Homily for Septuagesima [Deut 18:15-20; ICor 7:32-35; Mk 1:21-28]

Our experience over the last twelve months has shown us how the world we live in is broken and wounded. As people who live in this broken world, we long for wholeness and healing. The global pandemic is terrible and terrifying, and yet it is a symptom of a wider malaise, of sin and selfishness, which characterises our modern existence. We fall short and look to God for forgiveness and healing. The world more than ever, needs to hear Christ’s call to repent and believe, as He states in Mark’s Gospel:

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mk 1:15)

Repent and believe the Good news: turn from sin, and love God and your neighbour. The message is simple and straightforward, and lies at the heart of our Gospel reading this morning. Jesus has been baptised by John. He has called disciples, and now they go to Capernaum where Jesus teaches and heals. Worship in a synagogue involved singing the Psalms, reading from Scripture, and teaching, rather like a sermon. Jesus explains Scripture to the synagogue, and they are amazed: His teaching is fresh and revolutionary, and unlike what they are used to hear coming from their religious leaders.

for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.” (Mk 1:22)

Jesus teaches like someone with authority. He isn’t a scribe or a Pharisee, He hasn’t spent years in theological training. He stands outside traditional religious power structures. Jesus’ teaching has authority not just because it is spoken with conviction, because it is real and embodied in Him, lived out in His life, but because he is God: the Son of God, beloved of the Father (cf. Mk 1:11), filled with the Holy Spirit, proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom. No sooner has Jesus done this, then there is a practical demonstration of what His teaching looks like in real life:

And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.’” (Mk 1:23-24)

There is a man who needs healing, understood as possessed by an evil spirit, though nowadays we would probably prefer to describe him as suffering from mental illness. He is not a well man, he wants to be healed. This weak, broken man recognises who and what Jesus is: He is the Holy One of God, the Messiah. The point of the Kingdom which Jesus proclaims, which he explains in his teaching, is that it is a place of healing. Ours is a God who can heal our wounds, who can take broken humanity and restore it in love. This is why Jesus’ teaching and the healing have to go together; they are both part of a larger whole, the coming Kingdom of God. Jesus proclaims our need to love God and each other, and puts it into practice, making the healing power of God’s love a reality in the world.

Jesus’ teaching and healing amaze the synagogue. His words become actions which heal the afflicted man. He has the authority to teach and heal because Jesus is God, and His teaching and healing proclaim in word and deed the reality of the Kingdom of God, there in the synagogue in Capernaum. Jesus is the fulfilment of Moses’ prophecy in our first reading this morning, where he says:

The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen” (Deut 18:15)

And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.”(Deut 18:18)

These verses are quoted by St Peter in Acts 3:22 and St Stephen in Acts 7:37 to refer to Jesus, so for nearly two thousand years the Church has had a consistent interpretation of this passage as pointing to, and finding its fulfilment in, Jesus Christ. 

The message Jesus proclaims in His teaching is reinforced by His actions. He shows that the Kingdom of God is where humanity can be healed and freed from sin. Christ demonstrates this most fully when He suffers and dies for us on the Cross. From the very beginning, Jesus looks to the Cross, not as a place of torture, of humiliation, nor defeat, but as the place of victory, and healing. It is the supreme demonstration of God’s love for humanity. Through the Cross we learn how much God loves us. This is why God sends His Son to heal our wounds, to restore us, and to give us the hope of Heaven. Confident in His promises we can turn to God and pray for the healing for which we all so desperately long for, and which the world needs We can pray that His Divine nature might transform our human nature, and give us a foretaste of heaven. We pray that our wounds: physical and mental, will be healed, so that we might have life in Him, in this world and the next.

The possessed man asks ‘Have you come to destroy us?’ All that Christ has come to destroy is the power of evil which separates man from God. We know that Jesus has come not to destroy but to restore humanity, so that we may have life and have it to the full. This is the Good News of the Kingdom, which is still a reality here and now. We, in our brokenness, can come to the source of all healing, to the God who loves us and gives himself for us, so that we can be restored by Him. God can take our lives and heal us in His love. So let us come to Him, so that our lives too may be transformed, and let us proclaim to a world, which longs for healing and wholeness, the love of God in Christ. So that all creation may 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. 

The Third Sunday after Epiphany

At this moment, any discussion of celebration seems somewhat out of place, it doesn’t feel quite right, given the current circumstances. We cannot currently celebrate together, nor do we want to; nonetheless it is still important to ponder the words of Holy Scripture and through them to be brought ever closer to Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. This is the purpose of prayer, and Christian worship: to be drawn ever closer to the God who loves us, who gives himself for us, so that we might have life in Him. 

Our first reading this morning from the Book Genesis describes the meeting of Abram with Melchizedek the King of Salem in the context of a military victory. Melchizedek welcomes his guest by bringing out bread and wine. This is significant because it is royal food and drink, as shown by Jesse’s gift to Saul in 1Samuel 16:20:

And Jesse took a donkey laden with bread and a skin of wine and a young goat and sent them by David his son to Saul.

It is this royal food and drink, the food and drink which accompanies sacrifices, the food of celebration, rather than the simple fare of bread and water. For Christians it points forward to the Last Supper when Jesus takes bread and wine and says, ‘This is my Body … This is my Blood’ and commands us to do this in memory of Him. Melchizedek is a priest and a king, the ruler of Jerusalem, and he worships God, the God of Abram. He is generous and hospitable, and as a result Abram is generous in return, giving Melchizedek a tenth of what he has. 

Our second reading from Revelation gives us a glimpse of the worship of Heaven, and the marriage feast of the Lamb. The marriage feast is a sign of the unity between Christ and His Church, and points to the Eucharist as the earthly sign of the heavenly reality. Our worship here on earth mirrors the heavenly reality and indicates the future that God has in store for those who love Him.

Weddings are joyful occasions. They are a cause for personal and communal celebration. Unlike our current western practice, Jewish weddings in the time of Jesus were week-long celebrations to which the entire community was invited. The idea of a seven-day party is both appealing and terrifying, wonderful and yet a logistical nightmare. We are dealing with a culture motivated by shame and honour, where the loss of face involved in running out of food or drink would have been catastrophic. 

So it is no surprise that Jesus, His mother Mary, and the disciples are all invited to the wedding, as it is a celebration for the whole community. The lack of wine represents a big problem, and so Mary’s concern for the families is real and genuine. She does not want them to experience such shame and acts to avoid this nightmare situation. 

Jesus’ reply to His Mother, ‘Woman … come’, could be seen as curt and dismissive. However, Jesus is not being rude, instead His remark refers to a far larger context than the wedding, that is the whole of His Earthly ministry. He tells His Mother that it is isn’t their problem, and states that His hour has not yet come: It is not yet His time. Jesus’ hour comes with His Death upon the Cross, when He will wipe away our sins, and take all our shame upon Himself. 

Despite what Jesus says to her , Mary instructs the servants to, ‘Do whatever He tells you’. In this simple phrase she shows us that the key is obedience to the will of God: Listen to what God says and do it. It is that simple and straightforward. As Christians we need to follow her example. Our life should be rooted in obedience: we need to listen to God and obey, for our own good, and the good of the Kingdom. We need to follow the will of God and not be conformed to the world and its ways. We need to truly enter into the joy of the Lord, in humble obedience, be fed by Him, and fed with Him, who died for love of us, in submission to the will of the Father.

This is not the only celebration Jesus attends. We read in the Gospels that Jesus liked nothing better than to hang around at parties with all sorts of people, especially social undesirables. He was even accused by Scribes and Pharisees of being a glutton and a drunkard. In both Luke [7:34] and Matthew [11:19] we see Jesus rejoicing in such name-calling,

the Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.”’ (Mt 11:19) [cf. Deut 21:20: ‘and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’’’ The next verse talks of death by stoning, and looks forward to Our Lord’s Crucifixion at Calvary.]

Jesus enjoys eating and drinking because feasting is a sign of the Kingdom of God. It is clearly shown in the prophecy of Isaiah:

On this mountain the Lord of Hosts will make for all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wine on the lees well refined. And he will destroy on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death for ever, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth; for the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day, “Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”’ (Isa 25:6-9)

Here prophecy is fulfilled and we see a glimpse of the banquet at the end of time which is our hope in Heaven, the hope of John’s vision in Revelation.

The extravagant Wedding party points to something greater than itself. It is a foreshadowing of the joy of the Kingdom. It is a taste of the lavish excess that our God, whose love and generosity are beyond our understanding, wishes to bestow on us, as a sign of His love for us.

The world today struggles somewhat with extravagance, and rightly so: when we see the super-rich with gold-plated taps in their mansions and super-yachts we are right to be concerned, yet in the Gospel we see something strange. The head steward has a point: you serve the best wine first, while people can most appreciate it. The Kingdom of God, however, turns human values on their head – the joyous new wine of the Kingdom is finer than any human wine. It is lavished upon undeserving humanity, so that it might transform us, so that we might come to share in the glory of God, and his very nature. Christ therefore becomes the true master of the feast, as He will feed humanity from the abundance of the Heavenly Wedding Feast.

Thus, as we start this new year, we see a three-fold dawning of the Glory of God in Christ Jesus. First , Our Lord’s manifestation to the Gentiles, is the proclamation of the Messiah to the whole world. Then, His Baptism, which shows us the way to the Father, is a sign of love and obedience. Now the Wedding Feast at Cana, is a sure sign of the superabundance of God’s love. Let us live out that love in our lives, and share it with others so that they may sing the praises 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.

The Second Sunday of Year B

There is a common misconception that when the Church talks about vocation, being called, it is referring to the call to ordained ministry, to be a deacon or a priest. Nothing could be further from the truth. While this call is an important one, there remains a fundamental call which comes to us all in our baptism: the call to follow Christ. Each and every one of us is called to be a disciple of Jesus, to listen to what He says, and to let this call affect our lives. It is both a daunting prospect, and the most normal and natural thing in the world. 

Our first reading this morning tells the story of the call of Samuel, a young boy serving at the sanctuary in Shiloh with the high priest Eli. After his mother, Hannah, had prayed to God for a child whom she would dedicate to God as a Nazirite, she became pregnant and Samuel was born. Nazirites were not allowed to cut their hair, drink wine, or touch a dead body. Eli’s predecessor, Samson, the last of the Judges in the Book of Judges, was also a  Nazirite. Samuel is called three times. Each time he goes to Eli, whom he assumes is calling him. Eventually Eli tells Samuel to reply, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.’ (1Sam 3:9). So Samuel responds to God’s invitation, and it totally changes his life. Are we willing to take that risk, and answer God’s call?

Ancient Corinth was something like a cross between London and Las Vegas. It was a rich trading centre with a reputation for sexual immorality. This morning’s second reading from St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, is an attempt to argue that our embodied existence, that is how we live our lives , matters. Often, we become what we do. It is therefore important to do the right thing, and not the wrong. Paul’s argument leads to his conclusion:

You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (1Cor 6:19-20) 

We are not our own, we belong to God, who bought us with the price of His Son, Jesus Christ. The world likes to tell us that we are autonomous, that we can do whatever we want to, but at a fundamental level we are God’s people, and belong to the God who made us, and who redeemed us out of love for us. God sets us free to love Him and serve Him, so how we live our lives is our response to that love and an act of loving service. We can choose to glorify God, not that God needs our glory, but because it is how we should live our lives, in love and service. Our faith affects our lived existence.

In today’s Gospel we move beyond the Baptism of Christ to the events of the following day. John has testified that Jesus is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, and that He is the Son of God. When John sees Jesus walking by he again exclaims ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ (Jn 1:36). The phrase looks back to the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52-53 who is led like a lamb to the slaughter. The beginning of Jesus public ministry points to its end on the Cross. Jesus is the Messiah and He will die to take away our sins. Two of John’s disciples hear him saying these words and follow Jesus. When Jesus asks them what they are looking for, the disciples answer ‘Rabbi’. They acknowledge Jesus as a teacher, and ask Him where He is staying. Jesus replies, “Come and you will see.” (Jn 1:39). Jesus invites them to follow Him, to see where He is staying and to spend time with Him. These two disciples of John become followers of Jesus, literally and metaphorically. The Church continues to make the same invitation to the world, to come and see, to follow Jesus. These two disciples stay with Jesus, they listen to Him, they eat with Him, and begin to have a relationship with Him. We then discover that one of the men is Andrew, and that he has a brother, called Simon. Andrew is convinced that he has found the Messiah and brings his brother to Jesus. When Jesus meets Simon he says,

“So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter) (Jn 1:42)

Jesus gives Simon a new name. He calls him Cephas, which means ‘rock’ in Aramaic, Petros in Greek, from which our name Peter comes. Peter will be the rock upon which Christ will build His Church (Mt 16:18). The name Jesus gives points to Peter’s future role as the leader of the Apostles. Jesus takes the initiative and begins to sketch out a future for the disciples who are following Him. It is quick, and matter of fact, and yet momentous. Jesus is gathering people to help Him with this ministry.

The Church therefore begins with a few Galilean fishermen following a rabbi whom they recognise as the Messiah. Thanks to them, and their faith in Jesus, we are in the Church today. Faith, where we put our trust, is an important thing. It affects both who we are, and how we live our lives. Faith turned Peter from a fisherman into a leader of the early Christians, and it has continued to transform lives for the past two thousand years. 

In our baptism, God in Christ invites each and every one of us to follow Him, to ‘come and see’, as the first disciples did, and to invite others, as Andrew invited Simon Peter. To come and see who Jesus is, to get to know Him, and start a relationship with Him. This begins with our sharing in His Death and Resurrection, and ends in the glory of Heaven. Where we, and all the Church, 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. Amen. 

Baptism of Christ

The Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist in the River Jordan at the start of His public ministry is one of the events found in all four Gospels (the others are the Feeding of the Five Thousand, and the account of the Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection, from Palm Sunday to Easter Day). Each gospel contains accounts of the beginning and end of Jesus’ public ministry, as well as a miraculous feeding. If we take a moment to consider both what baptism is, and what it is for, we may come to understand why all four  gospel writers included it in their account of the life and teachings of Jesus. 

Baptism is symbolic washing with water for the forgiveness of sins. If Jesus was baptized does that mean that He sinned? The answer is, No. So, given the fact that Jesus committed no sins, did He need to be baptised by John? Again, the answer is. No. You may begin to wonder what is going on here? Why would Jesus begins His Public ministry in Galilee with a redundant action? If Jesus does not need to be baptised, what is the point of it? What is Jesus doing and why is it important for us?

Unlike all human beings, who commit sin, and become estranged from their relationship with God, Jesus is God become man. He is perfect, sinless, and united with God the Father, and the Holy Spirit, a Trinity of love. There is no need to restore the relationship, because it is one of perfect love. Mark’s account of the Baptism is prefaced by the words of John the Baptist:

After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mk 1:7-8)

John the Baptist is linking Christ’s baptism with the redemption of humanity in His death. The very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry points to the Cross, where salvation and freedom will be offered to all who turn to Christ. John baptises with water, but he looks forward to Jesus, who will baptise with the Holy Spirit. This is the baptism of the Church, to save and redeem humanity, by sharing in Christ’s Death and Resurrection.

Once Jesus has been baptised by John, extraordinary things happen:

And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Mk 1:10-11)

At the moment of Jesus’ baptism we hear God the Father, and see God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. The fulness of God is manifest to humanity in the Trinity. We can see and hear God’s saving work. Jesus does not need to be baptised, but does so for three reasons. Firstly to demonstrate His humility, and obedience to the will of the Father; secondly to sanctify the waters of baptism, and finally to act as an example for us to follow. Thus, God sends the Holy Spirit to demonstrate the bond of love between the Father and the Son. The Father speaks to demonstrate that Jesus is the Son of God. He is beloved of the Father, and His obedience and humility is pleasing in the sight of God. Jesus shows us the way back to the Father. By our own obedience and humility, by our repentance, and turning away from the ways of sin and the world, we return to the God who loves us. This is the message of the church: that God’s grace is available to us, to everybody, even though we haven’t worked for or earned it, even though we have done nothing to deserve it, God’s love and mercy is there for us. In Baptism we receive adoption, and become part of the family of God. Through Baptism we are born again, of water and the Spirit, we are ‘in Christ’, clothed with Him.

The unnecessary nature of the act of Jesus’ Baptism discloses something profound about the nature of God and His love for us. God gives us more than we ask for, because it is in God’s nature to be generous in a way which astounds us. There is something reckless, extravagant, utterly over the top, about the love of God, which should prompt us to love and care for others in a similar way.

John’s baptism of water prepares the way for the baptism of the Holy Spirit in Christ, through which we enter the Church. It shows us a new way of living. Life in the Spirit, life with God, has a profound effect on us, who we are and what we do. It opens up the possibility of living in a new way, a way of love, which mirrors the generosity shown to us by God. This way of life shows us in the Church what it is to be truly alive and how to live in a new way. It points to another act of God’s extravagant love: when Christ dies on the Cross, to take away our sin, to carry our burden, which separates us from God and each other. Our wounds are healed, the relationship is restored so that we can live the life of the Kingdom of God here and now: living out that self-giving, reckless, extravagant love and forgiveness in our own lives, and in the world around us.

Back in our first reading this morning the prophet Isaiah looks forward to the coming of the Messiah with a proclamation of extravagant generosity:

Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters” (Isa 55:1)

This invitation is also the invitation of the Church, for people to enter it by baptism and share in the unsearchable riches of Christ. Today we remember that salvation is offered to the world through baptism. We give thanks for the rebirth of our own baptism, and hope to share it with others. Baptism reminds us of the hope which we have in Jesus Christ, hope of new life, and eternal life with Him. Whatever is happening in the world, or in our own lives we can trust in who God is, and what He has done for us. In this trust we can live out our faith so that the world may be transformed and 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. Amen. 

Epiphany 2021

We start this new year of 2021 in a Tier 4 lockdown, with our movements and our freedom to associate severely curtailed by law. Government control of people, their movements and whereabouts, is, however, nothing new. Mary and Joseph were forced to travel about 90 miles from their home in Nazareth up to Bethlehem in order to comply with the census regulations. It was a hard journey, at the end of which Mary gave birth in what were far from ideal circumstances as the guest houses were full. One cannot help but compare with those being treated in hospital corridors as there are no beds available.

Some time later the Holy Family receive some unexpected visitors. The wise men travelled over 500 miles because they observed a celestial phenomenon, a star, which they interpreted as signifying a royal birth in Israel. They travel to Jerusalem, the capital city, and see the king, and explain why they have come. Their news, rather than being a cause for joyous celebration, is interpreted by the Jewish king as a threat. So, Herod consults the religious experts who explain, following the prophecy of Micah, that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem. Herod sends the wise men off to do some reconnaissance, before reporting back to him, claiming that he wishes to come and worship the child. However, the wise men are warned not to return to Herod, but to take a different route back home.

Matthew’s Gospel presents a story characterised by fear, rather than celebration. King Herod is worried that he will be removed from power. Fear is everywhere: fear of the Roman overlords, of threats to the ruling dynasty, or of popular uprising. It is a tense world, far removed from familiar domesticated images of Christmas and Epiphany, and yet such is God’s coming into our world. God comes into a world of fear to bring hope and love to people who long for healing and reconciliation. 

The wise men bring Jesus presents. Indeed, it is because of them that we give each other gifts at this time. We follow their example, and try to manifest something of the love and generosity which characterises this season. Unlike the wise men, we have not been able to travel this year, and we may have presents which we have not been able to deliver or send. It doesn’t matter. The wise men were not concerned about when they would arrive with their gifts. What mattered was that would see the King of the Jews, worship Him as God, and give Him treasures. They offer Jesus gold, a sign of His Kingship. They give incense, because Jesus is God become man, to whom worship is due. And they offer myrrh, used to anoint the dead. Even at Christ’s birth it is recognised that He will die for us, reconciling God and humanity. At the beginning of Jesus’ earthly life we see signs of how it will end: in Jerusalem, on a Cross, with a crown of thorns and a mocking inscription which proclaims the truth of God’s love for humanity.

God comes into a world of fear to bring hope, and joy, and love. In taking our flesh, Jesus shares our experience of human life and all that that entails. God can not only empathise but also sympathise. God, in Christ, experiences our fears and frailties. This wonderful news is declared to the world at the Epiphany, Our Lord’s Manifestation to the whole world. Epiphany fulfils the prophecies of Scripture: our first reading this morning from Isaiah Chapter 60 is full of details which are picked up in the account of the visit of the Magi. This is important in that it shows us that Jesus is the one who fulfils prophecy, He is the Messiah, the King of the Jews, God with us, Emmanuel. The fact that His birth is recognised by both local shepherds and wise men from outside the Jewish world shows that God’s salvation is for all, for everyone who turns to Him. This is Good News. God loves us and makes this manifest to the whole world in the birth of Jesus. 

To a world filled with fear we can proclaim a message of hope, and joy, the good news that salvation has come to humanity in Jesus, born in Bethlehem, recognised and worshipped by the wise men because He is God. We can rejoice with them because we share their joy and wonder that God is born to save us. We can trust His promises, and know that whatever difficulties we face, whatever fears assail us, that God is with us, with a message of salvation for all people. 

So let us be filled with hope and peace, may we live lives of joy, and love, and service of God and one another, which proclaim in word and deed the love of God to the world. May the whole of creation resound with 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. 

James Tissot, The Magi travelling