Sunday, 7 July 2013
In today's gospel, Jesus sends out some disciples in pairs. They have important work to do - exactly the same work that Jesus does, the prophetic work of healing the sick and preaching the Kingdom of God. We see here the beginnings of the Church's ministry as a share in Jesus' ministry.
If the contemporary Church were sending out a large number of people to do vitally important work, we would no doubt put a lot of planning into it, establish plenty of committees, do a lot of fundraising, and in general make sure the seventy two raw recruits were - to use a piece of ugly management-speak - well resourced.
So what does the Jesus of Luke's gospel do?
He sends them out without purse, bag, or sandals: without the means to keep money or food, making them utterly dependent, They depend for the first part, of course, on God. Later in Luke's gospel, Jesus will teach his disciples to pray for their daily bread. They will also depend on other human beings - on each other, as well as on those who feed them in their houses. Here Luke's gospel anticipates the book of Acts, where we read about the disciples holding their possessions in common, sharing for the good of all.
This passage serves as a reminder to us, at a time of change in the Church, where a lot of thought is going into mission, and where we are experiencing quite a bit of change. Unless our life as a missionary church begins with reliance on God, which finds expression in liturgy and prayer, and is lived out in generous, sharing, communities, it will have little in common with the mission of Jesus.
Sunday, 16 September 2012
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, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
Mark 7: 34-5
Today our lectionary brings us to the point in Mark's gospel where Jesus turns his face towards Jerusalem, where he will be arrested and killed. At precisely this point in the gospel Jesus is recognised by Peter for who he is - the Messiah, the Christ - and the implications of following Jesus are made crystal clear. The path of Christ is the path that Jesus himself follows, a path of suffering and self-renunciation.
What should we make of this; does God want us to suffer? Is there something good about suffering; is it something we should seek out? Of course not. Sometimes in the history of the Church, unhealthy and masochistic spiritualities have seemed to suggest otherwise. Against these, the gospel is quite clear: God calls us to a fullness and richness of life, as John's gospel has it "to have life, and have it abundantly".
The problem is not with God, but with a world that has a hard time living life in its fullness. That life, after all, is a life of love, and love is a frightening thing. Love involves vulnerability, an opening up of ourselves, and the ending of our fantasies of self-sufficiency and control. And that can be extremely threatening. As a consequence, when we see love, we are constantly in danger of responding not by welcoming it, but by hitting out.
The world hits with its most deadly spite by crucifying Jesus. Those who follow him can't expect to be free from similar reactions. At various times and places the Church has been persecuted. Now, it is absurd - in spite of the efforts of some prominent Christians to the contrary - to claim that the Church in contemporary Britain is in any way persecuted. None the less, we may sometimes be given a hard time for being Christians. We may sometimes give ourselves a hard time for being Christians: at war with ourselves, there are parts of us that prefer that old way of cold invulnerability to the way of love.
Either way, what is going on here is the tension between the reality of God's redemption and the persistence of sin, of the refusal of love. Herbert McCabe put it like this: "if you don't love you will die, if you do love, they will kill you".
We are called to love. We may not be killed, but no authentic life of love will be free from trouble. And yet there is no other way we can be genuinely fulfilled. So, by God's grace, we persist, in the hope that the final victory of love over death, that hard won joy of Easter, may be ours.
Monday, 10 September 2012
"Faithful Cross above all other,
One and only noble tree,
None in foliage, none in blossom,
none in fruit thy peer may be.
Sweetest wood and sweetest iron,
sweetest weight was hung on thee."
Office hymn for Passiontide
On Friday we will celebrate the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, usually known just as "Holy Cross Day". And the whole month of September is traditionally associated with devotion to the Cross.
The idea of devotion to the Cross should strike us as strange. Crucifixion was a barbaric form of torture. How on earth can Christians justify our focus on the image of the crucifix? Our churches and other buildings are full of depictions of a man bleeding to death on a crude piece of wood. We walk the Stations of the Cross and sing hymns like the one quoted above, which not only remember the crucifixion, but celebrate it. Doesn't this show that we have a warped view of the world?
A growing number of people draw that conclusion. How should we reply?
I think two things can and should be said.
First, in displaying our crucifixes and walking the Way of the Cross we are refusing to look away from human suffering. We live in a world that increasingly turns from suffering human beings, confining them to the international news reports and the hospital wards, talking about them euphemistically as 'collateral damage', and pushing them to the margins of political debate. In drawing attention again and again to the suffering of the most perfectly human person ever to have lived, Christians are engaged in a perpetual protest against this. We cannot pretend there is no genuine suffering: our liturgy and devotion reminds us constantly that there is.
But we don't just think about the Cross, we celebrate it. Isn't this the point at which we've crossed a line, and become unhealthily morbid?
No. And this is the second thing that can be said. Without denying for one second that the Cross is a symbol of human evil - here we have the political execution of an innocent man, the Son of God - we see at Calvary also the triumph of divine good. Contrary to the claims of some forms of Christianity, God did not actively will the Cross. God, who is perfectly good, does not will evil. The Cross is the work of human beings. The divine Word lived a human life, a life wholly of love, and our response was to kill him. God's response was to turn that low-point of human wrongdoing into a victory. The defeat of the Cross becomes the high-point of self-offering. The decisive 'no' of human beings to God becomes the 'yes' of God, louder and more insistent than our 'no', to the very human beings who killed his Son. This loving response is revealed in the Resurrection.
There is nothing glib or triumphalist about any of this. The suffering of Good Friday was real and horrific, nothing undoes that. But through it all, a painful victory is won by the insistent power of divine Love. And there's an ongoing message here: our defeats, our failures, our lows, the seeming senselessness and frequent cruelty of human life, whether collective or individual, can become the very means by which that life is transformed.
The literary critic Terry Eagleton has described Christianity as a form of 'tragic humanism', valuing humanity but realising that its flourishing comes at a terrible price. That, I think, is the message of Holy Cross Day. We Christians are neither trite upbeat optimists nor grim pessimists. We live in hope, but realise that our hope exists alongside a brokenness which is almost unbearable. And rather than ignoring that brokenness, our hope is precisely in the possibility of its being transfigured. A similar point was made by Leonard Cohen,
There's a crack in everything,
that's how the light gets in.
Sunday, 9 September 2012
Gospel reading. Jesus has gone to Tyre to get some space from the crowds and to 'reboot' after healing, calming storms, feeding the 5000 and arguing with the authorities. Maybe the woman caught him off guard, but there is no doubt that he reacts to her as a 1st Century Jewish man would, by rejecting and insulting her.
One of the really tough things to get our heads around as Christians is this idea that Jesus was both 100% God and 100% Man as is set out in the Creed. Part of being human is learning. Jesus learnt to walk and talk - just as we did. He also learns more about what it means to be God from this woman. Her reaction to his replaying of old prejudices is not to argue with him, or challenge his human preconceptions but reminds him that there is more than enough love and grace in God to go around!
The challenge here in this Gospel passage is the reminder that we all have preconceptions that make us deaf to hear God in others. At the heart of God is an inclusive love that invites all in and can shine through all as God decides - not as human preconceptions allow!
If you want to think more about this, take a look at this short Bible Study by Dr Evie Vernon, a Jamaican theologian. It finishes with this poem that casts the gentile woman as a Jamaican woman reflecting on the experience of the encounter.
Sunday, 2 September 2012
For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.
After a brief summer sojourn in chapter six of John's gospel, we're back with Mark for the rest of year, beginning with a passage that is more prone to be misconstrued than a celebrity's Twitter account.
Modern readers of the verses cited above, that is all of us, are likely to read Jesus' words in the following way: what really matters is what's inside, your thoughts, your intentions. Those are what make you good or bad. We might feel even more confident in this reading given what has happened already in chapter seven of Mark: Jesus has disputed with the scribes and Pharisees, criticising their hypocritical observance of the Law. Isn't what Jesus is saying here, we might ask, that religion is an inner thing, a matter of the heart, not a matter of what you do?
The problem with all this is that it makes Jesus too modern, too much like us - or at least some of us. Not only does the first century Palestinian Jew, on this account, have religious views which sound like they've come straight out of 16th century Germany, he also has ethical views that would fit nicely on a Radio 4 discussion programme. One of the most dreary commonplaces of contemporary thinking about right or wrong is that being good is very much an inner matter, primarily to do with intentions, conscience, thoughts, beliefs - that kind of thing. We can disagree about what to do, but we can both be right, because we are well motivated. Our hearts, as we say, are in the right place. You believe in bombing Iraq back into the Stone Age, I don't; but let's agree to differ, and accept that we both mean well. There's all sorts wrong with this view, as was summed up rather nicely by the Roman Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, "Butler exalts conscience, but appears ignorant that a man’s conscience may tell him to do the vilest things."
Anyhow, this view is wrong. On the contrary, as a reading from the epistle of James set for today's Mass puts it: "be doers of the word, not merely hearers".
Thankfully, the Jesus of Mark's gospel is considerably better at ethics than your average radio pundit. Two things are going on in this part of chapter seven.
First, we have an insight into the debate about the observance of the Jewish Law, which was raging in the early Church, and would have been very much of the moment for the first hearers and readers of Mark. We get Mark's particular spin of Jesus' teaching. "Thus", we are told about Jesus' words in a verse the lectionary compilers neglected to include, "he declared all foods clean".
More relevantly for us, we have an attack on hypocrisy. And understanding this suggests a better way of thinking about right and wrong. The hypocrite is someone whose life lacks integrity, whose actions are inconsistent one with another. The hypocrite's life lacks shape and vision. Rather, he or she does on any given occasion the thing that best serves her interests. He or she will manipulate doctrines, religious or otherwise, to his or her own ends. The hypocrite might sometimes do what we would describe as 'the right thing', but it isn't being done as part of a life lived well. The hypocrite lacks the habit of doing the right thing. The hypocrite isn't someone for whom doing good is second nature.
An old fashioned word for the habits which make our lives good and characterised by integrity is 'virtues'. As human beings, let alone as Christians, we will only come to flourish through possessing virtues. And coming to possess them is no easy business. To use another old-fashioned turn-of-phrase, we need to form our characters. This can only happen in a community, through which we learn and interact with others, developing alongside one another, and learning the skills that make for good human living.
There are many such communities: families, community, and political groups. Sadly, our present society as a whole, based as it is around competition and profit, is not an example. Uniquely however, the Church is a community in which we are called grow in virtue not simply by our own efforts, but with the help of God's grace given to us in Jesus Christ. Through this grace, given to us above all in the sacraments, our weaknesses, our tendencies to shy away from virtue, can be overcome. More than that, we are called within the Church to possess new virtues - faith, hope, and love - the habits by which we share in the very life of God, by which we flourish as human beings in new ways, given to us as a sheer loving gift, and which foreshadow our eternal flourishing, our sharing in the vision of God.
Tuesday, 21 August 2012
John's Gospel on Jesus as the bread of life. We thought about how the reality of the real presence of God in the Eucharist is conected to the Incartantion - that God chose to be human to be the Emmanuel (God with us). The physcial reception and consumption of the body and blood of Christ is a deeply intimate act is which we are invited to touch and taste God and be nourished in order that we too might be Emmanuel to the world.
Sunday, 12 August 2012
This Sunday we were challenged to live out our faith by showing compassion to those around us and praying for wisdom in our choices. Jesus is the bread of life and bread is a symbol of our compassion, this week world leaders met to address the needs of the hungry in the world, and wisdom, see the Hebrew scriptures Proverbs.