21st Sunday Ordinary Time, Year A
Not sure if you have had the same experience, but when I was growing up being a Catholic and going to Mass was deeply uncool. Most of my friends didn’t seem to be interested in faith, and most of them didn’t go to Mass, especially in high school. Virtually all of them stopped when they got to university.
So when faith is uncool, I grasped on to anything that could make it cool. If there was a film or a celebrity that seemed to be in favour of the Church, I checked it out. I guess I was looking for affirmation that being a believer could be cool. It was only later that I realised I was getting it the wrong way round: I was judging the faith by the world, rather than the world by the faith.
However, one of the things I grasped onto was a particular song by a band I liked. The band was the Stone Roses and the song was called “I am the resurrection”. The climax of the song is the lead singer Ian Brown belting out this quote from John’s Gospel, “I am the resurrection and I am the life”. I thought great: someone cool is singing about the gospels.
Being a nerd, I looked up interviews with the singer, Ian Brown, who wrote the lyrics. Unfortunately, one interview made it very clear that the song’s intention was the opposite of what I thought. Ian Brown said that he thought that it was incredibly dangerous for someone to say “I am the resurrection and the life”. I remember feeling really disappointed.
It was only later that I realised, as is so often the case, an unbeliever was taking Jesus’s words more seriously than I had been. This really was a very dangerous thing to say. Unless it was true. C.S. Lewis once said that if you take Jesus seriously, he is either a liar, or he is crazy, or he is God. You have to choose.
Indeed, this is one of the ongoing scandals in Christianity. Particularity. The particularity of the Jewish people. The particularity of Jesus. The particularity of the Church. The particularity of Christian teachings. The particularity of my neighbour. The particularity of my vocation.
And particularity was scandalous for society right from the outset. For example, in the first few centuries AD, divine revelation was not considered strange. Everyone was religious, and all religions had revelations. However, Christians spoke about the revelation in Christ as judging all others. This was scandalous. How could Christians make such an absolute claim?
Even today, we see the same scandal. Some of you might remember when the Vatican brought out a document called Dominus Iesus. This document basically said the same thing: that Jesus judged all other truths. The same scandal broke out. How can you say such a thing? The Vatican was accused of being judgmental, of being arrogant in saying that Jesus was the truth.
Though this desire to not be judgmental might come from a good place, might come from a sense of injustice, or a desire for equality, unfortunately, it runs into a very serious problem. That problem is that it expresses itself by trying to replace what Jesus actually said with what we think he should have said. In trying to give someone a voice, we deny the voice of God. The particularity of Christianity, of Jesus, of God, then somehow becomes a negative judgment.
Just like how I wanted religion to fit into the world, for my faith to be cool, the same spiritual problem emerges in relation to the particularity of faith. God has chosen to become incarnate in a very particular way. God has chosen to offer us eternal life in a very particular way. God has instituted a very particular church. And we would often rather substitute our own better way of doing things, or our own better teachings. We say yes to God, but then seek to have God submit to us.
I think we hear one of those seemingly arrogant sayings in today’s gospel. Jesus says to St Peter: “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church. And the gates of the underworld can never hold out against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven: whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven.”
These words are inscribed in giant letters around the interior of St Peter’s in Rome. Whoever did this, maybe understood this saying in the same way that the lead singer of the Stone Roses understood that saying from John’s Gospel. It must be understood as being huge. This is either true or lunacy. There is no middle ground. And we believe it is true. God really has built his Church on St Peter’s faith. God really has given the Church the power to forgive sins. This is all very particular. We don’t get to tell God how to be God.
But, there is another side to particularity, one that we need if we are not, in fact, to full into the trap of arrogance, the trap of actually dressing up and hiding our own desires in ecclesiastical robes, rather than preaching God’s Incarnate word.
God gives us very concrete gifts. Our job is to receive them in an increasingly concrete fashion. We must let the Holy Spirit make them ever more incarnate in us. For it is to the extent that they become incarnate that they actually become universal. The more precise a truth becomes, the more it is lived and believed, the more universally valid it is.
It is the same with our vocations. The more concrete they become, paradoxically the more open they become. They become more of a gift to others, which in the end is the only way to understand such gifts. Given to be given. We each of us are gifts from God to others. It is only when we cease to serve, it is only when we start to think about the world in terms of dominance rather than gift, that we get it wrong.
This week, then, we might think about particular teachings or particular gifts. What are those teachings or gifts that we hear as negative judgments? The next thing to think about is: how might I get a new perspective on these teachings or these gifts, so as to understand them as Christ washing my feet, washing my feet so that I might wash the feet of others?
Let’s ask God to give us the insight to see such gifts and such teachings as within God’s divine plan for creation, so that we might then be able to help our brothers and sisters when they have the same questions as us.