Last week I promised I would suggest some ways in which we can work out what God might be wanting us to do, when we are faced with various problems in our life; and I started by pointing out that sometimes it is obvious, as when we have to choose whether to stop and help someone who has fallen over in the street, or to pass by on the other side.
Our first two readings today (Isaiah 50:5-9 and James 2:14-18) give us some suggestions about this. Isaiah reminds us that what we must not be swayed by other people. Our friends, for example, might say “Oh she’s only a dirty drunk, don’t bother with her. She’ll only spit at you”. Isaiah tells us to be ready to defy the world and to accept the spit. “The Lord comes to my help, so that I am untouched by the insults”. James, on the other hand, reminds us how easy it is, to have good ideas about how we might help, but fail to put them into practice. It is no good saying that I would cross the road to help that woman who had fallen over, but then fail to do so when the situation actually arises. Faith without works is dead!
Our Gospel (Mark 8:27-35) reminds us that God doesn’t mind if we don’t always get it right. As Pope Francis has been pointing out as he prepares the Church for the Year of Mercy, beginning on December 8th, our God is a God of mercy. Indeed recently Pope Francis said that if a priest was unable to show mercy and forgiveness in the Confessional, he should be stopped from hearing Confessions, and put behind a desk! “Hear hear!” I say having heard horror stories of people who have been treated badly when they made their Confession!
So when Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is, they make all sorts of wrong suggestions; and even Peter, who appears to get it right when he says Jesus is the Christ, actually gets it wrong, because he cannot accept a Christ who must suffer and die for the world. Jesus is tough on him “Get behind me Satan. Because the way you think is not God’s way but man’s” – and that’s a warning to us as well – but he continues to love Peter, and take him onwards on his journey of discovering what God really wants for them both. Remember we only know these stories against Peter because he told them to others later on to teach them more about the way of Jesus.
Making mistakes, making the wrong choice, but then learning from it, as Peter often does, is often God’s way for us. There may also be a number of answers that all seem fairly good even if they are not perfect. That is why if we hesitate to do something because we think it isn’t quite right, we have missed the point. Yes we often ought not to be hasty, to jump in too quickly. We need to look before we leap. But to be too cautious because we might get it wrong is just as mistaken.
Working out what we might do in more tricky situations then just crossing the road to help that woman, must then include praying about our mistakes. I don’t mean agonising about them, as some do. We are not meant to spend our lives getting all guilty about past sins ; and if anyone taught you to do that, they are wrong. We confess them yes, but in the knowledge of God’s love and forgiveness, as part of our journey onwards with him. Praying about something does not mean agonising about something, it means offering it to God and asking him to help us look at ourselves in new ways.
One of these ways may well be asking advice from others. As it says in Proverbs (12:15) “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice. One of the things I find most annoying is when someone says “Oh, I didn’t want to bother you Father, you must be so busy”. Remember please that a priest is meant to be the servant of the people, not their master, he is meant to be bothered by you when you need advice or help or prayer.
There are also many other wise people in most churches who might also be asked. We are called to be a community, but being a community is up to you. Sometimes (rarely in Eynsham) people say “But nobody talks to me at Mass!” and I say “Well why don’t you talk to them? Turn to them after Mass and say “Hello I am… I am afraid I don’t know your name.” Getting to know others who are Catholics is part of the way we learn to get to know God. Just coming to Mass but living the rest of the time as a lone Christian is not a good idea at all!
A good Confessor is surely part of this. Those who do not make their Confession at least once or twice a year because they say “I haven’t really done anything wrong” are missing the point. I hope I am not a big sinner, but sharing my life with my confessor regularly helps me to look at my life and its problems with fresh eyes. He often makes suggestions that I never thought of. When we make our Confession like this, then we are also receiving what is called “Spiritual Direction” from the priest.
Of course, ordinary wise lay people cannot hear Confessions, but they can give spiritual direction. Many of you probably do this for your friends without realising it! I recommend it, for as they say, “A trouble shared is a trouble halved”. So there are no easy solutions in our journey to serve God. In the end we just have to get on with it, and to know that God is greater than all our mistakes and failings and can even sometimes use them, if we let him! As St John says (1 John 3:19-21) By this we shall know that we are of the truth, and reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.”