God's call to us and our need for God
(Readings: 1 Samuel 3:3-10, 19; 1 Corinthians 6:13-15, 17-20; John 1:35-42)
Introduction to Mass
The theme of today's readings runs through the whole of the biblical story: God calls us to knowledge of him and invites us to live in communion with him. We can exclude God from our lives if we choose, and many people do. But we're not made to live apart from God, and when we do, we're only re-directing our yearning for the uncreated God onto finite, created things and negating our real vocation.
To begin Mass let's acknowledge all the ways that we turn away from God rather than towards him, and ask him to forgive us and to strengthen our faith in him.
The story in the first reading this Sunday can be read as a kind of parable illustrating the way that God constantly reaches out to us, reveals himself to us and invites us to share his life.
On the whole we don't tend to think of God taking the initiative in this way. We tend more to believe that our contact with God is established by efforts on our part: efforts to search for the signs of his presence and activity, efforts to deal with doubts and uncertainties and the occasional suspicion that he doesn't actually exist, that it's all nonsense.
But there's another way of looking at things: that regardless of what we do, God is constantly searching for us, constantly beckoning us and endeavouring to make contact with us. We fail to hear his voice because so often we're preoccupied with other objects and plans.
Many people who arrive at faith in God after years of convinced unbelief describe their journey not so much as their finding God as God finding them. The writer C.S. Lewis, who's become popular again on account of the recent Narnia film, described his own abandonment of atheism as God's relentless pursuit and his eventual admission of defeat. From his own experience Lewis felt strongly that even when we’re not trying very hard to make contact with God, he's always trying to make contact with us.
The view of the Bible and Christian tradition is that humanity can't be explained in terms of itself: we're not self-sufficient. We have a hunger for God, we belong to him, our nature calls us to live in relationship with him.
Another way of putting it is to say that, at our most basic level, we're creatures. We haven't invented ourselves and we're not sovereign over ourselves. We don't determine the purpose of human life according to our own inclinations, on the principle of "each to his own".
Obviously in a "free" society people can choose to do what they want, within the limits of the law. But from our Christian standpoint, we would see many of the choices people do make as a mis-directing of our yearning for God.
Human beings can make false gods out of anything, and do. The approved goals of conventional society - money, career, material security, a contented family life and so on - can be treated as absolutes, the final limit of our horizon. But so can the various forms of rebellion against convention: the resort to drugs, promiscuity, destructive violence. Our constant opting for false gods only highlights our radical need for the true God.
This is the direction St. Paul is coming from in the second reading, and it might be worth dwelling on what Paul has to say here in view of the accusation, often levelled at priests today, that they don't preach Christian sexual morality "from the pulpit" properly or fully or frequently enough.
"You are not your own property," says Paul in his letter to the Christians at Corinth. "You have been bought and paid for". The body, he tells them, is "the temple of the Holy Spirit" which implies purposes and intentions that we don't determine for ourselves. Ultimately our vocation as human beings is to glorify God, Paul says. Fornication, then, as he calls it, deflects us from this vocation.
The worst mistake we could make here is to paint St. Paul as a killjoy or someone who takes pleasure in enforcing a repressive moral code. He's certainly articulating a general principle here, but he's also writing in a particular context.
Many of the non-Jewish men and women who converted to faith in Christ lived in an atmosphere of gross licentiousness and sexual indulgence. The modern commercial sex industry would have little to teach the inhabitants of first-century Corinth.
Then, as now, the culture permitted and promoted sex as a commodity: physical intimacy devoid of affection or commitment. Some people even put an ingenious religious twist on their activities: they argued that since the body and the soul are separate entities, they could engage in sexual licence outwardly without affecting their inner spiritual purity.
St. Paul wasn't ignorant or naive about the temptations to which fallen human nature is prone, in any department of life. He knew that human beings are easily persuaded to view themselves and other people as objects rather than persons; that the fallen part of us is actually attracted to "de-personalised" relationships, and always has been.
Paul is reminding the members of the Christian community that they are creatures, that their purpose in life lies in their belonging to God, and with God. Neither the world around us, nor possessions and money, nor even our own bodies, are owned by us, to dispose of as we like, independent of our status as creatures. Ultimately our thinking and behaviour in all these areas should revolve around God, not around ourselves.
Of course nothing could be further from the modern idea of the body as an object over which each person exercises an absolute sovereignty, and many people today would reject Paul's teaching as an outrageous infringement of their individual freedom.
But let's not lose sight of the fact that St. Paul is not proposing moral principles for society at large. His teaching is directed only at those who have chosen to become members of the Body of Christ, the Church. Paul's attitude towards pagan society appears to be: leave them to their ruinous ways. But if you have turned to Christ, he is saying, then your new standards of conduct are high - and in stark contrast to those considered acceptable in the surrounding culture. The relevance of Paul's advice to our circumstances today is surely plain enough.
Finally, let's cast a brief glance at today's gospel.
Like the other readings the main theme is vocation, the calling we all have from God. John the Baptist identifies Jesus' vocation as the Lamb of God who will sacrifice himself for the sake of humanity; Jesus assigns Andrew and Peter their new vocation as his followers. Initially the two brothers approach Jesus - he doesn't go out of his way, at this stage at least, to call people to him. But when Peter shows signs of acknowledging Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus responds by conferring a new name on him.
In the Bible a new name always signifies a new identity, a new path in life, the start of a new vocation, and that's what Christ is drawing Peter into by this gesture.
This Sunday the Scripture readings invite us to identify with Peter, called to walk a new path with Christ. They invite us to identify with Samuel, summoned by the God who never stops trying to make his voice heard to us in spite of our deafness. They invite us to identify with our fellow Christians, centuries ago in the unwholesome climate of Corinth, fulfilling our vocation to be, as St. Paul says, "joined to the Lord in one spirit with him".