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

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Sermon Easter 3 2017

Acts 2.14a,36-41
1 Peter 1.17-23
Luke 24.13-35
“They stood still, looking sad.”
The disciples are walking with Jesus, but don’t realise who they are talking to. He is there in front of them, and yet hidden from their sight.
That is not the only way that Jesus is hidden from them. They describe, to Jesus, with supreme irony, all the things that had happened to him – how he was a great prophet in word and deed, and yet had been handed over to be crucified. Their hope had been that he was the one to redeem Israel. But now, it seems, their hope is over. The fact that Jesus is the Messiah, the redeemer, is hidden from them by the very things they are describing. How can a crucified prophet be the redeemer?
And Jesus is hidden, too, in the scriptures, even though as devout people they would have bene very familiar with the law and the prophets. Jesus upbraids them for their slowness of heart. “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”
But still, he remained hidden from them, though he was with them. Until he took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they knew him at last, even though he vanished from their sight. Then, they could look back and recall how their hearts burned within them.
Suddenly they recognise all the ways in which Jesus had been hidden, even though he was there all along. Hidden while walking with them. Hidden in their hearts. Hidden in the contradictory events of his betrayal and death. Hidden in the scriptures. And hidden, at last, in the bread. But it is from there that he breaks through into their consciousness, as he breaks the bread. Yet he vanishes from their sight.
The risen Christ is hidden, but not confined. He is not a prisoner in the things that hide him. It is not he who needs to break out, but our vision that needs to be opened. He is always intensely, immediately present to us, if we can but see.
And it is he himself who opens our minds and hearts, as he walks with us on our way. The last chapter of Luke’s Gospel is the story of the church. Those two disciples, Cleopas and the other, stand for all of us. The day in which they meet the risen Lord and recognise him, if you read Luke 24, never comes to an end. It is the same day of resurrection all along. And the whole Church from that day to this walks with the risen Lord in the day of resurrection, which never ends.
This new day is something completely different: God’s eternity rising on the world of history, changing everything. The pace accelerates. The disciples who begin by standing still looking sad at the end rush back to Jerusalem, seemingly in an instant, bearing the good news.  And there they meet other disciples with their own story to tell of how the risen Jesus has broken through their unseeing and changed their lives.
Jesus is hidden, not because he wants to avoid us, but because our understanding needs to change and our vision needs to be enlarged.
He breaks open the scriptures for us so that we can see him there. How otherwise, apart from actually meeting the risen Lord, could we possibly imagine that God could be working and saving the world in a rejected figure cast out and put to death? And seeing Jesus there changes how we see all victims, all violence, all exclusion.
We had imagined that bad things were to do with God, God punishing the world for its wickedness. We had projected ourselves, and the way we cast people out and reject them, onto God. But the risen Lord shows us how wrong we were, because it turns out that he has been on the side of the victims all along. And because it is Jesus the Saviour who shows us this, that discovery also brings our forgiveness and reconciliation.
And Jesus breaks open the present moment for us, so we can see him there too. We realise that he is burning in our hearts: as we walk along, as we go about our daily lives, as we encounter friend and stranger. We suddenly realise how we need to be in the present moment too, from which we are so often absent. Jesus breaks open our illusions and idols and fantasies, calls us to attend persistently to the real and concrete life we actually live, for that is where he is waiting for us.
Jesus breaks open the scriptures, so we can see what they mean. Apart from him, we are going to get the Bible wrong. There are sects such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who start with what they think the Bible means and then invent a Jesus of their own imagination out of that. But they have got it exactly the wrong way round.
Jesus the risen victim is the key to understanding the law and the prophets and the history of God’s chosen people. And our brothers and sisters in Christ, also, are key to our understanding, because it is all the disciples together who walk with the risen Lord. We read the Bible with the Church, allowing the risen Lord who is in our midst to teach us what it means.
And Jesus breaks open the bread of the Eucharist for us, revealing himself there above all. That is the moment of recognition. Jesus, who is truly present in the bread that we break and in the people who gather. Through these intimate, simple and everyday things, bread and wine, our defences are broken down and our illusions taken away. We know him here, risen from the dead, though we do not see him with our eyes. Here he makes us what we receive, the Body of Christ, the community of disciples who walk with him.
Here time and eternity intersect, and the one is taken into the other. Every Eucharistic gathering, spread throughout the world in so many different times and places, is drawn by Jesus into the one day of the resurrection, the day of eternity. Disciples from every race and culture and language under heaven are gathered into one by the Holy Spirit, through the one bread that we share, the bread that is Jesus himself.
And from this comes great joy, as our eyes are opened. Walking with Jesus, we hasten to gather with our fellow disciples and to share the good news with others. The everyday will never be the same again. Because now every moment, every task, every ordinariness, is shot through with the eternal day of the resurrection in which Jesus stands in his risen glory, revealing himself to us.

In our parish annual meeting after this Mass. In whatever we are going to be doing this time tomorrow. In the friends and strangers we meet along the way. In the suffering and victims that seem sometimes to fill our lives or the world. Jesus is there. The risen Lord is there. Know him, in the present moment, in the scriptures, in the breaking of the bread. Know that time is no longer hemmed in by death but opened to eternity. Know Jesus, and nothing will ever be the same again.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Sermon Easter 2 2017

Acts 5.27-32
Revelation 1.4-8
John 20:19-31
Lent and Holy Week are a very full and busy time in the Church’s year. Come Easter Sunday evening, there’s an understandable tendency to relax. Take a breather. We’ve got through all the special services, it’s back to normal now. Judging from the number of clergy friends on Facebook who seemed to be jetting off to warmer climes on Easter Monday, that’s probably quite a widespread feeling.
But, no, if we think that Easter morning is when things go back to normal, we’ve got it wrong. If there is any day when we should think that, it is today. The Second Sunday of Easter, called “Low Sunday”. Have you ever wondered why it’s called that?
In the early Church, once Christianity had become accepted and even popular, there were large numbers of converts wanting to join. For the most part, they were all baptised together at the same time, at the long service of the Easter Vigil.
In those days, people knew how to reinforce a lesson and make things stick. And that was by having one big long party. The new Christians didn’t just go to the one impressive service at which they were baptised. They went to eight, on successive days, going through an entire week of festive religion and celebration. In fact, once Christianity became the official religion of the Empire, the whole of Easter Week was a public holiday. I wonder if we could suggest that as a manifesto pledge to our various political parties?
In Rome, the newly baptised would wear the white robes of the newborn throughout the week, going in public processions every day to different churches for the Easter Mass, accompanied by great throngs of the people. Each service that week was celebrated with the full splendour of Easter Day itself. It must have been almost overwhelming.
But you can’t be on holiday forever. Today, the eighth day of Easter, the newly baptised arrived at the last church of the celebration – in Rome this was St Pancras, some way outside the city. There, at the end of Mass, they took off their white robes, and resumed normal dress. The next day they would return to the daily round and common task. It must have seemed like coming down from a mountaintop experience.
So it became known as “Low Sunday”: the day when the new Christians came down from the heights of festivity and celebration, and had to get on with the job of being ordinary Christians, like everyone else, in their day to day lives.
Today’s gospel reading is always read on this day, the Second Sunday of Easter. One reason is that the key scene, in which Jesus meets doubting Thomas, is set today, a week after the Resurrection.
But another reason is that it is very appropriate for the day when new Christians come down from the mountaintop and have to go about their ordinary lives. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”, is the message for today. New converts can experience a time of great joy, the absolute conviction that the Risen Lord has entered their lives and is with them. But experiences like that don’t last. Faith is needed to sustain us in the long haul, when we might or not might not feel the presence of the Lord with us.
This holds true for all Christians, not just for new ones. We may from time to time have very uplifting spiritual experiences, perhaps on a retreat or a pilgrimage. Or we may not. God may see that we do not need such experiences, or perhaps that they might be dangerous for us, if we are prone to pride. Perhaps God allows such experiences to those who are weaker in faith, to keep them going. We might reflect that in today’s Gospel reading Thomas was singled out for special treatment because he had special needs.
But whether we have such experiences or not, they don’t last. It’s like the first growth of spring, when everything bursts into new life. That new life is intended to grow and bear fruit. It can’t be fresh flowers and lively colours all the time. Maturity is a long process and quite a lot of that process is ordinary, everyday and slow. There are times when growth may seem imperceptible, although in fact things are going on under the surface.
For Thomas, today may well have been the only time that he saw and touched the risen Lord. For the rest of his life as an apostle he had to keep going by faith, however difficult or dark the times might have been. If the tradition is true that he evangelised parts of India and died there as a martyr, then that Sunday gathering in Jerusalem when he saw the Lord, a week after the resurrection, must have seemed a distant memory. It was present faith, not the memory of a mountaintop experience, that had to keep him going.
In just the same way, St Peter in the second reading today says, “rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith… may be found to result in praise and glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him”.
This is an important lesson in the life of every Christian. All the great spiritual guides say the same thing. St Ignatius of Loyola, for example, says that you may have times of consolation, when you feel the presence of the Lord, and feel assured of your salvation, of being loved and cherished as a child of God. And you may have times of desolation, when those feelings are removed and God seems absent.
The important thing is to form the habit of faith and your rule of life as a Christian in times of consolation, and carry on following that rule in times of desolation. In fact, it is even more important that you should do so when God seems absent than when God seems present. Because whatever we may feel, God is never absent from us. God is still with us and working in us, and may in fact be doing more in us in times of desolation, when we are sustained by faith alone.
So, whatever you may feel, carry on saying your prayers, reading the Bible, coming to church. The Risen Lord came to the gathering of disciples on the first day of the week, as he still does, week by week, making himself known in the breaking of the bread. Here we do see him and touch him in a sacramental way, under outward signs of bread and wine. Here he nourishes us with his risen life, and transforms us into his image.
Sometimes we may feel that more strongly than others. Sometimes we might not feel it at all. Carry on anyway. Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe. Persistence in the practice of faith will bring its reward. The fruits that have been maturing in secret will in the end be seen, perhaps partially in this life, but fully in God’s kingdom. Because it is by believing, and not by having mountaintop experiences, that we will have life in the name of Jesus.

Sermon at Parish Mass, Easter Sunday 2017

Acts 10.34-43
Colossians 3:1-4
John 20:1-18

The background of our Easter poster this year was Rembrandt’s interpretation of the Gospel passage we have just heard, the encounter between Mary Magdalene and the risen Jesus. Mary has gone to the tomb while it is still dark, and Rembrandt has left the tomb in shadow on the right hand side of the scene. Mary found it open and empty, and in confusion went to tell Peter and John. Returning with them, she remained, to weep.
That was her purpose, in going there. Mary has gone to the tomb to mourn the body of Jesus. In the shock and pain of bereavement it must have seemed that her world had come to an end. All she can think of is going to the dead body of the one who had healed her and given her life purpose and meaning.
But the body is not there. The tomb has been opened. Imagine her distress. Adding to the shock of Mary’s bereavement, she now has the confusion and bewilderment of not knowing where the body of her loved one is, or who might have interfered with it.
In the blank grief and shock she is experiencing, she remains focussed on the tomb, the place where the body of Jesus had been. She looks into the dark, seeing nothing.
Until she sees two angels. In her grief and confusion, it doesn’t seem to occur to her that it is odd to find two beings dressed in white sitting in a tomb. All she can speak of is her loss. “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
Then she turns and sees Jesus, but doesn’t recognise him. Her imagination is all hemmed in by death and loss. She mistakes him for the gardener, and Rembrandt had dressed Jesus up in a not particularly convincing straw hat and shovel to convey this.
Having spoken to him, she turns back to the tomb again, still fixated on death and loss, seeing nothing.
And then Jesus calls her by name. And suddenly she turns and knows him. This is the moment that Rembrandt has caught, as Mary turns her face, turning into the light. Not simply the sun rising, but the light of sudden knowledge, and hope, and faith. And love.
The heart of Christianity is not a book, though we have a book. Nor is it remembering Jesus as a historical figure, or trying to live according to his teachings. Those things matter. But they matter because Jesus is alive. They matter because every one of us can meet the risen Lord, as Mary did. The heart of Christianity is a living relationship with Jesus, the risen Lord. We read the Bible and follow the teachings of Jesus because we know him to be alive.
Proof of the resurrection is not to be found in a book or an empty tomb. Mary Magdalene had no need of proof that the tomb was empty, it was there in front of her. But that did not make her believe. All she could see was emptiness in the place of death. What brings her to belief is recognising Jesus, who waits for her to turn to him, who calls her by name.
It has been the same for Christians down the ages. This time last week around fifty Egyptian Christians were being killed simply out of hatred of their faith. A church that is continually being killed, and continually forgiving its enemies, and continually rising again, shows the risen Christ to the world. Human lives lived with more than earthly power show Christ to the world because they know the power of Christ to save and to glorify. They know that the final victory over sin and death has been won.
The heart of Christianity is a living relationship with Jesus, the risen Lord. And that relationship is open to everyone. You don’t have to ask Jesus into your life. He is there anyway, because he is the Word of creation through whom all things were made, including you. More intimately, he is our brother according to the flesh, the Son of Man, and in him God has joined our human nature to himself.
But creation and nature are not enough for Jesus. He wants to raise us beyond nature to the life of God. As with Mary, Jesus is there in the garden all along, but we don’t always recognise him. Jesus is in our lives waiting to share his risen life with us. He waits, offering his gift of salvation and eternal life, the Holy Spirit who raises us and unites us with God. But we must turn to him and choose to receive that gift.
Jesus is in your life anyway, but awaits the moment of recognition. Jesus is alive, his love burns to embrace us, and he wants us to know him and love him in turn. But if we keep looking into the place of darkness and loss we will not see him. Jesus called Mary by name. He calls every one of us. Turn away from the tomb, the place of death whatever that may be for you, the sins and failures and wounds of the past, all that you had thought hopelessly lost.

Turn to Jesus who awaits you, know him as the living one, the Saviour who has conquered death. He is in your life, but it is up to you to give your life to him. He will not impose against your will. Renew that gift today, or perhaps make it consciously for the first time. Know for a certainty that Jesus is alive and calls you by name. Turn to him in faith, open your heart to him that you may know him, not only as your creator, not only as your brother according to the flesh, but as your Saviour and your Lord. For he has broken the power of death and hell, and lives and reigns for ever, amen.