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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