Homily on Spiritual fitness

One of the phrases used by athletes at the Olympics when they talk about how they prepared for it is “I put myself through a lot of punishment but it was worth it in the end!” Yes, we are all impressed by what these athletes do, but we need to remember that being a Christian is like being an athlete. We get this from St Paul who writes to the Christians in Corinth, Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.” (1 Cor 9:24) Later of himself he writes “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Now that’s a challenge for all of us today, to do our best to be what every Christian should be, spiritually fit.

A Sports coach faced with improving the fitness of an athlete does not start by imposing the same exercises on everyone he trains. No, he starts by assessing individual fitness. So the first question each of us need to ask ourselves today is “How spiritually fit am I?” Am I just cruising as a Christian… just going through the motions rather than really developing a deeper relationship with God?

We might start our analysis by asking ourselves why we are we here at Mass? Some of us will be here because it makes us feel better. We find comfort from familiar words and prayers and from a sense of the presence of God. For us the questions is : “Would still be faithful if being at Mass, saying out prayers, stopped being comfortable and soothing. Would we carry on then?”

Others of us may be here because we need help. We are faced with some big problem, some big sadness or difficulty in our lives, and in our struggle for a way beyond these difficulties we have turned to God for help. For us the question is: “Would still be faithful if things starting getting better for us?” It is noticeable that better-off people who can afford to go out and enjoy themselves at the weekend, on trips out, on holidays, on sport or shopping, are far less likely to be faithful practising Christians. All these other things seem much more fun! Would we lose the faith. if life became easy and smooth and other things attracted us?

Then there are some of us, and this is particularly true of priests, who come to Mass partly because that is what we have always done for more years than we care to remember. Prayer has become a habit, almost something we do without thinking. Now that may be good ; but the danger is that if our life gets disrupted in some way, then if prayer has become just a habit and has lost its depth, what seemed a fixed part of our life can quietly dissolve into nothingness.

This is precisely what Jesus is warning us about in our Gospel (Luke 13:22-30) He tells us to try our best “to enter by the narrow door”. I was talking to a fervent and fairly anti-Catholic Protestant Christian the other day, and discovered he had been brought up a Catholic. “Why was I never told” he said, “That being a Christian means committing oneself utterly and completely to the Lord Jesus Christ?”  I was saddened to hear that despite the fact that he must have heard Bible Readings like ours today, no-one had explained that this did not mean just going to Mass every Sunday and trying to be good. I’m glad if you do both those things, but unless we also talk to God and listen to God in our life, unless we make this time in church MEAN something to us, then we have missed the point completely. We heard what the Master said to people like that in the Gospel :“I do not know you.”

Sometimes people, especially British or Irish people, apologise to me if they have been crying during Mass. “I am sorry I made such a scene Father.”  “Don’t be sorry” I say “What better place is there than Mass to share our deepest sorrows as well as our deepest joys, with God!

The best exercise to get spiritually fit is prayer; but prayer does NOT mean asking God for things. Prayers means spending some time sharing our life with God, thinking through the day with him, so that gradually his continual presence seeps into our rather dull minds. But we must not be foolish athletes. We must not set ourselves a routine that is too much for us, so that after a few days we fail and sink back into nothingness. Better to spend 5 minutes concentrating on God, than to plan much longer and then fail to find the time. The long term goal must be give ourselves some punishment to get really fit, but God honours every little effort we make, so we must give ourselves time to get there.

Close friendship with God

It is easy to forget that when Jesus taught us to call God “Father”, he did not mean Grandfather. I always get furious with people who think we Christians believe in a God who is like an old man – a grandfather with a beard – sitting on a cloud! No! What he wanted to share with us was that very special idea that God is very close to us and that through our brotherhood with Jesus we are drawn into the same closeness with God that he has. Listen to the prayer of Jesus just before he is arrested “I pray also for those who will believe in me..  that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20-21) 

This doesn’t mean, of course, that God is so close to us that he is not far away beyond us as well. Jesus prayed regularly in the Synagogue and the Temple where God was always addressed in more formal ways, just as we all do when we say “Holy holy holy, Lord God Of hosts” during Mass. Indeed these are words Jesus knew well, as they are from the great prophet Isaiah’s vision of God, (6:3) a vision taken up by us Christians where we find it in the last book of the Bible as a vision of God in heaven (Rev 4:8)

It is only when we have something of that vision of God – a power quite beyond our understanding eternal and almighty – that we can feel something of the shock and the wonder of the teaching of Jesus, that this same God can also be approached as “Father”. Indeed in our Gospel today, (Luke 11:1-13) when Jesus teaches us to pray, he puts the two images of God side by side. “Say this when you pray : Father, may your name be held holy”

But our Gospel takes us further into the teaching of Jesus on the closeness of the Father with his story of the two neighbours. Our problem here is that we are so concerned with our own desire to pray better, that we concentrate on that aspect of the story; so we need to look more closely at the relationship between the two neighbours. Think about it!  Nobody would have the nerve to go banging on their neighbour’s door late at night unless they knew them very well indeed.  Jesus emphasises how inconvenient it is, by having the disturbed person cry out from inside the house, “Go away, we have all gone to bed.”  By this time Jesus has all his listeners laughing. But then he takes the story further, for the man outside continues knocking and calling until .. finally.. his friend, with a sigh I guess, gives way and gets out of bed and gets him what he wants.  Did you notice how I put in that word “friend” because that’s the point. That neighbour would never have got up unless they had actually been friends as well.

Remember that Jesus says in another place “I have called you friends”? (John 15:15) This is so important to him, he wants us to see God as our friend, to see God as someone whose door we would feel happy to knock on in the middle of the night. So God is not only a Father to us, but also the kind of father who we feel really comfortable with, the kind of father who we would be happy to phone up and chat to, even in the middle of the night. I know of one person who sometimes does this, and knows that her father is always happy to hear her voice and listen to her problems even if he is far away. We may not have a father like that, but we can imagine what it is like, and that is the God that Jesus gives us, as he calls us to be his friends, and thus the friends of God.

We might end by looking at what we are given if we do pray like that. We might think that Jesus is teaching us that if we persist in prayer we will get what we want. But that is not what he says. He says “If you then…  know how to give your children what is good, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Did you hear that? What God will give us if we persist in prayer is not what we ask for but himself as Holy Spirit. In other words he will fill us with his strength and his wisdom and it is that which will answer our prayer. We may not get what we want, but what we will get is his even closer presence to guide us and probably show us that what we were asking for is not necessarily the riht thing for us.

 I remember when I was in great pain in hospital asking God again and again to take away the pain so I could sleep. Finally I realized that I was going to have to live with the pain at least for a while, and instead of crying out for relief, I had to simply relax in his presence. and in that knowledge manage that living with the pain that I did not really want. God sometimes answers prayer this way. It may be hard but if God is with us, we can and will manage.

 

What does thy kingdom come mean?

Have you ever wondered what we mean when we pray “Thy kingdom come”?  In the Gospel today we heard Jesus tell his disciples to proclaim “The kingdom of God is very near”, and it makes us ask the same question – we talk about the kingdom but what does it actually all mean?

 

Let’s remind ourselves first what we mean by God. God is the invisible power that is present everywhere, from deep within the earth itself right out to the furthest reaches of the universe. So God is the power of life in each one of us. Breathe in and out and wonder at the life within you! Nothing would exist and nothing would be alive if God were not in some way within it.

 

This is surely what Jesus means when he says that the kingdom of God is very near. Too many people think of God as a faraway force – an immense power yes – but very distant from us. Jesus wants us to realise that although God IS a very powerful distant force, quite impossible for us to understand, quite impossible for us to see, yet God is also very very close to us, and through him, through Jesus, we can understand what God is like and how much he loves us. “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son… has made him known. (John 1:18)

 

But if the kingdom of God just means the presence of God, and that presence is very near, why do we need to pray “Thy kingdom come”? I think the answer is that God does not force his presence on us, instead God has given us a part to play in making his presence known. We do that in a number of ways taught us by Jesus. First of all, we make his presence known every time we show love and kindness to other people. The Bible tells us that “God is love and those who live in love, live in God and God lives in them” (John 4:16)

 

But secondly Jesus has given us a very special way of bringing God even closer to us than we could ever imagine. He took some bread and wine and said “This is my Body. This is my Blood” and in another place he says “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.”  (John 6:54) This is why the Mass is so wonderful, for not only are we taught within Mass about how important it is to show God’s presence to others by acts of love and kindness, but we are also given his focussed presence through Holy Communion to help and support us in doing the good things he wants us to do.

 

Can I explain that word “focussed” by telling you about a rather naughty thing I used to do when I was a child?  On a nice sunny day, I would get a magnifying glass, and a bit of newspaper, and I would hold the glass above the paper so that the sunlight was pinpointed on it. Then, quite quickly, the paper would catch light and I would have a tiny fire.  That is what focussed means. I focussed the sunlight on the paper and it made it so hot it set it on fire.  Light, sunlight, is like God. Indeed we are told “God is light”. (1 John 1:5) Sunlight is everywhere even when it is cloudy, as it often seems to be in England, but sunlight, like the presence of God can be focussed. When we focus God’s presence in this way, then God’s power can be shown.

 

This is what happens when the priest, on our behalf, does what Jesus told us to do, and focusses God’s presence for us in and through the bread and wine. But then it is up to us to use that focussed presence to bring his presence into the world by acts of love and kindness. His presence in and through Holy Communion is not a magic spell to put everything right for us ; but it a power that we can use, if we want to.

 

So when we pray “Thy kingdom come”, we are asking God to help us to make his presence real in our lives and in those around us. It is a bit like electricity present in our house. It is no good to us unless we plug in and switch on. We plug in to the power and presence of God every time we come to Mass and receive Communion. We switch on every time we use that power and presence that we have been given to help others in some way, and when we do that we are doing our bit to bring the Kingdom of God nearer. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, every day, in us, Lord God.

 

 

 

 

Homily on what Corpus Christi means

Corpus Christi means ‘the Body of Christ’. It is the day when the Church celebrates the promise of Jesus, at his Last Supper with his disciples, that he would be with them in a special way whenever they took the bread and blessed it and ate it together as he did on that holy night. From then on this is what the true followers of Jesus have done. We give this event a number of special names. The Mass from the same word as Mission means the ‘sending out’ event – the event that empowers us to go out and share his presence and love with others. But also we call the actual receiving of this holy bread ‘Holy Communion’, because in and through it we actually receive Jesus and are drawn into ‘Union” with God and with one another, as we heard Jesus say in the Gospel. (John 6:51-58) “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in him.”

But there is another important word we use describe this event, a word which is less well known. We call it ‘The Eucharist” which means ‘The Thanksgiving’ (Efharisto in modern Greek). For although we may thank God for life and beauty and goodness and love in many ways, this is THE WAY above all ways to thank and praise him for everything he is and everything he does. For the Bread and Wine, as well as being examples of the food and drink that keeps us physically alive, are also transformed by the Holy Spirit into his Body and Blood, so that as Jesus says “Anyone who eats this bread will live for ever.” (John 6:58)  So every Mass is above all a great song of praise and thanksgiving to God. For we will not receive the full benefits of what God gives us at Mass if we just come to receive. No, we must come most of all to give, to give our lives in thanksgiving to God and thus to the world. For the more we give the more we will receive.

Today’s feast is therefore a great reminder of all this. But it has also been the tradition of the Church for hundreds of years to extend our thanksgiving and praise on this day by other acts of praise to Jesus for coming to us in this wonderful way. So today in many many churches throughout the world, we take the holy Bread in which Jesus is present – the bread that we call the Blesséd Sacrament – and place it in something called a Monstrance so that everyone can see it. Then in song and prayer and in procession we thank God for his wonderful gift.

Finally we receive Benediction, or what is called by its full title ‘Benediction of the Blesséd Sacrament’. “Benediction” is actually just another word for “Blessing”, and the normal way the priest gives us all a blessing is by making the sign of the cross as he says the words “May Almighty God bless you etc.” But when Jesus is present in this special way, in the Blessed Sacrament, words become unnecessary, and so he simply makes the sign of the cross with the Blessed Sacrament in silence.

I think we Catholics need to remember how lucky we are to have within our Church this practice of using the Blessed Sacrament in this way as a focus for our prayer and praise. Other Christians mainly think of Jesus as present in a general way, in their prayers and thoughts, and will not accept, despite his words at the Last Supper, that there is a real presence of Jesus in the Bread and Wine. They fear that we are slipping into idolatry, worshipping the Bread, rather than Jesus. When I was a Protestant I thought that was what Catholics did. But then, when I began to meet Catholics, I realized that I was mistaken ; that this focus on the Blessed Sacrament is for all Catholics a focus on the glorious presence of Jesus. For no-one in their right mind spends time worshipping bread!

The other advantage of our belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in this way is that we have a special focus for our prayers every time we are in church. There always is the light shining to indicate His presence. But also most churches have times outside Mass when the Blessed Sacrament is exposed for us to see in the Monstrance, and then this focus for our prayer is even more explicit. We call these times of silent prayer “Adoration or Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament” and many people find this an easier way to pray in silence than just trying to do so at home, partly because focusing on something that we can actually see before us is easier than just thinking about Jesus in our minds, and partly because in a strange and mysterious way, the power of his presence radiates out to us even when we do not actually receive him in Holy Communion.

So let us give thanks to God today for this wonderful gift.

 

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”

 

Homily on being loved & prayed for

We Christians quite rightly talk a lot about love, and we try to put into practice what Jesus taught us in today’s Gospel, (John 13:31-35) to “love one another just as I have loved you.” But very easily we turn that into something that we must do. I must be kind to those I meet. I must get on with those I work with. I must help the poor of the world. I must try to tolerate those who I do not like etc etc. Now this is all very fine and good, but there is one thing wrong with it. In order to love others, we must allow ourselves to be loved by them. If I fail to let others love me, even to do things for me, or fuss over me, in ways that I do not much like, I have not yet learnt to love the way Jesus loves.

I notice this particularly when, as today, I encourage people to come forward at the end of Mass for Prayers for healing. Oh yes, lots and lots of people come forward, and it’s very moving to see this ; but few of them ask for prayers for themselves, and if they do it is often as a modest afterthought – “Oh, and a little prayer for me too Father.” Now it is wonderful to know that in the heart of each Christian is so much concern for those who are sick or sad in some way; but we must not make that mean, that we are too modest to mention our own needs and ask for prayers for ourselves.  I even know of some people who like to keep their sickness a secret. Somehow they have got it into their heads that although they will pray for others, they would prefer others not to pray for them.

My guess is that they don’t want people to fuss, and I do understand that, because I find that difficult too. A priest has only to limp a little, or cough a bit too much, and endless people are coming up after Mass to show their concern and offer solutions. My instinct then is to minimise the problem – to say “Oh it’s nothing really.” –whatever it is – probably because I don’t want to be accused of being one of those irritating people who goes on and on about themselves and all their ailments! What I should do is simply accept their love.

Jesus has this problem too. The disciples fuss over him when he disappears early in the morning up in the hills to pray. He simply tells them, without criticising them, that they must all move on. The woman with the ointment comes into a public place and anoints his feet and dries them with her hair – so embarrassing! When others say he shouldn’t have allowed this, especially as the woman has a bad name, he gently defends her action. At Gethsemane he, Jesus the Son of God, with a unique relationship with God the Father, asks his weak disciples to pray for him. What good can their feeble prayers do, compared with his, especially as, just as he suspects, they fall asleep! And yet that is what he does.

Yes, Jesus loves us by allowing us weak silly humans with all our faults to love him, even to pray for him. God chooses to become a human being, and in so doing encourages us into a quite different relationship with him. Instead of simply loving us from a position of superiority, and expecting gratitude and praise and worship in return, he allows us to love him. We then must try to be like that. We must not just allow, but encourage others to pray for us, to love us. When we are sick or sad or facing some medical treatment, we have to overcome our shyness, our modesty, and ask others to pray for us. How dare we do otherwise? How can we spend time praying and caring for others, as if we are some special person distributing God’s love, and not allow them to pray and care for us?

True love is always a mutual thing – a giving and a receiving. We, the Church, must first of all be a community where that mutual love is shown. Have you the courage to turn to the person sitting near you at Mass, someone you may not know, or may only know a little, and ask them to pray for you? Do you ask to be put on the church’s prayer list when you are in need of prayer, or do you hide your problems because you do not want to make a fuss? Some people even say nothing, but are then upset when nobody appears to notice that they are suffering and need prayer. Jesus said “Ask and it will be given you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened for you.”

Love is an immensely powerful force and when linked to prayer it becomes even more powerful, always bringing comfort and support and sometimes also bringing an amazing result for the person prayed for. But if we do not allow ourselves to be loved, if we do not ask for prayer, then we are failing to allow God’s love to come to us through others, and that’s sad, isn’t it?

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.