Answering God's Summons: Faith, Community and Mission
(Readings: Isaiah 61-8; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11)
Introduction to Mass
The readings today show different individuals during different periods in history being summoned by God to receive the message of salvation, to turn around the priorities in their lives and to then announce that same message to others.
To begin Mass we reflect on the times when we've been unwilling to accept all the implications of believing in Christ, and we ask God to forgive us and to strengthen our faith.
If there's a common theme running through the readings for the Mass this Sunday it's the theme of God summoning people: to enter into his life and to help carry out his plan.
Isaiah, in the first reading, is called by God to assume the mission of a prophet - being God's spokesman, telling unpopular truths. Deciding how to answer the call faced Isaiah with an uncomfortable dilemma, but in the end he decided to say yes. "Here I am. Send me".
In the gospel Jesus summons Peter and James and John to be disciples. And again, it was a weighty decision for them. They sensed it would involve big changes in the way the rest of their lives would turn out. But like Isaiah they decided to say yes. "They left everything," Luke says, "and followed him".
Passages of scripture that describe the way God invites individuals to carry out his will in some way are brought out whenever there's an appeal for vocations to the priesthood and the religious life. But the teaching of the gospels is that every person who’s been baptised has been summoned by God, not just the clergy. Everyone who’s been baptised as a Christian has been summoned to be a disciple, the same way the first disciples were.
And answering God's summons, to my mind, involves three things.
First of all it involves faith. Every so often the newspapers carry out a survey of people's religious beliefs. The results of the survey nearly always show that something like 95% of the population believe in God in some sense. Church leaders take comfort from this kind of result and they claim that it shows a hopeful tendency towards spirituality among the majority of the population.
Personally I think they would be better not to grasp at straws. Modern notions of religion tend to be both superficial and highly subjective: "spirituality" has more to do with people's aspirations towards personal emotional contentment and towards happiness defined in a more or less selfish and usually materialistic way.
God is a vague, distant, indulgent figure according to the modern religious sensibility - he's really no more than a projection of today's typical uncommitted, permissive moral outlook. He's not someone who invites people to reverse the priorities they make for themselves in their lives and actually disapproves of certain values and ways of living.
Real faith is more to do with what do we take seriously: what are the beliefs and values that we actually live by. If we wanted a survey of how many people took Christ seriously, and how many people are actually attracted by his teaching about the first being last and the last being first, and blessed are the poor, etc, I think the figure would probably be a bit below 95%.
So the first thing about answering the summons to be a disciple is that it involves faith - taking Jesus seriously. The second thing is: community.
Our circumstances today might be very different from those of the first followers of Christ but the reality at the heart of the Church's life is the same now as it was at the time of the first generation of Christian believers.
The main thing we have in common with each other, as members of the Church, isn't similarity of temperament or even a sort of shared interest in some activity like a social club or a group of people dedicated to some hobby to fill our spare time.
What we're supposed to have in common is that we accept the Christian message and the fact that we're all journeying together on the path towards greater knowledge and love of God and greater imitation of Christ. Church membership has to keep sight of that central reality, says St. Paul - and "believing anything else will not lead to anything".
Then the third thing disciples are called to is: mission. There should be nothing inward-looking or self-absorbed about the form of community life that takes shape among Christian believers and we shouldn't be reluctant to propose Christian faith to people outside the community either. A genuine relationship with God propels us outwards to announce the Good News to other people. That's what evangelisation means - publicly announcing our "Good News".
Again the first Church communities offer a good model for imitation. In the early Church every baptised Christian saw him- or herself as in some sense a missionary. All the members of the Church were preachers of the gospel in whatever way their circumstances allowed.
Far from being too embarrassed to own up in public to being a Christian, the first followers of Christ were more than keen to argue and debate and persuade others to give up inferior beliefs and inferior ways of living to place themselves under God's rule. They criticised the world's values by the standard of the gospel. They didn't do what a lot of modern Church members do and criticise the gospel's values according to standards of the world.
So the enthusiasm and courage and confidence of our ancestors in the faith is something I think we would benefit from rediscovering in our situation today, with smaller and smaller communities living in a society that appears to be becoming quite hostile to the Christian principles and beliefs.
We can put three questions to ourselves, based on the readings for this Sunday's Mass.
Do we have faith in Christ, and is Christ's message about the Kingdom the main reality that we take seriously in our lives? Second, in what way is our membership of the Christian community actually an expression of our shared belief in Christ? Is it just a pastime with people that we happen to like? And lastly, in what way are we a missionary community - and if we're not, how can we change things?
Those I think are the themes and concerns that the liturgy puts in front of us this week for our reflection and response.