Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Sermon at Parish Mass Epiphany 2 2017

By Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Isaiah 49:1-7
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42

The disciples in today’s Gospel reading ask Jesus, “where are you staying?” And Jesus responds, “come and see”. That seems to be a very everyday question and answer. And Jesus took the disciples to the place he was staying, and we are told they “remained with him that day”.
But as is usually the case in John’s Gospel, there is more going on than meets the eye. The opening of John’s gospel is like an overture, introducing the key themes that will be explored and enlarged as the gospel progresses. Where Jesus “stays”, where he “remains” is key to who he is, as John has already told us: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known”. Jesus makes God known because where he “stays”, where he “remains”, is “close to the Father’s heart”.
The word, “remain” or “stay” is always the same word in Greek, menon, and is a key motif that runs through John’s Gospel. It is also translated “abide”. It’s a rich word which means being rooted, centred, solidly and persistently staying.
What we learn as we read through John’s gospel is that Jesus abides in the Father and the Father abides in him and the Spirit abides on him. But this is not just about Jesus. It’s about us, too. Jesus invites us to “come and see” and to abide with him where he is, in the Father’s heart. Our true life, where we are utterly centred and rooted and real, is in God, and Jesus opens the way for us to enter in and dwell with him.
But as well as dwelling in the Father’s heart, Jesus is also dwelling, at this moment, in a house of some kind, near the Jordan river. And in the first instance that is where the disciples go to be with Jesus, little guessing the depths of the Father who is to be revealed to them by Jesus in due course.
Jesus abides in God, but he also abides in the here and now, in the concrete world of everyday life. John even tells us the time, that it is about four o clock in the afternoon. The disciples have to be with Jesus where he is, and be attentive to him, if they are to be drawn into the life of God which is where Jesus deeply and eternally abides.
Jesus unites the heart of God in eternity and our human life in the here and now. Because Jesus abides both in the Father and in the world, the two no longer stand apart.
Jesus says, abide in me. That’s the key – abiding in Jesus is where we begin to be present to God and so to ourselves. In him we begin to live truly, deeply and abidingly.
And Jesus continues to extend to his disciples his invitation, “come and see”. Jesus invites the disciples to come and dwell with him, not only for themselves, but so that they can also bring others.
The Church continues that invitation in the world. The Church is called to abide in Jesus, and to bring others to him as well. Jesus makes this possible through two great gifts: the Holy Spirit and the Eucharist.
At the end of John’s Gospel the risen Christ sends the disciples, “as the Father sent me, so I send you”, and breathes on them the gift of the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that Jesus received at his baptism. The Holy Spirit raises us to the life of God, and sends us into the world with that invitation for all, come and see, come and abide in God. The Spirit is constantly sending the Church, constantly renewing the Church in its mission.
And in his teaching at Capernaum Jesus had promised the gift of the Eucharist. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.” We see that word “abide” again. Like Jesus himself, the Eucharist unites the local and particular with the eternal. It is in this time and place that real people really gather, and share the bread and wine that are transformed by the Spirit’s power into the life-giving body and blood of Christ.
Through the Eucharist, this time and place is united with all times and places, making present in them the one atoning sacrifice of Christ. The Eucharist is nothing less than the work of the world’s salvation, gathering up and redeeming everything in Christ. Our human fragmentation is overcome. We are made one body in Christ, we share one life. And this also makes us one with the Church in all the world. Here our abiding in God, in Christ, is made real in the world.
We need to grasp both these dimensions of the call of Jesus: both sending us into the world bearing his invitation into the heart of God, and gathering in time and space to make that abiding in God real in the Eucharist.
In the Church of today we are increasingly aware that the Eucharistic core of the Church by itself is not enough. To many people church and liturgy are an alien culture. If the first thing Jesus had said to those first two disciples was, “come to a Solemn High Mass”, they would have wondered what he was going on about. But instead he says, “come and see”; the fullness of what that means will unfold for the disciples as they abide with Jesus. It is right that the church reaches out in many ways beyond the confines of traditional church buildings and services. There are many “fresh expressions” that seek to do this, and they are needed and welcome.
But if the Eucharistic heart of the Church by itself is not enough, it is equally true that it is not enough just to go out to meet people where they are on the margins of faith. The invitation that Jesus gives us is always to the centre, not to the edges. In eternity the centre is the Father’s heart where Jesus eternally abides. In time and space the centre is the Eucharistic heart of the Church, where the Holy People of God faithfully do the thing that Jesus told us to do, through which he promises that he will abide in us and we in him.
Once again, we need to grasp both these dimensions of the call of Jesus. Both going out to where the people are, and gathering into the centre where Jesus abides in the Father and we in him. Churches like ours which are more traditional and Eucharist-focussed need to embrace the challenge of new forms and expressions that take the good news of Jesus out to where the people are. And newer forms and expressions need to be careful that they do not lose hold of the centre to which Jesus calls us, that they do not simply settle down on the edges where the people are and think that is enough.

The Eucharist sends us as well as gathering us together. At the end we are dismissed with the words, “Go in the peace of Christ”. We are to go out into the world inhabiting the peace of Christ, carrying his invitation to all to come and dwell with him in the Father’s heart. Every Mass recommissions us and sends us with that goal. “Rabbi, where are you staying?” And Jesus said, “come and see.”

Sermon at Parish Mass Epiphany 2017

Isaiah 60:1-6
Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6
Matthew 2:1-12

Herod was frightened and all Jerusalem with him – why? There was reason to be afraid of Herod, he was a brutal and ruthless tyrant. But now Herod himself is frightened. Fear is the currency he deals in, the economy he operates. His is a world determined by violence, and he knows it can turn against him.
Into that world come mysterious strangers, announcing the birth of a King of the Jews. No wonder Herod was frightened – that was his title, but one given to him by the Roman Empire, whose puppet he was. What the Empire gave, it could take away.
And this is the birth not only of a rival king, but one heralded by cosmic signs, stars in the heavens. And the mysterious strangers say they have come to worship him. No stars have ever blazed in the heavens for Herod, and however much people feared him no one had ever bowed down before him as God.
What we worship is what we ascribe worth to. It is the measure and test of all our values. Herod fears the one heralded by cosmic signs, but he does not worship him. Or, rather, he says he wishes to worship the child, but intends to kill him – exactly the worth that he thinks should be ascribed to one who threatens his own power. Herod’s “worship” will take the form of the massacre of children.
In the centre of Herod’s power the wise men name someone else, Jesus, as king, and say they have come to worship him. Jesus is the Divine king who establishes the alternative to the world ruled by Herod and his ilk.
The followers of Jesus, like the wise men, should expect to frighten and disturb the powers that be. But, because of the resurrection, they can also tell the truth about the world, which the Herods cannot. It really is this world of violence and fear and death, the world where children are murdered, that this child has come to redeem, not by opposing it with its own values, but by suffering the worst that it can do and rising from the death it inflicts.
Christmas has nothing to do with sentimental fairy tales. It is as grittily real as it gets. Which the world of Herod cannot be, because to tell the truth about its own fear is to confess the truth of its own violence. A political figure recently tweeted, “Merry Christmas. Ignore all negative messages from the Archbishop of Canterbury and have a great day”. Which seems to suggest that Christmas is about having a day off from grim reality.
I don’t think the Holy Family would have thought of it in those terms. Jesus was born in the world of fear, violence and death to redeem it, but not by paying it back in the same coin. Jesus will escape the murder of the children under Herod only to be murdered later under Pontius Pilate, having taught and lived to the end his message of non-violence and love for enemies.
The theologian Stanley Hauerwas has said this: “Rome knew how to deal with enemies: you kill them or co-opt them. But how do you deal with a movement, a kingdom whose citizens refuse to believe that violence will determine the meaning of history? The movement that Jesus begins is constituted by people who believe that they have all the time in the world, made possible by God’s patience, to challenge the world’s impatient violence by cross and resurrection.”
Perfect love casts out fear, says St John. Love, come into the world in Jesus, is the alternative to the world run by fear. Even Herod need not be afraid, if only he had realised it, for Jesus has come to redeem even kings, by showing the real meaning of kingship: in service, humility and taking the lowest place. Which saves kings from their fear, for when you know you have nothing to lose there is nothing to be afraid of any more.
The Magi from the East faced two challenges that Christians also face in our present time: fear of the powers that be, and the pressure to keep faith private.
The world still runs on fear, fear of the future, fear of the stranger, fear that if we get rid of Herod we’ll get the Romans instead. Christians today are to answer the world’s fear with faith and worship. Faith that God has indeed redeemed this world in Jesus, and that the worst this world can do is embraced and suffered and overcome on the cross. And worship, where faith leads us into communion with the true and living God who has created us and saved us.
Faith and worship have to engage the world. In fact they constitute the standing challenge to the world as it is. When mysterious strangers come to worship a child Herod is frightened and all Jerusalem with him. When they name this child as king, a child who has nothing to do with the powers that be, then the powers that be are unmasked. Herod’s conspiracy to murder children reveals exactly what drives him. His summoning of the wise men in secret shows his desire to hush up the claims of this child, to push them back into the realm of private devotion where they can do no public harm.
But that would be to give up on worship. What we believe in, what we ascribe worth to, shows us how we live in the world. To believe in Jesus and worship him is to realise that he is the one who redeems the world. It is to confess that he alone offers the alternative to the world, and that is and has to be a public act.

We may live in “interesting times” as the Chinese proverb has it. But as Christians we are citizens of a kingdom that cannot be shaken, whose rule is justice, love and peace. To follow Jesus means to live as citizens of that kingdom publicly, confidently, even while we are for the time being residents of the kingdom of Herod. It is to be drawn to the world’s true king in faith and worship, and so to make real in our lives and in the world the redemption he has won.

Sermon at Parish Mass, the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus, 2017.

Numbers 6:22-27
Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 2:16-21

A few weeks ago on a Saturday I went as an invited guest to the Haringey Borough Civic Service, which was held in Muswell Hill Synagogue. It was the regular Sabbath worship of the Jewish community, and it was very moving to see the devotion and faith that surrounded the reading of the Torah, the books of the Law inscribed on ornate scrolls.
Apart from the electric light bulbs[1] and the modern dress everything would have been familiar to Jesus and the Apostles. The regular reading of the Law and the Prophets and the prayers in the synagogue is part of the background to the New Testament, an experience that its writers and its first readers would have shared. But it was profoundly moving to experience this, not from the pages of a book, but as a living tradition, a tradition maintained in spite of adversity and persecution down to the present day.
On today’s feast of the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus we can hardly avoid the Jewishness of Jesus. His circumcision, in accordance with the Law, is a sign of God’s covenant, a sign that Jesus belongs to the people chosen by God to receive the promise of salvation that the Law and the Prophets point to. The Law in this case is not only the moral law, how to be a good person, summarised in the ten commandments that apply to everyone. It is also the practices and observances that mark the Jewish people as distinct, that constitute their identity. Circumcision, the dietary laws, the observance of the Sabbath, are all part of that.
Jesus himself has come to fulfil the Law and the Prophets, not to do away with them. The incarnate God places himself under the Law and identifies himself with his people, for their sake. God come among us is one of us, and so is born in time, in space, in a particular culture and epoch. He is not born all over the place, but in Bethlehem, in the reign of Augustus, born not just human but a Jewish human. God makes himself particular, limits himself to one time and place and people, in order to anchor himself in the world and redeem all times and places and people.
The Law required that male babies were circumcised on the eighth day. So, for the first seven days of his life, Jesus was not under the Law, in a kind of limbo as far as belonging to God’s covenant people was concerned. It’s significant that in that period he was visited by no-one except the shepherds, who, living rough on the hillsides, were outsiders to the community defined by the Law.
This period at the beginning of the life of Jesus mysteriously foreshadows and mirrors its end, for his death on a cross also placed Jesus “outside the law” – the book of Deuteronomy says that anyone who hangs on a tree is under a curse.
St Paul in Galatians says that Jesus was made subject to the Law for the sake of the Jews, and also placed outside the Law for the sake of the Gentiles. The incarnate God identifies himself with all people. He is the Saviour of all. And all are saved through faith, not by complying with any law. This is fundamental to the Gospel. We cannot save ourselves: God has saved us in Jesus on his own initiative, by his own grace freely given, in accordance with his own promise. It doesn’t depend on us.
This circumcision of Jesus is also his naming. He is given the name Jesus because, as the angel said before he was born, “he will save his people from their sins”.  
The name Jesus, or Yeshua, means “The LORD saves”. God is a saviour. It was actually quite a common name, and ordinarily naming a boy “Jesus” expressed the pious hope of Israel that God would save his people.
But the naming of this particular child, the Son of Mary, has a greater meaning, because we know from what comes after that this particular child is, himself, the Saviour. This Jesus is not just a pious hope, but is God come to save his people in person.
He is the saviour who will preach the Kingdom of God. He is the saviour, because he will take away the sins of the world. He is the saviour, because he will share our death in order to raise us with him to new and eternal life. He is the Saviour, because he enters the mess of human history and sin and violence, to bring, not condemnation, but forgiveness and the grace to begin again.
Salvation means reconciliation with God and with one another. It means reconciliation between Gentile and Jew – St Paul says in Ephesians that Jesus has “broken down the dividing wall between them”. How tragic and wrong that Christians through history have failed to recognise that, and so often have treated Jews as strangers or enemies. But it is also tragic that today the Holy Land is divided by walls, built because of fear of terrorism, but walls nevertheless that break up and divide communities. We must pray for the Church in the Holy Land to be a strong and reconciling presence there.
Salvation also means reconciliation across all the divisions of humanity. We are perhaps more conscious of social and political divisions in our own country at the start of this year than we were at the start of the last. There are divisions too between faiths, and between different Christian churches. And there are all the divisions that are out of the public eye among families and friends.
As Christians we are called to be reconcilers. “God has reconciled us to himself”, says St Paul in 2 Corinthians, “and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” This is the work of every Christian. We are to be reconcilers, taking risks and making sacrifices for the sake of uniting a divided humanity, because we have been reconciled through Christ.
2016 was the Year of Mercy. It would not be a bad idea to let 2017 be the year of reconciliation. The year when we live more fully and with deeper gratitude the reconciliation that Christ has won for us. The year when we reach out to others, those who are estranged from us or from one another, building bridges, seeking peace. The year when we work in our communities to build a just and united society, to hold up the banner of hope when so many are looking to the future with fear.
Above all to live as though reconciliation and salvation are the most important things that can possibly happen – because they have been promised by God from ages past and have now come near in Jesus Christ, named today as the saviour of the world.

[1] Switched on before Shabbat, of course