Trinity XXI

The Road from Jericho to Jerusalem is steep, winding and dangerous. It is the road on which the man is attacked who is helped by the Good Samaritan in the Parable in Luke’s Gospel. It is along this road that Jesus and His disciples will travel, a journey of sixty miles to go to celebrate the Passover. In today’s Gospel, Jesus and the disciples are surrounded by a great crowd. They are attracted by Our Lord’s preaching and His miracles. As the group leaves Jericho they meet beggars by the roadside. One of them, Bartimaeus on learning that it is Jesus cries out,

“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Mk 10:47)

Bartimaeus recognises Jesus’ prophetic calling and asks for mercy. We do the same at the beginning of every Eucharist when we say, ‘Christe eleison, Crist trugarha, Christ have mercy’. The people around Bartimaeus tell him off. They tell him to be quiet, to stop causing a commotion. However, he does not listen to them, but instead he cries out all the more,

“Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Mk 10:48)

Bartimaeus is desperate. He longs for God’s mercy, he longs for healing. Bartimaeus may be blind, but he sees what many others cannot: that Jesus is the Messiah, the one who will heal and restore Israel. His faith in Jesus and his insistence pays off, as Jesus stops and asks to see him. 

And throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. And Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” And the blind man said to him, “Rabbi, let me recover my sight.” (Mk 10:50-51)

Blind Bartimaeus does not want to beg for alms, he wants to see again, and he trusts Jesus to be able to do something about it. 

And Jesus said to him, “Go your way; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him on the way. (Mk 10:52)

Without even touching Bartimaeus, Jesus heals him. It is because of his trust and faith in Jesus, that Bartimaeus is healed. Note that instead of rushing off, Bartimaeus follows Jesus, living the life of faith there and then. He is healed and immediately becomes a follower of Jesus. Bartimaeus longed for the light and now he follows Jesus, the Light of the world. This healing miracle becomes a story of faith, and in that faith we too can follow Jesus. 

The first followers of Jesus were known as followers of the Way, (Acts 9:2) and this is what Bartimaeus becomes; he follows Jesus on the way, both literally and metaphorically. He trusts Jesus, he has faith in Him, and he follows Him. In Mark’s Gospel the story of Bartimaeus acts as a bridge between the teaching and miracles of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee and His time in Jerusalem which leads up to His death. Jesus will enter Jerusalem on a donkey, as the Messiah, and will teach the people of Jerusalem how to follow God, fulfilling the hope and expectation of the prophets. Bartimaeus has faith which allows him to see, whereas the people of Jerusalem cannot see that Jesus is the Messiah, they are blind, whereas Bartimaeus can see, and follows Jesus on the Way.

We too are on the Way, followers of Jesus, who long for the healing and restoration which sees Bartimaeus go from beggar to disciple. Israel hoped for this as well. In the first reading this morning Jeremiah is looking forward to a Messianic future, even at the point when people are being led away to captivity in Babylon: 

For thus says the Lord: “Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, …. and say,
    ‘O Lord, save your people, the remnant of Israel.’”
’ (Jer 31:7)

Behold, I will bring them from the north country and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, ….With weeping they shall come, and with pleas for mercy I will lead them back, …. For I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my first-born’ (Jer 31:8-9)

At a low-point in Israel’s history, with the Temple destroyed and the people led off into captivity, Jeremiah can look to the future in hope, trusting that God will lead His people back. This hope is realised in Jesus, whose name means ‘God saves’. It is Jesus who brings us back to the Father, as true children of God. As well as being the Messiah, Jesus is also our great high-priest, who offers the sacrifice which takes away sin, and restores the relationship between God and humanity. Unlike the priests of the Temple, Jesus could offer Himself as a perfect offering, as a royal priest, the true King of Israel. In Genesis (14:18-19), Melchizedek blesses Abram:

And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High.) And he blessed him and said,“Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth

As Melchizedek brings out bread and wine, so Jesus will take bread and wine, and institute the Eucharist as the Messianic banquet, for the healing of the nations: to transform us, and so that we can share God’s glory forever. 

So may we be strengthened by Word and Sacrament to live the life of faith, and like Bartimaeus, to follow Jesus on the way that leads to Heaven. 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 Two Blind Men at Jericho

Trinity XX

The Apostles James and John, the sons of Zebedee are also known as ‘Boanerges’, which means ‘The Sons of Thunder’. This name fits them to some extent as there is something quite loud and brash about the two brothers. The Gospel reading this morning is a good example of this. It begins by the brothers coming up to Jesus and asking Him, 

“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” (Mk 10 35)

That is a very bold request to make of anyone, let alone Jesus. But Our Lord does not seem shocked, surprised, or upset. Instead He replies quite calmly, 

“What do you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” (Mk 10:36-37)

This is quite something to ask for. It is really shocking. But there are some surprising assumptions underlying the disciples’ request. First, there is the assumption that Jesus will be glorified. Secondly that, as one possessing glory, Jesus really is the Messiah and the Son of God. Thirdly, James and John are asking for the seats of honour, to be Jesus’ right and left hand men, to be the leaders of the disciples. Jesus does not overreact, or get angry with them. Instead, He simply states,

“You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (Mk 10:38)

Jesus is absolutely correct. The sons of Zebedee have no idea what they are asking for. Jesus then asks them if they are able to drink the cup He will drink, or to share His baptism. Presumably James and John have no idea of what Jesus means by this, but in their enthusiasm, they readily agree. In the verses which come before today’s reading, Jesus has been teaching the Twelve for the third time that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer and die. At this point in the Gospel narrative, Jesus is making His final journey from Galilee up to Jerusalem, prior to His Passion and Death. Rather than being a military ruler bringing liberation to Israel, the Messiah will, in fact, be a Suffering Servant, as spoken of by the prophet Isaiah.

And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” (Mk 10:39-40)

Jesus does not tell James and John off, but He does prophesy that they will likewise face a violent end. It is not for Jesus to decide who will sit next to Him in Heaven. The conversation has, however, clearly upset the other disciples, who are not happy with James and John’s attempt to seek preeminence. Again, rather than telling them off, Jesus uses the opportunity to teach the disciples.

And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John. And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.”(Mk 10:41-42)

We are used to seeing depictions of Roman Emperors in films on TV. They wear purple clothes, the most expensive dye in the Ancient World, and they are treated as though they have an almost divine status. They are shown as absolute rulers, whose words and whims have to obeyed. In contrast to this, Jesus offers the Twelve a different paradigm:

“But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”(Mk 10:43-45)

Those who are to lead the Church are called to a life of service, of God and of others. The disciples are called to serve others, and not to seek power or prestige for themselves. The life of Jesus Christ, who gives his life ‘as a ransom for many’ (Mk 10:45) is our example. Christ willingly lays down His life to liberate people for God, to free them from death and sin, and to offer us eternal life in Heaven with God. This is why we celebrate Jesus’ Passion, Death, and Resurrection. The Cross and the Empty Tomb are the heart of our faith because they demonstrate God’s love for us. God loves each of us enough to die for us, and rises on the third day to show us that our eternal destiny is to enjoy God’s love forever in Heaven. The Christian Church proclaims this Gospel truth, and encourages all people to share in the gift God offers to us.

The first reading this morning is the second half of the fourth, and final, Servant Song of the prophet Isaiah, which we hear in full on Good Friday. The Church, from the time of the Apostles, has understood these verses as referring to Jesus. They speak of His passion, His Suffering and Death, for us. Christ fulfils the Scriptures and they find their true meaning in Him. In worldly terms, Jesus looks like a failure: He is deserted, denied, and dies the death of a common criminal. But we are not to judge by the standards of this world: ‘it shall not be so among you’ (Mk 10:43).

As Christians, we are being faithful to Christ. We are holding fast to our beliefs, because they are true, because they come from Him who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Through our faith we can ‘have confidence to draw near to the throne of grace and receive help in time of need’ (Heb 4:16). Our relationship with God is a mystery, not something to be explained, but something both to be experienced and lived out. It is a mystery which we will enter into this morning when Christ, as priest and victim, offers Himself for us. We receive Him, either spiritually or under the outward form of bread, and are transformed by Him, and enjoy the loving presence of God here and now and forever in Heaven. 

In living out God’s truth in our lives we live a service which is perfect freedom. In conforming ourselves to Christ we find meaning and identity. So let us lay down our lives that we may live fully 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.

James Tissot – Jesus travelling

Trinity XIX

Every so often it is a good thing to take a step beck and take time to consider the things we do and why we do them. As humans, created in the image and likeness of God, we do not worship creation, but our Creator. We recognise in the goodness of creation a generous God. The practice of coming together to offer our praise and thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bounty of the natural world, and for a harvest safely gathered in, is an ancient and honourable thing. The Ancient Israelites gave thanks for their life in the promised land, and we do likewise. As part of our worship of God, we offer Him the best of all that we have as a response to His bounteous generosity to us every day of our lives. 

When this church was built its congregation, who lived on and worked the land, would gather on the 1st August for Lammas (Loaf-Mass) to give thanks for a successful grain harvest. During the renewal of the Church in the nineteenth century the idea of a harvest celebration became popular once again. Naturally, we want to say, ‘Thank you’ to God for all that we have received from Him. That is right and proper. One way in which we can express our gratitude to God is by doing our best to care for the natural world around us and for the members of our community. This we do today by our collection of donations for the local food bank — much needed by many in these difficult times. 

In today’s first reading, the author prizes wisdom and understanding above all else. Without these things we act foolishly. Wealth, health, and human beauty — all the things of this world — are not worth anything, unless they are used well. God has given them to us for a purpose, so that we may flourish, and help others to thrive.  

The Gospel reading this morning starts with an important question. A man asks Jesus:

“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mk 10: 17) 

Jesus answers by stressing the importance of the moral law we know as the Ten Commandments, which were given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. These rules show us how our love of God and neighbour affects how we live our lives: we are called to live lives of generous love. Jesus  also says:

“Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” (Mk 10:18)

Because Jesus is both God and man, He is good. He is a good teacher because He teaches the Truth, and He is the Truth (Jn 14:6). Jesus apparent refusal of the title ‘good’ reinforces the importance of humility for Christians. We need to be humble, and know our need of God.

The man tells Jesus that he has kept the Commandments since childhood, but wants to know if there is anything else he should do.

And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. (Mk 10:21-22)

Jesus looks at the man and loves him, because God is Love. God loves us. That is why He sent Jesus to be born among us, to proclaim the Good News to us, to die for us, and rise again. This is the heart of our faith: that God loves us. If I said nothing else to you this morning, or in the future, I say this: ‘Know that you are loved by God, and let this love transform your life’. Jesus calls the man to live out his faith by adopting radical generosity. This is difficult: I know that measured by such a standard, each and every one of us, myself included, regularly fails to live up to this ideal. So what can we do about it?

Some people are willing and able to fully comply with Jesus’ teaching and embrace radical poverty for the sake of the Kingdom. For example, by giving up all they possess, joining a religious community, and living lives of prayer and service. But all of us need to take to heart the advice of the Letter to the Hebrews:

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)

There are times in our lives when we have to do all sorts of difficult things, and if we were to rely solely upon our own strength and talents, then we will, undoubtedly, flounder at times. We are not meant to act alone, but as part of a community which looks to God as its strength. ‘I’ can’t, but God can, so let Him. When we rely upon God’s mercy and grace, His generous love towards us, then amazing things can and do happen.

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” (Mk 10:27)

To be a Christian is to be conscious of the generous love of God, which should make us generous in return, so that we live lives of generous love, in imitation of the one who loved us, Jesus Christ. Here we see the real meaning of our celebration of Harvest: God has been generous to us, so we should likewise be generous. If we are feeding the hungry and caring for the poor, then we are helping to make the Kingdom of God a reality, here and now. This is a good thing, and it is how God wants us to live.

Our desire to work for a world where none are hungry, where all are loved, requires our cooperation with the will of God, and our trust in Him. When we are fed by His Word and by the Eucharist our lives can be transfigured, and our faith strengthened and renewed. This gives us the strength to put our faith into action to change the world around us, transforming it to the will of God. So that everyone will sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen.

James Tissot – The Rich Young Man went away sorrowful

A Thought from St Francis de Sales

Do not look forward in fear to the changes and chances of this life; Rather, look to them with full confidence that, as they arise, God, to whom you belong will in His love enable you to profit by them.He has guided you thus far in life, and He will lead you safely through all trials; and when you cannot stand it, God will bury you in His arms.Do not look forward to what might happen tomorrow: The same everlasting Father who cares for you today will take care of you tomorrow and every day. Either He will shield you from suffering or He will give you unfailing strength to bear it. Be at Peace, then, and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginings. 

Trinity XVII

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Tissot – Jesus teaches his disciples

Trinity XVI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acknowledging our own shortcomings is the first step in a process whereby God can be at work in our lives, transforming us more and more into His likeness. We need God’s grace to be at work in us. Recognising this is a sign of humility: accepting our need for God. This is not weakness, quite the opposite. Through our complete reliance upon God and His Grace, we prepare ourselves for Heaven where we hope to sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen.

James Tissot – Jesus and the Little Child

Trinity XV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Faith is first and foremost about our relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, who loves us so much that He dies for us. He takes away our sins, and restores our relationship with God and each other. And He gives himself here to us today, under the outward forms of bread and wine, in His Body and His Blood, to heal us, and restore us. Our faith is revealed by our actions. The Letter of James makes this very clear. Faith needs to be put into practice by how we live our lives. We carry our cross by exhibiting the same generous love that God shows us in Christ. This is how we can both cooperate with God’s grace and transform the world, so that all may come to believe and sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen.

The Primacy of St Peter – James Tissot

Trinity XIV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So let us pray that God may come to us, and pour out His healing love on us, and all the world. Let us pray that His will may be done, and His kingdom come, so that all may join in the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen.

Jesus heals the lame – James Tissot

Trinity XIII

Our first reading this morning from Deuteronomy is taken from a speech which Moses gives to Israel before they enter the Promised Land. Moses tells the people,

‘You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you.’ (Deut 4:2)

This salutary advice refers to a common religious problem, one which the Pharisees and their successors the Rabbis found hard to comply with. They would argue that they were not creating new law, but merely commenting upon the old, and exploring its richness. There is, however, a very fine line between the two.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

Over the last year and a half we have become more conscious than ever of the value of good hygiene; hand-washing has become headline news. Over 200 years ago, John Wesley wrote a sermon ‘On Dress’ stating: ‘Cleanliness is next to Godliness’. This proverb has found its way into the common speech and the ‘collective unconscious’. But while it is good advice, it is not quite what the Pharisees are complaining about in this morning’s Gospel reading. 

The previous story in Mark’s Gospel is that of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, so food-related matters are on the Pharisees’ mind. They are on the lookout for any minor infringement: something to quibble about, an excuse to attack Jesus. 

‘And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”’ (Mk 7:5)

The point that is being made is that the disciples are washing their hands, they are being hygienic, but they are not conforming to a higher level of ritual purity. The Pharisees are calling out what they see as a failure on the part of the disciples, and especially Jesus as their teacher, to conform to a man-made standard of priestly purity. In the eyes of the Pharisees, they are not holy enough.

In reply to their criticisms, Jesus says:

‘“Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”’ (Mk 7:6-8)

Jesus quotes the Greek text of Isaiah (29:13) to make His point. Religious laws are a means by which humanity is sanctified, and God is honoured. They are not an end in themselves. The Pharisees are so concerned with the correct interpretation of religious minutiae that they can no longer see the wood for the trees: they have lost sight of the bigger picture. This approach neither honours God, nor sanctifies humanity. Indeed it drives a wedge between God and His people.

Instead, Jesus offers profound moral teaching to the people about what really matters:

‘And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”’ (Mk 7:14-15 & 21-23)

Rather than parading one’s religion as a pious façade, Jesus teaches people to pay attention to their interior life. What we think and feel affects both who we are and how we live our lives. Jesus is mindful of God’s revelation to Samuel:

‘for the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’ (1Samuel 16:7)

Rather than focussing on outward aspects (like the Pharisees), Jesus reminds us that our inward thoughts are usually where the real problem lies. Thoughts can turn into actions and become habits which form character. The Pharisees are in effect encouraging a thin veneer of correct behaviour, appearing to do the right thing, while covering up any thoughts and intentions that do not promote human flourishing. Jesus wants honesty, where what you see is what you get. As with much of His teaching, it is very simple in theory, and much harder in practice. We all aspire to what Our Lord teaches, but we often struggle to live it out. 

This is why faith cannot just be a personal matter. We live in community, and as a community we can help and support each other as we try to live out our faith together. We find encouragement to do this in this morning’s reading from the Letter of James. The apostle reminds us of the goodness and generosity of God, and the fact that we are created by Him, made in His image.

James encourages Christians to put their faith into practice:

‘But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.’ (James 1:22)

These words echo those of Jesus in the Gospel. People should in all gentleness and humility both listen to the word of God and do what it says. As Christians, our thoughts and words and actions proclaim the truth that Christ died to save us from our sins, and that He rose again that we might have new life in Him. Faith needs to be real and concrete, lived out in the world in loving action.

As we try to live out our faith, in our homes and community, we can only do this together, supporting each other. We also need to be gentle and generous when we fail, as we inevitably will.  Thankfully we do not need to rely upon our own strength, but upon the love and mercy of God. Then we can be built up in love, as living stones, a temple to God’s glory, which proclaims His love and truth to the world. We are called to live lives of forgiveness and sacrificial love which build up, as opposed to being bitter, judgemental and blind to our own faults. We should not be eager to point out the sins of others. Instead, clothed in the humility of our knowledge of our need of God, His love and mercy, let us come to Him. Let us be fed by Him, and healed and restored by Him. Let us live lives which speak of the power of His kingdom, 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.

The Pharisees question Jesus – James Tissot

Trinity XII ‘Lord to whom should we go?’

Today’s Old Testament Reading from the last chapter of the Book of Joshua records a pivotal moment. The people of Israel have settled in the Promised Land, and Joshua calls them together at Shechem to renew their covenant with God. Joshua asks the people of Israel a question: 

“Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Long ago, your fathers lived beyond the Euphrates, Terah, the father of Abraham and of Nahor; and they served other gods. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell.’” (Joshua 24:2& 15)

Do the Israelites want to serve the Lord their God, or would they prefer to follow their ancestral gods, or those of the land in which they now live? Joshua tells them what he will do:

“But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15)

Joshua makes a clear choice, and the Israelites follow his example. They are mindful of what God has done for them:

“Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods, for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our fathers up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight and preserved us in all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed. And the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.” (Joshua 24:16-18)

Their religious faith is a conscious act of the will, they choose to serve the God who has saved them. God has shown that He is the God of Israel. 

In this morning’s Gospel we come to the end of the Bread of Life Discourse in Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel. Jesus’ teaching has offended some people. All this talk of eating flesh and blood sounds to them like cannibalism, which was strictly taboo. The mere suggestion of it was offensive in Jewish culture; it went against everything people had been taught. It is thus hardly surprising when some of His disciples say: 

“This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (Jn 6: 60)

Jesus is teaching in a synagogue in Capernaum, and those present are not used to this kind of teaching. It turns everything they know on its head. In Hebrew the word for flesh (baśar) and the word for good news, glad tidings, or the Gospel, sound the same. Such word-play is intentional, and may be linked to the Hebrew Wisdom tradition:

“Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Leave your simple ways, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” (Proverbs 9:5-6)

Jesus notices that some of His disciples are grumbling, just like the Israelites in the Exodus story we read a few weeks ago. So he says to them: 

“Do you take offence at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” (Jn 6:61-65)

This strategy seems a strange one. If people were not shocked enough to begin with, Jesus goes on to make other claims which could be taken as blasphemous. For us to have life in Jesus we need to be baptised. For our sins to be washed away, we need to hear the Good News. We need to eat the Eucharist, and to be filled with the Holy Spirit. These are all outpourings of grace, of Divine generosity, given to transform us, more and more into the likeness of God. 

Jesus’ teaching has a profound effect, rather than attracting people to follow Him, it leads to the exact opposite response:

After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (Jn 6: 66-69) 

Jesus asks the Twelve if they too would like to leave Him too, which leads to a profound declaration of faith by St Peter. They have a choice to make, and they choose Jesus, as no-one else can offer what He does. Here Peter is confessing that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God. To be a Christian is to make the same confession as Peter, and to have the same hope of eternal life in and through Jesus Christ. 

Jesus’ teaching is hard to accept, and difficult to understand, but we can experience it, when we receive Holy Communion. For Peter, and for us, belief precedes knowledge. We believe and then we come to know.

It is a question of commitment, which involves love and sacrifice — the two go hand in hand. It is what marriage is all about, and it also describes God’s relationship with us, and ours with God. It will see Jesus die on the Cross for us, to show us just how much God loves us, and wants to restore our relationship with Him, and each other. To be close to God is wonderful, but it isn’t something God forces us into: we may choose to accept God’s love, or to refuse it. This love is freely given.

St Paul’s advice to the Christians in Ephesus is another difficult text, which revolves around making a choice. For St Paul Christian marriage is all about loving service of one another, as demonstrated by Christ. Jesus lays down His life for us, so we should do the same for each other. Thus, in marriage in particular, and 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, who created all that there is, and who redeemed it by offering His life as a ransom for many. We see this on the Cross and we commemorate it in the Eucharist, where Christ continues to feed us His people with Himself, so that we might have life in Him. 

So let us come to Jesus, let us choose Him, and put our trust in Him. Let us be fed by Him and with Him, so that we may spend eternity singing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen.

James Tissot – Jesus Discourses with His Disciples

The Assumption 2021

Today the Church celebrates the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which commemorates her 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 also as 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. 

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 this way in art as a woman crowned with stars. At the foot of the Cross, during Jesus’ Crucifixion, John 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, and now, John has a glimpse of her in Heavenly Glory, 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 in 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, and while Elizabeth’s prayers for a child have been answered 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, the Magnificat, which starts, “My Soul doth Magnify the Lord” (Luke 1:46), is recited. These words reveal her complete trust in God, a God who takes it upon Himself to deal with sin and death by giving us His Son. A God who establishes a kingdom of love, forgiveness, and generosity, through which the Church continues God’s work of love and reconciliation in the world. 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 – Palma il Vecchio

Trinity X ‘I am the living bread’

Today’s Old Testament reading from the First Book of Kings continues the theme of miraculous feedings, which we have been following for the past two weeks. The prophet Elijah is having something of a hard time, combatting King Ahab and his wife, Jezebel, and the priests of Baal. Elijah has reached the point of physical, mental, and spiritual exhaustion. He wants the pain to go away, even if it means the end of his life, and so he goes into the wilderness, sits despondent under a tree and says:

It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.’ (I Kings 19:4)

Despite having reached rock bottom, Elijah prays to God, and God hears his prayer and answers him. The Almighty sends an angel to minister to Elijah’s needs. 

‘And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, “Arise and eat.” And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank and lay down again.’ (I Kings 19:5-6)

Rest and nourishment are what Elijah needs, and these are provided. After resting, Elijah is fed again, to prepare him for the upcoming journey:

 ‘And the angel of the Lord came again a second time and touched him and said, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.’ (I Kings 19:7-8)

Elijah is travelling to Horeb, to Mt Sinai, where God gave the Commandments to Moses. God strengthens and gives sustenance to Elijah for his journey of about 250 miles. This prefigures the Eucharist, our bread for the journey, which sustains us in our life of faith. 

Just like the Israelites in last week’s reading from Exodus, in today’s Gospel the Jews are grumbling. They dislike the fact that Jesus has said that He is the bread come down from Heaven. So they complain: 

“Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” (John 6:42)

The problem is that they can only understand Jesus in human terms, they see a man, and nothing more. They cannot see beyond this. The Messiah whom they long for is in their midst and yet they fail to recognise him. But Jesus is both fully human and fully divine: True Man and True God. He is the son of Joseph and Mary, but He is also the Son of God, who took flesh by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is what we believe as Christians, and state in the words of the Nicene Creed, which we will soon say together, declaring our faith, and placing our trust in the God who loves us.

Jesus tells the people not to grumble among themselves. They do not need to be discontented, as what Christ has come to bring them is the source of the greatest contentment possible: God’s very self and the hope of Eternal Life with Him. This is the greatest Passover possible: to live the life of Heaven. This is why Jesus can promise: 

‘And I will raise him up on the last day.’ (John 6:44)

Jesus has come to offer Eternal Life to those who believe in Him. This is His purpose, His mission. Christ, our saviour, will lay down His life, and die on the Cross to reconcile us to God, conquer Death, and give us the hope of Heaven. Jesus then quotes from Isaiah (54:13):

“It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’” (John 6:45)

This verse comes just before Isaiah’s hope for the future, the Messianic banquet:

‘Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.’ (Isa 55:1)

Jesus’ use of Isaiah both underlines the fact that those present are being taught by God, and looks forward to the fulfilment of the prophecy in the Eucharist. He is teaching them and pointing them towards the hope of the Kingdom of God. We are here today to see that hope fulfilled, so that Christ can feed us with Himself. He states:

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live for ever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (Jn 6:51)

Jesus is the living bread and if we eat Him then we will live forever. We need the Eucharist. It isn’t an occasional treat or a reward for good behaviour, it is necessary and vital, and we cannot truly live without it. The Church continues these miraculous heavenly banquets in feeding the people of Christ with Christ. This is the free gift of God, an act of radical generosity, so that we might be radical and generous in return. Jesus institutes the Eucharist on the night before He dies so that we might do this in memory of Him, so that He is ever present with us, and we are filled with His love. The Sacrament of  the Eucharist is an outward and visible sign of inward spiritual grace. Christ gives us life, so that we may live in Him. As St Paul says in his Letter to the Ephesians, 

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.’ (Eph 5:1-2) 

There is something quite extraordinary and radical about this. It isn’t how most people in the world around us live. Christians are supposed to different, to live different lives in a different way, because we follow Jesus, and strive to live like Him. We operate according to different rules and standards, those of Christ, and not of the world around us. 

As Christians, we have responded to the call to follow Christ, to imitate Him, and His way of life. We are instructed to practise forgiveness, whereas the world around us is often judgemental and unkind, writing people off. Thankfully that is something which God never does. Instead, He forgives, He redeems, He heals, He restores. We pray for the world to become more Christ-like, where people are loving, forgiving, and compassionate. Where the hungry are fed, where those in need are comforted, and cared for. We pray for a more selfless world where people respond to the needs of others, especially those feeling despondent and desperate. So in the strength of this heavenly food, may we live out our faith, encouraging others, so that all may sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

You follow Me for the Miracles – James Tissot

Trinity IX ‘Give us this bread always’

Whenever I read today’s passage from Exodus, my heart really goes out to Moses. He has a thankless task leading the people of Israel, when all they seem to do is moan and complain. After spending weeks in the wilderness the Israelites are desperate and hungry. They are grumbling about the lack of food compared to their old life in Egypt. God hears their need and promises to give them meat in the evening and bread in the morning. The people of Israel are given quail, and a fine flake-like substance. They do not know what sort of food it is, and ask, ‘What is it?’ (In Hebrew Mān-hu, from which we get the word ‘manna’). For Christians this miraculous feeding foreshadows the great miraculous feeding of the New Testament, namely the Eucharist, where we are fed by Christ, and with Christ. 

Last week’s Gospel was the account of the miraculous Feeding of the Five Thousand. This is not a parable about sharing, but rather it is a miracle, a supernatural event where God’s generous love breaks through into our human world. In today’s Gospel, we see people who have been fed in the miraculous feast, following Jesus around. Perhaps they’re hoping for another free lunch? It is clear that they haven’t seen the signs, and they haven’t understood what is going on. Jesus feeds people not as a combination of magic trick and mass catering, but as a sign of God’s generous love. God loves us, you and me — all of us — so much, that He longs to feed us with Himself. He loves us so much that He gives Himself to be tortured and to die on the Cross for us. This is the central message of Christianity: God loves us, and wants us to share Eternal Life with Him.

In contrast to a world which views achievement as most important, God declares that it is what we believe that really matters. Whilst we celebrate with those who have won medals in Tokyo, we do so in the knowledge that Olympic glory will fade, and others will follow, who will be faster and stronger. What we should strive for is a glory which is more than gold or silver: the glory of Heaven, the joy of Eternal Life in God. We train for this by believing in our loving Creator, and doing His work in the world. 

The people ask Jesus:

What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” 

Jesus answers them:

“This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (Jn 6:28-9)

This reply, while it is clear and simple, is not entirely convincing, so the people interrogate Jesus further:

Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” (Jn 6:30-31)

The people want to see more signs. The Feeding of the Five Thousand wasn’t enough for them. Jesus asks them to believe in Him, and to put their trust in God. He then explains what is happening in the Exodus story:

Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”(Jn 6:32-4)

The people’s request, “Sir, give us this bread always” is echoed in the words of the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Dyro i ni heddiw ein bara beunyddiol, Give us this day our daily bread’. This prayer is fulfilled in the Eucharist. Here Jesus gives us the Bread of Heaven, so that we might be fed by Him, and with His Body and Blood, so that we might have a foretaste of Heaven and a pledge of Eternal Life in Christ. 

Time-wise, this conversation and the Feeding of the Five Thousand takes place around the festival of the Passover. This is the time when Israel commemorates its journey from slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land. It is also at Passover when Jesus suffers, dies, and rises again: ‘Pasg’, ‘Easter’, the time when Jesus institutes the Eucharist on the night before He dies, in the Upper Room with His disciples. The timing is important, as under the New Covenant God’s people are fed, their sins are forgiven, and they are reconciled to God, and each other. A miraculous feeding will happen here today, when we, the people of God, united in love and faith, offer ourselves and the bread that we have, so that it may be taken, blessed, broken, and shared. It is given so that we may be partakers in the mystical supper of the Kingdom of God. We eat the Body of Christ not as ordinary food , but as spiritual nourishment so that WE may become what HE is.

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

These are words we can trust: Christ yw bara bywyd, Christ is the Bread of Life. This is the first of seven sayings in John’s Gospel where Jesus describes who He is, and what He does by saying ‘I am …’ This is a direct echo of when God speaks to Moses at the Burning Bush in Exodus 3:14 and says:

I am who I am

So here Jesus is telling us who He is, who God is, so that we can believe in Him. He does this so that we can be fed, 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.

James Tissot – The Gathering of the Manna

Trinity VI

For several weeks now we have had readings from the Old Testament prophets, which focus on what it means to be a prophet, and to speak God’s word to Israel. As we have already seen, confronting people with home truths often leads to rejection, and this is the case with Amos. He has been sent from the South to the Northern kingdom, to call the people back to God, exhorting them to stop exploiting the poor. The king and the priest tell Amos to go back to where he came from. They don’t want his sort turning up, and telling them off.They are haughty, dismissive, and proud. God has sent them a prophet, but they cannot and will not listen to what he says. It is sad, tragic even, that when faced with a call to repentance, all they can do is to reply with arrogance. It will lead to their downfall, and the destruction of Israel by the Assyrians. 

Amos does not claim any special status, quite the opposite, he says: 

I was no prophet, nor a prophet’s son, but I was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs. But the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.” Now therefore hear the word of the Lord.’ (Amos 7:14-16) 

Amos is not a prophet by occupation, or apprenticeship. He has not been trained, and yet God uses him to call Israel to repentance. Ours then is a not a God who calls the qualified, but who qualifies those whom He calls. We may well feel unworthy, or unable to carry out what God wants, yet God works through us, not because we are capable, but because we rely on Him. Amos tells the uncomfortable truth to the priest, Amaziah, and to the king of Israel, and reminds them that their actions have consequences. Israel has fallen short, and will be judged. Amos is fulfilling the role of the prophet by calling people back to God, urging them to walk in His ways, so that they may have life, and have it to the full.

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus sends out His twelve disciples to proclaim the Good News. They are sent to call  people to repentance, and to make the Kingdom a reality. They do this through the ministries of exorcism and healing. Just like the prophet Amos in our first reading, they call people to repentance, as the Church continues to do. Our turning towards God is a constant ongoing process, the work of a lifetime. 

When we are planning a journey, even just a day trip: we prepare, we pack, we take things with us. But Jesus does not do this. He gives His disciples quite different instructions:

He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in their belts— but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics.’ (Mk 6:8-9) 

Jesus’ teaching highlights the importance of the need to be dependant upon others, and especially God: not to trust in our own strength or planning, but to rely upon the generosity and help of others. To live in this way is a daunting prospect, and that is the point. It doesn’t make sense in human terms, but the Kingdom of God turns human values upside down. The Church is meant to travel light and be fleet of foot. The disciples also need to prepared to face rejection:

And if any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” (Mk 6:11)

 The offer of the Kingdom is freely made, and can be rejected. God does not compel us to believe, He invites us into a relationship. We are free to accept or reject, but both actions have consequences. At a symbolic level, this verse reminds Christians to leave behind all anger, bitterness, and judgement, and instead to be a community of love and joy. 

So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them. (Mk 6:12-13)

We see the reality of God’s kingdom in its proclamation and the reality of healing and freedom which it promises. The disciples continue Jesus’ work and mission, giving us a template for the Church, which serves to proclaim, to heal, and to nourish God’s people. We too are heralds of the Kingdom of God, which is still an unfolding reality in the world around us. It is a work in progress until Christ comes again and renews all things in Himself. In the meantime we can rest secure that we are a part of God’s plan for the world. This is a plan of love, which sees Jesus die upon the Cross for our sins, and rise again to give us the hope of Heaven. The redemption of the world in and through Jesus Christ is a reality. This is the hope which underpins Paul’s message, both to the Church in Ephesus, and to us today.

God loves us, has a wonderful plan for us. However, in accepting His invitation, we should be aware that there are risks involved, and things may not always be comfortable or easy. It will be a challenge.  And yet, God provides all that we could ever want or need with regard to faith, hope, and love. If we trust Him and rely upon Him alone then we too can bear witness so that the world will come to believe in 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

Trinity V

For Ezekiel, being a prophet is frequently a thankless task. People do not really like being told home truths that make them feel uncomfortable. Yet prophets are called by God to speak discomforting truths to humanity. This often leads to them being rejected and ignored, and with the prophet Ezekiel, this is clearly the case.  He is trying to bring Israel back into a right relationship with God, but this is no easy task:

The descendants also are impudent and stubborn: I send you to them, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God.’ And whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house) they will know that a prophet has been among them.’ (Ezek 2:4-5)

The prophet speaks the words of the Lord (Dyma Air yr Arglwydd) to His people, and they either listen or refuse to listen. They are an obstinate people, so they choose the latter. Their refusal to listen to God and pay heed to His words is sinful, and yet God does not abandon them, He continues to send prophets to proclaim the same message, and even sends His Son, so that Israel might listen and turn back to Him.

In the reading from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has returned home to Nazareth, where He grew up. On the Sabbath, Jesus teaches in the synagogue. Reports of His teaching and miracles have clearly spread, yet the reaction is not a positive one:

“Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offence at him.’ (Mk 6:2-3)

The people of Nazareth are only able to see Christ’s humanity, to see Him as the son of Joseph and Mary. As such it is understandable that they are perplexed by Jesus’ healing miracles. They cannot understand how such mighty works are done by His hands. The answer to the question  of the Nazarenes is simple: God is working through Jesus because Jesus is God made flesh. While He has earthly family members, the power of His miracles and teaching come from the fact that Jesus is God. It is God who performs miracles, not humanity. God speaks through prophets and through His Son. The people of Nazareth saw Mary and Joseph’s son grow up, and at one level they know Him, but at a deeper, more profound level, they do not. They just see the human Jesus, and are unable, or unwilling, to see His Divinity.

Christ is unable to do a mighty work in Nazareth because of their unbelief. But He does not sit around and do nothing. Firstly, He teaches in the synagogue, and proclaims the Kingdom of God. Secondly, He makes it a reality, laying His hands on sick people and healing them. In doing these things He is proclaiming the Kingdom as a place where the healing power of God’s love is poured out upon the world. Despite being rejected and faced with a lack of faith, God is still loving and active in the world. Christ’s mission then continues, with the proclamation of the Kingdom in the surrounding villages.

What the prophets announced, Christ embodied. We hear His words, and are fed with Him. Whether our communion is physical or spiritual, we are nourished with Word and Sacrament, to experience the reality of God’s Kingdom, here and now.

In today’s epistle we hear Our Lord speaking to Paul:

My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ (2Cor 12:9) 

These are wonderful words of encouragement because, first and foremost, they remind us that it’s not about we can do, but about what God can do in and through us. This is possibly the most important lesson we can learn as a Christian. We cannot earn our way to heaven, and we do not have to. God does that for us, through His Son Jesus Christ, who dies on the Cross to give us life in and through Him. What greater demonstration could there be of weakness than in dying the death of a common criminal. God shows the world that power can paradoxically be demonstrated in abject weakness. Like Jesus and Paul, when we are weak we are strong. God’s kingdom turns human values upside down 

God enters the world in the Incarnation as a weak baby, utterly dependant upon the Holy Family of Mary and Joseph. As an adult, Christ dies rejected, and abandoned: a laughing stock, a complete failure in the eyes of the world. But this is not the end. On the third day God raises Jesus from the dead, and this sets us free, from sin and death. We are all given true life  through Christ’s Death and Resurrection: power made perfect in weakness. The example of Paul, who was once an enemy of the Church, shows us that no-one is beyond the reach of God’s love. God does wonderful things through Paul, and He can do wonderful things through us, if we let Him. Weakness here means relying upon God to be at work in us. If we listen to what God tells us through the words of Scripture, and have faith in Him, then wonderful things can and will happen.

For two thousand years the Church has proclaimed the same message: ‘Repent and believe the Good News’, and through our faith God can be at work in our lives. As Christians we are called to be holy, to live like saints here and now, and encourage others so to do. We do this so that all might 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. 

He did no miracles but He healed them – James Tissot

Trinity IV

Each and every one of us is in need of healing, be it physical, psychological or spiritual. Our bodies, minds, and souls need it. It is a truth of human existence that we are all broken, and while medicine can heal our bodies, we still long for life in all its fulness. The Kingdom of God, proclaimed and inaugurated by Jesus Christ is a place of healing, and through our relationship with Jesus we can find the wholeness for which we long. This is why the Gospels contain healing miracles. These miraculous accounts are signs of God’s restoration of creation through His Son, something which will culminate with His Passion, Death, and Resurrection. 

In the Gospel Jesus has sailed back across the Sea of Galilee to the Jewish side. On His arrival He is greeted by the leader of a local synagogue whose daughter is close to death. Jairus longs for his child to be healed, and asked Jesus to place His hands on her, so that she might be saved and live.

While Jesus is going to heal Jairus’ daughter, another miracle takes place. Lots of people are following Jesus, which is understandable since He is a charismatic preacher and teacher, who heals people. In the crowd is a woman with a gynaecological complaint. It would have made her life extremely difficult, and in Jewish ritual terms she would have been regarded as impure. She would not have been able to play her part in religious life. Also she would not have been able to bear children, and her husband, according to Jewish law, could have divorced her. She was an outcast, unclean, thrown on the metaphorical scrapheap of society. What money the woman had, she had been spent on doctors in trying to find a cure, but they only made things worse. Now she was penniless and desperate. But this pale, weak woman had an idea:

She had heard the reports about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment. For she said, “If I touch even his garments, I will be made well.” And immediately the flow of blood dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.’ (Mk 5:27-29)

Despite her physical infirmity, this woman has faith. She trusts Jesus, and believes that if she touches His clothing she will be healed. Such healing would restore her to community and allow her to take part in its religious life. She places her faith in God, realising that He can do for her what humanity could not. 

Jesus then notices that power has gone out from Him. He is aware of what has happened. Having asked who touched Him, Jesus’ disciples reply that it was accidental: they are surrounded by a crowd, anyone could have brushed against Him. Our Lord remains unconvinced:

And he looked round to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling and fell down before him and told him the whole truth. And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”’ (Mk 5:32-34)

The woman comes ‘in fear and trembling’ not because she is afraid of Jesus, but because it is the proper way for humans to act in the presence of God. She is filled with awe at her experience of divine healing. Jesus’ reply is astounding for several reasons. Firstly, that He responds at all: talking to a woman who was not a member of your family was frowned upon, let alone a woman who is a ritually unclean outcast. Jesus is breaking a social taboo. He addresses her as ‘daughter’, a reminder that Jesus’ family are not those related to Him in earthly terms, but those who do God’s will. The woman is a daughter of God and her faith in God has healed her. She trusted God to do what the physicians could not. Faith is the route to salvation and healing, trusting God to be at work. She can go in peace because she has been restored to health. Peace is God’s gift to us, that we may experience wholeness. Finally, Jesus underlines that what has happened is not a temporary healing, but a permanent state of affairs.

While Jesus is still speaking to the woman, messengers come to give Jairus a message:

“Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?” (Mk 5:35)

The situation is hopeless, and in their eyes there is nothing that Jesus can do. Thankfully, Our Lord has other ideas:

‘But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the ruler of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.”’ (Mk 5:36)

This fear is not the awe shown by the woman who has been healed, but a lack of trust in God. We know from the Letter to the Hebrews that:

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Heb 11:1)

Jairus has demonstrated his faith by prostrating himself before Jesus and asking for healing. Now, in the face of his daughter’s apparent demise, Jairus must trust God to be at work. 

‘Taking her by the hand he said to her, “Talitha cumi”, which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.”’ (Mk 5:41)

Note the fact that Jesus takes the girl by the hand. To touch a dead body would make a person ritually impure. This is why the priest and Levite in the Parable of the good Samaritan pass by on the other side. Jesus disregards the taboo of uncleanness, and speaks to her. He speaks to her in Aramaic, her mother tongue, and says literally ‘little lamb, get up’. It is a term of endearment which also reminds us that Christ is the Good Shepherd who cares for His lambs, keeps them safe, and saves them from death. 

The people who are there: Jairus and his wife, Peter, James and John are all amazed. They are filled with awe, the holy fear of witnessing the mighty works of God. It reminds us that as humans we relate to God primarily through worship. Finally, Jesus tells her parents to give her something to eat, which shows us the reality of her resurrection. This also points towards the feast of the Kingdom, which we hope to enjoy in Heaven, and which is prefigured in the Eucharist. Through physical and spiritual communion Christ gives Himself to feed us, and heal our bodies and our souls, and assures us of eternal life.

Like Jairus and the haemorrhaging woman, may we have faith, and come to Jesus for healing. So that we may come to the Feast of the Lamb and 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 woman with the Issue of Blood
James Tissot The Raising of Jairus’ Daughter

Trinity III

Over the last eighteen months or so we have had far too much experience of fear. It has been everywhere: in the media, in the announcements of politicians and scientists. Fear has been defining our daily lives. Such a situation is neither good nor healthy. At its heart Christianity is a faith which seeks to liberate people from fear, allowing us to live in love. That is all fine in theory, but in practice it is both difficult and complicated. We struggle to overcome our fears, such is the human condition. Alone and unsupported we may be tempted to just give in to fear. But we have a Lord and Father who is our advocate and comforter. 

The Book of Job explores what has become known as the Problem of Evil: why bad things happen to good people. The text explores the redemptive quality of suffering. Rather than being something we should avoid, it is something we can embrace, and grow through. Above all, God is someone we can trust, whether things are good or bad. God loves us. 

Our first reading speaks of God’s power over nature in general, and the sea in particular:

Who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb,Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed’ (Job 38:8, 11)

The power that God has over nature also lies behind the miracle in our Gospel passage. Jesus and His disciples are crossing the Sea of Galilee when a violent storm blows up. The disciples are terrified, despite many of them being fishermen. They are afraid that they are about to drown. This passage throws up a number of questions. Why are Jesus and His disciples crossing from the Jewish side of the Sea of Galilee to the non-Jewish side?  Why are they sailing at night, rather than waiting until the next morning? We are not told why. This incident acts as a bridge between the section in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus has been teaching, to one where He will perform miracles, and put that teaching into practice. 

As the boat begins to fill with water the disciples are getting desperate:

And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.’ (Mk 4:38-39)

Jesus’ followers are afraid. There are thirteen of them packed into a boat twenty six feet long, eight feet wide, and four feet deep. Jesus can command the storm to cease because He is God. The ability to control the sea and its storms is a sign of divine power: God is the one who brings peace.  Jesus has come to bring peace to troubled hearts. Having performed a miracle, He questions His disciples:

He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”’ (Mk 4:39-41)

The answer to the disciples question is that Jesus is God, no-one else could do what He does. Jesus then questions why His disciples feel fear and lack faith. To put it simply, the disciples have not yet understood either who Jesus is, or what He is doing. Once they have experienced Christ’s Passion and Resurrection and seen Him triumph over death, they will come to understand what is going on here. 

Jesus calms storms both real and metaphorical: on the Sea of Galilee, and in our own lives. By dealing with sin once and for all on the Cross, He has brought us a peace which passes all understanding. Being at peace allows the Christian community to

no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.’ (2Cor 5:15)

Our life is not our own, because the love of Christ controls us, as St Paul writes in his Second Letter to the Corinthians (2Cor 5:14). Christ’s Death and Resurrection provides an answer to the questions asked by Job, and all humanity. By entering into the mystery of apparently meaningless suffering, we can discover the source of all meaning, namely the love of God. 

This is why we gather to celebrate the Eucharist. Jesus told us to do this, so that we might experience that love in a tangible form, and encounter the grace which can transform our lives. St John tells us that ‘Perfect love casts out fear’ (1John 4:18). What we encounter in communion, whether spiritual or physical, is the greatest example of God’s love for humanity. Our faith is a matter of trust. Christians believe in Jesus Christ, who died and rose again for all people. We put our trust in Him, safe in the knowledge that He alone can still the storms of our life, and that His perfect love can drive out our fear. We cling to the Cross as our source of Hope, knowing that whatever happens we are loved, and that this love has the power to transform us. This love has the power to free us from fear.

When Jesus summarises the Law in Mark 12:3-31, He commands us to love God and love our neighbour. To live lives of love which look to Christ’s self-giving love on the Cross, is the way in which we enter the mystery of God’s love and allow it to cast out fear from our lives. Then we can be truly alive and share that love with others, so that all humanity may 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.

Jesus stills the Tempest – James Tissot

Trinity II

Many of us enjoy gardening, and I imagine that quite a few of us have been doing some during the good weather this weekend. There is something wonderful about taking seeds or cuttings, placing them in compost and watching them grow. It never ceases to give me a thrill. Once plants have grown you end up with something that you can eat, smell, look at, or even sell. This process brings joy, as well as nourishment for the body, and the soul. This image is used by the prophet Ezekiel to look forward to a future where God’s people are safe and protected. It looks to the establishment of God’s kingdom, by means of  the twig planted on the lofty mountain of Calvary. The Cross is our source of hope, it is the Tree of Life. Through the Cross we have life in all its fullness, and live secure in its shade. Ezekiel’s image of the cedar tree is used by Jesus in HIs parable of the Mustard Seed. This parable shows how prophecy is being brought about in and through Jesus, the Messiah. This is the promised Kingdom of God, becoming a reality in and through Christ. 

The parable starts by telling us that the one who scatters the seed does not know how things grow. For all their sleeping and rising they cannot influence matters, they just have to sit back and let something mysterious and wonderful happen. That is how God works. Humanity has a role to play, but God is in charge. It isn’t just up to us!

The church founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ, and entrusted to His Apostles, began as a small affair: just a few people in a backwater of the Roman Empire. To begin with the early Christians were written off as deluded followers of just another charismatic prophet. It may not have been an auspicious start; it certainly is not what a management consultant would recommend. However, a small group of people had their lives turned around by God, and told people about it. They risked everything, including their personal safety, to spread the Good News. Two thousand years later, the Church has now grown to point where there are several billion Christians on earth. Here in the West Christianity may be becoming marginalised, but the global picture is far more encouraging. Throughout the world, people are coming to know Christ, to love and worship Him. Even if we have been going through some ‘bad harvests’ in our own land, it is important to keep scattering the seed, and allow it to grow in a way which can defy our expectations.

Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed. This is a tiny thing, only two millimetres in diameter, and yet in the Mediterranean climate it could grow into a bush twice the height of a human being. This plant may have a small beginning, but there is the possibility of remarkable growth.The image of birds nesting in its shade signals divine blessings, as in the passage from Ezekiel. Jesus takes the imagery of the prophecy and shows how it will be brought to fulfilment in and through the Church. Such is the generous nature of God, that He gives us a place where we can be safe, and where we can grow in faith. By hearing God’s word, praying together, and sharing in the Eucharist we are nourished and strengthened to live the Christian life.

Like the Apostle Paul in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, we can always be confident and put our trust in God, as we know that we cannot be disappointed. On the Cross, Christ’s victory is complete, so we please God by following His commandments: to love Him and also love our neighbour. We are motivated by our love of Jesus, to follow His example. We know that He suffered and died to heal and restore us, to bear the burden of our sins. As it says a little further along in Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians: 

‘He died for all, so that those who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and was raised for them.’ (2Cor 5:15) 

And so in the Church, our family, and community, we live for Christ. Our thoughts, words, and actions proclaim the saving truth of God’s love for humanity. If we seek God’s forgiveness and the forgiveness of others — and at the same time are forgiving ourselves — then we can be built up in love. If we are devout in prayer, fortified by the word of God, and by the Sacrament of the Eucharist, we are strengthened in love, and our souls are nourished, allowing us to grow into the full stature of Christ. Just like the cedar tree and the mustard seed. So let us come and be fed, healed, and restored by the Lord, living in love and encouraging others, for the glory of God and the building up of His Kingdom.

If we are faithful, if we keep scattering seed in our thoughts, our words, and our actions, then wonderful things will happen. We have to trust God to be at work in people’s lives, and be there for them when they do respond to this call. If we can be as welcoming as the mustard tree in the parable, then we will have ensured that people have a place where they can come to know Jesus, and grow in love and faith. Despite all the current trials and tribulations, we must not lose heart, but trust in the God who loves us, who gave His Son for love of us. If we are confident of who Christ is, and what He has done for us, then as people filled with the love of God, we will carry on the Christian mission of proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom of God. Through us, others will come to know and trust in that love which changes everything. They too will 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

Trinity I

It is a truth of human existence that we like to find someone to blame, preferably someone other than ourselves. Our reading from Genesis is all about finding someone else to blame. Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the serpent. Both have eaten from a tree that God commanded them not to eat. No-one wants to put their hand up and say, ‘Yes, it’s my fault!’. It is not something that is easy or comfortable to do, but each time we gather to celebrate the Eucharist we begin by doing exactly this. We acknowledge our own shortcomings and ask God for forgiveness and healing. There is a spiritual maturity here, recognising that we fall short, and that we are sorry for having done so. Because we show humility God can be at work in our lives and we can know something of the healing and reconciliation God offers to humanity. The Church is a place of healing where despite our past mistakes, we know that we are loved and saved by God. 

Mark’s Gospel begins with the proclamation of the Good News of the Kingdom and Jesus’ charismatic ministry of preaching and healing. The people of Galilee are in great need, so great in fact that Christ and His disciples are not even able to get something to eat. Jesus’ own relatives are concerned at the frenetic pace of His ministry and mistake compassion for madness. But Jesus longs to help and heal people because God loves us. The Kingdom of God which Christ inaugurates is a place of healing and reconciliation, where humanity can truly know life in all its fulness. Jesus’ relatives are not able to grasp this. They cannot understand who He really is or what He is doing: they can only see practical concerns and fail to notice the importance of what is going on in His public ministry

Members of the religious élite then arrive and start to make serious accusations:

And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” (Mk 3:22)

They see a charismatic teacher and healer from Galilee and want to rubbish Him immediately. This man is not doing God’s work, he’s in league with the Devil! It’s a political strategy designed to stop Jesus from developing a following. If they write Him off as a heretic and a troublemaker, things will all calm down. Jesus, however, points out the clear logical inconsistency of the scribes’ position:

“How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end.” (Mk 3:23-26)

If Jesus is possessed by the Devil, how can He cast the Devil out? His accusers have failed to see the spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, at work in Him. Their refusal to see God at work is a sign of their pride and hardness of heart — they cannot discern the works of God, and write off as evil a wondrous demonstration of God’s love for humanity. Such is the Sin against the Holy Spirit, a wilful rejection of God. The religious authorities have failed to discern what is actually going on and have taken the easy step of finding someone to blame, someone to rubbish, someone to write off. God’s healing love has been dismissed as the work of the Devil. This is a serious matter, as Jesus explains:

“Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit.” (Mk 3:28-30)

The scribes have condemned themselves, and whereas they have accused Jesus of blasphemy, they are the real blasphemers. Note that Jesus does not condemn them, but rather offers to humanity the possibility of the forgiveness of sins. This is another demonstration of God’s love being poured out on the world.

Then Jesus’ family return and a confrontation takes place:

And his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.” And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mk 3:31-35)

What really matters is not who our parents or relatives are, but our relationship with Jesus. We are all brothers and sisters in Christ and we know the reality of God’s saving love in our lives. If we are obedient to God, if we come to Him in Humility we can know true love and friendship. 

It is through Jesus — who He is and what He does — that humanity can go from disobedience and punishment to the possibility of healing and wholeness, restored to a relationship with a loving God. This is the hope which inspires St Paul in his Second Letter to the Corinthians. Our hope is in Heaven, to be with God forever. We have the same hope as Paul because of all that Christ has done for us. This is Grace, the unmerited kindness of God, which we desire, but do not deserve. Grace is not something we can earn, it is the generous gift of a loving God. St Paul looks to a heavenly future where the trials of this life are past, where we live for ever in the presence of God, and are filled with His glory. This is our hope as Christians, through what Christ has done for us, to fill us with His life and His love. 

This is why Jesus becomes human, proclaims God’s Kingdom, heals the sick, dies on the Cross and rises at Easter: to give us this hope. This is Good News! Our relationship with Jesus is the most important thing that there is. Nothing else matters. This is a radical message, exactly the sort of thing that the Jewish Religious Authorities wanted to put a stop to immediately. It is dangerous. It could change the world. And it has, and continues to do so. 

Come Lord Jesus, come and heal us, and fill us with your life and love, so that we may share it with others, that they too 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. 

Michelangelo: The Downfall of Adam and Eve and their Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Sistine Chapel

Trinity Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are not alone. Christ is with us. He hears our prayers, and speaks to us in Scripture. He nourishes and transforms us with the Sacraments. These all unite us with God. Ans so we join with the angels and saints in singing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

Pentecost

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

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

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

Jesus also promises His disciples that,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maronite Icon of Pentecost

Easter VII

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As I mentioned earlier in this sermon, Matthias’ name means ‘gift of God’ and his appointment comes just before God’s wonderful gift of the Holy Spirit. So as we wait with the Apostles for this gift, let us pray that God may be at work in us, building us up, and giving us strength to live the Christian life and to proclaim God’s truth. Let us then share these gifts with others, so that they may also come to believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

Easter VI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bernardo Cavalino S. Peter and Cornelius the Centurion

Easter V

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Easter III

In St Luke’s account of the post-Resurrection appearances, one of the most memorable occurs just before our passage this morning. It takes place between Jerusalem and Emmaus, which is a journey of seven miles. Cleopas and another disciple, possibly his son, meet a man on the Road, who engages them in conversation, explains the Jewish Scriptures to them. Eventually they invite him to eat with them and at the moment when he blesses the bread and breaks it, he disappears, and they recognise Him. It is the Risen Lord. 

Cleopas and the other disciple immediately leave Emmaus and walk back to Jerusalem. It is now late on Sunday night, but they go to the disciples to tell them what they have experienced. What people are saying is true. Jesus is alive! They explain to the disciples how Jesus had talked to them on the road, and explained how Scripture was fulfilled in Him, and how they recognised him in the breaking of the bread. What is described here are the two parts of the Eucharist: the Liturgy of the Word, and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, enacted by Christ with his disciples on that first Easter Day. Two thousand years later, we are doing the same thing. 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 the church gathers to celebrate Jesus’ Resurrection, just like the disciples in the Gospel passage.

Cleopas and the other disciple are discussing their experiences with the Eleven, when, suddenly Jesus is among them, and He greets them saying, 

“Peace to you.” (Lk 24:36)

Christ can greet His disciples thus, because He has brought peace to the world by dying for us, and rising again. Christ is our peace, because He has reconciled us to God, and to each other. Our sins are forgiven and we are raised to New Life in Him. The disciples’ reaction, however, is not quite so positive. They are afraid. They cannot believe that it is true and that Jesus is really with them. So Our Lord speaks to them:

“Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” (Lk 24:38-9)

Jesus invites the disciples to touch Him, to show that He is not an apparition. He is flesh, and blood, alive, and there with them. Then Jesus shows them His wounds, proof that it is really Him, their Crucified Lord. They then gaze on the wounds of God’s Love, and see what God has done for them. 

As the disciples are beginning to process all the wonderful things that are happening Jesus seeks to reinforce their faith:

He said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them. (Lk 24:41-43)

Ghosts do not eat. They do not eat grilled fish. This is not an apparition. It is the Lord. He is alive. Jesus then takes the opportunity to do with the Eleven what He had done on the Road to Emmaus. Before His Death, Jesus had tried to explain how the events of His Passion, Death, and Resurrection were foretold in Holy Scripture. Now, after His Death and Resurrection, He reinforces His teaching. The Church does this as well. For example, on Good Friday we read most of Chapters 52-53 of the prophet Isaiah and Psalm 22, which clearly show how the sufferings of Christ’s Passion and Death are prophesied in the Bible. At the Easter Vigil there is a long series of readings which go through Salvation History, from the Creation of the World in Genesis, through Abraham and Isaac, the Passover and Crossing of the Red Sea, to the prophecy of Ezekiel 36 which sees a new hope for Israel sprinkled with water. 

The Old Testament is the story of God’s Relationship with the world in general, and Israel in particular. There are a number of covenants established between God and humanity, which Israel breaks by worshipping other gods. But God does not abandon them, instead He promises through the prophet Jeremiah to initiate a new covenant:

Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbour and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jer 31:31-34)

This promise is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, who came preaching repentance and the forgiveness of sins. The Church proclaims the same message, witnessing to the world that another way is possible, through what Jesus has done for us. This is the same message we find in our first reading this morning from the Acts of the Apostles. Peter is preaching in Solomon’s Portico in Jerusalem after healing a lame beggar. He calls the people of Jerusalem to repent of their sins, and to believe in Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah. Jesus healed the lame man because the Kingdom is a place of healing and reconciliation, where sins are forgiven, and we are restored. This reality lies behind St John’s proclamation in our second reading. Christ is the propitiation for our sins, that means He makes up for all that we have done wrong. Jesus offers Himself, the Righteous for the unrighteous, to restore our relationship with God and each other. 

That first Easter Day, the disciples were witnesses to the Lord’s Resurrection, and so are we. God calls all of us, you and me, to bear witness to the truth of the Resurrection, so that the world may believe and give Glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now, and forever. Amen

Duccio, The Appearance of Christ to the Apostles, Maesta, Siena Cathedral

Easter II

The first Easter Day must have been very strange indeed. Before the sun had even risen, Mary Magdalen comes and says that the tomb is empty. Peter and John go and look at Jesus’ burial place, and then Mary comes back again having seen the Risen Lord. And while all of these earth-shattering discoveries are begin to sink in, we are faced with this morning’s Gospel passage. It is evening and the disciples are afraid that they will face retribution for supporting a false Messiah. They are scared, and can hardly believe what people have told them, let alone make sense of it all. And then suddenly, without warning, Jesus is in their midst, there in the room with them. Our Lord greets them and says, “Peace be with you.” (Jn 20:19) words which we still use in worship today. Jesus’ first words to the disciples are, ‘Shalom alechem’, ‘Tangnefedd i chwi’. Christ’s greeting is one of peace and reconciliation, which dissipates their fear and anxiety. Then Christ shows the disciples His hands and side, the wounds which have brought about this peace and reconciliation.

Jesus shows the disciples the wounds of love, God’s love for humanity, and repeats His greeting of Peace. He then commissions them:

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 Christ to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom, to call people to repentance, and to reconcile God and humanity. As blood and water flowed from Christ’s side at Calvary, so through Baptism and the Eucharist, the Church gives life to the people of God. Then the commissioning and ordaining of the apostles continues:

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)

Through the power of the Holy Spirit, God is active in the world. Christ gives the apostles the power to forgive sin. In Jewish understanding, this is something only God can do. Jesus forgives sins, and empowers His disciples to do so. This forgiveness is a manifestation of God’s love and reconciliation, which can and does heal our wounded human nature. This is what Jesus came to do, and He commits the Church to continue His mission and His saving work. This is the reality which we inhabit as Christians. It is God’s free gift to His people, a sign of generous love. The role of the Church is to deal with the mess we make as human beings. By the power of His Holy Spirit, the Church is to be a community of reconciliation, where we are forgiven and we, in turn, forgive. It is to be a place where we are freed from sin, its power, and its effects.

St Thomas is not there with the other disciples when The Resurrected Jesus appears on that first Easter Day. Thomas feels somewhat left out. He knows he has missed the opportunity to experience something truly wonderful and life-changing. This is a perfectly normal human reaction to an extraordinary situation. Which of us would not feel the same? We too would want to experience the reality of Jesus’ Resurrection, and to be sure of it. Thus, we empathise with Thomas when he says,

“Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” (Jn 20:25)

These are the words of someone who longs to experience the reality of the Resurrection. Like the other disciples, Thomas has been on something of an emotional rollercoaster. It is understandable that Thomas wants to be certain, to know with his own eyes and hands that Jesus is alive. 

A week later, Jesus comes to them again, and said, 

“Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” (Jn 20:26-27)

Jesus gives Thomas what he wants, the opportunity to experience the reality of the Resurrection and to touch the wounds of love and mercy. This leads Thomas to reply:

“My Lord and my God!” (Jn 20:28)

Thomas confesses Jesus’ divinity. Jesus is God, and the Lord of Thomas’ life. It is a profound and concise statement of faith in who Jesus is and what He has done. Thomas has journeyed from doubt and despair to true faith. Doubt is the starting point, but not the end of the journey. It is the beginning rather than the goal. St Thomas should really be known as ‘Believing Thomas’ rather than ‘Doubting Thomas’, as this is what he becomes. Thomas’ belief changes his life, and leads him to take the Gospel to be proclaimed far and wide. He travels to India, founding Christian communities which have endured for two thousand years. Such faith is our inheritance, and in it we are blessed as those who have not seen, yet believe.

The heart of our faith and the Gospel is forgiveness and mercy. No matter how many times we mess things up, we are forgiven by God. It is this reckless generosity of spirit which people find hard to believe. Many struggle to believe that they too can be forgiven, by a loving God, and by their fellow Christians. That we can, despite our manifold shortcomings, be a people of love, and forgiveness, and reconciliation. God’s Grace does not abolish our nature, it perfects it. Being fed by Christ, with Christ, we too may become what He is. Despite the sad emptiness of the world, and its selfishness, and greed, we can be filled with joy, and life, and hope. Like the first apostles we too can spread the Gospel: that the world may believe. And that all may have life in the name 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

Caravaggio The Incredulity of St Thomas

Easter 2021

Early in the morning, on the first day of the week, something strange and wonderful happened, which has changed the world. It can be hard to imagine quite how disconcerting Jesus’ Resurrection must have been for the Disciples and all who were close to Jesus. Nearly two thousand years later, we are perhaps too familiar with the story of Our Lord’s Resurrection. But, only for a moment, I would like us to try to imagine that we were witnesses to events, as they unfolded. We saw Christ enter Jerusalem, hailed as the Messiah. But, after spending time with His Disciples, and telling them to, ‘Do This in memory of Him’, (something we have come here to do), He was arrested, condemned, and killed. The disciples’ emotions must have been strong: fear, disbelief, questioning: will we be next? Jesus talked about dying, and rising again, but He couldn’t have meant like this, could He? 

Mary of Magdala went to the tomb, either to anoint the body properly (there wasn’t time on Friday afternoon), or just spend time at the grave of someone she loved. She sees the stone rolled away, and returns to tell Peter and John,

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

Mary is concerned with the dead body of Jesus. When Peter and John run to the tomb, John gets there first, he sees the cloths, but doesn’t go into the tomb. Peter goes in and sees everything. Then John goes in, sees and believes. 

Mary stays by the tomb, filled with grief. Not only is Jesus dead, but his body has disappeared. Even when angels speak to Mary, all she can say is,

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

She sees Jesus, who asks Mary why she is weeping, and who she is looking for. We then have an interesting detail:

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.” (Jn 20:15)

Mary still thinks Jesus is dead. She loves Him, and all she wants to do is to take care of His body. She is a paragon of love, devotion, and service. But it is only when Jesus calls her by name that she recognises Him. 

One detail which I find intriguing is that Mary Magdalen supposes that Jesus is the gardener. Gardens and cemeteries had people looking after them, even in 1st century Palestine. But mention of gardens and gardeners makes me think of another passage in the Bible concerned with matters horticultural. In Genesis, God makes a garden, Eden, puts Adam in it, and commands him to look after it (Gen 2:15). The first man is a gardener. The Risen Christ, the New Adam, is seen as a gardener. Whilst the first Adam brought death to humanity by a tree, 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. 

It is the first day of the week, when Creation began, and now on the first day of the week we see a New Creation, as Christ has risen from the dead, conquering death and Hell. Christ is a gardener, and the plants he tends are human. We believe in a God who loves us, who cares for us, and who longs to see us experience the fullness of life. That sounds like the description of a gardener to me: someone who nurtures, who longs to see growth. In His Passion, Christ has overcome the bitter fruit of human disobedience with His own obedience. We are here today, because Christ’s fruit, His Body and Blood has nourished the Church through the centuries, and will continue to do so until He comes in glory. 

Over the last year we have experienced the same fear, disbelief and questioning that the Disciples felt. Now we yearn to be filled with the joy, hope, and peace of the Risen Lord. The Resurrection of Jesus is a time for celebration. A time to enjoy all the good fruits of the earth. We rejoice that we can once again gather in each others’ gardens and give thanks for the good weather we have been blessed with this week. 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. http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/a/angelico/index.html

Good Friday

Today we focus on the Cross, not as an instrument of torture, or as a means of inflicting a lingering painful death, but as something wonderful. In being raised upon the cross, Our Lord is not dying the death of a slave, but rather He is reigning in glory. This is God’s glory: the glory of selfless love, poured out on the world to heal it and reconcile it to God. Christ’s hands and feet and side are pierced, as wounds of love, to pour out God’s healing love upon the world. In his obedience to the Father’s will, Jesus puts to an end the disobedience of humanity’s first parent, Adam. Christ is a willing victim, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He is the Silent lamb led to his slaughter, the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep that have gone astray.

On the Cross, just before Christ dies, something wonderful happens. The following scene takes place:

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)

At one level it looks straightforward enough. Jesus is creating a new family unit with Mary and John adopting each other. The use of the word ‘woman’ reminds us of the Wedding in Cana, at the start of His ministry,  when Jesus addresses his mother in this way. At Cana, Mary tells the servants to ‘Do whatever He tells you’, demonstrating her obedience and love for God. It is this love and obedience which sees her at the foot of the Cross, as a faithful witness to God’s plan of salvation for the world. Mary is faithful, she loves her Son. Both Mary and John, the beloved disciple, are united in a common love for Jesus. A common bond unites them, and allows them to become a new family, which we call the Church, and which we join in our Baptism. The Church is born out of the pierced side of the New Adam, Jesus Christ, and allows us all to become brothers and sisters in Christ, sharing in a new family relationship which unites those who believe in Him, washed in the water of Baptism, and sharing in the Eucharist. 

John is the beloved disciple, who reclined next to Jesus at the Last Supper. He received the First Eucharist, and was set apart as a priest of the New Covenant, which is now inaugurated with the Blood of his Lord. He is close to Jesus, and has experienced and understands the Mystery of God’s Love. This is why he writes about it so profoundly in the Gospel and the Letters which bear his name. 

Mary and John do not desert Jesus, they remain with Him, as faithful witnesses to the Sacrifice of the New Covenant, which gives us peace and reconciles us to God and each other. The veil of the Temple is torn in two: the barrier between the Divine and the human has been brought down, and reconciliation can take place. 

Christ is our great High Priest. As both priest and victim, He offers Himself upon the altar of the Cross to bleed and die for us, to bear our sins, and to reconcile us with God the Father. Jesus dies that we might live. This is something that people find difficult and uncomfortable. And that’s the point! Christ’s death should make us feel uncomfortable because it reminds us that our actions have put Him there. Christ bears our burden, and that of all humanity, past, present, and future, and through His wounds we are healed. It is the clearest possible demonstration that God loves us, and will go to any length to reconcile the world to Himself, even giving His Only Son to die, so that we might live in and through Him. 

Thus, despite the pain and the desolation, today is a day to rejoice. In Christ’s Death, humanity is saved, freed from Sin and Death, and restored to a relationship with God and each other, which continues through the Church. We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, for He is our salvation, our life, and our resurrection. Through Jesus we are saved and made free. Amen.

Maundy Thursday

The events described tonight and over the next few days are best described as mysterious and disconcerting. For some time now Jesus has told His Disciples that He must suffer and die, but tonight He will make His Sacrifice real for them, before He dies. It must have been perplexing for them. Jesus, their Teacher takes on the position of a household servant and washes their feet, to demonstrate how theirs is to be a life of love and service of others. Everything they are used to is about to change. Jesus, who on Palm Sunday was greeted as the Messiah will soon be arrested, tried and condemned. Love will turn to hatred. Crowds that cried, ‘Hosanna!’ will soon cry, ‘Crucify Him!’. The disciples’ world will be turned upside down, and they will panic and flee. The events of the last twelve months have brought home to us just how traumatic it is when your world is tuned upside down.  

We humans are social creatures, and one of the great joys we have been deprived of over the last year is the sharing of food and drink. Eating and drinking together is a sign of love and hospitality, which helps us to bond together as friends, family, and community. We miss it deeply, and rightly so, because it is a fundamental aspect of our common life and our shared humanity. Food is more than just fuel for living, it is a sign of love and care, that we are welcome. 

Before Jesus gives His Body and Blood to His Disciples He takes the bread and wine, and blesses them, giving thanks to God for them. This was perfectly normal, it was expected, and it is something which Jews and Christians continue to do to this day. In the church we continue the practice of thanking God for the bread and wine we offer, because it reminds us that everything is a gift from God, for which we should be grateful. We say the words, ‘Blessed be God forever’It is important, and helps to create an attitude of thankfulness which helps to form us as loving generous people. If you do not already do so, you might like to try saying Grace before you eat a meal at home. I have included an example below for you, at the end of this sermon. 

As we prepare for the re-opening of church for the celebration of Easter, Our Lord’s Resurrection, we look forward to being able to share the Eucharist together. We celebrate the Mystery of our Redemption by doing what Christ taught His Disciples to do on the night He was betrayed. For nearly two thousand years the Church has faithfully followed Jesus’ command to ‘Do this in memory of me’. We do this because Christ told us to do it, to feed the people of God with the Body and Blood of Christ.

There are times when it is not possible to celebrate publicly, such as the current pandemic. At such times we long for spiritual nourishment, and to be united with Jesus in Communion. Spiritual Communion is a prayer of longing, a prayer of the human heart, that God would satisfy our longing, and give us our heart’s desire in faith, through grace. God, out of love for us, hears our prayer and answers it. God fills us with His love, and unites us to Him, and each other. God would not leave us bereft, as Jesus promises His disciples, ‘I will not leave you comfortless’ (Jn 14:8). 

So may we be encouraged in a God who keeps His promises, and that soon we will be able to celebrate as Jesus commanded us to, together, as a family of faith, gathered around the Table of the Lord, confident that we can do so safely. May we  be nourished in Body and Soul in Physical or Spiritual Communion by the God who loves us, and who gives Himself for us so that we may have life, even life everlasting. Amen.

O Dad, yn deulu dedwydd – y deuwn
 diolch o newydd,
Cans o’th law y daw bob dydd
Ein lluniaeth a’n llawenydd
O Father, as a happy family – we come
With thanks anew,
For from thy hand we receive each day
Our sustenance and our joy. Amen
Tissot The Last Supper

Palm Sunday

If anyone asks you why you are untying it [the ass the disciples were sent to find], this must be your answer, ‘The Lord has need of it’ (Lk 19:31). Perhaps no greater paradox was ever written than this: on the one hand the sovereignty of the Lord, and on the other hand his ‘need’. His combination of Divinity and dependence, of possession and poverty was a consequence of the Word becoming flesh. Truly, he who was rich became poor for our sakes, that we might become rich. Our Lord borrowed a boat from a fisherman from which to preach; he borrowed barley loaves and fishes from a boy to feed a multitude; he borrowed a grave from which he would rise; and now he borrows an ass on which to enter Jerusalem. Sometimes God pre-empts and requisitions the things of man, as if to remind him that everything is a gift from him.

Fulton Sheen, The Life of Jesus

The scene depicted in today’s Gospel seems like a triumph. Jerusalem is celebrating: those gathered treat Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as the triumphal entry of the Messiah. People lay down their clothes and wave palm branches. The crowd cry out for God to save them, and that is exactly what he will do in a few days time, upon the Cross. This is a God who keeps his promises and who also defies human expectations. The masses in Jerusalem are expecting a king of the Davidic line. One who would be seen as a challenge to the ruling élite, the status quo. But in, Christ, God gives Israel something else: a King of the line of David, yes, but one who rules with love, who has no desire for power, or honour. Leaders and those in authority are threatened by him: Jesus turns their world on its head. He is an awkward inconvenience. Jesus does not want their power. He has come to be and do something completely different. What is seen as a potential political coup is in fact a renewal of religion, the fulfilment of prophecy, and a new hope for Israel.

In riding into Jerusalem Jesus is fulfilling the prophecies of Zechariah: 

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)

The King of Israel comes riding on a donkey: a humble beast of burden, which carried his Mother to Bethlehem for his birth, and carried the Holy Family into exile in Egypt. It 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 their very eyes. God is saving His people, but they cannot see it. In a few days time all will have changed, love will turn to hatred; joy to sadness. 

This is why today, and throughout Holy Week, we will have readings from the prophet Isaiah, which are known as the Songs of the Suffering Servant. This morning we see the servant being mistreated. He is struck on the back, his beard is torn out, he is spat at and insulted. This will all come to pass as Our Lord goes to the Cross on Good Friday. It is the fulfilment of prophecy. God will show us how much he loves us by enduring such treatment.The events of Holy Week demonstrate what humanity is capable of: anger, hatred, bitterness, mob rule, and the desire to have a scapegoat, someone to blame. This is fallen, sinful humanity at its worst, and we will see more of it over the coming days. It should shock us, we should feel sick to the pits of our stomachs, because it shows us why Christ had to die — to overcome human sin, the world, and the Devil with the redemptive power of God’s Love. 

And so it begins: Our Lord and Saviour makes a triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He is hailed as the Messiah, and it is a cause for celebration and joy. But, this is a week which will see Jesus betrayed by a close friend, arrested, abandoned, tried and killed as a common criminal. Strangely enough, the world around us can still be just as fickle, just as quick to turn someone from hero into persona non grata. Lest we think that somehow we are better, more advanced, more civilised people, the plain unvarnished truth is that we are not. We need the annual reminder which the Church gives through its liturgical year — a chance to be confronted by stark realities, and to be brought up short by them. What Christ says and does in this coming week, He says to us, He does all this for us — to Heal us, to Restore us. Jesus says and does these things so that we can live His risen life here and now, as the people of God, sharing in His Death and Resurrection though our baptism, trusting in Him.

In our pilgrimage through Lent, through our prayer, and our fasting, we hope to increase our closeness to Christ. By following Him, and meditating upon His Passion, we are transformed by His love, we follow in His footsteps, and enter into the mystery of God’s love poured out on the world. In the next few days we will go to the Upper Room, we will watch and wait with Christ, we will walk the way of the Cross, and we will gaze upon Christ crucified. Doing so, we will see just how much God loves us — the lengths to which God will go to demonstrate that love, and make it a reality in our lives. This is how we prepare to celebrate Easter: Our Lord’s rising from the tomb, His conquering death, so that we may have new life in Him. 

In his Letter to the Christians in Philippi, written in prison in Rome in ad62, St Paul lays great stress upon the Humility of Jesus Christ. Humility is not a popular virtue these days, in fact the world around us would have us be quite the opposite: full of ourselves, with a high opinion of ourselves. Ours is a world which is more and more characterised by the sin of selfishness. The individual is all that matters: me and what I want, that is all that counts. At the root of it all is pride, thinking that we are more important than we are, making ourselves the centre of things, whereas 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

We need to have the mind of Christ, a mind devoted to love and 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 shameful 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 degradation to save us. Jesus does this to heal the wounds of sin and division, so that we might have life, and life in all its fulness, with Him, for ever. This is why Jesus is willing to suffer, to be vulnerable, to take our human frailty and to redeem it through His suffering. Through His vulnerability, He shows the World that God’s ways are different from ours. This is the example for us to follow — the way of suffering love and humility

Today, and in the coming week, we will see what God’s Love and Glory are really like. It is not what people expect. It is power shown in humility, strength in weakness. As we continue our Lenten journey in the triumph of this day and looking 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, and may He transform our hearts, our minds and our lives, so that they may have live and life in all its fullness. We are fed by the word of God and by the Sacrament of His Body and Blood to be strengthened, to share in His divine life, to fit us for Heaven. Forgiven and forgiving, may all that we say, or think, or do, may all that we are be for 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 Procession in the Streets of Jerusalem

Lent V

Our readings this week continue our journey towards the Cross. The Cross is important because it is first and foremost a demonstration of God’s love for humanity. God loves us enough to die for us, to wipe away our sin, and to restore our relationship, with Him and each other. It is central to who and what we are as Christians, people transformed by the love of God. 

In our first reading this week, from the prophet Jeremiah, we see something truly amazing. Through the prophet, God promises to make a new covenant with His people. Israel broke the first covenant through disobedience and sin, and yet God offers a fresh start, a clean slate, a new beginning. God promises that:

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.’ (Jer 31:33)

Rather than being something external, something done to comply with the letter of the Law, this new covenant will be written on our hearts through faith, and lived out in our lives. It is a promise which finds its fulfilment in Jesus Christ, who teaches love of God and love of neighbour. This He lives out in His life, and He encourages us to follow His example. It is a hopeful message, as God promises: 

For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jer 31:34)

The Law of Love, which God makes real in Jesus Christ has genuine transformative power, because it is rooted in forgiveness and healing, something which only God can provide. Our loving Father does this on the Cross, where He gives His Son to die for us, to heal our wounds, and to offer eternal salvation to all who believe in Him. 

In our Gospel today we have reached the events just before the Passover. Passover is the central feast of Israel, commemorating the journey from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. There are some Greeks, who may or may not be Jewish converts, that approach Philip, who has a Greek name. He, along with Simon Peter and Andrew, was first a disciple of John the Baptist, before following Jesus. These Greeks ask Philip a simple question:

Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”(Jn 12:21)

This is the longing of the human heart, a desire to see Jesus, to have an encounter with the divine. Philip tells Andrew, and they both go to see Jesus, who says this in reply:

The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honour him.” (Jn 12:23-26)

Jesus’ reply should strike us as strange. He doesn’t say, ‘Of course, bring them here’, or ‘I’d be delighted to meet them’. Instead He starts talking about His forthcoming Death. This is glory. It is not the human idea of glory, but quite the opposite – dying the death of common criminal. This doesn’t make sense, in human terms, and it isn’t supposed to. As it says in the prophet Isaiah (55:8), ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.’ The point is that we need to do things, God’s way, and not ours. Christ is the grain of wheat who dies, and who yields a rich harvest, in the Church, saving the souls of countless billions of people over the last two thousand years. 

Jesus calls us to follow Him, and not to care for life in this world — Heaven is our home, it is what we prepare for here on earth. If we want to share in Christ’s glory, then we need to follow the same path of suffering love which takes Him to His Cross, and will take us to ours. As sales pitches go it isn’t going to win plaudits from any Advertising Agency! That’s the point. It is honest, and it is the truth, plain and unvarnished. This truth changes the world, and sets us free (cf. Jn 8:32). We are free because He hung on a wooden cross and died and rose again for us. That is God’s glory — dying for love of us, to set us free, free to live for Him, and with Him, forever.

Our responsibility as Christians is that people might see Jesus in all we do, say and think. We need to be living, breathing, walking advertisements for the Good News of Jesus Christ here and now. We can use this time of Lent to consider significant aspects of our lives. Being under lockdown has made us realise what is important, what really matters. It is vital that we live in such a way that people might see Jesus in who and what we are, and what we do.

How do we do this? We do it through the Grace of God, and by trying, by co-operating with that Grace. We do it by making a conscious effort to live out our faith together, as a Christian community. We do it by being filled with love, and filled with grace, in the knowledge of the forgiving power of Christ’s blood which was shed for us. We cannot save ourselves, only Christ can do that. Salvation is not just an individual matter. Christ came to change the world. This He doe, one soul at a time, through the Church, and the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist,. These outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, are the free gift of God to his people.

We will often fail to practise what we preach, and people may call us hypocrites, but the point is that we keep on trying. God will not abandon us. He dies for us, bearing the burden of our sins, so that we might become like Him. That is why Jesus was born for us, lived, died, and rose again for us.

As Christians we live no longer for ourselves, but for the God who loves us. We can offer the world around us an alternative to the way of selfishness and sin. We need to trust Jesus’ words, and fashion our lives after His example. Together, nourished by Word and Sacrament, and carrying our own cross, we trust in His grace and proclaim His truth. We do this so that the world may believe and follow 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 Gentiles Ask to See Jesus (Les gentils demandent à voir Jésus)

Are you fasting?

Cyberdesert

Are you fasting?
Give me proof of it by your works.
If you see someone who is poor, take pity on them.
If you see a friend being honored, do not be envious.
Do not let only your mouth fast, but also the eyes, and the feet, and the hands and all the member of our bodies.
Let the hands fast, by being free of greed.
Let the feet fast, by ceasing to run after sin.
Let the eyes fast, by disciplining them not to glare at what is is sinful.
Let the ears fast, by not listening to evil talk and gossip.
Let the mouth fast from foul words and unjust criticism.
For what good is it if we abstain from eating birds and fishes, but bite and devour our brothers and sisters?

— St John Chrysostom

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Lent IV

Last week, in the Gospel, Jesus talked about the destruction of the Temple. This happened a few decades later when the Romans sacked Jerusalem in AD70. Today, our first reading takes us back to the first destruction of the Temple, by Nebuchadnezzar in 587BC. The people of Israel have not been faithful to God, they have broken the First Commandment by adopting the religious practices of their neighbours. But God sent prophets to remind Israel of its obligations to worship God, and God alone. This message is not heeded, and disaster ensues. Israel is led away to captivity in Babylon for seventy years, until Cyrus, the king of Persia allows the Israelites to return. Captivity represents the most terrible thing that could happen to the people of Israel: a loss of everything, being deprived of freedom, and the destruction of their religious life, focused on the Temple in Jerusalem. We should, however, remember that God was patient ‘until there was no remedy’ (2Chron 36:16), and the destruction and exile are not permanent, only temporary, and after seventy years Israel would return. 

While Israel is not faithful to God, God is faithful to Israel, and does not desert her. Thus, in the Gospel, Jesus explains His forthcoming Crucifixion with a reference to Israel’s wanderings after the Exodus:

And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.’ (Numbers 21:8-9)

The people of Israel were moaning about the journey, the lack of food and water, and that God has led them out into the desert to die, so God sends fiery serpents which killed them. The people then relented, and asked Moses to pray to God to take the serpents away. God listened to Moses, and provided a means for Israel to be saved. Jesus uses this example to explain why the Son of Man must be lifted up. Just as the bronze serpent saved people long ago, Jesus’ being lifted up on the Cross will save those who believe in Him. The mention of being bitten by serpents reminds us of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, where the Lord God says to the serpent:

I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3:15)

Being bitten by snakes is understood as a consequence of sin, which Christ will deal with by taking our sins and those of all humanity upon himself, bearing our burden, and reconciling us to the Father once and for all. Thus, whoever believes in Jesus, and the redemption He brings about, has the promise of eternal life.

There then follows one of the most well-known verses in the Bible:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 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 3:16-17) 

This is the heart of our faith as Christians. Christ was born for us, lived and died for us, and was raised to new life, so that we might have the promise of eternal life in Him. This is why we follow Christ into the desert of Lent for forty days, so that through prayer, fasting and charity we may be prepared in body and soul to celebrate the mystery of Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection. Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter are the ultimate embodiment of God’s generous Love towards humanity. God loves us, you and me, each one of us, so much that He gave His only Son to die for us, on the Cross.

God, in Christ, does not condemn us, but rather saves us, out of Love. God is a God of love and generosity, who offers Himself to reconcile us to Him, and to each other. This generosity is at the heart of our faith as Christians, we worship a generous, loving God, and invite others to receive the free gift of God’s grace, and enter a relationship with the God who loves us. 

This relationship explains the joyful hope which St Paul has when he writes to the Church in Ephesus in our second reading this morning. Paul’s central message is that:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,’ (Eph 2:8)

Grace is unmerited kindness, something which we do not deserve, or earn. It is by the grace of God that we are saved, through faith, believing and trusting in Jesus Christ, who was born for us, died and rose again for us. We can put our trust in the God who loves us, and who shows us that love in His Son. It is not about what we can do, but about what God can do for us. Our relationship with God is the result of a gift, which we can receive and which can transform our lives, if we only let go, and let God transform us, more and more into the likeness of His Son. 

God cares so much about the world and its people that he takes flesh, and lives a life of love, amidst the messiness of humanity, to show us how to live lives filled with love, life in all its fullness. God, in Christ, comes among us not to condemn the world but to offer it a way of being, of being truly alive in Him. God has made us for himself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in him. The spiritual needs and searching which characterise people in the world around us can be satisfied in God and in God alone, through the church.

We continue our Lenten journey towards the Cross, where God shows his love for us most fully and completely, giving his body to be broken and his blood be shed for us, to strengthen us to live the risen life of Easter. So may we join the Angels in our song of love and praise to God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

Christ Crucified, Diego Velázquez, (1632) Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Lent III: The Cleansing of the Temple

It is hard for us to imagine just how important the Temple in Jerusalem was. It was, quite literally, the centre of the world, the most important place on earth. At its centre was the Holy of Holies which contained the Ark of the Covenant. Inside the Ark were the two tablets containing the Ten Commandments, some of the manna from the desert, and Aaron’s staff. That is why, to this day, Jews continue to pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. This is all that remains of the Temple after its destruction by the Romans in ad 70. At the time of Jesus, Passover was the busiest time of year in Jerusalem. As the central festival of Judaism, Passover marks the journey from slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land, Israel. Likewise, for Christians it is the time when we celebrate our freedom from the slavery of sin through the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In our first reading this morning from the Book of Exodus, God gives the law to Moses on Mount Sinai in the desert. It describes both how to honour God, and how humanity should live. Our duty towards God and our neighbour is clearly shown. When Moses receives the Ten Commandments from God, the first is:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.’ (Exod 20:2-3)

The temple traders, in their desire to profit from people’s religious observance, have broken this first and most important commandment. Their desire for making money and profit has got in the way of what the Temple is supposed to be about: namely, worshipping God. It has become a racket, a money-making scheme to fleece pilgrims who have come from far away and who do not have the right money or the correct sacrificial animals with them. This is no way to worship God, a God who loves us, and who showed that love by delivering Israel from slavery in Egypt, and who will deliver humanity by His Son.

Jesus is angry when He sees this and drives out both the money-changers and the sellers of sacrificial animals. Those who sell sheep, oxen, and pigeons, represent the status quo, a sacrificial system where animals and their blood are used to honour God. Jesus has come to do away with this system by offering Himself, as the true sacrifice. When John the Baptist first sees Jesus in John’s Gospel, he says:

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

Jesus is the true Lamb, foreshadowed in the story of Abraham and Isaac. He will be the true Passover sacrifice, as He will be crucified and die at the time when the Passover lambs are being slaughtered in the Temple. This is a sacrifice which will not need to be repeated, as Jesus will die once, for the sins of the whole world. 

The Jews ask Jesus, 

What sign do you show us for doing these things?” (Jn 2:18)

Jesus makes a cryptic reply:

Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (Jn 2:19)

His audience cannot understand what Jesus means. It took almost fifty years to build the Temple. The idea of destroying it and rebuilding it in three days is crazy. However, Jesus is talking about His own Death and Resurrection. His Body is the true Temple, the True Sacrifice, and He is both Priest and Victim. God will, in the person of His Son, bring about true worship. Likewise, the Temple is supposed to be a house of prayer for all the nations (Isaiah 56:7 & Mark 11:7), but the Court of the Gentiles has been filled with stalls for money-changers and animal-sellers. By clearing them out Jesus has made room for the old Temple to be used for prayer, while prophesying that a newer, greater Temple is here, in Him.

The Jews demand a sign, and Christ prophesies that if they destroy this temple then he will raise it up in three days. He looks to His death and resurrection to show them where true worship lies — in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus said, ‘I have come not to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfil them’ (Matthew 5:17). The Ten Commandments are not abolished by Christ, or set aside, but rather His proclamation of the Kingdom and Repentance show us that we still need to live the Law of Moses out in our lives: to show that we honour God and live our lives accordingly. In His cleansing of the Temple, Christ looks to the Cross and to the Resurrection, as the way that God will restore our relationship with Him. The Cross is a stumbling-block to Jews, who are obsessed with the worship of the Temple, and it is foolishness to Gentiles who cannot believe that God could display such weakness, such powerlessness. Instead the Cross, the supreme demonstration of God’s love for us, shocking and scandalous though it is, is a demonstration of the utter, complete, self-giving love of God. Here, love and mercy are offered to heal each and every one of us. Here we are restored. 

It is a shock to learn that God loves us enough to do this, to suffer dreadfully and die for us, to save us from our sins. We do not deserve this, and that is the point. Through Christ we are offered the opportunity to become something other and greater than we are. By putting away the ways of the world, of power and money, selfishness and sin, we can have new life in and through Him.

Lent is the opportunity for a spiritual spring clean. It is a time to ask God to drive out all that should not be there, and for preparing for the joy of Easter. In our baptism we died with Christ and were raised to new life in the Spirit. Let us prepare to live that life, holding fast to Our Lord and Saviour, clinging to the teachings of his body, the Church. Let us turn away from the folly of this world with all its hot air, and focus on the true and everlasting joy of heaven, which awaits us. Let us proclaim God’s love in our lives, so that others may believe, and that all may praise the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

El Greco: The Purification of the Temple

Lent II

The readings set for this week ask us two questions: ‘Who is Jesus?’ and ‘What are we preparing to celebrate?’. First and foremost, Lent is a time for prayer and contemplation: spending time with Jesus before we celebrate His Passion, Death, and Resurrection. This moment of our salvation is the culmination of the Biblical narrative, and is found in all four Gospels. It represents the high-point of the Liturgical Year, the Feast of Feasts, and we prepare for it with forty days of prayer, fasting, and good works. 

Our first reading from Genesis, the story of Abraham and the Sacrifice of Isaac, is both well-known, and deeply shocking. The concept of human sacrifice was widespread in the Ancient World. It was not a common occurrence, but it did take place. It seems abhorrent to us, and so it should. In the passage God speaks to Abraham and says,

Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” (Genesis 22:2)

Thankfully, just as Abraham is about to offer Isaac, God tells him to stop, as Abraham has demonstrated his complete devotion to God:

Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” (Genesis 22: 12)

Abraham sees a ram with its horns caught in a thicket, and offers it to God instead. The ram symbolises Christ. It looks forward to Jesus, recognised by John the Baptist as the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. It points to the Passover Lamb in Exodus, which also prefigures Jesus, the fulfilment of the Paschal Sacrifice. Because Abraham has not withheld his son, he is blessed by God, and through his offspring, all people will be blessed. For Christians the Easter story is important because in it God, like Abraham, does not withhold His Only Son, but gives Him, to die for us. This narrative demands contemplation because it is the demonstration of the mystery of God’s love for humanity. It is amazing that God could love us that much, especially when we do not deserve it. The mystery of God’s love is that we are not loved because we are loveable. We are often quite the opposite! But God loves us anyway and His love transforms us. 

St Paul pondered such questions as he wrote to the Church in Rome:

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all (Rom 8:32)

Christ’s death on the Cross is a demonstration of divine generosity, and the reason for our hope as Christians. God’s love for humanity is truly amazing. We should pause for a moment as we read this. God loves me enough to die for me. If God can do this for us, what can we, in return, do for Him?

Our Gospel reading this morning presents us with another vision that is hard to understand, the Transfiguration. Jesus and his closest disciples go up Mount Tabor in Galilee. Here, for a moment, the disciples experience the transcendent beauty and glory of God. God breaks into the world to give a glimpse of heaven, and the disciples experience the majesty of Christ’s divinity.  

Jesus appears with Moses and Elijah to show His disciples and the Church that He is the fulfilment of the Law (represented by Moses) and the Prophets (represented by Elijah). Just like Jesus, Moses and Elijah spend a period of forty days fasting and being close to God. They both point to Christ and they find their fulfilment in Him: He is the Messiah, the Son of God. On the mountain top, Peter makes a very human response to the strange situation he finds himself in. He knows that it is good to be here and realises that what he is experiencing is life-changing. Peter’s suggestion to make three booths points to the Feast of Tabernacles when Jews remembered the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt Sinai. But, despite Peter’s hope, this experience is not to be prolonged. This is just a glimpse of the future glory, a moment to be experienced, and not a place to dwell.

When God speaks from the cloud He tells us three things about Jesus. Firstly that Jesus is the Son of God, secondly that He is loved, and thirdly that we should listen to Him. What Jesus says and does should affect us and our lives. Like the disciples, we have to be open to the possibility of being radically changed by God.

Jesus tells the disciples not to tell anyone about their experience on the mountain until after he has risen from the dead. Jesus has another mountain He must climb: the hill of Calvary, where He will suffer and die upon the Cross. There He takes our sins upon Himself, restoring our relationship with God and each other. This then is real glory, not worldly glory, but the glory of God’s sacrificial love poured out on the world to heal and restore it.

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, p.158

The Transfiguration shows us the glory of heaven, the glory of the Resurrection at Easter, which lies beyond the Cross. God’s glory and God’s love are intertwined, and cannot be separated because they given freely. God’s very nature is generous, beyond our understanding, and characterised by total self-gift. God does not hold anything back, and whereas Isaac is replaced at the last minute by a ram, there is no substitution for Jesus. God gives His Son, Jesus Christ, to die for us, and to rise again, so that we might enjoy eternity with Him in Heaven. The Transfiguration is a promise of our future heavenly glory, offered to us because God is a God who keeps His promises. Through signs and glimpses, He shows us what future awaits us. He longs to heal and restore us, so that we might enjoy eternity with Him. 

The Transfiguration looks to the Cross to help us prepare ourselves to live the life of faith. It helps us to comprehend true majesty, true love and true glory. The wonderful glory that can change the world and which lasts forever, for eternity, unlike the fading glory of the world, which is here today and gone tomorrow.

So let us behold God’s glory. Let us prepare to be transformed by His love. That we may be healed, and restored, and given a foretaste of eternal life. May God take our lives and transform us, so that everything that we say, or think, or do, proclaims Him. Let us tell the world about Him, so that all people may believe and trust and have new life in 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.

Lent I (Year B)

The Bible can be read as an account of salvation history, beginning with the Creation of the Universe and culminating in our redemption in the Birth, Life, Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. As such it is a series of covenants, promises between God and humanity. These begin with God’s promise to Noah after the flood, our first reading this morning. God promises not to destroy humanity. This is welcome news in a time of both pandemic and heavy rainfall. The rainbow is given as a sign of God’s love and faithfulness. This sets the tone for all the other covenants in the Bible.

Our second reading this morning, from the First Letter of Peter, draws a link between Noah and the ark as a sign of salvation, and baptism, by which humanity is saved. It is a timely connection to make since Lent is traditionally a time for preparation for Baptism at Easter. The wider account of salvation history and the life of Jesus in particular become our life as Christians in our baptism: we share in them, they become part of us, and form both who and what we are. We enter into the drama of salvation. We die to sin, and are raised to new life in our baptism. Through our new life in Christ, we follow His example, and prepare for our annual celebration of Holy Week and Easter by going into the desert with Him for the forty days of Lent, a time of fasting, prayer, and charity.

This morning’s Gospel reading takes us from Jesus’ baptism by John to the beginning of Christ’s public ministry, via forty days in the desert. There is so much packed into a few verses of Scripture, that we need to take a moment to examine what is going on, and how it can speak to us over the next few weeks.

Jesus is baptised, by John, not because needs to repent of His Sins, as He is without sin. Instead, He does so out of humility to the will of God the Father, and to show us the way to salvation: through His Suffering, Crucifixion, and Rising again to New Life. In the account of the Baptism we see and hear the Three Persons of the Trinity, present, connected, and united in Love: the voice of God the Father and the dove representing the Spirit, descending on the Son. It is a glimpse of Divine Glory, which awaits us in Heaven, the end and purpose of salvation history.

Immediately afterwards the Spirit drives Jesus out into the desert, to be alone with God. He prays and fasts in order to prepare Himself for the public ministry of the Proclamation of the Good News, the Gospel. Deserts are not places one would choose to spend six weeks. They are places that can be unbearably hot by day yet freezing cold at night, wild places, lacking water, dangerous, and on the margins. 

The symbolism of the number forty is rich in the Bible. It signifies a time of trial or testing, and recalls significant biblical events. Firstly, In Genesis 7:12, earlier in the story of Noah, God floods the earth with water for 40 days. Secondly, in the story of the Exodus, the people of Israel spend forty years in the desert before they reach the Promised Land. Thirdly, Moses spends forty days with God on Mount Sinai before giving the people of Israel the law, the Ten Commandments. And fourthly, in 1Kings 19:8, Elijah fasts for forty days on the way to Mount Horeb, before talking to God and finding Elisha. All of these examples point to Christ and foreshadow His saving work.

While Jesus is in the desert, He is tempted by Satan. Unlike Matthew’s Gospel, which lists the temptations, Mark simply states that Jesus was tempted. Because Jesus does not sin, He is able to withstand temptation, His victory in the desert points to His great victory on the Cross. Christ then preaches to ‘the spirits in prison’ (1Peter 3: 19) saving humanity from sin and death, and restoring the hope of heaven. In the desert, Jesus is with wild animals, traditionally a sign of the Evil One. However, He is not harmed by them, as the creatures recognise their Creator, who is preparing to make a new Creation in Himself.

Jesus is ministered to by angels. He is the Beloved Son, in whom the Father is well-pleased, humble and obedient. After the trial of the temptations He is tired, and hungry. Temptation is a trying business, both physically and spiritually. This reminds us of the need for care, especially self-care, in our Lenten observances. Rest and nourishment are an important part of our spiritual and physical wellbeing, now more than ever. 

After forty days, Jesus returns to Galilee and starts to proclaim the Gospel, the Good News of the Kingdom of God:

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

This message is the same as that of John the Baptist (cf. Acts 19:4): Repent, turn away from your sins, turn back to God, and Believe the Gospel, proclaimed by Jesus Christ. As Christians, nearly two thousand years later, we believe and proclaim that same message. Jesus calls us to turn away from sin, to turn back to God, to trust Him, and to know that He longs for our healing and reconciliation.

Jesus is able to resist Satan’s temptations because He is humble, because He has faith, and because he trusts in God. It certainly isn’t easy to do the same, but it is possible. It is far easier when we do this together, as a community, which is why Lent matters for all of us. These weeks are a chance to become more obedient, and through that obedience to discover true freedom in God. It is an obedience which is made manifest on the Cross — in laying down his life Jesus can give new life to the whole world. He isn’t being spectacular — he dies like a common criminal. He has no power, he does not try to be relevant, he is loving and obedient and that is good enough.

It was enough for him, and it should be for us. As Christians we have Scripture and the teaching of the Church, filled with His Spirit, to guide us. We can use this time of prayer and fasting to deepen our faith, our trust, our understanding, and our obedience. We can use this time to become more like Jesus, to be fed by His Word and by the Sacraments to become more humble, and more loving, living lives of service of God and each other. We can use this time to support each other, so that we might grow in holiness as the people of God, and 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.

Tissot Jesus tempted in the Wilderness

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: http://www.news.va/en/news/pope-conquering-our-spiritual-desert

Today we go with Christ into the desert for forty days. Deserts are places of lack and isolation, something which we are all experiencing at the present time. We are all currently cut off from people, places, and things we are accustomed to do. In many ways the last year has 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 our 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 our 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 it 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. 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, where we are in an imposed wilderness, 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 as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now, and forever. Amen.

Picture 006

Homily for Quinquagesima

Sometimes when we read the Bible, passages can seem strange and harsh, and completely opposed to how we live nowadays. This morning’s first reading from Leviticus is one such example. It refers to how people with leprosy and other skin conditions are to be treated. They are forced to endure a living death, public humiliation and disgrace, to be excluded from society, cut off and shunned. This is made most clear in the final verse:

‘He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.’ (Lev 13:46)

This verse is interesting insofar as it is used by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews at the climax of the letter to describe Christ’s crucifixion and death:

‘So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.’ (Heb 13:12-14)

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews encourages us to follow Christ’s example and to become outcasts, unclean in terms of Jewish ritual purity, to share in Christ’s suffering and to be united with Him. Something shameful has now become glorious: a demonstration of God’s love and healing, where once there was condemnation there is now reconciliation. We learn by copying, and so St Paul writes at the end of this morning’s second reading:

Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ’ (1Cor 11:1)

Paul encourages the Corinthian church to imitate him, as he imitates Christ, so that they all might live out the love of God in their lives, for the glory of God, and to proclaim the truth of the Gospel to the world. This is our calling as Christians, to follow the same example and live out the same faith, to proclaim the same truth in our lives. 

Our gospel reading this morning continues the accounts of miraculous healings which we have encountered over the past few weeks. This morning Jesus is met by a man suffering from leprosy, who begs to be healed. Given the purity code in our first reading this morning, we can understand why the leper longs to be healed, and restored to his place in the community. The leper kneels before Jesus, performing an act of submission, putting himself entirely at Jesus’ mercy, and says:

“If you will, you can make me clean.” (Mk 1:40)

Jesus is filled with emotion and touches him. Rather than simply saying, ‘Be healed’, or ‘Be clean’, Jesus stretches out His hand and touches the man with leprosy. In Jewish ritual terms Jesus makes Himself unclean. He breaks the rules. He does what no-one would do. Instead of casting the man out, or ignoring him, Jesus touches the man and heals him. Here we see God’s healing love in action, the proclamation of the Kingdom of God, is the proclamation of love and healing, to restore humanity. Then having broken the rules, Jesus says to the healed leper:

“See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” (Mk 1:44)

Jesus tells the man to comply with the Law, to show himself to a priest. This is so that he can undergo a ritual bath, and be restored to his rightful place in society. It is also as a proof to the religious authorities that a miraculous healing has taken place. God is announcing His Kingdom and the fulfilment of messianic prophecy. God is healing His people. 

Despite the fact that Jesus has told the man not to tell anyone other than the priest, the healed man does the exact opposite, and tells everyone he meets about what has happened. He has, after all, been miraculously healed, and experienced the wonderful reality of the Kingdom of God. So he feels he simply has to tell everyone he meets how wonderful God is, and what miraculous healing has taken place in his life. He cannot not tell people. It is just too wonderful, and he does proclaims the reality of the Kingdom of God to all and sundry. His life has changed, and he is filled with joy and gratitude. At one level this is a metaphor for the Christian life. Each and every one of us has been touched by Jesus, and so we can follow this man’s example and proclaim the wonders of the Kingdom in all that we do and all that we are.

The joyful proclamation of the Kingdom does, however, pose a practical difficulty – Jesus cannot go anywhere without being mobbed: 

so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places, and people were coming to him from every quarter (Mk 1:45)

Clearly this makes life very difficult for Jesus. It speaks of the deep and widespread need for healing in Galilee. As it was there then, so it is here, now. We long for God to heal us, to take away our fears, and fill us with His love. At a practical level this is bound to be exhausting for Our Lord, so He goes out to desolate deserted places, in other words, the desert. Jesus goes to be alone with God, to rest and to pray. This reminds us that in the Church’s calendar we are about to enter the season of Lent. We prepare for Easter by going out into the desert with Jesus to be close to God, through prayer, fasting, and deeds of charity. We follow Jesus’ example, we imitate Him, so that we may draw closer to Him and experience His healing love. We go with Him, so that we can prepare to enter into the mystery of His Passion, Death, and Resurrection, so that we may rise with Him at Easter. To Him with God the Father, and God the Holy Spirit, be ascribed as is most right and just, all glory, might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now, and forever. Amen.

Homily for Sexagesima

It is hard for us nowadays to imagine our country without the National Health Service. Since 1948 we have been blessed with medical care funded through general taxation. For most of human history medical care was only available to those who could afford it, and only a limited amount of ailments could be treated. It is hard to imagine how precarious life was, and how great was the desire for healing. 

Our Gospel reading this week focuses on Jesus’ pastoral ministry. It has three distinct elements: healing, prayer, and preaching. As soon as Jesus and the four disciples leave the synagogue in Capernaum, they go to Simon and Andrew’s house, where they find Simon Peter’s mother-in-law sick with a fever. It is serious, and life-threatening. Jesus takes her by the hand, lifts her up, and she is immediately restored to full health. In fact, she gets up and looks after them! Mark’s account is simple and straightforward, and goes along at a tremendous breathless pace. The healing is miraculous and instantaneous — it takes your breath away. It is a powerful demonstration of the reality of God’s love for us: if we let God be at work in our lives then wonderful things are possible, but we have to trust Him.

Suddenly all the sick of Capernaum are at the door. These are people who long for healing, and in their midst is the one who heals. It is wonderful. Jesus proclaims the Kingdom of God by His deeds, as a place of healing, where humanity is restored by God. It must have been quite busy, as St Mark states that,

the whole city was gathered together at the door.’ (Mk 1:33)

As wonderful as it is, to see an entire community transformed, it should be recognised that it comes at a cost: physical, emotional, and spiritual. We think of the great emotional, physical, and spiritual cost to those working in the NHS and as carers (both paid and unpaid), many struggling to cope and becoming overwhelmed. Many of whom desperately need some time out to recharge their batteries and find the strength to carry on. They need our prayers. This is why we learn:

And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed.’ (Mk 1:35)

Jesus gets up early to pray to God, to spend time with Him. Prayer is not an optional extra, it is absolutely necessary. Jesus is only able to heal because he spends time with God in prayer, deepening His relationship, and finding strength, the strength to heal and to preach the Good news of the Kingdom. It reminds us of the need for prayer and quiet in our own lives — we need time to be with God, to talk to Him, and to listen to what He has to say to us. Even during lockdown we can be distracted by the business of life. If we want to be close to God and let His power be at work in us we need to find time to be silent and find our own deserted place, if only for a few minutes, to let a healing encounter take place. God meets us when we are alone, when we are silent, when we are vulnerable, when we no longer rely on our own strength but hand ourselves over completely to Him. This is not an easy thing to do, but it is the only way for God to be at work in us: we need to make space for Him. Just as often happens in our own lives, Jesus does not have long to be close to God, as people come looking for Him:

And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, and they found him and said to him, “Everyone is looking for you.”.’ (Mk 1:36-7)

Jesus is the person everyone is looking for. So many people are longing for healing, for the Good News of the Kingdom of God, and for Jesus. There is a deep-seated emptiness which only God can fill. The healing which Christ offers is the fullness of life, how life should be lived. 

And he said to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is what I came for.” And he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons.’ (Mk 1:38-9)

Jesus moves His disciples on. They need to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom of God in word and deed, by preaching and healing, to the people in the other towns. This is Jesus’ mission: ‘for that is what I came for.’ (Mk 1:38). Jesus came to announce the Good News of the Kingdom of God and to make His words real by healing the sick, fulfilling the messianic prophecies of Isaiah 61. His message is clear: 

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

Repent and believe the Good news: turn from sin, love God and your neighbour, and experience the healing which God longs to give you. Which of us can say that we don’t need Christ’s healing in our lives? I know that I do. The truth is that we ALL do. If we are close to Him in prayer, if we listen to Him, if we have the humility which says, ‘I need God’s help’, then we can be open to the transforming power of His Love: so that the healing work begun in Galilee might be continued here, now, among us.

Let us listen to His words. Let us be close to Him in prayer. Let us come to Him, to the One who loves us, who heals us, who gives Himself upon the Cross to die for us. To the One who rises again to give us the promise of eternal life in Him. Let us come to be healed, and restored, so that we might have life, and life to the full in and through Christ. Let us live out our faith, and proclaim Him, so that the world may believe, and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now, and forever. Amen. 

Jesus Heals Peter’s Mother-in-Law

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Third Sunday after Epiphany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thus, as we start this new year, we see a three-fold dawning of the Glory of God in Christ Jesus. First , Our Lord’s manifestation to the Gentiles, is the proclamation of the Messiah to the whole world. Then, His Baptism, which shows us the way to the Father, is a sign of love and obedience. Now the Wedding Feast at Cana, is a sure sign of the superabundance of God’s love. Let us live out that love in our lives, and share it with others so that they may sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen.

The Second Sunday of Year B

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In our baptism, God in Christ invites each and every one of us to follow Him, to ‘come and see’, as the first disciples did, and to invite others, as Andrew invited Simon Peter. To come and see who Jesus is, to get to know Him, and start a relationship with Him. This begins with our sharing in His Death and Resurrection, and ends in the glory of Heaven. Where we, and all the Church, give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen. 

Baptism of Christ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This invitation is also the invitation of the Church, for people to enter it by baptism and share in the unsearchable riches of Christ. Today we remember that salvation is offered to the world through baptism. We give thanks for the rebirth of our own baptism, and hope to share it with others. Baptism reminds us of the hope which we have in Jesus Christ, hope of new life, and eternal life with Him. Whatever is happening in the world, or in our own lives we can trust in who God is, and what He has done for us. In this trust we can live out our faith so that the world may be transformed and believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen. 

Epiphany 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

So let us be filled with hope and peace, may we live lives of joy, and love, and service of God and one another, which proclaim in word and deed the love of God to the world. May the whole of creation resound with the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen. 

James Tissot, The Magi travelling

Christmas 2020

We have come here this morning because something wonderful happened two thousand years ago in Bethlehem. It is the single most important event in human history, summed up in St John’s memorable phrase, ‘And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ (Jn 1:14 ESV). The Word, through which God spoke all creation into being, is the Son eternally begotten of the Father, who, through the power of the Holy Spirit, took flesh in the womb of His mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary. Jesus is born for us, and lives among us.

Today is a day to feel encouraged. 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, including those of us gathered here this morning. He 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 ESV). Today salvation has indeed come to the whole world, for in Jesus’ Birth and Death we are saved. 

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews understands that God speaks through his prophets, who look forward to the birth of the Son of God as the defining event, the turning point of human history. Prophets tell us both how things are and how they will be. We therefore have a vision of God’s future, and the hope of glory in the one who is born today. We can glimpse true glory in the vulnerable baby lying in the manger, dependant upon others for love, and food, and warmth. God’s glory confounds our expectations, and that’s the point. God’s ways are not our ways, nor are his thoughts ours. In the same way that God saves us: not because we are lovable, but so that we might become so. Humanity is saved in order to be transformed, and the Church exists to extend that transformation across space and time, through you and me, and the whole family of believers. 

Such is the mystery of God’s love. It is something so wonderful that we are not able to fully understand it, but we can experience it, and through experiencing it, we are transformed by it. As the 20th century Anglican theologian, Austin Farrer wrote: 

God does not give us explanations; we do not comprehend the world, and we are not going to. It is and it remains for us a confused mystery of bright and dark. God does not give us explanations; he gives us a Son. Such is the spirit of the angel’s message to the shepherds: “Peace upon earth, good will to men … and this shall be the sign unto you: ye shall find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.” A Son is better than an explanation. The explanation of our death leaves us no less dead than we were; but a Son gives us a life, in which to live.’ [Austin Farrer Said or Sung, pp. 27, 28]

St John proclaims, ‘In him was life, and the life was the light of men.’ (Jn 1:4 ESV). You may be aware that a couple of days ago the planets Saturn and Jupiter crossed paths and appeared to align, creating a bright light in the heavens. It is possible that this event may be the star described in Matthew’s Gospel. Just as the star gives light to Bethlehem and guides the wise men on their way, so Christ gives light to a world filled with Darkness. Christ is the true light, and comes to give us true life in Him: 

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God,who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.’ (Jn 1:12-13 ESV) 

As Christians we are born again in our baptism, by water and the Holy Spirit. We share in Christ’s Death and Resurrection, to have new life in Him. We are in Christ, and are fed with His Body and Blood so that we may continue to be transformed by Him. Christ comes to give us life, new life, eternal life in Him.  Freed from our sins and transformed by the love of God, we can live the life of the Kingdom, the life of Heaven here and now. This is ‘glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.’ (Jn 1:14 ESV) given to humanity so that we may live as God intended us to. To us is offered through Christ the chance to return to Eden, to see Creation restored, and all things set right through Him. This is not wishful thinking, but the reality of God’s love freely given to restore us to the fullness of life.

So let us embrace God’s love and encourage others to experience the true joy of Christmas, so that all humanity may join with the angels to sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen. 

Midnight Mass – Christmas 2020

It might seem strange to be celebrating tonight, with everything that is currently happening in the world. We keep our yearly memorial of the Birth of Jesus Christ with a variety of emotions this year: fear, anxiety, but also joy and hope. It is important for us to recognise, and to realise that it is perfectly normal and natural to feel this way. This is a Christmas like no other, when we cannot visit loved ones, or hold our normal celebrations such as the Village Nativity, which would normal have preceded this service. All due to a global pandemic which has claimed many lives, and sadly, will claim many more before it is over.

But, despite rising rates of infection, we can still be filled with joy and hope: not just because we have developed vaccines, but because Christ is born! No matter what difficulties we have to face together, what fears and privations may assail us, the birth of Our Saviour in Bethlehem is a cause for hope and joy in this world, and the next. God comes among us, as a baby, into a world of pain, fear, and misery, just as He did two thousand years ago. The God who made all that exists enters our world weak and helpless, dependent on others for food, warmth, shelter, and security. God takes a huge risk to save humanity and to give us hope for the future.

Tonight we see God’s healing and reconciling love made manifest: to save us from ourselves, from sin, selfishness, and greed, by this act of generosity and weakness, which does not appear to make everything better, and yet does. God doesn’t do magic, but He does do transformation, sometimes quickly, and sometimes slowly. Humanity isn’t always good at listening or paying attention. It is easy to become so wrapped up in our own anxieties and yearnings that we close ourselves off from God’s transformative power.

Perhaps surprisingly, there is fear in the Christmas story. When the shepherds saw the angels, the angel said to them ‘Paid ag ofni’ ‘’Fear not, for behold I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people’ (Lk 2:10). That good news is as true today as it was two thousand years ago. The love and peace which Christ comes to bring can still be made real and visible in our hearts and lives, and it still has the power to change the world, God’s kingdom can be even more of a reality, here and now. Jesus taught us to pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth as in heaven, ‘deled dy deyrnas, gwneler dy ewyllys; megis yn y nef, felly ar y ddaear hefyd’.  

The true gift of Christmas is the Good News that Christ is born, that God becomes one of us. Our humanity is reconciled to God in and through Jesus. God saves us, and sets us free to worship Him, to love Him, and to serve Him. A fourth-century bishop, Theodotus of Ancyra, said in a Christmas homily: ‘He whose godhead made him rich became poor for our sake, so as to put salvation within the reach of everyone’ [Theodotus of Ancyra (Homily 1 on Christmas: PG 77: 1360-1361) ]. Such is the mystery of God’s love for us. It is a love made perfect in weakness, yet with the strength to transform lives. 

The most important event in human history happens tonight, and for two thousand years Christians have proclaimed its truth: God is with us, Jesus is born for us, to set us free from sin, to give us eternal life, and to pour out God’s love and reconciliation upon a world longing for healing and wholeness. Tonight, as the mystery of God’s love is made manifest, may we be filled with that love, and may our voices echo the song of the angels to the shepherds in giving 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.

Advent IV

Those of you who are fans of The Sound of Music will know that to begin at the beginning is a very good place to start. This morning’s Gospel does exactly that, by going back to the Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the beginning of the story of Christmas. As we prepare to celebrate Christ’s birth in a few days time,it is only natural to return to the point of His Conception to help us to ponder the wonderful mystery which God accomplishes for our sake.

Our Old Testament reading this morning begins and ends with promises about houses. It starts with King David concerned about the fact that while he lives in a fine palace, the Ark of the Covenant dwells in a tent. Such unease is understandable, and arises out of a desire to give the best to God. David is concerned that he is not doing so, and says:

“See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells in a tent.” (2 Samuel 7:2)

So David plans to build God a Temple. To begin with, it appears that David’s plan to build a Temple is acceptable, but quickly we learn that this is not the case. At a fundamental level, God is not concerned whether he lives in a tent or a temple. It does not matter. God’s response is not to accept David’s offer, but instead to make an offer to David:

Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom… I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son… And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me. Your throne shall be established for ever.’” (2 Samuel 7:11-12, 14, 16)

God offers David a family, a Royal House a promise which he will keep, and which bears fruit with the coming of Jesus, born of the House of David, and the Son of God. Not only this but Jesus’ mother Mary will be the Ark of the New Covenant. This will be a covenant that is not made in stone, but rather in flesh; the flesh of the Son of God, who is born for us, and who dies for us. Her womb will be the place where the Son of God will begin to dwell with us:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (Isa 7:14)

Immanuel in Hebrew means ‘God (is) with us’ and this is what we are preparing to celebrate at Christmas: God being among us.

 Ours is a God who keeps his promises, and so St Paul can speak of:

the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations (Rom 16:25-26)

For a moment I would like you to imagine how would you feel if one day a complete stranger turned up on your doorstep and told you something strange and unexpected? Surprised? Confused? Afraid? The fact that you are a teenage girl would most likely intensify these feelings. When you add to this the fact that the girl will conceive a child outside marriage, something for which she could be stoned to death, according to the Law of Moses, the Gospel passage which we have just heard should strike us as odd, and unsettling: this isn’t how God is supposed to work, it isn’t supposed to be like this. There is an unexpected strangeness strangeness about how God comes into the world.

At one level this is not surprising, because God does not follow human rules. He makes this clear through the prophet Isaiah:

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

In the Annunciation God demonstrates this. Mary is confused, she cannot understand what is going on. So the angel Gabriel says ‘Paid ag ofni, Do not be afraid’. Mary does not need to be afraid because God is doing something wonderful. She will bear a son and call him Jesus, which means ‘God saves’. Jesus the Son of God will save God’s people from their sins, and the promise made to David we heard in our first reading will be fulfilled. 

Mary cannot understand how this will happen. The Holy Spirit, God active in the world, and the bond of love between God the Father and God the Son, will overshadow her. God will take flesh in her womb and be born as one of us. So Mary replies:

“Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Lk 1:38)

Mary says ‘Yes’ to God. This is a ‘Yes’ which undoes the ‘No’ of Eve. It brings about the salvation of humanity, through the Life, Death, and Resurrection of her Son. Mary’s obedience to the will of God, ‘the obedience of faith’ (Rom 16:26), both trusts God to be at work, and makes it possible. God does not force salvation upon us, but offers it, and invites humanity into a relationship. 

The Church continues to make the same invitation, and to offer the same sacrifice, so that God, who became flesh and blood in the womb of Mary, offers us His Body and Blood in the Eucharist, so that we might share His Life. May we, like Mary, say yes to God, welcome him into our hearts, and show forth his love to the world, so that it may come to believe and trust in 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

Fra Angelico The Annunciation

Advent III Year B

For many people Advent is a time for consumerism, buying things for Christmas. It is understandable. People find pleasure in stuff, in presents, and the excess which usually characterises this time of year. But Christians understand that true joy is not found in things of this world, but in God alone. Joy is our vocation as Christians, we are called to be people of joy. This can be hard at any time, but especially at the moment when the lives of so many people are filled with fear and anxiety for the health and well-being of ourselves and our loved ones as well as for the country in which we live. It is good to remember the words of the prophet Nehemiah:

‘the joy of Lord is our strength’ (Nehemiah 8:10)

Our joy as Christians has a supernatural source, namely God, and a supernatural end: God wills for us to be united with Him forever in Heaven. This is why St Paul can write to the Thessalonian Christians and encourage them to be filled with joy. Because of who Jesus Christ is, and what He has done, we are able to be joyful and hopeful for the future. Such an attitude leads naturally to prayer: we give thanks to God for all that He has done. Our prayer , like our life, is characterised by joy and gratitude. We are filled with it, and we share it with others, for such is the Kingdom of God. This is God’s will for us and how we should live. 

Through our prayer, our relationship with God, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, we are sanctified by God. We are made holy so that we can grow in love towards God and each other. Through encountering God in prayer and Scripture, and the Eucharist, we are drawn ever closer into the relationship of love which characterises the life of God. God does this so that we can be prepared to meet Christ who will come again as our Saviour and our Judge. We can trust in this because as St Paul writes:

He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it. (1Thess 5:24)

We can trust in God because He keeps his promise. In our first reading this morning, from the prophet Isaiah, we see the promises that the Messiah will fulfil as the demonstration of the Kingdom of God. This is a kingdom of love and freedom, a place of good news for the oppressed, where healing love binds up the broken-hearted. A realm of healing and of renewal, which proclaims liberty, and releases prisoners. God’s kingdom turns the world on its head, and offers something completely different. It is a place where we are clothed in a mantle of praise, a garment of joy and salvation, a robe of righteousness which we put on in our baptism. This is a radical, world-changing vision, which offers the possibility of real transformation to people in each and every age. This prophecy is the one read by Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth at the start of his public ministry. After quoting the words of the prophet Isaiah, Jesus says:

“Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk 4:21)

In, and through Jesus, prophecy is fulfilled. People can have true hope for the future, in the certain knowledge that God loves us, and will heal our wounds, and calm our fears. 

In this morning’s Gospel we pick up from last Sunday with John the Baptist preaching a baptism of repentance, a turning away from sin towards the arms of a loving God. He has been stark and uncompromising in his message, as a prophet should be. The people drawn to John’s teaching find themselves in an awkward situation. They can’t quite understand what’s going on: Is John the Messiah? If he isn’t, who then is he? He calls people to the baptism of repentance in the knowledge that Christ is coming, with His gift of the Spirit. John is preparing for the Kingdom of God to be a reality in people’s hearts, and minds, and lives. 

We are told thatJohn the Baptist is near the Dead sea, by the River Jordan where the road from Jerusalem to Jericho crosses a major trade route to the East. This is a major crossroads, an ideal place to meet people. He has been successful; many people have listened to his message and have been baptised by him. This leads the priests and Levites (sent by the Pharisees) to come up from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ John replies that he is not the Messiah, so they ask him, ‘What are you then, are you Elijah?’ They are trying to understand who John is, and what he is doing. They know that Elijah, the greatest Jewish prophet, was taken up into heaven. They are expecting him to return to pave the way for the Messiah. This is what John is doing, anticipating the arrival of Jesus the Messiah. John’s Gospel tells us that: 

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. (John 1:6-8)

John the Baptist bears witness to who Jesus Christ is. He points to the Messiah, the salvation of the World. He points to one who has come so that we might believe. John is the first person to recognise Jesus, and he does so in the womb. Before he is born, when the Blessed Virgin Mary visits her cousin, Elizabeth, John leaps for joy. His whole life is a proclamation of the Good News of the Kingdom of God, and His Son, Jesus Christ. John is an example for us all to live lives of joy, proclaiming to the world the need to repent and follow Christ, the light of the World. 

John the Baptist is also a great example of humility: he does not claim a position that is not his own. He is the exact opposite of the culture of the world around us. The priests and Levites are still confused and so they ask him:

“Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” (Jn 1:25-27)

John says that he is not worthy to untie the sandal. This is because he is not the one doing the redeeming. The Book of Ruth explains the custom of taking off a sandal:

Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging: to confirm a transaction, one drew off his sandal and gave it to the other, and this was the manner of attesting in Israel.(Ruth 4:7)

Redemption is the work of Christ. He is born of the House of David, who was the great-grandson of Ruth, to redeem humanity by dying for them on the Cross. John recognises this, and understands that the transaction represented by the removal of a sandal has not yet taken place. It will take place on Calvary. The very beginning of John’s public ministry points to the Cross, where salvation and freedom will be offered to all who turn to Christ. May we be humble and joyful like John, and proclaim the Saviour who takes away our sins, and sets us free 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

Ruth in Boaz’s Field, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld 

Advent II

Our first reading this morning from the prophet Isaiah is joyful and optimistic. It speaks of a future for Israel after exile in Babylon, and a return home. Through the prophet, God speaks words of comfort to His people. These are words we always need to hear, but especially during this time of lockdowns when many of us are exiled from our families and friends. We can be assured that God is working wonders and even though it might not feel currently like it. We can trust that all will be well in the end. The words of Isaiah are quoted in Mark’s Gospel because they look forward to the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, the fulfilment of all prophecy in the Bible: in Him the glory of the Lord is revealed.

Mark’s Gospel begins with the words:

The beginning of the Good News of Jesus the Messiah, Son of God (Mk 1:1)

Followed by quotations from Malachi and Isaiah:

“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. (Malachi 3:1)

A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (Isaiah 40:3)

Mark includes these texts this to show us that, from the beginning, prophecy is being fulfilled in Jesus. John is the messenger, preparing the community for the coming of the Messiah: Jesus, who is God.

First appearing in the wilderness, John proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He then chooses a point where the busy road from Jerusalem crosses the River Jordan and challenges all those he meets to change their ways. The Baptist calls people to repentance, to turn away from sin and to turn back to God. It is good to be reminded that God’s love and mercy are available to all of us, when we fall short of what God wants us to be. This is why the story of Jesus’ public ministry begins with His Baptism in the Jordan, and points to Golgotha, where Christ will die taking our sins, and those of all humanity upon Himself. Christ’s Death demonstrates God’s love for us and His mercy towards us. It is hard to comprehend how God could love us that much. And yet Christ gives us Himself in the Eucharist, so that His Body and Blood can transform us, so that we can share in His life on Earth and in Heaven.

John the Baptist is the last of the prophets and the voice crying in the wilderness of which the prophet Isaiah spoke. He has a challenging and uncompromising message: repent for the Kingdom of God is close at hand. It may not be what many people want to hear nowadays, but it is, however, what people need to hear. Those who flock to him are aware of their sin, and aware of their need of God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness. John the Baptist’s message may not be an easy one, but it is actually Good News. Our prayers are answered: that for which we hope, for which our soul deeply longs can be ours. Through our baptism, we share in Christ’s Death and Resurrection, and we are washed from sin and given the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is difficult to make a similar proclamation to John to today’s society, where the Church is increasingly marginalised. Yet our message must still be ‘Repent!’ because the world needs to repent, to turn away from sin and selfishness, and back to a God of love, who longs for us to have life in all its fullness. 

Words can only go so far, they need to be lived out in action, and made concrete in people’s lives and communities. When we live out the love and reconciliation we have received from Jesus Christ, we are helping to make the Kingdom of God a reality. We are showing the world that there is an alternative to the path of greed and selfishness, anger and bitterness, which blights so many lives. The world can be freed from these shackles by Christ by who He is, and what He has done. 

Advent is a penitential season, so we use the colour purple, which is dark and sombre. We do not say the Gloria (Glory be to God on high) because it is a song of celebration. We fast from it now so that we may celebrate with greater joy at Christmas. Advent is a season of repentance when we turn away from our sins, and turn back to the God who comes among us as a baby in Bethlehem and who will come as our Judge and Saviour. 

This what repentance means: turning to God so that He can transform our life and the lives of those around us. It is both an event and a process, something  we need to keep on doing, together. This is the life of faith which Christ calls us to live.So let us in this Advent season live together:

in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, (2Peter 3: 11-12)

Let us prepare to meet Christ filled with His love, so that we may join in the song of 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.

Advent I

I cannot claim to be a huge fan of weekly competition shows on television, but I do occasionally enjoy looking at The Great Pottery Throwdown. In particular I love seeing pots being thrown on a wheel. It is wonderful to watch, and it requires great skill and attention to detail. Transforming a lump of clay into a bowl, or a pot, or a plate is a joyous thing to witness. It is an important skill, as we all need vessels for eating, drinking, and storage. 

Each Advent Sunday begins with a reading from the prophet Isaiah, for Isaiah is the prophet of the Messiah, and full of hope for the future. The prophet is looking forward to the redemption of Israel, the coming of the Messiah, a new future after exile. Against a picture of human sin, and rebellion against God, there is the implicit possibility of something better. In those times when God can seem absent, it may be that God, as a loving parent, is giving us space and time to reflect and repent. Isaiah is convinced of the power and the love of God, to remake us, and restore us, and to enrich us with his grace. 

At the heart of Isaiah’s message is the conviction that God can and will remould us. As he says:

But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. (Isa 64:8)

The image of God as a potter, shaping and reshaping clay to create something beautiful and useful, is a hopeful one. We are never written off, rather we are a work in progress. This metaphor is a good one for the spiritual life: the closer we get to God, and the more we let God be at work in our lives, the more He can fashion and refashion us. In Genesis (2:7) God forms humanity out of the dust of the ground, and throughout the Bible this imagery is used to remind us that God is a caring creator, and we are His creation. He loves us, and we can trust Him.

The season of Advent, which begins today, is a season of preparation, of getting ready. The Church gets ready to meet Christ: first in the annual celebration of His Birth at Christmas, and in His Second Coming as our Saviour and our Judge. During the four weeks of Advent the Church ponders the Four Last Things: Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell. It is good to think about such things: our earthly lives are finite, but afterwards we have an eternal destiny. The Church believes that Christ was born, lived died and rose again to give us the hope of eternal life in Him. In the grand scheme of things, what really matters are our souls and our lives: who and what we are, what we do, and why we do things.

We, here, this morning, are Christians living in the time between Christ’s Resurrection and the end of the world. We are told to be ready, and to spend our time considering the four last things: Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell. They await us all, each and every one of us, so how will we prepare for them?

In this morning’s Gospel, our Lord tells us to stay awake, to be on our guard, to be prepared, because we do not know the time when our Lord will return in glory to judge both the living and the dead. Jesus wants us to be vigilant and to live out our faith so that we can be ready to greet Him whether He returns today or in thousands of years time. 

How we live our lives matters, it affects who and what we are, and the world around us. We have but one life to live hereon Earth, and we must try, with God’s grace, to do the best we can. We live in a world which does not care about such questions. Our actions affect us, our character, our lives, and the lives of people around us — our actions have consequences, which is why our lives and how we live them matter. What we do and say matters and Jesus calls all people to repentance — to turn around and change the whole of their lives and follow Him in their thoughts, their words, and their deeds — for the Kingdom of God is close at hand.

We are not being left alone in all this. God both tells us the nature and source of the problem, and provides us with a solution. He even helps us along our way: strengthening and encouraging us to turn our lives around, and follow Him. We are told to be vigilant and take care of the state of our lives and our souls, and of those around us.We must be awake, rather than indulging in the self-satisfied sleep of sin.

The Gospel this morning encourages us to vigilant.This is something that we have had to be during this time of pandemic. As well as our physical health, however, we need to take care of our spiritual health as well, it is the most important thing that we can do. 

Jesus says:

“But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come. (Mk 13:32-33)

There is no way that we can know when Jesus will return, so all that we can do is to vigilant and be alert. We can live lives that demonstrate our readiness by living out our faith, here and now, every single day. In order to do this we are helped by God’s grace, His generous love towards us. Also we can rely upon God’s strength, and not our own weakness, to live lives of faith, hope, and love together, as a community called the Church. We can help and support each other, we can pray for each other, we can love and forgive each other and help to make the Kingdom a reality here and now.

St Paul writes words of encouragement to the Church in Corinth, telling them of God’s generosity:

so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, (1Cor 1:7-8) 

The Good News is that God has already given us what all that need. His grace is limitless and inexhaustible. So, as we begin our Advent journey towards Christmas may we be encouraged to stay awake and be vigilant. Let us be reliant upon God’s grace, and built up in love together. Let us be renewed by the God who loves, heals and sustains us, 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.