Saturday, August 30, 2014

22nd Sunday Yr A (Gospel: Matthew 16:21-27) Unless you pick up your cross and follow me, you cannot be a follower of mine.

 Recently AT & T ran a series of commercials with Kindergarten children which were very cute.  They asked the children questions and just let them respond naturally.  In one of the commercials the children were asked, ‘Is it better to get what you want now instead of later?’  One little girl said, ‘You don’t want to wait to eat your raisins.’ When asked why not, she replied, ‘Because they’ll turn into grapes!’ The company was advertising the fact that with them you can get what you want straight away and you won’t have to wait.  Nothing strange about that, in fact it is what we are continually told through commercials. We should be able to have whatever we want right away, we shouldn’t have to make sacrifices for anything, or at least the absolute minimum.  Then we have today’s readings which take a very different view.

Did you ever think that Jesus would have called the first Pope, St. Peter, Satan?  It seems a bit extreme, doesn’t it?  In the context that Jesus used it, it doesn’t actually mean ‘the devil’, rather ‘enemy’.  But why was he calling St. Peter an enemy, when he was entrusting his Church to him?  Jesus was teaching the disciples that they must learn to think in a different way.  The way of Christ and the way of the world are different, radically different.  If we want to walk the path of Christianity and follow the way of Jesus, then it will cost us.  Make no mistake about it, it will cost us.

One of the difficulties we face is that we are continually told that we should and can have everything that we want.  ‘If you want something, get it.  And if you can’t get it, remove whatever is preventing you from getting it.’  ‘Have everything your way.’  That’s the teaching of the world.  And people listen to the world and that’s why there is so much corruption around us, because too many people are thinking of themselves only.

God gives us a choice when it comes to being Christian, and the choice is this: do you want to follow the way of Jesus Christ, or your own way?  The way of Christ is quite demanding and Jesus made it very clear that it was and that it will cost us. ‘If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself take up his cross and follow me.’  Ironically many people leave the Catholic Church to follow more demanding forms of religion because they feel that our faith is too easy.  That’s why many young people follow eastern religions.  They haven’t fully understood what our faith is about.

When Jesus referred to his future suffering, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Heaven preserve you Lord, this must not happen to you.’  Things had been going very nicely up to this point.  Jesus was working miracles and becoming very popular and more and more people were following him.  So the Apostles held privileged positions as well.  But now if Jesus was going to be tortured and put to death, that would ruin all that.  Lord you mustn’t let this happen, we like it the way things are, we don’t want pain and suffering and to be unpopular.  But Jesus says to him, ‘The way you think is not God’s way but man’s.’  It is the way of the world that we shouldn’t have to suffer or make sacrifices.

You could say that we have become spoiled Christians.  What do I mean?  We tend to do the things that we like and when it suits us.  We are happy to shop on Sundays because it suits us, even though it is directly breaking one of God’s commandments to us.  Many people don’t bother fasting for an hour before they receive Holy Communion, because it’s too much trouble.  We use the name of Jesus as a swear word, even though this is breaking one of God’s commandments as well.  And then people say that they haven’t sinned, even though this is why Jesus died, because we do sin.  But people say to me all the time, ‘Oh no, I haven’t any sins.’  Let me assure you as I say this, that I am as guilty as anyone else.

If we were to follow the more popular version of Christianity, then priests would be married, there would be women priests, we wouldn’t have to fast, we could teach divorce and contraception as the obvious solution to difficult problems, because these things suit us.  But that’s not what our faith is about.  Being a Catholic involves a certain way of life. It involves making sacrifices and doing things that don’t always suit us.  Going to mass on Sundays when we would rather be asleep or having coffee; confessing to God regularly that we have sinned.  Following his teaching as passed on by the Church and not just the bits that suit us.

Perhaps what is most important to mention is that although it is a difficult path it is also the path that leads to life.  That’s why Jesus didn’t give in to Peter and say, ‘You know, you’re right, your way is much better’.  God knows what it is that will lead us to life and that’s why He encourages us to persevere in the way that He asks us to follow rather than compromise.

I think it’s no harm to remind ourselves every so often, that the path to heaven is meant to involve sacrifice.  This life is the time when we are asked to put up with difficulties and make sacrifices.  Only in the next world will we be totally fulfilled.

Sometimes people ask me why I became a priest.  I always think that the first reading sums it up very well, where Jeremiah says, ‘You have seduced me Lord and I have let myself be seduced.’ And then he goes on to say, ‘I tried not to speak in God’s name, but it was as if there was a great fire welling up within me and I could not resist it.’  The desire to be married has always been there for me, but the call to priesthood was stronger.  It involves a lot of sacrifice, but I think married life involves even more sacrifice.  It is not something we should be afraid of, it is simply part of our path to heaven.

Let me finish with the words of St. Paul from the second reading which sum up what I’m trying to say:

Do not model yourselves on the world around you, but let your behaviour change, modeled by your new mind.  This is the only way to discover the will of God…’

Saturday, August 23, 2014

21st Sunday Yr A (Gospel: Matthew 6:13-20) We keep focused on the Lord

There is a place in my hometown of Galway called An Tobar Nua (which means The New Well), which is run by some Baptist friends of mine.  Their aim is to help people come back to their own faith, whatever Christian group they are part of.  They do great work.  For two years they asked me to give a lecture to a group of protestant students from America who were with them for several months.  They asked me to give an overview of the development of the Christian faith in Ireland.  The idea was that they could then ask me questions about the Catholic faith.  I enjoyed it and the questions were interesting.

They are usually the same questions that come up: why do we ‘worship’ Our Lady?  So I try to explain that we certainly don’t worship Our Lady as this would be idolatry, but we do give her great honor just as Jesus did.  Another question is: how can a priest claim to forgive sins?  This question is a particularly interesting one, because it brings up a lot of other things.  The truth is that the priest himself does not forgive sins, because the priest is only a human being, but that God forgives sins through the priest.  But even this understanding, where does it come from?

You will remember in some of the Gospel passages where Jesus said to one or two people before he healed them, ‘Go, your sins are forgiven.’  When he said this the religious people of the time were shocked because they said ‘Only God can forgive sins.’  Then he showed his authority to forgive by also healing the person.

This Gospel passage today is connected to this, because in it is the answer to why we take the teaching of the Church seriously and also where the power of the priesthood comes from.  God the eternal Father, revealed to Peter who Jesus really was, and straightaway Jesus points this out to him and then appoints him as the first one to lead his Church.  Then Jesus says this extraordinary thing: ‘Whatever you bind on earth will be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be considered loosed in heaven.’  And in another passage Jesus says: ‘Whatever sins you forgive will be forgiven, whatever sins you retain will be retained.’

What Jesus was saying was that he was giving his authority to Peter and the Apostles, not because they had all the gifts and talents needed to continue this movement by themselves, but because it would be God who would work through them, teach through them and forgive through them. 

All around us at the moment there is terrible confusion.  Even all the arguments to do with gay marriage and everyone being told they have the right to do pretty much everything, and if they don’t then they are being discriminated against.  It is disturbing to say the least.  What are we to do about it?  We have only to stay calm and remember who it is that is guiding us, God himself.  So it is our job to stay focused on the Lord, on his teaching through the Church and not worry about all the craziness around us which can be both confusing and frightening as everything we believe in seems to be being undermined.  Throughout the ages this has always been the way, but perhaps it is more 'in our face' now than usual.

You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church; and the gates of the underworld can never prevail against it.’

Jesus gave Peter and the apostles his authority because God himself would be working through them and God continues to work and teach through them and through the priesthood; to offer his forgiveness through them and to make Jesus present in each mass through the priesthood.  I don’t know why He did this, but I believe it, and that is enough. 

It says in the second reading ‘How impossible to understand God’s motives!’  So much of what God does makes no sense to us, including God’s Church and how it works.  But all that is really important is that we believe that this is from God and that it is not from people.  If I believed that this was a human institution I can assure you I would not be here as a priest.  I am a priest because I believe God called me to be a priest and to continue to pass on his message as best I can.  I sometimes wish He had picked someone else instead, because it is often quite difficult, but at the same time I am very grateful because it is a huge privilege.

So our job is to try and be faithful to the Lord’s teaching which is given to us through the Church and not to be afraid of the chaos that is going on all around us in society.  We keep the Lord Jesus at the center; we keep coming back to listen to what He is teaching us through the Scriptures and we receive Jesus continually in the Eucharist.  That is enough.  It is the Lord’s Church, the Lord’s teaching and there is nothing for us to be afraid of if we keep focused on him.

 ‘You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church
And the gates of the underworld will never hold out against it.’