HOMILY for HOLY CROSS SUNDAY 2014

The discovery of a possible vaccine against Ebola has reminded me how as a little boy I was fascinated by the way doctors found a vaccine against Smallpox. It seems amazing really that you give people a small dose of the very thing that might kill them, and it is that which protects them from getting the actual disease.

Today, this is the image given to us as we meditate on the Cross of Jesus Christ. Our Gospel (John 3:13-17) tells us that the cross is like that. Some of you may remember me mentioning before my atheist aunt, who shuddered at us weird Christians putting a symbol of death up on our walls. Yes, that’s what the cross is isn’t it? It appears to bring death to us, to shove this horrific death right into our face. Indeed at every Mass we not only have the cross up there in front of us, but the prayers the priest says on our behalf right at the heart of the Mass – the very words of Jesus – “This is my Body which will be given up for you” remind us of his death every time. And just to punch home the  point we all then say one of the acclamations – “We proclaim your death, O Lord… until you come again.”  Yes, we don’t just remember his death, as we might remember the death of a loved one, but we proclaim his death as a moment of glory and triumph ; and some might well say with my aunt “What a strange thing, even an unnatural thing, to do!”

But of course it is no stranger than giving a dose of Ebola to someone who is afraid they might catch it. In each case the very thing that appears to bring death actually brings protection. It means that we are, as they say, immune. But the death that the Cross protects us from is not ordinary earthly death. We Christians are all going to die like everyone else. What it does is protect us from eternal death because we have already, by the cross, been given eternal life.

Another great image that expresses this is the idea that the power of evil and death, the power we call the Devil, is like a great dragon eager to gobble up and destroy all living things. God knows this, and thus presents himself as a victim for the Devil to consume. The Devil does not recognise that this is God; why, because God has done the most peculiar thing possible, God has become a man, a human being. This is Jesus, of course, whom we heard of in our 2nd Reading (Philippians 2:6-11) who “became as men are… even to accepting death, death on a cross.” Now we know now, although the Power of Evil along with many others didn’t know at the time, that this man Jesus is also God. We hear this from the beginning of St John’s Gospel. Jesus is not just a life, but Life itself. “All that came to be had life in him”, and this life, this light, is something that “darkness” that is the power of evil “could not understand” (John 1:4-5) So when Jesus is consumed by death on the cross, death (the power of evil) is actually consuming Life itself, and thus the power of Life enters into death, into eternal death, and destroys it.

For Christians therefore there can be no fear of death. Because Jesus has already faced death for us, we may fear the process of dying, but death itself is for us an entry into life. Death is thus the point at which we meet the one who has died for us – the one who told us that we are his friends. Yes, in death we meet our friend, and his name is Jesus. But in our friend, in the one we love, we also begin the process of being drawn by him into union with God, and so we may well say to Jesus, as St Thomas did after all his doubts, “My Lord and my God”.

It is not enough therefore for us Christians to have the cross, this great symbol of eternal life, in our churches, and in our homes. If we look at the cross like that, we are like someone, examining the Ebola or Smallpox vaccine, but not actually being vaccinated. We have to look not just at the external figure on the wall before us, but through it to Jesus himself. We must look at the cross then, but always look through it, and so speak to Jesus who calls out to us to accept and imitate his love.

As our Gospel says “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost, but may have eternal life.”  We are not lost. We may have doubts, we certainly have many failings, but God’s sacrificial love, provided we allow it to work in us, is more powerful than all our doubts and sins. It is this love that we celebrate today, and indeed at every Mass, a love that brings us eternal life. 

“Were the whole realm of nature mine.

  It were an offering far too small.

  Love so amazing, so Divine.

  Demands my soul, my life my all.

 

The triumph of the Cross

September 13, 2014

Frances writes on Sunday’s readings : – This feast has been set by the Church to help us remember and ponder on all that God has done for us in and through Jesus Christ. The choice of readings takes us from the very start of Israel’s relationship with God through to the final consummation of our story in the salvation won for us by Christ.

We begin this great epic with a reading from the book of Numbers, (Num 21:4-9). It is an ancient account of how people understood their relationship with their God. Released from slavery in Egypt, it becomes clear that the people of Israel still behaved like slaves; their understanding of the meaning of freedom being too small. When things got tough they blamed God, a tendency we all have still. When plagued by serpents they resorted to what specialists describe as apotropaic remedies, the use of some object designed to avert the evil, and so they erected a bronze serpent on a pole so that those bitten by real snakes could find a solace in looking at it. In other words, just as we find placebos often help in the treatment of illnesses, they did the same. Since they thought illness came as a punishment from God, this righted their relationship with the divine.

Our gospel, from John (3:13-17) takes up this ancient way of thinking in order to transform it; insisting that in the most appalling of deaths, the crucifixion of one unique man, our access to God has been radically transformed. We are now no longer floundering in the dark, reliant on ancient remedies, living in fear of the divine and of his punishments and doomed to despair because of our sinfulness; but are taken into an entirely new relationship with God whom we now know as Father. Our Gospel speaks of the Son whom God the Father deliberately sent as Son into the world to do his bidding, and it makes clear that the will of the Father is neither our punishment nor condemnation, but something quite different and previously unimagined – that we who follow the Son will “have eternal life in him.”

The problem is that our translations give the impression that God, in a mood of sentiment, loved the world and sent the Son to redeem it. Implicit in such a suggestion is the idea that God might change his mind, which is if course the outlook of the Old Testament. In Greek the implications are radically different. By believing in God the Son we enter into the nature of Godhead itself. It is not ‘God so loved the world’, but more ‘this is how God is’. His being and entire identity is love, love exchanged between Father, Son and Spirit. In caring for his creation, the cosmos, or world, God therefore gives himself to the world entirely in the being of the Son. He has no other means of loving us than this immense gift by which we are destined to share in his love for eternity; their love, their being. In this then we learn both more about ‘eternal life’ and about God who throws himself away on us; pouring his very being into his redemptive plan for the world. Salvation then is not a gift detached from the identity of God like some present of colossal value; but, and much more significantly, an invitation to enter into divinity!

This is explored by Paul in his Letter to the Philippians, (2:6-11). In this famous passage Paul explores the meaning of Christ becoming human for our salvation. The emphasis is on the fact that Jesus was always wholly One with the Father, a member of the Trinity; in Greek sharing God’s form or nature, ‘morphe’. As such there was no division between Father and Son. Father is not diminished by Sonship, or as the Greek has it, using a highly unusual word ‘harpagmon’, meaning to be mugged, robbed with violence. Clearly Paul is trying to express the utter unity of the members of the Trinity, in which each is distinct and yet One and in which none of the triad is reduced by the being of the other two, but rather completed and perfected by them, and in which union all three work together for the salvation of humanity. In this great act of self-oblation the Son freely chooses to do the will of the Father by becoming human in the Incarnation, ‘born of a woman’ and ‘by the power of the Holy Spirit’. In his earthly life among us, Jesus relies on the power of the Spirit and the will of the Father to empower and guide his actions.

Significantly, as Philippians has it, Jesus assumes the form (morphe) of a slave, the state of unredeemed humanity, harking right back to our Numbers passage in which freed Israel continued to live slavish not redeemed lives. Here we explore the extent of divine love for creation. God the Son sets aside his divinity to take on the dejected state of humanity, our helplessness, our inability to seemingly do anything that will set the world to rights, whether we are thinking about Gaza; the Middle East or more personally in the confusion and distress of our own lives and of those we love. God in Trinity, God as he really is, has entered through Christ the Son into our world, into our being, not as some alien visitor but totally, in all that he/they are. Quite clearly such a vision would have horrified the Jewish outlook with its sharp division between God and his creation, and the enormity of its implications was, Paul realised, precisely what led to the cross, to Jesus’ being killed. God’s action in the incarnation and cross was an intolerable affront, a scandal to the notion that ‘God must keep his clean, removed state’. Here, in this stunning piece of lyric poetry we face the degree of God’s involvement with his creation, no holds barred, his involvement is absolute. This then is why we keep this festival of the Triumph of the Cross, so that “All beings in the heavens, on earth and in the underworld should bend the knee at the name of Jesus and that every tongue should acclaim Jesus Christ as Lord to the glory of God the Father.” The entire creation joins in this supreme victory in which it honours the Trinity, recognising what Jesus the Son has done. It is a moment of superabundant unity and grace, creation restored, harmony gained, the great triumph of the Son.

Seems a long time ago now that Harry Potter was all the rage, but it is worth remembering the good message the whole series of books reveals especially in a world that seems obsessed with self-advancement, of what is happening to me personally inside! 

There was a programme exploring this some years ago that was euphemistically entitled ‘modern spirituality’! It appeared that the term “spirituality” nowadays embraces such a diversity of meaning as to be virtually deprived of any significance and value at all. Instead it has become the catch-all term for self-advancement. Literally anything which makes me feel fulfilled and which plays its part in the building up of the individual self esteem and sense of well being can now be called spirituality, be it yoga – karate – gardening – classes in self-awareness – psychological counselling – foot massage or acupuncture. Most of the people who went in for this sort of spirituality were scathing of traditional religion and worship. They were not interested in corporate activities or the worship of God. For the majority, what mattered was the self; the fostering of a private well-being, the individual, isolated from his fellow men and women.

Now there is nothing basically wrong with all these activities as such. The problem is that we humans love to give things that help us more praise than is their due. To turn them into gods.  There have been times when I thought Harry Potter was heading in this direction. He had turned out at times through his stories to be a rather introverted teenager convinced that no-one could understand or believe some of the things he was feeling.  In this sense the author has expressed through her stories the common feeling of many teenagers.  The sad thing is that many adults get stuck in this teenage mould and end up like individual pills each wrapped in tin foil – hermetically sealed.

You can imagine how I cheered when Dumbledore – the greatest and best wizard in the story – advises Harry very strongly to trust his friends and share everything with them.  Indeed he goes further and points out that the relationship he has with his friends is the one thing that the wicked power will not be able to understand and thus will not be able to defeat!  The story is, thank goodness, not sentimental about this. The friendship Harry has with Ron and Hermione has many difficulties, and they certainly do not always agree. And that makes it even more valuable of course.  True friendship never simply makes us feel good; it always challenges us as well. 

This is exactly what St Paul is talking about in our 2nd Reading (Romans 13:8-10 today when he speaks of “the debt of mutual love”, the love that “is the answer to every one of the commandments.”  I was struck by the idea that true love is a debt. It is something that we receive and can never really repay and that we give knowing that there is no way it can really be given back.  In other words, the true life of God and with God cannot be the subject of calculation: of what I can get out of it or what I will get back if I give it. It is just all gift, or to use the technical term, it is just grace, and nothing else.

The other image that is worth thinking through is the main one from the 1st Reading. (Ezekiel 33:7-9)  The idea that we are called to be “sentries” for one another.  It reminds us, as does Harry Potter, that there is a battle going on between good and evil and that all of us may be in danger.  The modern idea that every one can do their own thing as long as they don’t hurt anyone is nonsense for two reasons.  First, because there is no way of knowing whether what we do will effect someone or not. Who would have thought that I could be killed by someone else smoking near me? Second because anyway actually everything I do and say and think actually does affect others whether it appears to or not. “No one is an island.” we are all inter-connected, and the idea that there are things I can do that will not affect anyone else is a dangerous nonsense.

So we need to be sentries, to stand on watch, looking out for one another and we need to ask God to give us the courage to warn others when we think they are wrong.  Harry, Ron and Hermione disagree, but they disagree as friends. They know that their disagreement springs from mutual love, from trust in one another.  They are actually joined in a solemn bond of friendship and support which we hope (see the next book) will end in the defeat of the evil that threatens them.

But note those last words – a solemn bond.  In our Gospel (Matt 18:15-20) Jesus reminds us that such things have an eternal significance “I tell you solemnly whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven.”  True friendship, real support for one another, actually makes God more present in the world.  When we think we can go it alone, we are alone, when we work together with our friends then not only do we have them with us, but we also have the power of God working within all that we do.  That is true spirituality, not seeking our own holiness or spiritual high, but losing our lives in love and finding, as we do so, that God is there with us.

 

 

 

 

 

Frances writes on this Sunday’s Readings :- ‘No man is an island entire unto himself’, wrote John Donne, yet this is a message so difficult for modern humanity to put into practice. We have been nurtured in a spirit of Western individualism and consider undue solicitude interference in the lives of others an intolerable affront to human dignity. We cherish our individualism, and go so far as to abrogate responsibility for the young, suggesting that ‘when they grow up they will be in a position to decide things for themselves’. All this is of course total rubbish, and we need to address the issue urgently, for it is rapidly taking on international significance with the rise of global terrorism. The question of “For whom am I responsible?” is becoming ever more imperative and vital to the very survival of our planet.

This was an issue the prophet Ezekiel (Ezek 33:7-9) had to grapple with when he was exiled to Babylon with the rest of the Jerusalem elite in 593 BC. He lived in a time of chaos and uprisings, when the kingdoms in the Near and Middle East were in turmoil, each fighting against each other and were finally conquered by the Babylonians.  His writings reveal how seriously he took his role as ‘sentinel’ or ‘sentry’, the one appointed as lookout, not just for Judah but for the nations round about as their vicious infighting led to their collapse and the final terrible enslavement of  thousands in far off Babylonia. He understood the need for everyone to be responsible for the other – no matter how difficult or even how foreign and unattractive they might be. Indeed he seems to have realised that the survival of his people lay, as we see from his letter to the exiles, in settling down and complying with their hated foreign and pagan overlords. In that way the people would manage to survive. They needed their persecutors, as in time the latter would benefit from their presence in their land.

When writing his letter to the Romans, (Rom 13:8-10) St Paul also explored this issue of how much we need and owe each other. In ancient society the bonds tying people to each other were much stronger that today. Ties between family members and friends of equal rank were very demanding, requiring absolute loyalty and obligation. It went down through all ranks and classes. A patron was bound to care for his clients, often financially and in any legal disputes, aiding them over dowries and many other issues. To fail to honour such obligations involved one in the opprobrium of the whole of society, and similarly the client was obligated to honour his patron, supporting him in his frequent public appearances and at elections and so on. Freed slaves were supported by their former masters and set up in business they were still tied to them for life. Such links were de-rigueur and failure to honour them by either side a shocking breach of the social order in the Roman Republic, as we see in Cicero’s work. By the time Paul was writing these obligations still existed, and he built upon those expectations in forming the Christian community by asking how such mutual obligations functioned in the new dispensation. He makes very clear that under Christ these duties are not lessened but increased, as he explores the concept of ‘who is my neighbour?’ Quite clearly for the Early Church that concept brought new obligations to people formerly unknown to each other and unconnected by previous ties of family, friendship or even clientship. Paul’s letters show us a world in which people from different ends of the Mediterranean met and mixed in the Christian community; where slaves were to be treated with respect by masters as equals in Christ; where men and women speaking strange foreign languages and with differently coloured skins had to learn to work together for the good of the community. You might even find yourself, as a member of the elite, being taken to task by someone of lower social status! Such were the obligations of this entirely novel Christian dispensation!

In Matthew’s Gospel, (Matt 18:15-20) this is an issue explored by Jesus. His vision of kingdom life is one in which there are absolutely no limits to our responsibilities for others in our communities. We are there to support, sustain and discipline each other, and his teaching shows that this was not simply an inheritance from small town Judaism but had a well-formed and international background. We see this involvement being acted out continually in Jesus’ ministry, as he healed the sick and challenged views of who was a member of society and who on the outside. His ministry stretched to the inclusion of lepers; tax men and prostitutes; hopeless collaborators with the enemy forces of occupation; and above all foreigners – both men and women; men who were members of the foreign occupying Roman army; and many others. St Paul’s missionary work would embrace all these pagan peoples, and his unavailing efforts in their salvation would continually involve him in confrontation with many whose behaviour fell short of the demands of the gospel of grace. Our gospel passage makes clear that the commission to Peter is here given to all the disciples, that ‘binding and loosing’ is the responsibility of each and everyone of us, for we are all brothers and sisters in Christ.

We have to strive to find the right ways to do this gospel inspired work and ensure that we do it with the sensitivity required, so that we do not alienate those we have contact with. This work will take us out from those we know, into dealings with the wider world too, and will include those distinctly foreign to us, often people with religions and values very different from our own. Just like St Paul, we will have to find our way through the morass of our own prejudice to reach out to them as they may do to us. Let us remember that that is precisely how the Christian mission has spread through the world, and not allow our fear or faint heartedness get in the way of God’s grace.

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