Most of us hate conflict. We prefer a quiet life. So we may moan about – work, other people, the government , the church – but we will rarely actually say what we think directly to the people who might make a difference. A friend of mine who became a Bishop said that he was told that he now had to put up with being lied to, and given too much to eat. Lied to, because hardly anybody will actually tell a Bishop what they really think. What a pity! For how can anything change in the Church if the Bishops don’t know our views? Equally, I hope that most of you have expressed your opinion about marriage to your MP whatever your view is. Here again I expect that few MP’s realise how much feeling there is on this issue amongst ordinary people. They expect a priest to write to them and can ignore me, but if lots of you write, it can make a big difference.
As Christians it is our duty to speak out about our faith whatever the consequences. But those of us who are British or Irish Catholics inherit a tradition where we learnt to keep our faith private, because of the chance of being persecuted if we spoke out. This makes it much harder for us to break the mould, even to admit publicly that we are Catholics; but it is something we really ought to do however hard it may seem.
Whether we like it or not there are things in the world and in ourselves that we have to fight against. Those who have their babies baptised are always surprised when in the midst of a happy event they turn the page and are faced with the word “Exorcism”. It is there because every baby is born into a world where there is much evil, and sadly they are linked to that evil simply because they are a human being. This is the conflict they will face all through life, but at this moment before they are baptised a special prayer of exorcism is said that God will be with them to drive away that evil , and link them instead to his goodness and love. However much we dislike thinking about this, we have to face this battle all the way through life.
Jeremiah, in our 1st Reading (Jer 1:4-5.17-19) felt just like that. He was living in Jerusalem at a time when enemies were attacking and he realised that God wanted him to say something very unpopular. In a verse that we didn’t hear today, he makes two excuses for not speaking out. They may well sound rather familiar to you, because I often hear them used today. He says
“ I do not know how to speak” and “ I am too young.”(1:6) But God replies, as we heard, speaking no doubt directly into his mind, “I will make you into a fortified city, a pillar of iron, and a wall of bronze.” And so he has to speak, and the rest of the book of Jeremiah is full of the very unpopular things he said, that eventually came true. For this he was beaten and tortured and ended up in prison on bread and water, and yet he carried on saying what he knew was the truth.
Jesus knows this story of Jeremiah very well indeed, and he is also aware how dangerous and wrong it is to bask in the approval of our friends and neighbours. Here, he is in his own town of Nazareth, and “He won the approval of all.” It really would have been nice, wouldn’t it, at this point, to go off home to see his mother and family, with all the neighbours smiling upon him as the local boy made good? But he knows he must challenge them because that is his mission. To do otherwise would be to give in to the Temptations in the wilderness! And so he reminds them of parts of the Bible that they do not want to remember. He reminds them of the times when God, the God of Israel, their very own God, had worked through great prophets like Elijah and Elisha to heal and help, not the people of Israel, but despised and hated foreigners!
We are just like the people of Nazareth. We like the parts of the Faith that make us feel good, and we avoid those things that challenge us. We only have to look at our 2nd Reading (1 Cor 12:31-13:13) to see how often this happens. This is the passage people often choose for weddings. On the surface it seems such a nice happy passage full of comfortable and encouraging thoughts about the nature of love. But if we read it more carefully we can see how challenging it is, not least at the words “Love endures whatever comes”.
Yes, to love the way God loves us is always going to be a challenge, because to love someone like this does not necessarily mean being nice to them. Sometimes, as we all know deep down, loving people means saying or doing things that they do not like. We do not always like what the doctors or nurses want to do with us to make us well or keep us well – that injection, that procedure. No wonder, much to my horror, so many people book appointments with doctors and then do not keep them! We Christians, you as well as me, are the spiritual doctors of the world, put here by God to administer medicine for people whether they like it or not. We cannot do less if we are to be true to Jesus, to love people how he loves them, and if that leads to conflict, so be it.