26 July, 2015

Homily for the Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) - Bread of Life Series - 1

John 6:1-15
‘The people, seeing this sign that he had given, said, “This really is the prophet who is to come into the world”’ (John 6:14).
Die Ottheinrich-Bibe -  Feeding of the Five Thousand
Today the lectionary begins a five week diversion away from the gospel of Mark taking us to explore the uncharted waters of John 6. I say “uncharted waters” because even though the chapter opens with the perhaps very familiar story of the feeding of the five thousands – the only miracle performed by Jesus to be found in all four gospels – the rest of it contains material only found in John. This unique part is commonly called the Bread of Life discourse where Jesus presents himself as the true bread from heaven, broken and offered for the life of the world.

For John the miracle of the feeding of the five thousands is more than just the manifestation of Jesus’ extraordinary power over creation, it is something that he performs in order to lead his audience to understand some deeper reality. Whereas Matthew, Mark, and Luke refer to the feeding of the five thousands as a miracle, John describes it as a “sign”. In this sense, this and every other sign recorder in John’s gospel are much more than just supernatural events; they are precious occasions for Jesus to reveal something about the nature of God. So for example, among other signs performed by Jesus we can think of the turning of water into wine at the wedding of Cana in chapter two, or the healing of a man at Jerusalem on the Sabbath day in chapter five. In these instances Jesus provided miraculously to certain immediate needs – be it more wine for a feast or restoring health to someone – in order to show us something much greater through the working of these signs. At Cana Jesus ‘revealed his glory’ (2:11) and the coming of a new creation; at Jerusalem he manifested his authority over the Sabbath. Likewise, at the feeding of the five thousands Jesus presents himself as the one able to provide bread for the people of God – even better than Moses could ever do in the wilderness – and eventually revealing himself as the actual Bread of Life given for the life of the world. So signs are worked on the surface, but Jesus invites us to understand the deeper realities they contain.
However, if you think about it signs of whatever kind can be easily misinterpreted, and this is precisely what happens to Jesus when he operates them; at Cana people focused on the good quality of the wine rather than on divine glory; at Jerusalem people seemed more concerned that Jesus broke the Sabbath law than about his authority over it. Likewise, in today’ story the people can only see that Jesus satisfies their hunger with free food, and even when a few of them recognise him as prophet, they can only think about finding a way to always get this free food from him. The people in the crowd cannot see much beyond Jesus’ feeding, miraculous and extraordinary as that may be; for them Jesus is reduced to a free food service provider.

It may be the same for us as well. Jesus may not represent a source of free food to us, yet we may still find ourselves unable to see beyond the sign he operates here and to understand its richer meaning. The feeding of the five thousands and the Bread of Life discourse reveal something of great importance about God and about our faith; so it is well worth the effort of digging a little deeper in the text over the coming weeks. But even in today’s reading, if we look closely to the very gestures of Jesus as he feeds the crowds, we find an echo of the Eucharist while in the words of the Bread of Life discourse we will find the foundation of the Church’s belief in the real presence of Jesus in the sacrament of the altar. At the feeding of the five thousands and at the celebration of the Eucharist, we catch a glimpse of God revealed to the world as provider, sustainer, and generous giver. At the feeding of the five thousands and at the Eucharist we catch a glimpse of God as “essentially loving”, the One who offers everything up for a chance of a relationship with us, the one who presents himself as the true bread from heaven, broken and offered for the life of the world.
Lord Jesus Christ,
you gave us the Eucharist as the memorial
of your suffering and death.
May our worship of this Sacrament
of your Body and Blood
help us to experience the salvation you won for us
and the peace of the Kingdom
where you live with the Father and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

19 July, 2015

Homily for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) - Come away and rest a while

Mark 6:30-34
‘Jesus said to them, “You must come away to some deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”’ (Mark 6:31)
Last week we left the apostles as they were beginning their ministry alongside Jesus as his partners in the gospel. Their call from Jesus was to go out and to evangelize, to free, and to heal; and we saw how this is also our common vocation because we are members of the Church, of the new family of disciples Jesus gathers around himself. Today we re-join Mark’s gospel as the apostles begin to return. They come back to Jesus tired, in need of refreshments and quietness, and eager to share with him what they have experienced. In response to these needs Jesus invites them to travel with him to a place where they could be alone – a deserted place, or sometimes translated as a “lonely” place, a place separated from others where the apostles could be alone with Jesus for some time without having to worry too much about wider society.
To minister alongside Jesus, whatever our specific vocation in life might be, is the very high calling we share, but it can be also very draining on our spiritual and emotional resources. There is no shame in recognising this. Jesus knows this first-hand so we see that he is the first one to invite his followers to regularly return to him for a break, to take a step back from what they are doing, and to recharge their spiritual batteries. We are included in this invitation from Jesus, and we must make it a priority to regularly return to Jesus for relief and for strength. Yet, by saying, “You must come away to some deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while” Jesus does not invite us to go on a carefree holiday, forgetting about everyone and everything we leave behind. Rather, Jesus invites us to retreat from society for some time so that we may have the capacity to serve others better in the future; He invites to deepen our faith by being with him, and to reset our spiritual compass ready for the next journey. In this way, the spiritual rest to which Jesus invites us becomes in itself integral part of our Christian ministry, not an optional add-on. Remember the word of the prophet Isaiah to the whole people of God,
‘In returning and rest you shall be saved;
in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.’ (Isaiah 30:15)

So how can we follow Jesus’ invitation in practice?
Going on a retreat would naturally spring to mind. This is of particular importance for priests, for consecrated men and women, and for all involved in serving the Church family – incidentally, you might be pleased to know that our PCC members and I will hold a quiet morning together in the autumn to pray and reflect about the life of our parish church. The value of retreating from our daily busyness and finding a place of calm with other Christians can hardly be overstated; however, retreats are very often yearly affairs, and we definitely need occasions to recharge our spiritual batteries more often than that. How can we follow Jesus’ invitation more frequently? Where can we readily recuperate our energies, and prepare ourselves to evangelize, free, and heal wider society? 
Well, the answer is staring at us in the face, as it were. The answer is here in what we do each week together; it is the Sunday Mass. By participating at the Mass on Sundays we do much more than fulfilling the third divine commandment, Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, we also, paraphrasing the gospel, “come to place all by ourselves and rest a while”. Here we come to a place a little separated for wider society and we get together as Jesus’ new family; here we encounter the living Lord; and here we are given sustenance for ministry. In fact, you could say we do this about every Eucharist we celebrate, not just on Sunday; yet, Sunday Mass should hold special, paramount importance for us; it should be the centre of our life, because on the most inportant day of the week, we come to it for refreshment and we depart from it with the strength we need to evangelize, to free, and to heal.

‘Jesus said to them, “You must come away to some deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”’ (Mark 6:31)

15 July, 2015

Homily for the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) - Sent to evangelize, free, and heal

Mark 6:7-13
‘Jesus went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out in pairs giving them authority over the unclean spirits.’ (Mark 6:6-7).
Jesus and his twelve apostles, Catacombs of Domitilla, Rome.
Last Sunday we have seen how the evangelist Mark highlights the contrast between Jesus’ extended family and the new family he gathers around himself. This second and very mixed group of people made up of his followers is the new model of family that Jesus establishes disregarding the usual bonds of blood and kinship; this family is the Church in her earliest form.
Today the gospel shows us how this new family of the Church is sent to evangelize, free, and heal; or in other words to bring repentance, hope, and renewal to the world. Just before the beginning of our passage we find Jesus going ‘about among the villages teaching’ (6:6). At the same time, Jesus summons his newly established family to have a share in his ministry as well so that they may have authority even over the spiritual world in his name. Like partners in the gospel, Jesus begins working with his disciples to evangelize, free, and heal.
From this moment the Twelve disciples assume a more active role in the story; they move from just following Jesus and watching what he does, to practice what they have learnt from him and bring hope to others by themselves. However, we should note that there are a few conditions for the Twelve to respect. First, the disciples must be wholly dependent on God for the success of their enterprise and personal wellbeing – therefore, they are told to carry only the bare essentials with them – secondly, the disciples must keep focused on the task of evangelization as the bigger picture greater than themselves; in order to do this the must work without dwelling too long on failures – therefore, they are told to move on quickly from places where they do succeed in their ministry.

We too are part of the Church family Jesus gathers around himself. So, if we apply these gospel verses to our own situations, what can they tell us about our common vocation?
First and foremost, I would suggest that they reinforce the idea that if we really are Christians, if we really are brothers and sisters bound together by the love of Christ, then we are also summoned by Jesus to do what he does. We are invited to share in his healing ministry according to our personal vocation; we are sent to free others from their demons and their troubles in his name; we are sent to spread the hope of the gospel to those around us. Just think; do you know people tormented by the demons of loneliness, illness, or addiction? Jesus is sending you to them.
Second, these verses tell us that we must be dependent on God at all times – something completely countercultural in our times when self-determinism and consumerism rule everything. As the first disciples were sent out poor and empty-handed, so we must realise that no material thing can ever do the work of evangelization for us – be that a fancy sound system, a worship band, or more money that we can shake a stick at. Our church initiatives must begin with God. We must be living affirmations that it is the power of Christ at work in us, the life of Jesus visible in us, which evangelizes people, not our own efforts. Just think; do you let the life of Jesus be visible in you, or does the way you live your life tell a different story? Jesus is calling you to let his power shire through you.
Thirdly, these verses tell us that we should not be afraid of failure. If we truly share in the ministry of Jesus, then we must be aware that we may be rejected just as he was rejected. In those circumstances we ought to move on to do better. Just think, do you take Church failures personally? Jesus is calling you to join in and not to count the costs.

In today’s gospel we see a miniature representation of the entire Church as Jesus summons and sends a group of Twelve disciples to share and further his ministry. Jesus does the same with all of us – like the Twelve we are sent to evangelize, free, and heal; this is our common vocation as Christians. As a response to this call we ought to ask ourselves, what am I going to do to lead others to Christ? What am I going to do to welcome others in his Church family?

05 July, 2015

Homily for the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) - Does Jesus have brothers and sisters?

Mark 6:1-6
‘Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ (Mark 6:3)
One Monday evening whilst I was training for ordination, I was on the ‘phone to my mother for our weekly chat when at one point she said, “I was at Mass yesterday” – I dreaded to think where she was going to go with this – “and the gospel reading from Mark said that Jesus had brothers and sisters… now, what does that mean?” Her question was prompted by genuine interest in the faith, but perhaps to justify herself, mother added, “I sort of paid attention before, but now that you’re at seminary, I feel like I ought to”.

‘Did Jesus have brothers and sisters?’ The short and sweet, correct answer would be “No”, but because that would seem at first to contradict the gospel, I think I should explain better what that means. There are three possible answers this question. The first says, “Yes, Jesus did”; meaning that the characters named in our gospel story were the younger biological siblings of Jesus. But this is wrong. The second answer says, “Yes, Jesus did, but they weren’t blood siblings”; meaning that these characters were Joseph’s offspring from a previous marriage – making them Jesus’ older half-bothers and half-sisters. But this, by and large, is also incorrect. The third answer says, “No, Jesus did not have siblings” – at least, not in the way we understand blood and family relations in our own culture; rather the characters in our story were other relatives. And this is the correct answer. The testimony to the validity of this answer is twofold, from the Bible itself and from the earliest Christian writers. In the gospel this morning we read how the people of Nazareth refer to Jesus as the ‘Son of Mary’ (Mark 6:3), yet none of the others are described as having the same relationship with his mother – although Mark mentions Jesus family, he does so by distinguishing the connections between Our Lord and his mother, and between him and his other relations.
Few early Christian writers had conflicting ideas about the family of Jesus, but on the whole, the Church Fathers did not spend much time on this verse of Mark, assuming that nothing controversial was going on. However, when they did engage with it, they did so by explaining that in the Bible, the words “brother” and “sister” are applied loosely to describe close bonds within a larger family. According to ancient Hebrew customs relations such as cousins were referred to as brothers and sisters regardless of their degree of separation. So the Venerable Bede affirms that this siblings  
‘are not to be taken for the sons of Joseph or of Mary, as heretics say, but rather, as is usual in Scripture, we must understand them to be His relations, as Abraham and Lot are called brothers, though Lot was brother's son to Abraham.’ (Catena Aurea – Mark 6)
In fact, it worth noting that the idea of Jesus not having blood siblings has been a settled belief of the Church from her earliest years and that even through the Reformation people like Martin Luther upheld the perpetual virginity of Mary with strength. Jesus did not have brothers or sisters. Yet, the fact remains that these relations of Jesus are mentioned in the gospel and to them the evangelist Mark gives the specific role of misunderstanding, underestimating, and even trying to stop Jesus. This is because Mark is not concerned with setting out Jesus’ family tree, instead he wants to stress that these people, closely related to Jesus as they were, and the people of Nazareth, who were Jesus’ own neighbours, are the first to reject and alienate him. By doing so Mark is able to highlight the contrast between traditional family ties and the new family Jesus gathers around himself; a new family and neighbourhood of disciples. For Mark the disciples, not the people connected by family bonds, are Jesus’ new family, his actual brothers and sisters.

So, going back to our original question – “did Jesus have brothers and sisters?” – the answer is “No”. But to stop at that would mean missing the point of the gospel. We have to put the question in the present tense. Does Jesus have brothers and sisters? And the answer here is a resounding “Yes”. His true siblings are those whom Jesus gathers around himself – you, me, and all those who strive to follow him. In the Scriptures these are the people more likely to be called brothers and sisters by Jesus. For example, earlier in Mark’s gospel, Jesus says ‘Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother’ (Mark 3:35); or again, after the resurrection Jesus says to the women “go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee” (Matthew 28:10); or again, in John Jesus says to Mary Magdalene “go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father” (John 20:17).

Therefore, let us hold firm to the settled belief of the Church about Jesus not having blood siblings, but more importantly let us remember that as he called “brothers and sisters” those who first followed him, so we who meet in this place to listen to his words and to share his flesh and blood are also his true brothers and true sisters – part of that new model of family that Jesus gathers around himself. To this point, let us treasure some words from the Letter to the Hebrews which state clearly
Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters. (NIV – Hebrews 2:11)

01 July, 2015

Homily for the Solemnity of Ss Peter and Paul, Apostles - Jesus does "do" Church

Matthew 16:13-19
“You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church” Matthew 16:18

False Theology
As a priest, I often hear people saying, “I believe in God, but I don’t “do” Church.” This is a typical objection often raised against the Church; maybe you have heard similar ones, or you yourself may hold a certain degree of sympathy for it – for example, “I’m a Christian, but I don’t “do” Church” or, for the more protestant among us, “Jesus is my personal saviour, I don’t need the Church.”
“I don’t “do” Church.” The more common form of this apathy towards the Church has its origins in the flawed ways we think about Jesus and about the Church herself. We may often consider of Jesus as a wonderworker and as a philanthropist, rather than as God-made-flesh; we may consider him as an ancient rebel, rather than the Messiah sent by God. Likewise, we may think of the Church as an alien institution, as a useless add-on to the gospel, rather than the extension of Christ’s ministry in the world; we may think of the Church as an organization run by out-of-touch people in St Albans, or London, or Rome, rather than our collective name a Christians. But when we start thinking in this way, when we reduce Jesus to a revolutionary hippy do-gooder and the Church to a bureaucratic exercise, we inevitably tend to lose touch about their true and mutual importance in the life of a Christian. As Jesus gets safely tamed into the box of notable characters of ancient history, and the Church gets relegated to be an irrelevant exercise for likeminded people, we inevitably struggle to find ways to answer those who say, “I don’t “do” Church.”

Yet, todays’ celebration of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul should make us question these assumptions about Jesus and his Church, whether we hold to them or not. In the brief dialogue between Peter and Jesus we read truth of Christianity in a nutshell. First, Peter, moved by God, recognises and declares Jesus for what he really is; the Son of God, the Saviour, not an ancient prophet or a rebel. Consequently, Jesus establishes the Church as the community of all those, who like Peter, affirm that he is Son of God and Saviour.
“You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church” – here we have in plain speech Jesus’ plan for spreading the Kingdom of God; a diverse group of people form every background, and ethnicity, led by the ministry of the Apostles, and gathered around the faith expressed by Peter. So we see that this gospel passage should reframe any wrong assumptions we might have about Jesus or his Church. According to the gospel Jesus actually does “do” Church.

Yet, people who say, “I don’t do Church” may come to this conclusion, not because of flawed ideas about the gospel, but because the Church herself appears divided and the subject of tragic scandals – in these instances it’s almost normal that people would fall away or run a mile. We may project impossibly high standards on church institutions, and expect the “Church” – this removed, alien company – to be outstanding in morality, and blameless in her investments and stewardship. If any of our expectations are not met, we quickly become disengaged and end up saying, “I don’t do Church.” Having said this, I think today’s celebration has something to say about this too. Look at Peter. Although he has his shining moment in this story, he nonetheless betrays Jesus quite dramatically on Good Friday. Peter is far from being a blameless character. So, how can someone like him be trusted to lead the people of God? – we might ask. To find an answer to this, we must look at Peter not through our own eyes and impossible double standards, but through the eyes of Jesus – the eyes of the one who despite knowing how badly he is going to be betrayed, still takes a chance on Peter.
“You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church” – Jesus knows Peter’s failings, but he still takes a chance on him. Likewise, later on Jesus takes a chance on Paul, whom he calls from being the fiercest enemy of the Church to become one of her greatest Apostles. In short, Jesus knows few Church members will betray him in appalling ways at certain times, yet he still places his trust in them – he still places his trust in us.

Even if we often hear people saying, “I don’t “do” Church” it doesn’t change the fact that Jesus himself does. Jesus actually does “do” Church – he wanted her, he established her, and he guides her through his Apostles. In fact he trusts the Church – you, me, and the entire people of God – to bring his salvation to all. This is a pretty big endorsement from someone who never ceases to believe in us despite our many failings. “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church” – Take these words of Jesus with you this morning. Read them slowly and let them sink into your heart, and as you do this, perhaps after Mass or during the week, I invite you to look at the Church afresh, not through disengagement and impossible double standards, but through the eyes of Jesus.

22 June, 2015

Homily for the Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) - “Let us go across to the other side.”

Mark 4:35-41
On that day, when evening had come, [Jesus] said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” Mark 4:35
Alexey Pismenny - Christ Stilling the Storm
Probably all the sermons on the calming of the storm I have ever encountered focused on reinterpreting this miracle as Jesus solving those troubles which from time to time may arise in everyone’s life – in moments of desperate need we may feel that God is somehow sleeping, that he doesn’t care if we are suffering, but his eventual intervention makes sure that we find our refuge in him. This is a pleasant enough retelling of the gospel, so today I could stop here and leave it at that, but instead I want to focus our attention on the first verse, on Mark 4:35, as Jesus says to his followers, “Let us go across to the other side.” This verse comes at the end of a series of parables about the Kingdom of God that ended last Sunday with the ones about the sower and mustard seed. More importantly, this verse begins a new cycle in which Jesus moves from revealing the Kingdom through words to doing so through actions. As Jesus moves away from the crowds, he begins a journey with his disciples operating miracles along the way. By overcoming the forces of nature in the calming of the storm, and then later on in the gospel, by banishing evil spirits, curing incurable illnesses, and restoring the dead to life, Jesus shows to his disciples what he is capable of and power of the Kingdom of God. This miraculous, unexpected journey begins with a simple command, “Let us go across to the other side.”

On the last two Sundays I have talked to you about two important things for Christians to do; first, spending time with Jesus in the Eucharist, and second, waiting patiently for God – both of which may appear a little static and unchanging. So, this Sunday I want to explore with you the meaning of another, more dynamic task laid in front of us – following Jesus, as we too are called like the disciples to move from statically hearing God’s word, to “crossing over to the other side” to discover the power of the Kingdom of God at work in the world.

Now, I think I can safely assume that many here are already committed, churchgoing Christians, but are we actually ready to follow Jesus into action or are we armchair Christians? Like the disciples in Mark we may be already acquainted with some of his teachings, we may already know a few things about him, but if we want to really know what Jesus is like, what he is capable of, we must learn to follow him where he is at work. It is of little good to us just to observe his movements at a distance, from the pages of a book; if we really want to get to know him we must experience him first-hand, we must put across to the other side with him. We must witness to what he does and to the power of the Kingdom of God, so that our faith may be increased, deepened, and yes, sometimes even tested by what we may encounter along the way. Going across to the other side may mean getting out of our beloved comfort zone, it may mean feeling nervous at the prospect of change, but above all it will surely mean to marvel in awesome wonder at what Jesus does in our lives, in the lives of others, and in the world. From a purely practical point of view it may mean, devoting our resources to this parish that always needs people with various talents; it may mean visiting the housebound who easily get forgotten, supporting local Christian initiatives like our foodbank, participating more regularly in worship such as weekday Mass… In short, it means mucking in the life of a Church that is called to bring calm and wholeness in the midst of a troubled world. By doing do, we will find Jesus in action in the world and we will be filled with great awe like the disciples; by doing so, we will get opportunities to actually get to know both Jesus and the Kingdom of God.

So to recap from the previous Sundays, we are called to spend time with Jesus in Eucharist, and we are called to wait for his intervention with trust; while today the gospel calls us to something more dynamic, to follow him as he transforms the world. Let us pray that we may have readiness and courage to answer generously these three calls.
On that day, when evening had come, [Jesus] said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.”