On Independence Day we celebrate more than two centuries of national history. We Americans have a reputation in the world for optimism. Our nation’s history has made us optimists. The earliest settlers all came from Europe. They needed huge amounts of optimism to build a new nation in the wilderness, and to push its frontier westward until it spanned the continent. Despite all the blood, sweat, tears and treasure which this nation-building involved, until the Vietnam war it seemed that just about every major problem confronting us was soluble. From small beginnings, and protected by two oceans, we became the richest and most powerful nation on earth. If you’re rich and powerful, you cannot expect to be universally loved. Confronted today with hatred and terrorism, our troops the daily target of sniper and guerilla attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a worldwide economic crisis, we wonder anxiously how long the American success story can continue.
Today’s readings are not about success and power, however, but about rejection and weakness. In the first reading God warns Ezekiel that he is sending him to a rebellious people, who will reject the prophet’s message. The second reading records Paul’s prayer for deliverance from what he called “a thorn in the flesh.”
Some biblical scholars think this was a psychic or physical ailment. Others think it may have been the same opposition from within his own community which faced Ezekiel. Whatever it was, Paul says that God answered his prayer not by taking away the thorn, but by giving him strength to bear it. Through this experience of personal weakness, Paul writes, he learned to rely not on himself, but only on God. “For when I am weak,” he writes, “then I am strong.”
The gospel tells us of Jesus’ rejection by his own community. “They took offense at him,” the gospel says. Jesus offended people in three ways. For some he was too ordinary: “Is he not the carpenter?” they ask. What makes him so special? Others were offended because Jesus was not ordinary. “Where did this man get all this? What kind of wisdom has been given him? What mighty deeds are wrought by his hands!” Others still were offended because Jesus seemed so weak. This was the judgment of the bystanders at Calvary, who jeered: “So you were going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days! Save yourself now by coming down from that cross.” (Mk 15:29f). Such taunts were the final judgment of Jesus’ contemporaries on this man who seemed to make himself equal with God, yet who, when the chips were down, was unable to save himself from a criminal’s death.
By any normal worldly standards Jesus’ life was anything but a success story. Most of those who knew him remained quite unimpressed. Many took offense at him. That was true then. It is no different today. True, Jesus no longer comes to people in his human body. Today he comes through his mystical body, the Church. People encounter and judge Jesus Christ today through those who have become members of his body in baptism — in other words, through us. We have been made eyes, ears, hands, feet, and voice for Jesus Christ. He has no other.
Many people today say that they accept Jesus Christ, but want nothing to do with the Church. For some the Church is too ordinary. The Church is full of hypocrites, they say, people who are no better than anyone else. Others are offended because the Church is not ordinary. They find us remote, hopelessly out of date. The Church, they complain, preaches irrelevant dogmas to people who need practical help coping with life’s daily problems. They are offended because the Church — and that means us — lacks compassion for people who cannot live up to the Church’s unrealistically high moral standards. Still others are offended because the Church seems so weak. Why doesn’t the Church do something, they ask, about the terrible problems of society: urban poverty and blight in the richest country on earth, crime and terrorism, injustice, greed, and the rape of the environment?
People today, in short, are offended by the Church for reasons very similar to those that caused Jesus’ contemporaries to be offended at him. Many seek a “pure” Church: one that is not ordinary, not remote, not weak. Some — including many Catholics who are no longer with us — think they have found this pure Church in a community of “born again Christians” who exclude the lax and the lukewarm. Others find the pure Church they are seeking on television. The worshipers you’ll see there on Sunday morning are all squeaky clean. The preacher always has a polished and uplifting message. The singing is always fervent and on key. How many Catholic parishes can compete with that?
The Catholic Church doesn’t even try to compete. Like its Lord, the Catholic Church is, most of the time, very ordinary and quite unimpressive. It is the Church of saints, yes. Yet it is also the Church of sinners — and never more obviously so than right now, when the media still bombard us with lurid stories of priestly failings and sins. The Catholic Church is and will always remain the Church of sinners for one simple reason. It stubbornly insists on making room for people who slip and fall and compromise; who are weak in faith — whose faith, in not a few cases, is difficult to distinguish from superstition. Who are these people? We are! If the Church were as pure as we would all like it to be, would there be room in it for ordinary weak sinners like ourselves?
The Catholic Church, in short, is human, as Jesus was human. It is ordinary, as he was ordinary. It can be remote, as Jesus was sometimes remote. And it is often weak, as Jesus was weak. Hidden behind this ordinariness and remoteness and weakness, however, is all the power of God; all the compassion of his Son Jesus; and all the strength of his Holy Spirit, who came in flaming tongues on the first Pentecost to kindle a fire that is still burning; and to sweep people off their feet with a rushing might wind that is still blowing.
Most of Jesus’ contemporaries took offense at him. As another translation of our gospel has it, “They found him too much for them.” What about you?
Father Hughes is author of No Ordinary Fool: A Testimony to Grace.