(Readings: Amos 7:12-15; Ephesians 1:3-14, or vv. 3-10 only, Mark 6:7-13)
Introduction to Mass
Last Sunday and today the readings for Mass are concerned with Jesus' identity and ministry as a prophet. In the gospel passage last week Jesus confronted the people who rejected his claim to be a spokesman for God, and this week Christ warns his disciples, as he sends them out on the mission, that they must also expect to encounter opposition, conflict and rejection.
As we come together to celebrate this Mass we bring to mind our own faults and failings and weaknesses and we ask God for pardon and strength.
An inescapable part of church life today, it seems, is the large number of meetings and gatherings and conferences of one sort or another. If you've attended as many of these gatherings as I have, you might have noticed - as I have - that they're nearly always marked by a peculiar atmosphere of their own.
There's often an over-eagerness to maintain a harmonious atmosphere, an exaggerated politeness and a deliberate lack of offensiveness. Often it's taken so far that it becomes cloying and stifling and honest debate between conflicting opinions becomes impossible.
As in other situations where there are a variety of viewpoints and interpretations, it's important that we distinguish between showing respect to people and simply evading argument and critical discussion of important questions. If people make too big an effort to keep the atmosphere friendly and harmonious, and to avoid anything approaching an argument, that can be an obstacle or a hurdle to telling the truth, having a truthful discussion and reaching truthful conclusions.
Ironically enough, among Christians, more than among any other group of people that's a strange state of affairs to find ourselves in. And I say that for two reasons.
One is that, when we look back through the history of the Church, by no stretch of the imagination is it a history of a group of people sitting around constantly agreeing with each other. It would be more true to say that it's the history of groups of people locked in disagreement and controversy, with each other.
Whether it was a matter of belief, or morality, or maybe practical matters of church policy - if the subject was important, it was important enough to have different perspectives on. And that meant that it was important enough to argue about, not just to smooth over for the sake of keeping the peace. That's the first thing.
And the second thing is that if we turn to the Bible, the revealed word of God doesn't give us any support for this notion that we have to avoid conflict at all costs or else we're behaving in an unChristian manner.
The readings for the Mass today are about conflict. In the first reading we get the story of the prophet Amos being made far from welcome as a guest speaker at an official shrine, a royal sanctuary.
Amos' message, which he'd been commissioned to preach by God, wasn't greeted by a great show of harmony and consensus by the guardians of the shrine. As so often in the case of the Old Testament prophets Amos' message was challenged and disputed, and he had to argue his case.
As so often, the word of God, when it came into the situation, caused upset and division and the spokesman for God - Amos in this case - found himself having to defend his claim to be acting on God's behalf. At the same time he found himself striving to discredit the claims of the people who were questioning his prophetic credentials.
Then, in the gospel passage, we pick up where we left off in the gospel reading at Mass last Sunday.
Last week, it was Jesus' prophetic credentials that were being questioned, by his own family and townsfolk back in Nazareth. Jesus, if you remember, replied with a spirited insult: you of all people should be able to discern the signs of genuine prophetic proclamation, but you don't recognise a prophet when he's right under your noses. Not the kind of language that's likely to build up consensus.
This week he's warning his disciples to expect conflict and opposition in their turn as he sends them out to spread the message of salvation.
Agreement won't always be possible. The gospel message won't always be accepted. And when it isn't accepted, Christ instructs his followers, "as you walk away, shake off the dust from under your feet - as a sign to them". Judged by these kinds of comments, Jesus wouldn't be the most popular participant on the church conference circuit today.
What conclusions should we draw from these episodes? I would say three things.
The first conclusion we can draw is that wherever the Kingdom of God is genuinely proclaimed, conflict of some sort is inevitable. The Kingdom can't be proclaimed without causing conflict. There will be those who don't accept the message, and even among those who do, there will be different ideas and interpretations about what shape our dedication to the Kingdom should take. That's been the situation since Pentecost, since the beginning of the Church.
The second conclusion I'd draw is that conflict doesn't have to be a destructive thing. It can be creative. The ideal in the Christian community isn't a kind of stifling unity - or conformity - and the suppression of all disagreement. The ideal in the Christian community, as Saint Paul says elsewhere, is speaking the truth to each other in love.
And that leads onto the final conclusion. The best way for us to show our Christian love for each other in the case of disagreement isn't by avoiding conflict at all costs. It's by the manner in which we conduct our conflicts and disagreements.
Resolving conflicts rather than evading them is the way we keep a healthy and honest and a grown-up spirit in the Christian community. But it's more than that. It's also the only way that we can make sure we don't domesticate the message that we're supposed to be committed to - the message that Jesus himself often announced deliberately in a sharp and confrontational manner - in other words, in a prophetic manner.
Those are the lessons I'd take from the readings this Sunday, about the disruptive nature of God's Kingdom, first of all, and about a genuine Christian way of facing conflicts and divisions when they arise in our own communities.