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

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Sermon at Parish Mass Lent 5 2016

St Peter le Poer Altar Book, 1923, on a marble altar from the old church of St Peter-le-Poer in Old Broad Street (demolished 1907) - two of the exhibits in "A History of St Peter le Poer in Twenty Objects"

Isaiah 43.16-21
John 12.1-8

“Do not remember the former things,
   or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
   now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

Gerhard von Rad, who was one of the greatest Old Testament scholars of the 20th Century, described that passage of Isaiah as the “pivot verse” of the whole Old Testament. This is the point at which the whole story turns.

And what a story it has been – from the Garden of Eden through the Patriarchs and the exodus from Egypt, the 40 year journey to the promised land, the judges, the Kings. And then the story of Israel’s unfaithfulness, going off after other gods, the judgements and warnings of the prophets, foreign invasion, disaster, destruction and exile.

And this is where the people are, in this bit of Isaiah. In exile in Babylon. The holy temple in Jerusalem is in ruins, their land is far away and desolate.  Isaiah speaks to them, comfort my people, says the Lord, your exile will be ended.

But – and this is where the story turns – the end of exile will not mean going back to how things were before. No, the Lord is going to do a new thing. And indeed what else would we expect of the Creator God, who is always bringing new things to birth? The past is what has formed Israel. It is their story, it tells them who they are. But they are to receive that story in the new moment in which God is doing a new thing. They remember their story, not to draw them back into the past, but to open the present moment to God’s creative future.

And so we come full circle, in our Lenten journey. We have been looking at tradition, and we began Lent with Jesus, in the wilderness, being tempted by the Devil, but placing his story firmly in the context of Israel’s story. Tradition, we were reminded, is not nostalgia, but a living stream, ever adapting itself to the place and time through which it flows. Tradition means “handing on”; it is a present tense word that looks to the future.

Jesus is the Son of God and the Saviour, but to know what that means we have to know how God has been working as the Saviour of Israel from the beginning. Because Jesus is the new thing that God is doing, through his obedience to the Father opening God’s creative future in the moment of salvation he has come to enact.

But God’s new thing means letting go of the past. It is not, and can never be, going back to some safe secure place that we knew long ago.  So it is unsettling and challenging. It means that we need to trust God for the future, a future we cannot secure or control ourselves. It means we cannot defend the present as a safe secure little fenced off place. Rather we have to live in the present moment as the undefended threshold that opens onto the unknown future where God is doing a new thing.

That trust, stepping into the future with nothing to rely on at all except God, is what Jesus did. In today’s gospel reading he is in Bethany, on the threshold of returning to Jerusalem where in six days he will be killed. Death hangs in the air of this intimate scene. Mary anoints his feet, lavishly, with outrageous abundance. She must sense, somehow, what is coming. The disciples are unsettled, anxious. Jesus interprets her action: she did this for my burial; you will not always have me with you.

To receive the new thing that God is doing we need to let go of any kind of security or safety we might want to construct for ourselves. It is by the death of Jesus on the cross, and in no other way, that God will bring the new creation to birth. It is only by actually dying that Jesus can rise again and open the resurrection to all believers. “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

As with Jesus, so with his Church, which continues his presence and mission in the world. The pattern of dying and rising is marked on us by our baptism, and it is how the Church lives. This is what tradition means: a living stream, the present moment of salvation that opens onto God’s future, an arrival and a departure at the same time, with nothing to hold on to except faith in the God who has always shown that his promises are sure.

What is true for the universal Church is true locally, too. We conclude our Lent Programme today with what I decided to call “A History of St Peter le Poer in 20 objects”. There are various objects that tell part of our story as the people of God in this place, and you’ll be invited to explore them after Mass. But what emerged in many ways as I was preparing this was not that the tradition has always been the same here at St Peter’s, but rather that it has always been changing. And of course it has, because this is a living church, and tradition is a living stream, fed from the past but moving into God’s future. As Cardinal Newman said, “to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often”.

We are here as the Church, ambassadors for Jesus Christ, standing on the threshold of God’s future. But we do so in the midst of a society that has seldom seen such rapid and confusing change. We live in an anxious and distracted world. What are we to do? The Gospel does not change, but the Church is called upon to proclaim it afresh in each generation.  The challenge that brings for us in our day may seem daunting. But in truth all we are called to do is to be the Church, the holy faithful people of God, trusting him for the future and not clinging on to anything that will hold us back.

What will St Peter le Poer be like in twenty years’ time? I don’t know. And that’s the point. Because this is a living church, and to live is to change. 

No comments: