09 August 2015

Homily for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London

There’s the wonderful Hans Christian Anderson of a vain ruler who uses his wealth and his power to indulge himself in personal luxury to the exclusion of all those whom he regards as beneath him. In The Emperor’s New Clothes, two weavers tell the ruler that they can weave a suit for him of such refined cloth that only those who are not stupid can see its subtle magnificence. The weavers set to work, no one can see the threads they have woven, but no one dare let on in case they are exposed as unfit for office. When the invisible suit is complete, it is taken to the Emperor who likewise pretends to see it while all his courtiers assume he can. Later, he makes a ceremonial procession through his capital and, again, none of the sophisticated citizens dare say that they cannot see the delicate tailoring. But in one of those gaps in the noise of a crowd, a little boy’s voice is heard: “But he isn’t wearing anything at all”. The Emperor carries on, not letting appearances slip, but knowing the boy’s words are true.

In today’s Gospel (St Matthew 14.14-23), we have something slightly similar going on: not a grand trick to show people’s folly, but declaring a massive, obvious fact that everyone is missing. “Picture the scene”: A young man has epilepsy and his frequent fits put him in danger whether he is at home, where he has collapsed into the fire in the hearth more than once, or outside where his father is frightened he will drown if he falls into the water (the local spring and surrounding marshlands are the source of the river Jordan). The father is beside himself with worry and turns to the disciples. They have been growing spiritually; they have increased as ministers of Christ’s own power to heal and forgive and save. But this affliction is beyond them and they fail. Why does Jesus become annoyed and not simply step in when the disciples reach the end of their capacity? Why does He not just happily heal the young man like in the other stories, where someone has shown faith in Christ and humility before God? Think of the centurion and his servant, of the friends of the paralytic, or the man born blind, or Jairus and his daughter. In each of these stories, Jesus marvels at people’s honest, straightforward belief in Him and encourages them in their onward search to be true to God. Yet here, the Lord sets aside his even temper and confronts the disciples with a good measure of open humiliation and exasperation. Why? They have just been told about taking up the Cross to follow Him, and that for the Kingdom to come in power it involves suffering and losing your life. They have not understood. Then, Peter recognises Jesus as Son of the God and Jesus blesses him for listening to what God has told him in his heart. But then He tells him off for saying, “God forbid”, when Jesus explains that the Son of Man has to be killed before Heaven comes: “You are setting your mind on human things, not on the things of God.” Even Peter has not got it. So Jesus next takes Peter, James and John up the mountain of Tabor to show them what humanity looks like in the within the Kingdom of God – disfigured in the world, but transfigured by the presence of heaven; and the disciples glimpse for the first time what the Resurrection will mean, for before their very eyes they see the prophet Elijah who was assumed into Heaven and Moses who went into the very presence of God. And they hear for themselves what they had been told about when Jesus was baptised by John further downstream in the Jordan. They hear the words of the Father reverberating in the mountain clouds: “This is my Son … listen to Him.”

But still they do not hear and understand, despite everything they have seen and been told. Hence Jesus the Lord’s own declaration against those who have eyes to see and ears to hear yet do not credit the obvious. Yes, they believe Christ. Yes, the follow Him. Yes, they have begun to do spiritual deeds. Yes, they have grown in love and holiness. But, even when taken into the Lord’s deepest confidence and highest mysteries, they have not begun to grasp the purpose of it all. They do not have faith that the Reign of God, His power, His glory, and His judgment are here and now. So back close to the waters in which He was baptised, the waters beside which He called them to follow Him, the waters beside which Peter noticed the Jesus is the Son of God, the waters from which the Lord just rescued a father’s pride and joy from drowning, Christ spells it out again; “Every single incident, every single word of my parables and stories about the Kingdom of Heaven; every single miracle and healing; every single glance and gesture in my bearing; every single tone and nuance in my voice – this is all about My coming death on the Cross, and the power that will be unleashed when I am killed and the Resurrection surges up on the third day.” Everything comes from that point back to the point where the disciples are now; and everything in the future will go forward from this massive event, at which the logic of Heaven and salvation collides with a world of sin and wilful incompleteness . “Surely,” the Lord rebukes the disciples as He pleads with them to have faith in Him, “this must be plain to you from everything you have seen and heard?”

St Paul understands this from within. From his own experience he describes (II Corinthians 4.9-16) being “struck down but not destroyed”, carrying in his body the fact that he is declining deathwards at the same time as it shows the signs of Christ alive in him. He speaks of the world and the flesh - the reality we know - wasting away. But he also says that the inner nature of us is not something that is merely invisible, a pious feeling, an intellectual conclusion, a hopeful ideal by which to live, a projection beyond this world in search of a better one: far from it. To St Paul, this ideal, this better world, this inner nature to what we are and can become, this life in the midst of death, this coming Kingdom is nothing if it is not now - and concrete, more real than anything we may touch or sense in this world we think of as “realistic”. The “realism” we speak of is nothing of the sort, for it is part of the outer side to nature that is passing away: Here we have no enduring city (Hebrews 13.14). Instead, says St Paul, the inner nature is no different from the outer appearance.  “While we live, we are always yielding to death, but that is how it was with Jesus and we follow suit: thus the life of Jesus is visible, clear, real, obvious on our mortal flesh, our human living here and now.” Or, as St Paul put it another way, “it is not I who live, but Christ who lives within me.” (Galatians 2.20)

For us, the face of our Lord with His exasperated question asks, “Do you believe this?” Do you believe that your old life died on the Cross with Christ, and that the life you now lead is the same one as Elijah and Moses on the mountain, the life that may be here on the surface, but is realistically in Heaven? Do you live with absolute firm conviction that Jesus Christ is the only ruler of the hearts and lives of men and women, that He is the only rightful director of the course of the world’s affairs, the only thing that is real and the same, yesterday, today and for ever (Hebrews 13.8) in the midst of a world that wastes away?  Are you imagining that passing through life is like waiting for the after-life; or do you see that the Resurrection and Heaven is passing through YOU already, as you take up the Cross to follow Him, wherever it all leads? For if we live on earth as in heaven, there are consequences. We are not only blessed; we embody blessing. We are not only those who long to be caught up in heaven as we struggle through in faith, hope and love; we, the Church, are also the heaven that others can see and want to be caught up into. This is why religion is never a private matter, or the mere, bare concern of saving souls. It is always about the transformation of all humanity from what it appears to be to reveal it as it truly is: for God in Christ.

Thus our nature sings, “You arose in glory from the tomb and with Yourself You raised the world. All humanity acclaims You as God and death has vanished. Adam exults, O Master, and Eve, redeemed from bondage now, cries out for joy, 'You, Christ, are the One Who offer Resurrection to all.' ” (Kontakion of the Resurrection, Tone 1). Imagine we say to ourselves, “Here we are in the world, slogging on till death, till something better comes along”; and a boys voice carries from the crowd, “But you are not dead at all. Look at yourselves. You are covered in the glory of heaven. You are the Bride of Christ. I have never seen anything on earth more beautiful.”