Gospel: Matthew 5:17-19
It is great pleasure for me to be with you this evening here at the English College. I have been to Rome on countless occasions in my life but this is the first time I have come as a Catholic. You might imagine that he last few months for me have been extraordinary; Anglican Bishop to Apostolic Protonotary in 10 weeks must be something of a record and shows the seriousness with which the Holy See is approaching the setting up of the Ordinariate in England and Wales.
The first time I visited the college was in 2008 when my colleague, Andrew Burnham, and I were in Rome to meet officials at the CDF and PCPCU. The Chapel was then being restored but Mgr Hudson took us into the gallery to show us the gory frescos depicting the fate of many English College students in 16th century. At the end of the tour the then Bishop Burnham turned to the Rector and said, ‘Can I say we are very sorry’. Well, it was not the proudest moment in English Church History and similarly awful things were done during the reign of Queen Mary but at least now I can say it is also part of my history.
This evening’s Gospel reading is part of the Sermon on the Mount which draws together much of the teaching of Jesus given on different occasions and presents Jesus as the New Moses, the lawgiver. Many of those who heard Jesus and saw what he did must have found it hard to understand his attitude to the Law which controlled much of their lives and behaviour. Sometimes he caused offence and consternation by seeming to overthrow it completely as with his actions on the Sabbath. He did not obey the hand washings that the law laid down; he was condemned and crucified as a lawbreaker. But in today’s Gospel he claims to fulfil it.
Do not imagine I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have not come to abolish but to complete them.
The authorised version of the Bible which celebrates its 400th year this year says that not one jot of tittle, not the smallest bit of a letter was to pass away. This is radical talk, not negating what the Jews held precious but completing it, getting behind the letter of the to the principles behind them.
Like so much in the scriptures you need to see the context of his words and perhaps if I was choosing this reading I would not have stopped at verse 19 but continued to the next verse.
For I tell you, if your virtue goes not deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven. 5:20
It is all about God’s call to holiness; that his people may be holy as He is holy, or as Jesus says a little later in the gospel
You must therefore be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect Matthew 5
No one tried harder than the Pharisees to obey the letter of the law but as, St Paul found, human efforts to be good end in frustration and failure. Something different is needed. What is needed is a different attitude to God and his will that if a loving Son. That provides a better motive for obedience but a more exacting one.
The kingdom he came to inaugurate would have values that went far beyond the letter of law. It does not consist in obeying a multitude of petty rules and regulations. It is about right reverence for both God and man. It consists in mercy and love not legalism, not in negative prohibitions but in instructions to mould our lives in a Christ like way, on the positive commandments of Jesus, the total love of God and neighbour which he showed forth in his life and death.
Unless your virtue goes no deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Sometimes the Christian faith is portrayed as too concerned about sin – an approach to spirituality that is negative which someone described to me recently as a ‘moral pathology’, concerned only with how far we fall short from what God expects. Now I don’t want you to misunderstand me. Sin is serious, it damages our relations with God and we need to deal with it in our lives but that is not enough. Here Jesus tells us to pursue virtue. That is a much more positive approach.
The Church talks about virtues to be pursued: the theological virtues of faith, hope and love and the Cardinal virtues Prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. Virtues we see particularly and perfectly exemplified in our Lord’s life but also reflected in the lives of many holy Christian men and women – one reason why we look at the lives of the saints.
You must be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.
How can we attain that? Is it possible to pursue that sort of perfection? Wouldn’t inevitable failure leave us feeling depressed and downhearted? If we see our Christian lives as a journey then we know there will be setbacks and obstacles but what we need is to sets our faces resolutely to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.
And we have to remember that we do not struggle to perfection in our own strength. We cannot achieve anything of ourselves. He gives us the means of grace, the sacraments particularly, the scriptures, the Church itself, our brothers and sisters in the faith to encourage us in our pilgrimage way.
We cannot suddenly attain that perfection – if only it were that easy. Little by little we try to become the person our Lord wants us to be as we endeavor in our lives to come closer to the Lord.
Love God and do what you will said St Augustine. If we really loved God, if we really focused our eyes on Christ, our brother and Redeemer, then we would conform our lives to his. That is where the focus needs to be, not on us but on him.
One of my favorite quotes comes from a very famous and important early Father of the Church St Ireneaus. He said the glory of God is a living man and the life of man is the vision of God.
It is a quotation which is on the tomb of Michael Ramsey in Canterbury Cathedral. The Archbishop who with Pope Paul VI initiated the first ARCIC conversations – perhaps that is a bit of Anglican patrimony.
When you look at a beautiful oak tree in a field you know that is what that small acorn is meant to become. The virtuous man or woman is a person ‘fully alive’ as another translation might say. That is what we live for by God’s grace.