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Homily - Third Sunday in Ordinary Time A - Bishop McKeown


Sunday, 22 January

On the last two Sundays, we heard of the baptism of Jesus, and then of John's announcement that Jesus was the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Today, we hear the first words of Jesus as he begins his public ministry. What does today make clear from the outset?

Firstly, healing from sin and its effects lies at the heart of what Jesus proclaims. The one who takes away the sins of the world calls on people to repent, to change their ways. That teaching fits into the whole story told in the bible. Adam and Eve were made in the divine image. But they messed up everything by giving in to temptation and disobeying God. Right from the beginning, human beings are capable of abusing their ability to make free choices. And disaster follows from sin, bad choices. Jesus is portrayed as the one who comes to call people to live rightly, because he will take away the power of sin and instal the reign, the Kingdom of God.

We see the results of sin, of bad choices all around us. Sin has created a dangerous world for everybody, especially those who are more vulnerable. Destructive self-indulgence destroys everything from human dignity to the environment. Consumerism numbs any sense of morality, of good and bad. Violence has always been widespread – from wars to street brawls and domestic abuse. If we believe that I am the arbiter of all right and wrong, then the weak and defenceless suffer most on the altar of my choices. Our current culture says that the right to choose whatever we want will make a good society. What a crazy notion! However, Jesus says that this twisted way of acting can be beaten by grace and love. The Gospel is not merely concerned with teaching new rules. Jesus proclaims that grace can help us to be free to make wonderful choices – and not merely to claim that all choices are morally equal. Jesus does not proclaim a faith that limits human freedom. Rather he calls us to make grace-filled choice that will enhance our human dignity and bless the common good. Jesus does not proclaim a teaching that crushes us. He proclaims that freedom well used will liberate us. That is a message for every generation. Can we find ways to proclaim that message in our time?

Secondly, Jesus invites others to join him in that urgent mission. Fishing and making a livelihood may be important. But there are even more important things than that. Peter and Andrew leave their nets, James and John leave their father and the family business. These make stark choices and they do it immediately. Jesus issues this call in every age. It is important to note that following Jesus costs everything. It will cost the apostles their lives. The church has been at its best when people have heard this outrageous call of Jesus follow him and become fishers of people. The church has been at its worst when vocation was seen by some as a call to a relatively comfortable life-style, full of nice perks and not too much urgency. And the Gospel passage is clear not only that Jesus wants to proclaim the message. We read that there is a huge outpouring of people crying out for healing. Christ's mission does not exist to impose tough teaching on people. The mission exists because so many are crying out for good news and hope in the face of sin and its effects. And it cannot be delivered without huge generosity. We are surrounded by people in distress and in need of help. Can we find way of proclaiming 'Come, follow me' in our me-centred culture?

Thirdly, it is easy to speak in glowing terms of church and its mission. But even in the early decades of church we see that the community in Corinth was split, with people claiming that they were superior to others because they followed a particular apostle. Some things don't change. Today, we hear the same attitudes - I am for John Paul II, I am for Benedict, I am for Francis. We have individuals and groups angrily condemning other people of good will. But John Paul II, Benedict and Francis would want us all to focus only on Jesus, who alone was crucified for our sins. In a badly fractured world where so many public voices love to condemn others, Church has to be a place where grace-filled listening to different voices is cherished. We will discover God's way forward only by hearing voices that we are uncomfortable with. When church becomes an echo chamber where we shut our ears to everybody that is not like us, we betray Jesus. If synodality becomes merely a debating room over my pet issues, then we hear only loud human voices. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit threw the apostles out of their narrow little upper room. The Holy Spirit is disruptive of cosiness. Like Jesus, the Holy Spirit expects us to sit with those whom others call unclean. We must expect to be condemned from all sides when we proclaim that Jesus came to heal those most in need of healing – and that a grace-filled life is possible. In a fragmenting world, can we find ways to be true to Jesus and live in uncomfortable unity with graced diversity?

These scripture readings set before us the challenge that Jesus presented to his contemporaries – proclaim the reign of God's grace by word and action. Jesus does not merely say that we should be nice to people and then expect somebody else to offer them professional help. We also offer the love of Jesus and a worldview where the Cross and resurrection make sense of the pain of being human. Renewal will come to the Irish Church where we rediscover the courage to face sin and its destructiveness with the grace of God that wants to help us make good free choices, no matter how often we have messed up. We will be renewed, not when we say that Jesus asks little from people but when we present a Jesus who asks everything from us and promises us everything. And we will be renewed in an age of fragmentation when we avoid factions and become 'a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race.' (Lumen Gentium 1). Today Jesus proclaims his mission. Are we prepared to take him seriously – or do we think that we know better?

+ Donal McKeown


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