Friday, July 31, 2015

Ronald Knox on St Ignatius Loyola



In 1951, Monsignor Ronald Knox wrote this quirky meditation on St Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556):

St Ignatius, who died on the last day of July, nearly 400 years ago, was described by John Wesley as surely one of the greatest men that ever was engaged in the support of so bad a cause. John Wesley was exactly wrong. He thought to defend the founder of the Jesuits from the charge of enthusiasm by representing him as a cool, long-headed business man. But an enthusiast was just what St Ignatius was. He was full of that fire which never says, It is enough.

Read his early history, and you find nothing there of the great organizer. All his great schemes for going out and converting the Sultan (copied from St Francis) came to nothing. All his early disciples left him: thou could a people raise, but could not rule, seemed to be his destined epitaph. In a sense, it was the enormous vagueness of his plans that saved the situation; just because he had no blueprint ready formed in his mind of what the Company of Jesus was to be like, the Company of Jesus proved to be exactly what was wanted.

If, during the last years of his life, he became the ruler of a world-wide Society, that was because he was a good enough Jesuit to accept the uncongenial task. The real charter which he left to his Society was not any set of rules. It was a set of meditations, chiefly on the following of Christ, which he composed when he was living as a hermit in the cave of Manresa. All that mattered was seeing the love of God as insatiable.

We live in times when great importance is attached to planning, and Christian people are apt to catch the infection from their surroundings. We must revise, we must reorganize, we must have a plan or we are lost! But I don’t think St Ignatius would encourage us to echo that cry. Rather, he would find fault with our half-heartedness - ready to believe, to do, to spend just so much and no more. But the fire never has enough.

Stimuli (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1951) pp.122-123

* * * * * * *

When he read the Gospels, St Ignatius of Loyola would often picture himself as one of Jesus’ disciples so that he could observe closely everything that was going on. He would imagine himself as an extra witness at the Last Supper, drinking in everything around him as Jesus offered the first Eucharist. He would look closely at Jesus’ face as he forgave the woman caught in adultery or as he challenged the Pharisees and Sadducees. He would join Mary Magdalene and the apostle John at Calvary and observe the sights and sounds of the day when Jesus died for him. Inserting ourselves in the Scriptures this way shouldn’t be a passive thing. We shouldn’t just sit back and watch what is happening. We can become part of the scene as well. For instance, as you picture yourself on Mount Horeb with Moses and the burning bush, feel free to ask Moses what it felt like to hear God’s voice. Imagine him turning to you and sharing with you what he was thinking when God told him to confront Pharaoh and demand that he release the Jewish people. You just may be surprised at the answers you get!

Be sure not to limit yourself just to the stories in the Bible. Pope Benedict encourages us to do the same thing with the psalms, which have been called the Bible’s own prayer book: In the Psalms we find expressed every possible human feeling set master fully in the sight of God. . . . In this way our word to God becomes God’s word. . . and our whole existence becomes a dialogue with the God who speaks and listens. Imagine yourself as one of the psalmists as you bring your heart before the Lord. And like the psalmists, be bold enough to expect an answer from God. In place of the psalmist’s concerns, insert your own needs and desires, your own longings and hopes. Let his words of praise and thanksgiving become your own. As Benedict said, God’s words will then become your words. His thoughts will become your thoughts. His ways will become your ways, pushing aside anything in you that is opposed to his way of thinking. Slow Down and Listen.  

The Word Among Us. (April, 2011) www.wau.org

* * * * * * *

A prayer of St Ignatius:

Teach us, good Lord,
to serve thee as thou deservest;
to give and not to count the cost;
to fight and not to heed the wounds;
to toil, and not to seek for rest;
to labour, and to ask for no reward,
save that of knowing that we do thy will;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.



Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Santucci on Jesus, Martha and Mary



Here is a ittle piece for St Martha's Day from Wrestling With Christ by Italian mystic, novelist and dramatist, Luigi Santucci (1918–1999), translated from the Italian by Bernard Wall:


“...and a woman called Martha welcomed him in her house. She had a sister called Mary who sat at the Lord’s feet and stayed listening to what he said.”

If I’m to turn Calvary upside down and side-step the garden of Gethsemane where he was to sweat blood and wrestle with his agony, perhaps I’d make use of that little house in Bethany, with its clayey soil, roses and sycamore trees. His drop of joy, his earthly possession.

A house, for the man who’s never had a stone to rest his head on. The noise of pots and pans, of bread-bins being opened and closed, of water on the boil; and happy, lazy cats in warm corners. For company, two women. One always busy, queening it over things and yet being their handmaid at the same time, with the cheerful yet slightly aggressive attitude of housewives who are always behindhand; the other sitting at his feet and listening, accepting the tiny cowardice of becoming a child again, of surrendering to the lazy ecstasy of story-time.

Neither Martha nor Mary was in love with Jesus, although he came so often to their house and although he was Lazarus’s friend (and falling in love with your brother’s friend is a tender and inevitable pastime when you’re young). And yet it was as if they were in love with him - if it be true that admiration, devotion, affection, gratitude and every heart-beat, in anyone born a woman, are none other than chaste metaphors of love: that continuous and bewitched self-offering.

In those hours, those afternoons when Lazarus was out working, Jesus enjoyed the essence of womanhood in those two creatures; the honey of life. Dreamy Mary was the pale nectar of the garden, agitated Martha a bitter honey from the Alps.

Christ’s honey: woman. Transcending the senses. The Samaritan woman at the well, the forgiven adulteress, the Magdalen of the perfumes, the mothers to whom he granted miracles for their sons, all of them; and first and foremost Mary of Nazareth. They were his secret holiday, a sort of good news within the good news, the gospel in undertones without anger or nails: it was he who discovered woman, thousands of years after she’d been created, and by so doing inaugurated the soul of the modern world.

‘Lord, don’t you care when my sister leaves me to do the housework alone? Tell her to come and help me? This intimiste picture from the palette of Luke, painter and doctor, ends up in an affectionate badinage: ‘Martha, Martha . . . you get bothered by too many things . . . Mary has chosen the better part!

To be sure Mary chose the better part: Christ’s feet, that edge of matting on the stone floor where all the world - springtimes, waters, loves, celestial gardens - was gathered together at the sound of his voice. But Martha, the busy one, wasn’t all that different, she wasn’t outside the circle, she was a woman like Mary. She came in and out, keeping the kitchen door open; and when her hands were in the flour she listened with one ear, and loved.


Thursday, July 23, 2015

St Bridget of Sweden (1303-1373) - on the Eucharist




St Bridget’s Eucharistic Vision, Italy, Naples Late 14th century

“One day, when a priest was celebrating Mass, 
I saw, at the moment of Consecration, 
how all the powers of heaven were set in motion. 
I heard, at the same time, a heavenly music, 
most harmonious, most sweet. 
Numberless Angels came down, 
the chant of whom 
no human understanding could conceive, 
nor the tongue of man describe. 
They surrounded and looked upon the priest,
 bowing towards him in reverential awe. 
The devils commenced to tremble, 
and took to flight 
in greatest confusion and terror.”




Sunday, July 12, 2015

A moment of grace



Amos 7:12-15, Ephesians 1:3-10, Mark 6:7-13

I will never forget Schindler’s List, the well-known film about an opportunistic businessman who, during the Second World War, sets up a factory in Poland using cheap Jewish labour from the ghetto. As the ghetto gives way to work camps and worse, he does everything he can to keep his workers from the gas chambers. When he expresses his sorrow for not having done more, the reply comes: “To save one life is to save the world”.

If the story has a happy ending, it is that eleven hundred families are now growing and thriving as a result of what Schindler did. We saw many of them as the film flashed to the present day just before the credits rolled. 

Schindler’s own story, however, ends very sadly. After the war his marriage breaks up and all his business ventures come to nothing. It is as if his bravest deed takes all his power and energy, leaving him empty.

For me, the most moving thing about the film is the mysterious change in Oscar Schindler. Buoyed along by forces more powerful than himself, this unscrupulous con-man reaches that amazing moment when he realises that these poor Jewish victims have in some mysterious way become his people, and that he loves them.

This is Schindler’s moment of grace. Whatever else might happen to Schindler, he could never be the same again.

Many people experience a moment of grace, a turning point when life takes on a new significance, when previously held values are turned upside-down. It can happen by being overwhelmed by love, by beauty, or by tragedy and despair; it can happen when we stumble into a place of worship and know the mingling together of earthly and heavenly realities; it can happen in the silence of our reflection on life’s meaning, or when we meditate on the Scriptures.

The point is that this “moment of grace” requires a response from us. Schindler could have suppressed his growing feeling for the his Jewish workers, but - as the film shows - he chose to help them, with all the risks involved.

In today’s first reading, Amos has a “moment of grace.” God, out of love for his people, tells him to walk away from his job, cross the border into the Northern Kingdom, go to Bethel, the holy city of the North, and tell the people there that if they don’t change their lives they will be destroyed. 

Now, in contrast to other Old Testament prophets such as Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Isaiah and Samuel, Amos was a pretty ordinary man. No great scholar, no important family background. He just looked after sheep and dressed sycamore trees. But he was happy and content with his life.  

When Amaziah, the priest at Bethel, told Amos to go home, Amos said that he didn’t ask to become a prophet. God sent him. So he had no choice but to speak the word of the Lord. In Amos 3:8 he says: “The lion has roared; who will not fear? The Lord God has spoken; who can but prophesy?”

God’s call to Amos upset his predictable but enjoyable life. Amos responded, and although the people to whom he was sent rejected his message, his prophecies became part of Holy Scripture, illuminating Jewish and Christian people alike for the last 2,700 years!

In the Gospel reading, we witness another “moment of grace”. The first disciples are ordinary men from a range of backgrounds.  But Jesus calls and sends them out insisting that they travel light, preaching repentance. Some people will accept their teaching with joy and, consequently experience the mighty works of God in their lives. But others won’t - in which case the disciples are to leave quickly and move on to the next village.

This is an important passage, for Jesus shows us that the truth is not dependent on the people to whom it is addressed. The truth is dependent only on the Word of God. Something is true because it is true, not because it is popular to say it! 

People haven’t changed. In our day no-one really wants to hear that truth is not determined by averaging out all available opinions. Just think of the bio-ethical debates going on around us now, or the arguments about what constitutes marriage. None of us really want to hear the preaching of Amos or Jesus in areas where it challenges how we have determined to live!

You and I have so many “moments of grace” in our lives. In fact, each time we come to Mass, we are not only nourished supernaturally by the holy Bread of eternal life; we are challenged by the Holy Spirit to return to the context of our daily lives living and sharing God’s truth even when it is inconvenient and makes us unpopular. And I don't just mean “spiritual” matters. I( mean the debates of our day, which, of course include economic, justice and peace issues. 

Jesus didn’t say that we would find it easy to bear witness to his love and truth, or that everyone will respond to the Good News we share, and put their trust in him. God doesn't kick the front door in and just take over. He has given everyone the freedom to reject his love and push him away. 

But Jesus did promise us the power of the Holy Spirit, so that whether few or many respond to our witness, we can continue to love them, serve them, and lead lives as significant for those around us as the heroism of Oscar Schindler, the courage of the prophet Amos, and the faithfulness of the original disciples of Jesus.


Friday, July 10, 2015

God hasn't given up on you!



Matthew 20:1-16

Here is a slightly edited transcript of a mission sermon from a few years ago. 

If you belong to a trade union you probably didn’t think much of the Bible reading we've just heard. In fact, you might sympathise with those who objected to the Lord giving the labourers who came at the eleventh hour the same pay as the ones who had slaved away all day. 

But it’s not really about who should get paid what in the workplace (although I believe that Jesus would expect a living wage to be paid to ALL!) 

You know, he told this funny story, this amusing parable, to help us understand the scandalous generosity of God. The story’s not about award wages or union demands. It is about God who gives and gives and gives and keeps on giving. It’s about his blessing, his love, his forgiveness, to people like you and me who’ve done nothing whatsoever to deserve it. That’s what we mean by the word “grace.”

Some of you might have heard of John Newton. He was born in London in 1725, and went to sea with his father when he was only eleven. As a teenager he was forced to serve on a warship, and hated it. So he deserted, and was then captured, flogged, demoted, and badly mistreated. After a while he was allowed to swap over to a job on a slave trader’s ship, working the waters off Sierra Leone, Africa. He was abused and beaten up there, too. (How many of you know that the abused so often become the abusers!) But Newton’s luck changed, and he was rescued by the captain of another ship who had known his father. By this time, though, Newton had seen the big money he could make in human trafficking. He worked his way up the greasy pole, and eventually became captain of his own slave ship. 

He prospered. Actually, he became filthy rich! He wasn’t held back by any namby-pamby religious or moral ideas. He just went for it. I don’t know if he believed in God in the back of his mind; but if he did he certainly didn’t care what God thought about his life. 

One day everything changed. Newton was trying in vain to steer his ship through a violent storm. The winds blew. There was lightening. Torrential rain. Waves crashing over the deck. Newton and his crew thought they were going to die. This was the end. Then, just as the ship was about to sink, he cried out, “Lord, have mercy upon us.” And, you’ll never guess what happened. The storm died down! (OK. I promise you . . . that’s really how it happened!) 

Well, it got to Newton. He tried so hard to persuade himself it was just a coincidence, that it wasn’t really real. You know how it is! But he thought a lot about it, and after a while he realised that God had spoken to him through the storm. 

To cut a long story short, his life changed, and he got out of the slave business. He went back to England for good, and got married. You’ll never guess what he did next. He studied the Bible and its teaching about God, and got ordained as a priest in the Church of England. And, you know, he spent the rest of his life helping other people to know and love Jesus. But more than that. He always felt for all those people he had caused to suffer when he was young, so he inspired the politicians and their friends who worked so hard to end the slave trade.

And he wrote songs! Actually, I’m sure that if you don’t know any other church songs, any other hymns, you’ll know his most famous one: Amazing Grace. It turns up at funerals and weddings all the time, and I love that, because it gives me a chance to share the Good News of God’s love with people, many of whom in their own way are as lost as John Newton was. 

Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears reliev’d;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believed!

Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

Now, is there anyone anywhere who thinks that John Newton didn’t deserve for God to save his life? (You don’t have to put up your hand!) Just think of how many thousands of people were abused and dehumanised on Newton’s ships . . . how many hundreds – maybe even thousands – died in transit and were dumped overboard as if they were just refuse? And what about the thousands who WISHED they had died! All so that Newton could make a lot of money.  

But you see, God had never stopped loving John Newton. His life was vile. It was ruined. It was hopeless. He had no morality. He’d caused so much suffering and death. But I want to tell you something. There is little verse tucked away in the letter St Paul wrote to some new Christians in ancient Rome (where life was also pretty tough), and what he says covers Newton’s situation: “where sin abounded, grace abounded much more.” (Romans 5:20). Let me say that again, because today sin sure abounds . . . everywhere. “Where sin abounded, grace abounded much more!”

Many years later, when he got old, John Newton used to shuffle around on his walking stick. His memory was fading, and he was in very poor health. But people would still go to see this old man because they knew he could help them to get in touch with God. Do you know what . . . Early in 1807 when he was 82 and he knew he didn’t have much time left, he wrote these words:

“My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour.” 

Later that year he died . . . just after the British government passed a law ended the slave trade.

You can still visit Newton’s grave today. It was moved to Olney in Buckinghamshire, where he’d spent most of his time as a priest. In the corner of the churchyard the inscription on his gravestone says:

“John Newton, Clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slaves in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the faith he had long laboured to destroy.”

Newton had written those words himself. He also wrote, 

“And I earnestly desire that no other monument, and no inscription but to this import, may be attempted for me.”

God’s grace worked in the life of a man who had ignored him, rebelled against him, spat in his face and sinned shockingly for years. No “victim-less sins” there! 

Yet, do you dare say that God is unjust?  

Well, don’t! Because you and I are sinners. Because . . . actually . . . seen against the love and holiness of God, you and I are just as vile as Newton was. There’s as much sludge in your heart and mine as there was in his. And if you've already come to Jesus, you know, as I do, that you and I deserve NOTHING. We are sinners saved by grace . . . amazing grace. 

So we can hardly begrudge John Newton HIS opportunity to respond to God’s love and be transformed.

That’s what the story Jesus told is really about. I don’t understand why God works the way he does. If that’s what you’re interested in then you should see a professor of theology! All I know for sure is that God comes to different people at different times and in different ways with the story of what Jesus did to save us. I see some of you who heard his call early in your life. You’re like the ones who were hired at the start of the day. And I see others of you who cared nothing for Jesus and his love until middle age. But . . . here you are! And you know that “If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation. Old things have passed away. Behold, all things have become new! (I Corinthians 5:17) And for others, still, it’s not until you’re old . . . the eleventh hour. And I’ll tell you something. Never write anybody off. Because sometimes I hear people slag off at death-bed conversions. Well, who are you to tell Jesus that he’s not allowed to turn up and say “I love you” to people who’ve spent their whole lives as atheists, or even as really evil people. Of course it isn’t fair! It’s not meant to be. It’s GRACE! 

The thing is . . . whenever it is that he calls us, he wants to claim us as his own; he wants to forgive us, transform us, heal us, make us new, pour his love into our hearts and give us a reason for living.

And that means YOU. Maybe you feel that you have not been the person you could and should have been. You are right!  You haven’t been. Neither have I . . . or anyone here! But knowing the Lord is not a reward for being good. I hope you’ve got that by now. It’s not a reward for being good, it’s GRACE, amazing grace. God’s free gift of himself. His wonderful love. But whatever stage you are at in your life, I want to tell you that no matter what you have done you haven’t missed your opportunity for salvation. God’s grace is so amazing that it reaches you right now, even in this service, even if – ESPECIALLY if - this is for you the eleventh hour. There is still time for God to turn your life around, if you let him.

The Lord is trying to draw you to himself tonight. He wants to flood your life with his love. He wants to make up for lost time. And he doesn’t want you to waste any more time or let this opportunity pass you by. He loves you. He wants you. And if you say “yes” to him you will discover how amazing his grace really is.

Hey, I know it’s a bit of a struggle. But let’s sing those words that John Newton wrote. And if you can feel God nudging you to open your heart to him tonight, do you know what I suggest you do . . . As the song goes on, just step out into the aisle and come down the front here to the altar rail as a sign that you know you need help and you’re going to let the Lord come into your life. That way, everyone will pray for you when they see you coming to the front. Then, we’ll have our final prayer, and one of us will have a chat with you about what to do next. Come on, let’s sing together . . .




Friday, July 3, 2015

The rejection of ministry



Ezekiel 2:2-5;  2 Corinthians 12:7-10;  Mark 6:1-6


Would you like to have been Ezekiel? 

He was given a wonderful vision of the glory of God, but he must have really felt let-down when the same God gave him an unpleasant, nearly impossible ministry, which is we read about in today’s first reading.

He was to tell his own people that because they were unfaithful to the Lord, their beloved temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed. I guess the people could hardly be blamed for not being receptive! Poor old Ezekiel! He knew the hardness of their hearts, yet the Lord asked him to speak the truth in love and concern for them. And he paid dearly for this.

Afterwards, of course, Ezekiel’s words would be remembered, and they would help those who returned to Jerusalem to understand what had happened.

The great apostle Paul was called to proclaim the Gospel from the time of his conversion to Christ. Today’s second reading is part of what he wrote to the church community he had founded in Corinth. That group was in a real mess in so many areas of life. To cap things off, a number of false apostles and prophets were challenging Paul’s authority, boasting about their superior revelations, their powerful preaching, and the miracles they performed. Many of the people were influenced by them, and there was a serious fracturing of  the unity of the Body of Christ in that place.

For the sake of the Corinthian Christians Paul decides to defend himself and his apostolic ministry. But rather than meeting his opponents on their ground, or - for that matter - despairing of the situation, he speaks from a position of real humility. He says that all he can do is boast of his weaknesses, knowing that God would give him supernatural grace to be strong.

What does this mean? Some commentators think that the “thorn in the flesh” Paul struggled with throughout his ministry was a sense of rejection, perhaps even reflecting the reluctance of the earliest Christians to believe that his conversion was real. Be that as it may, in this passage he manages to regard real rejection as a "gift" to keep him aware of his weakness, to keep him relying not on any cleverness, oratory, ability he might have as a speaker or even as a miracle worker, but only on Jesus whose grace, “is sufficient.” In his weakness Paul has learned to depend only on the strength given him by the Lord. And that’s as it should be, because for Paul - as for us - the ministry is not about him but about Jesus!

In today’s Gospel, Jesus returns to his home town, Nazareth. The people begin by being amazed at his teaching, but then become suspicious: how could such wisdom and power come from this “nobody” we grew up with?

It says that they “took offence at him,” and rejected his ministry.

Have you ever noticed that one of the themes running through Mark’s Gospel is the rejection of Jesus’ ministry? Indeed, Mark’s Gospel, in this respect, might well be a commentary on Isaiah 53:3: “He was despised and rejected by men.”

Jesus yearned to do for his people what they could not do for themselves. He wanted to make their lives worth living, to touch them with his love and healing. He wanted to get them to heaven, and get heaven into them! His cry is at its most poignant in Matthew 23:37:  “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” 

All who try to bear witness to Jesus in day to day life will experience the pain of rejection. Sometimes it is our fault for not being loving enough to those around us, or for being judgmental towards them. But sometimes it is for the same reason that Jesus himself was rejected . . . that people just don't want to be reminded of their desperate need for God and his love.

This is also experienced by church communities as a whole at different times and in different places. But, like Ezekiel, like Paul, and like Jesus himself, we are called to glorify the Father by being faithful, even when we don't succeed.   



Ronald Knox for St Thomas' Day



Ronald Knox (1888–1957), son of evangelical Bishop of Manchester, E.A. Knox, attended Eton College and won several scholarships at Balliol College, Oxford. In 1912 he was ordained to the priesthood in the Church of England  and was appointed chaplain of Trinity College, Oxford. In 1917 he swam the Tiber, and the following year he was ordained in the Roman Catholic Church. Knox wrote many books of essays and novels. Singlehandedly he translated St Jerome's Latin Vulgate Bible into English. His works on religious themes include: Some Loose Stones (1913), Reunion All Round (1914), A Spiritual Aeneid (1918), The Belief of Catholics (1927), Caliban in Grub Street (1930), Heaven and Charing Cross (1935), Let Dons Delight (1939) and Captive Flames (1940). He was known for his ability as a communicator and had a witty turn of phrase. He was a regular broadcaster for BBC Radio.

The following is a radio sermon by Knox, taken from: Pastoral Sermons and Occasional Sermons (reprint), Ignatius Press, 2002.


Thou hast learned to believe, Thomas, because thou hast seen me. Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have learned to believe. -John 20:29.

When you read in the newspaper of some momentous decision taken, which, for a moment, fills the headlines; when you glance down the column to see what comment has been made on it by public men and by political observers, at home and abroad; the question often suggests itself. What will be the verdict of history about all this? The verdict of history— that was the important thing, the really important thing, on Easter Day all those centuries ago, when Easter Day first earned its title. A Man had died, with the formalities of a legal execution after a trial in which the evidence had broken down, and the judge had disclaimed responsibility for the sentence. What jury was now to sit on the case, and give the verdict of history? The dead Man had appointed them himself, a jury of twelve, good men and true, you would have thought; common folk, such as have a right to sit on juries, a fisherman here, a toll- collector there. He made a prophecy, and invited them to judge him, invited the world to judge him, according as the prophecy came true or not; he would rise from the dead. One of them, alas, was neither a good man nor a true; he vacated his post, a traitor and a suicide. It was not possible to impanel a fresh jury; only the dead Mans nearest friends were competent to make a decision. The eleven survivors are left to make their report. There, then, they sit, in the upper room, a place haunted by memories, charged with emotion. Had the dead Man risen again? Only one of them claims to have seen him; the rest have nothing to go upon except the empty tomb, and some rather confusing hearsay evidence. Their deliberations are cut short when, suddenly, behind locked doors, they see the dead Man standing in their midst.

No difficulty remains now; there can be only one verdict. He who was dead, is alive; he is our Lord and our God—that is the message they will publish to the world. And then—perhaps only after he has gone, a sudden thought occurs to them. They were not, after all, in full session when he came; one of them had been absent; Thomas, for what reason we don’t know, had been absent. Well, it is a pity; but after all it won’t make much difference. Thomas can hardly refuse to go by the vote of the majority, when he has the evidence of all his colleagues, without exception, to sway his judgment. They crowd round Thomas when he returns, with the confident cry, “We have seen the Lord!’

They had reckoned without their man. Thomas, as we know from his record, was loyal to a fault; had been the first to suggest that they should all go and die with their Master. But he was one of those people who will always ask the inconvenient question. One of those hard-headed, you might almost say bulletheaded, people who give so much trouble on juries and on committees of every sort by refusing to take the majority view until they, personally, are satisfied. He has been chosen to be an eye-witness, vouching personally for every event in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. And he was not an eye-witness of this appearance in the upper room; it will not do. How can they be certain it was really their Master they saw? What tests did they make? “Until I have seen the mark of the nails on his hands, until I have put my finger into the mark of the nails, and put my hand into his side, you will never make me believe.”

That it was all providentially ordained, one apostle being absent, and that one Thomas, with his bulldog way of looking at things, is beyond question. “Our Faith”, says St Gregory, “owes more to the faithlessness of Thomas than to the faithfulness of all the other apostles put together.” (St Gregory, Homil. 26 in Evng.) Because Thomas doubted, our Lord appeared a second time in the upper room; because Thomas doubted, they were privileged to see, and to touch if they would, the indelible scars of Calvary. “What our own eyes have seen of him, what it was that met our gaze, and the touch of our hands” (1 John 1:1) - so John wrote, long afterwards, with that unforgettable scene for his inspiration. In a moment, the verdict of the jury became unanimous; Thomas could cry out “My Lord and my God!” with the rest. Only, there is a postscript. “Thou hast learned to believe, Thomas, because thou hast seen me. Blessed are those who have not seen, and believe all the same.” For our sakes, it was a good thing that Thomas doubted. But for himself he had come short of the ideal, he had missed an opportunity; surely we arc meant to see that. In however insignificant a degree, he was at fault. He had all the record of our Lord’s life and teaching in front of him; he had the unanimous testimony of those others, his tried companions in arms, and yet . . . some pride, some wilful obstinacy, some chagrin, perhaps, at having been left out when this experience was granted to the rest, made him withhold his assent. “I will not believe”; mysteriously, it is possible to withhold your assent by an act of the will. He ought to have capitulated.

Our Lord doesn’t complain. Our Lord wasn’t like us; he didn’t go about after his Resurrection finding fault and saying “I told you so”; he looked forward to the future. He looked down the centuries at people like you and me, who had no chance of seeing him in his incarnate state, and yet do manage to cry out, “My Lord and my God”; and he said, “What lucky people you are!” When he started out on his ministry, you remember, he gave us the eight Beatitudes, “Blessed are the patient, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the peace-makers”, and so on. And now, when he is just going to leave us for heaven, he pronounces a last beatitude, “Blessed arc those who haven’t seen, and believe all the same.” To call a person “blessed” is a form of congratulation; it is as if we had acquired some treasure, been singled out for some honour. We arc lucky people: luckier, it would seem, than St Thomas, because he saw.

Our Lord, as we know, was fond of paradox; and this congratulation of his does seem rather unexpected. Earlier on, he said to his apostles, “There have been many prophets and just men who have longed to see what you see, and never saw it” (Matthew 13:17); we understand well enough what he means by saying “Blessed are your eyes” in that connection. To see our Lord in the flesh, to hear his gracious accents, to feel the touch of his hand—what an opportunity it was that they had, and we have missed! But that is not his last word on the subject. He singles out people like you and me for a special congratulation; because we have not seen? No, but because, not having seen, we believe.

Faith, not anything else, is the definition of a Christian. Even when our salvation was in the bud, the blessed Virgin was greeted by her cousin Elizabeth in the words, “Blessed art thou for thy believing”; (Luke 1:45) and from then onwards, all through the New Testament, it dominates the picture. Are Christians, then, in general the victims of credulity, people who will believe anything? Or are they people of normally critical instincts, who, from a sentimental prejudice, make a single departure from their principles by consenting to believe in Jesus Christ? That is how some of our neighbours think of us; it seems natural to them when Easter Day falls on All Fools’ Day. But we do not admit the imputation, in either form. We are prepared to argue the truth of the Resurrection from a multitude of converging evidence; argue it as plain fact, as a piece of ascertainable history.

What, then, they ask, is this ‘‘gift of faith” you talk about? What can be the use of it, what can be the need for it, except to fill a gap; to make you believe something which you would otherwise admit to be incredible? Nothing of the sort; faith is a gift which fortifies us in holding fast to a belief which we know to be true, when we are tempted to lose sight of it. Our minds are not electronic machines; they arc human instruments, with the weaknesses of humanity. True, the evidence of our senses, and the general agreement of human opinion, have a certain power of compelling belief. But when evidence comes to us by hearsay; when a promise, or a warning, or an assurance comes to us on the word of somebody else, however good reason we have for trusting him—then it is possible to withhold our assent; to say, with Thomas, ‘‘I will not believe”.

“Our faith”, St John says in today’s epistle, “that is the triumphant principle which triumphs over the world” (1 John 5:4). The world around us, so unfriendly to every instinct of religion, so full of cruelty and hypocrisy, so tone-deaf to the music of eternity— how it gets us down, makes us wonder if its worth while going on! And, within ourselves, the continual secret revolt of our nature against the claim God makes on our lives—we find ourselves half dreading, half hoping, that the cord will snap, and we too shall become materialists like everybody else. If only (we say to ourselves) I could see some divine interference in the course of history, some startling answer to prayer in my own life! If we could see . . . yes, if we could see! But our Lord says, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and believe all the same.”




Sunday, June 28, 2015

She touched the hem of his garment



Mark 5:25-34 

Who touched me? 

Most of us have a love-hate relationship with crowds. They can be terrifying, but they can also be great reservoirs of energy. The push and shove becomes part of the big day out. 

That’s what it was like when Jesus came to town. 

Many years ago when I first read the story in today’s Gospel, the thing that struck me was how Jesus looked around, and in the middle of it all said, “Who touched me?” 

The disciples reacted as you and I would have. What St Mark is telling us is that JESUS KNEW THE TOUCH OF FAITH. 

For me, the lady with the bleeding problem ranks with the greatest of the Bible’s heroes. 

Not only had she spent all her money on doctors “and was no better but rather grew worse”; she was banned from society, being “unclean” according to the law and custom of the day. She was lonely and sick. She was an outcast. I'm sure there were times when she wished she could die. 

This state of affairs might have continued, but someone told her about Jesus. About his love, about how he was going around teaching, preaching and healing - or she at least overheard people talking. This word about Jesus awakened her faith. By faith she could see that her life would be different if she got to Jesus. Surely he would do for her what he had done for so many others. 

She was determined to get to Jesus. But she had to avoid being noticed, because in her condition she could be stoned to death for touching anyone at all. She crawled through the crowd on the ground. She must have . . . because that's where she had to be to reach the hem of his garment. 

As she got closer she said to herself, “If I touch even the hem of his garment, I shall be made whole." 

Can't you just imagine her repeating these words over and over again as she strained and reached out with every ounce of strength she had left.

“If I touch even the hem of his garment, I shall be made whole." 

That word of faith was her strategy to battle discouragement. 

Our problem is that when we are trying to break through to Jesus in a new way, we forget to keep on saying to ourselves the things we know to be true that will build up our faith. And discouragement crushes us. 

The lady in today’s Gospel did well with what she had. WE have so much more. We have God’s promises in both Old and New Testaments. We can repeat them under our breath - or even out loud -  when we are struggling. And, you know, that can be therapeutic. It can help us to rise above despair, even when, humanly speaking, our prospects are dismal. 

THEN IT HAPPENED! The lady – against all the odds – actually made it to Jesus, touched the hem of his garment, and the bleeding stopped. 

But she got more than she had bargained for. You see, Jesus actually felt a surge of healing power flow from him. In other words, it was for REAL! It wasn’t “just” symbolic, any more than the sacraments are “just” symbolic! Jesus wanted the lady to face him and acknowledge what had happened to her. So he turned around and said, “Who touched me?” (No sneaking off anonymously the way some of us might have done!) 

The lady “fell down before him” in “fear and in trembling.” This expression is used elsewhere of our humility before God (cf 1 Corinthians 2:3; 2 Corinthians 7:15; Ephesians 6:5; Philippians 2:12). It indicates her response of awe and gratitude. Then Jesus addressed her affectionately as “daughter”, and told her to go in peace. He said to her, “Your faith has made you whole.” 

That is a really BIG expression in the original language, for it goes well beyond the physical healing of one ailment. It can just as accurately be translated, “your faith has brought you salvation and wholeness.”

The important thing for us when we receive Holy Communion, the anointing, or the laying on of hands, is to know that we really encounter Jesus.  If we know that, we will be open to ALL the possibilities, including miracles. It's not "just" symbolic!

In the Sacraments, Jesus is objectively present to share his life with us. We don’t “create” his presence by our faith. But, as with the lady in today’s Gospel, IT IS BY FAITH THAT WE DRAW ON THE BLESSINGS he has for us.

“If I touch even the hem of his garment, I SHALL be made whole."

Is everything going OK for you at the moment? Praise God if it is! But if like that lady you're as low as you can get, and you feel as if you might as well be dragging yourself along the ground through the dirt as she had to do, at least drag yourself in the direction of Jesus. And when you get yourself up to the altar rail for Holy Communion, I pray that you will draw on the healing power of Jesus in a new way, whatever your deepest needs, knowing that the Lord Jesus loves you more than anyone else ever has, and he wants you to break through to him afresh by responding in your hearts to his Word, and by touching the hem of his garment, expecting to be made whole, and that same surge of healing power will flow from him into you because he is the same, yesterday, today and for ever.

“If I touch even the hem of his garment, I SHALL be made whole."

God bless you.



Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Lord . . . don't you care?



Jesus and the Storm on the Sea of Galilee (Rembrandt)


A little talk from a retreat I gave a few years ago . . . 

On that day, when evening had come, [Jesus] said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. And a great storm of wind arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?” And he awoke and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” And they were filled with awe, and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?” (Mark 4:35-41)

The Sea of Galilee is a large inland lake, about thirteen miles long and seven miles wide. The Jordan River flows through it from north to south, and the fishing and farming businesses it supported were famous in ancient times. Important trade routes passed along the lake’s western shore giving rise to a bustling multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, society. Just the right sort of area for Jesus to reach out to the crowds. The region could even be called “Galille of the Gentiles.” The towns of Capernaum, Bethsaida and Tiberias, where Jesus spent a lot of his time, were there. 

The lake itself is 700 feet below sea level, surrounded by plateaus. Sometimes the air pressure changes dramatically without warning. When this happens huge gale-force winds sweep down, and the kind of unexpected storm described in our reading is the result.

Jesus was exhausted.

He had poured himself out in ministry to the crowds - teaching, healing, loving . . . just being with the wounded and hurting children of God. As the day was ending he answered even more questions and helped even more people understand the ways of God. Eventually he called out to his disciples, “Let’s go over to the other side.” That meant sailing thirteen miles to the region of Gadara. It would be long enough for him to have a decent sleep in the back of the boat.

Now, these disciples were professional fishermen, highly skilled with boats. Every day they were on this lake casting their nets. Nobody knew more about boats or about the Galilee lake than they did. They could handle storms. 

But this was no ordinary storm. This was the mother of them all! They’d never seen anything like it. The waves kept crashing over the boat, pounding it, shaking it with enormous force. 

These tough experienced fishermen were gripped by fear. They lost their nerve. They imagined the worst.

They looked around to see where Jesus was.

After all, it was his fault. It was Jesus who had sent them out across the lake. It was he who had kept them standing there while he insisted on talking with people until the sun went down. They had warned him about the night-time squalls on the lake. Where was Jesus now?

To put it mildly, they were not happy to see that he was at the back of the boat, sleeping on a cushion. (I wonder if he was snoring!)

Sleeping! On a cushion! The boat looked as if it would sink, and Jesus was sleeping on a cushion! Could he really be so tired as to sleep through the storm and their fear?

So they woke him up. “Don’t you care if we drown?” They were so upset that he wasn’t panicking. 

After all he had done for them, they actually accused him of not caring about them. Full of fear in the midst of the raging storm, they vented their anger at him.

Haven’t you done that? I must confess that I have. When there is a real crisis, our anger boils over and we have to find someone to blame for our problems – even the Lord. (Especially the Lord!) Those disciples were like you and me. When they came to Jesus they didn’t ask him what to do, or even to help. They just accused him of not caring about them.

Maybe they thought that because they were with Jesus, everything should be just fine all the time. Who hasn’t thought like that at some stage or another! Then things go wrong, maybe at work, in the family, at church, among our friends, with our finances, or perhaps our health breaks down. We get disillusioned. (What actually happens is that God lets us see how spiritually immature we really are.)

We forget that in the story of the two house builders (you know – the wise man who built his house on the rock, and the foolish man who built his house on the sand) Jesus didn’t say to those who followed him “IF” the storms come. He said “WHEN” the storms come.

Look at the passage again. Jesus dealt with the storm. How did he do it? He just spoke the words, “Peace, be still.” Then there was calm. It says that the disciples were now “in awe” of him. Why was that? I’ll tell you why. It was because in the amazing picture language of their Jewish Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) it is God alone who has the power to subdue the raging seas (Psalm 89:9, 93:4, 107:28-29). 

And, of course, he also stilled the storm in their hearts. 

We are all in the same boat. Sooner or later we are battered by storms of one kind or another. Every storm tests our faith in God; every crisis reveals whether or not we have learned to trust him.

Jesus has promised to stay with us, even - especially - in the midst of the storms that threaten to wipe us out. He loves us with an everlasting love. We can trust his love. We might be shaken to the depth of our beings. Sometimes there are beautiful friends who help get us through. But every now and then we are alone, even in a crowd. So alone . . . except for Jesus. Let’s turn to him, and call out to him in our distress. Let’s trust in his love. Let’s remember the frightened disciples on the evening of Easter Day when Jesus appeared in their midst, stretched his nail-pierced hands and gave them his peace. 

“Peace, be still!” He still speaks. He still sends out his Word. His Word still subdues the storm and heals us on the inside.

We know who he is. If we trust him and hang on, no matter how bad things are, his peace – that wonderful supernatural gift of his – the “peace that passes all understanding” (Philippians 4:7) – will protect us and keep us sane, for it is still a “peace that the world cannot give” (John 14:27).

Thank you, Lord. Amen.