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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.

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November – why we pray for the Dead

November is the traditional month when we Catholics particularly remember the dead. Yet to the world at large is the idea of a Mass for the Dead is bewildering. We need to stop and examine why we do things the way we do, because the reasons we have masses and prayers for the dead may have become a bit muddled.

First, we’re acknowledging death and its impact upon us – we’re breaking society’s taboo and facing our mortality head on. Most people nowadays completely ignore death, they avoid talking about it, probably because they are frightened of the unknown. But we can be confident in the face of death because we are Christians. We know it is not the end of life. We believe in life after death. We have heard the evidence that there is life after death, and we have been convinced by the evidence.

Last Tuesday I attended a funeral for a member of my family who was an Orthodox priest. Held in a remote little church in the heart of the Lake District countryside, it was a deeply moving occasion. It was poignant and spiritually uplifting because it was unashamedly a litany of prayers for the soul of someone we knew and loved, a plea for God to forgive him any sins he may have committed in this life and an appeal for God to speed him on his way to heaven. Because it was a faith-filled occasion, it was actually a joyful occasion, and at the graveside the actual burial ended with a loud cry of faith, ‘Christ is Risen. Alleluia!’

In tonight’s Mass we are doing the same: we’re praying for the dead. More particularly, we’re praying for people whom we knew and loved. And we are calling on the Communion of Saints to pray for their souls too. We Catholics firmly believe in the Communion of Saints. In every mass we are united with the saints in heaven, all of us, in heaven and on earth, joining in a great prayer of faith – Holy, Holy, Holy. This is a key aspect of our living, practical, faith-in-action that makes us proudly Catholic.

We pray for the dead that their souls too might complete their journey to heaven, a journey started during their lives on earth and continuing after their death through a process of purification, what we call Purgatory.

Purgatory is often a highly misunderstood and misrepresented Doctrine of the Church. The more I’ve learnt about it, the more I embrace the truth of purgatory. Not as a place where sinners are punished, but a spiritual state where we can be guided by Our Lord Jesus towards full peace and reconciliation with our fellow humans and true personal peace – purgatory completes our spiritual journey towards seeing our God in heaven. And through our prayers for the dead we can forgive, console, comfort, heal and strengthen those who are yearning for our support in completing their journey heavenward.

There’s nothing wrong in wanting our loved ones to get to heaven; and likewise it’s not shameful for us to want to get to heaven either! That’s why we pray, as part of God’s plan that involves humankind in working with Him to create a new heaven and a new earth. And that’s why we boldly pray for each other as we each, in turn, inevitably take our leave of this world for the next.

Tonight’s Mass for the Dead is all of us, as a Christian community, together affirming of our faith, and giving us the opportunity to be strengthened in preparation for our own journey towards heaven, that we may not be caught out by an unexpected, untimely death.

 

 

 

What would you do with £3million? (or $4m or €3.4m)

Matthew 25: 14-30                Sunday of Week 33 (19 November 2017)

The Parable of the Talents

Next week is the last ordinary Sunday before we start Advent – the season we Christians prepare for the Coming of Jesus, not only the ‘First Coming’ at Christmas but, just as importantly, the ‘Second Coming’ when Jesus will return at the end of time. I don’t know whether you have noticed, but Holy Mother Church is already preparing us for the end of time by selecting three readings – last week, this week and next week – which are all taken from Chapter 25 of Matthew’s gospel. The reading of these final three weeks before Advent all share a common theme: the end of time, the Second Coming, and Judgment.

Last week we heard about the ten young women waiting for the bridegroom to come, and only five of them were wise enough, when he eventually came, to have made sure they had enough oil in their lamps in case he came unexpectedly. The moral of the story is that the end, when it comes, will not be expected. This message is rammed home today when Saint Paul repeats it: “The Day of the Lord is going to come like a thief in the night.” A thief in the night – thieves definitely operate quietly, and they love it when their victim is not expecting them.

Next week we’ll hear what happens when, on the Day of Judgment, Christ the King asks for an account of how, during their lives, individuals treated the less fortunate when they came across them. Did they recognise Christ in the thirsty, the hungry, the naked, the sick or the imprisoned?

And this week we hear Jesus telling the Parable of the Talents. Each person is given responsibilities, according to what they are capable of achieving. When the Master eventually returns after being away for a long time, he ask individuals how they have used the resources they were given by their Master. It seems that servants are expected to be bold, to trust in their abilities to work at being faithful servants. Playing things safe, keeping your head down is not an acceptable excuse when the Master returns in judgment.

Why did Matthew include this parable and write it up the way he did? Probably because many of that first generation of Christians were facing a crisis of faith when he was writing his book. What was it that was worrying them? Well, they had been given to understand that Jesus’ Second Coming would be within their lifetimes. The problem was that by the time Matthew was writing his gospel, Jesus’ original disciples were dying, and there had still been no Second Coming. That was not what they had been expecting. So they needed reassurance. And in this parable Matthew is answering their concerns.

Those early Christians hearing this parable would have immediately realised that the Master going on a long journey was a reference to Jesus ascending to heaven. The servants in the story represent the Christians still alive on earth, working to build up the Church. When the Master returns – and note that it says he came back again ‘after a long time’ – this represents the eagerly-awaited Second Coming. And when the Master calls his servants to account, this represents the Jesus returning on the Day of Judgment.

It’s also helpful to know what they would have understood by the word ‘talent’, because modern English means something completely different. A talent was originally a Hebrew unit of weight, defined as the weight in silver shekel coins that a man could carry.[1] At the time of Jesus that weight was reckoned to be about 6,000 shekels. A shekel was one day’s wages. So, in our terms, one talent was worth £600,000. Does that surprise you

So that first man, given 5 talents, was given something like £3 million! That put a completely different light on it doesn’t it! The second man was given well over £1 million! Even the man who was given ‘only’ one talent would have had £600,000. Wow!

Matthew’s readers would also have recognised that the Master’s generosity is about how generous God to those who believe in Him. And like the Master, God is showing tremendous trust in His servants on earth – they would understand, like the three men in the parable, that they are free to use their initiative in their efforts to build up the Church – they are free to make their decisions according to their own experience and circumstances, on the understanding that what they do should be a worthy effort, not some half-hearted, lukewarm, ‘don’t blame me for failing’ type of attitude. They are being told that Christians should be bold in their faith, trusting in guidance from the Holy Spirit, working enthusiastically to build up God’s Kingdom on Earth, by worshipping God, serving other people, and telling people about the Good News.

The original language of the story, Greek, supports this idea. It isn’t obvious in English, but we are told that the man given five talents “promptly went and traded with them”. Promptly, immediately, straightaway (eutheos) gives the idea of enthusiasm, a desire to do something positive, to seize the opportunity. And how did this man double his money? We are told he “went and traded” with the money he had been given. The word translated from the Greek as ‘traded’ (‘ekerdesen’) has already been used by Matthew in Chapter 18 (v.15) when describing how a sinful Christian can be ‘won back’ to the Faith. So reading the parable in its original Greek reinforces this idea that the story is referring to committed Christians working enthusiastically to build up the Church.

Compare that with the man given one talent. He simply buries it in a field. That actually was the way people protected their money in those days – there were no banks vaults. The interesting thing is that were someone to hide money like this, if it went missing, under the rabbinical law they would not liable for its loss. So this man was completely unenthusiastic, and by burying the money he has deliberately avoided all personal responsibility. He was given a considerable fortune, £600,000, but achieved nothing. He didn’t seize the opportunity he had been given; he just wasted his chances. He was ultra-cautious, and didn’t want to risk being blamed.

What does the Parable of the Talents tell us Christians? First, it tells us that God is tremendously generous, and we must not be complacent with what He has given to us. We must be enthusiastic and bold in the way we live out our Faith, otherwise it becomes just useless, empty words. We learn that as Christians we will be held to account for what we have done in this life. Did we fearlessly and enthusiastically work to build up God’s Kingdom on Earth? Did we follow our Lord’s teachings about standing up for the poor, opposing injustice and spreading the Good News? Or do we play it safe, keeping our heads down, trying to avoid doing the right thing for the sake of a quiet life?

[1] 2 Kings 5:23

Some really stupid excuses

Luke 14:15 – 24

Tuesday 7th November 2017

Just before today’s story in the Gospel of Luke people had been asking Jesus about the Kingdom of God, asking Him what it is like, and who will get in. Jesus really surprised them by saying (luckily for us) that people other than Jews will get in; and He also told them that Jews should not assume they have an automatic right of entry into heaven.

To cast some more light on today’s gospel we need to appreciate two things that would have been obvious to the earliest Christians. Firstly, the Jewish people often described heaven as a communal meal, as a wonderful banquet, a beautiful wedding feast; and secondly, this travelling preacher called Jesus fascinated people. His reputation went before Him, and when He arrived in town, ordinary people flocked to Him to be healed and to hear His message. Other people wanted to be seen with Him and meet Him for social reasons, perhaps to flatter themselves that He had been to their house, or, being suspicious, to check out his political and theological views.

So, in Luke’s gospel we regularly see Jesus being invited out for meals, and they didn’t always turn out as people expected. Saint Luke gives us five mealtime stories.

The first[1] is a celebration at the home of the repentant tax collector Levi: Jesus gets criticized for eating with low life like tax collectors and sinners. The message is clear: sinners can get to heaven.

The second meal[2] is hosted by Simon, a self-righteous Pharisee, who is scandalized by the arrival of a woman of ill repute who washes Jesus’ feet – the message here is that it is not our place to judge others in this life – we should treat people with respect.

Then there is dinner with Martha and Mary[3] – Martha gets indignant that Mary is wasting her time listening to Jesus rather than helping with the kitchen chores! The moral of this story: there is a time and place for everything when we’re preparing for heaven. Sure, there are routine things to be done in this life, but we need to get our priorities right and spend time listening to God.

Luke also describes[4] Jesus having breakfast with another Pharisee, who gets peeved when Jesus doesn’t wash his hands before eating, only for Jesus to read his mind and tell him that inner cleanliness is more important ritual hand washing! Getting to heaven is more about spiritual preparedness than just mindlessly following strict rules.

A common theme in all the stories about meals in Luke is that no matter who is doing the inviting, no matter how disreputable, or rude or hypocritical the people sitting down at the table, Jesus always accepts their invitation.

And today we again see Jesus at a meal, and he uses it to explain why some people who expect to automatically get to heaven (simply because they were born Jews) might not make it. The explanation is simple: some people refuse the invitation. And they turn down the invitation for the stupidest of reasons.

One of the best excuses to turn down a dinner invitation I’ve heard was sent by the English comedian Peter Cook’s. It is said that when the Duke and Duchess of York invited him to dinner he replied: “Thank you for your kind invitation. I have checked my diary and I’m afraid I must decline, as it turns out I shall be watching television that evening.”

The people reading St Luke’s gospel 2,000 years ago would have probably found the excuses given in the gospel just as laughable. They are so crass they are each a disgraceful insult that shows contempt for the man sending the invitation:

“I have bought a piece of land and must go and see it.” Nonsense! In the Middle East there is a lot of desert and not much land that can be cultivated. No-one would be so foolish as to buy land in a hurry without seeing it first – the process of buying land would take months, even years. “I have bought a piece of land and must go and see it.” It’s like saying “I had an email saying I have won the Nigerian lottery. I’ve sent them my bank account details and password and must go immediately to pick up the money.”

“I have bought five yoke of oxen and am on my way to try them out.” Madness! Oxen must work in pairs, and they must work in harmony. A farmer would never buy ten oxen like that, it would be completely idiotic. It’s like saying, “I’ve bought ten of those new lorries (trucks) that don’t have drivers but are driven by computers and I need to try them out on the motorway (freeway)!”

“I have just got married and so I am unable to come.” This would be a dreadful insult to both the new wife and to the man sending the invitation, because it would be seen as a completely unnecessary and vulgar reference to marital relations.

In the face of these hostile, stupid refusals to accept his generosity, what does the man organizing the banquet do? He is not going to let all the food waiting to be served go to waste. He widens his invitation to include people who really want to come, to people who would normally expect be shunned.

What’s the message for us in today’s gospel? Firstly, don’t think being a pious, practicing Catholic means you’ll get a free pass to heaven: that is the sin the Church calls ‘presumption’. If we judge other people, treat sinners with disdain or make pathetic excuses for our own failings, we’re at risk. But here’s the good bit: getting to heaven is not as onerous as many people might think. Above all we need to accept the invitation from God and try to lead a good life, serving and respecting others. We may falter on our journey, but our guide, our host, the person inviting us, will accept everyone who tries, even if they sometimes don’t hit the mark. Even the most unexpected will be allowed in, as long as they accept the invitation and approach God in true humility. It is called Divine Mercy. Above all, what we must not do is to try and avoid our responsibility to honour God in our lives by coming up with pathetic, stupid excuses.

And this is why the last thing we are often reminded at the end of our Catholic liturgy are the words ‘Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life’.

 

[1] Luke 5: 27-32

[2] Luke 7: 36-50

[3] Luke 10: 38-42

[4] Luke 11: 37-54

25 years of service

The Feast of Saint Peter and Saint Paul

 29 June 2017

Acts 12: 1-11             2 Timothy 4: 6-8, 17-18                    Matthew 16:13-19

25 years ago my father-in-law John was ordained in Birmingham Cathedral. This year he celebrated his Silver Jubilee as a deacon with the Parish in Hall Green, Birmingham.

This is what I had to say….

 

The homily is an integral part of the Sacred Liturgy; and as a stickler for doing things right, I’m pretty sure Deacon John would not want me to be sharing anecdotes about him during the Mass. I’ll perhaps mention afterwards in the Hall some of the stories of John’s life as he travelled on his journey that in his case led him towards ordination as a deacon and then living the life of a deacon. What the newspapers might headline as “Ten things you do not know about Deacon John Stark.” I think you’ll be surprised, amused, and moved. Hopefully you’ll join us to all celebrate together after Mass.

But it must be said that it is marvellous that the Feast of St Peter and St Paul has given the Parish the opportunity to mark the Silver Jubilee of Deacon John’s ordination into the Order of Deacons. John was ordained deacon on this particular feast day in 1992, so since then it has had a special significance for him every year for the past quarter of a century.

Of course, the tradition of Saints Peter and Paul sharing their feast day together has been of special significance to the Church for over 2,000 years. From the earliest days of the Church we Christians have celebrated today to honour in concert the two Apostles who were major influences on the development of the Church in Rome – the place where Peter and Paul both preached, both ministered to the first Christians, and where they were both martyred.

Our first reading tonight was taken from that early history of the Church written by Saint Luke, the book of the Acts of the Apostles. You may be interested to hear that Saint Peter is the main character for the first FIVE chapters of the Books of Acts: it describes how Peter was an apostle to the Jews, starting his mission in Jerusalem, immediately after Jesus had ascended into heaven; and then, in Chapter EIGHT, Saint Luke moves on to focus on Saint Paul, who evangelised the gentiles across the Roman Empire.

But what is in the two chapters between the sections on Peter and Paul, chapters six and seven? Sandwiched between the stories of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, is the story of another remarkable man. Do you know who it might be? It’s Saint Stephen. Saint Stephen THE DEACON! Men like Deacon John have been an integral part of the clergy, playing a vital role as leaders of Christian communities from the very first days of the Church.

There’s a message for us all here. We all have different backgrounds, traditions and talents. God calls each one of us to serve His purposes in our own unique way. We should recognise that God prepares each one us for our own distinct part in fulfilling the Church’s mission in the world today. This is the idea of the Church being the Body of Christ – Jesus the head and then many inter-dependent other parts of the body.

In his inimitable way Deacon John shared with me his insight into tonight’s gospel. Remember how it starts? “When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi he put this question to his disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’

Deacon John asked me yesterday, “Do you know why Jesus was in Caesarea Philippi?” Because in those times the region and City of Caesarea Philippi was a centre of PAGAN worship. In fact in the ruins of that ancient City you can still visit a nature reserve where there is a spring that gushes from a massive rock, with niches carved into the stone that then contained statues of pagan Greek gods. Imagine the significance of Peter declaring Jesus as THE true God in such a place. The contrast couldn’t be greater. This is dramatic stuff.

In that centre of worshipping false idols, Saint Peter declares out loud in front of Jesus’ disciples what he had come to believe through a combination of his intellect, life experience, faith in God, and not least having had the privilege of being with Jesus on His earthly ministry. Peter was moved by the Holy Spirit to announce that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed One from God. It is at that point in his life that Peter accepts the heavy responsibility of being a leader of the Church. That confession of faith by no means guaranteed a life of ease, coasting towards a heavenly reward. On the contrary. No, Peter remained a weak human being who worked hard, sometimes made mistakes and had a really hard time. But through faith, through prayer and through the support of his fellow Christians, Saint Peter’s faith shone through it all.

So recognising Jesus as our Saviour is not something we can declare and then sit back and rest on our laurels. We have to walk the talk. And here in the first reading is the evidence of that truth. In it we see Peter again, but ten years later: the story of Peter’s astonishing escape from certain death in jail. After ten eventful years since being appointed the first Pope by Jesus, leading the Church, ten years later, miracles are STILL happening. They didn’t fizzle out after Jesus ascended to heaven. Through faith, through the gifts of the Holy Spirit, through fervent prayer, the surprises just keep coming. Supported by his fellow Christians, Peter is persevering in his work.

25 years ago Deacon John was ordained in St Chad’s Cathedral by Archbishop Maurice Couve de Murville. John did in public what St Peter did in todays Gospel. Deacon John stood up in the midst of the Church in and publicly declared his faith in Jesus and took on a leadership role in the Church. And like Saint Peter, that did not mean everything would be easy for John. There would be up and downs, hard work and challenges. People don’t always appreciate the burden people like Deacon John may be having to carry, but it’s true. And, I can tell you, Deacon John has had some remarkable escapes from an early death.

It’s lovely that Fr Paul has invited him back today to celebrate with the Parish in Birmingham, the place where he has practised his faith with his beloved Margaret and their children for nearly half a century. Saint Ambrose Barlow Parish in Hall Green is the place where Deacon John preached, ministered to his fellow Christians, and it is the place where, to quote Saint Paul in the second reading, Deacon John fought the good fight, ran the race to the finish and kept the faith.

And as a man of profound faith in God, a man of prayer, strengthened by the Holy Spirit and helped by the prayer and faith of the Christians around him, Deacon John – like Saint Peter, Saint Paul and Saint Stephen – has seen it through.

 That is what we’re celebrating with him tonight, and through the miracle that is the Holy Mass, we celebrate it in the company of Jesus Christ Himself and with all the saints in heaven, including Saint Peter, Saint Paul and Saint Stephen.

 

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!