Thursday, 30 May 2019

Hope of Heaven, Ascension Year C

Lk 24:46-53; Eph 1:17-23
It might be asked, ‘What relevance is the Ascension?’
I’d like to offer part of the answer to this question by contrasting the ‘joy’ of the apostles with a certain despair people sometimes have today.
The Apostles left the scene of the ascension ‘full of joy’ –they’d had a glimpse of Heaven.

I can remember talking about Heaven to a woman once, and she said, most bizarrely, “I hope there is no heaven. It would be awful to think about this life going on and on and on. Life is so full of suffering that I hope it just ends at death”.
A particularly gloomy way of expressing it, but a thought that many people have in different ways.
The problem with this thought is that it thinks of Heaven as just being a continuation of Earth.

Heaven is not just a mere continuation of Earth.
All through Easter, the second reading at Sunday Mass has been taken from the book of Revelation –a book full of much complex symbolism, with talk of dragons, beasts, and battles, but a book that makes one thing clear:
The Lord who rose from the dead will also be victorious in a final vanquishing of the Devil, and he will vanquish all that the Devil has caused: sin, suffering, sadness.
“Never again will they hunger, never again will they thirst… God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev 7:16-17)
“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain, for order of THIS WORLD is passing away”. (Rev 21:4).
Heaven will NOT be like the world we know now.

So, What will heaven be like?
Well, some things we don’t know. As St Paul says, ‘Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9).
But, we do know some things. Beyond knowing that there is no suffering, we know that every need and hope of the human heart will be satisfied. This is a central part of what the Ascension teaches us –Christ took His body to Heaven, and our bodies will be bodily satisfied there.
We will not be angels in Heaven. As I preached recently (see here), we will not be mere spirits
As we say in the creed, we believe in ‘The Resurrection of the Body’
Every need and desire my body now has will be satisfied in Heaven, and more.

One of the mistakes that believers have made through the ages, and that the apostles made frequently before the Holy Spirit came upon them, was to think that the Kingdom of Heaven would be like a kingdom on Earth
-even in that opening passage from Acts, the apostles were asking the Risen Lord if He was going to restore an EARTHLY Kingdom to Israel.

Our Gospel passage ended with the Apostles, ‘full of joy’. Why? Because they had seen a glimpse of Heaven. They had seen the Lord glorified as He was ascended. They had begun to grasp what it was all about.
They, like us, live to follow our Lord.
He died, and we must die to sin.
He rose, and we hope to rise to a new life of grace.
He ascended, and we hope, if we are faithful, to enter the glory of Heaven with Him.
While we live on this world, we carry our Cross, as He carried His cross.
But the life of the Cross will not last forever. Suffering will end.
As St Paul said in our 2nd reading, the Lord has “promised” (Eph 1:20ish) “rich glories” to the saints.
And, “the one who made the promise is faithful” (Heb10:23 –alt 2nd reading)

If we look to Heaven, if we look to our Ascended Lord, then the joy of the apostles will also be ours, because we will have faith to share His Glory.

Sunday, 26 May 2019

The Spread of the Church, 6th Sunday of Easter, Year C

Acts 15:1-2.22-29
I want, today, to say a few words about the Acts of the Apostles.

As you may well have noticed, this Eastertide and every Eastertide the first reading at Mass is taken, all through the season, from the book 'The Acts of the Apostles'.
It describes what the Apostles did after Jesus had ascended into heaven.
It describes how they SPREAD the Gospel of the Lord's Resurrection all across the known world
-Starting from Jerusalem, and ending, very symbolically, in Rome, the centre of the Roman Empire, the centre of the then known world.
They had lived with Him, seen His ministry, heard His preaching, watched Him suffer and die on the Cross.
And then, to their surprise, had seen Him after He rose from the dead.
Their encounter with the risen Lord transformed them and He sent them out to “make disciples of the nations”(Mt 28:19),
and everywhere they went they established the Church.
As we just heard, "In each of these churches they appointed elders (the Greek says, 'presbuteros', from which we get our word for 'priest'), and with prayer and fasting they commended them to the Lord in whom they had come to believe."(Acts 14:23).

The simple point I wish to draw your attention to today, however, is the SPEED with which all this happened
-the speed with which the early Church spread.
Because this is one of the SIGNS, one of the proofs, that the Church is OF GOD and not just a human institution.
Yes, she is made up of humans. But the LIFE within her, what makes her truly what she is, is the grace and power of God.
And one of the SIGNS of this is the speed with which God established her initial growth.
This speed was so remarkable that it is a PROOF that the founder of the Church is who He claimed to be, namely, proof that Jesus is God.
As the First Vatican Council taught in 1870AD, this is one of the "motives of credibility" for believing in Him: "The Church itself, by its marvellous propagation... is a vast and perpetual motive of credibility, and an irrefragable witness of its own Divine legation." (First Vatican Council, De Fide Catholica, c.iii.)

The early Church had a great many things against her.
She faced PERSECUTION by both the Jewish authorities in Palestine and the Roman imperial forces elsewhere.
She faced RIDCULE from the sophisticated Greek philosophers for following an unsophisticated Galilean preacher, and, worse still to the Greeks, preaching not only the ‘resurrection’ of this man but of ALL men (whereas Greek philosophy sought to escape the captivity of the body -as they saw it).
She taught an UNPATRIOTIC rejection of the national pagan gods.
Perhaps toughest of all, she taught a demanding MORAL & sexual code to a permissive pagan world.
And, unlike some religions, she taught peace and did not seek to spread herself by warfare.
For all these reasons, human expectation would have said she would fail.

Yet, on her first day, at Pentecost, 3000 were added to her number.
In the lifetime of the apostles she spread throughout Asia and to Rome.
By the mid-second century St Justin could observe that,
"There is no race of men, whether barbarians or Greeks, among whom prayers are not offed through the name of the crucified Christ".
And by the year 313AD in the Edict of Milan, even the emperor himself submitted to the faith.

How did this happen? Not by the work of men. But by the grace of God.
And, as we hear the Acts of the Apostles read to us through this Easter season, let us recall and give thanks for the power of God being manifested in this way.

Sunday, 19 May 2019

Not an Angel, 5th Sunday of Easter, Year C

Rev 21:1-5
Today I want to say a few words about a specific point:
About the fact that when we die we do NOT become angels.

As Christians, we believe in the “the resurrection of the dead”
-as we say every week in the Creed and as we’ll say again in just a few short minutes.
In contrast, you sometimes hear people attempt to offer words of consolation when someone has died and say something like, “Don’t worry, he (or she) is an angel now”.
These words seem nice. Seem reassuring.
However, they are not true.
And, here is an important point:
these words are not as reassuring as the TRUTH, namely, that there is a resurrection of the BODY.

Angels, Scripture tells us, and our Catholic Faith has solemnly defined, are spiritual beings, purely spiritual.
They have no body.
We, however, as humans, do have a body.
Having a body is part of what we are.
We also have a spiritual soul, but what makes us DIFFERENT from the angels is that we have a body.
When we die, our body dies, though our spiritual soul lives on.
But that is not the end. We receive a new resurrected body.
If we have been good and lived with Christ, then that new body is transfigured and glorified like Christ’s resurrected body.
We don’t get our old bodies back, but new transfigured bodies.
And the degree of glory in our new body will depend on the degree of love in our soul while we have lived on earth.

Our second reading today, and all through Eastertide, is from the book of Revelation.
It describes a series of apocalyptic events that pretty much culminate in the truth we heard in the text today, that:
there will be “a new heaven and a new earth;
the first heaven and the first earth”(Rev 21:1) will disappear.
And WHO will do this? Who will work this change?
The Lord of life who Himself rose from death, the one who “sits on the throne”(Rev 21:5).
“Through Him all things were made” (Jn 1:3) in the beginning, and through Him all things will be re-made,
“Behold, I make all things new”(Rev 21:5).
This is what we celebrate all through Eastertide.

And that making of all things new includes the re-making of our bodies.
And that is something BETTER than the ANGELS have.
The Lord Jesus became a man. He has shared our nature.
He did not become an angel. He has not shared the nature of angels.
As a consequence, we enjoy a greater glory and a greater union with God than that enjoyed by the angels.
And what this means is that “the resurrection of the body” is a much greater thing than becoming an angel.

Sunday, 12 May 2019

Good Shepherd Sunday, 4th Sunday Easter, Year C

Jn 10:27-30; Rev 7:9,14-17
Today, I’d like us to consider where we are going in life.
Many people seem to be going nowhere. They may be going to Tesco and back. To the TV and back. To the kitchen and back. But with no real purpose beyond this. Living for comfort, living for rest, but nothing more.
Life, if it is to be WORTH living, needs a meaning, a purpose, a DESTINATION.

At the eternal level, our destination for eternity, there is the issue of heaven and hell.
If we’re going somewhere important, getting the destination RIGHT is crucial.
More than once, I’ve plugged a destination into Google Maps and failed to get to the destination, because the map was wrong.

Today we keep ‘Good Shepherd Sunday”, and one of the things that the Lord Jesus has revealed about Himself as our Shepherd is that He KNOWS where He is going.
Jesus knows the way to heaven because He came FROM there.
Jesus knows the way to heaven because He RETURNed there.
Jesus shows us the REALITY of heaven by His resurrection from the dead.
Jesus SHOWS the way to heaven because even though He is shepherd He is also the LAMB:
Our second reading today says this directly: “the Lamb who is at the throne will be their shepherd and will lead them”(Rev 7:17).
He has come among us, He has become ONE of us, He has taken our flesh as human.
He thus “leads” us as one like us.

But what is the destination?
Scripture repeatedly speaks of the sheep being led to “living water”(Rev 7:17), “still waters”(Ps 22:2).
Scripture uses water as a symbol of life.
For us in England, water might not seem important. We have lots of rain, lots of water.
But for most of the humanity, water is precious, water is life.
There is good water, and dirty water. Water that is healthy, and water that brings sickness and destruction.
God, the source of life itself, is thus described as “LIVING water” -if you want life, you need to find Him..

Let us turn to another aspect of the shepherd, that we hear in our Gospel text: the “voice” (Jn 10:27).
God leads us, but we need to know how to recognise His voice.
This is part of why we pray for priestly vocations on this Sunday:
God speaks to us, God leads us, through His Church.
Part of what we celebrate on Good Shepherd Sunday is that He gives us His guidance in the sacraments, in the Bible, in the Catechism.
To recognise His voice is to know the way to the living water.
To recognise His voice is to know true life.

To sum this up,
For life to have meaning it needs a DESTINATION: Jesus has shown us the destination, eternal life.
For life to have security, we need to be LED there: Jesus is the shepherd who leads us.
For the destination to be CERTAIN, we need guidance along the way by one LIKE us:
Jesus is the Shepherd over us who is also the Lamb among us,
who also gives us His priests, His sacraments, His teaching.

Many people spend life going nowhere more exciting that Tesco.
There is, in contrast, another destination we can know:
God Himself, the living water,
and the Good Shepherd is both the destination and the way.

Sunday, 5 May 2019

Quo Vadis, 3rd Sunday Easter, Year C

Jn 21:1-19; Acts 5:27-32.40-41
I don’t know if you’ve every wondered what size shoe Jesus takes, but the answer is a size 10, and the reason we know this connects an ancient Tradition with the prophecy in today’s Gospel.
Many of you will be familiar with Domine Quo Vadis account. This isn’t recorded in the Scriptures but we find it written about in a non-canonical source called the Acts of St Peter. It describes how, near the end of St Peter’s life, there was a persecution of the Christians in Rome. And Peter fled. He fled out of the city along the Appia Antica, the ancient road out of the city. And as he was hurrying along he saw the Lord Jesus: Jesus was coming the opposite direction, carrying His cross, heading to Rome. Peter asked Him, ‘Domine Quo Vadis’ [Where are you going Lord?]. To which the Lord answered, ‘I am going to Rome, to be crucified again’. The vision vanished, but left His empty footprints on the rock. Peter was called to fill those empty footprints. Peter knew from this that he was called to return to Rome himself, to suffer and die for the Lord, as the Lord had prophesied so many years previously on the side of the Lake of Galilee. And so Peter died Saint Peter.

The gospel account we heard taught us a lot about St Peter’s call. He was established as the shepherd over the other shepherds: the prince of the apostles. He was called to suffer martyrdom: to be taken where he would rather not go. He was, in all, called, in those final words, to “follow me”.
But, if Jesus called him to so much, what did Jesus ASK him in His questions of him? Only one simple thing. A simple thing that was so important He asked it three times: ‘Do you love me?’

What of us? Do we love Him?
Why should I love Him? Well, the answer to that might lie in why Peter loved Him.

The answer to why Peter loved Him lies, at least in part, with the change that the Resurrection brought about. A change that indicates why it is the RESURRECTION and not only the Cross that is what enables us to carry OUR cross.
Before: Peter was weak, he ran away when Jesus was arrested, he denied Him three times.
After: he was bold, strong, as we heard in the first reading: he was ready to be whipped and suffer for Jesus.
We know that Peter was strong because of Grace, but I think there is another reason:
Peter now knew Jesus in a way that he had only imperfectly known Him before.
Peter had an experience of Him as something more.

Why did Peter love Him?
He knew Him: He knew Him as one who FORGAVE Him: threefold profession = threefold forgiveness
He knew Him as one who LOVED Him: sought Peter out after the Resurrection
-the Lord didn’t look for a new set of better apostles
He knew Him as a TRIUMPHANT Lord, risen from death. He knew Him as his God.
He knew Him as the MEANING of life.
As Peter had professed previously, when they couldn’t comprehend Jesus’s claim to be the Bread of Life, to feed them with His own flesh. ‘Will you, too, now leave me?’, ‘Lord, to whom would we go, you have the words of eternal life’
He knew Him as one who would PROVIDE for him: produced the miraculous catch of fish
-provided for him by His own self as food: fish as food:
Greek word for Christ was fish: Ichthus
-provided for him even if it meant WITH the Cross of suffering to share.
The resurrection made it possible for Peter to love the Lord in a way he had never loved Him before. To follow Him as he had never followed Him before.

These same reasons are why I should love Him. Are why I should accept all the little sufferings, and big sufferings, that my call to follow Him involve. To be good, to be patient, considerate, thoughtful of others, to accept my illnesses and weaknesses, to offer them as a prayer to the Lord.

So, how do I know that Jesus takes a size ten shoe? Because I take a size ten shoe. And, like you, I know that I am called to fill the shoes of the fisherman: to suffer as he suffered. Because, like Him, I know my following of the Lord is founded on that same question, ‘Do you love me?’

The full text of the account in The Acts of St Peter (XXXV):
“And as they considered these things, Xanthippe took knowledge of the counsel of her husband with Agrippa, and sent and showed Peter, that he might depart from Rome. And the rest of the brethren, together with Marcellus, besought him to depart. But Peter said unto them: Shall we be runaways, brethren? and they said to him: Nay, but that thou mayest yet be able to serve the Lord. And he obeyed the brethren's voice and went forth alone, saying: Let none of you come forth with me, but I will go forth alone, having changed the fashion of mine apparel. And as he went forth of the city, he saw the Lord entering into Rome. And when he saw him, he said: Lord, whither goest thou thus (or here)? And the Lord said unto him: I go into Rome to be crucified. And Peter said unto him: Lord, art thou (being) crucified again? He said unto him: Yea, Peter, I am (being) crucified again. And Peter came to himself: and having beheld the Lord ascending up into heaven, he returned to Rome, rejoicing, and glorifying the Lord, for that he said: I am being crucified: the which was about to befall Peter.”
The presence of the Apostle Peter in this area, where he is supposed to have lived, appears to be confirmed in an epigraph in the Catacombs of Saint Sebastian that reads Domus Petri (House of Peter). A later epigram by Pope Damasus I (366–384) in honour of Peter and Paul reads: "You that are looking for the names of Peter and Paul, you must know that the saints have lived here." There are two footprints on a marble slab at the centre of the church which are a copy of the original slab that has now been moved to the nearby Basilica of St Sebastian at the catacombs.