The Fifth Sunday of Year A

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

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

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

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

Jesus then uses a different image:

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

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

Our Lord continues His advice:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fourth Sunday of Year A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Third Sunday of Year A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Second Sunday of Year A

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

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

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

John then explains Jesus’ importance:

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

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

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

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

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

“Behold the Lamb of God!” (Jn 1:36)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Epiphany 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Adoration of the Magi – Edward Burne-Jones

Christmas Day 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At Christmas we ponder the awesome mystery of God:

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

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

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

No love that in a family dwells,

No carolling in frosty air,

Nor all the steeple-shaking bells

Can with this single Truth compare —

That God was man in Palestine

And lives today in Bread and Wine.

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

The Nativity – James Tissot (Brooklyn Museum)

Advent IV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St Nicholas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Icon of St Nicholas by Jaroslav Čermák,

Advent II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and a little later in the same passage:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advent Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christ the King

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of those men crucified with Jesus asks:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remembrance 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We will remember them.

Trinity XXI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Tissot – Jesus speaks near the Treasury (Brooklyn Museum)

Trinity XX

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So let us put our trust in the God who loves us and who saves us, Let us know our need of Him, and His transforming grace, to fill our lives and transform all of His creation, so that the world may believe and sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed ,as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

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

Trinity XIX

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Eucharist, Christ’s gift of Himself to us, is not a reward which we can earn, but neither is it to be treated lightly, ignored, or downplayed. It is the most precious thing which we have. Far more precious than any silver or gold that we might use to contain it. This is because it is Jesus Christ, who gives Himself to us, so that He can transform us, more and more into His image and likeness. Christ comes to preach the Good News of the Kingdom, to call people to repent, to turn away from their sins. He heals the sick, the blind, the lame. He raises the dead to life. This is God’s love for us. What then can we give God? We can give Him our love and our thanks. We can ask Him to have mercy upon us sinners, and to help us to live faithfully so that we might sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed as is most right, and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

James Tissot – The Pharisee and the Publican [Brooklyn Museum]

Trinity XVIII

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s Gospel passage ends with the question:

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

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

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

Brigstocke, Thomas; Moses with His Arms Supported by Aaron and Hur; Aberystwyth University, School of Art Gallery and Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/moses-with-his-arms-supported-by-aaron-and-hur-176504

Trinity XVI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Increase our faith!” (Lk 17:5)

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

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

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

We are not worthy. God makes us worthy, through His Son, who dies and is raised for us, and fills us with His love. The work of the Gospel is, at one level, up to us, the Body of Christ, His Church. We have to live our faith out in our lives, relying upon God. Christianity is a way of life. Through humble service of one another, we do our duty, and grow in love and faith, and help to make the Kingdom of God a reality. Part of this service is to give praise to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

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

Trinity XV – Lazarus and Dives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then Our Lord makes a comparison:

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

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

There follows a dramatic reversal:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Commemoration of Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Queen Elizabeth II [1926-2022]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is truly liberating to look at the world and as Jesus wants us to, knowing that all that really matters is loving God, and loving our neighbour. Doing this can be difficult, especially when times are uncertain as they are today, but we know that we can trust the God who loves us, who gives His life for us, who comes to us to feed us with Himself. So let us come and follow him and invite others to do so. Enabling all to sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May we, in humility, recognise our need of God, and respond to His invitation to the banquet. May God heal us, restore us and strengthen us to live lives of humility and love, so that we may sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us then hasten to enter through the narrow gate, so that God may continue to transform our human nature. Let us then give thanks that His saving love and power is at work in our hearts and our lives, transforming us. Let us then sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen. 

James Tissot – The First Shall Be Last [Brooklyn Museum]

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God makes room for us, the question is can we make room for Him? Can we be like Mary, trusting God to be at work in us? Can we let His Grace perfect our nature, to live lives of hope and joyful service, so that after our earthly life we may, in the company of the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints, sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen.

The Assumption of the Virgin – El Greco

Lord teach us how to pray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God cancels our debt by paying it Himself, overcoming evil and sin through an outpouring of healing love. This is the demonstration that God loves us and hears our prayers, and so we continue to remember the Passion through our celebration of the Eucharist. God forgives our sins, and gave His life for us, nailing our sins to the Cross. He suffered in His flesh so that we who have died with Christ in our baptism may also share His risen life. That is why Jesus can assure us that God listens to our prayers and answers them, giving us the good things we need. Christ desires a community of love and reconciliation, and we are here make that a reality, being transformed, so that we may sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

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

Trinity V – Mary and Martha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christ calls us to make our prayer and our work, all that we do and all that we are, a response to God and our neighbour. Then we will be truly living in love. Such love is the nature of God and transforms both us and our world, so that all may sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Following the example of the Good Samaritan, may we be agents of God’s love and grace in the world. May we transform our communities, and all the world. May we be filled with God’s love, compassion, and healing, and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen. 

The Good Samaritan – James Tissot [Brooklyn Museum]

Trinity III [14th of Year C]

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

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

‘After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go.’ (Lk 10:1)

Our Lord commissions thirty-six teams to go out and prepare the way. They are not sent out on their own, they go in pairs. This is sensible given that single travellers were more likely to be attacked by bandits or robbers. It also reminds us that Christian ministry should not be a solo activity. We need support, both human and divine. The Church is, first and foremost, a community of believers, brothers and sisters in Christ. 

“Go your way; behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. Carry no money bag, no knapsack, no sandals, and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!’” (Lk 10:3-5)

Jesus’ advice to His missionaries begins by highlighting the dangerous nature of their undertaking. They will face violence and opposition. The idea of travelling light and not talking en route is to underline the need for their to be no delay. Their mission is urgent. People need to know the Good News of the Kingdom, and they need to know it now. The lighter you travel, the easier it is. Also, you are forced to rely upon the generosity of others, and their generosity is itself another sign of the Kingdom. Jesus is using an extreme example to underline the urgency of the task at hand, rather than giving travel advice. 

Christians greet each other by saying, ‘Peace be with you’. We will soon greet each other with these words. As part of our worship we share the Peace which Christ has given us, and we share it with the world. This is our calling.

And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the labourer deserves his wages. Do not go from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you. Heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ (Lk 10:7-9)

The disciples are to be reliant upon the charity of others, so that their actions as well as their words will preach the Gospel. We are all dependant on each other and upon God. Hospitality demonstrates love and care, and makes it real. It is important that those sent out don’t move about, going from house to house, in search of better food or a comfier bed. They are to stay put, and be grateful for what they receive. Through their actions they show that the Kingdom is a place of healing. God longs to see humanity restored. 

Jesus’ advice is realistic: not everyone wants to accept what is offered. He tells the missionaries to say,

‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’ (Lk 10:11)

God respects human freedom, but it is important that the Gospel is proclaimed, even if it is rejected. The seventy-two meet with success, but Jesus points out that something is more important than even miracles:

“Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Lk 10:20)

Healing and miracles are an important sign of the Kingdom of God, but salvation is more important. Christians are baptised, to share in Christ’s Death and Resurrection, and our names are written in Heaven. 

This reality underlies the confidence of St Paul as he writes to the Christians in Galatia. 

‘But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.’ (Gal 6:14)

Because of the Cross, God’s love has been poured out on the world. The love which heals, and reconciles, and gives us the hope of heaven. Ours is the hopeful message of a loving and healing God, and we ourselves are testament to the power of God’s love to change people. It is a powerful thing, knowing that God can take you, and transform you, in ways that you might never expect or imagine. But it happens, here and all around the world, so that the saving truth might continue to be proclaimed by word and deed. The prophet Isaiah looked forward to a future of peace, and that peace has become a reality in Jesus. 

‘As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.’ (Isa 66: 13)

Humanity is comforted in Jerusalem, on Calvary. Such is the power of the Cross: it saves humanity, it frees us from our sins, and gives us new life in Christ. This is the cause of our joy, our rejoicing. This is the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy. This is humanity’s consolation. In this we are comforted.

So, may our words and actions proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom. May we share God’s love with others. And let us give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

James Tissot – He sent them out two by two (Brooklyn Museum)

Trinity II [13th of Yr C]

One of the more delightful programs on the television these days is the BBC show, The Repair Shop. In it, people bring along treasured family items which are repaired and restored by experts in various crafts. The results are amazing and are achieved because the men and women who do the restoration are professionals. They have spent years honing their craft. To do this requires skill, patience, and expertise which come from experience and hard work. If you want to become good at something, it takes time, effort, and persistence. Living the Christian life is no different. It takes commitment, and is the work of a lifetime. Each and every one of us needs to consider the fact that, if our relationship with God is the most important thing in our life, then we need to make it a priority. If our faith matters to us then it must be something we invest in, so that it may develop, deepen, and grow.

The Gospel this morning sees Jesus’ ministry changing. Up to this point in Luke’s Gospel, He has been ministering in and around Galilee, where He grew up. After the Transfiguration, Jesus sets off towards Jerusalem, teaching as He goes. In Jerusalem He will be welcomed as the Messiah on Palm Sunday, and a few days later will be crucified, then be raised from the dead, and continue to spend time with His disciples until He ascends into Heaven. 

Luke highlights this with the words:

‘When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up’ (Lk 9:51).

The journey to Jerusalem is an ascent of several thousand feet, Jesus will be lifted up on the Cross, and later will be taken up to Heaven, to be with God the Father. The ambiguity is deliberate, Luke is setting the scene for the rest of his Gospel narrative. This section begins with Our Lord sending people on ahead to make preparations for Him and His disciples. The Samaritan village, however, does not receive them. There were religious differences between the Jews and Samaritans, with the Samaritans worshipping on Mount Gerizim, rather than Mount Zion, in Jerusalem. Samaritan self-identity was all about not going to Jerusalem. These differences meant that Jews and Samaritans didn’t mix with one another. James and John, the sons of Zebedee are upset at being shunned and ask:

“Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” (Lk 9:54)

Jesus is not pleased at this rather immature response and tells James and John off.  His mission is to save people, not to destroy them. God is a God of love, our Creator and Sustainer. Our Lord does not force people to believe in Him. The disciples still have much to learn.

As they continue their journey, someone says to Jesus:

“I will follow you wherever you go.” (Lk 9:57)

This is admirable: it shows their commitment to Jesus and the Kingdom. It does, however, come at a cost, as Jesus makes clear in His reply:

“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Lk 9:58)

If we are willing to follow Jesus, we have to understand that Heaven is our true home, and that our time on earth is short. Jesus’ true home is with the Father, and so is ours. Luke then describes another interaction on the journey:

‘To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”’ (Lk 9: 59-60)

The disciple’s request seems, at face value, to be a reasonable one. Burying one’s parents was an obligation of the Jewish religion and family piety, something of the utmost importance. But the responsibility toward God and the furtherance of His Kingdom is even more important. The unnamed disciple is not able to understand this. As we humans have the tendency to do, they want to add conditions. However, following Jesus needs to be unconditional. To reinforce the point Luke gives another example:

‘Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”’ (Lk 9:61-2)

Again, at first glance the request seems a fair one. It is modelled on Elisha’s request to Elijah in this morning’s Old Testament reading. Jesus is however, stricter than Elijah. The point Our Lord is making is that nothing should be more important than God, not even our family. This teaching is difficult and uncompromising, and points to the importance that Jesus should have in the lives of those who follow Him. Christ’s teaching also refers to commitment. When engaged in an activity such as ploughing which employs powerful beasts (or machinery today) you need to focus on what you are doing. It requires your full attention to get it right. In the same way we need to be fully attentive to our Christian life.

This idea is reinforced by the passage from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Christ gives us freedom from slavery, freedom to serve: 

‘But through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”’ (Gal 5:13-14)

Christians serve each other because we love our brothers and sisters in Christ. To love is to will the good of another, to want to see them flourish. Love is made real in service, something I am reminded of every day when I pray for you and serve you through my ministry. Jesus gives us the example we should follow, just as He gives the Church the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. We receive the same Spirit in our Baptism and in the Eucharist, where we are nourished by God, with God, so that we may be strengthened to live the life of the Spirit, here and now. 

Let us today, and every day, live lives of commitment and service, which build up the common good, and make the Kingdom of God a reality. And let us give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

James Tissot – The Man at the Plough [Brooklyn Museum]

The First Sunday after Trinity

When we switch on the news on the Television and see all that is happening around the globe, it is not difficult to come to the conclusion that the World is in a mess. The four horsemen of the Apocalypse — War, Famine, Pestilence, and Death appear to be quite busy at the moment. Whilst there is a degree of truth in this line of thinking, it needs to be balanced by the fact that people have felt this way for a very long time, for several thousand years, in fact. The people of Israel looked for a Messiah, a leader of the House of David, who would bring them the peace and security they longed for. The first reading this morning comes from the prophecy of Zechariah, and was written perhaps as late as two hundred years before the birth of Jesus Christ. At this time the Jewish people were struggling under Greek rulers who tried to abolish all that they held sacred. The prophet Zechariah looks forward to a messianic future:

‘And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.’ (Zech 12:10)

The mention of looking upon one whom they have pierced anticipates Christ and His Crucifixion, as noted by John’s Gospel: “They will look on him whom they have pierced” (19:37). Zechariah writes of the outpouring of a ‘spirit of grace’, just as we have seen at Pentecost. Here Jesus’ Death, Resurrection and gift of the Holy Spirit are clearly prefigured: God’s saving plan is announced in the words of the prophet. A few verses later, Zechariah prophesies:

‘On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to cleanse themselves from sin and uncleanness.’ (Zech 13:1)

This is what the Cross achieves for those who are washed in the Blood of Lamb, as we are at our Baptism. Christ’s death takes away our sins. Through Baptism and the Eucharist we share in Jesus’ Death and are raised to new life with Him. When St Paul writes to the Galatian Church, he stresses their common baptism.

‘For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.’(Gal 3:26-29)

St Paul is preaching a profound message: none of the distinctions which the world makes matter in the eyes of God. There is no difference. All are one in Christ. There is a radical equality in the Church: all are welcome to come and be saved. This was a revolutionary thing to say when Paul preached nearly two thousand years ago, and it still is today. We are all one in Christ: young and old, rich and poor. It doesn’t matter who we are, where we are from, or anything else. All that matters is that we find our true identity in Christ. This identity makes us heirs of God’s promise, to enjoy eternity in Heaven with Him.

In today’s Gospel Jesus begins by asking His disciples this question:

“Who do the crowds say that I am?” (Lk 9:18)

The people give a variety of answers: John the Baptist, Elijah, or another of the prophets. They recognise Jesus’ proclamation of the Good News of the Kingdom and understand Him in terms that are familiar to them. Christ, however, presses the issue by asking His disciples the question,

“But who you say that I am?” (Lk 9:20)

Peter answers ‘You are the Christ of God’ (Lk 9:20). By this answer Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, God’s Anointed, the fulfilment of Zechariah’s prophecy. The disciple’s confession is also our confession as Christians, Jesus is the Christ, the Saviour, the Son of God. As we declare in the words of the Creed.

Jesus instructs the disciples that they should communicate this to no-one, and explains what is about to happen:

“The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (Lk 9:22)

Jesus tells the disciples about His Passion, Death and Resurrection, because it is His mission: to reconcile God and humanity, and to restore and heal our broken relationship. Christ then invites His followers to follow His example:

And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” (Lk 9:23-24)

At the beginning of His public ministry, Jesus invites people to repent and believe. Now He calls us to self-denial, and to embrace the Cross. Christ asks us to embrace the most shameful way to die, a form of torture, used by the Romans to execute slaves. As those saved and made free by the Cross of Christ, we take up our cross and follow Jesus. We imitate Him, in selfless love and devotion, and we bear the weight of the cross in life’s difficulties and disappointments. Following Christ is hard, as we lose our lives for Jesus’ sake. It is a struggle, and we cannot just rely upon ourselves to succeed. Instead, it needs to be a corporate effort, something we do together, as Christians, trusting in God’s Grace to be at work in us, both individually and as a community.

Christ wants us to lose our lives for His sake, and find freedom in His service. There is something paradoxical in Jesus’ teaching: we find perfect freedom in obedience, in service of God and each other. We need to be humble enough to accept what God offers us, and be prepared to try to live it out together. It isn’t about us, but rather letting God be at work in us. When we co-operate with God, and live in love, and joy, and peace, we flourish as human beings. This is liberating, and it is what God wants for us. This is what true freedom is like, and we are called to live it together. So let us give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen. 

It is finished – James Tissot (Brooklyn Museum)

Trinity Sunday 2022

Today is Trinity Sunday and, apparently, a day when some people do not like to preach. I am not one of them. There has, for some time, been something of a reticence in the West when speaking about the Trinity. God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — Three persons, one God. Some people are afraid in case they say something wrong, or that those listening to them will not be able to understand what is being said. But it is important to talk about the Trinity — one of the key beliefs of the Christian faith.

The service this morning began with the words ‘Yn enw’r Tad, a’r Mab, a’r Ysbryd Glân, In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.’ Eucharistic Services have begun by invoking the name of the Trinity, and making the sign of the Cross, for as long as we have texts for them, about 1700 years. And 1700 years ago, this morning’s first reading was one of the most controversial passages in Scripture: 

“The Lord possessed me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old.” (Proverbs 8:22)

In the Greek text of Proverbs used widely around the Mediterranean, the verb translated as ‘possessed’ was one that meant ‘created’. This lead some people to argue that this passage means that the Wisdom of God, taken to refer to Jesus Christ, the Word of God, was created and not begotten. This would mean that Jesus had a beginning in time, and was not eternal, and was therefore somewhat lesser than God the Father. Church Councils were called, at Nicaea in ad325, and Constantinople in ad381. These gave us the doctrinal statement known as the Nicene Creed, which we will say together in a few minutes time. Our faith, as Christians is rooted in God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Creed is made up of three sections: it begins with what we believe about God the Father, moves on to what we believe about the Son, and finishes with the Holy Spirit. What we believe and how we worship God matters, it helps to form what we believe.

Last Sunday we celebrated the Feast of Pentecost, the Descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples in the Upper Room, fifty days after Easter, and ten days after Jesus’ Ascension into Heaven. With the coming of the Holy Spirit, we see the fullness of God. As St Paul puts it in his Letter to the Romans:

“God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:5)

As Christians, we are filled with the Holy Spirit, a spirit of love and joy. This allows us to experience God as He is: the Father who created all that exists, the Son who redeemed humanity, and the Spirit who sanctifies and encourages the people of God. God calls us into a relationship and we respond with worship which honours God. We do this not because God needs our worship, but because we need to acknowledge our dependance upon Him. God loves us, and because we are loved, we respond with love. 

In today’s Gospel Jesus promises His disciples that,

“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” (Jn 16:13)

God gives us the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth. We are invited into a relationship and a journey of faith where we can grow and develop. As Christians we worship One God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They are not three Gods, but one God. That the three persons of the Trinity are one God is itself a mystery. The mystery of God’s very self: a Trinity of Persons, consubstantial, co-equal and co-eternal. Consubstantial means ‘of one being’, co-equal means that the persons of the Trinity are equal to one another, none is greater or lesser, and co-eternal means that all have no beginning in time. We know God most fully in the person of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God, born of the Virgin Mary, who died upon the Cross for our sins, and was raised to New Life at Easter, who sent the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. In Christ, God discloses who and what he is. We know Him as someone who pours out love, who desires reconciliation.

The wonderful thing about the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is that it enables us to encounter and experience God in a deeper way. We can know Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh who speaks to us in Scripture, and who comes to us in the Eucharist, so that we may be nourished by God. We are filled with the Holy Spirit, who transforms us, by the power of God. It is not an abstract concept that we are celebrating today, but rather a generous and loving God. The Christian understanding of God is not of a remote being, but rather is one who makes His home with us, gives us His life, and transforms and heals us in love. This is all possible through the relationship God has with us, through His Son and His Spirit, which is personal and real.

In Christ, God becomes human, allowing Him to understand us from the inside, so to speak. This is not a distant, impersonal divinity, but one who lives a human life. One who understands our frailty, and who loves us. God sends His Spirit so that we may be encouraged and led into all truth, in the Church. We will face difficulties and hardships. Christ promises us no less, as does St Paul in our second reading. But the point is that these experiences, while difficult to endure can also be positive: we grow and develop through them. Through suffering we become more loving and forgiving. We are transformed into what God wants us to be, so that we can be made new by His redeeming love. God offers us all the opportunity to be something different, something more than we are, if we let Him change us. If we co-operate with His grace. When we are filled with the Holy Spirit, and nourished by Word and Sacrament, God is at work in us, transforming us into His likeness. So, as we celebrate the mystery of the Holy and Life-giving Trinity, let us pray that we may be changed by God’s love, and share this love with others. So that they may come to believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

Masaccio The Trinity (S. Maria Novella, Florence)

Pentecost 2022

Just before Jesus ascends to Heaven, He gave His disciples instructions:

“Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” (Lk 24:46-49)

The disciples are to proclaim repentance and the forgiveness of sin, and to wait in Jerusalem and pray until Jesus sends the Holy Spirit upon them. The proclamation of the Good News remains exactly the same as by John the Baptist and Jesus at the start of their public ministry. There is a continuity here, which speaks powerfully of what the church is called to proclaim. The disciples are told to wait for the Holy Spirit, that same Spirit of God which moved over the waters at the beginning of Creation. 

Today is the feast of Pentecost, which is celebrated some fifty days after the Passover. In Hebrew Pentecost is called Shavuot, the feast of weeks, a week of weeks, or fifty days. It is a feast which celebrates both the grain harvest in Israel, and Moses giving the Law to Israel on Mt Sinai. It is a time when Jews would come from all over the world to be in Jerusalem. What they would have experienced 2000 years ago could be described as something like the undoing of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9. Instead of division, there is unity, and all the peoples of the world can hear and understand the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah, the Son of God, who died for our sins, rose on the third day, ascended into heaven, and has sent His Holy Spirit.

It is this same Holy Spirit which Christians receive at Baptism, Confirmation, and Ordination, and which makes us children of God and co-heirs with Christ. We are part of God’s family, and through Christ we have an inheritance, the hope of heaven. This is good news indeed! The same Holy Spirit, which brought about the Incarnation in the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary, through which Christ became incarnate in His mother’s womb, to be born for us, has been given to us. We have been filled with the same Spirit: you, me, every one of us here. By means of the Holy Spirit God can work wonders in and through us, just as the disciples were able to do extraordinary things after being filled by the Spirit.

On the day of Pentecost something wonderful takes place: The Good News is proclaimed in a host of different languages. The Jews in the Acts of the Apostles are amazed to hear the Good News spoken in their own language, by a rag-tag assortment of Galilean fishermen and other ordinary folk. It is incredible. It is miraculous. And it points towards our present reality, where there is not a country on this earth which has not heard the Good News of Jesus Christ. There is still work to do and it is wonderful to learn that the Bible is currently being translated into 250 new languages.

Thus, the work of spreading the Good News is not finished. It is thanks to the preaching of the Gospel started by the Apostles at Pentecost that we are Christians today, and that millions of people have come to know, love, and serve Jesus Christ. As people who are in Christ, who have entered the Church through our Baptism, we have an important job to do. We need to tell people about Jesus.

The Christian Church is wonderful in its diversity. We are all different, we do not speak the same language, or have the same culture. However, we are all equally empowered through having received the Holy Spirit at our Baptism, in our Confirmation, indeed through all the sacramental actions of the church, which are the outward and visible signs of the inward and spiritual grace. This is how the Holy Spirit works, how it builds us up in love. Through the Eucharist, through prayer and through Scripture we are nourished spiritually to keep doing all that God desires of us.

God wants us to love Him and each other. Love is who God is, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We see God’s love in the entirety of Jesus’ Life, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension. All that Jesus is and does is a demonstration, a manifestation of God’s love for us. God longs to give us His love, so that it can transform us into His likeness, the likeness in which we were created, so that we might become children of God and heirs, to our inheritance of Heaven.

Malcom Guite, poet and priest, sums up the meaning of Pentecost in his sonnet ‘Our Mother-tongue is love’:

:

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

Today we rejoice in the fact that God continues to pour out His Holy Spirit on the world, and pray that we may be filled with the love of God, so that we may share this love with others, so that all may sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen. 

Maronite Icon of Pentecost

Easter VII – The Sunday after the Ascension

The Theological College where I trained was named after St Stephen, the first Christian martyr. As a result I have something of a fondness of, and affinity towards, him. Stephen was one of seven Greek-speaking Jews who were ordained deacon, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. They were set apart to help look after the poor and needy, and to free the apostles up to preach and share the Good News of Jesus. Stephen was an enthusiastic young man, full of faith, but his zeal came up against a religious authority which was not exactly enthusiastic towards the Church. False accusations are made against Stephen, who is brought to trial in front of the High Priest. Stephen takes this opportunity to give an account of salvation history from Abraham to Jesus, which finishes by chastising the Jews for not believing in Jesus. Naturally, this upsets his audience. They respond by taking Stephen outside Jerusalem and stoning him to death for the crime of blasphemy. The account of his martyrdom is today’s first reading. 

It would be all too easy to find fault with Stephen as his evangelistic strategy does not look, at first, to be very successful. All Stephen manages to do is to upset people and get himself killed. Such an interpretation is fine at a superficial level, but fails to get to grips with all that is going on. 

Stephen bears witness to Christ as the fulfilment of Israel’s salvation history, and proclaims the Good News of Our Lord’s Saving Death. Before he is murdered, Stephen has a vision of the glory of heaven:

“Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 7:56)

Stephen sees the reality which the Church celebrates after the Ascension: Jesus is Heaven with the Father. Those around Stephen interpret this as blasphemy, and set about stoning him. Assisting in the deathly punishment is a young pharisee named Saul. After his conversion on the road to Damascus, Saul (Paul) will go on to become the greatest evangelist in the Early Church. 

Before Stephen is killed he says two things:

“Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” and “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7: 59 & 60)

In the first he puts his trust in God completely, and in the second he prays for those who are persecuting him, as Christ did on the Cross at Calvary. Stephen’s death is an example of faith put into practice; real tangible faith. He does not curse the people who are killing him, as one might expect, but instead he prays to God that they may be forgiven. The reason for this is found in verse 55, Stephen is ‘full of the Holy Spirit’. The same Holy Spirit poured out on the Apostles at Pentecost, which they prayed for, and waited for. When we are filled with the Spirit we can be people of love, zeal, and forgiveness.

The text of today’s Gospel comes from the middle of Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer, the summit of His teaching. It is a moment of profound intimacy where Christ prays to God the Father. He prays not only for His disciples, but for those who will believe in Him through their word. That means you, and me, and countless Christians down through the ages. Just before His Passion, Christ prays for us. Such generosity and love should amaze us. Jesus prays that we should be one, that there should be unity in the church. Sadly, throughout its history this has not been the case. Unity is Our Lord’s will for His Church. His will puts our petty human divisions into perspective. They are bad and they are wrong; they are not the will of God. As Christians we should be growing together in love. We should do this because it is Christ’s will, we are told to listen to Him, and to do what He tells us. That isn’t the only reason, however. Christ prays that the Church may be one, 

‘so that the world may believe that you have sent me.’ (Jn 17:21) 

In other words the truth of our witness and proclamation of the Gospel is contingent upon our unity. If we are divided, people won’t be drawn to the Christian faith.

Christ gives us His glory, which is His Passion and Death. To follow Christ leads to a Cross, and onward to new life. But if we want to follow Christ, then we cannot ignore the pain and suffering that we will encounter on our journey. We have signed up for it. Each of us, in our baptism, when we received the water of life without price. We are called to bear witness to Christ regardless of the cost. Others may think we are fools for believing what we do. We can convince them otherwise by the example of our lives, as authentic faith is attractive, real, and convincing. 

Christ speaks to us, and teaches us so that our joy may be complete in Him, filled with His love, and the Holy Spirit. In following Christ, we are walking the way of His Passion. We are walking the Way of the Cross: dying daily to sin, and letting God’s grace be at work in and through us. It is not easy, and there are times when we will struggle and fail. We need the love and support of the Christian community to help us. Even the first Christians, those who had been with Jesus, needed each other’s help and support, so they could continue what Jesus started.

As a Christian community we support each other by meeting together to pray for our needs and those of the world, and to be nourished by the word of God, the Bible, and the Sacrament of the Eucharist. Because, as followers of Christ, these things are crucial to who and what we are. If we are to experience the fulness of God’s love then we have to live this way. Only then can we offer the world an alternative to the ways of selfishness and sin.

As Christians who live in the love of God, we are called to forgive each other our trespasses, so that we can live out that same radical love and forgiveness demonstrated by Jesus on the Cross. This is a love which can transform the world. We may not understand such love, but we know that it can be experienced, and we are living testimony to its power. It turns our lives around and sets us free to live for God and to proclaim His saving truth in our words and actions, calling the world to repentance, to turn to Christ, and to be renewed in and through Him. In His power, with His Truth, and filled with His Love we can transform the world.

So, as we wait with the Apostles for the gift of the Holy Spirit, let us pray that Christ may come, and send His Holy Spirit. Let us pray that God may be at work in us, building us up, and giving us strength to live His life and to proclaim His Truth. To offer the world that which it most earnestly desires: peace, joy, freedom, and the gift of eternal life in Christ. Let us proclaim God’s love so that all the world may come to know 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 Cavallino – Martyrdom of St Stephen (Museo del Prado, Madrid)

Easter VI

One of the many things that the war in Ukraine has taught us is how fragile peace is. It is not something that we can take for granted. The absence of peace affects us all. We long to see an end to the war in Ukraine, and all the other countries across the world that are beset by violence and tyranny. We long to see the whole of humanity living in peace and freedom. Our parents and grandparents fought and struggled that we might enjoy such things, and that struggle still continues today. 

In the Welsh language there are two words for peace. The first, heddwch, means an absence of conflict, worldly peace. The second, tangnefedd, is the peace which comes from God. In the middle of today’s Eucharist I shall say the words, ‘The Peace of the Lord be always with you.’ And receive the answer, ‘And also with you’. We call this section of the service ‘The Peace’. Jesus gives us the peace which comes from a relationship with God. This is the peace we enjoy as Christians, and was bought dearly by Christ’s death on the Cross. It is not just an absence of conflict, but the deep peace of being loved by God, and loving Him in return. It is the peaceful trust of a devoted relationship. Our attachments to family and friends are an echo of this closeness, because we are made in the image of God. Being filled with God’s Love, we become a church, a community of love, living out our faith, and sharing this deep peace with the world around us.

In today’s Gospel Jesus is speaking to His disciples after the end of the Last Supper, shortly before His Arrest. In a series of talks which begin in Chapter 13 and continue to the end of Chapter 17of John’s Gospel, Our Lord takes leave of His followers, offers them encouragement, and speaks about the future. 

Jesus begins by explaining how God will make Himself known to the disciples.

“If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me.” (Jn 14:23-24)

Christians have a responsibility to keep God’s Word, to love God and each other. In turn, God promises to dwell with and in us. This is a promise of a close relationship. We experience this intimacy most fully in the Eucharist, also known as Holy Communion, where Christ gives Himself to us, so that we can be transformed by Him. Jesus promises us that the Father and the Son will come to us and make their home with us. We are invited into a close relationship, which enables us to experience the fulness of God’s love and His peace. 

Then Jesus makes further promises to the disciples:

“These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” (Jn 14:25-27)

As we prepare to celebrate Jesus’ Ascension into Heaven we also look forward to the Sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Christ rises and ascends so that we can receive the Spirit, and experience the fulness of new life in Christ. God sends the Holy Spirit so that we may be filled with love, and share that love with others. The Spirit helps us to keep close to the Father and the Son, in a profound relationship which allows us to flourish.

Christ gives to His disciples, and to all who follow Him, a deep, genuine, peace in our souls. As I have already mentioned, we share this Peace with each other in the Eucharist. It is a gift from God. The Peace of Christ reconciles us to God and to each other. It was bought on the Cross, paid for in Blood, and is a sign of the victory of the Resurrection as well as the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Peace is something that has to be worked at. In the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles there is some disagreement between the early christians, but they come together and decide on a course of action:

“For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15: 28)

These words are important, as they show that the apostles faced difficulties and prayed about what do. Their chosen course of action was the will of God, and met with human approval. It is a sign of their peace and unity. Christ’s Church was both for Jews and Gentiles. There was no need for non-Jews to convert to Judaism first. The men did not need to undergo circumcision. This decision by the Early Church helped the Good News to spread more easily, allowing billions of people to know the peace of Christ.

Christ’s peace also gives us a foretaste of the life to come. In the Book of Revelation, St John has a vision of the Heavenly Jerusalem, prepared as a bride for Christ. It is a vision of the Church Triumphant, built on the foundations of the apostles, and filled with God’s glory. 

“And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.” (Revelation 21:22-23)

John shows us the perfection of God’s Creation, in this image of Heaven. It is a place where the Glory of God provides illumination, and the lamp which holds the light is the Lamb. In other words, the Lamb, who is Christ, perfectly displays the glory of God. Jesus shows us who God is, and what God’s glory is like. He promises us Peace and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

May we therefore be filled with the Peace of the Living Lord, through 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.

Our Lord Jesus Christ – James Tissot (Brooklyn Museum)

Easter V

In the 1970s a series of cartoons by Kim called ‘Love is…’ were very popular in the UK. You might remember them. They depicted a male and female figure with the caption ‘Love is…’ followed by a phrase such as ‘being able to say you’re sorry’ or ‘caring for each other’ or even ‘laughing at the same old joke!’.

At the heart of the Christian faith is Love. According to St Thomas Aquinas, Love is… willing the good of the other. [(STh I-II, q.26 a.4, CCC 1766) Respondeo dicendum quod, sicut Philosophus dicit in II Rhetoric, amare est velle alicui bonum] To love, then, is not simply an act of passion or emotion, something which we feel, but it is also something which we choose to do. The commands to love God and our neighbour, found in Deuteronomy and Leviticus, are central to the Christian Faith, as taught and exemplified by Jesus. 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, in relationship with others. We are called to be loving and generous, just as God has been loving and generous towards us in Christ. God loves us, and wants us to thrive and as Christians, we seek to cooperate with God in promoting human flourishing. 

Jesus spells this out clearly in this morning’s Gospel:

‘A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ (Jn 13:34-35)

We are to love each other in the same way that Jesus has loved us and 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, willing good, and helping to make goodness a reality. This is a radical and world-changing idea,. It is underpinned by selfless love, which Christ commands of us, His Church, to help transform the world through His Grace so that humanity might come to enjoy life in all its fullness.

What God asks of us is both simple and complicated, at the same time. Despite our best intentions, we are not able to live up to the perfection that the Gospel seems to require. The temptation is to see anything that is less than perfect as failure, whereas the more we try to live lives of love together, the more loving we become. There will be mishaps along the way, but occasional stumbles do not alter our direction of travel. Is it difficult or costly? Yes. But when we act together, we are able to support each other, encourage each other, and pray for each other. 

Jesus gives His disciples the ‘new commandment’ just after He has washed their feet and celebrated the Eucharist with them. Christ talks about glory, in relation to His Passion and Death. In human terms being falsely accused, scourged, and then crucified does not look like glorification, quite the opposite. Jesus is about to die the death of a slave, and yet God understands this as glory. This is because the Cross demonstrates God’s love for humanity. There is no end to which God will not go for love of us, even dying a shameful death. Our heavenly Father will stop at nothing to reconcile us to Himself and to each other, to heal our wounds, and offer us eternal life.

This is why, when he has a vision of the end times in the Book of Revelation, St John can write the following:

‘And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”’ (Rev 22:3-4)

Heaven is somewhere where God and humanity are reconciled and united. As a sign of this all wounds are healed and pain and suffering are no more. In Heaven we are able to experience life in all its fulness. We have a foretaste of this in our worship today, since our earthly worship is united with the worship of Heaven. During today’s Eucharist we listen to the Bible, the Word of God, so that we may be encouraged by what we hear, and helped to love God and each other. We are also fed by Jesus,, with His Body and Blood, as a pledge of future glory, and as spiritual nourishment here and now. What we enjoy in the Eucharist helps to transform us into the likeness of Christ, and points forward to that unity which we will enjoy forever in Heaven. 

This is what following Christ means in practice: living out our lives like Jesus, so that people can see that we are His disciples. By acting out of love, we proclaim the reality and the truth of our faith in Jesus. This is something that we do together, and it is why we need to stay close to Christ in Word and Sacrament, to pray together, and to support and forgive each other. The life we are called to live is not a saccharin-sweet cartoon, but real, sacrificial love, the sort which has the power to transform the world: making it more Christ-like. We thirst for this love, and only it can satisfy our deepest desires. So let us come, and drink of that Living Water. Let us feast on Him who is the Living Bread and the True Vine. Christ is the Shepherd of our souls, who loves us so much that He died and rose again for us. Let us love Him, and one another, so that all 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.

Our Lord Jesus Christ James Tissot (Brooklyn Museum)

Easter IV

One of the wonderful aspects of living in this part of the world is seeing the new life in the countryside around us in Springtime. Trees which were bare are now covered with leaves and blossom. Watching lambs gambolling in the fields is a source of true joy. Yet, as we all know, sheep have a tendency to stray, to wander off. Livestock need to be looked after, cared for, fed, and protected. In the Bible Jesus uses metaphors to explain who He is, and what He does. One of the best-known is found in our readings this week: Jesus is the Good Shepherd. Shepherds care for their flocks, and in St Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, it is the shepherds who are the first people to witness the Birth of Our Saviour. 

In the writings of St John, Jesus is understood both as a Shepherd and also as a Lamb. When John the Baptist sees Jesus coming towards him, he exclaims:

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

Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection, which we celebrate during Holy Week and Easter, proclaim this sacrificial aspect of His Life and Death. In the Book of Revelation, St John has visions of heavenly worship which focus of Jesus as the Lamb, once slain, forever glorious. The worship of Heaven is offered to God the Father and the Son, in the Holy Spirit. 

The people worshipping God are described as wearing white robes. White is a colour of innocence and purity, which they are able to claim because of what Jesus has done for them on the Cross. 

For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’ (Rev 7:17).

Here we see the two images combined: the Lamb will be their Shepherd. The one who dies for us will care for us. The image of living water brings to mind ideas of refreshment and healing, and points to our baptism. To drink living water is to experience the fulness of life in God, filled with the Holy Spirit. It is to experience healing and consolation, such is the love of God. This is what we look forward to: experiencing the fulness of God’s love for all eternity.

In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus is in the Temple in Jerusalem. It is December, and the Feast of Dedication also known as Hanukkah. This festival commemorates the rededication of the Jewish Temple after it had been desecrated by the Greeks who controlled Judaea in the Second Century BC. Judas Maccabeus led an uprising against Antiochus IV of Syria, allowing the Temple to be cleansed, rededicated and the lights rekindled. 

Some of the Jews in the Temple ask Jesus if He is the Messiah, and He answers:

“I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not part of my flock.” (Jn 10:25-26)

Jesus’ works of healing, feeding people, and proclaiming the Good News, bear witness to who He is. The fact that people do not believe in Him marks them out as not belonging to the flock. Here the image of a shepherd is used as a metaphor for the King of Israel and the Messiah. Jesus’ actions show that He cares for God’s people. As well as talking about God’s love, Jesus demonstrates it and makes it real and concrete. There is a close bond between the shepherd and his flock:

“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”(Jn 10:27-30)

Jesus is able to promise that those who follow Him need not fear death, because they are under His protection and thus in God’s care. This is the heart of our faith as Christians: we do not need to be afraid of anything because God loves us. Also we believe that our earthly life is not all that there is. We are given the hope of Heaven, and a relationship with a God who loves us. Through His love we come to share in the intimacy of the divine life. As Jesus says, ‘I and the Father are one.’ (John 10:30). As Archbishop Michael Ramsay once said, ‘God is Christlike, and in Him is no un-Christlikeness at all’ [God, Christ & the World: A Study in Contemporary Theology, London 1969, 98] When we see Jesus, we see God, when we hear Him speak, we hear the voice of God. Jesus shows us who and what God is: someone who loves us, and cares for us.

Grounded in this relationship we need not be afraid or troubled — we are free to live lives which proclaim God’s love and victory so that others too may come to believe, and share in His love. Through God loving us, we can truly love Him and each other. We experience this most clearly at the Eucharist when Christ feeds us with Himself, and we are united in Communion, with each other and with God. Through this communion, God’s grace is active in our lives, transforming us into His likeness, and preparing us for the joy of Heaven witnessed by St John and proclaimed in the Book of Revelation.

So as we see the lambs in the field, let us give thanks to God the Creator, Jesus the Good Shepherd and the Life-giving Holy Spirit, and let us share in the joy and love of the Triune God. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

Coptic Icon of Jesus the Good Shepherd

Easter III

Two weeks ago we gathered together here to celebrate Easter, and now we continue our celebration of the great fifty days of Easter. This lasts from Easter Day to Pentecost, which means fifty. Despite all the pain and sadness in our world, we are filled with joy at Our Lord’s Resurrection from the Dead. Through this time of rejoicing we are transformed, we are filled with love, and we are empowered to change the world, so that it too may be filled with God’s love.

In today’s first reading the Pharisee Saul continues his persecution of the embryonic Christian Church. Soon after this he encounters Jesus, who doesn’t say to him, ‘Why are you persecuting my Church?’ but instead says, ‘Why are you persecuting me?’ We are used to understanding the Church as the Body of Christ, and in the Acts of the Apostles Christ identifies Himself so closely with the Church that He and it are one and the same. That is how closely we are united with Christ through the Church. Born at the foot of the Cross when the Blessed Virgin Mary and St John are given to each other, the Church exists to contemplate Christ, to love Him, and to be loved by Him. Through our baptism we share in Christ’s Death and Resurrection, and are His Body, and we fed with His Body, to be transformed more and more into Him.

Thus, in the vision of Heavenly worship we see in the reading from Revelation, Heaven and Earth are united in the worship of Jesus Christ, who is God. As Christians we are made for worship, to be united with God in love, and we prepare for Heaven here on earth. It is why we are here, to continue our celebration of Our Lord’s Resurrection, His conquering of death.

In this morning’s gospel the Risen Lord gives an invitation to His disciples, to ‘come and have breakfast’. They don’t have any fish, so they go out and do what Jesus tells them, resulting in a huge catch of 153 fish. The disciples do not fully recognise Jesus until they have caught the fish. When they follow Christ’s commands they recognise Him. So, we too must be obedient to Jesus, and listen to His instructions.

The scene on the beach where the Risen Christ feeds His disciples makes us think back to the Feeding of the Five Thousand and to the Last Supper. Again, Jesus speaks directly to Peter, asking him if he loves Him and commanding him to feed His lambs. This is an extremely important moment. Christ asks Peter the same question three times: ‘Do you love me?’ this repetition clearly looks back to the three times that Peter denied Jesus after His arrest. Jesus’ questions clearly upset Peter. His conscience reminds him of his failure, which leads him to say, ‘Lord you know everything, you know that I love you’. Now Peter’s earlier denial of Christ is wiped away by his confession of faith. Jesus does not condemn him, but simply reminds Peter, so that he may be encouraged in his task: to feed Christ’s sheep, to be a shepherd, a Good Shepherd, and to lay down his life for his sheep after the example of his Lord and Master. This is how Peter is to fulfil Christ’s command, ‘Follow me’. It reminds all of us as followers of Christ, including those called as bishops, priests, and deacons, that we too are called to feed Christ’s flock, to teach the faith and to live our lives as an example of God’s love.

Peter is fed by the Lord before he is called to go and feed others, and to care for them. We too have come here today to be fed by the Lord, to be fed with the Lord, with His Body and Blood, under the outward forms of bread and wine. We do this in order to share in His divine life, so that we may become what He is, and have a foretaste of Heaven. We are fed so that we may go out and feed others, so that we may follow the example of the apostles, teaching and preaching Jesus Christ. When we do this we will give honour and worship to God, which is no different from the heavenly worship we have seen described in today’s reading from the Book of Revelation. This is the heavenly glory of which we have a foretaste here on Earth.

As Christians, we are called to bear witness to our faith in the world, so that it may believe. We are called to be witnesses, regardless of the cost. While we may not face direct persecution in this country, we are often faced with indifference, a coldness of heart, which denies the fact that what we are and what we say is important and has value. Yet we are called to live lives which proclaim the fact that life and death have meaning and value through Jesus Christ, who loves us, who died for us, and who rose again so that we might have eternal life in Him. This is a gift so precious that we cannot keep it solely for ourselves, we have to share it, and, in this sharing, it becomes a greater and more wonderful gift. In proclaiming the Good News we are preparing for that moment seen by St John when all of creation will sing the praise of God, filled with His love, healed and restored by Him.

We are anticipating that moment here and now as we prepare to be fed by Him, to be fed with Him. We look forward to the time when we, and all creation, will sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed as it most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

Feed my lambs – James Tissot (Brooklyn Museum)

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 (Sanssouci, Potsdam)

Easter 2022

The last fifty days or so have shown us how traumatic events are constantly present in human history. We continue to be appalled by human cruelty and violence taking place in Ukraine, and we long for all humanity to live in love and peace. As Christians we pray for peace, and we work towards it. God loves us so much that He respects our freedom, allowing us to respond freely to His generous love. This is God’s love in action. Our Heavenly Father does not force us to respond, and even when we make a bad decision, or go down the wrong path, there remains an opportunity to turn around, and go the right way. In our readings over the last few days we have heard several examples of people going the wrong way, and making bad decisions. The Good News is the same today as when it was preached by St Peter in the first reading, that whoever believes in Jesus receives forgiveness in His name. In Christ, God has reconciled the world to Himself, and offers us new life. 

We are so familiar with the events of Easter that it is easy for us to forget quite how dramatic they were for Jesus’ closest followers. Only a week ago He was hailed as the Messiah, and welcomed into Jerusalem like a King with branches of palm and olive, and shouts of ‘Hosanna!’. Within a few days Jesus has explained to the disciples that He must die. Christ has washed their feet, and celebrated the Eucharist. But then he is betrayed, arrested, tried, tortured, and killed. Everything had looked positive and hopeful, yet now His closest followers are confused, upset, and afraid. They are filled with grief and loss. At the same time they are worried about their own safety. Would the crowd turn on them as well for following Jesus? Are they about to be lynched? 

In the dark, early on Sunday morning, Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb. She wants to be close to Jesus. She loves Him, and longs for consolation in her grief. And then she sees the stone rolled away from the tomb. 

‘So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”’ (Jn 20:2)

Mary’s first thought is that grave robbers have stolen Jesus’ body. Peter and John come running. John gets to the tomb first and sees the grave clothes, but does not go in. Peter, never one to hang back or do things in half measures, rushes in, and sees the grave clothes. Finally John goes in, and sees, and believes. John, the Beloved disciple, the one Jesus loved, and who loves Him, believes that Jesus has risen from the dead. Grave robbers don’t leave clothes covered in costly perfume. They would take them because they were valuable.

Mary is still overcome with grief. Her beloved teacher is dead, and someone has taken His body away. Even two angels are not able to console her:

‘She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”’ (Jn 20:13)

Even seeing God’s messengers has not helped Mary, she is consumed by grief. 

‘Having said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”’

Mary Magdalen supposes that Jesus is the gardener. In first century Palestine, just as in our parish today, graveyards and cemeteries had people looking after them. Mention of gardens and gardeners makes me think of another passage in the Bible concerned with matters horticultural. At the beginning of Genesis, God makes a garden, called Eden, and puts Adam in it, commanding him to look after it (Gen 2:15). Adam, the first man is a gardener. Likewise, the Risen Christ, the New Adam, is seen as a gardener. Whilst the first Adam brought death to humanity by a tree, Jesus, the Second Adam, has brought life to the world by the tree of the Cross. Humanity falls because of a tree, and because of a tree we are offered eternal life in Christ. Trees matter!

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

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

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

Mary shares the Good News, just as Saints Peter and Paul in the first and second readings this morning. Likewise we are called to follow their example, and proclaim the Good News to the world. To tell how Jesus is risen from the grave, and that God offers new life to all who turn to Him. So, my brothers and sisters in Christ, ‘Pasg hapus i chi gyd!’ ‘A Happy Easter to you all!’ May you, and those you love, be filled with Resurrection joy and strength, now and always. Amen.

Fra Angelico (Italian, ca. 1395–1455), “Noli me tangere,” 1440–42. Fresco from the Convent of San Marco, Florence, Italy. http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/a/angelico/index.html

An Easter Homily ascribed to St John Chrysostom [PG 59: 721-4]

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Εἴ τις εὐσεβὴς καὶ φιλόθεος, ἀπολαυέτω τῆς καλῆς ταύτης πανηγύρεως· εἴ τις δοῦλος εὐγνώμων, εἰσελθέτω χαίρων εἰς τὴν χαρὰν τοῦ Κυρίου αὐτοῦ· εἴ τις ἔκαμενηστεύων, ἀπολαβέτω νῦν τὸ δηνάριον· εἴ τις ἀπὸ πρώτης ὥρας εἰργάσατο, δεχέσθω σήμερον τὸ δίκαιον ὄφλημα· εἴ τις μετὰ τὴν τρίτην ἦλθεν, εὐχαριστῶν ἑορτάσῃ· εἴ τις μετὰ τὴν ἕκτην ἔφθασε, μηδὲν ἀμφιβαλλέτω· καὶ γὰρ οὐδὲν ζημιοῦται· εἴ τις ὑστέρησεν εἰς τὴν ἐννάτην, προσελθέτω μηδὲν ἐνδοιάζων· εἴ τις εἰς μόνην ἔφθασε τὴν ἑνδεκάτην, μὴ φοβηθῇ τὴν βραδυτῆτα. Φιλότιμος γὰρ ὢν ὁ Δεσπότης δέχεται τὸν ἔσχατον, καθάπερ καὶ τὸν πρῶτον· ἀναπαύει τὸν τῆς ἑνδεκάτης,ὡς τὸν ἐργασάμενον ἀπὸ τῆς πρώτης· καὶ τὸν ὕστερον ἐλεεῖ, καὶ τὸν πρῶτον θεραπεύει· κἀκείνῳ δίδωσι, καὶ τούτῳ χαρίζεται. Καὶ τὴν πρᾶξιν τιμᾷ, καὶ τὴν πρόθεσιν ἐπαινεῖ. Οὐκοῦν εἰσέλθητε πάντες εἰς τὴν χαρὰν τοῦ Κυρίου ἡμῶν, καὶ πρῶτοι καὶ δεύτεροι τὸν μισθὸν ἀπολάβετε, πλούσιοι καὶ πένητες μετὰ ἀλλήλων χορεύσατε, ἐγκρατεῖς καὶ ῥᾴθυμοι τὴν ἡμέραν τιμήσατε, νηστεύσαντες καὶ μὴ νηστεύσαντες εὐφράνθητε σήμερον. Ἡ τράπεζα γέμει, τρυφήσατε πάντες· ὁ μόσχος πολὺς, μηδεὶς ἐξέλθοι πεινῶν. Πάντες ἀπολαύσατε τοῦ πλούτου τῆς χρηστότητος. Μηδεὶς θρηνείτω πενίαν· ἐφάνη γὰρ ἡ κοινὴ βασιλεία· μηδεὶς ὀδυρέσθω τὰ πταίσματα· συγγνώμη γὰρ ἐκ τοῦ τάφου ἀνέτειλε· μηδεὶς φοβείσθω τὸν θάνατον· ἠλευθέρωσε γὰρ ἡμᾶς ὁ τοῦ Σωτῆρος θάνατος· ἔσβεσεν αὐτὸν ὑπ’ αὐτοῦ κατεχόμενος· ἐκόλασε τὸν ᾅδην κατελθὼν εἰς τὸν ᾅδην· ἐπίκρανεν αὐτὸν γευσάμενον τῆς σαρκὸς αὐτοῦ. Καὶ τοῦτο προλαβὼν Ἡσαΐας ἐβόησεν· Ὁ ᾅδης, φησὶν, ἐπικράνθη. Συναντήσας σοι κάτω ἐπικράνθη· καὶ γὰρ καθῃρέθη· ἐπικράνθη· καὶ γὰρ ἐνεπαίχθη. Ἔλαβε σῶμα, καὶ Θεῷ περιέτυχεν· ἔλαβε γῆν, καὶ συνήντησεν οὐρανῷ· ἔλαβεν ὅπερ ἔβλεπε, καὶ πέπτωκεν ὅθεν οὐκ ἔβλεπε. Ποῦ σου, θάνατε, τὸ κέντρον; ποῦ σου, ᾅδη, τὸ νῖκος; Ἀνέστη Χριστὸς, καὶ σὺ καταβέβλησαι· ἀνέστη Χριστὸς, καὶ πεπτώκασι δαίμονες· ἀνέστη Χριστὸς, καὶ χαίρουσιν ἄγγελοι· ἀνέστη Χριστὸς, καὶ νεκρὸς οὐδεὶς ἐπὶ μνήματος. Χριστὸς γὰρ ἐγερθεὶς ἐκ νεκρῶν, ἀπαρχὴ τῶν κεκοιμημένων ἐγένετο· αὐτῷ ἡ δόξα καὶ τὸ κράτος εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων. Ἀμήν.  If anyone is a devout lover of God, let them rejoice in this beautiful radiant feast. If anyone is a faithful servant, let them gladly enter into the joy of their Lord. If any are wearied with fasting, let them now reap their reward. If any have laboured since the first hour, let them receive today their just reward. If any have come after the third hour, let them celebrate the feast with thankfulness. If any have arrived after the sixth hour, let them not doubt, for they will sustain no loss. If any have delayed until the ninth hour, let them not hesitate but draw near. If any have arrived at the eleventh hour, let them not fear their lateness. For the Master is gracious and welcomes the last no less than the first. He gives rest to those who come at the eleventh hour just as kindly as those who have laboured since the first hour. The first he fills to overflowing: on the last he has compassion. To the one he grants his favour, to the other pardon. He does not look only at the work: he looks into the intention of the heart. Enter then, all of you, into the joy of your Master. First and Last, receive alike your reward. Rich and poor dance together. You who have fasted and you who have not, rejoice today. The table is fully laden: let all enjoy it. The fatted calf is served: let no-one go away hungry. Come all of you, share in the banquet of faith: draw on the wealth of his mercy. Let no-one lament their poverty; for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no-one weep for their sins; for the light of the forgiveness has risen from the grave. Let no-one fear death; for the death of the Saviour has set us free. He has destroyed death by undergoing hell. He has despoiled hell by descending into hell. Hell was filled with bitterness when it tasted his flesh, as Isaiah foretold: ‘Hell was filled with bitterness when it met you face-to-face below’ – filled with bitterness, for it was brought to nothing; filled with bitterness, for it was mocked; filled with bitterness, for it was overthrown; filled with bitterness, for it was destroyed; filled with bitterness, for it was put in chains. It received a body, and encountered God. It received earth, and confronted heaven. It received what it saw, and was overpowered by what it did not see. O death, where is your sting? O hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns in freedom. Christ is risen, and the grave is emptied of the dead. For Christ being raised from the dead has become the first-fruits of those who sleep. To him be glory and dominion to the ages of ages. Amen.

Maundy Thursday 2022

The events commemorated at tonight’s Maundy Thursday service, 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. When St Paul wrote his First Letter to the Corinthians it was about twenty years after the Death and Resurrection of Christ. There were still plenty of the Apostles alive, who had been there on this very night, sharing a final meal with Jesus. Paul’s letter is the earliest example of an institution narrative for the Eucharist. It predates the Gospel accounts, but is in complete agreement with them. For almost two thousand years the Church has followed Jesus’ commandment and has done this in remembrance of Him. We partake in the Eucharist because Christ told us to do so. As disciples of Jesus, we are fed with the Body and Blood of Christ, so that we might become what we eat and drink. 

St Paul is keen to stress how he has passed on to the church in Corinth all that he has received from God. This is tradition: handing on what has been handed to you. So the Church has maintained the tradition of the Eucharistthrough the ages. We gather to do the same things that Christians have always done, and will continue to do, until Christ comes again. 

Yet St John’s Gospel does not mention Jesus’ Institution of the Eucharist. The omission seems strange, and somewhat perplexing. This is a Eucharistic Gospel which starts with John the Baptist greeting Jesus as the Lamb of God, and shows Jesus turning water into wine, at the Wedding at Cana in Galilee. There is an extended passage of Eucharistic teaching just after the Feeding of the Five Thousand, at the time of Passover, called the Bread of Life discourse (John 6). Unlike St Paul and the other three Gospels, St John takes a different approach and weaves eucharistic teaching throughout his Gospel. 

If you were to visit a Jewish house in the Holy Land in the time of Our Lord, upon your arrival you would have your feet washed. People wore sandals, and their feet got dirty in this hot, dusty environment. Normally foot washing was something done by servants. To have your feet washed by the host, the master of the house, was a special honour, a sign of a guest’s importance. Jesus’ act of washing the disciples’ feet is one of humility, intimacy, and loving service. To speak personally for a moment, tonight in this service I feel very close to the Lord. I do what He did: I wash people’s feet and celebrate the Eucharist. This service is one of those moments when it all feels very real. I am a priest insofar as I have some small share in Christ’s Priesthood, but as I celebrate this evening, I am drawn into a mystery, the mystery of God’s Love made manifest to save humanity. Over the next few days we will relive Jesus’ Death and Resurrection. The journey starts here, as it did two thousand years ago, washing feet, and taking bread and wine, to demonstrate that God’s love is real. This is a love which brings the entirety of the human race: past, present, and future into a relationship with a generous God, through Christ’s sacrifice of Himself upon the Cross and through His bursting from the Tomb. 

In this evening’s Gospel we have the wonderful example of Peter, the enthusiastic leader of the Apostles being very ‘Peter’. He begins by refusing to have his feet washed, and then he wants his head and hands washed as well. As ever, Peter doesn’t completely understand what is going on — which is something of an encouragement to us! While he may not fully comprehend what is happening, he loves Jesus, and that is enough. God does not call us to understand, but rather to experience the mystery of His saving love, so that it might transform us. This is why the Gospel ends with Jesus teaching:

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

Jesus inverts the social order, acting as a servant rather than a Master, to show His disciples that loving service is the core of who He is. Jesus expects them to follow His example. All Christians, including those called to serve the Church as deacons, priests, and bishops, should understand who we are, and what we do, as grounded in the service of each other. It is how we put Christian love into practice, living it out in the world, so that it can transform people. This is our witness to the world, inspired by Christ’s example, and nourished with the Eucharist, transformed to change the world.

Each and every one of us, through our baptism, have been born again. We share in Christ’s Death and Resurrection, and are called to bear witness in our lives. We are called to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with the world, so that all may know true love, true healing, and true forgiveness, joining in the song of the angels 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.

Rembrandt – Christ washing the disciples’ feet (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)

Good Friday 2022

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

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

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

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

There is a stark beauty to today’s liturgy. We come face to face with the reality of God’s love amidst pain, suffering, and death. God dies for us, as a human being, nailed to a Cross, with arms outstretched to embrace the world in love. Two thousand years ago very few people understand what is going on. Pilate doesn’t want any trouble, let alone a riot or an insurrection. The Jewish authorities want to be rid of a charismatic Galilean rabbi, who has a knack for fulfilling Messianic prophecies. The soldiers are just doing their job. This what they do every day: execute criminals. Most of the disciples have fled. Naturally they are petrified by this turn of events, and worry that they will be killed next. Two people are present at Calvary as witnesses. Mary, Jesus’ mother, and John, the Beloved disciple. Thirty-three years before the Archangel Gabriel told Mary that she would bear the Son of God. Now she stands at the foot of the Cross to see her beloved Son suffer and die. Simeon had once told her that a sword would pierce her soul, and now that prophecy comes true. But before He dies, Jesus does something wonderful:

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

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

Today we have the opportunity to reflect on Jesus’ suffering and death, and to glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is our salvation, our life, and our resurrection, through whom we are saved and made free. Amen

James Tissot – It is finished (Brooklyn Museum)

Palm Sunday (Yr C)

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

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

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

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

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

In Jerusalem in the Twelfth century there was a procession on Palm Sunday recreating Jesus’ journey from Bethany to Jerusalem. The Golden Gate [Porta Aurea], was only opened on this day of the year. Through this gate, the King, representing Christ, rode in on a Donkey, whilst the people waved palm branches and cried “Hosanna to the Son of David”. In our own way, we too are re-creating Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem here today. The Donkey ridden by Jesus reminds us of the humble beast of burden, which carried his Mother to Bethlehem for His birth, and then carried the Holy Family into exile in Egypt. This is an act of humble leadership which fulfils what was foreseen by the prophets. It shows us that Jesus Christ is truly the one who fulfils the hopes of Israel. The Hebrew Scriptures look forward to the deliverance of Israel, which is enacted in front of their very eyes.

The people in Jerusalem recognise that this Galilean rabbi is their Davidic king and saviour. They praise God that scripture has been fulfilled. The Pharisees are upset, and they ask Jesus to rebuke those gathered, to which He replies,

I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.’ (Lk 19:40 ) 

The very stones of Jerusalem would sing for joy that their Messiah, the Anointed of God is in their midst. Their salvation is at hand, and yet some are unable or unwilling to recognise it.

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 hear about the servant being mistreated. He is struck on the back, his beard is torn out, he is spat at and he is insulted. All these things will come to pass as Our Lord goes to the Cross on Good Friday, fulfilling prophecy. God will show us how much he loves us by enduring such treatment. The way Jesus is treated shows what humans are capable of: anger, hatred, bitterness, mob rule, the desire to have a scapegoat, someone to blame. This is fallen, sinful humanity at its worst. On our TV screens at the moment we see horrific evidence of the shocking way people can behave towards each other. It makes us feel sick to the pits of our stomachs. This is the reason why Christ had to die, to overcome sin, the world, and the Devil, with the redemptive power of God’s love.

In his Letter to the Christians in Philippi, written while he was in prison in Rome, St Paul lays great stress upon the humility of Jesus Christ, demonstrated by His entry into Jerusalem on a donkey. Humility is not often appreciated these days. It is a quiet, unassuming virtue, the opposite of being full of ourselves, and having a high opinion of ourselves. Humility recognises that it is not just the individual that matters. It recognises that there are more important things than our personal desires. Jesus is our example, demonstrating that we need to put God at the centre of things, and learn to be thankful for all that is good.

We need to follow the example of Jesus, who offers the world salvation. All that Jesus is and does — from His Incarnation, to His Passion, Death, and Resurrection — is about saving humanity. His life’s work is to restore us and pour out God’s love on us. We meditate upon His Passion to remind ourselves that God loves us. Today we are gathered together to celebrate the Eucharist, just as Christ did on the night before He died. We share in the Body and Blood of Christ, so that Christ may transform us, so that we might become His Body, filled with His love. As Christians we are called to share that love with the whole world. 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.

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

Lent V

The world around us loves to be judgemental: to condemn people when they do wrong, and to take delight in their fall from grace. This is especially true if they are famous or powerful. We put people on pedestals, and then we are surprised when they fall off. More than that, the media constantly encourages us to be critical of others. This is deeply corrosive, because it sets us up to think that we are somehow better. It’s not that we don’t do the same things, but only that we haven’t yet been found out, or had our misdeeds paraded in public. We all, each and every one of us, myself included, say and do things which we should not, which hurt others, and for which we need forgiveness. Thankfully, we can ask God and each other for forgiveness. Because of what Christ did for us, taking our sins upon himself, on the Cross, we are forgiven. God loves us, and in turning to God for forgiveness we are turning away from sin, and trying to live our lives in a new way. The Christian life is a constant repetition of this process, failing and trying again, and keeping on so that bit by bit, gradually, we let God be at work in us, to transform us. This enables us to be less judgemental, more loving, and more forgiving. Drawing on God’s love, we can build up a community that is filled with a radical transforming love, a force for good, a beacon of hope, sharing that love with the world around us.

In the prophet Isaiah we see that God is creating new opportunities: a way in the wilderness, streams in the desert. It is the hope that the Messiah will bring a new way of living which refreshes people, and which satisfies their deep inner thirst, in a way that nothing of this world can. Only Christ can give us living water, so that we can live in, and for, and through Him.

St Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, writes to a church experiencing persecution. At the time of writing, Paul is under house arrest in Rome. Despite this, Paul’s message is one of hope for the future, because of what God has done for him. Paul knows that he has been forgiven, and made righteous, through Christ’s Death and Resurrection. And because of this he is happy to be called to share in that suffering and death. Paul realises that he is still a work in progress, but he trusts God to be at work in him, through Christ.

Today’s Gospel is the account of the Woman caught in Adultery. By the law of Moses she should be punished by being stoned to death. But Jesus’ response shows the world another way: it is the way of love and not of judgement. This passage is the only time when the Gospel writers record Jesus writing. After the Scribes and Pharisees have brought the unnamed woman to Him, He does the following:

‘Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.’ (Jn 8:6) 

This verse has puzzled people for centuries: what did Jesus write? The answer to this intriguing question may come from Scripture. A few verses earlier in John’s Gospel Jesus talks of rivers of living water. In the prophet Jeremiah we find the following words:

‘O Lord, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you shall be put to shame; those who turn away from you shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living water.’ (Jer 17:13)

We can speculate that this verse from Jeremiah is what Jesus wrote in the earth. Writing these words would both fulfil the prophecy of Jeremiah, and shame the accusers. Jesus is showing that the Scribes and Pharisees have turned away from God, towards legalism and judgmental behaviour. Those gathered would know the prophecy of Jeremiah, and also that Jesus has recently mentioned streams of living water. This verse allows us to understand what is going on. Jesus is fulfilling Scripture, and demonstrating that God should be characterised by love and mercy. 

The Religious Authorities have not quite understood the situation. They continue to press Jesus for an answer, which He does not give. Instead:

‘he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”’ (Jn 8:7)

Jesus’ position is non-judgemental, and highlights the hypocrisy of the accusers. He then returns to His writing:

‘And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground.’ (Jn 8:8)

It is possible that Jesus was finishing the verse from Jeremiah. What we do know is that the combination of His words, written and spoken have a profound effect:

‘But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”’ (Jn 8:9-11)

Jesus does not condemn the woman: God is a God of mercy. However, Christ does say, ‘go, and from now on sin no more’ (Jn 8:11). Forgiveness goes hand-in-hand with contrition and repentance. We are loved, healed and restored by God, but with forgiveness comes a challenge: as Christians we are to turn away from  wrongdoing, from the ways of the world, and instead find life in Christ.

Lent gives us the opportunity to take a long, hard look at ourselves and at our lives. It is a time to recognise that we need to conform ourselves to Christ — to live, and think, and speak like Him. We need to be nourished, healed and restored by Christ, so that we can live lives which proclaim His love and His truth to the world. 

Let us open our lives to God’s Holy Spirit so that we may celebrate Jesus’ Death and Resurrection, and our reconciliation with Our Heavenly Father. May God’s grace perfect our nature and fit us for Heaven, to share the divine life of love, and sing praise to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory dominion and power, now and forever. Amen. 

James Tissot The Adulterous Woman — Christ Writing upon the Ground (Brooklyn Museum)

Lent III

The proclamation of the Good News of the Kingdom of God by Jesus and by His cousin, John the Baptist is straightforward. The message is simple, and it is the same for people everywhere: ‘Repent and believe the Good News’. Belief concerns where and in whom we put our trust; whilst repentance is a matter of turning away from sin, turning back to God, and living a life characterised by faith, hope, and love. Repentance means to change one’s mind, and to make a conscious act of the will to try and live as God wants us to live. 

Baptism and repentance are closely tied together. Before someone is baptised they, or their parents and Godparents, are asked if they reject sin, the world, and the devil. They are asked if they turn to Christ, and believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. These questions and answers are a public display and enactment of both faith and repentance. Historically, the season of Lent is one of preparation for Baptism. Candidates would be taught the Christian Faith, and share in the journey, first of Christ in the Desert for forty days, and then of His Passion, Death, and Resurrection. Through the waters of Baptism they would pass over from death, to new life in Christ. This Paschal Mystery is one which the Church re-enacts on a yearly basis. It reminds us of who and what we are, and why we are here. We gather together on a Sunday, the day Christ rose from the dead, to follow His Command, and tocelebrate the Eucharist, the memorial of His Passion and Death. Christians have done this for two thousand years, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, in obedience to Christ’s command to ‘do this in memory of me’.

St Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians is a warning to keep vigilant: the church can never be complacent. For us, too, Lent is to be a time when we learn to be watchful of our own desires, and to turn away from all that separates us from God. Paul draws a parallel between the Christian community of Corinth and the Israelites on their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. Egypt represents the world, and the Promised Land, Heaven. The Exodus story is understood by Paul as a metaphor for the Christian Spiritual Life. We are all on a journey, a journey back to God, to be united with Him, and to share His joy forever.

As the Israelites were fed with spiritual food — manna — so Christians are fed with the Living Bread — Jesus Christ. As the Israelites were refreshed with spiritual drink, Christians drink the Blood of Christ, and are washed in the waters of Baptism. As Moses strikes the rock at Massah and Meribah, the Rock is Christ, upon whom we can build with sure foundations, against the storms of this world. Nourished by the Eucharist, we are fed by God, with God, so that He may transform us, so that we can share His Eternal Life. The Corinthians are taking this for granted, hence Paul’s warnings in the Epistle. Like the Corinthians, we need to avoid sin, and turn back to God, and be nourished by Him, so that we can grow in faith.

This morning’s Gospel is full of warnings. Jesus begins with two tragic stories. In the first people from Galilee have been killed by the Roman Governor while offering sacrifice to God. In the second, eighteen people were crushed to death by a falling tower. [We cannot help but think of the people of Ukraine being killed by falling buildings at this very moment]. The message of the Gospel is that time is short, we do not know how or when our end will come. So what can we do? The answer is simple, we must repent, turn away from sin, and believe in God. We need to take advantage of the Grace which is offered us in Christ, to turn back to God, and to live lives of faith which bear fruit in good works. The Good News is that, despite deserving to be condemned, we are given another chance. God is merciful, God loves us, God forgives our sins, and longs to see humanity united with Him in Heaven. 

To demonstrate this Jesus uses the parable of the Fig Tree:

“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vine dresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig round it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” (Lk 13:6-9)

The man makes three visits to the fig tree. These visits stand for the Patriarchs, the Prophets and the Gospel — the warnings given in Scripture to repent — and the three years of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Despite the guidance, the fig does not bear fruit, therefore it should be cut down.

And yet, the gardener gives a fig tree another chance. This is grace: the free gift of God, granted not earned. Only through God’s grace can we hope to bear fruit. The gardener, who created humanity in Paradise, will offer himself as both Priest and Victim upon the Tree of Life, to bleed and die for love of us. This gardener will meet Mary Magdalene by the empty tomb on Easter Day, so that we and all humanity may share Christ’s risen life. The fact that we are here today is proof that for two thousand years the tree has borne fruit.

Despite this, we are also like people in the desert, not just in this period of forty days of Lent, but throughout our lives. The modern world is deeply consumerist: shopping centres replace churches, and yet we still thirst for something more, something to satisfy our deepest needs. We all realise that commercialism cannot save us. What we purchase doesn’t really nourish or satisfy us. There can be no commercial exchange with God. We cannot buy our way into Heaven, or earn our place through good deeds. We simply have to receive God’s gifts, that’s what grace is. We are not worthy of God’s generosity, but that’s the point. Our Heavenly Father satisfies our deepest needs and desires out of love for us, so that enfolded in His love we might become more lovely, filled with God’s infinite love and grace. Only when we are watered by God can we truly bear fruit. Only if we are born again, by water and the Spirit in Baptism, can we have true hope. This is what the season of Lent is for: it is a time to prepare for Baptism — to share in our Lord’s death and His new life. We undertake this as individuals and as a community, so that both we ourselves, and the Church, may be born again, renewed with living water, poured out over all the world to satisfy the thirst which commercialism cannot quench.

God wants us to love Him. He wants us to flourish, to have a lively faith, to be filled with His love, and to share it with others. It really is that simple. We are called as Christians to repent, and to keep on repenting, to keep turning away from sin, and turning back to God. We are forgiven, and we are loved. That’s what the Cross demonstrates: God’s love and forgiveness. It stands for all time, and fundamentally changes our relationship with God and each other. Ours is a faith rooted in love, freely given for the life of the world. 

So let us turn away from the ways of the world, its emptiness, its false promises, its immorality, all of which lead to emptiness and death. Instead, let us be nourished by the living water, which satisfies our deepest thirst, which enables us to live our best lives. Let us live in Him, who loves us, who heals us, and who restores us. The world may not understand this, and may laugh at us, just as it mocked our Lord on the way to Calvary and upon the Cross. Let us share in His sufferings, knowing that we are loved by Him who died for love of us. Let us live as a witness, to share in His work of gathering all humanity to Him: so that all people may come to experience the living water and find 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. 

The Vine Dresser and the Fig Tree – James Tissot (Brooklyn Museum)

Lent II

From a homily by St Cyril of Alexandria

With three chosen disciples Jesus went up the mountain. Then he was transfigured by a wonderful light that made even his clothes seem to shine. Moses and Elijah stood by him and spoke with him of how he was going to complete his task on earth by dying in Jerusalem. In other words, they spoke of the mystery of his incarnation, and of his saving passion upon the cross. For the law of Moses and the teaching of the holy prophets clearly foreshadowed the mystery of Christ. The law portrayed it by types and symbols inscribed upon tablets. The prophets in many ways foretold that in his own time he would appear, clothed in human nature, and that for the salvation of all our race he would not refuse to suffer death upon the cross.

The presence of Moses and Elijah, and their speaking together, was meant to show unmistakably that the law and the prophets were the attendants of our Lord Jesus christ. He was their master, whom they had themselves pointed out in advance in prophetic words that proved their perfect harmony with one another. The message of the prophets was in no way at variance with the precepts of the law.

Moses and Elijah did not simply appear in silence; they spoke of how Jesus was to complete his task by dying in Jerusalem, they spoke of his passion and cross, and of the resurrection that would follow. Thinking no doubt that the time for the kingdom of God had already come, Peter would gladly have remained on the mountain. He suggested putting up up three tents, hardly knowing what he was saying. But it was not yet time for the end of the world; nor was it in this present time that the hopes of the saints would be fulfilled — those hopes founded on Paul’s promise that Christ would transform our lowly bodies into the likeness of his glorious body

Only the initial stage of the divine plan had as yet been accomplished. Until its completion was it likely that Christ, who came on earth for love of the world, would give up his wish to die for it? For his submitting to death was the world’s salvation, and his resurrection was death’s destruction.

As well as the vision of Christ’s glory, wonderful beyond all description, something else occurred which was to serve as a vital confirmation, not only of the disciples’ faith, but of ours as well. From a cloud on high came the voice of God the Father saying: This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.

St Cyril of Alexandria Homily 9 on the Transfiguration of the Lord. [PG 77: 1011-14]

James Tissot – The Transfiguration (Brooklyn Museum)

Lent I (Year C)

The first reading this morning is from Deuteronomy and is part of the account of the Feast of First-fruits, called Shavuot. This feast celebrates the grain harvest in Israel, seven weeks after Passover. ‘What?’ you say, “Harvest Festivals?’ This seems a strange topic when we have just begun a six-week penitential season characterised by, amongst other things, fasting, abstaining from food. Yes, at first glance it does appear somewhat strange, but there is a reason. 

The reading from Deuteronomy is mostly an account of the words and actions made by the one offering the fruits of the earth to God. This includes a narration of preceding events: Israel’s journey from slavery in Egypt to Freedom in the Promised Land. It is a prayerful retelling of the Passover story, which gives thanks to God for His mighty acts. As the Jews relive salvation history, we as Christians are preparing to do the same. Lent precedes Our Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection, around the time of Passover, and also commemorates Jesus’ fasting in the desert at the beginning of His public ministry. 

The Christian journey through Lent is something of a trek through the desert. It is characterised by fasting, penitence and charity. These are the ways by which we can prepare our souls and bodies to celebrate Our Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection. We are sorry for all our wrongdoings, but we are also joyful knowing that Christ has overcome sin and death. There is a joy in what we do and who we are because of all that Christ has taught us and done for us. Lent is a hopeful, and a healing time. And the world certainly needs hope and healing at the moment. Lent is an opportunity to give ourselves a bit of encouragement in our spiritual lives, and it is a time to prepare. As Christians, Christ takes us from the wilderness of sin to the promised land of reunion with God the Father, and with each other.

The reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans also begins by quoting from Deuteronomy (30:14), just before Moses offers Israel the choice between life and death, good and evil. But for Paul:

‘if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.’ (Rom 10:9)

This is the heart of our faith as Christians: Jesus is Lord, not Caesar, nor any power of this world. Christ saves us, by His Death and Resurrection. We believe this and bear witness to our belief. 

Today’s Gospel takes us right back to the time immediately after Jesus’ Baptism, when He begins His public ministry. Jesus goes out into the desert to be alone, to be quiet, to fast and to pray, and to be close to God the Father. While He is in the desert, Jesus is tempted by the devil. Satan uses three different approaches, beginning by saying: 

‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.’ (Lk 4:3)

This is a temptation to be relevant, Jesus is hungry. The devil is saying, ‘If you’re the Son of God then do this’. This is the same thing that the crowd will say to Jesus as He goes to be crucified. The Devil and the crowd both demand that God prove Himself, rather than accepting the presence of the Holy Spirit and the voice of God the Father, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’ (Lk 3:22) Jesus is pleasing to God because He is obedient, whereas Satan is all about disobedience, not listening to God, not obeying Him. Whereas the first Adam causes sin to enter into the world by eating forbidden fruit, Christ, who is the second Adam, conquers by not eating. The desert is the exact opposite of the garden of Eden, and becomes the place of obedience, reconciliation and healing.

Jesus’ second temptation is to have power. The devil says to Him, 

To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ (Lk 4:6-7)

Jesus prefers heavenly glory and the salvation of humanity to worldly power. The devil can only offer a false god and fleeting power, whereas Christ stands for what is true and eternal. The temptation to have power, symbolised by worshipping the devil, leads to the misuse of power. It’s a very human failing. One that we see all too clearly in our world today.

The third temptation for Jesus, is to put God to the test, to be spectacular and self-seeking. Whenever we say, ‘look at me’ we’re not saying, ‘look at God’. Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:16, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test’. God does not need to prove anything. He loves us, and sent His Son for us. Jesus’ throwing himself from the Temple would be a spectacle, but it wouldn’t achieve anything. The high place which Jesus will go up to is the Cross on Calvary. Here He will suffer and die to save humanity. This is where God shows His love for the world, in humiliation rather than a glory-seeking stunt. 

Eventually the devil gives up and departs. Jesus’ faith is stronger than temptation. All these temptations are real things that we face in our lives, but Jesus shows us that we can resist them. It isn’t easy, quite the opposite, but it is possible. This should encourage us as we try to follow Jesus’ example, and grow in holiness this Lent. God does not ask the impossible of us, just that we try, and that we ask for forgiveness when we fail. We grow in holiness in Lent through prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. Prayer offers us the opportunity to deepen our relationship with God. It is more about quality than quantity: expressing true repentance, for what we have done and failed to do, and resolving to do better in the future. Almsgiving helps us to be charitable and generous, to care for those in need, just as God is generous towards us.

Fasting is key, because it helps us to master our bodily cravings, to control what we eat and do, rather than being controlled by our appetites. Just as prayer is not about getting God’s attention or changing His mind, but rather changing who and what we are, making us more loving, humble and dependant on God. In the same way fasting stops us being slaves to our desires. It sets us free, and helps us to listen to God, and draw closer to Him. Through abstinence we enter into Christ’s suffering, so we can follow the way of the Cross. We do this joyfully, because we are following Christ. We are learning to resist temptation, aided by prayer and a generous heart. We pray that this Lenten season helps us to grow in faith, hope, and love, enabling us to celebrate Our Lord’s Passion, Death and Resurrection with greater joy. 

So, my brothers and sisters, may we prepare ourselves to celebrate the Paschal mystery so that we, and all the world, 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

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

Ash Wednesday 2022

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 have all experienced over the past two years. We have been cut off from people, places, and things we are accustomed to do. In many ways the last two years have felt like a continual Lent. Despite this, as Christians, we thoughtfully prepare to celebrate the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, who began his public ministry after His Baptism by going into the de

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, 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.

Quinquagesima Year C

Our readings this week remind us of the importance of the need to put our faith into practice, and to live it out in our lives. Christianity affects who we are and how we live, it makes a difference. If we want to bear witness to Christ then our lives are a testament to what we believe: they proclaim our faith and show the world that another way is possible, and preferable. While it is hard to do this, with God’s help we are able to practise what we preach, and give an authentic witness.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus begins by telling a parable which seeks to criticise the Pharisees, and Religious Authorities of His day. 

‘Jesus also told them a parable: “Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.”’ (Lk 6:39-40)

The Pharisees are the blind leading the blind, teachers leading people the wrong way; blind to their own faults and shortcomings, yet judging others. They appear as hypocrites, as the teaching goes on to explain:

“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye’, when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.” (Lk 6:41-42)

To recognise that you have something in your own eye requires humility and self-examination to recognise your own failures and shortcomings before criticising others. Jesus here is clearly telling His followers not to be judgemental. 

Jesus then goes on to point out the need to bear good fruit, using an analogy from the natural world:

“For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush.” (Lk 6:43-44)

This vivid imagery is simple and straightforward. If we as Christians are to bear good fruit, then we need to live good lives. What we do matters, as well as what we say: 

“The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” (Lk 6:45)

It is hard not to feel chastened by Our Lord. All of us recognise that we fall short of the high standard which Jesus sets. But we should not be too harsh on ourselves. God loves us. The more we rely upon God’s love, the more that love can transform us. We can, through God’s help, become people whose life and speech are characterised by love.

Jesus then rebukes those who say that they follow Him, but are not so keen to obey His commands:

“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’, and not do what I tell you?” (Lk 6:46)

This is recognisable human behaviour: we mean well, but often our actions let us down. Putting one’s faith into practice is difficult. We have to rely on God to help us. Jesus then explains His teaching with a parable:

“Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like: he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the stream broke against it, immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great.” (Lk 6:47-49)

The two options are to build your house with or without foundations. Clearly the option with foundations is preferable. The weather of the previous week has clearly reinforced this point. We need to be built on rock, and as St Paul says:

‘the Rock was Christ.’ (1Cor 10:4)

If Christ is the rock upon which we build, then we do not need to fear what may happen, because we can rest secure in Him. A few verses later Paul states:

‘The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.’ (1Cor 10:16-17)

Our taking part in and receiving of the Eucharist is the way we are strengthened as Christians. It is the medicine for our souls. If we are nourished by Jesus then we can be built up in love and faith, and strengthened to bear witness to Christ. We need God’s grace to be at work in us, to build us up. 

At its heart Christianity is a religion of transformation. In the Incarnation Christ became what we are, so that we might become what He is. God does not want us to stay as we are. When we encounter Him in prayer, in reading Holy Scripture, and in the Sacraments, we are changed by that encounter. We become something which we were not before. Our faith is deepened, we grow in holiness, and we reflect more fully the light of Him in whose image we were created.

So let us prepare to deepen our encounter with God as we approach the season of Lent, through self-examination, and prayer, so that we may grow in holiness. May we be firmly rooted in Christ, living out our faith to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom, 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

James Tissot – The Blind in the Ditch (Brooklyn Museum)

Sexagesima (Year C)

Life in the Ancient World could be described quite straightforward: you loved your friends, and you hated your enemies. Such an attitude was widespread. It was how society expected you to behave, it was considered normal. So when we turn to Luke’s Gospel, we are faced with teaching that is profoundly counter-cultural:

‘Jesus said to his disciples, “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.’ (Lk 6:27-28)

At the heart of Christianity is a radical idea: love your enemies. To love one’s enemies seems counter-intuitive. Our enemies want to harm us. We should resist them, we should crush them. No, we are to love them! We do this because love is the heart of the Gospel. God loves us and God is born as one of us in order to transform us, by His Grace. Jesus dies on the Cross for love of us, that we might be healed and reconciled. Love has the power to end conflict. This is what Jesus shows us. He ends the enmity between God and humanity by dying for us. As Christians we are to follow Christ’s example and put love into practice in our lives. Jesus asks us to follow His example, living lives which are radically distinct from the ways of the world.

Jesus calls us to live differently and provides us with an example of how to put the theory into practice. He also continues to teach what God expects of us in terms of generous love:

‘To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.’ (Lk 6:29-31)

The generosity Jesus expects of His followers is exacting. We are told not to react to violence with violence, to give away what we have, and to treat others as we would wish to be treated, the so-called Golden Rule. 

The world around us is not good at forgiveness, or turning the other cheek. It prefers to write people off than to admit the possibility of change: that’s how they are, and that’s how they’re going to stay. In showing forgiveness and generosity we recognise the fact that we are human, that we are flawed, and that we make mistakes. Change is possible; things do not have to stay the same. Everyone loves those who love them. The point is in loving those who do not love us, so that they become lovely to us, and loveable in themselves. Only love can transform what is filled with hate and anger. Love and generosity are how God in Christ shows humanity how to live. Jesus’ life and death demonstrate what love in action means.

Jesus then reiterates His teaching:

“But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” (Lk 6:35-36)

There is a paradoxical quality to what Jesus expects of us. We are to expect nothing, and yet we will receive everything. God’s love and mercy are to be experienced rather than understood. The Kingdom of God exists to restore and reconcile humanity, and not to make sense. We can be merciful because God has shown us mercy, and continues so to do. The transforming power of God’s love and mercy is shown fully in the Mystery of the Eucharist, where we are fed by God and fed with God, so that His Love might transform us. This is generosity, shown to us so that we might be generous in return. Through God’s generosity we have the opportunity to live in a different way, and encourage others to do the same. It offers the world a way out of selfishness and sin, a chance to be God’s people living life in all its fulness.

As well as being non-violent and generous, Jesus calls us to be non-judgemental:

“Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.” (Lk 6:37-38)

If we want God to be loving and merciful towards us, then we need to demonstrate in our lives that we are living the way God wants us to live. What Jesus proposes is something costly and difficult, which requires us to go against the human instincts which lead us to be selfish, judgmental and unkind. But if we all try to follow this teaching together we will be built up as a community of loving generosity, which makes the Kingdom a reality.

Each of us, on our own, is not able to do this. Even as a Christian community we will struggle. But if we trust God to be at work in us, with His Grace perfecting our nature, then it becomes a possibility. God asks the impossible of us, not so that we will fail, but so that we rely upon God to bring this miracle to pass. 

When we are formed by God together then we can be built up in love, as living stones, a temple to God’s glory. We proclaim God’s love and truth to the world, through forgiveness and sacrificial love. Clothed in the humility of our knowledge of our need of God’s love and mercy, let us come to Him. Let us be fed by Him, be fed with Him, and be healed and restored by Him, so that we can live lives which speak of the power of His kingdom. 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

James Tissot – Jesus teaches the People by the Sea (Brooklyn Museum)

Septuagesima (Year C)

One of the roles of the Church is to ask the world a question. This question is, ‘How do you want to live?’ The readings this morning outline two possibilities: living in accordance with God’s will, or living by our own. It is clear which is preferable, and which way leads to human flourishing. So we have the challenge set before us of living this way as children of God. As we begin the countdown to Lent over the next few weeks, it is good to ponder such questions, and explore how we can support each other in living our faith in our lives.

The prophet Jeremiah offers us two different pictures. The first is of life without God, while the second is of life with God. Jeremiah’s imagery is stark and uncompromising:

“Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the Lord. He is like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see any good come. He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.” (Jer 17:5-6)

If we trust in ourselves, and our own strength, then things will not go well. Life without God looks hard and difficult. But another way is possible:

“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.” (Jer 17:7-8)

Clearly, the latter way of life is preferable to the former. Trusting God is better than trusting humanity. Putting our trust in God, allowing Him to be in charge is not an admission of failure, but rather an acknowledgement of how things are supposed to be. It is a vision of how we can flourish as human beings and continue to thrive, even in difficult times.

In Luke’s Gospel we see the continuation of Jesus’ ministry of teaching and healing. People come to Jesus because they want to know God, and they long for healing. They have come from a wide area, and are a diverse group of people, united by a common desire, to be closer to God. Unlike Matthew’s account, here Jesus does not go up a mountain to teach, but comes down to where people are. Before He teaches, Jesus heals the sick. This is important, because it reminds us that God comes among us to heal our wounds, and restore us. People want to touch Jesus, because they long for God’s healing love to transform them. Then Jesus proclaims the values of the Kingdom:

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Lk 6:20)

To be poor in the world’s eyes is to lack money, possessions, power, and influence. All these worldly things do not matter. In the Kingdom of God, those who are poor, who recognise their complete dependance upon God, are truly rich. Because they have the humility to let God be at work in them, and rely upon God, rather than their own strength, they are able to be transformed. 

“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.” (Lk 6:21)

Hunger here is both literal and metaphorical. Through a common life, and by practising radical generosity, Christians can deal with both. We long to see the world transformed, and Jesus points to a future when it will be. 

“Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh” (Lk 6:21)

Jesus is announcing a Kingdom characterised by joy. The reality of the Kingdom has been demonstrated by the healings which precede the Sermon. We know from Nehemiah that ‘the joy of the Lord is [our] strength’ (Neh 8:10). Jesus is proclaiming a restored relationship with God so that humanity may enjoy life in all its fullness. 

Jesus recognises that His radical vision will meet with opposition:

Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.” (Lk 6:22-23)

The reaction towards persecution is to be joy, which seems a little strange. Israel tends to reject prophets. Calling people to repentance and to change their lives is not easy. The point is that it is what God calls us to do, so we do it. 

There follows a series of four statements beginning with ‘Woe to you’. These parallel the earlier positive statements about the Kingdom. They turn human values upside down, and say to those who trust in themselves, their riches and abilities, that all will not go well for them in the future. Those who will not listen to Jesus because they think they do not need to will soon find out that they were wrong. 

At its heart, Christianity looks dangerous and suspect to the world around us, and so it should. As Christians, we are not conformed to the ways of the world, but rather to the will of God. We don’t just go along with things, because that is what everyone does, instead we follow a higher authority. We cannot be bought off with baubles and trinkets, with wealth or power, things of this world. This is because we acknowledge someone greater, namely God. We try to live as God wants us to live, acknowledging Him before all things. There should be something strange and different about us, something that others can see, something that reflects Christ.

Jesus died to reconcile us to God and each other, and was raised from the dead to give humanity hope in the God who loves us. This hope inspired St Paul to preach the Good News, and it should inspire us as well. We need to live out our faith in our lives. Our beliefs need to make a difference to who and what we are, so that others might see the truth of the Gospel. What we do here in church helps us to love our neighbour. We hear God’s word, and are nourished by it. We pray together for the Church and the World, and those in need. In the Eucharist, Christ fill us with His grace to strengthen and transform us.

So let us prepare to rely upon God, be filled with His Joy and Love, and share it with others so that they may come to believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen. 

James Tissot The Sermon of the Beatitudes (Brooklyn Museum)