Lent III 

God does not love us because we are lovely or loveable; His love exists not on account of our character, but on account of His. Our highest experience is responsive, not initiative. And it is only because we are loved by Him that we are loveable.

Fulton Sheen Rejoice (1984) 9

There exists a great spiritual thirst both outside the church in the world around us and in the church itself. We are like people in the desert, not just in this period of 40 days but throughout our lives. The modern world is deeply consumerist: shopping centres replace cathedrals and yet we are still thirsty, thirsty for the living water, thirsty that our needs may be satisfied. We all of us realise, deep down, that commercialism cannot save us: that what we buy doesn’t really nourish or satisfy us. There can be no commercial exchange with God; we simply have to receive his gifts. We are not worthy of them are, that’s the point: God satisfies our deepest needs and desires out of love for us, wretched miserable sinners that we are, so that enfolded in his love we might become more lovely. Only if we are watered by God can we truly bear fruit, only if we are born again by water and the spirit in baptism can we have any hope. This is what the season of Lent is for: it is a time to prepare for baptism – to share in our Lord’s death and his new life. We do this as individuals and indeed as an institution, so that the church may be born again, renewed with living water, so that it may be poured out over all the world to satisfy the thirst which commercialism cannot.

In our second reading St Paul writes the church in Corinth to warn them to keep vigilant: the church can never be complacent. For us Lent is to be a time when we learn not to desire evil: we have to turn away from sexual immorality and idolatry. In the last couple of generations the laissez-faire attitude in the world around us has not empowered people, it is not made them happier, it has just given us a world of fornication and adultery, where people worship false gods: Reason, Consumerism, Fulfilment, Money and Power. The ways of the world will always leave humanity empty. It’s why the Gospels show Jesus living a radically different life, a life in all its fullness, which he offers to people: to turn their lives around, losing their lives to find true life in him. He suffers and dies for love of us, to heal us, and restore us, so that we may share in his life of love, nourished by his body and blood, strengthened by his word and sacraments, and to share this free gift of the world around us.

This morning’s gospel acts as a warning to us: that we are in danger if we continue to sin. We are, however, not simply condemned but offered another chance. The gardener gives a fig tree another chance. This is grace: the free gift of God, not something which we have earned, and only through God’s grace can we hope to bear fruit. The gardener, who created man in Paradise, who will offer himself as both priest and victim upon the tree of life, to bleed and die for love of us, this gardener will meet Mary Magdalene by the empty tomb on Easter day, so that we all humanity may share his risen life.

So let us turn away from the ways of the world, its emptiness, its false promises, its sexuality immorality, the ways of emptiness and death, to be nourished by the living water, which satisfies our deepest thirst, which makes us turn our lives around, so that we may live in him, who loves us, who heals us and who restores us. The world may not understand this, it may be scandalised by it, it will laugh at us and mock us, in the same way that it mocked our Lord on the way to Calvary and upon the cross. Let us share in his sufferings, knowing that we are loved by him who died for love of us. Let us live as a witness, to share in his work of drawing all humanity to him: so that all people may come to the living water and finds new life in 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 do-minion and power, now and forever

Lent II

It is easy to find Truth; it is hard to face it, and harder still to follow it.

Fulton Sheen Lift up your Heart, New York 1942: 106

Speaking the truth to power, speaking the uncomfortable word is a main aspect of the prophetic vocation, it is recognisable in Our Lord’s earthly ministry and throughout the history of the church. It is dangerous, and it can be costly but it is something which must be done.

 When we look at salvation history we cannot ignore Abraham, he believes in the Lord, and is reckoned as righteous: he trusts God and his relationship is sealed with a covenant, one which makes the Land of Israel the Promised Land to his descendants. There is a covenant, there is sacrifice, and this points to the cross, where God cuts a covenant with us in his Son’s death upon the Cross, the final demonstration of God’s love, which assures us of our heavenly homeland, Just as Abraham went from deep sleep and terrifying darkness to life in relationship with God, so we in the church have moved the darkness of sin and the terror of hell to new life in Christ.

 Our citizenship is in heaven, as St Paul writes to the Philippians. Heaven is our true and eternal home, where we can be with God forever. And as Christians we try to live lives which imitate the saints, one of the ways we learn is by copying, we’ve seen it, we’ve done it ourselves: it is normal and natural: we follow the example of others, which is why the choice of whom we should imitate matters. Paul writes this letter from prison, he’s seen people being tortured, and his belief in Christ will lead to his death, and yet he is happy, concerned for others more than himself, a wonderful example for us to follow. We don’t want to be like the enemies of Christ, people opposed to who and what Christ is and what he does. The world around us tends to show its enmity towards Christ more by indifference than persecution, we are ignored or patronised, but we can stand against this, together, in Christ, confident in the God who loves us. 

 In the Gospel we see Herod, a ruler who has killed John the Baptist for speaking against him, for standing up for morality which comes from God, turning his gaze towards Jesus. In the face of the threat of persecution Jesus stands up for who and what he is, and what he is doing, he is not intimidated as he has a job to do which speaks of God’s healing love, making the Kingdom of God a reality in people’s lives. Jesus sees Herod for what he is, a nothing and a nobody, a tyrant, interested in the spectacular He speaks a word over Jerusalem as a place which kills prophets, and in this he is looking towards his own death – he has to go away, so that he can come back. He prophesies that he will not return until people say ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’ he anticipates his entry on Palm Sunday. It makes it all the more amazing that Jesus can face the future in such a calm way, proclaiming the Love of God, and it should inspire us as we walk the journey of faith. In this our Lenten journey towards the Cross, and beyond, we travel with Christ, nourished by word and sacrament, knowing that to follow Christ is to share in His Passion, to take up our cross and follow Him, who is the Way, the Truth , and the Life. It involves standing up for truth, at the risk of persecution and death, and it is something which we do gladly because we can trust in a God who loves us, who heals us, who has made a covenant with us in the blood of His Son, Jesus Christ. We can have confidence that God loves us, and will never leave us, he is with us no matter what may come our way. It is a great comfort that we can travel on our pilgrimage of faith with one who will not leave us, or fail us, who knows our pain, who suffers and dies for love of us. So let us travel with Christ through Lent, through Life, knowing that we are living out our faith, and let us share that with others that the may believe and 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.

A thought for the day from Leo the Great

O dearly beloved, let us therefore thank God the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. By means of the great love with which he loved us, he had mercy on us; and since we had died in sin, he gave us life back in Christ, so that in him we would be a new creation and a new work of his hands. Let us strip off the old man and his ways of action; and, given that  we have been admitted to participate I’m the family of Christ, let us renounce the the works of the flesh. Become aware, O Christian, of your dignity; and, having been made a participant in the divine nature, do not return to your prior baseness through behaviour unworthy of your family. Remember who your head is, and of whose body you are a member. Recall that you were stripped away from the power of the shadows and carried into the light of the Kingdom of God. The Sacrament of Baptism has made you a temple of the Holy Spirit: do not cause such a great guest to flee because e of your poor conduct; do not put yourself again into the slavery of the devil, for the price by which you were ransomed is the blood of Christ. he ransomed you out of mercy, but he will judge you in the truth of he who reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen.

Leo  Sermons 21:3

Impress this sign therefore upon your heart, therefore, and embrace this Cross to which we owe the salvation of our souls. It is indeed the Cross that has saved and converted the entire world, banished error, reestablished truth, made the earth into heaven, and made men into angels. Thanks to the Cross, demons have ceased to to be some cause for fear and have become detestable, and dying is longer death, but sleep. Through the Cross, everything that fought against us has been knocked to the ground and trampled over. So if someone asks you whether you adore the man who was crucified, respond with a clear voice and a joyful mien, ‘Yes I adore him, and I will never cease adoring him.’

John Chrysostom  Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew 54:4-5

First Sunday of Lent Year C

When St 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 arose and took his stick and hurried to 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 the city, small and great, will go into the Kingdom of God because of their good deeds while I will go into eternal punishment because of my evil deeds. Every evening I repeat the same words and believe them in my heart.’

When St 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 to the measure of such words.’

It is a very human failure, for far too often we make things far too complicated when all we need to do is to keep things simple. In the story from the Desert Fathers, which we have just heard, St Antony, the founder of monasticism, a great and a holy man, is put to shame by a man who spends his days treating animal skins. The key to it all is the tanner’s humility, his complete absence of pride, and his complete and utter trust in God – his reliance upon him alone.

In this morning’s Gospel we see Our Lord going into the desert for forty days. He goes to be alone with God, to pray and to fast, to prepare himself for the public ministry of the Proclamation of the Good News, the Gospel.

As he comes out of this he is tempted by the devil: he faces temptation just like every human being, but unlike us, he resists. The devil tempts him to turn stones into bread. It is understandable – he is hungry, but it is a temptation to be relevant, which the church seems to have given into completely: unless we what we are and what we do and say is relevant to people, they will ignore us. 

There is the temptation to have power, symbolised by worshipping the devil. It leads to the misuse of power. The church stands condemned for the mistakes of the past, but in recognising this there is the possibility of a more humble church in the future – reliant upon God and not on the exercise of power.

There is the temptation to put God to the test – to be spectacular and self-seeking. Whenever we say ‘look at me’ we’re not saying ‘look at God’.

Jesus resists these temptations because he is humble, because he has faith, and because he trusts in God. It certainly isn’t easy, but it is possible. It’s far easier when we do this together, as a community, which is why Lent matters for all of us. It’s a chance to become more obedient, and through that obedience to discover true freedom in God. It’s an obedience which is made manifest on the Cross – in laying down his life Jesus can give new life to the whole world. He isn’t spectacular – he dies like a common criminal. He has no power, he does not try to be relevant, he is loving and obedient and that is good enough.

It was enough for him, and it should be for us. As Christians we have Scripture and the teaching of the Church, filled with his Spirit, to guide us. We can use this time of prayer and fasting to deepen our faith, our trust, our understanding, and our obedience, to become more like Jesus, fed by his word and sacraments – to become more humble, more loving, living lives of service of God and each other, so that the world may believe and 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