Sunday, 25 January 2009

Unity Service at St Edward’s, 6.30pm, Conversion of St Paul

Introduction to the Service:
Most of today’s service uses texts produced via The Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches and The Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, drawn in particular by Christians in Korea, a country divided in two whose political disunity symbolises the disunity in the Church.

Our service has three acts of unity –a sign peace, a creed we hold in common in our traditions, and our common prayer: the Lord’s Prayer.

Our service also has 3 hymns, all praying for unity while acknowledging our lack of unity, incidentally, all three are Anglican hymns.
And our service has 2 readings –Ezekiel, two joined as one; Acts, conversion of St Paul

I want to say a few words about the relevance of today’s feast of the Conversion of St Paul to Christian unity, a feast kept by the Anglican and Catholic Church today.
To convert means to change, and to achieve unity will involve change.

Conversion involves many things. It involves recognising that we need to change; it involves, recognising the destination –what we want to change into; and, it involves realising HOW to change –what we must do to get to the destination.

Now, when we think of St Paul, when he has just Saul, one of the striking things about him was that he saw no need to change. If the young Saul was to hear of a future feast of his “conversion” he would no doubt have said, “But I don’t need to convert, I’m already a faithful Jew, a Hebrew born of Hebrews((Phil 3:5)”.
And this, of course, as we all know, is the pattern true of each of us at so many moments in our lives. We do not recognise what is wrong with us, we deny our sin or deny the seriousness of it.
And often this is something we see more clearly in hindsight. That when we look back over our lives we see that where we were lacking in charity, lacking in patience, lacking in kindness; where we failed to honour our parents as they deserved to be honoured, where we stubbornly failed to forgive those who has sinned against us –so often, we can see that we failed even to see that we needed to change.

Now the Church, meaning both our individual traditions and as all of us together, the Church too failed to see its need for change with respect to this question of unity and disunity. Now, it’s easy for me standing here to stand in judgment over past generations, but it does seem true that there was a failure to realise that the hatred and bitterness and stubbornness that were a part of what separated our bodies –these things were often not recognised as things we needed to change.
We were like St Paul in thinking that we had no need to convert.

Over the past hundred years much has changed with respect to this first stage in conversion –we have, generally, acknowledged in a way that was NOT acknowledged before, that our disunity is something we need to change.
This is the first stage in any conversion, and achieving it is something to rejoice over. But acknowledging our need to change is only the first step.

The next stages are much more difficult, and they involve recognising what we must change into, and recognising how to change into it.
It is possible for us to take a step back in our ecumenical endeavours and say, well, this far and no further; this far is good enough.
And that, I’d suggest would be like St Paul realising he was blind but not then wanting to be healed.

I say this, I freely acknowledge, as a Catholic, with a Catholic view of what unity is like and a catholic view of what ecumenism should be like.
But I would say to you that where we have got to is not enough. It is not enough “to respect each other’s differences” –no, the lack of corporate unity among Christians is something that remains is visible scandal that prevents many from becoming a Christian –how can they know how to become a Christian if they cannot see amid all the different groupings of us?
It’s possible to think that we’re united already and so don’t need to really do anything, but we’re not united yet -And when others look at us from the outside it is very obvious to them that we are not united yet.

The next stage in the ecumenical conversion must involve seeing what true unity is like.
This, of course, is something where we do not agree.
Does unity mean agreement in doctrine?
Do dogmas divide “man from man” (as the hymn goes) or do they unite us to a common truth?
Does unity mean common liturgical and ecclesial law?
Does unity means a common mutually acknowledged authority?
Does authority create unity or does it create division?
Does unity mean a common agreement as to what is sin and what is virtue?
Can we be converted from sin without being told what sin is?
Or, does unity itself require diversity in these matters?
Does unity require unity at a worldwide level,
or does unity mean unity with the local group?

I think we all agree that there must be some uniformity and some diversity,
Even among Catholics we have different liturgical and canonical rites,
We have Byzantine Catholics and Roman Catholics, and others too.
-even Catholics acknowledge some diversity!
But although we all acknowledge some need for uniformity and some need for diversity
We do NOT agree as to what this means.
And until we do agree then any talk of having “achieved unity” is very premature.

On this feast of the CONVERSION of St Paul, I would return to the fact that he thought he already had it sorted, that he didn’t need to convert, and that we each to acknowledge that conversion means being open to look again at unity and the components of unity, to consider what can be sacrificed and what cannot.
Of course, we all tend to think that true unity looks like what we are and what we aim to be
But the CONVERSION of St Paul calls on us to be willing to think again, as the Lord had him think again.

After over a century of ecumenical focus in the church there is much to rejoice over, but this is still the beginning, not the end.

Feast of the Conversion of St Paul, Shaftesbury

We keep today the feast of the Conversion of St Paul, which is probably a feast you’ve never heard of before because we don’t normally keep it on a Sunday. But this year has been dedicated by Pope Benedict as the Year of St Paul, and so we’re celebrating the feast today.

St Paul is the most dramatic saint we find in the New Testament, and the saint who had the most effect in spreading the Gospel. If you were to take a cruise on a boat around the Mediterranean Sea you would find place after place were the people would claim that St Paul had been there, would claim that St Paul was the one who took the Gospel to them. From Turkey to Spain, with places like Malta and Cyprus in between. When we read in our first reading from Acts 22:15 that St Paul was “chosen... to bear witness before ALL mankind” –it hardly seems an exaggeration. He was great man of great effect.

But today, on the feast of his conversion, we recall how he began. How he started out as one who persecuted the Christians, and yet, God CHOSE him, chose him with a dramatic event, a light that threw him from his horse, then spoke to him from the heavens, blinded him and later miraculously cured him. And St Paul came to believe in the one he had not believed in, and came to preach what he had opposed.

Now, there are many points I could preach on in this regard, but there is one simple one I’m going to focus on: what was it that made St Paul “great”?
Because we might think it that dramatic miraculous event, or that he was a great preacher, or clever in his use of words.
And there are many things at a worldly level that make St Paul appear great:
He had religious greatness: “a Hebrew born of the Hebrews”(Phil 3:5).
He had worldly greatness: born of a wealthy family, a Roman citizen in the Roman Empire, he had been sent as youth from Tarsus to be a student of the great Gamaliel in Jerusalem.

But everything in St Paul’s life changed after he met Christ: “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ”(Phil 3:7-9).
What made St Paul great was the fact that he knew Christ, and in this, there were many others who were greater than he was –even if they didn’t have as spectacular a conversion or as spectacular a life in the effects that God called forth from them.

For those of us who have known Christ for a long time, maybe known him since infancy, it is very easy to forget the importance of knowing him. We can treat him with a sort of casual indifference.
St Paul came to realise that “knowing Christ Jesus” was important because it meant knowing the key to life, knowing “a secret and hidden wisdom”(1 Cor 2:7), or rather, a wisdom that was secret and has now been made known, and that St Paul spent the rest of his life making known: the ‘secret’, the ‘mystery’ that there was a plan from the foundation of the world, a plan that called us IN CHRIST, to become sons in the Son, to be adopted as His own.

So that the value of any one of us does not lie in our education, or wealth, or accent (nice as these things might be for those who have them),
But our value lies in knowing Him who made us, who called us, and who values us simply on the basis of our fidelity to Him, a fidelity that can be measured simply by how much we love (c.f. 1 Cor 13:13).

The true greatness of St Paul’s conversion lies not in the miracle of blinding light, but in the fact that he changed what he valued in life, and what he valued in himself: that he ‘counted everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord’, Christ who “shows that he loves us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us”)Rom 5:9).

Sunday, 18 January 2009

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Shaftesbury

Jn 1:35-42
I’ve been alive for over 38 years now and among the things that have been pretty constant in my life is that I’m never quite satisfied. I’ve had a lot of things go well in my life, a lot of things, but nonetheless, I’m never quite satisfied. My chair is never quite comfortable enough, the TV program is never quiet funny enough, or if it is funny enough then its not funny for long, or the house isn’t warm enough, or my drink isn’t chocolately enough.

All of this is pretty much the state of human existence. That even those of us who have many of the things we’ve spent our lives aiming for, even so, we’re still looking for something more.
On one level, this is a good thing: to stop striving is to just give up and die.
But on another level, it’s a sign that this material world we live in is not enough. St Augustine, over 1700 years ago, summed this up by referring to the restlessness of the human heart and saying, “Our hearts are restless O Lord until they rest in Thee”.
We are made for more than just sitting in comfortable chairs, watching TV, and drinking nice stuff. Rather, we are made with a spiritual soul so that we might freely love and love Him who is more loveable than anything we find on the material level.

In today’s gospel we heard Jesus ask the question, “What do you want?” or, “What are you seeking?” and it mirrors a question he asked at two other times: To the guards who came to arrest him in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Whom are you seeking?”(Jn 18:4); and, To Mary Magdalene after the resurrection, “Whom do you seek?”(Jn 20:15).
Each time the question referred to Him. And, if I want the answer to what I am seeking, even in what I do not realise, even when I am looking for it in odd places, then JESUS is the one whom I am seeking.
In all that leaves me unsatisfied, my lack of satisfaction is because I am still seeking Jesus.

Now I say this as a priest, as a priest who has sought Jesus many times, and found Jesus many times, and yet who is still NOT fully satisfied.
It is certainly true that Jesus has given me much satisfaction –more than I would trade for the passing pleasures of this world or the fleeting glamours of this life.
But still, I know I am not FULLY satisfied.
The answer to my lack of satisfaction is that I never FULLY turn to Him, I always turn aside when I seem satisfied ENOUGH. When I feel satisfied but to seek Him more would involve difficulty, the Cross, and so forth.

The disciples asked Jesus, “Where do you live?”(Jn 1:38). And we know they weren’t just asking for an address. It was a more existential question.
He lives is a life of virtue –He is peaceful, patience, loving.
He lives in full perfection –He has none of my limits.
He lives in perfect joy –He is satisfaction personified, and invites me to share it.

In John’s Gospel, time and again, he records the teaching of Jesus that TRUE seeing is about faith. Seeing the RIGHT things, the DEEPER things. So when Jesus said to those enquiring disciples, “Come and see”(Jn 1:39), then this is an invitation to look AGAIN at the RIGHt things. This is why I am dissatisfied. He is the one I am made for, and I’m restless until I FULLY rest in Him, even if that involves more than the half-hearted commitment I give Him.
At 38 I am still unsatisfied because when I “Come and see” Jesus I am still wandering to other things.
If, after another 38 years, I finally rest in the Lord, it will be because I have decided WHERE I need to rest. “Our hearts are restless O Lord until they rest in Thee”.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Baptism of the Lord, 1st Sunday Ordinary Time, Year B, Shaftesbury

I want to say a few words about what makes someone important –because today’s feast of the Baptism of the Lord reveals what was important about Him, and thus is about us.

When someone introduces you to someone new, you often expect them to say the most important thing about you, in a sense, to say WHY you are important and worth meeting.
“This is Harry, he used to be mayor here”
Or, “This is Judy, she’s our best maths teacher”

What people thing is important can sometimes me quite interesting, if not bizarre.
And, of course, we all know there are some people who are quite full of their own sense of importance. “I’m John, but I guess you’ve already heard about me”.

The question I want to focus on, is what is REALLY the important thing about any of us that is worth saying of us?
This is relevant on today’s feast because it was at the Baptism of the Lord Jesus that voice from Heaven first spoke of Him publicly, spoke of Him and introduced Him to the world. And what did that voice of God say about Him and was the important thing to know about Him? “This is my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on you”
Now, sometimes, people can be sceptical of someone you thinks they are important just because their father is important.
However, that does depend on WHOSE son you are. If you are the son of GOD, REALLY the Son of God, that that’s pretty important, and, quite simply, it’s the only important thing to say about Him.
If there really is a Lord God almighty who made everything and directs everything,
Then whoever his son is, is pretty important just in virtue of that!
So, it’s not surprising that this is exactly what was said of Jesus.

Now, for ourselves, this is important too. Because this thing that is what was important about Jesus is also what is important about all of those who belong to Jesus –we too have God as our Father.
Not everyone in the world has God as their Father.
Everyone in the world has God as their Lord, as master.
But the family relationship of father-child, only comes to those who choose to be ADOPTED, in Christ, in the ONE Son of the Father.
This is what we see in Scripture -this privileged title ’Father’ only belongs to Christians.

Why am I important? Is it because I’m better looking than Brad Pit, or because I have the dignity of being a son of God?
Many of us have times when we feel we’re not important because we lack one of the things we mistakenly think real important lies in: we lack the better job we aspire to, or the better house, or car, or more beautiful wife.
We feel unimportant because we judge ourselves by something ephemeral, not the one solid thing that really counts –my relationship with God.

If I want to remember why I am important, it’s because God has freely chosen to adopt me as His son. He didn’t have to, but he chose to.
And if I’m introduced to someone, others may not mention it, it is actually the one truly important thing worth saying about me.
And if GOD was to introduce me, what he’d say is, “You are my son, the beloved”.