revealed himself to his people centuries ago through different people like Abraham and Moses and ultimately through Jesus Christ. And we are simply the ones who follow the way that He revealed to us. We try to follow his teaching and we believe that up to now Catholics are the ones who have kept closest to that teaching.’ That’s not to say that we are right and that others are wrong, but we believe that we are following the way that the Lord put before us as the path to God, if you like. Our faith is like a path that guides us along the way to God. It doesn’t allow us to see very far ahead, but the Lord has assured us that he is with us along the way so that we have nothing to be afraid of. This life is simply a time where we have freedom to do as we like, to learn to love and to freely choose to follow God. This path is what will ultimately bring us the most happiness.

It is interesting how before Jesus went back to heaven after God had raised him from the dead, that he clearly put Peter in charge and told him to look after his people. ‘Feed my lambs, look after my sheep, feed my sheep.’ He was commissioning his disciples to look after his people, all those who would follow his way of life. And this is the purpose of the Church as we know it today, to look after God’s people by feeding us, that is, by giving us whatever will help us to grow closer to God. And so the Church passes on the truth about God, as God has revealed it to us.

But how do we know that the Church is right in what she teaches; couldn’t it just be a few men who are out of touch who are passing on their own ideas? This is also why the Lord gave us the guarantee that he would always be with his Church to guide it. In the first reading St. Peter says, ‘we are witnesses to all this, we and the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.’ In other words they were being guided by God’s own Spirit. That’s why they were so confident and had such extraordinary courage. That is why today as well the Pope and bishops also speak out boldly and are often very unpopular as a result. They teach the truth that God has revealed. We don’t always want to hear it because it can point things out to us that we may not wish to see. But it is not the Church’s job to be popular, but simply to pass on the message of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ teaching caused him to be persecuted and eventually crucified, but it didn’t stop him. I already personally know two priests who have been shot dead because of their faith. It will always cause us to be persecuted, but that’s not important. What is important is that we recognise that it is from God and that we do our best to live this way of life. It isn’t easy, but the Lord never said it would be.

As you know the Church tends to get a lot of criticism on an ongoing basis. Some of it is well deserved, but when it comes to teachings about the faith we believe that it is the teaching of Christ that is being passed on. And so although we may not fully understand it we try to accept it as best we can because we believe it is from God. Remember what Jesus said to Peter at another stage: ‘whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven.’ He also said, ‘whoever listens to you listens to me, whoever rejects you rejects me.’

We will always struggle with much of the Church’s teaching to be sure, everyone does, but the one thing that we can not do is to just pick and choose the bits that suit us, because that’s not how it works. The Lord just asks us to persevere and try to be faithful and we also know that we have the great mercy of God to support us when we fall.

‘Feed my lambs, look after my sheep, feed my sheep.’

Saturday, April 10, 2010

2nd Sunday of Easter (Gospel: John 20:19-31) 'Peace be with you'

In December 2005 it was announced on the news that a man called Denis Donaldson, one of Sinn Féin’s top men, confessed to having been a British spy for twenty years. People were totally shocked and amazed that this could happen. The poor man obviously could not live with this any more and so he came out into the open. He then had to go into hiding, and sadly, though not surprisingly, he was killed four months later. God be good to him. I remember thinking at the time that he must now be living in terrible fear. Fear of being hunted down and killed. He had betrayed many, and now he would be afraid of what they would do to him. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him.

2000 years earlier on Holy Thursday night, out of fear the Apostles had all abandoned Jesus, who they believed was the Son of God. Judas had betrayed him for money. Peter tried to be faithful, but ended up publicly swearing that he never knew Jesus. They all betrayed him. Now after Easter they are locked in the upper room afraid. Why are they afraid? One: because they could face the same punishment as Jesus since they were his associates. Two: perhaps they were also afraid of what God would do to them. They had betrayed the Son of God. It is a very human response to be afraid of God when we feel we have betrayed him in some way, by the way we live, or by something we have done.

Then something beautiful happens. Jesus is suddenly standing with them in the room and he says: ‘Peace be with you.’ The first thing he does is to take away their fear. There are no words of condemnation for having abandoned him a few days before. There are no words of judgement on how they were unable to be faithful. Instead: ‘Peace be with you.’ ‘It’s alright.’

I don’t know about you, but I have often felt that I have betrayed Jesus and indeed sometimes wish I was not a priest, when my own sinfulness gets the better of me. And in case you think I am just trying to be holy by saying this, I am not. I am a sinner. This is one thing that God has left me under no illusions about. Sometimes I think it would be easier not to be a priest as I would not have to deal with what is sacred. I could run and hide, so to speak. Think of Peter when Jesus worked the miracle of the great catch of fish. Peter’s reaction was, ‘Leave me Lord I am a sinful man.’ Yet when Jesus appears to the Apostles, the first thing He does is to put them at ease. ‘Peace be with you.’

Each time in the mass when we recall this wish of Jesus to give us his peace—which is not just a universal prayer for peace, but a reminder of what Jesus said to his followers—He is saying, ‘do not be afraid, because I am not here to condemn you, even if you deserve to be condemned. Peace be with you.’ God only wants us to come closer to him and to know that He is not going to act as we do to each other, with frowns or giving out. He knows what we are like. He knows that we betray him, but He still tells us to be at peace. I for one, find that very comforting.

Think too of Thomas who in his grief at the death of Jesus, would not accept the words of others to convince him that Jesus was alive. When you are grieving you don’t want someone else to give you false hope, because it is too painful. And then when Jesus did appear to him He was so kind in helping Thomas to believe. No giving out, but instead Jesus offered Thomas to put his finger into his wounds, so that he would believe. No condemnation for not being good enough; only encouragement. That is characteristic of the Lord: He always encourages us.

‘Peace be with you.’

Friday, April 2, 2010

Easter Sunday, Year C (Gospel: John 20:1-9) The unexpectedness of Easter

A few days ago I got an email from a friend of mine to say that he and a few others were setting up a group called ‘Count me in’. This is a group of mostly young people who want to stand up for their faith and be counted and to do whatever they can to bring about renewal in our Church in this country. They were starting this group partly in reaction to another group called ‘Count me out’ which, as you might guess, is a group of people who no longer wish to have anything to do with the Church. I must admit I was very heartened to hear of this group ‘Count me in’ especially being started by young Catholics who feel the need to stand up and be counted. As my friend so rightly stated in his letter to me, ‘Though we want very much to count ourselves out from any kind of abuse and cover-up by individual Church members and ministers, there is no way we can count ourselves out from Christ’s Body and from his offer of salvation.’ I was hoping for and half expecting that something like this would happen as the Holy Spirit always moves people at the right time, and as you know yourselves there are many of us who believe in and love our Church in spite of many of the scandals that have been caused.

I can’t help thinking of the time when Jesus gave the teaching about his body and blood, saying that ‘Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you cannot have life in you.’ It says that ‘after this many of his followers stopped going with him.’ His teaching was too much for them. But when he turned to the disciples and said, ‘What about you. Do you want to go away too?’ Peter said, ‘Lord to whom shall we go, you have the message of eternal life.’ That is very much how I feel myself. I am horrified and disheartened by all these scandals, just as I know all of you are, but I also feel, where else would I go? I believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that he is Lord and that he has revealed God to us. Why would I want to go anywhere else?

What has all this to do with Easter you might ask? What is key to the event of Easter is that it was the last thing that anyone expected to happen. As far as the disciples were concerned it was all over. The master had been killed and they didn’t know what to do. It took them quite a bit of convincing to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead. When the women first came to them and told them that they had seen a vision of angels who told them Jesus was alive, the Apostles simply didn’t believe them. Then Jesus began to appear to them himself and it still took quite a while for them to really believe.

Either Jesus rose from the dead or he didn’t. If he did, then we have nothing to be afraid of, because it is the Son of God who is guiding his Church, who continues to make himself present in each mass, who continues to minister to his people through the priesthood. If the resurrection of Jesus is not true, then none of us should be here, because everything we believe in is based on the fact that God raised Jesus from the dead.

All that happened at Easter was totally unexpected. The worst disaster—the death of the only completely innocent man—was turned into the greatest event imaginable, an event that changed the course of history. This man Jesus, whom we celebrate, is Lord and he is the one who is guiding us. He is the one we believe in and we must keep going back to his words and his teachings. ‘In the world you will have trouble. But do not be afraid; I have overcome the world.’ Remember too that several of his apostles let him down badly, but it didn’t stop Jesus from using them and from passing his teaching on to us.

For the last months our faith has been severely tested, but let us remember the event of Easter. God turned everything around when people least expected it and in a way that they could never have imagined. This is the God we believe in, who is just as powerfully present to us today. So let us never lose heart or be afraid. God has always been with his people and He always will be.
‘I am with you always. Yes, until the end of the world.’ Happy Easter.