Trinity Sunday 2023

IN St Davids Cathedral there is a beautiful chapel dedicated to St Thomas Becket. He, you may recall, was the Archbishop of Canterbury murdered in Canterbury Cathedral and later made a saint. His shrine was one of the great pilgrimage sites in Europe and was where the pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales were heading. The Sunday after Pentecost was the day on which Thomas Becket was consecrated a bishop in 1162. Whilst he was archbishop, and before his untimely death, Becket desired 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 for the Western Church. The Feast was popular, so popular in fact, that in England and Wales the remaining Sundays before Advent, about half the Church year, were numbered after Trinity, rather than after Pentecost.

The word Trinity was coined by Tertullian in the second century AD combines the words for three and unity, to represent the three persons of the one God. Christian worship is thoroughly Trinitarian, we worship One God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We are baptised in their names, and our Eucharist this morning begins with the words: ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Yn enw’r Tad, a’r Mab, a’r Ysbryd Glân’. The Creed which we are about to say has a tripartite structure, (it is divided into three sections) and expresses our belief in God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We are so used to saying these words that we rarely stop to notice what we are doing, and why. Our worship as Christians helps to understand what we believe, and who we are. Jesus has taught us to call God Father. He is the Son of God, and with the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we can now recognise the fullness of the Divine Life in a Trinity, distinct yet united.

As Christians we worship One God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: they are not three separate Gods, but one God. That the three persons of the Trinity are one God is itself a mystery. The mystery of God’s very self: a Trinity of Persons, consubstantial, co-equal and co-eternal. We know God most fully in the person of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God. He was born of the Virgin Mary, died on the Cross for our sins, and was raised to New Life at Easter. He sent us the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. In Christ God discloses who and what He is. We know Jesus as someone who pours out love, who desires our reconciliation with God so much so that He dies on the Cross to bring it about.

The Gospel reading today begins with one of the most well-known verses in the Bible:

“Do, carodd Duw y byd gymaint nes iddo roi ei unig Fab, er mwyn i bob sy’n credu ynddo ef beidio â mynd i ddistyw ond cael bywyd tragwyddol” “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (Jn 3:16)

God the Father sends the Son into the world, to be born of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit, out of love for humanity. God loves us. This is the central truth of our faith as Christians. The following verse underlines this:

“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (Jn 3:17)

Jesus, whose name means ‘God saves’, has come on a rescue mission. As we will soon proclaim in the Creed: ‘for us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven, Er ein mwyn ni ac er ein hiachawdwriaeth disgynnodd o’r nefoedd…’. This is not a new idea. In the first reading today, God descends to Moses, pronounces His name, and then speaks to Moses:

‘The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”’ (Exod 34:6)

God is faithful and loving in His interactions with humanity. Throughout the Bible God forgives us, and rescues us when we go astray. There is a consistent message here, a golden thread which runs through all the Scriptures. 

St Paul writes two letters to the Church in Corinth in order to sort out various problems, to promote reconciliation and harmony in the Body of Christ. Christians are expected to practice what we preach, and to live out our faith, making reconciliation real in our dealings with one another. Today’s second reading makes this explicit:

‘Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.’ (2Cor 13:11-13)

Grace, love, and communion, are all words which describe who God is, what God offers, and how humanity should live. In the Eucharist we seek God’s forgiveness, share God’s peace, pray for ourselves and the needs of the world. In the Eucharist God gives Himself to us, so that we may be built up in love and become what God is. 

Here, this morning, earth and heaven meet, and we are united with the God who loves us, who reconciles us to Himself and each other. At the end of today’s Eucharist I will pray that God will bless us as I invoke the name of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, while making the sign of the Cross. These words and gestures are not random, but are part of our tradition of worship as Christians. This is how we express and declare our faith; through words and actions. Words and actions help us to reinforce what we believe and help us to live out our faith.

The terms we use to worship God matter in that they express the faith which we believe. They form us into a community of belief where what we believe affects who we are and what we do. The gift of faith, the life of love, and the hope of eternal life are not things for us to jealously guard. Instead, they are for sharing. We are called to make disciples, to share what we have received, so that others may experience the love of God.

Like all relationships, this goes beyond words, and is something which needs to be experienced. It is only in our experience of this relationship that we can begin to come to understand our Faith. However, we will only do so fully when we experience this in heaven, where we will be united with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed all, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

Window of the St Thomas Becket Chapel, St Davids Cathedral

Malcolm Guite – A Sonnet for Pentecost

Our Mother-tongue is love

Today we feel the wind beneath our wings
Today the hidden fountain flows and plays
Today the church draws breath at last and sings
As every flame becomes a Tongue of praise.
This is the feast of fire, air, and water
Poured out and breathed and kindled into earth.
The earth herself awakens to her maker
And is translated out of death to birth.
The right words come today in their right order
And every word spells freedom and release
Today the gospel crosses every border
All tongues are loosened by the Prince of Peace
Today the lost are found in His translation.
Whose mother tongue is Love in every nation.

Malcolm Guite, Our Mother-tongue Is Love: A Sonnet for Pentecost

Pentecost – Whitsunday

Here in Great Britain we are used to celebrating Harvest Festivals in the Autumn, at the end of the Harvest, but that was not the case in Israel. Fifty days after the Passover, Jews celebrate the first of two Harvest festivals: Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, or First-fruits. This festival also celebrates the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai, that we know as the Ten Commandments. There were offerings made of the first-fruits of the Harvest at the Temple in Jerusalem. It was one of the highlights of the year, and one of the great pilgrim festivals. People would travel from all over the Mediterranean World to Jerusalem to worship together. So the fact that the Apostles preach the Good News to:

‘Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians’ (Acts 2:9-11)

makes a great deal of sense. Pentecost was an international event. In Genesis 11:1-9 we see the division of humanity after the Tower of Babel. Here, suddenly, the division of language is removed and the words of the apostles (used to speaking in Greek or Aramaic) could be understood by people of many diverse tongues. Now humanity is united in Christ through the gift of the Holy Spirit. That which was divided has been reconciled.

Today’s Gospel takes us back to St John’s account of Jesus’ appearance to the disciples at Easter. The disciples are afraid: they fear being lynched by a mob for following Our Lord. And suddenly, into the midst of this place of fear and apprehension comes their Saviour:

Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” (Jn 20: 19)

Christ’s gift to His disciples is peace, tangnefedd, the Peace of God. This is something that we all long for in the deepest core of our being, in our soul. God gives us what we truly desire more than anything, except Him. You cannot buy it, or earn it, it comes as a gift, freely given to those who believe in the Lord. 

When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. (Jn 20:20)

Jesus shows the disciples the wounds of love in His hands and side. His wounds show them who He is, and that He is alive, and that these wounds are the reason that we can have peace. Because of Christ’s death on the Cross, we have access to the internal tranquility we long for. Our Lord’s presence brings not only peace, but also joy. The disciples are glad. Christ gladdens our hearts in a variety of ways: by the gift of the Holy Spirit, and by the gift of Himself in Holy Communion. When we feed on Him, we become what He is. 

Having revealed Himself to His disciples, and having filled them with joy and peace, Our Lord commissions the Apostles. They are sent out to proclaim the Kingdom of God:

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” (Jn 20: 21)

God the Father sends the Son to announce the Kingdom and to invite people to ‘Repent and believe the Good News’. The disciples are similarly sent out. At this point they become Apostles, from the Greek word apostolos meaning ‘someone sent out’. They are now given a prophetic role, proclaiming who Christ is, and what He has done, for love of us. Hand in hand with this task goes a ministry of reconciliation, healing wounded souls, restoring what sin has broken:

And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (Jn 20:22-23)

The Father sends the Son into the world to heal it, to reconcile humanity to itself and to the Divine. In St John’s account, Easter and Pentecost become a single moment, stressing their intimate connection. Christ dies for us, is raised from the dead, and sends the Holy Spirit, so that humanity can be offered life in all its fullness forever. At this point in the Christian year we focus on how God wants us to love Him and each other. Love is who God is, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We see God’s love in the entirety of Jesus’ Life, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension. All that Jesus is and does is a demonstration, a manifestation of God’s love for us. God longs to give us His love, so that it can transform us into His likeness, the likeness in which we were created, so that we might become children of God and heirs, to our inheritance of Heaven.

On the day of Pentecost something wonderful takes place: The Good News is proclaimed in a host of different languages. The Acts of the Apostles records how the Jews are amazed to hear the Good News spoken in their own language, and not just that, but by a rag-tag assortment of Galilean fishermen and other ordinary folk. It is incredible! It is miraculous! Pentecost points towards our present reality, where there is not a country on this earth which has not heard the Good News of Jesus Christ. However, there is still work to be done and we are the successors of the apostles, the ordinary people who tell others about Jesus — who He is, what He does, and why it matters. Each and every one of us in our baptism are made Christ-like, and empowered by the Holy Spirit to share our faith.

So, my brothers and sisters in Christ, let us pray earnestly for the gift of the Spirit, that God may fill us with His love and equip us to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom. May we encourage others to come to know and love God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed all, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

Maronite Icon of The Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost

The Ascension

Today is a day for celebration, but we are not celebrating Jesus’ departure from the earth, but instead His return to God the Father. We celebrate Christ’s abiding presence with us, and what He asks of us, and promises to us. It is a day of celebration and expectation, looking forward to the future together in love and hope. 

The disciples have had six weeks to used to the fact that Jesus has risen from the dead, having carried the burden of our sins and experienced the pain and estrangement which separates God and humanity. That wound has been healed by His glorious wounds. Before Jesus returns to the Father, He makes the apostles a promise: they will be baptized with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4), receive power, and be Christ’s witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). Christ is looking forward to Pentecost, to the church’s future, in which we live now.

In Matthew’s Gospel, before Jesus leaves the apostles, He gives them a commission, they are sent out to do something together. Jesus begins (Mt 28:18) by stating that all authority in heaven and earth has been given to Him. He is God, God is sovereign, and rules over everything, and it reminds us of the moment during Christ’s temptation by the devil, before the start of His public ministry, which we read on the First Sunday of Lent. In this passage the devil offers the whole world to Jesus, but it is not his to give in the first place. The world belongs to God, who created it. Our worship is rooted in the fact that we have a relationship with a God who made us, redeemed us, and loves us. 

Jesus tells the apostles (28:19) to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. The church exists to be sent out to make disciples. Baptism is what makes us Christians. In it we share in Christ’s life, death, and Resurrection, and through it God gives us the virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love. Through our faith in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, filled with the hope of heaven, our supernatural end, to enjoy the vision of God, who is love. Loving God and our neighbour, this is the very heart of the proclamation of the Good News of the Kingdom, along with the call of Jesus and John the Baptist that we should ‘Repent and believe the Gospel, and be baptised’. For two thousand years our message has been the same. 

Jesus tells the apostles to teach us all that He has commanded them (28:20). The Church is called to hand on what has been delivered to it, this is tradition, and it stops us from making mistakes, by deviating from what Christ teaches us through the Church. Our religion makes demands of us, and calls us to be faithful to the apostles’ teaching, and to live it out in our lives, putting theory into practice and becoming living witnesses of the Kingdom. This is difficult, and it is where Christians fall down most often. However, we are not alone, we can support each other. Also, the Good News is that in Christ we have forgiveness of sin. We can repent, and turn away from our mistakes, and turn back to a God who loves us. We are not abandoned or cast aside, but embraced in love. 

Finally Jesus says to the apostles,

‘Behold I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ (Mt 28:20)

Christ is with us. How? In four ways: first in Scripture, the Word of God, which speaks of Christ, and finds its fulfilment in Him. The Bible is true, and the source of truth. Secondly, He is with us in the Sacraments, outward visible signs of the inward spiritual grace God pours out upon us, to fill us with His love. Thirdly, He is with us in the Holy Spirit which he pours out upon us, to strengthen us, and fill us with love. And finally He is with us in the Church, which is His Body, where we are united with Christ, in a relationship with Him, and each other. 

Jesus makes promises which are true. We can trust Him, and like the apostles we can prepare for the Coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in prayer, and joyful expectation, knowing that we will never be abandoned, but that we are always united to, and loved by God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed all glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.

Easter VI – If ye love me…

MANY of us I suspect enjoy a good legal drama: Perry Mason, Rumpole, Kavanagh QC or Judge John Deed for example. There is something about legal argument, making a case, standing up for what is right, especially against huge odds which is inspiring and heroic. Most of us would not know where to start if faced with such a situation. However, this is exactly what St Peter calls each and every one of us to be prepared to do in today’s Epistle. We are to be ready:

‘to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you’ (1Peter 3:15)

There are people who are not well-disposed towards the Christian Faith, indeed many nowadays are even hostile. This was also the situation when St Peter wrote his letter. Then Christianity was illegal, now it is not. But we still have to explain to people why Jesus matters to us, and why we believe in Him. We are called to communicate to others how, through His Death and Resurrection, Christ offers new life to all who believe in Him.

‘For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit’ (1Peter 3:18)

For us to be convincing, we need both the reasoned argument of the law, and something else. That something is the Holy Spirit. In today’s Gospel Our Lord promises His disciples that they will be given the Spirit as their helper. 

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth” (Jn 14:15-17)

The gift of the Spirit is predicated on the fact that the disciples love Jesus and keep His commandments. If we love Him we will keep His commandments. We will love God, and each other, with the same costly self-giving love that Jesus shows on the Cross. To be a Christian is to imitate Christ, to fashion our lives so that they resemble His life. As Christians, we have a responsibility to keep God’s Word, to love God and each other. In turn, God promises to dwell with and in us. This is the promise of a close relationship. We experience this intimacy most fully in the Eucharist, (also known as Holy Communion) where Christ gives Himself to us, so that we can be transformed by Him. Out of love, He heals our wounds, restores our relationship with God and each other, and gives us a foretaste of Heaven in the here and now.

Our Lord promises the Holy Spirit so that we may live in Him and He in us:

“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.” (Jn 14:18-19)

God gives Himself to us, so that we might live in Him, filled with the love which is the bond of unity between God the Father and God the Son. We are not left on our own, instead we are united with God, so that we may be strengthened and encouraged to live the life of faith both now and in Heaven. This is a cause for joy and celebration. God offers us life, and life in all its fulness.

As we prepare to celebrate Jesus’ Ascension into Heaven (on Thursday evening), we also look forward to the Sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Christ rises and ascends so that we can receive the Spirit, and experience the fulness of new life in Him. God sends the Holy Spirit so that we may be filled with love, and share that love with others. The Spirit helps us to keep close to the Father and the Son, in a profound relationship which allows us to flourish. Christ’s followers are strengthened by the Spirit to proclaim and share our faith, our hope, and our love.

In today’s first reading we hear of the work of the Spirit healing the people of Samaria, and being poured on those who were baptized and prayed over by the apostles. In the same way the Holy Spirit comforts us, and gives us strength. When we trust God to be at work in us, then wonderful things can — and do — happen. Such is the Divine generosity at the heart of our faith. In God’s strength, and not our own, we can do marvellous things. Christ chooses us, and not we Him. God takes the initiative, not to force us but so that we may be drawn out of love to come with Him, on our pilgrimage of faith. In this we are strengthened by the Bread of Life, the bread for the journey, walking in the footsteps of Love. In Christ we have communion, fellowship. In Him true community is born, through which we are reconciled to God and each other. This gives us the strength to share in the proclamation of the Good News, walk the pilgrimage of faith, and be fed and transformed by grace.

So, my brothers and sisters in Christ, let us pray earnestly for the gift of the Spirit, that God may fill us with His love and equip us to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom. May we encourage others to come to know and love God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed all, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

James Tissot – The Last Sermon of Our Lord (Brooklyn Museum)

Easter V – Living the life of Easter

YESTERDAY we witnessed the coronation of a monarch for the first time in seventy years, and for the first time in many people’s lives. During the ceremony prayers were said asking God to bless the new King and Queen. In turn, the King and Queen made promises to serve God and His people. Everybody watching was also invited to join in a pledge of loyalty to the King and his heirs. Some of you may have chosen to do this, and others may have chosen not to do so. In our service today we will make a public statement, a communal declaration of our faith in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is what we are doing when we recite the Creed together — we are proclaiming our shared beliefs as Christians.

Today’s Gospel reading is taken from an important moment in Christ’s life and ministry. After the Last Supper, Jesus gives a number of farewell discourses to His disciples. Before Our Lord’s Passion and Death, He spends time talking to His followers, to set their hearts at ease and to prepare them for what is about to happen. Jesus begins by saying:

“Peidiwch â gadael i ddim gynhyru’ch calon. Creddwch yn Nuw, a chredwch ynof finnau.” “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.” (Jn 14:1)

Our Lord is telling the disciples not to be afraid, and to put their trust in God, and also in Him. Fear and trust motivate people at the deepest level. However, trust casts out fear. Because God is trustworthy, and thanks to our relationship we rest secure in Him. We know that we are safe, that we are loved, and that we are cared for. This is the foundation upon which our spiritual life is built.

Jesus then develops His teaching:

“In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” (Jn 14:2)

The Father’s house is the Temple in Jerusalem, but the Temple is also Christ’s Body. Jesus goes to prepare a place for His disciples by going to the Cross on Good Friday. The word translated as ‘rooms’ means (in the original Greek) ‘somewhere to abide’. Christians are called to abide in Christ, in His Death and Resurrection. Our Lord prepares a place for us by dying and rising from the dead. We abide in Him by living the way of Jesus, following His example and His teaching, and putting them into practice in our lives.

Jesus’ teaching, however, leaves His disciples somewhat confused:

‘Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”’ (Jn 14:5-7)

His followers do not yet understand where Christ is going. This is because the reality of His Death and Resurrection is something they must experience before they can begin to comprehend it. We, by contrast, are in a better position than the disciples. We know where Jesus is going, and how He will get there. Our Lord refers to Himself as the way, the truth, and the life. Jesus is the way. The way that leads through death on the Cross to the new life of Easter. He is the way to life in all its fullness, and those who follow Him are said to be ‘on the Way’. Those persecuted by Saul in Acts 9:2 are described as such by Luke. Christians are people ‘on the way’, a pilgrim people, with Heaven as our true home. Jesus is the Truth. He is God, the source of all truth. We can have faith and put our trust in Him. Jesus is the Life. He is the Creator and source of all life. He offers us Eternal Life in Him, the new life of Easter, which we continue to celebrate.

Despite Our Lord’s statement that to know Him is to know the Father, His disciples are unable to understand what He means. So Philip asks: 

“Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” (Jn 14:8)

This leads Jesus to say:

“Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.” (Jn 14:9-11)

When we see Jesus, we see God. When we hear Him speak, we hear the voice of God. When we see His works, we see the works of God. To know Jesus is to know God, and be in a relationship with Him, which finds its culmination with Him, forever in Heaven. 

Thus we can share the confidence of Peter, who writes to Christians who: 

‘like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.’ (1Peter 2:5)

The apostle Peter is the rock and he calls all the faithful, that is you and me, to be ‘living stones’, that is living temples of the Body of Christ.

‘But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.’ (1Peter 2:9)

Peter calls Jesus’ followers, the Church, to be holy, and set apart for service of God and of others. This is symbolised by the anointing with holy oil which forms a part of our baptism, the ordination of clergy, and the coronation of a King. We are united to Christ, we become His Body, and are nourished by Him so that we may be strengthened for service. Our royal identity comes from the King of Kings, the source of all earthly power. We plead the sacrifice which has reconciled God and humanity on the Cross. He who is the Word of God, who is the Living Bread, has come so that we may have life and have it to the full. We are nourished so that we may live lives characterised by proclamation of the Gospel, and the service of others, as shown by the calling of seven deacons in this morning’s first reading.

Let us then be living temples which proclaim Christ’s victory. Let us share the Good News of His Kingdom with others, so that all peoples may come to know and love God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed all, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

James Tissot – The Last Sermon of Our Lord (Brooklyn Museum)

Easter IV – The Good Shepherd

Living in the countryside we are used to seeing sheep, shepherds, and sheepfolds in the landscape around us. As most of you no doubt know, a sheepfold is a pen for a flock with a single entrance where the shepherd could sleep to keep the sheep safe. The relationship between God and Israel is often described as like a shepherd and his sheep. They know each other, there is a close bond between them, and the sheep need the care and protection of a shepherd. Jesus’ image is simple clear, and taken from the everyday life of his audience. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, who lays down His life for His sheep, who dies so that we may have eternal life in Him. This model of self-sacrificial love lies at the heart of our faith, and because of it, we are able to live the new life of Easter.

The core of today’s Gospel reading is found in the last verse, where Jesus says:

‘Yr wyf fi wedi dod er mwyn i ddynion gael bywyd, a’i gael yn ei holl gyflawnder’ ‘I came that they may have life and have it abundantly’ (Jn 10:10)

Our Lord has come so that we may have life, in all its fullness. What does this look like? Firstly, it is a life lived in relationship with Jesus, through baptism, prayer, bible reading, and Holy Communion. This is clear from the Gospel passage where Jesus says,

‘The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.’ (Jn 10:3-4)

We recognise Jesus’ voice if we have heard it, if we know Him. Our recognition is the result of a relationship. I would like to focus for a moment on a few words: ‘the shepherd goes before them’. In this season of Easter we celebrate the fact that Christ rose from the dead. In this Christ has truly gone before us, so that Christians need no longer fear death. Our Lord shows us that the New Life of Easter is open to all who believe in Him. Thanks to our relationship with Jesus we are offered a new way of living, filled with love.

Jesus talks of an abundant life. This is something that comes from a close relationship with God, who is the only who can satisfy the longing of the human heart. The things of this world: wealth, possessions, power, relationships, will always leave us wanting more. However, our connection with God, and with other Christians, as brothers and sisters in Christ, embodies life in all its fullness. This is because Our Lord dies and rises again so that we might enjoy eternal life with God in Heaven. We are given a foretaste on Earth of what we hope to enjoy in God’s closer presence. We taste this in Holy Communion, where Jesus gives Himself to feed us, so that we might have life in Him.

The first reading from Peter’s Pentecost sermon in the Acts of the Apostles is an early proclamation of the Good News. Peter tells the people of Jerusalem to repent and be baptized: to turn away from sin, to share in Christ’s Death and Resurrection, and to be filled with the Holy Spirit. In nearly two thousand years, the Church’s message has not changed. Repentance is a key aspect of who and what Christians are. We turn away from our failings and stop straying like sheep, but instead return to Our Shepherd (1Peter 2:25). This is what listening to the shepherd means: hearing what Jesus says, and obeying Him. 

That is how we know Christ and follow Him. Being a Christian affects who we are and how we live, as people of love, loved by God. As Archbishop Michael Ramsay said, ‘God is Christlike, and in him is no un-Christlikeness at all’ [God, Christ & the World: A Study in Contemporary Theology, London 1969, 98]. When we see Jesus, we see God; when we hear Him speak, we hear the voice of God. We can know who God is, the creator and redeemer of the universe, through His Son, Jesus Christ. God is not a distant or irate man on a cloud. He is a loving Father, as in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, and a Son who loves us so much that He suffers and dies for us, to give us life in Him. This is theGod who searches for lost sheep; who longs to love and heal and reconcile; who can heal our wounds if we let Him. This is abundant life, offered to us by Our Lord, the Good Shepherd.

This conviction is central to Peter’s confession of faith. Christ is the example we are called to follow, and to fashion our lives after His. We can do this because of what Jesus has done for us:

‘He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.’ (1Peter 2:24)

So my brothers and sisters in Christ, as we continue to rejoice In Our Lord’s triumph. May we follow His example and live the new life of Easter. Following Our Good Shepherd, who longs for us to be safe with Him forever in Heaven. Let us share the Good News of His Kingdom with others, so that all may come to know and love God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed all, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

Easter III – Emmaus

Can you remember how you heard that the late Queen Elizabeth had died? Did someone tell you the news? Nowadays we rely on the media for such things, but word of mouth is still extremely important: we want to share news with others, so that they can both know and understand what has happened.

Today’s Gospel reading presents us with such a situation. Two disciples of Jesus are walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus and are discussing the events of the past few days. As they walk along the road, a stranger asks them what they are talking about. They explain:

“Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.” (Lk 24: 19-24)

These few verses encapsulate the story of Jesus’ Passion, Death, and Resurrection. They are familiar to us, but it is possible to imagine that for the people experiencing these events quite how strange they would have been. The disciples hoped that Jesus was ‘the one to redeem Israel’ (Lk 24:21), They hoped that Our Lord was the Messiah. Jesus listens to them and then explains what had happened by showing them how the events they have described were foretold in Scripture. 

When the Church reads the Old Testament it does so in a particular way. There are prophecies of suffering and death, which are understood as pointing to Jesus. Thus, on Good Friday, we read the following phrases in Isaiah as prefiguring the Passion:

he bore the sin of many’ ‘with his stripes we are healed’ ‘He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is lead to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth.’ ‘he makes himself an offering for sin’. (Isa 53:12, 5, 7, 10)

They point to Christ, they find their fulfilment and truest meaning in Him, who is the Way and the Truth. As Our Lord says,

Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ (Lk 24:26)

In other words through Our Lord’s suffering, and death, and resurrection we behold God’s glory, the glory of the divine life of love, poured out on the world to heal it and to save it. We see both what God is and how He loves us, to the extent of giving His only Son to die for us, to heal the wound of sin, to restore our humanity, so that we may share eternal life with Him. As a foretaste of this heavenly joy Jesus takes bread, blesses it, and gives it to them. Christ, who as both priest and victim offered Himself upon the altar of the Cross, as a willing, spotless pure and sinless victim, now feeds His people with himself so that they may share His risen life — so that they may be given a foretaste of the heavenly glory and the divine life of love. That is why we day by day and week by week we too come to be fed by Him, so that we too may share, having first heard the Scriptures explained to us.

On Good Friday we read from Chapters 52-53 of the Prophet Isaiah which tells how the Suffering Servant will be mistreated, suffer and die, taking the sins of the people upon Himself. Along with this the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis, various verses in the Psalms, and the prophecies of Ezekiel and Jeremiah are the main texts that the Church has used to make sense of Our Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection. 

The journey from Jerusalem to Emmaus is seven miles, long enough for such an extended examination of Scripture. As they approach the village the disciples invite the stranger to stay with them. They offer hospitality, which Jesus accepts. 

When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight.’ (Lk 24:30-31)

What Luke describes looks to us very much like a Eucharist, and it has been preceded by the reading and explanation of Scripture, just as we continue to do. We should not be surprised by this, as for nearly two thousand years this has been what the Church is for: explaining, giving thanks, and sharing our experience of the Risen Lord. 

Cleopas and his companion experience the reality of the Resurrection, and once they have walked back to Jerusalem, they share what happened with the Apostles. In a similar way, the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles shares testimony regarding Jesus’ Rising from the dead. It is taken from Luke’s account of Peter’s sermon on Pentecost. At its core is a discussion of verses from the Psalms which point to the reality of the Resurrection as something which is foretold in Scripture. The same understanding underlies the second reading from the First Letter of Peter. For a hundred thousand successive Sundays, Christians have celebrated the Eucharist together because Jesus told us to do this. Today is the day when Christ rose from the dead. Every Sunday is something of a mini Easter, because Christians gather to celebrate Jesus’ Resurrection, just like the disciples in the Gospel passage.

We take our time over our celebration of Easter to allow the reality of what we commemorate to sink in. Something this wonderful, this world-changing, needs to be pondered, and shared, which is why we have gathered today. We do what the disciples did. We are filled with joy at Our Lord’s Resurrection from the dead. Through it we are changed, transformed, and filled with love, and empowered to change the world, so that it may be filled with God’s love. We share the Good News, so that the joy of Easter may be a reality in the lives of others, and they may join us in singing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed all, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

Pilgrims of Emmaus on the Road – James Tissot (Brooklyn Museum)

Easter 2023

Atgyfododd Crist Alelwia!. Atgyfododd yn wir. Alelwia! Christ is risen! Alleluia! He is Risen indeed! Alleluia! At one level, nothing more needs to be said. This one fact has over the last two thousand years changed the world, and continues to do so. Because of what happened today, we have the preaching of St Peter in the Acts of the Apostles:

“They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day and caused him to appear, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10: 40-43)

In these three sentences, preached by St Peter at Caesarea to a non-Jewish audience, we have a succinct expression of what the Church believes and proclaims. Jesus died, rose from the dead, and will come again to be our Judge. He offers forgiveness to all who believe in Him. 

We know this message today, thanks to the proclamation of the Good News, but the first Easter was very different. It was dark, early on Sunday morning. Mary Magdalen visits the tomb, where they had buried Jesus on the Friday afternoon. The heavy stone covering the doorway has been rolled back. So Mary runs to Peter and John and tells them:

“They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” (John 20: 2)

The disciples immediately run to where Jesus is buried. John gets there first and looks in, but doesn’t enter the tomb.

‘Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself.’ (John 20: 6-7)

What we see is a gradual process. Bit by bit, the followers of Jesus are coming to understand and experience this incredible and amazing event. 

Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples went back to their homes.’ (John 20: 8-10)

A few days ago the disciples saw their Lord and Teacher killed, and now the tomb is empty. The cloths that were wrapped around Jesus’ Body are there, but Jesus is elsewhere. Clearly it is all too much for Mary Magdalene who stays by the tomb, weeping. When the angels ask her why she is crying she replies:

“They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” (John 20: 13)

Mary’s words are understandable, she is filled with grief and sadness. She is bereft and confused. At this point, Mary encounters the Risen Christ:

Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” (John 20: 15)

Mary supposes that Jesus is the gardener, the person employed to look after the cemetery. She does not yet understand who He is, or what is going on. However, the mention of the gardener is significant. In Genesis, humanity was created by God in a garden, Eden, and given the task of tending it (Gen 2:15). The Resurrection happens in a garden as well, showing us that Christ is the second Adam. Whilst the first Adam brought death to humanity by a tree, Jesus, the Second Adam, has brought life to the world by the tree of the Cross. Humanity falls because of a tree, and because of a tree we are offered eternal life in Christ. Trees matter! 

It was on the first day of the week, that Creation began, and now on the first day of the week we see a New Creation. Christ has risen from the dead, and conquered Death and Hell. Our Lord is a gardener, and the plants he tends are human beings. We believe in a God who loves us, who cares for us, and who longs to see us grow and flourish.

Jesus greets Mary Magdalen by name, and suddenly she recognises Him  She understands. She believes. Then Christ talks of His Ascension, as though forty days of Easter have condensed into a single moment. Mary now understands what she must do:

‘Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her. (Jn 20:18)

Mary shares the Good News, just as Peter and Paul do in the first and second readings this morning. Likewise, we are called to follow their example, and proclaim the Good News to the world. To tell how Jesus is risen from the grave, and how God offers new life to all who turn to Him.

So, my brothers and sisters in Christ, ‘Pasg hapus i chi gyd!’ ‘A Happy Easter to you all!’ May you, and those you love, be filled with Resurrection joy and strength, now and always. Amen.

Fra Angelico (Italian, ca. 1395–1455), “Noli me tangere,” 1440–42. Fresco from the convent of San Marco, Florence, Italy.

Good Friday 2023

Words cannot fully express the true mystery of God’s love. Instead we come today to gaze upon our Crucified Lord, and prepare to eat His Body, broken for us. Today mankind, who fell because of a tree in the garden of Eden, is raised to new life in Christ through His hanging on a tree at Calvary. Jesus is a willing victim, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He is the Silent lamb led to the slaughter, and also the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep that have gone astray. At the time when the Passover lambs are slaughtered in the Temple, Christ, as both priest and victim, offers himself upon the Altar of the Cross as the true lamb to take away the sins of the whole world.

There are two Old Testament texts which are key to understanding this Good Friday Service. The first is Psalm 22, whose opening words are spoken by Jesus before He dies, ‘Fy Nuw, fy Nuw pam yr wyt wedi fy ngadael’ ‘My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me’ (in Hebrew Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani). Secondly, the passage from Isaiah Chapters 52 and 53 which is today’s first reading. In Isaiah we see all of Christ’s suffering and death foretold, and interpreted:

‘he bore the sin of many’ ‘with his stripes we are healed’ ‘He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is lead to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth.’ ‘he makes himself an offering for sin’. (Isa 53:12, 5, 7, 10)

The meaning is clear. The wounds of human sin, which cry out for healing, are healed in Christ. Such is God’s love for us. What disobedience has destroyed, love restores.

On this Friday two thousand years ago very few people understand what is happening. Pilate doesn’t want any trouble, let alone a riot or an insurrection. The Jewish authorities want to be rid of a charismatic Galilean rabbi, who has a knack for fulfilling Messianic prophecies. The soldiers are just doing their job. This what they do every day: execute criminals. Most of the disciples have fled. Naturally they are petrified by this turn of events, and worry that they will be killed next. Two people are present at Calvary as witnesses. These are Mary, Jesus’ Mother, and John, the Beloved disciple. Thirty-three years before the Archangel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would bear the Son of God. Now she stands at the foot of the Cross to see her beloved Son suffer and die. Simeon had once told her that a sword would pierce her soul, and now that prophecy comes true. But before He dies, Jesus does something wonderful:

‘When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.’ (Jn 19:26-27)

Here we see a new family being formed. One not based on ties of blood, but of love. This is what the Church is, a family of love, and it starts here, at the foot of the Cross. Christ, our great High Priest, offers Himself as both priest and victim. The Christian Church begins with three people on a hill outside Jerusalem. One of these three is about to die, condemned as a heretic and trouble-maker. Despite this less-than auspicious beginning we are gathered here today, nearly twenty centuries later. Christ’s Church starts as a failure in worldly terms. However it is a divine institution: it isn’t supposed to make sense in human terms. The Church’s mission is to draw us into the mystery of God’s love.

Despite appearing to be a failure, what we are here to celebrate is, in fact, the greatest victory of all time. Christ’s offering of Himself is the sacrifice to end all sacrifice. God does what we cannot. He heals and restores our human nature, for through His Death we have life. We can share in the boldness expressed in the Letter to the Hebrews, which states:

‘Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need’ (Heb 4:16)

Today’s liturgy has a stark beauty. We come face to face with the reality of God’s love amidst pain, suffering, and death. God dies for us, as a human being, nailed to a Cross, with arms outstretched to embrace the world in love. Let us, today and every day, cling to the Cross, and find there all the grace we need. Let us rejoice that we have been redeemed at so great a cost. Let us glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is our salvation, our life, and our resurrection, through whom each and every one of us is saved and made free. Amen

James Tissot – It is Finished (Brooklyn Museum)

Maundy Thursday 2023

In the Ancient Mediterranean foot-washing was part and parcel of daily life. People wore sandals, which meant that their feet got dirty while travelling. To wash a guest’s feet was a sign of hospitality. It signified that a visitor was welcome, beloved. Foot-washing was seen as a menial task, something that servants or slaves did. Jesus is the host of this meal, so for Him to wash His disciples’ feet was both unusual and significant. St Peter’s reluctance to have his feet washed by Our Lord, is therefore perfectly understandable. Jesus is turning social conventions on their head. He is breaking the rules, and going against societal expectations.

Folk can often be a bit squeamish where feet are concerned. That is understandable. But the Church invites us this evening to follow Christ’s example and His command, and to do what He did. In a few moments time I will wash people’s feet. I have to tell you that this is one of the most moving things that I have ever done, and that I ever do. Because tonight the Upper Room is here in this church, and I, as your priest, will stand and kneel in the place of Christ. When I was ordained as a priest, just before the laying on of hands, the Bishop who ordained me told me to, ‘Imitate the mysteries you celebrate’. I try to follow these words to the best of my ability. Tonight Our Lord feels very close, as we make the events of two thousand years ago present in a particular way here this evening. We begin in the Upper Room with the washing of the Disciples’ feet and the Institution of the Eucharist, and we will end in the stillness and silence of Gethsemane, waiting with Our Lord, before His Arrest. 

This is more than sacred drama. We are not simply spectators watching a re-enactment, we are active participants in the mysteries themselves! The Eucharist, which Jesus instituted this evening, means several things. Firstly, the Eucharist is our thanksgiving to God for who Christ is, and what He does. Secondly, the Eucharist is an act of obedience: Our Lord told His disciples to ‘do this’ and for two thousand years the Church has obeyed His command. Thirdly, the Eucharist is a mystery that makes present the Body and Blood of Christ, which suffered and died for us on Calvary. As Christ fed His disciples, so He feeds us too. Tonight’s Eucharist is just as real as the first one, in the Upper Room, and each and every one ever since. That is why Christians celebrate this evening. On the night before He suffered and died for us, Jesus took bread and wine, gave thanks to God, and gave them to His disciples, telling them to do this in remembrance of Him.

God gives Himself to us as nourishment. God gives Himself to us, so that we might have life in Him. The role of the Church is to carry on the offering of the Son to the Father, to make it present across space and time. That is why we are here, tonight, gathered as disciples of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. As Christians we are to be people of love. We are formed by God’s love, and we are called to proclaim His love to the world. As St John says in his First Epistle: 

‘By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.’ (1John 3:16-18)

The Eucharist is the greatest demonstration of God’s love. Jesus feeds us to remind us that we are worth dying for. He feeds us so that we might share His life.

St Paul writes:

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you’ (1Cor 11:23)

The apostle hands on to the church in Corinth all that was given to him by our Lord. This is tradition in action: handing on those things you have been taught, or experienced, for the benefit of others. Paul’s letter contains the earliest known account of the Last Supper. Christ gives the Church priests, who share in His Priesthood to carry on His saving work in the world, to wash feet, to celebrate the Eucharist. As Christians, we are called to follow in Christ’s footsteps by caring for His people and serving them. We are to imitate the mysteries which we celebrate: offering our lives in His service and the service of His Church. Ten days ago I was re-licensed to serve this parish, benefice and ministry area. I reaffirmed my commitment to minister to you as your priest. This is a responsibility that I cannot fulfil solely by my own strength and abilities, but through the grace of God, and with your help and your prayers. I am honoured and humbled to minister to you as your priest, to wash your feet and to celebrate the Eucharist, especially on this holy night.

God does not expect us to understand the mystery of His saving love. Instead we are called to experience this love so that it might transform us. This is why the Gospel ends with Jesus teaching:

‘When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.”’ (Jn 13: 12-15)

Jesus is creating a community of love and service, which we call the Church, and He has given us the greatest example of how to live, love, and serve: Himself. As we enter into the mystery of Our Lord’s Suffering, Death, and Resurrection, may we learn to love and serve like Him. Nourished by His Body and Blood, let us sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, all majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

The Washing of the Feet – James Tissot (Brooklyn Museum)

Palm Sunday 2023

In this country we are currently preparing for the Coronation of King Charles. One of the defining characteristics of such royal occasions is that that they involve processions. Here in the United Kingdom we now use carriages, but they are still horse-drawn. On one side of the Great Seal of every British King and Queen, including the late Queen Elizabeth, they are depicted riding a horse. There is something about monarchy and being seen riding. In Ancient Israel it was no different.

Today marks the beginning of the holiest week of the Church’s year. It begins with Our Lord’s Triumphal entry into Jerusalem. This was much more than a royal visit. It was the proclamation of the Messiah, and a fulfilment of prophecy. The prophet Zechariah, writing 500 years before Jesus, looks forward to a messianic future:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’ (Zech 9:9)

Likewise, the prophet Isaiah anticipates the arrival of the Messiah in the following words:

Behold, the Lord has proclaimed to the end of the earth: Say to the daughter of Zion, “Behold, your salvation comes; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.”’ (Isa 62:11)

Both prophets deliver a message of salvation, with God saving His people. The name ‘Jesus’ means ‘God saves’, and in Him we see salvation enacted.

In Jerusalem in the Twelfth century a procession took place on Palm Sunday  which recreated Jesus’ journey from Bethany to Jerusalem. The city’s famous Golden Gate [Porta Aurea], was only opened on this day of the year. Through this gate, the King, representing Christ, rode in on a donkey, whilst the people waved palm branches and cried “Hosanna to the Son of David”. In our own way, we too are re-creating Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem here today.

The donkey ridden by Jesus reminds us of the humble beast of burden, which carried his Mother to Bethlehem for His birth, and then carried the Holy Family into exile in Egypt. This is an act of humble leadership which fulfils what was foreseen by the prophets. It shows us that Jesus Christ is truly the one who fulfils the hopes of Israel. The Hebrew Scriptures look forward to the deliverance of Israel, which is enacted in front of the eyes of those watching the Carpenter’s son enter the holy City.

Today’s service begins with joy and triumph. However, with the reading of the Passion Gospel, we move to the events of Thursday and Friday of Holy Week. Suddenly, the mood is more mysterious. Our Lord celebrates the Passover with His disciples. This is the celebration of Israel’s journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land, passing through the Red Sea, and wandering for forty years in the desert. Jesus also blesses bread and wine and says, ‘This is My Body’ and ‘This is My Blood’, something which the Church continues to celebrate every day. 

After spending time in prayer with His disciples, Our Lord is arrested. He is charged with blasphemy, and brought for trial before the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate. A few days earlier Jesus was hailed as the Messiah, the Saviour of Israel, and now all the crowd can do is shout ‘Let him be crucified!’. Joyous people have turned into a baying mob. Popular opinion can be very fickle. What is striking is that Christ remains silent:

‘But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many things they testify against you?” But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.’ (Mt 27:12-14)

Here Jesus is fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah, regarding the Suffering Servant, where he declares:

‘He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.’ (Isaiah 53:7)

Our Lord’s silence speaks powerfully to the injustice of the situation. Pilate wants to release Jesus but is afraid that a riot might break out, so washes his hands of the situation, thereby condemning an innocent man. Pilate takes the easy way out, bowing to popular pressure. At a human level this is understandable, if rather weak. In contrast, Christ stands in silence, a model of humility and love, submitting to death for love of us, and all humanity.

Humility is not a popular virtue these days, The world around us would have us be the exact opposite: full of ourselves, with a high opinion of our abilities. Ours is a society which is more and more characterised by the sin of selfishness. The individual is all that matters: me and what I want, is all that counts. At the root of all this is pride, thinking that we are more important than we are, making ourselves the focal point. In contrast, as Christians we need to put God at the centre of things, and learn to be thankful. 

Gratitude is characteristic only of the humble. The egotistic are so impressed by their own importance that they take everything given them as if it were their due. They have no room in their hearts for recollection of the undeserved favours they have received.

Fulton Sheen, On Being Human, 1982: 325

As people of faith, we need to adopt the mind of Christ. That means embracing a way of thinking that is devoted to love and the service of God. Christ doesn’t just do what He wants to, but everything He says and does is the will of God the Father. Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane for the strength to do God’s will. He demonstrates humility and obedience in action: embracing the most degrading death possible, for love of us. Thus, we should love Jesus. We should worship Him, because He is God, and He loves us. The Saviour of the World scorns majesty. He embraces shame and sin, total utter humiliation to save us. Jesus does this to heal the wounds of disobedience and division, so that we might have life in all its fulness, with Him for ever. This is why Jesus is willing to take our human frailty and to redeem us through His suffering. Through His vulnerability, He shows the World that God’s ways are different from ours. His is the example we are called to follow — the way of suffering love and humility.

Today, and in the coming week, we see what God’s Love and Glory are really like. It is not what people expect. This is power shown in humility, strength in weakness. As we continue our Lenten journey in the triumph of this day, and look towards the Holy and Life-giving Cross and beyond to the new life of Easter, let us trust in the Lord. Let us be like Him, so that He may transform our hearts, our minds and our lives, allowing us to experience life in all its fullness. Through God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen

James Tissot – The Procession in the streets of Jerusalem (Brooklyn Museum)

Lent V – The Raising of Lazarus

One thing is absolutely certain from the moment we are born, and that is that our earthly life will end at some point. This is something most people don’t like to spend much time thinking about, and yet it remains an inescapable truth. The Sadducees in Ancient Israel did not believe in life after death, and there are probably plenty of people nowadays who agree with them. However, the Christian Faith is a celebration of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are an Easter people, it is the heart of our faith. As our celebration of Lent continues we look to the Cross and beyond to the glory of Easter, placing our hope in Him who died and rose again.

The possibility of bringing life out of death is central to the first reading from the prophet Ezekiel. Writing during the exile in Babylon, the prophet has a vision of a valley of dry bones. Even in this image of lifelessness, Ezekiel is able to see God’s ability to bring good out of every situation. Ezekiel’s vision of the day of resurrection also looks forward to Jesus, who is the fulfilment of all prophecy. 

Bethany is a village about two miles east of Jerusalem, and is best known for being the home of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, who were followers and friends of Jesus. Their house still exists, and now forms part of a church. The Raising of Lazarus from the dead is the last of Jesus’ signs and miracles before His Passion. It was the final straw that pushed the Religious Authorities in Jerusalem into having Our Lord arrested and killed. From the start, today’s Gospel passage looks forward to the events around Jesus’ Passion. The reading begins by pointing out that:

It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. (Jn 11:2)

St Matthew’s account of the Passion begins with this anointing in Bethany. The  two sisters send a message to tell Jesus that their brother, ‘he whom you love is ill’ (Jn 11:3). However Our Lord’s response to this news is surprising:

“This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” (Jn 11:4)

Jesus then remains two more days where He is, and after this time tells His disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” (Jn 11:7)

At a human level this seems strange. We would expect Jesus to go straight away to see His friend who is ill, and heal him. But this is not what happens. What is even stranger is that a few verses later Our Lord makes known that He is aware that Lazarus has died:

Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” (Jn 11:14-15)

The key point is that the disciples may believe. Lazarus’ death is how they will come to belief, as it prefigures Our Lord’s Resurrection. The raising of Lazarus is a sign which points towards Easter.

Jesus and His disciples travel back to Bethany, and as they approach the village they are met by Martha, who greets Our Lord and says:

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” (Jn 11:21-22)

Martha is grieving her brother’s death, but in the midst of her grief she can recognise Jesus’ ability to heal, through the help of God. Martha has a deep faith, which is demonstrated in the following memorable exchange: 

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” (Jn 11:23-27)

Martha understands Jesus’ words to be about the resurrection of the dead before the final judgement. However, Jesus explains that through her faith in Him she can have true hope. Through our faith in Christ we can also have eternal life in Him. We too need to believe and trust in Him. Our Lord raises Lazarus to point to His own Resurrection, to explain what will happen. He does this to give people hope, to strengthen their faith and to help them to live out His love in their lives.

Mary of Bethany’s initial response is the same as that of her sister, Martha. She wishes that Jesus had been there to heal Lazarus, and she falls at His feet, weeping. Mary’s grief moves Our Lord, who asks where her brother. is buried.

They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. (Jn 11:34-35)

There is an immense power in these last two words: ‘Jesus wept’. God, who created the Universe weeps at the grave of His friend. Jesus is the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. He will soon undergo His Passion and Death for us. As Christians we have a God who understands humanity, who shares our pain, and who will submit Himself to torture and death on our behalf. 

Jesus tells the people assembled at the tomb to remove the stone. Martha, ever the practical disciple, points out that there will be an odour as Lazarus has been dead for four days. 

Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” (Jn 11:40-43)

The key here is faith and prayer. In this respect the raising of Lazarus is no different, and no less miraculous, than our own daily lives, which are supported by our faith in God, and prayer. Martha has faith, and sees the glory of God in the raising of her brother who was dead and is now alive. The raising of Lazarus is a miracle, and a demonstration of God’s love, which also points forward to all that Jesus will accomplish in His Passion, Death and Resurrection.

In our baptism we share in Christ’s saving Death and Resurrection. In the signs of John’s Gospel, from the changing of water into wine at the Marriage Feast at Cana, to the raising of Lazarus, we see demonstrations of God’s love, and the power of prayer and faith. Jesus demonstrates that we are loved by a generous God, who is willing to die for us, and rise again, to offer us new life in Him, through faith.

May we too embrace the faith of Mary and Martha, and trust in Our Lord to heal our wounds and raise us to eternal life. Let us give thanks and sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed all, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen. 

James Tissot – Jesus wept (Brooklyn Museum)

Lent IV – The man born blind

To begin this morning, I would like you to do something for me. Please would you close you eyes for a moment. Thank you. Our sight is something that we often take for granted, and our lives would be very different without it. Please open your eyes. Not to be able to see, even for a moment, is difficult and disorienting. To restore sight is a precious gift, which speaks of a God who loves us, and who longs to bring healing and reconciliation to a broken world. 

Today’s Gospel begins, like last week’s, with another interesting encounter:

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” (Jn 9: 1-5)

Our Lord’s disciples ask Him a question which sounds very harsh to our ears, but it was not uncommon to understand physical disability as a punishment for sin, as in fact the Pharisees do later on in the passage. Thankfully Jesus corrects them. He is the Light of the World, who has come to bring light to those who sit in darkness, both physical and metaphorical. 

Christ spits on the ground, makes some mud, and rubs it on the man’s eyes and tells him to go and wash himself in a nearby pool. This the man does, his sight is restored in miraculous fashion. End of story? No, in fact, this healing miracle is just the beginning of the narrative, which, as we have just heard, develops in some extraordinary ways. 

Something amazing has happened, a man who was unable to see now can. This miraculous healing is a demonstration of God’s power, and God’s love, but will be used by St John to explore ideas of blindness and sight on a metaphorical rather than a purely physical level. The people ask for an explanation:

So they said to him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud and anointed my eyes and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ So I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.” (Jn 9:10-12) 

The man tells them what happened, and who healed him, and how. They ask him where Jesus is, and he does not know. An important factor in this account is the fact that the healing happened on the Sabbath, the Jewish day of rest, when no work was supposed to be done. For this reason the man is brought to the religious authorities. 

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a Sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. So the Pharisees again asked him how he had received his sight. And he said to them, “He put mud on my eyes, and I washed, and I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner do such signs?” And there was a division among them. So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him, since he has opened your eyes?” He said, “He is a prophet.” (Jn 9:13-17)

The Law of Moses forbids a Jew from working on the Sabbath. What exactly is work? In Jewish terms almost everything is. So if Jesus is breaking the Sabbath, how can He perform such miracles? It is easy to see how this situation could provoke fierce debate. 

The interrogation continues:

So for the second time they called the man who had been blind and said to him, “Give glory to God. We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “Whether he is a sinner I do not know. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” (Jn 9: 24-25)

The man does not make a judgement about Jesus, he simply states the facts: he was blind, and now he can see. In other words, something miraculous happened, that is all that really matters. The problem is that a man who could not see now can, while the religious authorities are in fact blind, though they can see. The Pharisees are blind to the workings of God, and obsessed with minutiae.

The conversation goes downhill from there, and while the Pharisees refuse to recognise what has happened, the man who was born blind is becoming more well-disposed towards Jesus:

The man answered, “Why, this is an amazing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshipper of God and does his will, God listens to him. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” (Jn 9:30-33)

The man who has been healed and given his sight is convinced that a miracle has taken place, and he is happy and grateful. However, at one level the encounter does not end well:

They answered him, “You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?” And they cast him out. (Jn 9:34)

The Pharisees double down on their original position. They call the man a sinner and throw him out, making him an outcast from society who should be shunned, just like the Samaritan Woman at the well last week. This then leads to a second encounter with Jesus:

Jesus heard that they had cast him out, and having found him he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and it is he who is speaking to you.” He said, “Lord, I believe”, and he worshipped him. (Jn 9:35-38)

Jesus asks him a question, which he answers honestly, the man is given more information, and ends up believing in who Jesus is, and what He does. He has been on a journey from blindness to sight, from a lack of belief to belief. With the gift of sight has come the journey towards faith, which ends in the worship of God. What we are presented with is a metaphor for the journey which brings us through baptism to a relationship with Our Lord, which grows into faith and finds its fullest expression in worship. We have come to be close to Christ, to be nourished by Him, and to enjoy eternal life with Him. 

The Religious Authorities, however, do not fare so well:

Jesus said, “For judgement I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard these things, and said to him, “Are we also blind?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see’, your guilt remains.” (Jn 9:39-41)

The Pharisees have been weighed in the balance and found wanting, by God, who is Judge of all. They are blind, proud, and arrogant, yet accuse the blind man of suffering because of sin. The ones who should be able to see what is going on, who have studied the Scriptures are blind — they cannot recognise the wonderful works of God in their midst. A man who has never seen before this day has, through an encounter with Jesus, been brought to faith.

As we continue our Lenten pilgrimage, through prayer, fasting and works of charity, we prepare ourselves and our lives to celebrate the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. We should be encouraged that at its heart what we are preparing to celebrate is the self-giving love of God, poured out on the world to heal us, to restore our humanity. So that we, like the blind man, may see. So that we may understand what God does for us. So that we may have life in all its fullness in Him. May we grow in faith like the man born blind and sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom belongs all, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen. 

James Tissot The Blind Man Washes in the Pool of Siloam (Brooklyn Museum)

Lent III – Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well.

If I were to mention the Samaritans to you, I suspect that the first thing to come into your mind might be the phone-line for people in emotional distress, which was founded by The Rev’d Chad Varah in 1953. That organisation was named after the Parable of the Good Samaritan in St Luke’s Gospel. However, that it is not the only time that Samaritans are mentioned in the New Testament. In today’s Gospel we have just heard of an encounter between Jesus and a Samaritan woman. 

Water is something that humans cannot live without. If we are deprived of water for more than three days, we die. Thankfully, we are blessed to live in a country with plenty of water, and reservoirs to supply our needs. This morning’s texts have a watery theme, and begin the exploration of baptism which characterises the Eucharistic readings during the rest of Lent. There is a practical reason for this. Traditionally Lent was a time when people prepared for baptism on Easter Eve, sharing in Christ’s Death and Resurrection 

The Book of Exodus frequently depicts the people of Israel moaning and complaining. We can, probably, recognise something of ourselves in them. They are often stubborn, wilful, and are prone to making mistakes. Because they are thirsty, Moses strikes the rock at Horeb, as the Lord commands him, and out flows water. As St Paul puts it, ‘For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.’ (1Cor 10:4). This water, like the parted water of the Red Sea, prefigures Christ, the living water, and also our baptism, by which we enter the Church. Through baptism we are born again to eternal life in Christ. On the Cross, Jesus’ side was pierced and blood and water flowed out. This water speaks to us of the grace of God poured out upon us, His people, to heal and restore us, and to help us live His risen life.

The Gospel this morning takes place in Samaria, the midlands between Galilee and Judaea. The people living here did not go off into exile in Babylon, but instead stayed put. For centuries the dealings between Jews and Samaritans were fraught with difficulty. They had different holy mountains: the Samaritans worshipped God on Mount Gerazim, whilst the Jews worshipped on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. A Jew was not supposed to even drink from the same cup as a Samaritan.

Drawing water from a well is a necessity in a world without indoor plumbing. We are used to mains water nowadays. But only a few generations ago it was the norm to have to fetch water. In a hot country fetching water is something which you would do at the start or end of the day, otherwise it was too hot to carry the heavy burden back home. Bearing this in mind, the fact that the Samaritan woman is going to the well at midday tells us something. She is going to get her water when there is nobody else at the well because she has been shunned by her community and is an outcast.

When Jesus sees the woman at the well He breaks with convention:

‘Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.)’ (Jn 4:7-8)

Such social interaction was frowned upon. Men were not supposed to speak to women, and Jews were not supposed to speak with Samaritans. And yet, Jesus asks the woman for a drink of water. At one level it looks like the start of a romantic story: man meets woman, and asks her for a drink, before getting to know her better, rather like Jacob and Rachel in Genesis 29. The woman is surprised:

‘The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.)’ (Jn 4:9)

Our Lord is breaking the rules because they are manmade, and He intends to use this opportunity to proclaim the Good News. The woman, however, doesn’t quite understand what is going on.

The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.” (Jn 4:11-12)

She is concerned with practical considerations, and is unable to see beyond them. Jesus then tries to explain what He means:

Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.” (Jn 4:13-15)

‘Living water’ can mean water that flows from a spring, or in a river. However, Our Lord is referring to the water of baptism by which we are washed clean and given new life in Christ. The woman is interested in Jesus’ words, mostly because she has had enough of being shunned. Her response is again focussed on practical considerations, but at a deeper level, she is saying, ‘Yes’ to Jesus. Their conversation continues:

Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” (Jn 4:16-18)

The woman has had several husbands. We are not given an explanation, but this is possibly because the first died without leaving an heir. According to the Jewish custom of levirate marriage, she was supposed to marry his relatives until she had a son. The woman is possibly being shunned by the community because she is barren, and not able to bear children. Such behaviour appears cruel and judgemental, and Our Lord seems more than happy to proclaim the Good News to this woman who is on the margins of society.

The conversation continues, moving on to matters of religion, and especially where is the right place to worship God:

Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (Jn 4:21-24)

Our Lord makes the point that true religion is not a matter of the place where we worship God. More important is our relationship with God, which allows us to worship in spirit and in truth. This then leads to a profound exchange, which sets the tone for the rest of the Gospel passage:

The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.” (Jn 4:25)

Jesus tells the woman who He is: The Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God. That is a lot of information to take in, so it is no surprise that we do not hear her response immediately. She is coming to believe in the source of life, she is growing in faith, and by the end of the Gospel passage we will see her speaking to others about Our Lord, spreading the Good News.

Indeed, only a few verses later the woman at the well is telling people about Jesus:

So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” (Jn 4: 28-9)

The woman leaves the jar at the well, abandoning her water-fetching labour. This is because she has found the source of living water — Jesus — and is coming to believe that He is the Messiah, and sharing her faith with others. 

There then follows a discussion between Jesus and His disciples about Christian ministry. This is described as a cooperative process — regardless of where we are sowing or reaping, or indeed doing both. Christ’s vision for the Church is of a community where we all work together, for the glory of God.

The Samaritan woman’s testimony brings other local people to believe in Jesus. So they ask Our Lord to stay with them, so that He can teach them. He has gone from being a stranger, an outsider, to being invited to give religious instruction. It is an amazing turn-around, which speaks of the power of personal conversation, the new life of Baptism, and the joy of the Kingdom. The woman who was shunned by her neighbours becomes the one who helps to bring salvation to the whole community.

This Lent may we grow in faith, hope, and love, and share our joy with others so that all may come to sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom belongs all glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen. 

James Tissot – The Woman of Samaria at the well (Brooklyn Museum)

The Second Sunday of Lent

I would like you to imagine, in your mind, a vision of glory. It could be someone winning a chair at an Eisteddfod, or being presented with an Olympic gold medal, or crowned as a king or queen. It might be something completely different, but the point is that our human ideas of glory are quite limited. In the Old Testament the glory of God is often seen as a pillar of cloud or fire, or a bright light. Today we are shown Jesus as the manifestation of glory.

This morning’s reading from the Book of Genesis might well see a strange place to begin a discussion about glory. In the passage, God speaks to a seventy-five year old man called Abram, and tells him to leave behind his friends and his native land. God tells Abram to go on a journey into the unknown, to pack up his belongings and go somewhere new. It is quite an undertaking. God also makes several promises to Abram:

‘And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. …. and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ (Gen 12: 2-3)

God’s promise to Abram is a crucial moment in salvation history, for Israel and the whole world, for we are all children of Abraham. Abram listens to God and obeys and puts his trust in Him. God likewise calls each and every one of us to follow Him, and to trust Him. As Christians, we are charged to respond to this call, each and every day.

Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy was written from prison before his execution in Rome. Again, this is not exactly an auspicious situation for the subject of glory. However, this letter is Paul’s extended farewell to his beloved disciple, Timothy. The apostle uses it to reflect on the place of suffering in the Christian life. When we go through difficult times we are united with Christ. This is how we are to understand the life of faith in general and Lent in particular. It is about being close to Jesus, and growing through suffering. This is how we obtain glory.

Just before today’s Gospel passage two important events have taken place. The first is that Peter has declared that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God. Secondly, Our Lord has predicted His passion and Death in Jerusalem. Both of these are key to our understanding of what happens next:

‘And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.’ (Mt 17:1-2)

After six days comes the seventh, the Sabbath, the day of rest, a time to be near to God. There is something about being in the close presence of God that makes people shine. When Moses encounters God on Mount Sinai he glows. This, however, is something more, because in Christ we see the glory of God.

‘And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.’ (Mt 17:3)

Our Lord is not on the mountain on His own. Jesus appears with Moses and Elijah to show His disciples and the Church that He is the fulfilment of both the Law and the Prophets. Scripture points to Him and finds its fulfilment in Him: He is the Messiah, the Son of God, the blessing for all the families of the earth.

‘And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (Mt 17:4)

Peter’s response is understandable, it points to the Feast of Tabernacles. This is the Jewish Autumn harvest festival, when Jews live for a week outside in tents with a roof made of leaves. Making tents speaks of hospitality and treating guests with honour, but it also expresses the disciples’ desire to make what is supposed to be a momentary experience into something longer. At this point, God the Father speaks:

‘He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” (Mt 17:5)

It is not surprising that God’s words are similar here to those He spoke at Jesus’ Baptism. The Father declares that Our Lord is His Beloved Son, in whom He is well pleased, and He commands the disciples to listen to Him. We need to listen to Jesus because He has the words of eternal life, which tell us how to live and flourish as human beings.

The disciples are afraid, because they have just had an encounter with God. That is a totally understandable reaction. 

‘But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.”’ (Mt 17: 7)

Our Lord tells His disciples ‘Paid ag ofni’ ‘Do not be afraid’ because God is a God of love. They have glimpsed the glory of the Creator, which is not a cause for fear, but for celebration. God is with His people. Jesus tells the disciples not to tell anyone about this until after He has risen from the dead. Christ has another summit He must still climb: the hill of Calvary, where He will suffer and die upon the Cross. There Jesus takes our sins upon Himself, restoring our relationship with God and each other. This is real glory — not worldly glory but the glory of God’s love poured out on the world to heal and restore it.

We live surrounded by mountains and, to quote Fulton Sheen:

“Three important scenes of Our Lord’s life took place on mountains. On one, He preached the Beatitudes, the practice of which would bring a Cross from the world; on the second, He showed the glory that lay beyond the Cross; and on the third,He offered Himself in death as a prelude to His glory and that of all who would believe in His name.”

Fulton Sheen The Life of Christ 1970: 158

 The Transfiguration looks to the Cross as the demonstration of God’s Glory, and can only be understood in the light of it. This is why the disciples are told not to mention it until after the Resurrection. On the Cross we see God’s glory, displayed in sacrificial reconciling love. This is not the world’s idea of glory, but it is God’s. Here we see demonstrated the love which can reconcile humanity. The same love which we hope to enjoy forever in Heaven. 

So let us behold God’s glory, here, this morning. Let us touch and taste God’s glory. Let us prepare to be transformed by His love, through the power of His Holy Spirit, so that we may be built up as living stones, into a temple to God’s glory. May our Lenten pilgrimage take us to the Cross and beyond, to experience His glory and give praise to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen. 

The Transfiguration – James Tissot (Brooklyn Museum)

The First Sunday of Lent

This morning I would like to begin by asking you a question: ‘Do you find Lent easy or difficult?’ I certainly struggle at times with prayer, fasting, and charity, and if we’re honest, I suspect that most of us do. We make resolutions, and often we don’t manage to keep them. Every one of us, left to our own devices and relying solely upon willpower, will fail at some point. We need the support of a loving Christian community and, most of all, we need to rely upon God to help us. Only with God’s help can we be transformed. One of the secrets of the spiritual life is that it is not about what we can do, but rather about letting God transform us.

Our first reading this morning takes us right back to the start of the problem of humans turning away from God, which began with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve are tempted by the serpent to do what God has told them not to do. Instead of obeying their creator, Adam and Eve prefer to trust the serpent, who promises that they will become like God. They are disobedient: they do not listen to what God says, and act in accordance with it. However, rather than knowing good and evil, all they learn is that they are naked, and so they act to cover their nakedness. Instead of improving their lives, the knowledge they gain makes them less happy and content. The serpent makes empty promises, and they are taken in by them. Such is the power of lies. 

Having heard how humans first turned away from God, we hear in Paul’s Letter to the Romans (today’s second reading), how disobedience is countered by the obedience of Jesus Christ. It is obedience that leads to Our Lord’s death on the Cross for us. There Christ bears the burden of our disobedience, to pay the debt which we cannot. This is what we are preparing to celebrate: a single act of righteousness that, ‘leads to justification and life for all men’ (Rom 5:18). To be justified is to be declared righteous in the sight of God. We are blameworthy, yet God declares us innocent. We deserve punishment, and yet are rewarded. It is remarkable. Such is God’s love for us that our slate is wiped clean. Each and every one of us deserves to be cast aside, for our misdeeds, like those of Adam and Eve, which separate us from God and each other. Yet God did not leave us in slavery to sin, but sent His Son, so that we might have life in and through Him. This is the Good News of the Gospel.

If today’s Old Testament Reading is concerned with disobedience, then the Gospel is, at its heart, a story of obedience. Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness, into to a deserted, barren place, both to be close to God, and to be tempted by the Devil. It is a harsh, dry, landscape, and after forty days of fasting and prayer, it is no surprise that Our Lord is hungry. 

And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” (Mt 4: 3)

The Devil is cunning. He asks Jesus to prove that He is the Son of God by performing a miracle. This temptation works on several levels. By doubting that Jesus is God, and asking Him to prove it, the devil is continuing to mock the God whom he refuses to serve. It is a temptation to be relevant. Jesus is hungry and needs to eat, but is being tempted to use the creative power of God simply to serve an appetite. The world tempts us to be relevant, and to conform ourselves to it, rather than let the world be conformed to the will of God. But Our Lord performs miracles not for His own sake, but for the sake of others, and for the sake of the Kingdom. Conjuring up fresh bread is spectacular, but the miracle would not be done to glorify God. Jesus, therefore, replies as follows:

But he answered, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Mt 4:4)

Human life requires both physical nourishment, as well as spiritual nourishment. Unless we feed both body and soul, then we are not truly alive. This is a profound truth, which reminds us that as Christians, we are fed by Word and Sacrament, sustained by God so that we may grow in faith, and hope, and love.

The devil tries to tempt Jesus a second time:

Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you’, and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” (Mt 4:5-6)

Jerusalem is the most important place for the Jewish people, with the Temple at its heart, the holy centre of their faith. Again, the devil doubts who Jesus is, and tries to get Our Lord to prove His divinity by doing something spectacular. This is rooted in a doubt as to whether God will act to save His Son. The tempter quotes Scripture to reinforce his point, but Jesus refuses him.

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (Mt 4:7)

For the second time, Our Lord uses the Scriptures to reinforce His obedience to God. The devil, however, tempts Jesus for a third time:

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” (Mt 4:8-9)

Power and earthly glory are tempting. Politicians and rulers are often seduced by them. But what the devil is proposing is the ultimate reversal. An angel, albeit a fallen one, is saying to the Son of God, ‘Bow down and worship me’. Worship is , however, due to God alone, and not to His creatures. The devil is seeking to turn the order of things full circle by inviting the Creator to worship a creature. This is wrong, and Jesus will have nothing to do with it:

Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him. (Mt 4:10-11)

Our Lord dismisses Satan and, just like He does in the two previous temptations, He quotes Scripture from the Book of Exodus. The two are linked. Jesus goes through water in Baptism, like Israel at the Red Sea. He spends forty days in the desert, paralleling Israel’s forty years in the wilderness. However, whereas Israel bows down before a false God (the Golden Calf), Our Lord resists temptation. Later, Jesus will be tempted again, during His Crucifixion, when He is mocked:

And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” (Mt 27:39-43)

Jesus cannot come down from the Cross, because He has to die, to reconcile God and humanity. The mocking tone is the same as before, and the crowd uses the same words as Satan: ‘If you are the Son of God do this’. At both His Temptation and in His Passion and Death, Our Lord is obedient to the will of the Father.

The Temptations of Jesus teach us that we have to be weak, powerless and vulnerable, utterly reliant upon God, so that God can be at work in us. Such weakness may be perceived as foolish in worldly terms, but that is the point. As Christians, we are not meant to be conformed to the world. In seeking to grow in faith, humility, and obedience, we allow God to be at work in us — taking us and transforming us into His likeness. Therefore, as we undertake to follow Christ in our Lenten pilgrimage we do so in the knowledge of our weakness, and in reliance upon God alone. We look forward joyfully, knowing that Christ’s victory — which we will celebrate at Easter — is total and complete. Let us pray that we may receive the grace to follow Christ into the wilderness. As we prepare to celebrate His Death and Resurrection, let us sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen. 

James Tissot – Jesus tempted in the wilderness (Brooklyn Museum)

Ash Wednesday

Today the Church celebrates Ash Wednesday, the beginning of her Lenten journey towards the great festival of Easter. The entire Christian community is invited to live this period of forty days as a pilgrimage of repentance, conversion and renewal. 

In the Bible, the number forty is rich in symbolism. It recalls Israel’s journey in the desert: a time of expectation, purification and closeness to the Lord, but also a time of temptation and testing. It also evokes Jesus’ own sojourn in the desert at the beginning of His public ministry. This was a time of profound closeness to the Father in prayer, but also of confrontation with the mystery of evil. 

The Church’s Lenten discipline is meant to help deepen our life of faith and our imitation of Christ in his paschal mystery. In these forty days may we strive to draw nearer to the Lord by meditating on his word and example. We seek to conquer the desert of our spiritual aridity, selfishness and materialism. For the whole Church may this Lent be a time of grace in which God leads us, in union with the crucified and risen Lord, through the experience of the desert to the joy and hope brought by Easter.

[Pope Benedict XVI Catechesis at the General Audience 22.ii.12: ]

Today we go with Christ into the desert for forty days. Deserts are places of lack and isolation, something which we have all experienced over the last few years. We have been cut off from people, places, and things we are accustomed to do. In many ways the last few years have felt like a continual Lent. Despite this, as Christians, we thoughtfully prepare to celebrate the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, who began his public ministry after His Baptism by going into the desert.

To go into the desert is to go to a place to be alone with God, in prayer, to face temptation, and to grow spiritually. It is something which Christians do together over the next six weeks or so, to draw closer to Jesus Christ. By imitating Him, and listening to what He says to us, we prepare ourselves to enter into and share the mystery of His Passion, Death, and Resurrection, so that we may celebrate with joy Christ’s triumph over sin and death, and His victory at Easter. 

In the Gospel reading today, Jesus teaches His disciples how to fast. The point is not about making an outward show of what we are doing, but rather about how the practice affects our interior disposition. This is clear from the first reading, from the prophet Joel, who gives this advice:

“Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abiding in steadfast love; and relents over disaster. (Joel 2: 12-13)

Through the prophet, God is calling His people back to Himself, in love and mercy, and rather than the outward show of mourning through the tearing of one’s clothing, to instead to open our hearts to God, so that He can heal us. We can only find healing if we first recognise our need for healing, and that healing is something that God can do for us, we cannot do it for ourselves.

Human beings, by nature like to show off, to engage in display, and to tell people about things. Yet in the Gospel today, Christ tells us to do the exact opposite. We are told not to show what we are doing, to keep it hidden. This is completely in line with the advice of the prophet Joel that fasting, like mourning, has an interior quality which is important.

By giving up something we love and enjoy, and regulating our diet we are not engaging in a holy weight-loss plan. What we are doing is training our bodies and our minds, becoming disciplined. Through this we express physically the radical purification and conversion which lies at the heart of the Christian life: we follow Christ.

We follow Christ into the desert, we follow Christ to the Cross, and beyond, to be united with Him, in love and in suffering. In this we should bear in mind St Paul’s words to the Church in Corinth that we are called to suffer with and for Christ, to bear witness to our faith, and to encourage people, as ‘ambassadors for Christ’. This starts with our reconciliation of each other, and God’s reconciliation and healing of us. Just as for any other role we undertake in life, it requires preparation. 

The Gospel talks of three ways to prepare ourselves: Firstly, Fasting — disciplining the body, and abstaining from food. Secondly, Prayer — drawing closer to God and deepening our relationship with Him, and listening to what He says to us. Thirdly, by Charity, or Almsgiving — being generous to those in need, as God is generous towards us, we follow Christ’s example. Matthew’s Gospel clearly states that we do not do these things in order to be seen to be doing them, in order to gain a reward in human terms, of power or prestige, but to be rewarded by God.

We should always remember that as Christians we cannot earn our forgiveness through our works. God forgives us in Christ, who died and rose again for us. We plead His Cross as our only hope, through which we are saved and set free. 

Being humble, and conscious of our total reliance upon God, allows us to be transformed by God, into what God wants us to be. God’s grace transforms our nature, and we come to know and live life in all its fulness, the joy of the Kingdom, and a foretaste of Heaven. Through this we are united with God, know and experience His love and forgiveness, and are transformed by Him, into His likeness, sharing His life and His love. 

Let us use this Lent, to draw ever closer to God and to each other, (spiritually, if not physically). Through our fasting, prayer, and charity, may we be built up in love, and faith, and hope, and prepare to celebrate with joy the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ. To whom, with God the Father, and God the Holy Spirit, be ascribed all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now, and forever. Amen.

Jesus tempted in the Wilderness – James Tissot (Brooklyn Museum)

Seventh Sunday of Year A

I dare say that the majority of you are familiar with the Beatles’ 1967 hit single, ‘All You Need is Love’. The song became an anthem for a generation, and while John, Paul, George, and Ringo were certainly not theologians, their song reminds us that at its heart, Christianity is a religion of love: love of God and love of neighbour.

Love is a big deal in our world. On Tuesday the whole country celebrated St Valentine’s Day. What started as a Christian festival has now been taken as an opportunity to make money. Thankfully the Church understands love as being about much more than simply passion and romance. Love is ‘to will the good of the other’. Love is choosing that which makes us flourish, as people both in our relationships with each other and in our relationship with God. A society based on love is a living embodiment of the Kingdom. It is a place of generosity and reconciliation, which can change us as individuals, and also the world in which we live.

The first reading today, from the Old Testament contains a key text. This is one of two upon which the whole of the Law and the prophets, and the proclamation of the Good News are based:

“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.” (Lev 19:18)

If we love our neighbour as ourselves, we choose what makes both of us flourish. As Christians we are keen to live in a world characterised by generosity and peace. It is not surprising that the above verse was chosen by Our Lord as one of two verses (focusing upon love of God and neighbour) which sum up the teaching of the Kingdom of God. Christ seeks to deepen our understanding of the ethical underpinnings of our faith, so that we can put them into practice in our lives.

Today’s Gospel continues Jesus’ ethical teaching from the Sermon on the Mount. Our Lord continues to develop His moral teaching and, as I mentioned last week, uses the formula: ‘You have heard it said …. but I say to you ….’ to reinforce and deepen His teaching. 

In the ancient world the idea of retributive justice was common. That is the idea that a punishment should be similar or equal to the crime committed. It forms part of the Law of Moses:

‘But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,’ (Exod 21:23-24)

While the Law of Moses allowed for limited retribution to take place, Jesus deepens the moral law, and makes it much more demanding. Christ’s followers are not to offer any resistance to mistreatment. We are to be generous to anyone who asks of us, regardless of who they are. Only gentle non-violent love can truly change the world. Our Lord seeks to put an end to the cycle of violence, by encouraging non-resistance. He develops this in an interesting way:

‘And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.’ (Mt 5:40)

Generally speaking in Jesus’ time men would wear two main items of clothing, a tunic, and a cloak. So by giving the person who is suing you both your tunic and your cloak you would be left standing in your underwear. The point is that taking all your clothes shames the one bringing the lawsuit as they are not being generous. It demonstrates that they are prepared to strip people naked in order to fulfil their desire for retribution.

Jesus continues:

And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.’ (Mt 5:41)

Roman soldiers had permission to compel someone in Palestine to carry their kit for a mile. This was not popular, understandably. Carrying the soldier’s kit for two miles is a way of both protesting against the injustice of the requirement, and also a way of making the soldier liable to discipline from his superiors for breaking the law. Harshness is overcome by generosity. Both of these examples point ahead to Our Lord’s Passion where He is stripped of His clothes, and forced to carry His Cross to Calvary. In His Passion and Death, Jesus exemplifies the love and generosity that He is encouraging His disciples to live out.

In the Ancient World the concept of loving friends and hating enemies was widespread. However, Jesus takes this moral norm and subverts it in His teaching:

‘But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.’ (Mt 5:44-5)

If we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, then they may cease to be our enemies. By praying for those who victimise us, we let God be the agent of change, and become people characterised by love and generosity. Only love and forgiveness have the power to heal and restore, to make the world a better place. Our Lord exemplifies this in His Passion when he prays:

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Lk 23:34)

During His Crucifixion and Death, Jesus prays for God’s forgiveness, and so should we. Later in this service we will pray the Lord’s Prayer which includes the words:

‘a maddau i ni ein dyledion, fel y maddeuwn ninnau i’n dyledwyr.
And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.’

If we are a people characterised by forgiveness then we are offering an alternative to a world dominated by power. The sun and rain fall on good and bad alike. How then are we to live? We have a choice. We can either follow the way of power and violence, or we can live the life of love, generosity and forgiveness. One has the power to make things worse, the other to make things better. On the Cross we see the demonstration of God’s generous love for humanity. This is the love we are called to imitate.

Jesus teaches us that,

“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt 5:48)

In both Latin and Greek the word for ‘perfect’ can also mean ‘complete’. We are called to be complete people. It is our relationship with God that makes us whole, and which enables us to put our faith into practice.

As we prepare to enter the holy season of Lent, we look to the Cross as our only hope, the greatest demonstration of God’s love for us. May we live out the love and the forgiveness which we see in Christ. May we turn away from our past failures, and live out the perfection of Christ. May we live as whole people filled with the love and forgiveness of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen. 

The Sermon on the Mount, Sant’ Apollinare, Ravena

The Sixth Sunday of Year A

When a new political party comes to power everyone is keen to find out what they will change and what they will leave the same. A new generation often wants to abandon the rules of the preceding one, seeing them as no longer relevant to the new times. Jesus, however, does the reverse. He teaches that the Law of Moses and the prophecies are not to be abolished. Quite the opposite, He states that He has come to fulfil them:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.” (Mt 5:17)

Jesus is the fulfilment of Jewish religious and ethical teaching, which He does not revoke. Instead He deepens its meaning, and reminds people of how God wants us to live. It is an intensification of a rigorous system, which sets a very high standards to live by. Jesus states:

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5:20)

The Religious Authorities of Jesus’ day were scrupulous in their observance of the Law, but even this is not good enough. As Our Lord will go on to explain, God is calling us to live to an even higher standard.

“But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgement; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Mt 5:22)

Intensifying the teaching on murder, Jesus points out that anger, and words spoken in anger can themselves have dire consequences. All aspects of our life matter, because we become what we do. As Christians, our actions and our speech help to form our moral character. They are how we put our faith into practice in our lives.

Jesus expects the Christian community to practise reconciliation:

“So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Mt 5:23-24)

We are called to be people in good accord with each other because Christ’s Death on the Cross has reconciled God and humanity. The Cross stands at the heart of Our Lord’s ethical teaching because it is the ultimate demonstration of love and goodness, poured out by God for our benefit. This is the ethical standard by which we are both measured and freed. Reconciliation is difficult and costly, but it allows Christians to live in a new way. This new way of living offers the world the opportunity to move beyond recrimination and retaliation, and flourish in a new relationship with God and each other.

Our Lord’s teaching on adultery takes things much further than the Law of Moses did. This is because Jesus is inaugurating a society based on love and faithfulness. What we say and do are important, they affect who we become. Each of the teachings in today’s Gospel begins, ‘You have heard it said …. But I say to you’, or something similar. Jesus takes existing moral teaching, and deepens it, going beyond the letter of the Law, to point out the Spirit which underlies the teaching. We are called to be people of love, forgiveness, reconciliation, who operate according to higher standards. And this includes the words we use everyday — they matter. 

In our life, we have a choice to make, and we are free to make it. Today’s first reading, from the Jewish Wisdom tradition explains the options:

“Before a man are life and death, and whichever he chooses will be given to him.” (Eccelsiasticus 15: 17)

This verse echoes the choice given by Moses to Israel in Deuteronomy 30:19, and it is expanded upon a few verses later:

“He has not commanded any one to be ungodly, and he has not given any one permission to sin.” (Eccelsiasticus 15: 20)

Humanity has a propensity for sin; to choose to do what we know is the wrong thing to do. Sin damages us, and our relationship with both God and each other. But thanks to Jesus, who chose death for our sake, on our behalf, we can choose life in all its fullness. This we can achieve, both as individuals and as a community, by responding with love. In doing so we conform ourselves to Christ, and embrace His life and death. This is also exemplified in the writings of St Paul. Paul had a deep understanding of the Scriptures and came to see how they both pointed to, and also found their fulfilment in Jesus Christ. The Greeks in Corinth, to whom he was writing, prided themselves on their love of wisdom, their philosophy. Paul, however, has something different to offer:

“But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.” (1Cor 2:7)

This hidden wisdom is simply to know Christ and Him crucified (1Cor 2:2) —  words written by Paul a few lines earlier and part of our readings last Sunday. Because of who Jesus is, and what He does, humanity can choose life. The Christian life is not an easy option, it comes at a cost, but the alternative is far worse.

Individually, and as a Christian community, we will struggle to live up to the high standards that God expects of us. However, that is not an excuse not to try. With the love and support of our brothers and sisters in Christ, and the knowledge that God’s love and forgiveness are never-ending, together we can attempt to be the people Jesus longs for us to be. Let us conform ourselves to Christ, and live like Him, and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

The Sermon of the Beatitudes James Tissot (Brooklyn Museum)

The Fifth Sunday of Year A

Twelve years ago I spent a fortnight in Tamil Nadu in South-East India, as a guest of the local diocese. It was an amazing experience, for which I am extremely grateful. One of the many things that I found strange was how salty the food was there. In the West we are generally told that salt is bad for you, and causes high blood pressure. However, because of the heat and humidity in India, you perspire an awful lot. In order to stay healthy in such an environment you need to consume a lot of water and salt — much more than I was accustomed to. But for people living in hot places, such as the Holy Land in Our Lord’s day (and our own), salt is a necessity. It keeps you alive. 

In cooking, salt has two main functions. The first is to enhance the flavour of food, and the second is to preserve it. A bag of chips without salt just wouldn’t taste as good. In times and places without refrigeration, preserving food is both difficult and important. Jesus is referring to both these actions of salt when he says:

“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.” (Mt 5:13)

Here Our Lord is encouraging His followers to be the kind of people who both make life taste better, and who preserve faith. If we do not hand on a faith which saves people then we are not doing anyone any favours. As Christians we are called to show that to be ‘in Christ’ is to have life in all its fullness, and in all its richness. We do this by living out our faith in our lives. What we believe as Christians, and how we conduct ourselves, are intrinsically linked. Our actions should be grounded in our beliefs, and they should be a demonstration of our faith in our lives. We can turn away from the moral decay of the world around us, to live the life of the Kingdom here and now. Jesus’ message is stark and uncompromising. One way of life leads to death, the other to life.

Jesus then uses a different image:

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.” (Mt 5:14)

As well as being salt, Christians are called to be lights, to act as beacons in a world of darkness. A city on a hill is visible and recognisable. It helps you know where you are, and where you are heading. We all use the landmarks we know to  help us to navigate on our journeys. As living lights we help others to navigate through the journey of life.

Our Lord continues His advice:

“Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Mt 5:15-16)

The Standard lamps we put in our living rooms are not a new thing. Since ancient times, people have known that the higher up a lamp is, the better it illuminates a room. Likewise the light of faith lived out in a Christian’s life needs to be visible. Jesus says that we are the light of the world. We should hide away our faith as a matter of private devotion which does not affect the rest of our lives. Our faith needs to be seen by others. By putting a lamp on a stand it can shed its light around and shine brightly in the darkness. By living out our faith in all aspects of our lives we let our light shine, so that others may follow our example. In doing so we give glory to God by living the life of a faithful follower of Christ.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.” (Mt 5:17)

Our Lord concludes this section of His teaching by underlining the fact that what He teaches is the fulfilment of the Law and the prophets. Jesus is not abolishing what went before, but deepening its meaning, and reminding people of how God wants us to live.

The first reading from the prophet Isaiah is clear in its commitment to justice and care for the poor and oppressed: 

‘Thus says the Lord: Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you;’ (Isa 58:7-8)

Here we see faith lived out in action, being compared to light shining forth. This is the same image as in Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel. Christ does not abolish, but rather fulfils the teaching of the prophets. The point is not our own glorification, but rather God’s. When faith is put into action, God is glorified. 

Jesus calls us to live the life of the Kingdom, here and now. However the values of the Kingdom of God — love, mercy, forgiveness, generosity — are counter-cultural. Christ displays the values of the Kingdom most fully in His Passion and Death, where the relationship between the human and the Divine is healed and restored. This is why St Paul can claim:

‘And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.’ (1Cor 2:1-2)

Nothing matter to Paul except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Because in Jesus and His Crucifixion we see the extent of God’s love for us. This outpouring of divine love is something which we cannot earn, and do not deserve, but which is lavished upon us so that we might have eternal life in God. The proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ remains the same today. God loves us, He died for us, so that we might live in Him. 

So then, my brothers and sisters, let us live out our faith and be the salt of the earth. Let us bring flavour to a world which can be bland and selfish. Let us share our bread with the hungry, and shine the light of the Kingdom of God in the darkness of this world. Let us invite others to share in Christ’s salt and light and to give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed all might, majesty, glory dominion and power, now, and forever. Amen.

Fourth Sunday of Year A

‘Once upon a time there were four little Rabbits, and their names were — Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and Peter’.

Many of you will no doubt know these words from your own childhood, or from reading them to children. They are the opening sentence of the Tale of Peter Rabbit written by Beatrix Potter. The name Beatrix means ‘a woman who blesses’, from the Latin beatus meaning ‘blessed’. This is how we get the word Beatitudes, meaning ‘those who are blessed’, for Jesus’ teaching known as the Sermon on the Mount.

Today’s Gospel contains the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, a section often referred to as the Beatitudes, which was Jesus’ first extended teaching. Each of the sayings beginning with the phrase, ‘Blessed are…’. In a few sentences Our Lord proclaims how Christians are supposed to live. Jesus’ words are based on the teaching of the prophets. This is clear in today’s first reading from the prophet Zephaniah, who says:

“Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, who do his just commands; seek righteousness; seek humility;” (Zeph 2:3)

Humility is the opposite of pride. To be humble is to recognise how much we depend upon God and each other. 

We constantly hear how the world around us values success and confidence, and looks up to the rich, and the powerful. By way of contrast to this, Jesus says to the gathered crowd:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5:3)

‘Poor in spirit’ is not a term we are used to using, but it means the exact opposite of pride. It places humility as key to living a Christian life: knowing who we are, and our need for God. Only if we rely upon God, and not ourselves — asking Him to work through us — can we truly live out the Christian life. 

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Mt 5:4)

We mourn those we love, but see no longer in this life. Because we love them we miss them, we want to see them, and hold them, and talk to them. Our parting, while temporary, is still very painful. Thankfully the Kingdom of God is a place of healing and comfort with the promise of Eternal Life. 

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Mt 5:5)

Gentle people are not weak. Meek folk know how to use their strength, and how not to use it. As Jesus will later say in Matthew’s Gospel: ‘Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.’ (Mt 11:29). This is how God wants us to live as human beings. Christ is the example of gentleness we must follow. Once again, God’s vision of the future turns human expectations upside down. 

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” (Mt 5:6)

Should we care about injustice in the world? Absolutely! Should we pray that God’s will is done on earth as it is in Heaven? Definitely! Jesus taught us to pray this way. Our faith should influence how we live our lives, so that we work for the coming of God’s Kingdom here on earth. Clearly God wants to see our world transformed and has invited us to help in the process. Doing this gives us fulfilment.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” (Mt 5:7)

We see what God’s mercy looks like in Our Lord’s death for us on the Cross. In following Christ’s example, we ask for forgiveness for our own sins, and forgive those who sin against us. This forgiveness can transform us and also the world around us, and it is how the healing and reconciliation of God’s Kingdom functions. 

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Mt 5:8)

To be pure in heart is to want what God wants: to align our will with the will of God. It is to be saintly, and thus have the promise of Heaven — which is less of a place or a time, and much more a relationship. To see God is to know Him, and to experience His love for us. This relationship is what Christ comes to restore to humanity, and it is our hope. 

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” (Mt 5:9)

First and foremost, we know that Jesus is the Son of God because He made ‘peace by the blood of his cross’ (Colossians 1:20). We too are called to follow Christ’s example and take up our Cross, and work for peace. Peace in our own hearts and lives, in our families and communities, and in our world.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” (Mt 5:10-11)

Following Jesus will not make us popular, often quite the opposite. If, however, we want to see God’s Kingdom as a reality in this life and the next, then we must be prepared to be shunned, or even ridiculed by others. To follow Christ is to take up the Cross, and to expect persecution, and false accusation. But we are not alone in this, Our Lord has gone before us, showing us that the story does not end with death on a Cross, but instead with the glory of the Resurrection and Eternal life. 

Following the Beatitudes and living the Christian Life is a challenge. There is no doubt that. At its heart, being a Christian, and following Jesus, means living in a way which is unlike the world around us. The world tells us that we need power and wealth to be a success. Jesus knows otherwise, and invites people to live profoundly counter-cultural lives. To swim against the current of popular opinion is not an easy option, but it is something we can do together, by supporting each other to remain faithful to the values of the Gospel, and encouraging others to join us. It is simpler not to do this, which is why for two thousand years Christians have struggled to live up to what God asks of us. But just because something is difficult, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and do it, especially since with God’s help all things are possible.

In today’s reading from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians we see the Beatitudes lived out in a Christian community. God turns human values on their head, to offer us new life in Him. This is how we can truly flourish as human beings, loved and redeemed by God. God takes the initiative, and does the heavy lifting, so that we can live as He intended us to live. We are called to be loving, generous, and forgiving, because that is what Jesus has taught and shown us. We can be different to the world around us because we belong to a new community, the Church, the community of faith, built on our relationship with Jesus Christ, who came to save humanity from itself.

Let us then live out our faith together, and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed all might, majesty, glory dominion and power, now, and forever. Amen. 

The Sermon of the Beatitudes – James Tissot (Brooklyn Museum)

Third Sunday of Year A

Knowing when not to do something is important. It is equally as important as knowing when to do something. Knowing when it is a good time to retreat and make a strategic withdrawal is an important life-skill. Today’s Gospel begins with one such example. John the Baptist has been arrested for making outspoken political comments against members of the ruling Herodian family. He has been criticising Herod Antipas’ divorce and subsequent marriage to Herodias, his brother’s ex-wife. Following John’s arrest the political climate in Judaea had got a bit too hot. So, after His Baptism, Jesus withdraws from Judaea into Galilee. He goes back to where He grew up, in the northern part of Israel. 

Jesus begins his public ministry by setting off from His hometown of Nazareth, and walking to Capernaum by the shore of the Sea of Galilee. It is a day’s journey. This is an important place for Jesus to start His public ministry, because it fulfils a prophecy in Isaiah, which St Matthew quotes, and which forms part of the first reading today:

‘The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.’ (Mt 4:15-16) 

This part of Israel is where people were first taken off into captivity by the Assyrians, some seven hundred years before. So Our Lord’s restoration of Israel starts in the place where the Northern Kingdom first began to fall apart. Prophecy is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is becoming a reality.

Jesus begins his preaching ministry in the ancient village of Capernaum with a simple, clear message:

‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’ (Mt 4:17)

Our Lord’s message is exactly the same as the words of John the Baptist recorded in Matthew Chapter 3. This should not come as a surprise. There is a consistency between John and Jesus — they are proclaiming the same message. They both declare that people need to turn away from all that separates them from God and each other, and seek forgiveness and reconciliation. By doing this they (and we) will come to know the fullness of life which God offers to those who turn to Him. 

Walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, Our Lord sees two fishermen, Andrew and his brother Simon, casting their nets. Last week, in John’s Gospel (Jn 1:37-42), we learned how Andrew had originally been a disciple of John who had guided him towards Jesus. Both Matthew’s and John’s accounts stress the links between the ministry and proclamation of Jesus and John the Baptist. However, John locates the calling of Andrew and Simon in Judaea just after Jesus’ Baptism, whereas Matthew places it later in Galilee. Our Lord invites the brothers to:

‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ (Mt 4:19)

On hearing Jesus’ words Simon Peter and Andrew are ready to drop everything and follow Him. A little later, James and John do the same, leaving Zebedee, their father, behind in the boat. These fisherman believe that nothing is more important than following Jesus. Instead of catching fish, Our Lord invites them to catch people, to invite people to enter into a relationship with God and each other, that we call the Church.

So what does Jesus do with this small group of disciples? He takes them into local synagogues, where He teaches and interprets the Jewish Scriptures (the Old Testament), pointing out how He fulfils its prophecies. Jesus also proclaims the Good News of the Kingdom: that we are loved by God. He demonstrates this love in practice by healing the sick. God’s kingdom is a place where wounds are healed, where people are restored to wholeness, in mind, body and soul. In both preaching and healing Our Lord demonstrates the reality of the Kingdom, both as a place prophesied by Scripture, and as the fulfilment of human longing. We are part of that reality today, as brothers and sisters in Christ, through our common baptism.

When we read Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, we may be surprised to find that only three or four years after its foundation there are problems and divisions in the Corinthian church. St Paul makes his position clear:

‘I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgement.’ (1Cor 1:10)

The Christian community at Corinth has been disintegrating into factions, which is exactly what Paul does not want. Paul wants to preach the Good News: that Christ died for us all, to give us new life in Him. It is good to be reminded of this during this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. For over 110 years Christians have set aside eight days to pray and work for an end to division, and to pray for each other.

Division amongst Christians is a difficult thing — it was 2,000 years ago, and it still is today. We are supposed to be united, as brothers and sisters in Christ, preaching Christ crucified, and calling people to the fullness of life in the Kingdom of God. It is shocking that the tribalism which St Paul condemns in the first century, is still alive and well today. Many people are still defining themselves as one sort of Christian as opposed to another, or by the place where they worship. Our culpability in this is something for which we need to repent. As followers of Jesus we need to turn away from disunion, and turn back to the God of love, who longs to heal our wounds and divisions. Fostering unity is following the will of God. We can and should pray that our dissensions cease, and that God’s grace may be poured out upon us. We pray for God’s help and guidance to bring us into the unity which is His will, to help us to thrive, and to give credence to our proclamation of the Good News. 

May we grow together with our fellow Christians in love and our combined enthusiasm for the proclamation of the Gospel. Let us together believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed all might, majesty, glory dominion and power, now, and forever. Amen. 

The Calling of St Peter and St Andrew – James Tissot (Brooklyn Museum)

The Second Sunday of Year A

One of the loveliest aspects of Christian Worship is how many of the words we use in worship are taken from the Bible. Whenever the Eucharist is celebrated in our benefice, people are invited to communion using the words of John the Baptist which are heard in the Gospel today: 

‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’ (Jn 1:29) 

John speaks these words at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, after His baptism and before the calling of the first disciples. John the Baptist has invited people to repent, to turn away from what separates them from God and each other. John’s mission finds its fulfilment in Jesus, whom he has just baptized. Jesus is the person who reconciles God and humanity, through His death on the Cross. This is the Good News of the Kingdom. We are loved by God, who flings His arms wide on the Cross to embrace the world with love. A God who embraces shame and torture, to show the world love. It isn’t what you would expect, and that’s the point. God experiences human pain and suffering and in doing so makes a relationship possible, so that we might come to know Him, and love Him.

John then explains Jesus’ importance:

“This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’” (Jn 1:30)

We know from Luke’s Gospel that John is six months older than Jesus, so what is going on here? How can Jesus have been before John? Christ is God Incarnate, He has always existed, and the Eternal has taken flesh in the womb of His mother, Mary. John then bears witness to what occurred when he baptized Jesus:

“I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” (Jn 1:32-34)

At Jesus’ Baptism we see and hear the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity: God the Father speaks, the Son is obedient, and the Spirit encourages. Jesus will pour out the Holy Spirit, the bond of love between the Father and the Son, the Spirit of healing and reconciliation. John recognises that Jesus is the Son of God, and proclaims this truth, that God dwells with His people. 

The next day John sees Jesus and repeats his exclamation from the day before:

“Behold the Lamb of God!” (Jn 1:36)

This causes two of John’s disciples, Andrew and a second unnamed man, to start following Jesus:

‘Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, “What are you seeking?” And they said to him, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and you will see.” So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour.’ (Jn 1:38-39)

Jesus answers their question with an invitation, ‘Come and see!’ and they do just that, and spend the evening with Him. Clearly their encounter has a powerful effect, because the next day Andrew goes to find his brother, Simon and says, 

‘“We have found the Messiah” (which means Christ). He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter).’ (Jn 1:41-42)

Here in a series of simple personal encounters, Jesus calls His first disciples. This is the beginning of a movement which has brought us together today. We, like the Christians in Corinth to whom St Paul wrote, are:

‘those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.’ (1Cor 1:2)

We can call upon His name in prayer because He loves us, and saves us from our sins. From the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, even from the gifts offered by the Three Wise Men, Our Lord’s life and mission is to be understood in terms of the death He will suffer. It is this sacrificial, self-giving love which God pours out on His World, which streams from our Saviour’s pierced side. This makes our peace with God, and with one another. It is this recognition of who and what Jesus really is that enables us to recognize who and what we really are. By following Jesus’ teachings and example we can live our lives truly, wholly, and fully, loved by God and loving one another. 

Together, we can do this most profoundly when we celebrate the Eucharist together, because the Eucharist is the sacrament of unity. It unites heaven and earth through the sacrifice of Calvary, and allows all humanity to share the Body and Blood of Our Saviour Jesus Christ. We feed on Him so that we may become what He is. This enables us to share eternity with Him, and to live lives of faith and hope, and love. So then, let us give thanks for Jesus, the Lamb of God, the Agnus Dei, and enter into the mystery of God’s self-giving love. Let us together give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed all might, majesty, glory dominion and power, now, and forever.

Saint John the Baptist Sees Jesus from Afar – James Tissot (Brooklyn Museum)

Epiphany 2023

Most of us know what it is like to be faced with unexpected visitors. It is something of a surprise, and you do your best to make them feel at home. Today’s Gospel is all about unexpected visitors. Wise men from the East follow a star, looking for a baby, who has been born king of the Jews. They go to Jerusalem, to see Herod , as they assume that a king will be born to a royal family, in a palace. You cannot fault their reasoning. The Magi see a sign prefiguring a royal birth and go to where they think it will occur. Their arrival, however, does not quite have the effect they were expecting:

‘When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he enquired of them where the Christ was to be born.’ (Mt 2:3-4)

The wise men assume that the birth of a royal baby is a cause for celebration , but is certainly isn’t for Herod! His family had bribed the Romans to gain their position. They were not related to David, and they weren’t even from Israel. So, on hearing the news from the wise men, Herod assembles all the religious and legal experts he can find. He is terrified that his position as king is under serious threat. The child could have a legitimate claim, there could be a revolution and regime change. Herod needs to know where the child will be born.

They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” (Mt 2:5-6)

Once Herod knows where the child is going to be born, the next thing is to find out when the birth will take place, and finally who this royal baby is. Bethlehem is the birthplace of the Davidic monarchy: King David was born there, and so was Jesus. The Gospel quotes a prophecy of Micah ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’ (5:2) to support the claim. 

‘Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way.’ (Mt 2:7-9)

Herod claims that he wants to know when the baby was born, so that he may come and worship the infant king. However, he had not intention of relinquishing his power, his behaviour is a sham. The Wise Men leave the palace and head for Bethlehem.

‘And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.’ (Mt 2:9-10)

The Magi have travelled hundreds of miles because they saw a star in the heavens. Now it is above Bethlehem, and they have reached the new-born King. 

‘And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.’ (Mt 2:11) 

Gold, frankincense, and myrrh are unusual gifts for a baby, even a royal one. They are, however, all expensive, costly, and precious things. Gold, is a precious metal, which is pure and does not tarnish. It is a gift fit for a king. Gold’s purity points to a life of perfect obedience, the pattern of how life should be lived. Incense, from Arabia, was offered to God in the Temple in Jerusalem. As the sweet-smelling smoke rose, it looked like prayers rising to God. Frankincense is a sign of worship, and honour, representing how humanity should respond to God. Myrrh was often used in the ointment used for embalming, it speaks of death. Even in Jesus’ birth, we see Christ’s kingly power, and His obedience to the will of the Father. We see His role in worship as our great High Priest, which leads Him to Death and Burial.

‘And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.’ (Mt 2:12)

The Wise Men are warned not to go back to Herod, not to tell him who Jesus is. This is because Herod does not want to worship Jesus, he wants to kill Him, and safeguard his own position. And so the unexpected visitors leave as mysteriously as they arrived. These pilgrims from afar gave Our Lord gifts which celebrate His Humanity and Divinity, and which look forward to His Death and Burial. The beginning of Jesus’ earthly life looks to its end, because it is all part of the outworking of salvation history.

What we are celebrating today was prophesied by Isaiah in the first reading this morning:

‘Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you’ (Isa 60:1)

The birth of the Messiah is a sign of God’s glory, and the salvation He will bring for all people. 

‘And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising’ (Isa 60:3)

These pilgrims are the Magi, the Wise Men, who represent the entire Gentile (non-Jewish) World. They have come to worship God born among us. 

‘They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall bring good news, the praises of the Lord’ (Isa 60:6)

The Magi recognise who it is they have come to see, and their gifts fulfil Isaiah’s prophecy. What might appear strange at first sight is, in fact, both apt and right: to worship God and honour a King, and to recognise the Saviour in their midst. Today the World recognises the birth of Jesus Christ, and the mystery of salvation is proclaimed to all.

Likewise as we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany we also look forward to Our Lord’s Baptism in the River Jordan and his first miracle at the Wedding at Cana. He who is without sin shows humanity how to be freed from sin and to have new life in Him. In turning water into wine we see that the kingdom of God is a place of generous love, a place of joy, and of life in all its fullness. 

So let us be filled with joy and love, of the Saviour made manifest, and may we proclaim the Good News of Our Salvation. Amen

The Adoration of the Magi – Edward Burne-Jones

Christmas Day 2022

2022 has been a very eventful year, to say the least. The terrible war in Ukraine has led to the death s and displacement of so many and has affected us all. It is wonderful that members of our local community have opened their hearts and homes to welcome Ukrainian families. In the UK we have experienced unprecedented political turmoil, extreme weather, and the death of Queen Elizabeth II. The cost of living has increased dramatically and strikes have become a common event. It seems incredible that in one of the supposedly richest countries in the world, so many are reliant on food banks. The song which has become the Christmas Number 1 is all about people being cold and hungry at Christmas time. There is a deep need for the message of love and hope which the birth of Jesus brings.

The Christian Faith has at its heart an astounding and amazing fact which we are celebrating today: that God is born, as one of us, as a human being. He was born into a world which saw its gods as distant and strange.In the first century Jewish understanding God is utterly transcendent, other, and beyond our comprehension. It is hard to fully appreciate the idea that by the power of the Holy Spirit, God took flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary and was born today.

The birth of the Messiah had been foretold in prophecy, and in particular in the prophecy of Isaiah.

‘How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”’ (Isa 52:7)

Jesus is the Prince of Peace, and the embodiment of the Gospel of Salvation. He comes to bring comfort and redemption to both the people of Israel and to the whole world.

‘for the Lord has comforted his people; he has redeemed Jerusalem.’ (Isa 52:9)

Today our salvation has dawned, prophecy is fulfilled and the Saviour of the world is born. The message of Isaiah is one of joy. The birth of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, is Good News. This is because He comes to bring true peace to humanity. Our God reigns as a little baby, lying in a manger. Christ’s gift to us is peace and goodwill to all humanity, from those of us gathered here this morning, to those living on the other side of the world. Jesus can give us these gifts because He, who is born for us today, will die for us. The one wrapped in swaddling clothes now, will be wrapped in linen cloths in a tomb once He has died for us on the Cross. The beginning of Christ’s earthly life points to its end to remind us of the love of God for humanity. With joy the prophet proclaims,

‘and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.’ (Isa 52:10) 

Today salvation has indeed come to the whole world, for in Jesus’ Birth and Death we are saved. Likewise, the Letter to the Hebrews begins by mentioning both prophecy and Our Lord’s birth.

‘Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son’ (Heb 1:1)

The word is made flesh so that prophecy might be fulfilled, so that the hope of salvation might dawn, so that a people who have languished long in darkness might behold the glory of God where heaven and earth meet, in a stable in Bethlehem. This is truly Good News.

John’s Gospel begins by taking us back to the beginning of salvation history, indeed the beginning of everything, the Creation, and the start of Genesis. The point that John is making is that God speaks the universe into being. Not only that, the Word is now an infant, literally ‘one not speaking’ or ‘silent’, lying in a manger. The Word is silent, yet proclaims God’s love to humanity. God becomes helpless, vulnerable, and completely dependant upon Mary and Joseph. Today we are celebrating the fact that God takes a risk, and enters into the world as a human being, to live, to die, and to rise again, for us. Our Creator does this out of love for humanity, to fill us with His love and grace, and so that we might be transformed into His likeness, and spend eternity with Him.

At Christmas we ponder the awesome mystery of God:

‘And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.’ (Jn 1:14)

The Word becomes flesh in the womb of His mother at the Annunciation. God’s Son is born for us today, and will die for us, as to be human is both to be born and to die. Jesus is also raised from the dead to give us the promise of eternal life in Him. The Word will become flesh here, today, during the Eucharist, to feed us so that, ‘we may be partakers of the divine nature’, as today’s Collect puts it. God became human, so that humanity might become divine. Here in this wonderful exchange, earth and Heaven meet, and the restoration of humanity begins. The Kingdom of God is inaugurated, not in royal palace or temple, but in a stable surrounded by animals and shepherds. God is incarnate and lives with his pilgrim people on earth — sharing all of human life, from birth to death, so that we might share the Divine Life of Love. Our God is a relational God who invites humanity to share in that relationship, which is offered freely, to all people. The sheer exuberance of such an offer, is extravegant: it is generous in a way which defies our expectation and our understanding.

God is a God of mystery and paradox. We know that we can never understand Him, but we can experience His love. To quote from Sir John Betjeman’s poem ‘Christmas’:

No love that in a family dwells,

No carolling in frosty air,

Nor all the steeple-shaking bells

Can with this single Truth compare —

That God was man in Palestine

And lives today in Bread and Wine.

May we, therefore, take joy and strength from the love of God demonstrated through the birth of Jesus. Let us be filled with the Holy Spirit as we celebrate Emmanuel, God with us. Amen.

The Nativity – James Tissot (Brooklyn Museum)

Advent IV

Of all the figures in the story of Our Lord’s Nativity, the one most often overlooked is Joseph. However, those who chose the designs for the stained glass in our East Window decided to include Joseph and depicted him as a worker of wood. It is fair to say that today’s Gospel finds Joseph in a particularly awkward situation. He is described in verse 19 as a ‘just man’. Just or righteous in this context means that he obeys Jewish Law. Deuteronomy 22:23-24 states that:

‘If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbour’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.’ (Deut 22:23-24)

Mary and Joseph are betrothed, and preparing to be married, but strictly speaking under Jewish Law because she is pregnant, Mary is guilty of a capital crime. It is perhaps for this reason that Mary spends time out in the country with her cousin Elizabeth in Luke’s account. Joseph loves Mary, and rather than see her killed or publicly humiliated he wants to put an end to the marriage. It is at this moment that the Angel Gabriel appears to him in a dream saying:

“Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Mt 1:20-21)

Joseph is a descendant of David, a member of Israel’s Royal Family, an awkward fact when the current occupier of the throne was put there by the Romans as a pliant puppet king. The angel says to Joseph, ‘Paid ag ofni, Do not be afraid!’ Again and again God speaks to His people to tell them to be of good heart, to reassure and encourage them. God loves His people, there is nothing to be afraid about. The angel is clear: the child that will be born is of the Holy Spirit, He will be the Son of God, and His name will be Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins. Jesus means ‘God saves’ which is exactly what Jesus does. At a practical level the angel’s message to Joseph is to put him at ease, to stop him worrying. The message is Good News, the Gospel of Salvation is announced.

To reinforce this fact St Matthew then quotes a prophecy of Isaiah, which is also found in the first reading today:

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (Mt 1:23)

The prophecy is fulfilled, there will be a son born to the House of David, who will be God with us (Immanuel), and He will save His people from their sins. This is why we celebrate Christmas, because it is the coming of our Saviour. What does is mean to say that God is with us? Is it an expression of solidarity? Or something more? In Jesus God is with us, and shares our human life, from birth to death. Christ is not some remote divine figure, but one intimately acquainted with all of human existence. God is not external, but someone who understands us, and loves us. Someone whose entire existence is about communicating Divine Love and Reconciliation. The Church has been proclaiming the same message of hope and salvation for the past two thousand years.

He will save his people from their sins’: the angel’s words to Joseph could not be clearer. Jesus is God’s rescue mission, to save humanity from their sins. This vocation leads to the Cross, and so as we prepare to celebrate His Birth, we know that His life will end here, on Cross. It is significant that in our stained glass window Joseph, who we usually associate with Christ’s birth is depicted with the tools to create a cross, reminding us of how the story concludes As we prepare the most joyous of feasts, we are mindful of the cost of God’s love.

It is important to notice what Joseph does when the dream is over:

‘When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.’ (Mt 1:24-25)

Joseph did as the angel commanded him. He was obedient. He listened and obeyed. Joseph is complete opposite of Ahaz, in today’s first reading, who neither listens to God nor obeys Him. Joseph is obedient in naming his son: ‘And he called his name Jesus’ (Mt 1:25). Jesus too will be obedient. His is an obedience to the Father’s will borne out through suffering, death and resurrection which characterises the mission of the Son, this is what brings about our salvation. We in obedience look for His second coming as our Saviour and our Judge. As Christians we are called to take time to ponder these mysteries — to stop for a while amid the business of our modern existence and reflect upon the wondrous nature of God’s love for us and all humanity: We are to take this opportunity to stop and to ponder this wondrous fact, to reflect upon what ‘God-with-us’ means to us and our lives..

As the people of God, members of the Christian Church which we enter through our baptism, we are all called to proclaim the Good News, and to live out the story of Jesus in our lives. We urge the world to stop and to consider exactly what is being celebrating at Christmas: a free gift, of hope and salvation for all people, in a baby, born in a stable, among the poor and the marginalised.

The act of love which we will experience in Our Lord’s Nativity should draw us to love God and our neighbour, and to live out the love which becomes flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary. This same love will become flesh and blood that we touch and taste, here, this morning, through the bread and wine, feeding us, so that we might share His divine life. So, my brothers and sisters in Christ, let us imitate the mystery we celebrate, let us be filled with and transformed by the divine life of love. Let us, like Mary and Joseph, wait on the Lord and be transformed by him, to live out our faith in our lives so that the world might believe and sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

James Tissot – The Anxiety of St Joseph (Brooklyn Museum)

St Nicholas

The 6th of December is the feast of St Nicholas, Patron of this church. Saint Nicholas is probably best known to people today as Santa Claus, from the Dutch for St Nicholas. It may surprise you to know that the jolly bearded man with fur-trimmed clothes is in fact real. He did exist. But St Nicholas is perhaps not quite what you’ve been led to believe. For a start, he doesn’t live at the North Pole, or have any reindeer. In fact, he was born on the South coast of Asia Minor, modern Turkey, in the late 3rd century AD. His parents were Christians, his uncle (also called Nicholas) was the Bishop of Myra. When his parents died, Nicholas gave away everything he owned to help the needy, sick, and suffering, and was ordained by his uncle, who put him in charge of a local monastery. Soon afterwards Nicholas was elected to succeed his late uncle as the local bishop.

Some time later, Nicholas heard about a man in Myra was a widow with three daughters. He was poor, and could not afford to pay their marriage dowries. As a result he was going to sell his daughters into prostitution. So, one night, Nicholas dropped a bag of coins through a window into their house. He did the same the next night. But on the third night he was discovered, but begged the father not to say anything until after his death. As a result of Nicholas’ charity the three young women were able to marry. This is the reason that St Nicholas is often depicted with three gold coins or balls. Later the symbol of the three golden balls was adopted by pawnbrokers as their sign.

On another occasion, through his prayers Nicholas saved sailors who feared they would die in a storm. He was also responsible for saving the lives of three young soldiers from execution. In time the soldiers were portrayed as young boys, and so Nicholas became the patron saint of children (and sailors). The Saint was imprisoned and tortured under the Persecution of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, and his nose may have been broken as a result. Nicholas was present at the Council of Nicaea, the First Ecumenical Council, which produced a Creed similar to the one we will say in a few minutes time. His relics are now in Italy, split between Bari and Venice, and he is loved and honoured around the world, including those people who built this wonderful church.

Nicholas’ generosity towards the three young daughters associated him with the giving of gifts. From this we can see how the modern idea of Santa Claus came about. The Dutch took him to New Amsterdam, which became New York. America then began its fascination with him. St Nicholas was not just a generous person, he gave away everything he had, and embraced a life of poverty. He suffered for his Christian Faith, and is an example to us of what a Christian life looks like, filled with love, generosity, and care for others.

St Nicholas demonstrated care for the poor, the broken-hearted, and captives. These values are proclaimed in the first reading this morning from the prophecy of Isaiah, words which Jesus recites in the synagogue at Nazareth. St Nicholas made the words real by living them out in his life, demonstrating love and care for his brothers and sisters. His gentleness and generosity point us to Christ, and show us how to live our Christian Vocation.

The First Letter of Paul to Timothy points out the danger which wealth can bring, when it is not used for the sake of the Gospel. Nicholas, like St Antony of Egypt before him, heard Christ’s teaching to give away your possessions to the poor. Most of us will not follow their example, but we can consider how we use what we have, and ask ourselves the question, ‘Am I living generously?’ 

Jesus said,“Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” (Mk 10:14-15)

As the patron saint of Children it is clear why today’s Gospel passage was chosen to celebrate the feast of St Nicholas. While children are innocent and humble, the point our Lord is trying to make may refer to the fact that children are unselfconscious, receptive, and need to be cared for by others. This is how the Kingdom should be received. It is a gift of God. None of us can earn God’s love, it is unconditional, and offered freely to all. 

Jesus lays down His life for us, so we should do the same for each other. Thus, in society in general, loving service and self-sacrifice are the ways in which we should live. It is a generous form of life, because its model is Jesus, the most unselfish person ever, and was imitated by St Nicholas. Christ offered His life as a ransom on the Cross. We commemorate this in the Eucharist, where Christ continues to feed us His people with Himself, so that we might have life in Him. By being strengthened in this way St Nicholas was able to bear witness to Jesus as his Saviour, and his Lord, despite trials and persecution.

May we be aided by the prayers of St Nicholas and following his example be prepared to meet Our Lord. Jesus, who comes to us as a baby in Bethlehem and who will return as Our Judge. So let us live lives which proclaim Christ’s saving love, and follow the example of St Nicholas in honouring God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

Icon of St Nicholas by Jaroslav Čermák,

Advent II

The book of the prophet Isaiah has sometimes been called the ‘Fifth Gospel’ because so many of Isaiah’s prophecies look forward to the Messiah and find their fulfilment in Jesus. We too are currently in a time of anticipation. Advent is when we prepare for Christ to come, both as a baby in Bethlehem, and as our saviour and our Judge. As the son of Jesse, and the son of David, Jesus is Israel’s true king, who rules over all.

‘There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.’ (Isa 11:1-3)

Isaiah has hope in the peace the Messiah will bring. Injustice and affliction, the fruit of sin is dealt with on the Cross, where Jesus ‘shall stand as a signal for the peoples’ (Isa 11:10). This is the great demonstration of God’s love to the world, love which heals and reconciles humanity. 

To prepare the way for the Messiah, Israel needed prophets like Isaiah and John the Baptist both to announce His coming and to get people ready. Being a prophet is difficult because they are often required to tell people home truths. Prophets point out the sorts of things which we would rather ignore, if left to our own devices. John’s message is simple, plain, and direct:

‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’ (Mt 3:2)

To repent is to express sincere regret about one’s wrongdoing. Literally the word used —‘metanoia’— means to ‘change your mind’. It is a proclamation rather like a road sign which reads: ‘You are going the wrong way!’ Repentance is recognising this and turning around. For two thousand years the Church has existed to continue John’s proclamation, and to say to the world: turn around, and follow Jesus! The season of Advent is penitential because it highlights this call to conversion and says to everyone, both inside and outside the Church, that our lives are supposed to be a perpetual turning back to Our Lord. We all need to be reminded of our shortcomings, and be encouraged to let God be at work in and through us.

John the Baptist’s blunt message struck a chord and sparked something of a revival in Israel. People took him seriously.

‘Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins.’ (Mt 3:5-6)

It is not surprising that in those times people came out into the desert to hear John. He was charismatic, and his message was a refreshing antidote to the Religious Establishment of his day. People come, confess their sins, and are baptised, they are washed clean, to serve God, and to love Him. They also come because in John the people of Israel see prophecy fulfilled, and a new Elijah is in their midst. One who points to the Messiah, and has done ever since he leapt in his mother Elizabeth’s womb at the Visitation. Before John was even born he proclaimed that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, the One who would save us from our sins.

We see this Messianic kingdom hoped for in the vision of Isaiah in this morning’s first reading. The branch which comes forth from the stem of Jesse is the Blessed Virgin Mary. Filled with God’s Holy Spirit, she conceived and bore Our Saviour, the true King of all that is, or has been, or will be. He is on the side of the poor and the meek, people who are left behind, and ignored because they are not rich or powerful. This is a radical concept, one which we still have some way to go in order to for it to be put into practice in the world around us. Isaiah’s vision of Messianic peace may appear impossible, but it signifies a world-changing peace, which alters how things are, and how we behave. For with and through God another way is possible. It is not simple, or easy, but it is possible, if we rely upon God to help us. As St Paul says to the Christians in Rome,

‘May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.’ (Romans 15:5-7),

and a little later in the same passage:

‘May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope’ (Romans 15:13).

Hope can feel in pretty short supply when we look at the world around us, and if we look to humanity we will be disappointed. Our hope comes from God. Our hope is God, God with us, whose Birth we are preparing to celebrate at Christmas. In Advent we prepare for Christ to come as our judge. 

‘His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ (Mt 3:12) 

Judgement is  real, and it should make us stop and think for a moment. Are we living the way God wants us to? If we are not then we need to repent, say sorry, and live the way God wants us to live. This is how we flourish as people. John the Baptist calls us to make a spiritual u-turn, to turn our life around, to turn away from what separates us from God, our sins. He calls us to the waters of baptism, so that we can be healed and restored by God, filled with his grace, and prepared to receive the Holy Spirit:

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Mt 3:11).

The problem with the Pharisees and Sadducees who come to John is that they do not show any repentance. They haven’t made the u-turn, and they don’t have the humility to recognise their sinfulness, and their need to be washed in the waters of baptism. They, therefore, do not have the right attitude to allow God to be at work in their lives.

As well as recognising Jesus as our Saviour, John the Baptist sees Jesus as Our Judge, he points to the second coming of the Lord when, as St John of the Cross puts it, ‘we will be judged by love alone’.  It is love that matters — in Christ we see what love means: it is costly, self-giving and profound. As we are filled with His Spirit, nourished by Word and Sacrament, we need to live out this love in our lives. This is how we prepare to meet Jesus as we prepare to celebrate His Birth and look forward to His Second Coming. So let us be prepared to live out God’s love in our lives. Let us turn away from everything which separates us from God and each other. Let us live out that costly, self-giving love in our lives, as this is what Christ wants us to do. It is through doing these things that the world around us can see what our faith means in practice, how it affects our lives, and why they should follow Him, and sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

St John the Baptist and the Pharisees – James Tissot (Brooklyn Museum)

Advent Sunday

Today is Advent Sunday, the start of the season of Advent. This is a time of waiting, of expectation: for the coming of Jesus Christ, both as we prepare to celebrate His Birth at Christmas, and for the Second Coming of Christ as our Saviour and our Judge. The idea of Jesus’ return has not always been seen as something to look forward to. Judgement has been seen as condemnation, and fear of the coming judgement has been used to control people. Yet the Church does look forward to Our Lord’s Second Coming, as we look forward to our annual celebration of His First Coming, at Christmas.

In today’s Gospel Jesus is teaching His disciples about the end times. He draws a comparison between the Last Day and the Flood:

‘For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.’ (Mt 24:37-39)

The point is that no-one knows when the Last Day is going to happen. People are carrying on with their lives as normal. It is an unexpected event. One of the reasons Noah was saved was that he was prepared. He had built an ark. Our ark is the Church, which we enter through Baptism. For us the waters bring life not death. We are prepared, and preparation is the key to Jesus’ message. Whenever the Lord comes, we have to be ready to meet Him. 

How do we prepare? By following the advice in the first reading from the prophet Isaiah:

‘O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.’ (Isa 2:5)

If we walk in the light of the Lord, then we are not walking in darkness. We live out our faith in our lives, and our moral characters are formed by our actions. We become what we do often.

About sixteen hundred years ago, one of Christianity’s great figures, St Augustine had been struggling towards the journey of faith and one day, as he sat crying under a fig tree, he kept hearing a child saying, ‘Pick up and read’ (Aug. Conf. 8.29) and he opened a Bible and read in the Letter to the Romans:

‘Not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.’ (Rom 13:13-14)

Drunkenness, fornication, the sort of behaviour associated with the Christmas Office Party in particular, and the modern world in general, can be dismissed as ‘just a bit of fun’ or of ‘no consequence in the great scheme of things’. However, what we do affects our lives. The Christian Life is most definitely not a ‘fun-free zone’, but one which allows us to be fully alive, doing what we should be doing in the way we should be doing it. Today’s world is filled with examples of the behaviour which St Paul sees as problematic: people are quarrelsome and subject to baser appetites. One need only read a newspaper, look at the Internet, or turn on the television, to see a world which has got it wrong, which is not living decently. Our lives, our characters, are formed by what we think and do, by the choices we make. This is a cumulative process, where we build on the choices we have made in the past, so we need to start down the right path as soon as possible, or turn back if we have gone astray.

The first reading from the prophet Isaiah looks forward to a Messianic Age of peace:

‘and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’ (Isa 2:4)

Swords and spears will be turned into agricultural tools for ploughing fields and cultivating vines, for growing grain and grapes, to make bread and wine. These are the very foodstuffs our Lord takes at the Last Supper, when He institutes the Eucharist. This feast of the Kingdom is the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy, and represents the Messianic Kingdom where love will triumph over violence.

At this time of year, as Christians we prepare for three comings: the first our annual commemoration of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, at Christmas, where the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The second coming of Christ will be at the end of time, when He will be our Saviour and our Judge. The third coming we prepare for is even nearer. It happens day by day, and week by week, when Christ comes to us in the Eucharist, in His Body and Blood, under the outward forms of Bread and Wine. This is the Banquet of the Kingdom, anticipated by the ploughshares and pruning hooks of Isaiah, tools to help produce Bread and Wine. Isaiah’s prophecy looks forward to the peace of the Messiah and the banquet of Bread and Wine. These are the Food of the Kingdom, nourishment for our journey of faith, to give us strength and new life in Christ. Jesus comes to us in the Eucharist to give us strength and to transform us, into His likeness, to help us to live out our faith in the whole of our lives.

So let us prepare to meet Our Lord by living out our faith, nourished with Word and Sacrament. The time is short, the time is now, it really matters. We need to come to the Lord, to learn His ways and walk in His paths. As Christians we are called to live decently and vigilantly, preferring nothing to Christ, and inviting all the world to come to the fullness of life in Him. This is how we celebrate His coming at Christmas and as Our Saviour and Judge. By following Him, and being fed by Him, we are restored and healed by Him. And so, on this Advent Sunday we sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

Christ the King

On November 23rd 1927 the last words uttered by the Mexican Jesuit priest Miguel Pro before he was murdered were, ‘¡Viva Christo Rey!’ ‘Long live Christ the King!’ ‘Byw fyddo’r Christ y Brenin!’. The Mexican regime of that time was cruel and went out of its way to persecute Christians, including Miguel Pro, a twentieth century Christian martyr who died confessing Christ’s sovereignty over all things. His words are powerful, and inspiring. When we acknowledge Christ as King we are saying that He is above all human power and authority, and we affirm that God is supreme. As Christians, we declare that our primary allegiance is to God alone, and not to the things of this world. To proclaim Our Lord as King of Heaven and Earth will always challenge and trouble those who wish to claim an authority and a power which is not their own. There are plenty of examples in the world around us of those who are unwilling to recognize a power greater than themselves. 

Christians profess the sovereignty of God primarily on the basis of the Crucifixion of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. We worship a Crucified God. This should strike us as something strange and disconcerting. At one level it doesn’t quite make sense, and yet it does. St Paul expresses the paradox at the heart of the Christian Faith in his First Letter to the Corinthians:

‘For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.’ (1Cor 1:25)

God is doing something amazing, which we cannot fully comprehend, or understand. This is because it is the mystery of God’s love. This is a love which we can never understand but it is something that we can experience.

Today’s Gospel is from St Luke’s account of the Crucifixion. It begins with Jesus being mocked by religious leaders: 

“He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” (Lk 23:35)

They demand action — that Jesus saves Himself — because they have completely misunderstand Jesus’ mission, which is not to save Himself, but to save us. They are joined by soldiers, who mock Christ saying:

“If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (Lk 23:37)

In these words, power has been conflated with self-interest. Jesus, however, is not interested in saving Himself, but rather in saving us. He is the King of the Jews, born in Bethlehem of the line and lineage of David. And here Christ, in saving humanity, is doing what a proper King does, caring for His people, even at the cost of His own life. While the soldiers are mocking Jesus, they are actually proclaiming Him as a King. 

One of those men crucified with Jesus asks:

“Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” (Lk 23:39)

This man has been condemned to death for acts of robbery and rebellion, and is only able to understand the Messiah in political terms: he is looking for a revolutionary leader, who can save him. This causes the other man being crucified to rebuke the first one, saying:

“Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” (Lk 23:40-41)

This second man understands that Jesus is innocent. This leads to one of the most memorable interactions in Luke’s Gospel, a demonstration of faith followed by its reward.

And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Lk 23:42-43)

This man does not ask to be saved, he simply requests that Jesus remember him, when He comes into His Kingdom. His request is granted. The condemned man’s recognition of Jesus’ Kingship is rewarded with the promise of eternal life with God in Heaven. Here in two sentences we see salvation and redemption at work. Christ’s death saves people. That is what His kingship is all about: bringing healing and the forgiveness of sins to all who turn to Him in faith. 

We worship a Crucified God, one who suffers and dies for us, to offer us eternal life in Him. This is true kingship, shown in self-sacrificial love. Christ is the Good Shepherd, who lays down His life for His sheep. He wants to save others, because He is the Messiah, and He is God saving his people. The Hebrew for Jesus is Yeshua and means ‘God saves’. Here on the Cross Jesus fulfils His life’s work, this is who and what He is. God saves His people by dying for them. This is real kingship, not robes, or power, but love, dying the death of a common criminal. It doesn’t make sense, and it isn’t supposed to. God’s ways are not our ways, nor His thoughts our thoughts. We cannot save ourselves, only God can do that, in an act of generous love, an extravagant and exuberant gift that we can neither earn nor repay.

In the second reading from St Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, we hear both what God has done for us, and who Christ is. God has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. We can go to Heaven because we have been delivered from darkness, into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son. In Christ we have redemption and forgiveness. Christ has paid the debt we owe; our sins are forgiven. We do not need to slaughter lambs and be sprinkled with their blood, because we have been sprinkled with the Blood of the Lamb of God in our Baptism. We are redeemed, and our transgressions are forgiven, because of what Christ does for us on the Cross. This is the heart of our faith: Jesus died for us, because He loves us. 

In Christ we see that God loves us. He created all that is, so all is subject to Him. He is the head of His Body, the Church, of which we are a part through our baptism, and our participation in the Eucharist. As the firstborn from the dead, Christ, in His Resurrection, shows us that death is not the end, that our lives will be changed not ended.

This is the God we worship, and whom we hail as our true King. The God of love and healing. Christ has conquered on the Cross; Christ reigns as King of the Universe; Christ reigns in our hearts, and in our lives. May we then sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

Diego Velasquez – Christ Crucified (Museo del Prado, Madrid)

Remembrance 2022

‘Gwyn eu byd y tangnefeddwyr: canys hwy a elwir yn blant i Dduw’

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God’ (Mt 5:9)

For over one hundred years people in this country have gathered on the Sunday closest to Armistice Day to give thanks to Almighty God for all who have served and died for the peace in which we live. We give thanks for those who continue to serve and protect us. We give thanks for the work of the Royal British Legion, raising money to support service personnel for over one hundred years, and wish them continued success.

As we recall the sacrifice made by people from the villages in which we live, from this country and from all over the world, our remembrance must be an active one which has an effect on our lives. We remember the generosity of those who gave their lives to ensure that we can live free from warfare and suffering. Such generosity must leave a mark on our lives, and help us to learn from the mistakes of the past and try not to repeat them in the future.

There is no-one who has not been touched by the events of the past one hundred years. Many people, members of our own families, gladly offered, and still continue to offer themselves for the safety and security of humanity. An act of remembrance has a deeper significance when we know that members of His Majesty’s Armed Forces are on active service overseas, working for peace and security, for a safer, fairer, world, where people can live in peace and safety. We remember too all the victims of warfare, the countless millions who have lost their lives in a century characterised by conflict. Our reaction will, of necessity, be a complex one: a mixture of sadness and thankfulness, gratitude and grief. While we are grateful to live in a country at peace, we cannot fail to be moved by the suffering of the people of Ukraine and for the many lives that have been lost since the war began over eight months ago. 

The concept of peace is not simply the absence of war, but the right ordering of the world around us. It means living the way God wants us to live, in harmony, and love, one with another. That is why peacemakers are children of God. To live in peace is the will of God. God wants humanity to flourish. What peacemakers do reflects what Jesus Christ has done for us: 

Ac, wedi iddo wneuthur heddwch trwy waed ei groes ef, trwyddo ef gymodi pob peth ag ef ei hun; trwyddo ef, meddaf, pa un bynnag ai pethau ar y ddaear, ai pethau yn y nefoedd

and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.’ (Colossians 1:20). 

Christ’s sacrifice inspired many of our forebears. The Son of God bought us peace by the shedding of His own blood. In the face of anger and aggression, Jesus’ response was love. Christ is our peace, and as Christians we are called to follow Him. We do so knowing that the Cross, like our Cenotaph, is not a place of shame and defeat, but rather of victory. The love of God has triumphed, and all will be well. 

Human nature longs for wealth and power and some people are willing to stop at nothing to acquire it. Christ, however, shows us another way — the way of love and gentleness, which longs to heal and reconcile. This is what Christ proclaimed on earth, and continues to do — to draw people into the peace of the Kingdom of God, where wounds are healed and divisions reconciled.

We are thankful for those who sacrificed themselves for us, and we honour their memory by treasuring the peace won at so great a cost. We are serious about peace, because it is the will of God, and the means of human flourishing.. We are thankful that we are alive and able to give thanks for those who gave their lives for us, and we commit ourselves to being peacemakers in our own lives, in our community, and in our world. What greater tribute could there be to the fallen than for us to work for a world where all may live in peace and security, for such is the Kingdom of God. By doing this we honour their memory and share the treasure they have given us. We are called to be generous, after the example of Generous God, who loved us so much that He gave His Son to die for us.

God’s Kingdom is a radical place which seeks to transform humanity into the image of Our Loving Creator. For two thousand years Christians have been living lives of love and service. We continue in church, in chapel, and in our daily life, to make God’s Kingdom a reality here and now, remembering both what Christ has done for us, and the sacrifice of our forebears. 

We will remember them.

Trinity XXI

At our parish Bible Study two weeks ago, the question of what happens after we die was raised. Whilst there are different views regarding the afterlife, the Church has always believed in life after death. Each Sunday during the Creed we declare our faith that:

‘We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.’ ‘A disgwyliwn am atgyfodiad y meirw, a bywyd y byd sydd i ddyfod.’

For Christians life is changed, and not ended. This is shown to us by the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Easter is the highpoint of the year because in it we celebrate Christ’s triumph over death, and the offer of new and eternal life in Him. This is our reason for hope. Jesus shows us that our earthly life is not all that there is, and that God sent His Son to show us the way to Heaven.

Such considerations were entirely foreign to the Sadducees, who although they were part of the Jewish religious establishment, held very different views to the Pharisees, especially regarding what happens after someone dies. The Sadducees denied the idea that there was life after death, which is the reason for the Gospel passage this morning. They want to have a religious argument with Jesus in order to support their views. So they ask Our Lord a question:

“Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, having a wife but no children, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. The first took a wife, and died without children. And the second and the third took her, and likewise all seven left no children and died. Afterwards the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had her as wife.” (Lk 20:28-33)

This situation may well strike us as strange. It is not something which we are used to nowadays. This is an idea bound up with questions of the inheritance of property, and keeping that property within a family. As such, it is a legal question, which is also aimed to defend the Sadducees’ beliefs, and is an exercise in self-justification. These religious lawyers take an extreme example of so-called levirate marriage, where a widow married relatives of her late husband, in order to justify their lack of belief in life after death. The use of the number seven is significant, as it signifies perfection, the number of days in the week. The Sadducees are attempting to mock Christ’s belief in the afterlife. They are trying to show that the belief is ridiculous, but end up looking foolish themselves. 

Jesus begins by addressing their question, explaining both what resurrection is, and what it is not:

“The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die any more, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.” (Lk 20:34-36)

Our Lord’s answer points to heavenly realities, not earthly ones. In the Resurrection we do not simply carry on as before, but being united with God and raised to new life in Him, we live a heavenly life. In our heavenly life we will not be concerned with the inheritance of property, but instead, with the worship and love of God. The Sadducees are focussed on earthly things. For them religion is about power and control, strict conservatism and the literal interpretation of Scripture, in order to reinforce their elevated position in the religious hierarchy and society in general.

Jesus then develops his argument, through an interpretation of a verse in Exodus, to show the reality of the promise of resurrection:

“But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him.” (Lk 20:37-38)

God’s disclosure of Himself to Moses proves Our Lord’s point, and undermines the Sadducees’ claim to interpret Scripture. The point of God’s relationship with humanity is that it is not ended by death, but lasts forever. In a month when we pray for the Faithful Departed on All Souls’ Day and remember those who have lost their lives in war, the reality of eternal life in God gives a great comfort. 

We can take to heart the words of St Paul as he encouraged Christians in Northern Greece:

‘Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.’ (2Thess 2:16-17)

Paul is writing to a community concerned about the hereafter. These are people who need encouragement, and God’s help to live the life of faith. After praying for the Thessalonians, Paul asks them for their prayers:

‘Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honoured, as happened among you,’ (2Thess 3:1)

Paul sees prayer, as an important way to maintain a relationship with God, and put faith into practice. Prayer changes us, and helps us to make our faith visible. It helps God’s grace to be active, because through prayer our will and the will of God become aligned.

Hope is an important part of our faith, which is to be lived out in love: costly, and self-giving. This is our calling as Christians. This is what St Paul is encouraging the Church to live out. As a result of this we are called to prayer and the spread of the Gospel, so that the message of God’s love and forgiveness may be spread. It is a message of healing and wholeness through the person of Jesus Christ. Christ gives Himself  to death on the Cross, so that we can have hope; hope that this world is not all that there is, that our destiny is something greater, something richer. The Sadducees can only ask a question to try and support their denial of life after death. Christ, however, communicates the reality of eternal life with God. He speaks of what He knows, that God loves us. Let us trust Him, and show that trust in prayer, that we and the faithful departed may rest in the peace and rise in the glory 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 speaks near the Treasury (Brooklyn Museum)

Trinity XX

At a time when many people have economic matters on their minds, St Luke’s Gospel has done us a wonderful service in putting two episodes involving tax collectors in quick succession. Last week we had the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-collector, now we have the appearance of Zacchaeus.

‘Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. And there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small of stature.’ (Lk 19:1-3)

Zacchaeus is a chief tax collector. He is someone who was despised, because he has become very rich by over-charging people. To start with, Zacchaeus is just curious about Jesus, he wants to see what all the fuss is about, he wants to see this miracle-working charismatic preacher for himself. 

‘So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way.’ (Lk 19:4)

However, Zacchaeus is unable to see over the crowds and so he climbs up a sycamore tree. Zacchaeus’ deep desire to see Jesus leads him to act in a way one would not expect from a chief tax collector. One cannot image any one of the wave of recent Chancellors shinning up a tree! 

‘And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully.’ (Lk 19:5-6)

Here in a few verses we have the beginning of the story: Zacchaeus wants to see Jesus, he climbs a tree and, unexpectedly, he ends up being told that he has to welcome Jesus as a guest into his home. At a practical level, Our Lord was travelling through the Judaean countryside and would have needed to rely upon the hospitality and generosity of others for food and rest. But beyond the level of practicalities, Jesus clearly wants to use this as an opportunity to display the reality of the Kingdom of God and to teach people through His actions.

‘And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.”’ (Lk 19:7)

Jesus’ choice of Zacchaeus’ house as a place to stay does not please the crowd. They are upset and question Jesus’ decision. Being unable to see beyond outward appearances, they judge Zacchaeus. The crowd simply sees a sinner, they do not see someone who wants to see Jesus and love Him. Their response is understandable: Zacchaeus is rich because he has cheated people. As a chief tax-collector, he would have had people working under him, who also contributed to his comfortable financial situation. Zacchaeus is basically a crook, but his encounter with Jesus makes him want to radically change. 

‘And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.”’ (Lk 19:8)

The simple presence of Jesus has a totally transformative effect on Zacchaeus, who pledges to give away half of his property to the poor, and promises not only to repay those whom he has defrauded, but also to give them compensation. This is clearly a major step in the right direction. Zacchaeus has realised that he has done wrong, and is trying to put things right, to the best of his ability. In doing so, Zacchaeus is demonstrating repentance. This allows Jesus to teach the people: 

‘And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”’ (Lk 19:9-10)

The Son of Man has come to seek out and save the lost, to show people that there is another way to live. Here we see the love of God in action — this is what happens on the Cross. God demonstrates the transforming power of His love, love shown to the unloveable, so that they might become lovely. Jesus has come to seek and save the lost, people like Zacchaeus, and like each of us here today. Zacchaeus’ story is one of repentance, and belief in Jesus, in contrast to the crowd who are bitter and judgemental, rather like the Pharisee in last week’s parable. In focussing on the past, they cannot see future potential. People can change, for the better. It is through God’s grace, an undeserved gift, that people like Zacchaeus can be changed, transformed by God and for God. What was true for him then is true for us, here, today.

This morning’s first reading, from the Book of Wisdom, makes this clear:

‘But you are merciful to all, for you can do all things, and you overlook people’s sins, so that they may repent. For you love all things that exist, and detest none of the things that you have made, for you would not have made anything if you had hated it’ (Wisdom 11:23-4)

God is a God of love and mercy, who longs to see humanity turn away from sin, and flourish. This is what we are made for.

This is why, as Christians, we pray. It is why we come to the Eucharist each and every week to be fed by word and sacrament, so that God’s grace and transforming love may be at work in us, re-creating our nature, making us more like Him. Everything that we say, or think, or do in our lives needs to be an outworking of our faith, so that our exterior life and our interior life are in harmony with each other. Then our lives, like St Paul’s, may proclaim the Gospel. This is what we are called to do, and how we are meant to live. If we start from the point where we know, and acknowledge, our need of God and allow ourselves to rely upon him, we will open up a space in ourselves where God can be at work in us, in our souls and our lives.

So let us put our trust in the God who loves us and who saves us, Let us know our need of Him, and His transforming grace, to fill our lives and transform all of His creation, so that the world may believe and 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.

Zachée sur le sycomore attendant le passage de Jésus – James Tissot [Brooklyn Museum]

Trinity XIX

It is hard to find something as universally loathed as having to pay taxes. We  would all prefer to pay less tax. However, we have just seen the result of promises to cut taxes, which were welcomed by many, but proved disastrous for the economy. To put it simply, we just don’t like paying taxes, but we know that we have to, even if we would prefer not to do so.

This morning’s Gospel presents us with two very different figures The first is a Pharisee, a member of a religious élite. The second is a tax-collector, one of the most despised people in the Roman World. The latter was seen as a traitor who had sold out, by purchasing the right to collect taxes on behalf of the occupying power, the Romans. At the time of Jesus, the rights to collect taxes were auctioned off to the highest bidder. To make money and recoup his costs, the Tax Collector charged a premium, on top of the taxes. In doing so, he extorted his costs from people who had no choice but to pay him. As I have said, no one likes to pay taxes, but when people know that the tax-collector is charging everyone more than they should be paying, they despise him even more. 

The Pharisee, on the other hand, is a member of the religious élite, a student of the law, and the power behind the synagogues. Jesus himself was much more like a Pharisee than a tax collector, being educated and articulate about the scriptures. He, too, added his own oral interpretation to the written laws. The apostle Paul was also a Pharisee. Are we Pharisees? What does Jesus want us to understand about ourselves by this parable? If we return to the text, we see that Luke tells us that Jesus directed His words at:

‘some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt’.(Lk 18:9)

What does this mindset look like in practice? It says, ‘I am a fine upstanding member of the community, and I am not like this or that person who has done something wrong’. Each and every one of us thinks in this way to some extent. It seems to be part of human nature to want to find someone to look down on, to say we are better than them. However, we know in our hearts that we are not. We are all sinners, we all fall short, we all have areas in which we need to improve. 

So, this story, though it may at first seem straight-forward, quickly raises many questions. The text indicates that the behaviour of the tax collector is preferred over the behaviour of the Pharisee. That much is clear. But the question is: why? Is this a story about prayer and how we should pray? Is the Pharisee wrong in thanking God for what he considers the blessings in his life? Is he wrong to be glad that he is not a thief or an adulterer? Often when we characterize this story, we think of the Pharisee as standing in the centre of the room, trying to draw attention to himself, praying loudly. Based on those assumptions, we criticize the Pharisee for his showiness, his pride, his big ego. But the text states that he was standing by himself, praying, and that the tax collector was standing praying far from him. What is it that is misguided in the Pharisee? What is it that the tax collector has struck on? 

Nothing that the Pharisee says or does is in itself wrong. But where he goes off-course is in thinking that his list of righteous acts will earn him God’s favour. He is mistaken in two important ways. Firstly, because he acts as if he is not good enough to receive God’s grace without his list of good deeds. And secondly, because he acts as if he is so great as to make himself worthy of God’s grace by his own actions. This Pharisee seems to get the picture wrong from both angles. And I think we might relate to this. As Christians, we often feel as though we don’t really deserve, or are not truly worthy of God’s love — as if this is something we need to earn. On the other hand, our actions, and our attitudes to our actions, sometimes suggest that we have become too full of pride about how good we are, or at least about how much better we are doing than some other people. We can begin to act as though we just have to do enough good things and then we will be fine — as if we have a quota of righteous acts to fulfil before God will be forced to let us in on the grace deal.

In truth, it is the tax collector, standing far off, beating his breast, who has the right perspective. He cries, 

“God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” (Lk 18:13)

These words may not seem much, but they are enough. The tax collector freely admits his sin and his need for God. This man doesn’t make any claims about himself, or try to puff himself up. He does not try to act as though he could possibly manage without God. 

Can we do the same? We know that none of us are worthy of God’s grace — as the letter to the Romans tells us:

‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’ (Rom 3:23)

But we forget that none of us are excluded from God’s grace, unworthy though we are. And that means that both our good deeds, and our wrongdoings neither privilege nor exclude us — nor privilege or exclude our neighbours — from God’s grace. God asks us to live faithfully. This is not a test to see if we deserve grace, but is the path of discipleship that will give us deeper satisfaction in our relationship with our Heavenly Father. The key to the Gospel is humility: recognising our complete reliance upon God’s grace to heal us and restore us. We cannot save ourselves. 

The Eucharist, Christ’s gift of Himself to us, is not a reward which we can earn, but neither is it to be treated lightly, ignored, or downplayed. It is the most precious thing which we have. Far more precious than any silver or gold that we might use to contain it. This is because it is Jesus Christ, who gives Himself to us, so that He can transform us, more and more into His image and likeness. Christ comes to preach the Good News of the Kingdom, to call people to repent, to turn away from their sins. He heals the sick, the blind, the lame. He raises the dead to life. This is God’s love for us. What then can we give God? We can give Him our love and our thanks. We can ask Him to have mercy upon us sinners, and to help us to live faithfully so that we might 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 – The Pharisee and the Publican [Brooklyn Museum]

Trinity XVIII

In his book, Mere Christianity, C.S.Lewis once wrote:

God knows our situation; He will not judge us as if we had no difficulties to overcome. What matters is the sincerity and perseverance of our will to overcome them. (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 55)

Keeping on keeping on can be difficult. The Christian life is a marathon rather than a sprint, and it can be easy to get discouraged. Each of us needs to be encouraged to persevere, in all things, but especially in prayer. Talking to God, and listening to Him in prayer is a foundation of our faith.

In the first reading from Exodus we see what prayer can achieve. Our life is a struggle, just like the one fought between Israel and the Amalekites. The battle is not simply being fought through violence, instead God’s people are supported by prayer:

‘Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed, and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed. ’ (Exod 17:11)

Obviously maintaining such a posture is tiring, so Moses needed some help:

‘But Moses’ hands grew weary, so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it, while Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side. So his hands were steady until the going down of the sun.’ (Exod 17:12)

And like the Israelites, we can conquer in spiritual matters by keeping our arms raised in prayer. We can also support others in their prayer. The church is a community where we pray, where we help each other, where we bear each other’s burdens. We pray for others and ourselves, and we, in turn, are prayed for. All around the world, at every moment of every day, we are surrounded and upheld by Christians praying for us.

Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy shows us that prayer is something we need to learn, to believe, and to continue doing. Prayer isn’t always something grand, it can be a bit of a slog, and it takes a lifetime to master. It has to be taught, as St Paul says:

‘Scripture is profitable for … training in righteousness’ (2Tim 3:16)

Teaching the faith, and telling people who Jesus is (the Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary) and what He does (preaches repentance, the forgiveness of sins, dies on the Cross, and rises again, and sends us the Holy Spirit). It is easy to make this into a message which makes few demands upon us, that says, “yes, you’re all absolutely fine, you don’t need to do anything. You don’t need to change”. Being a Christian does make demands of us. We have to do certain things, which we might prefer not to do, and similarly not do things we might rather like to do. As followers of Christ, we all need to reminded about this regularly, to help us stay on track, and to help us to pray well together. 

In today’s Gospel Jesus teaches us ‘to pray and not lose heart’ (Lk 18:1). This is important advice. Especially when times are difficult, as they are at present. Not all prayer is answered immediately, or necessarily in the way we might like. Our Lord teaches us with a parable. There is a woman, who has a lawsuit — probably a dispute with a member of her family over inheritance of land and property. There is an unjust judge. He is corrupt and expects a bribe before making a decision. The widow, however, is not in a position to be able to give him money, which is the only way that the judge will decide in her favour, as that is how he operates. So she does what she can, which is to constantly badger the judge. The widow keeps on, and on, and on. She doesn’t give up or give in. She is persistent, and continues to ask for justice. Eventually the judge gets fed up, and he is the one who gives in, wanting a quiet life. The result is that the widow receives what is owed to her. Jesus’ point is that the widow is persistent: she keeps on, and keeps keeping on, so that the judge has to listen to her in the end. The widow’s continued prayers turn wickedness and injustice into mercy and justice. Likewise our prayers bring about change: they change us. That is the point of prayer: not to alter God’s mind, but to transform us, into what God wants us to be. Persistent prayer can, and will change us. This is how saints are made: through prayer. 

Jesus’ parable reminds us that God hears prayers. However, He may not always answer them in a way that we might like. Sometimes God says, ‘no’, or ‘not yet’, which might not necessarily be what we want to hear. This teaches us patience and wisdom, which helps us to grow in our faith. Our growth in holiness can be painful and difficult. In the first reading from Exodus, Moses is clearly tired, he has to be held up by Aaron and Hur. In the letter to Timothy, Paul is not advising something popular, but something unpopular, that people will not want to hear. 

Today’s Gospel passage ends with the question:

‘Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’ (Lk 18:8)

This is an important question. If we look at recent statistics, then people in this country are becoming less religious. Fewer people have faith in Jesus Christ. We can only hope to change this situation through prayer, which will lead to action. We need to make sure that our own faith is strong and attractive, and be prepared to bear witness to it, regardless of the cost. Our faith can only be attractive when it is real. This is what will encourage people to follow our example, and come to know and love the Lord. Only in this way can real living faith be transferred, so that when Christ comes, as He surely will, He will find faith on earth.

Let us then trust in Christ, knowing that His promises are true. Let us be nourished by His word in Scripture and fed by His Body and Blood in the Eucharist to give us life in Him. Let us love the one who loves us, who gave His life for us, to take away our sins, to heal us and restore us. And healed and restored by Him, let us bear witness to Him, so that the world may come to believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

Brigstocke, Thomas; Moses with His Arms Supported by Aaron and Hur; Aberystwyth University, School of Art Gallery and Museum;

Trinity XVI

The prophet Habakuk lived in times somewhat similar to our own, times of war and uncertainty, of a collapse of morality in public life. Such an insight does not necessarily make it easier to bear the difficult circumstances in which we now live. We can, though, derive some comfort in the knowledge that humanity has been here before.

The prophet begins today’s first reading by complaining that God is deaf to his prayers:

‘O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?’ (Hab 1:2)

Such a complaint is common throughout the Scriptures, and is probably best answered by words of the prophet Isaiah:

‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.’ (Isa 55:8)

God’s plans are not always easily understood, at which point we have to trust Him, as is clear from the Lord’s answer to Habakuk:

“Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it. For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay” (Hab 2:2-3)

This point is reinforced in the next verse, which states:

‘but the righteous shall live by his faith.’ (Hab 2:4)

Faith, putting one’s trust in God, is how humanity can truly live. Being a Christian can feel hard and difficult at times. It can be very easy to feel as though we are experiencing something of the vision of the prophet Habakuk in this morning’s first reading. The best advice comes from St Augustine, who said the following words to his people over sixteen hundred years ago:

‘“You all say, ‘The times are troubled, the times are hard, the times are wretched.’ Live good lives and you will change the times. By living good lives you will change the times and have nothing to grumble about.”’ (Sermo 311.8). 

It can be easy to see bad things happening, but not realise that it is our responsibility to be the change that we want to see. If we want to live in a world filled with love, kindness, and generosity, then it is up to us to do something about it. We need to live out our faith in our lives, making generous love a reality through our words and actions. 

Likewise, St Paul’s advice to Timothy to stir up the gift of faith, will help us. God has given us

‘a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.’ (2Tim1: 7)

Self-control is not exactly the most glamorous of traits, but it is crucial if we want to grow in faith. Through it we grow in virtue by the grace of God. It goes hand in hand with the service envisaged by the Gospel passage this morning. We imitate the example of the saints. In Paul’s words, we:

‘follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.’ (2Tim 1:13-14)

By imitation of virtuous examples our characters are formed. We become what we imitate. Therefore we need to imitate Christ, who gave Himself for us, and who comes to us this morning under the outward forms of bread and wine to feed us with His Body and Blood, so that we might become what He is.

In St Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ disciples ask Him to:

“Increase our faith!” (Lk 17:5)

Faith, hope, and love, are all gifts of God, given to us, by the Holy Spirit in our Baptism. While we may feel that we need more of them, God has in fact already given us everything we need. As Christians, we are called to trust in a God who is able to do more than we can imagine or understand. Hence the Gospel image of a mulberry tree being uprooted and planted in the sea. It’s impossible in human terms, but nothing is impossible for God. Our Lord’s advice to His disciples is to serve. Service should not be something that is looked down on. In cafés and restaurants people serve us food and drink, nurses and carers serve the elderly and infirm. Such service is a sign of love in action. Such love, care, and humility, are the foundations of our spiritual life. If we want to grow, then we need to demonstrate our faith in action, through loving service.

Our growth in faith is a gradual process: it takes time, a lifetime in fact, and comes about through God’s Grace. We may long for something instant, but God’s ways are not our ways. Faith is like a mustard seed, it starts small, but in time it can grow into something large. How does this happen? The parable which Jesus tells gives us the answer: through service. Not the most glamorous of answers, certainly, and that’s the point. Christianity is not a glamorous religion, it calls on us to lay down our lives in service and to take up the Cross. At the end of the day, all we can say is,

‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’ (Lk 17:10).

We are not worthy. God makes us worthy, through His Son, who dies and is raised for us, and fills us with His love. The work of the Gospel is, at one level, up to us, the Body of Christ, His Church. We have to live our faith out in our lives, relying upon God. Christianity is a way of life. Through humble service of one another, we do our duty, and grow in love and faith, and help to make the Kingdom of God a reality. Part of this service is to give praise 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.

James Tissot – Jesus discourses with His disciples [Brooklyn Museum]

Trinity XV – Lazarus and Dives

When I was eighteen, I was lucky enough to go to America on a Choir Tour. After a concert in Chicago we were taken to a restaurant where a buffet had been laid on, before our hosts took us back to our lodgings. I had popped outside for a moment and was asked by a homeless man if I could spare any change. I had no money on me, but I asked him when he had last had a hot meal. He replied, ‘Three days ago’. I asked him if there was anything he didn’t eat, and returned a few minutes later with two plates of food, one for him, and one for me. We sat down on the pavement outside the restaurant, and I ate with him. People were amazed and shocked, they asked me what I was doing, ‘eating with a bum’. I replied that he was a human being, and it was my Christian duty to feed the hungry. The man was thrilled, tucked into the food with relish, and enjoyed being able to eat in company. There was so much food at the buffet, and they didn’t mind me giving some away. I was shocked that people could see someone poor and homeless as being not worth bothering with.

St Luke’s Gospel contains several warnings about wealth. Wealth itself is problematic, and what matters is how we use what we have. Are we generous? Do we use what you have to make other people’s lives better or are we selfish? These are questions which apply to us today, and everyone attempting to put the Christian Faith into practice in their lives.

These are not new concerns. The prophet Amos in the first reading this morning issues a stern warning:

“Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory and stretch themselves out on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock and calves from the midst of the stall, who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp” (Amos 6:4-5)

The prophet warns those who are comfortable, those who feel secure, and he is speaking to us. Should we be concerned? Yes, we should. If we are comfortable, then God calls us out of our comfort-zone, to help those in need. This message is consistently expressed in the Old Testament:

‘He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?’ (Micah 6:8).

The care of the poor is stressed by the cancelling of debts, and the leaving the edges of fields unharvested to allow gleaning, so that people can live with dignity. Our donations to foodbanks and letters to MPs may seem small by comparison, but they demonstrate that we are trying to show love towards our neighbours in need.

In today’s Gospel Jesus is continuing his discussions with religious authorities on wealth and its use:

“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.” (Lk 16:19)

Purple cloth was a sign of wealth in the Ancient World. The cloth was dyed with a dye prepared from the secretion of sea snails, and was very expensive indeed. To wear purple was to say that you are able to wear the most expensive cloth available. You are displaying your wealth. Likewise linen is extremely comfortable under the hot Mediterranean sun. The rich man in the parable not only wears comfortable and expensive clothes, he eats extremely well. 

Then Our Lord makes a comparison:

And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores.” (Lk 16:20-21)

Here we have the opposite end of the spectrum. Lazarus is destitute, and unwell. His skin condition puts him outside polite society: he is viewed as unclean, and the fact that dogs lick him only reinforce this fact. These are not pets, they are strays. The two men are poles apart: one has everything, the other nothing. In earthly terms the rich man is at the top of the heap, Lazarus is at the bottom.

There follows a dramatic reversal:

“The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.” (Lk 16:22-23)

Jesus has been criticized for welcoming the poor and outcast, and now we see that God shares His concern for the marginalized. This is what the Kingdom of God looks like: care for the oppressed. The rich man begs for comfort, but having enjoyed it in his earthly life, his enjoyment is now over. Jesus’ words are a warning to a well-off religious elite that they should be generous and care for the poor. Scripture is littered with examples of how we should live, the Pharisees can hardly claim ignorance, and nor can we. 

The rich man then asks that Lazarus may be sent to warn his brothers, so that they may not face the judgement of God. In the parable Abraham replies that,

‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’ (Lk 16:31)

In Chapter 11 of John’s Gospel we see the last of Jesus’ signs, in Bethany. The brother of Mary and Martha dies. He has the same name, Lazarus, and a few days later Jesus raises him from the dead. It is hard not to see a connection between the two passages. Jesus’ teaching may be aimed at the Sadducees, Jewish religious leaders who denied the resurrection. Scholars have even claimed that the rich man in the parable is a Sadducee. In the end both Sadducees and Pharisees are not convinced by the raising of Lazarus, or Jesus’ Death and Resurrection. Their hearts are hard, they have forgotten the teachings of the Jewish Scriptures, and appear to care only for wealth and power. 

Thankfully as Christians we know that the Old Testament points to Jesus, and finds its true meaning in Him. Our Lord proclaims the Kingdom as a place of love and generosity, a place of healing. We know that death is not the end, and that God offers eternal life to those who turn to Him in love and faith, and who live lives of generous love, putting that faith into practice. Whenever we pray the Lord’s Prayer we say the words ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’ ‘deled dy deyrnas, gwneler dy ewyllys; megis yn y nef, felly ar y ddaear hefyd’. There is a good reason why the Church has repeated these words for two thousand years before we receive Communion: so that we may bear witness to them in our lives, strengthened by the Body and Blood of Christ, sharing a foretaste of His Risen Life, here and now. May we proclaim the Kingdom 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.

James Tissot – The Poor Lazarus at the Rich Man’s Door [Brooklyn Museum]

In Commemoration of Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

On her twenty-first birthday in 1947, HRH The Princess Elizabeth spoke the following words in Cape Town:

I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great Imperial family to which we all belong, but I shall not have the strength to carry out this resolution alone unless you join in with me, as I now invite you to do. I know that your support will be unfailingly given. God help me to make good my vow and God bless all of you who are willing to share in it.

We give thanks to Almighty God that for her seventy-year reign, Queen Elizabeth II has been a source of stability, living out her vocation as monarch, dedicated to the well-being 0f the people of this nation, the Commonwealth, and the wider world. Her Christian faith defined her, and she proclaimed her belief in the Servant King with clarity and profundity. As a teenager I was privileged to sing for her on a number of occasions, and as a priest to worship with her at the beginning of her Golden Jubilee celebrations in 2012. As a Christian community we mourn her death, and commend her soul to God, in the hope that she will hear the words, ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant!’

The Lamentations of the prophet Jeremiah are a poetic response to the sack of Jerusalem, and in the midst of their lament there is the declaration of faith which is this morning’s Old Testament reading. In our grief it is good to be reminded that:

‘The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end’ (Lam 3:22)

We commend the soul of our sister to the mercy of God, safe in the knowledge that He is loving and merciful. God’s love and mercy are at the heart of the proclamation of the Kingdom, and remain central to the message of the Church. 

St Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians has a conciliatory tone, it offers the Church in Corinth both hope and consolation. In the face of death, Christians can have hope through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ that our earthly life is not all that there is, and that once it is ended we have the promise eternal life with God in Heaven. Because the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases we can have faith that:

‘if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.’ (2Cor 5:1)

This is our hope, as Christians. In the face of grief, pain, loss, and uncertainty, we can hold onto promises which will not fail us. 

As a committed Christian, Queen Elizabeth was nourished by the Eucharist. In John’s Gospel Jesus says,

“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” (Jn 6:35)

Today we come together to celebrate the Eucharist in the knowledge that fed by the Bread of Life, we are given a foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet. A pledge of Eternal Life, given to transform us, so that we may share in the Life that is to come. 

Jesus makes it clear that His teaching on the Eucharist is oriented towards our understanding of the hereafter. It is a present reality which points to a heavenly future:

“And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (Jn 6: 39-40)

We believe that for the faithful life, life is changed by death, not ended. As our late Queen was nourished by the Bread of Life on earth, she died in the hope of Heaven, where she, and the faithful departed, may hope to enjoy the Heavenly Banquet.

Secure in this hope we pray for her, for King Charles and all the Royal Family, and for all who mourn her death, on these islands, and throughout the whole world, 

Rest eternal grant unto her, O Lord. And let light perpetual shine upon her. may she rest in peace. Amen.

Queen Elizabeth II [1926-2022]

Trinity XII [Wisdom 9:13-18 — Philemon 9-10 & 12-17— Luke 14:25-33]

At the age of 16, just having finished my GSCEs, I got my first job. It was selling double-glazed windows, or more precisely inviting people to meet with a representative of the company, who would sell them windows, doors, patio doors, conservatories, whatever they wanted or needed. While I was thus employed, I learned very quickly that many people did not enjoy having someone knock on their door and ask them if they were interested in new uPVC units. Many of these people had angry dogs. I had to run away from them. People told me to clear off in no uncertain terms. Despite a smart appearance, a smile, and basic sales patter, most of my words fell on deaf ears. Some people were interested, and engaged me in conversation, and were interested in purchasing something. I learned that usually people will only buy what they want or need, though sometimes they can be convinced.

Proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom of God can feel a bit like selling windows. To some people you’re just annoying, most people show varying degrees of disinterest, and a few people are genuinely interested in what you have to say. However, if you were to use this morning’s Gospel as a sales pitch, I doubt that you would meet with much success. Jesus’ stark presentation of the cost of discipleship is not an easy way to win people round. 

Jesus has attracted a large group of people eager to hear what He has to say, so Our Lord explains what discipleship is all about:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” (Lk 14:26-27)

Families do not always get on well, but Christians are called to ‘love their enemies’ (Lk 6:27) and to despise our own families, and even our own lives. This seems strange, and paradoxical. Aren’t Christians called to be people of love? Indeed we are, and the primary focus of our love as Christians should be God. Jesus is saying that God should be the most important thing in our life. Nothing should get in the way of the fact that our primary relationship is not with our parents, siblings, spouse, or offspring, but with the God in whose image we were created.

To make that a reality each and every one of us is called to bear a cross, to risk torture and death, and offer the whole of our lives to God. We have to follow Jesus, wherever that may lead. Our commitment has to be total, there is no room here for half-measures. Hence the stark imagery used by Our Lord. Jesus uses strong and disturbing language to shock us. He reminds us that in Him we are called to a new relationship which takes us away from traditional social structures. That means that everyone in the Church becomes our brother and sister, and that our primary responsibility is to love Christ, and follow Him, imitate Him, and take up our own Cross.

Jesus then uses the images of a construction project and warfare to reinforce the point that we need to see the matter through to its conclusion. Jerusalem was no stranger to either. Herod’s rebuilding of the temple took 46 years to complete, and  war, or the threat of it, was a constant companion. The point is that there is nothing worse than a half-finished building. It says, ‘They didn’t plan properly, or get the finances in place first’. Likewise in war you fight if you think you can win, otherwise you sue for peace. At this point, we remember and pray for our brothers and sisters in Ukraine and all throughout the world where there is violence and war.

At the end of the Gospel passage Jesus reiterates his main point:

“So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” (Lk 14:33)

Attachment is a problem: stuff cannot save us, only God can. Are possessions useful or pleasant? Certainly. Can we enjoy them? Yes. But the problem occurs when their importance is misplaced. All that really matters is eternal life with God, sharing the Divine life of Love. Nothing we ‘have’ is really ours. We can enjoy it, we can give it away, but in a few years time our earthly life will have ended. There are no pockets in shrouds, as the old saying goes, ‘you can’t take it with you when you go’. 

We gather week by week, to hear God’s word read and explained, to pray together, and to be nourished together. We do this so that we may grow together in love. We also do this so that we might embrace the Cross, having died with Christ in our baptism, and being raised to new life with Him, we live out our faith in our lives. Our discipleship is costly and difficult, it calls us to renounce the world and rely upon God, together, as a community of faith. A new community where old ties and distinctions are done away with, where we have a new identity, and are called to a higher purpose. 

These are difficult things to do, and the Christian community has for two thousand years, struggled to live up to these goals. But ours is a God who forgives sins and failings, who understands humanity from the inside. We are not written off, or cast aside. We are not abandoned or discarded. This is because we are all made in God’s image, people of infinite intrinsic value. Christ died for us, to give us eternal life, to heal our wounds. He calls us to follow Him, so that we may find His freedom, and share in His triumph over death and sin. 

As Christians, we are called to something great and wonderful, to stand, like Christ as a contradiction, offering the world a new way to live: a way of life not of death. A way of generosity and not of selfishness. We are called to renounce the world and instead to embrace the freedom, and joy, that is the life of the Kingdom of God. 

It is truly liberating to look at the world and as Jesus wants us to, knowing that all that really matters is loving God, and loving our neighbour. Doing this can be difficult, especially when times are uncertain as they are today, but we know that we can trust the God who loves us, who gives His life for us, who comes to us to feed us with Himself. So let us come and follow him and invite others to do so. Enabling all 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.

Jesus Sits by the Seashore and Preaches – James Tissot [Brooklyn Museum]

Trinity XI [Ecclesiasticus 3:17-20 & 28-9 — Hebrews 12:18-19 & 22-24— Luke 14:1 & 7-14]

One of the consequences of lockdown was that dinner parties could not take place. Suddenly friends and family were no longer able to share a meal and fellowship together. Many of us would not have been bothered where we sat, just that we could be together. So it is difficult for us nowadays to understand quite how important seating arrangements at dinner were in the Ancient World. Where you sat mattered. The closer you sat to the host the greater your importance. This morning’s Gospel begins with Jesus having been invited to a Friday night dinner by a senior Pharisee. Luke’s comment is instructive:

‘they were watching him closely’ (Lk 14:1)

Jesus is on display. He is being studied by the people at the dinner, presumably other leading Pharisees. They want to see if Our Lord will do or say something that they can find fault with. They want to catch Him out, and complain about it. Thankfully Jesus is observant, and uses his observation as a teaching opportunity:

‘Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honour,’ (Lk 14:7)

The self-important dinner guests are all trying to get as close to the host as possible, they want the best places, the best food, and to be seen being superior. So Jesus tells the following parable:

“When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honour, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person’, and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at table with you.” (Lk 14:8-1o)

In practical terms, what Jesus is advising is sensible, and wise, because it removes the possibility of losing face. In the Middle East and elsewhere, to this day, the situation envisaged in the parable would be seen as a source of shame, or honour, depending on whether you were promoted or demoted. We are generally not so aware of such considerations. The parable makes the point that humility is better than pride. 

“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Lk 14:11)

One is a virtue, the other a vice. To have an attitude which does not seek out the place of honour contrasts strongly with the guests who have done exactly that. Our Lord is pointing out that humility is the better way.

Christianity is a religion of humility, which starts from the premise that we have to rely upon God’s grace to save us, through faith. God takes the initiative, we respond, we do not save ourselves. The point of salvation is that God is the host who says, ‘Friend come up higher’. We don’t deserve a seat of honour, nor have we thought ourselves worthy of it. Yet a loving and generous God says to all who turn to Him, ‘Friend come up higher’. This is the Good News of the Kingdom, and it turns our human expectations on their head. Jesus then develops His teaching: 

He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” (Lk 14: 12-14)

People were having parties to display their wealth, social status, and connections.  This still happens today. But God has a different understanding of hospitality: it’s not about what you get, but what you can give to others. Generosity is what really matters. By inviting those who cannot invite you in return, you are being generous to those in no position to repay you. Jesus’ teaching here is also about the banquet of the Kingdom of God, the Eucharist. Jesus, as God, invites the poor, those in need of healing, in other words all of humanity, you and me, to the feast of the Kingdom. The purpose of the Eucharist is so that God can feed us, with His Body and Blood, to heal us, and to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves, to give us a foretaste of Heaven. We cannot repay God, but we can be thankful, and accept what is offered, allowing it to transform us. 

Christ has an important and strong message for His host. We see Our Lord advising people to be generous and not to seek a reward. Human Society is complex. The giving and receiving of gifts is a crucial part of how society works. It creates networks of obligation: if you give someone something, they may feel obliged to return the favour. That is fine in human terms, but when we transfer it to the divine realm we are faced with a problem. What can we give God? Does God need or want anything? No! Because God is by nature, perfect, complete, and self-sufficient, God cannot want anything, or need anything. As a result of this God is able to give the purest form of gift, which does not require anything in return. There can be no obligation, because humanity cannot give God anything. God is able give without expecting anything in return. This is what happens in the Incarnation when Our Lord is given to us. Throughout His life and ministry, to His Passion, Death, and Resurrection all He is and does is for us. All is for our benefit. God is generous to us, not so that we can be generous in return, but simply for our own good. Likewise our sacrifice of praise is not for God’s benefit, but ours, demonstrating that we are living the way we should: flourishing, loving and generous. 

Instead of the norms of human interaction and obligation, Christ presents us with a completely different paradigm. The dinner invitations in the Kingdom are for the ‘poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind’ (Lk 14:13) That means us! God longs to lavish His riches upon us, heal our wounds, and restore our sight. In our care for those who are weak, outcast, or deemed socially undesirable, we in our actions proclaim the Kingdom of God. We are called to the banquet here and now, in order that our souls may be nourished with Word and Sacrament. The Eucharist is the banquet of the Kingdom, which heals us, and transforms us, more and more into God’s likeness.

God gives Himself, so the we might live in Him. This is true generosity, a generosity which expects nothing in return. All that we are or do is for our good, and for the good of all humanity, that all may flourish in the Kingdom, living lives of love. Christ is the model of humility and loving service that we should imitate. Christ takes the lowest place, bearing the weight of our sin, on the Cross. There He dies that we might live. There He dies to make us free.

May we, in humility, recognise our need of God, and respond to His invitation to the banquet. May God heal us, restore us and strengthen us to live lives of humility and love, so that we 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.

Woe to you Scribes and Pharisees – James Tissot [Brooklyn Museum]

Trinity X [Isa 66:18-21, Heb 12:5-7 & 11-13, Lk 13:22-30]

One of the most difficult things in life is to give someone bad news. It is instinctively something we wish to avoid, but it is better once it is done. This morning’s Gospel has some difficult sayings of Our Lord, which aren’t easy to proclaim, or to listen to. That does not mean that they should not be ignored or glossed over. There are times when Jesus’ words in the Gospel make us feel uncomfortable and uneasy. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Our faith should challenge us. Challenge us to follow Christ. Challenge us to live out our faith in our lives. As we all know, this isn’t easy. It is hard work, requiring effort on our part. And yet the effort we put in is as nothing compared to that of God, who sent His Son to be born for us, and to show us how to live. Jesus demonstrates the Love of God in action, to show us how to live lives of radical generosity.

Jesus and His disciples are making their way towards Jerusalem, teaching in the towns and villages, en route. 

‘And someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?”’ (Lk 13:23)

This is the big important question: who will be saved? Many or few? Jesus does not answer the question directly: 

‘And he said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us’, then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’”’ (Lk 13:23-25)

Instead, Our Lord gives us advice: strive to enter through the narrow door. This is very much like His advice in Matthew’s Gospel:

“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Mt 7:13-14)

What Jesus is proposing is that the way to salvation is the harder path, the narrow door or gate. He is inviting people to go in. The way through is by faith, trusting in God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and by living that faith out in our lives. Once I was travelling to Cologne to take part in a choir tour of Germany. I was meant to be travelling with a friend who wasn’t good at being on time. He didn’t make it to our flight on time, and was told that the gate was closed, and that he could not board the flight, and had to take a flight the next day. He was upset, and was in a bad mood for days afterwards. No one likes to be told ‘No’, but time matters if you want to catch a flight. Jesus is telling his audience that time matters — they have heard the Good News of the Kingdom, and they need to respond to the invitation: are they in or out?

The people in the parable attempt to justify themselves, but God has other plans:

‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ (Lk 13:26-27)

People presume that because they have eaten and drunk with Jesus and heard Him teach that all is well. While they have enjoyed Jesus’ hospitality, they have not actually responded, they have not believed in who He is, and what He does. Rather than salvation being offered solely to the people of Israel, now the rest of the world is included. Everyone everywhere is invited. This is something radical, something new, which is first prophesied in the words of Isaiah. 

The prophet Isaiah has a vision of a future which sees a God who knows us and loves us. He gathers the people of the world together, so that they may see God’s glory. As Christians, we believe that this points forward to Jesus Christ, who is the Word made flesh, the true demonstration of God’s glory in the world. He will show that glory most fully on the Cross, when He suffers and dies for humanity, to take away our sin. This is the sign God sets among us, so that the Church may declare God’s glory among the nations. The Cross is the sign of God’s love for all people.

Declaring God’s glory is the prophetic aspect of the church — the sharing of the Good News. With it comes a commitment to holiness of life, so that our words and actions are in tune with each other. We cannot succeed in this by our own strength or efforts. Instead we must rely upon God’s grace. We should humbly acknowledge our need for God. Only Our Heavenly Father can transform us. Only God can forgive our sins, our failures and shortcomings. Through grace Christ can transform us, more and more into His likeness. 

This recognition of our limitations and failings opens up a space where God can be at work in our lives, transforming us to live the Divine life of Love. This is the narrow door of this morning’s gospel. Narrow because if we have a sense of our own self-importance or our worth which is too large then we cannot enter — our sense of who and what we are gets in the way.

These are not simple things to do. It is easier to coast along and take the easy options. That is why we meet together to encourage and support each other. That’s what the Church is for. We are a collection of sinners trying to live in response to the love of God that has been poured out on each of us. It is something which we need to do together — loving each other, loving our enemies, living out forgiveness as we have been forgiven and loved by God. This is a radically different way of life to that which the world encourages us to practise. Naturally we will sometimes fall short, but the point is not that we fail and give up, but that we keep trying. We must keep on loving and forgiving, together, and be built up as the body of Christ, humbly letting God be at work in us. He, by His Grace will transform our nature and make us the people of God, able to live out His out his love in our communities.

Living out our faith will be hard, others may mock us as we attempt to follow the  Gospel. Yet, we believe in a God who loves us, and who would never belittle our efforts to follow Him. As Christians we pray for the fire of God’s love to be kindled in our hearts and lives, so that we may be ablaze for Him, aflame with love for God and neighbour. Loving our enemies and our friends, enables us to change the world, not just this village, or this county, but all of God’s creation, all of humanity. In doing so we help others to know God’s love so that it may rule in their hearts and lives.

Let us then hasten to enter through the narrow gate, so that God may continue to transform our human nature. Let us then give thanks that His saving love and power is at work in our hearts and our lives, transforming us. Let us then 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 – The First Shall Be Last [Brooklyn Museum]

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Today the Church celebrates the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This feast commemorates Mary being taken up after death, body and soul, into Heaven. It is important to stress that Assumption is something passive rather than active; Jesus ascends to Heaven, whilst Mary is assumed. This is a profound difference between the two. Jesus ascends because He is God, Mary is assumed because she is the Mother of God, and the model for all Christians to follow. Humble and obedient in her life, in her death Our Lord’s Mother shares fully in the resurrection of her Son, and points the way for us as Christians. Where Mary goes, we hope to follow, trusting in the love and mercy of God. It is a sign, to us as Christians, that we can trust the promises of Christ who went to prepare a place for us; that where He is, we may also be. 

From the early days of the Church there is a tradition that Mary’s tomb, in the valley of Jehoshaphat just outside Jerusalem, is empty, and that her bodily remains are not there. From this developed the belief that after her death she was given a share in her Son’s glory, victory, and eternal life. This is both a reward for her faithfulness and humility, her obedience to God, and it is also a sign to us that this is what Christ came to share with us, his people. God in Christ shares our human life, from beginning to end, and offers us eternal life in Heaven, which Mary enjoys. We can trust what God promises us, because God is loving and faithful, even when we are not. He is merciful, so that we can be transformed by His Love. This is the Good News of the Kingdom. We do not deserve it, we cannot earn it, yet God gives it in loving generosity to heal all that has been marred by sin and strife. 

In today’s first reading, from the Book of Revelation, St John has a vision of Heaven:

And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars (Revelation 12:1)

This is why Mary is often depicted in art as a woman crowned with stars. At the foot of the Cross, during Jesus’ Crucifixion, John, the Beloved disciple, was given a new family:

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home. (John 19:26-27)

John has been close to both Jesus and His Mother, Mary in her earthly life. Now, John has a glimpse of her in Heavenly Glory, sharing the Glory of her Son, Jesus Christ. The Church honours her as the Mother of God, Theotokos, meaning ‘God-bearer’ in Greek. Without Mary saying ‘Yes’ to God at the Annunciation, our salvation would not have been possible. Her response gives us the hope of Heavenly Glory, which she enjoys, close to God in this life and the next. 

John’s vision of Heaven shows us that we can have hope of eternal life, through Christ’s victory over sin and death: 

Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come (Revelation 12:10)

It is this hope which allows St Paul to write to the church in Corinth:

For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive (1Corinthians 15:22)

Christ is the new Adam. Sunday, the day of His Resurrection is the first day of the week, and a sign of the New Creation. Likewise, Mary is the new Eve, but whereas Eve is disobedient in the Garden of Eden, Mary is obedient in the Annunciation, agreeing to bear the Son of God in her womb. Thus, Christ is born, and humanity can be saved, healed, and restored. Mary shares in her Son’s victory over sin and death as a Sign of the reality of the Resurrection, a promise made to humanity to share in God’s love and intimacy.

The Gospel reading begins with a demonstration of Mary’s care and service. She goes to stay with her older cousin, Elizabeth, who is six months pregnant. Elizabeth’s prayers for a child have been answered, but the realities of life mean that she needs help. Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, is busy in the Temple, so Mary lovingly comes in haste to help her cousin. As she arrives, Elizabeth’s baby leaps in her womb. John the Baptist greets Jesus and Mary with joy: even before his birth. He is a prophet, announcing the wonderful works of God. 

And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (Luke 1:41)

Elizabeth recognises the wonderful thing that has happened, and understands that through Mary’s child God’s promise is being fulfilled. She also recognises Mary’s faith, and says to her: 

“Blessed is she who believed” (Luke 1:45)

Mary is indeed blessed in giving birth to the Saviour of humanity, blessed in her obedience, love, and service, and blessed after death to share in the Heavenly Glory of her Son. The way in which Mary trusts God, gives Christians a clear example to follow in living the life of faith. We need to be like Mary. 

This is why every evening at Vespers (Evensong), Mary’s great hymn of praise, is recited. This is the Magnificat, which starts, “My Soul doth Magnify the Lord” (Luke 1:46). These words reveal Mary’s complete trust in God, a God who takes it upon Himself to overcome sin and death by giving us His Son, Jesus, who establishes a kingdom of love, forgiveness, and generosity. Despite all our mistakes and failures, God showers us with His love and mercy. All the readings this morning are rooted in the simple fact that God loves us, and Mary shows us how to respond to that love. Her Assumption gives us hope that when Jesus says:

‘In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?’ (John 14:2) 

God makes room for us, the question is can we make room for Him? Can we be like Mary, trusting God to be at work in us? Can we let His Grace perfect our nature, to live lives of hope and joyful service, so that after our earthly life we may, in the company of the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints, 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 Assumption of the Virgin – El Greco

Lord teach us how to pray

One of the ways that I like to relax is by cooking. It’s something that I have always enjoyed. I learned to cook as a child by spending time watching my mother in the kitchen. She let me have a go, and gradually, over time, my skills and experience developed. One of the main ways that we learn as human beings is by observation and imitation: someone shows us how to do something, we copy them and learn to do it ourselves. It is how we learn to walk and talk, and many other things besides. 

This morning’s Gospel describes a similar learning experience. Jesus has been praying, spending time close to God the Father, possibly praying for His disciples and about His mission. One of Jesus’ disciples comes up to Him and asks,

“Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” (Lk 11:1)

Jesus and John the Baptist were cousins. They both preached the need for repentance and belief in the Good News, and they both taught their disciples how to pray. Prayer is something of a paradox, being at the same time quite straightforward and also a mystery. We pray to God, but prayer doesn’t change God, it changes us. Pagans in Greece and Rome would bargain with their gods: if you do this, I’ll give you that. Jews and Christians are profoundly different. We don’t bargain with God, and we don’t need to because we are in a covenant relationship with our Heavenly Father who loves us.

Virtually all Christian prayer can be described by one or more of four phrases: ‘please’, ‘thank you’, ‘I’m sorry’, and ‘I love you’. God does not need our prayers, we do. This is because praying allows us to open our hearts and lives to God, allowing Him to change us. Jesus answers His disciple’s request to teach them how to pray as follows:

And he said to them, “When you pray, say:
“Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.”
(Lk 11:2-4)

The version of Jesus’ words we are most familiar with is that found in Matthew’s Gospel, which is slightly longer than Luke’s prayer. But both contain the same elements. The prayer begins by us calling God, ‘Abba’ ‘Father’ ‘Tâd’. Such a term expresses our close relationship with God. The idea that God’s name should be kept holy goes hand in hand with the desire that God’s Kingdom may come. Christianity is all about the establishment of the Kingdom of God: that God may rule over our hearts and our lives.

Next we ask God to feed us, to forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us, and to free us from temptation. It is important to note that every celebration of the Eucharist begins with us all acknowledging our shortcomings and asking God’s forgiveness. Saying sorry to God is important, because it keeps us humble, and helps to maintain our relationship with God, and with each other. We all make mistakes, you do, I do. Recognising this is the start of a process which allows us to grow in virtue and holiness, through God’s love. The high point of the Eucharist is when God feeds us with His Body and Blood, providing us with spiritual food to nourish our souls. All our food is a gift from God, and being thankful for it, just like being humble, helps to keep us close to God. If you don’t already do so, try saying a few words of thanks to God before you eat a meal.

There are good reasons why Christians pray this prayer regularly. Jesus has told us how to pray, and gave us these words. We celebrate the Eucharist because Jesus told us to ‘do this in memory of Him’ and we do. We use the Lord’s Prayer (Y Gweddi’r Arglwydd) when we pray, because it honours God, and it forms us as Christians. We will pray it together today before Communion, so that God can continue the process of transforming us day by day into His image and likeness. 

In the Gospel reading Jesus continues to teach His disciples using parables. This time there is a late-night hospitality emergency. A friend is on a journey (like Jesus and His disciples), and arrives at your home (just like Mary and Martha last week). Naturally you want to be hospitable as a sign of your friendship. So, you pop round to a neighbour, and ask to borrow some food. However, the initial response you receive is not very positive:

“‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs.” (Lk 11:7-8)

Jesus shows that, despite the neighbour not wanting to get up and be bothered with the request for food, because the person is persistent and stays there, disregarding the initial reluctance, his request is granted. Perseverance is rewarded. The point Our Lord is making is that God hears our prayers, and answers our requests. We might need to ask more than once, and commit time to prayer, but we will not be ignored.

‘And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.’ (Lk 11:9-10)

The phrase ‘knock, and it will be opened to you’ reinforces the teaching in the parable. The neighbour opens the door and gives the requested provisions. Jesus then develops His teaching, by drawing a comparison between the lesser and the greater, a rabbinic practice:

“What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Lk 11:11-13)

The Good News of the Kingdom is that God answers prayer. Not only that, He will also give us the Holy Spirit. This is an important concept in the wider narrative of Luke’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, where the Church is filled with God’s Spirit.

God answers prayer because He is our creator and we are in a covenant relationship with Him. In the Old Testament reading God listens to Abraham’s pleas for mercy and grants them. In St Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, Paul can proclaim baptism as the way to salvation, because this enables us to share in Christ’s Death and Resurrection, and the forgiveness of our sins:

‘This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.’ (Col 2:14)

God cancels our debt by paying it Himself, overcoming evil and sin through an outpouring of healing love. This is the demonstration that God loves us and hears our prayers, and so we continue to remember the Passion through our celebration of the Eucharist. God forgives our sins, and gave His life for us, nailing our sins to the Cross. He suffered in His flesh so that we who have died with Christ in our baptism may also share His risen life. That is why Jesus can assure us that God listens to our prayers and answers them, giving us the good things we need. Christ desires a community of love and reconciliation, and we are here make that a reality, being transformed, so that we 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.

James Tissot – The Lord’s Prayer [Brooklyn Museum]

Trinity V – Mary and Martha

The past seventy years or so have seen a huge change in our society. Women have become a greater proportion of the paid labour force, and have fought for equal rights and equal treatment. Despite the advances that have been made, there remains one area in particular, where they are still responsible for the majority of work: the domestic sphere. On average, women spend 13 hours a week on housework, while men spend on average 8 hours. This is better than it used to be, so progress has been made, but we still have far to go.

This past week, on Monday, the Church celebrated the Feast of St Benedict. St Benedict is known as the Father of Western Monasticism, and is the author of a rule of life which has profoundly affected the West for over 1500 years. A phrase closely associated with him is ‘Ora et Labora’ ‘Pray and Work’. It is important to note that the advice is ‘both—and’ rather than ‘either—or’. For the community to work there needs to be a balance of prayer and labour: someone needs to sweep the floors, wash the dishes. If work and prayer are kept in balance, then our duties towards God and our neighbour can be fulfilled. As Christians we need to hospitable and welcoming, as well as prayerful.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is still travelling. As there were no hotels or service stations, the only way to rest, eat and drink was through hospitality. Our Lord is welcomed into a house by a woman named Martha. 

‘And she had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching’ (Lk 10:39)

These sisters Mary and Mary may well be the same women who appear in John’s Gospel as the sisters of Lazarus, who live in Bethany. There they are described as friends of Jesus who regularly provide hospitality to Him and His followers. Mary is giving Jesus her undivided attention, she sits at His feet, as a student would.

‘But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me” (Lk 10:40)

Jesus is a teacher, proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom, and while it is important that He and his disciples are fed and cared for, the immediate concern is to give Him their undivided attention, and listen to what Our Lord has to say.

‘But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”’ (Lk 10:41-42)

While Martha has shown Jesus a hospitable welcome, she then tries to get Him involved in a domestic squabble, which is centred on justifying her own busyness. Jesus does not tell Martha off, rather He is encouraging, calming her down, and showing her a better way. One thing is necessary: for a host to pay attention to a guest.

The point is not simply to prefer the contemplative to the practical, or the spiritual to the physical. That would be Gnosticism. Instead we need to balance our physical needs with our spiritual ones. Martha is too wrapped up in her own affairs and has forgotten what is really important. Jesus does not want special treatment, or a lavish banquet with lots of dishes. What He wants are people who pay attention to what He has to say. Martha has not chosen a bad portion, service and hospitality are important, but attention: staying close to Jesus, listening to what He says, and not being distracted, is how we grow as Christians.

If we want to flourish in our faith, then we need to work hard not to let the cares of the world overwhelm us, and distract us from giving God our attention. In this morning’s Old Testament reading from Genesis we hear Abraham welcoming God by the oaks of Mamre. The patriarch’s generosity and attentiveness are sacrificial, and result in Abraham and Sarah being blessed with a child. Likewise Paul, writing to the Colossians, sees his own trials and tribulations as sacrificial, but is at pains to highlight the Good News which he proclaims:

‘God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.’ (Col 1:27-28)

As Christians we are in ‘in Christ’ we share His sufferings, Death, and Resurrection, and we listen when He speaks to us. We are attentive, so that we may learn, and grow in faith. 

Jesus’ teaching is that the way to show real hospitality is to pay attention to one’s guest, recognising their needs and desires. Instead of busyness, God tells us this morning that, like the Good Samaritan, we should be attentive to God and His message for us in the Gospel. In doing this we, like Mary will choose a good part. This choice has a moral dimension: in truly listening closely to what God says to us, our actions and our character will be formed, helping our growth in holiness. Nourished by Word and Sacrament, we progress in living out the virtues of faith, hope, and love, which we received in our baptism, and prepare for our inheritance with the Saints in glory. 

Christ calls us to make our prayer and our work, all that we do and all that we are, a response to God and our neighbour. Then we will be truly living in love. Such love is the nature of God and transforms both us and our world, so that all 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. 

Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Martha at Bethany – James Tissot [Brooklyn Museum]

Trinity IV [15th of Year C] The Good Samaritan

At this time of year when many of us make journeys, Jesus too is travelling, continuing His journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. As Jesus travels He teaches, using parables, stories we know and love, because they are so vivid. Everyone likes to hear a good yarn, but the parables are much more than that. Jesus uses parables to explain the Kingdom and His Mission — who He is, and what He is doing — so that His disciples can understand and share that knowledge with others. 

In today’s Gospel, Our Lord meets with a legal expert, who wants to put Jesus to the test, to see if what He says is acceptable under Jewish religious law. The lawyer asks Him,

“Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Lk 10:26)

Jesus asks the lawyer what is written in the Law, and how does he interpret it? The  man replies,

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself.” (Lk 10:27)

The first part of his answer is a quotation from Deuteronomy (6:5), part of the Shema, a Jewish declaration of faith in God, which begins ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one’. The second part is a quotation from the book of Leviticus (19:18). This summary of the Law represents humanity’s duty towards God and our neighbour. The lawyer understands how he should behave, and how he should live his life. So far, so good. The lawyer then asks Our Lord a question:

‘But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?”’ (Lk 10:29)

The lawyer wants to legitimise himself, and so he asks Jesus to define his terms. Our Lord is happy to oblige, and does so with a parable, The Parable of the Good Samaritan. This well-known parable is set on road from Jerusalem to Jericho. This is a major route, but it is steep and windy (a bit like some of the roads around here!), dropping 3,300ft in 17 miles. The road passes through mostly empty desert land, where bandits made a living robbing travellers. The sight of someone who has been attacked and robbed was probably not an unusual one. In the parable, a priest and a Levite pass by one such victim, crossing to the other side as they do not wish to become ritually impure. If they touched a dead body, they would become unclean, and unable to offer sacrifice and worship in the Temple before they had been cleansed. Rather than risk this, they assume that the man is dead and simply pass on by.

‘But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him.’ (Lk 10:33-34)

Samaritans and Jews generally kept separate from each other, as we saw two weeks ago when a Samaritan town refused to welcome Jesus. The Jews worshipped on Mt Zion, while the Samaritans worshipped on Mt Gerizim. When the Jews went into exile in Babylon, the Samaritans had stayed put. Although they all worshipped the same God, they were completely estranged from each other. Despite this, the Samaritan has compassion, he is deeply moved to help someone in need. We are told that he pours oil and wine on the injured man. This  was current medical practice. It was also what one would do at a sacrifice. It is possible that Jesus’ image relates to some words of the prophet Hosea:

‘For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.’ (Hosea 6:6)

The priest and the Levite are concerned with sacrifice and purity, but the Samaritan shows the mercy that God wants. He binds up the wounds, treats them, and brings the man to an inn, and takes care of his needs. The parable shows true love and mercy in action.

Traditionally the Church has also seen a deeper meaning at work here. It has understood the Parable of the Good Samaritan in a symbolic way, which explains both the human condition, and Christ’s saving work. In this reading, the traveller represents Adam, and stands for all humanity. His wounds are those of sin and disobedience. The Samaritan is Jesus, the one who has compassion on us. The inn stands for the Church, the place where sinners are healed. The oil and wine are the sacraments of the Church, which heal us. 

Such an interpretation shows us how rich this parable is. Jesus is travelling up to Jerusalem, where He will suffer and die. He is teaching His disciples that they need to put mercy and love into action, because they are a sign of the Kingdom. The Kingdom of God is where Christ reigns from the Cross, where He overcomes sin and Death, to offer eternal life to all humanity. This is why St Paul can write,

‘For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.’ (Col 1:19-20)

Our Lord’s Passion is a work of reconciliation. The Church’s job is to carry on that work. In the Parable, Jews and Samaritans are not yet reconciled, but they can be — through Christ. As Christians we gather together to read and study scripture, to pray together, and to be healed and nourished by God, through the Sacraments. These are outward signs of spiritual grace, the power of God to heal, reconcile, and transform, and extend God’s compassion through space and time. We are gathered in the ‘inn’, so that God can heal us, and strengthen us to go out and do likewise. 

Following the example of the Good Samaritan, may we be agents of God’s love and grace in the world. May we transform our communities, and all the world. May we be filled with God’s love, compassion, and healing, 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. 

The Good Samaritan – James Tissot [Brooklyn Museum]

Trinity III [14th of Year C]

We are fast approaching the time of year when people take summer holidays. If you’re going on a journey you plan, prepare and pack. When we travel we take things with us: food, clothing, and other things which are useful on our journey and while we are away. This makes sense. Most of us would not follow Jesus’ advice in the Gospel to the letter. And we would be wise not to do so. 

Today’s Gospel sees the beginnings of the Church’s missionary activity. Last week we heard Jesus sending a few disciples on ahead of Him. Now that program is intensified.

‘After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go.’ (Lk 10:1)

Our Lord commissions thirty-six teams to go out and prepare the way. They are not sent out on their own, they go in pairs. This is sensible given that single travellers were more likely to be attacked by bandits or robbers. It also reminds us that Christian ministry should not be a solo activity. We need support, both human and divine. The Church is, first and foremost, a community of believers, brothers and sisters in Christ. 

“Go your way; behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. Carry no money bag, no knapsack, no sandals, and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!’” (Lk 10:3-5)

Jesus’ advice to His missionaries begins by highlighting the dangerous nature of their undertaking. They will face violence and opposition. The idea of travelling light and not talking en route is to underline the need for their to be no delay. Their mission is urgent. People need to know the Good News of the Kingdom, and they need to know it now. The lighter you travel, the easier it is. Also, you are forced to rely upon the generosity of others, and their generosity is itself another sign of the Kingdom. Jesus is using an extreme example to underline the urgency of the task at hand, rather than giving travel advice. 

Christians greet each other by saying, ‘Peace be with you’. We will soon greet each other with these words. As part of our worship we share the Peace which Christ has given us, and we share it with the world. This is our calling.

And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the labourer deserves his wages. Do not go from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you. Heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ (Lk 10:7-9)

The disciples are to be reliant upon the charity of others, so that their actions as well as their words will preach the Gospel. We are all dependant on each other and upon God. Hospitality demonstrates love and care, and makes it real. It is important that those sent out don’t move about, going from house to house, in search of better food or a comfier bed. They are to stay put, and be grateful for what they receive. Through their actions they show that the Kingdom is a place of healing. God longs to see humanity restored. 

Jesus’ advice is realistic: not everyone wants to accept what is offered. He tells the missionaries to say,

‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’ (Lk 10:11)

God respects human freedom, but it is important that the Gospel is proclaimed, even if it is rejected. The seventy-two meet with success, but Jesus points out that something is more important than even miracles:

“Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Lk 10:20)

Healing and miracles are an important sign of the Kingdom of God, but salvation is more important. Christians are baptised, to share in Christ’s Death and Resurrection, and our names are written in Heaven. 

This reality underlies the confidence of St Paul as he writes to the Christians in Galatia. 

‘But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.’ (Gal 6:14)

Because of the Cross, God’s love has been poured out on the world. The love which heals, and reconciles, and gives us the hope of heaven. Ours is the hopeful message of a loving and healing God, and we ourselves are testament to the power of God’s love to change people. It is a powerful thing, knowing that God can take you, and transform you, in ways that you might never expect or imagine. But it happens, here and all around the world, so that the saving truth might continue to be proclaimed by word and deed. The prophet Isaiah looked forward to a future of peace, and that peace has become a reality in Jesus. 

‘As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.’ (Isa 66: 13)

Humanity is comforted in Jerusalem, on Calvary. Such is the power of the Cross: it saves humanity, it frees us from our sins, and gives us new life in Christ. This is the cause of our joy, our rejoicing. This is the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy. This is humanity’s consolation. In this we are comforted.

So, may our words and actions proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom. May we share God’s love with others. And let us 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.

James Tissot – He sent them out two by two (Brooklyn Museum)

Trinity II [13th of Yr C]

One of the more delightful programs on the television these days is the BBC show, The Repair Shop. In it, people bring along treasured family items which are repaired and restored by experts in various crafts. The results are amazing and are achieved because the men and women who do the restoration are professionals. They have spent years honing their craft. To do this requires skill, patience, and expertise which come from experience and hard work. If you want to become good at something, it takes time, effort, and persistence. Living the Christian life is no different. It takes commitment, and is the work of a lifetime. Each and every one of us needs to consider the fact that, if our relationship with God is the most important thing in our life, then we need to make it a priority. If our faith matters to us then it must be something we invest in, so that it may develop, deepen, and grow.

The Gospel this morning sees Jesus’ ministry changing. Up to this point in Luke’s Gospel, He has been ministering in and around Galilee, where He grew up. After the Transfiguration, Jesus sets off towards Jerusalem, teaching as He goes. In Jerusalem He will be welcomed as the Messiah on Palm Sunday, and a few days later will be crucified, then be raised from the dead, and continue to spend time with His disciples until He ascends into Heaven. 

Luke highlights this with the words:

‘When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up’ (Lk 9:51).

The journey to Jerusalem is an ascent of several thousand feet, Jesus will be lifted up on the Cross, and later will be taken up to Heaven, to be with God the Father. The ambiguity is deliberate, Luke is setting the scene for the rest of his Gospel narrative. This section begins with Our Lord sending people on ahead to make preparations for Him and His disciples. The Samaritan village, however, does not receive them. There were religious differences between the Jews and Samaritans, with the Samaritans worshipping on Mount Gerizim, rather than Mount Zion, in Jerusalem. Samaritan self-identity was all about not going to Jerusalem. These differences meant that Jews and Samaritans didn’t mix with one another. James and John, the sons of Zebedee are upset at being shunned and ask:

“Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” (Lk 9:54)

Jesus is not pleased at this rather immature response and tells James and John off.  His mission is to save people, not to destroy them. God is a God of love, our Creator and Sustainer. Our Lord does not force people to believe in Him. The disciples still have much to learn.

As they continue their journey, someone says to Jesus:

“I will follow you wherever you go.” (Lk 9:57)

This is admirable: it shows their commitment to Jesus and the Kingdom. It does, however, come at a cost, as Jesus makes clear in His reply:

“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Lk 9:58)

If we are willing to follow Jesus, we have to understand that Heaven is our true home, and that our time on earth is short. Jesus’ true home is with the Father, and so is ours. Luke then describes another interaction on the journey:

‘To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”’ (Lk 9: 59-60)

The disciple’s request seems, at face value, to be a reasonable one. Burying one’s parents was an obligation of the Jewish religion and family piety, something of the utmost importance. But the responsibility toward God and the furtherance of His Kingdom is even more important. The unnamed disciple is not able to understand this. As we humans have the tendency to do, they want to add conditions. However, following Jesus needs to be unconditional. To reinforce the point Luke gives another example:

‘Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”’ (Lk 9:61-2)

Again, at first glance the request seems a fair one. It is modelled on Elisha’s request to Elijah in this morning’s Old Testament reading. Jesus is however, stricter than Elijah. The point Our Lord is making is that nothing should be more important than God, not even our family. This teaching is difficult and uncompromising, and points to the importance that Jesus should have in the lives of those who follow Him. Christ’s teaching also refers to commitment. When engaged in an activity such as ploughing which employs powerful beasts (or machinery today) you need to focus on what you are doing. It requires your full attention to get it right. In the same way we need to be fully attentive to our Christian life.

This idea is reinforced by the passage from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Christ gives us freedom from slavery, freedom to serve: 

‘But through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”’ (Gal 5:13-14)

Christians serve each other because we love our brothers and sisters in Christ. To love is to will the good of another, to want to see them flourish. Love is made real in service, something I am reminded of every day when I pray for you and serve you through my ministry. Jesus gives us the example we should follow, just as He gives the Church the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. We receive the same Spirit in our Baptism and in the Eucharist, where we are nourished by God, with God, so that we may be strengthened to live the life of the Spirit, here and now. 

Let us today, and every day, live lives of commitment and service, which build up the common good, and make the Kingdom of God a reality. And let us 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.

James Tissot – The Man at the Plough [Brooklyn Museum]

The First Sunday after Trinity

When we switch on the news on the Television and see all that is happening around the globe, it is not difficult to come to the conclusion that the World is in a mess. The four horsemen of the Apocalypse — War, Famine, Pestilence, and Death appear to be quite busy at the moment. Whilst there is a degree of truth in this line of thinking, it needs to be balanced by the fact that people have felt this way for a very long time, for several thousand years, in fact. The people of Israel looked for a Messiah, a leader of the House of David, who would bring them the peace and security they longed for. The first reading this morning comes from the prophecy of Zechariah, and was written perhaps as late as two hundred years before the birth of Jesus Christ. At this time the Jewish people were struggling under Greek rulers who tried to abolish all that they held sacred. The prophet Zechariah looks forward to a messianic future:

‘And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.’ (Zech 12:10)

The mention of looking upon one whom they have pierced anticipates Christ and His Crucifixion, as noted by John’s Gospel: “They will look on him whom they have pierced” (19:37). Zechariah writes of the outpouring of a ‘spirit of grace’, just as we have seen at Pentecost. Here Jesus’ Death, Resurrection and gift of the Holy Spirit are clearly prefigured: God’s saving plan is announced in the words of the prophet. A few verses later, Zechariah prophesies:

‘On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to cleanse themselves from sin and uncleanness.’ (Zech 13:1)

This is what the Cross achieves for those who are washed in the Blood of Lamb, as we are at our Baptism. Christ’s death takes away our sins. Through Baptism and the Eucharist we share in Jesus’ Death and are raised to new life with Him. When St Paul writes to the Galatian Church, he stresses their common baptism.

‘For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.’(Gal 3:26-29)

St Paul is preaching a profound message: none of the distinctions which the world makes matter in the eyes of God. There is no difference. All are one in Christ. There is a radical equality in the Church: all are welcome to come and be saved. This was a revolutionary thing to say when Paul preached nearly two thousand years ago, and it still is today. We are all one in Christ: young and old, rich and poor. It doesn’t matter who we are, where we are from, or anything else. All that matters is that we find our true identity in Christ. This identity makes us heirs of God’s promise, to enjoy eternity in Heaven with Him.

In today’s Gospel Jesus begins by asking His disciples this question:

“Who do the crowds say that I am?” (Lk 9:18)

The people give a variety of answers: John the Baptist, Elijah, or another of the prophets. They recognise Jesus’ proclamation of the Good News of the Kingdom and understand Him in terms that are familiar to them. Christ, however, presses the issue by asking His disciples the question,

“But who you say that I am?” (Lk 9:20)

Peter answers ‘You are the Christ of God’ (Lk 9:20). By this answer Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, God’s Anointed, the fulfilment of Zechariah’s prophecy. The disciple’s confession is also our confession as Christians, Jesus is the Christ, the Saviour, the Son of God. As we declare in the words of the Creed.

Jesus instructs the disciples that they should communicate this to no-one, and explains what is about to happen:

“The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (Lk 9:22)

Jesus tells the disciples about His Passion, Death and Resurrection, because it is His mission: to reconcile God and humanity, and to restore and heal our broken relationship. Christ then invites His followers to follow His example:

And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” (Lk 9:23-24)

At the beginning of His public ministry, Jesus invites people to repent and believe. Now He calls us to self-denial, and to embrace the Cross. Christ asks us to embrace the most shameful way to die, a form of torture, used by the Romans to execute slaves. As those saved and made free by the Cross of Christ, we take up our cross and follow Jesus. We imitate Him, in selfless love and devotion, and we bear the weight of the cross in life’s difficulties and disappointments. Following Christ is hard, as we lose our lives for Jesus’ sake. It is a struggle, and we cannot just rely upon ourselves to succeed. Instead, it needs to be a corporate effort, something we do together, as Christians, trusting in God’s Grace to be at work in us, both individually and as a community.

Christ wants us to lose our lives for His sake, and find freedom in His service. There is something paradoxical in Jesus’ teaching: we find perfect freedom in obedience, in service of God and each other. We need to be humble enough to accept what God offers us, and be prepared to try to live it out together. It isn’t about us, but rather letting God be at work in us. When we co-operate with God, and live in love, and joy, and peace, we flourish as human beings. This is liberating, and it is what God wants for us. This is what true freedom is like, and we are called to live it together. So let us 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. 

It is finished – James Tissot (Brooklyn Museum)

Trinity Sunday 2022

Today is Trinity Sunday and, apparently, a day when some people do not like to preach. I am not one of them. There has, for some time, been something of a reticence in the West when speaking about the Trinity. God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — Three persons, one God. Some people are afraid in case they say something wrong, or that those listening to them will not be able to understand what is being said. But it is important to talk about the Trinity — one of the key beliefs of the Christian faith.

The service this morning began with the words ‘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, Amen.’ Eucharistic Services have begun by invoking the name of the Trinity, and making the sign of the Cross, for as long as we have texts for them, about 1700 years. And 1700 years ago, this morning’s first reading was one of the most controversial passages in Scripture: 

“The Lord possessed me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old.” (Proverbs 8:22)

In the Greek text of Proverbs used widely around the Mediterranean, the verb translated as ‘possessed’ was one that meant ‘created’. This lead some people to argue that this passage means that the Wisdom of God, taken to refer to Jesus Christ, the Word of God, was created and not begotten. This would mean that Jesus had a beginning in time, and was not eternal, and was therefore somewhat lesser than God the Father. Church Councils were called, at Nicaea in ad325, and Constantinople in ad381. These gave us the doctrinal statement known as the Nicene Creed, which we will say together in a few minutes time. Our faith, as Christians is rooted in God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Creed is made up of three sections: it begins with what we believe about God the Father, moves on to what we believe about the Son, and finishes with the Holy Spirit. What we believe and how we worship God matters, it helps to form what we believe.

Last Sunday we celebrated the Feast of Pentecost, the Descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples in the Upper Room, fifty days after Easter, and ten days after Jesus’ Ascension into Heaven. With the coming of the Holy Spirit, we see the fullness of God. As St Paul puts it in his Letter to the Romans:

“God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:5)

As Christians, we are filled with the Holy Spirit, a spirit of love and joy. This allows us to experience God as He is: the Father who created all that exists, the Son who redeemed humanity, and the Spirit who sanctifies and encourages the people of God. God calls us into a relationship and we respond with worship which honours God. We do this not because God needs our worship, but because we need to acknowledge our dependance upon Him. God loves us, and because we are loved, we respond with love. 

In today’s Gospel Jesus 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.” (Jn 16:13)

God gives us the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth. We are invited into a relationship and a journey of faith where we can grow and develop. As Christians we worship One God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They are not three Gods, but one God. That the three persons of the Trinity are one God is itself a mystery. The mystery of God’s very self: a Trinity of Persons, consubstantial, co-equal and co-eternal. Consubstantial means ‘of one being’, co-equal means that the persons of the Trinity are equal to one another, none is greater or lesser, and co-eternal means that all have no beginning in time. We know God most fully in the person of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God, born of the Virgin Mary, who died upon the Cross for our sins, and was raised to New Life at Easter, who sent the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. In Christ, God discloses who and what he is. We know Him as someone who pours out love, who desires reconciliation.

The wonderful thing about the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is that it enables us to encounter and experience God in a deeper way. We can know Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh who speaks to us in Scripture, and who comes to us in the Eucharist, so that we may be nourished by God. We are filled with the Holy Spirit, who transforms us, by the power of God. It is not an abstract concept that we are celebrating today, but rather a generous and loving God. The Christian understanding of God is not of a remote being, but rather is one who makes His home with us, gives us His life, and transforms and heals us in love. This is all possible through the relationship God has with us, through His Son and His Spirit, which is personal and real.

In Christ, God becomes human, allowing Him to understand us from the inside, so to speak. This is not a distant, impersonal divinity, but one who lives a human life. One who understands our frailty, and who loves us. God sends His Spirit so that we may be encouraged and led into all truth, in the Church. We will face difficulties and hardships. Christ promises us no less, as does St Paul in our second reading. But the point is that these experiences, while difficult to endure can also be positive: we grow and develop through them. Through suffering we become more loving and forgiving. We are transformed into what God wants us to be, so that we can be made new by His redeeming love. God offers us all the opportunity to be something different, something more than we are, if we let Him change us. If we co-operate with His grace. When we are filled with the Holy Spirit, and nourished by Word and Sacrament, God is at work in us, transforming us into His likeness. So, as we celebrate the mystery of the Holy and Life-giving Trinity, let us pray that we may be changed by God’s love, and share this love with others. So that they may come to believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

Masaccio The Trinity (S. Maria Novella, Florence)