5th of the Year, 5 Feb ’23
St Mary’s Lansdowne Road and the Good Shepherd Mitchley Road
Fifth Sunday of the Year, 5th February 2023
There’s a bit of rivalry I am sure between Lidl and Aldi. I often shop at Aldi just on the High Road but I hope I will be forgiven for mentioning Lidl and in particular their gold shiny paper wrapped chocolate bunnies which you will have seen, I am sure, which are a few inches tall. Lidl was in the press around Eastertide last year, as you may heave heard, because they had to melt all their chocolate bunnies - poor bunnies, I hear you say - and why, what happened? Well, it was ruled by a judge in Switzerland that the Lidl chocolate bunnies just looked a little too similar to the chocolate bunnies made by Lindt and they had trade marked the design some twenty years so Lidl’s had to be different. Of course, it is a sign of Lindt’s success: imitation is the greatest form of flattery, it is said.
I think this lesson is important for us to consider as we navigate the market place which is twenty first century Britain of different faiths, a range of denominations and a whole basket load of things claiming to encourage spirituality, mindfulness or wellbeing. How do we navigate these things? How do we know what’s authentic? Why is it much harder to tell than we might imagine?
Well, let’s take this image of light and dark. We find it in our Lord’s teaching in the Gospel, the next section of the Sermon on the Mount, which we will continue to work through for the next two Sundays until Lent begins. Jesus says to the Apostles, “‘You are the light of the world. … In the same way your light must shine in the sight of men, so that, seeing your good works, they may give the praise to your Father in heaven.’” He describes Himself elsewhere as the Light of the world (St John 8:12), indeed He is the light to enlighten all nations when Simeon acclaimed Him in the Temple as we celebrated on Thursday at Candlemass.
This dichotomy, the division between Light and Dark, can sometimes be an oversimplification which bears little relationship to how we discover things to be in life. For, it’s not always clear how we should act, which is the best way to go, who are the people we can trust, which career we should pursue and so on. That’s not to say that there isn’t Light and Dark, but rather it serves as a reminder to pray for the wisdom that comes from the Holy Spirit so as to know the difference between right and wrong. In other words, could we have told the difference between the Lindt bunnies and the Lidl ones?
This is especially the case in twenty first century British society for, whether folk like it or not, this is a society deeply embedded with Christian roots. I would argue we are no longer really a Christian society, but we are one where Christianity was in some sense so successful that it became almost safe for Britain to cease being Christian. So many of our assumptions concerning, for example, the National Health Service, welcome to refugees, military intervention, the importance of family, marriage, property and so on are really the fruits of centuries of Christian faith influencing how we think. We will find then out in the world a whole load of things which look, feel, smell and taste like Christianity but in reality are not the real McCoy.
An example of this is prayer, I believe. Prayer makes no sense without God. We pray to God, the goal of prayer is to recognise God’s sovereignty in our life, and we seek to unite our will to God through prayer. And yet we almost certainly hear people say they pray and they mean something quite different by it. It might surprise us the number of people who say that they pray. And there’s a danger that we think our prayer should be like theirs. And what often they mean by prayer is a request made to God to change things, to make them or someone they love better, to end a war or maybe - on a good day - to seek guidance when there’s a particular problem. This barraging of God with orders, telling Him how life should look is not prayer though. God is not an Uber eats driver who just brings us things when we pray for them, as if placing an order.
This can be said too of faith. Again, we will hear I am sure of people who say, “Oh, I believe,” but it is hard to see really how this is evident in the way they lead their lives. This is not to be judgemental, it is not for us to condemn. But belief isn’t just recognising the existence of God, belief is about change our lives so is revealed that we care that He exists. We are to be challenged in our own practises and beliefs by these two images which Jesus gives us in the Gospel today of salt and light. “No one lights a lamp to put it under a tub; they put it on the lamp-stand where it shines for everyone in the house.” If the fact we’re a Christian supposedly is known only to God, us individually and those who happen to be around when we read our Bibles at home, it seems to be quite difficult for us to say that this light of faith we have been given has been placed on a lamp-stand, rather it sounds like it’s been shoved under a tub.
We learn then that our faith is going to mean we do and say things in a way which mark us out as being different: this is one of the things that can help us indicate if something if authentic. “Your light must shine in the sight of others, so that, seeing your good works, they may give the praise to your Father in Heaven.” Our daily worship will flow in to our daily chores and not be squeezed out by them. Our kindness and willingness to forgive will be so radical it will look daft to others. Our generosity with our time, our money and our words will be utterly reckless. And as well as all the visible stuff of our discipleship there’ll be a whole load of unseen things which are known only by God, who knows the secret of our hearts.
Coming to Church is a part of this outward and visible “lamp on a lamp stand” discipleship to which Jesus calls us. It’s one reason why Churches which only meet on Zoom or other social media platforms are not actually living out the life of the Church: it’s a bit hidden under the tub, or “hidden under a bushel” as some older translations put it. Online-only Church is not the Church because it also automatically excludes the poor: the homeless, those who don’t have mobile phones with lots of data or wifi at home. In our first reading from the prophecy of Isaiah we learnt that one of the marks of the Light of God coming in to the world is a material concern for the poor, “doing away with the yoke, the clenched fist [and] the wicked word.”
And so when we are trying to work what is authentically of God out in the world this is one quality we must always remember: the humility of Christ and God’s preferential love for the poor. If things we are doing seem geared towards getting money, or garnering a great reputation among the important and the influential, if we’re always behind a computer screen then it’s probably the wrong thing to be doing. If we’re spending more and more time not just with those whose company we enjoy but with the sick, those exploring the Christian faith and those whom everyone else walks past then we’re probably doing the right thing.
With this spirit at work in the Church we heard St Paul’s words in our second reading. “When I came you … it was not with any show of oratory or philosophy … far from relying on any power of my own, I came among you in great ‘fear and trembling’” Here is Paul who knows that in his weakness he will find the strength of God (II Corinthians 12:10). Weakness is not something to be ashamed of, or to fight off, or to hide from others. Weakness will be a chance to know the servant ministry of Christ, who Himself presides at this Mass and comes to us under the simple elements of bread wine, utterly ignorable, droppable and insignificant. But in the weakness Christ assumes for our sake, His people are nourished and filled with the gifts He longs to give us. This is what the Church is, this is what she looks like.
And so we are reminded in all this that to help us to work out what is of Christ, and what is not, we’re given the Church. The Church is the Body of Christ, the community in which Christ is to be proclaimed: people should come here and catch something of Christ, here He should be infectious, a pandemic of Jesus going out from us. The Church is also the place where the the deposit of faith is handed on. We to our children, our godchildren, to the children we see around us at Mass, to those in the year below us at school, even our younger brother and sister. Jesus establishes the Church because we aren’t expected to invent the Christian faith afresh each day.
So, the Christian heritage of our nation will make it harder to discern what is of God and what will lead us away from Him. This will be in part why it is difficult to know light from dark. But I hope I’ve offered two qualities to look out for as we seek to discern what is of God and what is not: (1) when we’re among the poor and aware of our own poverty (2) and when we are seeking to flourish not as individuals but within Christ’s family of the Church. Remember Paul doesn’t come as a celebrity, claiming to have great speaking prowess or a power of His own, but because he know he goes as part of the Church. This teaching authority the Church has from Jesus means the Scriptures can then be applied to the situations in which we find ourselves and we’ll know whether the bunnies are Lindt or Lidl.