No 5: Part of a People

Homilies on the Kerygma,
St Mary’s Cathedral, 4th Sunday of Lent, 14 March 2021.

“God being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:4-6). There’s the kerygma, from today’s 2nd reading.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). There’s the kerygma again, from today’s Gospel.

“It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). What St Paul says of himself, every baptised Christian in the state of grace can say of themselves.

Through the Paschal mystery, the Holy Spirit has been released anew into the world and he connects us to the risen Christ. This is salvation. This is eternal life. Christ lives in us and we in him, now and forever.

There’s one further dimension of this I want to highlight in this last homily.

Just as God is not just God, but Father, Son and Holy Spirit, so Christianity is not just God and me, but God, me and us.  It is triangular, triune.  We share Christ’s life. We live a common life in his Body. To be Christian is to be part of a people: reconciled with God and one with each other, forgiven and forgiving.

This being-together, says the Catechism in six careful phrases (CCC 759-769), was “a plan born in the Father’s heart”; it was “foreshadowed from the beginning”, “prepared for in the Old Covenant”, “instituted by Christ Jesus”, “revealed by the Holy Spirit” and “will be perfected in glory”. The first thing Jesus does, as he proclaims the Kingdom, is gather disciples. Through words and gestures he forms them into his Church, the Kingdom’s beginning.  He makes twelve of them shepherds, provides us with the bread of the Eucharist, pours out the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. And so to belong to Christ means to belong to his Church. It is through the Church we receive his life and with and in the Church that we live it for the world. The word “Church” can stick in the throat. It’s unfortunate it rhymes with “lurch”. Other languages have more uplifting names: ecclesia, Chiesa, iglesia, eglise. But of course it’s not just a word that’s a problem: it’s dark passages of history, the limitations, the sins of Christians, painful experiences. It’s also mis-readings and the cataracts that form so easily over the eyes of faith. We need to see. The Church is not an “it”, but a “she”. She’s not “them”, she’s “us”. She’s not simply “the clergy”; she’s an organic whole with shepherds certainly, but overwhelmingly lay, salted with religious too, a cohesion of gifts and ways of service and vocations. The Church is sanctuary and nave and porch and side-aisles and chapels; a rich and varied folk, good fish, bad fish, mixed fish. Not just a social institution with a legal status and wrinkled and crippled by too much history. She collects multiple metaphors: she’s a new human family, a new people, a new race, the “third race” drawn from Jews and Gentiles, sinners and saints, nothing if not diverse and inclusive. She’s where grace and sin get to grips and slug it out, the turbulent suburbs of the Jerusalem above. She’s the mystical Body of Christ, wounded and healed at the same time. She’s Christ’s Bride, his helpmate in the re-generation and transformation of humanity. Whatever her / our sins and limits – maybe because of them – the Church is mother, house, city, Temple, sheepfold, sheltering tree. The Christians of the 2nd century were a drop in the ocean of humanity, even in the Roman Empire of the day, but they looked at themselves with the eyes of faith and believed they belonged to something older than the world, a people for whom the world was created, who were the soul of the world, who kept it from disintegration, delayed its judgment, kept it in existence until the harvest had been reaped and the goal achieved (cf. Harnack). The proudest boast of a believer, then, was to be a “member”, the key quality was to “belong”. Part of a people.

And in that people, “in the multiform wisdom of God” (Eph 3:10), I will find my gift, my call, my vocation. More than anywhere else, here I can be me. Here I can be free.

Here, then, is the new space opened up by the empty tomb and destined to open out into eternity, already wide open in Mary and the saints. It’s the place of grace. Here we enter by faith and conversion. Here we can listen to God and be forgiven and fed. Here we are rich in brothers and sisters, and no longer orphans. Here Christ’s life circulates, irrepressibly. I don’t stay in the Church because everyone in her is wonderful. (I’m not, for a start). And I don’t leave the Church because they’re not. I stay because she’s family, God’s family. I stay because Jesus does, because he loves the Church and gave and gives his life for her (cf. Eph 5:25). Here, the Father’s two hands – the Son and the Holy Spirit- are drawing all humanity together. Here, the outstretched arms of the crucified Christ, which held three shivering Mary’s and a beloved disciple under the Cross, are open to hold me too. Part of a people. His.

Forgive the bad taste of “lurch” and “Church”, but here’s something to complement it. There was not long ago a Christian monastery in Algeria, located in a remote rural village, the population wholly Muslim. Civil war came and the monks were advised by governments to leave the country. They spoke with the villagers: what do you want us to do? And the villagers said: we want you to stay. You see, they said, we are birds and you are the branch on which we perch. “Perch” rhymes with Church too. Didn’t Jesus tell a parable of the mustard seed which grows into a tree large enough where the birds of the air, homeless, storm-tossed, blown about, can find shelter? And what do birds do on the branches of trees? They rest, they are safe, they can sing.

“Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we can ask or think…to him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (Eph 3: 20, 21).


RC Diocese of Aberdeen Charitable Trust.
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