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

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Sermon at Parish Mass Advent IV 2016

Isaiah 7:10-16
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-end

The watchword for Advent is to keep alert, so here is a question to get our grey cells working on this grey morning. The text of which book of the Bible opens with the words, “The book of genesis”?
It is of course Matthew’s Gospel. (Genesis begins with “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth”.) However we can be excused for not knowing that, as in the NRSV translation that we use at Mass Matthew opens rather prosaically with “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah”. But, actually, in Greek, the language in which the gospel is written, it says “Βίβλος γενέσεως Ἰησοῦ χριστοῦ”. The book of genesis of Jesus the Messiah.
The Book of Genesis in the Old Testament is of course a different kind of writing to the gospels: under the language of myth and epic saga it conveys the truth about creation, and the origin and call of God’s people. But by opening his gospel with those words Matthew is catching our attention. This book, too, is about creation and the origin and call of God’s people. The genealogy that follows connects Jesus through 42 generations with Abraham, the founding father of the people of God in Genesis.
And today’s reading, which follows on, begins in a similar way. “The birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.” Again, what this literally says in the Greek is “the genesis of Jesus”, just in case we missed the reference first time round. This is a creation story. Of course it is, because Mary “was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit”. The Book of Genesis begins with the Spirit of God hovering over the face of the deep, to bring all things into being.
Jesus, as St Paul says, is the new Adam, founder of the new creation, humanity restored and redeemed. This new creation is a direct act of God just as much as the first creation. God caused all things to be in the beginning, and God causes the human nature of Jesus to come into existence in the womb of Mary.
This is why Jesus was born of a virgin – and both Matthew and Luke, the only writers who tell us about the birth of Jesus, insist on this. This is not a dispute with biology. The virgin birth is only incredible if we suppose it is the old way of creation being carried on in an impossible way. But it is not. It is a new beginning, and therefore it is a direct act of God. The birth of Jesus is no more incredible than the fact that anything exists at all – both rest on God’s pure act alone, and have no other cause.
So the human nature of Jesus, the new Adam, is created in the womb of Mary by the Holy Spirit. Yet he is still one of us, he is “Man, of the substance of his Mother, born in the world”, as the Athanasian Creed puts it. “Adam” in Hebrew doesn’t only refer to the archetypal individual in the creation story. The word “Adam” also means “humanity”. The whole of humanity starts again in the birth of Jesus the new Adam.
This is possible because he who is born of Mary is not only a man, the new Adam, he is also God. The Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, has united himself to our human nature, so that all humanity can be united with him and in him. The Son has always been God; he became human in history in the womb of Mary.
By faith and baptism we are adopted in Jesus as children of God; we share in his redeemed human nature and so are saved from our sins; and because Jesus is one person both human and Divine, we share also in his Divinity. The Second Person of the Trinity invites human beings, mere creatures, to enter in and share the life he has with the Father in the Holy Spirit.
This is the heart of Christianity: what Jesus is by nature, we can become by grace. This is astounding and scandalous, to a normal way of thinking. If we have any conception of God at all, we know that God must be wholly other than what we are. We would not dare to suggest it at all, if it was not that scripture teaches it so clearly, and the Church has always believed it. The great saints of the early Church did not shy away it. “Man is a creature who has received a command to become God”, said St Basil. “God became a man so that man might become God”, said St Athanasius.
Yes, God is wholly other than what we are. The prophets spoke of him, indeed, but God in himself was wholly unknown to humanity, until he was found in the womb of Mary. Jesus is the meeting point. In him the divine and the human become one, and eternity enters history.
This is why the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus actually matter as events in history. They are not simply symbolic stories. Though they are of course full of theological meaning that the church will never exhaust, they have to be anchored in history.
Salvation is not just a nice idea. Salvation has entered the real world. The world of suffering and sin and death. The world of Aleppo, the world of babies abandoned on freezing bombed out streets. The world of the secret sorrows and sufferings that so many people bear and for whom Christmas would be torment if it were simply a cheerful nice idea. All this concrete world of tragedy and tears is really redeemed because God was really born in it as one of us.
Christianity takes the world very seriously, and takes humanity most seriously of all. Ours is not an other worldly faith, pie in the sky when you die. It is not a collection of moral fables to improve the reader. It is not interested in spirit alone, but in body and spirit, the whole reality of what it is to be human in the world. This concrete world, and our concrete lives, have been embraced by God in the birth of Jesus the God-Man.

Therefore this world matters. Our lives matter. Our bodies matter. The choices we make matter. In our modern world we ae often invited to think that the choices we make are matters for ourselves alone, mental transactions in the privacy of our heads that have no connection with the world out there.
Christianity turns that inside out. Everything we think and do impacts on the concrete world in some way or another. And as both our selves and our world have been embraced by God for redemption, the call of the Gospels is universal. Everything we do has Christ the redeemer as its ultimate object. Everything we do, in the last analysis, is either working with God’s purposes in the world, or against them.
The birth of Jesus the God-Man, the new Adam, calls us to take our part in the new creation, in which all human beings are honoured and valued – especially the outcast and marginalised. The birth of Jesus in this world calls us to care for this world with the same intensity and reality that he did, and in concrete ways. In working for peace and reconciliation, in protecting the environment, in healing the sick and being with the lonely and unloved.

There is nothing unworldly about the birth of Jesus. It is the message of hope and redemption for this world as it actually is. And that is reason enough to celebrate the feast, when we get to it, with great joy.

Sermon at Parish Mass Advent 3 2016

Isaiah 35:1-10
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

Of course (we will have heard it often) you can’t just choose the bits of the Bible you happen to like, and ignore the rest.

You can’t just read your favourite passages about being kind to people (though there’s a lot of that). Or you might be one of those Christians who like the bits about being prosperous (rather tricky double edged passages, those), or cuddling fluffy kittens (ok, I’m kidding, there’s nothing about fluffy kittens in the Bible). You’ve got to accept the nasty challenging uncomfortable bits as well.

All well and good. Except – this is exactly what Jesus seems to be doing today. In today’s Gospel reading Jesus quotes the Bible, but leaves out the bits that don’t seem to fit his message.

The occasion is a question from John the Baptist. Last week, we met him in the wilderness, baptising people for repentance, being rather rude to the religious authorities, and full of warnings of fiery wrath. “The axe is laid at the root of the trees”, he said. “Every tree… that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” John warns of the coming Messiah, who will burn the chaff “in unquenchable fire”.

It’s clear that John is expecting something quite violent. The Messiah is coming to punish wrongdoers.

In today’s Gospel reading some time has passed. Jesus has embarked on his ministry, and meanwhile John has been thrown into prison. And he sends to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Why ask the question? Well, Jesus has been going round preaching the Kingdom, but there is as yet no sign of any vengeance. John is wondering if he Jesus really can be the Messiah, as he doesn’t seem to be sticking to the script.

Jesus doesn’t reply yes or no. He simply says to tell John what the messengers see and hear.  And this is where he quotes the Bible:
“The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

That is actually a compilation of five passages from Isaiah about the coming of the Messiah. But Jesus doesn’t quote everything that Isaiah says.
We heard one of the five passages this morning, Isaiah 35, “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the lame shall leap like a deer and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy” But Isaiah also says what Jesus does not say: “Here is your God, he will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense.” And there’s something like that in all five of the texts that Jesus refers to[1], both a promise of restoration and a promise of vengeance.

Jesus clearly understands what John’s question is about. By leaving out those verses, by speaking of blessing but not of judgement, Jesus is saying to John that, yes, things are not turning out as he expected.

John expects wrath. As we saw last week, wrath is about desire that cannot be satisfied, and so generates a vicious spiral of rage: we cannot have what we desire, and that feeds our desire even more.

What Jesus exposes in the Gospels is that wrath is something we do to ourselves. Jesus shows us what God is like. God is love, self-giving, overflowing, utterly alive. God’s desire is to give himself. What Jesus wants us to do is to imitate the self-giving desire of God, instead of the insatiable, death dealing desires that humans imitate from one another. Wrath is not inflicted on us by an avenging deity for resisting his will. It simply describes what turning away from God’s life-giving desire does to us, what it is like to choose our own death-bound desires instead.

The parable of the sheep and the goats shows us that the judgement Jesus brings is not the revenge of the Son of God, but everything appearing as it really is in God’s light, measured by how we respond to God’s love shown to us in his Son. “Whatever you did to the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.”

Jesus is the Word of God through whom the world was made, the ultimate measure and judgement of what the world chooses to be. All our contingent actions, for or against the poor, the outcast, the marginalised, all the ways in which we love or choose not to love, all these turn out to be referred as their ultimate end to Jesus – whether we are conscious of this or not.

The judgement of Jesus therefore does not inflict wrath, but brings it to light. Wrath names the distance between what we are and what we should be, and when Jesus is revealed to us we cannot but experience that distance as both a pain and a longing in ourselves.

Both a pain and a longing. Judgement shows us what we are, in order that we might become what we should be. The purpose of God’s judgement is always salvation. So when Jesus quotes only the bits of the Bible about God restoring things as they should be, he is not ignoring the parts about judgement. But he is correcting John the Baptist’s misunderstanding. Judgement is not God’s revenge, but is rather our opportunity to be brought back to where God would have us be.

Someone asked me the other week whether we still believe in hell. Well the Catholic Faith tells us that hell exists, but we don’t have to believe that there is anyone in it. And if there is anyone in it, it is only their own will that is keeping them there. Hell is a choice, rather than a place. It is possible to reject God with the full and deliberate consent of our mind and will, even to eternity, if we so choose. Love must be free, in order to be love. And God respects our freedom, because his desire is for us to live in love. But we know that his reach is further than we can imagine, and his power greater than we can comprehend.

In Advent traditionally we reflect on the “four last things” – death, judgement, heaven and hell. They are bound together, facets of the great resolution when all things are brought into the light of Christ. In Jesus, God has come near in judgement, but to save us. His judgement exposes the truth about ourselves, but reveals to us as well his own loving self-giving desire. Judgement makes salvation possible, turning us in repentance from our death-bound desires to God.

The Kingdom of Heaven, into which he invites us, is nothing less than everything restored as it should be. Hell is simply what it is to continue, freely, to choose our own death-bound desires instead. And the death of the body is when all our veils and illusions are stripped away and we see ourselves and all our actions as they really are in relation to their ultimate object, which is Christ.

The call of Advent then, as we heard on its first Sunday, is to awake. To become conscious and mindful of Christ. He is the coming Redeemer who restores all things. He is the Saviour who proclaims the forgiveness of sins. He is the ultimate object of all our choices and actions, in whose light we are judged. Therefore: repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.

[1] The references are: Isaiah 29:18 (“vengeance” verse 20); 35:5-6 (“vengeance” verse 4); 42:8, 17 (“vengeance” verse 13); 26:19 (“vengeance” verse 21); and 61:1 (“vengeance” part of verse 2).

Sermon at Parish Mass, Advent 2 2016

Isaiah 11:1-10
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12

The Old Testament records God’s revelation of himself to his chosen people, Israel, and all the ups and downs in their relationship. It’s more than a thousand years of the story of a people. From the time of Abraham and Sarah, through slavery in Egypt, Exodus to the promised land, prosperity and downfall, exile and loss.
The last of the prophets, after the exile in Babylon, speak words of consolation about a universal vision and a coming Messiah who will gather all people into his kingdom – Jew and Gentile. But it is an enigmatic vision. It gives hints but not a precise shape of what is to come.
The Old Testament ends with the Prophet Malachi, who signs off with this: “I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.”
And then – nothing. For century after century, there were no more prophets, no words or visions from on high. The prophetic witness was complete. The words of Malachi and so many others were there, written in the scrolls, kept alive in the memories of God’s people. But they were words awaiting God’s time for them to be fulfilled.
And then John the Baptist came. The passage in Malachi about Elijah gave people the idea that the coming of the Messiah would be heralded by a prophet, like the prophets of old. Some thought he would be literally Elijah, come back to earth after his mysterious disappearance in a whirlwind in the Second Book of Kings.
And suddenly, after centuries of silence from heaven, here is John, looking like a prophet, acting like a prophet, speaking like a prophet. No wonder everyone was going out to see him.
Many of the prophets of old acted out signs to show what God was doing, a bit like a mime artist. John does the same. He goes out into the wilderness, dresses in improvised clothing, and eats only what he can gather. He is enacting the Exodus, Israel’s escape from Egypt and their wandering in the desert for forty years.
This acted sign comes with both a promise and a challenge. The promise is that God is acting to save his people, just as he did by freeing them from slavery in Egypt of old. The challenge is that the Exodus and the wandering in the desert were a time of testing. Israel put the Lord their God to the test, setting up golden idols to worship, demanding water and manna and quails, and so on. And God put his people to the test, purifying them through their forty year probation in the wilderness.
So even before John speaks, what he does is sending a message: God is acting to save his people, but he is also putting his people to the test. And uncovering the ways in which they have been putting him to the test.
Which may account for the rather unpromising reception accorded to the Pharisees and Sadducees. “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come!” Why so harsh? The Pharisees and Sadducees were part of the religious establishment. They were leaders and guides of the people. But John clearly thinks them inauthentic.
These leaders are warned to “bear fruit worthy of repentance”. Do not presume, just because you are descendants of Abraham, or because you observe the Law, that God will favour you. Your self-righteous self-importance is putting God to the test. The Kingdom of God is at hand, and everyone’s response must be repentance. Whether you are a respectable religious leader, or a tax collector or a prostitute. You are all in the same boat, and the same response is needed: a radical change of heart.
What brings this message of repentance into focus is John’s warning about wrath. “Wrath” in the Bible is closely related to desire. It is craving, insatiable desire that eats us up and torments us. This is always rivalrous desire, wanting what others have, trying to grab and hold on to what we feel we lack, leading to envy, violence and hatred.
Repentance is the conversion of our desire. Repentance means turning around. From wrath, the death-bound desire that closes us in on ourselves, we turn around so we can imitate the desire of God which is open, generous, and loving. If we are open to God’s desire then we are open to receive his life, to be baptised with the Holy Spirit.
John’s baptism is about the first part of this, repentance, the conversion of desire. But John looks to the One who is to come, to Jesus to give what he himself cannot give - the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, the life of God.
The Kingdom is at hand, and therefore we must repent. The Kingdom changes our priorities, the way we live in the world and with one another, the way we live towards God. We cannot rely on having Abraham as an ancestor. Or on any other “automatic” guarantee of salvation. Be that living a respectable life, going to church, or whatever. No external sign can substitute for the true interior conversion of our desire. But our conversion of desire is only made possible, and commanded, because the Kingdom of God has come near.
John bears a message for God’s people.  But like the prophets of old, of which he is the last, it is an enigmatic message. He proclaims the coming Messiah, but does not see the mysterious and contradictory way the Messiah will live his vocation, taking him to the cross. John is the forerunner, but of something he cannot yet imagine. How things turn out in fact will be very different from John’s expectations, as we shall see next week.

But his message remains, and remains valid. The Kingdom of God is at hand, repent! Our death-bound desires, turned in our themselves, need to be converted to the imitation of God’s overflowing, utterly generous and self-giving love. And this is how we, like John, prepare the way for the Lord, and for his Kingdom, in our lives and in our world.