HOMILY at the 9h and 10h30 MASSES for the TENTH SUNDAY after TRINITY (A) 2017
Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman had a well-known religious pilgrimage which, amongst other things, led him from affirming the Anglican Church to be part of the Catholic Church to ultimately denying that position and joining the Roman Church. Perhaps because of that, I notice with a certain mischievous glee that the Church of England keeps his feast day in August and the Roman Church in October. Perhaps on this occasion it was felt that the same day might be inappropriate! So Anglicans observe the date of his death, and Roman Catholics observe the date of his reception into the Roman Church.
Much is known about Newman’s influence on the Oxford Movement, which helped Anglicans renew their understanding of the Church, her sacraments and her worship. Rather less is known about Newman’s early years as a priest. He came from an Evangelical background, and he was ordained deacon at the age of 23 (in 1824) to a curacy at S. Clement’s Oxford. Although far from embracing a Calvinist notion of predestination, Newman believed at that time that more people were damned than saved – a perpetual problem for Evangelicals.
That belief, however, was soon to change. And the change came through Newman’s pastoral work. As he met a large number of people in whom he recognised a great deal of goodness, but little evidence of active faith, Newman began to wonder how it could possibly be that so many good people were bound for hell? It could not be so – and with this realisation came the stirrings of Catholic faith in him. A faith which had and has a broader canvas than the narrow evangelicalism in which he was nurtured, with its flawed obsession with the individual believer’s standing with God.
I mention this, not merely because Newman – whose feast we Anglicans observed recently – may well be moving closer to being declared a saint, whatever day he eventually may occupy, but also because of the theme of today’s Eucharist. God’s mercy towards all people.
For we live, much more than in Newman’s day, in a pluralistic society and in the course of our daily lives all of us come across people of pretty nearly all faiths and none. And as Christian people, how do we deal with this? After all, our faith tells us – does it not – that there is only one way to God and that is through Jesus Christ – the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through him.
As Christians, our very understanding of the being of God involves at the same time the person of Jesus Christ. We speak of God as three persons in communion. How does this leave us with respect to the different understandings of God that – for example – might be held by a Hindu, or a Muslim or a Jew? And what about those good people who have no faith at all?
It’s interesting once again to listen to the Gospel reading for this morning and the dealings Jesus had with the Canaanite woman. The disciples (as always) like things to be black and white. Send her away they say. Get rid of this heathen woman. But Jesus won’t have any of that. He does challenge her – is even pretty rude to her (it seems to our sensitive ears). And though her faith was very different from his, her request was granted, and that very different faith commended.
At the time of the Second Vatican Council, the Declaration on the relationship of the Church to the non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate, was an absolutely ground-breaking document for any part of the Church, let alone the conservative Roman Catholic Church. It acknowledges the grounds of overlap between the world religions and rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. The Church is called to proclaim and worship Christ as the Way, the Truth and the Life, the source of reconciliation and peace – and so as a concomitant of this proclamation and worship there is a duty to recognise what is of truth, therefore what is of Christ, in the other world religions. The Declaration concludes with a reminder that ‘We cannot truly call on God, the Father of all, if we refuse to treat in a brotherly way any man, created as he is in the image of God. Man’s relation to God the Father and his relation to men his brothers are so linked together that Scripture says: “He who does not love does not know God” (1 John 4:8).’
Similarly, there are men and women today who work tirelessly for things that we as Christians would see as marks of God’s reign and Kingdom – justice, peace, elimination of poverty, the upholding of human rights. But these people do not embrace any faith whatsoever, or so they would say.
Once again, in their desire that society should reflect something more like what we Christians call the Kingdom of God these people are indeed our fellow pilgrims. And indeed, such seekers after justice and peace are indeed people of faith, even though their faith is not an overtly religious one at all.
Today’s Eucharist – and the second reading from the letter to the Romans in particular – reminds us that God’s mercy is for all people. For a long time, Christian evangelism proceeded along the lines that, since we were manifestly the only true faith, we had better get as many people on board and on the way to salvation. If we cannot think like this today (or at least some of us cannot!) then how do we set about bringing the Good News of Jesus Christ to our world?
That’s a huge question and can’t be answered in a Sunday Sermon (or at least, not in one of mine!). It’s clear that there are those who work for what we Christians call God’s Kingdom who could do so more effectively from a base within the life of the Church, and it would be good for the life of the Church if they were with us! That much demands that we make a case for faith. And whereas we can recognise truth in other ways than our own, we can recognise plenty of people out there who have no signposts, no source of grace, no sense of purpose or meaning. God’s mercy towards such people (and it is a very real mercy) comes through folk like you and me. Grounded in faith ourselves, we can commend the Way of Christ, and the Good News of the Gospel, in our lives as well as supported at the right moment with our words.
What we increasingly realise is how in particular the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam seek a way of unity with God. Faithful to the ancient Covenant God makes with humanity, albeit in significantly differing ways, we all desire reconciliation – with God and with one another. And other religious faiths that genuinely seek God cannot fail in some way or other to engage with this Covenant.
Finally, of course, not everything that calls itself religion has necessarily much to do with God or God’s purposes of reconciliation, truth and love. There are those who use the language of religious faith in order to pursue an agenda which has much more to do with their own power than it has to do with the Way, the Truth and the Life of God. And although we don’t generally talk about hell these days, it seems to me that kind of religion is indeed hellish.
Though having said that, such people must never be demonised and placed beyond mercy. Mercy is well defined as willingness to enter the chaos of another person. The continuing tragedies that we see on the streets of western cities like Barcelona last week as well as the daily massacres in the middle east need to be understood not just condemned. What is it that pushes people to the kind of behaviour which we see where they are ready to perpetrate acts of terrible evil? Is it some terrible neurological deficit? There is some evidence to suggest that. Or is it, much more likely, the fear of oppression, the fear of not being heard or acknowledged? Certainly this was and is significant in present-day Iraq, where the Shia government ignored or worse the Sunni minority. But declaring war on terror is not the answer. What we are doing at present is the equivalent of eradicating troublesome moles from a lawn. Wait until one pops up and kill it off. But there are plenty more under ground ready to appear somewhere else.
Living with God’s mercy shown to all people is not a comfortable or easy option for any of us.
But it provides space in our troubled and crowded world. Space for one another. And more importantly space for God to enter the human chaos in his mercy. And that has to be truly Good News for our world!