Today's readings link the grace of Christ with money, something we might hesitate about doing in such a straightforward way. But this is one of the great strengths of Saint Paul: he refers everything to Christ seeking always to illuminate problems and questions with the light of Christ and His work, the most practical of questions and the most perennial of human problems. The questions and problems then become part of their own solution because they are occasions for Paul to lead his readers deeper into the mystery of Christ.
The letters to the Corinthians are the texts in which we see most clearly how Paul does this. The problems of the young Christian community in Corinth are surprisingly familiar: not just money but questions about sex, power, authority, tradition, liturgy, factions, contrasting approaches to theology and spirituality, gossip, detraction ... the list could go on. In responding to each of these issues Paul has a consistent strategy: refer everything to Christ, understand the problem in the light of Christ, and propose a solution that comes from Christ.
The first reading today is the beginning of a two chapter appeal for money, Paul asking his communities to support the church in Jerusalem. The Macedonian Christians have given generously and freely, he says, from resources that they could not really spare and in spite of the difficult circumstances in which they find themselves. What about you Corinthians, are you prepared to be generous from your more prosperous situation? Strong as you are in faith, discourse, earnestness, knowledge and love, can you be strong also in generosity?
It might seem like he wants to put them on a guilt trip so it is important to remember the deeper motivation to which he appeals. Notice how often the term grace appears in this first reading. What the Macedonians have been able to do is a sure sign of the grace of God working in them. They were eager to share in the gracious work of the collection for Jerusalem, seeking from Paul the favour (again the term used is grace) of participating (literally being in communion) in this gracious work.
From there Paul moves immediately to the grace of Christ, his gracious work, and this is Paul's most radical use of the term charis. Though He was rich Christ made himself poor so that we who are poor might become rich. It is one of the most frequently quoted of Paul's statements and it comes in an appeal for money. Our love is not to be merely in words or aspirations but in actions and in sincerity, in concrete and practical actions.
Although the term grace is not used in the passage from Matthew that we read today, it is used frequently in Luke's version of the same passage. If you love those who love you what payment would you get, asks Jesus in Matthew? In Luke's version he says 'what grace is there in that'. If you salute those who salute you, what more is there in that? What generosity is there in it, what is unusual about it? In Luke's version Jesus says, once again, and in reply to two similar questions, 'what grace is there in that'. Instead you are to be like the heavenly Father, his children, acting beyond the call of duty, entering the realm of generosity and spontaneity, showing kindness and mercy not according to strict commerical criteria of exchange but following the law of love and compassion. Famously, Matthew has Jesus concluding that we are to 'be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect' where Luke has him concluding that we are to 'be merciful even as your Father is merciful'. This is the perfection of the heavenly Father, his mercy.
So the motivation of our generosity, the reasons why we ought to live gracefully, mercifully and with compassion, is not just in order to outdo others who are living in the same way. It is in order to be truly living the life of Christ which we have received, a life characterised through and through by grace, mercy and compassion. It is in order to be truly the children of God, to be like our Heavenly Father who is bringing us to birth in this new life, a God who is love and mercy and compassion. The generosity of God is seen in the rain falling indiscriminately and the sun shining extravagantly. The grace of Christ is seen where the rich and the powerful spend themselves on behalf of the poor and the weak.
We are the recipients of many graces and these graces call us to generous service. We can summarise the message with another statement of Paul's, this time from Ephesians (5:1-2): 'imitate God as beloved children and walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us'.
The 'second mile' is clearly recognised in Christian theology: Jesus is the one to speak of it, in today's passage from the Sermon on the Mount. Biblical critics might be quick to explain away these outrageous demands as hyperbolic language, the graphic speech of one who was, after all, a poet. They are not strictly 'laws' that Christians must obey - so the critic will continue. They are attempts to communicate the spirit of Jesus' own approach to people - a prodigal generosity, whose virtue lies in its freedom, precisely in the fact that it is not prescribed but is done out of love.
We do not depend on this one scripture text however to ground a 'theology of the second mile'. This is part not just of our Christian knowledge, of the tradition of what Jesus said, but is also part of our talk about God Himself, part of our theology in the deepest and simplest meaning of the word: discourse about God. Our God is a God who is always ready to walk a second mile with us.
The God we have come to know in Jesus Christ is, in one sense, an irrational lover. Anselm (in Cur Deus Homo II.13) speaks of the 'supreme wisdom' of the Incarnation, not just a reckless love. He is the God of the Old Testament, of course, Creator and Redeemer of Israel. He drove Adam and Eve out of Eden but himself made clothes for them before they left (Genesis 3:21). He punished Cain for his crime against his brother but marked him to protect him from being murdered in his turn (Genesis 4:15). The earth became so corrupt that God decided to annihilate it. Yet again he cannot finally desert man, for he calls Noah and saves him. He tells Noah what to do to escape the flood and when the time comes it is God himself who closes the door of the ark behind Noah and his family (Genesis 7:16).
When sin increased on the earth again God scattered the peoples of the world and separated them from each other. For the first time people spoke different languages. It is a way of explaining the emergence of different cultures, different mentalities, different traditions. It is a way of explaining the beginning of large scale mistrust, ignorance, fear, rivalry, violence. Yet it was precisely at this moment of deepest gloom, when the melting-pot of all the races of humankind emerged, that the Lord said to Abram, 'leave your country, your family and your father's house for the land I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you, and make your name great ... and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves' (Genesis 12:1-3).
This is the God of Israel. This is what He is like. He set in motion a great plan to win again the love of human beings. He called His special people out of slavery into a land of their own. He nurtured their life, protected them and made sure that they were safe to worship Him. Yet they sinned and turned from Him. They turned to gods with whom they could live in greater comfort. These were gods who would keep their covenants.
Their own God, Yahweh, did not keep His covenant. His love for His people prevented Him from implementing the curses which the covenant obliged Him to carry out in the event of their infidelity. He never did, although He was sorely tried. And when it seemed that His rejection of His people was total, and final, and they mournfully chanted by the waters of Babylon, He gave in again and made this exile the occasion for a new exodus, a new covenant, a fresh beginning for this promiscuous bride (Hosea, Ezekiel).
The story went on as before. The story goes on as before. God came again to a new beginning, a covenant which would this time be final because sealed in the blood of His Only Son - and what else is left? This was the fulness of God's time. It did not matter that men were still sinners - precisely in this was the love of God clearest, that it was while we were sinners that God sent His Only Son to be the sacrifice that takes our sins away. This was the 'second mile', the bit He did not really have to do - in fact there was none of it that God 'had to do', right back to the first stirrings of human life under the breath of God's mothering Spirit. John the Theologian draws the conclusion from God's 'second mile' - if God so loves us, we also ought to be loving one another in this way.
Jesus tells his disciples that the difference between
the bread given to the Hebrews in the wilderness and the bread he gives, which
is his own flesh for the life of the world, is that the people who ate the
first are dead whereas the people who eat the second will live forever. Clearly
it does not mean that physical dying can now be bypassed. Everybody dies and everybody
who eats the Eucharist also dies. Jesus acknowledges this as well: ‘I will
raise him up on the last day’, he says, and it is only people who have died who
need raising up on the last day.
So whatever the difference is between the two kinds of
bread it is not that one allows its eaters to avoid physical death. What kind
of immortality, then, is bestowed by eating the real food which is his flesh
and drinking the real drink which is his blood? The bread given to the Hebrews
in the wilderness was a miraculous sign to sustain them physically as they were
being initiated into the covenant relationship with God. The bread given to the
disciples of Jesus, which is his flesh for the life of the world, is a
sacramental sign to sustain them in the new life they receive from Him.
In baptism the disciples die and rise to new life, and
it is this new life that is sustained by the bread which is the flesh of Jesus
for the life of the world. It is not simply a prolongation of our animal life, even
on the far side of death, nor is it simply a new level given to this same life.
It is a new and eternal life, the life which the Son draws eternally from the
Father. The principle of this life, its power and energy, is the Holy Spirit
sent from the Father and the Son, to animate the body whichis the Church, to embrace the world, to open
the door to eternal life for all.
In the sacramental realization of this feeding the
Church twice invokes the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is called down on the bread
and wine so that by the power of the Spirit they might become the body and
blood of Christ. The Spirit is called down on those who receive this communion in
the bread and in the blessing cup, so that by the power of the Spirit they
might become one body, one spirit in Christ.
The feast we celebrate today focuses on this
sacramental realization of the gift of a new and eternal life. Already received
in baptism it is sustained in the Eucharist. Any life requires an initial birth
and then an ongoing sustenance, likewise the new life received from Jesus
requires the initial birth of baptism and the ongoing sustenance which is the
This way of communicating life to us is adapted to the
kind of creature that we are. It is we who know hunger and thirst. It is we who
know the difference between longing and satisfaction. It is we who know when we
are far from the energy of this life and when, by God’s grace, it is flowing
strongly in us. We know all this physically. It is also how we know what is in
our inmost heart and it is how we come to understand that we do not live on
bread alone but on everything that comes from the mouth of God.
There is also this analogy between the miraculous gift
of manna in the desert and the sacramental gift of Christ’s body and blood. In
each case the food given sustains its recipients on a journey. For the Hebrews
it was the journey through a wilderness full of physical dangers. For the
disciples of Jesus it is a journey through a world full of challenges. The disciples
are not taken out of the world and the bread we eat is the flesh of Jesus given
not just for us but for the life of the whole world. His work, and our
participation in his work, is the transformation of the world.
This is a work
of love, yes, but it is also an onerous task. Our participation in this onerous
task of love requires, in the first place, the transformation of our hearts and
souls if they are to be worthy dwelling places for Him. We need to deal with
our own serpents and scorpions also.
Every Eucharistic communion is therefore viaticum, food for the journey. Our
final Eucharistic communion is food for the journey from this world to the
Father. But every reception of Holy Communion is food for the journey of the
Christian life. There are serpents and scorpions, hunger and thirst, that
afflict and distract us. Often their trick or their effect is simply to turn us
in on ourselves and away from our neighbor and so away from God also. But the
new and eternal life, the divine life we receive from the Holy Spirit, is
always an ecstatic life. This does not mean that it brings strange and unusual
feelings with it. It is ecstatic because it is a life that carries us beyond
ourselves, to live like Christ, always for others and for the Father. The
divine life flowing in Jesus led him to give the whole of his human life, to
pour it out as a sacrificial offering, expressing his love and obedience to the
Father. Before that he spent his days at the service of others, teaching and
healing, strengthening and redeeming. So his flesh was given for the life of
the world and his blood was poured out so that people might be washed in its
says the first reading at Mass today, and do not forget, what the Lord did for
you in the forty years of your wandering in the wilderness. Do this in memory
of me, Jesus says in every celebration of the Eucharist. Remember and do not
forget how the new and eternal life has been won for you. Remember and do not
forget how the new and eternal life is sustained in you. Remember and do not
forget the body in which you share this new and eternal life, those who sit at
this table with you, and all who are called to share one day in the supper of
Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor believed that Jesus had, naively, judged humanity too highly: 'it was created weaker and lower than Christ thought'. St John's Gospel on the other hand tells us that Jesus did not trust himself to them because he knew what was in everyone. No naivety in the Incarnate Word, then, only the fulness of truth, uncompromising justice, and endless mercy.
What kind of humanity is capable of living by the Sermon on the Mount? Its demands seem unreal even for personal relationships. For social and political decision making it seems even more remote and romantic. A political leader in Britain has just resigned saying he cannot combine being a Christian and being a political leader. The saints who come closest to living it out in practice are precisely the ones who say that they are far from what it demands.
We might imagine that it is humanity redeemed that can live like this. Is it not the ethics of the kingdom that we find in Matthew 5-7, not an ethics for this fallen and corrupt world where even good people end up doing terrible things, perhaps even convincing themselves that they are acting justly? Is it not an ethics for super-humanity, people graced and gifted with the Spirit not just 'in principle', as all the baptised are, but in the realisation of the Spirit's gifts?
It is more helpful, though, to think that this is how we would live were we to be simply and truly ourselves. This is the ethics of 'normal' humanity, our best selves, the people God knows us to be, people with hearts of flesh rather than hearts of stone. Lovers find themselves not only capable of living like this for the ones they love, they rush to live like this for the ones they love. The response of neighbours to the tower block fire in London bears witness to this common ground of humanity that all share - people of all faiths and none, of all races and classes, clubbing together to help other human beings in desperate need.
We might say that it does not endure, that the old man re-asserts himself sooner or later. But we do get glimpses of life in the kingdom, of what a civilisation of love might look like, where those who are truly loved become capable of loving, and those capable of loving are truly loved. Then there is no question of murder, obviously. And there is a new sensitivity to words like 'renegade' or 'fool', a new sensitivity not just to our actions and omissions, not just to what we say, but also to what we think, to those thoughts of anger or revenge that are never far from our door.
There are of course many good reasons to be angry. There is great energy in anger. In this world it is put at the service of revenge and oppression. In the kingdom of God such energy is put at the service of justice and mercy. The Grand Inquisitor might have thought the Incarnate Word was naive but it is he who is out of touch with reality, blind to the reality of God's anger. We see the energy of that divine anger in the resurrection of the Son from the dead. And we pray that God will continue to manifest His anger at sin in precisely the same way, by bringing about a new creation, a new kingdom, a humanity restored to itself.
One of the best preached retreats I experienced was given by Gordian Marshall, a Scottish Dominican who had spent much time working in Jewish-Christian relations. He spoke to us about the gospels as Jewish texts and it was, if the expression can be pardoned, a revelation. He helped us to see things that have become difficult for us to see, not just because we are (most of us) Gentiles but also because our mindset has been shaped by centuries of anti-Judaism, facile contrasts between the Old and the New Testaments, always at the expense of the Old. (If it were as simple as that why do we go on reading the Old Testament in our liturgies and acknowledging it to be, for us too, 'the Word of the Lord'?)
Today's readings invite us to reflect on this question. On the one hand Paul seems to endorse an 'anti-Judaist' interpretation of salvation history: the old dispensation, carved on tablets of stone and destined to pass, has faded. It has been replaced by a new dispensation, in the Spirit and destined to endure, whose glory surpasses the old. It seems straightforward: Christianity is better than Judaism.
But what Paul is saying here is itself Jewish teaching! We find it already in Jeremiah 31 which speaks of the new covenant that will be written on the heart rather than on stone, that will teach from within rather than from without, whereby all will know God. Jeremiah also speaks of the need for a 'circumcision of the heart' (Jer 4:4; 9:26), an interiorisation of the Law's teaching which is repeated many times in the Sermon on the Mount ('you have heard that it was said ... but I say this to you ...'). Likewise Deuteronomy (10:16; 30:6) and Ezekiel (44:7,9) speak of heart-circumcision, anticipating Paul who is eventually converted to this way of understanding (Romans 2:29).
These Old Testament texts clearly anticipate Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. In fact there is nothing in the content of the Sermon that is not found already in the Old Testament. Jesus stands firmly in the line of prophetic and wisdom teaching that we find in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Deuteronomy and Hosea.
When we think of the replacement of one covenant by another, therefore, we must think of it as radical, yes, but as organic, emerging within the living reality that is already there, like the fruit appearing on the tree. That is like the image Paul uses in Romans 9-11 to speak about the way in which the Christian faith depends, for its life, on Judaism: a wild olive branch grafted in, sharing the nourishing sap from the root. Do not consider yourselves superior, Paul says to the Gentiles (how was it that this came to be so comprehensively forgotten?): 'you do not support the root but the root supports you' (Romans 11:11-24).
Christians have done a good public relations job convincing the world that the Sermon on the Mount is the specifically Christian moral teaching. (It taught Gandhi to love Jesus although he was never convinced by Christians.) But its content is already fully present in Judaism. What is new is the Teacher who not only teaches but practises what the Law requires. Where is the Law fulfilled? It cannot be in a new text: the whole point is that the Law's fulfillment is not a text but a life in the Spirit. We might say the Law is fulfilled in the new commandment Jesus gives his disciples, to love one another as he has loved them. Yes, but it is that fulfillment not simply as a proposition or as a text or as a commandment articulated in words. St Augustine glosses Paul in today's first reading saying that even the letter of the gospel kills where it is read or taught without the Spirit.
What is new is the love itself, the Spirit, by whose power the Law is now heard and obeyed and fulfilled. This is the Spirit of Jesus who is (in spite of us) building the Church but who had already - it is in the Church's creed - 'spoken through the prophets'.
The difficulty of preaching on Trinity Sunday is not that of having to speak about a logical conundrum or a mathematical puzzle, but that of having to speak about a theological mystery whose depths are never exhausted and whose implications are never completely understood. There is too much to say rather than too little. We have come to know more about God than we can manage and so run the risk, in whatever we say, of failing to do justice to some other aspect of the mystery which we ought also to have mentioned.
The gospel passage just read, short as it is, nevertheless presents us with the question in this way: what must we believe about God if we are to take literally two of its statements, the first that God has an only Son whom he gave so that the world might be saved, the second that God has a love for the world which moved Him to give His Son for its salvation. They seem simple and straightforward, these statements. God loved the world and God gave His only Son.
They are so simple and straightforward, so familiar, that their implications can pass us by completely. The theology of the Trinity, developed in the early centuries of Christian history, spells out the implications of these statements, as well as of many other familiar and seemingly straightforward statements throughout the New Testament.
One option is to hear them as metaphors, not intended literally, but meant to teach us something about God that we would express literally in some other way. What 'only Son' means, we might say, is that Jesus is a unique human being, whose spiritual experience, knowledge of God, faith and trust in God, and so on, makes him stand out before all other spiritual teachers and guides. He is so far above the rest of us in this that we can call him, for all practical purposes, 'the only son', the human being who served God best during his earthly life, the one from among us who was most open to God and most filled with God's presence.
This understanding of Jesus was never a serious contender among Christians as a full statement of what it means to call him 'the only Son'. Of course all of it is true when applied to him. We believe him to be that human being most open to God whose love and obedience are the salvation of the world. But the Christian community always believed that there was also something divine about him, believed that he belonged as truly to the side of God as to the side of humanity.
So another view quickly emerged. Perhaps Jesus, while not being quite the same as God - for how could a man be God? - is a visitor from the divine realm who belongs more to that side than to our side. Perhaps from the court of the heavenly Father, where he has a special place, he is sent with a special mission into this world. So he is a divine being, something between God and man, and so very well placed, it might seem, to be the mediator.
But it was clear that his view was not going to be acceptable either. Someone who does not really belong to either place - who is neither truly God nor truly human - is not the kind of mediator who can do what needs to be done. (So some of the Fathers of the Church put it.) The mediator in whom we believe is one who belongs truly and fully to both. This is much more difficult to say, with a number of qualifications and distinctions needing to be made. But they are qualifications and distinctions with which we are all quite familiar for we say them every Sunday at Mass:
I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father; through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven ...
If we want to say, then, that God gave his only Son, so that through him the world might be saved, and that this is not just a nice piece of poetry but is true in its simple and straightforward meaning, then we must begin to speak about the theology of the Trinity.
What moved God to give his only Son, Saint John tells us, is the fact that God loved the world so much. In the First Letter of Saint John it is put even more bluntly: 'God is love', it says. Once again these are simple and straightforward statements and the question is: how literally are we to take them? Is there love in God? If there is only a unitary God, and His creation below Him, then the word 'love' could only be used in some metaphorical sense. Because the distance between creatures and God is infinite, because their difference is infinite, because there can be no equality or mutual dependence between them, the term 'love' could only be used metaphorically of God. Between God and creation there could only be some kind of condescension but not love in the full sense of the word, meaning a relationship between persons that is equal and reciprocal.
But the fact that the Father has an only Son, who is equal in dignity and nature to himself, means that the Father has an equal to love. It means that to say 'God is love' and to say 'God is a trinity of persons' are two ways of saying the same thing. If we want to say, as I am sure we do, that the God we believe in is Love, and we want to understand this literally, then we must begin to speak about the theology of the Trinity. If we want to say, as I am sure we do, that God loves us and has enabled us to love Him in return through adopting us as his sons and daughters in Christ, then we must begin to speak about the Trinity.
Love between persons involves mind and heart, and so the other Advocate of whom Jesus spoke, the Spirit sent on the Church on the day of Pentecost, then easily found His place in this theology of the Trinity. The church came to understand the Holy Spirit as the love which unites the Father and the Son, the bond between them, their embrace. The Spirit too, we believe, is Lord and is the giver of life. He proceeds from the Father and the Son. With them He is worshiped and glorified as God. He has spoken through the prophets. We believe that the life-giving Spirit is at work in the Church, in baptism for the forgiveness of sins, in forming the communion of saints. We believe that the Spirit of love will bring about the resurrection of the dead, for the life he gives is not only the life of this world but also the life of the world to come.
Our simplest and most cherished Christian statements, like John 3:16, 'God so loved the world that he gave his only Son', have led the Church to develop its unique belief in the one God as a Trinity of persons. Far from being an esoteric corner of Christian life and reflection, the Trinity is at the heart of everything we do and are. We are baptized into a Trinitarian faith. We offer the Eucharistic sacrifice to the Father, through the Son, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Our gatherings begin in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. In fact, rather than saying that the Trinity is at the heart of everything we do and are, the whole point of today's liturgy is to remind us that everything we do and are is taken up into the heart of the Trinity.