From time to time some extremely nice and kind people tell me that they found a particular sermon of mine interesting or inspiring. Unbelievably I have even come across some who think that all my sermons are good. Which is very flattering, as my own perception of my weekly creations is that they are at best mediocre and more often of rather poor quality. You might think that this introduction is fishing for compliments – and you’d be absolutely right! This also explains why I always stand at the back of the church after Sunday Mass…
Preaching has been at the heart of the Church since its first public appearance at Pentecost, when St Peter – freshly filled with the Holy Spirit – proclaimed Jesus Christ to the assembled crowd. It was the very first step in the mission given to the Apostles by Jesus: ‘you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.’ (Acts 1:8) After its humble beginnings this mission accelerated when a certain zealous man called Saul converted on his way to Damascus, assumed the name of Paul, and became an unstoppable and vigorous herald of Jesus Christ. It is Paul saying in today’s second reading: ‘I do not boast of preaching the gospel, since it is a duty which has been laid on me; I should be punished if I did not preach it!’ He considered it to be the most important part of his mission; everything else must be subservient to it. Similarly in the ancient Christian community in Jerusalem, seven deacons were chosen to take on all the charitable works so that the Apostles could dedicate themselves ‘to prayer and to the ministry of the word.’ (Acts 6:4) They learnt that from Jesus himself while they were his apprentices and followers during his public ministry.
Today’s gospel is a sort of snapshot of Jesus’ day in Galilee. After a visit to a local synagogue on the Sabbath (we heard that last Sunday) he goes with Peter to Peter’s house, heals Peter’s mother-in-law on arrival, and spends the day with them both along with Andrew (Peter’s brother) and John and James (two other disciples). Shortly after sunset, when the restrictions of the Sabbath end, people looking for their own relief from illness gather round the house, and reportedly many are healed and freed. Soon the crowds disappear into the dusk and Jesus, along with his companions, can take some well-deserved rest. But he cuts that rest short, leaving the house to pray in a lonely place well before dawn. There he is found by Peter, excitedly reporting the great interest shown by the local public in Jesus’ performance. This golden opportunity, that many a politician would die for, is turned down by Jesus: ‘Let’s go elsewhere, to the neighbouring country towns, so that I can preach there too, because that is why I came.’ Cheap and short-lived popularity is not the goal Jesus aims at; the prize of his preaching is of a much greater magnitude.
Modern people seem to be weary of preachers, both professional and amateur, whether they be priests, ministers or lay people. Many people seemingly try to steer clear of any religious topic in conversation and discussion. Maybe the problem is the way we try to talk to people; or maybe it’s the content, usually directed towards moral issues? It’s a million-dollar question, and I don’t know the answer. Possibly there is more than one of them? Perhaps the clue lies in today’s gospel, and in the attitude of Jesus. His public, crowd-awing activities were preceded by a long time spent in prayer. I’m not a hundred per cent certain that’s the full answer, but surely it’s a very good starting point. Because, at the end of the day, all our preaching is not about us; it’s all about Jesus. I still believe that these words, addressed to Jesus, have not expired: ‘Everybody is looking for you.’