The Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven

A Sermon for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings:

Isaiah xxii:19-23: Ps. cxxxvii(cxxxviii):1-3,6,8 Romans xi:33-36 Matthew xvi:13-20

Perugino Keeper of the Keys

Perugino, Christ Giving the Keys of the Kingdom to St. Peter, Sistine Chapel, 1481-83, fresco, 10 feet 10 inches x 18 feet (Vatican, Rome)

We’ve been away a bit recently. It’s been really nice – a good break, in different settings, a chance to catch our breath a bit. But, of course, there are always things that need to be arranged. We were delighted to receive an unsolicited offer to feed the cat while we were away for one of those weeks. You know who you are – thank you. The offer came from someone who we were quite happy to give a set of keys to. You know the drill – if you go away, it’s a good idea to leave a set of keys with someone reliable and trustworthy. Some people leave a set of keys with someone as a matter of course, in case of an emergency – but the rule remains the same. It’s always someone you trust.

 

We learn in our first reading that Shebna, King Hezekiah’s palace official, didn’t come up to the mark, and so he is replaced by someone who enjoys the king’s confidence – Eliakim, son of Hilkiah, who was to prove completely reliable.  And Isaiah writes of him: I place the key of the House of David on his shoulder; should he open, no one shall close, should he close, no one shall open. There is confidence here, and a great repository of trust. In the gospel Jesus says to Peter I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven: whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven.’ Both Eliakim and Peter have demonstrated that they are worthy of trust, that things won’t go astray under their stewardship – that the Master will return, and find that everything is in good order.

In Peter’s case, it appeared for a time as if that trust had been misplaced. His threefold denial of Jesus to save his own skin: the scattering of Jesus’ inner circle at the first sign of danger. It was to hands such as Peter’s that Jesus entrusted the Keys of the Kingdom. It was to the frailest of people. In fact, the whole band of apostles don’t really stand up to scrutiny.  A while ago I came across the following.

Memorandum

TO:
Jesus, Son of Joseph
Woodcrafter Carpenter Shop
Nazareth

 

FROM:
Jordan Management Consultants
Jerusalem

Dear Sir:
Thank you for submitting the resumes of the twelve men you have picked for management positions in your new organization. All of them have now taken our battery of tests; we have not only run the results through our computer, but also arranged personal interviews for each of them with our psychologist and vocational aptitude consultant.

It is the staff opinion that most of your nominees are lacking in background, education and vocational aptitude for the type of enterprise you are undertaking. They do not have the team concept. We would recommend that you continue your search for persons of experience in managerial ability and proven capability.

 

Simon Peter is emotionally unstable and given to fits of temper. Andrew has absolutely no qualities of leadership. The two brothers, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, place personal interest above company loyalty. Thomas demonstrates a questioning attitude that would tend to undermine morale.

We feel that it is our duty to tell you that Matthew has been blacklisted by the Greater Jerusalem Better Business Bureau. James, the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus definitely have radical leanings, and they both registered a high score on the manic depressive scale.

One of the candidates, however, shows great potential. He is a man of ability and resourcefulness, meets people well, has a keen business mind and has contacts in high places. He is highly motivated, ambitious and responsible. We recommend Judas Iscariot as your controller and right-hand man. All of the other profiles are self-explanatory.

We wish you every success in your new venture.

Sincerely yours,
Jordan Management Consultants.

That’s what the church is. Full of frail people. Frail people in whom God has invested his trust, has given the keys of his Kingdom. He asks you and me to participate in this task. We are as frail as any, because we are human. But the whole point is that we don’t do these things for ourselves, or in our own strength. We have the promise of Jesus to be with us until the end of time. We have the promise of his peace. We have the promise of his strength. We have the promise of his Body, or love and companionship, of togetherness and loyalty, of compassion, of joy, and the grace to achieve far more that we ever thought possible. Jesus brings us the message that – apart from how loved we are – that we are trusted, trusted with the most responsible task of them all – as doorkeepers of the kingdom of God.

If you’re paying careful attention, you’ll have raised an eyebrow by now. You may well be thinking that the Keys of the Kingdom stuff is about – well, about Bishops, and Priests, and Deacons, and that’s part of the responsibility of being ordained, and in a very important sense, you’re right. But the keys of the kingdom rattle louder than that. Do you want other people to enter the Kingdom of God? Do you want others who live round here who aren’t here to be here? Do you want them to join in this perpetual dance of love, grace and service, and a life that is eternal? Because each one of us is a key holder, a door keeper. It is up to us who we invite to join us, who we welcome when they come through the door, who doesn’t find that they are welcome despite wanting to find out what all this is about.  Just as surely as you have a key to your house, you have a key to this church, this Jesus, this Kingdom.

This week’s homework. Think of three people. Three people you know, in this community. If it will help, write their names down. Commit to praying for these people – ask God to bless them, to open eyes and hearts to his love, and to draw them to himself.  And them invite them to join us at something – whether it’s a social, or worship, whatever. That is what we are about. We have been given the keys of the kingdom, not to lock people out, but to include other people in. 

A prayer of the great Bishop Thomas Ken, then, in our endeavours:

O God, make the doors of this house wide enough to receive all who need human love and fellowship, narrow enough to shut out all envy, pride and strife. Make its threshold smooth enough to be no stumbling block to children, not to straying feet, but rugged and strong enough to turn back the tempter’s power.

O God, make the doors of this house the gateway to your eternal kingdom. Amen.

Preached at The Most Holy Trinity, Ettingshall, on Sunday 27 August 2017.

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In the Midst of the Weeds

Wheat Darnell

Darnel is interesting stuff.

It’s also known as poison darnel, darnel ryegrass or cockle. Jesus’ listeners would know it well. Why? Because Darnel usually grows in the same production areas as wheat and was a serious problem until modern machinery could separate darnel seeds from seed wheat. It used to grow in wheat fields, and was called ‘fake wheat’ because it was so hard to tell one from the other. You could only tell which was which right at the very end. And Darnel is poisonous. And the problem is that as it grows its roots entangle themselves in and around the roots of the wheat. Darnel is only good for one thing. It makes excellent fuel for a fire. So what Jesus is saying makes perfect practical sense. Don’t rip up the Darnel yet – you’ll rip up the wheat as well. Then, after harvest, separate and burn. Afterwards Jesus gives us an explanation for the parable. Classically, it all looks clear. If you’re wheat, you’ll be fine. If you’re darnel, you’ll burn.

But let’s drill a bit deeper. Wheat and Darnel look incredibly alike. It’s almost impossible to tell one from the other while they’re growing. The thing that feeds you and the thing that poisons you look very alike. There are two aspects to this which should bother us today.

First of all, let’s apply this to the state of our souls. If we examine our consciences regularly, as we should, we will know that we aren’t perfect. We also know that we aren’t wholly evil either. We are capable of great good, and we are capable of harm as well. We give delight to God and those around us: we cause displeasure to God and to those around us. We have characters and personality traits which can keep us safe, or lead us astray. That’s because we’re human, and frail, the clay jars in which the gospel gold is found. We are wheat, and we are darnel, and sometimes it’s hard to know which is which. Our confusing and confused world often can’t tell the difference between the good and the bad. The concept of ‘fake news’ is part of the darnel of our times. We can’t be certain who to trust any more, and what is presented to us as Good News doesn’t always turn out to be.

How careful we must be! Our capacity to distinguish good from bad is under threat from a force which undermines the rock on which we stand, that of faith in Jesus Christ, and the church which he founded. How carefully we should seek God’s will in our prayers, and the strength to do that will. And this matters for the small things in our lives every bit as much as the large ones.

Secondly, this parable is a reminder that we can grow as a people, even when there’s bad stuff around. We can grow even when there are difficulties. We can grow in number, of course, something we are trying to do, something we are asking God to help us achieve for him, and which we will do as we ourselves grow in grace, in confidence, and in our acceptance of God’s promises for us which this Mass offers. Even when things are challenging, and we question our place in the world and wonder how we can serve this community with the Good News of Jesus – whatever the questions on our lips, and the difficulties which surround us – we can set our hearts to growth, to conversion, to greater intimacy with God in prayer, a greater love of him and of one another. Be encouraged, be joyful. For your homework this week take this morning’s second reading, and read it over and over again. Cut it out, put it on the fridge, and read it over and over. Learn it, like you used to learn poetry at school. Paul reassures us that even when our prayers are a total mess, we can be sure that good things are happening, because God is in fact praying in us and through us.

...when we cannot choose words in order to pray properly, the Spirit himself expresses our plea in a way that could never be put into words, and God who knows everything in our hearts knows perfectly well what he means, and that the pleas of the saints expressed by the Spirit are according to the mind of God.

In other words, God knows what our prayers are, even when we can’t say them properly. God knows our hearts, and the Spirit gives voice when we can’t. Trust, then, that God hears your praying, because He hears and knows all. And if we do that our trust in God will grow, even if we don’t see our prayers being answered (in fact they are answered – it’s just that sometimes God needs to say ‘no’ to us, because God is not Father Christmas.) We must trust that God knows what is best for us, even when other voices are saying that we know what’s best for ourselves. Usually we don’t, and need help, and support in our decisions. We find it in our prayers, we find it in the ministry of the church. It’s part of what the church is for. I took the opportunity last week, on the anniversary of my ordination, to remind myself of what was said to me twenty-two years ago by the Bishop of Knaresborough. Here’s a short extract from what he said to me.

You are to be a messenger, a watchman, and a steward of the Lord. You are to teach and to admonish, to feed and provide for God’s family, to search for his children in the midst of the world’s confusions, that they may be saved through Christ for ever. Formed by the word, you are to call your hearers to repentance and to declare in Christ’s name the absolution and forgiveness of their sins.

That’s my part of the deal. What’s yours? As you come to receive the body and blood of Jesus, crucified for you, what have you got to offer? In the midst of the weeds, it’s time for the wheat to stand up. The wheat grows in the midst of the rubbish.  So commit today to grow – to grow as a follower of Jesus, to grow as God’s people, even in the midst of the mess. And we can do this, because we are about to be fed – with the finest, purest, most delicious wheat.

Preached at The Most Holy Trinity, Ettingshall on Sunday 23 June 2017

Becoming the Final Me

Readings: Isaiah 49:1-6 Acts 13:22-26 Luke 1:57-66,80.

A Homily preached at the First Mass of Fr. Alex Ladds

‘What will this child turn out to be?’ they wondered. (Luke i.lxvi)

HancockIn his legendary comedy sketch The Blood Donor, Tony Hancock offers us his thoughts on discernment and public service.

‘Something for the benefit of the country as a whole. What should it be, I thought? Become a Blood Donor or join the Young Conservatives? But as I’m not looking for a wife, and I can’t play Table Tennis, here I am.’

Father Alex, your processes of discernment have, we pray, been slightly more exacting than Hancock’s, as he determined to offer his blood. But we should acknowledge that the task has similarities. The shedding of blood should be part of the consciousness of every priest, because the shedding of Christ’s blood has a direct message for us as you stand, alter Christus, at the altar this morning. The call to priesthood is, at heart, a call to witness, and to sacrifice.

Like a fine wine, your priestly vocation has matured through a number of phases and roles. What will this child turn out to be? A Theologian? A Police Officer? A rugby player? A Teacher? A son? A brother? A husband? A Dad? Father Alex has turned out to be all these things, and more, for Jesus teaches us that we, precious humanity that we are, are not simply defined by the parts we play – but are unique, precious and, to Jesus’ way of thinking, to die for. And yesterday we celebrated because not merely another role, but rather a whole new character, was imprinted upon him – a share in the priesthood of Jesus Christ himself, the only priesthood which exists, and from whose identity all priesthood in the church derives.

And I hope , Father, you won’t mind me saying that this has been coming for a long time. From conversations in Heathcotes, and on Fishergate, in Woodplumpton Vicarage and other such places, I with many others have been privileged to watch with joy as you have discovered, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, that your life, your identity, your very being, is to be consumed in the joy of priesthood, the joy of the Gospel, the identity of Jesus Christ himself. This does not remove the other roles or identities (although it may have been a while since you strayed down the blind-side of a scrum with less than moral intent) – rather, it enhances and completes them. Put simply, all your relationships change today, because you have changed – a major step towards the person God intends you to be, a further stage on the journey towards what John Henry Newman called the ‘final me.’

And you, for a moment the newest priest that ever there was yesterday afternoon, waste no time in doing what a priest does, being who a priest is. You hasten to the altar, here to reveal the presence of Jesus, whose priesthood you now share, in the species of bread and wine, obeying your Lord’s command, so that we, the people you serve, might be fed with this most sublime and mysterious food. This priesthood is a shared enterprise, both in the sense that this is a gift to all priests, but also because this priesthood is a gift to the whole church – the local church here, certainly, but more widely, across the universal church.

A new priest is a sign of great Good News, and of hope for the church – a sign that God continues to provide for, feed and guide his people. The priestly task which we share with Jesus Christ is the task of guiding his precious people through the gates of heaven. I have often thought that priests will indeed be the last people into heaven – because of the task of making sure that everyone is safely home, following behind, with a brush and shovel if necessary. If that sounds over-romanticised, it nevertheless points to an important truth – that priesthood is a vital part of the means by which God reveals his ultimate purposes for his people, by which the church fulfils her role as the very continuation of Jesus Christ. And this is so, because the priest is the assurance of the presence of Jesus, God-with-us.

Father, you remarked to me in the lead up to today that we would celebrate The Birth of John the Baptist – because he has accompanied you throughout your life. He is not the most comfortable of companions along the way – but he is hugely effective in mission. He is vital to the life of the church and the world at this time. He is the lifeguard who slaps us in the face to bring us to our senses, so that we do not drown in sin. He is the original ‘critical friend’. What did that child turn out to be? ‘A prophet, yes, and more than a prophet’, one who speaks the truth with little by way of varnish, because he can read the signs of the times, and because it is the only way he knows to get people ready for Jesus. The Baptist reminds us all of the urgency of the task – that of proclaiming the gospel, of winning souls for Christ, of preaching the dire need for repentance and reconciliation, of living the life which results in the completion of the sacrifice. And this – a life soaked in love, in priestly service, is an aspect of the answer, the antidote, if you will, to the turbulent and violent world in which we live. We can only counter these things by love, supreme love, and our task is to live this, to embody it, to proclaim it incessantly into the uncertainty and turbulence.

And it is for this task that the Lord has conferred his character, his charism upon Fr. Alex, because it is the best use of Fr. Alex, the best use of his many talents, and because it is what God had in mind for him since before he was born. We who know him delight in this, because it is good for us too – richer, deeper blessing, a visible reminder of the closeness of God to each and every one of us, further evidence of God-with-us. God has again provided, and we who benefit from this grace rejoice, and will keep rejoicing, until it is accomplished, and Christ is all in all.

Damian Feeney

Vicar of Ettingshall

 

Preached at All Saints Church, Broughton, North Yorkshire, 25 June 2017

 

 

 

 

Session 3: The Living of the Gospel in Diocese of Liverpool

The third of a series of addresses given at a conference entitled ‘The Catholic Way’ at St Columba’s, Anfield.

One of the difficulties of our theological discourse is what we do at the points where the various boxes into which we tend to pack our theology bump into each other. We categorise theology so that it is easier to think straight – but it is always more fun when two categories either overlap, or attempt to occupy the same space.

One of my recent interests concerns what happens when you overlay sacramental theology with mission theology. In fact, what if you believed sacramental theology was mission theology? What if the shape of our missiology was determined, influenced, by our understanding of the revelation of Jesus Christ in the sacramental life of the church? That is a large part of our task, I think.

For this session, however, I want to encourage us to ask where our sacramental theology goes when we search it for ethical questions. What does the eucharist, celebrated day be day, week by week, teach us about what we are doing for the six days and 23 hours when we are not celebrating the Sunday Mass? What does the Mass itself – not the preaching or proclamation which takes place within it – but the structure, the symbolism, the action, if you will – what help does liturgy give to the business of living?

The Jesuit Michael Skelley reminds us of the potential for every moment of our lives being a rich encounter with God. He writes

‘…at some level of our free acts, we are always accepting or resisting God. Every moment of every day  has the potential to become an explicit, mutual experience of God., in which God chooses to be present to us and we choose to become present to God. Such communion and interaction with God may very well take place in obvious religious situation…but it need not. The most joyful and the most tragic, the most extraordinary and the most mundane events of human life can all become experiences of full and active participation in the life of God.’

So, there is a relationship between our dispositions and our depth of faith – and the extent to which we allow our faith to determine the decisions we make. As a colleague of mine,  Andrew Davison, once said to me in a conversation, ‘Being a Catholic Christian should affect the way you walk down the street’. There is no part of our lives that is immune from divine grace, unless we choose that it should be so.  Again, Michael Skelley speaks of ‘the universal self-communication of the mystery of God effecting a response in our freedom.’ We are, of course, free to compartmentalise our lives so that we reject that grace. Much depends on what dispositions we choose to nurture.

A good friend of mine once asked his congregation how many of them read the Bible every day. a few hands went up – a small proportion of a good-sized congregation. Then he asked how many of them read a daily newspaper.  A forest of hands went up. It turned out that more people in the congregation – far more – read the Daily Mail every day than read the Bible every day. Because Paul Dacre, Rupert Murdoch, or whoever’s paper you read – they are life-changing. They are transformative. All we need to do is to live as they tell us to live.  My guess is that it might not grant to us the abundance of life which Jesus promised his followers (John 10.10) – but your life would certainly change. Then again, you could allow yourself to be transformed into a Jesus-centred person. Rowan Williams described a living faith as ‘Reality being reorganised around Jesus’. Jesus Christ is the answer. So what is the question? The presence of Jesus in our lives, the Word of God, active as any double-edged sword, changes the very axis on which we live our lives.

A personal relationship with Jesus Christ?

The Catholic Faith is shot through with examples of those so clearly in a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus. We mustn’t be frightened of recovering a language which others have appropriated! Pope Francis invites us to a

Renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them.

For the Catholic Christian that relationship reaches its high point in the Mass – for how more intimately and personally can we know the Lord Jesus than by eating his body, drinking his blood, as he commanded? To have Jesus dwelling within us in this way  – personally, yet within the context of the ecclesial community – is simply astonishing, and ‘to speak of it is an impertinence.’ It is, I suggest, internalised in more senses than the merely physical, and the intimacy is so great that we are perhaps disposed not to want to share or talk about it.

More worryingly, in her book Forming Intentional Disciples, the American author Sherry Weddell states that the prevailing attitude to this personal relationship with Jesus among America Catholics is one of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’, and that the notion of such a relationship is profoundly challenging to the majority, precisely because it is not talked about. It is a vicious circle, as the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ syndrome becomes more and more fixed by our behavioural and neurological habits as we fear ‘being different’ from our peers.

Evangelii Gaudium wishes to encourage precisely the opposite of what Weddel describes. Without such a personal, renewed daily relationship with Jesus, there can be no evangelisation.

A true Missionary, who never ceases to be a disciple, knows that Jesus walks with him, speaks to him, breathes with him, works with him. He senses Jesus alive with him in the midst of the missionary enterprise. Unless we see him present at the heart of our missionary commitment, our enthusiasm soon wanes and we are no longer sure of what it is we are handing on; we lack vigour and passion. A person who is not convinced, enthusiastic, certain and in love, will convince nobody.

The Mass contains within it much which is itself a proclamation of a life reorganised around the central truth if Christ. It shows the need for penitence and praise, for contemplation and a breaking open of the word in our lives, for a clear statement of universal faith, and a place for the priestly people of God to pray for others. It makes actual the way of the Cross, in self-offering and transformation, in covenant ad blessing. It rehearses the history of our salvation in such a way that the present moment is brought into the reality of that salvation. We exchange the peace with one another, we feed on the Body and Blood of Jesus: we are sent out. Just as the Lord’s Prayer is actually the pattern of all our praying, so the Mass is in fact the pattern of all our living.   It is so much more than a series of moral imperatives, but they are there to be found, and they involve the most challenging life questions of them all.

That sign of peace? Well, it’s more of a covenant, really – in which we pledge too live peaceably with one another and with the rest of creation. I wonder how many times we breach that all-too-easily made covenant? Reaction to the sign of peace, when it was first introduced into the liturgy, was not universally positive – perhaps the dissenters were wiser than they knew. It is a grace undertaking to live peaceably, as citizens of a peaceable kingdom, when the world around us is so turbulent and at times violent. It is, if I dare, the ultimate sign of mutual flourishing – and we remember all too well the imperative Jesus gives to us  in Matthew 5.24:

So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.

When we gather for the Mass we are gathering in a place where there are fair shares for all, and where now are left behind, and all are honoured by the host – we are united simply by our sinful nature, and our baptism.  And to receive the singular grace of the sacrament of His Body and Blood is to pledge to work for a world of justice, and a world where God’s sovereignty in Christ is acknowledged and believed. In short, we are pledged to become missionaries in the world – people of joyful proclamation, certainly, but also people whose own lifestyle challenges the consumer culture, greed and waste of the society in which we live.

A recurring theme in Anglican missiology is the checklist of the Five Marks of Mission. True to Anglican form, some provinces have added a couple, but generally speaking these are the five.

• To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom

• To teach, baptise and nurture new believers

• To respond to human need by loving service

• To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation

• To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth.

Proclamation, Baptism, Teaching, Service, Justice, Creation. It’s all there, and every mark finds direct reference in the offering of the Mass. The gradual transformation of the faithful effected by frequent participation in the eucharistic life of the church is revealed in consideration of these questions.  And, as with all aspects of our life in Christ, it is a constant journey of exploration, revelation and discovery, with desert moments thrown in along the way to remind us that we are undertaking this journey in God’s strength  and not our own.

It is the task of the congregation, and those who lead that congregation, to witness to the life of Beatitude to which Jesus calls us. This happens in a number of ways – from the core witnessing text of the Beatitudes themselves, to the sense of Blessing which is God’s desire fro his people, to the accent on beauty in liturgy and living, expressed itself in a variety of ways. Beauty is a significant player in our self-understanding and in our understanding of God, who is ultimate beauty, the Beatific vision.

Various attempts have been made to explore the implications of the Mass for ethical questions. The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics is one such example. Edited by Stanley Hauerwas and Sam Wells, the various contributors seek to align the various nuances and emphases of the Mass with areas of ethical concern. Offering evokes a commentary on treasuring creation; invocation relates to globalisation and power, sharing communion leads to a section in Hunger, Food and Genetically Modified Foods.

A more detailed exploration of one area of ethical concern can be found in William Cavanaugh’s Torture and the Eucharist, also published by Blackwell. The founding narrative of the Eucharist – the Last Supper – takes place in the shadow of betrayal, arrest, torture and the cruellest of deaths. The book ties eucharistic theology to practice, showing (to quote Cavanaugh himself) ‘…is not a ‘symbol’ but a real cathartic summary of the practices by which God forms people into the body of Christ, producing a sense of communion stronger than that of any nation-state.’

There is much more that could be said – but I hope that has given you a taste of what is a fascinating field of exploration. Time spent engaging with the actions, words and elements of eucharistic worship is never time wasted.  In every aspect of mission Catholics need to be true to what they have received. The Sacraments proclaim a generous, self-giving God, who cannot help but love, forgive and nourish his people. Such revelation should give us confidence to find in this life the seeds of our share in God’s great missionary endeavour to his creation. I look forward to the day which the Church of England (in particular) can speak the language of Catholic Mission and Evangelisation with confidence and enthusiasm, and (more to the point) put it into practice, and watch it bear fruit, ‘something beautiful for God.’

The Proclamation of the Gospel in the Diocese of Liverpool

The second of three addresses given at a conference entitled ‘The Catholic Way’ at St Columba’s, Anfield.

I’m going to focus in this section on questions of Proclamation and Catechesis. Once again, they are areas of endeavour and ministry which are covered in Evangelii Gaudium, but I want to spread them out a bit, and would welcome in particular insights from the body here present about local context, specific issues, and maybe stories.

‘The Churches are children playing on the floor with their Chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares.’

So writes Annie Dillard in her 1982 book Teaching a Stone to Talk. It reminds me of a time in my last parish when the guest preacher didn’t turn up and there was some maintenance work being done – the presence of a hard hat in the vestry provided the perfect illustration of just what Dillard is trying to say. The Proclamation of the Gospel should carry a health warning. Lives are changed here. We are different, not because of ourselves, but because of God’s grace, God’s story, and the conjoining of that story with our own, if we will allow it. Faith in Jesus Christ is, as it has ever been, dangerous, risky, subversive, and compelling for all eternity. One night my earnest and very Church of England study group defined grace as ‘playing with live ammunition’. That was a good night in the parish! Think of those three classic symbols of the Spirit – Fire, Water, Wind. The fire can dance on top of a candle, or it can rip through your house. Water can cleanse and refresh, or it can be like a brick wall if, like me, you belly-flop. Wind can be a cooling breeze, or a Hurricane which uproots trees. You decide. Faith in Christ is X-Rated. If Congregations and Parishes are meant to be witnesses, then we must expect that our witnessing, our proclamation, will provoke a wide variety of responses, ranging from utter apathy to complete hostility to frightening enthusiasm to quiet questioning.

There is no opportunity for grace-filled evangelisation quite like preaching. Proclamation finds its high point in our preaching. Those of us who preach should be  constantly aware of the responsibility we shoulder, pastorally and evangelistically. Preaching is a privilege which is wide open to abuse.  The Pope extends this section to include personal reflections upon the business of sermon preparation. A prayer for the guidance of the Holy Spirit before such preparation, and the cultivation of the disposition of servanthood towards the lectionary, with sufficient theological insight to draw out the main point of the text, to feed our people with the solid food of the gospel, and not our own superficial commentaries. We should always remember that preaching at the Mass has importance and vitality; it ‘surpasses all forms of catechesis as the supreme moment in the dialogue between God and his people which lead up to sacramental communion’. It is the dialogue which informs the reception of the Sacrament, and this in itself places a grave responsibility on the preacher. There is a fine distinction between the homily as entertainment, and the type of preaching which animates and gives life to the celebration. Our preaching should be measured so that it is the Lord himself who takes centre stage, and not we ourselves. I have always loved and been inspired by these words of Oscar Romero:

A preaching that does not point out sin
is not the preaching of the gospel.
A preaching that makes sinners feel good,
so that they become entrenched in their sinful state,
betrays the gospel’s call.

A preaching that awakens,
a preaching that enlightens –
as when a light turned on
awakens and of course annoys a sleeper –
that is the preaching of Christ, calling:
Wake up! Be converted!

Then, of course, there is the flip side of taking a special care in our preaching. We can become proud of our gifts, forgetting that there is a fine line between preaching and manipulation. Martin Luther had severe words for preachers:

If you think and are of the opinion that you really stand secure and you please yourself with your own books, your teaching and you writings, [if you think] that you have done very splendidly and have preached magnificently, and if it please you to be praised before others, yes, if you want to be praised lest you mourn and give up, then, my friend, if you are man enough, put your hands to your ears, and if you do so rightly, you will find a lovely pair of big, long, rough donkey’s ears. Do not spare the cost of decorating them with golden bells so that you can be heard wherever you go and the people can point to you and say: ‘Behold, behold! There goes that splendid creature that writes such wonderful books and preaches such wonderful sermons.’ Then you shall be blessed and doubly blessed in heaven, for the fire of hell is ready for the Devil and all his angels.’

If those who tell lies experience a certain expansion of the nose, then perhaps the preacher who luxuriates in preaching for self-glory should grow a pair – a pair of donkey’s ears, that is.

And there are other, vital points of verbal proclamation.  Our context now demands that we seek the opportunities to speak of the faith informally. This can be part of themed proclamation events, small groups, sacramental preparation, pub evenings, the lot. We need chances to do with adults what we tend to do well with children. Put simply, we need to tell stories. We follow the greatest story teller in the history of the world. There’s something important for us to learn there.

Of course, verbal proclamation, whilst essential in the business of evangelisation, is not the only possibility. The liturgy itself, well taught, becomes a place for the exploration of the gospel. The Mass is ‘good-news shaped’ because of the rhythm of greeting, forgiveness, praise, scripture, offering, nourishing, and peace. and it is clear that the purpose of all this is to send out the faithful to witness. We are given all that we need, and then we depart to share the Good News of what we have received, which is the best news of all.

Catechesis and accompaniment

Some place for exploration, distinct from, but leading into, our eucharistic life, is necessary to help people discover the joys of belonging and believing. The exhortation defines the importance of catechesis still further, speaking of the significance of the first announcement or kerygma, which, the Pope reminds us, is a process in which the Holy Trinity is completely involved:

The fire of the Spirit is given in the form of tongues, and leads us to believe in Jesus Christ who, by his death and resurrection, reveals and communicates to us the Father’s infinite mercy. On the lips of the catechist the first proclamation must ring out over and over; “Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you.”

This ‘core’ proclamation is the statement we might return to again and again as we seek to share the gospel, and try to articulate why Jesus Christ transforms our lives. We return to it again and again as we go deeper and deeper into the life of Christ. We are reminded of the importance of ‘joy, encouragement, liveliness and a harmonious balance which convey the vitality and importance of what we are saying.

A further stage of this process is articulated in the form of mystagogic – or ‘post-initiation’ catechesis. This is a further process which involves catechesis for the whole worshipping community, when time is set aside to explore the faith in more depth. Anglicans are familiar with this differentiation, with the difference between ‘Basics’ courses and more in-depth formational courses such as the Pilgrim Course.

The place of catechesis is as significant as, that first conversation which ends in invitation. The idea of balance in our outreach is important, There’s no point in inviting people if there’s nothing to invite them to; likewise, there’s no point in running any kind of catechesis if no-one has been invited. The ideal is for there to be a number of different and differentiated points of entry, determined by factors such as age, language, and experience of the faith. All of that needs to be carefully planned and resourced, and it of course dependent upon the existence of a body of people who are equipped to lead and guide the processes. This itself presupposes a prior stage in which appropriate leadership is discerned and trained – a task not always easy in some parishes.

Catechesis is one thing – but the importance of finding those in the community who are able to act as accompaniers for newcomers is stressed in Paragraph 171. These people are able to bring people to a place where they are able to make mature decisions about the faith. Patience, prudence, an abandonment to the Holy Spirit, and people who are good listeners to guide through the early stages of discipleship in preparation for full sacramental expression, particularly the sacrament of reconciliation.

Put simply, we need to see Proclamation and Catechesis as two sides of the same coin. That Catechesis, however, needs a long hard thinking about in terms of approach. Very often we see the teaching office of the church as a ‘top-down’ exercise – about the vast repository of faith and tradition, as if we are initiating people into the culture we inhabit.

I commend to you an excellent book, by an American theologian called Ronald Rolheiser, entitled ‘Sacred Fire’ who turns this model of catechesis on its head. Rolheiser believes that when we determine how and what our curriculum should be, we should begin with the life experiences of the people we are serving. Into this narrative – which we need to inhabit, embrace, and understand – we weave the person of Jesus and his stories, making connections which people recognise and can make sense of.

As a sidebar, Rolheiser cites the example of how we deal with an adolescent who determines, as part of the process of discovering an independent voice, determines that they won’t be coming to church any more. Rather than sweep this under the carpet, the youngster is visited, and asked about the reasons for the decision. They are treated with love and kindness, because these are the hallmarks of the Christian life. Finally, the youngster is assured of the constant prayers, support and love of the Christian community. This shows an honesty, but above all a recognition of the fact that adolescence is a time of instability and uncertainty, and that a genuine pastoral response is required.

The Joy of the Gospel in the Diocese of Liverpool

The first of three addresses given at a conference entitled ‘The Catholic Way’ at St Columba’s, Anfield.

It’s impossible to stress how important days like this are. They remind us of core values – values which, given the often febrile contexts in which we work and coexist, are easy to forget. There are times when the context of the church can drag us down, and we should acknowledge that, because we are dust, and as Fr Stanton once memorably said ‘You can’t always expect dust to be up to the mark.’ Paul famously reminds Corinth that ‘

…we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.’ (2 Cor. 4.7-10)

We ponder, then, the first of our three titles – The Joy of the Gospel in the Diocese of Liverpool. Where these titles are concerned, there’s a sense in which you must help me, because we have deliberately couched our titles within the context of this Diocese. So, you have the upper hand here, because you must provide the context in what I hope will be a series of animated conversations throughout the day.

Joy, of course, is a gift – it is one of the fruits of the indwelling Spirit, conferred through our initiation. (Galatians 5.22-23). And, as you well know, it is not the same as being happy all the time. When he wrote to me, a few days before I was ordained deacon, my College Principal reminded me that joy came from the sense that you were in the place where God wanted you to be, doing the work God wanted you to do, standing in the flow of divine grace.  There are high days, and low days, to be sure – but the sense of joy remains. Not for us the painted faces of sad clowns, trying to portray something we do not feel – but a life of the Spirit, gifted to us, which is truthful and authentic. It is fully possible to manifest the joy of the gospel, even if your own personal dispositions are less than happy. As someone who is affected by depression, I am certain that this particular gift consists of God bridging the gap between our temporary dislocation and His grace.

The Gospel is something we proclaim with joy. Anything else sells Jesus short. How can we introduce others to Jesus Christ without meeting him ourselves? It says something for the tenor of the current papacy – and I’m a fan, for the record – that the first Apostolic Exhortation written by Pope Francis was Evangelii Gaudium – The Joy of the Gospel.

EG exhorts us to a view of mission as being that which we carry out in joy – joy because it is the Lord’s will, joy because we are able to say that this is what the Lord requires of us. No-one is attracted to the notion of a sullen God. Blessed are the Joy makers.

The Catholicism in which I was raised was not a wholly positive experience. I was brought up as a Roman Catholic about thirty miles due north of here, in the 1960’s, and in a part of the world where the Second Vatican Council was something which happened to other people. The view of God which lodged in my psyche as a child was brilliantly caricatured by Gerard Hughes in his book God of Surprises.

Hughes wrote of a terrifying experience in which the children were taken to visit an elderly uncle, and were exhorted by the parents that they should love him. On meeting the Uncle he says ‘You love me, children, don’t you?  ‘Oh yes, Uncle’ they reply. Because if you don’t, you know what will happen, don’t you?’ And they are shown a vision of souls in torment, screaming, in the fires of hell. By no stretch of the imagination could that be described as a loving, joyful relationship. I do believe in hell, by the way. I also believe and hope that it is empty, although that’s not up to me, fortunately. The God of abundant grace who emerged from the old skin of my upbringing was introduced to me by my parents, my family, and by a number of wise and generous individuals in whose debt I remain, and which debt I try to repay by sharing the vision of a joyful God with others.

Stephen Bevans offers the following excellent description for what I’m trying to say.

This is what God is in God’s deepest self: self-diffusive love, freely creating, redeeming, healing, challenging that creation. God, as my colleague Anthony Gittins once said in a lecture, is “love hitting the cosmic fan.” Or, to be a bit more prosaic, God is like an ever-flowing fountain of living water, poured out on earth through the Holy Spirit and actually made part of creation through the Word-become-flesh.

That joy comes from realistic engagement with the people we serve, so that the church and its members are  known as Good News. This is ‘a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets’, and, most famously of all (24)

An evangelising community gets involved by word and deed in other people’s daily lives; it bridges distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others. Evangelizers thus take on the ‘smell of the sheep’ and the sheep are willing to hear their voice.

Often, our contact with daily ‘unchurched’ lives is restricted – very often weddings, funerals and baptisms. How do we forge more opportunities to engage with the unattached, and how do we free up time to do so? Those people are the reason why we are there. The intriguing statement about abasing ourselves is important. The church can no longer afford the luxury of pomposity or standing aloof from the everyday lives of our community. Likewise, we can’t proclaim the gospel if we ignore the many moral dilemmas in which people find themselves, not least the appalling inequalities which exist. Questions of proclamation and of the living of the Gospel may well occupy us later – but my first challenge to the local church is

‘How much time is spent, and what priority given, to finding ways of spending time with people who have no attachment to the church? Are we intentionally praying for them, contriving ways to meet them, trying to create a context in which proclamation can happen?

The context of sacramentality

Until recently a prevailing evangelical orthodoxy in Anglican missiology has rejected a central role for the eucharist, and it is common to hear it decried. + Philip North reminded us of this in the first Sheffield Lecture when he said

In the contemporary church there are many highly influential voices who would argue that the Eucharist is too complicated, too excluding, too bound up in tradition to have relevance or power in a post-Christian world. If a church is serious about growth, they would argue, the worship needs to be accessible, inclusive and thus non-Eucharistic. It is hard to imagine a more profound misunderstanding either of the Eucharist or the ministry of evangelism… we are failing people unless we invite them along the road that leads to the altar.

Of course, Evangelii Gaudium doesn’t major on this, because it doesn’t need to. The centrality of the Mass in Roman Catholicism and in Roman Missiology is a given. The only time it is given any kind of mention is in the context of being the context of proclamation in preaching, where it animates the Word and gives it context. We do need to major on it as Anglicans because without the Mass we cease to be the Church. We have forgotten that there is a distinctive, attractive Catholic theology of mission out there. Its instinct and impulse is to make Jesus known, to lead people to him, to participate in the divine nature which is the source of mission – but at its heart it is sacramental. It begins with initiation, and ends at the foot of the Cross – but the Mass is both the place where mission and invitation leads, and where encounters with God are found and explored.

But Jesus in the Eucharist does something else as well. He empowers people, heals, nourishes and sustains them in the other direction of the apostolic task – that of being sent out, that we might gather in. The Mass is both destiny and starting point in the journeying of mission.

We will, no doubt, have encountered the very thing we so often rail against in the life of the church itself. There is a ‘consumer culture’ which affects the way many church going people see themselves. For some, Church is something to be consumed, like any other commodity – there is little sense with such people that they see themselves as part of the body, sharing responsibility, taking ownership. Tasks are there for others to do, problems are there for others to solve – and often people fail to speak up unless they don’t like the solution. Not merely individuals, but whole communities, need to be converted from this view, seeing themselves not as receivers and consumers, but as givers and contributors, as part of the privilege and responsibility of our common baptism. Para. 129:

This is always a slow process and at times we can be overly fearful. But if we allow doubts and fears to dampen our courage, instead of being creative we will remain comfortable and make no progress whatsoever. In this case we will not take an active part in historical processes, but merely become onlookers as the church gradually stagnates.

As Christian people we cannot enable others to encounter one who we ourselves have not met. We cannot speak of Jesus to others unless we ourselves have first met him ourselves, and been so moved and changed by that encounter that we cannot help but proclaim him to others. In beginning today with a celebration of the Mass we focus on the supreme means by which God makes this meeting real. We concentrate on the presence of Our Lord Jesus Christ, truly God and truly human, in the species of bread and wine as surely as he was present in history, in incarnation.

This, in so many senses, alongside and integral to our baptism, is the beginning of our call to mission within Christ’s church. Only by meeting Jesus can we commend him to others – we cannot share what we haven’t received. And so it is that one of the gifts the church is experiencing and rediscovering at this present time is a renewal in our understanding of the benefits both of the Eucharist, and Eucharistic adoration.

In Adoration we gaze upon the one who gave his life for us, and thus the greatest love we can know; and this prompts us, invites us to make a worthy response with the offering of our own lives in a manner which seeks to mirror, however imperfectly, the self-offering of Christ.

This is no inward looking, introspective navel-gazing, but rather an outward looking dynamic which lifts our vision away from our own temporary concerns to God’s concerns – concerns for peace, for justice, for evangelization. Here we dare to offer ourselves in reverence for those many times when the sacramental presence of Jesus is treated with levity, insults or abuse. Here we are converted, sometimes in infinitesimal degrees, for conversion happens in God’s time rather than our own; here we are fed and healed by the sacrament of life and joy.

Here our interior life is rendered distinctive after the fashion of our saviour, and we are saved from over-sentimentality and self-obsession. As Bishop Dominique Rey observes, a truly missionary dynamic is here, for it consists of nothing less that an exchange of love between ourselves and God, which in turn offers us the only way by which the hearts and souls of others can be converted. 

The church’s disposition towards mission must begin with adoration – the placing of self in the flow of divine grace, the dynamic which begins with the conversion and cleansing of individual souls. Through that grace we are set free to worship, free to speak and act, free to proclaim good news, in the power of the most Holy Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead.

All of that is wonderful, of course, but it is an understanding which is often called into question. Part of the challenge we will face as we serve the mission of the church is in understanding that somehow sacraments, and sacramental life, and the Eucharist in particular, is actually more of an obstacle to overcome in a mixed church economy which oftentimes values marketing above grace. The contemporary received wisdom of church planting, for example, suggests that it is fine to establish a church community by simply gathering people together, perhaps in the most informal of ways, with little thought concerning what the church has received from Jesus in the sacraments. We may contend that church and sacrament are indistinguishable – for many in the church that is a contentious viewpoint.  There is an ongoing debate – which can never be resolved one way or the other – concerning how new ecclesial communities are formed. As an example of this, I was fascinated by the following questions which arose from the experience of building new church communities without the Eucharist as a foundation stone. I think it illustrates a number of dangers eloquently. This comes from a church planting blog.

At the recent pioneer minister conference…it was stated that a fresh expression should be working towards regular communion services because this was a mark of ‘being church’. Many of us were left with questions. Should the Eucharist be seen as a target? Where does lay leadership fit in? Does the Eucharist create a Christ-centred community? Or is a Christ-centred community, by definition, Eucharistic? What does a fresh expression of the Eucharist look like? And if we’re not church – what are we?

What indeed? The tensions created by the expression ‘working towards’ are all too apparent here. The Eucharistic presence of Jesus is not a ‘target’, nor is it a hoop to be jumped through, an obstacle to be overcome. The presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist is the answer, but we seem to have made it the problem. The celebration of Mass, and the sacramental presence of Jesus in our midst is a foundational expression of any Christian community, and needs to be seen as such. If our adoration of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is the beginning of our own conversion, why deny, or seek to regulate that, in the lives of other Christians?

The call to mission is a call to bring people to worship of Almighty God. It is why we, and every other human being, have been created. We are brought to our knees in the presence of Jesus Christ, true God, true man, recognizing his kingship, his dominion, his supreme sovereignty over all things. Our adoration begins and continues our conversion, enabling us to speak, and to act, with greater and greater assurance and authenticity about the one who laid down his life for us. My prayer today is that the church may consider this afresh, and that we will be inspired afresh to be bold in love, in service, and in mission.

Doubt no longer, but believe.

A Homily for Divine Mercy Sunday.

Doubting Thomas.

Funny, isn’t it, how we never hear about ‘Denying Peter’? Or ‘Arrogant James’. Or ‘Pushy Andrew.’ It’s only Thomas who merits the rebuke of such a title. And behind it is the assumption that to doubt is somehow bad, or wrong, or somehow makes us second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God. Well, that’s not how Jesus views it. Remember that Thomas hadn’t had what the others had – the face to face encounter with the risen Jesus. Yes, they could believe. Thomas was honest, rather like someone in one of those psychological experiments where a roomful of people swear that black is white; the person who is not in on all this then goes along with it, so as not to stand out – it demonstrates the herd mentality – that we all go along with something rather than stand out from the crowd. Thomas doesn’t do that. He wants what the others have had. Nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong with that. Jesus shows understanding, compassion, to his desire to see, and know. And Thomas effortlessly outstrips his friends with he words ‘My Lord and my God.’ There is no fuller, more explicit expression of faith from an apostle since the old days at Caesarea Philippi when ‘Denying’ Simon Peter said to Jesus ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ (Matthew 16.16). No-one else comes up with anything close. So how about ‘Proclaiming’ Thomas. Or ‘Faithful Thomas’?

What of our own doubt? We are brought up and trained in the faith. We are offered interpretation, both inside and outside the church. We hear the gospel proclaimed during Mass, we hear sermons like this one, we pray every day, we read our bibles, we do the things that Christians do as part of a rule of life, as part of the way we show God that we love him, every day, just as he loves us, every day. But we are human, and doubt can creep in. Actually, if you are anything like me, doubt doesn’t creep in. It roars in like a tsunami, affecting everything. Because the truth is that all of us, at some point or another, have doubts about faith, about life, about the things that are important to us. We hang on to the notion that faith is a refuge, a place where we can hide to escape the things that worry us. My experience is different. When I reflect upon these things I find that I am in a small boat, on a massive ocean – not safe, moored in port. And that brings about doubt. So what do I do with it? Why is that doubt is a good, rather than a destructive, thing?  In my case the answer is that my doubt makes me go deeper. It engages me, it makes me read, it makes me pray, it has been an enormous catalyst in my journey of faith, it was a crucial part of the call to ordination which I first experienced as a child. I’m reminded of the incredible and prophetic words of the playwright Dennis Potter during the final interview he ever gave, to Melvyn Bragg. Potter was terminally ill with cancer, and kept himself going by taking regular sips of liquid morphine as he spoke. This was one of the memorable things he said.

‘…thank God, religion to me has always been the wound, not the bandage. I don’t see the point of not acknowledging the pain and the misery and the grief of the world, and if you say, “Ah, but God understands” or through that you come to a greater appreciation, I then think, “That’s not God, that’s not my God, that’s not how I see God.” I see God in us or with us, …as shreds and particles and rumours, some knowledge that we have, some feeling why we sing and dance and act, why we paint, why we love, why make art.

Religion is the wound, not the bandage. That’s today’s soundbite to get you through the week. Religion doesn’t merely cover up the scar – it is the scar. It is the actual place where the hurt is, and the healing. And it’s the most incredible thing in the whole of existence that when Thomas expresses the brave and honest truth about how he feels, Jesus gives him precisely what he wants. ‘Put your finger here; look, here are my hands. Give me your hand; put it into my side.’ Jesus is identified by his wounds. And it’s the wounds that persuade Thomas that this is Jesus, his Lord, his God.

So I don’t apologise to you for being a priest who doubts. We shouldn’t worry about it – we should be glad of it. Nor should any of us apologise for any doubts that we may feel, because in doing so we slough off the false skin of unquestioning certainty and allow ourselves to be as those naked before God – the place of utterly vulnerable love. Because here, like nowhere else, is the place where Jesus invites us to touch his wounds. ‘Put your finger here; look, here are my hands. Give me your hand; put it into my side.’ In the Mass we touch, we eat his body; we drink his blood. His wounds tell us that it is real, the most real thing there ever has been or will be. We will reach out to receive his wounded body, reach out to receive his flowing blood. Our Lord, and our God. Doubt no longer, but believe.