Three of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark and Luke give an account of Jesus’ baptism. But John’s Gospel is different. He makes no mention of it. And the three accounts we have are not identical – the Gospels rarely are completely consistent with each other – and it’s a subtle difference between Mark and Matthew that I want to take as our starting point today. Mark’s was the earliest Gospel, the first one to be written. Matthew’s came later and so is more developed. Mark tells us that the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on you”. In Matthew, however, it says something quite different. It says “This is my Son, the Beloved, my favour rests on him.” In Mark, the words are spoken to Jesus himself. But in Matthew’s later version, the words are addressed, not to Jesus personally, but to the crowds standing around. And, ultimately, of course, to people like ourselves in every age.
For Christians, you see, there is no such thing as private faith or a private relationship with God. The very idea is a contradiction in terms; like a square circle or a deafening silence. Personal faith, yes. It is absolutely necessary. But private and personal do not mean the same thing. Genuine faith can never be private. Faith by its very nature is about reaching out and engaging with others, and that’s a truth we have been struggling with as a Church all through the lifetime of many of us here.
Take what happened at Mass prior to the Second Vatican Council. The priest said Mass with his back to the people muttering under his breath in a Latin which even he himself often did not understand. In the meantime, the congregation were left to their own devices, mere spectators at an event which did not involve them, some saying the rosary, some reading from a prayer book and many just kneeling there doing nothing. For many people, of course, Mass in those days was an experience of deep personal faith which sustained them in often difficult times. But it was also a very private faith, devoid of things which are central to the Christian life; like, to give just one example, challenging injustice and working for a fairer society. I remember as a boy in Muirkirk listening to miners talking passionately about these things. But it was associated in their minds, not with the Church, but with the trade unions. The Second Vatican Council tried to change this, but there was deep resistance to it. I remember the story of the woman who pushed her neighbour away when she tried to offer her the sign of peace on the grounds that it was distracting her from her prayers. And the issue at the heart of that story, the issue of a faith that thinks it can be private and not live out its implications in the real world is still with us today. And I would like to give you some examples which, I think, demonstrate this. But please don’t take offence. I am not talking about any of you personally or this parish in particular. I am simply talking about what has been my experience for years now.
And the first piece of evidence is what I call my twenty pound note theory, the idea that if you put a pile of £20 notes at the back of any church in Scotland with a note in the bulletin asking people to collect one on the way out, most people would walk past them. And why would they do this? Because, in their minds, they have come for Mass and only for Mass. They are good people, but don’t ask them to do anything. Don’t ask them to get involved. We see this, too, in the way some people actively seek out Mass in places where nobody knows them. They can just slip in, sit through Mass, and slip out again, preferably during the final hymn so that they don’t have to speak to anyone. And just think how many of us have been coming here for years and still don’t know each other’s names. We don’t have to be close friends with each other. That’s not what it’s about. But we are called to build a Christain community together around the Eucharist. “If you only love those who love you”, Jesus said, then you are no different from the pagans. They do that, too.” And then, of course, there are people who will get into their car and drive for miles to get a short Mass. There was a priest in Glasgow a few years ago who could say a Sunday Mass in fifteen minutes, and the place was mobbed.
But these are trivial examples. In the end, Mass and the Christian life are not about attending church meetings or parish social events. It’s about changing the world. I know that sounds like an exaggeration, but it’s true. Following Jesus and witnessing to him in the midst of society at this moment in history is about engaging, even at a very simple level, with the big issues of our time. Pope Francis has made this very clear in his document on the environment which has thrust him right into the front line on this issue. Christianity about reaching out: to those on the margins of society: to the homeless, to imigrants, to asylum seekers, to refugees from conflicts zones around the world, to the lonely in our society, to the sick in the community and to each other. And although we can do this as individuals, it is often much more effective when we do it together.
And if this is true of every parish, it’s especially so here. After June 21st there will be no resident priest here, and, as I keep saying, I believe that this can be the beginning of something wonderful in St Bride’s as lay men and women take on the responsibilities that became yours on the day you, too, were baptized. Perhaps no-one heard it, but a voice from heaven spoke that day, too. And so I invite you to listen now to what it said about you in words taken from todays reading.
“This – you - is my son or daughter, the beloved”.
“Here is my chosen one in whom my soul delights. I have endowed you with my Spirit. I have called you to serve the cause of right; I have taken you by the hand and formed you; I have appointed you as a light of the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to free captives from prison and those in darkness from the dungeon”
Challenging, isn’t it? So there’s nothing else for it. You will have to do it together or not do it at all.
Many of us here were born into a Church that, for reasons to do with the Reformation, had lost sight of the fundamental importance of baptism. Every baptized person shares in the priesthood of Christ, but an over- emphasis on the sacrament of Holy Orders had obscured this truth. The result has been a Church dominated by ordained priests over baptized priests, and we pray for an end to this distortion of the truth…. Lord hear us
It is very common to hear people in the media say that religion is a private matter. Some religions may be, but not certainly not Christianity. It is not possible to be a genuine Christian in isolation. At the very heart of the Gospel is Jesus’ command to love one another. This means constantly reaching out to others. It means working together to build a more just world, and we pray for the grace to understand this today…. Lord hear us
On the back of this week’s bulletin is a letter from the Ardrossan Short Stay Hostel on Princes Street thanking the group we call CHANA for the help and support they offer to people in need in North Ayrshire. But CHANA does this on our behalf. Some of those involved are our parishioners. Like the S. V. de P. here in the parish they put the teaching of Jesus into practice here among us, and we pray that more of us will join them…. Lord hear us
For many Catholics in Scotland, going to Mass on a Sunday is a profoundly boring experience they sit through reluctantly, hoping it will be over soon. Thousand have already walked away to find that there are no thunderbolts, the roof does not fall in and life goes on as before. And so, we ask God to open our hearts and minds to see and experience the power of the Eucharist to transform our lives…. Lord hear us
2020 is going to be a time of change here in our own parish. But it is also a time filled with possibilities if we approach it in a faith-filled way. Nearly sixty years ago, the Second Vatican Council called on the Church to rediscover the central role of baptism. But it is only now, as the availability of ordained priests drops, that this is becoming a reality. A new future awaits us, and we pray for the courage to embrace it joyfully…. Lord hear us.
Now let us be silent for a few moments……….