21st Sunday in Ordinary time

The story began happily: Jesus had healed some people and then, in this remote place, about five thousand others gathered round him. There, Jesus performed another miracle: he multiplied food and everybody had enough to eat. Eventually, his popularity rose so high that people wanted to proclaim him as king. But right after that everything seemed to go wrong: Jesus didn’t want to be king; instead, he hid himself among the hills and under cover of night passed to the other side of the lake. When, eventually, people caught up with him in the synagogue he spoke to them about the mystery of the Eucharist. His words initially astonished the people but rapidly the same words came to anger them so much that in the end everybody left him. His popularity plummeted so violently, that he decided to ask even the apostles: “Do you want to go away too?”

Not so long ago people generally went to church every Sunday. Most people tried to live according to the gospel and the teachings of the church. New churches were built frequently. But in a couple of generations everything has changed. Congregations are becoming older, new churches are few and far between, some churches have to be closed or sold… Some people blame themselves because their children and grandchildren have no connection with the church anymore. Others think that the changes after Vatican Two caused churches to empty. But the same process may be seen in the Church of Scotland and the Church of England, without Vatican Two… Some people think that the Church holds no attraction for modern society… There are, of course, some new churches that seem very attractive but even though they are full, they still represent only a tiny minority of the population…

It seems that modern people, living relatively wealthy lives have lost interest in religion. People don’t seem to need established religions, because they have found a new faith. Its rules and commandments are easily seen in colour magazines, popular films and adverts. It has new saints; we call them celebrities. People look at them, read about their lives and try to follow them. Perfection of the soul is replaced by perfection of the body.

We have all heard it said, that traditional religions are at the root of the world’s unhappiness. In the modern world many people share this belief. But what about the new religion? Does it make people happier? I don’t think so. I’m afraid that the state of contemporary western society offers bitter proof of Jesus’ words in today’s gospel: “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh has nothing to offer”.

Many years ago I read a book on meditation by Anthony de Mello, an Indian Jesuit. It led me to think about my own death; in my imagination I saw my own body lying in the tomb, falling apart – disintegrating. Of course, that must sound very unpleasant. But in fact it was very healing; just like everyone else I had been taken over by the desire and lusts of today’s world. I needed to realise, that everything in this passing world should be used for a spiritual purpose: the salvation of souls.

In the first reading the people of Israel said to Joshua: “We have no intention of deserting the Lord our God and serving other gods”. This Sunday you are being invited to make these words your own: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”