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“Die? That is the last thing I shall do.” *

Sunday 12 March – Second Sunday of Lent

Visit to Hall Green United Community Church (Methodist and Moravian)

Genesis 12:1-4a           Romans 4:1-5, 13-17              Matthew 17: 1-9

As a sign of how far relations between the different Christian traditions have improved in the last 50 years, let me remind you of a remarkable event that took place last October in Lund Cathedral, when the Primate of the Lutheran Church of Sweden welcomed Pope Francis in jointly commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Can you imagine that? The Pope attending a Lutheran Cathedral to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation! And then Pope Francis preached about Martin Luther! (well, Luther was a Catholic…. To start with!). [Interestingly, the Pope spoke about “justification by faith” which, historically, has been seen as a stumbling block, a disagreement between the Lutherans and Catholics. Well, I’ve got some news for you: the Catholic Church and the Lutherans have issued a ‘Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification’ which shows that we are substantially in agreement over this doctrine.[1]]

And Pope Francis also said something that would have been inconceivable 50 years ago: “We too must look with love and honesty at our past, recognizing error and seeking forgiveness, for God alone is our judge. We ought to recognize with the same honesty and love that our division distanced us from the primordial intuition of God’s people, who naturally yearn to be one.”

Yes, as Christians we yearn to be one. When arranging my visit today, your minister David Howarth emphasised how important it was for us to be nurturing local ecumenical relationships. And that is the spirit in which I come this morning – in my own little way to try and foster greater understanding and reconciliation between our traditions.

And so, I pose two questions that are significant to all Christians:

“Have you been saved?”, and

“Do you glory in God?”

As faithful Christians we should be delighted to be able to instantly reply to the first question with something like: “Oh yes, I have definitely been saved. I have been saved through faith in Jesus Christ.” And the second question? Many of us could honestly reply, “Oh yes, of course we glory in God, we love God completely. We worship Him.”

However, I suspect we might be less confident if we were asked the same questions in a slightly different format:

“What have you been saved from?” and “What exactly is glory?’

Answering these slightly more puzzling questions is what I would like us to think about this morning.

Today’s reading from Genesis is known as ‘the Call of Abraham’, when Abraham recognises that there is only one, true God; and the Gospel story today, known as The Transfiguration, is the very first time in history that human beings actually see God Himself glorified – a glimpse of heaven on earth.

The two readings go well together because they mark the two key points in what is known as our shared ‘salvation history’: the way God lovingly reached out to humanity through the Jewish people, gradually revealing more and more of Himself to us, until we reach the ultimate revelation, God made Man in Jesus Christ.

We Christians can often be taken for granted, the role of Abraham in our faith. We can make the mistake of focusing too much attention on the New Covenant, the New Testament, glossing over the Sacred Scriptures found in the Hebrew Bible, marveling at just how much Jesus was prophesied, predicted and foretold for a period of two thousand before His birth.

We might also not realise that we ourselves are steeped in four thousands of years of Jewish and Christian culture, and because of our history and culture simply assume, accept as a given, that there is only one true God.

Surely, it’s obvious, isn’t it, that there is only one, true God? Well, no, it isn’t.

Four thousand years ago people worshipped all sorts of gods – anything could be a god. You just have to look at the seven names given to the days of the week – they all reflect a long history of pagan worship in this country:

Sunday: worshipping the sun

Monday: the moon god

Tuesday: ‘Tiw’ was the one-handed god of combat

Wednesday: Woden was a pagan god who guided souls after death

Thursday: Thor’s day – a fertility god associated with thunder and lightning

Friday: after Fríge, an Anglo-Saxon goddess

∗∗Saturday: the Roman God Saturn

Pagan gods can be anything. And it’s not confined to history, it’s still happening today, when many people, despite claiming they are ‘not religious’, persistently, repeatedly – religiously – worship false gods. Food, alcohol, TV, money, drugs, are the obvious ones; there are other more subtle pagan gods in our midst – the cult of celebrity; some people worship at the altar of economic growth; others swear that everything depends on science, which must not be questioned.

In Abraham’s time, the world was similarly awash with pagan gods, and Abraham started off, like everyone else in his world, by worshipping a multitude of pagan gods. And worshipping gods in those days often involved animal, even human sacrifices (which may go some way to explain why Abraham was willing to offer his only son as a sacrifice to God).

But have you ever wondered why, to this day, human beings feel this deep urge to completely commit ourselves to something, to become obsessed with something, to worship something?

It’s just part of us. You could say it’s in our DNA. Why? I’ll tell you why. Because humans are made in the image of the one true God. We are desperately searching, yearning to be re-united with our Creator. Deep within our very being we desperately want to be reunited with our Maker. (Incidentally, it is our very same Divine origins that make us, as God’s children, yearn to come together and be united as one again in worshipping God.)

To return to early human worship of pagan gods…. why the sacrifices, even the ultimate sacrifice of human life, on pagan altars?

In it’s primitive form it’s because people are frightened. Fear is a dangerous emotion because it is closely linked to violence. These primitive worshippers were frightened of making their gods angry, because they believed that when the gods were angry, bad things would happen to punish people. People simply thought they could appease angry gods, keep them satisfied, by offering them gifts. And the best gift to give to your pagan god is life itself. So, by offering the life essences of animals, and ultimately human life, you can prove how devoted you are to serving that god.

So if you do not serve your pagan god properly, there is the constant threat of that your life will be a misery, and, even worse, you could find that after you die, you come face to face with a very angry God to be judged. This is why pagan worshippers were in a constant state of fear – fear of doing something wrong combined with a fear of death.

So that is why humans have an innate sense of the divine – we were made by God in His own image; but we also have a fear of the unknown, they need to be saved from ourselves.

As we heard in the second reading this morning, St Paul writing to the Church in Rome, it is our faith in Jesus that saves us. But let us return to my opening remark and ask: “Saved from what?”

Are you ready?

(1) saved from the fear of death;

(2) saved from fear of meeting an angry god who will destroy you when you meet him or her;

(3) through following our Lords’ teachings, saved from the fear of leading a meaningless, immoral life; and

(4) saved from the fear of being overwhelmed by this fallen world with all its false teachings and evil.

Now to my second awkward question. “What exactly is glory?’ As Christians we’re saying it all the time…. ‘Glory Be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.’

But what does GLORY TO GOD actually mean?

We know glory when we see it:

  • The “glory” of God’s creation;
  • a breathtaking view across the countryside;
  • amazing pictures of the earth taken from space;
  • the buzz we get from a fantastic piece of music.

Glory thrills us. It’s deeply emotional. It can’t be measured or analysed by science. It make us joyfully, rapturously happy.

God is glorious because he is fantastically powerful, breathtaking, beyond description. We feel a surge of love, love of God and His creation that we can’t describe.

The Transfiguration we heard about in the Gospel this morning is a revelation – it didn’t need to happen. It didn’t need to be in the gospels – but it is there in all the gospels bar John. This is the strength of The Transfiguration as an historical incident: it is not central to the Christian case; the only reason it is in the gospels is because it happened. It is one of those cases of the evangelists writing things down without knowing why they were important, and their very puzzlement is what makes the story so convincing.

So why did the Transfiguration happen? It has been the task of Christian theologians over the centuries to ponder on its meaning and to try and work out what it means.

A clue about the theology of the Transfiguration is in the timing of when we are reminded of this glorious event during the Church Calendar. Lent. We are preparing for the glorious feast of Easter, the pinnacle of our Christian religion.

The timing of the reminder points towards one of the reasons we think The Transfiguration took place shortly before the first Easter. Peter, James and John needed to see the Glory of God, Jesus ‘transfigured in glory’, because Our Lord knew His disciples’ faith would be tested to the limit by the horrors they would witness at His gruesome passion and death.

The Transfiguration was just a GLIMPSE of the glory of God, to encourage, to build up Peter, James and John for the dreadful PAIN and SUFFERING that was to come at Easter. To give them HOPE for the glory that they were to share in the future.

Perhaps I could take a short ecumenical diversion and explain something in Catholic churches that many fellow Christians find unsettling, perhaps even shocking – the tradition of displaying crucifixes with an image of the suffering Christ on them.

Catholics do NOT do this because we like suffering; we do NOT do this because we deny the singular, ultimate sacrifice of Christ on the cross (that would be a shocking heresy were it true).

No, we have this tradition because we want to remind ourselves of the price Jesus paid for us, for the forgiveness of our sins.

Jesus Christ’s death was appallingly painful. He didn’t choose to avoid it, or keep it out of sight. Our atheistic society lays down that suffering and death is to be put out of sight, and DON’T mention religion. All this is rooted in a basic lack of Christian HOPE in our modern society.

So what should be our true Christian response to the prospect of inevitable death?

Because of Abraham’s ‘Call to Faith’, because of the Transfiguration, because of Christ’s excruciatingly painful death, His miraculous Resurrection and His glorious Ascension in to heaven, boldly we can say:

  • We believe and trust in one God.
  • We believe in life after death, and can freely talk about death as part of the necessary journey to heaven.
  • We do not despair: we not only live in hope, we die in hope.
  • We openly recognise that the process of death may involve pain – of course eased by modern palliative care.
  • We look to each other to help when we’re dying – practically giving care, and spiritually in praying for the sick and dying.

Today’s readings are intended to build up in each one of us our Faith in God as we journey towards Easter, our shared Christian journey towards seeing God as He really is. We build up each other’s faith, not through appeasing pagan gods with meaningless sacrifices and superstitious nonsense. We do it through praying to the one true God, praying for each other; we do it through forgiving each for our past sins, and by serving each other through good works and charity.

And that’s’ the message for today. Just like Peter, James and John seeing Jesus glorified, so we, through faith, support each other as we journey together on the struggle through this life, towards God’s promise of being reunited with Him in our heavenly homeland. Amen.

 

 

 

 

* “Die, my dear doctor? That is the last thing I shall do.”  Said to be the last words of Lord Palmerston (1784 – 1865), Prime Minister of Great Britain.

[1] Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church, 31 October 1999.

Good Shepherd Sunday; Vocations Sunday

 [Fourth Sunday of Easter]                     Sunday 7 May 2017

Acts 2: 14,36-41                      1 Peter 2:2-25             John 10:1-10              

Last Thursday the nation was gripped by something happening at Buckingham Palace. That morning we took Deacon John for a routine visit to meet his new doctor up in Yorkshire. I was sat in the waiting room and everyone was talking about the news, speculating about all the rumours. What on earth was up? Was Prince Harry getting married? Had the Queen had a fall (or worse)? Would the General Election have to be called off? As it turned out, all the media frenzy and worrying was completely unnecessary. Prince Philip had decided, aged 95, to finally retire.

This is the way people tend to react to something unexpected. And it is a good example of the similarities between people and sheep. More in a moment on this.

But a bit of background first. In today’s first reading we hear Saint Peter fearlessly proclaiming that Jesus is risen from the dead and is the Son of God. Remember, this is taking place within weeks of the Resurrection. Now there were already tensions between those Jews led by Peter (who hailed Jesus as the Messiah, their divine saviour) and the majority of God-fearing, observant Jews in the synagogues whose leaders insisted that Jesus was a rebellious upstart who had been executed for the blasphemy of claiming to be God.

One of the things that marked out the first Jewish Christians was that as well as going to the synagogue to worship with their fellow Jews on the seventh day (the Sabbath) they also met in each other’s houses, to pray together and to celebrate the Mass before starting back at work on the first day of the week (Sunday).

Eventually, the tensions got too much, and the Christians were excluded from the synagogues. And that’s what today’s second reading is about. It is Saint Peter speaking again, telling his followers that they have a role model in Jesus, that they are doing the right thing when they patiently bear the punishment of exclusion from the synagogues despite having done nothing wrong – in fact, bearing punishment after doing their Christian duty of proclaiming the Good News of the Resurrection.

Now, Saint John’s gospel was written towards the end of the first century, after this split between Jews and the Christians had started.

Imagine yourself in the position of those first Christians. How do you think today’s gospel would have sounded to them?

We can tell from the style of John’s gospel that it was written to be read out aloud in small groups – to those first Christians meeting in small house churches, away from the synagogue. No doubt they would be feeling pretty excluded, and vulnerable. Worried that they were indeed blasphemers for believing that Jesus was God. Worried that they were disobeying the mainstream Jewish teaching in the synagogues. Worried that they were making a mistake in following Jesus. Worried, if you like, that they were like sheep, following a bogus shepherd. If I had been one of those first Christians I would certainly be wanting reassurance. And hearing today’s gospel, with Jesus using the expression “I am…” would certainly have been just the kind of reassurance those frightened Christians would have needed to encourage their faith.

How so? Well, do you remember how Moses had encountered God in the burning bush in the wilderness, and was told to go to Egypt, to confront the Pharaoh? Moses was frightened of what he was being told to do, and he needed reassurance from God. Moses said to God words to the effect of, “What’s your name? Because if I can’t tell them your name, they won’t believe a word I say. And God, who up to this point in history had not revealed His name to a human being, told Moses His very strange name. God told Moses that His name was ’I AM.’ “I am I am.”

When Jesus says in today’s gospel, “I am the gate of the sheepfold” (John 10: 7) it is one of seven occasions in this Gospel when the words “I am” are used to reveal Jesus’ true identity as God.

 These other six ‘I am” phrases are:

 I am the bread of life (John 6:35)

I am the light of the world (8:12)

I am the Good Shepherd (10:11)

I am the Resurrection and the Life (11:25)

I am the Way, the truth and the life (14:6)

and

I am the True Vine (15:1)

All these phrases provide confirmation of Jesus true identity, and leave those early Christians in no doubt that despite being prevented from going to the synagogue on the Sabbath, they have made the right decision. They are being told that they are following the right course, they were putting their faith in ‘the Good Shepherd’, that they were not cut off from the true vine, they were guaranteed everlasting life if they put their faith in Jesus and believed in His Resurrection and His divinity.

But what does it mean, this strange expression that Jesus uses to describe Himself, ‘I am the gate of the sheepfold’?

Jesus is talking about being THE way to achieve safety in this life. To be saved from panic and fear. He is talking about our Salvation.

To understand the full meaning of what He is saying, it helps to appreciate some things about sheep:

Sheep certainly get lost very easily. They are so busy grazing, not looking up, they get disorientated and lost. Apparently sheep are incapable of finding their sheepfold, their place of safety, without having a shepherd to guide them. But more generally, don’t we humans get so immersed in what we are doing that we lose track of what is important? So busy with the cares of this world, perhaps satisfying our own needs, that many forget the bigger picture, and wander about forgetting that they are God’s children? And we end up isolated, wandering aimlessly like lost sheep, trying to find out the true meaning of life.

And sheep are timid animals – if startled or frightened they “follow like sheep”. They just run about together. This is a defence mechanism – it helps protect them against being picked off by predators like wolves. But it can lead to mad panic. Again, just like us. For some reason, when something unusual happens people just seem to join the stampede, panicking like lost sheep.

Another thing about sheep is that they are useless at defending themselves against attack: if a wolf gets amongst, their instinct is to ‘freeze’. And that is what gets them killed. That’s why it’s important that they have a good shepherd who is also capable of keeping predators out of the sheepfold. The gatekeeper has to decide who gets in and who doesn’t. Similarly, we humans are useless if we are left to our own devices when it comes to the thing that causes spiritual death – sin. Our instinct is to be drawn towards rebellion, to sin against God. It’s called ‘Original Sin’. Because we are so weak we need to be vigilant, to be alert to temptation. – just look how easily people get drawn into worshipping money, how people ride roughshod over everyone else to get what they want, how the poor and vulnerable in society are treated like the lowest of the low, how so many swallow the evil of racism. We need guidance. We need someone to be a role model. We need someone to make sure we keep these horrible things at bay, to protect us from our own stupidity. And one of the ways we can get this protection from all these evil things is by pulling together as a faithful flock in the Church, strengthened through the sacraments of the Church in our daily lives, strengthened by our unity, encouraging each other when the going gets tough, and above all, together making sure we keep in contact with our own ‘good shepherd’ – Jesus acting as our role model, our saviour.

Being “the gate of the sheepfold” would be a very clear image for the first readers of John’s gospel. Out in the countryside shepherds would have a sheep pen made out of a circle of rocks piled up into a wall, topped by brambles. And in this wall would be a simple, narrow gap, just wide enough for the sheep to be led in for protection at the end of the day. And then, to close off the gap, the shepherd would lie down and sleep across the gap, literally becoming the gate of the sheepfold.

The message to the early Christian was clear. They are being reassured that, despite being excluded from their synagogues, they have not been abandoned by God. Despite the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70AD, they had not been abandoned by God. They are being told they are like a flock of sheep, safe together under the care of Jesus, the Son of God. By saying “I am THE door to the sheepfold” they are being told that Jesus is the true way to their eternal salvation, where they will be safe under God’s protection.

The same is true for us today. We need to make sure we put ourselves in a safe place, a place that protects us against the dangers of this cruel and wicked world we live in. A place where there is safety in numbers. Striking out on our own, becoming an isolated Christian, is an extremely risky thing to do. You hear people say things like, “I believe in God but I don’t go to church. I pray on my own at home.” This is dangerous, because we can rapidly get disorientated and start following our own foolish ways.

And we need to be sure that when we join a community of like-minded, faithful people, it is holding true to the teachings of its founder Jesus Christ.

That is why this Sunday, we pray especially for God to help us identify, encourage and affirm those amongst us who are true and faithful leaders and role models for our Christian communities, voices we can recognise now and in the future as ‘shepherds of the flock’, guiding and protecting us, leading us to pasture.

What was true 2,000 years ago is true today: we need to belong to a community of people who share our Christian beliefs and practice our faith properly, with leaders who keep us on the straight and narrow, on course to the Truth. If we don’t do that we are at risk of losing our way, becoming completely confused and disorientated, in a spiritual panic. That happens to a lot of people. Outside the safety of the sheepfold we become vulnerable to the barrage of false claims, confused ideas and muddled teachings of our secular society. And our tendency to fall into sin, to follow the crowd, and place ourselves outside the sheepfold that is Holy Mother Church is very likely to be a disastrous combination for us, both in this life and the next.

The Easter Vigil homily

 

Matthew 28:1-10

Do you believe in the Resurrection? I mean, do you REALLY believe? The fact you are here at the Easter vigil tonight is our public declaration that we really do believe. Our faith may sometimes falter, it can go up and down. But tonight is the big one. We’re here to reaffirm our faith. That we believe the witnesses; that we trust them when they tell us they saw Jesus die and then they saw Him alive again.

For us, tonight is the Christian highlight of the year. But not everyone shares our faith. For a lot of people, Easter is just another holiday. Such people can be cynical, and they think us foolish. Let’s just see what they might say about the Christian stories about Easter.

They might have a point. Perhaps all those witnesses in the Bible got together to string together a good story. But why they would do that and risk death I don’t know, but let’s consider it. Well, all four gospels are all the same in this respect – all of them include all the evidence, warts and all about the Resurrection. No-one, and I mean no-one, in the first Century, would choose women to be the main witnesses. Women were seen in those times as unreliable. If you wanted to set up a new religion, you would not start by basing it all on people who would not be very convincing. The fact is, the gospels recorded these events of the first Easter very precisely, as they actually happened. And that sometimes means there are slightly different versions of the same event according to different people who were there. Now anyone who has ever investigated anything, who has ever gone to court and heard people describing what they saw, they will know that slight differences are to be expected; in fact it gives the case greater credibility, not less. Indeed, if all the witnesses to something say exactly the same thing, something fishy is going on.

And talking of eye witnesses, who in their right mind would choose St Peter to be in charge of organizing the new Church of Jesus Christ? Peter – the man who we heard bravely boasting only last Thursday to Jesus that he would lay down his life for Jesus – but when things got threatening, he promptly denied Jesus three times. Who would trust anything he said? Yet ALL the frightened disciples who ran away last Thursday fearing for their lives are, from the moment of the Resurrection, completely transformed. They have definitely seen Jesus again, Jesus risen from the dead. From that moment they courageously preach the Good News that Jesus has risen. They are fearless, And in the end, Peter does indeed become a martyr for Jesus Christ.

But were all these intimate friends of Jesus mistaken? Was it really Jesus who had been crucified? To answer this you need to know the actual circumstances of a Roman crucifixion. Unlike the traditional crosses that have become a symbol of Christianity, the Romans crucified people on a stake with a cross bar that left the victim just slightly off the ground. The victim was only slightly higher than anyone standing by them, and could speak to them as they slowly died. We know Mary, the Mother of Jesus, was standing by Him; and Mary Magdalene; and his favourite disciple, John. They knew Jesus. It was Jesus on the cross.

But some might say Jesus passed out and then revived. That he never died. There’s one problem with this theory. We know it was Jesus who suffered dreadful beatings and torture before being crucified. Crucified. The pain of crucifixion is so intense that they had to invent a new word to describe the horror. ‘Excruciating’ – the pain of the cross. You don’t recover from that sort of horrific beating and torture after two or three days. Apart from the horrendous loss of blood, dehydration, the effects of shock on the human body, and the mental damage, without modern medicines, infection sets in very rapidly. In those days, Jesus fate was sealed as soon as they drove those nails through His hands and feet. And just to make sure, after He is dead, they cut Him open with a lance to make it clear to everyone that He is dead.

But the Jesus they see on the first Easter is moving around, talking normally, just as if all these horrors had never happened to Him. He bore the scars of His ordeal, but his recovery is amazing. This is a truly miraculous event. We believe Jesus rose from the dead.

Holy Mother Church has eight readings listed for tonight’s celebration. They range from the story of the Creation, to Abraham our Father in Faith offering to sacrifice Isaac his son, the escape of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, and several prophesies of salvation. And the one reading that is always included is the story from Exodus of Moses leading the people of Israel through the Red Sea.

All this is because tonight, with Christ’s Resurrection, we are celebrating a new beginning for humanity, a new creation. Something we now know is the biggest thing to have happened in human history. God became a man, a man called Jesus, a name which itself means “God saves’; and a man who has fulfilled all the prophesies about how He would come into this world and what He would do in this world, and how He would die and then rise again. And these prophecies go back some 4,000 years before He was born. And today we celebrate the final piece of the jigsaw, the fact that Jesus is risen from the dead! Exactly as prophesied.

And tonight’s celebration is all about how we, the people of God’s church in Hall Green, have been saved through our belief in Jesus Christ, that he has saved us from death by conquering death. And the way we rejoice tonight is by proclaiming our belief and faith in the Risen Lord by reminding ourselves that we are baptised Christians. The Sacrament of Baptism was foreshadowed in Jewish history by the parting of the Red Sea, escaping certain death through water. That’s why that reading is always part of this Easter Vigil celebration. And that is why shortly we will all renew our baptismal promises. And tonight we will be joined by a new member of our Christian community: in a few moments Qasim is going to be baptised in front of us, to publicly demonstrate his faith in Jesus Christ. As we rejoice in our own salvation, as we marvel at the wonder of the Resurrection and what it has meant for humanity, please also say a prayer for Qasim.

Christ is Risen. Let us rejoice!

 

 

 

Healing through prayer

Mark 9: 14-29                                    Monday 20 February 2017

The Gospel today, in a funny sort of way, links in with the First Reading from Ecclesiasticus (1:1-10). The message is: human wisdom – don’t rely on it! It goes wrong. Divine wisdom, on the other hand, is something very special.

Mark’s gospel is a really fast moving gospel with exciting stories. What you need to know is that what happened just before this incident with the boy who seems to be suffering from what we might today call epilepsy or some sort of seizures, before this happened Jesus had been up the mountain – the Transfiguration has just happened. Peter, James and John were there with Him, and they saw Jesus transfigured. And as they come down the mountain together, they could hear all these people arguing.

Arguing. That’s a clue. Human wisdom! We have two by-elections this week haven’t we? Oh, how they argue, don’t they! Everyone is in disarray. ‘What shall we do next?’ ‘What should we do?’ Fake news. All this sort of stuff is just human wisdom gone beserk. Mad!

We need Divine Wisdom.

But there is a little parallel I just want to draw to your attention. Do you remember that last week Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do they say I am?” And a lot of people seemed to think that Jesus might be Moses, come back to lead the people to freedom. Clearly He wasn’t. Moses was present at the Transfiguration, proving two things: Jesus was not Moses; and it also proves that there is life after death. Moses was present at the Transfiguration, but he had been dead for a thousand years. Still alive, talking to Jesus.

Jesus, Peter, James and John come down the mountain to find the people in disarray.

A similar thing had happened to Moses. Do you remember? Moses went up the mountain to speak with God and receive the Commandments (Exodus 32). And then, as Moses comes down the mountain, there is a hubbub of people.

This was why people thought Jesus might be Moses, because what happened to Moses happened to Jesus. But there is a Divine Wisdom present with Jesus.

As Moses came down the mountain it turned out that the people had made themselves a Golden Calf. They had lost their faith. They had gone back to the old Egyptian ways they had had for generations, worshipping the Golden Calf. No good at all. Moses knew this would happen, because he had been warned by God what to expect.

As Jesus comes down the mountain He too, like Moses, already knows what is going to happen. He is coming down the mountain and there is a hubbub going on. It is very interesting to read the gospel and see what actually is going on – the sheer humanity of it all: the disciples, who had been left on their own whilst He was away with his ‘senior’ disciples, have been approached by the crowd asking if they can cure this boy. The remaining disciples have clearly been casting out demons before, but with this bot, it does not work. The reaction of the crowd? You can imagine the scene. ‘What a load of rubbish!’ ‘They’re con merchants!’ And then Jesus arrives. And the crowd sees Him and come over to Him. They’ve given up on the disciples – it is the crowd that Jesus addresses. It is as if the people are saying, ‘Well, we’re wasting our time with these useless disciples, let’s try the main man!’ And the scene is the same as when the people were in uproar as Moses came down the mountain. The people have lost their faith! But these people, the people talking to Jesus, although they may not realise it, are talking to Divine Wisdom.

And that Divine Wisdom says, ‘How long have I got to put up with you?’

Do remember this weekend Father Paul saying how Jesus was fully human, and it is human to get angry? Jesus doesn’t get so much angry as really frustrated. ‘How much longer have I got to put up with these people?’ And the sick boy’s father shouts out, ‘Help me! If you can do it, do it!’ Jesus says, ‘If I can? What do you mean, if I can? With faith you can do anything!’

Can you see how frustrated He is? Of course Jesus can heal him – He is God!

Can you imagine how desperate than man is for his son to be healed? After a lifetime, his son’s childhood, has been blighted by terrible things happening, having seizures and turns and all sorts.

Jesus heals him.

But the people’s faith is still wobbly. The crowd is shouting ‘What’s going on here?’ ‘He has killed him, he has killed him, he’s lying there.’ No. Jesus helps him stand up again.

On the way down the mountain after the Transfiguration Jesus had been talking to His disciples about the Resurrection, what was going happen. And here, at the bottom of the mountain with the crowd there is a hint of this again. Not a resurrection, but life being restored. Now, just imagine what St Peter, or James or John are thinking at this moment. They have just witnessed the Transfiguration and been told about the truth of resurrection. And the first thing that happens when they come into contact with ‘ordinary’ people again is a miracle, and what Jesus had been talking about happens!

So, don’t despair when we find in our lives that we end up arguing, and we get frustrated and angry. And the mob is shouting one thing and people don’t know what to do. This is what happens with humans.

The answer is to turn to Divine Wisdom. Which is what you are doing. You are in church at Mass. You are starting off the week the right way.

Testing times in America

Monday 30 January 2017

Hebrews 11: 32 – 40

Chapter 11 of the Book of Hebrews is all about Faith. The part we have heard this morning if from towards the end of the letter, and it has a surprising ending. It starts by listing Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets. These are well known characters from history who the people receiving the Letter to the Hebrews would know about. From the Old Testament, most of them come from the period two hundred years before the birth of Jesus, during the Maccabean Revolt. Do you remember that? It was the Syrian-Greek Empire, the Seleucid Empire, that invaded the Holy Land. They took over The Temple and were deliberately sacrificing pigs in The Temple in order to wind up everyone. All sorts of blasphemous horrors were going on. People were being forced to eat pork – you may remember the stories from the Book of Maccabees. People were appalled by these events and there was an uprising. And the uprising was successful, the Jews re-took The Temple, they restored The Temple. Basically the Letter to the Hebrews was written for people – we think they might have been in Rome – written to Christians early on (it was one of the earliest letters) – and it was basically the Christians being encouraged to ‘keep the Faith…. It is going to get tough, things are getting nasty where you are, you are going to be placed in terrible dilemmas.

Now, how do we react to that situation where we are working under a regime which is not is not at all pleasant? What is someone to do? You. Keep. Faith. You keep the Faith.

And that is what the reading this morning ends on. An unusual note. They are talking about these heroes of the faith who have fought and won. Some have even been resurrected from the dead. It said,

‘These are all heroes of faith, but they did not receive what was promised…’

(that sounds like a double-cross doesn’t it!)

‘… since God had made provision to have something better, and they were not to reach perfection except with us.’

We are not talking about perfection in this world.

Father Paul was talking yesterday about purgatory. We are moving on to perfection, hopefully, rather rapidly. That doesn’t mean I want to die: but I do want to go to Purgatory when I die, and be purified. Those ‘heroes in faith’ are going on to something better that they did not know about. Remain true to the Faith!

I’ll just add an echo here on what is currently happening in the United States, with President Trump, a week after his inauguration, imposing restrictions on Moslem travellers. I dare to do this because of what Cardinal Timothy Dolan has been saying. He is the Cardinal Archbishop of New York and the Chair of the American Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Cardinal Dolan was at the Inauguration just over a week ago, saying a prayer. He was on the radio and I was listening to him yesterday. He has had a lot of flack for attending the Inauguration. Some people say he should not have taken part. He replies that he is a man of prayer, a public figure, and he says he will pray there for the public good. He said he also gets invited to other events by Mayor Cuomo of New York, who is in the other part. The Cardinal says that just because he attends events in a public capacity, that does not mean he necessarily agrees with everything said or done by those inviting him. He basically intimated that he does not like what is going on in the United States. And yesterday Cardinal Blase Cupich, the Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago, also published a letter about what is happening in the United States and how it is very wrong.[1]

Can we just remember in our prayers those poor souls who are working to try and enforce the law in the United States. Of course there are people who have been detained and all sorts, but what about the poor officials – those people who are humble Christians doing their daily job. They didn’t want this, and are being told to do horrible things

The going can get tough.

Even in our own times, we must keep the Faith.

[1] https://www.archchicago.org/cardinal-cupich-s-statements accessed 30th January 2017

Melchizedek – man of mystery

Hebrew 5: 1-10                                 16 January 2017

I was talking last night to someone who is a Moslem, wanting to convert to Christianity, and last night I was talking to him about baptism. One of the things that came up in our conversation, the way it went, was that I found myself saying to him that the important thing is that we have, in Jesus Christ, God and man. If God is all-powerful, almighty and timeless, and everywhere, and all these wonderful things which are beyond our understanding, how much comfort we get from the fact that God has also become a man in Jesus Christ, because that means that Jesus has experienced the things we experience. Jesus is God. Is God frightened of anything? No. He is all-powerful – there is no need to be frightened. Jesus, as a man, was doubtless frightened. We know on the night before he was cruelly executed that he was terrified and frightened. Yet He offered Himself for us as that ultimate sacrifice. God, offering Himself, with human emotions. This is mind shattering, but tremendously reassuring, because as we heard this morning from the Letter to the Hebrews (echoed in Marks’s Gospel), that we have a Great High Priest who knows what it is like to be where we are.

In the first reading and in the psalm today that message kept coming through: ‘You are a priest forever, a priest like Melchizedek of old.’ This was a prophecy made in the Book of Genesis when a priest called Melchizedek appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, to Abraham – our Father in Faith for the Jews, the Christians and the Moslems. What is it about Melchizedek? We hear it in our Eucharistic Prayers too, this reference to ‘Melchizedek, a priest of old.

The psalm was Psalm 110. That was written by King David a thousand years before Christ, and it contains a prophesy that the Messiah will indeed be forever ‘a priest of the order of Melchizedek’.

And then, less than 40 years after the Resurrection, this same phrase, ‘a priest after the order of Melchizedek’ is being quoted in today’s extract we heard from the Letter to the Hebrews (5:6-10).

Why all this interest in Melchizedek? Well, he is understood to be one of the characters in the Old Testament who points towards the New Testament, towards the coming Messiah. And from its earliest days, The Church, the Christians saw Melchizedek and his mysterious appearance to Abraham in the Book of Genesis (Chapter 14) as helping them to recognise that Jesus is the genuine Messiah. How?

Well….

  • The name Melchizedek itself means ‘King of righteousness’.
  • He is the King of Salem; and that city was later to be known as Jerusalem, the place where God’s Temple is to be found.
  • Very unusually for a king, Melchizedek has no family tree, and we know nothing of his descendants. He just appears at a moment in time. He is timeless.
  • And Melchizedek is not only a king, he is a priest, an intermediary between God and mankind.
  • As king and priest, Melchizedek received offerings from Abram, our ‘Father in Faith’, gifts of bread and wine and blesses God and Abram.

This is a clue, 2,000 years before Jesus, hidden in the Book of Genesis, a clue of what is to come. Once people knew Jesus and saw what He did in His ministry, it at last made sense.

It is two chapters later in the Letter to the Hebrews (7:1-19) where all these things are carefully explained. Not only is Melchizedek a sign of the Christ, but he also explains how Jesus is a priest, even though he is not from the traditional Levite line of hereditary Jewish priests.

And what all this adds up to is this: when the true Messiah comes, the Jews can expect there to be a very radical change to the priesthood. The Messiah will be a priest forever, and the priesthood will not be hereditary. And that means that the Laws of Judaism, with the arrival of the new priesthood of Christ, would change. As Jesus explained, you can’t patch old and new things together – what you need is “new skins for new wine”.

And indeed this is what happened. Within 30 years of the resurrection, the Temple had been destroyed; the animal sacrifices of the Old Covenant – the covenant between Moses and God, came to an end. The old sacrifices had gone forever, having been replaced by the NEW covenant, the New Testament. And the arrival of the Church saw a new priesthood, a timeless priesthood. And the new priests were celebrating a new, timeless sacrament, called the Eucharist.

 

 

Saint Aelred of Rievaulx

12 January 2017

Today is the Feast of Saint Aelred of Rievaulx. Aelred was born on Hexham, a beautiful town in Northumbria. I like Northumbria: it’s a very holy place, with a lot of Christian history up there. Aelred was a bright young man. As a boy he went and worked as a page for the Scottish Royal Family. Being a page was the way people were trained into taking on higher responsibility. The King in Scotland (Aelred’s best friend became the King) wanted to make him a bishop; he did not want to be a bishop. When he was 24 he became a monk at the new Cistercian monastery Rievaulx in Yorkshire. By the end of his life he was the Abbot of Rievaulx and there were 300 monks working there.

Aelred was a great writer – he has been called ‘The English Saint Bernard’. He died when he was only 57, of kidney disease, on this day, 870 years ago.

Why is Aelred famous? Because he was a great writer. And one of the greatest books he wrote was on the subject of friendship. He examined friendship and what it meant. He said there are three kinds of friendship. Friendship cannot be just Christian Charity. Of course there is Christian Charity, when we respect other people… but it does not mean we have to like them! We love people, we treat them appropriately through Christian Charity; but it does not mean that we have to like them. That is just sometimes too hard, the chemistry isn’t right. The result of treating everyone the same is that you end up not having any friends! That is terrible! That’s a terrible irony – that you could be in a Christian community and not have any friends. It reaches its sort of summit when the abbot of a monastery is not expected to always be with the same monks: they would change who they were sitting next to every day so that there was no suggestion of favouritism. Well, OK… but even so, people would still have friends. And Aelred said that he had people that he really got on well with, they were his friends, and that’s the way life is. Aelred took as his example Our Lord Jesus who had His friend, who was John – ‘the beloved disciple’. Jesus just ‘clicked’ with him; it just ‘gelled’. That is the way it goes.

We sometimes find that don’t we? I sometimes think it seems more difficult for men – perhaps that is just me being a man and feeling sorry for myself – but I always get the impression that ladies have their own close circle of special friends. Very rarely, very occasionally (I can count them on the fingers of one hand … on the two fingers of one hand!) when I have come across another man where I just perfectly match and we really get on as soon as we meet; kindred spirits. Sadly, one of them died pretty young; and the other guy? Well, we’re both busy, married men and we are not particularly friends, but whenever I meet him we have a great time. That’s the way it is. And I don’t know why it is, it is just that we ‘click’.

Aelred said there are three kinds of friendship. Be aware of each kind:

The first kind is carnal friendship. Lustful eyes looking at beautiful bodies is what he called it. Well, this is in all of us, isn’t it? We just can’t seem to help it. Somewhere along the line that is just the way things are. We just need to control ourselves; there are ways of controlling ourselves. Pope Saint John-Paul II used to say, ‘You can look but do not lust.’ God has made beautiful things, and there is nothing wrong with that. But don’t lust. Respect.

The second kind of friendship you come across is worldly friendship. I’m sure we have all come across this. Saint Aelred said that this is about what you can get out of the friendship: people want something from you, and they will be friendly with you, won’t they. Have we sometimes felt betrayed? Someone is really friendly, you have something they want, or you can influence something, and you help them. And then you never hear from them again, even when they have benefited from your efforts. Not even a thank you, once they have got what they want. That’s sad. Disappointing, isn’t it. We fell let down by that sort of thing.

And then that final kind of friendship – spiritual friendship. The joy of being a kindred spirit. It is not a jealous friendship, where you look at someone you are friends with and because they are also friendly with other people you resent it. That is just childish. It is just the joy, the delight of being with someone you like being with. And there is nothing wrong with that.

The problem is that this can get overlaid with our hang-ups in society, and people think there are all sorts of other things going on: that is just the evil world – there you are. But there is spiritual friendship. And as I say, there was spiritual friendship between John and Jesus. It is a gift of God’s Grace.

I will end with Aelred’s prayer on friendship:

Pour into our hearts, O God,

the Holy Spirit’s gift of love,

that we clasping each the other’s hand,

may share the joy of friendship, human and divine.

And with your servant Aelred,

draw many to your community of love.

Through Christ our Lord.

Amen.