Trinity IX ‘Give us this bread always’

Whenever I read today’s passage from Exodus, my heart really goes out to Moses. He has a thankless task leading the people of Israel, when all they seem to do is moan and complain. After spending weeks in the wilderness the Israelites are desperate and hungry. They are grumbling about the lack of food compared to their old life in Egypt. God hears their need and promises to give them meat in the evening and bread in the morning. The people of Israel are given quail, and a fine flake-like substance. They do not know what sort of food it is, and ask, ‘What is it?’ (In Hebrew Mān-hu, from which we get the word ‘manna’). For Christians this miraculous feeding foreshadows the great miraculous feeding of the New Testament, namely the Eucharist, where we are fed by Christ, and with Christ. 

Last week’s Gospel was the account of the miraculous Feeding of the Five Thousand. This is not a parable about sharing, but rather it is a miracle, a supernatural event where God’s generous love breaks through into our human world. In today’s Gospel, we see people who have been fed in the miraculous feast, following Jesus around. Perhaps they’re hoping for another free lunch? It is clear that they haven’t seen the signs, and they haven’t understood what is going on. Jesus feeds people not as a combination of magic trick and mass catering, but as a sign of God’s generous love. God loves us, you and me — all of us — so much, that He longs to feed us with Himself. He loves us so much that He gives Himself to be tortured and to die on the Cross for us. This is the central message of Christianity: God loves us, and wants us to share Eternal Life with Him.

In contrast to a world which views achievement as most important, God declares that it is what we believe that really matters. Whilst we celebrate with those who have won medals in Tokyo, we do so in the knowledge that Olympic glory will fade, and others will follow, who will be faster and stronger. What we should strive for is a glory which is more than gold or silver: the glory of Heaven, the joy of Eternal Life in God. We train for this by believing in our loving Creator, and doing His work in the world. 

The people ask Jesus:

What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” 

Jesus answers them:

“This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (Jn 6:28-9)

This reply, while it is clear and simple, is not entirely convincing, so the people interrogate Jesus further:

Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” (Jn 6:30-31)

The people want to see more signs. The Feeding of the Five Thousand wasn’t enough for them. Jesus asks them to believe in Him, and to put their trust in God. He then explains what is happening in the Exodus story:

Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”(Jn 6:32-4)

The people’s request, “Sir, give us this bread always” is echoed in the words of the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Dyro i ni heddiw ein bara beunyddiol, Give us this day our daily bread’. This prayer is fulfilled in the Eucharist. Here Jesus gives us the Bread of Heaven, so that we might be fed by Him, and with His Body and Blood, so that we might have a foretaste of Heaven and a pledge of Eternal Life in Christ. 

Time-wise, this conversation and the Feeding of the Five Thousand takes place around the festival of the Passover. This is the time when Israel commemorates its journey from slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land. It is also at Passover when Jesus suffers, dies, and rises again: ‘Pasg’, ‘Easter’, the time when Jesus institutes the Eucharist on the night before He dies, in the Upper Room with His disciples. The timing is important, as under the New Covenant God’s people are fed, their sins are forgiven, and they are reconciled to God, and each other. A miraculous feeding will happen here today, when we, the people of God, united in love and faith, offer ourselves and the bread that we have, so that it may be taken, blessed, broken, and shared. It is given so that we may be partakers in the mystical supper of the Kingdom of God. We eat the Body of Christ not as ordinary food , but as spiritual nourishment so that WE may become what HE is.

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. (Jn 6:35) 

These are words we can trust: Christ yw bara bywyd, Christ is the Bread of Life. This is the first of seven sayings in John’s Gospel where Jesus describes who He is, and what He does by saying ‘I am …’ This is a direct echo of when God speaks to Moses at the Burning Bush in Exodus 3:14 and says:

I am who I am

So here Jesus is telling us who He is, who God is, so that we can believe in Him. He does this so that we can be fed, and sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

James Tissot – The Gathering of the Manna

Trinity VI

For several weeks now we have had readings from the Old Testament prophets, which focus on what it means to be a prophet, and to speak God’s word to Israel. As we have already seen, confronting people with home truths often leads to rejection, and this is the case with Amos. He has been sent from the South to the Northern kingdom, to call the people back to God, exhorting them to stop exploiting the poor. The king and the priest tell Amos to go back to where he came from. They don’t want his sort turning up, and telling them off.They are haughty, dismissive, and proud. God has sent them a prophet, but they cannot and will not listen to what he says. It is sad, tragic even, that when faced with a call to repentance, all they can do is to reply with arrogance. It will lead to their downfall, and the destruction of Israel by the Assyrians. 

Amos does not claim any special status, quite the opposite, he says: 

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) 

Amos is not a prophet by occupation, or apprenticeship. He has not been trained, and yet God uses him to call Israel to repentance. Ours then is a not a God who calls the qualified, but who qualifies those whom He calls. We may well feel unworthy, or unable to carry out what God wants, yet God works through us, not because we are capable, but because we rely on Him. Amos tells the uncomfortable truth to the priest, Amaziah, and to the king of Israel, and reminds them that their actions have consequences. Israel has fallen short, and will be judged. Amos is fulfilling the role of the prophet by calling people back to God, urging them to walk in His ways, so that they may have life, and have it to the full.

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus sends out His twelve disciples to proclaim the Good News. They are sent to call  people to repentance, and to make the Kingdom a reality. They do this through the ministries of exorcism and healing. Just like the prophet Amos in our first reading, they call people to repentance, as the Church continues to do. Our turning towards God is a constant ongoing process, the work of a lifetime. 

When we are planning a journey, even just a day trip: we prepare, we pack, we take things with us. But Jesus does not do this. He gives His disciples quite different instructions:

He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in their belts— but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics.’ (Mk 6:8-9) 

Jesus’ teaching highlights the importance of the need to be dependant upon others, and especially God: not to trust in our own strength or planning, but to rely upon the generosity and help of others. To live in this way is a daunting prospect, and that is the point. It doesn’t make sense in human terms, but the Kingdom of God turns human values upside down. The Church is meant to travel light and be fleet of foot. The disciples also need to prepared to face rejection:

And if any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” (Mk 6:11)

 The offer of the Kingdom is freely made, and can be rejected. God does not compel us to believe, He invites us into a relationship. We are free to accept or reject, but both actions have consequences. At a symbolic level, this verse reminds Christians to leave behind all anger, bitterness, and judgement, and instead to be a community of love and joy. 

So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them. (Mk 6:12-13)

We see the reality of God’s kingdom in its proclamation and the reality of healing and freedom which it promises. The disciples continue Jesus’ work and mission, giving us a template for the Church, which serves to proclaim, to heal, and to nourish God’s people. We too are heralds of the Kingdom of God, which is still an unfolding 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. This is 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. This is the hope which underpins Paul’s message, both to the Church in Ephesus, and to us today.

God loves us, has a wonderful plan for us. However, in accepting His invitation, we should be aware that there are risks involved, and things may not always be comfortable or easy. It will be a challenge.  And yet, 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 too 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. Amen.

James Tissot – He sent them out two by two

Trinity V

For Ezekiel, being a prophet is frequently a thankless task. People do not really like being told home truths that make them feel uncomfortable. Yet prophets are called by God to speak discomforting truths to humanity. This often leads to them being rejected and ignored, and with the prophet Ezekiel, this is clearly the case.  He is trying to bring Israel back into a right relationship with God, but this is no easy task:

The descendants also are impudent and stubborn: I send you to them, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God.’ And whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house) they will know that a prophet has been among them.’ (Ezek 2:4-5)

The prophet speaks the words of the Lord (Dyma Air yr Arglwydd) to His people, and they either listen or refuse to listen. They are an obstinate people, so they choose the latter. Their refusal to listen to God and pay heed to His words is sinful, and yet God does not abandon them, He continues to send prophets to proclaim the same message, and even sends His Son, so that Israel might listen and turn back to Him.

In the reading from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has returned home to Nazareth, where He grew up. On the Sabbath, Jesus teaches in the synagogue. Reports of His teaching and miracles have clearly spread, yet the reaction is not a positive one:

“Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offence at him.’ (Mk 6:2-3)

The people of Nazareth are only able to see Christ’s humanity, to see Him as the son of Joseph and Mary. As such it is understandable that they are perplexed by Jesus’ healing miracles. They cannot understand how such mighty works are done by His hands. The answer to the question  of the Nazarenes is simple: God is working through Jesus because Jesus is God made flesh. While He has earthly family members, the power of His miracles and teaching come from the fact that Jesus is God. It is God who performs miracles, not humanity. God speaks through prophets and through His Son. The people of Nazareth saw Mary and Joseph’s son grow up, and at one level they know Him, but at a deeper, more profound level, they do not. They just see the human Jesus, and are unable, or unwilling, to see His Divinity.

Christ is unable to do a mighty work in Nazareth because of their unbelief. But He does not sit around and do nothing. Firstly, He teaches in the synagogue, and proclaims the Kingdom of God. Secondly, He makes it a reality, laying His hands on sick people and healing them. In doing these things He is proclaiming the Kingdom as a place where the healing power of God’s love is poured out upon the world. Despite being rejected and faced with a lack of faith, God is still loving and active in the world. Christ’s mission then continues, with the proclamation of the Kingdom in the surrounding villages.

What the prophets announced, Christ embodied. We hear His words, and are fed with Him. Whether our communion is physical or spiritual, we are nourished with Word and Sacrament, to experience the reality of God’s Kingdom, here and now.

In today’s epistle we hear Our Lord speaking to Paul:

My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ (2Cor 12:9) 

These 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, and we do not have to. 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. Like Jesus and Paul, when we are weak we are strong. God’s kingdom turns human values upside down 

God enters the world in the Incarnation as a weak baby, utterly dependant upon the Holy Family of Mary and Joseph. As an adult, Christ dies rejected, and abandoned: a laughing stock, a complete failure in the eyes of the world. But this is not the end. On the third day God raises Jesus from the dead, and this sets us free, from sin and death. We are all given true life  through Christ’s Death and Resurrection: power made perfect in weakness. The example of Paul, who was once an enemy of the Church, shows us that no-one is beyond the reach of God’s love. God does wonderful things through Paul, and He can do wonderful things through us, if we let Him. Weakness here means relying upon God to be at work in us. If we listen to what God tells us through the words of Scripture, and have faith in Him, then wonderful things can and will happen.

For two thousand years the Church has proclaimed the same message: ‘Repent and believe the Good News’, and through our faith God can be at work in our lives. As Christians we are called to be holy, to live like saints here and now, and encourage others so to do. We do this so that all might sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen. 

He did no miracles but He healed them – James Tissot

Trinity IV

Each and every one of us is in need of healing, be it physical, psychological or spiritual. Our bodies, minds, and souls need it. It is a truth of human existence that we are all broken, and while medicine can heal our bodies, we still long for life in all its fulness. The Kingdom of God, proclaimed and inaugurated by Jesus Christ is a place of healing, and through our relationship with Jesus we can find the wholeness for which we long. This is why the Gospels contain healing miracles. These miraculous accounts are signs of God’s restoration of creation through His Son, something which will culminate with His Passion, Death, and Resurrection. 

In the Gospel Jesus has sailed back across the Sea of Galilee to the Jewish side. On His arrival He is greeted by the leader of a local synagogue whose daughter is close to death. Jairus longs for his child to be healed, and asked Jesus to place His hands on her, so that she might be saved and live.

While Jesus is going to heal Jairus’ daughter, another miracle takes place. Lots of people are following Jesus, which is understandable since He is a charismatic preacher and teacher, who heals people. In the crowd is a woman with a gynaecological complaint. It would have made her life extremely difficult, and in Jewish ritual terms she would have been regarded as impure. She would not have been able to play her part in religious life. Also she would not have been able to bear children, and her husband, according to Jewish law, could have divorced her. She was an outcast, unclean, thrown on the metaphorical scrapheap of society. What money the woman had, she had been spent on doctors in trying to find a cure, but they only made things worse. Now she was penniless and desperate. But this pale, weak woman had an idea:

She had heard the reports about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment. For she said, “If I touch even his garments, I will be made well.” And immediately the flow of blood dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.’ (Mk 5:27-29)

Despite her physical infirmity, this woman has faith. She trusts Jesus, and believes that if she touches His clothing she will be healed. Such healing would restore her to community and allow her to take part in its religious life. She places her faith in God, realising that He can do for her what humanity could not. 

Jesus then notices that power has gone out from Him. He is aware of what has happened. Having asked who touched Him, Jesus’ disciples reply that it was accidental: they are surrounded by a crowd, anyone could have brushed against Him. Our Lord remains unconvinced:

And he looked round to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling and fell down before him and told him the whole truth. And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”’ (Mk 5:32-34)

The woman comes ‘in fear and trembling’ not because she is afraid of Jesus, but because it is the proper way for humans to act in the presence of God. She is filled with awe at her experience of divine healing. Jesus’ reply is astounding for several reasons. Firstly, that He responds at all: talking to a woman who was not a member of your family was frowned upon, let alone a woman who is a ritually unclean outcast. Jesus is breaking a social taboo. He addresses her as ‘daughter’, a reminder that Jesus’ family are not those related to Him in earthly terms, but those who do God’s will. The woman is a daughter of God and her faith in God has healed her. She trusted God to do what the physicians could not. Faith is the route to salvation and healing, trusting God to be at work. She can go in peace because she has been restored to health. Peace is God’s gift to us, that we may experience wholeness. Finally, Jesus underlines that what has happened is not a temporary healing, but a permanent state of affairs.

While Jesus is still speaking to the woman, messengers come to give Jairus a message:

“Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?” (Mk 5:35)

The situation is hopeless, and in their eyes there is nothing that Jesus can do. Thankfully, Our Lord has other ideas:

‘But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the ruler of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.”’ (Mk 5:36)

This fear is not the awe shown by the woman who has been healed, but a lack of trust in God. We know from the Letter to the Hebrews that:

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Heb 11:1)

Jairus has demonstrated his faith by prostrating himself before Jesus and asking for healing. Now, in the face of his daughter’s apparent demise, Jairus must trust God to be at work. 

‘Taking her by the hand he said to her, “Talitha cumi”, which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.”’ (Mk 5:41)

Note the fact that Jesus takes the girl by the hand. To touch a dead body would make a person ritually impure. This is why the priest and Levite in the Parable of the good Samaritan pass by on the other side. Jesus disregards the taboo of uncleanness, and speaks to her. He speaks to her in Aramaic, her mother tongue, and says literally ‘little lamb, get up’. It is a term of endearment which also reminds us that Christ is the Good Shepherd who cares for His lambs, keeps them safe, and saves them from death. 

The people who are there: Jairus and his wife, Peter, James and John are all amazed. They are filled with awe, the holy fear of witnessing the mighty works of God. It reminds us that as humans we relate to God primarily through worship. Finally, Jesus tells her parents to give her something to eat, which shows us the reality of her resurrection. This also points towards the feast of the Kingdom, which we hope to enjoy in Heaven, and which is prefigured in the Eucharist. Through physical and spiritual communion Christ gives Himself to feed us, and heal our bodies and our souls, and assures us of eternal life.

Like Jairus and the haemorrhaging woman, may we have faith, and come to Jesus for healing. So that we may come to the Feast of the Lamb and may sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen. 

James Tissot The woman with the Issue of Blood
James Tissot The Raising of Jairus’ Daughter

Trinity III

Over the last eighteen months or so we have had far too much experience of fear. It has been everywhere: in the media, in the announcements of politicians and scientists. Fear has been defining our daily lives. Such a situation is neither good nor healthy. At its heart Christianity is a faith which seeks to liberate people from fear, allowing us to live in love. That is all fine in theory, but in practice it is both difficult and complicated. We struggle to overcome our fears, such is the human condition. Alone and unsupported we may be tempted to just give in to fear. But we have a Lord and Father who is our advocate and comforter. 

The Book of Job explores what has become known as the Problem of Evil: why bad things happen to good people. The text explores the redemptive quality of suffering. Rather than being something we should avoid, it is something we can embrace, and grow through. Above all, God is someone we can trust, whether things are good or bad. God loves us. 

Our first reading speaks of God’s power over nature in general, and the sea in particular:

Who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb,Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed’ (Job 38:8, 11)

The power that God has over nature also lies behind the miracle in our Gospel passage. Jesus and His disciples are crossing the Sea of Galilee when a violent storm blows up. The disciples are terrified, despite many of them being fishermen. They are afraid that they are about to drown. This passage throws up a number of questions. Why are Jesus and His disciples crossing from the Jewish side of the Sea of Galilee to the non-Jewish side?  Why are they sailing at night, rather than waiting until the next morning? We are not told why. This incident acts as a bridge between the section in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus has been teaching, to one where He will perform miracles, and put that teaching into practice. 

As the boat begins to fill with water the disciples are getting desperate:

And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.’ (Mk 4:38-39)

Jesus’ followers are afraid. There are thirteen of them packed into a boat twenty six feet long, eight feet wide, and four feet deep. Jesus can command the storm to cease because He is God. The ability to control the sea and its storms is a sign of divine power: God is the one who brings peace.  Jesus has come to bring peace to troubled hearts. Having performed a miracle, He questions His disciples:

He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”’ (Mk 4:39-41)

The answer to the disciples question is that Jesus is God, no-one else could do what He does. Jesus then questions why His disciples feel fear and lack faith. To put it simply, the disciples have not yet understood either who Jesus is, or what He is doing. Once they have experienced Christ’s Passion and Resurrection and seen Him triumph over death, they will come to understand what is going on here. 

Jesus calms storms both real and metaphorical: on the Sea of Galilee, and in our own lives. By dealing with sin once and for all on the Cross, He has brought us a peace which passes all understanding. Being at peace allows the Christian community to

no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.’ (2Cor 5:15)

Our life is not our own, because the love of Christ controls us, as St Paul writes in his Second Letter to the Corinthians (2Cor 5:14). Christ’s Death and Resurrection provides an answer to the questions asked by Job, and all humanity. By entering into the mystery of apparently meaningless suffering, we can discover the source of all meaning, namely the love of God. 

This is why we gather to celebrate the Eucharist. Jesus told us to do this, so that we might experience that love in a tangible form, and encounter the grace which can transform our lives. St John tells us that ‘Perfect love casts out fear’ (1John 4:18). What we encounter in communion, whether spiritual or physical, is the greatest example of God’s love for humanity. Our faith is a matter of trust. Christians believe in Jesus Christ, who died and rose again for all people. We put our trust in Him, safe in the knowledge that He alone can still the storms of our life, and that His perfect love can drive out our fear. We cling to the Cross as our source of Hope, knowing that whatever happens we are loved, and that this love has the power to transform us. This love has the power to free us from fear.

When Jesus summarises the Law in Mark 12:3-31, He commands us to love God and love our neighbour. To live lives of love which look to Christ’s self-giving love on the Cross, is the way in which we enter the mystery of God’s love and allow it to cast out fear from our lives. Then we can be truly alive and share that love with others, so that all humanity 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. Amen.

Jesus stills the Tempest – James Tissot

Trinity II

Many of us enjoy gardening, and I imagine that quite a few of us have been doing some during the good weather this weekend. There is something wonderful about taking seeds or cuttings, placing them in compost and watching them grow. It never ceases to give me a thrill. Once plants have grown you end up with something that you can eat, smell, look at, or even sell. This process brings joy, as well as nourishment for the body, and the soul. This image is used by the prophet Ezekiel to look forward to a future where God’s people are safe and protected. It looks to the establishment of God’s kingdom, by means of  the twig planted on the lofty mountain of Calvary. The Cross is our source of hope, it is the Tree of Life. Through the Cross we have life in all its fullness, and live secure in its shade. Ezekiel’s image of the cedar tree is used by Jesus in HIs parable of the Mustard Seed. This parable shows how prophecy is being brought about in and through Jesus, the Messiah. This is the promised Kingdom of God, becoming a reality in and through Christ. 

The parable starts by telling us that the one who scatters the seed does not know how things grow. For all their sleeping and rising they cannot influence matters, they just have to sit back and let something mysterious and wonderful happen. That is how God works. Humanity has a role to play, but God is in charge. It isn’t just up to us!

The church founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ, and entrusted to His Apostles, began as a small affair: just a few people in a backwater of the Roman Empire. To begin with the early Christians were written off as deluded followers of just another charismatic prophet. It may not have been an auspicious start; it certainly is not what a management consultant would recommend. However, a small group of people had their lives turned around by God, and told people about it. They risked everything, including their personal safety, to spread the Good News. Two thousand years later, the Church has now grown to point where there are several billion Christians on earth. Here in the West Christianity may be becoming marginalised, but the global picture is far more encouraging. Throughout the world, people are coming to know Christ, to love and worship Him. Even if we have been going through some ‘bad harvests’ in our own land, it is important to keep scattering the seed, and allow it to grow in a way which can defy our expectations.

Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed. This is a tiny thing, only two millimetres in diameter, and yet in the Mediterranean climate it could grow into a bush twice the height of a human being. This plant may have a small beginning, but there is the possibility of remarkable growth.The image of birds nesting in its shade signals divine blessings, as in the passage from Ezekiel. Jesus takes the imagery of the prophecy and shows how it will be brought to fulfilment in and through the Church. Such is the generous nature of God, that He gives us a place where we can be safe, and where we can grow in faith. By hearing God’s word, praying together, and sharing in the Eucharist we are nourished and strengthened to live the Christian life.

Like the Apostle Paul in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, we can always be confident and put our trust in God, as we know that we cannot be disappointed. On the Cross, Christ’s victory is complete, so we please God by following His commandments: to love Him and also love our neighbour. We are motivated by our love of Jesus, to follow His example. We know that He suffered and died to heal and restore us, to bear the burden of our sins. As it says a little further along in Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians: 

‘He died for all, so that those who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and was raised for them.’ (2Cor 5:15) 

And so in the Church, our family, and community, we live for Christ. Our thoughts, words, and actions proclaim the saving truth of God’s love for humanity. If we seek God’s forgiveness and the forgiveness of others — and at the same time are forgiving ourselves — then we can be built up in love. If we are devout in prayer, fortified by the word of God, and by the Sacrament of the Eucharist, we are strengthened in love, and our souls are nourished, allowing us to grow into the full stature of Christ. Just like the cedar tree and the mustard seed. So let us come and be fed, healed, and restored by the Lord, living in love and encouraging others, for the glory of God and the building up of His Kingdom.

If we are faithful, if we keep scattering seed in our thoughts, our words, and our actions, then wonderful things will happen. We have to trust God to be at work in people’s lives, and be there for them when they do respond to this call. If we can be as welcoming as the mustard tree in the parable, then we will have ensured that people have a place where they can come to know Jesus, and grow in love and faith. Despite all the current trials and tribulations, we must not lose heart, but trust in the God who loves us, who gave His Son for love of us. If we are confident of who Christ is, and what He has done for us, then as people filled with the love of God, we will carry on the Christian mission of proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom of God. Through us, others will come to know and trust in that love which changes everything. They too will give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen

Trinity I

It is a truth of human existence that we like to find someone to blame, preferably someone other than ourselves. Our reading from Genesis is all about finding someone else to blame. Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the serpent. Both have eaten from a tree that God commanded them not to eat. No-one wants to put their hand up and say, ‘Yes, it’s my fault!’. It is not something that is easy or comfortable to do, but each time we gather to celebrate the Eucharist we begin by doing exactly this. We acknowledge our own shortcomings and ask God for forgiveness and healing. There is a spiritual maturity here, recognising that we fall short, and that we are sorry for having done so. Because we show humility God can be at work in our lives and we can know something of the healing and reconciliation God offers to humanity. The Church is a place of healing where despite our past mistakes, we know that we are loved and saved by God. 

Mark’s Gospel begins with the proclamation of the Good News of the Kingdom and Jesus’ charismatic ministry of preaching and healing. The people of Galilee are in great need, so great in fact that Christ and His disciples are not even able to get something to eat. Jesus’ own relatives are concerned at the frenetic pace of His ministry and mistake compassion for madness. But Jesus longs to help and heal people because God loves us. The Kingdom of God which Christ inaugurates is a place of healing and reconciliation, where humanity can truly know life in all its fulness. Jesus’ relatives are not able to grasp this. They cannot understand who He really is or what He is doing: they can only see practical concerns and fail to notice the importance of what is going on in His public ministry

Members of the religious élite then arrive and start to make serious accusations:

And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” (Mk 3:22)

They see a charismatic teacher and healer from Galilee and want to rubbish Him immediately. This man is not doing God’s work, he’s in league with the Devil! It’s a political strategy designed to stop Jesus from developing a following. If they write Him off as a heretic and a troublemaker, things will all calm down. Jesus, however, points out the clear logical inconsistency of the scribes’ position:

“How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end.” (Mk 3:23-26)

If Jesus is possessed by the Devil, how can He cast the Devil out? His accusers have failed to see the spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, at work in Him. Their refusal to see God at work is a sign of their pride and hardness of heart — they cannot discern the works of God, and write off as evil a wondrous demonstration of God’s love for humanity. Such is the Sin against the Holy Spirit, a wilful rejection of God. The religious authorities have failed to discern what is actually going on and have taken the easy step of finding someone to blame, someone to rubbish, someone to write off. God’s healing love has been dismissed as the work of the Devil. This is a serious matter, as Jesus explains:

“Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit.” (Mk 3:28-30)

The scribes have condemned themselves, and whereas they have accused Jesus of blasphemy, they are the real blasphemers. Note that Jesus does not condemn them, but rather offers to humanity the possibility of the forgiveness of sins. This is another demonstration of God’s love being poured out on the world.

Then Jesus’ family return and a confrontation takes place:

And his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.” And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mk 3:31-35)

What really matters is not who our parents or relatives are, but our relationship with Jesus. We are all brothers and sisters in Christ and we know the reality of God’s saving love in our lives. If we are obedient to God, if we come to Him in Humility we can know true love and friendship. 

It is through Jesus — who He is and what He does — that humanity can go from disobedience and punishment to the possibility of healing and wholeness, restored to a relationship with a loving God. This is the hope which inspires St Paul in his Second Letter to the Corinthians. Our hope is in Heaven, to be with God forever. We have the same hope as Paul because of all that Christ has done for us. This is Grace, the unmerited kindness of God, which we desire, but do not deserve. Grace is not something we can earn, it is the generous gift of a loving God. St Paul looks to a heavenly future where the trials of this life are past, where we live for ever in the presence of God, and are filled with His glory. This is our hope as Christians, through what Christ has done for us, to fill us with His life and His love. 

This is why Jesus becomes human, proclaims God’s Kingdom, heals the sick, dies on the Cross and rises at Easter: to give us this hope. This is Good News! Our relationship with Jesus is the most important thing that there is. Nothing else matters. This is a radical message, exactly the sort of thing that the Jewish Religious Authorities wanted to put a stop to immediately. It is dangerous. It could change the world. And it has, and continues to do so. 

Come Lord Jesus, come and heal us, and fill us with your life and love, so that we may share it with others, that they too 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. Amen. 

Michelangelo: The Downfall of Adam and Eve and their Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Sistine Chapel

Trinity Sunday

Last year, 2020, marked the 850th anniversary of the martyrdom of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury. He was consecrated a bishop on this day in 1162. Becket commanded that the anniversary of his consecration should be kept on the Sunday after Pentecost, in honour of the Most Holy Trinity. The practice became widespread and in 1334, Pope John XXII made it an official feast day.

Last Sunday we celebrated Pentecost, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Church, a revelation of who God is, and how much God loves us, His people. This week we continue to meditate upon God’s love. Such love is awesome and mysterious: an ocean whose depths we can never plumb. This love forms a relationship so intimate that God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. Above all it is something to be experienced, rather than understood. Through this experience God transforms us, so that we may experience that love more fully, and finally enjoy it for eternity, in Heaven. 

In our first reading from the book Deuteronomy, Moses calls Israel to reflect on the marvellous things God has done to bring His people out of Egypt. God is love, and His signs and wonders are a manifestation of that love. By accepting God’s love, Israel becomes a holy nation. To be holy is to let God’s love be at work in our lives, in our desires, our activities, and our relationships. 

The second reading is taken from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and addresses Christians, who have received the Holy Spirit in Baptism. The word ‘Abba’ means ‘Father’ in Aramaic. It is an intimate and affectionate word, and the first word of the Lord’s Prayer. This term is a sign of the close relationship between God the Father, and God the Son. It speaks of the closeness of the relationship which God is inviting us to share. By acknowledging God as Father, we are called to be dutiful sons and daughters. In the reading from Deuteronomy, God calls Israel to be obedient children. Jesus obeys the will of the Father, and likewise the Apostles are expected  both to obey Jesus, and to teach those they baptize to observe what Jesus commands. Such obedience is not that of a slave, but of a beloved child, part of a family, someone in a loving relationship with an inheritance in Heaven. As Christians we are brothers and sisters in Christ, filled with the Spirit, and part of family which existed for two thousand years, across every people, and language. Our inheritance is that we can share in Christ’s glory in Heaven, and enjoy it for all eternity. Such is the mystery of God’s love for us.

Today’s Gospel is what is commonly called the Great Commission. It comes at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, just before the Ascension. Before Jesus ascends to the Father, He sends His disciples out with authority. They are sent to make disciples, to teach them about God, and to draw people into a relationship with the God who loves them. As a sign of this relationship the Apostles are to baptize people in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. From the very beginning the Christian Faith is a Trinitarian Faith. We believe in One God, who is Father, Son,  and Holy Spirit. Three persons, bound together in love, who invite the world to be in a relationship with Them. Our eucharist this morning began,  ‘Yn enw’r Tad, a’r Mab, a’r Ysbryd Glân, In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit’, because this is the God whom we worship. We express our belief in the words that we use, and also in the postures we adopt. Our movements show in a physical way what we believe. As Christians, we are called to live out the faith of our baptism in our lives. God, who is love, has shown that love to the world through His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the sending of the Holy Spirit. To be a Christian is to have encountered that love, and been changed by it. We are changed in our baptism and born again to new life in Christ. We are also changed each time we receive Holy Communion. By God’s grace, Communion, whether physical or spiritual, transforms us. Through it we are united with Christ, so that we may become what He is and share in the love which is the life of God. 

It is both a great gift and a profound mystery, to share in the Divine life of love, and  to be transformed. God loves us so much that He shares His life with us, and encourages us to share it with others. God’s generosity is breathtaking, and that is the point. We proclaim and worship a generous, loving God, who invites us all to enter the mystery of His love, and to let ourselves be changed by it. As followers of Christ, we are called to bear our own cross, and to suffer, but we do so willingly. We know that whatever trials we face are as nothing compared with the joy and glory which await us. We support each other, as a family, united with a God who has suffered for us, and who makes us this promise:

And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Mt 28:20)

We are not alone. Christ is with us. He hears our prayers, and speaks to us in Scripture. He nourishes and transforms us with the Sacraments. These all unite us with God. Ans so we join with the angels and saints in singing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

Pentecost

Witnesses give evidence in legal proceedings, they testify to the truth (or falsehood), of a situation. They provide evidence which can be believed. In the Gospel today Jesus promised his disciples that He will send, 

the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. And you will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.’ (Jn 15:26-27) 

Both the Apostles and the Holy Spirit bear witness to who God is, and what God does. Doing so brings the disciples into direct conflict with Jewish and Roman authorities. Christianity was, for nearly the first three hundred years of its existence, an illegal religion, whose adherents could be punished with execution. Bearing witness to Jesus was a costly process, both then and now. The Apostles bear witness to Christ, who taught them, who rose from the dead, and who promised to send His Spirit upon them on this day. It is through their bearing witness to Christ that the Christian faith spread. Filled with the Holy Spirit, the Apostles bore witness to God’s activity in the world.

Jesus also promises His disciples that,

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.’ (Jn 16:13-15)

Thus, we see that the Holy Spirit has a role to play in guiding the Church in truth, preserving it from error, so that Christians may continue to love God, and proclaim the truth which comes to us from the Apostles. We know that Jesus speaks the truth, that his promises can be trusted, that he pours His Holy Spirit upon His followers on the day of Pentecost, and continues so to do until He will come in glory as our Saviour and our Judge. Jesus wants us to tell people all about Him: about how he came to show the world love, and about how we can live filled with that love.

This is why St Paul can write to the Church in Galatia as a community that has experienced the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Paul describes what it means to be filled with the Holy Spirit as follows:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.’ (Gal 5:22-23)

Paul is describing how we are all supposed to live as Christians. It is an ideal, which we often fail to live up to. But nonetheless, it shows us how God wants us to live. Here is a glimpse of life in all its fulness: life in union with God and each other. This is perfect communion, something to strive for, even if we may struggle to attain it. This is how we can live when we let God be in control, and when our human will is perfectly aligned with God’s will for us.

Before his Ascension, Christ tells His disciples to wait in Jerusalem so that they may be baptized in the Holy Spirit. The disciples have again gathered in the Upper Room, with the Blessed Virgin Mary. This is the same place where Christ instituted the Eucharist, and washed his disciples’ feet. They have met here because Jesus told them to be together and to pray, for ‘you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses … to the end of the earth’ (Acts 1:8). An amazing event then takes place. Everyone present is filled with the Holy Spirit. Tongues of fire rest upon them, and they speak in a variety of languages. Afterwards when they go out to preach, people from all over the world, who have come to Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost, hear the mighty works of Godin their own language. They hear and understand the proclamation of who Jesus is, and what he has done.

Chapter 11 of the Book of Genesis tells the story about people trying to build a tower to reach heaven, the Tower of Babel. God punishes them, by making their speech unintelligible and by scattering them. Now, at Pentecost, instead of division, we see unity. All the peoples of the world can hear and understand the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ. They can learn about the promised Messiah, the Son of God, who died for our sins, rose on the third day, ascended into heaven. He has sent His Holy Spirit so that where there was sin, disobedience, and confusion, there is now obedience to the will of God, unity and understanding. Something new and wonderful is happening.

The outpouring of the Holy Spirit on this day is the manifestation of God’s love, active in the world. Through it humanity can be united, and come to know the fullness of God as Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Only in the Spirit can we enter fully into the divine life of love, and live out this love in the world. In the power of this love we can begin to understand the mystery of Our Lord’s Incarnation, His Life, Death, and Resurrection, and we can let these mysteries shape our lives as Christians.

God will make His home with us in His word, Holy Scripture and the sacraments of His Church – outward signs of the inward grace which He lavishes on us in the power of His Spirit. That is why we are here today: to be fed with the Body and Blood of Christ, to stand by the Cross so that we may be washed in the blood and water which flows from his side. In this we see God’s love for us, and we are strengthened to live the life of the Spirit. The gift of the Holy Spirit helps us to remain close to the God who loves us and saves us. We can be taught by His Spirit to remain in the faith which comes to us from the Apostles who first received the Spirit on this day two thousand years ago. Let us then live strengthened by Spirit, nourished by word and sacrament, in holiness and joy. Let us, like the Apostles, proclaim the truth and love of God to all peoples, so that the world may believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

Maronite Icon of Pentecost

Easter VII

As Christians we are called to be in the world, but not of the world. This world is simply somewhere we will reside for a short while. Our citizenship is in Heaven, our true home, where we long to spend eternity with God. One of the ways in which the Church lives out this other-worldliness is shown in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles.

After Jesus’ Ascension the disciples spend time together in prayer and fellowship. One of their first actions is to appoint a replacement for Judas Iscariot, so that the Eleven Apostles may become Twelve again. For Jews the number twelve is very significant and stands for wholeness and the completion of God’s purpose. There are twelve months in a year, and twelve tribes of Israel. It is important that the Apostles are restored to their proper number. So, out of all the 120 current followers of Jesus, Peter states that they need someone who has been with them from the beginning, to act as a witness to Jesus’ resurrection. Two candidates are put forward: Justus and Matthias. Peter then prays for guidance:

You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” (Acts 1: 24-25)

The disciples do not decide for themselves, they leave the choice up to God. Through the random process of casting lots, God can show them whom He wants to be an apostle. This feels strange to us nowadays. We want to be in control. We want to choose. Perhaps we would be better served by putting God back in control. 

The Gospel reading continues exploration of the Farewell Discourses between the Last Supper and Jesus’ Arrest. Today we have arrived at Chapter 17, Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer. This is a truly solemn moment of intimate conversation between the Father and the Son. Before His Passion, Christ is entrusting His Church to the Father, that it may be kept safe, and that it may be filled with the glory of God, and strengthened to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom. It is a moment of profound emotion and intimacy, a window into the conversation between two Persons of the Holy Trinity. 

Jesus is entrusting us, His Church to God, for God to care for us. His prayer sees us in opposition to a world which rebels against God, a world of sin and corruption, a world of power and politics. Christ prays that His people may be set apart, holy, devoted to God, and filled with love. To love is to will the good of the other. God loves us, and it is God’s will that we flourish and enjoy life in all its fulness, united to Him. This is why Jesus taught us to pray,

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Mt 6:10)

Christ is praying that we, His Church, stay close to God, and be united with God’s will, filled with God’s love. This is why we look forward to next Sunday, when we celebrate Pentecost, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. This is a sign of God’s love for us, the love which unites Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God invites us to be united with the life of the Trinity, and to offer that invitation with others. If we place ourselves in God’s hands He will take the initiative, just as He did in choosing Matthias to replace Judas.

Matthias’ name means ‘gift of God’. The disciples received this gift after praying together and asking for God’s guidance. As Christians we too need to be together, to meet together to pray for our needs and those of the world. In prayer, we are united with each other and with God. Sharing in the Eucharist together and hearing the word of God nourishes us. They are crucial to who and what we are. Together we experience the love of God and the joy of community. The world may be indifferent to what we do, or it may call us hypocrites when we fail to live up to the example of Jesus. But, as Christians, we strive to live in the love of God, and forgive each other our trespasses, so that we can live out that same radical love and forgiveness which sees Jesus die upon the Cross for love of us and all the world.

It is a message of such love, such forgiveness that the world cannot or does not want to understand. We may not understand God’s love, but we know that it can be experienced, through personal encounter with Jesus. We are living testimony to love’s power to change lives. It sets us free to live for God and to proclaim his saving truth in our words and actions.

As I mentioned earlier in this sermon, Matthias’ name means ‘gift of God’ and his appointment comes just before God’s wonderful gift of the Holy Spirit. So as we wait with the Apostles for this gift, let us pray that God may be at work in us, building us up, and giving us strength to live the Christian life and to proclaim God’s truth. Let us then share these gifts with others, so that they may also 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. Amen.

Easter VI

The Christian Church would probably not have spread so far, nor survived for very long, if it had remained an exclusively Jewish body. Thankfully, from early on in its history, the message of salvation, the Good News of the Gospel, was preached to Jew and Gentile alike. In this morning’s first reading we see this taking place for the first time.The setting is Caesarea, the capital of Judaea, on the Mediterranean coast, midway between Tel Aviv and Haifa. Cornelius, a centurion in the Roman army, is a god-fearing and kind man. He receives a vision instructing him to seek out Simon Peter and listen to him. Cornelius sends men to bring Peter. The disciple also received instructive visions, so is glad to go to Caesarea. Cornelius is somewhat overcome when Peter arrives, and throws himself on the ground before the Apostle. Simon Peter is uncomfortable about being worshipped, knowing that worship is due to God, and God alone.

We now learn how Peter’s mind has been changed by a vision which encouraged him to eat what Jewish law describes as ‘unclean’ food. This makes Peter understand that the  Good News of Jesus Christ is not just for Jews, but for everyone. 

So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34-35)

Here we see the rationale for the worldwide spread of Christianity. Rather than being solely the preserve of a single ethnic group, the Jews, salvation is offered to the whole world. Because of these verses the message of Jesus Christ was brought to this, and every land, and it was shared, and taught to all people. These verses are part of the reason that you are reading or hearing these words today. I, for one, find that amazing. Because Peter had the vision and courage to reach out to non-Jews, the Gospel was able to spread. The effect of the Apostle’s preaching is likewise amazing. His words, and his faith prompt the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. People come to know God, and long for baptism, to be born again by water and the Spirit. God is active in Caesarea. This is where the Church receives its first gentile converts, and starts to become the worldwide body which it still is. 

In the second reading, from the First Letter of John, we are reminded that Christianity is a religion of love. John writes about God’s love for us, and our love of God and each other. It is because God loves us that He sent His Son to be, ‘the propitiation for our sins’ (1Jn 4:10). Which means that Jesus makes up for all that we have done wrong. Jesus offers Himself, the Righteous for the unrighteous, to restore our relationship with God and each other.  Jesus reconciles God and humanity, bringing together what sin has thrust apart. This is the heart of the Good News. However, as well as dying for us, Christ also rose again. This is what we celebrate at Easter, and is what fills us with hope.

The Gospel reading today continues through the discourses which form part of John’s account of the Last Supper. It includes some of Jesus’ advice to his disciples in the Upper Room on the night before He died. Our Lord talks about love, and how Christian love should imitate the love that Jesus has for us. Christ loves humanity so much that He willing goes to His death on the Cross for us, to reconcile us to God and each other. In this we see that love has the power to transform human lives. Love helps us to be to be something which we were not before. Through God’s love we are transformed and we are able to bear fruit through our sharing of this wonderful love with others. 

Those who follow Christ are called to abide in His love, to remain in it, to live and make our home there. It means being part of the Christian community but also standing by the Cross, where God’s love is made manifest to the world. We are called to love God and each other, to transform our lives, to take up our cross and follow Him. To aid us in our lives of faith we are washed by the Blood of the Lamb, and fed by Him. Pope Benedict XVI, speaking at World Youth Day in 2008, explained that:

 ‘love has a particular trait: far from being indulgent or fickle, it has a task or purpose to fulfil: to abide.’ https://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/speeches/2008/july/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20080719_vigil.html

We experience such love most fully in the Eucharist where Christ continues to give Himself to us. Out of love, He continues to heal our wounds, to restore our relationship with God and each other, and to give us a foretaste of heaven in the here and now. There is nothing on earth as precious as this love. Nothing is more wondrous than this sign and token of God’s love for us. To dwell in Christ’s love is to be united with Him in physical and spiritual communion, so that God’s grace can transform us more and more into His likeness. 

The transformation that took place in the lives of believers in Caesarea continues to this day, and will continue until the end of time. As Christ’s people continue to be recreated into God’s likeness, so we are built up in love. Love and transformation go hand in hand. We grow and develop, nurtured in love, and by loving others. This is how the Church has continued to grow for two thousand years. The message of love and radical change continues to be at work in people’s lives. The Holy Spirit is active in the world, not just in the dramatic way seen in the Acts of the Apostles, but in the gradual development of a Christian Faith deepened through a lifetime of prayer and the sacraments, study, and good works. This is no less miraculous just because it is less obviously extraordinary. To live in Christ is to remain close to Him day by day, so that we can live life in all its fulness. We invite others so that they, and all creation, may be remade into the likeness of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen

Bernardo Cavalino S. Peter and Cornelius the Centurion

Easter V

It is difficult for us to understand just how hard it was for the disciples to accept Paul of Tarsus into the Christian community. We first meet St Paul during the martyrdom of St Stephen. Paul wants to do everything he can to eradicate the Church and the followers of Jesus. He is a zealous opponent of everything the Church stands for. Paul wants to persecute the Church, but thanks to a dramatic encounter with Jesus, he undergoes a conversion. Her greatest enemy becomes her most zealous advocate. Paul goes from one extreme to another: from hating the Church to loving her. Thus is it perfectly understandable that when Paul comes to Jerusalem and tries to see the disciples, they react in a negative way. 

This is the situation in our first reading this morning from the Acts of the Apostles. The disciples are afraid, and think, understandably, that it is an elaborate hoax, a trap designed to end in their arrest and subsequent death. They are wary of Paul, and doubt that his conversion is genuine. But their natural reluctance is overcome thanks to the faith and generosity of St Barnabas. Barnabas, whose name in Hebrew means ‘son of consolation’ (Acts 4:36), literally embodies the Holy Spirit. Everything that Barnabas says or does in the Acts of the Apostles can be understood in terms of how God acts in the world through the Holy Spirit. Here he vouches for Paul, and encourages the brethren that Paul’s conversion is genuine. He bears witness to the truth, and builds up the Church. 

St Paul starts to preach in Jerusalem, and engages in debate with the Hellenists, Greek-speaking Jews from around the Mediterranean, people that he and Barnabas would know well. These people are not happy that one of their own has converted, so they plot to kill Paul. They feel betrayed, and want to take their anger out on the traitor. So the disciples take Paul to Caesarea, from where he could set sail for his native Tarsus, in Asia Minor, and be safe. Peace returns to the Holy Land, and the Church thrives. The comfort of the Holy Spirit in Acts 9:31 describes perfectly how a loving and generous Christian, such as Barnabas, acts.

Our second reading reinforces this message by reminding us that for Christians love is not a word, but an action. Love is something you do. In other words, our faith is something which we live out in our lives. We are called to believe in Jesus and to love one another. As St Thomas Aquinas explained, to love is to will the good of another. To love, then, is not simply an act of passion or emotion: something which we feel, but rather something we choose to do. To choose someone else’s good reminds us that we do not exist for our own sake, and that our lives are lived in community and relationship with others. We are called to be loving and generous, just as God has been loving and generous towards us in Christ. We are to love each other as Jesus has loved us. We are to lay down our lives, as Christ has for us. In this love and service we can truly love each other. This makes who and what we are manifest to the world around us. It makes Christianity something attractive because people can see the difference it makes. We are people of love and a community of love, cooperating with God in promoting human flourishing. Such love is a radical and world-changing idea, underpinned by selfless love, of Christ, to help transform the world so that all humanity may experience life in all its fullness. 

In today’s Gospel Jesus is speaking to His Disciples after the Last Supper. He uses the image of Himself as the Vine, and the disciples are the branches. It is a powerful vision of what the Church is, people who are grafted onto and into Christ, connected to Him, and in a relationship with Him. We entered into that relationship in our baptism, and it is a relationship which will continue throughout and after our life on earth. 

When we were baptised we were clothed with Christ, we were grafted into the vine, which is Christ. It is Christ’s will that we, as Christians, bear much fruit. This means that we live out our faith in our lives, so that it affects who and what we are, and all that we say and do. We do this because it is what Christ expects of us, but also because, as we read in the First Letter of John, 

The love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him’ (1Jn 4:9).

Because we are grafted into Christ we are in communion with Him. Christ gives Himself to us in the Eucharist, His Body and Blood, so that we can have life in Him. He gives Himself to us out of love, so that we might have life in Him, and have it forever. It is a pledge of eternal life with Him, united in this world and the next, given to us to strengthen us on the journey of faith. Partaking in the Eucharist, physically or spiritually, helps us live out our faith in our lives: fed by and with Christ, to live in Him and for Him. 

Christ gives Himself for us, and desires that we are united with Him so that we may be strengthened to live out our faith in our lives, and to continue to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom by word and deed. Christ desires that we stay close to Him, and be united with Him, so that we can live lives of love. As Christians we are called to be Christ’s disciples, living in Him, living for Him, proclaiming Him, and bearing much fruit. We do this so that the world may believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen

Easter III

In St Luke’s account of the post-Resurrection appearances, one of the most memorable occurs just before our passage this morning. It takes place between Jerusalem and Emmaus, which is a journey of seven miles. Cleopas and another disciple, possibly his son, meet a man on the Road, who engages them in conversation, explains the Jewish Scriptures to them. Eventually they invite him to eat with them and at the moment when he blesses the bread and breaks it, he disappears, and they recognise Him. It is the Risen Lord. 

Cleopas and the other disciple immediately leave Emmaus and walk back to Jerusalem. It is now late on Sunday night, but they go to the disciples to tell them what they have experienced. What people are saying is true. Jesus is alive! They explain to the disciples how Jesus had talked to them on the road, and explained how Scripture was fulfilled in Him, and how they recognised him in the breaking of the bread. What is described here are the two parts of the Eucharist: the Liturgy of the Word, and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, enacted by Christ with his disciples on that first Easter Day. Two thousand years later, we are doing the same thing. For a hundred thousand successive Sundays, Christians have celebrated the Eucharist together because Jesus told us to do this. Today is the day when Christ rose from the dead. Every Sunday is something of a mini Easter, because the church gathers to celebrate Jesus’ Resurrection, just like the disciples in the Gospel passage.

Cleopas and the other disciple are discussing their experiences with the Eleven, when, suddenly Jesus is among them, and He greets them saying, 

“Peace to you.” (Lk 24:36)

Christ can greet His disciples thus, because He has brought peace to the world by dying for us, and rising again. Christ is our peace, because He has reconciled us to God, and to each other. Our sins are forgiven and we are raised to New Life in Him. The disciples’ reaction, however, is not quite so positive. They are afraid. They cannot believe that it is true and that Jesus is really with them. So Our Lord speaks to them:

“Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” (Lk 24:38-9)

Jesus invites the disciples to touch Him, to show that He is not an apparition. He is flesh, and blood, alive, and there with them. Then Jesus shows them His wounds, proof that it is really Him, their Crucified Lord. They then gaze on the wounds of God’s Love, and see what God has done for them. 

As the disciples are beginning to process all the wonderful things that are happening Jesus seeks to reinforce their faith:

He said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them. (Lk 24:41-43)

Ghosts do not eat. They do not eat grilled fish. This is not an apparition. It is the Lord. He is alive. Jesus then takes the opportunity to do with the Eleven what He had done on the Road to Emmaus. Before His Death, Jesus had tried to explain how the events of His Passion, Death, and Resurrection were foretold in Holy Scripture. Now, after His Death and Resurrection, He reinforces His teaching. The Church does this as well. For example, on Good Friday we read most of Chapters 52-53 of the prophet Isaiah and Psalm 22, which clearly show how the sufferings of Christ’s Passion and Death are prophesied in the Bible. At the Easter Vigil there is a long series of readings which go through Salvation History, from the Creation of the World in Genesis, through Abraham and Isaac, the Passover and Crossing of the Red Sea, to the prophecy of Ezekiel 36 which sees a new hope for Israel sprinkled with water. 

The Old Testament is the story of God’s Relationship with the world in general, and Israel in particular. There are a number of covenants established between God and humanity, which Israel breaks by worshipping other gods. But God does not abandon them, instead He promises through the prophet Jeremiah to initiate a new covenant:

Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbour and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jer 31:31-34)

This promise is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, who came preaching repentance and the forgiveness of sins. The Church proclaims the same message, witnessing to the world that another way is possible, through what Jesus has done for us. This is the same message we find in our first reading this morning from the Acts of the Apostles. Peter is preaching in Solomon’s Portico in Jerusalem after healing a lame beggar. He calls the people of Jerusalem to repent of their sins, and to believe in Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah. Jesus healed the lame man because the Kingdom is a place of healing and reconciliation, where sins are forgiven, and we are restored. This reality lies behind St John’s proclamation in our second reading. Christ is the propitiation for our sins, that means He makes up for all that we have done wrong. Jesus offers Himself, the Righteous for the unrighteous, to restore our relationship with God and each other. 

That first Easter Day, the disciples were witnesses to the Lord’s Resurrection, and so are we. God calls all of us, you and me, to bear witness to the truth of the Resurrection, so that the world may believe and give Glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now, and forever. Amen

Duccio, The Appearance of Christ to the Apostles, Maesta, Siena Cathedral

Easter II

The first Easter Day must have been very strange indeed. Before the sun had even risen, Mary Magdalen comes and says that the tomb is empty. Peter and John go and look at Jesus’ burial place, and then Mary comes back again having seen the Risen Lord. And while all of these earth-shattering discoveries are begin to sink in, we are faced with this morning’s Gospel passage. It is evening and the disciples are afraid that they will face retribution for supporting a false Messiah. They are scared, and can hardly believe what people have told them, let alone make sense of it all. And then suddenly, without warning, Jesus is in their midst, there in the room with them. Our Lord greets them and says, “Peace be with you.” (Jn 20:19) words which we still use in worship today. Jesus’ first words to the disciples are, ‘Shalom alechem’, ‘Tangnefedd i chwi’. Christ’s greeting is one of peace and reconciliation, which dissipates their fear and anxiety. Then Christ shows the disciples His hands and side, the wounds which have brought about this peace and reconciliation.

Jesus shows the disciples the wounds of love, God’s love for humanity, and repeats His greeting of Peace. He then commissions them:

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” (Jn 20:21)

God the Father sends Christ to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom, to call people to repentance, and to reconcile God and humanity. As blood and water flowed from Christ’s side at Calvary, so through Baptism and the Eucharist, the Church gives life to the people of God. Then the commissioning and ordaining of the apostles continues:

And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (Jn 20:22-23)

Through the power of the Holy Spirit, God is active in the world. Christ gives the apostles the power to forgive sin. In Jewish understanding, this is something only God can do. Jesus forgives sins, and empowers His disciples to do so. This forgiveness is a manifestation of God’s love and reconciliation, which can and does heal our wounded human nature. This is what Jesus came to do, and He commits the Church to continue His mission and His saving work. This is the reality which we inhabit as Christians. It is God’s free gift to His people, a sign of generous love. The role of the Church is to deal with the mess we make as human beings. By the power of His Holy Spirit, the Church is to be a community of reconciliation, where we are forgiven and we, in turn, forgive. It is to be a place where we are freed from sin, its power, and its effects.

St Thomas is not there with the other disciples when The Resurrected Jesus appears on that first Easter Day. Thomas feels somewhat left out. He knows he has missed the opportunity to experience something truly wonderful and life-changing. This is a perfectly normal human reaction to an extraordinary situation. Which of us would not feel the same? We too would want to experience the reality of Jesus’ Resurrection, and to be sure of it. Thus, we empathise with Thomas when he says,

“Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” (Jn 20:25)

These are the words of someone who longs to experience the reality of the Resurrection. Like the other disciples, Thomas has been on something of an emotional rollercoaster. It is understandable that Thomas wants to be certain, to know with his own eyes and hands that Jesus is alive. 

A week later, Jesus comes to them again, and said, 

“Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” (Jn 20:26-27)

Jesus gives Thomas what he wants, the opportunity to experience the reality of the Resurrection and to touch the wounds of love and mercy. This leads Thomas to reply:

“My Lord and my God!” (Jn 20:28)

Thomas confesses Jesus’ divinity. Jesus is God, and the Lord of Thomas’ life. It is a profound and concise statement of faith in who Jesus is and what He has done. Thomas has journeyed from doubt and despair to true faith. Doubt is the starting point, but not the end of the journey. It is the beginning rather than the goal. St Thomas should really be known as ‘Believing Thomas’ rather than ‘Doubting Thomas’, as this is what he becomes. Thomas’ belief changes his life, and leads him to take the Gospel to be proclaimed far and wide. He travels to India, founding Christian communities which have endured for two thousand years. Such faith is our inheritance, and in it we are blessed as those who have not seen, yet believe.

The heart of our faith and the Gospel is forgiveness and mercy. No matter how many times we mess things up, we are forgiven by God. It is this reckless generosity of spirit which people find hard to believe. Many struggle to believe that they too can 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. God’s Grace does not abolish our nature, it perfects it. Being fed by Christ, with Christ, we too may become what He is. Despite the sad emptiness of the world, and its selfishness, and greed, we can be filled with joy, and life, and hope. Like the first apostles we too can spread the Gospel: that the world may believe. And that all may have life in the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now, and forever. Amen

Caravaggio The Incredulity of St Thomas

Easter 2021

Early in the morning, on the first day of the week, something strange and wonderful happened, which has changed the world. It can be hard to imagine quite how disconcerting Jesus’ Resurrection must have been for the Disciples and all who were close to Jesus. Nearly two thousand years later, we are perhaps too familiar with the story of Our Lord’s Resurrection. But, only for a moment, I would like us to try to imagine that we were witnesses to events, as they unfolded. We saw Christ enter Jerusalem, hailed as the Messiah. But, after spending time with His Disciples, and telling them to, ‘Do This in memory of Him’, (something we have come here to do), He was arrested, condemned, and killed. The disciples’ emotions must have been strong: fear, disbelief, questioning: will we be next? Jesus talked about dying, and rising again, but He couldn’t have meant like this, could He? 

Mary of Magdala went to the tomb, either to anoint the body properly (there wasn’t time on Friday afternoon), or just spend time at the grave of someone she loved. She sees the stone rolled away, and returns to tell Peter and John,

They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” (Jn 20:2)

Mary is concerned with the dead body of Jesus. When Peter and John run to the tomb, John gets there first, he sees the cloths, but doesn’t go into the tomb. Peter goes in and sees everything. Then John goes in, sees and believes. 

Mary stays by the tomb, filled with grief. Not only is Jesus dead, but his body has disappeared. Even when angels speak to Mary, all she can say is,

They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” (Jn 20:13)

She sees Jesus, who asks Mary why she is weeping, and who she is looking for. We then have an interesting detail:

Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” (Jn 20:15)

Mary still thinks Jesus is dead. She loves Him, and all she wants to do is to take care of His body. She is a paragon of love, devotion, and service. But it is only when Jesus calls her by name that she recognises Him. 

One detail which I find intriguing is that Mary Magdalen supposes that Jesus is the gardener. Gardens and cemeteries had people looking after them, even in 1st century Palestine. But mention of gardens and gardeners makes me think of another passage in the Bible concerned with matters horticultural. In Genesis, God makes a garden, Eden, puts Adam in it, and commands him to look after it (Gen 2:15). The first man is a gardener. The Risen Christ, the New Adam, is seen as a gardener. Whilst the first Adam brought death to humanity by a tree, the Second Adam has brought life to the world, by the tree of the Cross. Humanity falls because of a tree, and because of a tree we are offered eternal life in Christ. 

It is the first day of the week, when Creation began, and now on the first day of the week we see a New Creation, as Christ has risen from the dead, conquering death and Hell. Christ is a gardener, and the plants he tends are human. We believe in a God who loves us, who cares for us, and who longs to see us experience the fullness of life. That sounds like the description of a gardener to me: someone who nurtures, who longs to see growth. In His Passion, Christ has overcome the bitter fruit of human disobedience with His own obedience. We are here today, because Christ’s fruit, His Body and Blood has nourished the Church through the centuries, and will continue to do so until He comes in glory. 

Over the last year we have experienced the same fear, disbelief and questioning that the Disciples felt. Now we yearn to be filled with the joy, hope, and peace of the Risen Lord. The Resurrection of Jesus is a time for celebration. A time to enjoy all the good fruits of the earth. We rejoice that we can once again gather in each others’ gardens and give thanks for the good weather we have been blessed with this week. So, my brothers and sisters in Christ, ‘Pasg hapus i chi gyd!’ ‘A Happy Easter to you all!’ May you, and those you love, be filled with Resurrection joy and strength, now and always. Amen.

Fra Angelico (Italian, ca. 1395–1455), “Noli me tangere,” 1440–42. Fresco from the convent of San Marco, Florence, Italy. http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/a/angelico/index.html

Good Friday

Today we focus on the Cross, not as an instrument of torture, or as a means of inflicting a lingering painful death, but as something wonderful. In being raised upon the cross, Our Lord is not dying the death of a slave, but rather He is reigning in glory. This is God’s glory: the glory of selfless love, poured out on the world to heal it and reconcile it to God. Christ’s hands and feet and side are pierced, as wounds of love, to pour out God’s healing love upon the world. In his obedience to the Father’s will, Jesus puts to an end the disobedience of humanity’s first parent, Adam. Christ is a willing victim, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He is the Silent lamb led to his slaughter, the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep that have gone astray.

On the Cross, just before Christ dies, something wonderful happens. The following scene takes place:

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.’ (Jn 19:26-27)

At one level it looks straightforward enough. Jesus is creating a new family unit with Mary and John adopting each other. The use of the word ‘woman’ reminds us of the Wedding in Cana, at the start of His ministry,  when Jesus addresses his mother in this way. At Cana, Mary tells the servants to ‘Do whatever He tells you’, demonstrating her obedience and love for God. It is this love and obedience which sees her at the foot of the Cross, as a faithful witness to God’s plan of salvation for the world. Mary is faithful, she loves her Son. Both Mary and John, the beloved disciple, are united in a common love for Jesus. A common bond unites them, and allows them to become a new family, which we call the Church, and which we join in our Baptism. The Church is born out of the pierced side of the New Adam, Jesus Christ, and allows us all to become brothers and sisters in Christ, sharing in a new family relationship which unites those who believe in Him, washed in the water of Baptism, and sharing in the Eucharist. 

John is the beloved disciple, who reclined next to Jesus at the Last Supper. He received the First Eucharist, and was set apart as a priest of the New Covenant, which is now inaugurated with the Blood of his Lord. He is close to Jesus, and has experienced and understands the Mystery of God’s Love. This is why he writes about it so profoundly in the Gospel and the Letters which bear his name. 

Mary and John do not desert Jesus, they remain with Him, as faithful witnesses to the Sacrifice of the New Covenant, which gives us peace and reconciles us to God and each other. The veil of the Temple is torn in two: the barrier between the Divine and the human has been brought down, and reconciliation can take place. 

Christ is our great High Priest. As both priest and victim, He offers Himself upon the altar of the Cross to bleed and die for us, to bear our sins, and to reconcile us with God the Father. Jesus dies that we might live. This is something that people find difficult and uncomfortable. And that’s the point! Christ’s death should make us feel uncomfortable because it reminds us that our actions have put Him there. Christ bears our burden, and that of all humanity, past, present, and future, and through His wounds we are healed. It is the clearest possible demonstration that God loves us, and will go to any length to reconcile the world to Himself, even giving His Only Son to die, so that we might live in and through Him. 

Thus, despite the pain and the desolation, today is a day to rejoice. In Christ’s Death, humanity is saved, freed from Sin and Death, and restored to a relationship with God and each other, which continues through the Church. We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, for He is our salvation, our life, and our resurrection. Through Jesus we are saved and made free. Amen.

Maundy Thursday

The events described tonight and over the next few days are best described as mysterious and disconcerting. For some time now Jesus has told His Disciples that He must suffer and die, but tonight He will make His Sacrifice real for them, before He dies. It must have been perplexing for them. Jesus, their Teacher takes on the position of a household servant and washes their feet, to demonstrate how theirs is to be a life of love and service of others. Everything they are used to is about to change. Jesus, who on Palm Sunday was greeted as the Messiah will soon be arrested, tried and condemned. Love will turn to hatred. Crowds that cried, ‘Hosanna!’ will soon cry, ‘Crucify Him!’. The disciples’ world will be turned upside down, and they will panic and flee. The events of the last twelve months have brought home to us just how traumatic it is when your world is tuned upside down.  

We humans are social creatures, and one of the great joys we have been deprived of over the last year is the sharing of food and drink. Eating and drinking together is a sign of love and hospitality, which helps us to bond together as friends, family, and community. We miss it deeply, and rightly so, because it is a fundamental aspect of our common life and our shared humanity. Food is more than just fuel for living, it is a sign of love and care, that we are welcome. 

Before Jesus gives His Body and Blood to His Disciples He takes the bread and wine, and blesses them, giving thanks to God for them. This was perfectly normal, it was expected, and it is something which Jews and Christians continue to do to this day. In the church we continue the practice of thanking God for the bread and wine we offer, because it reminds us that everything is a gift from God, for which we should be grateful. We say the words, ‘Blessed be God forever’It is important, and helps to create an attitude of thankfulness which helps to form us as loving generous people. If you do not already do so, you might like to try saying Grace before you eat a meal at home. I have included an example below for you, at the end of this sermon. 

As we prepare for the re-opening of church for the celebration of Easter, Our Lord’s Resurrection, we look forward to being able to share the Eucharist together. We celebrate the Mystery of our Redemption by doing what Christ taught His Disciples to do on the night He was betrayed. For nearly two thousand years the Church has faithfully followed Jesus’ command to ‘Do this in memory of me’. We do this because Christ told us to do it, to feed the people of God with the Body and Blood of Christ.

There are times when it is not possible to celebrate publicly, such as the current pandemic. At such times we long for spiritual nourishment, and to be united with Jesus in Communion. Spiritual Communion is a prayer of longing, a prayer of the human heart, that God would satisfy our longing, and give us our heart’s desire in faith, through grace. God, out of love for us, hears our prayer and answers it. God fills us with His love, and unites us to Him, and each other. God would not leave us bereft, as Jesus promises His disciples, ‘I will not leave you comfortless’ (Jn 14:8). 

So may we be encouraged in a God who keeps His promises, and that soon we will be able to celebrate as Jesus commanded us to, together, as a family of faith, gathered around the Table of the Lord, confident that we can do so safely. May we  be nourished in Body and Soul in Physical or Spiritual Communion by the God who loves us, and who gives Himself for us so that we may have life, even life everlasting. Amen.

O Dad, yn deulu dedwydd – y deuwn
 diolch o newydd,
Cans o’th law y daw bob dydd
Ein lluniaeth a’n llawenydd
O Father, as a happy family – we come
With thanks anew,
For from thy hand we receive each day
Our sustenance and our joy. Amen
Tissot The Last Supper

Palm Sunday

If anyone asks you why you are untying it [the ass the disciples were sent to find], this must be your answer, ‘The Lord has need of it’ (Lk 19:31). Perhaps no greater paradox was ever written than this: on the one hand the sovereignty of the Lord, and on the other hand his ‘need’. His combination of Divinity and dependence, of possession and poverty was a consequence of the Word becoming flesh. Truly, he who was rich became poor for our sakes, that we might become rich. Our Lord borrowed a boat from a fisherman from which to preach; he borrowed barley loaves and fishes from a boy to feed a multitude; he borrowed a grave from which he would rise; and now he borrows an ass on which to enter Jerusalem. Sometimes God pre-empts and requisitions the things of man, as if to remind him that everything is a gift from him.

Fulton Sheen, The Life of Jesus

The scene depicted in today’s Gospel seems like a triumph. Jerusalem is celebrating: those gathered treat Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as the triumphal entry of the Messiah. People lay down their clothes and wave palm branches. The crowd cry out for God to save them, and that is exactly what he will do in a few days time, upon the Cross. This is a God who keeps his promises and who also defies human expectations. The masses in Jerusalem are expecting a king of the Davidic line. One who would be seen as a challenge to the ruling élite, the status quo. But in, Christ, God gives Israel something else: a King of the line of David, yes, but one who rules with love, who has no desire for power, or honour. Leaders and those in authority are threatened by him: Jesus turns their world on its head. He is an awkward inconvenience. Jesus does not want their power. He has come to be and do something completely different. What is seen as a potential political coup is in fact a renewal of religion, the fulfilment of prophecy, and a new hope for Israel.

In riding into Jerusalem Jesus is fulfilling the prophecies of Zechariah: 

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zech 9:9)

The King of Israel comes riding on a donkey: a humble beast of burden, which carried his Mother to Bethlehem for his birth, and carried the Holy Family into exile in Egypt. It is an act of humble leadership which fulfils what was foreseen by the prophets. It shows us that Jesus Christ is truly the one who fulfils the hopes of Israel. The Hebrew Scriptures look forward to the deliverance of Israel, which is enacted in front of their very eyes. God is saving His people, but they cannot see it. In a few days time all will have changed, love will turn to hatred; joy to sadness. 

This is why today, and throughout Holy Week, we will have readings from the prophet Isaiah, which are known as the Songs of the Suffering Servant. This morning we see the servant being mistreated. He is struck on the back, his beard is torn out, he is spat at and insulted. This will all come to pass as Our Lord goes to the Cross on Good Friday. It is the fulfilment of prophecy. God will show us how much he loves us by enduring such treatment.The events of Holy Week demonstrate what humanity is capable of: anger, hatred, bitterness, mob rule, and the desire to have a scapegoat, someone to blame. This is fallen, sinful humanity at its worst, and we will see more of it over the coming days. It should shock us, we should feel sick to the pits of our stomachs, because it shows us why Christ had to die — to overcome human sin, the world, and the Devil with the redemptive power of God’s Love. 

And so it begins: Our Lord and Saviour makes a triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He is hailed as the Messiah, and it is a cause for celebration and joy. But, this is a week which will see Jesus betrayed by a close friend, arrested, abandoned, tried and killed as a common criminal. Strangely enough, the world around us can still be just as fickle, just as quick to turn someone from hero into persona non grata. Lest we think that somehow we are better, more advanced, more civilised people, the plain unvarnished truth is that we are not. We need the annual reminder which the Church gives through its liturgical year — a chance to be confronted by stark realities, and to be brought up short by them. What Christ says and does in this coming week, He says to us, He does all this for us — to Heal us, to Restore us. Jesus says and does these things so that we can live His risen life here and now, as the people of God, sharing in His Death and Resurrection though our baptism, trusting in Him.

In our pilgrimage through Lent, through our prayer, and our fasting, we hope to increase our closeness to Christ. By following Him, and meditating upon His Passion, we are transformed by His love, we follow in His footsteps, and enter into the mystery of God’s love poured out on the world. In the next few days we will go to the Upper Room, we will watch and wait with Christ, we will walk the way of the Cross, and we will gaze upon Christ crucified. Doing so, we will see just how much God loves us — the lengths to which God will go to demonstrate that love, and make it a reality in our lives. This is how we prepare to celebrate Easter: Our Lord’s rising from the tomb, His conquering death, so that we may have new life in Him. 

In his Letter to the Christians in Philippi, written in prison in Rome in ad62, St Paul lays great stress upon the Humility of Jesus Christ. Humility is not a popular virtue these days, in fact the world around us would have us be quite the opposite: full of ourselves, with a high opinion of ourselves. Ours is a world which is more and more characterised by the sin of selfishness. The individual is all that matters: me and what I want, that is all that counts. At the root of it all is pride, thinking that we are more important than we are, making ourselves the centre of things, whereas we need to put God at the centre of things, and learn to be thankful. 

Gratitude is characteristic only of the humble. The egotistic are so impressed by their own importance that they take everything given them as if it were their due. They have no room in their hearts for recollection of the undeserved favours they have received.

Fulton Sheen, On Being Human, 1982: 325

We need to have the mind of Christ, a mind devoted to love and service of God. Christ doesn’t just do what He wants to, but everything He says and does is the will of God the Father. Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane for the strength to do God’s will. He demonstrates humility and obedience in action: embracing the most shameful death possible, for love of us. Thus we should love Jesus, we should worship Him, because He is God, and He loves us. The Saviour of the World scorns majesty. He embraces shame and sin, total utter degradation to save us. Jesus does this to heal the wounds of sin and division, so that we might have life, and life in all its fulness, with Him, for ever. This is why Jesus is willing to suffer, to be vulnerable, to take our human frailty and to redeem it through His suffering. Through His vulnerability, He shows the World that God’s ways are different from ours. This is the example for us to follow — the way of suffering love and humility

Today, and in the coming week, we will see what God’s Love and Glory are really like. It is not what people expect. It is power shown in humility, strength in weakness. As we continue our Lenten journey in the triumph of this day and looking towards the Holy and Life-giving Cross and beyond to the new life of Easter, let us trust in the Lord. Let us be like him, and may He transform our hearts, our minds and our lives, so that they may have live and life in all its fullness. We are fed by the word of God and by the Sacrament of His Body and Blood to be strengthened, to share in His divine life, to fit us for Heaven. Forgiven and forgiving, may all that we say, or think, or do, may all that we are be for the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory dominion and power, now and forever. Amen. 

James Tissot The Procession in the Streets of Jerusalem

Lent V

Our readings this week continue our journey towards the Cross. The Cross is important because it is first and foremost a demonstration of God’s love for humanity. God loves us enough to die for us, to wipe away our sin, and to restore our relationship, with Him and each other. It is central to who and what we are as Christians, people transformed by the love of God. 

In our first reading this week, from the prophet Jeremiah, we see something truly amazing. Through the prophet, God promises to make a new covenant with His people. Israel broke the first covenant through disobedience and sin, and yet God offers a fresh start, a clean slate, a new beginning. God promises that:

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.’ (Jer 31:33)

Rather than being something external, something done to comply with the letter of the Law, this new covenant will be written on our hearts through faith, and lived out in our lives. It is a promise which finds its fulfilment in Jesus Christ, who teaches love of God and love of neighbour. This He lives out in His life, and He encourages us to follow His example. It is a hopeful message, as God promises: 

For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jer 31:34)

The Law of Love, which God makes real in Jesus Christ has genuine transformative power, because it is rooted in forgiveness and healing, something which only God can provide. Our loving Father does this on the Cross, where He gives His Son to die for us, to heal our wounds, and to offer eternal salvation to all who believe in Him. 

In our Gospel today we have reached the events just before the Passover. Passover is the central feast of Israel, commemorating the journey from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. There are some Greeks, who may or may not be Jewish converts, that approach Philip, who has a Greek name. He, along with Simon Peter and Andrew, was first a disciple of John the Baptist, before following Jesus. These Greeks ask Philip a simple question:

Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”(Jn 12:21)

This is the longing of the human heart, a desire to see Jesus, to have an encounter with the divine. Philip tells Andrew, and they both go to see Jesus, who says this in reply:

The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honour him.” (Jn 12:23-26)

Jesus’ reply should strike us as strange. He doesn’t say, ‘Of course, bring them here’, or ‘I’d be delighted to meet them’. Instead He starts talking about His forthcoming Death. This is glory. It is not the human idea of glory, but quite the opposite – dying the death of common criminal. This doesn’t make sense, in human terms, and it isn’t supposed to. As it says in the prophet Isaiah (55:8), ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.’ The point is that we need to do things, God’s way, and not ours. Christ is the grain of wheat who dies, and who yields a rich harvest, in the Church, saving the souls of countless billions of people over the last two thousand years. 

Jesus calls us to follow Him, and not to care for life in this world — Heaven is our home, it is what we prepare for here on earth. If we want to share in Christ’s glory, then we need to follow the same path of suffering love which takes Him to His Cross, and will take us to ours. As sales pitches go it isn’t going to win plaudits from any Advertising Agency! That’s the point. It is honest, and it is the truth, plain and unvarnished. This truth changes the world, and sets us free (cf. Jn 8:32). We are free because He hung on a wooden cross and died and rose again for us. That is God’s glory — dying for love of us, to set us free, free to live for Him, and with Him, forever.

Our responsibility as Christians is that people might see Jesus in all we do, say and think. We need to be living, breathing, walking advertisements for the Good News of Jesus Christ here and now. We can use this time of Lent to consider significant aspects of our lives. Being under lockdown has made us realise what is important, what really matters. It is vital that we live in such a way that people might see Jesus in who and what we are, and what we do.

How do we do this? We do it through the Grace of God, and by trying, by co-operating with that Grace. We do it by making a conscious effort to live out our faith together, as a Christian community. We do it by being filled with love, and filled with grace, in the knowledge of the forgiving power of Christ’s blood which was shed for us. We cannot save ourselves, only Christ can do that. Salvation is not just an individual matter. Christ came to change the world. This He doe, one soul at a time, through the Church, and the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist,. These outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, are the free gift of God to his people.

We will often fail to practise what we preach, and people may call us hypocrites, but the point is that we keep on trying. God will not abandon us. He dies for us, bearing the burden of our sins, so that we might become like Him. That is why Jesus was born for us, lived, died, and rose again for us.

As Christians we live no longer for ourselves, but for the God who loves us. We can offer the world around us an alternative to the way of selfishness and sin. We need to trust Jesus’ words, and fashion our lives after His example. Together, nourished by Word and Sacrament, and carrying our own cross, we trust in His grace and proclaim His truth. We do this so that the world may believe and follow God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

James Tissot The Gentiles Ask to See Jesus (Les gentils demandent à voir Jésus)

Are you fasting?

Cyberdesert

Are you fasting?
Give me proof of it by your works.
If you see someone who is poor, take pity on them.
If you see a friend being honored, do not be envious.
Do not let only your mouth fast, but also the eyes, and the feet, and the hands and all the member of our bodies.
Let the hands fast, by being free of greed.
Let the feet fast, by ceasing to run after sin.
Let the eyes fast, by disciplining them not to glare at what is is sinful.
Let the ears fast, by not listening to evil talk and gossip.
Let the mouth fast from foul words and unjust criticism.
For what good is it if we abstain from eating birds and fishes, but bite and devour our brothers and sisters?

— St John Chrysostom

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Lent IV

Last week, in the Gospel, Jesus talked about the destruction of the Temple. This happened a few decades later when the Romans sacked Jerusalem in AD70. Today, our first reading takes us back to the first destruction of the Temple, by Nebuchadnezzar in 587BC. The people of Israel have not been faithful to God, they have broken the First Commandment by adopting the religious practices of their neighbours. But God sent prophets to remind Israel of its obligations to worship God, and God alone. This message is not heeded, and disaster ensues. Israel is led away to captivity in Babylon for seventy years, until Cyrus, the king of Persia allows the Israelites to return. Captivity represents the most terrible thing that could happen to the people of Israel: a loss of everything, being deprived of freedom, and the destruction of their religious life, focused on the Temple in Jerusalem. We should, however, remember that God was patient ‘until there was no remedy’ (2Chron 36:16), and the destruction and exile are not permanent, only temporary, and after seventy years Israel would return. 

While Israel is not faithful to God, God is faithful to Israel, and does not desert her. Thus, in the Gospel, Jesus explains His forthcoming Crucifixion with a reference to Israel’s wanderings after the Exodus:

And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.’ (Numbers 21:8-9)

The people of Israel were moaning about the journey, the lack of food and water, and that God has led them out into the desert to die, so God sends fiery serpents which killed them. The people then relented, and asked Moses to pray to God to take the serpents away. God listened to Moses, and provided a means for Israel to be saved. Jesus uses this example to explain why the Son of Man must be lifted up. Just as the bronze serpent saved people long ago, Jesus’ being lifted up on the Cross will save those who believe in Him. The mention of being bitten by serpents reminds us of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, where the Lord God says to the serpent:

I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3:15)

Being bitten by snakes is understood as a consequence of sin, which Christ will deal with by taking our sins and those of all humanity upon himself, bearing our burden, and reconciling us to the Father once and for all. Thus, whoever believes in Jesus, and the redemption He brings about, has the promise of eternal life.

There then follows one of the most well-known verses in the Bible:

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) 

This is the heart of our faith as Christians. Christ was born for us, lived and died for us, and was raised to new life, so that we might have the promise of eternal life in Him. This is why we follow Christ into the desert of Lent for forty days, so that through prayer, fasting and charity we may be prepared in body and soul to celebrate the mystery of Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection. Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter are the ultimate embodiment of God’s generous Love towards humanity. God loves us, you and me, each one of us, so much that He gave His only Son to die for us, on the Cross.

God, in Christ, does not condemn us, but rather saves us, out of Love. God is a God of love and generosity, who offers Himself to reconcile us to Him, and to each other. This generosity is at the heart of our faith as Christians, we worship a generous, loving God, and invite others to receive the free gift of God’s grace, and enter a relationship with the God who loves us. 

This relationship explains the joyful hope which St Paul has when he writes to the Church in Ephesus in our second reading this morning. Paul’s central message is that:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,’ (Eph 2:8)

Grace is unmerited kindness, something which we do not deserve, or earn. It is by the grace of God that we are saved, through faith, believing and trusting in Jesus Christ, who was born for us, died and rose again for us. We can put our trust in the God who loves us, and who shows us that love in His Son. It is not about what we can do, but about what God can do for us. Our relationship with God is the result of a gift, which we can receive and which can transform our lives, if we only let go, and let God transform us, more and more into the likeness of His Son. 

God cares so much about the world and its people that he takes flesh, and lives a life of love, amidst the messiness of humanity, to show us how to live lives filled with love, life in all its fullness. God, in Christ, comes among us not to condemn the world but to offer it a way of being, of being truly alive in Him. God has made us for himself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in him. The spiritual needs and searching which characterise people in the world around us can be satisfied in God and in God alone, through the church.

We continue our Lenten journey towards the Cross, where God shows his love for us most fully and completely, giving his body to be broken and his blood be shed for us, to strengthen us to live the risen life of Easter. So may we join the Angels in our song of love and praise to God 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. Amen.

Christ Crucified, Diego Velázquez, (1632) Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Lent III: The Cleansing of the Temple

It is hard for us to imagine just how important the Temple in Jerusalem was. It was, quite literally, the centre of the world, the most important place on earth. At its centre was the Holy of Holies which contained the Ark of the Covenant. Inside the Ark were the two tablets containing the Ten Commandments, some of the manna from the desert, and Aaron’s staff. That is why, to this day, Jews continue to pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. This is all that remains of the Temple after its destruction by the Romans in ad 70. At the time of Jesus, Passover was the busiest time of year in Jerusalem. As the central festival of Judaism, Passover marks the journey from slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land, Israel. Likewise, for Christians it is the time when we celebrate our freedom from the slavery of sin through the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In our first reading this morning from the Book of Exodus, God gives the law to Moses on Mount Sinai in the desert. It describes both how to honour God, and how humanity should live. Our duty towards God and our neighbour is clearly shown. When Moses receives the Ten Commandments from God, 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.’ (Exod 20:2-3)

The temple traders, in their desire to profit from people’s religious observance, have broken this first and most important commandment. Their desire for making money and profit has got in the way of what the Temple is supposed to be about: namely, worshipping God. It has become a racket, a money-making scheme to fleece pilgrims who have come from far away and who do not have the right money or the correct sacrificial animals with them. This is no way to worship God, a God who loves us, and who showed that love by delivering Israel from slavery in Egypt, and who will deliver humanity by His Son.

Jesus is angry when He sees this and drives out both the money-changers and the sellers of sacrificial animals. Those who sell sheep, oxen, and pigeons, represent the status quo, a sacrificial system where animals and their blood are used to honour God. Jesus has come to do away with this system by offering Himself, as the true sacrifice. When John the Baptist first sees Jesus in John’s Gospel, he says:

Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!.” (Jn 1:29)

Jesus is the true Lamb, foreshadowed in the story of Abraham and Isaac. He will be the true Passover sacrifice, as He will be crucified and die at the time when the Passover lambs are being slaughtered in the Temple. This is a sacrifice which will not need to be repeated, as Jesus will die once, for the sins of the whole world. 

The Jews ask Jesus, 

What sign do you show us for doing these things?” (Jn 2:18)

Jesus makes a cryptic reply:

Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (Jn 2:19)

His audience cannot understand what Jesus means. It took almost fifty years to build the Temple. The idea of destroying it and rebuilding it in three days is crazy. However, Jesus is talking about His own Death and Resurrection. His Body is the true Temple, the True Sacrifice, and He is both Priest and Victim. God will, in the person of His Son, bring about true worship. Likewise, the Temple is supposed to be a house of prayer for all the nations (Isaiah 56:7 & Mark 11:7), but the Court of the Gentiles has been filled with stalls for money-changers and animal-sellers. By clearing them out Jesus has made room for the old Temple to be used for prayer, while prophesying that a newer, greater Temple is here, in Him.

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. Jesus said, ‘I have come not to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfil them’ (Matthew 5:17). The Ten Commandments are not abolished by Christ, or set aside, but rather His proclamation of the Kingdom and Repentance show us that we still need to live the Law of Moses out in our lives: to show that we honour God and live our lives accordingly. In His cleansing of the Temple, Christ looks to the Cross and to the Resurrection, as the way that God will restore our relationship with Him. The Cross is a stumbling-block to Jews, who are obsessed with the worship of the Temple, and it is foolishness to Gentiles who cannot believe that God could display such weakness, such powerlessness. Instead the Cross, the supreme demonstration of God’s love for us, shocking and scandalous though it is, is a demonstration of the utter, complete, self-giving love of God. Here, love and mercy are offered to heal each and every one of us. Here we are restored. 

It is a shock to learn that God loves us enough to do this, to suffer dreadfully and die for us, to save us from our sins. We do not deserve this, and that is the point. Through Christ we are offered the opportunity to become something other and greater than we are. By putting away the ways of the world, of power and money, selfishness and sin, we can have new life in and through Him.

Lent is the opportunity for a spiritual spring clean. It is a time to ask God to drive out all that should not be there, and for preparing for the joy of Easter. 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 with all its hot air, and focus on the true and everlasting joy of heaven, which awaits us. Let us proclaim God’s love in our lives, so that others may believe, and 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. Amen.

El Greco: The Purification of the Temple

Lent II

The readings set for this week ask us two questions: ‘Who is Jesus?’ and ‘What are we preparing to celebrate?’. First and foremost, Lent is a time for prayer and contemplation: spending time with Jesus before we celebrate His Passion, Death, and Resurrection. This moment of our salvation is the culmination of the Biblical narrative, and is found in all four Gospels. It represents the high-point of the Liturgical Year, the Feast of Feasts, and we prepare for it with forty days of prayer, fasting, and good works. 

Our first reading from Genesis, the story of Abraham and the Sacrifice of Isaac, is both well-known, and deeply shocking. The concept of human sacrifice was widespread in the Ancient World. It was not a common occurrence, but it did take place. It seems abhorrent to us, and so it should. In the passage God speaks to Abraham and says,

Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” (Genesis 22:2)

Thankfully, just as Abraham is about to offer Isaac, God tells him to stop, as Abraham has demonstrated his complete devotion to God:

Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” (Genesis 22: 12)

Abraham sees a ram with its horns caught in a thicket, and offers it to God instead. The ram symbolises Christ. It looks forward to Jesus, recognised by John the Baptist as the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. It points to the Passover Lamb in Exodus, which also prefigures Jesus, the fulfilment of the Paschal Sacrifice. Because Abraham has not withheld his son, he is blessed by God, and through his offspring, all people will be blessed. For Christians the Easter story is important because in it God, like Abraham, does not withhold His Only Son, but gives Him, to die for us. This narrative demands contemplation because it is the demonstration of the mystery of God’s love for humanity. It is amazing that God could love us that much, especially when we do not deserve it. The mystery of God’s love is that we are not loved because we are loveable. We are often quite the opposite! But God loves us anyway and His love transforms us. 

St Paul pondered such questions as he wrote to the Church in Rome:

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all (Rom 8:32)

Christ’s death on the Cross is a demonstration of divine generosity, and the reason for our hope as Christians. God’s love for humanity is truly amazing. We should pause for a moment as we read this. God loves me enough to die for me. If God can do this for us, what can we, in return, do for Him?

Our Gospel reading this morning presents us with another vision that is hard to understand, the Transfiguration. Jesus and his closest disciples go up Mount Tabor in Galilee. Here, for a moment, the disciples experience the transcendent beauty and glory of God. God breaks into the world to give a glimpse of heaven, and the disciples experience the majesty of Christ’s divinity.  

Jesus appears with Moses and Elijah to show His disciples and the Church that He is the fulfilment of the Law (represented by Moses) and the Prophets (represented by Elijah). Just like Jesus, Moses and Elijah spend a period of forty days fasting and being close to God. They both point to Christ and they find their fulfilment in Him: He is the Messiah, the Son of God. On the mountain top, Peter makes a very human response to the strange situation he finds himself in. He knows that it is good to be here and realises that what he is experiencing is life-changing. Peter’s suggestion to make three booths points to the Feast of Tabernacles when Jews remembered the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt Sinai. But, despite Peter’s hope, this experience is not to be prolonged. This is just a glimpse of the future glory, a moment to be experienced, and not a place to dwell.

When God speaks from the cloud He tells us three things about Jesus. Firstly that Jesus is the Son of God, secondly that He is loved, and thirdly that we should listen to Him. What Jesus says and does should affect us and our lives. Like the disciples, we have to be open to the possibility of being radically changed by God.

Jesus tells the disciples not to tell anyone about their experience on the mountain until after he has risen from the dead. Jesus has another mountain He must climb: the hill of Calvary, where He will suffer and die upon the Cross. There He takes our sins upon Himself, restoring our relationship with God and each other. This then is real glory, not worldly glory, but the glory of God’s sacrificial love poured out on the world to heal and restore it.

Three important scenes of Our Lord’s life took place on mountains. On one, He preached the Beatitudes, the practice of which would bring a Cross from the world; on the second, He showed the glory that lay beyond the Cross; and on the third, He offered Himself in death as a prelude to His glory and that of all who would believe in His name

Fulton Sheen, The Life of Christ, 1970, p.158

The Transfiguration shows us the glory of heaven, the glory of the Resurrection at Easter, which lies beyond the Cross. God’s glory and God’s love are intertwined, and cannot be separated because they given freely. God’s very nature is generous, beyond our understanding, and characterised by total self-gift. God does not hold anything back, and whereas Isaac is replaced at the last minute by a ram, there is no substitution for Jesus. God gives His Son, Jesus Christ, to die for us, and to rise again, so that we might enjoy eternity with Him in Heaven. The Transfiguration is a promise of our future heavenly glory, offered to us because God is a God who keeps His promises. Through signs and glimpses, He shows us what future awaits us. He longs to heal and restore us, so that we might enjoy eternity with Him. 

The Transfiguration looks to the Cross to help us prepare ourselves to live the life of faith. It helps us to comprehend true majesty, true love and true glory. The wonderful glory that can change the world and which lasts forever, for eternity, unlike the fading glory of the world, which is here today and gone tomorrow.

So let us behold God’s glory. Let us prepare to be transformed by His love. That we may be healed, and restored, and given a foretaste of eternal life. May God take our lives and transform us, so that everything that we say, or think, or do, proclaims Him. Let us tell the world about Him, so that all people may believe and trust and have new life 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. Amen.

Lent I (Year B)

The Bible can be read as an account of salvation history, beginning with the Creation of the Universe and culminating in our redemption in the Birth, Life, Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. As such it is a series of covenants, promises between God and humanity. These begin with God’s promise to Noah after the flood, our first reading this morning. God promises not to destroy humanity. This is welcome news in a time of both pandemic and heavy rainfall. The rainbow is given as a sign of God’s love and faithfulness. This sets the tone for all the other covenants in the Bible.

Our second reading this morning, from the First Letter of Peter, draws a link between Noah and the ark as a sign of salvation, and baptism, by which humanity is saved. It is a timely connection to make since Lent is traditionally a time for preparation for Baptism at Easter. The wider account of salvation history and the life of Jesus in particular become our life as Christians in our baptism: we share in them, they become part of us, and form both who and what we are. We enter into the drama of salvation. We die to sin, and are raised to new life in our baptism. Through our new life in Christ, we follow His example, and prepare for our annual celebration of Holy Week and Easter by going into the desert with Him for the forty days of Lent, a time of fasting, prayer, and charity.

This morning’s Gospel reading takes us from Jesus’ baptism by John to the beginning of Christ’s public ministry, via forty days in the desert. There is so much packed into a few verses of Scripture, that we need to take a moment to examine what is going on, and how it can speak to us over the next few weeks.

Jesus is baptised, by John, not because needs to repent of His Sins, as He is without sin. Instead, He does so out of humility to the will of God the Father, and to show us the way to salvation: through His Suffering, Crucifixion, and Rising again to New Life. In the account of the Baptism we see and hear the Three Persons of the Trinity, present, connected, and united in Love: the voice of God the Father and the dove representing the Spirit, descending on the Son. It is a glimpse of Divine Glory, which awaits us in Heaven, the end and purpose of salvation history.

Immediately afterwards the Spirit drives Jesus out into the desert, to be alone with God. He prays and fasts in order to prepare Himself for the public ministry of the Proclamation of the Good News, the Gospel. Deserts are not places one would choose to spend six weeks. They are places that can be unbearably hot by day yet freezing cold at night, wild places, lacking water, dangerous, and on the margins. 

The symbolism of the number forty is rich in the Bible. It signifies a time of trial or testing, and recalls significant biblical events. Firstly, In Genesis 7:12, earlier in the story of Noah, God floods the earth with water for 40 days. Secondly, in the story of the Exodus, the people of Israel spend forty years in the desert before they reach the Promised Land. Thirdly, Moses spends forty days with God on Mount Sinai before giving the people of Israel the law, the Ten Commandments. And fourthly, in 1Kings 19:8, Elijah fasts for forty days on the way to Mount Horeb, before talking to God and finding Elisha. All of these examples point to Christ and foreshadow His saving work.

While Jesus is in the desert, He is tempted by Satan. Unlike Matthew’s Gospel, which lists the temptations, Mark simply states that Jesus was tempted. Because Jesus does not sin, He is able to withstand temptation, His victory in the desert points to His great victory on the Cross. Christ then preaches to ‘the spirits in prison’ (1Peter 3: 19) saving humanity from sin and death, and restoring the hope of heaven. In the desert, Jesus is with wild animals, traditionally a sign of the Evil One. However, He is not harmed by them, as the creatures recognise their Creator, who is preparing to make a new Creation in Himself.

Jesus is ministered to by angels. He is the Beloved Son, in whom the Father is well-pleased, humble and obedient. After the trial of the temptations He is tired, and hungry. Temptation is a trying business, both physically and spiritually. This reminds us of the need for care, especially self-care, in our Lenten observances. Rest and nourishment are an important part of our spiritual and physical wellbeing, now more than ever. 

After forty days, Jesus returns to Galilee and starts to proclaim the Gospel, the Good News of the Kingdom of God:

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mk 1:15)

This message is the same as that of John the Baptist (cf. Acts 19:4): Repent, turn away from your sins, turn back to God, and Believe the Gospel, proclaimed by Jesus Christ. As Christians, nearly two thousand years later, we believe and proclaim that same message. Jesus calls us to turn away from sin, to turn back to God, to trust Him, and to know that He longs for our healing and reconciliation.

Jesus is able to resist Satan’s temptations because He is humble, because He has faith, and because he trusts in God. It certainly isn’t easy to do the same, but it is possible. It is far easier when we do this together, as a community, which is why Lent matters for all of us. These weeks are a chance to become more obedient, and through that obedience to discover true freedom in God. It is 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 being 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. We can use this time to become more like Jesus, to be fed by His Word and by the Sacraments to become more humble, and more loving, living lives of service of God and each other. We can use this time to support each other, so that we might grow in holiness as the people of God, and to sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now, and forever. Amen.

Tissot Jesus tempted in the Wilderness

Ash Wednesday

Today the Church celebrates Ash Wednesday, the beginning of her Lenten journey towards the great festival of Easter. The entire Christian community is invited to live this period of forty days as a pilgrimage of repentance, conversion and renewal. In the Bible, the number forty is rich in symbolism. It recalls Israel’s journey in the desert: a time of expectation, purification and closeness to the Lord, but also a time of temptation and testing. It also evokes Jesus’ own sojourn in the desert at the beginning of His public ministry. This was a time of profound closeness to the Father in prayer, but also of confrontation with the mystery of evil. The Church’s Lenten discipline is meant to help deepen our life of faith and our imitation of Christ in his paschal mystery. In these forty days may we strive to draw nearer to the Lord by meditating on his word and example. We seek to conquer the desert of our spiritual aridity, selfishness and materialism. For the whole Church may this Lent be a time of grace in which God leads us, in union with the crucified and risen Lord, through the experience of the desert to the joy and hope brought by Easter.

Pope Benedict XVI Catechesis at the General Audience 22.ii.12: http://www.news.va/en/news/pope-conquering-our-spiritual-desert

Today we go with Christ into the desert for forty days. Deserts are places of lack and isolation, something which we are all experiencing at the present time. We are all currently cut off from people, places, and things we are accustomed to do. In many ways the last year has felt like a continual Lent. Despite this, as Christians, we thoughtfully prepare to celebrate the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, who began his public ministry after His Baptism by going into the desert.

To go into the desert is to go to a place to be alone with God, in prayer, to face temptation, and to grow spiritually. It is something which Christians do together over the next six weeks or so, to draw closer to Jesus Christ. By imitating Him, and listening to what He says to us, we prepare ourselves to enter into and share the mystery of His Passion, Death, and Resurrection, so that we may celebrate with joy Christ’s triumph over sin and death, and His victory at Easter. 

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus teaches His disciples how to fast. The point is not about making an outward show of what we are doing, but rather about how the practice affects our interior disposition. This is clear from our first reading, from the prophet Joel, who gives this advice:

“Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abiding in steadfast love; and relents over disaster. (Joel 2: 12-13)

Through the prophet, God is calling His people back to Himself, in love and mercy, and rather than the outward show of mourning through the tearing of one’s clothing, to instead to open our hearts to God, so that He can heal us. We can only find healing if we first recognise our need for healing, and that it is something that God can do for us, we cannot do it for ourselves.

Human beings, by nature like to show off, to engage in display, and to tell people about things. Yet in the Gospel today, Christ tells us to do the exact opposite. We are told not to show what we are doing, to keep it hidden. This is completely in line with the advice of the prophet Joel that fasting, like mourning, has an interior quality which is important.

By giving up something we love and enjoy, and regulating our diet we are not engaging in a holy weight-loss plan. What we are doing is training our bodies and our minds, becoming disciplined. Through this we express physically the radical purification and conversion which lies at the heart of the Christian life: we follow Christ.

We follow Christ into the desert, we follow Christ to the Cross, and beyond, to be united with Him, in love and in suffering. In this we should bear in mind St Paul’s words to the Church in Corinth that we are called to suffer with and for Christ, to bear witness to our faith, and to encourage people, as ‘ambassadors for Christ’. This starts with our reconciliation of each other, and God’s reconciliation and healing of us. Just as for any other role we undertake in life, it requires preparation. 

The Gospel talks of three ways to prepare ourselves: Firstly, Fasting — disciplining the body. Secondly, Prayer — drawing closer to God and deepening our relationship with Him, and listening to what He says to us. Thirdly, by Charity, or Almsgiving — being generous to those in need, as God is generous towards us, we follow Christ’s example. Matthew’s Gospel clearly states that we do not do these things in order to be seen to be doing them, in order to gain a reward in human terms, of power or prestige, but to be rewarded by God.

We should always remember that as Christians we cannot earn our forgiveness through our works. God forgives us in Christ, who died and rose again for us. We plead His Cross as our only hope, through which we are saved and set free. 

Being humble, and conscious of our total reliance upon God, allows us to be transformed by God, into what God wants us to be. God’s grace transforms our nature, and we come to know and live life in all its fulness, the joy of the Kingdom, and a foretaste of Heaven. Through this we are united with God, know and experience His love and forgiveness, and are transformed by Him, into His likeness, sharing His life and His love. 

Let us use this Lent, where we are in an imposed wilderness, to draw ever closer to God and to each other, (spiritually, if not physically). Through our fasting, prayer, and charity, may we be built up in love, and faith, and hope, and prepare to celebrate with joy the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ. To whom, with God the Father, and God the Holy Spirit, be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now, and forever. Amen.

Picture 006

Homily for Quinquagesima

Sometimes when we read the Bible, passages can seem strange and harsh, and completely opposed to how we live nowadays. This morning’s first reading from Leviticus is one such example. It refers to how people with leprosy and other skin conditions are to be treated. They are forced to endure a living death, public humiliation and disgrace, to be excluded from society, cut off and shunned. This is made most clear in the final verse:

‘He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.’ (Lev 13:46)

This verse is interesting insofar as it is used by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews at the climax of the letter to describe Christ’s crucifixion and death:

‘So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.’ (Heb 13:12-14)

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews encourages us to follow Christ’s example and to become outcasts, unclean in terms of Jewish ritual purity, to share in Christ’s suffering and to be united with Him. Something shameful has now become glorious: a demonstration of God’s love and healing, where once there was condemnation there is now reconciliation. We learn by copying, and so St Paul writes at the end of this morning’s second reading:

Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ’ (1Cor 11:1)

Paul encourages the Corinthian church to imitate him, as he imitates Christ, so that they all might live out the love of God in their lives, for the glory of God, and to proclaim the truth of the Gospel to the world. This is our calling as Christians, to follow the same example and live out the same faith, to proclaim the same truth in our lives. 

Our gospel reading this morning continues the accounts of miraculous healings which we have encountered over the past few weeks. This morning Jesus is met by a man suffering from leprosy, who begs to be healed. Given the purity code in our first reading this morning, we can understand why the leper longs to be healed, and restored to his place in the community. The leper kneels before Jesus, performing an act of submission, putting himself entirely at Jesus’ mercy, and says:

“If you will, you can make me clean.” (Mk 1:40)

Jesus is filled with emotion and touches him. Rather than simply saying, ‘Be healed’, or ‘Be clean’, Jesus stretches out His hand and touches the man with leprosy. In Jewish ritual terms Jesus makes Himself unclean. He breaks the rules. He does what no-one would do. Instead of casting the man out, or ignoring him, Jesus touches the man and heals him. Here we see God’s healing love in action, the proclamation of the Kingdom of God, is the proclamation of love and healing, to restore humanity. Then having broken the rules, Jesus says to the healed leper:

“See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” (Mk 1:44)

Jesus tells the man to comply with the Law, to show himself to a priest. This is so that he can undergo a ritual bath, and be restored to his rightful place in society. It is also as a proof to the religious authorities that a miraculous healing has taken place. God is announcing His Kingdom and the fulfilment of messianic prophecy. God is healing His people. 

Despite the fact that Jesus has told the man not to tell anyone other than the priest, the healed man does the exact opposite, and tells everyone he meets about what has happened. He has, after all, been miraculously healed, and experienced the wonderful reality of the Kingdom of God. So he feels he simply has to tell everyone he meets how wonderful God is, and what miraculous healing has taken place in his life. He cannot not tell people. It is just too wonderful, and he does proclaims the reality of the Kingdom of God to all and sundry. His life has changed, and he is filled with joy and gratitude. At one level this is a metaphor for the Christian life. Each and every one of us has been touched by Jesus, and so we can follow this man’s example and proclaim the wonders of the Kingdom in all that we do and all that we are.

The joyful proclamation of the Kingdom does, however, pose a practical difficulty – Jesus cannot go anywhere without being mobbed: 

so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places, and people were coming to him from every quarter (Mk 1:45)

Clearly this makes life very difficult for Jesus. It speaks of the deep and widespread need for healing in Galilee. As it was there then, so it is here, now. We long for God to heal us, to take away our fears, and fill us with His love. At a practical level this is bound to be exhausting for Our Lord, so He goes out to desolate deserted places, in other words, the desert. Jesus goes to be alone with God, to rest and to pray. This reminds us that in the Church’s calendar we are about to enter the season of Lent. We prepare for Easter by going out into the desert with Jesus to be close to God, through prayer, fasting, and deeds of charity. We follow Jesus’ example, we imitate Him, so that we may draw closer to Him and experience His healing love. We go with Him, so that we can prepare to enter into the mystery of His Passion, Death, and Resurrection, so that we may rise with Him at Easter. To Him with God the Father, and God the Holy Spirit, be ascribed as is most right and just, all glory, might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now, and forever. Amen.

Homily for Sexagesima

It is hard for us nowadays to imagine our country without the National Health Service. Since 1948 we have been blessed with medical care funded through general taxation. For most of human history medical care was only available to those who could afford it, and only a limited amount of ailments could be treated. It is hard to imagine how precarious life was, and how great was the desire for healing. 

Our Gospel reading this week focuses on Jesus’ pastoral ministry. It has three distinct elements: healing, prayer, and preaching. As soon as Jesus and the four disciples leave the synagogue in Capernaum, they go to Simon and Andrew’s house, where they find Simon Peter’s mother-in-law sick with a fever. It is serious, and life-threatening. Jesus takes her by the hand, lifts her up, and she is immediately restored to full health. In fact, she gets up and looks after them! Mark’s account is simple and straightforward, and goes along at a tremendous breathless pace. The healing is miraculous and instantaneous — it takes your breath away. It is a powerful demonstration of the reality of God’s love for us: if we let God be at work in our lives then wonderful things are possible, but we have to trust Him.

Suddenly all the sick of Capernaum are at the door. These are people who long for healing, and in their midst is the one who heals. It is wonderful. Jesus proclaims the Kingdom of God by His deeds, as a place of healing, where humanity is restored by God. It must have been quite busy, as St Mark states that,

the whole city was gathered together at the door.’ (Mk 1:33)

As wonderful as it is, to see an entire community transformed, it should be recognised that it comes at a cost: physical, emotional, and spiritual. We think of the great emotional, physical, and spiritual cost to those working in the NHS and as carers (both paid and unpaid), many struggling to cope and becoming overwhelmed. Many of whom desperately need some time out to recharge their batteries and find the strength to carry on. They need our prayers. This is why we learn:

And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed.’ (Mk 1:35)

Jesus gets up early to pray to God, to spend time with Him. Prayer is not an optional extra, it is absolutely necessary. Jesus is only able to heal because he spends time with God in prayer, deepening His relationship, and finding strength, the strength to heal and to preach the Good news of the Kingdom. It reminds us of the need for prayer and quiet in our own lives — we need time to be with God, to talk to Him, and to listen to what He has to say to us. Even during lockdown we can be distracted by the business of life. If we want to be close to God and let His power be at work in us we need to find time to be silent and find our own deserted place, if only for a few minutes, to let a healing encounter take place. God meets us when we are alone, when we are silent, when we are vulnerable, when we no longer rely on our own strength but hand ourselves over completely to Him. This is not an easy thing to do, but it is the only way for God to be at work in us: we need to make space for Him. Just as often happens in our own lives, Jesus does not have long to be close to God, as people come looking for Him:

And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, and they found him and said to him, “Everyone is looking for you.”.’ (Mk 1:36-7)

Jesus is the person everyone is looking for. So many people are longing for healing, for the Good News of the Kingdom of God, and for Jesus. There is a deep-seated emptiness which only God can fill. The healing which Christ offers is the fullness of life, how life should be lived. 

And he said to them, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is what I came for.” And he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons.’ (Mk 1:38-9)

Jesus moves His disciples on. They need to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom of God in word and deed, by preaching and healing, to the people in the other towns. This is Jesus’ mission: ‘for that is what I came for.’ (Mk 1:38). Jesus came to announce the Good News of the Kingdom of God and to make His words real by healing the sick, fulfilling the messianic prophecies of Isaiah 61. His message is clear: 

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mk 1:15)

Repent and believe the Good news: turn from sin, love God and your neighbour, and experience the healing which God longs to give you. Which of us can say that we don’t need Christ’s healing in our lives? I know that I do. The truth is that we ALL do. If we are close to Him in prayer, if we listen to Him, if we have the humility which says, ‘I need God’s help’, then we can be open to the transforming power of His Love: so that the healing work begun in Galilee might be continued here, now, among us.

Let us listen to His words. Let us be close to Him in prayer. Let us come to Him, to the One who loves us, who heals us, who gives Himself upon the Cross to die for us. To the One who rises again to give us the promise of eternal life in Him. Let us come to be healed, and restored, so that we might have life, and life to the full in and through Christ. Let us live out our faith, and proclaim Him, so that the world may believe, and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now, and forever. Amen. 

Jesus Heals Peter’s Mother-in-Law

Homily for Septuagesima [Deut 18:15-20; ICor 7:32-35; Mk 1:21-28]

Our experience over the last twelve months has shown us how the world we live in is broken and wounded. As people who live in this broken world, we long for wholeness and healing. The global pandemic is terrible and terrifying, and yet it is a symptom of a wider malaise, of sin and selfishness, which characterises our modern existence. We fall short and look to God for forgiveness and healing. The world more than ever, needs to hear Christ’s call to repent and believe, as He states in Mark’s Gospel:

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mk 1:15)

Repent and believe the Good news: turn from sin, and love God and your neighbour. The message is simple and straightforward, and lies at the heart of our Gospel reading this morning. Jesus has been baptised by John. He has called disciples, and now they go to Capernaum where Jesus teaches and heals. Worship in a synagogue involved singing the Psalms, reading from Scripture, and teaching, rather like a sermon. Jesus explains Scripture to the synagogue, and they are amazed: His teaching is fresh and revolutionary, and unlike what they are used to hear coming from their religious leaders.

for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.” (Mk 1:22)

Jesus teaches like someone with authority. He isn’t a scribe or a Pharisee, He hasn’t spent years in theological training. He stands outside traditional religious power structures. Jesus’ teaching has authority not just because it is spoken with conviction, because it is real and embodied in Him, lived out in His life, but because he is God: the Son of God, beloved of the Father (cf. Mk 1:11), filled with the Holy Spirit, proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom. No sooner has Jesus done this, then there is a practical demonstration of what His teaching looks like in real life:

And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.’” (Mk 1:23-24)

There is a man who needs healing, understood as possessed by an evil spirit, though nowadays we would probably prefer to describe him as suffering from mental illness. He is not a well man, he wants to be healed. This weak, broken man recognises who and what Jesus is: He is the Holy One of God, the Messiah. The point of the Kingdom which Jesus proclaims, which he explains in his teaching, is that it is a place of healing. Ours is a God who can heal our wounds, who can take broken humanity and restore it in love. This is why Jesus’ teaching and the healing have to go together; they are both part of a larger whole, the coming Kingdom of God. Jesus proclaims our need to love God and each other, and puts it into practice, making the healing power of God’s love a reality in the world.

Jesus’ teaching and healing amaze the synagogue. His words become actions which heal the afflicted man. He has the authority to teach and heal because Jesus is God, and His teaching and healing proclaim in word and deed the reality of the Kingdom of God, there in the synagogue in Capernaum. Jesus is the fulfilment of Moses’ prophecy in our first reading this morning, where he says:

The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen” (Deut 18:15)

And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.”(Deut 18:18)

These verses are quoted by St Peter in Acts 3:22 and St Stephen in Acts 7:37 to refer to Jesus, so for nearly two thousand years the Church has had a consistent interpretation of this passage as pointing to, and finding its fulfilment in, Jesus Christ. 

The message Jesus proclaims in His teaching is reinforced by His actions. He shows that the Kingdom of God is where humanity can be healed and freed from sin. Christ demonstrates this most fully when He suffers and dies for us on the Cross. From the very beginning, Jesus looks to the Cross, not as a place of torture, of humiliation, nor defeat, but as the place of victory, and healing. It is the supreme demonstration of God’s love for humanity. Through the Cross we learn how much God loves us. This is why God sends His Son to heal our wounds, to restore us, and to give us the hope of Heaven. Confident in His promises we can turn to God and pray for the healing for which we all so desperately long for, and which the world needs We can pray that His Divine nature might transform our human nature, and give us a foretaste of heaven. We pray that our wounds: physical and mental, will be healed, so that we might have life in Him, in this world and the next.

The possessed man asks ‘Have you come to destroy us?’ All that Christ has come to destroy is the power of evil which separates man from God. We know that Jesus has come not to destroy but to restore humanity, so that we may have life and have it to the full. This is the Good News of the Kingdom, which is still a reality here and now. We, in our brokenness, can come to the source of all healing, to the God who loves us and gives himself for us, so that we can be restored by Him. God can take our lives and heal us in His love. So let us come to Him, so that our lives too may be transformed, and let us proclaim to a world, which longs for healing and wholeness, the love of God in Christ. So that all creation may sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen. 

The Third Sunday after Epiphany

At this moment, any discussion of celebration seems somewhat out of place, it doesn’t feel quite right, given the current circumstances. We cannot currently celebrate together, nor do we want to; nonetheless it is still important to ponder the words of Holy Scripture and through them to be brought ever closer to Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. This is the purpose of prayer, and Christian worship: to be drawn ever closer to the God who loves us, who gives himself for us, so that we might have life in Him. 

Our first reading this morning from the Book Genesis describes the meeting of Abram with Melchizedek the King of Salem in the context of a military victory. Melchizedek welcomes his guest by bringing out bread and wine. This is significant because it is royal food and drink, as shown by Jesse’s gift to Saul in 1Samuel 16:20:

And Jesse took a donkey laden with bread and a skin of wine and a young goat and sent them by David his son to Saul.

It is this royal food and drink, the food and drink which accompanies sacrifices, the food of celebration, rather than the simple fare of bread and water. For Christians it points forward to the Last Supper when Jesus takes bread and wine and says, ‘This is my Body … This is my Blood’ and commands us to do this in memory of Him. Melchizedek is a priest and a king, the ruler of Jerusalem, and he worships God, the God of Abram. He is generous and hospitable, and as a result Abram is generous in return, giving Melchizedek a tenth of what he has. 

Our second reading from Revelation gives us a glimpse of the worship of Heaven, and the marriage feast of the Lamb. The marriage feast is a sign of the unity between Christ and His Church, and points to the Eucharist as the earthly sign of the heavenly reality. Our worship here on earth mirrors the heavenly reality and indicates the future that God has in store for those who love Him.

Weddings are joyful occasions. They are a cause for personal and communal celebration. Unlike our current western practice, Jewish weddings in the time of Jesus were week-long celebrations to which the entire community was invited. The idea of a seven-day party is both appealing and terrifying, wonderful and yet a logistical nightmare. We are dealing with a culture motivated by shame and honour, where the loss of face involved in running out of food or drink would have been catastrophic. 

So it is no surprise that Jesus, His mother Mary, and the disciples are all invited to the wedding, as it is a celebration for the whole community. The lack of wine represents a big problem, and so Mary’s concern for the families is real and genuine. She does not want them to experience such shame and acts to avoid this nightmare situation. 

Jesus’ reply to His Mother, ‘Woman … come’, could be seen as curt and dismissive. However, Jesus is not being rude, instead His remark refers to a far larger context than the wedding, that is the whole of His Earthly ministry. He tells His Mother that it is isn’t their problem, and states that His hour has not yet come: It is not yet His time. Jesus’ hour comes with His Death upon the Cross, when He will wipe away our sins, and take all our shame upon Himself. 

Despite what Jesus says to her , Mary instructs the servants to, ‘Do whatever He tells you’. In this simple phrase she shows us that the key is obedience to the will of God: Listen to what God says and do it. It is that simple and straightforward. As Christians we need to follow her example. Our life should be rooted in obedience: we need to listen to God and obey, for our own good, and the good of the Kingdom. We need to follow the will of God and not be conformed to the world and its ways. We need to truly enter into the joy of the Lord, in humble obedience, be fed by Him, and fed with Him, who died for love of us, in submission to the will of the Father.

This is not the only celebration Jesus attends. We read in the Gospels that Jesus liked nothing better than to hang around at parties with all sorts of people, especially social undesirables. He was even accused by Scribes and Pharisees of being a glutton and a drunkard. In both Luke [7:34] and Matthew [11:19] we see Jesus rejoicing in such name-calling,

the Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.”’ (Mt 11:19) [cf. Deut 21:20: ‘and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’’’ The next verse talks of death by stoning, and looks forward to Our Lord’s Crucifixion at Calvary.]

Jesus enjoys eating and drinking because feasting is a sign of the Kingdom of God. It is clearly shown in the prophecy of Isaiah:

On this mountain the Lord of Hosts will make for all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wine on the lees well refined. And he will destroy 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, “Lo, 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.”’ (Isa 25:6-9)

Here prophecy is fulfilled and we see a glimpse of the banquet at the end of time which is our hope in Heaven, the hope of John’s vision in Revelation.

The extravagant Wedding party points to something greater than itself. It is a foreshadowing of the joy of the Kingdom. It is a taste of the lavish excess that our God, whose love and generosity are beyond our understanding, wishes to bestow on us, as a sign of His love for us.

The world today struggles somewhat with extravagance, and rightly so: when we see the super-rich with gold-plated taps in their mansions and super-yachts we are right to be concerned, yet in the Gospel we see something strange. The head steward has a point: you serve the best wine first, while people can most appreciate it. The Kingdom of God, however, turns human values on their head – the joyous new wine of the Kingdom is finer than any human wine. It is lavished upon undeserving humanity, so that it might transform us, so that we might come to share in the glory of God, and his very nature. Christ therefore becomes the true master of the feast, as He will feed humanity from the abundance of the Heavenly Wedding Feast.

Thus, as we start this new year, we see a three-fold dawning of the Glory of God in Christ Jesus. First , Our Lord’s manifestation to the Gentiles, is the proclamation of the Messiah to the whole world. Then, His Baptism, which shows us the way to the Father, is a sign of love and obedience. Now the Wedding Feast at Cana, is a sure sign of the superabundance of God’s love. Let us live out that love in our lives, and share it with others so that they may sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen.

The Second Sunday of Year B

There is a common misconception that when the Church talks about vocation, being called, it is referring to the call to ordained ministry, to be a deacon or a priest. Nothing could be further from the truth. While this call is an important one, there remains a fundamental call which comes to us all in our baptism: the call to follow Christ. Each and every one of us is called to be a disciple of Jesus, to listen to what He says, and to let this call affect our lives. It is both a daunting prospect, and the most normal and natural thing in the world. 

Our first reading this morning tells the story of the call of Samuel, a young boy serving at the sanctuary in Shiloh with the high priest Eli. After his mother, Hannah, had prayed to God for a child whom she would dedicate to God as a Nazirite, she became pregnant and Samuel was born. Nazirites were not allowed to cut their hair, drink wine, or touch a dead body. Eli’s predecessor, Samson, the last of the Judges in the Book of Judges, was also a  Nazirite. Samuel is called three times. Each time he goes to Eli, whom he assumes is calling him. Eventually Eli tells Samuel to reply, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.’ (1Sam 3:9). So Samuel responds to God’s invitation, and it totally changes his life. Are we willing to take that risk, and answer God’s call?

Ancient Corinth was something like a cross between London and Las Vegas. It was a rich trading centre with a reputation for sexual immorality. This morning’s second reading from St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, is an attempt to argue that our embodied existence, that is how we live our lives , matters. Often, we become what we do. It is therefore important to do the right thing, and not the wrong. Paul’s argument leads to his conclusion:

You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (1Cor 6:19-20) 

We are not our own, we belong to God, who bought us with the price of His Son, Jesus Christ. The world likes to tell us that we are autonomous, that we can do whatever we want to, but at a fundamental level we are God’s people, and belong to the God who made us, and who redeemed us out of love for us. God sets us free to love Him and serve Him, so how we live our lives is our response to that love and an act of loving service. We can choose to glorify God, not that God needs our glory, but because it is how we should live our lives, in love and service. Our faith affects our lived existence.

In today’s Gospel we move beyond the Baptism of Christ to the events of the following day. John has testified that Jesus is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, and that He is the Son of God. When John sees Jesus walking by he again exclaims ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ (Jn 1:36). The phrase looks back to the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52-53 who is led like a lamb to the slaughter. The beginning of Jesus public ministry points to its end on the Cross. Jesus is the Messiah and He will die to take away our sins. Two of John’s disciples hear him saying these words and follow Jesus. When Jesus asks them what they are looking for, the disciples answer ‘Rabbi’. They acknowledge Jesus as a teacher, and ask Him where He is staying. Jesus replies, “Come and you will see.” (Jn 1:39). Jesus invites them to follow Him, to see where He is staying and to spend time with Him. These two disciples of John become followers of Jesus, literally and metaphorically. The Church continues to make the same invitation to the world, to come and see, to follow Jesus. These two disciples stay with Jesus, they listen to Him, they eat with Him, and begin to have a relationship with Him. We then discover that one of the men is Andrew, and that he has a brother, called Simon. Andrew is convinced that he has found the Messiah and brings his brother to Jesus. When Jesus meets Simon he says,

“So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter) (Jn 1:42)

Jesus gives Simon a new name. He calls him Cephas, which means ‘rock’ in Aramaic, Petros in Greek, from which our name Peter comes. Peter will be the rock upon which Christ will build His Church (Mt 16:18). The name Jesus gives points to Peter’s future role as the leader of the Apostles. Jesus takes the initiative and begins to sketch out a future for the disciples who are following Him. It is quick, and matter of fact, and yet momentous. Jesus is gathering people to help Him with this ministry.

The Church therefore begins with a few Galilean fishermen following a rabbi whom they recognise as the Messiah. Thanks to them, and their faith in Jesus, we are in the Church today. Faith, where we put our trust, is an important thing. It affects both who we are, and how we live our lives. Faith turned Peter from a fisherman into a leader of the early Christians, and it has continued to transform lives for the past two thousand years. 

In our baptism, God in Christ invites each and every one of us to follow Him, to ‘come and see’, as the first disciples did, and to invite others, as Andrew invited Simon Peter. To come and see who Jesus is, to get to know Him, and start a relationship with Him. This begins with our sharing in His Death and Resurrection, and ends in the glory of Heaven. Where we, and all the Church, give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen. 

Baptism of Christ

The Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist in the River Jordan at the start of His public ministry is one of the events found in all four Gospels (the others are the Feeding of the Five Thousand, and the account of the Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection, from Palm Sunday to Easter Day). Each gospel contains accounts of the beginning and end of Jesus’ public ministry, as well as a miraculous feeding. If we take a moment to consider both what baptism is, and what it is for, we may come to understand why all four  gospel writers included it in their account of the life and teachings of Jesus. 

Baptism is symbolic washing with water for the forgiveness of sins. If Jesus was baptized does that mean that He sinned? The answer is, No. So, given the fact that Jesus committed no sins, did He need to be baptised by John? Again, the answer is. No. You may begin to wonder what is going on here? Why would Jesus begins His Public ministry in Galilee with a redundant action? If Jesus does not need to be baptised, what is the point of it? What is Jesus doing and why is it important for us?

Unlike all human beings, who commit sin, and become estranged from their relationship with God, Jesus is God become man. He is perfect, sinless, and united with God the Father, and the Holy Spirit, a Trinity of love. There is no need to restore the relationship, because it is one of perfect love. Mark’s account of the Baptism is prefaced by the words of John the Baptist:

After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mk 1:7-8)

John the Baptist is linking Christ’s baptism with the redemption of humanity in His death. The very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry points to the Cross, where salvation and freedom will be offered to all who turn to Christ. John baptises with water, but he looks forward to Jesus, who will baptise with the Holy Spirit. This is the baptism of the Church, to save and redeem humanity, by sharing in Christ’s Death and Resurrection.

Once Jesus has been baptised by John, extraordinary things happen:

And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Mk 1:10-11)

At the moment of Jesus’ baptism we hear God the Father, and see God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. The fulness of God is manifest to humanity in the Trinity. We can see and hear God’s saving work. Jesus does not need to be baptised, but does so for three reasons. Firstly to demonstrate His humility, and obedience to the will of the Father; secondly to sanctify the waters of baptism, and finally to act as an example for us to follow. Thus, God sends the Holy Spirit to demonstrate the bond of love between the Father and the Son. The Father speaks to demonstrate that Jesus is the Son of God. He is beloved of the Father, and His obedience and humility is pleasing in the sight of God. Jesus shows us the way back to the Father. By our own obedience and humility, by our repentance, and turning away from the ways of sin and the world, we return to the God who loves us. This is the message of the church: that God’s grace is available to us, to everybody, even though we haven’t worked for or earned it, even though we have done nothing to deserve it, God’s love and mercy is there for us. In Baptism we receive adoption, and become part of the family of God. Through Baptism we are born again, of water and the Spirit, we are ‘in Christ’, clothed with Him.

The unnecessary nature of the act of Jesus’ Baptism discloses something profound about the nature of God and His love for us. God gives us more than we ask for, because it is in God’s nature to be generous in a way which astounds us. There is something reckless, extravagant, utterly over the top, about the love of God, which should prompt us to love and care for others in a similar way.

John’s baptism of water prepares the way for the baptism of the Holy Spirit in Christ, through which we enter the Church. It shows us a new way of living. Life in the Spirit, life with God, has a profound effect on us, who we are and what we do. It opens up the possibility of living in a new way, a way of love, which mirrors the generosity shown to us by God. This way of life shows us in the Church what it is to be truly alive and how to live in a new way. It points to another act of God’s extravagant love: when Christ dies on the Cross, to take away our sin, to carry our burden, which separates us from God and each other. Our wounds are healed, the relationship is restored so that we can live the life of the Kingdom of God here and now: living out that self-giving, reckless, extravagant love and forgiveness in our own lives, and in the world around us.

Back in our first reading this morning the prophet Isaiah looks forward to the coming of the Messiah with a proclamation of extravagant generosity:

Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters” (Isa 55:1)

This invitation is also the invitation of the Church, for people to enter it by baptism and share in the unsearchable riches of Christ. Today we remember that salvation is offered to the world through baptism. We give thanks for the rebirth of our own baptism, and hope to share it with others. Baptism reminds us of the hope which we have in Jesus Christ, hope of new life, and eternal life with Him. Whatever is happening in the world, or in our own lives we can trust in who God is, and what He has done for us. In this trust we can live out our faith so that the world may be transformed and believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen. 

Epiphany 2021

We start this new year of 2021 in a Tier 4 lockdown, with our movements and our freedom to associate severely curtailed by law. Government control of people, their movements and whereabouts, is, however, nothing new. Mary and Joseph were forced to travel about 90 miles from their home in Nazareth up to Bethlehem in order to comply with the census regulations. It was a hard journey, at the end of which Mary gave birth in what were far from ideal circumstances as the guest houses were full. One cannot help but compare with those being treated in hospital corridors as there are no beds available.

Some time later the Holy Family receive some unexpected visitors. The wise men travelled over 500 miles because they observed a celestial phenomenon, a star, which they interpreted as signifying a royal birth in Israel. They travel to Jerusalem, the capital city, and see the king, and explain why they have come. Their news, rather than being a cause for joyous celebration, is interpreted by the Jewish king as a threat. So, Herod consults the religious experts who explain, following the prophecy of Micah, that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem. Herod sends the wise men off to do some reconnaissance, before reporting back to him, claiming that he wishes to come and worship the child. However, the wise men are warned not to return to Herod, but to take a different route back home.

Matthew’s Gospel presents a story characterised by fear, rather than celebration. King Herod is worried that he will be removed from power. Fear is everywhere: fear of the Roman overlords, of threats to the ruling dynasty, or of popular uprising. It is a tense world, far removed from familiar domesticated images of Christmas and Epiphany, and yet such is God’s coming into our world. God comes into a world of fear to bring hope and love to people who long for healing and reconciliation. 

The wise men bring Jesus presents. Indeed, it is because of them that we give each other gifts at this time. We follow their example, and try to manifest something of the love and generosity which characterises this season. Unlike the wise men, we have not been able to travel this year, and we may have presents which we have not been able to deliver or send. It doesn’t matter. The wise men were not concerned about when they would arrive with their gifts. What mattered was that would see the King of the Jews, worship Him as God, and give Him treasures. They offer Jesus gold, a sign of His Kingship. They give incense, because Jesus is God become man, to whom worship is due. And they offer myrrh, used to anoint the dead. Even at Christ’s birth it is recognised that He will die for us, reconciling God and humanity. At the beginning of Jesus’ earthly life we see signs of how it will end: in Jerusalem, on a Cross, with a crown of thorns and a mocking inscription which proclaims the truth of God’s love for humanity.

God comes into a world of fear to bring hope, and joy, and love. In taking our flesh, Jesus shares our experience of human life and all that that entails. God can not only empathise but also sympathise. God, in Christ, experiences our fears and frailties. This wonderful news is declared to the world at the Epiphany, Our Lord’s Manifestation to the whole world. Epiphany fulfils the prophecies of Scripture: our first reading this morning from Isaiah Chapter 60 is full of details which are picked up in the account of the visit of the Magi. This is important in that it shows us that Jesus is the one who fulfils prophecy, He is the Messiah, the King of the Jews, God with us, Emmanuel. The fact that His birth is recognised by both local shepherds and wise men from outside the Jewish world shows that God’s salvation is for all, for everyone who turns to Him. This is Good News. God loves us and makes this manifest to the whole world in the birth of Jesus. 

To a world filled with fear we can proclaim a message of hope, and joy, the good news that salvation has come to humanity in Jesus, born in Bethlehem, recognised and worshipped by the wise men because He is God. We can rejoice with them because we share their joy and wonder that God is born to save us. We can trust His promises, and know that whatever difficulties we face, whatever fears assail us, that God is with us, with a message of salvation for all people. 

So let us be filled with hope and peace, may we live lives of joy, and love, and service of God and one another, which proclaim in word and deed the love of God to the world. May the whole of creation resound with the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen. 

James Tissot, The Magi travelling

Christmas 2020

We have come here this morning because something wonderful happened two thousand years ago in Bethlehem. It is the single most important event in human history, summed up in St John’s memorable phrase, ‘And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ (Jn 1:14 ESV). The Word, through which God spoke all creation into being, is the Son eternally begotten of the Father, who, through the power of the Holy Spirit, took flesh in the womb of His mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary. Jesus is born for us, and lives among us.

Today is a day to feel encouraged. The message of Isaiah is one of joy. The birth of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, is Good News. This is because He comes to bring true peace to humanity. Our God reigns as a little baby, lying in a manger. Christ’s gift to us is peace and goodwill to all humanity, including those of us gathered here this morning. He can give us these gifts because He, who is born for us today, will die for us. The one wrapped in swaddling clothes now, will be wrapped in linen cloths in a tomb once He has died for us on the Cross. The beginning of Christ’s earthly life points to its end to remind us of the love of God for humanity. With joy the prophet proclaims, ‘and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.’ (Isa 52:10 ESV). Today salvation has indeed come to the whole world, for in Jesus’ Birth and Death we are saved. 

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews understands that God speaks through his prophets, who look forward to the birth of the Son of God as the defining event, the turning point of human history. Prophets tell us both how things are and how they will be. We therefore have a vision of God’s future, and the hope of glory in the one who is born today. We can glimpse true glory in the vulnerable baby lying in the manger, dependant upon others for love, and food, and warmth. God’s glory confounds our expectations, and that’s the point. God’s ways are not our ways, nor are his thoughts ours. In the same way that God saves us: not because we are lovable, but so that we might become so. Humanity is saved in order to be transformed, and the Church exists to extend that transformation across space and time, through you and me, and the whole family of believers. 

Such is the mystery of God’s love. It is something so wonderful that we are not able to fully understand it, but we can experience it, and through experiencing it, we are transformed by it. As the 20th century Anglican theologian, Austin Farrer wrote: 

God does not give us explanations; we do not comprehend the world, and we are not going to. It is and it remains for us a confused mystery of bright and dark. God does not give us explanations; he gives us a Son. Such is the spirit of the angel’s message to the shepherds: “Peace upon earth, good will to men … and this shall be the sign unto you: ye shall find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.” A Son is better than an explanation. The explanation of our death leaves us no less dead than we were; but a Son gives us a life, in which to live.’ [Austin Farrer Said or Sung, pp. 27, 28]

St John proclaims, ‘In him was life, and the life was the light of men.’ (Jn 1:4 ESV). You may be aware that a couple of days ago the planets Saturn and Jupiter crossed paths and appeared to align, creating a bright light in the heavens. It is possible that this event may be the star described in Matthew’s Gospel. Just as the star gives light to Bethlehem and guides the wise men on their way, so Christ gives light to a world filled with Darkness. Christ is the true light, and comes to give us true life in Him: 

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God,who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.’ (Jn 1:12-13 ESV) 

As Christians we are born again in our baptism, by water and the Holy Spirit. We share in Christ’s Death and Resurrection, to have new life in Him. We are in Christ, and are fed with His Body and Blood so that we may continue to be transformed by Him. Christ comes to give us life, new life, eternal life in Him.  Freed from our sins and transformed by the love of God, we can live the life of the Kingdom, the life of Heaven here and now. This is ‘glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.’ (Jn 1:14 ESV) given to humanity so that we may live as God intended us to. To us is offered through Christ the chance to return to Eden, to see Creation restored, and all things set right through Him. This is not wishful thinking, but the reality of God’s love freely given to restore us to the fullness of life.

So let us embrace God’s love and encourage others to experience the true joy of Christmas, so that all humanity may join with the angels to sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen. 

Midnight Mass – Christmas 2020

It might seem strange to be celebrating tonight, with everything that is currently happening in the world. We keep our yearly memorial of the Birth of Jesus Christ with a variety of emotions this year: fear, anxiety, but also joy and hope. It is important for us to recognise, and to realise that it is perfectly normal and natural to feel this way. This is a Christmas like no other, when we cannot visit loved ones, or hold our normal celebrations such as the Village Nativity, which would normal have preceded this service. All due to a global pandemic which has claimed many lives, and sadly, will claim many more before it is over.

But, despite rising rates of infection, we can still be filled with joy and hope: not just because we have developed vaccines, but because Christ is born! No matter what difficulties we have to face together, what fears and privations may assail us, the birth of Our Saviour in Bethlehem is a cause for hope and joy in this world, and the next. God comes among us, as a baby, into a world of pain, fear, and misery, just as He did two thousand years ago. The God who made all that exists enters our world weak and helpless, dependent on others for food, warmth, shelter, and security. God takes a huge risk to save humanity and to give us hope for the future.

Tonight we see God’s healing and reconciling love made manifest: to save us from ourselves, from sin, selfishness, and greed, by this act of generosity and weakness, which does not appear to make everything better, and yet does. God doesn’t do magic, but He does do transformation, sometimes quickly, and sometimes slowly. Humanity isn’t always good at listening or paying attention. It is easy to become so wrapped up in our own anxieties and yearnings that we close ourselves off from God’s transformative power.

Perhaps surprisingly, there is fear in the Christmas story. When the shepherds saw the angels, the angel said to them ‘Paid ag ofni’ ‘’Fear not, for behold I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people’ (Lk 2:10). That good news is as true today as it was two thousand years ago. The love and peace which Christ comes to bring can still be made real and visible in our hearts and lives, and it still has the power to change the world, God’s kingdom can be even more of a reality, here and now. Jesus taught us to pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth as in heaven, ‘deled dy deyrnas, gwneler dy ewyllys; megis yn y nef, felly ar y ddaear hefyd’.  

The true gift of Christmas is the Good News that Christ is born, that God becomes one of us. Our humanity is reconciled to God in and through Jesus. God saves us, and sets us free to worship Him, to love Him, and to serve Him. A fourth-century bishop, Theodotus of Ancyra, said in a Christmas homily: ‘He whose godhead made him rich became poor for our sake, so as to put salvation within the reach of everyone’ [Theodotus of Ancyra (Homily 1 on Christmas: PG 77: 1360-1361) ]. Such is the mystery of God’s love for us. It is a love made perfect in weakness, yet with the strength to transform lives. 

The most important event in human history happens tonight, and for two thousand years Christians have proclaimed its truth: God is with us, Jesus is born for us, to set us free from sin, to give us eternal life, and to pour out God’s love and reconciliation upon a world longing for healing and wholeness. Tonight, as the mystery of God’s love is made manifest, may we be filled with that love, and may our voices echo the song of the angels to the shepherds in giving praise to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

Advent IV

Those of you who are fans of The Sound of Music will know that to begin at the beginning is a very good place to start. This morning’s Gospel does exactly that, by going back to the Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the beginning of the story of Christmas. As we prepare to celebrate Christ’s birth in a few days time,it is only natural to return to the point of His Conception to help us to ponder the wonderful mystery which God accomplishes for our sake.

Our Old Testament reading this morning begins and ends with promises about houses. It starts with King David concerned about the fact that while he lives in a fine palace, the Ark of the Covenant dwells in a tent. Such unease is understandable, and arises out of a desire to give the best to God. David is concerned that he is not doing so, and says:

“See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells in a tent.” (2 Samuel 7:2)

So David plans to build God a Temple. To begin with, it appears that David’s plan to build a Temple is acceptable, but quickly we learn that this is not the case. At a fundamental level, God is not concerned whether he lives in a tent or a temple. It does not matter. God’s response is not to accept David’s offer, but instead to make an offer to David:

Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom… I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son… And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me. Your throne shall be established for ever.’” (2 Samuel 7:11-12, 14, 16)

God offers David a family, a Royal House a promise which he will keep, and which bears fruit with the coming of Jesus, born of the House of David, and the Son of God. Not only this but Jesus’ mother Mary will be the Ark of the New Covenant. This will be a covenant that is not made in stone, but rather in flesh; the flesh of the Son of God, who is born for us, and who dies for us. Her womb will be the place where the Son of God will begin to dwell with us:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (Isa 7:14)

Immanuel in Hebrew means ‘God (is) with us’ and this is what we are preparing to celebrate at Christmas: God being among us.

 Ours is a God who keeps his promises, and so St Paul can speak of:

the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations (Rom 16:25-26)

For a moment I would like you to imagine how would you feel if one day a complete stranger turned up on your doorstep and told you something strange and unexpected? Surprised? Confused? Afraid? The fact that you are a teenage girl would most likely intensify these feelings. When you add to this the fact that the girl will conceive a child outside marriage, something for which she could be stoned to death, according to the Law of Moses, the Gospel passage which we have just heard should strike us as odd, and unsettling: this isn’t how God is supposed to work, it isn’t supposed to be like this. There is an unexpected strangeness strangeness about how God comes into the world.

At one level this is not surprising, because God does not follow human rules. He makes this clear through the prophet Isaiah:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. (Isa 55:8)

In the Annunciation God demonstrates this. Mary is confused, she cannot understand what is going on. So the angel Gabriel says ‘Paid ag ofni, Do not be afraid’. Mary does not need to be afraid because God is doing something wonderful. She will bear a son and call him Jesus, which means ‘God saves’. Jesus the Son of God will save God’s people from their sins, and the promise made to David we heard in our first reading will be fulfilled. 

Mary cannot understand how this will happen. The Holy Spirit, God active in the world, and the bond of love between God the Father and God the Son, will overshadow her. God will take flesh in her womb and be born as one of us. So Mary replies:

“Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Lk 1:38)

Mary says ‘Yes’ to God. This is a ‘Yes’ which undoes the ‘No’ of Eve. It brings about the salvation of humanity, through the Life, Death, and Resurrection of her Son. Mary’s obedience to the will of God, ‘the obedience of faith’ (Rom 16:26), both trusts God to be at work, and makes it possible. God does not force salvation upon us, but offers it, and invites humanity into a relationship. 

The Church continues to make the same invitation, and to offer the same sacrifice, so that God, who became flesh and blood in the womb of Mary, offers us His Body and Blood in the Eucharist, so that we might share His Life. May we, like Mary, say yes to God, welcome him into our hearts, and show forth his love to the world, so that it may come to believe and trust 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. Amen

Fra Angelico The Annunciation

Advent III Year B

For many people Advent is a time for consumerism, buying things for Christmas. It is understandable. People find pleasure in stuff, in presents, and the excess which usually characterises this time of year. But Christians understand that true joy is not found in things of this world, but in God alone. Joy is our vocation as Christians, we are called to be people of joy. This can be hard at any time, but especially at the moment when the lives of so many people are filled with fear and anxiety for the health and well-being of ourselves and our loved ones as well as for the country in which we live. It is good to remember the words of the prophet Nehemiah:

‘the joy of Lord is our strength’ (Nehemiah 8:10)

Our joy as Christians has a supernatural source, namely God, and a supernatural end: God wills for us to be united with Him forever in Heaven. This is why St Paul can write to the Thessalonian Christians and encourage them to be filled with joy. Because of who Jesus Christ is, and what He has done, we are able to be joyful and hopeful for the future. Such an attitude leads naturally to prayer: we give thanks to God for all that He has done. Our prayer , like our life, is characterised by joy and gratitude. We are filled with it, and we share it with others, for such is the Kingdom of God. This is God’s will for us and how we should live. 

Through our prayer, our relationship with God, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, we are sanctified by God. We are made holy so that we can grow in love towards God and each other. Through encountering God in prayer and Scripture, and the Eucharist, we are drawn ever closer into the relationship of love which characterises the life of God. God does this so that we can be prepared to meet Christ who will come again as our Saviour and our Judge. We can trust in this because as St Paul writes:

He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it. (1Thess 5:24)

We can trust in God because He keeps his promise. In our first reading this morning, from the prophet Isaiah, we see the promises that the Messiah will fulfil as the demonstration of the Kingdom of God. This is a kingdom of love and freedom, a place of good news for the oppressed, where healing love binds up the broken-hearted. A realm of healing and of renewal, which proclaims liberty, and releases prisoners. God’s kingdom turns the world on its head, and offers something completely different. It is a place where we are clothed in a mantle of praise, a garment of joy and salvation, a robe of righteousness which we put on in our baptism. This is a radical, world-changing vision, which offers the possibility of real transformation to people in each and every age. This prophecy is the one read by Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth at the start of his public ministry. After quoting the words of the prophet Isaiah, Jesus says:

“Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk 4:21)

In, and through Jesus, prophecy is fulfilled. People can have true hope for the future, in the certain knowledge that God loves us, and will heal our wounds, and calm our fears. 

In this morning’s Gospel we pick up from last Sunday with John the Baptist preaching a baptism of repentance, a turning away from sin towards the arms of a loving God. He has been stark and uncompromising in his message, as a prophet should be. The people drawn to John’s teaching find themselves in an awkward situation. They can’t quite understand what’s going on: Is John the Messiah? If he isn’t, who then is he? He calls people to the baptism of repentance in the knowledge that Christ is coming, with His gift of the Spirit. John is preparing for the Kingdom of God to be a reality in people’s hearts, and minds, and lives. 

We are told thatJohn the Baptist is near the Dead sea, by the River Jordan where the road from Jerusalem to Jericho crosses a major trade route to the East. This is a major crossroads, an ideal place to meet people. He has been successful; many people have listened to his message and have been baptised by him. This leads the priests and Levites (sent by the Pharisees) to come up from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ John replies that he is not the Messiah, so they ask him, ‘What are you then, are you Elijah?’ They are trying to understand who John is, and what he is doing. They know that Elijah, the greatest Jewish prophet, was taken up into heaven. They are expecting him to return to pave the way for the Messiah. This is what John is doing, anticipating the arrival of Jesus the Messiah. John’s Gospel tells us that: 

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. (John 1:6-8)

John the Baptist bears witness to who Jesus Christ is. He points to the Messiah, the salvation of the World. He points to one who has come so that we might believe. John is the first person to recognise Jesus, and he does so in the womb. Before he is born, when the Blessed Virgin Mary visits her cousin, Elizabeth, John leaps for joy. His whole life is a proclamation of the Good News of the Kingdom of God, and His Son, Jesus Christ. John is an example for us all to live lives of joy, proclaiming to the world the need to repent and follow Christ, the light of the World. 

John the Baptist is also a great example of humility: he does not claim a position that is not his own. He is the exact opposite of the culture of the world around us. The priests and Levites are still confused and so they ask him:

“Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” (Jn 1:25-27)

John says that he is not worthy to untie the sandal. This is because he is not the one doing the redeeming. The Book of Ruth explains the custom of taking off a sandal:

Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging: to confirm a transaction, one drew off his sandal and gave it to the other, and this was the manner of attesting in Israel.(Ruth 4:7)

Redemption is the work of Christ. He is born of the House of David, who was the great-grandson of Ruth, to redeem humanity by dying for them on the Cross. John recognises this, and understands that the transaction represented by the removal of a sandal has not yet taken place. It will take place on Calvary. The very beginning of John’s public ministry points to the Cross, where salvation and freedom will be offered to all who turn to Christ. May we be humble and joyful like John, and proclaim the Saviour who takes away our sins, and sets us free to sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen

Ruth in Boaz’s Field, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld 

Advent I

I cannot claim to be a huge fan of weekly competition shows on television, but I do occasionally enjoy looking at The Great Pottery Throwdown. In particular I love seeing pots being thrown on a wheel. It is wonderful to watch, and it requires great skill and attention to detail. Transforming a lump of clay into a bowl, or a pot, or a plate is a joyous thing to witness. It is an important skill, as we all need vessels for eating, drinking, and storage. 

Each Advent Sunday begins with a reading from the prophet Isaiah, for Isaiah is the prophet of the Messiah, and full of hope for the future. 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, it may be that God, as a loving parent, is giving us space and time to reflect and repent. Isaiah is convinced of the power and the love of God, to remake us, and restore us, and to enrich us with his grace. 

At the heart of Isaiah’s message is the conviction that God can and will remould us. As he says:

But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. (Isa 64:8)

The image of God as a potter, shaping and reshaping clay to create something beautiful and useful, is a hopeful one. We are never written off, rather we are a work in progress. This metaphor is a good one for the spiritual life: the closer we get to God, and the more we let God be at work in our lives, the more He can fashion and refashion us. In Genesis (2:7) God forms humanity out of the dust of the ground, and throughout the Bible this imagery is used to remind us that God is a caring creator, and we are His creation. He loves us, and we can trust Him.

The season of Advent, which begins today, is a season of preparation, of getting ready. The Church gets ready to meet Christ: first in the annual celebration of His Birth at Christmas, and in His Second Coming as our Saviour and our Judge. During the four weeks of Advent the Church ponders the Four Last Things: Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell. It is good to think about such things: our earthly lives are finite, but afterwards we have an eternal destiny. The Church believes that Christ was born, lived died and rose again to give us the hope of eternal life in Him. In the grand scheme of things, what really matters are our souls and our lives: who and what we are, what we do, and why we do things.

We, here, this morning, are Christians living in the time between Christ’s Resurrection and the end of the world. We are told 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 wants us to be vigilant and to live out our faith so that we can be ready to greet Him whether He returns today or in thousands of years time. 

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 hereon 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. 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 Jesus calls all people to repentance — to turn around and change the whole of their lives and follow Him in their thoughts, their words, and their deeds — for the Kingdom of God is close at hand.

We are 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: strengthening and encouraging us to turn our lives around, and follow Him. We are told to be vigilant and take care of the state of our lives and our souls, and of those around us.We must be awake, rather than indulging in the self-satisfied sleep of sin.

The Gospel this morning encourages us to vigilant.This is something that we have had to be during this time of pandemic. As well as our physical health, however, we need to take care of our spiritual health as well, it is the most important thing that we can do. 

Jesus says:

“But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come. (Mk 13:32-33)

There is no way that we can know when Jesus will return, so all that we can do is to vigilant and be alert. We can live lives that demonstrate our readiness by living out our faith, here and now, every single day. In order to do this we are helped by God’s grace, His generous love towards us. Also we can rely upon God’s strength, and not our own weakness, to live lives of faith, hope, and love together, as a community called the Church. We can help and support each other, we can pray for each other, we can love and forgive each other and help to make the Kingdom a reality here and now.

St Paul writes words of encouragement to the Church in Corinth, telling them of God’s generosity:

so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, (1Cor 1:7-8) 

The Good News is that God has already given us what all that need. His grace is limitless and inexhaustible. So, as we begin our Advent journey towards Christmas may we be encouraged to stay awake and be vigilant. Let us be reliant upon God’s grace, and built up in love together. Let us be renewed by the God who loves, heals and sustains us, so that we may sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen.

Christ the King

On November 23rd 1927 the last words uttered by Blessed Miguel Pro SJ before he was murdered were, ‘¡Viva Christo Rey!’ “Long live Christ the King!’. The Mexican regime of that time was cruel and went out of its way to persecute Christians, including Miguel Pro, a twentieth century Christian martyr who died confessing Christ’s sovereignty over all things. His words are powerful, and inspiring. When we acknowledge Christ as King we are saying that He is above all human power and authority, and we affirm that God is supreme. We, as Christians, declare that our primary allegiance is to God alone, and not to the things of this world. Secular power is threatened by this, because it wants to assume for itself something that rightly belongs to God alone. The Church resists this out of a desire to honour and worship God, and to see God’s Kingdom come and His will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. 

In our first reading this morning from the prophet Ezekiel we see God speaking as a shepherd caring for His flock. This image lies behind Jesus’ description of Himself as the Good Shepherd in John’s Gospel (Jn 10:11-18). Jesus uses imagery from Scripture to show us that it is fulfilled in Him, that God’s promises are coming true. Jesus the Good Shepherd is a hopeful and encouraging image, one which we need as much as ever. God is not absent or disinterested in us or how we live our lives, quite the opposite:

I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak (Ezekiel 34:15-16)

This vision of care, healing, and reconciliation, is exactly what Jesus promises and demonstrates in the Gospels. This should not surprise us, as there is a continuity between the Old and New Testaments. What is promised in the Old is fulfilled in the New. The Word of God finds its fullest expression in the Word made Flesh, Jesus Christ. Christ takes the image for His Parable from the words of Ezekiel’s Prophecy:

“As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: Behold, I judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and male goats.” (Ezekiel 34:15-16)

So this morning we come to the last of Jesus’ parables concerning the end times, that of the Sheep and the Goats.  

As those involved in keeping animals will know, sheep and goats need to be separated. Sheep are hardier than goats, so they can sleep outside, whereas goats need shelter. Normally it is easy to distinguish them from each other since sheep’s tails point down, and goats’ tails point up. 

Once they are separated, Jesus speaks to the sheep:

‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ (Mt 25:34-36)

Jesus singles out those who have put their Christian faith into action in their lives. They have not simply believed in Jesus, but they have let their belief inform their actions, and done good works. They have fed the hungry, given refreshment to the thirsty, welcomed strangers, and visited the sick and prisoners. This is what God wants us to do, if we want to go to Heaven. The advice is clear, as with the other parables which we have been reading over the past few weeks. God is telling us how Christians should live in the world, making their love visible and demonstrating it in acts of service. 

God expects a lot from us. The Christian life is demanding, and a high standard is set for us. Likewise the choice is a stark one: eternal life or eternal punishment. It is important for us to remember that this morning’s Gospel is a parable which is meant to warn us, and give us the opportunity to live the way God wants us to, here and now, so that we can be prepared for the life to come. Each and every one of us can choose to try and live Gospel lives or not. God does not force us, we are free to reject His love, or to accept it and live lives which demonstrate that love to the world around us. It is clear that actions have consequences, and how we live our lives matters. That’s why Jesus’ teaching is clear and uncompromising.

We are faced with the question of how to live out our faith so that we are living lives of generous love and human flourishing. Can we manage on our own? No, alone we will not succeed. We need to rely upon each other, for help and support, but most importantly we need to rely upon God, and His Grace, as without it we are doomed to fail. Today we celebrate Christ’s universal kingship, that He is sovereign in Heaven and on earth, and that He rules in the hearts and lives of men and women everywhere. We serve him out of love, rather than obeying Him out of fear, and seek to make that love a reality in the world through acts of loving service. But we do this first and foremost because of our relationship with Christ. In showing mercy to others we are showing mercy to Christ, who in turn will be merciful towards us.

‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ (Mt 25:40)

In the Beatitudes Jesus says, ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy’ (Mt 5:7). Now we see what this looks like in reality. The Kingdom of God is above all else a place of love, freely offered. The throne of God is in fact the Cross: here Christ is raised up and reigns in glory, the glory of self-giving generous love. Christ bears forever the marks of the nails and the spear because they are the marks of love. As a well-known hymn puts it, ‘Crown him the Lord of love! Behold his hands and side,— Rich wounds, yet visible above, In beauty glorified’. This is glory of the Kingdom, and we are called to share and participate in it, to make it a reality here and now. 

So let us try to live in such a way, that Christ may rule in our hearts and lives, and that we may all be built up in faith, hope, and love together, and share in the joy and generosity of the Kingdom, so that all may know and love God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen. 

Diego Velázquez, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The 33rd Sunday of Year A (Prov 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31, 1 Thess 5:1-11, Mt 25:14-30)

In the ancient world, as in today’s world, the domestic life of women was difficult. Without modern labour-saving devices, household chores were even more laborious and time-consuming. A wife would be expected to run a household, and it was hard and difficult work. Such a demanding role means that paragons in the domestic sphere were to be praised and prized. And, in the Book of Proverbs, we see such an example of industry, of hard work. Throughout Ancient Wisdom Literature, wisdom and industry go hand in hand, they are beautiful and good, as they come from the source of all beauty and goodness, namely God. An excellent wife is more valuable than jewels, because while precious stones possess beauty and value, they are not capable of doing good. 

The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. (Proverbs 31:11)

As a result of the relationship between a loving husband and wife, their mutual prosperity is assured. This then leads to generosity:

She opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy. (Proverbs 31:20)

The point of wealth is not for it to be acquired for its own sake, but so that it may be a blessing to others. God wants humanity to flourish by being loving and generous. This theme runs through all our readings this morning.

St Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians is written to a community that is afraid of two things: death and the return of Jesus in Judgement. These are understandable emotions. However, while death and judgement are inescapable, they do not need to be feared. They are compared with the labour pains of a pregnant woman, which are often sudden and sharp. But if we live lives characterised by love, and we have faith in Jesus Christ who died and rose again for us, we have the hope of salvation. This is good news, and leads St Paul to write:

For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ (1Thess 5:9)

Paul’s letter is written to encourage his fellow Christians, to allay their fears and to build up their faith, hope, and love, as a community:

Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing (1Thess 5:11)

We all of us need encouragement, especially when times are difficult, and when we are as afraid or unsure, as we are at the moment. It is good to be reminded that, in trying to lift each others spirits, we are behaving as a Christian community should.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus continues to talk about the future using parables. Just as with the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, Jesus begins by showing that he is talking about a future reality: how things WILL BE, not how they are now. This future reality is Christ’s return. Christians believe that Jesus will come again to judge the world. The theme of today’s parable, the Parable of the Talents is judgement. These days, we are not comfortable with ideas of judgement. Many of us remember preachers using ideas of hell-fire and damnation to fill people with fear. But the heart of the Gospel is love not fear, and perfect love casts out fear. 

In the parable the master goes on a journey and entrusts his property to his servants. He puts his possessions into their care because he trusts them to look after it. The servants who are assigned five and two talents are both praised for being ‘good and faithful’. They have acted morally and demonstrated their faith, and they will be rewarded. The problem is with the servant who was given just one talent and hid it in the ground. He explains his actions, saying:

‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ (Mt 25:24-25)

This servant does not love his master, he fears him. He does not take care of what has been entrusted to him, because he simply sees it as a possession, a thing. The servant loves neither his master nor what was entrusted to him. By hiding the talent in the ground, he squanders the opportunity his master has given him, because he is jealous and resentful. As all gardeners know, seeds produce different results, just as in the Parable of the Sower, but they all need to be sown in the first place. What we learn here is that bitterness and resentment have no place in the Kingdom, they are not compatible with a Gospel of Love. The tragedy is that the fearful servant condemns himself to being outside the Kingdom, by failing to recognise both generosity, and the value of a relationship. 

The Parable of the Talents, just like the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, is a commentary on the life of the Kingdom. These are stories of servants who are prepared and continue to work, until their master returns. They are parables which teach us how to be a Church of loving generous service, not one of fear.

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, boring, difficult and repetitive. 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. None of us fully deserve the gift of God’s love and forgiveness in Jesus Christ: we have not earned it. It is not a reward, but rather the gift of a loving God. It is a gift which we are called to receive, and it transforms our lives. The God who will come to judge us, and all humanity, is a God of love and mercy, whose hands bear the mark of nails, wounded for love of us. Judgement and mercy go hand in hand, and if we love God and love our neighbour, we are living the life of the Kingdom, here and now, free from fear. 

So let us live out that life together, encouraging one another, so that we may all be built up in faith, hope, and love, and together share in the joy of the Kingdom, so that all may know and love God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen. 

Rembrandt The Parable of the Talents

32nd Sunday of Year A: The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins

There is a tradition of writing about Wisdom which can be found in the Bible, and across the Ancient Near East. Wisdom Literature seeks to explore the perennial questions of who God is and how humanity should live. The term ‘wisdom’ means much more than knowledge. It refers to how knowledge is used with judgement, something which comes with maturity and experience, and leads to our flourishing. In our first reading this morning we see Wisdom personified as a beautiful woman . If we love Wisdom, then we will recognise her easily. It stands to reason. Wisdom is an attractive quality. 

To fix one’s thought on her is perfect understanding, and one who is vigilant on her account will soon be free from care, because she goes about seeking those worthy of her, and she graciously appears to them in their paths, and meets them in every thought. (Wisdom 6:15-16)

To be wise is to be freed from care or anxiety. Nothing in life or death can trouble us because we have fixed our thoughts on Wisdom. Such wisdom comes from God, it is divine, and not human. In fixing our minds on Wisdom, we have fixed them upon God, the source of all wisdom, or as a prayer in the Prayerbook puts it:

Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, which knowest our necessities before we ask, and our ignorance in asking: We beseech thee to have compassion on our infirmities; and those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask, vouchsafe to give us for the worthiness of thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen 

Our second reading, from Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, deals directly with questions of death and resurrection. Clearly some people have died, and there are members of the church community who are worried by this, so Paul is trying to allay their fears. He encourages them:

‘that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep’. (1Thess 4:13-14)

This is our hope as Christians. Because Jesus died and rose again, and we share in His Resurrection, we know that our earthly life is not all that there is, that something greater awaits us. Paul has hope for the future, which is why our passage ends: 

‘Therefore encourage one another with these words’ (1 Thess 4:18)

Paul speaks of the future and Christ’s Second Coming to encourage the Church, to give it hope, and to remind us that God keeps His promises. We can have hope, because its source is God. Our ultimate aim is to be with God forever. Through what Christ has done we can have this hope. And on this Remembrance Sunday , we remember and give thanks for those who have gone before us and we encourage each other as a community.

In today’s Gospel Jesus continues His teaching about the Kingdom. Normally He says that, ‘The Kingdom of Heaven IS like…’ whereas in this passage He says, ‘the Kingdom of Heaven will be like…’ Jesus is teaching about the future, a future reality which will come to be, rather than something which is already the case. This future reality is His return. Christians believe that Jesus will come again to judge the world. 

The parable pictures this as the return of the bridegroom. The problem is that half of the virgins were not prepared and did not have spare oil to keep their lamps lit. The bridegroom has been  delayed and the virgins have become drowsy, and have fallen asleep. When the bridegroom eventually arrives half of them are not ready, and have to go to buy oil. They therefore miss meeting the Bridegroom and so are shut out of the marriage feast. This may sound harsh, but Jesus tells the parable to warn us to be prepared, to be vigilant. 

The point of the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, is that we will not know when Jesus will return, so we need to be ready to greet Him when He comes. This is not just to be ready in practical terms, but also in spiritual ones. How are we ready to meet Jesus? Are we living out our faith in our lives? Have we got things ‘in order’? Just as wisdom comes with age, so we can use our lives to prepare. Such preparations are wise, and a joint effort: we can prepare together. That is what the Church exists for: to help us to get ready to meet Jesus. 

There are two inescapable facts in our readings this morning: first that our earthly lives are finite, they will come to an end, and secondly that Jesus has promised that He will return. Death and Judgement may not be something that we like to think about, but they will happen, and we cannot, if we are serious, simply live our lives as though neither will take place. Many in the world around us live this way. Is it wise? Not at all, it is the opposite of wisdom.At this time ofRemembrance we, therefore, also reflect on our own mortality and the way in which we are living our lives and what we are doing for those in need.

To be prepared means to know what we are facing and to be ready for it. It is a mark of spiritual maturity that we can contemplate such things without fear. If we are prepared then we have lived out our faith, and we know that the God who will judge us is a God of love and mercy. God died for love of us, and to give us the hope of eternal life with Him. This is the Heavenly Marriage Feast which we, as Christians, look forward to.

If our lives are characterised by Faith, Hope, and Love, there is no need for fear. The world around us is scared of Death and Judgement, because it has no hope of eternal life. The promises of the world are empty, whereas what Jesus promises us is real, and is for everyone who turns to Him. This is Good News, in fact it is the best news possible! Our life on earth is meant to be a prelude to an eternity with God. This is what we believe and hope for as followers of Christ.

If what we believe in our hearts and how we live our lives are in perfect synchronisation with each other, then we need have no fear, as the promise of sharing in Christ’s Resurrection is there for us. We do not need to be anxious, and we can get on with the business of living our lives secure in our faith. This is what it means to be a wise virgin with a lit lamp and a flask of oil, ready to meet our Lord . This is the purpose of the parable: to warn us in advance so that we can be prepared and not be surprised, so that we can be wise. We can therefore be lamps of faith in a dark world, ready to shine love, and hope on those around us.

May our lamps of faith be filled with oil so that they may burn brightly to the honour of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

The Feast of All Saints (Mt 5:1-12)

“God has a plan for your life!” You may well have heard these words before, possibly from someone preaching a sermon, but they contain a truth, and are found in the Bible, in words that God speaks through the prophet Jeremiah:

For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. (Jer 29:11)

It can be hard to hold onto promises such as these, especially when times are difficult and the outlook is bleak. We need to ask ourselves the question, ‘Can we trust God?’ If the answer is ‘Yes’ then, whatever difficulties or hardships may come our way, we know that our future is in safe hands.

Our Christian life begins with Baptism, where we are washed with water in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Through Baptism we share in Christ’s Death and Resurrection, and are raised to new life in Him. We receive the Holy Spirit, Faith, Hope, and Love, and we are marked with the sign of the Cross to show that we belong to Christ. These are all manifestations of God’s Grace, unmerited kindness and generosity, but they are given for a reason. They are given to us so that we may love God and serve Him in this life, and be with Him in the next. Fundamentally, the point of being a Christian is to reside in Heaven. This is possible because of what Jesus Christ has done for us, out of love. This is the plan God has for our life, and this is why Jesus became man, lived, and died, and rose from the dead. God shows us both how to live, and what He has in store for us. We can have faith, and put our trust in a God who loves us. In the clear hope that, after our earthly life is over, we may enjoy eternity with God in Heaven. Most of all, in this hope, we can live lives of love, love of God and of each other, foreshadowing eternal heavenly joys. 

In our current culture we are not used to hearing this message. It sounds strange. We tend to think that holiness is for other people, certainly not us. But God wants each and every one of us to become a saint. He wants us to live in a world full of people trying to be saints. The Church is ‘a school for saints’, in which Christians try to live out their faith, cooperating with the grace of God. We do this when we let Christ live in us, so that we can say with the Apostle Paul:

‘It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.’ (Gal 2:20)

There is a paradox at work here, for when we truly let Christ live in us, we do not lose ourselves, but instead we find who we really are. We can then be the people God wants us to be, the people we were created to be. As Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel:

For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Mt 16:25)

Today the Church celebrates the Feast of All Saints. On this day, in the eighth century AD, Pope Gregory III dedicated a chapel to All Saints in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It is a good thing to celebrate the fact that Heaven is full of saints, the Church Triumphant, who spend eternity praising God and praying for us. Just as we pray for our friends here on earth, it stands to reason that our friends in Heaven pray for us as well. It is reassuring to know that we are not alone in our quest to reach Heaven, and to know that those who are already there long for us to join them. 

If Heaven is our goal, how thenshould we live our lives on earth? Thankfully today’s Gospel gives us a template to follow, an example of what a Christian life looks like. 

The Sermon on the Mount (The Beatitudes) begins with the words which we have just read. It is important to notice that Jesus goes up a mountain to teach people. This brings to mind Moses ascending Mt Sinai and receiving the Ten Commandments of the Law. At one level what we have here is a New Law, a new way to understand how we should relate to God and to each other. It is a radical vision, which turns human expectations on their head. 

We constantly hear how the world around us values success and confidence, and looks up to the rich, and the powerful. In contrast to this, Jesus says to the gathered crowd:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5:3)

‘Poor in spirit’ is not a term we are used to using, but it means the exact opposite of pride. It places humility as key to living a Christian life: knowing who we are, and our need for God. Only if we rely upon God, and not ourselves, and ask Him to work through us can we truly live out the Christian life. 

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Mt 5:4)

We mourn those we love, those whom we see no longer in this life, because we love them, we miss them, we want to see them, and hold them, and talk to them. Our parting, while temporary, is still very painful. Thankfully the Kingdom of God, which Christ comes to bring, is a place of healing and comfort with the promise of eternal life. 

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Mt 5:5)

Gentle people are not weak: they know how to use their strength, and how not to use it. As Jesus will later say in Matthew’s Gospel: ‘Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.’ (Mt 11:29). This is how God wants us to live as human beings. Christ is the example of gentleness we must follow. Once again, God’s vision of the future turns human expectations upside down. 

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” (Mt 5:6)

Should we be devoted to God? Absolutely! Should we pray that His will is done on earth as it is in Heaven? Of course! Jesus taught us to pray this way. Our faith should influence how we live our lives, so that we work for the coming of God’s Kingdom here on earth. Clearly God wants to see our world transformed and has invited us to help in the process; and doing so gives us fulfilment.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” (Mt 5:7)

We see what God’s mercy looks like in Christ’s death for us on the Cross. In following Christ’s example, we ask for forgiveness for our own sins, and forgive those who sin against us. This forgiveness can transform us and the world around us, and it is how the healing and reconciliation of God’s Kingdom functions. 

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Mt 5:8)

To be pure in heart is to want what God wants: to align our will with the will of God. It is to be saintly, and thus have the promise of Heaven, which is less of a place or a time, and much more a relationship. To see God is know Him, and to know His love for us. This is what Christ comes to restore to humanity, and it is our hope. 

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” (Mt 5:9)

First and foremost, we know that Christ is the Son of God because He made ‘peace by the blood of his cross’ (Colossians 1:20). We too are called to follow Christ’s example and take up our Cross, and work for peace. Peace in our own hearts and lives, in our families and communities and in our world.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” (Mt 5:10-11)

Following Jesus will not make us popular, often quite the opposite. If, however, we want to see God’s Kingdom as a reality in this life and the next, then we must be prepared to be shunned, or even ridiculed by others. To follow Christ is to take up the Cross, and to expect persecution, and false accusation. But we are not alone in this, Christ has gone before us, showing us that the story does not end with death on a Cross, but the glory of the Resurrection and Eternal life. 

If we want to become saints, then we have to be like Christ, share in His suffering and death, be prepared to be rejected by the world, and dismissed as irrelevant. We may not face imprisonment, torture and death in this country, but many Christians around the world do. However, we may be scorned and ignored, or patronised. What do we do in such circumstances? We are called to be loving, generous, and forgiving, because that is what Jesus has shown us. We can be different to the world around us because we belong to a new community, the community of faith, built on our relationship with Jesus Christ, who came to save humanity from itself. He came that we might have life and have it to the full, and that is what the Beatitudes mean. By living the life of God’s Kingdom here and now, we can live the life of Heaven here on earth. It may sound foolish, but it is what God wants us to do, what Jesus showed us to do. We are called to be fools for God.

So let us, on this feast of All Saints, be filled with courage, and be ready to conform our lives to God’s will and live out our baptism and our faith in the world. May we  live the life of the Kingdom together, and encourage others in order that all may join the choirs of Heaven to sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

30th Sunday of Year A

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 readings. Our first reading from Exodus goes into detail regarding how we should treat others. Questions such as how we should we live and how we treat the weak and the marginalised are important as they demonstrate how we put our faith into practice in our lives. 

Sojourners are temporary residents, refugees, and as such they live in a precarious situation: they lack rights that citizens have and thus are weak and powerless. They can be easily mistreated. A society can, and will, be judged by how it treats those who are weak. Likewise widows and orphans are in a vulnerable position. Clear instructions are given by Moses to safeguard the poor, the economically vulnerable, who are not to be exposed to interest or lose the cloak off their back. 

All human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, and are thus imbued with a fundamental dignity, and with rights. This is the foundation of human society, and it is the will of God. Any society must be judged on how it treats the weak, the vulnerable, the marginalised, and the poor. These words remain as true for us today as when they were spoken three thousand years ago. They should cause us to reflect on how the society in which we live functions. Are we loving and generous towards the weak and vulnerable? 

Love and generosity are at the heart of St Paul’s advice to the Thessalonian Christians. As he says to them:

But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children.’ (1Thess 2:7)

Paul’s treatment of people mirrors God’s treatment of us. Loving care and generosity are at the heart of the proclamation of the Christian Faith. Paul lives his faith out in practice, nourishing his offspring, and helping them to grow in faith and love. 

In today’s Gospel the questioning of Jesus in the Temple continues. The Pharisees send a legal expert to put Jesus to the test, to see whether His understanding of the Law of Moses is correct. And so the lawyer asks:

Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” (Mt 22:36)

There are 613 commandments contained within Genesis to Deuteronomy, the first five books of the Bible. Clearly the question of which is the most important should be answered. And so Jesus replies:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Mt 22:37-40)

The first commandment Jesus mentions can be found in Deuteronomy 6:5. It forms part of the Shema, which begins, ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one…’. This is recited every morning and evening by Jews when they pray. It defines who God is, and how we should relate to Him. We are to love God because God loves us and cares for us. God’s love makes demands of us, and requires all that we are, or think, or do to be motivated by love of God. 

Jesus then adds a second commandment, taken from Leviticus 19:18, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ This means loving our neighbours and ourselves as God loves us, with the same costly and generous love that our Creator has for us. 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 God 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. It is the work of a community and the work of a lifetime to put this love into practice in our lives. It sounds deceptively simple, but is very hard when we try to do it. We will fail, but the point is that God does not stop loving us, so we should not stop trying to love our God, our neighbour, or ourselves. 

Soon in the Gospel narrative Jesus will be tried and sentenced to die upon a Cross. This will, in fact, be the greatest demonstration possible of God’s love for humanity. Jesus shows us how much God loves His people by dying for them. Love is at the heart of Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God, and it is central to His understanding of Scripture, “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Mt 22:40). Our relationship with God and each other informs both who we are and how we act. 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 love and 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.

Then it is Jesus’ turn to ask questions of the Pharisees, and so He asks about the Messiah, whom the Pharisees identify as the Son of David. This leads Him to ask: 

How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying,

“‘The Lord said to my Lord,

Sit at my right hand,

    until I put your enemies under your feet’?

If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” (Mt 22:43-45)

Jesus uses the Pharisees’ way of interpreting Scripture against them. As Christians we understand that Jesus is Lord, He is God, Son of God, and Son of David. Jesus puts an end to the questions and tests his inquisitors by showing who and what He is, something He will further demonstrate in His Passion, Death and Resurrection. 

God demonstrates His love for us, so that we be transformed by that love, filled with it, so that it can affect who we are and how we live. We live it out together, as a community, strengthening each other, building each other up in love, praying for our needs and those of the whole world. To do this we rely upon the God who loves us, and who gives Himself for us, transforming us 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 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. Amen. 

29th Sunday of Yr A

Our first reading this morning from the prophet Isaiah is positive and hopeful. The people of Israel have been in captivity in Babylon for 70 years, but now there is the possibility of freedom . The Persian King, Cyrus will let the exiles return to Jerusalem, and rebuild the Temple. The passage is a testament to the sovereignty of God:

I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God’ (Isa 45:5)

God can use a secular ruler, such as Cyrus, to bring about the flourishing and freedom of His people. However, as much as we can respect authority, it is clear that our first duty is towards God, to love Him, and serve Him.

This is exactly what the original recipients of Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians have been doing. They have ‘turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come’ (1Thess 1:9-10). 

Our gospel this morning is all about a denarius, it is a small silver coin, about ¾ of an inch in diameter, the size of a modern 5p, or a penny. It was a day’s wage, the pay given to the labourers in the vineyard. A denarius was worth about £75 in today’s money and was the cost of the Roman Poll Tax. It’s amazing that such a small coin could have such a great value.

The conflict with religious authorities which has characterised our recent readings from the Gospel continues today with a wrangle over words. The Pharisees come to see Jesus with their students along with Herodians, supporters of Herod the Great, who were very much in favour of Roman rule. 

The Pharisees begin the conversation with flattery, trying to butter Jesus up:

“Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances.” (Mt 22:16) 

And at one level they are completely right, Jesus is not interested in opinions or appearances. What matters is reality: how you really are, in all truth and honesty. This is what matters to God, not how we appear, but how we really are. 

So the Pharisees ask their question:

“Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Mt 22:17)

If Jesus says, ‘no’ then He will be allying himself with the zealots, religious extremists, and making a provocative political statement for which Jesus can be denounced to the authorities. On the other hand, if Jesus says, ‘yes’ then the Pharisees can write Him off as a collaborator with the Romans, and show that He is not one of us, not a real prophet, or a true son of Israel. All the Pharisees are interested in is understanding what Jesus says in political terms. Their opening pleasantries ring hollow, they don’t mean what they say. The point of their question is not to discover the truth, but to discover a way to denounce Jesus as either a zealot or a collaborator.

Thankfully, Our Lord is aware of their scheme, and so asks them,

“Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. (Mt 22:18-19)

Silver denarius of Tiberius

Jesus can see through their scheme, and subverts it, to serve His purpose, to  announce the Kingdom of God. Jesus asks the Pharisees to show Him a coin. He does not have one Himself, either because of poverty or because of the image on the coins. On one side of the coin is the head , and an inscription which reads ‘Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the god Augustus,’ On the other side the is an image of Jupiter seated on a throne and the end of the inscription, ‘High Priest.’ So the Pharisees bring Jesus the coin, and He asks,

“Whose likeness and inscription is this?” (Mt 22:20)

The Pharisees answer ‘Caesar’s’ leads to this reply from Jesus:

Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mt 22:21)

Whereas the Pharisees come filled with malice, and with a desire to catch Him out, Jesus instead uses this as an opportunity to show them the proper order of things. You should pay your taxes but also give to God what is owed to Him. That is a heart filled with love, love of God and love of each other. Living a life of offering which proclaims this love in the service of others and through the worship of Almighty God. This is where real power lies, and this is the truly subversive aspect of Jesus’ teaching. He proclaims in the Temple in Jerusalem, in the very heart of the religious establishment, in order to show people how to live, and live life to the full. Paying a Roman tax with a Roman coin is perfectly fine, but what matters much more is rendering to God the things that are God’s.

Jesus takes a trap and turns it into a teaching opportunity. The Pharisees wanted to dismiss Him as either a militant or a Roman stooge, but Jesus uses the situation to demonstrate the Kingdom of God in action. In His gentleness, His mockery of their pride and arrogance, Jesus shows the Pharisees how foolish they are. They claim to follow the Law, but have forgotten what its Spirit is. We may owe secular powers our taxes, but we owe God everything. He created us, and all that exists. 

Jesus is asking us all a difficult question. What do you and I, all of us, render to God in our personal lives? If we claim to be disciples, then what does that actually mean in the way that we speak and act?

We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our mind, and with all our strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves (Mt 22:37-40). We are to be generous, forgiving and kind, to the point of extravagance, because that is how God has been to us. It is a radically different way of living which demonstrates that while we are in this world, we are not of it. Instead, we render to God the worship which is His by right, not just in church, but in all of our lives.

Thus as Christians we follow a different set of rules, which give us lives of freedom. In the power of the Holy Spirit the Truth can be proclaimed, the truth which sets us free from the ways of the world, free to love and serve God. This liberty can be seen in the lives of the Thessalonian Christians to whom St Paul writes. Rather than worshipping idols, they labour for the living and true God, they are an example to Christians of how to live. Their lives proclaim the truth which they serve. 

Jesus is opposed to either the collaboration of the Herodians or the rigourist harshness of the Pharisees, and instead proclaims the freedom and love of the Kingdom of God. It is a place of welcome: the image is that of the wedding feast to which all people are invited. People are too busy or preoccupied to come; others just don’t want to be invited: they mistreat the people who invite them. But this does not stop the invitation being offered to all, it still is. It is why we are here today. We join the Wedding Feast and are nourished by Word and Sacrament, so that we can be strengthened in love and in faith, to proclaim the reality of the Kingdom of God. We are called to be an example to others and to draw them in to the loving embrace of God: to be healed and restored by Him. Because of what God has done for us, we are able to render to God the things that are God’s: lives characterised by the love and generosity which are at the heart of the Gospel. This is what really matters: living the life of the Kingdom here and now. 

Let us therefore come to Him, to be healed and renewed, strengthened, and built up in love, so that we 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. Amen. 

27th Sunday of year A

There have been a lot of vineyards in our readings recently. Jesus has just told a parable about labourers in a vineyard, which we heard two weeks ago, and now, this morning, two of our readings are all about vineyards. They are important things: they grow grapes which make juice and wine, which people drink. But more than that, at a symbolic level, the vineyard stands for Israel, the land of God’s chosen people. The metaphor of the vineyard allows both Isaiah and Jesus to talk about Israel and their relationship with God. They do not have much to say that is good. Our readings are sad, difficult, hard readings, which tell us the truth about falling short of what God expects of us, His people, who have been made in His image and likeness.

In our first reading today, the prophet Isaiah sings a love-song for his beloved, that is, God, who plants a vineyard on a hill, having prepared the soil and cleared away the stones. These actions are all signs of love and care. God defends the vineyard with a watchtower to give advanced notice of attack. There is also a vat in which to make wine out of the grapes. However, the grapes are wild, but wild grapes are weeds, which grow more vigorously, and their fruit is sour, not sweet. You cannot make good wine from sour grapes. This prophecy speaks of Israel being abandoned and destroyed. This is because God expects justice, but instead, is faced with bloodshed. God looks for righteousness, but instead, finds an outcry. The Hebrew for each pair of words is similar, so the prophet is using wordplay to make the point more strongly. Israel needs to repent, to turn back to God and follow His ways. 

The situation with the Phillipian Christians in our second reading is the complete opposite, and comes as a welcome relief. Here people are living how God wants them to and they are flourishing. They do not need to be anxious, or to worry about anything, as they can ask God in prayer for their needs. Their lives are characterised by peace which passeth all understanding. This is the same peace which I pray for all of us in the blessing at the end of this morning’s service. This peace is meant to characterise our life together as Christians: it how we are supposed to live together.

The apostle then finishes this section of his letter with some encouragement:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practise these things, and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8-9)

These are good words to live by. They show us how we can flourish, following the example set by St Paul. Indeed, that is how Christianity helps us to lead our lives: we are shown a good example, and we follow it. That is how the faith has been transmitted for two thousand years, and will continue in the future, through the sharing of good examples. We can do this, together, as a Christian community, and in so doing, bear much fruit.

In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus continues to teach in the Temple, after His Triumphal entry on Palm Sunday. He has told the parable about labourers in a vineyard, and the parable of the two sons, and now He recited a parable about a vineyard and a son. Jesus sets the scene in a way which clearly refers to the prophecy of Isaiah which we have just heard. The chief priests and elders would have known the prophecy which Jesus was referring to. This parable has a number of servants being sent to collect the fruit:

And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than at first. And they did the same to them. (Mt 21:35-36)

This is a description of how Israel acts towards prophets, such as Isaiah. Despite telling the truth and telling the people God’s word, they are mistreated and killed. Again and again the prophets call God’s people to repentance, to turn back to the Lord, and they are ignored and mistreated. As a result, God sends His Son. As the parable continues:

Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. (Mt 21 37-39)

Here Jesus is prophesying His own death. Soon, despite having just been welcomed into Jerusalem as the Messiah, Jesus will see the crowds turn against Him.Encouraged by the chief priests and elders (who are listening to this parable) the people will call for Jesus’ Death. 

At the conclusion of the parable, Jesus asks the religious authorities what God will do, and they answer Him:

When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.” (Mt 21:40-41)

Their answer is telling. The chief priests understand what is going on,  and that their actions will have consequences. Finally Jesus quotes from the Psalms (Ps 118:22) to explain the situation:

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: “‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits.” (Mt 21:42-3)

Just like the prophet Isaiah earlier, Jesus uses clever word-play to reinforce His theme. Isaiah makes the point that the words for justice and bloodshed, and righteousness and an outcry are similar. Likewise, the Hebrew words for stone (eben, as in Ebenezer) and son (ben, as in Benjamin) are very similar, there is only one letter difference.

Jesus uses the Psalms to reinforce His interpretation of Isaiah. He is letting His listeners know that He must be rejected, suffer, and die. Jesus also makes clear  that salvation is now not solely for Israel, but also for the Gentiles, and in fact for anyone who produces the fruit that God desires them to produce. This is the Christian proclamation in a nutshell.

Despite being aware of what is going on, the religious authorities do nothing to avert the possible calamity. They are unwilling, or unable to stop it. That is a definition of tragedy. And yet, something wonderful is about to happen:

“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)

Despite Jesus’ rejection and death, it is God’s love and forgiveness that are being proclaimed to the world. The Kingdom of God is a place of reconciliation, where wounds are healed, and lives are restored. Love is the core of our faith: God’s love for us, and our love for each other and for God. This is how God transforms the world: through LOVE. God so loved the world, a world which He created, and restored, and redeemed. We, here, are living proof of that love, and we are given the task of tending the Lord’s vineyard. How can we live out that same generous love in our own lives? We need to work together, nourished by Word and Sacrament, and live lives of love and forgiveness. We are called to proclaim God’s love to the world, and to invite others to enter the joy of the Lord so that we all may sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen.

Diego Velazquez, The Crucifixion, 19632, Museo del Prado, Madrid

26th Sunday of Year A : Who do we want to be?

I would like to begin this morning by asking a simple question, ‘Have you ever said that you would do something, and then have not done it?’ I imagine that the answer is yes, because we all have broken promises. I know that I have. I also know that I’m very sorry for having done so, and I have asked God for forgiveness, and I am trying not to do it again. 

In our first reading this morning, the prophet Ezekiel lays out two possibilities before us: 

When a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it; for the injustice that he has done he shall die. Again, when a wicked person turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he shall save his life (Ezek 18: 26-7)

In other words it is better to be a repentant sinner than a self-righteous one. Repentance is the key: turning away from evil to do good. Indeed the proclamation of both John the Baptist and Jesus was the same: ‘Repent and believe the Good News’. The message is a consistent one. We need to stop going the wrong way, and change direction. We need to go the way God wants us to, so that we can flourish as human beings, loved by God. This means that we will need to ask for, give, and receive forgiveness. We cannot keep score or remember past wrongs. To live lives of repentance and forgiveness is difficult, and we need God’s help, because we cannot do it on our own. 

Our second reading continues Paul’s advice to Christians in Philippi on how to live a Christian life. The key to it all is Love, God’s love for us, and our love of God and each other. As Christians we receive the Holy Spirit in Baptism and Confirmation making us part of the Body of Christ. Paul encourages the Philippians to be unified in faith. This is the same unity which Christ prays for in John 17, just before His arrest. As Christians we should be free from competition or self-importance, which are manifestations of pride. Instead, we should be united and loving, putting others first. This is the key to humility, something which Christ exemplifies, and it is demonstrated in the words of the hymn which forms part of the second reading from the Letter to the Philippians. Christ became man and was born of the Virgin Mary. In coming to share our human life, Christ shows God’s humility by living amongst us as one of us. Christ’s life leads to His Death on the Cross. The Crucifixion was the ultimate humiliation, the punishment of a slave and a criminal. Yet, because it is the ultimate demonstration of God’s love for us, it is paradoxically something in which we, as Christians, rejoice. The Cross is central to our faith. It is the moment of God’s triumph over sin, over the world, and over death.

Paul quotes from the prophet Isaiah to reinforce the fact that Jesus is God:

‘To me every knee shall bow,

    every tongue shall swear allegiance.’ (Isa 45:23)

To say that ‘Jesus is Lord’ may not seem strange to us, nowadays. Two thousand years ago things were different. The phrase implies His Divinity, that Jesus is God. To say this is to make quite a political statement, as it was a title which Roman emperors were keen to adopt: they wanted to be seen and worshipped as gods. While Christ has no need of earthly power, human rulers tend to view such titles as important. If we are saying, ‘Jesus is Lord’ then, at one level, we are saying that Caesar isn’t. Whilst this may not seem important now, such a declaration has led to the martyrdom of many Christians over the centuries . 

In this morning’s gospel, Jesus is talking to the chief priests and elders. These are the religious leaders of His day, the people tasked with guiding the people of Israel in their relationship with God. Jesus has entered Jerusalem in triumph, and cast out the money-changers from the Temple, and cursed a fig tree for not bearing fruit. What we are witnessing in the Gospel is a religious reform. Those who are supposed to have brought people closer to God are to be understood as resistant and rebellious; they are the problem rather than the solution. 

Jesus begins by asking the chief priests and elders a question: ‘What do you think?’ These simple words speak profoundly of the freedom given to humanity by God. We are not forced, but rather invited, to engage in a conversation, God does not compel us. In the parable of the two sons, clearly the one who overcame his initial reluctance and actually did the will of his father, and worked in the vineyard, is the example for us to follow. This son experiences repentance, and changes his behaviour to do what is best for him. He is not a hypocrite; he is just stubborn, rebellious, and disobedient — but the important thing is that he repents.

The other son begins with an outward show of respect: he appears to be a dutiful son, addressing his father as Sir, but he is basically a hypocrite, as his actions do not match his words. True obedience is not in outward displays of respect, but in doing the will of God. The chief priests and elders have rejected Jesus and soon will be calling out for His death. They will take the Messiah, the one who could save them from their sins, and kill him. What greater turning away from God could there be?

Tax-collectors and prostitutes were seen as the lowest of the low in society: the first were viewed as swindlers, the second as sexually immoral. Both were on good terms with the Romans, they were certainly not the kind of company a religiously observant Jew would keep. And yet, despite their sins, they are willing to repent. They are aware of their need for God, and they understand that God loves them, and will heal their wounds, and welcome them into His kingdom. The religious authorities are condemned by their own lips. By recognising that it is more important to do the will of God rather than simply to say that you will, they highlight their own hypocrisy. They have been told by John the Baptist what God wants, but they have ignored him, and now when Jesus tells them the same message they will also ignore Him. 

Are we then, here today, going to follow the example of the self-righteous and make an outward show of our closeness to God, while refusing to repent of our sins? Or are we going to be like the tax collectors and prostitutes, who know their need of God, who know their own shortcomings? They believe and trust in God, want to be healed by Him, and turn away from all that separates them from God. I hope and pray that we will be like the latter rather the former. 

To show His love, God gave himself for us, upon the Cross. On the hill of Calvary, Jesus Christ is both Priest and Victim. This same sacrifice will become as present here this morning as it did outside Jerusalem 2000 years ago. God will give Himself to us in His Body and His Blood, under the outward forms of bread and wine, to heal us, to draw us  closer to Him, to show us how much He loves us. So then let us taste and see how gracious the Lord is, and most of all, let us do the will of our Father in Heaven. Let us turn away from what we have been and conform ourselves to the will of God. Let us fed by Him, strengthened by Him, forgiven by Him, to be built up as a living temple to His glory. So that we, and all creation, may be free to sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen.

Diego Velázquez, The Crucifixion, 1632, Museo del Prado, Madrid

25th Sunday of Yr A – The Labourers in the Vineyard

Our readings this morning all have something of a paradoxical quality to them. Both the Scriptures, and the Christian concept of God, are rooted in paradox. The ability to hold two contradictory views should be impossible and yet it is not. There is a good reason for this: God is a mystery, knowable, yet hidden; understandable, yet beyond our grasp. It can be a struggle to understand these paradoxes. Whilst this struggle is part of the process of coming to know God, we also have accept the fact that our mental efforts can never be enough, we simply have to experience the mystery.

The prophet Isaiah proclaims the Divine message to bring Israel back to God: 

“Seek the Lord while he may be found;

    call upon him while he is near;

let the wicked forsake his way,

    and the unrighteous man his thoughts;” (Isa 55:6-7)

The message is clear and simple. There is a right way to live and a wrong way. The prophets exist to proclaim God’s message, to call people back:

let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him,

    and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. (Isa 55:7)

God longs to treat humanity with compassion, and to forgive our human failings. God is a God of love and mercy, both in the Old Testament and in the New. There is a consistent message of how God creates everything, sees that it is good, and loves what He has made. God is generous and loving because that is who God is. God cannot be otherwise. 

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,

    neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord (Isa 55:8)

If God were to think in a human way then all we could expect would be punishment for having sinned and fallen short of what is expected of us. However, God is a God of justice and mercy, and so we can put our hope in His love to heal and restore us. God is generous and loving, to an extent that we, as humans, cannot even imagine:

For as the heavens are higher than the earth,

    so are my ways higher than your ways

    and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isa 55:9)

We are able to experience the mystery of God’s love through the Church and her Sacraments, which are effective signs of grace that manifest God’s generous love in the world. This is just a part of the mystery of God’s love for us which we can never fully comprehend, this side of heaven. 

In our second reading this morning, St Paul is writing to the first Christian community he founded in Europe. He is under house arrest in Rome, facing a trial and execution. It is a joyful letter, arguably his most joyful letter, despite being written as Paul faces martyrdom. This year many people around the world have had to face imminent death because of the virus which currently grips our planet. As a society we have become more afraid of death and dying and the subject of our own end is something many of us would prefer not to think about. For Paul,

to live is Christ, and to die is gain (Phil 1:21)

Paul is saying that if he lives, he will live in Christ, and he will proclaim the truth of the Gospel with his words and with his deeds. Paul believes that if he dies it is gain, because his death will bear witness to Christ, having shared in Christ’s suffering and death. Paul has hope in the resurrection to eternal life in Christ. In writing to the Church in Philippi Paul is able to be with them despite being 800 miles away. He wants to be encouraged by the fact that the Philippian Christians are living out their faith, and putting it into practice in their lives. At the same time, Paul is keen to share his hope, and, at the climax of his letter, states:

But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (Phil 3:20-21)

As Christians, we can be encouraged by the knowledge that Heaven is our true home. We can have this hope through the mercy and love of God. This is not something that we can deserve or earn, rather it is a manifestation of God’s generous love.

In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus continues His teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven with the Parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard. God’s Kingdom is a place where human values are turned on their head: 

So the last will be first, and the first last. (Mt 20:16)

This is why the first labourers to be paid are those who have only worked for just one hour. By the time the labourers who have worked the full twelve hours come to be paid they expect to be given more, although they agreed on the standard wage for their day’s labour. The parable is fundamentally about salvation. Salvation is a gift from God and not a reward for work done by humanity. We cannot earn it, we have to receive it from a loving and generous God. Likewise there are no grades of salvation and there are no classes of Christian, we are all one. Jesus’ Jewish audience believed that the Jews were God’s chosen people, and this could lead to the perception of Gentiles and converts as something lesser. But such a view is opposed to the values of the Kingdom of God where all are equal. 

This equality is a radical statement by Jesus. It is a clear declaration that God’s grace is abundant and inexhaustible, and freely offered to all who accept it. 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. Though I serve God and His people as a priest, I was not chosen for this role by having been a better Christian in the first place. Clergy are not superior Christians, all the baptized are equal in the sight of God. This morning’s gospel reminds us of the important truth that salvation is the free gift of God, which we receive in our Baptism and is strengthened through the Sacraments of the Church. We cannot earn our way to heaven!

We often forget that heaven is full of sinners, who are loved by God and who love God, and trust in His mercy and His forgiveness. The more we experience and understand the overwhelming love and generosity of God, the more marvellous it becomes. To repeat the prophet Isaiah, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, His ways are not our ways. 

As Christians we need to respond to God’s generous love and if we are to be truly thankful then our thankfulness should affect who we are and how we live our daily lives. We need to live as people who are loved and forgiven, and who, in turn, show love and forgiveness to those around us. This is difficult for us to do on our own, but thankfully we live in a community called the Church where we give and receive forgiveness. Here we are fed by Word and Sacrament, so that we can strengthen and encourage one another, through prayer and acts of charity, to live the truth of the gospel in our lives. So that we, and all creation, may be free to sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen.

Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard: Workers on the field, Codex aureus Epternacensis, fol. 76f, detail 

Twenty fourth Sunday of Year A

I would like to begin this morning by reading some words of Metropolitan Anthony Bloom (1914-2003) the Russian Orthodox Metropolitan of Great Britain and Ireland, a great, wise, and holy writer. His words on forgiveness speak beautifully to the themes of our readings this morning:

Judgement would hold nothing but terror for us if we had no sure hope of forgiveness. And the gift of forgiveness itself is implicit in God’s and people’s love. Yet it is not enough to be granted forgiveness, we must be prepared to accept it. We must consent to be forgiven by an act of daring faith and generous hope, welcome the gift humbly, as a miracle which love alone, love human and divine, can work, and forever be grateful for its gratuity, its restoring, healing, reintegrating power. We must never confuse forgiving with forgetting, or imagine that these two things go together. Not only do they not belong together, they are mutually exclusive. To wipe out the past has little to do with constructive, imaginative, fruitful forgiveness; the only thing that must go, be erased from the past, is its venom; the bitterness, the resentment, the estrangement; but not the memory.

Anthony of Sourozh, Creative Prayer, 2004: 72. 

Our life on earth is finite, it will come to an end. In the meantime, we need to ask ourselves how we want to live our lives. Do we want to do so in anger, bitterness, resentment, and jealousy? I’d hope not. Such things are not good for the soul. 

Our first reading this morning addresses these questions. Ben Sirach, the writer of Ecclesiasticus, knew a great deal about the human condition and the book forms part of the Wisdom tradition of Scripture: wise advice for humanity. Nowadays, many people seem to think that sexual sin is all that matters to God. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sin gnaws away at us, in many ways. It can dim, and even extinguish, the spark of divine life which we receive in our baptism. Sin is a serious business and it affects us, both as individuals and in our life together. It is a subject which should concern us all, because it affects us all.

Anger, wrath, and the desire for vengeance are, by their very nature, corrosive things . They eat us up, growing like a bitter cancer inside us. We often try to repress these strong emotions, but they can erupt in outbursts, or as calculated passive aggression. Is there a way to stop this happening? Yes, there is, and we are told how in our first reading: 

Forgive your neighbour the wrong he has done,

    and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray (Sir 28:2)

If we want to be forgiven then we have to forgive. It is as simple as that! But there is no room for any half-measures, we cannot hang on to a bit, we need to forgive fully. Can we do this on our own? No, we need to do it as a community, a community which relies upon God to assist us. Only with God’s help, and in His strength can we live lives of forgiveness. 

There is very similar advice in this morning’s second reading from the Letter to the Romans. Paul writes that we should not pass judgement — whether someone does something or not. The point is not what we do, but why we do what we do. Are we trying to honour God in our actions? That is what really matters. Are we learning to live as people of love, freed from all that hinders our common life together? 

If we consider, for a second, the fact that Christians have often been persecuted for their faith. They have even been sentenced to death for preferring Christ to the ways of the world, and yet these martyrs were not angry with their persecutors or even God. Instead they chose to live out the love and the forgiveness that they had received, and it was this powerful witness which has brought many others to believe and follow Christ. We are called to copy their example and to try live authentic lives together, by forgiving each other, and living in love. To do this we need to put aside any petty rivalries, squabbles, slights, and all the little everyday things which annoy us.

Forgiveness is at the heart of all three readings today, including Matthew’s Gospel where Peter asks Our Lord how many times he should forgive someone who sins against him. He wonders if it might be seven times, but Jesus replies, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times’. This answer looks back to the establishment of the jubilee year in Leviticus 25:8 – ‘You shall count seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the time of the seven weeks of years shall give you forty-nine years.’ The jubilee of the Old Covenant was all about the forgiveness of debts. This is made real in Jesus. In Him is the forgiveness and the renewal which Israel has longed for. It is radical and powerful forgiveness which can transform us, and the whole world. 

Jesus explains his message of forgiveness with the use of a parable. A dishonest servant who owes a debt which he cannot pay, begs for more time. His master, instead, cancels the whole debt. However, when faced with a debtor of his own, this same man fails to exhibit the mercy, the kindness which has been shown to him. For this he is rightly and justly punished, to show us who hear the parable that, as we beg God to forgive our sins, we need at the same time to forgive the sins of others. Just like the man in the parable, we too are all dishonest servants, we all owe God a debt which we cannot pay, but God releases us from our debt. But, despite having been forgiven so much by God we still fail to be loving and forgiving to each other. The point is not to make us feel bad about ourselves, but to remind us of how much God loves us, and to encourage us to be loving in return. This is how we should live as human beings, loving and forgiving each other. This is how we can flourish as individuals and as a Christian community. 

The world around us often tells us be angry and to feel aggrieved. When we pick up a newspaper, or turn on a radio or television, or look at the Internet, we usually find news reported in such a way as to provoke a variety of negative emotions. We are encouraged to feel angry, sad, or even afraid. There are many things out there right now to make us feel this way. Such judgement is clearly condemned by this morning’s readings. Being surrounded by a judgemental news culture makes it harder for us to live as Christian people. Often, without thinking, we pick up a negative mindset as if by osmosis, it just seeps in, and before we know it we are thinking and speaking in a harsh judgemental way. It is hard to resist, and that is why Jesus tells us to forgive seventy times seven times, i.e., an uncountable number of times. But, to do so is very difficult indeed. We have to be vigilant not to we fall into patterns of behaviour which may decrease the fullness and happiness of our lives. We have to try together, as a Christian community, to live out the faith which we profess. We will, naturally, often fail in this, but we can always seek forgiveness from each other, and from God, and we can keep trying. 

The world may tell us that our endeavour is impossible, yet we know that, ‘with God all things are possible’ (Mt 19:26). These are not idle words, but a promise of Jesus that we can trust, and live out together, as a community of love and reconciliation — real, costly, and wonderful. That is why we celebrate the Cross of Christ: the fact that, for love of us, Jesus bore the weight of our sins upon Himself. He suffered and died for us, to show that there was no length to which God would not go to demonstrate, once and for all, what love and forgiveness truly mean. The Cross is our only hope, the one thing that can save us from ourselves, from all that divides and wounds and which separates us from each other and from God. It is our healing, our salvation, and our sanctification. Through the Cross we are saved and made free, to sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen

Twenty Third Sunday of Year A

The emergency services were not well-developed in the Ancient World. However, cities did have a night watch who functioned as a combination of a police force and fire brigade. It is to such an office that God appoints the prophet Ezekiel in this morning’s first reading. He is to be a night watchman, someone who is vigilant against fire and crime, someone concerned with safety and people’s well-being. Prophets exist to speak warnings to God’s people, to show them where they are going wrong and to show them how to get back on the right path. The role of a prophet is to call sinners to repent from their evil ways. Through the prophet God calls His people back to Him. Though people are, then as now, wayward they are given a chance to repent, to return to the ways of human flourishing. The choice is a stark one: life or death. It is important, and a lot depends upon the choices we make. This is why the central proclamation of the Church is to call God’s people to repentance: to turn away from sin, and to turn back to God. 

This week’s second reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans continues the Apostle’s advice on how Christians should live out their faith in their lives. Living a Christian life  is a difficult thing to do, and for two thousand years Christians have struggled to do it well. As followers of Christ we are called to love God and to love one another. Paul quotes from the Ten Commandments to make the point that the basis for the moral code found in the Mosaic Law is Love. If you love someone then you will not do such things to them. To love is to will the good of another, to make the right choice, one which leads to human flourishing.

Having shown the Church how to live, Paul widens his focus, to reinforce something we heard last week: 

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)

Paul can see the wider significance of what he is encouraging people to do. The Church knows that Jesus will come to judge the world, so Paul is encouraging Christians to live moral lives. The first Christians were surrounded by a decadent and morally corrupt society, justas we are today, and have been for two thousand years. Human nature is surprisingly consistent. We, however, are called to live differently. In our baptism, we put on Christ, and we were clothed with Him, sharing His Death, but we were also raised to new life in Him. We pray for the strength to live that new life, here and now! This is how we should prepare to meet our Redeemer, when He comes again.

How do we deal with problems as a church? This is an important and difficult question. This morning’s Gospel shows us how, in a number of clear simple steps. First we should approach the person in private. If they listen, and presumably admit their mistake and ask for forgiveness, or try to put things right, then that is an end to the matter. They are reconciled, and the matter is forgiven and forgotten. If this does not work, Paul instructs us to take one or two people, so that there are witnesses, and if this does not work, it becomes a matter for the church as a whole. If the person at fault still refuses to listen, they are excluded, not as a punishment, but so that they may have another opportunity to think things over, to admit that they are wrong, and to seek forgiveness and reconciliation. The point is not to cast people out, but to try and keep them in, and give them all possible opportunities to repent and be reconciled. In worldly terms this provision is generous. The church, which Christ founded, is meant to do things differently, as Jesus says:

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. (Jn 10:10)

God wants us all to have life in all its fulness, which includes healing and reconciliation. The world, however, often sees things in terms of punishment and retribution, whereas the church views things in terms of restoration. Our God is a God of justice and mercy. This is why Jesus goes to the Cross willingly, to bear our sins, and to heal our wounds. We cannot sort out the problem of our sin and woundedness on our own; if we could we would not need a Saviour. 

This is why Jesus reiterates His teaching about sin:

Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Mt 18: 18) 

This is a reality because of all that God has done for us in Christ. The Church exists to continue the redemptive work of God within the world. Through God’s forgiveness we can be truly reconciled and the healing, which can become a reality in our lives. Jesus says in the words which follow:

Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. (Mt 18:19)

Through God’s reconciliation we can make requests in prayer, and those requests will be answered. In addition, as a Christian community we can be encouraged by Christ’s presence in our midst:

For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them. (Mt 18:20)

Christ is among us, here and now! And we receive His Sacramental Presence in the Eucharist, His Very Flesh and Blood, so that He may transform us; so that we may have a foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet and be built up and strengthened in love, both here and now. We have the medicine for which our souls cry out. This is the healing which Christ accomplishes on the Cross, He longs to pour out His Love on us, so that we can know true freedom, true joy, and true love, in Him. So let us come to Him and let His Grace transform our lives, so that we, and all creation, may give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to who whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen. 

The Twenty-second Sunday of Year A

The vocation to be a prophet is not an easy one. Prophets are tasked with telling people the plain, unvarnished truth about God. Their words can be quite unpalatable. Most, if not all, of us would much rather not hear hard truths. Therefore it comes as no surprise that in our first reading this morning, the prophet Jeremiah is feeling rejected and miserable. He has been prophesying the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, but, because this has not yet happened, he is seen as a fraud. Jeremiah starts to doubt God, and yet there is a burning fire within himself to call God’s people to repentance. However, when he announces this he is mocked. Jeremiah feels let down. 

Last week we read Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. Following on from this, Jesus tells His disciples what must happen to Him:

He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. (Mt 16:21)

Jesus’ words must have come as something of a shock to the disciples. This isn’t what is supposed to happen to the Messiah, so Peter takes Jesus to one side and tells Him off! Peter cannot understand what needs to happen. He has forgotten prophecies like Isaiah 53 which tell of the Suffering Servant. Peter cannot take it in — he does not want Jesus’ prophetic words to take place. This is a very human response. We also don’t want such appalling things to happen. Then it is Peter’s turn to be told off. Jesus says to him:

“Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (Mt 16:23)

In just a couple of verses Peter has gone from being the rock upon which the church will be built, to being Satan, the deceiver, the devil, and a stumbling block. Peter has run the whole length of the spectrum, from getting things right to getting them totally wrong. There are no half-measures with Simon Peter. He jumps in with both feet. He may be right or wrong, but he is certainly committed, and through this commitment Jesus sees Peter as a leader. But the disciples’ inability to understand what Jesus is saying has led him to try and oppose the will of God. Peter, the Rock, has become a stumbling-block, an obstacle, something to trip over. Peter can only see things in human terms, but God has something else in store. The Cross is inevitable for the simple reason that God loves us that much. However, the Cross is not just for Christ. It is for each and every one of as Christians: we are called to bear it ourselves.

As believers, we are to take up our Cross and follow Jesus. We should be under no illusion; it isn’t easy to take up the Cross. We cannot do it on our own, we have to do it together, as a community, relying upon God, and loving and forgiving each other. All the power, all the wealth in the world, is worth nothing compared to finding true life in Christ. Worldly things cannot save us, they cannot give us eternal life, they cannot wipe clean our sins. Only Jesus can do this, on the Cross. Only in Christ can we have life — life in its fullness. Only if we lose our old life by following Him, can we find what our human life can truly be.

Thus the Church, in following Jesus, offers a radical alternative to the ways of selfishness and sin, an alternative which has the power to change the world through being conformed to Christ. We can do this together, by living out our faith and encouraging others to do so; by living lives of profound love, something that is difficult, and costly, and wonderful. 

Today, through prayer, through our conversation with God, throughlistening to God, we are nourished by the Word of God, the Bible, to know that God loves us, and will help us to live out that love and forgiveness in our lives. We are also nourished by the sacraments of the Church, by Holy Communion, so that the love which God shows to the world on the Cross continues to be poured out upon us, so that we can be strengthened to live out the life of faith. It is food for our souls, so that we may be built up in love. Let us turn to the Living God, to be fed by Him, fed with Him, to have new life in Him, so that He can continue to transform our human nature and follow His example. Let us take up our Cross, as people ransomed, healed, restored and forgiven by the love of God on the Cross.

In the Letter to the Romans, St Paul describes what love in action looks like. We are guided as to how to put our faith, into practice in our lives: by living out the love and forgiveness which we have received, turning from the ways of the world and following the way of God. The Christian life is sacrificial in that it involves personal sacrifice, and also by uniting ourselves to the sacrifice of Christ. This world cannot save us, only Christ can do that. The ways of the world cannot give us true happiness, or eternal life. Their promises are false. Only Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (Jn 14:6) can save us. Only Christ can transform us, and this transformation lies at the heart of the proclamation of the Kingdom. Only by losing our life can we find it.

As Christians we embrace paradox, because God loves us enough to be born as one of us, to proclaim and live out the truth, healing and reconciliation, which He longs to lavish upon us. In Christ, God dies so that we might live. Words cannot express just how earth-shattering and transformative Divine Love is. It is a mystery, in the fullest sense of the word. God’s love and mercy are greater than anything we can know or imagine. We keep making mistakes, but God’s love is unconditional, we cannot earn it, it is freely offered to transform us. Thus, our faith is the work of a lifetime. Day by day God’s grace can perfect our nature, if we are humble enough to let God be at work in us. We pray that God’s grace may transform us so that, in this life and the next, we and all creation may give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to who whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen.

A 4158

Twenty-first Sunday of Year A

Our first reading this morning is from the prophet Isaiah and is about a change in the appointment of a royal steward. God’s will is that Eliakim is given the power to control the royal palace, as he is someone who can be relied upon and trusted. At a deeper level the prophecy anticipates our Gospel reading.

And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open. (Isa 22:22)

The words look forward to Our Lord’s promise to St Peter, and remind us that God keeps His promises, and that we can trust what we read and hear in Scripture. 

One of the most important questions in the entire Bible is found in this morning’s Gospel: who do you say that Jesus is? How we answer this question can tell us a lot about our faith. It matters, and it is central to who and what we are as Christians.

Jesus and his disciples ventured into the District of Caesarea Philippi, an area about 25 miles northeast of the Sea of Galilee. The region had tremendous religious implications, as the place was littered with the temples of the Syrian gods. Here was the elaborate marble temple that had been erected by Herod the Great, father of the then-ruling Herod Antipas. Here people worshipped the Roman Emperor as a God himself. You might say that the world religions were on display in this town. It was with this scene in the background that Jesus chose to ask the most crucial questions of his ministry.

Jesus looked at his disciples and in a moment of reflection said: “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples begin sharing with Jesus what they have heard from the people who have been following Jesus: Some say that you are Elijah; others say John the Baptist, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets. It has always been this way. Jesus has been seen by the masses in so many different ways. But Jesus then asks his disciples, ‘But who do YOU say that I am?’ (Mt 16:15) Peter answers ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God’ (Mt 16:16) This is a big claim to make. Saying that Jesus is divine was certainly problematic, as it undermined what Jews thought about religion, and also the claims made by Romans about the Emperor. It is a very radical thing to say, that Jesus is the Anointed One, the Hope of Israel, who fulfils the promises in the Prophets. 

Nowadays you can speak of Jesus as prophet, holy man, teacher, or spiritual leader, and few will object. But speak of Him as Son of God, Divine, of the same nature as the Father, and people will line up to express their disapproval. This is not a new phenomenon, the history of the Church is full of people who have disagreed on matters of doctrine. This is reason why the Church repeats the words of the Nicene Creed week by week. It is to remind ourselves of what we believe. As Christians in worship we stand up and make a public declaration of our faith, something which would once have led to our death at the hands of the state, and still does in some places today. Nonetheless, we believe that the Nature and Person of the Son of God (who and what Jesus is and does) is an important thing; it is central to our faith. 

As a result of Peter’s confession of faith Jesus makes the following promise:

Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Mt 16:17-19)

Jesus gives Simon a new name, Peter, which means the rock, a rock upon which Christ will build His Church. We know from the Gospel that a wise man builds his house on rock not sand (Mt 7:24-27). The Church is built upon Peter because he confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God. Our profession of faith makes us Christians. Because of Jesus’ Death and Resurrection, sin death and Hell no longer rule over humanity. Christ has conquered, and His victory is complete. Peter is then given the power to bind or loose, which is in effect the power to forgive sin, through Jesus’ Death and Resurrection. The Church exists to bring people closer to God and to create in the world a kingdom of peace and reconciliation to heal the wounds of sinful humanity. The Church exists to make humanity holy, through all that Christ has done for us, and to share this with others and transform the world into the Kingdom of Peace which is what God wills for our good and our flourishing. This is a radical and transformative vision which begins with our acknowledgement of sin, admitting that we have fallen short, and that we cannot sort things out ourselves alone. Only God can do this, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, he has. God longs to heal our wounds because that is what the Kingdom is based upon: healing, reconciliation, transformation. This is what takes an enemy of the Church, Saul, a man who zealously sought to destroy the Church, and makes him its most ardent advocate. 

Thus, St Paul came to write to the Church in Rome:

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom 11:33)

Paul knows this to be a reality because he can testify to the transforming power of God’s love. It is beyond words, beyond human understanding, because His love is a gift which asks for nothing in return. There is nothing we can give God. But we can live out the values of His Kingdom to enable us to flourish as men and women. We will often fail in this, just like St Peter, yet God’s love and mercy are always greater. We keep making mistakes, but God’s love is not conditional, we cannot earn it, it is freely offered to transform us. Thus, our faith is the work of a lifetime. Day by day God’s grace can perfect our nature, if we are humble enough to let God be at work in us. We pray that God’s grace may transform us so that, in this life and the next, we and all creation may give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to who whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen

Mosaic from St Peter’s chapel in the crypt of Westminster Cathedral, London.
Fr Lawrence Lew OP, via Flickr,