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.

Sermon for Evensong of the First Sunday after Easter

An old man said, ‘Joseph of Arimathea took the body of Jesus and placed it in a clean garment within a new tomb, which signifies a new humanity. Therefore let each one strive attentively not to sin so that they do not mistreat the God who dwells within themselves and drive him away from their soul.’
It is a good thing that we have time at Easter to take in and make sense of what we have commemorated: Our Lord’s Passion, Death, & Resurrection. They are linked and form part of a larger whole of the history which stretches back through the Incarnation, of the Word made flesh for our sake, to the Creation of the World.
 In the 8th Chapter of the Acts of the Apostles we see the meeting of Philip and an Ethiopian eunuch, who is reading the very passage which we have just heard  as our first lesson this evening– the Suffering Servant. Philip asks him if he can understand what he is reading. He replies that he cannot, unless someone shows him the way. ‘Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus.’ (Acts 8:35 ESV). Isaiah’s prophesy is fulfilled in Jesus and this is the proclamation of the Church: we proclaim Jesus Christ and him crucified.
We read scripture so that we can understand it, and see in its words how it discloses the truth of the Word made flesh, who suffered and died for our sake. Isaiah prophesies Our Lord’s Passion and Death, it, like the rest of Scripture points to Christ and finds its true meaning in Him, and thus it makes sense, it can be understood, and the more we come to understand, the more we come to know just how much God loves us.
Thus for Paul in the Letter to the Romanshe needs to show them how Abraham, the father of our faith is rewarded by God not through his observance of the Law, as the Pharisees would argue,  but rather by the obedience of his faith in God which can lead to his righteousness.
As Christians we believe that we are saved by grace through faith – by grace, by the unmerited free gift of God who gives his own Son to be born, to suffer and die and to rise again for us, so that we might have life in Him, through our faith, through believing in the God who does this.  We can put our trust in a God who loves us, who dies this for us, to heal us and restore us, and thus we can have new life and eternal life in Him. It is unmerited: we do not deserve it, but it is a free gift rather than a reward, something earned.
In Christ the promise made to Abraham comes true in that through the proclamation of the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ to the whole world Abraham can become the father of many nations, the word for the non-Jewish peoples of the world – he becomes a spiritual parent to Christians because of Abraham’s faith in God, he trusts God, even to the point of being ready to sacrifice his only son, which itself points to Christ, who as the Lamb of God who takes  away the sins  of the world is a type of the lamb caught in the thicket at Bethel. Abraham trusts in God, puts his faith in Him, and is rewarded for that faith. We put our faith in Him, and are fed by Him, fed with Him, so that we may share in his Divine life, strengthened and nourished by God, so that his grace may perfect our nature.
Thus we are to follow Abraham’s example and put our faith in the God who loves us and saves us by His Son, who suffered and died and rose again for our sake. It’s all about faith: faith in Jesus Christ, who died and rose again for us, who was delivered up for our sins and raised for our justification, this is what we believe, we have to be like Philip and share it with others, so that they too may believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom ….

            

Lent IV – Looking to the Cross

For God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that through him the world might be saved.
It is far too easy nowadays to see the church in a negative way –  it’s the fashionable thing to do – as the church we’re corrupt, we’re filling people’s heads with nonsense. We can be characterised as strange, quaint, and out of touch. It suits people to see us entirely in negative terms: as opposed to certain things. We are prescriptive: we limit people’s freedom, and in failing to practice what we preach, we can be written off as hypocrites, with no right to proclaim objective truth, to offer the world a moral framework, within which to live its life; to offer the world an alternative paradigm, a new way of living and of being through which to have life, and have life in all its fullness. It’s less a valid criticism and more of an excuse for people not to bother. It’s an easy way out, which saves people from the more difficult task of living Christ-like lives of love and self-sacrifice. The church does not claim to be perfect, but rather a collection of sinners justified by the grace of God, through faith in Christ.
          The simple truth is that people like to moan and grumble – we all do, and I’m as guilty of it as anyone, but there is a fundamental difference between being dissatisfied with the way things are and longing for change, and hopefully bringing about good change, change in a god-ward direction, and the corrosive moaning rooted in selfishness, which betrays a lack of trust in God. The Israelites in the desert represent this negative moaning, they are unable or unwilling to trust God to lead them on a journey towards the Promised Land, and while they realise their mistake their poisonous moaning has disastrous consequences for them. And yet even in this they are not abandoned by God, they gaze on the bronze serpent, they look to that which prefigures the Cross, through which God heals his people, taking their sins upon himself. That’s why it appears in stained-glass windows in churches, because it points to the Cross, it’s why when talking about the Cross Jesus mentions it, so that people might understand how and why God loves them and how it might affect their lives.
St Paul in his letter to the Ephesians can state with confidence, ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast(Eph 2:8-9). It’s 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…
          This morning’s gospel reminds us of the fundamental truth that God loves us – it is the heart of the Good News – the Gospel, what we preach and what we live as Christians. There are few words as comforting as ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him’ (Jn 3:16-17). They may be familiar to us, they certainly should be, but we must not let our familiarity with them cloud the significance of simply stating that God loves us, does not condemn us, but saves us, in and through Jesus Christ. That’s why we are Christians, it’s why we’re here, and recognising God’s love for us will have a transforming effect upon our lives.
In the Incarnation Jesus comes among us as a poor helpless baby, laid to rest in the rough wood of an animals’ feeding trough. He is cared for through the love of his mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, who in her love, her service, and obedience, stands as the model for all Christians to follow. She is the first Christian, the greatest, a pattern for us to imitate, of loving trust and obedience, of care and costly love, and a foreshadowing of our great mother the church, through which we are saved by grace through faith.
          Upon the rough wood of the cross, Jesus will suffer and die for us – such is the cost of human sin. His mother, Mary, stands by and watches and weeps. As the church we too should watch and weep for the wounds of human sin and division which still scar Christ’s body. We feel helpless. What can we do? We should do all that we can to live God’s life of sacrificial self giving love: living lives of light, which shine in the darkness. It isn’t easy, but if we try and do it together then all things are possible, through him who loves us.
          The salvation and eternal life which Christ offers freely to all, comes through the church, which we enter in baptism, where we are nourished in word and are sacrament, where we are nourished, given food for the journey, strengthened and taught, to live his risen life, to share in the joys of Easter.
          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 can rejoice, and relax our Lenten discipline for a little while to give thanks for the wonderful gift of God’s love in our lives, in the church, and for the world.
          But we also need to trust God, to listen to what he says through Scripture, to be fed by him, and to live lives in accordance with his will and purpose, together, as a family, as a community of love, cared for and supported by our mother, the church. And in so doing we look to Our Lady as Mother of Our Lord and Mother of the Church, as a pattern for love and obedience, as a model for all mothers: loving and tender, putting the needs of others before self, self-giving, sacrificial, and open to both joy and pain, trusting in God.

This, as any mother can tell you, is not easy, it’s difficult, really hard, but its rewards are likewise great. So let us, as 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, a sacrifice which will be made present here today under the outward forms of bread and wine, to strengthen us to live the risen life of Easter, to offer the world an alternative to selfishness, to self-centredness, to the sin which continues to separate us from God, an alternative shown to us in a self-giving love of mothers, and of our mother the church. So that we may join the Angels in our song of love and praise to the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to whom..

A thought for the day from Colossians 3

12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts,kindness, humility, meekness, and patience,13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 And above all these put on love, which binds everything together inperfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus,giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Homily for Lent I

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