Easter V: I am the Vine, You are the Branches

When the Apostle Philip meets an Ethiopian eunuch on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, he comes across a man reading the prophesy of Isaiah: a financial expert, highly-trusted, and well-educated, a man of power and influence. He’s looking for something, he’s been worshipping God in Jerusalem. Philip asks him if he can understand what he is reading. He replies that he cannot, unless someone shows him the way. ‘Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus.’ (Acts 8:35 ESV). Isaiah’s prophesy is fulfilled in Jesus and this is the proclamation of the Church: we proclaim Jesus Christ and him crucified.
We read scripture so that we can understand it, and see in its words how it discloses the truth of the Word made flesh, who suffered and died for our sake. Isaiah prophesies Our Lord’s Passion and Death, and thus it makes sense, it can be understood, and the more we come to understand, the more we come to know just how much God loves us. The Scriptures, the entire of the Law and the Prophets point to Jesus Christ, they find their meaning and fulfilment in Him, who is the Word of God made flesh. Just like the story of the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham points to the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, where God gives his only Son for love of us, it is prefigured by the ram in the thicket, which points to that moment where John the Baptist can cry out ‘Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!’

Having been nourished by the Word of God, our unnamed Ethiopian desires baptism:  so that he may be ‘in Christ’ rooted and grafted, close to him, filled with His Spirit, so that he may bear much fruit.

When we are close to Christ, washed clean by our baptism, nourished by Word and Sacrament, we can truly be Christ’s disciples, living in Him, living for Him, proclaiming Him, and bearing much fruit, so that the world may believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit

Easter II

The Cross had asked the questions; the Resurrection had answered them…. The Cross had asked ‘Why does God permit evil and sin to nail Justice to a tree?’ The Resurrection answered: ‘That sin, having done its worst, might exhaust itself and thus be overcome by Love that is stronger than either sin or death.’        Thus there emerges the Easter lesson that the power of evil and the chaos of the moment can be defied and conquered, for the basis of our hope is not in any construct of human power but in the power of God, who has given to the evil of this earth its one mortal wound—an open tomb, a gaping sepulchre, an empty grave.

Fulton J. Sheen Cross-Ways

 
This morning as we rejoice in the joy of the Risen Lord, as we are filled with joy, with hope and with love, we can reflect on what the Resurrection does: when Jesus comes and stands among the disciples he says ‘Peace be with you’ Christ’s gift to the world in His Death and Resurrection is Peace, the Peace ‘which passes all understanding’. He shows the disciples his hands and side so that they can see the wounds of love, through which God’s Mercy is poured out on the world to heal it and restore it. In this peace Christ can say to them ‘As the Father sent me, so I send you’ as the baptised people of God the Church is to be a missionary community – one sent to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ to the world, that it may share the joy and life of the Risen Lord.
       As well as giving the Apostles the Holy Spirit, ordaining them as the first bishops of the Church, we see that the power of the Cross to bring peace to the world is also the power to absolve sins – priests and bishops can absolve the people of God in God’s name, and by God’s power – this is what the Cross achieves – reconciling us to God and each other. The Church, then, is to be a community of reconciliation, where we are forgiven and we, in turn, forgive, where we are freed from sin, its power and its effects.
       When Christ breathes on the disciples and says ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ it is this gift of God’s Holy Spirit which transforms them from frightened people sat in a locked room in fear into the confident, joyous proclaimers of the Gospel, such as Peter in his sermon to the people of Jerusalem. In Peter’s sermon we see that all that Christ is and does is confirmed by Scripture – it is the fulfilment of prophesy, such as we find in Isaiah 25:6—9:
 
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death for ever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day, “Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”
 
       As the Church we know that Jesus is the Messiah, the one who gives freedom to Israel, a freedom from sin – a bringing to completion of what God started in the Exodus, in the crossing of the Red Sea – we too are free, freed by the waters of baptism, sharing in Christ’s Death and Resurrection.
       Thomas was not present with the disciples, he cannot believe in the reality of Jesus’ Resurrection unless he sees with his own eyes, and feels with his own hands – such is his grief, such is his love for Jesus. Our Lord says to him ‘Doubt no longer but believe’ which leads to his confession ‘My Lord and my God’. Blessed are we who have not seen and yet have come to believe, and through this belief we have live in Christ’s name, we have the hope of eternal life and joy with him forever.
       The disciples go from being scared and stuck in an upper room to missionaries, evangelists, spreading the Good News around the world, regardless of the cost, even of sacrificing their own lives to bear witness to the fact that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that he died for our sins, and that he rose again, on this day for us, that God loves us and tells us to love Him and to love one another. It is a simple and effective message which people still want to hear – we need to tell it to them, in our thoughts, our words and our actions.
       The heart of our faith and the Gospel is forgiveness – no matter how many times we mess things up, we are forgiven. It is this reckless generosity of spirit which people find hard – to believe that they toocan be forgiven, by a loving God, and by their fellow Christians. That we can, despite our manifold shortcomings be a people of love, and forgiveness, and reconciliation. That God’s Grace will in the end not abolish our nature, but perfect it, that being fed by Christ, with Christ: so that we too may become what He is. That faced with the sad emptiness of the world, and its selfishness, its greed, we can be filled with joy, and life, and hope. That like the first apostles we too can spread the Gospel: that the world may believe.
It’s a tall order, perhaps, but one which God promises us. That is what the reality of the Resurrection is all about, it’s either nothing, in which case we are the most pitiable of deluded fools – idiots who are more to be pitied than blamed, orit is the single most important thing in the world. It should affect allof us, every part of our life, every minute of every day, allthat we do, all that we say, all that we are. This may not fit in with a reserved British mentality, we think we’re supposed to be polite and not force our views on others. But this simply will not do. We are, after all, dealing with people’s souls, their eternal salvation, it’s a serious matter. And what we offer people is entirely free, can change their lives for the better, and make life worth living.


So let us be filled with the joy of the Resurrection this Easter, let us share that joy with others, may it fill our lives and those of whom we meet with the joy and love of God, who has triumphed and who offers us all new life in Him, that all that we do, all that we are, all that we say or think may 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.

Lent III Year B


Lent can feel something like a spiritual spring clean, and that’s no bad thing. We, all of us, need opportunities for repentance, to turn away from sin, and to return to the Lord Our 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.
            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 commandment? 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.
            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 fulfill 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 these 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, a stumbling-block to Jews, obsessed with the worship of the Temple, and foolishness to Gentiles who cannot believe that God could display such weakness, such powerlessness. Instead this 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 and die for us, to save us from our sins, and from the punishment that is rightly ours. We do not deserve it, that’s the point. But we are offered it in Christ so that we might become something other 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.
            To live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often. 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…

Homily for Lent I

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


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

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

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

Epiphany II: John 1:43-51

In John’s Gospel we have seen Jesus baptised by John the Baptist, we have heard John declare ‘Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world’, we have seen Jesus call Andrew and Simon Peter, disciples of John, to follow him. Now Jesus decides to go from Bethany to Galilee, to go back home. He begins by saying to Philip ‘Follow me’ a simple invitation, which he accepts. Coming from Bethsaida, the same city as Andrew and Peter it is certain that Philip knows them, and is well-disposed to join in with them, and to answer Jesus’ invitation. He then finds Nathanael and testifies that Jesus is he who is spoken of in the Law of Moses and the prophets, the Messiah, the saviour of Israel. Nathanael’s reply, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ looks like a proverbial saying – it reminds us of Jesus’ ordinary earthly existence, growing up in a backwater town. Nathanael’s initial scorn will be transformed; such is the power of God. Philip counters by saying ‘Come and see’, Jesus’ answer to John’s disciples who want to know where he is staying. This invitation to come and see for oneself lies at the heart of the proclamation of the Good News, it remains as key now as it did nearly two thousand years ago.
       Jesus sees Nathanael coming towards him and says ‘Here is an Israelite in whom there is no guile’ he’s plain-speaking, honest, there’s no flannel here. Nathanael is amazed before long has acclaimed Jesus as a teacher, the Son of God and King of Israel. Clearly something good can come out of Nazareth, good enough to save the world. For the kingdom to grow we cannot simply expect to open our doors and see people flood in, we have to invite people in, to say to them ‘Come and see’ and make sure that they see Jesus in Word, Sacrament, and in the lives of those around them. Having been called, they can respond to that call. This is what the church is for – to call people to be in a relationship with Jesus, to be nourished by him. We need to continue to repeat the simple invitation of Jesus ‘Come and see’, to come and see the one who is shown in the Law and the Prophets as the Messiah, the Anointed Saviour, so that people can become close to Him.
       This openness, this willingness to be changed by an encounter with Christ, encourages us to look outwards and share our faith with others – to live lives of joy, in the knowledge that God loves us and saves us. Our faith as Christians is not something which we keep to ourselves, but rather something which we share, and which affects all of who and what we are, and think, and say, and do. Ours is a radical faith which has at its aim to change the world. It may sound strange or overambitious, but if we acknowledge Jesus Christ as the King of Heaven and Earth, who came to save humanity, we have to call the world to follow him. Our faith then is not a private matter, or something which we just do on a Sunday morning for an hour or so, but rather something which changes our lives, and affects every part of who we are and what we do. What we see starting in this morning’s Gospel is something which we can bear fruit in our lives, if we accept the invitation to ‘Come and see’ and encourage others so to do.

       The Gospel is the Good News of Jesus Christ, good news that God loves humanity, that He saves us, that He gives Himself to save us from our sins, and nourishes us with His Word and His Sacraments, so that we can have life in Him, and life in all its fullness. What starts with the Incarnation is still bearing fruit here and now, still encouraging people to come and see, to meet Jesus, to be nourished and changed by Him, let us accept His invitation, and offer it to others that they too may enter into the joy of the Lord 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.

A Thought for the Day from S. Anthony the Great

The brethren came to the Abba Anthony and said to him, ‘Speak a word; how are we to be saved?’ The old man said to them, ‘You have heard the Scriptures. That should teach you how.’ But they said, ‘We want to hear it from you too, Father.’ Then the old man said to them, ‘The Gospel says,”if anyone strikes you on the one cheek, turn to him the other also.”‘ (Mt 5:39) They said, ‘We cannot do that.’ The old man said, ‘If you cannot offer the other cheek, at least allow one cheek to be struck.’ ‘We cannot do that either,’ they said. So he said, ‘If you are not able to do that, do not return evil for evil,’ and they said, ‘We cannot do that either.’ Then the old man said to his disciple, ‘Prepare a little brew of corn for these invalids. If you cannot do this, or that, what can I do for you? What you need is prayers.’

It was revealed to Abba Anthony in his desert that there was one who was his equal in the city. He was a doctor by profession and whatever he had beyond his needs he gave to the poor, and every day he sang the Sanctus with the angels.

He also said, ‘Our life and our death is with our neighbour. If we gain our brother, we have gained God, but if we scandalise our brother, we have sinned against Christ.’