Augustine Sermon 272: on the Nature of the Sacrament of the Eucharist

What you see on God’s altar, you’ve already observed during the night that has now ended. But you’ve heard nothing about just what it might be, or what it might mean, or what great thing it might be said to symbolize. For what you see is simply bread and a cup – this is the information your eyes report. But your faith demands far subtler insight: the bread is Christ’s body, the cup is Christ’s blood. Faith can grasp the fundamentals quickly, succinctly, yet it hungers for a fuller account of the matter. As the prophet says, “Unless you believe, you will not understand.” [Is. 7.9; Septuagint] So you can say to me, “You urged us to believe; now explain, so we can understand.” Inside each of you, thoughts like these are rising: “Our Lord Jesus Christ, we know the source of his flesh; he took it from the virgin Mary. Like any infant, he was nursed and nourished; he grew; became a youngster; suffered persecution from his own people. To the wood he was nailed; on the wood he died; from the wood, his body was taken down and buried. On the third day (as he willed) he rose; he ascended bodily into heaven whence he will come to judge the living and the dead. There he dwells even now, seated at God’s right. So how can bread be his body? And what about the cup? How can it (or what it contains) be his blood?” My friends, these realities are called sacraments because in them one thing is seen, while another is grasped. What is seen is a mere physical likeness; what is grasped bears spiritual fruit. So now, if you want to understand the body of Christ, listen to the Apostle Paul speaking to the faithful: “You are the body of Christ, member for member.” [1 Cor. 12.27] If you, therefore, are Christ’s body and members, it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord’s table! It is your own mystery that you are receiving! You are saying “Amen” to what you are: your response is a personal signature, affirming your faith. When you hear “The body of Christ”, you reply “Amen.” Be a member of Christ’s body, then, so that your “Amen” may ring true! But what role does the bread play? We have no theory of our own to propose here; listen, instead, to what Paul says about this sacrament: “The bread is one, and we, though many, are one body.” [1 Cor. 10.17] Understand and rejoice: unity, truth, faithfulness, love. “One bread,” he says. What is this one bread? Is it not the “one body,” formed from many? Remember: bread doesn’t come from a single grain, but from many. When you received exorcism, you were “ground.” When you were baptized, you were “leavened.” When you received the fire of the Holy Spirit, you were “baked.” Be what you see; receive what you are. This is what Paul is saying about the bread. So too, what we are to understand about the cup is similar and requires little explanation. In the visible object of bread, many grains are gathered into one just as the faithful (so Scripture says) form “a single heart and mind in God” [Acts 4.32]. And thus it is with the wine. Remember, friends, how wine is made. Individual grapes hang together in a bunch, but the juice from them all is mingled to become a single brew. This is the image chosen by Christ our Lord to show how, at his own table, the mystery of our unity and peace is solemnly consecrated. All who fail to keep the bond of peace after entering this mystery receive not a sacrament that benefits them, but an indictment that condemns them. So let us give God our sincere and deepest gratitude, and, as far as human weakness will permit, let us turn to the Lord with pure hearts. With all our strength, let us seek God’s singular mercy, for then the Divine Goodness will surely hear our prayers. God’s power will drive the Evil One from our acts and thoughts; it will deepen our faith, govern our minds, grant us holy thoughts, and lead us, finally, to share the divine happiness through God’s own son Jesus Christ. Amen!

Trinity Sunday — Isaiah 6:1-8, Romans 8:12-17, John 3:1-17

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. 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 is interested in reconciliation. 

We celebrate the Feast of the Holy Trinity today because in 1334 Pope John XXII decided that on the Sunday after Pentecost the Western Church would celebrate the mystery of the Trinity. It was already a popular feast, and had been kept in some form since the triumph of Orthodoxy over the followers of Arius in the 4th century. Nearly two hundred years before the Pope ordered that the feast be kept by the Universal Church, Thomas Becket was consecrated a bishop on this day, and kept the feast. Its popularity in the British Isles is shown by the fact that in the Prayerbook we number the Sundays between now and Advent not ‘after Pentecost’ but ‘after Trinity’. It defines the majority of the liturgical year for us.

This morning, at the very beginning of our service, the following words were said, ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’ We said, ‘Amen’ to signify our assent and many Christians make the sign of the Cross as the words are said. At the end of the Eucharist I, as a priest, will pray that God will bless you as I invoke the name of the Trinity and make the sign of the Cross. These words and gestures are not random, or the result of a whim, but are part of our tradition of worship as Christians. This is how we express and declare our faith in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; through our words and actions. We say these words because they express our faith.These help us to reinforce what we believe and help us to live out our faith.We make the sign of the Cross, the thing that saves us, the centre of our faith.

In this morning’s Gospel we see Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus, and after a discussion of baptism, and the new life which God in Christ offers Jesus says, ‘And as Moses lifted up the Serpent in the wilderness so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life’ (Jn 3:14-15 ESV). Jesus refers to an incident in the Book of Numbers: ‘Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.’ (Numbers 21:6-9 ESV) Jesus uses this story to help us to understand His coming Crucifixion. It will save whoever believes in Him, it is the supreme demonstration of HOW MUCH God loves us. The Love of God is such that He gave His only Son ‘that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.’ (Jn 3:16-17 ESV). God does not send Jesus to condemn humanity for its sin, its disobedience, but to save humanity THROUGH LOVE, through selfless, sacrificial, redemptive LOVE: dying for us, bearing the burden of our sin, and reconciling us to God, and each other, making the Kingdom of God a reality, and so that we can have a relationship with God, and each other which is rooted in LOVE, a love which is the very nature of God, how God is. 

The Love of God sees Jesus take flesh by the power of the Holy Spirit, to be born of the Blessed Virgin Mary, preach repentance and the nearness of the Kingdom of God, and die for us on the Cross. Then he rose again, ascended, sent the Holy Spirit to us at Pentecost, and promised to come again as our Judge. Fellowship, or Communion is what the persons of the Trinity — the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit — have between each other, and which we the Church are invited to share, with them and each other. It is the imparting of the grace, the undeserved kindness of God, of a God who dies to give us LIFE with Him forever. In the act of Holy Communion we are fed by Christ with the Body and Blood of Christ, so that we might share in the divine life here on earth, and share it with others.

We can do this because we have been baptised. In this morning’s Gospel Jesus tells Nicodemus, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’ (Jn 3:5 ESV) In our baptism we share in Christ’s death and resurrection, we put on Christ, we are clothed with Him, we become part of His Body, the Church. We are re-born, born again. It is how we enter the Church; how we are saved. It defines us as Christians — we are baptised in the name of the God who saves us, and we are His.

Jews, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and others cannot accept the fact that as Christians we say that we do not worship three Gods, but One God. They cannot accept that we believe that the Son is God, not less than the Father, likewise the Holy Spirit, and yet there are not three Gods but one God. These are not manifestations, but persons which share the same divine essence and yet they are distinct. The Father uncreated; the Son begotten; the Spirit proceeding. It is why we stand up and state our beliefs when we worship God. It matters. We do it regardless of the cost. Simply believing the Christian faith and declaring it publicly can lead to imprisonment or death in some countries around the world today. It is a serious business being a Christian, and wonderful, because we follow a God who shows that His very nature is LOVE. We are filled with that love, and share it with others.

Our faith matters. It can change lives. It can change the world, one soul at a time. It isn’t simply a private concern, something to be brought out for an hour on a Sunday morning and then hid away politely. It is the most important thing there is. It is something to fill us with joy. It is something that we should share with others, so that they might 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.

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An Easter Homily ascribed to 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.

Lent IV – Mothering Sunday

Lent is a time of preparation. We prepare to celebrate the Death and Resurrection of Jesus by forty days of praying, fasting, and almsgiving. We recognise how we fall short of how God wants us to live our lives and we try, with God’s help, to repent, to turn away from sin , and to turn back to God. It is hard work, and so it is nice to have a chance to relax our disciples and emphasise joy and celebration. Today is such a day. We recognise this by wearing rose rather than purple, a lighter, more joyful colour. We have flowers, and we rejoice in the warmth of spring. Traditionally it was a chance to go back to your mother church, the church in which you were baptised, and thus to spend time with your family. Because of this it is often conflated with Mother’s Day, a celebration which began in America, and is of an entirely secular character.

The church, however, is used to adapting, and it is good to celebrate. We all have mothers, whether they are still with us, or not. They give birth to us, and hopefully show us love. Likewise, the Church is mother to us all: we find new life in her, through our baptism, and we become part of a greater family, where we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, where we are all part of one family. This identity is in fact the most important one we have, it is how God knows us. Like any relationship it can have its problems, but it is through our common baptism that we enter the church, and come to new life in Jesus Christ. So we give thanks for our mothers, who gave us life, and for the church which gives us new life.

In our Old Testament Reading this morning we see the birth of Samuel, the prophet, who would anoint David as King of Israel. His mother, Hannah, had longed for children, and promised that any children she had would be dedicated to the service of God. He does lead the people of Israel to worship God. He is a true prophet. Just like Sarah, the mother of Isaac, Rebekah, the mother of Jacob, Rachel, the mother of Joseph and Benjamin and Samson’s mother, we see women who long for children, women who trust God.

Likewise in the Gospel we see Mary at the foot of the Cross. As she watches her Son put to death , He entrusts her to a new family, with John, the Evangelist and Beloved Disciple as her Son. We honour her as the Mother of God, and as an example of Christian love in action. She lives a life which is obedient to God, regardless of the cost. She is a model for us to follow in trusting God, just like Hannah before her. As she watches her Son die, she knows the cost of love. Such is God’s love for us, and this is what we are preparing to celebrate – God’s love for us. Our human love helps us to understand this. Mary becomes a mother to John, the Evangelist, hers is a life characterised by love and care. It is a model for how the church SHOULD be ; a place of care, of love and support – we may fail in this, but we need to remember that the God whom we serve is one of love and forgiveness, He forgives us our sins, so that we might become more like Him.

In this morning’s Epistle we hear St Paul writing to the Church at Colossae. He encourages them to live Christ-like lives, living out their faith in their lives, so that other people may know who and what we are. We do this together, as a family, a Christian community, sharing the common task of bearing witness to the faith of our baptism. It takes effort on our part: we have to try to do it, but we are not alone in our efforts. God gives us the Church, so that we can do it together. We can meet together to pray, to read the Bible, and most importantly to celebrate the Eucharist together, so that we can be faithful to Our Lord Jesus Christ, who told us to DO THIS in memory of Him, so that we can be fed with the Body and Blood of Christ, fed BY Christ, and fed WITH Christ, so that We can become what He is. We can share in His life, and be transformed more and more into His likeness. This is our soul’s true food, the greatest medicine we could ever receive, the Bread of Eternal Life, and the Chalice of Everlasting Salvation. Christ dies for us, to show us what true love is, so that we can share in that love, and share that love with others. This is why we died in baptism and were raised to new life in Christ, to share in His Body and Blood, and to live that life out in the world, growing more and more into His likeness, to be prepared for Heaven where we might enjoy His love forever.

So let us come to Him, to be fed by Him, and with Him, to live lives of love, and encourage others so to do, so that all may give glory to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever…

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The Baptism of Christ: Gen 1:1-5; Acts 19:1-7; Mk 1:4-11

 

January is a time for making resolutions: we start the New Year full of optimism, full of promise, but despite our good intentions, most of us, myself included, have probably broken them by now. We mean well, and we fail. And that’s the point. We try to turn over a new leaf, but we find it hard to stick to. The God whom we worship understands temptation and sin, because he lived as one of us. He is a God of love, of mercy, and forgiveness. How ever many times we fall short we be assured that we will be welcomed, healed, restored and pardoned. God loves us as we are. We do not need to earn his love, or deserve it. He loves us and longs for us to have the fulness of life in Him. Today Jesus shows us the way back to the Father,

The ideas of baptism, of becoming regenerate, born again in Christ, of repentance, a change of mind, turning away from sin, and turning to Jesus Christ seem, as ever, to be just what we need as human beings, men and women, who despite our best efforts to the contrary just find it all too easy to be and do what we know we shouldn’t.

John the Baptist goes out into the desert in this morning’s Gospel. He goes out into the wilderness, to a place on the margins, of society and of human habitation, to take people out of their comfort zone, where they feel safe, to a place of encounter with God. John is ‘proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’. His message is a simple one: Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand. What he does – pouring the water of the River Jordan over people –  signifies their turning back to God, a new start, a new beginning, wiping the slate clean. What starts as something symbolic becomes something more with the Baptism of Jesus – it becomes a sacrament, an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.

Jesus does not need to be baptised, he has no sins from which to repent, there is nothing which separates Him from God, the Father. He is both God and man, and yet He is baptised – out of obedience to the will of the Father and for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit – so that we can see God in action in the world. The heavens are torn open, and the Spirit of God is active in the world. God has taken flesh in the womb of Mary and is born among us, recognised and worshipped by the Wise Men. Now he shows us the way back to the Father, through obedience and humility, through repentance, turning away from the ways of sin and the world, and turning back to the God who loves us. This is what the church is all about – proclaiming the same message, going the same thing, sharing in the same grace, which we do not deserve, we haven’t worked for or earned, but which God in His love and mercy gives us. We receive adoption, we become part of the family of God, we are born again, of water and the Spirit, we are ‘in Christ’, clothed with Him.

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

John’s baptism of water prepares the way for the baptism of the Holy Spirit in Christ, through which we enter the Church, it shows us a new way of life, life in the Spirit, life with God, which has a profound effect on our lives, who we are and what we do. It opens a possibility to us, of living in a new way, a way of love, which mirrors the generosity shown to us by God. It shows us in the Church what it is to be truly alive and how to live in a new way. It points to another act of God’s extravagant love – that Christ dies on the Cross, to take away our sin, to carry our burden, which separates us from God and each other. This sacrifice is made present here and now so that under the outward forms of bread and wine we may partake of the Body and Blood of Christ, so that our souls may be nourished and our lives transformed by God’s very self – a solemn moment, the holiest thing on earth, the most wonderful moment of our lives. Here, now, God continues to give himself so that we can continue to be transformed, something which begins at our baptism, to prepare us for heaven, and so that we can live the life of the Kingdom of God here and now – living out that self-giving, reckless, extravagant love and forgiveness in our own lives, and in the world around us.

It sounds easy, being extravagantly loving and forgiving, and yet for two thousand years we have struggled with it. It is easier to be selfish and sinful. Yet, despite our shortcomings, God continues to forgive us, so that we can carry on trying to be the people he wants us to be, which we need to be together, as a community of love and forgiveness, which is what the Church is.

Ours is a faith which can transform the world, so that all humanity can share in God’s life and love, each and every one of us can become part of something radical and revolutionary, which can and will transform the world one soul at a time, it may sound strange, crazy even, but that is the point. Rather than human violence, cruelty, and murder, the only way to transform the world is through the love of God. This is what the church is for, what it’s all about; it is why we are gathered here, to be strengthened and nourished, through prayer, the Word of God, and the Sacraments of the Church, strengthened and nourished to live out our faith in our lives to transform the world. Nothing more, nothing less, just a revolution of love, of forgiveness, and healing, which the world both wants and needs, so let us live it so that the world may be transformed and believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever.

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Advent III Year B

As Christians our vocation is a simple one: joy. This is not, however, worldly joy, the fruit of consumerist excess, a joy of stuff: what we have, what we can buy, or own, or sell, but something far deeper and far richer, which comes from God. We are to be people of JOY, filled with it, and sharing it with others.

We rejoice that our yearly memorial of Our Lord’s nativity is drawing near – a birth which changes everything, which brings about the salvation of humanity. This is the most wonderful news that the world could ever hear, and hear it they must.

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

The state, the church, and the world around us all seem to be in a mess. There is political instability, fears for the future, tyrants and demagogues in power. The peace which the Messiah came to bring it seems as elusive as ever, whereas the human capacity to create misery in the most dreadful ways makes us realise that we still have some considerable distance to travel. One possible answer is the need for repentance: to change our hearts and minds and to follow Christ.

Our readings this morning speak of the kingdom of God. It is a kingdom of love and freedom: good news to those who are oppressed, a healing love which binds up the broken-hearted, a kingdom of healing and of renewal, which proclaims liberty, which releases prisoners. It turns the world on its head, and offers something completely different: comfort to those who mourn, a mantle of praise, a garment of joy and salvation, which we have put on in our baptism.

In all our sadness and sin, we look forward to our yearly remembrance of our Lord’s incarnation. We prepare our hearts, our minds, and our lives, to go to Bethlehem, to see God come into the world naked, vulnerable, and homeless, utterly reliant on Mary and Joseph. We also prepare to meet him as he will come again, as our Saviour and our Judge. It is a daunting prospect, yet we know and trust that he saves us, that by his wounds on the cross we are healed, our sins are forgiven.

We are to rejoice, strange though it might seem, just like the people of Israel in captivity, in a God who loves us, who heals and restores us, who gives us real hope for the future. In the midst of our sorrow we are to place all our hope and trust in God who loves us, and who saves us.

We are to rejoice, as S. Paul reminds the Thessalonians, we are to be filled with a joy which leads to prayer, to a relationship with God. We give thanks to God for what Christ has achieved and will achieve. It encourages us to hold fast to what is good and abhor what is evil. In living out our faith we are drawn ever closer to the God who loves us and saves us. We draw close to Jesus in His word, and in the Sacrament of the Altar, where we are fed with His Body and Blood, so that we can be sanctified by God, and share in his divine life and joy.

We are to share this joy with others, to share the good news of Jesus Christ with all people, and not just in our words but our deeds. If we share what we have, if we are generous, if we work for justice and are clothed with humility, showing our joy in mutual love, God’s kingdom will be advanced. We, here, now, know that Jesus will come and will judge us by the standard of love which he set for us to follow. Let us trust God and share that trust in prayer, that his will may be done, and that he may fill us with his love.

The world around us is full of pain and anguish, and the only way for it to be healed is in Christ, who was bruised for our transgressions and wounded for our iniquities. He still bears those wounds as the wounds of love. As he flung out his arms on the cross, so he longs to embrace the world and fill it with his peace and love. He will not force us; he is no tyrant in the sky. It is the world which must turn to him in love and in trust, and turn away from sin. Our task is always only all things to be joyful in the Lord, and to live out our faith to help the world turn to him.

It isn’t an easy thing to do, and after 2000 years of trying we may seem as far away as when John proclaimed the coming of God’s kingdom. We could just give up, or we can try, and keep trying, no matter how many times we fail, secure in the knowledge that God loves us and forgives us. The One who calls us is faithful, and He will do this. Let us trust in Him, be fed and nourished by Him, with Him, filled with His Holy Spirit, so that all the world may come to believe and trust in Him, 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.

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Jesus and Nicodemus Lent II

The sight of a crucifix has a continuity with Golgotha; at times its vision is embarrassing. We can keep a statue of Buddha in a room, tickle his tummy for good luck, but it is never mortifying. The crucifix somehow or other makes us feel involved. It is much more than a picture of Marie Antoinette and the death-dealing guillotine. No matter how much we thrust it away, it makes its plaguing reappearance like an unpaid bill.

Fulton J. Sheen Those Mysterious Priests 1974: 101—102

 

Our Baptism is a wonderful thing, and it is why each and every one of us is here today. It is how we enter the Church, how we become part of the body of Christ,  it is how our souls are infused with the virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity, it is how we are regenerate, born again, sharing in His death, and His resurrection. It is something for which people have traditionally prepared during this season of Lent, for Baptism and Confirmation at Easter, so that they can die with Christ and be raised to new life with Him. We enter into the mystery of Christ’s saving work so that we may conformed to it and transformed by it, by Love, by believing and trusting in Christ, publicly declaring our faith in Him, and praying for His Holy Spirit, so that our lives may be transformed – living for Him, living in Him, and being transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ.

To be drawn into His likeness means coming closer to His Cross and Passion: just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up (Jn 3:14). Just as the serpent in the desert brought salvation to the people of Israel, so now the Cross is our only hope – the sacrifice of God for humanity, not something we can give God, but something he gives us – a free gift of infinite value. God gives it to us and to all the world for one simple reason – love, for love of us – weak, poor, sinful humanity, so that we might be more lovely, more like Him. God sends His Son into the world not to condemn it, but so that the world might be saved through Him – an unselfish act of generosity, of grace, so that we might be saved from sin and death, from ourselves, so that we can share new life in Him.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’ John 3:16-17 (ESV) These few words spoken by Jesus to Nicodemus in John’s Gospel encapsulate what we believe as Christians, and why we believe it, may we live them, strengthened through prayer, our study of the Bible, nourished by Our Lord’s Body and Blood, forgiven and forgiving, preparing to be caught up forever in the love of God.

It is that same sacrifice which we see here this morning, which we can taste and touch, which we can eat and drink, so that our lives and our souls can be transformed to live Christ’s risen life. It is something which we treat with the uttermost reverence because it is God, given for us, because it can transform us to live as children of the Holy Spirit, freed from the shackles of this world, free to live for Him, to live as He wants us to, His new creation, of water and the Spirit. This is what the Church has done on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, in memory of Him, to make the holy people of God. To make us holy: so that everything which we say, or think, or do, may be for His praise and glory, living out the faith which we believe in our hearts, as a sign to the world that the ways of selfishness and sin are as nothing compared with the generous love of God.

So great is this gift, that we prepare to celebrate it with this solemn season of prayer, and fasting, and abstinence, to focus our minds and our lives on the God who loves us and who saves us. We prepare our hearts and minds and lives to celebrate the mystery of our redemption, so that our lives may reflect His glory, so that we may live for Him, fed by Him, fed with Him, with our lives and souls transformed by Him. We are transformed so that we can transform the world so that it may live for Him, living life in all its fullness: living for others, living as God wants us to live. Living the selfless love which saves us and all the world, living out our faith, and encouraging others so to do, can and will conform us to Christ, so that we may be like Him, and become ever more like Him, prepared for eternal life with Him, so that we 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.

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