St Thomas Becket 800th anniversary
Posted on the 7th July 2020 in the category Resources
‘The holy blissful martir for to seke’
On the 800th anniversary of the Translation of St Thomas Becket
(the 850th of his martyrdom in Canterbury Cathedral)
Homily originally given for St Barnabas and St Thomas’s Oxford, 7 July
I want to begin with words from today’s introit chant: ‘Rejoice we all in the Lord, keeping holy-day in honour of blessed Thomas the Martyr: in whose passion the angels rejoice and glorify the Son of God.’
Today we celebrate the recognition of a holy life: the raising up of the remains of the body of a martyr into a shrine, commemorating someone who died in an act of savagery in order to defend the idea that the Church isn’t a department of government. Like many of the most colourful bits of history, the quarrel wasn’t a matter of obvious rights and wrongs; and Thomas Becket – ‘the holy blissful martyr’, as Chaucer calls him – was perfectly capable of being a thoroughly disagreeable man. But his death spoke for itself. It had taken the holy and prudent King Edward the Confessor nearly a hundred years to be canonized! only to be eclipsed a mere seven years later by the murder of the man who had presided at the translation of his relics in Westminster. Thomas by contrast was canonized as befits a martyr in a mere three years. But English political turbulence before and after Magna Carta meant that it took fifty years for the translation of his relics to a magnificent new chapel behind Canterbury’s high altar.
To coin a phrase, the martyrdom of Thomas had captured the imagination. It stood for something that conventional society right across Europe couldn’t cope with. And the fact that Thomas’s successor, Archbishop Langton, managed to associate the translation on 7 July 1220 with the jubilee of the martyrdom itself – and establish international festivities and observances every fifty years thereafter until 1470 – kept the imagination aflame, introducing Becket’s colourful story to new generations, and associating his cause with the biblical jubilee themes of release from bonds, cancelling of debts, remission of sins, healing, and the triumph of the Church over all secular concerns. A very powerful mix.
But the fuller truth about Becket’s story has some dramatically different tones, and I want to mention but one. Thomas’s friendship with the changeable and irascible king, gave way to another friendship – with John of Salisbury who had been secretary and chaplain of Thomas’s predecessor. John was a man of great cultural openness, interested in speculative problems, and had a wide love of literature. He was also a diplomat and envoy: a close friend of the English pope Adrian IV. It was John’s reaction to the king’s desire to impose his authority on the internal life of the Church, curtailing her freedom, that prompted Becket’s resistance and caused their joint exile to France, and to the intellectual environment that had had the greatest impact on John. And then, when reconciliation looked possible, they returned to England together in the fateful year of 1170.
John’s friendship, so much closer and consoling to Becket than Henry’s, reveals how close Becket was to the intellectual currents of his day. Many martyrs have been unsophisticated or relatively powerless people; so it comes as a bit of a surprise when we find martyrs like Thomas who is not only ‘in power’, but also mixes in the forefront of the intellectual movements of the age.
What then shall we draw from this fresh light on a rich and familiar story?
A martyr isn’t a person who in any simple sense says ‘no’ to the world: not a kind of religious denier of culture. He or she recognizes in the world a richness, a wealth of mind and culture, and the beauty of the human spirit. And, seeing the whole world in such terms – as being the gift and sign of God – he or she knows that the beauty of the Giver is infinitely more valuable than the whole world itself.
‘I give my life
To the Law of God above the Law of Man’,
says Thomas in T S Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.
The witness of a Christian martyr is not the scoring of a point, a kind of trump card, the definitive ending of an argument. ‘The martyr,’ writes one of Becket’s successors, Bishop Rowan Williams, ‘dies in the affirmation of God’s lordship – the affirmation that God is the ultimate value to be loved and served’ (Resurrection, p.57). The martyr's business is celebration, celebration of the sheer attractive beauty of Christ’s new creation, and of the cross and resurrection as the means of entering it.
So, when we look towards the future of our society, a future for which who can deny we desperately need light and wisdom, what is the martyr’s message? If we want to see a renewal of our society, in both compassion and service, we need to know where – or rather who – human beauty and dignity come from, and how they are secured and sustained and celebrated. Thomas became familiar with power through his friend Henry. But through his friendship with John, and the depths of thought and insight he gained as archbishop, he was able to travel deeper: far deeper, into the depths, where according to Jesus the seed dies in darkness (Jn 12.24), to find there the wellsprings of renewal that water the Church, and our society, and our world – the renewed creation where injustice and violence and ‘death shall be no more’ (Rev 21.4).
We celebrate today the recognition that that is the kind of life we lift up, and enshrine, as a dependable pointer to the life that is without end – Jesus Christ the Lord.
3rd Sunday after Trinity
Posted on the 28th June 2020 in the category Resources
Third Sunday after Trinity (13th Sunday of Ordinary Time)
The link to the audio file of the sermon can be found here
Gospel St Matthew 10:37—42
At that time Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.’
As we in the UK really begin easing our lockdown restrictions, and the churches are finally open again, our national conversation is turning in earnest to the future, and beginning to fill up with what the BBC has coined as ‘Rethink’: a wide reflection and debate on what we must learn for our futures to be better than our past. It’s a real paradox that a disease that is by definition undiscriminating in its reach and touch – that has been rightly dubbed the great leveller, and is certainly ‘no respecter of persons’ – has exposed with forensic exactness the awful truth that human beings are the Great Un-levellers, blind to or tolerant of inequalities. The virus is exposing enduring (even growing) unrighteousness, which is the biblical word for the massive glowering inequities and injustices in human life; and it has exposed the poverty of our sense of responsibility to our planet, revealing humans to be, like the virus itself, a voracious and aggressive life form, which flourishes now at the cost of the incremental demise and death of the very natural world on which we depend as our environment. We are all called upon to be prophets now.
The Church is joining in the debate. The Church Times this week has 30 assorted priorities from a range of ten authors writing on the subject. It will be – and it should be – a time of intense debate; ideas will be sifted and sorted. Christians need to participate, locally as well as at other levels, and not to be slow in doing so especially if they hope to shape its outcomes.
But dear fellow-preachers beware! Practice what you preach. And for that we need to be very attentive to the words of the Lord, like those given in our Gospel this morning.
The passage we have just heard is the last part of Matthew 10, which is a manual for the Twelve just before they are sent out as missionaries to the surrounding villages. He has reached the final and most sobering, and challenging aspects of the training he is giving them, and he’s trying to help them get their heads round a paradox. ‘Do not think’, he says, that being my disciples – holding to what I have taught you, doing as I do, speaking as I speak – will be met with applause, or approval. And ‘do not think that I have come to bring peace.’ (v.34) It’s as if he’s saying, ‘Remember, you are dealing with human beings here. How you behave, what you do, what you say, based on my teaching, will test the heart of your listeners, just as when I speak or act. Some will rejoice at good news; others will consider it very bad news indeed.’ That is why neither Jesus nor his followers claim to bring peace, ‘but a sword’, dividing opinion. As has often been said, before it can be good news, the gospel must at first be bad news. There is no individual, group or nation, for whom the first word in the gospel is not ‘repent’ when the message of salvation draws close to them.
This is the immediate backdrop to the words we heard in the gospel, which falls into two parts. [See the passage at the top] In the first part we learn, in the famous opening words of the Rule of St Benedict, to ‘Prefer nothing whatsoever to Christ’, and in the second part, we hear Jesus’s final encouragement, highlighting the reward that will be felt by those who receive what his disciples offer them as a gift from God himself.
Let us think about these two groups of verses briefly. In the first, Jesus highlights three responses that are not ‘worthy of him’. If his disciples love their family space and family ties more than him, if a disciple tries to follow him while evading ‘the cross’, and if a disciple seeks to experience life in selfish terms, excluding the needs of others. These are all unworthy of his disciples. It’s not a moral judgement on any of us. Jesus is simply describing a spiritual fact that he has himself discovered, and teaches it. He prioritises the kingdom of God before his human family ties and duties; he experiences the rejection of his words and actions; he lays down his life for others in order to discover its true meaning. If such is the shape of the master’s life (and he is the personification of the kingdom) then it must be the shape of the disciples’ lives. Discipleship requires us to prioritise nothing above Christ, to share his experience of the cross, and to learn to die to ourselves and invest in others.
Time is always against a preacher! But I think it is worth dwelling for a moment on Jesus’s reference to family ties because it shows this very clearly. The family was the fundamental structure of the society in which Jesus lived, critical to the economic and personal security of every individual. No welfare state here; no developed economy. Just as it remains in many of the poorest places in our world today. But Jesus says, no! the horizon of his and his disciples’ mission must be the kingdom of God and the salvation of all, not the little world of the family however crucial it felt to his contemporaries. The family is a place of love and gratitude, of nurture and discovery, but it must not command and limit our affections and securities. For the newness of life that Jesus speaks of to take root, then is its necessary for a disciple to leave behind, or at least put in second place, old family-centred ways of life – that means any group loyalty that is not the kingdom of God. As the second-century Christian author Tertullian says, ‘We’re not born Christian, we become Christian’; and being united to Christ, being baptised, being communicants, being missionaries, means ‘seeking first the kingdom of God’. Preferring nothing to Christ is the radical edge of Christian faith and charity and justice, and undermines any theory that the Church can – ever – be a civil religion, neatly ironed out across the surface of current social, moral and civil values. What Christians do, and must do in the wake of the pandemic, they must do, as Christ himself says, ‘because of me’ (Mt 10.39), ‘because of the kingdom’ (Lk 18.29), ‘because of the gospel’ (Mk 8.35 and 10.29).
After such radical words, such a high calling, the second part of today’s Gospel gives an assurance to the disciples about their reception once they were in the villages and towns. St Mark (9.37) makes the same point as Matthew but in an even more pithy way: ‘Whenever anyone welcomes me it isn’t me they welcome, but the one who sent me’. Anyone who will welcome Christian efforts to bring the Good News into our present tired, anxious life, won’t be welcoming us. We are not the story. They will welcome him who sends us, Christ and his Father. Unsurprisingly, we are ‘walking sacraments’ of the faith and charity we seek to convey to others. And to be walking sacraments, to be able to transmit the blessing of God, and make the people of our day recipients of his promise, able to remake our world in the light of heaven, we must be truly united to the Saviour, loving him above all things, and in all things.
If this is to happen as the big Rethink continues in the months and years to come we Christians, both ordained and lay, need to remember two things.
First, to receive what we are asked to convey to others, we need to worship. To give Christ in charity we need to offer ourselves in prayer, and to receive Christ in his word and sacrament. We need to thirst for the Eucharist, for the word, the Spirit, for God’s holy gifts for God’s holy people. Armchairs and kitchen tables are not good enough. Solitary Christianity is barely Christianity. Worship is the basis of all we have to give to the world, and our gathering to do so is the source of our mission and its point of return. It can only be a feature of the daily lives we live apart, if it springs from what we do when we come together in Christ, in church.
And second, the mission of God is mainly experienced by others day by day, in simple gestures; not mainly in great thoughts and enterprises, but in the little acts of intelligence towards the needs of others. Each little death-to-self grows into the great Death-to-Self. The correcting of small and barely noticeable injustices grows to the correction of the great and glowering injustices. Our human family, and every person in it, from the great cities to the rain forests, is crossing a great desert, a searing, disorienting and demanding experience. And Jesus says to you, dear fellow disciples, as he says to me, ‘Whoever gives even a sip of clean cold water to such little ones, will have their reward’.
Today is the feast of a great early bishop of the Church, one of the greatest, St Irenaeus of Lyons. These words are often attributed to him:
‘It is not you that shapes God, it is God who shapes you. If then you are the work of God, await the hand of the artist who does all things in due season. Offer him your heart, soft and tractable, and keep the form in which the artist has fashioned you. Let your clay be moist, lest you grow hard and lose the imprint of his fingers.’
St Irenaeus (c130—c200)
May almighty God bless us: the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
2nd Sunday after Trinity 2020
Posted on the 21st June 2020 in the category Resources
2nd Sunday after Trinity / 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time 2020
The audio file for the Gospel, homily and prayer can be found here.
Gospel St Matthew 10.27—33
The Common Worship version of this reading is slightly longer – verses 24—39.
At that time Jesus said to them, ‘So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.’
Faith in the midst of fear
‘The overcoming of fear: that is what we are proclaiming here’ said Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a wonderful sermon (based on the story of the calming of the storm) from 1933, as fear was gripping Germany. ‘The Bible, the Gospel, Christ, the Church, the faith’, he goes on, ‘are all one great battle cry against fear in the lives of human beings.’ (The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, pp.60—66)
While we continue to cope with the impact of the pandemic (and we must never forget its global scale), we hear Jesus raise that battle cry again in the gospel this weekend. The political and social landscape of our lives had been in flux for some years before the virus threw it all up in the air, and brought change to our lives on every level: international, national, local, and personal. And unsurprisingly we’re afraid. Even the preaching of opportunity and optimism by some, seems only to underscore the uncertainty and fear felt by the majority. More and more, listening and talking to others, aware also of my own experience, I hear people talk of ‘struggling’ and of ‘surviving’. ‘Fightings within, and fears without’ as the old hymn puts it. This Sunday’s Gospel speaks direct into this sense of struggle and survival.
In it we find two appeals from Jesus: on the one hand to ‘have no fear’ of other human beings, and, on the other, to ‘fear’ God (Matt 10.26, 28). Fear is natural. The experiences we have as children are often (though not always) revealed to be imaginary. As we grow older other fears become more founded in reality: fears we have to face up to, and overcome with determination and trust in others and in God. However, in recent years we’ve somehow begun to share a deeper form of fear, bordering on a kind of shared anguish, which has emerged from the widespread sense of emptiness and boredom in our culture, from our apparent inability to learn even from our most serious mistakes, and the real need for renewal.
In the face of the broad panorama of human fears, which are as varied as the vulnerabilities we feel, Jesus is clear: those who ‘fear’ God ‘are not afraid’. Fear of God, which the scriptures call ‘the beginning of knowledge’ (Prov 1.7), coincides with trusting in God, and having a respect for his authority over life and the world, a trust that the psalmist likens to a child: ‘my soul is like the weaned child that is with me’ (see Ps 131.2). ‘There is no fear in love’, writes the apostle John, ‘perfect love casts out fear.’ (1 Jn 4: 18). Believers are not afraid of what the human world can do to them, because they know they are in the hand of God, and that the last word is not left to evil or irrational forces, but rather to the one Lord of all that is, the Lord of a love that casts out fear to such an extent that he faced the Cross for our salvation.
So far, so very general. But today’s gospel happens in a particular context. The whole chapter is concerned with the Twelve being sent out by Jesus, with all the necessary instructions, warnings, explanations and encouragements needed for their mission. It follows on immediately after Jesus’s warning that if people call him Beelzebub (a kind of devil), his disciples can’t expect to get much better treatment. The master’s lot is the disciple’s lot (vv.24-25). Nevertheless, what they have already received in secret—the teaching and instructions and generosity he has shared with them—must be announced publicly, openly. The word of the Lord’s mercy and faithfulness will be proclaimed. There is no stopping it.
The first consequence of being responsible for proclaiming the Lord’s message, is that his disciples—that is, me and you!—must learn to proclaim it with frankness, without shame, without being shy or shallow, without fear of the inevitable opposition, even without fear of intimidation and threat (vv. 26-27). The gospel has a word for this attitude: parrhesia in Greek. It’s a particular mixture of openness, courage, risk and love. It’s a way of talking that is concerned for the truth, and takes its strength from the word of God in scripture and Christian tradition, and is willing to be critical at the risk of being hurt. Plainly there’s a lot more to be said about it as an attitude to be learned from Jesus, not least so as to be able to understand why, in the company of Jesus, controversy and the forces of opposition to God are likely to grow more not less threatening. (But let’s leave that for another day.) I want only to bring out one extremely important caveat, because it is very easy for parrhesia to be misunderstood and misused by those who enjoy or cope with their own fear by being disruptive, destructive, rude or threatening self-appointed prophets.
In Christian thinking and behaviour truthfulness is called to measure itself by the strength of love and responsibility towards others, and at root towards God. Augustine says that all the virtues that we see at work in human lives (temperance, prudence, justice and courage) are in fact simply love in operation, and courage in particular ‘is love readily bearing all things for the sake of God’ (On the morals of the Catholic Church 15.25) This is what distinguishes a willingness to take risks and learn tell the truth about Jesus and his salvation, from simply letting our fears make us get defensive or manipulative. In the company of Jesus the very people who could give us reason to be afraid become a source of courage thanks to love, they become an opportunity for the victory of love over fear. We can become courageous not only because of the One who loves us—the Father of all mercies—but because of those whom we love. When courage is rooted in love, fear is overcome.
I find this such a fruitful thought. It helps unlock so much of the history of Christian attempts to be faithful to the truth of Jesus, especially at times and in places of change in human culture. Like the places where Christians find themselves facing persecution, or like the one we have been passing through in the western world for some time, and which the virus is sure (in this as in so much else) to have accelerated. Jesus’ words build for us a pathway that leads from his encouragement not to be afraid (which they plainly needed to hear, or he wouldn’t have said it!), to an invitation to trust, to a more confident abandonment on God. Moreover, in the mouth of Jesus, the expression ‘do not fear’ is a promise as well as guidance, because it expresses his trust in us. It means, ‘you are capable of overcoming fear by counting on my presence, on my promise, on my help.’ Have we not been celebrating since the Ascension his promise, ‘I am with you always, even to the end of the age’? ‘I am with you’ because I am your advocate with the Father who loves you; ‘I am with you’ by giving you the other Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, who lives in you; ‘I am with you’ in the Eucharist that makes you one, and that heals you in soul and body. For the Church this relationship with the risen Jesus is the foundation of courage, the liberation from fear, the source of love for others.
As we look to the horizon, and to the Church’s responsibilities in a world that will have overcome the pandemic and be looking for a renewed future, we shall need to depend on the fact that faith ‘draws its strength from weakness’ (Heb 11.34). The courage of faith consists not in denying weakness, but in recognizing it and transforming it. The Church will not grow in faith if it seeks to evade its weakness and smallness, and seeks instead its safety and protection and success at all costs. The real enemy of faith and hope is the fear of being small, fear of sharing our intimacy with God, fear of trusting others without knowing how or if we will be repaid.
Generations of Christians before us have found Jesus’s words, ‘Do not be afraid of those who can kill the body’ to be a reminder of their dependence on him, and we need to rediscover those words for ourselves now. If we are afraid we will make ourselves more dependent on those who wish to harm or diminish the Church’s witness. But more importantly, if we are afraid we will not be able to love as we should. How can a church that feeds on its fears and calculations announce the joyful news of salvation to the world? How can we love one another if we seek to protect ourselves? How can we tell the good news if we are afraid of the world? How can we preach (and it is ‘we’!) if we are paralyzed?
I realized this week (and I speak as a former professional singer) that in these last few months I have sung less than I ever have in my whole life. Personally speaking, singing together again is one thing I look forward to hugely – and with it, ‘praying double’ as Augustine says. Then the words of another old hymn (from Paul Gerhart’s ‘The golden sun’), which Bonhoeffer quoted in that same sermon early 1933, may help us:
This world must fall,
God stands o’er all,
His thoughts unswayed,
His Word unstayed,
His will for all our ground and hope.
Just as I am, though tossed about
With many a conflict, many a doubt,
Fightings within, and fears without,
O Lamb of God, I come!
Just as I am, thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
Because Thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come!
Corpus Christi 2020
Posted on the 14th June 2020 in the category Resources
The Body and Blood of Christ
Jesus said to them, ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ So Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever.’
This weekend the doors of our churches are allowed to open for the first time since late March. Only for private prayer, it’s true, but nonetheless it’s a moment pregnant with promise and hope. Why? Well, cast your minds back. It’s remarkable that the lockdown in our country, has (so far as Christians are concerned) covered almost exactly that part of the Christian year that runs from the feast of the Annunciation on 25 March (two days after the lockdown was announced) until today, the feast of Corpus Christi (when church doors can open again). Our long springtime retreat, so full of prayer for those who have suffered and died, has come to an end with what feels like precision timing.
It’s a moment, of course, when we gladly acknowledge our debt to all those who have worked throughout that time, some of them tirelessly, to serve the shared needs of our society. Only because they have borne the heat of the day can the rest of us now begin to re-emerge and play our part in rebuilding our common life.
But there it is: while church doors have been firmly locked, Christians have celebrated what the liturgical calendar simply gave us – the whole story of Jesus Christ, from the first stirrings of the Word becoming flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary through to today’s contemplation of his permanent ascended presence in and through his Church, the living Eucharist. The Word became flesh in Jesus (Jn 1.14); that flesh became bread at his command (cf. Jn 6.51), and that bread gives us eternal life (cf. Jn 6.58).
Today’s gospel passage is one of the most shocking in the New Testament. It is part of a whole chapter that St John dedicates to the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves, the explanation that Jesus gives the miracle, and his answers to the questions of his listeners. It is a dense passage, because it is dominated by five words: eat or eating (which appears seven times), drinking (four times), flesh (six times), blood (four times), life or living (nine times) – all in a mere seven verses. The passage is the climax of the chapter. The whole discussion has been moving to this point; and the scene finally ends in confusion.
As the argument intensifies Jesus makes a three-part solemn revelation about himself.
These three statements from Jesus seem to his listeners to be unfathomable even scandalous. He uses raw and realistic language, which had the effect of shocking his hearers either into greater belief, or (most of them) greater disbelief. In the heated argument that follows they ask each other, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ (v.52); and ever since the world has debated Jesus’s reply, that ‘Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you’ (v.53). So perhaps we too should reflect on whether we have really understood his message.
There’s no time to go into much depth in a short homily like this. But I want to point to one line in the final part of the chapter (a bit we didn’t hear read) that gives us a clue.
It turns out that what we heard as our gospel was part of a sermon in the synagogue in Capernaum, and it’s now over. Jesus turns to his disciples and checks with them privately, ‘Have my words offended you as well?’ Well they plainly have, and so he gives them a pointer as to how they should understand his words. ‘What if’, he says, ‘you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? Would that help?’ In other words, it’s no ordinary man that can say he will give his flesh to eat. And it’s no ordinary flesh that contains and communicates God’s own life and commits itself to the limit. Jesus is the Son of Man: he is that man who belongs both to earth and heaven. He is the one that ‘comes down from heaven’, and whose home is the realm of the Spirit.
Over the years Pope Benedict has been very fond of quoting St Augustine describing an incident when, during prayer, he heard a voice saying, ‘I am the bread of the strong, eat me! But you will not transform me, and make me part of you [as happens with normal food]; rather, I will transform you, and make you part of me’ (Confessions Bk 7, 10, 16). This is the crucial point. This is the mystery, the mystery of faith that we proclaim after the words of Christ in the midst of the Eucharistic Prayer. In today’s gospel St John has put together the Resurrection and the Eucharist, which the Fathers call the ‘medicine of immortality’ (St Ignatius, Ephesians 20.2).
The body and blood of the Lord are not ordinary bread or wine, which commemorate or signify something meaningful. They are not ordinary, because they really contain, communicate and commit to the world God’s own love and life! They are not ordinary, because they have been transformed by Christ, and when they are given to us they transform us, we do not transform them. They are not ordinary, because they make us missionaries of charity. That is how our individuality and uniqueness is liberated from itself, united to Christ, immersed in the life of the Trinity, and opened up to communion with brothers and sisters, whether they are near or far, whether I like them or not, or whether I am like them or not. As the Lord’s body and blood change us into him, we become members of one another. No longer divided, we are one body one spirit in Christ. The Lord’s body and blood unites me and you not only to the people whom we long to sit beside once more in church, but also to distant brothers and sisters in every part of the world.
Dear Friends, in this new moment, as our church doors begin silently to swing open again, let us (wherever we can) visit our churches, and standing, sitting or kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament of the Lord’s body and blood, let us prepare ourselves for that day when we will be able to celebrate the Eucharist together again, and let us offer our souls and bodies to him who transforms us, and makes us able to be missionaries of his charity by giving us his soul and body.
Soul of Christ, sanctify me.
Body of Christ, save me.
Blood of Christ, inebriate me.
Water from the side of Christ, wash me.
Passion of Christ, strengthen me.
O good Jesus, hear me.
Within your wounds conceal me.
Do not be parted from me.
From the evil foe protect me.
At the hour of my death call me.
And bid me come to you,
to praise you with your saints for ever.
Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
A video of the sermon can be found here
Trinity Sunday 2020
Posted on the 7th June 2020 in the category Resources
Trinity Sunday 2020
On Trinity Sunday, unusually, the lectionaries of Common Worship and the Roman Missal diverge, so parishes may find themselves reading different passages.
Gospel John 3.16-20
During the night-time conversation with Nicodemus
Jesus said to Nicodemus, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
The Gospel in Common Worship, which may be read instead, is Matthew 28.16-20:
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
Humanity reflects the love that made it
Today we are celebrating the feast of the Holy Trinity. After the Easter Season—after reliving the Ascension in which Christ establishes his heavenly presence in our hearts, and after Pentecost which renews the baptism of the Church in the Holy Spirit—we now gaze with the eyes of faith into the depths of the mystery of God. Today is the ‘feast of God’, and we adore the communion of love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
It’s a feast that preachers and congregations alike can be a bit afraid of, even a bit silly about. ‘Impatient as we are, we would like to understand [the Trinity] immediately; or rather, in our shortsighted pragmatism, if we are not shown practical applications for it right away, we declare it to be abstract, indigestible, unrealistic, an empty shell, a hollow theory’ (Henri de Lubac: The Christian Faith, 1969). Well there’s plenty of short-sighted pragmatism to go round at present. But that kind of impatient reaction shuts us up inside the limits of our own narrow thoughts and experiences. Those Christians who do not try to peer into God—that is, who don’t contemplate the kind of God that God has revealed himself to be—and do not let themselves be grasped and shaped by the experience, simply don’t realize how poor, and deprived, and insecure they have made themselves. Of course! if the God we celebrate on this feast truly is as he has revealed himself to be, then we are going to need every philosopher, every historian, scientist, poet, mystic (and many others besides) to begin to understand so immense a truth. But today the Church does not become a lecture room! The best preachers of the Trinity are not academics. (Sorry to the academics!) The best preachers are the saints, those who have taken God at his word, and not lived superficially. The Blessed Trinity is not a secret ‘reserved for the professional scholar, but is something that has a living, practical importance for every Christian.’ (Kallistos Ware The Orthodox Church 1962, 216) Any Christian who speaks of the Holy Trinity, does not, in the words of one writer, ‘speak of it as I would of some constellation in the sky, but I understand it to be the first principle and the ultimate end of my own Christian existence: faith in this supreme mystery includes me’ (Romano Guardini The Life of Faith 1961, 50). This faith includes my creation, and the creation of my brothers and sisters; my redemption, and the redemption of my brothers and sisters; my sanctification and transfiguration, and that of my brothers and sisters. I’m sure that if Christians truly resolved to believe—by which I mean trust—in their faith, it would make them, today, the soul of the world. (see Letter to Diognetus, 6). Why? Well, I don’t really want to say much more, but let me answer with one thought, in two bites:
First bite: God is personal love.
In today’s first reading from Exodus 34 (4b-6, 8-9) we heard about God himself, in the cloud on Mount Sinai, passing before a terrified Moses and proclaiming his own Name: ‘The Lord, the Lord! a God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in steadfast love and faithfulness’. That is what God says of himself. That helps us understand a bit better the depths of truth summed up in St John’s phrase, ‘God is love’ (I Jn 4: 8, 16 – a phrase which isn’t of course true the other way round). We do not exist because of sheer chance, or blind process, or because of an overwhelming power, but because of love, the love of the God who calls himself love, omnipotence of love.
Jesus says something more in his conversation with Nicodemus. ‘God loved the world so much that he gave’ … the most precious thing he could, his only Son (Jn 3.16). The God that the scriptures teach, and which Christians believe in, is not a mighty self-sufficient being but life that wants to communicate himself. The names God gives himself—mercy, compassion, grace, loving kindness—speak not only of mutuality and relationship but also of self-offering, of a God who fills gaps, strengthens weakness, heals wounds, transforms loss; of a God who is faithful, who constantly seeks to make a covenant, a love pact through which he can bless the whole of humanity (see Gen 12.1-3; Ex 19.3-6) and the world. And all of this is contained, fulfilled, and communicated in the life of Jesus Christ. Archbishop Michael Ramsey used to love to say ‘God is Christlike’, in other words Jesus is the image of God (Col 1.15). He reflects and reveals God’s one nature communicated in three persons: the Father Love, the Son Love, the Spirit Love.
So much for the first bite: God is personal love.
The second is that Humanity reflects God, and can’t be understood without God. We are his image and likeness. Jesus revealed that humanity is essentially a ‘son’, a child. Human beings are not self-made beings, but beings in a relationship with the divine Father. A human being is an open creature, incomplete as an individual, made for mutuality, reaching out to God, discovering in other human beings the image and likeness of their common Father, who are thus all brothers and sisters. Human dignity is constituted by love, and human society and civilization is fulfilled in love, relationship, dialogue. When we set out to privilege any human characteristic over against any other—whether of race or nation or language—well we set out on the road away from God, reducing God’s likeness in us, moving toward idolatry. But the strongest proof that human beings are made in the image and likeness of the Trinity is that love alone makes us happy, forgiving, self-less, and wise. Because of the Trinity, we live to love and to be loved. The love of the Trinity is our true human genome!
Two thoughts then, but one truth. Two sides of one coin. First, God, the trinity of love and mutual relationship; second, human beings, in God’s image and likeness, called into one in Christ.
On the Sunday after Pentecost the western churches celebrate the first. On the same day our Eastern brothers and sisters celebrate the second, the Trinity of holy love reflected in the lives of human beings, the saints. Together they remind us that Trinity Sunday must also for ever be ‘Humanity Sunday’: humanity, created, sanctified and glorified in Holy Love.
Lord Jesus, image of the unseen Father, grant us restless hearts, hearts which seek your face. Keep us from the blindness of heart which sees only the surface of things. Give us the Spirit of simplicity and purity which allow us to recognize your presence in the world. May we encounter you along the way and show forth your image in the world. Amen.
The audio file to the Gospel, homily and prayer can be found here.