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

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Sermon at Parish Mass, Easter 7 2017

The Mosque of the Ascension, Jerusalem. Photo: Matthew Duckett

Acts 1:6-14
1 Peter 4.12-14; 5.6-11
John 17:1-11

At the summit of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem stands the Mosque of the Ascension. On a site sacred to Christians and Muslims, who venerate Jesus as a prophet and acknowledge his ascension into heaven, it has changed hands several times, being variously a church and a mosque. But Christians are still welcome to pray there, and to celebrate the Eucharist on the Feast of the Ascension.
The mosque is a large octagonal enclosure, originally belonging to a Byzantine church, and stands open to the sky. In the centre a small dome covers the site of Christ’s ascension. Inside, a gap in the marble pavement exposes the bedrock in which a faint depression vaguely suggests a footprint. Some believe this to be the last footprint of Jesus, left as he ascended. Others suggest more prosaically that it is a votive offering from the Byzantine period.
It’s a curious monument, not to someone’s presence, but to their absence. A foot is something you can hold on to, and Mary Magdalene indeed was told not to cling on to Jesus after his resurrection. But a footprint is a negative impression, a space where someone used to be but is no longer. You can’t hold on to a footprint.
Centuries before Jesus, and in a different culture, when the Buddha was dying, he told his disciples not to make any image of him or to worship him, but rather to follow his teaching. For centuries they obeyed him, and the earliest representations of the Buddha that survive are not images representing his presence, but footprints carved to represent his absence.
There’s something of that in this footprint on the Mount of Olives. Whatever its origin, it represents the mystery of Christ’s Ascension. It says to us that Jesus isn’t around any more in the way that he used to be. A cloud took him from their sight, says Luke in the reading from Acts this morning.
Throughout his earthly life Jesus was present to the disciples as we are to one another, as a living human body. Even after his resurrection, for forty days he remained as a visible tangible presence. But in the Ascension that way of being present comes to an end. The humanity of Jesus is taken up into heaven, and removed from the disciples’ sight.
After the joy of the resurrection this departure of Jesus must have been bewildering for the first disciples. Clearly they didn’t know what to make of it, as the angels had to say to them, “why do you stand looking up towards heaven?” Jesus, they are told, has been taken from you, but he will come again. His own last words to them had been that the Holy Spirit would come upon them, to make them his witnesses throughout the earth. The absence of Jesus leaves a space, an emptiness, in the disciples’ lives, but that is to prepare them for a new kind of presence.
As we’ve considered at various points in the year, in every event of his life, in all that he did, Jesus was working our salvation.  All of the mysteries of Christ, as they are called, convey grace to us.
But the Ascension is perhaps the most mysterious of the mysteries of Christ. In the ascension, Christ works our salvation through his absence, by leaving and making space for what is to come. The nine days between Ascension and Pentecost were a time of absence and waiting for the first disciples. They were told that power from on high would come upon them, but they cannot have known when it would come, what form it would take, or what would happen after.
And yet this mystery of absence and loss, this time of waiting, has grace for us, as do all the mysteries of Christ. Of course, it has a positive aspect. In the Ascension the humanity of Jesus has been taken into heaven. He is seated at the right hand of the Father, the place that is his by right as the Son of God. But he goes to prepare a place for us. Where he, the Head, has ascended by right, the Church, his Body, will ascend by grace. Jesus has gone to the Father so that we too can go to the Father.
But the ascension also has a negative aspect, the absence of Jesus, the loss of his bodily presence. Anything the disciples might have clung on to was taken away. But this loss was necessary. It hollowed out a space, like a footprint in the rock, a space where God could be present in a new way, doing new things.  
When the Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost, the disciples were transformed, becoming the visible proclamation of God’s Kingdom in the world, sent out to be present in every time and place. That new presence could not have happened if the disciples had remained looking for a tangible presence of Jesus that had gone from them. They needed to experience his absence, their own emptiness, in order for him to become present through them in a new way.
In our lives the experience of loss can be devastating. We will all know in some way or another the hollowed out space where a loved one used to be, or where a relationship ended, or where we once were fit and healthy and aren’t any more. We know that those absences can be deep wounds. But the mystery of the Ascension tells us that absence is also the space where the Spirit of God can work in us, bringing unexpected new life, given prayer and time and the willingness to wait.
And also in the church, absence and loss are perhaps the things that we are most averse to. We want to cling on to what we know. We don’t want to lose security and certainty.
Of course, the Church is a visible body, constituted in its essential form by word and sacrament – or as Acts says, by “the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers”. There are certain things that are just given.
But the Church is also a living growing body, that cannot be pinned down. If ever we are tempted to think, “this is how we like it, let’s keep it like this”, then we need to remember the words of Jesus to Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
The wind of the Spirit blows the Church in new and unexpected ways, and guides us into new things. That is part of what it is to be the Church. Bishop Rob’s watchword for the Edmonton Area is “roots down, walls down”. That is to say, be rooted and confident in your tradition, your local expression of the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers.

But also place no walls in the way of the Spirit, to impede the new things that God will have us do. And be ready in those new things for partnership with others moved by the same Spirit. And do not be afraid of the loss of the familiar or the absence of certainty. Because those are the spaces that need to be empty, for them to be filled by the Spirit of God.

Sermon at Parish Mass Easter 6 2017


Acts 17:22-31
1 Peter 3:13-end
John 14:15-21

Saint Paul’s speech to the Athenians at the Areopagus was an absolutely critical moment in the history of Christianity. It was the moment when the Gospel stepped across a deep divide, into new and uncharted territory.
Before this, the Gospel had been preached to Jews, and to those Gentiles who had already become believers in Israel’s God and attached themselves to the synagogue. So Christianity was initially a movement within Judaism – both ethnic Judaism, and the wider community that was attached to it.
When Paul came to Athens those were the people he spoke to initially – the Jewish community, and its Gentiles followers. But word had got out beyond those circles. And Athenian Greeks who knew nothing about Judaism wanted to know what Paul was preaching.
So Paul spoke to them, too, for the first time. And it is important to note both what he does say, and what he does not say.
He speaks to the Athenians in terms that they would have understood. He refers to the religious practices of the Greeks. He sets out a logical argument, very different in style from the midrash of the rabbis that Paul used when speaking to Jews. He quotes Greek philosophers. And he does all this so that he can tell the Athenians about Jesus, a man whom God had raised from the dead.
What Paul does not do is quote the Bible. He does not quote a single verse of Scripture. These Athenians did not know the Jewish Scriptures., so Paul stuck to what they did know, using terms and ideas that they would have understood.
The world we live in is much more like Athens than the Synagogue. Like Paul, we can assume no knowledge of the Scriptures and Christian faith. When I was on retreat last week the conductor told a story of a priest she knew who had popped into the National Gallery in a spare moment. He’d gone into a room full of paintings of the Madonna and Child. In front of him stood a couple, and one said to the other, “what I don’t understand, is why they always make the baby a boy”.
In a world where people who go to galleries can stand in front of a painting of the Madonna and Child, a monument of Christian art and culture, and not realise that the two people in the picture are Mary and Jesus, not know the story, then we can assume nothing.
On my way into the parish I often pass the Jehovah’s Witnesses with their stand of literature. Their sign proclaims, “What does the Bible really teach?” Now, as a Christian I have issues with the way Jehovah’s Witnesses read the Bible and the doctrines they claim to find there.
But I suspect that the reaction of most people passing that sign would be, “Who cares what the Bible teaches? It’s a collection of ancient texts from a faraway culture, what on earth could it possibly have to do with me or my life?”
The indifference of our culture to Christian faith is something we can’t simply ignore. Like St Paul, we have to begin by speaking to our culture in language that it does understand. Start from where people are.
This should not discourage us. On the contrary, this is a moment of great opportunity, and the Spirit of God is at work. Jesus in the Gospel promises the gift of God’s spirit, the Spirit of Truth who will guide us into all truth. The Spirit sends us on our mission, as he did St Paul, pushing him across the great divide between Jewish and Gentile culture for the first time as he spoke to the Athenians. This was a moment of truth for the Athenians, as they first heard the Gospel. But also I suspect a moment of truth for St Paul, as he faced the challenge of finding new words to speak about Jesus to an alien culture.
So what language does our culture speak? The language of science, for many people. We are often invited to assume that science has made faith redundant. But the basic assumption of science, the idea that the universe is rational and consistent, is an act of faith. You can’t actually prove that scientifically, you just have to believe it. And it is a belief rooted in theology, in the doctrine of creation. Modern science began with Christian and Muslim scholars in the middle ages exploring the universe, sure in their belief that it was rational and consistent because they believed that its Creator was rational and consistent.
Our society has its own myths, too. Another person at the retreat last week was Fr Richard Peers, the Superior of the Sodality of Mary, the community of priests I belong to. He has worked in education for a long time and told us that when children ask him why he became a priest, he answers, “I became a priest because it was the nearest thing I could find to being a Jedi Knight”.
Simple, but profound. Children might not know the Christian story, but they know Star Wars. They know its mythology, the cosmic struggle between good and evil, the endurance of love and hope amid deeds of darkness, and the Jedi, people who have a call to live out intensely the energy of that struggle on behalf of other people. There is a lot about priesthood in Jedi knights!
Our society may not know the Bible, but it has its own myths and heroes nonetheless. It has its stories that embody meaning and tell us about ourselves. Star Wars, Harry Potter, the Lord of the Rings. These are epic tales that grip people. And they are all really the same story, in different guises: the struggle between good and evil, temptation and fall, sacrifice and redemption.
These stories are endlessly fascinating because they are our story. They tell us about who we are deep down and what we aspire to be. Like St Paul, if people don’t know the stories of scripture we need to start with the stories they do know, and speak to the myths and hopes and aspirations that people do have.
Because the myths and heroes that beguile our culture are not simply a wistful dream of a world we can never enter. They are more than a make-believe escape from a grim world that has no hope. Rather, they tell us about who we are, and the meaning of our life in the world.

Christians are those who can say that the great myths of human origin and purpose have entered the world in concrete form, in a solid human life really lived. For the word was made flesh and dwelt among us. In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus good has triumphed over evil in this world and not just in myth, the wreck of sin is really undone, and eternal life definitively lies open. Myth and history have joined hands at last, and salvation has entered the world for all. And, one way or another, all need to hear.

Sermon at Parish Mass Easter 5 2017

Acts 7:55-end
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

As the general election campaign gets underway we will of course hear the claims of the various parties in their attempts to persuade us to vote for them. Having a system of parties and manifestoes means at least that we know what we’re voting for: whoever your particular candidate is in your constituency, you know that their party is offering a package deal of policies and promises.
There is however, perhaps, a risk with this system, that the party can be seen as something demanding complete loyalty. You must sign up to the whole deal. Exclusivist claims can be made: only this or that party can protect the country, save the NHS, or whatever it may be; vote for us, as all other parties are entirely bad and wrong.
Well, as voters we need to use our intelligence, and I think we realise that the reality is usually more complex than that. Absolute claims to truth and value won’t really wash with mere human constructions such as political parties.
But what about religion? When it comes to faith, we can encounter absolutist claims as well. This or that is the “true religion”; all others are false. You can only be saved by becoming a Christian, or a Muslim, or a Catholic, or a Protestant.
Now religion, unlike politics, does make claims to put us in touch with absolute truth, because religion is about relating to God, and God is the source of all truth. These then are serious claims. But how are we to weigh them?
Well, as Christians, we listen to Jesus. In today’s gospel he says very famous words, one of the great “I am” sayings of John’s Gospel: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Now there is no mistaking that this is an absolute claim: “No one comes to the Father except through me”. But we need to attend very carefully, both to what Jesus says, and to what he does not say.
He says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life”. This is about who Jesus is. He goes on to say to Philip that to have seen him is to have seen the Father. Jesus is the one who makes the Father known.
The doctrine of the Trinity, one God in three Persons, runs all through John’s Gospel. Indeed, it runs all through the New Testament, but in John it is particularly clear and explicit. God in himself is entirely mysterious. We cannot know God the Father, the origin and source, in himself, but we can know God as he is revealed in his Son. As John says in the opening of his Gospel, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”
God the Son is the Word, the expression of the Father, who has existed from all eternity but was united in time to our human nature in Jesus. “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” Throughout John’s Gospel we have to bear this in mind: when Jesus speaks, it is the Word who speaks. Jesus is the revelation of the unknown God, come among us as one of us. This is why Jesus says, “to have seen me is to have seen the Father”. 
And this revelation is for all people. The prologue of John’s gospel says that the Word of God is “the true light, which enlightens everyone”. Not some people, but everyone. Jesus himself says, “when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself”. He doesn’t say some, he says all.
Jesus never said, “Christianity is the only way to the Father”. He did not say “only Christians can be saved”. We should not claim something that Jesus did not claim. We need to guard against our Christian faith becoming exclusivist and narrow. And that can happen if our conception of Jesus is too small.
Jesus is the way to the Father, because he is the revelation and living image of the Father sent into the world. This is a universal revelation. The Letter to the Hebrews says, “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.” The letter to the Ephesians says, “he ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things”.
Jesus is God the Son, the revelation of the Father, the way to the Father, and as such he has created all things and fills all things. Jesus is present in all the universe, in every human community, in every human life. He is present to everyone as the revelation of the Father and as the way to the Father.
Now this presence of Jesus is explicitly and consciously realised in the Christian Church. We are those who have come to conscious faith in Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of God who has come into the world, the way to the Father for all. We are transformed into his image and become the visible Body of Christ in the world though the Sacraments that he gave to us.
But the universal nature of Christ informs how the Church sees the world and other faiths and communities. Jesus is not absent from the rest of the world. The true light enlightens everyone. Today, especially since the Second Vatican Council, the Church acknowledges the reality of saving grace in other faith communities and among all people of good will. But the Church also asserts that all who are saved, all who come to a knowledge of God, do so through Jesus, the Word of God who fills all things – whether this is consciously realised or not.
This does not mean that all are automatically saved. We must respond to the grace we have received. The role of the Church in evangelism is not to bring Jesus into places and communities from which he is absent, because he is already there ahead of us. Our role, rather, is to awaken people to the God who is making himself known to them in Jesus, in whatever way God finds to do that.
We live in a world of many faiths, reflected in the microcosm that is London. This should not make us anxious, narrow or exclusive. Jesus the Word has ascended to fill all things and enlighten all people. We bear witness to him, not to ourselves. We do not need to cast other people into outer darkness, still less do we need to turn other people into copies of ourselves. The sects who hand out leaflets on street corners seem to want to do that, but that really reveals only their own insecurity and lack of faith in the God who is bigger than they are.

A mature, confident Christianity does not see the world as filled with darkness, but as radiant with life and hope. Mature, confident evangelism is not motivated by the fear of hell, but by the joy of bringing ourselves and others into a closer relationship with Jesus, who fills all things and enlightens all people. Because he, not we, is the way, the truth and the life, and everyone who comes to the Father comes through him.