(Sunday sermons, talks, and teaching)
Inside the dome of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, several feet high above the place where Peter himself has laid buried for almost two thousand years, there is a large inscription made with black lettering on a gold background;
‘You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church…
I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven’ (Matt 16:18-19).
Michelangelo positioned these two verses of Matthew’s gospel at the base of the dome as a golden circlet, a crown above the tomb of the Apostle, and as a reminder of level of responsibility and trust Our Lord places on the whole of his Church; ‘whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven’ (Matt 16:19).
Now, as we read this passage, we could look at its importance in shaping the Church around the ministry of St Peter. But [as a good Anglican] I would like to focus on something slightly broader in meaning; God’s willingness – in fact, his desire – for human cooperation in his work of creation and redemption. The desire of God for human participation comes up as a recurring theme throughout the history of salvation. For example, when God chose his people in the Old Testament he relied on Abraham and made a covenant, a pact, with him; when the people of Israel cried out to the Lord form the land of Egypt God entrusted Moses to lead them out of slavery; when the House of Israel needed the leadership of a faithful steward God entrusted Eliakim (from our first reading) and relied on his decisions. In the New Testament when God sent his Son into the world he relied on the cooperation of the Virgin Mary and he entrusted Jesus to the care of St Joseph; when Our Lord wanted to spread the gospel he relied on his apostles and disciples, and finally, as we see today, when Jesus wanted to build his Church he relied on St Peter, the Rock to be quite literally the foundation stone. And when we focus our attention on examples such as these a clear pattern emerges. In every situation, from the beginning of Salvation history until now, the Lord relies on his people – meaning each one of us as well – to further his work. Much as he did with his first disciples, the Lord Jesus calls us to specific tasks that only we can do, he blesses us with every possible grace to help us in our work, and he gives us the Holy Spirit to strengthen us in all our doings.
But let me put this in another way. On Thursday was the feast of the Apostle Bartholomew. The prayer for that day said,
O Lord, …grant that… your Church
may become the sacrament of salvation for all the nations.
A sacrament is essentially the way in which the grace of God reaches people through the means of ordinary objects and actions consecrated to his service (like bread, wine, touching, and washing). So, when we pray to become the sacrament of salvation, we pray that the Lord may reach other people with his grace through us; through our ordinariness, through our humanity which has been consecrated to his service by baptism.
So here is the beauty of our Christin faith. We are not just infinitely loved by God; we are also infinitely needed by him. ‘We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.’ (BXVI, Homily, Sunday, 24 April 2005)
There may have been only one St Peter and only one ministry to which the Lord has entrusted the keys of his kingdom, but this does not change the fact that each one of us is entrusted with continuing and furthering Jesus’ saving work in the world. So if you don’t take anything away from this service, at least take this; God invites you to work with him, God entrusts you with his redeeming work, God relies on you to bring salvation to others.
Isaiah 56:1; 6-7
‘Thus says the Lord,
“…my house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples”’ Isaiah 56:7
One morning, as I was getting ready for Mass is St Ives, I was approached by a long-standing members of the congregation called Hellen who proceeded to grill me about one church issue or another. In her usual abrupt and unapologetic way she rattled my cage, and, in retaliation, I probably pushed a few of her (deeply protestant) buttons. To cut the long story short, we ended up having some words and getting quite cross with each other to the point that I wasn’t quite sure how we were going to handle exchanging the sign of peace later in the service… But of course, I needn’t to worry about that, because even before we got to the peace, what was reading set before us by the lectionary? It just had to be Matthew 5:23-24; ‘if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.’ Similarly, the morning after a break in into his vicarage a priest friend of mine was presented by the lectionary with the reading of Matthew 24:43 ‘If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into.’
Indeed, the lectionary quite often has a wonderful and bitter-sweet way of recalling us back to the things that actually matter, to what God has to say about the way in which we live or about what goes on in the world. And, I believe, this is happening with today’s readings…
Among the stories of racial hatred we hear from Charlottesville, the howling shrieks of far-right movements and intolerance across the Western world, the resurgence of anti-Jewish propaganda, the cowardice of those who should be confronting evil, among all these dreadful things our readings recall us to God’s vision for humanity, God’s purpose of the one, single human race.
To those who publicly incite anti-Jewish hatred, and to the creators of silly Jewish jokes, the Lord says about the people of Israel in our second reading, “I will never take back my gifts or revoke my choice” (Romans 11:15). Religious justification for anti-Jewish hate is always a misinterpretation of the faith, and a blasphemy in the eyes of our God who chose Abraham to be the father of many nations, and to be one of our fathers in the faith as well.
To white supremacists, to full-time and not-so-casual-casual racists, the Lord says in the first reading “…my house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples”. My house – not your house, but the house in which you stand on equal footing as any other believer of whatever ethnicity, nationality, or background, this my house – is a house of prayer for everyone, and in my house everyone is welcome, so you better make peace with it.
To those who barricade their hatred and discrimination behind blinkered, holier-than-thou religion, Jesus presents the example of great faith given by a Canaanite woman. She belonged to a different culture and nationality than Jesus, she was a descendant of an enemy people, she didn’t believe in Jesus in the same articulate way his followers did, but she nonetheless had an instinctively stronger, deeper, and more resilient faith in the Lord than the best of his disciples; so much so that her unorthodox faith cooperated in the healing of her daughter.
And to us all, the Lord gives a reminder about the task we signed up for at our baptism and confirmation; the task of hastening the coming of his Kingdom as one humanity finally made into a true and beloved community where racism, unjust discrimination, and hatred find not room at all.
Today the lectionary recalls us back to what is really important. May we listen to its voice and strive to build us the Church as a house of prayer for all nations, and as a positive example of community for the world to see...
Elect from every nation,
Yet one o’er all the earth,
Her charter of salvation,
One Lord, one faith, one birth;
One holy Name she blesses,
Partakes one holy food,
And to one hope she presses,
With every grace endued.
Father Peter Stannard’s homily for the Assumption of Mary that was celebrated on 13th August
Cast your mind back to your school days and I’m sure that like me you can remember the subjects you loved and those you hated. Me, I loved English and hated Maths , for you it may have been the complete opposite. Years later the same rule applied to theological college. Others took to learning New Testament Greek like ducks to water; for me it was a real pain. It was all the more painful because I knew how important it was to be able to read the scriptures in their original languages and to gain important insights as a result.
Take the Greek word Kalos meaning “Good”. It is used in John 10 where Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd. The word is significant in more than one way. I find the most delightful is that good means handsome or beautiful. The good shepherd is the beautiful shepherd. Jesus is utterly beautiful and it is that sheer beauty that makes him compellingly attractive. It is that amazing charisma that causes the first disciples to instantly drop everything and immediately follow him. The hymn writer got it right with those famous words, “Fix your eyes upon Jesus. Look full in his wonderful face. And the cares of the world will grow strangely dim in the light of his wonder and grace.’ That is the business of heaven: the sheer joy of gazing on the transfigured and transfiguring beauty of Jesus in his glory.
So what has this to do with the Assumption of Our Lady? Well I’m sure you know where I’m going. Jesus derives this beauty not just by being very God of very God, the source of all beauty, but also by being his mother’s son. Jesus is utterly beautiful because Mary is utterly beautiful too. They share a beauty to which countless religious artists fail to do justice. Of course Jesus gains his goodness through Mary in other ways too. Goodness is also a moral quality and Mary , by example, raises Jesus to be good This is rather more important than it first appears. Luke tells us that after losing Jesus for three days, Mary and Joseph find him in the Temple listening and asking questions. He then returns to Nazareth with them and , Luke points out , is obedient to them. Long before Jesus was tested in the wilderness , he learned goodness from Mary and Joseph. Through infancy, childhood, youth and beyond, Jesus’ formation - his capacity to choose the good and resist temptation - is down to Mary and Joseph.
Good means beautiful. Good means of high moral standing. Good also means efficient, effective, fit for purpose. And once again this applies to Our Lady. Mary had a unique and vital role in God’s plan for our salvation. She was chosen, predestined, to be united with Jesus in the victory over sin and death. Without her it would have been impossible. That God enabled her to fulfil this role is implied by the Archangel Gabriel’s greeting, ‘Hail Mary full of grace’. It is by his grace that God enables us to accomplish his will. But to understand this more fully we need to go beyond scripture to the Church’s teaching.
Mary could have said no to God. The good lord does not override our free will. But he predisposed her to say yes not just by his grace but by her redemption in anticipation of what Christ would achieve. Mary was conceived without the stain of original sin. Thus equipped for her unique vocation, the sinless Mother cooperates with the sinless Son until at the end of her earthly life, she was taken body and soul into heavenly glory there to take her place as Queen of Heaven. Formerly the son was conformed to his mother in obedience to the Father’s will; at her taking her place in heaven she is conformed to her son as conqueror over sin and death. The assumption of Mary is a singular participation in her son’s resurrection and an anticipation of our own resurrection.
And if that language does for you what New Testament Greek did for me, I’ll risk putting it very bluntly: Heaven couldn’t be heaven without Mary as Queen. Christ in all his glory couldn’t bear to be without her. And let me put it more bluntly still with a simple story. Some years ago I took part in a sponsored walk for Christian Aid. We followed what is called St. Cuthbert’s Way from the Scottish borders down to Holy Island on the Northumbrian coast. Even with training (which I wasn’t very good at) it was a killer of a pilgrimage. Finally, finally, finally, we got to the last stretch for the finishing post only to be cheered along by a happy crowd of people waiting eagerly for us to join them, waiting for every last one of us to reach our goal.
Simple enough. But it offers a glimpse of what the Christian pilgrimage and the prospect of heaven are all about. Having gone before us through trial and difficulty, Mary our mother in union with Jesus waits for us in heaven, helping us on our way, cheering us on to completion and joy.
Daniel 7:9-10; 13-14
The Transfiguration of the Lord with all its display of glory and divine beauty forms a watershed in the gospel narratives of Matthew, Mark, and Luke because on the top of this mountain, as we look back, we see the fulfilment of many Old Testament scenes, and looking forward towards, we see what the future has in store for Jesus and then for all of us – we see the Cross, the Resurrection, and the final consummation of salvation history. For example, in the appearance of Moses we find an echo of his ascent to Mount Sinai when he received God’s Word chiselled on stone tablets and was allowed to see the back of God; except that here Moses is able to talk directly to the Word-of-God-made-flesh and to see God’s radiant face. In the appearance of Elijah we find an echo of his encounter with God, when the Lord spoke to him about the mission he had to accomplish, not through ‘the earthquake, wind, and fire’ but with a ‘still, small voice of calm’ (Cf. 1Kings 19:12). And in the bright cloud that engulfs the entire scene we see one of Scripture’s favourite images to describe God’s glory.
Looking to the future, the Transfiguration gives us a sure pledge that Jesus will fulfil Daniel’s prophecy about a man on whom is ‘conferred sovereignty, glory and kingship’ (Dan. 7:13), and that, in his radiant splendour, the Lord will appear at the end of time as a bright lightning that lights up the entire sky (Cf. Matt. 24:27). So in essence, the Transfiguration shows us in no uncertain terms the profound reality of Jesus’ divine nature as ‘God from God’ and ‘Light from Light’. But the reason behind this display is not Jesus’ desire to brag or impress, because he never considered ‘equality with God something to be used to his own advantage’ (Philippians 2:6); but it comes out of the Lord’s desire to instruct and strengthen Peter, James, and John in their faith in preparation for the Easter events and for their mission in the world.
The Transfiguration then can be interpreted as a brief pause, as Jesus’ intimate revelation of his true nature to his closest disciples, before he has to ascend another hill and accomplish a dramatically different event. And it is here that the disciples, though terrified by the experience, realise that being in the Lord’s company was everything they had always desired. Peter’s proposition about staying on the mountain seems perfectly reasonable… As Saint Augustine comments,
‘On the mountain... [Peter] had Christ as the food of his soul. Why should he have to go down to return to his hard work and sorrows while up there he was filled with holy love for God which inspired in him a holy way of life?’ (Sermon 78, 3)
If we too caught and understood even just a glimpse of Jesus’ beauty and glory, who wouldn’t want to bask in his light? And who would want to leave?
I hope that each of us has his or her own Transfiguration moments and spaces in which they can be instructed and strengthened by Jesus by the simple fact of being with him, and having him as “food for their souls”… When we come together to celebrate the Mass – each Sunday and for a few of us here even most days of the week – we spiritually climb the mountain of the Transfiguration to be with Jesus as he comes to us in the Sacrament, and to listen to his voice in the Scriptures. Here we get a glimpse of what the life of heaven will be like, here the Lord displays his glory, and here he nurtures the life of faith. But following Jesus we must come down the mountain with him, and after celebrating Mass, we must return to our labours so that the beauty we have experienced might be replicated in the world.
Over the past weeks we listened to several parables about the Kingdom of God. And even though the Transfiguration of the Lord is a real event in the life of Jesus, it forms for us a further parable about the Christian life; we must continuously ascend the spiritual mountain to meet God and then, coming back down, bear ‘the love and strength drawn from him, so as to serve our brothers and sisters with God’s own love’ (BXVI, Lent Message 2013, n.3).
Through the parables Jesus explained to us how the Kingdom grows and takes hold in subtle, almost unseen ways, until its beauty is fully manifested for all to see. The Kingdom is like yeast in the dough (Cf. Matt. 13:33); like the rarest of pearls (Cf. Matt. 13:45); like a small seed (Cf. Matt. 13:31). These parables mirror most people’s experience of faith as a slow, and sometimes difficult, process of growth accomplished through prayers, learning, and the practice good habits; a life-long commitment to following Christ until his is fully formed in us, until – as St Paul says – we have grown into the full stature of Jesus (Cf. Eph. 4:13), and until God’s Kingdom is clearly manifested in who we are and by what we do. But as today we celebrate the feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord we catch a glimpse of what the final manifestation of the Kingdom will be like; we are given a foretaste of the moment when the Lord Jesus will be fully revealed in the glory and majesty of his divine nature.