Twenty Third Sunday of Year A

The emergency services were not well-developed in the Ancient World. However, cities did have a night watch who functioned as a combination of a police force and fire brigade. It is to such an office that God appoints the prophet Ezekiel in this morning’s first reading. He is to be a night watchman, someone who is vigilant against fire and crime, someone concerned with safety and people’s well-being. Prophets exist to speak warnings to God’s people, to show them where they are going wrong and to show them how to get back on the right path. The role of a prophet is to call sinners to repent from their evil ways. Through the prophet God calls His people back to Him. Though people are, then as now, wayward they are given a chance to repent, to return to the ways of human flourishing. The choice is a stark one: life or death. It is important, and a lot depends upon the choices we make. This is why the central proclamation of the Church is to call God’s people to repentance: to turn away from sin, and to turn back to God. 

This week’s second reading from Paul’s Letter to the Romans continues the Apostle’s advice on how Christians should live out their faith in their lives. Living a Christian life  is a difficult thing to do, and for two thousand years Christians have struggled to do it well. As followers of Christ we are called to love God and to love one another. Paul quotes from the Ten Commandments to make the point that the basis for the moral code found in the Mosaic Law is Love. If you love someone then you will not do such things to them. To love is to will the good of another, to make the right choice, one which leads to human flourishing.

Having shown the Church how to live, Paul widens his focus, to reinforce something we heard last week: 

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)

Paul can see the wider significance of what he is encouraging people to do. The Church knows that Jesus will come to judge the world, so Paul is encouraging Christians to live moral lives. The first Christians were surrounded by a decadent and morally corrupt society, justas we are today, and have been for two thousand years. Human nature is surprisingly consistent. We, however, are called to live differently. In our baptism, we put on Christ, and we were clothed with Him, sharing His Death, but we were also raised to new life in Him. We pray for the strength to live that new life, here and now! This is how we should prepare to meet our Redeemer, when He comes again.

How do we deal with problems as a church? This is an important and difficult question. This morning’s Gospel shows us how, in a number of clear simple steps. First we should approach the person in private. If they listen, and presumably admit their mistake and ask for forgiveness, or try to put things right, then that is an end to the matter. They are reconciled, and the matter is forgiven and forgotten. If this does not work, Paul instructs us to take one or two people, so that there are witnesses, and if this does not work, it becomes a matter for the church as a whole. If the person at fault still refuses to listen, they are excluded, not as a punishment, but so that they may have another opportunity to think things over, to admit that they are wrong, and to seek forgiveness and reconciliation. The point is not to cast people out, but to try and keep them in, and give them all possible opportunities to repent and be reconciled. In worldly terms this provision is generous. The church, which Christ founded, is meant to do things differently, as Jesus says:

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. (Jn 10:10)

God wants us all to have life in all its fulness, which includes healing and reconciliation. The world, however, often sees things in terms of punishment and retribution, whereas the church views things in terms of restoration. Our God is a God of justice and mercy. This is why Jesus goes to the Cross willingly, to bear our sins, and to heal our wounds. We cannot sort out the problem of our sin and woundedness on our own; if we could we would not need a Saviour. 

This is why Jesus reiterates His teaching about sin:

Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Mt 18: 18) 

This is a reality because of all that God has done for us in Christ. The Church exists to continue the redemptive work of God within the world. Through God’s forgiveness we can be truly reconciled and the healing, which can become a reality in our lives. Jesus says in the words which follow:

Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. (Mt 18:19)

Through God’s reconciliation we can make requests in prayer, and those requests will be answered. In addition, as a Christian community we can be encouraged by Christ’s presence in our midst:

For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them. (Mt 18:20)

Christ is among us, here and now! And we receive His Sacramental Presence in the Eucharist, His Very Flesh and Blood, so that He may transform us; so that we may have a foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet and be built up and strengthened in love, both here and now. We have the medicine for which our souls cry out. This is the healing which Christ accomplishes on the Cross, He longs to pour out His Love on us, so that we can know true freedom, true joy, and true love, in Him. So let us come to Him and let His Grace transform our lives, so that we, and all creation, may give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to who whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen. 

Lent III John 4: 5–42

 

God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us

Hyperichius said, ‘The tree of life is high, and humility climbs it.’

He also said, ‘Imitate the tax-collector, to prevent yourself being condemned with the Pharisee. Follow the gentleness of Moses, and hollow out the rocky places of your heart, so that you turn them into springs of water.’

 

People can be strange, stubborn infuriating creatures, and the picture given to us of the Israelites in Exodus should strike something of a chord. We can recognise something of ourselves in it: stubborn, wilful, and sinful. But lest we get too disheartened it is important to recognise that Moses strikes the rock at Horeb, as the Lord commands him, and out flows water. This water, like the parted water of the Red Sea prefigures Christ, the living water, our baptism, through which we enter the Church. Through it we are regenerate, born again to eternal life in Christ Jesus, our Lord and Saviour, whose side was pierced on Calvary, and whence flowed blood and water. This water speaks to us of the grace of God poured out upon us, his people, to heal us and restore us, to help us live his risen life.

So as we continue our Lenten pilgrimage, we can do so joyfully because God’s love has been poured into our hearts – what matters is what has been done to us, by God, out of love, so that we can be like him. He is the reconciliation which achieves what we cannot: restoring our relationship with God and each other, healing our wounds, and giving us eternal life in Him.

Picture the scene – it’s the middle of the day, the sun is blazing overhead, he’s been walking for hours, days even. Jesus is tired – as a man, a human being, he is no different from you or me – he ate and drank,  he was thirsty, and he was knackered. Mid-day is certainly no time to be drawing water from a well – it’s something you do first thing in the morning, as the sun is rising. What sort of a woman is drawing water at mid-day? Hardly a respectable one, but rather someone shunned, someone beyond the pale, cast out of polite society as an adulteress who is living in sin. Jesus asks the woman for a drink – he’s defying a social convention – he’s breaking the rules. She’s really surprised – Jews are supposed to treat Samaritans as outcasts, they’re beyond the pale: they’re treated something like the Roma in Eastern Europe – outcasts, second class, scum, to be despised and looked down upon. And yet Jesus asks her for water, he initiates the conversation and the encounter, with an outsider, to bring her in.

Jesus offers her living water, so that she may never be thirsty again. The woman desires it, so that she will never be thirsty again, or have to come to the well to draw water, she’s fed up of the work, and fed up of being an outcast, and having to do it at antisocial hours when the community can see who and what she is. Jesus knows who and what she is – he recognises her irregular lifestyle. He also sees her need of God – her need for the water of grace to restore her soul, and inspire her to tell people the Good News. Her testimony is powerful because she has experienced God’s love as a living reality and she simply has to tell people about it. She brings them to Christ so that they can be nourished, so that they too can experience the grace of God.

People are interested in who and what Jesus is, what he’s got to say, and they believe and trust in Him as the Messiah the Anointed of God, as the Saviour of the World, a title recently taken up by the Roman Emperor, big claims to make, and dangerous ones, which along with His healings will soon lead to His condemnation and death. In plenty of parts of the world the proclamation of the Good News still leads to imprisonment, torture and death, even today. And yet as Christians we are called to bear witness regardless of the personal cost, so that the world may believe. Here in the West we have as a church become comfortable, we forget about persecution, or view it at a safe distance. We’re not involved, it doesn’t matter that much to us. Are we far from the grace of our baptism, have we not encountered Jesus in Word and Sacrament? Are we too afraid of the World? The world which Christ overcomes on the Cross.

To live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often. If we are changing into Jesus Christ, then we’re on the right track. If we listen to his word; if we talk to him in prayer and let him talk to us; if we’re fed by Him in the Eucharist, by Christ both priest and victim, to become what He is – God; if we’re forgiven by Him, through making confession of our sins, not only do we come to understand Jesus, we become like him, we come to share in his divine nature, you, me, all of humanity ideally. We, the People of God, the new humanity, enter into the divine fullness of life, we have a foretaste of the heavenly banquet.

Lent should be something of a spiritual spring clean, asking God to drive out all that should not be there, preparing for the joy of Easter, to live the Risen Life, filled with God’s grace. 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, the hot air, and focus on the true and everlasting joy of heaven, which awaits us, who are bought by his blood, washed in it, fed with it. So that we too 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…

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Guercino Jesus and the Samaritan Woman, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, 1640-1