There is a story told of Napoleon when he was at the height of his power. At one stage he met the cardinal of Paris and said to him, “I am going to destroy the Vatican!” The cardinal replied: “You won’t be able.” Napoleon said, “I will. Just you wait and see.” The cardinal said to Napoleon: “You will never be able. We priests have been trying to destroy it for the last 1800 years and we haven’t been able!”
I often think it is amazing how so many people keep coming back to the Church, or even just remain with the Church, in spite of so many reasons to leave it: scandals, bad example, bad preaching and so on. Working in Lourdes as a confessor a couple of times I was amazed at how people from all over the world would come and confess their sins, many after being away from the Church for decades. Why is this? It is because the Spirit of God goes on moving people, drawing people and inspiring people to keep coming back. And where the practice of the faith decreases in one part of the world, such as in Europe at the moment, it increases in another and so the cycle continues.
The Lord does not wait until we are ready to act, or to preach, or to reach out to people. God simply goes on loving his people all over the world and moving people to act where it is needed, whether we are ready or not. In the Gospel today are these lovely examples of what the kingdom of God is like. Jesus compares it to plants growing in the ground. The farmer plants the seed, but the plants grow by themselves, ‘how, he does not know.’ God continues to work and guide people to himself whether we take part or not.
Sometimes I think that our work is a bit like that of the farmer in the parable. We are called to plant seeds. We try and be signposts to God, pointing them in the right direction and then God does everything else. By ourselves we are very limited in what we can do, but the thing is that we do have a part to play. God invites us to be part of his work, helping others along the road to heaven, perhaps by prayer, by example and for a few of us by preaching. But all of us are invited to play a part. For most of us it is a hidden part. I think we often underestimate the importance of praying for others. We speak to them about God mostly by the way we live.
Jesus uses the parable of the mustard seed. It is a tiny seed, but it can grow into something many thousands of times its size. In other words, although we are small we can have a lasting influence on the world around us, even though we may not realise it in our own lifetime. The Church is meant to be small. We are not meant to be big and powerful and we have seen what happens when we get too big and powerful; we forget what we are about and we caught up in prestige and status and our own importance. But when we are small we remain dependent on God and focused on God. That is when God can work through us most effectively because we don’t get in the way. When we are not full of ourselves there is room for God.
I’m sure that one of the things that is happening in the Church at the moment is that God is helping us to become small again. While once we were big and powerful, now we are despised in many places. It is painful, but it is also helping us. The Lord allows this to happen because He loves us and He knows what will help us the most.
The Apostles too wanted Jesus to be big and powerful. James and John asked if they should call down fire on a town that didn’t make them welcome. Another time one of them asked Jesus if the time had come for God to ‘restore the kingdom to Israel,’ in other words to kick the occupying Romans out and become powerful once again. But the way of Jesus was something very different and unexpected. His was the way of the cross. He was despised and rejected and appeared to be a complete failure. The Apostles found this very hard to accept, but eventually God helped them to learn that this was the path that they too must walk.
God goes on making his kingdom grow; drawing people to himself and helping people to find their way; most of the time we don’t know how. We are invited to play our part by praying for those around us and speaking about God by the way we live.