(Sunday sermons, talks, and teaching)
‘…falling to their knees they did him homage. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.’ (Matthew 2:11)
The story of the Magi has captured the imagination of countless generations of Christians, and why wouldn’t it? The Wise Men appear mysteriously on the scene lead by a star; they turn up to the house of the Holy Family unannounced; they bring with them precious gifts, they worship Jesus as Saviour and God, and then they leave as quickly as they arrived… Rivers of ink have been spilled about these star-gazers from the East, and there is so much we could talk about after reading their story. But perhaps the most important thing we can do this morning is to travel in spirit to Bethlehem with the Magi, and to learn something about worship from the way in which they greet the Christ-child and the gifts they bring. We read that the Magi ‘fell to their knees’ – or as the Greek text puts it, they prostrated themselves before the Christ-child. This is the way people acknowledged the presence of God in ancient times, and the way in which followers of other religions still worship now. Yet, we seem to suffer with stiff knees, don’t we? And when we cannot avoid kneeling we do so begrudgingly. Yet, the Wise Men teach us that kneeling in prayer and greeting the Lord is this way is an act of devotion, of love, which – if we are able – we should imitate.
The Magi offered gold. Tradition associates this gift with the Kingship of Christ, because in ancient times only rulers and members of royal households could afford to wear gold, and only the palaces of kings or the temples of the gods could be decorated with it. But there is more. Gold was also a currency – as it still is today, and in offering it to Jesus the Magi offered financial support to the Holy Family who found themselves far from Nazareth, and on the brink of a perilous journey into Egypt. It is as if by worshipping Jesus with gifts of gold, the Wise Men were the first to put into practice the commands Jesus will give to assist those in difficulty. Likewise, the gifts we ourselves offer to the Lord – both to make his house a beautiful and resplendent place fit for the King, and to lift the poor out of misery – are an essential part of the Christian life. And the Wise Men teach us that giving is an important aspect of the way we worship God.
The Magi offered frankincense. Tradition associates this gift with the Divinity of Christ, because in ancient times incense was offered only to the gods. In the Jerusalem Temple an altar was dedicated to this purpose alone, and in the house of Bethlehem the Magi offer incense to the Christ-child, to our God-made-flesh. Likewise, the incense we offer in this place (and more generally the beauty and the ritual of our liturgy) is part of the Christian life.
The Magi offered myrrh. Tradition associates this gift with the Passion and Death of Christ, because in ancient times myrrh was often used to preserve the body from the effects of death and stay its decay. And in this sense it is a gift we cannot offer to the Lord anymore, because he has risen from the dead and death does not have power over him. But there is another meaning behind this gift. Myrrh was mixed with oil for anointing and consecration, so through their gift the Magi honoured the Lord Jesus as the Eternal High Priest who sacrificed himself for us. We too have been anointed with oil mixed with perfume at our Baptism and Confirmation, then – like myrrh – our life are ought to be a fragrant gift to God through the Lord Jesus
‘…falling to their knees they did him homage. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.’ (Matthew 2:11)
We may not be able to follow a star to Bethlehem like that Magi, but every time we approach the altar we too come into the presence of the Lord Jesus, so our worship and love of him should be inspired by theirs. These mysterious travellers teach us that the worship of Christ is something beautiful and all-encompassing; including our emotions, our senses, our posture, and our possessions. Or as a Passiontide hymn puts it,
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were a present far too small.
Love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.
Well done, good and faithful servant; you have shown you can be faithful in small things, I will trust you with greater; come and join in your master’s happiness. (Matt 25:23)
On Friday I paid a short visit to the church of Christ the King, Gordon Square, in London – and if you ever find yourselves at loose ends in Bloomsbury, I encourage you to do the same as it is a masterpiece of English gothic revival. This church was built by the Catholic Apostolic Church, which was a Victorian religious group (with very little to do with the Church of England, or with Roman Catholicism) that emphasised the second coming of Jesus – in fact members of this church, genuinely expected Christ to come in glory at any moment and they forecasted it to happen in their lifetime. Rumours even have it that in the vestry of this church the best set of vestments was always laid out on the vestment press, ready for the Lord to wear them at his coming. We may find this custom amusing, or even outlandish, but perhaps it should prompt us to reflect on how we relate to Christian belief in the second coming of Christ as sovereign Lord and judge of all creation. Faith in the second coming is often misrepresented by both Christians and non-believers alike, and it may even seem out of place when we think that scientists can now calculate the life expectancy of stars. Yet, the Creed we say together affirms that Jesus ‘will come again to judge both the living and the dead’.
The theme of Jesus’ return is embedded in today’s parable of the talents – indeed, it is the dominant feature of Matthew 24 and 25. And here we read that, at his coming, the Lord will reward those who to have faithfully invested their talents, whilst he will reject from his presence those whom failed his trust. Then, our faith in the Lord’s return should lead us to see ourselves as the characters of the parable, as the servants whom the Master entrusts with a lavish array of talents from his own fullness. In Jesus’ time a talent was an enormous sum of money; it corresponded to the wage for over eight years of work – if not more. But in the parable, talents represent more than just money; they are a symbol of the extraordinary number of flairs and abilities God freely bestows on each one of us. And regardless of whether we see ourselves in the servant with five talents, or in the servant entrusted with one, all we need to recognise is that God has, in fact, given us much… No-one among us here – in fact, I go as far as saying no human being – is deprived of at least a special quality, a something, they can invest to the glory of God – we just need to be able to recognise what has been given to us, and put it to its best possible use.
But what could our talents be? Do you have free time? Offer it to the Church, or spend it in prayer for others. Do you have a lively faith, or delight in learning about God? Encourage those whose faith is weak. Are you an artist? Say something about God with your art. Do you have administrative skills? There are plenty of churches who need your help. Do you have money or wealth? Give what you can. Do you have musical skills? Join the choir. Do you have a vocation to ministry? Devote your life to it. Are you outgoing and cheerful? Befriend the lovely. These are just examples, but they give us an idea that almost everything can be used to glory of God, and that we are charged with this task.
So, what impact should the parable of the talents and our belief in the second coming have on the way we live? And what should we do so that the Lord may say to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant”? The answer is rather simple; whilst people outside these walls would use everything in their power to advance their position in society or to gain fame and wealth, we, as Christian, should use everything we have received from God so as to further his glory. Only then we can hope to enter the master’s joy, the joy of heaven, and be admitted into the Lord’s presence.
Once saw a fridge magnet at a friend’s vicarage that read, “Jesus is coming. Look busy!” And I guess there is a little bit of truth in this. Our faith teaches us that Jesus will indeed come again. But, even though Christians have often tried to forecast his appearing, today’s parable remind us that the point of our faith is neither to determine an Estimated Time of Arrival for Jesus nor to pretend to be busy; rather faith should make us faithful and diligent in working for him.
Jesus says, ‘you have only one master, and you are all brothers.’ (Matt 23:8)
The Bible texts we have just read, with their references to priesthood and teaching ministry, are sadly not the texts used at ordinations within the Church of England. Maybe this is a missed opportunity for checking, at the eleventh hour, that the candidates standing before the bishop truly understand what they are letting themselves in for. But I suspect that introducing these texts might also lead to an increase in the numbers of last-minute drop outs.
In today’s gospel, we see Jesus criticising once again the religious elite of his time as we have seen him doing many times already in the last few weeks. These people, and especially the scribes, were considered the official interprets of the Law, of the Scriptures, and because of this they could claim for themselves position of power in Jewish society, the respect and admiration of everyone, and they could also express judgment – often harsh judgment – on the morality of others. And so the Lord reproaches them because they exalted themselves above fellow Israelites, because they themselves failed to live up to the high standard they set for others, and because through their strict teachings they caused people to stumble in their faith (cf. Mal 2:8). The Church too does not have good track record on this issue. History records countless times when individuals charged with the governance of God’s people have abused their positions of authority, promoted moral double-standards, and failed to care for the flock of Christ. So both the Lord’s criticism to the scribes and Pharisees, and the prophecy of Malachi in our first reading, still ring true today.
Yet, the Lord’s teaching is not directed to the scribes and Pharisees, or priests and theologians, alone; it is aimed to all his disciples and the crowds as well. This is because the point Jesus is trying to put across is not a subversive message against the entire religious establishment, but against those who misuse religion for personal gain, to acquire for themselves moral high ground in every situation, and to conquer the respect of others. The point Jesus wants to understand is this ‘you have only one master, and you are all brothers’ (Matt 23:8). If we excuse the gender exclusive language, Jesus is saying that we are all equal before him, and all equal before the Father in heaven. Jesus does recognise that there are people called by God to positions of authority and by saying, ‘You must therefore do what they tell you and listen to what they say’ (Matt 23) he invites everyone to respect their ministry and, if possible, to learn from them – even when these prove themselves to be wanting in the way they lead their lives.
Within our Christian family there are those who have special responsibility, people entrusted with a duty of care, but this does not change the fact that we are all fundamentally siblings – beloved children of God by adoption whom the Father sees as equal members of the body of his only begotten Son Jesus Christ. In this sense, when Jesus commands us to call no-one father or teacher he wants us to reflect on what those titles mean. This is not a blanket ban on using the words “father” and “teacher”. Jesus is not saying that to call a priest Father is wrong, like many evangelicals would have us believe. In ancient times fathers had the ultimate say in everything – even life or death – for everyone in their household, they could even sell off their children. Teachers too could be harsh masters of their pupils. So Jesus says, no-one but God should have this level of authority over anyone of us, because we are all brothers.
The words of the liturgy help us understand this better. However we refer to our priests in terms of titles – Father, Reverend, Mother, Vicar – at the moment in which the offerings of bread and wine are placed upon the altar, the celebrant says, ‘Pray, my brothers and sisters, that my sacrifice and yours will be acceptable to God, the Almighty Father’. As the liturgy of the sacrament enters into its most profound part, the balance between congregation and priest, the balance among the people of God, is redressed to highlight the fact that actually “we are all brothers and sisters” before God the Father.
The ground-breaking teaching of today’s gospel is not “don’t call anyone father or teacher” but is ‘you are all brothers and sisters’ before God. And, as our society appears to become more and more fragmented, more and more divided by the partisan language of “us” and “them”, the Lord’s commands us to rediscover what it means to be part of the same family, the same household of God.
Jesus says, “Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God.” (Matt 22:21)
The age-old saying ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’ plays a key role in today’s gospel reading. The Pharisees and the Herodians were two rival factions at the time of Jesus; the first a group of fierce religious nationalists who hated the Romans and their ways, the second a group of collaborators who thrived under the Roman occupation of Palestine, and had embraced many of the non-Jewish customs imported by the Empire. Yet, these two bitterly divided groups found a point of unity in persecuting Jesus and – as Mark’s gospel tells us – in plotting to kill him (cf. Mark 6:3).
Jesus had been a strong critic of sectarian groups such as these, and he had lashed out against their interpretation of religion many times before. Now it was the time for Pharisees and Herodians to hit back. And today’s question about taxation finds its origin in their unlikely alliance. In the minds of both groups, their clever question would have been a catch 22 for Jesus; if the Lord answered that Roman taxation was wrong, he could have been accused before the authorities and put to death; while if Jesus endorsed paying tributes to the foreign super-power of his day, he would have lost the support of many of his followers who were, after all, mostly Jewish. But, as we read, Jesus is not fooled by clever arguments; not then, not now, not ever. And I guess many people still struggle with his response to this day.
Even among us there are those who would find it rather satisfying if Jesus had launched himself into a long discourse about unjust taxes, or if he had laid the foundations of modern democracy saying things like “no taxation without representation”. But he didn’t. Likewise, other people would be rather pleased if Jesus had used this occasion to endorse, one and for all, a specific way of government or another, or if he had laid out some clear guidelines for political leaders. But he didn’t. In fact, Jesus only said then, and says to us now, “Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God.”
But what does it even mean? Is this some clever trick Jesus used to get out of a tight spot? Are these are the words of someone who wishes to sit on the fence in order not to lose followers? One could definitely interpret the story in this way, but it would not quite fit within the Christian narrative.
Here Jesus is giving us a simple moral commandment. He is establishing some ground rules for the ways in which Christians are to behave in in the world. On one hand, Caesar represents the state, and for Jesus giving back to Caesar means paying the taxes we owe and striving to be upstanding members of society. From the gospels it is clear that Jesus does not endorse the brutalities committed by the Roman Empire, or by any other political system for that matter, but he commands his followers to be good citizens of whatever nation they find themselves living in. This idea of good citizenship is also picked up in the writing of St Paul where he says, ‘supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity’ (1Tim 2:1-2).
On the other hand, giving to God that which rightfully belongs to him may not seems so clear-cut, so well defined, as filling out an HMRC form or respecting the rules of society. But in Jesus we see that giving to God means paying to him our homage of worship in a way that encompasses everything we do; being constant in prayer, faithful in worshipping together, confident in the faith, generous towards those in need and towards the Church, and pursuing (campaigning for) justice and peace for this world.
In short, today’s gospel recognises that Christians – all of us – are caught up between two competing worlds; between God and Caesar, between the demands of religion and demands of the society we live in; and with his words Jesus strikes some sort of truce between these two worlds. He invites us to play our part in society as good citizens, as long as our duties towards God have the absolute priority, because – as St Paul wrote to the Philippians – at the end of the day ‘our citizenship is in heaven’ (Phil 3:20).
The king said to his servants, “The wedding is ready;
…go to the crossroads in the town and invite everyone.” (Matt 22:8-9)
If you have ever been invited to a wedding you would know how important etiquette and preparation are. Invitations must be sent out well in advance with a clear indication of timings; menu choices and dietary requirements must be returned; suitable gifts and clothing have to be purchased… It wasn’t like this at the time of Jesus. Invitations to important weddings were more like announcements that the marriage would take place at some point in the future; neither the date nor the time were clearly specified for very practical reasons. Only once the bridal party had gathered all the food, wine, musicians, and everything else that was needed, only then the wedding celebrations could go ahead. Only once everything was ready the household servants would go out to round up the guests. And if you had been put on the spot by the sudden call to attend the party, you didn’t have to worry; even suitable wedding garments would have been provided. So if you had been invited, all you had to do was turn up. A bit haphazard, you might think, but in the days before clocks and professional wedding organisers, this worked pretty well, even when the wedding was not an ordinary one. This is a marriage celebration organised by the king; a party that would have lasted at least a week. The closest thing we could compare it to nowadays would be being invited to Buckingham Palace for a week-long lively programme of state dinners with food, entertainment, clothes, and accommodation all provided. Imagine that.
And it is in this cultural context that Jesus places today’s parable. A story in which the King is God the Father, his Son is Jesus himself, and the servants are the prophets of old – some of whom had been maltreated and even killed. The original guests – the ones, who though invited, backed away from God’s invitation to be his holy nation – are an illustration of Israel’s religious elite. To them Jesus contrasts the new guests, gathered from the most unlikely of places; from crossroads. These are the gentiles, the non-Jewish people, us; the ones to whom God willingly extends his call to become his holy people. The wedding garments, which are so crucial in order to be admitted to the feast, are a representation of the habits faith and love we must practice. And finally, the celebration itself is an image both of the eternal life which we hope to enjoy, and of holiness we are called to live in the present.
So reading this parable, what does the call to holiness look like? First, we can say that God’s call is open to everyone. Even if so many people turn his offer down, God keeps inviting. Secondly, we can say that God’s call is a free gift. There is no charge, fee, or hoops that we have to jump through in order to be called to become saints. We do not need to be to prove ourselves worthy of it, because God’s invitation is, and always will be, there. And lastly, we can say that the call to holiness is essentially a call to joy; an invitation and a cause for celebration. For too long saints, holy people, and faithful Christians have been seen as killjoys, but the parable of the wedding feast essentially says, “God calls you to joy now, and to celebration in the life to come.” The only thing we have to do is to clothe ourselves in the wedding garments of faith and good deeds which God provides for us.
As unoriginal as it may sound to us now, the meaning of this parable was ground-breaking for Jesus’ original listeners; everyone is invited to the wedding feast – not just one nation or type of people; each one of us, as the parable says ‘bad and good alike’, is called to become a saint. And we should do well to rediscover this meaning.
The man went and said to the first son,
“My boy, you go and work in the vineyard today.” (Matthew 21:28)
As a curate, every time I went on holiday my training incumbent would perform his best impression of a martyr to parish life and say, “You have fun, I stay here working and treading grapes in the Lord’s vineyard”. And in many church contexts the Biblical expression of “working in the vineyard” is usually associated with spreading the faith, managing churches, and making disciples of Jesus, but this is not so much the case in today’s gospel reading. In the parable of the two sons we have just read the man is God the Father who extends to his children an invitation to work in his vineyard as an invitation to holiness, a call to enter the kingdom of heaven ever more deeply by leading a life pleasing to him. In the two siblings we see two examples of how a person might respond to the Father’s call; one who, though initially opposed, reconsiders the Father’s invitation and does his will, and another who, thinking either too lightly of his duties or too highly of his status as son, ends up disregarding the commitment he made, and disobeys the Father.
Jesus used this parable to criticise the Jewish religious elite of his time – we see he addresses the parable as a moral question to the chief priests and the elders of the people (cf. Matt 21:28); to those who failed to recognise God at work in the ministry of St John the Baptist and in his own ministry too; to those who paid lip-service to God, but thought too highly of themselves and did not see their need for repentance. They are represented by the son who said, “Certainly, sir,” but did not go’ (Matt 21:30) and so let the Father down. To them Jesus presents the example of faith, trust in God, and openness to conversion given by those traditionally on the margins of the Jewish religious and social establishment, the ‘tax collectors, prostitutes’ and others sinners who were shunned by society. These are represented by the son who ‘answered, “I will not go” but afterwards thought better of it and’ (Matt 21) did the Father’s will.
But this is not just a story from the past. The Lord Jesus speaks these words to us today as well. We could transpose it to our own time by casting in the role of the first son all those whom the Church has cast to the margins, and as the second son all those baptised and confirmed people who have promised to serve the Lord, but whose actions never match their words. And so the implicit question, “Which one of the two sons am I?” is a simple one, but it should encourage us to reflect how we respond to God’s invitation to holiness and to the Christian life.
This is something of which I am personally (and painfully!) aware. In my journey towards priesthood I was very much the son ‘who answered, “I will not go,” but afterwards thought better of it’ (Matt 21), and after having put off ordained ministry for over ten years, and even after changing Christian denomination, I relented and decided to do something about it. But the call to holiness is not a call to be a priest; it is an open invitation to all, and things don’t get much easier on this front just because you’re wearing a white shirt collar back-to-front. Even now, when the Father calls for deeper holiness, for closer union with him, and greater personal commitment, I am the one who gets side-tracked by other, less productive, activities, and then has to make amends.
Like in the parable, every day the Father renews his invitation to you and me, and to every Christian to work in his vineyard, his call to change our lives and, slowly but surely, to become the person he wants us to be. The way in which we answer the Father’s invitation will determine the way in which we actually live our faith... we could be the ones who go to church, pay lip-service to God, and hide behind our religious paraphernalia fooling ourselves that we are the ones doing the Father’s will, but this is what the second son did. Or we could be the ones who do go to church, who are repentant when we fail, and also aim to live out our faith in a way that matches our words; in a way that what we say to God may be supported or even exceeded by our good deeds.
Jesus says, ‘where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them.’ (Matt 18:20)
I don’t know if you have ever walked into the middle of a conversation, like I have done many a time, and you ended up getting the wrong end of the stick altogether… It is easily done, and it can happen to anyone. In fact, the same type misunderstanding can also happen when we approach the Bible outside its proper context, or even more so when we focus on an isolated verse of the Scriptures and we draw all sorts of conclusions from just that one phrase.
Today’s gospel gives us a couple of examples of very common misunderstandings which can easily arise when we take the teachings of Jesus out of their proper framework. At the beginning of our reading we see that Jesus gives instructions on how to behave towards other Christians when they do something wrong – instructions that could lead even to the exclusion of a member (or as this is known in church terms, “excommunication”). A bit harsh, we might think, but pretty straightforward to apply on the whole. Then again, you see that Jesus says here, ‘If your brother does something wrong, go and have it out with him’ (Matt 18:15), so you can imagine how it could go horribly wrong. And if this were all the Christian teaching one had to go by, one could feel perfectly entitled to see it as their duty – their vocation even – to corner and to shame another person about their conduct… ‘go and have it out with them!’
The second example of a common misunderstanding comes a little further down as the Lord says, ‘where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them’ (Matt 18:20). Again, if this were all the Christian teaching we had to go by, we could think that (a) praying on our own wouldn’t get us very far all, and (b) as long as there was at least one other person with us, then we could pray and worship in any way we wanted because Jesus would be with us to make sure the Father would grant us all our wishes like a divine Genie of the lamp. For both of these examples, similarly to walking into the middle of a conversation, if we are unaware of the context in which they were set we could end up misunderstanding what Jesus actually meant to teach us and get ourselves caught up in a religion of our own making.
But what is the context of the Scriptures? Jesus identifies it as the Church when he says that all his teachings are applicable within “the Community” of believers. The word used here is “ecclesia” (Cf. Matt 18:17), meaning the assembly of all the faithful which the Lord gathers around himself, the collective body of all Christians. It is this Community that the Lord charges with recalling all people to repentance, whilst not to judge anyone; this is the community entrusted by Jesus with “binding or loosing” (meaning forgiving sins and welcoming back stray members); this is the community entrusted with the message of the gospel; and, regardless of its size, this is the place where Jesus primarily meets with his follower.
Oftentimes is can be all too easy to grumble and to feel dejected about “the Church” as an abstract reality, but if today’s gospel teaches us anything about our community of faith is that the ecclesia, the Church, is essentially the backdrop against which the true meaning of the Lord’s teachings could stand out and become relevant for us. Christian thinkers of several denominations, and first among them the Church Fathers, have taught for millennia one simple phrase; ‘extra Ecclesiam nulla salus’ meaning ‘outside the Church there is no salvation’. This is because the Church is essentially our context, the one body of which we became part at our baptism, and the backdrop against which we each play out our individual vocation to be the person – our true selves, as I said last Sunday – that God created, loves, and finds indispensable.
Maybe I sound like an idealist here, painting such a rosy picture of the Church as the community to which all people are called, and the place where each person can be their true self. But I have experienced the alternative to this view. I spent a good few years being angry towards the Church, wanting to ignore it, and to move on. But being part of this community gives full meaning to the gospel – in a sense, the Church brings the gospel to life in each generation as a tangible reality. Being gathered around the Lord Jesus – at least on Sundays – at Mass gives meaning to the saying, ‘where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them.’ And being Church gives meaning to our prayers. Indeed, being part of the Church is what gives meaning to our being Christians. To pretend otherwise, to think that Jesus calls everyone to follow him, but that “he doesn’t do Church” would be the biggest misunderstanding of them all.
Jesus says, ‘If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me.’ (Matt 16:24)
In St John’s Gospel there is a famous statement Jesus makes about himself and his mission that can appear a little puzzling especially when compared to what he says this morning. In John 10 Jesus says, ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly’ (John 10:10); which means that to follow Jesus should make us experience life to all its true and possible fullness. However, today in Matthew Jesus seems to paint a bleaker picture saying, ‘anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it’ (Matt 16:25); and besides this Jesus also invites all prospective Christians to ‘deny themselves and take up their cross’ (16:24).
So, which one is it? What does living the Christian life really entail? On one hand the peddlers and sympathisers of the so-called Prosperity Gospel – popular in America and with the Trump administration – would say that genuinely following Christ would bring blessings of personal achievements, well-being, and financial security as immediate rewards from the Lord; therefore living life to its fullness in a very tangible sense. On the other hand, many people (both within and outside the Church) insist on picturing being a Christian as essentially the pursuit of self-denial, to the point of reducing religion to a cold list of dos and many, many don’ts.
But actually the truth is that both these interpretations, apart from being polar opposites, are also neither helpful in promoting Christianity, nor an accurate picture of what the Christian life really looks like. Jesus does bestow fullness of life on his followers, but this fullness has often little to do with material comfort, financial security, or personal achievements. Similarly, the purpose of the self-denial and of picking up the cross which Jesus talks about is never an exercise in self-loathing. Jesus does not ask us to straggle along behind him beating ourselves with sticks. So, once again, what does living the Christian life really entail?
Last week I quoted one of my favourite theologians in saying that ‘Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary’ (BXVI, Homily, Sunday, 24 April 2005). But I understand that we can’t often perceive how important this is. In a culture where we are constantly told that self-image and worth are determined almost exclusively by what we possess, by what people think of us, by how many likes our social-media accounts get, and by how we conform to the latest trends, we risk creating a fake reality around ourselves in the hope that all this will provide our lives with meaning, shield us from pain, give us security, and ultimately bring us happiness. Yet, this artificial self of our own making has nothing to do with the person God created and loves.
When Jesus invites each of us to follow him, to live the Christian life he is essentially asking us to lose the fake and transient realities we have manufactured for ourselves (sometimes even at great personal costs); he is asking us to dispose of those things that distract us from being a Christian, and he is asking us to lose all those life plans we made without consulting him, in order that we may find our own true self in him; or rather, so that we may discover our own identity in being the person which the Father thought of, loves, and finds indispensable.
If we do this; if we constantly look for our true self in Christ, if we bear the cross of whatever circumstance we find ourselves in because of our faith, if we strive each day to follow Jesus by imitating him, then we will be able to experience the fullness of life Jesus promises to his followers.
Inside the dome of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, several feet high above the place where Peter himself has laid buried for almost two thousand years, there is a large inscription made with black lettering on a gold background;
‘You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church…
I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven’ (Matt 16:18-19).
Michelangelo positioned these two verses of Matthew’s gospel at the base of the dome as a golden circlet, a crown above the tomb of the Apostle, and as a reminder of level of responsibility and trust Our Lord places on the whole of his Church; ‘whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven’ (Matt 16:19).
Now, as we read this passage, we could look at its importance in shaping the Church around the ministry of St Peter. But [as a good Anglican] I would like to focus on something slightly broader in meaning; God’s willingness – in fact, his desire – for human cooperation in his work of creation and redemption. The desire of God for human participation comes up as a recurring theme throughout the history of salvation. For example, when God chose his people in the Old Testament he relied on Abraham and made a covenant, a pact, with him; when the people of Israel cried out to the Lord form the land of Egypt God entrusted Moses to lead them out of slavery; when the House of Israel needed the leadership of a faithful steward God entrusted Eliakim (from our first reading) and relied on his decisions. In the New Testament when God sent his Son into the world he relied on the cooperation of the Virgin Mary and he entrusted Jesus to the care of St Joseph; when Our Lord wanted to spread the gospel he relied on his apostles and disciples, and finally, as we see today, when Jesus wanted to build his Church he relied on St Peter, the Rock to be quite literally the foundation stone. And when we focus our attention on examples such as these a clear pattern emerges. In every situation, from the beginning of Salvation history until now, the Lord relies on his people – meaning each one of us as well – to further his work. Much as he did with his first disciples, the Lord Jesus calls us to specific tasks that only we can do, he blesses us with every possible grace to help us in our work, and he gives us the Holy Spirit to strengthen us in all our doings.
But let me put this in another way. On Thursday was the feast of the Apostle Bartholomew. The prayer for that day said,
O Lord, …grant that… your Church
may become the sacrament of salvation for all the nations.
A sacrament is essentially the way in which the grace of God reaches people through the means of ordinary objects and actions consecrated to his service (like bread, wine, touching, and washing). So, when we pray to become the sacrament of salvation, we pray that the Lord may reach other people with his grace through us; through our ordinariness, through our humanity which has been consecrated to his service by baptism.
So here is the beauty of our Christin faith. We are not just infinitely loved by God; we are also infinitely needed by him. ‘We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.’ (BXVI, Homily, Sunday, 24 April 2005)
There may have been only one St Peter and only one ministry to which the Lord has entrusted the keys of his kingdom, but this does not change the fact that each one of us is entrusted with continuing and furthering Jesus’ saving work in the world. So if you don’t take anything away from this service, at least take this; God invites you to work with him, God entrusts you with his redeeming work, God relies on you to bring salvation to others.
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.