25th Sunday of Year B Mark 9: 30-37

Christianity is apparently ‘a religion for the weak and feeble-minded, attractive to social undesirables, the silly, the mean, the stupid, women, and children.’ (cf. Celsus quoted in Origen Contra Celsum 3:44 & 3:59) You would be forgiven if thought these were the words of Richard Dawkins, or some other New Atheist critic of Christianity. They are in fact a paraphrase of the pagan philosopher Celsus, written around ad 175. This line of argument is something Christians have had to counter for over 1800 years.

It is not true, and it relies upon the idea that the weak are somehow worse than the strong. It’s familiar from the writings of Nietzsche and others. The culture around us despises the weak. You want to be strong. Strength is good. Sadly strength is fleeting: we are not born strong, nor do we die strong. Strength comes and goes. And none of us is as strong as we think we are, or might like to be. The simple fact is that we are weak, and that’s OK. Our human weakness is not something terrible, it is simply how we are, and reminds us that we are relational beings, we exist in relationship with others, and need to rely upon the help and support of others, and primarily God. 

Jesus begins the Gospel this morning by reiterating his teaching which we heard last week. He stresses the importance of His Death and Resurrection as the culmination of His earthly ministry. The disciples are bewildered and afraid. They cannot understand or appreciate what Jesus is saying to them. They love Jesus, and have seen Him do wonderful things: heal the sick, feed the hungry, and even walk on water. They have seen scripture fulfilled, but cannot yet understand where it is all pointing: to Jesus’ Death and Resurrection. Instead they fall back on that very human desire, to form a pecking order, to know who is the greatest of the disciples.

Rather than telling the disciples off for being childish, Jesus teaches them that, ‘If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.’ (Mk 9 35 ESV) He then takes a child and says, ‘Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.’ (Mk 9 37 ESV) Children aren’t high up in the pecking order, they don’t know everything, and are dependant on their family. Jesus is proposing something of a revolution, turning human values on their head. The Incarnate Word of God will wash His disciples’ feet before the Last Supper. He embodies servant leadership, he doesn’t lord it over people. The ways of the Kingdom of God and this world are opposed to each other. True greatness will often look like weakness and servility in the world’s eyes. It doesn’t matter. What matters is living a life characterised by sacrificial self-giving love. 

As St Paul says in the opening Chapter of the First Letter to the Corinthians, God’s weakness is stronger than our strength. (1Cor 1:25) It is a paradox. This paradox is made apparent on the Cross, where God shows us that sacrificial love can change the world, and heal our wounded souls and restore broken humanity. It is part of the Mystery of the Cross, the mystery of God’s love. In a moment of weakness and powerlessness, where evil and sin appear to have triumphed, this is the supreme demonstration of LOVE, an act of such generosity which has the power to reconcile humanity. It is, with Christ’s Resurrection, the centre of our faith. 

The ways of the world can be found in the first reading this morning, from the Book of Wisdom, they point forward to Christ’s suffering and death. Christ is condemned to a ‘shameful death’ so that through it God might demonstrate His LOVE to the world.

Love can only be offered. It can be accepted or rejected, and it lies at the heart of any relationship. God gives Himself to us so that we might live in Him. He gives Himself today under the outward forms of bread and wine, so that might feast on His Body and Blood, and have life in Him. He offers himself to us, so that we might share in His Death and Risen Life. Love is vulnerable, and its vulnerability is most evident on the Cross, where Christ opens his arms to embrace the world in love.

Christ’s life on earth ends as it begins: He is naked and vulnerable. God’s weakness truly is stronger than human strength because it is the only thing which can truly change the world, heal our wounded souls, and restore broken humanity. Nothing else can. Without it we are condemned to the ways of selfishness and sin, which characterise so much of the world around us. The church is not immune as it is made up of frail, sinful human beings, just like you and me. We need God to be at work in our lives, to transform us more and more into His image. Recognising our own shortcomings is the first step in a process whereby God can be at work in our lives, transforming us more and more into His likeness. We need God’s grace to be at work in us, and recognising this is a sign of humility, that we know our need of God. This is not weakness, quite the opposite. 

We know that we have a problem, which we are unable to solve on our own. In His love and mercy, God sends His only Son to be born for us, to live and die for us, and rise again for us. He gives us His Body and Blood as a pledge and token of our future hope, to heal us and restore us, so that we might become what He is. In this we share in Christ’s suffering, as to follow Christ is to follow the Way of the Cross, a hard road, but one which leads to the joy of Easter, and New Life in Christ. We are transformed through LOVE and SUFFERING, a journey which starts with child-like trust in the God who LOVES us. It starts with humility, knowing our need of God, and trust in a God who loves us, and who can transform us. 

So my brothers and sisters, let us come to Him, trusting Him to be at work in our lives, filling us with His Love, sharing His suffering, pouring out His Grace upon us. Let us stay close to Him: nourished by His Word, the Bible, and the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist, where we receive a foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet, our food for the journey of faith, transforming us into His Divine likeness, strengthening us to live out our faith through acts of loving service, putting our faith into practice so that the world around us may repent of its foolish ways , and come to know and love 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. christ-children-02

Twentieth Sunday of Yr B (Prov 9:1-6, Eph 5:15-20, Jn 6:51-58)

Over the past few weeks our readings from St John’s Gospel have focussed on Jesus’ teaching about the Bread of Life. After the Feeding of the Five Thousand Jesus teaches people at great length, beginning with His statement, ‘I am the bread of life’ (Jn 6:35) It is an extended meditation on what the Eucharist, the central and primary act of Christian worship, is. It is where we follow Jesus’ command to ‘to this in memory of Him’. At one level it is strange: the bread and wine do not look or taste any different after prayers have been said, but what we are eating and drinking IS different, because Jesus says that it is, because God is active in the world, and we have a relationship with Him. The way in which God acts is mysterious, we struggle to UNDERSTAND it, but we can EXPERIENCE it, through Holy Communion, where Christ feeds us with His Body and Blood. 

In our first reading this morning from the Book of Proverbs we see Wisdom. In the Christian tradition she is identified with Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh. She is issuing an invitation: she has built a house, the Church. She has hewn seven pillars, the sacraments, the means of God’s grace to be active in our lives. The people of God are called to eat and drink, to live, and to walk in the way of insight, that is in following Jesus Christ. The New is prefigured in the Old. The Hebrew Scriptures point to, and find their fulfilment in Jesus Christ, who is the Wisdom of God, and the Word made Flesh. We are invited to His banquet, so let us come to be fed at the table of the Lord. 

Likewise St Paul advises the church in Ephesus not to behave in a worldly manner, but to put God at the centre of our lives. He ends by invoking the names of the three persons of the Godhead, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in a context of right worship, of praise of Almighty God, as that is what we as Christians are supposed to do: to love God and to serve him, through prayer and worship, through entering into the mystery of the Three in One. To be caught up in the outpouring of divine love, and to have a foretaste of it here on earth.

After feeding the Five Thousand in John’s Gospel, a sign of the generous nature of God’s love for humanity, Jesus embarks upon an extended discourse upon himself as the Bread of Life. John’s account of the Last Supper focuses on Christ washing the disciples’ feet, and their obeying Christ’s example and commands. There is no institution narrative, instead the Eucharistic teaching in John’s Gospel is centred around Jesus’ explanation in Chapter 6, so that a long time before Jesus’ suffering and death we can see what it is all about. It’s a process which starts with John the Baptist at the start of the Gospel, where he sees Jesus and says, ‘Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’ (Jn 1:29) The Lamb points to Passover and the freedom of the people of God, freedom from sin and its effects.

Jesus begins the last section of his teaching with the bold claim that, ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’ These are some extraordinary claims to make, they would have sounded shocking to a first century Jew, and some two thousand years later they still sound shocking, and yet the offering of Christ’s body for the sins of the world as a sacrifice which is re-presented, made present again and offered to God the Father upon the altars of the church, is what the church is for, it is what we are for. It is why we come together to worship on the day when Christ rose from the dead, a sign of the new life we share in Christ, through baptism and the Eucharist.

It is done so that we may have life in us, and have it for eternity, so that we may share in the pledge of eternal life given to us in Christ, who will raise us up forever with Him. Such is the nature of God’s love for us: it is freely given, we do not earn it, we do not deserve it. It is something given to us, so that by it, and through it, we may become something greater, something better than we are.

Such is the power of God’s sacrificial love at work in our lives; such is the treasure which we have come here today to receive. If it were ordinary food then we would eat it, and it would become what we are, our flesh and blood; but instead we, who eat it, become what it is: the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. We share in His divine life, we are healed by His divine love, by his sacrifice the wounds of sin and division are healed so that humanity, made in the image of God might be ransomed, healed, restored, and forgiven by God, to live to his praise and glory.

God loves us. God dies for us, and rises again for us. As a sign, a pledge and a token of His love, He gives Himself to us in the Eucharist, so that we might come to share that divine life and love. The process of transformation which will end in Heaven is begun here and now, so that we can live the life of the Kingdom of God here and now, and transform the world around us into what God wants it to be. This is the revolution which God seeks to accomplish through us, through His Church, that fed by Christ and with Christ we transform the world around us, living lives of love and forgiveness which can and will change the world. 

Such wonderful news is truly worth pondering and considering in detail given its potential effects in our lives, so that bit by bit we are slowly and sure becoming more Christ-like, fed by Him, fed with Him, and encouraging others so to do 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. 

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Fifteenth Sunday of Year B [Amos 7:7-15, Eph 1:3-14, Mk 6:14-29]

When the Church talks about calling, it often refers to the call of Isaiah, and Isaiah’s response, ‘Here am I! Send me.’ (Isa 6:8) and while it is good to respond to God’s call in our lives, I suspect that far more people, myself included, feel a lot more like the prophet Amos in this morning’s first reading: ‘I was no prophet, nor a prophet’s son, but I was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs. But the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.” Now therefore hear the word of the Lord.’ (Amos 7:14-16 ESV). Ours then is a not a God who calls the qualified, but who qualifies those called. We may well feel unworthy, or unable to carry out what God wants, and that is fine. God works through us, not because we are capable, but because we rely on Him. Amos tells the uncomfortable truth to the priest and to the king of Israel, and reminds them that their actions have consequences. The plumb line is true, it is a mark of the uprightness that God expects of Israel, the standard of the Law, the Torah. They have fallen short, and will be judged. This is what prophets do, they call people back to God, to walk in His ways. 

It is what John the Baptist has done to Herod Antipas in this morning’s Gospel: he has married his brother’s wife, Herodias, while his brother is still alive. Leviticus 18:16 prohibits this, so Herod has broken God’s moral law, he has sinned. John has preached a message of repentance, to turn away from sinful behaviour, and to turn back to God. It doesn’t make for easy listening, especially when we know that we have all fallen short of what God expects from us. While Herod wants to listen to John, he is WEAK, he doesn’t want to lose face and acquiesces to Salome’s demand. 

Rather like John the Baptist, each of us, through our baptism, is called to bear witness to our faith in our lives. This is what martyrdom is, bearing witness, regardless of the cost. We are called by God to be an example and to live out our faith in our lives. In our baptism we put on Christ, we are conformed to him, as priest, when we pray, as king, when we serve, and prophet, when we proclaim His Kingdom. Our prayer, service, and proclamation are the ways in which we live out our faith as something real in our lives, something which Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians reminds us that we do for the glory of God, whatever the cost. Few of us nowadays here in the UK are likely to bear witness to our faith at the cost of our life. Around the world plenty of Christians are, because they value Christ more than anything in this world, even life itself. Nothing is more important or valuable than Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, who comes to us in His Word, the bible, and under the outward forms of bread and wine in the Eucharist, to feed us, and to transform us more and more into His likeness. 

When Jesus’ preaching comes to the ear of Herod he thinks that John has been raised from the dead. This anticipates and points forward to the Resurrection when Jesus will rise from the dead. Jesus and John are proclaiming the same message: Repent of your sins, and turn back to and believe in God. They both do marvellous things because they are both filled with the Holy Spirit. What they are, and what they do, is exactly what the church, you and me are called to, the same message, the same proclamation, the same miracles. If we trust in the God who loves us, then God can and will do wonderful things with and through us.

Herod doesn’t want to kill John, his conscience is pricked, he knows that he has done wrong. He is in a position where he does not want to risk losing face, in a culture where honour and shame are still motivating factors this is understandable, even if it doesn’t make it right. So Herod gives in to Salome’s wishes, and John pays the price of telling truth to power. Are we willing to do the same?

We do so as heralds of the Kingdom of God which is still becoming a reality in the world around us, it is a work in progress until Christ comes again and renews all things in Himself. In the meantime we can rest secure that we are a part of God’s plan for the world, a plan of LOVE, which sees Jesus die upon the Cross for our sins, and rise again to give us the hope of heaven. The redemption of the world in and through Jesus Christ is a reality, one which will become visible and present upon the altar this morning, where we obey His command to ‘Do this in memory of Him’ Christs’s sacrifice upon the cross is made present to us, so that we can share in His Risen Life, and the glory of Heaven here and now. We have a foretaste of heavenly glory to strengthen us on our journey of faith. We have hope for the future because of what God has done for us, and we have a pledge of it here this morning, in Christ’s Body and Blood. 

So how are we going to respond to the amazing generosity of God? Are we content to say, ‘Thank you very much!’ and carry on regardless as though none of this matters? Are we content for religion to be a matter of private devotion, rather than the core of our being, who we really are, the centre of our lives? Are we so conformed to the world that we act as though God is not important? If God can do such amazing things for us, can we not do more for God? It’s hard, we can all do better, and try harder; our lives are pressured, but that is why we are a Christian community. We do things together: we support each other, both in prayer and action, we cannot do it on our own, we can only do it TOGETHER, by the grace of God, working in and through us. It is His church, of which we are members, called to love and serve Him. God provides all that we could ever want or need with regard to faith, hope, and love. If we trust Him and rely upon Him alone then we can bear witness so that the world will come to believe in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.

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Easter III [Acts 3:12-19; 1John 3:1-7] Luke 24:36b-48

This morning’s Gospel account of the post-Resurrection is quite a surprising one. Disciples have just come straight from Emmaus, where they recognised Jesus in the breaking of the Bread, which is confirmed by the disciples, who said that the Lord has appeared to Simon Peter. And then, all of sudden, Jesus is there among them, and says, ‘Peace be with you’. They are startled and afraid — they cannot believe it. He was dead. They saw Him die on the Cross. People don’t rise from the dead. And there He is in front of them. It is immediate, and abrupt, and startling. It is no wonder that they think that they are seeing a ghost, a spirit. They need reassurance, they cannot yet believe. Jesus invites them to inspect His hands and feet, to see the mark of the nails, to gaze in wonder at the wounds of love, to see that God loves them. He’s not a ghost, but a living being — flesh and blood. They’re happy, but they still cannot believe, so Jesus says, ‘Have you got anything to eat?’ They give Him a piece of grilled fish, and He eats it in front of them. He’s not a ghost, He’s alive, living, breathing, and eating. God takes flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and lives among us, dies, and is raised to new life, to show us what God has in store. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, which we celebrate at Easter, which we keep celebrating for weeks, truly is Good News. it takes a while for this to sink in to His disciples, they cannot take it in. It is extraordinary, but it is TRUE.

Jesus then reminds the disciples that before His death, he had told them that everything in the Jewish Scriptures about Him must be fulfilled. He has to suffer and die, for our sins. He does this willingly, out of love, because He is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. It takes them time to understand that He has risen from the dead, and likewise they’re not going to understand the entirety of salvation history immediately. It takes time, even just reading the readings at the Easter Vigil takes time, and this is just a snapshot of what the Old Testament contains in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Writings. Most of the writings of the Early Church do just what Jesus did, they go through Scripture to see how it points to Jesus, how it finds its fullest meaning in and through Him, the Word made Flesh. I could stand here for hours, days weeks even, and only scratch the surface. Obviously I’ll spare you that, but in the rest of the time that I have to live on earth, I know that I can only begin to tell people about Jesus, and explore how the Bible points to Him. But I need to do it, to explain to people who and what Jesus is, and does, and to say to the world around us the words of St Peter from our first reading this morning, ‘Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out,’ [Acts 3:19 NRSV]. The call to follow Jesus and to believe in Him requires a change of heart and mind, a change in how we live our lives, something we have to keep on doing all our lives, a constant commitment to turn from the ways of the world, the ways of sin, to turn to Christ, and follow Him.

Christ explains how His Suffering and Death are foretold in Scripture, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins are to be proclaimed in His name to all the world. So all of Scripture points to Him, even the awkward, and hard to understand bits, the bits which we would prefer not to read. And we need to tell people about Jesus, who he is, what He does, and why it matters.

He came to offer people an alternative to the ways of the world. You can find temporary happiness in many things, but shopping isn’t going to save your soul. Only Jesus can do that. Amazon, or the High St can do many things, but they’re not going to save you, forgive you your sins, or give you eternal life. Stuff doesn’t save, Jesus does. Our materialistic culture tries its best to hide from this fact. We fill our time with business and distraction. We do all sorts of things which we enjoy, which provide transitory pleasure. But lasting happiness can be found in Christ, and in Christ alone.

I’m as bad as anyone else at this. I admit it. I don’t deserve to be standing here saying this to you. I’m no better than you, probably I’m worse. I certainly don’t feel worthy to be called a shepherd of Christ’s flock. And that’s the point: I’m not, and it’s alright, none of us is, or ever has been, or ever will be. It’s not about us, but about what God can do through us, if we let Him. This is the reality of Christ’s Death and Resurrection. He does what we cannot do, so that we can live in Him.

We don’t need to worry because we find our JOY in Him, in Jesus, our Risen Lord. We are witness, just like those first disciples in Jerusalem, charged to tell people the same Good News, that Jesus died, has risen, and offers NEW LIFE to all, regardless of who they are, and what they’ve done. This is he demonstration of God’s love for the World, ‘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 sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.’ [John 3:16-17 RSVCE] God’s grace does not abolish our human nature, but perfects it, through faith, through the sacraments, outward and visible signs of inward spiritual grace, so that through Baptism and the Eucharist in the Church, people come to know Jesus, the Word made flesh, and share His Risen life, and are given a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, prepared by a loving Father.

People may not wish to come. They may be too busy. It may not mean anything to them, they can write it off as religious claptrap, an irrelevance in the Modern World. But it is still offered to them, and to everybody. To come to know Jesus, to trust Him, to love Him, to be fed by Him, and with Him, to have new life, and the forgiveness of sin through Him, and Him alone. For as St Peter says, ‘there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.’ [Acts 4:12 RSVCE], so my brothers and sisters in the joy of Easter let us share this so that the world may believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, dominion and power, now and forever.

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Duccio, Maesta, Altarpiece, Siena Cathedral

Lent III – The Cleansing of the Temple

It is hard for us to imagine, but for Jews in Jesus’ day, the Temple was the most important building in the world. It was the religious centre of Israel, a busy place, where devout Jews and others came to pray, to be near God. In this morning’s Gospel we see Jesus in quite an uncompromising mood: this is no ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild’ but rather here is the righteous anger of the prophets, a sign that all is not well in the world. Sin separates us from God and each other, it isn’t how we’re supposed to be.

When Moses receives the Ten Commandments from God on Mt Sinai the first is, ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.’ Could it be that the temple traders, in their desire to profit from people’s religious observance, have broken this first and most important commandment? Has their desire for making money, for profit got in the way of what the Temple is supposed to be about: namely, worshipping God? It’s become a racket, a money-making scheme to fleece pilgrims who have come from far away and who do not have the right money or the correct sacrificial animals with them. This is no way to worship God, a God who loves us, and who showed that love by delivering Israel from slavery in Egypt.

The temptation to have power, to be concerned above all else with worldly things: money, power, success, and influence, are still a huge temptation for the Church and the world. We may not mean to, but we do, and while we think of God as loving and merciful, we forget about righteous anger, and our need to repent, to turn away from our sins — the desire to control others and to be so caught up on the ways of the world that we lose sight of who and what we are, and what we are supposed to do and be. This is why we have the season of Lent to prepare ourselves, and to repent.

The Jews demand a sign, and Christ prophesies that if they destroy this temple then he will raise it up in three days: He looks to His death and resurrection to show them where true worship lies — in the person of Jesus Christ. Christians should be concerned with a relationship, our relationship with God, and with each other. Likewise Christians can all too easily forget that Jesus said, ‘I have come not to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfil them’. The Ten Commandments are not abolished by Christ, or set aside, but rather His proclamation of the Kingdom and Repentance show us that we still need to live the Law of Moses out in our lives: to show that we honour God and live our lives accordingly. In His cleansing of the Temple, Christ looks to the Cross and to the Resurrection, He shows how God will restore our relationship. The Cross is a stumbling-block to Jews, who are obsessed with the worship of the Temple, and it is foolishness to Gentiles who cannot believe that God could display such weakness, such powerlessness. Instead the Cross, the supreme demonstration of God’s love for us, shocking and scandalous though it is, is a demonstration of the utter, complete, self-giving love of God, for the sake of you and me — miserable sinners who deserve condemnation, but who instead are offered love and mercy to heal us and restore us.

When we are confronted with this we should be shocked — that God loves us enough to do this, to suffer dreadfully and die for us, to save us from our sins, and from the punishment that is rightly ours. We do not deserve it, and that’s the point. But we are offered it in Christ so that we might become something other and greater than we are, putting away the ways of the world, of power and money, selfishness and sin, to have new life in and through Him.

‘In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.’ [J.H. Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845) Ch.1, §1 Part 7] If we are changing into Jesus Christ, then we’re on the right track. If we listen to His word in Scripture; if we talk to him in prayer and let him talk to us; if we’re fed by Him and with Him in the Eucharist, by Christ who is both priest and victim, so that we might become what He is – God. If we’re forgiven by Him, through making confession of our sins, not only do we come to understand Jesus, we become like him, we come to share in his divine nature, you, me, all of humanity ideally. We, the People of God, the new humanity, enter into the divine fullness of life, we have a foretaste of the heavenly banquet — we are prepared to enter the new life of the Kingdom, and to live it.

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

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Ash Wednesday: Rend your hearts and not your garments

Today the Church celebrates Ash Wednesday, ‘the beginning of her Lenten journey towards 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, 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 draw nearer to the Lord by meditating on his word and example, and 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.’ [1]

Fasting, repentance, prayer, and the imposition of ashes were not unknown to Jews; that is why we as Christians carry on the tradition. The advice given by the prophet Joel in today’s first reading is both wise and salutary as we enter the desert of Lent. It reminds us that, first and foremost, we are to recognise our own brokenness, our own sinfulness, our own turning away from a God of Love and Mercy. While we may recognise this, any outward sign is not good enough. There is nothing that we can do in a solely exterior fashion — ripping our clothes, placing ashes upon our foreheads, which will, in itself, make a blind bit of difference. What matters, where it really counts, is on the inside. To rend one’s heart, is to lay ourselves open, to make ourselves vulnerable, and in this openness and vulnerability, to let God do his work.

It would be all too easy when faced with today’s Gospel to argue that outward displays of fasting, piety, and penitence, are criticised, that they do not matter. But this is not what Jesus is getting at. What he criticises are deeds which are done to comply with the letter but not the spirit of the law. This mechanised approach to piety, a clinging to the external nature of religion, without any concern for its inward spiritual aspect, is where the fault lies. When things are done for show, when our piety is paraded as performance, so that the world may see how good and religious we are, then we are nothing but an empty shell, a whitened sepulchre. The reward which such people receive is likewise an empty one.

Instead, Jesus upholds the standard practice of Jewish cult, but what matters is that what is done outwardly is completely in accordance with our interior life, it is an outward manifestation of our relationship with God and with one another. So Lent is to be a time when we as Christians are to seek to be reconciled, to be in full communion with God and his church. Our outward acts of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving need to be done in tandem with, rather than instead of, paying attention to our interior life: otherwise our efforts are doomed to failure. The God whom we worship is one of infinite love and mercy, which will be demonstrated most fully and perfectly on Good Friday, when we see what that love means, when for our sake God made him who was without sin into sin, so that we in him might become the goodness of God. Or as St Isaac puts it ‘as a handful of sand thrown into the ocean, so are the sins of all flesh as compared with the mind of God.’ As dreadful as we might be, as utterly undeserving of the father’s love, nonetheless, as the parable of the prodigal son shows us, there are no lengths to which God will not go. The love and mercy which flows from Jesus’ stricken side upon the cross at Calvary are still being poured out over the world, and will continue to be so until all is reconciled in him. In his commission of Peter after his resurrection, Jesus entrusts to his church the power to forgive sins, to reconcile us to one another and to God. This reconciliation is manifested by our restoration to communion with God and his Church.

It is not the most comfortable or pleasant thing to see ourselves as we really are. To stand naked in front of a full length mirror is for most of us, I suspect, not the most pleasant experience. And yet, such a self-examination is as nothing when compared with us baring our heart and soul. It is not a pleasant task, but given that God will judge us in love and mercy, having taken away our sins upon the cross, despite our apprehension we have nothing to fear. All that awaits us is the embrace of a loving father. No matter how many times we fail, how many times we would run away or reject his love, his arms, like those of his son upon the cross, remain open to embrace the world, to heal the wounds of sin and division.

If there are any of you determined to live a more Christian life, there is one resolution you need to make which is, out of all proportion, more important than the rest. Resolve to pray, to receive the sacraments, to shun besetting sins, to do good works — all excellent resolutions; but more important than any of these is the resolution to repent. The more resolutions you make, the more you will break. But it does not matter how many you break so long as you are resolute not to put off repentance when you break them, but to give yourself up to the mercy which will not despise a broken and a contrite heart. Converted or unconverted, it remains true of you that in you, that is, in your natural being, there dwells no good thing. Saints are not people who store goodness in themselves, they are just a people who do not delay to repent, and whose repentances are honourable.[2]

So then, may this Lent be for us all a time of repentance, a time for us to turn away from all which separates us from God and neighbour, a time for reconciliation, for healing and growth, that the faith which we profess may grow in our souls and be shown forth in our lives to give Glory to God the Father, to whom with God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.

[1] H.H. Pope Bendict XVI Catechesis at the General Audience 22.ii.12: http://www.news.va/en/news/pope-conquering-our-spiritual-desert

[2] Farrer (1976) The Brink of Mystery (ed. C. Conti), 17, quoted in Harries, R. (ed.) (1987) The One Genius: Readings through the year with Austin Farrer, London: SPCK, 60.

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Advent 1 Year B Mk 13:24-37

When I was a child I loved reading books. My favourite place in the world was a library, and I can still remember going there one day and my father gave me a bookmark on which the following words were written, ‘Be alert, the world  needs all the lerts it can get!’  The pun was a good one, I enjoyed it, and can remember it decades later. It makes a serious point, namely how do prepare to meet Jesus? Advent is a season of preparation, when we prepare to meet Jesus, both as a baby born in Bethlehem, and as our Saviour and Judge, who will come to call the world to account.

The world around us sees preparations for Christmas as most concerned with cards, decorations and shopping. The Church sees things somewhat differently. What matters are our souls and our lives: who and what we are, what we do, and why we do it.

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

In this morning’s gospel, our Lord tells us to stay awake, to be on our guard, to be prepared, because we do not know the time when our Lord will return in glory to judge both the living and the dead.

Jesus tells us not to be found asleep, in the sleep of sin. An attitude which says ‘I’m alright’, ‘I don’t need God’. It is this sleep which affects many people, both those who come to church, and the vast majority who do not. That’s not to say they don’t try and live good Christian lives. We all do, instinctively. And yet any mention of the last things tends to conjure up images of fire and damnation, hell and brimstone preachers, thumping pulpits and putting the fear of God into people. Such is the characterisation of the religious as extremists, something increasingly common. Yet, such people have a point – their message is true – but I suspect that they put it across in a way which strikes people as unpalatable, and so they switch off and go to sleep.

And yet, what they say matters, it is true and we could all do with being reminded of it. How we live our lives matters, it affects who and what we are, and the world around us. We have but one life to live on Earth, and we must try, with God’s grace, to do the best we can. We live in a world which does not care about such questions, apparently people’s lives are their own business, and we have no business calling people’s actions into question, but this will not do. Our actions affect us, our character, our lives, and the lives of people around us – our actions have consequences, which is why our lives and how we live them matter. What we do and say matters and the Church exists to call people to repentance – to turn around and change the whole of their lives and follow Christ in their thoughts, their words, and their deeds – for the Kingdom of God is close at hand.

Lest we get too afraid, we can turn in confidence to the words of Isaiah in our first reading this morning. The prophet is looking forward to the redemption of Israel, the coming of the Messiah, a new future after exile. Against a picture of human sin, and rebellion against God, there is the implicit possibility of something better. In those times when God can seem absent, there is the possibility that God as a loving parent is giving us space and time to reflect and repent. Isaiah is convinced both of the power and the love of God, to remake us, and restore us, to enrich us with his grace, and give us the gifts of his spirit, as Paul wrote to the church in Corinth.

We’re not being left alone in all this. God both tells us the nature and source of the problem, and provides us with a solution. He even helps us along our way: he strengthens and encourages us, to turn our lives around, and follow him. That we be vigilant – and take care of the state of our lives and our souls, and those around us, that we are awake, rather than indulging in the self-satisfied sleep of sin.

For God asks of us – that we, this Advent, turn our own lives around, and prepare ourselves to meet our Lord, at the Eucharist, when he meets us at his altar in His Body and Blood, and in His Words proclaimed in Scripture. We also need to look forward to meeting our Lord in the yearly remembrance of His Nativity, and in his coming in glory as our Saviour and our Judge. If we can look beyond the commercialism of a sad, cynical world, we can see that God was prepared to go to any length to meet us, to be with us and heal us. Can we not prepare ourselves, our souls and our lives to meet Him?

Ours is, after all, a God of love and mercy, born as a helpless child in a stable, who gives Himself out of love for us, to suffer and die to restore our relationship with God the Father and each other, who gives us Himself under the outward forms of bread and wine so that we might have life in Him. He sends us His Holy Spirit to strengthen us, so that we can be alert, stay vigilant, and prepare to meet Him.

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15th Sunday of Year A – The Parable of the Sower – Matthew 13:1–23

If, this morning, I were to go and stand  outside my local supermarket with a suitcase full of £20 notes and give away free money, you would be surprised if anyone refused the offer. There would in fact be a large queue. People would text and phone their friends. They would come from far and wide and would gladly take what I would give them and would go away happy.

And yet, we as the church offer something of far greater value than some bank notes: the love of God and life in all its fullness. If I were to stand in the middle of this village and talk to people about the love of God in Christ Jesus I doubt that there would be the same kinds of crowds, or a similar level of acceptance.

Jesus never had such problems, quite the opposite in fact, in the Gospel He has been teaching people about the Kingdom of God, and how it creates a new kind of family for us to belong to. He has been quoting from the prophet Isaiah, and now there are so many people who want to listen to what he has to say that he has to go into a boat on the Sea of Galilee to use a cove like a natural auditorium or theatre so that people can see and hear Him. He tells a parable to explain the Kingdom in a way that people could understand. A sower scatters seed, and it falls into various kinds of ground, some plants get choked by weeds. Others fall into thin soil and quickly wither and die. But some fall into good soil and produce a miraculous harvest. It’s a parable about people hearing the proclamation of the Kingdom of God: it’s easy to forget about it, to get choked by the cares of the world, to buckle under the first bit of pressure, but if you listen to what God says, and let it grow in your heart and your life then miraculous things can and will happen. Ours is an extravagant God, a generous God, a God who loves us.

The Church has always struggled with the fact that there are those who are unwilling or unable to receive the message of the Gospel of salvation. It seems so strange that people just aren’t interested in who Jesus is, in what He does, and why it matters.

I certainly don’t understand why anyone would think like that. It makes perfect sense to me, as a man of faith who loves Jesus. I want to tell people about Him. That is why I’m standing here talking to you. It is thanks to the example of a great and holy priest, Fr Glyn Bowen, who lived next door but one to us when I was a child. He was a humble, loving man, who lived out his faith and inspired me and countless others to follow Jesus.

We cannot do everything ourselves, we have to leave some things up to God.  But we can hope and trust along with the apostle Paul that ‘the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.’ (Rom 8:21 NRSV). We must remember that the spread of the Good News, like all things, is in God’s hands. Unlike in the supermarkets, the Church’s offers are not time-limited. We should not allow people’s reluctance to accept the gospel to detract us from our main purpose. We as Christians are to love God and to love our neighbour, in thought word and deed. This is the key to our faith.

By living lives which proclaim the gospel truth, that there is much more to life than the false enticements of this world, we become fruitful evangelists, with the word of God dwelling in us deeply. As Christians, all of our lives need to be filled with Christ-like love. It cannot be otherwise. Through regular prayer, and reading of the scriptures, but most of all through regular reception of Holy Communion, we can be fed by the Lord, with the Lord,  to become living temples to His glory.

For God is seeking the healing of his people as noted by the prophet Isaiah which Jesus quotes:

You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn — and I would heal them.” (Mt 13:14-15 NRSV)

Isaiah is giving a message of hope to Israel, to trust in God, and turn towards Him, so that they may be healed. It is fulfilled in Jesus, who brings about that healing on the Cross, when He reconciles us to God and each other. ‘And I would heal them’, Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah ends with a promise of God’s healing. It is a promise which Jesus fulfils on the Cross. Here He shows us that God wants to heal His people, and has sent His Son to do it. This is the Good News of the Kingdom.

We can have a truly loving community in and through Christ, who has taken our sins upon Himself, and reconciled us to God and each other. It allows us to live in an entirely different way to the ways of the world, the ways of sin and division. And in the growth of the Church we can see the New Life and miraculous harvest which God offers.

The people of our generation are reluctant or scared to accept God’s love. They have become inherently suspicious of the idea of a free gift. The only way that they can be encouraged to accept it is by seeing in the lives of people around them examples of how the free love of God affects our lives. We need to reflect God’s love in our thoughts, our words, and our deeds.

So then, let us pray that we may be fed by Him, nourished by Him, strengthened to live lives of gospel truth which proclaim the generous love of God to all those around us. Let us show this love to one another, letting God work in our lives, and helping us to love Him and to love our neighbours, so that the world around us may believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to who whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. AMEN.

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Sexagesima Yr A (7th in OT)

‘Set your heart on his kingdom first, and on his righteousness’

Hating people is quite easy, you just do it, you realise that they are bad and horrible, and nothing gives you more pleasure that thinking of them unhappy, in pain, tortured by their conscience if they have one. You may even long to see them dead, disemboweled, with their heads on spikes. It’s quite easy to feel like this, but we have to ask ourselves the question ‘Are such feelings good?’ ‘Is this what God really wants?’ The answer is an unequivocal NO. In the Gospels Jesus offers humanity a radical alternative, to the way of sin and hatred. He calls us to love our enemies, to wish the best for them, to fight all that they do to  us with love and forgiveness, it is radical, and it can change our lives, and indeed it can change the entire world, if we live it out.

In the Gospels over the past few weeks Jesus has been telling us quite a lot about how we should live our lives. This concentration should alert us to two facts: it is important and it isn’t easy. How we live our lives matters, as it is how we put our faith into practice and also it forms our moral character: we become what we do. Living a Christian life isn’t a matter of giving our assent to principles, or signing on the dotted line, it’s about a covenant, a relationship with God and each other, which we demonstrate not only by what we believe, but how our beliefs shape our actions.

The call to holiness of life is rooted in the goodness of the created order: God saw all that he had made and it was good. The path to human flourishing starts with the response of humanity to the goodness of God shown in the goodness of the world. It continues with the hope which we have in Christ that all things will be restored in Him, for in this hope we were saved.

Living out our faith in the world can be a tricky business: we cannot serve both God and money. A world which cares only for profit and greed, for the advancement of self, is surely a cruel uncaring world which is entirely opposed to the values of the Gospel. The Church has to speak out against poverty, injustice, and corruption, in order to call the world back to its senses, to say to it ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of God is close at hand’. The kingdom is the hope that we will live in a world where the hungry are fed, the naked clothed, and all humanity lives in the peace of God. Christianity is a radical faith which looks to nothing less than the complete transformation of the world – you may see us as idealistic, as dreamers not rooted in reality, but this Kingdom is a reality here and now, and it’s up to us to help advance it.

Such is the power of advertising that we are forever being bombarded with enticements to buy new clothes, to diet, to celebrate, to spend money so that it makes us happy, but also so that we feel guilty, we take out loans to finance our extravagance. Against this we need to hear the words of Jesus ‘Surely life means more than food, and the body more than clothing’. But, I hear you cry; you’re wearing fine clothes, and standing in a pulpit telling us about this. Indeed I am, but priests and deacons wear beautiful vestments not to point to themselves, not as a display, put to point us to God, the source of all beauty, to honour Him, in all that we do or say, to remind us why we are here today, to be fed by God, to be fed with God, in Word and Sacrament, so that we may be strengthened and transformed. A God who loves us so much that he died for us on the Cross, the same sacrifice present upon the altar here – given for us to touch and taste God’s love, this is the reality of God’s love in our lives.

So how do we respond to it? This is the kingdom of God, right here, right now, we’re living it, and we need to trust the God who loves us and saves us, and live out our faith in our lives, we need to embody the values of the Kingdom, and help others to live them so that we can carry on God’s work. Every day when we pray the Lord’s Prayer we say ‘Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’.

As we look towards Lent let us all encourage each other to do God’s will in our lives so that we may hasten the coming of God’s Kingdom and do His will, living out our faith in our lives, helping each other to do this and inviting others in to share the peace and love and joy of the Kingdom, so that the world around us 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.

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The Sixth Sunday of Year A

Septuagesima is the Sunday roughly seventy days before Easter, or three weeks before the start of Lent.It reminds us that in the Church names and time are important things: they are used to divide and to mark, to draw our attention to things. Historically, the countdown to Lent is a chance to change our focus, with Candlemas our celebration of Christmas drew to a close, and we began to look to the Cross, to Our Lord and Saviour’s Passion. So we begin the countdown to our Lenten observance of prayer and fasting, we begin to get ready to prepare for the most solemn part of the Christian Year: Holy Week and Easter. It’s the Church’s equivalent of an advanced warning – we need to be on the lookout, we need to be prepared, if you like it is the spiritual equivalent of dealing with the current spate of bad weather and power cuts.

We have a choice. That’s what free will is, we are not compelled. We are not forced, we can choose what we want to do. We can follow the ways of the world, ways which will lead to spiritual death, or we can follow Christ, who came not to abolish the Law but to fulfil it, to show us the new Covenant in the Old, to show us that our is God of Love, of Healing, and of Reconciliation. And the Good news is that this loving God calls people to be in a covenant relationship with Him, a covenant cut on the Cross, bought with the Blood of His Son, which leads to the Resurrection, to New Life in and through Him.

What we do and how we do it are important things, and they matter – there are times when we make the sign of the Cross, when the names of the Trinity, the Father, The Son, and the Holy Spirit are mentioned, we bow our heads at the name of Jesus, and we bow or genuflect to altars and aumbries, from which we are fed with the Body and Blood of Christ to honour the God who loves us and who saves us. Many of us may receive flowers or other tokens of affection this week – they demonstrate in a physical way the feelings which we have inside. The church’s ritual is just like this – it enacts what it represents and allows us to make a physical demonstration of the faith which we have inside us. The gestures are not empty; rather they are full of meaning, and full of faith, they help us to express it and live it out in our lives.

What we say, and what we do matter. For a start being a Christian isn’t something we just do for an hour on a Sunday morning, without any connection to the other 167 hours in a week. We enter the Church through baptism, and through prayer and the sacraments, being fed with the Word of God and His Body and Blood, we can be transformed to be like the one who saves us, and who loves us. It doesn’t cost us any money, it’s free, it’s all gift – the grace of God, poured out on us, on you and me, to heal us and to restore us. You’d be a fool to turn this down, wouldn’t you?

It is free, but with it there comes a commitment: a commitment to Christ and His Church, to living our lives in a way which is recognisably Christ-like. This morning’s Gospel tells us that we need to be careful – even the words which we use and the thoughts which we have matter. They matter because they form who and what we are. To be a part of the Christian community has as its basis and starting point reconciliation: reconciliation to God and each other – we need to confess our sins, our faults, and our failings to God, and using the ministry of a priest. It isn’t something which we should leave to the secular courts, or the law of the land, because what is at stake is the state of our souls and our relationship with Christ and with His Body, the Church.

All of our life matters, even the smallest thing, even a thought or a glance. It matters because we are what we do, and what we do helps to form our moral character – we get used to it, it becomes normal and instinctive, it is how we put our faith into practice in our lives. It’s not easy, it’s difficult, and I’m certainly not standing here as a moral super-hero telling people off, but rather as a sinner redeemed by God’s love and mercy, who knows that it’s something which we cannot do alone, we need God, and we need each other – it’s a community effort, and through God’s mercy, and our prayer and support we can be built as living stones as a temple to God’s glory. We can do it together, we are doing it, but we need to keep on trying, together – living simple, transparent lives, letting our ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and our ‘No’ be ‘No’, so that the whole of our lives together proclaims the faith of our hearts, that we are set free to live the life of the Kingdom here and now, that we are prepared to keep renewing our commitment to God and each other, so that the world around us 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.

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Third Sunday of Year A [Mt 4:12–23]

If you go to S. Paul’s Cathedral in London or the Chapel of Keble College, Oxford, you can see one of the most popular and reproduced works of Religious Art in the world: Holman Hunt’s painting, The Light of the World. It shows our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ standing at a door with a lantern. The door has no handle; it needs to be opened from the inside: Jesus may be the Light of the World, but he does not force himself upon us, we have to welcome Him into our hearts and our lives. His coming into the world which we celebrate at Christmas, which was made manifest to the world at Epiphany, was not the entry of a tyrant, forcing himself upon the world, but as a vulnerable and loving baby, entirely dependent upon the love and care of others, God comes among us. His coming is foretold by the prophet Isaiah, He is the fulfilment of prophesy, he is the light of the nations, and a cause of great joy: to be a Christian, to follow Christ is it not to be filled with the joy and love which comes from God; we can be serious in our zeal, but should never be miserable: our vocation is to live out our faith, in love, and hope, and joy in our lives, to draw others to Him.

Of our many failings as followers of Christ there is nothing worse than to see strife and division amongst Christians, as S. Paul found in Corinth: it has no place in the church, it isn’t what God intended for us, it’s not how things should be. It has to be resisted: wounds have to be healed, transgressions forgiven, and unity restored. It’s part of how we live out our faith in our lives, it’s why we pray and work for Christian Unity, and why it matters for our proclamation of the good news of the Kingdom of God.

If we turn to the words of this morning’s Gospel we see Jesus saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” To repent as Christ is asking us to, as St John the Baptist proclaimed before him is to change our mind, to make a change of direction in our lives, away from sin, and to Christ, it is what we promise in our baptism and it is how we are supposed to keep living our lives. It’s hard, I know, I fail on a daily basis, and yet I keep trying, turning back to a God who loves me, who took flesh of the Virgin Mary and became incarnate for me, and for you, and all who have ever or will ever turn to Him. Ours then is God of love and mercy, a God of forgiveness who calls us to turn to him, so that we may have life and have it to the full.

We turn away from what separates us from God and each other, we turn to God in Christ, to be close to Him in Word and Sacrament, to be fed by Him, to be fed with Him, with His Body and Blood, so that we might share His divine nature, so that we might be given a foretaste of heaven, so that we may be strengthened to live out our faith in our lives, so that the world may believe – the Kingdom is close at hand, and Christ calls us, the baptised people of God, to share in the work of His kingdom. He asks that we follow Him, that we go where He goes, that we do what He does – it sounds easy enough, but it’s not, it’s something which we need to do together, and while I can endeavour to help you along the way, I cannot without your help, your prayers, your love, and your support. As Christians we are inter-dependent, we rely upon each other, we’re in it together.

In the Gospel, Jesus sees Andrew and Simon Peter and then James and John the sons of Zebedee and says ‘Follow me and I’ll make you fish for people’. He calls them to share in God’s work of saving souls. They drop everything and follow him: it’s immediate and matter of fact. Jesus goes around preaching the good news of the kingdom, and the need for humanity to repent, and to be baptised, and he heals the sick, just as he can heal the sickness in our souls. This is good news indeed.

We need to be like lights in the world, shining in the darkness, so that Christ can knock on the door of people’s hearts. We need to be like those first disciples who heard what Jesus said, who listened, and did what He told them, who were close to Jesus, so that our faith is a reality in our lives. We need to be strengthened and fed by Him who is the greatest medicine for our souls, who comes to us here, this morning,  in His Body and Blood, to heal us, to restore us and strengthen us to follow him, so that the world may believe and 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.

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A thought from Henri Nouwen

All of this is simply to suggest how horrendously secular our ministerial lives tend to be. Why is this so? Why do we children of the light so easily become conspirators with the darkness? The answer is quite simple. Our identity, our sense of self , is at stake. Secularity is a way of being dependant upon the responses of our milieu. The secular or false self is the self which is fabricated, as Thomas Merton says, by social compulsions. ‘Compulsive’ is indeed the best adjective for the false self. It points to the need for ongoing and increasing affirmation. Who am I? I am the one who is liked, praised, admired, disliked, hated or despised. Whether I am a pianist, a businessman or a minister, what matters is how I am perceived by the world. If being busy is a good thing, then I must be busy. If having money is a sign of real freedom, then I must claim my money. If knowing many people proves my importance, I will have to make the necessary contacts. The compulsion manifests itself in the lurking fear of failure and the steady urge to prevent this by gathering more of the same – more work, more money, more friends.

These very compulsions are at the basis of the two main enemies of the spiritual life: anger and greed. They are the inner side of the secular life, the sour fruits of our worldly dependencies. What else is anger other than the impulsive response to the experience of being deprived? When my sense of self depends on what others say of me, anger is a quite natural reaction to a critical word. And when my sense of self depends on what I can acquire, greed flares up when my desires are frustrated. Thus greed and anger are the brother and sister of a false self fabricated by the social compulsions of the unredeemed world.

Anger in particular seems close to a professional vice in the contemporary ministry. Pastors are angry at their leaders for not leading and at their followers for not following. They are angry at those who do not come to church for not coming and angry at those who do come for coming without enthusiasm. They are angry at their families, who making them feel guilty, and angry at themselves for not being who they want to be. This is not open, blatant, roaring anger, but an anger hidden behind the smooth word, the smiling face, and the polite handshake. It is a frozen anger, an anger which settles into a biting resentment and slowly paralyzes a generous heart. If there is anything that makes ministry look grim and dull, it is this dark, insidious anger in the servants of Christ.

It is not so strange that Anthony and his fellow monks considered it a spiritual disaster to accept passively the tenets and values of their society. They had come to appreciate how hard it is not only for the individual Christian but also for the church itself to escape the seductive compulsions of the world. What was their response? They escaped from the sinking ship and swam for their lives. And the place of salvation is called desert, the place of solitude.

Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, London: DLT, 1990: 14-16

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A Christmas Thought for the Day from Fulton Sheen

Let Christ be formed in You

As God was physically formed in Mary, so he wills to be spiritually formed in you. If you knew he was seeing through your eyes, you would see in everyone a child of God. If you knew that he worked through your hands, they would bless all the day through …. If you knew that he wants to use your mind, your will, your fingers, and your heart, how different you would be. If half the world did this, there would be no war!

How to find Christmas Peace

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An Advent Meditation

The whole problem of our time is not lack of knowledge but lack of love

Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island

The season of Advent has an interesting character: it is one of joyful waiting, as we await our yearly remembrance of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’s Birth, the dawning of the new hope of Salvation for mankind. It is also a season of penitence, when the church considers the Four Last Things, one for each week of Advent: Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell. Such matters are nowadays rather passed over in our Christian discourse, and while this is understandable, it is not a good thing. Human life on earth, is, by its very nature finite: we are born and we die, we may live for minutes, or decades, even a century – but in the end death comes for us all. This is not morbid, it is a fact of life. The world around us finds death strange and scary: it is sanitised, medicalised, shut away in a hospital or a care home. What was once commonplace and domestic has been put out of sight and out of mind as we seem no longer willing or able to face our own mortality.

As Christians we have hope that this earthly life is not all that there is, we believe that Jesus Christ, who was born in Bethlehem, died on the Cross, and rose again on that glorious Easter morn, and after forty days ascended into Heaven to show us that this is our hope, this is the fruit of our reconciliation with God, and each other. As the Preface for the Dead puts it:

Tuis enim fidelibus, Domine, vita mutatur, non tollitur: et dissoluta terrestris hujus incolatus domo, aeterna in caelis habitatio comparatur.

For the life of thy faithful people, O Lord, is changed, not taken away: and at the dissolution of the tabernacle of this earthly sojourning, a dwelling place eternal is made ready in the heavens

Hence the Christian talk of a good death, a happy death. It is nothing to be feared, but rather to be embraced, as a means to an end, namely the hope of unity with God.

After death comes judgement, and the simple answer is that no single human being deserves to go heaven (with the obvious exception of the Holy Family). We all deserve to go to Hell, ours is a fallen world and we sin, each and every one of us, every day in a multitude of ways. It is that simple, and we cannot work out way to heaven through works, but rather through God’s grace and mercy, through our Baptism, which makes us one with Christ. He gave S. Peter the power to loose and bind, to remind us that sin is a serious matter, it destroys the soul, hence the sacrament of reconciliation, an outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace of God, of forgiveness and mercy. The message Our Lord first declares is exactly the same as John the Baptist ‘καὶ λέγων ὅτι Πεπλήρωται ὁ καιρὸς καὶ ἤγγικεν ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ· μετανοεῖτε καὶ πιστεύετε ἐν τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’ (Mk 1:15 ESV) This is the message of Advent: repent and believe in the Good News of the Kingdom of God, Good News which starts at the Annunciation, which brings about Our Saviour’s Birth. This is why we say Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus!

This leaves us a question, ‘Will we follow Him?’ There are two ways, one leads to Heaven, one leads to Hell; the road to Heaven, the life of faith is not an easy journey, it’s hard. That’s why we have the Church, a frail body, comprised of sinners, but who trust in God’s mercy, and though we keep failing, yet we stumble on, knowing that Heaven is our goal, that the way of the world leads to a future without God, bleak, cold, and devoid of love.

God is a God of mercy, a God who will judge us, knowing that His Son has paid the price, conquering sin and death, so let us believe in Him, trust in Him, and follow Him, let us prepare to celebrate His Birth with joy, and commit ourselves to walking in His way, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Let us experience that mercy and forgiveness in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, let us be fed with His Body and Blood, nourished by His Word, and the teaching of His Church, praying together, loving and forgiving together, so that together our hope may be of Heaven, where we and all the faithful 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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Christ the King Year C

The death of Our Lord on the Cross reveals that we are meant to be perpetually dissatisfied here below. If earth were meant to be a Paradise, then He Who made it would never have taken leave of it on Good Friday. The commending of the Spirit to the Father was at the same time the refusal to commend it to earth. The completion or fulfilment of life is in heaven, not on earth.

Fulton Sheen, Victory over Vice, 1939: 99

Today the Church celebrates the last Sunday before Advent as the Solemnity of Christ the King, as a feast it is both old and new, while a relatively recent addition to the calendar, what it represents is something ancient and profound: as Christians we recognise the sovereignty of God over the world, and we ask that Christ may rule in our hearts and lives, so that we may live lives of love, so that our faith is proclaimed by word and deed.

Before we start Advent, the beginning of the Church’s year, the season of preparation for our yearly remembrance of Our Lord’s birth in Bethlehem; we stop for a moment to ponder Christ’s majesty, His kingship, and what this means for us and for the world. As someone of the House of David, it is good to start by looking back. Just as the Lord said to David ‘You shall be shepherd of my people Israel’ (2Sam 5:2) this also looks forward to Christ who is the the Good Shepherd, the one who lays down His life for His sheep. In him we see the meaning of true kingship, and true sacrifice.

In this morning’s epistle, St Paul praises his Lord and Saviour as ‘He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. 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: 15–20). It places Christ before and above everything, it sets the scene for our worship of him.

Jesus Christ shows the world His kingship when He reigns on the Cross. It bears the title ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’ it proclaims His kingship, but those who are standing by cannot understand – if he is the Messiah, who saved others, why isn’t he saving himself? His kingship is not marked by self-interest, he rules for the sake of others, or as St Paul puts it ‘making peace by the blood of his cross’. Thankfully in Luke’s Gospel the penitent thief can say to him ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom’ (Lk 23:42). The thief recognises Jesus’ kingly power, he acknowledges it, and puts himself under it. We need to be like him. We need to acknowledge Christ as our Lord and King; we need to recognise both who he is and what he does. We need to, the whole world needs to, acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of the Father.

Jesus’ kingship is not the ruthless exercise of power by a dictator; it is rather shown by sacrificial self-giving love, to reconcile God to all things. It is costly, and His Body still bears the wounds of love, which heal our wounds of sin and division. But He is also transfigured and glorious, so that we can have confidence in whom we worship. As He gives himself for us on the Cross, He gives himself to us under the forms of bread and wine; he feeds us with himself, so that our nature may transformed, and we may be given a foretaste of heaven.

So let us worship Him, let us adore Him, let us acknowledge His universal kingship, the Lord and Redeemer of all. What looks to the world like defeat is God’s triumph, it opens the gates of heaven, it inaugurates God’s kingdom of peace and love, into which all may enter. So let us enter, and encourage others to do so, so that the world is transformed one soul at a time, let us invite people to enter into the joy of the Lord, that they may believe and to sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.

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St Augustine on Ps. 19:9

The Pharisee

Shall a Christian go and live apart from the world, so that he may not be tried by false brethren? Shall he who has progressed in a righteous life separate himself so that he need not suffer from anyone? Perhaps people have suffered from before he was converted. Has no one anything to put up with from you? It would surprise me – but if it is so, then you are stronger and thus able to endure other people’s failings.

Do you propose to shut out bad men from good men’s company? if that is what you say, see if you can shut out all evil thoughts from your own heart. Every day we fight with out own heart.

You say you will go apart with a few good men and admit no wicked brother to your society. How do you recognise the man you wish to exclude? Do all come to you with their hearts bare? Those who wish to come do not know themselves, they cannot be proved unless they are tried.

Nowhere in this life are we secure, except in God’s promise – only when we have attained to it, when the gates of Jerusalem are shut behind us, shall we be perfectly safe.

Beloved, mark the apostle’s words: ‘Support one another in charity.’ You forsake the world of men and separate yourself from it. Whom will you profit? Would you have got so far if no one had profited you?

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Thoughts for the Day from Mother Mary Clare SLG


Our life proves the reality of our prayer, and prayer which is the fruit of true conversion is an activity, an adventure – and sometimes a dangerous one – because it brings neither peace nor comfort, but always challenge, conflict and new responsibility. 

We must try to understand the meaning of the age in which we are called to bear witness. We must accept the fact that this is an age in which the cloth is being unwoven. It is therefore no good trying to patch. We must, rather, set up the loom on which coming generations may weave new cloth according to the pattern God provides.

We must learn to wait upon the Spirit of God. As he moves us, we are led into deeper purgation, drawn to greater self-sacrifice, and we come to know in the end the stillness, the awful stillness, in which we see the world from the height of Calvary. 

Homily for Lent I

It is all too easy to see the forty days of Lent, the season of preparation for our celebration of Our Lord’s Passion, Death and Resurrection as a time of sadness and misery. Too often it is seen in entirely negative terms: we focus on what we are giving up. Now the practice of abstaining from bodily pleasures is a good and ancient one, not in and of itself, it is not some sort of holy diet, but rather we turn away from something we enjoy so that we may focus upon something else. The other practices of Lent: prayer and almsgiving are there to focus our minds upon God and other people, so that we may enter the desert of repentance with joy, thinking of the needs of others and growing closer to the God who loves us and longs for our healing, our repentance.
     
  In this morning’s first reading we see a covenant between God and humanity, a sign of God’s love for us, and a promise of reconciliation between God and the world which underlies what Jesus does for us, it allows us to have hope, to see things in an entirely positive way, and to see behind what we do, that it is a means, a means to an end, namely our sanctification, rather than an end in itself. In our second reading from the first letter of Peter, he draws the link between Noah’s ark, which saves people through water, and baptism, which is prefigured in it. Lent is a season of preparation for baptism, so that we can die with Christ and be raised like him and with him to new life in him. For those of us who have been baptised it is good to have a chance to spend the time in Lent praying, drawing closer to the God who loves us, and living out our faith in our lives – we can all do better, especially when we try, and try together, supporting each other, so that we might grow in holiness as the people of God.
When St Antony was praying in his cell, a voice spoke to him, saying ‘Antony, you have not yet come to the measure of the tanner who is in Alexandria.’ When he heard this, the old man arose and took his stick and hurried to the city. When he had found the tanner …. he said to him, ‘Tell me about your work, for today I have left the desert and come here to see you.’
He replied, ‘I am not aware that I have done anything good. When I get up in the morning, before I sit down to work, I say that the whole of the city, small and great, will go into the Kingdom of God because of their good deeds while I will go into eternal punishment because of my evil deeds. Every evening I repeat the same words and believe them in my heart.’
When St Antony heard this he said, ‘My son, you sit in your own house and work well, and you have the peace of the Kingdom of God; but I spend all my time in solitude with no distractions, and I have not come near to the measure of such words.’
It is a very human failure, for far too often we make things far too complicated when all we need to do is to keep things simple. In the story from the Desert Fathers, which we have just heard, St Antony, the founder of monasticism, a great and a holy man, is put to shame by a man who spends his days treating animal skins. The key to it all is the tanner’s humility, his complete absence of pride, and his complete and utter trust in God – his reliance upon him alone.
In this morning’s Gospel we see the beginning of Our Lord’s public ministry – he is baptised by John in the River Jordan before immediately  going into the desert for forty days. He goes to be alone with God, to pray and to fast, to prepare himself for the public ministry of the Proclamation of the Good News, the Gospel.
During this he is tempted by the devil: he faces temptation just like every human being, but unlike us, he resists. The devil tempts him to turn stones into bread. It is understandable – he is hungry, but it is a temptation to be relevant, which the church seems to have given into completely: unless we what we are and what we do and say is relevant to people, they will ignore us.
There is the temptation to have power, symbolised by worshipping the devil. It leads to the misuse of power. The church stands condemned for the mistakes of the past, but in recognising this there is the possibility of a more humble church in the future – a church reliant upon God and not on the exercise of power.
There is the temptation 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 resists these temptations because he is humble, because he has faith, and because he trusts in God. It certainly isn’t easy, but it is possible. It’s far easier when we do this together, as a community, which is why Lent matters for all of us. It’s a chance to become more obedient, and through that obedience to discover true freedom in God. It’s an obedience which is made manifest on the Cross – in laying down his life Jesus can give new life to the whole world. He isn’t spectacular – he dies like a common criminal. He has no power, he does not try to be relevant, he is loving and obedient and that is good enough.
It was enough for him, and it should be for us. As Christians we have Scripture and the teaching of the Church, filled with his Spirit, to guide us. We can use this time of prayer and fasting to deepen our faith, our trust, our understanding, and our obedience, to become more like Jesus, fed by his word and sacraments – to become more humble, more loving, living lives of service of God and each other.  It leads to Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ Words as true now as then, which the world still longs to hear, and which we need to live out in our lives, 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.
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Sexagesima Year B


About 1700 years ago the passage from the Book of Proverbs which is the Old Testament Reading which we have just heard was at the centre of a theological controversy which threatened the nature and existence of Christianity as we know it. Arius, a priest of Alexandria used the passage ‘The Lordcreated me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the rst, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forthto prove that Wisdom, which was understood as the Logos, the Word of God, the Creative Intelligence was not pre-existent, that it was a creation, and that ‘there was a time when he was not’. He may have been attempting to uphold what he understood as monotheism and the supremacy of God the Father, but in so doing he threatened the very nature of Christianity itself: denying the eternal nature of the Son of God, seeing Him as a creature, something created, something less than God.

        His position caused something of a fightback, and the church began to define the nature of God the Father, and God the Son with greater clarity, and while the orthodox position sometimes found favour with Imperial power, and sometimes did not, in the end political power could not enforce heresy. The views of Arius while condemned by the church and seemingly dead and buried once again found widespread fame with the arrival in 2003 of Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code, with which you are no doubt familiar. I’ve read it, it is a rip-roaring page-turner of a book, but it is not based on the truth, it is a work of fiction, which may be plausible, which may be fun to read, but which is not true.  The idea that the church and state colluded to airbrush out the truth and replace it with an official version is simply not borne out by the facts. After Constantine, his son Constantius II reversed the policy of his father and was sympathetic to the Arians. This is hardly the practice of a cover-up, indeed the facts do not support the hypothesis – it’s fanciful but basically no more than a conspiracy theory.
        The Church formulated its beliefs in creedal statements first at Nicæa and later revised at Constantinople just over 50 years later, these are the words which we are about to say to express what the Church believes about God – we say them because they are true and because they help us to worship God.
        The second reading this morning from St Paul’s Letter to the Colossians is a statement of belief, an early creedal statement which focuses on who and what Jesus Christ is and what he does, written only some thirty years after his Crucifixion. Christ is the first-born in whom all creation has its existence. Creation exists because God was pleased to dwell in him in all his fullness and through him to reconcile all things whether in heaven or on earth. Christ’s great work is to reconcile all things in heaven and earth, making peace by the blood of his Cross. Our Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection alter the created order in a fundamental way and are the outpouring of God’s love on the world, to heal it and restore it. This encapsulates what we believe as Christians and why we are here today to pray, to be nourished by Word and Sacrament, so that through our participation in the Eucharist, in Holy Communion, we may partake of His Divine nature, and be given a foretaste of heaven.
        Christ became human so that we might become divine. This profound and radical statement lies at the heart of the Prologue to John’s Gospel, a passage which we cannot hear too often, simply because it is wonderful and it manages in a few verses to cover the entirety of salvation history from the Creation of all that is to the Incarnation, when the Word became flesh and lived among us and we beheld his glory full of grace and truth. God became a human being, for love of us, to show us how to live, and to give us the hope of heaven, or as John’s Gospel later puts it ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’ (Jn 3:16-17) The Christian life therefore is one characterised by joy, by hope, by love, and forgiveness, it is to be freed from the way of this world given that we celebrate a Divine authority which is before and over all things. At the heart of our faith as Christians is a wonderful message of freedom, knowing that this life is not all that there is, that we are called to have life in him and life in all its fullness, and to live for and through him. This is our faith: it is what we believe and what we are to live, here and now, for the glory of Almighty God and the furthering of his kingdom.

        So let us live it, supporting each other in love, in prayer, and forgiveness – helping each other to proclaim by word and deed the Good News of Jesus Christ to a world which longs to hear it, which longs to be freed from selfishness and sin, to come to new life in the living waters of baptism and to live out that life in the Church, the Body of Christ, loved by Him, fed by Him, fed with Him, restored and healed by Him, set free from the ways of selfishness and sin to have life in all its fullness, even eternal life in Him.

Advent III – Rejoice

Lightness of spirit is related to Redemption, for it lifts us out of precarious situations. As soon as a priest goes in for revolutionary tactics in politics he becomes boringly serious. This world is all there is, and therefore he takes political involvements without a grain of salt. One rarely sees a Commisar smile. Only those who are ‘in the world, not of it’ can see events seriously and lightly. Joy is born by straddling two worlds — one the world of politics, the other of grace.
Fulton J. Sheen Those Mysterious Priests 238
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. 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, which is the most wonderful news that the world could ever hear.
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 and 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.
 The world, the state, the church all seem to be in a mess. 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, a kingdom of love and freedom: good news to the oppressed which binds up the broken-hearted, a kingdom of healing and of renewal. 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, daunting though this may be, in the knowledge and trusts 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, a joy which leads to prayer, to a relationship with God, giving 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 are to share this joy with others, to share the good news of Jesus Christ to 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 quieten 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 can 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, and that we are to do the same to each other.

Advent II Year B ‘Repent the Kingdom is close at hand’

As Christians we are called to live in between Our Lord’s Resurrection and his coming as our Saviour and our Judge. We know that our redemption has been brought about: by Jesus’ birth and by His Death and Resurrection. This is the greatest news of all human history, and, as Christians, we should be glad, we should live lives full of joy. And yet somehow we don’t – we are tired of waiting, or perhaps we are not convinced of the truth of the message, or perhaps too distracted by the cares and worries of daily life.
I wish that I could say that this doesn’t apply to me, but I’m afraid that it does, I’m not a better Christian, though I long so to be. Thankfully, Advent is a time of preparation, of waiting, and hopefully of putting our own spiritual house in order, to greet our Lord when he comes, as the baby born in Bethlehem and as the Judge of all mankind.
       At one level, the idea of judgement worries me deeply, as I suspect if I were all up to me and my efforts, and were I simply to be judged on my own life I would not get to heaven – I cannot earn my way there. I, like all of you, and indeed all of humanity, are simply miserable sinners in need of God’s grace, his love and his mercy. We need Christ to be born, we need Him to die for our sins, and to rise again to give us the hope of eternal life with Him.
It probably does us all some good to think like this from time to time, not so that we feel wretched and depressed, but so that we recognise our need for God, that we turn to him again, that this time of Advent is part of our ongoing spiritual journey – turning away from sin and towards Christ. The Christian faith is the work of a lifetime, and of a community: it is something we all haveto do together.
Thankfully, we as Christians know that he will come to be our judge is our redeemer, who bore our sins upon the cross, he is loving and merciful. Just as the arms of the prodigal son’s father are wide open to embrace him, so too Christ’s arms are flung wide upon the cross to embrace the world, our judge will come bearing wounds in his hands, his feet, and his side, because they are the wounds of love. We can have hope and confidence in this.
       John the Baptist, the last of the prophets is the voice crying in the wilderness of which the prophet Isaiah spoke. He has an uncomfortable and uncompromising message: Repent for the Kingdom of God is close at hand. It may not be what people want to hear, but it is, however, what people NEED to hear. Thus people flock to him, they are aware of their sin, aware of their need of God, of His love, mercy, and forgiveness. His message is one of repentance, of turning away from sin, from the ways of the world, a world which seeks to change our celebration of our Lord’s nativity into an orgy of consumerist excess. His is the birth, his is the way by which we can find true peace, we can turn to Christ, we can be like Him.
       John the Baptist’s message is uncomfortable and yet it is GOOD NEWS – our prayers are answered- that for which we hope, for which our soul deeply longs is ours.
 Regardless of what we might think or feel, from a divine perspective things look very different. A thousand years are like a day, just as the Psalmist says. Ours is a God of patience and mercy, who wants all to come to repentance, a God who loves Creation, and who created us in His image – He’s interested in the long game – a God of love and patience.

How then  do we respond? We respond by living lives of godliness and holiness, by striving to be found by him at peace, a peace which prepares for His coming. We are patient, we wait in expectant hope, living out our faith, and encouraging others so to do so that all the world may be saved 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 to the ages of ages.

Advent I Year B ‘Be on your guard, stay awake, because you never know when the time will come’

T
here are people who walk around in town centres wearing sandwich boards with the following message on them, ‘the end is nigh: repent and believe the gospel’. Now to many people, they appear as figures of fun, strange religious extremists, but this morning, as we begin the season of Advent, the season of preparation for our yearly Memorial of the Incarnation, I would like to begin by considering such people and their message. Their purpose is genuine, and their message is true, and we as Christians would do well to consider what they say, and how it might affect our lives.
       We, here, this morning, as Christians are living between Christ’s Resurrection and the end of the world, we are to be ready, and to spend our time considering the four last things: death, judgement, heaven, and hell. In this morning’s gospel, our Lord tells us to stay awake, to be on our guard, to be prepared, because we do not know the time when our Lord will return in glory to judge both the living and the dead.
       Jesus tells us not to be found asleep, in the sleep of sin, asleep which says ‘I’m alright’, ‘I don’t need God’. It is this sleep which affects many people, those who come to church, and the vast majority who do not. That’s not to say they don’t try and live good Christian lives. We all do, instinctively. And yet any mention of the last things tends to conjure up images of fire and damnation, hell and brimstone preachers, thumping pulpits and putting the fear of God into people. It’s the characterisation of the religious as extremists, which affects our friend with the sandwich boards, whom I mentioned earlier. And yet, they all have a point – their message is true – but I suspect that they put it across in a way which strikes people as unpalatable, and so they switch off and go to sleep.
       And yet, what they say matters, it is true that we could all do with being reminded of it. How we live our lives matters, it affects who and what we are, and the world around us. We have but one life to live on Earth, and we must try, with God’s grace, to do the best we can. We live in a world which does not care about such questions, apparently people’s lives are their own business, and we have no business calling people’s actions into question, but this will not do. Our actions affect us, our character, our lives, and the lives of people around us – our actions have consequences, which is why our lives and how we live them matter. What we do and say matters and the Church exists to call people to repentance – to change the whole of their lives and follow Christ in their thoughts, their words, and their deeds – for the Kingdom of God is close at hand.
       Lest we get too afraid, we can turn in confidence to the words of Isaiah in our first reading this morning. The profit is looking forward to the redemption of Israel, the coming of the Messiah, a new future after exile. Against a picture of human sin, and rebellion against God, there is the implicit possibility of something better. In those times when God can seem absent, there is the possibility that God has a loving parent is giving us space to reflect and repent. Isaiah is convinced both of the power and the love of God, to remake us, and restore us, to enrich us with his grace, as Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, and give us the gifts of his spirit.
       We’re not being left alone in all this. God both tells us the nature and source of the problem, and provides us with a solution. He even helps us along our way: he strengthens and encourages us, to turn our lives around, and follow him. That we be vigilant – and take care of the state of our lives and our souls, and those around us, that we are awake, rather than indulging in the self-satisfied sleep of sin.
For God asks of us – that we, this Advent, turn our own lives around, and prepareourselves to meet our Lord, at Mass, when he meets us at his altar in his body and blood, and in his words proclaimed in Scripture, we also need to look forward to meeting our Lord in the yearly remembrance of His Nativity, and in his coming in glory as our Saviour and our Judge. If we can look beyond the commercialism of a sad, cynical world, we can see that God was prepared to go to any length to meet us, to be with us and heal us. Can we not prepare ourselves, our souls and our lives to meet Him?

Trinity XXI The Conversion and Sanctification of Man

Canon Henry Liddon was quite right when he spoke to the clergy saying ‘Our end is the conversion and sanctification of man’. It’s what the church is for, and its ministerial priesthood, sharing in the priesthood of Christ, calls the common priesthood of the baptised to be conformed more and more to the image of the Crucified Lord, Our Saviour Jesus Christ.
       This is achieved by a variety of means, but particularly by prayer: where humanity speaks to and more importantly listens to God. It is a mark of the intimacy of our relationship with the divine that it is to be a regular constant conversation so that God may be at work in us. In our prayer we praise God, not because He needs it, but because it is right and good humanity, the creature to praise its Creator. We intercede for our own needs and for those of the world, and we plead the sacrifice of His Son which alone can heal the wounds of sin which mar our fallen human nature. In our humble talking to God and in the silence of our hearts there can a space for God to speak to us, to transform us, in the power of His Holy Spirit.
       When Paul writes to Titus, in this evening’s second lesson, he is concerned with the ordering of public worship, and particularly prayer. Here in a Cathedral we are not unacquainted with decent ordered worship, as one might well expect. We have standards, which are rightly high, and can serve as an example and an encouragement, but we are first and foremost a community of prayer, which invites people to draw ever closer to the God who loves us, who saves us, and redeems us.
       We pray for the Church and the World, for the living and the departed, for the sick and those in need, which is excellent and acceptable to God. We do so in order that we may strive to live an ordered, quiet, peaceable life, and thus may be drawn ever closer to the godliness which is the path to true holiness of life in Christ. His Salvation which is for all people is both an event – His sacrifice upon the Cross of Calvary, and a process – through the outpouring of His Sanctifying Grace in the Sacraments of the Church, nourished by the Word of God in Holy Scripture, the Revealed Truth of God’s love for us, and through remaining close to God in prayer, that our human nature can be transformed and perfected in Christ. It is the will of God that all people may be saved, the invitation is offered to all, freely, it costs nothing, it may be resisted and even refused, yet God in His love and mercy offers it. We do not deserve it, we cannot earn it, it is a gift which is offered and has to be accepted.
       There is one mediator between God and humanity, Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, who gave himself as a ransom for all, bearing witness to the love and mercy of God, and offering himself freely as a sacrifice upon the altar of the Cross, where as priest and victim he makes the one perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. This simple world-changing fact is at the heart of our faith: Christ died for our sins, yours and mine, and was raised to give us the hope of eternal life in Him. This is what we preach, it is what we pray, and what we live, so that we may be drawn closer to Him.
       It is wonderful, and yet it is not easy – for two thousand years the church continues to call humanity to repentance, and while our human efforts may be haltering, nonetheless the call to conversion and sanctification is a constant one, of which we need to be constantly reminded, each and every one of us, so that we can support and forgive each other, and pray for and with each other.
       I would like to end with some words of Mother Mary Clare slg:
       Today we can easily become
       paralysed by a sense that
       there is nothing we can do
       in the face of so much suffering,
       such lack of love and justice
       in man’s relationship with man,
       but the Cross of Christ
       stands at the heart of it all,
       and the prayer of Christ,
       now as always
       is the answer to man’s need.