We must liberate ourselves in our own way, from involvement in a world that is plunging into disaster. But our world is different from theirs. Our involvement in it is more complete. Our danger is more desperate. Our time, perhaps, is shorter than we think. We cannot do exactly what they did. But we must be as thorough and as ruthless in our determination to break all spiritual chains, and cast off the domination of alien compulsions, to find our true selves, to discover and develop our inalienable spiritual liberty and use it to build, on earth, the Kingdom of God. This is not the place to speculate what our great and mysterious vocation might involve. That is still unknown. Let it suffice for me to say that we need to learn from these men of the fourth century how to ignore prejudice, defy compulsion and strike out fearlessly into the unknown.T. Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert, London: Hollis & Carter, 1961: 23
We must learn to wait on the Spirit of God. As he moves us, we are led into deeper purgation, drawn to greater self-sacrifice, and we come to know the stillness, the awful stillness, in which we see the world from the height of Calvary
Mother Mary Clare slg
Picture the scene if you will: you’re walking along a dusty road, going uphill in the heat towards Caesarea Philippi, and Jesus asks the question, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ You answer, saying what you’ve heard people say, ‘some say John the Baptist, others Elijah or one of the prophets’ Jesus has been proclaiming the Good news of the Kingdom of God. Then Jesus asks, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Then, quick as a flash Peter replies, ‘You are the Christ, the Messiah’. Jesus asked his disciples then, and through the Gospel he asks each and every one of us today the question, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ It is a question which we all need to answer. Are we happy to say that he’s a prophet, but just a man, to deny his divinity, or can we say that He is the Christ, the Son of the living God. If we are happy to say this is this simply the end of the matter or is more asked of us? At that time Jesus tells His disciples not to tell anyone of Peter’s confession of faith, it isn’t the right time. Instead he goes on to tell them what the Son of Man will undergo and suffer, how he will be rejected by the religious authorities, be killed and rise again. Peter is at one level understandably annoyed – he’s declared his belief only to see it rejected by others, it’s worse that sad, it’s awful, why should Jesus have to suffer and die? But Peter can only see things from a human point of view, he forgets that the suffering is already foretold, as in the Suffering Servant in Isaiah in this morning’s first reading, and Jesus’ proclamation will lead to rejection, torture and death. It is sad, and awful, and very human, and yet in the midst of the pain and rejection we see something of divine love. This is how much God loves us, that he gives his own Son to live and die for us, for you and me, so that we might live in Him.
It also makes demands upon us: how we live our lives is important, as the Letter of James is at pains to point out – we are to live lives which proclaim our faith in word and deed. Jesus also invites those of us who follow him to take up our own cross and follow Him. What Jesus does for us and for humanity is wonderful, an amazing demonstration of God’s love for us, and he calls us in following Him to bear our own Cross: to follow Him in living out that same suffering love, to show the same compassion to the world, the same forgiveness. To follow Christ is to experience pain and anguish, heartache and loss, there is no magic wand to make things disappear, but rather as we try to live out our faith, stumbling and failing as we go, we are drawn ever more into the mystery of God’s love and forgiveness, we become people of compassion, of reconciliation, who can see beyond petty human trifles, squabbles, and arguments, to the Kingdom of God where restored humanity can be enfolded for ever in the love of God.
Opposed to this we say the ways of the world: of money, of power; yet none of us can be saved by our possessions, and once we die they are of no use to us, and what then? All the wealth and power in the world cannot save our soul, cannot make us truly happy in the way that following Christ, and entering into his suffering can. God’s love is shown most fully when Christ dies for love of us, when he bears the weight of human sin, wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities. This is how the Messiah reigns, not on a throne, but on a Cross. And when he comes at the end of time to judge the world, as he surely will, a judgement of which the Apostle James is all too well aware, let us not be among the adulterous and sinful generation of those who are ashamed of Christ, but let us instead be in Him, conformed to Him, fed by His Body and Blood, showing our faith through our works, conformed to the Passion of our Lord and Saviour, giving of ourselves out of love, love of God and of our neighbour, costly self-giving love, which gives regardless of the cost, gladly and freely, generously, and in losing our life so we can find it in Him, and truly live in Him who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life,
From the Sayings of the Desert Fathers: an instruction sent by Abba Moses to Abba Poemen:
A brother asked the old man, ‘Here is a man who beats his servant because of the fault he has committed; what will the servant say?’ The old man said, ‘If the servant is good, he should say, “Forgive me, I have sinned.”’ The brother said to him, ‘Nothing else?’ The old man said, ‘No for the moment he takes upon himself the responsibility for the affair and says “I have sinned,” immediately the Lord will have mercy on him. The aim in all these things is not to judge one’s neighbour. For truly, when the hand of the Lord caused all the first-born of Egypt to die, no house was without its dead.’ The brother said, ‘What does this mean?’ The old man said, ‘If we are on the watch to see our own faults, we shall not see those of our neighbour. It is folly for a man who has a dead person in his house to leave him there and go to weep over his neighbour’s dead. To die to one’s neighbour is this: To bear your own faults and not pay attention to anyone else’s wondering whether they are good or bad. Do no harm to anyone, do not think anything bad in your heart towards anyone, do not scorn the man who does evil, do not put confidence in him who does wrong to his neighbour, do not rejoice with him who injures his neighbour. This is what dying to one’s neighbour means. Do not rail against anyone, but rather say, “God knows each one.” Do not agree with him who slanders, do not rejoice at his slander and do not hate him who slanders his neighbour. This is what it means not to judge. Do not have hostile feelings towards anyone and do not let dislike dominate your heart; do not hate him who hates his neighbour. This is what peace is: Encourage yourself with this thought, “Affliction lasts but a short time, while peace is for ever, by the grace of God the Word. Amen.”’ 
There is something very human and recognisable about the prophet Jonah: God speaks to him, and tells him to go to Nineveh to proclaim the Word of the Lord, he tries to escape, and do what he wants to do, it all goes horribly wrong until Jonah prays to God and goes to Nineveh, and issues a call to repentance, which the people of Nineveh, from the king downwards take to heart, they fast and pray, and are spared. So far so good: all is well, or so we might think. This is not, however, the end of the matter: Jonah is angry that God has forgiven the people of Nineveh. This is quite understandable, as the people of Assyria, who live in Nineveh are enemies of Israel, these are people who will conquer Israel, and lead its people off into captivity and exile. Job’s dilemma is a simple one, how can the God of Israel be loving and forgiving towards the enemies of his people?
Jonah’s fundamental problem is that his conception of God is far too small, too nationalistic, and he forgets that God, is first and foremost a God of love, mercy, and forgiveness. There is a tendency to argue that in the Old Testament God is a God of judgement, retribution, who rains down fire from heaven, whereas in the New Testament we see in Jesus Christ a God of Love. This is a false dichotomy, a trap into which Christians have been falling, and continue to fall, from which they need help. From Marcion in the second century adto the liberal German protestantism of Adolf von Harnack and others, and the Jesus Seminar of late twentieth century America, we see people who, when faced with a difficult and complex picture of God, have preferred to make the complex simple, and to refashion the Divine into what they want it to be, rather than live with the fact that at one level God is ‘beyond our ken’ that the love and mercy of God are beyond our human comprehension.
This is for a perfectly good reason, namely that intellectual comprehension is not the point, but rather the love, mercy and forgiveness of God is something which is to be experienced rather than understood. It is something demonstrated to the world when Our Lord Saviour, who took our flesh for our sake was scourged, and nailed to a Cross to die for us, to bear the burden of our sins, to pay the debt which we cannot, to heal us and restore us. The world did not understand this two thousand years ago, nor does it today. What looked like failure was in fact a great victory, the King of Heaven and Earth reigns nailed to the wood of a Cross. His flesh bears forever the mark of nails and spear as they are the wounds of love: God’s love of us, frail, sinful humanity, and through these wounds we are healed and restored, in them we find the inexhaustible store of God’s mercy poured out for and upon us.
God does not need to do this, but as a God of love and mercy, who longs to heal and restore humanity made in His image what else can he do? As those healed and restored by him we are to live lives of radical love and forgiveness like those Christians in the Egyptian Desert who practised what they preached, and through their faith and humility inspired others to come to Christ and to follow Him, turning away from the ways of the world, and to Christ, who alone can heal and restore us, the God of love and mercy. Let us be healed and restored by him, and share that love and mercy with others so that they too may praise God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory dominion, and power, now and forever.
From the Sayings of the Desert Fathers: ‘When blessed Antony was praying in his cell, a voice spoke to him, saying, “Antony, you have not yet come to the measure of the tanner who is in Alexandria.” When he heard this, the old man got up and took his stick and hurried into the city. When he had found the tanner … he said to him “Tell me about your work, for today I have left the desert and come here to see you.”
He replied, “I am not aware that I have done anything good. When I get up in the morning, before I sit down to work, I say that the whole of this city, small and great will go into the Kingdom of God because of their good deeds, while I alone will go into eternal punishment because of my evil deeds. Every evening I repeat the same words and believe them in my heart.”
When blessed Antony heard this he said “My son, you sit in your own house and work well, and you have the peace of the Kingdom of God; but I spend all my time in solitude with no distractions, and I have not come near the measure of such words”
When Our Lord begins the Sermon on the Mount, he starts by saying ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of God’ To be poor in spirit is not to have a false idea of who and what you are, and it is to know your need for and dependence upon God, and God alone – to trust Him to be at work in your life, to heal and restore you. That is how we are to live as Christians. In this morning’s Old Testament reading we see Isaiah prophesying about the Kingdom of God: he speaks of joy, refreshment and new life in God, it’s what the Kingdom of God looks and feels like – these are the promises fulfilled in the Word made flesh, Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, who took our flesh and lived and died to heal us, to restore in us the image of God, in which we were created.
This is why in the Gospels Jesus performs miracles: not to show off his power, or to attract followers, or to win popularity or power, but to show God’s healing love for people who know their need of God. The miracles are first and foremost prophetic acts which announce God’s Kingdom among us: a kingdom of love and mercy and healing, where humanity is restored and valued. This morning’s second reading from the Letter of St James shows us how to live our lives as Christians in an authentic manner. Just as St Antony was not afraid to see a greater example of faith than his own lived out in the world, by a man who tanned animal hides in urine all day long, hard, demanding and smelly work; so we should not make the distinctions of which the world around us is so fond. If we live our lives without judging others, we can be as free as the deaf mute healed by Jesus. The ways of the world will not bind and constrain us; we can instead serve Him, whose service is perfect freedom.
To return to the desert for an example ‘A brother in Scetis committed a fault. A council was called to which abba Moses was invited, but refused to go to it. Then the priest sent someone to him saying “Come for everyone is waiting for you”. So he got up and went. He took a leaking jug with him filled with water and carried it with him. The others came to meet him and said, “What is this, father?” The old man said to them “My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the errors of another.” When they heard that, they said no more to the brother but forgave him’
This morning’s Gospel shows us God’s love and God’s healing. It is what we all need. I certainly need it: as I’m weak, broken, vulnerable, and sinful, and in need of what only God can give us. All of us, if we were to be honest are in need too – we need God to be at work in our lives, healing us, restoring us, helping us to grow more and more into his image. It would be foolish or arrogant to think otherwise: that we know it all, that we’re quite alright, thank you very much. Can we come to Jesus, and can we ask him to heal us, through prayer, through the Sacrament of His Body and Blood, the true balm of Gilead which can heal the sin-sick soul? We can and we should, indeed we must so that we can continue to live out our baptism as Christians.
As those loved and healed by him we need to live out the reality of our faith in our lives, showing the love and forgiveness to others which God shows to us. So that all of our lives may give Glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory dominion, and power, now and forever.