If you have ever travelled to London, England, and taken a trip on the subway train, you will have had the experience of standing on a crowded platform, waiting for the train to pull into the station. At the same time, you will have heard a recorded message, instructing you to “Mind the gap! Mind the gap!” and you will become aware that there is indeed a gap between the edge of the platform and the opening train door. One slip on your part and you could end up in serious trouble.
If you ever take note of the references in the missals that head up the readings for the day, you will see quite often that there are “gaps” – verses which are missed out by the editors who prepared the readings for use at Mass. In our three readings for today, for instance, there are several verses missed out in each reading, as well as the responsorial psalm, which usually is presented in a truncated form. Those who take part in our bible studies know that this is a particular bug bear of mine, and I always insist that we go to our bibles and “fill in” the missing verses, so that we can find out what the editors have chosen to exclude, and try to guess why they have done so. In most cases, the omissions are quite minor, but in some cases, very important details of the context are left out and we must put them back in, so as to grasp the full context of what the writer is wanting to tell us.
Take our gospel today, for example, A straight forward reading of this passage will give the impression that Jesus is speaking to the crowd when he explains, in the last paragraph, how the evil intentions of the heart are what defile a person, not whether they wash their hands before eating or not. But when we go the original biblical text, we find that Jesus is actually speaking to his disciples, not to the crowds. Why is this important? Because it indicates that Jesus has reached the point where he has stopped presenting his most important teachings to the crowds, because he knows that they will simply not accept them. Instead he turns more and more to his disciples, who are serious about their desire to change their lives in response to Jesus’ teaching, and it is to them that Jesus now gives the best of himself and his teaching.
Why does that matter to you and me?
For this reason. Each of us must reach the point in our spiritual journey, where we make the decision as to whether we are going to be full-on disciples of Jesus , or just fair-weather followers. We saw this in last Sunday’s gospel. Jesus is pointing to himself as the only one who can give true life to people, and to be able to enjoy this life to the full, they must accept him as sent by God,and receive him as their Lord and Savior. Several of his erstwhile followers are offended by his claims, and walk away from him. When Jesus turns to his disciples and ask them “What about you? Are you going to leave me also?”, it is Peter who says “Where else can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to know and to believe that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6: 66-69). Peter is speaking on behalf of the other apostles. (But even here, as Jesus sees very well, one of the twelve apostles, Judas, has not really made a full-on commitment to Jesus, and will eventually end up betraying him (John 6: 70-71).)
Are we in or out, brothers and sisters?
Are we fully for Jesus or not?
As I said in my introduction, each of us is called to make that decision and to show it, not just by paying lip service to our beliefs, but by allowing Jesus to enter into the very core and depths of our being, and challenge our heart, our spirit, our whole way of life to conversion, so that we become full imitators of Christ in word and example. Only when we are willing to let that happen, can we begin to call ourselves truly disciples of Jesus. The reason why those erstwhile followers of Jesus in John’s gospel walk away is that they are unwilling to face that challenge. They have areas of their lives which they know are sinful and they are comfortable with them, and they don’t want to face the pain of changing them. The reason why people give up faith in Jesus today, even though they were baptized and confirmed, is mainly because they have never been willing to face the challenge of real conversion either. They know that a full commitment to Jesus is going to force them to face sin areas in their lives and they don’t want that. They are comfortable in going just so far with their commitment to God, to faith, but no further than that. Sadly, many Catholics, even if they still go to church, also hold back from the necessary honesty and humility to come to repentance and true repentance of heart. Forty days in Lent giving up chocolate or coffee or cigarettes, or whatever, is not going to cut it, brothers and sisters. It has to be an ongoing challenge of ourselves to die to those areas of our lives that are opposed to true Christian faith. Those who come regularly to confession, are among those who are sincere in becoming disciples of Christ. Those who stay away from this sacrament above all are showing that they do not relish the challenge of looking into their life-styles and seeing where their thoughts, words and actions do not line up with those of Christ.
A true disciple of Jesus is willing to face and embrace the Cross as it confronts them along the way of discipleship. A fair weather follower of Jesus runs away in disgust and fear when the Cross shows up and disturbs their desired life of comfort and ease. St Thomas Aquinas once wrote, so wisely , that there are many people who are willing to sit down at table with Jesus to eat, but not so many who are willing to stand with him at his Cross. Have we reached that place in our lives, brothers and sisters, when we can say that we know that we know that we know that we can never leave Jesus, no matter what happens to us? Because he is the core, the centre of our lives, our very reason for being
We show that we are only fair-weather followers or disciples of Jesus, when there are “gaps” in how much we are willing to sacrifice, to commit, for him. We also show it when there are “gaps” in how much of his teaching we are willing to follow. Many so-called Catholics adopt a “cafeteria” approach to the truths of their faith, picking up those they like, and dropping those they don’t. You can’t do that and claim to be a full-on disciple of Christ. Either the Catholic Church faithfully preserves and transmits the fullness of Jesus’ teaching for salvation , or it doesn’t, and you and I should not be following her. The words of Scripture are not just human words, but the word of God Himself. So St Paul proclaims in his first letter to the Thessalonians when he commends them as true disciples because “when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human message, but as what it really is, God’s word, which is a living power for those who believe” ( 1 Thess 2: 13). If the word of God is not a living power for us, brothers and sisters, it is because we do not believe it to be God’s word, only a human construct. The reason why our faith has “gaps” is because we think of Church teaching only as human opinion, which we are free to reject or accept, depending on our own standards. If we thought about it, that means we are ascribing to ourselves a greater infallibility than even the Pope has. It also means we are rejecting the Catholic Christian faith, and inventing our own world religion. Well, good luck with that!
This is an uncomfortable homily for me, brothers and sisters, and probably for you.
It is uncomfortable for me because I know, as I have said before, “mediocrity preaching perfection.” I wish I could let myself off the hook. I wish I could ascribe to an easier way of life. I wish I could pick and choose which of the teachings of Christ I can take or leave. I wish I could answer when someone challenges me about a particular Church teaching that they are opposed to, I wish I could say to them “It’s ok. You don’t have to accept that.” But I can’t do that. I would not be a true pastor and teacher of the Catholic Church if I did. I would not be a true shepherd to you if I did. I would not be helping you, and me, along the path to eternal life, if I did. I would have to answer for my betrayal of Jesus before the judgement seat of God at the end of my life.
So all I can do is present the teaching of Jesus, and the truth of His Church as honestly and clearly as I can, and call you to true discipleship of Christ, as I do to myself. And warn you and me, to “Mind the gap!”