Author: Fr. Mike Byron
September 30, 2018

One of my enduringly favorite quotes during the time of my graduate studies came off the cuff one day in class from the professor, who was a well-known Jesuit priest and scholar and writer on the liturgical life of the church.  I no longer remember the conversation that set the stage for the remark, but someone in class must have been fussing about how a strict interpretation of the rules of liturgy must always be followed because of some alleged divine decree.  The professor’s remark in response was to say, very matter-of-factly, “Jesus has never been harmed by the sacraments.  Jesus has never been harmed by the sacraments.”

The effect of that sentence has been, for me, enduring and important.  It’s not that anybody was or is endorsing shabby liturgy or that we shouldn’t do our best to worship with beauty, reverence, and faithfulness to our deep Catholic tradition.  Rather it is to remind us that when that doesn’t always happen—and invariably it doesn’t always happen—we are not thereby “offending” Jesus, or hurting him, or failing to protect him.  Jesus in his earthly ministry was an adult who very well knew that he didn’t need the likes of us to protect him from harm, and who discovered that we were never able or willing to do that anyway.  He anticipated his own sufferings as he preached and healed, and he never gave any indication to his followers that it was their job to save him from all that.  In fact, he told them that it was part of their job to join him in all that.  He’s still telling us that.  He saves us, not the other way around.

Who would ever be so presumptuous as to imagine him/herself to be the last bastion of defense against the dishonoring of Jesus Christ?  To recall my professor’s remark, “Jesus has never been harmed by the sacraments.”  It is certainly true that people have been harmed and disappointed and confused and angered when sacraments are poorly celebrated—or when any other Christian ministry has been carried out badly—but that is quite different from saying that we have wounded or defiled the Lord.

Jesus Christ requires our cooperation in the carrying out of his mission, but he does not require our protection from the threats of human sinfulness.  He didn’t even choose to protect himself.  He is not the weak and vulnerable one here; we are the ones and so we get it wrong… Just as did those first apostles in today’s Gospel of Mark who came to Jesus, quite proud of themselves, announcing, “Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to stop them because he does not follow us.”  In other words, “We did all we could to protect you from somebody else doing a good thing.”  What?!  And the stated reason is very revealing:  “Because he does not follow us.”  In modern therapeutic language we’d call that attitude “co-dependent,” i.e. I’m here to protect you and the rest of us from the possible harm of your behavior. But Jesus never asked to be protected.  Jesus was the one who, in fact, first predicted that his behavior would have negative and dangerous effects—like the cross—long before any of his self-imagined guardians wanted to hear anything about that.

So why do we still continue to think of ourselves, in our role as disciples, as Jesus army of defense?  What is it that we think we are protecting?  It isn’t Jesus.

Isn’t it really we ourselves who often feel threatened because of our allegiance to Christians?  And isn’t it we ourselves who feel dishonored and scared and vulnerable when others resist the gospel choose to follow other paths to God?  Or no path at all?  And isn’t it we who like to imagine that in feeling insulted or dismissed by others those others are actually dissing God of Jesus?  And isn’t that really the height of arrogance?  To equate our own comfort with Jesus’ honor?

The things that Jesus did ask his disciples to do for him were both simple to understand and at the same time profoundly difficult, in fact impossible without God’s grace.  He said to his friends, “Follow me.”  On the eve of his death he said, “Stay with me.”  At the last supper he told them to love one another, and to serve one another.  And just before his ascension he said, “Go out to all the world and share what you know.”

Jesus has always been very capable of facing whatever threats human beings throw his way, even when those threats have caused him to look weak or humiliated in human terms.  In fact throughout the course of Christian history—and searingly so at the present moment—the greatest threats to Jesus’ honor have been the hypocrisies and scandals caused by those who claim to be his own followers, those who presume to pursue something quite selfish while branding it with the name “Jesus” or “church.”

It’s when those selfish projects get threatened that people become defensive.  It’s then that so-called disciples can come to Jesus and say things like, “We saw someone driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him because he is not one of us.”  Jesus isn’t at risk here.  His followers are at risk of sacrificing what they imagine to be their privileges, or if you will, their “specialness.”  

To know and to love and to serve Jesus Christ in and through the church is truly something special, but not in any sense of self-importance or elitism or worldly glory.  Our Lord’s life witness showed us exactly the opposite.

As my old sacraments professor said so well, Jesus has never been harmed by the things we do badly in his name.  But the effect of his reputation surely can and has been.  The task is ours to be ever more resolved to live faithfully into our baptismal responsibilities, so that when we do feel threatened it will be for the right reasons.

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