UNDERSTANDING THE FAITH
SERMON PREACHED BY FR. TONY NOBLE ON SUNDAY SEPTEMBER 20th 2009
Mark 9: 31 “The Son of Man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him; and when he is killed, after three days he will rise.”
It’s rather ironical that last Sunday we celebrated the feast of the Holy Cross and in today’s Gospel Jesus gives a prophesy of his death and resurrection. We heard a similar prophesy last week in John 3 – and I made the point that mostly the disciples didn’t understand when Jesus talked about his death and resurrection, or just couldn’t believe it. That’s what we see today in verse 32: “But they did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to ask him”.
What is more ironical is what follows as they kept on walking…..the twelve discussed who was the greatest. It is rather bizarre! Jesus has just told them he is about to die, and all they want to talk about is who is going to be first in the kingdom of God. That’s not the first time it happened, of course.
They are more interested in the ways of the world, in the pecking order – and we would have to say the Church is very good at doing that. Behind the archbishops and bishops, and canons to the ordinary come the parish priests – so we might be guilty of doing exactly what the apostles did. Self-importance is the most humorous and painful of all sins.
Jesus had been teaching his disciples so much – now he comes to the crux. He declares that he will suffer, be killed by men, and after three days rise from the dead. As last Sunday’s celebration reminds us, this is the core of the Gospel, Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is the heart of the Christian Faith and should be the centre of the Church’s preaching.
And all the disciples could do was argue about who is the greatest.
In Matthew 16: 22 it records that Peter’s reaction was: “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you”. All Saint Mark says is that they did not understand and were too afraid to ask what it meant. In one ear and out the other!
Had they really listened to what Jesus said? It seems so stark and profound. Perhaps because it was so stark it was better for them to talk about something less important.
And how does Jesus respond?
His response is reminiscent of the occasion when they brought to him a woman caught in adultery, hoping that he would condemn her. You will remember that his response was to ignore what they were suggesting and doodle in the sand – as if to say, Go away and look at your own lives.
This time he takes a child. Here they are talking about who is the greatest and I guess in the pecking order a child is the most defenseless and powerless. He sets this child before them to tell them in action that what they are talking about is so silly – a startling reminder that there is no power in following Jesus for them.
If the Apostles thought they were important, Jesus stopped that sort of thinking by pointing to a child.
It seems to me that there are three things about this Gospel event which have a message for us now.
Firstly: If the disciples didn’t understand, then maybe we may have our doubts also. The Catholic Faith is broad and big and goes back 2,000 years – I’d be surprised if you didn’t have any questions or doubts.
Most of us do believe the faith and happily accept the Nicene Creed as the core of the Christian Faith that we have received. We may not understand it all, but that’s okay. The important thing is that our hearts are linked with Jesus. And that we love him and want to follow him, even if we don’t quite get it all.
Secondly: When he called the twelve he didn’t call them to follow him in a straight line, in some sort of pecking order. No – following Jesus meant they were to walk with him side by side, even with their doubts and lack of understanding. I find that encouraging, because that applies to us, too. We are called to walk with Jesus, even if we don’t understand everything.
So you see when Jesus said we are to take up our cross and follow him, it’s in the context of this prophesy we hear today. It didn’t necessarily mean we would have to endure sufferings – though some of us might, and some of you have had your share of sufferings.
But that’s not exactly what Jesus meant. No, to take up our cross means to walk with Jesus, because he walked with his Cross. When we walk with Jesus it may be the road to Calvary or it may not – but it will certainly be the path to new and unending life.
This brings us to the third point of relevance in today’s Gospel.
The message of the Cross is central to the Gospel. That was surely the point of today’s Epistle. Saint James is writing to a church that seems to have internal wrangling. 2,000 years ago – nothing’s changed!
In James 3:16 he is concerned about these wranglings, which he describes as jealousy and feuds. We don’t know which Church he was writing to in the first century – but it could be any Church, in any century, in any place.
Some of you have had the experience in a parish church when things that are minor become major problems. And what happens is that people get personal, or criticise, or get offended. Suddenly there are divisions and unpleasantness. The Cross has slipped from view – because we have become self-important, like the apostles.
You can see how it comes together in today’s Gospel. The Cross is not only the focus – it’s the answer to when we take up the ways of the world. So the church in every place – diocese, parish, international – needs to seriously take to heart what Saint James is saying today. And particularly in chapter 4:4 where he says: “Whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God”.
Hard words! We are all friends of the world. What he is saying, of course, is that sometimes the world’s priorities take over what should be God’s priorities in our lives. This saying cannot be glossed over. As I said, it’s all about our hearts.
Going back to my first point about doubts, Mark says: “They did not understand the saying”. If the twelve had difficulties we should not be surprised that we may not understand everything about Jesus and his Gospel.
You may have doubts about some of things you hear from the pulpit, or recite in the Creed. Remember that neither the creed nor the pulpit are here to beat us into submission. But they are here to challenge you, to challenge all of us, even the preacher.
In this case we must not follow the example of the twelve, who did not understand and were afraid to ask. I’ve met bishops like that! They tell me that when they said the Creed they crossed their fingers. That’s hardly thinking with your brain is it? It’s just to cop out!
That’s the problem with our church today….too many people are crossing their fingers.
Not so with Jesus. In today’s Gospel Jesus places before us well and truly the reality of his Cross and resurrection. Not only does he prophesy it, but we can see it fulfills the Old Testament. The first reading from the Book of Wisdom is a wonderful reference to Jesus and those who put him to death.
The Cross is more than a piece of jewelry or a sign we make with our hands, as important as those things are.
If the reality and the meaning of the Cross sometimes seems beyond our understanding – we need to remember that Jesus died for everyone: those who understand and those who don’t. But especially he died for those who seek the meaning and purpose of life. For those who seek to live with their hearts entwined with Jesus’ heart.
Today, Jesus is challenging us to make the cross real in our lives – because it was real, and because Jesus really suffered and died and really rose from the dead!
That is why Saint Paul says: “God forbid that we should glory – save in the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ”.