Sunday 24 May 2009

Child abuse and the kosmos-world

An address given at Shinrone and Aghancon on the 7th Sunday after Easter, 24th May 2009.

“I see trees of green, red roses too, I see them bloom for me and for you, and I think to myself, what a wonderful world.”

I apologise for my bad singing! But I’m sure you all recognise this song, perhaps best known sung by Louis Armstrong, with his gravelly voice. And it’s true isn’t it! We all know what a truly wonderful world God has made for us to live in - a veritable Garden of Eden, if only we would learn to look after it and use it rightly.

John the Evangelist uses the Greek word ‘kosmos’, meaning ‘world’, no less than 13 times in today’s Gospel reading. But this is not the beautiful material world which God made, and which God saw ‘was very good’, as the 1st chapter of Genesis puts it. I shall call what John has in mind the kosmos-world, to distinguish it from God’s world. It is a place of spiritual death, filled with souls cut off from God: a place where greedy people trample on each other to grab more for themselves; a place where violent people kill and torture other people; a place where cynical people despise what is good and true and beautiful. And we all know the reality of that kosmos-world too, don’t we!

For John the very opposite of the kosmos-world is eternal life, as he tells us in the preceding verses, ‘And this is eternal life, (to) know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent’.

In the Gospel reading (John 17:6-19), Jesus prays to his Father for his disciples.

It is the night of the last supper, after he has washed the disciples feet, just before he goes out with them to be arrested by soldiers and police led to him by Judas Iscariot. Jesus is praying for his disciples. But surely he is also teaching them, for he does so out loud, in their hearing.

Jesus’s words are dense with meaning - perhaps because he knows this is his last opportunity to speak to his disciples before he is arrested, tried and executed.

It would take a very long sermon to tease out all the nuances of his prayer. So I shall pick out just three points, all to do with the relationship between Jesus’s disciples and John’s kosmos-world.
  1. Jesus’s disciples are in the kosmos-world, but they do not belong to it. God has given the disciples to Jesus, in the sense that God has made them able to respond to the word of God which Jesus has given them. They have been brought to know and believe the truth that Jesus is sent from God. That is what sets them apart from the kosmos-world, even while they remain in it.
  2. The kosmos-world hates Jesus’s disciples because they do not belong to it. Those mired in evil - in cynicism, violence and greed - cannot co-exist with those who live by God’s values. Jesus has protected his disciples from this evil, but now he is leaving them. So Jesus calls on his Father to continue to protect them, when he is no longer there to do so in the flesh.
  3. Jesus does not ask God to take his disciples out of the kosmos-world. Just as God sent Jesus into the kosmos-world, so Jesus sends his disciples into it. God sent Jesus to redeem the kosmos-world from within. Jesus sends his disciples to continue his redeeming work in the kosmos-world.

The kosmos-world is a metaphor for the evil we encounter all around us, day by day.

It’s hard to see evil for what it is in the abstract. It comes in so many disguises. I think it helps to focus on a concrete example.

In the week following the shocking report of the Commission of Enquiry into Child Abuse, let’s focus on the evil of child abuse. The abuse was perpetrated in Industrial Schools and other institutions run by religious orders, by a minority - but far too many - professed religious. It is now clear that the evil extended far beyond the abuse itself. It extended to their colleagues and superiors who colluded in it by failing to stop the perpetrators. It extended to organs of our Irish State which failed to exercise their duty of care. And it extended throughout Irish society, to all of us who knew there was something wrong, but could not bring ourselves to say so publicly, thus allowing the evil system to fester for decades.

What I find almost incomprehensible is how so many who professed to be Jesus’s disciples could have gone so wrong – but they did. And that must be a lesson to us all not to underestimate the forces of evil. We need God’s grace to protect us from being overcome by them.

So to sum up:

  • The wonderful world God has placed us in is good. We should rejoice in it, and give thanks for it. But as Jesus’s disciples, we must always be on guard against the evil that spoils it.
  • We disciples live amidst evil, but we do not belong to it, because God has given us to Jesus.
  • We disciples must be ready to suffer personally when we fight evil and do not collude with it. We should take strength from knowing that Jesus intercedes for us, asking God to protect us from something much worse than suffering – from being drawn into evil ourselves.
  • Our task as disciples is to continue Jesus’s redeeming mission. We have been set apart to confront and defeat evil wherever it is found. We must not hide ourselves away like cowards in the face of it.

Sunday 10 May 2009

Love one another!

An address given on Sunday 10th May 2009, Easter 5, at Templederry & Killodiernan

Little children, love one another!

Rev Patrick Comerford is the Director of Spiritual Development in the CofI Theological Institute, as well as writing a column for Newslink. I’m indebted to him for his reflection on these words in his excellent blog, which is well worth reading – you can find it by Googling his name.

Patrick quotes St Jerome, that great Doctor of the Church writing around 400AD, telling a lovely story about St John the Evangelist. The Evangelist is traditionally said to be the author of the 1st Letter of John, from which our 2nd reading was taken, as well as St John’s Gospel. The story goes like this:

The Evangelist continued preaching even when he was in his 90s. He was so enfeebled with old age that the people had to carry him into the Church in Ephesus on a stretcher. And when he was no longer able to preach or deliver a long discourse, his custom was to lean up on one elbow on every occasion and say simply: “Little children, love one another.” This continued on, even when John was on his death-bed. When he finished, John would lie back down and his friends would carry him back out. Every week, the same thing happened, again and again. And every week it was the same short sermon, exactly the same message: “Little children, love one another.” One day, the story goes, someone asked him about it: “John, why is it that every week you say exactly the same thing, ‘little children, love one another’?” And John replied: “Because it is enough.”

If you want to know the basics of living as a Christian, there it is in a nutshell. All you need to know is, “Little children, love one another.” If you want to know the rules, there they are. And there’s only one. “Little children, love one another.” For John, once you put your trust in Jesus, there is only one other thing you need to know. So week after week, he would remind them, over and over again.

‘Little children, love one another!’

This is precisely the message that John gives us in today’s 2nd reading (1John 4:7-21). And he keeps on repeating it throughout his 1st Letter. 1John is quite short, only 5 pages in my Bible – you might like to take down yours when you get home and read the whole thing.

John tells us that the reason we must love is that God first loved us. God loved us so much that he sent his only Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, into the world to be ‘the atoning sacrifice for our sins’.

What does this talk of an atoning sacrifice mean? We all know our own sins, don’t we? Our inveterate wilfulness – doing what we know we shouldn’t, and not doing what we know we should. That, and our own guilty consciences, cut us off from the love of God. It would be quite wrong to imagine the atoning sacrifice to be a vengeful God taking out our sins on Jesus. Rather Jesus has shown us the way to reconnect ourselves to the love of God despite our sins, through his example of self-sacrificing love, and by teaching us that if we repent God loves us enough to forgive our sins. This is Jesus’s atoning sacrifice, sealed by his victory on the cross. And the cross is a victory, not a defeat, despite what so many at the time believed. Jesus turned the apparent defeat of the cross into victory by his obedience to his Father’s will even unto death. No doubt this is the good news about Jesus that Philip proclaimed to the Ethiopian eunuch in today’s 1st reading (Acts 8:26-40).

John tells us that if we don’t love each other, people we can see and touch, then we surely can’t love God, who we cannot see and touch.

Jesus tells us in John’s Gospel (John 15:12), ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.’ Jesus’s love is not an easy, sentimental kind of love. It’s easy enough to love those who are lovable, isn't it? But Jesus also tells us (Matthew: 5:44), ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’. That is the sort of edgy love that John reminds us Jesus asks of each one of us.

We should make love our priority. Forget about ego, forget about career. In this time of elections, forget about political divisions. Forget about bankers’ greedy mistakes. Forget about the silly divisions that we constantly let creep into the Church. Forget about likeability too. Love one another. God loves us. We ought to – no, we must – love one another. That’s what it’s all about.

“Little children, love one another … because it truly is enough.”