The Gospel story [Luke 4:14-21] we just heard took place in the otherwise ordinary setting of a Sabbath service in the synagogue in Jesus’ hometown, and it was as an ordinary member of the community that he took his turn reading the scripture (just as members of this congregation did here moments ago).
The passage Jesus read was familiar enough. They had probably heard it many times, and had no reason to suppose that this time would be any different – any more than many of us, coming to Mass Sunday after Sunday, expect anything extraordinary to happen. The surprise was not what Jesus had read, but rather his unexpected announcement that the prophet’s words were being fulfilled then and there: “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Our reading today ends on that somewhat upbeat note, but the rest of the story [Luke 4:21-30] (which we’ll hear next week) tells how Jesus’ audience were first amazed at his words, but then turned against him and, filled with fury, drove him out of the town, and tried to throw him off the hilltop on which Nazareth was built. But Jesus, we are told, passed through the midst of them and went away.
Jesus’ audience’s amazement really shouldn’t surprise us, since surprise is one thing we usually least expect. And, since human history probably produces more bad news than good news, genuinely good news (if and when it comes) usually comes as a surprise. It doesn’t fit our ordinary expectations, and it is those ordinary expectations that govern our reactions most of the time. For the congregation at Nazareth to have expected Isaiah’s words to be fulfilled in their hearing, that would have been surprising. Hence their amazed reaction to Jesus’ surprising invitation to them to change their expectations!
For us today, too, the contrast can be quite as upsetting between Jesus’ amazing message and our present situation – natural and human-induced disasters of all sorts, political fights, economic failures, and polarization and conflict even (sadly) within the Church itself. Hence the understandable skepticism of those who have a hard time reconciling the good news the Church proclaims with the ordinary old news of our day-to-day world.
We all know people who, tragically, are no longer actively involved in the life of the Church. There are many reasons this happens – getting married, moving and not quite getting settled, being bored, a personal quarrel with a parishioner or priest, or (increasingly in our sadly post-Christian society) not having really learned what being Church is all about in the first place.
Then again, it seems to me, many active, faithfully practicing Catholics often share some of those same circumstances, difficulties, and questions. In that sense, there might not be a whole lot of difference between the two groups – any more than there was between those who spoke highly of Jesus in the Gospel story and those who were all filled with fury at him. If anything, the story seems to suggest they were really the same people – speaking highly of Jesus one minute, then all filled with fury the next – just as any one of us can be very committed and devout, but then something happens to make us angry or indifferent.
Ultimately, for us now as for them then, the difference comes down to Jesus himself – Jesus who clearly made himself the issue, setting the stage for everything that followed. Ultimately, what solidifies our commitment and makes the Church effective in the world is how our expectations of life have been changed by Jesus himself, who in turn challenges us to share those changed expectations with the world.
Jesus’ hometown triumph-turned-rejection anticipated what would happen soon enough on the big-city stage of Jerusalem, where having again entered in triumph, Jesus would end up driven out of town to be executed on a hill. Risen from the dead, however, Jesus has once and for all passed through our midst – not to leave us, however, but to remain with us in his Church, where life’s ordinary old news has become God’s good news.
In that Church, we are all, as St. Paul says [1 Corinthians 12:12-30], baptized into one body – Christ’s body – Christ’s face for the world to see, God’s word for the world to hear. Who and how we are as a living, active, united, and effective Church community is how the Scripture is fulfilled and the kingdom of God becomes present in the here and now. That is why our life together as Church is at the center of our mission to continue Christ’s life and work in our world.
Whether at the worldwide level, centered around the ministry of our Holy Father the Pope in Rome or at the local level, centered around the ministry of our diocesan Bishop, the Church’s mission is a communal effort, as in different ways and at different times we come together with our many different experiences and needs, our joys and sorrows, our hopes and anxieties, to form a community of faith, hope, and love to continue Christ’s life and work in our world. We all share in that mission – from which we benefit and to which we contribute according to our circumstances.
Contributing to the mission of the Church is about more than money, of course; but (as long as we live in a world in which resources are limited and things cost) money is a part of it. And so, as your pastor, my special task today is to ask you (if you have not done so already) to make a pledge next week to this year’s Annual Bishop’s Appeal. Your participation in the annual Bishop’s Appeal will assist our 47 existing parishes and enable the diocese to open new ones (as it has been doing in areas which have not had any parish previously). Your participation in the annual Bishop’s Appeal will help support the essential (but expensive) work of training our 19 seminarians along with the next generation of deacons and other parish leaders, will enable essential diocesan programs for sacramental preparation and religious education, and will continue to make possible the Church’s vital social outreach to the 64,586 clients who have been served through our Catholic Charities. Now none of this happens automatically. It’s up to us to make it all happen.
As St. Paul put it so directly: God has so constructed the body so that there may be no division in the body, but that the parts may have the same concern for one another. If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.
Homily for the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time and the Announcement of the Annual Bishop’s Appeal, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, January 26-27, 2013