12 July 2016

Seek first the Kingdom of God: Homily for the Third Sunday after Pentecost, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London, 10 July 2016

Seek first the Kingdom of God (Matthew 6.34). These words insistently return to the mind in the midst of the constitutional and moral crisis in which the United Kingdom is now embroiled following the referendum, after a majority of those voting approved by a narrow margin withdrawal from the European Union.

In the weeks and months before this fateful vote, unlike at General Elections, there was no collective guidance from the Catholic Bishops on the issues at stake in terms of Catholic social teaching, or indeed the interests of the Holy See and the Catholic Church in this country. This is doubtless because there was an honest case from the point of various Catholic Christians’ faith for either choice. The Church stands above the political fray, since its wisdom applies to this world from the Kingdom of heaven. But, after the result was known, it was clear that great bitterness and resentment was unleashed, with some terrible mutual recriminations – young versus old, north versus south, Scot versus English, British verse foreigners, even white versus those of other colours. Cardinal Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster and President of the Bishops’ Conference, immediately called for calm, “respect and civility”, appealing to our better nature as a country, and to its implicitly Christian civilisation when it comes to a generous “welcome for the stranger and shelter for the needy”.

Let us now set the referendum decision and its aftermath explicitly in the context of Christian faith and discipleship. Since we as Catholics strive for the communion of all in Christ in the Catholic faith, and by leading truly a spiritual life in union with Him, it is important that we look forward to the next year, with its undoubted upheavals ahead, with our eyes fixed firmly on Jesus Christ our pioneer on the life we pass through in this world (Hebrews 12.2).

This last week, I have heard of a Spanish restaurant in south London vandalised with offensive graffiti, and we all know of the similar attack on a Polish centre in north London. I also learned of a British charity for the needy, which has built up considerable work in other European countries, now considering a new office in Germany to protect its work across borders; and a Belgian colleague speaking Flemish to relatives on the phone on a bus, was confronted in public with a threat that her job was shortly to come to an end. Among us we know of numerous other incidents of physical and verbal assault, ranging from the xenophobic to the unvarnished racist.

To this we say that the Kingdoms of the World have become the Kingdom of the Lord and of His Christ (Apocalypse 11.15), and that the Kingdom of God transcends all our ideas of patriotism, nationality, nationalism, state-interest. “Here,” says St Paul, “we have no abiding city... for our true homeland is in heaven”. (Hebrews 13.14 & Philippians 3.20) And the Lord Himself says to "seek first the Kingdom of God" (Matthew 6.34). At Vatican II, the Church taught that the authority of the Church and of civil society are not subject one to the other, but are free to achieve their highest aims as they operate in their respective spheres. This does not mean that the Gospel and the authority of the Church to proclaim it fail to apply to the world, and that the Church must refrain from interfering in the affairs of society. On the contrary, it is the teaching of the Church that the objective of both Church and State, Religion and Society, is to serve the realisation of God’s Kingdom on earth. It is thus the Church’s prophetic duty to call the world, its leaders, its governments, its cultures, its societies and each individual member to constant repentance, to return again and again to the principles of the Beatitudes, to strain repeatedly to ‘hear the Angels sing’ of glory to God on high and peace on earth to those of good will, and thus to orient the entire world toward the blessed state that is ours by virtue of our creation in God’s own image.

Secondly, it is vital to recall that, in the beginning, what has now become the European Union (whatever you think of it) was established largely by Catholic Christians intent on realising this Kingdom of God in the hands of the remaining people of good will, transcending states and languages and divisions, so that the resources of Europe could never again be used for making war, or for oppressing the free dignity of human beings to live to the full before God, in faith and hope and love. No more Fascism and Nazism; no more atheist materialist communism. Everywhere confidence in truth, in goodness and justice.

What has emerged in the last few weeks has clearly been lying under the surface for years and now feels unbound and empowered to assert itself. Perhaps it is a catharsis that will soon be over as the poison is dissipated. Perhaps we face a more lasting darker outlook, recalling that such attitudes were once commonly assumed and potently pursued before the Second World War in this country as elsewhere. So we must remember that the Lord Who said, “Seek first the Kingdom of God,” went on to say, “and His righteousness.” It must therefore be the heartfelt duty of every Christian, who believes above all else in the Universal Reign of Jesus Christ over all peoples and nations, to withstand all thoughts, words and deeds that contradict His design for humanity’s perfect liberty in Him, and that contradict the dignity of all human beings, regardless of colour, race, religion, age, sex, or language, or outlook. It must be that Christians who “seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness” declare unrighteous, unChristian, all that stands against Christ’s will for us all, both to be one in His own single humanity and to thrive as He has appointed us in His single creation with all our differences and backgrounds and origins. For we see that by the Holy Spirit He has both been penetrating our societies so that they may providentially become more like His Kingdom, and is even now redeeming from them all their ills, oppressions, cruelties and acts of spiteful pride and wickedness, by the power of His holy Cross.

I fear that this will require of us great strengths in the time ahead as we make a new history. Perhaps we are in an unreal calm before a coming storm, or perhaps, as we hope with the Cardinal, we will prove after all to be good neighbours. Perhaps, though, when we insist as we must upon Christ’s bearing on the world, it will involve the further vilification of the Church. Perhaps to exalt the Kingdom of God and righteousness will involve profound sacrifices for the sake of the truth, of justice and the love of God. But the evil at work will not prevail. It must bow. For “the earth is the Lord’s with all that is in it” (Psalm 23.1) and “the Lord alone … will be King” (Zechariah 14.9); and “He will reign for ever” (Apocalypse 11.15). Him alone do we serve (cf. Matthew 4.8 & 10).


09 July 2016

Homily for the Sunday of the Fathers of the First Council of Nicaea, Sunday after the Ascension, Ukrainian Cathedral of the Holy Family, London, 12 June 2016

Nine years short of 1700 years ago, bishops representing the whole Christian Church in the Christian Roman Empire gathered to agree the wording by which we still declare our faith, in the Creed proclaimed at the Mass and the Divine Liturgy throughout the Catholic and Orthodox Church. This is the faith that Christ is of one substance with the Father - they share the same nature equally; just as any earthly father and son do, so do the Heavenly Father and Son.

It was the first time the bishops had needed to be called together, because an unprecedented controversy between good people threatened to tear the Church apart and even finally undermine it. For the consequences were all or nothing. Could a human be divine in the same way as the Father? Could someone who had been born in time, also be the Son from all eternity, before all ages? A priest called Arius had concluded that Jesus was the first of all God’s creatures ever to be produced, and He was divine only in the sense that His divinity had been given Him by the Father. It was not His own divinity, but someone else’s, lent to Him. Thus the Son may live eternally with the Father and the Spirit now, but He had a beginning, and there was a time when He did not exist. In Arius’ thinking, even though Jesus had a divine nature, he came after His Father. But others argued back – if He was inferior to the Father, how could Jesus be the one who reconciles us with God?

Various theories were proposed, to make sense of the belief that everyone shared, that Christ is both divine and human. From direct memory, He was a real human being who was born, and lived and died, and then rose again, ascended into heaven and sent among us His Holy Spirit. But how could a human being also be God? Is not God a spirit? Is the Father the spirit who inspired a human being, and filled him with His own divine life, making Jesus His Son, so that His sacrifice on the Cross is acceptable and wins our forgiveness and salvation, so that we, just like Him, can be adopted by the Father, and receive a share in God’s nature as His children? The explanations for how this could all add up were many and inventive. Thus, Jesus had a nature that was like the Father’s. But does that mean he was unlike us? Or, He was a human that became divine too, by adoption. But does that mean He was in the end unlike God? Or, He has a human and a divine nature – they are united with the Father by a single will, or energy, or character. But does that mean he was half-God and half-human, unlike any other human being, or unlike God at all? There had even been those who said that the Father and the Son were one and the same Person, but in different forms for different times and reasons. Like a telescope sliding in and out, first there might be the Father, in the Old Testament; then the Father is followed by the Son in the Gospels, and afterwards comes the Holy Spirit.

None of these explanations is adequate. They only go part of the way to explain what we recognise in our life in Christ within the communion of the Holy Spirit in His Church. Or else they lead to distortion, leaving us without Three Persons in the Trinity, or offering us a Christ who is either a human like no other, or a heavenly being who only appears to be human but who isn’t God either.

So we keep coming back to the explanation that was settled upon by the Fathers at Nicaea. First, they agreed that, if the work of the Cross and Resurrection genuinely brings about our forgiveness, our redemption through Christ’s Bloodshed, and our reconciliation with the Father, then it had to happen physically, in our own, real, human flesh. If it did not, it was a mirage, a myth. There are plenty of stories about the interventions of heavenly figures like Hercules or Shiva –these are religious myths, but they do not have any effect – they are not a fact of life in creation. So Jesus had to be a real human being with a completely human nature.

The second thing they considered was, if a real human being died on the Cross and rose again, how did it connect with God? If it was just a miracle visited upon one human being from outside, it may be an inspiring, symbolic story, but where is the effect involving the rest of us? So the Fathers agreed that the incarnation of Christ, and His Cross and Resurrection, to bring about our salvation and our reconciliation with God, was not just a human event. It had to involve God too. Otherwise, how did a human Jesus unite us with God on His Cross?How did His own resurrection take any of the rest of us any nearer God from out of our mortality than we were before? How were the difference and the distance between God and humanity overcome? So, they agreed, Jesus must have been God too, God the Son, united with His Father from all eternity, and united with us – true God, true Man.

Arius still could not bring himself to say this. He saw nothing incomplete in saying that Jesus the Man embodied the Word of God that He had received, so that His sacrifice for us was acceptable, and the resurrection vindicated it. Perhaps he was recalling his own father with honour, and pictured a Divine Son who was lower than God the Father - God as he is in Himself. But the Fathers of the Council of Nicaea, said no; this was not enough. If Jesus Christ is not God as He is in Himself in the same way as the Father, then the connection between us and God is not made, and we are not saved. If God did not become man, then man cannot become divine as Christ promised in the Gospel - which we read every year both at the time of the Ascension leading up to Pentecost, and in the days of Holy Week leading up to the Cross – when he said, “All mine are yours, and yours are mine.”

So the Fathers of Nicaea insisted that Jesus did not merely possess a divine kind of nature; he did not have a nature like the Father’s. His nature is the same as the Father’s. This is why, especially in the Christian East, we unequivocally and repeatedly say that Jesus is Our Lord and God and Saviour.

There is still a tendency in the West to think that, because Jesus is Son of God, He is somehow on a lower rung in the hierarchy of heaven. It suits the world we live in to imagine that He belongs in the world of the religious imagination, a mythical heavenly being. Or, He is just the same as other great religious leaders in history. But Christians assert something entirely different, when we stress the full force of what we mean every Christmas when we hail the birth of Emmanuel, the Son of God who is God among us. It is fully God that is born. It is fully in our flesh that Jesus, who is our God, died on the Cross and rose again to buy us back to be one with the Father as He Himself is one. This is not mere spirituality. This is not a religious point of view. It is the Christian understanding of human nature, bearing the full impact of Christ our God. It is the Christian understanding of what human nature has been made into and that we are thus becoming.

In the Lord’s Prayer, of which today’s gospel is an elaboration (John 17.1-13), we ask daily for the Kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. We often think of the concept of heaven on earth and how it is realised, or struggled for. It is thus easy to think of heaven in earthly terms, while we pass through the world in expectation of its perfection beyond this life. Yet the hard part is the most demanding. It is not to live in this world as if in the next. It is to realise that where we actually live we are in heaven already. This radically affects our behaviour and our outlook. We do not follow Christ out of duty. We do not keep his commands out of exhortation and obedience. We do not long for the Spirit out of inclination. We live in the Kingdom because we already and permanently face into its blessedness. We follow Christ out of love and because we are caught up in His blessedness. We keep His commands, not out of obedience but because we love nothing else more. We long for the Spirit, not merely as an exercise, but because our entire being is taken up with Him.

The renewal of the Church and its perseverance in the faith is thus not down to our effort, as we constantly imagine, but always down to the action of God, as He unites with humanity in Christ, so that when they ask for a description of God’s identity, His Name and His work, we reply, “God is with us”. He does not just bring heaven down to us on earth, but makes earth penetrate heaven. Thus here in this space we are in no other place than before the Throne to which Christ ascended in glory.

This week, across our Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, we pray for our parishes to be vibrant, to be places where human beings may encounter the living Christ, to be bodies of people, individuals, who are themselves encounters with Christ in heaven. Imagine what it would be like if coming to Church was not just about us coming to worship Christ our God. Imagine what it would be like if it was about Christ coming into us, so that He could make himself seen by others in us. Imagine what a change it would make of us.

Archbishop Michael Ramsey used to explain the faith of Nicaea – about how the Father is like the Son and the Son like the Father. He would say that we get it all the wrong way round. Instead of getting people to think how Jesus was the likeness of God, consider that in God is as He is in Christ, that in God there is no unChristlikeness at all. Now imagine what it would mean if we could say, in David, in Sarah - whatever our names - in me there is no unChristlikeness at all.