Sixteenth Sunday of Year A Mt 13:24-43

If I were to mention Hell to you, you would probably expect me to also mention damnation, the wretched sinful nature of humanity, and why we all deserve to burn for ever in eternal fire and unquenchable brimstone, striking the pulpit in the manner of a Non-Conformist preacher. You would naturally think this was somewhat out of character for me. But here I stand I can do no other. This morning’s Gospel is quite stark and uncompromising in its portrayal of judgement and the afterlife, and we have a choice to make. We have got used to people not talking about Hell nowadays, we’re far too polite to mention such things. It’s certainly not the Anglican way to dwell on such matters. But we cannot simply bury our heads in the sand and forget that such things exist. We need to understand them.

One of my favourite religious anecdotes comes from Northern Ireland, and relates to this morning’s Gospel, after hearing it read someone asked, ‘What if you’ve not got any teeth?’, to which the preacher responded, ‘Teeth will be provided!’ amidst the humour there lies a serious point – It is real, and  we have a choice to make. Do we want a future without God, cut off from Him, through Sin?  Do we want to condemn ourselves to an eternity of misery, cut off from His love? Or do we want to have life in Christ, life in all its fullness.

Jesus comes to save us from Sin, Death, and Hell. He does this first by proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom and secondly by dying for us on the Cross, bearing the burden of our sins, and overcoming the power of death and Hell, and rising again to New Life. The Church preaches Christ Crucified, and offers salvation in and through Christ alone.

But lest we get too gloomy, let us pause for a moment to consider something important. In the Gospel, the time for the separation of wheat and weeds is not yet. There is time, time for repentance, time to turn away from Sin, and to turn to Christ. The proclamation of the Kingdom is one which calls people to repent, and to believe, to have a change of heart, and to turn away from the ways of the world, the ways of selfishness, which alienate us from God and each other. It is not merely an event, but rather a process, a continual turning towards Christ, and reliance upon His love and mercy, a turning to Him in prayer, being nourished and transformed by our reading of the Bible, and being nourished with the Sacrament of His Body and Blood.

The good news is that we are not simply condemned, and we, all of us, have time to make sure that we are wheat and not weeds. Ours is a generous and a loving God, who longs to see His people reconciled, healed, and redeemed. The fact that the wheat and the weeds can grow together until the harvest is done for the sake of the wheat, lest it be pulled up by accident. Ours then is a patient God, who provides us with the opportunity for repentance, time to turn our lives around and follow him. And the Church, just like the world is people good and bad, on various stages of a journey, as earth is a preparation for heaven, we are given all the chances possible to rely on God’s transforming grace in our lives.

It is a hopeful message, a message of healing and reconciliation, that God does not simply give up on us, but rather does all he can to make sure that we are wheat and not weeds. It is the wonder of the Cross, that God sends his Son out of love for humanity, of you and me, to suffer and die for us, to show us the depth of God’s love, That he rises from the tomb so show us that death is not the end, to give us hope. It is the best news there is. And we are told about it now, so that we can do something about it, and we can tell other people too. We can share the message so that others can hear, and repent, and believe, and live new lives in Christ, freed from slavery to sin. So that all the world may believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.

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Easter VI – John 14:15-21

I once asked a nun who had been professed many years what she found most difficult about the religious life. The answer I received was a surprising one: ‘Obedience’. She could cope with poverty and chastity, with stability, and the ongoing change of character, but she found it hard to do what she was told, to be obedient.

It is not for nothing that the opening words of the Rule of St Benedict are: ‘Listen my son to the words of the Master’. I, like her, struggle with obedience. In fact, if we are honest with ourselves, all of us do too. We like to have our own way, to do what we want, when we want, and how we want to do it. We are wilful, and proud, we want to have our own way, we don’t want to listen to someone else: a spouse, a parent, a priest, or God. Such is the nature of the human condition. This is the reason why God was born as a man, preached the Good News, and taught a new way to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God. For this he suffered, and died.

And for us as the church, the first thing we need to do is to listen to Jesus, to do what he tells us, to be obedient to him. If we love him we will keep his commandments, we will love God and each other with the same costly self-giving love that Jesus shows on the Cross.It’s quite a big ask, following in his footsteps, dying to self and living for God. It does however lie at the heart of it all. When Jesus says, ‘As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you’ in the Upper Room with His disciples, on the night before he dies, He is looking to the Cross and beyond, as the demonstration of real costly self-giving love. The agony of brutal torture awaits him, a painful death for the love of humanity, to save us and heal us. As St Isaac the Syrian says:

‘The sum of all is that God the Lord of all, out of fervent love for his creation, handed over his own Son to death on the cross. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son for its sake.” This was not because he could not have saved us in another way, but so that he might thereby the better indicate to us his surpassing love, so that, by the death of his only-begotten Son, he might bring us close to himself. Yes, if he had had anything more precious he would have given it to us so that our race might thereby have recovered. Because of his great love, he did not want to use compulsion on our freedom, although he would have been able to do so; but instead he chose that we should draw near to him freely, by our own mind’s love.’

God dies for us, and freely offers us the gift of new life in Him. If we listen to him, then Jesus promises us the Holy Spirit, to strengthen us, to encourage us: a generous gift from a generous God., so that we can experience the fulness of new life in him. A gift so wonderful that Jesus ascends to his Father before giving it to the church, a sign of God’s love and trust, given to strengthen and encourage, to build us up. Such is the power of obedience, where we recognise power greater than ourselves, needs greater than our own, when we turn from love of self to love of God and others The world around will never quite understand this, it simply cannot listen to Jesus or trust him, and so misses out on the fulness of God’s love, which awaits us in heaven. So we pray that we might be obedient, that we might listen to what Jesus says, and do it, and that God would pour out his Holy Spirit upon us, to strengthen and encourage us, to build us up in his love. By listening to what God says we find ourselves becoming more free than we could have been before

This is not some future event, but right here and right now; we thirst for this love, and only it can satisfy our deepest desires, so let us come, and drink of that living water, let us feast on him who is the living bread and the true vine, the shepherd of our souls, who loves us so much that he died for us, and let us love him and one another so that all the world may believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever

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Jesus and Nicodemus Lent II

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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Second Sunday of Year A ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ Jn 1:29-34

‘Behold the Lamb of God, behold Him who takes away the sins of the world’

Sometimes we use words a lot, even to the point of perhaps overusing them. Sorry is a good example: it is perhaps something of a national characteristic – that we as British people apologise for everything just in case. This has led some people to the point of view that familiarity breeds contempt: that the more often we say sorry, the less we mean it, our words are empty and our society debased, rude and squalid. Whereas a more charitable interpretation sees something of love, care, concern, and humility in our apologising: it is a Christian thing to do, and what we say and do affects who and what we are as people, and the more we say or do something the greater its effects upon our lives and characters – the more it can form us and the people that we are. If we genuinely say sorry to God and each other and mean it, and amend our lives accordingly it can only be a good thing.

When John the Baptist greets his cousin in this morning’s Gospel, the words he uses are both familiar and strange. We, as Christians are used to saying and hearing the phrase ‘the Lamb of God’. We are used to it at Mass, we are used to seeing it on the Signs of public houses called the Lamb and Flag, or as the badge of Preston North End Football Club.

While the image is familiar, it is worth spending a few moments to consider exactly what John is saying about Jesus. The image of a lamb brings to mind a passage in the prophet Isaiah, in the Song of the Suffering Servant, who ‘like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb’ (Isa 53:7), a prophecy that will be fulfilled in Holy Week, on Good Friday. Yet here, just after the Baptism of Our Lord in the Jordan, when the Spirit descends at the beginning of Our Lord’s public ministry, before the first sign of turning water into wine at the marriage of Cana, we see in John’s description of Jesus a prophetic utterance which points forward to Jesus’ death on the Cross for the world. So then, from the very beginning, as with the gift of myrrh at Bethlehem, we see the culmination at Calvary, the beginning points to the end (and beyond). The other image of the lamb which comes to mind is that of the Passover lamb, by which the people of Israel are freed from slavery to journey to the Promised Land. Yet Jesus is the Passover Lamb who will free all of humanity from sin for all time.

In being baptised by John the Baptist, Jesus was doing something which he did not need to do, he who was without sin did not need to be cleansed from sin, but in his baptism Jesus gives us an example, for us to follow. It is a sign of humility and obedience which we as Christians are to follow: it is how we are to shape our lives, in humble obedience to the example and teaching of Christ, it’s how to be a Christian. It is also how God gives us his Holy Spirit, as a gift which we receive and use with humility.

From the beginning of His public ministry, and even from the gifts offered by the Three Wise Men, Jesus’ life and mission is to be understood in terms of the death he will suffer. It is this sacrificial, self-giving love which God pours out on his World, which streams from our Saviour’s pierced side upon the cross. This is the wood, marked with blood which saves not only the people of Israel, but the entire world. This makes our peace with God, and our peace with one another. It is this recognition of who and what Jesus really is that is capable of showing us all who and what we really are. We can live our lives truly, wholly, and fully, loved by God and loving one another.

That is why we are here today, in a church, at a celebration of Mass, so that the sacrifice of Calvary will be re-presented, made as real for us as it was on a hill outside Jerusalem nearly two thousand years ago. As we approach the altar, this is what we are to receive, the Body and Blood of Christ, the self same body and blood which were nailed to the Cross for our sins and the sins of the whole world. Our hands will hold and our lips will touch him who created the entire universe. How can we not fail to be shocked by the generosity of a God who gives himself to us in such a personal way, in a way that we do not deserve? Yet, we can never deserve such a gift, that is why God takes the initiative and gives himself to us, freely and gladly – like the Father of the Prodigal Son, God rushes to meet us, to embrace us and to celebrate with us, to show his love for us. God became a human being at Christmas so that we might become divine, through our baptism and our participation at the altar, the feast of the Lamb, so that we can become what God wants us to be – his people, sharing his body and blood, strengthened for the journey in body, mind, and spirit, to become what God wants us to be – united with him and one another.

The Mass is the sacrament of unity, uniting heaven and earth through the sacrifice of Calvary, making all humanity to share the body and blood of Our Saviour Jesus Christ, feeding on him so that we may become what he is, to share eternity with him, and to live lives of faith and show this faith in our lives in everything we say, or think, or do, that the world may believe. Our faith must then have an effect upon our lives, which other people can see, it must make a difference, and it will, because of our faith and because God gives himself to strengthen us to be able to do this. So then, let us join the Wedding banquet of the Lamb and enter into the mystery of God’s self-giving love, nourished by Word and Sacrament, to grow in faith and love, and share it with others, so that they 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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A thought for the day from Fulton Sheen

Our own fiat

It makes no difference what you do here on earth; what matters is the love with which you do it. The street cleaner who accepts in God’s name a cross arising from his state of life, such a person is the scorn of his peers; the mother who pronounces her fiat to the Divine Will as she raises a family for the kingdom of God; the afflicted in hospitals who say fiat to their cross of suffering are the uncanonised saints, for what is sanctity but fixation in goodness by abandonment to God’s Holy Will?

Seven words of Jesus and Mary

A thought for the day from Fulton Sheen

God’s plan

We do not always know why such things as sickness and setbacks happen to us, for our minds are too puny to grasp God’s plan. A person is like a little mouse in a piano, which cannot understand why it must be disturbed by someone playing Chopin and forcing it to move off the piano wires.

From the Angels’ Blackboard

St Augustine on imitating Christ

Pride is the great sin, the head and cause of all sins, and its beginning lies in turning away from God. Beloved, do not make light of this vice, for the proud man who disdains the yoke of Christ is constrained by the harsher yoke of sin: he may not wish to serve, but he has to, because if he will not be love’s servant, he will inevitably be sin’s slave.

From pride arises apostasy: the soul goes into darkness, and misusing its free will falls into other sins, wasting its substance with harlots, and he who was created a fellow of the angels becomes a keeper of swine.

Because of this great sin of pride, God humbled himself, taking on the form of a servant, bearing insults and hanging on a cross. To heal us, he became humble; shall we not be ashamed to be proud?

You have heard the Lord say that if you forgive those who have injured you, your Father in heaven will forgive you. But those who speak the world’s language say. ‘What! you won’t revenge yourself, but let him boast of what he did to you? Surely you will let him see that he is not dealing with a weakling?’ Did the Lord revenge himself on those who struck him? Dying of his own free will, he uttered no threats: and will you, who do not know when you will die, get in a rage and threaten?

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