Monday, 20 April 2015

Homily, Third Sunday of Easter, St Mary's Catholic Church, Chelsea, London, 19 April 2015

When Saint Peter is speaking to the people in the Temple (Acts 3), he is with Saint John and they have just healed a beggar, who has been disabled from birth. It is all quite a spectacle. The man is carried every day on a stretcher by kind friends and family unknown, and set down just outside the Temple entrance known as The Gate Beautiful. He cannot go in because of his physical impairments to ritual cleanliness; even if he did, you will remember from when Jesus turned the tables on the money merchants that the Temple used its own currency to pay for sacrifices and dues to God, but it was useless money outside in the ordinary world. So there he lies, offering worshippers the chance of a last act of human charity before they go inside to encounter the presence of God. He seeks alms from the apostles.
 
It is not long since the Day of Pentecost and they have been meeting in each other’s houses, seeing the Lord in the Breaking of Bread every day. One of those homes will be the house of St John, where the Mother of God now lives with him. There is an old tradition that she was in attendance when the apostles were gathered and the Holy Spirit descended on them. So this may all have taken place in St John’s house; and that may be the home from which Peter and John have just come on their way to the Temple prayers, as they came daily, giving what was needed from what they had to those who were without. The disabled man had no home of his own; he could not get into the Temple to approach the Holy of Holies; St Peter perceives his need and meets it not with money but with the power of the Name of Jesus. He takes his hand to raise him and then, we are told, the man stands up. Then – and this is the point – he enters the Temple for the first time in his life with the apostles. The people recognise him, praise God for his healing, and they crowd round Peter and John, who tell them that the Holy of Holies is not merely a place where God dwells, but a PERSON in WHOM God dwells.
 
We have seen this story before, or one very like it. Here we are in the third chapter of St Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. Let us rewind the record of events and go back to chapter 5 of his Gospel. There we find a paralysed man being brought to a house in a town in Galilee where Jesus was teaching. Because of what He was saying and the healings that He attributed to the power of God, people were flocking from all over the region and from the rest of the country to the south and west. Those who had come from Jerusalem must have been notable people, because their presence is expressly mentioned by St Luke. Some of them may well have been priests from the Temple, because we know that Jesus had just healed a leper and told him to go and show himself to a priest. Perhaps another visitor from the Temple was Joseph of Arimathea, who believed in the Kingdom of God which was the main subject of Jesus’ preaching, the member of the Temple Sanhedrin who would one day speak up for Jesus at His time of trial, and the one who would provide for the burial of the dead and crucified Lord. With so many influential and devoutly religious people there, hoping to get from Jesus an intimate connection to the coming Reign of God, it meant that there was little chance for the crowd of ordinary people to get in to see Him, let alone ask for His blessing and healing. It is just as it would turn out to be for the disabled man outside the Temple a few years later.
 
What happens next is that the paralysed man’s friends, so great is their belief in Jesus, take him up on to the roof, make an opening in it, and lower him down into the midst of the house and the people, there to meet Jesus. Jesus surprises everyone not by performing a spectacular miracle but simply pronouncing the words of forgiveness that is the greatest of God’s power to transform: His mercy, his love that is His very life. By the inner transformation that comes from faith in God - and God’s faith in us that we know as forgiveness - Jesus tells the paralysed man to rise up. The man goes on his way glorifying God to the amazement of the crowd and proceeds – where? – home.
 
This is a story of nothing but a burial. The paralysed man with hardly a life worth living nonetheless believes in God to the end. He is lowered, as it were, into a grave newly opened and in the moment of coming to rest sees the Lord face to face. As it says in that tenderest act of hope and faith in the Book of Job, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then from my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold Him, and not a stranger.” (Job 19. 25-27). Often we think that to be good Catholic Christians it is a matter of being on the Lord’s side, the Church’s side, the Pope’s side. But really the whole of faith is about seeing that the Lord is one who looks on things as a matter of His being on OUR side; and it is from this that the love, the healing, the conversion of heart, and the forgiveness all come. So in the paralysed man’s all but final resting place, he sees God standing upon the earth, he goes in with Him and through beyond death, and with Him stands and rises. So the story of a burial, is also a story of a resurrection. Encountering Jesus , the man goes into the Holy of Holies, the presence of God in our midst that he could never have hope to enter in Jerusalem. Then he returns to his own home like St John and St Mary and St Peter and St Thomas would later do after the Crucifixion, not going away from a PLACE where God was once found with a memory, but taking with him for always the Holy of Holies that is a PERSON who embodies in Himself the very Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.
 
It is poignant to think of the paralysed man being lowered through that new opening in what looked to all intents and purposes like a burial; for one day, thanks to Joseph of Arimathea, it would be Jesus’ own turn to be placed into a tomb in which no one else had ever yet been laid (Luke 23.53). So the man was not only encountering Jesus in the high moment of His power to heal and bring us by His words and stories in exaltation to the very threshold of the Kingdom of heaven. He was also encountering Jesus in the moment of His death, and finding there not desolation and futility, but holiness, God as He is in Himself, God as He is truly to be seen in this world’s distorted view of the sacred, God as One Who is broken and put an end to, so that the holiness and divinity may inevitably prevail in Resurrection and new life.
 
St Paul knew this only too well from his own experience of opposing the crucified Lord in whose death he was complicit, only to be confronted by Him in the vision on the road to Damascus of His Resurrection. To the fledgling Roman church he would later write, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried … with Him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His. We know that our old self was crucified with Him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.” (Romans 6.3-6)
 
So this is what was going on in the Temple when St Peter and St John arrived, straight from seeing the Lord at the Breaking of Bread with the Mother of God in St John’s house. Here another disabled man, outside the Temple, lies in a living death, but looks up to the apostles and hear the words of Resurrection: “Stand up”. And he rises not so much on his newly healed legs as to newness of life in Christ; and he enters the house of the Lord, which is no mere building (however sacred), but the household of faith, the place of the Kingdom of God which is a Person, himself now a rebuilt Temple of the Holy Spirit. It is as Christ’s accusers said at His trial: “"We heard him say, 'I will destroy this Temple made with human hands and in three days will build another, not made with hands.'" (Mark 14.58). The Resurrection is no mere event at a place in history: it is the Person of Christ in his People who now rise up, stand up, in the power of His Name to live within the Holy of Holies, on earth as it is in heaven, in utter newness of life.
 
The point at which we have come in on this story is where the once paralysed man, whom Peter and John found on the floor, now clings to them risen from his old decay. The three of them stand locked together in joyful embrace, as Peter raises his voice to explain to the astonished crown what on earth is going on. Do not think for a second that this is a formal speech or address – this is sheer excitement, spilling out in a few riveting sentences that say everything:
  • You denied your own Holy One.
  • You killed the Author of Life.
  • God raised Him from the dead and we saw it with our own eyes.
  • So we know this man was not raised to walk by our efforts, but only by God’s glory.
  • Therefore we have faith in Christ, because we saw all He suffered and went through and then how He came back not blame and accuse us, but to change everything about us by forgiving us.
  • On His cross He pleaded with His Father what we are saying to you now: “Father, forgive them – they do not know what they are doing.”
  • It was all in God’s plan to bring us back to Him, if only we could trust Him as much as He trusts with His forgiveness because He loves us.
 
A few years ago, I had been to a Mass at Westminster Cathedral and, leaving the great sacristy, I walked past the confessional in the Lady Chapel. In a rare moment, there was no one in the queue. The door was slightly open, the light was on within, and I could see the empty chamber inside. Then it struck me – here is a place of resurrection, where the Lord does not lie dead but lives in His power to make us whole and to live with Him in His Holy of Holies, under the Reign of God in this world which is forgiveness as much as it is justice, mercy even more than repentance, hope even more than life. Here was The Gate Beautiful outside which I languished; here was the new opening into the life of Christ that I struggled to get myself lowered deep inside of. So I went to be buried once more with Christ, to be asked why I seek the living among the dead for He is risen, to behold God ON MY SIDE, raising me up to stand in His presence, and to find Him “a friend and not a stranger.”

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