Sunday, 31 May 2009

Pentecost Sunday, Shaftesbury

I think that most of us know the feeling of having tried to do something that is beyond our ability. There are some things that are only beyond our ability at the moment, so that the first time I tried to ride a bicycle it was beyond my ability, and I fell down. But that's the kind of thing, the kind of inability, that we can overcome -we can acquire an ability we don't yet have. But there are some things that are simply beyond our power, full stop. For example, I am unable to fly, and it doesn't matter how hard I practice flapping my arms I will never be able to fly -it is simply beyond human ability.

Today, on Pentecost, we think of the Holy Spirit. And it is His role to enable us to do what we are unable to do without Him. And there are two ways we can think of this: here on earth; and in heaven.

Here on earth, there are many things that we should be able to do, but we are unable to do because of our fallen human nature -because we have inherited original sin, and are inclined to sin. So, patience should be something that comes naturally to us, to me. I should be able to have my eyes set on goal before me, and happily and lovingly and patiently endure whatever it takes to get there. But, in my fallen human nature, patience does not come easily to me, I do not happily endure things. However, this is only beyond my ability at the moment: with the Holy Spirit, I can gradually acquire this ability. The Holy Spirit is rightly called "another helper" by the Lord Jesus. And He is also called "the sanctifier” because He is the one who makes us holy. And this is how the Holy Spirit helps us here on earth.

What about in heaven? Well, it may not have occurred to you, or maybe it has occurred to you: but even if we get to heaven there is at least one thing that we will be unable to do: we will be unable to comprehend God, and thus unable to adequately love Him. Even in heaven, our intellects will be small and limited, while God is infinite, and we cannot comprehend Him. Only God can adequately comprehend God. Only God can adequately love God.
What we NEED if we are to know God as He knows Himself is to actually have God Himself dwelling IN us, and this “indwelling” is the role appropriated to the Holy Spirit: His dwelling in us causes us to exceed our natural capacities:
In Heaven, the role of ‘idea’ we will have of God is the role appropriated to the Son, the “Word” of God (Jn 1:1), the “image” of the Father (Col 1:15; Heb 1:3).
But the role of loving, of ‘love’ personified, is another of the roles appropriated to the Holy Spirit.
So, even in heaven, we will need the Holy Spirit, the “Helper” to help us do what we cannot do alone.

To say that differently: Those of you who remember the old Penny Catechism will remember that you were taught as a child that the reason we were created is "to know Him and love Him". What you were almost certainly not taught as a child was that you were and are inherently unable to do the thing that you were created to do! This is what theologians mean when they talk about our "supernatural" calling -we are called to do something beyond our ability, beyond our nature, something SUPER-natural. We are called to do what we can only do with the help of the Holy Spirit. This will apply in heaven, and it applies here on Earth. And our need for the Holy Spirit in heaven is the model of our need for Him here on Earth.

In heaven, we will know God by seeing Him in what is called the Beatific Vision, but we will only become able to see this immense vision by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within us. Similarly, on earth, I know God, but not by my own power: I know God through faith, faith which is a gift of the Holy Spirit. And knowing God in faith, knowing God by that response of to His self-revelation in Christ Jesus, I am now able to love Him.
All of this is worth knowing because it is a model of how we need to Holy Spirit in ALL kinds of things.

So how should I feel when I realise that I am unable to do something? How should I feel when I realise I am unable to do something that I know I need to do? If I believe in the Holy Spirit, then I should not feel despair. Rather, each time I have this realisation, I should recognise that this is just another example of the fact that I'm called to BE something that is beyond my power and had to DO something that is beyond my power. But by the gift of Him, the Holy Spirit, I am able to do what alone I cannot do.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Ascension Sunday, Year B, Shaftesbury

Mk 16:15-20, with third alternative second reading: Eph 4:1-13 (shorter version)

If one of you decided that my sermons were getting too long and decided to poison me, then I would probably die. Similarly, if a snake bit me I would probably die. In addition, I have never yet knowingly healed someone or cast out a devil.
And yet, all these are things that, in our Gospel text, Jesus said would be “associated with believers”. And I want to make two points about that.

First, though Jesus did not say that ALL believers would do these things, these things have indeed been associated with believers. For example:
Being bitten by snakes: The most famous example is in Acts 28:3-6 which tells how St Paul was bitten by a viper and yet unharmed, it tells how the people gathered around waiting to see him drop down dead, and were amazed.
Drinking poison: there are numerous account of this. The great monk St Benedict, and St John the Apostle, St Julian, St Hermias, St Photini and her companions. England’s protector St George was twice poisoned by a pagan sorcerer who was so amazed at his survival that he converted to Christianity.
Healing the sick: this, is a phenomenon so common down the history of the Church that describing incidents could literally take all day –many recent one in Lourdes are well documented.
And, casting out devils: I’m not an exorcist myself, this is a task that a bishop only entrusted to one priest per diocese. But I have known those who have done such exorcisms, who have described the power of the occult, and the sign of possession. But they have described even more the power of Christ, and who the devils flees before Him.

Second, these signs are only a PART of what Christ gives to help spread the Gospel –to convince they need to be seen as part of something else.
We often think today that we Modern people are the first ones to ever be sceptical, the first to ever question whether such miracles really happened or happen –but this is a very foolish and arrogant attitude. People have always questioned.
People have always witnessed that SOMETIMES normal people get bitten by a snake and survive.

These signs, these miracles by saints, are only deemed REALLY significant because there was SOMETHING ELSE about their lives that suggested that there was something else going on: their manner of life seemed different, the message of Christ they taught was different, and so these signs fit into a context –so that people might think “something new is at work here”. So, St George’s poisoner was not converted to worship George but rather to worship the Christ whom St George lived by.
So, Jesus said, these “signs will be associated with believers”, he didn’t say these signs alone will ‘prove’ believers –they were and even today sometimes still are, part of a package.

I might go further, and say that the ‘signs’ that prove Christ are the saints of His that loved the poor, like Mother Teresa of Calcutta; that cared for the sick and set up hospitals for them, like countless Christian saints down the ages. Of course, many of us have also proved that a Christian can be a hypocrite and not live a life radically different to his fellow non-Christian, but nonetheless the greatest miracle of the Church should be charity, a love that means “they will be one, that the world may believe”(Jn 17:21) as Jesus said.

So, to conclude where I began: I would die if you poisoned me, I would convert no-one on the basis of my ability to survive poisoning.
The challenge for each of us here, is whether our lives might become such that they are recognisably different to the world around us, recognisably witnessing to the power of Christ in us. Living, as our second reading said, “a life worthy of your vocation”(Eph 4:1) so that people would see “the Lord working in them and confirming the word by the signs that accompany it”(Mk 16:10).

Sunday, 17 May 2009

6th Sunday of Easter, Year B, Shaftesbury

Jn 15:9-17; 1Jn 4:7-10
As I observed last year, when we say goodbye to someone, especially if we're not going to see them for a while, we usually try and say something important, something that we want the other person will remember while we’re separated from them. Such words can be particularly important when someone is dying.
The words in today's gospel are such farewell words, the words Christ spoke at the Last Supper before he died.

Those words included a farewell request of Jesus, with an added strength, because it is directly connected WITH the death he was about to suffer, the REASON he was saying goodbye. He said,
“Love one another, as I have loved you.
A man can have no greater love, than to lay down his life for his friends.
You are my friends, if you do what I command you.”

Almost every religion in the world has a command to love, to treat our neighbour well. But ONLY Christianity has it rooted in the example of God himself, in dying out of love for us. It is a high standard of love, indeed, there can be no higher one. It’s not just rooted in a piece of ancient wisdom about the best way to get on in life, or seek harmony. It’s not just rooted in a law dictated by a remote godhead.

The command of love we follow is a direct PERSONAL request, from a God who has revealed and given us such love himself, who gave it to us long before we gave any love back to him. It’s a command of love, from a God who IS love itself. Scripture calls God many things, truth, strength, light. But it gives him no name as clear as the one we just heard from St. John’s first letter: “God is love”(1 Jn 4:8).

One of the reasons we keep someone’s dying request is as a memory of the person, as a way of continuing to make them present. Keeping Christ request for us love makes him present by his very nature. God is love, and love is the basis of our sharing in the life of God. As St.John says, “Love comes from God, and everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God”(1 Jn 4:7). And this follows from Christ’s promise that, “If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love”(Jn 15:10).

(pause)
Love SHOULD come naturally to us. We’re made in the image and likeness of God, and he is love. Humans are made as communal and relational beings -to exist in love with others. But it often doesn’t come naturally to us. We are selfish, we quarrel, we are greedy, we complain and moan and gossip about people.
We fail to love because we sin, and at root because of Original Sin. That’s why, when he gave us this command, Christ also gave us the promise of the strength of his Holy Spirit at the same Supper.

But it’s also why he gave us the SIGN of himself on the Cross to motivate us to love. When we look at Christ on the Cross, we see his love for us. And this must surely awaken a response in us, a response to love as he loved us.

The command to love as he loved is a demanding standard. But it comes with a high reward. The reward not only of having God dwell in us in this life, making his home in us in this life, but ultimately of him taking us home to himself, to the place he went when he died and rose again.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

5th Sunday of Easter, Year B, Shaftesbury

Jn 15:1-8
I’m not much of gardener, I like plants to look nice, I like it when spring comes and the flowers are in bloom. But I don’t have the patience to work with plants the rest of the year.
And I don’t know what plants need to make them grow well.
There is one thing I do know, however, and that is that a good gardener PRUNES his bushes –he cuts away the wood. I don’t know WHEN to prune, I had to check that in Google for my sermon preparation: apparently most things get pruned in late winter, some things like climbing roses get pruned in Autumn, and some things like Raspberries in very early spring –I didn’t know that.

Fortunately, there are gardeners who do what they are doing.
And, in our Gospel today, Jesus tells us that THE Gardener is the Lord Himself, and He knows what to cut and when to cut it.
Pruning is rather violent image to associate with God, and image that suggests that He directs not only the easy things in life, like the flowers coming up, but also the tough things in life, the blows in life that we never enjoying receiving.

We can never full grasp the ways of the Lord, but the image of the Gardener can help:
Why does a gardener prune? Because he hates his plants and wants to cut them up?
No, because he loves and cares for them, and wants them to become something better than they presently are.
Because he knows what is good for them

The Divine Creator, Scripture tells us, did not create suffering. Scripture gives us the image of the Garden of Eden, but it tells us a truth that is not just a symbol:
Suffering only entered this world with sin, and radically disrupted the harmony of this world so that we can barely imagine what life was like without suffering.
But even though He didn’t create it, He now directs it, to bring all things to the good, to the Good which is He Himself.

Now, this is something to recall in every difficulty.
Because we never WANT to be pruned. I want this dead wood in my life; and I certainly don’t want the pain that comes with it being cut away.
I know that there are many pointless things I am attached to, that aren’t good for me;
And I know that there are many GOOD things I’m attached to, but attached to in a selfish way that is bad for me and bad for the people I’m attached to;
So, I know I need to be pruned, but I don’t enjoy the pruning.
But I do need it. And because the Lord, the Divine Gardener knows it, He prunes me.

Before concluding, let me point out why we have this Gospel today, in Eastertide. Easter if the time of new growth, of Resurrection; of the resurrection that could only happen because of the Death that preceded it.
And the new growth that I need in my life can only come by the thousand little deaths that pruning involves.

So, when we feel one of those thousand little deaths, let us not only remember that the Lord is with us our suffering, let us remember too what He taught us in this passage: He is the Gardener, He knows what He is about, and every bit of pruning can be for our good, CAN be if we allow it to draw us to Him:
“a branch cannot bear fruit all by itself... cut off from me you can do nothing”
But “Whoever remains in me, with me in him, bears fruit in plenty”.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Good Shepherd Sunday, 4th Sunday of Easter, Year B, Shaftesbury

Jn 10:11-18
This was going to be a sermon about how there are people out there who behave as if they didn’t need a shepherd,
Then it was going to be a sermon about how there are people here among us who carry on as if they didn’t need a shepherd,
But then I remembered: I too carry on as if I didn’t need a shepherd.
Of course, I believe that I need a shepherd; I teach that I need a shepherd;
But in my daily living I all too often carry on as if I only had myself to rely on, and as if I didn’t really need anyone else’s help anyway. I might complain that I don’t have more help, complain that God didn’t make me more talented than did, but I nonetheless carry on as if I was OK alone.

And then things somehow don’t go quite right, in fact, if I acknowledge it, things go wrong –and they go wrong because I have done wrong: I have behaved as if God was an optional extra in my life rather than the beginning, and end, and middle of it.

Fortunately, every time this happens, God is waiting. Waiting for me, and waiting for you.
As we just heard Him say, “I am the good shepherd, I know my own”.
He knows, not only that I fail to use His shepherding, but He knows exactly HOW I fail, He knows it better than I do.

I say this to illustrate the point that it is not only YOU who need a shepherd, but I do too.
We pray today, on Good Shepherd Sunday, for vocations to the priesthood, but it’s also important to pray for your shepherd, your local priest and priests elsewhere, because otherwise we don’t have much chance of doing good for our flocks.
And I need a shepherd in the same ways that you do, and I have the same means that you do: the means that Christ established in the Church by giving us the 7 Sacraments and giving us priests to minister them to us.
I need Holy Communion –I need Jesus to come to me in His full “physical reality”(Paul VI, Mysterium Fidei, n.46). Not just a bit of Jesus, not just His spirit, but He Himself. I need Him, and He comes.
I need confession –The Shepherd who knows I wander off, that I carry on as if I didn’t need Him, He’s waiting to forgive my pride, my impatience, my laziness –because a shepherd often has to goad his flock on! I need His forgiveness, and it comes.

I need shepherding in the others ways too: in being taught and being governed and cared for.
I need the pastoral governance that the Pope and Bishop offer me,
I need the teaching of Christ that can only come to me through the Church –in the Bible and official teaching.
-without these things, I think my life is OK, I think I don’t need a shepherd, but I do.

What we recall today, is not just that we NEED shepherding,
not just that we are sheep, and often errant sheep at that,
What we recall today, is that there is a GOOD Shepherd, THE Good Shepherd.
Who manifested His goodness by establishing shepherds in His Church for us,
Who manifested His goodness by giving us Himself in the Sacraments,
And most of all,
Who manifested His goodness by the fact that “the good shepherd is one who lays down His life for His sheep”.