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

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Sermon at Parish Mass Trinity 10 2016

Ecclesiastes 1.2,12-14;2.18-23
Colossians 3.1-11
Luke 12.13-21

Some years ago I had a short holiday in Malta. The local building style is very distinctive, houses solidly built out of a warm honey coloured limestone, often with boxed in balconies and pleasing baroque flourishes.
But every so often I would see, in the middle of a row of pristine and beautiful houses, one that was derelict or even in ruins. I asked a friend who lived there why this was, and he explained that Maltese law on the inheritance of houses is complex. There are often family disputes, and sometimes both sides in the dispute would rather see the house fall down and become worthless than give way and allow the other side to win.
There is nothing new, of course, about inheritance disputes. They are probably as old as the idea of private property. So the situation Jesus finds himself in in today’s Gospel reading was not unusual. Rabbis were often asked to intervene in such disputes.
A man asks, “tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me”. But Jesus refuses to go along with that. He sees to the heart of the matter. This man is trapped in desire for the family inheritance, not because he needs it, but because his brother has it instead of him. And it is, in the end, not an inheritance which will satisfy him anyway.
There is a huge irony in today’s gospel reading. There is a great deal in the Old Testament law about inheritance, but it is almost all about Israel inheriting collectively what God wants to give to the people – the land and its blessings. Inheritance in the Old Testament is about harmonious communities, not rivalrous individuals. And it acknowledges that all the good things we receive are not ours to possess, but gifts of God to be received. And ultimately, as Psalm 16 says, it is God himself who is the inheritance of his people. Mere earthly inheritances will pass away, they are all in the end vanity, as the reading from Ecclesiastes reminded us this morning. But God will never pass away.
So the irony of this Gospel passage is that a man is asking about inheritance, but he doesn’t realise that his real inheritance is standing in front of him: it is Jesus, the Lord himself come among us in human flesh, who is the inheritance of his people. And there is no need for any dispute about that inheritance, because God gives himself in Jesus without limit and there is enough for everyone.
St Paul makes this explicit in the reading we heard from Colossians. “When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.” This is an inheritance for all humanity, the Jewish people of course, who received and kept God’s promises down the centuries, but also all the gentile nations. Christ is our life and our inheritance, and in that inheritance all the old divisions are swept away. It is a “new self which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator”, says Paul. A self in which “Christ is all and in all!”.
Christ is the new self and the true life of all humanity. The Eternal Son of the Father has taken our human nature to himself and in doing so has renewed all of humanity. In principle, every human being is embraced in that renewal. The image of Christ exists in potential in everyone. In actuality, grace and faith are needed for that image to come alive in us, so that we can share in the life of Christ and be transformed into his living image.
Christ is how humanity receives and inhabits its true inheritance, which is God. And because God is love and generosity and gives himself without limit, this completely overturns all the rivalries and death-bound desires that have been leading humanity astray from the beginning.
The man who asked Jesus to intervene in his dispute could not have been more wrong. He did not understand that God was his true inheritance standing in front of him in Jesus. And he did not understand that we have to leave behind our rivalrous desires if we are to receive what God wants to give us, which is himself.
Humanity of course still persists in following such rivalries. And the most absurd rivalry of all is rivalry about God. As if there might not be enough to go round. In fact, once we are in rivalry about God, we are not talking about the true God at all, but about some idol of our own imagination. For idols are limited; they are possessions that can be taken away, and so need to be defended.
This week has seen yet another murder perpetrated by people who think they possess God and so need to take him away from their rivals. This time, it was a priest, Father Jaques Hamel, murdered while celebrating Mass – itself the memorial of Christ’s giving of himself even to death, so the world might live. In his death Father Jaques became even more conformed to the image of Christ, which was already imprinted on him through his baptism and his priesthood. His inheritance is sure and eternal.
And in that inheritance all rivalry passes away. Twenty years ago a group of Trappist monks were murdered by Islamist extremists in Algeria. Their prior, Dom Christian Marie de Chergé, had foreseen that they would be targets if they stayed at their monastery, but he chose to remain, along with six others. Monks have no property to leave to anyone, no inheritance to have a dispute over. But Dom Christian before his death wrote a Spiritual last will and Testament in which he spoke of the gratuitous love of God in Christ, and the lack of rivalry that leads to, even with other faiths, even with those set on violence against us. These are his words:
“I have lived long enough to know my complicity with the evil which, unfortunately, seems to prevail in the world, and even with the evil which might suddenly strike me. I would like, when the time comes, to have this moment of lucidity which would enable me to ask for God's pardon and that of my brothers in humanity, and at the same time to pardon with all my heart the one who strikes me down.
“But”, he says, “God willing, I will be able to plunge my vision into the Father's in order to contemplate with Him His Islamic children just as He sees them, all illuminated with Christ's glory, fruits of His Passion, clothed by the gift of the Spirit whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and re-establish resemblance while enjoying the differences….
He even writes of his murderer: “And also to you, friend of the final hour, who will not know what you are doing. Yes, I also desire this THANK YOU for you, and this A-DIEU (TO-GOD) foreseen for you. May we be allowed to meet again as happy thieves in Paradise, if it pleases God, Father to both of us.”

If that seems too bold a thing to say, remember who said it, and what the circumstances were. And it is the Gospel: to discover our own need for forgiveness and healing; to find that need met in God’s love and generosity; and to become, therefore, loving and generous ourselves. Loving our neighbours. Loving and forgiving our enemies. This is how Christ our true self is formed in us by the work of the Holy Spirit. This is how we receive our true and lasting inheritance, which is God.

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