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Homily - 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time - Bishop McKeown

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Sunday, 23 August 2020

This reference to Christ building his Church on the Rock that is the faith of Peter is well known. But it is important to be aware that the word translated as 'Church' appears on Jesus' lips only twice in all four Gospels. However, the word Church appears so many times in the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of the apostles. There are so many images used to describe who we are as Church. Jesus says that he is the Good Shepherd and the Vine, and that we are salt and light, the branches of the vine, sheep of the flock. Today, Jesus' term 'Church' points us to these images and what they say about the comforting and uncomfortable reality that is Christ's Church in every generation. 

Firstly, New Testament reveals a very intimate union between Jesus and his Church. We are living cells in the body where Jesus is the Head (Rom 12:4-5). The Vine and the Branches cannot be separated. The shepherd and the sheep know each other personally. St Paul talks about the Church as the Bride of Christ (Eph 5:21-32). We are aligned on Jesus the cornerstone, being built into a house where God lives in the Spirit. (Eph 2:19-22). Individually we are linked through faith to Jesus. We have died in baptism and been raised so that Jesus' risen life might live in us. We are members of the Church, not merely because of our parents but because we each recognise with Peter that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. And then together, we belong to Jesus. That is why Jesus says that the gates of Hell will not hold out against the Church. The Church is a mystery work of God, held together, not by human strength but by God's providence and plan. The Church is not a human organisation that has won the franchise to act in Jesus' name! Indeed, St Paul believed that it is when we are weak that we are strongest. (2 Cor 12:10) When we depend on our perceived strength, we are weak in Christ's service.

Thus, when we gather each week, we are not just individuals praying in way that we could do equally well at home. We gather as the Body of Christ to encounter together Jesus who the Word of God – and to be fed with the Eucharistic food. Christ is not just one more spiritual consumer product that we turn to when it suits us. We do not belong to ourselves but to Christ (1 Cor 3:23). We don't come here because we fancy doing so – but we gather because he gathers us to join the choirs of angels and saints in their unending hymn of praise to God. The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that we gather for the festival with the whole Church where everyone is a first-born child and a citizen of heaven (Heb 12:22-23). We are not here to impress God or others. We are not here to show what wonderful things we can do for God but to celebrate and steep ourselves in what God has done for us. We are here to be moulded into the Body of Christ, through word and sacrament. I hope that we will soon be able to gather again in good numbers. Worshipping from home may be the best that many can do at present. But it is a poor substitute for the sacramental intimacy that Jesus wants us to share with him and with each other each Lord's Day.

The Gospel challenge is not to get people accustomed to a parish that offers less because there are fewer clergy. The real call is to work with passion to train parishes for an energetic confident proclamation of Jesus in a new situation.

Secondly, the New Testament imagery for the Church also reflects the intimacy between us within the Church. We are part of the people of God, we are God's family (Eph 2:19), we are living stones (1 Pet 2:5), we are living cells in the one Body of Christ. Jesus tells us love of God cannot be separated from love of neighbour as ourselves. We must be reconciled with one another before we come to offer our gifts to God (Mt 5:23-24). Traditionally, we offer one another a sign of peace before we approach the altar to receive Communion. St Paul and St James wrote very strongly against those, who wanted to introduce class distinctions or other loyalties into the People of God.

But that call to unity does not mean we should be happy to be a small, pure Church, cutting ourselves off from the world. The challenge is to see where God is leading us, not where we want to lead God. And God's ways may be uncomfortable for us. We don't have to feel we are in charge because this is God's work, not ours. We do everything to maintain unity rather than dismiss those whose opinions we don't like. The Lord can be working through others and not just through me and my preoccupations. As Jesus tells us, the world will not believe in Jesus unless it sees unity among Christ's followers. (Jn 17:21-23) The Church has to be driven by Christ's crazy call for humility and unity. We are a field hospital, not a super sterile clinic. Jesus wants to see the poor and the lame, the leper, the stranger and the sinner around his table. It is the sick who need the doctor, not the apparently healthy. Love of God and of neighbour are inseparable.

Thirdly, the Church exists for one purpose only – so that the world can give glory to God the Father (Mt 5:16. 1Pt 2:9). We are ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor 5:20), like mirrors reflecting the brightness of God (2 Cor 3:18). The Church exists only to be missionary. It is through the divine gift of our intimate union with Christ and with one another that we can be used to bear a divine treasure, even in the earthenware vessels that we are (2 Cor 4:7). The Irish Church has always reached out – on this island and to the whole world. There is thus no excuse for talking a fallen human language which says all we can do is prepare to wind down the Irish Church. The Gospel challenge is not to get people accustomed to a parish that offers less because there are fewer clergy. The real call is to work with passion to train parishes for an energetic confident proclamation of Jesus in a new situation. We can proclaim Christ's missionary grace, which is at work in every generation, only when we stop our timid joyless narrative getting in the way. This is Christ's Church, not ours.

St Paul, in our second reading, talks about how deep God's wisdom is. He knew something of the mystery that is the Church. He knew that Christ founded one Church, not multiple contrasting and competing variants. This Gospel today is an invitation to be intimate with Christ and united in love with one another. Only by following that wisdom, can we be much needed salt to the earth and light to the world. God's foolishness is much wiser than human wisdom. (1 Cor 1:25)

+ Donal McKeown


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