A few years ago I sat listening to a man tell his story to a couple of hundred people. It was a story of neglect, abuse and the degradation of a child which led him to become a man who respected nobody and was deeply suspicious of goodness in any form.
Chris was imprisoned time and again, which made him hate even more. He was so angry he would beat up other prisoners just so that he would be beaten up in turn. He was so badly damaged that he only felt fulfilled when someone else was hurting him, hoping to do some real harm. He met a man who shared with him his faith. Chris's response was to beat him up. He was placed in solitary confinement and when he came out, the man shared his faith again and Chris reacted the same way. The third time it happened Chris said he had to admire the man's tenacity. So he began to listen and Chris said that he began to weep and begged God to fill his need. At the end of his story, he said that man who was excluded because of his anger was now included in the grace of God.
I have been a priest for over 30 years and when I look at all the groups of people I have worked with, many of them have felt marginalised by either the Church or society or both. There have been young people who could not connect, for whom our language and traditions were alien; the university community, searching for meaning and not understanding; the street people, kept out of the mainstream by addictions and unacceptable behaviour. How do we reach them?
Nowhere in the Gospels did Jesus say, "Worship me". But he did say, "Follow me". What are we going to do – will we just worship or will we follow? And what might that following mean? It might mean that we follow him into the messy places where people feel excluded. It might mean reaching out to the margins. It might mean standing on the side of those most rejected by society. To follow Jesus is not an easy way of living because it means letting go of our own desires and needs. It means being willing to let our ego die, that force within us which would see everything as revolving around us. Sadly, few of us choose to live in that way.
Despite what we say about faith, we live in much the same way as those around us. We seem to have bought the values of the world and lost what should be a vibrant, dynamic faith. To follow Jesus is to take the risk to believe that, in doing so, we will be filled with a joy that nothing can take away from us, not just in the future but in the here and now. Will you take the risk to follow him?