Epiphany IV (Year C)

In today’s Gospel we continue where we left off last week with Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth. Jesus has just read from Isaiah 61 and proclaimed the Kingdom of God to the assembled worshippers. By stating, ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’ (Lk 4:21), Jesus is claiming to be the fulfilment of Scripture, and the Messianic prophecies contained in Isaiah. This is what we believe as Christians. Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed One of God, Israel’s True King and Liberator, the Fulfilment of all Scripture. 

At first, Jesus’ words are well received:

‘And all spoke well of him and marvelled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth.’ (Lk 4:22)

But sadly, this positive atmosphere does not last for long. The congregation asks:

‘Is this not Joseph’s son?’ (Lk 4:22)

The people there have known Jesus for most of His earthly life, and their recognition may even be a source of local pride: here’s one of our own. They know Him as the son of a carpenter, who is now claiming to be the Messiah. It would, naturally, come as something of a shock to them. So they attempt to put Jesus claims into context. At one level they know Him, they know who He is, but at a deeper, more fundamental level they do not. The people in the synagogue misunderstand who and what Jesus is, and their familiarity breeds contempt.

Jesus does not react well to the lack of belief demonstrated by the Nazarenes, and says to them:

“Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself.’ What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your home town as well.” (Lk 4:23)

Jesus recognises that the people of His hometown want to see miracles, but He is not willing to perform any. They are expecting or even demanding God’s action, taking the divine for granted. So Jesus says to them:

“Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his home town” (Lk 4:24)

Jesus is explaining why He is being rejected by the people who, one might assume, would know Him best. The prophetic vocation is a difficult and a lonely one, and it involves a lot of rejection, as we see in the Old Testament reading from the prophet Jeremiah.

In this passage Jeremiah is addressed by God, a God who knows Jeremiah intimately, and has appointed himas  ‘a prophet to the nations’ (Jer 1:5). His prophetic calling will cause Jeremiah to meet with rejection:

“And I, behold, I make you this day a fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze walls, against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests, and the people of the land. They will fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, declares the Lord, to deliver you.” (Jer 1:19)

Prophets are opposed because they tell people uncomfortable truths. Doing what God wants, rather than what people want, will often make you unpopular. This is a truth of the human condition, as true in Jeremiah’s day as in our own. We should not be surprised that people are upset when God makes demands of them. 

Jesus then gives the worshippers in the synagogue two examples from the ministry of the prophets Elijah and Elisha. These are feeding the widow of Zarephath, and the curing of Naaman the Syrian from leprosy. In both instances we see prophets going outside the boundaries of Israel, and healing and restoring non-Jews, known as gentiles. The examples Jesus cites do not get a good reaction:

‘When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff.’ (Lk 4:28-29)

At one level, this looks like a huge overreaction. The people have gone very quickly from being extremely happy that the Messiah is amongst them, and one of their own, to trying to kill Him. They have been faced with the uncomfortable truth that the proclamation of the Good News of the Kingdom is for all people, and not just the Jews, and they do not like it. The fact that we are Christians and reading this here today is testament to the fact that the Good News has spread from Galilee to the whole world. This process began with the Apostle to the Gentiles, St Paul, the author of the First Letter to the Corinthians, today’s second reading. 

St Paul shows the Corinthian Christians a ‘more excellent way’ (1Cor 12:31), the way of Love. Love is the heart of the Gospel and our Faith: God loves us, and we are called to love God and each other. This is not the love of romantic movies, but the gentle, generous, sacrificial love shown to us by Jesus, who dies on the Cross for love of us, to heal us, and restore us. We celebrate the Cross, and I preach it, because it is the demonstration of God’s love for humanity. In the Gospel, Jesus passes through the crowd (Lk 4:30) because it is not His time to die. That will come later, in Jerusalem, at Passover, something we will commemorate in a few months, in April.

Luke presents the message of the Gospel being met with initial celebration followed by angry rejection. The question is, how do we want to respond to it? What difference does it make to our lives? Are we willing to risk having God transform our lives? If we accept that Jesus is Lord, that He is the Messiah, the Son of God. That He took flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary, to offer humanity new life and eternal life in Him. Are we willing to give Him our lives, all that we are, and to grow in love, together as a community of faith, a church of believers

May we not be like the inhabitants of Nazareth, rejecting Jesus, deaf to His message. May we listen to Him, and be nourished by Him, in Word and Sacrament.May He prepare us for Heaven where we will see Him face to face, and sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen. 

James Tissot – Jesus Unrolls the Book in the Synagogue (Brooklyn Museum)

Epiphany III (Year C)

In today’s Gospel we see Jesus going into synagogues, reading from the Scriptures, teaching and preaching. These actions are familiar to us in our worship. We recognise what is going on, because there is a fundamental continuity between what took place in a synagogue two thousand years ago, and what takes place in a church today. We read the same holy book, sing the same psalms, and pray to the same God. Jesus took part in these activities and it is good to be reminded that our religious practice is grounded in an unbroken tradition stretching back thousands of years: both ancient and ever new. 

Luke writes that Jesus returns ‘in the power of the Spirit’ (Lk 4:14). Following His Baptism and Temptation in the Desert, we now see the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in Galilee. Jesus is full of the Holy Spirit, and teaches that the Kingdom of God is a reality. His message is that people need to repent, to turn away from their wrongdoing, and to trust God to be at work in their lives. Jesus bases His teaching on the prophecies found in the Hebrew Scriptures, and those who hear respond positively: 

‘And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all.’ (Lk 4:15)

When Jesus comes to the town where He grew up, He goes to the synagogue to read on the Sabbath. There Jesus is given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and He reads:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Lk 4:18-19)

This prophecy is taken from the 61st Chapter of Isaiah. It expresses Israel’s hope for a Messianic future: a hope of healing, freedom, and restoration. This is similar to the idea of the Jubilee, when every fifty years all debts were cancelled, all slaves freed, and all land returned to its original owners. Some of you may remember the Campaign Jubilee 2000, which sought to write off Third-world debt, as a modern reworking of this ancient biblical idea. Jesus is proclaiming the Kingdom of God as a reality, here and now. This is what fullness of life and salvation look like when we live them. It is an attractive vision, and can be a reality, if we co-operate with God to live it out in our own lives. Jesus then turns to the people in the synagogue and says:

“Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk 4:21)

This is quite a claim to make. If the Scripture has been fulfilled then this means that Jesus is the Messiah, plain and simple. What the prophets point to in the future has now become a reality in the person of Jesus Christ. The Word made flesh is the fulfilment of the Word of God: Jesus fulfils the Scriptures. This is what we believe as Christians, and is why we read the Old Testament. The New is prefigured in the Old. The Scriptures point to Christ, and they find their fulfilment and true meaning in Him. What Israel has hoped and longed for has arrived in the figure of Jesus. Thus, we can say that the Kingdom of God is not something abstract, but rather someone concrete. It is a person, Jesus of Nazareth. The reconciliation of God and humanity happens in and through Jesus. This is a relationship which can grow and develop in each and every one of us. Every day we pray for the coming of God’s Kingdom: ‘deled dy deyrnas, Thy Kingdom come’ in the Lord’s Prayer. To make this happen, we have a part to play. We are called to co-operate with God in making the Kingdom more of a reality in the world. This is what the Church is, not a building, but a group of people in a relationship with each other, and primarily with the Living God. As Christians, we proclaim the same truth, and offer the same relationship, healing, and forgiveness. For two thousand years we have announced the same message, and will continue until the Lord comes again. 

This a cause for celebration, one envisaged in Nehemiah, our first reading:

‘Go on your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’ (Nehemiah 8:10) 

The Kingdom of God is a cause for celebration. It is what we look forward to in Heaven and it is what we do in Church. We meet to celebrate who Christ is and what Christ does, and to encourage people to know Him, love Him, and believe in Him. Our celebration this morning is both the Feast of the Kingdom, and also a foretaste of heavenly glory.

In today’s Gospel, we hear the announcement of the Kingdom of God, a new way of living, which can transform us, and our world, for the better. The Kingdom of God is to be a place where all are cared for, and where our needs are met. The good news is also for those who are spiritually poor. As Jesus will say in the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God’ (Lk 6:20). The good news of the Gospel is for those who know their need of God, who are aware of their spiritual poverty. That means all of us. We all need God’s love in our hearts, and our lives, so that we can be transformed.

As Nehemiah says, the joy of the Lord is our strength. May we be strengthened by our faith and share the Good News of the Kingdom with others, so that they may come to know and give praise 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. 

James Tissot – Jesus Unrolls the Book in the Synagogue (Brooklyn Museum)

Epiphany II (Yr C)

In today’s first reading the prophet Isaiah is looking forward to a Messianic future. He is giving Israel something to hope for: a vision of how things will be when the Messiah comes. At the feast of the Epiphany kings saw God’s glory in Bethlehem. In the Baptism of Christ we saw God’s glory manifest in the Holy and Life-giving Trinity, in the obedience of the Son of God, and the way to salvation through baptism. Now through the first of Jesus’ signs we will see further fulfilment of prophecy. In Isaiah the joy of God’s kingdom is understood in terms of a marriage, such as we see in this morning’s Gospel. A wedding is a sign of love, and joy, and commitment, something made holy and fruitful by God. 

At one level marriage symbolises God’s relationship with humanity brought about by the Incarnation: where God becomes human, so that humanity might come to share the divine life. The sheer joy of salvation, of hope in Christ, in reuniting what sin had destroyed. What Isaiah looks forward to, is made real in Jesus Christ. And so the first of Jesus’ signs, His demonstrations of the Kingdom of God, takes place at a wedding, in Cana, in Galilee. 

The miracle recorded in the Gospel of John takes place on the third day, foreshadowing Jesus’ Resurrection on the third day. Jesus and His mother are guests at the wedding, and so are His Disciples. Marriages in the Bible are community celebrations, with lots of people invited. To run out of food or wine would be very embarrassing for the hosts, so Mary lets Jesus know that they have no wine. While Jesus’ reply may look like he’s upset, He doesn’t ignore His mother, or fail to comply with her request. However, Jesus explains, that His Hour has not yet come, and it will not, until Jesus dies upon the Cross. 

Mary simply says to the servants, ‘Do whatever He (that is Jesus) tells you’. She stands as a model of Christian obedience. The key to the Christian life is to follow Mary’s example, and do whatever Christ tells us, nothing more, nothing less, just that. The Christian life is rooted in obedience: we listen to God and we act on His words. We do this for our own good, and for the good of the Kingdom, so that we are not conformed to the world and its ways, but rather to the will of God. Doing so enables us to enter into the joy of the Lord.

At the wedding there were six stone water jars each holding twenty or thirty gallons, about the size of a modern wheelie bin. Together they held one hundred and eighty gallons, or about six hundred and eighty litres, or the equivalent of one thousand four hundred and forty pints of beer, given that ancient wine was drunk diluted with two parts water. It is a lot of wine to drink, and that’s the point: this is a sign of the super-abundance of the Kingdom of God. It shows us that Christ is a type of Melchizedek, the priest-king of Salem. He is the priest of the most High God, who, in Genesis 14:18-20, offers bread and wine to Abram. 

The wedding steward is amazed, this is the best wine he has ever tasted. It is understandable that the steward is surprised, the best wine is usually served first, when it can be appreciated. However, the Kingdom of God turns human values on their head. The joyous new wine of the Kingdom is finer than any human wine. It is lavished upon humanity, so that it might transform us, so that we might come to share in the glory of God, and His very nature. 

Our Christian lives are to be one of celebration: that we are saved, and that God loves us. This is the reason why we are here today at the Eucharist, which is a foretaste of the marriage feast of the Lamb, and the joy of Heaven. This is where we drink the wine of the Kingdom the Blood of Christ so that we may be transformed by the power and the grace of God, so that we may share his Divine life, and encourage others to enter into the joy of the Lord.

The Wedding at Cana points to the Cross, as this is when Jesus’ hour comes, when He sheds his blood for us. The Cross removes all our embarrassment over our wrongdoings, so that we can enjoy forever the nourishment of God’s love prepared for us in Heaven. The heavenly banquet 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 too 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. Amen. 

The Wedding at Cana

The Baptism of Christ (Year C)

January is traditionally a time for making resolutions, and a new start for a new year. Despite our good intentions, most resolutions do not make it past the end of the month. It takes time for habits to form. If we want to make a change then we need to put effort in, and this applies to our spiritual lives as well. It is not too late to set some spiritual resolutions for 2022. Such as reading a daily bible passage, setting some time aside for prayer, or attending church more frequently.

In Luke’s Gospel, John the Baptist has been proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Lk 2:3). John has been calling people to turn away from their sins, and to turn back to God, and live holy lives. This has something of an effect on the people of Judea. There is an increase in religious observance, and something like a religious revival. This, in turn, leads to speculation:

‘As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ,’ (Lk 3:15)

The people of Israel were longing for the Messiah. In Greek this translates as the Christ, the Anointed One. The Messiah is a charismatic King figure, descended from David, who will make Israel flourish. John is not the Messiah, but he is paving the way for the promised one:

‘John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.’ (Lk 3:16)

John the Baptist knows that he is not the Anointed One. He sees himself as not even worthy to untie the sandals of the Messiah, something a slave would do for their master. John demonstrates great humility, and his actions point forward to the baptism of the Church, instituted by Jesus. Whereas John baptizes with water, Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. This looks forward to both Pentecost, when the Apostles are filled with the Holy Spirit, and to Jesus’ death on the Cross.

Today we are celebrating Christ’s Baptism in the River Jordan. It is a moment where we see God the Son, and also God the Holy Spirit, and we hear God the Father. The Holy Trinity, the fulness of God, is made manifest:

‘Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”’ (Lk 3:21-22)

We then have to ask ourselves the question, why is Jesus being baptized? Jesus is not a sinner, He has no sins from which to repent, and yet He is there, being baptized by John. An explanation is that in His Baptism Jesus is in solidarity with sinful humanity: He does not wish us to undergo anything that He would not undergo Himself. Christ is an example of how to come to God and have new life. As a sign of divine approval after the Baptism, as Jesus is praying, the heavens open, the Holy Spirit descends upon Him in the form of a dove, and God says: ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’ (Lk 3:22)

At the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus shows humanity the way to the Father, through Himself. The world sees the generous love of God, which heals and restores us to the light and life of the Kingdom of God. As our baptism is a sharing in the death and resurrection of Jesus, so His Baptism points to the Cross, where streams of blood and water flow to cleanse and heal the world. We see the love of the Father, the power of the Spirit, and the obedience of Son, all for us, who need God’s love and healing, and forgiveness.

At the moment of Jesus’ Baptism, we see the fullness of the Godhead, a manifestation of glory and divine presence. Just as in Noah’s Ark God makes his love manifest in the form of a dove, so now He brings us peace and love. At the end of the Flood a dove brings a branch of olive back to the Ark, a sign of peace and new life. So now, the Holy Spirit appears in the form of a dove to show us the fullness of God, a relationship of love, which is opened up to us in our baptism. We are invited into the embrace of God’s love. 

The Divine Trinity makes itself manifest in recognition of the Son’s obedience to the Father, and looks forward to the Cross, where God’s love is poured out upon the world, and through which we are saved. In our own baptism, we share in Christ’s Death and Resurrection. In His Baptism as in His Death, Christ shows us the way to the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit. We are baptised in the name of the Holy and Life-giving Trinity. Our worship this morning began by invoking the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Yn enw’r Tad, a’r Mab, a’r Ysbryd Glân). And so all of our life as Christians is Trinitarian. 

The first reading this morning, from the prophet Isaiah, is a messianic prophecy. It begins with idea of God’s people being comforted, and their wrongdoings being pardoned. This prophecy is fulfilled in our baptism. We are baptized because Jesus was baptized. Christ gives an example, because He loves us and cares for us. Jesus is the Good Shepherd spoken of by Isaiah:

‘He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms;
he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.’
(Isa 40:11)

Our Saviour comes among us demonstrating humility, showing us the way to a relationship with God. Jesus is the shepherd of our souls, who leads us, His people, and shows us God’s love. We can trust Him to be always with us, accompanying us through whatever life throws our way. Christ carries us in His bosom, we are close to Him, loved by Him. We are never alone, because we are  always surrounded by God’s love.

So let us draw strength from our Baptism and grow in faith, hope, and love, nourished by Christ, and with Christ. Let us share that love with others throughout the year ahead, so that all may sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

The Baptism of Christ – James Tissot (Brooklyn Museum)

The Second Sunday after Christmas

After the excitement and bustle of Christmas and New Year, there is a certain slowness about January. The days are short, the weather isn’t great, and, despite our resolutions, no one feels all that lively or full of energy. It is understandable, and thankfully the Lectionary gives us the opportunity to revisit some Christmas texts, to ponder the mystery of the Incarnation. While the world around us has taken their decorations down, in the Church we are still celebrating Christmas, and will continue so to do for some time yet. The awesome mystery of God taking human flesh and being born among us needs more than a day’s celebration. Indeed we could spend a whole lifetime pondering the wonderful fact that God has come earth to share our human life, and to bring about our redemption and restoration.

Today’s Old Testament Reading is from The Wisdom of Jesus son of Sirach, also known as Ecclesiasticus. This is a later writing in the Jewish Wisdom Tradition, dated to somewhere between 135-115 years before the birth of Jesus. It was written in Hebrew and soon after translated into Greek. Our reading this morning comes from the beginning of a hymn to Wisdom. Wisdom is likened to the Word of God, and so becomes important as a means of reflecting upon Jesus. This is especially true of the following verse:

Then the Creator of all things gave me a command, and my Creator chose the place for my tent.’ (Sir 24:8)

In John’s Gospel we are familiar with the verse:

And the Word became flesh and lived among us’ (Jn 1:14)

The word we translate as ‘lived’ actually means ‘pitched his tent’. John’s Gospel is looking back to the Jewish Wisdom tradition to understand the Incarnation, and to place Christ’s birth in a wider scriptural context. The author of Ecclesiasticus was looking forward to a Messiah, and now He has been born. The longed-for salvation has become a reality. 

This assurance lies behind St Paul’s joyful greeting to the Christians in Ephesus. As Christians we have entered into a new relationship with God the Father: 

He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved’ (Eph 1:5-6)

Our primary identity is as children of God, as brothers and sisters in Christ. This is through an outpouring of God’s grace — unmerited kindness and generosity because He loves us. This is the heart of the Christian Faith, and the message of Christmas: God loves us. How we respond to that love is our choice. Paul prays that Christ:

may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints.’ (Eph 1:17-18)

Our hope is in Heaven, to spend eternity in God’s nearer presence, to join the Church Triumphant. And this is why Christ is born in Bethlehem: to give us this hope, to bestow this grace upon us. Through our celebration of Christmas we know that ours is a God who comes among us, who comes alongside us, who is not remote, but involved: a God of love.

Saint John take us back to the beginning so that we can see how things fit into the bigger picture. What we are celebrating at Christmas is something which extends through time, both in its nature and its effects. It is why we as Christians make such a big deal of Christmas – it isn’t just something nice to do in the middle of winter. Along with Our Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection, the Birth of Jesus is the most wonderful and important moment of history, and it affects us here and now. What was made known to the shepherds, we now proclaim to the world. This is shown symbolically in the Feast of the Epiphany, where the Wise Men point to the manifestation of Christ’s Divinity made visible to the whole world — the recognition of God’s saving love:

And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.’ (Jn 1:14)

The reality of the Incarnation, of God with us, Emmanuel, is that God lives with us, sharing our human life, and showing us the glory of God. That which Moses hid his face from in the Book of Exodus is now made plain, and displayed for all to see. It is a proclamation of the glory, the love, and the goodness of God. This is shown by our adoption as children of God, when we are given an inheritance. This inheritance is eternal life and a close relationship with God who restores and heals us. 

The last two years have shown us that humanity desperately needs healing and restoration. This is possible through Christ who can heal our wounds, and restore in us the image of the God who created us. We long for this, we pray for it, and, if we are willing to let God be at work in us, it can become a reality here and now. 

So as we begin 2022, we are grateful that we are able to meet together in worship, and we look forward in hope to a future much brighter than the dark days we have endured. Let us walk in the light of Christ, and know the fullness of His joy. Let us be glad that as a pledge of His Love Christ gives Himself, to feed us with His Body and His Blood. Through the bread and wine of Communion we have a foretaste of Heaven. This is food for our journey of faith here on earth, so that we may know Christ’s love, and touch it and taste it. By participation in the Eucharist, physically or spiritually, we are strengthened to live that faith and to proclaim it by word and deed. So at the start of this new year, we pray that all the world may enter into His joy, live His life, and know His healing. We join with the angels to sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

Sandro Botticelli Mystic Nativity (National Gallery, London)

Christmas 2021

Our Celebration, today and over the next few days of the Birth of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, is something familiar and yet strange. We are very familiar with the story, taken from the accounts of Luke and Matthew, and shown in countless Christmas Cards. And yet, there is something momentous, even mind-blowing, about the fact that God the Creator and ruler of all becomes incarnate in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and is born today in Bethlehem. God becomes helpless, vulnerable, and completely dependant upon Mary and Joseph. Today we are celebrating the fact that God takes a risk, and enters into the world as a human being, to live, to die, and to rise again, for us. Our Creator does this out of love for humanity, to fill us with His love and grace, and so that we might be transformed into His likeness, and spend eternity with Him.

The Four Gospels start their accounts in different ways. Mark’s Gospel begins with Jesus’ public ministry, Matthew and Luke have accounts of Jesus’ birth and infancy. John, however, goes back to the beginning, to the start of everything, the Creation of the Universe in Genesis Chapter One. In the beginning, before the creation of heaven and earth, Jesus was:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.’ (Jn 1:1-3)

In the Book of Genesis, God speaks the universe into creation. He does this through His Word, Jesus Christ. That Word is now made flesh, lying in a manger in Bethlehem. He has come to give each and every one of us life and light:

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’ (Jn 1:4-5)

Our experience over the last eighteen months or so has had its fair share of darkness, despair, and fear. And yet Christ, who is the Light of the World, has not been overcome. Our hope is in the Word made flesh, a light which no darkness can overcome or extinguish. We commit ourselves to this hope today, and every day, knowing that this is a God we can trust, a God who loves us. A God who has experienced all human life from birth to death. A God who knows our pain and our weakness, a God who heals.

We can have the confidence of the prophet Isaiah, to lift our voices in song, knowing that: 

the Lord has comforted his people; he has redeemed Jerusalem.’ (Isa 52:9)

Today God’s plan of salvation, the redemption of his people becomes a reality. A baby is wrapped in cloth and laid in a stone feeding trough, so that Jesus’ life begins as it will end. Christ’s Birth mirrors his Burial, so that He can be raised to New Life at Easter, before returning to the Father’s right hand in Heaven. With joy the prophet can proclaim:

and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.’ (Isa 52:10)

Today salvation has indeed come to the whole world, and the message of salvation, the message of the Church, can be proclaimed. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews understands that God speaks through his prophets, who look forward to the birth of the Son of God as the defining event, the turning point of human history. The Prophets tell us both how things are and how they will be. We therefore have a vision of God’s future, and the hope of glory in the one who is born today. We can glimpse true glory in the vulnerable baby lying in the manger, dependant upon others for love, and food, and warmth. God’s glory confounds our expectations, and that’s the point. God’s ways are not our ways, nor are His thoughts ours. In the same way that God saves us: not because we are lovable and good, but so that we might become so. Humanity is saved in order to be transformed, and the role of the Church is to extend that transformation across space and time, through you and me, and the whole Christian family of believers. 

Such is the mystery of God’s love. It is something so wonderful that we are not able to fully understand it, but we can experience it, and through experiencing it, we are transformed by it. As the twentieth century Anglican theologian, Austin Farrer wrote: 

‘God does not give us explanations; we do not comprehend the world, and we are not going to. It is and it remains for us a confused mystery of bright and dark. God does not give us explanations; he gives us a Son. Such is the spirit of the angel’s message to the shepherds: “Peace upon earth, good will to men … and this shall be the sign unto you: ye shall find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.”’ [Austin Farrer Said or Sung, pp. 27, 28]

Or as St John puts it: ‘in him was life, and the life was the light of men.’ (Jn 1:4). Christ has come among us to transform us. We experience this transformation in Baptism, in the Eucharist. Sacraments: outward visible signs of inward spiritual grace — God’s generous love poured out on us to fill us and to change us into His likeness. And to bring this about God gives us His Son. Christ comes to give us life, new life, eternal life in Him. Freed from our past mistakes and transformed by the love of God, we can live the life of the Kingdom, the life of Heaven here and now. This is ‘glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth’ (Jn 1:14), given to humanity so that we may live as God intended us to. Through Christ we are offered the chance to return to Eden, to see Creation restored, and all things set right. This is the reality of God’s love freely given to restore us to the fullness of life.

So let us embrace God’s love and encourage others to experience the true joy of Christmas. Let all humanity join with the angels to sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen. 

James Tissot – The Nativity (Brooklyn Museum)

Advent IV (Year C)

This morning’s Gospel presents a striking scene. It describes the meeting of two cousins: one older, one younger, both pregnant. Neither were expecting to have children, so the whole thing has come as a bit of a shock to them both. Mary goes up from Nazareth to Ein Kerem, which is a few miles west of Jerusalem to see Elizabeth. This is a journey that takes about a week on foot. Luke tells us that Mary goes ‘with haste’ (Lk 1:39). She is rushing to her cousin. Mary has good news to share with Elizabeth: she also is going to have a baby! As well as sharing her news, Mary wants to help her cousin prepare for the birth of her child. Both are filled with joy, and love, and care. As Mary enters the house of Zechariah, something amazing happens:

And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb.’ (Lk 1:41)

Even before he was born, John recognises Jesus, and leaps for joy. John is a prophet, even in his mother’s womb. He announces the presence of the Saviour. This leads Elizabeth to cry out:

Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!’ (Lk 1:42)

Mary is blessed, because she says, ‘Yes’ to God, she accepts God’s invitation to bear the Son of God, the King of Israel, the Saviour of the World. Earlier in Luke’s Gospel the angel Gabriel tells Zechariah that he and Elizabeth will have a son called John. Then Mary is told that she will bear the Son of God, and goes to see Elizabeth. The narrative is fast-paced, with lots happening. Yet, Elizabeth seems to understand the nature of the events. She asks:

And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?’ (Lk 1:43)

Elizabeth understands that Mary is the Mother of God, and that her unborn child, Jesus is God come among us, Emmanuel. Equally, Elizabeth knows that her baby will be a prophet, who will announce the presence of the Lord and prepare His way before Him. She joyfully declares:

For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.’ (Lk 1:44-45)

Mary and Elizabeth trust God to be at work in their lives. They are humble and obedient, and because of this the salvation of humanity can be brought about and announced. Both John the Baptist and Jesus proclaim the Kingdom of God, call people to repent, believe, and be baptised. Their mission starts here with their mothers trusting God’s promises. Mary and Elizabeth demonstrate the humility and obedience which allows to God to be at work in the world, saving His people, made in His image. 

This is why we celebrate Christmas. It is the best news the world has ever had. We prepare for it, we get ready, in the season of Advent. Mary stayed three months (Lk1:56) with Elizabeth to help her prepare. They spent time in prayer, and pondered the amazing world-changing events which were about to take place.

There is a beauty in the way that we put lights on trees, like the one on the Village Green, which proclaim by their illumination the coming of the Light of the World. Christ is coming, we should be ready to greet Him. His arrival is prophesied in Scripture. The prophet Micah declares that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem:

from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.’ (Micah 5:2)

God’s plan of salvation has always been that Jesus should be born, and all of human history from the Creation onwards has been leading up to this point. In Micah’s words, Christ will:

‘shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall be their peace.’ (Micah 5:4-5a)

Jesus is the Good Shepherd who cares for us His flock, and lays down His life for us. We can dwell secure because Christ is our peace, and in Him we have the hope of Heaven and the promise of eternal life.

Christ is our Saviour because He shares all our human life, from birth to death. Jesus offers Himself out of love, to take away our sins, to heal our wounds, to restore us. We have, in the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, ‘been sanctified’ (Heb 10:10), made holy. We have been made God’s holy people again. This process continues in the Eucharist. In our communion, whether actual or spiritual, God continues to transform us by His Grace into His likeness.

Our salvation is very close indeed. We can feel it. We know that God keeps His promises. We can prepare to celebrate the Christmas festival with joy, because we know what is about to happen. A baby will be born who will save humanity, whom John the Baptist will recognise as the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. This is the Good news we share with the world around us: that God loves us, was born for us, and dies, and rises again, for us. All that Jesus is and says and does, from His taking flesh in the womb of His mother, His Birth, His Life, Death and Resurrection, proclaims God’s love for us. This is what we are preparing to celebrate: God’s love of humanity. God has always loved us, and always will. God is love. 

So let us prepare to celebrate that love. May it fill our hearts and minds, so that we live lives of love, proclaiming God’s love, so that all the world 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. Amen. 

The Visitation – James Tissot (Brooklyn Museum)

The Third Sunday of Advent (Year C)

This week our readings and liturgical texts have a joyful character. This is reflected by a change of liturgical colour. On the Third Sunday of Advent, instead of purple, rose may be worn. A lighter, happier colour. Our liturgical colours express something of the character of the day or season we are celebrating, and helps us to enter into the mysteries and live them out in our worship. 

It is fair to say that we are currently in need of good news. Thankfully there is a message of hope and joy in our reading from the prophet Zephaniah. After Jerusalem was sacked by the Babylonians, Zephaniah prophesies its rebuilding and restoration. These prophecies also look to Jesus as the ultimate restoration of Israel, and her true hope:

The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: “Fear not, O Zion;’ (Zeph 3:15-16)

Christ comes to save His people from fear. This is reinforced in the next verse:

The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save’ (Zeph 3:17)

Jesus’ name means ‘God is salvation’, and He comes to save God’s people, which is why the Church celebrates His coming during this Advent season. Christ’s coming will bring healing and reconciliation, something humanity longs for:

Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors.And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.’ (Zeph 3:19)

God longs to heal our sin, to take outcast humanity and gather it into the feast of the Kingdom. God wants to clothe us in a garment of praise and thanksgiving, which is the garment of our Baptism, when we put on Christ. God longs to feed us with Himself, so that we might be nourished by Him, and have life in Him, for all eternity. This is the hope which Advent brings, and it is the cause of our joy.

The knowledge of salvation in the reason for the joy of St Paul and the Christians in Philippi: for them the Lord’s coming is imminent. The message Paul wishes to share with his fellow Christians is: Be happy, pray, and don’t get worried — God in Christ wants to give you peace. This is how we should live as Christians, and we do, though it is good to be reminded of it from time to time. 

Reminding people of profound, and sometimes uncomfortable truths is the cornerstone of the prophetic vocation. In today’s Gospel, John the Baptist begins by warning the people of his own day against spiritual lethargy. It is easy to get complacent, and two thousand years later, we need to hear the same message. John’s words left his original hearers scratching their heads and questioning:

“What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.”’ (Lk 3:10-11)

What then shall we do?” this is the question most, if not all of us, would ask. The answer can be found in verse 8: ‘Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.’ The next step after repentance and belief in God is to live out our faith in our lives. Luke’s Gospel tends to focus on the poor, so John the Baptist’s advice is particularly welcome. Caring for the poor and needy, supplying the basic needs of food and clothing, are the starting point of Christian charity. Once people’s basic needs have been met, then it is possible to start dealing with other problems. This is reflected in the Gospel:

Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”’ (Lk 3:12-14)

Tax collectors were well-known in the Ancient World for charging people extra, and keeping the surplus themselves. It was expected, and so the right to collect taxes was auctioned off to the highest bidder. It was a corrupt system, which John seeks to reform. Likewise, soldiers are in a position to misuse their power and use it to extort money from the weak and vulnerable. John makes it clear that this is not how people should behave. 

John’s proclamation of the Good News of the Kingdom leads people to wonder whether he is the Messiah. John the Baptist has this to say on the subject:

“I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”’ (Lk 3:16-17)

John understands his mission as to prepare the way for Jesus, who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Then the chaff of human sin will be burned away, preparing us for Heaven. This is good news, the reason for our everlasting hope, and the cause of our rejoicing.

Christ comes to free the world from the effects of wrongdoing. On the Cross Jesus bears the burden of our misdeeds, healing our wounds and restoring our relationship with God. So let us rejoice and invite others to share in the joy of the Lord so that the world 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. Amen. 

James Tissot – The Voice in the Desert (Brooklyn Museum)

The Second Sunday of Advent (Year C)

Many people, especially children, enjoy opening the doors on an Advent Calendar. They are a daily count down of the days until Christmas, and can contain images from the Christmas story. At home, ours began with a star, which reminds us of the Star that appeared in the sky and was visible above Bethlehem, the star which led the Wise Men from the East. Advent means ‘coming’ and the Church prepares for Jesus’ coming over these four weeks. The star reinforces the idea that Christ’s coming was announced and visible. People could see that something was happening: it was a real event, something amazing and out of the ordinary. Some two thousand years later it remains so.

The Gospel this morning begins with precise historical details. The fifteenth year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius was from September ad29-August ad30. This detail allows us to know when the prophetic ministry of John the Baptist began. St Luke also tells us the names of the governor of the province of Judea, the names of the various local rulers and the names of the Jewish high-priests for that year. This historical information is useful and tells us something about why St Luke is writing his Gospel. Luke’s Gospel is a work which narrates events that happened in a particular place and at a particular time. These are real historical events. At some point in the twelve month period described, John was inspired to go out into the Judaean desert. There he began to proclaim:

a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (Lk 3:3)

The Jews were used to the idea of ritual washing and cleanliness, but this was something more, something which would turn your life around. Repentance means being sorry for what we have done wrong, and vowing not to do it again. It puts us in a position of being able to accept God’s love. Repentance makes it possible for the proclamation of God’s Kingdom. Luke understands John’s prophetic ministry as fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah (Isa 40:3-5) which he quotes in verses 4-6 of Chapter 3. John the Baptist is the voice crying in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord.

John prepares the way for Jesus by going before Him, preaching repentance, and calling people back to God. He does this is so that, 

all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’(Lk 3:6)

God in Christ is saving His people. This is why we celebrate Jesus’ coming: firstly as a baby in Bethlehem, and then His Second Coming as our Saviour and our Judge. In addition, through the Holy Spirit, Christ comes to us in the Sacraments of the Church and the Scriptures every day. Jesus fills us with the love of God, and transforms us so that we become more like Him. This is Good News, the best news we’ve ever had!

The Book of Baruch is supposed to have been composed by a scribe of the prophet Jeremiah during the exile in Babylon, but was probably written a couple of centuries before the birth of Christ. Today’s reading is from the final chapter, which ends the work by offering Israel consolation. Being cheered up is always a very good thing, especially at the moment, with a new strain of Covid, prices going up, and winter upon us. Something to lift the spirits is particularly welcome. Baruch speaks to Jerusalem and tells her to: 

Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction,…and put on for ever the beauty of the glory from God’ (Bar 5:1)

This prophecy is fulfilled in the baptism first proclaimed by John, then Jesus, and now offered to the world by the Church. We are living proof of the fact that God keeps His promises, we can trust Him. Through our baptism we are able to:

Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God’ (Bar 5:2)

God makes us righteous, we cannot do it ourselves. Thanks to God’s grace, His unmerited kindness, we are clothed in godliness. Baruch tells Jerusalem to look eastward, to look at the rising sun. This reminds us of the star at Bethlehem which was in the East, and of Christ’s Resurrection on the first Easter. Baruch restates the prophecy of Isaiah that valleys will be filled and hills will be made low: 

so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.’ (Bar 5:7)

Travel was a dangerous business in the Ancient World, and Baruch’s vision of the Kingdom of God is one of peace and glory: 

For God will lead Israel with joy, in the light of his glory, with the mercy and righteousness that come from him.’(Bar 5:9)

This is what happens when Jesus proclaims the Kingdom: prophecy is fulfilled in Him, and we are the living proof of it.

Advent, then, is a joyful time, when we prepare for the coming of the one whom we love, and who loves us. We are free to love God and to serve him, and to invite others to do the same; to be baptised, to turn away from the world, and be fed by Word and Sacrament, built up into a community of love. As St Paul writes: 

And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.’ (Phil 1:9-11)

God offers the world a radical alternative, built on love, which is shown most clearly in the Cross, when Jesus died for love of us. God loves us so that we might become lovely, and gave His life for us, so that we may come to share His life . This is our hope. This is the hope proclaimed by the prophets. This is the hope of Advent. We need to live out this hope in our lives. Only then can the world 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. Amen. 

James Tissot – The Voice in the Desert (Brooklyn Museum)

The First Sunday of Advent (Year C)

Every year in Winter we have a season of four weeks called Advent to prepare for the coming of Christ. During this time we don’t recite the Gloria in excelsis, so that when we say it at Christmas, it may ring out with joy, as we join our voices with the angels celebrating Christ’s birth. The colour for Advent is purple, a dark shade which reminds us both of Christ’s royalty and our penitence. During the next four weeks we prepare for Christmas, our yearly remembrance of Christ’s First Coming in Bethlehem, and For His Second Coming as our Saviour and our Judge. The idea of the Second Coming of Christ tends to make people uncomfortable, and that is understandable. No-one likes the thought of being judged, of being called to account. But the one who will judge us is the God who loves us, and who died for us. God is our judge, but He is the God of love and mercy who has saved and redeemed us by His Death and Resurrection. Thus we can have hope, and prepare to meet Christ with joyful hearts.

In our first reading this morning, the prophet Jeremiah declares that God fulfils His promises: we can trust Him.

In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.’ (Jer 33:15)

This promise, made to the House of David, is fulfilled both by Jesus’ birth and His return in judgement. God promises to save His people and to rule in a way that is far beyond any human idea of justice. Earthly rulers and politicians will, and do, disappoint us: they fall short of our expectations. Any of us would. We need to ask God to intervene. Only God can save us, we cannot save ourselves.

When St Paul wrote to the Church he founded in Thessalonica, the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia (now Greece), they were expecting Jesus to return imminently. 

So Paul prays that God may make them,

abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.’ (1Thess 3:12-13)

Love is the key to the Christian Life: God’s love of us, and our love of God and each other. We need God’s help in this, so that we can be genuinely loving, and live the life of the Kingdom, here and now. Each week we confess our sins, listen to God speaking to us in our Bible readings, and we are nourished by God, so that we can grow together in love, and be transformed by Him, and for Him. Part of this transformation happens at the Eucharist. Normally when we eat food, it becomes part of us. But in the Eucharist, we are transformed into Christ’s Body and Blood. Such is the power of God’s grace that by our communion, whether physical or spiritual, we are united with God and our souls are transformed. We become joined with the God who loves us, so that we can live lives of Christian love, expressed in service, which build up the Kingdom and make it visible.

At various points in the Gospels Jesus talks about the end times. There is an expectation that it is imminent, and we should live prepared for it to happen. Christ warns us: 

But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap.” (Lk 21:34-5)

The word ‘dissipation’ is not one we usually hear, it means ‘overindulgence’ or ‘excess’ It is all too easy for Christians to despair about themselves and the world around them, and to give ourselves over to behaviour designed to distract us. We become wrapped up with cares and anxiety, and forget that we can trust Jesus’ promises, and that He has come that we might have life and life in all its fullness. Jesus tells us to be awake and to pray, and Advent is a time for prayerful alertness, focusing on our relationship with God and each other, and living lives of love. 

If we consider the parable in today’s Gospel, the parable of the Fig Tree, two things are apparent. The first is that fig trees are clearly visible and easily recognisable in the Middle Eastern Landscape. This means that, when Our Lord comes it will be apparent to everyone. Secondly, figs as fruit take a long time to ripen. Therefore their appearance shows that the Kingdom of God is close at hand. This long ripening reminds us that we need to be prepared to wait, for all things will happen at their appointed time. Our preparation for Christ’s Coming is the work of a lifetime. It involves a journey of faith, entering into the mystery of God’s love, and letting ourselves be transformed by it. 

What greater present could we offer to Our Lord than hearts filled with love and lives lived in the true freedom proclaimed by the Gospel. At one level, therefore, it does not matter whether the Second Coming is today or in a thousand years time. What matters is that we live lives infused with the values of the Kingdom of God. This is a joyful and yet a serious business. Jesus has taught us what we should be doing, and these are things that we, as Christians, need to do together. As a community we pray for the Grace of God to help us, to strengthen us and fill us with that Love which comes from Him. So that we all may 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. 

The Tree of Jesse – Lambeth Bible MS3 f. 198r

Christ the King

As we all came into church this morning we used the hand sanitiser by the door to cleanse ourselves. Also located by the West door in this, and many other churches, is a font. There is a very good reason that the font is placed by the door. It is because Baptism is how we enter the Church. Baptism therefore takes place where we come in, so that what we do is reinforced by the place where we do it.

We have come here today, in Christian fellowship, to participate in the Eucharist and to pour water over a child’s head in the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Before Jesus ascended to Heaven, He told His disciples to do these things. So for two thousand years Christians have gathered to pray together, to read the Bible, to baptize people, and to celebrate the Eucharist.

Before Jesus began His public ministry He was baptized by His cousin, John the Baptist in the River Jordan. To this day some Christians use rivers and streams to baptize, but that might be rather cold today! As Jesus emerged out of the water, the Gospels tell us that the Holy Spirit appeared in the form of a dove, and that God the Father spoke, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, listen to Him’. And we do. And so we gather to welcome another child of God into the family of faith, which we call the Church. It is a truly happy occasion and a cause for genuine celebration. The past eighteen months have been a difficult and painful time for all of us, so to have something to celebrate is wonderful news indeed.

In our Baptism we are washed, freed from sin, and raised to new life in Jesus Christ. We are named, known, and loved by God, and become part of a family which extends across space and time, which we call the Church. In a few moments time we will have the newest Christian in the world right here among us, and if that is not a reason for celebration, then I don’t know what is!

Just as the parents and godparents make promises on behalf of this child, we are reminded of the promises which we made, or were made on our behalf. We give our prayerful support as part of a fellowship of faith which lives and grows together in love. Baptism is a public declaration of faith in God: of what we believe as Christians, and of how we live our new life together, as a community united by our shared relationship with God and each other. When we enter the Church through our Baptism we become part of a new family in which we are all brothers and sisters in Christ.

Unfortunately families don’t always get along all of the time. But when we say or do something wrong we say, ‘Sorry’, we try not to do it again, and we forgive each other, because we love each other. The Church is like any other family in this regard. Through Christ we know that God is love, and that God loves us. Jesus gives the Church Baptism and the Eucharist to share new life with us, and so that we can grow together in love and forgiveness. We read the Bible together, we are taught together, we say ‘sorry’ together to God and each other, we pray together, and we are nourished by the Eucharist together. And week by week, and year by year, these things change us, so that we become more and more like Jesus.

This journey begins with our Baptism, but it doesn’t end there. As we grow in faith in our lives, we develop. None of us are the same person we were two years ago. We are older, and wiser, and hopefully more loving and generous. These changes can be hard to see, but they do happen. Such gradual change is never going to make the headlines, but it is the key to living a Christian life. By living like Christ, with God’s help, and a lot of love and prayer, we are prepared for heaven. The rôle of the Church is to get us ready for Heaven, to spend eternity with the God who loves us. The support of our fellow Christians helps us to grow in love and faith, and as we do, to transform the world around us.

If we live lives characterised by love and forgiveness, it affects what we do, and who we are. By living out our faith in our lives we can change the world for the better. This is what Jesus came to teach humanity, and it is why we pray,

deled dy deyrnas, gwneler dy ewyllys; megis yn y nef, felly ar y ddaear hefyd.

thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’

If we want God’s kingdom to be a reality, then we have to do God’s will, to help bring it about. We have each been invited to play our part, and to work together to make the world a better place. It is all about co-operation, with God, and with each other.

It is good that we are celebrating a christening on this the Feast of Christ the King, because it stresses the fact that Jesus, as God, is the supreme ruler of Heaven and Earth. We want to see His Kingdom come, so we do His will. We live lives of love, forgiveness, and generosity, because this is how God wants us to live. This is how we flourish as human beings. By doing so we help to make the Kingdom of God a bit more visible here on earth, and we are made ready for Heaven, where we hope to enjoy God’s love in His presence.

So let us all live out the full reality of our Baptism, and encourage others to join God’s family and do His will. Let us sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

James Tissot – Ecce Homo

Remembrance Sunday 2021

‘Gwyn eu byd y tangnefeddwyr: canys hwy a elwir yn blant i Dduw’

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God’

Mt 5:9

For over one hundred years people in this country have gathered on the Sunday closest to Armistice Day to give thanks to Almighty God for all who have served and died for the peace in which we live. We give thanks for those who continue to serve and protect us. We are grateful that the Armed Services have helped administer the vaccine against Coronavirus, playing their part to keep this country safe, and to save lives. We give thanks for the work of the Royal British Legion, raising money to support service personnel for one hundred years, and wish them continued success.

When we recall the sacrifice made by people from the villages in which we live, from this country and from all over the world, our remembrance must be an active one which has an effect on our lives. We recall the generosity of those who have tried to ensure that we can live lives free from warfare and suffering. Such generosity must leave a mark on our lives, and help us to learn from the mistakes of the past and try not to repeat them in the future.

There is no-one who has not been touched by the events of the past one hundred years. Many people, members of our own families, gladly offered, and still continue to offer themselves for the safety and security of humanity. An act of remembrance has a deeper significance when we know that members of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces are on active service overseas, working for peace and stability, for a safer, fairer, world, where people can live in peace and plenty. We remember too all the victims of warfare, the countless millions who have lost their lives in a century characterised by conflict. Our reaction will, of necessity, be a complex one: a mixture of sadness and thankfulness, gratitude and grief. While we are grateful to live in a country at peace, we cannot fail to be moved by the cost of military and civilian lives, throughout the world, which continues to this day. 

Peace is not simply the absence of war, but the right ordering of the world around us. It means living the way God wants us to live, in harmony, and love, one with another. That is why peacemakers are children of God. To live in peace is the will of God. God wants humanity to flourish. What peacemakers do reflects what Jesus Christ has done for us: 

Ac, wedi iddo wneuthur heddwch trwy waed ei groes ef, trwyddo ef gymodi pob peth ag ef ei hun; trwyddo ef, meddaf, pa un bynnag ai pethau ar y ddaear, ai pethau yn y nefoedd

and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.’ (Colossians 1:20). 

Christ’s sacrifice inspired many of our forebears. Christ bought us peace by the shedding of His own blood. In the face of anger and aggression, Jesus’ response was love. Christ is our peace, and Christians are called to follow Him. We do so knowing that the Cross, like our Cenotaph, is not a place of shame and defeat, but rather victory. The love of God has triumphed, and all will be well. 

Does God want us to fight? No! War may be just, and undertaken for the right reasons, but we are supposed to live in peace. Human nature longs for wealth and power and is willing to stop at nothing to acquire it. Christ, however, shows us another way — the way of love and gentleness, which longs to heal and reconcile. This is what Christ proclaimed on earth, and continues to do — to draw people into the peace of the Kingdom of God, where wounds are healed and divisions reconciled.

We are thankful for those who sacrificed themselves for us, and we honour their memory by treasuring peace won at so great a cost. We are serious about peace, because it is the will of God, and the means of human flourishing. It is precious, and it is for everyone. We are thankful that we are alive and able to give thanks for those who gave their lives for us, and we commit ourselves to being peacemakers in our own lives, in our community, and in our world. What greater tribute could there be to the fallen than for us to work for a world where all may live in peace and security, for such is the Kingdom of God. By doing this we honour their memory and share the treasure they have given us with humanity.We are called to be generous, after the example of Generous God, who loved us so much that He gave His Son to die for us.

God’s Kingdom is a radical place which seeks to transform humanity into the image of Our Loving Creator. For two thousand years Christians have been living lives of love and service. We continue in church, in chapel, and in our daily live, to make God’s Kingdom a reality here and now, through what Christ has done for us, and the sacrifice of our forebears. 

We will remember them.

Trinity XXIII

Today’s first reading is from the First Book of Kings. Elijah the Tishbite has proclaimed that God is not happy at the religious changes undertaken by Ahab, King of Israel and his wife Jezebel. They are worshipping false gods and setting up idols, breaking the First and Second Commandments of Moses. There is to be a three-year long drought, which will have dire consequences for the people of Israel. 

The Lord tells Elijah to go to Zarephath on the Mediterranean coast of Lebanon between Tyre and Sidon, where a widow will feed him. Elijah asks the widow for water and bread, as she is gathering sticks to make a fire. The situation is a dire one. The widow is preparing a last meal for her son and herself, after which they expect to die. She does not tell Elijah to go away, but instead does what he asks of her. In doing so, the widow demonstrates humility and obedience, and will be rewarded for her actions. 

At one level the story can appear strange to our modern eyes. Here is a poor woman on the margins of society, without a husband to support her, about to use up the very last of her food. Along comes a stranger who asks her for food and drink, and she obliges him. Hospitality, showing kindness to strangers is a crucial aspect of human society. All of us would happily share what we have with guests, and visitors. Food tastes better when it is shared. 

Elijah addresses the widow and begins:

“Do not fear; go and do as you have said.” (I Kings 17:13)

Just like Jesus in the Gospels, Elijah begins by saying, ‘Paid ag ofni’ ‘Do not be afraid’. He then prophesies that the widow and her son will have the food they need:

For thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘The jar of flour shall not be spent, and the jug of oil shall not be empty, until the day that the Lord sends rain upon the earth.’” (I Kings 17:14)

God performs a miracle, and the widow is rewarded for her generosity. She has risked everything by giving away what little she had and in turn receives more than she could have asked for. 

In this morning’s Gospel Jesus is teaching in the Temple in Jerusalem. He begins by criticising the religious elite:

“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the market-places and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretence make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation (Mk 12:38-40)

Jesus begins by pointing out that the scribes like to be ostentatious in their practice of religion. They parade their faith, so that people will see how overtly pious they are. As someone who walks around in long robes and sits in the front of churches, I feel somewhat uncomfortable when I read these words. However, I wear what I wear, and sit where I sit to serve and honour God, and not myself. The scribes make themselves rich by preying on the vulnerable and marginalised, and their prayers are long so that they can demonstrate how religious they are.

Jesus then turns His attention towards the giving of donations:

“And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny.” (Mk 12:41-42)

At an instinctive level we tend to see generosity in terms of the size of the donation. This was the case in the Temple where there were thirteen donation chests that had trumpet-shaped flared funnels on top of them. Rich people would deposit large amounts of money which would make a lot of noise. It was an ostentatious way of saying, ‘Look at me and how generous I am!’. The widow’s gift seems very small and quiet by comparison. Jesus then explains his teaching:

‘And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”’ (Mk 12:43-44)

The important thing to realise is not how much was given in monetary terms, or the noise it makes, but what the gift represents. The widow is poor, she has very little, but gives all that she has to the glory of God. Just like the widow of Zarephath, who shares her food, this widow is an example of generosity. The rich people can afford to give their gift, and make a great show out of giving it. Their gift does not affect them, or alter their lives in any way. However, the poor widow gives away all her money, and is left, literally, penniless.

The idea of giving everything away brings us to the second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews. The passage contrasts earthly ideas of priesthood, sacrifice and temples, and their heavenly realities. Christ is our great high priest, who offers Himself, on our behalf, as an offering to God the Father, out of love. This takes place on the Cross, at Calvary. God, in Christ, gives everything — the life of the Son of God is offered freely, to reconcile what sin has thrust apart. Jesus is the greatest example of generosity that exists. This is the heart of the Christian Faith: Christ dies for us and rises again to heal the wounds of sin and division and to open up the way to heaven for those who believe in Him. Jesus appears ‘in the presence of God on our behalf’ (Heb 9:24). 

Thanks to the generosity of God we have the hope of Heaven, where we can join the angels and saints in singing 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. Amen.

James Tissot – The Widow’s Mite

All Saints 2021

For the next two weeks or so, world leaders are gathering in Glasgow for an International Conference on Climate Change. The situation humanity faces is a desperate one, and unless every nation tries to take better care of the world in which we live, the life for succeeding generations will be very bleak indeed. Thankfully it is not to late to do something, and avert a crisis. There are things which we can and should do to take care of the world around us. The world is God’s creation, and not ours, we have stewardship of it, and stewards are called to take care of what is entrusted to them, and not to squander or misuse their precious charge. 

The Gospel reading this morning comes from Matthew’s account of Jesus’ teaching at the start of His public ministry known as the Beatitudes. In a manner reminiscent of Moses giving the Law to the people of Israel on Mount Sinai, Jesus goes up a mountain and teaches the assembled crowds. Just as Moses had taught God’s people how to live, so now Jesus announces the reality of the Kingdom of God, a radical vision, which turns the values of the world upside down. He begins: 

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5:3)

This seems a strange way to begin. ‘Poor in spirit’ is not a term we are used to using, but it means the exact opposite of pride. It places humility as key to living a Christian life: knowing who we are, and our need for God. Only if we rely upon God, and not ourselves, and ask Him to work through us can we truly live out the Christian life. Christianity is a religion for the humble, not the proud. Humility recognises that we are in a mess, and that we cannot sort things out ourselves: we need help, from other people, and most of all from God. 

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” (Mt 5:4)

The world around us sells us dreams of happiness; but sadness and loss are an inescapable part of human life. We mourn those we love, those whom we see no longer in this life. Their passing does not stop us missing them and wanting to hold them, and talk to them. Our parting, while temporary, is still very painful. Thankfully the Kingdom of God, which Christ comes to bring, is a place of healing and comfort with the promise of eternal life. God heals our wounds and longs for us to enjoy eternity in His presence. The Kingdom is a place where this healing is a reality, where through love and forgiveness enemies are reconciled, and become friends. 

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Mt 5:5)

This verse is particularly striking. The world around us tends to see things in terms of power, economic, and political. The rich and powerful are in charge. But God has other ideas: the meek will inherit the earth. To be meek is to be gentle, quiet, and unassuming. In the media it often feels as though those who talk the loudest are most often heard. God’s plan is different. Gentle people are not weak: they know how to use their strength, and how not to use it. As Jesus will later say in Matthew’s Gospel: ‘Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.’ (Mt 11:29). This is how God wants us to live as human beings. Jesus Christ is the example of gentleness we must follow. Once again, God’s vision of the future turns our human expectations upside down. If we live like this, then things can, and will, change for the better.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” (Mt 5:6)

Should we be devoted to God? Absolutely! Should we pray that God’s will is done on earth as it is in Heaven? Of course! Jesus taught us to pray this way. Our faith should influence how we live our lives, so that we work together for the coming of God’s Kingdom here on earth. Clearly God wants to see our world transformed and has invited us to help in the process; and doing so gives us fulfilment, the satisfaction of seeing the reality of the Kingdom. 

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” (Mt 5:7)

We see what God’s mercy looks like in Christ’s death for us on the Cross. In following Christ’s example, we ask for forgiveness for our own sins, and forgive those who sin against us. This forgiveness can transform us and the world around us, and it is how the healing and reconciliation of God’s Kingdom functions in practice. 

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Mt 5:8)

To be pure in heart is to want what God wants: to align our will with the will of God. It is to be saintly, and thus have the promise of Heaven, which is less of a place or a time, and much more a relationship. To see God is know Him, and to know His love for us. This is what Christ comes to restore to humanity, and it is our hope. 

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” (Mt 5:9)

First and foremost, we know that Christ is the Son of God because He made ‘peace by the blood of his cross’ (Colossians 1:20). We too are called to follow Christ’s example and take up our Cross, and work for peace. Peace in our own hearts and lives, in our families and communities and in our world.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” (Mt 5:10-11)

Following Jesus will not make us popular, often quite the opposite. If, however, we want to see God’s Kingdom as a reality in this life and the next, then we must be prepared to be shunned, or even ridiculed by others. To follow Christ is to take up the Cross, and to expect persecution, and false accusation. But we are not alone in this, Christ has gone before us, showing us that the story does not end with death on a Cross, but the glory of the Resurrection and Eternal life. 

If we want to become saints, then we have to be like Christ, and share in His suffering and death. We have to be prepared to be rejected by the world, and dismissed as irrelevant. We may not face imprisonment, torture and death in this country, but many Christians around the world do. However, we may be scorned, ignored, or patronised. What do we do in such circumstances? We are called to be loving, generous, and forgiving, because that is what Jesus has shown us. We can be different to the world around us because we belong to a new community, the community of faith, built on our relationship with Jesus Christ, who came to save humanity from itself. He came that we might have life and have it to the full, and that is what the Beatitudes mean. By living the life of God’s Kingdom here and now, we can live the life of Heaven here on earth. This is what God wants us to do, and it is what Jesus showed us how to do it.

So may we, on this feast of All Saints, be filled with courage, and be ready to tune our lives to God’s will and live as good stewards of God’s world. Let us live the life of the Kingdom together, and encourage others so that all may join the choirs of Heaven to sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

James Tissot – The Sermon of the Beatitudes

Trinity XXI

The Road from Jericho to Jerusalem is steep, winding and dangerous. It is the road on which the man is attacked who is helped by the Good Samaritan in the Parable in Luke’s Gospel. It is along this road that Jesus and His disciples will travel, a journey of sixty miles to go to celebrate the Passover. In today’s Gospel, Jesus and the disciples are surrounded by a great crowd. They are attracted by Our Lord’s preaching and His miracles. As the group leaves Jericho they meet beggars by the roadside. One of them, Bartimaeus on learning that it is Jesus cries out,

“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Mk 10:47)

Bartimaeus recognises Jesus’ prophetic calling and asks for mercy. We do the same at the beginning of every Eucharist when we say, ‘Christe eleison, Crist trugarha, Christ have mercy’. The people around Bartimaeus tell him off. They tell him to be quiet, to stop causing a commotion. However, he does not listen to them, but instead he cries out all the more,

“Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Mk 10:48)

Bartimaeus is desperate. He longs for God’s mercy, he longs for healing. Bartimaeus may be blind, but he sees what many others cannot: that Jesus is the Messiah, the one who will heal and restore Israel. His faith in Jesus and his insistence pays off, as Jesus stops and asks to see him. 

And throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. And Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” And the blind man said to him, “Rabbi, let me recover my sight.” (Mk 10:50-51)

Blind Bartimaeus does not want to beg for alms, he wants to see again, and he trusts Jesus to be able to do something about it. 

And Jesus said to him, “Go your way; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him on the way. (Mk 10:52)

Without even touching Bartimaeus, Jesus heals him. It is because of his trust and faith in Jesus, that Bartimaeus is healed. Note that instead of rushing off, Bartimaeus follows Jesus, living the life of faith there and then. He is healed and immediately becomes a follower of Jesus. Bartimaeus longed for the light and now he follows Jesus, the Light of the world. This healing miracle becomes a story of faith, and in that faith we too can follow Jesus. 

The first followers of Jesus were known as followers of the Way, (Acts 9:2) and this is what Bartimaeus becomes; he follows Jesus on the way, both literally and metaphorically. He trusts Jesus, he has faith in Him, and he follows Him. In Mark’s Gospel the story of Bartimaeus acts as a bridge between the teaching and miracles of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee and His time in Jerusalem which leads up to His death. Jesus will enter Jerusalem on a donkey, as the Messiah, and will teach the people of Jerusalem how to follow God, fulfilling the hope and expectation of the prophets. Bartimaeus has faith which allows him to see, whereas the people of Jerusalem cannot see that Jesus is the Messiah, they are blind, whereas Bartimaeus can see, and follows Jesus on the Way.

We too are on the Way, followers of Jesus, who long for the healing and restoration which sees Bartimaeus go from beggar to disciple. Israel hoped for this as well. In the first reading this morning Jeremiah is looking forward to a Messianic future, even at the point when people are being led away to captivity in Babylon: 

For thus says the Lord: “Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, …. and say,
    ‘O Lord, save your people, the remnant of Israel.’”
’ (Jer 31:7)

Behold, I will bring them from the north country and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, ….With weeping they shall come, and with pleas for mercy I will lead them back, …. For I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my first-born’ (Jer 31:8-9)

At a low-point in Israel’s history, with the Temple destroyed and the people led off into captivity, Jeremiah can look to the future in hope, trusting that God will lead His people back. This hope is realised in Jesus, whose name means ‘God saves’. It is Jesus who brings us back to the Father, as true children of God. As well as being the Messiah, Jesus is also our great high-priest, who offers the sacrifice which takes away sin, and restores the relationship between God and humanity. Unlike the priests of the Temple, Jesus could offer Himself as a perfect offering, as a royal priest, the true King of Israel. In Genesis (14:18-19), Melchizedek blesses Abram:

And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High.) And he blessed him and said,“Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth

As Melchizedek brings out bread and wine, so Jesus will take bread and wine, and institute the Eucharist as the Messianic banquet, for the healing of the nations: to transform us, and so that we can share God’s glory forever. 

So may we be strengthened by Word and Sacrament to live the life of faith, and like Bartimaeus, to follow Jesus on the way that leads to Heaven. Let us 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.

James Tissot – The Two Blind Men at Jericho

Trinity XX

The Apostles James and John, the sons of Zebedee are also known as ‘Boanerges’, which means ‘The Sons of Thunder’. This name fits them to some extent as there is something quite loud and brash about the two brothers. The Gospel reading this morning is a good example of this. It begins by the brothers coming up to Jesus and asking Him, 

“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” (Mk 10 35)

That is a very bold request to make of anyone, let alone Jesus. But Our Lord does not seem shocked, surprised, or upset. Instead He replies quite calmly, 

“What do you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” (Mk 10:36-37)

This is quite something to ask for. It is really shocking. But there are some surprising assumptions underlying the disciples’ request. First, there is the assumption that Jesus will be glorified. Secondly that, as one possessing glory, Jesus really is the Messiah and the Son of God. Thirdly, James and John are asking for the seats of honour, to be Jesus’ right and left hand men, to be the leaders of the disciples. Jesus does not overreact, or get angry with them. Instead, He simply states,

“You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (Mk 10:38)

Jesus is absolutely correct. The sons of Zebedee have no idea what they are asking for. Jesus then asks them if they are able to drink the cup He will drink, or to share His baptism. Presumably James and John have no idea of what Jesus means by this, but in their enthusiasm, they readily agree. In the verses which come before today’s reading, Jesus has been teaching the Twelve for the third time that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer and die. At this point in the Gospel narrative, Jesus is making His final journey from Galilee up to Jerusalem, prior to His Passion and Death. Rather than being a military ruler bringing liberation to Israel, the Messiah will, in fact, be a Suffering Servant, as spoken of by the prophet Isaiah.

And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” (Mk 10:39-40)

Jesus does not tell James and John off, but He does prophesy that they will likewise face a violent end. It is not for Jesus to decide who will sit next to Him in Heaven. The conversation has, however, clearly upset the other disciples, who are not happy with James and John’s attempt to seek preeminence. Again, rather than telling them off, Jesus uses the opportunity to teach the disciples.

And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John. And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.”(Mk 10:41-42)

We are used to seeing depictions of Roman Emperors in films on TV. They wear purple clothes, the most expensive dye in the Ancient World, and they are treated as though they have an almost divine status. They are shown as absolute rulers, whose words and whims have to obeyed. In contrast to this, Jesus offers the Twelve a different paradigm:

“But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”(Mk 10:43-45)

Those who are to lead the Church are called to a life of service, of God and of others. The disciples are called to serve others, and not to seek power or prestige for themselves. The life of Jesus Christ, who gives his life ‘as a ransom for many’ (Mk 10:45) is our example. Christ willingly lays down His life to liberate people for God, to free them from death and sin, and to offer us eternal life in Heaven with God. This is why we celebrate Jesus’ Passion, Death, and Resurrection. The Cross and the Empty Tomb are the heart of our faith because they demonstrate God’s love for us. God loves each of us enough to die for us, and rises on the third day to show us that our eternal destiny is to enjoy God’s love forever in Heaven. The Christian Church proclaims this Gospel truth, and encourages all people to share in the gift God offers to us.

The first reading this morning is the second half of the fourth, and final, Servant Song of the prophet Isaiah, which we hear in full on Good Friday. The Church, from the time of the Apostles, has understood these verses as referring to Jesus. They speak of His passion, His Suffering and Death, for us. Christ fulfils the Scriptures and they find their true meaning in Him. In worldly terms, Jesus looks like a failure: He is deserted, denied, and dies the death of a common criminal. But we are not to judge by the standards of this world: ‘it shall not be so among you’ (Mk 10:43).

As Christians, we are being faithful to Christ. We are holding fast to our beliefs, because they are true, because they come from Him who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Through our faith we can ‘have confidence to draw near to the throne of grace and receive help in time of need’ (Heb 4:16). Our relationship with God is a mystery, not something to be explained, but something both to be experienced and lived out. It is a mystery which we will enter into this morning when Christ, as priest and victim, offers Himself for us. We receive Him, either spiritually or under the outward form of bread, and are transformed by Him, and enjoy the loving presence of God here and now and forever in Heaven. 

In living out God’s truth in our lives we live a service which is perfect freedom. In conforming ourselves to Christ we find meaning and identity. So let us lay down our lives that we may live fully 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.

James Tissot – Jesus travelling

Trinity XIX

Every so often it is a good thing to take a step beck and take time to consider the things we do and why we do them. As humans, created in the image and likeness of God, we do not worship creation, but our Creator. We recognise in the goodness of creation a generous God. The practice of coming together to offer our praise and thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bounty of the natural world, and for a harvest safely gathered in, is an ancient and honourable thing. The Ancient Israelites gave thanks for their life in the promised land, and we do likewise. As part of our worship of God, we offer Him the best of all that we have as a response to His bounteous generosity to us every day of our lives. 

When this church was built its congregation, who lived on and worked the land, would gather on the 1st August for Lammas (Loaf-Mass) to give thanks for a successful grain harvest. During the renewal of the Church in the nineteenth century the idea of a harvest celebration became popular once again. Naturally, we want to say, ‘Thank you’ to God for all that we have received from Him. That is right and proper. One way in which we can express our gratitude to God is by doing our best to care for the natural world around us and for the members of our community. This we do today by our collection of donations for the local food bank — much needed by many in these difficult times. 

In today’s first reading, the author prizes wisdom and understanding above all else. Without these things we act foolishly. Wealth, health, and human beauty — all the things of this world — are not worth anything, unless they are used well. God has given them to us for a purpose, so that we may flourish, and help others to thrive.  

The Gospel reading this morning starts with an important question. A man asks Jesus:

“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mk 10: 17) 

Jesus answers by stressing the importance of the moral law we know as the Ten Commandments, which were given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. These rules show us how our love of God and neighbour affects how we live our lives: we are called to live lives of generous love. Jesus  also says:

“Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” (Mk 10:18)

Because Jesus is both God and man, He is good. He is a good teacher because He teaches the Truth, and He is the Truth (Jn 14:6). Jesus apparent refusal of the title ‘good’ reinforces the importance of humility for Christians. We need to be humble, and know our need of God.

The man tells Jesus that he has kept the Commandments since childhood, but wants to know if there is anything else he should do.

And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. (Mk 10:21-22)

Jesus looks at the man and loves him, because God is Love. God loves us. That is why He sent Jesus to be born among us, to proclaim the Good News to us, to die for us, and rise again. This is the heart of our faith: that God loves us. If I said nothing else to you this morning, or in the future, I say this: ‘Know that you are loved by God, and let this love transform your life’. Jesus calls the man to live out his faith by adopting radical generosity. This is difficult: I know that measured by such a standard, each and every one of us, myself included, regularly fails to live up to this ideal. So what can we do about it?

Some people are willing and able to fully comply with Jesus’ teaching and embrace radical poverty for the sake of the Kingdom. For example, by giving up all they possess, joining a religious community, and living lives of prayer and service. But all of us need to take to heart the advice of the Letter to the Hebrews:

Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Heb 4:16)

There are times in our lives when we have to do all sorts of difficult things, and if we were to rely solely upon our own strength and talents, then we will, undoubtedly, flounder at times. We are not meant to act alone, but as part of a community which looks to God as its strength. ‘I’ can’t, but God can, so let Him. When we rely upon God’s mercy and grace, His generous love towards us, then amazing things can and do happen.

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” (Mk 10:27)

To be a Christian is to be conscious of the generous love of God, which should make us generous in return, so that we live lives of generous love, in imitation of the one who loved us, Jesus Christ. Here we see the real meaning of our celebration of Harvest: God has been generous to us, so we should likewise be generous. If we are feeding the hungry and caring for the poor, then we are helping to make the Kingdom of God a reality, here and now. This is a good thing, and it is how God wants us to live.

Our desire to work for a world where none are hungry, where all are loved, requires our cooperation with the will of God, and our trust in Him. When we are fed by His Word and by the Eucharist our lives can be transfigured, and our faith strengthened and renewed. This gives us the strength to put our faith into action to change the world around us, transforming it to the will of God. So that everyone will 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. Amen.

James Tissot – The Rich Young Man went away sorrowful

A Thought from St Francis de Sales

Do not look forward in fear to the changes and chances of this life; Rather, look to them with full confidence that, as they arise, God, to whom you belong will in His love enable you to profit by them.He has guided you thus far in life, and He will lead you safely through all trials; and when you cannot stand it, God will bury you in His arms.Do not look forward to what might happen tomorrow: The same everlasting Father who cares for you today will take care of you tomorrow and every day. Either He will shield you from suffering or He will give you unfailing strength to bear it. Be at Peace, then, and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginings. 

Trinity XVII

The Book of Numbers tells the story of the journey of the people of Israel through the desert of Sinai towards the Promised Land. In Chapter 11, the people are complaining about their lack of food which leads God to send first manna, and then quail, to feed the people. While this is happening, God promises Moses that He will share his Spirit with seventy others. This is so that Moses may have some helpers to aid with leadership, to deal with complaints, and to settle disputes.

Seventy men go to the Tent of Meeting, and two men stay behind in the camp: Eldad and Medad. They are both filled with the Holy Spirit and begin to prophesy. Moses is told about this, at which point something of a dispute arises:

‘And Joshua the son of Nun, the assistant of Moses from his youth, said, “My lord Moses, stop them.” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!”’ (Numbers 11:28-29)

Moses is not as concerned as Joshua about observing proprieties, and he recognises that there is a freedom to the Spirit: it blows where it wills (cf. Jn 3:8). God is free to work through whomsoever He chooses. Moses wishes are granted on the Day of Pentecost, when the Apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit. We too, as Christians, are dwelling-places of the Holy Spirit, which works in us and through us. 

Just as Moses is able to see the bigger picture, likewise in today’s Gospel reading we see Jesus being rather generous. The disciples have noticed some exorcisms taking place, which have not been sanctioned. However, Jesus does not want His disciples put a stop to this, so He tells them:

“Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us. For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward” (Mk 9:39-41)

If the point of exorcism is to heal people, then as the Kingdom is a place of healing, the more the better. Evil spirits are cast out in Jesus’ Name, because it is powerful. The point is that faith is not just a matter of belief, but rather of belief put into practice, an act of loving generosity. Putting faith into practice helps to make the Kingdom a reality in our and other people’s lives. It is easy to be exclusive, and small-minded, but thankfully God is more generous than that, and we should try to be like Him.

Then Jesus’ teaching turns to matters of wrongdoing, moral failures, and how they are viewed. It is important to state in the strongest possible terms that Jesus is not encouraging Christians to drown people, or mutilate themselves, but rather teaching His disciples about the serious nature of sin.

Jesus begins by explaining that whoever puts a stumbling block in the path of another has hindered their discipleship. This is a serious charge.

“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” (Mk 9:42)

In this passage Jesus is engaging in hyperbole, exaggeration for rhetorical effect, to underline the point that our actions affect others. Using exaggeration, Jesus is pointing out that living a Christian life is a serious business: His followers are called to perfection. People who are new to the Christian faith, who are learning the Way, are particularly vulnerable. If they are led astray by the wrong kind of example, by the wrong sort of teaching, then it is a serious thing. Those of us who are Christians have a great responsibility to nurture others in their faith. The disciples, however, have been petty and small-minded. They have been concerned more with their own power and prestige rather than judging the actions of those helping otherscorrectly, and seeing the situation for what it really is. 

There follows a difficult passage, which, if we were to take it literally, would see all of us blind, lame, and without hands. Clearly this cannot be God’s plan of salvation for humanity. So if we are not supposed to take Jesus literally we have to interpret His words allegorically.This means uncovering the spiritual meaning of Christ’s words. Jesus may be referring to sins committed by hand, foot, or eye, i.e., what we do, where we go, and what we look at. The cutting off may be metaphorical, referring to excommunication. This means temporarily excluding people to give them an opportunity to repent and ask for God’s forgiveness. Our sins lead to estrangement from God, characterised by Hell and unquenchable fire. This is what rejecting God means. By doing so, we confine ourselves to darkness and misery. Jesus has come to save humanity from the Hell we create. He will die to give us life. 

Only Jesus can do this for us, and we have to let Him. We need to follow Him. Only then can we be salt, flavouring and preserving the world around us. Only then can we truly be at peace with one another, and understand things properly, and act accordingly. 

Living as a Christian community means owning up to our shortcomings, and being humble enough to let God transform us, bit by bit, day by day, more and more into His likeness. We learn by carrying our Cross, a burden much lighter than our sin, a burden which can and will transform us. Pride, that great human sin, makes us think that we are important. The disciples think they are important, and lose sight of the fact that what really matters is who Jesus Christ is. We must focus on what He has done for us, dying on the Cross, and rising to new life, so that we can live in Him. This is why we come together on the first day of the week, the day Jesus rose from the dead, so that we can share His risen life, and be nourished by Him.

Today’s other text, the Letter of James has some strong words for the wealthy, and in particular those who acquire their wealth by defrauding others. Christianity is a religion of generosity, given to us by a generous God, who expects us to be generous in turn. Just like the moral shortcomings outlined in the Gospel, here we see that we are called to live in a just and loving way. As Christians we are to stand for fairness and justice for all. The temptation is always there to seek to be important, to pursue power and prestige. What matters is that we glorify God, that we advance His kingdom. This is a kingdom of love, and forgiveness and healing, where people come to know who they truly are in Christ. If we listen to what Jesus tells us, and try to live like Him, then we can help to bring about the day when God will be all in all. Then everyone will 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. Amen.

James Tissot – Jesus teaches his disciples

Trinity XVI

The Gospel reading this morning reaches its climax with Jesus using a child to teach the disciples a lesson in humility by presenting one of the weakest and most vulnerable people in society as an example. Jesus reminds us that all human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, and as such are of infinite worth.

Jesus and His disciples are passing through Galilee for what proves to be the last time, before He makes his way to Jerusalem for His Passion, Death, and Resurrection. Once again Christ teaches the disciples about what is going to happen. It is likely that Jesus referred to passages in Scripture which prophecy about His Passion, such as our first reading this morning from the Book of Wisdom. In the passage wicked men are plotting the downfall and death of a righteous man:

‘Let us lie in wait for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law, and accuses us of sins against our training.’ (Wisdom 2:12)

This verse encapsulates the approach taken by the Scribes and Pharisees in the Passion narrative. Throughout the Gospels Jesus criticises the Pharisees for keeping the Letter of the Law, but being far from its Spirit. His enemies will see Jesus condemned to a shameful death, and as He dies they wait to see if God will deliver Him. It is easy to see how before His Death it would be hard for people to understand Jesus’ teaching, but once He had died and risen again, everything would become clear. 

‘But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.’ (Mk 9:32)

Admitting that you do not understand something is difficult. The disciples are confused and afraid. They do not want to own up to their lack of understanding, so instead, they focus upon themselves and their own importance:

‘And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.’ (Mk 9:33-34)

The disciples are silent, because they are embarrassed. They know that what they were discussing was basically pointless, and against Jesus’ teaching regarding the Kingdom. Jesus does not tell His disciples off, instead He instructs them: 

‘And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”’ (Mk 9:35-37)

Jesus sits down, adopting the position of the teacher in the Ancient World, and then He teaches. The Kingdom of God tends to turn human values upside down, and this is no exception. Leaders are called to be servants. The Evangelist uses the Greek word diakonos which means ‘servant’. From this we get the word ‘deacon’. Jesus is telling The Twelve that they need to be deacons, and that leadership involves serving others, not being important. To reinforce His point Jesus puts a child in front of them, and then embraces the child. In the Ancient World children lacked rights, or status, and, like children today, were dependent upon adults. By embracing someone weak and powerless, Jesus is showing the disciples that God’s Kingdom sees things differently from the world.

Christianity has been described as ‘a religion for the weak and feeble-minded, attractive to social undesirables, the silly, the mean, the stupid, women, and children’. [Origen Contra Celsum 3:44 & 3:59 ] These were the words of Celsus, a pagan critic of Christianity, quoted by Origen in the mid 3rd century AD. It is, in fact, a religion for everyone. All are welcome. At its heart, Christianity is a religion of paradox, where strength is shown in weakness. This is especially true of the Cross, where God shows us that sacrificial love can change the world, heal our wounded souls, and restore broken humanity. The Mystery of the Cross, is part of the enigma of God’s Love. In a moment of weakness and powerlessness, where evil and sin appear to have triumphed, we see the supreme demonstration of Love, an act of such generosity which has the power to reconcile and heal humanity.

Christians are called to be like this child: weak, powerless, insignificant, and humble. Through such humility God welcomes humanity back into a personal relationship, offering us His love. Opposed to this is the desire for power and prestige which sees the disciples arguing over who is the greatest, or the quarrels dealt with in the Letter of James. Rather than argument, however, a Christian community should be characterised by peace:

‘But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.’ (James 3:17-18)

This is a description of love in action, lived out in a way that builds people up. It is what Christ demonstrates to us as how we should be as Christians. We are called to live in a way which offers the world an alternative to striving after power, wealth and influence. True greatness will often look like weakness and servility in the world’s eyes. It doesn’t matter. What matters is living a life characterised by sacrificial self-giving love. Love can only be offered. Love can be accepted or rejected. Love lies at the heart of any relationship.

Acknowledging our own shortcomings is the first step in a process whereby God can be at work in our lives, transforming us more and more into His likeness. We need God’s grace to be at work in us. Recognising this is a sign of humility: accepting our need for God. This is not weakness, quite the opposite. Through our complete reliance upon God and His Grace, we prepare ourselves for Heaven where we hope to sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen.

James Tissot – Jesus and the Little Child

Trinity XV

In Today’s Gospel, Jesus asks a question, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ (Mk 8:29) Jesus asks His disciples this question, and He also asks each and every one of us the same thing.  This question is central to Mark’s Gospel, and it is crucial to our faith and understanding. Who do we say that Jesus is? Many people can see Jesus as a charismatic healer, or a revolutionary rabbi, but is that all He is, or He something more?

Our response to Jesus’ question should be the same as Peter’s, ‘You are the Christ’ (Mk 8:29). Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Saviour, the one who brings salvation. There is some confusion among the people, who see Jesus as John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets. These prophets call people to repentance, and prepare the way for the Messiah, they point to Christ, but they are not Him. 

After Peter’s profession of faith, Jesus teaches His disciples concerning His Passion and Death, He explains what is about to happen. Jesus goes on to explain to His disciples:

‘that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.’ (Mk 8:31) 

Because Jesus is who He is — that is the Messiah, the Son of God — then He has to die, and His disciples need to understand this. The first reading this morning from the prophet Isaiah is taken from one of the Servant Songs. The Servant Songs are passages which describe how God’s servant will be mistreated, falsely accused, and killed.

‘I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting.’ (Isaiah 50:6)

This verse anticipates the beatings that Christ receives before and after His Trial, and His general mistreatment. People will spit at Him, insult Him, and blame Him. Jesus will become a scapegoat, He will bear our sins. Jesus teaches His disciples by explaining how this passage, and especially Chapters 52 and 53 of the prophet Isaiah, clearly foretell what is about to happen. This why they are read in church on Good Friday, grounding the most important event in salvation history in its scriptural context.

Jesus’ words about the suffering He must face have a strong effect upon Peter. He has faith, he believes that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, but the idea that Jesus has to suffer and die is just too much for him. So, Peter argues with Jesus:

‘And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”’ (Mk 8:32-33)

Despite only a few moments ago making a groundbreaking declaration of faith, now Peter is now told off in the strongest possible terms. Peter has faith, but lacks understanding, and can only understand on a human level. His heart is in the right place, but Peter often makes a mess of things. He is impulsive, flawed, and human. Jesus has to reject the idea that He can fulfil His mission without suffering and death. He knows that was born for this: God became a human being in the womb of Mary for this reason, to suffer and die for humanity and to reconcile us to God and each other. 

Jesus then explains how the Cross is central to all who follow Him:

‘And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”’ (Mk 8:34-35)

Not only must Jesus embrace the Cross, but He calls everyone who follows Him to do the same. You and I are called by Christ to lay down our lives and follow Him, to take up the Cross, and embrace the way of suffering love. We have to deny ourselves. Denying ourselves means that we don’t put ourselves, or our thoughts and desires at the centre of our lives — we put God there, where He belongs. God gives us grace to do this: through prayer, through reading the Bible, through the Sacraments, and through the support of our Christian community, to help us.

We have to take up our Cross. The Cross is an instrument of torture and death, and it means pain and suffering. That is not pleasant or easy. We can understand why Peter says what he does, but the Christian life is not easy or without suffering. Mother Teresa, St Teresa of Calcutta once said that: 

“Suffering is a sign that we have come so close to Jesus on the cross that he can kiss us and that he can show that he is in love with us by giving us an opportunity to share in his passion.” (My Life for the Poor, 77) 

When we suffer, we are close to Christ, we share in His Passion, and are conformed to His image. It is part of the mystery of God’s love, that it can transform us, but that transformation is not always pleasant or easy. However, becoming Christ-like enables us to more profoundly experience God’s love. 

We need to follow Jesus, we have to do what He says. This is difficult, but it is something which we do together, as a community, as a Church. Love and forgiveness sound easy in theory, but in practice they are not. They make demands on us, and compel us to do things that we might not like to do. We can, however, support each other, and also we can rely upon the grace of God to help us as we try to follow in Jesus’ footsteps.  

Our Faith is first and foremost about our relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, who loves us so much that He dies for us. He takes away our sins, and restores our relationship with God and each other. And He gives himself here to us today, under the outward forms of bread and wine, in His Body and His Blood, to heal us, and restore us. Our faith is revealed by our actions. The Letter of James makes this very clear. Faith needs to be put into practice by how we live our lives. We carry our cross by exhibiting the same generous love that God shows us in Christ. This is how we can both cooperate with God’s grace and transform the world, so that all may come to believe and sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen.

The Primacy of St Peter – James Tissot

Trinity XIV

Today’s readings begin with the prophet Isaiah, who is well-known for containing prophecies regarding the Messiah. His is a hopeful message, of a joyful future, which envisages the healing and restoration of Israel. These prophecies are fulfilled in Jesus Christ. 

‘Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.’ (Isaiah 35:5-6)

The Messiah helps to bring about the Kingdom of God, and the sign that it is here are these miraculous healings. They speak of a God who loves us, who longs to see humanity healed and restored. The mention of water in the desert and wilderness looks forward to John’s Gospel, where Jesus states:

“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” (Jn 7:37-38)

Christ comes to give us healing and to fill us with the Holy Spirit. We experience living water in Baptism, when we are renewed and born again in Christ. The water is a sign of the Holy Spirit, God’s love active in the world, which heals and inspires His people. 

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus leaves Capernaum after His discussions with the Pharisees and heads north, before returning to Galilee. The route He takes has troubled scholars, but rather than going over the mountains to Tyre and Sidon, Jesus goes around them, which ensures that both He and His disciples have access to fresh water, a key practical consideration in such an arid landscape. Jesus goes into a house and is approached by a woman whose daughter is suffering, begging for deliverance for her child. So Jesus replies:

‘“Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”’ (Mk 7: 27)

At first sight, the passage is difficult. Jesus appears to be insulting the woman because she is not Jewish, which is not a loving response. It is possible that Jesus’ reply is a reference to the following verse from the Book of Exodus:

‘“You shall be consecrated to me. Therefore you shall not eat any flesh that is torn by beasts in the field; you shall throw it to the dogs.”’ (Exodus 22:31

This makes sense given the preceding discussion of ritual purity with the Pharisees, which we read last week. Rather than seeing the Messiah as a Jewish Saviour for Jewish people, Jesus is in fact the Saviour of the world, not bound by ethnic concerns. Such concerns do not affect the mother in the Gospel, she simply wants her daughter to be healed, and has no truck with exclusive visions of religion. So she responds,

“Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (Mk 7: 28)

At which point Jesus performs a healing miracle at a distance:

‘And he said to her, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone.’ (Mk 7: 29-30)

The woman makes a profession of faith. She trusts Jesus, and calls Him Lord. She understands that the Kingdom is a place for Gentiles as well as Jews. The Kingdom is for all, Jew and Greek, rich and poor alike. All are one in Christ, and God’s healing is for everyone. This reality is made manifest in the healing of the young girl. Jesus has uttered an exclusive Jewish understanding of the Messiah in order to demonstrate, through the woman’s response, that his mission is, in fact, much wider. In doing so, Jesus takes an existing common prejudice to show how God’s love, mercy, and healing are for all those who turn to Him.

As Jesus returns to Galilee, He is asked to heal a man.

‘And taking him aside from the crowd privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue. And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha”, that is, “Be opened.” And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.’ (Mk 7:33-35)

Both healings in the Gospel are done privately, they are not done for show, and they fulfil Isaiah’s prophecy from our first reading this morning. Despite Jesus telling people not to share the news of the healing, they do. 

‘And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, “He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”’ (Mk 7:37)

Here Isaiah’s prophecy is quoted, as it has been fulfilled by Jesus, which is good news.  And it is good news for Jews and non-Jews, for everyone. The Kingdom of God is a place of healing and restoration for all, a fact which the Church continues to proclaim. Rather than being an exclusive event for the Chosen People, healing and salvation are for all who turn to God. All are invited, all are welcome. 

The reading from the Letter of James shows us how to live our lives as Christians in an authentic manner. We are all equal in the eyes of God. We should not make the distinctions in the way the world around us is so fond of doing. James’ letter reminds us that Christians are not supposed to judge by appearances. We are not supposed to treat the rich better than the poor, because, as Jesus has shown us, the Church is supposed to be a place which lives out a radical equality. We are all equal in the sight of God. No-one is better or worse than another.

‘Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?’ (James 2:5)

As Christians we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ, we put our trust in Him, to be at work in us, and to save us. Little by little we are being transformed into the likeness of the one in whose image we are made. This is the wondrous gift of God’s grace. It is given, just like the Eucharistic Banquet of Christ’s Body and Blood, so that God can be at work in us, and through us. It is given so that we may be healed and transformed. 

So let us pray that God may come to us, and pour out His healing love on us, and all the world. Let us pray that His will may be done, and His kingdom come, so that all may join in 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. Amen.

Jesus heals the lame – James Tissot

Trinity XIII

Our first reading this morning from Deuteronomy is taken from a speech which Moses gives to Israel before they enter the Promised Land. Moses tells the people,

‘You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you.’ (Deut 4:2)

This salutary advice refers to a common religious problem, one which the Pharisees and their successors the Rabbis found hard to comply with. They would argue that they were not creating new law, but merely commenting upon the old, and exploring its richness. There is, however, a very fine line between the two.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

Over the last year and a half we have become more conscious than ever of the value of good hygiene; hand-washing has become headline news. Over 200 years ago, John Wesley wrote a sermon ‘On Dress’ stating: ‘Cleanliness is next to Godliness’. This proverb has found its way into the common speech and the ‘collective unconscious’. But while it is good advice, it is not quite what the Pharisees are complaining about in this morning’s Gospel reading. 

The previous story in Mark’s Gospel is that of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, so food-related matters are on the Pharisees’ mind. They are on the lookout for any minor infringement: something to quibble about, an excuse to attack Jesus. 

‘And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”’ (Mk 7:5)

The point that is being made is that the disciples are washing their hands, they are being hygienic, but they are not conforming to a higher level of ritual purity. The Pharisees are calling out what they see as a failure on the part of the disciples, and especially Jesus as their teacher, to conform to a man-made standard of priestly purity. In the eyes of the Pharisees, they are not holy enough.

In reply to their criticisms, Jesus says:

‘“Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”’ (Mk 7:6-8)

Jesus quotes the Greek text of Isaiah (29:13) to make His point. Religious laws are a means by which humanity is sanctified, and God is honoured. They are not an end in themselves. The Pharisees are so concerned with the correct interpretation of religious minutiae that they can no longer see the wood for the trees: they have lost sight of the bigger picture. This approach neither honours God, nor sanctifies humanity. Indeed it drives a wedge between God and His people.

Instead, Jesus offers profound moral teaching to the people about what really matters:

‘And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”’ (Mk 7:14-15 & 21-23)

Rather than parading one’s religion as a pious façade, Jesus teaches people to pay attention to their interior life. What we think and feel affects both who we are and how we live our lives. Jesus is mindful of God’s revelation 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)

Rather than focussing on outward aspects (like the Pharisees), Jesus reminds us that our inward thoughts are usually where the real problem lies. Thoughts can turn into actions and become habits which form character. The Pharisees are in effect encouraging a thin veneer of correct behaviour, appearing to do the right thing, while covering up any thoughts and intentions that do not promote human flourishing. Jesus wants honesty, where what you see is what you get. As with much of His teaching, it is very simple in theory, and much harder in practice. We all aspire to what Our Lord teaches, but we often struggle to live it out. 

This is why faith cannot just be a personal matter. We live in community, and as a community we can help and support each other as we try to live out our faith together. We find encouragement to do this in this morning’s reading from the Letter of James. The apostle reminds us of the goodness and generosity of God, and the fact that we are created by Him, made in His image.

James encourages Christians to put their faith into practice:

‘But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.’ (James 1:22)

These words echo those of Jesus in the Gospel. People should in all gentleness and humility both listen to the word of God and do what it says. As Christians, our thoughts and words and actions proclaim the truth that Christ died to save us from our sins, and that He rose again that we might have new life in Him. Faith needs to be real and concrete, lived out in the world in loving action.

As we try to live out our faith, in our homes and community, we can only do this together, supporting each other. We also need to be gentle and generous when we fail, as we inevitably will.  Thankfully we do not need to rely upon our own strength, but upon the love and mercy of God. Then we can be built up in love, as living stones, a temple to God’s glory, which proclaims His love and truth to the world. We are called to live lives of forgiveness and sacrificial love which build up, as opposed to being bitter, judgemental and blind to our own faults. We should not be eager to point out the sins of others. Instead, clothed in the humility of our knowledge of our need of God, His love and mercy, let us come to Him. Let us be fed by Him, and healed and restored by Him. Let us live lives which speak of the power of His kingdom, so that the world 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. Amen.

The Pharisees question Jesus – James Tissot

Trinity XII ‘Lord to whom should we go?’

Today’s Old Testament Reading from the last chapter of the Book of Joshua records a pivotal moment. The people of Israel have settled in the Promised Land, and Joshua calls them together at Shechem to renew their covenant with God. Joshua asks the people of Israel a question: 

“Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Long ago, your fathers lived beyond the Euphrates, Terah, the father of Abraham and of Nahor; and they served other gods. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell.’” (Joshua 24:2& 15)

Do the Israelites want to serve the Lord their God, or would they prefer to follow their ancestral gods, or those of the land in which they now live? Joshua tells them what he will do:

“But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15)

Joshua makes a clear choice, and the Israelites follow his example. They are mindful of what God has done for them:

“Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods, for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our fathers up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight and preserved us in all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed. And the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.” (Joshua 24:16-18)

Their religious faith is a conscious act of the will, they choose to serve the God who has saved them. God has shown that He is the God of Israel. 

In this morning’s Gospel we come to the end of the Bread of Life Discourse in Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel. Jesus’ teaching has offended some people. All this talk of eating flesh and blood sounds to them like cannibalism, which was strictly taboo. The mere suggestion of it was offensive in Jewish culture; it went against everything people had been taught. It is thus hardly surprising when some of His disciples say: 

“This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (Jn 6: 60)

Jesus is teaching in a synagogue in Capernaum, and those present are not used to this kind of teaching. It turns everything they know on its head. In Hebrew the word for flesh (baśar) and the word for good news, glad tidings, or the Gospel, sound the same. Such word-play is intentional, and may be linked to the Hebrew Wisdom tradition:

“Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Leave your simple ways, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” (Proverbs 9:5-6)

Jesus notices that some of His disciples are grumbling, just like the Israelites in the Exodus story we read a few weeks ago. So he says to them: 

“Do you take offence at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” (Jn 6:61-65)

This strategy seems a strange one. If people were not shocked enough to begin with, Jesus goes on to make other claims which could be taken as blasphemous. For us to have life in Jesus we need to be baptised. For our sins to be washed away, we need to hear the Good News. We need to eat the Eucharist, and to be filled with the Holy Spirit. These are all outpourings of grace, of Divine generosity, given to transform us, more and more into the likeness of God. 

Jesus’ teaching has a profound effect, rather than attracting people to follow Him, it leads to the exact opposite response:

After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (Jn 6: 66-69) 

Jesus asks the Twelve if they too would like to leave Him too, which leads to a profound declaration of faith by St Peter. They have a choice to make, and they choose Jesus, as no-one else can offer what He does. Here Peter is confessing that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God. To be a Christian is to make the same confession as Peter, and to have the same hope of eternal life in and through Jesus Christ. 

Jesus’ teaching is hard to accept, and difficult to understand, but we can experience it, when we receive Holy Communion. For Peter, and for us, belief precedes knowledge. We believe and then we come to know.

It is a question of commitment, which involves love and sacrifice — the two go hand in hand. It is what marriage is all about, and it also describes God’s relationship with us, and ours with God. It will see Jesus die on the Cross for us, to show us just how much God loves us, and wants to restore our relationship with Him, and each other. To be close to God is wonderful, but it isn’t something God forces us into: we may choose to accept God’s love, or to refuse it. This love is freely given.

St Paul’s advice to the Christians in Ephesus is another difficult text, which revolves around making a choice. For St Paul Christian marriage is all about loving service of one another, as demonstrated by Christ. Jesus lays down His life for us, so we should do the same for each other. Thus, in marriage in particular, and in society in general, loving service and self-sacrifice are the ways in which we should live. It is a generous form of life, because its model is Jesus, the most unselfish person ever, who created all that there is, and who redeemed it by offering His life as a ransom for many. We see this on the Cross and we commemorate it in the Eucharist, where Christ continues to feed us His people with Himself, so that we might have life in Him. 

So let us come to Jesus, let us choose Him, and put our trust in Him. Let us be fed by Him and with Him, so that we may spend eternity singing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen.

James Tissot – Jesus Discourses with His Disciples

The Assumption 2021

Today the Church celebrates the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which commemorates her being taken up after death, body and soul, into Heaven. It is important to stress that Assumption is something passive rather than active; Jesus ascends to Heaven, whilst Mary is assumed. This is a profound difference between the two. Jesus ascends because He is God, Mary is assumed because she is the Mother of God, and the model for all Christians to follow. Humble and obedient in her life, in her death Our Lord’s Mother shares fully in the resurrection of her Son, and points the way for us as Christians. Where Mary goes, we hope to follow, trusting in the love and mercy of God. It is a sign to us as Christians that we can trust the promises of Christ who went to prepare a place for us, that where He is, we may also be. 

From the early days of the Church there is a tradition that Mary’s tomb, in the valley of Jehoshaphat just outside Jerusalem, is empty, and that her bodily remains are not there. From this developed the belief that after her death she was given a share in her Son’s glory, victory, and eternal life. This is both a reward for her faithfulness and humility, her obedience to God, and also as a sign to us that this is what Christ came to share with us, his people. God in Christ shares our human life, from beginning to end, and offers us eternal life in Heaven, which Mary enjoys. We can trust what God promises us, because God is loving and faithful, even when we are not. He is merciful, so that we can be transformed by His Love. This is the Good News of the Kingdom. We do not deserve it, we cannot earn it, yet God gives it in loving generosity to heal all that has been marred by sin. 

In today’s first reading from the Book of Revelation, St John has a vision of Heaven:

And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars (Revelation 12:1)

This is why Mary is often depicted this way in art as a woman crowned with stars. At the foot of the Cross, during Jesus’ Crucifixion, John was given a new family:

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home. (John 19:26-27)

John has been close to both Jesus and His Mother, Mary: in her earthly life, and now, John has a glimpse of her in Heavenly Glory, the Glory of her Son, Jesus Christ. The Church honours her as the Mother of God, Theotokos, meaning ‘God-bearer’ in Greek. Without Mary saying ‘Yes’ to God in the Annunciation, our salvation would not have been possible. Her response gives us the hope of heavenly glory, which she enjoys, close to God in this life and the next. 

John’s vision of Heaven shows us that we can have hope of eternal life, through Christ’s victory over sin and death: 

Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come (Revelation 12:10)

It is this hope which allows St Paul to write to the church in Corinth:

For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive (1Corinthians 15:22)

Christ is the new Adam. Sunday, the day of His Resurrection is the first day of the week, and a sign of the New Creation. Likewise, Mary is the new Eve, but whereas Eve is disobedient in the Garden of Eden, Mary is obedient in the Annunciation, agreeing to bear the Son of God in her womb. Thus, Christ is born, and humanity can be saved, healed, and restored. Mary shares in her Son’s victory over sin and death as a Sign of the reality of the Resurrection, a promise made to humanity to share in God’s love and intimacy.

The Gospel reading begins with a demonstration of Mary’s care and service. She goes to stay with her older cousin, Elizabeth, who is six months pregnant, and while Elizabeth’s prayers for a child have been answered the realities of life mean that she needs help. Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, is busy in the Temple, so Mary lovingly comes in haste to help her cousin. As she arrives, Elizabeth’s baby leaps in her womb. John the Baptist greets Jesus and Mary with joy: even before his birth. He is a prophet, announcing the wonderful works of God. 

And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (Luke 1:41)

Elizabeth recognises the wonderful thing that has happened, and understands that through Mary’s child God’s promise is being fulfilled. She also recognises Mary’s faith, and says to her: 

“Blessed is she who believed” (Luke 1:45)

Mary is indeed blessed in giving birth to the Saviour of humanity, blessed in her obedience, love, and service, and blessed after death to share in the Heavenly Glory of her Son. The way in which Mary trusts God, gives Christians a clear example to follow in living the life of faith. We need to be like Mary. 

This is why every evening at Vespers (Evensong), Mary’s great hymn of praise, the Magnificat, which starts, “My Soul doth Magnify the Lord” (Luke 1:46), is recited. These words reveal her complete trust in God, a God who takes it upon Himself to deal with sin and death by giving us His Son. A God who establishes a kingdom of love, forgiveness, and generosity, through which the Church continues God’s work of love and reconciliation in the world. Despite all our mistakes and failures, God showers us with His love and mercy. All the readings this morning are rooted in the simple fact that God loves us, and Mary shows us how to respond to that love. Her Assumption gives us hope that when Jesus says:

In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?’ (John 14:2) 

God makes room for us, the question is can we make room for Him? Can we be like Mary, trusting God to be at work in us? Can we let His Grace perfect our nature, to live lives of hope and joyful service, so that after our earthly life we may, in the company of the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints, sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen.

The Assumption of the Virgin – Palma il Vecchio

Trinity X ‘I am the living bread’

Today’s Old Testament reading from the First Book of Kings continues the theme of miraculous feedings, which we have been following for the past two weeks. The prophet Elijah is having something of a hard time, combatting King Ahab and his wife, Jezebel, and the priests of Baal. Elijah has reached the point of physical, mental, and spiritual exhaustion. He wants the pain to go away, even if it means the end of his life, and so he goes into the wilderness, sits despondent under a tree and says:

It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.’ (I Kings 19:4)

Despite having reached rock bottom, Elijah prays to God, and God hears his prayer and answers him. The Almighty sends an angel to minister to Elijah’s needs. 

‘And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, “Arise and eat.” And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank and lay down again.’ (I Kings 19:5-6)

Rest and nourishment are what Elijah needs, and these are provided. After resting, Elijah is fed again, to prepare him for the upcoming journey:

 ‘And the angel of the Lord came again a second time and touched him and said, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.’ (I Kings 19:7-8)

Elijah is travelling to Horeb, to Mt Sinai, where God gave the Commandments to Moses. God strengthens and gives sustenance to Elijah for his journey of about 250 miles. This prefigures the Eucharist, our bread for the journey, which sustains us in our life of faith. 

Just like the Israelites in last week’s reading from Exodus, in today’s Gospel the Jews are grumbling. They dislike the fact that Jesus has said that He is the bread come down from Heaven. So they complain: 

“Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” (John 6:42)

The problem is that they can only understand Jesus in human terms, they see a man, and nothing more. They cannot see beyond this. The Messiah whom they long for is in their midst and yet they fail to recognise him. But Jesus is both fully human and fully divine: True Man and True God. He is the son of Joseph and Mary, but He is also the Son of God, who took flesh by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is what we believe as Christians, and state in the words of the Nicene Creed, which we will soon say together, declaring our faith, and placing our trust in the God who loves us.

Jesus tells the people not to grumble among themselves. They do not need to be discontented, as what Christ has come to bring them is the source of the greatest contentment possible: God’s very self and the hope of Eternal Life with Him. This is the greatest Passover possible: to live the life of Heaven. This is why Jesus can promise: 

‘And I will raise him up on the last day.’ (John 6:44)

Jesus has come to offer Eternal Life to those who believe in Him. This is His purpose, His mission. Christ, our saviour, will lay down His life, and die on the Cross to reconcile us to God, conquer Death, and give us the hope of Heaven. Jesus then quotes from Isaiah (54:13):

“It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’” (John 6:45)

This verse comes just before Isaiah’s hope for the future, the Messianic banquet:

‘Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.’ (Isa 55:1)

Jesus’ use of Isaiah both underlines the fact that those present are being taught by God, and looks forward to the fulfilment of the prophecy in the Eucharist. He is teaching them and pointing them towards the hope of the Kingdom of God. We are here today to see that hope fulfilled, so that Christ can feed us with Himself. He states:

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live for ever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (Jn 6:51)

Jesus is the living bread and if we eat Him then we will live forever. We need the Eucharist. It isn’t an occasional treat or a reward for good behaviour, it is necessary and vital, and we cannot truly live without it. The Church continues these miraculous heavenly banquets in feeding the people of Christ with Christ. This is the free gift of God, an act of radical generosity, so that we might be radical and generous in return. Jesus institutes the Eucharist on the night before He dies so that we might do this in memory of Him, so that He is ever present with us, and we are filled with His love. The Sacrament of  the Eucharist is an outward and visible sign of inward spiritual grace. Christ gives us life, so that we may live in Him. As St Paul says in his Letter to the Ephesians, 

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.’ (Eph 5:1-2) 

There is something quite extraordinary and radical about this. It isn’t how most people in the world around us live. Christians are supposed to different, to live different lives in a different way, because we follow Jesus, and strive to live like Him. We operate according to different rules and standards, those of Christ, and not of the world around us. 

As Christians, we have responded to the call to follow Christ, to imitate Him, and His way of life. We are instructed to practise forgiveness, whereas the world around us is often judgemental and unkind, writing people off. Thankfully that is something which God never does. Instead, He forgives, He redeems, He heals, He restores. We pray for the world to become more Christ-like, where people are loving, forgiving, and compassionate. Where the hungry are fed, where those in need are comforted, and cared for. We pray for a more selfless world where people respond to the needs of others, especially those feeling despondent and desperate. So in the strength of this heavenly food, may we live out our faith, encouraging others, so that all may 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. Amen.

You follow Me for the Miracles – James Tissot

Trinity IX ‘Give us this bread always’

Whenever I read today’s passage from Exodus, my heart really goes out to Moses. He has a thankless task leading the people of Israel, when all they seem to do is moan and complain. After spending weeks in the wilderness the Israelites are desperate and hungry. They are grumbling about the lack of food compared to their old life in Egypt. God hears their need and promises to give them meat in the evening and bread in the morning. The people of Israel are given quail, and a fine flake-like substance. They do not know what sort of food it is, and ask, ‘What is it?’ (In Hebrew Mān-hu, from which we get the word ‘manna’). For Christians this miraculous feeding foreshadows the great miraculous feeding of the New Testament, namely the Eucharist, where we are fed by Christ, and with Christ. 

Last week’s Gospel was the account of the miraculous Feeding of the Five Thousand. This is not a parable about sharing, but rather it is a miracle, a supernatural event where God’s generous love breaks through into our human world. In today’s Gospel, we see people who have been fed in the miraculous feast, following Jesus around. Perhaps they’re hoping for another free lunch? It is clear that they haven’t seen the signs, and they haven’t understood what is going on. Jesus feeds people not as a combination of magic trick and mass catering, but as a sign of God’s generous love. God loves us, you and me — all of us — so much, that He longs to feed us with Himself. He loves us so much that He gives Himself to be tortured and to die on the Cross for us. This is the central message of Christianity: God loves us, and wants us to share Eternal Life with Him.

In contrast to a world which views achievement as most important, God declares that it is what we believe that really matters. Whilst we celebrate with those who have won medals in Tokyo, we do so in the knowledge that Olympic glory will fade, and others will follow, who will be faster and stronger. What we should strive for is a glory which is more than gold or silver: the glory of Heaven, the joy of Eternal Life in God. We train for this by believing in our loving Creator, and doing His work in the world. 

The people ask Jesus:

What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” 

Jesus answers them:

“This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (Jn 6:28-9)

This reply, while it is clear and simple, is not entirely convincing, so the people interrogate Jesus further:

Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” (Jn 6:30-31)

The people want to see more signs. The Feeding of the Five Thousand wasn’t enough for them. Jesus asks them to believe in Him, and to put their trust in God. He then explains what is happening in the Exodus story:

Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”(Jn 6:32-4)

The people’s request, “Sir, give us this bread always” is echoed in the words of the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Dyro i ni heddiw ein bara beunyddiol, Give us this day our daily bread’. This prayer is fulfilled in the Eucharist. Here Jesus gives us the Bread of Heaven, so that we might be fed by Him, and with His Body and Blood, so that we might have a foretaste of Heaven and a pledge of Eternal Life in Christ. 

Time-wise, this conversation and the Feeding of the Five Thousand takes place around the festival of the Passover. This is the time when Israel commemorates its journey from slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land. It is also at Passover when Jesus suffers, dies, and rises again: ‘Pasg’, ‘Easter’, the time when Jesus institutes the Eucharist on the night before He dies, in the Upper Room with His disciples. The timing is important, as under the New Covenant God’s people are fed, their sins are forgiven, and they are reconciled to God, and each other. A miraculous feeding will happen here today, when we, the people of God, united in love and faith, offer ourselves and the bread that we have, so that it may be taken, blessed, broken, and shared. It is given so that we may be partakers in the mystical supper of the Kingdom of God. We eat the Body of Christ not as ordinary food , but as spiritual nourishment so that WE may become what HE is.

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. (Jn 6:35) 

These are words we can trust: Christ yw bara bywyd, Christ is the Bread of Life. This is the first of seven sayings in John’s Gospel where Jesus describes who He is, and what He does by saying ‘I am …’ This is a direct echo of when God speaks to Moses at the Burning Bush in Exodus 3:14 and says:

I am who I am

So here Jesus is telling us who He is, who God is, so that we can believe in Him. He does this so that we can be fed, 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. Amen.

James Tissot – The Gathering of the Manna

Trinity VI

For several weeks now we have had readings from the Old Testament prophets, which focus on what it means to be a prophet, and to speak God’s word to Israel. As we have already seen, confronting people with home truths often leads to rejection, and this is the case with Amos. He has been sent from the South to the Northern kingdom, to call the people back to God, exhorting them to stop exploiting the poor. The king and the priest tell Amos to go back to where he came from. They don’t want his sort turning up, and telling them off.They are haughty, dismissive, and proud. God has sent them a prophet, but they cannot and will not listen to what he says. It is sad, tragic even, that when faced with a call to repentance, all they can do is to reply with arrogance. It will lead to their downfall, and the destruction of Israel by the Assyrians. 

Amos does not claim any special status, quite the opposite, he says: 

I was no prophet, nor a prophet’s son, but I was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs. But the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.” Now therefore hear the word of the Lord.’ (Amos 7:14-16) 

Amos is not a prophet by occupation, or apprenticeship. He has not been trained, and yet God uses him to call Israel to repentance. Ours then is a not a God who calls the qualified, but who qualifies those whom He calls. We may well feel unworthy, or unable to carry out what God wants, yet God works through us, not because we are capable, but because we rely on Him. Amos tells the uncomfortable truth to the priest, Amaziah, and to the king of Israel, and reminds them that their actions have consequences. Israel has fallen short, and will be judged. Amos is fulfilling the role of the prophet by calling people back to God, urging them to walk in His ways, so that they may have life, and have it to the full.

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus sends out His twelve disciples to proclaim the Good News. They are sent to call  people to repentance, and to make the Kingdom a reality. They do this through the ministries of exorcism and healing. Just like the prophet Amos in our first reading, they call people to repentance, as the Church continues to do. Our turning towards God is a constant ongoing process, the work of a lifetime. 

When we are planning a journey, even just a day trip: we prepare, we pack, we take things with us. But Jesus does not do this. He gives His disciples quite different instructions:

He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in their belts— but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics.’ (Mk 6:8-9) 

Jesus’ teaching highlights the importance of the need to be dependant upon others, and especially God: not to trust in our own strength or planning, but to rely upon the generosity and help of others. To live in this way is a daunting prospect, and that is the point. It doesn’t make sense in human terms, but the Kingdom of God turns human values upside down. The Church is meant to travel light and be fleet of foot. The disciples also need to prepared to face rejection:

And if any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” (Mk 6:11)

 The offer of the Kingdom is freely made, and can be rejected. God does not compel us to believe, He invites us into a relationship. We are free to accept or reject, but both actions have consequences. At a symbolic level, this verse reminds Christians to leave behind all anger, bitterness, and judgement, and instead to be a community of love and joy. 

So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them. (Mk 6:12-13)

We see the reality of God’s kingdom in its proclamation and the reality of healing and freedom which it promises. The disciples continue Jesus’ work and mission, giving us a template for the Church, which serves to proclaim, to heal, and to nourish God’s people. We too are heralds of the Kingdom of God, which is still an unfolding reality in the world around us. It is a work in progress until Christ comes again and renews all things in Himself. In the meantime we can rest secure that we are a part of God’s plan for the world. This is a plan of love, which sees Jesus die upon the Cross for our sins, and rise again to give us the hope of Heaven. The redemption of the world in and through Jesus Christ is a reality. This is the hope which underpins Paul’s message, both to the Church in Ephesus, and to us today.

God loves us, has a wonderful plan for us. However, in accepting His invitation, we should be aware that there are risks involved, and things may not always be comfortable or easy. It will be a challenge.  And yet, God provides all that we could ever want or need with regard to faith, hope, and love. If we trust Him and rely upon Him alone then we too can bear witness so that the world will come to believe 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.

James Tissot – He sent them out two by two

Trinity V

For Ezekiel, being a prophet is frequently a thankless task. People do not really like being told home truths that make them feel uncomfortable. Yet prophets are called by God to speak discomforting truths to humanity. This often leads to them being rejected and ignored, and with the prophet Ezekiel, this is clearly the case.  He is trying to bring Israel back into a right relationship with God, but this is no easy task:

The descendants also are impudent and stubborn: I send you to them, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God.’ And whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house) they will know that a prophet has been among them.’ (Ezek 2:4-5)

The prophet speaks the words of the Lord (Dyma Air yr Arglwydd) to His people, and they either listen or refuse to listen. They are an obstinate people, so they choose the latter. Their refusal to listen to God and pay heed to His words is sinful, and yet God does not abandon them, He continues to send prophets to proclaim the same message, and even sends His Son, so that Israel might listen and turn back to Him.

In the reading from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has returned home to Nazareth, where He grew up. On the Sabbath, Jesus teaches in the synagogue. Reports of His teaching and miracles have clearly spread, yet the reaction is not a positive one:

“Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offence at him.’ (Mk 6:2-3)

The people of Nazareth are only able to see Christ’s humanity, to see Him as the son of Joseph and Mary. As such it is understandable that they are perplexed by Jesus’ healing miracles. They cannot understand how such mighty works are done by His hands. The answer to the question  of the Nazarenes is simple: God is working through Jesus because Jesus is God made flesh. While He has earthly family members, the power of His miracles and teaching come from the fact that Jesus is God. It is God who performs miracles, not humanity. God speaks through prophets and through His Son. The people of Nazareth saw Mary and Joseph’s son grow up, and at one level they know Him, but at a deeper, more profound level, they do not. They just see the human Jesus, and are unable, or unwilling, to see His Divinity.

Christ is unable to do a mighty work in Nazareth because of their unbelief. But He does not sit around and do nothing. Firstly, He teaches in the synagogue, and proclaims the Kingdom of God. Secondly, He makes it a reality, laying His hands on sick people and healing them. In doing these things He is proclaiming the Kingdom as a place where the healing power of God’s love is poured out upon the world. Despite being rejected and faced with a lack of faith, God is still loving and active in the world. Christ’s mission then continues, with the proclamation of the Kingdom in the surrounding villages.

What the prophets announced, Christ embodied. We hear His words, and are fed with Him. Whether our communion is physical or spiritual, we are nourished with Word and Sacrament, to experience the reality of God’s Kingdom, here and now.

In today’s epistle we hear Our Lord speaking to Paul:

My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ (2Cor 12:9) 

These are wonderful words of encouragement because, first and foremost, they remind us that it’s not about we can do, but about what God can do in and through us. This is possibly the most important lesson we can learn as a Christian. We cannot earn our way to heaven, and we do not have to. God does that for us, through His Son Jesus Christ, who dies on the Cross to give us life in and through Him. What greater demonstration could there be of weakness than in dying the death of a common criminal. God shows the world that power can paradoxically be demonstrated in abject weakness. Like Jesus and Paul, when we are weak we are strong. God’s kingdom turns human values upside down 

God enters the world in the Incarnation as a weak baby, utterly dependant upon the Holy Family of Mary and Joseph. As an adult, Christ dies rejected, and abandoned: a laughing stock, a complete failure in the eyes of the world. But this is not the end. On the third day God raises Jesus from the dead, and this sets us free, from sin and death. We are all given true life  through Christ’s Death and Resurrection: power made perfect in weakness. The example of Paul, who was once an enemy of the Church, shows us that no-one is beyond the reach of God’s love. God does wonderful things through Paul, and He can do wonderful things through us, if we let Him. Weakness here means relying upon God to be at work in us. If we listen to what God tells us through the words of Scripture, and have faith in Him, then wonderful things can and will happen.

For two thousand years the Church has proclaimed the same message: ‘Repent and believe the Good News’, and through our faith God can be at work in our lives. As Christians we are called to be holy, to live like saints here and now, and encourage others so to do. We do this so that all might sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen. 

He did no miracles but He healed them – James Tissot

Trinity IV

Each and every one of us is in need of healing, be it physical, psychological or spiritual. Our bodies, minds, and souls need it. It is a truth of human existence that we are all broken, and while medicine can heal our bodies, we still long for life in all its fulness. The Kingdom of God, proclaimed and inaugurated by Jesus Christ is a place of healing, and through our relationship with Jesus we can find the wholeness for which we long. This is why the Gospels contain healing miracles. These miraculous accounts are signs of God’s restoration of creation through His Son, something which will culminate with His Passion, Death, and Resurrection. 

In the Gospel Jesus has sailed back across the Sea of Galilee to the Jewish side. On His arrival He is greeted by the leader of a local synagogue whose daughter is close to death. Jairus longs for his child to be healed, and asked Jesus to place His hands on her, so that she might be saved and live.

While Jesus is going to heal Jairus’ daughter, another miracle takes place. Lots of people are following Jesus, which is understandable since He is a charismatic preacher and teacher, who heals people. In the crowd is a woman with a gynaecological complaint. It would have made her life extremely difficult, and in Jewish ritual terms she would have been regarded as impure. She would not have been able to play her part in religious life. Also she would not have been able to bear children, and her husband, according to Jewish law, could have divorced her. She was an outcast, unclean, thrown on the metaphorical scrapheap of society. What money the woman had, she had been spent on doctors in trying to find a cure, but they only made things worse. Now she was penniless and desperate. But this pale, weak woman had an idea:

She had heard the reports about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment. For she said, “If I touch even his garments, I will be made well.” And immediately the flow of blood dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.’ (Mk 5:27-29)

Despite her physical infirmity, this woman has faith. She trusts Jesus, and believes that if she touches His clothing she will be healed. Such healing would restore her to community and allow her to take part in its religious life. She places her faith in God, realising that He can do for her what humanity could not. 

Jesus then notices that power has gone out from Him. He is aware of what has happened. Having asked who touched Him, Jesus’ disciples reply that it was accidental: they are surrounded by a crowd, anyone could have brushed against Him. Our Lord remains unconvinced:

And he looked round to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling and fell down before him and told him the whole truth. And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”’ (Mk 5:32-34)

The woman comes ‘in fear and trembling’ not because she is afraid of Jesus, but because it is the proper way for humans to act in the presence of God. She is filled with awe at her experience of divine healing. Jesus’ reply is astounding for several reasons. Firstly, that He responds at all: talking to a woman who was not a member of your family was frowned upon, let alone a woman who is a ritually unclean outcast. Jesus is breaking a social taboo. He addresses her as ‘daughter’, a reminder that Jesus’ family are not those related to Him in earthly terms, but those who do God’s will. The woman is a daughter of God and her faith in God has healed her. She trusted God to do what the physicians could not. Faith is the route to salvation and healing, trusting God to be at work. She can go in peace because she has been restored to health. Peace is God’s gift to us, that we may experience wholeness. Finally, Jesus underlines that what has happened is not a temporary healing, but a permanent state of affairs.

While Jesus is still speaking to the woman, messengers come to give Jairus a message:

“Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?” (Mk 5:35)

The situation is hopeless, and in their eyes there is nothing that Jesus can do. Thankfully, Our Lord has other ideas:

‘But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the ruler of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.”’ (Mk 5:36)

This fear is not the awe shown by the woman who has been healed, but a lack of trust in God. We know from the Letter to the Hebrews that:

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Heb 11:1)

Jairus has demonstrated his faith by prostrating himself before Jesus and asking for healing. Now, in the face of his daughter’s apparent demise, Jairus must trust God to be at work. 

‘Taking her by the hand he said to her, “Talitha cumi”, which means, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.”’ (Mk 5:41)

Note the fact that Jesus takes the girl by the hand. To touch a dead body would make a person ritually impure. This is why the priest and Levite in the Parable of the good Samaritan pass by on the other side. Jesus disregards the taboo of uncleanness, and speaks to her. He speaks to her in Aramaic, her mother tongue, and says literally ‘little lamb, get up’. It is a term of endearment which also reminds us that Christ is the Good Shepherd who cares for His lambs, keeps them safe, and saves them from death. 

The people who are there: Jairus and his wife, Peter, James and John are all amazed. They are filled with awe, the holy fear of witnessing the mighty works of God. It reminds us that as humans we relate to God primarily through worship. Finally, Jesus tells her parents to give her something to eat, which shows us the reality of her resurrection. This also points towards the feast of the Kingdom, which we hope to enjoy in Heaven, and which is prefigured in the Eucharist. Through physical and spiritual communion Christ gives Himself to feed us, and heal our bodies and our souls, and assures us of eternal life.

Like Jairus and the haemorrhaging woman, may we have faith, and come to Jesus for healing. So that we may come to the Feast of the Lamb and may sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen. 

James Tissot The woman with the Issue of Blood
James Tissot The Raising of Jairus’ Daughter

Trinity III

Over the last eighteen months or so we have had far too much experience of fear. It has been everywhere: in the media, in the announcements of politicians and scientists. Fear has been defining our daily lives. Such a situation is neither good nor healthy. At its heart Christianity is a faith which seeks to liberate people from fear, allowing us to live in love. That is all fine in theory, but in practice it is both difficult and complicated. We struggle to overcome our fears, such is the human condition. Alone and unsupported we may be tempted to just give in to fear. But we have a Lord and Father who is our advocate and comforter. 

The Book of Job explores what has become known as the Problem of Evil: why bad things happen to good people. The text explores the redemptive quality of suffering. Rather than being something we should avoid, it is something we can embrace, and grow through. Above all, God is someone we can trust, whether things are good or bad. God loves us. 

Our first reading speaks of God’s power over nature in general, and the sea in particular:

Who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb,Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed’ (Job 38:8, 11)

The power that God has over nature also lies behind the miracle in our Gospel passage. Jesus and His disciples are crossing the Sea of Galilee when a violent storm blows up. The disciples are terrified, despite many of them being fishermen. They are afraid that they are about to drown. This passage throws up a number of questions. Why are Jesus and His disciples crossing from the Jewish side of the Sea of Galilee to the non-Jewish side?  Why are they sailing at night, rather than waiting until the next morning? We are not told why. This incident acts as a bridge between the section in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus has been teaching, to one where He will perform miracles, and put that teaching into practice. 

As the boat begins to fill with water the disciples are getting desperate:

And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.’ (Mk 4:38-39)

Jesus’ followers are afraid. There are thirteen of them packed into a boat twenty six feet long, eight feet wide, and four feet deep. Jesus can command the storm to cease because He is God. The ability to control the sea and its storms is a sign of divine power: God is the one who brings peace.  Jesus has come to bring peace to troubled hearts. Having performed a miracle, He questions His disciples:

He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”’ (Mk 4:39-41)

The answer to the disciples question is that Jesus is God, no-one else could do what He does. Jesus then questions why His disciples feel fear and lack faith. To put it simply, the disciples have not yet understood either who Jesus is, or what He is doing. Once they have experienced Christ’s Passion and Resurrection and seen Him triumph over death, they will come to understand what is going on here. 

Jesus calms storms both real and metaphorical: on the Sea of Galilee, and in our own lives. By dealing with sin once and for all on the Cross, He has brought us a peace which passes all understanding. Being at peace allows the Christian community to

no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.’ (2Cor 5:15)

Our life is not our own, because the love of Christ controls us, as St Paul writes in his Second Letter to the Corinthians (2Cor 5:14). Christ’s Death and Resurrection provides an answer to the questions asked by Job, and all humanity. By entering into the mystery of apparently meaningless suffering, we can discover the source of all meaning, namely the love of God. 

This is why we gather to celebrate the Eucharist. Jesus told us to do this, so that we might experience that love in a tangible form, and encounter the grace which can transform our lives. St John tells us that ‘Perfect love casts out fear’ (1John 4:18). What we encounter in communion, whether spiritual or physical, is the greatest example of God’s love for humanity. Our faith is a matter of trust. Christians believe in Jesus Christ, who died and rose again for all people. We put our trust in Him, safe in the knowledge that He alone can still the storms of our life, and that His perfect love can drive out our fear. We cling to the Cross as our source of Hope, knowing that whatever happens we are loved, and that this love has the power to transform us. This love has the power to free us from fear.

When Jesus summarises the Law in Mark 12:3-31, He commands us to love God and love our neighbour. To live lives of love which look to Christ’s self-giving love on the Cross, is the way in which we enter the mystery of God’s love and allow it to cast out fear from our lives. Then we can be truly alive and share that love with others, so that all humanity may 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.

Jesus stills the Tempest – James Tissot

Trinity II

Many of us enjoy gardening, and I imagine that quite a few of us have been doing some during the good weather this weekend. There is something wonderful about taking seeds or cuttings, placing them in compost and watching them grow. It never ceases to give me a thrill. Once plants have grown you end up with something that you can eat, smell, look at, or even sell. This process brings joy, as well as nourishment for the body, and the soul. This image is used by the prophet Ezekiel to look forward to a future where God’s people are safe and protected. It looks to the establishment of God’s kingdom, by means of  the twig planted on the lofty mountain of Calvary. The Cross is our source of hope, it is the Tree of Life. Through the Cross we have life in all its fullness, and live secure in its shade. Ezekiel’s image of the cedar tree is used by Jesus in HIs parable of the Mustard Seed. This parable shows how prophecy is being brought about in and through Jesus, the Messiah. This is the promised Kingdom of God, becoming a reality in and through Christ. 

The parable starts by telling us that the one who scatters the seed does not know how things grow. For all their sleeping and rising they cannot influence matters, they just have to sit back and let something mysterious and wonderful happen. That is how God works. Humanity has a role to play, but God is in charge. It isn’t just up to us!

The church founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ, and entrusted to His Apostles, began as a small affair: just a few people in a backwater of the Roman Empire. To begin with the early Christians were written off as deluded followers of just another charismatic prophet. It may not have been an auspicious start; it certainly is not what a management consultant would recommend. However, a small group of people had their lives turned around by God, and told people about it. They risked everything, including their personal safety, to spread the Good News. Two thousand years later, the Church has now grown to point where there are several billion Christians on earth. Here in the West Christianity may be becoming marginalised, but the global picture is far more encouraging. Throughout the world, people are coming to know Christ, to love and worship Him. Even if we have been going through some ‘bad harvests’ in our own land, it is important to keep scattering the seed, and allow it to grow in a way which can defy our expectations.

Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed. This is a tiny thing, only two millimetres in diameter, and yet in the Mediterranean climate it could grow into a bush twice the height of a human being. This plant may have a small beginning, but there is the possibility of remarkable growth.The image of birds nesting in its shade signals divine blessings, as in the passage from Ezekiel. Jesus takes the imagery of the prophecy and shows how it will be brought to fulfilment in and through the Church. Such is the generous nature of God, that He gives us a place where we can be safe, and where we can grow in faith. By hearing God’s word, praying together, and sharing in the Eucharist we are nourished and strengthened to live the Christian life.

Like the Apostle Paul in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, we can always be confident and put our trust in God, as we know that we cannot be disappointed. On the Cross, Christ’s victory is complete, so we please God by following His commandments: to love Him and also love our neighbour. We are motivated by our love of Jesus, to follow His example. We know that He suffered and died to heal and restore us, to bear the burden of our sins. As it says a little further along in Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians: 

‘He died for all, so that those who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and was raised for them.’ (2Cor 5:15) 

And so in the Church, our family, and community, we live for Christ. Our thoughts, words, and actions proclaim the saving truth of God’s love for humanity. If we seek God’s forgiveness and the forgiveness of others — and at the same time are forgiving ourselves — then we can be built up in love. If we are devout in prayer, fortified by the word of God, and by the Sacrament of the Eucharist, we are strengthened in love, and our souls are nourished, allowing us to grow into the full stature of Christ. Just like the cedar tree and the mustard seed. So let us come and be fed, healed, and restored by the Lord, living in love and encouraging others, for the glory of God and the building up of His Kingdom.

If we are faithful, if we keep scattering seed in our thoughts, our words, and our actions, then wonderful things will happen. We have to trust God to be at work in people’s lives, and be there for them when they do respond to this call. If we can be as welcoming as the mustard tree in the parable, then we will have ensured that people have a place where they can come to know Jesus, and grow in love and faith. Despite all the current trials and tribulations, we must not lose heart, but trust in the God who loves us, who gave His Son for love of us. If we are confident of who Christ is, and what He has done for us, then as people filled with the love of God, we will carry on the Christian mission of proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom of God. Through us, others will come to know and trust in that love which changes everything. They too will 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

Trinity I

It is a truth of human existence that we like to find someone to blame, preferably someone other than ourselves. Our reading from Genesis is all about finding someone else to blame. Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the serpent. Both have eaten from a tree that God commanded them not to eat. No-one wants to put their hand up and say, ‘Yes, it’s my fault!’. It is not something that is easy or comfortable to do, but each time we gather to celebrate the Eucharist we begin by doing exactly this. We acknowledge our own shortcomings and ask God for forgiveness and healing. There is a spiritual maturity here, recognising that we fall short, and that we are sorry for having done so. Because we show humility God can be at work in our lives and we can know something of the healing and reconciliation God offers to humanity. The Church is a place of healing where despite our past mistakes, we know that we are loved and saved by God. 

Mark’s Gospel begins with the proclamation of the Good News of the Kingdom and Jesus’ charismatic ministry of preaching and healing. The people of Galilee are in great need, so great in fact that Christ and His disciples are not even able to get something to eat. Jesus’ own relatives are concerned at the frenetic pace of His ministry and mistake compassion for madness. But Jesus longs to help and heal people because God loves us. The Kingdom of God which Christ inaugurates is a place of healing and reconciliation, where humanity can truly know life in all its fulness. Jesus’ relatives are not able to grasp this. They cannot understand who He really is or what He is doing: they can only see practical concerns and fail to notice the importance of what is going on in His public ministry

Members of the religious élite then arrive and start to make serious accusations:

And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” (Mk 3:22)

They see a charismatic teacher and healer from Galilee and want to rubbish Him immediately. This man is not doing God’s work, he’s in league with the Devil! It’s a political strategy designed to stop Jesus from developing a following. If they write Him off as a heretic and a troublemaker, things will all calm down. Jesus, however, points out the clear logical inconsistency of the scribes’ position:

“How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end.” (Mk 3:23-26)

If Jesus is possessed by the Devil, how can He cast the Devil out? His accusers have failed to see the spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, at work in Him. Their refusal to see God at work is a sign of their pride and hardness of heart — they cannot discern the works of God, and write off as evil a wondrous demonstration of God’s love for humanity. Such is the Sin against the Holy Spirit, a wilful rejection of God. The religious authorities have failed to discern what is actually going on and have taken the easy step of finding someone to blame, someone to rubbish, someone to write off. God’s healing love has been dismissed as the work of the Devil. This is a serious matter, as Jesus explains:

“Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit.” (Mk 3:28-30)

The scribes have condemned themselves, and whereas they have accused Jesus of blasphemy, they are the real blasphemers. Note that Jesus does not condemn them, but rather offers to humanity the possibility of the forgiveness of sins. This is another demonstration of God’s love being poured out on the world.

Then Jesus’ family return and a confrontation takes place:

And his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.” And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mk 3:31-35)

What really matters is not who our parents or relatives are, but our relationship with Jesus. We are all brothers and sisters in Christ and we know the reality of God’s saving love in our lives. If we are obedient to God, if we come to Him in Humility we can know true love and friendship. 

It is through Jesus — who He is and what He does — that humanity can go from disobedience and punishment to the possibility of healing and wholeness, restored to a relationship with a loving God. This is the hope which inspires St Paul in his Second Letter to the Corinthians. Our hope is in Heaven, to be with God forever. We have the same hope as Paul because of all that Christ has done for us. This is Grace, the unmerited kindness of God, which we desire, but do not deserve. Grace is not something we can earn, it is the generous gift of a loving God. St Paul looks to a heavenly future where the trials of this life are past, where we live for ever in the presence of God, and are filled with His glory. This is our hope as Christians, through what Christ has done for us, to fill us with His life and His love. 

This is why Jesus becomes human, proclaims God’s Kingdom, heals the sick, dies on the Cross and rises at Easter: to give us this hope. This is Good News! Our relationship with Jesus is the most important thing that there is. Nothing else matters. This is a radical message, exactly the sort of thing that the Jewish Religious Authorities wanted to put a stop to immediately. It is dangerous. It could change the world. And it has, and continues to do so. 

Come Lord Jesus, come and heal us, and fill us with your life and love, so that we may share it with others, that they too 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. Amen. 

Michelangelo: The Downfall of Adam and Eve and their Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Sistine Chapel

Trinity Sunday

Last year, 2020, marked the 850th anniversary of the martyrdom of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury. He was consecrated a bishop on this day in 1162. Becket commanded that the anniversary of his consecration should be kept on the Sunday after Pentecost, in honour of the Most Holy Trinity. The practice became widespread and in 1334, Pope John XXII made it an official feast day.

Last Sunday we celebrated Pentecost, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Church, a revelation of who God is, and how much God loves us, His people. This week we continue to meditate upon God’s love. Such love is awesome and mysterious: an ocean whose depths we can never plumb. This love forms a relationship so intimate that God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. Above all it is something to be experienced, rather than understood. Through this experience God transforms us, so that we may experience that love more fully, and finally enjoy it for eternity, in Heaven. 

In our first reading from the book Deuteronomy, Moses calls Israel to reflect on the marvellous things God has done to bring His people out of Egypt. God is love, and His signs and wonders are a manifestation of that love. By accepting God’s love, Israel becomes a holy nation. To be holy is to let God’s love be at work in our lives, in our desires, our activities, and our relationships. 

The second reading is taken from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and addresses Christians, who have received the Holy Spirit in Baptism. The word ‘Abba’ means ‘Father’ in Aramaic. It is an intimate and affectionate word, and the first word of the Lord’s Prayer. This term is a sign of the close relationship between God the Father, and God the Son. It speaks of the closeness of the relationship which God is inviting us to share. By acknowledging God as Father, we are called to be dutiful sons and daughters. In the reading from Deuteronomy, God calls Israel to be obedient children. Jesus obeys the will of the Father, and likewise the Apostles are expected  both to obey Jesus, and to teach those they baptize to observe what Jesus commands. Such obedience is not that of a slave, but of a beloved child, part of a family, someone in a loving relationship with an inheritance in Heaven. As Christians we are brothers and sisters in Christ, filled with the Spirit, and part of family which existed for two thousand years, across every people, and language. Our inheritance is that we can share in Christ’s glory in Heaven, and enjoy it for all eternity. Such is the mystery of God’s love for us.

Today’s Gospel is what is commonly called the Great Commission. It comes at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, just before the Ascension. Before Jesus ascends to the Father, He sends His disciples out with authority. They are sent to make disciples, to teach them about God, and to draw people into a relationship with the God who loves them. As a sign of this relationship the Apostles are to baptize people in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. From the very beginning the Christian Faith is a Trinitarian Faith. We believe in One God, who is Father, Son,  and Holy Spirit. Three persons, bound together in love, who invite the world to be in a relationship with Them. Our eucharist this morning began,  ‘Yn enw’r Tad, a’r Mab, a’r Ysbryd Glân, In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit’, because this is the God whom we worship. We express our belief in the words that we use, and also in the postures we adopt. Our movements show in a physical way what we believe. As Christians, we are called to live out the faith of our baptism in our lives. God, who is love, has shown that love to the world through His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the sending of the Holy Spirit. To be a Christian is to have encountered that love, and been changed by it. We are changed in our baptism and born again to new life in Christ. We are also changed each time we receive Holy Communion. By God’s grace, Communion, whether physical or spiritual, transforms us. Through it we are united with Christ, so that we may become what He is and share in the love which is the life of God. 

It is both a great gift and a profound mystery, to share in the Divine life of love, and  to be transformed. God loves us so much that He shares His life with us, and encourages us to share it with others. God’s generosity is breathtaking, and that is the point. We proclaim and worship a generous, loving God, who invites us all to enter the mystery of His love, and to let ourselves be changed by it. As followers of Christ, we are called to bear our own cross, and to suffer, but we do so willingly. We know that whatever trials we face are as nothing compared with the joy and glory which await us. We support each other, as a family, united with a God who has suffered for us, and who makes us this promise:

And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Mt 28:20)

We are not alone. Christ is with us. He hears our prayers, and speaks to us in Scripture. He nourishes and transforms us with the Sacraments. These all unite us with God. Ans so we join with the angels and saints in singing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.


Witnesses give evidence in legal proceedings, they testify to the truth (or falsehood), of a situation. They provide evidence which can be believed. In the Gospel today Jesus promised his disciples that He will send, 

the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. And you will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.’ (Jn 15:26-27) 

Both the Apostles and the Holy Spirit bear witness to who God is, and what God does. Doing so brings the disciples into direct conflict with Jewish and Roman authorities. Christianity was, for nearly the first three hundred years of its existence, an illegal religion, whose adherents could be punished with execution. Bearing witness to Jesus was a costly process, both then and now. The Apostles bear witness to Christ, who taught them, who rose from the dead, and who promised to send His Spirit upon them on this day. It is through their bearing witness to Christ that the Christian faith spread. Filled with the Holy Spirit, the Apostles bore witness to God’s activity in the world.

Jesus also promises His disciples that,

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.’ (Jn 16:13-15)

Thus, we see that the Holy Spirit has a role to play in guiding the Church in truth, preserving it from error, so that Christians may continue to love God, and proclaim the truth which comes to us from the Apostles. We know that Jesus speaks the truth, that his promises can be trusted, that he pours His Holy Spirit upon His followers on the day of Pentecost, and continues so to do until He will come in glory as our Saviour and our Judge. Jesus wants us to tell people all about Him: about how he came to show the world love, and about how we can live filled with that love.

This is why St Paul can write to the Church in Galatia as a community that has experienced the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Paul describes what it means to be filled with the Holy Spirit as follows:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.’ (Gal 5:22-23)

Paul is describing how we are all supposed to live as Christians. It is an ideal, which we often fail to live up to. But nonetheless, it shows us how God wants us to live. Here is a glimpse of life in all its fulness: life in union with God and each other. This is perfect communion, something to strive for, even if we may struggle to attain it. This is how we can live when we let God be in control, and when our human will is perfectly aligned with God’s will for us.

Before his Ascension, Christ tells His disciples to wait in Jerusalem so that they may be baptized in the Holy Spirit. The disciples have again gathered in the Upper Room, with the Blessed Virgin Mary. This is the same place where Christ instituted the Eucharist, and washed his disciples’ feet. They have met here because Jesus told them to be together and to pray, for ‘you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses … to the end of the earth’ (Acts 1:8). An amazing event then takes place. Everyone present is filled with the Holy Spirit. Tongues of fire rest upon them, and they speak in a variety of languages. Afterwards when they go out to preach, people from all over the world, who have come to Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost, hear the mighty works of Godin their own language. They hear and understand the proclamation of who Jesus is, and what he has done.

Chapter 11 of the Book of Genesis tells the story about people trying to build a tower to reach heaven, the Tower of Babel. God punishes them, by making their speech unintelligible and by scattering them. Now, at Pentecost, instead of division, we see unity. All the peoples of the world can hear and understand the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ. They can learn about the promised Messiah, the Son of God, who died for our sins, rose on the third day, ascended into heaven. He has sent His Holy Spirit so that where there was sin, disobedience, and confusion, there is now obedience to the will of God, unity and understanding. Something new and wonderful is happening.

The outpouring of the Holy Spirit on this day is the manifestation of God’s love, active in the world. Through it humanity can be united, and come to know the fullness of God as Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Only in the Spirit can we enter fully into the divine life of love, and live out this love in the world. In the power of this love we can begin to understand the mystery of Our Lord’s Incarnation, His Life, Death, and Resurrection, and we can let these mysteries shape our lives as Christians.

God will make His home with us in His word, Holy Scripture and the sacraments of His Church – outward signs of the inward grace which He lavishes on us in the power of His Spirit. That is why we are here today: to be fed with the Body and Blood of Christ, to stand by the Cross so that we may be washed in the blood and water which flows from his side. In this we see God’s love for us, and we are strengthened to live the life of the Spirit. The gift of the Holy Spirit helps us to remain close to the God who loves us and saves us. We can be taught by His Spirit to remain in the faith which comes to us from the Apostles who first received the Spirit on this day two thousand years ago. Let us then live strengthened by Spirit, nourished by word and sacrament, in holiness and joy. Let us, like the Apostles, proclaim the truth and love of God to all peoples, 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.

Maronite Icon of Pentecost

Easter VII

As Christians we are called to be in the world, but not of the world. This world is simply somewhere we will reside for a short while. Our citizenship is in Heaven, our true home, where we long to spend eternity with God. One of the ways in which the Church lives out this other-worldliness is shown in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles.

After Jesus’ Ascension the disciples spend time together in prayer and fellowship. One of their first actions is to appoint a replacement for Judas Iscariot, so that the Eleven Apostles may become Twelve again. For Jews the number twelve is very significant and stands for wholeness and the completion of God’s purpose. There are twelve months in a year, and twelve tribes of Israel. It is important that the Apostles are restored to their proper number. So, out of all the 120 current followers of Jesus, Peter states that they need someone who has been with them from the beginning, to act as a witness to Jesus’ resurrection. Two candidates are put forward: Justus and Matthias. Peter then prays for guidance:

You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” (Acts 1: 24-25)

The disciples do not decide for themselves, they leave the choice up to God. Through the random process of casting lots, God can show them whom He wants to be an apostle. This feels strange to us nowadays. We want to be in control. We want to choose. Perhaps we would be better served by putting God back in control. 

The Gospel reading continues exploration of the Farewell Discourses between the Last Supper and Jesus’ Arrest. Today we have arrived at Chapter 17, Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer. This is a truly solemn moment of intimate conversation between the Father and the Son. Before His Passion, Christ is entrusting His Church to the Father, that it may be kept safe, and that it may be filled with the glory of God, and strengthened to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom. It is a moment of profound emotion and intimacy, a window into the conversation between two Persons of the Holy Trinity. 

Jesus is entrusting us, His Church to God, for God to care for us. His prayer sees us in opposition to a world which rebels against God, a world of sin and corruption, a world of power and politics. Christ prays that His people may be set apart, holy, devoted to God, and filled with love. To love is to will the good of the other. God loves us, and it is God’s will that we flourish and enjoy life in all its fulness, united to Him. This is why Jesus taught us to pray,

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Mt 6:10)

Christ is praying that we, His Church, stay close to God, and be united with God’s will, filled with God’s love. This is why we look forward to next Sunday, when we celebrate Pentecost, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. This is a sign of God’s love for us, the love which unites Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God invites us to be united with the life of the Trinity, and to offer that invitation with others. If we place ourselves in God’s hands He will take the initiative, just as He did in choosing Matthias to replace Judas.

Matthias’ name means ‘gift of God’. The disciples received this gift after praying together and asking for God’s guidance. As Christians we too need to be together, to meet together to pray for our needs and those of the world. In prayer, we are united with each other and with God. Sharing in the Eucharist together and hearing the word of God nourishes us. They are crucial to who and what we are. Together we experience the love of God and the joy of community. The world may be indifferent to what we do, or it may call us hypocrites when we fail to live up to the example of Jesus. But, as Christians, we strive to live in the love of God, and forgive each other our trespasses, so that we can live out that same radical love and forgiveness which sees Jesus die upon the Cross for love of us and all the world.

It is a message of such love, such forgiveness that the world cannot or does not want to understand. We may not understand God’s love, but we know that it can be experienced, through personal encounter with Jesus. We are living testimony to love’s power to change lives. It sets us free to live for God and to proclaim his saving truth in our words and actions.

As I mentioned earlier in this sermon, Matthias’ name means ‘gift of God’ and his appointment comes just before God’s wonderful gift of the Holy Spirit. So as we wait with the Apostles for this gift, let us pray that God may be at work in us, building us up, and giving us strength to live the Christian life and to proclaim God’s truth. Let us then share these gifts with others, so that they may also 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. Amen.

Easter VI

The Christian Church would probably not have spread so far, nor survived for very long, if it had remained an exclusively Jewish body. Thankfully, from early on in its history, the message of salvation, the Good News of the Gospel, was preached to Jew and Gentile alike. In this morning’s first reading we see this taking place for the first time.The setting is Caesarea, the capital of Judaea, on the Mediterranean coast, midway between Tel Aviv and Haifa. Cornelius, a centurion in the Roman army, is a god-fearing and kind man. He receives a vision instructing him to seek out Simon Peter and listen to him. Cornelius sends men to bring Peter. The disciple also received instructive visions, so is glad to go to Caesarea. Cornelius is somewhat overcome when Peter arrives, and throws himself on the ground before the Apostle. Simon Peter is uncomfortable about being worshipped, knowing that worship is due to God, and God alone.

We now learn how Peter’s mind has been changed by a vision which encouraged him to eat what Jewish law describes as ‘unclean’ food. This makes Peter understand that the  Good News of Jesus Christ is not just for Jews, but for everyone. 

So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34-35)

Here we see the rationale for the worldwide spread of Christianity. Rather than being solely the preserve of a single ethnic group, the Jews, salvation is offered to the whole world. Because of these verses the message of Jesus Christ was brought to this, and every land, and it was shared, and taught to all people. These verses are part of the reason that you are reading or hearing these words today. I, for one, find that amazing. Because Peter had the vision and courage to reach out to non-Jews, the Gospel was able to spread. The effect of the Apostle’s preaching is likewise amazing. His words, and his faith prompt the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. People come to know God, and long for baptism, to be born again by water and the Spirit. God is active in Caesarea. This is where the Church receives its first gentile converts, and starts to become the worldwide body which it still is. 

In the second reading, from the First Letter of John, we are reminded that Christianity is a religion of love. John writes about God’s love for us, and our love of God and each other. It is because God loves us that He sent His Son to be, ‘the propitiation for our sins’ (1Jn 4:10). Which means that Jesus makes up for all that we have done wrong. Jesus offers Himself, the Righteous for the unrighteous, to restore our relationship with God and each other.  Jesus reconciles God and humanity, bringing together what sin has thrust apart. This is the heart of the Good News. However, as well as dying for us, Christ also rose again. This is what we celebrate at Easter, and is what fills us with hope.

The Gospel reading today continues through the discourses which form part of John’s account of the Last Supper. It includes some of Jesus’ advice to his disciples in the Upper Room on the night before He died. Our Lord talks about love, and how Christian love should imitate the love that Jesus has for us. Christ loves humanity so much that He willing goes to His death on the Cross for us, to reconcile us to God and each other. In this we see that love has the power to transform human lives. Love helps us to be to be something which we were not before. Through God’s love we are transformed and we are able to bear fruit through our sharing of this wonderful love with others. 

Those who follow Christ are called to abide in His love, to remain in it, to live and make our home there. It means being part of the Christian community but also standing by the Cross, where God’s love is made manifest to the world. We are called to love God and each other, to transform our lives, to take up our cross and follow Him. To aid us in our lives of faith we are washed by the Blood of the Lamb, and fed by Him. Pope Benedict XVI, speaking at World Youth Day in 2008, explained that:

 ‘love has a particular trait: far from being indulgent or fickle, it has a task or purpose to fulfil: to abide.’ https://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/speeches/2008/july/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20080719_vigil.html

We experience such love most fully in the Eucharist where Christ continues to give Himself to us. Out of love, He continues to heal our wounds, to restore our relationship with God and each other, and to give us a foretaste of heaven in the here and now. There is nothing on earth as precious as this love. Nothing is more wondrous than this sign and token of God’s love for us. To dwell in Christ’s love is to be united with Him in physical and spiritual communion, so that God’s grace can transform us more and more into His likeness. 

The transformation that took place in the lives of believers in Caesarea continues to this day, and will continue until the end of time. As Christ’s people continue to be recreated into God’s likeness, so we are built up in love. Love and transformation go hand in hand. We grow and develop, nurtured in love, and by loving others. This is how the Church has continued to grow for two thousand years. The message of love and radical change continues to be at work in people’s lives. The Holy Spirit is active in the world, not just in the dramatic way seen in the Acts of the Apostles, but in the gradual development of a Christian Faith deepened through a lifetime of prayer and the sacraments, study, and good works. This is no less miraculous just because it is less obviously extraordinary. To live in Christ is to remain close to Him day by day, so that we can live life in all its fulness. We invite others so that they, and all creation, may be remade into the likeness of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen

Bernardo Cavalino S. Peter and Cornelius the Centurion

Easter V

It is difficult for us to understand just how hard it was for the disciples to accept Paul of Tarsus into the Christian community. We first meet St Paul during the martyrdom of St Stephen. Paul wants to do everything he can to eradicate the Church and the followers of Jesus. He is a zealous opponent of everything the Church stands for. Paul wants to persecute the Church, but thanks to a dramatic encounter with Jesus, he undergoes a conversion. Her greatest enemy becomes her most zealous advocate. Paul goes from one extreme to another: from hating the Church to loving her. Thus is it perfectly understandable that when Paul comes to Jerusalem and tries to see the disciples, they react in a negative way. 

This is the situation in our first reading this morning from the Acts of the Apostles. The disciples are afraid, and think, understandably, that it is an elaborate hoax, a trap designed to end in their arrest and subsequent death. They are wary of Paul, and doubt that his conversion is genuine. But their natural reluctance is overcome thanks to the faith and generosity of St Barnabas. Barnabas, whose name in Hebrew means ‘son of consolation’ (Acts 4:36), literally embodies the Holy Spirit. Everything that Barnabas says or does in the Acts of the Apostles can be understood in terms of how God acts in the world through the Holy Spirit. Here he vouches for Paul, and encourages the brethren that Paul’s conversion is genuine. He bears witness to the truth, and builds up the Church. 

St Paul starts to preach in Jerusalem, and engages in debate with the Hellenists, Greek-speaking Jews from around the Mediterranean, people that he and Barnabas would know well. These people are not happy that one of their own has converted, so they plot to kill Paul. They feel betrayed, and want to take their anger out on the traitor. So the disciples take Paul to Caesarea, from where he could set sail for his native Tarsus, in Asia Minor, and be safe. Peace returns to the Holy Land, and the Church thrives. The comfort of the Holy Spirit in Acts 9:31 describes perfectly how a loving and generous Christian, such as Barnabas, acts.

Our second reading reinforces this message by reminding us that for Christians love is not a word, but an action. Love is something you do. In other words, our faith is something which we live out in our lives. We are called to believe in Jesus and to love one another. As St Thomas Aquinas explained, to love is to will the good of another. To love, then, is not simply an act of passion or emotion: something which we feel, but rather something we choose to do. To choose someone else’s good reminds us that we do not exist for our own sake, and that our lives are lived in community and relationship with others. We are called to be loving and generous, just as God has been loving and generous towards us in Christ. We are to love each other as Jesus has loved us. We are to lay down our lives, as Christ has for us. In this love and service we can truly love each other. This makes who and what we are manifest to the world around us. It makes Christianity something attractive because people can see the difference it makes. We are people of love and a community of love, cooperating with God in promoting human flourishing. Such love is a radical and world-changing idea, underpinned by selfless love, of Christ, to help transform the world so that all humanity may experience life in all its fullness. 

In today’s Gospel Jesus is speaking to His Disciples after the Last Supper. He uses the image of Himself as the Vine, and the disciples are the branches. It is a powerful vision of what the Church is, people who are grafted onto and into Christ, connected to Him, and in a relationship with Him. We entered into that relationship in our baptism, and it is a relationship which will continue throughout and after our life on earth. 

When we were baptised we were clothed with Christ, we were grafted into the vine, which is Christ. It is Christ’s will that we, as Christians, bear much fruit. This means that we live out our faith in our lives, so that it affects who and what we are, and all that we say and do. We do this because it is what Christ expects of us, but also because, as we read in the First Letter of John, 

The love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him’ (1Jn 4:9).

Because we are grafted into Christ we are in communion with Him. Christ gives Himself to us in the Eucharist, His Body and Blood, so that we can have life in Him. He gives Himself to us out of love, so that we might have life in Him, and have it forever. It is a pledge of eternal life with Him, united in this world and the next, given to us to strengthen us on the journey of faith. Partaking in the Eucharist, physically or spiritually, helps us live out our faith in our lives: fed by and with Christ, to live in Him and for Him. 

Christ gives Himself for us, and desires that we are united with Him so that we may be strengthened to live out our faith in our lives, and to continue to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom by word and deed. Christ desires that we stay close to Him, and be united with Him, so that we can live lives of love. As Christians we are called to be Christ’s disciples, living in Him, living for Him, proclaiming Him, and bearing much fruit. We do this so that the world may believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen

Easter III

In St Luke’s account of the post-Resurrection appearances, one of the most memorable occurs just before our passage this morning. It takes place between Jerusalem and Emmaus, which is a journey of seven miles. Cleopas and another disciple, possibly his son, meet a man on the Road, who engages them in conversation, explains the Jewish Scriptures to them. Eventually they invite him to eat with them and at the moment when he blesses the bread and breaks it, he disappears, and they recognise Him. It is the Risen Lord. 

Cleopas and the other disciple immediately leave Emmaus and walk back to Jerusalem. It is now late on Sunday night, but they go to the disciples to tell them what they have experienced. What people are saying is true. Jesus is alive! They explain to the disciples how Jesus had talked to them on the road, and explained how Scripture was fulfilled in Him, and how they recognised him in the breaking of the bread. What is described here are the two parts of the Eucharist: the Liturgy of the Word, and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, enacted by Christ with his disciples on that first Easter Day. Two thousand years later, we are doing the same thing. For a hundred thousand successive Sundays, Christians have celebrated the Eucharist together because Jesus told us to do this. Today is the day when Christ rose from the dead. Every Sunday is something of a mini Easter, because the church gathers to celebrate Jesus’ Resurrection, just like the disciples in the Gospel passage.

Cleopas and the other disciple are discussing their experiences with the Eleven, when, suddenly Jesus is among them, and He greets them saying, 

“Peace to you.” (Lk 24:36)

Christ can greet His disciples thus, because He has brought peace to the world by dying for us, and rising again. Christ is our peace, because He has reconciled us to God, and to each other. Our sins are forgiven and we are raised to New Life in Him. The disciples’ reaction, however, is not quite so positive. They are afraid. They cannot believe that it is true and that Jesus is really with them. So Our Lord speaks to them:

“Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” (Lk 24:38-9)

Jesus invites the disciples to touch Him, to show that He is not an apparition. He is flesh, and blood, alive, and there with them. Then Jesus shows them His wounds, proof that it is really Him, their Crucified Lord. They then gaze on the wounds of God’s Love, and see what God has done for them. 

As the disciples are beginning to process all the wonderful things that are happening Jesus seeks to reinforce their faith:

He said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them. (Lk 24:41-43)

Ghosts do not eat. They do not eat grilled fish. This is not an apparition. It is the Lord. He is alive. Jesus then takes the opportunity to do with the Eleven what He had done on the Road to Emmaus. Before His Death, Jesus had tried to explain how the events of His Passion, Death, and Resurrection were foretold in Holy Scripture. Now, after His Death and Resurrection, He reinforces His teaching. The Church does this as well. For example, on Good Friday we read most of Chapters 52-53 of the prophet Isaiah and Psalm 22, which clearly show how the sufferings of Christ’s Passion and Death are prophesied in the Bible. At the Easter Vigil there is a long series of readings which go through Salvation History, from the Creation of the World in Genesis, through Abraham and Isaac, the Passover and Crossing of the Red Sea, to the prophecy of Ezekiel 36 which sees a new hope for Israel sprinkled with water. 

The Old Testament is the story of God’s Relationship with the world in general, and Israel in particular. There are a number of covenants established between God and humanity, which Israel breaks by worshipping other gods. But God does not abandon them, instead He promises through the prophet Jeremiah to initiate a new covenant:

Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbour and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jer 31:31-34)

This promise is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, who came preaching repentance and the forgiveness of sins. The Church proclaims the same message, witnessing to the world that another way is possible, through what Jesus has done for us. This is the same message we find in our first reading this morning from the Acts of the Apostles. Peter is preaching in Solomon’s Portico in Jerusalem after healing a lame beggar. He calls the people of Jerusalem to repent of their sins, and to believe in Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah. Jesus healed the lame man because the Kingdom is a place of healing and reconciliation, where sins are forgiven, and we are restored. This reality lies behind St John’s proclamation in our second reading. Christ is the propitiation for our sins, that means He makes up for all that we have done wrong. Jesus offers Himself, the Righteous for the unrighteous, to restore our relationship with God and each other. 

That first Easter Day, the disciples were witnesses to the Lord’s Resurrection, and so are we. God calls all of us, you and me, to bear witness to the truth of the Resurrection, 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

Duccio, The Appearance of Christ to the Apostles, Maesta, Siena Cathedral

Easter II

The first Easter Day must have been very strange indeed. Before the sun had even risen, Mary Magdalen comes and says that the tomb is empty. Peter and John go and look at Jesus’ burial place, and then Mary comes back again having seen the Risen Lord. And while all of these earth-shattering discoveries are begin to sink in, we are faced with this morning’s Gospel passage. It is evening and the disciples are afraid that they will face retribution for supporting a false Messiah. They are scared, and can hardly believe what people have told them, let alone make sense of it all. And then suddenly, without warning, Jesus is in their midst, there in the room with them. Our Lord greets them and says, “Peace be with you.” (Jn 20:19) words which we still use in worship today. Jesus’ first words to the disciples are, ‘Shalom alechem’, ‘Tangnefedd i chwi’. Christ’s greeting is one of peace and reconciliation, which dissipates their fear and anxiety. Then Christ shows the disciples His hands and side, the wounds which have brought about this peace and reconciliation.

Jesus shows the disciples the wounds of love, God’s love for humanity, and repeats His greeting of Peace. He then commissions them:

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” (Jn 20:21)

God the Father sends Christ to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom, to call people to repentance, and to reconcile God and humanity. As blood and water flowed from Christ’s side at Calvary, so through Baptism and the Eucharist, the Church gives life to the people of God. Then the commissioning and ordaining of the apostles continues:

And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (Jn 20:22-23)

Through the power of the Holy Spirit, God is active in the world. Christ gives the apostles the power to forgive sin. In Jewish understanding, this is something only God can do. Jesus forgives sins, and empowers His disciples to do so. This forgiveness is a manifestation of God’s love and reconciliation, which can and does heal our wounded human nature. This is what Jesus came to do, and He commits the Church to continue His mission and His saving work. This is the reality which we inhabit as Christians. It is God’s free gift to His people, a sign of generous love. The role of the Church is to deal with the mess we make as human beings. By the power of His Holy Spirit, the Church is to be a community of reconciliation, where we are forgiven and we, in turn, forgive. It is to be a place where we are freed from sin, its power, and its effects.

St Thomas is not there with the other disciples when The Resurrected Jesus appears on that first Easter Day. Thomas feels somewhat left out. He knows he has missed the opportunity to experience something truly wonderful and life-changing. This is a perfectly normal human reaction to an extraordinary situation. Which of us would not feel the same? We too would want to experience the reality of Jesus’ Resurrection, and to be sure of it. Thus, we empathise with Thomas when he says,

“Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” (Jn 20:25)

These are the words of someone who longs to experience the reality of the Resurrection. Like the other disciples, Thomas has been on something of an emotional rollercoaster. It is understandable that Thomas wants to be certain, to know with his own eyes and hands that Jesus is alive. 

A week later, Jesus comes to them again, and said, 

“Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” (Jn 20:26-27)

Jesus gives Thomas what he wants, the opportunity to experience the reality of the Resurrection and to touch the wounds of love and mercy. This leads Thomas to reply:

“My Lord and my God!” (Jn 20:28)

Thomas confesses Jesus’ divinity. Jesus is God, and the Lord of Thomas’ life. It is a profound and concise statement of faith in who Jesus is and what He has done. Thomas has journeyed from doubt and despair to true faith. Doubt is the starting point, but not the end of the journey. It is the beginning rather than the goal. St Thomas should really be known as ‘Believing Thomas’ rather than ‘Doubting Thomas’, as this is what he becomes. Thomas’ belief changes his life, and leads him to take the Gospel to be proclaimed far and wide. He travels to India, founding Christian communities which have endured for two thousand years. Such faith is our inheritance, and in it we are blessed as those who have not seen, yet believe.

The heart of our faith and the Gospel is forgiveness and mercy. No matter how many times we mess things up, we are forgiven by God. It is this reckless generosity of spirit which people find hard to believe. Many struggle to believe that they too can be forgiven, by a loving God, and by their fellow Christians. That we can, despite our manifold shortcomings, be a people of love, and forgiveness, and reconciliation. God’s Grace does not abolish our nature, it perfects it. Being fed by Christ, with Christ, we too may become what He is. Despite the sad emptiness of the world, and its selfishness, and greed, we can be filled with joy, and life, and hope. Like the first apostles we too can spread the Gospel: that the world may believe. And that all may have life in the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now, and forever. Amen

Caravaggio The Incredulity of St Thomas

Easter 2021

Early in the morning, on the first day of the week, something strange and wonderful happened, which has changed the world. It can be hard to imagine quite how disconcerting Jesus’ Resurrection must have been for the Disciples and all who were close to Jesus. Nearly two thousand years later, we are perhaps too familiar with the story of Our Lord’s Resurrection. But, only for a moment, I would like us to try to imagine that we were witnesses to events, as they unfolded. We saw Christ enter Jerusalem, hailed as the Messiah. But, after spending time with His Disciples, and telling them to, ‘Do This in memory of Him’, (something we have come here to do), He was arrested, condemned, and killed. The disciples’ emotions must have been strong: fear, disbelief, questioning: will we be next? Jesus talked about dying, and rising again, but He couldn’t have meant like this, could He? 

Mary of Magdala went to the tomb, either to anoint the body properly (there wasn’t time on Friday afternoon), or just spend time at the grave of someone she loved. She sees the stone rolled away, and returns to tell Peter and John,

They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” (Jn 20:2)

Mary is concerned with the dead body of Jesus. When Peter and John run to the tomb, John gets there first, he sees the cloths, but doesn’t go into the tomb. Peter goes in and sees everything. Then John goes in, sees and believes. 

Mary stays by the tomb, filled with grief. Not only is Jesus dead, but his body has disappeared. Even when angels speak to Mary, all she can say is,

They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” (Jn 20:13)

She sees Jesus, who asks Mary why she is weeping, and who she is looking for. We then have an interesting detail:

Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” (Jn 20:15)

Mary still thinks Jesus is dead. She loves Him, and all she wants to do is to take care of His body. She is a paragon of love, devotion, and service. But it is only when Jesus calls her by name that she recognises Him. 

One detail which I find intriguing is that Mary Magdalen supposes that Jesus is the gardener. Gardens and cemeteries had people looking after them, even in 1st century Palestine. But mention of gardens and gardeners makes me think of another passage in the Bible concerned with matters horticultural. In Genesis, God makes a garden, Eden, puts Adam in it, and commands him to look after it (Gen 2:15). The first man is a gardener. The Risen Christ, the New Adam, is seen as a gardener. Whilst the first Adam brought death to humanity by a tree, the Second Adam has brought life to the world, by the tree of the Cross. Humanity falls because of a tree, and because of a tree we are offered eternal life in Christ. 

It is the first day of the week, when Creation began, and now on the first day of the week we see a New Creation, as Christ has risen from the dead, conquering death and Hell. Christ is a gardener, and the plants he tends are human. We believe in a God who loves us, who cares for us, and who longs to see us experience the fullness of life. That sounds like the description of a gardener to me: someone who nurtures, who longs to see growth. In His Passion, Christ has overcome the bitter fruit of human disobedience with His own obedience. We are here today, because Christ’s fruit, His Body and Blood has nourished the Church through the centuries, and will continue to do so until He comes in glory. 

Over the last year we have experienced the same fear, disbelief and questioning that the Disciples felt. Now we yearn to be filled with the joy, hope, and peace of the Risen Lord. The Resurrection of Jesus is a time for celebration. A time to enjoy all the good fruits of the earth. We rejoice that we can once again gather in each others’ gardens and give thanks for the good weather we have been blessed with this week. So, my brothers and sisters in Christ, ‘Pasg hapus i chi gyd!’ ‘A Happy Easter to you all!’ May you, and those you love, be filled with Resurrection joy and strength, now and always. Amen.

Fra Angelico (Italian, ca. 1395–1455), “Noli me tangere,” 1440–42. Fresco from the convent of San Marco, Florence, Italy. http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/a/angelico/index.html

Good Friday

Today we focus on the Cross, not as an instrument of torture, or as a means of inflicting a lingering painful death, but as something wonderful. In being raised upon the cross, Our Lord is not dying the death of a slave, but rather He is reigning in glory. This is God’s glory: the glory of selfless love, poured out on the world to heal it and reconcile it to God. Christ’s hands and feet and side are pierced, as wounds of love, to pour out God’s healing love upon the world. In his obedience to the Father’s will, Jesus puts to an end the disobedience of humanity’s first parent, Adam. Christ is a willing victim, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He is the Silent lamb led to his slaughter, the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep that have gone astray.

On the Cross, just before Christ dies, something wonderful happens. The following scene takes place:

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.’ (Jn 19:26-27)

At one level it looks straightforward enough. Jesus is creating a new family unit with Mary and John adopting each other. The use of the word ‘woman’ reminds us of the Wedding in Cana, at the start of His ministry,  when Jesus addresses his mother in this way. At Cana, Mary tells the servants to ‘Do whatever He tells you’, demonstrating her obedience and love for God. It is this love and obedience which sees her at the foot of the Cross, as a faithful witness to God’s plan of salvation for the world. Mary is faithful, she loves her Son. Both Mary and John, the beloved disciple, are united in a common love for Jesus. A common bond unites them, and allows them to become a new family, which we call the Church, and which we join in our Baptism. The Church is born out of the pierced side of the New Adam, Jesus Christ, and allows us all to become brothers and sisters in Christ, sharing in a new family relationship which unites those who believe in Him, washed in the water of Baptism, and sharing in the Eucharist. 

John is the beloved disciple, who reclined next to Jesus at the Last Supper. He received the First Eucharist, and was set apart as a priest of the New Covenant, which is now inaugurated with the Blood of his Lord. He is close to Jesus, and has experienced and understands the Mystery of God’s Love. This is why he writes about it so profoundly in the Gospel and the Letters which bear his name. 

Mary and John do not desert Jesus, they remain with Him, as faithful witnesses to the Sacrifice of the New Covenant, which gives us peace and reconciles us to God and each other. The veil of the Temple is torn in two: the barrier between the Divine and the human has been brought down, and reconciliation can take place. 

Christ is our great High Priest. As both priest and victim, He offers Himself upon the altar of the Cross to bleed and die for us, to bear our sins, and to reconcile us with God the Father. Jesus dies that we might live. This is something that people find difficult and uncomfortable. And that’s the point! Christ’s death should make us feel uncomfortable because it reminds us that our actions have put Him there. Christ bears our burden, and that of all humanity, past, present, and future, and through His wounds we are healed. It is the clearest possible demonstration that God loves us, and will go to any length to reconcile the world to Himself, even giving His Only Son to die, so that we might live in and through Him. 

Thus, despite the pain and the desolation, today is a day to rejoice. In Christ’s Death, humanity is saved, freed from Sin and Death, and restored to a relationship with God and each other, which continues through the Church. We should glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, for He is our salvation, our life, and our resurrection. Through Jesus we are saved and made free. Amen.

Maundy Thursday

The events described tonight and over the next few days are best described as mysterious and disconcerting. For some time now Jesus has told His Disciples that He must suffer and die, but tonight He will make His Sacrifice real for them, before He dies. It must have been perplexing for them. Jesus, their Teacher takes on the position of a household servant and washes their feet, to demonstrate how theirs is to be a life of love and service of others. Everything they are used to is about to change. Jesus, who on Palm Sunday was greeted as the Messiah will soon be arrested, tried and condemned. Love will turn to hatred. Crowds that cried, ‘Hosanna!’ will soon cry, ‘Crucify Him!’. The disciples’ world will be turned upside down, and they will panic and flee. The events of the last twelve months have brought home to us just how traumatic it is when your world is tuned upside down.  

We humans are social creatures, and one of the great joys we have been deprived of over the last year is the sharing of food and drink. Eating and drinking together is a sign of love and hospitality, which helps us to bond together as friends, family, and community. We miss it deeply, and rightly so, because it is a fundamental aspect of our common life and our shared humanity. Food is more than just fuel for living, it is a sign of love and care, that we are welcome. 

Before Jesus gives His Body and Blood to His Disciples He takes the bread and wine, and blesses them, giving thanks to God for them. This was perfectly normal, it was expected, and it is something which Jews and Christians continue to do to this day. In the church we continue the practice of thanking God for the bread and wine we offer, because it reminds us that everything is a gift from God, for which we should be grateful. We say the words, ‘Blessed be God forever’It is important, and helps to create an attitude of thankfulness which helps to form us as loving generous people. If you do not already do so, you might like to try saying Grace before you eat a meal at home. I have included an example below for you, at the end of this sermon. 

As we prepare for the re-opening of church for the celebration of Easter, Our Lord’s Resurrection, we look forward to being able to share the Eucharist together. We celebrate the Mystery of our Redemption by doing what Christ taught His Disciples to do on the night He was betrayed. For nearly two thousand years the Church has faithfully followed Jesus’ command to ‘Do this in memory of me’. We do this because Christ told us to do it, to feed the people of God with the Body and Blood of Christ.

There are times when it is not possible to celebrate publicly, such as the current pandemic. At such times we long for spiritual nourishment, and to be united with Jesus in Communion. Spiritual Communion is a prayer of longing, a prayer of the human heart, that God would satisfy our longing, and give us our heart’s desire in faith, through grace. God, out of love for us, hears our prayer and answers it. God fills us with His love, and unites us to Him, and each other. God would not leave us bereft, as Jesus promises His disciples, ‘I will not leave you comfortless’ (Jn 14:8). 

So may we be encouraged in a God who keeps His promises, and that soon we will be able to celebrate as Jesus commanded us to, together, as a family of faith, gathered around the Table of the Lord, confident that we can do so safely. May we  be nourished in Body and Soul in Physical or Spiritual Communion by the God who loves us, and who gives Himself for us so that we may have life, even life everlasting. Amen.

O Dad, yn deulu dedwydd – y deuwn
 diolch o newydd,
Cans o’th law y daw bob dydd
Ein lluniaeth a’n llawenydd
O Father, as a happy family – we come
With thanks anew,
For from thy hand we receive each day
Our sustenance and our joy. Amen
Tissot The Last Supper

Palm Sunday

If anyone asks you why you are untying it [the ass the disciples were sent to find], this must be your answer, ‘The Lord has need of it’ (Lk 19:31). Perhaps no greater paradox was ever written than this: on the one hand the sovereignty of the Lord, and on the other hand his ‘need’. His combination of Divinity and dependence, of possession and poverty was a consequence of the Word becoming flesh. Truly, he who was rich became poor for our sakes, that we might become rich. Our Lord borrowed a boat from a fisherman from which to preach; he borrowed barley loaves and fishes from a boy to feed a multitude; he borrowed a grave from which he would rise; and now he borrows an ass on which to enter Jerusalem. Sometimes God pre-empts and requisitions the things of man, as if to remind him that everything is a gift from him.

Fulton Sheen, The Life of Jesus

The scene depicted in today’s Gospel seems like a triumph. Jerusalem is celebrating: those gathered treat Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as the triumphal entry of the Messiah. People lay down their clothes and wave palm branches. The crowd cry out for God to save them, and that is exactly what he will do in a few days time, upon the Cross. This is a God who keeps his promises and who also defies human expectations. The masses in Jerusalem are expecting a king of the Davidic line. One who would be seen as a challenge to the ruling élite, the status quo. But in, Christ, God gives Israel something else: a King of the line of David, yes, but one who rules with love, who has no desire for power, or honour. Leaders and those in authority are threatened by him: Jesus turns their world on its head. He is an awkward inconvenience. Jesus does not want their power. He has come to be and do something completely different. What is seen as a potential political coup is in fact a renewal of religion, the fulfilment of prophecy, and a new hope for Israel.

In riding into Jerusalem Jesus is fulfilling the prophecies of Zechariah: 

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zech 9:9)

The King of Israel comes riding on a donkey: a humble beast of burden, which carried his Mother to Bethlehem for his birth, and carried the Holy Family into exile in Egypt. It is an act of humble leadership which fulfils what was foreseen by the prophets. It shows us that Jesus Christ is truly the one who fulfils the hopes of Israel. The Hebrew Scriptures look forward to the deliverance of Israel, which is enacted in front of their very eyes. God is saving His people, but they cannot see it. In a few days time all will have changed, love will turn to hatred; joy to sadness. 

This is why today, and throughout Holy Week, we will have readings from the prophet Isaiah, which are known as the Songs of the Suffering Servant. This morning we see the servant being mistreated. He is struck on the back, his beard is torn out, he is spat at and insulted. This will all come to pass as Our Lord goes to the Cross on Good Friday. It is the fulfilment of prophecy. God will show us how much he loves us by enduring such treatment.The events of Holy Week demonstrate what humanity is capable of: anger, hatred, bitterness, mob rule, and the desire to have a scapegoat, someone to blame. This is fallen, sinful humanity at its worst, and we will see more of it over the coming days. It should shock us, we should feel sick to the pits of our stomachs, because it shows us why Christ had to die — to overcome human sin, the world, and the Devil with the redemptive power of God’s Love. 

And so it begins: Our Lord and Saviour makes a triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He is hailed as the Messiah, and it is a cause for celebration and joy. But, this is a week which will see Jesus betrayed by a close friend, arrested, abandoned, tried and killed as a common criminal. Strangely enough, the world around us can still be just as fickle, just as quick to turn someone from hero into persona non grata. Lest we think that somehow we are better, more advanced, more civilised people, the plain unvarnished truth is that we are not. We need the annual reminder which the Church gives through its liturgical year — a chance to be confronted by stark realities, and to be brought up short by them. What Christ says and does in this coming week, He says to us, He does all this for us — to Heal us, to Restore us. Jesus says and does these things so that we can live His risen life here and now, as the people of God, sharing in His Death and Resurrection though our baptism, trusting in Him.

In our pilgrimage through Lent, through our prayer, and our fasting, we hope to increase our closeness to Christ. By following Him, and meditating upon His Passion, we are transformed by His love, we follow in His footsteps, and enter into the mystery of God’s love poured out on the world. In the next few days we will go to the Upper Room, we will watch and wait with Christ, we will walk the way of the Cross, and we will gaze upon Christ crucified. Doing so, we will see just how much God loves us — the lengths to which God will go to demonstrate that love, and make it a reality in our lives. This is how we prepare to celebrate Easter: Our Lord’s rising from the tomb, His conquering death, so that we may have new life in Him. 

In his Letter to the Christians in Philippi, written in prison in Rome in ad62, St Paul lays great stress upon the Humility of Jesus Christ. Humility is not a popular virtue these days, in fact the world around us would have us be quite the opposite: full of ourselves, with a high opinion of ourselves. Ours is a world which is more and more characterised by the sin of selfishness. The individual is all that matters: me and what I want, that is all that counts. At the root of it all is pride, thinking that we are more important than we are, making ourselves the centre of things, whereas we need to put God at the centre of things, and learn to be thankful. 

Gratitude is characteristic only of the humble. The egotistic are so impressed by their own importance that they take everything given them as if it were their due. They have no room in their hearts for recollection of the undeserved favours they have received.

Fulton Sheen, On Being Human, 1982: 325

We need to have the mind of Christ, a mind devoted to love and service of God. Christ doesn’t just do what He wants to, but everything He says and does is the will of God the Father. Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane for the strength to do God’s will. He demonstrates humility and obedience in action: embracing the most shameful death possible, for love of us. Thus we should love Jesus, we should worship Him, because He is God, and He loves us. The Saviour of the World scorns majesty. He embraces shame and sin, total utter degradation to save us. Jesus does this to heal the wounds of sin and division, so that we might have life, and life in all its fulness, with Him, for ever. This is why Jesus is willing to suffer, to be vulnerable, to take our human frailty and to redeem it through His suffering. Through His vulnerability, He shows the World that God’s ways are different from ours. This is the example for us to follow — the way of suffering love and humility

Today, and in the coming week, we will see what God’s Love and Glory are really like. It is not what people expect. It is power shown in humility, strength in weakness. As we continue our Lenten journey in the triumph of this day and looking towards the Holy and Life-giving Cross and beyond to the new life of Easter, let us trust in the Lord. Let us be like him, and may He transform our hearts, our minds and our lives, so that they may have live and life in all its fullness. We are fed by the word of God and by the Sacrament of His Body and Blood to be strengthened, to share in His divine life, to fit us for Heaven. Forgiven and forgiving, may all that we say, or think, or do, may all that we are be for the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory dominion and power, now and forever. Amen. 

James Tissot The Procession in the Streets of Jerusalem

Lent V

Our readings this week continue our journey towards the Cross. The Cross is important because it is first and foremost a demonstration of God’s love for humanity. God loves us enough to die for us, to wipe away our sin, and to restore our relationship, with Him and each other. It is central to who and what we are as Christians, people transformed by the love of God. 

In our first reading this week, from the prophet Jeremiah, we see something truly amazing. Through the prophet, God promises to make a new covenant with His people. Israel broke the first covenant through disobedience and sin, and yet God offers a fresh start, a clean slate, a new beginning. God promises that:

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.’ (Jer 31:33)

Rather than being something external, something done to comply with the letter of the Law, this new covenant will be written on our hearts through faith, and lived out in our lives. It is a promise which finds its fulfilment in Jesus Christ, who teaches love of God and love of neighbour. This He lives out in His life, and He encourages us to follow His example. It is a hopeful message, as God promises: 

For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jer 31:34)

The Law of Love, which God makes real in Jesus Christ has genuine transformative power, because it is rooted in forgiveness and healing, something which only God can provide. Our loving Father does this on the Cross, where He gives His Son to die for us, to heal our wounds, and to offer eternal salvation to all who believe in Him. 

In our Gospel today we have reached the events just before the Passover. Passover is the central feast of Israel, commemorating the journey from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. There are some Greeks, who may or may not be Jewish converts, that approach Philip, who has a Greek name. He, along with Simon Peter and Andrew, was first a disciple of John the Baptist, before following Jesus. These Greeks ask Philip a simple question:

Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”(Jn 12:21)

This is the longing of the human heart, a desire to see Jesus, to have an encounter with the divine. Philip tells Andrew, and they both go to see Jesus, who says this in reply:

The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honour him.” (Jn 12:23-26)

Jesus’ reply should strike us as strange. He doesn’t say, ‘Of course, bring them here’, or ‘I’d be delighted to meet them’. Instead He starts talking about His forthcoming Death. This is glory. It is not the human idea of glory, but quite the opposite – dying the death of common criminal. This doesn’t make sense, in human terms, and it isn’t supposed to. As it says in the prophet Isaiah (55:8), ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.’ The point is that we need to do things, God’s way, and not ours. Christ is the grain of wheat who dies, and who yields a rich harvest, in the Church, saving the souls of countless billions of people over the last two thousand years. 

Jesus calls us to follow Him, and not to care for life in this world — Heaven is our home, it is what we prepare for here on earth. If we want to share in Christ’s glory, then we need to follow the same path of suffering love which takes Him to His Cross, and will take us to ours. As sales pitches go it isn’t going to win plaudits from any Advertising Agency! That’s the point. It is honest, and it is the truth, plain and unvarnished. This truth changes the world, and sets us free (cf. Jn 8:32). We are free because He hung on a wooden cross and died and rose again for us. That is God’s glory — dying for love of us, to set us free, free to live for Him, and with Him, forever.

Our responsibility as Christians is that people might see Jesus in all we do, say and think. We need to be living, breathing, walking advertisements for the Good News of Jesus Christ here and now. We can use this time of Lent to consider significant aspects of our lives. Being under lockdown has made us realise what is important, what really matters. It is vital that we live in such a way that people might see Jesus in who and what we are, and what we do.

How do we do this? We do it through the Grace of God, and by trying, by co-operating with that Grace. We do it by making a conscious effort to live out our faith together, as a Christian community. We do it by being filled with love, and filled with grace, in the knowledge of the forgiving power of Christ’s blood which was shed for us. We cannot save ourselves, only Christ can do that. Salvation is not just an individual matter. Christ came to change the world. This He doe, one soul at a time, through the Church, and the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist,. These outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, are the free gift of God to his people.

We will often fail to practise what we preach, and people may call us hypocrites, but the point is that we keep on trying. God will not abandon us. He dies for us, bearing the burden of our sins, so that we might become like Him. That is why Jesus was born for us, lived, died, and rose again for us.

As Christians we live no longer for ourselves, but for the God who loves us. We can offer the world around us an alternative to the way of selfishness and sin. We need to trust Jesus’ words, and fashion our lives after His example. Together, nourished by Word and Sacrament, and carrying our own cross, we trust in His grace and proclaim His truth. We do this so that the world may believe and follow 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.

James Tissot The Gentiles Ask to See Jesus (Les gentils demandent à voir Jésus)

Are you fasting?


Are you fasting?
Give me proof of it by your works.
If you see someone who is poor, take pity on them.
If you see a friend being honored, do not be envious.
Do not let only your mouth fast, but also the eyes, and the feet, and the hands and all the member of our bodies.
Let the hands fast, by being free of greed.
Let the feet fast, by ceasing to run after sin.
Let the eyes fast, by disciplining them not to glare at what is is sinful.
Let the ears fast, by not listening to evil talk and gossip.
Let the mouth fast from foul words and unjust criticism.
For what good is it if we abstain from eating birds and fishes, but bite and devour our brothers and sisters?

— St John Chrysostom

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Lent IV

Last week, in the Gospel, Jesus talked about the destruction of the Temple. This happened a few decades later when the Romans sacked Jerusalem in AD70. Today, our first reading takes us back to the first destruction of the Temple, by Nebuchadnezzar in 587BC. The people of Israel have not been faithful to God, they have broken the First Commandment by adopting the religious practices of their neighbours. But God sent prophets to remind Israel of its obligations to worship God, and God alone. This message is not heeded, and disaster ensues. Israel is led away to captivity in Babylon for seventy years, until Cyrus, the king of Persia allows the Israelites to return. Captivity represents the most terrible thing that could happen to the people of Israel: a loss of everything, being deprived of freedom, and the destruction of their religious life, focused on the Temple in Jerusalem. We should, however, remember that God was patient ‘until there was no remedy’ (2Chron 36:16), and the destruction and exile are not permanent, only temporary, and after seventy years Israel would return. 

While Israel is not faithful to God, God is faithful to Israel, and does not desert her. Thus, in the Gospel, Jesus explains His forthcoming Crucifixion with a reference to Israel’s wanderings after the Exodus:

And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.’ (Numbers 21:8-9)

The people of Israel were moaning about the journey, the lack of food and water, and that God has led them out into the desert to die, so God sends fiery serpents which killed them. The people then relented, and asked Moses to pray to God to take the serpents away. God listened to Moses, and provided a means for Israel to be saved. Jesus uses this example to explain why the Son of Man must be lifted up. Just as the bronze serpent saved people long ago, Jesus’ being lifted up on the Cross will save those who believe in Him. The mention of being bitten by serpents reminds us of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, where the Lord God says to the serpent:

I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3:15)

Being bitten by snakes is understood as a consequence of sin, which Christ will deal with by taking our sins and those of all humanity upon himself, bearing our burden, and reconciling us to the Father once and for all. Thus, whoever believes in Jesus, and the redemption He brings about, has the promise of eternal life.

There then follows one of the most well-known verses in the Bible:

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.” (Jn 3:16-17) 

This is the heart of our faith as Christians. Christ was born for us, lived and died for us, and was raised to new life, so that we might have the promise of eternal life in Him. This is why we follow Christ into the desert of Lent for forty days, so that through prayer, fasting and charity we may be prepared in body and soul to celebrate the mystery of Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection. Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter are the ultimate embodiment of God’s generous Love towards humanity. God loves us, you and me, each one of us, so much that He gave His only Son to die for us, on the Cross.

God, in Christ, does not condemn us, but rather saves us, out of Love. God is a God of love and generosity, who offers Himself to reconcile us to Him, and to each other. This generosity is at the heart of our faith as Christians, we worship a generous, loving God, and invite others to receive the free gift of God’s grace, and enter a relationship with the God who loves us. 

This relationship explains the joyful hope which St Paul has when he writes to the Church in Ephesus in our second reading this morning. Paul’s central message is that:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,’ (Eph 2:8)

Grace is unmerited kindness, something which we do not deserve, or earn. It is by the grace of God that we are saved, through faith, believing and trusting in Jesus Christ, who was born for us, died and rose again for us. We can put our trust in the God who loves us, and who shows us that love in His Son. It is not about what we can do, but about what God can do for us. Our relationship with God is the result of a gift, which we can receive and which can transform our lives, if we only let go, and let God transform us, more and more into the likeness of His Son. 

God cares so much about the world and its people that he takes flesh, and lives a life of love, amidst the messiness of humanity, to show us how to live lives filled with love, life in all its fullness. God, in Christ, comes among us not to condemn the world but to offer it a way of being, of being truly alive in Him. God has made us for himself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in him. The spiritual needs and searching which characterise people in the world around us can be satisfied in God and in God alone, through the church.

We continue our Lenten journey towards the Cross, where God shows his love for us most fully and completely, giving his body to be broken and his blood be shed for us, to strengthen us to live the risen life of Easter. So may we join the Angels in our song of love and praise to God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

Christ Crucified, Diego Velázquez, (1632) Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Lent III: The Cleansing of the Temple

It is hard for us to imagine just how important the Temple in Jerusalem was. It was, quite literally, the centre of the world, the most important place on earth. At its centre was the Holy of Holies which contained the Ark of the Covenant. Inside the Ark were the two tablets containing the Ten Commandments, some of the manna from the desert, and Aaron’s staff. That is why, to this day, Jews continue to pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. This is all that remains of the Temple after its destruction by the Romans in ad 70. At the time of Jesus, Passover was the busiest time of year in Jerusalem. As the central festival of Judaism, Passover marks the journey from slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land, Israel. Likewise, for Christians it is the time when we celebrate our freedom from the slavery of sin through the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In our first reading this morning from the Book of Exodus, God gives the law to Moses on Mount Sinai in the desert. It describes both how to honour God, and how humanity should live. Our duty towards God and our neighbour is clearly shown. When Moses receives the Ten Commandments from God, the first is:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.’ (Exod 20:2-3)

The temple traders, in their desire to profit from people’s religious observance, have broken this first and most important commandment. Their desire for making money and profit has got in the way of what the Temple is supposed to be about: namely, worshipping God. It has become a racket, a money-making scheme to fleece pilgrims who have come from far away and who do not have the right money or the correct sacrificial animals with them. This is no way to worship God, a God who loves us, and who showed that love by delivering Israel from slavery in Egypt, and who will deliver humanity by His Son.

Jesus is angry when He sees this and drives out both the money-changers and the sellers of sacrificial animals. Those who sell sheep, oxen, and pigeons, represent the status quo, a sacrificial system where animals and their blood are used to honour God. Jesus has come to do away with this system by offering Himself, as the true sacrifice. When John the Baptist first sees Jesus in John’s Gospel, he says:

Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!.” (Jn 1:29)

Jesus is the true Lamb, foreshadowed in the story of Abraham and Isaac. He will be the true Passover sacrifice, as He will be crucified and die at the time when the Passover lambs are being slaughtered in the Temple. This is a sacrifice which will not need to be repeated, as Jesus will die once, for the sins of the whole world. 

The Jews ask Jesus, 

What sign do you show us for doing these things?” (Jn 2:18)

Jesus makes a cryptic reply:

Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (Jn 2:19)

His audience cannot understand what Jesus means. It took almost fifty years to build the Temple. The idea of destroying it and rebuilding it in three days is crazy. However, Jesus is talking about His own Death and Resurrection. His Body is the true Temple, the True Sacrifice, and He is both Priest and Victim. God will, in the person of His Son, bring about true worship. Likewise, the Temple is supposed to be a house of prayer for all the nations (Isaiah 56:7 & Mark 11:7), but the Court of the Gentiles has been filled with stalls for money-changers and animal-sellers. By clearing them out Jesus has made room for the old Temple to be used for prayer, while prophesying that a newer, greater Temple is here, in Him.

The Jews demand a sign, and Christ prophesies that if they destroy this temple then he will raise it up in three days. He looks to His death and resurrection to show them where true worship lies — in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus said, ‘I have come not to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfil them’ (Matthew 5:17). The Ten Commandments are not abolished by Christ, or set aside, but rather His proclamation of the Kingdom and Repentance show us that we still need to live the Law of Moses out in our lives: to show that we honour God and live our lives accordingly. In His cleansing of the Temple, Christ looks to the Cross and to the Resurrection, as the way that God will restore our relationship with Him. The Cross is a stumbling-block to Jews, who are obsessed with the worship of the Temple, and it is foolishness to Gentiles who cannot believe that God could display such weakness, such powerlessness. Instead the Cross, the supreme demonstration of God’s love for us, shocking and scandalous though it is, is a demonstration of the utter, complete, self-giving love of God. Here, love and mercy are offered to heal each and every one of us. Here we are restored. 

It is a shock to learn that God loves us enough to do this, to suffer dreadfully and die for us, to save us from our sins. We do not deserve this, and that is the point. Through Christ we are offered the opportunity to become something other and greater than we are. By putting away the ways of the world, of power and money, selfishness and sin, we can have new life in and through Him.

Lent is the opportunity for a spiritual spring clean. It is a time to ask God to drive out all that should not be there, and for preparing for the joy of Easter. In our baptism we died with Christ and were raised to new life in the Spirit. Let us prepare to live that life, holding fast to Our Lord and Saviour, clinging to the teachings of his body, the Church. Let us turn away from the folly of this world with all its hot air, and focus on the true and everlasting joy of heaven, which awaits us. Let us proclaim God’s love in our lives, so that others may believe, and that all may praise the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen.

El Greco: The Purification of the Temple

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.

Lent I (Year B)

The Bible can be read as an account of salvation history, beginning with the Creation of the Universe and culminating in our redemption in the Birth, Life, Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. As such it is a series of covenants, promises between God and humanity. These begin with God’s promise to Noah after the flood, our first reading this morning. God promises not to destroy humanity. This is welcome news in a time of both pandemic and heavy rainfall. The rainbow is given as a sign of God’s love and faithfulness. This sets the tone for all the other covenants in the Bible.

Our second reading this morning, from the First Letter of Peter, draws a link between Noah and the ark as a sign of salvation, and baptism, by which humanity is saved. It is a timely connection to make since Lent is traditionally a time for preparation for Baptism at Easter. The wider account of salvation history and the life of Jesus in particular become our life as Christians in our baptism: we share in them, they become part of us, and form both who and what we are. We enter into the drama of salvation. We die to sin, and are raised to new life in our baptism. Through our new life in Christ, we follow His example, and prepare for our annual celebration of Holy Week and Easter by going into the desert with Him for the forty days of Lent, a time of fasting, prayer, and charity.

This morning’s Gospel reading takes us from Jesus’ baptism by John to the beginning of Christ’s public ministry, via forty days in the desert. There is so much packed into a few verses of Scripture, that we need to take a moment to examine what is going on, and how it can speak to us over the next few weeks.

Jesus is baptised, by John, not because needs to repent of His Sins, as He is without sin. Instead, He does so out of humility to the will of God the Father, and to show us the way to salvation: through His Suffering, Crucifixion, and Rising again to New Life. In the account of the Baptism we see and hear the Three Persons of the Trinity, present, connected, and united in Love: the voice of God the Father and the dove representing the Spirit, descending on the Son. It is a glimpse of Divine Glory, which awaits us in Heaven, the end and purpose of salvation history.

Immediately afterwards the Spirit drives Jesus out into the desert, to be alone with God. He prays and fasts in order to prepare Himself for the public ministry of the Proclamation of the Good News, the Gospel. Deserts are not places one would choose to spend six weeks. They are places that can be unbearably hot by day yet freezing cold at night, wild places, lacking water, dangerous, and on the margins. 

The symbolism of the number forty is rich in the Bible. It signifies a time of trial or testing, and recalls significant biblical events. Firstly, In Genesis 7:12, earlier in the story of Noah, God floods the earth with water for 40 days. Secondly, in the story of the Exodus, the people of Israel spend forty years in the desert before they reach the Promised Land. Thirdly, Moses spends forty days with God on Mount Sinai before giving the people of Israel the law, the Ten Commandments. And fourthly, in 1Kings 19:8, Elijah fasts for forty days on the way to Mount Horeb, before talking to God and finding Elisha. All of these examples point to Christ and foreshadow His saving work.

While Jesus is in the desert, He is tempted by Satan. Unlike Matthew’s Gospel, which lists the temptations, Mark simply states that Jesus was tempted. Because Jesus does not sin, He is able to withstand temptation, His victory in the desert points to His great victory on the Cross. Christ then preaches to ‘the spirits in prison’ (1Peter 3: 19) saving humanity from sin and death, and restoring the hope of heaven. In the desert, Jesus is with wild animals, traditionally a sign of the Evil One. However, He is not harmed by them, as the creatures recognise their Creator, who is preparing to make a new Creation in Himself.

Jesus is ministered to by angels. He is the Beloved Son, in whom the Father is well-pleased, humble and obedient. After the trial of the temptations He is tired, and hungry. Temptation is a trying business, both physically and spiritually. This reminds us of the need for care, especially self-care, in our Lenten observances. Rest and nourishment are an important part of our spiritual and physical wellbeing, now more than ever. 

After forty days, Jesus returns to Galilee and starts to proclaim the Gospel, the Good News of the Kingdom of God:

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mk 1:15)

This message is the same as that of John the Baptist (cf. Acts 19:4): Repent, turn away from your sins, turn back to God, and Believe the Gospel, proclaimed by Jesus Christ. As Christians, nearly two thousand years later, we believe and proclaim that same message. Jesus calls us to turn away from sin, to turn back to God, to trust Him, and to know that He longs for our healing and reconciliation.

Jesus is able to resist Satan’s temptations because He is humble, because He has faith, and because he trusts in God. It certainly isn’t easy to do the same, but it is possible. It is far easier when we do this together, as a community, which is why Lent matters for all of us. These weeks are a chance to become more obedient, and through that obedience to discover true freedom in God. It is an obedience which is made manifest on the Cross — in laying down his life Jesus can give new life to the whole world. He isn’t being spectacular — he dies like a common criminal. He has no power, he does not try to be relevant, he is loving and obedient and that is good enough.

It was enough for him, and it should be for us. As Christians we have Scripture and the teaching of the Church, filled with His Spirit, to guide us. We can use this time of prayer and fasting to deepen our faith, our trust, our understanding, and our obedience. We can use this time to become more like Jesus, to be fed by His Word and by the Sacraments to become more humble, and more loving, living lives of service of God and each other. We can use this time to support each other, so that we might grow in holiness as the people of God, and to sing the praises of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. To whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now, and forever. Amen.

Tissot Jesus tempted in the Wilderness