25th Sunday of Year B Mark 9: 30-37

Christianity is apparently ‘a religion for the weak and feeble-minded, attractive to social undesirables, the silly, the mean, the stupid, women, and children.’ (cf. Celsus quoted in Origen Contra Celsum 3:44 & 3:59) You would be forgiven if thought these were the words of Richard Dawkins, or some other New Atheist critic of Christianity. They are in fact a paraphrase of the pagan philosopher Celsus, written around ad 175. This line of argument is something Christians have had to counter for over 1800 years.

It is not true, and it relies upon the idea that the weak are somehow worse than the strong. It’s familiar from the writings of Nietzsche and others. The culture around us despises the weak. You want to be strong. Strength is good. Sadly strength is fleeting: we are not born strong, nor do we die strong. Strength comes and goes. And none of us is as strong as we think we are, or might like to be. The simple fact is that we are weak, and that’s OK. Our human weakness is not something terrible, it is simply how we are, and reminds us that we are relational beings, we exist in relationship with others, and need to rely upon the help and support of others, and primarily God. 

Jesus begins the Gospel this morning by reiterating his teaching which we heard last week. He stresses the importance of His Death and Resurrection as the culmination of His earthly ministry. The disciples are bewildered and afraid. They cannot understand or appreciate what Jesus is saying to them. They love Jesus, and have seen Him do wonderful things: heal the sick, feed the hungry, and even walk on water. They have seen scripture fulfilled, but cannot yet understand where it is all pointing: to Jesus’ Death and Resurrection. Instead they fall back on that very human desire, to form a pecking order, to know who is the greatest of the disciples.

Rather than telling the disciples off for being childish, Jesus teaches them that, ‘If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.’ (Mk 9 35 ESV) He then takes a child and says, ‘Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.’ (Mk 9 37 ESV) Children aren’t high up in the pecking order, they don’t know everything, and are dependant on their family. Jesus is proposing something of a revolution, turning human values on their head. The Incarnate Word of God will wash His disciples’ feet before the Last Supper. He embodies servant leadership, he doesn’t lord it over people. The ways of the Kingdom of God and this world are opposed to each other. True greatness will often look like weakness and servility in the world’s eyes. It doesn’t matter. What matters is living a life characterised by sacrificial self-giving love. 

As St Paul says in the opening Chapter of the First Letter to the Corinthians, God’s weakness is stronger than our strength. (1Cor 1:25) It is a paradox. This paradox is made apparent on the Cross, where God shows us that sacrificial love can change the world, and heal our wounded souls and restore broken humanity. It is part of the Mystery of the Cross, the mystery of God’s love. In a moment of weakness and powerlessness, where evil and sin appear to have triumphed, this is the supreme demonstration of LOVE, an act of such generosity which has the power to reconcile humanity. It is, with Christ’s Resurrection, the centre of our faith. 

The ways of the world can be found in the first reading this morning, from the Book of Wisdom, they point forward to Christ’s suffering and death. Christ is condemned to a ‘shameful death’ so that through it God might demonstrate His LOVE to the world.

Love can only be offered. It can be accepted or rejected, and it lies at the heart of any relationship. God gives Himself to us so that we might live in Him. He gives Himself today under the outward forms of bread and wine, so that might feast on His Body and Blood, and have life in Him. He offers himself to us, so that we might share in His Death and Risen Life. Love is vulnerable, and its vulnerability is most evident on the Cross, where Christ opens his arms to embrace the world in love.

Christ’s life on earth ends as it begins: He is naked and vulnerable. God’s weakness truly is stronger than human strength because it is the only thing which can truly change the world, heal our wounded souls, and restore broken humanity. Nothing else can. Without it we are condemned to the ways of selfishness and sin, which characterise so much of the world around us. The church is not immune as it is made up of frail, sinful human beings, just like you and me. We need God to be at work in our lives, to transform us more and more into His image. Recognising our own shortcomings is the first step in a process whereby God can be at work in our lives, transforming us more and more into His likeness. We need God’s grace to be at work in us, and recognising this is a sign of humility, that we know our need of God. This is not weakness, quite the opposite. 

We know that we have a problem, which we are unable to solve on our own. In His love and mercy, God sends His only Son to be born for us, to live and die for us, and rise again for us. He gives us His Body and Blood as a pledge and token of our future hope, to heal us and restore us, so that we might become what He is. In this we share in Christ’s suffering, as to follow Christ is to follow the Way of the Cross, a hard road, but one which leads to the joy of Easter, and New Life in Christ. We are transformed through LOVE and SUFFERING, a journey which starts with child-like trust in the God who LOVES us. It starts with humility, knowing our need of God, and trust in a God who loves us, and who can transform us. 

So my brothers and sisters, let us come to Him, trusting Him to be at work in our lives, filling us with His Love, sharing His suffering, pouring out His Grace upon us. Let us stay close to Him: nourished by His Word, the Bible, and the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist, where we receive a foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet, our food for the journey of faith, transforming us into His Divine likeness, strengthening us to live out our faith through acts of loving service, putting our faith into practice so that the world around us may repent of its foolish ways , and come to 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. christ-children-02

Easter III [Acts 3:12-19; 1John 3:1-7] Luke 24:36b-48

This morning’s Gospel account of the post-Resurrection is quite a surprising one. Disciples have just come straight from Emmaus, where they recognised Jesus in the breaking of the Bread, which is confirmed by the disciples, who said that the Lord has appeared to Simon Peter. And then, all of sudden, Jesus is there among them, and says, ‘Peace be with you’. They are startled and afraid — they cannot believe it. He was dead. They saw Him die on the Cross. People don’t rise from the dead. And there He is in front of them. It is immediate, and abrupt, and startling. It is no wonder that they think that they are seeing a ghost, a spirit. They need reassurance, they cannot yet believe. Jesus invites them to inspect His hands and feet, to see the mark of the nails, to gaze in wonder at the wounds of love, to see that God loves them. He’s not a ghost, but a living being — flesh and blood. They’re happy, but they still cannot believe, so Jesus says, ‘Have you got anything to eat?’ They give Him a piece of grilled fish, and He eats it in front of them. He’s not a ghost, He’s alive, living, breathing, and eating. God takes flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and lives among us, dies, and is raised to new life, to show us what God has in store. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, which we celebrate at Easter, which we keep celebrating for weeks, truly is Good News. it takes a while for this to sink in to His disciples, they cannot take it in. It is extraordinary, but it is TRUE.

Jesus then reminds the disciples that before His death, he had told them that everything in the Jewish Scriptures about Him must be fulfilled. He has to suffer and die, for our sins. He does this willingly, out of love, because He is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. It takes them time to understand that He has risen from the dead, and likewise they’re not going to understand the entirety of salvation history immediately. It takes time, even just reading the readings at the Easter Vigil takes time, and this is just a snapshot of what the Old Testament contains in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Writings. Most of the writings of the Early Church do just what Jesus did, they go through Scripture to see how it points to Jesus, how it finds its fullest meaning in and through Him, the Word made Flesh. I could stand here for hours, days weeks even, and only scratch the surface. Obviously I’ll spare you that, but in the rest of the time that I have to live on earth, I know that I can only begin to tell people about Jesus, and explore how the Bible points to Him. But I need to do it, to explain to people who and what Jesus is, and does, and to say to the world around us the words of St Peter from our first reading this morning, ‘Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out,’ [Acts 3:19 NRSV]. The call to follow Jesus and to believe in Him requires a change of heart and mind, a change in how we live our lives, something we have to keep on doing all our lives, a constant commitment to turn from the ways of the world, the ways of sin, to turn to Christ, and follow Him.

Christ explains how His Suffering and Death are foretold in Scripture, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins are to be proclaimed in His name to all the world. So all of Scripture points to Him, even the awkward, and hard to understand bits, the bits which we would prefer not to read. And we need to tell people about Jesus, who he is, what He does, and why it matters.

He came to offer people an alternative to the ways of the world. You can find temporary happiness in many things, but shopping isn’t going to save your soul. Only Jesus can do that. Amazon, or the High St can do many things, but they’re not going to save you, forgive you your sins, or give you eternal life. Stuff doesn’t save, Jesus does. Our materialistic culture tries its best to hide from this fact. We fill our time with business and distraction. We do all sorts of things which we enjoy, which provide transitory pleasure. But lasting happiness can be found in Christ, and in Christ alone.

I’m as bad as anyone else at this. I admit it. I don’t deserve to be standing here saying this to you. I’m no better than you, probably I’m worse. I certainly don’t feel worthy to be called a shepherd of Christ’s flock. And that’s the point: I’m not, and it’s alright, none of us is, or ever has been, or ever will be. It’s not about us, but about what God can do through us, if we let Him. This is the reality of Christ’s Death and Resurrection. He does what we cannot do, so that we can live in Him.

We don’t need to worry because we find our JOY in Him, in Jesus, our Risen Lord. We are witness, just like those first disciples in Jerusalem, charged to tell people the same Good News, that Jesus died, has risen, and offers NEW LIFE to all, regardless of who they are, and what they’ve done. This is he demonstration of God’s love for the World, ‘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 sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.’ [John 3:16-17 RSVCE] God’s grace does not abolish our human nature, but perfects it, through faith, through the sacraments, outward and visible signs of inward spiritual grace, so that through Baptism and the Eucharist in the Church, people come to know Jesus, the Word made flesh, and share His Risen life, and are given a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, prepared by a loving Father.

People may not wish to come. They may be too busy. It may not mean anything to them, they can write it off as religious claptrap, an irrelevance in the Modern World. But it is still offered to them, and to everybody. To come to know Jesus, to trust Him, to love Him, to be fed by Him, and with Him, to have new life, and the forgiveness of sin through Him, and Him alone. For as St Peter says, ‘there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.’ [Acts 4:12 RSVCE], so my brothers and sisters in the joy of Easter let us share 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, dominion and power, now and forever.

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Duccio, Maesta, Altarpiece, Siena Cathedral

Good Friday

Love has three and only three intimacies: speech, vision, and touch. These three intimacies God has chosen to make his love intelligible to our poor hearts. God has spoken: he told us that he loves us: that is revelation. God has been seen: that is the incarnation. God has touched us by his grace: that is redemption. Well indeed, therefore, may he say: ‘What more could I do for my vineyard than I have done? What other proof could I give my love than to exhaust myself in the intimacies of love? What else could I do to show that my own Sacred Heart is not less generous than your own?’

If we answer these questions aright, then we will begin to repay love with love …. then we will return speech with speech which will be our prayer; vision with vision which will be our faith; touch with touch which will be our communion.

Fulton J Sheen The Eternal Galilean

Prophets have a job to do. They tell people things, usually uncomfortable home truths. It isn’t a popular job, and generally speaking prophets are not treated well. A number of them end up being killed. There is a tradition that Isaiah was sawn in half on the orders of Manasseh, the son of Hezekiah. Amos was tortured and killed, Habbakuk and Jeremiah were stoned. And John the Baptist was beheaded to satisfy the whim of Salome. Telling the truth is a risky business. When we proclaim the truth of our faith to the world around us we are met with contempt and unbelief.

The prophets look towards a future, with an anointed leader, a Messiah, the Christ. They point towards Jesus, and they like all of the Hebrew Scriptures find their fullest meaning in Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh. Christ is the fulfilment of Scripture – it finds its truest and fullest meaning in Him, and Him alone. The Scriptures point to something beyond themselves, to our Lord and Saviour, and it is thus understandable that tIsaiah has been called the fifth Gospel, because of his prophesies especially concerning Our Lord’s Birth, Suffering and Death.

This is not a new phenomenon; in the 8th Chapter of the Acts of the Apostles we see the meeting of Philip and an Ethiopian eunuch, who is reading this very passage which we have just heard — the Suffering Servant. Philip asks him if he can understand what he is reading. He replies that he cannot, unless someone shows him the way. ‘Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus.’ (Acts 8:35 ESV). Isaiah’s prophesy of the Suffering Servant is fulfilled in Jesus and this is the proclamation of the Church: we proclaim Jesus Christ and him crucified. The proclamation remains the same, as the church continues to understand Isaiah, and all the Old Testament as pointing to Christ.

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, in the Songs of the Suffering Servant, prophesies Our Lord’s Passion and Death. 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, and how that tale of love is told through history.

Today Christ is both priest and victim, and upon the altar of the Cross he offers himself as a sacrifice for sin, for the salvation of humanity. A new covenant is made in his blood which restores the relationship between God and humanity, we are shown in the most graphic way possible how much God loves us, and thus how much we are to love God and to love each other, with that costly self-sacrificial love embodied by Our Lord in his Passion and Death.

After scourging him the soldiers put a purple robe around our Lord, they crown him with thorns, and give him a reed for a sceptre. They think they’re being clever and funny: they’re having a laugh, mocking a man about to be executed. But this is God showing the world what true kingship is: it is not pomp, or power, the ability to have one’s own way, but the Silent Way of suffering love. It shows us what God’s glory is really like: it turns our human values on their head and it inaugurates a new age, according to new values, and restores a relationship broken by human sin.

In dying on the Cross, our Lord is in fact reigning in glory — the glory of God’s free love given to restore humanity, to have new life in him. Jesus dies the death of an enemy of the state, but THIS IS GOD’S GLORY – to die in such a way, naked and vulnerable, shunned, and humiliated. This is GLORY, while the same people who a few days ago welcomed him as the Messiah, now mock and jeer and His life slips away. This is the Glory of God’s love for us, a love which will do anything to heal us, to reconcile us, to bring us back.

Jesus’ hands and feet and side are pierced and his head wears a crown of thorns, as wounds of love, to pour out God’s healing life upon the world. In his obedience to the Father’s will, he puts to an end the disobedience of humanity’s first parent. Here mankind who fell because of a tree are raised to new life in Christ through his hanging on the tree. Christ is a willing victim, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, the Silent lamb led to his slaughter, the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep that have gone astray. At the time when the Passover lambs are slaughtered in the temple, upon the Altar of the Cross, Christ as both priest and victim offers himself as the true lamb to take away the sins of the whole world, offers his death so that we may have life, new life in Him.

Death and hell, which are the reward of sin, have no power over us: for in dying, and being laid in a stranger’s tomb, Christ will go down to Hell, to break down its doors, to lead souls to heaven, to alter the nature of the afterlife, once and for all. Just when the devil thinks he’s won, then in his weakness and in his silence Christ overcomes the world, the flesh, and the devil. The burden of sin which separates humanity from God is carried on the wood of the Cross, upon the shoulders of the One who loves us.

On the way to Calvary our Lord falls three times such is the way, such was the burden, so we too as Christians, despite being reconciled to God by the Cross, will fall on our road too. We will continue to sin, but also we will continue to ask God for his love and mercy. But those arms which were opened on the cross will always continue to embrace the world with God’s love.

We don’t deserve it and we haven’t earned it, that’s the point, that’s what grace is, unmerited kindness, reckless generosity. It is there to help us become the people God wants us to be: to be strengthened, fed, healed, and restored by him: to die to sin and be raised to new life, and to share that life and love with others, that the world might believe and be saved through him. Christ pays the debt which we cannot to reconcile humanity to his loving and merciful Father. He shows us the meaning of true love: that we might live it out in our lives, forgiving one another, bearing our own cross, and living lives of love for love of him who died for love of us.

We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, for he is our salvation, our life, and our resurrection, through him we are saved and made free.

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Ash Wednesday: Rend your hearts and not your garments

Today the Church celebrates Ash Wednesday, ‘the beginning of her Lenten journey towards 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, 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 draw nearer to the Lord by meditating on his word and example, and 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.’ [1]

Fasting, repentance, prayer, and the imposition of ashes were not unknown to Jews; that is why we as Christians carry on the tradition. The advice given by the prophet Joel in today’s first reading is both wise and salutary as we enter the desert of Lent. It reminds us that, first and foremost, we are to recognise our own brokenness, our own sinfulness, our own turning away from a God of Love and Mercy. While we may recognise this, any outward sign is not good enough. There is nothing that we can do in a solely exterior fashion — ripping our clothes, placing ashes upon our foreheads, which will, in itself, make a blind bit of difference. What matters, where it really counts, is on the inside. To rend one’s heart, is to lay ourselves open, to make ourselves vulnerable, and in this openness and vulnerability, to let God do his work.

It would be all too easy when faced with today’s Gospel to argue that outward displays of fasting, piety, and penitence, are criticised, that they do not matter. But this is not what Jesus is getting at. What he criticises are deeds which are done to comply with the letter but not the spirit of the law. This mechanised approach to piety, a clinging to the external nature of religion, without any concern for its inward spiritual aspect, is where the fault lies. When things are done for show, when our piety is paraded as performance, so that the world may see how good and religious we are, then we are nothing but an empty shell, a whitened sepulchre. The reward which such people receive is likewise an empty one.

Instead, Jesus upholds the standard practice of Jewish cult, but what matters is that what is done outwardly is completely in accordance with our interior life, it is an outward manifestation of our relationship with God and with one another. So Lent is to be a time when we as Christians are to seek to be reconciled, to be in full communion with God and his church. Our outward acts of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving need to be done in tandem with, rather than instead of, paying attention to our interior life: otherwise our efforts are doomed to failure. The God whom we worship is one of infinite love and mercy, which will be demonstrated most fully and perfectly on Good Friday, when we see what that love means, when for our sake God made him who was without sin into sin, so that we in him might become the goodness of God. Or as St Isaac puts it ‘as a handful of sand thrown into the ocean, so are the sins of all flesh as compared with the mind of God.’ As dreadful as we might be, as utterly undeserving of the father’s love, nonetheless, as the parable of the prodigal son shows us, there are no lengths to which God will not go. The love and mercy which flows from Jesus’ stricken side upon the cross at Calvary are still being poured out over the world, and will continue to be so until all is reconciled in him. In his commission of Peter after his resurrection, Jesus entrusts to his church the power to forgive sins, to reconcile us to one another and to God. This reconciliation is manifested by our restoration to communion with God and his Church.

It is not the most comfortable or pleasant thing to see ourselves as we really are. To stand naked in front of a full length mirror is for most of us, I suspect, not the most pleasant experience. And yet, such a self-examination is as nothing when compared with us baring our heart and soul. It is not a pleasant task, but given that God will judge us in love and mercy, having taken away our sins upon the cross, despite our apprehension we have nothing to fear. All that awaits us is the embrace of a loving father. No matter how many times we fail, how many times we would run away or reject his love, his arms, like those of his son upon the cross, remain open to embrace the world, to heal the wounds of sin and division.

If there are any of you determined to live a more Christian life, there is one resolution you need to make which is, out of all proportion, more important than the rest. Resolve to pray, to receive the sacraments, to shun besetting sins, to do good works — all excellent resolutions; but more important than any of these is the resolution to repent. The more resolutions you make, the more you will break. But it does not matter how many you break so long as you are resolute not to put off repentance when you break them, but to give yourself up to the mercy which will not despise a broken and a contrite heart. Converted or unconverted, it remains true of you that in you, that is, in your natural being, there dwells no good thing. Saints are not people who store goodness in themselves, they are just a people who do not delay to repent, and whose repentances are honourable.[2]

So then, may this Lent be for us all a time of repentance, a time for us to turn away from all which separates us from God and neighbour, a time for reconciliation, for healing and growth, that the faith which we profess may grow in our souls and be shown forth in our lives to give Glory to God the Father, to whom with God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.

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

[2] Farrer (1976) The Brink of Mystery (ed. C. Conti), 17, quoted in Harries, R. (ed.) (1987) The One Genius: Readings through the year with Austin Farrer, London: SPCK, 60.

manofsorrows

Christ the King, Year A

In 1925 Pope Pius XI instituted the feast of Christ the Universal King to stress the all-embracing authority of Christ and to lead mankind to seek the Peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ. In a time of great misery and inequality: the Church was reminded of what the coming of Christ as Saviour and Judge meant, as well as ending the liturgical year by looking forward to Advent: the season of preparation for our Lord’s coming, in His Incarnation, and as our Judge. A season of reflection, a season of hope, and new life.

In today’s Gospel we have the last parable in Matthew which also gives us an apocalyptic vision of Our Lord’s Second Coming. The first thing to notice is that, as befits the Kingdom of God, all people will be there. This is not a Christians-only event. In the Holy Land to this day you will see herds of goats and sheep grazing together and at the end of the day they are separated by a shepherd who can tell the difference between them. Jesus does, however, give his reasons for making his judgement: ‘For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was a stranger and you made me welcome; naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.’ To give food and drink and to make people welcome is fundamental to hospitality and is a sign of Love. Clothing the naked and visiting the sick and imprisoned is likewise showing concern for people, and their needs, showing our love to the world.

We believe that God is love and that we are called to show love ourselves in our lives. Our faith, therefore, is not simply private interior devotion, something that we do on Sundays for our benefit, and keep in a box like a Sunday hat. No!It is something we can put into practice in our lives, every day, everywhere.

Now in the parable in this morning’s Gospel the virtuous seem rather surprised and ask our lord when they did this to him. Jesus answers, ‘I tell you most solemnly, insofar as you did this to the least of the brothers of mine you did it to me.’ As St Antony, the founder of monastic tradition once said, ‘Our life and death is with our neighbour – if we win our brother we win God; if we cause our neighbour to stumble then we have sinned against Christ.’ So who are the least of Christ’s brethren? Who are the little people? Or to put it another way, who is the most important person in church? Is it Fr Neil? Or is it me? Is it a magistrate? Or a businessman? No … who are the least amongst our communities and who are the least outside them? And what are we doing to help them?

Some of the people who would have heard Jesus teaching this parable might well have thought, as Jews, that Israel were the sheep, and the gentiles were the goats, and I wonder whether we don’t all of us feel a little complacent at times. By the same token, the standards Jesus sets in this parable seem almost unattainable so we can feel that we simply cannot live up to them. So we need to be careful that we don’t just despair, that we don’t just give up, and don’t let our discipleship become one of apathy.

Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, God himself, became man and lived among us. He showed humility in washing His disciples’ feet at the Last Supper, in eating and drinking with tax-collectors and prostitutes, the social outcasts of His day. He, unlike the society in which he lived, did not judge them. He loved them in order to proclaim in word and deed that the Kingdom of God was for ALL people – the people we might not like, the people we might look down our noses at, and with whom we might not wish to share our table. He gives himself to feed heal and restore them and us.

His love and humility are shown in that being condemned to death by those whom he came to save he does not cry out, he does not blame them, but instead asks, ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’ The Christ who reigns on the tree, and who will come again to judge the world, bears the marks in his hands, feet, and side, because they are the marks of LOVE. They remind us of God’s love for us, and when we eat and drink His Body and Blood at the Eucharist we are healed, and share in His Divine Life, so that we might become the Body of Christ, His Church. Strengthened by this Sacrament of Love we are called to live out our faith in the world around us. While we may not have lived up to the example He sets us, we can nonetheless try to do what we can. In acknowledging the Universal Kingship of Christ we recognise an authority higher than human power, higher than any monarch or dictator, and we are called to conform the world to His just and gentle rule. We are called to transform the world one soul at a time, and through acts of mercy and a life of prayer to make a difference.

We may not like the idea of judgement: it is big and scary, and most of us, if we are honest feel that we deserve to be condemned. NOw rather than just thinking about judgement as a future event, let’s think about it as a process, something going on here and now. We all live under God’s judgement. Are there things which are hellish in our lives? The problems of cliamte change and how we treat God’s world don’t exactly look great. The way in which we do business with one another, the on-going financial crisis, poverty, hunger and the existence of food-banks show us that all is not well with our country. The wars which our leaders wage against each other seem very far away from the ideal where the lion lies down together with lamb, where swords are beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning-hooks. For all this we will be called to account, like the servants in last week’s parable of the talents.

So what are we to do? First, we are to pray to God that we might have the strength and courage to follow the example of His Son, Jesus Christ. Secondly, we are to remember that God’s love and mercy were poured out on the world at Calvary, and continue to be poured out on us who know His forgiveness. Thirdly, that we are fed and strengthened in the Eucharist so that we may be transformed to go out into the world and be active in God’s service.Finally we are to remember that whatever we do for the least of our brothers and sisters we do for Him. The people or the acts may seem insignificant to us, but not to God.

I would like to conclude this morning by asking you, what would our communities look like if we lived like this: giving food and drink to those in need; visiting those who are sick, or in prisons with or without bars – the prison of fear, loneliness, old age, depression, addiction, or abusive relationships? For such is the kingdom of God. Amen

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Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat!

Sixteenth Sunday of Year A Mt 13:24-43

If I were to mention Hell to you, you would probably expect me to also mention damnation, the wretched sinful nature of humanity, and why we all deserve to burn for ever in eternal fire and unquenchable brimstone, striking the pulpit in the manner of a Non-Conformist preacher. You would naturally think this was somewhat out of character for me. But here I stand I can do no other. This morning’s Gospel is quite stark and uncompromising in its portrayal of judgement and the afterlife, and we have a choice to make. We have got used to people not talking about Hell nowadays, we’re far too polite to mention such things. It’s certainly not the Anglican way to dwell on such matters. But we cannot simply bury our heads in the sand and forget that such things exist. We need to understand them.

One of my favourite religious anecdotes comes from Northern Ireland, and relates to this morning’s Gospel, after hearing it read someone asked, ‘What if you’ve not got any teeth?’, to which the preacher responded, ‘Teeth will be provided!’ amidst the humour there lies a serious point – It is real, and  we have a choice to make. Do we want a future without God, cut off from Him, through Sin?  Do we want to condemn ourselves to an eternity of misery, cut off from His love? Or do we want to have life in Christ, life in all its fullness.

Jesus comes to save us from Sin, Death, and Hell. He does this first by proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom and secondly by dying for us on the Cross, bearing the burden of our sins, and overcoming the power of death and Hell, and rising again to New Life. The Church preaches Christ Crucified, and offers salvation in and through Christ alone.

But lest we get too gloomy, let us pause for a moment to consider something important. In the Gospel, the time for the separation of wheat and weeds is not yet. There is time, time for repentance, time to turn away from Sin, and to turn to Christ. The proclamation of the Kingdom is one which calls people to repent, and to believe, to have a change of heart, and to turn away from the ways of the world, the ways of selfishness, which alienate us from God and each other. It is not merely an event, but rather a process, a continual turning towards Christ, and reliance upon His love and mercy, a turning to Him in prayer, being nourished and transformed by our reading of the Bible, and being nourished with the Sacrament of His Body and Blood.

The good news is that we are not simply condemned, and we, all of us, have time to make sure that we are wheat and not weeds. Ours is a generous and a loving God, who longs to see His people reconciled, healed, and redeemed. The fact that the wheat and the weeds can grow together until the harvest is done for the sake of the wheat, lest it be pulled up by accident. Ours then is a patient God, who provides us with the opportunity for repentance, time to turn our lives around and follow him. And the Church, just like the world is people good and bad, on various stages of a journey, as earth is a preparation for heaven, we are given all the chances possible to rely on God’s transforming grace in our lives.

It is a hopeful message, a message of healing and reconciliation, that God does not simply give up on us, but rather does all he can to make sure that we are wheat and not weeds. It is the wonder of the Cross, that God sends his Son out of love for humanity, of you and me, to suffer and die for us, to show us the depth of God’s love, That he rises from the tomb so show us that death is not the end, to give us hope. It is the best news there is. And we are told about it now, so that we can do something about it, and we can tell other people too. We can share the message so that others can hear, and repent, and believe, and live new lives in Christ, freed from slavery to sin. So that all 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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The Sixth Sunday of Year A

Septuagesima is the Sunday roughly seventy days before Easter, or three weeks before the start of Lent.It reminds us that in the Church names and time are important things: they are used to divide and to mark, to draw our attention to things. Historically, the countdown to Lent is a chance to change our focus, with Candlemas our celebration of Christmas drew to a close, and we began to look to the Cross, to Our Lord and Saviour’s Passion. So we begin the countdown to our Lenten observance of prayer and fasting, we begin to get ready to prepare for the most solemn part of the Christian Year: Holy Week and Easter. It’s the Church’s equivalent of an advanced warning – we need to be on the lookout, we need to be prepared, if you like it is the spiritual equivalent of dealing with the current spate of bad weather and power cuts.

We have a choice. That’s what free will is, we are not compelled. We are not forced, we can choose what we want to do. We can follow the ways of the world, ways which will lead to spiritual death, or we can follow Christ, who came not to abolish the Law but to fulfil it, to show us the new Covenant in the Old, to show us that our is God of Love, of Healing, and of Reconciliation. And the Good news is that this loving God calls people to be in a covenant relationship with Him, a covenant cut on the Cross, bought with the Blood of His Son, which leads to the Resurrection, to New Life in and through Him.

What we do and how we do it are important things, and they matter – there are times when we make the sign of the Cross, when the names of the Trinity, the Father, The Son, and the Holy Spirit are mentioned, we bow our heads at the name of Jesus, and we bow or genuflect to altars and aumbries, from which we are fed with the Body and Blood of Christ to honour the God who loves us and who saves us. Many of us may receive flowers or other tokens of affection this week – they demonstrate in a physical way the feelings which we have inside. The church’s ritual is just like this – it enacts what it represents and allows us to make a physical demonstration of the faith which we have inside us. The gestures are not empty; rather they are full of meaning, and full of faith, they help us to express it and live it out in our lives.

What we say, and what we do matter. For a start being a Christian isn’t something we just do for an hour on a Sunday morning, without any connection to the other 167 hours in a week. We enter the Church through baptism, and through prayer and the sacraments, being fed with the Word of God and His Body and Blood, we can be transformed to be like the one who saves us, and who loves us. It doesn’t cost us any money, it’s free, it’s all gift – the grace of God, poured out on us, on you and me, to heal us and to restore us. You’d be a fool to turn this down, wouldn’t you?

It is free, but with it there comes a commitment: a commitment to Christ and His Church, to living our lives in a way which is recognisably Christ-like. This morning’s Gospel tells us that we need to be careful – even the words which we use and the thoughts which we have matter. They matter because they form who and what we are. To be a part of the Christian community has as its basis and starting point reconciliation: reconciliation to God and each other – we need to confess our sins, our faults, and our failings to God, and using the ministry of a priest. It isn’t something which we should leave to the secular courts, or the law of the land, because what is at stake is the state of our souls and our relationship with Christ and with His Body, the Church.

All of our life matters, even the smallest thing, even a thought or a glance. It matters because we are what we do, and what we do helps to form our moral character – we get used to it, it becomes normal and instinctive, it is how we put our faith into practice in our lives. It’s not easy, it’s difficult, and I’m certainly not standing here as a moral super-hero telling people off, but rather as a sinner redeemed by God’s love and mercy, who knows that it’s something which we cannot do alone, we need God, and we need each other – it’s a community effort, and through God’s mercy, and our prayer and support we can be built as living stones as a temple to God’s glory. We can do it together, we are doing it, but we need to keep on trying, together – living simple, transparent lives, letting our ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and our ‘No’ be ‘No’, so that the whole of our lives together proclaims the faith of our hearts, that we are set free to live the life of the Kingdom here and now, that we are prepared to keep renewing our commitment to God and each other, so that the world around us 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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Epiphany IV

In the marriage act, love is triune: wife gives self to husband and husband to self and out of that mutual self-giving is  born the ecstasy of love. The spirit too must have its ecstasy. What the union of husband and wife is in the order of the flesh, the union of the human and the Risen Christ is in Holy Communion

Fulton J. Sheen Those Mysterious Priests, 1974: 157

Everyone loves a party, and that is right and proper, and what more wonderful thing is there to celebrate than a wedding, the joining of a man and a woman that they may become one flesh. Marriage is an image used of Christ and his church: it speaks of a deep union, a profound and meaningful relationship, one of self-giving love, commitment, something wonderful and mysterious. We have not come here this morning to celebrate a wedding but rather the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have come to do what he told his disciples to do at the Last Supper, and the church has done ever since, and will until the end of time. We have come so that we may be fed, be fed by Christ, be fed with Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit God is active in our lives, transforming us, by his grace, so that our human nature may be transformed, into His Divine nature.

If we were to listen to the many voices around us which criticise Christianity, we would think that we were of all people the most pitiable, ours is either a weak death-cult of a failed Jewish magician and wonderworker, or a strange oppressive force which actively works against human flourishing and actualisation.

But nothing could be further from the truth, we celebrate love, and forgiveness, we are imbued with faith, hope, and love in and through God at our Baptism, and as our vocation as Christians is JOY. The one whom we worship, the Son of God made flesh liked nothing better than to hang around at parties with social undesirables, and was accused of being a drunkard by religious authorities. Most of us have outside our houses one or two wheelie bins, which are a similar size to the water jars in the Gospel. They hold about 30 gallons, or 150 litres, or 200 bottles of wine. Multiply that by 6 and you’re looking at 1,200 bottles of wine, a hundred cases, and this was after the wine ran out, what we’re dealing with in the wedding at Cana must have been some party, it must have gone of for a couple of days, and it is only a foreshadowing of the joy of the Kingdom, it points to something greater than itself: this is what is in store.

Our starting point as Christians is Mary’s advice to the servants: Do whatever He tells you. Our life as Christians is rooted in obedience: we listen to God and we obey, for our own good, and the good of the Kingdom, so that we are not conformed to the world and its ways, but rather to the will of God, so that we can truly enter into the joy of the Lord, in humble obedience, fed by Him, and fed with Him, who died for love of us in obedience to the will of the Father.

The world around us struggles somewhat with extravagance, we distrust it, and rightly so: when we see Arabian oil magnates riding around in gold-plated supercars we are right to be concerned, yet in the Gospel we see something strange. The steward had a point: you serve the best wine first, while people are sober and can appreciate it, but the Kingdom of God turns human values on their head – the joyous new wine of the Kingdom is finer than any human wine and 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. Thus, at the Epiphany we celebrate three feasts: Our Lord’s manifestation to the Gentiles, the proclamation of the Messiah to the whole world, his baptism, to show us the way to the Father, a sign of love and obedience, and the Wedding Feast at Cana, as a sign of the superabundance of God’s love, shown to us here today in the Eucharist where we drink the wine of the Kingdom the Blood of Christ so that we may be transformed by the power and the grace of God, so that we may share his Divine life, and encourage others to enter into the joy of the Lord.

All this is brought about by Christ on the Cross, where the Lamb of God is sacrificed, a new passover for a new Israel, the people of God, to free us from our sins, and to give us new life in Christ. It’s crazy, it doesn’t make sense: how and why should God love us so much to go far beyond what Abraham did with Isaac on the mountain of Moriah. The ram caught in the thicket points to Christ, who is the Lamb of God, even then, at the beginning God shows us his love for us, he prepares the way, by giving us a sign, to point us to Christ, to his Son.

Such generosity is hard to comprehend, it leaves us speechless, and all that we can do is to stand like the Beloved Disciple S. John at the foot of the Cross and marvel at the majesty of God’s love. It affects S. Paul in his preaching, a man who began persecuting the Church, who was present at the martyrdom of S. Stephen, has his life transformed by Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ saving us does not make sense, it is an act of reckless generosity, like helping a wedding party drink to the point of excess, it is not supposed to make sense. In rational terms we are sinners, who do not deserve God’s mercy, and yet he shows us his love in giving us his Son, to be born for us, to work signs and wonders, to bring healing and to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God’s love, his mercy, and forgiveness.

So let us come to him, clinging to His Cross, our ONLY HOPE, let us be fed with him, and by him, to be strengthened, healed, and restored, and to share this is with the world, so that it 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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A thought for the day from Fulton Sheen

Let go of Fear

God does not love us because we are loveable of and by ourselves, but because he has put his own love into us. He does not even wait for us to love; his own love perfects us. Letting it do this, with no resistance, no holding back for fear of what our egotism must give up, is the one way to the peace that the world can neither give nor take away

Lift up your Heart

An Advent Meditation

The whole problem of our time is not lack of knowledge but lack of love

Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island

The season of Advent has an interesting character: it is one of joyful waiting, as we await our yearly remembrance of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’s Birth, the dawning of the new hope of Salvation for mankind. It is also a season of penitence, when the church considers the Four Last Things, one for each week of Advent: Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell. Such matters are nowadays rather passed over in our Christian discourse, and while this is understandable, it is not a good thing. Human life on earth, is, by its very nature finite: we are born and we die, we may live for minutes, or decades, even a century – but in the end death comes for us all. This is not morbid, it is a fact of life. The world around us finds death strange and scary: it is sanitised, medicalised, shut away in a hospital or a care home. What was once commonplace and domestic has been put out of sight and out of mind as we seem no longer willing or able to face our own mortality.

As Christians we have hope that this earthly life is not all that there is, we believe that Jesus Christ, who was born in Bethlehem, died on the Cross, and rose again on that glorious Easter morn, and after forty days ascended into Heaven to show us that this is our hope, this is the fruit of our reconciliation with God, and each other. As the Preface for the Dead puts it:

Tuis enim fidelibus, Domine, vita mutatur, non tollitur: et dissoluta terrestris hujus incolatus domo, aeterna in caelis habitatio comparatur.

For the life of thy faithful people, O Lord, is changed, not taken away: and at the dissolution of the tabernacle of this earthly sojourning, a dwelling place eternal is made ready in the heavens

Hence the Christian talk of a good death, a happy death. It is nothing to be feared, but rather to be embraced, as a means to an end, namely the hope of unity with God.

After death comes judgement, and the simple answer is that no single human being deserves to go heaven (with the obvious exception of the Holy Family). We all deserve to go to Hell, ours is a fallen world and we sin, each and every one of us, every day in a multitude of ways. It is that simple, and we cannot work out way to heaven through works, but rather through God’s grace and mercy, through our Baptism, which makes us one with Christ. He gave S. Peter the power to loose and bind, to remind us that sin is a serious matter, it destroys the soul, hence the sacrament of reconciliation, an outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace of God, of forgiveness and mercy. The message Our Lord first declares is exactly the same as John the Baptist ‘καὶ λέγων ὅτι Πεπλήρωται ὁ καιρὸς καὶ ἤγγικεν ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ· μετανοεῖτε καὶ πιστεύετε ἐν τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’ (Mk 1:15 ESV) This is the message of Advent: repent and believe in the Good News of the Kingdom of God, Good News which starts at the Annunciation, which brings about Our Saviour’s Birth. This is why we say Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus!

This leaves us a question, ‘Will we follow Him?’ There are two ways, one leads to Heaven, one leads to Hell; the road to Heaven, the life of faith is not an easy journey, it’s hard. That’s why we have the Church, a frail body, comprised of sinners, but who trust in God’s mercy, and though we keep failing, yet we stumble on, knowing that Heaven is our goal, that the way of the world leads to a future without God, bleak, cold, and devoid of love.

God is a God of mercy, a God who will judge us, knowing that His Son has paid the price, conquering sin and death, so let us believe in Him, trust in Him, and follow Him, let us prepare to celebrate His Birth with joy, and commit ourselves to walking in His way, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Let us experience that mercy and forgiveness in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, let us be fed with His Body and Blood, nourished by His Word, and the teaching of His Church, praying together, loving and forgiving together, so that together our hope may be of Heaven, where we and all the faithful 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.

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The Only Remedy

Ours is a sick world, which longs for healing, which longs for the reconciliation which Christ alone can bring. As we prepare to welcome the Saviour, let us remember why He came among us, and why He is the Balm of Gilead which heals the sin-sick soul. Come Lord Jesus!

Here’s Sam Cooke saying more with music than I can just with words:

Augustine on the works of mercy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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St Augustine on imitating Christ

Pride is the great sin, the head and cause of all sins, and its beginning lies in turning away from God. Beloved, do not make light of this vice, for the proud man who disdains the yoke of Christ is constrained by the harsher yoke of sin: he may not wish to serve, but he has to, because if he will not be love’s servant, he will inevitably be sin’s slave.

From pride arises apostasy: the soul goes into darkness, and misusing its free will falls into other sins, wasting its substance with harlots, and he who was created a fellow of the angels becomes a keeper of swine.

Because of this great sin of pride, God humbled himself, taking on the form of a servant, bearing insults and hanging on a cross. To heal us, he became humble; shall we not be ashamed to be proud?

You have heard the Lord say that if you forgive those who have injured you, your Father in heaven will forgive you. But those who speak the world’s language say. ‘What! you won’t revenge yourself, but let him boast of what he did to you? Surely you will let him see that he is not dealing with a weakling?’ Did the Lord revenge himself on those who struck him? Dying of his own free will, he uttered no threats: and will you, who do not know when you will die, get in a rage and threaten?

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St Augustine on Ps. 19:9

The Pharisee

Shall a Christian go and live apart from the world, so that he may not be tried by false brethren? Shall he who has progressed in a righteous life separate himself so that he need not suffer from anyone? Perhaps people have suffered from before he was converted. Has no one anything to put up with from you? It would surprise me – but if it is so, then you are stronger and thus able to endure other people’s failings.

Do you propose to shut out bad men from good men’s company? if that is what you say, see if you can shut out all evil thoughts from your own heart. Every day we fight with out own heart.

You say you will go apart with a few good men and admit no wicked brother to your society. How do you recognise the man you wish to exclude? Do all come to you with their hearts bare? Those who wish to come do not know themselves, they cannot be proved unless they are tried.

Nowhere in this life are we secure, except in God’s promise – only when we have attained to it, when the gates of Jerusalem are shut behind us, shall we be perfectly safe.

Beloved, mark the apostle’s words: ‘Support one another in charity.’ You forsake the world of men and separate yourself from it. Whom will you profit? Would you have got so far if no one had profited you?

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30th Sunday of Year C

Humility is not self-contempt but the truth about ourselves coupled with a reverence for others; it is self-surrender to the highest goal.

Fulton Sheen Thoughts for Daily Living, 1955: 121

Most of us, I suspect, almost all of us don’t really like paying taxes; we know that we have to, but we’d rather not. There were taxes in Jesus’ day and tax collectors were privatised in the Roman Empire: they had to pay for the contract to collect the taxes, and recouped the cost of gaining the contract by over-charging people. They were not popular people, they were resented, they were hated, and with good reason.

We know that in this morning’s Gospel that the tax-collector is supposed to be the villain of the piece; the Pharisee, a religious authority, is supposed to be the person to whom we look up, the example one might expect to follow. Jesus’ parable, then, turns our understanding of the world on its head. The key to understanding it lies in Luke’s opening comment regarding those: ‘who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt’ (Lk 18:9). There is a fundamental problem with the difference between how they think of themselves and others. The Pharisee isn’t praying, he isn’t talking to God, he’s praying to himself, justifying what he thinks of himself, saying to God, ‘Look at me, am I not good?’

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ (Lk 18:13). His prayer is that God will be merciful. He is so conscious of his own sin and need of God that he opens up a space in which God can be at work. It is in this space that we all need to be. We need to recognise that we need God to be at work in us, that we need to rely upon him to change us, to transform us – so that we can become the people that God wants us to be. All the prayer, all the rituals, all the externals of religion, are of no use unless they go hand in hand with an attitude which recognises that we need God, that we are sinful, and need his love and his mercy to transform us.

That is why, as Christians, we pray, why we come to Mass each and every week to be fed by word and sacrament, so that God’s grace and transforming love may be at work in us, transforming our nature, making us more like him. Everything that we say or think or do needs to be an outworking of our faith, so that our exterior life and our interior life are in harmony with each other – so that our lives, like St Paul’s, may proclaim the Gospel. This is what we are called to, and how we are to live. Unless we start from the point where we know our need of God and rely upon him, where we too make that space where God can be at work in us, in our souls and our lives, we are doomed to be like the self-righteous Pharisee, talking to ourselves, massaging our own egos, wallowing in selfishness and narcissism, proud and cruel.

Now is this the kind of life we really want to lead? Is this really the path of human flourishing? Or are we called to something better, something greater, something more lovely? So let us put our trust in the God who loves us and who saves us, let us know our need of him and his transforming grace to fill our lives and transform all of his creation so that the world may believe and be transformed 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.

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A Thought from S. Teresa of Avila – When discouraged trust in God’s Mercy

Beware, daughters, of a certain kind of humility suggested by the devil which is accompanied by great anxiety about the gravity of our sins.

He disturbs souls in many ways by this means, until at last he stops them from receiving Holy Communion and from private prayer by doubts as to whether they are in a fit state for it, and such thoughts as: ‘Am I worthy of it? Am I in a good disposition?I am unfit to live in a religious community. ‘

Thus Christians are hindered from prayer, and when they communicate, the time during which they ought to be obtaining graces is spent in wondering whether they are well prepared or no.

Everything such a person says seems to her on the verge of evil, and all her actions appear fruitless, however good they are in themselves. She becomes discouraged and unable to do any good, for what is right in others she fancies is wrong in herself.

When you are in this state, turn your mind so far as you can from your misery and fix it on the mercy of God, his love for us, and all that He suffered for our sake.

The Way of Perfection 39:1, 3

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Lent V

This morning’s Gospel asks us some serious questions: do we love Jesus this much? Would we risk being laughed at or criticised for our extravagance in being like Mary of Bethany and pouring ointment on Jesus?

How can we do this for Jesus in our lives? Can we really show him how much we love him, and how much we want to serve him? What might this look like in our lives, and how might we do it together as a Church, to proclaim God’s saving love to the world. As we begin Passiontide we look to the Cross that more radical costly act of generous love, the love of God for us. God does this for us, what are we going to do in return? Are we going to be like Judas and moan about the cost, the extravagance? Do we want to be a penny-pinching miserly church, or do we want to be something else, something which makes the world stop and take notice, which doesn’t make sense, which shows the world that there is another way, and it is the way of the Kingdom. God’s generosity gives his Son to die for us, he feeds us with His Body and Blood so that we might have life in Him. What are we going to do in return?

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Lent IV

Let those who think that the Church pays too much attention to Mary give heed to the fact that Our Blessed Lord Himself gave ten times as much of His life to her  as He gave to His Apostles.

Fulton Sheen, The World’s First Love, 1956: 88

As human beings we believe  that we have been created in the image of God, and thus human love should reflect something of that divine love. Most of us, though sadly not all, experience self-giving, sacrificial love from our parents, and particularly our mothers: they nourish us, care for us, comfort and love us, just as they have given birth to us: it is a wonderful thing, which should be celebrated and held up as an example.

When the Church seeks to understand and celebrate mothers she does so by considering the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. He is cared for through the love of his mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, who in her love, service, and obedience, stands as the model for all Christians to follow. She is the first Christian, and the greatest: a pattern for us to imitate, and a foreshadowing of our great mother the church, which seeks to offer the world a moral framework, within which to live its life; and to offer the world an alternative, a new way of living and of being through which to have life, and have life in all its fullness.

Mary’s is a love which will see her stand at the foot of the Cross and experience the pain of watching her Son die, for love of us. Any parent will tell you that they would do anything to save their children from hurt or harm, and yet there she stands, and is initiated into a new relationship where she becomes a mother to John, the beloved disciple, and through him, a mother of all of, the mother of the church, someone who loves, prays, and cherishes.

It is this love which St Paul expects of the church in Colossae, and which God expects of us: it describes what love looks like: it isn’t easy, it’s difficult, costly and frustrating, but through it we can grow in love, of God and each other.

The salvation and eternal life which Christ offers freely to all, comes through the church, which we enter in our baptism, where we are nourished in word and sacrament, where we given food for the journey of faith, 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. Not to condemn the world but to offer it a way of being. 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. So 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.

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 and alternative to selfishness, to self-centredness, to the sin which continues to separate us from God and each other, an alternative seen in the self-giving love of mothers, and in 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…

Christmas 2015

 

Αὐτὸς γὰρ ἐνηνθρώπησεν, ἵνα ἡμεῖς θεοποιηθῶμεν· ‘He became human so that we might become divine

Athanasius De Incarnatione Dei Verbi 54.3

 

Love tends to become like the one loved; in fact, it even wishes to become one with the one loved. God loved unworthy man. He willed to become one, and that was the Incarnation.

Fulton Sheen The Divine Romance New York 1930: 70

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We have come here tonight to celebrate something which defies our understanding and expectations. The simple fact that the God who created all that is took flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary and was born for us in Bethlehem as the Messiah, the Anointed of God, who would save us from our sins, should still feel strange and odd. It simply doesn’t make sense, nor indeed should it. In human terms, Mary should have been stoned to death for extra-marital infidelity, and some thirty three years later her son is executed as a blasphemer, a rabble-rouser, a trouble maker, in an awkward backwater of the Roman Empire, having gathered round himself a small group of misfits and undesirables appealing to the baser elements of society. There is nothing respectable here, just the rantings of religious extremists.

And yet here we are, some two thousand years later, celebrating the birth of a child who changed human history and human nature, because we do not judge things solely by human standards. We come together so that we may ponder the mystery of God’s love for us, a God who heals our wounds, who restores broken humanity, who offers us a fresh start, who can see beyond our failures and shortcomings, and who becomes a human being so that humanity might become divine, so that we may share in the divine life of love, both here on earth and in heaven.

If that isn’t a cause for celebration, I honestly don’t know what is. We are so familiar with the story of Christmas that I wonder whether we, myself included, really take the time to ponder, to marvel at the mystery which unfolded two thousand years ago in Bethlehem. God, who made all that is, comes among us, taking flesh in the womb of a young girl through the power of His Holy Spirit, so that in His Son we might see and experience God and His love for us.

God comes among us not in power or splendour but as a weak, vulnerable child, depending on others for love, and food, and warmth, laid in an animal’s feeding trough, insulated from the cold hard stone by straw – beginning his life as he will end it placed in a stranger’s tomb.

Throughout his life all that Christ says and does shows us how much God loves us. The Word becomes flesh, and enters the world, he dwells among us, a wondrous mystery which provokes us to worship, to kneel with the shepherds and to adore the God who comes among us, who shares our human life so that we might share His divine life, not because we asked for it, not because we deserve it, we haven’t worked for it, or earned it, rather it is the free gift of a loving and merciful God, this then is the glory of God – being born in simple poverty, surrounded by outcasts, on the margins of society, to call humanity to a new way of being together, where the old order is cast aside, turning the world upside down and offering us the possibility of living in a radically different way, a way of peace and love and joy, not one of power. Heaven comes to earth, born in the womb of a Virgin, so that we might behold the glory of God in a new-born child. So that we might experience the love and truth of God.

The word is made flesh so that prophesy might be fulfilled, so that the hope of salvation might be dawn, so that a people who have languished long in darkness might behold the glory of God where heaven and earth meet, in a stable in Bethlehem, where men and angels may sing together ‘Alleluia, Glory be to God on high, and on earth peace to people of goodwill’ The worship of heaven is joined with earth on this most holy night, that in the quiet and stillness all the earth might be filled with the praises of Almighty God, who stoops to save humanity in the birth of His Son.

The Son who lives and dies and rises again for us will be here tonight under the outward forms of bread and wine so that the heavenly banquet may nourish our souls. He gives Himself so that we might share His Divinity, that God’s love can transform our human nature, having redeemed it in His Nativity. So let us come to sing his praises, and be nourished with His Body and Blood and experience here on earth the joy of Heaven and the closeness and the love of God, let it fill our souls with joy, and let us live lives which recognise the wondrous thing which happens tonight, that it may be a reality in our lives, that we may may proclaim in word and deed the reality of the Word made flesh, so that others may be drawn to kneel and worship like the shepherds, like the Holy Family of Mary and Joseph, and come to believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever.

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

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..

Be Prepared – Matthew 25:1-13

The Scouting Movement has as its motto ‘Be Prepared’ which rather sums up the message of this morning’s Gospel. As people who live in the countryside we are more than used to having a supply of candles and batteries ready at hand to deal with the inevitable winter power cuts caused by bad weather. It makes sense, so that we are not caught out – having to endure the cold and dark.
      The Gospel speaks of a more serious preparedness, one which we must all face.  Our earthly lives are finite, and we have to be prepared for our end. We know that as Our Lord came among us born as a baby in Bethlehem, so he will come as Our Judge, and we have to be ready to meet Him. Rather than face this future with a feeling of uncertainty, of dread, we can as Christians have hope, we can watch and wait in hope, in the darkness, in the knowledge that Christ loves us, that he gave himself for us, he died to take away our sins, and that we can live for and through Him. It need not catch us unawares, as we have been warned, so that we can be prepared, we can be ready, with the lamp of faith and good works ready, trimmed and burning – a light burning in the darkness.
      It is a very human fear, and clearly the Christians in Thessaly around ad55 were more than a little concerned about what might happen. They can have the hope that ‘so we will be with the Lord forever.’ (1Thes 4:17) and therefore confident in that hope, they can begin to live out their faith here and now. They can live out the justice and righteousness which is pleasing to God, as it is how he wants us to live, so that we can have life in its fullness in Him.
      If what we believe in our hearts and how we live our lives are in perfect sync 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 afraid, and we can get on with the business of living our lives secure in our faith. When we do this we can begin to see something of the just and gentle rule of Christ, as we will transform the world, and will be truly alive, living the life of heaven here in earth. Each day, as Christians, we pray, and we say the prayer that Jesus taught us which includes the petition ‘Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’. So that our words are not empty, as well as praying for the coming of God’s kingdom, we have to do something about it – we have to show how prepared we are by listening to God and doing what he tells us.

      We pray, we are nourished by the word of God, in reading the Bible, we are nourished by the sacraments of the Church, by the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, so that we may be strengthened in our faith, strengthened to live it out in our lives, living out the sacrifice so that we may be drawn into its mystery, carrying our own Cross, and being conformed ever more and more to the example of Our Lord and Saviour, living in Him, living like Him, living the life of the Kingdom here and now, so Christ’s kingdom may come here on earth, that His will may be done. 

Homily for the 26th Sunday of Year A

In the Gospels Jesus crosses swords with religious authorities on a number of occasions – it’s quite understandable – all they want to do is nit-pick. They want to accuse him of blasphemy, and are so fixated with what they think he may be doing wrong that they completely fail to see what he is doing right. It’s a sad state of affairs, but a very human one – we can all be judgemental, and it can blind us to what’s really going on.
The Pharisees and Elders are so concerned with detail that they cannot see the wood for the trees – they fail to recognise who Jesus is and what he does. They are troubled by John the Baptist, with his message of repentance, of turning away from sin, and turning to God and having new life in Him, through the waters of baptism. Jesus can beat them at their own game and asks them a question which they cannot or will not answer.
The central part of Jesus’ teaching is the Parable of the Two Sons: one says he will and doesn’t, and the other says he won’t and does. Actions then speak louder than words, and our faith as Christians is something which needs to be put into action in our lives – we have to walk the walk, rather than simply talking the talk –it is difficult, it is challenging but equally that is the point of our faith as Christians – as people who follow Jesus and who do what he tells us.
Unlike the religious leaders, the message proclaimed first by John the Baptist and then by Our Lord is listened to and accepted by prostitutes and tax-collectors. These people were the lowest of the low – shunned by polite society for what they did, with a reputation for being greedy and sexually immoral, and yet they despite their failings know their need of God, they have the humility to recognise their need for grace and love to be poured into their hearts, and are willing to turn their lives around. They are not stubborn, hard-hearted or proud, they are humble – the kind of people in whose lives God can be at work.
The message of repentance was proclaimed by the prophets, as we see in the first reading from the prophet Ezekiel. He calls the people of Israel to repentance, to turn away from their sins and be close to God, it is the same message proclaimed by John the Baptist, it is a message which finds its fulfilment in the person, teaching, and life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the hope for which the prophets long and to which they point. God wants us to live, to have life and have it in all its fullness by being close to him, humble, repentant, and fashioning our lives after the example of His only Son.
It is the same message which the Apostle Paul preaches to the Church in Philippi – the obedience of the Son to the will of the Father, and at the heart of it all, the Cross. The greatest demonstration of God’s love for humanity, the power of God’s reconciling love at work to redeem, to heal and transform humanity. It is truly amazing that God loves us this much and that Christ flings wide His arms on the Cross to embrace the world with God’s love. We celebrate it because it is the single most important moment of human history, which can affect all time and all people. Here is the healing for which we long, the reconciliation, the restoration of humanity, and our relationship with each other and the divine.

That is why on the night before he died Jesus takes bread and wine to point to what he is about to accomplish. He tells us to do this, and so we do – we have come here this morning to be fed by word and sacrament, to be fed with the Body and Blood of Christ, so that through the re-presentation of the sacrifice of Calvary, we the people of God, can be fed by Him, and fed with Him, so that we can have new life in Him. So let us come to Him, knowing our need of God’s love and mercy, and letting it transform our lives, strengthening our faith and helping us to live out our faith in our lives, so that we can be built up as living stones, as a temple to God’s glory, with our lives proclaiming the saving truth that God loves us, that he forgives our sins, and can heal and restore us, and let us share this saving truth with others, so that they too may enter into the joy of the Lord.

Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh on Forgiveness

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. 

A thought for the day from St John of the Cross

Wait upon God with loving and pure attentiveness, working no violence on yourself lest you disturb the soul’s peace and tranquility. God will feed your soul with heavenly food since you put no obstacle in his way. The soul in this state must remember that if it is not conscious of making progress, it is making much more than when it is walking on foot, because God himself is bearing it in his arms. Although outwardly it is doing nothing, it is in reality doing more than if it were working, since God is doing the work within it. And it is not remarkable that the soul does not see this, for our senses cannot perceive that which God works in the soul. Let the soul then leave itself in the hands of God and have confidence in him. Let it not trust itself to the hands and works of others, for if it stays in God’s care it will certainly make progress. 

Homily for the 22nd Sunday of Year A

No-one can fail to see the reality of human sin: all we need to do is to turn on the television or the radio or open a newspaper and see just what terrible things human beings can do to each other and themselves.
       As part of the his proclamation of the Kingdom, Jesus has to tell his disciples what will happen – he will be taken and accused, tortured and mistreated, and killed, but also rise again so that we may know that death is not the end, that our earthly life is not all that there is. It should come as no surprise that faced with this the apostle Peter cannot take it in – he does not want it to happen. It’s a human response – we do not want such a thing to take place, it’s horrible, it appals us. As Jesus says to Peter, ‘You are setting your mind on human things not divine things’. The Cross is inevitable for the simple reason that God loves us that much.
       As Christians, those who follow Christ, we are to take up our Cross and follow him. In the Letter to the Romans, St Paul describes what love looks like in action – it is how we put our faith, what we believe, into practice in our lives – by living out the love and forgiveness which we have received, turning from the ways of the world but rather following the way of God.
       We should be under no illusion; it isn’t easy following the way of the Cross. We cannot do it on our own, we have to do it together, as a community, relying upon God – loving and forgiving each other. All the power, all the wealth in the world is worth nothing compared to finding true life in Christ. These worldly things cannot save us, they cannot give us eternal life, they cannot deal with human sin – only Jesus can do this. Only in Christ can we have life and life in its fullness. Only if we lose our life by following him, can we find what our human life can be.
       Thus, the church in following Jesus, offers a radical alternative to the ways of selfishness and sin, a radical 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, living out an example of radical love which is difficult and costly and wonderful.

       We do it through prayer, through our conversation with God, listening to God, we are nourished by the Word of God, the Bible, to know that God loves us, and how are to live out that love and forgiveness in our lives. We are nourished by the sacraments of the Church, by Holy Communion, so that the love which God shows to the world on the Cross can continue 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 come to him, 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 conform us to his example. Let us take our Cross, as people ransomed, healed, restored and forgiven by the love of God on the Cross. 

Ransomed, Healed, Restored, Forgiven

Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ was never afraid to court controversy, or indeed to challenge a religious hierarchy. Generally speaking it’s the Pharisees who tend to get both barrels so to speak. Jesus has a problem with hypocrisy: when what we say and what we do don’t match up. The Pharisees are so concerned with outward conformity to the letter of the Law of Moses that they have forgotten what the spirit is. While they stress the need for outward purity in terms of hand-washing, they need to remember that what is far worse is how what people think and say and do affects who and what they are. In their rigid outward conformity they have forgotten that at a fundamental level the Law of Moses needs affect our lives and to be lived out.
It is a great challenge to each and every one of us to live up to this. It is both simple and difficult, and something which we all need to do together, as a community, so that we can support each other, and help each other to live out our faith in our lives. Otherwise we are the blind leading the blind, valuing outward conformity over the conversion of the soul, more concerned with appearance than reality and making a mockery of God and religion. It is an easy trap into which we can and do fall, so let us be vigilant and encourage each other not to fall into it, and to help each other out when we do.
Likewise the healing of the daughter of the Syro-Phoenecian woman can appear to be troubling at first: the Kingdom which Jesus comes to inaugurate is meant to be a place of healing, so its initial absence is troubling. The disciples can only see the woman as a troublesome annoyance, she’s making a fuss. Jesus begins by saying that he has not come to help her – his mission is save the lost sheep of Israel. So she begs him, ‘Lord help me’ His reply, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs’ can seem at a superficial level to be rude and dismissive. Yet it elicits the following response: ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ To which Jesus replies ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ The girl is healed through the power of God, but Jesus’ initial withholding seems to be designed to show the centrality of faith in God as a prerequisite for the pouring out of God’s healing love upon the world.
As opposed to the exclusive view of Jesus’ mission being only to Jews, we see in this miracle that God’s healing love is for all, and the Gospel, the Good News of Christ, is for everyone, and that if we have faith, if we trust God to be at work in our lives then we will not be disappointed. We can put our trust in a God who loves us, who heals us, and who saves us, who offers freedom, healing and salvation for all, and who spared not His only Son for love of us.
As we are fed and nourished with the Word of God, and with the Sacrament of His Body and Blood, so that the healing love of God may be poured out upon us, to restore us, to strengthen us to live out our faith together, not in outward conformity, keeping up appearances, for the sake of propriety, but so that we can be healed, and helped to live out our faith together. Let us enter into the joy of the Lord, and encourage others to do so, so that they too may believe and 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.

A thought for the day from St Isaac the Syrian

Love is the kingdom which the Lord mystically promised to the disciples, when he said that they would eat in his kingdom; ‘You shall eat and drink at my table in my kingdom’ (Lk 22:30). What should they eat and drink if not love?

When we have reached love, we have reached God and our journey is complete. We have crossed over to the island which lies beyond the world, where are the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; to whom be glory and dominion. May God make us worthy to fear and love him. Amen

A thought for the day from St Isaac of Nineveh

A zealous person never achieves peace of mind. And he who is deprived of peace is deprived of joy.

If, as is said, peace of mind is perfect health, and zeal is opposed to peace, then a person stirred by zeal is ill with a grievous sickness.

While you presume to stir up your zeal against the sickness of others, you will have banished health from your own soul. You should concern yourself with your own healing. But if you wish to heal those who are sick, know that the sick have greater need of loving care than rebukes.

Zeal is not reckoned among mankind as a form of wisdom; rather it is one of the sicknesses of the soul, arising from narrow-mindedness and deep ignorance.

The beginning of divine wisdom is the serenity acquired from generosity of soul and forbearance with human infirmities.

For he says ‘You who are strong should bear the infirmities of the weak’ (Rom 15:1), and ‘Put right transgressor with a humble spirit’ (Gal 6:1). The Apostle numbers peace and long-suffering among the fruits of the Holy Spirit. 

The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares

The world around us can be a strange place. We dislike death, that’s understandable, and yet it is inevitable. People now seem to think that in the name of compassion that we should be able to choose when and how it happens, which is highly problematic. As Christians, we believe that life is sacred from its very beginning to its end, and it is something which we must all face. And yet, in Christ we have hope, that our earthly existence is not everything, and His Death and Resurrection shows us that our destiny is to be with God, forever in heaven.
       As for the matter of judgement, we leave such things up to God, we cannot know, all we can do is to trust in His mercy, and try to live out our faith. Rather than trying to usurp the place of God, an act of pride, and judge whether we are wheat or weeds, we leave such matters up to Him. Instead we need to realise that as the Body of Christ, the Church, we are to be concerned with living the life of the Kingdom here and now. Our faith is not a private matter; it affects who we are and what we do. As people who have received the love and mercy of God, we are to live accordingly.
       It’s why we are here, it’s why Christians gather on the first day of the week, to pray together,  to listen to the Scriptures, and to be fed with the Body and Blood of Christ, so that we may have live in Him, so that we may be strengthened to live lives of faith in the world, not conformed to it, not going along with what it says or does, but living out a radical alternative, of costly love and forgiveness, looking to God to heal our wounds and restore us, and trusting in His unfailing love.
       It isn’t easy, it is difficult, and it is hard, and for two thousand years we have been trying, and getting it wrong, but we don’t simply give up – no, we keep trying, and keep trying together. Our faith matters to each and every one of us, and we’re all in it together. The work of the kingdom is communal and corporate. I’m no better than any of you, I’m weak, sinful, and foolish, I follow Christ in a particular way, that doesn’t make me special or better. You look to me to lead, to teach and to nourish, but I can only do so with your love, support, prayers and forgiveness, so that together, as the people of God in this place, we make the Kingdom of God, the kingdom of peace, joy, love and forgiveness, a reality in this place.
       In so doing, we are following Christ – this is what it means to be a Christian. We follow someone who was not content just to go along with the ways of the world, someone who enjoyed celebrations so much that he was called a drunkard, but who ignored the petty judgemental comments, who ate with tax-collectors, sinners and prostitutes, to take a stand against a society where people think that wealth or birth, or anything else make one intrinsically a better person. Only God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness can do that, which those whom society scorned both knew and recognised and responded to.

       Our calling then is a radical one, which aims at nothing less than the transformation of the whole world, starting here and now, to make the Kingdom of God a living transformative reality in this place for the glory of God. We can only succeed if we do it together, and trusting in the God who loves us, who heals and restores us, whose Kingdom it is.

Homily for the Sixth Sunday of Year A (Septuagesima)



Septuagesima, roughly seventy days before Easter, or three weeks before the start of Lent, reminds us that in the Church names and time are important things: they are used to divide and to mark, to draw our attention to things. Historically, the countdown to Lent is a chance to change our focus, with Candlemas our celebration of Christmas drew to a close, and we began to look to the Cross, to Our Lord and Saviour’s Passion. So we begin the countdown to our Lenten observance of prayer and fasting, we begin to get ready to prepare for the most solemn part of the Christian Year: Holy Week and Easter. It’s the Church’s equivalent of an advanced warning – we need to be on the lookout, we need to be prepared, rather like dealing with the current spate of bad weather and power cuts.
What we do and how we do it are important things, and they matter – there are times when we make the sign of the Cross, when the names of the Trinity, the Father, The Son, and the Holy Spirit are mentioned, we bow our heads at the name of Jesus, and we bow or genuflect to altars and aumbries, from which we are fed with the Body and Blood of Christ to honour the God who loves us and who saves us. Many of us may have received flowers or other tokens of affection this week – they demonstrate in a physical way the feelings which we have inside. The church’s ritual is just like this – it enacts what it represents and allows us to make a physical demonstration of the faith which we have inside us. The gestures are not empty; rather they are full of meaning, and full of faith.
What we say, and what we do matter. For a start being a Christian isn’t something we just do for an hour on a Sunday morning, without any connection to the other 167 hours in a week. We enter the Church through baptism, and through prayer and the sacraments, being fed with the Word of God and His Body and Blood, we can be transformed to be like the one who saves us, and who loves us. It doesn’t cost us any money, it’s free, it’s all gift – the grace of God, poured out on us, on you and me, to heal us and to restore us. You’d be a fool to turn this down, wouldn’t you?
It is free, but with it there comes a commitment: a commitment to Christ and His Church, to living our lives in a way which is recognisably Christ-like. This morning’s Gospel tells us that we need to be careful – even the words which we use matter. To be a part of the Christian community has as its basis and starting point reconciliation: reconciliation to God and each other – we need to confess our sins, our faults, and our failings to God, and using the ministry of a priest. It isn’t something which we should leave to the secular courts, or the law of the land, because what is at stake is the state of our souls and our relationship with Christ and with His Body, the Church.
All of our life matters, even the smallest thing, even a glance. It matters because we are what we do, and what we do helps to form our moral character – we get used to it, it becomes normal and instinctive, it is how we put our faith into practice in our lives. It’s not easy, it’s difficult, and I’m not standing here as a moral super-hero telling people off, but rather as a sinner redeemed by God’s love and mercy, who knows that it’s something which we cannot do alone, we need God, and we need each other – it’s a community effort, and through God’s mercy, and our prayer and support we can be built as living stones as a temple to God’s glory. We can do it together, we are doing it, but we need to keep on trying, together – living simple, transparent lives, letting our ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and our ‘No’ be ‘No’, so that the whole of our lives together proclaims the faith of our hearts, that we are set free to live the life of the Kingdom here and now, that we are prepared to keep renewing our commitment to God and each other, so that the world around us 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.

St Isaac of Nineveh on the Mercy of God


 

As a handful of sand thrown into the ocean, so are the sins of all flesh as compared with the mind of God.

Just as a strongly-flowing fountain is not blocked by a handful of earth, so the compassion  of the Creator is not overcome by the wickedness of his creatures.

Someone who bears a grudge while they pray is like a person who sows in the sea and expects to reap a harvest.

As a flame of fire cannot be prevented from ascending upwards, so the prayers of the compassionate cannot be held back from ascending into heaven.