A challenge to the smug

Frances writes on this coming Sunday’s readings :- These Readings are a reminder to those of us who are devout, and think that we have got our relationship with God all sorted, to think again. It can be so easy for those of us who are regular Mass attendees and who try to live carefully within the bounds of our faith to be critical of others, even to consider them to be quite beyond the pale. It is quite clear that both Third Isaiah and Jesus had a serious problem with such ‘devout’ men and women, and wanted them to think again, to consider very seriously where they were and what they really believed they were up to. An attitude which understood the precariousness of life, and the extreme fragility of the relationship between God and humanity, was what was and is called for ; and seems to have been much more what these people held as correct, rather than any smug security. Believers  must always live life on the edge.

Indeed, it is startling that Third Isaiah, (66:18-21) the prophet of the return from exile in Babylon, should end this great work on a note of such castigation on those in control of religious thought and practice in Jerusalem. The narrow complacency of the elite is threatened by the glorious promise of the story of the Jewish faith being taken out to the Diaspora, indeed, to dark foreign parts where it would be practised by those who had been dispersed and their descendants, even (horror of horrors!) where they had married among foreigners and where their practice of the faith almost certainly did not match up to the demands of those in Jerusalem. We are talking here of a widely diffused collection of Jewish believers, some from parts of Africa with dark skins (Put and Lud); some from the farthest reaches of the Mediterranean from Spain(Tarsish); others from up on the Black Sea and even possibly as far as the reaches of Mongolia. The prophet sees them all coming to worship in Jerusalem and even being made priests in the new temple which is under construction in Jerusalem – truly the cages of the establishment are to be rattled. Whilst the Books of Isaiah end on a note of triumph, it is redolent with the winds of change and even threat. Things will not and never will just settle down to ‘business as usual’.

By the time of Jesus, things seem to have gone from bad to worse, the aggro has just ratcheted up and up. In Luke’s Gospel (13:22-30) we continually meet Jesus at loggerheads with the religious authorities in the holy city. Since Chapter 9 verse 53, we have been following Jesus en route for Jerusalem and his Passion, and at every turn we find him in bitter, even savage conflict with the religious purists, whether from the temple or from among the Pharisees and lawyers. Jesus’ mission was to the sick and the outcast, either because of their defiling jobs or their illnesses and he also commended the despised and hated foreigners like the Good Samaritan, or travel out of Israel over the Jordan to heal a demon-possessed man, almost certainly a foreigner. Jesus castigated the cities of Judaism and its upright members, insisting that when God’s kingdom finally came to its fruition on earth, the purists would find themselves out in the cold. Indeed, according to Jesus’ understanding of events and expectation of God, at the end those who had believed themselves true to the faith of Abraham and the prophets, would find themselves excluded, whilst those from all the quarters of the globe, and those representing the unacceptable and iffy, would find inclusion in the glories of the Kingdom.

Perhaps the nub lies with the Letter to the Hebrews (12:5-7. 11-13) and all its uncomfortable talk of the need for the believer to be continually ‘reprimanded’, ‘punished’ and ‘trained’, and the writer’s understanding that this includes suffering. All this is very difficult language for us modern people, but for the ancient world, even the Christian world, children were harshly dealt with and corporal punishment was common. The attitude of fathers to sons was far from sloppy, and their training more often might have resembled physical training for the Games. Schooling was hard and harsh. It was even more so for Christians living in a hostile environment, even expecting public antipathy and possible persecution. One needed to be tough, and fitted for the trials which the faith might bring upon one. Such an outlook clearly required constant alertness, revision of one’s values, and a real commitment to the faith, rather than of casual Church attendance on Sundays if one feels like it. All this poses serious questions for us today, and it is right that we should be asking these difficult and disturbing questions of ourselves. Where do we stand on this spectrum of belief? With the cosy and the smug, those who think they have got it made? Where do we make room for the fragile, the unclean, those whose arrival on our shores might mess up all our cosy notions of belief in Jesus? After all, the original was, I suspect rather a curious shade of off-white!

 

 

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Conversion is a long journey

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- I suppose the search for perfection, for the ideal, for a life not continually messed up by our own and others inadequacies and the problems of the world, is something which in some shape or form occupies most of us during our lives. Certainly it seems to be a prominent feature of most religions, as it was the occupation of so many ancient philosophers. We now accept that such absolute perfection is impossible this side of the grave, but nonetheless its pursuit to some extent shapes our lives as Christians: in the search for God; in our moral life; and indeed in many of our human undertakings, whether that be in parenting our children, in our studies in the academic field, in artistry, or what you will.

 

This is certainly the vision of the writer of the Apocalypse (Apoc 21:10-14.22-25) with his picture of the new and heavenly Jerusalem. It is a description of perfect symmetry in complete contrast to his description of the failures of the seven churches of the Province of Asia, which he clearly knew so well, and his harrowing account of the world as he saw it and its catastrophic destruction. The writer saw the Christian message as one of great battle between the powers of God and the good, and those of evil, here represented by the human city and the opportunities they gave for the corruption and exploitation of the human being. For him, things are seen in very black and white terms, and there seems to be little room for leeway between the two.

 

With Luke-Acts (Acts 15:1-2.22-29) however, we are hearing the story of the spread of Christianity by Paul and Barnabas in the decade after the crucifixion i.e. in the 40’s AD. According to this account, the disciples began their work from within Judaism and with its following of pagan sympathisers. Their search therefore for the God of Jesus Christ was to follow in the Jewish tradition, but with radical and significant differences. The first, as we see in our reading, was the renunciation of the need for male converts from paganism to be circumcised. This was a significant issue holding back ‘Godfearers’, that is pagan sympathisers with Judaism, from full conversion. We know that some in ancient cities were attracted to the high moral life of Jews and their ethical teachings, but that they rarely converted precisely because circumcision would have made them highly visible at the public baths and in the gymnasia, and could have courted trouble. Moreover, full adherence to Judaism, with its call to rigid separatism from pagans would have made the lives of converts near impossible.

 

Our account of what we call the Council of Jerusalem, around 49AD demonstrates a remarkable convergence of views in the Early Church, as they lay down quite limited parameters for convert practices. In Leviticus 17 in the Old Testament, we find a set of instructions about the slaughter and eating of meat, and the early church was at pains, as were the Jews, to separate themselves from pagan worship, in which the drinking of animal blood may have been significant. Strangled animals of course are those not drained of blood, indeed we know from all those now pristine and white Greek edifices that originally they would have run red with blood from the slaughter of animals. The temple of Zeus at Agrigento in Sicily had 100 altars for the slaughter of bulls. The other rule was against what the Jerusalem Bible calls ‘fornication’, in Greek, porneia, and a much wider term than we understand it today. In the first and second centuries AD, well before the development of extreme Christian ascetic practices, porneia had a wide meaning, from prohibiting abortions and infanticide, to guidance given to the thoughtful on the correct attitudes of mind and body required in the procreation of children. Naturally it also included teaching on the appropriate attitudes men and women should adopt generally towards their bodies, and this did include moderate and careful approaches to sex. What we witness here then, is the gentle teaching of the early church as it tried to aid its new converts in their growth in the faith, and as they went about their daily lives. Conversion, and the search for perfection, is a process, a long journey, and clearly not to be accomplished fully in this life.

 

Not long after Luke wrote his great opus, St John was at work on the Fourth Gospel, sharing with us his memories and reflections of the life of Jesus. It is significant that he too presents a gradualist understanding of our growth in God, of our journey to perfection, which I presume also reflects the values of Jesus himself. In our portion of the Gospel (John 14:23-29) he says that subsequent to his (Jesus’) departure, the Father will send the Holy Spirit who ‘Will teach you everything’ (and that this teaching will be in accord with Jesus’ own teaching whilst he was with them).  The real appreciation of who Jesus is, and of what he stands for, therefore appears to be something we both already have, and which will be illumined by his departure, that is both his death and resurrection and his ascension to the Father. Significantly, he promises them his peace; “A peace the world cannot give”, reminding them that there is perfection only achievable beyond the grave, beyond his and by implication our own death. For we live, as always, in very uncertain times, and in the frailty of the human condition. It appears then, that the Gospel writers, unlike the writer of the Apocalypse, do not get hung up over the issue of our human perfection, and are comfortable with seeing it as within God’s remit, and can approach it with the gentleness of our Saviour.

 

Homily on the People of God

My guess is that most people, hearing that stuff about Zion and Jerusalem in our 1st Reading today, (Isaiah 62:1-5) wonder what on earth all this has got to do with us. The answer is very simple. Isaiah was using both words, not to describe a city – geographical location – but a people, in fact the people of God. For Christians therefore, the full realisation of who are the People of God is us of course – the Church of God. We know what the full realisation of this will be from the vision of the new Jerusalem that we hear of in the last book of the Bible (Rev 21:2)  “And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” 

If you are awake you may have heard that word “bride” already today, and rapidly made the link with today’s Gospel. (John 2:1-11) For in it, the glory and power of God in Jesus is revealed where? Yes, at a wedding in Cana of Galilee where ordinary water is changed into wine. So, we, you and me, the very ordinary people of the Church, are the bride at the wedding, we are the glorious new wine, we are the holy People of God. Yes, we know only too well that we have not made it yet to the fullness of what this means; but we are assured by these readings that we are on the way; that in the power of God we can be transformed from ordinary people into glory. That is our hope, not just for us individually, as and when we die, but together as a holy people struggling to live out God’s glory in our ordinary daily lives.

 So this great reading from Isaiah is addressed to us. Listen again to what he says of us:-

“The nations then will see your integrity, all the kings your glory and you will be called by a new name, one which the mouth of the Lord will confer. You are to be a crown of splendour in the hand of the Lord, a princely diadem in the hand of your God.”

 It’s a tall order isn’t it? Especially as we look not just at ourselves, but at the Church throughout the world and throughout the ages, failing again and again to live up to our calling.

 So what should we do? Well as individuals, we always need to admit our failings, and turn to God. For the more we are open, truly open, to God the Holy Spirit working within us, the more likely we are to let a bit more of his glory through. Note that! It is not about us becoming better people, although that is to be hoped for, but much more important, about letting God be seen through us. For remember, as St Paul implies, God’s power can and does work through us even in our weakness. (See 2 Cor 12:9) But we also need to recognise our part in making the Church more and more the glorious new wine, the new Jerusalem that God wants us to be. We do this first of all simply by being at Mass, especially on a Sunday, but on weekdays too. But we also do it by being an active member of the Church rather than a spectator.

In one sense we are lucky at Eynsham that we have a relatively small number of people at Mass, and so it is much easier for us to get to know one another. I have been really thrilled in the last few weeks to see a number of people here step forward to play a new part in the life of our community. Some have started dropping in on Monday mornings to share together the readings for the Sunday ahead and in doing so help me with my Homilies. We have a new person looking after the Rotas so as many people as possible are involved in the Mass each week. Someone else has just volunteered to lead us in our links with CAFOD caring for the poor and starving of the world and so on.

For Catholics who go to churches where there may be several hundred, if not over a thousand, at Sunday Mass the challenge to be part of the Church and not just a spectator is much greater. Such people need to look for groups within the larger church where they might get involved and get a sense of belonging that way, because just arriving at Mass on a Sunday where no-one notices you and you do not even say “Good morning” to other people is not good for anyone’s growth as a Christian.  The least you can do is to say a Good Morning to those sitting next to you before you leave, and even better to get into a longer conversation.

Notice how our 2nd Reading (1 Cor 12:4-11) talks of the various gifts of the Holy Spirit that we might have. But if we read on beyond where our reading stops we would see that the Holy Spirit works in us for the good of the Church and that whatever way God works in us it must be based on love. You may have the gift of prophecy, the ability to share your faith with others; but we must always do this and other things, however ordinary they may seem, as members of the Church.  I am always saddened when I hear of a Catholic doing something really good in the world and nobody knows they are a Catholic. So, good for those footballers and other athletes who make the sign of the cross publicly before a game or a race. We should be as brave as them and do this ourselves more often, not for ourselves, but for the Church. For this is the way the glory of God in and through his Church is proclaimed.