‘Like Living Stones’ | The Priesthood of all Believers

‘Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.’ – 1 Peter 2.4f.

The New Testament and the classical tradition of theology has emphasised that every baptised person is a priest. Of course, the ordained or ministerial priesthood has its own particular charism as ‘a walking sacrament’, to quote Farrer, but all believers share together in the holy priesthood of Christ. This is a big claim. Priests are those who mediate between God and human beings – as 1 Peter says, they offer spiritual sacrifices of praise and thus draw humanity up to the Creator. Priests are a pontifex – a bridge between the Trinity and the human heart. Every Christian person is, in this sense, a priest – a builder of bridges.

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‘The Priesthood of All Believers’ by Janet Pfeiffer

The background of our understanding of priesthood comes from the Old Testament. The Old Covenant is full of priests! Moses, Abraham and Noah all offered sacrifice to God and acted as priests but perhaps Aaron is the greatest. Aaron is the founding father of the long line of temple priests, who sustained the worship of Israel until the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. The Jerusalem priests became very interesting figures: they wear special vestments, preside over the complex liturgies of the temple and offer prayer and sacrifice on behalf of the people. In short, these priests were essential to the religious life and imagination of ancient Israel.

Some commentators have attempted to say that Jesus does away with all this priesthood and cult, that he entirely sweeps away this central pillar of the life of the old covenant. I think there’s some real problems with this interpretation. Of course, Jesus was not a temple priest – he was a Rabbi, a teacher of the faith. However, he was clearly temple-centric: the gospels tells us that Jesus often went up to Jerusalem to participate in the sacrificial cult and he often preached in the temple precinct. Then, of course, there is the climax of his public life – the event which probably led to his arrest – when he enters the temple and shocks the foundations of the religious establishment. He enters the temple, turns over the temples of the money changers and pronounces divine judgement: ‘I will destroy this temple and in three days raise it up’. This is a serious judgement, but it comes from his deep love for the temple. Many prophets of Israel, especially Isaiah and Ezekiel, have pronounced judgement on the corruption of the temple – Ezekiel famously saying that the very spirit of God had abandoned the temple in Jerusalem. However, they do this because they love the priesthood and the sacrifices. Jesus too loved the temple – he wanted to cleanse, reform and rebuild it!

When he pronounces judgement, he claims that ‘in three days’ he will raise up the temple but, as the evangelist tells us, ‘he was speaking of the temple of his body.’ Jesus doesn’t hate the temple, but he reorientates it – it would be in his body that God would be properly worshipped. The creeds affirm that in Jesus humanity and divinity come together – he is, in the very structure of his being, a priest and a temple. This is how he interprets his own death – the ultimate temple sacrifice, the great high priestly act. When we hear the words of the Last Supper: ‘take, eat; this is my body which is given for you’ – this is the language of sacrifice – this is the work of a priest! In this, Jesus makes his own body a sacrifice. Then, taking the cup of wine, he says ‘this is the blood of the new covenant’ – again, the language of the temple! Just as the blood of the slaughtered animal was a sign of atonement and reparation for sin; so his blood will be poured out for the sins of all humanity. Jesus is performing the final sacrifice because he is the final perfect priest. Jesus says that he will be in his own dying the temple.

Then we come to verses I quoted above from 1 Peter. The Apostle tells us that we will become ‘like living stones.. built into a spiritual house’ – the language is strange but this would have been entirely comprehensible to Jews who knew the temple! Jesus is the new temple and we are to be living stones within it. This means, as people who belong to the priesthood of all believers, we must be stones in the temple of the Lord’s body. This is the mission of the believer: to be so configured to Christ that your whole life is an offering of praise; that you become a true priest, a bridge between the divine and human. If your life is centred around your identity as a living stone, then your whole life will become an offering of praise and you will radiate the love of Christ to those around you. That’s what it means to be configured to Christ.

If we don’t live out our Christian faith, if we don’t speak about Christ to others, or allow the love of God to radiate out of ourselves then we will fail our mission. We are priests, without our being configured to Christ, no-one will experience the love of God and the temple will crumble! This is summed up in John 14, Jesus’ discourse at the Last Supper, where he is presented as the perfect priest. Philip says to Jesus, ‘Lord, show us the Father’ and Jesus responds ‘whoever has seen me has seen the Father.’ That is Jesus’ priesthood, he is the icon of the invisible God – the great bridge between humanity and divinity. Similarly in this chapter, the apostles ask Jesus to ‘show us the way’ and he tells them that he is ‘the way and the truth and the life’! Just as the priest offering sacrifice was offering a path to connect Israel to God, so Jesus is saying, I am myself the High Priest, the perfect sacrifice and the temple! If you want to know God, says Jesus, you need to me.

Wonderfully, this is true, by analogy, of all the baptised. You and I must be the way, the bridge and the means of access to God! By God’s grace, we are to so radiate the divine life that we reconcile humanity and God and draw people to share with us in the temple of the living God.

So be it.

Homily: The Resurrection says ‘Listen’

Readings: Acts 9.1-6 & John 21.1-19

‘After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’’

In nomine…

It isn’t often you hear people complain about the commercialisation of Easter: talking about all the Easter shopping; the hundreds of cards to be written; the huge number of parties; not to mention the endless stream of Easter adverts and cheesy films on our televisions. For some reason, Easter, despite being the most significant festival of the liturgical year, has stubbornly resisted the commodification that has swallowed up Christmas and left the season one more of dread than the joyful celebration of the Nativity of Our Lord. I was wondering about this question a lot this year how has Easter – with the

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The Mensa Christi (Table of Christ) on which he served breakfast in our Gospel reading – I have had the immense privilege of praying with and venerating this beautiful site in Galilee.

exception of ever-expanding baskets of eggs – maintained its relative religious purity? The answer, I would say, is the subversive message it carries with it: three simple words, Christ is risen.

 

‘Christ is risen’ is the most extraordinary declaration of the Christian faith and is also a pretty easy one to understand, whether you believe in it or not. Jesus of Nazareth, the man whose followers claim that he healed the sick, stilled storms, raised people from the dead and made the poor the centre of his ministry, was crucified under the orders of Pontius Pilate and died an agonising death in Jerusalem. Then, as his followers believe – include many of us here – after three days in the tomb, he rose from the dead.

If you don’t believe in the resurrection, you can go on living your life while perhaps admiring the example of Jesus, even practicing some of his teachings. But, at the same time, you can set aside those teachings that you disagree with or that make you uncomfortable – you don’t have to forgive your enemies, pray for your persecutors, live simply or risk death for Christ’s sake. If you don’t believe the sentence, ‘Christ is risen’ you can set all these demands aside because Jesus is just another great teacher among many.

But, if you believe that Jesus rose from the dead everything changes. If this simple claim is true, you cannot set aside any of his teaching because a person who rises from the grave, who demonstrates his power over death and who has definitively proven his divine authority needs to be listened to, he need to be followed as he says to Peter at the end of our Gospel reading. What that person says demands a response. The Resurrection makes a claim on you.

The Resurrection makes a claim on you.

The Easter story is both appalling and astonishing: the cruel betrayal of Jesus by one of his closest followers, the triple denial of his best friend, the gruesome crucifixion and the brutal end to his earthly life. Then, of course, there is the stunning turnaround three days later. Easter isn’t commercialised like Christmas because it’s so much harder to take – anyone can be born in a snowy stable with lambs and funny visitors – not everyone can rise from the dead.

Yet the Easter story, essential as it is for Christian belief, can be a confusing one, even for us who believe. To begin with, the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ appearances after the Resurrection can seem confounding, they are even contradictory. They are mysterious in the extreme. In John’s Gospel alone, we have Mary Magdalen who mistakes the Lord for a gardener and only knows him when he speaks her name, ‘Mariam.’ What is going on? How could Mary not recognise the person that she has been following for so long? More confusion follows in John – on one hand, Jesus appears as an almost ghostly figure, apparently able to walk through locked doors; but this morning he sits and eats breakfast. Ghostly and yet physical, recognisable but unrecognisable. Which is it? How could Matthew, Mark, Luke and John have presented the details of such an important story with such seeming contradictions? The agnostic or atheist will point to this as proof that it never happened. But I think it’s quite the opposite.

Most likely, I would claim, the narratives reflect the struggle of the eyewitnesses and, later, the evangelists to understand and communicate what they had experienced. After all, no one had ever encountered what theologians call the “glorified body,” the appearance of Jesus after the Resurrection. So they naturally struggled to explain it. It was him, but more. It was his body, but something else. It was like this, but not like this. If the Gospel writers were intent on getting their stories straight and providing airtight narratives with no inconsistencies, each would have made sure to agree with the others, so as not to give rise to any doubt or confusion (a process partly visible in the accounts of the Crucifixion). Instead, the Gospel writers, composing their accounts at different times and for different communities, simply reported what they had experienced and what they had been told. And what they had been told was beyond telling.

The risen Christ bursting from the tomb is so beyond the language and experience of those first witnesses that, instead of systematising the stories into something coherent they preserve for us those first stories – stories which so set ablaze a group of Palestinian nobodies and one violent pharisee that they carried the story to the ends of the earth. There may not be one coherent account of what Jesus was like when he rose from the grave, and God only knows what we’d see if there was a CCTV camera in the tomb – but the resurrection of Christ was so certain to those first women and men that they left their fishing nets and set out, many to their deaths.

What difference does Easter make in the life of the Christian? The message of Easter is, all at once, easy to understand, radical, subversive and life-changing. Easter means that nothing is impossible with God. Moreover, that life triumphs over death. Love triumphs over hatred. Hope triumphs over despair. And that suffering is not the last word. For Peter and Paul, it means a complete transformation of life: Paul, a persecutor of Christians, becomes their greatest apostle; Peter, a fisherman from a backwater of the Roman Empire travels to Rome and is crucified upside-down because he believed his friend had risen from the dead.

Easter reminds us, as it reminded Paul and the disciples, that Jesus Christ is Lord. And if he is Lord then what he says has a claim on you. His teachings are invitations, to be sure, but they are also commandments: Love your neighbours. Forgive. Feed my sheep. Care for the poor and the marginalised. Live a simple life. Put the needs of others before your own. From now on, the universe has changed and whoever wants to keep their life must lose it for Christ.

Jesus’ message still has the power to make us feel uncomfortable, as it did in first-century Palestine. It was just as much of a challenge to pray for your enemies in antiquity. It was no easier to hear Jesus’ judgment against the excesses of the wealthy during a time of degrading poverty for so many. It was just as subversive a message to be asked to pray for your persecutors as it is now.

By walking out of the tomb on Easter morning and sitting on the beach to cook fish with hands which still bear the fatal scars of the Cross, Jesus declared something life-changing, something subversive and something that cannot be overcome by any commercialisation. It is a message that refuses to be tamed. The Resurrection says not only that Christ has the power of life over death, but something more subversive.

The Resurrection says, ‘Listen.’

Alleluia.

Good Shepherd Sunday (2016)

The Gospel reading for this Sunday:
‘At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’ Jesus answered, ‘I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.’’ – John 10.22-30

This Sunday is known as Good Shepherd Sunday, a chance to reflect on this great teaching of Christ in St. John’s Gospel. For early Christians, long before depictions of the Crucifixion became common, it was the image of Christ the Good Shepherd which was most ubiquitous. In this homily, I am going to focus especially on those beautiful words, ‘my sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.’ Cardinal Newman once said that, although writing and arguments can leave us cool, ‘a voice can melt us’ and he’s

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Christ the Good Shepherd from the Catacombs in Rome

right. While an article or book can leave us unmoved, the sound of someone’s voice, even saying similar things, can make our hearts catch fire! My grandpa is a Frank Sinatra fan, a man known simply as ‘the Voice’ – even in old age, his voice would so move people that the orchestra would put down their instruments to hear him speak or sing. Voices are important to all of us, even now I can hear the voice of my nana (probably reading this post) telling stories to us as children – sometimes, when I’m reading, I hear them in her story-telling voice. Voice’s matter to us, they stir our hearts and kindle our imaginations.

It is, in many ways, the great mystery of Christianity that our faith is not a set of propositions that we all agree to, nor is it simply a philosophy of life, it is, deep down in its heart, a relationship with someone; someone who has voice. Our faith didn’t begin with the reasoned speculation of a social theorist or the musings of a philosopher, but when a group of women and men sat at the feet of Yeshua of Nazareth and he set their hearts on fire with his teaching. Paul evocatively tells us that ‘faith comes from hearing’ and I’m sure the first disciples would agree. I often wonder, especially when I’m on retreat and find myself with some time to spare, wondering what he sounded like. What was his voice like? Did his eyes twinkle when he spoke of his Father’s kingdom? Did his passion frighten the disciples? I am sure those first disciples never forgot the sound of voice, it was, I imagine, what sustained them even as they suffered so much for the sake of his name.

“Our faith began when a group of women and men sat at the feet of Yeshua of Nazareth and he set their hearts on fire”

After his resurrection, when Christ appeared to his disciples he told them, ‘I am with you always’ and echoed his promise that ‘whenever two or three are gathered together in my name, then I will be with them.’ We too hear his voice. We hear him when the Gospel is proclaimed in the Eucharist. It is our great privilege not just to read the Bible alone (which is, of course, a wonderful thing to do) but to hear it proclaimed to us: to glimpse the voice of Jesus when the Scriptures are carried into the heart of the congregation and proclaimed to us. We also hear the voice of Jesus in the preaching of the Church – this is his living voice, especially in the bishops and priests who Christ ordains to preach the Gospel. Through the Church, despite everything, the living voice of Christ rings out and the truth of the Gospel is preached in every generation.

As I said in my last post, we here the voice of Christ in our conscience, the primal sanctuary of our hearts. We call the pull of our conscience a ‘voice,’ because it speaks us to more powerfully than any other feeling. We have begin to attune ourselves to hear the voice of Christ in our own hearts. The voice of Christ comes to us from other places, especially in the words of good spiritual friends – our parish priests, our friends at dinner, our families – those voices which comfort and challenge us, which call us to higher ideals and refuse to let us get comfortable where we are but urge us on to a more meaningful relationship with Christ. Our spiritual friends, in persona Christi, pick us up when we fall and form part of that ‘great cloud of witnesses’ which urges us on.

One thing the first hearers of this teaching knew instinctively, but we have to be reminded, is that sheep respond only to the voice of their own shepherd and no one else. Sheep, however dumb, know their shepherd and follow him. For us, the sheep of Christ’s flock, this means trying to discern the voice of Christ in the midst of the cacophony of voices which surround us everyday. Politicians, authors, cultural leaders, our friends, and so many other voices are always leading us in different directions. How do we know whom to follow? How do you listen for the voice of Christ amongst so much competing noise? Those who are formed in the Christian life begin to recognise Jesus’ voice amidst the noise. Those who are fed by Christ’s body and blood in the Mass, who hear and meditate on his words in Scripture and remember that he has chosen to identify himself with the poor and the unloved begin to recognise the voice of the Shepherd. Like musicians who can pick out the right tune in a host of competing noises, so the disciple of Christ can recognise the Master’s voice and follow.

But why do we follow Yeshua? Why is this Jesus, born as he was 2016 years ago, raised in the backwater town of Nazareth and, like so many others, meeting a violent end on the Cross of the Roman authorities? Jesus gives us the answer here, ‘I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.’ We don’t listen to Christ to become more ethically upright, to be more charitable people or to orientate ourselves more towards social justice (although, these will follow from faithful discipleship!), any spiritual guru or even a good politician can teach you to do this. We endeavour with all our hearts to follow Christ because he leads us to eternal life. Jesus leads his sheep to the life of heaven where we shall never perish – where we will see God face to face and rejoice to dance with all the saints before the tabernacle of God for ever.

The eternal life to which we are drawn is a supernatural reality, it is our citizenship with the blessed in the eternal feast of heaven but it also transforms our life today. The Good Shepherd laid down his life for us that we might ‘have life and have it abundantly’ – that we might live in the glory and joy of his Risen Life now! Everything you and I do should bring us closer to this end – nothing, no one can separate you from the flock of the Shepherd who knows you and holds you save in his hand. Learn to hear his voice, meditate on his words in your heart, tune your ears to the voice which calls you to life and stay firm in the hope that he has set before you.

‘Now may the God of peace, who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus,
the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant,
make you perfect in every good deed to do his will,
working among us that which is well pleasing in his sight,
through Jesus Christ,to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.’
– Hebrews 13.20-21

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‘Let all corners of the earth be glad…’

Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her,
ablaze with light from her eternal King,
let all corners of the earth be glad,
knowing an end to gloom and darkness. – The Exsultet (Easter Proclamation)

The highlight of the liturgy of the Easter Vigil is the Exslutet, the great proclamation of Easter, sung in the light of the new Paschal Candle. The Exsultet proclaims the resurrection of Christ, calling on the Angels to sound the trumpet of salvation; the Church to resound with praise and the whole of creation to be glad – ‘ablaze with light from her eternal king.’ Creation, then, forms the ancient heart of this greatest hymn of praise. In our own day concerns about ecology are rising; climate change, pollution, and the unnatural extinction of plants and animals is causing us to question the way we treat the natural world. I firmly believe that the Christian response ought to be a return to the doctrine of creation, the centrality of which can hardly be overemphasised. The doctrine of creation is simple: all things were created by God, who saw it was ‘very good’ (Gen. 1.31) and affirms its value in his own eyes. We human beings are created in the divine image, as part of this community of life, in order to till and care for it, not to destroy it (Gen. 2.15).

The Exsultet proclaims that creation, gladdened by the joy of the resurrection, is intimately bound up with the life of Jesus of Nazareth, the Word incarnate through whom and for whom all things were made (Romans 11.36). At the core of our faith is the truth that in Jesus Christ God became a human being in order to redeem us, in the words of the Christmas Gospel – ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1.14). The Word is the second person of the Trinity, God’s own self-communication, uttered from all eternity and flesh refers to what is material, vulnerable, invite and what is not divine. This is the radical claim of our faith: God became what is not God, he became material in order to save us.

While, of course, the writers of the Exslutet would have been aware of the related doctrines of creation and incarnation, they could not have predicted how modern scientific discovery would enhance and colour this doctrine in the last two centuries. We now know that our human flesh is part of the great chain of evolution on earth, which in turn is part of one solar system within trillions, which in turn came into being as part of a long cosmic history.

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The prevailing scientific theory is that everything that exists comes from a single blazing instant around 13.7 billion years ago; a single speck explodes in what is (inelegantly) known as the Big Bang – an immeasurable outpouring of matter and energy which continues to this day. As this material expanded, its lumpy unevenness allowed swirling galaxies to form as the force of gravity pulled particles together and their dense friction ignited the stars. Roughly five billion years ago some of these ageing stars died. They exploded into great supernovas, which fused basic hydrogen into more complex elements. Out of these clouds of dust and gas, some material reformed and re-ignited to become our Sun, a second-generation star. Some coalesced into chunks too small to catch fire these formed the planets of our solar system—including Earth.

Three and a half billion years ago on this planet (and, almost certainly on others) there began another momentous change – molecules coalesced to form living cells. Over aeons these developed into creatures that could ‘be fruitful and multiply’ and life is born. So, out of the Big Bang comes stars; from stardust comes the Earth; out of the raw matter of the Earth comes life. This life burst forth from the life and death of single-celled creatures into an advancing tide: trilobites, fish, amphibians, insects, flowers, birds, reptiles, and mammals, among whom came human beings—mammals with brains so complex that we experience self-conscious intelligence and freedom.

This scientific story, teaches us that everything is connected to everything else. In the famous words of Arthur Peacocke (scientist and theologian), ‘every atom of iron in our blood would not be there had it not been produced in some galactic explosion billions of years ago and eventually condensed to form the iron in the crust of the Earth from which we have emerged.’ Quite literally human beings are made of stardust. And, more than that, we share with all other living creatures a common genetic ancestry in the great community of life.

While the human capacity for thought and love are unique, they are not something injected into the universe from outside. Rather, they are the flowering in us of deeply cosmic energies. In the human species nature becomes conscious of itself and open to fulfilment in grace and glory. In the words of the Jewish philosopher Abraham Heschel, this makes human beings the “cantors of the universe,” able to sing praise and thanks in the name of all the rest.

When we understand the human species in these terms, as an intrinsic part of cosmic matter, this hugely enriches the way we understand the incarnation. From this perspective, the human flesh that the Word became is part of the vast body of the cosmos. This is called by theologians “deep incarnation,” as it expresses this radical divine reach into the very tissue of all biological existence and the wider system of the cosmos. Like all human beings, Jesus carried within himself the traces of supernovas and the whole history of life on earth. The genetic structure of his cells made him part of the whole community of life that descended from common ancestors in the ancient seas. The flesh that the Word became thus reaches beyond Jesus and other human beings to encompass the whole biological world of living creatures and the cosmic dust of which we are composed.

This “deep” way of reflecting on the incarnation provides an important insight. By becoming flesh the Word of God confers blessing on the whole of earthly reality in its material dimension, and beyond that, on the cosmos in which the Earth exists. Rather than being a barrier that distances us from the divine, this material world becomes a sacrament that can reveal divine presence. Christians must turn away from anything that is world-denying – instead, far from spiritual contempt for the world, we are to ally ourselves with the living God by loving the whole natural world, which is all part of the flesh that the Word became. Again, in the words of the Exsultet:

O truly blessed night,
when things of heaven are wed to those of earth,
and divine to the human.

This perspective is radical, it calls each one of us to the upmost respect for creation because ‘the whole creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God’ (Romans 8.9). This world, created by the same God who entered into this incredible story two thousand years ago in Nazareth, is precious and beloved – it yearns in every atom for salvation. This perspective encompasses not only life on earth, but the life of every planet in the universe, for it is from stardust that all is made. From the Cross, Jesus spoke a word translated into Greek as τετέλεσται, ‘it is finished.’ In meditating on this we
remember that, on the Cross, Christ enters into the depth of our fragile creation – he experiences the reality common to all creatures; death. He accomplishes his great work of Recreation and forever charges the universe with his power and presence. In this perspective, it is no surprise that the Resurrection happened in a garden, for every budding flower and ancient tree cries out in triumph as our stardust is redeemed and all creation is charged with resurrection glory. Alleluia.

Now the green blade rises from the buried grain,
Wheat that in the dark earth many years has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.mp5345web-900x900.png