Today’s Gospel begins with the compassion of Jesus. He saw the crowds, “harassed and dejected” like sheep without a shepherd. And he “felt sorry” for them. He was moved by pity; he had a visceral feeling of compassion. And surely, he saw beyond this particular crowd; he was seeing all humanity, the crowds of the future, the great harvest of those awaiting salvation. His gaze fell on us too, therefore. And the compassion that moved his heart moved him to action: he summoned the twelve, he gave them power over evil spirits and he sent them out. He sent them out first, restrictedly, to their fellow-Jews, the “lost sheep of the house of Israel”. After his resurrection, he sent them out to the whole world. And so began the mission of the Church. The apostles in turn appointed bishops as their successors and presbyters as the coworkers of bishops. And there would be deacons too. This is our history and we are part of it.
And all this springs from the heart of Christ, from his compassion. Every time the Gospel is proclaimed, every time the sacraments are celebrated, every expression of genuine pastoral care is the outflow of Christ’s compassion. Jesus commanded the Twelve: “cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out devils”. It’s a punchy, dramatic summary of the works of mercy, and every time Christians engage in them it is the compassion of Christ which is coming through. “Proclaim that the kingdom of heaven is close at hand”: every time God enters our lives, that compassion is at work.
In the 1st reading from Exodus, the Israelites whom the Lord had freed from Egypt and led through the Red Sea, now reach Mt Sinai where he will make a covenant with them and they will become a “kingdom of priests, a consecrated nation”. At the foot of Mt Sinai, the ancient People of God was born. And we can say that in today’s Gospel, the Church is born, the new Israel, born from the compassion of Christ and the mission of the Apostles. More fully, we can say that the Church was born in the Upper Room when our Lord celebrated the Last Supper and told his disciples to do the same in memory of him. The Church was born in that little band of believers at the foot of the Cross when Jesus told the beloved disciple, “Behold your mother”, and “he took her to his own”. The Church was born – we were born – when Jesus bowed his head and gave up the Spirit, and when blood and water flowed from his pierced side. The Church was born – we were born – when three days later Jesus appeared to the 11 disciples in the Upper Room, breathed on them, and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” The Church was born – and we were born – when 50 days later the Holy Spirit came on the first Christian community, with its twelve apostles, its 120 members and Mary the mother of God. It all flows from the death and resurrection of Christ. It all flows from that compassionate gaze on humanity, harassed and dejected: Jesus from the bosom of the Father gazing on us.
I have to say that I don’t find it easy to preach about the Church. (The same goes for the family, too). There can be so much emotion and misunderstanding in the way, so much history to reckon with, so many current difficulties to navigate. There’s so much of the human in the way of the divine. So often we externalise the Church: we think of it as merely an institution, outside ourselves and answerable to us, like a government or a city council or the NHS. Or if we are loyalists, we think of it as football team we support, even when it loses. And we forget that we are not just supporters or spectators; we are the team. Most of all, we forget how harassed and dejected we really are, how lost, for all our posturing, how helpless. We forget that our greatest need, the one thing that pulls us back from the abyss, is Christ’s compassion. It is the forgiveness of the Cross and the new life of the Resurrection. It’s God’s mercy. And this, even in her strictness, is what we receive in the Church. And so, as one ancient Christian writer said, despite everything, despite us, the Church “is where the Holy Spirit flourishes”.
Gratitude is the first thing.
We have inherited the privileges of Israel. We are together a kingdom of priests, thanks to our baptism, a consecrated nation, called to share God’s work in the world. We are the body of Christ, branches of the vine. And the Church, which we are graced to belong to, is not shapeless. It has a structure. It is founded on the apostles and if we remain within that, in communion with their successors, the Pope and the bishops, we remain in the truth and love of Christ and we share in his mission. We have a life to live. “Now that we have been reconciled” (by his death), says St Paul, “surely we may count on being saved by the life of his Son”, that is, his risen life. Like the beloved disciple, we have been given a mother, who is Mary and the Church. For all the difficulties and scandals, we have each other and the Communion of Saints. We can say with the Psalmist: “We are his people, the sheep of his flock.”
“Indeed, how good is the Lord, / eternal his merciful love. / He is faithful from age to age.”