Sunday, 29 September 2013
As I think you all know, I’ve just been away on our parish pilgrimage to Rome, and it was a fantastic week, visiting all the holy sites we’d planned, with glorious weather, and good company! And I want today to say a few words picking up on our second reading with St Paul’s admonition to Timothy to “fight the good fight”(1 Tim 6: 12) –because it’s an image that was very much before us when we were thinking of the martyrs in Rome.
We saw the Circus Maximus where the majority of the martyrs of ancient Rome faced their final struggle, where many were eaten by lions or torn apart by beasts. Where the Emperor Nero set fire to Christians so that their bodies would be burning torches to light his palace. We went out to visit the grave of St Paul, not far from where he was beheaded. And we saw the obelisk where St Peter was crucified upside down. All of these sites reminded us of those who had “fought the good fight” when it was much tougher than it is for us today in England.
We might well wonder how we, ourselves, would cope in such a trial. We know of course, as St Paul says elsewhere, that “His grace is sufficient for me”(2 Cor 12:9) –so that we can be strong with Him in a way that we cannot be strong alone. He gives us the strength that we each need for our particular trials, such that as St Paul says elsewhere, “He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”(1 Cor 10:13).
In today’s reading, however, St Paul strengthens Timothy with a twofold motivation: “the Appearing” of the Lord Jesus. That Appearing had occurred once in humility in Galilee: being born, dying, and rising. The final Appearing will be in glory, at the Second Coming. The first appearing proved who He is, the second appearing is the promise to lead us on.
What of us, now? Do we realise that to be a Christian is to “fight”?
You are I are not being called to be martyred in Shaftesbury, but we are being called to “fight”.
I am being called to conquer MYSELF: my impatience, my laziness, my selfishness is not giving enough to the poor, my gluttony, my lust, my complaining about my cross, my grumbling and moaning and thinking about myself rather than about loving my neighbour.
If I don’t conquer myself, master myself, then I’m just defeated by my own selfishness.
All of these small mundane things are part of that same on-going battle that Christians have ALWAYS been fighting against “the world, the flesh, and the devil”(c.f. 1 Jn 2:16; Eph 2:1-13).
And, if you and I are not fighting, then it’s because we’ve already lost. In which case, we need to get with the program, get into the battle.
St Paul told Timothy, as he thus tells us too, of “the duty of doing ALL that you have been told, with no faults or failures”, and it’s not easy doing so, it’s a battle.
But like the martyrs of ancient Rome, and the Christians martyrs suffering today in Egypt, Syria, now Pakistan, and elsewhere, we do not “fight the good fight” alone.
We are in the same battle that they were in and are in.
We, like them, look to the same victor in the war: Christ, who triumphed in the Resurrection, and will be shown triumphant in His final Appearing.
And we, like them, have the promise of a share in the same crown.
But only if we wake up and join the battle.
Sunday, 22 September 2013
Sunday, 15 September 2013
Sunday, 8 September 2013
Our first reading poses a question that remains as relevant today as it was when it was asked thousands of years ago:
"Who can know the mind of God?" (Wis 9:13), or, to use the Jerusalem Bible in our lectionary, "What man can know the intentions of God?"
and, you might say, our Scripture readings for today give us at least two examples of how it is hard to know the mind of God, even when reading His own word in Sacred Scripture: We have our Gospel text in which we hear the Lord Jesus, the same Lord who commanded us to love, we hear Him insist that unless we "hate" (Lk 14:25) father, mother, brother etc we cannot be His disciple. And to round it all off, He says we must ALL “give up [our] possessions” (Lk 14:33) if we would follow Him.
These are just a two of many quandaries we face in seeking to know what God is about, what the mind of God holds. And there are three basic possible approaches people take:
First, there is the approach most common in our age, the agnostic approach, namely, to say that NO ONE can know the mind of God.
But this brings difficulties of its own. For one thing, it renders life meaningless if we cannot know its meaning. It also makes God rather odd, in that He would have created us but then not sought to have anything to do with us, not sought to communicate to us, to make His mind known to us.
Second, there is the Protestant approach –very close to the real deal, but not quite. This says that God has made Himself known, in speaking His one Eternal Word. Then the Bible appeared, in a mechanism that Protestantism fails to comment upon, and fails to explain how on earth we are to INTERPRET so many difficult texts in the Bible. So, although the Protestant approach comes very close to the real deal, and it does truly say that the mind of God has been made known, and it is written in the Bible, but it gives us no hermeneutical key to understand the Bible. Small wonder that the Protestant approach has given rise to countless split groups of rival interpretations, such that there are now 33,000 splinter denominations
Finally, there is the Catholic approach. This says: God has made Himself known in Christ, but the TRANSMISSION of what He has given, what St Jude's epistle calls "the deposit of faith"(1:3), was entrusted by Christ, at the very beginning, to His Church, under His popes as His vicars on earth, to pass on authoritatively and reliably. The Bible was written by the Church, and it was the Church that judged which books were to go in the Bible and which books were not, and it is that same Church that in every age has the task on interpreting that sacred word. And this interpretation is done not by a mere human agency, but with the promise of infallibility, the guidance of the Holy Spirit, so that the popes hand on that "deposit of faith" to us reliably. The Church wrote the Bible, and it is that same Church that knows how to interpret the Bible –using her living memory of "Sacred Tradition".
And because we belong to the same Church that wrote the Bible, we have access to how to interpret those tough texts I started my mentioning….
You can read a longer analysis on the internet, on my sermon for these texts the three years ago when these readings last came up, But in short, the Hebrew language lacked the ability to say, “the most” or “more”, so the way you say you must love Jesus “the most”, more than your family, more than money, more than avoiding suffering, to say you must “hate” your family, “give up all possessions”, and carry your cross.
So, the mind of God is no longer a mystery, He has made it known, and if we entrust ourselves to the teaching of His Church we can know that mind with certainty today, not know it in the fullness of His infinite wisdom, but know it in the fullness with which He has made it known, know it with the fullness of all we need to get to heaven, and all we need to live and love while on earth.
[The girl in the t-shirt is one of our parishioners, author of the blog, "Yes, I'm Catholic" http://yesimcatholic.wordpress.com/ ]
Sunday, 1 September 2013
Sometimes it can take other people to point out to us certain things we don’t realise about ourselves, and sometimes children do this to us very directly and simply. I was struck by this some time ago, as a young priest, when a little child asked me why I did ‘that funny thing’ with my voice at the end of the long prayer. It took me a while to figure out what he meant, but it turned out that he was referring to the doxology at the minor elevation, and that ‘funny thing with my voice’ is what I had been thinking was ‘singing’!
The path to self-knowledge can be a hard lesson, but it is an essential one if we are ever to have the outward humility that we hear Jesus call us to in the Gospel today. If we mistakenly thing we’re better or grander than we are, then we simply end up looking foolish if we’ve been pushing ourselves forwards anyway. True self-knowledge prevents us making such fools of ourselves. And so a Christian is called to act humbly.
It might be replied, however, and I’ve frequently had people say this, and only recently had someone say this to me: but surely I AM better than some people, and so I shouldn’t behave as if I was lesser than EVERYONE.
Well, the saints say otherwise, and say so very emphatically. (e.g. The Imitation of Christ, Bk 1, chpt II).
But, what struck me while reading this Gospel text this week, is that I think the Lord Jesus deliberately by-passes this question.
Note, He doesn’t say: seat yourself lower because you are lower. If that was the reason then He would say, surely, analyse the room and figure out who is TRULY greater and lower than yourself, and rank your seating accordingly. No. He by-passes the reality of our true worth and rank and instead says we should sit AS IF we were lowest.
Behave as if you rank the least, regardless of whether or not you rank the least.
This is the better path, the surer path, the one that Christ has marked out for us.
He marked it out in His teaching, but most of all in His own example –“He was humbler yet, even to accepting death on a cross”(Phil 2:8).
In His own example He by-passed the question of whether He was more important (which, as God, He certainly was) and behaved AS IF we were more important than He was, as if our salvation mattered more than His suffering.
This, of course, is involved in all love. This is why humility is the essential foundation if the house of love is to be built. We must behave as if we were less important and others more important, as the earlier part of that text from Philippians that I just quoted said, “put other people’s interests before your own”(Phil 2:3-4)
Let me close by noting the fear that I think we all have here:
We don’t want to put ourselves down because we fear that if we do then we’ll be forgotten, neglected, and so forth.
But chasing after that quest to raise ourselves forward is a fool’s goal, as Jesus’s example of people who raise themselves and then get lowered by others shows us.
And, even if (in this world) lowering ourselves means that we get forgotten, well, isn’t it better to lower ourselves if it means that we thus raise others in loving them, in putting them higher?
And, ultimately, it is better for us too, so that on that final day of judgement, when that final seating of all people is established, so that the Lord Himself will say to us, because we have put ourselves lower, "My friend, come up higher"(Lk 14:10).