(Sunday sermons, talks, and teaching)
Isaiah 56:1; 6-7
‘Thus says the Lord,
“…my house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples”’ Isaiah 56:7
One morning, as I was getting ready for Mass is St Ives, I was approached by a long-standing members of the congregation called Hellen who proceeded to grill me about one church issue or another. In her usual abrupt and unapologetic way she rattled my cage, and, in retaliation, I probably pushed a few of her (deeply protestant) buttons. To cut the long story short, we ended up having some words and getting quite cross with each other to the point that I wasn’t quite sure how we were going to handle exchanging the sign of peace later in the service… But of course, I needn’t to worry about that, because even before we got to the peace, what was reading set before us by the lectionary? It just had to be Matthew 5:23-24; ‘if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.’ Similarly, the morning after a break in into his vicarage a priest friend of mine was presented by the lectionary with the reading of Matthew 24:43 ‘If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into.’
Indeed, the lectionary quite often has a wonderful and bitter-sweet way of recalling us back to the things that actually matter, to what God has to say about the way in which we live or about what goes on in the world. And, I believe, this is happening with today’s readings…
Among the stories of racial hatred we hear from Charlottesville, the howling shrieks of far-right movements and intolerance across the Western world, the resurgence of anti-Jewish propaganda, the cowardice of those who should be confronting evil, among all these dreadful things our readings recall us to God’s vision for humanity, God’s purpose of the one, single human race.
To those who publicly incite anti-Jewish hatred, and to the creators of silly Jewish jokes, the Lord says about the people of Israel in our second reading, “I will never take back my gifts or revoke my choice” (Romans 11:15). Religious justification for anti-Jewish hate is always a misinterpretation of the faith, and a blasphemy in the eyes of our God who chose Abraham to be the father of many nations, and to be one of our fathers in the faith as well.
To white supremacists, to full-time and not-so-casual-casual racists, the Lord says in the first reading “…my house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples”. My house – not your house, but the house in which you stand on equal footing as any other believer of whatever ethnicity, nationality, or background, this my house – is a house of prayer for everyone, and in my house everyone is welcome, so you better make peace with it.
To those who barricade their hatred and discrimination behind blinkered, holier-than-thou religion, Jesus presents the example of great faith given by a Canaanite woman. She belonged to a different culture and nationality than Jesus, she was a descendant of an enemy people, she didn’t believe in Jesus in the same articulate way his followers did, but she nonetheless had an instinctively stronger, deeper, and more resilient faith in the Lord than the best of his disciples; so much so that her unorthodox faith cooperated in the healing of her daughter.
And to us all, the Lord gives a reminder about the task we signed up for at our baptism and confirmation; the task of hastening the coming of his Kingdom as one humanity finally made into a true and beloved community where racism, unjust discrimination, and hatred find not room at all.
Today the lectionary recalls us back to what is really important. May we listen to its voice and strive to build us the Church as a house of prayer for all nations, and as a positive example of community for the world to see...
Elect from every nation,
Yet one o’er all the earth,
Her charter of salvation,
One Lord, one faith, one birth;
One holy Name she blesses,
Partakes one holy food,
And to one hope she presses,
With every grace endued.
‘…he saw and he believed. Till this moment they had failed to understand the teaching of scripture, that Jesus must rise from the dead.’ John 20:8-9
Perhaps surprisingly, the gospel reading set for Easter Day presents us with the mystery of the resurrection of the Lord, without featuring Jesus himself. Instead, this passage is marked by frantic search for some tangible explanation for the disappearance of Jesus’ body; there are rumours of something having happened at the tomb overnight, perhaps fears that the resting place of Jesus has been vandalised, that the body has been stolen… There are witness statements to be confirmed, and a certain degree of shock to be overcome. But among all this uncertainty we encounter an example of faith which should help us in our own faith journey. This example is given to us by the Saint John, described in the gospel as the disciple whom Jesus loved. In verses 8 and 9 we are told a peculiar phrase that has puzzled theologians ever since, we are told that John ‘saw and believed; Till this moment [Peter and himself] had failed to understand the teaching of scripture, that [Jesus] must rise from the dead.’
John believed without understanding the Scriptures? Then what did John believe in? Can there be faith without full understanding of the Scriptures? A few Christian writers affirm that the words ‘saw and believed’ mean that John finally believed in what Mary Magdalene about Jesus’ body having been taken from the tomb (Cf. John 20:2). In a world where female witness counted very little, John and Peter run to the tomb to verify Mary’s story; so when John’s sees that the woman was right, he eventually believes in her statement – Jesus’ body is truly gone.
However, I would stand with other gospel interpreters in suggesting that John’s faith is actual faith in the resurrection as a mystery; faith in the inexplicable victory of Christ over death. John sees the grave clothes left neatly behind, he recalls the words of Mary, and something clicks in him – this cannot have been the work of very tidy grave robbers. John believes. He may not be able to articulate his faith very well at this stage, but an embryonic faith is already there; a faith which will later be confirmed in his sighting of Jesus – later in the gospel John is the first one of the disciples to recognise Jesus from afar and to shout with joy, ‘It is the Lord!’ (John 21:7). John believes in the very mystery of what happened; he may not be able to explain his faith using Scriptural references, yet he believes.
I believe John’s experience may be quite common among Christians. Oftentimes, people think that, as believers, we have everything figured out; that we have the answer to whatever theological question and extreme moral dilemma we might be face by. But the truth is that we don’t; we are works in progress not just in terms of how we behave, but even in terms of how we believe. In this sense, for many Christians having faith in a constant prayer saying, ‘Lord I believe, help my unbelief’ (Mark 9:24), and this is a good place to start.
But we go even a step further. For example, this morning we welcome James into the family of the Church, as he comes to the Lord supported by the faith of his parents and godparents, and by the faith of all God’s people in this place. James cannot articulate faith in God, but God accepts our faith, however great or small, on his behalf, and welcomes him in the number of his children. As James’ family, and as a wider congregation, all we need to do next is trying to grow in this faith, along with him, through grace, study, and prayer. Like Saint John, James will have occasions for his faith to mature, be strengthened, and confirmed in his own words; but in the meantime, we just need an open heart to believing and to be constant in prayer.