Taking up our cross for Jesus does not necessarily mean that we have to endure pain and suffering as Christians, although it might. The Christians of Syria never thought they would be driven from their homes, and some would be killed or die of exposure in the process, but it did. Hopefully we’ll not have to face such things, but all Christians do have to face the fact that sometimes, what we say and what we believe will lead to opposition and mockery; and that’s certainly the case here in Britain at the moment where being an atheist is the trendy thing to be, and believers are mocked as stupid or even dangerous! No wonder many Christians try to go to Mass without anyone noticing, and prefer not to let friends, or people at work, know that they are believers.

Our Readings today are therefore a great challenge to us aren’t they? Jesus makes clear in our Gospel (Matt 16:21-27) that if we follow him we have to take up our cross, and he’s pretty tough on those who are not happy about this, saying to St Peter “Get behind me Satan”, and to us “Anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it.” Jeremiah in our 1st Reading (Jeremiah20:7-9) would love to keep quiet about God’s message, but even though it makes him “a daily laughing stock” – that speaking God’s word has meant for him “Insult, derision, all day long”, he knows he has to speak. St Paul (Romans 12:1-2) speaks more about making sure our behaviour is Christian, but he too knows how difficult this can be, when he says “Do not model yourselves on the world around you.” Yes, it is hard to be different from those around us isn’t it? But that is what Jesus means us to do when he tells us to take up our cross!

Each of you has to work out how best you can do this. There is no point blurting out things that simply annoy people, because our aim must be to try and share with people how good it is to follow the way of Jesus, and we cannot do that if we speak in extreme ways that stop people listening. I know this as a priest because I am also told to behave in such a way that people will think well of me. I must be “above reproach, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. Phew! How to challenge the world and yet be acceptable as a teacher? A very tall order indeed, and in a way it is the same for all of you.

I’ve set myself a particular task in the last few years by trying to teach and proclaim the faith over the Internet. This is partly because I discovered from when I worked with young people at University how much trivia, as well as how much that is plain wrong, is available there. I realized that some of us need to put good stuff on the Web to counteract all the rubbish. Anyway I thought I would finish by sharing with you how I try to steer this course there on the Internet – the same course I urge on you -between being acceptable – so people read or listen to what we say, and yet challenging – so the message of the Gospel is not diluted.

Obviously my Homily goes on there each week. Quite a few priests do this nowadays, as much for their own people to read, as for the wider world. But some of us also use Twitter where in 148 letters we try to say something good and relevant to the Internet world each. What I do is to first look at the readings for the Mass of the day and try to see what kind of message might be drawn from them that might make sense to a wider audience.

Given what I have been saying, perhaps I am not tough enough, but here are some recent examples. On August 23rd the feast of the martyr John Wall I wrote: John Wall was a priest in England for 22 years and then anti-Catholic hysteria led to his execution. We must not treat Muslims like this. Last Tuesday when the Gospel was Jesus attacking the Pharisees, I wrote So easy to worry about our surface looks & what we are wearing & forget that it’s what’s inside that really matters. It shows in our eyes. Sometimes however my Tweet comes from something that has happened or is happening, so because I was going to have a family lunch last Wednesday I wrote : To Gloucester today for a family lunch! Need to work at keeping in personal touch with family & friends & not just relying on the Internet. And sometimes I try to be amusing, as on my birthday when I wrote : The funny shaped carrot and the ugly creepy crawly are all loved by God. There is hope for me yet as I approach my birthday.

Back to the Bible however to end. On Thursday when Jesus said “Stay awake”, I wrote Keep awake today. There is always something to do for someone even if it is only a smile and a friendly greeting. Good morning!

Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- Origen, a writer of the Early Church had a watchword, ‘Be transformed’, this is not really expressed by our Jerusalem Bible’s tepid “Let your behaviour change.” The word St Paul uses in our reading from Romans, (12:1-2) in trying to express the difference made by becoming a follower of Christ, is in Greek, the word metamorphosis, suggestive of a complete change in our nature, just as happens to the caterpillar when it turns into a butterfly. This change is not therefore simply the result of our moral efforts, laudable as they obviously are, but more about what God does in us when we recognise the extent of his love and sacrifice for us in Christ. In other words, it is not just about us ‘cleaning up our act’, but about embracing the world from God’s perspective, being taken into God’s view of his creation. This, as we shall see from our other readings may require a considerable shift in thinking and action, and its consequences may even be traumatic.

For Jeremiah, (Jer 20:7-9) the recognition that God was calling him to be his prophet required great suffering and persecution from the very people to whom he had to announce God’s very uncomfortable message. Jeremiah was clearly torn between his wish to fit in and be a member of the society in which he lived, and the burning passion he had to fulfil God’s word for the nation. Part of his call as a prophet demanded that he reject the ordinary ways of his people; he was called to set aside the idea of marriage, the norm for his race; to give up the possibility of family life; friends and possessions in order to do God’s work at a time when the people were turning to the pagan gods, amalgamating with the other tribes and races round about. Jeremiah experienced a deep conviction that it was his call from God to criticise his nation’s apostasy and return that nation to its God. As events turned out, it got him into deep trouble with those in power. “You have seduced me, Lord, and I have let myself be seduced….I am a daily laughing stock, everybody’s butt.” He had thought that in response to his words of truth, and his prediction of Babylonian invasion and deportation, the people would turn back to God. Instead, quite the opposite happened and Jeremiah was thrown down a well and in danger of death. Yet Jeremiah could of course have turned his back on God’s call at any time. “I used to say, ‘I will not think about him, I will not speak in his name anymore.’ Then there seemed to be a fire burning in my heart….I could not bear it.” To be right with himself, to maintain his true integrity, Jeremiah knew he had to accept all that God gave him to do, despite its terrible personal consequences.

We seem to have a similar situation with Jesus in our gospel, (Matthew 16:21-27). This follows on from last weeks acclaim by Peter that Jesus was the longed for Christ, the one the nation has been waiting for all its life, and who would transform its entire status in relation to the world. Quite clearly Jesus had come to see that his nation’s hopes for the coming of the Messiah were radically wrong. They were hoping for a warrior leader who would raise them from being a frequently conquered and oppressed nation, to that of the super power above all powers, whose rule would bring world domination. Jesus’ relationship with God the Father was so radically different that he had come to realise that this was not the way God chose to reveal himself to humanity. God’s way rather was one of utter self-giving and weakness, Jesus’ mission was to reveal the saving grace of God to people in healing and wholeness, not in power.

God’s will for us is that we learn to live with the love and grace and self-offering which is the way of Father and Son, and that any notions of domination over others are totally anathema to God the Creator. Jesus probably realised early on in his ministry that his very different understanding of what it meant to be ‘God with us’ would result in his being killed. When he told the disciples this Peter was horrified, insisting that this must not happen to Jesus. This provokes Our Lord’s savage attack on Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle in my path.” The Greek uses Matthew’s favourite word; “scandal”; something which rips society apart; destroying the very fabric of God’s will and intention for us. Small wonder then that Jesus rejects Peter’s way of thinking so resoundingly. Clearly, for Jesus to be true to himself, he had to follow the course which he had set for himself in accordance with his understanding of the Father’s will. He could not in integrity do any other. It was not wise, it was not sensible or clever, and Jesus knew all this. Such is the folly of God. He deliberately turned his back on the ways of the world – on what had been offered him and which he knew would bring him popular appeal, wealth and acclaim, to do what he knew was right, and that way inevitably led to the cross.

The Christian way is the way of God’s foolishness and we, as Paul realised, are those who have made, and are continually called to make, this radical choice for God – or against him. We may think that we are not called to be martyrs and indeed, most of us will not have to make that choice; but we have chosen a way which is not that of the world and our constant battle with ourselves will be to maintain that personal integrity as we follow the Lord. Will we respond to that burning fire within us or turn our backs on it as did the people of Jeremiah’s time and risk exile and death? Like the disciples, like Peter the prince of the apostles, we may find that we may be dragged unwillingly, by forces we had scarcely dreamed of such as the resurrection, into finally making the right choice.

 

An Ice Cream Homily

August 24, 2014

When I  see a footballer or an athlete make the sign of the cross, I am always very pleased indeed, as I hope you are. Pleased, because it is a great shame that most of us Catholics are not very brave at doing such things in public. Signing ourselves with the sign of the cross is the best way of all of reminding ourselves in all sorts of situations that we put our trust in God. The sportsman or woman who does this uses it, sometimes as a prayer to help them do well, and sometimes in thanksgiving after they have scored that goal or won that race; but there are lots of other situations in our ordinary lives where we can do this, and realize God is with us.

The most obvious one, that links with what I was saying about Muslims last week, is to make the sign when we visit a grave or hear of a death, and that extends to making the sign if a hearse passes us if we are driving, our out in the street. Last week I said how impressed I was that a young Muslim man I was with in Pakistan knew instantly what to do in such a situation. He opened his hands and prayed, and we Catholics cannot do less, because when we make the sign of the cross we are linking ourselves, and the person who has died, with the power of God made present for us in Jesus Christ our Lord – the power that through his Cross and Resurrection defeats death and gives eternal life.

That power is described in our Gospel today (Matt 16:13-20) when Jesus says “I will give you (that’s Peter and thus us the Church) the keys of the kingdom of heaven;… whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven”. Wonderful words about how much God loves us and forgives us. I said it was given to us, because although Peter and his successors, the Bishops and Priests of the Church, have a special calling to do this in the Confessional – making the sign as we are told that we are absolved from all our sins; it is also something that every one of you is called to do as well, to proclaim to the world the love and forgiveness of God, for the dead and for the living. And one of the simplest ways you can do this is by making the sign of the cross.

Another obvious place to do this is just before we eat a meal. It is not too difficult to pray at home as we sit down at the table but what about when we  eat out, surrounded by other people. Are you brave enough then? Or, like me, do you either conveniently forget to pray, or make the sign of the cross very quickly when you hope no-one is looking?

I have to confess further that if I am out and buy an Ice-Cream I do not normally thank God for it before I eat it, so I am going to have to try to do that now, rather than tell you to do it. Maybe this is too trivial for the sign of the cross – Hold the Ice-Cream in your left hand and make the sign of the cross before it starts melting! – but at least a quiet thank you to God might be a good idea?

On a  much more serious note, I do make the sign of the cross whenever an ambulance or fire engine passes by. I think of the people who are desperately in need of help, and make the sign of the cross, both as a prayer that they will be helped, and also as a prayer of thanksgiving for the ambulance or fire engine and its crew that do such a marvelous job for us. I am always moved, aren’t you, at the way cars and lorries make way when they see the blue light flashing and hear the nee-naw asking for a way through. There, for a moment, we see the goodness of our fellow humans helping one another. God at work in us every day.

So my message today is to say that we should all be much braver at showing our faith in public in this way. Muslims say words, words from the Koran, when they pray because they believe that God is specially present in all Koranic words. But we Christians believe that God is especially present not in words – however important they are – but in a person – Jesus. So don’t think of the cross just as a thing you do whilst you say words – such as “In the Name of the Father etc”. No, the sign used by a faithful Christian links us with Jesus without the need of words, and thus is a powerful prayer in itself.

Perhaps you are saying to yourself “But I am not a good enough Christian to do this kind of thing” or “My faith is too shaky”. Well I am sorry but that is not a good excuse if you look at the person who was first given this power – St Peter. He was not always very good. He certainly had a very muddled faith and he let down Jesus and denied him at the crucial moment. God knew this. It was no good searching for an absolutely brave person with a perfectly worked out faith, because such people do not exist. God chose Peter, and he has also chosen us, and so we must just get on with it.

Frances writes on this Sunday’s Readings :- Sometimes one wonders at the selection made by the compilers of our lectionary. Are they in fact a deeply loyal lot, or rather remarkably subversive – or both? Today’s readings seem to suggest quite a scepticism against those placed in authority, and leave the message that they, and we placed under them, might want to sit in that position only with considerable caution.

The 1St Isaiah of our Old Testament reading, (Isa 22:19-23) wrote in the mid 8th century BC, at the time when Israel, the Northern kingdom was in turmoil, invaded both by the Syrian kingdoms close by, and later by the Assyrians. You can read more of this saga in 2 Kings 17-19 which speaks of a palace power struggle and the overthrow of Shebna, and of his replacement by Eliakim. It appears as though the latter was favoured by Isaiah at the time, who approved of the great authority given to Eliakim. The words of his institution were I suspect part of a formal ceremony of institution at the court of Ahaz and his successor Hezekiah. What we have to remember however is that the major prophets like Isaiah were no friend of the court, indeed were often persecuted by it, and whilst reflecting on the powers of ‘church and state’ of the time, they may in hindsight have appreciated that things were not what they seemed at all.

Indeed, neither the diffident young king Ahaz who reigned in Jerusalem, nor Hezekiah his successor, were ultimately well served by their officials. Hezekiah fatally went into alliance with Egypt and rebelled against Assyrian vassalage with disastrous consequences. Hindsight can be a remarkable and advantageous tool, warning us against certainty and complacency, and even the smugness that our decisions are the right ones. Isaiah’s message is one that we should be faithful to God and trust him, rather than the machinations of those in authority.

In our Gospel, (Matthew 16:13-20) a similar situation occurs. Peter has acclaimed Jesus as the Christ, and in return Our Lord has given him authority over the earthly kingdom, and in remarkably similar language to our passage from Isaiah. Whilst other Gospels record Peter’s acclaim of Christ, the others do not record this giving of special privilege to Peter with its quote from Isaiah 22, and in view of the subsequent severe put-down of Peter by Jesus one wonders at precisely what its role here amounts too. Its context in Matthew’s Gospel, during passage after passage of healing signs, amidst ever-increasing hostility from the Jewish authorities and specialists in the law, should serve at very least to suggest that the Early Church felt considerable unease over too tight a control from its own leaders. Peter, as we know, is presented as one of the leaders of the early church but one with clay feet too, and I suspect Matthew’s promotion of his champion – presumably over other candidates – was not without considerable provisos in view of the known history of all the apostles.

Perhaps the point being made here is something akin to ‘put not your trust in princes’, as we learn gradually of Peter’s  objections to Jesus’ foretelling of his betrayal and death, and face the Gospel accounts of how all the apostles in some shape or form let Jesus down at the point of crisis. This is not to argue for a complete rejection of any hierarchy – man-made structures and organisation- of course they were and are absolutely necessary; but as recent events in the Church have shown in many different ways, they are built and conducted amidst the frailty of the human condition. People can and do make bad choices. Even some very well intentioned men can totally misjudge the situation just as poor Hezekiah did, with disastrous consequences for his nation. Some of the choices made by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in recent times were also misjudged, though no doubt no one at the time thought their consequences would be so terrible, as we have learnt from the child abuse scandals.

This is where St Paul seems so wise; not that he rejected structure and organisation; far from it, as we see in the structures he laid down for ministry on his mission. However, just as he bewails his own unsteadiness in Romans 7:15, he knows he can place all his reliance on God, as we see in today’s 2nd Reading. (Rom 11:33-36). “How rich are the depths of God- how deep his wisdom and knowledge…..Who could ever know the mind of the Lord? Who could ever be his counsellor? Who could ever give him anything or lend him anything?” The Greek makes rather clearer that God is in no relationship of dependence upon us and owes us nothing; the relationship is entirely the other way round and we remain what we always are, totally his dependents. It can only be when we have this degree of trust in God, placing ourselves entirely in his grace and care, that we can live as we are truly meant to, whether as leaders of the Church or laity. And when we are willing to do this we can ride out the storms caused by the miscalculations and even deceptions of our leaders, even in the church. After all, we worship God, not the reigning Pope or our local priest, and in the end their failings as their successes are not the thing that really matters. God must be all in all.

Learning from Muslims

August 17, 2014

When I worked in East Oxford, and took weekly Assemblies in the local school I found to my surprise that one third of the children there were Pakistani Muslims. It was a steep learning curve to work out how best to talk to people whose background was so different from anything I had ever met before. Later, I was invited by one of the parents to go out to Pakistan and stay in his house. My first reaction was horror, not just because I am terribly English and am stupidly a little suspicious of foreigners, but because I am obsessive about clean toilets. What would they be like in Pakistan? My Pakistani friend assured me they had Western toilets in his house, and so I went!

Our Readings this week are all about foreigners. In our Gospel (Matt 15:21-28) Jesus knows that his main mission is to his own people, and is therefore very sharp with this foreign woman begging for help. Her witty reply shows him her great faith, and he gives her what she asks for. In another place (Luke 4:25-27) Jesus challenges his own people who think God’s mercy and love isn’t available to foreigners, and later he drives out the money changers from the Temple precisely because their presence is stopping foreigners from coming to pray, and he quotes today’s 1st reading to justify what he is doing (Isaiah 56:1-7) “My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.”

One of the things I learnt, even before I went to Pakistan, was that the faith of Muslims often puts us Christians to shame, especially their sense of the presence of God, and their regular practice of prayer, often in public. Most Muslims are quiet prayerful people who are absolutely ashamed of those few extremists who give their faith a bad name, and we would do well to remember that. Indeed the Catholic Church teaches that Muslims, along with Jews, are the closest to us Christians because, to quote the Catechism, “They profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God.” (Catech Para 841)

I recently met Adan, now a taxi-driver, who was one of those little children in Pakistan with me. I was reminded how his father Abdul took me to visit one of the great Moghul tombs near Lahore (a bit like the Taj Mahal) and how, when we reached the actual tomb in the centre of this great edifice, this very ordinary young man, opened his hands to pray. How sad it is that we modern Western Christians are losing that practice of prayer. You would never be led in prayer by the aircrew of a Western airline, but when I flew on a Pakistani plane that is exactly what happened. The great Muslim prayer putting us all into the hands of God was recited over the Intercom by one of the crew as we took off. Being a nervous traveller I was much comforted & said my Christian prayers as they said their Muslim ones.

Of course there were things about Pakistan I didn’t like. I was staying in a rich man’s house but I saw plenty of poverty. The Muslim tends to be very fatalistic. Like some Christians they can easily assume that anything that happens is “God’s will” and so do nothing. My host in Pakistan said this once when we were walking beside a drain that was clearly an open sewer. He got a firm lecture from me about how 19thC British cities were once like that, and that Pakistan could change too!

Being the only white person there, was also a lesson in being a foreigner myself, and feeling what it’s like to be stared at. This is surely a very Christian thing to do, to feel what it is like to be different. The first followers of Jesus were all so very different from those around them, that they were often attacked. Yet they were proud to be so, whilst we modern Western Christians, find it very hard to do or say things that mark us as different from the world in which we now live. We could do well to learn from Muslims that being different, being faithful to God, even in public, is a good thing to do.

There is so much more I could say, but I hope I have got my point across. We Christians are called to be part of an international family in which everyone who is a foreigner to us is a brother or sister in our relationship with God. God can and does work in all sorts of people that we may find different or strange. In getting to know them better, we will find some things that are good, that we might imitate. My example was prayer and faithfulness to God. We will also find things that we don’t agree with. My example was a wrong understanding of God’s will.

There are some people who say that all ways to God are the same. I certainly don’t want you to think that! What is wrong is thinking that our way is always right, that there is nothing we can learn from others, that there is nothing good, nothing of God, in other faiths. God is greater than that!

After the Mass for the Feast of the Assumption this year I had a request to explain the 1st Reading from the Book of the Apocalypse (The Book of Revelation) so I have written a brief explanation as follows:-

THE BOOK OF THE APOCALYPSE

This Book is John the Divine’s severe pep talk to the Churches in Western Turkey in the 80’s and 90’s AD as you will see from the Chapters 2 to 4. Clearly there were Christians in many of these small town-states, and some of them, as we see, were losing their enthusiasm for Christianity because of hostility from the majority pagan communities. Throughout John’s letter he is dealing with this issue of Churches under threat. His ultimate belief is that Christianity will triumph. Towards the end of the book, from Chapter 12 to Chapter 19, he sets up two conflicting powers. One is the woman of Chapter 12 who represents the Christian Church in opposition to the Great Whore of Babylon and many dragons who represent the Enemy, the powers of evil. Despite the apparent power of the Dragons, John makes it clear that Christianity ultimately triumphs with his pictures of a vast earthquake – material culled most likely from accounts of the destruction of the cities around Vesuvius of AD79. He also borrows extensively from the Old Testament especially Isaiah 23 and Ezekiel 27 who have great dirges written following the destruction of Tyre by the Assyrians in the 8thC BC.

The Passage about the Woman in Chapter 12 which is used as the First reading on the Feast of the Assumption is actually not specifically about Mary and Jesus. It is therefore in my opinion not a very appropriate passage for this Feast. It depends how you see Mary, of course, for if you think of her not as the mother of baby Jesus but as representing the Church, as Mother of the Church then it makes more sense, because it is about the Church’s ( that is our) future in God despite many troubles. With John you should not try to make exact analogies because he creates a kaleidoscope of images to get over what he is trying to say which a modern factually-obsessed mind finds difficult to cope with. So just because there is a baby does not mean he is talking specifically about Jesus, because he probably is also referring to us the helpless and persecuted Christians and so on.

To talk further on this:-

Contact Father Martin Flatman , Priest at St Peter’s, Abbey Street, Eynsham OX29 4HR

Learning from foreigners

August 15, 2014

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- Foreigners keep insistently popping up in all three of our readings today, and we would do well to listen to the message that they teach us. People are always suspicious of foreigners and wary of contact with them. We like to think that we know best and most definitely that our appreciation of our God is the right one; that ‘God is on our side’ against others. It comes as something of a shock then to discover that this is not the biblical view at all, indeed, that the founding father of Israel, Abraham was a pagan, worshipping his ancestral gods until he discovered the one god on his journeys. Seemingly, he made that discovery via contact with other peoples who had met with the One God earlier! All the major prophets of Israel will in fact speak of the importance of foreigners in bringing the Jewish people back to the one true God – and they do it time after time!

 

Our reading from third Isaiah, (56:1, 6-7) is precisely about one such moment of discovery, or perhaps recovery, as those exiled in Babylon came to a renewal of their faith in Yahweh precisely through that experience of exile and their deprivation of their temple and their land. Even more importantly, they were able to communicate that faith to pagans, as our reading indicates, and it is they who will thus became guardians of the faith. When the people were eventually allowed to return to Palestine after about 100 years in exile, some of these ‘Jews’ remained in Babylon, and became the compilers of the great Babylonian Talmud; the teachings about the faith. Foreigners, it appears can know more about the truths of the faith than we ‘home-grown’ believers do, and can teach us a thing or two!

 

In our Gospel, (Matthew 15:21-28) we find Jesus tussling with precisely this issue of where his ministry should be focussed, and to whom it should be directed. He is in fact incredibly rude and dismissive of the Canaanite woman, referring to her and her people as dogs. Dogs in this society were not the cuddly pets of our imaginings, definitely not ‘man’s best friend’, but often rabid and diseased animals which scrounged off the populous and cleared the streets of vermin and discarded rotting edibles which brought rats and vermin. Yet it is this woman, with her rapid fire repartee who plays a vital part in Jesus’ own discovery of his true mission.

 

We have to cast our minds back over hundreds of years to begin to appreciate the significance of the Phoenicians – the ‘Canaanite’ inhabitants of Tyre and Sidon. Quite unlike the land acquisitive Israelites, the Phoenicians were traders over the Mediterranean from the Bronze Age, from as early at least as 1200 BC. Trade – barter – was their thing, and there is not much indication of conquest and land seizure on their part. They traded metals and pottery from as far afield as Spain at the other end of the Mediterranean. They would survive conquest by the Assyrians, by Alexander the Great and the Romans. Carthage, their great western entrepot Port, would survive to challenge the power of Rome. Clearly during those immense journeys, they met and worshipped many gods. How come then that our Canaanite woman approached Jesus for healing for her daughter? Clearly, her need drove her to a broader outreach and in that move she was able to stand as a signpost for the Lord himself, indicating the outward thrust his saving mission would eventually take to include the pagans of the entire world.

 

This foreign woman, someone unclean to the Jews, a worshipper of many gods of storm and fertility with all the dubious practices her beliefs required, was able to cross the boundaries of fear and prejudice in her need. It was her vision that this man, and he alone, could cure her sick daughter. Through her divinely given perception she was thus able to give Jesus the insight to unite the faith of his ancestors into an international outreach for the salvation of all, irrespective of whether they were Jew or pagan.

 

It is left to Paul, (Romans 11:13-15. 29-32) to continue this work of reconciliation as apostle to the Gentiles. Paul lived in a period of increasingly acrimonious relationships between Christians and Jews and the Church was, by the time he wrote his letter to the Romans, increasingly made up of pagan converts. This situation would be rendered even more difficult by the Jewish Revolt in 66-70.  Paul’s own early ministry, as we know, had been dogged by hostility from Jews as well as hard line Jewish Christians who insisted that full conversion to Judaism was the prerequisite to belief in Jesus. Paul fought vigorously against their efforts, insisting that the faith of Jesus did not require acceptance of the Jewish law and practices. Romans 9-11 was his latest work; in which, rather than display hostility to the Jews, he gives a carefully reasoned account of relations between Jews and Gentile converts, and in the section we have here he labours to draw out the intimate and vital relationship existing between the two. It is he says all part of God’s plan whereby since the Jews initially rejected Jesus, God turned to the pagans, and thereby incited the envy of the Jews. This conflict he therefore sees as healthy, a learning encounter in which his beloved people will ultimately be united by faith in Christ. It will be a sharing relationship, a two-way sharing between Gentile and Jew as the rich heritage of Jewry will be made available to the Gentile world, and the Jewish world will learn from pagan converts the final resolution of their salvation in Christ the Son of God; the One unique Son of God the Father – along with the entire cosmos which is being drawn into intimate and perfect communion with Him.

 

Clearly xenophobia, a fear of foreigners, has no place in our Christian life, no place in our exercise of our humanity and, far from mistrusting the stranger and the foreigner, we must listen to them; for it is very likely they will teach us much of vital importance about our own faith, and serve to deepen and enrich it.

Christians and Jews

August 10, 2014

It’s amazing to me that the persecution of Jews by Christians has such a long history. Amazing, because you only have to read 3 Chapters in St Paul’s Letter to the Romans (It begins with our 2nd Reading today : Romans 9:1-5) to see that such prejudice is absolutely not the Christian way. Paul is terribly sad that most of his fellow Jews have not become followers of Jesus, he says “my mental anguish is endless”, but his sadness does not turn into anger or hatred. He goes on instead to say very clearly indeed: (10: 12) “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all” and then (11:1-2) “Has God rejected his people? By no means.” And finally he tells his fellow Christians not to think they are superior. He says (11:20 & 28) So do not become proud, but stand in awe….. they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers.”

I suspect that hatred of the Jews comes from St John’s Gospel where he uses the term “Jews” to mean the Jewish leaders not all the Jews. Misread, it reinforced the growing antagonism between the two groups as they moved apart. Yes, we humans always tend to be suspicious or fearful of people who are different from us, and here is a case in point. But here also is another area of life where we Christians today have to put into practice the truth that God loves all men and women of every race and creed, not just us. For Christians, the Jewish people, following St Paul, must always therefore be especially loved and cherished. For they are the people whose belief, way back before Christ, laid the foundation on which our belief is based.

Jesus could not have existed had he not had a Jewish family to be born into. His whole life and mission was based on the ancient Jewish texts which we now call the Old Testament. The songs he sang were the Psalms we sing or say at every Mass, and almost all that we know about him is written by his fellow Jews – the texts which make up the rest of our Bible – the New Testament as it is called.

I think I should make clear however that loving the Jews, for their great gift to us and to the world, does not mean loving the State of Israel. However we do need to remember, with sorrow, that the persecution of the Jews over many centuries, culminating in the attempt to exterminate them by the Nazis, is what has created the modern Israeli State. How sad that they think that the only way they can survive is by returning the brutality they experienced in the past.

But to return to the Jews as a whole. The first Christians were all Jews. Christianity was just one sect of Judaism. Christians believed then as now that the Jewish faith in God had come to its fulfillment in Jesus, and they expected their fellow Jews to realize this. However their vision was of a Judaism that was no longer confined to one race, but was now available to every single human being. They also came to believe that non-Jews who became Christians did not have to keep all the elaborate Jewish rituals and practices. It was this that most Jews would not accept. Some simply believed that only Jews could be Jews, whilst others believed that if someone wanted to become a Jew, even a Christian Jew, then they had to become a Jew in every sense. Anything else was for them not true Judaism. Thus Judaism and Christianity parted company, and sadly became enemies of one another.

What can be confusing for people is that we Christians, because of this history, often speak of ourselves as the new Israel. We sometimes describe the Church as Jerusalem, and, if we are English, sing of building Jerusalem “In England’s green and pleasant land.” We use the Jewish Old Testament, as Jesus did, as the foundation of our faith. How do we know that God is met in quietness, like a gentle breeze, in the still small voice of calm, rather than storms or earthquakes, except from the Jewish history of the prophet Elijah – our 1st Reading today? (1 Kings 19:9-13) How do we know that God reaches out to save us when we are stupid or frightened or sinful, as Jesus did for Peter in our Gospel today (Matt 14:22-33) except from countless stories from the Jewish Old Testament?

The history of the Jewish people before Jesus is indeed a history of a people that constantly failed in one way or another, and yet realized through their prophets and teachers, that God was a God of love who still loved them and willed them on to a better future. Their story is therefore a prefiguring, as we call it, of the new Israel, the Church, us : also a people who fail in many ways and yet God still loves and calls to glory.

This understanding of a God of love who would put down those who were proud and haughty, and lift up the humble and lowly, was deep in the heart of many Jewish people at the time of Jesus, but particularly deep in the heart of one very special young Jewish woman. Perhaps you can guess her name?  Mary. All through Jewish history we have stories of Jewish women who in the midst of troubles and sorrows acted with courage and faith in the service of God. These were clearly the stories that inspired Our Lady as she sat Jesus on her knee, and told him about this wonderful history and sang him the songs of his people. It’s always worth remembering this, when we honour Our Lady, as we will be doing this Friday (The Feast of the Assumption). When we honour her, we do not just honour all women, but most especially all Jewish women who nurtured the faith that now sustains and supports us.                           Holy Mary. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!  Pray for us

Frances wries on this weekend Readings :- I want to focus on why St Paul is so distressed, (Romans 9:1-5) over the loss of the Jews to belief in Jesus Christ as the Messiah, or as he has just put it in Romans 8, the one, sole being who can unite us indelibly to the love of God. It is Christ, says Paul, who is superior to all powers, both earthly, demonic and above the heavens; he is greater than any earthly ruler or state, the only one party to ‘the mind of God’.

 

Today, it is fashionable, even charitable to other faiths to suggest that Christianity is but one manifestation of God, and to suggest that this is the only way to brush along with other peoples of faith because the alternative lies in fanaticism and all its brutal consequences, as we are seeing in the Middle East. It is therefore difficult for us to grasp the true significance of precisely what Paul was meaning. It is however well worthwhile our making the attempt; for what he believed was on offer, nay absolutely fundamental to humanity, is and remains critical to the survival of the human race.

 

Romans 8 is the clearest and most succinct statement of Paul’s belief in the uniqueness of Our Lord Jesus Christ. It is well worth reading this chapter of his mature thinking and his fine theological development – so very early in the history of our faith – on what Christianity teaches.  What we have to understand is that Paul was not into one-upmanship, point scoring against the Jews. Paul was, and remained fundamentally, a Jew throughout his life; and our passage from Romans 9 reflects his despair and his deep personal sense of failure to convict his fellow countrymen and devout believers in God that Jesus Christ was the final and unique fulfilment of all God’s promises to the Jews ; that Jesus was and is what Judaism was and always had been looking for, God’s revelation of himself.

 

In this revealing, as we know, the Father does not merely show himself to his people, as indeed he did to Elijah the prophet on Mt Horeb, (1 Kings 19:9, 11-13) but he becomes one of us. With Elijah, when the prophet was fleeing from the wrath of Jezebel and thought he was near to death, the important clue for the future of God’s relations with humanity lay, not in the noise and power with which Elijah had to contend – the terrible storm – the earthquake and the fire – all of which most probably is a reference to the storm god of Canaan and the early peoples of Syria and Turkey – not least Jezebel’s rage and power. No, the manner in which Elijah met God was in the words of the Jerusalem Bible ‘a gentle breeze’, or even more surprisingly, in the Revised Standard Version, ‘in silence’. That quietness and unobtrusiveness is surely God’s way in the Incarnation, where he actually becomes human in the womb of the insignificant Mary and is born at Bethlehem. It is also a mark of Jesus’ career, in which he responds to the needs of the outcast and the sick and does not seek the contact of the rich and powerful. Jesus, as we see in the Gospels, comes as one of us to be with us; and, living alongside us, God in Christ enters fully into our human lot.

 

The point is that in doing so God in Christ is not simply some awfully decent bloke who shares himself with humanity; he truly is God, one of the Trinity, taking us into God’s life eternally. God in Trinity is an eternal relationship of love out-poured between each of its three members, Father, Son and Spirit, whose sole delight is in giving to the other members of the triad and receiving love from them in return. And when, as Paul puts it in Romans 8:17, we become children of God through his grace in Jesus, we also become heirs, sharers in the life of the Trinity itself through their gift. Now we see the reason for Paul’s anguish, as he realises that his fellow Jews, who reject Jesus, have turned their backs on their true heritage and on God’s intention for them, and have stuck to their beliefs in the power of the Temple and the Torah – the Jewish Law. There they were, so well equipped to understand God’s quiet way in the incarnation, and yet it was at this fatal moment that they baulked and, as Paul sees it, threw away their birth-right; and with that terrible omission brought down on themselves generations of retribution and death.

 

Our Gospel, (Matthew 14:22-33) reflects something of those earlier scenes. John the Baptist has been executed by Herod – the man of power – and Jesus goes off into the hills alone to pray, to converse in the silence with his Father. The rest of this scene – the walking on the water of Jesus and Peter’s bravado attempt which ends in failure – is a reflection on this need to trust in the quiet and the silence of God who acts in his Son to raise us to the heights.

 

We, like Peter, could easily be full of bravado – ‘I’ll walk on the water too!’ - only to become unstuck as we rely on our own importance and not on God. For it is God in Christ who calls us to believe in and think the unthinkable: that God became a man in Jesus and thereby unites us indissolubly with the Father of our eternal salvation. Without this great gift – never given in other faiths or philosophies – we are doomed to go our own weary ways, ways which inevitably result in strife and dissention, in wars and death; and we spurn what Jesus prayed for in John 17, that we be One, as Father, Son and Spirit are One. It is this total unity that we are offered, and that we seek above all other things. It is a unity, given only by and with and in God, which has the power to save us from ourselves and from the delusions of power which lead us to destroy others, be they our fellow Europeans or other foreigners, or even the members of our own families. God’s vision for us is not that we be nice or good, but Godlike.

 

 

 

It is fine to say, as I am sure we all do, that war is wrong. Yes, we can say this when we are speaking about war a long way off, as in the Middle East or Ukraine. Yes, we can make grand moral statements about how dreadful it all is, and ask why they cannot stop fighting and killing one another. But it all becomes different if we feel that someone is attacking us. So may I suggest that we need to try to think what we would feel like if an army or terrorists were threatening our homes, our shops, our security! Then I suspect we would feel things in an altogether different way.

I am reading a book[1] at the moment about the history of conflicts in Europe for the last 500 years, and what has struck me most is that war and conflict is usually created not by an actual attack by an enemy, but by the fear that we will be attacked. A decision is then made on these grounds to attack first, before our homes and our lives are devastated by an enemy that appears to be about to descend upon us. So as we remember with sorrow and sadness today the beginning of the 1st World War 100 years ago, we need to remember the fear in the minds of those who were the enemies of Britain then, who thought that Russia from the East or France from the West might encircle and enslave them.

The question then is “What does our Christian faith say about all this?” We know that people on both sides in our European wars of the past have claimed as Christians that God was on their side. You may not know however that when the 1st World War broke out the Pope at the time called, as Pope Francis is doing now on Israel and Palestine, for the war to stop, and for everyone to look for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Then, as now, such appeals from the Pope, and from many other people, appear to have made no difference. Once people are in fear of their lives, all reason seems to go out of the window.

This is all very depressing isn’t it? As are all the present wars and conflicts that we hear reported every day. But what it reminds us very forcibly is  that we humans need to be aware of how easily we fail in our relationship to others as soon as we are under any pressure. It also reminds us how easily we blame others rather than ourselves when things go wrong. Jesus told us to love our enemies, and to leave judgement to God, but it isn’t something we find at all easy to do, is it.

This is precisely why the Church stresses our need for God, our need to constantly turn to this power of goodness and love to help us on the hard road of being a good human being. Today our Gospel (Matt 14:13-21) is not just about a few thousand people being given bread to eat. It is actually much  more about the fact that God can support us and feed us spiritually if only we will turn to him for help. Our 1st Reading (Isaiah 55:1-3) is on this same theme, as the great prophet Isaiah tries to remind people that God is longing to help them in their desperation. “Oh come to the water all you who are thirsty…. Listen, listen to me… Pay attention, come to me: listen and your soul will live.”

Yes, if we are to overcome our fear of strangers and greet them as friends, if we are to overcome our own anger against those we think of as enemies, then we need constantly to turn to God for help. Work for peace and against war has to start with each one of us. It is no good saying “They” should do something about it, whatever it is. It is no good passing the buck or the blame to someone else and thinking that we are OK. That is not the Christian way.

So here we are at Mass precisely, I hope, because we know of this need to turn to God regularly and to receive his support, his grace, for our journey through life.

Today, amidst all this very challenging stuff about war and violence, both afar and in our own hearts, we need also to hear a word of comfort. So I hope you heard it in our 2nd reading (Romans 8:35-39) Let me remind you. “Nothing can come between us and the love of Christ, even if we are troubled or worried (And we are!) or being persecuted, or lacking food or clothes, or being threatened or even attacked…….  Nothing can ever come between us and the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord”

May that message be one that we do not just hear on the surface, but hear and receive deep in our hearts, so that we may do our bit to work for peace and love and understanding in our sad and troubled world.

 

[1] Brendan Simms : Europe The Struggle for Supremacy 1453 to the Present