Once upon a time, the good book tells us, heaven and earth, that is, God’s creation, had it all together. God said, ‘It was good… it was good, … it was very good.’ (Genesis 1: 4,10,12,18,25,31). The first account of creation in Genesis appeals to us and challenges us because we recognise that the world we know is not so good: it is marred, fractured.
We see the degradation of the environment, even Covid-19 is a result of the unwanted collision of wild animals and humans. We feel the rupture of relationships, our own and those around us. Ultimately the cause of this broken world is a mystery, but we can be sure that God means to mend and restore creation.
The Gospel tells the astounding news that we are part of this great project of bringing heaven and earth back together.
Matthew recounts how Jesus led the Eleven up a mountain. For Matthew, going up the mountain meant two things: on the mountaintop we experience the power of God, and secondly, on the mountain, Jesus, like Moses before him, teaches about the reality of God.
So we are there with the Eleven on the mountaintop to experience something of God’s power and to open ourselves, week by week, to God’s teaching. Like the Eleven, we both ‘worship and doubt’ (v.17). We are human beings after all. But our power to believe or not it is not relevant.
‘All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me,’ Jesus states (v.18). The extraordinary claim of the Gospels is that the Risen Jesus has all God’s authority. We can be tempted to domesticate Jesus and turn him into a harmless friend. The reality, however, is that Jesus acts with power in our lives.
The French philosopher Simone Weil (1909-1943) was born to agnostic Jewish parents. From her childhood, she took seriously the teaching of Jesus to love one’s neighbour as one’s self. After a lifetime of activism loving her neighbour, she was drawn more deeply into the life of Jesus, experiencing his power in a series of prayer experiences. Weil’s book, Waiting for God, has become a spiritual classic. After reading George Herbert’s poem ‘Love III’, she wrote, ‘Christ himself came down and took possession of me.’ These experiences transformed her into ‘a great spirit’ recognised by Christians and non-Christians alike.
Our journey may not be as extreme as Simone Weil’s, but the reality of Jesus’ power in our lives shapes us also to be instruments of healing.
So Matthew reminds the Eleven – and us – of the colossal enterprise to which Jesus calls us: the healing of earth and heaven. We, the community of the faithful, are called to teach all nations his commandments, those of love and healing.
And the best of the Good News is that Jesus ‘will be with us always, to the end of the age.’ (v.20).
The cup and the bread are held up high so we can see and worship. The bread snaps as it is broken. The white circle lands softly in our palm. We caress the cup as it is handed to us. We taste the wafer and the wine, and the rich sweet aroma of the wine greets us as we drink.
Sight, sound, touch, taste and smell: five senses animate us as we come to Holy Communion.
And our five senses together trigger a sixth sense: that of memory. The heart of the ritual of Holy Communion brings vividly to mind all the hundreds, or thousands, of celebrations of the Eucharist that we have been part of. For me, they have been in parishes, in cathedrals, in homes, in school chapels and in the bush – everywhere Christians gather for the Lord’s Supper. Our memory reaches further back through generations of Christians to the night Jesus gave bread and wine as a presage of his death.
The memory of that night, the night he was betrayed, the night before he died, is strong, so strong that the events of the Last Supper reach forward into our time. We re-member Jesus, his disciples and his actions, and it’s as if they are happening here now. The scholars call this phenomenon of re-membering ‘anamnesis’– the very opposite of amnesia.
There’s a paradox at work here. The Eucharist is focused on the material of bread and wine, and yet its heart is the presence of Jesus with us. This presence is in fact an aching, loving absence that Franciscan friar Fr Thaddée Matura calls An Ardent Absence . Some Christians speak of the Real Presence, others of the memorial meal, but the effect is the same. When we touch the bread, we name it the Body of Christ, but we are not touching the actual body of Jesus; the bread somehow invokes his presence with us.
This is the Easter mystery: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. Jesus Christ is both absent and truly present. Only with the consummation of all things at the end of time will the absence and the presence be drawn together into one ubiquitous and unambiguous presence.
This Easter most of us will miss the Eucharist, the touching, the tasting and smelling, the gazing, the hearing. At best we will have disembodied seeing through the medium of a screen. But in these times of quarantine and physical isolation, the risen Lord is even more closely present to us. The Psalmist affirms,
‘The Lord is near to the broken-hearted and saves the crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:18)
And there is one rich gift, a gift of the Risen Word, which binds us all together. Words reach across the screen, whether in text like this, or the words spoken by a priest somewhere streaming the Eucharist. Because of Him who is the Word, these words have the power to hold us, to enfold us, to bring us into the presence of the Risen One.
In Busselton’s Queen Street, there is a statue of the Wadandi warrior Gaywal. You know the history of Gaywal and George Layman. The two men got into an argument at Wonnerup over the allocation of damper and Layman pulled Gaywal’s beard. In Noongar culture, this was a grave insult to such a senior law man. Gaywal retaliated by spearing Layman who died. In revenge, Captain Molloy, the Bussell brothers and a posse of soldiers hunted down any Noongars they could find and killed at least seven.
It’s sad that this is all history tells us about Gaywal – at least, as far as I can find out. Was he an effective bridge between black and white? Did he proudly resist the colonisers? We don’t know.
But the story of his end, killing Layman and being killed himself is well attested. The story fits a pattern that is described in this morning’s Gospel: if you feel angry and lash out madly, the situation will escalate into in the hell of violence, often in a flash of time: from Layman pulling Gaywal’s beard to the end of the killing spree was less than a week.
Jesus knows our humanity well. He recognises that all of us feel anger. He himself was angry with the buyers and sellers of sacrificial animals and the moneychangers in the Temple. He expressed that anger vigorously, but none of the merchants was harmed. There was no violence.
But if we human beings fail to recognise our feelings of anger, two things may happen: One possibility is the explosion of violence like that around Gaywal. A Palestinian today, angry that his village has been simply taken over by Israeli settlers, may fuel his anger and end up in a suicide vest. He leaves behind him the hell of grieving families on both sides.
The second possibility is that we will push the anger down, suppress it deep inside ourselves. If we do that, the anger certainly won’t go away. It will fester and end up with hotly felt grudges. Sometimes, people will push their anger down and dowan, and suddenly lash out madly at everything around. Bystanders and the person themselves ask, Where did that come from?
Jesus, as our physician, diagnoses similar reactions to sexual desire. If feelings of desire are acted on in an uncontrolled manner, people are damaged, injured, sent to hell, the victims of violence. How sad the reasons that Harvey Weinstein and Rolf Harris are household names. Or sexual feelings may be suppressed, just like anger can be, and the poison that grows in that person may result in the abuse of children or women. Jesus names this too as violence, as hell, because of the life-long injury it causes.
Jesus expects us to be mature human beings. We prevent violence by acknowledging our feelings, rejoicing that being human is to be a feeling person. We name the feeling and then act on it appropriately: channelling sexual desire into loving our spouse and family, and channelling anger into fighting for justice. Being mature for Jesus means being thoughtful, mindful, about our emotions.
Just imagine for a moment if Gaywal had overcome his surprise and anger and mindfully offered his beard to be pulled by Layman a second time? Is it possible that George Layman would have reflected on his action, realised that he had profoundly insulted Gaywal and both men backed down? Imagine the power of that positive action, refusing to use power to injure.
There are times when it is appropriate to act like that. We are usually so taken by the injustice of situations that we, like Gaywal and most people, demand justice for ourselves or others. I call the alternative pre-emptive forgiveness. We say to ourselves, I’m angry. I may even be justified in being angry. But, in love, I refuse to escalate the situation into violence, so I am offering forgiveness even if the other person has not recognised their wrong-doing.
If we read further on than this morning’s Gospel in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus paints some pictures of pre-emptive forgiveness for us. ‘If someone compels you to carry their gear for one mile, carry it for two.’ (Matthew 5:41) There was no law permitting Roman soldiers to make you carry their pack. It seems they just did it because they were bigger and tougher. They were the occupation forces. It would be natural if you carried out the task as minimally as possible, pretending their pack was too heavy and dropping it on the ground, finding all sorts of ways to do what you were ordered in a passive-aggressive manner.
The result of your minimal obedience? The old bitter tensions between occupiers and occupied would just carry on, maybe made worse by this understandable reluctance. Jesus sees it as an opportunity for pre-emptive forgiveness. Why not carry it gladly, with good grace, and offer to carry it a second mile? How that would surprise the soldier. To be seen as a fellow-human instead of just a hated Roman.
Or another scenario Jesus paints, ‘If someone slaps you on one cheek, offer the other to be slapped too.’ (Matthew 5:39). Someone slapping your face is a special kind of violence. It implies not only aggression, but also a rebuke, a put-down. The slapper has put himself or herself above the person they are slapping, turning them into a child or a non-person.
It’s natural either to retaliate or to freeze. In response, you want either to be violent or to run far away. Jesus suggests another way, a creative way of pre-emptive forgiveness. Imagine the power of saying, ‘Hit my other cheek as well.’ You’re not accepting the slap; you’re creating a space for the other person to think again and maybe to apologise. There’s no guarantee that it will work, but there is a guarantee that if you retaliate, the violence will continue. If you freeze, the slapper has licence to go on being violent to you.
The whole story of Jesus on the Cross is about turning back the powers of violence on themselves: not fighting back like Resistance fighters against the Romans, and not ignoring the wrongs done to him. This way of pre-emptive forgiveness wins the day on the Cross.
This is what writers like the South African theologian Walter Wink call The Third Way: not fighting back and escalating the violence, and not freezing or running away, leaving an injustice unanswered. This ‘Third Way’ is operable to us Christians even though at first glance it may sound difficult. It is open to us, because as Lucy has said over the past two sermons: we are blessed, we are salt and light. God’s power and Spirit is already flowing through us. When we find a way to pre-emptively forgive, it is God’s Holy Spirit acting through us.
Our task is to use our imagination to enact this pre-emptive forgiveness. Each situation demands a different – and creative – response.
I invite you to see Jesus reaching out to you – his presence with us in bread and wine – and pre-emptively forgiving us. By his generosity to us, we are strengthened to pass that forgiveness on when people cross us. By his generosity to us, we are empowered to love.
This hymn was inspired by Moses’ experience of the glory of God when he climbed Mount Sinai. This is described in Exodus 24:12-18 set for the Old Testament reading for the Stigmata (in the Australian Third Order Manual).
The snake, in his tempting, makes us confused,
What is the sin, what punishment to come?
Is it pride, or wisdom or God’s traits to be used
that we deeply desire with our heart’s sum?
The snake, in his tempting, is skilled at misleading,
Look here, I’m a snake! Flabby sin at that address!
Is it sex, is it shame, is it clothes now receding?
Our focus is blurred by cold thoughtlessness.
The snake, in his tempting, makes our souls judder,
Shining skin in its blackness pretends to go deep:
Is it fear, is it self’s fickle flutter
that we dunk our souls in ourselves to steep?
Banish this snake, his crooked advance and sick ways,
Place God at the heart of our loupes’ precious gaze.
Forget your poverty for a moment,
let us think of the world’s hospitality –
the son of Mary will bring you prosperity,
and every guest will have their share.
Often what is given away comes back
to the generous hand,
and what is kept back disappears altogether.
O living God!
— St Columba
Paraphrased from Franciscans Day by Day December 17
[Franciscans Day by Day is a set of short readings for the year prepared by the JPIC (Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation) group of the Third Order, Society of Saint Francis in the Province of the Americas.]