A sermon preached by the Revd Professor Allen Brent in St Edmund’s College Chapel
Year B, Sunday 28.
We have, in the Gospel for this evening’s Vigil Mass, our Lord making some of his most radical claims. In addition to keeping all the commandments, the Rich Young Man is invited if he wishes for his faith in Jesus to be complete, to sell all his goods and give them to the poor and to follow him. And then Jesus tells Peter that those who have left ‘house, brother, sister, father, children, or land for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel’ will receive them back with persecution in this world, but will in the world to come receive eternal life.
If we were required as an individual, like someone on a desert island, isolated and alone, to apply these demands of Jesus to ourselves and others, chaos, indeed often a moral chaos, would result. We are given logical or legal principles that would enable us to derive the validity of certain practices that follow from these demands of Jesus and by means of which we could declare other practices invalid. The words of Jesus have been used to justify celibacy and the religious life, but also some individuals have used them as justifications for abandoning their wives and marriage vows. As I was told in no uncertain terms by a representative of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, the Catholic Church holds in highest esteem the marriage vow. And notwithstanding the Catholic Church’s regarding of Jesus’ words as the challenge to the religious life, although you have no spouse, if your mother or father, sister or brother are ill and need you, your prior will soon tell you to get the hell out of the monastery for a time on a trip to see and support them. The form of Jesus words is accompanied by no logical or juridical formula that prescribes where and where not they apply. They take root not in an individual but in the community of faith that lives them in its own corporate life, led by the grace committed to the apostolic and Petrine ministry that will not allow that community to err fundamentally.
The great, spectacular example of how the meaning and application of Jesus words are lived out and experienced in the living community of faith is to be found in the Acts of the Apostles. Jesus had said ‘sell all your goods and give them to the poor, leave lands and possessions for my sake and the Gospel’s.’ So the first community of disciples held all things in common: private property was abolished. A millionaire like St Barnabas sold all that he had and laid the proceeds at the apostles’ feet.
It seemed like a wonderful existence but it was an economic experiment that failed. The community was in Jerusalem and rapidly became ‘the poor of Jerusalem.’ Let not the admirers of Maggie Thatcher gloat. St Paul in Galatians, following a blazing row with Peter, James, and John, ‘those who had been apostles,’ Paul says, ‘before me’, Paul agrees with them that ‘we should remember the poor’ which, Paul adds, ‘I was most anxious to do.’
Nothing is not always as it seems. The Jews of the Diaspora paid a temple tax to Jerusalem if they could not go there for the annual Passover, and this was the sign of the primacy and authority of Jerusalem within Judaeism. The irascible Paul might well avow that his revelation that made him an apostle came direct from the risen Jesus, owed nothing to these ‘so-called pillars of the Church’ let alone St Peter the rock on which that Church was founded. So why, Paul, take your gospel to them for approval that you say they quickly gave? And why acknowledge their authority by paying the Jerusalem Christian authorities something that looked like the Christian equivalent to a temple tax? Well Paul might say, this was no acknowledgement of apostolic authority from Jerusalem: he was simply worried about those poor people who had impoverished themselves in a failed economic experiment.
But despite Paul’s nonchalance about ecclesiastical authority, he now not only remembered the poor at Jerusalem but spent a major part of his ministry for the next few years organising a collection for the Jerusalem community: a considerable part of his second letter to the Corinthians is taken up with the task that finally becomes ‘the offering of the gentiles’ that he as apostle to the gentiles is to offer up in Jerusalem.
As Newman once said, there has never been a system of authority to which there was no resistance: resistance indeed shows why authority is necessary in the first place.
In the life and experience of the living community that is the Catholic Church, the intentions of the words of Jesus, living and creative, is worked out in our journey together as the community of faith that Christ founded. We discover under the protection of the Holy Spirit and the Petrine ministry what Jesus really meant. His particular words became the program for monastic communities and the religious life. We do not reject that life as individuals, it is part of us, it is the fulfilment of our common mission to act as the body of Christ.
There are other foundational principles that likewise guide our thinking to their proper outcome. One of which Newman was fond is the ‘incarnational’ principle. Not in strict logic but in our experience of living the life of faith we realise, not only that ‘the word was made flesh’ and Jesus and his words continue to live amongst us. That is why no view of the sacraments that deny their reality, that denies that at the Mass we receive Christ’s Body and Blood, truly and actually and not in symbol or in allegory is a sufficient view.
May God continue to give to his Holy Church the grace to live out his words as the body of Christ.