Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- If we are not careful, we can easily be seduced into thinking that the Christians of Galatia (Gals 5:16-15) were for some unexplained reason entirely given over to extravagant sexual promiscuity and other faults. I am not at all convinced that they were any worse than any other Gentile convert Christian group. It is much more likely that Paul gives this exciting list of human faults simply as a series of examples of unenlightened behaviour. He is comparing life in the Spirit with life lived according to the flesh, here sarx, the untamed natural instincts of which we are all a prey. He then goes on to give his well know list of attitudes shaped under God’s spirit: ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Paul was at pains to enable these converts to appreciate the difference between their former life and that of their baptised state, and get them to live according to its demands. Jewish Christians of course had all the benefit of the Jewish law to aid them in their daily living, but former pagans, unless they were from the elite Stoic and Epicurean groups of philosophers, did not. By and large paganism made no moral demands on its adherents, one simply offered sacrifices and life went on as normal. The whole point about Christianity was that it changed lives here and now; for those ancient converts just like us, are already members of God’s kingdom, called to live the life of godliness won for us by Christ. Pentecost is about the coming of the Holy Spirit now into the lives of believers, it is not about some vague future promise. It affirms that we are already sons and daughters of God and gives us the tools to live as such. “You cannot belong to Christ Jesus unless you crucify all self-indulgent passions and desires.” In other words, we are meant to live with and for others.

This is surely too what that strange reading from Acts (2:1-11) is all about. It really is irrelevant whether the apostles could suddenly actually speak this myriad of foreign languages, or whether the ‘gift’ of tongues enables these foreigners to understand them. What the text does suggest it that the tiny Church suddenly broke through the barriers to communication and were able to get the Christian message over to a wide diversity of visitors in Jerusalem for Pentecost the spring grain harvest and one of the major Jewish festivals, which drew visitors from all over the ancient world, both within the Roman empire and far east, to areas hundreds of miles distant and under Persian and Parthian rule. Romans and others did understand the necessity for a common language. Aramaic had for centuries been the diplomatic language of the east while many in the empire spoke Greek and soldiers all learned Latin so as to understand army orders. Being able to communicate the faith, any faith, was absolutely essential if it was to spread and grow, and linguistic ability has always been at the heart of any missionary agenda. The faith is never something to be treated as a personal possession, ‘my faith’ and ‘my salvation’; it is a fundamental sign that we have grasped its meaning when we burn to communicate it to others.

This is indeed what we meet in John’s gospel, (Jn 15:26-27.16:12-15) when Jesus prepares his followers for their future life beyond his bodily presence. What is remarkable is that he does not give them a long list of do’s and don’ts. He does not lecture them on morals or even Church practice, but he does prepare them, by the gift of the Holy Spirit to be his witnesses. Jesus is aware that too much detail would clog the minds of the disciples and simply says that over time, via the Spirit of truth, they/we will gradually come to an understanding of the complete truth. Indeed, we can see that the work of the Spirit has enabled us to come to a full understanding of the nature of Jesus, two persons (one human, one divine) in one substance, (one unique being). It has enabled us to comprehend the meaning of the Trinity, and the manner in which Jesus, eternal Son, could become a human being for our salvation, ‘begotten of the Father.

If our faith is real and a driving force in our lives, there will be that compulsion within us to grow in the faith and a striving to communicate it to others too. Each of us is a bearer of the Spirit of truth, an explorer of it and its champion, taking it out into the world for the salvation of others, which is precisely why Jesus speaks of the Spirit as ‘glorifying me’ since, as a person of the Trinity present in us, it and we share with Father and Son in their life.

There’s no doubt that one of the most popular passages from the Bible is St Paul’s passage on love. “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned but have not love, I gain nothing.” (1 Cor 13)  What most people don’t realise is that Paul says all this and more, about love, to a group of Christians who are very religious indeed. They are all prayerful people. Indeed they are not just prayerful, they are always praising God, and apparently showing in their worship all the gifts of the Holy Spirit that I have been talking about in the last few weeks. Their prayers are ecstatic in praise of God. They fill their life with holy words, prophecies, that they claim come straight from God. They are active in giving their money away to those in need. But clearly they have a problem, which is why Paul’s words about love are not gentle but fierce. “You may think you are religious, but without love, YOU ARE NOTHING!”

When we hear this, we nod in agreement. We say “Such wonderful words! So true.”  And then as soon as someone says or does something we don’t like, we easily become irritated, even angry. If we do something stupid or wrong, we always have an excuse, some reason for our behaviour; but we rarely excuse other people. They are just wrong. They must change their ways. They must behave better! And on and on it goes.

What is worse, is that how we treat others at home or at work, is also the way we behave on the world’s stage. Here we are : the people who call ourselves Christians, claiming to follow the ways of goodness and love, and yet all the way through our history, we have fought and killed one another. No wonder some people claim that religion causes wars! It doesn’t, of course. Wars are caused by us sinful human beings using various excuses, sometimes religious, to get our own way. We British Christians are some of the worst. We have fought against Christians in France, in Spain in Germany… we have gone round the world killing people in Africa and Asia and America, unless they became part of our Empire, and we have even killed our fellow Christians here at home – Catholics killing Protestants and Protestants killing Catholics. It’s a horrible story, and it must stand as a warning to each one of us, that every time we fail to love another person, every time we say that it’s their fault not ours; we are on the way to the hate and violence that has caused, and still causes, people to kill one another!

This is surely why the angels in the story of the Ascension today (Acts 1:1-11) tell off the friends of Jesus for looking up into the sky. It is all too easy, like them, to have a strong belief in God, to come to Mass every Sunday, and to fail to turn that yearning for God, that looking to God for help and support, into practical and sacrificial caring for others in our ordinary lives the rest of the time. In our 2nd Reading, (Eph 4:1-13) Paul once again goes on about this need. This time it is with the Christians in Ephesus; and he doesn’t just speak to them about love he IMPLORES them! Clearly he is in despair at their failure to live out their faith in love. He implores them “Bear with one another charitably, in complete selflessness, gentleness and patience”

However (and this is relevant to all that I have been preaching in the last few weeks about the Holy Spirit) he goes on to link this bearing with one another with our being one in the Holy Spirit. We cannot claim to have received the Holy Spirit, to be full Catholic Christians, if we do not “bear” with one another. We need to think about that person, or those people, who we find most difficult to bear : the ones that are most likely to make us upset, or angry or stressed. The one’s therefore that we find most difficult to love. Paul tells us: “Do all you can to preserve the unity of the Spirit by the peace that binds you together.” The peace there is another way of speaking of God’s presence, God’s Holy Spirit within us, and we have to work to make that presence an active reality in every part of our lives.

The Ascension of Jesus therefore, is not a one-off vision of Jesus in his glory, one with God. The while point of the Ascension is that the Risen Jesus is not confined to one place in the world. Until that moment he was just a Jew revealing his glory to Jews in their own country – a vision of God that they could claim as especially theirs. But now, in the Ascension, Jesus is declared as present in every part of the world, indeed in every part of the universe.

It is from this vision, and the empowering of the Holy Spirit that follows it that we celebrate next week, that the first Jewish Christians break out from their national identity and pride, and begin to spread the Gospel to others. That is the job they, and we, are given by Jesus on that day, as we heard in the Gospel. (Mark 16:15-20) “Go out to the whole world; proclaim the Good News to all creation”  Yes, we may be ashamed how often the Church, and we Christians within it, have failed and still fail to live up to the love that Jesus taught us ; but we ought also to remember all the good work, through the centuries, that the Church has done to teach people this ideal of love and care for others, that our world so desperately needs.

That is the Ascension message. We must always go out to the world. We must try to proclaim the great message of God’s love that Jesus brings us, and in the power of the Holy Spirit we must make a daily effort to live that love out in our own lives!

Frances writes on this Sunday’s Readings :- I suspect that when we celebrate the Ascension we think of it primarily as a past event, once-off a long time ago, so that it’s meaning and significance becomes lost in a rather generalised and hazy comprehension of the whole Easter event. Yet our choice of readings indicates that this was far from the case in the Early Church, and we need to return there to get a grip on its true significance. The Ascension, it appears, was the prelude to the entry of the full power of the Holy Spirit into the lives of the baptised, as we see in our reading from Acts (1:1-11). “Not many days from now, you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.” Luke has been telling his powerful patron and Greek convert Theophilus the story of Jesus, emphasising how everything that had seemed lost in the passion and death of the Jesus event was recovered at the resurrection and the period the risen bodily Jesus spent with his disciples. Clearly Jesus was all too aware that if he simply remained with the disciples forever they would be stuck, the faith would seem an inevitability and all ‘choices’ on our part rendered superfluous. This would be to deny the ultimate bodiliness of the incarnation and life of our Lord, who chose this way to unite us to himself, intending us thereafter to live out lives marked by that experience but not hamstrung by it. It is only when we grasp that full and true freedom lies in living here and now in and with God, empowered by his Spirit who has endowed us with the freedom and responsibility of the sons and daughters of God that the real meaning of the passion, death and resurrection comes home to us. Christians are not straight-jacketed by those events, but freed to live out our futures by them.

 

Our reading from Acts makes clear that this lack of understanding was precisely what led the disciples to return to the old ways: ”Lord, has the time come? Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” After all the events of Easter, there they were, still hankering after a big warrior on a war horse, leading an army against the Romans! The distinction between their wishes and God’s is very clear in Greek, the word for ‘time’, kronos, refers to chronological time, it is precisely not kairos, God’s time, and this feast, the Ascension is the jolt they needed to shake them out of their infantile wish for security, into acting as the Church, the People of God. We cannot ever hope to bask in the earthly security that our imaginings of the kingdom give us – something like a perpetual holiday on a sunny tropical island where all is well and undemanding. The fact is that the invitation the Father issues us, in the resurrection and ascension of the Son, is one to join in his life in which our futures will in the end be fixed in him, but in the meantime calls us to embark on a very uncertain road as we struggle towards that final promise in God.

 

It is no accident that Paul writes to the Christians of Ephesus (Ephesians (4:1-13) from prison where he was detained, instructing the Christians as to the ways of Christian living. His recipe for godliness: charity, selflessness, gentleness and patience, life in the one Body, one Spirit, might seem rather tame; and yet these virtues are among some of the most difficult for any of us in any age to live by. Ephesus was an imperial capital, pushy, full of powerful folk used to running an empire and therefore well versed in the strong-arm tactics that required. If following Jesus in Jerusalem had been difficult, imagine how much more problematic it was in this city of imperial Rome, and just what a tall order living by Christian virtues would prove to be and the strength and fortitude the believer would have to cultivate daily to live by them. Paul, by his use of Ps 68:18, was reminding his followers that the people of Israel had lived under persecution and difficulties many time in the past and that it was precisely in suffering that it learned to find God. Theirs was not to be an easy road, but it did expect each one of them to adopt the pattern of life which looked to their future in Christ each day as they worked and prayed for it.

 

I suspect our reading of the end of Mark’s gospel, (16:15-20) is much the same. Early Christians were not unenlightened literalists, they knew that drinking poisons and handling deadly snakes spelled trouble. Indeed, by the time of Mark’s writing the Church had already had its first martyrs, Stephen and James. They were well aware that, despite some miraculous events in the churches, it was more than likely that believers would suffer for the faith and in all probability die, following the model of Jesus himself. They were however, as we are, those who live in the expectation of a future fixed in God and for this they were prepared to die. In the Greco-Roman world only emperors ‘became divine’ at their deaths. Yet Christianity triumphantly claimed that everyone, of whatever status who believed, was and is destined to share God’s life, as his ‘heirs’ with Jesus the Son. This means that regardless of our earthly struggles and suffering here and now, we do look forward with confidence to a bright future, one where we shall be entirely united in a sure and lasting solidarity with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Of this we may be quite confident, and this is what the ascension proclaims and inaugurates.

In the last few weeks two very ordinary people have shared with me moments when they have felt very close to God. Neither could fully describe the experience, but I think both would agree that these were moments of exultation, moments of great joy even in the midst of sadness. When such moments are described in the Bible, they are always described as moments when the Holy Spirit has come upon the people concerned in a powerful way; and we heard one such experience in our 1st Reading today. (Acts 10:25-48). “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit came down on all the listeners.. Jewish believer were all astonished… as they could hear them speaking strange languages and proclaiming the greatness of God.”

 Now, of course, this “speaking strange languages – speaking in tongues” as it is sometimes called, does not happen to everyone who experiences moments like these. The important point is that it can happen to anyone, not just to the great saints, and when it does happen, we should give thanks to God that he has given us such a moment, and then use it to help us to be better Christians. This, after all, is what all the gifts of the Holy Spirit are for; not for us to boast about as if we are especially holy, but to build up the church as a powerhouse of prayer and action, and to make each of us better at serving others in the name of Christ.

 You may note that I called such experiences, moments of joy; and those of you well-schooled in the teaching of the Church may have already said, “But joy is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit?” And if you can remember your teaching, you can probably list them love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” But I wonder if anyone can tell me where they come from in the Bible? (Gal 5:22-23)

 Christian joy can take many forms. St Augustine describes such moments as something his local farm labourers felt, coming home after the harvest. He describes how they would sing together in a way that he called “jubilating”, where they simply sang together in a kind of ecstasy, just making music without words.  Quite a lot of us do that without realising it, humming a song when we’re feeling happy, without bothering with the words!

 Some people, me included, sometimes pray without words too, just speaking to God as if in a foreign language, because we run out of ordinary words to express how much we love God and want to praise him. This so-called “praying in tongues” can also be used in moments of great sadness, grief or pain,  when again we cannot find words to express to God what we’re feeling, and can only speak in a way that is beyond words; and for many this will simply be a sort of sighing with God. This is something St Paul describes in one of his most famous passages on prayer writing to the Romans (8:26-27) “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”

But for many of us, although we may sometimes have deep and powerful experiences of the Holy Spirit working in us like this, joy is more likely to be a much quieter deep-seated feeling. This is surely what Jesus means in today’s Gospel (John 15:9-17) when he tells us that if we “remain in his love” then his “joy” will be in us, and our joy will be complete. The essence of this quieter experience of God is simply a deep seated knowledge, even in the midst of much sadness perhaps, that God loves us. This is the heart of what prayer is. This is certainly what Jesus is talking about, isn’t he? He says that we must love as he has loved us, and then he describes what this love is. It is him giving his life for us whom he calls “his friends”. St John describes this too in our 2nd Reading (1 John 4:67-10) when he speaks of the sacrifice that Jesus makes on the cross, “so that we could have life through him” Life! Not just living, as we all do, but eternal life, the life that defeats even sadness and death, a life that is to be a friend of God for ever.

I wonder if any of you have noticed that, during this Easter period, all Catholic priests are called upon by the Church to express this “joy” on behalf of you all every day as we say Mass? You will hear it just before we all say or sing “Holy holy”. The priest says “Therefore, overcome with paschal joy, every land every people, exults in your praise”

Pondering on these words the other day, I thought I should draw your attention to them. The Church is clearly not expecting us all to disappear into ecstatic utterances! No, surely the prayer is trying to help us, even to persuade us, to realise in our own hearts and lives just how much God loves us, and how much he has done for us, and how glorious is our destiny as friends of God. When we sing “Holy holy holy”, we are actually singing the song of the angels in heaven, as described in the last book of the Bible. (Rev 4:8) Every Mass is a foretaste of heaven! Every Mass links us with the glory of God, whether we feel it or not.  Listen again to the Prayer the priest said at the beginning of Mass today “Grant, almighty God, that we may celebrate with heartfelt devotion these days of joy, which we keep in honour of the risen Lord.”  

So, may God the Holy Spirit, working within us, help us to realise at least something of the wonder of a God who is everlasting goodness and love; and who calls us, not just to pass on that goodness and love to others, but to do so as his friends. Not servants of God, but Friends of God for ever!

God’s love for us

May 8, 2015

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings : St John most likely wrote from Ephesus on the eastern coast of modern Turkey. Ephesus was one of the great imperial capitals of the east, with its own port and a vast complex of pagan temples, theatres and an amphitheatre. Its population was extremely mixed, made up of many different groups of Greek speaking workers; Romans from all over the Empire, including veterans retired from the legions and others. There would have been traders there; government officials; army detachments; as well as a large collection of slaves some from different parts of Turkey and the Middle East. As well as having to speak Greek to trade and converse, and Latin for the forces, many would have spoken their native languages too. We know from the writings of Paul, and other Christians like John and the author of the Petrine Letters, that this willingness to live cheek by jowl with others of different races was what made and sustained the Empire and indeed, gravestones and other monuments testify that the capacity for ‘brotherly’ love among strangers was what kept things running smoothly. This is not to say that the Roman Empire knew no divisions of class, status and race, far from it; it was an intensely stratified society, yet its many clubs and organizations of fellow workers, (undertakers, cow-herders, builders and sailors etc) deliberately chose to act together with others, often foreigners, for their mutual help and support, and Christians did the same. Some suspicion of the ‘other’ was taken for granted, but there was no room for violent xenophobia in these societies.

 

St John goes to great lengths to spell this out. He does not call them, as does the Jerusalem Bible ‘My dear people’, but much more powerfully, in Greek simply Beloved. (1 John 4:7-10). John goes on to spell out precisely how, since “Love comes from God”, God’s love is the very foundation of all that the believer is and does. The focus throughout this passage is on God who creates and makes us and enables us to share in the divine life granted us by the loving self sacrifice of Jesus the Son. Failure to live in the love of God means that we have no part at all in the life of God which he has given us; it is a deliberate and fatal rejection of the divine, both of his plan for creation and for his action in Christ. In this we begin to understand that our action together in community; our behaviour towards all others in our society, what Catholics call the Common Good, can never be at the periphery of our faith, but must be at its heart and very core.

 

John’s letters make quite clear that this is no mere bright idea on the part of John himself, but that it stems from Jesus’ teaching. (Jn 15:9-17). This passage follows directly on from last week’s gospel of the vine and the vinedresser which served to emphasise our unity with God. Here that theme is explored in even greater depth by Jesus as he considers what love is. Jesus stresses the love between Father and Son focussed on his own keeping of the Father’s commandments, with the insistence that we too keep them and that if we do,Jesus’ joy will be in us and our own joy will be complete. It is an astonishing promise and illustration of the meaning of love, and he goes on to reiterate “This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you.” In case we fail to see the import of this he speaks of dying for one’s friends. Clearly for Jesus and for John this is not about one of a series of options which we might choose, since he reiterates “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” Our choices are simply not relevant here, we must obey.

 

Ancient society differentiated between those subservient to one, and true friends, intellectual, social and moral equals; and Jesus remarks that when we truly love as he has loved us we shall no longer be as slaves to masters, totally dominated by them and a prey to their every whim, but truly equals, those with whom every important thing is shared. “I call you friends because I have made known to you everything I have learnt from my Father.” The Christian, the follower of Christ, is under orders, chosen and commissioned, (as were soldiers) to ‘bear fruit’. There can be few plainer expositions of the Christian understanding of community than this, and the believer who claims this status and yet does not worship and work for the good of others is a sham, an imposter, and not part of the community of the saved.

 

Over the last weeks and months we have had to ask ourselves the question of what belonging to the human race and our society truly means, as we watch all those migrants landing desperate on the first bit of Europe they can find, mostly the Italian coast. Italians have, I must say, demonstrated that their Catholic heritage has helped them to see that they must give shelter to these desperate refugees. Britain’s response has so far proved lamentable. It was equally a message which St Peter learned at some personal cost, and was eventually resolved by God’s sending him a dream of a sheet filled with a huge variety of animals and the command to eat. The upshot of the story is our reading from Acts, (Acts 10:25-26.34-35.44-48) in which the Roman Centurion Cornelius, and a man of power in Caesarea, sends for Peter to come from Joppa. Peter obeys; he could not do less, but is then compelled by the Holy Spirit to argue the equality of pagan converts to those of the circumcision-Jews, who clearly thought his actions reprehensible. Peter then baptised those of pagan background and the important phrase follows “Afterwards they begged him to stay on for some days.” This indicates that Peter not only entered a pagan home and baptised the family of Cornelius, which would have included his slaves and others, but that he ate with them and accepted their hospitality for some time. For strict Torah Jews such behaviour would have been anathema. For Peter, once he understood the essence of divine grace, it was essential and he needs must break the habits of a lifetime. Would that we could do so too.

One of the main reasons why the Church encourages us to honour the Blessed Virgin Mary is not just because she is the mother of Jesus, but more because she is the Mother of the Church. We know this because of the book in the Bible called the Acts of the Apostles, which tells the story of the Church after the death and resurrection of Jesus. There we discover, that Our Lady was not just at the foot of the cross when Jesus died, but was with the disciples and the other women every day after that, as they met for prayer. (Acts 1:14) So Our Lady was there on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) when the Holy Spirit came upon them all with great power. That day, which we will celebrate on the 24th May this year is rightly called the Birthday of the Church.

So, by honouring Mary as the mother of all Christians, as our mother, we are reminded that we, the Church, are a family, and that it is as a family that Christians receive the Holy Spirit most powerfully to give us the courage to go out and live our lives for Jesus every day. Jesus uses another image in our Gospel today. (John 15:1-8) He says that we are all part of one Vine. In other words, our links with one another, as fellow members of the Church, must be as close as the branches of a plant are to one another, and to the whole plant of which we are part.

Every single person can be good and kind, that is a natural part of being human, given to everyone by God whether they believe in God or not. But we Christians are called to be more than that, to bring God’s love to others in a special way. And that is what Jesus means when he says that we must all bear fruit.

Think of what happened last week when many people here in Eynsham came forward and asked for prayers of healing, either for themselves, or for a loved one who was sick or in trouble. You all know that if you tell the person who is sick that you did this for them, they will feel it far more powerfully than if you simply say that you have been praying for them as an individual, privately. Similarly if you ask me to offer a Mass for someone, if they are sick or if they have died, the Holy Spirit works more powerfully in our prayers together, than our prayer alone.

It is the same when we speak to people about our faith. It is one thing to say to someone that God loves all of us, that God loves Muslims and Hindus and peoples of all faiths and not just Christians. It is quite different when we say that this is the teaching of the whole Church. I feel this particularly as someone who was once a Church of England Vicar. Sadly the C of E does not have a central core of teaching as the Catholic Church has : what is called the Magisterium. As an Anglican Vicar I could preach many things that were, I hope, good and true, but I could not say “And this is the teaching of the Church.”  As a Catholic priest I can say that, and it is one of the reasons why I became a Catholic so many years ago. As Catholics, we can back up our statement about our faith by referring people to what the Church actually teaches, best seen in the Catechism. http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc.htm. These things are not just my belief as an individual, they are what we believe together, they are the official teaching, the Magisterium, of the Church.

That is why in the Creed we immediately follow “I believe in the Holy Spirit etc” with “I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church”. The Holy Spirit is the power that gave birth to the Church at Pentecost, and it is through the Church, through us as members of the Church, as part of the Vine, that the Holy Spirit works most powerfully in many different ways. Our words, our little and perhaps faltering words of faith or encouragement or love, shared with someone who needs them, may not seem much to us,  but are made powerful simply because we are Catholics – we are members of the Church meeting week by week for prayer together in the special way Jesus taught us, in the Holy Mass.

So although we may say something to others about the faith that seems quite small to us, it can be of enormous significance to them. And when we do that we are, you may be surprised to hear, being prophetic, exercising the gift of prophecy that Paul speaks of when he lists the gifts of the Spirit in his letter to the Corinthians. (1 Cor 12:8-11)  In the more traditional list of the Gifts of the Spirit that some of you will have learnt as children, we are exercising both the gift of understanding, as we absorb the teaching of Christ week by week, and of fortitude or courage as we share it with others.

There is however a third list that Paul uses when he writes to the Ephesians. (4:11-13) Here he makes even clearer the link with the life of the Church because he points out that when we allow the Holy Spirit to work in and through us, not only are we given these gifts by the Church, but in using them we are actually helping to build up the Church, to build up one another in the faith. Paul writes “his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, for the equipment of the saints, for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God”

So, our little attempts to share the love of God with others, and to do that as faithful members of the Church, actually helps the whole Church to be more fully and completely the body of Christ.  As we heard in our 2nd Reading (1 John 3:18-24) “Our love is not to be mere talk, but something real and active”. This is how God lives in us, he says and he concludes “We know that he lives in us by the Spirit that he has given us.”

Frances writes om this Sunday’s Readings :-  Our Gospel, (John 15:1-8) and our reading from 1 John (3:18-24) both state that when we are in the right state with God we can ask anything of him and we shall be granted it. The Letter says that if our conscience is right whatever we ask him we shall receive. The gospel says “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask what you will and you shall get it.” Such passages are deeply troubling, for we know that all too often our prayers are not answered.

Traditional responses suggest first that we have asked for the wrong kind of thing: ‘Give me a million quid’, or other equally frivolous things which may not be for our good, or that we have asked in the wrong way, demanding things from God. This suggests, as both readings do, that the fault lies in us. But what about prayer that is apparently heartfelt and altruistic, such as praying that the horrific violence in the Middle East will stop; or a solution to the problems of the trafficked from North Africa will be found; or even at a more personal level, prayer for a sick child? Why are our prayers apparently not answered?

I wonder if part of the answer may lie in the structure of Johannine Christian communities. I suspect that discipline and even control in these groups may have been very strong, and whilst John recognised the existence of other Christian groups such as Jewish Christians and even those with different outlooks, his gospel does seem to distinguish between their values and his own. Add to this that it is almost certain that when speaking of the formation of conscience in 1 John 3 he is not thinking of that of the individual by the individual as happens today, and certainly he would not have approached such issues with the looseness of thinking we take for granted. The ‘love’ St John speaks of, and which we explored last week and see so developed in John 17, is when one stops to think about it, a very tall order. Loving one another with the love with which Father and Son love each other and us is clearly only palely reflected in many human relationships, even the very best, though those shadows are a genuine reflection of the divine reality.

Perhaps in reflecting on this aspect of things we can begin to develop some insight into when and how our prayers can be answered: when they truly take on something of the persona of Father and Son. Clearly we also have to understand just how that relationship came to its great salvific climax, in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Perhaps once again then we can say that the true prayer and ordering of Christian life will have this sacrificial quality. Certainly prayers of petition are not to be tossed off lightly, though if you are anything like me I fear they all too often are.

“If you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask what you will and you shall get it.” What does it mean for each of us to ‘remain’ in Jesus? All that talk of the pruning of the vine (Christ) by the vinedresser (God the Father) suggests some fairly radical and constant surgery for us the branches. Those bearing no fruit are simply cut out and discarded, but those bearing fruit are pruned ‘to make (them) bear even more’. It is suggestive of constant vigilance on the part of the Father and on our part too, as bearers of fruit submit to the pruning process. It appears this is a two way process and we must continually be on the alert for this action in us by God.

Only when this work has been done do we see the result. “It is to the glory of my Father that you should bear much fruit, and then you will be my disciples.” The disciple of course is not one for his own salvation, but is sent out, to witness and draw others into relationship with God.

In our reading from Acts (9:26-31) we find that the converted Saul/Paul started to ‘preach boldly’ about Jesus in Damascus. But very quickly the situation changed and we are told that once in Jerusalem the disciples were afraid of him until Barnabas, ‘took charge of him’. Paul, it appears, had to submit to the requirements of the community in Jerusalem and when his preaching and presence stirred up a hornets nest, once again he had to obey the common will. “They took him to Caesarea, and sent him off from there to Tarsus.” Paul would then spend a considerable part of his early missionary life in the Roman province of Syria/Arabia, out of the limelight, in situations in which through instruction and suffering he learnt to become a true follower of the Lord. Now we will never emulate the likes of the apostles or Paul, yet quite clearly there is room for us too to develop our relationship with the Father and Son so that our prayer will conform to their life and wishes until our knowing of them will be complete.

One of the reasons why some people find it hard to believe in God is because they think of God only as a power outside the natural world. I hope these Homilies on God as Holy Spirit are helping you to realise that what we need to do first is to find God in the natural world, and in the natural things that happen to us, and only then see that where we humans open up to God’s presence in this way, then things can happen to us and to others that are at least remarkable if not miraculous. Last week, for example, I was speaking about how our sensitivity to the needs of others can be enhanced by prayer, so that we are guided by God the Holy Spirit to say the appropriate words or to do the right thing that can really help people. This becomes even more obvious when we think about the healing power that God provides us, that I want to talk about today.

Our problem nowadays is that the advances in medicine in the last 150 years have completely changed the way most people think about healing. Until medicine changed in this way, it was easy to see any sudden and dramatic improvement in the health of a sick person as the work of God. Now that we understand so much better the biochemistry of the human body, there is a tendency to say that if we can explain why someone has got better in biochemical terms, then God isn’t involved.   

We have an example in today’s 1st Reading (Acts 4:8-12). Peter has just healed a cripple and is explaining that he has done this in the name of the Risen Lord Jesus. At the time, no-one would have doubted that such a sudden ability of a cripple to walk was the work of God, but the question was “Which god?”  Nowadays, of course, many would say that it was simply “psychological”, all in the mind. Peter just happened to press the right button in the mind of the cripple, choosing to tell him to get up and walk – just as Jesus did on many occasions – and that was it.

The problem with this argument is that it misunderstands God. Let’s start with something simple. If I cut myself, I will clean the wound, put on a plaster and usually the cut heals itself. Has God done anything?  The answer is “Yes he has”, because God the Holy Spirit is the Lifegiver working within the natural processes of the body to bring us healing. If we move on to more dramatic healings, we know that how sick people “think” about themselves, and the possibility of getting better makes a tremendous difference to their recovery. Equally, we know that care and support from family and friends can also be incredibly significant. The Doctors may say to a paralysed man “I’m afraid you will always be in a wheelchair”, but sometimes the grit and determination to walk, can surprise the doctors.

We Christians would say, that just because this healing came from the mind, from the mind of the sick person, and from the minds of those supporting him or her, doesn’t stop it being the work of God. We would argue that God is always at work in the healing processes of the mind and the body, because after all it is he who created them. But we would argue further that prayer, which is opening up to this power that is God working within us and around us, in our minds and our bodies, and in the loving support of family and friends, always helps this process, sometimes in remarkable ways.

Our other readings today (1 John 3:1-2 and John 10:11-18) tell us of God’s love for us. But what we need to realise from this, is that this love is shown mostly in the way God is at work in the ordinary events of life. Modern medicine is actually one of the products of believing that God is a consistent and loving life-giving force that we can harness for our good once we understand it. If God was an erratic power out there somewhere – sometimes deciding to zap in to help a sick person get better, and at other times deciding not to – then there would have been no point in all the scientific studies that have so improved medical treatments. So, when the doctors are at work on us, when they give us medicine or a treatment or an operation that makes us better, we need to say, as in our Psalm today “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, for his love has no end.”

Prayer isn’t magic, as in Harry Potter, where if you say exactly the right words and wave your wand in exactly the right way, then the spell works. Prayer is opening ourselves, and those we pray for, to the power of God that is at work in us and them whether we pray or not.

Some of you have heard my story of how I prayed for a person dying of cancer and, much to my surprise, she recovered. Some would say I just struck lucky. She was going to go into remission anyway, as some cancer patients do. But we never know, and that is why we must pray. I believe that my prayers, with the laying on of hands, for that woman was the trigger that activated the remission that she experienced. God’s love works in us and through us in all sorts of ways and that is why we must never stop praying. All of us can offer healing prayers, and they can sometimes produce amazing results and are always a comfort.

God’s love also works in a special way through the power given to the priest to administer the Sacraments, many of which like the Blessed Sacrament at Mass, not just the Sacrament of Healing, can bring support and peace to those facing trouble or sickness or imminent death. None of this is magic, because God the Holy Spirit is the Creative power at work within the natural processes of life, and everything good that happens is the work of God. May we allow ourselves to be part of that process, to let God work in us. Our prayer may seem to have no effect where sickness continues, but we never know; and that is why we must carry on praying whatever the result appears to be.

Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- In this Easter season the compilers of our lectionary want us to explore the meaning of the Easter experience, the real meaning of Easter, of Christ’s rising from the dead and what it has achieved for us.

Our translation of 1 John (3:1-2), “Think of the love…”, and by its use of the pluperfect tense (has lavished), gives the impression of a state of affairs already achieved by Christ for us. If we look at the Greek however something less completed and much more mysterious emerges; “You see the manner of the love the Father has given us in order that we may be called God’s children”. Of course, in one sense all is completed by Christ’s death and resurrection, but there must also be an on-going dynamic attached to our life in Christ too. First it is the daily work of the Spirit upon us for our salvation, and secondly our response, how we allow God to work in us for the unfolding of his plan of salvation, is never simply one dimensional. The Greek of the following verse helps this understanding: “Beloved, we are now children of God but it is not yet manifested what we shall be. We know that when it is manifested we shall be like him.” Here something of the still evolving mystery of God in Christ is suggested, in each and every one of us as we live out our lives already as children of God, moving into ever closer union with Christ, so as to ‘see him as he is’. It was a promise made to the Greek Christians of John’s communities in the Province of Asia, western Turkey, and for them, as for us it surely involves an exploration of our life in Christ as we live out lives conformed to his image.

John has already begun this work in his gospel, as we see in John (10:11-18). First of all, his Jesus makes the sharp division between his followers and those who oppose his mission, and previous chapters have seen him in sharp conflict with the Jewish authorities. He begins this work of criticism by appeal to a very old tradition, here Ezekiel 34 with the prophet’s denunciation of the false shepherds, those who are in charge of Israel and have betrayed the people and whose conduct led to the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC.

In sharp contrast to those false leaders, who are responsible for the ruin of the nation Jesus compares himself: “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd is one who lays down his life for his sheep.” I guess that this serves not only as a model for Jesus, but is meant to act as the model for us all to follow as we seek to ‘become like him’. Clearly it does not specify the actual manner of imitation of Christ, but it does set a trajectory for us to follow and this is something which is crystal clear. “I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” What we are talking about here is an openness, a transparency – not simply between God the Son and God the Father; but between each of us believers and Father and Son, something already given by the death of Christ and still to be achieved in the lives of each of us.

One gets the impression that the Johannine Christian communities were tightly knit, and even intensely overseen groups, probably with strict rules and careful tutoring. As if to recognise this our text goes on to speak of the “Other sheep, not of this fold”. Clearly these were also believers, and accepted as such by John, and there was a willingness to see these groups as acceptable within the Christian circle. This widens the whole sense of who the true believers were and are, so that for instance John’s communities were different from Jewish Christians, as they could have included converts from paganism – Gentiles; those with a different gloss on the remembered accounts of Jesus’ life, mission and death. The fact that we have four accepted gospel accounts of the life of Jesus, with quite different emphases, speaks volumes of the differing understanding of Jesus current in the very Early Church. ‘Being like Christ’, it appears, may be full of surprises and involve very different styles of worship and practice. Clearly, what all universally held was the belief in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, who freely laid down his life, in the manner of the true shepherd for his sheep; and also, by his own will and power, could take it up again after death. Quite clearly there were things fundamental to the faith, things not negotiable such as the real bodiliness of Jesus, his death and resurrection and his commands that we meet him in the Eucharist.

What all this does is to change lives. It did it then – as we see in our reading from Acts (4:8-12) – and it does it now. Ours is not simply an intellectual pursuit for information about Jesus, though that is very important, it requires a metanoia, a visible change in the lives of believers; and each of us can be participators in this miracle of transformation, both in our own lives and in those of others.

Life for us humans is more than just living isn’t it? It is thinking &planning & imagining. It is measuring & calculating how our world works as in maths & science. It is communicating with each other & understanding each other, using speech and words, & it’s expressing ourselves in music & dance & art. All this and more makes us human, and all of this happens because God the Holy Spirit, the Life giver, is within us whether we accept his presence or not.

 

But when we Christians talk about the Holy Spirit giving us knowledge and wisdom, which is what I am going to talk about today, we mean much more than knowledge and wisdom as the world describes it, however special to us that may be. We see this in our 2nd Reading today (1 John 2:1-5) where St John makes very clear that “knowing” God is more than just knowing about God. There are, after all, many people who say they know about God, or know about the Church or the Bible. Yes, they may know lots of facts, they may even appear on the TV telling us what they know, but actually although they may know about God, they may not really know God at all. Getting to know someone is a long process isn’t it? We may start with some facts about them; but knowing another human being, and even more knowing God, is a much deeper process than that.

 

It’s also a fact that much of our communication, our transmission of knowledge, is non-verbal. Look up non-verbal communication and you will see a whole list of ways in which we do it. True knowledge therefore means a sensitivity to others that comes from caring about them at a deep level – what we Christians would call “keeping God’s commandments”.  Jesus illustrates this kind of knowledge all the time. He sees into people’s hearts and knows what they are like inside, (See John 6:64. 8:19 & 16:19) and we too are called to be like that. It is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit to us. The disciples meet the risen Lord on the beach, and “None of (them) dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. “ (John 21:12)

 

The world sometimes calls this ability “being psychic”. Some of you may recall moments in your life when you have sensed what is going to happen, or what you should do; sensed, maybe without realising it consciously, that God was talking to you in this way.  I’m a great believer in acting on what the world calls “our instincts”. So if I sense that I should do or say something, I will do it, and quite often (though not always!) my instinct can be right. This, we must remember, is a gift of the Holy Spirit, it enhances our natural abilities, and we should ask God to help us to be more like that, and thus possess true knowledge.

 

Equally “wisdom” for the Christian does not mean worldly wisdom. The disciples knew their Bible; not as well as Jesus, of course, but they were devout Jews, and they knew their ancient stories – about God, and the great prophecies from God given through their ancestors like Jeremiah and Isaiah. Yet, like many Jews of their day, they failed to understand at a deeper level what the Bible was pointing to. Their wisdom was superficial. They failed to understand that God’s Messiah, God’s Christ, would be someone who was prepared to suffer and die, and only then to show his glory. Thus we hear in our Gospel, the risen Jesus “opening their minds to understand the scriptures.” (Luke 26:45) And later they are given the power by the Holy Spirit not just to understand them in this new way, but to explain this to other people.

 

But the gift of wisdom doesn’t just mean being able to understand how God speaks through the Bible. St Paul makes clear how easily we can revert to thinking about our knowledge and wisdom in a worldly way. He makes this very clear when he writes to the Christians in Corinth who think themselves very wise. He points out that true Christian wisdom may appear as foolishness to the world. In a long passage at the beginning of his 1st Letter to them, (1 Cor 1:18-31) he goes on about this at some length. Let me give you just a bit of what he says to remind you For .. the cross is folly to those who are perishing (He means those who think only in worldly ways) but…. it is written,       “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart.”

Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. …………For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”

This should remind all of us that sometimes it is the simplest thing about our faith, shared with someone else,  that can help them more than any number of clever words. Those of you who do not think of yourselves as very clever, can sometimes be more effective in communicating the Gospel than those of us who are academic. The Holy Spirit can give this true wisdom often more effectively to those who “know” less in worldly terms. So never underestimate what God can do in you. Say what you feel, and your words can sometimes convey the wisdom of God in ways that might astonish you.

St Paul puts it like this:- “Consider your call….. not many of you were wise according to worldly standards …….. but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong,  God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are” 

So yes the Holy Spirit can give a true and deeper wisdom and knowledge to every Christian, not just the so-called clever……… provided we allow God to work in us in this way!