Session 3: The Living of the Gospel in Diocese of Liverpool

The third of a series of addresses given at a conference entitled ‘The Catholic Way’ at St Columba’s, Anfield.

One of the difficulties of our theological discourse is what we do at the points where the various boxes into which we tend to pack our theology bump into each other. We categorise theology so that it is easier to think straight – but it is always more fun when two categories either overlap, or attempt to occupy the same space.

One of my recent interests concerns what happens when you overlay sacramental theology with mission theology. In fact, what if you believed sacramental theology was mission theology? What if the shape of our missiology was determined, influenced, by our understanding of the revelation of Jesus Christ in the sacramental life of the church? That is a large part of our task, I think.

For this session, however, I want to encourage us to ask where our sacramental theology goes when we search it for ethical questions. What does the eucharist, celebrated day be day, week by week, teach us about what we are doing for the six days and 23 hours when we are not celebrating the Sunday Mass? What does the Mass itself – not the preaching or proclamation which takes place within it – but the structure, the symbolism, the action, if you will – what help does liturgy give to the business of living?

The Jesuit Michael Skelley reminds us of the potential for every moment of our lives being a rich encounter with God. He writes

‘…at some level of our free acts, we are always accepting or resisting God. Every moment of every day  has the potential to become an explicit, mutual experience of God., in which God chooses to be present to us and we choose to become present to God. Such communion and interaction with God may very well take place in obvious religious situation…but it need not. The most joyful and the most tragic, the most extraordinary and the most mundane events of human life can all become experiences of full and active participation in the life of God.’

So, there is a relationship between our dispositions and our depth of faith – and the extent to which we allow our faith to determine the decisions we make. As a colleague of mine,  Andrew Davison, once said to me in a conversation, ‘Being a Catholic Christian should affect the way you walk down the street’. There is no part of our lives that is immune from divine grace, unless we choose that it should be so.  Again, Michael Skelley speaks of ‘the universal self-communication of the mystery of God effecting a response in our freedom.’ We are, of course, free to compartmentalise our lives so that we reject that grace. Much depends on what dispositions we choose to nurture.

A good friend of mine once asked his congregation how many of them read the Bible every day. a few hands went up – a small proportion of a good-sized congregation. Then he asked how many of them read a daily newspaper.  A forest of hands went up. It turned out that more people in the congregation – far more – read the Daily Mail every day than read the Bible every day. Because Paul Dacre, Rupert Murdoch, or whoever’s paper you read – they are life-changing. They are transformative. All we need to do is to live as they tell us to live.  My guess is that it might not grant to us the abundance of life which Jesus promised his followers (John 10.10) – but your life would certainly change. Then again, you could allow yourself to be transformed into a Jesus-centred person. Rowan Williams described a living faith as ‘Reality being reorganised around Jesus’. Jesus Christ is the answer. So what is the question? The presence of Jesus in our lives, the Word of God, active as any double-edged sword, changes the very axis on which we live our lives.

A personal relationship with Jesus Christ?

The Catholic Faith is shot through with examples of those so clearly in a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus. We mustn’t be frightened of recovering a language which others have appropriated! Pope Francis invites us to a

Renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them.

For the Catholic Christian that relationship reaches its high point in the Mass – for how more intimately and personally can we know the Lord Jesus than by eating his body, drinking his blood, as he commanded? To have Jesus dwelling within us in this way  – personally, yet within the context of the ecclesial community – is simply astonishing, and ‘to speak of it is an impertinence.’ It is, I suggest, internalised in more senses than the merely physical, and the intimacy is so great that we are perhaps disposed not to want to share or talk about it.

More worryingly, in her book Forming Intentional Disciples, the American author Sherry Weddell states that the prevailing attitude to this personal relationship with Jesus among America Catholics is one of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’, and that the notion of such a relationship is profoundly challenging to the majority, precisely because it is not talked about. It is a vicious circle, as the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ syndrome becomes more and more fixed by our behavioural and neurological habits as we fear ‘being different’ from our peers.

Evangelii Gaudium wishes to encourage precisely the opposite of what Weddel describes. Without such a personal, renewed daily relationship with Jesus, there can be no evangelisation.

A true Missionary, who never ceases to be a disciple, knows that Jesus walks with him, speaks to him, breathes with him, works with him. He senses Jesus alive with him in the midst of the missionary enterprise. Unless we see him present at the heart of our missionary commitment, our enthusiasm soon wanes and we are no longer sure of what it is we are handing on; we lack vigour and passion. A person who is not convinced, enthusiastic, certain and in love, will convince nobody.

The Mass contains within it much which is itself a proclamation of a life reorganised around the central truth if Christ. It shows the need for penitence and praise, for contemplation and a breaking open of the word in our lives, for a clear statement of universal faith, and a place for the priestly people of God to pray for others. It makes actual the way of the Cross, in self-offering and transformation, in covenant ad blessing. It rehearses the history of our salvation in such a way that the present moment is brought into the reality of that salvation. We exchange the peace with one another, we feed on the Body and Blood of Jesus: we are sent out. Just as the Lord’s Prayer is actually the pattern of all our praying, so the Mass is in fact the pattern of all our living.   It is so much more than a series of moral imperatives, but they are there to be found, and they involve the most challenging life questions of them all.

That sign of peace? Well, it’s more of a covenant, really – in which we pledge too live peaceably with one another and with the rest of creation. I wonder how many times we breach that all-too-easily made covenant? Reaction to the sign of peace, when it was first introduced into the liturgy, was not universally positive – perhaps the dissenters were wiser than they knew. It is a grace undertaking to live peaceably, as citizens of a peaceable kingdom, when the world around us is so turbulent and at times violent. It is, if I dare, the ultimate sign of mutual flourishing – and we remember all too well the imperative Jesus gives to us  in Matthew 5.24:

So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.

When we gather for the Mass we are gathering in a place where there are fair shares for all, and where now are left behind, and all are honoured by the host – we are united simply by our sinful nature, and our baptism.  And to receive the singular grace of the sacrament of His Body and Blood is to pledge to work for a world of justice, and a world where God’s sovereignty in Christ is acknowledged and believed. In short, we are pledged to become missionaries in the world – people of joyful proclamation, certainly, but also people whose own lifestyle challenges the consumer culture, greed and waste of the society in which we live.

A recurring theme in Anglican missiology is the checklist of the Five Marks of Mission. True to Anglican form, some provinces have added a couple, but generally speaking these are the five.

• To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom

• To teach, baptise and nurture new believers

• To respond to human need by loving service

• To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation

• To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

Proclamation, Baptism, Teaching, Service, Justice, Creation. It’s all there, and every mark finds direct reference in the offering of the Mass. The gradual transformation of the faithful effected by frequent participation in the eucharistic life of the church is revealed in consideration of these questions.  And, as with all aspects of our life in Christ, it is a constant journey of exploration, revelation and discovery, with desert moments thrown in along the way to remind us that we are undertaking this journey in God’s strength  and not our own.

It is the task of the congregation, and those who lead that congregation, to witness to the life of Beatitude to which Jesus calls us. This happens in a number of ways – from the core witnessing text of the Beatitudes themselves, to the sense of Blessing which is God’s desire fro his people, to the accent on beauty in liturgy and living, expressed itself in a variety of ways. Beauty is a significant player in our self-understanding and in our understanding of God, who is ultimate beauty, the Beatific vision.

Various attempts have been made to explore the implications of the Mass for ethical questions. The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics is one such example. Edited by Stanley Hauerwas and Sam Wells, the various contributors seek to align the various nuances and emphases of the Mass with areas of ethical concern. Offering evokes a commentary on treasuring creation; invocation relates to globalisation and power, sharing communion leads to a section in Hunger, Food and Genetically Modified Foods.

A more detailed exploration of one area of ethical concern can be found in William Cavanaugh’s Torture and the Eucharist, also published by Blackwell. The founding narrative of the Eucharist – the Last Supper – takes place in the shadow of betrayal, arrest, torture and the cruellest of deaths. The book ties eucharistic theology to practice, showing (to quote Cavanaugh himself) ‘…is not a ‘symbol’ but a real cathartic summary of the practices by which God forms people into the body of Christ, producing a sense of communion stronger than that of any nation-state.’

There is much more that could be said – but I hope that has given you a taste of what is a fascinating field of exploration. Time spent engaging with the actions, words and elements of eucharistic worship is never time wasted.  In every aspect of mission Catholics need to be true to what they have received. The Sacraments proclaim a generous, self-giving God, who cannot help but love, forgive and nourish his people. Such revelation should give us confidence to find in this life the seeds of our share in God’s great missionary endeavour to his creation. I look forward to the day which the Church of England (in particular) can speak the language of Catholic Mission and Evangelisation with confidence and enthusiasm, and (more to the point) put it into practice, and watch it bear fruit, ‘something beautiful for God.’

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