Most Reverend Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv DD STL, Bishop of Parramatta
Homily for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time in Year B with the conferral of the Sacrament of Confirmation at Sacred Heart Parish, Blackheath
16 September 2018
Brothers and sisters in Christ,
We live in a celebrity obsessed society – one that places great emphasis on beauty, wealth, fame and popularity. In sports, business, politics and even religion, we measure success or failure according to these standards.
For example, a business is successful if it generates big profits; a church is successful if it attracts a lot of worshippers; a government is successful if it performs well in the polls.
The Word of God this Sunday challenges these basic assumptions. It defines the meaning of life not in terms of personal gain, self-interest and shallow success, but rather in terms of one’s sense of duty, commitment and fidelity. Ultimately, it is our ability to live life’s bitter disappointments that determines our Christian discipleship.
In the first reading, Isaiah prophesies about the future Messiah who would vindicate the faithful exiles of Israel and bring them back to their homeland. Isaiah, however, describes this hero figure not in imperial language of power and dominance. He speaks of a humble suffering servant instead.
The Messiah is the one who “would make no resistance, who would not cover his face against insult and spittle.” Like Zechariah who foretells the king “riding on a donkey”, Isaiah goes against the grain of popular hopes and expectations. The Messiah would not follow the script of the empire. He would come as a poor and humble servant in order to minister at the thresholds of human vulnerability. For the Jewish exiles hoping for liberation, this prophecy was a shocking revelation.
There is a similar sense of disbelief in the Gospel story. After surveying the opinion polls about him, Jesus asks the same question of his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” It is to this question that Peter gives the answer: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
What follows is an unexpected lesson for Peter and the other disciples. Peter is praised for recognising the Messiah. He is called the rock.
However, the rock can be either the corner stone or the stumbling block. So long as Peter lives out the call to emulate the Suffering Servant, he is the rock of strength. But if he refuses to be part of Christ’s suffering, he becomes the rock of offense. Indeed, Peter is soon rebuked and called a stumbling block precisely because he wants to remove the cross from the mission of the Christ and Christian discipleship.
Peter has a steep learning curve on his way to be the foundation stone for the Christian community. Like Paul falling from his high horse, Peter also has his pride and ambition checked. He learns to carry the cross as a discipleship of trust, powerlessness, vulnerability and self-sacrifice. He learns to be led to places he’d rather not go. This is not simply geography, but above all a metaphor for vulnerable trust which is an essential quality for Christian living and witness.
In many ways, the Church today is being led to places that we’d rather not go. I am not only referring to the crisis of diminishment in terms of vocations to the priesthood, religious life or worshippers in the pews. There is also a sense of diminishment in terms of the Church’s moral stature in society. From where I stand, there is precious little ‘trust capital’ left in the Church leaders after the Royal Commission.
Yet, it is not time for defensiveness or despair. Rather, it is precisely in this time of humility that we must seek to rebuild, renew and reimagine. We do so by reclaiming not the former prestige and affluence, but the essential quality for Christian living and witness.
We simply must make the cross of Christ and the discipleship of powerlessness and vulnerable trust the cornerstone of the Church again. Only by standing on the side of the powerless and the vulnerable, only by living authentically the call to poverty, simplicity and humility can our voice be credible and our trust regained.
It seems to me that the invitation to go to places that we’d rather not go is none other than the call to emulate the humble, powerless and vulnerable Christ. It is the call to live more fully, more boldly and more humbly at the periphery.
This has been Pope Francis’ constant challenge to the Church. The pope wants us to go to the margins, to stay close to those on the edges of life and to be that Church which is bruised, hurting and soiled because it has been out on the streets and immersed in the coalface realities. It is the Church that dares to do what Jesus did: to leave the security of its status, to accompany the most vulnerable, to minister at the liminal and precarious places of extreme human vulnerability, to empower all people to live life more fully.
Let us pray that we respond to the person and message of Jesus, not by words as James says in the second reading, but by attitudes and actions that reflect the radical vision of Christian life.
Let us pray that we may be able to live fully that power in vulnerability especially during this time of the great cleansing and renewal in our Church.