Homily on what salvation means

As we look around the world at the suffering that we humans inflict on one another and on the natural world, we may well agree that we are like a Vineyard that only produces sour grapes! (1st Reading Isaiah 5:1-7) Today I want to look at the Christian solution to this problem, and again I will do so by explaining another of our technical terms – ie “salvation – being saved” – that Jesus is our “Saviour”

But the image I want to start with is the image of my mother. For a good parent is one of the best ways we have of thinking about the God that Jesus shows us. I was a very bad-tempered little boy, screaming with rage and breaking or throwing things when I was upset. My mother loved me, but that didn’t mean that she just tolerated such behaviour. I remember being sent to my room in tears on numerous occasions, but always before very long, my mother came to me. Then she would talk me down, listening to why I was so upset, but also helping me see it in a different light, and helping me to work out how to cope without losing my temper in the future. Above all she showed me, that although she was sad that I had behaved like that, she also loved me.

There is little point in trying to be a better person if we are not loved, and that is what Jesus taught us. Instead of trying desperately to please an angry God, Jesus taught us that although God is angry when we humans are bad, he carries on loving us, for he knows we need his love if we are to escape from the mess we often find ourselves in.

Yes, that’s the point. We believe that only God’s love can make trying to be good worthwhile, that without God we are like someone drowning. We need someone to plunge into the water and save us. God therefore plunges into our fallen humanity by becoming a man – Jesus – and offers us a way to be saved. All we need to do is to accept this way out of our mess – to be like St Peter who thought he could walk on the water unaided, but then realised he was sinking. Then he cried out “Lord, save me!” and immediately Jesus reached out his hand and saved him. (Matt 14:29-31)

It is no accident therefore that the first sign – sacrament – that shows that we are being brought within this saving action of God – is Baptism. The water stands both for the chaos and danger of our human life from which we need to be saved – which we call original sin – and the cleansing waters of God’s love – which we call salvation. Of course it doesn’t stop us getting things wrong, but it frees us from being trapped in our failings. Like me in my room after I had lost my temper, we know when we fail that God will be with us to love us and show us a better way.  

So the Christian faith is not about being a good person but being a loved person. We come to Mass as people who need God’s love, who have failed in one way or another to live up to that love, who feel trapped in a human world of war and suffering and death, and like someone drowning call out “Lord save me.” The Mass is full of this image, full of words calling out for God’s love.. “Lord have mercy” “Lamb of God have mercy”

That is why Jesus subtly changes the Vineyard image. In the original Vineyard there are only sour grapes, but in Jesus’ story (Matt 21:33-43) there is no problem about the grapes – clearly there are lots of them. The problem is that the people harvesting the grapes – that’s us – fail to acknowledge the owner – that’s God. We think we can do it on our own, that it is all our work. We forget that without God there is nothing, nothing at all. And even when we acknowledge that God is the creative force, we see God as some distant force that started things off, and fail to recognise that without his power working in our minds and hearts now, we would not get anywhere.

This wonderful and ever-present saving love of God is something that we need to recognise and accept every day, not as some nice theory to make us feel good, but as an ever present reality that we need to respond to. Think what it would have been like if when my mother came to my room I turned my back on her, and said “I know you love me but now go away and leave me to work it out all by myself”

 This is why prayer is part of salvation. Prayer is not asking God for things, although we can do that too. Prayer is letting God help us think things through. It is allowing his love to penetrate into our everyday activity. It is sharing everything with him – good and bad – in thanksgiving or sorrow. Because without him we are nothing, but with him we are everything, and our life is always full of potential and promise.

 I went to a person who was dying recently and after I had anointed her and given her Communion, she sat there for a long time in silence with her eyes closed, and I didn’t disturb her because she was clearly allowing herself to sense that God was with her and would be with her on her final journey. Death makes a mockery of the foolish idea we humans have that we are in control of things. When we are dying there is no longer anything we can do, except to put ourselves into the hands of our loving God. It is not impossible for people to do that at the last moment, but it is certainly easier for someone who has practised the presence of God throughout their life, as this lady had done.

 Without God we are drowning. With God we are saved, and death is not the end, but a new beginning.

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On God being within and outside at the same time

The mystery that is God, is that this amazing power is both within us and close to us, and yet completely outside us and beyond our reach, at the same time. This is why it is so difficult to understand God the Holy Spirit, and what we are doing when we say, as we will do in the next few weeks leading up to Pentecost, “Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful…”.

In one sense, it is God the Holy Spirit that is in all things already, in every human being and every living being. For God as Holy Spirit, as we say in the Creed every Sunday, is – “the Giver of Life”. So the Holy Spirit is the life-giving power within every living thing. Those who say they don’t need God, are actually saying that they don’t need life. But Jesus also gives us the Holy Spirit so we humans many gain eternal life, the escape from death, that he has won for us by dying on the cross. The puzzle is that he gives us what we have already got. He actually says so in our Gospel. (John 14:15-21) God, he says, “will give you that Spirit of truth….but you know him, because he is with you, he is in you.” So God gives us something we have already got? What a puzzle!

One way of disentangling this puzzle is to see the Spirit as water. We humans are about 57% water, and it’s because of this that we need to take on water regularly. We leak! When a thirsty person says “Water. Water!” it does not mean they do not have water within them – they do, or they would not be alive – what it means is that they do not have enough. In the same way, God is not a thing that we either have or do not have, but a life-giving power that we need to regularly top-up. This is precisely why those who stop coming to Mass do not feel any different to start with, only gradually and often only after many years, and sometimes sadly never, do they realize what they are missing.

Today in our 1st Reading (Acts 8:5-17) we have the first description of what we now call the Sacrament of Confirmation. Again, we have the same puzzle. Every Sacrament gives us the Holy Spirit. Indeed it is the Holy Spirit working in the outward form – water at Baptism, or bread and wine at Holy Communion for example – that makes God present for those who receive it. The people of Samaria have been baptized. So in one sense the Holy Spirit is already within them. But now, later,  Peter and John “laid hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.” 

I put it like this. Although there is water in the air we breathe, we need to actually drink water to really get enough. In the same way, we need explicit prayer for the Holy Spirit to come to us, if we are to receive God within us as fully as we need him. It is really much the same as receiving Holy Communion. God will come within us when we receive. He is there as bread for us. But the more we explicitly ask him to work within us, the more we pray as we receive, the more we will receive. Sometimes, we will even feel the difference when we pray like this, but whether we feel anything or not, God works in us more powerfully when we receive him with this kind of explicit prayer.

Confirmation then is not principally about us confirming our Baptism. We certainly do renew our Baptismal Vows when we are confirmed, but the actual confirmation is the prayer for the Holy Spirit. The Bishop or Priest prays for the Holy Spirit to come upon the person, and then as he lays hands on them and anoints them he says: Be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit.” 

So there we are. It is not us doing something, confirming our Baptism, not least because it doesn’t follow that if we understand, then it will somehow work better. Of course, it is good to understand our faith more, but God’s gift of himself to us as Holy Spirit is not dependent on how clever we are at understanding things. What I said earlier stands in Confirmation or in any of the Sacraments. It is our prayer that matters not our understanding; for since God is a mystery, those who say they understand, or think they understand are those who understand least.

This isn’t an excuse for us not to learn more about our faith, but it is a reminder that being a Christian is not about learning lots of facts. As a Dad said after the Baptism of his baby the other day “I didn’t realise it would be that easy.” He thought he would have to learn lots of facts. But of course it isn’t true. Yes, we do need to know lots of things, but we also need some even more important things, like love, goodness and truth. These are not things we can just learn about, they are things we have to live. So remember “God is love, and those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.” (1 John 4:16)

Celebrating God’s presence

The Baptism of Jesus that we celebrate today (Gospel of Matthew 3:13-17) is, in one sense, the complete opposite of our Baptism. When we are baptised we are linked with God in a special way that hopefully we then live out in our lives. When Jesus is baptised, we see God linking himself to us, and that is why the Church celebrates it at the end of the Christmas season, because it is part of the same wonderful message.

God becomes a human being as a baby, yes, but God in Jesus also chooses to identify himself with us as adults, with all those people who went out to be baptised by John. These were ordinary people, admitting that they were imperfect, and that they needed God’s love and forgiveness. In his Baptism, Jesus chooses to be one with them and thus with us. He does not stand over them telling them what to do, but he stands alongside them, as he does us, showing how much he loves us and understands us, even when we go wrong.

So we hear in our 1st Reading (Isaiah 42:1-7) “He does not cry out or shout aloud… Faithfully he brings true justice.”  That is why God the Father says “This is my Son, the Beloved”

This is a message that Pope Francis has been stressing again and again since he was elected. The Church of Jesus Christ is meant to be like Jesus. We are called as the Church to stand alongside people. By “we” the Pope means not only you and me, but himself and all the Cardinals and Bishops and Priests of the Church as well. He writes “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy … from clinging to its own security.”  (Evangelii Gaudium 49) This surely is a challenge to all of us in the year ahead. What can we do to serve those around us?

It’s a hard challenge isn’t it, but this is what it means to live out our Baptism, and that is why we come to Mass regularly, to be reminded of the sacrificial love of Christ – “This is my Body.. given for you… my Blood .. shed for you.” – and to be close to his special presence in this Body and Blood present for us in the Bread and Wine blessed and consecrated by the Priest. This presence is, of course, for all who come, not just those who receive Holy Communion, and it is present also in every Catholic Church at all times in the Blessed Sacrament kept in the Tabernacle as a permanent focus for our prayer.

In most Catholic Churches this Presence of the Body of Christ in the Tabernacle, always there to comfort, strengthen and empower us, and signified by the lamp shining permanently beside it, is in the centre of the Church directly behind the main altar. This helps all those who come into church at any time to see it as the main focus of their prayer. It is linked thereby to the figure of Jesus on the cross which is also there in the centre of every Catholic Church. The comfort and strength of his Presence linked to the compassion and challenge of his Death – there to inspire us to love and serve others as he did.

 (The following refers specifically to St Peter’s Eynsham. www.stpeterseynsham.org.uk )

This is why I am wondering whether we ought to make this happen at St Peter’s. For the last 8 years since I have been your priest, we have been trying hard to make sure our buildings are up to standard – new roofs on church and house, repair of gutters and downpipes, redecoration and now new heating, and we have had to raise a lot of money to pay for all that, which perhaps explains why I have never raised this before. After all, the Tabernacle is not far away in the side chapel, if slightly off centre, there for each one of us, and I was reluctant to spend a lot of money that we hadn’t got. But recently it struck me again, whilst praying, how good it would be to have the Blessed Sacrament right in front of us all the time as in most Churches. It also struck me that we have always had a beautiful tabernacle sitting in a cupboard, so that putting it there would not cost very much. That tabernacle is now at the back of church for you all to see. It would not therefore cost very much to install it, and we would move the lamp as well.  A pillar of wood or stone would be built onto which to would be bolted. The other tabernacle would then be a fitting place to keep the Holy Oils and as a Place of Repose on Holy Thursday for the Watch.

Well that’s my proposal. There is the space right in front of you, made clear by the Priest and Deacon moving to the side, and I would value your comments before I make a definite decision one way or the other.