Homily for UFT Worship, Friday 16 March 2012 (Matthew 5:1-12)
I wish to begin by thanking Jan Gray and Jesuit Theological College for their generous invitation to deliver the homily today. As you may imagine, my mind has been preoccupied with giving up responsibilities at the United Faculty of Theology, and being burdened with new ones at MCD University of Divinity.
It has therefore been a gift to be asked to meditate on the Beatitudes, these sayings of Jesus to his disciples gathered on the mountain. This entails standing back from the immediate, from the next meeting or the next decision, in order to look down from the mountain and see the whole truth in all its incomprehensible complexity and simplicity.
To most of us, who live in an industrialised, resource-rich, and highly developed society that exists at a high price we are all too willing to pay in ignorance, to us the Beatitudes constitute what many preachers used to call a hard saying.
We are students of theology and ministers of the gospel: many would claim we are wealthy in intellect and well-formed in ministry. Yet Jesus tells us ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ What is our place in that kingdom? Is it merely enough to recognise the poverty of our spirit?
We are here to celebrate our unity in Christ, to speak words of welcome and farewell. Some of us have just enjoyed lunch together, and we will soon move to celebrate a new book. Yet Jesus tells us ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.’ Should we then be sad, in order that we may enjoy comfort, or should we be afraid that celebration only comes at the price of tribulation?
We are lecturers and professors, yet we are told that it is the meek who will inherit the earth. I don’t know about you, but I’m not exactly meek. What then is my inheritance?
I do hunger and thirst for righteousness, although I’m about to get on a plane to a rather expensive holiday destination.
Mercy, purity, peace – surely we all admire these qualities, though they are difficult to maintain. As for persecution, well who in their right mind would actively seek it out?
Where do these words leave us? Full of guilt for our well-being? Newly conscious of the wisdom of others, born of harsh experience? Mindful in this season of Lent of the extraordinary earthly ministry of Jesus Christ, who somehow was fully human and fully divine? Who in the New Testament is illuminated as an exemplar not of earthly power or wisdom but of amazing grace?
When I hear this scripture, the Beatitudes, as a whole, I am struck by the apparent contradictions – contradictions between what we are meant to value, and things on which we set our hope. The Beatitudes seem to abandon our understanding of justice, excluding the included, and embracing the excluded.
Yet it is in these very contradictions that I find truth.
We human beings live in a state of constant contradiction.
We say one thing and do another.
We believe in mutually exclusive truths.
We criticise others but lack the will to reform ourselves.
We praise humility and simplicity but seek out power and wealth.
I make these claims not only as a Christian who observes sin at the root of our ills, but also as an historian trained in the sciences of human observation.
I frequently used to tell my undergraduate history students that history is the art of identifying and understanding the peculiar mix of contradictions that defined an individual or a community.
How, for example, could a Christian leader in sixteenth-century Europe who knew the scripture of Matthew chapter 5 intimately, persecute other Christians, meting out ill-placed punishment in the place of mercy?
When I hear this scripture, then, I am confronted by the contradictions in our world, in our society, and in my life. This is part of what it is to do theology, moving away from the neutral objectivity of logic to the apprehension of truth, away from the mere correction of error to the transformation of being.
What are the contradictions I see today?
Well, most obviously for me, I am completing my time with you as Dean, though it’s not quite a farewell and I’m not leaving altogether.
I am heading off to run a Specialist University, something I once thought an impossible entity. MCD University of Divinity, moreover, is coming to existence in a time and place when divinity, the mother of all disciplines, is largely seen as something oddly distinct from, not integrated with, other forms of higher education.
We are gathered here in this church to study theology and worship God together as one body, even though we are not one and are all too conscious of the barriers to our unity, both personal and institutional.
You continue to struggle with what it means to study theology – is it practical?; with what it means to be a theologian – is anyone in the church listening to you?; with what it means to be a United Faculty of Theology – is this unity?; with what it means to expend precious resources on advanced learning – is this purity of heart?
Each of you will carry your own and your corporate contradictions in your heart.
In this season of Lent, search out your contradictions and know them. Do not ignore them, do not suppress them. Examine them. Reread today’s scripture and let the contradictory Christ call to you.
Above all, as we approach Easter look to the cross and the empty tomb. Hold fast to Jesus Christ who lived out the greatest of all contradictions, dying at our hands to redeem us, and rising to new life to give us true hope.
Learn to see yourselves and your neighbours in the light of this God.
As you go forth today, take with you these scriptures that do not make sense, that do not conform to our human logic.
Let them be a source of comfort and challenge.
Allow their contradictions to shine light on our darkness and to lead us to hope.
Sing them in your heart, and share them with all you meet in word and action.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy!’
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God!’
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God!’.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven!’
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.