Accepting and rejecting God's Kingdom
Introduction to Mass
The first reading and the gospel today give examples of people reaching a moment in their lives when they break with the past and turn decisively towards God. In the gospel particularly, Jesus announces the reality of life with God as a choice which people are always free to either accept or reject. But if they accept, Jesus implies, their new life under God's Reign will have radical and far-reaching consequences.
Our own response to God is often weak or half-hearted, so let us begin Mass by asking God to forgive us and to strengthen our faith and commitment.
"When Christ freed us, he meant us to remain free," says St. Paul. "So stand firm, and don't submit again to the yoke of slavery".
St. Paul never knew Jesus when Jesus was conducting his ministry around Israel and Judea, before his crucifixion. He only met Christ after the resurrection - in that dramatic episode which turned him from being a persecutor of the new Christian faith into its most energetic missionary.
Before that St. Paul had been a Pharisee, and like the rest of the Pharisees he had identified doing God's will with a rigorous and minute keeping of the law. Like many other people he thought that an attitude of extreme self-discipline and conformity to religious rules was the path to salvation.
After his conversion Paul became a great opponent of that legalistic attitude because after his encounter with Christ he saw holiness and closeness to God and strength of moral character not as qualities which we produce in ourselves by our own effort - even well-meant effort - but much more as the effect that God has on us if we're open to him.
When our conscience and our heart and our will are in contact with God we become aware that we're being led by his Spirit, not by ourselves. And as long as we're open to the Holy Spirit, the Spirit will impart to our character the kinds of qualities that God himself has - at least to the extent that we actually want to be changed, and are open to spiritual growth.
That's what Paul discovered himself after his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus. He discovered that the spiritual life, and the whole of our Christian moral life, isn't a matter of imposing rules on ourselves. It's about being open to the way that God influences us and changes us, and co-operating willingly with that.
In the gospel passage the instructions Jesus gives point in the same direction. God invites, he doesn't coerce, and we always have the choice of refusing the invitation.
But if we accept, Jesus says, our turn towards God should be total, wholehearted and lifelong, and we should feel a sense of urgency about our new life with God: "Leave the dead to bury their dead. Your duty now is to go and spread the good news of God's Kingdom"; and: "Once the hand is laid on the plough, no one who looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God".
The main thing, it seems, is actually reaching and facing the moment of decision about our relationship with God. Someone who is brought up without any religious belief, who then finds God at some point in their adult life, is usually able to look back and trace fairly clearly the path that led them to that moment of decision - certain events, certain relationships, certain questions and crises in their lives.
Eventually they reached the point where they want to make a break with what went before and start a new life of faith in God.
But even for those of us who have been brought up as Christians there still comes a moment in our adult lives where we have to decide whether we're actually going to take it all seriously or not, whether God is the centre of our lives or not.
Many people who have had all possible formation and upbringing in Christian faith actually opt to reject it. They decide to do without it, to live without God.
And the clarity and honesty of their rejection is preferable to the endless dabbling in religion that so many people get on with now, always paddling around in the shallow end of the pool, always approaching religion self-indulgently, looking to see what they can get out of it and never really grasping what religious faith - and certainly what Christian faith - is all about.
My interpretation of Jesus' words here is that he respected the decision of those who decided definitely that they didn't want to accept his message or take on the duties of discipleship.
What seemed more important to Christ was, first, that at some point we should make up our minds one way or another, and, second, that if we do decide to follow him, then we should be clear that it involves a whole new direction in life, a completely different set of values and goals and priorities.
So Saint Paul's great conviction was that whatever progress we make in our spiritual lives and in our relationship with God, it's always a matter of us receiving what God is giving us - it's not something we achieve through our own talents or effort.
But at the same time, we're not just passive recipients of God's grace. We always have to decide whether to be open to God or not. Jesus knew that, and I think that was why he was far less indignant than the disciples were on the occasions that people actually decided to reject his invitation to follow him and to live in communion with God.