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

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Sermon at Parish Mass 1st Sunday of Lent 2018

Genesis 9.8-17
1 Peter 3.18-22
Mark 1.9-15

Many years ago, when I worked for a London university, I was a union health and safety representative. Health and safety reps have, by law, certain powers to use on behalf of the workforce, such as the right to enter and inspect any part of the workplace without notice, and even to instruct people to stop work and leave. A power only to be used in case of emergency, but it was there if needed. A representative acts with authority on behalf of other people.
Our readings from the Bible today have people acting in representative ways. The tale of Noah and the flood belongs to the genre of storytelling called myth. This does not mean it is untrue. In fact the story of a great flood occurs in several middle eastern cultures and may well contain a memory of an ancient disaster. But that’s not really the point of the Biblical story. Myth tells us the truth about ourselves and the world, not through journalistic reporting, but through epic saga, great heroes and symbolic acts.
The way the Bible tells the story, the flood is about salvation rather than destruction. The underlying message is that God does not want to cancel the project of creation, even when it has gone horribly wrong. He cleanses the earth through a flood, and saves the only righteous people he can find so that they can re-found the human race and restore creation. We are to forget modern individualism. The people on the ark are representatives of the whole human race, custodians of creation and its future.
And so the story concludes with God’s covenant, made with those representative humans who are given the task of beginning again. The story leaves us with a new understanding of God who, within the horizons of this story, appears to renounce violence. This sets the stage in the end for a Messiah, a new representative human, who, to save the world, will suffer violence rather than inflict it.
The first letter of Peter makes this link, in the passage we heard this morning. Jesus is the one who suffered for sins, but as the righteous for the unrighteous. Noah and the flood is a story of salvation, “a few, that is, eight people, were saved through water”. Moreover, the deeper meaning of this story is that it prefigures baptism, “[which] now saves you - not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ”.
The symbolic refounding of the human race in the story of Noah is fulfilled in the eternal refounding of the human race through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He is the new Adam, the one righteous person who is saved from the deepest flood of all, the waters of death, to become the head of a redeemed human race in a restored creation. God makes a new covenant with Jesus, through his death and resurrection, on behalf of all humanity.
This is shown through his own baptism in the river Jordan, with which today’s gospel reading opens. John is baptising for repentance, and the crowds come to him confessing their sins. Jesus joins them, though he alone is without sin and has no need of repentance. He identifies himself with the mass of sinful humanity, so that he can reconcile sinful humanity with God. As St Paul says in 2 Corinthians, God “made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”.
When Jesus identified himself with humanity in his baptism, God was revealed as Trinity: the Spirit descended on the Son as the voice of the Father was heard. Those who believe in Jesus are identified with him, through our baptism, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Our baptism flows from the baptism of Jesus. In him all humanity is washed clean, and begins again. In him, we are adopted as children of God. In him, we receive the Holy Spirit and the Father recognizes us as his beloved children.
And so Jesus has to experience the whole of what it means to be human. The Spirit, the Father’s gift, drives Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. The Spirit of God does this. Why? Because from now on Jesus is identified with all humanity, and all humanity is tempted. But, apart from Jesus, all humanity fails. We have fallen into sin. Jesus does not. The new Adam will not fail the way the first one did. He is victorious over temptation, and in him we can be victorious too. But only in him. Jesus was tempted, not only as the Son of God, but as the Head of the Church, and we are his members. If we reply on our own strength against temptation we will fail. But faith in Jesus gives us access to the victory he has won for us.
Forty days. The length of time that the rain fell on the earth in the story of Noah. The time of sweeping everything clean and beginning again. Jesus must endure that time of testing. He must prove the truth of the vocation he has received from the Father. But, once he has, he can proclaim, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news”. And that proclamation comes with power, because it flows from his tested, authentic, identity as the Son of God.
The Church too keeps a season of forty days every year, in imitation of the temptation and fast of Jesus in the desert. Originally this was the season of preparation for those who were to be baptised at Easter. 
But in time all Christians came to observe Lent. Knowing that we drift away from the grace of baptism, this became a season of self-examination, repentance and renewal, of beginning again. A time to rediscover our identity in Christ. A time to wash clean the rust and dirt of sin that accumulates in our souls. In baptism we received once for all a wellspring of eternal life, our rebirth in the image of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit. But that life-giving source can become choked, clogged up, ineffective, through sin and neglect.
Lent is a time for renewal, a time to discover once more the Lord who is always waiting to forgive us as soon as we turn back to him. It’s is a time for renewal in faith, faith in Jesus who was tempted and suffered for us, so that we, in him, can know forgiveness of sins and victory over temptation. It is a time for deeper examination of conscience, to renew our baptismal promises to renounce evil and follow Christ.
Many Christians also use the ministry of reconciliation, confession and absolution by a priest, as part of the discipline of this time. In the modern Common Worship rites, the ministry of reconciliation is subtitled “recovering baptism”. That is exactly what it is. Baptism cannot be repeated, but the ministry of absolution, with the authority that Christ has given to the Church, has the same effect for sins after baptism as baptism has for sins committed before: a deep clean, a washing away of the detritus of the past, a fresh start.
In this season of Lent we are recalled to the greatness of what God has done for us. Adopted in Christ by faith and the grace of baptism, we are joined with him in his death and resurrection, made children of God, heirs of eternal life. It is time to recover that grace, and live it in our lives once more. It is time to live Lent. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Sermon at Parish Mass 2nd Sunday before Lent 2018

Icon of Holy Wisdom, State Museum of Arts, Almaty

Proverbs 8.1,22-31
Colossians 1.15-20
John 1.1-14

“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light.”
The BBC News channel has a rolling programme called “Witness”. Described as “The story of our times, told by the people who were there”, yesterday’s example featured “the son of the man who invented Lego and the biologist who was the first to discover whalesong”.
A witness is someone who tells the truth about what they have seen and heard. John the Baptist was a witness to the light that was coming into the world in Jesus Christ. Other people it seems can be witnesses to Lego, or to whalesong.
These witnesses may seem poles apart, but what connects them is a commitment to the truth. It is discovered that whales sing. Lego is a product of human creativity and ingenuity. Both things depend on truth, on being able to speak reliably about what is seen and done.
John the Baptist witnessed to the light, the Word through whom all things came into being, full of grace and truth. Here is the truth that undergirds all others, the foundation of all others. The universe is rational, consistent and truthful. But why? The universe points beyond itself to a mystery, which is itself truth. Why indeed is there anything at all, instead of nothing?
The Gospel names that mystery as a Word, an utterance, from one who is altogether other than the universe. The Word was in the beginning, and all things came into being through him. The Word through whom all things were made, and the truth of the things that are made, go together. They cannot be contrary to each other.
There can be nervousness in religious circles about science and faith. A couple of weeks ago I was at an event of Sion College, an organisation that attempts to improve the clergy. We had a lecture about the origins of the universe at the Royal Astronomical Society, followed by a discussion.
There were a lot of positive comments about the event and the need to hear more about science and its interface with faith. But there was also anxiety. One priest said to me that we should have an event on evolution, because, he said almost in a whisper, “I believe in it”. Now there’s something not quite right if a clergyman is nervous about admitting to a belief in evolution.
Yes we believe in God as Creator. But when we watch those marvellous science and nature programmes on the TV, or take the children to the Natural History Museum, do we subconsciously shut our faith away in a separate part of our minds? As though, if we look too closely, it might all fall apart? Are we afraid that the truth of our faith might be undermined by the truth we observe in the world?
Faith should tell us that science and faith cannot be contrary. The truth of God as revealed to us in Jesus is not somehow going to speak against the truth of the things that have their being through him, which is what science studies. All truth is from God, whether it is the loftiest heights of theology, or the way in which life evolved, or the discovery of whalesong.
In some years on this Sunday we have a creation story from Genesis, but this year we have the figure of Wisdom from the Book of Proverbs. Wisdom belongs to a different tradition to the Adam and Eve story. She is a personification of God’s creativity. Her characteristics are order and inventiveness, beauty and delight. For the scriptures, it is impossible to speak about God’s creativity without getting personal like this. The creator is not a blind force doing stuff by chance, but a person, with a purpose.
As Jews spread into the Greek speaking world their idea of Divine Wisdom encountered the Greek idea of the Word. Greek philosophers described the logical principle behind the universe as the Word, the Logos. But they did not know what the Word was. They supposed it to be perhaps an impersonal force, like a kind of sorting machine. But, to Jews, it sounded like the Divine Wisdom. This thinking was around when the first Christians were reflecting on who Jesus was, so that the author of the fourth Gospel could say, “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us”.
The Gospel points to Jesus and says, here is the Divine Wisdom, the creative personification of God. Here is the Word, the rational principle behind the universe. Here is the truth, from whom all truth proceeds, and to whom all truth refers. And he has become one of us. Created human nature has been joined to the nature of the Word who created all things, in one Person.
Other parts of the New Testament affirm this, too, like the passage from Colossians this morning: “Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created”.
The incarnation raises our created human nature to union with God, and sets our rational questing after truth at the pinnacle of creation’s yearning for God. Far from being contrary to faith, the quest for reason and truth leads us to the truth in person, Jesus.
Faith is a gift from God. Science and reason can take us to the borders of mystery; but to go further, that mystery must reveal itself to us. Christian faith says that Jesus is that revelation, the culmination of all that has gone before in the law and the prophets, and in all the insights and feelings after God that every human culture and religion has known, as Paul says to the Athenians in Acts 17.
This invests human nature with an exalted dignity that comes not from ourselves but from God. The mysterious saying of Genesis, that humanity is made in the image of God, is fulfilled in Jesus who is God’s image of himself. This compels us to attend most carefully to the truth of the human person. Every human being bears the image of God, even if impaired and obscured case by sin. Every human being shares the human nature that was united to God in the Word made flesh.
Therefore truth, human truth, really matters. Equality and inclusion are not, for Christians, founded in political correctness, but in the incarnation. Every human being, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, disability or age, is called into union with God in Jesus. Every person at every stage of life shares in the human nature that has been united to the Word.
And the truth that we speak and live really matters. Can we trust our politicians? This really matters. Can I know that so-and-so loves me? This really matters. Can I trust in the Creator’s holding on to our lives even in the face of death? This really matters. Both faith and reason require a commitment to truth. A lie is a tear in the fabric of the universe, and ultimately a denial of God.

So, then, trust in the truth, and bear witness to the truth. That is, be truthful, and do not be afraid of the truth. Do not shrink back from new discoveries and knowledge, which can only bear witness to the Creator, even if in ways we did not expect. Hold all human life in profound reverence. All truth comes to us from God, revealed in Jesus, and leads us back to him. And every new discovery, whether in the world of science or in our lives as human persons in relationship, is a wonderful affirmation of the truth who called us into being, and calls us into union with himself.

Sermon at Parish Mass Epiphany 2 2018

1 Samuel 3.1-10
Revelation 5.1-10
John 1:43-51

We’ve tidied away the Christmas tree, tinsel and lights, but for the Church the season of Epiphany continues until the feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, in two weeks’ time. The theme of this season is revelation: God reveals himself.
This is part of God’s character. God is not a remote being who set the universe into motion and then left it to get on with things. God is the creator who remains intimately involved in the creation, calling creation into relationship with himself. God speaks. God makes himself known. But God turns out to be quite unlike human suppositions of what gods must be.
God’s unexpected revelation is a theme that connects our readings today. “The Lord called, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ and he said, ‘Here I am!’”. But he did not know that God was calling him; he assumed it was Eli. God’s call came to him as something unknown.
In the book of Revelation the mystical scroll with its seven seals cannot be opened except by the Lamb who has been slaughtered. Humanity thinks that the gods demand sacrifices, and the book of Revelation is full of the ensuing violence. But it is the victim of sacrifice who opens the scroll and reveals God, the victim who appears in heaven on God’s throne, reversing human expectations.
Nathanael thinks that nothing good can come out of Nazareth. But Jesus tells him that he “will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man”.  He is promised a vision like that of Jacob, the founder of Israel, who saw a ladder ascending to heaven. But in this case, Jesus says the ladder is himself. Even though he comes from the dull backwater of Nazareth, the last place Nathanael would expect.
The revelation of God is unexpected. God turns out to be unlike our human expectations of what a god must be. This is why Israel’s God was always so distinct. The gods of the other nations could be depicted and described: you knew what they looked like, what their job was, and what you had to pay them to do it. Not so the God of Israel, who could not be depicted or controlled, who remained a mystery.
The only image of God that could be accepted is the one that God produces of himself: his Word, his self-expression, the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son of the Father, who alone can truly reveal God because he is God. As John puts it in the prologue of his Gospel, “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 says in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, “no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” St Irenaeus, commenting on this verse, says that it refers to all time, before and after the Word was born of Mary. “From the beginning the Son is present to creation, and reveals the Father to all.”
God has always revealed himself though his Word: in creation; through the inklings of the Divine that have come to all nations, religions and cultures, even if in obscure and partial ways; through the law and the prophets given especially to Israel. And lastly through the incarnation of the Son of God, God’s revelation of himself come among us as one of us.
It is the nature of God to reveal himself through his Son, and he has always done so. But that revelation is not simply imparting information about God. It is an invitation into relationship with God. “You will see”, says Jesus. In Biblical times, to “see” someone meant sharing in deep communion with them, an opening of the inner being each to the other. To see heaven opened, to see the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man, is to be invited into his Divine life.
The promise that Nathanael would see the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man refers back to Jacob’s ladder, but also looks forward, and foreshadows another wooden structure planted in the earth and reaching up to heaven – the cross. Because it is in the cross that we see heaven fully opened. As the Book of Revelation tells us, it is the slaughtered lamb who reveals God. It is on the crucified victim that we see the angels of God ascending and descending.
God places himself at the heart of our human violence as its victim, in order to undo our human violence. Out of the ruin that we have made, out of our insatiable pact with death, Jesus reveals the resurrection, the Father’s endless life pouring into the new creation. This is not what humanity has imagined that gods were like. Cults of sacrifice and violence have struggled with and obscured the revelation of God’s self-giving love. But on the cross the Word, God’s full and complete revelation of himself, once and for all disposes of those false accounts of God.
God’s revelation of himself is a call into relationship, a summons to follow. “Follow me”, says Jesus to Philip. And Philip not only follows but shares the invitation, he goes and finds Nathanael to tell him about Jesus. It is a summons to follow into the revolutionary change that comes from knowing the true and living God, made visible in Jesus, crucified and risen.
Followers of Jesus see heaven opened, and the love of God made visible in him. Jesus the victim, Jesus the Risen One, is the one on whom the angels of God ascend and descend. He is the ladder joining earth and heaven, he is the true and living way to the Father. It is he who calls to us, “follow me”.
And as the love of God draws us to him so it must draw others too. “Come and see”, says Philip. How much do our lives say that to others? How much do our lives speak of the attractiveness of Jesus, the compelling power of his love? Do our lives demonstrate the revolutionary change that comes from knowing the true and living God in whom there is no death?
“Come and see”, says Jesus. Come and see Jesus, heaven thrown open, the love of God made visible. Our lives, too, need to say, “come and see”. Like Philip, we are to share the good news of Jesus with those around us, not by empty rhetoric, but by a demonstration of lives changed by knowing Jesus.

In word and action, we are to give priority to the victims and the outcast of this world, because in Jesus we see God taking the place of the victim. In word and action, we are to live as those who believe in the resurrection and eternal life, because we are those who already share in that life through the sacraments and the Holy Spirit who dwells in us. Those who follow Jesus will see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man. That is not a vision we can keep to ourselves.