We all have our own thoughts and visions and questions of what Heaven will be like. The one thing that screams out to me is EQUALITY. In heaven there will be no masters or servants, no rich or poor, no powerful or weak, no hierarchy at all, we will all be equal. Jesus came to open for us the door to Salvation and to bring the Kingdom of God to earth. As Christians, as children of God we are called to live the Kingdom of God here on earth. So with regards to everyone being equal, how are we doing? We look at the world today and see such hatred, violence, and poverty. A world where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. A world that preaches the rule: look after number one. If a report was done on our world’s record on Equality, it would be an epic fail. But so many people keep the hope alive, by reaching out to those in need in so many ways. Foodbanks, Shareware, support of Cafod etc and with time spent with the sad and the lonely.
Pondering this raised for me another question. What about spiritual equality? What about equality in relation to our faith and access to our saviour Jesus Christ? What about our equality as the Children of God? Some Gospel readings have led me to questions regarding those outside of my faith and those who live lives outside of what I believe are true and good lives (and which the church teaches).
The hospital I go to every Monday in Leicester is a medium secure unit. Most patients there were originally sent to prison for extremely serious offences such as, murder, rape, paedophilia etc. Almost all I speak to talk of the shame they feel at what they have done in the past, but rarely do they tell me about what they did. An exception to this happened to me only the other day in regard to a patient whom I have been seeing for over a year now, and who I will refer to as John.
John is a Catholic and takes great comfort from the fact that I take him Holy Communion each week. John is for the record homosexual.
The other day, for some reason, John decided that he wanted to tell me what he had done to be arrested and sentenced for a very long time. Obviously I will not tell you what he said, but suffice to say that if it was reported on the news, it would be incredibly hard to watch or listen to. Afterwards I asked John what he would like to pray for, and he said that he wanted to simply ask God to forgive him. John openly admits that he is not ready to be released back into society, but told me that his greatest fear when he is, is that he will not be welcomed by the Church and that the Church community will either judge him or reject him. Interestingly John is not afraid of being rejected because of the crimes he has committed; John is frightened of being rejected and made to feel like an outsider because of his sexuality. Can this be right? Would Jesus reject him or make him feel unwelcome?
Picture the scene: An ordained Deacon named Martyn is stood at the front of his church, thanking God for his faith, his family, thanking God that his wife has not seen the light and divorced him, thanking God he is free to come to church and practice his faith. Meanwhile a man named John is sitting in his room in a medium secure unit of a mental health hospital simply saying “God forgive me”.
In Luke’s Gospel (Lk 18:9-14), Jesus said: ‘The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’
I do not know about you but I find the comparison alarming and quite frightening and it made me understand that we do not just need to be welcoming to others for their sake; we need to be welcoming to all for our own sakes.
The thought of John in his room and myself here on the altar, then raised in me another question. Why do we come to church? Why do we come to Mass? We need to remember that we are privileged to be able to come to church and attend Mass; we do not attend Mass because we are privileged. I do not come to Mass because I am holy and saved, I come because I need to be made holy and I need saving. Through the Mass I receive the true saving gift of Jesus Christ himself in the Holy Eucharist, in the living word of God in the Gospels, but also in the people, the community. Jesus tells us, “where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” Is it not then terribly wrong if we, through our attitudes, our arrogance, our rules and regulations are preventing or at least putting others off from coming to church? Are we not putting up barriers preventing them from a true and soul saving relationship with Jesus Christ? If we are, is that not unforgivable? For those who will say to me these are God’s rules and God’s laws I would quote Jesus Christ on what he called the most important law of all ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ The neighbour he speaks of is not just the person sat next to you today, but all the people out there who are most in need, who feel rejected and marginalised.
None Jews in the Gospels are often referred to as foreigners, so if the Gospels were written today from a Catholic perspective, then those of other faiths, those of no faith, those like John who feel marginalised by the church would be referred to as foreigners. Yet the Gospel is full of God showing favour to the foreigners: Jesus accepts Zacchaeus (Lk 19:1-10) without question or reservation; the Good Samaritan, and so on. By the time of Jesus, Judaism had almost become what we could say was “a closed shop”, Jews looked down on those who were not Jews. Others were inferior, they were superior. Jesus challenged that thinking. We can also ask ourselves; are we a closed shop? “Do we look down on others? Do we consider others inferior?” The Jews were blind to foreigners being favoured by God but that did not mean the foreigners had not been favoured by God. The foreigners were cherished by God even though the Jews were too blind to see that. Are we blind to God’s love for others? If we do not have a Christian attitude to others, regarding all as equal in dignity before God, then knowing that in God’s Kingdom all are equal, are we not asked to heal that distorted attitude? We are all equal members of God’s family. That’s good to remember because there are so many divisions in society, so many boundaries, and it is good to know that with God there are no divisions or boundaries between us, we are all members of this one big family of God. It is good to bear this in mind with so many unchristian things being said about refugees and asylum seekers, unmarried couples, divorced people and those in same sex relationships. The society you left as you entered the doors of this church was not perfect. But here in the church you are just as precious as the person next to you, behind you or before you. In the Church, we are all adopted sons and daughters of God. We all receive the same Jesus Christ.
So if our world is full of inequality, and in our Church all are equal, are we not obliged as Christians to open our doors to everyone? Open our hearts to everyone? Open the way to Jesus Christ to everyone? Is this not what Pope Francis is calling us to do when he says, “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security?” If we fail to do this are we not claiming that we are more worthy and more equal than others?
I do not claim to have the answers to all the questions in this writing, but if I had to try, in regards to the Gospel foreigners of today, I would answer with yet another question. The question we all need to ask before we judge anyone, before we exclude anyone, before we marginalise anyone before we say or do anything is, what would Jesus do?
In heaven all are equal. As Catholics, as Christians we believe that everyone is equal. But when I look at our world, when I look at my church and when I look at myself, the question remains:
IF we are all equal, then why are some of us more equal than others?
-Deacon Martin Swaby, Assistant Chaplain, Nottinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust, Spiritual and Pastoral Care Service