Advent I (Year A)

Just over one hundred and one years ago a war ended that was supposed to be ‘the war to end all wars’. Instead the last century has seen very little peace. We are lucky in Western Europe that we have experienced 70 years without conflict, but there have been wars elsewhere. Humanity is still plagued by warfare: the loss of life, the crimes committed, lives blighted. So when we hear the prophecy of Isaiah in this morning’s first reading it is truly joyful. Beating swords into ploughshares and turning spears into pruning hooks sounds wonderful indeed. Growing crops and tending vines provides us with food and drink. It is a sign of peace, joy, and prosperity. And at the time when Christ was born, and we are preparing to celebrate the yearly memorial of his birth at Christmas, this prophecy was fulfilled. There was peace in the Roman World when Christ was born, scripture was fulfilled. And we look forward to such peace coming again, and we work for it, together. The messianic age which we look forward to  shows us what truly following Christ looks like in practice. If we walk in the light of the Lord, we are freed from the darkness of sin and destruction, which threatens to overwhelm us. 

This same message is found in St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, our second reading this morning. It is an encouraging message, that another way is possible. Instead of sleep-walking towards damnation and destruction, we can be awake and ready to follow Christ. Every day is another day closer to Christ’s Second Coming. He will come again, as our Saviour and our Judge. We need to be ready, putting on the armour of light, putting on Christ, through our baptism, and living out the faith of our baptism in our lives. The capital of the Roman Empire was renowned for tolerating some pretty immoral behaviour. It was everywhere, all around the Christian community there. Were they tempted to join in? Of course! But St Paul advises them to resist the pleasures of the flesh, drunkenness, quarrelling, nastiness: all the sorts of things we can get up to if left to our own devices.

St Paul speaks to us, to encourage the church and its members, you and me, not to give into the culture of the world around us, but to stay close to Christ. It is easy in theory, but tricky in practice. It’s easier when you’re part of a community. We can help and support each other, in good times and bad. It’s why people join Slimming World or Weightwatchers. They’re trying to change their lifestyle and eating habits, and find the support of a group a great help. Never think that small groups do not have the power to change the world. We are living proof of it as Christians, and it is why we are HERE today: to support each other, to be built up in love together, to turn away from the ways of the world, and to follow Christ. 

We follow Christ and we are ready. We prepare for Christ to come among us. That’s what Advent means, Christ’s coming. We prepare for three comings: the first our annual commemoration of His birth in Bethlehem, at Christmas, where the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The second coming of Christ will be at the end of time, when He will be our Saviour and our Judge. The third coming we prepare for is even nearer. It happens day by day, and week when Christ comes to us in the Eucharist, in His Body and Blood, under the outward forms of Bread and Wine, the Banquet of the Kingdom, anticipated by the ploughshares and pruning hooks of Isaiah, tools to help produce Bread and Wine, a prophecy which looks forward to the peace of the Messiah and a banquet of Bread and Wine. Food of the Kingdom, food for our journey of faith, to give us strength and new life in Christ. Christ comes to us in the Eucharist to give us strength and to transform us, into His likeness. This is the reality of God’s love for us, shown to us on the Cross, and in the Resurrection, a pledge, a sure sign of love, love we can touch and taste, love which transforms us.

We need it, and we need it together. It is why we gather together on the day when Christ rose from the dead to celebrate His triumph, and ask for His prayers. Because as St Matthew’s Gospel tells us, we need to be ready. We need to be ready because ‘the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.’ (Mt 24:44 ESV) It could be that between my writing these words and delivering them, Christ will come. Christ could come today, or in thousands of years’ time. It doesn’t matter when He comes. We need to be ready, prepared to meet Him, freed from sin, and living out our faith in our lives, having heeded the warnings to prepare ourselves. That’s why Advent is a penitential season, we are reminded of how we fall short, and try, with God’s grace, to amend our lives and follow Christ.

That is why in this morning’s Gospel reading Christ says, ‘For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.’ (Mt 24:37 ESV). Before the flood in Genesis we se that humanity was corrupt and violent, and sinful. The point Christ is making is that this is how the world will be; Christians should not be like this, because we have put on Christ, we are walking in the light, supporting each other, as a community of faith, living out the love we have been shown in Christ. At a time we do not expect, Our Lord will return, so we need to be ready, so that whenever He comes Christ may find us ready, and prepared to meet him.  

We need to prepare our hearts, our souls, our minds, all of our life, we need to live and act, to think and speak like the people of God, fully alive in him, having turned away from the ways of the world, to live fully in him, we are to live this way, and invite others so to do, so that the Kingdom of God’s peace and love may truly be found here in earth, where humanity is truly valued, where violence, death, murder, and immorality are no more.

The time is short, the time is now, it really matters; we need to come to the Lord, learn his ways and walk in his paths, living decently, living vigilantly, preferring nothing to Christ, and inviting all the world to come to the fullness of life in Him. This is how we celebrate His coming at Christmas and as Our Saviour and Judge, by following him, fed by Him, restored and healed by Him, and sharing His church’s message with all the world, so that it too may believe and sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.

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Christ the King Year C

To celebrate the Kingship of Christ is something both old and new. The feast which the Church celebrates today was instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925. In a world traumatised by the Great War, with class divisions and a surge in nationalism, the Pope wished to stress that Christ is the Prince of Peace, His Kingship was not obtained by violence, and our supreme allegiance belongs to Him. We are not Welsh, or British, or European, but first and foremost we belong to Christ. While we are currently earthly subjects of Queen Elizabeth II, our primary allegiance is a spiritual one: to the God who loves us and saves us. The feast of Christ the King also reminds us that Heaven is our true home, that we are made for a relationship with God above all else, a God who loves us. 

Our first reading this morning recalls David’s anointing as King of Israel. He was chosen by God to be the shepherd of God’s people Israel. David points to Jesus Christ, the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One, who is the Good Shepherd, who lays down His life for His sheep. 

In our second reading from St Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, we hear what God has done for us, and who Christ is. God has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. We can go to Heaven, we have been delivered from darkness, into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son. In Christ we have redemption and the forgiveness of sins. Christ has paid the debt we owe, our sins are forgiven. We don’t need to slaughter lambs and be sprinkled with their blood, because we have been sprinkled with the Blood of the Lamb of God in our Baptism. We are redeemed and our sins are forgiven because of what Christ does for us on the Cross. This is the heart of our faith: Christ died for us, because Christ loves us. 

In Christ we see God, we know who and what God is because He was born in Bethlehem, yet begotten in eternity. In Christ we see that God loves us. He created all that is, so all is subject to Him. He is the head of His Body, the Church, of which we are a part through our baptism, and our participation in the Eucharist, where we, the mystical Body, are fed with the mystical Body, so that we might become what we eat. As the firstborn from the dead, Christ, in His Resurrection shows us that death is not the end, that our lives will be changed not ended. The fullness of God was pleased to dwell in Christ: our bodies are not something to escape, but we are made in the image and likeness of God, and Christ is truly God, not just a mere man, not just a good moral teacher, an inspiration, but God. And through Christ God was pleased to reconcile all things to Himself ‘making peace by the blood of His Cross’. (Col 1:23). Let’s think about that for a moment.

Reconciliation is a big deal, restoring friendly relations where there has been strife and enmity, debts are paid, the account is balanced. The problem caused by human sin, first seen in Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, has been dealt with, once, and for all. God wipes the slate clean, cancels the debt we owe, because He has paid it in the Blood of His only Son. Because of what God has done for us, the Church is to be a community of reconciliation, where wounds are healed, and our relationships are restored both with each other and with God. That’s quite something! It’s radically different to how we normally are as human beings. We’re wounded and scarred, we hold grudges, we’re afraid and angry. Instead God in Christ offers us healing, love, and forgiveness, so that we can experience true peace, how life is supposed to be lived, life in all its fulness. It’s not a pipe-dream, but rather a reality, here and now, if only we accept it. God’s love is offered to us, only we can reject it. Even if we do, God doesn’t stop offering it to us, such is His love for us. It’s astounding, that God could loves us that much. But as C.S. Lewis says, God does not love us ‘because we are lovable, but because He is love, not because He needs to receive but because He delights to give.’ Through Him, we may be transformed more and more into His image and likeness. This is the generosity of God: a gift freely given. That’s why we celebrate today the Supreme Kingship of God in Jesus Christ. Human kings reign because they have conquered in war. Our God reigns, because He gives himself to die for us. Christ turns human ideas of power on their head.

We see this in the account of the Crucifixion in St Luke’s Gospel. The sign on the Cross reads, ‘This is the King of the Jews’. It is meant to be a joke, it is meant to mock Him, like the purple robe, and the Crown of Thorns, but it is self-defeating. It proclaims Christ’s kingship. He is the King of the Jews, the Anointed King, of the line of David. The people there mock Him, and tell Him to save Himself, but they’ve got it all wrong: He is there to save humanity and not Himself. Then one of the thieves goes a bit further: You’re the Messiah, save yourself and save us too. The ‘good thief’ recognises what’s going on, and says to his colleague, ‘we’re being punished because we committed a crime, but this man has done nothing wrong. Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom’. 

The thief’s recognition of who and what Christ is brings about his salvation. He saved others, himself he cannot save. It is isn’t that Christ cannot save Himself, but that He doesn’t want to. He wants to save others, because He is the Messiah, and He is God. God is saving his people. God saves, it’s what the Hebrew Yeshua means. Here on the Cross Jesus fulfils His life’s work, this is who and what He is. God saves His people by dying for them. This is real kingship, not robes, or power, but love, dying the death of a common criminal. It doesn’t make sense, and it isn’t supposed to. God’s ways are not our ways, nor His thoughts our thoughts. It’s crazy and reckless in human terms, but it works. We can’t save ourselves, only God can do that, in an act of generous love, extravagant, exuberant, a gift we cannot repay. 

Christ’s kingship puts human kingship into context: the good ones are a reflection of Him, generous and loving, the bad ones are concerned with wealth and power. They may possess temporal power, they can put people to death, but as Christians we can laugh in their face, because first and foremost we serve a higher and a greater power, who will return to judge the world. As we come to the end of another liturgical year, and we prepare to celebrate Advent it is good to be reminded of the three comings of our Lord Jesus Christ. He comes as a baby in Bethlehem, He comes in the Eucharist, week by week, and day by day, and He will come again as our Judge. Christ our King was born for us, died for us, gives Himself for us in the Eucharist, so that we might become what He is, and He will come to be our Judge, as one who has paid our penalty, and restored us to God and each other, a God of love, a God of mercy and reconciliation. 

This is the God we worship, and whom we hail as our true King. Christ has conquered on the Cross, Christ reigns as King of the Universe, and Christ reigns in our hearts, and in our lives, so that all we are, and all we do may sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

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Lent V Year C

The world around us loves to be judgemental, to judge people when they do wrong, and to take delight in their fall from grace, especially if they are famous or powerful. We put people on pedestals, and we are surprised when they fall off. More than that, the media encourages us to be critical of others. It’s gossip on a grand scale, and it is deeply corrosive, because it sets us up to think that WE are somehow BETTER. It isn’t that we do no not do the same things, but only that we haven’t yet been caught, or had our misdeeds paraded in public. We all, each and every one of us, myself included, say and do things which we should not, which hurt others, and for which we need forgiveness. We can ask God for forgiveness, because of what Christ did for us, taking our sins upon himself, on the Cross. It’s taken away, dealt with forgiven, all of it. God loves us, and in turning to God for forgiveness we are turning away from sin, and trying to live our lives in a new way. The Christian life is a constant repetition of this process, failing and trying again, and keeping on so that bit by bit, gradually we let God be at work in us, to transform us, making us less judgemental, less prone to the cult of celebrity, more loving, more forgiving, and building up a community that is filled with a radical transforming love, a force for good, a beacon of hope, which clings to the Cross as our only hope, and shares that love with the world around us.

In the prophet Isaiah we that God is doing a new thing, a way in the wilderness, streams in the desert. It’s the hope that the Messiah will bring a new way of living, which refreshes people, which satisfies that deep inner thirst, which nothing of this world can. Only Christ can give us living water, so that we can live in, and for, and through Him.

St Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, is writing to a church experiencing persecution, while he is under house arrest in Rome, and yet Paul’s message is one of hope for the future, because of what God has done for him, Paul. He has been forgiven, and made righteous, through Christ’s Death and Resurrection. He is called to share in that suffering and death, and he’s a work in progress. He hasn’t got there yet. He’s on the way, but he trusts God to be at work in him, through Christ.

In this morning’s Gospel we see a woman caught in the act of adultery. By the law of Moses she should be stoned to death. But Jesus shows the world another way –- it is the way of love and not of judgement. Every single one of us sins: we say, and think, and do things which we should not, which separate us from God and our neighbour. But instead of condemning humanity, God in Christ loves us and gives himself for us. He suffers and dies and rises again to show us the way of LOVE. He gives us His Word and feeds us with His Body and Blood so that we can share in his divine life, so that we can have a hope of heaven.

Rather than condemning the woman, Jesus challenges those around him: ‘Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her’. Rather than judging others we need to look at ourselves and recognise that we too are sinners. It should force us to take a long, hard look at ourselves — at our lives, and recognise that we need to conform ourselves to Christ — to live, and think, and speak like him. We need to be nourished by him, healed and restored by him, to live lives which proclaim his love and his truth to the world, living out our faith in our lives so that the world may believe.

Once the people had gone ‘Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”’ We are loved, healed and restored by God, but with that comes a challenge: as Christians we are to turn away from sin. We are challenged to turn away from the ways of sin, the ways of the world, to find life in Him. The perfection that comes through faith in Christ, and is from God, is based on faith. We need to ‘know him and the power of his resurrection, and … share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death’.

This is what we are trying to do in Lent, preparing our souls and our lives so that we celebrate His Death and Resurrection and our reconciliation with God. It is done so that God’s grace may perfect our nature and fit us for heaven, sharing the divine life of love, through a conscious turning away from the ways of the world, of sin, and of death: losing our lives to find them in him. It’s difficult. St Paul in his Letter to the Philippians didn’t find it easy, nor should we. Just because living the life of faith is something difficult doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try. We will fail, but our failure is not necessarily a problem. What matters is that we keep trying, together: supporting, loving and forgiving each other to live a life of love, so that the world may believe. Let us then recognise our human sin and weakness and through God’s help turn away from it. We are called to transform the whole world and everyone in it, so that they may have live and life in all its fullness. We are fed by the word of God and by the sacrament of His Body and Blood to be strengthened, to share in His divine life, to fit us for Heaven, and to transform all of creation that it may resound his praise and share in his life of the Resurrection, washed in His Blood and the saving waters of Baptism: forgiven and forgiving so that all that we say, or think, or do, all that we are may be for the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory dominion and power, now and forever

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S. Francis de Sales on Charity

image.pngS. Francis used to say, “I hear of nothing but perfection on every side, so far as talk goes, but I see very few people who really practise it. Everybody has his own notion of perfection. One man thinks that it lies in the cut of his clothes, another in fasting, a third in almsgiving, or in frequenting the Sacraments, in meditation, in some special gift of contemplation, or in extraordinary gifts or graces; – but they are all mistaken, as it seems to me, because they confuse the means, or the results, with the cause.

“For my part, the only perfection I know is a hearty love of God, and to love one’s neighbour as oneself. Without these there can be no real perfection. Charity is the only ‘bond of perfectness’ between Christians, the only virtue which rightly unites us to God and man. Such union is our final aim and end, and all else is mere delusion.

“No virtues, however great they may seem, are worth anything, without charity; – not even such faith as could ‘remove mountains’ or ‘understand all mysteries;’ which has ‘the gift of prophesy, or speaks with the tongue of men or angels;’ which ‘bestows all its gifts to feed the poor,’ or endures martyrdom, All is vain without charity. He who lacketh charity is dead while he liveth, and all his works, however fair to the eye, are valueless, seen from the point of eternity.

“I grant that austerity, meditation, and all such practices are admirable means whereby to advance towards perfection, so long as they are carried on in and through charity. But it will not do to seek perfection by any other means – rather in the end to which they do but lead, else we shall find ourselves halting in the midst of the race, instead of reaching the goal.”

taken from The Spirit of S. Francis de Sales Bishop and Prince of Geneva by Jean Pierre Camus, Bishop of Bellay. tr. H.I. Sidney Lear, London: Longmans, 1921: 1-2

Sermon for Evensong of the First Sunday after Easter

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