Advent - 1st Sunday - B - 2017 Isaiah 63: 16-19; 64: 2-7 Corinthians 1: 3-9 mark 13: 14-16.
For me the most important line in to-day's readings is contained in Paul's reminder to his Corinthian community...'You are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ'. Paul presumes that his readers understand what he meant by 'spiritual gifts'. For those who are not sure what he is referring to, we could turn to chapter 12 and find the list: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, mighty deeds, prophecy, discernment of spirits, tongues, interpretation of tongues. Then a little later in the same chapter, he personifies those gifts in specific individuals and ministries : first, apostles;p second, prophets; third, teachers; then, mighty deeds; then gifts of healing,assistance, administration and varieties of tongues.
Paul here assumes that each Christian community has been blessed with these gifts to make it viable and grow. Once the members commit themselves to the person of Christ and to his ministry, then the gifts are guaranteed. But the problem Paul encounters isn't that the communities don't have sufficient gifts to carry on the ministry of Christ, but that some individuals don't recognise those gifts and don't know how to integrate into the life of the community. Problems also arise when leaders stifle the use of those gifts or when, through the passage of time, small communities succumb to indifference and forgetfulness. That is one of the reasons that Mark's Jesus, in the gospel reading, warns his community to be 'watchful and alert'. And that alertness he encourages in Jesus' followers goes across the board. What I say to you, I say to all: 'Watch'. Watchfulness is such a key word. The Gospels repeat it constantly. It is not just another call. It is a command for all Jesus' followers and for all times.
twenty centuries of Christianity have passed. What has become of this command from Jesus? Do we stay alert? Does my/ your faith remain alive, or has it died out in indifference and mediocrity? Do we not see that our Church needs a new heart? Do we not feel the need to shake ourselves out of apathy and self-deception? Do we not realise that a 'sleeping' church that is not in love with Jesus, is a church without a future - one that keeps on burning itself and us out and growing old ungracefully?
A final thought - (and here I speak as an ordained minister) - I have never forgotten some advice I was given as a young cleric. That the number one gift a pastor is expected to have is the gift of recognising, encouraging and integrating the gifts that members of the community undoubtedly have and allow them to be used for the building up of the community. In other words, the ordained minister must be one of the most alert people in the community. Someone exercising that ministry has an obligation to cut through all the prejudices and limitations which culture and traditions impose on God's action in our lives, and point out how God is constantly blessing us with the gifts of the Spirit.
I find myself rather uneasy when I hear those prayers for 'an increase in vocations to the priesthood and religious life'. It's like someone, standing in a downpour with an umbrella over his/ her head, and praying for rain. maybe they should be praying for the courage to fold up and put aside the umbrella.