Keep On Running

Homily at the Sion Community D Weekend “Keep On Running” for the 14th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B.

I don’t watch athletics much, just when the Olympics are on – and the moments I remember are not the world-beating performances but the heart-warming actions.

We’ve just seen the moment when Jonny Brownlee got into trouble near the end of the 2016 World Triathlon race; his brother Alistair not only helped Jonny to the finish line but made sure Jonny crossed it before he did! The following year Ariana Luterman did something similar at the Dallas Marathon, to help race leader Chandler Self. (watch)

St Paul often used images from sport. When he wrote to Christians in Philippi, Galatia and Corinth, he spoke about running well, not running in vain, and that only one athlete can claim the prize! He also spoke about training like a boxer! In the second letter to Timothy, written years later, we find the declaration “I have finished the race!” Well, I hope making it into heaven isn’t quite like first prize in a race – otherwise, if St Paul won the prize then I’m out of the running! But don’t worry, Paul himself says the prize is not only for himself but for all who long for Jesus to return.

What happens when an athlete is helped across the line? Should their time be recorded, or the competitor disqualified? Neither Self nor Brownlee were disqualified – because the help came from another runner, and they weren’t racing for prize money.

In fact, we’re all like Jonny Brownlee and Chandler Self on a bad day… we don’t have the power within us to make it all the way on our own. None of us can win the prize of heaven by our own efforts, even if most of the time we behave really well! We need Jesus to help us across the line. Indeed, that’s why Jesus came from heaven, to live as another runner in the human race, to help us cross the line without being disqualified!

The world we live in today finds this message hard to accept. Jesus as a wise teacher who says great things about loving one another and not judging one another? Very popular! Jesus as the one who says “I am the way… no-one enters heaven except through me…” or “Unless you eat my bread and drink my blood you have no life within you?” Not popular at all! But there’s nothing new in Jesus being unpopular. We’ve heard what happened when he preached in his home town. “Who does this guy think he is?” said the people – “We know his family!”

By the way, you might have noticed that in this reading Jesus has four named brothers and at least two unnamed sisters. In Bible days it was common to use the words “brother” and “sister” to include half-siblings and cousins, and our Catholic understanding is that Mary had no other children after Jesus. But you can’t prove that from within the Bible, so be careful not to get into an argument with other Christians about what the Bible says, only about what it means!

Back to St Paul, who was also very skeptical about Jesus being Son of God or even a true prophet, until the day Jesus appeared to him in a blinding light on the Road to Damascus. But Paul devoted the rest of his life to preaching about Jesus and inviting thousands upon thousands of people to follow him. Not all of St Paul’s missions were successful – it might have seemed like a clever trick to say “You have an altar to an Unknown God – let me help you know Jesus!” But it didn’t make many converts and Paul quickly moved on from Athens. In other towns he was beaten and left for dead! Yet Paul never gave up. When he succeeded in planting churches and making converts, that was one kind of victory. When he suffered for the sake of Jesus, that was another!

There’s something in our broken human nature which doesn’t want to say that Jesus is Lord. That same brokenness stopped many of the ancient Hebrews from living according to God’s Law. The Prophet Ezekiel was given a hard task – “Tell those people that they are rebelling against My Law,” said God, “even though they won’t listen to you!” And that same brokenness in us keeps whispering: “You can do it on your own! You don’t need help! You are better than everyone else! You need to win this argument, because if you don’t, you’re a weakling.”

That voice is strong – but that voice is wrong. It takes real strength to do what Ariana Luterman and Alistair Brownlee did. There is a higher victory which is more than winning a sporting event. There is an inner strength which looks at a human dispute and says, “I choose to let you win.” When that’s your true choice, that’s a true victory.

The Danish Poet, Piet Hein, once wrote something like this:

The noble art of losing face may some day save the human race
and turn to an eternal prize* what weaker minds would call disgrace.

We are called to a special kind of weakness. The kind which lets others win because we are strong enough to do so. The kind which lets Jesus be Lord, because we recognise who he is. The kind which will eventually qualify us to enter heaven. If you wish to gain the only prize worth gaining for eternity, and if you are weak enough to be helped across the line, keep on running!

* Piet Hein actually wrote “turn into eternal merit” – I have taken the liberty of adjusting the scansion and prize focus for didactic reasons. I trust that if this causes the poet to lose face, it will be at the price of eternal grace!

Fringe Benefits

Closing homily of the Sion Community Mission at the Tamworth Catholic Parishes, for the 13th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B.

Are you ready to be the feet of Jesus?

I’ve been thinking about feet a lot this week. There’s a beautiful painting in Sacred Heart Church, which depicts the woman in today’s Gospel touching the fringe of Jesus’ cloak. And yes, you can see the fringe and you can see the woman’s hand… but mostly in the picture, what you see are toes and sandals.

It’s easy to take feet for granted. I did, until I walked the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela one sweltering summer. I was quickly afflicted with so many blisters that I couldn’t stand up for a day. But unable to stand, I couldn’t even take a shower, nor climb a ladder to the top bunk… so I spent a miserable day curled up in a bottom bunk without even the room to sit up to read my Bible!

We’ve had a miserable year, haven’t we, without the space to do all the ordinary things we’re used to doing? But now we can start getting back on the road. When I continued my pilgrimage, I had to make sure my feet would be able to keep going all the way to the end of the journey. St Paul had a similar message for the people of Corinth. As Christians, we are called to give generously. But we must also give sustainably, because the church’s work on earth will never be done; Jesus said the poor would always be with us, and so those of us who have the strength to volunteer and the finances to spare will always be called upon to keep doing that. St Paul calls us to balanced, generous and sustainable giving.

So how do we make our giving sustainable? We can’t keep giving money unless we have income. But it’s good, at least once a year, to look at our means and, after prayer, decide what proportion to give to the Church and to other charities. What we give may go down in lean times, as it goes up in times of plenty. There’s no fixed rule for us as followers of Jesus, but it’s a helpful guide to know that in the Hebrew Bible, the Jewish people were commanded to give 10% of their income as a tithe to bless the work of God, which is worship of the Almighty and service to the poor.

We can’t keep giving of ourselves unless we rest. So it’s great to volunteer, but we must always be mindful of the balance of our family life, our workplace, and what we can give sustainably in generous service.

And there’s one more thing we need – something which is easy to miss.

Here’s the original version of the painting, which is in a chapel in Magdala in the Holy Land. The artist has painted a pulse of light where the woman touches the garment of Jesus; he wants us to know that power went out of Jesus at that moment. At first it seems that this is not present on the version painted for Tamworth. But no! Look more closely! There is a certain paleness where the woman’s hand touches the Lord’s garment. But more than that, the light is also found in her fingers and in her hand – the power has gone from Jesus and into her.

This parish has a Vision Statement. The parish of St John is “to be a flourishing faith community, with all Parishioners engaged in transforming lives through discipleship and service.” But flourishing comes from nourishing – nothing grows sustainably unless it is fed and watered. We can only be people who transform lives through discipleship and service by returning to the true source of love: Jesus Christ, who feeds us with his Body and Blood as Holy Communion, and the Holy Spirit entrusted to us through Baptism and Confirmation, as a fountain of living water.

During this mission week, we members of Sion Community have offered you a taste of many different ways of praying – and from within the gifts of this parish you have also been offered a variety of Prayer Stations and Friday’s Emmaus Walk. Not every way of praying suits every person, but I hope each one of you has found, this week, something to help you make a deeper and stronger connection with God. The woman with the deep need for healing reached out to touch the fringe of Jesus. She almost missed her opportunity – but when she feared that Jesus would move on to tend to someone else, she pushed through the crowd and reached out in faith. Don’t let this mission move on without taking hold of what you need from Our Lord.

Yes, the woman in need reached out to him, too, and touched his fringe. This parish exists to serve people on the fringe, to make it as easy as possible for people in need to access the help which God wishes to give them, through you. It’s not always easy to ask for help; people often feel shame when they do so. So notice what Jesus does – he could have let the woman, now healed, walk away unnoticed, but instead he picks her out as an example of faith. This must have been both embarrassing and affirming for her! In the same way we can’t guarantee secrecy to those who come to use the Community Shop or other parish activities, but we can honour the dignity of each human being who comes to us in need.

Our mission theme has been, “My Light and My Hope.” For us as believers, Jesus Christ is our light and our hope, our reason for pushing through the darkness. For many people in Tamworth, you will be their light and their hope. Your flourishing depends on your nourishing.

Will you pray for God’s help every day?

Will you be nourished Holy Communion every weekend?

Will you be the feet of Jesus, standing in the heart of Tamworth?

May the Lord who has begun the good work in you bring it to completion! Amen!

Not Going Down

Opening homily of the Sion Community Mission at the Tamworth Catholic Parishes, for the 12th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B.

Master! Do you not care? We are going down!

This was the cry of the apostles in today’s gospel. It could also be the cry of members of any parish today. Just like the first apostles, we have heard the call of Jesus Christ. Just like the first apostles, we have set out on a journey to do the things that he has asked us to do. This church exists so that we can gather and celebrate Eucharist; Our Lord Jesus took bread and wine blessed it, and said “Do this in memory of me”. Every Catholic Church is built around an altar where we can do just that. Beyond the walls of this building, “The Heart of Tamworth” project exists so we can live out his great command to love one another.

Those first apostles also had a mission. Jesus invited them to work with him to proclaim the good news that God was close to us, and even gave them power to heal the sick and drive out evil spirits. Why were the apostles in a boat on this particular evening? Jesus himself had set a direction for them. “We’re all going to go there”, he said, “and continue the work.” So the apostles knew where they had to go and they thought they knew how they were going to get there. And then, an unexpected storm!

Well that’s hardly fair, is it? You’re working for the God of the universe, the God who created nature in the first place, and now Nature itself is throwing an obstacle in your way. Not only that; it’s a scary obstacle. Bear in mind that several of the apostles were seasoned fisherman… this must have been a heavy storm indeed for them to get scared! When they fix their eyes on the problems surrounding them, what do they do? They start doubting God’s goodness; they start doubting the instructions that Jesus has given them; and they lose confidence. They start asking, “Jesus are you with us? Jesus do you care?”

Now, what did Our Lord want them to do that evening? They already knew their destination; they knew the direction of travel. They might not be able to make any headway against the strong winds, but the sailors among them would know how to take in the sails and batten down the hatches. Then they could sing a sea shanty and keep their spirits warm until the storm passed. But instead they panicked! “Master do you not care? We are going down!”

Well in fact they didn’t go down; they lived to tell the tale. And perhaps once they woke Jesus up, they regretted it, because yes, he calmed the storm, but he also challenged them about the weakness of their faith.

Our very short first reading comes from the book of Job, a book about a man beset by every possible misfortune; a good man who doesn’t blame God but does ask why. What we heard just now doesn’t really give an answer; God behaves rather like a parent saying “Because I say so.” That’s probably the most frustrating answer going; but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. Sometimes we just have to accept that someone knows best, and it’s not me.

So here we are, in this parish, in this extraordinary year. In common with people around the world we have lived through a season of fear and of restrictions; in common with the rest of England we are now able to do more than we’ve been able to do for some months, though things are not exactly back to normal. And here’s the thing: Jesus has been in the boat with us all along. The question is: have we faithfully carried on following his instructions, doing what we can to worship God, love our neighbour when possible, and battening down the hatches to ride out the most difficult patches when we can’t? Or have we given our energy to doubt and despair? 

This week of mission provides an opportunity for us to cry out to our Lord Jesus. If you have experienced despair then you might need to use that same prayer, “Master do you not care?” Or perhaps we haven’t reached that extreme. Then we might just need to speak to the Lord honestly and say: “You know what, Lord? This has been a really difficult year and I do trust that we are still doing your work but it would be nice to taste the goodness of your presence. I’d just like a little reassurance that we are still doing the right thing in the right place at the right time.”

So that’s why, ahead of us is a week of prayer, a week to encounter follow Jesus in many different ways; a week to take time to ask for his reassurance that we’re on the right journey. I hope you’ll be able to come to many, if not all, the daily prayer experiences which the Sion Community mission team will be offering; but if you’re not able to come, I do invite you to take a moment for God in your own homes. And prayer doesn’t have to be about formal words from a prayerbook; it can be words that come from the heart. If you’ve had a difficult year, tell Jesus about it. He knows already but he likes to hear it from you in your own words. And if what you need then is a little reassurance, then ask him to speak to your heart in that very moment.

When I looked at your website, I was struck by a motto under the “Heart of Tamworth”. C. S. Lewis wrote that “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” Today, we are here. We have been in the storm, and we might need to rediscover the presence of Jesus, not because we lack faith, but because we all need a little reassurance from time to time. So let us start here, go forward into the week to come, and cry out, “Master, you do care! We do have faith! But draw close to us and encourage us in our journey!”

The Hesitant Disciple

Imagine that you are one of the Eight Disciples.

You are not Peter, James or John – you were not there on the mountain of Transfiguration to see Jesus glow with divine light.

But you are one of those Jesus sent out to heal the sick and drive out demons, and proclaim that the Kingdom of God is close at hand.

Jesus has taught you to pray “Our Father” and you know that heaven has declared Jesus is the Beloved Son – with Him the Father is well pleased.

You have lived through the agony of the crucifixion – though you fled from the foot of the Cross – and you have known the joy of meeting the Risen Lord. You were there at the Last Supper when Jesus declared bread and wine to be his own Body and Blood. Now, you sense that things are shifting. This is not just another appearance of the Risen Lord. Some of those around you are awestruck and are bowing down, actually offering worship to Jesus! But you are a good Jew. You know that there is only One God, and you must never worship a creature. If you bow down with the others, you are declaring that Jesus is God, even though Jesus speaks of God as his Father…

Do you stand tall? Do you bow down? Do you make that final surrender of saying that Jesus is actually God in human form?

You are one of the first to ask the same question that followers of Jesus will ask for centuries to come: is Jesus actually God, or only the unique Son of God? Deep debates in the fourth century resulted in the Creed we now say at Mass: Jesus is True God from True God, of one being or ‘consubstantial’ with the Father.

Perhaps for us as 21st Century Catholics, Adoration – worshipping Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament – is so normal for us that “Should I honour Jesus as God?” is not even a question we would ask. But for a Jew in the first century, or an Arian in the fourth, it was a real stumbling block! If Jesus is Son of the Father, doesn’t that mean that in some meaningful way, he is lesser than the Father?

When Queen Elizabeth of England dies, her successor, presumably Prince Charles, will become King. He will hold exactly the same authority that she held before him. Right now, Prince Charles has authority to carry out certain duties on her behalf. He can bestow honours and knighthoods – but under her authority. Of course it’s possible, if unlikely, that while still alive, she could abdicate. If that happened, the new King would hold the authority which once belonged to the Queen, even though she is still living. So exactly the same authority is passed on by death or abdication – but a lesser authority by delegation.

St Paul wrote to the Roman Christians that we, the children of God, are “heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ”. It’s a wonderful and terrible thing to know that there is an inheritance waiting for you. Do you wish your benefactor to die, so you can receive and enjoy your inheritance? The Prodigal Son did just that, by demanding his inheritance from his living father! The grumpy elder brother was then reassured by the Father “Everything I have is yours!” The younger son is also given the Ring of Authority when he returns home. Imagine what would have happened next in that household when the Father, Son and Elder Brother all tried to spend money or command servants, each following their own different agendas? This is why, in any human organisation, the best we can do is have one central authority structure, which can then delegate budgets or a limited set of responsibilities, to particular members.

You hear Jesus speak: “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.” Given by whom? By the God whom Jesus called Father, the author of all creation. Does this mean the Father has abdicated? No indeed! Does that make it a lesser authority? No – it is ALL authority, as surely as if the Father had abdicated, even though it is given, it is not less in status! But such a sharing of authority is only possible because Jesus is always of one mind with the Father.

In his divinity, Jesus always wants what the Father wants! In his humanity, he always chooses to align his human will with that perfect vision of what the Father is doing. It is only because of this perfect alignment that the Son can share total authority without the Father relinquishing it. We are co-heirs with Christ – but we are heirs only so far as we are yoked with Christ and willing to walk with him. St Paul said that our spirit and the Holy Spirit bear a united witness – but this can only happen if my human spirit is surrendered entirely to the Holy Spirit.

Jesus IS consubstantial with the Father, and always has been. By your baptism, you are a co-heir with Christ, and when you enter heaven you will experience this in its fullness. But why wait for heaven? If only our human spirit could be perfectly aligned with the Holy Spirit, we would make heaven present on earth as powerfully as Jesus himself did. But like the Eleven of old, we are hesitant disciples. There are doubts within us.

Imagine that you are one of the Eight Disciples. Will you worship Jesus as God? Will you surrender to the Holy Spirit? This is more than saying “come and release your gifts in me”. This is saying, Spirit of God, command me! May I do nothing but the will of God! Now you are ready to go and make disciples, teaching others to do the same. And know that Christ is with you!

Renew the Face of the Earth!

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on Pentecost Sunday, Year B.

Send forth your Spirit, O Lord, and renew the face of the earth!

One of the things I’ve had to get used to about living in community, is that I might walk into the common room, and find some of the women wearing facemasks. Not the kind we all have these days because of covid, but the other kind – the paste you cover your face with, to unblock your pores and tone your skin.

Renewing your face requires a little effort, a little time, and a decision that it’s worth doing in the first place.

I have to admit, I find the masks a little scary. I might not want a conversation with someone wearing one. And I probably wouldn’t try one myself. But in life we’re challenged to do things which are less comfortable, and for the best of reasons. The Holy Spirit comes with gifts which enable us to speak out, even to be unpopular, in the noblest of causes. Each one of us, like the apostles on the day of Pentecost, is called to renew the face of the earth. How? We can invite many people to become followers of Jesus, and to know him in a deeper personal way through prayer. Sion Community exists to speak out the good news of Jesus Christ across the British Isles, and sometimes even abroad.

Today is an ending and a beginning. For the Apostles, it marked the end of their time gathered together in Jerusalem, and the beginning of their mission to the ends of the earth. For Sion Community, this time is a new beginning of our work of visiting parishes and hosting residential groups here at our Brentwood centre – which means we’ll no longer be available at 11 am each Sunday to broadcast a Mass. But we rejoice that the face of the church has been renewed in the last year, with many Catholic Masses now available online. And maybe for one or two of you, this is a sign that, strengthened by the gifts of the Spirit, it’s time to return to a nearby church for Mass in person.

We cannot be credible witnesses for Christ unless we are seen to be people who care. Our bishops wish to remind us this weekend that we are called to care about our environment – the very earth over which the Holy Spirit hovered. There’s a link to their full Letter for this weekend in the chat. I will simply remind us that living responsibly on the face of the earth needs a renewed commitment from all of us. Some decisions are best made by politicians, but others are down to us! It’s actually a win-win situation when we work out how to use less water, gas or electricity in our own homes. It also takes little more than goodwill to make better decisions in our weekly shopping, when there’s an easy choice between those products which do or don’t have green credentials. Perhaps you’re doing these things already and taking the next step requires further effort – but this is precisely what you are inviting the Holy Spirit to do in you when you ask him to come and renew the face of the earth.

How does God renew the face of the earth? Literally, through volcanos! When heat from the heart of the earth reaches the right place, molten stone is spewed out and it settles on top of the old rocks… as the lava sets, new land is formed, pushing down the old which might eventually reach such depths that it melts away.

It’s easy to sing about God melting our hearts of stone – but what God really wants to do is release a volcano inside each one of us! When we receive the Sacrament of Confirmation, the Church in fact prays for God to place a volcano within us, heated by the fire of the Holy Spirit, to empower us to do God’s work! But there’s a catch. Volcanos are scary things, and God has given us the ability to cap them. We can keep the fire of the Spirit on the inside, but then all our volcano will do is give us a nice warm glow. That’s not God’s plan. In fact, just keeping this gift for our own enjoyment would be self-indulgent, which is clean contrary to what the Spirit comes to do. We need to give God permission to release what is within us, to flow out of us, and transform the face of the earth. At the end of this homily, we’ll have a moment of prayer when you’ll be able to give God permission to do this in you – perhaps the for the first time!

Taking the environment seriously isn’t about putting green masks on our faces – it requires fire in our hearts and actions with our hands. In the same way, spreading the Gospel requires that inner fire which brings us both joy and determination. The good news is that this is exactly what the Holy Spirit seeks to bestow upon us. Millions of Christians around the world have had the experience of a personal Pentecost, or what is sometimes called “Baptism in the Holy Spirit.” This may come in the form of a deeper inner knowledge that you are loved by God; it may come in the form of giving God permission to work through you and uncapping that volcano which is already dormant within you. You might even pray in words the Holy Spirit gives you, as the Apostles and Blessed Mary did on the Day of Pentecost. If you’ve already experienced this, you can always ask the Holy Spirit for a new and deeper release of His fire today. Yes, renewing your face requires a little effort, a little time, and a decision that it’s worth doing in the first place – a decision to ask the Holy Spirit to unblock your spiritual pores and flow through them!

We’d like to invite you to pray for a first or deeper experience of the Holy Spirit in your life right now. I’m going to ask you to stand – even if you are following along at home – and to first express your faith in God in the same way that the bishop asks candidates to do at a confirmation ceremony. I hope you will be able to answer each of these five questions with the words, “I do!”

  • Do you renounce Satan, and all his works and empty promises? I do.
  • Do you believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth? I do.
  • Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered death and was buried, rose again from the dead and is seated at the right hand of the Father? I do
  • Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who through the Sacrament of Confirmation has been given to you in a special way just as he was given to the Apostles on the day of Pentecost? I do.
  • Do you believe in the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting? I do.

Now we’re going to pray for a personal outpouring of the Holy Spirit on each one of us by singing the ancient prayer, “Come Holy Spirit”. You might want to hold your hands open in front of you, palms facing upwards. In your heart, give the Holy Spirit permission to come and live in you, driving out any doubts, fears or other obstacles. Let go and let God. Come, Holy Spirit!

Holy Spirit, Lord of Light,
From the clear celestial height
Thy pure beaming radiance give.

Come, thou Father of the poor,
Come with treasures which endure
Come, thou light of all that live!

Thou, of all consolers best,
Thou, the soul’s delightful guest,
Dost refreshing peace bestow

Thou in toil art comfort sweet
Pleasant coolness in the heat
Solace in the midst of woe.

Light immortal, light divine,
Visit thou these hearts of thine,
And our inmost being fill:

If thou take thy grace away,
Nothing pure in man will stay
All his good is turned to ill.

Heal our wounds, our strength renew
On our dryness pour thy dew
Wash the stains of guilt away:

Bend the stubborn heart and will
Melt the frozen, warm the chill
Guide the steps that go astray.

Thou, on us who evermore
Thee confess and thee adore,
With thy sevenfold gifts descend:

Give us comfort when we die
Give us life with thee on high
Give us joys that never end.

Image by Felix Wolf from Pixabay

Truly Consecrated

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on the 7th Sunday of Easter, Year B.

“The Lord has set his sway in heaven!”

That’s a strange thing to say. But has it got you asking the right question?

The wrong question is, “What’s a sway?”

To sway is to rock gently from side to side. From this we get the meaning of “sway” as influence to make something change its position, so “sway” can mean political influence. It’s a poetic way of saying God is Lord of heaven, and nothing against his will ever happens there. But the right question might be, “Why hasn’t the Lord set his sway on earth?”

In St John’s writings, both his Gospel and his Letters, we’re given a strong sense of the “world”, this earthly life, being under the dominion of the Evil One. The Anglican writer, C. S. Lewis, commented that when he became a Christian, he was startled to see how much of the New Testament suggests that our world is indeed under the dominion of a dark spirit. Between coronavirus, conflict in the Middle East, and the more personal issues each of us face, that darkness is all too apparent. Lewis likened Jesus to a warrior parachuting into Enemy territory, coming to raise up a guerrilla army to fight for truth, love and righteousness. Today’s Gospel points us to the commissioning ceremony for the soldiers of Christ.

“Consecrate them in the Truth!”

Jesus prayed this for his apostles. Jesus prayed this for you. And Jesus prayed this for himself. It mut be important!

To “consecrate” is a powerful word. A priest can bless many things – houses, food, rosary beads, and even people – but when bread and wine are brought to the altar, they are not merely blessed; they are consecrated. A man chosen to be a bishop is “consecrated” to his new role. When a woman chooses to give up her right to marry and devote her whole life to God while still living in the world, she becomes a “consecrated virgin”. For a person to be consecrated, that person is “placed with things which are holy” and so set apart from everyday life.

What does it mean to be “consecrated in truth”? Half the meaning is that you are “truly consecrated”. It’s emphatic! It’s real! But because we have free will, we must choose to respect that consecration – to keep it real on a daily basis. It’s not enough to be baptised or confirmed. We must also live each day according to the values of heaven, despite the temptations of earth. We won’t always succeed – but when we fail, God mercifully offers us forgiveness and the chance to try again.

The other half is that truth becomes the very thing which consecrates us. As followers of Jesus, we carry the most important truth which the world has ever learned: “Jesus Christ loves you, he died for you, and he walks with you to enlighten, strengthen and free you!” As ministers of truth, we dispel fear, bringing light to the darkness which clouds the thoughts of others, and to ourselves. It is said that “truth is the first casualty of war.” In today’s world where fake news can spread so quickly, we are called to measure twice and cut once before spreading tidings which grab our attention. We must serve the Lord of Truth and not the father of lies who would add fear and panic to any uneasy situation.

Jesus consecrated himself “for our sake”. But Jesus was already the Word of God, the beloved Son of the Father. What more could he do to make himself holy? Since “holy” means “set apart” he could set himself apart from our earthly existence, and return to the Father in heaven – which is precisely what the Church celebrated on Thursday, the solemn commemoration of the Ascension of the Lord. Our journey of holiness will be complete when we, too, enter heaven – but it is the Father’s pleasure that first we live out our lifetime on earth.

To be holy, our free will must become totally aligned to the will of God. We must make the journey of a lifetime, praying “Thy Will be Done” until we actually mean it, until we rejoice to do the thing that God has made clear to us. The battlefield we face is a battlefield of the mind. We are human beings with desires of the flesh, for food and comfort and other pleasures; but we are not God. For Jesus to be Lord of my life, I must surrender control. And his will is not that I be removed from this earthly life and enter heaven immediately, but that I live on earth, consecrated in the truth, faithful to Jesus and resisting all the snares and works of the Enemy.

We are asked to do two things in this earthly life – to live in love, and to acknowledge that Jesus is the Son of God. St Paul commented that “no one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.” There is a divine gift of simply knowing that Jesus is Lord, which we call faith, which is planted in us by the Holy Spirit. That same Holy Spirit, dwelling within us, releases gifts to bless other people, and fruits of virtuous behaviour in ourselves. It is always good to invite God’s Spirit to enter more deeply into me and produce more fruit in me – but above all, in this week leading up to Pentecost, Christians all over the world are praying “Come, Holy Spirit” in a great chorus of unity. If you don’t already have it, I recommend downloading an app called “Thy Kingdom Come” so you can join in this week’s global wave of prayer – prayer for many more people to discover the truth that Jesus is Lord.

Strangely, amazingly, wonderfully, you and I are part of God’s plan. We are not victims, waiting to be airlifted to some distant heaven, but soldiers of righteousness, reclaiming this world for God while recruiting others for Heaven’s cause.

“The Lord has set his sway in heaven!” But will you set his sway on earth – and allow him to have his sway in you?

If you have 15 minutes to spare, I recommend this animated illustration of C. S. Lewis’s script, “The Invasion”.

Unfaded Love

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on the 6th Sunday of Easter, Year B.

Two scented hearts, a melon, and a letter reading 'Dear Nanna'About 20 years ago, my grandmother was taken into hospital. It was a difficult time for me and my family – we thought we were going to lose her. Fortunately, she recovered her strength and came home, but it could have gone either way. It made me very conscious of the things I did want to say to her before it was too late. But there was a problem – Nanna had become profoundly deaf, and it was impossible to have a conversation with her. So I did the only thing I could do. I wrote her a letter. On one side, I wrote about my own decision to become a Catholic and why it mattered to me. On the other side, I spoke about how grateful I was for all the things she had done for me – cooking the family meals when I was a child, and knitting the brightly-coloured pullovers which I loved wearing wherever I went. I told her how proud I was, that she was my Nan, and that I loved her.

I’m glad I did that when I did. A few years later, when Nanna was taken into hospital again and this time didn’t come out, I had the comfort of knowing I had no unfinished business. Mum later told me that Nanna had kept that letter in her handbag – and it had been unfolded and refolded many times.

About ten years ago, a close friend of mine suddenly got engaged. This is always a bitterwseet moment in a true friendship – of course you want someone you care about to find lifelong happiness in marriage, but it also means a change in when and how you can be together as friends. When I went to visit during the engagement, I stayed in her spare room – which of course was also his room before the wedding night, because they were both committed Christians – and there was a little scented heart hanging on the bedpost. A small part of me inwardly sighed and acknowledged that this was a sign of how things would change.

But then a wonderful thing happened. Before I went home, she handed me a little parcel. “We went to a craft fair recently,” she said, “and these are for your bedroom and your guest room.” Two more, identical, scented hearts! For the next six months, as soon as I woke up in the morning, even before I opened my eyes, the first thing I was aware of was a beautiful perfume which reminded me that I had a friend who loved me. Of course, after ten years, that scent faded away, but I still occasionally catch a momentary aroma and smile inwardly.

“Love one another, as I have loved you.” With these words, Our Lord reminds us that love is at the heart of our Christian faith – and not just love, but love-in-action. There are many kinds of love, including charity towards strangers, but today I invite us to focus on the way we show love within our closer relationships.

Who among us has not felt lonely at times?

Who among us has not wished for a token of love from someone we care about?

And yet, although our hearts are crying out to be loved, we are afraid to communicate the love that we feel, to others.

We may be afraid of rejection.

We may be afraid of being carried away by our stronger urges.

We may be afraid of our best intentions backfiring.

To be sure, love can go wrong. I once shared a house with a man who had a bad temper. We weren’t getting along very well, so I decided to make a peace-offering. He loved eating melon for breakfast, so when he went away for a week’s holiday, I made sure there was fresh melon in the fridge for his return. This did not have the desired effect. My gift was rewarded with a small explosion of anger – “That’s not the sort of melon I like, but now I have to eat it!” Truly, no good deed goes unpunished!

But do I regret what I did? Not at all. At the end of time, when all things will be made clear, he will understand that my gesture was meant as a peace offering and an act of love – and I will finally see clearly the pressures he was under at the time, which closed his eyes to the gift.

Showing love is always risky. Yes, we make ourselves vulnerable to rejection. Yes, we must guard ourselves against doing more than is appropriate in a particular relationship where our passions run high. But plainly and simply, Our Lord commanded us to love one another. The Greek word He used, agape, especially includes pouring out our strength for the good of others, seeking no return. If we give food to the Foodbank or send a donation to those suffering from latest overseas disaster, we have shown the highest form of love. But only within our closest relationships can we touch the heart of another in a way which brings lasting joy. Our motives will always be mixed – even Pope Benedict XVI commented that it was impossible to totally separate selfless agape from our own desires to love and be loved – but that’s OK, because it’s human.

We feel lonely and unloved when others do not prioritise showing us that they care. If we want to be loved, we must make time for others, for love always needs to be communicated, and, like a fading scented heart, refreshed from time to time. It is especially at times when things have become routine – many years into a marriage, or many months into a household under lockdown – that we need to renew our committment to show love to one another.

On other Sundays during the last year, I have challenged you to pick up the phone to someone you don’t speak with so often. But today I challenge you to think about the people you are in regular contact with – those who live in your house, or to whom you speak every week. If the scent of your heart has faded, what will make it new again?

Show love, because your love is real.

Show love, because the person you love needs a reminder that they are loved.

Show love, because God asks us to.

Show love. 

The Kindest Cut

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on the 5th Sunday of Easter, Year B.

“I’m expecting great things of you, Mr Leyshon! Great things!”Black and white photo of Mr R. I. Denis Jones JP, former headmaster of Graig Comprehensive School, Llanelli

My headmaster in Secondary School, Mr Denis Jones, left me in no doubt of his high expectations. He said so often, in Welsh tones that brooked no argument.

He never said precisely what great things he was expecting, but as a committed Christian and chapel preacher, I think he would have been pleased to learn that I am now spreading the Gospel across the UK and wherever technology will carry it!

God also expects great things of us. In the Parable of the Talents we’re told that we are expected to make a profit for God, not of money but of souls. Today, St John’s letter questions whether our love is real and active, and whether our conscience is clear. But how do we know what great things God is asking of us?

We are to “live in Christ” – he is the vine, and we are the branches. Why does a vinedresser prune a grapevine? Left to itself it will grow lots of small grapes. But the master doesn’t want small grapes, he wants fewer but larger grapes. So he not only removes dead branches, but he also removes some of the perfectly healthy buds which would have formed new leaves, new branches and new fruit. In that way, all the available goodness is channelled into what’s left. So we are to look at what is already bearing fruit in our lives – through the gifts we have been given, and the doors which God has opened around us. Then we must ask how we can ripen this fruit – and what must be pruned to do so?

St Paul experienced a most severe season of pruning. As soon as he had become a disciple of Jesus, he took all that zeal which he had previously invested in persecuting Christians, and preached openly and strongly. This was not at all helpful to the church in Jerusalem! So they sent him home to Tarsus, and there he stayed for more than a decade until Barnabas went to fetch him for what become Paul’s famous missionary journeys, powered by preaching incubated in those years of pruning.

Sometimes we hear lots of place names in our Bible readings, and they mean little to us. It might be helpful to know that the Holy Land is about the size of Wales. So if we superimpose Great Britain on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, we could, loosely, say that Saul of Glasgow was converted on the road into Liverpool, and caused great trouble by preaching in Cardiff, so they took him to Aberystwyth, sent him home to Scotland on a boat, and then the Church in South Wales, North Wales and Mid Wales enjoyed a season of peace. It was only when I visited the Holy Land in 2013 that I realised that the journey from Bethlehem to Jerusalem was a local hop, like Newport to Cardiff, but the journey to the capital from Nazareth was like coming down from Wrexham – on a donkey!

It seems strange to think about such travel while living in lockdown, but we now find ourselves in a time of change. For the last year, our lifestyle has been disrupted. Now we look forward to a reversal of past restrictions, an opening of new opportunities. Many things are becoming possible for us. But perhaps God is inviting us to use our freedom wisely. “Do a few things well!” Maybe our families or our circumstances are making it difficult to do something (like Paul being sent home to Tarsus) – if so, am I angry with God for closing that door, or grateful to God for pruning me in order to make my “one thing” clear? But perhaps I’m in full control of my own actions, and in this case the responsibility falls on me and my conscience. Where does God want me to invest my energies in this coming season? Which of my fruits has the best potential to grow, and which must be sacrificed to achieve thus? What choices do I now have to make? Pruning is never comfortable, but there is joy in seeing fruit become ripe for the harvest.

Pope Francis reminds us that we should rise to this challenge because this is what makes us beautiful! If we live in Christ to the best of our ability, we will “appear as joyful messengers of challenging proposals, guardians of [the] goodness and beauty…” If we listen to the message of Jesus, we will have great wisdom on tap. If we follow his way, we will discover a “life to the full”. If we open our hands before God and truly pray for the help, the grace, which only God can give, we will be enriched. Last week we celebrated Jesus as the good shepherd – but a literal translation would be, “the beautiful shepherd”. This week we rejoice in our call to be beautiful sheep – or rich, ripe, juicy fruit.

So stay connected to Jesus! As our rhythm of life changes again, how important will it be to pick up our Bible and read something daily? How important will it be to make time for prayer, at least at the start or end of the day? Two of today’s readings contain wild promises which seem to say that God will answer every prayer we make – hard for us to believe when millions of Christians have been crying out to God for an end to the pandemic – but these promises come with a catch. First we must “abide in Christ”, we must be so connected to Jesus that we can see what the Father is blessing as clearly as he can. The Lord is expecting “Great Things” from us – indeed, he promises that we ourselves have the potential to do greater things than Christ himself – but first we must abide in him, and when the time is ripe – perhaps, like St Paul after many years – we will bear fruit in abundance. Until then, keep on growing!

Shepherd’s Delight

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on the 4th Sunday of Easter, Year B.

I’d go hungry; I’d go black and blue

And I’d go crawling down the avenue

No, there’s nothing that I wouldn’t do

To make you feel my love.

Bob Dylan wrote these words, and Adele made them famous a few years ago. There are times we need to know that we are loved. And I hope all of us have at least a few people in our lives who want to communicate to us that yes, we are truly loved, even when we’re not in a mood to receive it. But we can so easily fall into a trap, a terrible trap of doubt. We set conditions for how we want others to love us. And if we’re not careful, five terrible words will pass our lips. “If you really loved me…”

  • If you really loved me, you’d be ready on time.
  • If you really loved me, you’d remember my birthday.
  • If you really loved me, you’d call more often.

But let’s face it, none of us like being nagged into doing things by other people. And they clearly don’t understand the pressures I am under. That’s why I wasn’t ready, why I didn’t call, why I forgot your birthday. I do care, honest! Those just aren’t the ways I show my love!

In fact, while we’re busy telling other people how to love us, what about God?

  • If you really loved me, you wouldn’t have let my granny die yet.
  • If you really loved me, you’d have stopped me getting ill.
  • If you really loved me, you’d have kept my family together.
  • If you really loved me, we wouldn’t be in a global crisis right now.

Whoa! Listen to the words of today’s Gospel. “I am the Good Shepherd, and I lay down my life for my sheep.”

In the Old Testament, the Book of Job tells the story of a man suddenly afflicted by every possible woe short of death. Job refuses to curse God but does put his complaint into a prayer. God’s only answer is to ask Job, “Can you create a universe and keep it running?”- it reminds me of that scene in the film Bruce Almighty where Bruce, who is standing in for God, tries to answer every prayer on earth with a Yes at the same time, and chaos breaks out.

Seems to me we’re not given the option of believing in a God who runs the world the way we would like it to be, Perhaps God can’t fix everything to everyone’s satisfaction. If God could only fix one thing for you, what would it be? Might it be death itself? What if God could fix things so we could live for ever in a place of happiness? What if God could find some way of forgiving our sins and opening the door to heaven?

Oh… hang on, wasn’t it Easter a few of weeks ago? This sounds rather familiar.

Every time we celebrate Mass, at the heart of the Eucharistic Prayer, the priest declares: The Mystery of Faith! This is an invitation for us to declare that Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead. But it also reminds us of another mystery, that those of us gathered at the Lord’s table have been given this gift called faith! We are the adopted children who know we have been brought into God’s family.

Have you ever seen a movie about an adopted child?

Often it will begin with the child resisting their new family and showing hostility. But at some point towards the climax, the child will finally realise that the adoptive parents really, seriously, commit to loving them as a family member – and the child will, for the first time, dare to call their new parents “Mum” and “Dad”.

We too are invited on a journey of discovery, to reach that point where we know with every fibre of our being that God is a Father who loves us, and Jesus is the Good Shepherd, the bridegroom who gave his very life for his bride. I speak to you as one who is still on that journey – knowing, intellectually, that God does love me, but never having experienced that deeply at an emotional level.

Last week I spoke about how Jesus saves us so we can enter eternal life. This week I point us to the why. Jesus is not a hired hand, caring for us only because he has been paid or ordered to do so. Jesus is a true shepherd, one whose very nature is to care for his flock and give his life for them. The Father of Jesus seeks to adopt us also, so we can receive the same blessing as Jesus. Why? Because He loves us. This is what he says to each one of us:

“You are My beloved child, in whom I delight. You are the love of My heart; My favour rests on you. Son, you please Me well. Daughter, you fill Me with joy.” This is good news: God is especially fond of you! He really, really likes you!

The problem is many of us don’t want to accept the thought that we please God. We focus on the sin in our lives and imagine God holding us while wrinkling his nose, like an uncomfortable dad holding his baby with a stinky nappy. But that’s not who God is at all!

God created you from His delight and for His delight. You were made to be His companion, a person like Him but not Him. You are also given the ability to freely and deeply love Him in return. You are capable of thrilling God’s heart with endless delight!

What would you do if you really loved God? Would you call him “Father” – or even “Dad”? If you loved Jesus, would you follow Him as your Shepherd?

Bob Dylan, born Jewish, became a born-again Christian in 1978, and his faith inspired many of his songs. I don’t think he’d mind too much if I gave his lyrics a little tweak to speak about Jesus:

He went hungry; he was whipped for you;

And went carrying his cross, for sure,

No, there’s nothing that he wouldn’t do

To make you know his love.

Homily partly drawn from my previous homily If You Really Loved Me… and also incorporating words from Matt Lozano in the Unbound Ministry Guidebook.

Further Letter to MP regarding Foetal Cell Lines in Vaccine Production and Testing

Dear & Honourable Mr Burghart,

Thank you for your response of 15 March 2021, in which you addressed my concerns that many vaccines in the UK, including those for the current covid-19 crisis, are sometimes produced and usually tested in human cells derived from aborted foetuses.

You rightly quote from the 2017 document of the Pontifical Academy for Life (which if I may compare Vatican documents to Parliamentary ones, is a kind of Select Committee report for Catholics); this states

we believe that all clinically recommended vaccinations can be used with a clear conscience and that the use of such vaccines does not signify some sort of cooperation with voluntary abortion.

Taken alone, this statement might appear to be an unproblematic invitation to Catholics to simply accept any vaccine offered. However, this statement must be read alongside the more formal 2008 document Dignitas Personae, which has a weight comparable to a manifesto committment made by a winning party. Here paragraph 35 sets out clearly that Catholics who accept a tainted vaccine for the sake of the common good must lobby Government and industry until an untainted alternative can be provided.

I am grateful that you have indicated a willingness to “explore the issue” with colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care. Since my first letter to you, it has come to my attention that the US-based Charlotte Lozier Institute is collating research on whether foetal cell-lines are used in the development, mass production and testing of numerous covid-19 vaccines, with results tabulated online. There are now a number of vaccines available – though not yet cleared through UK safety testing – which make no use whatsoever of foetal cell-lines.

The UK is a pioneer in the field of diversity, requiring by law reasonable adjustments to accommodate disability and respecting a wide range of sexual preferences in orientation and identity. It would be entirely in keeping with our committment to diversity to recognise that adherents of certain religions are duty bound to avoid abortion-tainted vaccines whenever possible, and for the NHS to respond by ensuring that at least of one these untainted vaccines is put forward for regulatory approval and then made available for use at a small number of regional centres to which conscientious objectors could travel.

I received my first dose of the problematic AstraZeneca vaccine in March and will therefore receive the second dose as scheduled in June, but I would avail of any ethical alternative provided should booster shots become necessary in due course.

Thank you for taking my concerns seriously, and I hope this further information will be of use as you explore the issues further with colleagues at DHSC.

Yours Sincerely,

Revd Dr Gareth Leyshon