22nd Sunday of Year B – Living like Jesus

How we live our lives matters greatly. It is important because what we do helps to form our moral character, how we know to do the right thing. Human beings are creatures of habit. The more we do things, the more they become second nature. We become what we think or do often. There’s no point in just having the appearance of someone good. Outward conformity isn’t what God wants of us. Quite the opposite! We need to bear in mind God’s word to Samuel,‘for the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’ (1Samuel 16:7 [ESV]) 

So how do we live the life God wants us to live? The simple answer is by trying, failing, and keeping on trying. The Christian faith has at its centre Love and Forgiveness. God shows these to us in Jesus Christ, and we have to show them to one another. The Church, you and I, all of us, are called to love and forgive each other, as we will fail. And we will fail often. We can’t earn our way to Heaven through what we do, Jesus has paved the way for us through His Death and Resurrection. We can, however, try to live out our faith in our lives, loving and forgiving each other when we fall short.Not being judgemental and overcritical. Then we can be built up in love, together, as a community reconciled to God and each other. It sounds simple and straightforward, but in practice it is really difficult. This is why we have to keep trying, allowing God transform us more and more into his likeness, through His Grace. 

In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus is uncompromising when dealing with the hypocrisy of the Scribes and the Pharisees: their religion is a façade, a sham, something done for show, for outward appearance, whereas we know, from the teaching of the prophets onward, that God looks at what is truly in our heart. If our motives are suspect then, we’re in trouble. The point is simple: what we do affects who and what we are, hence the need for the people of Israel to observe the statutes and ordinances without any additions or subtractions. 

Likewise, the advice of the Letter of James is that people should in all gentleness and humility both listen to the word of God and do what it says, so that their thoughts and words and actions proclaim the truth that Christ died to save them from their sins and rose again that they might have new life in Him.

Rather than the pharisaic obsession with exterior cleanliness (and the letter of the Law) Our Lord and Saviour is concerned with the cleanliness of people’s souls, as it is from within, from the human heart, that sinfulness can spring. His point is a simple one: we become what we do, and thus the formation of a moral character is important, and can only be brought about by doing the right things.

The problem is that, despite our best intentions, we will fail in our endeavours. So what do we do? Is it simply a case that having tried and failed we are written off, cast aside and prepared for hell and damnation? By no means! Just as in the Gospel Jesus commands his followers to keep forgiving those who sin; our lives should be ones where we are continually seeking God’s forgiveness and that of our brothers and sisters in Christ, so that slowly and surely, as part of a gradual process, as people forgiven and forgiving, we try day by day to live out our faith in our lives. It is something which affects us all, each and every one of us, and it is only when we can live it out in our lives that our proclamation of the Kingdom can look authentic rather than running the risk of being accused of hypocrisy. 

So, we seek forgiveness and forgive others, by being close to God in prayer, in reading the Bible, and in the sacraments of the Church, and in the love and service which we have for each other as a Christian community. A Christian community which recognises that we fail but also that together we can be something greater and more wonderful than we would be if we are apart.

In recent years as a reaction to the frantic pace of modern life people are re-discovering slowness. There is a slow food movement even slow television. We are encouraged to be mindful and meditate. These are good things, an antidote to the modern obsession with instant results and gratification.

This is the work of a lifetime, a work of slow progress, and frustrating setbacks. It is not easy. To succeed we need to rely upon God to be at work in us throughout our lives. The French Jesuit priest and poet, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote :

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.

We are quite naturally impatient in everything

to reach the end without delay.

We should like to skip the intermediate stages.

We are impatient of being on the way to something

unknown, something new.

….

your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,

let them shape themselves, without undue haste.

Don’t try to force them on,

….

Give Our Lord the benefit of believing

that his hand is leading you,

and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself

in suspense and incomplete.

[Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Making of a Mind: Letters from a Soldier-Priest 1914-1919 (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), 57.]

Through the love of God being poured into our hearts, and through that love forming who we are and what we do, that self-giving sacrificial love shown to us by Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, in his dying for us, so that we might live in Him, let us be attentive to the Word of God, the Word made flesh, and not simply listen but also act –- relying not upon our own strength but upon the love and mercy of God, seeking His forgiveness, to do His Will.

When we are formed by God together then we can be built up in love, as living stones, a temple to God’s glory. We proclaim God’s love and truth to the world, through forgiveness and sacrificial love, rather than by being bitter and judgemental and blind to our own faults: like the scribes and Pharisees: eager to point out the sins of others and yet blind to their own faults, failures and shortcomings. Instead, clothed in the humility of our knowledge of our need of God’s love and mercy, let us come to Him, to be fed by Him, to be fed with Him, to be healed and restored by him, so that we can live lives which speak of the power of his kingdom 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. Amen

compressed-vilnius-jpeg

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.

4_1

Homily for Epiphany III [Gen 14: 17-20; Rev 19:6-10; Jn 2:1-11]

The feast of the Epiphany which we celebrated a couple of weeks ago, is the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. It shows the world that Jesus Christ is God born among us, and points forward to two marvellous miracles. The first is the Baptism of Christ, which we celebrated last week. Jesus shows humanity the way back to the Father, through baptism, and we see the Holy Spirit active in the world. Secondly, this morning, we turn to the first of Jesus’ miracles which took place at a wedding in Cana.

A wedding is a very happy event, celebrated by the whole community, and a jolly good excuse for a party, which in some cultures can go on for many days. Jesus, His Mother, Mary, and the disciples have been invited to a local Galilean party. The happy couple were fairly young, and probably not all that well off. Even so, they would have still put on a huge spread with lots of wine to wash it down. To run out of wine would be seen as a cause of shame and disgrace. The couple and their families would have been shown up in public. This is a culture which valued such things highly, so losing face is a very serious matter indeed. Consequently, when Mary tells Jesus that they have run out of wine, what we are looking at is something of a disaster, a source of shame, a nightmare to be avoided at all costs.

Jesus’ reply to His Mother, ‘Woman … come’, could be seen as curt and dismissive. However, He is not being rude, instead His remark refers to a far larger context than the wedding, the whole of His Earthly ministry in fact. He tells His Mother that it is isn’t their problem, and states that His hour has not yet come:It is not yet His time. Jesus’ hour comes with His Death upon the Cross, when he will wipe away our sins, and take all our shame upon himself.

Mary’s response is instructive. Despite what Jesus says to her she instructs the servants to, ‘Do whatever He tells you’. In this simple phrase she shows us that the key is obedience to the will of God: Listen to what God says and do it. It is that simple and straightforward. As Christians we need to follow her example. Our life should be rooted in obedience: we need to listen to God and obey, for our own good, and the good of the Kingdom. We need to follow the will of God and not be conformed to the world and its ways. We need to truly enter into the joy of the Lord, in humble obedience, be fed by Him, and fed with Him, who died for love of us, in submission to the will of the Father.

Everyone is happy with the miraculous wine; it gives you to all who taste it. Our vocation as Christians is JOY. The joy of the Lord is our strength [Nehemiah 8:10]. We read in the Gospels that Jesus liked nothing better than to hang around at parties with all sorts of people, especially social undesirables. He was even accused by Scribes and Pharisees of being a glutton and a drunkard. In both Luke [7:34] and Matthew [11:19] we see Jesus rejoicing in such name-calling, ‘the Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.”’ [Matthew 11:19] [Also cf. Deut 21:20 ‘and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’’ The next verse talks of death by stoning, and looks forward to Our Lord’s Crucifixion at Calvary.]

Jesus enjoys eating and drinking because feasting is a sign of the Kingdom of God. It is clearly shown in the prophecy of Isaiah: ‘On this mountain the Lord of Hosts will make for all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wine on the lees well refined. And he will destroy on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death for ever, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth; for the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day, “Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”’ [Isaiah 25:6-9] Here prophecy is fulfilled and we see a glimpse of the banquet at the end of time which is our hope in Heaven

Jesus tells the servants to fill the water jars to the brim. Most of us have outside our houses one or two wheelie bins, which each hold about 30 gallons, or 240 pints of beer. Multiply that by 6 and you’re looking at the equivalent of 1,500 pints of beer, in the Ancient World people drank their wine diluted down to about 5% abv, or two parts water, one part wine.

The wedding party was well underway. An extravagant party, but it points to something greater than itself. It is a foreshadowing of the joy of the Kingdom. It is a taste of the lavish excess that our God, whose love and generosity are beyond our understanding, wishes to bestow on us, as a sign of His love for us.

The world today struggles somewhat with extravagance, and rightly so: when we see the super-rich riding around in gold-plated supercars we are right to be concerned, yet in the Gospel we see something strange. The head steward had a point: you serve the best wine first, while people are sober and can appreciate it. The Kingdom of God, however, turns human values on their head – the joyous new wine of the Kingdom is finer than any human wine. It 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. Christ therefore becomes the true master of the feast, as He will feed humanity from the abundance of the Heavenly Wedding Feast [Revelation 19:6-9], as He will feed us here, today.

Thus, as we start this new year, we see a three-fold dawning of the Glory of God in Christ Jesus. First Our Lord’s manifestation to the Gentiles, the proclamation of the Messiah to the whole world, Then His Baptism, which shows us the way to the Father, a sign of love and obedience, and now the Wedding Feast at Cana, a sure sign of the superabundance of God’s love. It is shown to us here today in the Eucharist, where we drink the wine of the Kingdom, the Blood of Christ.This transforms us 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. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world [Jn 1:36]. He holds nothing back for love of us. He replaces the sacrificial system of the Jews, so that as both Priest [cf. Melkisedech] and Victim he may reconcile us to God.

The Wedding at Cana points to the Cross, as it is when Jesus’ hour comes, when He sheds his blood for us It removes all our shame, all the sins of humanity, so that we can enjoy forever the banquet of God’s love prepared for us in Heaven, and it is shown and foreshadowed here under the outward forms of Bread and Wine. So let us feast on the Body and Blood of Christ so that we may be transformed more and more into His likeness. Let us live out our Joy, and share it with others so that they may come to 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.

34e6a6d0dc658ea56066d3b87e92982b-religious-icons-orthodox-icons

Advent II Mark 1:1-8

If you ask children and young people today what they want to be when they grow up most will now answer that they want to be famous, they want to be a celebrity, not famous for being something, just famous. Such isthe power of the modern idea of celebrity, people famous for being famous. Such is the world in which we live: shallow, skin-deep, concerned with self above all else, selfish, self-absorbed, and sinful.

In the beginning of Mark’s Gospel we see Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, someone who has clearly got something of a reputation: people are coming from all over Judaea to hear him preach. John does not use this as an opportunity for his own glorification, but rather points to the one who is to come after him, the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Unlike celebrities who point to themselves John the Baptist points to another – it’s all about Him, not me. This is humility in action – being firmly rooted and knowing your need for God.

Advent is a season of penitence and preparation, saying sorry and getting ready. Recognising that we fall short of what God expects of us, and yet also remembering that He is a God of love and mercy. This is shown clearly in the opening of this morning’s first reading from the prophet Isaiah. God speaks through the prophet saying, ‘Comfort my people’ a God who longs for healing and restoration, and who will bring it about in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, the Messiah. The prophets look for the coming of one who will ‘feed his flock like a shepherd’ who will ‘gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.’ (Isa 40:11). Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and John the Baptist is the one who will say to the people of Judah ‘Behold your God’ (Isa 40:9). In the church we prepare to do exactly the same thing, to say to the world, ‘Here is your God’.

At the heart of it all lies the proclamation of the Gospel, St Mark’s Gospel, which we begin this morning. At the start of a new liturgical year we can proclaim a new beginning, just like John the Baptist. It is a change to start off with a clean, fresh page. The Good News of Jesus Christ is a proclamation, like that in the prophet Isaiah which says, ‘Behold your God’. That is who and what Jesus IS. The Messiah, the Son of God, the one who fulfils, scripture, in this case Malachi (3:1) Moses (Exod 23:20) and Isaiah (40:3). John the Baptist, the last of the prophets, proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He calls the people of Israel to turn away from what separates them from God and each other, and to seek God’s forgiveness. It sounds simple enough, but facing up to the wrong that we say, think, and do, is no easy thing at all. Recognising that we have fallen short of what God expects of us is the first step to turning back. It’s hard to face up to the truth, but we have to if we want God to do something about it. We need to remember that God loves us and is merciful. This is the reason why He sends us His Son, to be born for us, to live for us, to die for us, to rise again for us, to send us His Holy Spirit, and to come again to judge us. Our God is not a tyrant in the sky, but a loving Father.

It probably does us all some good to think like this from time to time, not so that we feel wretched and depressed, but so that we recognise our need for God, that we turn to him again, that this time of Advent is part of our ongoing spiritual journey – turning away from sin and towards Christ. The Christian faith is the work of a lifetime, and of a community: it is something we all have to do together.

In the Gospel the people of Israel recognise the proclamation of John the Baptist; they come to him and confess their sins and are baptised. His message is a simple one, Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand. He calls people to turn back to a God of love, and he points forward to the one who is to come, he points to Jesus, who will baptise with the Holy Spirit.

The Church exists to carry on the same proclamation, the same message, to point to the same Saviour. At one level, the idea of judgement worries me deeply, as I suspect if I were all up to me and my efforts, and were I simply to be judged on my own life I would not get to heaven – I cannot earn my way there. I, like all of you, and indeed all of humanity, are simply miserable sinners in need of God’s grace, his love and his mercy. We need Christ to be born, we need Him to die for our sins, and to rise again to give us the hope of eternal life with Him.

Thankfully, we as Christians know that he will come to be our judge is our redeemer, who bore our sins upon the cross, he is loving and merciful. Just as the arms of the prodigal son’s father are wide open to embrace him, so too Christ’s arms are flung wide upon the cross to embrace the world, our judge will come bearing wounds in his hands, his feet, and his side, because they are the wounds of love. We can have hope and confidence in this.

John the Baptist’s message is uncomfortable and yet it is GOOD NEWS – our prayers are answered- that for which we hope, for which our soul deeply longs is truly ours. It may not be what people want to hear, but it is, however, what people NEED to hear. Thus people flock to him, they are aware of their sin, aware of their need of God, of His love, mercy, and forgiveness. His message is one of repentance, of turning away from sin, from the ways of the world, a world which seeks to change our celebration of our Lord’s nativity into an orgy of consumerist excess. His is the birth, his is the way by which we can find true peace, we can turn to Christ, we can be like Him.

How then do we respond? We respond by living lives of godliness and holiness, by striving to be found by him at peace, a peace which prepares for His coming. We are patient, we wait in expectant hope, living out our faith, and encouraging others so to do so that all the world may be saved 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 to the ages of ages.

Season_of_Advent.jpg

 

Trinity VII Year A

At one level, God is completely beyond our understanding: we cannot comprehend the majesty of God, or the depth of God’s love for us. Yet in Christ, the Word made flesh, we catch a glimpse of what God is like. Likewise Jesus speaks in parables to explain what the Kingdom of God is like – to convey in words and images which we can understand, something of the majesty and wonder of the life lived in union with God.

This morning’s gospel gives us four images to ponder: the Kingdom is like a mustard seed, it is a a small thing, only a couple of millimetres across, which can grow into a plant large enough that birds can nest in it. Likewise our faith may be small, we may not think that we’re terribly good at being a Christian, at following Jesus, but if we live out our faith in our lives together, then our faith can, like a mustard seed, grow into something amazing: it can be a place of welcome, a place that birds can call home. It becomes a reality in the world, something which we share, a place of joy, filled with the Holy Spirit.

The Kingdom is like yeast – a small bit can rise an awful lot of dough. It’s alive, and it makes bread – a basic foodstuff – that nourishes us, that gives us life. It reminds us that Jesus is the living bread who came down from heaven, which is why we are here, now, today, to share in that same living bread. We are here to partake in the feast of the Kingdom, where Christ gives himself for us, under the outward forms of bread and wine, so that we may have life in him, and have it to the full, it gives us life, it nourishes us, and gives us a foretaste of heaven, and of eternal life in Him.

The kingdom is like treasure hidden in a field, or a pearl of great price, it is something so wonderful, so valuable, that it becomes the single most important thing in our life: it comes before everything else, because it is about our relationship with the God who created us, who loves us, and who redeems us. We celebrate the single most significant event in human history, which shows us how much God loves us, the riches of His grace poured out upon us, and the wonder of having faith in Him.

The kingdom is like a net full of fish – good and bad. It hasn’t been sorted out yet. It is a work in progress – we should not be so presumptuous to think that we are good fish, nor so pessimistic to think that we are bad. Rather we show our faith by living it out in our lives – the kingdom is here among us, right here, right now. We are to live resurrection lives and to proclaim the truth of our faith to the world, so that it too may believe.

The kingdom is like someone who brings things out, both old and new – rooted in scripture, the Word of God, and in the tradition of the Church – rooted, grounded, authentic, recognisable, not making things up as we go along, or going along with the ways of the world, because it suits us. There is something refreshing and new about orthodoxy, because it is rooted in truth, the source of all truth, namely God. It is old and new, a well which never runs dry, because it is fed by God, something which can refresh us, and which gives true life to the Church.

The challenge for us, as Christians is to live out our faith in the God who loves us and who saves us. We should not compartmentalise our lives so that our faith is a private matter. It needs to affect all of who and what we are, what we think or say or do. It is something primary, and foundational, not an optional extra, not some add-on, but the very ground of our being. It is a big ask; and if it were simply up to each and every one of us, then we would, without doubt, completely and utterly fail to do it. Yet such is the love and forgiveness of God, that His mercy is never-ending, and as people forgiven by God, we likewise forgive each other and are built up in love together, so that the work of the Kingdom is a corporate matter, a joint effort – we’re all in it together – it is what the church is for – a bunch of sinners trying to love God and serve Him, and likewise loving and serving each other, and the whole world.

We can do it in the strength of the Holy Spirit of God, so that we can pray, so that we can to talk to and listen to God. The Spirit is poured out upon each and every one of us in our baptism, whereby our souls are infused with all the spiritual grace we need to get to heaven. We can follow in the footsteps of the Apostles, and likewise spread the good news, and live the life of the Kingdom. We can be confident in Christ’s victory, over sin, death, and the world, and strong in the power of His Spirit, live out our faith and share the joy of being known and loved by God, so that the world 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.

1d193-last_supper

 

The Fourteenth Sunday of Year A (Mt 11:16-19, 25-30)

There really is NO pleasing some people! It is completely impossible especially as some people are only happy when they are complaining or moaning about something. No I’m not talking about present-day church meetings, PCCs or even General Synod, I am reflecting on Jesus’ words to the people of His day in this morning’s Gospel.

It is a very human reaction – not being satisfied, and merely focussing on what you think are the negative points. John the Baptist lived a simple ascetic life and is accused of being possessed  by a demon. Jesus eats and drinks with the ‘wrong sort of people’ and is accused of being a drunkard and a glutton. Both approaches certainly have their place in the Christian life: feasting and fasting are part of who and what we are and do. They are both something that Jesus did and something that we should emulate in our own lives. But when we are worried about being seen eating with tax-collectors and sinners – collaborators with the occupying power, prostitutes, people who are beyond the pale and ‘not like us’: then we know that something is seriously wrong. If the the Church acted in this way, we would know that it was in a serious mess.

It’s just like the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. People who think that they are somehow better, morally superior, don’t really think that they need God. They think that they are ok; they are doing just fine thank you very much. They certainly have little need for religion or anything too extreme. The self-righteous attitude of the Pharisees is alive and well, and all around us. Jesus, however, associates with sinners for the simple reason that they know their need for God, they are not self-righteous, just humble. They know who they need to rely on, and also where their strength comes from.

Jesus’ teaching begins with gratitude. He gives thanks to the Father, the Lord of Heaven and Earth. In the prayer He gives us He starts by recognising both who and what God is, God who is the beginning and end of all things. It is a model for our prayers and our lives as Christians. We need to be GRATEFUL people. God has hidden things from the so-called wise and intelligent, those who think that they know it all, and do not pay any attention to Jesus’ words.

Instead, Jesus has revealed the truth to children, those who are weak and foolish. Simple, trusting souls [cf. Celsus] who know their need of God. The key then is humility. And for this our primary example is the Word made Flesh, Jesus Christ. God humbled himself to share our humanity, so that we might share His divinity. Through being reliant upon God, and not ourselves we can be rid of the ego, the sense of pride which says, ‘you can do it on your own’. and instead we can put our trust in someone who has been entrusted everything by the Father. In other words we are in Jesus’ hands, and can rely upon Him alone, safe in the knowledge that all will be well.

Jesus’ message is a simple one, ‘Come to me all who labour and are heavy-laden and I will give you rest.’ (Mt 11:28 RSV) Jesus gives us what we long for, something which the world around cannot give us, and He gives us it for free. It is the refreshment spoken of by King David in Psalm 23:1-2 ‘The Lord is my shepherd : therefore can I lack nothing. He shall feed me in a green pasture : and lead me forth beside the waters of comfort.’ This is a God who keeps his promises to us, and these commitments are fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. He is the Word made Flesh, the fulfilment of all Holy Scripture.

He calls us to take His yoke upon ourselves.  This is an act of submission, becoming like oxen pulling a plough, and beasts of burden. This image naturally leads us to think of Jesus carrying His Cross to Calvary. Paradoxically this is our rest, the easy task, our dancing with joy, this is the Kingdom of God.

It doesn’t make sense, and it is not supposed to, because it is radically different from anything we are used to. The opposite of worldly, selfish ways. Jesus is inaugurating a gentle humble Kingdom, which shows up the violence of the world for what it is: empty and destructive, sinful and selfish, only concerned with power and domination.

The Kingdom of God, however, offers freedom from this. For those who accept it there is gentleness and joy. Yet for those who refuse it there is the judgement of God. Jesus comes to save us from sin and judgement, and both He and His cousin, John the Baptist begin their ministry with the proclamation ‘Repent, the Kingdom of God is near.’ So my brothers and sisters let us turn away from the ways of the world, the ways of sin, selfishness, and death, and find our rest in Christ. Let us take his yoke, and bear his burden, in the joyous new life of His Kingdom. Let us encourage others to do so, that they may know His love and His peace, so that the world may be filled with his love, and so that all may come to 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.

‘Learn of me,’ Jesus said, ‘for I am meek and humble of heart.’ Humility perfects us towards God, mildness and gentleness towards our neighbour.But be careful that mildness and humility are in your heart, for one of the great wiles of the enemy is to lead people to be content with external signs of these virtues, and to think that because their words and looks are gentle, therefore they themselves are humble and mild, whereas in fact they are otherwise. In spite of their show of gentleness and humility, they start up in wounded pride at the least insult or annoying word.

St Francis de Sales Introduction to the Devout Life III:8

 

station_2-jesus_takes_up_his_cross_001

Third Sunday of Year A [Mt 4:12–23]

If you go to S. Paul’s Cathedral in London or the Chapel of Keble College, Oxford, you can see one of the most popular and reproduced works of Religious Art in the world: Holman Hunt’s painting, The Light of the World. It shows our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ standing at a door with a lantern. The door has no handle; it needs to be opened from the inside: Jesus may be the Light of the World, but he does not force himself upon us, we have to welcome Him into our hearts and our lives. His coming into the world which we celebrate at Christmas, which was made manifest to the world at Epiphany, was not the entry of a tyrant, forcing himself upon the world, but as a vulnerable and loving baby, entirely dependent upon the love and care of others, God comes among us. His coming is foretold by the prophet Isaiah, He is the fulfilment of prophesy, he is the light of the nations, and a cause of great joy: to be a Christian, to follow Christ is it not to be filled with the joy and love which comes from God; we can be serious in our zeal, but should never be miserable: our vocation is to live out our faith, in love, and hope, and joy in our lives, to draw others to Him.

Of our many failings as followers of Christ there is nothing worse than to see strife and division amongst Christians, as S. Paul found in Corinth: it has no place in the church, it isn’t what God intended for us, it’s not how things should be. It has to be resisted: wounds have to be healed, transgressions forgiven, and unity restored. It’s part of how we live out our faith in our lives, it’s why we pray and work for Christian Unity, and why it matters for our proclamation of the good news of the Kingdom of God.

If we turn to the words of this morning’s Gospel we see Jesus saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” To repent as Christ is asking us to, as St John the Baptist proclaimed before him is to change our mind, to make a change of direction in our lives, away from sin, and to Christ, it is what we promise in our baptism and it is how we are supposed to keep living our lives. It’s hard, I know, I fail on a daily basis, and yet I keep trying, turning back to a God who loves me, who took flesh of the Virgin Mary and became incarnate for me, and for you, and all who have ever or will ever turn to Him. Ours then is God of love and mercy, a God of forgiveness who calls us to turn to him, so that we may have life and have it to the full.

We turn away from what separates us from God and each other, we turn to God in Christ, to be close to Him in Word and Sacrament, to be fed by Him, to be fed with Him, with His Body and Blood, so that we might share His divine nature, so that we might be given a foretaste of heaven, so that we may be strengthened to live out our faith in our lives, so that the world may believe – the Kingdom is close at hand, and Christ calls us, the baptised people of God, to share in the work of His kingdom. He asks that we follow Him, that we go where He goes, that we do what He does – it sounds easy enough, but it’s not, it’s something which we need to do together, and while I can endeavour to help you along the way, I cannot without your help, your prayers, your love, and your support. As Christians we are inter-dependent, we rely upon each other, we’re in it together.

In the Gospel, Jesus sees Andrew and Simon Peter and then James and John the sons of Zebedee and says ‘Follow me and I’ll make you fish for people’. He calls them to share in God’s work of saving souls. They drop everything and follow him: it’s immediate and matter of fact. Jesus goes around preaching the good news of the kingdom, and the need for humanity to repent, and to be baptised, and he heals the sick, just as he can heal the sickness in our souls. This is good news indeed.

We need to be like lights in the world, shining in the darkness, so that Christ can knock on the door of people’s hearts. We need to be like those first disciples who heard what Jesus said, who listened, and did what He told them, who were close to Jesus, so that our faith is a reality in our lives. We need to be strengthened and fed by Him who is the greatest medicine for our souls, who comes to us here, this morning,  in His Body and Blood, to heal us, to restore us and strengthen us to follow him, so that the world may believe and 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.

Öèôðîâàÿ ðåïðîäóêöèÿ íàõîäèòñÿ â èíòåðíåò-ìóçåå gallerix.ru

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.

the_last_judgment_michelangelo

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

3689929886_206d540f30_o.jpg

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.

A Thought for the Day from Thomas Merton

We must liberate ourselves in our own way, from involvement in a world that is plunging into disaster. But our world is different from theirs. Our involvement in it is more complete. Our danger is more desperate. Our time, perhaps, is shorter than we think. We cannot do exactly what they did. But we must be as thorough and as ruthless in our determination to break all spiritual chains, and cast off the domination of alien compulsions, to find our true selves, to discover and develop our inalienable spiritual liberty and use it to build, on earth, the Kingdom of God. This is not the place to speculate what our great and mysterious vocation might involve. That is still unknown. Let it suffice for me to say that we need to learn from these men of the fourth century how to ignore prejudice, defy compulsion and strike out fearlessly into the unknown.

T. Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert, London: Hollis & Carter, 1961: 23

Trinity V Year B

Abba Moses the Ethiopian


In Scetis a brother was once found guilty. They assembled the brothers, and sent a message to Abba Moses telling him to come. But he would not come. Then the priest sent again saying, ‘Come, for the gathering of monks is waiting for you.’ Moses got up and went. He took with him an old basket, which he filled with sand and carried on his back. They went out to meet him and said, ‘What does this mean, abba?’ He said, ‘My sins run out behind me and I do not see them and I have come here today to judge another.’ They listened to him and said no more to the brother who had sinned but forgave him.
The monks of the Egyptian desert knew a thing or two about human nature, and our ability to make snap judgements, to listen to gossip, to be stubborn, to judge a book by its cover, to write people off and dismiss them. As they tried to live as a Christian community, built up together in love, they realised that it all starts with us at a personal level – we need to try to live the change which we want to see in the world around us. We won’t be very good at it, but if we try, and if we trust in God and if we forgive others and are forgiven by them then, who knows what God might do in our lives.

       Likewise the people of Israel seem to be very good at grumbling and moaning at God – the do a lot of it in the desert on the way to the Promised Land, but are not quite so good at hearing what God has to say to them. The lot of the prophet, like Ezekiel in our first reading this morning, is not necessarily a happy one, but it is something which has to be done. He is sent to the obstinate, so a prophet may well be rejected, but he is called to proclaim the word of the Lord regardless. The prophetic vocation is what drives St Paul, the love of Christ compels him (cf. 2Cor 5:14).  Thus when he is speaking to the church in Corinth he can say “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” (2Cor 12:9-10) It is after all not about Paul, but all about Jesus, who loves us, and who saves us, whose triumph over sin, the world, and the devil looks rather like defeat – the execution of a Galilean blasphemer is what brings about the healing of this world. It is through the grace of God, an unmerited kindness, which we cannot earn, given to us so that we might respond to God’s call and share in his life, justified by grace and sanctified through charity. We may not have an encounter like Paul on the Road to Damascus, but that does not mean that God cannot or will not be at work in our lives. Despite our weakness God can and does use us, ordinary, frail, sinful human beings for the furtherance of his kingdom. It doesn’t make much sense – it goes against everything which we would expect, as Paul wrote in his First Letter to the Corinthians, ‘For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.’(1Cor 1:18)

       The people of Nazareth are likewise more than a little surprised at the teaching and activity of someone whom they think that they know. There is something scandalously ordinary about the Incarnate Son of God – he grows up as a carpenter’s son in a backwater town. How can we take a God seriously who works like this? The people of Nazareth have this problem, and so Christ could do little because of their unbelief. Just like their forebears they are stubborn, unable and unwilling to look beyond the surface or to trust God to be at work. So Jesus heals the sick as a sign of the Kingdom of God, a kingdom of love, forgiveness, healing and restoration, and turns instead to his disciples. He calls his disciples to share in his work: to carry it on, as a matter of urgency, to preach repentance – to turn away from self and sin towards God; and the nearness of the Kingdom, shown through healing, a sign of what God in Christ is doing, and will do on the Cross and through His Resurrection.

       The Church then exists to carry on this work of proclamation, to live it, despite our weakness, our sinfulness, relying on Christ rather than ourselves, or our own strength. Indeed, in our weakness we are reliant upon Christ, and thus we acquire humility, through which God can truly be at work in us, building us up in love, fed by Him, in Word and Sacrament, fed with Him, given a foretaste of eternal life in Christ, so that we may be strengthened by him to bear witness to His saving truth, 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.

St Matthew

Death and taxation are two things which none of us can escape, try though we might. Most of us, I suspect, while we recognise the fact that taxation is necessary, don’t particularly enjoy having to hand over money, though we recognise that for the greater good of society it is necessary. It was, I suspect, always thus.  In the Roman Empire the business of tax collection was privatised – people paid money for the right to collect taxes, and as a result tended to collect a bit extra so that they could recover the cost of their having to buy the right to collect taxes. This could make tax collectors very wealthy indeed, and so they were not exactly the most popular people – they had a reputation for being corrupt and greedy and selfish, and were not exactly the sort of people with whom one might choose to associate.
       And yet at the start of this morning’s Gospel we see Jesus walking past a tax collecting booth and he says to the man there, called Matthew, ‘Follow me’ and he gets up and follows Our Lord. An invitation is offered, to which he responds, which changes his life, and has left us with his account of the Good News of Jesus Christ. That evening at dinner many sinners and tax-collectors want to be near Jesus, they want to listen to him, to what he has to say. For the respectable religious elite, the Pharisees, it is all too much. Why is Jesus hanging around with social undesirables? It isn’t what you’re supposed to do. Hence Our Lord’s reply ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.’ These are people who know their need of God, who are humble enough to come to him, so that they can be healed by him. He tells the Pharisees to go away and learn what the prophet Hosea meant when he said ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice’. He has come not to call the righteous but sinners, not people who think they’re fine in the sight of God, but rather those who know that they are not.
       The invitation which Jesus makes Matthew is the same one which the Church continues to make – we say to the world ‘Come and follow Him’ and the Church continues to exist because people continue to respond to that same call. The Church continues to invite people to the banquet of the Kingdom, not because they are worthy or respectable, because they have enough money or social standing, because they are the right sort, or people like us, but rather because we are all sinners in need of God’s mercy, people who need healing and restoration. We are the sick who need a physician, the physician who offers the medicine which can heal our souls – His Body and Blood. His sacrifice of Himself in Atonement for our sins and those of the whole world, to heal us and restore our relationship with God and with each other is that for which our sin-sick souls cry out. We need God’s mercy and a sacrifice which does what not human sacrifice can do. That is why we are here, so that we can be nourished with Word and Sacrament, we can be fed by the Lord, with the Lord.
       As we are fed by Him and with Him, we can likewise respond to His invitation: ‘Follow me’. Our conversion is both an event and a process, the work of a lifetime, to draw ever closer to Him, and to seek to follow Him, and invite others so to do. This is the work of the kingdom – to continue to stand against the desire of the world to make the Church respectable, full of people like us, and to fling wide the doors and invite people into the banquet of the Kingdom. It is not a treasure which we keep to ourselves, jealously guarding it, but rather which we offer to all, for this is what it means to follow Him – to do what He tells us and to live lives which proclaim the reality of the Kingdom of God here and now, for all humanity.

       So let us come and follow Him, let us respond to that invitation and encourage others so to do. Let us be fed by Him and with Him, so that our souls may be healed, so that we can experience the fullness of God’s healing love and mercy, which we do not deserve, but which nonetheless he gives to us so that we may have life and life in all its fullness. 

A Choice

Humans are social animals, we live together and as creatures of habit we become that which we do habitually – our thoughts and actions form our moral character and thus the society in which we live. It is why the Church is concerned with such things, not to take on the role of a policeman, but rather to help us to flourish as human beings, to live as God wants us to live, so that we may have life, and have it to the full – this is the proclamation of the Good News of the Kingdom, a proclamation anticipated by the prophets who look to a future in Christ, a proclamation and a kingdom inaugurated by Jesus, which continues to be the work of his body, the  Church. The message and the choice offered is a simple one.

The prophet Ezekiel is at pains to point out the need for Israel to turn away from its sins, to turn back to God. Sin can separate us from God and each other, it is divisive, it wounds, whereas the kingdom of God is a place of healing. As Christians we believe that Our Lord and Saviour died upon the Cross bearing the weight of our transgressions: he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, who once and for all deals with the problem – human sinfulness and its effects upon us and the world. It is why at the beginning of his public ministry he proclaims the same message as John the Baptist: ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand’. To repent is to turn away from sin, to turn towards God, to be healed and restored by him. It is why our acts of worship as Christians often start with the recognition that we have fallen short; that we need constantly to turn to God, and ask for forgiveness, for the strength to live the kind of lives which lead to human flourishing. It affects each and every one of us, you and me, and we need help – we simply cannot manage on our own, we’re not strong enough. One can and should point out where someone is going wrong, but unless there is a conscious recognition of having fallen short, it is as though the grace of God can be resisted. Such stubbornness is part of the human condition, and it is why for two thousand years the Church has proclaimed the Love and Forgiveness of God, and its message can always be lived out better in our lives. The Church exists to continue to call people to repentance, to carry on the healing and reconciling work of Jesus, here and now.

Two thousand years ago the Christians living in Rome, to whom St Paul wrote his longest letter were prone to the kinds of behaviour which we can still see around us today, and which we, all of us, still indulge in. The Cross is the supreme demonstration of the fact that God loves us. ‘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 did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’ [John 3:16-17]. We can recognise the problem and its effects but also be assured of a solution in the person of Jesus Christ, whose forgiveness is for all, who gives us baptism so that we might have new life in Him, and gives himself under the outward forms of bread and wine, so that we might feed on His Body and Blood to be healed and restored by Him.

This is not cosy or comfortable, but rather a radical transformative message, one which has the potential to change not just us, and who and what we are, but the entire world. Here in the Eucharist we are in the presence of the God who loves us, and who saves us, who heals and restores us. We have a foretaste of heaven; we can come far closer to God than Moses did on Mt Sinai. We have the medicine for which our souls cry out. So let us come to Him and let His Grace transform our lives.

At the end of this morning’s Gospel we see a promise made by Jesus firstly that prayer will be answered and of his presence among us. Part of repentance, the turning away from the ways of the world, is the turning towards God in prayer, listening to Him, being open to his transforming love in our lives, so that God’s grace can perfect our human nature, and prepare us for heaven here and now – so let us live the life of the Kingdom, having turned away from all that separates us from God and each other, with tears of repentance and a resolve not to sin, and with tears of joy that God gives himself to suffer and die for love us. We cannot be lukewarm about this: for it is either of no importance or interest to us whatsoever, or the most wonderful news which should affect who we are and what we do.

There can be no complacency, no simply going through the motions, turning up to be seen, to provide a veneer of social respectability. It is a matter of life and death, whose repercussions are eternal. We have a choice to make.

A thought for the day from Jean-Pierre de Caussade

Endeavour to become humble and simple as a little child for love of the Lord, in imitation of him, and in a spirit of peace and recollection. If God finds this humility in us he will prosper his work in us himself. Persevere in being faithful to grace for the greater glory of God and for the pure love of him. All consists in loving well, and with all your heart and in all your employments, this God of all goodness. When God grants us attractions and sensible devotions let us profit by them to attach ourselves more firmly to him above all his gifts. But in times of dryness let us go on always in the same way, reminding ourselves of our poverty and also thinking that, perhaps, God wishes to prove our love for him by these salutary trials. Let us be humble, occupied in correcting our own faults, without reflecting on those of others. Let us see Jesus Christ in our neighbours, and then we shall have no difficulty in excusing them as well as helping them. Besides, we must bear with ourselves also out of charity.

Abandonment to Divine Providence 2:6

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.

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.

Slapping Heretics

The world and the church have a picture of St Nicholas, it is a safe picture, he is a kindly man, a Bishop with a big white beard, who gives presents to children and does lots of lovely things. That’s all well and good, and there is much that can be said about the gentleness and generosity of the man, and how that points us to Christ. But recently I have found myself pondering another aspect of this great Saint. At the first ecumenical Council of Nicaea in ad325, Nicholas, Bishop of Myra slaps Arius for denying the coeternal and consubstantial nature of the second person of the Trinity, Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Nicholas got angry and his fellow bishops and the Emperor Constantine didn’t exactly approve of the pugilist prelate. 

If it were to happen today I could imagine the media outcry, Twitter would be flooded with #bishopgate and #TeamArius posts. No doubt some eminent theologian would state that it’s perfectly alright to say that ‘there was a time when he was not’ and that Adoptionist or Subordinationist positions are all equally valid points of view and that one Christology is as good as another, that this was Arius’ truth and it needs to be affirmed, that we need to feel his pain and resist the patriarchal oppression of an authority figure like Nicholas and so on.

Nicholas slaps Arius because orthodoxy really matters, what we believe about God and the Church really matters. The Word of God, who was with his Father in eternity, before all time, and matter, and space, becomes incarnate in the womb of the virgin, for the salvation and redemption of all humanity: true God and true man, consubstantial and coeternal. It may be easier to deny this, it may make more sense, or be consistent with a philosophical position, but it will not do. As St Ambrose put it: non in dialectica complacuit Deo salvum facere populum suum (it was not the will of God to save his people through dialectic) [De Fide 1:5, §42]. The Incarnation is a scandal and a mystery which defies human understanding and intellect, reason and philosophy it is something to be experienced, to be tasted and felt. 
This is what we await in Advent, the coming of Our Lord as a baby in Bethlehem and his second coming as Our Judge, bearing in his glorious body the wounds of love, borne for us and our salvation. So let us live lives which proclaim his saving love and truth to a world hungry for meaning and love and thereby honour God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, the consubstantial and coeternal Trinity, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever.