The last time I hung around in an airport, which is quite a few years ago, I overhead a conversation between a father and his young son. The son had been off exploring the airport terminal and came back not a little upset. His father asked what was wrong and the boy told him how an officious airport worker had told him off for getting in the way of people pushing their baggage trolleys. His father told him that he would go and find this man and give him a piece of his mind. But the son said quite calmly: “If a man like that can stand himself all his life, surely I can stand him for a few minutes”. I thought that was very philosophical for a twelve-year-old boy.
This little story brings home to us how the person who suffers most from our ill temper is usually oneself. We try to solve a problem by changing other people when, so often, it is ourselves who are in the greatest need of being changed. Surely this was the intention behind Our Lord’s rebuke to James and John in the Gospel today. They wanted to call down fire from heaven. But Our Lord brings them down to earth and reminds them quite clearly that destroying other people is no way to solve a problem.
This is because our bad temper destroys us. But it also destroys other people. As Saint Paul tells us in the second reading: “If you go snapping at each other and tearing each other to pieces, you had better watch out, or you will destroy the whole community”. Saint Paul provides a timely reminder of a truth that is self-evident yet so often forgotten: that the Christian community is in far greater danger of destroying itself by lack of charity and internal dissension, than it is by all the outside powers that have tried to break or destroy her.
Bad temper is a very great power. We can say the same about our faith. Now, the power of faith isn’t destructive, but rather constructive. We often think of faith as being a personal concern between ourselves and God. And, indeed, faith does make personal demands on us, as Our Lord reminds us in today’s Gospel. It may require that, as for Our Lord, we have ‘nowhere to lay our head’.
But our faith also influences others. And in turn, our faith is influenced by others. Today’s Gospel sees Our Lord’s life as one long journey. “As the time drew near for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely took the road for Jerusalem”. Just as Our Lord began his life in Jerusalem, as a child being offered to God in the Temple, so he was to end his life in that city before entering the heavenly Jerusalem. The Christian life is often described as a journey: a journey in which we travel with Christ; and not only with him, but with all of his followers, through the narrow gate and along the rough road that leads to life.
When we set out on a journey what is uppermost in our minds is the destination. “Jesus resolutely took the road to Jerusalem”. But it’s so easy to become distracted as we travel and, sometimes, to forget where we are going. And what does Our Lord say? “No one who looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God”. Yet we love to stand and gossip and concern ourselves with unimportant things. When we examine our conscience at the end of each day, there are so many faults and sins of which we are conscious, but so often these blind us to the really major failings to which we hardly pay any attention at all. This shows that we have forgotten our destination.
So where or what is our final destination? Well, it is the final union with Our Lord in the love of his Father. Perhaps we think of this union as a personal bond between Christ and ourselves – and so it is. But Christ has united himself with his followers so closely that his Body incorporates them. Our destination is to be with Jesus Christ, but this includes, also, the other members of his Body.
It’s only by reflection on our destination and the means of reaching it that we deepen our faith. The Holy Spirit begins to take hold of us; and as this happens two consequences inevitably follow.
Firstly, and as Saint Paul tells us, we are led by the Spirit where ‘there will be no danger of yielding to self-indulgence’. Indulging our own will and our own body is incompatible with caring for the Body of Christ. People wonder sometimes why physical indulgence can be sinful. The answer, simply, is that it isolates us from the rest of the Body of Christ, the Church. And it distracts us from our destination.
The second consequence, as Saint Paul again tells us, is that ‘if you are led by the Spirit, no law can touch you’. When our whole life is concerned with reaching our destination, nothing can stop us. We are indeed beyond the law.
And so, if we are wondering whether we have reached such a stage on our journey, the answer is that we have – if we never lose our temper or our patience. For to have reached such a stage is a sign that we can live with ourselves, and that we are ready, at last, to live with our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.