Sermon for St Matthew – Apostle & Evangelist – High Mass Sunday 21 September 2014
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
We do some odd things with saints. Saints have been the subject of veneration and hagiography, but also piracy, trade and somewhat gruesome tugs of war. Saintly habeas corpus is as old as the church but, perhaps surprisingly, still with us.
Archbishop Fulton Sheen, arguably the first media evangelist, is on the road to sainthood. His cause has hit a road-block over the possession of the body. He is buried under his Cathedral, St Patrick’s in Manhattan. His much less famous birthplace and diocese (El Paso, Illinois, diocese of Peoria), which formed him in the faith and had a large part in the saint-making personal history, is crying foul. They want the body. And, of course, the shrine.
In the old days, this would have been settled by piracy or commerce. That is how Venice came to have such a remarkable number of venerable bodies, including the church where Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, and St Athanasius are interred, literally one above the other, over a mere side altar. In Venice, of course, S. Mark himself, Matthew’s predecessor Evangelist, adorns the high altar of what is now the Cathedral. The other method of distribution, of course, was dismembering the body to share out the relics. Sometimes the two methods were combined, as in the case of St Andrew.
Fulton Sheen, in these allegedly more civilized days, will not be sold, stolen or cut into bits. Apparently, however, there is a suggestion that he might winter in New York and spend the more temperate summers in his home diocese. Meanwhile his journey to sainthood has stalled.
Matthew’s relics are allegedly in the Duomo in Salerno, south of Naples, and seem not to have attracted too much unwelcome attention. But of course, like his fellow Evangelists, he has left a yet more significant and precious relic, his gospel. Traditionally thought to have written first, hence his position in the NT, we now know that Matthew wrote later than Mark, whose book he clearly knew, because he re-used large chunks of it. He wrote independently of Luke, but seems to have had some other shared source in addition to Mark, a text or texts that we no longer have. Luke is the easiest point of comparison in understanding his work.
Matthew and Luke are very different interpreters of the Gospel, doubtless the result of having written for different church communities, with different needs. Matthew is better acquainted with the Jewish context and probably wrote for a church of Jewish converts, producing a gospel which sometimes seems to shake its fist at the synagogue across the road, as my NT tutor used to put it. Luke, a culturally Greek writer (and also the chronicler of St Paul’s ministry in Acts), needs to explain much more about Judaism to his gentile church.
Matthew’s recollection tends to focus on Jewish sensibilities both positively and negatively – he writes of the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’, rather than the ‘Kingdom of God’, which suggest a typically Jewish avoidance of naming God; prior to the crucifixion his people are called ‘Israelites’, the honorific title of God’s people; after it they become ‘the Jews’ as he sees the church, to which he uniquely refers, taking over the status of the Israel of God. Luke is more interested in what we would call social justice and gender issues; foregrounding women and not spiritualizing the teaching of Jesus: Luke’s Jesus says ‘Blessed are the poor’, whereas Matthew’s says ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit.’ Personally I’d go with Luke on that one.
Here we see, from the very beginning of the church, how Jesus’ subtle and inviting teaching has always been open to a number of interpretations, which are complementary rather than competing. Reading the gospels in parallel and noticing the porousness of the teaching exposes the dangerous ground we tread when we think we have detailed dogmatic prescriptions from the Lord.
Generically, the gospels are a great narrative of love, sacrifice and new life. They are not a manual for Macdonalds’ employees. That isn’t a cop-out: its a much more challenging task to engage with the gospels as a guiding narrative for our lives as they are than it is to try and squeeze 2014 into the particular world of Palestine in 33 AD. If you read the gospels thoughtfully you notice two things quite quickly.
One is that they are not all the same. This is true of both detail and programme. What we do with that difference often determines what sort of Christian we are. But the other thing is that the grand narrative is very much the same. For me, learning more about the textual history and so-called inconsistencies of the gospels has always been an aid to faith, not a stumbling-block (the whole idea of scrupulous consistency is foreign to ancient story-telling and, frankly, a bit robotic). If, as we believe, God’s new act of incarnation is true, it need not surprise us that it is reported in human words. The Vatican II document on the Bible wonderfully described it as ‘the Word of God in human words’, which we might paraphrase as a ‘literary incarnation’. It is truly a live text, in a way that no other religious scriptures are.
No other religious writings have been subjected to the level of critical scrutiny that the books of the Bible have endured. In the face of all that sceptical and careful scholarship there is a remarkable core of consistency and reliability in what is reported: the grand narrative always shines through the occasional human misreporting.
Of course, the bible is a collection of books written from faith and to faith. You read them differently as a Christian, because you start with different presuppositions and you seek different ends. But neither scepticism nor fundamentalism has managed to dislodge the central narrative of these various and challengingly different books. For the gospels, presenting parallel accounts of the same story, this is especially telling. And of course the church fathers who included four different gospels in the NT knew the inconsistencies better than we do (for they often knew the texts by heart). Some of them tried to harmonize or explain them away, plural truth being a fairly modern idea. But, deo gratias, they included everything they knew to be authentic, warts and all, because even the flaws can provide a precious and human record of divine dealings with humanity.
Whoever has Matthew’s body, we, the Body of Christ, have Matthew’s extraordinary corpus of reported truth. It may be dismembered and relocated in whole or in part in our tradition, but it is a living text which we rightly venerate here, in worship, for which I believe it was primarily written. We read it, sing it and hear it to enrich our relationship with the Christ we know in this sacramental encounter and whose gospel we seek to share.
Saint Matthew, pray for us.