Pentecost

For most people up to 1965, Pentecost, or Whitsunday, was probably associated with gifts: new clothes, a Bank Holiday on Whitmonday, and trips, picnics, and ice-cream. The bank holiday was moved to the last Monday in May, and there it has stayed. While Pentecost is with Christmas and Easter one of the three major feasts of the Christian Year, its roots are older.

Fifty days after the Passover, the Jews celebrated Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, a week of weeks, the grain harvest in Ancient Israel, and the giving of the law to Moses on Mt Sinai, it was an important festival, and Jews would gather in Jerusalem to celebrate the Law, which defined them as Jews, and regulated how they lived their lives. They would offer their first fruits in the Temple, rather like our harvest festival, and read the Book of Ruth, whose story is centred around harvest time.

The disciples have gathered in the Upper Room, with the Blessed Virgin Mary, where Christ instituted the Eucharist, and washed his disciples’ feet. They have gathered together 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). They are filled with the Holy Spirit, tongues of fire rest upon them, and they speak in a variety of languages. People from all over the world, who have come to Jerusalem for the feast hear the mighty works of God, they hear a proclamation of who Jesus is, and what he has done. People think they are drunk, but it is nine o’ clock in the morning. The prophecy of Joel is fulfilled. God can and does do wonderful things. And he will still, if we let him. 

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 ESV) He also promises 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 ESV) 

We know that Jesus speaks the truth, that his promises can be trusted, that he pours his Holy Spirit upon the Church on the day of Pentecost, and continues so to do until he comes in glory as our Saviour and our Judge. He wants us to tell people about Him, and how he came to show the world LOVE.

The Apostles have obeyed Jesus’ command, they have waited and prayed, and they are filled with the Holy Spirit, so that they can proclaim the good news of the Kingdom, so that they can make Jesus known, so that people can come to know him and be filled with his love. People are amazed and perplexed, they simply cannot understand what is going on, some people assume that the disciples are drunk. Just as once people called Jesus a drunkard and a glutton because he used to hang around with the wrong sort of people. 

Instead St Peter can show that what is happening has been prophesied by the prophet Joel, whom he quotes (Acts 2:16-21) to show that Christ, the Word made flesh is the fulfilment of Scripture, it finds its true meaning in and through Him. He can preach Christ crucified and risen, for our salvation: ‘This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses’ they have seen and can testify that Jesus is alive. “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:36) Peter and the apostles can confess their faith in Christ and bear witness to him. It has an immediate effect: (Acts 2:37) ‘Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”’ To which Peter replies, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.’ (Acts 2:38-39) 

This is what the church is called to proclaim, so that people can come and have new life in Christ. You and I are to tell people about Jesus, so that they can repent and believe. Then, later in the Acts of the Apostles we see them all living a recognisable Christian life: ‘And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.’ (Acts 2:42) 

This is what we are called to be and to do as Christians, to a life where we are close to Christ, in Word and Sacrament, so that we may be strengthened to live the life of faith, and to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ so that the world may believe. It is just as true here and now as it was there and then: Jesus promises his spirit to transform and empower people to tell the Good News of the Kingdom. ‘And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgement: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgement, because the ruler of this world is judged.’ (Jn 16:8-11) Sin, that which separates us from God, and each other is tied in with not believing in Jesus, who he is, what he does. He is God, and he dies for love of us, to reconcile us, to heal our wounds. He is the true Balm of Gilead which heals sin-sick souls, and He gives himself here, under the outward forms of bread and wine, to heal us, to restore us, Righteousness: having been obedient to the will of the Father, dying and rising again, He returns from whence he came, so that He can send the Holy Spirit. Judgement: the ruler of this world has been judged, the world, the flesh and the devil can have no power over us as Christ has overcome them. They offer us death, whereas Christ has brought us life, eternal life in Heaven. God’s judgement on the world was to offer His Only Son to die, to heal its wounds, and reconcile its differences. God’s judgement is LOVE, and he calls us to live as people of love. To live out the same sacrificial redemptive love in the world, to transform it, into the world God wants it to be, where people are filled with love, and live lives of love, where they are generous and peaceful, loving and forgiving. Fed by Christ and fed with Christ we can be transformed more and more into His likeness, inviting others to share in His LOVE, so that they and all the world may know the love 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.

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Easter VII [Acts 1:15-17, 20-26; 1 Jn 5:9-13; Jn 17:6-19]

On Thursday the Church celebrated the Ascension, when the Risen Christ returns to his Father’s side in Heaven. The Apostles haven’t been left or abandoned, instead Jesus tells them to wait ten days, until the feast of Pentecost. To wait and to pray for the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit. Jesus shows us that we are made for heaven, 

For all those of us who live after the moment of Jesus’ Ascension into Heaven, we too are called to wait, to wait for His Holy Spirit, and to wait for Him to come again as our Saviour and our Judge. But if we are honest, none of us likes waiting, let’s be honest! There’s an old joke that if you put three Scotsmen together for long enough they will form a bank, three Welshman, and they will form a male-voice choir, and three Englishmen will form a queue. While it may be a characteristic which has come to define us, as British people, we do it rather grudgingly, and with a sense of resigned reluctance. And yet, our vocations as Christians is JOY, the joy of the Lord is our strength. We wait in eager expectation, and filled with the joy of Easter, of the Risen Christ, who promises us His Holy Spirit. We wait that God might continue to be generous towards us, and all who believe in Him. 

God will give us a new heart and put his Spirit within us, just as he did on the day of Pentecost. So we in the Church are to wait to prepare to live as the people of God, filled with his love, and forgiveness, and proclaiming his Truth to the world. That’s what this time between the Ascension and Whitsun is for: to pray to God, for Him to be at work in us, and in people all around the world. Indeed there is now an initiative called ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ which encourages people to pray in this time between the Ascension and Pentecost. To pray for the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit, that people may come to know Christ, and that we may all be one — for the unity of Christians everywhere. If heaven is our home, which it is, as we are made for relationship with God, and each other, then we should prepare, here and now, for what awaits us. We should pray that, through the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit, we are built up in LOVE.

This Sunday in the Gospel we are in the middle of Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer, which is the summit of his teaching just before his arrest and Passion. Christ has made God’s name known to us, we know God in a different way, we pray to him as ‘Father’ and we are His, we are not our own, despite the Western Liberal infatuation with personal freedom, we are God’s, which affects both who we are, and what we do.We belong to God, and we do what He tells us to do, so that we may flourish, that we may have life and have it to the full.

We are to be one, as Jesus and His Father are one — one in mind, heart, and soul, filled with LOVE, sanctified with the truth which comes from the Holy Spirit. This is Christs’s will, it isn’t a pipe-dream, or an optional extra. We have to do it. If we really love Jesus then how can we be other than wishes us to be. The pain and division will not be healed in a moment, there is no magic wand to be waved, life is not like that. We have to start by praying, and working for unity, doing what we can to make Christ’s will for the Church a reality. 

Christ speaks to us, and teaches us so that our joy may be complete in him, filled with his love, and the Holy Spirit. The world’s reaction to this is a negative one: because what we are, what we stand for, and how we live as Christians is to be opposed to what the world around us stands for — selfishness, greed, which it makes into false gods, as though material wealth, or power, or status could save us — such things are transient and fleeting. The world seeks to offer us a short-cut, an easy road; whereas if we are following Christ, then we are walking the way of his Passion, we are walking the Way of the Cross, dying daily to sin, and letting God’s grace be at work in and through us. It is certainly not easy, it is difficult, most of us are unable to manage on our own, we need the grace of God. We need the Eucharist to strengthen us on our journey of faith, and we need the love and support of the Christian community to help us, even the first Christians, those who had been with Jesus, needed each other’s help and support, so they can continue what Jesus started.

We need to be together, to meet together to pray for our needs and those of the world, and to be nourished by the word of God, the Bible, and the Sacrament of Our Lord’s Body and Blood, not because they’re something nice to do on a Sunday morning: a sort of add-on, an optional extra that we can opt into and out of as we feel like, but because as Christians they are crucial to who and what we are, if we are to remain in the love of God then we have to live this way. Only then can we offer the world an alternative to the ways of selfishness and sin. It will certainly hate us for doing this, it will despise us, it will call us hypocrites when we fail to live up to the example of Jesus, but as Christians who live in the love of God we 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 it, we may not understand it, but we know that it can be experienced, in encounter with Jesus, and we are living testimony to its power to change lives. It turns our lives around and sets us free to live for God and to proclaim his saving truth in our words and actions, calling the world to repentance, to turn to Christ, and to be renewed in and through Him.

So as we wait with the Apostles for the gift of the Holy Spirit let us pray that God may be at work in us, building us up, and giving us strength to live his life and to proclaim his truth, to offer the world that which it most earnestly desires, a peace, a joy and a freedom which pass human understanding, and the gift of eternal life in Christ. And let us share these gifts with others, so that they may come to believe and give glory to 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…

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Easter VI [Acts 10:44-48, 1 Jn 5:1-6, Jn 15:9-17]

During the Easter season we spend time exploring what Baptism is, and what it means. It is a good thing to do, it is after all how we enter the Church. Also Lent is a season of preparation for baptism, which happened at Easter so that people could die with Christ, and by raised to life by Him, and with Him. For those of us baptised as infants, it isn’t something we remember, so it is good to have an opportunity to reflect on what it is, and what it means. 

In this morning’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter has been preaching the Word of God to Cornelius at Caesarea, and it has an amazing effect — they are filled with the Holy Spirit, and so Peter calls for them to be baptised. The Good News isn’t just for Jews — gentiles like Cornelius, the Roman centurion, his relatives and close friends are welcome as well — this is good news indeed. The church exists to break down human barriers, and to unite people in Christ. We are, all of us, brothers and sisters in Christ, and we enter into a new relationship with God and each other. We are called to be a family, where we find our true identity as those called into a relationship with God, and with each other in the Church. It is a relationship expressed through our communion with God and each other in the Eucharist, the central act of Christian worship, where we do what Jesus commanded us to do, and we are fed by Him, and with Him, with His Body and Blood, to have life in Him, to be nourished in our journey of faith.

In our reading from the First Letter of John we learn that faith is the foundation of love — we can love because we believe in God who loves us, and demonstrates that love in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. We believe that He is the Messiah, the Anointed Son of God, who comes to give us life and freedom. We respond by loving Him, and keeping God’s commandments, we listen to what God says to us, and we do it, not out of fear, but out of love for Him who loves us. Through our baptism we are born again of water and the Spirit, and in this we can like Christ overcome the world 

So how do we live out this faith? We do so by living an other-worldly life — by not going along with the ways of the world: selfishness, greed, business. Instead we follow the way of radical love shown to us in Jesus Christ, a love which pours itself out in extravagant generosity, which holds nothing back, which welcomes, reconciles, and heals. We love our neighbour, we are hospitable, we care for the vulnerable. We live lives which put our faith into practice, lives filled with love of God and neighbour, which proclaim the truth of God’s Kingdom to the world, and call it to repent, to turn from the ways of selfishness and bitterness and death, to come to Christ, and have life in all its fulness. ‘By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ (Jn 13:35) So let us joyfully live lives of love, to proclaim God’s love to the world.

In this morning’s Gospel reading, we continue Jesus’ advice to his disciples in the Upper Room on the night before He died. Those who follow Christ are called to abide in Christ’s love, to remain in it, to live and make our home there. It means being in the Church but also standing by the Cross, where Christ’s love is made manifest to the world. If we love God and each other, and lay down our lives for Him, we do so at the Cross, washed by the Blood of the Lamb, and fed by Him, and called to live lives of sacrificial love for love of Him who died for love of us. God is love, ‘love has a particular trait: far from being indulgent or fickle, it has a task or purpose to fulfil: to abide. By its nature love is enduring. Again, dear friends, we catch a further glimpse of how much the Holy Spirit offers our world: love which dispels uncertainty; love which overcomes the fear of betrayal; love which carries eternity within; the true love which draws us into a unity that abides!Pope Benedict XVI Address to World Youth Day Vigil We see that love most fully in the Eucharist where Christ continues to give Himself to us, out of love, to hear our wounds, to restore our relationship with God and each other, to give us a foretaste of heaven here and now. There is nothing on earth as precious as this, nothing more wonderful than this sign and token of God’s love for us.

From the Son’s death springs life … He, who at Cana changed water into wine, has transformed his Blood into the wine of true love and thus transforms the wine into his Blood. In the Upper Room he anticipated his death and transformed it into the gift of himself in an act of radical love. His Blood is a gift, it is love, and consequently it is the true wine that the Creator was expecting. In this way, Christ himself became the vine, and this vine always bears good fruit: the presence of his love for us which is indestructible.

These parables thus lead at the end to the mystery of the Eucharist, in which the Lord gives us the bread of life and the wine of his love and invites us to the banquet of his eternal love. We celebrate the Eucharist in the awareness that its price was the death of the Son—the sacrifice of his life that remains present in it. Every time we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim the death of the Lord, until he comes, Saint Paul says (cf. 1 Cor 11:26). But we also know that from this death springs life, because Jesus transformed it into a sacrificial gesture, an act of love, thereby profoundly changing it: love has overcome death. In the Holy Eucharist, from the Cross, he draws us all to himself (cf. Jn 12:32) and makes us branches of the Vine that is Christ himself. If we abide in him, we will also bear fruit, and then from us will no longer come the vinegar of self-sufficiency, of dissatisfaction with God and his creation, but the good wine of joy in God and of love for our neighbour.The Wine of True Love 

So my brothers and sisters let us abide in Him, be nourished by Him and with Him, and bear fruit so that the world may come to believe and give glory 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…

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Easter II

I have something of a confession to make: I’m a bit of a fan of St Thomas the Apostle, probably because it is my middle name, but I’ve always felt something of an affinity towards him. He is somewhat hard done by, and on the basis of this morning’s Gospel reading he is generally known as ‘Doubting Thomas’ which is something of a misnomer. If anything he should really be understood as ‘Believing Thomas’ but more about that in a minute.

None of us likes to feel left out, it crushes the soul. We’ve all experienced it at some point in our lives, and it is painful. Imagine the joy the disciples felt when Jesus appears to them on that first Easter Day. He gives them peace, and commissions them, sends them out, to be apostles, to proclaim the Good News to the world. When Jesus begins his public ministry He calls on people to repent from their sins, to turn away from them. Now that He has died for us and been raised from the dead, He commissions his apostles to forgive or retain sin. The Church exists to deal with the mess we make as human beings, through what Jesus has done for us, in the power of His Holy Spirit.

Thomas feels somewhat left out of it all. He wants to believe, but he needs to see with his own eyes, he doesn’t yet have Faith. So, a week later Jesus comes again and shows Thomas His hands and His side, the wounds of love, which take away our sin. He commands ‘Do not doubt, but believe’ and Thomas does. He says, ‘My Lord and my God!’ He confesses his belief in Jesus as Lord and God. He makes a radical statement of belief in WHO and WHAT Jesus is. He is our Lord and our God, our allegiance to Him is more important than anything else. It was this fact which caused the death of thousands of Christians over the next few hundred years. We are all used to seeing pictures of Queen Elizabeth, in homes, schools, and public buildings. Imagine for a second that had to kneel down in front of them and worship the Head of State as a god, offering prayer and incense. To us as Christians it is unthinkable — worship is something we give to God alone ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods beside me.’ (Exodus 20:1-2). We worship Jesus because He is God. Like St Thomas we kneel before him, and confess that He is Our Lord and our God, our Saviour, who LOVES us. The world around us may find this strange, that we make such a declaration, and we are not going to compromise over it.

The Cross had asked the questions; the Resurrection had answered them…. The Cross had asked ‘Why does God permit evil and sin to nail Justice to a tree?’ The Resurrection answered: ‘That sin, having done its worst, might exhaust itself and thus be overcome by Love that is stronger than either sin or death.’

Thus there emerges the Easter lesson that the power of evil and the chaos of the moment can be defied and conquered, for the basis of our hope is not in any construct of human power but in the power of God, who has given to the evil of this earth its one mortal wound—an open tomb, a gaping sepulchre, an empty grave.

Fulton J. Sheen Cross-Ways

This morning as we rejoice in the joy of the Risen Lord, as we are filled with joy, with hope and with love, we can reflect on what the Resurrection does: when Jesus comes and stands among the disciples he says ‘Peace be with you’ Christ’s gift to the world in His Death and Resurrection is Peace, the Peace ‘which passes all understanding’. He shows the disciples His hands and side so that they can see the wounds of love, through which God’s Mercy is poured out on the world to heal it and restore it. In this peace Christ can say to them ‘As the Father sent me, so I send you’ as the baptised people of God, filled with the Holy Spirit, the Church is to be a missionary community — one sent to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ to the world, that it may share the joy and life of the Risen Lord.

As well as giving the Apostles the Holy Spirit, ordaining them as the first bishops of the Church, we see that the power of the Cross to bring peace to the world is also the power to absolve sins — priests and bishops can absolve the people of God in God’s name, and by God’s power — this is what the Cross achieves — reconciling us to God and each other. The Church, then, is to be a community of reconciliation, where we are forgiven and we, in turn, forgive, where we are freed from sin, its power and its effects.

When Christ breathes on the disciples and says ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ it is this gift of God’s Holy Spirit which transforms them from frightened people sat in a locked room in fear into the confident, joyous proclaimers of the Gospel, such as Peter in his sermon to the people of Jerusalem. In Peter’s sermon we see that all that Christ is and does is confirmed by Scripture — it is the fulfilment of prophesy, such as we find in Isaiah 25:6-9:

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death for ever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day, ‘Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.’

As the Church we know that Jesus is the Messiah, the one who gives freedom to Israel, a freedom from sin — a bringing to completion of what God started in the Exodus, in the crossing of the Red Sea — we too are free, freed by the waters of baptism, sharing in Christ’s Death and Resurrection.

Thomas was not present with the disciples, he cannot believe in the reality of Jesus’ Resurrection unless he sees with his own eyes, and feels with his own hands — such is his grief, such is his love for Jesus. Our Lord says to him, ‘Doubt no longer but believe’ which leads to his confession, ‘My Lord and my God’. Blessed are we who have not seen and yet have come to believe, and through this belief we have live in Christ’s name, we have the hope of eternal life and joy with him forever.

The disciples go from being scared and stuck in an upper room to missionaries, evangelists, spreading the Good News around the world, regardless of the cost, even of sacrificing their own lives to bear witness to the fact that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that he died for our sins, and that he rose again, on this day for us, that God loves us and tells us to love Him and to love one another. It is a simple and effective message which people still want to hear — we need to tell it to them, in our thoughts, our words and our actions.

The heart of our faith and the Gospel is forgiveness — no matter how many times we mess things up, we are forgiven. It is this reckless generosity of spirit which people find hard to believe that they 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. That God’s Grace will in the end not abolish our nature, but perfect it, that being fed by Christ, with Christ: so that we too may become what He is. That faced with the sad emptiness of the world, and its selfishness, its greed, we can be filled with joy, and life, and hope. That like the first apostles we too can spread the Gospel: that the world may believe.

It’s a tall order, perhaps, but one which God promises us. That is what the reality of the Resurrection is all about, it’s either nothing, in which case we are the most pitiable of deluded fools — idiots who are more to be pitied than blamed, or it is the single most important thing in the world. It should affect all of us, every part of our life, every minute of every day, all that we do, all that we say, all that we are. This may not fit in with a reserved British mentality, we think we’re supposed to be polite and not force our views on others. But this simply will not do. We are, after all, dealing with people’s souls, their eternal salvation, it’s a serious matter. And what we offer people is entirely free, can change their lives for the better, and make life worth living.

So let us be filled with the joy of the Resurrection this Easter, let us share that joy with others, may it fill our lives and those of whom we meet with the joy and love of God, who has triumphed and who offers us all new life in Him, that all that we do, all that we are, all that we say or think may give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, dominion and power, now and forever.

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A thought from St Therese

Our Vocation is Love

I saw that love alone imparts life to all the members, so that should love ever fail, apostles would no longer preach the gospel and martyrs would refuse to shed their blood. Finally, I realised that love includes every vocation, that love is all things, that love is eternal, reaching down through the ages and stretching to the uttermost limits of the earth.
Beside myself with joy, I cried out: ‘Jesus, my love, my vocation is found at last – my vocation is love!’ I have found my place in the Church, and this place, Jesus, you have given me yourself; in the heart of the Church I will be love. In this way I will be all things and my wish will be fulfilled.
But why do I say ‘beside myself with joy’? It is, rather, peace which has claimed me, the calm, quiet peace of the sailor as he catches sight of the beacon which lights him to port. The beacon is love.
I am only a weak and helpless child, but my very weakness makes me dare to offer myself, Jesus, as a victim to your love. In the old days, only pure and spotless victims would be accepted by God, and his justice was appeased by only the most perfect sacrifices. Now the law of fear has given way to the law of love, and I have been chosen, though weak and imperfect, as love’s victim.

Trinity XIV Evensong


From the Sayings of the Desert Fathers: an instruction sent by Abba Moses to Abba Poemen:
A brother asked the old man, ‘Here is a man who beats his servant because of the fault he has committed; what will the servant say?’ The old man said, ‘If the servant is good, he should say, “Forgive me, I have sinned.”’ The brother said to him, ‘Nothing else?’ The old man said, ‘No for the moment he takes upon himself the responsibility for the affair and says “I have sinned,” immediately the Lord will have mercy on him. The aim in all these things is not to judge one’s neighbour. For truly, when the hand of the Lord caused all the first-born of Egypt to die, no house was without its dead.’ The brother said, ‘What does this mean?’ The old man said, ‘If we are on the watch to see our own faults, we shall not see those of our neighbour. It is folly for a man who has a dead person in his house to leave him there and go to weep over his neighbour’s dead. To die to one’s neighbour is this: To bear your own faults and not pay attention to anyone else’s wondering whether they are good or bad. Do no harm to anyone, do not think anything bad in your heart towards anyone, do not scorn the man who does evil, do not put confidence in him who does wrong to his neighbour, do not rejoice with him who injures his neighbour. This is what dying to one’s neighbour means. Do not rail against anyone, but rather say, “God knows each one.” Do not agree with him who slanders, do not rejoice at his slander and do not hate him who slanders his neighbour. This is what it means not to judge. Do not have hostile feelings towards anyone and do not let dislike dominate your heart; do not hate him who hates his neighbour. This is what peace is: Encourage yourself with this thought, “Affliction lasts but a short time, while peace is for ever, by the grace of God the Word. Amen.”’ [1]
There is something very human and recognisable about the prophet Jonah: God speaks to him, and tells him to go to Nineveh to proclaim the Word of the Lord, he tries to escape, and do what he wants to do, it all goes horribly wrong until Jonah prays to God and goes to Nineveh, and issues a call to repentance, which the people of Nineveh, from the king downwards take to heart, they fast and pray, and are spared. So far so good: all is well, or so we might think. This is not, however, the end of the matter: Jonah is angry that God has forgiven the people of Nineveh. This is quite understandable, as the people of Assyria, who live in Nineveh are enemies of Israel, these are people who will conquer Israel, and lead its people off into captivity and exile. Job’s dilemma is a simple one, how can the God of Israel be loving and forgiving towards the enemies of his people?
      Jonah’s fundamental problem is that his conception of God is far too small, too nationalistic, and he forgets that God, is first and foremost a God of love, mercy, and forgiveness. There is a tendency to argue that in the Old Testament God is a God of judgement, retribution, who rains down fire from heaven, whereas in the New Testament we see in Jesus Christ a God of Love.  This is a false dichotomy, a trap into which Christians have been falling, and continue to fall, from which they need help. From Marcion in the second century adto the liberal German protestantism of Adolf von Harnack and others, and the Jesus Seminar of late twentieth century America, we see people who, when faced with a difficult and complex picture of God, have preferred to make the complex simple, and to refashion the Divine into what they want it to be, rather than live with the fact that at one level God is ‘beyond our ken’ that the love and mercy of God are beyond our human comprehension.
      This is for a perfectly good reason, namely that intellectual comprehension is not the point, but rather the love, mercy and forgiveness of God is something which is to be experienced rather than understood. It is something demonstrated to the world when Our Lord Saviour, who took our flesh for our sake was scourged, and nailed to a Cross to die for us, to bear the burden of our sins, to pay the debt which we cannot, to heal us and restore us. The world did not understand this two thousand years ago, nor does it today. What looked like failure was in fact a great victory, the King of Heaven and Earth reigns nailed to the wood of a Cross. His flesh bears forever the mark of nails and spear as they are the wounds of love: God’s love of us, frail, sinful humanity, and through these wounds we are healed and restored, in them we find the inexhaustible store of God’s mercy poured out for and upon us.
      God does not need to do this, but as a God of love and mercy, who longs to heal and restore humanity made in His image what else can he do? As those healed and restored by him we are to live lives of radical love and forgiveness like those Christians in the Egyptian Desert who practised what they preached, and through their faith and humility inspired others to come to Christ and to follow Him, turning away from the ways of the world, and to Christ, who alone can heal and restore us, the God of love and mercy. Let us be healed and restored by him, and share that love and mercy with others so that they too may praise 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.  


[1] Sr Benedicta Ward(tr.) The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, London: A. R. Mowbray 1975: 120-121

20th Sunday of Year B: I am the Living Bread


This morning’s Gospel is taken like those from the two previous Sundays from the extended discourse in John’s Gospel on the Bread of Life which follows the miraculous feeding of the Five Thousand. But, you may say, not this again, we’ve got the point, it’s time to move on, we understand; to which one may counter that what we are dealing with here is not something to understand, but rather something to experience.
In the Book of Proverbs we see Wisdom, who in the Christian tradition is identified with Christ, the Word made Flesh, issuing an invitation: she has built a house, the Church, she has hewn seven pillars, the sacraments, the means of God’s grace to be active in our lives, and the people of God are called to eat and drink, to live, and to walk in the way of insight, that is in following Jesus Christ. The New is prefigured in the Old, and the Hebrew Scriptures point to, and find their fulfilment in Jesus Christ, who is the Wisdom of God, and the Word made Flesh.
Likewise St Paul advises the church in Ephesus not to behave in a worldly manner, but to put God at the centre of our lives. He ends by invoking the names of the three persons of the Godhead, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in a context of worship, of praise of the Almighty, as that is what we as Christians are supposed to do, to love God and to serve him, through prayer and worship, through entering into the mystery of the Three in One, to be caught up in the outpouring of divine love, and to have a foretaste of it here on earth.
After feeding the Five Thousand in John’s Gospel, a sign of the generous nature of God’s love for humanity, Jesus embarks upon an extended discourse upon himself as the Bread of Life. John’s account of the Last Supper focuses on Christ washing the disciples’ feet, and their obeying Christ’s example and commands. There is no institution narrative, instead the Eucharistic teaching in John’s Gospel is centred around Jesus’ explanation in Chapter 6, so that a long time before Jesus’ suffering and death we can see what it is all about. It’s a process which starts with John the Baptist at the start of the Gospel, where he sees Jesus and says, ‘Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’ (Jn 1:29) The Lamb points to Passover and the freedom of the people of God, freedom from sin and its effects.
Jesus begins the last section of his teaching with the bold claim that ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’ These are some extraordinary claims to make, they would have sounded shocking to a first century Jew, and some two thousand years later they still sound shocking, and yet the offering of Christ’s body for the sins of the world as a propitiatory sacrifice which is re-presented, made present again and offered to God the Father upon the altars of the church, is what the church is for, it is what we are for.
It is done so that we may have life in us, and have it for eternity, so that we may share in the pledge of eternal life given to us in Christ, who will raise us up forever with Him. Such is the nature of God’s love for us: it is freely given, we do not earn it, we do not deserve it; it is something given to us, so that by it, and through it, we may become something greater, something better than we are.
Such is the power of God’s sacrificial love at work in our lives; such is the treasure which we have come here to receive, if it were ordinary food then we would eat it, and it would become what we are, our flesh and blood; but instead we who eat it become what it is, the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, we share in His divine life, we are healed by His divine love, by his sacrifice the wounds of sin and division are healed so that humanity, made in the image of God might be ransomed, healed, restored, and forgiven by God, to live to his praise and glory.
Such wonderful news is truly worth pondering and considering in detail given its potential effects in our lives, so that bit by bit we are slowly and sure becoming more Christ-like, fed by Him, fed with Him, and encouraging others so to do 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.