Daily homilies by the Prior of Pluscarden at the Arundel and Brighton Clergy Retreat, 27-30 September 2016
Reflection for the A&B Clergy Service of Reconciliation
Wednesday 28 September 2016: Ephesians 2:4-10; John 3:14-21
St. Paul sometimes goes in for passages of baffling obscurity, so that commentators are kept busy for millennia, and still they don’t quite get to the bottom of what he’s talking about! But St. Paul also goes in, very much so, for purple passages; and the passage we have just heard from Ephesians is definitely one of those. Let us simply assume, for now, that it is by St. Paul. Certainly the passage is one we all love, and probably know by heart. Typically for the letter to the Ephesians, it’s grammatically overloaded. Paul writes as if in an ecstasy, with more to say than can be said, so he crams into his sentences the words and phrases that pour out of his heart, leaving the translators to make of them what they will. So our version breaks the sentences down, and makes them apparently easy to understand – but you certainly lose something in that process, and it’s great to go back and see what Paul actually said.
Before our passage began, Paul had been speaking of the human condition, and human predicament, in the strongest possible terms. You! He says. What were you? Dead in your sins! Subject to the devil himself – his willing and wretched slaves – sharing his rebellion – utterly powerless to counter the forces dragging you ever downwards. For your inheritance there was, justly, only God’s anger. Or more literally: you were by nature sons of wrath. Then comes our passage, with its adversative particle: but! BUT – God, who is rich in mercy, out of the abounding love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our sins, brought us to life again with Christ.
Here is the Gospel! Here is the good news of our faith! How could St. Paul not be in ecstasy when he sings about it?! God’s love – his excessive, abounding, infinite, unconditional love - his love both manifested and communicated in Christ Jesus our Lord – this merciful, redeeming, healing, uplifting, life-giving love reaches down to the very bottom, even to us, even as we lie dead in our sins. And here Paul falls to coining new words, because the language just doesn’t have any to hand that will do the business as he wants. Paul does not wish to assure us that God is a sort of heavenly kind uncle, who tells us that everything is OK, and we can go home now with nothing to pay. No, no – that’s not the Gospel. No: we’re Catholics! So – what Paul points us to is our participation in the Paschal Mystery! As Christ co-died with us, so we co-rise with him! This is the grace we are given, the free gift from heaven, the wonderful, glorious truth which has transformed the universe, and which alone is worthy of our hope, our confidence, our joy. The power of God by which our sins are forgiven is the very same power as that which raised Jesus Christ from the dead. The power is the same, the effect is the same: where before there was death, now there is life. What sort of life? Better than before; infinitely better: in scope and quality and fullness, beyond our imagination. So, Paul continues: we are co-raised up with Christ, that is, in his heavenly Ascension; and we are made to sit down with him on heavenly thrones, far above the Angels and Archangels. Why? So that we might show forth the abounding riches of God’s grace and goodness towards us in Christ Jesus.
The more you know all that, then the more intensely aware you become of what you have been rescued from. Unfortunately we can all at any time choose to fall back into this state, which is that defined by our own sinfulness, our own spiritual death, our radical need for mercy. But St. Paul does not try to bring us to our knees in sorrow for sin by giving a lecture on how evil we are. On the contrary. He brings to our awareness just how much we are loved by God, how much Christ has done in order to bring us forgiveness; what great blessings we are to inherit, if only we would stop obstructing them by our own ungenerous refusal, our ingratitude; our self-centred narrowness of mind and heart.
So have the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We come to it in order to receive life anew; in order to have our wounds – these particular wounds which we confess - healed; to be set free, once again; to be made worthy of the Kingdom that has been prepared for us from the foundation of the world.
We come with great confidence, knowing that in this Sacrament we encounter Jesus Christ himself, and that the words of absolution are spoken in the power of the Holy Spirit. We come as sinners, who want to be, who are called to be Saints. We come asking God’s help, in order that whatever blocks or obstructs the work of grace within us may be removed, taken away, overcome, for our own good, and for God’s great glory.
Then, in the words of our Gospel reading, we are able and open to receive God’s gift of his only Son, in order that we may not perish indeed, but have everlasting life.