(Sunday sermons, talks, and teaching)
How does the Holy Spirit operate in the hearts of believers?
A short Scripture reflection on Acts 2:4 for the feast of Pentecost.
James 1:17-18, 21-22, 27
‘Pure, unspoilt religion… is this: coming to the help of orphans and widows… and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world.’ (James 1:27)
A few weeks ago a fellow priest was filmed on a programme about pilgrimage while making the following statement; ‘I am not religious’. This was a last-ditch attempt to spark a meaningful conversation about faith with another pilgrim, but the contentious nature of that phrase remained the same – a priest of the established Church of this land said, ‘I am not religious’. The whole incident was rather telling; not so much about the priest speaking, but rather about how society views people who might describe themselves as religious. Being religious can be misunderstood as a bad thing; as an alternative description for either being blinkered, or outright killjoys with fundamentalist tendencies. And if that be the case – most definitely – who would want to be labelled as “religious”?
This morning we begin to explore the Letter of James. In writing this letter the Apostle James had in mind a Christian community formed by both long-standing, paid-up, members who needed a little refreshing course, as well as by people who stood on the fringes – sort of half-way in and half-way out of the Church – those who couldn’t quite commit themselves to be “religious” in the Christian sense. Sound familiar? James’ Church is our own Church too, in many respects. Every church community will have both those who attend Sunday services religiously (that word again!) and then forget about God for the other 167 hours of the week, as well as those who would put themselves down as Christians on a census form, but who would come to Mass once or twice a year tops – and, of course, everyone in between. Common to both of these groups is their unwillingness to let the Christian faith actually shape the way in which they live. And to both of these groups James writes a simple set of instructions, a basic guide on how to be a Christian and on what it means to be religious in the way God intended for us to be.
The passage we encounter this morning starts from the very beginning saying that it is not good enough for Christians to listen to God’s word and then do nothing about it. James affirms that if this is our attitude towards Christianity and the Church, this just won’t do; in fact, he says, we are deceiving ourselves (Cf. James 1:22). This type of faith will not save us. Instead, he says, as believers we have to do something, we have to be “religious people” – that is, not narrow-minded individuals, but those who act according to God’s instructions and God’s example. But what are these instructions? We find a clear one at verse 27; ‘coming to the help of orphans and widows’.
As James puts it, God chose each one of us to be his own beloved child in the Lord Jesus. God made us his children in the waters of Baptism. Consequently, as his children, we are called then to do the same works of God our Father does. In the Scriptures God is described as the defender of those who do not have anyone to plead their causes – represented by orphans, widows, foreigners, and people on the margins (Cf. Psalm 85:5). Then, if God our Father does these things, we are to do the same, just as children learn core behaviours by imitating what their parents do. Christian social action becomes part of the way we worship of God; and the way we treat the least in our society becomes the measure of whether we are “religious” or not.
The second instruction we find is to remain ‘uncontaminated by the world.’ As James puts it, our social environment and the wider community we live in are instrumental in forming our characters – and quite often not in a good way. Because of the bad things we experience and the evil that we may endure, over the years, we could change, becoming more cynical and selfish, less disposed to do good, and increasingly blind to the needs of others. But this, James says, should not happen among Christians. God our Father is not influenced or contaminated by the world, nothing can sway him from his generosity and his purpose of doing good… we read, ‘with [God] there is no such thing as alteration, no shadow of a change’ (James 1:17). Therefore we – his children – must make sure that nothing in this world could poison our hearts with bitterness and cynicism.
‘Pure, unspoilt religion… is this: coming to the help of orphans and widows… and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world.’
Being religious is not a call to be fundamentalists or to be narrow-minded people. In the Christian sense, being religious is a balancing act between worship in church and doing good in the world. It is a loving response to God for choosing us to be his children; the way in which we imitate our heavenly Father, and the way in which we grow into the likeness of God.
All this is summed up in one verse from Jesus in Matthew’s gospel; ‘Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matt 5:48).
Text: John 6:60-69
‘After this, many of his disciples left him and stopped going with him.’ (John 6:66)
We often read together stories from the gospel where the Lord Jesus is revered, sought by many, and listened to. When we hear of opposition, this generally comes from outside, from the people who do not accept him and look for to his demise. John 6 – which we finish today – has so far fitted into these parameters. Jesus has worked miracles, he has been pursued by the crowd who even wanted to make him king by force (Cf. John 6:15), he has taught countless people and he has revealed himself as ‘the living bread that came down from heaven’ (John 6:51). Whilst opposition has come from the usual places and it was summarised last week in a simple question, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ (John 6:52).
However, as we reach the end of the Bread of Life discourse we encounter something different – an unexpected turn of events where both openness and opposition to Jesus come from among the same group, from among his disciples. The reading picks up from where we left it last week and says, ‘After hearing his doctrine many of the followers of Jesus said, “This is intolerable language. How could anyone accept it?”’ (John 6:60).
The disciples hear Jesus saying ‘my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink’ (John 6:55), they hear him talk of his body as the Bread which give life to the world (Cf. John 6:51), and they are stunned by these words. A rift opens among them. On one side, many disciples – not one or two, but “many” – are sceptic about how Jesus could ever give his own self as food, and they brand his teaching as “intolerable language” – in other translations this is rendered as “unacceptable saying”, or a “hard teaching”… On the other side, we have Peter and the other eleven disciples – whom, far from being perfect, trust in the Lord’s word and remain with him. The rift among the disciples hangs on this; Jesus said,
‘Very truly, I tell you... Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink’ (John 6:53-55).
Think about it. Of course this is could be seen as an unacceptable saying. Many disciples thought they were following a religious leader who would have restored freedom to the people of Israel with his revolutionary ideas. But what they hear now from him is a speech about giving himself up as food and drink to those who believe… What on Earth could this even mean? As a consequence, the gospel tells us, a good number of disciples leave Jesus – they literally do the opposite of conversion; they turn away from him – and stop travelling with him.
The words of Jesus plunge disciples into crisis, and still to this day the Bread of Life discourse is the stumbling block for many Christians. The teaching about the Sacrament of the Eucharist, about Jesus’ Body and Blood, has become a visible rift within the Church for the last 500 years at least – but it has been present since the very beginning. The fact that Jesus is present on our altars with his Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity is an unacceptable doctrine for many but the cause of hope, consolation, and joy for others. It all depends what side of the divide we decide to go for.
‘The Eucharist is the place where one comes to eternal life. Encountering the broken flesh and the spilled blood of Jesus, “lifted up” on the cross (vv. 53-54), [we] called to make a decision for or against the revelation of God in that encounter (vv. 56-58), gaining or losing life because of it (vv. 53-54)’ (F.J. Moloney, The Gospel of John, p. 224).
The words of Jesus may be a difficult saying to understand, but that should not be an obstacle to faith. Jesus calls us to believe in him and in the mystery of his Body and Blood, not to have a PhD in sacramental theology. Therefore, when he says to us ‘my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink’ we have a straightforward choice. We can stubbornly rely on ourselves and our cynicism, believing only what we can prove or understand (like the many disciples did), or we can courageously embrace the faith, aiming to rely solely on the Lord Jesus and on his words no-matter-what – never ever letting go of him.
It could be that the Lord Jesus is addressing us today as he did to the Twelve, ‘What about you, do you want to go away too?’ (John 6:67). But, through Saint Peter, the gospel gives us the words with which we should answer him. Kneeling at the altar rail to receive the Body and Blood of Christ it is as if we were saying, ‘Lord, who shall we go to? You have the message of eternal life’ (John 6:67).
By Mother Janet Yabsley - Text: John 6: 24-35
Jesus answered, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry; whoever believes in me will never thirst.’ (John 6:35)
It was a difficult time to be living in the East End of London in the early 1940’s. A time when the daily effects of war had been continuously wreaking havoc on its population for many months. But my family, who had lived there for several generations, decided to remain in spite of the troubles. First of all my father was a firefighter in the London Fire Brigade. He had volunteered and needed to be there. From my mother’s perspective, a brief period of evacuation in the peaceful countryside of Wales had proved to be much too quiet for her. Being out of touch was making her anxious, so she brought me back to our home where we could spend at least some time with my father.
Life was far from easy, but community cohesion, friendship, support and helping one’s neighbour were right at the top of the list of things people could do for one another. Many adversities brought people together. Luckily our home escaped damage, but others - on all sides of the conflict - were not so fortunate. During the bombing raids of WW II thousands of children were orphaned and left to starve. Some were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and a level of care. But many of these children had lost so much that they couldn’t sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Then someone had the good idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, the children could finally sleep in peace. All through the night the bread reminded them, ‘Today I had something to eat, and I will eat again tomorrow.’
The knowledge that still today there are people who find themselves in the same predicament as those children, raises questions for us. They are not questions exclusively for Christians but they do affect us acutely when we ask them in the light of the gospel.
What problems beset Christians living in a materialist society? What are the true needs of those who seek after Jesus? How do we understand the ‘spiritual’ in our own abundance?
In the relative comforts of life here in the West we are largely buffered against the harsh realities that millions suffer today. In the protected atmosphere of my own living-room I can choose to put away my newspaper or turn off the T.V. whenever images of conflicts and disasters of all kinds, demand my attention. Unless I physically, bodily enter into the situation, I cannot truly grasp its reality. I may feel a number of emotions - shock, pity, anger etc. I may also experience an acute sense of impotence, for at its core the problem is always a political one. There is hunger and destitution for some because others are greedy, or corrupt, or both. Christian social responsibility demands that the issues are addressed in concrete terms, but nothing will change while nations cannot live in peace with one another. Greed, and yet more greed, is always lurking nearby. (Cf. James 3:16-18)
The question of greed is never far away in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ miraculous feedings. As he leaves the scene they follow him - even hound him. They are greedy for yet more miracles. They hope to see some kind of spectacle, but know nothing of his true purpose. Jesus says to them, ‘You are not looking for me because you have seen the signs, but because you had all the bread you wanted to eat.’ (John 6:26) What Jesus does is never a magic trick but rather a sign of God’s love for them, tangibly demonstrated. They have not yet understood the symbolism in his actions. It is frequently mentioned that Jesus uses Barley loaves, the bread of the poor. One of the first miracles concerns a poor woman who begs for mere crumbs - crumbs that drop from the table to the floor. She will be satisfied with them if her daughter can be made well. Her need is not for bead to eat, but the nourishment that Jesus gives from his capacity to listen, to hear, to understand and to heal every kind of infirmity. (Cf. Mark 7:25-30)
The demanding attitude of the crowd is set against the ancient traditions concerning hospitality. Jesus, who had compassion on them, adhered closely to the tradition. First, the people were made to sit down. Then there were conversations, teachings and prayers. Then the food was set before them and they ate. Spiritual needs were satisfied before the needs of physical hunger (Cf. Mark 6:34-42). First of all, to eat bread, in its deepest meaning, is to taste the very source of all bread and nourishment which is the true and living God. For it was God who created the earth, all living things, all food upon which we depend. Yet we do not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. (Deuteronomy 8:3) Out of the mouth of God comes the creative word that makes all life, and nourishment possible. In the beginning God spoke, and it was so. Jesus said a prayer of blessing before he shared the loaves, acknowledging God to be the source of all nourishment, and so conveying to the people the need for a spiritual response to God’s acts of supreme generosity. The God of life has made all things holy - a reflection of the Divine Holiness - therefore all creation is to be revered (Cf. Genesis 1:29-31).
The Christian life is not simply a ‘natural religion’ of thanksgiving for creation, and of good deeds. God, who is Love, has made us a holy people, a redeemed people; accepts our service and our worship. Our prayer confirms and deepens our existing relation of intimate trust between God and ourselves. When Jesus talks about bread in the gospels, the tradition of breaking bread as an act of worship is a strong undercurrent. Of course the Last Supper has not yet taken place - we are only at chapter 6 - but the gospel of John brings these ideas clearly into focus, for the community from which his gospel comes, already had the sharing of bread at the centre of its worshipping life. What we read was set down in writing, in the light of the experience of early Christians (Cf. 1Cor. 11:25-26).
In all four gospels Jesus blesses bread, divides it and shares it among the people. In the crucial words we heard this morning Jesus declares himself to be the true bread. ‘I am the bread of life.‘ In other words, “I, in myself, am true bread, true life.” Jesus, within the bond of covenant with his heavenly Father, is true life; and so can bring about a condition of eternal life in those who feed upon him. Real bread is spiritual, for the followers of Jesus and indeed for all humankind. Yet Jesus will later remind some of those standing nearby that they have seen him and yet do not believe. (John 6: 36).
The Eucharist - a Greek word meaning ‘Great Thanksgiving’, with its Latin equivalent the Mass, meaning ‘Great Feast’ - is always a celebration of the new humanity, the ‘community of gift’ between God and human beings, and between human beings themselves. The new community are to take Jesus Christ as their pattern - in lowliness of heart; in their hunger and thirst for justice; in their compassion; in their role as peacemakers; in their capacity for costly giving of themselves (Cf. Matthew 5:3-12). At the personal, individual level, discipleship means daily seeking to draw closer to Jesus, to learn of him, trust him, and thereby to trust in God (Cf. Matthew 11:28-30). I would like to share something with you that I find helpful, although you may of course have something of your own that you do in your own way.
Perhaps then, later today, in a quiet space, ask yourself this question: “For what moment today am I most grateful?” Think about that for several minutes. Then ask, “For what moment today am I least grateful?” See where those questions lead you. ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening’ (1Sam. 3:10). Amen.
To create one single New Man…
in his own person he killed the hostility. (Eph. 2:15)
Last Sunday we begun to read Saint Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians which, in its opening verses, affirmed that God’s plan for creation is to ‘gather up all things in Christ’ (Eph. 1:9) and to make all believers to be his adopted sons in the Lord Jesus (Cf. Eph. 1:5). Following on from that, today we read that by restoring all things, and by making us his siblings, Christ is creating ‘one new single New Man within himself’ (Eph. 2:15), a new creation in whom barriers and hostilities are overcome. But as we read these verses with our twenty-first century sensibilities, we could be justified in thinking that there still is a bit of hostility left even if only in the way this passage is translated. Sons, man, and even a ‘New Man’… daughters and women seem all but unaccounted for. With this type of gender-exclusive language Ephesians may sound a little odd to many people, if not even infuriating who would regard these as gender-hostile words. Indeed, more recent Bible translations (such as the NRSV) propose a different take on Ephesians replacing “sons” with “children” and “man” with humanity”. But before we rush off to buy a more inclusive Bible, we might want to consider that here perhaps Paul is simply trying to make a theological point.
When Paul writes about differences, and even hostilities, between people of different backgrounds and cultures he acknowledges a harsh human reality; that there are great barriers among the human family, often fuelled by ethnicity, culture, creed and many other reasons – including gender. But more specifically, Paul speaks of the barriers between his own Jewish people and the pagan world; between circumcised and the uncircumcised (Cf. Eph. 2:11); a marked separation between those who were accounted as God’s chosen nation and the rest of the world, the Gentiles – which included the people of Ephesus, and even us. However, after acknowledging the existence of these differences and hostilities, so strictly enforced by the Old Testament Law, Paul stresses the fact that every division (whatever it may be, or however unsurmountable it may appear) comes crashing down for Christians because in the Lord Jesus we are all gathered in the one body (his body!), regardless of our personal circumstances. Through the blood of his cross – spilled for both Jews and Gentiles – Christ reconciles believers to God and to one-another. In his crucified body our old selves (with our pride, squabbles, and vices) have also been crucified. In Christ self-offering to the Father we have become part of the New Man, a living sacrifice to God, which restores and brings peace to the whole creation.
At the centre of Paul’s proclamation of the “Good News” (and indeed this is good news!) is a simple yet astounding belief; God sees each faithful as an adopted son, because he sees us in his only begotten Son Jesus Christ. Time and time again we encounter this concept throughout St Paul’s letters; later on in Ephesians the Apostle encourages all people to grow into the ‘perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ’ (Eph. 4:14); to the Romans and the Corinthians he writes that all the faithful form one body in Christ (Cf. Rom. 12:5 and 1Cor. 6:15); to the Colossians he advises to put to death the old man, or the old self – that is, those habits and dispositions which are incompatible with the gospel (Cf. Col. 3:5) – because they have been crucified with Christ… But perhaps Paul makes this argument nowhere more explicitly than when, using himself as an example, he says to the Galatians, ‘It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me’ (Gal. 2:20).
There is one hymn which also illustrates this point quite well and which I have quoted to you before, And now, O Father, mindful of that Love. In its second verse, praying to God the Father, it says,
Look, Father, look on his anointed face,
and only look on us as found in him.
So, we are the ‘one single New Man’ in Jesus Christ. In this belief there is no judgment about where we come from, no belittling of our personal identities, no bias against equality, and no agenda to favour certain people over others. Surely, we each have unique personal qualities and particular quirks, our good habits which we should cultivate, and also our propensity to sinning which we should fight, yet the truth of the matter is that the Father chooses to love us not according to what each of us may deserve, but with the same unmeasurable love with which he loves Jesus, because we are one and the same in him. He even promises us heaven because that where Christ is.
We are the ‘one single New Man’ in Jesus Christ. Then out of this flows a twofold vocation: first we ought to grow to full maturity in this new man; meaning that amongst ourselves there cannot be room for divisions or hostilities fuelled by pride, or by status in society, by wealth, gender, or anything else. God wills to restore all things in Christ, and Jesus reconciles us in his body, therefore we must be a people of peace; a people of welcome; a people of who foster reconciliation; and a people who bring hope. Secondly, we must reach out to those (and there are so many in our society) who think too little of themselves, who are trapped into thinking that for them there cannot be forgiveness or redemption; to those pressed down by social anxiety, or guilt, or worries about being able to fit in. We must reach out to them and bring them this good news; God loves us regardless of our failures or mistakes, he loves us because he sees us in his Son.
Look, Father, look on his anointed face,
and only look on us as found in him.
… between our sins and their reward
we set the Passion of thy Son our Lord. Amen.
Amos 7:12-15 | Ephesians 1:3-14 | Mark 6:7-13
He has let us know the mystery of his purpose…
that he would bring everything together under Christ, as head,
everything in the heavens and everything on earth. (Eph. 1:9-10)
This morning, both our first reading and the gospel give us a brief insight about of a possible cost for cooperating with God. First, we read how the prophet Amos is requested to leave a royal shrine (or even being banned from it) because his words of prophecy were too upsetting for the people hear; and then, Mark describes how the Twelve are told that, in certain instances, people will not welcome them. In both readings this personal cost is identified as rejection. Many people do not want to hear God’s words; they spurn his healing and the fullness of life he offers if this means giving up cherished habits; they do not want to change their way of life, and so they dismiss God. In so doing, they also reject those who cooperate with him.
But although the cost of being a Christian is a clear theme in the Lectionary, I don’t really want to focus on it; rather, I would like to look at the positive aspects of cooperating with God; at those tasks we ought to do. Reading between the lines we see that in today’s readings Amos, Saint Paul, and the Twelve do something entrusted to them by God. Their examples give us a flavour of the jobs at hand… Amos proclaims the demise of a people who have forgotten the justice God had commanded them to practice, those who ‘trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land’ (Amos 8:4); Paul writes words of praise about the blessings and the freedom which God bestows on those who accept the Lord Jesus (Cf. Eph. 1:14); and the Twelve set out to cure the sick and encourage people to change their way of life (Cf. Mark 6:13). To proclaim justice, to praise, to cure, and to encourage; these are just a few of the tasks God entrusts to those who endeavour to do their bit in bringing about his plan for creation.
Yes, God has a plan. God has a plan, a purpose, (you could say “a goal”) for creation and he invites everyone to cooperate with him so that a new creation may come to fruition. In the letter to the Ephesians, St Paul affirms that God has revealed his plan in the Lord Jesus. This is an all-encompassing design that will include both heaven and earth; both the spiritual and material realms, so often seen at odds with each other. And his purpose is to ‘bring everything together under Christ, as head’ (Eph. 1:10). But what does it mean? Depending on the Bible translation you have at home, this verse may say something a little different. It could be translated as “to sum up”, “to unite”, “to gather again”, and even as “to restore” things to perfection. Out of all these possible meanings we see that God’s plan is that everything that exists might find unity in the Lord Jesus; a unity which was in him from the beginning of creation (because ‘all things came into being through him’ John 1:3), a unity that was lost, but that, once restored, it is going to be the hallmarked by justice, by peace, and by the joy of the new creation…
And as God sets forth his plan he also calls people to work with him to establish it. So how can we see the restoration of all things in Christ for ourselves? How can we chip-in, as it were, and to do our bit in furthering God’s plan? I am sure we can all think of ways in which we can minister to one-another, serve God within his Church, and feel like we are doing enough. Yet, gathering all things in Christ goes beyond this. It means working to unite and to restore everything to the sovereignty, centrality, and primacy of Jesus. It means intentionally transforming our communities by asking ourselves (first) and (then to) those around us to let go of individualistic attitudes and self-centredness, so as to direct our every attention, and every effort towards Jesus.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, at a time of some political turmoil, a saintly Pope, Pius X, wrote that all Christians, have a vocation to restore all things in Christ, and therefore they must
‘seek to restore Jesus Christ to the family, the school and society... They take to heart the interests of the people, …endeavouring to dry their tears, to alleviate their sufferings, and to improve their economic condition by wise measures. They strive, in a word, to make public laws conformable to justice and amend or suppress those which are not so.’ (Il Fermo Proposito, (The firm purpose), Pius X, 1905)
A tall order for the average Christians; that may be. But time and again the Scriptures show us that cooperating with God is not a task entrusted to the elites and to those evidently qualified for it. To proclaim justice, to praise, to cure, and to encourage; we see these tasks worked out in Amos, Paul, and the Twelve. To help those in need, to welcome, to teach the faith, to pray for others; we see such things and more in the lives of the saints. It is these people, that is to say, people like you and me, which God calls to cooperate with him.
One of the synagogue officials came up, Jairus by name, and seeing him, fell at his feet and pleaded with him earnestly. (Mark 5:22)
This morning’s gospel could be interpreted in different ways. For example, the connection which the lectionary makes between the reading from the book of Wisdom and Mark 5 highlights the fact the death and illness are not part of God’s design for creation, and that as a consequence God destroys these conditions every time he meets them in Christ. Instead, I would like to reflect with you on a broader theme which runs through the whole story; the theme of faith in the Lord Jesus.
Mark introduces two characters who approach Jesus to find healing; their situations are desperate and it would be easy to think that they both have lost all hope and so they go to Jesus thinking “Well, what do I have to lose!” But if we look closely to the text we see that this is not the case; and instead each character makes a statement of faith in Christ as soon as they approach the Lord. ‘Do come and lay your hands on her to make her better and save her life.’ (Mark 5:23) says Jairus; and ‘If I can touch even his clothes, I shall be well again.’ (Mark 5:28) says the woman to herself. For both Jairus and the woman faith is manifested by their words of trust in Jesus and by their actions. In other words their faith is manifested by the choice of approaching the Lord and trying to find healing through him. So, both characters give us an idea of what faith is; an assent and affirmation, a willing and intentional “yes” to the person of Jesus Christ and to his ministry.
As you probably know, I have never been overly fond of evangelical hymns, but there is one which fits this story very well. It sings, ‘O happy day that fixed my choice on Thee my Saviour and my God’ and indeed, this was a happy day for Jairus and the woman who, by opening the doors to Christ, by willingly and intentionally placing their faith in the Lord Jesus, find in him more than they could have ever hoped for. Certainly, their assent is somehow costly in both cases. Jairus, a synagogue official, has to humble himself before a man who was often at odds with the Jewish establishment, and he must face the peer pressure of more orthodox groups. The woman with the haemorrhage must brave rejection and insults from the crowds who knew her to be ritually unclean due to her illness. Yet, whatever the personal cost they faced at the time, by intentionally placing their faith in the Lord both characters are soon rewarded for their decision; for their choice, as it were.
So, how is it with us? Do we express our faith in similar terms? And when is the last time we have knelt and we have made and affirmation of faith like Jairus' and the woman's? When was the last time we said in prayer “Jesus, I trust in you”?
In the old rite for the Mass, and in the Book of Common Prayer, when the congregation stands to say or sing the Creed, they begin with the words “I believe in one God”. In this church we say “We believe in one God”. Yet, when we say the Creed, Sunday after Sunday, we often blurt out the words without really thinking about what we are actually doing.
The Creed is a powerful affirmation of faith, which should be a weekly renewal of our intentional “yes” to Christ… We stand we assume the posture of those who are ready and willing, and we reaffirm together both our individual and our corporate faith; we place our faith squarely and solely again in the one true God. In a sense, we could say, through the Creed we make a statement of faith much in the same way Jairus and the woman did in the gospel. If we do this in all honesty our faith will be genuinely revived, and we will find in God more than we could have ever hoped for. Each Sunday then, would be the “happy day that fixed our choice on our Saviour and our God”.
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
As we have the same spirit of faith that is mentioned in scripture – I believed, and therefore I spoke – we too believe and therefore we too speak. (2 Corinthians 4:13)
The passage of 2Corinthians we read this morning opens with an explanation of why St Paul is compelled to speak about faith and about the Lord Jesus in the way he does; faith is so embedded in him and it is such a powerful force that he cannot but write, speak, preach, and labour in every possible way to explain it to others and to bring Jesus to everyone he meets. Paul quotes psalm 116 in its Greek text as his justification – I believed, and therefore I spoke – but he quickly starts to use the plural form to include on just himself, but also every Christian in Corinth, and in turn, to include every Christian soul throughout the ages. We believe, and therefore we speak should be our own justification too for talking about faith and the Lord Jesus to others.
It’s easy for someone in a dog-collar to say that we should talk about faith, especially when people expect you to do so, or half-imagine you to be a God-botherer. Sayings such as “Religion should be kept private” and “One shouldn’t talk about politics or religion at the dinner table” are deeply engrained in our society and in the way we do things. So, I know who awkward that might seem for many people in the pews. But the truth of the matter doesn’t change, We believe, and therefore we should speak. And Paul gives a simple and practical pattern for the way everyone should learn to talk about faith. For example, when he speaks about hardships of the body, he is not doing so from a lofty height. He is talking from personal experience. Physically, Paul was not a very healthy person to start with, and even putting aside the persecutions he endured for the faith, the constant travelling, his daily work, and his ministry for the Church, must have frayed his body and tested his endurance to the limit. Yet, he says, that out of personal sufferings comes the knowledge that the Father, who raised Jesus from the dead, is at work within us. And it is out of this vulnerability and frailty we can speak all the more clearly and convincingly about faith. Later on, when Paul compares the human body to a tent fit for our earthly dwelling, he does so from the point of view of a serious traveller and – most of all – as a tent-maker…
we know that when the tent in which we live on earth is folded up, there is a house built by God for us… in the heavens (2 Corinthians 5:1).
The Apostle is able to draw links between what he does for a living (which in itself isn’t particularly Christian or newsworthy) and his faith; his daily life informs the way he believes and the way he can articulate his faith to others. Then we too could learn from Paul. How does our experience of testing or difficult times can shape the way we talk about faith? how can it encourage others in their trials? and how can our work or various activities ground the faith in our daily lives?
But I should say more about today’s readings. Some years ago a priest friend of mine wandered into his central London church only to find that the vestry had been broken into and a few items had been stolen from it. After the usual phone calls to the police and churchwardens he robed and went to the altar to celebrate a midweek Mass only to find, to his complete surprise, that the gospel reading appointed for that day was, ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths …destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven …where thieves do not break in and steal.’ (Matthew 6:19-20)
As Alanis Morissette would say, ‘Isn’t it ironic?’ Even from personal experience I can testify that such coincidences or clashes between what goes on around us and the lectionary are very common indeed. We could say that they are just mere coincidences, or be grateful to God for pointing us towards his Word at the times when perhaps we most need guidance and consolation.
I believe that this is also what is happening today with our readings. Not even a fortnight since Jill’s funeral, the past week has brought fresh sorrows to our church family as Father Colin passed away, but as we come to church to celebrate Mass and to begin a new week together our readings remind us of our faith in the final victory of God over death. In the eyes of the world Jesus looked crushed, broken, and condemned to an undignified death, but through the testimony of the Scriptures and through the eyes of faith we know that his rising from the dead is what gives us hope for the future. Human experience has been radically altered by this. We are given a new, final end for our earthly journeying; that is, as our second reading says, to be “raised and put at the side of the Lord Jesus with the saints” (Cf. 2Cor 4:14).
Like St Paul, we may feel the strain of sorrow and the weight of sufferings that we (or our loved ones) have to endure, but we ought to place our faith in and be comforted by the One who ultimately will see that things are made right. So …we know that when the tent in which we live on earth is folded up, there is a house built by God for us… in the heavens (2 Corinthians 5:1).
‘Make your home in me, as I make mine in you.’ John 15:4
A couple of years ago, when it was revealed by the press that Justin Welby’s biological father was not the man who raised him, the Archbishop was asked how did this make him feel, how did it impact on his sense of identity. He replied, ‘There is no existential crisis, and no resentment against anyone. My identity is founded in who I am in Christ.’
We might think of this response as very pious and archbishop-like but, of course, Justin Welby’s reply does not apply to him alone. Our family relationships and situations may be completely fine and within traditional parameters, but they could also be happily unconventional or sometimes even down right problematic to say the least, but like the archbishop pointed out, our identity should not be determined by where we come from, our birth certificate, how we were raised, or what society thinks of us. Our individual identities are founded in who we are in Christ. And from this point of view we are able to see ourselves as children of God, sons and daughters of the eternal Father, regardless of our background or social history. Only a couple of weeks ago we read a passage from 1John which said,‘See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!’ 1John 3:1a.
If we are in Christ the words of Scripture are fulfilled in us when they say,
‘Even if my father and mother forsake me,
the Lord will take me up’ (Ps 27:10).
‘Can a woman forget her nursing child and have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you’ says the Lord (Isaiah 49:15).
Our individual identities are founded in who we are in Christ. And today’s gospel reading gives us a surprising picture of what it means to have our identity in Christ, as Jesus likens himself to a vine and each of us to its branches. This comparison might sound slighly odd to us, or a bit farfetched; “In what sense is Christ like a vine?”, but it comes from an image which would have been very familiar to the first disciples. In the Old Testament the vine was a symbol for the people of Israel, of all God’s chosen people;
You brought a vine out of Egypt;
you drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it;
it took deep root and filled the land.
The mountains were covered with its shade… (Ps 80:8-10)
And today we here the Lord saying that he himself is the true vine; and so, like in times of old, God’s people are part of him, the new vine. We are the branches; by Baptism we have become part of the true vine which is Christ. We were grafted into Christ through the wounds that were cut into his body on the Cross. We receive nourishment from Jesus through the Eucharist, the Sacrament of his Body and Blood, which is gifted to us by the Lord as the sap we need to thrive. And finally, as branches we are ‘pruned’ (John 15:4) by the words of the gospel; that is, we are directed in what to do, and trained in order to bear fruit.
Issues around personal identity are particularly strong in our society; maybe even more so than what they were in the past. And a lot of people, particularly young people, seem to be burdened by anxiety and social pressures stemming from simple questions such as “Who am I?” “What is unique about me?” “What is my sense of self-worth?” “How do I fit in or stand out?” “Where can I find home and acceptance?” To all these questions, Jesus simply and calmly replies, “I love you. Make your home in me, and let me make my home in you.”
Our sense of who we are is founded in who we are in Christ, and this means being inextricably part of him and to grow in him; it means being one in Jesus as children of God, one in him and God’s people, one in him as the beloved of the Father.
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.
Be devoted to one another in love. (Rom 12:9-10a)
If we were to discern a theme for this Civic Service just by looking at the readings we could say that it is “Love”, and perhaps more to the point “neighbourly love”.
As we read together these verse I am conscious that probably most of us hold quite settled and quite diverse ideas already about what love should look like, whom would be worthy of it, and how love ought to be expressed. Perhaps our own perceptions of love resemble more the one described in our reading from Ecclesiastes which speaks of love as something that has its appropriate time and place, and can be just as easily replaced by hate should the right circumstances arise (Cf. Eccl 3:8). Or maybe we still nurture in us an undying romantic spirit and we think of love in the same way St Paul seems to express it in the First Letter to the Corinthians when he says quite clearly ‘Love never fails.’ – or in other translations ‘Love never ends’ (1Cor 13:8). Everything else in all creation might pass away, but love will remain, and it could never be replaced by hate. So what is this love-thing the scriptures speak of?
Our reading from Romans 12 is perhaps the best one to illustrate what love is, because it explains the meaning of love neither by contrasting it to hate, nor by painting an all too rosy picture of it, but by giving us a set of guidelines which describe how love should behave – or rather Romans 12 gives us clear examples of what people should do in order to genuinely love others. ‘Love must be sincere’ St Paul writes, or ‘Let love be without dissimulation’ (Rom 12:9a); which could be also translated as ‘Sincere love’ (maybe with an exclamation mark). And these two words form the heading for a series of instructions listed underneath. Yet, more than a “to do list” this reading is a charter, a mission statement, for those who love and there are many elements here that we can readily apply to our common life as fellow citizens of our town.
‘Hate what is evil’. Those who love are not asked to be pushovers or to turn a blind eye to injustice and wrong. Instead Scripture invites us to avoid the evils of our society in the same way we would avoid anything we deeply loathe.
‘Cling to what is good’. The words cling or cleave are not strong enough to illustrate the point Paul is trying to make. ‘Become glued to what is good’ might be a better way of putting it, because those who love others are not called to have pretty, well-meaning thoughts and leave it at that. We are called to pursue everything that is good (justice, integration, people’s welfare, religion) with our whole being.
‘Be devoted to one another’. The context here is family life and the domestic sense of care that each member of a family should have for the others; which means that those who love ought to consider other people as member of their own household, and therefore care for them accordingly.
The list goes on, but we can get the flavour of it with these three short lines. The key point of Romans 12 is that love has little to do with cosy feelings, pink love-hearts, and butterflies in the stomach. Love is the constant and intentional pursuit of the good, honour, wellbeing, and encouragement of others. As such it should hold the highest priority among believers, and it should be at the heart of our civic life.
Our neighbourhoods desperately need to hear this interpretation of love, when snobbery or rivalry between different parts of town risks hampering and fracturing the flourishing of our town. Our children should learn of it – value-focused schools especially should highlight love as that virtue which binds good habits such as respect, generosity, and forgiveness together. As adults we should strive to become role models of love; avoiding evil, injustice, crime, and wrong at all costs, and daily pursuing what is ultimately good and makes a positive difference in our common life.
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.
Be devoted to one another in love. (Rom 12:9-10a)
May God, who reveals himself to us as love, help and bless us in our pursuit for genuine love. Amen.