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.”

14 June, 2015

Homily for the Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) - The task of Waiting

Mark 4:26-34

This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the land. (Mark 4:25)
One of the few science projects that I remember doing at school involved planting grains of corn into cotton wool and recording how they germinated and eventually gave life to new plants. I remember being way too excited about this little assignment for a child of that age. I prepared multiple transparent containers rather than just one – in case something went pear-shaped; I selected the fattest grains to sow; I watered them every day, and so on. In a flurry of geeky over-eagerness I even placed a lamp over the containers so that the seedlings could develop more quickly. Even though nature was taking her own blessed time, I couldn’t stay still… But as I am confronted with today’s parables I realise that all the things I did are almost the polar-opposite of what Jesus says in Mark; almost entirely different, but not quite because both mine and the sower’s approaches to agriculture involve one common aspect, waiting.
From the moment we hear about the first parable, it is clear that the man is not doing a great deal of selection with the seed; he doesn’t prepare the field for the sowing or any contingency plan in case something were to go wrong… For Jesus, the sower has only three tasks to perform: scattering, waiting, and reaping. The first and the last of these seem pretty obvious, but what about “Waiting”? Is that even a task? Surely, would the man not do better by watering the ground, or putting up scarecrows, or doing something, anything at all? Instead we are told that the man stands back from the field – he even sleeps! – and waits for the right moment to act again. He does not know the seedlings grow, he doesn’t know much about the process, but he knows that in between scattering and harvest time he has to stand back and do something else – he has to wait.

This parable readily applies to the way we commit as a Church to grow, to make new disciples, and to increase the kingdom of God here on earth. We are called to scatter the message and then to wait for God’s gracious intervention – we do not know how his kingdom grows, but we know that God will bring it to fulfilment. However, there is a lot of fuss and alarm bells going off at the minute about Church growth, and for the resulting confusion of conflicting theories, ideas, and church programmes the outcome is that often many start panicking or engaging in every possible discipleship initiative under the Sun, some remarkably good, others not so. Don’t get me wrong, I do not wish to put down or belittle any initiative because all of them may be part of the first task, part of scattering the message; rather I would like to flag up the fact that in our panicked busyness about numerical church growth we may lose sight of the second task, lose sight of waiting. Indeed, many of us may start to behave as if church or spiritual growth depended solely on our efforts, rather than on God’s gracious intervention.

In our time the task of waiting is in danger of being overlooked, to be put aside because it is not considered a “task” at all. We are all so impatient. Waiting, stepping back from what we are involved in for a while, is often seen as an impediment, a cause of frustration, idle wasting of time. But if we want to understand and apply the teachings of today’s gospel, we must rediscover what this waiting means for a believer. So what does Scripture say about waiting? Let me give you a flavour of it, Isaiah 40:31
‘those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.’
Lamentations 3:26
‘It is good that one should wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.’
and Psalm 24:14
‘Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord!’
For Scripture, waiting has to do with prayer; it has to do with what I said last Sunday about spending time with Jesus; waiting is about letting go of our control-freakery and trusting that God will surely bring good out of our scattering the seed.

So, with these examples in mind, let us think again about both spiritual and church growth. How often do we pray saying “Lord, grow my faith! I want to believe, help me to believe more!”, or “Lord, grow your Church”? How often do we stand back like the sower to observe and delight in the faith of others and in signs of growth we can see around us? In short, how often do we wait, not idly wasting time, but longingly and prayerfully, in the sense Scripture tells us?
This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the land …and then waits.

10 June, 2015

Homily for the Solemnity of Corpus Christi - Spending time with Jesus

'Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him, say the Lord.' John 6:57
As I preached for the last time in St Ives I said to the faithful there that imitating Jesus is the best thing each of us can do in life. This I say to you today as well as I preach from this pulpit for the first time – imitating Jesus is the best thing we can ever accomplish in our life; doing what he does, living as he lives, and ultimately loving as he loves is the only true and lasting source of happiness. I am perfectly aware that what I am saying may sound a little naïve given that our wider society often mistakes happiness for having more money than sense, or pursuing positions of power at every cost; but no, it doesn’t matter what we are told outside these walls, the truth we encounter here is that the only sure way to happiness is to be formed (moulded, even) a little bit more each day into the person of Jesus Christ. 
But, do not worry, I am not about to distribute copies of the great book The Imitation of Christ and to ask you to read it by next week; neither am I going to give you those rubber bracelets that were popular a few years back among many of our evangelical siblings and bore acronym WWJD, “What would Jesus do?” No. Instead I will put to you that imitating Jesus, living his life in our lives, can only truly come from knowing him, from learning from him, and ultimately from spending time with him – probably a lot of time as well. Much in the same way you would begin to unknowingly imitate certain behaviours of a loved one because you spend too much time with them, so it is with imitating Jesus; to truly live his life we must spend a lot of time with him.

So as I speak to you for the first time, the first practical instruction that I give to you is, spend a lot of time with Jesus so that you may naturally come to do what he does, and to love as he loves. To this I would add, feed on him and adore his presence in the Eucharist, because as Jesus tells us in John’s gospel, those who eat his flesh and drink his blood live in him and he in them (Cf. John 6:56).
Yes, we have Christ with us in the words of the Scriptures, in the marginalised and in those who suffer, and in the life of the Church community; yet, there is a place where we know Jesus is truly present and present to bless everyone who approaches him – and this place is the Eucharist. So, let us do your best to take part, to receive Holy Communion as often as possible, and let us not be shy when entering a church, but let us stop before the Blessed Sacrament reserved at the altar, to say “Hello!” to Our Lord there. In the Eucharist Jesus is always waiting for us and loving us already, even when we overlook or ignore his presence.

Over the last years I have been studying a few of the Church Fathers, the great Christian theologians of the early centuries; one of them, St Basil, says this about receiving Holy Communion, ‘Communicating even daily, receiving the Holy Body and Blood of Christ is good and useful; for [Jesus] says clearly [in John’s gospel] “The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life”. So who would doubt that communicating continuously with life were not living in fullness?’ (EP 93).
Let us then make sure to visit and to receive Jesus in the Eucharist as often as we can, so that little by little we may be transformed into him, and so achieved true happiness and fullness of life.

Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.
Today we celebrate the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, transferred to this Sunday from last Thursday. Today we make a special celebration of the great mystery of the Eucharist and we worship Jesus in the sacrament of the altar in a particular, more solemn, way. Today we also want to make some reparation for those times when we have received the sacrament without much thankfulness and without really thinking about the great gift God was giving us. So, let us use the rest of this Mass to enter more closely in the mystery of the Eucharist so that we may learn to seek Jesus there with confidence and longing, and to learn from him how to live our lives in a way that leads to lasting happiness. Let us pray,
Lord Jesus Christ,
you give yourself wholly and unreservedly
to your Church in the sacrament of the altar;
open our eyes to behold your presence with us
in the forms of bread and wine;
and teach us how to live
so that we may be true imitators of you. Amen.

31 May, 2015

Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Easter (B) – Farewell homily to St Ives

This is my farewell homily to the two Church of England congragations of St Ives, delivered on 3rd May 2015.

Pass the parcel. That's sometimes all you can do. Take it, feel it, and pass it on. Not for me, not for you, but for someone, somewhere, one day. Pass it on, boys. That's the game I wa
nt you to learn. Pass it on. Alan Bennett – The History Boys
These are the words spoken by Hector, the imperfect, very troubled, and passionate teacher at the centre of the play The History Boys by Alan Bennett; and in a sense, these are some words I want to make my own as I speak to you from this pulpit for the last time: ‘Pass the parcel, pass it on!’
But what is this parcel? To put it bluntly, it is faith; not any faith in whatever moves my feelings, but the Catholic faith of the Church with its established liturgical practice and its deep longing to find fulfilment in the beatific vision of God one day in heaven. Of course, faith is something to be lived out each day through works of love and service for one another – as our reading from the First Letter of John warns us saying, ‘Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars’ (1John 4:20), so through faith we ought to love each other. Yet, faith is something that should be also cherished, enjoyed, felt, and importantly passed on, shared, with others.
Over the last four years, I hope I tried my best to pass on this parcel of faith to and with you. Those of you who have kept me company at the study groups will know that the minimum set boundaries for this faith have been the words of the Creed; while those of you who have patiently endured my sermons, will know that I have often talked about discipleship, about being followers of Jesus with a specific vocation, and more generally about living the Christian life – these are all manifestations of our faith “in action”.

So let us look again briefly at the three main points I have passed on to you as part of the parcel of faith. The first one is imitating Jesus. As I say this, I am conscious that my first ever address to you four years ago was about the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and Jesus himself says of that heart, ‘Learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart’ (Matthew 11:29). Imitating Jesus is the best we can do in life – not in the sense of monotonously asking ourselves “What would Jesus do?” rather coming to imitate his gentleness and humility as the natural consequence of having spent time with him in prayer and meditation; like you would come to imitate and resemble a good friend because you spend far too much time with him.
May you find grace and constancy to grow into the likeness of Jesus.

The second point is the centrality of the Eucharist; the importance of recognising Our Lord present in the Blessed Sacrament as the real and objective presence of Jesus who said ‘I am with you always to the end of the age’ (Matthew 28:20) – the presence of One who constantly longs for us infinitely more than we ever long for him.
May the eyes of your faith be opened to the mystery of God-with-us, of Jesus in the Eucharist.

The third point is devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, who is Mother of God and of all Christians – even of those Christians who find her a silly addition to the faith. Many times I have preached about Our Lady and even more times, I have brought your prayers to God with her.
May you grow in devotion towards our mother, and take courage from her example of faith and her intercession.

These points are not the whole parcel of faith, but they are part of the one, universal faith of the people of God, the Church. What I passed to you is faith so that you may in turn pass it on to others, and I pray God that you will grow in this faith every day of your life until faith will find its fulfilment and we will sing God’s praises in the heavenly Jerusalem. And so, as I step down from this pulpit, I leave you with few words from the Apostle Paul (2Corinthians 13) which seem to be very fitting for an occasion such as this,
Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put all things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you… The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

Enid Chadwick - My Book of the Church's Year - Corpus Christi and June