Posted on the 11th September 2020 in the category Announcements
From Monday 14 September in England the Government’s ‘rule of six’ to help limit the transmission of the coronavirus will apply: 'Don’t meet in groups of more than six, indoors or outdoors, at home or elsewhere.'
‘People should not see this as a short-term thing’, the chief medical officer has warned: ‘the period between now and spring is going to be difficult’.
But there are a limited number of exemptions. Covid-19 secure venues, such as properly preprared places of worship, can still hold larger numbers in total, though groups of up to 6 must not mix or form larger groups.
Following the announcement, the Bishop of London, Sarah Mullally, who chairs the Church of England’s recovery group, said, "I welcome confirmation from the Prime Minister that places of worship can still hold more than six people in total, … and the reassurance that public worship can continue.” More information on the Church of England’s response may be found here
I want therefore to encourage all Christians to follow the encouragement of the New Testament writers themselves, and remain faithful to communal worship, especially the Eucharist, to give God our thanks, and to receive the strength for our daily living we can receive nowhere but from the hand of Christ.
To PROTECT THE NHS and SAVE LIVES
HANDS – FACE – SPACE
At all times, wash hands regularly. And beyond your home, wear a face covering indoors, keep 2 metres space from people you do not live with
The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Posted on the 8th September 2020 in the category Resources
The Nativity of the Virgin Mary
This sermon was preached at the 200th anniversary Patronal of St Mary’s Bathwick two days ago, and is offered here to celebrate today’s feast.
St Mary the Virgin, Bathwick - 6 September 2020
200th Anniversary Patronal Eucharist
Sometimes you know you are living through history. Our forebears (upwards of 1000 of them by all accounts) who were present for the consecration of this church, will have known they were living through history, and will never have forgotten it. For 800 years, their medieval parish church—Old St Mary’s—had stood on the site now filled by St John’s. But tiny and tired, the old church had been demolished two years earlier.
For the parishioners, these feelings would have been intensified by other events, because a new chapter was opening nationally not just locally. Less than a week before the consecration, George III, still the oldest and longest reigning king in British history, who for 30 years had suffered painfully for all to see, had finally died. It would be a further two weeks before his enormous funeral in Windsor. And it was into that gap that the consecration of this church fell. Very few could remember life without Old St Mary’s, or life without ‘Farmer George’, and no one knew what the future held. We perhaps share something of the same feeling today, as we look back on an era of our lives that has closed behind us, unclear what we shall carry into an un-certain future. And it is into this moment that the Virgin Mary, Bathwick’s patron for 800 years, steps with grace and wisdom.
Two days after the George’s funeral, a commemoration concert for the old king at the Theatre Royal in London, featured excerpts from his favourite music, Handel’s Messiah, including a famous aria which is introduced by words we heard just now in our Gospel: ‘Behold! A virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and you shall call his name Emmanuel, God with us.’ The Old Covenant, with its familiar laws and prophecies, all that God’s ancient people had ever known, had arrived at a new beginning, and with it the old world was closing. The period of law was ending; the period of grace was dawning, recreating the old.
‘Full of grace’, the angel had called her. In the birth of the Virgin Mary, and in the birth of her Divine Son, an unstoppable and grace-filled transformation of the old world was happening. An unimaginable and uncontrollable newness. Old mysteries, laws and promises were giving way to a new revelation of reality and truth.
2 From the very beginning, who Mary is is bound up with who Jesus is. Her body is always itself the ‘holy place’, the sanctuary, where God is at home. In the gospel stories we see her involvement with her Son: her young motherhood, her attendance in the mission field, her presence at Calvary, her receiving the resurrection news, her prayer with the Church for the descent of the Holy Spirit. And the climax of this life, lived in the Spirit with her Son, is her entry into his resurrection glory. When we are alongside her we are alongside him in his obedience, and suffering, and glory. And surely we are praying that our lives will become more like hers: shaped, marked, moved by her Son at every moment, until we too enjoy his company for ever in the risen life he promises.
It is this inner life of active faith that Jesus praises in Mary above all things. When (in Luke 11) a woman in the crowd, thrilled at Jesus’s insight and wisdom, cries, ‘Surely the womb that bore you is blessed, and the breasts that nursed you!’ ‘No!’ he replies, ‘it’s those who hear the word of God and obey it that are blessed!’ And who has ever believed and obeyed God’s word more perfectly than his mother? – she who, according to her cousin Elizabeth, ‘had believed that all that had been spoken to her by the Lord would be fulfilled’. Jesus affirms this even more strongly when he says, ‘Here are my mother, and brothers, and sisters: anyone who does God’s will!’
And the gospels make it clear that Mary’s response grew and developed; she came to understand more fully the answer she had freely given to Gabriel in her youth. The letter to the Hebrews says of Jesus ‘He learned obedience through what he suffered’ (5.8). It is not surprising that his mother also discovered, as she went on—or rather as her Son went on his way to the cross—what her choice must more fully involve. As God was revealing a new world through her son, she came (not without suffering) to a clearer insight of the word of God to her, and each time decided to keep it, to deepen it, and to trust it.
3 Whenever we look at an icon of the Virgin Mary, which are now so frequently seen in western culture, we see her as what she finally became – beyond the perturbing questions, beyond the crucifixion, beyond love’s victory over death and sin. We see her when, as St Paul says, ‘the decaying puts on the un-decaying, and the dying puts on the un-dying’ (1 Cor 15.54).
There are an infinite number of ways in which we can draw from the experience of this obscure peasant girl who has become ‘the first lady’ of heaven. Infinite, of course, because Mary points us to the Church’s vocation. In the great tradition Mary is never detached from her Son, but nor is she ever detached from the Church of which she is the figure. Like her, the Church is called to be the ark in which Christ lives; the temple of God, the dwelling-place of God in the Spirit (1 Cor 3.16f). Like her, the Church is called to bring Christ to the world; to embody in its life not its own mission but God’s mission: his desire to reconcile and unite the world to himself. Like her each of us has said yes to that vocation. But in each generation Christians have to grow in their response to the word of God. We have to live through the questionings the incomplete understandings, even learning obedience to that word by facing challenge and pain with courage. We have to discover that there is no new life without death to old life; there is no life in the new creation without death in the old creation; there is no entering into the gift without longing, praying and working for it.
But what might Mary, first disciple of her son, be saying to us now, in the midst of coronavirus, in a society and a world and a church brought to its knees? with an old world sliding into the past, and a new landscape opening up before us?
Perhaps it is something like this? In recent decades, in the world that is passing out of sight, the churches have tended to reduce the reality and truth of Jesus Christ and his resurrection to the practice of good deeds: to helping our neighbours, securing justice, welcoming refugees, providing for the elderly and disadvantaged, speaking into society’s concerns etc. Even though, of course, these deeds are necessary, the main teaching of the Gospel is not goodness. Based on goodness the Gospel is reduced to a kind of humanism; and as many men and women of good will show us, human generosity does not require faith.
What requires faith, is the word of God. It requires faith to receive it, to live it, to fulfil it. Mary’s testimony is the announcement of ‘Good News’ that Jesus Christ has shared our human life by total identification, has defeated sin and death, and opened the doors of an infinite future with God. Our good deeds are a consequence of such Good News, not the cause of it. The priority is to open the doors of heaven to ourselves.
As Handel’s aria reminded the audience of the king’s commemoration concert:
O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion
get thee up into the high mountain;
lift up thy voice with strength, be not afraid;
say unto the cities of Judah,
‘Behold your God!’
Lord Jesus, we see your obedience reflected in your mother’s discipleship of faith.
Help us to believe that all that has been spoken to us through your word will be fulfilled,
and bring forth in our lives the Word of Life for the life of the world.
(The image is SS Anna and Joachim, and the infant Mary by Svitislav Vladyka)
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!