There’s something in this week’s readings for every person in every situation:
For those who are having a rough time: Job said, “is not life on earth a drudgery”
For the worker who feel’s underpaid: “I’m a slave who longs for my wages”
For those who like Job can’t sleep: “I am filled with restlessness until dawn”
For those who are suffering “Praise the Lord who heals the brokenhearted”
For those who do evil: “The wicked the Lord will cast to the ground”
To those who feel weak St Paul says “To the weak I became weak, to win over the weak”
To those who are sick remember Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law: “He approached, grasped her hand, and helped her up. Then the fever left her and she waited on them.”
To all who need encouragement in prayer “Jesus, rising very early before dawn, went off to a deserted place, where he prayed.”
I would happily have used my homily this weekend to develop any of these great starters, but I felt the Lord nudging me to heed the challenge of the second reading in which St. Paul writes to the Corinthians: “Preaching the gospel is an obligation has been imposed on me, and woe to me if I do not preach it!”
the expectations of the people
As I ponder this passage I’m very aware that I have only a few weeks before I leave the Hurunui after six years. Naturally these last days among the Hurunui people are filled with reflections and memories. I began a recent homily saying (and take a moment to complete this sentence yourselves): “The expectations that parishioners have of their priest are far too . . .”
I wonder what word you used to complete the sentence. When I paused at that point in the homily almost everyone in the church completed the sentence with the word “high”.
The word I then placed in the blank was the word “low.” … the expectations that parishioners have of their priest are far too LOW.
Let me explain.
People expect their priest to be friendly and outgoing company, give a brief homily preferably with a joke or two, bring Easter eggs for the children at Easter, beer for the workers at the working bee, respond without question to requests for baptisms funerals and weddings, and celebrate Sunday Mass in less than an hour.
According to St. Paul (who is repeating the explicit instruction of Jesus) if this is all the priest does in his time in a parish, then he should be living in fear of the final judgement. He should be preparing for “woe”.
Parishioners must challenge their priest to preach the gospel, not only in words but in every action and encounter. If a priest simply gives a feel-good humanist message in a Sunday homily, the parishioners are denied an opportunity to hear the gospel.
This message is not only for the priest who preaches but for every parish, every school, every diocese, every chaplaincy and every Christian every day and in every encounter.
the reduction of faith
One of the challenges the Christian church has is the prevailing secular environment. While living with opposition has always been the reality for Christians who strive to follow Jesus Christ fully, the difference now is that those who oppose the teaching of Jesus usually have no appreciation of transcendent and divine life themselves. The Romans persecuted Christians but they believed in their own transcendent Gods. Catholics and Protestants persecuted each other feeling justified by their own limited understandings of a transcendent God. However today those who oppose Christians usually reject any idea of a transcendent God and deny any form of eternal life with God. For this new secular mentality the years we spend on earth is all there is.
The real problem for Christians is that in an albeit well-intentioned effort to remain relevant in a secular world we fall into the trap of reducing our faith to its human dimensions and speak about faith only in secular terms. We redefine parishes and schools as social and community centres where social justice is the priority and where human models replace Jesus Christ at the centre. A “Parish Centre” is no longer a church, but the lounge alongside where we chat and drink coffee. We reduce liturgy and worship of God to a community celebration. We build churches to provide comfort and convenience rather than as a dwelling place for the divine in our midst. We reduce the sacraments to their visible forms: Baptism becomes a gathering to welcome a new member into a human church community and the Eucharist becomes a shared meal. These reductions ignore the reality of Baptism as the initiation into the divine life of Christ and Eucharist as an active participation in the life of Christ from whom we receive the food of his body and blood.
The Christian community has something unique to offer, not primarily a doctrine a theory or exciting community life on earth or entertaining after-dinner speakers but a real and personal relationship with Jesus Christ who is the answer to all human questioning and the destiny of all human existence. The first fruit of this divine relationship is a more deeply satisfying and abundant life and relationships here on earth, often over good food and drink.
If a church group does not actively and visibly present Jesus Christ it needs to (as St. Paul advises) prepare for “woe” because it has sold its soul.