No more church of nice
Jesus said, “I have come to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled...”
I want to suggest to you something that might seem strange: that our Gospel reading today is all about Love. Now this may not have sprung immediately to mind when you first read or heard it. For our Lord speaks of casting fire on earth, of bringing division rather than peace, and rather than being the cause of domestic bliss, He causes division in the household. Now this is not usually what we think love is about, of course. But nevertheless I say to you that Love is in fact what the passage is about.
Now I say this with complete confidence because I both believe that our Lord did say this (and no amount of modern biblical criticism has eroded my confidence in that) AND I believe that every word our Lord proclaimed, taught and spoke was born of divine Love, for Love and in Love. So even these words that seem to contradict what we think we know about love, are actually about Love.
One of the problems that hinders us is that what we think love is about, is actually a shadow of what it actually is. We harbour the notion of a domesticated form of love, that is comforting, pleasant, enjoyable and perhaps above all: nice! To be a “loving” person is to be cuddly, inoffensive, non-confrontational, always smiling, and who always, always, always says nice things. To some this is the image of the quintessential English parish – the classic domain of niceness. There our Lord is always gentle Jesus, meek and mild. The parish church of nice is where Reverend pleasant always speaks inoffensively and has a word to comfort everyone no matter their circumstances. That nice church is surely the Church our Lord came to found 2000 years ago? Or was it?
In truth divine Love is something different to insipid niceness. Divine Love is zealous and passionate! Divine Love does not compromise and does not fear what people will say. Divine Love does not change its message to suite the sensibilities of its audience, it speaks the truth, in season or out of season. Divine Love challenges, confronts, causes offence to some people, isn't always smiling but sometimes is angry, and is certainly not necessarily comforting or easy.
The prophets of the Old Testament knew this all too well. The true prophets of Israel spoke the truth from God who is Love, and usually they were not liked for it! Remember Elijah and the prophets of Baal? At Elijah's prayer, literally fire came to the earth, the people repented of their lack of faith and slaughtered the prophets of Baal for their anti-God religion. Yet Elijah flees even into the desert for his very life, petrified for he offended Jezebel the queen, who herself spoke plenty of comforting words to her husband king Ahab, and now wanted to do away with Elijah. Or we might think of poor Jeremiah the prophet, who in the reading today was thrown into the mire of the cistern for having spoken the truth. We might think of St John the Baptist, who because he spoke out in support of marriage, had his head removed for speaking the truth. We might think of the Christian martyrs who in many different ways witnessed to the truth, caused offence and lost their lives.
Our brother Michael goes off to Rome soon, to the Venerable English College, where many of its priests returned to the mission to England and became martyrs. We of course do not wish martyrdom upon him, but he and all of us must remember that if we follow Christ then we cannot expect an easy ride. On the 14th September we have the Ordinariate pilgrimage to St Cuthbert Mayne's shrine, and we remember his witness and will ask for his prayers. After being ordained an Anglican clergyman and getting an MA from Oxford, why should he have 'gone to Rome'? After being received into the Catholic Church, studying at Douai and receiving Holy Orders, returned to the English mission and was executed for treason for amongst other reasons for having celebrated mass in England.
The truly loving words of Our Saviour in the Gospel today are beseeching us to wake up from our slumber – to wake up to the true predicament we and all mankind are in! And the true predicament we are in was revealed when our Lord received, what He calls here, His “baptism”. He is referring to His crucifixion. Our Lord's crucifixion reveals to us our true predicament and it banishes any notion of the world being about true Love. What we need to accept is the truth that when true Love came into the world, what resulted was conflict and opposition. Even when our Lord was born, in Bethlehem, the Holy Innocents were slaughtered out of fear of His birth. Our Lord did nothing other than proclaim the truth for our salvation, exorcise demons, heal the sick and gather a group of disciples around Him. And He did it all for Love of every human being. And how did people react? A tiny minority responded and gave their lives to Him, followed Him, and many suffered His fate. Many people initially liked what our Lord had to say. We hear of great crowds of ordinary folk gathering to hear His teaching, which, they said, was not like their usual teachers. Yet He never compromised His message in order to gain popularity, for when He challenged many fell away. For example, in Ch 6 of John's gospel Jesus says solemnly: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you... my flesh is food indeed and my blood is drink indeed...”; we are then told many of the disciples were offended by this and saying that it was a hard saying, drew back and stopped following Him.
When divine Love was incarnated in the world, there was massive conflict. St John puts it very starkly in the opening chapter of his gospel: The Light shines in the darkness... . Christ the incarnate Son of God, who is divine Love in the flesh, is the Light shining in the darkness. The world into which He came is dark because in it human beings are sleep walking – in that sleep-walking, darkness reigns. He came to save us, to bring us the Light, to speak the truth in Love, to banish all darkness from our path. But if we answer His call, and follow Him, we cannot expect an easy time of it! That is the sobering reality that we must get straight in our minds.
This is most especially true of those who answer a call to a vocation as a priest or in the Religious life. If they answer that call they can expect not comfort but conflict. In their generous response to the call of God the Light shines in them, but it does shine in darkness.
The words of the 'gospel of nice' that never offend, that are always comforting, that are always easy to follow come not from the Son of God, but the one who spoke to Eve in the Garden of Eden. The Serpent spoke very nicely to Eve. He made it very easy. And we know too that when temptation comes to us it is in that easy, comforting and nice voice.
For all of us who dare to follow our Lord today, who resist the voice that speaks nice words to us of comfort, inoffensiveness and ease, need to be prepared for a hard time of it. The Truth from Our Lord is not welcome in our world today just as it wasn't welcome in Jeremiah's time, and supremely in the time of the Incarnation. If we experience no conflict then very likely we are not witnessing to the Truth, not witnessing to our Lord. Whether it is about marriage, abortion, or euthanasia; whether it is about religious freedom and the right of Church schools to teach the faith unhindered; whether it is speaking out about the violent, persecution of Christians throughout the world especially in Muslim countries; or indeed even within the Church herself, if we stand up for the Faith as always taught and oppose liberalism (as Bl John Henry Newman did); then there will be conflict, uncomfortableness, sometimes offence will be taken, some people won't like us, and we definitely won't be regarded as nice people. We are called to run the race with perseverance, and look to our Lord Jesus Christ “who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” That is what should be in our sights!
So as members of the household of God and followers of Jesus Christ, may all those who have answered the call of God, be strengthened by the Holy Spirit to not grow weary or faint-hearted when conflict comes, to seek not rewards and comforts from the world, but be faithful to Christ, be ambassadors of truth and persevere with grace.
IH 17th September 2013