26 April, 2015

Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Easter (B) – The Christian life: an all-encompassing commitment

1 John 3:16-24

‘We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us — and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.’ 1John 3:16
Sometimes the meaning of our readings from Scripture is pretty self-evident and there is no need of a sermon, like today. So let us look around, let us look at the person sitting nearby, and think, if we can see ourselves willing laying down our life for them, then we still have a lot to learn about what it means to be a Christian...

As I was saying, sometimes, a homily is not needed, but I was scheduled to deliver one, so here it goes… Over the last few weeks I have been talkingabout what it means practically to live the Christian life, to be a Christian. I said that living the Christian life is not just a matter of being faithful in going to church on certain days and holding with firm resolve to a particular creed; it is something that goes a lot deeper than these things. Living the Christian life is about being “works in progress” open to the action of God through prayer; it is about trying to be better each day at imitating Jesus; it is about cultivating virtues such a hope, justice, and patience; and it is about rooting out all those bad habits we might have such as gossiping or being uncharitable towards others. In short, living the Christian life requires a lifetime of commitment that encompasses all that we do, and all that we are.

Today we hear more clearly what this means in the words of the First Letter of John, where the Apostle says to us, ‘We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us — and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.’ This is to say that when Jesus lays down his life on the Cross, he doesn’t just redeem us, but he also gives us a pattern to follow, so that we – imitating him – should learn to put others before ourselves; because he loves us first, we ought to replicate his pattern of love with others. So we see that living the Christian life is not something that we can do in our spare time, it’s not a hobby or a game that we can safely store away until the next time we feel like escaping our daily routine; rather, living the Christian life as a positive and generous response to the love of Christ, is something that should pervade us from tip to toe, or – as a traditional hymn puts it,
‘Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.’
However, I do feel that as a Church we often send out the wrong message about this; we are in danger of misleading people with ideas that being a Christian is something easy, done on a whim, or much the same as being part of the National Trust. For example, you may not know this, but in the alternative texts for Baptism produced recently by the Church of England, the requirement imposed on parents and godparents to be good role models for their children has been dropped – specifically, the question ‘Will you draw them by your example’ has been dropped. Thus, living the Christian life seems increasingly something that we can do when we feel like it and then forget about it. Indeed, as many would have it, as a Church we shouldn’t put any impositions on people lest they get put off by all this religion... 
If this sad and terrible trend continues, soon enough we will be asked to rebrand our Sunday service from the Parish Mass to a performance of the musical Anything Goes. This, this trajectory currently being advocated and systematically enforced by many vocal members of the Church of England is a far cry from the lifetime of commitment, and selfless love demanded by the gospel; it’s a far cry from the command, ‘we ought to lay down our lives for one another.’

Living the Christian life is a work in progress that involves all that we are. Today as we keep Vocations Sunday and we think especially of those who are called to follow Christ in their vocation to be priests. We place a lot of expectations in our priests, like demanding them to be self-sacrificing and self-denying in their ministry. However, priests do exist in a vacuum, they not act and love apart from the Christian community. So today, even though we would traditionally be asked to pray for vocations to the sacred priesthood, I ask you to pray that we all – both clergy and lay people – may rediscover what it means to live and love each day as Christ does, constantly bettering our spiritual life, and striving always to put others before ourselves.

25 April, 2015

Homily for the Third Sunday of Easter (B) – The Christian life: Purifying ourselves as He is pure

1John 3:1-7
‘What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.’ 1John 3:2-3
Francesco Pesellino - The Virtues
Last week I talked about the vices of gossiping and talking uncharitably about others as bad habits we all have, regrettably, and I also said that these vices are most unbecoming to Christians. I affirmed that through God’s help and the practice of virtues we will eventually succeed in putting away these bad practices from the way we live the Christian life (Cf. Homily for Easter 2). Also, recently, if you remember, I affirmed that with regards to the virtue of faith, like any other virtue or good habit, we are all “works in progress” (Cf. Homily for Easter Day).

Today our reading from the First Letter of St John gives us another scriptural insight about this way of being a Christian as something constantly requiring both the input of grace and our commitment in order to better ourselves. The Apostle John speaks to us of the great joy and of the new dignity bestowed upon us as faithful when he says, ‘See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are’ (1John 3:1). We truly are the children of God because through Baptism we become part of Jesus – part of the only-begotten Son of the Father who has become one of us, has offered himself up, and has risen, so that we may share his divine life. Therefore, if we abide in Jesus, if we make our home in him, we will be also found by the Father in him – as a great Eucharistic hymn affirms,
‘Look, Father, look on his anointed face,
and only look on us as found in him’.
Yet, within this great affirmation of joy and new dignity, we also read a stern command from John; something that we may easily gloss over, but that is an important key in understanding how to live the Christian life. John says, ‘And all who have hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.’
What does this instruction mean? It seems a little contradictory. If we are in Christ and those who abide in him have no sin, as John affirms in verse 6, how can we need to purify ourselves? Then again, last week in the same letter we have read, ‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us’ (1John 1:8), so can we reconcile these two things?

We can only do so if we consider our own nature with frankness. Yes, we are in Jesus Christ – or at least we often claim that we are – and by being in him we are children of God; but if we take a good look at ourselves, we soon realise that we do not always behave like Jesus does, we do not always do what he does, and we do not always love like he does. Oftentimes, we are more likely to be at the mercy of our own bad habits and inclinations rather than being at the mercy of God. We are inclined to do what suits us best, or as we examined last week, we are inclined to act uncharitably with regards to other people and then claim unconvincingly that we are Christians. Therefore, the instruction to purify ourselves according to the pattern of Jesus is an instruction to put away all those bad habits that prevent us from abiding stably in him; it is an instruction to work against those vices that linger on once the sin has been washed away.

So, how do we purify ourselves from evil habits such as anger, laziness, or pride? How do we put away these vices that inevitably cause us to sin despite our best efforts and despite our faith? The solution is twofold. First, we need to rely on grace and prayer as the source of our purification – remember here last week’s collect that asked God ‘grant us to put away the leaven of malice and wickedness’ as if to say “You, God, grant us this, because we can’t do it without you”. Secondly, we must practice the virtues, those good habits, which are naturally in opposition to vices and can counteract our inclinations to sin according to them. By grounding and rooting ourselves in virtues such as justice, patience, courage, humility, and above all, charity, hope, and faith, we will gradually turf out vices, leaving no place for them to flourish.

 ‘What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.’
We are all works in progress. Purifying ourselves means progressing, continuing, the work begun in us by God at Baptism in a way that makes us flourish as believers and as human beings who live according to the perfect pattern traced by Jesus Christ. But because we do this through grace and prayer, in a sense, it does not matter that much how far we go down this road of purification, down the path of virtues, just as long as we keep travelling along it at all times, thus making our home in Jesus more beautiful and comfortable with each passing day, until the blessed time ‘when he is revealed, and we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.’

12 April, 2015

Homily for the Second Sunday of Easter (B) – The Christian life: avoid Gossip and the Leaven of Malice

From today’s Collect,
Almighty Father,
…grant us to put away the leaven of malice and wickedness
that we may always serve you
in pureness of living and truth.
Norman Rockwell - The Gossips
Our collect this morning employs an interesting choice of language. On the Second Sunday of Easter we should be still at the height of joyful celebrations for the resurrection of Our Lord, yet the liturgy makes us pray that we may, through God’s help, put away sinful and harmful vices, so that we may serve the Father in purity and truth. It seems that even in the midst of the Easter festival, this prayer insists on reminding us about what we do wrong. However, to do away with the “leaven of malice” is something directly connected with the celebration of Easter and to living the risen life Christ has won for us. The words of the collect are inspired by what St Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians regarding living the Christian life saying, ‘Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new batch... For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth’ (1Cor 5:6-8). In these words Paul warns the Corinthians that if they truly are alive in the risen Lord, as they claim to be, then they ought to put away the leaven of malice which is corrupting the Church community. If you live in Christ, then you have to strive to die to those sins that hamper the Christian life.

We ought to ask, what is this “leaven of malice” both the collect and First Corinthians speak of? Well, it could represent any behaviour, any bad habit, which is unbecoming to a Christian, such as defrauding workers of their rightful pay or oppressing the poor. But in particular, this “leaven of malice” represents those sins we commit amongst ourselves, against each-other as members of the family of faith. When we see bitter divisions and recriminations within the Church; when we see faithful exiting the church building in a self-righteous rage or having been reduced to tears; when we see entire communities severely crippled or even devastated by the toxic power of the “leaven of malice”, then we can truly identify this as gossip, slander, and talking against one-another. Gossip, slander, and murmuring, these are the “leaven of malice” that working unseen within the community, they poison it with their venom. There is a place for speaking out against things that are wrong, for whistleblowing, but if the intention is to put ourselves up over another person, if the intention is to put down people, then that is a sin – a vice unbecoming to a Christian.
We may think that gossiping is something of a minor offence, especially given the fact that we are surrounded by a culture that thrives on it; think of the countless stupid reality TV shows where people are set up against one-another for the enjoyment of the public; think of the easiness and willingness with which each one of us descends into gossip… It all seems perfectly normal and therefore acceptable – even encouraged.

Yet, the testimony of the Scriptures is very clear on this point; for example in the book of Proverbs alone there at least ten references to gossip and they all see it as one of the most insidious vices that can affect a believer. Allow me to give you a flavour from two books. Chapter 11 of Proverbs says,
‘Whoever belittles another lacks sense,
but an intelligent person remains silent.
A gossip goes about telling secrets,
but one who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a confidence.’ (Prov 11:12-13)
or again,
‘A perverse person spreads strife,
and a whisperer separates close friends.’ (Prov 16:28)

The Book of Ecclesiasticus says,
‘Have you heard something? Let it die with you.
Be brave, it will not make you burst!
Having heard something, the fool suffers labour-pains
like a woman in labour with child.
Like an arrow stuck in a person’s thigh,
so is gossip inside a fool.’ (Ecclus 19:10-12)
or again,
‘As you fence in your property with thorns,
so make a door and a bolt for your mouth.
As you lock up your silver and gold,
so make balances and scales for your words.’ (Ecclus 28: 24-25)

Almighty Father,
…grant us to put away the leaven of malice and wickedness
that we may always serve you
in pureness of living and truth.
To pray faithfully this collect means striving to put away gossip from our lives. Gossip, slander, and talking against others, are the leaven of malice and wickedness that prevent us both from celebrating the Easter festival with lasting joy, and from leading the Christian life to its fullness.
To pray this collect means building a Church community in which acceptance, welcome, and true love for one-another can flourish, driving out anything that is hurtful and mean towards our brothers and sisters in Christ. It may take time to break these bad habits, but through the help of God and through the practice of virtues such as humility and justice, we will succeed.

I leave you with some words from Psalm 39, words we should really endeavour to make our own every day. They go like this,
‘I said, “I will guard my ways
that I may not sin with my tongue;
I will keep a muzzle on my mouth”’ (Psalm 39:1).

08 April, 2015

AAB Resources - Liturgy - A liturgy for Holy Baptism

Baptismal font at the church of San Frediano, Lucca, Italy
A liturgy for the administration of Holy Baptism outside the celebration of the Eucharist. The Church of England primary text is here presented accompanied by the Catholic rites of initiation, including the anointing with the Oil of Chrism.

Common Worship: Christian Initiation, material from which is included and adapted in this service, is copyright © The Archbishops’ Council 2006. Liturgical format by anotheranglicanblog.com

From the leaflet,
The service paints vivid images of the Christian life through signs and gestures - the most important ones being the sign of the cross made on the forehead of the candidates, the washing in the water of baptism, through which we believe we die to sin and we are raised to new life in Christ, and the anointing with the Oil of Chrism - symbol of our sharing in Christ’s priestly and kingly ministry.
As you pray for the candidates to Baptism, picture them with yourself and the whole Church throughout the ages, journeying into the fullness of God’s love... At the font, by saying our “yes” to God’s love, is where it all begins.

Enid Chadwick - My Book of the Church's Year - April and Easter

Homily for Easter Day - Embryonic Faith and being Works in Progress

John 20:1-18
‘…he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.’ John 20:8-9
Eugène Burnand - The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Sepulchre
Today’s gospel presents us with the mystery of the resurrection of Jesus. Our passage is marked by frantic search for some tangible explanation for the disappearance of Jesus’ body; there are rumours of something having happened at the tomb overnight, perhaps fears that the resting place of Jesus has been vandalised, that the body has been stolen… There are witness statements to be confirmed, and a certain degree of shock to be overcome. 
However, among all this uncertainty we encounter an example of faith which should help us in our own faith journey. This example is given to us by the Apostle John, spoken of in the gospel as the disciple whom Jesus loved, who running faster than Peter, is able to get to the tomb first. In verses 8 and 9 we are told a peculiar phrase that has puzzled theologians ever since, we are told that John ‘saw and believed; for as yet [Peter and himself] did not understand the scripture, that [Jesus] must rise from the dead.’ John believed without understanding the Scriptures? Then what did John believe in? Can there be faith without full understanding of the Scriptures?
Few Christian writers, including the great Church Father Augustine, affirm that the words ‘saw and believed’ mean that John finally believed in what Mary had said at the beginning of our gospel passage – that the body had been taken from the tomb (Cf. John 20:2). In a world where female witness counted next to nothing, John and Peter run to the tomb to corroborate Mary’s story; thus when John’s sees that the woman was right, he eventually believes in her statement – Jesus’ body is truly gone.

Personally, I would stand with other interpreters of this gospel in suggesting that the faith of John spoken of here is actual faith in the resurrection as a mystery, faith in the inexplicable victory of Christ over death, in a way that is able to transcend the witness of the Old Testament Scriptures. John sees the grave clothes left neatly behind, he recalls the words of Mary, and something clicks in him – this cannot have been the work of very tidy grave robbers. John believes. He may not be able to articulate his faith very well at this stage, but an embryonic faith is already there; a faith which will later be confirmed in his sighting of Jesus – remember how later in the gospel John is the first one to recognise Jesus from afar and to shout with joy, ‘It is the Lord!’ (John21:7). John believes in the very mystery of what happened; he may not be able to explain his faith using Scriptural references, yet he believes.

I believe John’s experience may be quite common among Christian faithful. Oftentimes, people think that, as believers, we have everything figured out; that we have the answer to whatever theological question and extreme moral dilemma we might be face by. But the truth is that we don’t; we are works in progress, even with regards to faith itself.
As our Easter gospel shows us, having faith is not so much a matter of how much we know or even less about how much we are moved by passing feelings; rather it primarily means putting our trust into the very mystery of Jesus Christ – something and someone who transcends our imagination, our hope, and our desire. In this sense, for many Christians having faith in a constant prayer saying to God, ‘Lord I believe, help my unbelief’ (Mark 9:24), and this is a good place to start. God accepts this embryonic faith, a complete trust and rejoicing in the very mystery of his love for us in Jesus. All we need to do is strive to grow in that faith as much as we are capable of through grace, study, and prayer.
So for example, when we affirm the faith of the Church at Mass in the words of the Creed, we do not need to have a doctorate in theology to explain in detail all that we say. Instead, what we need is the willingness to grow in the faith we affirm with our lips, so that one day, we may reach full maturity in it.

Like John, we will have occasions for our faith to be deepened, strengthened, and confirmed; but in the meantime, we just need an open heart to believing and constant practice in rehearsing the faith we affirm.