Death and Transformation

February 27, 2015

Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings : Each of our Lenten readings speaks of death in one form or another. Last week’s readings reminded us of the extraordinary love of God for his creation and now we are being led further into the mystery of God himself as we are led out beyond our temporal mortality.

I think we have the reading from Genesis (22:1-2.9-13.15-18) as part of our ‘wake-up call’. We are all guilty of investing so much of our time, money and hopes and attention in the things of this world that we cannot really see beyond them, indeed, frequently get stuck with them. It may be our love for our children, our pride in our jobs and our own achievements, or our clinging to possessions or something else; but lovely as all these things are, they can blind us to the truth that these are only temporary gifts from the Creator whose purpose for us is so much greater.

When Abraham was tested by God and was willing to sacrifice his only son and heir, Isaac, something similar was going on. Abraham, we must remember, lived in a time when there was no concept of ‘eternal life’ with and in God. In consequence people invested all their hopes for the future in their offspring, especially male children. Abraham, you will recall, had been childless for many years until persuaded by his wife to take a concubine and produce a child; and it was only very late in life that Sarah produced the beloved son Isaac, literally the pride and joy of his father’s heart, his posterity, upon whom any possibility of an Abrahamic line hung. Imagine therefore the horror of being asked to destroy the child on which so much depended.

Now in the Near East of the time it was not unusual for great rulers to sacrifice sons at great events. We hear precisely of this action by the ruler of Jericho in the First Book of the Kings. I suspect therefore that our story is actually a ‘myth’, a very ancient tale about the shift from human to animal sacrifice; and deeply embedded within it is this story of Abraham’s interior debate as to what is most important, his attachment to his only son, or his relationship with God, from whom he has all he derives. It is only when Abraham gets his priorities right that he can appreciate the real grace and goodness of God and is apparently ‘reprieved’ by the finding of the ram, the alternative sacrifice, sent by God. Only when we are staring death in the face can we truly get our priorities straight.

Our Gospel, (Mark 9:2-10) is about another moment of death and transformation, here the Transfiguration, literally metamorphosis in Greek. In this, Christ appears, significantly again on a mountain, and is shown to the disciples in all his heavenly glory. He appears alongside Moses and Elijah, signifying the Mosaic law and the prophets, and thus he is encompassing everything that Judaism stood for but much more. It is a moment of crisis, just as Abraham experienced, a moment of decision; whether to continue with the old ways of understanding God given in the Old Testament, or whether to go on the dramatic and radical journey with and in Jesus to become his new creation; heirs with him of God himself, sharers in the divine nature. For many Jews this would be a scandal, an outrage. For the disciples it was a moment of transition, decision to adopt that decisive shift which would transfigure their entire being. It was a moment of death and led to new life. As the Gospels present it, affirmation came to the disciples in the divine voice; “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.” It is significant that this moment of the revelation of the true identity of Jesus to his chosen followers was so powerful and earth shattering that Jesus told them not to reveal it to the rest until after his resurrection from the dead. Jesus was insistent that belief in him should come through an encounter with the fully human Christ and not in any sense be compelled by knowledge of his identity given only to the chosen few and then only as an aid to their belief.

When we consider how the twelve actually behaved at our Lord’s passion perhaps we begin to appreciate the sense of this injunction. Indeed, it would be his post mortem appearances that convinced the disciples of his identity and enabled them finally to make that great transition. Death, and the giving of a wholly new and far richer life after physical death, is the thing that really will make the difference for all of us. Just like the disciples, we too, cling onto the familiar, onto this material life, and find it very difficult to place all our hope in eternal life.

Surely the final word in all this must go to St Paul (Romans 8:31-34). So much of this extraordinary letter is focussed on the problem which faced Christians then and continues to drag us down now. It is the problem of our own sins, those we willingly commit and those we simply fall into despite our best intentions. We agonise and tie ourselves into knots over questions of our unworthiness of eternal life; of whether God could possibly forgive us and of our inability to embark on a path of lasting change. Paul provides the answer to all our angst: we can’t and we don’t have to. It is God in Christ who has won salvation and eternal life for each of us through the death and resurrection of Jesus. “He not only died for us – he rose from the dead, and there at God’s right hand he stands and pleads for us.” What we have to learn to accept is that Christ Jesus has already won paradise for us. Our Lent is therefore about a literal dying to the past with all its hang-ups and a taking on of the new life we are already guaranteed in Christ. We must allow our selves to be transfigured as he was.

 

As we are now in the world of instant messaging, you will not be surprised that the word that caught my eye from the Ash Wednesday readings was that one word “NOW”  (Joel 2:12-17) We heard it again in the 2nd reading too, “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”  (2 Cor 6:1-2)   It reminded me of how important it is to use the text message or the email whenever we can to send support and prayer to those who need it. It is so easy to say to oneself that I will get in touch tomorrow instead of doing it today. Or to say to oneself that I will pray for so and so next time I say my prayers, rather than actually to start praying for them straightway. This approach to prayer is so important. For our prayer must not just be time set aside for our prayers, but something we do as we live – on the bus or the train, in the kitchen or the office. Wherever we are we can and should pray. We should use the moment something or someone comes to mind and not leave it till later.

Making resolutions about something we might do later is rarely a good idea. It reminds me of New Years Resolutions, and Lenten Resolutions are much the same. As a regular swimmer I look at those people who arrive in the Pool every January clearly filled with the Resolution they have made to swim every morning. Every year it is the same. By the end of January most of them have disappeared, as we regulars knew they would, and of course we sigh and think ourselves so superior!! 

So I would advise you against making lots of plans for Lent about giving up this and that, or taking some things on. It is always a mistake to set ourselves on the course for failure rather than choosing one thing that we can do now whatever that may be. So remember to send that text message or email straightaway and let someone know now that you are praying for them. Never say “I will pray for you”. Always say “I am praying for you now”.

It is the same message that we get from Jesus when he tells us not to worry about tomorrow’s troubles, but just to get on with what we have to face today. (Matt 6:30-34) Living for today, living for now is such an important thing to do. Indeed it is at the heart of what the word “Repent” means. Repentance does not mean building up in ourselves a list of things we feel sorry about. It means turning to God now. For if we spend time creating a list of things that we should feel sorry about we are in danger of being obsessed with ourselves rather than recognising our need for God. That is what St Paul is talking about when he says “Now is the day of salvation”. He has just said “Be reconciled with God” and then he makes it clear. Do it now.

This is what receiving the ashes on our heads on Ash Wednesday is all about. We are told to remember that we are but dust and ashes. The priest says “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” and we are reminded that we may die tomorrow so we had better get in with doing things now rather than leaving them till it is too late. So away with lots of Resolutions for Lent. Let us rather decide to do live every day for God, and discover each day what we might do now to serve him.

God loves us endlessly

February 20, 2015

Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- The Jews do not seem to have been a seafaring people in antiquity (Genesis 9:8-15). It was the Bronze Age coastal traders, the Phoenicians and their descendants, who were masters of the sea and traded the Mediterranean so that the Jewish people frequently saw great expanses of water a thing of terror.  If we couple that with their borrowing of ancient ‘flood’ stories from the Middle East, it immediately becomes apparent that big expanses of water were things to be feared. This continued throughout their story, as we see in the much later story of Jonah. Yet the later, account of creation; of the temple priests, which we have as the first account in Genesis 1 does see that life of all kinds emerged from water. Israel appears to have had an ambivalent relationship with the sea, with water, seeing it both as fundamental to the emergence of any life at all, part of God’s plan and at the same time a thing of fear, terror, and to be avoided. It would be from within this dual and ambivalent relationship that Israel would understand its relationship with God, and it saw it all too often in terms of a ‘Covenant’ between God and creation, most especially between the Lord and Israel, his chosen. I suppose this strange way of recounting things helps us to delve deeper into the fraught relationship we all have with God. We would all like our vision of God to be complete and perfect, and that this would be expressed in our affairs with the rest of humanity, and indeed the entirety of creation; that we would not repeatedly mess things up and continually be in the position of returning, fed up and chastened to the beginning. Anyone with the most minimal acquaintance with the Old Testament will be graphically aware that this was Israel’s constant experience and that, despite their conviction that they were the chosen of God, things did not seems to get any better.

Something of this ambiguity is expressed in our Gospel, Mark (1:12-15). Mark paints a glowing and dynamic picture of Jesus, with a brief prologue quoting from Isaiah. and Jesus’ acclaim by John the Baptist. All seems set; Jesus is baptised by John in the Jordan and we might have expected him to begin his ministry. But this is not the case, as Mark tells us that the Holy Spirit rather uncharacteristically drove Jesus out into the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan. During this strange time, this forty day testing, an echo of Moses and the people of Israel on their exodus journey from exile in Egypt to the Promised Land, we are given a very strange detail, “He was with the wild beasts, and the angels looked after him.” Jesus was in a strange and even hostile environment, and yet it appears that it is the very wild animals, so often condemned as unclean by Leviticus and Deuteronomy, but apparently affirmed by that earliest of covenants in Genesis 1 that shelter and support is given. Animals, since they do not consciously sin unlike us, can always be at one with God and co-operate with God’s angels to care for Jesus during this time of temptation and testing. There, in the wilderness, it appears he had the opportunity to think out his role of Son of God. Far from being a place of terror, the wilderness is a place of contemplation and even re-creation, as Jesus was given the opportunity to work out who and what he was. As a result of this creative encounter he was subsequently able to return to society with his call to the kingdom and to repentance.

The writer of the Petrine Letters (1 Pet 3:18-22) was also someone who had to deal with the ambiguities of writing to Christians about the hope and promise of their faith, both amidst persecution and the shortcomings in the lives of the particular believers to whom it was addressed. Quite clearly there was a considerable gap between the message of Christ for them: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people”, and the day to day grind of the lives of some of them as slaves; as husbands and wives, in a world with very different valuations of the marriage bond; issues of wealth and consumer expenditure and the wild and vivid attraction of pagan society from which the majority had come. Living as a reformed being, a new creature in Christ was not easy, as it is not for us either. The point all our readings make is surely that this yawning chasm between the vision of God and our own behaviour does not mean that we have failed and should simply give up and forget about the Christian faith. On the contrary, our deficiencies should goad us ever onward as we reach out with greater hope and need towards the God whose patience with us is unending and whose love is undying. God it appears does not give up on his chosen ones despite the messages we have all been sending out over thousands of years. At the start of Lent this message is a welcome one for all of us, especially those of us who will make resolutions many of which will not stay the six weeks course, let alone the life-long journey we have all embarked upon. As Julian of Norwich once remarked “though we sin continuously, he loves us endlessly.”

 

Homily on generosity

February 15, 2015

I expect that you’re all as infuriated, as I am, when we hear of these millionaires with private bank accounts managing to avoid paying tax. But our job as Christians is not to moan about other people’s sins but to set an example of what a good life can be. As St Paul tells us today: “Try to be helpful to everyone at all times, not anxious for (our) own advantage but for the advantage of everybody else.” (1 Cor 10:31-11:1). Our temptation is to think, like those millionaires, that our property, our food, our clothes, our toys, our houses, all our possessions, actually belongs to us. But, of course, however hard we have worked for the things that we own, we wouldn’t have any of them without God who makes all this possible. And God gives us the things of the earth so that we may use them for the common good, the good of all, not just to please ourselves.

Avarice, greed and gluttony : these are too often failings that people laugh about, when what we should do is realise how dangerous such desires are. Indeed it is these desires that are the most frequent cause of war. If there is oil in a country then people will fight about it. Now, some Christians think that the solution to this is to own as little as possible. That’s certainly the road of monks and nuns; but they will tell you that they can get just as wound up about the few things they own as we can. Yes, few of us, can get to the point that Jesus advocates where we are free of such worries. Remember what he sets as the ideal we should aim for? “Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? ……. Do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?” (Matt 6:25-32)

Once again we see that by setting the standard really high, Jesus prevents us from doing what the so-called good people did in his time, thinking they were good, and looking down on “other” people whom they could condemn as “sinners”. I was very pleased the other day when someone told me that these Homilies on the moral teaching of the Church had made them aware of failings that they never though they had. That’s surely a good preparation for Ash Wednesday this week, so that as we come forward to be ashed, we can be more aware of the areas of our life where we particularly need God to help us. And for almost all of us one of those crucial areas will be how we think about the things we possess.

The traditional teaching on how to cope with this is to use the things we own as if they were not ours, so that we are in charge of our possessions rather than our possessions being in charge of us. But we all know how hard this is. We can be generous yes, but only to a certain point ; for if being generous begins to affect something that is really precious to us, something that it would really hurt to be without, then we quickly change and all our generosity and kindness goes out the window.

One purpose of prayer then, especially in Lent, is to ask God to help us identify those things that we most cling onto, and to work out ways in which we might be less reliant on them in the future. We have to look at ourselves with God honestly, even brutally. It’s so easy to make excuses for ourselves, not least because we want to think of ourselves as basically quite nice people. That’s actually what giving up things in Lent is all about; for if we are just giving up some food like chocolate, we may be doing it more as a way of improving our waist line than really dealing with our desires, and then we are back in the trap of selfishness. Yes, I will give up cake again this Lent, but I have yet to see this actually helping me to be more self-controlled the rest of the year!

One of the crucial areas where we need to examine ourselves is in the use of our money. Those of us who are at Mass regularly do at least have the Collections coming round to keep us in the habit of giving some of our money to others. But it really ought to go further than that. We need to think hard not just about how much we give to the Church and to the Charities like CAFOD, but how much we give away in total. Caring for the poor in one way or another is absolutely central to the Christian faith. It can never be seen as an extra. Jesus chose to identify himself with the poor of the world, even those who were outcasts like the leper we hear of in the Gospel today, (Mark 1:40-45) and although we can never be like Christ, we are meant to imitate him as much as we can.

If we do not agonise about those who are less fortunate than we are. If we blot out the sad news of suffering people in various parts of the world, and say there is nothing we can do, then we are failing as Christians. We may think that the small amount we can afford to give, faced with these immense human tragedies, is hardly worth giving, but Jesus would point us to the poor widow popping her few coins into the collection, and tell us that her gift is more important than the large gifts of richer people.

And this should also affect our attitude to taxation. If we moan about our tax bill, we are in danger of forgetting what it is for, of thinking the Health Service, the Schools, even the potholes in our roads are someone else’s problem. Remember what St Paul said today, Whatever you eat, whatever you drink, whatever you do at all, do it for the glory of God.” There’s always some new area in our life where we are failing to think like this. Let’s ask God to help us once again this Lent, so that our self-examination will help us, as St Paul says “to lead a life worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. (Col :10)

 

All for the glory of God

February 13, 2015

Frances writes on this Sunday’s Readings :-  A distinction seems to be being made between the Old Testament and the New Testament in this weeks readings. In Leviticus (13:1-2.44-46), part of a lengthy teaching on the treatment of those with skin conditions and especially leprosy, the purpose of the regulations was the clear exclusion of the sufferer. It is clear from the rulings that not every skin condition was considered actually leprous and contagious, but the point being made was that the sufferer did not conform to the Levitical ideal of a healthy body; of purity. Such people were deliberately and clearly excluded from the community of Israel and from its worship, until such time as they could demonstrate to the priests that they were healed. This inflicted a severe limitation and cutting off from their families, their means of earning their livelihood and their entire social intercourse. It was a situation to be feared and dreaded. We think of it merely as a hygiene issue and quite understandable, but for ancient peoples it was a nightmare, picked up by the chilling words ‘he must live apart,’ literally, in the Greek, ‘live alone’. It was a chilling exile for the sick person, cut off as they would be from all that was dear to them, all that was familiar, and when we pause to consider that this might befall young and old; children; men and women of all ages, to whom the value of the tribe and the family were vital necessities of life, we get some feeling of its impact.

By way of contrast in our Gospel, (Mark 1:40-45) we find Jesus deliberately smashing through all those Levitical rules and regulations as he embarks on his mission to proclaim the Kingdom of God present in the world in his own being. It is not just that he heals the man with true leprosy; it is the manner in which Jesus approaches this task. First of all we get his reaction, in the Jerusalem Bible ‘feeling sorry for the man’, in Greek, ‘moved with pity’, his guts wrenched at the sight. This is not just some emotional response, though there is that in him, but also the divine compassion in him as Son of God who wills the restoration of all that is damaged and broken in our world. Moreover, Jesus touches the leper. Such is the level of his healing compassion that he does not simply pronounce him healed – which is what the priests will do from the safety and sanitised environment they inhabited. Jesus deliberately touched the man. What a cataclysmic action! God the Son goes out to the needy, and, as the prophet would say, takes our infirmities upon himself. Jesus knows how cruel and isolating, indeed, what a death sentence, a verdict of ‘leprosy’ could be, and he reaches out across that great chasm separating clean and unclean, sinners and righteous. In doing so Jesus himself, by his bodily contact with the sick man, himself becomes unclean, a sinner in his act of total identification and outreach to those in real need of his saving grace. It was an outrage for the religious purists, and one brief action packed chapter later as we see in Mark’s gospel, his enemies will club together in a wholly unlikely alliance to destroy Jesus.

Yet at this point Jesus clearly does not intend his actions to bring such a devastating breach between himself and Judaism, for he instructs the man healed of his leprosy to perform the requirements of the law laid down in Leviticus. He must go to the temple and submit to the scrutiny of the priests and make a sacrificial offering. It appears that it is the healed man who, glorifying God and telling his story and the source of his healing, throws aside the law, thereby bringing to a head Jesus’ relationship with orthodox Judaism.

The picture we have of Jesus here is that he could not do other than the will of his Father, regardless of the consequences to himself. Such was his Kingdom outreach to the world, and it is something each of us is called to emulate. In writing to the Christians of Corinth, (1 Cor 10:31-11:1) Paul will pick up and develop this message in his teaching. The specific problem he is addressing here is that of Christians going to the banquets of pagans when invited. At such events they would be offered meat which had been sacrificially slaughtered in pagan temples as an offering to the gods.

Many from a Jewish background would have found the whole idea of visiting and eating with pagans abhorrent, and converts from paganism to Christianity also clearly had an issue with the eating of such meats. But St Paul, like Jesus is clearly open to being irenic on this issue. The important thing is to work at all times for ‘the glory of God’. Just as Jesus became ritually contaminated by touching and relating to the unclean, so here, too, Paul believed the Corinthian Christian should seize every opportunity to reach out to non Christians – even if this meant that they did not appear as squeaky clean as they might have liked. In great events and small the same surely holds for us too. Our mission is not primarily to save our own souls, for that is in God’s hands; it is our solemn duty to reach out to others in God’s name, following the pattern of Jesus. “Take me for your model, as I take Christ.”

We all know, I am sure, that one of the 10 Commandments says “You shall not kill” (Exodus 20:13), but many people tend to think that this only forbids murder, whilst killing people in a war, or executing criminals is OK in certain circumstances. This is because for thousands of years, the Church not only seems to have accepted that such things were OK, but actually executed criminals and waged war herself ; as well as sending her priests as army chaplains to support the soldiers, and often to argue that God was on the side of whichever side they happened to be on!

None of this was envisaged by the first Christians, because they were a small group of people with absolutely no power or influence of any kind. St Paul in our 2nd Reading, (1 Cor 9:16-23) when he speaks of making himself weak, of making himself as a slave, echoes the teachings and actions of Jesus who said “Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” and  “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:38-44) Jesus then goes further, and puts this into action, allowing the soldiers to arrest him, and saying, as he dies on the cross “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34) Here is the ideal, which as in many other areas of morality, we rarely achieve.

For the first Christians however it was an ideal they could achieve unless they were actually a soldier, because they were not involved in war in any way; and so it only became a problem in the 4thC when more and more Christians were soldiers or held positions of power. It was then that reconciling Christian teaching with the realities of political and public life actually hit them. The first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine (273-337AD) actually fought a war in the name of Christ to win his throne.  However, he solved this problem by not getting baptised until he was dying, which shows us how strong at that time the pacifist teaching of the Church was.

Faced with this difficulty, it was some 100 years later that the great theologian St Augustine first began to lay out clearly what kind of war a Christian might be justified in fighting. This Just War Theory, as it is called, was then further developed by St Thomas Aquinas some 900 years later. The problem with the just war theory today is that it was developed in a time when war was largely limited to armies fighting one another with swords and bows and arrows and fairly primitive guns. The theory can thus say quite easily that only soldiers can be attacked, and that civilians must not be involved.

Anyway most Christians went to war in the past, as they do today, without considering how difficult it is to fight in a war and be a Christian. Modern warfare of course actually makes fighting a just war almost impossible, as it includes what is called “collateral damage” – a polite way of saying that when you bomb a place innocent people get killed! But one good product of the Just War theory is the understanding in modern secular society that war can go too far, that soldiers are not supposed to attack or kill ordinary unarmed people, and that loot and rape and other horrific acts are never justified. War crime has thus become something for which people can be tried and imprisoned, and it all stems from the Church ancient teaching on war. It has also meant that those countries like the UK do try to fight war as ethically as possible, particularly to limit, as far as possible, this “collateral damage”. But it still takes place, and so, strictly speaking, makes any war at all un-Christian – except perhaps for the limited resistance warfare as waged by those who fought against apartheid in South Africa. Our Catechism thus says  “The Church insistently urges everyone to prayer and to action so that the divine Goodness may free us from the ancient bondage of war.” (Se Paras 2307-2309)

As I said when I began, the other area where Christians sometimes justify killing, is in the execution of criminals. The Catechism (Paras 2266-2267) says that “The Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor” but it goes on to say that for the modern world “Cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically non-existent.” I am always struck by the sad fact that some people who quite rightly proclaim that abortion is wrong, will go on to argue strongly for the execution of criminals. The Church says that all life is sacred, and that taking any life except in grave necessity must be avoided at all costs.

Few of us, thank God, have to make the difficult decisions about life and death that I have been talking about today. But as with all other areas of Christian morality, Jesus sets the ideal even higher so that it actually affects all of us. So he says “You have heard that it was said… ‘whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment” Faced with that, we all know that we fail to some extent to follow this teaching, and God who is aware of this knows that sometimes we have to do the best we can in less than perfect situations, be it anger, or abortion, or capital punishment or war. As Christians we follow Jesus. We always aim for the best, yet recognising how often we fail. The problem is that some people seek to justify their failures instead of living with them in the knowledge that God is all-merciful and full of compassion for the difficulties we face in our fallen human world. Aiming high requires us to really believe in a forgiving God.

 

Frances writes on this Sunday’s Readings :- In our reading from St Paul’s Letters to the Corinthians (1 Cor 9:16-19.22-23) we are entering a very different world from our own. We think of boasting as rather crude and silly, inappropriate and even laughable. Yet to the ancients, boasting was an acceptable and even required way of behaviour for the gentleman; a world in which ‘blowing one’s own trumpet’ was perfectly understandable and accepted. When Pliny wrote asking his Emperor Trajan to allow him to set up a collection of imperial statues honouring the emperor and his predecessors, he did so on the understanding that this would honour both them and himself, indeed, that people would see on what good terms he stood with his emperor and that both Pliny and his Lord would gain honour and status by this action. This was an ‘honour society’, one in which the elite continually bolstered their power and social standing by their gifts to the public by building civic amenities such as baths, temples and theatres and giving food doles to the city and to their personal dependent clients. In return the recipients continued that time-honoured relationship whereby the elite were honoured by votes in elections for public office and recognised as ‘lovers of their city’ – the ultimate acclaim – and given ‘eternal life’ in the endless statues and inscriptions lauding their actions. When therefore Paul wrote to the Christians of Corinth he explained his tireless devotion to the risen Lord Jesus in language they could all understand, and which impressed by its appeal to hundreds of years of practice. Normally the super-patron would have been the emperor. Here, for Paul, it was Christ who commanded his absolute devotion and obedience. It was quite simply taken for granted. Paul expresses his total commitment to God in time honoured language of great imaginative appeal.

What made the difference for Paul and for his Christian converts however was their belief in the resurrection of the dead, of the promise of eternal life in Christ, ‘sons of God, and heirs’. This was what made the immense difference between pagans, those with no hope of eternal life, and believers; and it would have been a great attraction to converts. When the Book of Job, (7:1-4.6-7) was written there was no such belief, even for devout Jews. This life was seen to be all that there was and death, was the end. After that one ‘lived-on’ if at all through ones sons. Imagine then the power and terror of this story, in which God and the devil have a contest in which Job is deprived suddenly not simply of his earthly material wealth, but of his sons and daughters. Suddenly, instantly, he is reduced to the status of the most abject of slaves, without posterity, without meaning, without hope. It is an exploration of the absolute fragility of the human condition and of trust in God. Job, like the majority of Romans, believed that death was the end for us all. All one could do was recognise and accept the immense and overwhelming power of God, but in no way could one truly relate to him. Christianity’s proud boast lay precisely in its promise of a unique relationship with the divine, one in which God the Son gives himself entirely to his creation.

Our Gospel (Mark 1 :29-39) demonstrates that this belief in the power of Christ, the ultimate patron, was no mere intellectual and effete programme that the favoured few such as the Stoics might have had, but was to be demonstrated and given to all. We witness the real material impact of the Kingdom come among us in the accounts of Jesus’ healing ministry. First, it begins with his action to save his new family by his healing of Simon Peter’s mother in law, and it then spreads to the many sick of Capernaum his base, and then stretches out throughout the towns of Galilee, until finally his ministry will encompass all Palestine and the Transjordan. It is not just that Mark and his fellow writers have a passion for geography, it is what this continual movement and journeying symbolise: God’s outreach with its promise of eternal life to each and every one who accepts his help and patronage and recognises the supreme power of the giver of all good things, life in this world and life in companionship with the divine now and in eternity. Small wonder then that Paul was happy to be known as a boaster. We, like him, have every reason to be so.

 

 

If Jesus had gone around telling everyone he was the Son of God, he wouldn’t have been. That’s why in our Gospel today (Mark 1:21-28) he tells the possessed man who is shouting about who Jesus really is to “Be quiet!” We can find Jesus doing this in many other places in the Gospels. Humility, not puffing oneself up as someone special, is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. Indeed one of the best known of Jesus’ teachings is where he warns people not to sit themselves in the highest place at a wedding feast, but to allow the host to place you where he thinks is most appropriate.

 Of course, as with all that Jesus says, he is really talking not just about morality, but much more about our relationship with God. No-one is virtuous, no-one is good by their own efforts. Those who say to God, or to other people “Look at me. I am important. I am special.” These are the people who are furthest from God; and if they happen to be holy people (the scribes and the Pharisees) wearing elaborate clothes to show their status, so much the worse for them.

But there is more than one way of showing off. False humility, for example, deliberately taking the lowest place, can be just as attention-seeking as doing the opposite. Indeed the classic do-gooder who fusses around people trying to “help” them all the time, can, as we all know, be a complete pest. Perhaps this is why Jesus so often tells us to be like little children. He doesn’t wants us to fuss and fret about what people think of us, about what we should wear or what we should do. Like little children, he wants us just to enjoy life and company, as they do. Remember his saying, “Do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ ……. Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. (Matt 6:31-34)

I don’t think by this that Jesus wants us wandering around in dirty smelly old clothes, living off tins of baked beans. Once again, if we take the teaching too far, we end up being attention-seeking again. St Thomas Aquinas, whose day we celebrated last week, always taught that true virtue lies between two extremes, and that’s certainly true of what I am talking about today. Pride can show itself at either end of the spectrum.

There is, after all, a kind of pride that is surely part of being a true Christian. To be proud of one’s children or grandchildren or a loved-one when they do something special; or to take pride in one’s work – to do a good job whether you are working at something yourself, or for an employer. This natural pleasure in what is good, provided it doesn’t become another kind of showing-off – “Look at me, look at my children” – is simply the right thing to do. Those who never give praise, and are surly about everything, are just plain wrong. It is one thing to say, as we should, that without God I can do no good, but to go on from that to refuse praise for oneself of for others. No. That misses the point.

However, the wrong kind of pride is always lurking there, and we ought to watch out for it. Most of you know that I am a married priest, and I remember vividly how proud I was when I became a father. Like any good father, I love my two boys to bits (now very grown-up), but I remember on a number of occasions asking God in prayer whether perhaps I loved them too much. What would happen to my faith in God if one of them died? I shudder now even to think about it. Were they more important to me than God? I was never put to that test, but it was important to ask the question.

This is surely one of the reasons why celibacy, which we heard about from St Paul in our 2nd reading (1 Cor 7:32-35), is required of priests in our Western Roman Catholic Church. Certainly in the ancient and medieval world the priest often had influence and power, and was thus in a position to promote his children in unfair ways, and thereby extend his influence, and that of his family, at the expense of others. Taking a pride in one’s family can thus easily become more important than serving God. The best kind of celibate priest can give himself to his people without any other commitments to hinder his work. The people become his family. I know, as a married priest, how hard it is to balance care for one’s family with care for God’s people. It is very easy to get the balance wrong, and then either the Church or the family suffer. Those who think priests should be married need to recognise that married clergy create an awful lot of extra problems for the Church – and that includes difficult wives or children. Read or watch Trollope’s Barchester Towers for more on this!

I wonder perhaps if the virtue I am really talking about today is temperance?  Let’s finish by listening  to the Catechism on this. (Para 1809)  “Temperance is the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods. It ensures the will’s mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honourable. ….In the New Testament it is called “moderation” or “sobriety.” We ought “to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world.” (Titus 2:12) Then the Catechism quotes St Augustine “To live well is nothing other than to love God with all one’s heart, with all one’s soul and with all one’s efforts; from this it comes about that love is kept whole and uncorrupted (through temperance). No misfortune can disturb it (and this is fortitude). It obeys only God (and this is justice), and is careful in discerning things, so as not to be surprised by deceit or trickery (and this is prudence).

Now there’s a challenge for us!

Frances writes on this Sunday’s Readings :- Why is it that some people speak and act with authority and are followed when others, even those who we might expect to wield authority don’t? It does not appear to be related simply to their power, for we can all think of political leaders who have held power but somehow lacked the vital ingredient which made them truly respected and followed, whereas we can also think of those who do not actually hold power but whose actions command our respect and support. People, it appears, have to earn the allegiance of others.

In our gospel (Mark 1:21-28) we are told that Jesus’ “Teaching made a deep impression” on the crowd, “He taught them with authority.” This, our gospel remarks, was in contrast to the teaching of the scribes. Perhaps there was that in their teaching which had become automatic or stereotypical, done because it was expected of them, part of their job description, but which lacked conviction. It may even have been that their behaviour did not back up their teaching. Clearly Jesus’ teaching carried great weight because it was backed up by his miracles, so that when he announced that the kingdom of God was among them, his actions proclaimed the actuality of his claim. Now clearly most of us could not rise to these heights, but our lives can still proclaim the kingdom life we believe in, by our work for the Common Good, and our small actions of kindness to others. This is something we all have to remember when we moan about the state of things, and yet insist that we are One with Christ. There is surely a contradiction between our belief in salvation and our long faces and general denigration of the world. This of course does not mean we go about full of a false cheeriness which is lacking in sensitivity to the needs of those around us, but we do need to convince by our general way of life.

Our passage from 1 Corinthians (7:32-35) can, if taken out of context, suggest that Paul was just a gloomy man with a down on the material goods of life and given to denigrating the married state. Paul makes clear that he is merely expressing his own opinion, and not that of the Lord here, but our brief passage is in fact part of a much longer teaching he gives on the married state, in relation to the wholehearted conviction of life in Christ he expects the new Christians to hold. We tend to forget the context in which he was writing and why it mattered. Corinth was a largely pagan city with two ports and the residence of the Roman Governor of Achaia. It lived by Roman rules and expectations, ones in which women were not equal in fact or law; where divorce and infidelity were very common, and in which pursuing a Christian way of life must have been very difficult. In this situation Paul’s solution was to advocate celibacy so as to aid the total focus and concentration upon Christ he knew was at the heart of his own life. Other parts of this letter will make very radical claims for the equality of male and female partners in the marriage bond, claims which made serious demands on the intimate behaviour of spouses to each other: that they love each other with total affection, ‘as Christ loved the Church and gave his life for it’, an unheard of degree of self-giving and commitment for the time. In this context we can begin to appreciate the significance of Paul’s authority as a Christian thinker struggling to make a reality both of the day to day Christian living of his converts and of their understanding of their faith and in this situation we come to see that Paul is not negatively disposed towards marriage, but in fact deeply concerned about his congregation’s espousal of the new and fragile faith they had taken on.

This issue of the veracity of religious teachers and their teaching is of long duration, as we see in our reading from Deuteronomy (18:15-20).This Old Testament book was a compilation of teachings brought together in the late 7th century BC under Josiah, before the Babylonian invasion and conquest of Palestine. As such it is rather a hotchpotch of teaching, some very old and some much newer and our passage is rather oddly situated amidst a collection of rules related to worship; the privileges of the temple priests; child-sacrifice and magic; cities of refuge and boundaries. Ostensibly the words of Moses, clearly they date from considerably later than the Exodus, yet here too, we can see the question of the true authority of the giver of this teaching being explored. The writers speak quite precisely of the giving of another prophet, someone like the original leader Moses, someone chosen from among themselves to guide the people, someone they must listen to, someone with authority. What we know of the subsequent behaviour of the nation during the Babylonian occupation speaks volumes of their lack of discernment, indeed, of their persecution of men like Jeremiah. Listening, comprehending the true message from God, and having the courage to act upon that conviction, was clearly as difficult then as now and we, like them, must struggle to be true to our faith.

HOMILY for 3rd Ordinary Sunday

In 1939 Nicholas Winton was in Prague and realised that the Nazis would soon be invading and that many Jewish people faced a horrible fate. We might well have thought “It’s terrible, but what can I do?” Nicholas was not like that. He managed to arrange a series of trains to take 669 children to safety in London. Some might say “What about the thousands he didn’t save?” But the point is he did something. Even the smallest actions that do good are worth doing, and Christians are meant to have their eyes open all the time for such opportunities.

So St Paul in our 2nd reading today (1 Cor 7:29-32) reminds his listeners in dramatic style that they are not to sit around having nice spiritual feelings about the fact that God loves them. All of us need to realise that, as St Paul says, “Our time is growing short.” Even if we are only a teenager or a young adult, we never know when death will overtake us. But how do we do this? A young man asked me this on the Internet recently. Clearly his job is not obviously of service to others, and as a Christian he therefore wondered how it fitted in with what God wants him to do. My answer was this.

Most people will not be able to find jobs that provide instant help to others, as doctors or nurses, as teachers or care workers, or as a priest. Often they will simply have to do a job that happens to be available, and which may not be all that exciting or rewarding. Work, for them – for many of you – may well not be the thing in which they get much fulfilment, much sense that they are serving God. Nonetheless it is valuable in the sight of God. First of all, unless the work is sinful, because it contributes to the common good of society as a whole. This in itself is a good thing to do. Secondly, it is the way they make a living for themselves and their family if they have one. Then, because of that, it allows them to spend any spare time they have in other worthwhile ways -caring for their family, of course, or for others, and supporting some charity or community project, and working for their Church.

Most of us may not be able to take the dramatic action to save hundreds the way Nicholas Winton did, but every kind action, however small, matters to God. It is simply not Christian to sit around lazily saying “Oh there’s nothing much I can do.” Now we may be like Jonah in our 1st Reading. (Jonah 3:1-5.10) For if you remember, the first time God asked Jonah to speak for him, Jonah said what we can sometimes say, “Oh what’s the point? Nobody will listen to me.” This lovely fairy story makes the point very dramatically, because Jonah ends up swallowed by a whale and pushed back to where he came from. Then the next time God says “Up!  Go!” He ups and goes. No more whales for him. Yes, God gives all of us more than one chance to respond to him, so we should never give up, if sometimes like Jonah we fail.

As you know I tend to avoid naming the sin that is the opposite of the virtue I am speaking about. But today I will. The sin is laziness – sloth! Now be careful here! This too can be easily misunderstood. We can end up, as some do, thinking we have to be endlessly doing things, being productive, and never give ourselves time to rest. This is where we should remember the commandment about the Sabbath. The literal interpretation of this is to keep one day a week as a rest day. But Jesus taught it differently. Remember how some people tried to stop Jesus healing on the Sabbath. His response was, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”  So it is not the day itself but proper and regular rest that Jesus thinks is essential, not to work and fuss and fret as Martha did. She had to be told that Mary, sitting quietly at his feet, had chosen the better way.

St Benedict teaches this in his Rule for Monks, where he insists that they have a right balance in their lives. There are times when they must work. Times when they must pray. And times too when they must rest. For monks that can be laid out in a fairly strict timetable, for rarely is the regularity of their day interrupted. For us, it will be different. But it is still true that all of us should try to create some regularity in our lives in which we fit in the right amount of time to rest and relax, the right amount of time to pray, and the right amount of time to work in one way or another as I have already described.

Working out a pattern of life, what we sometimes call a Rule of Life, that suits us, is of course far from easy. I might well ask : Am I doing too much resting when I sit and watch the telly :  or Am I working too hard if I get involved in some activity that goes on and on and never seems to stop: or Am I spending enough time, or too much time, in prayer? Anyway, our Rule of Life should not be something too hard for us. It is better to plan for 2 minutes prayer last thing at night, than aim for half an hour that we manage once, and then end up guilty because we never manage it again.

Here is a fierce warning from St Paul for the lazy! He writes “If any one will not work, let him not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies” (2 Thess 3:10-11) Even the retired need to remember this, & find useful and productive things to do, or if they are sick or housebound, to turn prayer for others & support by phone or over the Internet, as their work for God. Jesus said You will know them by their fruits. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt 7:20-21) Yes, that’s the heart of what I am saying today. He calls us to follow him, to be active in his service in one way or another. Those fisherman in our Gospel (Mark 1:14-20) had no idea they would change the world; and we too should never underestimate what we can do if we get on with things, and allow God to work in and through us. This is the way to glory