Twenty-first Sunday of Year A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maundy Thursday 2020

I WOULD LIKE to begin this evening by sharing something with you from my own experience: In February 2012 I was fortunate to have undertaken a pilgrimage to Rome with other pilgrims from Leicester, Nottingham and the Midlands. The journeys both to and from the Eternal City were not entirely unproblematic. Due to the first snowfall in Rome in twenty-five years both our arrival and departure were somewhat delayed. Our flight home was finally cancelled on the Saturday afternoon, and we had spent several hours waiting in the airport to try and find out what was going on. Tired and confused, we got back on a bus and returned to the Hotel where we had been staying.

As part of our pilgrimage we had celebrated the Eucharist in a variety of local churches — a generous gesture, but one which had been planned long in advance. It was now Sunday, and nothing had been arranged — we had all expected to be back at home, what could we do? We couldn’t simply walk into a church, so we went to one of the larger rooms on the first floor and rearranged the furniture. Priests had vestments with them, some wine was bought, and we had some bread and water with us already, a couple of wineglasses and a plate. Forty or so of us squeezed into this upper room, some stood, some reclined on the beds, or sat. We had gathered on the outskirts of the city as the first Christians, to whom the Apostle Paul wrote his letter did, on that the day of the Lord’s Resurrection we had gathered in a way not unlike Our Lord and the Disciples did on this very night. It all felt very real, we were aware that despite the strange, slightly cobbled-together nature of things, God was very close indeed; we were doing just what Christians have done ever since our Lord and Saviour commanded us to do it in memory of him.

That is why the church celebrates this evening the fact that before Jesus was arrested, on the night before He suffered and died for us, He took bread and wine, gave thanks to God for them, and gave them to His disciples, and told them to DO THIS in remembrance of Him. For nearly two thousand years, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, the church has continued to obey Christ’s command. And we will continue so to do until the end of time. 

Yet this year it feels profoundly different: I am not able to celebrate the Institution of the Eucharist in church with you, the people of God. Instead, in isolation, at home using a sideboard in the dining room, I will begin to enter the three holiest days of the Church’s Year, by doing what the Church has always done. We are united in spirit even if we cannot be together physically, for our own safety and health, and that of others, especially the most vulnerable. The domestic setting of this evening’s liturgy mirrors its origins in an upper room in Jerusalem, and at one level it does not matter WHERE it is done, but that it is done. That it is done in isolation is painful, for me and for you, but our pain and isolation gives us a window into the pain and isolation which Our Lord Jesus Christ felt in His Passion and Death. We are being invited this year to share in Christ’s sufferings, so that we may be transformed by them. As Christians we follow Christ and enter into His Passion, so that we may also share the joy of His Resurrection. That’s the point: there is HOPE. Now as then, death is not the end. Despite the pain, the betrayal, the fear, the anger of the crowd, they do not have the last word.

Christianity is a joyful religion, which celebrates the fact that God loves us, was born as one of us, lived and died and rose again, for us. At the end of this evening’s Gospel Reading Jesus speaks to his disciples thus, ‘For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.’ (John 13:15 ESV) Christ gives His disciples an example of service to remind them that is particularly relevant to those of us who are ordained, and called to fashion our lives after the example of Our Lord, following HIS example and living it out in our lives. This is a most wonderful and humbling task which can fill us with both joy and fear and I would humbly ask that you continue to pray for me as I continue to serve God and you, His people. It is loving service for our Lord to feed his disciples with His own Body and Blood. Tonight, Christ institutes the Eucharist, taking bread and wine that they might become His Body and Blood, which will soon suffer and die for US. The Church exists to carry on the offering of the Son to the Father, to make it present across space and time.

On this night Christ institutes the priesthood and sets His disciples apart to carry on His saving work in the world. We who follow in their footsteps are shown in the clearest possible way that to love Him, to care for His people, is to serve them. We are to imitate the mysteries which we celebrate: offering our lives in His service and the service of His church. It is truly extraordinary that we should have such a responsibility placed on our shoulders. We are all of us, if the truth be told, utterly incapable of such a task if we were acting solely in our own strength and our own abilities. But through the grace of God, and with the help of the prayers of you His people, it is our hope that we may conform ourselves ever more closely to Christ, our great High Priest.

As Mother Theresa said, ‘Prayer in action is love, love in action is service’. Christ shows us that and asks us to imitate Him, in His Passion and Death, suffering as He suffered, being generous and humble as He is, in our love and service. 

God shows us what true love, true glory, and true service are. The world cannot fully understand this: it goes against everything people are told about putting themselves and their lives first, to judge their importance or worth by what they own, rather than how they live their lives. In its selfish searching, what it truly wants and needs is to be healed, to be embraced by a loving God. That is why it tomorrow on the Cross our Lord’s Arms will be flung wide open to embrace the world with God’s love.

Let us be strengthened by Him, to fashion our lives after His. Let us prepare to go to Calvary with Him, laying down our lives in His service, picking up our Cross and following Him, to death and beyond, to the new life of Easter. Let us live His risen life, and share our joy with others, that the world may come to believe and trust in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now, and forever. Amen. 

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Easter III: Acts 9:1-6, Rev 5:11-14, John 21:1-19

Persecution is something we are used to in the church. For nearly two thousand years since the stoning of Stephen the deacon to the recent attacks in Sri Lanka, Christians have borne witness to their faith regardless of the cost. It is something to which we are all called. Not that we should actively seek it, but our faith, and our relationship with God is so important, that nothing, not even life itself is more important. Such is the love God has for each and every one of us. We have experienced it in the Triduum, and continue so to do as we continue our celebration of the great fifty days of Easter. We are filled with joy at Our Lord’s Resurrection from the dead. Through it we are changed, transformed, and filled with love, and empowered to change the world, so that it may be filled with God’s love.

In this morning’s first reading Saul tries to continue his persecution of the Church. Then he encounters Jesus, who doesn’t say, ‘Why are you persecuting my Church?’ but, ‘Why are you persecuting me?’ We are used to understanding the Church as the Body of Christ, and in the Acts of the Apostles Christ identifies Himself so closely with the Church that He and it are one and the same. That is how closely we are united with Christ through the Church. The Church, born at the foot of the Cross when the Blessed Virgin Mary and St John are given to each other exists to contemplate Christ, and to love Him, and be loved by Him. Through our baptism we share in Christ’s Death and Resurrection, and are His Body, and we fed with His Body, to be transformed more and more into Him.

Thus in the vision of Heavenly worship we see this morning in Revelation we see Heaven and Earth united in the worship of Jesus Christ, who is God. As Christians we are made for worship, to be united with God in love, and we prepare for heaven here on earth. It’s why we are here, to continue our celebration of Our Lord’s Resurrection from the dead.

In this morning’s gospel the Risen Lord gives an invitation to his disciples, to ‘come and have breakfast’ but they don’t have any fish. So they go out and do what Jesus tells them, and they catch fish, 153 of them. The disciples don’t recognise Jesus until they catch the fish. When they follow His commands they recognise Him. So, we too must be obedient to Christ, and listen to Him.

Then Christ feeds his disciples breakfast before asking Peter if he loves him and commanding him to feed his lambs. It’s an important moment. Christ asks Peter the same question three times, ‘Do you love me?’ something which clearly looks back to Peter’s triple denial on the night of Jesus’ arrest before His Passion and Death. His triple denial is effaced by his triple confession. Peter is clearly upset: it’s his conscience at work reminding him of his failure, which leads him to say, ‘Lord you know everything, you know that I love you’. Jesus does not condemn him, he simply reminds Peter, so that he may be encouraged in his task: to feed Christ’s sheep, to be a shepherd, a good Shepherd, and to lay down his life for his sheep after the example of his Lord and Master. This is how Peter is to fulfil Christ’s command, ‘Follow me’. It reminds all of us called as bishops, priests, and deacons, that we too are called to feed Christ’s flock, both with the Sacraments of the Church, but in our teaching of the faith and the example of our lives. It’s important to who we are and what we do. They are Christ’s sheep, not our own. You belong to Christ and it is our duty to care for you and feed you.

Peter is fed by the Lord before he is called to go and feed others, and to care for them. We too have come here today to be fed by the Lord, to be fed with the Lord, with His Body and Blood, under the outward forms of bread and wine, to share in his divine life, so that we may become what he is, and have a foretaste of heaven. We are fed so that we may go out and feed others, so that we may follow the example of the apostles and not cease teaching and preaching Jesus Christ. When we do this we will give honour and worship to God no different from the heavenly worship we have seen described in this morning’s second reading. This is the heavenly glory of which we have a foretaste here on Earth. We are called to bear witness to our faith in the world, so that it may believe. We are called to be witnesses, regardless of the cost. While we may not face persecution in this country; we are more likely to be faced with indifference, a coldness of heart, which denies the fact that what we are and what we say is important or has value. Yet we are to live lives which proclaim the fact that our life and death have meaning and value through Jesus Christ, who loves us, who died for us, and rose again so that we might have eternal life in Him. It is a gift so precious that we have to share it, we cannot keep it for ourselves. In sharing it, it becomes a greater and more wonderful gift. In sharing it we are preparing for that moment seen by St John when all of creation will sing the praise of God, filled with his love, healed and restored by him.

We are preparing for that moment here and now preparing to be fed by Him, to be fed with Him, looking forward to that time when we and all creation will sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as it most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.

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Henri Nouwen on Ministry

“More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems. My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets. It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress. But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them.”

¡Gracias! pp 147-148