Thursday, 24 December 2015

Homily for the Feast of Holy Apostle Andrew the First-Called, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, London, December 11 2015

When we hear St John pointing to Jesus and saying He is the Lamb, what comes into our minds is vulnerability, weakness, an innocent on its way to the slaughter. Perhaps we think of springtime, and a new life at its beginning.

To be honest with you, I do not think that was uppermost in John’s mind. Nor do I think that was the imagery that caused such an impact on St Andrew that he left John’s side to be with Jesus instead, convincing his brother Peter to follow Him too.

John the Baptist was a hard, brave, bold and uncompromising man. He came from a priestly family in Jerusalem, but he would have nothing to do with the discredited kingdom of Herod, or the cult in the Temple Herod had built. Instead he went into the desert as an exile, waiting for a true King to enter the Land of Promise, to restore true worship, and to recover for the people a guaranteed means to life in union with God. Thus might heaven’s glory once again be seen on earth, and the Lord beheld dwelling among His people. He went into the desert; he lived on the edge. Those who came to seek him out were other bold men, who shared his longing for the People and the Land to change their ways. Their very existence was a standing rebuke to all: from the foreign King serving the supposedly divine Roman emperor and the spiritually and financially corrupt Temple, to the sinful ways of the people, from the top down. They lived on a knife-edge of being arrested and executed because of their call for everything to change, because of their effrontery in accusing the whole world of sin. In the Temple, sin could be dealt with by a donation, a sacrifice and an action performed. If your sacrifice came from love and desire to return and be near to God, it counted for everything: we remember the stories of the widow’s mite and the tax-collector praying for mercy so well. But if you thought your sacrifice was some kind of transaction with God, a deal, then to these people John shouted, “Stop going through these motions. Stop trying to strike a bargain. You need to change your minds, not just your money. Alter your thinking. Repent. Turn round. Face the way that the Lord is coming to you. He is coming in fire and glory as once before. Turn round and face His Kingdom, because He is bringing the Holy Spirit.”

This talk cost John his life with the authorities; but it was stirring stuff to honest people who, whatever else was going on in the country and throughout the known world, pored over the Scriptures, loved God, believed His promises and hoped for a new day. So Andrew starts to follow John. He sees John take all the people that follow him out across the hills to the Jordan river. He hears him tell everyone that the change they are looking for will involve coming into the Land of Promise all over again. Only then can there be a fresh start, and only then can the change of heart and thinking be permanent. He sees as, one by one, John’s followers step out of the Holy Land into the river through which their forebears once entered it. He sees them immersed in its flow, and he sees them all coming back on a new footing, new as people. He sees that one of the people John has baptised is singled out. John declares Him to be the Lamb of God, come to ”take away the sins of the world.”

To Andrew, this Lamb is not looking vulnerable or sounding uncertain. He does not speak out like John; but here, like John, is a figure of purpose and inner strength, imperturbable on His way. Soon John calls Jesus not only the Lamb of God, but the Son of God. Immediately, Andrew understands. He recalls the story of Abraham, so devoted to the Lord that he is prepared to give up and offer his own Son, to demonstrate his devotion and obedience. But the Lord desires not the death in a sacrifice, but the life and love in its offering. He Himself provides a lamb to stand for this complete oblation of living adoration. Andrew grasps that the Lord, Who once sent a lamb to fulfil an earthly father’s vow to God, now sends His Son to fulfil the heavenly Father’s promise to God’s People. In an instant, Andrew sees that for the sacrifices for sin, the Temple worship, the prayers of repentance, the heartfelt desires for everything to change in the world, the pouring out of hearts in faith, to have any effect, the one to bring them about is not a passive victim, but someone actively in control of all around Him, and of His own destiny.

Yes, He will be wounded. Yes, He will be brought down and weakened. Yes, He is innocent, and the shedding of His blood will take all human life and strength from Him. Yes, it is our sin that will destroy Him. But it is by His strength that He makes Himself vulnerable to us. It is by His innocence that He exhausts and outlasts our offences. It is by His courting and grasping defeat as a victim, that He dares to proceed as victor. It may be that as a Lamb He is led to the slaughter to bring the Kingdom of God about; but He will be none other than the Son of God, the King coming into His reign. No wonder people who lived on the edge, with little to lose and full of hopes that seemed never to be realised, left everything to follow Him.

In the last week, a self-appointed Commission on Religion and Belief has issued a report recommending that Church schools in the United Kingdom be stopped from admitting children on the basis of their families’ religious faith, and that at our civic ceremonies and in all areas of public life, Christianity should give way to other faiths. One of the Commissioners is a retired Anglican bishop who has called for the Koran to be read in Church at the traditional services each year when the judges pray for Divine Wisdom in their momentous task. The other Commissioners have called for religious education in our country to include teaching about secularism and atheism.

Secularist atheists are trying to have it both ways. First, they claim that there is a basic, neutral moral consensus that does not need God; therefore no religion making an exclusive claim to the Truth should claim any privilege in education, or public affairs. Then they say their beliefs should be recognised in education as a religion, since they are free to promote them and gain converts to them like other viewpoints. Yet to Christians it seems that secularism is already everywhere, judging from how we have allowed and encouraged our commercial and business worlds to become mercenary and exploitative, seeing how the materialism of the market replaces the value placed on God and our love of others, especially the poor. Propagating the working assumptions of secularism is also prevalent on TV and Radio, from documentaries to quiz shows. Yet our religious education consensus in this country has been wisely crafted over the last 150 years to ensure young minds receive two things. First is an understanding of the beliefs and values of Christianity as the force that has shaped and defined our entire civilisation; secondly is not the imposition of religion but education about it, borne out of a hard-won history of learning tolerance and reconciliation, so that we can know how to live together with respect and humanity. Yet the countries which have no such tradition of religious education, the places where only one faith, or secularism, or atheism, is imposed, appear now to be incapable of making sense of the world of faith and how important it is to people’s identities, their sense of where and how they belong in the world, and their aspirations. To impose secularism in the hope that it will bring about harmony is a dangerous fantasy, just as much as imposing Islam is in the Middle East, and just as imposing one form of Christianity was in Spain, or Russia, or England in the past.

So, what is needed? St Andrew followed St John the Baptist because he saw all that was wrong in the world and wanted it to change. He turned to follow Christ because he understood that the Kingdom of the Lord would return not by force of arms, or the impositions of authority, but strength of goodness (something we used to call virtue) and out of love, a love so strong and inexhaustible that it could win through and withstand anything, even death itself. As St Paul puts it, “When the day of evil comes, put on the full armour of God, so you can stand your ground, and having done all, still stand.” (Ephesians 6.13)

The way St Andrew saw this was that it was not just matter for him to respond to personally, but a concern that faced the whole of his nation. He observes Jesus as the one to take away the sins of a whole world, and this conviction spread to his brother Peter, then to Philip and then to Nathanael, as we have heard (John 1.35-51). Nathanael recognises Jesus not just as Lamb of God, and Son of God, but also as King of Israel. Jesus replies that this insight gives a vision of how heaven itself comes down to earth all the time, as earth  rises up to go into heaven. This is what we celebrate as the true reality to things in our Liturgy.

So it has to be that we see both the world and our faith in the Lord not as two separate things, keeping faith in God out of one box, and keeping our dealings in the world in a separate one from our religious observances. The Lord is the Lord of all, or he is no Lord at all and all of this is irrelevant. And so, it is for us to say that we do not wish the world merely to tolerate us, or to allow us space. We say, “You must change. You must face the coming of the Kingdom. What you see as a weakling Lamb, a disposable commodity, a sentimental story of adversity overcome, and just the cycle of life, is none other than the Son of God in all His power.

“As, of old, Saint Andrew heard it
by the Galilean lake,
turned from home and toil and kindred,
leaving all for His dear sake;

Jesus calls us from the worship
Of the vain world’s golden store:
From each idol that would keep us,
saying, Christian, love me more.”  C F Alexander

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