Lent II

The readings set for this week ask us two questions: ‘Who is Jesus?’ and ‘What are we preparing to celebrate?’. First and foremost, Lent is a time for prayer and contemplation: spending time with Jesus before we celebrate His Passion, Death, and Resurrection. This moment of our salvation is the culmination of the Biblical narrative, and is found in all four Gospels. It represents the high-point of the Liturgical Year, the Feast of Feasts, and we prepare for it with forty days of prayer, fasting, and good works. 

Our first reading from Genesis, the story of Abraham and the Sacrifice of Isaac, is both well-known, and deeply shocking. The concept of human sacrifice was widespread in the Ancient World. It was not a common occurrence, but it did take place. It seems abhorrent to us, and so it should. In the passage God speaks to Abraham and says,

Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” (Genesis 22:2)

Thankfully, just as Abraham is about to offer Isaac, God tells him to stop, as Abraham has demonstrated his complete devotion to God:

Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” (Genesis 22: 12)

Abraham sees a ram with its horns caught in a thicket, and offers it to God instead. The ram symbolises Christ. It looks forward to Jesus, recognised by John the Baptist as the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. It points to the Passover Lamb in Exodus, which also prefigures Jesus, the fulfilment of the Paschal Sacrifice. Because Abraham has not withheld his son, he is blessed by God, and through his offspring, all people will be blessed. For Christians the Easter story is important because in it God, like Abraham, does not withhold His Only Son, but gives Him, to die for us. This narrative demands contemplation because it is the demonstration of the mystery of God’s love for humanity. It is amazing that God could love us that much, especially when we do not deserve it. The mystery of God’s love is that we are not loved because we are loveable. We are often quite the opposite! But God loves us anyway and His love transforms us. 

St Paul pondered such questions as he wrote to the Church in Rome:

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all (Rom 8:32)

Christ’s death on the Cross is a demonstration of divine generosity, and the reason for our hope as Christians. God’s love for humanity is truly amazing. We should pause for a moment as we read this. God loves me enough to die for me. If God can do this for us, what can we, in return, do for Him?

Our Gospel reading this morning presents us with another vision that is hard to understand, the Transfiguration. Jesus and his closest disciples go up Mount Tabor in Galilee. Here, for a moment, the disciples experience the transcendent beauty and glory of God. God breaks into the world to give a glimpse of heaven, and the disciples experience the majesty of Christ’s divinity.  

Jesus appears with Moses and Elijah to show His disciples and the Church that He is the fulfilment of the Law (represented by Moses) and the Prophets (represented by Elijah). Just like Jesus, Moses and Elijah spend a period of forty days fasting and being close to God. They both point to Christ and they find their fulfilment in Him: He is the Messiah, the Son of God. On the mountain top, Peter makes a very human response to the strange situation he finds himself in. He knows that it is good to be here and realises that what he is experiencing is life-changing. Peter’s suggestion to make three booths points to the Feast of Tabernacles when Jews remembered the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt Sinai. But, despite Peter’s hope, this experience is not to be prolonged. This is just a glimpse of the future glory, a moment to be experienced, and not a place to dwell.

When God speaks from the cloud He tells us three things about Jesus. Firstly that Jesus is the Son of God, secondly that He is loved, and thirdly that we should listen to Him. What Jesus says and does should affect us and our lives. Like the disciples, we have to be open to the possibility of being radically changed by God.

Jesus tells the disciples not to tell anyone about their experience on the mountain until after he has risen from the dead. Jesus has another mountain He must climb: the hill of Calvary, where He will suffer and die upon the Cross. There He takes our sins upon Himself, restoring our relationship with God and each other. This then is real glory, not worldly glory, but the glory of God’s sacrificial love poured out on the world to heal and restore it.

Three important scenes of Our Lord’s life took place on mountains. On one, He preached the Beatitudes, the practice of which would bring a Cross from the world; on the second, He showed the glory that lay beyond the Cross; and on the third, He offered Himself in death as a prelude to His glory and that of all who would believe in His name

Fulton Sheen, The Life of Christ, 1970, p.158

The Transfiguration shows us the glory of heaven, the glory of the Resurrection at Easter, which lies beyond the Cross. God’s glory and God’s love are intertwined, and cannot be separated because they given freely. God’s very nature is generous, beyond our understanding, and characterised by total self-gift. God does not hold anything back, and whereas Isaac is replaced at the last minute by a ram, there is no substitution for Jesus. God gives His Son, Jesus Christ, to die for us, and to rise again, so that we might enjoy eternity with Him in Heaven. The Transfiguration is a promise of our future heavenly glory, offered to us because God is a God who keeps His promises. Through signs and glimpses, He shows us what future awaits us. He longs to heal and restore us, so that we might enjoy eternity with Him. 

The Transfiguration looks to the Cross to help us prepare ourselves to live the life of faith. It helps us to comprehend true majesty, true love and true glory. The wonderful glory that can change the world and which lasts forever, for eternity, unlike the fading glory of the world, which is here today and gone tomorrow.

So let us behold God’s glory. Let us prepare to be transformed by His love. That we may be healed, and restored, and given a foretaste of eternal life. May God take our lives and transform us, so that everything that we say, or think, or do, proclaims Him. Let us tell the world about Him, so that all people may believe and trust and have new life 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.

The Second Sunday of Year B

There is a common misconception that when the Church talks about vocation, being called, it is referring to the call to ordained ministry, to be a deacon or a priest. Nothing could be further from the truth. While this call is an important one, there remains a fundamental call which comes to us all in our baptism: the call to follow Christ. Each and every one of us is called to be a disciple of Jesus, to listen to what He says, and to let this call affect our lives. It is both a daunting prospect, and the most normal and natural thing in the world. 

Our first reading this morning tells the story of the call of Samuel, a young boy serving at the sanctuary in Shiloh with the high priest Eli. After his mother, Hannah, had prayed to God for a child whom she would dedicate to God as a Nazirite, she became pregnant and Samuel was born. Nazirites were not allowed to cut their hair, drink wine, or touch a dead body. Eli’s predecessor, Samson, the last of the Judges in the Book of Judges, was also a  Nazirite. Samuel is called three times. Each time he goes to Eli, whom he assumes is calling him. Eventually Eli tells Samuel to reply, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.’ (1Sam 3:9). So Samuel responds to God’s invitation, and it totally changes his life. Are we willing to take that risk, and answer God’s call?

Ancient Corinth was something like a cross between London and Las Vegas. It was a rich trading centre with a reputation for sexual immorality. This morning’s second reading from St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, is an attempt to argue that our embodied existence, that is how we live our lives , matters. Often, we become what we do. It is therefore important to do the right thing, and not the wrong. Paul’s argument leads to his conclusion:

You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (1Cor 6:19-20) 

We are not our own, we belong to God, who bought us with the price of His Son, Jesus Christ. The world likes to tell us that we are autonomous, that we can do whatever we want to, but at a fundamental level we are God’s people, and belong to the God who made us, and who redeemed us out of love for us. God sets us free to love Him and serve Him, so how we live our lives is our response to that love and an act of loving service. We can choose to glorify God, not that God needs our glory, but because it is how we should live our lives, in love and service. Our faith affects our lived existence.

In today’s Gospel we move beyond the Baptism of Christ to the events of the following day. John has testified that Jesus is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, and that He is the Son of God. When John sees Jesus walking by he again exclaims ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ (Jn 1:36). The phrase looks back to the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52-53 who is led like a lamb to the slaughter. The beginning of Jesus public ministry points to its end on the Cross. Jesus is the Messiah and He will die to take away our sins. Two of John’s disciples hear him saying these words and follow Jesus. When Jesus asks them what they are looking for, the disciples answer ‘Rabbi’. They acknowledge Jesus as a teacher, and ask Him where He is staying. Jesus replies, “Come and you will see.” (Jn 1:39). Jesus invites them to follow Him, to see where He is staying and to spend time with Him. These two disciples of John become followers of Jesus, literally and metaphorically. The Church continues to make the same invitation to the world, to come and see, to follow Jesus. These two disciples stay with Jesus, they listen to Him, they eat with Him, and begin to have a relationship with Him. We then discover that one of the men is Andrew, and that he has a brother, called Simon. Andrew is convinced that he has found the Messiah and brings his brother to Jesus. When Jesus meets Simon he says,

“So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter) (Jn 1:42)

Jesus gives Simon a new name. He calls him Cephas, which means ‘rock’ in Aramaic, Petros in Greek, from which our name Peter comes. Peter will be the rock upon which Christ will build His Church (Mt 16:18). The name Jesus gives points to Peter’s future role as the leader of the Apostles. Jesus takes the initiative and begins to sketch out a future for the disciples who are following Him. It is quick, and matter of fact, and yet momentous. Jesus is gathering people to help Him with this ministry.

The Church therefore begins with a few Galilean fishermen following a rabbi whom they recognise as the Messiah. Thanks to them, and their faith in Jesus, we are in the Church today. Faith, where we put our trust, is an important thing. It affects both who we are, and how we live our lives. Faith turned Peter from a fisherman into a leader of the early Christians, and it has continued to transform lives for the past two thousand years. 

In our baptism, God in Christ invites each and every one of us to follow Him, to ‘come and see’, as the first disciples did, and to invite others, as Andrew invited Simon Peter. To come and see who Jesus is, to get to know Him, and start a relationship with Him. This begins with our sharing in His Death and Resurrection, and ends in the glory of Heaven. Where we, and all the Church, 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. Amen. 

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.

rafael_karton_opdracht_petrus_grt

Walking on Water

Fear is a very human feeling, we acquire it through learning, and yet it can be overcome, if we trust in God. Christains in Iraq, China, North Korea & Palestine – they face real danger, real persecution (we’re safe and comfortable by comparison) – and yet they trust, they pray (and so should we) and we should do all that we can to help them.
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.
This morning’s Gospel carries straight on from the miraculous feeding last week, as Jesus goes to send the crowds back home, he sends disciples ahead so that they might be ready.
 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray.
Prayer is important, it is as important as the food we eat, the air we breathe, because it is about our relationship with God. Throughout the Gospels Jesus spends time alone, spends time close to the Father as this relationship is crucial. Where Jesus leads we should follow, follow his example.
When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.
It’s getting dark, and the disciples are out in the middle of the lake, in deep water; will the boat sink, what can they do?
And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear.
But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’
The disciples cannot believe that they are seeing Jesus, so he encourages them, his presence can give them confidence.
Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’
As usual, Peter is the first to react, he takes the lead – Jesus speaks a single word to him, ‘Come’ he speaks it to each and every one of us as Christians, to come, to follow him, to be close to him, to live out our faith in our lives strengthened by prayer.
 So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ When they got into the boat, the wind ceased.
 And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’
Peter listens to what Jesus says, and obeys him, and does something miraculous, something extraordinary, until he is distracted by the world around him, and becomes frightened, likewise we, in our lives can in the power of God do wonderful things, if we are not distracted by the cares of the world around us, if we listen to what Jesus tells us and do it.
Peter becomes frightened; he starts to sink, as do we all when the cares of this world overwhelm us. His reaction is to cry ‘Lord, save me’ which Jesus does, indeed, through his offering of himself upon the Cross he saves each and every one of us, taking the sin of the world upon himself so that we might be freed from sin, fear and death, that same sacrifice which will be made present here, so that we the people of God, can be fed by God, with God, with his Body and Blood to be strengthened to have life in him, to be close to him.
Peter is told off for lacking faith, because it is important, we need to trust God, to have faith in Him, so that He can be at work in us and through us.

At the end, once the wind has died down the disciples worship Him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’ The end of it all is worship, it is what we as humans and as Christians are for, to worship God, in our love and our prayer, so that all of our lives are an act of worship, drawing us ever closer to the source of life and love. So that all we say or think or do 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.

St Peter

I don’t know about you, but I for one, when faced with the saints, am confronted with my own sense of inadequacy and sinfulness – I just don’t think that I can live up to the example, I can’t quite come up to the mark. This need not however be sucha bad thing insofar as it points out our (your and my) need to rely upon God, and to trust in His mercy and grace, to trust in God to work in and through me, to trust in something which I do not deserve, but which nonetheless is poured out on me, so that in all things God may be glorified.
       There is something wonderfully transparent about St Peter: a man of imposing strength and stature, handy for the physically demanding life of a Galilean fisherman, a man of little learning (unlike St Paul) but much love and faith – a man who speaks before he thinks, but whose instincts are often right, a man who loves and trusts Jesus.
In this morning’s Gospel Jesus asks His disciples ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ They report what people are saying ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ Jesus then asks them the question ‘But who do you say that I am?’ The question He asks His disciples He asks each and every one of us ‘Who do we say that Jesus is?’ ‘A prophet?’ ‘A well-meaning holy man?’ ‘A misguided revolutionary?’ Peter’s answer is telling: ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God’ Jesus is the Christ, the anointed Saviour, the one who saves and rules Israel, and the Son of God. Peter is the first to confess the divinity of Christ, the first to recognise his Lord and Saviour. We need to do the same: to have the same faith and trust and love, to recognise Christ and confess Him as Our Lord and God.
       Our Lord’s response is simple ‘you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven’ In his confession of the Divinity of Christ, in his reliance upon and trust in God, Peter is empowered to bear witness to the Messiah and to carry on God’s work of reconciliation. He will fail: in the verses which follow this passage he argues that Jesus should not suffer and die. After Our Lord’s arrest Peter, the rock, will deny Jesus not once, not twice, but three times. He will need to be reminded to ‘feed Christ’s sheep’. There is the story that during the first persecution in Rome under Nero, Peter flees, he tries to save his own skin. And yet in the end he bears witness to Christ, he feeds the flock, he values Christ above all things, and bears witness to Him even at the cost of his own life.
       St Peter is not the person one might choose to be in charge – that’s the point, he’s not a success, he doesn’t possess the skillset for management – he’s not a worldly leader, he probably wouldn’t get through the modern Church’s selection process (and that’s sadly telling), he’s basically a cowardly failure, someone who speaks before he thinks, but he’s someone who knows God, who loves Him, trusts Him, and confesses Him, who proclaims Him in word and deed. He’s someone that God can use and be at work in, to be a herald of the Kingdom.
       Above all else, and despite his failings, Peter bears witness to Christ, and we the Church are called to do exactly the same, some two thousand years later: we are to be witnesses to Christ: who He is and what He does, so that we can proclaim the Gospel, the Good News of God’s saving love. That is why we are here today, this morning, to be nourished by Word and Sacrament – to be fed by Christ, with Christ, with His Body and Blood, to witness the re-presentation of the offering of the Son to the Father, the sacrifice of Calvary, which restores our relationship with God and each other, which takes away our sins, which pays the price which we cannot, which gives us the hope of eternal life in Christ, so that we like St Peter can be healed, restored, and forgiven and strengthened in soul and body for our work of witness, so that God may be at work in us, in the proclamation of His Kingdom.

       So let us be like St Peter, and when we are asked ‘Who do you say that the Son of Man is?’ let us confess that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah, the God who saves us and loves us, so that the world may believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.