The Key is “Divine Mercy”

Divine Mercy Sunday

John 20,19-31

Preaching in England about the joy of Christ’s resurrection was never easy. It was made difficult because some in the pews really believed in reincarnation or had home spun ideas that bore resemblance to TV’s Startrek. Readers of Sunday newspapers would be aware that some bishops were saying that the resurrection was symbolism and myth.

The Myrrh Bearers, [Unanimous, End of XV Century, Public Domain]

The New Testament writers make their position perfectly plain that the triumph of Jesus after his terrible death was not a magical illusion, not an hallucination or a cobbled together myth, but a reality that had been witnessed and touched by ordinary folk. The eyewitnesses themselves had all the normal human reactions, they were surprised, frightened without knowing what to do next, but in great numbers they were prepared to stand up and be counted as true believers in these events which became the foundation of a new age of religious life. From the birth of Jesus to his resurrection, these men and women had seen the key to “Divine Mercy,” great gifts signifying the loving kindness of God. Pope St John Paul II had taken these words “Divine Mercy” from St Augustine’s Easter sermon, giving a name for this special Sunday, “think of God’s great mercy! We may give bread and charity to the hungry, but God gives us unworthy servants the gift of his salvation.” [Augustine Sermon 116]

The gift of the resurrection is the key to the culture of death, that tragic human curse, and now the tools are given to deal with it.

This is the theme spelled out by St John in this gospel written after years of reflection. Christ’s victory was like the Jewish Passover, a turning point that gave birth to the Apostolic Church. St John tells us about the first meeting on a Sunday between the Risen Lord and the frightened Apostles in a room behind doors. It was a crucial meeting for the Church that St Paul also knew and passed on to the Corinthians. “Jesus rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once.” [1 Corinthians 15,5].

The meeting had key elements that were similar to other appearances such as the Emmaus group for it all took place on the first day of the week, at a meal; Jesus gave the group his peace, showed them his wounds and gave them his authority. St Matthew had noted that many were doubters, but St John adds to the narrative the response of St Thomas who was not so much a cynical doubter (perhaps like those today who doubt the covid vaccines) but one who was still open to belief and wanted that physical contact with the wounded body of his Lord by which he would go on throughout his life to affirm Christ’s divinity. Without the cross there could be no resurrection. Meaning there some doubts that are a good prelude to deep faith. The whole episode underpins apostolic witness to the real death and the real wounds that precede the peace that overcomes fear and doubt. Finally the apostles are given divine authority to develop the gifts of sacramental communion and reconciliation to nourish their converts, even those like St Thomas.

The meeting between Jesus and his followers is in a sense a commentary and key to the remarkable claim made in the first letter of John the Elder. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life, the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us…..that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ”. [1 John 1-3]

Fr. Geoffrey Neal

Reflections for Eastertide

What’s the point of Easter? In a way the question took me aback: I think that’s because, as it were, I’ve always lived with Easter, it’s been a fact of life since childhood days, and then, suddenly to be asked why, makes you think. But then we need to think about these things, because if one thing is certain it is that for most people outside the church there is little point to Easter: it’s, to quote the song, just another day. But is it? The population at large are fast losing whatever tiny grip they still had on Christian truths: I’ve taken many funerals, and time after time it has been obvious that many people there don’t even know the words of the Lord’s Prayer.

And what of the other great Christian festivals? Pentecost was never much of a goer. Perhaps a little more when it was called Whitsun and there was a Bank Holiday following, but of course all that went years ago. Christmas? Well, people may get misty eyed and sentimental about it, but they’ve lost all notion of what it means – the birth of God in man, and of course the fact that the supermarkets are pumping out full blast O come all ye faithful from September onwards doesn’t help. All this was really summed up for me by that brilliant comic creation of Sacha Baron Cohen, Ali G, who went round interviewing the great and the good, and asking them silly questions, but questions that nevertheless reflect the level of understanding of many ordinary people. And the great and the good were so overawed by this spurious example of youth culture that they took it seriously: so it happened that one Christmas Ali G interviewed a prominent non-conformist minister, and said something like “So tell me about Jesus. It’s really your Dad dressed up, innit?” We may laugh, but it still tells us much about people’s understanding. What’s the point of Easter? For the person in the street, nothing much at all, except perhaps to moan that Easter’s very late this year.

But for the Christian, Easter is everything. You can’t really separate it from Good Friday, because the one leads to the other, as sure as night leads to day. One of the great saints of the Christian church, Augustine, said “We are an Easter people, and alleluia is our song.” Why are we an Easter people? Because if there had been no Easter, there would have been no Christian church, and we would not have been Christians. We find it difficult to imagine the religious ferment of the times that Jesus lived in. Today, as any fool knows, religion is only for cranks and the soft in the head, but then people really expected God to be at work in the world, and to do great things. Many saw Jesus as the embodiment of that hope, though the historians tell us that there were other charismatic preachers around at the time preaching similar messages. But to put it that way in a sense makes the point: historians tell us. All the other preachers are just a curiosity of history. And so would Jesus have been as well, but for Easter, when he rose from the dead. If Good Friday had been the end of Jesus, it would also have been the end of the movement he began. Why put yourself at risk preaching an unpopular message, when the man who started it all is dead and gone, in spite of his promise that, though he had to suffer, he would be back? What would you have done? Probably written off the whole exercise as the delusions of just another religious fanatic. Best to get back to your previous lives, fishing, collecting taxes, whatever, and pretend it had never happened. Make no mistake, that would have been the situation if Jesus had not risen from the dead. But that’s not what happened, is it? He did rise, and though, from that day to this, the cynics have done their best to write it off, to disprove it, they’ve never succeeded. What’s the point of Easter? Maybe the most obvious is that quite simply if we follow Jesus’ example, if we live the kind of life he told us to, then we too are going to beat death, we too are going to live for ever, we too are going to reign with him glory. For many, that in itself is answer enough, because it gives hope in a world where, let’s face it, there’s plenty of despair, there’s plenty of “What’s the point?”, there’s plenty of “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”

But we need to take it a bit further than that, and ask “What does Easter tell us about God and the world?” First, it tells us that God is trustworthy: if he promises something, he is going to deliver: it was promised that though Jesus had to die, his heavenly Father would raise him from the dead. This has to be the work of God: no human being has the power to restore life when it has been taken away. God is trustworthy: what he promises, he will deliver. It also tells us that in the darkest moments, God will be with us. He did not allow his Son to remain mouldering in the tomb: in the midst of death, he was still there for Jesus; and he is there for us too, when things go wrong, when all seems black, when the little voice inside says “There is no God”, and he will be there for us in our own dying as well. Yes, he is there for us, he longs to be with those who love him, to support them, and keep them safe, even if the world does seem to be collapsing about their ears. But Easter also tells us about the power of love, about the triumph of good over evil. It is easy to get depressed at the evil which seems to surround us, and feel that evil always seems to have the last word. It would be difficult to resist that, except for Easter. If Good Friday was the last word, it would be a message of despair. But Easter proves that, however all-pervading, however powerful evil seems to be, it will not have the last word.

Without Easter, frankly, there would be no point, and we might as well indeed just live as though there were no tomorrow. But Easter proves that love, God’s love, conquers all. Maybe when you were a teenager you suffered the pains of unrequited love: the person you had set your affections on just didn’t want to know. Have no doubt that that is how God feels too when he looks at the state of the world and at individual lives lost in sin and despair, because quite simply it doesn’t have to be like that, it’s not meant to be like that. God says to the world, and he says to you and me – just look at all I have done to prove that I love you, even to the extent of permitting my Son to suffer all that: I love you: now, will you love me in return?

Blessed Easter greetings

Fr Edward Bryant

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Betrayal

Palm Sunday

John 12,12-16

Former British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson famously remarked, “A week is a long time in politics”. You could certainly apply that saying to the events of the first Holy Week. The triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the Sunday, with the crowds wild with excitement and waving palm branches, would in just a few short days turn to cries of hatred – “Crucify him”.

Unknown author, Public domain

The crowds who had greeted Jesus with their loud hosannas on the Sunday had gone over to the enemy. Even the disciples abandoned him. And that is the question for all of us this week. Will we too abandon him? Before you start thinking “I would never do a thing like that,” remember that that is precisely what Peter said to Jesus. When doubters deny the authenticity of the Gospel narratives, it is worth remembering that a compelling argument for their veracity is precisely that they are not sanitised, that the early Church was so confident in the story it had to tell, that it did not have to massage the truth and suppress uncomfortable facts.

But what about us? We are fortunate indeed if, like Peter, our denials of Jesus Christ are only threefold. Denial of Jesus comes under many guises. There is of course the most obvious – you have nothing to do with the church, and your life openly mocks the teaching of Jesus (and that, of course, is the default position in the western world today. Presumably we are all innocent of that.

But there are other betrayals as well; there is the betrayal that says, “Yes, I’ll come to church (perhaps only at Christmas!), yes I’ll stick to Christian values.” In past times I was a governor of a Church School, and I found it so frustrating, when conducting job interviews, to be told “I support Christian values”. It sounds good, but it is meaningless. Does it mean being nice to people (you will look in vain for the word “nice” in the New Testament), or perhaps helping old folk across the road? Authentic Christian values begin and end at the Cross. Again, you may plead “not guilty” to this charge, but does your way of life tell another tale? Does your life show that you only do things in Jesus’ way when it doesn’t inconvenience you? Do you pick those parts of the Gospel message which fit in with your life style, rather than the other way round, of fitting your life style to the Gospel? Are you assiduous in the externals of the faith – regular attendance at church and church activities, but the heart has gone, so that your faith is just an empty shell?

In that first Holy Week, Jesus’ closest friends (“I no longer call you servants, but friends”, John 15.15) abandon him. To our shame, time after time we have acted like the disciples; to our shame, time after time we have said to Our Lord, with Peter, “I will never disown you” when in truth our faith has faded, to become mere routine, just one more activity in a crowded life, instead of the very source of our life and all that we do, for, make no mistake, bolt-on, optional pick and mix Christianity is betrayal also. Fortunately, the Cross tells us that we can always come back, we will always find plenteous redemption in the blood that has been shed, as the old hymn puts it, but none of that takes away our responsibility to amend our lives, to discover again, maybe for the first time even, what it means to be faithful, to be obedient, often at great personal cost. That way, and only that way, can we pray, “forbid it Lord that this should happen to us”.

Fr. Edward Bryant

St. John’s Treasure Store

Fourth Sunday in Lent

John 3,14-21

People, myself included, have wondered how St John, writing about 30 years after the other Gospels, managed to remember verbatim the various ‘Discourses’ which Jesus had with individuals – like Nicodemus; with the Samaritan woman; Pontius Pilate; as well as three whole chapters 15-17 on Maundy Thursday with His Disciples at, and after, the Last Supper) – of which no record appears in Matthew, Mark or Luke.

John the Evangelist in Silence
by Nectarius Kulyuksin, Public domain

It looks as though John had a “Treasure-Store” of information, which the other Evangelists did not possess – or if they did, chose not to use, no doubt for sound reasons.

Here is a possible explanation. It’s not the only one, and may well be faulty; but for me it carries with it the “Ring-of-Truth“.

We know from John himself that on Good Friday at Calvary, Jesus commissioned both John, and His own Mother Mary each to be responsible for the other’s wellbeing, and as a result John “made a place for her into his own home” [19:27], in Jerusalem and, after John’s release from Patmos, in Ephesus. They would, no doubt, have shared their knowledge of Jesus, and His teachings, from childhood to His Ascension, and refreshed each other’s memory, becoming jointly that self-same Treasure-store. If so, we have the testimony of the same two people who were closest to Jesus during His Incarnation.

With that in mind, let’s look at four ‘gems’ from His teaching:

  • God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him [John 3,17]. We are living at a time when Blame is what many people attribute to others. How very different from God – who will go to any lengths, even by dying for us in order that we may be freed from the weight of blame which we carry on our shoulders.
  • People [love] ‘darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil’ [John 3,19]. Habitual blamers prefer the dark because it enables them to maintain a comfortable sense of their own righteousness. Reality comes when light begins to shine and reveals their true motive – which is to obscure their own blameworthiness.
  • Those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God. Christ is ‘The Light of the World’: which alone can bring Mankind to the Truth: namely that those whose deeds have been ‘done in God’ need have no fear of being condemned by Him’. We ‘should show forth the praises of Him Who has called [us] out of darkness into His marvellous light’– as St Peter wrote [1 Peter 2,9].
  • Why should we do this? Because ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life’, as St John said in today’s reading. That is the sum-total of God’s Plan for dealing with the Problem of Evil!

Fr. Francis Gardom

Sometimes words are not enough

Third Sunday in Lent

John 2,13-25

“We don’t do things like that round here. You’ve only been here five minutes, and you’re trying to turn everything upside down. Who do you think you are?”

That, seems a fair summary of the way the Jews in the Gospel responded to Jesus. We may kid ourselves that He is gentle Jesus meek and mild, but that’s not the way his contemporaries saw Him. Otherwise He wouldn’t have finished up on a cross on Good Friday, would He? As one commentator put it, killed by organised religion, and that’s a serious point for us all: does our organised religion crucify Jesus all over again?

Sibeaster, Public domain

Jesus the outsider certainly challenged all the accepted religious conventions of his own day. The Gospel shows Jesus, the revolutionary young teacher up from the country coming to the Temple, the holiest place in the world for Jews, and throwing down the boldest challenge to what we would call the official religious establishment. In the Temple, daily sacrifices of animals were made to appease and please God. Though it may seem bizarre and in some ways repellent to us, for the Jews, this was the way to placate God. The problem was that certain people had turned the whole thing into a circus, the holy Temple of God had become just like a market place, with all sorts of wheeling and dealing going on – stalls set up selling the creatures needed for the sacrifices, and money changers, because only special Temple money could be used within the Temple’s precincts. It had become a racket, a money-making operation for the priests and their hangers on, and a barrier between poor folk and their God. No wonder Jesus was angry – some hesitate to use that word because for them anger is a sin – well, in some circumstances we have every right to be angry, and Jesus certainly had every right to be angry with the Temple traders – after all, if He’d gone up to them and said “do you think it might be a good idea if you took your beastly trade elsewhere?” do you think they would have taken any notice? Of course not. 

Jesus the outsider, Jesus the upstart, Jesus the newcomer, presents a blatant challenge, and it is scarcely surprising that the Jews are affronted. Jesus the outsider sees all too clearly what is wrong in what other people now take for granted. All human beings have a wonderful capacity for only seeing what they want to see, so it is scarcely surprising that the Jews are affronted by Jesus’ actions. He is committing the unforgivable sin of rocking the boat. Or to put it in liberal Christian terms, he is committing the worst sin of all, he is not being nice.

The question

What has Jesus, the living Temple, coming to the Temple in Jerusalem to say to us? He came to people who were secure in their beliefs, who’d got a good system going for their own benefit, and they didn’t want to know. Jesus comes to every generation of Christians, to challenge us whether we really are being faithful to Him who is the way, the truth and the life. not a way among many, a truth to take or leave, a life like any other.

What challenges is Jesus issuing today? The answer is in St John’s Gospel 21, where the risen Lord appears to His friends at the lakeside. He asks Peter who had already denied him, three times: do you love me, do you love me, do you really love me? He is saying that to us now. Peter was hurt and stung to reply “Of course I love you.” That is Peter, but what about us? When was the last time we denied Our Lord? Was it, as with Peter, days ago? You’re lucky if that’s the case, because the little betrayals are there all the time: the spiteful acts, the unloving look, the waspish tongue. Everything we do that denies our calling to be people of love betrays Our Lord again, and sends Him back to his Cross. The trouble is, we get so hardened to sin, the little sins of everyday life, as well as the big ones that we almost cease to notice what we are doing. Do you love me, do you really love me? You will also remember how Our Lord followed up his challenge to Peter, and Peter’s protestations: follow me, the same challenge He issues to us all: in other words, now, not tomorrow, next week, next year, is the time to start putting into practice what we profess. Sometimes, words are not enough.

Fr. Edward Bryant

The Repair Shop

Second Sunday in Lent

Mark 1,14-15

The BBC TV programme “The Repair Shop” has been one of the most popular shows in the UK for years. The skills of the restorers and pleasure of the customers who bring in their precious items for restoration have set me thinking as Lent approaches.

The TV programme consists of a group of exceptionally skilled craftsmen and women who receive broken down but much loved heirlooms brought in by families. Each item has an important story behind it. The skills of the repair shop team are used to strip down, clean and replace broken parts, returning these items to their original working state and bringing overwhelming joy to everyone involved. For example, one family of several generations, came with a totally curled up and worn out leather wallet. This had belonged to a grandfather who as a pilot, in World War II had been shot down over the Baltic. Clinging on to some debris, the pilot had used his wallet as a paddle and was finally rescued by Russians and returned finally to his family. Now it was his grandchildren who were returning to the Repair Shop to receive back the precious wallet beautifully restored and brought back to life and which had not only saved their grandfather but also spoke to them of their own unique existence. They all expressed the hope that this would continue to be an inspiration for another seventy years.

Repair or restore have much in common with the word repent

Duccio di Buoninsegna, Appearance on the Mountain in Galilee, Public domain

According to St. Mark, Jesus began his work coming to the river Jordan, the scene of John the Baptist calling the crowds to repent and prepare for the “Christos” who would be the great “hope and restorer” of the people. Later it was Nicodemus who would come as if to Jesus’ repair shop asking what was needed to become a member of God’s kingdom. He was told by Jesus, “you must be born again by water and spirit”. This did not mean returning to the womb but rather to be cleaned up, to be made whole, restored, and put back in working order based on the original design the creator had intended. Very much like the preaching of John the Baptist and Christian Baptism.

Restoring objects is one thing but people today do not want to be told they are in any kind of need for restoration of their own condition. Christians, as we have often said, can too easily become a “Comfortable Club” enjoying meeting together, but without too many consequences and with little concern for the decline in faith that exists in our society. Nor for the reasons behind the great deal of complaining, social breakdown, instability and dissatisfaction with life as it is. Time and time again we are told that our religion is meant to be reassuring and comforting and this does not mean willingness to have our lives turned upside down. “It is far easier to be an admirer of Christ rather than a follower”.

In Lent the question we should ask of ourselves:

Is not Christianity about the struggle to be cleaned up, repaired by repentance and born again by making a decisive break with the rust and corrosion that has set in? The real Christian sees that there is need for regular restoration. To leave behind the familiar bleak landscape of the ordinary world with all its delusions and turn to the radically restored world Jesus called “the kingdom” and to which all are committed by their baptism.

Fr. Geoffrey Neal

Extra-Ordinary Struggle

First Sunday of Lent

Mark 1,12-13

St. Mark tells us that immediately following his baptism, Jesus was “driven by the Spirit into the wilderness for forty days tempted by Satan”. [Mark 1,12-13] This most important event receives only a brief mention, possibly because the first hearers were well aware of the struggle for they too were involved in the evil of persecution surrounding them.

Christ’s Temptation, Monreale
Sibeaster [Public Domain]

Later when Luke and Matthew report at greater length the forty days it becomes clear that the battle for the human soul is at the heart of Christian life, and requires a full frontal acknowledgement that the soul is the battleground in which the enemy is raw evil. We are warned that this is happening when we experience “temptation”.

No surprise then that the Lord’s Prayer is a daily focus on this battle, “Lead us not into temptation – deliver us from evil”. To grasp this we need to put behind us the trivialising by our culture regarding temptation as “sugar and spice and all things nice”, sex, drinking smoking and obesity, all bodily excesses. The forty days in the wilderness was no health farm! Our Lord was preparing to trample down the enemy who must never be underestimated, who had power to seduce, distort, delude and destroy. This is an awesome power that we should fear. In his early life, Joseph Ratzinger, called this “the dissolving of the soul” and that is what Jesus confronted and we also prepare to face each Lent.

Maybe the greatest temptation for us today is to close our eyes to the consequences of the struggle against raw evil. Our western world already displays symptoms of cynicism, depression, that certainly could result from the illness of the soul. This has been described by writers like Oliver Bullough who tells of the effects of atheistic totalitarianism crushing the souls of Russians where suicide and alcohol, broken families and fear were destroying a whole nation. [His book called: The Last Man in Russia: The Struggle to Save a Dying Nation, 2013]

Jesus nowhere teaches us that we shall find God in success or silk clothing but through the cross and that is a difficult way to contemplate. The Old Testament record of the Prophets and the New Testament examples of the Apostles or even the history of the saints all bear witness to the “struggle” to overcome evil. Our Christian forefathers were used to this way of contemplating Christian life calling it “ascesis” and they were familiar with ascetical training, a word that has gone out of fashion but needs to make a comeback. The French lay theologian Olivier Clement said that ascesis was “to awake from sleepwalking through daily life” and this is a good thought approaching Lent.

Mental health is refreshed by sleep when the brain is pruned from non- essentials and the body too may rest and fast from needless nourishment. But the soul also needs pruning Jesus says, to bear fruit. “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. [John 15,1–2]

Bearing in mind the experience from the Corona pandemic we must remember that health of body and health of mind however important they are not the full story! More destructive than Covid 19 is the virus that can destroy the soul. As St Paul teaches, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age,… Therefore take up the whole armour of God that you may be able to withstand in the evil day… [Ephesians 6,12–13]

Fr. Geoffrey Neal

Lent and the Cleansing of the Heart

Let me start by stating the obvious, we are living in a secular culture which has made the right of self-realisation the highest value to be sought. My happiness is the meaning of life. Of course, to say that I am responsible for my own life is not a false insight but even if we embark in the pursuit of the highest human ideals, it may end up as a sort of self-absorption. My fellow man can easily be seen to stand in my way and when we speak of God we have in mind a vague presence who wants us to be good. So beyond that, is there nothing more is to be said?

The biblical message is that God is not only the source of life but also my judge. God does not not fade away simply because man wants to be the master of the universe. Thus, St. Paul admonishes the Corinthians to take a step back not to be blinded by what he calls the Spirit of the Age: «Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you seems to be wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise» (1 Cor 3:18, see 2 Cor 4:4). Despite the values and norms dominating the culture around us, we Christians must take seriously that in the end we are to stand responsible before God: «Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves», he instructs the Corinthians (2 Cor 13:5). Likewise he tells the Galatians: «Let each one examine his own work … for each one shall bear his own load» (Gal 6:4f).

What is then the way the Christian shall pursue to happiness? St Paul’s advice to the Corinthians is that they must take proper care of their spiritual life: «Beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God» (2 Cor 7:1, 1 Cor 6:11). Likewise, in the light of the coming of Christ St. John encourages the children of God: «And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure» (1 John 3:3). Cleansed from sin, we shall be dedicated to God. Clearly this is an invitation to enter the narrow gate. Our pursuit of happiness involves a cleansing of the heart, a quest for holiness in the fear of God.

Public Domain

The cleansing reflects a genuine sorrow for our sins, as St. Cyprian of Carthage wrote to the faithful in Africa more than 1700 years ago about cleanliness of heart: «When it was brought to Jesus’ attention that his disciples had begun eating without having first washes their hands, he said in reply: ‘He who made the outside made the inside too. Give alms and all of you will be made clean’ (Luke 11:40f). Thus he taught that it was not your hands which should be washed but rather your heart and that uncleanness must be removed from the inside rather than from the outside. For they who have cleansed their inner selves have also cleansed what is outside, and they whose mind has been cleansed have also begun to purify their skin and body» (On works and alms, 2).

Bishop Roald Nikolai

Extra-Ordinary People

Sunday Before Lent

Mark 1,40-45

In January, our reflections examined God’s ‘Warfare Strategy’ against the Dark Powers of Evil, and we found the Epiphany was like ‘unwrapping’ God’s Christmas Gift of His Incarnate Son to the world. That Strategy needed at first to be kept Secret – to be revealed only bit-by-bit, and only to those who, like Mary had first willingly given their personal answer, Amen-Yes, to God’s invitation to become His fellow worker in putting His Plan into practice. Next we see the wide range of God’s choice of other fellow workers: men and women; a carpenter; some fishermen; a tax collector; young and elderly; locals, and others from far away.

Then, compare their Amen-Yes of the first disciples with that of people today, when told that God not only created them, but has also created a unique and critical part for them to learn and take part in His Redemption Drama.

Florian Prischl, Public domain

People today often say, “I’m sure God would never choose me to do His work – I’m not skilled, or learned, or clever, or holy enough” or worse still, by playing what they mistakenly imagine is their ’Trump Card’: “I’m just too ordinary for that.” In God’s sight there are no ‘ordinary’ people. We are all uniquely designed by God, and of inestimable value to Him in “working his purpose out”. Anyway, God isn’t looking for ordinary people, but extra-ordinary ones, who will say their Amen-Yes to His call, just as Mary and her colleagues did. Any idea that we are ‘just ordinary’ is a big fat self-deception; it’s also an insult to our Creator! If God took all that trouble to form us in our mother’s womb, and even more trouble to ‘manifest’ Himself to us, through His Son, our Saviour and Redeemer, who are we to think ourselves as ‘ordinary’? Our everyday speech and attitudes prove we don’t think anything of the sort; and worse still, we imagine God approves of such false humility!

Let us remember that God seldom expects us to work single-handed for Him. Once we say Amen to His Call, we soon discover that He has called others to work alongside us on His Strategy. That is the biggest problem many followers of Christ have always faced. Finding that God expects us to work alongside others, some of whom we’d never have chosen ourselves, given half the chance!

Lent is a good time to overcome our preference for worshipping and working only with people we know and like, and thereby ceasing to be ‘Soldiers of Christ’ fighting a common enemy. Christians can too easily become, without realising it, a “Comfortable Club” for those who enjoy meeting together on Sunday mornings. As soldiers of Christ battles are never won that way! The Church of Christ isn’t ‘ours’ anyway – it belongs to, and was created by, God, not with the intention of becoming a comfortable club.

God needs his Church-on-Earth to be like a mixture between a Hospital, a School, and a Regiment, where we meet Him, together with other ‘Amen-Persons’, of His choice not ours, and to be made whole or ‘Holy’ and in which to learn, with God’s help, how to un-wrap His Hidden-but-Open Gift-Secrets and make them our own. But most importantly to learn how to re-wrap these God given gifts in a way that will make those we share them with, and go on to want to un-wrap their own gifts for themselves and to discover what really is inside all that wrapping!

Fr. Francis Gardom

A Man in a Hurry

Second Sunday before Lent

Mark 1;29-39: Christ Preaching in Galilee

Familiarity with these verses, and those immediately preceding, can mask the sheer impact of Jesus’ visit to Capernaum at the start of his ministry. Here is power at work – not power as the world understands it, for worldly power often becomes an exercise in control – but the power of liberation, liberation from the shackles, often unseen by others, that imprison and can ultimately destroy. The shackles of illness, guilt for past failings, of lives broken by the pressures of everyday living. And time is limited, to preach the good news that a new age is dawning, where in the words of that much loved hymn by Charles Wesley [our] chains fell off, [our] heart was free, and to demonstrate in acts of healing God’s love at work in the lives of ordinary people. Jesus comes to the people of Capernaum two thousand years ago, and to us and our world today as the answer to the deepest human needs, the need to be valued and loved, the need to be accepted – warts and all – in the words of Oliver Cromwell.

Jesus in the Synagogue of Capernaum [Unknown author, Public domain]

How did the little local community of Capernaum react to the presence of Jesus, this remarkable man in their midst? How would you feel, to witness His power to heal and make whole? Here is love incarnate in action. Here is a new Creation coming into being before our eyes. Here is hope, hope for ourselves, our loved ones, our world, as we see God at work among his people. You can be sure that there were scenes of great celebration in Capernaum that night; for through the ages Jewish people have shown that they know how to party! But this is only part of the story. Many of us find our refuge from the pressures of daily living in yet more activity – the Health Club beckons (!) – but that is not Jesus’ way.

After a day of preaching and healing, He must find time to recover, both physically and spiritually. So, Mark tells us that in the morning, while it was still very dark, He got up and went out to a deserted place, and there He prayed.

El Greco [Public domain]

After the previous day’s exertions, Jesus seeks to draw on God’s strength and power through prayer, and thus remain grounded in God’s will. As we might say, He needs quality time with His heavenly Father. And for Him, that means being quiet, means being open to God. We all lead busy lives, lives where, by the grace of God, in our own way we too can show God’s message of love and healing to those whom we meet; but if Our Lord needed quality God time, then surely you and I do as well.

But in a way all too familiar to us, Jesus’ quality time is soon interrupted, and Peter and his companions search frantically for the elusive healer. The Greek word used here has the sense of being pursued, almost hunted down. When Peter finally tracks Jesus down to tell Him of his instant fame, he assumes he is the bringer of good news, but Jesus’ reply is unexpected. Whereas most people would return to the place of their success, Jesus declares that He and His disciples are to set off immediately in the opposite direction. Why? Not out of obstinacy, nor false modesty, but because Jesus, totally attuned to his Father’s will, knows that He must go forward, not back, that there is a whole world needing to hear the good news, needing to be made whole. Jesus is not a performer of magic tricks, He is the Messiah. And time is short – Jesus is a man in a hurry. He is not in the business of instant satisfaction, but of converting, of healing broken lives, of making new life out of old, of helping people to build their house of faith on rock, not on sand.

There are many lessons here for us. We too are prone to be diverted, we too need to be attuned to God’s will for our lives, we too need to remain resolutely focused. Yes, it can be hard to resist responding to every need that comes our way, especially when this can give us the immediate reward of being wanted and appreciated. Yet this may be a delusion, and we need to walk closely with God, to ensure that we are not being led astray.

A life in which we balance activity and prayer, words and silence, will set us free to serve God more faithfully, and to mirror more faithfully the life and ministry of our blessed Lord who never sought the adulation of men and women but rather gave Himself to further the work of the Kingdom. As we might say, like Jesus, we need to keep our eyes on the big picture, and the big picture is the Kingdom – in the midst of the ordinary, the humdrum, the stress, the downright boring even, we are called not to please ourselves and others, but to commit ourselves to the service of God’s kingdom, for one of the greatest snares in the Christian life is when we tell ourselves, or others tell us, how well we are doing. A story is told of a preacher who, standing at the church door after the Service, was told by admiring worshippers that he had preached an excellent sermon. And his reply? “Yes, the devil told me that as I came down from the pulpit!”

Fr. Edward Bryant

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