Homily for 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time 2009
Have you heard the story about one Sunday morning at Mass when the congregation was surprised by two men entering the church. Both were covered in black and carrying machine guns. One of the men shouted, "Anyone willing to take a bullet for Christ remain where you are!" Immediately the choir fled, the altar servers fled, most of the congregation fled. In a very short space of time there were only ten people left. The man who had spoken took of his hood, looked at the priest and said, "OK, Father, I got rid of all the fence-sitters, how about we make a start."
That is a dreadful story when you think about it.
In our more confident moments we do like to think that we could stand up for what we believe and have the courage of our convictions when faced with such a choice. That is what we pray for when we come to Mass each week. But we know the reality is much different. We do not always live up to our own ideals let alone anything else. Even Jesus closest friends couldn't do it. They all deserted him at crunch time on Calvary. (Of course, they redeemed themselves later and are now saints). The sons of Zebedee, James and John, came to Jesus with a request, we might say an outrageous prayer, "We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." It is a pretty rude request. Maybe Mark, as he writes his Gospel, has put it so bluntly to make the point very clear. And when you think about I suspect much of our own prayer can sound a bit similar. We want God to do what we want! We get be upset if it doesn't happen. We don't want the cross but we want the resurrection.
The request of James and John shows that in spite of what Jesus had been trying to tell them they had not really understood. He had only just finished telling them that suffering awaited him. They, however, still seemed to believe that in a few days when they arrived in Jerusalem Jesus would proclaim his reign over Israel. The other disciples were not without blame either. They were indignant seeing this as an attempt to push them out of the picture. They wanted their share as well. It certainly is easy to criticise them in hindsight. Are we any different? There are plenty of social and corporate climbers who see things in just the same way. Other people are just obstacles to be got out of the way to achieve our goals.
Jesus response to the disciples is said to us just as much to them. "You do not know what you are asking." Jesus, ever patient with them, does not condemn them for their lack of understanding. He does not put them down or throw them out of the group. Rather, he tries again to lead them to appreciate the implications of his mission and of their own discipleship.
"Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptised with?" They confidently say yes! And so do we when we say "Amen" to the Eucharist. He goes on then to assure them and us that the answer to any prayer will indeed mean a cross somewhere along the line. And even on the cross he demonstrates that it is forgiveness that is asked for not condemnation or revenge. So even with the disciples who struggle to comprehend, Jesus is still the servant. His words are from his heart in compassion for them. We do need the enthusiasm of the sons of Zebedee but it has to come to maturity in the community. That takes time.
After listening to some beautiful music on Friday night at a concert in the Civic Centre I wondered: in all this talk of the cross and suffering and death where is the beauty? It can sound very grim and serious. Yet ours is not an ugly religion. Our priority is not self denigration. Our faith is not about destroying people we don't like. It is not about imposing our will on others. Jesus is quite blunt about that: "But it is not so among you" (Mark 10:43). Even though it is so clear it is one command of Jesus that we have very often ignored.
The beauty of the Church is right there in Jesus heart. It is in the heart of any person or community who take up the cup of service to others. It is much in evidence all around us. This beauty is celebrated at Eucharist. It is celebrated at every Christian wedding.
In that story I told at the start about the gunmen who enter the Church who would you identify with? The people who left the church? The people who stayed? Or did you identify with the gunmen? Religious people, Christian, Muslim or Jew have too often identified themselves with the gunmen.