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

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Sermon at Parish Mass Trinity 1 2011

Jeremiah 28:5-9
Romans 6:12-end
Matthew 10:40-end

In the news this week was the story that many people in Greece are so worried about the future of their county’s economy, and even the survival of the Euro, that they have been converting all their savings into gold coins, to provide – they hope – some security in case their economy collapses.
Economic systems are the structures in which payment and reward can happen, the transactions of everyday life. The Gospel reading we’ve just heard, and the extract from Paul’s letter to the Romans before that, both talk about payment and reward. Both those readings are in fact the conclusions of much longer passages. Matthew talks about how the disciples of Jesus will be persecuted by human beings but rewarded by God. And Paul compares the result of living according to sin with the free gift of life which God offers.
What both Matthew and Paul do in these passages is to compare two different economic systems: not the Euro and the Pound, but something much more fundamental and different: the human economy, and God’s economy.
The human economy is founded in limited resources. There’s only so much to go round. Payment and wages are transactions carefully measured out and checked, for labour or goods of equivalent value. And the natural human thing is to try and get the best value for what you’ve got, and to hang on to as much as possible for yourself.
In the human economy, even life itself is a limited resource, not something you want to squander or give away recklessly, but something to eke out little by little. You’ve only got so much, and then death puts an end to the little you have. This economy, this imagination of the way things are, leads to rivalry and violence. The human economy, governed by the fear of death, ends up being ruled by death.
God’s economy is completely different. God does not deal in measured out payment and reward, or in limited resources. God gives, and gives in unmeasured generosity, poured out and overflowing. Generosity, in fact, is God’s very nature, a generosity which is love, continually pouring itself out without being diminished. God’s economy gives life without limit. Our very being flows from God who is the continual loving act of creating and giving.
So Paul concludes his argument in Romans with the famous verse, “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
In other words, what I think Paul is saying is that you can choose to stay trapped in the human economy, bounded by death and ruled by rivalry and violence. Or you can choose to receive the free gift of life from God made known in Jesus. God’s gift is to live according to God’s economy of generosity and love that knows no limit. And this is not something we earn, because if you begin to live according to God’s economy, then you are leaving behind the old way of bargaining with death, of trading off the little you’ve got to try and get something in return.
The whole Christian life consists of living from God’s generosity, from his free gift, revealed to the world in Jesus, who is both the model of God’s generosity and that generosity itself, God incarnate, giving himself that we might live.
At this time of year we celebrate Corpus Christi, God’s gift of the Eucharist, the Mass and Holy Communion which Christians celebrate every Sunday.
The Mass was of course instituted by Jesus at the last supper, with the words and actions which the priest repeats in the Eucharistic Prayer. Because the Eucharist is a gift of God’s generosity, it overflows with meaning and depth, with grace and life which are inexhaustible.
Firstly, under the signs of bread and wine, Jesus gave his body and blood to his disciples, to be, for ever, the sacrament which makes present and effective his saving death on the cross. The Passover meal commemorated God’s saving actions in the past, when the Children of Israel were liberated from slavery in Egypt, but it wasn’t just calling to mind stuff that happened long ago, like watching a history programme. Rather, the Passover really made those events of the past present and effective for Jewish worshippers in their own time and place.
Jesus, by instituting the Eucharist in the context of the Passover, was establishing a new Passover, a new making present and effective of God’s saving work, this time the saving work of Jesus Christ for all people in his death and resurrection.
Secondly, the Eucharist establishes a new people, the holy people of God, who by living with Christ’s life actually become his body in the world. "Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me." We become what we receive, the body of Christ. We are, through the Eucharist, members of Christ, joined to him as our head. Jesus remakes the human race, freeing us from the old economy of sin and death and enabling us to live with God’s life and love and limitless generosity. We are, together, made into a new human nature, a “new Adam” in Christ. 
Thirdly, Jesus truly gives himself in this sacrament. He who is the truth, who cannot deceive, took bread and wine and said, “this is my body… this is my blood”. And the faith of Christians has always received those words as meaning what they say. At the consecration in the Eucharist the body and blood of Christ become truly present under the outward signs of bread and wine, together with his soul and Divinity. Jesus our risen Lord is truly present in the Blessed Sacrament. Not indeed in a way perceptible to the senses, but faith believes nor questions how.
From the very first Christians reserved a portion of the consecrated Bread to give holy communion to those who could not be present at the celebration of Mass, such as the sick or those in prison. Just as we do here in the tabernacle in the corner.
But Jesus is truly present in the Blessed Sacrament all the time, not just when It is being received in communion. So reservation of the Sacrament gave rise to devotion and worship of that special sacramental presence of Christ, even apart from the celebration of Mass.
It’s important to remember that Jesus did not institute the Eucharist so he could sit in a tabernacle being worshipped, he instituted it so that people could receive him and be transformed into his body and live with his life. But nevertheless, the generosity of God overflows all boundaries. Devotion to that sacramental presence is not an essential part of the Eucharist, but belongs to the overflow of God’s generosity and love. God does not give just enough, but more than we can ask or imagine.
The gift of the Real Presence is one that has inspired love and devotion down the ages. Most days when I come into this church there is someone here praying in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. Whether people realise it or not, Jesus is here in his love, his presence warming cold hearts, converting sinners, comforting the troubled, setting the hearts of secret saints ablaze. And always drawing us to himself, drawing us to that most intimate and necessary union with him in Holy Communion.
So we will celebrate that gift today, God’s generous love in the Eucharist which overflows and spends itself without ever being diminished, his presence and his very self, and essence all Divine.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Homily, Wednesday 8 June 2011

John 17:11-19

We are getting near to the end of the long Last Supper scene in John’s Gospel.  We have had three chapters of profound teaching about the need to abide in Jesus as he abides in the Father, teaching about the gift of the Holy Spirit who will abide in our hearts.

And now at the end Jesus prays for his disciples, not only those in the upper room but all his disciples throughout time, the church in every age, which includes us.

This is called the “priestly prayer of Christ”: Jesus prays as the High Priest whom God has consecrated and sent into the world, and it is a prayer of consecration.  Jesus consecrates himself, as both priest and sacrificial victim. He is the one who reveals God as priest, and who does so in the midst of the world’s violence and envy, as victim. And this is the expression of the mission Jesus has received from the Father, which is to make the Father known.

But Jesus also consecrates his disciples, his disciples in every age. Through that consecration Jesus shares his priesthood and his mission with the Church. The Church is to be the visible sign of that mission in the world until the end of time, the Church, like Jesus, is to make the Father known.

By the consecration which Jesus imparts to the Church we are sanctified, set apart for the work of God, and made into a holy priesthood. The gift of the Holy Spirit in our hearts through baptism stamps that mark and character on us for ever. We are to be God’s holy people to make the world holy.

The gift of the Holy Spirit also is the gift of unity. Jesus prays that his disciples may be one in the same way as he and the Father are one. This unity is the discovery that our true life, our identity and our very being, are found in God. And this is what the mission of Christ in the world is about, the mission we now share: to make God known, to make known to the world that its true life is found in God and not elsewhere.

The world is caught in the grip of a destructive illusion that life is something we create for ourselves. The autonomous ego, the self-made person, promise life where life cannot be found. The gift of God is true life, life in the Holy Spirit which is the life of God himself.

And we are sent as Christ was, set in this world although we are not of the world because our true life is found in God. Our mission is to make God known, to bring others into that true life which is God’s gift.

Christ’s priestly prayer of consecration is a prayer for his Church for all time. That act of consecration is made real and present for us in every Eucharist. Here Christ himself, through the ministry of the priests he has called and sent, makes himself present, the consecrated priest and victim.  Ordinary stuff, bread and wine, is changed by the power of that consecration into his body and blood. Ordinary people, you and me, are changed into Christ’s body, his Church, the holy priesthood he has consecrated and sent into the world.

Here we discover again the true source of our life, the Holy Spirit who is the Father’s gift, the Spirit who makes us one in Jesus and in the Father. Here we are consecrated and sent, God’s holy people to make the world holy, to make known God’s name.

Sermon at Parish Mass Easter 6 2011

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

In the Autumn of 1831 a Russian pilgrim, called Nicholas Motovilov, made his way deep into the Siberian forests, to a remote monastery, to see a famous monk called Father Seraphim, later known to the world as Saint Seraphim of Sarov.
Seraphim had lived as a hermit in the forest for many years and had a reputation as a spiritual guide. Nicholas wanted to see if the saint by his prayers could cure him of a spreading paralysis. Which indeed he did. But Nicholas kept going back again and again to see Saint Seraphim. The love, joy, and peace that radiated from the person of the humble monk kept drawing him back.
On one occasion the saint spoke to Nicholas of the true aim of the Christian life. Nicholas had asked many people about this, and from them got the impression that the life of a Christian was primarily about going to church, doing good, or following the example and teaching of Christ. No, said Saint Seraphim.
The real aim of the Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. The third person of the Holy Trinity, the Spirit of God, taking up his dwelling in us, and uniting us with God. That is the real aim of the Christian life. Everything else, prayer, fasting, the sacraments, works of charity, are means to this end.
This was a surprising answer for the time as most of the Church, east and west, was very much focussed on external activity and had rather forgotten about the depths within the human heart. The depths where God must dwell if we are to do the works of God. Indeed in those days it was possible to talk about the Holy Spirit as the “forgotten person of the Trinity”.
But this is what Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel. The gift of the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, is promised to those who love Jesus. He is the Spirit of Truth, and he will abide in us. That’s one of John’s favourite words, abide. It means a real, rooted, eternal presence, the place where you truly live. Jesus abides in the Father. And we will abide in Jesus. How? By the Holy Spirit abiding in us.
Now God is infinite life and love, and gives himself without limit. If that is the case, and God gives his Spirit to us to dwell in our hearts, should we not all be made saints straight away?
Well, in a sense, we are. The New Testament talks about all believers as “saints”, and our bodies as the temples of the Holy Spirit. We are made objectively holy by the fact of God dwelling in our hearts.  There's a lovely story about Mother Teresa, when a journalist at some public occasion, wanting a story, thrust a microphone into her face and asked, “Mother Teresa, are you a saint?” She looked at him and smiled. “Yes”, she said, “and so are you.” 
But alongside that we have to admit that God’s holiness manifests itself to a greater or lesser degree in the lives of Christians. When we stop and examine our consciences, we know that we are very far from perfect, and at every Mass we confess our sins. How can this be, if the Spirit of God dwells within us?
It is true that God gives himself infinitely, and holds nothing back. What limits us is our own capacity to receive that gift. The work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts is a slow, patient transformation. The slow undoing of our sinful desires, which close us in on ourselves. The slow expansion of our hearts to God’s Spirit. So by degrees the Holy Spirit transforms us more and more into his dwelling place.
This does not happen to us automatically, or without our co-operation. We have to align our wills to the will of God so we can allow the Holy Spirit to transform us. How then can we allow God to enlarge our hearts and fill us with his presence?
There is no new or sensational answer to this. Pray, receive the sacraments, live according to the teaching of Christ. Do this, and God will dwell in you in all his fullness, uniting you with him, transforming you into himself.
This requires, of course, a certain amount of discipline. In fact it needs that old fashioned and off-putting word, asceticism. But asceticism just means “training”. Like athletic training. If you want to get fit, you go to the gym or you go for a run, frequently and regularly. Whether you feel like it or not. Whether it’s sunny or raining. You need a dedicated, disciplined commitment to make progress.
And so it is in the Christian life. The Eucharist which we participate in Sunday by Sunday, if not more frequently, renews our abiding in Christ and his in us. Renews his divine life, the gift of his Spirit, in our hearts.
Our study of the scriptures, and particularly of the teaching of Christ in the gospels, is a constant means by which we are inspired and corrected and align our wills to the will of God, leading us from sin into holiness.
And prayer. Perhaps this is where most attention is needed in the Church today, certainly in the West. The culture that surrounds us, in which we are caught up whether we like it or not, is so busy and distracted, so frantic.
The gift of the Holy Spirit is given in our hearts, deep within ourselves. And we need to dwell in ourselves if we are to receive that gift. Our prayer life needs to be disciplined, committed, and above all to be built around a core of silence and stillness in which we are centred and learn to abide within ourselves, for that is where God abides, too.
The ancient practice of Christian meditation has undergone a remarkable renewal in the Church in recent times, and many people have found it very helpful. It simply is sitting in stillness and silence, and repeating a prayer word or phrase over and over again, focussing on the prayer word in the middle of the noisy distractions that our minds throw up all the time.
It’s simple but is hard work nonetheless. One Indian sage said that we all have a tree full of chattering monkeys in our heads, and when you try to be silent and still for even a short time you become aware of that.
The point of meditation is not to make the monkeys be quiet, because they won’t be, but to focus on a stillness and a silence that is deeper than all the noise and distraction. It is not about falling asleep, but about an interior waking up, about developing an alert, focussed awareness of God who dwells in those silent depths.
Those who have practiced this for a long time begin to show in their outward lives the presence of God who is in their hearts. As St Paul says in Galatians, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” When someone is full of the Holy Spirit these fruits become evident to all they meet, spreading the grace and work of the Spirit among others. Saint Seraphim, who was himself an example of someone transformed by the Holy Spirit, said, “find peace in your heart, and thousands will be saved around you”. That was true for him, and by God’s grace it can be true for us too.