26th Sunday of Year A : Who do we want to be?

I would like to begin this morning by asking a simple question, ‘Have you ever said that you would do something, and then have not done it?’ I imagine that the answer is yes, because we all have broken promises. I know that I have. I also know that I’m very sorry for having done so, and I have asked God for forgiveness, and I am trying not to do it again. 

In our first reading this morning, the prophet Ezekiel lays out two possibilities before us: 

When a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it; for the injustice that he has done he shall die. Again, when a wicked person turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he shall save his life (Ezek 18: 26-7)

In other words it is better to be a repentant sinner than a self-righteous one. Repentance is the key: turning away from evil to do good. Indeed the proclamation of both John the Baptist and Jesus was the same: ‘Repent and believe the Good News’. The message is a consistent one. We need to stop going the wrong way, and change direction. We need to go the way God wants us to, so that we can flourish as human beings, loved by God. This means that we will need to ask for, give, and receive forgiveness. We cannot keep score or remember past wrongs. To live lives of repentance and forgiveness is difficult, and we need God’s help, because we cannot do it on our own. 

Our second reading continues Paul’s advice to Christians in Philippi on how to live a Christian life. The key to it all is Love, God’s love for us, and our love of God and each other. As Christians we receive the Holy Spirit in Baptism and Confirmation making us part of the Body of Christ. Paul encourages the Philippians to be unified in faith. This is the same unity which Christ prays for in John 17, just before His arrest. As Christians we should be free from competition or self-importance, which are manifestations of pride. Instead, we should be united and loving, putting others first. This is the key to humility, something which Christ exemplifies, and it is demonstrated in the words of the hymn which forms part of the second reading from the Letter to the Philippians. Christ became man and was born of the Virgin Mary. In coming to share our human life, Christ shows God’s humility by living amongst us as one of us. Christ’s life leads to His Death on the Cross. The Crucifixion was the ultimate humiliation, the punishment of a slave and a criminal. Yet, because it is the ultimate demonstration of God’s love for us, it is paradoxically something in which we, as Christians, rejoice. The Cross is central to our faith. It is the moment of God’s triumph over sin, over the world, and over death.

Paul quotes from the prophet Isaiah to reinforce the fact that Jesus is God:

‘To me every knee shall bow,

    every tongue shall swear allegiance.’ (Isa 45:23)

To say that ‘Jesus is Lord’ may not seem strange to us, nowadays. Two thousand years ago things were different. The phrase implies His Divinity, that Jesus is God. To say this is to make quite a political statement, as it was a title which Roman emperors were keen to adopt: they wanted to be seen and worshipped as gods. While Christ has no need of earthly power, human rulers tend to view such titles as important. If we are saying, ‘Jesus is Lord’ then, at one level, we are saying that Caesar isn’t. Whilst this may not seem important now, such a declaration has led to the martyrdom of many Christians over the centuries . 

In this morning’s gospel, Jesus is talking to the chief priests and elders. These are the religious leaders of His day, the people tasked with guiding the people of Israel in their relationship with God. Jesus has entered Jerusalem in triumph, and cast out the money-changers from the Temple, and cursed a fig tree for not bearing fruit. What we are witnessing in the Gospel is a religious reform. Those who are supposed to have brought people closer to God are to be understood as resistant and rebellious; they are the problem rather than the solution. 

Jesus begins by asking the chief priests and elders a question: ‘What do you think?’ These simple words speak profoundly of the freedom given to humanity by God. We are not forced, but rather invited, to engage in a conversation, God does not compel us. In the parable of the two sons, clearly the one who overcame his initial reluctance and actually did the will of his father, and worked in the vineyard, is the example for us to follow. This son experiences repentance, and changes his behaviour to do what is best for him. He is not a hypocrite; he is just stubborn, rebellious, and disobedient — but the important thing is that he repents.

The other son begins with an outward show of respect: he appears to be a dutiful son, addressing his father as Sir, but he is basically a hypocrite, as his actions do not match his words. True obedience is not in outward displays of respect, but in doing the will of God. The chief priests and elders have rejected Jesus and soon will be calling out for His death. They will take the Messiah, the one who could save them from their sins, and kill him. What greater turning away from God could there be?

Tax-collectors and prostitutes were seen as the lowest of the low in society: the first were viewed as swindlers, the second as sexually immoral. Both were on good terms with the Romans, they were certainly not the kind of company a religiously observant Jew would keep. And yet, despite their sins, they are willing to repent. They are aware of their need for God, and they understand that God loves them, and will heal their wounds, and welcome them into His kingdom. The religious authorities are condemned by their own lips. By recognising that it is more important to do the will of God rather than simply to say that you will, they highlight their own hypocrisy. They have been told by John the Baptist what God wants, but they have ignored him, and now when Jesus tells them the same message they will also ignore Him. 

Are we then, here today, going to follow the example of the self-righteous and make an outward show of our closeness to God, while refusing to repent of our sins? Or are we going to be like the tax collectors and prostitutes, who know their need of God, who know their own shortcomings? They believe and trust in God, want to be healed by Him, and turn away from all that separates them from God. I hope and pray that we will be like the latter rather the former. 

To show His love, God gave himself for us, upon the Cross. On the hill of Calvary, Jesus Christ is both Priest and Victim. This same sacrifice will become as present here this morning as it did outside Jerusalem 2000 years ago. God will give Himself to us in His Body and His Blood, under the outward forms of bread and wine, to heal us, to draw us  closer to Him, to show us how much He loves us. So then let us taste and see how gracious the Lord is, and most of all, let us do the will of our Father in Heaven. Let us turn away from what we have been and conform ourselves to the will of God. Let us fed by Him, strengthened by Him, forgiven by Him, to be built up as a living temple to His glory. So that we, and all creation, may be free to sing the praise of 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. Amen.

Diego Velázquez, The Crucifixion, 1632, Museo del Prado, Madrid

25th Sunday of Yr A – The Labourers in the Vineyard

Our readings this morning all have something of a paradoxical quality to them. Both the Scriptures, and the Christian concept of God, are rooted in paradox. The ability to hold two contradictory views should be impossible and yet it is not. There is a good reason for this: God is a mystery, knowable, yet hidden; understandable, yet beyond our grasp. It can be a struggle to understand these paradoxes. Whilst this struggle is part of the process of coming to know God, we also have accept the fact that our mental efforts can never be enough, we simply have to experience the mystery.

The prophet Isaiah proclaims the Divine message to bring Israel back to God: 

“Seek the Lord while he may be found;

    call upon him while he is near;

let the wicked forsake his way,

    and the unrighteous man his thoughts;” (Isa 55:6-7)

The message is clear and simple. There is a right way to live and a wrong way. The prophets exist to proclaim God’s message, to call people back:

let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him,

    and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. (Isa 55:7)

God longs to treat humanity with compassion, and to forgive our human failings. God is a God of love and mercy, both in the Old Testament and in the New. There is a consistent message of how God creates everything, sees that it is good, and loves what He has made. God is generous and loving because that is who God is. God cannot be otherwise. 

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,

    neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord (Isa 55:8)

If God were to think in a human way then all we could expect would be punishment for having sinned and fallen short of what is expected of us. However, God is a God of justice and mercy, and so we can put our hope in His love to heal and restore us. God is generous and loving, to an extent that we, as humans, cannot even imagine:

For as the heavens are higher than the earth,

    so are my ways higher than your ways

    and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isa 55:9)

We are able to experience the mystery of God’s love through the Church and her Sacraments, which are effective signs of grace that manifest God’s generous love in the world. This is just a part of the mystery of God’s love for us which we can never fully comprehend, this side of heaven. 

In our second reading this morning, St Paul is writing to the first Christian community he founded in Europe. He is under house arrest in Rome, facing a trial and execution. It is a joyful letter, arguably his most joyful letter, despite being written as Paul faces martyrdom. This year many people around the world have had to face imminent death because of the virus which currently grips our planet. As a society we have become more afraid of death and dying and the subject of our own end is something many of us would prefer not to think about. For Paul,

to live is Christ, and to die is gain (Phil 1:21)

Paul is saying that if he lives, he will live in Christ, and he will proclaim the truth of the Gospel with his words and with his deeds. Paul believes that if he dies it is gain, because his death will bear witness to Christ, having shared in Christ’s suffering and death. Paul has hope in the resurrection to eternal life in Christ. In writing to the Church in Philippi Paul is able to be with them despite being 800 miles away. He wants to be encouraged by the fact that the Philippian Christians are living out their faith, and putting it into practice in their lives. At the same time, Paul is keen to share his hope, and, at the climax of his letter, states:

But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (Phil 3:20-21)

As Christians, we can be encouraged by the knowledge that Heaven is our true home. We can have this hope through the mercy and love of God. This is not something that we can deserve or earn, rather it is a manifestation of God’s generous love.

In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus continues His teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven with the Parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard. God’s Kingdom is a place where human values are turned on their head: 

So the last will be first, and the first last. (Mt 20:16)

This is why the first labourers to be paid are those who have only worked for just one hour. By the time the labourers who have worked the full twelve hours come to be paid they expect to be given more, although they agreed on the standard wage for their day’s labour. The parable is fundamentally about salvation. Salvation is a gift from God and not a reward for work done by humanity. We cannot earn it, we have to receive it from a loving and generous God. Likewise there are no grades of salvation and there are no classes of Christian, we are all one. Jesus’ Jewish audience believed that the Jews were God’s chosen people, and this could lead to the perception of Gentiles and converts as something lesser. But such a view is opposed to the values of the Kingdom of God where all are equal. 

This equality is a radical statement by Jesus. It is a clear declaration that God’s grace is abundant and inexhaustible, and freely offered to all who accept it. There is no such thing as a better class of Christian. God treats us all in the same way and fundamentally loves each and every one of us. Though I serve God and His people as a priest, I was not chosen for this role by having been a better Christian in the first place. Clergy are not superior Christians, all the baptized are equal in the sight of God. This morning’s gospel reminds us of the important truth that salvation is the free gift of God, which we receive in our Baptism and is strengthened through the Sacraments of the Church. We cannot earn our way to heaven!

We often forget that heaven is full of sinners, who are loved by God and who love God, and trust in His mercy and His forgiveness. The more we experience and understand the overwhelming love and generosity of God, the more marvellous it becomes. To repeat the prophet Isaiah, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, His ways are not our ways. 

As Christians we need to respond to God’s generous love and if we are to be truly thankful then our thankfulness should affect who we are and how we live our daily lives. We need to live as people who are loved and forgiven, and who, in turn, show love and forgiveness to those around us. This is difficult for us to do on our own, but thankfully we live in a community called the Church where we give and receive forgiveness. Here we are fed by Word and Sacrament, so that we can strengthen and encourage one another, through prayer and acts of charity, to live the truth of the gospel in our lives. So that we, and all creation, may be free to sing the praise of 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. Amen.

Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard: Workers on the field, Codex aureus Epternacensis, fol. 76f, detail 

Twenty fourth Sunday of Year A

I would like to begin this morning by reading some words of Metropolitan Anthony Bloom (1914-2003) the Russian Orthodox Metropolitan of Great Britain and Ireland, a great, wise, and holy writer. His words on forgiveness speak beautifully to the themes of our readings this morning:

Judgement would hold nothing but terror for us if we had no sure hope of forgiveness. And the gift of forgiveness itself is implicit in God’s and people’s love. Yet it is not enough to be granted forgiveness, we must be prepared to accept it. We must consent to be forgiven by an act of daring faith and generous hope, welcome the gift humbly, as a miracle which love alone, love human and divine, can work, and forever be grateful for its gratuity, its restoring, healing, reintegrating power. We must never confuse forgiving with forgetting, or imagine that these two things go together. Not only do they not belong together, they are mutually exclusive. To wipe out the past has little to do with constructive, imaginative, fruitful forgiveness; the only thing that must go, be erased from the past, is its venom; the bitterness, the resentment, the estrangement; but not the memory.

Anthony of Sourozh, Creative Prayer, 2004: 72. 

Our life on earth is finite, it will come to an end. In the meantime, we need to ask ourselves how we want to live our lives. Do we want to do so in anger, bitterness, resentment, and jealousy? I’d hope not. Such things are not good for the soul. 

Our first reading this morning addresses these questions. Ben Sirach, the writer of Ecclesiasticus, knew a great deal about the human condition and the book forms part of the Wisdom tradition of Scripture: wise advice for humanity. Nowadays, many people seem to think that sexual sin is all that matters to God. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sin gnaws away at us, in many ways. It can dim, and even extinguish, the spark of divine life which we receive in our baptism. Sin is a serious business and it affects us, both as individuals and in our life together. It is a subject which should concern us all, because it affects us all.

Anger, wrath, and the desire for vengeance are, by their very nature, corrosive things . They eat us up, growing like a bitter cancer inside us. We often try to repress these strong emotions, but they can erupt in outbursts, or as calculated passive aggression. Is there a way to stop this happening? Yes, there is, and we are told how in our first reading: 

Forgive your neighbour the wrong he has done,

    and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray (Sir 28:2)

If we want to be forgiven then we have to forgive. It is as simple as that! But there is no room for any half-measures, we cannot hang on to a bit, we need to forgive fully. Can we do this on our own? No, we need to do it as a community, a community which relies upon God to assist us. Only with God’s help, and in His strength can we live lives of forgiveness. 

There is very similar advice in this morning’s second reading from the Letter to the Romans. Paul writes that we should not pass judgement — whether someone does something or not. The point is not what we do, but why we do what we do. Are we trying to honour God in our actions? That is what really matters. Are we learning to live as people of love, freed from all that hinders our common life together? 

If we consider, for a second, the fact that Christians have often been persecuted for their faith. They have even been sentenced to death for preferring Christ to the ways of the world, and yet these martyrs were not angry with their persecutors or even God. Instead they chose to live out the love and the forgiveness that they had received, and it was this powerful witness which has brought many others to believe and follow Christ. We are called to copy their example and to try live authentic lives together, by forgiving each other, and living in love. To do this we need to put aside any petty rivalries, squabbles, slights, and all the little everyday things which annoy us.

Forgiveness is at the heart of all three readings today, including Matthew’s Gospel where Peter asks Our Lord how many times he should forgive someone who sins against him. He wonders if it might be seven times, but Jesus replies, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times’. This answer looks back to the establishment of the jubilee year in Leviticus 25:8 – ‘You shall count seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the time of the seven weeks of years shall give you forty-nine years.’ The jubilee of the Old Covenant was all about the forgiveness of debts. This is made real in Jesus. In Him is the forgiveness and the renewal which Israel has longed for. It is radical and powerful forgiveness which can transform us, and the whole world. 

Jesus explains his message of forgiveness with the use of a parable. A dishonest servant who owes a debt which he cannot pay, begs for more time. His master, instead, cancels the whole debt. However, when faced with a debtor of his own, this same man fails to exhibit the mercy, the kindness which has been shown to him. For this he is rightly and justly punished, to show us who hear the parable that, as we beg God to forgive our sins, we need at the same time to forgive the sins of others. Just like the man in the parable, we too are all dishonest servants, we all owe God a debt which we cannot pay, but God releases us from our debt. But, despite having been forgiven so much by God we still fail to be loving and forgiving to each other. The point is not to make us feel bad about ourselves, but to remind us of how much God loves us, and to encourage us to be loving in return. This is how we should live as human beings, loving and forgiving each other. This is how we can flourish as individuals and as a Christian community. 

The world around us often tells us be angry and to feel aggrieved. When we pick up a newspaper, or turn on a radio or television, or look at the Internet, we usually find news reported in such a way as to provoke a variety of negative emotions. We are encouraged to feel angry, sad, or even afraid. There are many things out there right now to make us feel this way. Such judgement is clearly condemned by this morning’s readings. Being surrounded by a judgemental news culture makes it harder for us to live as Christian people. Often, without thinking, we pick up a negative mindset as if by osmosis, it just seeps in, and before we know it we are thinking and speaking in a harsh judgemental way. It is hard to resist, and that is why Jesus tells us to forgive seventy times seven times, i.e., an uncountable number of times. But, to do so is very difficult indeed. We have to be vigilant not to we fall into patterns of behaviour which may decrease the fullness and happiness of our lives. We have to try together, as a Christian community, to live out the faith which we profess. We will, naturally, often fail in this, but we can always seek forgiveness from each other, and from God, and we can keep trying. 

The world may tell us that our endeavour is impossible, yet we know that, ‘with God all things are possible’ (Mt 19:26). These are not idle words, but a promise of Jesus that we can trust, and live out together, as a community of love and reconciliation — real, costly, and wonderful. That is why we celebrate the Cross of Christ: the fact that, for love of us, Jesus bore the weight of our sins upon Himself. He suffered and died for us, to show that there was no length to which God would not go to demonstrate, once and for all, what love and forgiveness truly mean. The Cross is our only hope, the one thing that can save us from ourselves, from all that divides and wounds and which separates us from each other and from God. It is our healing, our salvation, and our sanctification. Through the Cross we are saved and made free, to sing the praise of 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. Amen

Twenty Third Sunday of Year A

The emergency services were not well-developed in the Ancient World. However, cities did have a night watch who functioned as a combination of a police force and fire brigade. It is to such an office that God appoints the prophet Ezekiel in this morning’s first reading. He is to be a night watchman, someone who is vigilant against fire and crime, someone concerned with safety and people’s well-being. Prophets exist to speak warnings to God’s people, to show them where they are going wrong and to show them how to get back on the right path. The role of a prophet is to call sinners to repent from their evil ways. Through the prophet God calls His people back to Him. Though people are, then as now, wayward they are given a chance to repent, to return to the ways of human flourishing. The choice is a stark one: life or death. It is important, and a lot depends upon the choices we make. This is why the central proclamation of the Church is to call God’s people to repentance: to turn away from sin, and to turn back to God. 

This week’s second reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans continues the Apostle’s advice on how Christians should live out their faith in their lives. Living a Christian life  is a difficult thing to do, and for two thousand years Christians have struggled to do it well. As followers of Christ we are called to love God and to love one another. Paul quotes from the Ten Commandments to make the point that the basis for the moral code found in the Mosaic Law is Love. If you love someone then you will not do such things to them. To love is to will the good of another, to make the right choice, one which leads to human flourishing.

Having shown the Church how to live, Paul widens his focus, to reinforce something we heard last week: 

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)

Paul can see the wider significance of what he is encouraging people to do. The Church knows that Jesus will come to judge the world, so Paul is encouraging Christians to live moral lives. The first Christians were surrounded by a decadent and morally corrupt society, justas we are today, and have been for two thousand years. Human nature is surprisingly consistent. We, however, are called to live differently. In our baptism, we put on Christ, and we were clothed with Him, sharing His Death, but we were also raised to new life in Him. We pray for the strength to live that new life, here and now! This is how we should prepare to meet our Redeemer, when He comes again.

How do we deal with problems as a church? This is an important and difficult question. This morning’s Gospel shows us how, in a number of clear simple steps. First we should approach the person in private. If they listen, and presumably admit their mistake and ask for forgiveness, or try to put things right, then that is an end to the matter. They are reconciled, and the matter is forgiven and forgotten. If this does not work, Paul instructs us to take one or two people, so that there are witnesses, and if this does not work, it becomes a matter for the church as a whole. If the person at fault still refuses to listen, they are excluded, not as a punishment, but so that they may have another opportunity to think things over, to admit that they are wrong, and to seek forgiveness and reconciliation. The point is not to cast people out, but to try and keep them in, and give them all possible opportunities to repent and be reconciled. In worldly terms this provision is generous. The church, which Christ founded, is meant to do things differently, as Jesus says:

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. (Jn 10:10)

God wants us all to have life in all its fulness, which includes healing and reconciliation. The world, however, often sees things in terms of punishment and retribution, whereas the church views things in terms of restoration. Our God is a God of justice and mercy. This is why Jesus goes to the Cross willingly, to bear our sins, and to heal our wounds. We cannot sort out the problem of our sin and woundedness on our own; if we could we would not need a Saviour. 

This is why Jesus reiterates His teaching about sin:

Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Mt 18: 18) 

This is a reality because of all that God has done for us in Christ. The Church exists to continue the redemptive work of God within the world. Through God’s forgiveness we can be truly reconciled and the healing, which can become a reality in our lives. Jesus says in the words which follow:

Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. (Mt 18:19)

Through God’s reconciliation we can make requests in prayer, and those requests will be answered. In addition, as a Christian community we can be encouraged by Christ’s presence in our midst:

For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them. (Mt 18:20)

Christ is among us, here and now! And we receive His Sacramental Presence in the Eucharist, His Very Flesh and Blood, so that He may transform us; so that we may have a foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet and be built up and strengthened in love, both here and now. We have the medicine for which our souls cry out. This is the healing which Christ accomplishes on the Cross, He longs to pour out His Love on us, so that we can know true freedom, true joy, and true love, in Him. So let us come to Him and let His Grace transform our lives, so that we, and all creation, 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. Amen.