St Matthew’s has had a high profile during the recent American tragedy. Our celebration tonight is in the shadow of these events and I’m sure none of us would want to avoid facing this terrible new reality in which we must now live. For St Matthew’s is a church close to the centre of our national life, close to Parliament and Whitehall, and also close to the centre of our Church life, close to Lambeth Palace and to Partnership House, home of the Anglican Consultative Council.
I find myself asking if St Matthew is an appropriate patron for such a church. Fortunately, we can’t choose the dedication of our churches - they are part of what is given, just as our own names are. From the New Testament we know just two things about Matthew - he was a tax-collector, and he responded to the call of Jesus by choosing a radically different life. Perhaps circumstances gave him little choice but to go for a job which paid particularly well - no matter what social consequences.
So if at the centre of Matthew’s life was money, he fits well into early twenty first century British life. But Christianity is at best ambivalent about money, constantly aware that the love of money can be a form of idolatry totally inconsistent with love for God. Our theology values poverty above wealth, seeing in poverty a detachment from reliance on this world’s goods and therefore a real sense of dependence upon God. In that sense the poor can be called blessed, though there is nothing good in itself about poverty which does not invariably lead men and women to put their confidence I God. Matthew’s Gospel puts it rather Blessed are the poor in spirit - those who do know their dependence upon God.
Yet this hard-headed man of the money market leaves it all without looking back as soon as Jesus calls him to follow a totally different way of life. He chooses to love God rather than money, to trust in God rather than in wealth, and to be a disciple of Jesus in place of what he had been before - his own man. But we don’t have to conclude from this that his earlier life in the money market was necessarily bad - simply that however appropriate it might have been for one stage of his life, it must now be left behind.
I’m reminded of a pattern of life in some classical Indian cultures in which a man might at first be a warrior to prove his valour, then take a wife and bring up his children - something for which he needs wealth - and finally renounce wealth and family to become a sanyasi, a holy man in search of salvation. Each vocation is appropriate at one stage of life. Well, our society certainly needs men and women to manage our complex capitalist economy - banks, stock markets, insurance and investment. We need a commitment to marriage and family, to industry and agriculture, to community, health and education. But we also need a bigger picture of the place these things have in the context of our human vocation as children of God.
Too often, the Church has looked at the story of the calling of Matthew, and condemned his earlier way of life as one merely of greed and cruelty - as if nothing good could possibly be associated with the collecting of taxes. Well, we may not exactly like paying out taxes but where would our society be without them? They are surely an indirect good and we can honour those whose job it is to manage the machinery of our money economy. The twin towers of the World Trade Center were a symbol of that economy and for that reason they were destroyed by extremists who clearly cared nothing for the innocent workers who were killed.
But we should not polarise Matthew’s experience into an evil time in the world of money and the redeemed life of discipleship. The Christian vision of reality does not separate life into the sacred and the secular, the spiritual and the material, the religious and the worldly. Catholic Christianity makes no such separation - it is the religion of the universal where the spiritual makes sense of the material, religion is an interpretation of experience, and the sacred is discovered in the secular. For Catholic Christianity is sacramental, not just because it values particular sacramental signs, but because its understanding of the creation is itself sacramental. If bread and wine can bear the presence of our Lord’s Body and Blood, then all matter is capable of spiritual meaning.
And such a vision of reality must change how we live in the material world - in the world of politics and economics, I the world of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. These are not areas of life on which we must turn our back if we are to grow in the life of the spirit; even those who choose the life of the cloister pray for the world outside. The challenge is to discover the presence of Christ within the world he redeemed on the Cross - the sacredness of all created life which seeks in humanity to find its ultimate articulation.
So I want to suggest that this cell of the Body of Christ which has been dedicated to Matthew, Tax-Collector and Apostle, should witness here at the heart of government, nation and Church to this profoundly catholic insight into the nature of reality. God created all things and God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. Despite the doctrine of Original Sin, everything in our world was created good. If things have gone wrong in our world, that wrongness is not in nature but in human misuse of the gift of moral freedom - the very thing which makes us like God, bearing his divine image. And therefore it is in humanity that all things are redeemed - when God, who is spirit, take sour embodied nature and restores in us his own divine image.
God’s response to what is wrong in humanity is not to condemn us bit to search for us in the far country and bring us home. Please help stop the Church being seen only to condemn what it sees as wrong in the world, and make it clear that we who claim to know we bear still the divine image will never cease to search for that image in others. Let us take up our vocation, following the example of Matthew himself; as disciples of the Lord may we share his redeeming work until the whole world becomes a sacrament of God’s eternal love.
© John Slater, 21st September 2001