Homily on what God’s presence is about

I hope it’s fairly obvious to us that when Jesus talks about us eating his flesh in the Gospel today he does not mean it literally. (John 6:51-58) We know that he is teaching how he will be really and fully present for us in Holy Communion, not suggesting that we become cannibals! So he actually ignores the stupid question posed about him “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”, because it is so obviously silly. In another place Jesus actually quotes from the prophet Isaiah about the way some people will see without understanding because they are stuck looking at the surface of things, and are not prepared to think about things in a deeper way.

This deeper and more imaginative way of expressing ourselves is not just reserved to religious things of course. If I’m in the middle of a lovely meal but am looking sad, my host might ask me if I’m alright. In reply, I might say “Oh sorry, but I’m just fed up!” Now when I am sad I tend to eat, so I would be quite annoyed if my host, hearing me say I was fed up, took me literally and took the rest of the food away from me. We use such expressions all the time. I might have said “I am heartbroken” and been startled if someone called an ambulance. Nowadays people (especially young people) say they are “cool” to sort of mean they are happy – at least I think that’s what they mean – but when I first heard this expression used, I must admit I wondered what they were talking about!

Right through Christian history there have been some people who make this mistake about the Bible stories and the teaching of the Church. In the 13th Century the great theologian St Thomas Aquinas had to deal with many people who thought that the presence of Christ in the bread of Holy Communion was his actual flesh. In order to explain what Jesus really meant, Aquinas used the philosophical terms of his age, in which the “accidents” were the bread’s outward form and the “substance” was the bread’s inner reality. Following him, the Church has always taught that it is the substance of the bread that changes at Mass, that is the inner reality, whilst the accidents, the outward form does not change.

St Paul warns us in our 2nd Reading (Eph 5:15-20) not to be “thoughtless”. In other words, not to live our life on the surface but to perceive the presence of God not just when we gather to pray, but in every aspect of life. That’s why he tells us not just to sing when we’re in church but, as he writes, to “Go on singing and chanting to the Lord in your hearts, so that always and everywhere you are giving thanks to God.”

I heard the British astronaut Tim Peake being interviewed on the Radio recently, and I was horrified to hear the interviewer assuming that you either had to look at the world in a scientific way or in a religious way. He seemed to assume that unless the presence of God as the creator of the Universe could one day be discovered scientifically, then it couldn’t be true.

Like an astronaut looking at the beauty of the Universe from space, we too can see the world in more than one way. If I were a scientist, I could look at a beautiful sunset and explain in great detail what is taking place. I could talk about the way the different layers of the earth’s atmosphere combined with certain weather conditions creates the amazing and ever changing reds and golds that sometimes occur as the sun goes down. But that rather ordinary way of looking at beauty wouldn’t be sufficient would it? It would be like looking at a great painting, and just examining the paint’s chemical composition, or hearing a great piece of music and just examining how the sound waves reach our ears.  No. There are deeper levels to be expressed here, ways of talking about our world and us that convey a greater truth, a truth that is almost beyond words.

Once a rather stupid priest gave up being a priest because he couldn’t understand or explain what he was doing when he said the words of Jesus over the bread and wine. We heard in our 1st Reading (Proverbs 9:1-6) that true wisdom requires us “To walk in the ways of perception.” To think that we can ever understand the mysteries of beauty in the world, or in art or in music, or to think that we can ever understand what human love is. This is to be very stupid indeed. For us believers, all these things and more are ways in which we perceive the mystery of God. God’s presence is always beyond our understanding, and so when Jesus promises to give himself to us in a wonderful way when the bread is blessed and broken, we have to realise that we are proclaiming that there is more to the world than its outward form, and to praise God for his mysterious Presence with us and for us.

 

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Called to enter into God’s very nature

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :-  During the period of the Greek (Hellenistic) rule of Egypt and Syria, from the time of Alexander the Great, his heirs in that region, the Ptolemies of the 3rd Century BCE, encouraged Jewish writers to develop their thought about God along the lines of Greek philosophy. Our passage from Proverbs (9:1-6) encourages not merely the sacrifice of animals and the ritual banquets that followed, with their rigidly prescribed rites and rules, but suggest something more, introspection: ‘Walk in the ways of perception.’ Both Judaism and pagan worship used animal sacrifice as ways of making offerings to God or the gods, and adherents of some forms of paganism were even encouraged to meet the deities in their dreams, as temples of Apollo and Asclepius provided ‘dream chambers’ for these carefully supervised encounters. On the whole though, both forms of worship seem to have been fairly ‘surface’ thing. Both Jews and pagans fulfilled what the laws required of them and went on their way. Clearly the suggestion of Proverbs that some deeper exploration might be undertaken was not widely followed up, indeed it is not in the Hebrew canon.

We have to remember that throughout his letter such as Ephesians (5:15-20) Paul was always writing to Eucharistic communities of Christians, tiny groups who followed Christ, having rejected paganism and the time-hallowed paths of their ancestors and friends and families. We also have to remember that the earliest Eucharists were always celebrated within the context of a large meal, one laid on by the patron, most likely the owner of a house/church large enough and wealthy enough to entertain the whole Christian community, probably of about 20-40 people. As the majority of free people lived in small apartments, cheek by jowl with their pagan neighbours, or even fully Jewish ones in cramped conditions in which each family possibly only occupied one or at best two rooms, the provision by one’s all essential patron was vital. Dining at banquets laid on by patrons was quite a difficult issue, as Juvenal the poet pointed out. The wealthier could get better food and wine and the more lowly poor fare. Under the Christian thinking, new and more egalitarian values were hopefully coming into being. Is this why Paul encourages the Christians ‘Not to drug yourselves with wine?’ Were these Eucharistic meals opportunities for members simply to overindulge? What Paul urges upon the Ephesian Christians is that they discern the presence of the Holy Spirit in these events, that Spirit by which the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. I suggest this because he speaks so clearly of the psalm and hymn filled structure of their meetings, in which what he envisages is, following Proverbs, some ‘perception’ of what they are doing and receiving, as they met in Ephesus in the mid 50’s CE. Clearly for Paul and his communities, the effects of their Eucharistic participation was meant to remain in their bodies, hearts and minds, ‘So that always and everywhere you are giving thanks to God who is our Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ The forging of the new Christian perspective by their continual re-entry into the redeeming sacrifice of Christ was meant to reach out into their daily behaviour, not be put aside at the end of the service.

For St John, (6:51-58) Jesus’ exploration of the meaning of the Eucharist, the entry into his saving death and resurrection for humanity, and the culmination of Judaism’s long journey with and to God, was the most significant and startling of the Lord’s teaching. Where Jews looked to the final vindication of Judaism in the coming of a great warrior Messiah who would finally establish an all powerful Judaism, restoring its land, law and temple forever, Jesus spoke instead of something utterly different, of God’s invitation that we share his life. This means eternal life, that every human being who embraces the faith can enter into God’s life, the shared solicitude of the Trinity.

Where Jews had for centuries used a system of animal sacrifice to placate a seemingly irascible deity, Jesus did away with all that, insisting on the unthinkable, that God himself had become human and been the final, the definitive sacrificial act which ended all sacrifice, and that only by reiterating the saving story of God the Son’s death could believers be assured of his promises and become partakers of the life they were promised. In eating the consecrated bread and drinking the consecrated wine, the Christian takes the risen and glorified and all powerful Christ into his/her body, and Christ takes us into his eternal life. Quite clearly all this was a million miles away from both Jewish and pagan thought about sacrifice to any god, and of its implications for those who joined in the sacrificial act. Jesus in John’s Gospel was requiring his followers to do some very radical rethinking of their understanding of God and of his relationship to us. What previously had been a fairly flat one way thing, what Jews and pagans gave to God was now utterly transformed, as we meet Almighty God in the person of Jesus the Son throwing away his immortal being in the flesh – for us! God now invites each believer to enter into himself, into God’s life, so that all our notions of divinity are blown out of the water. If God is the great sharer, the giver of self for others, what are we meant to be? Things so ordinary, so profane, like common daily bread and the coarse wine drunk by millions now in the Eucharist, by word and by actions can become the very being of God. God himself takes those elements and us into a quite different understanding of things. We are meant to be among the community of ‘perceivers’ those who are willing to enter into God’s very nature and it must leave us profoundly changed.

Christians must know what we do

When Jesus names himself as “The Bread of Life” in Todays Gospel  (John 6:24-35) and then later at the Last Supper takes the Passover Bread and says “This is my Body”, (Mark 14:22) it is clear that he is saying something very significant about his continuing presence with us in this way. Of course, the bread that the priest blesses is not the only way Jesus is present with us ; for he also tells us that he will be present in the sick and the poor when we help them. We know too that God is present everywhere; so that all of creation from the stars in the Universe to the tiniest flower proclaims God’s power and glory. So why then does Jesus pick out this bread in a special way?

I think that part of the answer is that God knows well what we humans are like. We are physical beings, and so we express ourselves in physical ways. We do not just say ‘Hello’ to someone we love, we give them a hug or kiss. We do not just say “Happy Birthday” to someone, we give them a Card, and maybe a Present too. We may know that these people love and care about us without these outward signs, but the outward signs, the hug or the Card, somehow express something that isn’t there in just words.

This is surely why God comes to us as the man who we know is Our Lord Jesus Christ. Yes, God is always invisibly with us in any number of ways, but God knows our need for outward signs; and so deliberately chooses to make himself visible for us as a fellow human being. Jesus then takes this one step further; for when his human life with us is finished, he gives us an outward sign, the bread and wine at the Last Supper, that will always affirm what we hear him say at the end of the Gospel of Matthew. “Remember I am with you always, to the end of time.” (Matt 28:20) This marvellous gift of his special presence is something that those of us who go to Mass regularly get so used to, that if we are not careful, we begin to forget how wonderful this gift is.

What can we do then to wake ourselves up to the wonder of this gift? Last week I mentioned rather forcefully the need for the priest to help all of us with this, by the way he celebrates the Mass; but in the end we have to remember that Christ is present for us whatever the priest is like, and so it is up to each one of you to realise this wonderful presence for yourself in one way or another.

In the old days, as many of you know, Catholics were taught that we had to do certain things to indicate God’s presence in this way. We were taught to genuflect, to go down on one knee, as we came to receive, to make the sign of the cross after we received, and to go back to our seat and kneel in silent prayer when that was over. I’m always glad to see that even if people do not kneel before they come up,  worried perhaps that the person behind might fall over them, many bow just before they receive Communion, and many still make the sign of the cross afterwards. These are things that I wish all of us would do, rather than coming up as if we were queuing for a bus, and showing no outward sign that what we are doing is far more important than that.

Note, that doing such things is not just a way for us to more fully realise what we are doing and who we are meeting; we are also doing it for others. People new to churchgoing, as well as children who come to church with us, will only know how important this Presence is if we show it by some outward signs. But beware! If such outward signs become just a habit – something we do without thinking about it – then although it might help visitors, it won’t help us. Unless we accompany our outward actions by inner prayer, unless we admit that sometimes we fail to concentrate as much as we should, much of the point of these outward actions is lost.

Did you notice what St Paul said in our 2nd Reading? He was talking to fresh new enthusiastic Christians, and yet he has to say “Your mind must be renewed by a spiritual revolution so that you can put on the new self that has been created in God’s way, in the goodness and holiness of the truth.” We too must ask God to help us with this regular renewal of the mind. We may be distracted at Mass, especially if we have little children to look after, (and being distracted happens to the Priest and not just to you) but even then deep down, we have to really KNOW what we are doing. We need to know this even in the midst of distractions, for otherwise we are in danger of becoming hypocrites, saying things with our lips whilst our hearts are somewhere else. And you know what Jesus thought of people like that, don’t you!

 

 

Give thanks in all circumstances

Did you notice who it is who offers his picnic lunch to Jesus in our Gospel today? (John 6:1-15) Yes, it’s a little boy ; and we modern people influenced by the teaching of Jesus on children tend to say “Ah! Isn’t that sweet of him?” But of course that view of children is not the one we find in the Gospel. Instead we hear the disciples once again dismissing this child, as they dismiss other children who want to come near Jesus, as of no account. So we hear the scornful, ‘There is a small boy here with five barley loaves and two fish; but what is that between so many?”

This is a reminder to us that God never dismisses our little offerings to him, however small or insignificant we are or think we are. We have to admit that our prayers are often pretty feeble, that our meagre attempts to thank him are tiny, and our little acts of kindness or generosity are often as nothing, compared with the times we have moaned about other people, or got irritated or even angry with them. Yet, we are told today, that even our smallest offerings are wonderful in God’s eyes, and he can do great things in and through us.

I am going on holiday to Crete in September. I don’t know much Greek, and most of the Greek I know is ancient Greek as used in the original New Testament section of the Bible, but I do know how to say please and thankyou. Parakalo is please and Efharisto is thankyou, and I know the Cretans will appreciate my little efforts to speak a few words of their language, even while they’ll probably be amused by my pronunciation.

But Efharisto is a word that many of you will know in its ancient form, because it is the same word as the word we sometimes use to describe the Mass. We call it the Eucharist. Efharisto was Eucharisto, and thus Eucharist in English. In the Bible of course the Mass is called The Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:20) and it was only later called the Mass or the Eucharist.  Mass comes from the message at the end of Mass where the Priest tells you to “Go and share God’s love with others.” Mass in Latin is Missa from where we get the word Mission. And we all know what that means, even if most of our missions, our little acts of kindness and love, are not as spectacular as those depicted in the Mission Impossible Films. Eucharist, on the other hand, as I have just explained, means “Thank you”; and so reminds us that every Mass is our great thankyou to God.

I was listening to a Buddhist speaker on the Radio a few mornings ago talking about those boys from Thailand who were rescued from those caves in such a dramatic way. He was explaining why the boys have now gone to a Buddhist Monastery to pray and work for a few days, as part of the process of getting over their ordeal. He pointed out that they will be taught to pray in a way that directs their minds away from negative thinking, and towards positive thankfulness to all involved in their rescue. He gave the impression that this was a distinctively Buddhist thing to do, and I was saddened that he thought this, because it is actually a very Christian thing to do as well; but I thought “Yes. Too often people think of Christianity as mostly about trying to be good, and miss the point.”

The point is that the heart of our faith is a thankful response to God. We do not come to Mass to pray to be better people,  nor do we come to Mass to get some help from God, although hopefully these may be by-products of what we do. No, principally we come to Mass to offer our lives to God in thanksgiving. We heard it in our Psalm today “All your creatures shall thank you O Lord.”, and St Paul says (1 Thess  5:16-18) “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”, and that is what the Mass is for, indeed that is what our Christian faith is all about.

You may have heard me say before how upset I get with people who say they’ve stopped coming to Mass because “They don’t get anything out of it.” My reply is “For 6 days and 23 hours every week, you get everything from God. Now, just for one hour you come to Mass, simply to give thanks for it all.”  Such thanks is a very small offering, but like the little boy’s offering in our Gospel, it is much more significant than we realise.  I went to a Mass the other weekend and I felt like strangling the Priest. He stopped the Mass at the Offertory to chat in an animated way to the children about all that they were going to do over their holidays. I thought he’d never stop gushing. And then, making no connection between all that fun and the rest of the Mass, he went back to the set prayers and said in a dull voice “Lift up your hearts” and  “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.” Of course no priest is perfect and so I pray that whatever the Priest is like, you will realise what the Mass is all about and pray it with thanksgiving in your heart.

The Kingdom of God is a great banquet in which all can share

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- Our Gospel begins a five week period of Johannine teaching on the meaning of the Eucharist (John 6:1-15), here significantly set ‘On the other side of the Sea of Tiberias’, so in the Decapolis, Greek, pagan territory; indicating that the Gospel had gone out to the pagan world, and left Judaism behind. This account is so different from its original in Mark 6, where movement is merely along the coast, and where a mission to the pagans required an entirely separate feeding miracle.

We do however note the link made between this miraculous feeding and that performed by the prophet Elisha (2 Kings (4:42-44). It is in both cases Passover time, the time of the early ripening barley harvest and of course, for the Christian Church, the time of the sacrifice of Christ for our universal redemption. He will ultimately be the one and eternal offering to God which does away with all other sacrificial offerings. Yet we note further allied incidents, as the original offerant of the barley loaves was sceptical that his small offering of 20 loaves would be sufficient to feed one hundred men and in our Gospel Philip is similarly dubious about the ability of the disciples to produce sufficient food for the crowd. John of course wants us to think how the sacrifice of one man, Jesus, could possibly be sufficient to redeem the whole world, or, as in its original setting, where the High Priest argues for the killing of the troublemaker Jesus to save the Jewish nation from Roman reprisals. Clearly in both the setting in 2 Kings, and that in John we are meant to take on board the enormity of what happened.

It is surely not simply an example of communal sharing which features so strongly here, though that is in itself remarkable, and would become a central feature of Christian Eucharistic life, as the early church met in the houses of the better-off to eat a meal, and within this celebrated the death and resurrection of the Lord. What is even more remarkable is the quantities of food obtained from the small and unpromising beginnings. In the Book of the Kings we notice that the career of Elisha takes place in a time of famine and death, in which the prophet continually intervenes as God’s agent, reminding the people who is actually in charge. Indeed the stories attached to him are generally ones of one-up-man-ship, meant to correct the wandering Israelites and drag them back to the worship of the one true God. It’s the continual theme of the Old Testament

But in the hands of John, the one intimate with Jesus, something much more significant is going on, as the amount of food Jesus provides is on the level of a great banquet, clearly the messianic banquet, and the sign of the arrival of the Kingdom of God. Most of us mercifully have never lived through a famine, or ever really been life-threateningly short of food; but this was a common feature of life in the ancient world where the failure of the harvest spelt death to thousands. Small wonder then, that for Elisha and for the crowds gathered round Jesus, the remains of the feast were eagerly gathered up, and in the latter case, marvelled at as twelve hampers full were collected, a symbolic figure, representing the new Israel, those bought and paid for by the sacrifice of Christ. This was not a ‘throw-away’ society, but one which recognised a miracle and its symbolism when they saw it. Knowing, as those first disciples did, what Passover originally stood for – the making of the Jewish people freed from slavery in Egypt, those now liberated to worship their God, and seeing this transformed by the Passover crucifixion of their Lord, ground to the earth like that barley, utterly snuffed out for others. Those who became members of the Christian community would have been able to understand the rich seams of the symbolism of this miracle. The fact that John wrote his Gospel some forty to fifty years after the resurrection gave him the opportunity to fine-tune his material, so that he could make clear that whilst some in the original setting mistook the signs and tried to make Jesus into a political warrior king, his true identity was known to the church because of the resurrection, and the life of those tiny, insignificant groups, so reminiscent of the tiny amounts of food originally mentioned, and taken up by God for his greater purposes.

Our part of the Letter to the Ephesians (4:1-6) explores the meaning of the newly founded Christian Eucharistic community in Ephesus as Paul writes to them from prison in that city. ‘There is one Body, one Spirit, just as you were all called into one and the same hope when you were called.’ Greco-Roman society was intensely classist. Racist it never was, but knowing one’s place in the world of Rome where each group was so easily distinguished by its clothes, manner of walking, speech, even by the ranking of seats in amphitheatres, circus or theatres, let alone all the other markers such as names, which gave abundant evidence of slave origins or patrician parentage which meant so much. All this meant that entering the Christian world made heavy demands on each and every member. Paul’s ‘Bear with one another charitably, in complete selflessness, gentleness and patience’, is not an appeal to some sloppy-wet idealism, but a call to be modelled on Christ. If, as we claim, the Eucharist makes us one flesh, this is not some fancy, liberal notion, but the insistence that the Eucharist has wrought an indelible bond between each and every believer, as it does at each Mass with every believer and the Lord Jesus. This has to be lived out in the flesh of each of us. If it was a tall order to the newly converted in Ephesus and elsewhere in the pagan world, it is still a hard call for us to today; but it nevertheless remains true if we are to understand the meaning of the Eucharist correctly.

God is not like us

One of the common mistakes people make when listening to Bible passages from the Old Testament is to think they are all equally true. Jesus doesn’t use the Bible like this at all, and neither should we. He picks out those passages that convey truth in one way or another, and ignores or even explicitly rejects passages he disagrees with. Thus Jesus says “Love your enemies” for example, which is totally different from some Old Testament teaching encouraging the Israelites to kill their enemies.

The Old Testament also often talks about God as if he were human.  In sharp contrast, Jesus teaches us that God is not like us. So God is not moody, getting angry with some people if they annoy him, and favouring others if they please him. Instead Jesus says that God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good” (Matt 5:44-45 and see Matt 5:17-48 for other examples)

Today our Old Testament Readings first show God like an angry Lord condemning bad shepherds to doom, which is not a view that Jesus would agree with. Jesus never uses the image that God is like fire, but I think he would agree with it, not least because Moses first meets God in the fire of the burning bush.  If you misuse fire it will burn you, but fire does not choose to hurt you because it is angry with you, it is just what fire is like. Fire used properly can do amazing things, like creating electricity, but this happens not because Fire is pleased with us, but simply because fire is fire.

In our 2nd Old Testament Reading which we often sing – the Psalm – we have the famous vision that Jesus uses a lot, of God as a shepherd. “The Lord is my shepherd there is nothing I shall want “ (Ps 22 or 23) But Jesus always makes it clear that God is not like a human shepherd whose care of the sheep might depend on what he is feeling like. The human shepherd might be in a bad mood, and the sheep might get beaten. He might be tired and fall asleep and the sheep might get left unprotected. In contrast Jesus says, as you know, “I am the Good Shepherd” (John 10:11-18) and the good shepherd never gets moody or falls asleep as a human shepherd might.

This takes us on to today’s Gospel (Mark 6:30-34) where Jesus demonstrates what it means to be a good shepherd. We first hear how tired they all are, so Jesus takes them all off to a quiet place for a rest; but then people turn up who need him. Jesus sees that, “They are like sheep without a shepherd” and so “He set himself to teach them at some length.” I feel sorry for the poor tired and very human disciples, but here they are learning that if we are to be more like God, than we have to learn that when people need us, we must care for them however tired or moody we feel. We must be like good parents who care for their baby even when it is screaming and they are feeling like death.

I don’t read much of the Catholic Newspapers, but I do often read the bit in the Catholic Universe where a priest answers readers’ questions. This week one person asked about fasting, and whether God was more likely to listen to our prayers if we fast. I was very pleased with the answer, because it challenged the questioners view of God. She thought that God was like a human, and assumed that if we approach him in ways that pleases him, he is more likely to listen us. As I have been trying to point out, this is not what Jesus teaches. We may well speak of God being pleased with our prayers, but we have to very careful when we use this human analogy not to go back into a less Christian view of God, in which God could be angry with some and pleased with others. The God of Jesus Christ is love, and God loves us and listens to our prayers all the time, whether we, or our prayers, are good or bad or somewhere in between.

This is hard for all of us to understand, not least because so often we give God human feelings and emotions in order to understand him better. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, provided we realise that all that we say about God using human words is only an approximation of what God is really like.  That’s why I like to think about God as fire, or more accurately as the eternal energy underlying the Universe, so very unlike us, so very different from us. And yet Jesus also teaches something even more important, that God is like a Shepherd and even closer to us than that, like a loving Father whose love for us surrounds and supports us at all times, whether we care about him or not.

 

 

 

 

Ordinary people are the best missionaries

When Jesus tells his disciples in the Gospel today (Mark 6:7-13) not even to take spare clothes when they go out to try to share the faith with others, he is clearly not meaning them, or us, to take him literally. He exaggerates in order to press home an important point, just as when he says “If your hand offends.. cut it off.” He doesn’t mean it literally. So what is the important point he is making? 

The answer lies in a mistake many good people like you make in thinking that you aren’t clever enough, or well-trained enough, to share your faith with others. Too often I hear good Christians saying how they can never think of the right words to say, or that they don’t know enough, to be able to share their faith, and so they don’t attempt it. It reminds me of schools that think they are doing a good job at making young people into practising Christians if they teach them all about the Bible and the facts about the faith. In each case the mistake is to think that being a Christian is all about knowing enough facts. Now of course I’m not saying that facts are not important, but facts alone will never bring anyone to faith, because faith is about a relationship with God, with Jesus.

That’s why priests like me, and teachers, people who know a lot of facts, are not the best missionaries. We are good at teaching people more about the faith once they have started coming to church, or have started to be interested in Jesus, but you the ordinary people of the Church are much better at sharing the faith simply because you are just ordinary people. That’s why I always say to you to look out for that moment when someone asks you why you go to Church. When that happens it’s easy to play down your faith, precisely because you fear they may start asking you questions that you don’t know the answer to. Jesus often says “Do not be afraid” and in this context this means that you must not be afraid to show up your ignorance, and thus miss the opportunity to say. “I can’t explain much, but would you like to come with me to Church just to see what happens?”

Part of the reason this invitation to Church is so important is because we must no longer assume here in the UK that most people know what happens in Church, and especially what happens at a Catholic Mass. The power of the presence of God in a group of Christians singing and praying together is so much more effective than words or facts. The mystery of God’s special presence in the bread and wine is even more powerful, and we must never underestimate it. Getting people just to come and see is one of the most important things each one of you can do.

Our Gospel passage is backed up today by our 1st Reading, where Amos (7:12-15) actually glories in the fact that he is an ordinary shepherd and not a professional prophet. Indeed we all know only too well that it is often the professional – the priest – who puts people off going to Church. Quite often I meet people who tell me that Father So and So said this or did that 20 or 30 years ago and that they were so angry that they haven’t been to Church since. Your example of coming to Church to pray and to offer yourself to God despite the failings of us priests is the best way of all of teaching people that faith does not rely on the quality or otherwise of the man at the front. 

The message for us all today is also rammed home by our 2nd Reading (Eph 1:3-10) Listen to it, and apply it to yourself. “Before the world was made, God chose me, chose me in Christ… to praise the glory of his grace… He has let me know the mystery of his purpose.. that he would bring everything together under Christ. And it is in him that I was claimed as God’s own…chosen to be for his greater glory, part of the people who would put their hopes in Christ…  this brings freedom for those whom God has taken for his own, to make his glory praised.”

So Jesus wants his missionaries, that’s all of you, not to rely on outward supports for your work as Christians, but simply to rely on God’s power, God’s grace, in other words God the Holy Spirit, working in you. Don’t underestimate yourself. Your simple words of encouragement, your sympathetic listening, your little acts of kindness, your invitation for someone to come with you to Church, or even to come with you to light a candle in church quietly, these are all things through which God can and does work.  We priests have a job to do to support you, but you are the front line troops. That’s why Mass always ends with the word “Go”. It does not mean “Go away”. It means Go and live out in your life what you have proclaimed here, and God will work within you.