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

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Sermon at Parish Mass Trinity 14 2017

Genesis 50:15-21
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

Today’s gospel reading follows on from last week’s, which was about what to do when there is sin in the church community. Jesus’ instruction was to seek forgiveness and reconciliation, and not to escalate the problem.
But having heard this Peter wants to know more about the forgiveness aspect. How far do we have to go with that, exactly? If a member of the church sins against me, do I have to forgive them as often as seven times?
Peter clearly thinks this would be something extraordinary. But as is often the case in the gospels he hasn’t really grasped what Jesus is about. So Jesus says to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times’.
These are not just numbers that Jesus has plucked out of the air. The sequence, “not seven, but seventy-seven”, occurs in one other place in the Bible, in the Book of Genesis, chapter 4. Four generations after Cain murdered his brother Abel, we meet Lamech, a violent hoodlum, who swears:
“I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me.
If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold”
The early stories in Genesis, from creation to the flood, tell us the deep truth about ourselves. In the symbolic language of myth we encounter both the exalted dignity of human beings made in the image of God, and the deep flaw that runs sight to the heart of our human nature, which the Church calls original sin.
Deep in our origin as human beings there lies this escalation of violence. Not seven but seventy seven times: revenge increases exponentially, out of control, causing more havoc in every generation.
So when Jesus repeats those numbers, and says we must forgive, ‘not seven times, but seventy-seven times’, he is going right to the heart of the problem, right back to human origins. He is reversing that ancient escalation of vengeance into an escalation of forgiveness. But forgiveness is nothing trivial. It entails going right back to the beginning and starting again.
But if the original sin has been with us from the beginning, so too has been the hope of forgiveness. Genesis tells us about that as well, as we heard in the story of Joseph forgiving his brothers who had betrayed him and sold him into slavery. For the Church, this moving scene foreshadows the risen Christ appearing to his disciples who had deserted him, and forgiving them.
Forgiveness is not a one-off decision that you make, that you can count up, as many as seven times or even seventy-seven. It is a new reality made possible in Christ. By ourselves, we cannot go back to the beginning of humanity and start again. But Jesus does. He is the new Adam, human nature restored and united with the divine nature of the Son of God. God is love and mercy, and that love and mercy have come among us in Jesus.
He is the first of many brothers and sisters. All those who believe in him are adopted in him by grace, children of God, and so start to live in the new reality of mercy and forgiveness that he makes possible.
The parable Jesus tells today shows how radically different that new reality is. A slave has a ridiculously large debt – billions of pounds in today’s money. But when the slave pleads for time to pay – as if he ever could – the king cancels the entire debt. It’s a sudden revelation of astonishing generosity, beyond anything the slave could have imagined.
It is in fact a revelation of the new reality of mercy and forgiveness. And therefore an invitation to enter into that reality, to begin to live like that, forgiving everything. But the slave fails to do so. He is himself owed a debt of 100 denarii. That’s around four or five thousand pounds today, not a trivial amount. But the new reality of forgiveness is all about letting go, accepting loss, because love and mercy are so much better, and you can’t receive those gifts with closed hands. The slave is shown the new reality of forgiveness, but in the end he fails to enter in and make it his own.
Forgiveness isn’t cheap. Even for quite trivial offenses we know how our sense of injured pride can get in the way. We have to give up our claim to get our own back, and that isn’t easy. But if we don’t, the lack of forgiveness becomes hardened, the desire for revenge escalates. Families and friends can be tragically divided, sometimes for decades, over little things that really shouldn’t matter.
Some sins of course are very grievous. Some sins might leave wounds that stay with us for the rest of our lives. How can we forgive then?
One of the curates of this church in the 1930s was Father Eric Cordingly. In the war, as an army chaplain, he was taken prisoner by the Japanese and held for three years, for one of them forced to work on the infamous Burma railway. The cruelty and abuses suffered by the prisoners were unimaginable. Many died. Father Cordingly found that after the war he had no hatred or bitterness in his heart.  But for many of those who survived, and who had a Christian faith, forgiveness was often very difficult. For some it seems to have been a challenge never resolved in their lifetimes.
Sometimes of course there is a need for justice, or a need to protect others. But that is not the same as revenge, and seeking justice or protection does not mean that we cannot forgive. But when forgiveness is a huge challenge, we need to remember that it is not so much something that we do, as a new reality, given to us by God, that we are invited to enter.
Jesus Christ is the new Adam, human nature remade, the new head of a new humanity. In that new reality, forgiveness is escalated in place of revenge, not seven times but seventy-seven. And all those who have faith in Jesus are adopted in him as children of God and share in that redeemed human nature. Jesus is the one who forgives, and in him we become people who both receive and give forgiveness.
The depth of that forgiveness is shown to us on the cross. “Father, forgive them”, said Jesus. The wounds of Christ, that he received on the cross, never healed. He showed them to his disciples as proof of his resurrection. They mark his ascended body still, on the throne of glory in heaven. But Divine grace transformed those wounds that never healed. They have become, not a reproach calling for vengeance, but a fresh pledge and assurance of forgiveness, a new demonstration of love that would not have been possible had those wounds not been inflicted.
Perhaps this is what Julian of Norwich means when she says that in heaven our sins will be glorious. Those wounds of sin that go so deep they will not heal, somehow by grace will be transformed into signs of forgiveness, proofs of love, that would not have been possible without our woundedness.  

How often should we forgive? Not seven times, but seventy-seven. And this is possible because this is what God does in Jesus, and we are called to be in Jesus too.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Sermon at Parish Mass Trinity 12 2017

Jeremiah 15.15-21
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

Today we have the second half of an encounter between Jesus and Peter. The first half was last week, when Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, and Jesus in response had named him Peter, “the Rock”, and given him the keys of the kingdom of heaven.
That part of the reading is very familiar to us as we have it every year for the feast of St Peter, our patron saint, and also when we read through Matthew’s Gospel as part of the three year lectionary, as happened last week.
But the second part of the encounter is only read once every three years. Peter gets it spectacularly wrong, but perhaps it’s considered impolite to bring that up on his feast day, so it gets relegated.
But it is a very important reading. The two halves of this episode go together. Peter has entered into the way of faith in Jesus the Messiah. He has begun to follow him. But as yet he has no idea where that journey will lead him. He is still setting his mind not on divine things but on human things.
Peter is right that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. But he does not yet know what that means. He conceives of the Messiah in human terms, someone who will conquer by force and violence and drive out the unrighteous and unclean. So, when Jesus talks about his coming death, this is incomprehensible. Jesus rejects the path of violence. How, then, can his kingdom come?
In the Divine plan, the kingdom will come not by force, but by suffering. The path of the Messiah is the way of the cross – literally. Rejection, suffering, and an ignominious death await. But so too does the resurrection. The cycle of violence and vengeance brings only destruction. The Kingdom of God does not pay back this world in its own coin, but breaks in upon it with something wholly new, the Resurrection, God’s inexhaustible life and love pouring in and overwhelming the old order of sin and death.
Peter does not understand this yet. But he will, for veiled in this reading is a reference to Peter’s own death. The Gospels were written down after the death of the Apostles to preserve the teachings of Jesus, so this would have been in the minds of the early Christians as they heard this passage read. Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
According to ancient tradition, referred to obliquely also in the 21st chapter of John’s Gospel, for Peter this was literally true, for he himself would be crucified, in Rome, some 30 years after the life of Jesus, dying a martyr for Christ.
What was literally true for Peter is also true in some way or another for every disciple of Jesus. The path of dying and rising with Christ is marked on us by our baptism, and the sufferings that come our way have in them the potential to be a realisation of what that means.
Suffering is a profound mystery. In a fallen and imperfect world it happens, and questions about why often go unanswered, even in the Bible. But Jesus calls us to follow the way of the cross, not the way of ease. We should not seek suffering, and it is not wrong to seek relief from suffering when that is possible.  But some unavoidable sufferings will come our way. Accepted voluntarily in union with Christ these can become part of how we follow him and are conformed to his image.
Most Christians are not called to heroic suffering and martyrdom most of the time, but even the little sufferings and humiliations of daily life can be offered in union with Christ and so transformed. Illnesses and afflictions, the stress of our daily commute, being kind to a particularly difficult colleague or family member, surrendering our little claims to the petty things that we call “mine”.
This is a work of grace in us. Suffering can so easily lead to bitterness, resentment and ultimately despair.  We have to depend on God for the gifts of his Holy Spirit to accept suffering with generosity and in a spirit of sacrifice, in union with Christ. As St Paul says in Romans today, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer”. And Jesus tells us this is the path of life, the only way to the resurrection which is our entry into true and eternal life.
More than that, suffering accepted in union with Christ is associated by him in his redeeming work. St Paul in Colossians 1 says “in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church”. Christ alone is the redeemer, but he is pleased to allow us a share in his work. Adopted in Christ by the grace of baptism, our sufferings become part of his and are associated in the world’s redemption. How this works out is largely hidden from us, but nonetheless real.
I think of an old lady I knew, long dead, who often passed sleepless nights of pain. After one such night she said to me, “I felt God wanted me to pray for South Africa” (this was in the days of Apartheid). In the Divine economy of salvation, she was taking part in her small way in the redemption of the world. And, for a person who knew suffering, and whose life was in many ways very limited, she was full of joy, full of the Holy Spirit.
The sufferings that come our way can often be the little trials, difficulties and humiliations of everyday life. But there is also serious illness, disability and loss. And in the end, in one way or another, we will all be joined with Christ in the death of the body, so that we may share also in his resurrection. Perhaps in God’s providence the little trials of daily life are part of our preparation for the great sacrifices to come.  Jesus’s words to Peter today, although they come in the form of a humiliating rebuke, are also part of how Jesus is beginning to prepare Peter for his death.

This all sounds very Lenten, really. But actually Lent reminds us that the way of the cross is none other than the way of life and peace. In the world as it is, our call is to follow the way of Jesus, the way of joy that nevertheless involves contradiction and suffering. But we can do this with faith and trust, for it is Jesus himself, the Risen One, who says to us, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it”.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Sermon at Parish Mass, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary 2017

Revelation 11:19-12:6,10
Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 1:46-55

I try to hide it but you may just have picked up that I’m a fan of all things Italian, and also of the Renaissance, the great movement of art and culture that had its birth in Italy but influenced the whole of Europe.
However, when it comes to the Renaissance artist Botticelli, I must admit my keenness wobbles a little. Yes, he has the human warmth and realism that the Renaissance introduced to art. But his paintings are always a bit, well, busy. The Birth of Venus, la Primavera, the Mystic Nativity (what’s that all about?). I tend to sympathise with Irene Coles, EF Benson’s fictional avant-garde artist, who described Botticelli’s Venus as an “anaemic flapper”. Picture her, standing in her seashell, wearing a 1920s cocktail dress, and you’ll get the idea.
However, there is one painting by Botticelli that I love, and it is his “Madonna of the Magnificat”, currently in the Uffizi gallery in Florence. It depicts the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child on her lap, and facing her is Saint Luke, shown as a young man, and of course various angels crammed in to fill up the available space – it is still a Botticelli.
In the scene as Botticelli depicts it Saint Luke has been writing his gospel, and he has just got to the bit we heard today, Mary’s great song of praise when she visited her cousin Elizabeth, the song known as the “Magnificat” from its first word in Latin.
At this point, Luke has stopped writing, and has handed the book and pen over to Mary. And she is shown writing her own words, the words of the Magnificat, into Luke’s Gospel, whilst the light from heaven shines on her head, and the Christ Child on her lap guides her hand as it writes.
In this painting Mary is shown as a Bible writer, an inspired author of sacred scripture. And not just any part of scripture. The Magnificat, along with the Psalms, is part of the daily prayer of the Church. From very ancient times it has been the culminating moment of evening prayer, sung or prayed every day. And what better way is there to round off each day, filled with God’s mercies, than in Mary’s hymn of triumphant thanksgiving?
So Mary’s inspired words are not simply part of an ancient text for us to study. They are part of the living prayer of the Church, giving thanks for the reality of God’s saving love, every day.
But it is not only in her words that Mary is a part of the living church. It is above all in her self, in her person, that she stands at the heart of the Church. Raised to the glory of heaven, she is not taken out of the Church, but has entered fully into what the Church really means, what the Church will be in eternity. The gathering up of all things in Christ, the life of the world to come, is promised in the fullness of time, but is shown to us already in Mary.
In her life she was completely conformed to Christ by grace, as the whole Church will be at the end of time.
Consider the exalted language with which scripture talks about the Church. In Ephesians 5, St Paul uses marriage as an illustration, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendour, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish.” The book of Revelation speaks of the, “holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband”.
In God’s providence, Mary is the disciple who shows to us already what the Church in its fullness will be.  In her, the Church is already presented to God “in splendour, without a spot or wrinkle… holy and without blemish”. In her the Church is already the “Bride adorned for her husband”.
The Church is Christ’s body, and everyone reborn in Christ is a member of that body. This is a great mystery. The Church is not a human club. It is the new creation into which all humanity, and all the universe, is called. To be in the Church is to participate in Christ, the God-Man. It is to be, in him, the visible sign of God’s kingdom in the world, just as Jesus was in his earthly life in Galilee. It is to suffer with him so that we might be glorified with him.
It is even to take part in his redeeming work. St Paul in Colossians 1 says “in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church”. Christ could have redeemed the universe all by himself, and indeed in principle he has done so. But he has chosen to include his Church in that work, so that all his members may participate by grace in what he is by nature. This truth is so immense that St Augustine speaks of Jesus and the Church together as forming “the whole Christ”.
We struggle towards this goal by grace. The Holy Spirit is turning us into Christ, but that is not for us sinners the work of a moment.
But in the Church God has willed that there should always be a disciple, a human being incorporated in Christ, in whom all these things are already fully true. That disciple is Mary. If Jesus is the head of the Church, then she is its heart, a heart without spot or blemish, both the sign and the foreshadowing of the Church in its perfection.
Mary stands at the heart of the Church, hands uplifted in prayer, turned always towards the Lord, praying with us and for us her song of praise, proclaiming to the end of time that the almighty has done great things, and holy is his name.
She is part of the Church as it stands in the world as the visible sign of God’s kingdom. She is part of the work and witness of every Christian disciple, the heart that beats the life-blood of grace around the body. No-one is an ambassador for Jesus Christ without Mary. The world received its redeemer through her, and it is through her still, with and in the whole Church, that he is made known.
Outward devotion to Mary expresses this truth, and reminds us of her participation in the redemption of the world. The angelus and the rosary, litanies and pilgrimages, are personal devotions, which will appeal differently to each. It is the liturgy that expresses what the Church is corporately. And Mary runs all through the liturgy.
She is named in the Eucharistic prayer at every Mass. She is there prominently at Christmas and Epiphany. She is there, too, at the wedding at Cana, and at the foot of the Cross, sharing in the sorrows of her Son. She is there with the disciples praying on the day of Pentecost. She is there in her feast days and memorials throughout the year, most especially today. She is there in her Magnificat, her song of praise that is on the lips of the Church as the sun goes down on each successive day.

We are all ambassadors of Jesus Christ, not alone, not as individuals, but as the Church. And therefore we are ambassadors with Mary, who stands at the heart of the Church as the first and greatest ambassador for her Son. To be disciples of Jesus means that we must take Mary with us. Or, rather, we must follow where she leads, so full of joy in the good news that nothing can stop her running with great haste to sing her song of praise that never ends.