Homily at St Philip Evans on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, With Scrutinies (Year A Readings).
The Seven Word Sermon: God and others let us down. Forgive!
Today, we celebrate the Final Scrutiny of those who are to become members of the church at Easter. To be baptised is to become a member of Christ’s family. So it is only fair that I come clean about what is on offer. I can only promise you two things if you become a faithful member of the Catholic Church: Disappointment, and Eternal Life!
Disappointment, and Eternal Life, are the two hallmarks of the story of Lazarus. We are told that Our Lord Jesus loved Mary, and Martha, and Lazarus – their household was for him a home from home where he was welcome ‘like family’. Even so, when Jesus receives news that Lazarus is dying, he does not rush to the bedside; he delays for two whole days.
Enter the redoubtable figure of St Martha, a strong woman, a woman of great faith! On the surface, she displays strength and faith in the midst of grief. Under the surface, she must have been a melting pot of conflicting thoughts.
- Why didn’t Jesus come sooner?
- But two days wouldn’t have made a difference anyway.
- But why did he delay – doesn’t he really care?
- Yet he is here now, and I am really glad he is here.
- Couldn’t he have done something, even at a distance?
Martha is delighted to see Jesus, livid at the way he has treated her. Martha stands here for all of us who have been let down by a partner or friend whom we love deeply. She holds together deep affection and deep disappointment. She does not stop caring for Jesus, yet is filled with anguish for what could have happened.
Let’s not be distracted by the end of the story, where Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. He allows Mary and Martha, whom he loves deeply, to endure the death of their brother. He could have spoken a word of command at a distance – but he didn’t. And he delayed his journey so that there would be no doubt Lazarus had truly died before he could be raised. Soon, we will remember how his friends had to endure his own death on the Cross; two of them would trudge off sadly down the road to Emmaus uttering the forlorn words, “we had hoped he was the one…” before discovering that their hope had in fact caught up with them!
Jesus allows even the family he loves to be tested by disappointment. This, then, is the reason I warn you who will become members of the Church to expect disappointment. In the church we teach a wonderful message – that we are loved by God and we are called to be a community which shows love to one another. And this is true! Yet we will not always experience God’s love in the way we would hope; and as a parish community will not always succeed in bringing love to those most in need of love.
It may be that you feel let down by God because you have not experienced God’s love in the way you wished for. If so, can you forgive God for not being the kind of god you want God to be?
It may be that you feel let down by an individual in this parish, or by the church as an institution, for failing to communicate love to you at a time when you really needed it. If so, can you forgive the Church or the individual for failing to meet your needs?
If we ache to be loved, let’s remember that others are in the same situation. Others, in fact, may be wishing that they experienced more of our love. Perhaps there is more we can do to reach out to others. Or perhaps we are trying our best but failing to communicate love in the way the other person can best receive it. Can we adjust what we do, or the way we do it, that others may better know our love?
In marriage, especially, it is crucial for couples to take time for an honest conversation, where each person can say “I feel X when you do Y”. In other close relationships, too, it might be useful ask which of our actions succeed or fail in communicating love – the answers may not be the ones we expect!
And then there is our life as a parish family. We are all called to show love to one another; and as a small but important step, I remind us all today that I encourage you to offer the Sign of Peace by using each other’s name.
How many members of this parish do you know well enough that you could pay a visit or pick up the phone? Could you make an unexpected call to just one other member of your church family between now and Easter? If each of us did just one thing, this parish would be enriched by 300 acts of love!
In the story of Lazarus, a human drama and a divine drama come together. The human drama is one we all experience every day – the cycle of hope and disappointment, friendship and love, illness and death. The divine drama is the greater story of Jesus, who died so that we could all have eternal life. Lazarus was raised from the dead, to live out the rest of his earthly span, as a sign to us that Jesus truly has power over life and death. My second promise to you, rooted in the raising of Lazarus and Rising of Christ, is that if you live out the values of our church faithfully, when your mortal body dies, you will experience a life with Jesus which is unending happiness. Of this, I am as certain as that you will experience disappointment with God and with the Church before you enter into bliss. Today’s other Bible readings contain God’s promise of the opening of the grave and eternal life.
So whether you are becoming Catholic this Easter or have been living the faith for many years, there are only two things I can promise you – times of disappointment during this life, and eternal happiness with God in the life to come. But cheer up – I cannot promise, but I hope, that you will have many experiences of being loved within the church family. And of one thing I am certain – that within our church family there will be precisely the number of acts of love which we choose to share with each other!
This homily is dedicated to my closest friends, those who regard me as “like family”, and with whom I am close enough to have shared disappointments. You know who you are, and I love you all.