Is it Good News?
by Sr Ann Catherine Swailes
A sermon for Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament
When I was growing up in rural North Devon, members of local churches banded together to visit their neighbours who had fallen away from the practice of Christian faith, handing out free copies of the gospels, in order to encourage them to return to the fold. In a at least one case, however, this enterprise proved a little counter-productive. My own family, at that point, might best have been described as lapsed CofE, and it did nothing to persuade my mother to revisit the question of church-going, abandoned in her teens, when she encountered on the door step the organist from the Anglican church in the village, who greeted her seemingly more in sorrow than in anger and announced in lugubrious tones, “well, Mrs Swailes, I’m afraid I’ve brought you the good news…”
I truly mention this not to scoff at what was undoubtedly a worthy and courageous initiative, but, rather, to acknowledge what might, if we were honest, form at least part of our own reaction to the gospel passages which we hear read as we approach the beginning of Lent in which we hear we hear the Lord offer not, at first sight at any rate, words of reassurance, but rather words of condemnation.
At Mass last Sunday, we were told that it is not sufficient to refrain from murder and adultery; we must, rather, abstain from the angry word and the lustful thought. This week, we are given a further set of instructions: turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, make no difference in your behaviour towards those with whom you have a natural affinity and with those who hate you; be perfect, be, in short, like God. Just how, quite honestly, is any of this good news? Do we not, especially here in Cambridge. have enough targets to be met, hurdles to jump, standards to reach, without having this programme, culminating in that ultimate, surely impossible injunction to perfection laid upon us? If we are called to perfection, then not merely the dramatic and, perhaps conveniently distant sins, but all the common coinage of our petty power-struggles and grubby compromises with true love, all our this is a failure in our common vocation, a failure to be what God would have us be. How, we might wonder, could we possibly succeed?
And, even if it were reasonable for us to aspire to perfection, are we entirely comfortable with the sketch of the perfect human life set before us here? We might concede that it is a good – if unrealistic goal – to refrain entirely from anger, lustful thoughts and double-minded speech as last week’s gospel encouraged us. But now, in tonight’s reading, it seems we are being asked not simply to work at something hard but obviously praiseworthy, but to see as praiseworthy something perhaps more problematic – should we really not resist evil, as the Lord seems to suggest here? Is justice not a virtue, and how is justice served by our renouncing what is rightfully ours? Do we not risk betraying justice, and betraying those who rely on us to model and minister justice to them, if we exalt the turning of the other cheek, the going the extra mile like this? Does this commandment not give license to the powerful who would exploit the vulnerable and voiceless, putting at risk their meagre possessions, perhaps even their bodily integrity and right to live in peace? How does all this have anything to do with being perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, if God is himself perfect righteousness, perfect justice?
These are all valid questions, and I think that it is good that we think about them tonight, here and now, because we are in the presence of the One Who not only sets the challenge before us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, but also the One Who is the answer to all our questions – the Truth who Himself speaks truly, in the words of the great Eucharistic hymn - and Who, present with us tonight holds out to us encouragement, the assurance that this is all both possible and desirable.
The first thing to note, surely, is that the One who calls us to be perfect like our heavenly Father is Himself our model, our example in this project of perfection. Jesus, God incarnate whom we can see, St Paul tells us, is the image of the invisible God. If we want to know what it means, then, to be perfect as the Father is perfect, we don’t have to try to work it out from first principles, we can simply look at Jesus, because, as He Himself tells us, if we have seen Him, we have seen the Father. And, of course, looking at Jesus is precisely what we are here to do tonight. But in order for this to be a source of hope, rather than despondency, we have to ask ourselves quite carefully, just what do we see when we look at Jesus?
In the first place, of course, we see someone Who – since He is the perfect image of the Father, the incarnation of the God who is love, is motivated by nothing but love, nothing but desire to give Himself fully, fully aware of the greatness of that gift, and this, I think, can help us with that initial sense of uneasiness about the virtue of turning the other cheek: Jesus turns the cheek, for sure, towards His oppressors on the way of the Cross, to receive blows and spitting and the contempt they symbolise. But He does not do so out of some pathetic conviction that this is all He is good for, that this is what He deserves. He does so, rather, to bring us to the realisation that this is not what we, or any of our brothers and sisters deserve: we are of infinite value, infinitely beloved of the God who is love, who lays down His life for us. Jesus goes not merely an extra mile compelled by a jobsworth official of the occupying power chucking his weight about in the desire to humiliate and taunt a subject people, but the long and agonising journey through suffering and death, compelled by the immense power of His own and his Father’s love for each one of us. This is what we are called to emulate – love that gives, confident that what it gives is of immense value, not some masochistic act of self-hatred masquerading as sacrifice, not therefore, something that could possibly legitimate the oppression and dehumanisation of others. And that is the perfection we see when we look at Jesus.
But there is, I think, if we are honest, another set of problems here too, at least for some of us. We might be tempted to equate perfection with bland, passionless respectability, and, understandably, want no part of it. We would rather be imperfect but passionate, thank you very much. Or, we might be tempted to equate perfection with strength, with being able to withstand everything that life throws at us while keeping calm and carrying on, and fear that our own vulnerability, our own feebleness, will forever hold us back from the perfection of which our reading tonight speaks, seemingly so glibly.
Here, I think, it can help us to remember that if Jesus is indeed perfect, the perfect image of the Father, that means every one of His actions, and everything that happens to Him, reveals nothing but that perfection, and that includes the fierce table-turning anger in the temple forecourt, the tears and groans in the garden, His reaching out in vain there for human companionship, the stumbling on the road to Calvary, even the cry of apparent abandonment before He dies 'My God, my God, why...?' 'Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect' is not some injunction to Teflon imperviousness to pain; not a canonisation of brute strength and self sufficiency; the example of Jesus reassures us that it is not only the obviously gifted and talented, not only the healthy in mind and body, not only the straightforwardly attractive, the popular and the likeable who need apply to walk the way of perfection. There is none of us so weak, so wounded, so fearful that we cannot aspire to be perfect. The One who is the loveliest of the sons of men had, when He was lifted on the cross, no beauty that anyone might desire Him, He was so disfigured He barely looked human. And, in all this, He was perfect.
But this, we may feel, is all very well. Perhaps Jesus does offer us an example. We look at Him and see what we should be like. But can we live up to it? We know full well that we cannot. We fail in a hundred and one little ways daily to be perfect in our dealings with God, with each other and with ourselves. It is all very well to talk of sanctified passions, righteous anger – but we are all too well aware that our passions are often far from sanctified or righteous: my fuming at my sister for days because she said something offensive over breakfast is hardly turning the money changers out of the Temple. It is all very well to talk of weakness as helping us grow in likeness to Christ – but we know, if we are honest, that we do not always use our weakness as He used His. We weaponise weakness, sometimes; turn it into an excuse to escape from arduous but undeniable duty, or, worse, fashion from it a form of emotional blackmail with which to bludgeon those whose apparent security and self-confidence we envy. We might be attracted to the example of Jesus but how can we make it our own? How can we be perfect as He is perfect, in his revelation of the perfection of the Father? Can His presence with us tonight move us forward here?
In the first place, it is significant that Jesus is with us, and, incredibly, He is with us because He wants to be with us. St Thomas Aquinas, musing on the question of why the Lord instituted the Holy Eucharist,j centres his response on the notion of friendship. It’s the nature of the relationship between friends, Thomas holds, that we want to spend time with each other. When friends are apart, of course, memories and physical souvenirs of shared experience are immensely valuable, almost like sacraments, they almost render the loved one with us again. But, only almost. In the Eucharist, we do not merely have a memory of Jesus, not merely something that reminds us of Him, however powerfully, but which finally remains in itself inert. The Eucharist is not a picture of Jesus, a reminder, ultimately of absence at least as much as presence, in the way a photograph of a dead relative can provoke pain as much as comfort. He Himself is with us. And so His words about perfection are not like an inspiring text of a wisdom figure from a by-gone age: we can converse with Him about them, share our perplexity about them with Him, even argue with Him about them. Here and now, tonight, in this chapel, each one of us can ask Him what it means for us, for you, for me, to seek perfection – for the answer will be different for each one of us – we can take our time to ask, and take our time to listen. He is with us.
But there is still more. Jesus does not simply want, in his institution of the Eucharist to be with us. Much more excitingly, He wants to be one with us, wants us to be one with Him. And this, finally, is why we can hear those words “be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” not as intimidation but as invitation, not as any kind of threat, but as promise.
Every time we receive Holy Communion, and for those of us who are ministers, have the immense privilege of giving the Eucharistic Lord to our brothers and sisters, we hear, or say, the words “the Body of Christ”, and, of course, we have that Body of Christ before us for adoration tonight. But when we hear the words at Holy Communion, the Body of Christ, there are two points of reference simultaneously: the gift of the host as the minister of communion lays it on our hands or our tongue, and ourselves as the recipients of that unspeakable gift. The body of Christ is also – us. As the sacramental body of Christ enters into us, so Christ draws us ever more deeply into His body the Church, so that, finally, as St Catherine of Siena puts it, the Church is Christ Himself.
That statement, of course, should carry a theological health warning: there are various ways of interpreting it which are hair-raising, to say the least. It could, after all, degenerate into what might be called ecclesiolatry: anything the Church, or her earthly representatives do must be right, because it is the action of no one less than the second person of the Blessed Trinity, and sadly we can all probably name some of the dreadfully abusive ends to which this has been put. But perhaps the healing of that particular temptation lies in reflecting that here and now this body which is both the Eucharist and the Church is before us as food for our journey on the way of perfection, a food, which uniquely, as the Fathers of the Church love to tell us, is not transformed into our flesh, but, rather, transforms us into itself. Finally then, Jesus calls us to be perfect because He calls us into His very life, into His own very perfection.
And that is good news indeed.