The spirit of communion in the Kingdom of God
(Readings: Leviticus 13:1-2, 45-46; 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1; Mark 1:40-45)
Introduction to Mass
One of the distinguishing aspects of Jesus' public ministry was that he ignored the social and religious customs that excluded people who were sick and made them into outcasts. Christ refused to go along with the notion that there were certain individuals to whom God could not be made accessible.
The result of this commitment was that he then found himself being treated as an outcast by the people who wouldn't acknowledge that he was genuinely revealing God's true character. Jesus warned his followers that if they stayed faithful to the vision of the Kingdom they must expect the same kind of treatment.
To prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries...
In the short second reading this Sunday St. Paul describes the distinctive principle which should govern relationships among Christians. This is the ruling spirit in which members of the Christian community should treat each other and deal with each other: don't always calculate your own advantage, seek everybody else's instead. The Christian law of love overturns the principle of self-interest which infects human relationships at every level, even - perhaps especially - at the level of our closest relationships.
I think I can safely say that St. Paul would recognise two elements in the attempt to put this general principle into practice.
First there's the element of conscious effort on our part, an effort of will aimed at disciplining our self-seeking instincts and fostering a love and concern for the welfare of our neighbour.
And then there's the element of openness to the influence of God's grace. The transformation of our character, our growth in holiness and God-like love, isn't possible by our own willpower or self-discipline alone. It's mainly the outcome of being receptive to the life of God within us, and that's as true of the spirit or atmosphere of a whole community as it is of the character of an individual person.
It's only when the members of the community are agreed about the importance of fostering the divine life within themselves that the spirit of communion will take hold and their relationships with each other will assume this quality of mutual care and service that Paul is exalting. When people close themselves off from God, on the other hand, they fall back into the rivalries, power-struggles and jealousies that destroy the spirit of fellowship and solidarity.
Modern society affords plenty of examples of this tendency to compete against each other and prey off one another rather than serving and nurturing each other, as in Paul's ideal.
The parading of sad human situations, for example - children alienated from their parents, the breakdown of relations between marriage partners - has become a popular form of television entertainment. Genuine tragedies are trivialised, and the persons affected demeaned, as private disputes are trotted out for the amusement of a studio audience. In this format it isn't unusual for some bitter and hurtful remark, possibly reducing someone to tears, to receive a round of applause.
Often the disagreement appears to boil down to a battle between competing wills or appetites or conflicting expectations of happiness: each person feels slighted by the other's failure to "deliver". The host of the programme adjudicates, sermonises, condemns the participants in colourful, often brutal terms, and suggests practical solutions and compromises.
St. Paul's ideal cuts through this whole selfish morass. Christian relationships are not about one person acting as master and the other - or others - accepting the role of servant. Christian relationships aren't even about an equal sharing of "mastery". They're about everyone assuming the role of servant towards everyone else. This is the law and the ethos of God's Reign.
The first reading and the gospel address the same subject from a different viewpoint.
As the first reading shows, the Law of Moses, which still applied in Jesus' time, held that anyone suffering from a contagious disease had to live apart from the rest of the community - a form of quarantine - for "as long as the disease lasts". This wasn't meant to punish the sick person, it was meant to protect the health of everybody else.
But for the individual who fell ill it meant the end of normal social life. It entailed separation from family and friends and exclusion from the community in very distressing and humiliating conditions. To discover the first symptoms of some skin disease must have filled many of its victims with terror - and if the disease turned out to last indefinitely the fellowship of the rest of the community was more or less permanently withdrawn.
This is the context of Jesus' encounter with the leper in the gospel reading. When we think of all the ramifications of contracting an infectious disease, as I just tried to list them, we can see that the physical cure performed by Christ was not the most significant aspect of his action.
By healing the leper he was enabling the man to be readmitted to the membership and fellowship of the community at large. Once again Jesus was demonstrating the nature of God's Reign by actions and signs: where God rules, divisions are overcome and the spirit of communion, brotherhood and solidarity prevails.
What lessons should we take from these readings as the present-day followers of Christ? Let's take a leaf out of St. Paul's book for a start. He doesn't hesitate to say to his fellow Christians: "Take me as you model, as I take Christ". Every Christian disciple in fact should aspire to be a model of Christ-like attitudes and behaviour - a good example, in this particular instance, of the spirit of communion which characterises God's Kingdom.
We do that first of all by our personal attitudes, convictions and behaviour. If other people allow themselves to be swept along on currents of jealousy, bitterness and violence, we should do our best to be open to God and to renounce the destructive attitudes of possessiveness, control, the tendency to always seek our own advantage.
Second we may well find that circumstances require us to have the courage to speak and act against the grain of popular opinion with regard to ostracised individuals or persecuted minorities - modern-day lepers.
The tabloid press and other pernicious influences in our society select certain targets - from illegal immigrants to paedophiles - and furnish a spurious moral basis for mass anger and hatred. The selecting of scapegoats as objects for vilification and legitimate hatred is of course the tactic of the fascist demagogue.
As individual believers and as a community rooted in the word of God we can't go along with that without abandoning our own fundamental principles. The roots and causes of the moral issues dealt with in such a simplistic way by the gutterpress - from child-abuse to the effects of globalisation - are deep and tangled. Whatever anyone else does Christians must defend the principles of reason, compassion and human dignity in the face of ignorance, hysteria and hatred of every kind.
And so, lastly, that means we need to be prepared to risk being isolated and ostracised ourselves. Part of the drama of Christ's ministry - in which again he revealed aspects of God's true nature - was that the man who welcomed tax-collectors and sinners and restored lepers to membership of society was turned into an outcast himself at the end.
He warned his followers that the costs of discipleship might turn out to be high, and that the world would hate his followers in the same way that it had hated him. That's something we've got to consider if we're serious about placing God and his Kingdom at the centre of our lives.
Those are the three priorities, I would suggest, that we adopt in following St. Paul's about the importance of imitating Christ, and those are the main themes that come out of the three Scripture readings this Sunday.
God's Reign is a reign in which divisions are healed and the spirit of communion and mutual service governs out relationships. But ironically, our Christian insistence that everyone must in some way be brought into the circle of God's healing and forgiving love will always run counter to other, more vicious, human instincts - and we will sometimes have to be prepared to become outcasts ourselves as the price of faithfulness to Christ and his Way.