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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Christ the King, Year A

In 1925 Pope Pius XI instituted the feast of Christ the Universal King to stress the all-embracing authority of Christ and to lead mankind to seek the Peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ. In a time of great misery and inequality: the Church was reminded of what the coming of Christ as Saviour and Judge meant, as well as ending the liturgical year by looking forward to Advent: the season of preparation for our Lord’s coming, in His Incarnation, and as our Judge. A season of reflection, a season of hope, and new life.

In today’s Gospel we have the last parable in Matthew which also gives us an apocalyptic vision of Our Lord’s Second Coming. The first thing to notice is that, as befits the Kingdom of God, all people will be there. This is not a Christians-only event. In the Holy Land to this day you will see herds of goats and sheep grazing together and at the end of the day they are separated by a shepherd who can tell the difference between them. Jesus does, however, give his reasons for making his judgement: ‘For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was a stranger and you made me welcome; naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.’ To give food and drink and to make people welcome is fundamental to hospitality and is a sign of Love. Clothing the naked and visiting the sick and imprisoned is likewise showing concern for people, and their needs, showing our love to the world.

We believe that God is love and that we are called to show love ourselves in our lives. Our faith, therefore, is not simply private interior devotion, something that we do on Sundays for our benefit, and keep in a box like a Sunday hat. No!It is something we can put into practice in our lives, every day, everywhere.

Now in the parable in this morning’s Gospel the virtuous seem rather surprised and ask our lord when they did this to him. Jesus answers, ‘I tell you most solemnly, insofar as you did this to the least of the brothers of mine you did it to me.’ As St Antony, the founder of monastic tradition once said, ‘Our life and death is with our neighbour – if we win our brother we win God; if we cause our neighbour to stumble then we have sinned against Christ.’ So who are the least of Christ’s brethren? Who are the little people? Or to put it another way, who is the most important person in church? Is it Fr Neil? Or is it me? Is it a magistrate? Or a businessman? No … who are the least amongst our communities and who are the least outside them? And what are we doing to help them?

Some of the people who would have heard Jesus teaching this parable might well have thought, as Jews, that Israel were the sheep, and the gentiles were the goats, and I wonder whether we don’t all of us feel a little complacent at times. By the same token, the standards Jesus sets in this parable seem almost unattainable so we can feel that we simply cannot live up to them. So we need to be careful that we don’t just despair, that we don’t just give up, and don’t let our discipleship become one of apathy.

Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, God himself, became man and lived among us. He showed humility in washing His disciples’ feet at the Last Supper, in eating and drinking with tax-collectors and prostitutes, the social outcasts of His day. He, unlike the society in which he lived, did not judge them. He loved them in order to proclaim in word and deed that the Kingdom of God was for ALL people – the people we might not like, the people we might look down our noses at, and with whom we might not wish to share our table. He gives himself to feed heal and restore them and us.

His love and humility are shown in that being condemned to death by those whom he came to save he does not cry out, he does not blame them, but instead asks, ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’ The Christ who reigns on the tree, and who will come again to judge the world, bears the marks in his hands, feet, and side, because they are the marks of LOVE. They remind us of God’s love for us, and when we eat and drink His Body and Blood at the Eucharist we are healed, and share in His Divine Life, so that we might become the Body of Christ, His Church. Strengthened by this Sacrament of Love we are called to live out our faith in the world around us. While we may not have lived up to the example He sets us, we can nonetheless try to do what we can. In acknowledging the Universal Kingship of Christ we recognise an authority higher than human power, higher than any monarch or dictator, and we are called to conform the world to His just and gentle rule. We are called to transform the world one soul at a time, and through acts of mercy and a life of prayer to make a difference.

We may not like the idea of judgement: it is big and scary, and most of us, if we are honest feel that we deserve to be condemned. NOw rather than just thinking about judgement as a future event, let’s think about it as a process, something going on here and now. We all live under God’s judgement. Are there things which are hellish in our lives? The problems of cliamte change and how we treat God’s world don’t exactly look great. The way in which we do business with one another, the on-going financial crisis, poverty, hunger and the existence of food-banks show us that all is not well with our country. The wars which our leaders wage against each other seem very far away from the ideal where the lion lies down together with lamb, where swords are beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning-hooks. For all this we will be called to account, like the servants in last week’s parable of the talents.

So what are we to do? First, we are to pray to God that we might have the strength and courage to follow the example of His Son, Jesus Christ. Secondly, we are to remember that God’s love and mercy were poured out on the world at Calvary, and continue to be poured out on us who know His forgiveness. Thirdly, that we are fed and strengthened in the Eucharist so that we may be transformed to go out into the world and be active in God’s service.Finally we are to remember that whatever we do for the least of our brothers and sisters we do for Him. The people or the acts may seem insignificant to us, but not to God.

I would like to conclude this morning by asking you, what would our communities look like if we lived like this: giving food and drink to those in need; visiting those who are sick, or in prisons with or without bars – the prison of fear, loneliness, old age, depression, addiction, or abusive relationships? For such is the kingdom of God. Amen

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Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat!

The Parable of the Talents Mt 25:14-30

Oh No! This morning’s Gospel is a parable about money. Does it mean that Fr is going to keep on about the Parish Share and the state of the Diocesan Finances? Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you, I’m not. I just thought that I’d clear that one up right away, just to put your minds at rest, so that we can get on with the task of drawing closer to the word of God, and to be nourished and strengthened by it.

Reading Holy Scripture, the Bible, can be a strange affair: sometimes it fills us with joy, sometimes it just leaves us confused. Speaking personally, I find the parable of the talents troubling, mostly because I tend to feel rather like the slave who was given one talent and who hid it in the ground. That may well be my own sense of unworthiness informing my reading of the passage. It reminds me of the need in all things to trust in God, and for his grace to be at work in me. The judgement thankfully is not my own, but rather God’s – a loving father who runs to meet his prodigal children. This is a God we can trust, who wants to see us flourish in His kingdom of love, mercy, and forgiveness.

No parable has been more misused than Jesus’ parable of the talents. Once a parable is abstracted from Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God, once it is divorced from its apocalyptic context – pointing to the future, such misreading is inevitable: speculation begins, for example, about how much a talent might be worth nowadays or whether the Master’s observation that the money could have been put in a bank might mean that Jesus approves of taking interest. Speculative uses of the parable have even been employed to justify economic practices that are antithetical to Jesus’ clear judgement that we cannot serve both God and mammon. After all, money is a means, and not an end – which is where we and the world often go wrong.

Jesus is not using this parable to recommend that we should all work hard, make all that we can, to give all that we can. Rather, the parable is a clear judgement against those who think they deserve what they have earned as well as those who do not know how precious is the gift they have been given. The gift is our life, and we will be judged on what we do with it.

In the parable the slaves have not earned their five, two, and one talents. They have been given those talents. In the parable of the Sower, Jesus indicated that those called to the kingdom would produce different yields. These differences should not be the basis for envy and jealousy, because our differences are gifts given in service to one another – so are the talents given to the slaves of a man going on a journey. It is not unfair that the slaves were given different amounts. Rather what is crucial is how they regarded what they had been given.

The servant who received one talent feared the giver. He did so because he assumed that the gifts that could only be lost or used up. In other words the servant with one talent assumed that they were part of a zero-sum game – if someone wins, someone else must lose. Those who assume that life is a zero-sum game think that if one person receives an honour someone else is made poorer. The slave who feared losing what he had, turned his gifts into a possession – it was a thing, and it was his thing. But by contrast, the first two slaves recognised that trying to secure the gifts that they had been given means that the gifts would be lost – so they use the gifts for the glory of God. The joy of the wedding banquet is the joy into which the Master invites the slaves who did not try to protect what they had been given is the joy that comes from learning to receive the gift without regret, without fear – simply humbly, joyfully and lovingly.

The parable of the talents, just like the parable of the five wise and five foolish bridesmaids, is a commentary on the life of the Kingdom, stories of slaves who continue to work, who continue to feed their fellow slaves, until their master returns – they are parables which teach us how to be a church of loving service. These parables teach us to wait patiently as those who have received the gift of being called a disciple of Jesus. We are not necessarily called to great things. Rather, Jesus’ disciples are called ‘to do simple things with great love’ to quote S. Theresa of Calcutta. The work that Jesus has given us to do is simple and it is learning to tell the truth and love our enemies. Such work is the joy that our Master invites us to share. It is in doing this work that we are separated – sheep from goats.

It may sound pedestrian, or even humdrum, but living the Christian life, living the life of the Kingdom, is at a day to day level a bit of a slog. It is about keeping on keeping on – loving, forgiving, praying – nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ, fed by Him, and with Him, freed from the fear which is the antithesis of the Kingdom, rejoicing in the gifts which God gives us, being thankful for them, and using them for God’s glory. We none of us deserve the gift of God’s love and forgiveness in Jesus Christ – we have not earned it, it is not a reward, but the gift of a loving God, which we are called to receive, and for it to transform our lives.

It is what each of us, and indeed all of us together are called to be, in this we can be built up in love, together, and invite others to enter into the joy of the Kingdom, so that they may come to believe in and serve God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, be ascribed this is most right and just all Might, Majesty, Glory, Dominion, and Power now and for ever…

The Parable of the Talents – Rembrant

Living the Life of the Kingdom: Micah 3:5-12, 1Thess 2:9-13, Matt 24:1-14

Our blessed Lord began His public life on the Mount of the Beatitudes, by preaching, ‘Blessed are the meek: for they shall possess the earth.’ He finished His public life on the hill of Calvary by practising that meekness: ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’

Fulton J. Sheen The Cross and the Beatitudes, 1937: 3

The Prophet Micah has some tough words this morning for those who lead people astray. Those who tell people what they want to hear will be the downfall of Israel. It is something which can easily be the downfall of any organisation: just tell people what they want to hear, don’t make any demands on them, just make them feel comfortable, all motherhood and apple pie. The church can and does easily fall prey to this and its fruit is apathy. People don’t want a church to make them feel comfortable, but to challenge them, and inspire them to be something better, by the grace of God. Thus we are called to holiness of life, or as St Paul puts it, ‘to lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.’ (1Thess 2:12) We put our faith into practice – walking the walk and talking the talk, together in an act of witness to the world, to call it to repentance, and to be formed as part of the Kingdom of God, a kingdom of love, where we are forgiven and built up in love.

It is probably a good thing that Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ was not an advertising executive. Fundamentally He tells it like it is – there is a simplicity and a directness to Him that is not always comfortable. He does not tell us what we want to hear, but rather he tells us what we need to hear, which is often far from pleasant or comfortable. He has been teaching in the Temple, about the Kingdom of God, and how to live out the faith in our lives and now He turns to the future.

The Temple was the single most important place on Earth for religious Jews, it was the centre of their life; it was where they came close to God. The prospect of its destruction was surely the most dreadful prospect, something not to be countenanced at all. Yet it would happen, and rather than hide behind the false hope of a pleasant image, he teaches people the plain unvarnished truth. Rather than a sugar-coated pill he gives us a bitter draught, so that we can be prepared.

False teaching is always a possibility for the Church – people want to pervert the Gospel, to twist it for their own ends and to suit their own agenda – it is happening now, and has always happened. We need, therefore to be vigilant, to know what we believe and why, so that we can discern the true from the false, the good from the bad.

In human terms, the future looks bleak – human beings have an immense capacity for doing the wrong thing, and yet in the midst of all this we know whom we can trust, whom we can look to, where we can place our hope and our confidence. The possibility of being tortured or killed for professing faith in Jesus Christ is still very real, here and now, in the world in which we live. It’s a deeply unpleasant thought, and while none of us I suspect would like to undergo such treatment, we have to be prepared for the possibility, we have to be willing to stand up and be counted, to know that we place Christ before and above all things.

At one level it is quite understandable, what Christ stands for, what we stand for: love, forgiveness, selflessness, are never going to be popular in a world obsessed by power and wealth. But we’re not here to win a popularity contest, but rather to bear witness to the truth of Christ, and to know that we are set free by it. The love of many may grow cold; indeed it has, so we need to be that love in the world to make Christ known and to call others into His loving embrace. Against a human nature which takes a perverse delight in selfishness and sin, in not living how God wants us to, we need to take a stand.

Fundamentally the calling to be a saint is there for each and every one of us. We are called to be like Christ, and through our baptism to die to the ways of the world and live for him. In our baptism we are given the grace of God and His Holy Spirit, we are given all that we need to get to Heaven, because Christ loves us, and gave Himself to die for us, to take away our sins, to show us what love and forgiveness really look like, so that we can do the same.

On our own, each one of us individually doesn’t stand much of a chance, it’s far too difficult, it’s not how it is supposed to be.Rather we need to live out our faith together, as a community of believers, helping each other, supporting each other, praying for and forgiving each other, being built up in love together, so that together we can truly be the people of God, forgiving each other, loving each other, and helping to make the Kingdom a reality here and now.

We come to be nourished by Him, to be fed by the Word of God, nourished in our faith, to be fed with His Body and Blood, to be given a foretaste of heaven, fed by Him, fed with Him, to be built up in love together, strengthened and nourished to live out our common calling to sainthood, and to encourage others to join us, as this is what God wants us to do – this is life in all its fullness, following the Truth which sets us free from the ways of the world – its selfishness, its lust for power and control, its fear and anger, all those things which separate us from God and each other.

So let us come to Him, let our lives be transformed by Him, so that we can live out our faith together, in our common calling, and encourage others so to do, so that they too 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.

Harvest (John 6:27–35)

Meddai Iesu wrthynt, ‘Myfi yw’r bara bywyd.’ 

Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life.’ 

In the second chapter of the Book of Genesis we read that, ‘the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.’ Thus, to work the land is to engage in something which takes us back to the very beginnings of humanity. It is the most ancient profession and indeed an honourable one. The practice of coming together to offer our praise and thanksgiving to Almighty God for the goodness of creation and a harvest safely gathered in is, likewise, an ancient and honourable thing. Just as the Ancient Israelites gave thanks for their harvest in the promised land, so do we. We should, as part of our worship of God offer him the best of all that we have as a response to a loving and generous God. Mae popeth yn rhodd gan Dduw All things are a gift from God, it is right that we are thankful to God who created all things.

But while this is important, we need to be careful. Is what we are engaged in a bit of cosy folk religion, a matter of duty, an excuse to be seen, or perhaps something more? When this church was built, its congregation, who lived on and worked the land would gather on the 1st August for Lammas, or Loaf-Mass to give thanks for a successful grain harvest. With the renewal of the Church in the mid nineteenth century the idea of a harvest celebration became popular once again. This is a good thing, the world is better when filled with grateful, loving people.

But as well as giving thanks to God, we also need to be shocked, challenged, and changed by the example and teaching of Jesus in the Gospel. Are we as a church and a society, content simply to be fed, or is God asking more of us. Our faith is not something we can simply keep safe in a box, to put on like a hat for church on Sunday – it needs to be more than that. Our faith must form all that we are, and all that we do, and say, and think. Our belief in our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ needs to form the very ground of our being. This faith, like a plant, needs to be tended, watered, and protected from weeds. It needs to be nourished, encouraged, and taught, and shared with others.

The crowd in the Gospel story have not grasped the meaning and importance of their being fed. They have not understood its spiritual meaning but are rather interested in the prospect of another free meal. Jesus, however, feeds them as a sign of their heavenly food, the bread of eternal life. Rather than working for the food that perishes we too need to work for the bread of life, which is Christ himself. We need to meet at the Lord’s table to be fed by his word and his very self, his body and blood under the forms of bread and wine. We need to have our bread for the journey for our life of faith together. God is the sustenance of life itself, of our very existence, for those who trust in him, and he will fill our every need, by giving us that which we cannot work for ourselves, and for which we hunger most. That is why a celebration of Harvest is best done within the context of a Eucharist, a Thanksgiving to God for Who and What He is, and What HE does for us.

Our desire is surely for a world where none are hungry, where all are loved and cared for. This requires our co-operation with the will of God, and our trust in him. By our being fed by his word and the Eucharist our faith will strengthened and renewed. Our lives can be transfigured, enabling us to transform the world around us, conforming it to the will of God. We can only do this through being nourished body and soul by God – through our participation in the Eucharist, the Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper – fed by God, with God, for God’s work in the world. When we eat normal food it becomes what we are. But here when we eat, we become what it is, we a re transformed more and more into the God who loves us and saves us. Only this can satisfy our deepest hunger and thirst, and give us true peace, and hasten the coming of God’s kingdom on earth. Whilst we are thankful, we also need to be mindful that the kingdom of God is something happening right here and right now, and it has the power to transform the world around us, starting with us here today: the true harvest for the Church is the harvest of souls, of those who love Jesus Christ and are nourished by Him and with Him. We are grateful for all that we are, and are given by God, which makes us want to share it with others. It may not look it, but it is a radically different way of life. If we take Jesus seriously when He says, ‘Myfi yw’r bara bywyd’ ‘I am the bread of life’ then we eat Him so that we might share in His life, and share that life with others. This is our faith as Christians, and it provides us with the hope that we may live with Him forever.

We share His life with others so that they may enter into the joy of the Lord, and receive the precious gift of new life in Christ. The gift is free but it comes with the obligation to share it with others. We do this willingly because it is not a hardship, or an imposition, but rather a joy, a gift which so precious that not to share it would be selfish and wrong.

So let us share it with the world so that it may believe and give glory to God the Father God the Son of God the Holy Spirit, be ascribed this is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power now and for ever

25th Sunday of Year A: Mt 20:1-16

The First shall be last and the Last first

A CHILD stands in front of their mother with a strange look upon their face. ‘But mummy’ they cry, ‘I want to eat my Pudding first.’ The child’s mother explains how it is necessary that they eat their dinner first. The child remains unconvinced, though as they become aware that they’re not going to have their own way, all they can say is ‘It’s not fair.’ At one level, almost all of us would prefer Sponge and Custard to Brussels Sprouts. It is simply more fun to eat. At a deeper level we are all concerned by matters of fairness. Our God gives us a vision of justice, where in the words of the Magnificat, he puts down the mighty from their seat and has exalted the humble and meek. The kingdom of God can truly turn this world around.

So, when we turn to this morning’s gospel, we see in the parable of the vineyard a vision of divine justice and generosity. At one level it looks deeply unfair that those who have worked all day should receive the same pay as those who’ve worked for only one hour. If this were simply a matter of business and employment practice, the way the workforce should probably go on strike.

Thankfully, this is a parable. It contains a deeper truth about God and his relation with humanity. In the kingdom of God, all are equal. It is as plain and simple as that. There is no such thing as a better class of Christian. God treats us all in the same way and fundamentally loves each and every one of us. I, though I serve God and his people as a priest was not chosen for being a better Christian in the first place, nor am I better than anyone of you. This morning’s gospel reminds us of the important truth that salvation is the free gift of God, which we receive and baptism and is strengthened through the sacraments of the church. We cannot earn our way to heaven – it isn’t that simple. And we should always remember that heaven is full of sinners, whom God loves and who love God, and trust in his love his mercy and his forgiveness. The more we experience and understand the overwhelming love and generosity of God, the stranger it becomes. All we can do is to listen to what God says in the mouth of the prophet Isaiah, our God is rich in forgiveness his thoughts are not our thoughts and his ways are not our ways. And if the truth be told, it is a good thing that this is the case.

As Christians we need to respond to this generous love and if we are to be truly thankful then it should affect us who we are and how we live our lives. We need to live our lives like people who are loved and forgiven, and in turn show love and forgiveness to those around us. It’s difficult for us to do on our own, but thankfully we live in a community called the church where we receive forgiveness, where we can be fed by word and sacrament, where we can strengthen and encourage one another, through prayer and acts of charity, to live the truth of the gospel in our lives. If you’re looking for a model of how to live as a Christian, can I recommend the last six verses of the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles:

42And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

And to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, be ascribed as is most just and right, all might, majesty, dominion and power, now and forever…

Jesus heals the Syro-Phoenician Woman’s daughter

The Prophecy of Isaiah is rightly called the Fifth Gospel. More than any other text in the Jewish Scriptures, the Old Testament, we see presented the Messianic hope, a hope fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Through his prophet God tells his people to maintain justice, to do the right thing for the right reasons, that salvation is coming, and that right soon. The promise and the hope is not just for Israel, but for anyone who joins themselves to the Lord, who love His Name, and keep His sabbath. God further declares that ‘His House shall be called a House of prayer for all peoples’ words which Jesus will use when cleanses the Temple of its money-changers. God is one who gathers the outcasts and more besides.

The Apostle Paul was born a Jew, trained in the law, a pharisee of the school of Hillel, who knows God to be faithful, but whose life’s work was to proclaim the Good News of God’s Kingdom to Gentiles, to non-Jews, as God is merciful to all, He loves everyone, and longs to see us reconciled to Him, and each other.

This morning’s Gospel shows us a woman in need. Her daughter is seriously unwell, she’s desperate. She turns to Jesus and begs Him, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ She is respectful, and polite, but Jesus ignores her. Then the disciples urge Him to send her away, she’s a pain, she’s a Caananite, a Syro-Phoenecian, a foreigner, she’s not one of us. Jesus answers the woman, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ And up to this point Jesus’ ministry has focussed on Jews, and would seem to be exclusive to them. She comes and kneels before Jesus, she is completely dependant upon Him. All she can do is to cry out, ‘Lord, help me.’ And even then Jesus replies, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ His words sound harsh, rude and xenophobic, but for a first century Jew they were not strange at all, they were normal, they were expected of the Chosen People, who had forgotten the words of Isaiah. The woman, however, is not put off, she is persistent, and she uses Jesus’ words against Him: ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ She demonstrates complete trust in God, and her attitude is one of worship. And so ‘Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.’ In an instant it is all sorted out. Such is the power of FAITH.

Jesus Christ was never afraid to court controversy, or to challenge a religious hierarchy. Generally speaking it’s the Pharisees who tend to get both barrels so to speak. Jesus has a problem with hypocrisy: when what we say and what we do don’t match up. The Pharisees are so concerned with outward conformity to the letter of the Law of Moses that they have forgotten what the spirit is. While they stress the need for outward purity in terms of hand-washing, they need to remember that what is far worse is how what people think and say and do affects who and what they are. In their rigid outward conformity they have forgotten that at a fundamental level the Law of Moses needs affect our lives and to be lived out in them.

It is a great challenge to each and every one of us to live up to this. It is both simple and difficult, and something which we all need to do together, as a community, so that we can support each other, and help each other to live out our faith in our lives. Otherwise we are the blind leading the blind, valuing outward conformity over the conversion of the soul, more concerned with appearance than reality and making a mockery of God and religion. It is an easy trap into which we can and do fall, so let us be vigilant and encourage each other not to fall into it, and to help each other out when we do.

The healing of the daughter of the Syro-Phoenecian woman can appear to be troubling at first: the Kingdom which Jesus comes to inaugurate is meant to be a place of healing, so its initial absence is troubling. The disciples can only see the woman as a troublesome annoyance, she’s making a fuss. The reward for her faith and tenacity is God’s healing. She shows more love, more care than the people of Israel. And through her the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled. We look to her example as a forerunner in the faith and like her we pray:

We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.

Like the woman in the Gospel we need God’s merciful love to be poured out upon us, we long for healing, and we do so through the Eucharist, the Sacrament of Our Lord’s Body and Blood. Like her we need to recognise that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of David, and that while we are not worthy, nonetheless God loves us and heals us. We are healed by the wounds of Christ on the Cross at Calvary, where His Body is broken and His Blood is shed for us, for you and me.

We are fed so that we might be healed, to strengthen us to live out our faith together, not in outward conformity, keeping up appearances, for the sake of propriety, but so that we can be healed, and helped to live out our faith together. That filled with joy we might share our faith with others, so that they too may come to 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.

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