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).
The Ascension of the Lord, apart from being an astonishing event in the life of Jesus, can somehow bring a little sadness or melancholy to some Christians. The Lord goes up to heaven, to sit at the Father’s right hand, back to the Father’s bosom from where he descended at his Incarnation, and we are left here; maybe looking up and wandering whether he sees us, hear us, or even care for us. But Jesus knew this sense of loss would come, and so he prepared his first disciples for the moment of this glorious departure. He said to them, ‘In a little while you will see me no more’ (John 16:16); to St Mary Magdalene, ‘Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father’ (John 20:20); and finally, before leaving, ‘Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’ (Matthew 28:20). The Lord indeed has gone us to heaven but, as he promised, he is still with us in many ways; the Holy Spirit breathes the life of Jesus in us, other believers represent and interact with us as Christ, the poor and the marginalised personify Jesus in the world, and most importantly the Lord is still with us in the Blessed Sacrament, in the Eucharist. So, tonight we can celebrate with joy Jesus’ return to the Father without feeling bereaved or abandoned by him. We can celebrate with joy at being with the Lord who is with us here and now on the altar. Here his presence is life-giving, constant, and real until the end of time; here we can physically hold on to his Body and cling to him as the source of all life and love.
But we don’t come, or we shouldn’t come, in the Lord’s presence alone. As we begin the 40 Hours we join the Thy Kingdom Come prayer wave which will sweep across the world over the next nine days, praying that more and more people will turn to Jesus in faith. Each of us is encouraged to pray for five specific people, that they might come to believe, and so we ought to come into the Lord’s presence with them, with their names on our lips and on our hearts.
In my opinion, one of the most beautiful and outstanding miracle stories of the gospels is the one of the man who was let down through the roof of a house (Mark 2:2-12 and Luke 5:17-26). In this story a group of people tries to get Jesus to cure their friend, but the house where the Lord is staying is completely packed and, try as they may, they can’t get the man (who is paralysed on a stretcher) to Jesus. So they cut a hole in roof of the house and lower their friend right in front of Jesus. And at this point the gospels say that the Lord ‘saw their faith’ and he both cured the sick man and forgave all his sins.
During these forty hours we are the people mentioned in the gospels. We are the ones who need to make every spiritual effort to get our friends, family, and neighbours in the presence of the Lord through our prayers. We are the ones to ask (in faith and on their behalf) that Jesus might free them from the paralysing sickness of religious apathy, atheism, and misbelief.
In the gospels Jesus saw their faith. He sees our faith now and he is here to heal, to cure, and, as the 1980s hymn goes, to minister his grace.
‘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.
1 John 5:1-6
Who can overcome the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God: Jesus Christ who came by water and blood, not with water only, but with water and blood. (1 John 5:5-6)
During Eastertide we begin the Parish Mass with the sprinkling with Holy Water which replaces the usual introduction and prayers of penitence. As we receive the water we are reminded of our Baptism and we sing praises to Christ, who says in John’s Gospel, ‘The water that I will give will become in [believers] a spring of water welling up to eternal life’ (John 4:14b). This rite of sprinkling is properly called the “Vidi Aquam” (Latin for “I saw water”) because the chant that usually accompanies it sings,
‘I saw water flowing from the right side of the temple, alleluia;
and all they to whom that water came were saved,
and they shall say, alleluia, alleluia.’
This chant and the sprinkling are clears echo of the words of the prophet Ezekiel which we read during the Easter Vigil where the prophet has a vision of the Temple at Jerusalem and says this, ‘there, water was flowing from below the threshold of the temple … south of the altar’ (Ezekiel 47:1), and that water brought life and healing to all.
This idea of flowing, life-giving water finds its fulfilment on the Cross. The first three gospels describe the moment when Jesus died as the moment in which the curtain of the Temple is torn from top to bottom. As this barrier rips we can glimpse directly inside the sanctuary, inside the holiest part of the Temple, and look, as it were, upon God and his mercy. However, this dramatic moment is not reported be the evangelist John, who at that time was standing near the Cross of Jesus; instead he focuses his attention on something else; the piercing of the side of Jesus with a spear. For John this is the very moment when the true curtain of the true temple is torn. As the skin and flesh of Jesus are cut by the spear blood and water pour out, and here we can genuinely look upon God and upon his mercy.
Time and again the gospels tell us that Jesus himself, his very body, is the true Temple in which we are able to encounter God – because in that body divine nature meets and joins our human nature. The Letter to the Hebrews testifies to this saying, ‘we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh)’ (Hebrews 10:20). And as the spear cuts into the side of Jesus it is as if the tide of God’s mercy and love is released over the whole world purifying and giving life to all whom it reaches. This is the fulfilment of Ezekiel’s vision, and this is what our sprinkling during Eastertide celebrates.
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure…
This Sunday in particular, the second Sunday of Easter, is sometimes called “Divine Mercy Sunday” and, among other things, it leads us to reflect on the marks of the crucifixion, which the Lord Jesus bears of his body even after the resurrection. These are the “visible identification marks” by which the disciples are filled with joy in recognising the Lord, but more importantly, these are the points from which Divine Mercy streams for us, the springs of God’s love.
Are we struggling with something? Let us look at those marks and see the wounds through which every strife has been overcome. Are we suffering? Let us approach those scars which have inflicted a fatal blow to every sorrow. Are we weighed down by guilt or feeling undeserving of love? Let us approach those marks which have brought us divine mercy and love.
Jesus said to Thomas: ‘Give me your hand; put it into my side. Doubt no longer but believe.’ (John 20:27b) The apostle Thomas approached the marks of Jesus’ passion as a way of testing the Lord, but just by seeing them he was restored to faith. We should approach them with full trust in Jesus, knowing that it is through those wounds that we are saved.
Blood of my Saviour, bathe me in thy tide,
wash me with water flowing from thy side.
…deep in thy wounds, Lord, hide and shelter me,
so shall I never, never part from thee.
‘He had always loved those who were his in the world,
but now he showed how perfect his love was.’ (John 13:2)
Only this afternoon, whilst leading the Easter services for Thomas Whitehead Academy, I joined the children in singing,
Higher than the highest mountain,
deeper than the deepest deep blue sea,
stronger than the love of everyone
is the love of Jesus for me.
And indeed, yes, Jesus’ love for us is higher, deeper, and stronger that anything we can ever imagine. But it is not only those things. Jesus’ love is also perfect – perfect in the sense of being mature, grown-up love; forever unchanging; always preceding our actions; always more generous than what we expect or deserve, and always ready to welcome us; perfect in the sense that it is entirely selfless, and intentionally self-giving.
Tonight we begin to celebrate this perfect love by rehearsing the first chapter of the Easter story where the Lord “gives us the Eucharist as a memorial of his suffering and death”. But as we enter the upper room of the Passover meal with the disciples we see that Jesus does much more than simply sharing a meal with his friends. His love is perfect, so in that love Jesus also prepares us for this meal by washing away our spiritual dirt like he washed the disciples feet; he then feeds us and as food he gives us the gift of his own very self; and finally he makes the Eucharist as the central celebration of his love and as his enduring presence with us for all time.
Yet, so many Christians keep away from this most holy Sacrament; so many parishes have given up almost entirely on celebrating the Eucharist often and with regularity; and so many people seek true life and true love everywhere but here.
Saint Alphonsus in our Offertory hymn speaks of this Sacrament which Jesus establishes tonight as the bond of that perfect love which makes us one with Jesus, as the food of true life, and as the source of only lasting joy.
O Bond of love that dost unite
The servant to his living Lord;
Could I dare live and not requite
Such love? - then death were meet reward:
I cannot live unless to prove
Some love for such unmeasured love.
My hope and prayer is that tonight we will encounter afresh this perfect love in the celebration of the Mass and that we will hear the Lord’s encouragement to receive him in the Eucharist as often as possible.
Jesus said to the disciple whom he loved, ‘Here is your mother.’
And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. (John 19:27).
Mothering Sunday has a long tradition according to which the faithful would visit on this day their mother church – the parish church where they had been Baptised and received as sons and daughters of the whole Church of God. Today this tradition has largely been forgotten and the focus of the celebrations has shifted from the Church to motherly love in all its forms.
Our gospel reading invites us to turn our attention towards Calvary to help us in finding the best pattern of motherly love in the most unlikely of places. As we look at the crucifixion scene we find the greatest example of motherhood in Mary, and, recapitulated in the Blessed Virgin, we also find all the unconventional mothers listed in the Scriptures. These are women who loved their children with boundless affection and trusted in God without any reserve. Among these remarkable women we find Sarah the mother of Isaac, Jochebed the mother of Moses, Hannah the mother of Samuel, and Naomi, Ruth’s mother-in-law. But if Mary is the best example of motherhood, why do our readings focus on such a terrible moment? Why do we have to look for a model of motherhood in such a desolated place as Calvary? Well, because it is in this place, at the foot of the Cross, that Mary is given by Jesus as “the” mother-figure for all people – not at Bethlehem, not at Nazareth or in the Temple, but on Calvary.
At first, the whole scene may seem a little distant to our society that mainly associates pretty flowers, jewellery, and pastel colours for “Mother’s Day”. Mary is a widow whose Son has been condemned as an outlaw. Sharing in her son’s pain as only a mother can, she stays by the Cross, refusing to abandon Jesus. Her Son’s friends, many of whom she knew well, have all left apart from the youngest of them – John is little more than a youth. The adoring crowds who often stood between her and Jesus have gone as well. Those who are left do not care for her; they are there to bully her Son, to taunt Jesus even as He hangs from the Cross. Mary finds herself powerless, speechless at the impending, painful, undignified death of her only Son; her immaculate heart is broken, pierced just as Simeon had predicted when she presented Jesus to the Temple. But there is more, in these tragic moments Mary’ social position becomes even more precarious in a society that cared nothing or very little for women without male relatives. At the foot of the Cross, Mary knows that, once Jesus will draw his last breath she will find herself to be a nobody for ancient society.
So, yes. Mary at the Cross does not exemplify motherhood in the most conventional, soft, and rosy sense we are so used to. But as we look closely at this scene, we can find faint echoes of it throughout history, even in our days; women whose love for their children is shown more often through the courage of their actions than through displays of affection; women doing all that is within their powers to be with their children no matter what the circumstances may be; and again women whose social position is determined only by whom they marry or who their sons are. As we look closely at this scene then we see that the challenging model of motherhood expressed on Calvary is able to speak to us all today too.
But we ought to go a little further than this in looking at Mary’s motherhood, because even in this moment all is not lost. Mary may feel devastated and forsaken as she watches her Son. Yet, in this moment of absolute desperation, Mary’s motherhood is changed for good. As Mary feels that in losing her son she has become useless, God still sees her indispensable. In this profoundly dark night of her soul Mary receives from Jesus a new motherhood, the gift of a new son. John becomes her son, and with him Mary receives all followers of Christ in her care and embrace. At Calvary Mary is given as a gift, to all believers.
So today, as we think with affection and gratitude about our own mothers and all the mother-figures we have encountered, the Church invites us to do a twofold task; to take Mary in our homes as our Mother as John did, and also to pray for those mothers who, like Mary, find themselves in difficult, painful situations.
Today and everyday may we hear Jesus saying to us, Here is your mother (John 19:27). Amen.
Jesus said, ‘Take all this out of here
and stop turning my Father’s house into a market.’ (2:16)
Being a priest I often hear belittling comments about church worship. There is the timeless “I don’t need to go to church to speak God, I can do it from home”; or again “I don’t go to church because I don’t like x, or y, or z…” This last one is, in my opinion, the best one of all because it crosses boundaries between every Christian denomination. So, this morning I would like you to take a few minutes reflect the attitude we ourselves have towards worship, church buildings, and religion in general. As we do this, John’s gospel presents us with the story of Jesus clearing the temple – a well-known episode in which Jesus gets angry and starts to teach the crowds by using a whip rather than his words. In this reading there are three aspects about Jesus’ attitude towards sacred places, worship, and religion which we would do well to imitate ourselves.
First, we are told that Jesus travels to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, and once there he enters the temple. Jesus is God-with-us, God-made-flesh, yet he longs to be in that holy place, as if he was incarnating the words of Psalm 84, ‘My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord’ (Ps 84:2). Jesus burns with holy enthusiasm for that sacred space. Isn’t this bit of a far cry from the apathy many Christians feel towards church buildings?
Then, Jesus speaks of the temple as his ‘Father’s house’ (2:16), the house where Jewish people believed God dwelled among his people from one generation to another. The ‘Father’s house’. How many times Christians employ possessive language about churches saying “my” church, or “their” church, but rarely ‘God’s house’ or the ‘Father’s house’?
Finally, we see that Jesus does something we might not expect. He does not dismiss the temple and its worship; instead he compares it his own body (cf. 2:19). How many self-professed Christians stay away from churches because what goes on inside is not their “cup of tea”, rather than seeing buildings such as these as physical representation of what it means to be Church?
In this text Jesus shows what we might think as un-Jesus-like emotions such as anger and strong disappointment towards the people in the temple. But, looking closely, Jesus drives out of the temple only certain types of people and not others. He drives out neither the worshippers – who bought the animals sold on the market stalls – nor the priests – who offered the sacrifices. In other words, Jesus does not cast out of the Temple those who, like him, used that sacred space for its appointed purposes – for worship and for encountering God. Instead, rather tellingly, Jesus drives out those who use religion in order to pursue personal gain, and are rather cynical about the spiritual significance of the Temple In other words, Jesus casts out those who use religion, worship, and holy places like parasites. For example, Jesus throws out the money changers and overturns their tables because of the corruption that underlined the business of converting different currencies into Temple money. Jesus drives out the animal stock not to put a stop to the sacrifices of the Old Covenant but because by buying them worshippers were encouraged to become lazy, to spare themselves the trouble of bringing a genuine offering, something truly valued, from their own homes. Come to think of it, as well as corruption and personal gain, is it possible that Jesus is casting out “lazy worship”, I wonder?
The story of the clearing of the Temple should make us think of the people driven out by Jesus in a much broader sense. It should remind us as of those who misuse religion and church buildings for other purposes besides worship and the sustainment of the Church. It is in this sense that St Augustine, in interpreting John 2, says ‘Those who sell in Church are those who seek their own, not the things of Jesus Christ.’ Then, how do we make use of these things?
Our religion, our worship, and our churches are all incredible gifts of grace through which the world can encounter God more readily and build a stable relationship with him. To misuse of this grace in order to be fickle Christians or to pursue personal gains are great sins. So this Lent, let us examine closely how we look at our churches and our worship. Let us God for true repentance and for forgiveness for all the times we have misused of these gifts and we have behaved like parasites of the Temple, so that we may learn again to selflessly put the liturgical worship of God and the service of others before any other pursuit.
Look, Father, look on His anointed face,
And only look on us as found in Him;
Look not on our misusings of Thy grace,
Our prayer so languid, and our faith so dim;
For lo! between our sins and their reward,
We set the passion of Thy Son our Lord.
Homily preached by Father Richard Peers SMMS at All Saints'.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us …”
It is, supposedly, the most famous opening to any book in the English language. Well, I have spent most of life as a teacher so I will ask you a question: can anyone name the book?
Yes, of course, Dickens’ ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. “The best of times, the worst of times” seems to describe today’s readings. The account of the Transfiguration, the disciples see Jesus in glory, flanked by the Law and the prophets, represented by Moses and Elijah. The best of times. And the worst of times: Abraham taking his son out to the mountain top to offer him as a burnt sacrifice.
I must admit to a great deal of fondness for Isaac, and not a little sympathy. I can just imagine the safeguarding forms that would need to be filled in now if a child came into school and described how his dad had taken him for a walk, gathered a fire, raised a knife over his head – and then sacrificed a handy goat instead! But safeguarding aside, imagine the trauma: your father is willing to offer you as a sacrifice, and not just offer, you but do the job himself, knife in hand, at the ready. Well, I suspect the account was never meant to be read quite so literally. But Isaac doesn’t interest me simply because of this bizarre incident in his childhood. Three other elements of this person who lived so long ago draw me to him. First of all, his name, Isaac. In Hebrew, literally ‘He who laughs’. I will come back to that later. Secondly, his faithfulness to his wife Rebecca. Isaac is the only one of the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, not to have multiple wives. He lives a life much closer to Christian marriage than is common in the Hebrew Scriptures. I like that. In a time like ours that can seem to be the worst of times, when Christian marriage can appear to be threatened on every side and so many marriages end in divorce this is an important witness.
Finally, there is one verse in Genesis 24:63 that makes Isaac significant for me.
The translation is somewhat disputed but in the translation I like it reads:
“And Isaac went out to meditate in the field toward evening.”
What a wonderful image. This man, who has experienced the trauma of near-sacrifice at the hands of his father, whose name means to laugh, who is faithfully married to Rebecca: walking among his fields in the cool warmth of the evening, meditating. It is an image that reminds me of the first of the Psalms. Psalm 1 paints a picture of what makes for happiness:
“Happy indeed is the man…
Whose delight is in the law of the Lord
And who ponders his law day and night.
He is like a tree that is planted
Beside the flowing waters,
That yields its fruition due season
and whose leaves shall never fade.”
I hope that Isaac, who experienced that trauma, has found happiness, that as he walks in fields and meditates, he has deep joy and contentment. We all want to be happy. We want the people we love to be happy. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is even built into the American constitution. But whatever happiness and contentment Isaac felt as he strolled in that field so many centuries ago, would be complex.
Whether it is meditating as you walk in the evening, sitting in the lotus position, reflecting, on the law of the Lord, or practising mindfulness of breathing; I am a huge fan of meditation. Spending time in silence is essential, I believe to a healthy life, to good mental health. When we meditate, when we still our minds, our inner states, as the inner waters clear all sorts of things float to the surface. In my experience and in the experience of most meditators there are two overwhelming sensations in this state. One meditation teacher (Chogyam Trungpa) calls it “the genuine heart of sadness”. We touch within ourselves a great tenderness. Not just in the sense of compassion but of sensitivities, our heart, our inner being is tender meat. It begins with ourselves, tenderness for and because of all that we have experienced, all the griefs and losses of every life. But soon we find our hearts expanding, tenderness for everyone that is alive because they too have experienced loss and grief. And in that knowledge, that we are all fellow-sufferers we can find forgiveness. We can forgive those who have hurt or damaged us because we can feel tenderness for them, our heart is big enough, open enough to do so. The only alternative to feeling sadness is not to feel, to harden our hearts, to narrow our hearts.
Lent is a time for repentance and forgiveness. To turn away from sin. All repentance involves grief. The loss of something, the regret at things said or done, or unsaid and not done. All grief involves repentance. And all grief is permanent. All of us who have experienced profound grief at the loss of one close to us know that it has seared our souls, we move on, but it never leaves us.
As Isaac walked in the field I hope that he felt that genuine heart of sadness, not paralysing grief but the positive sadness that is necessary for life and for forgiveness but also the others experience that is common to those who meditate: great and profound joy, a sense of belovedness, I hope that Isaac knew that Abraham had loved him and that he was beloved of God. That he heard, too the voice of the Lord. Just as on the mountain Abraham had heard it and on the mountain the disciples hear it.
With God on our side who can be against us? St. Paul reminds us in the second reading. That sense of sadness and joy, which are inseparable is what can make us fearless, setting us free from anything that traps us and narrows our hearts. Our hearts are open, they are enlarged and tender when we are fearless, and we are fearless when we are in touch with sadness and joy. The spiritual writer Chogyam Trungpa writes:
“this experience of sad and tender heart is what gives birth to fearlessness. .. Real fearlessness is the product of tenderness. It comes from letting the world tickle your heart, your raw and beautiful heart. You are willing to open up, without resistance or shyness, and face the world. You are willing to share your heart with others.”
My prayer, dear friends, this Lent, is that each of us will open our hearts. That we meditate, like Isaac, and remember our griefs and touch our genuine heart of sadness in repentance and forgiveness, and that we will also touch the place of deep joy, of Transfiguration where each one of us, you and me, every one of us, will hear the voice of the Lord saying “You are my Beloved.”
The best of times, the worst of times. To live a happy life is to hold those two things and not despair. This is the meaning of the cross, the fearlessness that Jesus has won for us because the crucified one is also the transfigured one. To know, as Jesus did on the mount of Transfiguration, that he was to die and suffer and be betrayed by the very people he loved, and still to stand. It is to be, like Isaac, the one who laughs, freely and fearlessly.
‘Christ himself, innocent though he was, had died once for sins, died for the guilty, to lead us to God.’ (1Peter 3:18)
Lent has been, from its beginning, the time in which catechumens, the candidates for Baptism, prepared to be welcomed in the Church at Easter. And on this first Sunday of Lent our readings lead us to consider this sacrament as the beginning of the new life we share as Christians. Our second reading compares the sacrament of Baptism to the time when God saved Noah and his family in the ark, and gave them new life in the world he has cleansed from evil through the great flood. So too, at our Baptism the Cross of Jesus was our ark, and God saved us through waters of the font, giving us new life – but not new life in a world purified from evil as in the times of Noah, rather new life in his Son. Since our Baptism the life of Christ has been grafted in us and we have become part of that new creation God brings about in and through the Lord Jesus. This is why Saint Paul writing to the Corinthians says, ‘if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation’ (2Corinthians 5:17). So Lent should teach us that, if we are receptive to the grace of God, this new creation, this new life, will keep growing in us, transforming us into ever better likenesses, images of Jesus. Many aspects of Lenten liturgy (the colour purple, the sombre hymns, the silencing of the alleluias) call us to think about our failings asking God’s forgiveness for our sins and strength to rectify, if possible, our wrong decisions. But this is only the beginning of our Lenten journey; because essentially these forty days are given to us by God and by the Church to re-establish more firmly the life of Christ within us. We are not meant to metaphorically sit on a pile of ashes wearing sackcloth for six weeks feeling sorry for ourselves but actually do nothing to reverse our condition… Lent is a time to be active in the spirit and in the service of others.
There are various schools of thought about Lent and about what one should or shouldn’t do during this season. The Church of England, being a broad church, keeps it nice and loose telling us that this should be a time of self-denial. But the substance of the matter is that the time-honoured practices of fasting, almsgiving, and prayer can be the source of great and unnumbered blessings as we enter the mystery of the Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection and we prepare to renew our Baptismal commitments Easter.
Through fasting, abstinence from certain foods, prayer, and charitable giving we do not exercise self-loathing or try to reproduce what Jesus went through on Calvary in some measly way. This should be quite clear to everyone – even though people outside these walls might make fun of the whole Lenten enterprise, or think of us a bit dim for denying ourselves things we like. Rather, by fasting and abstinence we aim to refresh the spirit and focus on our spiritual needs; by deeper prayer we aim to reconnect more clearly with Jesus; by giving to charity we aim to imitate the generosity of the Lord himself. And through all these Lenten practices together we aim to free ourselves of those old habits that have taken hold on us; we aim to spiritually die to sin in order to give space for the life of Christ to grow vigorously once again, until we can say with Paul, ‘it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me’ (Galatians 2:20).
There is a beautiful hymn, “And now, O Father, mindful of that love” which puts these thoughts about being one with Christ in a neat verse. It says,
Look, Father, look on His anointed face,
And only look on us as found in Him;
Look not on our misusings of Thy grace,
Our prayer so languid, and our faith so dim;
For lo! between our sins and their reward,
We set the passion of Thy Son our Lord.
Through Baptism we have become one with Christ. Lent calls us to make a genuine effort to move beyond ourselves, to rediscover our Baptism to find ourselves, our true identities, in Christ – in the one who leads us to the Father.