Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!


Temple and Bride
July 5, 2010, 8:49 am
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: , , ,

A sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, on July 4th 2010, the Feast of Dedication

Texts: Genesis 29.1-20; Mark 6.7-13

Two stories, one from the Old Testament, one from the Gospels. At first sight, with not much in common. Yet all Scripture is written for our instruction, and as St Anthony says somewhere, “The God of the Old Testament is the God of the New Testament too.” I wonder if we can think about these two passages in such a way as to find instruction for our present day concerns.

In the Book of Genesis, Jacob is a fugitive. He has cheated his brother Esau out of his inheritance, and Esau has threatened to kill him. His mother Rebecca has advised him to go back to her home in Haran (from which Jacob’s grandfather Abraham had set out for the Land of Promise). When Esau has calmed down, she will send someone to bring him back. Rebecca persuades her husband Isaac to go along with this, on the grounds that he would not want his son to choose a wife from the local pagan girls, but ought to find one where Isaac himself had done, in Haran. So Jacob sets out, and arrives at his uncle Laban’s home. Laban has two daughters, Leah and Rachel, and Jacob falls in love with the younger. Being a penniless fugitive, in order to marry her he has to promise to work for Laban seven years. When the time comes, Laban tricks Jacob into marrying the older girl instead. (This comes next in the story, after tonight’s extract.) The trickster is tricked himself! But since polygamy is allowed, Laban says that Jacob can marry Rachel as well next week, and work a further seven years for her.

All this sounds very unedifying to us. What is God telling us? As we know, Scripture can be read on various levels. At bottom, there is the literal historical meaning, as understood and intended by the human author; but on top of this there are various spiritual meanings which the Divine Author, the Holy Spirit, intends. Usually we can only understand these in the light of Scripture as a whole, and in particular in the light of the Gospel.

I will come back to Jacob in a minute. Now let us look at the Gospel reading. Jesus is making a tour of the Galilean villages, preaching. Then he calls the Twelve to him- the inner group of disciples he was training- and sends them out in pairs. They are, as it were, going on teaching practice. They have seen what Jesus does, and now they must have a go themselves. They are not to take food or money or even a change of clothing with them. They must rely on the hospitality of those they go to. If they do not get a welcome, they must simply move on. And they are to preach repentance, to confront the spirits of evil, and to heal.

Again, there are two levels. Historically, we see the Rabbi Jesus training his disciples to do what he did. What Mark reports, based no doubt on Peter’s reminiscences, tells us something factual about Jesus and his first followers. But Mark reports it so that his readers can apply it to themselves, followers at a later date- right down to us. Jesus is one who first chooses, and then sends, human beings to bring his message to other human beings. In going, they should not rely on human resources so much as on the power of the message itself. They will sometimes find people responsive, sometimes unresponsive. If the latter, they are not to argue but simply to move on.

For the moment, let us just take this episode as an illustration of the way God chooses and uses human beings to do his work. This means that we have to discern what God is doing in events and opportunities that can be taken simply as human activity, or even chance. This discernment always involves faith, trust in God as present in our lives in ways we cannot prove to others.

Now let us return to Jacob. The human author (compiling his work centuries later from ancient stories that had come down to him) saw the hand of God at work in the story of Jacob. Jacob thinks he is very clever in tricking his brother, but he is tricked in turn by his uncle. Nevertheless, in all this unedifying human deception the purposes of God are being worked out. Jacob, through both Leah and Rachel, will become Israel, the Father of the Nation.

Later Christian authors sought further meanings. Jacob or Israel is a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ- but surely not in all that trickery? Let me try to find some more positive likenesses. In the ancient story, Jacob leaves his father’s house, commissioned by his father to find a suitable bride. Jesus is sent by the Father into the world, to redeem the human race, and make it his Bride in the Church. Jacob at one point rolls away the stone from the well in order to give water to the flock tended by Rachel. On Easter Day, Christ rolled away the stone from the tomb, in order that the waters of grace might refresh the flock of the Church. Laban has two daughters, Leah and Rachel. The older has weak eyesight (or in another translation, “There was no sparkle in her eyes”), while the younger is more beautiful. Both become the wife of Jacob. How should we interpret this? Christ does not have two Churches, but in the one Church there are those who have a truer vision of who Christ is and what he is doing, while others seem to lack this insight, but plod along more through habit and routine than through clear purpose. Both sorts are truly members of the Church, the Bride of Christ, yet how much better to have the spiritual beauty of real holiness, which is what our Lord most loves? In reading the Bible in this way, we are using what we know from the Gospel to light up the Old Testament, and we are using Old Testament imagery to express what we know from the Gospel. God has given us the ancient stories not, primarily, to inform us about events in the remote past they come from, but to illuminate the events that are at the centre of Salvation History, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Returning to the Gospel reading: Jesus who has been sent into the world by the Father, in turn sends his disciples into the world to build up his Church. They are to be shepherds of his flock, feeding and watering them on his behalf. Jacob found the shepherds standing around, apparently idle. When he asked them why, they told him that they were waiting for Rachel to arrive with her sheep. Only when all the sheep were gathered together would it be time to roll away the stone and give them water. We sometimes wonder why it is taking so long for the Lord to return. Perhaps the answer is that he is waiting for the whole flock to be gathered together, which will only happen with the arrival of “Rachel”, a Church with the true vision to be his beloved Bride.

Today we are celebrating the Dedication of this Church. The Introit of the old Mass for the Dedication of a Church was taken from the story of Jacob. While on the way from his father’s house to the house of Laban, he slept at a place called Bethel, literally “House of God”. There he had a vision of a stairway to heaven, with angels passing up and down it. When he awoke, he cried out “How awesome is this place: it is none other than the House of God and the Gate of Heaven.” This building too is a house of God, a gate of heaven. But it is so not in virtue of its bricks and mortar, but because of the living souls who worship here. There are at least three great images of the Church in Scripture. One is the Temple, built of living stones to be the dwelling place of God’s Spirit. Another is the Body, which with its head, Jesus Christ, is a living organism, ever growing to maturity. The third is the Bride, distinct from yet intimately united to her husband, in which all the ancient stories of a Prince seeking his Princess, through all kinds of trials and tribulations, have come true.

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