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My dear friends, please allow me first to apologise for the rather distasteful image that I’m about to call to your mind. But imagine for a moment, if you will, that you’ve just finished using the toilet, and as you stand up, a few coins fall out of your pocket, or your purse, and into the bowl. What do you do?… I’m not sure about you, but I’m quite certain that I’d just go ahead and flush the toilet. And maybe, just maybe, check the bowl after that, to see if the coins are still there.
But what if the object you drop is your brand new iPhone X, or your wedding ring? What then? Will you still flush the toilet immediately? Or would you not at least pause to consider the possibility of first sticking your hand into that bowl to fish the object out? Well it depends, doesn’t it? It depends on how valuable that object is to you. What an object means to me determines where I’m willing to go to retrieve it. And the same can be said about people. Who a person is for me determines where I’m willing to go to search for that person.
Who often determines where. This, I believe, is also what we find in the gospel. When Jesus asks his disciples the question, who do you say I am?, he is not just asking them to attach the correct title after his name. Jesus, the Christ. What he is really asking them is, what do I mean to you? Who am I to you? And there's a reason why the Lord chooses to pose this question at this point in their relationship. The question who? is meant to prepare them for the question where?.
For the reading tells us that, after asking his disciples the question who?, the Lord goes on to tell them about the terrible things that will soon happen to him. And, although he doesn’t say it in so many words, isn’t Jesus asking his disciples another question? I, the one you acknowledge as the Christ, your Messiah, your Anointed One, I am heading for a very destructive and deadly destination. Far darker and more distasteful than any un-flushed toilet. Do I mean enough to you for you to follow me there? Where are you willing to go to search for me? To remain with me? It’s not difficult to see how the question who? leads into the question where?.
And that’s not all. There is also some irony in this conversation. Irony that we begin to appreciate when we ask ourselves another question. The question why?. Why does Jesus choose to go to the place of destruction and death? Indeed, why is he even walking this earth? Isn’t it because he himself is the hand that our loving and merciful God reaches into our selfish and sinful lives to search for us, to save us?
Although it may seem at first that it is the disciples who have to follow Jesus to a dark and distasteful place, it is actually the Lord who is reaching into their dark lives to save them. Reaching into my dark life to save me. For as the prophet Isaiah reminds us, ours were the sufferings he bore, ours the sorrows he carried… (Is 53:4). In Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection, God shows me how much God loves me. Unworthy though I am. Giving me the courage and the strength to renounce my sinful egotistical self, to take up my cross for love, and to follow the Lord into the fullness of life.
Which is what makes Jesus the fulfilment of the hope expressed in both the first reading and the psalm. In the reading, the one who is speaking is able to face his trials courageously, because he is convinced that the lord is coming to his help. And the psalmist is able to persevere, even when surrounded by the snares of death, because he firmly believes that he will walk in the presence of the Lord in the land of the living. In whom are these hopes fulfilled, if not in Christ?
Who a person is for me determines where I’m willing to go to search for that person. Isn’t this also what we find in the second reading? Contrary to appearances, the distinction being drawn here is not between faith and works, but between living faith, which is shown in good works, and dead faith, which has no works to show. For to have faith is not just to profess belief in a set of abstract principles, but to remain in a loving relationship with the person of Christ. To allow the Lord to mean so much to me that I am willing to recognise and reach out to him in those who most need my help. Even if they may live in conditions as distasteful as an un-flushed toilet.
Who a person is for me determines where I’m willing to go to search for that person. Who determines where. Isn’t this an important principle for us to remember especially today? When our church continues to reel from one devastating revelation of clergy sexual abuse and cover-up after another? And when it is perhaps no exaggeration to say that it often feels as though our church, which we dare to believe is the body of Christ, has fallen into an un-flushed toilet?
At a time as dark as this, isn’t it very tempting to give free rein to righteous anger, and to resort to pointing fingers of blame and recrimination? Caring little about whether one’s accusations are justified or not. And conveniently forgetting to consider one’s own part in all this. Isn’t it also tempting to simply walk away in disappointment and disillusionment. To leave this corrupt church where it has fallen? And, incredible though it may seem, isn’t it also tempting to remain oblivious to all that is happening? To carry on like it’s business as usual.
I’m not sure what you think, my dear friends, but aren’t such reactions no different from flushing the toilet after something of mine has fallen into it? If I can bring myself to do it, it’s only because what has fallen doesn’t mean much to me. For if it does mean something to me, wouldn’t I at least consider trying to retrieve it? Perhaps by bringing my emotional reactions to prayer. By pondering and discussing the relevant issues with others, in the light of God’s Word. By considering how I myself may have contributed, perhaps unknowingly, to the culture of clericalism that allows such unsavoury things to continue. And, eventually, to help initiate whatever steps may be needed to turn the situation around.
My dear sisters and brothers, if it is true that who determines where, then who is the church to you and me? And where do we need to go to help retrieve her from the dark and distasteful place into which she has fallen today?