Saturday, October 20, 2012

29th Sunday Year B (Gospel: Mark 10: 35-45) The Son of man came to serve…and to give his life as a ransom for many

We are living in a time when we are seeing a lot of religious extremism.  You could call it religion at its worst, when people do terrible things in the name of religion and of course it gives religion a bad name.  What it often amounts to is the weakness of human nature and how one group can decide that it is right while everyone else is wrong or that they have the right to force their ideas on others.  It can happen with any religion.  I suppose one thing it brings up is the question of what the purpose of religion is in the first place.

Why do we have a Church and what is its purpose?  We believe the Church is here because Jesus established it.  The reason Jesus established it was to pass on his teaching about God; so that all people might come to know God and what God has done for us. 
You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church and the gates of the underworld can never overpower it.  I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven: whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven (Mt 16: 18-20).

The difficulty as always, is that the Church is made up of weak, sinful human beings.  In Jesus’ life-time on earth he was let down several times by the very people he chose to lead his Church and that problem continues to this day.  Because we are dealing with the weakness of the human condition, we are continually faced with similar problems.  People in charge forget what they are about, or get caught up in the need for power, or whatever it might be.  It has always been this way and probably always will.

It’s interesting what happens in today’s Gospel.  James and John ask for ‘power’ and recognition.  ‘Grant that we may have places at your right and left hand…’  And then Jesus tells them and us something interesting: 
You know that among the pagans their so-called rulers lord it over them… This is not to happen among you…  For the Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.

The first reading also confirms this:
The Lord has been pleased to crush his servant with suffering. 

What God is saying to us is that his way is very different way to what we are used to.  It is not the way of power and might, but of littleness and of transformation through suffering.  This is something that is very hard for us to get our heads around.  We want our Church to be big and powerful.  We want everyone to be part of it and to see how ‘right’ we are.  But Jesus tells us that that is not how it works.  ‘The Son of man came to serve…and to give his life as a ransom for many.’  So the first thing is that we are not meant to be big and powerful.

So then what exactly is the mission or purpose of the Church?  Jesus’ coming among us had a twofold purpose.  He came among us to teach us about God; who God is and how He looks after us; about the reality of life after death; about the reason why we are here in the first place: to love and serve.

The second reason Jesus came among us was to die for us.  Think of the line in the mass where the priest prays over the chalice: ‘It will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.’  That is why Jesus came among us; so that our sins could be forgiven and that we would be able to reach the happiness that God created for us.  You could say that Jesus came among us for our happiness.  The mission of the Church is to make that known to all people.  If it is really true, as we believe it is, then all people have a right to know this.  They don’t have to believe it or accept it, but they do have a right to know about it and it is our mission to make that message known to everyone we can because Jesus asked us to.  Is this mission still being fulfilled today?  It certainly is.  Here am I in front of you 2000 years after Jesus walked on earth, proclaiming the same message.

In the news we continually read about all the terrible things that are done in the Church and in the name of religion and there are terrible things done.  But we don’t hear about the wonderful work that is continually done all over the world.  And we don’t hear about the fact that the Church continues to preach this message of Jesus—what we call the Good News or Gospel—all over the world.  I’m sure it will continue to be done in messy, inefficient ways, because we are dealing with human beings, but none the less it is being done.

How do we know that the Church is from God at all?  Well to me the greatest proof of this is the fact that it is still there at all.  When you think of all the great superpowers that have come and gone: the Roman Empire, the Chinese dynasties, the great European superpowers.  All were highly organised and efficient.  Yet the Church, in spite of bad example, scandals, bad preaching, etc., is still here.  How can that be?  Because it is the power of God working in and through it.  It is not dependent on human beings, but on the power of God.  And so we continually turn to the power of God and pray that we will continue to be the kind of messengers and servants that He calls us to be.

Jesus Christ is Lord, Son of God.  He was born of the Virgin Mary.  He taught us about God and he suffered and died for us.  Because of him we can have happiness with God when we die.  He is the one who makes sense of why we are here.  This is the message we believe in and this is the message we will continue to try and pass on to all peoples.

‘The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve
and to give his life as a ransom for many.’

Saturday, October 6, 2012

27th Sunday Year B (Gospel: Mark 10:2-16) The call to marriage and religious life

One of the things that I did before I became a priest was to work in a jewellery store for a while as a salesman.  During that time I learnt an interesting thing about the way that precious stones like diamonds are polished.  The stones come in roughly cut and they are put into a container along with grit and shaken at high speed.  The grit and the stones rub off each other and they polish each other.  When the stones come out of the container at the end, they are sparkling and beautiful.  But while they are in that container they are just being thrashed about and having the corners knocked off of them.  I always think that this is a good analogy for what happens in married life, and indeed in any way of life well lived. 

Those of you who are married know better than I do that there is a lot of rubbing off each other, which can be difficult.  But all the time you are actually forming each other into better people, or you could say that God is forming you through each other.  The corners are knocked off us, and the trials that we go through are all the time helping us to become the best people that we can be.  That is God’s plan for us; that we reach our full potential.  At the time—just like in the container—we only see the endless trials and struggles that seem to come up.  But as time passes other people begin to notice that (hopefully) we are becoming more patient, tolerant and understanding.  Of course it doesn’t always work that way, but that is the idea.  It is true of any way of life, but I think it is particularly obvious in married life.

One of the things that can also happen after a time in married life and in religious life, is that all the sparkle seems to dry up.  Here I can talk more particularly about religious life, since that what I am most familiar with.  You begin to wonder why it seems so dull.  Did I make the wrong choice?  Should I change?  Would it have been better if I had gotten married?  I think it’s no harm to remind ourselves that this is a normal part of the growth stage in any vocation.  My partner is not as interesting or exciting as I thought they were initially.  Should I have married someone else?  This is also where the commitment is so important and that is why we take marriage vows and religious vows, to give us strength to keep going when things are not easy and to ask God to help us.  Hopefully, if we do manage to persevere we keep growing to a deeper level of commitment and love.  We are maturing and blossoming as people, but as you know it is not an easy path.  However, that doesn’t mean that it’s not worthwhile.

Now I know that it is not always as simple as that, and that a certain percentage of marriages don’t work out and the couple end up separating.  It is sad, but that is life.  The same happens with religious life; a certain number end up leaving for whatever reason.  In the Gospel today Jesus ends up addressing this same age-old question and as always it is interesting what the Son of God has to say to us.  ‘Yes Moses did allow you to divorce, but that was not the original plan.’  I think that this should tell us two things.  Firstly, that it is worth making a lot of effort to help marriages and religious life work, because that is God’s plan for us.  But also to recognise that things don’t always work out and so we should also do our best to help those for whom things have not worked out.  God always wants to help us and offers us a lot of help in every way of life.  That is why marriage is also a sacrament, something that invokes God’s help and blessing, because God knows well that we struggle.  The same is true with religious life.  The fact that marriage doesn’t always work out is no reason to abandon marriage, and the same goes for religious life.  Just because it doesn’t work for everyone is no reason to abandon it.  It is all the time a question of us trying to get the balance right, which is never easy and that is why we need to continually turn to God for his help. 

I think what is really important for us to remember is that God does want our life to work out; that his plans for us are good and that the Lord always continues to help us when things have not worked out.  We are never alone and we are never abandoned.  Our path to heaven does not depend on us getting it right, but rather in continually trying.

‘God saw all that He had made and indeed it was good.’