April 27, 2016
Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- I suppose the search for perfection, for the ideal, for a life not continually messed up by our own and others inadequacies and the problems of the world, is something which in some shape or form occupies most of us during our lives. Certainly it seems to be a prominent feature of most religions, as it was the occupation of so many ancient philosophers. We now accept that such absolute perfection is impossible this side of the grave, but nonetheless its pursuit to some extent shapes our lives as Christians: in the search for God; in our moral life; and indeed in many of our human undertakings, whether that be in parenting our children, in our studies in the academic field, in artistry, or what you will.
This is certainly the vision of the writer of the Apocalypse (Apoc 21:10-14.22-25) with his picture of the new and heavenly Jerusalem. It is a description of perfect symmetry in complete contrast to his description of the failures of the seven churches of the Province of Asia, which he clearly knew so well, and his harrowing account of the world as he saw it and its catastrophic destruction. The writer saw the Christian message as one of great battle between the powers of God and the good, and those of evil, here represented by the human city and the opportunities they gave for the corruption and exploitation of the human being. For him, things are seen in very black and white terms, and there seems to be little room for leeway between the two.
With Luke-Acts (Acts 15:1-2.22-29) however, we are hearing the story of the spread of Christianity by Paul and Barnabas in the decade after the crucifixion i.e. in the 40’s AD. According to this account, the disciples began their work from within Judaism and with its following of pagan sympathisers. Their search therefore for the God of Jesus Christ was to follow in the Jewish tradition, but with radical and significant differences. The first, as we see in our reading, was the renunciation of the need for male converts from paganism to be circumcised. This was a significant issue holding back ‘Godfearers’, that is pagan sympathisers with Judaism, from full conversion. We know that some in ancient cities were attracted to the high moral life of Jews and their ethical teachings, but that they rarely converted precisely because circumcision would have made them highly visible at the public baths and in the gymnasia, and could have courted trouble. Moreover, full adherence to Judaism, with its call to rigid separatism from pagans would have made the lives of converts near impossible.
Our account of what we call the Council of Jerusalem, around 49AD demonstrates a remarkable convergence of views in the Early Church, as they lay down quite limited parameters for convert practices. In Leviticus 17 in the Old Testament, we find a set of instructions about the slaughter and eating of meat, and the early church was at pains, as were the Jews, to separate themselves from pagan worship, in which the drinking of animal blood may have been significant. Strangled animals of course are those not drained of blood, indeed we know from all those now pristine and white Greek edifices that originally they would have run red with blood from the slaughter of animals. The temple of Zeus at Agrigento in Sicily had 100 altars for the slaughter of bulls. The other rule was against what the Jerusalem Bible calls ‘fornication’, in Greek, porneia, and a much wider term than we understand it today. In the first and second centuries AD, well before the development of extreme Christian ascetic practices, porneia had a wide meaning, from prohibiting abortions and infanticide, to guidance given to the thoughtful on the correct attitudes of mind and body required in the procreation of children. Naturally it also included teaching on the appropriate attitudes men and women should adopt generally towards their bodies, and this did include moderate and careful approaches to sex. What we witness here then, is the gentle teaching of the early church as it tried to aid its new converts in their growth in the faith, and as they went about their daily lives. Conversion, and the search for perfection, is a process, a long journey, and clearly not to be accomplished fully in this life.
Not long after Luke wrote his great opus, St John was at work on the Fourth Gospel, sharing with us his memories and reflections of the life of Jesus. It is significant that he too presents a gradualist understanding of our growth in God, of our journey to perfection, which I presume also reflects the values of Jesus himself. In our portion of the Gospel (John 14:23-29) he says that subsequent to his (Jesus’) departure, the Father will send the Holy Spirit who ‘Will teach you everything’ (and that this teaching will be in accord with Jesus’ own teaching whilst he was with them). The real appreciation of who Jesus is, and of what he stands for, therefore appears to be something we both already have, and which will be illumined by his departure, that is both his death and resurrection and his ascension to the Father. Significantly, he promises them his peace; “A peace the world cannot give”, reminding them that there is perfection only achievable beyond the grave, beyond his and by implication our own death. For we live, as always, in very uncertain times, and in the frailty of the human condition. It appears then, that the Gospel writers, unlike the writer of the Apocalypse, do not get hung up over the issue of our human perfection, and are comfortable with seeing it as within God’s remit, and can approach it with the gentleness of our Saviour.
April 24, 2016
We Christians quite rightly talk a lot about love, and we try to put into practice what Jesus taught us in today’s Gospel, (John 13:31-35) to “love one another just as I have loved you.” But very easily we turn that into something that we must do. I must be kind to those I meet. I must get on with those I work with. I must help the poor of the world. I must try to tolerate those who I do not like etc etc. Now this is all very fine and good, but there is one thing wrong with it. In order to love others, we must allow ourselves to be loved by them. If I fail to let others love me, even to do things for me, or fuss over me, in ways that I do not much like, I have not yet learnt to love the way Jesus loves.
I notice this particularly when, as today, I encourage people to come forward at the end of Mass for Prayers for healing. Oh yes, lots and lots of people come forward, and it’s very moving to see this ; but few of them ask for prayers for themselves, and if they do it is often as a modest afterthought – “Oh, and a little prayer for me too Father.” Now it is wonderful to know that in the heart of each Christian is so much concern for those who are sick or sad in some way; but we must not make that mean, that we are too modest to mention our own needs and ask for prayers for ourselves. I even know of some people who like to keep their sickness a secret. Somehow they have got it into their heads that although they will pray for others, they would prefer others not to pray for them.
My guess is that they don’t want people to fuss, and I do understand that, because I find that difficult too. A priest has only to limp a little, or cough a bit too much, and endless people are coming up after Mass to show their concern and offer solutions. My instinct then is to minimise the problem – to say “Oh it’s nothing really.” –whatever it is – probably because I don’t want to be accused of being one of those irritating people who goes on and on about themselves and all their ailments! What I should do is simply accept their love.
Jesus has this problem too. The disciples fuss over him when he disappears early in the morning up in the hills to pray. He simply tells them, without criticising them, that they must all move on. The woman with the ointment comes into a public place and anoints his feet and dries them with her hair – so embarrassing! When others say he shouldn’t have allowed this, especially as the woman has a bad name, he gently defends her action. At Gethsemane he, Jesus the Son of God, with a unique relationship with God the Father, asks his weak disciples to pray for him. What good can their feeble prayers do, compared with his, especially as, just as he suspects, they fall asleep! And yet that is what he does.
Yes, Jesus loves us by allowing us weak silly humans with all our faults to love him, even to pray for him. God chooses to become a human being, and in so doing encourages us into a quite different relationship with him. Instead of simply loving us from a position of superiority, and expecting gratitude and praise and worship in return, he allows us to love him. We then must try to be like that. We must not just allow, but encourage others to pray for us, to love us. When we are sick or sad or facing some medical treatment, we have to overcome our shyness, our modesty, and ask others to pray for us. How dare we do otherwise? How can we spend time praying and caring for others, as if we are some special person distributing God’s love, and not allow them to pray and care for us?
True love is always a mutual thing – a giving and a receiving. We, the Church, must first of all be a community where that mutual love is shown. Have you the courage to turn to the person sitting near you at Mass, someone you may not know, or may only know a little, and ask them to pray for you? Do you ask to be put on the church’s prayer list when you are in need of prayer, or do you hide your problems because you do not want to make a fuss? Some people even say nothing, but are then upset when nobody appears to notice that they are suffering and need prayer. Jesus said “Ask and it will be given you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened for you.”
Love is an immensely powerful force and when linked to prayer it becomes even more powerful, always bringing comfort and support and sometimes also bringing an amazing result for the person prayed for. But if we do not allow ourselves to be loved, if we do not ask for prayer, then we are failing to allow God’s love to come to us through others, and that’s sad, isn’t it?
April 20, 2016
Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- Tertullian opinioned that people could tell who the Christians were by the love they bore for one another. In an age such as ours which either eroticises or sentimentalises that over worked word ‘love’, in Greek, ‘agape’, it is worth our while to explore what it meant to early Christians and indeed, why in our Gospel (John 12:31-35) Jesus should issue his disciples a command to love.
The idea of a care and compassion, a love for one’s fellow men and women, was not universal in the ancient world. These were societies built on slavery, on the ownership of hundreds of thousands of individuals who were socially dead; they had no rights, and could be bought or sold and used and abused with impunity. When they were freed at the behest of a master they become citizens of the Roman Empire, yet they remained clients, with restrictions and obligations to their former masters. Masters, indeed, could inherit a substantial part of their estates on the death of freedmen. There was no state support for the poor and needy, even when they were free born. The wealthy might decide to give gifts to the populace of their cities, (euergetism); and these were often lavish gifts, which could include the construction of public amenities like baths. When it came to cash handouts, typically the richer and less needy were given more than the poor and needy. Gifts such as these were frequently given to secure votes at elections in which powerful men competed for jobs as magistrates – and the opportunities that gave to accrue more wealth. True, people might give a few coins of low denomination to beggars, but many lived in dire poverty, with all the problems that implied for poor diet, disease and an early death. The idea of any equality of help across the social spectrum in any community was very unusual. This was what Christianity called for.
We witness this throughout Paul’s letters, with the collections in Greece, in the Letters to the Corinthians, for famine racked Judaea; with the letter of recommendation in Romans for Phoebe from Cenchreae; not to mention his harangues over the sharing of the Eucharistic agape meal in First Corinthians. Loving one another as Christ had loved them did not come naturally to the disciples; it was a radical call and a difficult concept in the heavily stratified societies in which they lived. Jesus too told stories illustrating the need for such demanding and different action, with parables like the Good Samaritan in Luke’s gospel. The real sign of how radical and different this commandment was is to be seen above all in its context in John’s gospel, since it follows immediately on the exit of Judas ‘in the dark’, with his intention of betraying Jesus to the Jewish authorities which instigated the entire passion story of Jesus’ great saving gift of himself for a fallen world. Jesus did not discriminate between the good and the bad, for his followers deserted him to a man, His resurrection message was precisely that God’s love transcends our behaviour and our human weaknesses. It demonstrates that much of the Christian message of love and care will be born out of struggle and suffering.
This is precisely the picture we see in our reading from Acts (Acts 14:21-27). Missing from our brief bit is the account of how Paul was nearly murdered at Lystra, and the opposition from Jews as the faith in Jesus spread throughout the pagan world. Our story focuses on the establishment of structures –ministries – to enable the communities to develop and carry on with the Christian mission once Paul and Barnabas has left to return to Palestine. Quite clearly difficulties and persecution were foreseen by Paul and Barnabas, for as they said, “We all have to experience many hardships before we enter the kingdom of God.” Learning to love, as Christ commanded, is a radical option, and something that does not and did not just come naturally. The notion of a universal brotherhood and sisterhood, stretching across the boundaries of race, class and status was as difficult for them as for us, and no less relevant today when we are debating issues of our European identity and that of the plight of millions of refugees.
In our reading from the Apocalypse, (21:1-5) we see this story taken to its ultimate conclusion as John the Divine writes of the new heaven and the new earth, of the new Jerusalem in which God is finally at home with his creation, his people. It comes from the penultimate chapter (for modern readers) of this astonishing work, so riddled with appalling violence and destruction, when God’s will is finally achieved and his creation is as it was made to be. It is the story of a humanity fit to live with and be with God, a creation which is truly God-like in its love. Those of us familiar with the story will know that among its most terrifying and impressive features is the description of the destruction (Apoc 18) of Babylon, a euphemism for evil, and clearly modelled on the destruction by volcanic eruption of Pompeii and the other cities in the Bay of Naples in 79.AD. John writes of the dramatic and radical transformation of the world as a metaphor for the journey each and every one of us must make as we take on Jesus’ commandment to love as he has loved us, his recipe for making us his new creation.
April 17, 2016
I was saying last week that one of the reasons I became a Christian was because I saw Jesus as someone who stood against the status quo. I still love the way he really goes for the posh people in power and mixes with the ordinary people, that the posh people look down on. But although this would have made me admire him, as I might admire other historical figures, this would not have been enough by itself to make me into a Christian. No, what really attracted me was that this man Jesus, whom I admired so much, wanted to be my friend; and a friend who would be with me for ever, wherever I went, whatever I did. That’s why I love his saying “I do not call you servants any longer, but I call you friends” (John 15:15) and then the words “Remember I am with you always, to the end of time” (Matt 28:20)
Today’s Gospel (John 10:27-30) takes this even further, because it shows us what kind of a friend Jesus is. I remember when I was a student many moons ago, visiting a friend in hospital. He was so pleased to see me because, he said, I was the only friend who had come to visit him. He had lots of so-called friends, but I was the only one who showed true friendship when things got hard. It reminds me of some words from a poem that I love
“Every man will be thy friend
Whilst thou hast wherewith to spend”
and then it ends
“He who is thy friend indeed
He will help thee in thy need
If thou sorrow he will weep,
If thou wake he cannot sleep.
Thus of every grief in heart
He with thee doth bear a part
These are certain signs to know
Faithful friend from flattering foe”
(from The Passionate Pilgrim)
And this is why I follow Jesus. Because I see him as my truest friend, and a friend who is not just for this time only, but is a friend for ever, a friend who will be with me even beyond death, because he has already been there for me. That is surely why Jesus says of us who follow him as the Good Shepherd, “I give them eternal life. They will never be lost.” And remember, as I have said many times before, this “eternal life” is something we have NOW. It is a relationship with him NOW. What a gift to be given! To be one with God, the eternal power underlying the Universe, and how? Not by some mystical incantation, nor by striving to be perfect, but simply by being friends with Jesus!
And what a friend! Did you notice the final words from the 2nd Reading, (Rev 7:14-17) words often read at funerals? Jesus, “The Lamb who is at the throne”, will be our “Shepherd”.. and here are the crunch lines “He will lead (us) to springs of living water… and will wipe away all tears from our eyes.”And our link with him is more than ordinary friendship. Jesus says we are as close to him as are branches to a Vine. (John 15:5) What a wonderful and extraordinary gift! To be that close to Jesus, to be one with him, in union with him, so that whatever we face, we are never alone.
You will be surprised to hear that despite the love for Jesus that I found as a teenager, and never lost, the last thing I wanted to be was a priest. When people said “You would make a good priest” I used to say “Oh yuk, Anything but that!” Not least because sadly, a priest to me was an establishment figure, someone rather proper and conventional – and no way was I going to end up like that! It was only later when I realised what a challenge the priesthood could be, a challenge to me, but also a challenge to society, a challenge to conventional ways of thinking and behaving, that I reluctantly began to look at the idea again.
Today, is the Sunday each year when we particularly pray that more men will think about becoming a priest, and pray for those who are now training to be one. I was at a Conference of priests recently where they asked us to write on Post-it Notes three things that we liked about being a priest, and then we stuck them on a wall so we could compare notes. You will not be surprised to hear that no-one said they enjoyed running a church building, coping with leaking roofs and damaged sewers, making sure enough money came in. No. We all wrote about the joy of serving all sorts of different people, and the wonder of being given time to pray and to support others in prayer.
Prayer –not saying words at a distant God, and certainly not about sending up endless requests, hoping one or two might get an answer, How tragic that some people think prayer is like that! No, true prayer is the way we make explicit in our minds our eternal friendship with Jesus, and thus with God; our knowledge that we are in him and he is in us, and then to put all that glory into words and actions for others.
April 13, 2016
Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- It is very difficult to understand how the Christian message gradually took off and became such a dominant feature in the Greco-Roman world. The fact that under Constantine the Great it would become the official religion of the state is near incredible, given its almost insignificant beginnings. What was it that proved so attractive and so compelling that it eventually surpassed the powers of the ancient Roman gods and became in its turn so powerful?
Was there, is there, something supremely attractive about the Easter story of the resurrection of Jesus to eternal life and thereby of his gift of this to all of his followers which turned so many ancient men and women in the direction of Christianity, even making martyrs, witnesses to the faith, of some of them? If we think of present day life as insecure and uncertain, and indeed it is – despite all the benefits of improved health care, insurances against theft, house fires and other disasters – then life for the citizens of the ancient world was much more precarious.
Greco-Romans lived with appallingly high mortality rates and about two thirds of the children would not live to see their fifth birthdays. Most adults died by about 45. Ancient cities were perilous places, with frequent fires and building collapse which killed the occupants. Famine and food riots would have been common and the threat of wars and invasions were fairly frequent if you lived in what we call Eastern Turkey. Illness and disease was rife, as there was no knowledge of cleanliness in the fight against infections and of course no antibiotics. Taxes were ruthlessly extracted from the poorest by armed taxmen and hundreds could be sold into slavery, often by their families, to pay their dues. If this mortal life was very tough, death for pagans meant obliteration. Jews believed in eternal life, but only as a continuation of this life with the military triumph of the Messiah and good times for Israel. The Christian message was different, it taught that even now we live eternally in the presence of God, of Jesus the Son, who died and rose so that we all might live eternally with God. Death for the Christian is never the end, merely the beginning of a transformed and glorified existence with God.
This of course is the vision of the writer of the Apocalypse (7:9:14-17). John wrote this glorious picture of the millions of the redeemed praising God and significantly mentions their rescue from hunger and the heat of the sun which so relentlessly dried everything up, their crops included. He spoke of the sacrificed Lamb who would lead them to streams of living water, no small gift in lands perpetually short of water and used to surviving on brackish and polluted supplies, and of the end to tears of mourning and the constant loss, and the funerals which blighted their lives.
Indeed, when we hear from Acts (Acts 13:14.43-52) of part of Paul and Barnabas’ first missionary journey to the southern and central parts of Turkey, we find a remarkably similar picture. They had come from Cyprus under the instruction of the Proconsul Serguis Paulus who had given them a sympathetic hearing and who owned estates and had influence in the area. Our account includes the details of conflict between Paul’s Christian mission and that of the Jews who seemed to have been able to attract converts from paganism to their beliefs. Archaeology has shown us the extent of Roman infiltration into this area in the many Greek inscriptions which have been discovered both on public buildings and tombstones, and we know that pagans were increasingly looking for something more than the impersonal relationship accorded them by the Roman gods. Many had become adherents of Isis or Mithras, both eastern gods with a moral imperative attached to their worship and in competition with Christianity. Pagans of status attracted to Judaism could not convert to that faith because of its ritual requirements and separatism, so we can see the attractiveness of the Christian call. Luke makes very clear that it was the promise of eternal life in Christ which was very attractive to the new believers who, the Greek tells us “Rejoiced and glorified the Lord” (rather than the Jerusalem Bible ‘Were happy and thanked the Lord’) a phrase so in tune with the Apocalypse’s sense of eternal life embracing this mortal life and the next.
In our Gospel, (John 10:27-30) we find Jesus in Jerusalem for the Feast of the Dedication of the Temple. This is part of John’s very lengthy portrayal of the many disputes Jesus has with those in authority in Judaism, most especially surrounding the claims he made to having a special relationship with God, the one he called his Father and to whom he claimed complete unity and identity. Significantly Jesus promises his followers ‘eternal life’. Now this is not for some future date when they will have proved their worth, he deliberately uses the present tense. “The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice, I know them and they follow me, I give them eternal life and they will never be lost.” Followers of the Lord are already living here and now the life of heaven by God’s gift. They will live it eternally with God post mortem, but even now this is something the believer is already initiated into. We live in a changed reality. Jesus goes on to make clear that this gift of eternal life, so different from that of the Jewish promise, is not simply his gift alone, but that of the Father; “The Father who gave them to me is greater than anyone, and no one can steal from the Father.” For Jews and their sympathisers such a claim would have completely upset and altered hundreds of years of teaching and belief and Jesus goes on to press home precisely the nature of the seismic shift in his understanding of the God-Man relationship, with his ultimate claim “The Father and I are one.” This means that all of us, and all of his original hearers, so used to a colossal void between God and humanity, are brought close in Jesus, and all those terrors to which we are all constantly a prey are defeated.
April 10, 2016
Some of you, who have asked, will be glad to hear that I have turned some of the stuff in these Homilies into a book, which I hope to self-publish in time for my 70th Birthday in July. But it is not actually a book of Homilies, but a book about my life, because, as you know, it is from my experiences of life that I draw most of the material I preach. And one of the things writing this book has made me ponder, is why I ever became a Christian at all?
It all happened when I was deeply unhappy at my very traditional all boys secondary school. There I met a friend who introduced me to Jesus. I had begun to put the stories of Jesus into the land of fairy tales, when suddenly he was presented to me as a very real person, and someone I could follow. And why was I attracted to follow him? One of the main reasons was precisely because he rejected the traditional establishment – just the kind of people I hated at that horrid school. The rest of my story – how following Jesus led me, to my amazement, to become first a Vicar and then a Catholic priest, is what the rest of the book is all about, for which you will have to wait till you read it, (if you want to!) but let’s have a look today about what the Gospel has to do with all this. (John 21:1-19)
You see there Peter and his friends going back to their old way of life – to the traditional ways that they had been brought up with. In their case “fishing”. “I’m going fishing” says Peter, and off they go. The story then shows the futility of this choice because they catch nothing, and St John, the writer of this great Gospel, adds that it was night; because he wants to link us back to the great beginning of his work that we hear at Christmas, where he writes of Jesus. “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:4-5) So we see that the disciples, who failed to catch a single fish in the dark without Jesus, meet Jesus when it is light, and then their fishing is transformed and they are able to make a great catch.
Thus we are shown that following Jesus will affect every part of our lives as it affected theirs ; and that reminds me of an incident when talking to the children last Sunday. One boy said his favourite activity was playing computer games. You ought to have seen the astonishment on his face when I told him that without God there would not be any computer games. Indeed I don’t think he believed me! He could not see the connection between God and his normal everyday activities. We all need to be reminded that it is God who created the Universe and everything in it. As we heard in our 2nd reading (Rev 5:11-14) it is “All the living things in creation” who cry out the praises of God . Unless we realise – that, however clever we humans are, all things come from God – we are getting everything in the world upside down. Thus we humans exalt ourselves in stupid self-praise, quite forgetting our weaknesses and our failings; and this ends up encouraging us to believe that whatever we think is right must be the right thing to do. Thus the status quo, the thing that most people think is OK, becomes accepted as OK. No wonder my favourite saying of Jesus is “No one is good but God alone!”
We see this played out in the rest of the Gospel too. Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him, and why three times? Because although Peter had promised never to deny Jesus, when confronted with a world who had turned against Jesus and was about to crucify him, Peter simply went along with that world, and denied three time that he even knew Jesus. See then how Jesus does not condemn him for his failure, just as he does not condemn us. Like Peter, we also often go along with the ways of the world. And why? – simply for an easy life – simply because we do not want people challenging us, or mocking us, or making us feel different.
No Jesus does not condemn. He simply asks us again and again, as he asked Peter. “Do you love me? He asks us this most clearly when we are at Mass. In our own private prayers we can easily excuse ourselves, or convince ourselves that God doesn’t need us to be so openly against the ways of the world ; but at Mass Sunday by Sunday we hear all sorts of challenges to these false assumptions. They remind us all too vividly that as Christians, as followers of Jesus, we will often have to do or say things that we do not particularly want to do or to say.
So Jesus reminds Peter at the end of this Gospel that in the past he often did what he wanted to do, but that in the future he will have to accept the fact that he will have to go and do things that he would rather not do. Such is the radical challenge of the risen Jesus for all of us, whether we like it or not.
April 8, 2016
Frances writes on the readings for this Sunday :- This week seem to be all about number crunching. They present situations at various times in the life of the early church in which it was, for various reasons vital to demonstrate the vitality of the Christian movement. Whilst we may sometimes be sceptical of such accounts and events, it is significant that our Christian world too is equally concerned with numbers and the rise of members in the Far East still heartens us as any supposed decline in the West is a cause for anxiety and sadness. The vast numbers of Catholics in the world, especially those turning out for papal visits can be very heartening and of lasting significance, especially amongst the youthful members of the Church. Just like the first Christians, numbers help to assure us that we are on the right track and in the light of the Easter resurrection this is still as significant as it was originally. So what are we to make of the readings today?
In our Gospel (John 21:1-19) we begin our story with a picture of the disheartened disciples back in Galilee after the crucifixion. It appears that the ‘Christian thing’ is over, they have returned to what they were before Jesus originally attracted them away from their nets; fishermen. They catch nothing all night, a metaphor for their loss and emptiness without Christ, and one of John’s great themes of darkness – sin and evil and light – truth and grace. Once it is daylight Jesus, ‘the light of the world’, appears on the shore, significantly unrecognised by them. Our Jerusalem Bible rendering then typically alters the wording and loses its significance. Jesus, in Greek, does not call out ‘Have you caught anything, friends?’ but, in gentle chastisement, “Have you caught anything, children?” – indicating their ignorance and lack of faith. Immediately, following his command they try again and draw up a huge catch, the sign of God’s abundance and blessing. At this point the Beloved Disciple realises whose presence they are in and the significance of everything, and naturally, they will share a meal, the pre-eminent sign of God’s blessing and love.
Yet, at this point in the account, the near-naked Peter clothes himself to jump into the water and get to Jesus. Now, as most of us strip off for a dip, this can only be a revisiting of the Genesis account of Adam and Eve clothing themselves in shame after the Fall. But how very different the situation turns out to be! Far from being thrown out of the garden, Peter is three times rehabilitated in a great undoing of the Fall and his own betrayal of Christ. Numbers, it seems are highly significant in this story, speaking volumes of the victory and glory of God who overcomes evil and sin.
Just a few years before John was writing, Luke wrote his gospel and Acts; and in the second part of his story, Acts, he deals with the growth of the Church. He begins in the very earliest days, in Jerusalem, after the resurrection and paints a picture of the growing animosity between the Jerusalem Jewish elite in the temple and the followers of Jesus. Luke paints a picture of the success of the Christian movement and the opposition and persecution it provoked by its preaching and miracles. Our compilers of the lectionary have deliberately omitted the account of the flogging of the apostles, due precisely because of the challenge they presented to traditional temple Judaism. Yet it is this that gives them their hearing in the Sanhedrin, and their opportunity to preach the resurrection of Jesus by God’s power to the very heart of the system they were challenging. Luke quite deliberately sets up this scenario, of Christian success and of numerous converts, at a time when his Gospel was going out to Gentiles, and when in fact Judaism was struggling in the aftermath of the disastrous failure of the Jewish Revolt. His message is loud and clear, ‘receive the benefits of those things which were so attractive in Judaism within the more open Christian movement and find salvation here as never offered before to pagans’. Ultimately, as we know, it was converts from paganism who would make up the bulk of the Church, so that we can see the success of his and others missions, and the power of their propaganda.
By the time we come to the writer of the Apocalypse (Apoc 5:11-14) we are into rather different territory. Our passage omits the crucial recalling of the seven churches to whom the letter was originally written. Anyone who has ever taken the time to read the seven letters at the start of this work will be aware that John the Divine has a pretty poor opinion of them, and this and the rest of the book is in fact his stern pep talk to a set of flagging followers. Quite clearly John viewed the seven churches of Asia in a very poor light and thought they needed a radical shake up. The picture of the rest of the book certainly does that! Here, however, he begins his pep talk in militant terms, loading Jesus, the risen Christ and the sacrificial Lamb with imperial titles. “The lamb that was sacrificed is worthy to be given power, riches, wisdom, strength, honour, glory and blessing.” This is stuff we just take for granted and ignore; but in the ancient world, the world of the Roman Empire only one man at a time ever held such exalted titles, the Emperor, and those only for the period of his reign, which might be for only a few years. Here, in our picture, the scene takes place in heaven, and Christ is offered this worship and acclaim by millions – and for ever. John is quite clear. Do the seven want to be part of this or not? It is time to choose. The impact of such a letter to those tiny, beleaguered Christian communities, of those struggling to survive amidst persecution and hostility, would have been magnetic. Suddenly, they knew they were not alone, and that their defeatism or slackness was not good enough; and, surrounded by this heavenly acclaim of the sacrificed and risen Christ, they too could be strong. We know that they did, by the remains of the Churches we have found and continue to find throughout Turkey. We are their heirs in Christ.
April 3, 2016
Sometimes we forget, that it is not just us 21st Century people who have trouble believing in the Resurrection of Jesus. The first disciples, and those they shared their story with, also had their doubts and difficulties. How could they believe Jesus was alive in this new way unless they could see him?
Our 1st Reading (Acts 5:12-16) shows Peter becoming a bit of a celebrity, as everyone he meets seems to be healed even if his shadow falls on them. There is one thing I want is to notice here. This is that Peter has told the people that the power to heal is not his, but comes from the risen Lord Jesus; and so we hear that although they can only see Peter, and not Jesus, “the numbers that came to believe in the Lord Jesus increased steadily”. It is worth reminding ourselves that this is still happening, that although numbers at Mass in our part of the world have fallen, the numbers of people becoming Catholics all over the world is still rising faster than the population growth; and many do so because of the good things they see Christians do and say. Here is something we cannot see but need to believe in.
Our 2nd Reading (Rev 1:9-19) is from that very strange last book in the Bible. The writer presents us with a mind-boggling series of visions that us ordinary folk find more than a little difficult to take. We wonder, as scholars have down the ages, what on earth all these things have to do with ordinary day to day Christians like us.
What we need to notice is that these visions start with something we can understand. For it is “The Lord’s Day”, in other words it is Sunday; and his vision begins with him seeing seven lamps. Most of us in Church this Lord’s Day, this Sunday, are seeing just what this man saw. We look towards the altar and there we can see at least seven candles. Six on the altar and then the great Paschal Candle making the seventh. Perhaps his vision actually began at Mass?
It reminds us that what seems so normal to those of us who are at Mass every Sunday, is not actually normal at all. Hidden in these ceremonies is the presence of the risen Lord Jesus. He is present in us, gathered together to pray. For he says “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matt 18:20) He is present in the Bible readings even when they are difficult to understand. And most of all, he is present in the consecrated Bread and Wine, the Blesséd Sacrament, as he told us in his own words, that the priest repeats each time Mass is said.
We may not see the risen Jesus as this man does, in a vision that makes him fall in a dead faint. We may not feel the risen Jesus touch us, as this man does, nor hear him say “Do not be afraid. It is I, the first and the last.”; but that does not mean that this does not happen to us too. He is present with us whether we feel it or not, and he will be present with us whenever we do anything to help others in the week ahead. Remember what he said: “As you do it to the least of these, you do it to me.” (Matt 25:40)
So we come to the Gospel, (John 20:19-31) where the disciples have the advantage over us in that they actually did see the risen Jesus and “are filled with joy.” But then we have dear doubting Thomas who declares, as many non-believers around us do, “Unless I see him I will not believe.” There have been non-believers who, a bit like Thomas, have made that declaration and then something has happened to them that has made them become believers. But this is not just the experience of non-believers. Many of us who believe have times of doubt, times when we wonder if we are kidding ourselves about God and Jesus and his presence. It has certainly happened to me not once but a number of times, for I am a great doubter. In my case, however, unlike Thomas, I have never been given an actual vision of Jesus. My doubts have been dispelled when I have seen God work through me despite my doubts….. I have not seen, and yet I believe, and find great comfort from the words of the risen Jesus who knew, and knows, how hard we find it to believe in things that we cannot see, that are not certain. So he says “Blesséd are those who have not seen and yet believe”
Note that word “Blesséd”. In the translation we use, it says “Happy” ; but happy is an easily misunderstood word. For Christians in believing face a hard life serving others, and suffering and maybe even dying for our belief, as those disciples did. A deep happiness yes, but not a surface jollity. So for me the word “Blesséd” is better for what we feel when we know the risen Jesus is with us, and go out to serve him in the world we live in. Remember Jesus also says to us “Behold I am with you always, to the end of the world.” (Matt 28:20)
March 27, 2016
The Easter Vigil
Being a softie I only select three Old Testament readings at the Easter Vigil whereas some priests would impose on you the full rigour of seven! Even so, I know that many people find these readings difficult to fit into the Easter celebration, for they are words and stories from a quite different world view. This time, I chose the ancient story of the Creation, then the escape from the Egyptians by crossing the Sea, and finally one from Isaiah. All with words and phrases that most people find strange and puzzling.
The first thing to remember about these readings, and the psalms that go with them, is that they are not meant to be understood easily. They are an essential part of this strange beginning to these Easter Vigil ceremonies, where we are encouraged to walk into a dark building where we cannot see very well, even when the candles are lit. All of this is a reminder of our endless human struggle to understand what life and death is all about, and how God fits into it. For the way through death to eternal life is not an easy process.
Remember too that the disciples, although they knew these readings a lot better than we do, also did not properly understand them. That’s why two of them on the road to Emmaus had to meet the risen Jesus who then explains how all these readings actually point to him – to the amazing truth that his death is not the end but points onwards to Resurrection.
We have to remember that the whole of the Old Testament is a journey of discovery. It might even be described as a pilgrimage. The writings were not written all in one go, but are the product of hundreds of years of thought and prayer. They are about the slow and difficult way in which the Israelite people came to believe in one invisible God, quite different from the mix of gods other peoples believed in. On this journey, recorded in these writings, they said and did some things that they later learned were at best a misunderstanding of what God wants, or at worse things were simply wrong. But in the midst of all these struggles gradually, very gradually, like the dawn slowly lightening the morning sky, deep truths about God would be revealed. It was these that Jesus fulfilled in his life, in his death and finally in his Resurrection, and which he then had to explain to his puzzled disciples.
The first reading we had tonight was one of the stories of the Creation of the world. (Genesis 1) Here we have our first hint at the Resurrection. Before the Universe existed we are told there was nothing, and that nothing is described as “a formless void, there was darkness over the deep” Out of total darkness, nothingness, God creates light, and from this comes all life including us humans. Only God then can defeat the darkness, and bring life from what is dead. “God blessed them, saying to them, ‘Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth …. And so it was. God saw all he had made, and indeed it was very good.” That is why we sometimes describe the Resurrection as “the new creation”.
The second reading (Exodus 14:14-15:1) was the story of the escape from the Egyptians. Again it appeared as if all was lost, that death at the hand of the Egyptians was all they could expect. Even as they cross where the sea has gone back, the Egyptians follow them. They reach the other bank and look back … to see the Egyptians struggling. The sea sweeps in, just as it does in Morecambe Bay in England, and those who would bring death are destroyed. And so they sang as we did, and almost certainly as Jesus and his disciples did in the Upper Room, although they sang in Hebrew : “I will sing to the Lord, glorious his triumph… The Lord is my strength, my song, my salvation. This is my God and I extol him, my father’s God, and I give him praise”
Finally we had a great passage from Isaiah (55:1-11) This was written during another time of great trouble more than 500 years later. The Jews had been sent into exile, and feared that they would not just lose their land, but their God too. They could see around them, people worshipping the Babylonian gods whose power seemed to have built an empire of power and wealth, whilst they struggled in poverty. But amazingly, Isaiah tells them “I (that is God) have made of you a witness to the peoples, a leader and master of nations.” You can imagine their scorn when he first told them that! And so he goes on to remind them that God is not like them, not like the peoples around them. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways”. And then, just in case they have missed the point “It is the Lord who speaks”
Most Jews, when they got back eventually to their own land interpreted this promise wrongly, either as an eventual military victory over all their enemies, or as a promise that one day God would act in a magic way to give them the glory they so desired. That’s why he crowds shouted Hosanna as Jesus entered Jerusalem, and then Crucify him when they didn’t get the glory they wanted. But the new life that Jesus offered was, and is, quite different for God is not like us. There are no magic solutions. There is only a God who even in the darkest moments walks with us and alongside us, leading us by a path of love and service and sacrifice to eternal life beyond the grave. It is this God that we choose to follow on this Holy Night.
How easily we silly humans seek the kind of glory that is only on the surface. Yes, we all like to escape from the real world with all its pain and suffering, and there is no harm in that, provided we realise that it is escapism, and that we must still return to the real world, and not just run away from it. We use all sorts of different ways of escape don’t we, ways to make us feel a bit happier? I swim and garden, and look at trees and birds, and I love a good film or book, with a happy ending of course. Some of you use football or another sport, either to do or to watch, or both, where you can lose yourself in the thrill of the moment. Some of you immerse yourself in computer games, or in shopping either online or on the High Street, and many of you, especially at Easter will also enjoy your chocolate!
Yes, all these things can give us moments of bliss, pure glory, when the harder things of life can be forgotten, at least for a little while. Some people even use religion like this, who want it to be Easter and Christmas all year, and prefer to avoid the more difficult challenges that Jesus expects of those who really want to follow him.
Deep down, most of us realise the difference between surface glory, the kind I have just been talking about, and true glory, the glory that is the glory of God, the glory that comes from the much harder things of life – from loving someone when things get difficult, from caring for someone in sickness or pain or grief – you all know what I mean. Last night we heard words from the prophet Isaiah (55:1-11) that are so important here,“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways”. And then, just in case we have missed the point “It is the Lord who speaks”
In our 2nd Reading today (Col 3:1-4) St Paul tells us where to find this kind of glory, in a phrase that we can easily miss. He says “When Christ is revealed, you too will be revealed in all your glory with him.” This is a strange saying, for we tend to look for glory, even true glory, outside ourselves, as something that comes from God to us. So for example, people come to Mass expecting to receive something, to get a bit of glory, a nice religious feeling ; and if they don’t get what they want, they actually then say “I didn’t anything out of it!” But Paul says that true glory is within us, even if we cannot see it at the moment. It is a way of thinking that sees glory growing in us in the tougher things of life, even in the duller and much more boring things of life, where we least expect to find anything glorious. Most of all, he says that we will find that this glory that is in us will only be fully revealed beyond death.
The friends, the disciples, of Jesus had pinned their hopes on being given glory in some way from God if they followed him. Instead, all they seem to have been given is his terrible death on the cross. Most of them have run away in fear, and watch on at a distance whilst all their hopes are shattered. Early on the Sunday morning, they are just sad and bewildered. Only gradually do they realise that God is at work, but in a different way from the one they imagined. Finally at Pentecost some weeks away from now, they discover that it is only as they offer themselves to God that true glory will be found ; and for many of them that will eventually mean being killed for following Jesus
The glory that Jesus offers us was, and is, quite different from surface glory. For God is not like us. There are no magic solutions. There is only a God who even in the darkest moments walks with us and alongside us, leading us by a path of love and service and sacrifice to eternal life beyond the grave. It is this God that we come here at Easter to follow. and we then go back to our very ordinary lives and get on with it, for that is where true glory will be found.
March 26, 2016
We may sing “There is a green hill far away” but actually the hill on which they killed Jesus was more likely to have been a dark hill with not much green in sight. It was, and is, a very dark moment in a long long history of we humans doing dark and awful things to one another. But that’s the point, isn’t it? Because we Christians believe that this is not just another man being tortured by others; this is also God entering into our darkest human moments even into death itself.
There are two ways in which we care for those facing darkness and sadness in their lives. First there is the care we offer to those we do not know : to those poor refugees from Syria, especially the children, fleeing from a murderous tyranny ; or to those suffering from poverty and hunger in places where there is very little food. Yes, we care about them, we may even shed a tear when we see such suffering on the TV, and we may well give money to one or other of the charities that is trying to help. But our care is care at a distance, it doesn’t affect us personally.
Then there is the other kind of care, where someone close to us is in pain or in sadness. Maybe it is or has been a husband or wife or a child or a close friend. Here our care is very different. We long to help more than we actually can. We long to do something to take away their pain, and usually we can do very little, and we suffer even more because there is so little we can actually do. So we suffer alongside them. This kind of care for others is a care that really hurts.
This is what we see in the crucifixion of Jesus. We are sometimes inclined to think of God as caring for us at a distance. Sad for us yes, trying to send help if we will receive it, but somehow remote from the actual suffering. But the God we Christians believe in is not like that. We believe that God cares for us as we care for someone close to us. His love is this different kind of love, a love for us that really hurts. Remember that God is in us, within us, and so feels all out pain and sadness.
And that is why it is important that we try to avoid making the death of Jesus too matter of fact. To see Jesus hanging on the cross so often that we fail to register the dreadful pain both physical and mental that Jesus is enduring as he hangs there. Here is God suffering for us, but choosing to do so as a real man unable to lessen the pain he is feeling. That is why on Good Friday we bring in a cross, and we hear the words “Behold the wood of the cross on which hung the salvation of the world” Note that! Not just “Here is the cross” but “Behold”, a word that is challenging as it tells us to look a lot more closely “Behold”, a word that tells us that here is something that we must attend to, not just look at as we look at many things, and then pass on; but actually a word to make us stop and think and hopefully pray.
And what we are called to see is something deeper than the surface story. What we are called to see, surrounded as we are in this world by so much that is dark and sad, is God’s love and mercy pouring out for us. But it does not just begin on the cross, it actually begins way back when God chooses to become a man. So, surprising as it may seem, we must link Good Friday with Christmas. Medieval pictures sometimes even hint at this where the cross beams of the stable roof stand out as a reminder of the cross that is to come. Remember too the Wise Man’s gift of myrrh, the ointment used in burial – a surprising gift for a baby unless we know who this baby is!
For this man is God come to us, this real flesh and blood suffering human body, is Emmanuel – God with us. This is not just the outward form of a man, as if he were play-acting, but a real flesh and blood human being who suffers and dies with just as much pain as we do, both as we watch over loved ones who suffer, or as we face pain and suffering ourselves.
In one of my parishes there was a woman who could not face coming forward to the cross on Good Friday. She had a very strong awareness of what the Crucifixion of Jesus really means – so much so that when she tried to come forward she could not cope with the tears that she shed. We might say “How emotional! Why couldn’t she control herself?” but actually I thought her tears were an example to us all, and I tried to persuade her to keep on coming, despite the tears, to help us all to be more aware of what it is we are looking at, and why we are encouraged, if we want to, to actually kiss the foot of the cross as a sign of our love and gratitude for this the greatest sacrifice ever made.
Amazing love, amazing grace!
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died
My richest gain I count but loss
And pour contempt on all my pride.