Sunday, July 04, 2010

Notes for two recent sermons

Trinity 5 2010

Launch out into the deep”+

Let’s face it, being in the shallows is safe and secure when going for a swim or “messing about with boats”, to quote Wind in the Willows. But you don’t feel you’ve really gone for a swim or had an adventure on the water, until you’ve moved away from the predictability and ease of the shore. Think of the beach. If you want to catch and ride a wave properly you have to get out to where its breaking. Now, in the meantime, you are fighting the flow, diving under walls of water and occasionally getting dumped and thrown about: half the fun. There’s a lot to be said for the deep. It can be frightening and overwhelming, but it is, after all, where the challenge, the action and the interest is!

Jesus calls on us to launch out into the deep. Quit playing in the shallows and splashing around aimlessly or fearfully. Push boldly forward and with purpose into the depths of God and Church and community.

St Paul talks about the depths of the love of Christ in Ephesians 3. And the phrase “love of Christ” could mean the love Christ has for each of us or his love in us reaching back to God and out to mankind.

And so the first deep into which we must launch is God and his love for us. We must “Seek the Lord and his strength: seek his face evermore” as it says in Psalm 105. This requires much prayer and meditation on the Scriptures and other Christian literature. Christianity is not a once-a-week time commitment. To grow in the knowledge and love of God requires effort. But the joys you will experience in this search are more than worth it. And you will be strengthened, as the Psalm I quoted indicated. This spiritual empowering then allows us to move into the next two depths, which I will discuss in a moment.

God is not a hobby. He is not an interesting ingredient we need to spice up our lives or make them “balanced”. He is God. He is the Infinite, whose wisdom, power and love are an unfathomable abyss, and whose mighty acts on our behalf have included loving us to death. He is the One who challenges us in the Gospel to seek the one thing necessary (Luke 10:42), communion with Him. He is our Lord, and He has called on us to to follow Him not as fearful slaves or fairweather tourists, but as beloved friends. And so our relationship with him must be strong. Hence the need for speaking to Him (in worship and prayer), listening to Him (in Scripture and in the Church's teaching and in the inner sanctum of our hearts) and drinking in His presence (especially but by no means exclusively in Communion).

The second deep into which we must launch is the Church. Many Evangelical and Charismatic Protestants are fond of saying that every Christian is a “minister” because every Christian has a ministry, a role in the Church. And they’re right. This is a biblical truth in perfect accordance with the Catholic faith. Let’s act like it is! The two main things every Christian must do for the Church are first, seek to know their specific spiritual gifts and use them, and second, give financial support and time to the Church’s activities. Get deeply involved.

The third depth is the community. Again, we have two prongs. The first is the willingness to take risks and verbally share our faith. Witnessing to our faith may sometimes require understanding of the Faith and the arguments for it, necessitating some study. But it will almost always require forethought about why you personally have come to faith and kept it. Or as St Peter says, “always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the  hope that is in you1”. The second prong is generosity and service to the community, particularly to its poor and needy, but to all worthy causes. (Indeed, its amazing how many community organisations do rely heavily on Church people as volunteers.)

So, let us launch out into the deep, pressing into God’s presence and risking commitment to our brethren and neighbours for Jesus’ sake.

For we can be sure that a life in the shallows is a disappointing life, both to us and to God. But to launch out into the deep at the Lord's command brings joy and peace and bears eternal fruit in both our own souls and the souls of others. +

1The New King James Version. 1996, c1982 . Thomas Nelson: Nashville

Trinity 4 2010

Can the blind lead the blind?” +

We have here a number of striking and even amusing images here used by Jesus.

[Let us imagine a blind man volunteering to lead another blind man across a busy road, without the second knowing the first is blind to begin with ...]

The point is that he wouldn’t even consider doing something so silly. Jesus is saying that we sometimes do. How? Let us first look at the second image of hypocrisy.

Jesus uses a deliberately absurd image, allowing Jewish hyperbole full play. A man with a splinter in his eye has another with a log in his own offer to help. A log.

Jesus analogy would be like a chainsmoking doctor telling a patient who has the occasional cigar that he must stop this foolishness at once! “Cough, cough, ... [wheezily] What do you mean you have the odd cigar?! Are you crazy? Those things 'll kill you!”

We easily recognise the absurdity of all of this, but our Lord is saying that we can fail to do so when it comes to correcting, or even condemning, others for their moral faults. We can either forget our own faults or, worse still, never even perceive them. Note that in the second image “beam-in-the-eye man” sincerely wants to help. He says, to paraphrase, “Brother, let me remove that splinter for you.” But Jesus says he doesn’t even notice his own problem. Sincerity does not always help, if it’s combined with careless ignorance and self-indulgence.

We know people don’t respond well to hypocrisy. And they will use it as an excuse to ignore even perfectly legitimate criticisms or calls to repentance. However clearly the Church puts the case for traditional sexual morality, for example, unbelievers will often automatically dismiss it all by pointing the finger at high divorce rates among Christians or paedophile priests. So, we have to do everything we can not to undermine the Gospel.

Jesus is not saying we should never correct one another. He says in another place, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone” (Mt 18.15). What he is saying is this:

  1. Examine yourself stringently first, including for the same malady, and keep in mind your weakness to keep you humble when you correct another.

  2. Don’t pretend to have all the answers or to be the one who can deliver the other from his fault. Remember, “The disciple is not above his master.” Jesus is the Saviour, not us.

  3. Don’t come across as morally superior when you are in fact a forgiven sinner merely trying to bring another sinner to repentance.

  4. Finally, make sure that the other person really has sinned or is in moral danger. Our own blindness can make us misunderstand others, over-estimate the gravity of a fault or project our faults onto them. Sometimes it’s better just to forgive or overlook things and keep our mouths shut.

And there is yet another important point to remember. Jesus was telling people how to correct their “brothers”, that is, fellow believers, Christians. Any such fraternal correction or careful criticism has its primary target within the Church.

How, then, are we to make a difference for those outside the Church? In the same sentence I quoted before, where Jesus urges us to humility by reminding us we are not above our master, he says, “every [disciple (or follower)] that is perfect shall be as his master”. In other words, we are to imitate Christ's and the Father's approach to unbelievers, as well as their general character. “Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful”, as today's Gospel said at the beginning. So, what can we do to make a difference to those yet outside the New Covenant? Show compassion, without making excuses for sin, and give an example of holy lives, without which no-one will see the Lord, as the NT tells us (Hebrews 12:14). This will help more than the mere pointing out of unholiness. As I said before, we cannot expect the Gospel message, which does identify and rebuke sin, but also reveals the mercy of God, to be properly heard if we undermine it either by not practising what we preach or by a harsh judgementalism.

It is not our job to accuse or to judge. If we look at the preaching of John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter and Paul, while we see a universal call to repentance based on a universal liability to divine judgement, we do not see much in the way of identifying the specific sins of individuals. Occasionally, a group has its particular crimes identified, as Jesus did with the Scribes and Pharisees at various times and as Peter did with the crowd in Jerusalem not long after they had been complicit in the Messiah's death (Acts 2:23). But these were divinely inspired messages of preachers with special authority. (Even when St John the Baptist gave details of what repentance would mean for particular groups, it was in answer to their request for this advice: Luke 3:10-14.) Mention of individual sin would normally be limited to conversation with the relevant individuals, as I noted before, and, as I also noted, limited to fellow Christians.

All people, on the other hand, are entitled to hear the full Gospel message, which is not Good News unless the bad news is understood first. Salvation is salvation from sin, rescue from slavery to the illusion of self-sufficiency, and from spiritual emptiness, corruption and death. So, we cannot exclude or downplay repentance, or pretend people are not sinners. But it is the Holy Spirit which convicts each person in the world of sin (John 16:9). And our explicit verbal witness to those outside the Church of our faith should be primarily a positive response to their enquiry. Whether we are preachers or not, we should be able to give a defence to anyone who asks us a reason for the hope that is within us, gently and respectfully, as St Peter tells us (1 Peter 3:15). Each Christian should prepare themselves prayerfully for this, and then ask God for opportunities to reveal that hope, that reason. And why would they enquire in the first place? God's leading, or else to ask Him for the opportunities would be useless, but God asks of us a life that attracts questions, that stands out and shines a light in a dark place (Matthew 5:16).

May God grant us the grace to remove the logs from our spiritual eyes, become more like Him as we actively imitate his unconditional love, and the humility to treat other people’s splinters with gentleness. And may he also help us to thus attract the questions and frame the answers that lead people to Him +

1 comment:

Deacon Down Under said...

Fr. Kirby the call to launch out into the deep is at the heart of our Christian calling. The Gospel is a Gospel of transformation - of the life of the individual, and by extension of his life and the world around him.
It is little wonder that we now find so much that is inimical to the Christian faith - neoliberalism, modernism, sexual liberation, abortion, euthanasia etc. What is more surprising is that we believed that there could be a genuine rapproachment between God and mammon, between people who believe that human pleasure is the apex of existence, versus those who believe that acknowledging their servanthood before God and His Son is the purpose of life.