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

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Sermon at Parish Mass Trinity 14 2017

Genesis 50:15-21
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

Today’s gospel reading follows on from last week’s, which was about what to do when there is sin in the church community. Jesus’ instruction was to seek forgiveness and reconciliation, and not to escalate the problem.
But having heard this Peter wants to know more about the forgiveness aspect. How far do we have to go with that, exactly? If a member of the church sins against me, do I have to forgive them as often as seven times?
Peter clearly thinks this would be something extraordinary. But as is often the case in the gospels he hasn’t really grasped what Jesus is about. So Jesus says to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times’.
These are not just numbers that Jesus has plucked out of the air. The sequence, “not seven, but seventy-seven”, occurs in one other place in the Bible, in the Book of Genesis, chapter 4. Four generations after Cain murdered his brother Abel, we meet Lamech, a violent hoodlum, who swears:
“I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me.
If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold”
The early stories in Genesis, from creation to the flood, tell us the deep truth about ourselves. In the symbolic language of myth we encounter both the exalted dignity of human beings made in the image of God, and the deep flaw that runs sight to the heart of our human nature, which the Church calls original sin.
Deep in our origin as human beings there lies this escalation of violence. Not seven but seventy seven times: revenge increases exponentially, out of control, causing more havoc in every generation.
So when Jesus repeats those numbers, and says we must forgive, ‘not seven times, but seventy-seven times’, he is going right to the heart of the problem, right back to human origins. He is reversing that ancient escalation of vengeance into an escalation of forgiveness. But forgiveness is nothing trivial. It entails going right back to the beginning and starting again.
But if the original sin has been with us from the beginning, so too has been the hope of forgiveness. Genesis tells us about that as well, as we heard in the story of Joseph forgiving his brothers who had betrayed him and sold him into slavery. For the Church, this moving scene foreshadows the risen Christ appearing to his disciples who had deserted him, and forgiving them.
Forgiveness is not a one-off decision that you make, that you can count up, as many as seven times or even seventy-seven. It is a new reality made possible in Christ. By ourselves, we cannot go back to the beginning of humanity and start again. But Jesus does. He is the new Adam, human nature restored and united with the divine nature of the Son of God. God is love and mercy, and that love and mercy have come among us in Jesus.
He is the first of many brothers and sisters. All those who believe in him are adopted in him by grace, children of God, and so start to live in the new reality of mercy and forgiveness that he makes possible.
The parable Jesus tells today shows how radically different that new reality is. A slave has a ridiculously large debt – billions of pounds in today’s money. But when the slave pleads for time to pay – as if he ever could – the king cancels the entire debt. It’s a sudden revelation of astonishing generosity, beyond anything the slave could have imagined.
It is in fact a revelation of the new reality of mercy and forgiveness. And therefore an invitation to enter into that reality, to begin to live like that, forgiving everything. But the slave fails to do so. He is himself owed a debt of 100 denarii. That’s around four or five thousand pounds today, not a trivial amount. But the new reality of forgiveness is all about letting go, accepting loss, because love and mercy are so much better, and you can’t receive those gifts with closed hands. The slave is shown the new reality of forgiveness, but in the end he fails to enter in and make it his own.
Forgiveness isn’t cheap. Even for quite trivial offenses we know how our sense of injured pride can get in the way. We have to give up our claim to get our own back, and that isn’t easy. But if we don’t, the lack of forgiveness becomes hardened, the desire for revenge escalates. Families and friends can be tragically divided, sometimes for decades, over little things that really shouldn’t matter.
Some sins of course are very grievous. Some sins might leave wounds that stay with us for the rest of our lives. How can we forgive then?
One of the curates of this church in the 1930s was Father Eric Cordingly. In the war, as an army chaplain, he was taken prisoner by the Japanese and held for three years, for one of them forced to work on the infamous Burma railway. The cruelty and abuses suffered by the prisoners were unimaginable. Many died. Father Cordingly found that after the war he had no hatred or bitterness in his heart.  But for many of those who survived, and who had a Christian faith, forgiveness was often very difficult. For some it seems to have been a challenge never resolved in their lifetimes.
Sometimes of course there is a need for justice, or a need to protect others. But that is not the same as revenge, and seeking justice or protection does not mean that we cannot forgive. But when forgiveness is a huge challenge, we need to remember that it is not so much something that we do, as a new reality, given to us by God, that we are invited to enter.
Jesus Christ is the new Adam, human nature remade, the new head of a new humanity. In that new reality, forgiveness is escalated in place of revenge, not seven times but seventy-seven. And all those who have faith in Jesus are adopted in him as children of God and share in that redeemed human nature. Jesus is the one who forgives, and in him we become people who both receive and give forgiveness.
The depth of that forgiveness is shown to us on the cross. “Father, forgive them”, said Jesus. The wounds of Christ, that he received on the cross, never healed. He showed them to his disciples as proof of his resurrection. They mark his ascended body still, on the throne of glory in heaven. But Divine grace transformed those wounds that never healed. They have become, not a reproach calling for vengeance, but a fresh pledge and assurance of forgiveness, a new demonstration of love that would not have been possible had those wounds not been inflicted.
Perhaps this is what Julian of Norwich means when she says that in heaven our sins will be glorious. Those wounds of sin that go so deep they will not heal, somehow by grace will be transformed into signs of forgiveness, proofs of love, that would not have been possible without our woundedness.  

How often should we forgive? Not seven times, but seventy-seven. And this is possible because this is what God does in Jesus, and we are called to be in Jesus too.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Sermon at Parish Mass Trinity 12 2017

Jeremiah 15.15-21
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

Today we have the second half of an encounter between Jesus and Peter. The first half was last week, when Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, and Jesus in response had named him Peter, “the Rock”, and given him the keys of the kingdom of heaven.
That part of the reading is very familiar to us as we have it every year for the feast of St Peter, our patron saint, and also when we read through Matthew’s Gospel as part of the three year lectionary, as happened last week.
But the second part of the encounter is only read once every three years. Peter gets it spectacularly wrong, but perhaps it’s considered impolite to bring that up on his feast day, so it gets relegated.
But it is a very important reading. The two halves of this episode go together. Peter has entered into the way of faith in Jesus the Messiah. He has begun to follow him. But as yet he has no idea where that journey will lead him. He is still setting his mind not on divine things but on human things.
Peter is right that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. But he does not yet know what that means. He conceives of the Messiah in human terms, someone who will conquer by force and violence and drive out the unrighteous and unclean. So, when Jesus talks about his coming death, this is incomprehensible. Jesus rejects the path of violence. How, then, can his kingdom come?
In the Divine plan, the kingdom will come not by force, but by suffering. The path of the Messiah is the way of the cross – literally. Rejection, suffering, and an ignominious death await. But so too does the resurrection. The cycle of violence and vengeance brings only destruction. The Kingdom of God does not pay back this world in its own coin, but breaks in upon it with something wholly new, the Resurrection, God’s inexhaustible life and love pouring in and overwhelming the old order of sin and death.
Peter does not understand this yet. But he will, for veiled in this reading is a reference to Peter’s own death. The Gospels were written down after the death of the Apostles to preserve the teachings of Jesus, so this would have been in the minds of the early Christians as they heard this passage read. Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
According to ancient tradition, referred to obliquely also in the 21st chapter of John’s Gospel, for Peter this was literally true, for he himself would be crucified, in Rome, some 30 years after the life of Jesus, dying a martyr for Christ.
What was literally true for Peter is also true in some way or another for every disciple of Jesus. The path of dying and rising with Christ is marked on us by our baptism, and the sufferings that come our way have in them the potential to be a realisation of what that means.
Suffering is a profound mystery. In a fallen and imperfect world it happens, and questions about why often go unanswered, even in the Bible. But Jesus calls us to follow the way of the cross, not the way of ease. We should not seek suffering, and it is not wrong to seek relief from suffering when that is possible.  But some unavoidable sufferings will come our way. Accepted voluntarily in union with Christ these can become part of how we follow him and are conformed to his image.
Most Christians are not called to heroic suffering and martyrdom most of the time, but even the little sufferings and humiliations of daily life can be offered in union with Christ and so transformed. Illnesses and afflictions, the stress of our daily commute, being kind to a particularly difficult colleague or family member, surrendering our little claims to the petty things that we call “mine”.
This is a work of grace in us. Suffering can so easily lead to bitterness, resentment and ultimately despair.  We have to depend on God for the gifts of his Holy Spirit to accept suffering with generosity and in a spirit of sacrifice, in union with Christ. As St Paul says in Romans today, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer”. And Jesus tells us this is the path of life, the only way to the resurrection which is our entry into true and eternal life.
More than that, suffering accepted in union with Christ is associated by him in his redeeming work. St Paul in Colossians 1 says “in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church”. Christ alone is the redeemer, but he is pleased to allow us a share in his work. Adopted in Christ by the grace of baptism, our sufferings become part of his and are associated in the world’s redemption. How this works out is largely hidden from us, but nonetheless real.
I think of an old lady I knew, long dead, who often passed sleepless nights of pain. After one such night she said to me, “I felt God wanted me to pray for South Africa” (this was in the days of Apartheid). In the Divine economy of salvation, she was taking part in her small way in the redemption of the world. And, for a person who knew suffering, and whose life was in many ways very limited, she was full of joy, full of the Holy Spirit.
The sufferings that come our way can often be the little trials, difficulties and humiliations of everyday life. But there is also serious illness, disability and loss. And in the end, in one way or another, we will all be joined with Christ in the death of the body, so that we may share also in his resurrection. Perhaps in God’s providence the little trials of daily life are part of our preparation for the great sacrifices to come.  Jesus’s words to Peter today, although they come in the form of a humiliating rebuke, are also part of how Jesus is beginning to prepare Peter for his death.

This all sounds very Lenten, really. But actually Lent reminds us that the way of the cross is none other than the way of life and peace. In the world as it is, our call is to follow the way of Jesus, the way of joy that nevertheless involves contradiction and suffering. But we can do this with faith and trust, for it is Jesus himself, the Risen One, who says to us, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it”.