Pentecost 23 – John Conway, Provost – 17th November 2019

2Thess 3.6-13; Luke 21.5-19

We are nearing the end of the church’s year; next week the year reaches it’s end and climax in the Feast of Christ the King. Today’s readings do not, however, suggest the best has been saved until last. They are hard, even harsh, readings. ‘We command you,’ says Paul, ‘keep away from believers who are living in idleness.’ And Jesus is not any more comforting: ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’ Many of you last week will have received a letter from me outlining some of the challenges, financial and otherwise, to this place of beautiful stones, and transcendent music. Perhaps, in the light of Jesus’ words, we should just give up. Is this place of adorned beautiful stones the proper response to Christ, and our gospel?

We’ll come back to that vital question shortly, but let’s look at our reading from Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians first. Paul is addressing a young Christian community, only recently founded; a community among whom Paul himself laboured with all the passion and zeal of a fresh convert. Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians are among the earliest literature we have in the New Testament, probably written in the early 50s AD. Paul’s experience of having been grasped, overturned by, the radical, surprising, gratuitous love he encountered on the Damascus Road is still fresh for him, the driver of his relentless journeying to convey to others that love met in a crucified and risen Lord. He seeks to draw others in to that revelatory experience, to have their lives changed, turned around as his was. But he is discovering that people, that communities, are not as amenable to shaping, to breaking through to new patterns of mutuality, as he might imagine. It’s a bit like a new Provost arriving and thinking that a few well chosen sermons and exhortations will sort everything out. You discover it’s not that simple. Paul hasn’t stayed, however; he has by now left Thessalonika, moving on to new places. Reports reach him of idlers; people who participate in the agapes, the love-feasts, of the early Christian community; the communal sharings that are a precursor to our own Eucharist, but who are not ‘pulling their weight.’

‘Brothers and sisters,’ writes Paul, ‘do not be weary in doing what is right.’ You can almost hear the weariness in his own voice. 2 Thessalonians is a letter that is coming to terms with disappointment. Paul’s more mature theology, centred as it is on human community, in his letters to the Corinthians and Romans, still speaks in passionate terms of the need for mutuality, a sharing of one another’s burdens, and of the diversity present in community; but it is also more forgiving, recognising that community is never an ideal, but a reality to work with. Paul’s passion always remains, that meeting with the crucified and risen Lord, but what that means: the long labour, the lack of instant results, the need for forgiveness within community, these become more evident to him.

Luke’s gospel also addresses a community whose initial idealism is being tested. Not simply by the difficulty of human beings moving beyond the selfishness and self-interest which comes naturally to all of us; but by the external forces of history and persecution. Luke’s gospel was probably written about 20 years after the letters of Paul to the Thessalonians, in the early 70s. The Christian community for whom Luke writes will have seen the collapse of the Temple in Jerusalem – the throwing down of those stones by the Romans in response to the Jewish revolt of the 60s; they will have heard of Nero’s persecution of the Christians in Rome; suddenly the eschatological expectation of the early followers of Jesus – the sense that the resurrection of Jesus presaged a new age – that hope and expectation is fading. What might the heart of the gospel be in these uncertain times? That question is what Luke’s gospel addresses. And what it offers, is a re-telling of that life of Christ which animated the church from the start: the life of a man, utterly reliant on the gracious love of his Father, walking the way of the cross.

David Tracy, an American Catholic theologian, writes this: The memory of the Christian is, above all, the memory of the passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is that dangerous memory which is most dangerous for all those who presume to make his memory their own.

Luke’s gospel is a re-presentation of that memory. Alexandrina is today baptised into that dangerous memory, into the passion and resurrection of Jesus. It is that memory that we are undone by, are remade by, that we live out. This Cathedral has no right to exist in and of itself. Its beautiful stones may one day too be thrown down. Who knows. But it finds its life as it points us, and all who walk through its doors, toward that memory, that undoing and remaking. In the eucharist, above all, we participate in that memory: the passion and resurrection of Christ in bread broken, bread shared; community re-formed as the Body of Christ by the gratuitous gift of Christ himself in that bread broken, bread shared.

Who knows what the future years will hold for Alexandrina, who we baptise in hope and joy today? The world feels a far more uncertain place than it has for some time. The language of Luke’s gospel may become all too frighteningly real and fearful; we may find that it doesn’t have to be mythologized away – who knows. Luke’s gospel was written, and has sustained Christian community for 2,000 years, however, in the faith that what will remain, whatever happens, is the hope and faith that is not weary in doing what is right; the faith that knows itself to have been grasped by the memory of the passion and resurrection of Christ, by a grace beyond this world, a grace re-made afresh in community. For by our endurance, we will gain our souls. Amen.

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