In the last few years we have been hearing a lot about religious extremism. We have seen many examples of religion at its worst, when it is used as an excuse for violence, or corruption. One group decides that not only are they right and everyone else wrong, but that they can also force their views on others, or destroy them: religious extremism. It raises the question, what exactly is the purpose of the Church? Why did Jesus establish a Church?
The mission and purpose of the Church is to make God known to people and to make the work of Jesus Christ known to people. Jesus’ own life was about revealing God to us and shedding his blood for us in order to re-open the path to God, so that when we die we can reach the happiness that God created us for. It is not just about filling churches; it is about teaching people about God and helping people to discover God. Sometimes it is said to me, ‘I wish such and such a person would just go back to mass.’ But just going back to mass is not enough. Faith has to come first. Once someone begins to know God and starts to grow in their faith, then they have a hunger for God and then they come to the church to pray with other people who also believe—like all of us here—to listen to God’s word, and to receive him in the Eucharist. That’s why we come here: to pray together and to be fed spiritually, because we are all trying to live the same way of life.
None of us are strong enough to make it on our own. We need the support of each other. So we listen to the teachings of Christ together and then we celebrate the last supper, where Jesus made himself present in the form of bread and wine, so that He could be with us always. That is what the mass is.
The purpose of Christ coming to us was two-fold. First, to make God known to us, to teach us about him and show us what God is like and how God sees us. Anything we want to know about God we will discover in Jesus. It says in the letter to the Colossians, ‘[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God’.
If I painted a picture of myself, it would just be a picture, but it wouldn’t move or speak. If God painted a picture of himself it would be the person of Jesus. Not just a picture, but a real person. That’s who Jesus is: the image of God. At one stage Philip said to Jesus, ‘Just show us the Father and then we shall be satisfied’. And Jesus said, ‘Do you not understand that to have seen me is to have seen the Father?’ They are one and the same. So, by looking to Jesus and learning about him, we are learning about who God is, what God is like and how God sees us. When you want to know how God sees you, when you are struggling or have fallen into sin, read what Jesus said and how he treated all the people He met. That is how God sees us and relates to us. The story of the prodigal son, where the son insults his family and squanders all their hard-earned money. When he finally comes back, the father just celebrates. All the father wanted was for him to come back. Jesus came not to condemn us, but to redeem us. We tend to think that God is only happy with us, when we are living holy lives. Jesus, who is God, taught that the Father loves us no matter what. He only wants our happiness. He will do everything to help us reach the complete fulfilment that awaits us in heaven, except force us. God will never force us, because He has given us free will. God respects the choices we make, even to rejecting him.
I remember a very devout friend of mine, when thinking about his young kids, said to me, ‘I can’t believe that God would send someone to hell.’ God doesn’t send anyone to hell. People reject God and God respects that choice. Sometimes children reject their parents and cut off communication with them and there is nothing you can do. It is very sad, but it happens all the time. God is the same with us. Love cannot be forced.
The second purpose of Christ coming to us was to free us from the power of Satan, from the power of sin. By dying for us, Jesus reopened the way to God for us. It is now open to us if we turn to him, but that is a choice that each of us must make. The mission of the Church is to let people know about this, what God has done for us and what is there for us all, by turning to Jesus Christ. He is what makes sense of what our whole life is about. It doesn’t make any sense apart from God.
All people have a right to hear about God and to know about him. And it is our mission to make this known to people, because God has told us to. It should never be forced on people, but if this is the truth about God, which we believe it is, then people have a right to know that truth. It is up to them whether they decide to believe it or not.
Sometimes it is argued that we should just be helping the poor, but not talking about God. However, poverty is not just about having enough to eat. Knowing that my life has a purpose is equally important. Helping people to come to know that they have been created out of love and that their lives have a purpose, is just as important as making sure people have enough to eat. So we are called to do both.
I remember hearing about a priest who went on the missions in South America. He was a worker priest and he zealously set about building schools, orphanages, medical centers and better facilities for the people their who had nothing. As time passed he began to notice that fewer and fewer people were coming to his church and they were going to one of the other evangelical churches. After mass one day he said this to one of the elderly parishioners and how he couldn’t understand it. The old man said, ‘Fr. we love you here and I don’t want to hurt you, but what the people need is for you to bring us Jesus.’ He realized that he had spent all his energy making their material lives better, but he wasn’t feeding them spiritually.
We are body and spirit. The spirit is just as real as the body and our spirits need to be fed just as much as the body. If we focus only on the body and the needs of our body, we will starve our spirits, which need nourishment. So much of our society has turned away from God and is spiritually starving. What is the result? Anger, rage, hatred, greed, depression, despair. We can never be fulfilled without God. We need spiritual nourishment and the Lord knows that, which is why He has given us the Eucharist, the gift of his own body and blood and the Scriptures, through which He guides, teaches and encourages us. He has also given us his Church, which passes on his teaching. We come together every week—and for many, every day—to be with like-minded people, because we need the support of each other. That’s what the first Christians did in their homes, until Christianity finally got legal recognition and they were able to build churches. We need the support of like-minded people. In the second reading St. Paul, who is now near the end of his life, writes: ‘I have competed well. I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.’ One of the biggest challenges for most of us is to do just that: to be faithful and persevere.
Is this mission still being fulfilled today? Yes it is. Here am I speaking to you about it two thousand years later. How much faith we do or don’t have is not really important. The fact that we are here at all is what is important. So the mission of the Church is to pass on this truth about God, which God has made known to us. It is the message which makes sense of our whole life and all people have a right to hear this message.
What is the best way we can pass on this message? By living it as well as we can ourselves. The best way we can teach others about what we believe in is by the witness of how we live, rather than by anything we say. When it comes to your own family, someone else will have to help bring them to faith. It is very unlikely that you will be able to convert your brothers or sisters. They won’t listen to you and if you bring up the subject, their defenses will go up. Especially the ‘You should be…’ argument. It doesn’t work and it usually makes things worse, because people close to us will resent it.
I never talk religion to my family, unless they bring it up. Some of them practice, some don’t, but I won’t be able to convert them. God will have to send someone else to do that. My job is to live my faith as well as I can. That is how I preach to those close to me, by keeping my mouth shut.
When you take your faith seriously, people notice. We carry the hope of our faith which shines from within. People notice that you have hope and joy. St. Peter writes, 'Always be ready to give people an explanation for the hope you have. But do so with curtesy and respect.' (1 Peter 3:15). If people ask you about your faith, then tell them. Otherwise, live it from your heart and you will change the world around you.
I will finish with the words attributed to St. Francis of Assisi:
‘Let us go and preach the gospel; and if necessary, use words.’