Fourth Sunday of Easter - Gospel and Homily
Posted on the 25th April 2021 in the category Resources
Parish of the Good Shepherd, Chard, 25 April 2021
Jesus said, ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.
And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.’
A verse from the Book of Revelation: ‘The Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd’ Revelation 7.17
In the name of the Father …
The image of the ‘good shepherd’ – which you have as the wonderful dedication of your parish – comes to us from very deep in the history in the Scriptures. It is a rich and evocative image, and has been used in many different ways. It was woven deep into ancient Israel’s experience of God. It appears over sixty times in the Old Testament. Gradually God himself came to be seen as the only true Shepherd of Israel. And later, God’s messiah was also described as shepherd of His people. Like God, He would feed, guide and protect them, and oversee their unity.
This is the background against which Jesus appears as a shepherd. He desired to share the condition of human beings, to give them truth for food, to give them life for drink, to lead them to salvation. His compassion was for ‘sheep without a shepherd’ (Mk 6:34). In one parable He was even prepared to leave the whole flock and go in search of one measly sheep that was lost (cf. Lk 19:10), in order to bring it back to safety through the Father’s mercy.
Thus in Jesus Christ these two Old Testament themes came together – God himself as the Shepherd of Israel, and God’s messiah as the true shepherd-king of all humanity. In time the good shepherd became one of the key images of Christ’s relationship both to the Church as a whole, and to the ministry of those, His bishops and priests, who extend His ministry in the world, which is why this Sunday is particularly given to prayer for vocations to the priesthood.
So far, so good: end of short lecture.
But we needed the bones of that background to be able to focus in on the gospel passage we have just heard, which we hear – or something very close to it – every year on this Sunday in the middle of Eastertide. In it the Lord identifies himself as the ‘Good Shepherd’ twice. After the first time He says He will lay down His life for His sheep; and after the second, He says He knows his own and they know Him.
Neither of those things is true of your average shepherd, now or in ancient Israel. Sheep then, as now, were a precious commodity and were the source of many different products to be bought and sold – for woollen cloth, for food, for drink, and of course, this being ancient Israel, for sacrificial animals – sheep and lambs. Nothing was wasted. But what kind of shepherd would die for a commodity, for their own livelihood; laying down his actual life was not a job requirement of a shepherd. And which shepherd knows each one of these notoriously herding animals by name? Why have a dog and bark yourself? Even less so what Jesus called a hireling – the kind who stole what they did not own. Israel had known too many false kings, and leaders and even false prophets like that!
But these two definitions of ‘Good Shepherd’ that Jesus gives – dying for the sheep, and knowing them intimately – are by contrast the hallmarks of Jesus’s attitude, signs of the responsibility that flows from His mission. He was sent by His Father precisely to seek and save the lost, and to gather together the scattered children of God. ‘Fear not for I have redeemed you’, says the Lord in Isaiah (43.1). ‘I have called you by name. You are mine.’ Therefore, Jesus’s behaviour turns the image of an ordinary shepherd upside down, or rather He turns it God’s way up! Jesus takes responsibility for God. Like God himself Jesus is the servant of His people’s welfare, the protector of His people’s safety, the guide of His people’s understanding, the feeder of their souls, the overseer of their unity. Jesus takes responsibility for God.
And then we notice deep in in the middle of the gospel passage a verse that takes us deeper into the reality of all this: ‘I know my own and my own know me’ he says, ‘in the same way as I know the Father and the Father knows me, which is why I lay down my life for them’. All of a sudden Jesus makes this stunning comparison: he lifts us up directly into the relationship and understanding that the divine Father and the divine Son have with each other! He is at the very least implying that the relationship between Him and us involves our discovery of self-giving love and our dedication to him. And we also see that it is because Jesus’s surrender of his life to the needs of the sheep is undertaken by divine love (not just a great human love) that is why He has the power to take up His life again in the resurrection.
We are now a long way from thinking how to look after sheep! So how can we have confidence to follow this path in our thinking? I have a clue.
Twice in the Gospel passage Jesus uses a rather unusual word to describe the sheepfold: αὐλὴν (aulén) in Greek. It’s not the usual word you’d use. In fact it means something like an architectural courtyard or an atrium, just like the portico inside the Temple precincts in Jerusalem where we’re told Jesus was teaching on the feast of Dedication (which incidentally gives its name to the altars in the Temple). Jesus appears to be making a distinction and drawing a parallel between the stone-built sheepfolds on the hillsides of Judea and the monumental precincts of the Temple (teaming of course of sheep and lambs for blood sacrifice). He is in effect saying not only ‘I am the door to the sheepfold’, but ‘I am the door to the Temple’ – the entrance to the way that leads through sacrificial death and resurrection to life with the Father. This this the way he wants us to walk, a way of safety, life and peace. That would also help us to understand His prophetic words in chapter two (vv.19-22) when He talks about ‘the temple of His body’, its destruction and its rebuilding.
In order to lay down His life, Jesus our high priest had to become the sacrificial victim. The Good Shepherd had to stoop and make himself a sacrificial Lamb. He ‘who takes away the sin of the world’ (Jn 1:29) had to stoop and make himself like ‘the Lamb who was dumb before its shearers’ (Is 53.7). Only that way, by the power of His divine love, could He who had laid down his life to redeem us take it up again to sanctify us. Only that way could the Victorious Lamb become our Eternal Shepherd, and guide us to springs of living water (Rev 7.17).
Friends! we are to be receptive and trusting towards our shepherd, but we are not sheep! We are called to become like the good shepherd. We are raised up in the Lord to call others to know Him who laid down His life for them, and that their sins are forgiven! We are called to gather others into the one flock of Christ. All of us – whether bishop, priest, deacon; lay, married or single; monk or nun, whatever we are – need to become shepherds in the image of Christ, so that He can lead us all into the Temple of his glory.
Third Sunday of Easter - Homily
Posted on the 18th April 2021 in the category Resources
As given at All Saints, Cheltenham
18 April 2021
Today, the Third Sunday of Easter, in the Gospel (Luke 24.35-48) we meet the Risen Jesus appearing to His apostles, who immediately think they are seeing a ghost! It was true, the Lord had changed! He was inexplicably different, and much freer than He was. Yet it was plainly Jesus, His essence and His character, only now His passion and death were also incised into his body, as His wounds made clear. Everything was physical and touchable, but everything about Him was transformed and free!
Since the Resurrection had not wiped out the signs of His crucifixion, and He wanted to remove their disbelief, Jesus showed the apostles His hands and His feet. He even asked for something to eat, and was given a piece of what we’d call barbecued fish, which He took and ate in front of them (Lk 24:42-43). Thus He sought to convince them it was the same living body which they had seen and touched and felt; but at the same time that body glorified. St Gregory the Great (the pope who sent St Augustine to Ebbsfleet, and re-founded the church in England) wrote in one of his bible commentaries: ‘the grilled fish is a pointer to Jesus’ Passion’, His suffering and wounds. ‘Jesus had seen fit’, Gregory goes on, ‘to conceal himself like a fish in the teeming waters of the human race. He let himself be caught in a net of our death, and placed on the grill, symbolizing the cruelty He suffered at the moment of the Passion’ (Hom. in Evang. xxiv.5). It is a bit of a startling image, Jesus as a barbecued fish; but it gets Gregory’s point over: Jesus’s wounds, like the marks from the hot grill, were now part of Him! They were for ever part of his glorified body.
There was probably a reason why St Luke highlighted Jesus’s attempts to persuade the apostles that He was real by eating in front of them. From very early on distortions of the Gospel were circulating and the earliest Christian writers had to ensure that the truth about Jesus was being preached. One pagan attitude that was beginning to circulate was called Gnosticism. Gnostics were certain God was spirit, but they were so narrow in their views they also thought God was against matter and the body. As a result they could not accept the Incarnation of Christ. In response the Gospel writers insisted: no, the Son of God became flesh, and He remained flesh for all eternity. Interestingly St John who was the evangelist most concerned to stress Jesus’s divinity was also the one most concerned to underline that Jesus’s resurrected body was a real body; His wounds were real wounds.
Now, you might think that’s interesting but not very relevant to your life: but that’s not true! Our contemporaries are hopelessly confused about God, and therefore (unsurprisingly) increasingly confused about being human, and about the natural world in which we live. Transcendent values and reason, and the very meaning of Christian faith, are being undermined by a kind of virus that infects not only the truth of faith, but causes the rejection of reason and truth in themselves. Holding a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled fundamentalist. It seems that being ‘tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine’ is the only attitude that people in our times can cope with, while our human egos and preferences and choices are becoming the measure of all things.
The gospels give a very different picture. Jesus is the measure of all things. In His words, His death, His resurrection, we can dependably discover the truth about of God, and the truth about our own life and salvation. In Jesus ‘the Word became flesh’; and in Him the Word remained flesh after He had risen from the dead, linking forever the meaning of God and the meaning of mankind. In that flesh and blood and bone ‘He has made God known to us’ (exeghesato Jn 1.18), and by the power of the sacraments at work in us, especially through our frequent sharing in the Eucharist, He calls us to make Him known to the men and women of our own day, and bring them the good news of repentance and the forgiveness of sins.
There is an old legend in which it is said that Satan appeared to a saint claiming to be Jesus. The saint simply and cleverly asked Satan, ‘Can you show me the marks of the nails?’ Of course he could not! The wounds left by the nails, the thorns, the spear were the way the apostles recognized Christ. And that is also how our lowly bodies will be recognized, as having become by grace like Christ’s (Phil 3.21): if we have hands, scared from giving; feet, wounded in service; hearts, pierced by the burning shafts of His divine love.
Sermon given at the Licensing of Fr Brendan Clover
Posted on the 12th April 2021 in the category Resources
Fr Clover’s licensing, Clevedon – 12 April 2021
In his little book called The Little Prince, Saint-Exupery has a wonderful expression that he puts in the mouth of the fox. The fox says, ‘The essentials are not be seen by the eyes, but with the heart.’
In the extraordinary and luminous reading from the Gospel of St Luke that we have just heard we meet Jesus Christ who in breaking the scriptures, and breaking the bread, asks us to see with our hearts what cannot be recognized with our eyes.
This story corresponds closely of course to the structure of every Sunday Eucharist, which the harsh conditions of the pandemic have made Christians value more and more. Each Sunday the Lord joins us, opens our hearts to an understanding of himself that goes beyond what we read, and speaks to us. Then He takes bread, blesses, breaks and shares himself, and gains entry into our hearts to make us more like himself.
There are three short reflections I would like to share with you this evening inspired by this extraordinary reading.
First of all, these two disciples, the disciples of Emmaus, had already received the earliest news of the resurrection; but all the same they decided to go away, to go their own way. We may be in that place in our life. But the Lord does not abandon us, He joins us even if we lack faith. Most of us do not receive the announcement and the news of the resurrection with joy – how else to explain the weakness of the Church? We are skeptical, hesitant, downcast, confused, generally unstable. Nonetheless, He joins us.
Wherever you are, in whatever place you find yourself, the Lord will find you, He will seek you, He will not leave you alone. He will be with you on your way. And even if you lack faith or hope, or you’re getting very frustrated and tired in the current circumstances, and if you are anxious about the future, do not give up hope. Remember! far from abandoning us, the Lord joins us, daily, wherever we are.
My second reflection is how important it is to read Scripture as a way to know Jesus and to recognize Jesus. It gets easier and easier to have access to the Scriptures if we want to. Do you want to listen? Do you want to hear him? Do you want to know how the Church has taught them? Most important, Do you want to learn?
The Emmaus disciples wanted to learn more, and His staying with them paved the way to His initiative at table. “He took bread said the blessing, broke it and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized Him but He vanished from their sight” (Lk 24:30-31). This prompts a third reflection. He did not go away – He went from their sight. They had recognized him, seen with their hearts as the fox says, with that place in us where Christ has promised through the Eucharist to abide with His Father.
It is our earnest prayer that our community life and Fr Brendan’s new ministry will soon be able to take on its proper, familiar, human and tangible form, in the parish and in the wider Church, so that we can gather together to learn from Jesus, and to recognize Him through the sacrifice He made for us as, and welcome Him into our bodies and souls.
In these ways Jesus gives us God; and with God the truth also about our origin and destiny, which is faith, hope and love. It is only because of our hardness of heart that we think these three things are too little to live on. But after the pandemic, we like the unbelieving disciples of Emmaus get a second chance to believe. God's power works quietly in this world, but it is the true and only lasting power. Again and again, God's cause seems to be in its death throes. And yet over and over again it proves to be the thing that truly endures and saves.
Easter 2 - Divine Mercy Sunday
Posted on the 11th April 2021 in the category Resources
Divine Mercy Sunday
11 April 2021
(As given at St Mark's Church, Swindon New Town)
An audio version of the sermon can be found here
On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”
Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But He said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into His side, I will never believe.”
Eight days later, His disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then He said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name.
‘I will sing for ever of your mercy O Lord!’
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
The gospel reading we have just heard from St John shows us the Risen Jesus going in search of His own – God urgently wanting to find and restore to His friendship those who through failure and fear during His passion and crucifixion were lost in confusion and guilt.
Notice first that it’s a gospel in two halves: two incidents, one week apart. First, Jesus appears on the night of Easter Day itself (Jn 20.19) to the disciples enclosed in the Upper Room; and then, because one of them, Thomas, was missing on that occasion, He showed himself to them again in the same place ‘eight days later’ (Jn 20.26). In these two stories, separated in time but connected in meaning, St John is teaching us what the other evangelists teach us through the parables of the lost coin, the lost sheep and the lost son, and the conversion of penitent thief on Golgotha – that God longs for, and searches for, finds and draws to himself, each single soul. No single soul is beyond God’s initiative. [And that is what we shall affirm when at the moment of confirmation I shall greet each of our candidates by name – Allen, Nicky, Meisha – God has called you by name and made you His own. He has longed for you, searched for you, found you and is drawing you closer to himself.]
But I want you to notice something else, something easily missed if you are over-familiar with the story. What connects the two is that on both occasions – both on the day of the Resurrection and eight days later – our Blessed Lord showed the disciples the signs of His crucifixion (see Jn 20.20 as well as 27): those deep and abiding wounds, in His hands, and feet and side, clearly visible and tangible, carved into His glorified and mysteriously transformed Body.
Surely that is why Thomas says, ‘Well, though you speak of the wounds you saw, I will not believe your report. I must see them, and touch them for myself.’ And then when he did see them, he ‘who was the last to believe, was the first to make the full confession of the divinity of the Risen Saviour’. Thomas went far beyond what the others may have said, for he who ‘touched Christ as a man, believed in him as a God’. (Fulton Sheen: The Life of Christ, 1958).
On those two occasions it was those wounds – wounds He has never lost – that reminded the disciples not only of their failure and denial in the previous days and hours after the Last Supper; but also of their failure, throughout their time with Jesus, to understand – or even accept – His teaching, that He must suffer and die and on the third day rise again.
But that is not all. They were also the most persuasive testimony to the unconditional love for the whole of mankind which had been His motivation in giving-up His life to the power of sin and death, and proof of the greatest gift of the resurrection: His forgiveness, peace and new life.
In a word those wounds are the greatest testimony to God’s mercy.
St John Paul II made a brilliant observation about this passage (Dives in misericordia 8): ‘Here is the Son of God, who in His own resurrection experienced mercy shown to Himself, that is to say He experienced the love of the Father which is more powerful than sin and death. He who had been brought back to life is ‘the definitive incarnation of God’s mercy, its living sign’. He gives us all confidence that God’s mercy in our lives is not something small, a means to an end, an optional extra for the devout among us. It is an essential part of the largest and smallest aspects of our faith and prayer.
But how can we best understand mercy? It seems illusive; and before we know it we are off on a tangent thinking of God’s mercy in terms of human mercy – which seems to have to involve the one being merciful belittling and disempowering the one on the receiving end. But from the teaching and the behaviour of Jesus we can see that divine mercy isn’t like that at all. So let me try to use the encounter with Thomas to say a little bit about why.
The Bible gives no arguments for the existence of God. It is a story of a relationship, a series of covenants with a particular people, with plenty of moments of crisis and conflict with God, anger toward him, doubts about His intentions, and a sense of lostness when there is no real sense of His presence. The catastrophic and traumatic experience of the passion and crucifixion of Jesus was a climax to such moments. Despite Jesus’s clear teaching that the God of Israel never runs out of either love or liberty to renew His covenant, the disciples were ‘slow to believe’ the news of the resurrection. Thomas went further and refused to trust anything other than His own experience. Of course in part ‘slow to believe’ means ‘slow to understand’ what was happening – who wouldn’t be? But rather more deeply it means they were ‘slow to trust’ what was happening, because they knew, as never before, the abject failure of their love and discipleship toward Jesus in the hour of His greatest need. They knew their unworthiness and complicity. They were powerless, and they needed God to take the initiative – as He had repeatedly in the history of His people, the initiative that pours out of God simply because God is who Jesus Christ has revealed him to be – the initiative we call His mercy.
God IS the truth of His own nature; He IS Father Son and Holy Spirit; He IS an endless circulation of unconditional love and mutual justice and joy, which simply pours itself out on all that His love has created.
When that love reaches our sinful hearts and seeks entry we (who are not eternal and grow in faith only slowly) experience it in two ways: First we experience God’s truth. God sees us for the sinners that we are, our weakness, evasion, instability and wrongdoing. To be seen by such an eye of truth hurts, it stings. God sees us; and we know all our fears, pretences and evasions are exposed and judged. Such exposure would be too hard to bear did we not also, in the same moment, experience God’s compassion, the aspect of God’s love that, even while we are exposed before God, makes the truth of our condition bearable and healable. As someone once said, ‘truth makes genuine love possible; love makes real truth bearable’. Such is God’s mercy and it is the way God converts and renews our hearts. Divine mercy is how we finally accept the true God, the living God who will not be fitted into my identity and preferences. God is as the Risen Christ has revealed him: living Truth too great for me to see, but who sees, and judges, me, and because of Jesus does not turn me away but increases His mercy in me, helping me to see myself and others with the same eye of truth and love.
Thomas was not a doubter; Thomas’s problem was that he was not a truster! But when Jesus rebuked and challenged His unbelief, and bid him touch His wounds (not so he could forget the Cross but so as to make it unforgettable) divine mercy gushed forth from those wounds and Thomas saw and believed, and confessed the victory of divine love: ‘My Lord and my God’.
In the Saviour’s resurrection God’s mercy, immense and free, has won victory over sin and death; evil will never be victorious again. Dear Friends, may we be bold enough to open our hearts wide to God and to drink deep of His mercy – both His truth and His compassion – so that that His victory may also live in us, and through us may enliven and feed the lives of others.
God, merciful Father, in your Son Jesus Christ you have revealed your love and poured it out upon us in the Holy Spirit, the Comforter. We entrust to you today the destiny of the world and of every man and woman. Bend down to us sinners, heal our weakness, conquer all evil, and grant that all the peoples of the earth may experience your mercy, and find in you the source of hope.
Eternal Father, for the sake of the Passion and Resurrection of your Son:
have mercy on us and on the whole world!
Stations of the Cross - Station 15
Posted on the 3rd April 2021 in the category Resources
Jesus rises from the dead
We adore You, O Christ, and we bless You.
Because by Your holy cross You have redeemed the world.
from the Gospel according to St Mark 16.6-8
But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; He is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell His disciples and Peter that He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as He told you.’ So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
Thanks be to God.
Meditate on the Scripture
Easter does not immediately remove the realities of human life and suffering, but tells us that since Christ is alive in the glory of God, alive in the Church and in history, and as a result of the Church’s testimony alive also in us, it is possible for us to love and hope and believe more and more. Christ assures us that those who live in love, even through the midst suffering and death, are not abandoned by God, but are welcomed, loved, and drawn nearer to the fullness of peace and joy. Those who love receive Christ’s Spirit and are made capable of transmitting life to others around themselves. Through this Easter joy, a joy rooted in the cross of Christ, we shall find ways to announce true hope to our brothers and sisters. ‘This is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.’ (1 Jn 5.4)
Pray to the Lord
We raise our prayers to the only Lord Jesus, who died on the cross and now lives at the Father’s right hand.
Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy … [Kyrie eleison. Kyrie eleison. …]
Lord Jesus, You have opened for us the way to eternal life: Lord, have mercy. …
Lord Jesus, You have risen to life to for our justification: Lord, have mercy. …
Lord Jesus, You share with us the love that overcomes death: Lord, have mercy. …
This is the time when Christ visits the soul.
Store up the Lord’s word to you
O Father, who through Your only Son have overcome death and opened for us the gate of life eternal: grant us to be daily born again in the light and life and love of Your risen Son; through the same Christ our Lord.
O holy Mary pray for us: that the wounds your Son endured, which pierced your soul also,
may be imprinted in our hearts, and revealed in lives of mercy and peace.
A Final Prayer
Almighty God, it is You who made the heavens and the earth by Your great power, and by Your outstretched arm. Nothing is beyond Your power. We turn to You in our need, to ask Your protection against coronavirus, which has claimed lives and affected many. We pray for those afflicted. May they soon be restored to health. Grant this through Christ our Lord. Amen.