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

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Sermon at Parish Mass, 3rd Sunday before Advent 2016

Job 19:23-27a;
2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17;
Luke 20:27-38

I wonder if the Wizard of Oz will be screened some time over the Christmas holidays this year; it usually seems to be.
The 1939 version of the film, starring Judy Garland, is the one most people will know. I think I must have first seen it in the cinema, rather than on the television at home. My reason for thinking this is that when I was little we only had a small black and white telly, and one of the great features of the Wizard of Oz is the use of technicolor.
The opening sequences in Kansas are in black and white until the storm comes and Dorothy gets carried off by the twister. Then she opens the door of her house and steps out into a wonderful colour landscape. She has arrived in Oz! That’s still a stirring effect when we see it now, but in 1939 it may have been the first colour film that many people had seen. Imagine the impact then. “Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas any more.”
This dramatic shift tells us that Dorothy has arrived in a wonderful world that she could not have imagined before. Her imagination, constrained by the limited experience of Kansas, had not prepared her for a world with a whole new dimension of colour.
The poverty of our imagination limits our vision, as we see in a different way in today’s gospel reading. The Sadducees come to Jesus with the story of one bride and seven brothers – which sounds almost like another cinema musical. Their aim is to undermine all this fanciful talk of resurrection – in which they do not believe.
But they are wrong. Their mistake is to imagine that the resurrection is just like this life, carried on indefinitely. They can’t imagine what the resurrection is like, because they can’t imagine what God is like. Their imagination is limited, hemmed in, by death – and there is no death in God. So they can’t imagine the resurrection, the age to come, in which God is all in all.
This is the proper Biblical language of life after death. The idea of “going to heaven when you die” doesn’t really convey the fullness of what the Bible teaches. The souls of the departed are indeed alive to God in the present moment, as Jesus says of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. So we rightly pray for the dead and ask the prayers of the saints. But we look forward to a future resurrection and a glorified bodily existence when the whole creation is made new. The reality that Jesus has entered through his resurrection and ascension is the ultimate destination for the whole of the Church, which is his body.
This is what it means to imagine the age to come and the resurrection. It is not this present life just carried on; rather, it is this present life transformed and fulfilled in God, in whom there is no death.
This is how to understand Jesus’ answer about the seven brothers and the one bride. When he says that those in the age to come and the resurrection do not marry, he is not putting down marriage. In fact, the opposite. The Sadducees, in common with most people of their time, regarded marriage as a property transaction – women being considered the property of men. Jesus gives marriage a wholly different meaning. It becomes a sign of communion pointing to a greater reality, the age of the resurrection in which the sign will be fulfilled, and so will no longer be needed.
I think this is one of the reasons why the Church regards marriage as a sacrament. It isn’t obviously one compared to baptism and the Eucharist, ritual acts instituted by Jesus which convey grace through the outward signs of water, bread and wine.
Marriage isn’t quite like that. It has always existed – Jesus didn’t invent it – and for many people it doesn’t necessarily have a religious or spiritual dimension. But Jesus did give it a new meaning. The image of bride and groom is used throughout scripture as a metaphor for the union of God and his people. Jesus took that image further, to make marriage a sign of communion that points to the resurrection and the age to come, when God and his people will be united in the life that knows no death.
This in fact is what all the sacraments do. They are signs of communion that anticipate the resurrection. Marriage, like ordination, is the vocation for some, not for all, and so is a sign of self-giving love and communion lived out for others as well as for the couple themselves.
But Baptism and the Eucharist are the sacraments of communion in which all are called to share. In them the reality of God in whom there is no death breaks through into this present age, giving us a pledge and a foretaste of the age to come.
And this changes how we live in this present age. We don’t have a rule requiring widows to marry their brothers-in-law in order to provide children for them, and I’m sure we’re grateful for that. But the principle behind that rule was that death claims everything in the end, so you have to leave a posterity after you. It’s a rule that is bounded by the imagination of death.
Jesus frees us from all such imaginings. All forms of possessiveness, rivalry and violence are rooted in the imagination of death. Hold on to what you’ve got, while you can, because death will claim it all in the end. But if God is the ultimate reality, and there is no death in God, then we are free from all that. The blessings of this present life, instead of being dead weights that we have to cling on to, become signs pointing to the fulfilment of human life in the life of God.
In the Church we are constantly called to be living in that new way, open to God, and not clinging on to anything else, so that we can be a living sign of the age to come. That can be very unsettling. It means we have to give up possession and control, and place all our trust in God.
In our month of prayer with our brothers and sisters in Grace Church we are reflecting on this call. Any kind of deep intentional prayer tends to be unsettling, because prayer opens us up to the Spirit of the Living God, strips away our illusions and idols, and reminds us that God alone is in charge. But prayer also opens up the fountain of living water in our souls. The Spirit who challenges and unsettles us is the same Spirit who is the source of our true and eternal life, the giver of all consolation.

The Sacraments too open human life to the dimension of God in whom there is no death. They are the age to come breaking through into this present age. Sacraments both demand and make possible the new life that Jesus reveals, in which we leave behind all forms of rivalry, possessiveness and violence, everything that is defined by the imagination of death, everything that the Bible calls sin. Unsettling? Yes. But one we’ve glimpsed technicolor, who would want to hang on to black and white? Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more.

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