14th of the Year, 4 Jul 21
We put our trust in a lot of people, perhaps without realising it some times. When we get our hair cut we’re allowing someone with a very sharp instrument very near our head. When we have surgery in a hospital or a diagnosis from a doctor, we’re trusting that these professional men and women will be making the right call. When we’ve dropped our children off at school we’re leaving them for several hours in someone else’s care and anything could happen. A major part of the vaccine debate is whether we trust the healthcare professionals who say we should have it. And I might add I’ve had both my COVID jabs now thankfully.
Part of our information-heavy society is that we have got less good at trusting people. The hypochondriac might look up his or her symptoms in a medical encyclopaedia of old but now there’s a whole host of websites that will list 101 illnesses and life threatening conditions you might have. One quick google search and we’ve sentenced ourselves to imminent and cruel death! In such a climate, faith is in short supply. I want to talk about this great theological virtue today.
The three theological virtues are faith, hope and love, as St Paul records in I Corinthians 13. These are ultimately gifts from God because, as Paul observes, they abide, they last forever. When we love this isn’t something that comes from deep within us, it is a participation in God who is love. When we have hope we are looking beyond ourselves to Him who made all things and restores all things. When we have faith we are acknowledging that we have been given a platform from which we can encounter God. Faith, hope and love are not - and this is important - are not feelings from within or they would die with us and would come and go like anger or boredom. Rather, they are virtues, aspects of the eternal bit of us human beings, namely the soul. They are gifts from God.
In our readings today we’re given a definite sense of the absence of faith. The call of Ezekiel in our first reading is in response to the people’s defiance and obstinacy. But notice how God’s response to their irreverence is not to say to them, ‘Well you need to try harder,’ or ‘Here’s a ten point plan.’ Rather, He sends gifts: the gift of His Spirit and then the gift of the prophet, Ezekiel, in the case of that first reading. God gives us gifts too, the same Spirit of Truth, and companions on the journey. But it will also be the case that God has given us to be there for someone else to draw them back to that platform from which they can encounter God.
But faithlessness doesn’t go away sadly as we see in the Gospel today. The context of chapter 6 is that Jesus has taught the people using parables like the mustard seed and performed miracles like those we heard of last Sunday, raising Jairus’ daughter and healing the woman who’d been suffering for ages. But now Jesus has returned home to Nazareth and He is rejected. They can’t look past His humanity, His family, His job. This is an error some Christians and others repeat today who mistakenly think Jesus was just a good bloke with some nice moral teaching. Rather, He is God, the Way to the Father, who emptied Himself so that we might become rich.
It’s startling that the faithlessness here stifles our Lord’s work. Is God not strong enough to overcome it? Of course, He is! Is faith essential for miracles to happen? Well, it would seem so. Elsewhere in the Scriptures, Jesus says to those whom He’s healed, “Your faith has saved you,” (St Luke 7:50). God doesn’t obliterate our freedom to choose and our living in faith means we will take that step up to the platform God has laid for us so as to receive His grace. Otherwise we’ll end up stifling His work too.
We need that same faith whenever we gather for Mass so we don’t confuse what we’re seeing like the crowds did in our Gospel today. Not just a carpenter, a man, not just a piece of bread, but the Lord Jesus Christ, come for us. So we might pray, in the words of the hymn,
“Give us the wings of faith to rise
within the veil and see,”
St Thomas Aquinas wrote a wonderful hymn to our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament and drew the comparison also with the Cross, where all that seems evident is Jesus’ humanity, cut and bruised and bleeding. Here on the altar, Thomas writes, neither Jesus’ humanity nor His divinity are clear but “both are my confession, both are my belief.” This faith will save us, my friends.
There is surely a risk if we believe things too readily that we end up being gullible. And because of the value of faith it is a risk we must be willing to take. In the same way, when we love someone there is the danger he or she will break our heart, or if we hope for something it might be different when it arrives. When we loan something to someone, our Lord is clear, we shouldn’t expect it back (St Luke 6:30). The world is confused about the nature of radical love, radical faith and radical hope. We have to be clear what it looks like.
In the letter of St James in the New Testament we see the Apostle teaching us about the relationship between faith and works. He’s arguing against those who say they have faith but it’s not evident by the way they lead their life. Well, “Faith without works is dead,” James writes (St James 2:26). Our new Study Group series begins on Tuesday - do zoom in for it. One of the key phrases from Paul’s letter to the Romans, which we’ll be studying, is “faithful obedience.” He begins his letter reminding us that “we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5).
This faithful obedience of Christ is shown supremely on the Cross, around which we gather whenever we come to Mass, that from His pierced side the life of the Church might flow in to us her children. Suffering therefore refines and purifies our faith. In our second reading today Paul talks about his weaknesses and “the thorn in the flesh” that he endures. We don’t know what specifically this was: some illness perhaps or some temptation he’d struggled with. Notice though his weakness, this suffering is a blessing for him.
When we experience suffering or some bit of bad news it is quite common for folk to say to us or for us to say to those experiencing these things: “You must have faith.” It’s a lovely thing to say but there is a danger I fear that we end up thinking the faith will take the suffering away. Faith becomes then like some sort of vitamin tablet which will somehow make life better for us. And while, as I said earlier, faith is the basis of so many of our Lord’s healings, the faithful obedience of Christ leads to His going to His Cross and the faithful obedience of His apostle Paul is strengthened by his suffering with this thorn in the flesh.
One final thought about faith and that is that’s it a corporate affair. At Mass when we recall the peace gave to His apostles on Easter Sunday morning, the priest prays, “Look not on our sins but on the faith of your church and graciously grant her peace and unity in accordance with your will.” If faith is the platform God gives us on which we can interact with Him, then it is a platform on which we find others and which is held up by others too. Mary needed the Archangel Gabriel to tell her of God’s plan; Joseph needed to support her in living up to it. Mary had the faith to respond, “Yes” to God’s invitation, she still needed others to get to it.
Hebrews 11 is a great reflection on what faith is all about, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” There, examples are given of faith and they’re communal affairs: Noah builds an ark to save his household, Abraham and those with whom he lived in tents were to build a city and from him descendants were born. God would be very unreasonable if he expected us to just pick up the Bible and work it all out ourselves. And He doesn’t. The faith we profess is not what we’ve created ourselves, but the faith of the Church. When we’re struggling with the problems of life, they’re not the worse problems that anyone has ever faced, others have gone before us and kept the faith, which is just as well or we might not be here worshipping God together.
Let us then, my friends, treasure this wondrous gift of faith: a faith to discern Christ present in the Mass; a faith that spurs on to activity; a faith that endures suffering gladly; a faith shared within the Church. Remember the warning of today’s Gospel that when faith was absent, our Lord could work no miracles there. Amen.