Sermon - 28th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Posted on the 11th Oct 2020 in the category Resources
Blessed are those who are called to the wedding banquet
Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless.Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”
Weddings have become fragile and fraught events in our present experience of living with what remains a life-threatening infection. For so many couples, their families and their friends, a wedding celebration may be on one minute, off another, rescheduled or reimagined from the event they longed and hoped for and transformed into something far smaller and less full of exuberance and happiness. We must keep them all in our prayers – that as they promise their futures to one another they may feel the special sense that God is no less with them in present circumstances than he will be in better times in the future.
But imagine then, the shock of the king in our gospel reading who, having prepared his son’s wedding banquet, and invited guests to what would be an epoch-making event, affecting everyone’s future when the son became king, gets cold-shouldered by everyone he had invited. A wedding feast was a familiar image to Jesus’s listeners – not just any wedding feast, but the feast of God’s wedding to his people – an image of God’s covenant with his chosen bride-people, and of the kingdom God’s people would enjoy together. Luke’s telling of this story (14.16-24) is very similar to Matthew’s, but is much more lifelike. Matthew’s version, which we’ve just heard, is much less so. It has a very different tone and energy. Luke’s telling of it occurs much earlier in Jesus’s ministry, and is told to lawyers and pharisees. Matthew’s telling is the last of three parables (ch. 21.28—22.14) which we have heard as the Sunday gospel over the last few weeks, that is told to the chief priests and elders. They are precisely those people who – within two or three days – will have engineered Jesus’s show-trial and crucifixion. As a result Matthew’s version has about it not only a sense of urgency – “Come to the wedding! Everything is ready! It’s about to spoil! Come and share!” – it is also full of menace, even anger. Jesus knows that the pan is about to boil over, and he is ready, as we say in the eucharistic prayer, ‘to enter willingly into his passion’.
The parable is a kind of allegory about all the different ways in which human beings, who quite plainly hear God himself calls them, nonetheless scorn or reject that call, cold-shouldering the invitation to new life. At least five times the verb καλεο (kaléo) occurs, a word that means a bold invitation, a loud call, a direct summons to a person. God has not hidden his invitation to life and light and love from any human being – which is why mission is so crucial an aspect of the Church’s identity. God summons us to share in the wedding, γάμος (gámos), a word that occurs seven times. Sharing with others in present joy and future promise is right at the very heart of God’s invitation.
And yet, and yet … such extraordinary good news receives incomprehensibly cold responses from those who are called. Set as this story is early in what we call Holy Week, it is impossible not to see all this converging on the rejection and killing of Jesus himself.
As with some of Jesus’s other parables there are layers of meaning as to why God’s call is rejected, who God calls instead, and the different attitudes of those who do finally respond. In a longer homily we could think about those attitudes and how much of them we each see in ourselves.
The chief priests and elders listening to Jesus simply did not recognise – despite the fact that their plans to arrest Jesus are well underway – that this ordinary human being who stands before them is not only unpacking to their faces their own refusal of God, but that their reaction to him will decide their own fate.
Perhaps you or I would have been equally blind? Or perhaps we’re more like the man with no wedding garment, who simply goes along with the crowd, and never understands the invitation he had responded to. Instead, when the king enquires, he is silent and he loses his chance of life.
But let us end this meditation of Jesus’s words with a reminder of what it is that he so urgently invites us to share. We do so, of course, now, with the hindsight of everything that followed: the death and resurrection of Jesus, the growth of the Church, and centuries of dependence of the word of God and the Eucharist to guide and teach and nourish it. With all of that to guide our thoughts, we can see something extraordinary, which Jesus’s hearers could never have seen.
You all know the saying, ‘Always a bridesmaid; never a bride’. The covenant that Jesus sealed by the death he willingly embraced, and by the power of his resurrection, was a new covenant – a wedding – with all who are baptized into it, and a new and eternal life that floods the entire universe. And as a result you and I are not invited to be guests, well-dressed onlookers, at Christ’s wedding, however knowingly and faithfully. We are not attendants someone else’s celebration, witnesses to someone else’s union. We, dear friends, are the bride! It is our wedding we are invited to! The Eucharist is the wedding feast of our unity with the Lord, in body and soul in an eternal covenant, an eternal joy, throughout our lives ‘for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health’, a life together that death can never part. We need only to receive God’s call from an open heart, to be flooded by his life so that it is ‘born’ in us every bit as much it was in the Virgin Mary and all the saints who, in every age, have understood that ‘Nothing is impossible with God’. The question is, will we accept God’s invitation and welcome? Will we embrace unity with Christ, who has promised he will never let us down, and never let us go?
Sermon - 27th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Posted on the 4th Oct 2020 in the category Resources
The stubborn God
St Matthew 21.33-43; 27th Sunday of Ordinary Time
This sermon was given on 4th October 2020 at All Saints, Castlefields, Shrewsbury
The image of the vineyard and the vine is one of Scriptures richest and deepest metaphors, on a par with a the image of the wedding feast. It provides an allegory for God’s whole project of salvation, and of God’s Covenant with his People. In our Gospel passage, Jesus adapts what Isaiah prophesied to his own listeners and to moment in salvation history that he was living through. His emphasis is not so much on the vineyard as on the workers in it. God is the lord and owner of the vineyard, indeed he planted it and created it. Because it was chosen and loved by God, he repeatedly the sent prophets, who normally encountered rejection, opposition, violence, and even bloody death. Stubbornly – not normally something we say about God, but his love can be stubborn, he never seems to think better of it! – stubbornly God continues to send his representatives to his vineyard. But those who are responsible for the vineyard are motivated by a different desire: to own the vineyard for themselves.
That is what should scandalize us; that is the sharp edge of this parable as Jesus tells it so close to his own death. They want to become masters of the vineyard, masters of the people. It’s a kind of betrayal. Their behavior is violent, inhuman, homicidal; they indulge in lies and abuse, they’re unscrupulous, lacking any sense of responsibility, detached from reality, brutalized, manifesting a disrespect – for God and the people – that goes as far as killing. Their behaviour is that of a master, or rather what they think a ‘master’ should be, rather than that of a servant or a steward.
Such an attitude, which is completely indifferent to God and to human well being, is of course a great contrast with God’s behaviour. He, as the source of goodness, stubbornly continues to believe in doing and giving good. So eventually God thinks, ‘They will have respect for my son’. ‘Why!?’ we ask as we listen to the parable. It is rather a pantomime moment in the story. ‘O yes they will’ says God, ‘O no they won’t’ we cry back. We know where this story is going. And of course what happens is a huge and inevitable shock: the father and owner of the vineyard loses his son at the hands of those who want to possess the vineyard for themselves. It doesn’t matter that it’s rather an irrational story – our human desire for possession, security, self-advantage and control in our lives is not rational. Mention of the expulsion and killing of the owner’s son is plainly an allusion to Jesus’s death, outside the city gate (Heb 13.12). And it confirms the story as an allegory of the history of God with his people until the sending of the Son after the many sending of prophets.
The incident ends with a particularly severe warning from Jesus, addressed to the chief priests and the elders of the people: “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing the fruits of it” (Matt 21.43). They are words that call to mind the great responsibility of those in every epoch who are called to take responsibility for the Lord’s people, especially those in roles of authority. And lest you think only of the clergy in this connection, let me remind you that one of the features of our Anglican life is thath many lay people exercise a personal or shared authority in synods and in other leadership roles in our church. So it is not just the ordained who are responsible for the Church’s fidelity and responsibility toward Christ.
But to return to the parable, I want to point you to the conversation that Jesus has with the chief priests and elders of the people. ‘What should happen to such tenants?’, Jesus asks. No doubt feeling that they are a little bit on thin ice, they reply, ‘They should be cast out and replaced with others.’ What very expectable behaviour from people whose minds work in just the way Jesus has described. It’s a vehement answer, a merciless answer; it shares the same logic of violence mentioned in the parable. Jesus, by contrast then calls them back to Scripture and asks them if they have never read the text of Psalm 118 on the rejected stone that has become the cornerstone. In other words he calls them back to what a stubbornly loving God is most likely to do, in contrast to them. What has been rejected by men, God brings back into play, and is made the cornerstone of something new. Jesus exposes that human choices and God’s choice are different. On the one hand (our human decision and action) produces waste, waste people, waste communities, waste earth. On the other (God’s decision and action) uses what man thinks to be waste, and uses it for his kingdom.
This parable challenges all of us – me included, but also you included – who have received the Gospel proclamation. Although in the history of the Church God has never failed to keep his promise of salvation, he has often had to resort to the kind of judgement of his church that is experienced as punishment, and it has died back for a time. The strength and extent of the Church often has ebbed and flowed. We know this not least from the history of the Church in our own country. It is not a sign of the deficiency of the gospel, or faith, or charity; but it might be a sign of the unwillingness of the church to think as God thinks, rather than as humanity thinks.
Is the same thing happening in our time? Nations and church communities like ours, once so rich in faith and vocations, are now losing their identity under the influence of destructive changes in our culture. Perhaps it is understandable for un-believers to behave as if God is dead; but in such a cultural atmosphere, is it not also a temptation for the Church to behave that way too? Do we functionally behave as if the Church were our possession, not God’s? And does our daily news not amply illustrate that arbitrary power, selfish interests, injustice, exploitation and violence, treating mankind and creation as commodities, reveal mankind’s tendencies when left to their own devices?
Yet there is promise in Jesus’ words – eternal promise, because, God being eternal means that he is eternally stubborn in his redeeming will. The vineyard will not be destroyed, nor will it be possessed by anyone but God. He will renew it on the foundation that man rejected. After his death, Christ did not remain in the tomb. On the contrary, precisely what seemed to have been definitively discarded, became the basis of a new and definitive victory. And it is to this victory that the Church, and its leaders, will be recalled.
In the interim it is likely that in the providence of God that the Church, not just ours, will indeed grow smaller. In all of the changes that we might guess at—and the virus has simply let us come to terms with what some of them may be—the Church will at length rediscover her conviction in what was always at her centre: faith in the triune God, in Jesus Christ the Son of God made man, in the presence of the Spirit through the sacraments and in the human heart until the end of the world.
The comforting message that we gather from all these biblical texts is the certainty that the dead hand of humanity’s control of the world’s fate is not the last word; but that Christ, ‘the Son of the stubborn God’, always triumph and give life!
The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Posted on the 8th Sep 2020 in the category Resources
The Nativity of the Virgin Mary
This sermon was preached at the 200th anniversary Patronal of St Mary’s Bathwick two days ago, and is offered here to celebrate today’s feast.
St Mary the Virgin, Bathwick - 6 September 2020
200th Anniversary Patronal Eucharist
Sometimes you know you are living through history. Our forebears (upwards of 1000 of them by all accounts) who were present for the consecration of this church, will have known they were living through history, and will never have forgotten it. For 800 years, their medieval parish church—Old St Mary’s—had stood on the site now filled by St John’s. But tiny and tired, the old church had been demolished two years earlier.
For the parishioners, these feelings would have been intensified by other events, because a new chapter was opening nationally not just locally. Less than a week before the consecration, George III, still the oldest and longest reigning king in British history, who for 30 years had suffered painfully for all to see, had finally died. It would be a further two weeks before his enormous funeral in Windsor. And it was into that gap that the consecration of this church fell. Very few could remember life without Old St Mary’s, or life without ‘Farmer George’, and no one knew what the future held. We perhaps share something of the same feeling today, as we look back on an era of our lives that has closed behind us, unclear what we shall carry into an un-certain future. And it is into this moment that the Virgin Mary, Bathwick’s patron for 800 years, steps with grace and wisdom.
Two days after the George’s funeral, a commemoration concert for the old king at the Theatre Royal in London, featured excerpts from his favourite music, Handel’s Messiah, including a famous aria which is introduced by words we heard just now in our Gospel: ‘Behold! A virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and you shall call his name Emmanuel, God with us.’ The Old Covenant, with its familiar laws and prophecies, all that God’s ancient people had ever known, had arrived at a new beginning, and with it the old world was closing. The period of law was ending; the period of grace was dawning, recreating the old.
‘Full of grace’, the angel had called her. In the birth of the Virgin Mary, and in the birth of her Divine Son, an unstoppable and grace-filled transformation of the old world was happening. An unimaginable and uncontrollable newness. Old mysteries, laws and promises were giving way to a new revelation of reality and truth.
2 From the very beginning, who Mary is is bound up with who Jesus is. Her body is always itself the ‘holy place’, the sanctuary, where God is at home. In the gospel stories we see her involvement with her Son: her young motherhood, her attendance in the mission field, her presence at Calvary, her receiving the resurrection news, her prayer with the Church for the descent of the Holy Spirit. And the climax of this life, lived in the Spirit with her Son, is her entry into his resurrection glory. When we are alongside her we are alongside him in his obedience, and suffering, and glory. And surely we are praying that our lives will become more like hers: shaped, marked, moved by her Son at every moment, until we too enjoy his company for ever in the risen life he promises.
It is this inner life of active faith that Jesus praises in Mary above all things. When (in Luke 11) a woman in the crowd, thrilled at Jesus’s insight and wisdom, cries, ‘Surely the womb that bore you is blessed, and the breasts that nursed you!’ ‘No!’ he replies, ‘it’s those who hear the word of God and obey it that are blessed!’ And who has ever believed and obeyed God’s word more perfectly than his mother? – she who, according to her cousin Elizabeth, ‘had believed that all that had been spoken to her by the Lord would be fulfilled’. Jesus affirms this even more strongly when he says, ‘Here are my mother, and brothers, and sisters: anyone who does God’s will!’
And the gospels make it clear that Mary’s response grew and developed; she came to understand more fully the answer she had freely given to Gabriel in her youth. The letter to the Hebrews says of Jesus ‘He learned obedience through what he suffered’ (5.8). It is not surprising that his mother also discovered, as she went on—or rather as her Son went on his way to the cross—what her choice must more fully involve. As God was revealing a new world through her son, she came (not without suffering) to a clearer insight of the word of God to her, and each time decided to keep it, to deepen it, and to trust it.
3 Whenever we look at an icon of the Virgin Mary, which are now so frequently seen in western culture, we see her as what she finally became – beyond the perturbing questions, beyond the crucifixion, beyond love’s victory over death and sin. We see her when, as St Paul says, ‘the decaying puts on the un-decaying, and the dying puts on the un-dying’ (1 Cor 15.54).
There are an infinite number of ways in which we can draw from the experience of this obscure peasant girl who has become ‘the first lady’ of heaven. Infinite, of course, because Mary points us to the Church’s vocation. In the great tradition Mary is never detached from her Son, but nor is she ever detached from the Church of which she is the figure. Like her, the Church is called to be the ark in which Christ lives; the temple of God, the dwelling-place of God in the Spirit (1 Cor 3.16f). Like her, the Church is called to bring Christ to the world; to embody in its life not its own mission but God’s mission: his desire to reconcile and unite the world to himself. Like her each of us has said yes to that vocation. But in each generation Christians have to grow in their response to the word of God. We have to live through the questionings the incomplete understandings, even learning obedience to that word by facing challenge and pain with courage. We have to discover that there is no new life without death to old life; there is no life in the new creation without death in the old creation; there is no entering into the gift without longing, praying and working for it.
But what might Mary, first disciple of her son, be saying to us now, in the midst of coronavirus, in a society and a world and a church brought to its knees? with an old world sliding into the past, and a new landscape opening up before us?
Perhaps it is something like this? In recent decades, in the world that is passing out of sight, the churches have tended to reduce the reality and truth of Jesus Christ and his resurrection to the practice of good deeds: to helping our neighbours, securing justice, welcoming refugees, providing for the elderly and disadvantaged, speaking into society’s concerns etc. Even though, of course, these deeds are necessary, the main teaching of the Gospel is not goodness. Based on goodness the Gospel is reduced to a kind of humanism; and as many men and women of good will show us, human generosity does not require faith.
What requires faith, is the word of God. It requires faith to receive it, to live it, to fulfil it. Mary’s testimony is the announcement of ‘Good News’ that Jesus Christ has shared our human life by total identification, has defeated sin and death, and opened the doors of an infinite future with God. Our good deeds are a consequence of such Good News, not the cause of it. The priority is to open the doors of heaven to ourselves.
As Handel’s aria reminded the audience of the king’s commemoration concert:
O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion
get thee up into the high mountain;
lift up thy voice with strength, be not afraid;
say unto the cities of Judah,
‘Behold your God!’
Lord Jesus, we see your obedience reflected in your mother’s discipleship of faith.
Help us to believe that all that has been spoken to us through your word will be fulfilled,
and bring forth in our lives the Word of Life for the life of the world.
(The image is SS Anna and Joachim, and the infant Mary by Svitislav Vladyka)
St Thomas Becket 800th anniversary
Posted on the 7th Jul 2020 in the category Resources
‘The holy blissful martir for to seke’
On the 800th anniversary of the Translation of St Thomas Becket
(the 850th of his martyrdom in Canterbury Cathedral)
Homily originally given for St Barnabas and St Thomas’s Oxford, 7 July
I want to begin with words from today’s introit chant: ‘Rejoice we all in the Lord, keeping holy-day in honour of blessed Thomas the Martyr: in whose passion the angels rejoice and glorify the Son of God.’
Today we celebrate the recognition of a holy life: the raising up of the remains of the body of a martyr into a shrine, commemorating someone who died in an act of savagery in order to defend the idea that the Church isn’t a department of government. Like many of the most colourful bits of history, the quarrel wasn’t a matter of obvious rights and wrongs; and Thomas Becket – ‘the holy blissful martyr’, as Chaucer calls him – was perfectly capable of being a thoroughly disagreeable man. But his death spoke for itself. It had taken the holy and prudent King Edward the Confessor nearly a hundred years to be canonized! only to be eclipsed a mere seven years later by the murder of the man who had presided at the translation of his relics in Westminster. Thomas by contrast was canonized as befits a martyr in a mere three years. But English political turbulence before and after Magna Carta meant that it took fifty years for the translation of his relics to a magnificent new chapel behind Canterbury’s high altar.
To coin a phrase, the martyrdom of Thomas had captured the imagination. It stood for something that conventional society right across Europe couldn’t cope with. And the fact that Thomas’s successor, Archbishop Langton, managed to associate the translation on 7 July 1220 with the jubilee of the martyrdom itself – and establish international festivities and observances every fifty years thereafter until 1470 – kept the imagination aflame, introducing Becket’s colourful story to new generations, and associating his cause with the biblical jubilee themes of release from bonds, cancelling of debts, remission of sins, healing, and the triumph of the Church over all secular concerns. A very powerful mix.
But the fuller truth about Becket’s story has some dramatically different tones, and I want to mention but one. Thomas’s friendship with the changeable and irascible king, gave way to another friendship – with John of Salisbury who had been secretary and chaplain of Thomas’s predecessor. John was a man of great cultural openness, interested in speculative problems, and had a wide love of literature. He was also a diplomat and envoy: a close friend of the English pope Adrian IV. It was John’s reaction to the king’s desire to impose his authority on the internal life of the Church, curtailing her freedom, that prompted Becket’s resistance and caused their joint exile to France, and to the intellectual environment that had had the greatest impact on John. And then, when reconciliation looked possible, they returned to England together in the fateful year of 1170.
John’s friendship, so much closer and consoling to Becket than Henry’s, reveals how close Becket was to the intellectual currents of his day. Many martyrs have been unsophisticated or relatively powerless people; so it comes as a bit of a surprise when we find martyrs like Thomas who is not only ‘in power’, but also mixes in the forefront of the intellectual movements of the age.
What then shall we draw from this fresh light on a rich and familiar story?
A martyr isn’t a person who in any simple sense says ‘no’ to the world: not a kind of religious denier of culture. He or she recognizes in the world a richness, a wealth of mind and culture, and the beauty of the human spirit. And, seeing the whole world in such terms – as being the gift and sign of God – he or she knows that the beauty of the Giver is infinitely more valuable than the whole world itself.
‘I give my life
To the Law of God above the Law of Man’,
says Thomas in T S Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.
The witness of a Christian martyr is not the scoring of a point, a kind of trump card, the definitive ending of an argument. ‘The martyr,’ writes one of Becket’s successors, Bishop Rowan Williams, ‘dies in the affirmation of God’s lordship – the affirmation that God is the ultimate value to be loved and served’ (Resurrection, p.57). The martyr's business is celebration, celebration of the sheer attractive beauty of Christ’s new creation, and of the cross and resurrection as the means of entering it.
So, when we look towards the future of our society, a future for which who can deny we desperately need light and wisdom, what is the martyr’s message? If we want to see a renewal of our society, in both compassion and service, we need to know where – or rather who – human beauty and dignity come from, and how they are secured and sustained and celebrated. Thomas became familiar with power through his friend Henry. But through his friendship with John, and the depths of thought and insight he gained as archbishop, he was able to travel deeper: far deeper, into the depths, where according to Jesus the seed dies in darkness (Jn 12.24), to find there the wellsprings of renewal that water the Church, and our society, and our world – the renewed creation where injustice and violence and ‘death shall be no more’ (Rev 21.4).
We celebrate today the recognition that that is the kind of life we lift up, and enshrine, as a dependable pointer to the life that is without end – Jesus Christ the Lord.
3rd Sunday after Trinity
Posted on the 28th Jun 2020 in the category Resources
Third Sunday after Trinity (13th Sunday of Ordinary Time)
The link to the audio file of the sermon can be found here
Gospel St Matthew 10:37—42
At that time Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.’
As we in the UK really begin easing our lockdown restrictions, and the churches are finally open again, our national conversation is turning in earnest to the future, and beginning to fill up with what the BBC has coined as ‘Rethink’: a wide reflection and debate on what we must learn for our futures to be better than our past. It’s a real paradox that a disease that is by definition undiscriminating in its reach and touch – that has been rightly dubbed the great leveller, and is certainly ‘no respecter of persons’ – has exposed with forensic exactness the awful truth that human beings are the Great Un-levellers, blind to or tolerant of inequalities. The virus is exposing enduring (even growing) unrighteousness, which is the biblical word for the massive glowering inequities and injustices in human life; and it has exposed the poverty of our sense of responsibility to our planet, revealing humans to be, like the virus itself, a voracious and aggressive life form, which flourishes now at the cost of the incremental demise and death of the very natural world on which we depend as our environment. We are all called upon to be prophets now.
The Church is joining in the debate. The Church Times this week has 30 assorted priorities from a range of ten authors writing on the subject. It will be – and it should be – a time of intense debate; ideas will be sifted and sorted. Christians need to participate, locally as well as at other levels, and not to be slow in doing so especially if they hope to shape its outcomes.
But dear fellow-preachers beware! Practice what you preach. And for that we need to be very attentive to the words of the Lord, like those given in our Gospel this morning.
The passage we have just heard is the last part of Matthew 10, which is a manual for the Twelve just before they are sent out as missionaries to the surrounding villages. He has reached the final and most sobering, and challenging aspects of the training he is giving them, and he’s trying to help them get their heads round a paradox. ‘Do not think’, he says, that being my disciples – holding to what I have taught you, doing as I do, speaking as I speak – will be met with applause, or approval. And ‘do not think that I have come to bring peace.’ (v.34) It’s as if he’s saying, ‘Remember, you are dealing with human beings here. How you behave, what you do, what you say, based on my teaching, will test the heart of your listeners, just as when I speak or act. Some will rejoice at good news; others will consider it very bad news indeed.’ That is why neither Jesus nor his followers claim to bring peace, ‘but a sword’, dividing opinion. As has often been said, before it can be good news, the gospel must at first be bad news. There is no individual, group or nation, for whom the first word in the gospel is not ‘repent’ when the message of salvation draws close to them.
This is the immediate backdrop to the words we heard in the gospel, which falls into two parts. [See the passage at the top] In the first part we learn, in the famous opening words of the Rule of St Benedict, to ‘Prefer nothing whatsoever to Christ’, and in the second part, we hear Jesus’s final encouragement, highlighting the reward that will be felt by those who receive what his disciples offer them as a gift from God himself.
Let us think about these two groups of verses briefly. In the first, Jesus highlights three responses that are not ‘worthy of him’. If his disciples love their family space and family ties more than him, if a disciple tries to follow him while evading ‘the cross’, and if a disciple seeks to experience life in selfish terms, excluding the needs of others. These are all unworthy of his disciples. It’s not a moral judgement on any of us. Jesus is simply describing a spiritual fact that he has himself discovered, and teaches it. He prioritises the kingdom of God before his human family ties and duties; he experiences the rejection of his words and actions; he lays down his life for others in order to discover its true meaning. If such is the shape of the master’s life (and he is the personification of the kingdom) then it must be the shape of the disciples’ lives. Discipleship requires us to prioritise nothing above Christ, to share his experience of the cross, and to learn to die to ourselves and invest in others.
Time is always against a preacher! But I think it is worth dwelling for a moment on Jesus’s reference to family ties because it shows this very clearly. The family was the fundamental structure of the society in which Jesus lived, critical to the economic and personal security of every individual. No welfare state here; no developed economy. Just as it remains in many of the poorest places in our world today. But Jesus says, no! the horizon of his and his disciples’ mission must be the kingdom of God and the salvation of all, not the little world of the family however crucial it felt to his contemporaries. The family is a place of love and gratitude, of nurture and discovery, but it must not command and limit our affections and securities. For the newness of life that Jesus speaks of to take root, then is its necessary for a disciple to leave behind, or at least put in second place, old family-centred ways of life – that means any group loyalty that is not the kingdom of God. As the second-century Christian author Tertullian says, ‘We’re not born Christian, we become Christian’; and being united to Christ, being baptised, being communicants, being missionaries, means ‘seeking first the kingdom of God’. Preferring nothing to Christ is the radical edge of Christian faith and charity and justice, and undermines any theory that the Church can – ever – be a civil religion, neatly ironed out across the surface of current social, moral and civil values. What Christians do, and must do in the wake of the pandemic, they must do, as Christ himself says, ‘because of me’ (Mt 10.39), ‘because of the kingdom’ (Lk 18.29), ‘because of the gospel’ (Mk 8.35 and 10.29).
After such radical words, such a high calling, the second part of today’s Gospel gives an assurance to the disciples about their reception once they were in the villages and towns. St Mark (9.37) makes the same point as Matthew but in an even more pithy way: ‘Whenever anyone welcomes me it isn’t me they welcome, but the one who sent me’. Anyone who will welcome Christian efforts to bring the Good News into our present tired, anxious life, won’t be welcoming us. We are not the story. They will welcome him who sends us, Christ and his Father. Unsurprisingly, we are ‘walking sacraments’ of the faith and charity we seek to convey to others. And to be walking sacraments, to be able to transmit the blessing of God, and make the people of our day recipients of his promise, able to remake our world in the light of heaven, we must be truly united to the Saviour, loving him above all things, and in all things.
If this is to happen as the big Rethink continues in the months and years to come we Christians, both ordained and lay, need to remember two things.
First, to receive what we are asked to convey to others, we need to worship. To give Christ in charity we need to offer ourselves in prayer, and to receive Christ in his word and sacrament. We need to thirst for the Eucharist, for the word, the Spirit, for God’s holy gifts for God’s holy people. Armchairs and kitchen tables are not good enough. Solitary Christianity is barely Christianity. Worship is the basis of all we have to give to the world, and our gathering to do so is the source of our mission and its point of return. It can only be a feature of the daily lives we live apart, if it springs from what we do when we come together in Christ, in church.
And second, the mission of God is mainly experienced by others day by day, in simple gestures; not mainly in great thoughts and enterprises, but in the little acts of intelligence towards the needs of others. Each little death-to-self grows into the great Death-to-Self. The correcting of small and barely noticeable injustices grows to the correction of the great and glowering injustices. Our human family, and every person in it, from the great cities to the rain forests, is crossing a great desert, a searing, disorienting and demanding experience. And Jesus says to you, dear fellow disciples, as he says to me, ‘Whoever gives even a sip of clean cold water to such little ones, will have their reward’.
Today is the feast of a great early bishop of the Church, one of the greatest, St Irenaeus of Lyons. These words are often attributed to him:
‘It is not you that shapes God, it is God who shapes you. If then you are the work of God, await the hand of the artist who does all things in due season. Offer him your heart, soft and tractable, and keep the form in which the artist has fashioned you. Let your clay be moist, lest you grow hard and lose the imprint of his fingers.’
St Irenaeus (c130—c200)
May almighty God bless us: the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.