The Healthy Madness of Christians

St Peter and St Paul (as they appear in the coat of arms of the Polish City of Biecz)Homily at St John Lloyd, for The Solemnity of St Peter and St Paul, 2013.

Episode 4 of 5 in our current series, Knowing and Following Jesus.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been taking a fresh look at Jesus.

Today we return to where we began – our awareness that when Jesus enters a person’s life, he often makes uncomfortable demands.

We are offered two prime examples in St Peter and St Paul. Both died in Rome, probably around the year AD 64. According to tradition, Peter asked to be crucified upside down, feeling unworthy to die as Jesus died; Paul, as a Roman Citizen, was privileged to be beheaded.

So ended the lives of two souls whom Jesus asked to follow him. To each of them, Jesus gave a new identity. Simon, the hasty fisherman, became Peter, the rock of the Church. Saul, the persecutor of Christians, became Paul, the preacher of Christ.

To each of them, suffering came on the path of following Christ. We’ve just heard the account of how Peter spent some nights in jail – God sent the angel to rescue him on the last possible night, not the first! And when we read, in the Epistle, that “the Lord will rescue me from all evil attempts on me”, we might recall that Paul was beaten and whipped – numerous times – frequently imprisoned, three times shipwrecked and once stoned during his journeys preaching Christ. Despite all this, St Paul persevered – because he had a mission, to encourage all who would listen to also persevere in the work of following Jesus.

In May, Pope Francis – the successor of St Peter – highlighted St Paul’s capacity for “being a nuisance” — unsettling Christians who had become too comfortable in their faith, stirring up in them the kind of zeal which is essential to move the Church forward.

Such zeal, said Pope Francis, might sound like madness, but it’s a “spiritual madness, a healthy madness.” It can lead to persecution, but even so, we cannot be “couch-potato Christians”, cozy in our comfort zones. Such cozy Christians “are well mannered, do everything well, but are unable to bring people to the Church through proclamation and apostolic zeal.”

Are you hearing this? Are you getting the message? Pope Francis is telling us that there is no room in our church for backseat Christians. Each and every one of us is called to be active for Jesus!

Two weeks ago, the homily focussed on Jesus as the man who forgives sins. If we feel unworthy to work for God, there is a remedy at hand: we take our sins to Jesus (through confession to a priest if the sins are serious) and Jesus gives us a fresh start.

Last week, the homily challenged us to decide for ourselves if we really believe that Jesus is God’s messenger to humanity, and the Saviour who died to pay the price for our sins.

This week, following Pope Francis’ lead, I want to invite each and every one of us to make a decision to do God’s work on earth. In his sermon, the Pope reminded us that the Lord “always wants us to move forward, forward, forward,” and not take refuge in a comfortable, quiet life. He reminds us that this kind of zeal is not about gaining power or possessions. It’s the strong beat of a heart which knows Jesus Christ.

Jesus came to Peter in person when he was fishing on the shores of Lake Galilee.

Jesus came to Paul in a vision on the road to Damascus.

None of us alive today can have met Jesus in the flesh; few of us will ever experience the kind of vision which St Paul had. But it’s possible for all of us to have a quieter encounter with Jesus, the kind of spiritual experience which moves us from understanding in our heads to knowing in our hearts, that Jesus is a loving presence even today. If we haven’t ever had that kind of heart-experience, stories of martyrs like Peter and Paul will frighten us – who would want to be a Christian if it leads to pain, persecution, or martyrdom? But once we receive the gift, in our hearts, of knowing that Jesus loves us, forgives our sins, and calls us to be his hands, feet and voice in the world, then we will become unstoppable!

You are not called to be Peter or Paul. Yours is not the role of filling a chair in the Vatican, or travelling around the Mediterranean, preaching. But you are called to do something for God that only you can do. You have a mission to perform, for which you are uniquely qualified. It is not easy, but not impossible. It is the challenge which God has chosen for you, and if you rise to it, on the day God calls you to himself, you will hear the most wonderful words we could hope to hear from our Master: “Well done good and faithful servant!”

Today’s celebration marks the end of the earthly journey for St Peter and St Paul. It might also mark the beginning of a new chapter for some of us present at Mass today. If you have never experienced the presence of Jesus in a way that gives you courage to do God’s work in the world, if you want to respond to Pope Francis’ call to move the Church forward, then in this moment of silence now, ask Jesus – the same Jesus who called St Peter and St Paul – to speak to your heart, and to give you a share in that same confidence which moved those princes of the Church to do such great things for God.

With thanks to Deacon Rigo Logier for pointing me to the relevant homily by Pope Francis.

Who do you say I am?

Homily at St John Lloyd, for The Twelfth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

Episode 3 of 5 in our new series, Knowing and Following Jesus.

A man was in a hurry to leave the supermarket with his shopping. Quickly, he looked for a till without a long queue. The first one was no good – it was for wheelchair users only. The next one? No, that was for “10 items or less” and he had 12. The third? “Cash only” – and he needed to use his debit card. Finally he spotted a checkout girl with no queue and apparently, no restrictions. But he wanted to make quite sure he could use this till before emptying his basket, so he looked straight at the girl and said: “You’re nothing special, are you?”

The indignant girl replied: “My mother thinks I am!”

God thinks you are someone special. If you have been baptised, then God looks at you and says “I know who you are! You belong to Jesus Christ! You are one of my children! If you stay where you belong, with Jesus, then you will inherit heaven!”

Today, Jesus has a question to ask each one of us, and it’s personal! “You! Who do you say that I am?”

St Luke is inviting each one of us to step into the shoes of St Peter and answer the question. He’s been building up to this moment for a while. On the previous page of the Gospel, you’ll find the story of the feeding of the 5,000. Not many religious leaders have the knack of filling twelve baskets with 5 loaves and 2 fish! If we haven’t got the message that Jesus is someone special, we must have been dozing. But if he is someone special, who is he?

Jesus approaches the question gently. “Who do the crowds say that I am?” He’s allowing his disciples to pass on hearsay and gossip – don’t we all love doing that? The stakes are low; all they need to do is parrot the remarks of others. And there’s no shortage of speculation in the crowd! Is Jesus the recently-executed John the Baptist, come back to life? Or the ancient prophet Elijah, who the Bible says was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire?

To the disciples, Jesus is the man they have spent the last few months following. They have seen him heal the sick, raise the dead, and cast out evil spirits. They have seen something in him worth following, and he has accepted them as his trusted companions. Now Jesus is testing them to see if they have understood who he really is. Now it is time to put them on the spot. “You!” says Jesus. “Who do you say that I am?”

Oh Peter! So right and so confused at the same time! Peter calls Jesus the Messiah, the Christ, the Chosen One of God. Peter knows that the Hebrew Bible contains a message that one day, God will send such a person to rescue the Jewish people. Since God’s power is so clearly at work in Jesus, this must be the long-expected Messiah! What could that mean, if not a great leader who would rouse the people to expel their Roman oppressors and make Judah a free nation again?

Imagine Peter’s confusion, then, when Jesus immediately starts speaking not of a military victory, but of a painful death for himself and a life of daily difficulties for his followers. Jesus will not only fulfil the prophecies about being God’s Chosen One, but also the words of Zechariah in which a community pierces one of their own, only to be filled with sorrow for their actions. Jesus will be nailed to a cross, and the crowd will gaze upon him. Peter does not yet understand how this can be God’s chosen way to forgive the sins of all humankind.

St Luke expects that like St Peter, we will be confused. In the following pages of the Gospel, Jesus twice more insists that he is indeed to suffer a painful death – but not before he takes Peter, James and John up a mountain where they hear God’s voice declaring: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

You’ve probably heard this before. In fact, I’m getting rather bored telling the story myself. But that’s the trap. It’s one thing to know the story. It’s another thing to come eyeball-to-eyeball with Jesus demanding an answer to the question: “You!” says Jesus. “Who do you say that I am?”

Evangelistic Hall, Llanelli, with inscription:

In Llanelli, where I grew up, there is a chapel with an inscription on the wall saying “What Think Ye of Christ?” That chapel was on the road between my parents’ house and my grandmother’s, so I was driven past it quite often. As a child, the old-fashioned English caught my attention, and I always thought of it as the “What Think Ye of Christ? Building”! But did seeing the words ever cause me to ask what I, personally, thought of Christ? No.

In the Salvation Army Sunday School where I was sent as a child, every so often there were services where you could choose to go forward and make a personal act of commitment to Jesus. It was an “opt in” challenge. No-one was forced to go forward, but those who felt ready could do so. Did I ever opt in? No.

It was only when my grandmother died, and my dad suggested that I should say a prayer for her in private, that I was forced to make a personal decision: Did I believe there was any point praying? Did I believe Jesus was real? And if he is real, who is he? That, for me, was the day I came eyeball-to-eyeball with Jesus. That was the day I no longer needed to repeat what others said about Jesus, because I found the answer God was communicating directly to my heart.

Jesus came to tell us that the way to heaven is not like a supermarket with many checkouts. There is only one queue, and He is the one sitting at the till. He has already paid the bill, and to get a free pass we need only acknowledge him* as Someone Special – our Saviour, the Messiah, the Christ, the Holy One of God.

Your heavenly Father thinks that each one of you is someone special, and invites you, this day, to answer the one question on which your eternal life depends. It is a question too important to be left unanswered, or to rely on the answers given by others. At the checkout of your life, your soul will come eyeball-to-eyeball with Jesus, and your heart will need to know the answer when He asks: “You! Who do you say that I am?”

* Let the reader understand: I am not suggesting that the normal route to heaven is merely through a personal act of faith in Jesus. The ordinary way we should acknowledge him is through making use of the sacraments of Baptism and Reconciliation. But when these routes are genuinely not possible, faith in Jesus will provide an extraordinary way to pass the checkout and enter our eternal home with God.

Acknowledgement: The joke at the start of the sermon is an anecdote which I first read in Readers’ Digest many years ago; I would give the author’s name if I could remember it.

Who is this man, who forgives sins?

Homily at St John Lloyd, for The Eleventh Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

Episode 2 of 5 in our new series, Knowing and Following Jesus.

I’d made some bad decisions in my life. I’d chosen to do some things that weren’t good for me and which hurt other people. And now they were playing on my mind. There was only one word for it: GUILT.

Who could help me deal with this terrible guilt? Surely someone could ease my soul. So I looked for help.

I went to the philosopher.

“Why are you feeling guilty?” she asked. “Who is making these rules for you? Write your own rules and decide that what you did wasn’t wrong after all.”

But in my heart of hearts, my conscience knew that there is RIGHT and there is WRONG, and all the pretending in the world couldn’t change what I’d done.

I went to the counsellor.

You’re OK,” he said. “You need to learn to affirm yourself. Don’t let the past drag you down in the present.”

But I already knew that, as a human being, I was precious to God. I might BE OK, but the things I’d done in the past weren’t OK. Those memories still haunted me.

I went to the therapist.

“You must recognise the patterns of bad behaviour in your life,” she said, “because if you notice what you’re about to do, you might be able to stop yourself and change the outcome.”

That was good advice – for the future! But it didn’t take away my sense of guilt for what was in the past.

I went to the guru.

“Your bad deeds have attracted bad karma,” he said, “and you will suffer the consequences – either in this life or in another one. You must do good deeds to earn good karma.”

That advice frightened me. Was there no way to avoid the consequences of what I had done, rebounding on me?

There was one more place I could go. It was a place I’d been avoiding. It was a closet I didn’t want to open. If I went there, I might find forgiveness, but I’d also find further challenges. Yet the guilt was so great, that I knew I had no option. I had to open the door in my life which I’d tried to close.

Finally, I went to Jesus.

“I’m guilty,” I said.

“I know,” he replied, “and guilt happens for a reason. When you make choices which you know are wrong choices, you will be asked to give an account of them on the Day of Judgment. My Father does not give you another life on earth to try again; you have but this one life on Earth, over which He has made me your Judge. If you protest that you are not guilty, then at the end of your life I must be your Judge.”

At this point, his stern expression broke into a broad smile, and I felt the tension in my body drain away.

“However,” he said brightly, “You have pleaded guilty, which means I do not need to be your Judge, but – and this is what I very much prefer – it is my privilege to be your Saviour.”

And with those words, he wrote out a cheque in his blood, signed it with a cross, and handed it to me.

“The price of your sins has been paid,” he said. “Now change your life and come, follow me.”

A cheque paying all the sins of the world, signed with a blood-coloured Cross.

Stop! Here comes Jesus!

Homily at St John Lloyd, for The Tenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

Episode 1 of 5 in our new series, Knowing and Following Jesus.

A few months ago I was driving to the clinic – I had this terrible pain in my left leg – and while I was waiting at the traffic lights, a young man stepped in front of the car, as bold as brass if you please, and held out his palm in a gesture that could only mean one thing: STOP!A human hand, palm exposed, in the STOP gesture.

Well, I don’t normally pick up hitch-hikers but there was something about this guy – hard to put into words – but he just exuded trustworthiness. I couldn’t help but unlock the passenger door and gesture to him to hop in. He wasn’t much to look at – early 30s, long hair, sweatband round his head – but he just felt, well, safe. And that’s when things started to get a bit weird.

“Where to?” I asked him.

“Home,” he said.

“But I don’t know where you live.”

“No, your home.”

“But I’m on my way to see the doctor,” I protested.

“No need,” he said, cheerfully. “I think you’ll find that the pain in your leg has gone.”

Blow me, he was right! My leg felt perfect, and – this is the really weird bit – how did he know?

On the way home he told me his name was Josh, and he had nowhere to stay. So – I know it sounds crazy – but I offered to put him up for a few nights.

We stayed up late the first night watching telly. I suggested one of the adult channels, but he gave me a funny look. He said his Dad was a garden designer and he much preferred wildlife and nature programmes.

The next night I offered him a drink with supper. He said he’d have just the one glass of wine, but that I should go easy on the spirits. He’d read me right again – how did he know that a weakness for alcohol runs in my family?

Then there was the day I’d had a big row at work with my colleague Valerie, and came home grumbling bitterly. Yes, the spat was partly my fault but I was blowed if I was going to be the first one to make peace. I needed someone to vent my spleen on, and Josh was in the firing line. If he was taking my hospitality, he could jolly well take my side in this. Only he didn’t. Looked me straight in the eye and asked me if I was man enough to be the first to say sorry.

That was when I started to get suspicious. He was still wearing that sweatband, but occasionally it slipped out of line and I could see some spotty scars underneath. And on the back of each of his wrists, it looked like an old wound had healed.

Then Saturday came, and he said he’d have lunch ready when I got back. I enjoyed the morning at the bowling green and came home. Lunch was ready, as promised, but it turned out I wasn’t the only one joining him. He had not only invited Valerie – who I hadn’t apologised to yet – but also the lady across the street I never talk to; I think she was discharged from Whitchurch on one of those care-in-the-community schemes – and the Big Issue seller whose pitch is round the corner. In my house! Without asking!

I just about managed to keep my temper until the last guest had gone, but then I lost it, I really did. While Josh was busy doing the washing-up, I cleared out the walk-in cupboard under the stairs and waited for him to come out of the kitchen. Then, at exactly the right moment, I gave him a big shove and bolted the door.

Yes, I know who it is that I’ve locked in the closet. I’m still feeling a bit guilty about that. So I’ve put a table in front of the door with a nice bunch of flowers – changed every week, and I keep a candle burning there. When I walk past the door, I make a respectful bow in that direction. But I’m not opening that door. I’m not letting him out. If that man gets into my life again, it’s going to be far too disruptive. I don’t mind having Jesus with me each day, but I’m not going to let him interfere in my everyday life!

In today’s Gospel, Jesus stepped in front of a funeral procession, restored one life, and changed another forever. In today’s Second Reading, St Paul recalled how the Lord appeared to him on the road to Damascus, causing him to set off as a missionary without delay.

Each one of us here today knows something about Jesus. Part of what we know is right, but simplistic, because we learned it in childhood. Part of what we know is wrong, because we have learned it at second hand from people who found the real Jesus too annoying or challenging to embrace in full. And part of what we know is right – but leaves us room to go deeper. As the Ordinary Sundays unfold over the remainder of this Year of Faith, let’s take a fresh look at the real Jesus – the annoying Jesus, the challenging Jesus, the full picture of Jesus presented to us by the Gospels.

But be warned – when we look closely at Jesus we will be forced to make a choice – to push him into a closet where we can hide the parts of the message we find too much to bear, or a choice to live with him, in which case we will not find rest until we accept his invitation to change our life.

Acknowledgements: today’s story was largely inspired by a tale told by the Jesuit, Gerard W. Hughes, published in Gathered and Scattered and also in For God’s Sake – Unity. Also a nod in the direction of Joseph F. Girzone’s Joshua. ‘The annoying Jesus’ as found in a litany from the Iona CommunityClipart adapted from a file on

Giving in Confidence

Homily at St John Lloyd, for The Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, Year C.

In the pages of the Bible, God often uses bread when he wants to make a point.

Jesus is faced with a hungry crowd, so he challenges his disciples to give them a meal. “Be generous with the little you have available, and God will provide beyond your wildest expectations.” The disciples grumble, but are persuaded to give what they have – and it stretches.

How did God do it? Some Bible scholars suggest that Jesus shamed the crowd into sharing their packed lunches. Me, I believe in a God who can multiply loaves on occasion, just like that. But if we focus on HOW God provided, we miss the point. The starting point is that the disciples had to take a risk and give of the little they had available, before they could receive God’s blessing. And the same applies to us!

In the first reading, we meet the mysterious priestly figure called Melchizedek. Abraham recognises him as a holy man. When this priest offers bread and wine, Abraham gives him a tithe – that is, one tenth of all he owns and possesses! It is from this that the practice of tithing – giving one tenth – came into the church.A pie chart showing a 10% sector being removed

Now, tithing hasn’t always been popular, especially when the taxman has gotten involved. In Germany, even today, if you register that you belong to a particular church, the taxman automatically gives a slice of your income to that church. In Ireland, the state used to take a tenth of the income of Catholics and give it to the Anglican church – in the 1830s, this led to a campaign of civil disobedience by Irish Catholics which became known as the ‘Tithe War.’ Here in Wales, the 1880s saw another ‘Tithe War’ – nonconformist chapel-goers in Denbighshire also objected to being forced to make payments to the Church of England. It’s not surprising that among Catholics, and in Wales, ‘tithing’ is something of a dirty word.

Yet today, Corpus Christi Sunday, we do well to stop and ask ourselves what we are willing to offer to God in return for His gifts to us – the gift of our sins being forgiven whenever we repent – which Jesus had to pay for on the Cross – the gift of eternal life, and the gift of Holy Communion which connects us to heaven even while we remain here on earth. Often, in St John Lloyd, we sing Lord, how can I repay? – a worship song in which we pledge to God that we will trust Him, give of our lifeblood, and praise Him without reserve. These are easy words to sing, but what do they mean in practice?

Part of the answer is that we praise God by choosing to attend Mass, and to take a full part in it, including the singing. In this way, we honour Jesus hidden in the Blessed Sacrament. Part of the answer is that we give of our time to serve the needs of the Church community, and of the needy members of our local community. In this way, we honour Jesus hidden in the poor. And part of the answer is that we praise God with our wallets, purses and bank accounts!

Now, don’t be alarmed by the word ‘tithe’. I am not going to insist that you give St John Lloyd parish 10% of your income… but I’m not going to stop you either! The money which we give to the Church and to other good causes is an act of worship, because we are giving to God’s work knowing that it is God’s work. So our giving to church and to charity should be something which we think through and do as a deliberate part of our whole relationship with God.

There are four questions in today’s newsletter, and one of them will be relevant to the way you organise your giving to church and to charities right now.

If you don’t already plan how you are going to give, then consider making a plan. The needs of the poor, and of the church, are too important to be left to an absent-minded search for loose change in your pocket.

If you do plan what to give, but God’s work comes at the bottom of the list after all the other bills, ask yourself whether God deserves more than that. This is the scary bit! There are all kinds of logical reasons why we should pay the mortgage, gas bill and credit card bill before we give a penny to the church. But God is King of the Universe, and his resources are infinite. In the Bible – you can look it up in Malachi chapter 3 – God says ‘Test me out on this!’ Give to God’s work as a priority and you will discover that you will not lose out in your personal finances. Humanly speaking , it shouldn’t work – but it does!

I have found God to be faithful to this over and over again when I am nudged in my own personal prayer life to give generously to certain causes, and God has always arranged for me to be repaid in full, with interest, within a week or so! It’s the same challenge which the Disciples faced with a crowd of 5000 – they had to take the risk of giving away what they had before they could discover how God was going to bless them in return.

If you do give to charities and to church because it is important to you as Catholic to do this, but you give a fixed amount, perhaps it’s time to review that amount. It honours the way God blesses us, if we give a percentage of what we have received.

Finally, if you do already give a percentage, is God inviting you to raise it? As our relationship with God deepens, as we discover how to listen to God’s nudges and experience the blessings which come our way when we give generously, God might invite us to take the next step of faith. Maybe even as high as ten percent!

In the pages of the Bible, God often uses bread when he wants to make a point.

When we give from our surplus, that’s an act of charity.

When we give from our core resources – because we know the Lord is asking for a greater sacrifice – that’s an act of faith. And it’s one the Lord has promised to repay!

Today, Corpus Christi Sunday, we celebrate the Lord’s gift of His Body to us. How will you repay God for his goodness?

 Acknowledgements: the four point plan for growing in giving is from Rebuilt by Corcoran and White. The pie chart was adapted from free clip-art at FCIT.