Salvation through humble service

Reading Time: 5 minutes
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Members of the ecumenical Christian group, Brothers United in Christ, gathered to pray after the fatal Police Headquarters shooting at Parramatta. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

‘Let the blood flow’ yelled the front page of The Daily Telegraph after the terrorist incident at the Police Headquarters in Parramatta on the Friday before the hot long weekend. The tabloid was reporting words from a letter found in the backpack jettisoned by 15-year-old Farhad Jabar just before he shot a civilian police accountant, Curtis Cheng, whose funeral service was held here yesterday.

The headline echoed the shock of our community that a schoolboy could be so radicalised and hateful as to kill an innocent man as he emerged from a police station, the workplace of those charged with protecting us. That the boy had come from praying in a mosque underlined that the lives of both victim and perpetrator were wasted by a warped view that God condones violence against the innocent; a blasphemous view that such violence might be done by His followers in His name – a perversion of religion repudiated by others from that mosque.

There are many elements to this story upon which we will reflect for years to come. In one sense it’s an extreme version of a more widespread rebellion typical of adolescent boys struggling to find their manly identity, who manifest their confusion by lashing out in some ‘macho’ way at the world.

When I was bishop of that area I saw all too clearly the scars of gang-related violence. There was likely an element of alienation too: maybe this boy had no particular ‘buy-in’ to our culture, no hopes for a future in which he would play a part, no love for our institutions and practices.

Finally, there is the distorted politics of a utopia ruled by a caliph who is a true believer, one who will impose his faith upon all, stamp out all religious difference and indifference, and have no truck with reasoned critique or diverse belief.

Our readings today offer a very different wisdom. The Prophet Isaiah dreams of a time when a “Servant of God” will save and unite people, not by doing evil but by suffering it, not by multiplying people’s faults but by “taking them on himself”, not by violent assertion but by humble service (Is 5:10-11).

Contrary to all human reasoning about power, the servant of the Almighty would be weak, indeed “crushed”; yet somehow that would break the cycle of violence and “justify many”. Here we see the mystery is foretold of the Atonement, the at-one-ment, the action by which God makes us one with Himself and each other.

Isaiah’s hearers were surely mystified by his talk of a Suffering Servant taking responsibility for other people’s sins. They did have the Levitical idea of a scapegoat being cast into the desert with the sins of the community on its head (cf. Lev 16:8). But as there were many and continuing sins, so many sacrifices were required. Repugnant as human sacrifice was, how could a person be both priest and sacrifice, and how could one suffice to reconcile all sinful humanity past, present and future to God?

Only the life of Jesus Christ unlocks the mystery of Isaiah’s prophecy. It is, of course, the key to every mystery of fallen humanity. For as our epistle explains, He is both Son of God and Son of Man, both human and divine (Heb 4:14-16). As human, He could identify with us and represent us in our weakness, temptations, anguish, while also showing us how to be our best selves. As divine He could be more than the enormity of all our failings, could satisfy for all the innocent blood that has flowed at our hands through history. By the self-sacrificial love of a perfect man who is the Perfect God He could perfect every sacrifice, every love.

He could offer our prayers to God on the altar of the Cross, the altar of the world, the altar of the Eucharist, along with the sacrifice of Himself. Only in this way could the fantasies of caliphs and their followers be disillusioned, the actions of terrorists and those who provoke them forgiven, the divisions between peoples and within people healed. Here is the answer, the only answer, to mindless murder: not complicity in its enactment, not resignation to its inevitability, not provocation to recrimination, but commitment to conquest by love, to making enemies not into dead enemies but into living friends.

Some dismiss talk of evil and sin as the spiritualising of what are essentially psychological, social or political problems or as the guilt trips loaded on our shoulders by controlling parents and clerics. But evil is real and sin matters: real enough to kill the God-man and so many innocents since, including police workers; matters enough that the God-man would give Himself so that suffering might be turned to forgiveness, forgiveness into love, and suffering, forgiving love into resurrection hope. Sin is not the last word. Amor vincit omnia: God’s love triumphs in the end.

In tonight’s Gospel Jimmy and Jacko try to jump the glory queue (Mk 10:35-45). They want the best seats at the concert, thrones at Christ’s right and left. You’ve got no idea, you guys, no idea what you are asking, He says. My hour of glory will be on the Cross. Sure, there will be places either side of me – on crosses – but you really don’t want that! What will happen to me suffices for all. Yet in my mercy I’ll let you participate, one way or another. Jimmy will suffer Herod’s sword (Acts 12:1-2), the first of the Twelve to die for Me. Jonno must survive to care for my Mum to care and write books my New Testament, but he too will know imprisonment and other torments too (Jn 19:25-27; 21:20-24; Acts 4:3; Rev 1:9).

So Christ doesn’t just leave us as passive observers, recipients of an imputed justification: He unites us to His Passion and Death so that we might share His Resurrection and Glory. And though this is a hard thing, it is a great thing. It means we can freely offer ourselves to God as a sacrifice in Christ. It means our lives and labours, our sufferings and joys, can join with His (cf. Col 1:14).

It is my special joy tonight to install some of our future deacons and priests as lectors and acolytes. These are important stages on their way to ordination.

Dear sons in Christ, Darren, Jonathan and Aditya: tonight you will be installed in the Ministry of Lector. As Ministers of the Word you are mouths for Him who was spoken from all eternity by the Father and spoken in time in Jesus Christ. In Him God has revealed the mystery of salvation and brought it to fulfilment. To us He has entrusted the mission of proclaiming that Word to all the world. Prepare and ponder that Word before you proclaim it; allow it to take deep root in your soul so it will propel you to the next stage of your ministry. Make of your life a Lectionary in which people may read of the One God of love and peace, and so be inspired to live at one with their fellows.

Dear sons in Christ, Huan, John, Noel, Roberto, Christopher, Rafael, William, Alfredo and Graham: tonight you will be installed in the Ministry of Acolyte. As Ministers of the Sacrament you are hands for the One our readings described as High Priest and Sacrifice, hands for the One who would feed the multitude with His own Body and Blood. Prepare for that service by yourselves receiving that Blessed Sacrament, yourselves praying before it, yourselves pondering it. Allow it to take deep root in your soul that it might propel you also to the next stage of your ministry. Make of your lives a Eucharistic mystery, in which you pour out your own substance for those to whom you tend this most precious Sacrament, the sick and housebound, the patient and inmate, and those queuing at Mass. Only then might you, might any of us, dare to approach the One who is our Priest, our Altar and our Sacrifice!

This is an edited version of the homily given by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP at the Mass for the installation of lectors and acolytes at St Mary’s Cathedral on 18 October.