Eleventh Sunday of Year B

While I like gardening, I don’t do enough of it in practice, I’m sometimes forgetful, and not fond of weeding. There is, however, something wonderful about taking seeds or cuttings and placing them in compost and watching them grow. It never ceases to give me a thrill. Once they have grown you end up with something that you can eat, smell, look at, or even sell: it is a source of joy, of nourishment of body and soul. It is an image used by the prophet Ezekiel this morning to look forward to a future where God’s people are sheltered, it looks to a Messianic future, to one fulfilled by the church, as the Lord plants the twig on the lofty mountain of Calvary. The Cross is our only hope, it is the Tree of Life, through which we have life, and all people can rest secure. Ezekiel’s image is used by Jesus in the parable of the Mustard Seed to show people how his prophecy is being brought about in and through Jesus, the Messiah. This is the promised Kingdom of God, becoming a reality in and through Christ. 

We in the West live in an age of anxiety, where we are all worried: what are we doing? Are we doing the right thing? Could we or should we do something different, something more? The Church is in a mess, numbers are falling, what are we going to do about it? Perhaps rather than worrying, we might pause for a second to consider that people have noticed a downward trend in Christian belief and practice over the last two hundred years. It is not something new, but it is complex and long-standing, and cannot be easily reversed. But it is God’s church, and God calls us to be faithful, and to trust in Him.

In the parable of the Kingdom with which this morning’s Gospel (Mk 4:26-34) starts, the one who scatters the seed does not know how things grow, and for all their sleeping and rising they cannot influence matters, they just have to sit back and let something mysterious and wonderful happen. That is how God works.

The church founded by Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and entrusted to his apostles began as a small affair, just a few people in a backwater of the Roman Empire, written off as deluded followers of another charismatic prophet. It isn’t an auspicious start; it isn’t what a management consultant would tell you to do. But a small group of people had their lives turned around by God, and told people about it, and risked everything, including their own lives to do so. The Church has now grown to point where there are several billion Christians on earth. Here in the West the picture may currently look rather bleak, but the global picture is far more encouraging, people are coming to know Christ, to love Him, and serve Him. And even if we have been going through some bad harvests over here, the trick is to keep scattering the seed as they will grow in a way which can defy our expectations. It is after all God’s Church not ours. 

Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed, a small thing, only two millimetres in diameter, and yet in the Mediterranean climate it could grow into a bush as large as 3’ x 12’. It has a small beginning, but there is the possibility of remarkable growth, and the image of birds nesting in its shade signals divine blessings (cf. Judg 9:8-15, Ps 91:1-2, Ezek 17:22-24) Jesus is taking the imagery of Ezekiel and showing how it will be brought to fulfilment in and through the Church. Such is the generous nature of God, that we have somewhere where we can we can be safe, and where we can grow in faith. Such is Divine Providence that God gives us the Church as means of grace, so that humanity may be saved. Through the saving death of His Son on the Cross, we can be assured of salvation in and through Him, a sacrifice which will be made present here this morning in the Eucharist, where Christ feeds us, His people, with His Body and Blood, to nourish and strengthen us.

Thus we can, like the Apostle Paul in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, always be confident:we can put our trust in God, as we know that we cannot be disappointed. On the Cross, God’s victory is complete, so we please God by following his commandments: loving Him and loving our neighbour, motivated by the love of Christ, shown to us most fully when he suffers and dies for us, to heal us and restore us, to bear the burden of our sins: ‘he died for all, so that those who live might no longer live for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.’ (2Cor 5:15 ESV) 

And so in the Church we live for Christ — our thoughts, words, and actions proclaim the saving truth of God’s love for humanity. If we seek God’s forgiveness and the forgiveness of others, and are forgiving ourselves then we can be built up in love. If we are devout in prayer, nourished by the word of God, and by the Sacrament of his Body and Blood we are built up in love, our souls are nourished and we can grow into the full stature of Christ. So let us come to Him, and be fed by Him, healed and restored by Him, living in love and encouraging others so to do, for the glory of God and the building up of His Kingdom.

If we are faithful, if we keep scattering seed in our thoughts, our words, and our actions, then wonderful things will happen. We have to trust God to be at work in people’s lives, and be there for them when they do respond. If we can be as welcoming as the Mustard Tree then we will have ensured that people have a place where they can come to know Jesus, and grow in love and faith. The trick is not to lose heart, but to trust in the God who loves us, who gave His Son to die for love of us. If we are confident of who Christ is, and what He has done for us, then as people filled with the love of God, we will carry on the Church’s mission of proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom of God, and people will come to know and trust that love which changes everything, 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.
parable_of_the_mustard_seed

A thought from Thomas Merton

The basic and most fundamental problem of the spiritual life is the acceptance of our hidden and dark self, with which we tend to identify all the evil that is in us. We must learn by discernment to separate the evil growth of our actions from the good ground of the soul. And we must prepare that ground so that a new life can grow up from it within us, beyond our knowledge and our conscious control. The sacred attitude is then one of reverence, awe, and silence before the mystery that begins to take place within us when we become aware of our innermost self. In silence, hope, expectation, and unknowing, the man of faith abandons himself to the divine will: not as to an arbitrary and magic power whose decrees must be spelt out from cryptic cyphers, but as to the stream of reality and of life itself. The sacred attitude is then one of deep and fundamental respect for the real in whatever new form it may present itself. The secular attitude is one of gross disrespect for reality, upon which the worldly mind seeks only to force its own crude patterns. The secular man is the slave of his own prejudices, preconceptions and limitations. The man of faith is ideally free from prejudice and plastic in his uninhibited response to each new movement of the stream of life. I say ‘ideally’ in order to exclude those whose faith is not pure but is also another form of prejudice enthroned in the exterior man — a preconceived opinion rather than a living responsiveness to the logos of each new situation. For there exists a kind of ‘hard’ and rigid religious faith that is not really alive or spiritual, but resides entirely in the exterior self and is the product of conventionalism and systematic prejudice.

Cistercian Quarterly Review 18 (1983): 215-6

Trinity II

Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.” (Mk 3:35 RSVCE)

One would naturally assume that Jesus’ friends and relatives would the people closest to Him, and you would be wrong. This morning’s Gospel shows us how they get the wrong end of the stick: they think he’s crazy, and they want Him to stop healing people and telling them about the Kingdom of God. At one level they are right, it is a crazy thing to do, but it is also wonderful, not what the world wants, but what it needs: wounds are healed, relationships restored, and we can begin to live as God wants us to. Jesus friends and relations do have a point: they want Him to stop, to eat, to rest, as up to this point in Mark’s Gospel we have seen frenetic activity, there is a breathless quality to the account. But they can only see practical concerns and fail to notice the importance of what is going on in His public ministry. 

The religious authorities are not on Jesus’ charismatic healing ministry — they accuse him of being possessed by an evil spirit, whereas what He is doing is proclaiming in word and deed the power of God to heal, and to free people from the power of evil, something Jesus will demonstrate finally upon the Cross. Jesus points out the inconsistency in the charges laid against Him, if He is possessed by the Devil, how can he cast the Devil out? His accusers have failed to see the spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, at work in Him. Their refusal to see God at work is a sign of their pride and hardness of heart — they cannot discern the works of God, and write of as evil a wondrous demonstration of God’s love for humanity. Such is the Sin against the Holy Spirit, a wilful rejection of God.

While Jesus’ dismissal of His relatives appears harsh and uncaring, He is making a wider point about the nature of the Society which Christianity seeks to bring about. In a world where kin, and family relationships mattered where they defined who and what you were, something radically different is offered. What matters is not who your parents and siblings are, but that you have through Christ entered into a new relationship with God, and other believers. We are brothers and sisters in Christ through our baptism, and because we do the will of God: we love God, and love our neighbour.

We do what God wants us to do, and we live out our faith in our lives, but how do we know what the will of God is?

In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes, ’Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.’ (Rom 12:2). So we are in the world, but not of it, we are opposed to the ways of the world, we march to the beat of a different drum. This sounds easy, but in fact it is very difficult. The world around us, our friends, even our family, will put pressure on us to go along with worldly ways: ‘You don’t have to go to church every Sunday, come shopping instead, I’ll buy you lunch.’ It is easy to give in to such things, I know, I have, from time to time. It is tempting, and easy to give in, but over time we lose the habit and drift away. 

Doing what is good, acceptable and perfect, means that there are things which we do not do, as Paul warned the church in Thessalonica what holy living looks like. In a world where there was considerable sexual freedom, he urges something different:

For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honour,’ (1Thess 4:2-4). It is not, however, advice on what not to do. There are positives as well: ‘pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit,’ (1Thess 5:17-19). Prayer is one of the key ways we can be close to God, and know His will. if we combine this with reading Holy Scripture and the regular reception of the Eucharist then we are on the right track. 

Through Christ we are in a new relationship with each other: as the Church we are part of a family, together with billions of Christians across both space and time, we share our baptism, and we are nourished by Word and Sacrament, in the Eucharist, which makes us the holy people of God. We are made a family together in Christ, with Christ, and through Christ. This is what Christ came to be, reconciling people to God and each other. As he says, ‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.’ (Jn 10:10 RSVCE) We share that life together in the Church. It keeps us close to Christ and to each other, and helps us grow in holiness.

That’s all well and good in theory, but in practice we come up against the problem outlined in our first reading from Genesis: we make a mess of things, and don’t do what God wants us to. That’s why Jesus came among us, and died upon the Cross, where He bears the weight of all the sins of humanity, past, present, and future. God can and does sort things out, in Christ. 

Confident of our faith in Jesus Christ, we can echo the words of St Paul in this morning’s Epistle, ‘knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence.’ (2Cor 4:14 RSVCE).It’s why we celebrate Easter in particular, and Sundays in General: the day Christ rose from the dead, the first day of the week, the eighth day, the New Creation. We have the same hope as Paul because of what Christ has done for us. It is all about GRACE, the unmerited kindness of God, which we desire, but do not deserve. We cannot work for it, it comes because of the generous love of God, His loving kindness. Paul can look to a heavenly future where the trials of this life are past, where we live for ever in the presence of God, and are filled with His glory. This is our hope as Christians, through what Christ has done for us, to fill us with His love and His life. 

Here this morning, in the Eucharist, at the Altar, Christ will give Himself for us, His Body and His Blood, so that we can feed on Him, be fed by Him, and be fed with Him, so that our souls can be healed. What greater medicine could there be for us, than God’s very self? What gift more precious or more wonderful? Our soul’s true food. We eat Christ’s Body and drink His Blood so that we might share His Divine life, that we might be given a foretaste of Heaven here on earth.

Come Lord Jesus, come and heal us, and feed us with Your Body and Blood, fill us with your life and love, so that we may share it 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 whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.

Christus_heilt_einen_Besessenen

The Ninth Sunday of Year B

Those of us, myself included, have a great responsibility, as members of a religious authority. Often in the Gospels we see Jesus and the Pharisees on opposing sides. Jesus is critical of them, especially when they get the wrong end of the stick, following the letter of the religious law, while not considering its spirit. It reminds us that we need to consider not only what we do, but also why we do it. 

I have something of a confession to make this morning: I am greatly saddened by the fact that Sunday has become a day much like any other, with shops being open, people made to work, and various social activities happening, which have rather spoiled the character of the day. Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not a strict Sabbatarian by any means, but for a variety of reasons both religious and non-religious, I have to say that they idea of having a day free from work and worldly concerns, is a good thing. In fact it is more than that, it is a Divine Command. God tells us to do this for OUR OWN GOOD. The command in Deuteronomy is not simply to abstain from work, but to rest in a way made holy by God, so that we may worship Him, and enjoy His rest. It has a purpose, which is the worship of Almighty God. It is what humanity is for. 

In Mark’s Gospel this morning we see the dangers of a prescriptive legal approach — the Pharisees follow the letter of the law, but have forgotten the Spirit — the reason why things are encouraged or forbidden. The sabbath exists for rest, and to Glorify God. Quibbling over a mouthful of food is petty, and small minded. The sabbath was made for us, for rest is good, and one should not work without rest. It is cruel and inhuman. It reminds us too that we need to make space for God in our lives, that the worship of God is important. We gather as Christians on the Lord’s Day, the first day of the week to celebrate Jesus’ death and Resurrection, by means of the Eucharist, where we do what Jesus commanded us to do, until He comes again. For one hundred thousand successive Sundays we have gathered to do this, because it matters, it is important: we are fed with the Bread of Angels, with the Very Body and Blood of Christ, so that we may be healed and given a foretaste of Heaven. 

Jesus heals a man with a withered hand to proclaim that that the Kingdom of God is a place of healing, and reconciliation. That is why Jesus comes among us to proclaim the Good News. The Church then is not just a cozy club for religious people but exists also for the benefit of non-members. We exist to carry on that same proclamation, ‘to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.’ (2 Cor 4:6 ESV) It is a hard job, harder than ever, as people are far less willing to listen, and we are not always terribly confident 

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. 

(2Cor 4:7-12ESV)

All around the world, even in strict repressive regimes like China, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia, Christ is being proclaimed — people come to know Him, to love Him, and to trust Him. We have to ask ourselves the question, ‘Does our faith matter enough to us that we are willing to die for it, if necessary?’ ‘See how these Christians love one another, and how they are ready to die for one another’ (Tertullian, Apology, 39).That’s the level of commitment we need. It is after all a serious matter – people’s souls are at stake here! Jesus didn’t come so that people could blithely ignore Him. He upset people, who then wanted to kill Him. The Church exists to proclaim the same message, that Jesus died for love of us, to save us from Hell, from our sins, and rose again, and promises eternal life with the Holy Trinity. 

We have a pledge of it here, this morning in the Eucharist — Christ’s VERY SELF, His Body, and Blood are given to us, to feed us, and heal our withered souls. It is the supreme demonstration of God’s love for us, a re-presentation of the sacrifice of Calvary — we eat and drink the same flesh and blood which was wounded for our transgressions, which died to save us. This is how much God loves us, and longs to heal our wounds, and restore our relationship with Him, and with each other. It affects who and what we are, as St Paul says, ‘always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.’ (2Cor 4:10 ESV) Christ’s Body and Blood are eaten and drunk, so that they may transform us, so that we may come to share in the Divine Life and Love which saves us. As St Augustine says, ‘Be what you see and receive what you are’ (Sermon 272). It affects what we are and what we do, and we want to share it with others, that they may come to know Jesus, and experience His healing love. It has been the Church’s raison d’être since the beginning: in the Acts of the Apostles we find, ‘And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers’ (Acts 2:42 ESV). Prayer, the Eucharist, and the teaching of the Church are central to our lives as Christians, because they help us to grow in faith, and love, together, as the church. They’re not optional extras that we can dip in and out of when they’re convenient for us, they are absolutely central to who and what we are as Christians. We cannot be Christians without them. It is that simple. It is why we keep Sunday as a special day, so that we can come together and do what the Church has always done, so that we may have life and have it in all its fullness. 

Which of us can say that we don’t need Christ’s healing in our lives? I know that I do, the truth is that we all do. If we are close to Him in prayer, if we listen to Him, if we have the humility which says, ‘I need God’s help’ then we can be open to the transforming power of His Love. Here this morning, in the Eucharist, at the Altar, Christ will give Himself for us, His Body and His Blood, so that we can feed on Him, be fed by Him, and be fed with Him, so that our souls can be healed. What greater medicine could there be for us, than God’s very self? What gift more precious or more wonderful? Our soul’s true food. We eat Christ’s Body and drink His Blood so that we might share His Divine life, that we might be given a foretaste of Heaven here on earth.

Come Lord Jesus, come and heal us, and feed us with Your Body and Blood, fill us with your life and love, so that we may share it 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 whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.

POPE LEADS BENEDICTION AFTER CORPUS CHRISTI PROCESSION IN ROME