"We must turn to the Pagans"
(Readings: Acts13:14,43-52; Apocalypse 7:9, 14-17; John 10:27-30)
Introduction to Mass
The readings for the Mass today describe Jesus as a shepherd, carefully looking after his flock - one of the most common images for God in the Bible. Also we see how the first Christians decided at the earliest stage of their history that the Church couldn't be restricted to those of Jewish faith alone, but had to be opened up to the pagans. They also had to be allowed to convert and believe in Christ.
Let us begin Mass by apologising to God for our weak faith and by asking him for his mercy and strength and guidance.
The communities of Christians that came into being soon after Jesus' resurrection realised quite quickly that not everyone who heard their preaching was going to join the Church. There were many good, truthful people, people committed to a way of life that came close to the values of the gospel - but that didn't mean they wanted to be baptised as Christians.
From the earliest times the Church saw these people as sharing in some mysterious way the salvation brought by Christ. They contained seeds of the Word of God, as one early Christian writer put it: they had reached a partial knowledge of God, but by some other path. The way they led their lives showed a sort of implicit devotion to God and a link with the Church.
This recognition that many unbaptised men and women were good and principled people actually reinforced the fact that the Church only carried out a formal Christian baptism when somebody had genuinely converted, when they definitely wanted to take on the Christian faith and join themselves to Christ. That's what baptism was for, and of course that's still what it's for.
History testifies that the first followers of Christ were happy to have high standards of faith and practice and small numbers, rather than have lax standards and let anyone join, whether they had any faith or not. They were happy to be the "little flock" that the gospels talk about, with Christ as their shepherd, their leader.
I believe that there are some parallels between the situation of the Church in our society today and the situation of the first Christians.
The culture of Britain might have been influenced by Christian ideas in the past - the level of real faith and commitment is always something we can argue about. But in our time the mainstream culture has gradually lost the Christian features it had retained from the past and has become pagan and this-worldly in character. People today are not, on the whole, very concerned about God, holiness, life after death - at least not as these are conceived by the Christian religion.
The most important thing for us, then, as for the earliest believers, isn't whether we have large numbers of church members, at any price. The important thing is to stay faithful to Christ and live the truth of the gospel, even if that means there won't be very many of us.
Some people have strong opinions about the strategies the Church should employ to hold onto the men and women who drift away from the practice of the faith, stop coming to Sunday Mass and generally give up the faith. Their advice, however, is often rather superficial. We've got to adopt new management techniques. We've got to learn to use the mass media more skilfully.
More radically, some people suggest that areas of received Christian doctrine and morality need to be revised to bring it into line with the contemporary outlook and lifestyle.
But this is the sort of concession the early church refused to make. The first followers of Christ didn't bend over backwards to advertise themselves or to make themselves appear more attractive in the hope of winning new members. They just got on with the business of taking their Christian faith seriously: praying, reflecting on what they believed, coming together to worship as a community, especially in the celebration of the Eucharist, trying to carry on their relationships in a loving and Christ-like way.
In other words, they committed themselves to a constant deepening of their attachment to Christ, a constant effort to live in imitation of Christ, and they prayed that their example, and the action of the Holy Spirit, would draw other individuals into a life of faith and discipleship.
In the early days of the Church, of course, they still had the advantage, if I can put it that way, of being close to the events of Jesus' resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit. They still had all the energy and the enthusiasm of a new movement.
We're alive two thousand years later - but Christ is still risen from the dead and the Holy Spirit is still active among the people who are trying to get closer to God. There is some evidence that in spite of the all the Church's troubles and weaknesses, thoughtful and sensitive men and women are turning away from the darkness and confusion of the present age towards the radiant light of Catholic faith.
What's important then is that those of us who already belong to the communion of the Church should make up a community fit to welcome them into. We must - to use the image in today's gospel - see Christ alone as our shepherd, and ourselves as faithful members of his flock in the spirit of Saint Peter: "Where can we go, Lord? You have the words of eternal life".
Sincere, spiritual people will be attracted by an example of firmness and courage in the face of ridicule, combined with Christian mildness and understanding towards those who, in their ignorance and shallowness, dismiss or attack us. Our circumstances today are precisely those in which we must also, like the apostles, "turn to the pagans" to persuade them to accept salvation through Christ.
That's the main practical lesson I would take from the glimpse of our ancestors in the faith that we get in today's readings.