Thursday Homily to full-time Members of Sion Community at the December Retreat (St Lucy’s Day)
“The Kingdom of Heaven has been subjected to violence, and the violent are taking it by storm.”
It’s not obvious what this passage means, so I went to look it up in a Bible commentary. You know you’re in trouble when the only thing the Commentary says is ‘lots of scholars have discussed this verse’!
But I like a challenge, so let’s explore it.
One way of interpreting this ‘violence’ is that the followers of John the Baptist and Jesus were facing physical opposition from the Pharisees, or the Sadducees, or the Romans. In the previous verses in Matthew, Jesus sent the Twelve Apostles on a mission to proclaim the Kingdom, warning that they will be put on trial and forced to make a public declaration of whether they believe in this controversial Christ. Certainly there’s a chance of violence against disciples; we celebrate today one Christian woman whose name was handed down to us for her steadfastness when persecuted because of her commitment to follow Christ as a believer and as a virgin. But we believe that the saints ultimately triumph precisely by their martyrdom. So does it make sense to say that those expressing violence against God’s witnesses can take the Kingdom of the sovereign God by storm? No so much.
The Greek words of this passage could also be translated: “The Kingdom of heaven is being invaded; energetic souls are forcing their way in!”
Jesus is speaking about the time from the start of John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness – a season when first John, and then Jesus with his disciples, have been proclaiming ‘Turn away from sin! God’s Kingdom is close to you!”
In Luke’s Gospel, we find an almost identical passage about John the Baptist. There’s only one difference: where Matthew puts this odd verse about violence, Luke comments that sinners and tax collectors were converting, but the Pharisees were not.
The next thing today’s text from Matthew tells us, is that Jesus rebukes the listeners who haven’t responded to his call or John’s, likening them to children who won’t sing when musicians play a lament or a song of celebration. So could it be that Jesus means to contrast this lazy, unresponsive, crowd with the energetic souls who not only made the trip to John in the wilderness but committed themselves to change their way of life? Those souls did violence to their old way of life and thereby forced themselves into the Kingdom of Heaven – perhaps as one squeezes through a narrow gate or the eye of a needle? Are you willing to do whatever it takes to be part of the Kingdom of God? … Are you willing to lose your dignity and get down there in the mud?
I hope we can number ourselves among the ‘invaders’ who know we have already set foot in the Kingdom. But we are also evangelists – can can we encourage more souls to become invaders? Or just as an army carries its cooks, medics and porters into newly taken territory, are there souls we can carry with us into Kingdom of God?
Last night, one of our members shared her sense that we are being called to play a new game, prompted by the way the running track behind our building had been replaced by a playing field. I quipped that I hoped our game would be rugby, not football, because a successful team scores ‘conversions’. That wasn’t an idle quip – God can speak to us through the language of puns and I believe there’s something to learn here.
Yesterday I too went for a walk on that field, and I looked down and saw the prints of many rugby boots. I knew God was showing me something important, but I didn’t know what it was until that thought was shared yesterday.
Some of us might not know the rules of rugby, but I do, and for three reasons.
First, I’m Welsh.
Second, I grew up a mile from Stradey Park and from home I could hear the roar of the crowd whenever Llanelli Scarlets scored.
Third, I was a large child, so at school I was put in the scrum. That’s where eight bulky players from each side lock shoulders and shove hard to get the ball! That, of course, was enough to put me off rugby for life!
But what are the spiritual lessons of rugby for us?
A rugby squad has to work as a team to get the ball across the line. Different players have different roles. There are warriors – we call them the pack – who fight for the ball in the scrum or by tackling opposition players – physically trying to take the ball from them. It’s a violent game!
There’s a small player whose job is to bend down and place the ball when play restarts – that’s called the ‘scrum half’ – and who might be well-placed to pass the ball out again.
There are the runners whose job is to get the ball across the line – that’s called a try.
And there are kicking specialists, who score extra points by booting the ball between the goalposts – that’s called a conversion. Really!
Our goal is conversion – conversion to Christ.
Suppose the ball represents a soul who we want to evangelise.
Some of us are called to spiritual warfare or the work of apologetics, to protect such souls from an Enemy who wants them to travel in the wrong direction.
Some of us are good at making connections with people, having those conversations which build up faith and allow us to share faith.
Some of us are good at discipling people, which is journeying with someone ‘across the line’ where they make a commitment.
Ultimately the sign of a good conversion is we can let someone loose and they travel in the right direction on their own. Goal!
As individuals we may feel that we’re too small to achieve anything. But Isaiah says God is calling to his ’tiny worm’ and ‘puny mite’. A rugby squad needs its hooker. That puny player may not look impressive alongside the tall runners and squat pack members, but that tiny teammate is an essential part of a winning squad.
“The Kingdom of heaven is being invaded; energetic souls are forcing their way in!”
There’s one more thing about rugby – to be a top flight player you have to throw away your dignity. The hooker has to get down on the ground to snatch the ball and ends up where? In the mud! The pack members pull the opposition players down to the ground to steal the ball and end up where? In the mud! To score points, the runners have to get the ball on to the ground beyond the try-line, while still touching it. If they are being chased, they may have to lunge forward and throw themselves over the line. They end up where? In the mud!
So whether you’re a commando in the Lord’s army or a player in his rugby squad, you have a choice: victory or dignity. You can’t have both.
Both my home town and my home nation wear red when they enter battle with other rugby teams. There’s some scientific evidence that teams who wear red are more likely to win than those sporting any other colour – though it seems to work better in football. Red is the colour of victory over combat. Red is the colour which honours martyrs. Most of our martyrs suffered indignities before they died; they knew the colour of mud before the colour of blood. St Lucy and St John the Baptist – pray for us!