Things fall apart
Romans 6.1b-11. Matthew 10.24-39
‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold’.
These words come from a poem by W B Yeats. ‘The Second Coming’ has been described as the most ‘thoroughly pillaged piece’ of English literature. Writing in the context of a pandemic, in 1919, when the Spanish flu had taken hold, Yeats adopts a sombre tone. The poem speaks of our frailty and fragility in the face of things we cannot control, things which overwhelm us and make us anxious or fearful And the trouble is that when we feel anxious, we sometimes seek to compensate by cultivating a sort of fond nostalgia for the past and we lament its loss: ‘Things fall apart’.
These words may speak to us as we face all sorts of anxieties and challenges in the coming weeks, but there’s another reason for mentioning this phrase.
‘Things fall apart’ is also the title of a novel by the Nigerian writer Chinwa Achebe. Published in 1958, it’s perhaps one of the most important novels of the twentieth century. It describes pre-colonial life in the south east region of Nigeria and the arrival of Europeans in the late nineteenth century. The book provides a startling commentary on the impact of colonial power, the legacy of the British Empire and – even more uncomfortably - the influence of Anglican missionaries. It’s a novel which laments the loss of a precious culture swept away by the ignorance and greed of colonialism. The destruction of a whole culture. ‘Things fall apart’
I was musing on this book the other day. The last two weeks have seen huge protests outside the doors of the University Church, all part of that international uprising in response to the death of George Floyd. Many people here and elsewhere have joined together to protest that ‘Black Lives Matter’. And of course, St Mary’s stands just opposite the statue of Cecil Rhodes. It is a troubling and unsettling image. Confronted by the complex legacy of colonialism, it’s probably fair to say that the University has struggled to negotiate that uncomfortable legacy. A few days ago the governing body of Oriel College voted to take the statue down. It’s only a start – but when we turn to the gospel reading today, it has some interesting things to say about confronting the past, bringing to light things that were hidden or covered up.
The tone is sharp and unsettling. Jesus says, ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.’
So what happened to all that ‘peace on earth and goodwill to all’?
Jesus is alerting his followers to ‘the cost of discipleship’. This was one of the great themes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor, who was executed by the Nazis during the Second World War. His writings have a particular resonance at St Mary’s, because a group of German refugees, including Bonhoeffer’s own sister, came to Oxford and began worshipping here in September 1939.
Commenting on this passage, Bonhoeffer says that the sword which Christ brings is the sword of the cross. And Bonhoeffer is clear that the cross creates division and offence because sometimes that is what love demands. Although sometimes we are tempted to imagine that the cross means that we simply embrace all the suffering of this world, that somehow it gives us the resources to collude with injustice and absorb all the hurt and distress which life throws at us. We hear the words ‘Take up your cross’ and we imagine that tolerating misery and injustice is a Christian virtue. It is not.
When we speak of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are imagining a future which confronts injustice and puts to flight the deadliness of sin and death. St Paul is characteristically bold, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. That is why he writes with such passion about the cross and resurrection, not because we should simply be complicit with all the suffering and injustice of this world. ‘Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means.’ The hope of the resurrection challenges us to overcome our fear and anxiety and to imagine a future that is bigger than the past. As Bonhoeffer puts it: ‘God’s love for the people brings the cross and discipleship, but these in turn, mean life and resurrection. “Anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it”. This affirmation is given by the one who has the power over death, the Son of God, who goes to the cross and to resurrection and takes us with him’.
Can we imagine such a future? Not if we are held captive by fear and anxiety. Perhaps instead we need to heed what Jesus has to say at the beginning of this passage about status – perhaps the world needs a church which is more humble, more penitent, less caught up in its own dramas, its own sense of entitlement. Perhaps in our prayers we need to find the confidence and the courage to protest against the powers and principalities of this world.
In his poem, Yeats suggests that ‘surely some revelation is at hand’, he muses on the Second Coming, a prospect which seems to vex and unsettle him. The poem trails off, slouching, rather hesitantly, towards Bethlehem.
And yet, in spite of their unsettling tone, we need to attend to Jesus’ words right at the heart of this gospel passage. He says to his disciples, ‘Do not be afraid’. As we contemplate Christ’s presence in this Eucharist, we pray for grace that our hearts may be so filled with the beauty and the truth and the goodness of the Risen Christ, that whatever the uncertainties of the future, whatever the challenges we face, we may discover the strength and the wisdom and the insight to imagine a future that is bigger than the past – the promise of a new creation demands nothing less.