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Thursday, 13 November 2014

Homily for the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost, Holy Family Cathedral, London, 9th November 2014

Galatians 6.11-18 – Luke 8.26-39

Picture Saint Paul dictating his letter to the Church in Galatia. When his assistant has finished, Paul takes up the pen personally, and adds some final thoughts. He speaks of writing with large letters. Perhaps he is losing his eyesight, for he was once an expert writer and religious official himself; or, perhaps, writing as small as his scribe could, to get as much wording on the page of the expensive parchment as possible, was now too painful for him – he speaks of being unable to deal with the Church troublemakers, because he bears the marks of Jesus on his own body.

These are very interesting last few sentences, conveying the thoughts right at the forefront of St Paul’s mind. He compares and contrasts outward physical appearances with the inner truths that last because they mean something. He begins with the outsize appearance of his handwriting; and he ends with the outward appearance of wounds upon his skin. But he turns to attention to the greater fact of life that lies among and within what we experience as real in the world. Thus he questions the Galatian Christians, a community of Jews and Gentiles alike, if they have lost sight of what being a Christian is all about. Christ was circumcised not because it was a cultural convention, but because from time immemorial it had been a sacramental sign of the people’s faith in their covenant with God. “An outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace,” it was the mark of an undertaking by the Hebrews and the Jews to take the law of God to their own hearts and keep it as the light of their lives. But here were people who did not take the law of God seriously themselves, yet insisted that the new people who wanted to follow Christ’s conform to an outward appearance, an appearance that on its own meant nothing without the inner meaning of love, obedience, and bonding with our God.

We are reminded of the words of the Prophet Micah, expressing the patience of God at humanity’s continual cycle of betrayal, disobedience and trying to buy back God’s favour with a surfeit of religion and sacrificial offering. The Lord asks, “O my people, what have I done to you? How have I wearied you?” The response is predictable: the offer of year-old calves, rams in their thousands, rivers of oil to burn the Temple lamps, even a human sacrifice. Wearily, Prophet Micah explains it all over again: “You have been told what would be good; you have been told what the Lord requires: to do justice, to love goodness, and to work humbly with your God.” (Micah 6. 3, 8)

It is, of course, easier to perform the outward appearance of religion – the customs, the behaviours; the fretting over the way other people bow, or make the sign of the Cross; the sharp eye on other people’s morals, while presuming forgiveness for one’s own shortcomings; the profession of righteous activity backed up with a word of criticism (a hint of our own insecurity perhaps) for those who we want to show are not up to the mark. There is nothing new under the sun; and St Paul was as worn down by self-righteous troublemakers as his successors have been right down the ages to this day. He told the Church at Corinth that people like that are like brass gongs – a lot of sound is made when the hammer strikes, but they make no music of their own: much reverberation, but no heart; much noise, but no love (cf. I Corinthians 13.1). Pope Francis says exactly the same about the poison of gossip, telling religious superiors this week that it actually be more honest to come to blows, so much more insidious and harmful is the hidden attack of pitiless, unloving gossip (Address to 54th National Assembly of Religious Superiors of Italy, 7 November 2014).

He has spoken, too, of Christians who are lukewarm and mediocre, people who look like Christians, but who are really worldly. He says, “They are enemies of the Cross of Christ. They take the name but they do not follow the responsibilities of Christian life. Do I like to brag? Do I like money? Do I like pride, arrogance?... These types of people get corrupted bit by bit and end up becoming pagan Christians” (Homily on 8 November, 2014, Santa Marta, Rome on Philippians 3.18). He is quoting St Paul, who saw the remedy to all this in self-giving love. For he points all those people who make trouble - all those obsessed with outward form, all those intruding their own anxieties into the souls of others - to the only thing that matters, to Jesus Christ on his Cross, the Cross that makes everything else beside the point. Appearance, law, immemorial custom, personal identity, self-realisation, individual spiritualities: all these mean nothing, unless we have become a new creation at the hand of Christ nailed to its Cross.

It is no accident that St Paul seizes on what must have seemed to be an endless and enervating fine argument about circumcision. It is as though he is saying, “Do you foolish Galatians not realise that when Jesus was circumcised, it was the first time He shed His blood for us? Do you not realise you are arguing about the Cross itself? Do you not see that all this argument about who gets to belong to the people of God - who can and can’t come in - has itself been crucified. With Christ’s death it has been killed off and, unlike Him it has not risen from the dead. Only Christ is alive and His resurrection is what has freed us to be made into new creations.

He tells them that marks he bears in his body are those caused by a Cross that ended his old life. They are also caused by the Resurrection freeing him to be made into something different now. “I have been crucified with Christ,” he has explained to them. “It is not any more I who live, but Christ who lives within me” (Galatians 2.20). His parting word is that this grace, the very living of Christ in a human soul, will be in their spirit too.

And what of us, with our conflicting thoughts, wants, feelings, grudges, self-pity, words, thoughts, excuses, dreams, conceit and sin? Are we the pagan Christians of which Pope Francis spoke, gradually corrupted by mediocrity, settling for less when we are free to have everything if, like the Lord we follow, we did but do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God? The devil would certainly like us to think so, crowding into us so many of his unclean spirits, to make us feel defeated and overwhelmed, tormented even by the attempt of Christ at relief, neuralgic even at the thought of his touch.

Instead, let us be the ones who call out “Save us,” to the one we can see is not the Punisher but the Lover of Mankind (Kontakion of Sunday, Tone 5). Let us long even to endure that crucifixion with Christ that made St Paul into a new creation. Let it be that just one spirit casts out all else, one spirit that dwells in us richly: Christ who is God’s love, Christ who is our unbreakable bonding with His Father. 

Fr Mark Woodruff

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