Homily on God in us

When we hear the word “love” in the Bible, we must always remember that in the original Greek there are three words for love. In English we only have the one word love, and so it is easy to get muddled by confusing one kind of love with another. Now the love that we have in two of our Readings today (1 John 4:7-10 and John 15:9-17) is not just the caring love (caritas in Greek) that we hope and pray all human beings should have for one another, although sadly they don’t; nor is it the physical love a man might feel for a woman (eros). No, the love St John is writing about is perhaps best expressed in English by the word “friendship”. (agape in Greek)

What’s more, we also need to note that when Jesus says “Remain in my love”, it is just after he has said that he is the Vine and we are the branches. He is showing us very powerfully in that image that we are not just called to be followers of Jesus, but to be as close to him, as much a part of him, as a branch is to the plant it is springing from. It is easy, you see, to think that Jesus just loves us in a vague caring kind of way. We can easily think of God as a rather stern though kindly father looking down on us as if we were little children that he was patting on the head before leaving us to play. I remember once having to do that at a school, handing out prizes to children whom I didn’t know and would never see again. They were very happy and grateful, but there was no more to our relationship than that. I certainly couldn’t have called them my friends.

Jesus makes it absolutely clear in our Gospel today that he has come to bring us a love that is very different from what we might expect from a power that is so much greater than we are. He offers us a love that is those of equals, those who know one another well, who are not just servants but friends. But then he goes further, for the love he offers is that of a friend for whom he is prepared to “lay down his life.”  That is a rare kind of friendship indeed, and that is what he offers us, that is what he challenges us to live out in our lives.

But even the word “offer” here is not quite accurate, and to explain that we need to go back to that image of the Vine. We tend to think that the love and the joy and the grace that God gives us, in and through Jesus, is simply like a great gift that he hands over to us. Here is some love. Here is some joy. Here is some grace. Now use it well. But you see the love and joy and grace that God gives us are not simply gifts, they are part of what God is. As we will hear when we continue to read John’s 1st letter next week “God is love, and those who love live in God and God lives in them” (1 John 4:16)

When this true sacrificial friendship love is in us, then it is no longer God giving us something from outside, it is God working inside us. The sap that rises in the Vine, right from its roots until it reaches the branches and bears flowers and then fruit, is not separate from its source but is a continual stream of life. It is why it is often better to describe such love from God as God’s Holy Spirit dwelling in us. God in us and us in God.

In the world of the Bible that kind of friendship was very rare, and it is not that different today. In those days, and often today although it is perhaps more hidden, rich people were your patrons. You looked up to them, you put your “faith” in them; and in return they gave you their support, helping you with money or food, or helping you get a job or to grow your business. It was not a relationship of equals. Jesus, and the Church he founded, the Church to which we belong as Christians, had a totally view of what human life should be like. They challenged this view of life which has some at the top and some lower down, and presented instead a vision of a world, a kingdom, where all were equal, all were family, all were friends. So when we pray in the Lord’s Prayer “Thy kingdom come”, we are not simply praying for a future glory with God in his kingdom after we die; we are also praying that our world now may follow the way of our King Jesus, that our world now may become a kingdom where all are prepared to lay down their lives for one another.

In our 1st Reading (Acts 10:25-48) we heard one example of the change that made to St Peter and his fellow disciples. He was a Jew, of course, and Jews did not visit the houses of non-Jews, certainly not of the hated Romans. So when Peter arrives at the house of Cornelius, this powerful Roman soldier goes out to meet him, and kneels before him. He does not expect a Jew to treat him like an equal.  But Peter says, “Stand up… I am only a man” and then he goes on “I have now come to realise that God does not have favourites”; and although we have not heard it in this Reading, he goes into this foreigner’s house and eats with him.

Thus the teaching of Jesus, the love of Jesus, God’s gift of himself as Holy Spirit, has already begun to affect the way people treat one another. Here is a world where all are joined in a friendship, that ignores the differences that so often can exist between us humans. Here is a love that breaks down the barriers, and begins to create a new kind of world, a world that is a little sign of the coming of the Kingdom of God.

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Jesus – not your ordinary kind of king!

Christians take it for granted that Jesus is our King, but actually that’s a very strange title to give him. Why? Because most kings in biblical times, and down through the ages since, have been tyrants and dictators, just like some of those leaders still in power in many countries today. Think of Assad bombing his own people in Syria, and you get some idea of what I mean.

Jesus himself is reluctant to accept the title of king and usually talks of himself in much more modest terms, as the Son of Man, stressing his oneness with us as a fellow human being; but once, when pushed by Pontius Pilate during his trial, he does accept the title, but on his terms. We get it in John 18:33-38. When Pilate asks “Are you the King of the Jews?”   Jesus answers, “My kingdom is not of this world. Then Pilate says, “So you are a king?” And Jesus answers, “You say that I am a king” But then he goes on to explain what kind of king he is . “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth”. Pilate doesn’t think much of that, because his view of kings is a worldly one. He’s met many people in power who have claimed to be telling the truth, when they were actually lying , and so he almost humphs in desperation as he says “What is truth?”.

Our answer to this question is given to us beautifully in the prayer the priest says on this day once a year to sum up what the kingdom of God, of Christ, is really about. It is “an eternal and universal kingdom, a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace.” In other words, Jesus turns the idea of a king upside down. Kings of this world see themselves as destined to rule, and to expect everyone else to serve them; but in the kingdom of God, the one who is King comes amongst us as one who serves, and one who gives his life for us. As we heard in the 1st Reading (Ezek 34:11-17) and in that well-know Psalm, Jesus our King is not a ruler but a shepherd caring for us his sheep. Indeed, Jesus goes one step further, just in case we haven’t got the point, and says “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down is life for the sheep” (John 10:11)

However, there is a sense in which Jesus is like a king of this world; for one of the main reasons people in the olden days had kings was because they needed a war leader to lead them in battle against their enemies. Our 2nd Reading (1 Cor 15:20-28) shows us that Jesus does do battle for us against our enemies, but the enemies he defeats are not physical enemies. Indeed he makes it clear elsewhere that his followers will face physical enemies who will persecute and torture them, and even kill them. Being a Christian, having Jesus as our King, sadly does not protect us from this kind of enemy. Instead, having Jesus as our King protects us from something far more dangerous – the spiritual evils of the world – fear, anger, hatred, and above all eternal death.

Note that I say “eternal death” because, as we know, Christians die like anyone else does; but what we also know is that for us death is not the end, that we can have no fear of death because Jesus our King has defeated death. St Paul goes into more detail (2 Cor 6:4-10) when he says that “as servants of God we have commended ourselves” –How? First, “Through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings etc.” But then most importantly he adds that we do this as we face all these trials,  “By purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech…..  and the power of God.”

Yes, in the end, the power of Christ our King is the power of God; but God uses his power to lead us into goodness and love and peace, and he does this not by any worldly physical power. but simply by being and living out in himself that goodness and love and peace that we so long for.

For me, the greatest gift of all that God gives us is rest. We are rarely really at rest. We say we trust in God, but we do not live as if we trust in God. Instead, we worry and struggle and find ourselves often either angry or fearful in the midst of this sad bad world. There is no quick fix for this, only the promise that our King gives us, that in the long run, if we put our trust in him, then he will bring us to eternal rest. That’s surely why we pray for our loved ones who have died “Eternal rest grant to them O Lord”, knowing that what we ask for will be given to them and eventually to us too; because Jesus our King has promised this, and he will never let us down.

 

How different God is from us

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings : One frequently gets the impression that prior to Vatican 2, many Catholics lived with a ‘Hell-Fire’ view of God, of an irascible deity who scrutinised one’s every move and frequently found us wanting. Catholics inhabited a rather negative world, in which rule-following or failure was their daily lot. With the advent of the Council one gets the impression that God had changed significantly, becoming more companionable, even malleable to our needs and infinitely manipulable. Both of these caricatures are of course wildly far off the mark, for as our Readings demonstrate, God’s ways are not ours. Our understanding of divinity is grossly askew, and we are always to be left fumbling in the dark in our knowledge of God’s ways. Certainly, through the life of Jesus, we get some insight into the depth of the difference between us and God, and yet we rarely recognise just how radically different, even scandalously ‘other’, God is. The parables of the Kingdom give us tiny insights into this ‘other country’ in which with him we shall ultimately dwell. Yet we think we’ve got him taped, under our control. But this is far from the truth. God is neither right nor left wing as the stories of his encounters in Jesus with rich men, foreign women of dubious repute, kings and Procurators, Pharisees and tax men demonstrate.

Last week’s Gospel was an exploration of the unfathomable difference between us and God, illustrated with the 10,000 talent debt, the ransom of empires, not human beings. Today’s (Matthew 20:1-16) is of a similar ilk, but, if anything even more upsetting, with the tale of the hiring of day labourers, and the appalling inequalities in their pay when some who had laboured all day and others a mere hour received the same remuneration. ‘It isn’t fair,’ we shout, ‘Justice demands fair pay for ones’ labour’. But the point Jesus is making is that God is neither fair nor just, what he is, is God, deity determined to be merciful to good and bad alike; just as Jesus the Son dies a disgusting, an appalling and scandalous death, an outrage against everything any decent person holds acceptable for the sin of the world. He doesn’t die for morally good and upright men and women who could never put a foot wrong, but for a world ripped apart by the Fall; that ancient myth which explores the extent of everyone’s estrangement from God. It forces us all to recognise that we have moved a long way from the box-ticking morality of the Pharisees into a vision of humanity flawed beyond hope of remission, through behaviours as catastrophic as Assad’s genocide against his own people; and then right down through all those lesser misdemeanours which include our lack of thoughtfulness and sensitivity to the needs of those around us. We stand before God utterly at his mercy, without any bargaining chips, completely dependent on the restoration gained for us by Christ, and uncomfortably aware that his redemption will be granted to those of his choosing and not ours.

When Paul wrote from prison to the Christians of Philippi, (Philippians 1:20-24.27) he wrote from within the vision of this incredible discovery. We have to remember that Paul have been brought up a devout Jew, a Pharisee with the understanding that access to God could be gained by correct behaviour, by studiously following the law of Moses and its developments laid down over centuries. The degree to which his understanding of the God-man relationship was altered by his encounter with the risen Christ must have been a harrowing, a shattering, experience; as he came to realise the utter inadequacy of the law in salvation, and as he encountered Christ in a wholly new kind of relationship. Significantly then, he tries to live in the image of Christ Jesus, and so, whilst he would be quite happy now to be executed and be with Christ entirely, he also recognises that following in the pattern of Christ-like behaviour, it is the needs of others, not those of the self, which must always be foremost in his thought and actions.

In our Reading from Second Isaiah (55:6-9) we seem to be returning to the old way of understanding the God-man relationship, one of punishment for wickedness and reward for obedience, and yet this is not quite the case. The writers of Second Isaiah, emanating from the Babylonian exile, were all too aware that something of much deeper significance was afoot. They knew that God was also a God of forgiveness, and one whose ways were unfathomable – it seemed just too simplistic, too infantile an approach, to ‘blame’ God for the exile because of the apostasy of their fathers. Was God so petty, so legalistic? First Isaiah had written of this relationship in dramatic and searing poetry, of the rejection of God by the vineyard – Israel – and of the Creator’s furious anger and distress that the ‘Beloved’ should become the deserter. The ideas, the understanding, of the relationship to be developed over the centuries and lived out in the life of Jesus were beginning to figure in Isaiah. Quite clearly, we Christians today are heirs of this three thousand year long search for God, and the important thing is that we enter into this relationship as did our forefathers in the faith.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Church : A Glorious mixture

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- I wonder how many of us have realised that Jesus’ ministry was an extremely localised affair for the most part, and largely limited to Galilee. Sure, he does have some trips to Sidon, to the Decapolis over the Jordan; and in all four Gospels is of course killed in Jerusalem. Only in John do we get the sense of other trips to the holy city, and a journey through Samaria. I just wondered what inferences we could draw from the geographical setting of Jesus’ ministry.

Galilee was in the far north of the united kingdoms of Judah and Israel, and although since the 4th century BCE it had been heavily Hellenised, like Judah it remained largely an agricultural area apart from its cities. Indeed, Jesus’ message of the Kingdom seems to have been delivered largely to those close to the land, and frequently to the impoverished. We hear of day labourers, of those forced to beg since they were incapacitated by blindness, of injuries such as paralysis and lameness, and even worse leprosy, that scourge of the ancient world; and the accounts of Jesus’ meeting with the Baptist stress lack of wealth and usually reflect badly on Kings and those in power. His supporter-apostles were drawn from the fishing communities of the Sea of Tiberius, not people who were broke, but whose employment cut them off from the respectable in the towns who found them smelly and uncouth. These were the kinds of people despised by the wealthier elites, both in Galilee and in Jerusalem, but as we note, often feared by them because of potential insurrection; and in Mark’s Gospel right from the start we hear of spies sent from Judah to keep tabs on Jesus. Galilee, along with Israel/Samaria, had been taken over by the Assyrians in the 8th century BCE and they imported many foreigners into the area, hence its description by Isaiah as Galilee of the nations/Gentiles with their pagan gods. Those left behind with the removal of the elite from the cities were precisely the agricultural workers thought too insignificant to deport. In the absence of other leadership they, along with the Samaritans, developed their versions of Judaism.  Quite clearly Galileans had a bad reputation and were viewed in dubious terms from Jerusalem. By Jesus’ day it was part of Roman Judaea, taxed by Rome and overseen by legions in Syria just to the north. Certainly their Herodian puppet kings who built massive temples and cities in the area were only quisling Jews. When the revolt came in 66 we know that it was in part a civil war with decided economic overtones, and retribution was frequently exacted against the Greeks and Romans living in the cities. Since Christianity became very largely an urban phenomenon, as we see from Paul’s Letters, we tend to forget this and miss many of its radical implications.

Yet it was from among these despised and derided people that Jesus arose, and from among whom his ministry began, as we see in our Gospel. (Matthew 4:12-23) Galilee it appears, despite its poor press, was ripe for responding to Jesus’ radical Gospel, and its fishermen apostles had a future in store which would take them out to the furthest reaches of the known world. We should not however see Galilee simply as a dull backwater, for as our Old Testament Reading from First Isaiah (8:23-9) reminds us, Galilee though devastated by the Assyrians, was also part of a great trading route across from the Transjordan via the fertile valley of Jezreel to the coast, and the fabulously wealthy pagan cities of Tyre and Sidon. The Way of the Sea had prospects, outreach, and ultimately all that foreign influence so abhorred by the south would pay off. Well at least in Christian terms.

Quite clearly First Isaiah, writing in the 8th century BCE, wanted to send messages of hope to his people in the dark days of the Assyrian conquest; and wise man that he was, he knew that no earthly empire lasts forever. His message is one of God’s punishment of his faithless nation, yet of forgiveness and hope. He would even adopt the imagery of the invader, speaking of the ‘happiness of men dividing the spoil’, so reminiscent of invading armies and the chaos they wreak. How extraordinary that his vision, taken from shame, war and collapse should be used by Matthew to herald the ministry of Jesus. But whilst we must think he knew something of its original meaning, Matthew deliberately adopted this image to explore the dramatic significance of the advent of Jesus which he knew, as he wrote his Gospel in the aftermath of the failed Jewish Revolt, was to have consequences for the world far in advance of the explosion of the Assyrians so many hundreds of years previously. That he placed this passage with its reference to First Isaiah immediately after the temptation of Jesus by the devil is no accident. This is meant to be the story of Matthew’s great ‘warrior’ Jesus, who defies the devil and whose ministry would take his message of God’s love for his creation out to the entire world. We pass this passage over in bored silence at our peril.

In our Reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthian churches, (1 Cor 1:10-13.17) we begin to explore what this explosion of the faith out among the Gentiles would entail. This requires some imaginative effort on our part, as we inherit the faith from 2000 years down the line, established, informed, with its doctrines well worked-out, and its structures well established. But this was not the case some 15 years after the Resurrection and my guess is that things were all pretty fluid. ‘Christian’ groups of widely divergent values combated each other, and some, such as the ‘Spirituals’, a group of elitist know-alls in Corinth caused mayhem in the communities, and were clearly far from their founder’s values, not merely in theology but in the implications for the practice of their faith in daily life, as is so clear in the letters. Paul, devoted follower of Jesus, really had to struggle to enable these groups in this vibrant pagan city to understand the life and message of Jesus. We, sharers in the spoils of so rich an inheritance, should see this as an opportunity and invitation to delve ever deeper into our origins. For it is in knowing where we come from that we can understand and judge our own faith and our response to it

Homily on looking at things a different way

24 Hour News is very depressing isn’t it? No wonder some people give up watching the News and just seek entertainment. And then there are those endless charity appeals, especially at this time of the year! So many people needing help, so many suffering children. Sometimes the sadness of it all can be overwhelming, can’t it? 

But we can look at it another way, of course. We can look below the surface, below all the bad news stories, and identify instead all the good things that are being done to help others, even in the darkest and most difficult places in the world. The good things, the acts of love and care and generosity are almost always quiet things, that rarely hit the news headlines; but one of our major tasks as Christians is to highlight such things, to show others that God is at work in our world, not by dramatic interventions, but in and through the quiet things that go on every day, as people bring help to others in the midst of tragedy and suffering.

So when John the Baptist cries out in our Gospel (Matt 3:1-12) “The kingdom of heaven is close at hand” and later “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” we need to remember how this great Kingdom of heaven actually came near then, at the time he was preaching. And the answer to this? The answer, that we know so well that we can easily forget it, is that the kingdom of heaven, came close when a tiny baby called Jesus was born quietly in Bethlehem. There was no lightning bolt from the sky, the fire that John promised, was a fire that burned quietly but strongly in the heart of Jesus and in his loving parents Mary and Joseph. It was a fire that he gave to his first followers, and that he gives to us, deep into our hearts and minds. We do not need to look for the kingdom of God in dramatic events, for as Jesus said to those followers, and says to us, The kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21) But remember in the end though we see God “Now as in a mirror dimly….. then we shall see him face to face.” (1 Cor 13:12)

But just because the fire and the kingdom come now quietly within us, it does not mean that there is no power. Being a fanatical gardener, I love the images from gardening and farming that Jesus uses to explain the kingdom. He points to the fact that we cannot see plants grow and yet their effect in the long term can be massive. The tiny shoot may become an enormous tree in time with roots that can destroy the strongest house. That is what God’s power in us is like, and that is what John the Baptist is telling us to look out for when he says “Repent”. For repent does not mean “Be good”, it means “Turn your mind round, turn to God. Realise God’s power, God’s kingdom, God’s fire within you”

This is what St Paul means by “hope”. We heard him say in our Reading (Romans 15:4-9) “Everything that was written long ago in the scriptures was meant to teach us something about hope.” By the scriptures, he means the Old Testament. But we might well ask how the stories we read there give us hope; because it is a series of terrible tales of mistakes and failures and downright sinfulness. Indeed the killing and the brutality and the immorality is so bad at some points that some people nowadays refuse to read it. Yet all the way through, the writers want to show us that, despite all this, God was at work – not in the bad things people did of course, but in the way he helped them on their journey and pointed them to a better future.

So the hope that St Paul is talking about, like the kingdom and the fire that John the Baptist proclaimed, is not some unrealistic expectation that life will someday be perfect, that everyone will in the end “live happily ever after”.  No! What St Paul says is that we have hope, because God helps those who do not give up. Like the people in the Old Testament, we have our struggle and failures, we face troubles in our world and in our personal lives that may sometimes feel overwhelming; and yet, and yet, in the midst of all this, if we look and listen carefully, we will find many ways in which God is helping us. This help will be like a plant growing slowly in ways we cannot see, or like the yeast that makes the bread rise silently before it can be baked; but that help is there, and that is our hope.

I was struck by something my colleague in the Immigration Detention Centre said to some of the detainees recently. She told them not to sit around feeling sorry for the difficulties they face now, but to remember that they have a future. They may not know what it is. They may just feel now that there is no future, as they face the scary prospect of a judge ordering them to be deported. But they must think beyond that, to what life will offer them in the future.

We Catholics always have a reminder before us at Mass that there is a future even in the darkest moments of every life. There, in front of us, we see an image of Jesus dying on the cross; but we see more than that because we see beyond that. We affirm that God’s power is at work even there, especially there. With Jesus on the cross we say, “Into your hands Lord, I commend my spirit”. I place my life and my death in the hands of God, so that I live my life for goodness and love however dark things may seem; because it is only by doing so, only as human beings around the world look beyond the tragedies, and turn to God, that there is a hope that will sustain and strengthen them and us. “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand”