Homily on hard things to do for Jesus

What would you say is the hardest thing to do as a Christian – the hardest thing that Jesus asks us to do? Perhaps it’s “Do this in memory of me” – the Mass? But for most of us, getting to Mass on Sunday may be a challenge, especially when other apparently more interesting things coincide with Sunday Mass times,  but it isn’t that hard…….. once you get into the habit!

Perhaps the more difficult request is, to “Love one another, as I have loved you.” Yet many people tend to think this is fairly easy, to be kind and loving to others – well, at least most of the time! Of course, they are wrong, aren’t they? Because they conveniently miss out the second bit of that phrase – to love “As I have loved you”. Ah yes, that’s the difficult bit! – to practise real sacrificial love – all the time – to cope, for example, in a kind way with irritating people, as Jesus did with his silly disciples today. They wanted glory now. “Has the time come?” they say. And he gently replies “It is not for you to know times and dates” . Whereas, you and I would probably have said  “You stupid idiots! Why do you never listen to what I say?”  !!!

So yes, real love is very hard. But no, I don’t actually think it is the hardest thing of all. For I think the hardest thing of all is something we hear Jesus asking us today in both the 1st Reading and the Gospel. (Acts 1:1-11/Luke 24:46-53)  He says, “You will be my witnesses….to the ends of the earth.”  

That’s it, isn’t it? We are fine being Christians…. not very good Christians maybe – but still trying our best- until someone finds out about us! Then we wait for one of those difficult questions we so dread! “So why on earth do you believe in God?… or in Jesus?…or in the Bible?… or in the Church with all its failings?”  What makes it doubly difficult is that the person asking these hard questions has usually already got fixed ideas about what God is like. It’s hard enough explaining to a sympathetic person why we believe, but how do we cope with someone who thinks we believe God is like a superman in the sky. Usually we struggle out some kind of an answer – perhaps “Well I just believe there must be something behind all this.. some underlying power” or even “Well I just do, but I can’t explain it.”, and then think later of all the intelligent things we could have said, but we just couldn’t find, when cornered like that!

It is comforting however to remember that the disciples way back then had similar problems – that the hard questions we are asked in the 21st Century are not any harder than those they had to face. They too had to face laughter and scorn and mockery when they tried to explain what Jesus, what God, meant to them. Remember how they despaired when Jesus died on the cross, and how bewildered they were when they began to meet him in a new way again at Easter. Can you imagine people mocking them? “So where is this Jesus then? If he is alive in this new way, why can’t we see him?  And then they had to explain that they could no longer see him, that somehow he was with God and yet still with them in an invisible way. And so we have the stories of the Ascension that we celebrate today, when they use images of Jesus disappearing into a cloud or on a high mountain to convey something far more mysterious than that. “Oh so he literally shot up into the sky? they say, laughing at us. “No” we say “That’s only a way of explaining that he is with God in glory.”

St Augustine said that when Jesus went to heaven he did not leave us, but how can you explain that, or even remember that, when someone questions you? How hard to explain things that cannot be seen, only believed!

In the end, it’s hard, because it’s something we cannot really put into words. because it’s something deep in our hearts. not just a theory in our minds. And we struggle with it too, don’t we? We believe, yet we doubt. With the world, we wonder how can there be a God, a loving power, when there is so much pain and suffering! Explaining why, deep down, we believe, despite all these questions, seems an impossible task, just as we cannot really explain love or beauty to others. They have to find it for themselves.

But be comforted! However ineffective we think our feeble attempts to explain ourselves may be, they are still worthwhile, and sometimes, when we least expect it, it helps. That’s why I leave you with a phrase from one of the Psalms. The Psalmist says “The Lord takes delight in his people”   And we might reply, “What me? God is working in me?” God is working in us stupid stumbling humans as we try to follow him? And God says “Yes, despite all that. You will be my witnesses, to the ends of the earth”

 

True friendship remains even in hard times

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.

God’s gift of eternal life now

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.

The radical challenge

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.

Christian success

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.

 

To believe without seeing

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)

Glory in the darkest moments of life

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 asa 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.       

 Easter Morning

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.