I sometimes joke that it is difficult for God to become incarnate in Ireland, because we tend to push him back up into the sky, while we fill the void with saints, relics, and novenas, all supposed to help us get up to God! Poor St. Peter seemed to get it wrong more than most of the apostles; in fact, it seems that everytime he opened his mouth, he had to change feet!
One of the many times Jesus had to correct him was at the Last Supper, when Jesus took a basin of water and a towel, and knelt at the apostles' feet, and began to wash their feet. Peter was shocked, and refused to allow Jesus to wash his feet, but Jesus told him that, unless he allowed this service be rendered, he could not be one of Jesus' disciples.
Here was God, in Jesus Christ, meeting the apostles, not just where they were, but even at ground level, meeting them from the ground up, in total acceptance. When he had finished this extraordinary act of humility and service, he told them that he had given them an example, and this was how they were to treat each other. No wonder someone asked one time if Christianity had died on the cross with Jesus, because we have not seen much of such service since.
The Acts of the Apostles says that Jesus came "to do and to teach". In other words, he himself did the service, and then he asked his disciples to do the same. He even suggested that his love for them was to be their ideal in loving others.
The cross is the symbol of Christianity. If Jesus had died in any other way, the cross would still be a very suitable symbol. It consists of two beams, one across, and one down. What comes down from God to me, must go sideways to those on either side of me. When forgiveness comes from God, then I must pass forgiveness out to those on either side. The snag is that, if this forgiveness does not go sideways to others, it ceases to come to me. Jesus said: If you forgive, you are forgiven. Condemn not, and you will not be condemned. Judge not, and you will not be judged. Be merciful, and you will have mercy shown you. By the same measure with which you give to others, by this same measure will you yourselves receive.
I think that is crystal clear, and needs very little comment from me. It's extraordinary, when I think that so much of this has been put into my own hands, that I have so much say in my own destiny. The ideal of Christianity is to get the balance between the vertical (up and down line), and the horizontal (the line across). In other words, I don't think God wants to hear me tell him that I love him, thank him, praise him, or I'm sorry, unless the people in my life hear it first. I believe it is more important to seek forgiveness from others than from God.
Very religious people can have a really vertical religion, when I can spend a lot of my time talking to God, and I'm not talking to my neighbour. That, I believe, is an abomination. Jesus says that if you bring your gift to the altar, to offer it to God, and there you remember that someone is hurting because of you, leave you gift right there, go away, and become reconciled with that other person, and then, and only then, come back to offer your gift to God.
Other people, who live on a totally human level, can have a very horizontal form of religion, where it is just you and me, and us, and there is no Higher Power. This can be a human good, and, like everything human, it cannot last, and will die. It is only the balance between the vertical and the horizontal that accurately reflects the message of Jesus.
Let us imagine I went into a Leaving Certificate class today, and handed each pupil an envelope, with strict instructions not to disclose the contents to anyone else. Each pupil is to open the envelope in private, and to act on the information it contains. When each envelope is opened, it is found to contain all the questions on the examination papers for the following summer. I imagine I would have friends for life! During the remainder of the school year, a teacher is trying to whip up some enthusiasm for a poem, or a project in biology, and the class knows that it will not be part of the final exam....pity the poor teacher!
In the gospel, Jesus gives us a very clear preview of the General judgement. The questions will be scandalously materialistic. I will not be asked about prayer, religious experiences, or church observances. I will be asked about food, drink, and clothes. Jesus identifies with the poor so much, that whatever I did for them, he will count as having been done for him. When I was hungry, thirsty, naked, a stranger, or in prison, what did you do to help me? That is the acid test of my Christianity.
Before Jesus came, the prophet said that the Messiah would be recognised when the blind could see, the lame walk, and the poor would have good news preached to them. When Jesus did come, John the Baptist sent some disciples to Jesus to ask him if he really was the Messiah, and Jesus told them to look around, and judge for themselves. The blind are beginning to see, the lame have begun to walk, and the poor are hearing good news being presented to them. When he sent out his disciples, he told them that what would prove that their mission was genuine, was when the blind began to see, the lame began to walk, and the poor were having good news preached to them.
If a man from Mars arrived among us today, and asked "Are you Christians, or do I have to look somewhere else?", what could we say to him. As someone put it one time, if we were arrested, and brought down to the local police station, and charged with being Christian, how many of us would get off scot-free for lack of evidence?
Studdard Kennedy died in 1929, so his poetry is around for a while. The following is an excerpt from one of his poems:
When Jesus came to Golgotha, they hanged him on a tree.
They drove great nails through hands and feet, and made a Calvary.
They crowned him with a crown of thorns, red were his wounds, and deep,
'Cause those were crude and cruel days, and human flesh was cheap.
When Jesus came to Birmingham, they simply passed him by.
They wouldn't touch a hair of him; they left him there to die.
'Cause folks had grown more tender now, they wouldn't cause him pain.
They simply passed on down the road, and left him in the rain.
Still Jesus cried, 'Forgive them, for they know not what they do'.
And still it rained a bitter rain, that drenched him through and through.
All the folks had gone by now, there was no one there to see,
As Jesus crawled against a wall, and sighed for Calvary.
In a way, I feel that Christianity is on trial in today's world. Let me put it this way, by using figures from a seminar on evangelisation in Switzerland a few years ago. Imagine there are only 100 people on this earth, all in the one village. On today's facts, 67 of them would be poor, while 33 of them would be at various levels of being well-off. 93 of them would have to watch, while 7 of them spent half the money, have half the bath tubs, and eat one third of the food, while those 7 would have ten times as many doctors looking after them as the other 93 put together.
That is not the real problem, though, from our point of view. The real problem is when the 7 have the nerve and the gall to attempt to evangelise the 93! They tell them about the beautiful Saviour they have, who teaches about sharing, feeding the hungry, etc., while the 7 throw out more food than would feed all of the 93. They build bigger and better basilicas and cathedrals for this God of theirs, while the 93 find it increasingly difficult to find a place to live. They transfer monies, and open new and better bank accounts, while the 93 find it more and more difficult to get something to eat. The bottom line must surely be this: If the 7 are so stupid and so blind that they cannot see the frightful contradiction of their situation, then, surely, they cannot expect the 93 to be that stupid, to be that blind!
It is not my intention or desire to lay a guilt trip on anyone. All I am trying to do is to emphasise what I believe the gospel is about. I can rationalise it till the cows come home, but there is no escape, because Jesus has presented us with a programme for living, and it is very simple and direct. I am not going to transform the world, I'm not going to solve its problems, nor am I going to feed its hungry millions. Must less am I going to change the hearts of the other millions who have away more than they need, but will not share.
I am answerable to God for myself, and my own conduct. It may simply be a cup of water, or five minutes of my time, but it just has to be about giving. God gives me nothing for myself, and it is a fact of Christianity that it is in giving that we receive. Jesus has arranged things in such a way, that, no matter which way I turn, I bump into him. "Whatever you do for the least of these, that's what you do for me."
An old monk was praying when Jesus appeared to him, and the monk was in total rapture at the power and beauty of the presence, when the door bell rang, and he knew it was one of the many beggars who came to the monastery door every day. He left to attend to the beggar, and was delighted, on returning to the chapel, that the vision of Jesus was still there for him.. He thanked Jesus for staying till he returned, and Jesus told him that, if he had not gone to feed the poor man at the door, he certainly would not have waited for him to return to the chapel.
Jesus came to set up his kingdom among us. His kingdom was on this earth, but not of it. A good way to understand this is to consider the situation of an embassy. It is a building in a country, but it actually belongs to another country, from which an ambassador has come to live. My generation would remember times in the past when a Cardinal in Hungary went into the American Embassy there, so that the communist were not able to arrest him. The same thing happened with some Pentecostals in Moscow. The country in which the embassy is based does not own the building, or the property on which it stands, and has no authority there.
That is what the kingdom of God is like on this earth. If I enter it, I am free from the evils of this world, with its false values and wrong priorities. This kingdom is totally opposed to the kingdom of this world, where money, power, pleasure are gods, where the importance of people is determined by their status and wealth, and where it is a case of the survival of the fittest. The values of the kingdom of Jesus are very very different. In that kingdom, Jesus is Lord, and what he says is what matters. In the world, people obey the stock exchange, political opinion polls, tam ratings on television.
Jesus said "If you love me, you will obey me." Doing what Jesus tells us, is the first rule in his kingdom, and he spoke at great length about feeding the hungry, and caring for the outcast. The second rule in his kingdom is that everybody is important. The most handicapped person on earth is here with as much right as the greatest genius that ever lived. The world does not believe this, when it says that people are disposable, whether through abortion, euthanasia, or heedless, destrucive wars.
If you live according to the rules of the kingdom of this world, you can get your power from money, political clout, or social standing. If you live in my kingdom, says Jesus, I will supply the power. The kingdom, the power, and the glory are his. To summarise the three rules of his kingdom again...Jesus is Lord ; everybody is important, and Jesus supplies the power. My vocation, as a Christian, is to contribute towards the building up of his kingdom on this earth. Jesus asked us to pray to the Father "Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven."
There was a blacksmith, who lived and worked in a very poor part of the world. One day, an angel came to him to tell him that God wanted him to come to live with him, in his kingdom. The blacksmith explained that the people around him were very poor, and he was the only blacksmith, and, without him, they would have no one to mend their ploughs or shoe their horses. He asked the angel to petition God to leave him among the people for another while.
Several years later, the angel returned with the same request, and, this time, the blacksmith explained that a poor farmer had just died, and left a widow, and a young family. He, the blacksmith, had taken it on himself to save their little crop for the family, and to help keep the farm going, until the older children were old enough to run things themselves. He asked the angel to petition the Lord to leave him around for another while. This happened twice more, and, each time the blacksmith was involved with helping someone, and the angel went away.
Eventually, the blacksmith grew old, and was tired, and he asked God to send his angel one more time. When the angel appeared, the blacksmith told him that he was too tired to go on, and he would be grateful if God would now allow to go live in his kingdom, to which the angel, with a smile, replied, "You have been living in his kingdom all these years. All that remains now is that you rest from your labours, and enjoy the Lord's company, without the struggles, and the hardship."
One of the proofs of who Jesus was, was that the blind would begin to see. We know that he is in us, when we begin to see things as they are. When our eyes are opened, and we recognise him in the outcast, the Aids sufferer, the homeless. Once I have begun to be Chrsit to others, I will begin to see Christ in others.
After the last war, a monastery was being repaired from the damage inflicted by the bombing. The main building was restored, and most of the original structure was back in place. A visitor was puzzled to find a statute of Jesus in the garden, which had not been restored, and which had both arms missing. When he asked about this, he was told that it had been decided to leave the statue the way it was, as a reminder to people that we are now the hands of the Lord, and while we were available to do his work, it was not necessary to do anything with the statue.
There is a story told about Puccini, the composer of Madame Butterfly. He was writing the score for an opera called Turandot, and he felt that, because of age and ill health, he was not going to be able to complete the work. He called his pupils around him, and explained his predicament, and asked them, should he fail to complete the task, that they should accept responsibility for finishing the work. Puccini died before the work was completed. His pupils took what had been written, and studied it at great length. They got a feel for what the composer was about, they captured the spirit of the work, they imbibed the inspiration of the maestro, and they set about finishing the score.
At a later date, in the La Scala Opera House in Milan, Toscannini, one of his puplis conducted the orchestra in the first public performance of the work. It was sheer brilliance, and the audience was being swept along with the power and genius of the work. Suddenly, Toscannini stopped the orchestra, turned to the audience, and announced, "And it was here that the master died; but his pupils took up his work, and continued it to the end", and he turned to the orchestra, and continued the performance. At the end it was greeted with enthusiastic acclaim, and is reckoned to be one of Puccini's greatest master-pieces.
It is said that it is impossible to distinguish where the master stopped, and where his disciples took over. As we say in a prayer in the Mass, "That we might live no longer for ourselves, but for him, he sent his Holy Spirit, as his first gift to those who believe, to complete his work on earth, and to bring us the fullness of grace."
Jesus compares his relationship with us to that of a shepherd and his sheep. The parable is clear and simple. It is the day of judgement. The king is on his throne, and he separates the sheep from the goats ; the sheep on his right go to eternal life, the goats on his left go to eternal damnation. The element of surprise in the parable is that both the sheep and the goats are utterly astonished to find the degree to which Jesus has identified himself with the poor, the needy, the oppressed.
Those on his right have, of course, been feeding the hungry, putting clothes on the poor, and taking care of the sick, but they are completely surprised to hear Jesus say that when they were doing that they were ministering to him. Those on the left are even more surprised to hear Jesus identify himself so completely with the poor and the oppressed. They are shocked ; if they had known that Jesus was in need, of course they would have done anything for him. But they hadn't ministered to all those poor, helpless, and sick people, because they were too busy being religious, and pious, and worrying about the letter of the law. What a surprise it was to learn that, in not ministering to them, they had rejected Jesus.
Both groups are equally shocked to discover that their eternal destiny is being determined by just a few questions. There are no questions about how often they went to church, what theology they had learned, or how successful they had been in life. These questions are not raised. The questions that determine their destiny are : Did you feed the hungry? Did you care for the sick? Did you visit those who were in prison, or in special need? Lord, make me a channel of your peace. Where there is darkness, let me bring your light. Where there is hatred, let me bring your love. Where there is despair, let me bring your hope, and where there is hunger, let me bring your food. Amen.