Homily on an ancient declaration of human rights

Perhaps you know the story of people being given a guided tour of heaven and asking St Peter : “So who’s behind that wall?”, and St Peter replied “Shh. That’s the Catholics! (or the Protestants according to who you are telling the joke too )They think they are the only people here.”

Of course it is not true of us Catholics. For though we do say that there is no “assurance” of salvation outside the Catholic Church – by which we mean that the safest and surest way to God is as a member of the Church, we do not thereby exclude the possibility that God does welcome many many other people into heaven when they die.

The Christians of Galatia (Galatians 3:26-29) clearly held the equally wrong idea that some people were more important than others in heaven, and so would be closer to God. So men would be closer to God than women, and free men closer to God than slaves and so on.  St Paul will have none of this. He says firmly that we get to heaven, not by what we have done (as we heard last week) and certainly not by what we are now, but by being “clothed.. in Christ”. “You are, all of you, sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.”

This view of us humans proclaimed by St Paul – that all are equal in the sight of God – is at the heart of what we now mean by “human rights”. The Catholic Church expresses this in what is called its social teaching of the Church, something Pope Francis and his predecessors often stress. It is pretty astonishing that the modern world seems to have forgotten that the claim that all humans have equal rights and must be treated in this way is actually based on the teaching of the Church first made clear in the New Testament.

Sadly, the Church as a human institution has often at times been guilty of ignoring this teaching and allowing and even supporting those in power, rich men usually, to oppress and abuse others in one way or another. But regularly throughout history, the teaching that we heard from St Paul, has re-asserted itself, and the Church has renewed and purified its teaching. I recently heard about St Adomnán, (called St Eunan in Ireland) who in 697 caused the Law of the Innocents to be proclaimed by the war-lords of Scotland and Ireland who swore oaths before him to protect and defend innocent people especially women and children who in their wars, even as in wars today, found themselves victimised in horrific ways by brutal men. The Geneva Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights may be the statements we now most often refer to when we argue for justice and peace but it is worth us Catholics reminding the world now and again what the source of such teaching actually is.

This is the reason why Jesus, in today’s Gospel, (Luke 9:18-24) appears almost to reject St Peter’s assertion that Jesus is “the Christ of God” We now take it for granted that Jesus is the Christ, and simply use that word “Christ” as if it were his surname. So why wasn’t Jesus too happy with this name? Because, for most people at the time, the Christ would bring peace and justice –yes – but through war and violence.  So Jesus speaks instead of the “Son of Man” a mysterious figure from the Book of Daniel (7:13) who leads his people to God in a rather different way. Jesus links this in a radical way to the Suffering Servant figure in Isaiah (Ch 53) and also to our Zechariah passage (Zech 12:10-11.13:1) “They will look on the one whom they have pierced”. He says that those who follow him must, like him, take up the cross of sacrificial love, and renounce violence and status and power.

Poor St Paul is often accused of being anti-women. In some of his letters he certainly appears to give them a subservient role, as when he says that they should “submit” to their husbands. But we must remember that he also says that “husbands should love their wives as Christ loved the Church”, and we have just heard that this means taking up the cross. In his world where wives and women were usually treated as property by men, and oppressed and abused, St Paul words would have been quite startling. He begins with the normal idea of submission and then cracks in with a challenge to the existing way of marriage that is, for its time, a quite different way of thinking of marriage! Perhaps this is why he recommends that those who can bear it, should not marry at all!

St Paul is, of course, a man of his time and some of what he says sounds more than a bit odd to us. But when we hear him say “there are no more distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, but all of you are one in Christ Jesus”, we can realise how far ahead of his time God the Holy Spirit had taken him.


On Marriage and Divorce

The albatross is a fascinating bird. These birds travel thousands of miles across the seas of the world, but when they return to their breeding grounds they seek out their original mate and after elaborate greetings and wagglings of beaks, the pair mate and bring up their baby before setting out on their next long journey. You might think that such lifelong faithfulness in marriage ought to be an example to us. But we humans have one thing that these birds lack – free-will – the ability to imagine and choose alternative actions – even alternative lifestyles! The albatross mates for life by instinct. We humans are blessed and cursed with the power to choose, so that marriage can both be the glory of love freely given, and the immense sorrow of hurt or betrayal.


Notice today in our Gospel (Mark 10:2-16) that Jesus does not go on about the sadness of divorce. Instead he points, as ever, to the ideal we should aim for – to the original and perfect ideal of marriage, as a faithful lifelong partnership. He supports this, by quoting from near the beginning of the first book in the Bible, Genesis, which we heard as our 1st Reading today.  (2:18-24)


Of course, we all fail to live up to our ideals in many ways – not just in the area of sex and marriage. So it is important to think most NOT about the mistakes we make, but on what we should be aiming for – the thing that is best for us in the long-run. For that is always God’s will. So while the world glories in gloating over the scandals and betrayals – presenting them to us in a way that easily titillates our imagination in wrong directions – we Christians need always to think and proclaim the beauty of good marriages, where people stay together through all the ups and downs of life, and then to treat with the utmost compassion those who find themselves in the tragedy of marriage breakdowns and divided families.


Many of you will have heard in the last few months of the way Pope Francis has been asking the Church to look at this problem of marriage and divorce. I think it is fairly clear that the Church will not suddenly say that divorces and second marriages can be declared OK, but there are two things worth noting that will change. The first has happened already. The Pope has simplified the process of annulment so that those whose first marriage has failed will find it easier to present their case for consideration, and it will not take so long. He has also made clear that people should not have to pay for their annulment, something which has been happening in some countries, so that it might seem that the more you pay the more likely you are to get an annulment. This has not been the case here in England where there has been a very small administrative fee. Perhaps there are some listening (or reading) this who might now consider the possibility of getting an annulment and thus regularising their second marriage with the Church? The process has never been as complicated as some thought, but now it will be even simpler, although it is still going to be the case that not every request for annulment will be granted.


The second thing that Pope Francis wants the Church to do is to be more compassionate and welcoming to those whose marriage has failed. This is something I have always tried to do myself, but sadly some priests and people, in some parts of the world, have turned the teaching of Jesus, that marriage for life is the most perfect way, into a persecution of those who fail to live up to this. Pope Francis wants this to stop. He does not think that the way to make people more perfect is to condemn them when they fail. He wants us to be like Jesus (John 4:4-26) who when faced with the woman at the well, whom he knew to be living with a man who was not her husband, still spoke to her in a way that encouraged her to seek God through him.


Remember too his compassion for the woman taken in adultery, and for many others who fail to be perfect in one way or another.  Jesus and his followers were not naïve about these things. They lived in a Roman world which was as pornographic as our world is today, and they knew it was wrong. But unlike the Pharisees, Jesus does not spend his time condemning people, but always offers them the love and mercy of God. That is surely why Pope Francis has declared a Year beginning on December 8th when the whole Church is called to stress the mercy of God, because that is the way of Jesus, which sadly some Catholics, even some Bishops and Priests, seem to have forgotten.

One with God and one another

Frances writes on this weekend’s readings :- It is fascinating that the very earliest Biblical writer, the Yahwist, of the 10th century BC wrote his story of creation, Gen 2:18-24, (placed second in our Genesis account), from the perspective of the close, even intimate relationship between God the creator, and man. Humanity is  put on the earth in this account prior to all other creation. Indeed, so close is the God-man relationship that God gives man the task of naming the animals, and foresees that humanity should not be a solitary creature but live in relationship to the rest of creation and ultimately that he needs a partner, woman. The picture is one of the intimacy between man and woman, but also between God the creator and the creatures, human beings that he has made. There is pleasure and rejoicing in the very fleshliness of their being expressed in the action of God himself in making woman from the rib of Adam. It is a relationship of delight and respect in which God the creator is fully and intimately involved. The unity and solidarity of creator and creation is deeply etched onto this early account, which, unlike the better known and much later account of the Temple priests, with its near scientific understanding of the succession of created things, is a deeply theological reflection on the goodness of the God-man relationship.


It appears that the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, (2:9-11), be it Paul or someone else a little later, was also at pains to stress this abiding relationship, even going so far as to stress the divine presence in each and every human being. This entire and lengthy letter, with its great Eucharistic focus concentrates on our God-given capacity for God, on the redemption wrought by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross for us. Here, in our passage, he is insistent that Jesus, always totally one, in complete union with the Father, is by his Incarnation, his becoming human, totally and entirely one with us. He is not different from us, of some strange and exotic species, totally different from us. This means that when we are saved/redeemed, we are not as it were transformed into something other than we were. For we and Jesus are, as the writer puts it “Of the same stock”, or as the RSV puts it, following the Greek, we all have the same origin. Just as Christ Jesus was born a human being, so are we, we are one and the same with him, members of the human race, sarx, flesh. In rescuing us from sin and death, Jesus does not break the original mould and begin again with us, rather he takes what was always in us, as it was in himself, and refashions it according to the Father’s will, so that we too, who have lost that capacity for God may recover it and the lost intimacy that rightfully belongs to us all. The purpose of all this, according to Hebrews is “To bring a great many of his sons into glory.” The reasoning behind all this is quite clear and simple “It was appropriate that God, for whom everything exists and through whom everything exists…” In other words, it is the right and fitting thing for God the creator to do, it is what God is like, what God is. For God to be God he could not do less. The fact that, as the letter continues, we see that Christ achieves our redemption through suffering is again a mark of his total commitment and solidarity with the rest of humanity for whom life involves such suffering, pain and death. What we have here then is a wonderful picture, a meditation on the closeness of God and man, and we have to learn to let ourselves be held in that closeness. It’s something modern people with our love of independence find difficult. I shall shortly undergo yet more surgery, and am reminded how one has to give oneself totally into the hands of another at such moments – a small taste of divine love.


In our gospel, (Mark 10:2-16) Jesus argues this issue out with the Pharisees over the issue of divorce. They were hoping to trap him, accusing him of infringements of the Mosaic Law which did allow divorce. But Jesus pre-empts their action by deliberately taking the issue of marriage back to its Genesis origins and our first reading, reminding them of the shared gift and delight, their becoming one flesh, sarx in union, a reflection of divine love, and he puts before them the outrage therefore of divorce and remarriage as a fracturing of the divine intention. Indeed, those of us involved in divorce from a family perspective, and scarred for life by such tragedies, can readily agree that such actions do seem to run contrary to God’s plan for our mirroring of his love as seen in the relationship between Father and Son. We are made and designed for so much more, as both stories from the gospel remind us, both the question of divorce and that of the treatment of children and we need to open our hearts and minds to the infinite possibilities our life with God holds out to us.

Offered love so that we may love

Frances writes on Sunday’s readings :- There are times in all of our lives when we take on something little realising the full implications of what we are doing. It may be marriage or a partnership of some kind; a business venture; the bringing into the world of a child with all the uncertainties that means; or the caring for others in different kinds of ways. How are we to remain faithful amidst all the vagaries life chucks at us?

For the people of the time of Joshua (Josh 24:1-2, 15-18) this would be a perennial problem. As they entered the Promised Land of Israel and divided the territory amongst the different clans, they were called upon to decide about their religious belief too, since for ancient people this was never detached from their day to day existence. As our text shows, the people resolutely chose to worship the God of Israel, rejecting the gods of those round about with whom they would have been very familiar. This choice must have been very difficult, for they were the minority among the inhabitants. All those continual imprecations against taking foreign wives and so on were in reality a warning about religious syncretism, something Israel fell into with monotonous regularity, as we hear in the Books of the Kings etc. Quite clearly the battle for the faith of Israel was a continual one, and one that the nation frequently came very close to losing, and with it Israel’s distinct identity.

We tend to read this passage from Ephesians, (5:21-32) with very jaundiced and prejudiced eyes. In a more liberated age, the text can easily fall victim to a feminist agenda which sees this piece as a call to male dominance and the oppression of women. We would be quite wrong to do this however, for in its original context what Paul wrote was alarmingly radical, scandalously subversive and different. The prevailing Aristotelian philosophy taught that women were inferior to men, indeed, that in the process of forming new human beings the female was merely the receptacle for the developing infant and contributed little to its origin and development. What Paul taught was quite different and must have presented the tiny Christian community in Greco-Roman Ephesus with quite a challenging and difficult doctrine, one which demanded great persistence and loyalty to the Christian message, if they were truly to live by it. Paul used the analogy of the husband-wife relationship to explore the relationship of the Christian believer (the Church) to its Lord and Master, Christ. Only when we truly give time to looking at that relationship, in all its many twists and turns, can we truly appreciate the extent of the shift in thinking Paul was suggesting within the Christian married relationship. Paul is in reality speaking of the relationship of Christ to his Father here, when dealing with his self-offering of the Church (us). He speaks of a totality of self giving for the other, something almost unheard of in ancient marriage. He speaks of complete commitment, where some pagans married and divorced with near monotonous regularity, and thought little of resorting to lovers and prostitutes on a frequent basis. The relationship Paul therefore explores between Christ and the Church, and between husband and wife, would therefore have been staggering in its demands and implications, summed up perhaps in that stunning phrase that we “become one body.” Never mind that difficult bit about the headship of men over their wives, this latter passage about becoming one body has surely stood the test of time, and is as difficult and challenging now as it was when it was written in the 1st century AD, our call to live and love as Christ has loved us is a daily challenge for any Christian.

Our Gospel reading, John (6:60-69) is the ending of the great Bread of Life Sermon of Jesus.  Once again our Jerusalem Bible translation has completely let us down, and removed the stark pressure that Jesus deliberately imposed upon his disciples – even at the risk of losing all of them. “Does this upset you?” He has been speaking of the absolute necessity of eating his flesh and drinking his blood in the Eucharist. The Greek text speaks quite clearly of our being ‘scandalised’ by his words, and Jesus goes on to explain that this is all about a spiritual reception of himself – something which his disciples largely ignored or totally failed to understand. If we are ever to begin to grasp the significance of the sacrament of the Eucharist, we surely must be prepared to enter into its awful and awesome meaning, going beyond the merely outward reception of the bread and wine, and entering into the mystery of the crucified and risen Christ who is so much at one with us that he gives himself totally to us at every Eucharist. Our text moreover remarks that Jesus knew his followers and knew that one of the 12 would betray him, literally, from the verb paradidomi, hand him over to death. There is a remarkable degree of self-giving in this word which lends a richness of the whole of this great Sermon. Our role, our vocation is to enter into the self offering of the one who threw away not just his life, but, as John’s prologue puts it ‘Life’ for our salvation. For the implications of this unique self–offering, which we choose to explore at every Mass, is that reality itself is a changed dimension. We in entering into it are no longer the people we believed ourselves to be.

Homily on Marriage and Sex

I expect almost everyone here today has some experience in their own life, or in the life of loved ones, of divorce & remarriage or some other different kind of partnership. This, & the fact that those here today are a mixed group of people of all ages, makes being as explicit as I would like to be more than a little difficult. I have therefore prepared a more explicit and extensive paper on this subject appended to this Homily. But if anything I say upsets anyone today, please forgive me, & ask to talk to me, as it is so easy for people to feel judged or condemned, which is the last thing I want to do. Remember what I said last Sunday. To say that something falls below the ideal does not necessarily mean it is wicked or bad. We all live with things in our lives that are less than perfect, and do all we can to make the best of the situation we find ourselves in.

At the heart of the Church’s teaching on the most intimate side of human life is the teaching in the Bible. We heard a passage as our 2nd Reading (1 Cor 6:13-20) today, in which St Paul warns against what he calls “fornication”. But what is more important is why he does so. Sadly this is lost in English, since we use the word “body” to mean our physical body, whereas the word in Greek that Paul uses is “soma”, which means our whole being (physical/psychological/spiritual etc). So the point he is making is that what we do with our physical body affects our whole being. This is certainly the experience of many people who have come to me in tears at various times. From “I thought he loved me but he just wanted the physical side” to “I can’t get those things I did out of my head”.

In the world where Christianity began, there was much abuse of others both inside and outside marriage, including abuse of women by men. The high Christian view of marriage where the husband and wife are called to commit themselves to each other for life in a relationship of mutual respect & care was a challenge to them as to us.

We tend to think that St Paul encouraged the dominance of women by men because he uses the word “obey”. But if you read the whole passage about this. (Eph 5:21-33) you will see a picture of mutual care in which both husband and wife must be prepared to die for one another. The obedience Paul speaks of is like the obedience we owe to Christ, which is one of love not of abuse.

Note also that marriage is seen as a “calling”, not something we just drop into without thinking about it. I still remember the tears of one young woman whose husband had left her three days after they got married. I was shocked, until I asked how long they had known one another. “3 weeks!” she answered. I became less sympathetic!  Yes, the word “calling” is meant to make clear that marriage is just as important as being called to something more explicitly religious, like being a priest, or like Samuel in our 1st Reading (1 Sam 3:3-19) & the disciples in our Gospel (John 1:35-42).

The other thing we need to avoid is the idea that marriage requires people to love one another in the romantic sense. Those who have mutually agreed arranged marriages, as in some traditional societies; or those who arrange their marriage first over the Internet, as many more people are doing nowadays ; these people often end up with the most successful marriages, precisely because they are based on mutual respect and care, and not on some “feelings” of “being in love” that people THINK they need to have to stay married to one another.

All this shows is that the traditional teaching of Christianity is right. People should get to know one another first, and be sure of the full commitment of both sides, before they enter into a physical relationship. Last year Pope Francis, much to the surprise of some, conducted a number of marriages, including some where the couples had already been living together, and in one case already had children. It wasn’t a surprise to me, as he was only doing what priests have done down the ages : encouraging people to move towards the full commitment & calling of marriage, rather than condemning people for things of the past.

The most difficult thing for the Church is the situation of those whose second marriage is not yet recognised because of a previous marriage. More often than people realise, this can be sorted out eventually by the annulment process; but it still leaves some people saddened that the Church cannot fully recognise what has become so precious and special to them. There’s no easy answer to this. The Church must proclaim that marriage is a permanent lifelong commitment. To simply accept what has happened without looking into it would give the impression that divorce doesn’t matter. But we all know that divorce is a sad and messy business not least for the children. So simply saying divorce is OK is not possible. Of course there are cases where it has to happen, but we cannot say that it is right just because in some cases it is the best thing to do in the circumstances.

We’re all called to recognise that our physical body is a precious gift from God and that misusing it, or someone else’s body, is to be avoided. I always remind couples nowadays that they need to be aware how most of the intimate relationships presented on films and TV are not between married people. Thus the idea that the physical side of life is unrelated to marriage is pushed deep into our minds without us realising it. So I tell couples that if they are to approach marriage properly they have to fight against this casual attitude to such things, and make a determined and daily effort in their minds to commit themselves fully to the one with whom they have chosen to spend the rest of their lives.


Too often people start to explain the Christian view about sex the wrong way round. We should always start by looking at what is the best expression of our sexuality, and only then go on to talk about other sexual practices that might be described as a less than full expression of what sex is for, rather than using that emotive word “sin”.

For Christians, the best expression of our sexuality is an activity where a man and a woman who are deeply committed to one another use their sexuality to strengthen and enhance that relationship, and in the process, and when the time is right, produce children that they can then bring up together in a good family life. Notice that this kind of sex is not principally a way of getting pleasure but of giving it. We may well get pleasure in the process but this is not what it is for. Recreational sex (as it is called) where one or both of the people simply wants to get physical pleasure for themselves (even in marriage) is therefore an imperfect expression of what sex is for.

Imperfect expressions of sex vary in their imperfection. We would all agree that using a child to get sexual pleasure is wrong, whereas when a wife allows her husband to have sex for pleasure, even when she doesn’t really want it herself , provided she is not being forced into it, then this sex is simply less perfect than it could be. The Church has a technical term for anything that is less than perfect. That term is the word “sin”. But the world thinks that “sin” means something evil, which is simply often not the case. Many many things that we do are less than perfect, but only some of them can really be described as evil.

We then have to look at a whole range of sexual activity that is less than perfect. Clearly the nearer sexual activity is to the perfect expression of it, as described above, then the less sinful it is. So sex outside marriage between two people who really love each other, and where neither is pretending love, is quite near to really good sex, but its problem is that full commitment isn’t there, and too often one or other of the people involved hasn’t really committed himself or herself as fully as they should. This is hard for young people who really think they love each other and then get let down, so to wait until marriage is the best way, but it is understandable when people fail here. But this less than perfect expression of sex can happen inside marriage too, and it is worth remembering that the Church would say that if it can be shown that one or other of the partners in marriage never intended full commitment then that marriage can be annulled.

Other kinds of sexual activity become more and more imperfect the further they move from its perfect expression. The Church would describe all such activity as “sinful” but note what I have already said about that word “sin”.  Failing to be perfect is part of being human. God wants us to move towards what is perfect, not spend our time agonising or feeling guilty about what is less than perfect. So for many things like this, we will go to Confession, as part of the process of asking God to help us move towards a more perfect expression of our humanity. To concentrate on our sexual failings, and ignore other failings, like anger, deceit, greed, unkindness is to have an unbalanced view of ourselves.

The Church argues that the best way to stop having too many children is to use the Natural method. That means using something like “Persona” that can be bought in most Chemist Shops, where the couple can identify the wife’s natural cycle of fertility, and then abstain from full sexual intercourse for the short period each month when she is fertile.  This method can also be used by couples having difficulty conceiving making sure they have sex at the optimum time. As for the Pill, most women would surely prefer not to have to put a drug into their body over a long period if there was some easy alternative. In the same way most couples will tell you that having sex with a condom is not as good as having sex without it. In both cases the Church is arguing that such means of contraception are a less than perfect way of having sex.

The best sex is when a couple do not have to worry about whether the woman might get pregnant or not. It is pleasure freely given to one another, and open to the possibility of a child if one should come along. This is the kind of sex the Church encourages, but the Church understands that this perfection is not always reached : that we all have to live with what we are as humans, and accept the need for God’s love and mercy in every aspect of our lives, not just the sexual one.

It is worth pointing out that of all the explicit sex portrayed on Film and TV, there is little is shown where the couple are married. We are therefore presented from quite an early age with the idea that this less than perfect sex is the normal way of having sex. This must affect our sex life when we begin to have sex with a permanent partner, and we need to be aware that this can lead us into the temptation to be unfaithful in certain circumstances. Being faithful to one’s partner is an attitude to be worked at, not something we should take for granted.

We have therefore to face the fact that we may well have all sorts of sexual feelings. Most men (I can only speak for men) tend to have feelings about having sex with people other than their partner, but would not want to be defined by these desires. In the same way those who have homosexual or bisexual feelings or desires are actually restricting their freedom if they decide to be defined by these desires. But Jesus warns us to be aware that we do have certain feelings – like anger or lust – and that we need to face the fact that this could lead to putting those feelings into action. That is why the Church encourages people to share these feelings in the Confessional, not least because it is a way of honestly facing up to them, rather than hiding them away until they come bursting out at one of our weaker moments.

To talk further on this:-

 Contact Father Martin Flatman , Priest at St Peter’s, Abbey Street, Eynsham OX29 4HR frmartinflatman@gmail.com


Opening the eyes of our mind

I was sitting saying my prayers the other day, and I suddenly realised that I needed to thank God for my mother! Crazy really, because I often think of her with thankfulness and love, but somehow I felt I had never really turned this into thanking God – from whom all good things come. Actually it came up in my prayers, because I was preparing for my Confession which was later that morning, and as you may know, preparing for Confession, is just as important as actually making it, although not quite as important as hearing from the priest that God loves me and forgives me!

Strangely, I got another revelation later that same day.  Straight after making my Confession, I shot off to Leamington to an overnight Conference for priests, and there heard a talk by a priest who has been asked to prepare the case for proposing that GK Chesterton should be made an official saint!

I have a feeling that he would find the idea that he should be called a saint more than a little amusing, but here is the quote “You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”

As you can imagine, it was swimming that caught my attention. How awful that until now I never thought of saying grace, thanking God, before I jump in the swimming pool most mornings! Yet I regularly say to youngsters who play football, “Remember to thank God, because without God, there wouldn’t be any football.”  How typically human to hand out advice to others, and forget to apply it to myself!

Now what has all this got to do with today’s readings? Well, quite a lot actually, because all the readings are about learning to see more clearly. Look at what happens when Jesus heals the blind man. (John 9:1-41) Most of the story is not about physical healing at all, but about the conflict that follows between the Pharisees, who think they know everything and can tell others how to live their lives, and the blind man who can now see; and of course with Jesus. As Jesus says very sharply at the end : “Blind? If you were you would not be guilty, but since you say “We see”, your guilt remains.”

The other two readings make the same point. Samuel has to be told (1 Sam 16:1-13) that “God does not see as man sees; man looks at appearances, but God looks at the heart.” Then we heard St Paul say (Ephesians 5:8-14)  that we must be like children of the light; which means that we must try to see things in God’s way, using his light, because only then can we discover what God wants of us.

“But what does God want of me?” you might well ask. Well, look at my experience last week. It wasn’t to preach at you about how wonderful mothers are, or that you should thank God for football. No, it was to apply these lessons to myself – to remember to thank God for my mother, and to remember to thank God for the ordinary fun things in my life, that I too easily take for granted.

This is one of the dangers that we Catholics do so easily get into, isn’t it? How easily it appears that, like the Pharisees, we tell other people how to behave, as if we were perfect and everyone else wasn’t! I know that’s not what we mean to do, but that is what we are accused of when we say, for example, that Gay Marriage should not be the same as ordinary Marriage, or that dishing out the morning after Pill to teenagers is not a good idea. It’s so difficult isn’t it? Not just for us, but even more difficult for our Bishops and for the Pope. Clearly the Church is called to teach what we believe is right and good for all people, but always we have to apply the medicine first to ourselves.

That’s one of the things Pope Francis has been trying to do, hasn’t he? He says that it is no good making moral pronouncements if they are made outside the context of God’s love and mercy.  It is so important therefore for us to convey to the world that when we say something that someone does is wrong, we do not mean that we condemn or judge the person who does it. If we thought that then we would have to condemn everyone! For all of us do wrong, or to put it another way, we “all fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and need his grace and mercy. It is surely the words “we” and “all” that are so important here. Something we should all remember. Beware of saying “they” and “them” or “you” and “your”, of blaming others!  Always, as Jesus said, (Matthew 7:3-5) look for the block in our own eyes rather than the speck of dust in someone else’s.

It all reminds us how hard it is to be a Christian, doesn’t it, or at least to be a public Christian, a public Catholic. That’s surely why most people sadly keep the fact that they are a Catholic as quiet as possible. We have however one advantage at the moment. Confession time is upon us, and telling people you are going to make your Confession is always a good way of sharing your faith with others without condemning anyone. We can even turn it into a bit of a joke against ourselves, and in doing so gently share the Gospel with others. Lots of laughter about how easily we get irritated with the people we work with or live with, how easily we start making cracks against people behind their backs, how easily we are tempted by the latest thing in the shops, that dress, that latest tekkie gadget or computer game. How easily we eat too many biscuits!  Confession then is not just good for us, it is also a good way of sharing the Gospel that God loves us, even when we find it hard to love ourselves!

Homily on how God loves

The question of how the Church should treat people who are divorced and re-married is a thorny one isn’t it? Our Gospel today (John 4:5-42) gives us an interesting insight into this, because the woman at the well, with whom Jesus has this long conversation, has not only been married 5 times but is now with a 6th man, and she is not even married to this one!  Now let’s first remember what Jesus has said elsewhere about divorce and re-marriage. When asked if people could divorce, he reminds people quite forcibly (Matt 19:1-10) that God intended men and women to live together for life, ending with that famous phrase that appears in the Marriage Service, “What God has joined together, let no-one put asunder.” Note that the disciples are so shocked by this that they suggest that if this is the case it might be better if no-one ever got married!

Now they are shocked for a different reason, because they find Jesus talking to this woman who is clearly not respectable at all. She is also a Samaritan, by the way, which makes it even worse! For we have already been told how surprised the woman is that Jesus as a Jew should talk to her – a Samaritan! Note how straight Jesus is with her. He doesn’t tell her off, but he makes it quite clear that he knows the kind of woman she is. She is then an extreme case, not like most of those we know who are re-married after divorce, and are now living faithfully with their second partner.

So if we are to be true to Jesus, then we the Church have to somehow do both things – affirm what is right and good – in this case lifelong marriage –but also offer friendship and support to those whose first marriages have failed. You may have your opinion about how the official Church handles this at the moment, but whatever you think the solution is, it is not an easy one to get right.

Pope Francis was speaking to a gathering of priests earlier this month and he told them that they must neither be too strict nor too soft especially when hearing Confession. He said that a priest who is too strict simply “nails the person to the law, understood in a cold and rigid way” whilst one who is too soft is “only apparently merciful, for in reality he does not take seriously their problems by minimizing the sin.” He continues “True mercy… listens attentively, approaches the situation with respect and truth, and accompanies the person on the journey of reconciliation.” I hope, as you think about this, you might pray for all priests as Confessors; because getting this balance right for each person is very difficult indeed. I am off to make my Confession on Tuesday so I will pray for the priest who will hear mine, poor fellow!

But notice next that Jesus takes the woman beyond the factual problems that she has to live with. He offers her water, and she says in reply, stuck with the facts, “You have no bucket, sir.” Jesus then has to explain that he’s actually talking about a different kind of water, the water that we hear of in our 2nd Reading (Romans 5:1-8) – “the love of God that has been poured into our hearts.”

Now, there’s another problem we Christians have to face! Sigh! We have to cope with people who assume that we believe that everything in the Bible is literally true, even though here and in many other places Jesus tries really hard to take his listeners beyond the literal into those things that can only be expressed through metaphors and parables! Not just the water but later the food!

So surely that’s the main point we should take from our readings today. Whatever our situation in life, married or single, divorced, remarried or whatever, we all need the water of life, the water that is God’s love –a love that is both demanding and forgiving. We have to face up to the fact that none of us live up to what God wants us to be like. If we don’t face that, if we think we are basically OK, then we will never understand the idea that Jesus died to save us. If we think there is nothing to be saved from, if we think that we do not need to drink from the well of life, then we might as well give up being Christians straight away. We cannot say “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy” unless we realise that we need mercy.

Think of the mother or father coping with their naughty child. Does it help if they say “Don’t worry darling, everyone loses their temper and smashes things sometimes.”  No, of course it doesn’t. When I did things like that as a child – and I did, because I had a dreadfully bad temper – my mother sent me to my room. She showed that what I had done was wrong, and there in my room I remember weeping, feeling awful that I had upset her. But then, before long, she came to me and gave me a big hug and we talked about how I could try to be a better person. Yes, the parent, like God, like the Church, must make clear what is wrong. But the parent, like God, like the Church, must also bring love and forgiveness into the situation and offer every person a way forward into eternal life.

Facing the fact that we are helpless without God, and that even with God to help us we will still often fail, is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. We heard St Paul say it, the Paul who had felt before he met Christ that he was living a perfect life, “We were still helpless when at his appointed moment Christ died for sinful men.” This is something we must receive into our hearts.

As Jesus said to the woman at the well “If you only knew what God is offering..”  So many people don’t know, and that’s our challenge.