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

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Sermon at Parish Mass Lent 2 2016

Jerusalem seen from the Church of Dominus Flevit ("The Lord Wept"). Photo: Fr Matthew

Genesis 15.1-12,17-18
Luke 13.31-35

Abram said to the Lord, ‘O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess [this land]?’

What follows could well be a candidate for one of the weirdest bits of the Bible. (Though there would be other contenders…) Abram takes a selection of animals, cuts them in half, lays the bits out on the ground, drives off the birds of prey, and then in a deep and terrifying darkness a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch pass between the pieces.

And that, apparently, is how Abram is to know that he will possess the land.

When we read passages like this we can be hit quite forcefully by the cultural and conceptual distance between ourselves and the ancient societies in which the Bible was formed. We may well wonder what on earth this passage is about.

But look again at the sequence of events. The word of the Lord comes to Abram in a vision. We begin with God’s promise, expressed in words, that Abram’s descendants will be as many as the stars of heaven, and that he will possess the land. Now God, being God, his promise is rock solid reliable. Abram does not doubt. No, he believes, and this is reckoned to him as righteousness.

But still, after that, he asks, “How am I to know that I shall possess the land?”

Abram does not doubt God’s promise. But promises are words, ideas. They only become real when they take concrete form in the world we live in. Just as marriage vows, for example, are expressed in words on a couple’s wedding day but then have to become real in the concrete living out of their life together, year after year.

Words and ideas need to find an anchor to connect and hold them in the world we inhabit. So we have this strange business with the dead animals.

One theory is that this was an ancient way of ratifying a covenant, when one person solemnly undertook to do something for another. The person making the covenant would walk between the divided halves of animals, the implication being, “may what has happened to these animals happen to me, if I fail to carry out what I have promised”.

Words and ideas are not enough. They need to become concrete in the real world, through concrete acts. Abraham believed God, but to be held by God’s promise he needed to experience something like this that actually connected with him where he was. The promise needed to be anchored in the material world that we, material beings, inhabit.

In the Old Testament God’s interventions with his people were often mysterious and strange. This scene with Abraham, for example. Or the burning bush from which God spoke to Moses, the pillar of fire and cloud that led the Israelites out of Egypt, the sound of silence that spoke to Elijah, the psychedelic visions of Ezekiel.

But in the New Testament God’s complete revelation of himself has come among us, not in anything strange or uncanny, but in a human life. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us”, says St John. And the Letter to the Hebrews says, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son”.

Jesus the Son of God is God’s full and entire communication of himself. “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being”, says Hebrews. Now, in his fullness, God comes to us where we are. The Word is not an idea or a book, but a person. A human being, a body walking this material world. God anchors himself in the world, confines himself to space and time, so that all space and time can know that God’s promise of salvation is sure.

The Pharisees came to Jesus and said, “get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you”. Get away from here. There is nothing that anchors us more to this earth than death. All of us will die, not in the abstract or as an idea, but in a place. And Jesus is in the place where death awaits him.

And yet, says Jesus, that place matters. He must finish his work, and “it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem”. The Son of God will ratify the new covenant, not under some mysterious sign or figure, but by actually dying, and in order that we may know this is for real he names the place where it will happen.

The death of Jesus, the new covenant sealed with his blood, holds us and assures us of God’s promise of salvation. It is ratified by the real death of a real man in a real place.

We cannot get away from the earthiness of the Christian faith. The Incarnation joins God and the material world in one person. Henceforth, the material world is God-bearing, mediating his grace. The Sacraments extend the incarnation into the life of the Church. Water, bread and wine are filled with Divine life, and through them God’s Spirit effects our salvation. This is how God has willed it to be.

Catholic devotion has always understood this. Yet in our world this is questioned. The heritage of the Protestant Reformation includes a distrust of material things, a fear that they might get in the way of each person’s individual relationship with God. Our Western heritage of enlightenment rationalism has further entrenched us within our minds, as if words and ideas were all that could be trusted.

But we are bodies. Words and ideas need to connect, to be anchored in this material world. The Christian faith, in its catholic fullness, shows us how.

At St Peter’s we are heirs of the Anglo-Catholic revival of the nineteenth century, the great rediscovery of our heritage and continuity with the Church of all ages. With that revival came a renewed confidence in the material things that go with our faith, the outward signs of devotion. That is what we shall be exploring today in our “Coffee and Chat” after Mass. So do please stay behind, it should be fun.

But for now, we continue with this celebration of the Eucharist, the gathering of these particular bodies in this particular place, to make present the Body of Christ who feeds us and equips us to continue his mission on this earth, in this time, with all its real material people and needs.

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