Twenty-fourth Sunday of Year B – Who do you say Jesus is?

In the Gospel this morning we see the importance of Questions and Answers. Jesus first asks the question, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ The disciples answer, saying what they’ve heard people say, ‘some say John the Baptist, others Elijah or one of the prophets’ J. Jesus then asks the question, “But who do you say that I am?” (Mk 8:29 ESV) He asks that question to His disciples, and he asks it to us: Who do we say Jesus is? Just a man? A Holy Man? A spiritual teacher? Or something more? Are we happy to say that he’s a prophet, but just a man, to deny His Divinity, or can we say that He is the Christ, the Son of the living God. If we are happy to say this is this simply the end of the matter or is more asked of us? We have to say that He is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Nothing else will do! Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims, Unitarians, and many other people will say many things about Jesus, but not that he was the Messiah, the Anointed One, who would save people from their sins. He is truly God, and truly man, born of the Blessed Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. 

Peter confesses who Jesus is, but then Jesus goes on to teach His disciples ‘that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.’ (Mk 8:31 ESV) Because Jesus is who He is, the Messiah, the Son of God, then He has to die. In our first reading from the prophecy of Isaiah it is clearly foretold that the servant, that is Jesus, will be rejected and mistreated, and killed. Now Peter clearly doesn’t like it, he doesn’t understand how people could treat Jesus this way. Peter can only see things in human terms, and despite confessing that Jesus is the Messiah, Peter doesn’t want Jesus to suffer and die. He doesn’t fully understand what this means. It has to happen, so that Scripture might be fulfilled, and to show the world how much God loves us. God loves us SO MUCH that he gives his own Son to suffer and die, so that we might live. 

So Jesus says to the assembled crowd, including His disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” (Mk 8:34-5 ESV) We are Christians, through our common baptism, we follow Christ, we do what He says. So this applies to each and every one of us. We have to deny ourselves, take up OUR cross, and follow Jesus. 

We have to deny ourselves — Now I know that I’m not good at saying, ‘No’. But I have to, I try to, and that’s the point. Denying ourselves means that we don’t put ourselves, or thoughts and desires at the centre of our lives — we put God there, where He belongs. God gives us GRACE to do this: through prayer, through reading the Bible, through the Sacraments of the Church, to help us.

We have to take up our Cross. The Cross is an instrument of torture and death, and it means pain and suffering. That is not pleasant or easy. We can understand why Peter says what he does, but the Christian life is not easy or without suffering. Mother Teresa, St Teresa of Calcutta once said that, “Suffering is a sign that we have come so close to Jesus on the cross that he can kiss us and that he can show that he is in love with us by giving us an opportunity to share in his passion.” (My Life for the Poor, 77) When we suffer, we are close to Christ, we share in His Passion, and are conformed to His image. It is part of the mystery of God’s love, that it can transform us, but that transformation is not pleasant or easy, but in it we experience God’s LOVE. 

We have to follow Jesus, we have to do what He says, which sounds easy in theory, but in practice is rather difficult. It is something which we do together, as a Church. Love and forgiveness sound easy, but they aren’t.  They make demands on us, and force us to do things that we might not like to do. But we can support each other, and rely upon the grace of God to help us as we try to do this.  

Our Faith is first and foremost about our relationship with Jesus Christ, someone who loves us so much that He dies for us. He takes away our sins, and restores our relationship with God and each other. And he gives himself here to us today, under the outward forms of bread and wine, in His Body and His Blood, to heal us, and restore us.

What Jesus does for us and for humanity is wonderful. It is an amazing demonstration of God’s love for us. He calls us to follow Him and bear our own Cross. To follow Christ in living out that same suffering love, to show the same compassion to the world, the same forgiveness. To follow Christ is to experience pain and anguish, heartache and loss, there is no magic wand to make things disappear. But rather, as we try to live out our faith, stumbling and failing as we go, we are drawn ever more into the mystery of God’s love and forgiveness. We become people of compassion, of reconciliation, who can see beyond petty human trifles, squabbles, and arguments, to the Kingdom of God where restored humanity can be enfolded for ever in the love of God. 

Opposed to this are the ways of the world: the ways of money, and of power. Yet none of us can be saved by who we are or our possessions. Once we die they are of no use to us, and what then? All the wealth and power in the world cannot save our soul. They cannot make us truly happy in the way that following Christ, and entering into his suffering can. God’s love is shown most fully when Christ dies for love of us, when he bears the weight of human sin, wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities. This is how the Messiah reigns, not on a throne, but on a Cross. And when he comes at the end of time to judge the world, as he surely will, a judgement of which the Apostle James is all too well aware, let us not be among the adulterous and sinful generation of those who are ashamed of Christ, but let us instead be in Him, fed with Him, living His life, so that the world may come to 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.

cropped-velazquezcrucifxion.jpg

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.

salome_with_the_head_of_john_the_baptist-caravaggio_28161029

14th Sunday of Yr B Ezek 2:1-5, 2Cor 12:2-10, Mk 6:1-13

Appearances can be deceptive, things are not always what they seem. Much of what we do in church is much more than it seems, what can seem simple and straightforward is, in fact, much more complex. The simple pouring of water in Baptism, or the taking of Bread and Wine in the Eucharist, seem simple enough, and yet through them God is at work in our world, doing wonderful things, pouring out His Grace and His Love on us, to make us Holy. 

Our first reading this morning reminds us that it is not always comfortable or easy listening to a prophet — we have to hear uncomfortable truth. Prophets call us to repent from sin and turn back to God a call which lies at the heart of Christian Baptism It is identical with the message preached by John the Baptist, and Jesus, and the church exists to proclaim the same message, and to call people to be Holy, to live like saints here and now, and encourage others so to do.

In this morning’s epistle we hear the words of the Risen Lord Jesus to Paul, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ (2Cor 12:9 ESV) They are wonderful words of encouragement, because first and foremost they remind us that it’s not about WE can do, but about what God can do in and through us. This is possibly the most important lesson we can learn as a Christian — we cannot earn our way to heaven, God does that for us, through His Son Jesus Christ, who dies on the Cross to give us life in and through Him. What greater demonstration could there be of weakness than in dying the death of a common criminal. God shows the world that power can paradoxically be demonstrated in abject weakness. As Christians we celebrate something shameful in the eyes of the world, because it is in fact the demonstration of God’s LOVE for us. 

God enters the world in the Incarnation as a weak baby, utterly dependant upon the Holy Family, Mary and Joseph, and dies rejected, and abandoned, a laughing stock, a complete failure in the eyes of the world, and yet it sets us free, it gives us life through His death, power made perfect in weakness. God does wonderful things through Paul, who was once an enemy of the church, no-one is beyond the reach of God’s love and he can do wonderful things through us, if we let Him.

The Christian life starts with Baptism, which is how we enter the church and we are filled with the grace of God, and prepared for the life of faith. It is the start of a process which should lead to heaven: by growing in faith, and being fed by Christ, with Christ, in Word and Sacrament; through prayer, and good works, where faith is lived out in our lives.It sounds simple enough, but it is actually difficult, it requires the love and support of a family, and that wider family we call the church, so that we can all support each other in living the Christian life together. 

In this morning’s gospel people misread Jesus, they fail to recognize who or what he is, they are amazed and in doubting Jesus they doubt God to be at work in the world. We need to believe that God can and will be at work, in and through us. They can only see Jesus in terms of the members of his earthly family. It’s understandable, I can remember going back to the church where I grew up to preach and celebrate for their patronal festival, I was worried how people who had known me all my life would react, would they see a small boy in shorts and spectacles. I needn’t have worried, they saw a priest and were thrilled to see me at the altar. Therein lies the difference, the people of Nazareth see Jesus and can only think, ‘carpenter’s son’. They cannot recognize the Messiah in their midst. 

We need to know who and what Jesus is. The world around us rejects Jesus, rather like the people of Nazareth, or fail to accept him as true God and true man. They doubt who he was, what he did, and what he said. But we are different, we are here because we do not. We can tell people about him, but unless they WANT to believe then they won’t, no amount of forcing will make them. If, however, they see Christians living out their faith in an attractive way, then all things are possible. 

Jesus sends the disciples out in pairs, not alone: their ministry is rooted in co-operation, working together to build up the Kingdom of God. The twelve travel light, and are utterly dependant upon God and the charity and goodwill of others. It looks radical, and it is. They proclaim the need for repentance, turn away from sin and the ways of the world, and to turn back to God. They display the healing of the Kingdom: ours is a God who longs to heal our wounds, to restore us, and offer us a radical alternative to the ways of the world. The church is a revolutionary organisation, which seeks to change the world one soul at a time, so that humanity is transformed more and more into the likeness of the God who loves them, into the likeness of Jesus Christ, who lived among us and died for us, through the power of the Holy Spirit. It may sound crazy, but that is what we have been doing for nearly two thousand years, and will carry on doing until Jesus comes again. We continue to offer new life in Christ through baptism, and to feed God’s people with the Body and Blood of Christ, so that they may have life in and through Christ, nourished by Christ and fed with Christ, to be transformed more and more into His likeness so that they and all creation 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, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.

christ-preaching-in-the-synagogue-at-nazareth-14th-c-fresco-visoki-decani-monastery-kosovo

from Priesthood in Liturgy and Life by Fr Alban Baverstock SSC

The Christian priest pre-eminently exercises his priesthood at the Christian altar, offering the Christian sacrifice.  But it is surely clear that the Christian priest cannot satisfy the obligations which his share in the Eternal Priesthood lays upon him by the sole act of celebrating, occasionally or frequently, the Christian Mysteries.  At the altar or away from it, he is still a priest; and this priesthood must express itself in a life which is throughout an ordered ministry to God.  In other words the life of the priest must be liturgical.  His mass must be the summary for him, as for the great High Priest, of a life of self-oblation.  In the mysteries he offers himself in Christ.  His whole life must be a showing of Christ, impersonated in him, to God.  He must always be saying Mass.

A ready parallel meets us here in the apostolic injunction to ‘pray without ceasing’ [1Thess. 5.17].  This is rightly explained to mean more than that Christians are to be often at their prayers.  It means that the whole life of the Christian should be in a sense prayer, a coming to God, an energizing towards him.

And the parallel suggests an important conclusion as to the relation of the formal liturgy to the liturgical life, parallel to the relation between formal prayer and the life which is itself a continual prayer.  For the life of prayer, as experience abundantly proves, involves of necessity a due and constant attention to formal prayer.  Similarly the liturgical life, the life which is throughout a ministry to God, an oblation by the priest of himself in Christ and of Christ in him, depends very much on his formal celebration of the holy mysteries.  And the converse is true.  We shall never pray as we ought in our formal prayers unless our whole life breathes the spirit of prayer.  The priest will never say mass as he ought unless his whole life is imbued with the spirit of the mass, the spirit of oblation.

advent-holy-sacrifice-of-the-mass1

A thought for the day from Fulton Sheen

The Soul’s Atmosphere

Once our helplessness is rendered up to the power of God, life changes and we become less and less the victims of our moods. Instead of letting the world determine our state of mind, we determine the state of our soul with which the world is to be faced. The earth carries around its atmosphere with it as it revolves about the sun; so can the soul carry the atmosphere of God with it in disregard of turbulent events in the world outside.

Lift up your Heart

Augustine on the works of mercy

Two works of mercy set a man free: forgive and you will be forgiven, and give and you will receive.

When you pray we are all beggars before God: we stand before the great householder bowed down and weeping, hoping to be given something, and that something is God himself.

What does a poor man beg of you? Bread. What do you beg from God? – Christ, who said, ‘I am the living bread which came down from heaven’.

Do you you really want to be forgiven? Then forgive. Do you want to receive something? Then give to another. And if you want your prayer to fly up to God, give it two wings, fasting and almsgiving.

But look carefully at what you do: don’t think it is enough to fast if  it is only  a penance for sin, and does not benefit someone else. You deprive yourself of something, but to whom do you give what you do without?

Fast in such a way that you rejoice to see that dinner is eaten by another; not grumbling and looking gloomy, giving rather because the beggar wearies you than because you are feeding the hungry.

If you are sad when you give alms, you lose both bread and merit, because ‘God loves a cheerful giver’.

hyla-blue-largposter-copy

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?

900ab-crucifixion_013

Good Friday 2015


Love has three and only three intimacies: speech, vision, and touch. These three intimacies God has chosen to make his love intelligible to our poor hearts. God has spoken: he told us that he loves us: that is revelation. God has been seen: that is the incarnation. God has touched us by his grace: that is redemption. Well indeed, therefore, may he say: ‘What more could I do for my vineyard than I have done? What other proof could I give my love than to exhaust myself in the intimacies of love? What else could I do to show that my own Sacred Heart is not less generous than your own?’
          If we answer these questions aright, then we will begin to repay love with love …. then we will return speech with speech which will be our prayer; vision with vision which will be our faith; touch with touch which will be our communion.
Fulton J Sheen The Eternal Galilean
The prophets of Israel spoke the word of the Lord to the people of their day – there is a lot in the prophet Isaiah which relates directly to the exile of Israel in Babylon – but this is not the only way that such scripture can be read. As well as talking to the present, they speak to the future and tell of things to come. They like all of the Hebrew Scriptures find their fullest meaning in Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh. He is the fulfilment of Scripture – it finds its truest and fullest meaning in Him: the Scriptures point to something beyond themselves, to our Lord and Saviour, and it is thus understandable that there have been times when Isaiah has been called the fifth Gospel, because of his prophesies especially concerning Our Lord’s Birth, Suffering and Death.
This is not a new phenomenon; in the 8th Chapter of the Acts of the Apostles we see the meeting of Philip and an Ethiopian eunuch, who is reading this very passage which we have just heard – the Suffering Servant. 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.
       Today Christ is both priest and victim, and upon the altar of the Cross he offers himself as a sacrifice for sin, for the salvation of humanity. A new covenant is made in his blood which restores the relationship between God and humanity, we are shown in the most graphic way possible how much God loves us, and thus how much we are to love God and to love each other, with that costly self-sacrificial love embodied by Our Lord in his Passion and Death.
After scourging him the soldiers put a purple robe around our Lord, they crown him with thorns, and give him a reed for a sceptre. They think they’re being clever and funny: they’re having a laugh, mocking a man about to be executed, but this is God showing the world what true kingship is: it is not pomp, or power, the ability to have one’s own way, but the Silent Way of suffering love. It shows us what God’s glory is really like: it turns our human values on their head and inaugurates a new age, according to new values, and restores a relationship broken by human sin.
          In being raised upon the Cross, our Lord is not dying the death of a common criminal, but rather reigning in glory – the glory of God’s free love given to restore humanity, to have new life in him. His hands and feet and side are pierced, as wounds of love, to pour out God’s healing life upon the world. In his obedience to the Father’s will, he puts to an end the disobedience of humanity’s first parent. Here mankind who fell because of a tree are raised to new life in Christ through his hanging on the tree.  Christ is a willing victim, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, the Silent lamb led to his slaughter, the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep that have gone astray. At the time when the Passover lambs are slaughtered in the temple, upon the Altar of the Cross, Christ as both priest and victim offers himself as the true lamb to take away the sins of the whole world, offers his death so that we may have life, new life in Him.
          Death and hell, the reward of sin, have no power over us: for in dying, and being laid in a stranger’s tomb, Christ will go down to Hell, to break down its doors, to lead souls to heaven, to alter the nature of the afterlife, once and for all. Just when the devil thinks he’s won, then in his weakness and in his silence Christ overcomes the world, the flesh, and the devil. The burden of sin which separates humanity from God is carried on the wood of the Cross.
On the way to Calvary our Lord falls three times such is the way, such was the burden, so we too as Christians, despite being reconciled to God by the Cross, will fall on our road too. We will continue to sin, but also we will continue to ask God for his love and mercy. But those arms which were opened on the cross will always continue to embrace the world with God’s love.
We don’t deserve it and we haven’t earned it, that’s the point, but it is there to help us become the people God wants us to be: to be strengthened, fed, healed, and restored by him: to die to sin and be raised to new life, and to share that life and love with others, that the world might believe and be saved through him. Christ pays the debt which we cannot to reconcile humanity to his loving and merciful Father. He shows us the meaning of true love: that we might live it out in our lives, forgiving one another, bearing our own cross, and living lives of love for love of him who died for love of us.
          We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, for he is our salvation, our life, and our resurrection, through him we are saved and made free.

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.
duccio_di_buoninsegna_040

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.’

Trinity XXI The Conversion and Sanctification of Man

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

A thought for the day from S. Charles Borromeo

Practise what you preach

I admit that we are all weak, but if we want help, the Lord God has given us the means to find it easily. One priest may wish to lead a good, holy life, as he knows he should. He may wish to be chaste and to reflect heavenly virtues in the way he lives. Yet he does not resolve to use suitable means, such as penance, prayer, the avoidance of evil discussions and harmful and dangerous friendships. Another priest complains that as soon as he comes into church to pray the office or to celebrate Mass, a thousand thoughts fill his mind and distract him from God. But what was he doing in the sacristy before he came out for the office or for Mass? How did he prepare? What means did he use to collect his thoughts and to remain recollected?
  Would you like me to teach you how to grow from virtue to virtue and how, if you are already recollected at prayer, you can be even more attentive next time, and so give God more pleasing worship? Listen, and I will tell you. If a tiny spark of God’s love already burns within you, do not expose it to the wind, for it may get blown out. Keep the stove tightly shut so that it will not lose its heat and grow cold. In other words, avoid distractions as well as you can. Stay quiet with God. Do not spend your time in useless chatter.
  If teaching and preaching is your job, then study diligently and apply yourself to whatever is necessary for doing the job well. Be sure that you first preach by the way you live. If you do not, people will notice that you say one thing, but live otherwise, and your words will bring only cynical laughter and a derisive shake of the head.
  Are you in charge of a parish? If so, do not neglect the parish of your own soul, do not give yourself to others so completely that you have nothing left for yourself. You have to be mindful of your people without becoming forgetful of yourself.
  My brothers, you must realise that for us churchmen nothing is more necessary than meditation. We must meditate before, during and after everything we do. The prophet says: I will pray, and then I will understand. When you administer the sacraments, meditate on what you are doing. When you celebrate Mass, reflect on the sacrifice you are offering. When you pray the office, think about the words you are saying and the Lord to whom you are speaking. When you take care of your people, meditate on how the Lord’s blood that has washed them clean so that all that you do becomes a work of love.
  This is the way we can easily overcome the countless difficulties we have to face day after day, which, after all, are part of our work: in meditation we find the strength to bring Christ to birth in ourselves and in other men.

All you need is love

John, Paul, George, and Ringo, are not exactly what one might call theologians, but the title of their 1967 hit ‘All You Need is Love’ does seem (at one level) to encapsulate the message of this morning’s Gospel.
At its heart, Our Lord’s teaching combines two of the central commandments of the Law of Moses: Loving God with all our heart, and soul, and mind, and loving our neighbour as our self. Out of the 613 commandments of the Torah, these two are central – Jesus cuts right to the heart of the Old Covenant to show that what he is teaching is the fulfilment rather than the abolition of the Law and the Prophets. We know from elsewhere in the Gospels that when someone asks the follow-up question, Our Lord tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, to show what costly love in action looks like.
It is a big ask – in Leviticus the Lord says ‘You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.’ (Lev 19:2) As people created in the image of God, we are called to be holy, to be like God, to live out this love and holiness in our lives, in what we say and do, and in how we treat people. It is something we do together, as the body of Christ in the world.
Christ shows the world what love looks like when he dies on the Cross – embracing the world with love, and reconciling the world to God and itself. This is what being the Messiah is all about. It is why Christ continues to give himself under the outward forms of bread and wine to heal and restore the world. This is why we are here today – to be fed by him, fed with him, so that our souls and bodies may be transformed more and more into his likeness. It is our food for the journey of faith, our manna in the wilderness of this world, to strengthen us to live out our faith. This is not some optional extra, but the heart of who and what we are. We listen to what Jesus tells us, and we are obedient to Him.
We do this together as people redeemed by Him, saved from self-absorption, singing a new song to call the world to have life and have it to the full. It is the most wonderful good news, which fills us with joy and confidence – a gift far too precious for us not to give it away, to share it with others so that they may be free.
The Pharisees are reduced to silence because they are faced with Truth, with God himself speaking to them. They cannot answer Jesus because he is what the Law and the Prophets look to for fulfilment. He shows how our duty to love God and to worship him is tied up with loving our neighbour, and living out our faith in our lives. He provides us with an ethical framework within which to live, to guide our thoughts and actions, not by casting aside the moral law but by fulfilling it – by showing us what love looks like. His death and resurrection shows us what love looks like in action. It is the same love which we can taste and eat here today, which shows us how to live – following Jesus’ example and his commands. We are to be people of love, not the saccharin-sweet sentiment of the movies, but the costly self-giving love shown to us by Christ, the love which gives without counting the cost – a love which can heal the wounds of the world, which can give us that which we truly long for.
We love God when we worship Him, when we listen to what he says and obey Him. We love our neighbour through living out the forgiveness which we have received through Christ, by showing the same love and care which Christ shows to us, in giving himself to die for us, and to be raised to give us the hope of eternal life with Him.
It is all about Love, a love which gives itself to fill us, so that we can have life and have it to the full. It is a love which we can touch and taste, which can transform our souls so that we can grow into the likeness of Christ. We are nourished by Word and Sacrament so that we can live out the holiness which is our calling. We live it out together, strengthening each other, building each other up in love, praying for our needs and those of the whole world, relying upon the God who loves us, and who gives himself for us, in his strength and power, transformed by his grace.

So let us come to Him, so that we can be transformed more and more into His likeness, and invite others to 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.