Category Archives: Tony van Vuuren

Destiny

32nd SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
Cycle A
12th November 2017
Matthew 25:1-13
Rev Tony van Vuuren

The readings this Sunday touch on some central Christian beliefs, which in the past were a source of division between the different Christian traditions, and which are still interpreted differently by the various churches: beliefs about our life after death, about Jesus’ Second Coming, about Purgatory, about God’s Judgement.

Today’s parable points to a moment, not just at the end time, but now. It calls us to seize the moment and direct our lives guided by the wisdom God gives us in Christ. We do not yet see Christ coming. What we experience is the preoccupying routine of our daily lives.

From the standpoint of Christian faith our life here and now is imperfect and incomplete. It’s the life to come, when we’re with God, when we encounter God’s love fully, which is permanent and complete. As he got near the end of his preaching ministry Christ encouraged people to see their present lives in the light of their eternal destiny, their future life with God.

The Christians Saint Paul is writing to in the second reading have started to worry that the people who die before Christ’s Second Coming – most people, presumably – will somehow be at a disadvantage compared to the people who happened to be alive at the time of the Second Coming. Paul’s answer is to tell them that they’re worrying about nothing. The particular moment that we die doesn’t make any difference to our final destiny, but it is partly this worry, voiced by the Christians in Thessalonica that led to the development of our belief in Purgatory.

As we know, some of the more evangelical Churches reject the idea of Purgatory because there’s no direct or obvious reference to it in the Bible.

But like so many of the Church’s beliefs that developed very early in its history, the belief in Purgatory was the answer the Christian community came up with when they reflected on their knowledge and experience of God, in this instance his love and care and mercy and his desire that every person should gain salvation.

From our Christian point of view our death is the moment when we leave behind all the shadows and inadequacies of earthly life and move into the light and fullness of life with God.

The person we reach out to in our prayers, the person we often experience in a dim, partial, fleeting way during our present life will now be known directly and clearly in the next life.

And according to what we believe about life after death, that involves two things. One is that we get a much clearer sense of God’s holiness and love and mercy, and the happiness that goes along with that. There’s the knowledge that we’re saved – that we’re heading towards God.

And the other thing is that we get a much clearer sense of our own lack of holiness and love. We don’t only see God face-to-face, we see ourselves much more truthfully as well – all our self-centredness, our clinging to wrong goals, our pride and childishness.

Of course there’s an element of pain and upset – the pain of contrasting our imperfections with God’s perfection, our lack of love with God’s perfect love. And it’s that state, after we’ve died, that we refer to when we talk about Purgatory.

It’s not some place where we spend millions of years being tortured – the usual picture conjured up by a certain tradition of preaching, taking Jesus’ own apocalyptic images too literally. Purgatory is more the experience of seeing God’s goodness and love alongside our own faults and inadequacies, and being purified of those elements, so that we’re fit to be with him forever.

Jesus’ parable about the sensible bridesmaids and the foolish bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom to arrive also gives us another image of the Second Coming, the end of time, and the Judgement that goes along with it. The possibility of having the door closed on us.

But it’s not too late. The parable’s locked door hasn’t happened yet. We are reminded that God is available to us now with the gift of Wisdom, to show us what we must still do to keep a good supply of oil. Being at this Mass we acknowledge our need and dependence on God.

We yearn and search for Wisdom — it is given to us in these scriptures and in the Eucharist available to us.

The only thing that can stop us from enjoying that future is by deliberately turning away from it – preferring to assert ourselves and choosing to alienate ourselves from God.

That’s why Jesus’ parables about the end of time always have a hint of a threat. There’s going to be a judgement and our time here and now is a sort of probation, a time of testing. The final choice that we make about our eternal destiny will be a summing up of all the free actions and decisions that we’ve made during our life, not an arbitrary punishment by a capricious God.

Reflecting on what the readings today tell us about death, about judgement and our future life with God; they can open up the way to greater truth about the purpose of our lives on earth and our relationship with God.

They open up the way to greater truth about the purpose of our lives on earth and our relationship with God. Many people only give superficial thought to these subjects and obviously find them difficult to accept or believe in.

But when we spend some time reflecting on them, and praying to God about them, we will hopefully begin to see that they can’t be dismissed so easily.

A final point! We may feel that the wise bridesmaids were rather selfish in refusing to share their oil with the foolish ones in such a critical situation.

We can also say in the context of today’s parable that our preparedness to meet the Lord is something that is ultimately only our responsibility. No one can say “Yes” to Christ on our behalf!

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What Are Our Fruits?

27th Sunday Ordinary Time.
Cycle A.
8th October 2017.
Mt 21: 33-43. Is 5: 1-7

The basic purpose of Isaiah’s song and Matthew’s account of Jesus’ parable being linked today is to make us think and to search our own conscience. What are our fruits, as believers? Are we in the situation where God has done his part, but sometimes we’re only producing sour grapes, or even worse, turning on our neighbour?
The symbol of the vine and vineyards was an image that Jesus liked to use in different ways in his preaching. Our relationship with God is compared to the way a carefully-tended plant yields good fruit. The hymn: “I am the fruitful vine, and you my branches are,” illustrates this.

The important thing about the vineyard in this particular parable – as in the song by Isaiah in the first reading – is that unfortunately it’s a vineyard that doesn’t produce any fruit, or doesn’t produce the right kind of fruit.
We have images of a vine that produces sour grapes, and vineyard workers who refuse to carry out the owners wishes and turn against him, which are conjured up for us as symbols of those who close themselves off from God’s grace and fail to bear spiritual fruit; despite all the care and the cultivation by the gardener – obviously a symbol for God’s care and concern for his people.

There’s a saying that is sometimes used as a way of emphasising God’s compassion and kindliness: “God takes us as we are”.

It’s true, but it’s only half the truth. God does take us as we are, but if we respond he doesn’t leave us as we are. Contact with God; a relationship with God; changes us. We become a different person: our attitudes, and our behaviour changes. In the more figurative and symbolic language of the Bible – we produce fruit.
I am sure there are some of us here present, myself included, who at some time had no interest or involvement with formal religion, but through some intervention or influence have become more entrenched in our faith—-however frail that might be.

When a gardener puts a lot of care into his plants they ripen and mature. When we play our part in our relationship with God, and respond to the influence of his grace, we also develop in a certain direction and mature as Christians. There’s a move towards greater integrity or cohesion in our own character, and there’s a move towards greater understanding and gentleness regarding the frailties and weaknesses of other people.

If we look at the passage from Isaiah we can see that the kind of fruits God particularly expects us to manifest are justice and integrity. In fact Isaiah describes those qualities not so much as expectations by God, but as the natural outcome of being faithful to God, in the Covenant. What is true on the level of our individual personal relationship with God should also be true for our community that sincerely worships God and recognises him as the source of our moral principles: just relationships, free from exploitation and domination; just some of the fruits which will grow naturally in our community, as a result of our genuine contact with God.
Inevitably, however, in both the first reading and the gospel, there’s also a more negative implication raised by Isaiah and by Jesus: they criticise their fellow-believers for not responding in the way that they should to God’s involvement with them.

Particularly in the Gospel there’s a tone of warning and threat in Jesus’ language, typical of the style of preaching employed by the Old Testament prophets, claiming that since the community are not producing the fruit that comes from knowing and loving God, God’s Kingdom will be taken from them, and given to other people, who will be receptive to the values of the Kingdom, and will produce the right fruits.
Matthew’s idea in including it in his gospel wasn’t just to disparage the chief priests and the elders. Matthew was addressing his own community – the Christian community – and his aim in this passage was to get the new followers of Christ to ask themselves whether they were producing the fruit they were supposed to.

Jesus’ warning here is also aimed at us: if we don’t produce wholesome fruit, God’s Kingdom will be taken away from us, and given to people who – even if they don’t have an explicit belief in God – are actually doing God’s will by the way they live and the values they put into practice. I am sure we all know someone of that ilk?
Again, it’s not that God has a spiteful streak, or takes pleasure in removing something from us which can only be for our benefit. What this final remark of Jesus implies, really, is that God doesn’t force himself onto people who aren’t interested in him. Nobody can be coerced into having a more profound faith, or growing in holiness, or becoming a more compassionate and loving person.

The rule of God’s Kingdom can only be active in our lives if there’s the effort to actually welcome it and co-operate with it. Christ knew that there were men and women who were doing that, even though they hardly carried out any of the formal religious rules and ceremonies of the time that the religious leaders thought were so important.
I return to the question I posed when I started speaking: What are our fruits as believers?

Most of us can think of ways that in our own specific circumstances we could be become more rooted in the qualities and attitudes that make up the Kingdom – even just becoming more conscious of our need to cultivate the fruits of justice, love and peace; rather than just stagnating. Waking us up to that need, rather than threatening us with the loss of God’s friendship, is the real purpose of the language Jesus and Isaiah use in their parables in today’s readings.

We are challenged to ask Jesus to be with us as the cornerstone of all that we build and cultivate.

“Listen anyone who has ears.”

15th SUNDAY ORDINARY TIME
CYCLE A.
16TH JULY 2017
Reverend Tony van Vuuren

In today’s Gospel, Jesus uses the image of seed sown on different kinds of soil to teach his listeners about the fruitfulness of God’s Word. Every seed has the same potential for growth; it is the type of soil that determines how abundant the yield will be. The prophet Isaiah seems to say the same thing: God’s word, like the seed, always remains fruitful—it will not return void. So it seems that our human response determines the harvest.
Think about the best teachers you had or have in school. They are the ones who were able to meet you at your level, talking to you and not just at you; as soon as they started talking, you felt that you were learning something new and exciting, something much more than just facts.
Like any good teacher, Jesus doesn’t just give us canned answers. He invites us to get involved. He challenges us to open our hearts and humbly receive his word into our souls. If his teaching is going to bear fruit in our lives, we have to “listen with our ears”. Even though we have the unfailing teaching of the church, there is no substitute for discovering what the Word of God is saying to each of us alone.
That’s the same way Jesus teaches us about his kingdom. He is not a data-cruncher who gives us charts and diagrams, and he’s not a stickler for details, concerned only that we are able to quote various rules and regulations. He uses parables, stories of people and situations that we can easily relate to, as he seeks to win our hearts as well as form our minds.

There is something enormously tempting about parables though; and the temptation is that it is easy to believe that the parable we are reading or listening to is about somebody other than myself.

It is a human failing of course that many of us often prefer to tell and listen to stories about other people. It’s called gossip. And the reason one is led to gossip is because it is one way of feeling better about the failures and inadequacies in myself and rather point out the failures and inadequacies in someone else.

How many folk do we believe we know who fit into one of the three groups in the parable?
“Some seed fell on the path”: “Some seed fell on stony ground.” “Some seed fell among thorns.”
But now “Listen anyone who has ears.”
This parable is not about other people; this parable is about ME and YOU and each one of us.

Which group might each one of us fall into?
What are the ways in which I have lacked commitment to the Word of the Lord and
strength in His Faith?

What are the ways we need to change?
What is it that I have to allow God to do in my heart so that I can be
the person He created me to be? What is it that I must do to yield a harvest, 30 and 60 and 100-fold?

The answers to these questions are individual for each of us, but let us take the opportunity during this Eucharist celebration to reflect on these questions.
In the parable of the Sower, God is obviously lavish with his seed (His Word). The parable does not say that the seed fell on rocky ground, or on shallow ground, or in thorns by accident. It is simply stated that this is where the seed fell.

If we accept the parable story as meant for our ears we may feel at times that we are in these places of rocks, shallowness, and thorns; however, the Word of God can still reach us. Of course, ideally, we would like to be in rich soil and producing a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold

But how do we respond? How do we put the Word of God into action? What does it mean for us to produce fruit a hundred, or sixty, or thirtyfold? Certainly, this kind of fruitfulness can be measured in an increase of faith or in an increase of hope. However, as the scripture says — the Greatest of these is Love.

Accordingly, perhaps the greatest measure of this fruitfulness is how the Word of God inspires and challenges one to love better, to love more generously, to love without prejudice, and to love as instruments of God’s mercy, compassion, and goodness.
Let us take the Word of God personally; Let us take the Word of God seriously, and Let us take on and accept the challenge of putting the Word of God into action.

CALL TO WITNESS

THE ASCENSION OF THE LORD
CYCLE A
28th MAY 2017
Acts 1:1-11
Math 28:16-20
Rev Tony van Vuuren

We can’t read the Bible as if it’s a collection of news reports: it’s a different kind of knowledge which is being communicated. Jesus’ Ascension, which we commemorate today, is one of the many events in the Bible where – behind the images and the metaphors – we do find the truth about the work and the activity that God has carried out for our sake and for our salvation.

Whatever the image, we run the risk of looking on the Feast of the Ascension with our eyes raised to the sky. This is exactly the opposite of what we should do. It is a feast that invites us to look to earth, to people among whom we are called to witness to and make present the work of our Lord.

The readings today are a poetic way of saying that Jesus is no longer on earth in a fleshly, physical and material way. The words of scripture mean that Christ’s ascension and withdrawal brings about a new mode by which Christ can be present to us, intimate, yet universal and ‘interceding for us at the right hand of the Father.’He is actually with us more strongly, more powerfully, than when he walked the roads and streets of Palestine.

He is with us in his gift to us of the Holy Spirit. Always inside us as an invitation that fully respects our freedom, never overpowers us; but also never goes away. He acts on us in all the down-to-earth ways that the Spirit influences us. So we don’t have to go looking for him on the clouds or in the sky. We find him in our reading, hearing and understanding of the scriptures, which speak of him. We find him in our celebration of the sacraments. Each of the seven sacraments is a sign of his presence and action upon us here and now.

This is especially true of the Eucharist, which is specifically the sign and presence of his now glorified and spiritualized body. We find him in our practical love for our neighbour, and especially for our caring for fellow human beings who are disadvantaged in any way, and those who are sad, sorrowing, afraid or despairing.

But if Jesus is no longer visible in the old familiar ways, how will people come to know of his presence? The answer is that he is present through us. On this Feast of the Ascension we are reminded in Matthew’s Gospel of the great commission he gave us; his followers; before he went home to God. This is to go and tell everyone everywhere the good news that Jesus is alive and is our Saviour – making disciples of all nations.

The end of Jesus’ ministry on earth is the beginning of our ministry, as the community of believers, the Church. He says to his followers in every century ‘You are my witnesses’, and that in order to witness to my Father ‘you will be clothed with the power from on high’, the power of the Holy Spirit.

That then is our task: to be witnesses. There are two aspects to the role of witness 1) to actually experience the subject in question and 2) to tell others about it. Obviously one comes before the other. One can’t give witness to something that you have not experienced. Some of us here might feel that our experience of God has been inadequate up to now and therefore we don’t think that we have anything to communicate to others.

We shouldn’t underestimate ourselves. If we are sitting in Church today it is surely because most of us already have some experience of God. It is surely because we already hope and trust in him and because we know that it is in celebrating his Eucharist that we can come closest to him. Most of us came to this mass quite freely and must therefore have a good reason to want to spend time with him in service and prayer. If that’s not experience of God, then what is?

It is this that the people in the world around us want to know about. They thirst for meaning and purpose; all too often they find themselves filling up the empty holes in their lives with material possessions, and all kinds of inappropriate things.

They want to hear from us. Or maybe, they don’t want to hear from us but want to observe people who do find their lives fulfilling and who have direction and moral purpose. They want to look at us from afar and only later, when they become convinced that what we are doing is right, come to know us better. In ascending to heaven, Jesus has not left us. He has merely disappeared from our sight. This is similar to the Eucharist. So long as the host is outside us, we see it and we adore it.

When we receive the host we no longer see it. It has disappeared from sight, but it has disappeared so that Jesus can be within us, and be present to us in a new way, and an even more powerful way than when he walked our earth in the flesh. So, like the first disciples, we are not sad that Jesus has disappeared from sight but happy, happy because he is still with us through the Spirit.

So did it happen exactly as the Acts reading describes it? Jesus being lifted to heaven on a cloud? Why not? Nothing is impossible with God. In the end though, the imagery matters less than the lessons of the Ascension: Jesus is with the Father. Jesus is always present to us through the Spirit. The two men in white robes assure us that Jesus will return. Meanwhile we have to stop staring up at the sky and get busy being the witnesses Jesus has asked us to be!

Holy Thursday

13 April 2017
Cycle A
Rev Tony van Vuuren

Holy Thursday, or Maundy Thursday, marks the start of the Easter Triduum. The Mass of the Lord’s Supper this evening commemorates the institution of the Eucharist. In John’s account of the Last Supper, which forms the gospel reading tonight, John makes the point that the Church has to make Christ present not only sacramentally, in his Body and Blood, but also in the spirit of service and surrendering of power which Jesus symbolises by washing his disciples feet.

In the other three gospels, the description of the Last Supper was modelled partly on what the early Christians were already doing in their Eucharistic celebration. And what they were doing was modelled, of course, on the actual event of the Last Supper itself, and Jesus’ words over the bread and wine: “This is my Body”; “This is my Blood”. “Do this in memory of me”.

In John’s gospel, that particular aspect of the Eucharist is dealt with in Chapter Six, where Jesus gives his long discourse on the living bread. “The bread I give is my flesh, for the life of the world…whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood, lives in me and I live in them”.                                                                                                                                  This evening John doesn’t mention anything about bread and wine becoming Jesus’ body and blood. He uses the event of the Last Supper to emphasise another facet, or another dimension, of the Eucharist.                                                                                                                                                                     John’s version of Lord’s Supper describes Jesus washing his disciple’s feet – and informing them by this gesture that he’s the Messiah who’s come to serve rather than be served. And, just as important, he’s telling the disciples that they’ve got to do the same if they want to think of themselves as his followers.

John’s point in putting that incident right in the middle of the Last Supper illustrates how we can put our belief in the Eucharist into practice. The meaning of the Eucharist is lived out in practice when we all treat each other with that attitude of humility, self-emptying, service and love that Jesus himself demonstrated.

John never got tired of making the point that if our devotion towards God is real; it will express itself in devotion towards our neighbour, an active dedication of ourselves to our fellow human beings. “If God has loved us, so we must love each other”, he says, elsewhere in his writings.                                                                                                          It’s this aspect of our life in communion with God which John wants to emphasise in his account of the Last Supper as well.

For the true Christian, who is genuinely open to God’s influence in their life; taking part in the Eucharist is conditional on this attitude of service and humility – this willingness to take up a stance in life which involves performing menial or servant-like tasks for each other. Washing people’s feet in Jesus’ time was of course a task that only a servant or lowly slave would perform.                                                                                                            According to John, no Christian should approach the Eucharistic table, or receive Christ’s Body and Blood, without this prior commitment.                                                                                                                          At the same time, none of us should go away from the table, having received communion, without having this commitment strengthened and reinforced. We have to find the presence of Christ both in the Eucharist and in the washing of feet. They’re two sides of a single reality.                                                                                                                     Well, the question is: what reality? Why does John say that we as followers of Christ have to take on this servant-like commitment?                                                                                                                                                           The answer is that it’s a reflection of God’s nature, God’s character, and so it’s something that we take on as we gradually realise or grow into the vocation we all have to be like God.

By the time John’s gospel was written Jesus was clearly seen as being divine. “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” he said. So the gesture of the foot-washing demonstrates a vital aspect of God’s nature – the fact that he chooses to reveal himself in powerlessness and servant hood.                                                                          God shows himself – to make the point another way – by reversing the ordinary human values and customs, where important and powerful people demonstrate their superiority with all kinds of badges of privilege and ways of being treated in a servile way by their subordinates. Peter shows how far he still holds to that way of thinking by his embarrassment and by the objections he raises to Jesus’ action. ‘You shall never wash my feet.”

Christ is present in the bread and wine as a sacramental sign and when we celebrate Mass together we are making him present in that way. But Christ must also be made present in real life, by a concrete commitment to servant hood. We make Christ present when we renounce our own pride and self-interest and respond to the needs, and especially to the suffering and the distress, of others. The Mass of the Lord’s Supper is to remind us not to separate those two aspects of the Eucharist and always to see them as belonging together.

That’s why out of the four gospel accounts of the Last Supper, it’s especially John’s account that belongs within the Easter Triduum: it belongs especially in the context of Christ’s journey to the Cross. And it’s partly for that reason that the Mass of the Lord’s Supper doesn’t have a formal ending – it remains open and unfinished, and picks up again tomorrow, with the remembrance of Christ’s Passion and Death.

So the institution of the Eucharist, the washing of the feet, and the Path to the Cross, are all part of a single mystery, and they all cast light on each other.

These are the realities of our faith which we can bear in mind and reflect on as we come together once again to re-enact and celebrate this year’s Paschal Triduum.

JOURNEY OF FAITH

2nd SUNDAY OF LENT
CYCLE A
12th MARCH 2017
Mt 17:1-9
Rev Tony van Vuuren.

Just as Abraham, the first of the great patriarchs of Israel, was called on to make a journey out of ignorance and error and towards knowledge and love of God, and just as Jesus’ mission meant journeying towards Jerusalem, where he knew he would be put to death, our life, as disciples of Christ, also involves a journey: away from our sinful leanings and our self-assertiveness and towards greater closeness to God and holiness of life.

The bright light of Jesus’ transfiguration transfigures us, as long as we don’t turn our backs on it. When God calls someone or some group, and they answer his call, God doesn’t leave them as they are. If we’re serious about getting to know God, he never leaves us unchanged.

The story of Abraham being told to uproot himself and set out for some unknown destination, and an uncertain future, is the story of the beginning of the Hebrew people, the beginnings of the Jewish faith in God. It’s the story of the origins of the community that held that faith.

With anyone who hears God’s call or becomes aware of the reality of God and the way he draws us to himself – which should mean all of us at some level or other – it doesn’t usually involve settling into a contented, comfortable situation. It involves uprooting, a shift of direction, the sacrifice of certain securities and attachments – in our spiritual lives, in our habits, in our consciences.
“Leave your present way of life,” God says to us, “for the new life that I will show you”.

The gospel reading this Sunday is about another journey, or at any rate, the halfway point of another journey: the journey that Jesus is on towards Jerusalem and his death and resurrection.

If the temptations, which we heard about last Sunday, described what happened at the start of Jesus’ ministry, what we get in this Sunday’s gospel story of the Transfiguration is a sort of anticipation, or a preview, of the end of the journey: Christ’s glorification and his return to the Father.

Jesus had already announced to the disciples that his ministry would end with his being killed. What the transfiguration on Mount Tabor showed them was what was to come after Jesus’ death. This was such a mysterious and wonderful experience that Peter wanted to freeze it in time. In the transfiguration, the three disciples caught a glimpse of the divine, glorified Jesus.

But after this glimpse of the presence of God in Jesus, Matthew reminds us of the context. The bright light fades, Jesus and the disciples have to come back down from the mountain top. Jesus has to prepare to re-embark on the journey to Jerusalem and to Calvary. He must have felt himself comforted, reassured, affirmed and strengthened for the ordeal ahead.

It wasn’t that everything would now be rosy and comfortable. In fact nothing changed! He still has to face a dark and threatening future. He knew that it was what God wanted of him and that God would give him the strength to face it all.

The Tabor experience could be called a “peak experience”. (Pardon the pun!) We too can have peak experiences or moments of transfiguration. We can have intense experiences of peace, unity, joy, exhilaration, meaning…and of the presence of God.

These are true moments of grace that can be triggered off not only by prayer, but by music, nature….but they are also more likely to be the fruit of suffering and painful struggle. In His love for us, God allows us to taste on earth the joys of the world to come. He gives us glimpses of the Promised Land to which we are travelling in faith; moments given to us so that we can remember them when God seems far away and everything appears dark and empty.

But after a peak experience we too have to come down from the mountain and return to our valley, where life goes on in the darkness of faith. The truth is we are undertaking not one, but two journeys. The first is the outward journey we make through involvement in the world around us and finding our role here. The second is the inward journey; which is a search; a search for oneself and ultimately a search for God.

Life’s inward journey is truly a journey of faith because we don’t know where it will take us. Faith begins with a call from God in some shape or form. God calls us forward, away from idols and distractions where we might find ourselves; not necessarily into a new location, but into a new vision, new values, and a new way of living.
We can draw inspiration from the examples of many folk within our parish.
That life is a journey is a very powerful metaphor, but don’t understand it in too linear fashion. It’s not that simple. Every stage of the road is different.

Even with the best faith in the world we may still end up on dark roads we never imagined or wanted for ourselves. To have faith is not to have all the answers. It is to have bearings. There will be times in each of our lives when we will have to go forward armed only with our courage and our faith.

Abraham’s voyage into exile turned out to be a journey towards greater knowledge of God. Jesus’ progress towards Jerusalem was a journey back to the Father who’d sent him.

Especially during the season of Lent let’s think about how willing we are to make the same journey: in our case, from sin to holiness; from self-centredness to love; from an outlook centred on our own desires and ambitions to one that revolves around God and what he wants us to be like.

So what to make of all this? We should understand that, if we are Christian disciples; our attitude, if we follow the model of Abraham, is to be firm in trusting God and willing to endure what he asks of us, confident that “he knows what he is about.” And confident, too, that while we may not receive what we ask, we will receive the grace and strength to achieve what we are called to do and be; which though it is more than often hidden from us, is truly what we want.

Love Our Enemies

7th SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
CYCLE A
19th FEBRUARY 2017
Matthew 5: 38-48
Deacon Tony van Vuuren

We are naturally inclined to resent those who do us wrong. But hatred, if we nurture it, can come between us and our loving God, who wants us to be loving, kind and forgiving.

In today’s Gospel passage taken from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus condemns even the mild form of the “Law of the Talion, (Lex Talionis),” the Babylonian tribal law which prescribes a retaliation in kind. In other words it sets limits on punishment; the punishment not to exceed the crime.

In its place, Jesus gives his new law of love, grace, forgiveness, reconciliation and no retaliation. For Jesus; retaliation, or even limited vengeance, has no place in the Christian life, even though graceful acceptance of an offense requires great strength, discipline of character as well as strengthening by God’s grace.

The second part of today’s Gospel passage is perhaps the central and the most famous section of the Sermon on the Mount. It gives us the Christian ethic of personal relationships: love one’s neighbors and forgive one’s enemies. Above all, it tells us that what makes Christians different is the grace with which they treat others with loving kindness and mercy, even if they don’t deserve it.

The Old Law never actually said to hate enemies, but that was the way some Jews understood it. Jesus commands that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us to demonstrate that we are children of a merciful heavenly Father.
We are commanded to love our enemies as Jesus loves us.

The Greek word used for loving enemies is agápe, which is the invincible benevolence or good will for another’s highest good. Since agápe is not natural, practicing it is possible only with God’s help. Agápe love is a choice, an act of will, more than a feeling.

We choose to love, not because our enemies deserve our love, but because Jesus loves them so much that he died for them as He did for us. When Jesus talks about “the enemy” he is not necessarily referring to an enemy as in war. He is talking about someone who is possibly close to me —to you; someone in our family; in our community, our neighbourhood, in our workplace; someone who is making life difficult for us.

Who are the people we try to avoid at all costs, whom we find hard to forgive, who awaken in us feelings of unease, fear and anger, which can easily turn into hatred? Hatred is a very dangerous thing. It burns up a hundred times more energy than love. It can drive out everything else and will corrode and warp our mind and soul; creating a legacy of bitterness, hostility and resentment.

Christ’s way is a better way. To be able to forgive and turn the other cheek is not a soft way. It’s a hard way that calls for great strength and toughness and sacrifice. A perfect example of this of course is our witness to Christ during his trial and crucifixion “Love your enemies!” –this is one of the most revolutionary things ever said. Love our enemies? Most of us find it hard enough to love our friends and family all of the time.

How can we be expected to love our enemies? To love’ in the Gospel context means to ‘wish the well being of’. It is a unilateral, unconditional desire for the deepest wellbeing of another person. It does not ask any of us ‘to be in love with’, to have warm fuzzy feelings for someone who is doing us serious harm. But we can sincerely wish the well being of those who harm or persecute us.

We pray that they may change, not just for our sake but also for their own. We pray that from hating, hurting people they become loving and caring people. Further, Jesus tells us that the basic reason for doing this is to manifest God’s love towards us. He points to the fact that the action of God is unconquerable benevolence.

He is the one who makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and when the rain finally arrives here it will fall on the good and on the bad.
The Gospel passage concludes with Jesus saying, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” On the face of it that sounds like a commandment which cannot possibly have anything to do with us. Surely no one of us can even faintly connect ourselves with perfection.

(Except maybe when we fill in our CV’s) But seriously though this obviously is an ideal, a goal to be aimed at. The perfection intended is not total perfection for us, but rather to pray for ourselves for that total impartiality of a God who extends his providential care and love equally to all; good and bad, and he does not love the bad less than the good people. So, if we want to identify with Him, we have no right whatever to withdraw our love, that is, our desire for wholeness, from a single person.

Whether a person returns our love or God’s love is not important. If we reflect on it, we will begin to see that this is the only reasonable way for us to deal with people both for our own personal growth and fulfillment and as contributing also to that of others. Jesus is not asking us to do something impossible and unreasonable.

He tells us to open our eyes and see the reality and discover the most sensible way of relating ourselves with the people around us. Our faith assures us that in our relationship with God we will be able to do as he did and now instructs us: to be generous to those in need; not retaliate when offended; pray for our persecutors and even, with God’s grace, love our enemies.