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NINETEENTH SUNDAY OF ORD TIME B, “TRY THEN TO IMITATE GOD” (EPH 4:30-5:2)
These verses from today’s reading from St. Paul to the Ephesians are so idealistic that it might seem impossible for them to be true in every day practice. Yet when spelled out in detail in the epistle they sound very reasonable: "Do not grieve the spirit of God...who has set you free…never have grudges...or lose your temper...or raise your voice...Be friends...forgiving each other..." Who would disagree with these sentiments?
Paul’s exhortations are directed to people in the believing community at Ephesus. One supposes they were written because people in fact were not so good at being kind and patient and getting along with each other. Good personal relationships are actually and ultimately what life is all about - but there is no need to be superficial and clever about how these relationships can be achieved. So much depends on the way we were brought up from childhood. So much would seem to depend on our background. Some of us have been more fortunate than others, but for some time there has been a whole new perception about what may be realistically expected of people living in families and living in community. One only needs to recall Dr. Spock on parenting! Many of us have lived through unexpected changes, some very liberating, some quite hard to take. We may have wondered often what in heavens name was going on.
But in our epistle we have a consoling picture of a Christian community. The community is people living together with their mind formed by what Jesus taught them about God. They could know what God was like through believing in Jesus as his perfect image (Col 1:15). The Gospel of today (Jn 6:41-51) points this up in a very original way- Jesus is himself the Bread of Life. The background for this was that ordinary Jews had the Law as the guide to life. It covered every aspect of human relationships with God and in community. It was bread and nourishment. The accent fell especially on the community, or we might say on the proper conduct of the People of God. But in Israel nobody ever thought that their God was the same thing as good behaviour and justice. God was personal, yet good behaviour and justice were not possible without God. Every good thing came from him. What does this look like for Christians?
In the nineteenth century Card. Newman spells it out for us all in his own inimitable way. “[He]Newman was a Christian humanist; he made his own the joyful optimism which pervades the teaching of S.Ambrose, St.Athanasius and the Greek Fathers. His spiritual doctrine was intended for and is adapted to those in the world, ordinary laymen” (Cf. C.S.Dessain, J.H.-Newman, OUP, 1980 p. 61). We read in his Parochial and Plain Sermons, V,69-71 (Ignatius Press reprint 1997, p.1003, 1980,p.60): “The Christian is cheerful, easy, kind, gentle, courteous, candid, unassuming; he has no pretence, no affectation, no ambition, no singularity; because he has neither hope nor fear about this world. He is serious, sober, discreet, grave, moderate, mild, with so little that is unusual or striking in his bearing, that he may easily be taken at first sight for an ordinary man. There are persons who think religion consists in ecstasies, or in set speeches; - he is not of those.” Elsewhere he writes: “The apostles were gentlemen...not that they made a good bow, wore kid gloves, or spoke Attic Greek, but their minds and their hearts were refined. I have always maintained that St. Paul, as seen in his Epistles, was the first of gentlemen- and if you would look for the precepts of that courtesy and grace, which the world so much admires, you must go to him for them” (LD XII.159).
Is all this so old fashioned, the mere mores of a bygone age? Is it just refinement characteristic of the well bred in a world of opulence? Or is it not a fact that most of us still love what St. Paul is talking about when we experience it, people who are courteous and kind and gentle. How marvelous it is when our doctor or dentist or mechanic or ticket collector are not only professional but very nice. How encouraging that they are people of principle who respectfully stand for what they believe in. We admire people who are always the same, full of understanding, more ready to forgive than to patronise or condemn. We have confidence in people who say to our face what they will say behind our back. Is this not what Paul is talking about? There is no veneer, no pretence. Speak the truth, says the apostle (Eph 4:25). The old fashioned values carry great authority. Like the proverbs "cleanliness is godliness", and "better to accept pain than to inflict it". This is the great tradition. Do not cheat, tell the truth, be faithful to your friends, honour the family, love the community, love your local Church. There is an old French proverb: to know everything is to forgive everything. Compassion must be always there. That especially presumes a world of love even though we are so imperfect.
I am the Living Bread that has come down from heaven, says Jesus in Jn 6. We understand what this means when we meet Jesus in those who receive him in the sacrament and who also make life lovely for others. To whom shall we go?- you have the words of eternal life, said St. Peter in this same chapter (Jn 6:68). This is the sign of Peter converted, and at the same time Jesus contrasts him with Judas who was not converted. Later St. Paul would write at Romans 12:2: “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind”. A very famous recent convert to Catholicism has put it like this: “to be religious is not just to espouse certain doctrines; it is to follow a certain way of life and to take up certain commitments…it is a part of forming or reforming the self….(this involves the discipline of spirituality)….the goal is to change, to set aside the spurious goals of self-aggrandisement,…. and to grow in wisdom and love of the good…conversion is a lifelong process….. the adoption of ‘a way of life” (J.Cottingham, Philosophy of Religion, Cambridge University Press, 2014,pp.148-9). Professor Cottingham made this transition himself and invites others to do so. Through voices like his the voice of the Church is heard in the public square. What a blessing that is for the individual and for society and for humanity. It is an excellent example also of what the new evangelisation is about. Amen.
Rev Richard J.Taylor
Spiritual Advisor, MaterCare International
Boarbank Hall, Cumbria, UK