Trinity Sunday

Last year, 2020, marked the 850th anniversary of the martyrdom of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury. He was consecrated a bishop on this day in 1162. Becket commanded that the anniversary of his consecration should be kept on the Sunday after Pentecost, in honour of the Most Holy Trinity. The practice became widespread and in 1334, Pope John XXII made it an official feast day.

Last Sunday we celebrated Pentecost, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Church, a revelation of who God is, and how much God loves us, His people. This week we continue to meditate upon God’s love. Such love is awesome and mysterious: an ocean whose depths we can never plumb. This love forms a relationship so intimate that God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. Above all it is something to be experienced, rather than understood. Through this experience God transforms us, so that we may experience that love more fully, and finally enjoy it for eternity, in Heaven. 

In our first reading from the book Deuteronomy, Moses calls Israel to reflect on the marvellous things God has done to bring His people out of Egypt. God is love, and His signs and wonders are a manifestation of that love. By accepting God’s love, Israel becomes a holy nation. To be holy is to let God’s love be at work in our lives, in our desires, our activities, and our relationships. 

The second reading is taken from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and addresses Christians, who have received the Holy Spirit in Baptism. The word ‘Abba’ means ‘Father’ in Aramaic. It is an intimate and affectionate word, and the first word of the Lord’s Prayer. This term is a sign of the close relationship between God the Father, and God the Son. It speaks of the closeness of the relationship which God is inviting us to share. By acknowledging God as Father, we are called to be dutiful sons and daughters. In the reading from Deuteronomy, God calls Israel to be obedient children. Jesus obeys the will of the Father, and likewise the Apostles are expected  both to obey Jesus, and to teach those they baptize to observe what Jesus commands. Such obedience is not that of a slave, but of a beloved child, part of a family, someone in a loving relationship with an inheritance in Heaven. As Christians we are brothers and sisters in Christ, filled with the Spirit, and part of family which existed for two thousand years, across every people, and language. Our inheritance is that we can share in Christ’s glory in Heaven, and enjoy it for all eternity. Such is the mystery of God’s love for us.

Today’s Gospel is what is commonly called the Great Commission. It comes at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, just before the Ascension. Before Jesus ascends to the Father, He sends His disciples out with authority. They are sent to make disciples, to teach them about God, and to draw people into a relationship with the God who loves them. As a sign of this relationship the Apostles are to baptize people in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. From the very beginning the Christian Faith is a Trinitarian Faith. We believe in One God, who is Father, Son,  and Holy Spirit. Three persons, bound together in love, who invite the world to be in a relationship with Them. Our eucharist this morning began,  ‘Yn enw’r Tad, a’r Mab, a’r Ysbryd Glân, In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit’, because this is the God whom we worship. We express our belief in the words that we use, and also in the postures we adopt. Our movements show in a physical way what we believe. As Christians, we are called to live out the faith of our baptism in our lives. God, who is love, has shown that love to the world through His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the sending of the Holy Spirit. To be a Christian is to have encountered that love, and been changed by it. We are changed in our baptism and born again to new life in Christ. We are also changed each time we receive Holy Communion. By God’s grace, Communion, whether physical or spiritual, transforms us. Through it we are united with Christ, so that we may become what He is and share in the love which is the life of God. 

It is both a great gift and a profound mystery, to share in the Divine life of love, and  to be transformed. God loves us so much that He shares His life with us, and encourages us to share it with others. God’s generosity is breathtaking, and that is the point. We proclaim and worship a generous, loving God, who invites us all to enter the mystery of His love, and to let ourselves be changed by it. As followers of Christ, we are called to bear our own cross, and to suffer, but we do so willingly. We know that whatever trials we face are as nothing compared with the joy and glory which await us. We support each other, as a family, united with a God who has suffered for us, and who makes us this promise:

And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Mt 28:20)

We are not alone. Christ is with us. He hears our prayers, and speaks to us in Scripture. He nourishes and transforms us with the Sacraments. These all unite us with God. Ans so we join with the angels and saints in singing 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.

Pentecost

Witnesses give evidence in legal proceedings, they testify to the truth (or falsehood), of a situation. They provide evidence which can be believed. In the Gospel today Jesus promised his disciples that He will send, 

the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. And you will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.’ (Jn 15:26-27) 

Both the Apostles and the Holy Spirit bear witness to who God is, and what God does. Doing so brings the disciples into direct conflict with Jewish and Roman authorities. Christianity was, for nearly the first three hundred years of its existence, an illegal religion, whose adherents could be punished with execution. Bearing witness to Jesus was a costly process, both then and now. The Apostles bear witness to Christ, who taught them, who rose from the dead, and who promised to send His Spirit upon them on this day. It is through their bearing witness to Christ that the Christian faith spread. Filled with the Holy Spirit, the Apostles bore witness to God’s activity in the world.

Jesus also promises His disciples that,

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.’ (Jn 16:13-15)

Thus, we see that the Holy Spirit has a role to play in guiding the Church in truth, preserving it from error, so that Christians may continue to love God, and proclaim the truth which comes to us from the Apostles. We know that Jesus speaks the truth, that his promises can be trusted, that he pours His Holy Spirit upon His followers on the day of Pentecost, and continues so to do until He will come in glory as our Saviour and our Judge. Jesus wants us to tell people all about Him: about how he came to show the world love, and about how we can live filled with that love.

This is why St Paul can write to the Church in Galatia as a community that has experienced the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Paul describes what it means to be filled with the Holy Spirit as follows:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.’ (Gal 5:22-23)

Paul is describing how we are all supposed to live as Christians. It is an ideal, which we often fail to live up to. But nonetheless, it shows us how God wants us to live. Here is a glimpse of life in all its fulness: life in union with God and each other. This is perfect communion, something to strive for, even if we may struggle to attain it. This is how we can live when we let God be in control, and when our human will is perfectly aligned with God’s will for us.

Before his Ascension, Christ tells His disciples to wait in Jerusalem so that they may be baptized in the Holy Spirit. The disciples have again gathered in the Upper Room, with the Blessed Virgin Mary. This is the same place where Christ instituted the Eucharist, and washed his disciples’ feet. They have met here because Jesus told them to be together and to pray, for ‘you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses … to the end of the earth’ (Acts 1:8). An amazing event then takes place. Everyone present is filled with the Holy Spirit. Tongues of fire rest upon them, and they speak in a variety of languages. Afterwards when they go out to preach, people from all over the world, who have come to Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost, hear the mighty works of Godin their own language. They hear and understand the proclamation of who Jesus is, and what he has done.

Chapter 11 of the Book of Genesis tells the story about people trying to build a tower to reach heaven, the Tower of Babel. God punishes them, by making their speech unintelligible and by scattering them. Now, at Pentecost, instead of division, we see unity. All the peoples of the world can hear and understand the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ. They can learn about the promised Messiah, the Son of God, who died for our sins, rose on the third day, ascended into heaven. He has sent His Holy Spirit so that where there was sin, disobedience, and confusion, there is now obedience to the will of God, unity and understanding. Something new and wonderful is happening.

The outpouring of the Holy Spirit on this day is the manifestation of God’s love, active in the world. Through it humanity can be united, and come to know the fullness of God as Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Only in the Spirit can we enter fully into the divine life of love, and live out this love in the world. In the power of this love we can begin to understand the mystery of Our Lord’s Incarnation, His Life, Death, and Resurrection, and we can let these mysteries shape our lives as Christians.

God will make His home with us in His word, Holy Scripture and the sacraments of His Church – outward signs of the inward grace which He lavishes on us in the power of His Spirit. That is why we are here today: to be fed with the Body and Blood of Christ, to stand by the Cross so that we may be washed in the blood and water which flows from his side. In this we see God’s love for us, and we are strengthened to live the life of the Spirit. The gift of the Holy Spirit helps us to remain close to the God who loves us and saves us. We can be taught by His Spirit to remain in the faith which comes to us from the Apostles who first received the Spirit on this day two thousand years ago. Let us then live strengthened by Spirit, nourished by word and sacrament, in holiness and joy. Let us, like the Apostles, proclaim the truth and love of God to all peoples, so that the world may believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

Maronite Icon of Pentecost

Easter VII

As Christians we are called to be in the world, but not of the world. This world is simply somewhere we will reside for a short while. Our citizenship is in Heaven, our true home, where we long to spend eternity with God. One of the ways in which the Church lives out this other-worldliness is shown in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles.

After Jesus’ Ascension the disciples spend time together in prayer and fellowship. One of their first actions is to appoint a replacement for Judas Iscariot, so that the Eleven Apostles may become Twelve again. For Jews the number twelve is very significant and stands for wholeness and the completion of God’s purpose. There are twelve months in a year, and twelve tribes of Israel. It is important that the Apostles are restored to their proper number. So, out of all the 120 current followers of Jesus, Peter states that they need someone who has been with them from the beginning, to act as a witness to Jesus’ resurrection. Two candidates are put forward: Justus and Matthias. Peter then prays for guidance:

You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” (Acts 1: 24-25)

The disciples do not decide for themselves, they leave the choice up to God. Through the random process of casting lots, God can show them whom He wants to be an apostle. This feels strange to us nowadays. We want to be in control. We want to choose. Perhaps we would be better served by putting God back in control. 

The Gospel reading continues exploration of the Farewell Discourses between the Last Supper and Jesus’ Arrest. Today we have arrived at Chapter 17, Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer. This is a truly solemn moment of intimate conversation between the Father and the Son. Before His Passion, Christ is entrusting His Church to the Father, that it may be kept safe, and that it may be filled with the glory of God, and strengthened to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom. It is a moment of profound emotion and intimacy, a window into the conversation between two Persons of the Holy Trinity. 

Jesus is entrusting us, His Church to God, for God to care for us. His prayer sees us in opposition to a world which rebels against God, a world of sin and corruption, a world of power and politics. Christ prays that His people may be set apart, holy, devoted to God, and filled with love. To love is to will the good of the other. God loves us, and it is God’s will that we flourish and enjoy life in all its fulness, united to Him. This is why Jesus taught us to pray,

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Mt 6:10)

Christ is praying that we, His Church, stay close to God, and be united with God’s will, filled with God’s love. This is why we look forward to next Sunday, when we celebrate Pentecost, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. This is a sign of God’s love for us, the love which unites Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God invites us to be united with the life of the Trinity, and to offer that invitation with others. If we place ourselves in God’s hands He will take the initiative, just as He did in choosing Matthias to replace Judas.

Matthias’ name means ‘gift of God’. The disciples received this gift after praying together and asking for God’s guidance. As Christians we too need to be together, to meet together to pray for our needs and those of the world. In prayer, we are united with each other and with God. Sharing in the Eucharist together and hearing the word of God nourishes us. They are crucial to who and what we are. Together we experience the love of God and the joy of community. The world may be indifferent to what we do, or it may call us hypocrites when we fail to live up to the example of Jesus. But, as Christians, we strive to live in the love of God, and forgive each other our trespasses, so that we can live out that same radical love and forgiveness which sees Jesus die upon the Cross for love of us and all the world.

It is a message of such love, such forgiveness that the world cannot or does not want to understand. We may not understand God’s love, but we know that it can be experienced, through personal encounter with Jesus. We are living testimony to love’s power to change lives. It sets us free to live for God and to proclaim his saving truth in our words and actions.

As I mentioned earlier in this sermon, Matthias’ name means ‘gift of God’ and his appointment comes just before God’s wonderful gift of the Holy Spirit. So as we wait with the Apostles for this gift, let us pray that God may be at work in us, building us up, and giving us strength to live the Christian life and to proclaim God’s truth. Let us then share these gifts with others, so that they may also 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. Amen.

Easter VI

The Christian Church would probably not have spread so far, nor survived for very long, if it had remained an exclusively Jewish body. Thankfully, from early on in its history, the message of salvation, the Good News of the Gospel, was preached to Jew and Gentile alike. In this morning’s first reading we see this taking place for the first time.The setting is Caesarea, the capital of Judaea, on the Mediterranean coast, midway between Tel Aviv and Haifa. Cornelius, a centurion in the Roman army, is a god-fearing and kind man. He receives a vision instructing him to seek out Simon Peter and listen to him. Cornelius sends men to bring Peter. The disciple also received instructive visions, so is glad to go to Caesarea. Cornelius is somewhat overcome when Peter arrives, and throws himself on the ground before the Apostle. Simon Peter is uncomfortable about being worshipped, knowing that worship is due to God, and God alone.

We now learn how Peter’s mind has been changed by a vision which encouraged him to eat what Jewish law describes as ‘unclean’ food. This makes Peter understand that the  Good News of Jesus Christ is not just for Jews, but for everyone. 

So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34-35)

Here we see the rationale for the worldwide spread of Christianity. Rather than being solely the preserve of a single ethnic group, the Jews, salvation is offered to the whole world. Because of these verses the message of Jesus Christ was brought to this, and every land, and it was shared, and taught to all people. These verses are part of the reason that you are reading or hearing these words today. I, for one, find that amazing. Because Peter had the vision and courage to reach out to non-Jews, the Gospel was able to spread. The effect of the Apostle’s preaching is likewise amazing. His words, and his faith prompt the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. People come to know God, and long for baptism, to be born again by water and the Spirit. God is active in Caesarea. This is where the Church receives its first gentile converts, and starts to become the worldwide body which it still is. 

In the second reading, from the First Letter of John, we are reminded that Christianity is a religion of love. John writes about God’s love for us, and our love of God and each other. It is because God loves us that He sent His Son to be, ‘the propitiation for our sins’ (1Jn 4:10). Which means that Jesus makes up for all that we have done wrong. Jesus offers Himself, the Righteous for the unrighteous, to restore our relationship with God and each other.  Jesus reconciles God and humanity, bringing together what sin has thrust apart. This is the heart of the Good News. However, as well as dying for us, Christ also rose again. This is what we celebrate at Easter, and is what fills us with hope.

The Gospel reading today continues through the discourses which form part of John’s account of the Last Supper. It includes some of Jesus’ advice to his disciples in the Upper Room on the night before He died. Our Lord talks about love, and how Christian love should imitate the love that Jesus has for us. Christ loves humanity so much that He willing goes to His death on the Cross for us, to reconcile us to God and each other. In this we see that love has the power to transform human lives. Love helps us to be to be something which we were not before. Through God’s love we are transformed and we are able to bear fruit through our sharing of this wonderful love with others. 

Those who follow Christ are called to abide in His love, to remain in it, to live and make our home there. It means being part of the Christian community but also standing by the Cross, where God’s love is made manifest to the world. We are called to love God and each other, to transform our lives, to take up our cross and follow Him. To aid us in our lives of faith we are washed by the Blood of the Lamb, and fed by Him. Pope Benedict XVI, speaking at World Youth Day in 2008, explained that:

 ‘love has a particular trait: far from being indulgent or fickle, it has a task or purpose to fulfil: to abide.’ https://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/speeches/2008/july/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20080719_vigil.html

We experience such love most fully in the Eucharist where Christ continues to give Himself to us. Out of love, He continues to heal our wounds, to restore our relationship with God and each other, and to give us a foretaste of heaven in the here and now. There is nothing on earth as precious as this love. Nothing is more wondrous than this sign and token of God’s love for us. To dwell in Christ’s love is to be united with Him in physical and spiritual communion, so that God’s grace can transform us more and more into His likeness. 

The transformation that took place in the lives of believers in Caesarea continues to this day, and will continue until the end of time. As Christ’s people continue to be recreated into God’s likeness, so we are built up in love. Love and transformation go hand in hand. We grow and develop, nurtured in love, and by loving others. This is how the Church has continued to grow for two thousand years. The message of love and radical change continues to be at work in people’s lives. The Holy Spirit is active in the world, not just in the dramatic way seen in the Acts of the Apostles, but in the gradual development of a Christian Faith deepened through a lifetime of prayer and the sacraments, study, and good works. This is no less miraculous just because it is less obviously extraordinary. To live in Christ is to remain close to Him day by day, so that we can live life in all its fulness. We invite others so that they, and all creation, may be remade into the likeness 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

Bernardo Cavalino S. Peter and Cornelius the Centurion

Easter V

It is difficult for us to understand just how hard it was for the disciples to accept Paul of Tarsus into the Christian community. We first meet St Paul during the martyrdom of St Stephen. Paul wants to do everything he can to eradicate the Church and the followers of Jesus. He is a zealous opponent of everything the Church stands for. Paul wants to persecute the Church, but thanks to a dramatic encounter with Jesus, he undergoes a conversion. Her greatest enemy becomes her most zealous advocate. Paul goes from one extreme to another: from hating the Church to loving her. Thus is it perfectly understandable that when Paul comes to Jerusalem and tries to see the disciples, they react in a negative way. 

This is the situation in our first reading this morning from the Acts of the Apostles. The disciples are afraid, and think, understandably, that it is an elaborate hoax, a trap designed to end in their arrest and subsequent death. They are wary of Paul, and doubt that his conversion is genuine. But their natural reluctance is overcome thanks to the faith and generosity of St Barnabas. Barnabas, whose name in Hebrew means ‘son of consolation’ (Acts 4:36), literally embodies the Holy Spirit. Everything that Barnabas says or does in the Acts of the Apostles can be understood in terms of how God acts in the world through the Holy Spirit. Here he vouches for Paul, and encourages the brethren that Paul’s conversion is genuine. He bears witness to the truth, and builds up the Church. 

St Paul starts to preach in Jerusalem, and engages in debate with the Hellenists, Greek-speaking Jews from around the Mediterranean, people that he and Barnabas would know well. These people are not happy that one of their own has converted, so they plot to kill Paul. They feel betrayed, and want to take their anger out on the traitor. So the disciples take Paul to Caesarea, from where he could set sail for his native Tarsus, in Asia Minor, and be safe. Peace returns to the Holy Land, and the Church thrives. The comfort of the Holy Spirit in Acts 9:31 describes perfectly how a loving and generous Christian, such as Barnabas, acts.

Our second reading reinforces this message by reminding us that for Christians love is not a word, but an action. Love is something you do. In other words, our faith is something which we live out in our lives. We are called to believe in Jesus and to love one another. As St Thomas Aquinas explained, to love is to will the good of another. To love, then, is not simply an act of passion or emotion: something which we feel, but rather something we choose to do. To choose someone else’s good reminds us that we do not exist for our own sake, and that our lives are lived in community and relationship with others. We are called to be loving and generous, just as God has been loving and generous towards us in Christ. We are to love each other as Jesus has loved us. We are to lay down our lives, as Christ has for us. In this love and service we can truly love each other. This makes who and what we are manifest to the world around us. It makes Christianity something attractive because people can see the difference it makes. We are people of love and a community of love, cooperating with God in promoting human flourishing. Such love is a radical and world-changing idea, underpinned by selfless love, of Christ, to help transform the world so that all humanity may experience life in all its fullness. 

In today’s Gospel Jesus is speaking to His Disciples after the Last Supper. He uses the image of Himself as the Vine, and the disciples are the branches. It is a powerful vision of what the Church is, people who are grafted onto and into Christ, connected to Him, and in a relationship with Him. We entered into that relationship in our baptism, and it is a relationship which will continue throughout and after our life on earth. 

When we were baptised we were clothed with Christ, we were grafted into the vine, which is Christ. It is Christ’s will that we, as Christians, bear much fruit. This means that we live out our faith in our lives, so that it affects who and what we are, and all that we say and do. We do this because it is what Christ expects of us, but also because, as we read in the First Letter of John, 

The love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him’ (1Jn 4:9).

Because we are grafted into Christ we are in communion with Him. Christ gives Himself to us in the Eucharist, His Body and Blood, so that we can have life in Him. He gives Himself to us out of love, so that we might have life in Him, and have it forever. It is a pledge of eternal life with Him, united in this world and the next, given to us to strengthen us on the journey of faith. Partaking in the Eucharist, physically or spiritually, helps us live out our faith in our lives: fed by and with Christ, to live in Him and for Him. 

Christ gives Himself for us, and desires that we are united with Him so that we may be strengthened to live out our faith in our lives, and to continue to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom by word and deed. Christ desires that we stay close to Him, and be united with Him, so that we can live lives of love. As Christians we are called to be Christ’s disciples, living in Him, living for Him, proclaiming Him, and bearing much fruit. We do this so that the world may believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen