Year B Ordinary 14
Ever since high school, we’ve all wanted to be popular, right? (I never was) I’ve always been a big believer that Catholic Christianity is winsome, meaning that the Church and the culture of being Catholic exerts a mysterious, strong pull on outsiders. There’s something fascinating about how serious and yet how joyful the Church is. For instance, when I was a little protestant kid in St. Charles I was always fascinated by the St. Cletus parish picnic and the rides and how Catholics are totally cool with gambling right in front of Church.
And it is true that the Church is highly attractive to those who are seeking the truth. This isn’t because of our rules, or our own personal holiness, certainly not because of the priests – or at least this priest. People aren’t here for me, they’re here because this is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. It isn’t because we have a ton of money, or the best parties – although we do have fun. The Church is attractive because she is spiritually wedded to Christ, and through the Church each and every person can encounter him in his fullness. His grace is splashed out on his people and we are called to a totally different sort of life. We no longer seek the limited things of this world but are set free to seek heavenly things. To a lost and hurting world, this is a comforting message. To us who are already here, we know our flaws, we know our hidden secrets, this is also a comforting message, to know that we are held in the arms of the divine, that we are not stuck but have vast, untapped potential. That God has not and will not give up on us.
That is good news, it’s the heart of the Gospel that God forgives us sinners. The more difficult to accept news is that the new life offered by Jesus requires repentance and it is very much at odds with the old life. In fact, you might say that the new entirely destroys the old, because in baptism the old self is washed away and we are dead to sin. When it seems as though the world around us is spinning out of control, the Church is the Ark of salvation, offering safety and security. To those who climb on board, that’s great, but to those who refuse, to those who don’t get it, it’s all the more reason to dislike the Church.
This is why the Catholic Church always has been and always will be profoundly unpopular.
We have an example of that this morning in our gospel reading. Even Jesus is rejected and his message is offensive to many. He will not and cannot change it. I suppose it would be easy for us all to be all-inclusive and say you’re alright and I’m alright just the way we are, but that isn’t true. There’s this moment in the scriptures where Jesus eats with sinners because they’re the ones in need of him. For a long time I thought, yeah, I should hang out with sinners too, just like Jesus. Well, I seem to have profoundly misunderstood the lesson. I’m the sinner. I need Jesus. We are the ones he comes to spend time with. That isn’t popular to say, that sin is still a problem for us, but it is the truth, and it is the truth that sets us free.
St. Mark wrote his Gospel to rescue people from falling into the trap of being offended by Jesus for all the wrong reasons. He wants to show the true source of his power, and by extension this applies to the Church – it’s all about the power of God. Jesus is offensive only to sin, only to those who refuse to admit that they are in need of grace. We must pass through this seeming scandal in order to see with the eyes of faith.
This means the Church will never be popular. Sure, our bowling alley rules and everyone loves it, but what about when we talk about sin and repentance, social justice, immigration, abortion, marriage, and the idea that we really, truly owe God our thanksgiving and gratitude once a week on Sunday? Not so popular.
St. Mark accentuates this problem. He doesn’t brag about Jesus or make up a family history of nobility and wealth for him. This guy, the savior of the world? He’s a carpenter. He grew up around the corner. He does miracles but doesn’t charge any money, he hangs out with the rejects, he says he’s a king but doesn’t seek any power. The Romans mocked this. They thought the Church was absurd. It was weak.
And they are right. We are weak. At least we’re weak in the sense that the goal of the Church isn’t to dominate. The goal of the Church is to preach the gospel and set people free.
Freedom will not compromise with slavery. The Church will not compromise with the world. This may makes us unpopular with certain folks, but that is because they know we stand for something and that our lives are arranged by a different set of priorities. In the end, this is precisely what is so attractive about our faith, that everything we do, everything we are is about Jesus. So to those who are ready to seek an authentic human existence, the Church is here. Keep up your Christian witness, and don’t worry if it isn’t the most popular choice. It never will be, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t the right choice.
May we make every effort to recognize the presence of God in our lives, to hear him speaking to us, and to be bold in following him.