Trinity XVII

The Book of Numbers tells the story of the journey of the people of Israel through the desert of Sinai towards the Promised Land. In Chapter 11, the people are complaining about their lack of food which leads God to send first manna, and then quail, to feed the people. While this is happening, God promises Moses that He will share his Spirit with seventy others. This is so that Moses may have some helpers to aid with leadership, to deal with complaints, and to settle disputes.

Seventy men go to the Tent of Meeting, and two men stay behind in the camp: Eldad and Medad. They are both filled with the Holy Spirit and begin to prophesy. Moses is told about this, at which point something of a dispute arises:

‘And Joshua the son of Nun, the assistant of Moses from his youth, said, “My lord Moses, stop them.” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!”’ (Numbers 11:28-29)

Moses is not as concerned as Joshua about observing proprieties, and he recognises that there is a freedom to the Spirit: it blows where it wills (cf. Jn 3:8). God is free to work through whomsoever He chooses. Moses wishes are granted on the Day of Pentecost, when the Apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit. We too, as Christians, are dwelling-places of the Holy Spirit, which works in us and through us. 

Just as Moses is able to see the bigger picture, likewise in today’s Gospel reading we see Jesus being rather generous. The disciples have noticed some exorcisms taking place, which have not been sanctioned. However, Jesus does not want His disciples put a stop to this, so He tells them:

“Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us. For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward” (Mk 9:39-41)

If the point of exorcism is to heal people, then as the Kingdom is a place of healing, the more the better. Evil spirits are cast out in Jesus’ Name, because it is powerful. The point is that faith is not just a matter of belief, but rather of belief put into practice, an act of loving generosity. Putting faith into practice helps to make the Kingdom a reality in our and other people’s lives. It is easy to be exclusive, and small-minded, but thankfully God is more generous than that, and we should try to be like Him.

Then Jesus’ teaching turns to matters of wrongdoing, moral failures, and how they are viewed. It is important to state in the strongest possible terms that Jesus is not encouraging Christians to drown people, or mutilate themselves, but rather teaching His disciples about the serious nature of sin.

Jesus begins by explaining that whoever puts a stumbling block in the path of another has hindered their discipleship. This is a serious charge.

“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” (Mk 9:42)

In this passage Jesus is engaging in hyperbole, exaggeration for rhetorical effect, to underline the point that our actions affect others. Using exaggeration, Jesus is pointing out that living a Christian life is a serious business: His followers are called to perfection. People who are new to the Christian faith, who are learning the Way, are particularly vulnerable. If they are led astray by the wrong kind of example, by the wrong sort of teaching, then it is a serious thing. Those of us who are Christians have a great responsibility to nurture others in their faith. The disciples, however, have been petty and small-minded. They have been concerned more with their own power and prestige rather than judging the actions of those helping otherscorrectly, and seeing the situation for what it really is. 

There follows a difficult passage, which, if we were to take it literally, would see all of us blind, lame, and without hands. Clearly this cannot be God’s plan of salvation for humanity. So if we are not supposed to take Jesus literally we have to interpret His words allegorically.This means uncovering the spiritual meaning of Christ’s words. Jesus may be referring to sins committed by hand, foot, or eye, i.e., what we do, where we go, and what we look at. The cutting off may be metaphorical, referring to excommunication. This means temporarily excluding people to give them an opportunity to repent and ask for God’s forgiveness. Our sins lead to estrangement from God, characterised by Hell and unquenchable fire. This is what rejecting God means. By doing so, we confine ourselves to darkness and misery. Jesus has come to save humanity from the Hell we create. He will die to give us life. 

Only Jesus can do this for us, and we have to let Him. We need to follow Him. Only then can we be salt, flavouring and preserving the world around us. Only then can we truly be at peace with one another, and understand things properly, and act accordingly. 

Living as a Christian community means owning up to our shortcomings, and being humble enough to let God transform us, bit by bit, day by day, more and more into His likeness. We learn by carrying our Cross, a burden much lighter than our sin, a burden which can and will transform us. Pride, that great human sin, makes us think that we are important. The disciples think they are important, and lose sight of the fact that what really matters is who Jesus Christ is. We must focus on what He has done for us, dying on the Cross, and rising to new life, so that we can live in Him. This is why we come together on the first day of the week, the day Jesus rose from the dead, so that we can share His risen life, and be nourished by Him.

Today’s other text, the Letter of James has some strong words for the wealthy, and in particular those who acquire their wealth by defrauding others. Christianity is a religion of generosity, given to us by a generous God, who expects us to be generous in turn. Just like the moral shortcomings outlined in the Gospel, here we see that we are called to live in a just and loving way. As Christians we are to stand for fairness and justice for all. The temptation is always there to seek to be important, to pursue power and prestige. What matters is that we glorify God, that we advance His kingdom. This is a kingdom of love, and forgiveness and healing, where people come to know who they truly are in Christ. If we listen to what Jesus tells us, and try to live like Him, then we can help to bring about the day when God will be all in all. Then everyone will 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.

James Tissot – Jesus teaches his disciples

Trinity XVI

The Gospel reading this morning reaches its climax with Jesus using a child to teach the disciples a lesson in humility by presenting one of the weakest and most vulnerable people in society as an example. Jesus reminds us that all human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, and as such are of infinite worth.

Jesus and His disciples are passing through Galilee for what proves to be the last time, before He makes his way to Jerusalem for His Passion, Death, and Resurrection. Once again Christ teaches the disciples about what is going to happen. It is likely that Jesus referred to passages in Scripture which prophecy about His Passion, such as our first reading this morning from the Book of Wisdom. In the passage wicked men are plotting the downfall and death of a righteous man:

‘Let us lie in wait for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law, and accuses us of sins against our training.’ (Wisdom 2:12)

This verse encapsulates the approach taken by the Scribes and Pharisees in the Passion narrative. Throughout the Gospels Jesus criticises the Pharisees for keeping the Letter of the Law, but being far from its Spirit. His enemies will see Jesus condemned to a shameful death, and as He dies they wait to see if God will deliver Him. It is easy to see how before His Death it would be hard for people to understand Jesus’ teaching, but once He had died and risen again, everything would become clear. 

‘But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.’ (Mk 9:32)

Admitting that you do not understand something is difficult. The disciples are confused and afraid. They do not want to own up to their lack of understanding, so instead, they focus upon themselves and their own importance:

‘And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.’ (Mk 9:33-34)

The disciples are silent, because they are embarrassed. They know that what they were discussing was basically pointless, and against Jesus’ teaching regarding the Kingdom. Jesus does not tell His disciples off, instead He instructs them: 

‘And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”’ (Mk 9:35-37)

Jesus sits down, adopting the position of the teacher in the Ancient World, and then He teaches. The Kingdom of God tends to turn human values upside down, and this is no exception. Leaders are called to be servants. The Evangelist uses the Greek word diakonos which means ‘servant’. From this we get the word ‘deacon’. Jesus is telling The Twelve that they need to be deacons, and that leadership involves serving others, not being important. To reinforce His point Jesus puts a child in front of them, and then embraces the child. In the Ancient World children lacked rights, or status, and, like children today, were dependent upon adults. By embracing someone weak and powerless, Jesus is showing the disciples that God’s Kingdom sees things differently from the world.

Christianity has been described as ‘a religion for the weak and feeble-minded, attractive to social undesirables, the silly, the mean, the stupid, women, and children’. [Origen Contra Celsum 3:44 & 3:59 ] These were the words of Celsus, a pagan critic of Christianity, quoted by Origen in the mid 3rd century AD. It is, in fact, a religion for everyone. All are welcome. At its heart, Christianity is a religion of paradox, where strength is shown in weakness. This is especially true of the Cross, where God shows us that sacrificial love can change the world, heal our wounded souls, and restore broken humanity. The Mystery of the Cross, is part of the enigma of God’s Love. In a moment of weakness and powerlessness, where evil and sin appear to have triumphed, we see the supreme demonstration of Love, an act of such generosity which has the power to reconcile and heal humanity.

Christians are called to be like this child: weak, powerless, insignificant, and humble. Through such humility God welcomes humanity back into a personal relationship, offering us His love. Opposed to this is the desire for power and prestige which sees the disciples arguing over who is the greatest, or the quarrels dealt with in the Letter of James. Rather than argument, however, a Christian community should be characterised by peace:

‘But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.’ (James 3:17-18)

This is a description of love in action, lived out in a way that builds people up. It is what Christ demonstrates to us as how we should be as Christians. We are called to live in a way which offers the world an alternative to striving after power, wealth and influence. True greatness will often look like weakness and servility in the world’s eyes. It doesn’t matter. What matters is living a life characterised by sacrificial self-giving love. Love can only be offered. Love can be accepted or rejected. Love lies at the heart of any relationship.

Acknowledging our own shortcomings is the first step in a process whereby God can be at work in our lives, transforming us more and more into His likeness. We need God’s grace to be at work in us. Recognising this is a sign of humility: accepting our need for God. This is not weakness, quite the opposite. Through our complete reliance upon God and His Grace, we prepare ourselves for Heaven where we hope to 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.

James Tissot – Jesus and the Little Child

Trinity XV

In Today’s Gospel, Jesus asks a question, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ (Mk 8:29) Jesus asks His disciples this question, and He also asks each and every one of us the same thing.  This question is central to Mark’s Gospel, and it is crucial to our faith and understanding. Who do we say that Jesus is? Many people can see Jesus as a charismatic healer, or a revolutionary rabbi, but is that all He is, or He something more?

Our response to Jesus’ question should be the same as Peter’s, ‘You are the Christ’ (Mk 8:29). Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Saviour, the one who brings salvation. There is some confusion among the people, who see Jesus as John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets. These prophets call people to repentance, and prepare the way for the Messiah, they point to Christ, but they are not Him. 

After Peter’s profession of faith, Jesus teaches His disciples concerning His Passion and Death, He explains what is about to happen. Jesus goes on to explain to His disciples:

‘that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.’ (Mk 8:31) 

Because Jesus is who He is — that is the Messiah, the Son of God — then He has to die, and His disciples need to understand this. The first reading this morning from the prophet Isaiah is taken from one of the Servant Songs. The Servant Songs are passages which describe how God’s servant will be mistreated, falsely accused, and killed.

‘I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting.’ (Isaiah 50:6)

This verse anticipates the beatings that Christ receives before and after His Trial, and His general mistreatment. People will spit at Him, insult Him, and blame Him. Jesus will become a scapegoat, He will bear our sins. Jesus teaches His disciples by explaining how this passage, and especially Chapters 52 and 53 of the prophet Isaiah, clearly foretell what is about to happen. This why they are read in church on Good Friday, grounding the most important event in salvation history in its scriptural context.

Jesus’ words about the suffering He must face have a strong effect upon Peter. He has faith, he believes that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, but the idea that Jesus has to suffer and die is just too much for him. So, Peter argues with Jesus:

‘And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”’ (Mk 8:32-33)

Despite only a few moments ago making a groundbreaking declaration of faith, now Peter is now told off in the strongest possible terms. Peter has faith, but lacks understanding, and can only understand on a human level. His heart is in the right place, but Peter often makes a mess of things. He is impulsive, flawed, and human. Jesus has to reject the idea that He can fulfil His mission without suffering and death. He knows that was born for this: God became a human being in the womb of Mary for this reason, to suffer and die for humanity and to reconcile us to God and each other. 

Jesus then explains how the Cross is central to all who follow Him:

‘And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”’ (Mk 8:34-35)

Not only must Jesus embrace the Cross, but He calls everyone who follows Him to do the same. You and I are called by Christ to lay down our lives and follow Him, to take up the Cross, and embrace the way of suffering love. We have to deny ourselves. Denying ourselves means that we don’t put ourselves, or our thoughts and desires at the centre of our lives — we put God there, where He belongs. God gives us grace to do this: through prayer, through reading the Bible, through the Sacraments, and through the support of our Christian community, to help us.

We have to take up our Cross. The Cross is an instrument of torture and death, and it means pain and suffering. That is not pleasant or easy. We can understand why Peter says what he does, but the Christian life is not easy or without suffering. Mother Teresa, St Teresa of Calcutta once said that: 

“Suffering is a sign that we have come so close to Jesus on the cross that he can kiss us and that he can show that he is in love with us by giving us an opportunity to share in his passion.” (My Life for the Poor, 77) 

When we suffer, we are close to Christ, we share in His Passion, and are conformed to His image. It is part of the mystery of God’s love, that it can transform us, but that transformation is not always pleasant or easy. However, becoming Christ-like enables us to more profoundly experience God’s love. 

We need to follow Jesus, we have to do what He says. This is difficult, but it is something which we do together, as a community, as a Church. Love and forgiveness sound easy in theory, but in practice they are not. They make demands on us, and compel us to do things that we might not like to do. We can, however, support each other, and also we can rely upon the grace of God to help us as we try to follow in Jesus’ footsteps.  

Our Faith is first and foremost about our relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, who loves us so much that He dies for us. He takes away our sins, and restores our relationship with God and each other. And He gives himself here to us today, under the outward forms of bread and wine, in His Body and His Blood, to heal us, and restore us. Our faith is revealed by our actions. The Letter of James makes this very clear. Faith needs to be put into practice by how we live our lives. We carry our cross by exhibiting the same generous love that God shows us in Christ. This is how we can both cooperate with God’s grace and transform the world, so that all may come to believe and 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 Primacy of St Peter – James Tissot

Trinity XIV

Today’s readings begin with the prophet Isaiah, who is well-known for containing prophecies regarding the Messiah. His is a hopeful message, of a joyful future, which envisages the healing and restoration of Israel. These prophecies are fulfilled in Jesus Christ. 

‘Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.’ (Isaiah 35:5-6)

The Messiah helps to bring about the Kingdom of God, and the sign that it is here are these miraculous healings. They speak of a God who loves us, who longs to see humanity healed and restored. The mention of water in the desert and wilderness looks forward to John’s Gospel, where Jesus states:

“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” (Jn 7:37-38)

Christ comes to give us healing and to fill us with the Holy Spirit. We experience living water in Baptism, when we are renewed and born again in Christ. The water is a sign of the Holy Spirit, God’s love active in the world, which heals and inspires His people. 

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus leaves Capernaum after His discussions with the Pharisees and heads north, before returning to Galilee. The route He takes has troubled scholars, but rather than going over the mountains to Tyre and Sidon, Jesus goes around them, which ensures that both He and His disciples have access to fresh water, a key practical consideration in such an arid landscape. Jesus goes into a house and is approached by a woman whose daughter is suffering, begging for deliverance for her child. So Jesus replies:

‘“Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”’ (Mk 7: 27)

At first sight, the passage is difficult. Jesus appears to be insulting the woman because she is not Jewish, which is not a loving response. It is possible that Jesus’ reply is a reference to the following verse from the Book of Exodus:

‘“You shall be consecrated to me. Therefore you shall not eat any flesh that is torn by beasts in the field; you shall throw it to the dogs.”’ (Exodus 22:31

This makes sense given the preceding discussion of ritual purity with the Pharisees, which we read last week. Rather than seeing the Messiah as a Jewish Saviour for Jewish people, Jesus is in fact the Saviour of the world, not bound by ethnic concerns. Such concerns do not affect the mother in the Gospel, she simply wants her daughter to be healed, and has no truck with exclusive visions of religion. So she responds,

“Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (Mk 7: 28)

At which point Jesus performs a healing miracle at a distance:

‘And he said to her, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone.’ (Mk 7: 29-30)

The woman makes a profession of faith. She trusts Jesus, and calls Him Lord. She understands that the Kingdom is a place for Gentiles as well as Jews. The Kingdom is for all, Jew and Greek, rich and poor alike. All are one in Christ, and God’s healing is for everyone. This reality is made manifest in the healing of the young girl. Jesus has uttered an exclusive Jewish understanding of the Messiah in order to demonstrate, through the woman’s response, that his mission is, in fact, much wider. In doing so, Jesus takes an existing common prejudice to show how God’s love, mercy, and healing are for all those who turn to Him.

As Jesus returns to Galilee, He is asked to heal a man.

‘And taking him aside from the crowd privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue. And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha”, that is, “Be opened.” And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.’ (Mk 7:33-35)

Both healings in the Gospel are done privately, they are not done for show, and they fulfil Isaiah’s prophecy from our first reading this morning. Despite Jesus telling people not to share the news of the healing, they do. 

‘And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, “He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”’ (Mk 7:37)

Here Isaiah’s prophecy is quoted, as it has been fulfilled by Jesus, which is good news.  And it is good news for Jews and non-Jews, for everyone. The Kingdom of God is a place of healing and restoration for all, a fact which the Church continues to proclaim. Rather than being an exclusive event for the Chosen People, healing and salvation are for all who turn to God. All are invited, all are welcome. 

The reading from the Letter of James shows us how to live our lives as Christians in an authentic manner. We are all equal in the eyes of God. We should not make the distinctions in the way the world around us is so fond of doing. James’ letter reminds us that Christians are not supposed to judge by appearances. We are not supposed to treat the rich better than the poor, because, as Jesus has shown us, the Church is supposed to be a place which lives out a radical equality. We are all equal in the sight of God. No-one is better or worse than another.

‘Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?’ (James 2:5)

As Christians we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ, we put our trust in Him, to be at work in us, and to save us. Little by little we are being transformed into the likeness of the one in whose image we are made. This is the wondrous gift of God’s grace. It is given, just like the Eucharistic Banquet of Christ’s Body and Blood, so that God can be at work in us, and through us. It is given so that we may be healed and transformed. 

So let us pray that God may come to us, and pour out His healing love on us, and all the world. Let us pray that His will may be done, and His kingdom come, so that all may join in 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.

Jesus heals the lame – James Tissot