The Eleventh Sunday after Trinity: Who do YOU say that I am? (Mt 16:13-20)

We live in a strange world, where in a little over fifty years we have experienced more profound and rapid social change than any other generation in history. Such a thing is hard to come to terms with, but there is a vocal group here in the West whose aim is to make the Church conform itself to the world around us. I for one am unable in all conscience to accept their revisionist agenda for a simple reason. In the twelfth chapter Paul’s Letter to the Romans the apostle writes ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds’ (Rom 12:2). Paul tells the Church in Rome, and he tells us not to be like the world around us, not to bow to secular pressure, or follow their lead. Instead, the Church exists to call the world to repentance, to turn its back on the false ways of the world and to be conformed to Christ, and ‘to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship’ (Rom 12:1). It isn’t easy, it is challenging and demanding and costly. The Christian Faith does after all make demands on those who follow it, especially regarding what we do and how we live our lives.

One of the most important questions in the entire Bible is found in this morning’s Gospel: who do you say that Jesus is? How we answer this question can tell us a lot about our faith. It matters, in fact it is central to who and what we are as Christians.

Jesus and his disciples ventured into the District of Caesarea Philippi, an area about 25 miles northeast of the Sea of Galilee. The region had tremendous religious implications. The place was littered with the temples of the Syrian gods. Here was the elaborate marble temple that had been erected by Herod the Great, father of the then-ruling Herod Antipas. Here you could worship the Roman Emperor as a God himself. You might say that the world religions were on display in this town. It was with this scene in the background that Jesus chose to ask the most crucial questions of his ministry.

Jesus looked at his disciples and in a moment of reflection said: “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples begin sharing with Jesus what they have heard from the people who have been following Jesus: Some say that you are Elijah; others say John the Baptist, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets. It’s always been this way. Jesus has been seen by the masses in so many different ways. But Jesus asks then asks his disciples, ‘But who do YOU say that  am?’ (Mt 16:15) Peter answers ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God’ (Mt 16:16) This is a big claim to make. Saying that Jesus is divine was problematic, it undermined what Jews thought about religion, and the claims made by Romans about the Emperor. It is a radical thing to say, that Jesus is the Anointed One, the Hope of Israel, who fulfils the promises in the Prophets.

Nowadays you can speak of Jesus as prophet, holy man, teacher, or spiritual leader, and few will object. But speak of Him as Son of God, Divine, of the same nature as the Father, and people will line up to express their disapproval. This is not a new phenomenon, indeed in the fourth century A.D. it looked as though the church has been taken over by Arians followers of Arius, who denied the divinity of Jesus Christ. And yet, in the end, Orthodoxy won the day. But still nowadays Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and others deny Jesus’ divinity. They are WRONG: He is God, consubstantial, and co-eternal with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

The reason why the church repeats the words of the Nicene Creed week by week is to remind ourselves of what we believe. As Christians in worship we stand up and make a public declaration of faith, something which would once have led to our death at the hands of the state, and nowadays in some states still does.

As Christians we should not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified. But as well as making this public declaration, we need to live lives which show this faith being lived out in practice.

If we truly believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of the Living God, the Messiah – the anointed one who delivers us from our sins, and who died, rose again, and sends us His Holy Spirit; then this faith should affect who we are and how we live our lives. Only if we take our faith seriously, if we take the time and make the effort to pray regularly and to read the Scriptures, to come to Mass, not because they’re nice things to do, or to be seen to do them, but because they keep as close to Jesus, can we hope to grow in faith. Only then can we become living stones, built as a temple to God’s glory, on the foundation of the church which comes to us from the apostles, believing what the church has always believed, doing what the church has always done, or continuing in the apostles teaching and fellowship, the breaking of the bread and the prayers, as St Luke puts it at the end of the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. This is how we live a Christian life, as well as living out our faith in our lives, sharing that faith with others, without being frightened or afraid, rude or triumphalist, but simply, humbly, and patiently. If it were not true, we would be the most pitiable of fools; but as it is true we have to live lives which embody that truth, in our words and in our deeds, so that we may proclaim God’s love and truth to the world, so that they may believe and may give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to who whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever.

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St Nicholas slaps Arius at the Council of Nicaea for his heresy

from Priesthood in Liturgy and Life by Fr Alban Baverstock SSC

The Christian priest pre-eminently exercises his priesthood at the Christian altar, offering the Christian sacrifice.  But it is surely clear that the Christian priest cannot satisfy the obligations which his share in the Eternal Priesthood lays upon him by the sole act of celebrating, occasionally or frequently, the Christian Mysteries.  At the altar or away from it, he is still a priest; and this priesthood must express itself in a life which is throughout an ordered ministry to God.  In other words the life of the priest must be liturgical.  His mass must be the summary for him, as for the great High Priest, of a life of self-oblation.  In the mysteries he offers himself in Christ.  His whole life must be a showing of Christ, impersonated in him, to God.  He must always be saying Mass.

A ready parallel meets us here in the apostolic injunction to ‘pray without ceasing’ [1Thess. 5.17].  This is rightly explained to mean more than that Christians are to be often at their prayers.  It means that the whole life of the Christian should be in a sense prayer, a coming to God, an energizing towards him.

And the parallel suggests an important conclusion as to the relation of the formal liturgy to the liturgical life, parallel to the relation between formal prayer and the life which is itself a continual prayer.  For the life of prayer, as experience abundantly proves, involves of necessity a due and constant attention to formal prayer.  Similarly the liturgical life, the life which is throughout a ministry to God, an oblation by the priest of himself in Christ and of Christ in him, depends very much on his formal celebration of the holy mysteries.  And the converse is true.  We shall never pray as we ought in our formal prayers unless our whole life breathes the spirit of prayer.  The priest will never say mass as he ought unless his whole life is imbued with the spirit of the mass, the spirit of oblation.

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Mary’s Fundamental Title

The description ‘Mother of God’ … is … the fundamental name with which the Community of Believers has always honoured the Blessed Virgin. It clearly explains Mary’s mission in salvation history. All other titles attributed to Our Lady are based on her vocation to be the Mother of the Redeemer, the human creature chosen by God to bring about the plan of salvation, centred on the great mystery of the Incarnation of the Divine Word.

Let us us think of the privilege of the ‘Immaculate Conception,’ that is, of Mary being immune to sin from conception: she was preserved from any stain of sin because she was to be the Mother of the Redeemer. The same applies to the title ‘Our Lady of the Assumption’: the One who had brought forth the Saviour could not be subject to the corruption which derives from original sin. And we know that all these privileges were not granted in order to distance Mary from us but, on the contrary, to bring her close; indeed, since she was totally with God, this woman is very close to us and helps us as a mother and a sister. The unique and unrepeatable position that Mary occupies in the Community of Believers also stems from her fundamental vocation to being the Mother of the Redeemer. Precisely as such, Mary is also the Mother of the Mystical Body of Christ, which is the Church.

Pope Benedict XVI General Audience 2 January 2008

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Jesus heals the Syro-Phoenician Woman’s daughter

The Prophecy of Isaiah is rightly called the Fifth Gospel. More than any other text in the Jewish Scriptures, the Old Testament, we see presented the Messianic hope, a hope fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Through his prophet God tells his people to maintain justice, to do the right thing for the right reasons, that salvation is coming, and that right soon. The promise and the hope is not just for Israel, but for anyone who joins themselves to the Lord, who love His Name, and keep His sabbath. God further declares that ‘His House shall be called a House of prayer for all peoples’ words which Jesus will use when cleanses the Temple of its money-changers. God is one who gathers the outcasts and more besides.

The Apostle Paul was born a Jew, trained in the law, a pharisee of the school of Hillel, who knows God to be faithful, but whose life’s work was to proclaim the Good News of God’s Kingdom to Gentiles, to non-Jews, as God is merciful to all, He loves everyone, and longs to see us reconciled to Him, and each other.

This morning’s Gospel shows us a woman in need. Her daughter is seriously unwell, she’s desperate. She turns to Jesus and begs Him, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ She is respectful, and polite, but Jesus ignores her. Then the disciples urge Him to send her away, she’s a pain, she’s a Caananite, a Syro-Phoenecian, a foreigner, she’s not one of us. Jesus answers the woman, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ And up to this point Jesus’ ministry has focussed on Jews, and would seem to be exclusive to them. She comes and kneels before Jesus, she is completely dependant upon Him. All she can do is to cry out, ‘Lord, help me.’ And even then Jesus replies, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ His words sound harsh, rude and xenophobic, but for a first century Jew they were not strange at all, they were normal, they were expected of the Chosen People, who had forgotten the words of Isaiah. The woman, however, is not put off, she is persistent, and she uses Jesus’ words against Him: ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ She demonstrates complete trust in God, and her attitude is one of worship. And so ‘Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.’ In an instant it is all sorted out. Such is the power of FAITH.

Jesus Christ was never afraid to court controversy, or to challenge a religious hierarchy. Generally speaking it’s the Pharisees who tend to get both barrels so to speak. Jesus has a problem with hypocrisy: when what we say and what we do don’t match up. The Pharisees are so concerned with outward conformity to the letter of the Law of Moses that they have forgotten what the spirit is. While they stress the need for outward purity in terms of hand-washing, they need to remember that what is far worse is how what people think and say and do affects who and what they are. In their rigid outward conformity they have forgotten that at a fundamental level the Law of Moses needs affect our lives and to be lived out in them.

It is a great challenge to each and every one of us to live up to this. It is both simple and difficult, and something which we all need to do together, as a community, so that we can support each other, and help each other to live out our faith in our lives. Otherwise we are the blind leading the blind, valuing outward conformity over the conversion of the soul, more concerned with appearance than reality and making a mockery of God and religion. It is an easy trap into which we can and do fall, so let us be vigilant and encourage each other not to fall into it, and to help each other out when we do.

The healing of the daughter of the Syro-Phoenecian woman can appear to be troubling at first: the Kingdom which Jesus comes to inaugurate is meant to be a place of healing, so its initial absence is troubling. The disciples can only see the woman as a troublesome annoyance, she’s making a fuss. The reward for her faith and tenacity is God’s healing. She shows more love, more care than the people of Israel. And through her the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled. We look to her example as a forerunner in the faith and like her we pray:

We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

Like the woman in the Gospel we need God’s merciful love to be poured out upon us, we long for healing, and we do so through the Eucharist, the Sacrament of Our Lord’s Body and Blood. Like her we need to recognise that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of David, and that while we are not worthy, nonetheless God loves us and heals us. We are healed by the wounds of Christ on the Cross at Calvary, where His Body is broken and His Blood is shed for us, for you and me.

We are fed so that we might be healed, to strengthen us to live out our faith together, not in outward conformity, keeping up appearances, for the sake of propriety, but so that we can be healed, and helped to live out our faith together. That filled with joy we might share our faith with others, so that they too may come to believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to who whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever.

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The Nineteenth Sunday of Year A Mt 14:22-33

Fear is a very human feeling, we acquire it through learning, and yet it can be overcome, if we trust in God. Christians in Iraq, China, North Korea & Palestine face real danger, real persecution (we’re safe and comfortable by comparison) and yet they trust, they pray (and so should we) and we should do all that we can to help them. The state of politics at home and abroad is troubling, to say the least. We are afraid that this is the closest we have been to the use of nuclear weapons since the 1960s.

Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.

This morning’s Gospel carries straight on from the miraculous feeding which we should have heard last week, as Jesus goes to send the crowds back home, he sends disciples ahead so that they might be ready.

And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray.

Prayer is important, it is as important as the food we eat, the air we breathe, because it is about our relationship with God. Throughout the Gospels Jesus spends time alone, spends time close to the Father as this relationship is crucial. Where Jesus leads we should follow, follow his example.

When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 

It’s getting dark, and the disciples are out in the middle of the lake, in deep water; will the boat sink, what can they do?

And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. 

But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’

The disciples cannot believe that they are seeing Jesus, they think that it is a ghost. But it is Him, and he encourages them, his presence can give them confidence. He tells the disciples, and he tells us not to be afraid, not to fear the world, but to trust in Him.

Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’

As usual, Peter is the first to react, he takes the lead as usual. Jesus speaks a single word to him, ‘Come’ He speaks it to each and every one of us as Christians, to come, to follow him, to be close to him, to live out our faith in our lives strengthened by prayer. Will we trust Jesus enough to follow Him?

“So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, Truly you are the Son of God.’

Peter listens to what Jesus says, and obeys him, and does something miraculous, something extraordinary, until he is distracted by the world around him, and becomes frightened. Likewise we, in our lives can in the power of God do wonderful things, if we are not distracted by the cares of the world around us. If we listen to what Jesus tells us and do it.

Peter becomes frightened; he starts to sink, as do we all when the cares of this world overwhelm us. His reaction is to cry ‘Lord, save me’ which Jesus does, indeed, through his offering of himself upon the Cross he saves each and every one of us, taking the sin of the world upon himself so that we might be freed from sin, fear and death. That same sacrifice will be made present here, so that we the people of God, can be fed by God, with God, with his Body and Blood to be strengthened to have life in him, to be close to him.

Peter is told off for lacking faith, because it is important, we too need to trust God, to have faith in Him, so that He can be at work in us and through us.

At the end, once the wind has died down the disciples worship Him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’ The end of it all is worship, it is what we as humans and as Christians are for. We are to worship God, in our love and our prayer, so that all of our lives are an act of worship, drawing us ever closer to the source of life and love. So that all we say or think or do may proclaim God’s love and truth to the world, so that they may believe and may give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to who whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever.

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The Transfiguration 

The world around us has a good idea of what it thinks glory is: most of the time it looks like human success and triumph. Just think of people winning a gold medal at the Olympics, people waving flags and making lots of noise, open-topped buses, parades, and the like. God’s idea of glory we will see is something entirely different, in fact it is the exact opposite of human glory. We see God’s Glory this morning on Mt Tabor, and on the hill of Calvary.
In the Prophecy of Daniel we see a glimpse of the glory of God and the worship of heaven. It is the same glory that the Apostles see in the Transfiguration, it is a glimpse of heaven, a foretaste for us of what Christ has given us His Church. The glory of the Transfiguration is something which the Second Letter of Peter stresses – as Christians we do not follow a made-up religion – it is not a work of fiction, but rather through spending time with Jesus, disciples such as St Peter saw their own lives transfigured and transformed by the power and the love of God.
Jesus has been with the disciples in the Jezreel Valley in Galilee and this morning He goes up Mt Tabor and takes his closest disciples with him to show them something of the glory of God. He goes up the mountain to pray, to be alone with God the Father. His public ministry was rooted in prayer, in being close to the Father, listening and speaking to Him. As Christians we are to follow His example, and do likewise.
Jesus appears with Moses and Elijah to show His disciples and the Church that He is the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets. They point to Him and they find their fulfilment in Him: He is the Messiah, the Son of God. Peter responds in a moment with a very human response, he knows that it is good to be here and it helps to change his life. His response points to the Feast of Tabernacles when Jews remembered the giving of the Law on Mt Sinai to Moses. But this experience is not to be prolonged, it is a glimpse of the future glory, a moment to be experienced, and not a place to dwell.
When God speaks he tells us three things about Jesus: He is the Son of God, He is loved and we should listen to Him – what he says and does should affect us and our lives – we have to be open to the possibility of being changed by God. Jesus tells the disciples not to tell anyone about this until after he has risen from the dead. The detail is important: Jesus will go up another mountain to suffer and die upon the cross, taking our sins upon Himself, restoring our relationship with God and each other. This is real glory – not worldly glory but the glory of God’s sacrificial love poured out on the world to heal it and restore it.

“Three important scenes of Our Lord’s life took place on mountains. On one, He preached the Beatitudes, the practice of which would bring a Cross from the world; on the second, He showed the glory that lay beyond the Cross; and on the third, He offered Himself in death as a prelude to His glory and that of all who would believe in His name”

Fulton Sheen The Life of Christ 1970: 158

That is why we are here this morning – to see the self same sacrifice here with our own eyes, to touch and to taste what God’s love is really like – to go up the mountain and experience the glory of God, so that God’s love may transform us. We are given a foretaste of heaven, and prepared to be transformed by God. This is true glory – the glory of the Cross, the glory of suffering love lavished upon the world. The Transfiguration looks to the Cross to help us prepare ourselves to live the life of faith. To help us to behold true majesty, true love and true glory – the kind that can change the world and last forever, for eternity, not the fading glory of the world, here today and gone tomorrow, but something everlasting, wonderful.
So let us behold God’s glory, here, this morning, let us touch and taste God’s glory, let us prepare to be transformed by his love, through the power of His Holy Spirit, built up as living stones, a temple to God’s glory. As those who are healed, and restored, reconciled, and given a foretaste of eternal life with him, so may God take our lives and transform us, so that everything that we say, or think, or do, may proclaim him, let us tell the world about him, so that it too may believe and trust and have 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, dominion, and power, now and forever.