The Saints are men and women who, at different moments in history, have lived lives of faith and are held up before us now as examples of how we might do the same. Each of them embodies a different aspect of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, and today the liturgy invites us to look more closely at one of them, John the Baptist.
Few have had as close a relationship with the historical Jesus as John had. Apart from the fact that they were cousins, John was the one who prepared the way for Jesus and baptized him in the River Jordan.
So much so, that well into the first century of the Church’s life, there were disciples of John who never accepted Jesus and continued to consider John as the Messiah. And its not hard to understand why. John had a very successful ministry before Jesus came along. With his garment of camel hair, his leather belt round his waist and his diet of locusts and wild honey, John fitted the profile of the OT prophet far better than Jesus did. The fact, too, that some of Jesus’ disciples left John to go with Jesus would, understandably, not have gone down too well with some of those who stayed, leaving feelings of rivalry and resentment which simmered away well into the early Church. The true greatness of John, however, lies in the fact that, although some of his followers were caught up in this rivalry, John himself was never part of it. On the contrary, his whole life was about pointing people away from himself towards Jesus, difficult as that must have been for him sometimes.
John’s greateness, however, is seen in the way he was able to do this, let go completely of his own agenda, focus on doing what God wanted of him and put the proclamation of Jesus as Messiah, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, at the centre of his life. “Jesus must increase and I must decrease,” he says at one point. “A man is coming after me who ranks before me and I am not fit to undo the strap of his sandal.” he says in another, and John’s whole life and ministry were about allowing this to happen. He even encouraged his followers to leave him, pointing at Jesus and saying, “There’s the one I spoke of” the implication being, “don’t follow me, follow him,” and what I suggest to you today is that, as we struggle to become a Church fit for the challenges of the 21st Century, John is a role model for us of where our own focus needs to be at this particular moment in history.
Both as individuals and as a Church, you see, we, too, are called to prepare the way for Jesus, to point the world towards him and say, “See, there is the lamb of God.” The world is not our enemy. We are its servants. When there is conflict or tension today between the secular world and the world of faith, we, as successors of John, are called to focus, not on what we need, but on what the world needs. Instead of taking offence all the time and complaining about infair criticism or bias in the media, the question people called to point the world towards Jesus should surely be asking is why things like this are happening in the first place.What is it about us that so many other people seem to find offensive? What is it about Churches and Christianity, as they currently exist, which is so unnattractive to so many people? How is it that we seem to be putting people off God rather than attracting them to him? Why is it that so many intelligent and educated people dismiss religion out of hand as superstition and mumbo jumbo, the relic of a primitive and byegone age? Why is it that are so few young people in our churches today? These are huge questions, the signs of the times every recent Pope has spoke about, and only men and women of faith who have sufficient personal maturity to move beyond our own agenda – how we feel in this situation– and address the world’s agenda – how other people feel - will be of any use to those we are called to serve. And, of course, that was why Pope John XX111 called the Second Vatican Council all those years ago. He wanted the Church to renew itself, not first and foremost for its own sake, but for the sake of the world it is called to serve. The Church exists for the world and, like Jesus, must be prepared, if necessary, to die for the world. But what does that mean? In what sense could the Church today die for the world?
Well, fundamentally by dying to anything in itself which is an obstacle to people knowing Jesus. Some of these are obvious: false images of God which people rightly want nothing to do with today; twisted and distorted ways of thinking which have caused so much psychological damage over the years, leaving people saddled with feelings of guilt, inadequacy and fear which sometimes cripple them for life; uneducated and out-dated ways of reading the Scriptures which make them sound ridiculous to a modern scientific world; superstition, magic and religious mumbo jumbo dressed up as faith, and so on.
But it’s not just these things we need to let go off and, if necessary, die to. Even good things which have proved helpful to us in the past, if they make no sense to the people we are called to serve, and, worse still, put them off, then we must be prepared to let go off them too and find ways of expressing our faith which does make sense to them. Living in a world which has largely lost sight of God, there is no point in us blaming the world and expecting it to change. We are the ones who must change. We are the ones who must make the effort. We are the ones who must develop a language and a way of expressing ourselves which they can begin to understand. The Church as it is now could probably see most of us out. But that is not the point. The change we need to make is fundamentally for the sake of others. Its their agenda, their needs and their questions that we must address, not our own and that’s why John the Baptist is such an example to us.
I first gave this homily in 2005. Let’s hope that ten years from now, in 2030, someone is not standing here still saying the same thing. Because, if she is, the chances are she will be speaking to an empty church.
Pope John Paul famously called the Second Vatican Council the single most important movement of the Spirit in the Church in modern times. And yet, even today, many outwardly devout and loyal Catholics resist it and refuse to accept what it teaches. Many, fifty years after the Council, still know next to nothing about it and often don’t even seem to care. And so we ask God to open us up to the absurdity of this situation…Lord hear us
At the heart of the challenges facing the Church today, is a profound and widespread ignorance about almost every aspect of our faith. And so we ask God to lead us beyond this ignorance and show us ways in which we can begin to develop in our parishes a faith that is modern, informed, mature, faithful to our rich tradition and fit to address the challenge of leading the world of our time back to who God really is….Lord hear us
Twice in today’s Gospel passage, John the Baptist says that he did not know Jesus himself. And yet, at one level, he had known Jesus for years. It was only by a revelation from God, however, that he came to know Jesus for who he really was, something that is true for every single one of us. And so we ask God to lead us to the deep, profoundly personal, interior knowledge John is speaking about…. Lord hear us.
False images of God and distorted ways of thinking have done immense harm to people over the years. Modern psychology has finally revealed the full extent of this and is one of the reasons so many people today reject the whole idea of God. And so we pray for all who continue to suffer in this way, especially those weighed down by feelings of guilt and fear which cripple them and prevent them enjoying the gift of life…Lord hear us
And we ask God to stir in us here today a profound understanding of those contemporaries of ours whose attitude to God, Churches and everything connected with them verges on hatred. We pray that, instead of complaining about the things they do and say, we will be filled with love and compassion for them, understand where they are coming from, and learn to address their agenda rather than our own….Lord hear us