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

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Sermon at Parish Mass, Fourth Sunday before Lent 2017

Isaiah 58.1-9a;
1 Corinthians 2.1-12;
Matthew 5.13-20

As I’ve mentioned in a previous sermon, back in December I was an invited guest at the Civic Service in Muswell Hill Synagogue. It was the Sabbath service, and the culmination of it is the reading from the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, the books attributed to Moses.
The Torah is read with much the same kind of ceremony as we read the Gospel at Mass. The beautifully decorated scroll is collected from its special place of storage, carried in procession and proclaimed from an elevated pulpit. The Torah is read through systematically week by week, but the prophets – what for us are the other books of the Old Testament – are only read in short extracts, as commentary on the Torah. Much as we read short extracts from the prophets and the epistles as commentary on the Gospels.
In Judaism, the Torah is the most important part of the Bible as it is the record of the definitive encounter between God and humanity. Moses received the Law on Mount Sinai, and spoke to God “face to face, as a man speaks with his friend”, as Exodus puts it. The other prophets may have had visions, dreams, voices in the night, but they did not speak to God like that. The rest of the Bible is read in reference to that definitive encounter, and as pointing back to it.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus goes up a mountain to teach. This is part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’s extensive teaching about the Kingdom of God. Matthew’s Gospel places this on a mountain. In actual fact the probable site beside Lake Galilee is not much more than a small hill, but it becomes a mountain because of the significance of the message proclaimed on it.
Matthew is drawing a parallel between Jesus and Moses. Moses encountered God on a mountain and brought down the Law. Jesus, too, delivers his law on a mountain. But unlike Moses, who received the Law on tablets of stone, the law that Jesus delivers is himself. The Sermon on the Mount, above all, describes who Jesus is.
Jesus is the law in person. Here is a second definitive encounter between God and humanity. But while Moses spoke to God face to face, Jesus is God and man in one person, the most definitive and complete encounter that there can be.
A Jewish Scholar, Rabbi Jacob Neusner, studied the Sermon on the Mount and wrote an imagined dialogue between himself and Jesus. He recognizes the greatness of what Jesus teaches, and its rootedness in Jewish tradition. Then he imagines himself on his way back from the mountain, trying to explain what he had heard to the Jewish leaders of a nearby town.
He quotes to them from the Talmud, ‘Six hundred and thirteen commandments were given to Moses… David came and reduced them to eleven, Isaiah came and reduced them to six, then to two. Habakkuk further came and based them on one, “The righteous shall live by his faith”
‘So, he is asked, “is this what the sage, Jesus, had to say?”
‘Not exactly, but close.’
‘What did he leave out?’
‘Then what did he add?’
Rabbi Neusner recognizes the claim that is being made, that Jesus is the Law in Person, that he is in himself the new definitive encounter between God and humanity. And this is where Rabbi Neusner, with the greatest respect, says that he has to remain, as he puts it, “with the eternal Israel” and not follow the teaching of Jesus.
Christians must not have any less respect for Judaism than Rabbi Neusner has for Christianity, as it is indeed the rootstock from which have sprung and the stem into which we are grafted. We read the Bible in the same way that the Jewish faith does, as referring to and depending on a definitive encounter with God. But for us that encounter is no longer Moses on the Mountain, but Jesus.
It is Jesus that the Bible speaks of and points to, it is Jesus that the Bible is leading us to. He is the definitive encounter between God and humanity, and we are called into that encounter ourselves.
If that were not true, the Sermon on the Mount would be an idealistic dream, impossible to attain to. “You are the light of the world”, says Jesus to his disciples today. But is not Jesus himself the light of the world? Indeed he is, as he says in John’s gospel. And the Church, alas, through human sin so often obscures that light. But nevertheless, in Christ the Church is the light of the world, because he is the light, and if we are in him then we will be light too. Likewise it is only in Christ that our righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, because if we are in Christ then his righteousness is ours.
As we saw last week at the presentation of Jesus in the temple, Jesus is the new Adam, the representative human, who presents the whole of humanity in himself as an acceptable offering to the Father.
So the Sermon on the Mount is a call to righteous living, but it is first of all a call to abide in Christ, the righteous one. By faith and baptism we are adopted in him and accepted by the Father as his beloved children. Our identity in Christ is nourished and strengthened through prayer and the Eucharist. Repentance turns us back to Christ when we have turned away and tried to live apart from him.
True Christian life is life in Christ, neither more nor less. It is sharing in the definitive encounter between God and humanity that Jesus is in person. The Bible leads us and points us to that encounter, but it is Jesus himself, the living Lord, who makes it real. “You are the light of the world”, says Jesus to us. And that is true, insofar as we are living in Christ through faith. The world needs that light, today more than ever. So the world needs us to live and grow and be rooted in Christ.
How are we to do that? It’s the same prescription as always, but it’s never out of date. By faith and baptism we are adopted in Christ; by prayer, Eucharist and repentance we are nourished and grow into him.
The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it, says St John. The light of Christ is transformative. We are drawn to that light ourselves, and so become light, agents of transformation in the world. This is not about ritual observance, but about actually banishing the forces of darkness in the world, injustice, oppression and exclusion.
As Isaiah puts it in our first reading, “your light will break forth like the dawn”, and this happens when you “loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke, let the oppressed go free, share your bread with the hungry, bring the homeless poor into your house, cover the naked.”
The light shines in the darkness, and we are that light, in Christ. So we are not to be afraid or discouraged even if the darkness seems to be intensifying. The beauty and radiance of the light shines out all the more clearly, and reaches further, as the darkness deepens.

The newly baptized are given a candle symbolizing the light of Christ, and the words spoken at that moment remain valid for us throughout our lives: “You have received the light of Christ; walk in this light all the days of your life. Shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father.”

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