The incident described in the First Reading complements a similar episode in today’s Gospel. This time it was the apostle John who, like Joshua, was part of an ‘inner circle’, in this case being one of the Twelve apostles around Jesus. John was annoyed that someone was performing exorcisms (‘casting out spirits’) in Jesus’ name even though this man was not one of the Twelve. He asked Jesus to stop him, wanting to exclude anyone who did not conform to the group’s ordered way of doing things. But just like Moses, Jesus refused and took a more tolerant and inclusive approach, saying in so many words: ‘If he is healing people in my name, let him continue.”
These two incidents are examples of what can happen when the ‘insiders’, the select or elite core of any group, try to keep a tight control of things and attempt to restrict the activity of what they view as ‘outsiders’ i.e. people who don’t officially belong to their inner circle. In doing so they can defeat the very ideal or reason for the group’s existence in the first place.
In Jesus’ case, he was happy for people to share in his ministry without his or his community’s formal ‘licensing’ or approval. In this instance, the work of healing and liberating people was more important that who was doing it. Sharing in his service to humankind could not be the preserve of the ‘insiders’ only.
It’s an important message for us in our parish and in the Church today. God is bigger than any of us and we cannot restrict the work of Jesus or God to ourselves. We do not have an exclusive claim on the work of God.
As today we begin a year of celebrating the 90th anniversary of the building of this church, we also are honouring the small community of Catholics who in 1928 built it. Back then to be Catholic was to be an ‘outsider’ in British society. Catholics were not part of the Establishment and were viewed with suspicion. Now, with the exception of the monarchy, Catholics can hold every Office of State and many play leading roles in all aspects of British life including government and public office.
On the other hand, back in 1928 Catholics viewed people of other religions as ‘outsiders’ because they did not belong to the Catholic Church. Many believed the dictum: “no salvation outside the (Catholic) Church” i.e. to get to heaven you had to be Catholic. Now we accept that other Christians are fellow disciples of the same Lord and do tremendous work in His name.
Back in 1928, the ‘insiders’ in the Catholic Church were the clergy and the laity were the ‘outsiders’. This division was emphasised in Catholic buildings by the rails across the sanctuary which separated it from the rest of the church. Only the clergy and formally approved altar servers could enter this ‘Holy of Holies’ where the priests offered the sacrifice of the Mass. And the laity, for the most part, were spectators at Mass, reading their missals and prayer books in English while the priest, with his back to the congregation, spoke to God in Latin on their behalf.
Now the altar rails are gone and all of us, together, offer the Mass, not just the priest. We do so in our own native tongue (though some of the translations of the original Latin leave a lot to be desired). We understand that by virtue of our baptism all of us share in the priesthood of Christ so that everyone in the parish, not just the priest, is commissioned to do the Lord’s work. The work of Christ’s Church is no longer the privileged preserve of the clergy but is open to all.
Last, but not least, the understanding of ‘parish’ in 1928 is rapidly coming to an end. Then the Holy Name was one of a large number of parishes being founded here in the north east, with each having its own priest. Now, with the declining number of priests, a single priest will serve a number of parishes and these parishes will be grouped, as Holy Name is, into a Partnership of anything from eight to twenty parishes.
In our Partnership we are grouped with, amongst others, the parish of St Anthony’s in Walker. Later in this Mass we will hear about a Youth Project there that we will be supporting throughout our anniversary year. I ask for your wholehearted support for this Project: in the Church the people of the east end of Newcastle are no longer ‘outsiders’ to us in Jesmond but all part of the same inclusive Church of Christ.
Holy Name, Jesmond
30 September 2018