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

Sunday, 17 May 2020

On the Church in the Public Square

Sermon at Parish Mass Easter 6 2020

The Speaker's podium at the Areopagus, Athens. Photo: Matthew Duckett, 2014

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

It’s a long goodbye. The reading we have just heard is part of the last speech that Jesus makes in John’s Gospel, called the “farewell discourse”, four chapters and more of teaching for the time when Jesus will no longer be visibly present with his disciples. Given that there are 21 chapters in John altogether, four and a half is indeed a long goodbye. It’s set at the Last Supper, the night before Jesus died, but Jesus is looking forward to a time beyond that, when he is risen and ascended and the Holy Spirit will be sent on his Church. This is something for his Church to reflect on, after those days. This is why we read these passages now, as Ascension Day is approaching.
Jesus tells his disciples that his visible departure from them does not mean that he will be absent from them. Rather, he will be present more fully, more universally, through his Spirit. Christ through his Ascension is not going away, but becoming present in a new way.
Saint Paul in Ephesians tells us that Christ has ascended to fill all things, that through his Spirit he makes the Church his body, his new visible presence in the world. And through that presence, given life by the Spirit, the whole of creation is to be renewed and transformed. As in the parables, Jesus will be present in the world through his Church like leaven or salt, the visible community of faith bringing change and renewal to the world.
We see this in operation when Saint Paul met the men of Athens in our first reading. His speech at the Areopagus, the place of public assembly, was a turning point in the history of Christianity. 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, joining in with the prayers.
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 Greeks who knew nothing about Judaism wanted to know what Paul was preaching.
So Paul spoke to them, too, for the first time. He spoke in terms that they would have understood. He referred to the religious practices of the Greeks. He set out a logical argument, very Greek, different in style from the midrash of the rabbis that Paul used when speaking to Jews. He quoted Greek philosophers and poets.  
What Paul did not do was to quote the Bible. Not one single verse of Scripture in this first evangelistic talk to the Gentile world. 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 Gospel had gone public in the Gentile world, for the first time, and immediately it was addressing and engaging with the culture and society that were actually present. Christ has ascended to fill all things, and that includes human culture, art and philosophy. And even the religious instincts and feelings of other cultures outside Judaism.
Of course, the Greeks believed in many gods, and needed to go deeper to discover the One who created all things. And yet Paul is able to tell them that they already worshipped the one true God without knowing it. Christ has ascended to fill all things and he is there already in the religious instincts of a society that up to now has stood outside the revelation of God to Israel.
Paul spoke to that culture using its own concepts and ideas. God was already there, for Christ has ascended to fill all things, and indeed all things were made through him. It needed only the eye of faith to be opened for it all to fall into place. For the partial and obscure glimpses of the Divine in the old religions to find their place in the full revelation of God in Christ.
Paul’s speech did not seem to have much success at the time, only a few Greeks believed initially. And yet it was enough. The Gospel had gone public in the Gentile world, and the transformation of its culture had begun.
Our discipleship of course has an interior dimension, the prayer of the heart in the secret place behind closed doors. In this we follow Jesus who took time out by himself to pray, to renew his communion with the Father which was the wellspring of his mission.
But his mission was public, and the mission of his Church is public, too. Like Paul in the Areopagus, we are in the public square. The Gospel that we bear must engage with the culture and values of the world around us, recognising that Christ has ascended to fill all things. Yes, human culture does need to be acted on and transformed by the Gospel, like leaven in the lump. The conversion of culture by the Gospel can be the work of centuries. But the Church is sent into the world precisely for this public task.
The transformation of culture by the Gospel is seen in many ways. The abolition of slavery was the fruit of Christians reflecting on the scriptures and realising that society needed to change. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted after the Second World War, owes much to the insight of the Gospel that every human being whatsoever has the dignity of a child of God.
Broader culture, too, shows this working of the Gospel. Our church buildings are a sign of its public presence. This is a public building, not the meeting house of a private club. It is here for everyone. Whether you are a believer or not, church buildings are part of the landscape, the fruit of centuries of Christian culture, speaking of a different way of inhabiting time and space. Out there in the busy world, space is at a premium, time is money, pressure and work. In here, space is freedom, celebration, and Sabbath. In here, time is the deep stillness in which God’s eternity pours the life of the Spirit into our world.
Church buildings are not “just” buildings, in the same way as Titian’s Assumption is not “just” a painting, and a Mass by Mozart is not “just” music. All of them are a fruit of the slow transformation of human culture by the Gospel. All of them testify in different ways that Christ has ascended to fill all things. It’s sometimes said that the Church is the people, not buildings or paintings or music. Well that’s not quite right, that’s not quite the full vision of the scriptures. In the scriptures, humanity renewed in Christ is the head of all creation, and “we look for the life of the world to come”. In the broadest sense, the Church embraces the whole of creation entering the Kingdom of God. Not only in the liberation of the oppressed, but also in things like buildings, paintings and music, even the blessings that we extend to material objects. These are all part of how the Church is transforming the world.

Of course, at the moment, all places of worship are closed to safeguard public health, and we understand and accept that. We can live differently for a time in an emergency situation, as Christians have done before. But that does not mean that the Church can change its way of being present in the world. There is no “new way of being [the] Church”. Interior discipleship joined with public mission are what we see in scripture and what we are called to today. Our Areopagus today, our public square, is not so different from the one in which Paul spoke to the Athenians with its wealth of ideas from all over the world. And when public life is resumed for everyone, the Church too will be there, speaking, engaging, and transforming, in the world in which we are set.

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