The Daily Decision

Homily to members and friends of Sion Community on Palm Sunday of Lent (Year A) 2020

“Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” St Peter states his commitment to Jesus in bold words – but he fails to follow-through with his actions. Later, he will have a chance to make amends.

Each year, we hear the Passion and remember what Our Lord did for us.

Never, since the Second World War, have so many of us faced a daily decision like the one Christ faced in the Garden of Gethsemane – and the one which Peter faced a few hours later.

For most of us, it’s a daily decision to be humble, stay home and distance ourselves from other people.

For some of us, it’s a question of discerning what true love requires: self-protection, or putting ourselves at the service of others as community volunteers.

For a few of us, who work in health and social care or essential retail, it’s a daily decision to expose ourselves to the risk of infection, regardless of the possible consequences for our families.

Our Lord knew that He was likely to be executed for provoking the Jewish and Roman authorities. In His humanity, He probably didn’t know the details of what would happen to Him, but He did know it would be painful, and have consequences for his loved ones.

The decisions we face are less certain. We can’t know in advance whether catching covid-19 will be like a bad cold or something much worse. For healthy children, it’s almost guaranteed to be mild. For younger adults without health conditions, the risk is small – but not zero. If we take sensible precautions, every contact with another person represents only a tiny risk – but it’s still a gamble. And then there’s the longer term question – how long will it take scientists to come up with a vaccine? Until there’s a vaccine, we can expect to live in a world where survivors with natural immunity are allowed more freedom – meaning that over the coming months, the outbreak will be managed by allowing all the younger members of the population to catch it, but at a controlled rate.

Moral decisions are seldom easy to make, but they’re especially difficult when we’re victims of forces beyond our control. Even if we seal ourselves in a bubble, we have some moral responsibility for those outside the bubble – people who must who take risks to supply us with food. As long as we follow all the hygiene advice given to us, we won’t be morally responsible if, despite that, we catch or spread this virus.

My heart goes out to every Christian doctor, nurse and healthcare worker who has to balance their duty to their patients and their care for their family. Today we celebrate the great act of love of Jesus Christ who died for us while we were still sinners, not yet joined to God’s family. Belonging to a family doesn’t exempt us from the Christian duty to love the most needy members of society. The words of Isaiah today, that the suffering servant did not cover his face from insults and spittle, take on a deeper meaning for those workers who must expose themselves to the spittle of strangers. Being a single parent, or sharing a home with a person who is vulnerable because of age or some underlying health condition, changes the weight of possible consequences.

Past generations were tested on their love for God. The Romans forced Christians to burn incense to the Emperor. King Henry VIII’s officials forced faithful Catholics to attend Anglican worship or suffer the consequences. Our generation is being tested on our willingness to love our neighbours – those who live in our own homes, those next-door and those we come alongside because of our personal vocations. Ultimately, I cant tell any of you what decision is right for your own mix of responsibilities, but I do share with you the words of Vineyard preacher John Wimber, who often said that faith is spelled R.I.S.K. – not love, but faith.

Next Sunday, Easter Sunday, we will be called to profess our faith and renounce the devil. We will proclaim that we believe in the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come. As we make decisions now, we do so knowing that if we lay down our life in the service of others, a glorious reward awaits us. That was the knowledge which enabled St Gianna Molla, herself a doctor, to risk her own life to protect her unborn daughter. That was the knowledge which compelled St Giuseppe Moscati to exhaust himself with a celibate life of attending Mass and caring for his patients without taking payment from the poor, until he died unexpectedly at the age of 46.

Today’s Scripture encourages us to listen like a disciple and to reply like a disciple. Just as there are many different kinds of saints, so there are many different callings upon us at this time. Some of us will be called to stay home, for the sake of the vulnerable companions with whom we live. Others will be called to take the risk of serving people in need, and a few of us will be called to minister to those with the symptoms of covid-19 – though we can and should use the equipment provided to shield ourselves from insult and spittle insofar as this is possible!

Each one of us must discern, prayerfully, what is right – and the great sign will be peace. The enemy will come to sow fear in our minds about possible consequences. Even Jesus wept tears of blood in his anguish. But here is the difference: while our minds will recognise the dangers, and be apprehensive, there will be a peace in our soul about doing the right thing – the thing that God is asking of me, in my mix of family and public duties. One of the sons of Zebedee was the first apostle to die for Christ; the other lived to a ripe old age and died a natural death. So, following the example of St Ignatius of Loyola, let us abandon ourselves to God’s will, and then, after a few days of meditation, see which choice brings us lasting peace.

What we are facing is nothing unusual. For the last 75 years, we in the West have enjoyed a lifestyle largely free from having to make daily decisions with life-and-death consequences. For most of human history, and still today in many developing countries, these decisions have been part of daily life. As confirmed Christians, as soldiers for Christ, we too now have to make battlefield decisions.

“Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” St Peter learned, eventually, what it meant to be faithful to Jesus. May the Lord speak clearly to our hearts and help us to choose rightly and be at peace. May the peace of the Lord be with you always.

D 17 Gallicantu Dungeon (20)

Outside the Box

Homily to members and friends of Sion Community on the 5th Sunday of Lent (Year A) 2020

Hello?

Help!

I’m boxed in!

I can’t move!

I can’t see!

And it STINKS in here!

Oh… hang on… the last thing I remember is feeling really unwell. I thought I was dying at home in bed. So, where am I?

Sounds a bit echoey in here.

Feels like cold stone underneath me.

Are these… bandages? Am I a mummy?

It’s a tomb! They’ve locked me in!

Help! Help! Can anyone hear me?

Hmm… I’m on my own. So let’s see what I’ve got. 10 fingers! 10 toes! No temperature – oh, I feel fine! I’m not dying! In fact, I’m not even ill!

I’m so glad I’m alive. There’s so much I want to do! So many things I want to say to the people I care about! I never learned to play the harp! I never learned to speak Greek! Now I can do it all! But first I have to get out of this tomb!

Oh – what’s happening? I can hear grunting! I can see some light! But there’s this wretched cloth over my face!

Is that? Can it be? Yes – I hear a voice I’d recognise anywhere! Jesus! I’m here!

“Come Out?” You want me to come out? I’m tied up like a mummy – you want me to hop out like I’m in a sack race? This is going to be so embarrassing! They’ll never stop talking about it! But Jesus! I’m coming! I’m alive!


Well, I wonder what Lazarus did when he went home? We know from the Bible that a week later he hosted a banquet with Jesus as guest of honour. There are legends that he later became a bishop in Cyprus or the South of France. But apart from that we don’t know – we can only guess.

I think it’s a pretty good guess that he grew closer to his sisters Mary and Martha. They knew that every day they spent together was a gift, and they would have made the most of it.

I think it’s a pretty good guess that they would give thanks to Jesus through prayer – and after the Last Supper, they would have known about Mass as the best way to give thanks to God.

I think it’s a pretty good guess that Lazarus would have valued the gift of life and maybe tried something new, something he’d been putting off in the busyness of life up until his fatal sickness.

Well, right now, we all get to be Lazarus. What’s happening in the world around us is a bit scary, and it means we are all ‘in the tomb’, bound up, boxed up, restricted. But that doesn’t mean we have to be afraid. We can listen to the voice of Jesus saying ‘take off the bindings! Take off the cloth covering the eyes!’ We don’t have to be boxed up by what’s happening in the world right now, just like we don’t have to be boxed up by what other people think of us.

We won’t be able to go out and meet up with other people for a few weeks, so we need to think about what we can do on our own. What gifts, what talents have I got that I’ve never had a chance to work on? Can I paint or draw? Is there a musical instrument at home I’d like to learn to play? Rather than playing games in my computer, could I learn how to code? Did you know that a young man who was a website designer is on the road to sainthood? You can look up the story of Carlo Acutis who died of cancer aged 15 – last month the Vatican decided that he can be declared ‘Blessed’, the last step before being named a saint!

We will be spending a lot of time with our families over the next few weeks – the people we share a house with, and the relatives we keep in touch with by phone. How do we keep our conversations fresh? Well, maybe there’s something you can learn from another family member. Perhaps your Mum can teach you how to bake a cake. Maybe your Dad can kick footballs at you until you’re ready to face Liverpool in a penalty shootout! Or this might be the perfect time to ask your grandparents to tell stories of how the world used to be when they were young. None of us will have our grandparents and great-aunts and uncles around forever, and it’s so easy to use a smartphone to record a conversation… later, that will be a precious memory for us.

Mary, the sister of Lazarus, famously spent time listening to Jesus, and poured precious ointment over his feet. Martha, despite her busyness, found enough time to listen to Jesus to know that he was “the Christ, the Son of God, the one who was to come into this world.” We can all take time at home to listen to God’s word. There are some fantastic resources online (God Who Speaks, CAFOD, Blessed Sacrament Shrine) – and if you’re following this homily on Facebook and you know a good website or resource to help families pray, please type it into the comment box! So many church organisations are making their material free-to-view for the next few months. You could run a home-study course using the free videos being made available by Sycamore, or run Youth Alpha. You can also see, for free, the 90-minute film on the life of the Virgin Mary, Full of Grace.

Is your home a Bethany? Have you prepared a place for Jesus to be with you? Maybe you already have a prayer corner in your bedroom or family room – if not, why not make one? You can put your screen in your holy place when you are following online prayers. Like Mary anointing Jesus, if you have holy things that need cleaning or repairing, this is the perfect time.

I’m going to pause now for two minutes. This is to give you time to talk about what holy things you can do at home. When will you pray together each day? And if you’re watching this alone – use the power of the Internet to connect with someone. If you’re following this sermon live on Facebook (sorry, the livestream is only for members and friends of Sion Community) and you are living alone during this crisis, just type into the comment box “I’m with Lazarus” and maybe someone else on the feed can connect with you so you can arrange to pray together daily by the power of the Internet!


Friends, there’s a lot of sickness around at the moment. Let’s remember that Jesus said, ‘This sickness will end not in death but in God’s glory, and through it the Son of God will be glorified.’ I’m sure Mary and Martha were anxious because Jesus didn’t come sooner. Jesus had a good reason for waiting for Lazarus to die, even though it was hard for his friends and followers – and deep down, Martha knew that there was a life beyond this life so her brother was in God’s hands. Whatever happens in the world, however tough things get, Lazarus is a sign for us that there is a life beyond this life, and that, although God doesn’t spare us from all suffering, Jesus will be there for us in the end. So come Lord Jesus, unbind us, release us, and give us life!

Let it be done according to your will.

Homily to members and friends of Sion Community on the Solemnity of the Annunciation 2020

“Let it be done to me according to thy will.”

These are dangerous words – powerful words.

With these words, a brave woman puts aside her own will and desires, and yields to another.

We have just lived through the era of “#MeToo” – five million women have stood up and said that things have been done to them against their will. This is a powerful sign of lust and sin being present in the world. Sin is always the responsibility of the sinner, but also of a society which tolerates that which must not be tolerated.

In the age of “#MeToo”, Our Blessed Mother stands apart as ‘That One’ – the name given to her by St Bernadette, Aquerò in her local dialect. She is the one who was always pure, yet accepted suffering for the salvation of others. She risked death in her becoming an unmarried mother, hardship in her exile in Egypt, and heartbreak at the foot of the Cross. Her voice cries out ‘Do whatever He tells you’ and she gives the example of perfect surrender to the will of God.

“Let it be done to me according to thy will.”

Saints through the ages have followed her example and given their ‘fiat’. Saints Francesco and Jacinta, the child visionaries of Fatima, accepted her invitation to suffer for the salvation of souls. They died in the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-20. St Maximilian Kolbe accepted the red crown of martyrdom and offered his life for a Jewish prisoner. St Gianna Molla gave her life to secure her unborn daughter. Fr Giuseppe Berardelli died in an Italian hospital last weekend – parishioners brought a ventilator to the hospital but he insisted it be given to a younger patient also suffering from the coronavirus.

A virus.

What is a virus? My memory stirred with the knowledge that it comes from the Latin word for poison. Before we understood genetics, scientists were aware that there was some harmful ‘substance’ which passed from patient to patient. They gave it this name, which in Latin can mean poison, slime, or – snake venom! This particular kind of virus is a package of genetic material covered with a knobbly surface, like a spiky crown. A coronavirus is literally a poisoned crown, a crown of venom. A virus is also like a seed, in that it plants itself in a body and reproduces itself – the seed of the serpent.

In God’s plan, there are no coincidences. Scripture itself has something to say about the seed of the serpent. When the serpent tempts Eve and she eats of the forbidden fruit, she is cursed yet given a promise:

I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike your head,
and you will strike his heel.’

Some ancient manuscripts of Genesis read that she will crush the serpent. It seems to be part of God’s providence that this edit was made. We are familiar with art showing our Blessed Mother standing upon the head of a snake, imagery found in the Miraculous Medal. Our second reading makes it clear that her One Offspring, Jesus Christ, atoned for the sins of the world by perfectly submitting to God’s will. But Mary stands also for the Church, for all God’s faithful children, who as the living Body of Christ play their part in the battle against evil, against the seed of the serpent.

Many Catholics in England have heeded the call of our bishops to entrust themselves, for the first time, or as a rededication, to be tools in the hands of Mary. After following the pathway of ’33 Days to Morning Glory’, today is dedication day. Such an act of personal entrustment is not to be undertaken lightly. As we have seen, two of the Fatima visionaries died early deaths in an epidemic, offering their lives in atonement for others – but Lucia lived into her 90s as a witness. St Bernadette of Lourdes was given a promise to be made happy ‘not in this world but in the next’. The essential message of Fatima is about offering our prayers and fasting in reparation for sins against the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

“Let it be done to me according to thy will.”

To make an act of entrustment to Mary is to give her permission to use you for ‘whatever it takes’.

Whatever it takes to make reparation for a society where lust, pornography and sexual harassment has become routine.

Whatever it takes to make reparation for a society which has not observed the Lord’s Day as a day of rest, despite the warning given by Our Lady at La Salette.

Whatever it takes to make reparation for a society which fills the airwaves with curses and blasphemies, using the Holy Name of Jesus as a casual expletive in the name of authentic entertainment.

‘Whatever it takes’ has no limits. The Chancellor of the Exchequer will find ways to fund Britain through the current crisis ‘whatever it takes’. The recent Avengers Endgame movie had heroes do ‘whatever it takes’ to reverse the erasure of half of humanity. Mary, with the aid of those entrusting themselves totally to her, will do ‘whatever it takes’ to overcome sin in the world.

Some of us may choose to dedicate or rededicate ourselves to Mary today. On Sunday our bishops will make a communal expression of our dedication as a nation. All of us can invoke her protection.

We have read today how King Ahaz is given permission to ask God for a sign! On this day, let us dare to do the same. O Mary, unite your prayers to ours! Beg for a sign of God’s healing power, of protection for your children and for the world!

The words on the Miraculous Medal were never more appropriate, for now above all we must have recourse to Mary. But I would share with you today the most ancient invocation to Mary – the Sub Tuum Praesidium, found a piece of parchment in Egypt. Egypt was Mary’s adopted home for a time – and England was where she revealed her will for a copy of her holy house to be constructed in Walsingham.

Here in Coventry where we take refuge in Mary’s home, the Ark of the New Covenant, and united in prayer with our extended family across the world, let us invoke her protection once again:

We fly to thy protection, O holy Mother of God, despise not our petitions in our needs, but deliver us always from all dangers, O glorious and blessed Virgin.

Rejoicing on the Sabbath

Homily to members and friends of Sion Community on the 4th Sunday of Lent (Year A) 2020Laetare Sunday

Why is Jesus spitting on us?

Let’s face it, most of us have had not had a good week.

We are followers of Jesus, we trust in his power to protect us – and yet, with the rest of the UK, and the rest of the world, we are caught up in a global crisis which will last for many weeks, if not months.

The world’s in a mess.

Now I know that’s a cliché – preachers always say the world is in a mess, and the answer is always Jesus. But today, can we all agree that the world really is in a mess? Can I get an Amen?

If you were a skeptic, you might well start doubting the existence of God right now. Like the Pharisees considering how Jesus healed the blind man, you would be asking, “Is this really the kind of thing God does?” Their problem wasn’t the healing – it was the suggestion that God’s power could have worked a miracle on the sabbath day!

We’re not skeptics. We are people who place our firm trust in Jesus Christ. But we too will have questions on a day like today – and if we want answers, we must look to Jesus himself. What does he say today?

The night will soon be here when no one can work.

And again:

It is for judgement that I have come into this world, so that those without sight may see and those with sight turn blind.

Friends, there has never been a time like today, when we can truly say a night is at hand, a night when no-one can work. True, essential services continue, but our way of life, if not our work, is on hold. So what does Jesus want us to see right now?

I see three things which are significant.

First, our Governments have done what they have had to do, in order to protect the lives of elderly people and sick people. Some commentators have pointed out that we are saving the lives of “those who would die soon anyway”. This is largely true – although Covid-19 can sometimes cause complications in younger, healthy individuals – so we can say that our politicians have taken the most massive pro-life action in human history. Our leaders are not willing to sit back and watch our grandparents die a few months or years before their time. On this Mother’s Day, let’s recognise that what is being done is to protect our mothers’ mothers – and our fathers’ fathers.

Second, despite the massive cost of taking these steps, money is being found to shelter the homeless. Hotel rooms are being made available to those who have no choice but to sleep on the streets. Isn’t it strange that in normal times there were no funds available to do that, but now there are?

Third, God is working on the Sabbath, the day of enforced rest. Our Western societies have disregarded the idea of a day of rest, and allowed Sunday to become a day for commerce – but at the same time, they have allowed technology to give some people a permanent sabbath. I am just old enough to remember the days when a petrol-pump attendant filled up your vehicle. Now, computers allow us to self-checkout at the supermarket, taking jobs away from human beings. I have to admit that I have been guilty, on busy days, of choosing the fast self-checkout, because I can, while wishing that as a society we hadn’t provided that option.

When the current emergency has passed, and the world has to rebalance its shattered economy, I hope we will look at the way we’ve used our resources at this time and ask ourselves how we should provide for the elderly, for the homeless, and how we protect a communal day of rest. We might also ask how we should ensure that technology is only used where it doesn’t take away a job opportunity for someone, even if that slows the pace of life a little.

But those are questions for a happier day in the future. Jesus also counselled us to only worry about today, because things will be different tomorrow. That is always true, but even more so today when we are receiving daily updates from our Governments about what we must do and what help we can receive. We really only can plan for one day at a time, so let’s stop worrying about whether our plans for weeks or months ahead can take place, and just focus on the next 24 hours.

There are lots of prayer requests circulating by email and social media right now, invitations to pray this prayer at that time as an act of solidarity. As a pastor, I want to give you permission to ignore all these requests, without guilt. They are invitations. They are suggestions. Please feel no pressure. Yes, we must all pray, each in our own way, at our own time. Our obligation, as Catholics, is to mark each Sunday and each Holy Day with a time of prayer in our own homes when we cannot attend Holy Mass. That is our only obligation to prayer. Thanks to the technology available, we can be part of a streamed Mass and make a spiritual communion when we cannot receive the Body of Christ physically. Beyond that, we are each free to pray in our own way. If someone claims that this prophet or that visionary has asked us to say certain payers, move in peace, not pressure, and look for confirmation online before forwarding any such message.

There is one prayer invitation I do want to pass on, because this one comes from all the Christian leaders in England, including Cardinal Nichols and the Archbishop of Canterbury, together with church leaders from Wales and Scotland. It’s an invitation just for today, 22 March 2020, the National Day of Prayer and Action in response to this global pandemic.

At 7pm this Sunday, light a candle in the windows of your homes as a visible symbol of the light of life, Jesus Christ, our source and hope in prayer.

Our leaders go on to remind us to look after our neighbours, and remain in contact with them and support them in their needs, at an appropriate physical distance.

Is what has happened at this time a punishment from God? I don’t know the answer to that. Sometimes, bad stuff just happens because that’s the way the world works. Jesus said that the blind man wasn’t blind because of any fault of his own, or his parents – but that it was part of God’s plan. The Bible does tell us that God ‘does nothing’ without revealing it to his prophets, so if this is a punishment, God will speak through someone with a recognised prophetic gift at an appropriate time. What I do know is that God turns all things to good for those who love his Son, so as with any disaster in our lives, we can be sure of two things: God has permitted this, and God will bring good out of it.

Every Sunday in Lent, the Morning Prayer of the Catholic Church proclaims the words of Nehemiah:

This day is sacred to the Lord your God. Do not be mournful, do not weep. For this day is sacred to our Lord. Do not be sad: the joy of the Lord is your stronghold.

Today, out of all the Sundays in Lent, is marked out as Laetare Sunday – Rejoicing Sunday – a moment to pause and rejoice in the midst of our fasting. We are people of hope, called to be children of the light. The Lord is our shepherd, and even though we walk in the valley of the shadow of death, let us fear no evil. The Lord has permitted this trial to come upon our global community, and the Lord will bring good out of it in due season.

Why is Jesus spitting on us? To open our blind eyes – to pause, to rest, to keep this Sabbath. So today, let us rejoice, and as for the next day – let’s not worry about that until tomorrow.

Discipleship Masterclass

Homily to Members of Sion Community on the Third Sunday of Lent, Year A.

Today, meet Saint Photina, a great martyr revered in the Eastern Churches as one regarded as ‘Equal to the Apostles’! There are many legends about how she herself spread the Gospel ‘with great boldness’ in Carthage and Rome, and how her sons became great preachers and martyrs in their own right.

As with so many of the people we meet briefly in the New Testament, we wonder what happened to them after their encounter with Christ. The Orthodox Churches have many wonderful stories, but how much is rooted in truth, and how much is wishful thinking?

The good news is that St Photina – the name given by tradition to the Samaritan woman at the well – offers us a wonderful witness to evangelisation even by her short appearance in the Gospel, for her conversation with Our Lord Jesus offers us a masterclass in how to make disciples!
As missionaries in Sion Community, some of us visit parishes or schools for a short time. This gives us an opportunity to plant seeds for others to reap, while we reap what others have already sown.

Sometimes, we can work over a longer period members of our Community and with people who keep returning to our regular events. Then we have a real opportunity to draw someone much deeper into relationship with Christ. But how can we do this effectively?

When you look at the stories of many people who have become committed Christians – as Doug Schaupp has done for evangelical Christians and Sherry Weddell for Catholics – you will see that all the stories have something in common. Each person who ends up as a highly committed Christian seems to pass through the same five steps, or thresholds. If we can see which threshold a person needs to pass through next, and point them in the right direction, we can expect to see fruit!

In today’s Gospel, Jesus meets a woman who is not even Jewish – yet in a short space of time she is encouraging all her friends to ‘come and see’ this amazing person who has transformed her life. Would you be surprised to learn that Jesus, the master Evangelist, leads her through precisely the steps identified by Doug Schaupp and Sherry Weddell?

Illustrate process of evangelisation

The first threshold is TRUST. Without forming a trusting relationship, we have little hope of sharing the Gospel with anyone.

‘Give me a drink.’

Jesus wins this woman’s trust by being humble enough to ask her for a drink of water. In the society of that time, he towered over her on three counts: He was a Jew, he was a man, and he was a righteous rabbi in the presence of someone behaving as a loose woman – for who else would draw water in the heat of the noonday sun? But he enters into her world and grants her dignity, affirming that she has the power to do something to help even a Jewish rabbi.

The second threshold is one of passive CURIOSITY. Now that Jesus has entered a conversation, he drops in a fascinating but perplexing piece of information:

‘God would have given you living water.’

This is not a demand for the woman to change her behaviour – rather, it’s a statement about God. The woman doesn’t have to pursue this information – but she does! She even acknowledges that Jesus is not one of ‘them’ (a Jew) but one of us (a common heir of ‘our father Jacob’.) The mission is afoot! She is interested! Yet at this stage she is behaving as a ‘consumer’ – she is not looking for God, but only the benefit that God can offer. Who wouldn’t want their own source of water in a hot, dry, Middle Eastern climate?

The third threshold requires OPENNESS to change. The woman wants to take the message of Jesus seriously – she asks how she can receive the living water – but she is aware of problems in her life which could get in the way. She is living outside marriage. We don’t know if it’s her fault that she’s moved on from so many marriages or whether she has been a victim of mistreatment by men, but either way, she knows her current relationship lacks the public commitment which brings God’s blessing on a sexual partnership.

How does Jesus deals with this? Does he tell her how to live her life? No. Does he condemn her lifestyle? No. Does he create an opening for her to speak about her lifestyle? Yes!

‘Go and call your husband.’

In this way, the woman is given permission to voice her doubts, and discovers that the door to God’s blessing is not closed in her face.

At the fourth threshold, Photina – now we can call her this, because the light is entering her life – begins SEEKING. She recognises that Jesus is a prophet – he is one who can speak to her with God’s authority. She starts asking questions about how she can have a better relationship with God.

Should I worship on this mountain or in Jerusalem?

In reply, Jesus points her to a different kind of worship – but affirms she can be part of it!

Photina now recognises that Jesus is more than just a prophet – he is the Messiah, the Christ, the long-awaited messenger chosen and sent by God. But she does’t just recognise this, she becomes an evangelist herself! She goes to the people of her village, with whom she already has some kind of trust, and starts stirring up curiosity in them.

Could this man be the Messiah?

By asking the question, we understand that in her heart, Photina has already said ‘Yes, he is!’. In Doug Schaupp’s language, she has become a follower. In Sherry Weddell’s preferred term, she has ‘dropped her nets’ and become an INTENTIONAL DISCIPLE. Pope Francis would certainly recognise her as a missionary disciple.

The Christian life does not end with becoming an intentional disciple; indeed, this is just the beginning of an extraordinary adventure. In some of her teaching conferences, Sherry Weddell speaks of later growth in the spiritual life. A disciple will want to use his or her gifts to serve others, exercising some MINISTRY within or beyond the confines of the Christian community.

It is clear that Photina has at least a ministry of preaching and enthusing others, for in a short time all the inhabitants of her village are able to say:

We no longer believe because of what you told us; we have heard him ourselves and we know that he really is the saviour of the world.

They, too, have become intentional disciples!

The Gospel passage ends here, and it leaves us with so many questions. What happened to the people of the village? What happened to the woman herself? All disciples are called to use their gifts to minister and share the Gospel in the place where they are. Some have freedom to reshape their life to express that ministry – embracing a life-changing VOCATION.

Did Photina travel beyond her village as a missionary ‘equal to the apostles’?

Did she marry the man who was not her husband?

Did she embrace a life of celibacy for the sake of the Lord? Some Bible scholars think that the conversation with Jesus reflects the ceremony by which a future husband and wife became betrothed; others are less sure.

Did she travel to Carthage and to Rome, eventually dying a martyr’s death in the presence of Emperor Nero himself?

We will not know the answers to these questions until we meet her in heaven. But her enduring vocation is to teach us the art of making disciples, an art she quickly learns from her Messiah.

When we go on mission, and when we meet friends with whom we have an ongoing relationship, let us follow her example. Let us plant seeds for the curious to cultivate. Let us open the door when obstacles are obvious. Let us use cautious questions even when our hearts are crying out with joy. For if I tell you that I have found the Messiahyou might be happy for me, or you might dismiss me as a fool. But if I ask you whether you think Jesus might be the one who longs to pour life-giving water into your soul, then you will at least begin to think about the question!

As a missionary disciple, what question will you put next?

Famous in Heaven

Homily at St Dunstan’s, Woking, Day of Renewal – Saturday 7 March 2020

We believe in God.

Very familiar words… we say them every Sunday in the creed.

But believing is not just something we do in our heads, like Alice’s White Queen believing six impossible things before breakfast. To truly believe means to put our trust in something.

There’s an Indiana Jones movie where Indy has to be guided by ancient riddles. The texts decree that he can only survive by being penitent, walking in God’s footsteps and taking a leap of faith. He can’t see all the dangers ahead, but kneels down where he is told to be penitent – and deadly arrows sail harmlessly over his head. When he is told he must walk in God’s footsteps, he finds a safe path by picking out the Name of God from random letters on the floor. And at the end, it’s only by jumping into a seemingly bottomless chasm that he finds the hidden bridge which enables him to complete his quest – he literally took a leap of faith. At each stage of the journey, he has to entrust his life to the things he believes. 

Today the church celebrates two martyrs, Saints Felicity and Perpetua – a serving girl and a noble lady. They were believers in the Roman Empire, 200 years after the birth of Jesus, when it was still illegal to follow the Lord. Perpetua famously said to her unbelieving father: “Neither can I call myself anything else than what I am, a Christian.” They were two of the most famous early martyrs – indeed, if you look online you can find the writings of St Perpetua from her time in prison – and their names are two of the women written into the First Eucharistic Prayer. 

For those two saints, as indeed for many martyrs, being faithful to God meant answering the question “Are you a follower of Jesus?” when a positive answer meant death. For other saints, being faithful to God meant choosing to lay down their lives for others – most famously, St Maximilian Kolbe trading his life for a Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz. Many more saints did not die for Christ but lived for Christ: they are examples of what it means to love one’s neighbour with self-sacrificing love. Most religions in the world teach some version of “treat others you would like to be treated”. Our faith goes much deeper – we are called to love our enemies, work for the good of those who have no possibility of repaying us, and offer forgiveness without waiting for an apology.

How do we know this? We have the Living Word and the Written Word of God.

Our Living Word is Jesus Christ. In the coming weeks we will hear once again the Great Story of how he lived out his message of non-violence and forgiveness when he was taken prisoner; how he healed the ear of the one of the servants who came to support his capture; and how he restored St Peter to leadership following three acts of weakness and betrayal.

Our Written Word is the Bible, a rich collection. In the Gospels, we hear what the Living Word said and did among us. In the Letters of the New Testament, we hear the thoughts of the Apostles on what it means to live as followers of Jesus. When we read the Old Testament, we are reaching back to a time when God had only revealed part of his plan, and did so in hidden and veiled ways through prophets and through the events of history.

We are blessed to be people of the New Testament – blessed but also challenged, because we know what the Living Word asks of us. Just in the short portion of St Matthew’s writing we’ve heard today, there are many challenges. We can use these as an examination of conscience, and if we find ourselves lacking, we can take the opportunity to come to confession this afternoon. But remember – a good confession requires a ‘firm purpose of amendment’. Often, when I hear confessions, I ask the penitent: “What are you going to do differently in future?” Always be ready to answer that question!

When did you last pray for God to bless one of your enemies?

When did you last do a good deed or extend the hand of friendship to a person who is in no position to return the favour?

Is there anyone in your life you do not wish to forgive? Today is a good day to repent of unforgiveness – for later in this very Mass you will pray in the words of Jesus: “Father, insofar as there is someone in my life I don’t want to forgive, please do not forgive my sins either!” Maybe that’s not how we say the Lord’s Prayer – but that’s what it means!

Following Jesus is not easy. For the martyrs, it meant being ready to die a painful bodily death. For us, it means measuring ourselves against God’s word. God calls us to do something difficult – but we are not alone! The word “believe” shares its origins with the word “beloved”. Because we’re loved by another person, we can place our trust in that person to be there for us – we can believe in our beloved. We can place our faith in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to be there for us, because on Easter Sunday morning, we learned that the Father raised Jesus from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit. We know that he is truly in Heaven sitting at the right of the Father. We only know that he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven because of the testimony of those first Christians, who paid with their lives for insisting that the news was true.

Saints Perpetua and Felicity were faithful witnesses to that love by the way they died. We can be faithful witnesses by the way we live – but only if we choose to live God’s way. So today I invite you to make a decision – don’t be a Catholic In Name Only. Don’t be a Sunday Catholic who turns up to pray for one hour a week and fails to think about God for the other 167? If you want to be famous in heaven, spend your time on earth seeking God’s will – and you will know the happiness that only God can give.

Clothed in the Garments of Grace

Homily at the Sion Community Family DayFirst Sunday in Lent, Year A

Is it true that God made the first man from the dust of the earth? Wrong question.

Is it true that there was a talking snake in the Garden of Eden? Also the wrong question.

Did God really say “Don’t eat of the tree of knowledge?” Yes – but that’s a diabolical question!

Why does the Bible tell us that Adam and Eve suddenly realised they were naked? Right question!

We believe in a God who can work miracles. Jesus turned water into wine, calmed a storm and raised Lazarus from the dead. We hear reports of creative miracles even in the 21st century, where God’s power to change matter is made evident. So I have no doubt that God has the power to create a human body from the duty of the earth. I do, however, have reason to doubt that that is actually, historically, what happened.

Some of my doubts come from the Bible itself. If it were literally true that God created Adam and Eve and no-one else, who did their sons marry? Why do the first two chapters of the Bible seem to give two different stories about how the world was created? And isn’t a talking snake the kind of character you get in a fantasy story with a moral of a fall and a recovery? I’m thining of Kaa in Disney’s Jungle Book, Nagini in Harry Potter, or the eight-legged Shelob in the Lord of the Rings.

Other doubts come from what we know of the world around us. We believe in a God who speaks through the Book of Nature as well as the Book of Scripture. Our best interpretation of the Book of Nature suggests the universe began in a Big Bang 13 billion years ago – a discovery partly due to a Catholic priest, Mgr Georges Lemaitre – and that the first primitive life formed from the dust and oceans of the earth 4 billion years ago. A slow, step by step process of evolution seems to have taken us from single-celled bacteria to the first human beings – but the scientists argue about whether the title of ‘first human’ should go to our ancestors from 200,000 or 5 million years ago.

And yet… Our Lord Jesus spoke about Adam and Eve in a way that feels literal. St Paul – who had been taken up to heaven and received visions – talks only about Adam, not Eve, in the letter we’ve just heard from Romans. Talking about a singular first human fits rather better with what we know about evolution. However you choose to define ‘first human’ – whether that’s something genetic, or whether it’s about God giving out the first human soul – there will have been a first one somewhere along the line. The message of both Genesis and St Paul is that the first human being failed to obey God perfectly, and that has consequences!

You might hear talk that we human beings suffer more intense temptation because we are children of the Original Sinner. That’s true, but let’s not forget that the first human managed to sin without the excuse of this extra burden, which we call concupiscence; we can’t blame Adam for everything!

More mysterious is St Paul’s statement that ‘death came into the world’ because of human sin. Taken literally, that suggest that no plant or animal or even bacterium had died before Adam’s first sin. But if we take it to refer to human death, we might conclude that God meant to give human beings the miraculous gift of immortality, if they were totally faithful to his commands. And that takes us back to Adam and Eve being naked without shame.

Before they ate the forbidden fruit, before they made clothes for themselves, they were naked. Might it be that when they looked at one another, what they saw was not a human body, but the image of God? Next week, we’ll hear the Gospel of the Transfiguration, reminding us how Jesus was clothed in light when he showed his Godly nature to his closest followers. Does it not make sense that the first, sinless, human would have been clothed like this – entirely lit?

St John Paul II reflected on the meaning of the forbidden tree. He concluded that it represented the power to define right and wrong. As human beings we cannot make wrong things right, or right things wrong – we must accept what God has taught us. By taking the fruit for themselves, and wanting to disagree with God, the first humans became not more, but less like God: they became clothed in sin. Worse than that, they found themselves clothed in a repeating pattern of sin.

Jesus – whose very name means “the one who saves” – did not come to rule the earth, but to help us find our way to heaven. So in today’s Gospel he refuses to take power over the world; at the end of Lent we will celebrate how he opened the door to life by submitting humbly to death.

If you read on in Genesis, you will find that not only did Adam and Eve clothe themselves, but later, God ‘made garments out of skin’ to clothe them – in other words, an animal had to die so that they could be protected from harm. In the fullness of time, when Jesus died for our sins, St Paul would be able to tell the Romans ‘clothe yourself in Christ’.

Now, you might have been surprised that I started today’s homily by sharing some doubts. Surely it’s not the calling of a Catholic priest to preach doubts – isn’t my duty to tell you what’s true? The thing is, the Catholic church doesn’t take a position on whether Adam and Eve were historical figures, or a story-telling way of teaching about the first human being. What’s important is that we can take the same message from the Bible regardless of whether the story is history or another kind of story.

You’ll meet some catholics who insist that we are descended from Adam and Eve because the Bible says so and who are we to doubt the Bible, however inconsistent that seems with scientific evidence?

You’ll meet other Catholics who roll their eyes and say if we want to be taken seriously we have to interpret the Bible in the light of science because we know lot more know than the Bible writers did 2,000 or 3,000 years ago.

Me, I say those are the wrong questions. The devil always uses questions to blind us to God’s word. In Genesis, he succeeded. When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, the Devil failed. I think the right question is, what does God want us to learn from this story?

On Ash Wednesday, we heard the sobering words that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. Scientifically, that’s true – we are made of the stuff of the earth, and our bodies will one day return to the earth. We want to live a long and happy life on earth, so we ask questions like: How do we protect our environment? How do we protect ourselves from coronavirus? But our bodies will return to dust, so the most important question is: How do we make sure we go to heaven?

For the next six weeks of Lent, many of us will live differently – perhaps you’ve given up something you like, or perhaps you’re doing something extra. Because we want to be better at loving God and loving our neighbour, we take on extra prayers and extra good works. It’s not wrong to work on improving ourselves. But when we come to Holy Week, we will not be celebrating our small achievement, but Christ’s great one. We can never make ourselves perfect by our own efforts. That’s why today’s psalm starts by saying ‘Yes, I’m a sinner’ but quickly moves to ‘God, create a pure heart within me’. You will never be truly lit until the light of Christ shines upon you.

Today, the 1st of March, is St David’s Day,* so I’d like to leave you with the opening words of the most famous hymn in the Welsh language, Calon Lân. In English, they would be:

I’d not ask a life that’s easy,
Gold and pearls? So little mean!
I would seek a heart that’s joyful,
Heart that’s honest, heart that’s clean.


* This year, St David’s Day is observed by the Catholic Church in Wales on 2nd March to make way for the first Sunday of Lent; in other terrtitories the observance of St David is not kept this year.